Thursday, November 5, 2009

Shya Scanlon’s Forecast, Chapter 33

Forecast, a novel by Shya Scanlon, is being serialized over 42 different literary websites in the span of 21 weeks. Forecast found a home at Flatmancrooked and will be released in hardcover in Spring, 2010.

Read Chapter 32 at Michael Kimball.
You can find Chapter 34 at Terry Seluck's blog.

Of course, what could I do but watch. Blain led Helen and Rocket down a steep switchback ramp into the main area of the edu-musement park and I sat in my little wired-up viewing room, all wound-up, and watched. I watched, and waited. The Professor, when giving his first lecture to incoming Surveillants, likes to use a quote from Franz Kafka both to prepare people for what they face, and to remind them of the fact that they might not always fully understand it, or fathom its full scope:

“All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking off of methodical procedure, an apparent fencing-in of what is apparently at issue.”

Obviously, this quote is relevant not because we are often waiting for some particular thing, as Surveillants, but simply a good principle to guide our temperament when performing the job. One is rarely tasked with looking for specific behavior, attitude or information in or from a watchjob; the Surveillant must stand back, rather, and create his or her narrative without prejudice, absorbing all data and filtering via the intuitive connection one establishes with one’s subject. Perhaps this is why I found it so excruciating as I watched, just then, and waited for the Professor to return. Each laborious, careful step they took down into the pit was painful. Each small pause for Rocket to sniff something out, or for Helen’s seemingly innumerable examinations of the wall on which the ramp was built, or of the ramp itself, or of the view. The whole thing was maddening, and it wasn’t until they’d fully descended to the park floor that the Professor finally appeared behind me, and tapped my shoulder.

I turned around and opened my mouth to exclaim only to find a hand over my mouth, and the Professor’s index finger raised to his lips.

“Shh,” he said. “Follow me.”

I turned back the monitors. “But Professor, Helen is…”

“Zara can wait for a minute, this is more important.”

The Professor gave me a look that made it quite clear I was not to refuse. I double-checked the recording devices, locked the keyboards, and stood up.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But you know I don’t like to leave her alone.”

“Come with me. Quickly.”

The Professor led me out of the room and down the hallway. We passed by door after door leading to other viewing rooms, and I wondered if there were any other watchjobs out there with warrants, and how their Surveillant was responding. Was the Professor helping anyone else out? Was anyone else being separated from their subject? We took two more turns, went down a staircase, and I’d just begun to wonder whether he was taking me to a high security area when he suddenly stopped, put his face to a wall where his retina was scanned, and then disappeared right through it.

Of course I’d seen this kind of technology before, but I didn’t know we employed it in the office, and I certainly hadn’t used it myself. I stood in front of the wall, and, looking closely, could see that what was before me was not solid. Nonetheless, plunging headlong into it gave me pause. I stuck a finger through, then a hand. I edged the tip of my foot through, not wanting to trip. Suddenly my hand was grabbed, and I was pulled through the wall into a large room with long steel tables and various instruments lying about, mechanical and otherwise. There weren’t any windows, but the light was soft, ambient, not the harsh industrial lighting of the areas outside this strange sanctum.

“Sorry, Max,” the Professor said. “You weren’t moving quick enough.”

I looked back at the wall I’d come through. It was a clearly marked door.

“Is this your… office?”

“My lab, yes. Now come with me. There’s something I want you to see.”

We walked past a number of tables, all strewn with papers, gadgets, and as we walked the Professor began to explain.

“The bad news is I couldn’t find the source of Zara’s warrant, which means it’s either very high, or Homeland Security.”

We passed a table with several caged mice on it, most of which were alive.

“Not to toot my own horn, here, but I think you know I’ve got friends in high places. Damn near the top, actually, in most departments but Homeland Security. Never had any interest, frankly, and they’ve never invited me to any parties, if you catch my meaning. Comes down to a different set of values, I guess. Point is, we’re on our own on the warrant, for the time being.”

We stopped at a table that was covered with AS-Masks in various states of disassembly.

“The AS-Masks are a different story.”

The cool almond eyes stared in all directions despite being cut crosswise, lengthwise, or pulled apart in layers. The ducts that pulled moisture from the skin and excreted it onto the surface of the mask were under microscopes, as were patches of the mask skin itself, which, so lifelike, gave the scene an almost macabre aspect. The Professor, either not sensing my discomfort or simply ignoring it, picked up a flap of slightly hairy skin and waved it in my face. I took a step back.

“At first I was baffled,” he said, and put the piece back down. “Of course, I didn’t know what I was looking for.

“I took a few apart in every way I could think of before deciding to take a step back and assuming a fresh perspective.”

The Professor came closer and put his arm around me in a friendly, fatherly way. He gave my back a few light pats.

“And Max, it was something you said that really got me going in the right direction.”

“It was?” I felt my cheeks flush.

“It was indeed. I remembered that before I found out about how they’d been paid for, you’d described some strange behavior you’d noticed in Helen when she wears one.”

“Right, she gets all…”

“Well, I didn’t notice any strange behavior, per se, but your observation made me consider the objects from a different perspective. I put one on.”

“What happened?” I asked, trying to mask my impatience with enthusiasm. “What did you see?”

“What did I see? Well, I just saw the room, of course. But follow me over here for a second.”

We walked over to a conduction spot near a panel of monitors not unlike those in my view room. This conduction apparatus, however, had gauges I’d never seen before. The ETM glowed a bit, and as we stood in the spot it began to pulse, the gauges mounted beside it lighting up.

“These gauges measure the emotional input occurring during transfer. I’ve been keeping a record for my own research of my output, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is, here.” He handed me an AS-Mask. “Put it on.”

“Right here?” I asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. I put on the mask, and turned toward the Professor. Sure enough, the room looked no different. “What am I supposed to see?”

“I’ll show you,” he said, and turned me toward the gauges again. They indicated a reasonably low level of input. I was pleased, at least, that this didn’t come at a time when I had something significant to hide. It would have been embarrassing. “But I don’t really know what my average is,” I protested.

“Of course you don’t. But that’s not the point. Now take the mask off while keeping an eye on the gauge.”

I did so, and right as I removed the mask the indicator leapt up ten or fifteen percent higher than it had been.

“It shot up,” I said. “What does that mean? Should it have gone down?” I suddenly felt ashamed.

“No no, it did exactly what it was supposed to. You see, these masks are made to deflect a certain percentage of emotional energy from its natural path to the ETM, so there’s less stored. That’s why you see a jump in the amount registered by my gauges when you take the apparatus off.”

I was struggling to put this together, and I must say that my thoughts of Helen walking through that park all alone stymied my attempts at logic even further.

“But if the masks are made by the Energy Department,” I asked, “why wouldn’t they want that energy stored?”

“That’s just it, Max. It is being stored. Just not by the person wearing the mask. My theory is that the ambient emotional energy is being somehow absorbed into what are probably vast cells of ETMs.”


“Well, I don’t know yet.”


“But that’s where you come in.”

“Me? Professor, really, I have to get back to Helen. Can’t we—”

“If you really want to help Helen, Max, we need to know where this energy is being stored, and who is responsible.”

“But can’t someone else—”

“No!” The Professor barked. “We can’t trust anyone with this.”

“But what can I do? I mean how am I supposed to find this?”

“I’ve created something for you, Max.” The Professor picked up a small device from a table behind us. It resembled an old-fashioned radio, complete with a telescoping antenna and an analogue dial. There were wires taped to the sides and a small, red, digital screen showing a single bar, hovering toward the end marked 0.

“I’ve reengineered a small, portable ETM to act as a kind of divining rod,” he said. He handed it to me. “When wearing the AS-Mask, you’ll be able to track the direction of the deflected emotional transfer. You’ll be able to adjust the signal reception with that knob.”

I looked at the device in my hand, then back at the Professor.

“It should lead you to where this energy is being stored. I want you to take a look around, and report back to me.”

I was stunned. This is not the type of thing I was supposed to be doing. This was not the type of thing I was trained for. Furthermore, Helen needed me. Rocket was a little wimp, and who the hell knew about Blain – he was a criminal, after all. He could be delivering her directly into the hands of whoever posted the warrant!

“Professor, please,” I said. I no longer cared how I sounded. “I’m just not up to this. I have no experience—”

“Spying? You have no experience spying? My dear boy,” he said, “you’re one of the best we’ve got. The only difference here is that you’ll be there in person, seeing it with your own eyes!”

“Yes, but…”

“No buts! This must be done! I would do it myself, Maxwell, but I’m an old man. I can’t move very well at all, let alone quickly, and besides, I can cover for you much more easily than you can for me. Believe me, I’ve thought this out quite thoroughly, and it’s the only way.”

My mind raced for another good excuse, but it occurred to me that I didn’t truly know why I didn’t want to do this, or rather, that the true reason might in fact be as simple as fear. Fear isn’t the most invalid reason, of course, but it also wasn’t the reason I was giving, and wasn’t, moreover, going to further expand the Professor’s understanding of the situation at hand, or help him help me help her. I was at a loss.

“The only way,” I repeated, just to see how it sounded coming from my own mouth.

As resignation closed in, uncomfortably tight, around the role I was to play in what had to be done, I played with the machine I’d been given, turning it over in my hands, and it gave me an idea.

“Let me bring a portable viewing device, too,” I said, “so I can keep track of Helen’s movement, and contribute any insight that might be needed to interpret the situation.”

I knew this would be valuable, but what I didn’t know is whether or not carrying two devices might be cumbersome, or whether splitting my attention between the two would reduce the effectiveness of either task.

We were walking back to the table with the masks and the Professor paused, looked up at the ceiling, and thought. Likely, his calculation was of the above two issues, and in addition how far he could push me before I snapped, or made some other error in judgment. He needed me invested, and knew that if I was going to completely abandon my post, I’d need some assurance that I wasn’t entirely alone.

Though of course we’ll never know what he was really thinking.

At any rate, he agreed.

“I want you to use extreme caution,” he said, while we picked out the right size mask for me. “Both of the devices you’ll be carrying can under no circumstances leave your possession.”

“I understand.”

“If you think you’ll be unable to keep hold of them for any reason, they should be destroyed.”

We found a mask that fit, and I walked over to a small mirror above an industrial sized sink. I’d never worn one before, nor had I worn any kind of mask, really, since childhood.

“Had you ever worn one of these before today?” I asked.

“Heavens no,” the Professor said. “But I can’t say I blame the public for wanting protection from people like us.”

“People like us?”

“The people watching.”

“It feels…” I looked for the right word. “Powerful.”

“Then it’s doing its job.”

I thought of watching Helen in hers, and found the thought that we’d both be out there, in the world, looking so similar, strangely erotic.

The Professor shuffled off to a far wall and returned with the tiny monitor I’d use to keep tabs on Helen’s progress.

“Have you used one of these?” he asked.

“Yeah, just in the lab, but I should be okay.”

“I’ll be in your viewing room, and you can use it to speak to me if you need to. But keep the conversation to a minimum, if you can. I haven’t been at the helm for years, and it’s going to take all of my concentration.”

We walked together to the door of his workshop, and the Professor paused, letting me walk ahead. I turned around.

“What now?” I asked. “Where do I start?”

“Why, right here, of course,” he said.

I looked down at the mangled ETM, it’s red gauge still toward the bottom. “And so I just…”

“Point it and watch the gauge. Then go where it’s strongest.”

I chuckled. “Simple as that, huh?”

The Professor frowned. “Yes, simple as that.”

“Okay, well, I guess this is—”

“Maxwell you’re stalling.”

He was right. Somehow the whole thing just didn’t seem real. Never in a million years did I think I’d ever hear the Professor tell me to leave my post. But then, I never expected Zara to become Helen, and I never expected Helen to leave her house in the suburbs. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this job had been just one unexpected thing after another. In fact, the only consistent thing at all, to that point, had been surprises. The last thing I realized was that I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

I took a deep breath, said a prayer for Helen, and stepped back through the door.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Roth On the Future of the Novel

Philip Roth

Philip Roth. Photograph: Orjan F Ellingvag / Dagbladet / Corbis

[Roth's is a pessimistic view of the novel's future.]

Philip Roth's late run of productivity has long been a source of wonder in the literary world, with his latest novel coming out this week less than a year after the last, and another already complete. But the 76-year-old's own energy is not, according to him at any rate, any reflection of vibrant life in fiction itself. Roth has long been pessimistic about the survival of the novel in a gaudy, short-attention-span culture, but his latest prophesy is one of his bleakest yet, predicting that the form will dwindle to a "cultic" minority enthusiasm within 25 years.

Read more in The Guardian.