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.

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.¤