irrational, a. 3. (Math.) Not capable of being exactly expressed by an integral number, or by a vulgar fraction. — Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913)
All entries © 2004-2005 by David Moles.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

AD 1937

BARCELONA, SPAIN — Civil war rages in Spain. The battlefields of Catalonia are a world in microcosm, a crucible testing the twentieth century’s grand ideologies. The Fascist governments back Franco, the Socialists back the Republic, while Liberals dither, fearful of another world war.

Meanwhile, radio-listeners and newsreel-watchers worldwide thrill to the exploits of ex-Royal Indian Air Force pilot Eric “Dusty” Blair, Frenchman Antoine “Santo” de Saint-Exupéry, and the rest of the international rogue’s gallery of volunteer aviators known as the Fabian Aces.

With the help of two-fisted American mechanic “Papa” Hemingway, the Aces are the backbone of the Loyalist resistance, turning back Franco and his moros again and again. The worldwide popularity of Blair and his Aces is a constant goad to the Fascist governments and an ever-present rebuke to the Liberals’ policy of neutrality. When Blair’s De Havilland finally meets Fascist ace Charles Lindbergh’s Messerschmitt over Barcelona, the back of Franco’s coup is broken. Though the United States will not allow the League of Nations to act, Britain and France, shamed by the bravery of their countrymen, nevertheless enter the war on the Loyalist side.

Forced into a general war before their preparations were complete, the Fascists, though mounting a stubborn resistance, are nonetheless made step by step to retreat. By the summer of 1939, not only has Spain been liberated and the Republic restored, but French poilus are across the Rhine, and the British are advancing on Rome.

From Moscow, Stalin watches unfolding events with dismay. The intervention of the Liberal states has made a hash of the Comintern’s attempt to take control of Spain’s motley collection of left-wing groups — anarchists, communists, socialists. Fearing the consequences of an Anglo-French victory, he strikes a devil’s bargain with Hitler and Mussolini, bringing the Soviet Union in on the Fascist side. With Russian industry and Russian oil behind them, the totalitarian axis first stands, then begins to advance. The French are rolled back to the Maginot line; the British are pushed back down the Italian peninsula, hill by hill and castle town by castle town.

Desperate, the Liberal states turn again to the Fabian Aces. In late 1942, word reaches them of a gathering of the three totalitarian leaders at Elbrus, Stalin’s secret compound in the Caucasus. With the help of Polish and Ukranian partisans, the Aces make a daring midnight strike on the mountain citadel. Saint-Exupéry dies in an aerial duel with Mussolini himself, sacrificing his Dewoitine D.520 to destroy Il Duce’s Fiat G55, while Blair and the other Aces land and pursue Hitler and Stalin into the depths of the mountain. Stalin escapes by means of an underground train, but Hitler is captured, and the Aces spirit him away in a captured Ju-52 — leaving a mortally wounded “Papa” behind to hold off SS and NKVD reinforcements. Hitler is imprisoned on St. Helena, in the same cell as Napoleon.

Italian Fascism collapses immediately; German Naziism takes a little longer, but in 1943 a coalition of army officers and diplomats deposes the embattled Nazi leadership and signs an armistice, offering German support in the continuing search for Stalin. In Moscow, the hunted dictator’s enemies quickly take advantage of his absence; Stalin’s Georgian coterie disappears into the cellars of the Lubyanka, and a Politburo faction composed primarily of Jews and intellectuals takes their place. Anarchist Catalonia is the first to recognize the new government, and the Treaty of Barcelona leaves the chastened Communists in control of the Soviet industrial heartland, while a multi-national force pursues Stalin fruitlessly into the Central Asian wastes.

In 1946, a Franco-Polish task force discovers a hidden rocket base in the foothills of the Pamirs, controlled by Stalin loyalists and SS holdouts, and staffed by imprisoned scientists from both Russia and Germany. Many of the scientists are killed by their captors before the allied troops can rescue them, but not before Werner von Braun reveals the location of Stalin’s secret lunar fortress.

The liberated scientists are quickly put to work by the allies. In 1951, a moon rocket designed by Sergei Korolev and R.J. Mitchell is launched from Woomera, Australia, carrying the reconstituted Fabian Aces, and the battle against oppression, to the heavens.¤

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

AD 1696 (Old Style) (AD 1697)

LONDON, ENGLAND — Robert Hooke, England’s premier anatomist, experimental philosopher, and horologist, prevails on the visiting Tsar Peter to fund the development of a race of clockwork automata for use in the construction of his new showpiece capital, St. Petersburg. The Tsar, his keen mind fascinated by all things modern and Western, is easily convinced, and the automata, impervious to the hardships and diseases endemic to working in a mosquito-ridden sub-Arctic swamp, complete the construction of the city in record time.

Hooke, alas, does not live to see their triumph, being struck down by diabetes in 1703. But the Tsar’s automata continue on, with improvements made by, among others, Jacques de Vaucanson (1743) and James Watt (1765). By the late eighteenth century, monarchs across Europe have sponsored imitations of Hooke’s automata, from Joseph Marie Jacquard’s androïdes automatiques to František Herget’s umĕli roboti. An enterprising military engineer, John Call, has a set of steam-powered Hooke-Fulton automata shipped to India in 1770, where they are quickly copied by local craftsmen; a few years later, Dutch marioneten are copied by Japanese artisans in Nagasaki and Javanese puppet-makers in Batavia. Meanwhile, Russia remains the world leader in automation — particularly in the development of non-humanoid automata (Russian объектомата), such as Catherine the Great’s celebrated Clockwork Stallion, minister Grigori Potemkin’s Clockwork Villages, and the series of bejeweled Automatic Eggs developed for the Tsars by the Fabergé family.

The impact of automation on the life of the average peasant is small, at first, but significant: the abolition of the feudal corvée, or forced-labor tax, as the monarchs of Europe and Asia follow Peter’s lead in assigning automata to the most hazardous and demanding public-works projects. Before long, however, automata are being employed in other fields — first replacing humans in dangerous, dehumanizing new industries such as coal-mining, then later, as government-subsidized purchase schemes make them more widely available, taking over the more menial and repetitive aspects of traditional fields like agriculture and manufacturing, freeing humans for creative and analytical tasks. An entire continent is spared the worst of the Industrial Revolution, as serfs and farmers and laborers are transformed in a generation into knowledge workers.

In the New World, change comes more slowly, but with the achievement of Colombian independence in 1819 comes an influx of British technocrats, and Hooke-Fulton automata are soon produced under license in Montevideo and Valparaiso. The slavery-based economies of North America and Brazil take a little longer to crack, but by 1831 Catherine Littlefield Greene’s automata, based on Jacquard’s models, have conquered the American South; and with the advent of vulcanized rubber in 1839, Brazil’s Emperor Pedro II sees the advantages of a domestic automation industry.

With an ever-rising standard of living, their material needs satisfied, the workers of the world see no reason to unite, no chains to lose. Attempts by certain imaginitive persons to organize the humanoid automata themselves find ends as comic as they are predictable, foundering on an inability to find in the mechanical workers evidence of any sort of consciousness, even a false one — let alone free will. It occurs to no one but a perennially discontented fringe to resent the automata, since the jobs they take are not ones any human being would want to do, and the radical increase in productivity created by automation is such a clear benefit to the general welfare.

The increasing trend, through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, toward more efficient non-humanoid forms only clarifies the risibility of treating automata as substitute humans. In 1953, with the launch of Sputnik-1 — an exquisite, fully self-guided sphere of gold, silver and diamond, created by the House of Fabergé to celebrate the birth of Tsarevna Maria Vladimirovna — automata enter the Space Age.¤

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Year of the Reign of Ur-Nungal (2574 BC)

Mount Mashu (near modern Tabriz) — Devastated by the death of his companion Enkidu and terrified by the thought of his own mortality, Gilgamesh, King of Uruk, entrusts his kingdom to his sun Ur-Nungal, and sets out in search of the secret of eternal life — known only to Utnapishtim, survivor of the Great Flood.

At the gates of the Land of Night, Gilgamesh encounters a helpful time traveler who, seeing the hero’s piteous state — unshaven, unwashed, ill-fed — leaves him with a week’s supply of sertraline hydrochloride. Fortified by the antidepressant, the hero presses on, ignoring the warnings of Mashu’s scorpion-guards, demanding passage from the ferryman of the Waters of Death, until at last he finds his man.

Unable to dissuade the hero, Utnapishtim offers a challenge: to become immortal, Gilgamesh must remain awake for six days and seven nights. By this time, however, the drugs have run out, and Gilgamesh, suffering from the insomnia that often accompanies serotonergic withdrawal, has no difficulty avoiding sleep. Having succeeded in cheating death, he returns to Uruk and retakes his throne.

Through the millenia that follow, the city-state of Uruk and its undying ruler are an island of stability amid the chaos that regularly sweeps through south-west Asia. Akkadians and Hurrians, Aramaeans and Assyrians come and go, but Gilgamesh remains. In 1180 BC, Uruk’s support in the east is crucial in allowing the Hittites to repel the Thracian and Phrygian invaders from the west; in 550 BC, Gilgamesh mediates a dispute between the Medean king Astyages and his Persian vassal Cyrus, and so prevents the dissolution of the Medean Empire.

Over time, the local climate changes brought on by over-grazing and over-irrigation, combined with the inevitable shifts in river courses take their toll, and by the time Uruk first enters Western records in the fourth century AD, it is accounted little more than a village, and the immortality of its “petty king” (late Latin basilellus) a local legend. The only prominent Roman inclined to believe it is Julian the Apostate, and his death on the point of a Medean spear relegates the question to heresiology.

It is not until the seventh century AD that Uruk returns to historical prominence, when Gilgamesh, long weary of the gods and goddesses who served him so badly during his mortal life, professes Islam, and comes unexpectedly to Caliph ‘Umar’s forces at the battle of Qadasiya. The Medean relief army that might have rolled back the Arabs’ gains is routed, and over the decades that follow, al-Warka becomes a metropolis, the center of Islam in the east.

With the death of the heavy-handed ‘Umar in 644 AD, Gilgamesh becomes an advisor to caliphs, instrumental in assuring the succession of Muhammad’s nephew Ali ibn Abu Talib to the caliphate and preventing the rise of the Umayyads. In 657, Gilgamesh leaves Mesopotamia for the first time in nearly millennia, at the head of an Islamic army comprising all the peoples of south-west Asia: Arabs, Medes, Persians, Elamites, and Khazars.

Rolling across Europe, the jihad is not stopped until it reaches Britain. Pursuing a retreating Saxon army across Somerset, Gilgamesh stumbles across the tomb of the sleeping Arthur and is caught in its spell. Deprived of their hero, the Islamic soldiers falter; a combined force of Celts and Saxons forces them back across the Channel.

Some twelve hundred years later, a cuneiform inscription, said to have been found in Glastonbury Abbey, is brought to the British Museum and deciphered by the Orientalist Henry Rawlinson. The resulting explosion in Sumeriana is a major factor driving the University of London’s research into time travel.¤

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Showa 20 (AD 1945)

WHITE SANDS, NEW MEXICO—An experiment meant to put an end to a war goes horribly awry. Watching from their bunkers, the scientists and generals of the Manhattan Project watch the blazing monster they have created, its incandescent rage setting the very sands of the desert aflame, uncoil to its full and terrible height and bellow its challenge to the heavens. When the roar reaches the nearby town of Alamogordo, windows shatter and tarpaper roofs are torn loose.

The mutant gila monster, thirty stories high, the twin rows of flat spines on its back aglow with nuclear fire, leaves behind a track of destruction miles wide as it stomps inexorably down the Rio Grande toward the Gulf of Mexico, hastily scrambled bombers from the training squadrons at Randolph Field only fueling the monster’s anger. Luckily, once the monster reaches the coast, it plunges into the waters of the Gulf without hesitation, showing no interest in further revenge. The last trace of the monster is an ambiguous sonar contact, reported by an Allied destroyer off the coast of Cuba.

With a sigh of relief, President Truman signs Executive Order 9613, forbidding further development of megaloallotheres.

In late August, a coterie of junior officers loyal to the Emperor deposes the wartime cabinet of Hideki Tojo and Japan surrenders, conditionally, on 1 September. In the tumultuous half-century that follows, the diplomats of the Gaimusho maintain a delicate balance between the victorious superpowers; indeed, Japanese neutrality is credited by some later historians with preventing the Russo-American Wars of 1954-1959 and 1978-1987 from growing into wider conflicts. Meanwhile, the science-fiction cinema of postwar Japan is dominated, not by inscrutable monsters and devastated cities, but by more subtle tales of the dangers of jingoism, ideology, and propaganda.

The first — and still considered, by some critics, the best — of the shisôseiatsu genre is Yasujiro Ozu’s Mirai-no-koto: Ani Gannen (1953), a dark and stylish film combining elements of 1984 and Wells’ Things to Come. Akira Kurosawa followed up in 1954 with Entômin, a fable of a country devastated by war and enslaved by the mind-control devices of a small ruling elite. Ironically, Entômin was remade both in the United States, as an anticommunist parable (Elia Kazan’s Prisoners of Power, 1957), and in the Soviet Union, as a satire on Western media culture (Andrei Tarkovsky’s Obitayemyi Ostrov, 1979). Both directors, along with a host of imitators, continue to direct shisôseiatsu films through the end of the century. The genre is credited with making major contributions toward keeping the excesses of Japan’s militaristic past at the forefront of the country’s collective memory, and hence helping first heal and then cement relationships with Japan’s neighbors and former victims.

In 1983, at the height of the second Russo-American war, President Ronald Reagan makes a speech outlining an ambitious program of renewed megaloallotheric research. The war-weary United States is torn between “pro-monster” and “anti-monster” factions, between the hope of a “super-weapon” to win the war and the fear of “mutual assured destruction” should the Soviets develop megaloallotheres of their own.

Two years later, anti-monster director Terry Gilliam releases the revolutionary Watchmen, now universally recognized as the West’s finest original contribution to the shisôseiatsu genre. Combining the genre’s traditional themes of militarism and totalitarianism with an epic alternate history, Watchmen depicts a world of trigger-happy superpowers armed with city-destroying “nuclear weapons”, a world whose metaphorical “doomsday clock” stands only a few minutes from annihilation.

The analogy between Watchmen’s “nuclear weapons” and the possibility of megaloallotheric war is not lost on America’s voters, and anti-war, anti-monster candidates form a solid majority in the 100th Congress. The war ends in early 1987, and funding for megaloallotheric research is cut to the bone.

Later administrations prefer not to waste political capital on the issue. In 1999, Japan brokers a Comprehensive Monster Ban treaty.¤

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

AD 1848

Originally published in “Five Irrational Histories”, Rabid Transit #3: Petting Zoo, Velocity Press, May 2004.

BLOOMSBURY, LONDON, ENGLAND — Due to a cataloging error that has already claimed the lives of six economists, Karl Marx receives from the librarians of the British Museum not the copy of Thomas Malthus’ Essay on Population that he requested, but instead, the Necronomicon of the mad Arab, ʿAbd al-Hazred. Marx is never seen again.

Without the centralism of Marx and Engels to rebel against, the tendency in the socialist movement — exemplified by Bakunin — toward the formation of secret societies (controlled, not by the workers, but by bourgeois intellectuals and self-styled “professional revolutionaries”), never gains traction. The Russian revolution of 1909 is not managed by Lenin’s Bolsheviks but springs spontaneously from the workers’ soviets. The First International is never dissolved; it remains a loosely federated collection of workers’ organizations. In Europe and America, socialist internationalism remains a genuinely popular movement, never successfully discredited by the capitalists.

In 1912 Esperanto is declared to be the official language of the Soviet Union. Switzerland follows suit, as do Austria-Hungary, Japan, and Brazil. In 1921, the first bill signed into law by President Eugene V. Debs is to mandate the teaching of Esperanto in American schools. By 1936 the Internacia Disaudigi Kompanio, of New York, London, and Tokyo, is broadcasting Esperanto programming on every continent. In 1960, a research committee of the League of Nations reports that the international language has more speakers than Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic combined.

In 1981 the American author Philip K. Dick publishes his semi-autobiographical novel VAVIS. The title, an acronym standing for Vasta agema vivanta inteligenta sistemo, refers to an ancient, brooding, sub-aquatic alien intelligence that touched Dick’s mind one night as he sat on the sea-wall at Ocean Beach, San Francisco. Published only in the original Esperanto, VAVIS becomes a worldwide bestseller overnight.

By the time the world’s metaphysicians become aware of the insidious horrors that hide in the details of the Old One’s revelation to Dick, it is too late; linguistic monoculture has already carried the latent knowledge of those horrors to every corner of the inhabited globe. An entire generation descends into gibbering psychosis. Only a few — the illiterate, the blind, the unreconstructed nationalists — are spared.

The survivors haltingly attempt to recover the diversity of their old national languages. Most books in Esperanto — including Dick’s — are burned.

In 1998, at the new National Library in Euston Road, a monoglot Welsh librarian shelves one of the last surviving copies. The volume’s erroneous catalog number causes it to be listed not as VAVIS, by Philip K. Dick, but as The Poverty of Philosophy, by Karl Marx.¤

Monday, January 24, 2005

9th baktun, 9th katun, 2nd tun (AD 615)

Originally published in “Five Irrational Histories”, Rabid Transit #3: Petting Zoo, Velocity Press, May 2004.

PALENQUE, YUCATAN — Breaking with centuries of tradition, the Mayan emperor Pacal declines to mate with the gray-skinned, inky-eyed consort selected for him by Earth’s alien masters. The emperor instead has her, and all of her people within reach, cast into the cenotes, or sacrificial wells.

Convinced by this incident that humanity is less suitable for their purposes than they had previously supposed, the aliens leave Earth to its own devices and return to the Crab Nebula. The remainder of Pacal’s reign is spent working to eradicate all traces of humanity’s subordination to alien overlords. Statues as far away as Easter Island are pulled down; documents are burned; stone inscriptions, some dating back to the time of the Olmecs of Teotihuacan, are sanded down and recarved. The campaign is largely succesful, and by the middle of the tenth baktun, what folk memory of the alien overlords remains is indistinguishable from the ordinary run of creation-myths, tribal legends, and fables of the gods. To the rationalist philosophers of the fifteenth katun, tales of aliens are mere superstition. A few, the most daring, speculate about conquerors from overseas — Africa, perhaps, or China.

By the eleventh baktun the empire Pacal founded has spread by land and sea: south to the Amazon, north to the Mississippi. Fleets of green-painted Mayan trimarans, their jaguar standards trimmed with the feathres of tropical birds, are a familiar sight from Cadíz to Madagascar, Sulawesi to Hangchow. In the sixteenth katun of the eleventh baktun, an expedition commanded by Ninan Vicaquirao, an Incan in the Mayan service, becomes the first to circumnavigate the globe. Among Vicaquirao’s pilots and navigators are not only Mayans but Polynesians, Chinese, Arabs and Dyaks.

The cold, brutal, impoverished nations of Christian Europe have little to offer the Mayan traders. When, in the third katun of the twelfth baktun, the green trimarans finally enter the Mediterranean, they find a continent depopulated by famine, pestilence and war, where barefoot peasants in low thatched huts toil in the shadow of Gothic cathedrals whose buttresses are stained with the smoke of tallow candles.

The “god-towers,” as they are called, are a continual source of amazement to credulous Mayans, who find it difficult to believe that a people as backward as the Christians could produce such monumental structures, the equal of anything in the Western Hemisphere up to the end of the Stone Age.

In the seventeenth katun of the twelfth baktun, Ekchuah Canul, a hydraulic engineer and part-time historian from Acancéh, visits Paris, Brussels, and Bruges. Canul is particularly fascinated by the god-towers’ painted icons and stained-glass windows, with their images of humanoid figures wearing luminous bubble-helmets. On his return Canul publishes a book outlining his theory of the god-towers’ origin, and gains instant notoriety. The central claim of the book, titled Palanquins of the Gods, is that the images are incontrovertible evidence that the prehistoric Christians had commerce with “ancient astronauts.”¤

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

13th year of the reign of Alexander (324 BC)

Originally published in “Five Irrational Histories”, Rabid Transit #3: Petting Zoo, Velocity Press, May 2004.

ECBATANA, MEDIA — Overcome with grief at the death of his lover, Alexander — Shahjahan of Persia, King of Macedonia, and Hegemon of the Corinthian League — invades the land of the dead. To reach this goal, Alexander’s soldiers, following the route laid down by Homer, march north-east across the breadth of Europe — the woods and swamps of the Germans, the fields and pastures of the Gauls, the mist-haunted, rain-drenched isles of the Cimmerians. Alexandrias are built on the banks of the Danube, the Oder, the Meuse, the Thames, the Styx. The conscript forces of Hades, faced with an army of eighty thousand cavalry, two hundred thousand infantry, eight thousand chariots and six thousand fighting elephants, are swiftly routed. The land of the dead is added to Alexander’s empire, and Alexander’s trusted general Antigonus installed as satrap.

Through a clever ruse, however, orchestrated by the shade of Odysseus at the behest of Hera (jealous of Alexander as she is jealous of all her husband’s natural children) Alexander himself is killed less than a year later, poisoned. With his shade constrained never to wander again beyond the bounds of his empire’s newest and gloomiest province, the order he established in the land of the living quickly collapses into chaos.

Though the legacy of Greco-Persian culture planted by Alexander’s expeditions can never fully be eradicated, within a few centuries the clearest traces of it are not the cities, shrines, and monuments — cast down, most of them, by later conquerors, and rebuilt in those conquerors’ images — but the trampled tracks of the feral elephants that infest Europe’s dark forests. Later empires look not to Alexander for inspiration but to his predecessors in Athens and Sparta, his successors in Rome; and, Christopher Marlowe’s Alexander and Hephaestion notwithstanding, so do later artists and chroniclers.

Elephants are not tamed again in Europe until the reign of the Angevin king Henry II. His son, Geoffrey I, uses them with great effect at the battle of Chinon in 1189, decisively establishing the dominance of the elephant-mounted longbowman over the horse-borne knight and the armored man-at-arms. Though the military effectiveness of the elephant is diminished by the advent of gunpowder, it remains both a useful beast of burden and a potent symbol of Anglo-French courage, determination, and stubbornness, and the Order of the Goad, established by Edward III in 1348 (motto: Piétiné soit qui mal y pense) remains the highest order of English chivalry.

In 1883 a full-grown bull elephant called Mazumbo, belonging to the Household Cavalry, runs wild in Hyde Park. Among the twenty-seven dead is the investigative journalist W.T. Stead, whose newspaper, the Pall Mall Gazette, is forced to close. Stead’s sensational article on child prostitution, “Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon”, which would have lead to the passage of the Criminal Law Amendment Act, goes unpublished, and indeed unwritten.

No criminal charges, therefore, follow the failure of Oscar Wilde’s 1895 libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry. Indeed, the only permanent result of that unfortunate episode is that Wilde breaks once and for all with the Marquess’ son, Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, and moves to New York, where he enjoys a number of successes on the musical stage. He dies in 1957, in his apartments at the Dakota, at the age of 103 — having lived to see the Broadway revival of Hephaestion, his famous collaboration with Cole Porter, win six Tony awards.¤