People build their lives out of a mixture of reality and symbols. I’ll provide an example from my earlier Chicago days. I once rented the upper floor of a house; the owner lived on the lower floor. He was out of town one winter and asked me to keep an eye on the central heating unit’s pilot light to make sure it was always on. That much at least, the reality principle guided his life. One day I was back down in the basement and noticed the smell of gas coming from a gas line along the ceiling. The most prompt and reliable public service in any city, even faster than an ambulance or the police, is the gas company when you call their emergency number. They were there in a few minutes. They shut off the gas and unscrewed the leaky pipe. “He put his pipe in bare? What the hell is he doing attaching pipes without pipe dope!” they yelled, as they applied glue to the threads and screwed it back in.
I got on the phone to inform my landlord he had to have all his gas lines refitted with pipe dope as soon as possible.
“It’s a glue, a sealant, to prevent gas from escaping through the joints.”
In other words, his house was possibly days or hours away from being blown sky high. That didn’t stop him too from yelling at me. He was outraged I had approved the gas company’s bill for the service without consulting him first. He was moreover incredulous he could possibly have improperly fitted his own gas lines. Again I tried to explain it was the gas company, not me, that fixed the leaky pipe, and as it was an immediate public threat they didn’t need his permission. No matter. How dare I authorize an unjustified intrusion on his property? It was as if his very identity had been violated. I had messed with his independence, his self-sufficiency, his rights — his symbols. He did finally swallow the humiliation and accepted the need to refit the pipes, but it goes to show how strong resistance to reality can be among symbol-driven types.
Whole countries can be symbol dominated, less beholden to the dictates of reality than elsewhere. The USA was particularly invested in symbols. This increased over time with the nation’s rightward drift and decline of the economy. Down the decades, specters driven by their own logic began to overshadow reality. Americans were traditionally known for a host of admirable qualities — openness and optimism, hospitality and trust, adventurousness and ingenuity. But these national traits became twisted into naivety, stupidity, hostility, recklessness, and the like. People retreated into their homes in a growing collective paranoia, distrustful of their neighbors. Hatred of government, always simmering, reached a boiling point, and the citizenry stopped paying taxes en masse. Though the incident with my landlord was hardly a factor, the rise in residential gas explosions was one conspicuous consequence of the collapse in municipal services. Many of these explosions were catastrophic, given the huge stores of firearms and munitions people hoarded in their basements. It all culminated in the Great Chicago Fire of 2060.
The obsession with guns was fueled by another cultural phenomenon that had gathered momentum over the decades, one which the Russians and the Chinese were quick to exploit. They saw the potential in the blissfully vulnerable American psyche and came up with a grand scheme as brilliant as that of the East India Company’s opium-for-tea trade in the nineteenth century. The Russians had already caused the Internet to morph into something completely different from its innocent heyday; its bustling surface now merely reflected the criminal activity underneath, like a corpse vibrating from its teeming colonies of worms and mites. The malign manipulation ranged from sex scammers milking American men of everything they had to presidential elections. But far more was at stake.
Americans held a strong moral streak, an untapped free-floating energy ever seeking righteous expression, a drive for justice that could be unleashed. They were known as well to have had a long, fraught, schizophrenic-like attitude toward sex, celebrating it with one hand while slapping it down with the other. Ritual social bloodletting required the regular identification and shaming of sexual deviants. Only the nature of the offenses changed over the eras, never their extent or the perpetual need for their public airing. It was well known whom Americans across the entire political spectrum, from antifa anarchists to survivalist militias, regarded as the worst of the worst. The only problem was there weren’t enough of them. Untold legions there surely were yet in hiding, in their secret societies. They needed ferreting out. There were only occasional scandals in the news when there could be a media explosion. The Chinese had the Internet expertise but lacked an understanding of the Western soul. The Russians did not lack for this understanding. They knew what turned the US on, and not only did they have the computer expertise, they did it for sport. They hacked for fun, one savvy technoteen for every dumb American. And then when they had a eureka moment and connected the dots, the hacking became a lot more lucrative.
The Russians were fully at home in the dark web, the wilds of cyberspace where illegal activity flourished. So were the pedophiles. Why not flush them out for profit? It was easy enough to track them down in the web’s obscure corners where they lurked. Soon every pedophile who had ever ventured into the virtual underworld got the unpleasant news over morning coffee: their identity would be revealed if they didn’t fork over a sum equivalent to their annual salary. Since few could pay up, they were promptly outed to the media and the local authorities, while their community, through a new “pedophile” tax (the one tax enjoying popular support), paid the ransom on the suspect’s behalf. Tentative pedophiles who merely engaged children in online conversation were easy bait as well, as were those who fell for Russian teens posing as adults for pay. It was only a small step to shadier means of rounding up child molesters: manufacture them. Average Joes guilty of no more than dabbling in adult porn had their identity attached to toddler porn. They too only learned about it when the ultimatum flashed across their screen. It’s not easy to clear your name once your identity has been stolen, all the more so after it’s been smeared, your mugshot on the nightly news, your electronics seized by the police. The identities of innocent adults working as primary school teachers, sports coaches of juveniles, music tutors of children, and every single minister and priest were next in line to be tampered with and incomprehensibly compromised. Anyone whose employment or activities provided any kind of circumstantial evidence was fair game.
Quite a few Russians became exceedingly wealthy on the tens, indeed hundreds of thousands of Americans zoned or driven out of their neighborhoods and cities and exiled to rural trailer parks. But the biggest prize was legislation passed by Congress to raise the age of consent from eighteen to twenty-one — in line with the drinking age. To be sure, this was most draconian and un-American and garnered scant popular support, despite the celebratory atmosphere of the great pedophile cleansing. It passed when the Russians agreed to share the profits from this huge new demographic with the lawmakers. A six-month grace period was proffered to defuse the anticipated resistance, enough time for those in the age range to either extricate themselves from any relationship or legitimize it in matrimony before they once again became minors. Nevertheless, the outrage against this basic assault on rights and freedom was deeply underestimated. Pedophilia was one thing; criminalizing legal adult relationships was another. Millions planned to disobey and flaunt their sex life on principle. What could the authorities do about it?
Plenty, it turned out. All the evidence that was needed was elegantly assembled through a combination of GPS tracking, facial recognition, financial transactions, and self-incriminating personal messaging. The half-year window gave the hackers ample time to compile comprehensive sexual histories of every American in the eighteen-to-twenty cohort and older who were tied with them. When the big day arrived, the fate of the millions who declined to sever relations with their intimates was already decided. They were expelled from universities, fired from their jobs, and evicted from their apartments. But there was not enough space in the trailer parks to house the newly exiled masses. Concentration camps the size of cities needed to be quickly constructed. Here again China offered its expertise in the rapid mobilization of displaced populations. The newly reigning superpower was delighted at what the Russian devils had accomplished and would be reaping much of the windfall, since the US was at a significant disadvantage in the business arrangement.
The exiles themselves were put to work in the great construction boom and paid prison wages, while developers and suppliers made fortunes. The profits were funneled back to China, invigorating that country’s leisure industry, with the new fad for erecting full-scale replicas of ancient capitals: initially that of Chang’an and later the great cities of Western antiquity — Rome, Athens, even a Babylon. Italians, Greeks, and Iraqis respectively were invited to escape their moribund economies to help build the curious cities. But they had been deceived and while housed and fed were never paid for their labor. Disillusioned, they then found their plans to return home stymied by unforeseen complications: their passports were confiscated. They were now needed to man the cities as “natives,” and that’s where they were to remain. Their feeble protests were brushed off. They had done their homelands a patriotic service by slashing domestic unemployment, and their embassies intended to keep things that way. China for its part, having already bought up most of the world’s economies, was too powerful to be pushed around anymore.
Meanwhile, the guilty millions not dragooned into construction were employed in gargantuan gun factories, another expanding industry. No propaganda campaign was necessary to persuade freaked-out Americans to panic-buy arms against the looming pedophile menace. You’d expect people might have sighed with relief now that the monsters had been largely cleared out of the cities. Paradoxically the opposite happened. The more of them were flushed out, the more there seemed to be, and the more fear of them grew. If people had a lot of guns back in 2015, multiply by a factor squared and that’s what every citizen from children on up now boasted. Loaded pistols hung on Christmas trees as ornaments and stockings were designed to hold rifles. One would think Americans were gearing up for a new civil war. That is exactly what transpired.
When every last purported pedophile had been identified and driven out, the uncertainties and the unease only skyrocketed. Surely they were massing for revenge. Would they soon rebound supercharged like an army of zombies? Was it not a terrible mistake not to have had them all done away with at the start instead of merely exiling them? The concentration camps where they were now pullulating were a mounting peril. Were they not stealing guns at the factories and arming themselves? Were they not already sneaking back into the city to destroy us? The logical thing to do was to bring the war to them, to the concentration camps, while there was still time. But there were obstacles. The government wouldn’t countenance a disruption of business with the Chinese and the Russians, and American citizens were too suspicious of each other anyway to organize more than vigilante mobs.
An unfortunate incident confirmed suspicions and overturned the uneasy state of affairs, when a New Gary pedophile snuck into Chicago with the aid of a European female to stage a brazen triple abduction of two boys and a girl from three separate homes before being caught in the third, but not before killing one of the boys and making off with the other. They were never found and the case was never solved, but galvanized into action the mobs wasted no time in going after the phantom fugitives. At the very moment the roaming armed were kicking open doors in their neighborhoods hunting down molesters supposedly sheltered in basements, their own basements were being ransacked. Many fought back, and many were killed, along with their children. No one was charged with homicide, as everyone could claim self-defense. Heavier munitions in the form of anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns pulverized houses and caused explosions from stockpiled ammo and ruptured gas lines. Community conflagrations dotted Chicago and only a miracle enabled the diminished fire department — one of the few public services left — to gain the upper hand and prevent a citywide firestorm.
Meanwhile, the Chicago incident sparked riots and burnings in cities across the country. Things were coming to a head, as millions lost their homes to the fires and had nowhere to go. The heavily armed refugees began to merge into angry columns and fanatical parades which wended their way through the smoky streets toward the same destination: the concentration camps. New Gary was the first to be breached; other cities followed.
This much was recognized: business as usual was clearly unsustainable. Americans’ bizarre stockpiling of guns had become a calamitous vicious circle. The Chinese stood much to lose unless things were quickly contained and martial law declared. Their military stepped in and rational policy took over. In a swift, efficient and remorseless nationwide operation, they confiscated the guns, criminalized gun ownership and dismantled the US Government. The ultimate form of control is through language. As this can’t be forced at gunpoint, Americans were gradually weaned off English over the following decades. You could continue to speak English, but your children were educated in Cantonese-medium schools; and then your generation died off. Victory has its own logic, and the Chinese went on to replicate their model across the Americas and on other continents.
Thus much I learned from the holographic history I’ve been entertained with of late and will be indefinitely. Now that it is all over, I have never felt more clear-headed and relaxed. But first things first. For the record, I will admit having abducted Danny, but I emphatically deny killing Gunther, and I deny attempting to abduct Marvin’s daughter; it was they who abducted me. I am after all the prime witness. Nor did that affair have anything to do with how I wound up in Canton. Not because it took place fifty-five years ago, but they never caught me.
Let’s get back to the present, for something dramatic took place today. I had my first visit from Ingmon and the “boss” (you recall it’s Ingmon who was discovered to be the boss). It was so gratifying to see their faces.
“Neihou maa?” said a cheery Ingmon. “Nei kutjing san waanging aa?”
I guess she wants to know how I’m adapting to my new surroundings. Even if I did understand her exact meaning, I can’t respond. Our ears have been electronically wired to receive audio signals through an outside microphone, but we can’t speak. Though I am fully conscious, I can’t even blink my eyes. I try to emote through my face and maybe subtle expressions are visible to them but I don’t know. From my field of vision, which is fixed straight ahead, I can only see others like myself preserved throughout the chamber, and their occasional visitors. I cannot look up or down, and wouldn’t see much anyway, below the glass box enclosing my head in a liquid matrix. I can turn on the hologram with a thought command and tune in to anything I want. A world of knowledge is at my mental fingertips, enough to keep me busy for eternity. However, the presence of a human visitor is obviously preferred. How lucky I am to have Ingmon and the boss, luckier still if Wingyee or Ray happen to make it one day.
As if on cue, Ingmon produces a plastic paper and holds it before me. It contains a message in English, which reads: “Hi Jeff. Wingyee made sure I got this to you. How are you doing over there? Really sorry to hear about the verdict. I had no idea. Anyway I finally figured out what happened to myself, my disappearance and all that and the gaps in my memory over the years. In case you haven’t heard, I was finally able to escape from the fake Ancient Rome of 2115, not that of 2060 you recall from your times there with good old Delilah. To make a long story short, I was there all along! Next time I’ll tell you what to happened to me after you left in more detail. I just wanted to make sure you got this for now. Miss you. Be lovable, Ray. P.S. Cornelius says hi.”
* * *
Forthcoming January 2018:
The Kitchens of Canton, a novel