I owe the discovery of the Uqbar Device to the intersection of a mirror, an encyclopedia, and a remaindered videocassette of forgotten episodes of The Love Boat. Needless to say, the jefes back at headquarters in Beltsville were pissed when they learned they’d been led through the Fun House on a leash.
Not to say it didn’t take them a while to stumble out of the cave and figure it out. My partner and I might have missed it, too, if we hadn’t shown up late for work Monday to discover our reality had been upended while we were hermetically sealed in our favorite undisclosed secure location.
“Womack, Horshak, I don’t want to hear it,” said Colonel Quan as we stumbled into the tail end of the 7 a.m. SitRep. “Sit down and we’ll get to you later.”
Colonel Ariadne Levy-Quan was the head of our outfit, a former tankbusting A-10 pilot who went on to Thunderbird MBA and a lucrative tour on Madison Avenue selling ballistic missiles and Botox. Following a well-published tenure as the Riefenstahl Professor of Communications Studies at Pepperdine in Malibu, teaching free market propaganda techniques to Randian young surfers, she was recruited back into public service to help architect the administration’s global media program—resulting in the creation of our unit, Task Force Loki, the government’s interdisciplinary SWAT team in the global culture war. Domestic psyops was Colonel Quan’s particular specialty. She had freaks like us to handle the offshore jobs.
“Anything in the foreign traffic, Gibby?” asked Colonel Quan.
“Two cryptograms of note so far,” said Gibby Dean, the cranky old cyberpunk who was our liaison with NSA. Though he couldn’t write C code to save his life, Gibby had an unparalleled intuition for the mercurial feng shui of cyberspace. “The North Koreans are scrambling our new shopping channel out of Hokkaido, and Fergus Funes, governor of the Argentine territory of Inglaterra, has apparently cut a deal with the fellow-travelers at PBS to broadcast a year’s worth of recut Masterpiece Theatre serials. Brontës-in-the-Labyrinth and all that.”
“Whoa, Trigger,” interjected an alarmed Womack. “Maggie Thatcher, call your office. For a second I thought you just made it sound like the Brits were someone else’s colony. But maybe that’s just my hangover talking.”
“Dude,” said Gibby, “you heard me right and there’s no news there. Quit rattling to go refight lost battles. We gave up on trying to free the Brits like three years ago. Too busy working the Gulf and NorPac fronts, which is where your attention’s supposed to be. You know we’ve tried to foment insurrection in Albion, but all our efforts have foundered on the white cliffs of apathy. The Limeys are beyond our help, at least for now.”
“Drop the ancient history, Womack,” said Colonel Quan, “and give us your report. Must have been something for you to miss the best part of Monday.”
I caught Womack’s bloodshot eye in the two-way mirror along the wall behind Gibby. He grimaced with shared dread, recognition that we’d woken up on the wrong side of the mirror. An ulcer of deep angst percolated inside me, fertilized by the early warning of imminent cultural blowback. I half expected a goateed Leonard Nimoy to walk into the room, heralding a darker meme.
“Sorry, chief,” said Womack. “Been a long weekend in the GWOT.”
It was true, sort of. For us, fighting the Global War on Terror sometimes meant trolling the televisual archives with Poindexterian intensity, searching for unexploded infobombs. For the last forty-eight hours we’d had a cathode-ray lockdown at Womack’s Cold War bunker in the foothills outside Frederick, Maryland, drinking his best Tikriti homebrew and scrutinizing the 1980s mediascape for cultural steganography. The best of which, we agreed, was Road House, in which Patrick Swayze plays Dalton, an NYU philosopher working the negative space of the Midwest as an itinerant nightclub bouncer. A masterwork of demographically driven narrative featuring such high concept tropes as Missouri barnyard Kung Fu, monster truck demolition, dancing mullets, and bad taxidermy used as a deadly weapon.
The problem with Womack’s idea to use the rural action hero product as a vehicle for our work, I concluded, is it doesn’t play overseas.
“Baghdad is not Branson,” I said.
“That’s what we’re here to change,” said Womack.
Captain Womack is the guy I report to. Kind of a legend in our circles, being the man who franchised Hooters throughout Saudi Arabia, unloosed armies of evangelical Alabamans across most of the southern hemisphere, and cut Uncle Sam a national security script-doctoring option on all of the new content coming out of Fox. Like most great creative types, he’s a bit of a wing nut, especially for a guy who’s been through SEAL training. He recruited me out of a White House Fellowship as Hollywood’s liaison to the military-entertainment complex, saying they needed more Tinseltown savvy over at Task Force Loki: the only covert operations team with its own reality show. I mean, in addition to the news, which we help program without even asking for credit.
After the meeting wrapped, Womack and I conferred privately in the atrium outside the War Room. I anxiously showed him the results of my PowerBook Googling during the meeting.
As veteran media jammers, we were well-accustomed to a more elastic reality. But this latest development had a colder frisson. One of our nation’s many enemies, it appeared, was using our own tactics against us, with evident success. It did not feel good.
“Dude,” I said. “The Colonel and crew aren’t the only ones drinking the Kool-Aid. Check this out. I’ve got like a hundred English-language newspaper hits here referencing the Argentine victory in the Falklands in 1982. Only most of them talk about the Malvinas. About how, after the sinking of the Belgrano, the Argentines unleashed a secret weapon. Just doesn’t say what the weapon was.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, give me a—”
“By August 1983, Argentine Aermacchi fighter-bombers were patrolling the White Cliffs, and the Empire became the colony.”
“Rod Serling, phone home. This is some weird shit. Keep looking around. And keep it to yourself. I’m going to make some calls.”
“Right,” I said, as Womack walked away toward the elevators. “But what about—”
On the other side of the small atrium, Saddam Hussein popped his head out of the door.
“Hey, Horshak,” he said, nodding at me, aggravated. “Are you about ready? We’ve been waiting for like fifteen minutes. Tell you what, I’m going to go downstairs and grab a Coke. Back in five.”
“Oh, shit,” I said. “Sorry about that, Ali. Be there in a minute.”
I had my 9 a.m. acting class (Shatner method) to teach to our platoon of body doubles. Ali was the star out of the three unemployed Saddams we had recruited. He was dating J. Lo #2, Esmeralda Nuñez, and we needed to get them ready for their first op—a masterful bit of paparazzi placement I’d engineered for the next slow news week.
Womack and I met for lunch at the Hooters on the frontage road. The food has been a lot better there since they merged with the International House of Pancakes.
“What flavor syrup you want?” I asked Womack, spinning the caddy.
“I don’t know. Irish coffee, I guess. Whaddaya got?”
“Don’t cry for me, Abercrombie,” I said. “Remember Evita?“
“I remember the Madonna version.”
“Yeah, well, she didn’t exist.”
“No. Eva Peron. At least not as we knew her. Everything I knew about 20th-century Argentine history has changed. Starting sometime before World War II. And it happened over the weekend, so far as I can tell. I found a copy of Friday’s newspaper in the recycling bin. It was still talking about the fallout from last month’s coup.”
“Right,” said Womack. “The teen junta.”
“All I can figure is Colonel Haslam and his homeboys have engineered the mother of all media jams. Some kind of viral app that can reprogram terabytes of archived content in a weekend.”
“I suppose that’s a theory,” said Womack. “NSA says no one can get into Buenos Aires, meatspace or cyberspace. All communications and incoming flights have been suspended without explanation. And the spysat traffic is spotty at best—we don’t have very good orbits for those guys.”
Womack set up his 12-inch Presidential Aviator George W. Bush in an on-deck leadership pose between the ketchup and the salt shaker. Fully outfitted with flight suit, pressure gear, and sidearm, the Prez usually stayed on the dash of Womack’s Lincoln Continental, but turned into a worry ball when the boss was preoccupied. A worry ball that also served as a vehicle for Womack to practice the masterful voice-throwing he had honed in two decades as a practitioner of dirty tricks and kids’ party ventriloquist.
“We’re working hard to put food on your family,” said the mini-Prez. “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.”
“And the weirdest thing is,” I said, “everyone you talk to takes it for granted. As if we’re the only ones who remember it being any different.”
“Yeah, I noticed. Bermuda Triangle kind of stuff.”
“Did you try anybody in London?”
“Yeah. Talked to my old running buddy Commander Ballard in MI-6 Department 33. You know, the ‘Ministry of Silly Ops.’ We did the Orrin of Arabia deal together—his idea.”
“That the one where you hired the Mormon forgers to craft some faux relics saying the Black Stone in the Great Mosque’s Ka’bah was a gift from the King of England to his nomadic servants when he returned from his tour of the stars?”
“Yeah, exactly. Kind of a near-miss. They found our boy’s temple garments peeking through the robes—pseudo-Masonic emblems and all—and tortured him for a month. A post-Kipling moment. He’s running an antiquarian bookstore in Provo now.”
“So what did Ballard say?”
“Denied anything had changed. Just laughed, said he was having a ball watching satellite TV and drinking Corazones de Indios by the empty swimming pool. Sounded to me like he’s in on it.”
“Could be,” I said, “but what is it?”
“Can I get you some more coffee, fellas?” said Brandi, our server. “Hey,” she added, “that’s a cute doll.”
“I’m an action figure, honey,” said the mini-Prez in perfect Midland patois. “Of the Dauphin of the Zeitgeist, for your information. Twelve inches of strategic air power—anatomically correct, to boot. Want to take it out of the box and play with it?”
“Okay, asshole,” said Brandi, “I guess that’s a no on the coffee.”
“Sorry,” said Womack, muzzling W. with a battle-scarred thumb. “GWOT fatigue’s a bitch. What’s that on the tube there, anyway? I’ve never seen Star Trek in a Hooters.”
“You obviously don’t have kids,” said Brandi. “That’s not sci-fi. It’s TeleNiños—the new kids’ show from England that all the grown-ups are watching.”
“Oh,” said Womack. “Thought those furry little fucks were aliens.”
“They are, sort of, I guess. They’re kind of magical beings who live in the little meadow at the heart of the maze at the edge of the suburbs.”
“Uh-huh. So what’s with the TVs in their stomachs?”
“They play videos. It’s really cute. Watch.”
The smallest TeleNiño, a red puffball with an antenna in the shape of an upside-down question mark, chuckled ticklishly as his pudgy belly captured a test pattern. On screen came a retro-debonair Latin dude in full Tango-master gear, standing before a set of postmodern vibes.
“My name,” he said in an elusive German-Spanish accent, “is Señor Coconut. And our next song is Blue Monday. ¡Ándale!”
The camera pulled back and showed a four-piece band ready for merengue. The song was familiar.
“That’s a Kraftwerk thing,” I said.
“Almost,” said Brandi. “The Krautrock was last week. This one’s New Order, I think. Señor Coconut’s on once a week, always with a new tango, merengue, or Cha-Cha cover of some English, German, or American techno. It’s really catchy—first thing I hear in my head when I wake up in the morning. And they play him on all the Clear Channel stations all the time now.”
“Dude,” I said. “This is like one of those bad DC Comics alternate universe things. Earth-2.”
“Yeah, well, I like it just fine back home on Bizarro world. I’m out of here,” said Womack.
“You head back without me,” I said. “I’m going to walk back and see if I can rattle my thoughts.”
En route, I stopped into Bob’s Paperback Exchange, the used bookstore in the middle of a run-down strip mall up the road. Bob always has great stuff—if you can find it, since ninety percent of the inventory is usually in disorganized piles strewn across the floor. I managed to uncover a waterlogged 1985 World Book Encyclopedia, but its entry on Argentina was too dumbed-down to reveal anything.
Sitting in the armchair, I nodded off reading the adjacent entry on “Arbus, Diane,” and dreamed a hundred contact sheets of the little kid in overall shorts clenching a toy hand grenade in Central Park, summer 1962. Colonel Quan always said that pic looked like a young Womack.
When I woke, I noticed the kid’s reflection in a mirror hanging on the wall. He was standing on top of a stack of old videocassettes, which it turned out were on the sidetable next to me, under a copy of Invisible Cities.
I pulled the bottom from the stack. The Love Boat: Lost Episodes (Volume 3). On intuition, I paid Bob the $1.00 asking price, headed back to the office, and popped in the tape.
The liner notes indicated that the tape contained two of the half-dozen episodes filmed for the last season but never broadcast. The first one on the tape was “Radioactive Isaac/Kleinschmidt/Beyond Patagonia.”
The episode starts out as a typical variation of the formula. Following the eternally lounge Paul Williams theme, we meet the week’s cast as they board. Barbara Billingsley plays a melancholy divorcee. Her kids have bought her a week on the boat; they didn’t mention they bought one for Dad as well, played by Tom Bosley. Stella Stevens is Honey Spitz, a hard-partying Vegas girl searching for rescue from imminent spinsterhood. She will spend much of her time conferring with Tony Randall as Emmett Graham, a Capote-esque playwright who finds the muse in her story, and engineers a competition for her affections among Dick Shawn as a comical advertising executive, McLean Stevenson as a shy, sarcastic Midwestern arms dealer, and Marjoe Gortner as an aging rock star. And an enfeebled Jorge Luis Borges, as himself.
Four minutes in, Gopher leads the blind Borges up the plank in his incongruous vintage wool suit, hand-tailored by an Anglo-Italian master haberdasher in the Distrito Almirante Brown.
“So, Mr. Borges,” says Gopher, “are you traveling alone?”
Borges’ lazy, whitened eyes stare through the chipper Iowan, reimagining the universe in the nautical vignette cresting the Purser’s cap.
“Can you not see the massing armies of the Heresiarchs?” queries the author.
“Uh, gee, fella, we have a lady who brought her Shih Tzu, but I don’t think that’s quite enough to make it an Ark. But you should talk about that with Dr. Bricker. Maybe he can give you something to help you take a nap.”
As the episode proceeds, we learn that Borges and Mrs. Cleaver were married once, briefly, in the years between 1969 and 1970, adding complication to her efforts to explore a reconciliation with Mr. Cunningham. In the karaoke lounge, as Stella Stevens soothes the passengers with an otherworldly rendition of “Wichita Lineman,” the episode takes a dark turn. The camera closes in on Borges’ Magus eyes. The boom of nearby naval artillery rattles the ship, causing a panic. On the bridge, Captain Stubing radios out a Mayday when a squadron of Delta-wing fighters bearing strange insignia buzzes the Lido Deck. Romantic interludes are suspended as a dashing boarding party scours the ship, rounding up Robin Leach (as himself) and a handful of forgotten English character actors.
In the final scene, Isaac is in his cabin, drinking absinthe with Dr. Bricker and reading excerpts from a musty book Borges left in his cabin. The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, Thirteenth Edition (Volume XLVI: Uqbar-United States).
“The Hrönir of the perpetually broadcast American television reruns are infinite in power and proliferation,” reads Isaac, “enabling those who can discover them in plain sight to recast the subtext and reinvent the world.”
“What the heck’s a Hrönir?” asks Dr. Bricker.
“Darned if I know,” shucks Isaac. “But says here they’re some kind of imagination made real in some country in the Middle East called Tlön or Uqbaristan or something. Maybe some kind of terrorists, you think? Listen:
“‘Centuries and centuries of Tlönian idealism have not failed to influence reality. In the most ancient regions of Tlön, the duplication of lost objects is not infrequent. Two persons look for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but closer to his expectations. These secondary objects are called hrönir. . . . The methodical production of hrönir . . . has made possible the interrogation and even the modification of the past, which is now no less plastic and docile than the future.'”
“How about that,” said Womack from the doorway.
“Hey, boss,” I said, my imminent horror broken by company. “Didn’t hear you come in. You’ve got to check this out. I don’t know how they did it, but Los Niños have pulled off a motherfucker of a paradigm-shifting power play.”
“The problem with the Argentines,” said Womack, “is their imaginary weapons work.“
We should have seen it coming, even before the coup erupted two months earlier. Should have figured that the first 21st-century generation of Argentine military officers were grandchildren of the 1970s Junta. Kids who grew up—between marches, commando training, and death squad college weekends—reading Borges, Casares, Cortázar, and the rest of the heroic national treasures, the enemies of conventional narrative. And when they decided it was time to take their country back after the last gasp of the Patagonian populist collapsed in food riots, the order they chose to restore was a chaotic makeover incomprehensible to anyone outside of their insulated, baroque cultural milieu.
The final act of the Junta Nuevo before the media blackout, when the police collected all the televisions and destroyed all the broadcasting equipment, was the mass execution of the in-country IMF officials. Death by memorandum, a live reading in the Plaza de Mayo of interoffice product and policy dogma reconstructed as a deadly weapon.
“Step number one,” said Womack, “when we lick this bunch of library-loving pseudo-Generalissitos, before we even dispense the new boob tubes and satellite dishes, is get these people some safe shit to read. Why can’t you find a decent translation of Bill Bennett’s Book of Virtues? Or just some half-decent management pablum, like that Jesus, CEO crap my idiot brother-in-law gave me last Christmas. Hell, I’d even settle for a volume or two of Left Behind.“
But our countermeasures wouldn’t be easy. For our research showed that before we’d even started to pay attention, Los Niños had already looked North and demonstrated they had also inherited the revolutionary tactical vision of Che, through which they channeled their deep conversance with the infinite malleable oeuvre of postwar American pop cultural detritus.
“We’re not going to get any help from headquarters, boss,” I said. “We’re going to have to make a first strike ourselves and see if we can shake loose a little reality. And we’ve got our work cut out for us, because so far as I can tell, they’ve been incubating this project for decades, slowly infiltrating the mass mediascape with narrative seeds that have bloomed all at once, like the 17-year cicadas arising from the earth to fill the trees. We need to find the plug and pull it, or we are fucked.”
“Yeah,” said Womack. “A decapitation. Give ‘em the Allende treatment. That’s the only thing those people respect. I’ll take care of the transportation, and you round up some trustworthy embeds.”
And then it started to get weird.
We’d HALOed into the edge of Buenos Aires at midnight and were now holed up in an abandoned hotel in Adrogué. Womack found the wine cellar and roamed up and down the hallways, blowing away mirrors with his Glock 21.
“These fuckers don’t make any sense,” he said. “Where is it going? What is the point? I feel like Martin Sheen is going to play me in the movie.”
“Mirrors and copulation are abominable,” said Gary Coleman, “for they multiply the number of mankind.” Actually, not Gary Coleman per se, but another one of the doubles from our clandestine platoon. His real name was Arthur Boe, a Liberian-American dropout from UC Santa Cruz’s History of Consciousness doctoral program. We’d brought him along for his expertise in the Argentine cultural idiom. That and his general usefulness as a guy who can squeeze into air ducts, doggie doors, and other portals only a compact man can access. We just called him Bling Bling.
“You are totally playing into their hands, chief,” said Bling.
I poured myself another glass of the hallucinogenic Finca Castañeda sherry they had in the bar, and read my colleagues an excerpt from the mutated English history of the 1982 Battle of Wireless Ridge I had found in the hotel library, penned by some veteran of the Parachute Regiment’s defense of Arnhem Bridge.
“Back at the gully all was peaceful in the bright sunshine. Suddenly this was shattered as nine Skyhawks appeared further to the north, flying very low in formation and heading due west towards Mount Kent. The effect was electric, for no one expected that the Argentines could still flaunt their air power in this way.”
“No shit,” said Womack. “Did you see those Romulan warbirds patrolling the night sky as we dropped?”
You could hear their ethereal whine overhead even now, though no one could explain how they managed to stay in the air.
“Makes sense,” said Bling. “Romulans are Vulcans with feelings, all the intellect channeled by passion. Not unlike the Argentines—the alternate Americans, with the Hispano-Italian fantastic thread overwhelming the Anglo-German rationalism, not even blinking at the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.”
“Remind me why we brought this guy?” said Womack. “Sounds like Wolfowitz stoned.”
“What happened to our embed, anyway?” I asked. We’d recruited Johnny Omaha, host of the nightly news for Pulp, the new men’s adventure network, to tag along and do some live videophone feeds.
“Got fragged, probably,” said Womack. “Or at least missed the jump site. I lost radio with him halfway down. Tell you what, Bling, why don’t you come with me and we’ll do one more patrol. I’m getting itchy. Horshak, you stay here and see what else you can figure out.”
Bling grabbed his H&K MP5Ks, two extra magazines, and a last bag of Doritos for the road.
I turned on the laptop and surfed the real-time Nielsen algorithms from home. An entire season of football looked likely to be cancelled. Instead, everybody was watching these new “English” programs about the clandestine mysteries of the suburbs—punch the remote and all you got was 100 channels of David Lynch with an accent, so far as I could tell. On C-SPAN, the President was reading a Bioy Casares story in his fractured Tex-Mex Spanglish to a bunch of East L.A. schoolkids. We were too late.
Crunching broken mirror underfoot, I popped on my headlamp and worked my way down the stairwell, looking for the cellar and some more of that sherry with the worm. Which wasn’t easy. The mortared hallway, lined with portraits, led in several directions.
“Every straight line is the curve of an infinite circle,” Bling had said as we rode in the C-130 over the Brazilian coast a few hours earlier.
I tried my right, and walked fifty yards to a locked door. The hall continued to the left. I followed it for forty steps or so, right again, and found myself back at the portrait of “Herbert Ashe, Engineer for the Southern Railway Line.” But the stairwell was nowhere to be found.
I tried my GPS. No signal. I walked back the way I came, and discovered the minotaur.
The minotaur had the body of a bull and the head of a man. In fact, it looked a lot like the Vice President.
“Bienvenido a la red de canales que se bifurcan,” said the minotaur. “The network of forking channels. Come aboard, we’re expecting you.”
I ran as fast as I could, straight into the wall. Headlamp busted, I groped in the dark for forty-five minutes. Eventually, I stumbled into another door, opened it, and walked up a creaky stairwell into the light.
At the top of stairs, I found myself in the main room of Bob’s Paperback Exchange. Certain it must be a facsimile designed to trick me, I pulled back Bob’s busted shades and peered through the picture window, expecting to see the two-dimensional structures of some Buenos Aires backlot. And there it was, the parking area of the strip mall a few blocks from our office, two or three generic cars collecting highway dust, traffic on the frontage road and the Beltway behind it moving slowly with the usual Tuesday afternoon drone.
No signs of life other than a half-eaten Whopper and associated packaging atop the checkout counter. The front door was locked even from the inside. Stumbling around, I found a neglected door in the back hall, which I had always presumed was a bathroom.
The door was cracked open. Beyond it, under ambient light, was a storeroom the size of an airplane hangar, filled floor to ceiling with shelves of video recordings of old American TV shows, organized according to an incomprehensible taxonomy. Upon close examination, each appeared nearly identical to the next, as if the by-product of some misguided project to edit every possible permutation of each of the original shows.
I came back into the main room, remembering the stairs to the second floor Bob sometimes snuck up. I followed his well-trod path.
Upon my ascent, I discovered a secret dormitory filled with convalescents dreaming into machines. And in the middle, seven nattily-dressed thirtysomething wargamers sitting around a table.
“Hola,” said one. “We thought you’d never get here.”
I reached for my sidearm, only to realize it was lying on the bar in Adrogué.
“Who . . .”
“Somos los heresiarcas,” said the leader. “But you already know that. They call me Xul. Sit down. We want to talk to you.”
The rest of the group worked on their game, throwing twelve-sided dice and scribbling notes on an endless sheet of hex paper.
“What’s with the setup?” I said, watching the array of recumbent eyeballs fluttering ecstatically in lidless R.E.M. “Looks like the set of that old Michael Crichton movie. Coma. The one with Geneviève Bujold naked.”
“This is our factory,” said Xul. “No comas, not even any sleeping. These are the waking dreamers. Our analog special effects computers. They re-dream your dreams, and send them back out over your networks. We are fighting you with your weapons. You created this battlefield. We just adjust the calibration and crank up the feedback.”
I looked again at the dozen people lined up in daybeds around the perimeter of the room. Each reclined, bathed in the blue glow of a monitor spewing recycled programming from the vault. A strange clockwork machine attached to each dreamer’s head recorded imperceptible signals and transmitted them via pneumatic tubing to a clicking jukebox at the end of the room. A larger duct ran up through the ceiling to points beyond.
“As you can see, we do both post-production and broadcast here. That machine you are admiring—the Hrönic Generator—links to more conventional technology, slipping our programming out into the binary metasphere. This Uqbar Device has been working well. But we are running into trouble, and we need your help.”
“Not interested. I liked reality the way it was.”
“The world has not changed,” said a second heresiarch. “Only your perception of it.”
“You should thank us,” said Xul. “What you have seen is the product of years of labor by our order.”
“The machines,” said the third heresiarch, “transform the library of your Hollywood in infinite permutations, rendering explicit the implicit wonders of the American mind—exposing all the mass neuroses of fear, capital, materialism, alienation from nature—to erode the will of Empire and raze the suburbs for a new (dis)order of the Fantastic.”
“Huh,” I said.
“You see,” said Xul, “Argentina is the mirror America. Both societies invented by human engineers, immigrant polyglots, putative utopias that demonstrate to a fictional God that man can reinvent his material reality through force of mind. But in our mirror world, the post-Mediterranean fantastic obliterated the utilitarian lobotimization of the North.”
“The failure of the Argentine experiment to realize its promise,” said the second heresiarch, “at least through your geopolitical prism, is its inability to embrace market capitalism. We reject governance by mathematics. We propose a world based on a different sort of imagination.”
The fourth heresiarch turned from the game board, holding up a translucent polyhedral die. “We prefer the Labyrinth to the Panopticon.”
“Our problem,” said Xul, “is that our baroque narratives cannot compete with the electric glow of yours. Our project is therefore a conceptually straightforward one—to channel our invented aesthetic Kabbalah through the cathode ray to bring forth your own dreaming and thereby free the world.”
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s an interesting pitch. But what about all my stuff?”
“And as you can see,” added a fifth heresiarch, “our project is working as conceived. The only problem is to sustain the patience required in its execution.”
“We are the third generation of Orden Orbis Tertius to devote ourselves to the endeavor,” said Xul. “And we have managed to send the first wave crashing over the desiccated shores of your frontal lobes. But we need a stronger wind, and it could be you. You already carry the library in your head, have mastered its manipulation (in your misguided fashion), and share our yearning for the liberation from work. Join us.”
“I should have pledged Skull and Bones when I had the chance,” I said.
“You know,” said Xul, “that the only reality that exists is your own. You have been playing with it, making scribbles in the sand, decrypting the codes of the contrails as you pump your gas, making shadow puppets in the cave. Now is your chance to dream for the whole world. In CinemaScope.”
“How do you rewrite history without burning books?” I asked.
“History is rewritten every day,” said Xul. “During the commercials. There is no time, and the past changes faster than the future. History is a never-ending made-for-TV movie with a million real-time script-doctors. But we could rewrite the whole TV Guide.”
I pondered that one, admiring the photo of Governor Schwarzenegger on the wall.
“I used to have a chair like that in film school,” I said, nodding at a big La-Z-Boy recliner that had its own spot in a corner, along with a widescreen monitor. Xul led me over and showed me how to operate the levers. I sat down as he began to make adjustments.
Outside, I heard the whine of a tiny engine. A second later, the jukebox’s uplink ceiling duct rattled.
“I think you’ve got a bird trapped in there or something,” I said.
A window shattered as a tiny sonic boom ruptured its center in slow motion, cascading glass glittering with the silicon glare of the ozone sun. Womack is way too fond of those John Woo movies. A tiny rocket exploded the television before me. As I ducked, I saw a 1/6 scale F-4 Phantom scream through the aperture into the room, clearly labeled with the bronco-busting logo of the Texas Air National Guard.
Hidden behind the chair, I watched as the Lilliputian fighter banked hard to the right, barely clearing a standing lamp. The pilot punched it hard as he recovered, hitting the rudder just wrong enough to lose it and spiral violently into the middle of the war table.
As the mini-W pilot crawled from the wreckage holding a Ka-Bar in one hand and talking points in another, the front of the jukebox burst open to reveal our own Gary Coleman brandishing twin machine pistols—Mr. Heckler and Mr. Koch.
“I think you grouchos have misunderestimated us,” said the Prez.
Womack kicked the door in, and ordered the heresiarchs to get down on their knees. Johnny Omaha followed close behind, pointing a camcorder strapped to the barrel of an AK-47.
“I heard there’s a great topless bar in here,” laughed the Prez.
“Tapas,” corrected Bling.
“Whatever,” said the Prez. “It’s time to hyperinflate these motherfuckers. But you boys don’t need to worry. You won’t be spending any pesos in Gitmo. Now there’s a labyrinth for you.”
At the wedding of J. Lo and Saddam, as the celebrants danced the Macarena, Womack and I retreated to the bar to catch the show. Tonight was the first run of our latest installment on Pulp, sponsored by Pfizer’s Viagra business unit.
“That was a close one,” said Womack. “Looked like you were having a Kim Philby moment.”
“Blame it on Rio,” I said. “They’re doing the same thing we do. With a lot more finesse.”
“Hold on,” said Womack, nodding at the TV. “This part is great.”
The sound was drowned out by the music from the ballroom, but you could see the mini-Prez standing on my shoulder, screaming in my ear.
“We’re going to make a fortune on the licensing from this one, chum,” said Womack.
The earlier history of the land called Uqbar was described by Borges prior to his forgotten appearance on The Love Boat, as discussed in the Wikipedia article “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius.” See also Adolfo Bioy Casares and Julio Cortázar.
McKuen tutored Quan using one of the three extant unredacted copies of Psychological Warfare, by another pioneering field operative, Paul M. A. Linebarger, author of numerous science fictional works under the pen name Cordwainer Smith.
Though he is thought to have played a role in 1990’s Operation Just Cause, Womack disclaims credit for the infamous “Noriega Playlist” now implemented through Clear Channel as part of the Classic Rock/Get to Work algorithm.
Horshak briefly interned at CNN before that secondment program was suspended.
More recently, some of his former colleagues applied selected techniques of the Womack school as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Battle of Wireless Ridge was part of the British military’s liberation counterstrike codenamed “Operation Corporate,” the restored history of which (as well as other aspects of the Falklands War) can be found in the Wikipedia articles on the Falklands War and Battle of Wireless Ridge.
The University of California at Santa Cruz History of Consciousness Program.