David D. Levine
You know, when people ask me why I got much more involved with editing SF rather than writing it (which I started to do after two decades of reading it), I answer with the usual excuses — Andy Cox asking me to join Interzone after I was mainly reviewing SF in the print incartation of The Fix, etcetera — but now it’s time to reveal the real reason. I blame it on David D. Levine.
Back in 2001, I entered the James White Award with a little story called “Rainmaker on the Run”, and was quite chuffed when it made the final shortlist of five stories. So, full of hope, I set out for Belfast to attend the award ceremony, only to find that a certain American from Portland, Oregon by the name of David D. Levine was the winner with a story called “Nucleon”, which subsequently appeared in Interzone.
I never really got over it, so I decided to become an editor so I could, well, reject him. Oh, the power!
Seriously, “Nucleon” was easily the superior story, and David went on to win several more, and more important, awards. And when he sent me this one for Shine, I was seriously struggling. This was one of those really tough decisions an editor sometimes has to make: more really good stories than can really fit in a 100K anthology. If you’re really curious, I might expand on it in the comments, if you ask me to.
I was even more surprised when David accepted my offer to publish in online instead: I figured he would rather try the top markets with it. However, like quite a lot of other writers, he was happy to be featured here, saying (like the others) that he’d written this one especially for Shine, and while, of course, being somewhat disappointed not to be making it in the print anthology, he supported the idea that SF needs more upbeat stories.
Actually, all the writers featured here on DayBreak Magazine said, more or less, the same: I’m really both surprised and honoured by all the support. And support is one of the pillars of a well-functioning community, as “horrorhouse” but all too aptly demonstrates…
UPDATE: check out this article called “How Reputation Could Save the Earth” from November 15 on New Scientist. To quote:
First, they allow those who contribute to reap benefits through reputation, helping to compensate them for the costs they incur. Secondly, when people display their commitment to conservation, it reinforces the norm of participation and increases the pressure on free riders.
Compare this to the EcoBadge introduced in the story, and we see that near-future SF can be ahead of reality, even if it’s a close call. Near-future SF: it’s not impossible, and doesn’t need to date immediately. And “great minds think alike”, eh…;-)
WE’VE GOT A problem, read the blip in Ethan Cole’s spex. something called horrorhouse can you help.
The message was from Hannah Davis, a fellow member of Ethan’s neighborhood recycling patrol shift. Another retiree… or, as they had laughed together, another white fogey with too much time on her hands.
i’ll check, Ethan sent back, and slipped into the blipstream. Billions of blips every second flowed across his spex, forming a global consciousness, a global conscience. Summarization and filtering functions built into his blipper made it comprehensible; clever and committed people around the world made it work.
We would have killed for tech like this back in the day, he mused. But it was the people, of course, not the technology, that made the difference. Ordinary people reaching out to their neighbors, understanding each other’s goals, coming together to solve problems… that was how you saved the world.
He peered at the local streams and soon found the tag horrorhouse. Glance, blink, and it expanded, the flowing blipstream dividing into a thousand vibrating threads. Reach in, tease the threads apart, focus, summarize. violation of community standards, he read. offensive disturbing horrific, he read. too intense for children and immoral and exploitive and sick and profiteering.
Profiteering! This was serious.
Glance, blink, glance again, ratchet up the level of detail. The locus was at 68th and Sandy, just a few miles away. horrorhouse: anyone closer? he blipped to the neighborhood, fingers twitching in a QWERTY dance whose steps hadn’t changed despite the dance floor having been virtualized, hologrammed, and then disposed of completely.
No, no one closer who wasn’t already engaged in some more pressing task. Very well. okay i’ll come over, he blipped to Hannah.
Ethan rose and stretched, dialing back the blipstream to a thin ghost of itself, a pale flutter of words and colors across the lenses of his spex. On the far side of that ghost, his familiar living room—populated with ghosts of its own, a hundred fifty years of history, horsehair plaster and leaded glass and hardwood floors from the last great age of lumber barons. Perhaps some day soon there’d be hardwood enough for floors again.
He locked the door behind himself, a fogey habit he hadn’t been able to shake. Most of his younger neighbors didn’t even know where their front door keys were. Ubiquitous cams with citizen monitoring had made casual crime unprofitable.
Glance, blink. The nearest available GetMobile quadwheel was parked on Lincoln, three blocks away, and he reserved it with a blip. On the way there he checked in with his neighbor’s cat, which as usual scorned a scritch behind the ears and flopped down on its side at his feet, and sniffed the blossoms on the corner azalea, just coming into bloom. No point in saving the world if you didn’t take the time to enjoy it.
The quad was one he’d used before, a yellow two-seater Afrian. He checked it over, slipped inside, touched the starter, and… nothing. The little vehicle rocked forward on its four wheels, then rocked back as though exhausted. Ethan sighed. He shouldn’t have been surprised; it had been cloudy lately, and Afrians’ solar cells were notoriously inefficient. Scanning the local and regional streams, he found that MetroLink had a better rep for quad reliability than GetMobile, though it cost more. He’d switch his subscription after he got home.
He fit his feet into the pedals and cranked into traffic. Nice day for a pedal, at least… not too warm. And once he got out from under the trees of his residential neighborhood and onto 39th, there was enough sun to keep the quad rolling without his help. He folded down the fabric canopy and enjoyed the breeze for the rest of the trip.
horrorhouse, it turned out, was the place’s label in real life as well as in the blipstream. The single lowercase word glowed in bioluminescent green paint on the awning of what looked to have been a self-service pet wash in its previous incarnation. About twenty people crowded the sidewalk in front of it.
Ethan checked the quad registry and motored a few blocks past horrorhouse, leaving the quad on a block that needed one. As he left the machine he angled its solar panels to catch as much sun as possible, for the sake of the next user. Which might, after all, be him.
The crowd noise as he ambled toward horrorhouse grew to an angry mumble that matched the dense flow his location-aware filters sifted from the blipstream. Two major streams of opinion dominated, as summarized by his flow control: ooh saucy this is so ace (41% of all comments) and offensive violation of community standards (36%). Following a hunch based on the vocabulary, he requested the average age of the posters in each stream, and was not surprised that ooh saucy posters averaged 12.3 years while offensive violation averaged 42.8.
The real-life crowd that came into view as he rounded the final corner matched those statistics. Maybe a dozen kids stood in line to get in, bouncing in place or peering over the shoulders of the one ahead, while a smaller group of adults muttered gloomily together on the sidewalk. He recognized Hannah in the latter group.
“Hey, Hannah,” Ethan said.
“Hey.” They bumped fists. “Thanks for coming. Are you here to put a stop to this?”
“Well, it’s not up to me. And what is ‘this,’ exactly?”
Hannah sighed and gestured to the black-painted storefront window. “They aren’t letting any of us fogeys in, so I haven’t seen it for myself, but I’ve seen the kids coming out and it’s pretty grim. Some of them were damn near paralyzed with fear.”
Ethan quickly sifted through the blipstream. “None of the customers have complained…”
“No, they think it’s ‘saucy’.” Hannah made air-quotes with her fingers around the word. “But it can’t be good for them.”
“Nothing wrong with a good scare. What about roller coasters?”
Hannah shook her head. “There’s more to this than just a good scare. None of the kids will even say what they’ve seen.” She planted her fists on her hips. “Look, we only need twenty-three hundred more negative votes to call for a judgment, and with your cred, you could get ‘em in a heartbeat.”
“That’s true.” Ethan looked around. Some of the kids were looking quizzically at him, as though they were trying to recognize where they’d seen him before. It didn’t matter. “Look, I need to talk with the… the operator, or whatever, before I weigh in.”
“Good luck. You’ll have to snag her when the door opens, and that’s only once every half-hour.”
“Well then, I’d better get in line.”
Ethan joined the line of excited kids. He was afraid he’d endure a grilling, but despite their anxious anticipation and obvious, though covert, curiosity they were all too polite to bug him. Remembering what he’d been like when he was their age, he counted himself lucky to be living in these days. Of course, he was lucky to be alive today at all. Everyone was.
He bent down and spoke to the girl in front of him, a delicate-boned latina of nine or so. Red, gold, and green beads adorned her braids. “Hi,” he said.
The girl bit her lip. “Hi.”
“Been here before?”
“Know what’s inside?”
She gave her head a little shake that made her beads rattle.
“So why’d you come?”
“Everyone says it’s solid ace!” Her whole face lit up. Ethan couldn’t remember when he’d been so excited about something.
“What’s so ace about it?”
“Do you like to be scared?”
“My friend Jamal, he said it was more fun than riding an airplane!”
Ethan squatted down a little more and gave the girl a serious look. “Has he ever flown in an airplane? Have you?”
Now the girl looked down, embarrassed. “Not for real, no. Just virch.”
“That’s okay.” Ethan’s knees were starting to bother him and he straightened. “Thanks for your time.”
More fun than riding an airplane. An entirely theoretical thrill for this girl, and for essentially her entire generation. Peak oil, ozone depletion limits, and strict carbon caps had made civilian air travel more than a luxury… it was literally priceless, reserved for emergencies and allocated by consensus on the basis of need. Ethan had monitored this issue on the blipstream for decades, and most people today were content with virtual travel and telepresence. The younger ones went along with it because they didn’t know any different, and the older ones because they knew it was necessary.
But that had been changing recently. The vast worldwide societal changes that had emerged from Global Reform seemed to be slipping away. Twenty or even ten years ago, everyone remembered what the world had been like back in the twentieth century, and—with constant reinforcement from the blipstream—that had maintained the public-spirited, self-sacrificing ethos that had ameliorated the previous century’s problems. Now, after decades of good times, people were becoming more likely to return to old self-centered ways of thinking. The trend troubled Ethan, but he feared he’d gotten too old and tired to do anything about it.
The shop door opened, cool moist air rolling out along with a snatch of metallic, industrial sound. It might be music, for all Ethan knew. A batch of kids came out, looking stunned… white-faced, wide-eyed, slack-jawed. Ethan could see why Hannah and the others were concerned.
A bored-looking teenaged boy with copper-brown skin and high cheekbones stood just inside the door, counting kids as they passed through, accepting payment by blip. Admission seventy-five Norteamericanos, said the hand-lettered sign on the wall, and no refunds. It was a good price point for a half-hour’s entertainment, Ethan thought… low enough that most kids could afford it, but high enough to make it special.
But as Ethan raised his blipper to pay, the kid blocked the signal with a hand.
“What, isn’t my money good?”
“No one over eighteen.” He pointed at another sign.
The kid shrugged.
“I’d really like to see the show.”
Just then something rustled, deeper into the darkened storefront, and another person emerged from behind a drape. She was tall, slim, and brown, maybe twenty-three years old, sari-clad and with almond eyes that suggested Indonesian ancestry. The kid turned back to her and said “This fogey wants to come in.”
“Well then, perhaps we should let him in.” The voice was quite deep, and Ethan revised his opinion of the speaker’s gender. Young people today were a lot more flexible about gender identity than he personally was comfortable with. “Greetings, Mr.Cole.” The sari-clad individual extended his hand. “I am Sudarso, and I am the proprietor of horrorhouse.”
Ethan took the hand, which was slim and cool but had a surprising strength. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Sudarso.”
“It’s just Sudarso, thank you. And I assure you, the pleasure is entirely mine. I am delighted to welcome the leader of the Twitter Revolution to our humble establishment.”
Ethan tamped his annoyance down. He had a whole twenty-minute canned lecture about Global Reform and his role in it—how it had been the first crowdsourced, leaderless social movement, and how even the name “Twitter Revolution” was a misnomer—but for now he just smiled and acknowledged the compliment. This was one of those situations where it was better to use his fame to get the job done, rather than try to correct people’s mistaken impressions about what had happened over forty years ago. Almost fifty, now. Jeez.
Sudarso led Ethan back through the curtain to a tiny space where racks of equipment hummed and blinked. It was uncomfortably warm. “Tea?”
“Thank you.” The tea was jasmine, not Ethan’s favorite. “So… what is it, exactly, that you do here? I’ve sampled the blipstream, of course, but your customers are quite coy about the actual experience.”
“Of course they are. We’ve engineered it that way.”
Ethan quirked an eyebrow. There were rules about subliminal advertising and unscrupulous persuasion, especially when minors were involved.
“Entirely legal, I assure you. We have created a community of customers in which it is considered… uncool, I believe your generation would say… to reveal any details to those who have not yet experienced horrorhouse for themselves. The feeling of shared secrecy increases participation by existing customers and makes new customers want to get in on the secret. The exclusion of adults increases the allure. Surely you, of all people, are familiar with these techniques.”
Ethan nodded. “But when we used them we were trying to save the world. What’s your goal?”
A slow smile spread across Sudarso’s fine-boned face. “Profit, Mr. Cole.”
As Ethan had suspected. He kept his face carefully neutral, but Sudarso clearly sensed the drop in temperature.
“I understand your reaction, Mr. Cole, but as I said, our enterprise is entirely legal, and times have changed, as I’m sure you will agree.”
“A fair profit isn’t illegal, but the community will not stand for the exploitation or injury of impressionable young minds for the enrichment of a few. And seventy-five Norties a head won’t pay for all this equipment.” He waved a hand at the hot, humming racks all around them. “There’s more here than you’re letting on.”
“You are correct, sir. We intend to franchise, to amortize out the costs of development and build an accelerating global enterprise.”
Ethan pushed his teacup away. Everything here was symptomatic of the changes he’d been seeing in the community. Before Global Reform, this Sudarso would have been a Republican. “Thank you for the tea. I believe I have heard quite enough…”
But as Ethan began to stand, Sudarso placed a hand on his wrist. “I believe you have not.”
Ethan didn’t finish standing, but didn’t let his weight down on the chair either.
“Please. Try it for yourself. After that… we will, of course, accept the community’s judgment.”
“I thought adults were excluded?”
“I know how important your opinion is. I would not want you to make any recommendations based on hearsay and speculation.” Sudarso’s eyes flicked to a display on the wall. “The next cycle starts in three minutes.”
“Um, I ought to let you know I have a pacemaker.”
“That’s not a problem. Technically, horrorhouse is little more than a standard virtual reality. Most of what makes it unique is just application of the latest psychological researches… beta-frequency image flicker, subsonics, scent cues, that sort of thing. But the combination is extremely effective.” A chime sounded, and Ethan heard small feet shuffling in and out. “I’ll let you in after the last customer. Please stand at the back of the group…and please do not share what you experience inside.” A moment later, Sudarso lifted a black cloth hanging and gestured Ethan within.
Despite the man’s assurances, Ethan found his heart racing. Which was silly… this was nothing more than a dark ride, a cheap entertainment for children. But as the cloth fell down behind him, leaving him in total darkness surrounded by anxious shifting and giggling, Ethan realized he was nervous and excited. Like the early days of Reform, he thought—he knew something was about to happen and had no idea what.
He stood, waiting in the dark, for a moment that stretched forever…
WHAM! An explosion burst right next to him, making him jump. The flare of orange light momentarily revealed that he was standing in the middle of a churned-up field, cut with trenches and littered with harsh angular shapes. Darkness fell again, just as quickly, and as the sound echoed away Ethan heard the patter of rain. He felt it, too, on his hands and face. No, not rain… bits of dirt falling to earth from the explosion. Dirt and other things… things that stuck to his skin. Somewhere nearby someone began to scream.
Then came another sound… a ratcheting, clanking rattle like a big earthmoving machine. He scanned his head from side to side, searching the source. It was getting closer. There was a smell, too… mud, and iron, and… blood.
Suddenly the darkness was shattered by a rapid stuttering sound and flashes of light, right ahead of him. The clanking rattle was a tank, a huge lumbering machine, and the light was muzzle flare coming from a turret on its top. Machine guns. A giant’s snare drum clattered as the turret swiveled toward Ethan.
He screamed and ducked, throwing his arms over his head…
…and he found himself in a desert. A baking sun beat down on him and on those around him. He was surrounded by people, hollow-eyed people with matchstick limbs and bloated bellies. They were all marching, haltingly, all in the same direction, all in silence except for the shuff of bare feet on sand and occasional sobs. Mothers used rags of clothing to shield babies, too exhausted and hungry to cry, from the pitiless sun.
One of them looked up at him… and as he gazed into her hopeless eyes he realized he was so hungry he had almost forgotten what hunger was. Subsonics, he thought, but with the sights and the sounds of famine all around him… and the smell, the smell of dust and sickness and… and, despair… knowing that his hunger was technologically induced and temporary didn’t help at all. Starvation filled not just his stomach but his whole body with a dry, hollow ache that drained his energy and sapped his will.
He fell to his knees, clutching his aching belly…
…and a foul wind blew up, threatening to knock him over.
The desert had vanished, replaced by a choking, greenish fog that reduced the sun overhead to a pale dim circle. Ethan coughed as he looked all around, peering through the murk, but it was exactly the same in every direction. His feet sank into a thick cloying mud that bubbled and oozed, burping foul acrid vapors into the already-noisome air.
Something burned Ethan’s ankle, and he slapped it away… but it was nothing more than a glob of the mud, and it burned his hand still more fiercely. He shrieked and tried to shake it off…
…and then he was pressed on all sides by jostling bodies, so many people crammed into the space he could barely breathe…
…and then he was lying on a cot in a tent, trying to breathe through a throat clogged with mucus, while all around him others just as sick called for succor…
…and then he was all alone in a dark alley, where big men armed with truncheons grinned and closed in all around…
…and then he was standing in a small room with a bunch of pale, shaking young people…
That last scene went on for quite a while before Ethan began to realize that the horror was over. He was himself again, in a storefront on Sandy Boulevard. He inspected his hands but there was no mark of acid or metal, not even a grain of sand.
Ethan shuffled out along with the kids, none of them saying anything, until a half-familiar face appeared… it was Sudarso, beckoning him aside. He ducked under the raised cloth and fell into a chair. “Here, have some water.” He drank greedily. It was cool and sweet.
Sudarso regarded him with a placid expression, waiting patiently while Ethan collected himself.
Ethan didn’t really see him, though. His eyes were blinded by memories.
He’d been too young for the first Obama campaign, but his older brother had been active in it and he’d seen how effective ordinary people could be when united by modern communications. Later, when the climate crisis and the energy shock and the Mexican revolt had all hit practically at once, he’d left college and become an online organizer full-time. The problems of the world made his own concerns seem petty, and somehow his unfocused college career—history and psychology and computer science—had uniquely prepared him for the new world of socially-networked activism.
Ethan hadn’t been alone, of course, far from it. The desperate intensity of the global crises had motivated tens of thousands worldwide to do something, anything, to help. Ethan and his peers had only guided that energy, using modern networked communications to bring creative people together, responding rapidly to changing situations, trying weird outside-the-box solutions and quickly replicating the ones that worked. Rapid communications helped the Mexican populace avoid and then quash rebel violence; ecological “stock tickers” on people’s phones made climate change personal.
Initial successes had brought more people to the movement, with money and resources and even more new ideas. Together they’d faced and overcome problems beyond the capabilities of a weakened government; soon they’d taken over from the government completely. That had been what they called the “Twitter Revolution,” and in another twenty years the movement had spread worldwide: Global Reform. Ethan himself had spent five years with a team moving across India, building schools and raising cell towers, leaving thriving online communities in their wake. Oh, they still had a long way to go in Africa and the less-developed parts of Asia, but the ground rules had changed… a new ethos of altruism had become dominant.
Today billions worldwide, from adolescents to grandparents, proudly displayed an EcoBadge on their online profile, a constantly updated monitor of their personal impact on the planet. A low EB score was a more powerful status symbol than a fancy car or shoes—in fact, the more posessions you had the harder it was to lower your score—but it really meant something, so everyone wanted it. Even trillionaire Marcus ten Bosch joked that he’d built five massive desalinization plants in the American Southwest just to get his EB below fifteen.
It hadn’t been easy, or cheap, to get to this point. The world today was cleaner, more stable, more fair than it had been in Ethan’s youth, but standards of living in the West were down. Americans had learned to do without the freedom of movement they’d once had, and although food was now fresh, safe, nutritious, and sustainable, it was pretty much limited to what could be grown locally and in season. There had been pockets of resistance, but as long as people remembered the horrors that preceded Reform most people were willing to live with the alternative.
As long as people remembered the horrors.
“How did you do it?” Ethan asked. “How did you manage to re-create the nightmares we buried forty years ago?”
“Research, Mr. Cole. Video and magazines and old paper books. But mostly talking to people like you, who lived through it.”
They stared at each other for a while. Then Ethan set down his empty water glass. “Profit isn’t your only motive, is it?”
Sudarso smiled and placed a long, delicate finger across his lips. “Don’t tell our investors. But we should be able to make an acceptable profit as well… unless we are shut down for violation of community standards, of course.”
“It really may be too intense for younger children.” Ethan gave a wry chuckle. “Hell, it was damn near too intense for me.”
Now Sudarso became serious. “Our researches have shown that it must be this intense, and it must be delivered before age eighteen, if we are to teach a lesson that will last a lifetime. Otherwise the world may return to what it was.”
“And I’m too old and tired to haul it back from the brink again.” He levered himself, creaking, to his feet. “But still… thank you for that reminder of why I still need to keep getting up in the morning.”
Sudarso placed his hands together and bowed. “My thanks to you, sir.”
“I’ll do what I can to help.”
Ethan held out his fist, and Sudarso bumped it.
“horrorhouse” by David D. Levine. Copyright © 2009 David D. Levine.
- ‘horrorhouse’: Public Domain Photos, courtesy of Jon Sullivan;
- ‘quadwheel’: Venturi Quad via Ecofriend;
- ‘blip’: Blip FM;
- ‘twitter revolution 1’: Mahdi Ayat at Kent Ridge Common;
- ‘war explosion’: echo 2/7 corpsmen;
- ‘hunger’: the viewspaper;
- ‘twitter revolution 2’: Joy Garnett’s newsgrist (via Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish);
- ‘fist bump’: rismedia;