Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A dream of Nazis, bowling balls, data and dead champagne.

Weird dream last night. Vivid. Fleshed it out a little, but am not making this up, except for my character's name. Had to call myself something, so I did. The name's German for "fugitive." Flüchtling, Fugate. Get it?

So, the dream ...

An alternate reality, Philip K. Dickian. The Nazis had won the war. It's their world now. Like The Man in the High Castle, but contemporary. I'm a double agent, dressed in the height of Nazi fashion. Officer, high-up, but don't ask me the rank. I'm in a taxi, riding at night. 

Arrive at a gleaming modernist skyscraper in some big city. One day late, but now I'm here. Pay the cabby, get out, walk up to the building. The big main entrance is like a busy airport. I stay the hell away.

I head for a side entrance. An officer's perk. Whores, deniable deals, etc. It's there by design.

Punch in a key code, slide in. 

I skirt the cavernous, echoing, marble space of the Albert Speer-inspired main lobby. Crawling along the fringes like a cockroach. Doing my inconspicuous best

But a flunky notices me. Follows. 

Calls me by name ...

"Herr Flüchtling!" 

I ignore him. Walk away. I'm just far enough ahead of him that it's not too obvious.

The flunky calls my name again. Aide, underling, asshole. I keep ignoring him. Keep walking.

Orderlies pass me going the other way. Pushing a gurney on wheels. With a body under bloody sheets. A woman's body, I can tell. Familiar.

"Herr Flüchtling!" 

I come to a bright hallway with rows of steel elevators. Lower rank Nazis are mopping up blood. Lots of it. One glances up at me. Apologetic look on his face.

"Sorry, sir." 

"No," I say. "Cleanliness is next to Naziness."

They laugh nervously. Not sure if I'm joking or seriously.

I walk around them, avoid the blood pools.

Walk up to one steel elevator. Push button.


Door doesn't open.

The little red arrow glows. The one pointing up.

Before I can go up, the elevator has to go down.

So I stand there waiting.

The steel door still doesn't open. A distant voice shouts.

"Herr Flüchtling!"

I keep waiting.

Behind me in the hall, the low-level Nazis keep mopping. Having nothing to do, I can't help watching them. An efficient operation, coldly casual. They're careful not to get any blood on their grey crisp uniforms. But there's so much blood.

The red arrow glows.

Triumph of the Will. That's what they want. But it's more like Blood Simple.

Sloppy, messy.


The Nazi on my right gets blood on his feldgrau pants. The other Nazis laugh at him.

Tapping footsteps. Echoing

Behind me, the aide is closing in. Desperately calling my name.

Voice echoing in the white hallway ...

"Herr Flüchtling!" 


Elevator opens. I enter.

"Herr --"

I get a quick glimpse of the aide's sweaty, wild-eyed face.

Doors close just in time.

Up I go.

Elevator ascends. Muzak plays.

Tomorrow Belongs to Me.

I'm going up to my penthouse suite, at the far end of a common area on the top floor with a bar and various diversions.

Express elevator. It'll get me up there in seconds. But it seems like forever.

I was supposed to meet my contact. A woman I knew. Liked.

That corpse on the gurney was probably hers. The blood in the hall was, too. Probably.

But I can't think about that.

High-level rooms are private. A privilege of rank. But the elevator has eyes.

It's still going up. Nobody's connected us.

Or they're letting me play it through. They want hard evidence. They'll follow me up and nail me at the last second.

Tomorrow ...

This was supposed to be simple. A hand-off, fast and easy. Data. Literally her hand to mine.

If things went well.

If things went badly, she would've uploaded the data to a device in my suite. (A clock, a DVR, a portable hard drive -- the dream is vague.) Encrypted, of course. I would immediately download the data to my digital voice recorder, and wipe the hotel room device.

A spy in a movie would be Mr. Cool. Take his time.

But I'm in a hurry. I'd bypassed security protocols slipping in through the side door. If I'd checked in at the front desk, the efficient Nazi staff would've identified me, sifted through logs of where I'd been, checked the devices in the room where I was going. But I skipped all that. Thanks to rank, I got away with it. But not for long.

Look up.

Smile broadly now. You're on top of the world.

Look down.

If that asshole aide catches up to me, there's a good chance he'll follow me into my room, do a standard security sweep, find any encrypted data. Especially if he catches me in the act of downloading it.

Faster would be better. Please.

But thinking won't make the elevator go any faster.

Tomorrow belongs to ...

Stupid Muzak. All that blood.

That's not normal.

This joint is the Nazi equivalent of a Ritz-Carlton. A place of business and relaxation. Beating pretty young women to death isn't S.O.P. here. Even pretty traitors.

You haul them off downtown. Do it in the back room.

Out of sight, out of mind.

That's S.O.P.

But someone was ...

Tomorrow belongs to me.

Yes it does.

I try to smile optimistically. Keep a bland expression on my face. Try not to think about ...

All that blood.

Someone was very angry. No ...

Engaged. Out of his mind. Forgot himself. Made a mess in this nice place.

Either that ...

Or she killed herself. Slit her ...


The elevator door opens.

Top floor.

I walk out calmly into a long narrow room. Like a long, harshly lit, modernist alley with black windows looking out on night and nothing. With a goddamn bowling alley, straight out of There Will Be Blood.

The joint is jumping. There's a Nazi party going on.

I keep walking through the drunk, happy twentysomething Aryan partygoers. As fast as I can without being obvious.

After speed-walking the distance of a track sprint, I hear a ...


That goddamn aide coming out of the elevator next to mine.

Now he's behind me again. Shouting ...

"Herr Flüchtling!"

I navigate the narrow space like an obstacle course. Weave around celebrants. Duck a bowling ball. Nazi bowlers laugh. Make fun at my expense.

"Herr Flüchtling!"

Narrow room becomes a narrow hallway. Fire instructions. Photos of blonde children on the wall. Blonde women doing exercises.

I finally make it to my room. Outside the door, anyway.

Swipe my card. Stick my eyeball up to a cam.

Redundant security, of course.

The door opens.

I slide through the room like a mime in a circus act. Smooth, ridiculously efficient. Not like me at all.

I make it to the hotel room device. Download the data to my personal recorder. Wipe the hotel room device. It's big, black, ugly and shiny like a Bakelite radio from the 1940s.

And that's it. I toss my hat on the bed. A Nazi officer on vacation, just minding my own business in this lovely hotel room. Day late, dollar short.

A dead champagne bottle by the window. Upside down, in a bucket of melted ice. I recognize the handwriting on the card. The faint perfume in the air.

Woodpecker tapping.

The Aide is knocking. Shouting.

I open the door. That sweaty red face again. Out of breath, panting.

"Herr Flüchtling!"


"I need you to sign this form."

The aide hands me the Nazi alternative universe equivalent of an iPad.

I sign it.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Review: Man from Earth

Jerome Bixby’s Man from Earth is a quiet, somber, meditative SF movie. Bixby being the screenwriter, not the director. He wrote the script on his deathbed. His son made sure the movie was produced. Richard Schenkman directed it in 2007.
         Great movie. And an incredibly cheap movie.
The production values are nearly nil. One practical set: a cabin, interior and exterior. Seven or eight actors, one camera. A budget slightly larger than a sack of groceries at Whole Foods. The DVD transfer is as grainy as second-tier 1970s porn.
         The cheapness makes no damn sense now. It didn't in 2007.
Hollywood wanted to do a big budget production with explosions, special effects and mind-bending recreations of the past. Now that makes sense. Bixby’s no lightweight. After all, he wrote It’s a Good Life, one of the greatest SF stories of all time, famously adapted for The Twilight Zone. He also wrote the Mirror, Mirror episode of the original Star Trek series. You know the one I'm talking about. Parallel universe; Spock with a beard; good guys here are bad guys there. A joke on South Park now. A radical, inventive leap of imagination when Bixby wrote it. Heavyweight wordsmith, know what I'm saying? A writer like that, you put his stuff on film, you want to spend some money. You want to think big.
But Bixby thought small. He wanted a small, low-budget picture. Bunch of folks in a cabin talking; one just happens to be immortal. That’s what he wanted. Deathbed wish and all that. His son honored his vision.
That vision’s hard to see at first.
There’s no big point, no big moments. The hero is 14,000 years old. Call him John, for now. He spills his secret to a few friends before he pulls up stakes. But there’s not much to tell. Like the rest of us poor slobs, he’s lived his days one at a time, didn’t get the big picture when it was happening. John can tell you he lived in the Pleistocene Era. Now. But he didn’t know it at the time.
John's friends don’t believe him, naturally. A few entertain the possibility of his story to be polite. Most are pissed, think he’s lying or crazy. They cross-examine John. Our immortal hero responds, but lacks hard evidence. The cross-examination continues. But John lacks extraordinary proof for his extraordinary claims.
A talky movie. Seven characters in a cabin, talking. Single location, might as well be a play. Nothing much happens. But if you listen to the talk and make it real in your imagination, it’s a different story. Yeah, an amazing story. But weirdly prosaic. One long life. A gripping narrative, but it’s still basically one long life. Aside from immortality, John’s life is an everyday story. Or a story of lots and lots of days.
John’s tale reminds me of Olaf Stapeldon’s “Last and First Men” and John W. Campbell’s “Twilight.” The same haunting quality. The same descending elevator feeling in your gut of infinite time.
Man from Earth is philosophical—but only in the negative sense that John’s bucket of truth is empty. Funny thing. Being ridiculously old doesn’t make you wise. It just makes you ridiculously old.
The tale is mostly a meditation on the sadness of immortality: what it means to live and live and never die. Turns out, John was Jesus Christ in one of his lives. Nothing to write home about. He got on the Romans' bad side. They nailed him up. John slowed his heart and faked death, thanks to some Tibetan mediation techniques that he’d learned. When John finally emerged from the tomb, his wide-eyed followers were waiting. John fled to Europe as fast as he could. His left-behind believers layered his story with the mythology of Messianic expectation. So it goes.
An aside.
A throwaway incident.
This pisses a true believer off. But John just shrugs it off.
Yeah, I was Jesus. Big name, fine. Let’s move on.
Our ageless hero isn’t into name-dropping.
Jesus, Buddha, Van Gogh. Who cares?
Those high-profile historical characters are mostly fiction. But they aren’t the real story.
John’s story is all about time. Lots and lots of time. Most of us live on ridiculously small islands in the sea of time. John gets to swim the ocean. By himself.
It boils down to a loneliness beyond words. And boring, practical details every ten years or so. To avoid prison and pitchforks, of course.
So, John keeps moving, changing his identity. He doesn’t want to wind up in a dungeon, lab or freakshow. He doesn’t want to watch his loved ones die, either. John’s strategy doesn’t always work, but that’s the goal.
Bixby’s story is more about mood than stuff that happens.
What it feels like to be immortal.
The incredible sadness.
John is immortal but not invulnerable. If he jumps off a cliff or sets himself on fire, he’ll die. So far, he hasn’t. But the choice is open.
He drives off with a woman who loves him at the end of the movie. He’s done it before. And lived to tell the tale. Again and again and again.
Like a pilgrim in The Canterbury Tales, John spills his guts. And it hits you on a gut level. The tale only lives thanks to six listeners.
SF works that way. Real SF.
Precious few storytellers. A microcosmic audience that gets it. Friends and family, really. A very small circle.
         But it’s a circle of immortality.