Reliquary for the bones of lost suburban tribes
On time dilation and the global unravelling of reality
I know people on Twitter who post as if each tweet is a blood-borne discharge from cancerous lungs. They breath their last, telegraphing the end of their lives, and we are spitooned by their senescent foam.
I know people on Twitter who have reached creative peaks but are deeply unhappy wth their bodies and their lives. Every tweet is a thirst trap because without love their work means nothing.
I know people on Twitter who scream into the void. The void is the algorithm, the lip of the black hole that sucks in engagement, the codeswarm that determines who can see tweets and when. They are primed for virality but they have lost the keys to the Magic Ride.
I know people on Twitter who say that 2020 is the best year of their lives because they are self-styled chaos magicians and as the name implies they thrive on chaos. They make me want to light a fire.
I know people on Twitter who act as if they are God’s gift. It’s a shtick, a security blanket, a suit of armour, a Kool Aid backwash. I can’t block them because they never saw me in the first place. I can’t mute them because they don’t see themselves. They don’t see what I see.
I know someone on Twitter who should not be there.
I know a man who suffers from time sickness. For most of his life, he has been plagued by corrosive nostalgia. It could be regret at things once said that seem to resurface in the brain at the most inopportune times. Or a remembrance of a point in the dim dark past when he was on the cusp of some breakthrough—a metaphysical understanding or a creative peak. He always seemed to be reaching for the same breakthrough but forever failing, never realising until years later that he had already made the leap.
He could never see the potential. At the moment of the apparent breakthrough, he was consumed with pre-emptive regret for something that he thought would ruin everything but never did, or stricken with grief for the imagined loss of something that could easily be recouped. Set aflame by this ouroboric madness, the future burned and everything in it.
Even at a young age, he recognised the sickness. To counter it, he designed a primitive conlang. He used the conlang to encode certain phrases. These he attempted to store inside his memory. The phrases were time-coded for retrieval at a future-forward moment, a juncture well into adulthood.
Sample and hold.
The idea was simple if a little unhinged. He would reach the allotted age, remember the time-code and retrieve the phrase. Recalling the phrase would trigger a transference, an autotomy in which the future skin would be discarded (that is, the present skin-suit) and the past that always was would be revealed. He thought of the phrase as a cord. The cord would guide him to the past version of himself, like a spelunker fingering a rope laid by a previous explorer for the safe negotiation of dark crevices.
Once reunited with the spawn of himself, he would understand with the benefit of hindsight how the future was crystal-clear after all. His past self would counsel the future version, exhort it to calm down, to get a grip and move away from the darkness and into the light. But the phrases were forgotten when the timestamps were reached. Only the vaguest details of the game remained. The semantic code was erased. He was like a mouse trying to remember a Shakespearean sonnet recited by a bored android, a copy of an ancient human that long ago had ceased to exist.
I know a man who in his teens developed a custom theology based on the gnosticism he’d learned from Philip K. Dick books, but the details never stuck. The light that drew him to the theology was diffused. It hardened into the sclerotic residue of a barely remembered dream.
He remembered this flight of fancy when he was in the grip of COVID time dilation, when what felt like five minutes turned out to be five months. When memory was fuzzy and indistinct. Mind’s eye blind.
Scientists and doctors talk about this now. A psychological pandemic hot on the heels of the viral version. Layers of uncertainty and panic. ‘Have I got it? Will I get it? Will the supply chains break down? When will it all collapse?’ Delirium and cognitive impairment. Cortisol spiking glucose. Inflamed skin and oversensitive brains. Multiple projected timelines clashing in the mind. Intense self-scrutiny on every level. An eternal present, consumed by the moment. Fatigue razing the past, ennui obliterating the future.
He was in lockdown. Everyone in his city was. They had been for months. Night-time curfews were imposed. Masks were compulsory. Schools, shops and offices were shuttered. Five-kilometre travel limits were enforced by cops with their ‘Ring of Steel’. Cases rose by the hundreds daily and the modelling predicted that the peak would be in the thousands before too long. No one could think or move. The only communal activity was checking the case numbers, but the numbers would not decrease. The sheer spiralling terror was a fist to the face.
One afternoon, he was in his backyard, kicking a football. His attention was diffuse, an agglomeration of experiences that tried to present as a whole. The previous day, he had tried to enter a competition run by a local publishing house. The task was to write a tweet that summarised Australian life in 2020.
So much had happened. The monstrous inferno from an unprecedented bushfire summer. The sealing of the island nation from the outside world during COVID and then the wildcat outbreak that turned the nation’s southern state into a Plague Pit—the state where he lived—shunned and abandoned by the so-called Federation.
The prize was $1000. He had bookmarked it well ahead of time and had every intention of writing it. He needed the cash. He had been thinking about it for some time and was ready, but when it came to submit, he discovered that the deadline was three weeks in the past. He could not account for this chronosthetic discrepancy. He did not know how time had managed to flow so freely in the intervening days.
He had been trying to keep an online diary of life during lockdown and managed regular posts for a while. After his failure to submit the lucrative competitive tweet, he thought he might write the next entry instead. Previous posts had garnered a small but engaged audience. He didn’t want to alienate readers by making them wait too long between posts. Because he had been thinking about the diary, about what to write next, he thought that the format was still fresh.
Once, he’d gone a few weeks between posts and knew he’d let it slip again, but when he checked, he was popeyed to learn that it had been five months since the last entry.
He knew he wasn’t well. He had lost his sense of self. He did not know where he was. The terms and conditions of the lockdown had wiped his memory clean. He was lost in time and space. He felt as though he’d been struck with a form of social dementia. Yet when he checked his social media accounts, there was a record of a life, an inventory of interests and a purpose of sorts. On Twitter, he was never one for hardcore interaction, but he liked to catalogue what others did with their time. He viewed it as a form of people-watching. He checked his timeline and there they were.
The blood-lung tweeters. The God’s Gifters. The thirst trappers. The chaos magicians. The void screamers.
They came alive in notes to himself, an anthropological survey recorded in quote tweets and screenshots.
More breadcrumbs told a wider story, the global unravelling of reality. He had bookmarked, posted or liked tweets about the Veep’s blood-filled eyes and the pesky fly that would not leave that dead head. About Dirty Rudy’s loud and public farts and the foul brown liquid leaking from his temple. About the Robocop proclamations defecating from Drumpf’s abject gob and the Prez’s demented refusal to concede. About ScoMo mugging for inane PR stunts dressed in boxer shorts and suit jacket, wearing his Australia-flag mask upside down, performing calisthenics in his socks. About BoJo’s hair, that insane rat’s nest and the message it sends: that politics is meaningless, a clown suit worn by psycho-bullies to terrify and torment.
He began to think that maybe the chaos magicians were correct, that COVID was simply the mildest symptom of the Great Unravelling.
He remembered that pre-lockdown he liked to walk long distances at night. After dark, he would imagine portals opening up in the industrial edgelands that could release him from the mental brig. With curfew and distance limits in place, he could only take short walks during the day or early evening. He posted photos from these drifts on Instagram. These too provided an insight into a person that had lived a life like other people.
He read the titles that he had given the photos, fingering the captions on the screen as if they were braille, glimpses of another dimension.
‘The First Light in Kilometres’
‘Calling Occupants (Time Dilation in the Lockdown Zone)’
‘Bioluminescence in the Industrial Zone’
‘Intensities in the Forbidden Zone’
‘Reliquary for the Bones of Lost Suburban Tribes’
‘Early Warning System (Suburban Deep Time)’
Reading these, he began to suffer overwhelming anxiety at being cooped up at home and unable to merge with the night. Just the titles alone hinted at the need to break free, at the desire for transgression. They contained everything that had spooked him. The yearning for the past. The ontological impossibility of bottling time. The need to find a doorway into the beyond. The search for light, for transcendence, for the future that can never be bought.
As he was punting the ball up and down the yard, he knew that if he didn’t cool down, if he didn’t quell the intense anxiety that had caused his skin to itch like nettle rash, then the ball would be sailing through the back window before long. He continued chiding himself for five minutes in this manner and then forgot the internal admonishment.
Within minutes, the window was shattered. He retained no memory of kicking the ball. The glass was everywhere. All over the bed. In the wardrobe and on his clothes. In the cat’s fur and ears and between her paws. Inside books and between papers. The mess took him two hours to clean, the cat one to calm down, but he considered it time well spent because it forced him to think about what he had done.
He’d played a trick on himself. The window premonition was a message beamed to the very near future, a warning to shake him from lethargy. When the deed was done and he remembered the admonishment, he knew he’d found the cord at last. It was as if he was enacting the self-flagellation and the destructive act at the same time. A projection five minutes into the future was all it took, not five years or five decades. Perhaps he could continue this way, mentally time-travelling in rapid bursts until the day he died.
That night, after he’d cleaned up the glass, he wrote a horror story about a person who breaks curfew and embarks on a walk beyond the territorial limit. This person finds himself in the edgelands ringing his suburb, where he offends the phantasms of the night, an army of pollution-radiated demons that live in storm drains and the cracks between factories. It was a tale of possession and encoded in the telling was an expression of what it means to confront one’s fears without proper psychic armour.
Once the story was filed, the dam broke, and by the time he came to writing that next diary entry, which he’d planned around the broad theme of lockdown psychosis, he found that lockdown itself was now sixty days in the past. Restrictions had vanished and the city had been free of cases for forty days. It was hailed worldwide as a COVID success story, one he’d played an unconscious role in.
As usual, he had no idea how time had managed to flow, and all under his nose (or behind his back), but he was somewhat comforted by a new record of activity. The horror story and the inverted universe contained within. The diary entry in which he records the recent past in such an abstract fashion.
He no longer questions his time sickness. He accepts it as the consequence of a rewired universe, a part of who he is.
He writes in the third person now because everything happened to someone else.
Dear friends, thank you for your patience while I took my sweet time assembling this edition of Sleepy Brain. If you are interested in supporting my work, please consider buying me a coffee at Ko-fi. It all helps to keep this and other projects ticking along. Alternatively, you can purchase my book: Applied Ballardianism: Memoir from a Parallel Universe. I have signed copies available, otherwise it can be bought via the usual online wormholes.
Although this edition was a long time coming, I have not been idle.
In August, I was commissioned to write for the Melbourne publication Minority Report. The brief was broad—contributors produce ‘reportage’ of any kind—and my submission, a short story called ‘Report from an Unidentified Fire Station’, cannibalised an idea I’d had for Sleepy Brain: create a near-future science fiction narrative based on the wildly popular 2020 pastime of doomscrolling. That piece can therefore be considered the de facto fifth episode of Sleepy Brain and the entry you are currently reading the unofficial sixth episode.
Also in August, I was interviewed by Melbourne artist Emile Zile for his Pandemic Playlists podcast. We spoke about cultural timebombs in the aftermath of COVID-19, the difficulty of writing science fiction in a micro-climate of fake news and new bodily mutations made possible by a nervous system wired to Twitter.
Forthcoming work includes my short story ‘Regina’, which is the above-mentioned tale of demonic possession set in the urban edgelands. It will be out in January, published in the journal Parasol, a division of the Centre for Experimental Ontology.
By the way, here’s a playlist called ‘Suicide Watch’ that I assembled to accompany me on the walks that led to the development of ‘Regina’. You need to log in to Spotify to hear the whole thing otherwise it only plays 20-second samples of each song. I understand if you hate Spotify but I haven’t had time to put this on Soundcloud. Check Spotify for the track list.
‘Suicide Watch’ on Spotify:
Also forthcoming is my essay ‘A Secret History of Zones’. This will be published in the journal Šum. It’s based on the talk of the same name that I gave in Ljubljana in February, essentially a sub-occult inventory of the marginal places that feature in my work—UFOlogical zones, micronational zones, science-fictional zones, transitional zones, industrial zones—culminating in the implosion of all zonal play at the end of Applied Ballardianism.
In other news, I have almost completed what I hope is the final draft of my second novel. It tracks a plague of digital ghosts in a global augmented reality network of the future and follows the haunting of an anti-hero who is addicted to the network. In some ways, the new novel is almost a sequel to Applied Ballardianism, particularly the final chapter of that earlier work.
The background to the story was mapped in a prequel called ‘Sentient Glitchglots’, a work of theory-fiction published by Nero at the start of this year. Also, a short story set in the same universe was published by Šum in February. The novel is neither theory-fiction nor in the style of the short story. It’s written in the first person and is self-parodic.
In January, if all goes to plan, I will send the manuscript out to beta readers, incorporate their feedback and then commence the slog of trying to sell the thing to agents and publishers.
Another project that I am looking forward to working on is a hybrid collection of my essays and stories from the past ten years. Working title: ‘Theory-Fiction Is a Scam: Selected Theory and Fiction’. I will likely release this myself as an ebook as I am curious about the potential of self-publishing and would like to test the waters. Forthcoming in the first half of 2021.
There still remains the possibility of releasing a ‘Best of Ballardian.com’ anthology, either through an established publisher or by way of the self.
Beginning next week, I will be incorporating into this newsletter a semi-regular series in which I interview writers about the potential of science fiction in a world of competing unrealities. First up: Tim Maughan, author of the novel Infinite Detail, which imagines the collapse of the internet and ensuing economic and social meltdowns.
Thank you for reading.