DP FICTION #84B: “Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations” by Cory Swanson

‘08 is looking at me like ‘08 always looks at me. Like he can’t believe what he’s seeing. Like I’ve hurt someone or killed someone very close to him. That look on his face makes me sick. His name tag has our name scratched out on it, then 2008 written beneath it. He still can’t believe everyone here is him, is me, is us.

I want to tell him he’s here because something’s wrong with him, too. That if all were well with us…with me, rather…there would have been no need for the keys.

I play with mine. It’s some kind of bronze, smooth and rounded. Old fashioned. It flips nicely in my fingers. There are dates stamped neatly into the metal, one on this same day in March every two years, the little edges of the numbers having been gradually worn smooth by my fingernail.

“You know what pains I’ve taken,” ‘32 says to the group.

I resent his pomposity. The way he seems above the fray. From the perspective of what I am—who I am even—both extremes seem a terrifying outcome. Young and naïve vs. old and over it. Neither suits me.

“Well, most of you do,” ‘32 continues. “I’ve told you numerous times, by which I mean once.”

It’s terrible to know what’s coming. The pressure of my knowledge adds to the stuffiness of the room, a wood-paneled church basement that appears to have been outfitted in the seventies. I want to open one of the windows that sit high up on the walls, their opacity filtering the light and somehow adding to the thickness of the air.

“I’m here to save you…us.” He pauses. “Me.” ‘32 looks around the room at us, his face serene, beatific. “I know how you feel. After all, I was you. I’ve been you. I want to help you. All the same, I know things can’t be rushed. I know exactly when things will start to happen. I also know the fragility of the timeline. So far, we’re on track. I’m here after all. But it’s tenuous.”

‘18 leans over to me, elbows on his knees with his hands folded in front of him. “I’ve always wondered what he means by that,” he says in a low voice.

I realize I’m also leaning over, my elbows also on my knees. We must look like twins, the two of us. I’m wearing the same hoodie he is, though it’s two years older now with a big hole in the elbow. “He means any one of us could off ourselves at any point,” I say. It’s funny how natural these words feel, even though I remember hearing me say them to myself when I was ‘18. It doesn’t feel rehearsed. “But ‘32’s existence here proves it hasn’t happened yet.”

‘08 is still giving us that sickeningly terrified look. I try to remind myself how hard it was. He’s only had the key for a couple days. He only just found the door. He’s got no idea what any of this means or what a difficult path he will be traveling over the coming years.

I shake my head. How ridiculous that I’m trying to save myself. By the looks of it, things are going to get rougher. ‘22 and ‘24 look like they haven’t bathed in a while. I wonder what the story is, but I’m afraid to ask. I know I’m not looking so hot myself what with my recent unemployment, but there’s some kind of split between me and these guys. Even in 2008 I noticed it. Something big is coming for me soon. Something bad.

“Before I start our individual consults, I want to let you know how thankful I am for all of you,” ‘32 continues. “I can’t be me without all that came before. It’s not an easy road and nothing I say will make it any easier.”

‘24 wipes his eye with a tissue. There’s a fresh-looking scar on his cheek, still red and angry. Christ, what does that guy know?

‘32 stands up. “While I go through the consults, there’re some refreshments over there on the table. Feel free to help yourself to some coffee or one of the doughnuts. ‘08, I’ll start with you.”

‘08 is oblivious. He’s not aware that we refer to each other by year. “He’s talking to you, partner,” ‘28 says, patting ‘08 on the knee. ‘28 at least looks showered and clean. His grey hair is slicked back and he has fresh clothes.

‘08 stands and follows ‘32, his face still frozen with that look of terror, leaving the rest of us sitting in a circle on our folding chairs.

*

“What is all this even?” ‘12 asks, pressing the button on the Keurig and waiting for it to fill his cup.

“Come on, I know you feel it already,” I said, flipping open the container of doughnuts. This is my year to get the cake doughnut with sprinkles. Oh, how I’ve been waiting for that one. Every other time I’ve come here, it’s been gone by the time I get to the boxes.

“Feel what?” ‘12 asks.

“The darkness. The depression,” I say, sinking my teeth into the pastry. It’s every bit as good as I hoped it would be.

“That makes no sense. I’ve got it made. The kids have just been born. I have a great wife, great house, great job. Does something bad happen?”

I give him a stare, remembering how it was to be him and see my face, the lines in my cheeks more defined, the grey cropping up in my beard. “And you ask yourself every day why those things don’t make you happy.”

‘12 pauses as though paralyzed. I can still feel that moment, how the machismo of false positivity stopped with those words. How it was the first time I’d given that thought any credence, that maybe things weren’t as great as they seemed.

I pat him on the shoulder and walk away, finding ‘22 and ‘24 over by themselves, taking another bite of doughnut along the way. “Hey, guys,” I say.

They nod their acknowledgment, but their faces remain grim.

“Look,” I tell them. “I can sense something’s coming. You two have always looked rough. The roughest of the bunch.”

They remain hunched and silent, warming their hands on the styrofoam cups of cheap coffee. Hands that are dirty beyond cleaning, as though they’ve been burrowing in the dirt.

“I’m not going to ask what happens. I know you won’t tell me anyway.”

They both grunt and sip from their cups. I can’t help it. I’ve always been curious about them, but now they’re next in line. At some point within the next two years, I’m going to become them.

“‘10, it’s your turn,” ‘32 barks from the hall. ‘08 is nowhere to be seen as he’s been shuttled back through the door and back to his year. ‘10 trudges obediently, if trepidatiously.

I remember what ‘32 told me when I was ‘10. He told me to keep a positive mindset and to meet life’s challenges with an open heart. I remember thinking ‘32 was off his rocker. Every time since then had been some variation of that same psychobabble. He knows what I’m going through, so he knows I can endure and make it through. That I’ll be fine despite life’s challenges.

I don’t know why I keep coming back. Maybe it’s because it assures me I’ll make it through, not succumbing to my thoughts of self-harm. Maybe it’s just for the doughnuts.

“Can you guys believe how naïve those young ones are?” I ask ‘22 and ‘24.

“Look, kid,” ‘22 begins. “I know you think you can be chummy with us because our numbers are close. But the truth is, you’ve got absolutely no idea what’s coming.”

“Tell me.”

“Can’t,” ‘22 says, finishing his coffee. “It would ruin the surprise.”

“Come on,” I protest. Until now, I’ve always been scared to ask them about their story. “I can smell the divorce coming. I’m guessing I can’t find a job. I mean, no offense, but it looks like I’ll be homeless for a while—”

“Stop,” ‘24 interrupts.

“Geez,” I say, gesturing at the more collected ‘26, ‘28, and ‘30. “We know things will get better. I mean hell, from the look of things, we’re going to wield some sort of crazy power. See the way they dress? They’re like CEOs.”

“We’re not going to tell you what happens,” ‘24 states, his voice gruff.

“I’m not asking you to,” I say, defensive. “I’m just trying to…” I can’t think how to finish. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I’m trying to find answers. Clearly, whatever happens in the coming years is massively important. Why else would ‘32 be going to such lengths?

“‘12,” ‘32 calls from the hall.

I watch ‘12 march off to his conference. What an overconfident punk, I think. He has no idea what’s coming. The depression. The doubts. The darkness.

I’ve wandered away from ‘22 and ‘24, the conversation going nowhere.

‘14 approaches me, his eyes not meeting mine. “Look,” he says, “I know you know what I’m about to say.”

I do. The humility and fear are still deep in me.

“I’m sorry about how I was,” he says.

“It’s okay,” I say, hating how this feels.

“No, really. I know what you were talking about last time. I do. I ask myself every day why all the wonderful things in my life don’t make me happy.”

Knowing the necessity my former self felt to get this off his chest, I listen without comment, waiting for it to be over.

“I can see now that things will get worse before they get better.”

Lifting my coffee to my lips, I avoid telling him what I really think. There will be ups and downs, but he’s essentially right, the trajectory trends toward worse rather than better, and my future faces tell me I’m not out of the woods yet. Not by a long shot. By the looks of ‘24, it’s going to nearly kill me before I come out of it.

“‘14,” ‘32 calls from the hall.

“I’ve gotta go, man,” ‘14 says. “But I hope you know I’m rooting for you.”

I cringe as ‘14 walks away. Even he doesn’t know what the depression is going to drive him to. I’m the one who should be rooting for him. If he doesn’t make it through those long nights and those dark days, I won’t be here. It makes me wonder how fragile the timeline really is. Obviously fragile enough that ‘32 feels the need to keep reinforcing it every two years.

I remember thinking I was a dick for not responding to my moment of vulnerability. Maybe I should have said something, but it’s too late now. Sighing, I take a seat in one of the folding chairs, listening to the light murmur of the others talking.

A twinge of jealousy punches me in the gut when I look at the late ‘20s. What will it be like when I get there? They appear so refreshed, so energetic. To be honest, I’m looking forward to it, though I can see the hurdles I’m going to have to jump over the next four years or so.

“‘16,” ‘32 calls down the hall, ‘16 already schlepping his way.

What’s so wrong with me? I wonder. All of this just to get me through a bout of depression. Not that I’m not grateful, and obviously this is going to be a long haul, but how come I can’t just deal?

Shame fills me. The moment is a lonely one. I can’t even socialize with myself. It feels like there’s a break on either side of me. The younger ones don’t get it yet and the older ones don’t think I get it yet.

But that’s the thing with depression, I suppose. You feel isolated even when you’re surrounded by people. Even when those people are you.

I sit for a while, quietly eating my doughnut and sipping my coffee. ‘18 gets called in, giving me a stiff-lipped smile as he marches off.

Now I’m in uncharted territory. I’ve never been in the room at this point before. Not that anything bad has ever happened, but this point always makes me nervous. I finish my coffee and get up to throw my cup away. Over by the trash can, I notice a set of stairs leading to a door. It’s not the door we all came in, so, naturally, I’m curious. What does the world of 2032 look like? Is the world of twelve years in the future so drastically different from my own? I wouldn’t mind some fresh air, either. It’s always been stuffy down here, but my consult usually comes up pretty quickly. I put my foot on the bottom step.

“Hey,” one of my selves shouts behind me.

“What?” I say, turning.

“Whatever you do, don’t look out there.” It’s ‘28, and he looks gruff and mean now, a stark contrast to how he’d been a moment before.

“Why?” I ask, my heart pounding.

“Because it’s not for you to know. Not yet.”

“What isn’t?”

“The future,” another voice says.

I turn to see ‘32 in the hallway. “Oh, come on, it can’t be that different out there. I mean, maybe I’ll see what some newer-model cars look like.”

All my future selves cringe at my statement.

“It’s okay everyone,” ‘32 admonishes the group. “Remember, his is the pivotal year.”

“Pivotal year?” I ask.

“Come on,” ‘32 says, beckoning me down the hall. “It’s your turn.”

*

“What was that all about?” I ask him.

‘32 opens the door and motions me in as he has done every two years. “All in good time,” he says.

“Yeah, but, they made it sound like there’s something scary out there,” I say, obediently entering the room.

“There is,” he responds.

I reel. It seems comical to believe that something could be seriously and drastically wrong outside. What could be so different and so obvious that seeing it would cause some sort of breach in the fabric of the universe?

But the room settles me. It’s comfortingly normal and familiar. There’s a billiards table in one corner and several aged and overstuffed couches surround the space. This must be the place where the youth group meets. One can almost smell the zit cream.

“Okay,” I say to ‘32. “I know you know things are getting hard and I can tell they’re about to get harder. I’m guessing my marriage is about to fall apart and I’m not likely to find a new job by the looks of my next two selves.” It’s arrogant of me to speak like this. I’m trying to show off to ‘32, to let him know I’m not as naïve as I appear.

“I’m not here to offer you therapy,” he says.

I scoff. “Then what the hell have we been doing? Every time I come in, you’re giving me advice and guiding me through my life. And honestly, it’s helped. I can see the trajectory. You know, even though things get worse, they eventually get better.”

“That’s never been the point,” ‘32 insists, opening a closet in the far corner of the room.

“Then what’s the point?”

“Acclimation.” He is rummaging, pushing unseen objects around.

“To what?”

“You see,” he says, emerging from the closet. Whatever he’s holding, he’s hiding it behind the couch. “If I had brought you to this point first, the shock of the whole situation would have been dismaying. Crushing.”

“What situation?” I hate that he’s playing coy.

“I had to get you used to the concept of time travel. Do you remember how shocked you were back in ‘08?”

I nod.

“Just seeing all those versions of yourself was nearly enough to send you over the edge.”

“So this hasn’t been about therapy? About managing my depression?”

‘32’s face softens. “It never was. Sure, there’s some darkness in us, but it’s nothing a little old-fashioned talk therapy couldn’t solve.”

I’m ready to punch him. “Then why didn’t you suggest that? I feel like I’ve been suffering for all these years but I’m just holding on because you’re going to show me how to get better. Every time, I’m sure you’re going to reveal the secret to me and show me how to live my life and become peaceful and successful.”

‘32 can no longer hide his amusement. “I’ve done my job then. Here,” he says, brandishing the object he’s been hiding behind the couch. It’s a book. A book about gardening.

“What am I supposed to do with a book? I’m hurting, can’t you see that?”

“Take it,” he repeats, brandishing the book as though it was a weapon. 

I reach out, the tome cold and firm in my hands. “Why?”

My future self bends down and hauls a duffel bag over the back of the couch. “This too.”

The zipper hangs open and I can see stacks of cash and boxes of seeds. I see other books: philosophies on government, books on wild mushrooms. “I…I–I,” I stutter.

“The next few years will be unfathomably difficult,” he says. “It’ll all start in about a month. A disease will ravage the Earth. Political strife follows and the government will crumble.”

Terror fills me. The book in my hands feels absurd, impotent against anything he’s describing. Could this book make me immune to the disease? Was I supposed to bash intruders over the head with it? “I’ve never grown a single plant in my life.”

“You don’t think I know that?” ‘32 says. “Your wife will indeed leave you, but it’ll be because you’ve taken a sudden interest in living off the grid, learning the skills that will aid the survival of the species. How do we grow food when the world as you know it doesn’t exist and you can’t go grab a bag of fertilizer at the hardware store? How do we forage for what we need?”

“I don’t want to starve.”

His face becomes grim and hard. “The future is no kind place. Humanity will need fortitude. Resolve. And you,” he says, poking me in the chest with his forefinger. “You will teach them how. How to rebuild. How to thrive again.” 

“Why me?” I ask.

“Why not you?” he replies. “Life is nothing more than a series of circumstances. You will not be able to help the position life puts you in just as those who die will not be able to resist their own fates.” He walks over to a window of frosted glass, taking the crank in his hand to turn the panes out. “The world you have known will soon be over.”

My eyes fall on the scene outside. Blackness and ash cover everything I can see. Skeletons of buildings lay scattered here and there. I wonder how this particular structure has survived. I wonder how we have coffee and doughnuts.

“Enjoy what’s left of it,” he says, “but be ready. I’ll keep you supplied.” He turns to me, hands hooked together behind his back. “Can’t you see how this would have been too much to take in all at once? The key and the door alone are hard to accept, let alone the end of everything as we know it.”

My stomach turns. The urge builds to turn and run, leaving his—my—gifts behind and never looking back.

“You won’t,” ‘32 says as though reading my thoughts. His thoughts. Thoughts he himself had twelve years earlier. “Just contemplate all that has been invested in you. Imagine the resources it took to place the door and to get the key in your hand. Then imagine the scarcity and difficulty of procuring said resources in a world that looks like this.”

I look down at my hands. Am I really worth all this? Some days I struggle just to get out of bed and face the world. I’m not some messiah, ready to save humanity from its undoing.

He gestures out the window, and for the first time, it dawns on me what ‘32’s stature must be. This simple meeting with coffee and doughnuts in the basement of a church must only be available to a king in a world like this.

“Make sure you come back in two years. The door will be here even if other things will be missing. You will receive further training and supplies. You, I, we…are all the hope that’s left. It begins with us. That’s why it’s so important to keep the timeline on track.”

I hear his words, but it feels as though they come at me from the end of a long hallway. His hand is now on my shoulder and he’s leading me toward the exit. Though he continues talking, I can no longer absorb what he is saying. Something about the loss of innocence and the need to learn how to protect myself.

At the end of the hall, ‘32 pushes open a large, metal door with a flickering ‘exit’ sign above it. He hands me the duffel bag and I walk through. “Good luck.”

The door shuts behind me with a bang like a taiko drum. I’m back in my time. The scene that greets me is jarring: green grass, blue sky, buildings that stand whole. It’s hard to imagine such a change could occur in only twelve years.

And what about my family? How can I protect them? My wife is going to think I’ve lost it if I push for us to change and get prepared, but how can I not try? 

A thick sadness fills my stomach. Is it possible to mourn the future? I’d grown so attached to my story, how I was going to struggle and come out better. Now, it’s gone.

I walk to my car and place ‘32’s gifts in my trunk. Nothing in me wants them or anything to do with them. It seems innocent to grow plants, to forage for food, but thinking of these books, these things, only reminds me of the hollow buildings and the empty faces of my future selves. Is ‘32 what he says he is? It seems far-fetched that I could be what he says I am. Me, who can’t convince himself that his life is worth waking up for in the morning sometimes.

I’m at home, unsure of how I got here. Last chance. I could throw ‘32’s gifts in the garbage can. It’s trash day, the trucks will come to pick it up within the hour and it will be gone and forgotten by dinner. My neighbor waves as I open my trunk and stare down at the duffel bag. He’s mowing his lawn. What will a green lawn be worth in ten years? Or my kids’ choir practices and soccer games? I just wish I could talk to someone, but who would believe me?

The world will end with or without me. I either keep these things or I don’t. The duffel bag feels heavy, the strap thick in my hands, a weight tying me down to my supposed destiny. I look out over the neighborhood from my garage, searching for any sign of the world to come.

I am drastically alone.


© 2022 by Cory Swanson

3500 words

Author’s Note: While doom-scrolling the internet one evening, I came across the video for  Alanis Morissette’s “These are the Reasons I drink.” In the video, Morissette attends an AA meeting and sees herself reflected in the others around her. I started thinking about how group therapy might work if you were meeting with several versions of yourself from different eras of your life. This was in December 2020, and dystopian fears were heavy on my mind. People close to me were stocking up on ammo after the election, and the dread of looking at the news every day had become an addiction. Add group therapy with yourself to dystopia, and you get “Coffee, Doughnuts, and Timeline Reverberations.“

Cory Swanson lives in Northern Colorado with his wife, two daughters, and the ghost of an old blind dog named Kirby.  His novella, Geminus, is available through Castrum Press, and the novel-length sequel, Venus the Monk, is available through Exeter Publishing. His short works have appeared in various anthologies and magazines, including Mad Scientist Journal, Penumbric Speculative Fiction Mag, and After Dinner Conversation. When he’s not writing or teaching band and orchestra, you can find him camping or playing one of his many boss guitars. www.coryswansonauthor.wordpress.com


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MUSIC VIDEO DRILLDOWN #10: Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monáe

written by David Steffen

This is one of a series of articles wherein I examine a music video as a short film, focusing on the story rather than the music, trying to identify the story arcs and characters motivations, and consider the larger implication of events.

The film this week is the 2013 film Q.U.E.E.N. by Janelle Monáe, a freedom anthem in a science fiction dystopia, part of a series of interconnected films based in the future city (city-state?) of Metropolis, and in particular The Ministry of Droids of Metropolis.

Note that I covered one of Janelle Monáe’s films previously in Music Video Drilldown #1 about her film Tightrope. Tightrope has a number of similarities to Q.U.E.E.N. and although I think one could make an argument for them being part of the same continuity (more on that later), I don’t see anything that makes it obviously meant to be related from the films I’ve seen so far.

“It’s hard to stop rebels who time travel. But we at the Time Council pride ourselves on doing just that” a recorded video introduction welcomes visitors as they enter the Living Museum, with mellow string music playing the background.

An emblem in the background of the video gives us a great deal of information about the setting. Around the edges of the circular emblem is written “MINISTRY OF DROIDS” and “METROPOLIS”. Neither of these names is further mentioned in this film, but this makes clear continuity connections with other Janelle Monáe films like Many Moons which will be a subject of a future Music Video Drilldown. In the inner circle of the emblem the motto is “Vita En Machina”–I am no Latin expert, but I think it means something like “Life to a Machine” or “Life Within a Machine” which makes sense as being related to the Ministry of Droids which create artifical humanoids. And at the bottom of the inner circle, the year they were established, which at least on my screens is a little bit too blurry to read, but I think it might be in the 2700s, perhaps 2710?

This is no ordinary exhibit, as the narrator explains, “rebels throughout history have been frozen in suspended animation”. The particular exhibit that we are viewing is titled “PROJECT Q.U.E.E.N.”, featuring the rebel group Wondaland and their leader Janelle Monáe (played by Janelle Monáe herself, naturally), as well as her accomplice Badoula Oblongata (Eryka Badu). Project Q.U.E.E.N. is described as a “musical weapons program in the 21st century”, the nature of which is still not understood (at least, by those who prepared this exhibit). It mentions that they are still hunting the various “freedom movements that Wondaland disguised as songs, emotion pictures, and works of art.” So this is not only an exhibit about Janelle Monáe, what strolling museum visitors are looking at is actually the Janelle Monáe themself who has apparently been captured and is being held prisoner here. Within this first half-minute or so the film has set the stage for multiple interconnected films, establishing Janelle Monáe as both an actor and a character, and largely establishing her goals to fight the establishment.

Two young black women enter the scene. Unlike the other museum goers who are wearing formalwear (black suits and black dresses), they are dressed more casually. As the narrator finishes her spiel about disguised freedom movements, one of the young women pulls a vinyl record labeled “Q.U.E.E.N.” and places it on a display with a skull record player, and starts it playing. The mellow instrumentals are replaced with a more jazzy beat (electric guitar). This change in music alerts the museum guards and the women act quickly to incapacitate the guards and duct tape their unconscious forms to keep them from interfering.

The music begins to wake Janelle Monáe and the other members of Wondaland, and Janelle Monáe begins to sing: “I can’t believe the things they say about me”, “they call us dirty ’cause we break all your rules now”. She speaks on how they are criticized for not fitting into the roles that are expected of them, and muses aloud whether it makes her weird or makes her a freak to dance alone late at night. “And tell me what’s the price of fame”–although Janelle Monáe came from humble beginnings in a working family, now that they have become a major celebrity in both music and film, what is the cost of that? How can she stay true to herself with all eyes on her, with the temptations of celebrity lifestyle that are available?

It’s not only her identity as a Black person who has a strong sense of integrity at stake, as they reference their queer identity as well with lines like “is it weird to like the way she wears her tights”. This is a segue to religion as she asks “Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? Say will your God accept me in my black and white? Will he approve the way I’m made?” The colors of black and white are repeated multiple times during the song as well as the visual design: much of the exhibit is in stark black and white colors, and almost all of the costumes are entirely black and white apart from a red sash on Janelle Monáe’s initial costume. Her conclusion to this self-reflective musing is the declaration: “Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.”

These questions are asked from a different scene, rather than the Janelle Monáe at the museum, it features Janelle Monáe in a couple of different outfits with a group of Black women dressed in black and white striped clothes. Another analysis I read of Q.U.E.E.N. indicated that the character portrayed in at least one of those scenes is not meant to be the character Janelle Monáe herself but is instead meant to be the android Cindi Mayweather (who is not explicitly mentioned in this film, but who will be discussed at greater length in the next Janelle Monáe film analysis in this series, of the film Many Moons). It is entirely possible that that IS meant to be Cindi Mayweather, it’s possible that there are some visual indications that this is Mayweather, or it’s possible that Janelle Monáe has stated this in an interview or something, but the only ways I know how to differentiate Cindi Mayweather from Janelle Monáe visually is: 1. Cindi Mayweather’s skin color is configurable, seeming to default to a chalky white, but she can configure her skin to look exactly like Janelle Monáe’s skin, so this would only be a clear indicator if she did look chalky white. 2. She has a function button on her left temple as seems to be standard droid design in Metropolis, but in the scene in question her hair is covering the area where the button would be present.

At this point in the film, Badoula Oblongata rouses from her suspended animation and joins the song. In the exhibit at the beginning she is shown wearing a white coat that resembles a doctor’s coat, worn as a dress, with golden forearm guards, accompanied by two men in pristine white suits and white berets overlooking a table that has a camera and some rolled up papers that might be blueprints. She is walking a gray standard poodle.

Badoula Oblongata has a solo section of song where she has a more mellow musical line with lyrics including: “Baby, here comes the freedom song” “There’s a melody, show you another way” and coming to what seems to be the thesis statement of this section: “you gotta testify, because the booty don’t lie”. My interpretation of this is that she (along with Janelle Monáe who is dancing and lipsyncing along to this with supporting gestures) that the way to get through to people about matters of equality of justice is to incorporate it into music that is extremely catchy–so that people will be attracted to the music to sing and dance along to it, and will absorb the truth of the underlying lyrics as they do this. This ties into the museum’s statements about it being one of a number of a series of what they consider to be “musical weapons programs”. This is especially apt in a film which establishes the musician Janelle Monáe themself as a rebel who time-travels because this well describes Janelle Monáe’s music which is incredibly catchy, especially when combined with the visuals from her films, but always (or at least always in the subset of their music that I have heard so far) contains an underlying message about equality and justice and the state of our world which is all the more effective at getting into your head through the medium of an “earworm” song that gets in your head and you find yourself singing the lyrics days or weeks after you last heard it–how can you help but consider and examine lyrics that are constantly repeating in your head?

As the music continues, one of the members of Wondaland sits at a typewriter and types the same line of text over and over again: “We will create and destroy ten art movements in ten years.”

At this point in the film Janelle Monáe says “I don’t think they understand what I’m trying to say” and changes musical format to finish the song with a rap, now wearing her iconic tuxedo for the first time in this song–talking about being part of a lost generation of people “add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal”. I think this may be referring to several things, but the first that comes to mind is Jim Crow laws and other societal structures that perpetuated the oppression of Black people even after slavery was officially ended. “They keep us underground working hard for the greedy, but when it’s time to pay they turn around and call us needy” and makes it clear that she is tired of watching her people be taken advantage of. She ends the film with a call to action “Will you be electric sheep, electric ladies. Will you sleep? Or will you preach?”

In an interview with Fuse HQ Janelle Monáe explains the acronym of the title of this song:

“‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ definitely is an acronym,” Monae explains during an interview at Fuse HQ. “It’s for those who are marginalized.” She says the “Q” represents the queer community, the “U” for the untouchables, the “E” for emigrants, the second “E” for the excommunicated and the “N” for those labeled as negroid.  “It’s for everyone who’s felt ostracized,” she adds. “I wanted to create something for people who feel like they want to give up because they’re not accepted by society.”

Back to Tightrope for a moment. There are similarities between the two films. They both star Janelle Monáe playing Janelle Monáe. Both films begin with Janelle Monáe held prisoner (in this case a museum, in Tightrope, an asylum), along with members of Wondaland, with music identified as the source of their power (in Tightrope dancing was outlawed because of subversive tendencies and that it leads to illegal magic). There might not be a clear contuity between the two, the powers that are holding her prisoner in each film appear to be very different… but given that Janelle Monáe is canonically a time traveler, it’s entirely plausible that these are different organizations, perhaps in entirely different centuries or that one organization developed into the other over time. The only other clue to the connection might be the shoes on one of the pedestals at the exhibit which seem to be the same shoes Janelle Monáe and her entourage wore in Tightrope (although it’s possible they wear the shoes at other times, I know Janelle Monáe wears tuxedoes many times especially in their earlier work but I’m not sure about the shoes). Are the shoes on the pedestal a hint that this is a single continuity? Or since this exhibit is about Janelle Monáe is that a hint that that was a music video made by Janelle Monáe in the history but not necessarily a historical record? Or was it just an Easter egg with no particular meaning?

Janelle Monáe is a master at doing exactly what is described within this song–writing songs that are catchy as hell, that make your foot tap, that make you want to dance (even for those of us who have never had a talent for dancing), that are full of truths about the problems with our social structure that you find yourself singing along to and getting in your head.

A future Music Video Drilldown will feature Many Moons by Janelle Monáe. I am greatly looking forward to that one because that one has clear connections with this one–not least of which that both take place in Metropolis and involve the Ministry of Droids, but that one stars the android Cindi Mayweather, which to this day is referenced in the dual name of Janelle Monáe’s Twitter account.

The next Music Video Drilldown will be for the film Firework by Katy Perry.

BOOK REVIEW: The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

written by David Steffen

The Time Traveler’s Wife is a 2003 time travel romance book written by Audrey Neffenegger, about a man afflicted with a condition that causes him to time-travel more-or-less randomly and the woman he marries. The book was very popular and inspired a 2009 movie adaptation of the same name, previously reviewed here.

Henry has experienced the time-traveling condition since he was a child. When he travels, only his body is transported, so he does not take along his clothes, wallet, or any other possessions. He learned from a very early age to be ruthlessly pragmatic as a way to survive, because if you get dumped with no clothes and no resources into random locations you’re always against steep odds of getting arrested or starving or whatever else. He has a more or less central timeline that is the trunk from which all of his time travel branches, so he has some normal continuity, but at seemingly random intervals he will travel for seemingly random amounts of time to seemingly random places.

He spends much of his life just trying to survive and get by, until he runs into Clare in his main timeline (when he is in his 30s and she in her 20s) and she tells him that she’s known him since she was a grade schooler and that they’re going to get married in the future. He hasn’t experienced this yet, but early in her life he gave her a list of the times when he would appear in the grove outside her family’s house so that she could remember to bring food and clothes out to him.

Their romance after that is very complicated, as at any given point they are in different parts of their relationship, just as with this initial meeting where she has known him for most of her life and he’s just met her. He then proceeds to meet her as a child and eventually meet her when it was the first time for her. It’s a story of marriage, the obstacles to finding happiness together and what we do to fight for it, and in many ways is about being in different parts of a relationship at the same time, which I think can be true of real relationships that have no time travel involved.

As with the best speculative stories, this one explores real territory with a speculative lens for emphasis. The characters are very different but compelling (with a plus that I didn’t have to watch Eric Bana’s acting for the book, but the minus that I didn’t get to watch Rachel McAdams’s acting). I thought the book as a whole was reasonably well done.

One of the big hangups I had about the book, not being able to tell where in the timeline this fit in, was resolved in the book by section headings that gave the date and the age of both characters. Time is always somewhat confusing at the best of times, but this made it a lot easier to just go with it than I found the book to be.

I also thought it was interesting how Neffenegger chose to follow the continuity thematically rather than necessarily chronologically for either character in particular. For a series of chapters it may follow Clare chronologically through a particular set of years to explore themes of her childhood, then follow him chronologically from his point of a view for a while to show how he ended up there, then switch to something else. Because of the caption headings this was reasonably seamless and I probably only really thought about it because I was thinking about the writing process.

The big thing that makes the book harder to recommend is that for much of the first quarter or so of the book, 30-something Henry is interacting with grade-schooler Clare and I found that whole section of the book deeply creepy and troubling. By that time, he already knows that he will marry her someday when she’s older, and he depends on her for food and clothing on these visits where he would otherwise have to steal and forage like his other time travel jumps. So, it makes sense from a character motivation perspective. But at the same time, it’s hard to avoid the interpretation that he is grooming her during this period. If you removed the time travel element and you had a thirty-something man hanging around a grade-schooler without her parent’s knowledge while mentally preparing himself to marry her, that would be a story about a predator. There are reasons to think that’s not where this was going, but I found it really hard to shake myself off of that interpretation, so throughout this whole section I really just wanted it to be over and get to the part where they’re both consenting adults (even thought that was also somewhat colored by her having been groomed by him for so long that she’s bound to have feelings for him). I’m not sure that was supposed to be creepy or disturbing, but for me it absolutely was, and it makes the book hard to recommend as a result, though overall I thought it was pretty good.

DP FICTION #13: “One’s Company” by Davian Aw

He finds a forest clearing on a planet of perpetual night in the two hours out of a thousand years that stars spread twinkling across its sky. It’s pure luck that he lands there on his random planet sampling. It’s the most beautiful, peaceful, ethereal place that he has ever seen.

There are no people on this planet. It will never be inhabited. Life evolved to little more than trees (if they are trees, those branching things) that get their food from the soil beneath and what sun that struggles through the clouds. Rocky outcrops ring the clearing in sharp relief against the sky. Beneath the starlight, he forgets about his life and loneliness.

He’s still alone here, but it’s different in the fresh unsullied alien air that fills his lungs as he rests between untrodden grass and unwitnessed skies, different from spending each evening alone in a busy, crowded city, full of strangers he’s too shy to talk to and too scared to try and understand.

Clouds crowd back across the gap, shrouding starlight behind their familiar shield. Darkness falls to rule the clearing. Peter knows it’s time to leave.

He logs the coordinates on his device.

This place would be perfect.

***

Excursion Two

The next evening, he tweaks the saved coordinates to arrive some distance away. His office cubicle fades from view. And there he is, his younger self: gazing spellbound at the stars. There’s no need to bother him. It might risk a paradox thing. But it’s nicer, all the same, having someone else around. He smiles.

***

Excursion Three

He pops up near the tree line. Work-exhaustion pains his face. He sees his two selves in the distance and thinks it might be nice to greet them: just to have someone else to chat to, because people do that after work. But nervousness still stays his feet. Tricky things, paradoxes, and knowing how to talk to people.

He looks around for the fourth. There’s no one else there. Yet.

***

Excursion Four

“Hi,” says Peter shyly to the third when the latter turns to search for him. “Tough day at work?”

His other self blinks, and tries a smile. “Yeah.”

His memory warps and changes. He remembers this exchange from the other end. It feels exceedingly, self-consciously redundant. They stop talking, and rest in the quiet. Each other’s company is enough.

***

Excursions Five to Forty-Seven

But the silence has been broken, and each time he gets more daring. Tentative greetings turn to conversations, uneasy handshakes to awkward hugs. It’s been so long since he’s talked to someone, too long since he’s touched another person. They’re not quite other people, here, but he can still pretend. If they close their eyes, they can all pretend.

They don’t talk about their lives because they’re all of them living the same one. Futures talking to pasts and sharing tales… that makes bad things happen.

But they can talk about this place that they have taken for their own. They map out constellations, invent stories to explain them. They study the alien trees and shrubs and give them cool scientific names. They gather piles of broken rocks and build rough forts upon the grass, then split into teams and play at sieges, fighting off invasions of themselves.

His memory rewrites itself in overused palimpsest till there’s nothing left he knows for sure and all his past becomes a blur. Events back home grow indistinct in the dullness of their repetition. His one surety is this place, his one joy each night’s respite in the comfort of its familiar faces.

He never steps into the same crowd twice.

***

Excursions Forty-Eight to Three Hundred and Thirty-Six

Someone brings fireworks – he can’t remember who, but he recalls setting them alight and shooting colour into the sky in bursts of fire that draw applause from the homogeneous crowd below.

He can barely remember his original visit: the darkness, the quiet, the mystified awe. He recalls stepping instead for the first time into the midst of a roaring party, music blaring and people dancing beneath strings of lights and hanging lanterns: people like him, who welcomed him warmly and made him feel like he belonged, people who understood him, people who liked him, people who knew and bore his name.

He brings a guitar and an amplifier and starts strumming a favourite song. The next day he brings a keyboard; then a drumset, bass guitar, mikes for singing and backup singing.

He doesn’t sing very well. It’s okay. No one in the audience sings any better.

***

Excursion Three Hundred and Thirty-Seven

The live band is belting out upbeat covers of emo band The Cutting Age. The audience loves it: jumping and screaming lyrics, and he smiles at their energy as he stands at the edge of the crowd with a sandwich in his hand.

A drunk bumps into him and slurs out an apology. As he stumbles away, he remembers doing that.

He’s been everyone at the party. He’s been everyone in the crowd. He’s been part of every conversation, part of every quarrel, part of every friendly hug and every drunken brawl. It’s easy to forget that if he doesn’t look at their faces. It lets them seem like any other people. It’s better to think that he’s managed to find an entire crowd of willing friends; better than it being just himself pitifully entertaining himself on an empty planet.

But it’s all a fragile, delicate balance. It’s a miracle they have lasted here this long. His memories are a blur, his pasts a confusion, his body a shifting, changing thing of scars and bites and injuries as his selves change each other’s histories and history changes them.

He thinks it’s enough proof of how this time travel works, and the clearing is now too full of him. The party can never get bigger than this. There’s no more space. The forest is impenetrable. He doesn’t know what lies beyond. His next week here might be the last; perhaps this night might be the last.

He thinks of once more spending each night in the void of his room with that void in his heart, and despair drives his feet to walk him to the spot where he made his first excursions.

He doesn’t waste time thinking when his fourth self materialises. He tackles him, grabs the space-time device, and crunches it firmly beneath his shoe and the open-mouthed horror of his younger face.

The music cuts silent. The multitude winks out. He feels the relief of a thousand memories erased from the worn-out tape of his mind. He vanishes too, with his final act of destruction, and a cold wind sweeps the empty grass.

***

Excursion Four

There are four people in a clearing that has not yet known a crowd.

“Hi,” one says shyly to another when the latter turns to search for him. “Tough day at work?”

The other blinks, and tries a smile. “Yeah.”

He doesn’t know it yet.

But he will never be lonely again.


© 2016 by Davian Aw

 

Author’s Note: Back when I was working in NYC, I attended a free concert in Central Park by the New York Philharmonic. It was crowded, lively and slightly surreal with the field full of shadowed human figures moving around to music beneath the night sky. I had the stray thought – what if all of them were the same person? Whereupon I went home and wrote out the first draft of this all in one go.

 


davianaw_dp
Davian Aw’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Stone Telling, LampLight and Star*Line. He also wrote roughly 240,000 words of Back to the Future fan fiction as a teenager and has never been that prolific since. Davian is a double alumni of the Creative Arts Programme for selected young writers in Singapore, where he currently lives with his family and a bunch of small plants.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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The Time Traveler’s Wife

s_Wife_film_posterMy wife and I took my mom to The Time Traveler’s Wife, a convoluted SF romance starring Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams. The movie is based on the book by the same name, written by Audrey Niffenegger. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s on my must-read list. In the movie, Bana plays Henry, a man with an extremely rare genetic disorder which causes him to time travel both forward and backward. He has no control over when and where he goes. McAdams plays Clare, the title character who becomes his wife. Their relationship is… complicated. He meets her for the first time when he’s 20-something, and she’s in college. She meets him for the first time when he’s 40-something and she’s five years old. Like any relationship, they have good times and bad times, but unlike other relationships, the good times for one person often coincide with bad times for the other person.

When Henry travels, it just him, no clothing or anything. This makes for some amusing and awkward situations as he shows up in various places without clothes. In particular, he’s very lucky when he first meets Clare that she didn’t tell her parents about the naked man she met in the woods by their house, or Henry might have ended up in jail. Those scenes were rather creepy anyway, not because of anything Henry does or says, but because you know that he is married to her in the future, and it is just plain weird. The time traveling effect, the only special effect in the movie, is pretty neat, with his flesh evaporating like a mist, often starting from his hands and then leaving his clothes to fall limply to the floor. But I think it was overused in scenes where it made no real difference. For instance, in the wedding scene, a younger Henry has the pre-wedding jitters and disappears, only to be replaced by a Henry with gray in his hair. This provokes much murmuring during the ceremony but has no real effect on the plot. And then the younger Henry reappears during the reception. If there was any real point to the jumping in this scene, I really didn’t see it. Perhaps if we were more privy to Henry’s internal reactions this would have an interesting effect on his behavior after these jumps, but as the movie is it just seemed like a waste of a perfectly good plot element.

Of the three theories of time travel I’ve discussed before, this movie falls firmly under #3 “Time is written in stone”. Henry tells Clare that he has tried many times to prevent the death of his mother, but he never makes it to the right place by the right time and everything always happens like it happened before. As I’ve mentioned before, I believe this type of time travel could only exist in the presence of a higher power, because something all-powerful must be guiding actions to make sure that nothing could be affected by Henry’s foreknowledge. This is never more true than in this movie, with the supernatural hand manifesting itself most strongly in the timing of Henry’s seemingly random travels.

The movie was relatively good, but I don’t think it was as good as it could be, for two major reasons.

First, I have never been impressed by Eric Bana. He really needs to work on his facial expressions, he has the facial range of Joan Rivers. I just can’t bring myself to care about any character he plays because of it. At least his character is more sympathetic than his lead role in Lucky You, where he plays a compulsive gambler who steals money from his girlfriend and has no redeeming qualities whatsoever, although his acting range is much more suited for the role of a professional gambler since he has a permanent poker face. And the likeability of Henry is all in the writing, NOT in his acting.

Thank goodness Rachel McAdams can act, or this movie would’ve been completely unsalvageable. As it is she carried Bana’s incompetence throughout it and managed to make a movie that I could stand, and which I could actually react emotionally to. Through her reactions I could even feel sorry for Henry and his ailment, something which Henry himself did not manage to do.

Second, the chronology was needlessly confusing. When each scene started I had to take a step back and ask “When did this happen and what are the ages of Henry and Clare. This one could have easily been avoided simply with some planning of how the movie was laid out. The easiest way would have been to follow a chronology from just ONE of the two character’s lives, and let us figure out some of the strange reactions of the others as we went. And since Clare is the title character, and since her chronology is easier to follow anyway as it is easily cued by her hairstyle, and cues from the world around her. But instead, a scene jump would sometimes follow Clare, sometimes follow Henry, in haphazard arrangement, leaving me to guess at the beginning of each scene when this took place, and lifting me much too far out of my movie-watcher trance. As an alternative, instead of changing the scene ordering, they could simply have put a caption on the screen listing the year and the age of both of them.

But overall I thought it was decently good, and my mom even liked it. Finding a movie that we can both enjoy is a real challenge, so it’s a definite note of success whenever we can actually pull it off. I haven’t read the book that this movie is based on yet, but it is high on my “to read” list. I hope that the parts I didn’t like about the movie were the fualt of the movie-makers and not the writer of the book.

Now, for those of you who hate SPOILERS, like I do when I’m reading a review, stop now, because I’m going to tell what happens.

BEGIN SPOILERS!!

The complicated plotlines become even more complicated when Henry and Clare start trying to have children. Clare has miscarriage after miscarriage and they eventually drum up the unproven theory that each baby has inherited Henry’s time traveling gene and is time travelling right out of the womb. Although they never come across proof of this theory (which is probably a good thing, as that involve the moviemakers splattering a fetus across a stage), Henry becomes more and more apprehensive about having a baby at all. He doesn’t want the kid to have to suffer through the condition he’s had to suffer through. This opens the movie up for quite an emotional quagmire which I am not quite sure how sort the ethics of. Henry secretly gets a vasectomy, because Clare refuses to agree that not having kids is the right thing to do. He eventually confesses to her, and she is furious. The next time a younger Henry, one without a vasectomy, passes through her time, they have sex and voila she’s pregnant. Before she carries the baby to term Henry meets the girl, Alba, who has indeed inherited his time-traveling. She says she’s a “prodigy” because she’s able to control it. The plot now gets even more convoluted because there are Albas of two different ages all over the place. The older Alba knows what happens in the future and she tells the younger Alba and Henry, but Henry makes her promise not to tell her mother, driving another wedge between them.

Partway through the movie, Clare and Henry glimpse another Henry traveling momentarily through their time with a bleeding wound in his gut. He’s gone after a few seconds leaving them both with a feeling of dread. Clare has never seen him when he’s above forty or so. Alba confirms that Henry died when she was five. So the rest of the movie is mostly waiting to find out how Henry dies.

In the end, Henry’s death is just a freak accident. He travels into a forest where Clare’s father is hunting (his love for hunting was well established early on. At the time, Henry’s legs are unusable because he is still recovering from a bout of hypothermia. He pops into place sitting in the snow in the middle of the woods right by a buck. He looks around wildly, sees her father from quite a ways away. Her father shoots at the buck and hits Henry instead. By the time her father reaches the scene, Henry’s gone, leaving only a bloodstain on the snow. This only further reinforces my belief that a higher power wanted these events to play out this way, because the odds of him appearing in that exact place and exact time if the jumping is random is just far too low for me. And all he would’ve had to do is lie back and the bullet would’ve gone over him for sure.

Then, after his death, as Alba is growing up with Clare, Henry pops back in again, presumably from before he died. I get the impression this happens from time to time and it’s portrayed in the movie as if it was a good thing. But I can’t imagine what that would do to a person trying to grieve. These people need to move on with their lives, but how can they do that when Henry’s reapperances with many years in between keeps the wound raw instead of allowing it to heal? This left me with a sense of unease much different than the heartwarming reaction I got the impression I was supposed to feel.

Three Theories of Time Travel

This post is intended to open speculation about time travel. As far as I’ve seen, there are three main theories of how time travel works, depending on what you’re watching/reading.

1. Time is a slate–anything can be can be changed! Be very careful, you might prevent your own birth. (ala Back to the Future). Paradoxes are a major problem–if you change antyhing you could prevent yourself from going back which would keep you from going back to prevent yourself from going back–and so on.

2. Time is a tree. You can change things, but all you’ll do is create an alternate timeline. That is by making a change you just force yourself down a different branch. You can’t prevent your birth, but you can send yourself down a branch where you were never born. (ala Back to the Future II, which doesn’t seem to use the same concepts as Back to the Future)

3. Time is written in stone. Whatever happens in the past has already happened, observed events are 100% unchangeable. For me to believe in this one, I feel I also need to believe in a higher power (a fate or a god or what-have-you) to make sure everything is neat and tidy. (ala 12 Monkeys)

To me #1 is unlikely. If this were the way time travel worked, the space-time continuum would have ripped a long time ago, or a long time from now, which amount to the same thing when you’re talking about the space-time continuum.

#3 can only work if there’s a higher power, because something needs to decide what events are “allowed” to happen.

#2 is the most likely in my mind, though it opens the door to another discussion–alternate realities. Each branch of possibility creates new realities that may exist only in potentia. Changing events instantiates these realities.