Ilona Gaynor


Short Fiction (Excerpt)
The Lexicography of an Abusive but Divine
Relationship with the World
MIT Technology Review, Science Fiction Anthology

Available to read via PDF

Author’s Note:
Line breaks: prag|mat|ic.

Definition of pragmatic in English:

1. Dealing with things sensibly and realistically in a way that is based on practical rather than theoretical considerations: a pragmatic approach to politics.
2. Relating to philosophical or political pragmatism.
3. Linguistics relating to pragmatics.

—Arrangement of Black, Orange, Blue, White, and Gold
Pressing my finger against the jello track pad. A burst of light appears in a black sky (a drum roll kicks in), revealing Earth’s horizon as a mound of shimmering orange light. We rotate around the earth’s axis through the lens of a slow focus pull, revealing a burst of sunlight weaving through the permeable land surface, avoiding the blue. As the camera tracks away from the globe, the rays of light get more intense. A three-dimensional word reveals itself in a rotational, clockwise orbit. The word reads “Universal” and is formed of a sandwiched layer of metallic white and gold letters. The text centralizes in the frame as stars shimmer in the distance.

—Cockroach vs Rat
This was a race between two species, observed by a third. “Only arthropods and vertebrates have the means of rapid surface locomotion. In both groups, the body is moved forward by means of the legs. Because legs provide support as well as propulsion, the sequence of movements must be adjusted to maintain the body’s center of gravity within a zone of support; if that center of gravity falls outside this zone, the body loses its balance and falls. It is the necessity to maintain stability that determines the functional sequence of limb movements. During propulsion—which begins with footfall and ends with liftoff—the foot and leg remain stationary as the body pivots forward over the leg. During recovery—which begins with liftoff and ends with footfall—the body remains stationary as the leg moves forward. The advance of one leg is a step; a stride is composed of as many steps as there are legs. To ensure a cycle of continuous movement, friction-reducing properties of a stable surface (i.e. the ground) are needed to enable the appropriate and continuous transfer of weight from heel to toe.” —Encyclopedia Britannica 2012

Antenna’s twitching. Fur’s statically charged. The push of thumbsized lever: and they’re off. The cockroach takes the lead and in close pursuit is the rat. The overall pace was steady, and surprisingly well balanced. The two opponents would occasionally outmaneuver one another, switching positions as front runner. Through the perils and obstacles that lay in their path, the race concludes with the two species nose to nose, circling around one another, haplessly trying to avoid a discarded burger tray. For several minutes they thrust and parry until the rat submits. Neither one is injured, but neither one a clear winner. I am now owed a 60.

—Division of Earth into Eight Equal Slices
Brandishing a kitchen knife, forcing it back and forth toward a glint of light, I cut into the flesh amid raucous claps and cheers. The mass was constructed of icing sugar, Victoria sponge, edible ink, and metallic cream (in fold). Four hundred millimeters in diameter, 150 millimeters in height, its face was round, with a printed top depicting the earth, set on black frosting at the highest resolution. It was a cake. We were celebrating.

Our firm had drawn up the final Earth contingency proposition, or the “what to do in the event of the end.” When (A) resources have dried up and (B) there is nowhere left to turn. A prerequisite was to negotiate our eventual departure from Earth, a departure that includes the carving up and packaging of Earth’s assets. Enough gold sits within the outer sector of Earth’s core to drown its surface in 10 meters of liquid depth. Like a loaded gun, we shall wait patiently to fire. This memory will be the first step of many; the blade of this knife cutting through the layers of sugar and sponge, then sticking in the middle upon hitting the single, proportional layer of gold cream frosting.

The text that follows is the single sheet of the president’s address. The document reads:


“Fate has ordained that Earth, after 4.5 billion years of life, of hosting men, women, and nature, will be left to rest in peace. Our great planet Mother Earth we know now has no hope for recovery. But we know that there is hope for mankind in its sacrifice. Our planet has laid down its life in mankind’s most noble goal: the search for the truth, understanding, and prosperity. She will be mourned by the people of the world—our Mother Earth that dared send her sons and daughters into the unknown. In our exploration, we have stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in Earth’s sacrifice, they bind more tightly in the brotherhood of man. In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are in a planet of soil, minerals, and water. Others will follow us, and surely find their way to survival. Mankind’s survival will not be denied. But this planet is the first, and it will remain the foremost in our hearts. Every human being who looks up at the night skies will come to know that there is some corner of another world that is forever in mankind.” The president should cut Earth’s surface, first drawing a circle followed by the division of eight perfect, equal sections to mark as a time immemorial. After the president’s statement, at a point when the fleet of ships kiss the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, a clergymen should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending Earth’s soul to “the deepest of the deep” and concluding with the Lord’s Prayer.

—End of the World as We Know It
Los Angeles embodied certain visual characteristics: everything was a faded copy, of a copy, of a copy. The overworked visions of the architectural past had been re-created, but translated into parametric form, a growth of intertwined confusion, built at the height of the “data wank” era. The In-N-Out Burgers resembled large bird nests lined with giant foam, liquid red, and lightning bolts. Architects amalgamating the eclectic once again, drawing together mishmash monuments over the rug of melted asphalt and cigarette burns and the rotting smell of synthetic gasoline. L.A. is the proudest snake-pit ashtray in America, and I like it.

I used to write screenplays for Hollywood’s “shiny, shiny, smashy, smashy” elite, the kinds of films where you had wished the entire cast had burned alive in an automated drone strike. The films were predominantly male, and consisted of the subsequent equation: machines, slick wetted sunglasses, intravenous drugs, erections, electro-weaponry, women as wigged MacGuffins and innards jokes. But the decay of Hollywood saw government administrations buying out and liquidating movie studios. Unlike more obvious tactics, the liquidation attack strategy eradicated studios by genre.

The stretch from West Hollywood to Beverly Hills is a hollow husk. A ghost town of staggering bleached blond zombies with their ruptured sagging tits, leathery skin, and stained garter belts trundling up and down the smoggy Santa Monica Blvd. Movies are still being made of course, but they now belong to what critics have come to call the genre of the “hyperreal.” Films are gargantuan productions, federally funded. Or else they are small pirate broadcasts cast over the Neuro-Network, ironically named “Fantasia,” kitchen-sink shit from Europe or Mexico. Think Wall Street (1987) set on the edge of Earth’s atmosphere, funded by the United States Treasury to soften the hostile takeover of two paper galaxies: Microsoft’s Stellar Sphere, swallowing McDonalds’s McAirbelt Galaxy. This happens every day, though I wish we could revive the Roman gladiatorial games, stratospheric in scale. Pale-faced CEOs fighting to the death with planetary particle accelerators, violently hitting big, shiny red buttons, foaming at the mouth, and laughing into their ear-crunching implants as the audience looks on, to cheer or grimace. Entire CG-enhanced galaxies are either amalgamated or deleted permanently from our mapping devices.

As the government bullet ripped through the skull of Hollywood, us screenwriters were hired by various federal departments—Defense, State, Justice. I was relocated at a federal insurance bureau. I underwrote the oil slick that coats the landscape and minds of the citizens. The plane that hit the sky-rise windows on your birthday. The sweat, flesh, fat, and hairs of the burnt human remains fused to the polyester seats of the driverless Volvo … and the lipstick kiss of a walking bioweapon. These are just some of my favorites.

—Inherent Vice. No, not the Thomas Pynchon novel or (at the time) the widely criticized film adaptation by Paul Thomas Anderson

Excerpt from a speech that was given at the 50th International Insurance Conference.I sat in the audience, I recorded the presentation.

(image of broken eggs)

“Inherent Vice is the tendency in physical objects to deteriorate because of the fundamental instability of the components of which they are made, as opposed to deterioration caused by external forces.”

Next slide.

(image of a rendered black hole)

“All objects have some inherent vice as a result of the baseline law of entropy. In the future, at some point, this table, this machine, this cup, and this liquid will inevitably break the threshold of quantifiable value.”

Next slide.

(image of smiling technological figures: Branson, Zuckerberg, Page, Schwarzenegger)

“The route into the technological unknown is a blindfolded ascent into the dark. The darkness has yet to yield a scaffold with which to model any potential risk and its mitigation, which inevitably ends the economic lifespans of our visions, due to feared unstable volatility. We have seen this through interstellar space tourism, AI families, planet decomposition plans, and lava formation trading.”

Next slide.

(image of a Volvo)

“We have lost the urge to accelerate. Our assumptions of progress are of incomprehensible rational catastrophe and uncontrollable leakage. We are the swimming pool that refuses to hold water. Our utopias are gone. We have no mountains to climb.”

Next slide.

(image of a pale, barely visible American flag)

“Our future is fading; and what will become of it? It will be faded, like it is today.”

Next slide.

(image of black)

“Inherent Vice has become its own inherent vice.”

Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap.

—Office Organs
The organs in my office are mostly box-shaped, and indistinguishable, moody tones of gray. A sea of vapid, overused, somewhat expired artifacts. Despite their age, they do sit on the network. It’s not as grand as it sounds … the organs were deployed within the firm to monitor patterns of work flow, but did nothing of the kind. The philodendron is rubbery in texture. Its leaves recoil and flinch during the day. I think my philodendron is clinically depressed; it sits permanently wilted, lifeless, and sad in its posture. This advanced varietal is expensive. It’s made of an engineered bio-plastic polymer that is, or was, supposedly semi-living. They’re designed not to wilt or discolor. But, after six months of blowing smoke at it, stubbing out my filter tips on its leaves, and occasionally kicking it in place to block the air-conditioning hoses … I guess that sort of abuse can destroy a fellow that chooses not to answer back. Our Xerox occasionally expresses notions of limp consequence. The Xerox prints excerpts from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar at random intervals throughout the day: “The silence depressed me. It wasn’t the silence of silence. It was my own silence.” And commonly: “I was supposed to be having the time of my life.” I’m still to witness a surrogate defense strategy on behalf of the philodendron. I don’t think the Philodendron and the Xerox are in cahoots. They may be simply at odds with each other.

—Unfriendly Fire
Kill him first.

—Vantage Point Spies
1. Right turn, Left turn, Right turn, Left turn. 2. Left turn, Right turn, Left turn, Right turn.
1. Stop. 2. Stop.
1. Zoom in 3,000 pixels. 2. Zoom out 3,000 pixels.
1. Focus. 2. Focus.
1. Scan 40 meters. 2. Minus scan 6,000 meters.
1. Face recognition (negative). 2. Heat recognition (negative).
1. Pivot upward. 2. Pivot downward.
1 Face recognition (positive). 2. Face recognition (positive).
1. Heat recognition (negative). 2. Heat recognition (negative).
1. Bounce back. 2. Bounce toward.
1. Lock vision sight. 2. Lock vision sight.
1. Heat recognition (positive). 2. Heat recognition (positive).
1. Rotate clockwise 180 degrees. 2. Rotate counterclockwise 180 degrees.
1. Scan 10,000 pixels. 2. Scan 10,000 pixels.
1. Rotate counterclockwise 180 degrees. 2. Rotate clockwise 180 degrees.
1. Bounce toward target. 2. Bounce back from target.
1. Pivot downwards. 2. Pivot upwards.
1. Heat recognition (positive). 2. Heat recognition (positive).
1. Motion detection encountered. 2. Motion detection encountered.
1. 360 scan rotation. 2. 360 scan rotation.
1. Alert! 2. Alert!
1. Request to engage. 2. Request to engage.
1. Launch sequence initiated. 2. Launch sequence initiated.
1. Counting down. 2. Counting down.
1. Launch. 2. Launch.
1. Connection lost. 2. Connection lost.

© MIT Technology Review
— Words by Ilona Gaynor