A place for a

14.06.2016

Short story: Altropia

May 9th, 2124 – The United Science Foundation of Altropia celebrates a critical breakthrough in space-time research.

June 15th, 2130 – The United Science Foundation of Altropia develops the first functioning prototype of the time machine.

January 1st, 2135 – The government of Altropia decides to travel back in time and bring a citizen from the 20th century back into the future, to grant him the great privilege of witnessing the society of Altropia – the first successful society consequently based on the altruistic principle.

February 2nd, 2135 – Jack Sober wakes up in a luxurious apartment in the Redwood District of Altropia’s capital, Veritruismo, after falling into a drunken delirium in the gutter of 1950’s New York City, U.S.A.. Jack thinks he must be the happiest bum on earth to have such a marvelous dream.

March 2nd, 2135 – Jack has been in Altropia for one month. Now follows the description of his day in the past tense.

 

Jack woke up to the chirps of some stupid bird and to the light of a fake sun. His neighbor Mr. Feelgood had put a fancy nature simulation alarm clock on his night table, going off at 6:30. Jack thought of smashing the darn thing, but he felt guilty thinking about it. Mr. Feelgood was coming over every day to check on him and he would notice. The thought depressed him. And he thought he had been depressed lying in dark littered corners of New York, covering himself with a piece of cardboard on rainy days, when the water washed through the alleyways and spread the stink of rotting organic waste and shit all over him. And now he was living the life he thought he always wanted, in a land perfect by practically all ideals he had ever heard of, and sometimes he thought he was more depressed than ever.

Better to stay asleep, he thought. But if he did not arrive at The United Politics Foundation in time, people would worry about him, and he did not want them to worry.

Slipping into some casual but clearly overpriced clothes, he spotted a note lying on a table in the hallway. Curious, he picked it up.

Dear Jack. Please don’t forget to brush your teeth today. We are concerned about your health and want you to feel good. We have booked you an appointment with a very well-liked dentist for tommorrow at 1 p.m. in Fairgood Avenue 2203. Her name is Dr. Thenasnow. Please don’t miss it, it will be a really good thing for you. Love and joy, Anna Leaseordie.

Love and joy, that’s what they all say here, Jack thought. Love and joy, love and joy, love and joy. “Stupid b…”, he exclaimed, but bit his tongue. Itch, he finished in his mind. Anna was another neighbor. He knew all of them. And even those he didn’t know likely still cared about him in this place. He didn’t know why he was mad at her. All she was doing was to take care of him. He felt guilty like a dog. Although he had heard that dogs can’t really feel guilt, only fear. Well, who gave a damn. He went to the bathroom to brush what was left of his miserable brown teeth.

He took the overground metro to the city center of Veritruismo. Those seats were great. A melancholic mood gripped him as he overlooked the city from high above, lit by the morning sun of spring. It was not an ugly city. If anything, it felt … too clean, Jack thought. Too damn well planned and executed, with too well provisioned areas of green and too consistent a style all over. A man tipped his shoulder.

Jack turned his head and met a warm smile. He was shocked to sense that it instinctively repulsed him. The emotion made him feel extremely impolite. Then he remembered what Dr. Mensana had told him about the science of smiling. He forced himself to reciprocate the smile and engaged the man. “Hey, buddy. What’s up?” – “Hello my friend, love and joy to you”, the man said in a calm, friendly tone. “I noticed you were looking quite somber and I want to help you.” – “Oh, erm, that … that is nice of you, really. I appreciate it. A lot. Thanks, man.” The man kept smiling at him and just as Jack was starting to wonder how to end the conversation without offending the man, he noticed that the man was holding open his hand. On his palm lay a pill. Clearly, the man wanted him to swallow it. “No, thanks man, I’m good, really.” The man insisted: “I really think you need this pill right now.”

Jack looked around the compartment. Everybody was warmly smiling at him. “Please. You are not yourself right now”, the man said in an affirming and caring manner. Jack felt a sinking sensation in his lower belly. A woman sitting vis-a-vis said in an understanding tone: “Oh, it’s okay. We know you are from the past. You will learn to trust our system. Just remember: Others always know better what’s best for you!” That’s another thing they kept saying. And it was plastered all over their cities. It was the motto of Altropia and while Jack did not yet fully understand it, they had some darn good scientific explanations for it or whatnot.

Something in that woman’s demeanor comforted him and suddenly the situation was okay again. She seemed a little more patient than the others, made him feel a little okay about being the outsider and yet having to learn. He felt taken care of. Jack took the pill and another man offered him water to swallow it; he took it as well and drank it. He coughed and reminded himself to smile and thanked them. Turning his attention to the outside again, he could feel their warm smiles still piercing him. A warm smile was on his own face now. It made him feel less out of place and something in his mind remarked that this place was really, really good and, that he was taken care of. A feeling of bliss clouded his senses and doubts now. Doubts which, by the day, turned more and more into self-doubts. Self-doubts about not being grateful enough for this place, not good enough.

The United Politics Foundation resided in a big white building that appeased the eye, but not in a way that was fundamentally different from anything else he had seen in this city. The word that had come to his mind, the first time he saw it, was unoriginal. He had since learned from Dr. Mensana that originality was a selfish concept which artists of the past had used to impose their own madness, resulting from what Altropian leading psychologists call Infinity Sickness, on the unsuspecting populace. Jack liked the idea; he had often felt that so-called artists were elitist shammers of rich men and women without taste. Altropia was designed and built on scientific principles of visual pleasure. Indeed, looking at Altropia was pleasurable. And yet, Jack could not help but feel that something was missing; as much as it was pleasurable, it was never the slightest bit more than that.

Dr. Mensana met Jack at the station in front of the building. The pill had done its magic by now and Jack felt genuinely happy. It also felt weird, as if he was not himself. He asked Dr. Mensana about it. “Of course you are not yourself, Jack. Well, not the self you are used to anyway. Might I say, Jack, that you are in the phase of getting used to a better, happier version of yourself. You see, Jack, humans get used to everything, it is a matter of a habit of a, umm, identification with a state of consciousness, yes. You are still identified with the old unhappy you, the you plagued by Infinity Sickness, the hallmark of mental instability that was so common and widespread in your own time, a state brought upon you by the – hence the name – infinite possibilities for action from which you could choose at any moment in your life, leaving you helpless and finally, stuck in situations that did not seem as if you had actually chosen them freely at all. A distorted and radicalistic version of freedom. Whilst in Altropia, you enjoy the only freedom that is scientifically supportable. The freedom to live a happy life according to your needs – as determined by those around you, who are not distracted by your selfish, err, ego-conceptions, yes, about who you are or what you crave, but are able to see directly into your heart through the human gift of empathy.” Jack enjoyed listening to Dr. Mensana. He seemed to know what he was talking about; it was calming and hypnotizing. He also enjoyed the plateau of numb joy expertly manufactured by the drug. He thought, if he felt this way, he would never have to disagree with anything ever again, because nothing would matter. Nothing but being taken care of.

As usually on his days at The United Politics Foundation, Jack spent most of the time talking with Dr. Mensana, which he cherished. Despite the scientist’s disdain for the primitive order of past’s societies, the man was filled with an insatiable curiosity. Jack would tell him about his childhood, school, 20th century politicians, friendships, his desperate lovelife, and the workings of everyday life in good old New York. Dr. Mensana, in turn, would pick up those points and tell Jack how much better everything has become in the Now, backed up by scientific facts, research and good old common sense. For instance, everybody was everybody’s friend in Altropia. You did not have to know somebody for any length of time to become intimate with them verbally or even physically. “You see, Jack, let’s take romance for example. If a woman senses that a man is in need of her companionship, she determines the parameters of the man’s needs and then does her best to satisfy them. This is a great thing, Jack, because men are often blinded by their desires and ignore their deeper wishes for meaningful relationships. They tend to shoot themselves in the foot, so to speak. Women are natural empaths much more than men and pick up on this. They arrange for a man’s marriage and that’s that.” Somewhere below the pills, Jack became angry. Somewhere below the pills, Jack frowned. But here and now, Jack just asked: “What if two women are interested in one man?” – “It is put to a vote among the closest relatives, friends and acquaintances – as far as that is a valid concept in Altropia, heh.”

Jack was invited to lunch by Dr. Mensana and a few colleagues. He had no idea what he was eating, but he did not care. He was a guy with a warm smile among other guys with warm smiles. All was good. The guy with a warm smile vis-a-vis implored: “So, Jack, tell us. After one month in Altropia, what do you say?” Instinctively, Jack opened his mouth to speak his mind without thinking, but then he noticed that the things about to be said were not exactly positive. And why bother saying negative things? And did it even matter? Was his opinion so important? He let himself sink back into that warm smile and said: “I like it. I really do. Love and joy to you all.” He felt childishly proud of saying that with confidence, as if he had passed a rite of initiation.

Afternoons, Jack was treated for a surprise. Dr. Mensana took him to The United Aerospace Foundation in West Veritruismo and booked a flight to the moon for the two of them. Jack was not told the destination of their little trip until he sat in the spaceship. Not in his wildest dreams had he imagined to fly to the moon. The mere idea aroused him profoundly. And as the aircraft slowly exited earth’s atmosphere and Jack saw the haze blue turn slowly into dark grey and finally black sprinkled with stars, he could not think of anything to say; he could not stop gazing with an open mouth and an expression of severe awe and reverence on his face. He was not a man of god, but as they slowly ascended further and further away from the earth, he experienced moments of quietude in his mind, and a profound peace, as if the air was buzzing with sacred love, and when a thought entered his head, it was Jack thinking to himself that this was the most religious experience he had ever had.

“Why all this?” asked Jack. “Because it’s your birthday, Jack.” – “No, it’s no … oh, that must be some metaphor or something, right!” Dr. Mensana chuckled warmly. “No, Jack, it’s not a metaphor. Your old birthday is in cold winter. I decided that you would be able to enjoy celebration much more at those times when spring is rearing its head. Although”, he chuckled again, “I must admit it is not that big of a deal here in space.” Dr. Mensana sighed happily, then asked for one of the flight attendants and whispered something into his ear. “Yes, sir, that is an excellent idea.” The flight attendant vanished for a minute, then came back with a piece of chocolate cake. “For you, Jack.” Dr. Mensana made a generous gesture. “Oh, no, thanks, but I am really not that much of a cake guy.” Dr. Mensana just kept warmly smiling. “Jack, I looked at your gastrointestinal data. A cake is just what you need right now. Trust me.” Jack noticed that the effect of the pill was slowly fading and to his surprise, it disappointed him. He now once again vividly felt this strange need to protest. He noticed that he preferred his new happy self. He decided to be happy. He chuckled, took the cake, asked for a fork, and ate piece by piece with a warm smile on his face.

The rest of the day, Jack tried harder and harder to keep up the warm smile. He felt a slight panic at the fact that he had a tough time doing this. It made him feel ashamed and guilty, as if he had betrayed everyone around him. He sensed that the others were picking up on it, but they never showed it. They always smiled warmly.

Jack went to bed with a growing awareness of a profound identity crisis. His eyelids fell shut. As his consciousness faded into dreamland, he visualized himself as a worthy, warmly smiling and loving citizen of Altropia. He fell asleep hoping that somebody would notice his desire and prescribe him those pills.

 

June 15th, 2135 – Jack Sober is fully integrated into the society of Altropia. Dr. Mensana, the doctor’s colleagues, his dentist and his neighbors have chosen a very suiting job for him – secretary for the advertising agency that produces the “Others always know better what’s best for you!” posters.

August 23rd, 2135 – Charlice Tranquil, a colleague at the office, decides to marry Jack and have him provide for her new extravagant lifestyle, which includes wild sex parties in the cold embrace of Saturn’s ring and gambling tours in Extravaganzia [the modern equivalent of Las Vegas]. She recognizes that it makes Jack happy to see her live this kind of life and being the one who is enabling it. She also recognizes that Jack, deep down, is asexual, hence she does not sleep with him for his own good.

December 21st, 2135 – Jack Tranquil, to the surprise of everybody in Altropia, asks to be brought back to his own time.

December 24th, 2135 – Investigations confirm that Jack Tranquil has not been taking his pills regularly. His consumption is now under a tighter control for his own good. Merry Christmas.

September 3rd, 2135 – Altropia is in mild shock over a rampage committed by time traveler Jack Tranquil, leading to the death of his wife, ten of her lovers and about twenty-four unrelated victims, all of whom are found naked and dead in The Cave Club on Mars. Hours later, a bomb explodes at Jack Tranquil’s workplace and a fire burns down the apartment block in which Jack Tranquil resides. Jack Tranquil committs suicide. He leaves a note: I know you all secretly want to die. I am doing you faggots a favor. Jack, for the last time, Sober. Populace of Altropia is urged to keep taking the pills to not become seriously concerned with this, for their own good.

Love and joy.

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  • Smokingjacket

    Brilliant piece of satire with touches of Huxley, J.G Ballard and Arthur C Clarke. It’s the observe of something like Terry Gillan’s 1985 dystopia classic movie “Brazil”—“Escape, there is no escape”- although Jake, the anti-hero does escape the system through his dream-like insanity which becomes total in the final clip.

    Still, you’re left wondering with your tale- as both a utopia or a dystopia- seem invoke cathartic madness as the only cure against the insanity of the totalitarian collective society.

    • Smokingjacket

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSwqX2l0Ed4

      Here’s a German version too!

      • Smokingjacket

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CW7ob5XgJxI

        Excellent English version with Spanish subtitles.

        • I only watch movies in English. Why would I be interested in Spanish subtitles, precisely? :)

          • Smokingjacket

            It’s the best English version- the subtitles are a pain.

    • Thanks! Brazil is one of my favourite movies! Gotta love the humor. Do you know that the film studio originally released a cinematic version with a happy ending, where it is not revealed that his final escape was just a dream?

      Anything in particular that I should read from J.G Ballard or Arthur C. Clarke? Brave New World surely inspired me a bit for this, although this is still a very personal story, also tainted by my experiences in the psychiatry.

      • Smokingjacket

        The American studio (20 Century Fox) almost pulled the plug because the Director insisted that he didn’t want a Hollywood “happy” ending- he wanted it to be true and he did thankfully get his own way. The humor is macabre and dark and American audiences apparently didn’t get it. so, it was something of a commercial flop.

        With Arthur C Clarke, I actually like Childhood’s End one of his early works which is about alien intervention in human affairs and which relates to hybrid (autistic/special?) kids who take over and destroy the planet by using their collective mind. With Ballard I prefer some of his story stories, like “Why I wanted to fuck Ronald Regan” and “The Burning World”, “The Unlimited Dream Company” or the one (Kingdom Come ) where the guy goes in a shopping Mall and starts randomly shooting people (although it’s not really such a random event).

        You’ve a powerful imagination and know who to hold a reader’s attention. More stories, we hope.

        • Very glad you liked it. I used to be proud when I managed to create something like this, but I think I am learning that I really have no control over it. Either I feel a clean impulse to write something and it just flows out of me – or I don’t. I couldn’t replicate it if I wanted to. I think Stephen King once said that it is also the way he writes. No planning, just letting it flow. Maybe that’s why I enjoy him so much.

          • Smokingjacket

            Perhaps he’s right. It sure works for him.

          • Have you read my “Psychopath Joe” story? That is an example of me trying to force it.

          • Smokingjacket

            No, is it on your site?

          • Yus. It is among the “Related Articles” at the end of the story.