This is a story about a postmodern apocalypse. It was originally written for
"Pandemonium: Tales of the Apocalypse", an anthology published by Jurassic London in 2011.
One of the placards read “MATHEMATICS IS RACIST”. Another read “WHATEVER”. A third read “TINRBTOWMFO”. Dr. Chandrasekhar pointed at it.
“What’s that? Is that self-parody?”
Shelly Bream looked up to see what was irritating him this time.
“I asked them about it,” she said. “It means ‘There Is No Reality But The One We Make For Ourselves’.”
“Well, how is anyone else meant to work that out? Did you ask them that?”
“Um. I did. They don’t care. That’s sort of the point.”
One of the protestors got up onto the platform at the front of the crowd. Shelly recognised him as Dave Sergeant, the Acting Dean of Humanities. She didn’t know him personally, but he was relatively good looking for a professor. Rumour had it that he was working his way through the postgraduate students like it was the fall of Saigon. There were some 'shush's from the audience, and Sergeant flicked a fashionable strand of hair from his face.
“I have a memory from childhood,” he said in a faintly Scottish accent that made Shelly sympathetic despite herself. “See if you can remember this. I was about six years old, in junior school, and the teacher told us how we see things. She said the light comes from outside. It reflects off whatever you’re seeing, and bounces into your eye. And I remember thinking to myself ‘Really?’ because in my childhood I just assumed that the sight was somehow coming out of my eyes and lighting up the world. Did any of you think that too?”
There were a couple of “Yeah”s from the crowd.
“Solipsistic nonsense,” said Dr. Chandrasekhar under his breath.
“If you thought that, then you weren’t alone,” Sergeant continued, pacing with his words. “The early philosophers thought that too. Euclid and Ptolemy believed it, but the idea has been suppressed for millennia. It’s only with the developments in quantum mechanics pioneered at this very university that so-called authorities of science are starting to concede what we instinctively know to be true – that we, the observers, make reality.”
“I concede no such thing,” Chandrasekhar muttered, frowning as he rolled a cigarette. He pocketed the tobacco pouch and took matches from his tweed jacket. “How long will this experiment of yours take?”
“It's almost ready,” said Shelly.
She had to make last-minute fixes to the apparatus. The battery pack needed to be strapped on, and a hood duct-taped over the monitor. It was taking longer than expected and the tarmac she was kneeling on was messing up the knees of her beige trousers. She wouldn’t have worried, but the protesting humanities students all seemed a lot more fashion-conscious than the normal circles she moved in and she didn’t want to be judged.
Dr. Chandrasekhar took a drag and surveyed the protestors. “I’m not sure this counts as good science,” he said.
“I just need to see if it’s worth pursuing.” She lifted the apparatus’s metal casing. It was going to be a struggle to carry it all, but Chandrasekhar made no move to help her.
“Well,” he said. "Go on."
At the front of the crowd, Dave Sergeant was wrapping up his speech.
“They shut down the philosophy department,” he said. “They shut down all parapsychology experiments. They want to shut down any attempt to question their rationalist point of view. And now they want to stop us teaching postmodernism! But their meta-narrative is being proved wrong. Only we have the tools to understand what they cannot! I say fight! I say, break their hegemony on the truth!”
There was applause and shouts of approval from the twenty or so gathered students. He thanked them and invited up the next speaker, who turned out to be a Masters student calling for a positive re-evaluation of the claim that Einstein’s theory of relativity was gender-biased.
Shelly edged her way around the small crowd until she found a suitable candidate for the experiment – a young woman with dreadlocks and an eyebrow ring.
“Excuse me. Would you be willing to take part in a scientific experiment?”
“Fuck off, fascist.”
As Shelly tried to walk away, the protestor grabbed her arm.
“Wait! Is that it?”
“What?” said Shelly. She had spent the last three years on her PhD, and wasn’t used to being grabbed by strangers.
“That’s the thingy. The quantum thing you guys made. The Catbox.”
“I suppose so. I mean, that’s not what we call it, but…”
“Can I have a go?”
Shelly gave the box to the protestor, and helped her pull the hood over her head.
“Only one person can look at the screen at a time,” she said.
When everything was ready, she turned on the apparatus and stood close in case the young woman dropped it.
“Are your eyes on the screen?”
“Yeah. It’s grey,” came the muffled reply.
“Give it a few seconds. Look straight into it. It helps if you un-focus your eyes.”
A few moments later, the protestor said, “There’s squiggles.”
“Don’t look at them. Just keep on staring into the centre of the screen.”
“It’s starting to look like a TV test pattern. No, a screen-saver.”
“There’s a lot of thin lines at the bottom. There’s a triangle, and three big dots.”
“Is it still moving?” asked Shelly.
“It just stopped.”
Shelly pressed a button on the side. The apparatus took a screen-shot of the image and stored it to the hard-drive strapped to the side.
“So what was all that, then?” said the protestor, taking her head out of the hood. “That was a picture of my mind?”
“That was your personal pattern,” said Shelly cautiously. “We’re still not sure exactly it means. But, as far as we know, everyone’s pattern is more or less static and unique.”
“Huh,” said the protestor. She didn’t sound entirely unimpressed.
Some of the other crowd members saw the box and started gathering.
“Hey, it’s the Catbox!”
“I read about that. Schrodinger’s cat, right?”
“Can I have a go too?”
Shelly tried to take the box back, but the protester held onto it.
“Wait! Can you send me a copy of that screenshot?”
“A t-shirt,” said the young woman, rolling her eyes. “Obviously.”
“Sure,” said Shelly.
The young woman gave back the box and rummaged through her bag for a pen to write her email address. Behind her, a queue was forming in the crowd. Shelly handed to box to the next protestor in line.
On the crates in front of the steps, the speaker who was explaining that the E=MC2 equation was inherently masculine because of its emphasis on speed and energy realised she was losing her audience.
* * * * *
One of the lecturers from the med school was having a mental breakdown in the Vice Chancellor’s office.
“We did a double-blind study! Thousands of participants! Extensively documented! Proving conclusively that homeopathy was bollocks! We took the them through every step of what we did!”
“Well then,” said the Vice Chancellor, “Why are they saying you skewed the results?”
“They claim that we influenced their experiment simply by looking at it. They’re saying their experiments would have worked, except that our skeptical worldview stopped their chemical reactions from working! It’s that stupid Catbox. It’s messing with the basic tenets of science!”
The lecturer kept ranting until the Vice Chancellor promised to deal with it. As he left the office he passed Dr. Chandrasekhar and Shelly, who were hovering outside the door.
“Idiots,” he muttered as he stormed off down the corridor.
Shelly looked to Chandrasekhar, who brushed some ash off the lapel of his jacket.
“Biological sciences,” he said. “Temperamental.”
The Vice Chancellor beckoned Dr. Chandrasekhar in.
“Jay,” he called. “Come. Take a seat.”
Dr. Chandrasekhar and Shelly sat down in the bookshelf-lined office. Shelly held the box on her knees.
“You heard that?” said the Vice Chancellor, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. “I’ve been having chats like that all week. Every science department has been under attack since you published that paper. I had a chemistry lecturer in tears. What were you thinking, Jay?”
Dr. Chandrasekhar took out his tobacco pouch.
“Well,” he said. “I discovered a unique, reproducible and inexplicable quantum effect. I can’t be held responsible if every esoteric nut-job in the country uses it to prove their pet theory.”
He pinched some tobacco into a piece of liquorice paper.
“And you take the device to a postmodernist protest to show it off? How did you think that looks?” said the Vice Chancellor. He picked up a pen from his desk and tapped it on his teeth.
“That was my idea,” said Shelly. “Sorry.”
The Vice Chancellor stopped tapping, and looked at her as if she was a snail that had just crawled onto his desk.
“Shelly Bream, my research assistant,” said Dr. Chandrasekhar. “I let her take the apparatus so she could rule out her theory.”
“Er,” said Shelly. “We noticed that everyone creates a unique pattern when they look into the apparatus, but there are some shared characteristics. Like, Dr. Etheridge had a similar pattern to the cleaning lady, and they’re both recovering alcoholics. So if there’s a correlation between the pattern and the mind of the observer…”
“You’re saying the Catbox reads minds?” he said.
“No. Yes. Not exactly. I mean, I took it to the postmodernists to find out if people with similar world-views have similar patterns. I mean, they were right there…”
“Seriously, Jay?” said the Vice Chancellor. “You’re indulging this?”
“I encourage enquiring minds,” said Dr. Chandrasekhar. “And the theory would be simple enough to disprove.”
“But this is exactly the kind of insane unscientific nonsense that’s causing the protests!” said the Vice Chancellor.
“All the more reason to disprove it,” said Dr. Chandrasekhar reasonably. “I have a working theory about what’s happening in the apparatus, which has nothing to do with the occult.”
He looked sharply at Shelly as he said it. She hung her head.
“And that is?” said the Vice Chancellor.
“Reflections from the retina. The unique layout of blood vessels in people's eyes. That’s why the patterns only exist when someone’s looking at them.” He licked the paper to seal it closed, and tapped the cigarette on the Vice Chancellor's desk.
“That's more like it,” said the Vice Chancellor. “Prove it quickly. And please don't smoke in here.”
"Don't worry, we're on our way out," said Dr. Chandrasekhar.
* * * * *
That night, Shelly sat on her futon with the Catbox. She had removed the hood, and the grey screen was flickering at the ceiling. She shouldn’t really have it at home, but the equipment itself wasn’t particularly valuable and Dr. Chandrasekhar wasn't a stickler for rules. Shelly herself had done most of the work on it from home, anyway.
She had a newspaper on her lap and a pile of printouts of screenshots on the floor in front of her. Most of them were from the protesters. The patterns varied quite a lot, but at least half of them had three big dots near the bottom of the image and a wide triangle near the top. The similarities looked significant, but she needed to rule out coincidence.
She heard the bathroom door open, and her boyfriend Jules’s wet feet tramping towards the bedroom. After a few minutes there was the sound of the PlayStation firing up, then some gunfire.
She sighed and looked at the Catbox screen, which immediately began to form her normal pattern. Down from the top of the screen came a semi-circle filled with a repeating black and white pattern that reminded Shelly of an Escher painting. Radiating out from this were alternating up-and-down triangles. The lower half of the image was filled with a symmetrical arrangement of grey squares ranging from pure black to white. The corners of the squares were ornamented with smaller squares that interlocked with each other. Some people seemed to feel some deep connection to their Catbox pattern, but she had studied the image a dozen times, and, frankly, it was boring. If it had been in an art gallery, she wouldn’t have lingered.
She looked back down at the newspaper in her lap. In the arts section she had found an article by Dave Sergeant. It was the first and probably only time the local newspaper had published an article about postmodernism. Like any good crank, Sergeant devoted several paragraphs to the Catbox.
“This quantum effect that our own physics department stumbled on opens up a huge can of worms for scientists worldwide. The fundamental assumption of science is that we live in an objective universe that can be prodded and poked and studied until its secrets are revealed. Until now, this worldview has been compelling. After all, it’s hard to argue against certainty. But the existence of the Catbox proves that the foundations of the scientific worldview aren’t as solid as its proponents believe.”
Shelly read this, and frowned. It was true that they didn’t have a convincing explanation for why the Catbox responded to observation, but how could anyone claim to know how it worked without applying careful observation and the scientific method?
“The Catbox sticks a spear deep into the heart of science. By proving that observation can affect the world on a macro scale, it calls into question every scientific experiment ever performed. After all, how can you perform an experiment without observing it, and thereby skewing it? And without scientific certainty, what do we really know? Only what our senses tell us. Yet our senses are conditioned by our culture and our worldview. The Himba people of Northern Namibia categorise colours differently from English speakers, so they find it almost impossible to differentiate the colours that we call blue and green. If something as fundamental as colour is subjective, what good is it to pretend that an objective reality exists at all?”
Shelly took this in, and looked around the room. All right, she thought. What if David Sergeant was right? What would that mean? In that case, everything in the room was a socially-constructed illusion. Could that be true? The take-away container on the coffee table? The Mojo-Jojo toy on top of the TV? And what about the Catbox? Was if wasn't just the patterns that were being called into existence by looking at it, but the whole apparatus?
As she thought this she looked at the screen, and noticed a change. Her pattern that now had a triangle, and three big dots.
* * * * *
The next morning Shelly checked the Catbox again over a bowl of Choco-Crunch. The dots and the triangle were gone. It was hard for her to imagine why she had been so excited the night before: There had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for the changed pattern.
She finished breakfast and dropped the bowl in the sink with Jules’ washing-up from the last two days. She still had another fifteen minutes before she had to catch the bus to the university, so after brushing her teeth she sat back down at the kitchen table and tested the box one more time.
She stared into it and her usual pattern appeared. As she stared at it, she let her mind wander back to Dave Sergeant’s article. It was ridiculous to think that reality was created by the mind, but she let herself play with the thought again. After all, it was the most convincing explanation for why the Catbox only seemed to work with a single, conscious observer. It was responding to something fundamental...
The pattern began to shift. As she watched, the semi-circle at the top of the screen slowly distorted, becoming triangular, and three of the boxes at the bottom contracted to dots.
She leaned back in the kitchen chair, and blinked.
Could it go the other way?
She thought hard about Chandrasekhar’s explanation of the Catbox. Photons were bouncing off her retina and creating an interference pattern on the screen. The rules of the physical universe still applied. That was the only way that the Catbox made strict scientific sense without resorting to mysticism. On the screen, the triangle pattern shifted upwards and bulged. The dots at the bottom bloomed back into squares, with the corners opening up like petals.
Half an hour later she was able to move between the two patterns effortlessly. Associations started to build up in her mind. It wasn’t anything she could articulate, but she began to get an intuition about the Catbox. There seemed to be a fundamental pattern, distorted by the different world-views. She couldn’t exactly say how, but there was a correspondence between her inner state and the image on the screen.
Two hours later, one of the Masters students in her tutorial class called her up to ask if she was coming in. She said she was sick.
Once she was able to shift the pattern reflexively, she wondered what other parts of the pattern she could move, and what the results on her world-view would be. She went to the pile of print-outs to see what would happen if she challenged her worldview in other ways.
Jules woke up that evening. He came through to the kitchen to raid the fridge, and found her sitting in the darkness, staring into the Catbox.
“You’re obsessed,” he said, turning on the light. “It’s not healthy.”
He took a tub of chocolate mousse out of the fridge and went back to their bedroom to play Modern Warfare.
* * * * *
Two days later, the doorbell rang.
“Hold on a second,” Shelly called out from the living room. “I’m still Jewish.”
She stared into the Catbox to reset herself and went to answer the door.
“Where’s the apparatus?” said Dr. Chandrasekhar, his jacket dark from the rain.
Shelly showed him inside, and told him what she had discovered.
“The distortions in the corners of the patterns relate to certainty. You find them in most forms of fundamentalism. Look,” she said, and shifted her mindset to creationist. Dr. Chandrasekhar’s face became skeptical and more than a little arrogant, but she ignored him and looked into the Catbox. She froze the image and showed him.
“You see?” she said, pointing at the curls at the edges. “And any central contractions in the pattern are related to materialism.”
She shifted to a consumerist perspective. The room around her became tacky, and the stains on the wall became more prominent. The unsightly piles of books scattered on all the chairs seemed to grow. Dr. Chandrasekhar’s beard became more bushy, and a mustard stain appeared on his jacket.
She showed him the new pattern.
“Now, look at this. A lot of the detail in the pattern comes from self-reflexiveness. Unquestioning viewpoints tend to be simpler.”
She shifted to a pattern that she had got from Jules. The room became a lot more comfortable, and the smell of take-aways stopped bothering her. As she showed Dr. Chandrasekhar the new image, she started to feel a little bored with the Catbox. She wondered what was on TV. She shifted back to the scientific view.
“Have you been sleeping much?” asked Dr. Chandrasekhar.
“No. But listen. This raises questions. The big world-views like Christianity and Hinduism are easier for me to snap to. So are they popular because they’re easy, or am I finding them easy because they’re popular?”
Dr. Chandrasekhar frowned, but Shelly pushed on.
“Don’t you see the potential? This lets people see the world through each other’s eyes! It opens up whole new universes!”
Dr. Chandrasekhar scratched his cheek. She could see that she wasn’t getting through to him.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” he asked.
She shifted her pattern until it was okay. He lit a match and puffed his roll-up to life.
“All right,” he said, “Let’s just say that you’re right, and that the patterns represent your worldview, which I still dispute, by the way. But even if it’s true, then how does it change the world? How is it different from getting people to read books to broaden their horizons? Or just listening to what other people have to say?”
“It’s like the difference between using your eyes or using a microscope," she said. "I can’t fool myself into thinking that I’m changing my perspective when I’m not. I can get real-time feedback about the state of my mind. But it’s more important than that. I’ve learned…”
She hesitated. This was where she knew she would lose him, but she couldn’t hold off.
“The thing is,” she said. “The world changes.”
Dr. Chandrasekhar frowned.
“You seeing it differently,” he said.
“No,” she said. “When I shift between world-views, it’s not just my perspective that changes, it’s the world. Physically.”
Dr. Chandrasekhar tapped ash into a Doctor Who mug on the coffee table.
“Shelly. That's nonsense.”
“It’s true! When I shift, it’s not just that I’m seeing the world with a different emphasis. It’s a different world. When I’m in an anti-abortionist world, there really are soulless baby-killers out there. When I’m socialist, the world is a corporate hell. Try it! Change perspective! It’s a whole different world!”
Chandrasekhar took another puff, and stared at her analytically.
“Shelly, I appreciate your sense of intellectual enquiry, but I think you should get some rest. Take the rest of the week off. Maybe see some friends.”
“I’m not lying. How can you know unless you try it?” she said. She felt another shift coming on. The perspective in the room seemed to change. Dr. Chandrasekhar seemed smaller, and further away.
“Because it’s madness,” he was saying. “How do I know that LSD won’t make me fly until I try it? Because it’s crazy! Subjective experience proves nothing! If you don’t believe in objective truth then you don’t believe in anything. You don’t have to believe the truth is fully knowable, you just have to believe it’s out there. Remember Samuel Johnson and Bishop Berkley.”
“Who?” said Shelly. Her ears were full of cotton wool.
“Bishop Berkley was a philosopher who claimed that matter didn’t exist independently of an observer. Samuel Johnson’s friends were talking about the idea and saying that it was obviously wrong but impossible to refute. When Johnson heard this he kicked a rock and said ‘I refute it thus!’”
Dr. Chandrasekhar slapped the coffee table for emphasis and leaned back, looking satisfied with his argument.
Shelly stared. Because from her point of view, his hand had just passed through the table.
* * * * *
Jules moved out after a week. Depending on Shelly’s worldview it was either her fault for being distant, or his fault for being a selfish layabout.
Dr. Chandrasekhar had taken the Catbox away with him, but Shelly had enough experience to keep on going without it. She spent her days exercising reality shifts. Some realities were hard to enter because they put her in the role of the enemy: she would see herself as ultra-liberal, or ultra-young, or ultra-white. But gradually she learned to move her centre, and when she did, the world moved with her.
She watched television. Dangerously naïve liberals and autocratic conservatives filled the screen. Political groups of all kinds were tried to take over the country. Conspiracies blossomed and decayed.
When the food in the fridge ran out she went down to the local supermarket. It took her seven different worlds to get there. In one universe the rich had taken over, destroying the economy and the middle classes. Posters for fascist leaders plastered the walls, and police cruised past, demanding to see her ID. She started running.
The next world was full of rioting socialists, trying to steal from the few people willing to work for a living. When a Molotov cocktail flew overhead she dodged sideways into a universe where immigrants were flooding the streets. Strange music filled the air, the shop signs were in an unknown Asian script, and people tried to sell her rotting fruit and cheap stolen watches. In the next world everyone was coughing and writhing and foaming at the mouth, poisoned by pollution and lab-grown genetically modified foods. In the next, everyone was far too young, using language and technology she couldn’t comprehend. They threatened her with gadgets that were sharp like knives, and laughed at her as she ran.
She crossed into a universe where everything was over-sexualised. All the passers-by were dressed in the barest threads, and billboards displayed writhing naked men and woman.
The next world was pure stupidity. People were unable to articulate words, and shouted meaninglessly at each other. Communication had dissolved into violence. Broken glass and burning tyres paved the streets. Shelly ran into a building for cover, and found herself in the supermarket.
By the time she exited with her shopping bags, the world was on fire.
* * * * *
She felt a little better after eating a whole packet of Jaffa Cakes. They turned to milk and honey in her mouth.
The apocalypse continued around her. She sat a promontory jutting into a sea of boiling tar. Up above the sky had gone, replaced by an impossibly vast cave that was lit up by lava running down its walls. In the distance, ancient stone cities were crumbling in an earthquake. Naked wretches fell from the spires into the dark waters beneath.
“Well, this is interesting,” called a voice behind her. She turned to see Dr. Chandrasekhar walking up the ridge. He was still in his ash-stained suit, but seemed somehow more muscular. His skin was dark red, his beard was longer, and his fingernails had grown into claws. His forehead spouted two goat-like horns.
“Is this how you want to see me? Really?” he said, and pointed at his horns. “Well, here I am. The Adversary.”
He came to her side and coughed.
“It could be worse, I suppose. You should have seen me in your racist universe. Thanks for that, by the way. I wonder if I'm still normal back in my own universe. Mind if I smoke?” he asked.
There was an explosion above, and a crack formed in the roof of the cave. Glowing rocks dropped down around them. The Devil Chandrasekhar picked one up and used it to light his roll-up. He flicked the glowing stone down into the tar far beneath.
“Why’s all this happening? What did you do?” she asked.
“Me?” said Chandrasekhar. “Nothing. You’re the one making the worlds and turning me into the devil. That’s the problem with all truths being equal. Eventually, you end up here.”
Light began to shine down from the crack above them.
“But why?” said Shelly. “Why’s the world ending?”
The Devil Chandrasekhar took another drag, and blew out a cloud of brimstone.
“I suppose, if you go deep enough into any world-view, all you see is the bad stuff,” said the Devil Chandrasekhar. “Conservatism. Socialism. Environmentalism. Of course, some situations are genuinely worse than others.”
He looked out across the sea of boiling tar.
“I wonder, though,” he said. “Are the worlds all really falling apart? Or is it you?”
Shelly stared up at the crack.
“That light. It’s making a shape,” said Shelly.
“Is it?” said Chandrasekhar. “I wouldn’t know. I’m not really a subjective player in this game.”
Above them the light formed a pattern. Shelly looked up into a vast Catbox.
“Okay,” she said. "I have a theory."
“Good for you,” said Dr. Chandrasekhar.
She stared upwards and let her mind go free. She straightened out the edges of the pattern, smoothing the complexities. The light grew brighter, and wider.
“Ah,” said Chandrasekhar. “I see. You’ve tried all the patterns, and now you’re going for no pattern at all. Very nice. Very Zen. I’ve never had much luck with simple solutions to infinite problems, but…”
The light filled the cave, and it exploded outwards. The rocks scattered off into an infinite void. The light drew Shelly up.
“Really?” called Dr. Chandrasekhar from below. “This is how you want your ultimate reality? Taken up by the light? There's no part of you thinks that’s just a little bit tacky?”
Shelly smoothed out the last creases of the pattern, and the world became pure light.
“A fade to white? Seriously?”
There was a detonation, and darkness.
The Devil Chandrasekhar stepped out of the dark. He took out his tobacco pouch and patted his pockets for matches. There weren’t any.
“Damn,” he said.
His horns were shrinking and his skin returned to its normal lightish brown. The demonic aspect that Shelly had painted him with was faded away. He looked around the infinite darkness.
She was the objective centre of this universe. And she was gone.
“Great,” he said.
And what was he without her? He sighed. This is where postmodernism gets you, he thought. All alone in a meaningless void, forever, without cigarettes.
There was one thing he could do. It was a bit embarrassing, all things considered, but there was no one left alive to see him do it.
He closed his eyes, stretched out his arms like an orchestra conductor, and cleared his throat.
“Let there be science,” he said.
© Sam Wilson, 2011