A Reluctant Emcee

One of the Ab's brothers

The stun bolt struck near me, and I was flying through the air. My hair crackled with static electricity. My vision went red. Quite possibly I soiled my expensive trousers. Did any of that worry me? No, I had much bigger problems. My brothers were coming back to town for the wedding.

I’d been dreading both events. Their inevitable return, and the marriage of Josh and Mary. Just as inevitable: the lovebirds’ request to have me, the Right Honorable Member of Parliament for Middlesex County, Ab Durer, as master of ceremonies.

I loathe the role of emcee. And my friends always ask me to do it.

Earlier that week, I’d foolishly complained to my brother Warren about emceeing again; he’d looked particularly scary in a suit of plate mail he always “wore” in the datasphere. An affectation, but it had plenty of impact.

“Well, why don’t me and the other brothers come?” he’d said.

“Uh. I’m not sure how good an idea that is,” I had said.

“Sure! It’s been ages since we saw you. Fabian and Petrovich have been pretty busy in Central America, but me and Deeter can convince them to come up.”

“No, I really don’t think you should. You’re not invited.”

“Hey!” shouted Warren, “we’re never invited. Just suck it up. We’re going to be there. Besides, Albrecht,” he said — emphasizing the “brecht”, just the way I’ve always hated it —”we have something to tell you.”

It had taken me a while to work up the courage to let Josh and Mary know that all four were planning to attend. Mary had burst into tears, and Josh confided, “You know, I thought this relationship was just going to be the end of my bachelorhood, not the end of everything.”

I’d laughed and mumbled something about the boys being much more mellow since they’d left high school. You had to admire the couple’s pluck. They made contingency plans, booking a full riot squad for the reception, buying doses of the best nanobiotics money could buy, and hiring Freeze-A-Head, “in case” of fatalities.

I felt so bad that I actually gave them my speech to vet, though I figured we would never get through the wedding, let alone the speeches. I was kind of torn on that. I hate emceeing — blathering into a holo-mic so that the relatives and friends attending remotely can enjoy the syrupy sentiments. And while everyone else whiffs up jazzy nanocaines and quaffs copious amounts of Old Nurberg’s Pink Ale (those who like it like it enough to go blind), I have to abstain.

On the other hand, did I really want to see my brothers back in town, just to avoid sobriety?

But I should get back to the stun bolts, and my electric fandango as I flew through the air, shouldn’t I?

°°°
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Miss Atomic Test, Las Vegas

1957 - Miss Atomic Test, Las Vegas via x-ray delta one

Like everyone, she was in shock.

But she had just narrowly avoided the disintegration of LA. She’d moved to Vegas the week before the war began, to work as a background dancer.

They found her the day after, in Vegas, getting ready for the show. She was starving as usual. Her figure just wouldn’t conform to the standards of the 2020s, and that meant not eating very much. Not that she felt like eating, after she’d seen some of the video of what remained of her home town.

They could change it all with a photo, they told her.

All they needed was for her to accept that she could be in two times in one place. It was a little thing, right? Like, you’re a gorgeous dancer who thinks she’s fat. The reality doesn’t change, just because your thinking is all wrong.

So she said yes, and the next day — after all the injections, and the strange machine — she woke up in 1954. She was a dancer at the Copa Room, at the Sands. She did a show with Frank Sinatra. Sammy Davis Jr. dropped in, and was a big hit. Everyone thought she was gorgeous, even though (she thought) she was a fat cow.

Eventually, she got comfortable with being desired by so many men, despite her obvious (to her) defects. She loosened up, though she was always quiet and reserved. Some of the other girls called her “the librarian”, but if they’d had the right words, they would have called her the cipher. She never mentioned her folks — she was intensely aware of the fact that they were not born yet, and she didn’t want to say anything to prevent their existence.

They hadn’t told her which photograph would be the right one. Funny, that the scientists should miss such an obvious detail, so she treated each snap with reverence and joy. “The secret,” the lead scientist had told her before she left the year 2024, “is your innocence and exuberance. When they take the shot, you have to exhibit that, above all.”

It was one of the things that made her more of a cipher than a librarian. Her reserve dissolved whenever a camera was produced, which was noticed by a Hollywood producer in 1956. He wanted to her to do a screen test in LA, but she turned him down flat.

They hadn’t said which photo would be the one, but the scientists hadn’t told her she needed to do movies.

When it happened a year later, she was in no doubt. The photo that would save the world had been taken.

And after that, she was (almost) free.

Alltop loves a little time travel! 1954 – Miss Atomic Test, Las Vegas, a photo by x-ray delta one on Flickr.

Pirate Therapy

Pirate flagLaurence arrived a few minutes late for his regular Thursday morning session, but his therapist usually ran late, so he wasn’t worried.

From behind the door of his therapist’s office, he heard a blood-curdling scream, and then a thump. A door opened somewhere, and Laurence heard a strange sound, almost as though something heavy was being dragged. He heard grunts, scraping, and the rhythmical percussion of something booming on the floor. Laurence looked around, and realized the secretary was not there. He also realized he was standing, tense.

The door to his therapist’s office creaked opened, and he heard a rough voice shout: “Ahoy Larry! Be ye out there laddie?”

“Uh. Yes.”

“Come in, matey.”

Laurence walked unsteadily to the door and opened the door fully.

A pirate sat in his therapist’s chair. He had wild, unkempt hair held in by a greasy red bandanna, and a full dread-locked beard that looked like it was made out of black steel wool. He was wearing a stained white silk shirt, a sash of what was probably once a lovely dark green silk and pantaloons. He had one black boot, and he was missing a leg, which was replaced by a wooden peg that was carved into the shape of …

Laurence looked away.

“Arr matey, don’t ye like me leg?”

“Uh, it’s very creative,” Laurence said. “Um. Um, where is Dr. Glick?”

“She’s in-dee-sposed,” the pirate said. “She’s asked me to take care of her sessions today. Now, repeat after me: Arrrr!”

“Ar?”

“No, like ye mean it. Take a deep breath. No, don’t sit down. Ye won’t be sitting down this morning Larry, ye’ll be workin’! Now, say it: arrrr!!!”

“Arr.”

“Avast!” the pirate stood, the obscenely rounded end of his peg leg booming on the floor. A cutlass lay on Dr. Glick’s desk, and he picked it up. “I want to hear a real pirate yawlp before ye leave, ye bilge rat!”

Larry suddenly understood what that dragging sound had been. He looked around wildly for a weapon to defend himself; he picked up a pillow from the couch. Perhaps it would work as a shield.

“Would ye like a blankie too Larry? I won’t be caring if ye need to carry around a stuffed bear, as long as I hear ye. Now take a deep breath, and say it: arrrr!” The pirate’s voice was incredibly loud.

Laurence dropped the pillow and held his ears. He started shaking.

The pirate took a step closer and pointed the cutlass tip at Laurence’s throat; he lowered his voice and said menacingly: “I’ve slit the throats of better men than ye, Larry me boyo. Now say it, smartly lad, smartly!”

“Arr!” Larry managed, terror driving his voice several octaves higher.

“Grand! Grand!” the pirate enthused. “Now, let’s pretend you’ve got a pair, and say it again.”

“Arrr!” Larry shouted.

“Again!”

Pirate Therapy and Other Cures
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“Arrr!”

“Again! Louder!”

“Arrr!” Larry screamed.

“Arrr!” the pirate joined in.

“Arrr!”

“Arrr!”

“Arrrrr……..” Their joint shouting tailed off, and Laurence realized that the pirate was grinning at him.

“So how do ye feel matey?”

Laurence wanted to say he felt good, but he know that wasn’t the right answer, so he just muttered: “arrrrr.”

The End

Alltop be wanting yer attention too, the scallywags. The title story in my collection, Pirate Therapy and Other Cures.

The Mash-Up Mentality

Pride and Prejudice and ZombiesWith derivative art invading our cultural spaces like never before, is this the start of a new artistic movement or the death of originality?

In 1951, the science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon said 90 per cent of everything is crap. Since then, the percentage hasn’t changed, but the volume sure has.

Digital culture serves up more derivative, unoriginal, and – let’s face it – bad art than we ever got in the old analog world. But why?

Sixty years have passed, and we’re still primates. That means we are hard-wired for acceptance and belonging to the group. Of course, being original and outstanding is hard to pull off if you’re going to run with the crowd. Call it the Thag Principle. And we don’t really outgrow it once we leave high school, where conformity is a survival issue. It gets subsumed and expressed in other ways, such as “liking” things on Facebook.

In one sense, our need for conformity runs so deep that we are not even aware of it. One of the things I loved about George Carlin was how well he could shake out our delusions of originality. He said, “People who say they don’t care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don’t care what people think.”

So even if we spend most of our time trading links to the latest Hitler “Downfall” video or chuckling at the latest version of the “Sad Keanu” meme, it is culture. It’s derivative culture, but evidence of a kind of originality. The kind that advertising giant Leo Burnett said “made for good ads: the secret of all effective originality in advertising is not the creation of new and tricky words and pictures, but one of putting familiar words and pictures into new relationships.”

Sense and Sensibility and Sea MonstersThe mash-up mentality has invaded all of our cultural spaces too, even the literary. When I read about Seth Grahame-Smith’s book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I had two reactions. The first was, “Well, that’s derivative.” The second was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”

Since then, we’ve had Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters and Abe Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and I’m sure we’ll see Canadian knockoffs soon:John A. Macdonald’s Time Machine (filled with lots of Morlock fighting), and Anne of Green Gables Meets the Aliens (hey, why should the horror genre get all the fun?).

So is this the start of a new artistic movement, or the death of originality? Many will argue art has always had imitation, reinvention, and even plagiarism at its heart. Hell, T.S. Eliot said, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Real originality evokes many emotions when it’s first encountered, and love is rarely one of them. Usually, it’s outrage and anger. New things scare us – the Thag part of us, which likes the predictable and reassuring. How else can you explain the proliferation ofCSI spinoffs on television?

A mash-up culture is the perfect combination of those things – something that has the frisson of newness, but is, at its heart, familiar.

Digital media has opened up the means of production so that anyone can do it. Instead of leaving them in a desk drawer, now all those frustrated novelists can publish their novels themselves. And they do. And yes, a lot of it isn’t very good. But then again, look at the stuff produced by so-called professionals. A lot of that isn’t very good either.

If you accept Sturgeon’s assertion, then 10 per cent of everything is not crap. Does that make it original? Or good?

Not necessarily. The American philosopher Eric Hoffer once wrote, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate one another.” (Back to our primitive brains.) So, much of the culture we create is not original. This essay is a fine example (assuming you’ll allow that it makes the 10-per-cent cut ). I’ve quoted a science-fiction writer, a philosopher, a comedian, and a poet, and referenced numerous cultural products to make my argument.

Our only hope is the raw numbers. There are so many more people creating culture now that even if most of it is garbage, there will still be more worthwhile stuff made than at any time in history.

Of course, we may never know about it, because, hey, Thag likes his LOLCATS.

Hey, Alltop enjoys a good meme! Originally published on The Mark, February, 2011.