by Kyle Coma-Thompson
There is a point when lives cease to be lives, when chronologies untwist like strands in a thread. Everything about a person, distilled posthumously down to a few solid facts; then in a few quick revisions, those facts fraying into a mess of probabilities and guesses. I should know, I’m speaking here from the revised present. Not the indisputable past.
So say it is the future. That vanishing point in space-time where for hundreds of years people have located so many high claims and fears. Utopia, dystopia, whatever. “Far in the future”, “in a land far far away”. Of course those visions of the future always had a habit of enlarging certain ills or idealisms; and no matter which way they went, for the better or for worse, rapid scientific advances were the reason for it.
Well, I’m talking from that place right now and let me say: it’s neither so good nor horrible. Any advances that were made were retrospective. How so, you might ask. Yes, there is time travel. Though “travel” is not technically the word for it. Most people prefer to call it “Temporal Reinsertion”. Yes, there have been certain technological advances. But no one would claim they have led to any appreciable differences in quality of life or knowledge. The most popular of these had to do with “revision of life”; with the possibility, due to the development of Temporal Reinsertion, to reenact certain events great or small from the relatively recent past. Since the prime current of time has left a series of overlapping possible occurrences rippling in its wake, it was discovered that Time Past could be played with, revised an infinite number of ways, without threatening the stability of an ever-occurring Present.
The past, as it turned out, was a plaything. But as I said, only the recent past–say, the last several hundred or so years leading up to Time Present.
Confusing, I know.
I didn’t understand the mechanics of it very well, even when my girlfriend at the time of my deepest interest in Temporal Reinsertion explained it to me. She was a physicist at the Fermi Institute. I was just a Biographical Advisor. An embarrassment I avoided any way I could–to be a personal consultant for an identity tourism agency, yet not have the technical chops to explain the processes of Reinsertion with any detail beyond the simple blind sales pitch that “We can send you back.”
It was good money. There was no low season. If it was winter, travelers could choose a summer Reinsertion. If it was rainy, they could opt for a desert location. There were Dematerializers and Hologrammatic Converter Facilities in ten locations throughout the city. Cost of Reinsertion was cheaper than accelerated telekinetic travel. There was no risk of bodily harm. If maimed or killed in the variable past, one would be kicked back into the inviolable present. Awake and groggy in one’s Converter Chair.
A customary description of Reinsertion would compare the experience to lucid dreaming; except collectively so. If out of any million possible pasts, one were capable of sharing it with a few dozen other fellow travelers, riding the wave of one particular version they had been scheduled to land on, upon Reinsertion–that would be the feeling.
Some likened it to retroactive reincarnation. Others to role-playing.
After the first fifteen years the industry had only grown more lucrative. Hundreds of agencies opened business, and from the competition between them this trend of specialized packages began to develop. As the whole technique of identity reassignment became more refined, capable of greater focus and specificity, the most profitable product in the history of Reinsertion Tourism was rolled out: Interactive Biographies.
Want to be Hitler? Churchill? Stalin?
Want to be Gavrilo Princip (or, for some reason, Archduke Ferdinand)?
Curious about the affairs of Diego Rivera, the madness of Adolf Wölfli?
Want to be Sarah Bernhardt or Count Basie or Henry Flagler or, say, a subway operator in 1970’s New York?
Reinsertion allowed this. And ever since payment plans were first offered for package deals three years ago, even travelers of limited means could experience Interaction. Commission on sales were low, but so many customers came through the office on any given day, by the end of the week I made more than most people made in a month. Why would I ever travel, I had to ask myself, when I had it so good? What could, say, the life of Golda Meir or Martin Luther King or Einstein offer, that I couldn’t enjoy on an off-night, right here?
Our highest seller, you’d be surprised, wasn’t for celebrities or big names of any persuasion–be it political, artistic, religious, scientific. No, those actually were cheaper than certain sets of identity insertions. The most requested, and therefore the most expensive (except, of course, during peak seasons when we offer marked-down prices), was for any of the tens of millions of anonymous civilians or soldiers living and suffering in Europe during the Second World War. These were by far the most popular. Identity selection could be targeted or chosen at random, based on certain variables requested by the customer. Want to be a Polish male above age forty, who participated in the Warsaw Uprising? Want to be a peasant guerilla in Greece during the Nazi Occupation? Want to be a wireless radio operator air-dropped in the French Occupied Zone? Robert Brasillach as he’s walked from his cell on the day of his execution? Noor Inayat Khan beaten near death, bravely withstanding the taunts of her interrogators? Want to be present at the founding of the White Rose group, either as Sophie or Hans Scholl?
Infamous or innocent, implicated for treason or quietly praised for the stoutness of one’s character…an array of moral flavors were available to anyone, for a not unreasonable price.
Usual limitations of gender or race or age did not apply.
One man, wishing to replicate the exact experiences of Anne Frank, relived the dark of her attic hutch in Amsterdam.
One graduate student of Eastern European Literature chose to embody the experiences which produced the works of Tadeusz Borowski, subject of her dissertation. Her findings were not disputed as credible research. The horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau became available to her, in specific, grinding detail. Later long coffee-driven nights by lamplight produced sentence by sentence, story by story, the nihilistic ironies of Borowski’s (or was it now her own) masterpiece–This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. It seems now, and with reticulate vividness, the ideas spanning from her traumatized brain arranged those words into a line, like so many prisoners, to produce the effects of such a jaundiced title. Her past equally monstrous, and in vain.
There were limits to how much one could change, it turns out.
Smaller events could allow for certain detours, moderations of action or behavior. But not many deviations were allowable from the actual occurrences which invented them.
Such a mass psychic collapse in space-time, so much voluminous death, restricted the movements of Interactive Biographers. On the whole, if they chose either of the World Wars, they knew what to expect. At most, an all-encompassing trial of the mind and soul, deeply, violently transformative. Not unlike claims made for the visionary properties unearthed within participants of ayahuasca ceremonies.
It was good business. But it was a social service as well on our part, wasn’t it? Objections were not as forthcoming as we thought. Historians loved it. A considerable upswing in the relevance of their field ensured that. Career opportunities for graduates of the Humanities multiplied as rapidly as probable pasts from the Present. No one in their right mind would object to lively commerce.
So the initial timidity about the offering of package deals for the Holocaust, while understandable, wasn’t entirely well-founded. Activist groups couldn’t argue against it, if it raised public awareness; if it reinforced the inarguable proof of six million Jews killed with naked efficiency, the evidence of which was available for experience in horrible, unforgiving detail, more than the mind could ever un-imagine? We put the deals together. Scheduled the product launch for the tricentennial anniversary of Kristallnacht. Hundreds of thousands of customers simultaneously Reinserted into their chosen roles, waking up in bedrooms and bunkers and lofts.
Who paid to be herded, shipped to real-time replicas of Buchenwald and Sobibór. Who labored under cropping whip and bark of dog. Who stood shoulder to shoulder among the frightened stink of others, some originals, some Reinserted and paralyzed in their roles. Which were they? Could they tell? From the ones who helplessly follow trajectories through a traversable past, terrified, crying, clinging to the leftovers of families, those others who watch more than cry out, listen more than explain, memorizing the eyeless stares and the heat and the press of their fellow innocents against them?
If you asked them, they’d say: the money they paid was well worth the earning.
I, for one, wouldn’t argue.
Kyle Coma-Thompson is the author of The Lucky Body (Dock Street Press, 2013).