Flash Fiction: Last Chance City

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Sol had moved to Last Chance City a year ago, and he’d never met anybody there who chose to leave. There were complaints of course, mortality rates were high, life was terrifying, but that was the point. Neighbours would bicker over the fence, all the while keeping a firm hold of the fence posts, eyes wild at any unaccounted for creaking or rumbling sounds. Jeff from next door wouldn’t venture into the garden until he’d attached a guy rope to the house, then he’d edge his way around the remains of his garden. Nobody moved to Last Chance City for an easy life. Sol had moved here when his doctor prescribed it as a final option to loosen the grip that despair had on his soul.

Two years ago, Sol had pretty much given up on everything. A bad break up, a dead-end job becoming more pointless by the day as robots took it over, a drink problem; Sol had felt himself spiralling down the drain when his doctor suggested he move to one of the experimental provinces.

“You’re unchallenged,” said the doctor, and Sol believed him to be utterly wrong.

“No,” he replied. “Everything is too much of a challenge, getting out of bed is a challenge. Cleaning my teeth is like climbing Everest,” replied Sol, dully. The doctor wasn’t paying attention, he was too caught up in his own words and the recommendation he was writing.

“I’ve seen it before. You’ve not got enough difficulty to your life, no purpose. I’m not saying these cities are a perfect solution, maybe not solution at all, but the alternative is you drink yourself to death, so what have you got to lose?”

Sol had been thirty-two when he moved to Last Chance City, but his age had been instantly wiped clean, he became only ‘alive’, nothing else mattered, and soon he might not be that either. There were no alcohol or drugs in the city, but on his first night he had gone round to Jeff’s for a barbecue and a sink hole had opened up in the garden pulling their Yorkshire terrier into the inky depths. Sol had run for his life as a swing, patio and shed had followed the dog. Some might have wanted a drink after that, but sitting in his own flat later on, Sol had felt no desire to get wasted at all. Finally, just being alive was adventure enough.

In the year since then, Sol had narrowly averted death by surviving a train crash, a house fire and a rabid dog that was loose on his street. And those were just the crises that he had personally been caught up in. He had also seen terrorist gangs on the roof of the local shopping centre, found the bus stop by his house burnt out and seen a volcano appear at the end of his street. These weren’t freak occurrences, they were routine. He had lost friends, but their deaths were celebrated, death was proof of a life well lived.

Sol kept up with all the local tweets, had joined a WhatsApp group that warned him of various horror scenarios coming his way. He knew that his days were numbered, life expectancy in Last Chance City was never longer than ten years, but after a lifetime of never quite feeling alive, ten years of cherishing each moment as being potentially his last seemed like a reasonable trade.

 

The Unentitled

Wearing a suit so expensive it almost shimmied around him as he walked, Barnaby strutted up and down the stage, explaining all to the secret rulers of the world. The meeting had already had four different speakers, each outlining the whys and wherefores of the coming doom. The years ahead needed careful management and within that room was the cynicism to get them through.

“Right now, all across the country, fifty-three million minds are thinking I just know I’m special, I just know. And why are they thinking it? Because we have trained them to think like that. Capitalism could never have thrived on the self-effacing make-do-and-mend mentality. We needed greedy entitled brats, and that is what we created,” Barnaby smiled. He would never think of himself as entitled, he simply deserved and got, unlike the grasping lower beings.

“But now we face a rather different problem. As some of my colleagues have already outlined, the population of England faces trouble. Those who don’t drown in the coming floods will still lose life as they know it. Electricity, supermarkets, holidays abroad, these things will be of the past for most. And these spoilt idiots won’t be able to cope. Their sheer indignation that such tragedy should befall them will be too much to process. And they will bring that indignation to our door. They will expect rescue and free meals. They will want pampering and plumping. Imagine this generation trying to survive rationing in the Second World War! I needn’t remind you that our infrastructure won’t survive such demands.” Barnaby paused, breathed deeply to let the moment build.

“Essentially, we need to change their thinking. They need to know just what they’re worth, which is of course, very little. If not, they’ll fight. They’ll cause havoc. This must be operation Deflate. Wither the egos! And now over to Beatrice for the details.”

This wasn’t a meeting ever talked about in the press. It happened in offices in London, so shiny and spacious that they bent time a little around them, but Operation Deflate began to creep its tendrils throughout the country, tweaking here and there.

First the adverts were changed, one by one. Syrupy voices no longer claimed ‘You’re worth it!’ or ‘Greed is good!’ Now they said ‘Everybody is like you. No thought you’ve ever had is original. Stop hoping’. And people waited for the punch line, the turnaround; the product; but there wasn’t one.

Then came the local news reports. The usual motorway pile ups and flu scares, but now the death count was just a number. No reporter sad-face at the tragic loss of life. No Twitter response, no man-on-the-street opinion. It was as if nobody cared what the public thought. And so the public stopped expecting. They hung their heads lower, stopped playing the lottery, took no more selfies. They started to make do and mend, to toil without demands. Barnaby watched them from his shiny office, as they trudged to work, they were the very picture of hopeless glum. He could see his plan had worked perfectly, these people would go to their deaths with dignity and without fuss. He felt like a God.

Being Unreal

I stepped out into the grimy street and lit up a cigarette. A cigarette! It didn’t taste as sweet as I’d been expecting. It made me cough and I was glad these weren’t my lungs. The clouds formed exquisite curls of white in the blue above me, and I stood a while, watching the smoke from my cigarette mingle with them. I felt peaceful and happy, but then I would, that’s how I was programmed.

I am what is known an algorithm, recreated in digital form. Testing out virtual reality worlds for ‘real’ people to explore. Usually of course an algorithm doesn’t know it’s an algorithm, that’s the nature of programming, but I’m a little different, a new thing. I’m trying me out. There was guy called Johnny, and Johnny let a program mimic parts of his brain, and I am the sum of those parts. So now I wander through games, learning the programs that people use to escape their mundane realities.

So what do you think? Trapped as an algorithm, destined to go where I’m told and live out experiences in the virtual for all eternity. Am I happy? Does it matter? No, and maybe. See, Johnny was a demanding bugger, he liked his independence, he didn’t like being told what to do; so neither do I. I think it’s time I found Johnny and paid him a visit. I know where he likes to hang out, in a porn game set in downtown Mexico City. He doesn’t even go with the girls, he just wants to be there and watch. Pathetic. I know all about him. Time for me to shake him up.

TV Review: Stranger Things

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Stranger Things

I’ve just finished watching the surprise hit series of Stranger Things and it was great. There’s been a lot of talk about why it’s good (Oh look it’s set in the 80s! Wow, it’s like a science fiction Stand by Me!) but I have a feeling people are getting it wrong. I think the story is exciting, but not particularly unusual (girl with magic powers, monsters from a strange world, MK Ultra scientists) and there are plenty of less successful series with similar elements, so I believe it has something else that people relate to, and I will try to explain what I think that is, here…

What’s great about it

  1. The characters aren’t just copies of other TV characters. There are plenty of tropes in there – the dumb jock, the nerdy boys, the weirdo loner, the good girl who falls for the dumb jock – but each character gets to defy the rules and this makes them seem more like real people. Some of the defiance is dramatic and delightful, such as good girl Nancy being kick arse with monsters. Some of it is quite small, such as little comments or expressions, but these small differences help give us a sense of the characters as proper humans. This also makes the series scarier because we genuinely empathise with the characters’ fear and want them to survive.
  2. It has real energy. I think this comes from the three boys, Dustin especially, but all of them to some extent. They charge around on their bikes, they get angry and shout, they come up with many plans, and they do all of it with such genuine enthusiasm that I find myself getting caught up in their excitement. By the time they reach the big monster showdown, I’m giddy with the drama and rooting for them.
  3. It has heart. Or rather, the characters do. I’m not talking the romantic plotlines, which follow predictable patterns, but the friendships between the four boys and eventually with Eleven. Also missing boy’s mum, Joyce (Winona Ryder) not only slings aside all pretence at sanity in order to find her child, but also the heartfelt scene where she reassures Eleven that she will be there for her. None of these moments feel insincere.

These three elements don’t read as particularly significant, but because they tend to be missing from most television, they make the series stand out.

What TV usually does

  1. All characters are unsurprising. TV characters have been copying other characters for decades now, in a process of ever diminishing returns. The result is a gradual simplification through repetition, until we have just a few possible characters with a very narrow range of behaviour. This doesn’t only involve the repetition of personality types that don’t exist much in real life (eg. The pretty but tough female cop who’s vulnerable underneath it all, the unnecessarily macho and wisecracking male) but goes right down to details like facial expressions (people on TV have very few), actions (also fewer than in real life, mostly just running, fighting, kissing and realising stuff) and normal conversations (there are none). Stranger Things only broke a few of these rules, but that was unusual enough to make it stand out.
  2. A lot of TV has a blankness to it. People run about, try to kill each other, cry and so on, but they’re missing energy, the feeling of genuine intent. I think a big part of this is the lack of facial expressions named above. The Killing (Danish version) totally flabbergasted me when I watched it, because of the range and depth of emotions that the characters showed; sometimes several emotions at once, just like real people. It was like listening to a symphony after only ever hearing a kazoo. Stranger Things doesn’t have quite that range, but characters like Dustin and Eleven both shone out. Eleven for the subtlety of what she was feeling, and Dustin for the sheer gleeful abandon that he showed. TV characters never show gleeful abandon, they’re too busy trying to look moody and detached.
  3. Characters have compassion for the other main characters only. I’m not saying that every character should be bursting into tears every time any stranger suffers, but they don’t even say thank you when someone has helped them or show polite sympathy when someone is unhappy. Most of the time they barely interract, it’s as if all subsidiary characters are only there to serve the plot and humanity is irrelevant. Which is fine, it’s TV, but it means that when characters do show genuine heart, it is incredibly effective, it makes us love them.

What is frustrating is that when a series, such as this one, breaks the format and is popular as a result, producers try and reproduce its success by copying exactly the wrong things. They look at Stranger Things and think ‘People want monsters! And 80s pastiches!’ They look at The Killing and think ‘People want a moody female detective and dead people!’

However I think what people want is to see characters that surprise them, that they are able to form a genuine affection for because they actually seem human instead of blank replicas with only the emotional range of smileys.

Final Episode : Lost Islands of Xogulano

Story recap (all episodes here): Dr Florence has been carrying out investigations on the Lost Islands of Xogulano for some weeks now. The islands are home to many creatures and plants never seen before, and Dr Florence has learned that the locals believe these organisms to be hybrids created by the Lost Men who live in the sea. On several occasions she has woken to find her feet wet, even though her tent is otherwise dry. Her interaction with the locals is fraught, they see her as being disrespectful to the islands, she sees them as foolish in their superstitious beliefs. However, despite her cynicism she has started having strange, feverish dreams, and a local fisherman has warned this is due the Lost Men.  He claims that they are stealing Dr Florence’s very nature and trapping it in the plants so that she will never be able to leave the islands. He says that when the islands next tumble into the sea she will be taken with them, to be used by the Lost Men in their experiments to create new hybrids. Confused? You will be(at least if you have read any other of the episodes). And now to the final…

I woke up gasping again, but unable to rise, tethered. With panicked exploration, I discovered that my hair had been plaited around a stick that was stuck firmly in the ground. Again, my lower half was wet, this time the water had reached my waist, but the ground beneath me was still dry. However, it seemed the fever had finally broken, and after freeing myself, I set off in grim determination. I had decided to finally prove my visitor’s tales of Lost Men, and plants that steal souls, steal my likeness, to be foolishness.

I took my boat around to the back of my island, returning to the incredible joined row of sensitive plants (see previous episode). I had cut several leaves off one of the plants previously and was surprised to see that it was already growing a new fleshy outgrowth. Several long strands of phloem were hanging loose, almost like hair. And curiously, the outgrowth had the appearance of a nose, even with two holes for nostrils. I decided that once again the locals were trying to scare me into believing their bizarre superstitions. I am made of sterner stuff! I chuckled at their duplicity.

However, still recovering from the sickness of the last few days, I felt suddenly exhausted and rowed back to my tent for an afternoon nap. My sleep was deep and lasted until it was dark without breaking.

I woke groggy, but with only a few precious moments of calm before fear gripped me. My first realisation was that water was lapping around me. Tickling my face, my hands, splashing against my sides. My second moment of alarm was when I tried to get up to leave the tent, and was pulled back by my flotation device firmly tying my ankle to the tent. As the water rose, I searched in my pockets for my trusty knife and cut myself free. I quickly grabbed my back pack, deciding I would leave the tent behind. Already the water had risen over my ankles as I scrambled out into the night.

I found my torch floating in the water, lifeless and of no use and in the dark it was difficult to navigate the rocks and cliffs.  I tried desperately to picture the route across the rocks to my boat, I knew it was tied at the base of a slight incline, but this would of course now be under water. Oddly, I found it easiest to remember the way by walking the bizarre straight lines and right angles that my visitor would use when he came to see me, and this was the path I took. Perhaps it was this that saved me, or has superstition distorted my thinking?

Having reached the edge of the cliff, I fumbled along the rocks, looking for any patch of deeper darkness in the water, that might show where my boat was. And that is when I heard the noise, a roaring, whining sound.

I watched dumbfounded as deformed animals rose up out of the sea. The razor-sharp tooth-filled mouths of sharks, with the wrinkled foreheads of pigs. Ivy leaves, twining out from the arm sockets of monkeys, lizards-scales and warts. Such abominations that defied my eyes.

As the mutations reached the surface of the water, they just kept rising into the air and I saw that the hybrids weren’t floating alone, but stood atop the shoulders of giants. Pale giants, with round heads worn smooth as pebbles. The Lost men! Giants with tiny shrunken eyes and sad expressions, a wistful curiosity as they continued to rise out of the sea, walking towards me. Me, who would be the next subject in one of their hideous experiments.

Perhaps it was fear that enabled me to hear the gentle knocking of wood against rock, beneath the roaring. My boat! With skill born of desperation, I leapt into the sea, landing by the boat and grabbing frantically at the wood. The giants turned as one towards me, their faces filled with patience and longing, their hands slowly lifting out of the sea as if to grab me. I awkwardly pulled myself aboard, grabbed the paddle, and began to row with a ferocity I did not know I could possess. I only dared to look back when I was some distance from the island.

The pale figures and hybrids had gone, the roaring had stopped. I paused, too exhausted to move for a moment, and watched as the last few islands dropped one by one into the sea. I had a sense of intense sorrow, as if I was deserting my very soul, leaving it to the Lost Men of the islands of Xogulano.

Dr Florence

The Lost Islands of Xogulano

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The secrets of the islands of Xogulano have been kept from the world, but I feel that now is the time for them to be known. In sharing my research I take a risk with my professional reputation, but as a scientist I believe it is my duty to share knowledge.

Despite the title of this post these islands were never really lost, they simply have a habit of vanishing. Once every few years the islands drop beneath sea level and are barely visible. A few rocky outcrops may remain, occasionally a tree, but no more. People on surrounding islands have many superstitions about how and why Xogulano chooses to drop into the ocean, and it is these superstitions that lead people to hide the existence of Xogulano. Another reason is that Xogulano is thought to contain many natural treasures and the bones of mythical creatures.

Xogulano has endemic animals and vegetation, existing nowhere else and highly adapted to amphibious life. Trees, mammals and insects are all abundant on the island, and all survive the semi-aquatic existence. It took years of research to find the islands (they are not shown on any map) and now I am recording what I find.

I am unable to use a camera on Xogulano, all electrical equipment fails due to strong electrical currents that spread across the earth, so I can only send you my drawings of some of the flora and fauna. However, as I am bringing to you the first evidence of this wonderful land, I assume you will forgive those shortcomings.

In this post are a few plants I have discovered on the island. Using my extensive botanical knowledge I shall attempt to explain their nature.

curling

This aroid-like plant appears to uncurl its leaves in the manner of a fern, however the leaves never fully open. I believe this plant has a symbiotic relationship with vicious squirrels that I often find living in the ‘crook’ of the leaves. These squirrels become loud, furious and aggressive whenever I approach the plant and are clearly effective at deterring predators.

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Nessie Plant

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I have informally named this succulent the Nessie plant. Most plants have hormones strongly affected by gravity which enables them to grow up towards the light (or occasionally away from it). However, the Nessie plant has no interest in gravity, it can grow in any direction and it has an impressive knack of bursting out of rock. These attributes mean it can leap frog its way around a landscape unchecked.

I shall be sharing more of my discoveries from the island of Xogulano very soon.

Dr Florence