The Fictional Age
Turns out the cute boy from history class is a complete drug-head. Can’t even write a Fictional Age paper. Or won’t. I don’t know which is more nauseating.
“You never got concentric?” he asks.
“Not until I got into Higher.”
“All the way through Lower and no Concentrex?” Drug-Head plays skeptical with me through long blond hair.
“None. I don’t think you deserve to be in Higher Schooling if you couldn’t get through Lower unaided. Not that I’m picking on you, of course.”
“Hmmm.” He attempts to take offense, but fails. No surprise there. “Hah, righto,” he bubbles, relieving himself of the effort. “If I’d have known that, I woulda started you on child’s ‘trex. I have some age 3-6 doses on me right now. So how about we sweeten the deal like this: one A on one paper, and I give you, say, 50 dollars and two 30-mic slides of child ‘trex? ‘Cause I mean, well you get it, you’re smart. You probably have the ‘trex receptors of a toddler anyways. Your face is already pretty red, and I’ve never heard you talk this much.”
“You’ve never heard me talk. Ever.”
But he’s right, I can feel my cheeks glowing. Just breathe in and breathe out. Flushed face and nausea are common for new users. I’m fine. Doing Concentrex is fine. My little sister has been slipping slides under her tongue ever since they started handing out homework, and she’s alright, medically speaking.
What I should be worried about is getting out of here. Zero hour is coming, and I don’t want to spend the night locked in a library with someone who is, judging by the size of his pupils, on something much stronger than Concentrex.
“Righto,” he giggles, getting up to leave. “Trex receptors. Trex-O-Raptor. Heheheh, Tyrannosaurus-Trex. Heheheh.”
“Wait.” I say, standing up to stop him. “Fifty dollars and two slides of Concentrex only buys a B. If you want an A, it has to be 100 bucks.”
“But I already fed you a 30-mic slide of adult ‘trex pro-bah-no,” he whines. “It’s just a Fictional Age paper. And you’re a buy-in, right? So what’s the problem?”
“My mother—” I never shout. I’m shouting right now, but I never shout. Especially in libraries. I look around to see if anyone is listening, but the place is nearly empty. Just a few students scattered across a sea of white monitors. Probably buy-ins like myself, already hustling for a few extra pre-midterm dollars.
“My mother,” I begin again, “works hard for me to be here because she wants her grandchildren to be legacy. Not me. I hate kids, and I don’t give a damn about legacy. I’m here to become one of the most valuable few. Not because I get to wear cool robes at public ceremonies, but because I actually care about preventing a second Fictional Age, a fate that seems more and more likely, the more time I spend with you.”
“C-calm down. Look, I-I’m not just some—”
“I was sober as a goddamn snow pea for every single moment of Lower. That means I know the difference between an A paper and a B paper, and that means I get to write whatever kind of paper I’m paid for. A hundred bucks and two 30-mic slides of Concentrex buys you a Higher Schooling A. That’s the deal. Curfew’s coming down in a few minutes, and I’m on the wrong side of a $5,000 student loan, so I really don’t have time to haggle.”
I reach out my hand for the deal closing shake.
“Fine. But half now, and half later.”
He gives my hand an abrupt chin-to-waist shake before plunging his arms up to his elbows into his pants pockets. The effort sends him stumbling back into a rolling library chair, and for a second I think he’s passed out. The chair is beginning to wobble out from underneath him, and the only sign that he’s still conscious is the determined rustling of his hands in his pockets. I want to warn him that he’s about to fall, but I can’t. His trousers have left me speechless. By the time he realizes his predicament, it’s too late. The chair sails out from beneath him, landing him flat on the floor with a hollow thud.
Is it possible he bought his pants like that? No, he must have modified them. Unless it’s a new trend. Maybe all the legacy students are sporting knee-deep pockets, only I didn’t notice because I’m lame and don’t have any hip friends to let me in on the latest fashions. They are pockets after all, not exactly the most eye catching part of an outfit. Who knows? This whole thing could go way deeper than I’m imagining. Maybe he’s part of an ancient clandestine textile trade. The Society of the Deep Pocket. “Ye shall know them by the depths of their pockets,” Matthew 7:16.
I emerge from my thoughts to find that Drug-Head is still on the ground, thrashing about like a trout, making a spectacle of himself for the entire library. Not that anyone is getting up to help. In fact, our new audience seems rather unimpressed.
“Ha,” an anonymous voice laughs, “the rapture took’m right there, didn’t it?”
I’m starting to fall back into one of those “Oh my God it’s come to this” evaluations of my life, a luxury I usually reserve for 5 a.m. Concentrex crashes, when I remember how late it is. If I don’t hurry up and show this boy how to pay me for writing his essay, I’m going to be taking care of him all night.
I bend down and yank his hands up out of his pockets. Both fists are clutching wads of pocket debris, so I decide to tap the left fist, causing him to reveal, among other things, two twenties and two slides of Concentrex. I grab all of it and position myself behind him. The library is still watching, but I help Drug-Head hoist himself up anyway. Some mushy backwards part of myself won’t spare me the pleasure of wrapping my arms around his body.
“That means 60 bucks when I’m done,” I say, slipping one of the slides under my tongue as I take off. But something papery feeling slips between my fingers as I struggle to shove the rest of his payment into my own toddler-sized pockets. Hoping that it’s overlooked money, I snatch it off the ground and continue speed walking toward the exit. It is not money. It is a miniature origami crane with writing on its wings. When I unfold the bird, I find the following written in bright purple ink:
Hamilton Dormitories, Room #16
Heading for the dorm, the Concentrex must have me pedaling harder than I thought, because when I squeeze on the brakes to let a group of legacy students pass, my bike continues skidding forward until the front tire is nearly touching a suit-and-tie member of the procession.
“Do you know her?” commands a high-pitched voice from above the crowd. I look up to find a skeletal blonde girl towering over me. She’s perched atop the crowd on a platform of raised hands, flexing her nonexistent biceps as she points to the back of her tiny, cut-up t-shirt with two downturned thumbs. The shirt reads:
in huge block lettering. Just above this imperative, printed in small lacy cursive are the words,
OTIUM CUM DIGNITATE
LEGACY CLASS ‘94
Do I know her? The question is nonsensical. Her smutty little shirt doesn’t even refer to anyone. Is she trying to imply that I am a buy-in, and thus asking if I know myself? Or rather, if I know that the message on her t-shirt is directed at students like myself? Either way, the fact that I’m ghosting Fictional Age papers for legacy students just so I can afford to stay in a place where I have to endure insults so lazily crafted that they are literally meaningless—yes, that I have to actually perform cognitive work just to be insulted by the very same students who rely on me to write their essays—well, it makes me want to dismount my bicycle and hurl it at blondie’s head like a discus.
“Your question is too stupid to answer,” I shout back. “Get your monkeys out of the way, I’m in a hurry.”
“I’m a monkey?” asks one of the guys in the group.
“Sure, we’re a barrel of monkeys,” says another guy.
The parade of students reaches back some 20 meters and is almost entirely male, all of them wearing suits. Sitting atop the procession are a handful of girls wearing almost nothing at all.
“Life ain’t so hard, is it baby? Why not smile a little, huh? What you need is to come out with us. Ditch the bike and we’ll give you a ride.”
“Ha,” mocks blondie. “Leave her alone. She wants to hide in her room before curfew starts. Look at her face. She’s afraid she might actually have fun.”
“Through or around,” I say. “I need to go through or around.”
“Two minutes to zero,” laughs another suit, making a show of checking his watch, “better put some verve in your vag.”
Blondie bends down to whap him on the head but ends up tumbling forward into the crowd. The confusion allows me to push my bike through the suits unmolested.
But it doesn’t matter. By the time I get to the buy-in dorms the gates are already locked for the night. Curfew is officially in effect.
“Émmmmmmm-eel-leeeeeee,” bellows a familiar voice. “Wuss happen’n, girl?”
It’s Inès, all 100 kilos of her.
“I can’t believe you’re out tonight, too!” she screams, encasing me in her form fitting arms.
“Actually, I just missed getting in,” I mumble, struggling to breathe through a mouthful of breast meat.
“Awwwww,” she sticks out her lower lip and makes a baby pouty face. “Émilie,” she croons, “come sit down and tell Inès all about it.”
“You’re really drunk.”
“Just ‘cause I’m floor counselor doesn’t mean I can’t have fun, right?”
Judging by her stare, the question isn’t rhetorical. “Right. But maybe you can use your floor counselor powers to unlock the dorms for a second. I have this Fictional Age paper, and—”
“Nopey-nope-nope. Sorry. Curfew is enforced for the good of everyone. Students with lots of homework or early classes need peace and quiet. If you have to be out past zero hour, you stay out until six. It’s the least we can do for our hardworking peers.”
“But I have a lot of homework and class in the morning. I am your hardworking peer.”
“Émilie,” she gasps. “I couldn’t open those gates even if I wanted to. Shush now and tell Inès about your day.”
“You want me to both shush and tell you about my day?”
“Shush now and tell me ‘bout yer day,” she confirms, stretching out on a nearby bench.
“And you’re positive you can’t open the gates?”
“Mmmmmmm?” she mumbles, shooting me a coy little shrug as she continues to situate herself on the bench.
“Listen, have you ever considered the possibility that zero-hour curfew was designed to thwart serious study, not encourage it? Like right now for instance. All the good first year buy-ins are supposed to be in their rooms, and all the bad first-year buy-ins are supposed to be out partying, right? But according to that logic, there are only about 12 good first-year buy-ins in all of Higher Schooling. Everyone vacates the dorms just before zero hour. It’s part of first-year culture.
“Curfew doesn’t insulate good students from bad students, it just radicalizes the otherwise moderate majority of students—the sorts who might go out around 22 and come home at 2—into all night bingers. Zero-hour curfew is, in fact, the worst thing to happen to serious study since the advent of co-ed dormitories, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the administration liked it that way.
“Think about it. First-year buy-ins pay more money and use less resources than any other caste of student. Their schedules are full of huge introductory lecture hall classes, so they’re cheap to educate, yet they’re forced to pay the grossly inflated costs of on-campus living because they ‘don’t come from a background of scholastic achievement’ and so ‘need the support of on-campus living to help them adjust to the rigors of Higher Schooling.’ When really, on-campus living is designed to sabotage first-year buy-ins through insidious policies like zero-hour curfew.
“But why?” I ask, reaching the crescendo of my performance. “Why would the administration undermine students? Because a first-year buy-in dropout never collects on her initial investment, that’s why. Her tuition fees and housing costs turn into donations, donations that the administration needs to keep Higher Schooling free for legacy students.”
I glance at Inès, hoping to catch some sign that my speech is working.
“Inès?” I ask.
“Did you ever consider that?”
“Goddammit Inès, can you open the gates or can’t you?”
“Why would you want me to open the gates?”
“Because I need to research The Fictional Age!”
“Ohhh! The Fictional Age,” she moans, waving her hands in the air, “The Fictional Age. Hey everyone, stop everything, Émilie needs to do some more learning on The Fictional Age.”
“That is why I’m here.”
“The Fictional Age already happened. It’s over. Forget about it.”
“Oh, great. The floor counselor tells the history major to just ‘forget about it’ since it ‘already happened.’”
“Brigham Jackson told truth from lies in two thousand two hundred and forty-five. He—”
“HE SOUGHT THE WISEST MEN AND CAUGHT,” she yells over me, “THE CLEVEREST THINK-TANK EVER BOUGHT.”
“TWO THOUSAND TWO HUNDRED AND FORTY NINE, HIGHER ED WAS BROUGHT IN LINE. NOW THE FACTS ARE KNOWN, SURE AND TRUE, BY OUR VALUABLE, MOST VALUABLE VERY FEW.”
“Is that it? You’re done now?”
She responds by sliding her face off the edge of the bench and exhaling two liters of pulpy, bright orange liquid onto the ground.
“There,” she spits. “That’s a free lesson on The Fictional Age. Go write a paper on it.”
“That’s nothing but a bullshit Lower Schooling nursery rhyme.”
“Just ‘cause you can’t go home doesn’t mean you have to stay here,” she slurs, rotating her body to face the back of the bench.
She’s right. I can’t go home, and thanks to that extra slide of Concentrex I slipped before leaving the library, I can’t sleep either. Dr. K’s 6:30 a.m. class can’t come soon enough.
“You’re going about this all wrong,” says Dr. K. “You don’t research The Fictional Age, you analyze it, as a phenomenon. What can we learn from it? What does it say about us as a people?
“The Fictional Age, everything between 2113 and 2245, is mostly a blank slate. Not so much a dark age as an age of blinding light. We have access to all the data, all the books, websites, and newspaper articles, but as conflicting primary sources approach 2113, they become equally credible, which is to say, equally dubious.
“Take the U.S. annexation of our beloved Quebec, which is supposed to have happened sometime around the 2190s. The president of the National Assembly of Quebec said one thing, the president of the United States said another, some talk show host said a third, and no one ever seems to have gotten to the bottom of it. All we know for sure is that Canada entered The Fictional Age as the second largest country in the world, water area included, and came out 1.542 million square kilometers lighter. It’s as if Quebecois tucked themselves into bed Canadian and woke up American.
“Except it wasn’t like that, it couldn’t have been. Now that The Fictional Age is over, we should be able look back and sift through the data, right? To learn what really happened?”
Dr. K puffs himself up with a short intake of breath, glances around the empty classroom, then exhales. I always thought he looked young, even for a professor, but now that I’m up close, I can see that only half his face looks young. The other half hangs limp and wrinkled, as if gravity forgot about the one side of his face and made up for it by focusing on the other. He scans the empty lecture hall once more before stepping down from his podium.
“Have you ever talked to anyone that was alive during The Fictional Age?” he asks, lowering his voice. “A grandparent, maybe?”
“My grandmother, but she died a few years ago.”
“Can you remember if she told you anything about The Fictional Age? Was there anything she was certain you should know?”
I look down at my shoes and pretend to think. The Fictional Age was the only topic my grandmother ever condescended to discuss. She would sit at the dinner table all day, waiting to ambush the family with her autobiographical vignettes while we were at our most vulnerable. But was there anything she was certain I should know?
That she and her two sisters were the only set of triplets in all of recorded history to have three different fathers. I heard about that one every night for 16 years.
“All conceived the same night,” she used to say. “Last time mother saw any of those rascals alive, I figure. Unless you count the TV. Colette’s father was none other than the Premier of Quebec, though I can’t say it was much use to her. She and Claudine—that was my other sister—died wrestling each other over an empty watermelon. ‘Course they didn’t know it was empty at the time. That was during the drought, back when the market was awash with phony produce. Used to be you couldn’t tell a basketball from a cantaloupe, those bootleggers got so clever.”
“She said a lot of things,” I say, trying to affect a sort of wizened world weariness. My early morning slide of Concentrex is fizzling out, and I feel it.
“That’s The Fictional Age,” agrees Dr. K. “Everyone was saying a lot of things. Trying to learn about the actual events of The Fictional Age—what ‘really happened’—it’s hackwork. Any looney with access to server archives can dig up support for anything they want.”
“Higher Schooling has archive access?”
Dr. K fixes me with an uneven stare. I don’t feel sleepy, exactly, though I wish did. I just feel blank.
“Yes. Of course. But as I’ve been patiently trying to tell you, there is no wisp of hay in that needle stack. Anyone could say anything they wanted to on the Internet back then. There were no safeguards, no arbiters of truth. Here.”
He whips out a thick, cream-colored slip of paper from his breast pocket and begins scribbling.
“Read this. J.D. Larson, The Dumb Led the Blind: How Laissez Faire Internet Policy Led to The Fictional Age. It’s a classic treatment. Larson argues that people in the 21st century, Americans especially, had a dialectical view of history—The Techno-Democratic Dialectic of History, she calls it. They thought the Internet was the next step in that dialectic, that it was going to bring people together, keep governments honest, make the free market freer, and provide a cheap, quality education to the masses. This ideological naiveté, Larson argues, enabled the Internet to go unregulated, and thus fill with misinformation. And once the Internet—”
Running ideas through my head is beginning to produce a dry, strained feeling, as though my neurons have run out of lubricant and are grinding up against each other.
“—which leads me to economist Burt Henzel’s Gresham’s Law in the Informational Economy.”
Some more Concentrex and I’ll be fine for the day. And some food. I need to eat some food.
“According to Gresham’s Law, bad money drives out good money. Henzel’s thesis is that the same goes for certain kinds of information. As the Internet began passing on more and more hoax articles and amateur editorializing, people started realizing that bad information was being accepted into common circulation. Dressing up a lie was easier, and maybe even more fun, than working to find the truth. People began passing off more and more lies, hoarding researched truths for those moments when they were really necessary. Thus, an overabundance of worthless information led to The Fictional Age. People were papering their homes in lies, so to speak.”
Drug-head has the Concentrex, I have his number, stores have food, and Higher Schooling has archive access. It all fits.
“And along the same vein,” he continues, flipping the card over. “Miguel Silano’s The Internet, Degrees of Freedom, and the Entropic Journey into The Fictional Age. Silano gets at the same idea as Larson, only he comes at it from the standpoint of analytic philosophy, information theory, and thermodynamics. Perhaps that’s more up your alley?”
“Not really,” I mumble, as Dr. K continues writing. “Rhetoric and grammar were my strongest subjects.”
“Ok, well, let’s start with this. There are many more false propositions concerning any given state of affairs than there are true propositions, right? True propositions are rare, well organized, and useful. They have low entropy.
“But what the Internet did, see, is it introduced more ways for information to change. It gave information more freedom, and the more ways there are for something to become disorganized, the more quickly it will become disorganized. You understand? And a disorganized proposition is more likely to be false than true.”
“I don’t know anything about entropy. I study history to learn about phenomena at the level of human agency, not all-encompassing physical law. By whose decree did we become Americans? What kinds of people caused The Fictional Age, and how did they get out of it? These are the questions I want to answer.”
“Almost everything said by real people during The Fictional Age was false. Do you understand that?”
“But there was a fact of the matter. Things did happen.”
“I have another class coming in soon—”
“Where are the server archives?”
“Fine. Maybe you need to be dwarfed by the past before you understand. But keeping in mind that I’m talking to a young historian, a most valuable few in training, I feel it’s my duty to warn you that you are on a dangerous track. Academic papers based on questionable sources will earn you a failing grade at this institution, and what’s more, they risk throwing our entire society back into a second Fictional Age.”
“Where are the server archives?”
“Top floor of the Jefferson Building. Consider taking a nap before you go.”
“So the young, foxy, enigmatic historian calls upon Daganthony F. once again.”
Thank God he’s finally here.
“Not once again,” I say, spinning around in my dusty office chair. “First time. It was you who called upon me to do your homework, remember?”
“I remember. So how’s my paper coming?”
“How does it look like it’s coming?” I snap, referencing our surroundings.
We’re peering at each other over a honeycomb of exposed support beams on the top floor of the Jefferson Building, which is really just a small, sweaty garret smelling of untreated wood. What little space remains is filled by a modest computer crowded by column after column of external storage. These are the server archives.
“I hope you’re not taking this paper too seriously,” he says. “It’s just The Fictional Age. You shouldn’t have to do any research.”
“Yet here I am, going above and beyond. Doesn’t that qualify me for some kind of discount?”
“I don’t think we met under, uhh, the best of circumstances. You know my name, but I don’t seem to remember—”
“I don’t know your name.”
“It’s on my card, the one you used to call me.”
“Your name is not Daganthony Foocow.”
“Because that’s ridiculous. Look, can we please just get this over with? I would like some more Concentrex. You have Concentrex. What happens next?”
“Hold up, am I getting this right? Are you actually trying to pretend that you’re above buying drugs while buying drugs?”
“Our last meeting ended with you rolling around on the ground, hands stuffed down your pants, flapping and squirming like a penguin in a straightjacket. Forgive me if I’m eager to get down to business.”
“Cool then, let’s get down to business. First question: What are you really doing up here? Because if you’re really spending your time looking through websites from The Fictional Age, then I don’t think I can sell you any more ‘trex.”
“I’m doing it for your paper.”
“Do you know how whacked out you look right now, hunched over that little monitor in this weird attic? You’re wearing the same clothes as you were last night.”
“Of course, that would be the one thing you remember.”
“I’m not some slum lord dope pusher, alright? I don’t sell to ‘trex heads. And don’t say you’re doing this for my paper. Anything you learn in here can only hurt my grade.”
“Fine, you’re right. I’m doing it for me. Who else would have any interest in The Fictional Age? No one in Higher Schooling, that’s for sure. I just wish someone would have told me that back in Lower, before I turned myself into a grade grubbing show dog to get here. It would have taken only a minute. Just a quick tap on the shoulder and a, ‘Oh, Émilie, you want to learn about The Fictional Age? I’m so sorry. Yeah, see, we actually kind of frown on that in Higher. It tends to make our drug dealers uncomfortable.’”
“I prefer Shaman Entrepreneur.”
“Right, so you’re a shaman and I’m a crazy ‘trex head. Well what if I told you that I’ve been finding blog entries from as late as 2255 describing the Brigham Jackson Interventions of ‘45 in the present tense, like they were just happening then? I bet that would make me a real kook, wouldn’t it? And what if I told you that some articles refer to Brigham Jackson as ‘Brigham-Jackson,’ or ‘Brigham & Jackson,’ like they were two separate people, or a company or something? And here,” I shout, pointing to the monitor, “the Brigham Jackson Interventions entry on Wikipedia is listed under the category ‘Hoax History’ for eight months in 2246, before being listed under ‘Coup d’Etat’ for two months in 2247. Is that interesting, or am I just some sweaty tweaker?”
“It’s interesting, but it’s also only as likely to be true as anything else on the Internet at that time.”
“Exactly, which means it’s also just as likely to be true as the version of history we’ve been taught. We could still be in The Fictional Age.”
“So what, then? That leaves us where we started, like all questions about what ‘really happened’ always do. Maybe The Fictional Age wasn’t the tragedy you think it was, maybe it was the beginning of a realization. There are so many ways to look at things, so many perspectives. And just because something is true for me, doesn’t mean it has be to true for you, right?”
“Everything is either true or false, but not both.”
“How can you be so sure? How do you know there’s only one right answer?”
“Sloppy questions allow for many right answers. But if the question is specific enough, if it’s careful and exhaustive, then there can only be one right answer. Always. Forever.”
Neither of us says anything as we stare at each other over the attic’s wooden support beams. The lull in conversation stretches into an uneasy silence.
“Ok,” he says, breaking the tension, “Well there’s no way I’m selling you any more ‘trex.”
Then, as if in response to his resolution, a burst of laughter and applause fills the attic from somewhere below.
“Then go,” I shout over the tumult. It’s Thursday, and the inaugural whooping of today’s on-campus parties is only going to get louder. “Or is that too ambiguous a message? I really need our truths to match up here. How about this: Get-the-hell-out-of-my-attic. There. What’s your perspective on that?”
He takes the hint, leaving me with the vague impression that I should feel bad. Luckily I’m too tired to care. I lay my chin down on the desk and wonder what would have happened had I laid it down differently. Would the universe have conformed to my action and recorded the change? Or would it have just kept on chugging in the same direction it is now, unaltered?
These are the sorts of thoughts I find in the long, blank hallway that separates a Concentrex crash from real sleep. And though the hallway is already extending, pulling me backwards into unconsciousness, I can still make out the archive monitor at its far end, flashing with defunct advertisements for penis extenders, diet pills, and car insurance. These are advertisements without origin, incapable of selling anything, cut adrift from their creator like the flickering light of a long dead star, and eventually, as I continue receding toward sleep, the dead lights of these advertisements merge with the rest of the world at the end of the hallway, until my eyes are closing and everything has become small and indistinguishable.
Soon I’ll be asleep, and this small, diminishing light will be nothing but an uncorroborated memory. That’s ok. It really happened. And that’s all it takes to end a Fictional Age, one person who can remember something that really happened.
Kelle Dhein is a Ph.D. student in the Biology & Society Program at Arizona State University.