I first met Michael Alan (his pen name) in 2007 on a British Arts Council–funded writers’ site when his work was randomly assigned to me for review. In those days YouWriteOn attracted real talent; writers of high calibre along with clueless wannabes. Some went on to score deals with major publishers. Others had already been published or won short-story awards.
Both amateurs and professionals would often respond to my feedback with questions, thanks and/or justifications. But Alan wanted to pick my brains because he’d begun to devise a better and fairer writers’ website. Alan was a creator of worlds, some fictional, some virtual. Like the hacker narrator of his novel, The Lorelei Effect, which won third prize in the YouWriteOn Book of the Year Award 2007, he’d been designing software since the ’60s. He’d gazed out at the Brooklyn Bridge from his 31st-floor corner office on Wall Street while I was still reading Beatrix Potter.
Yet as our correspondence continued, I marvelled at his innocence. He’d never tried illicit drugs, alternative therapies, meditation, communal living or open relationships. The only ’70s revolution he’d joined was interactive computing. He’d married young, moved to the suburbs and had two sons, in contrast to my frequent changes of partner, address and job. Yet neither of us felt we belonged. Misfits observing life on Earth like interstellar visitors, we’d both had surgery for physical deformities. Our fathers had both fought in the Second World War, worked for a quarter century in car factories, been good with their hands, and died of bad hearts. And we both abhorred the widespread mindless conformity that allows a few control freaks to seize too much power.
Over the next decade, though he never built that ideal website, Alan and I shared our writing, compared notes on publishing, and debated topics like the Earth’s fate, the use of higher education, and the nature of consciousness and its opposite. Free from any religious or spiritual conviction, he’d often joke about God as if daring Him/Her/them to contradict him. No deity was barred from his creative imagination. He was one of the most original thinkers I’ve ever known, seeking through the medium of sci-fi to warn readers and explore how self-sufficient, well-organised human communities might combat global corporate dominance and birth a better and fairer world. Sharing a New Hampshire mountainside farmhouse with his partner and their family of furred and feathered pets, working for a friend and fellow writer, he believed dreams can be achieved when like minds come together, even as he acknowledged we’d already been superseded by ‘Corpo Sapiens’, the next evolutionary stage (a given if you’ve been following Silicon Valley developments in virtual reality and artificial intelligence). Technology had begun to reprogram the minds of its users, compelling dependency, distracting us from what we stood to lose.
But fiction can’t save the world, I argued, it’s preaching to the converted. People read popular novels to escape, not to burst their bubbles. Yet as Alan grew increasingly preoccupied with his mortality, he tired of rejections from publishers and, like countless authors who lack his brilliance, used free online tools to produce stillborn thrillers. And he’d start yet another self-marketing blog while feeling inspired then lose momentum when it didn’t go viral. I began to fear ill health had impinged on his thinking. When tests showed tumours riddling his liver and kidneys, he had to face the prospect of oblivion as an atheist unconsoled by faith, his mission to rally readers unrealised, his life’s work trailing loose ends. Soon he couldn’t even email friends. Ten days before his death on the solstice, I received one last message headed ‘still kicking’, to say that his computer had crashed, not him. Technology, like his body, had ceased to make sense.
Towards the end of our extensive and often hilarious correspondence, I asked Alan whether he’d mind my sharing a piece or two of his writing. So what follows is the original version of his short story ‘Thursday’. Though not all readers got the punch line, his second version isn’t as funny. And I think this first one makes a fitting epitaph.
Okay. So I was feeling really lazy for the last couple of weeks. I noticed that my pee was coming out a kind of orange color and I doubled up on iron pills because that usually means some bleeding going on inside. It’s not the first time it’s happened. In any case, I went to bed at about 8:00 and I woke up the next morning dead.
I know what you’re thinking. “How could you be dead and still write this story?” I could try to make up some baloney about zombies or something but the truth is I just don’t know. I do know that I woke up dead.
If you don’t believe me you can stop reading right here.
Okay. You’re still reading. So you’re probably asking, “What’s it like?”
Well, it wasn’t at all what I expected. Forget about following a light and harps and wings. The first thing I knew I was in a giant line like security at a big airport. The people just went on forever. I stood behind these rope barriers that snaked back and forth and kids and old people and whole families moved along in front of me at a pretty good clip.
So I was getting ready to empty my pockets and take off my shoes when I realized I didn’t have any pockets or any shoes. I was completely naked. So was everyone else.
Most of the people were old. They had droopy chests and hair coming out of their ears and you really wanted to look somewhere else. But as the line turned back on itself I kept passing a gal with a pretty face and a great body. All the guys in line were staring at her. She was a walking Viagra pill. I was starting to feel a little embarrassed but then I remembered. I was dead. My crotch was hardwired to my eyeballs by somebody else. Sue me.
In any case I wanted to see what happened when we got to the front of the line. Were we getting shipped somewhere, was there some kind of a test to see if we made it into heaven, was there really a purgatory, a hell?
We must have walked a mile zigzagging back and forth when I finally saw where we were headed. At the front of the line was a bunch of moving walkways with signs over them and people were picking which walkway they wanted to get on.
Adonism, Advaita Vedanta, Agnosticism, Ahl-e Quran, Ahmadiyya, Akhbari, Alawites, Alevi, Ananda Marga, Anishinaabe, Anito, Anthroposophy, Arya Samaj, Asatru, Ash’ari, Ashtanga, Ayyavazhi, Azali, Azraqi. And those were just the A’s. There had to be three or four hundred signs, each in a dozen languages, and each leading to its own moving walkway.
There was a sign for Catholicism and Buddhism and Scientology and Judaism and Hinduism and Muslim and Wicca and Unitarianism and a couple of dozen Protestant sects. But there were also signs for Secular Humanism and Celtic Neopaganism and Invisible Pink Unicornism. No, really. Invisible Pink Unicornism. And Chaos Magic and Last Thursdayism and Tantric Yoga and Vailala Madness.
Standing under each sign was a recruiter extolling the virtues of whatever afterlife that particular religion promised.
The barker under the Catholic sign was offering a limited time special – six millennia off purgatory. I was baptized Catholic but it didn’t take. I never went to confession, never went to mass, never recited a single Hail Mary. I didn’t want to spend eternity playing Bingo in some smoke filled hall so I moved on.
The fellow under the Islam Martyrs sign alternated between English and Arabic. He kept repeating, “Six dozen black-eyed virgins. ستة عشر سوداء العينين العذارى.”
I never studied Islam and certainly didn’t martyr myself. But I had to admit that six-dozen virgins sounded like a pretty good deal. Until then I’d only been friendly with one virgin and even that was a maybe. Six dozen. By the time I said hello to the last one I might not remember the first one and it would seem as if I had an endless supply.
I started to walk toward the Martyrs’ line and the Last Thursdayism recruiter said, “Don’t do it.”
I said, “Six dozen. Sounds pretty good.”
“There’s a reason they’re still virgins. Don’t do it.”
I asked him what Thursdayism was about. He said, “We believe you created the universe last Thursday looking as if it was billions of years old and that the universe will expire next Thursday.”
“I created it last Thursday?”
“At 3:00 in the afternoon you created the universe as a test for yourself. Everyone but you was pre-programmed as part of your test environment. Everyone but you knows this.”
“But I can remember having supper last Wednesday.”
“Last Thursday at 3:00 you came into existence complete with memories of a history that never really happened. Before 3:00 none of this existed.”
“Ahh. You’re making fun of Creationists.”
“Not at all. You created them at 3:00 on Thursday along with everything else as part of your test.”
“Would you mind if I ask others about your theory?”
“Not at all.”
I turned behind me. “Do any of you remember me creating you? Are you just here for a test I made up?”
Most ignored me but a few looked up and said, “No.”
I turned back to the Thursdayism guy. “Nobody seems to think they’re just here for my test.”
“What do you expect? That’s what you told them to say.”
“If I’m the creator of all this and everyone else is just a prop you must not have many Last Thursdayism members.”
“Everyone here is a member. They just keep it quiet.”
“Why are they going to other religion lines?”
“Wouldn’t it be suspicious if they all came here?”
He had me there. “So what kind of eternity do you offer?”
“You will be rewarded or punished based on how well you did with your test.”
“Who grades it?”
So I’m writing this just to let everybody know that I know you’re all just here as part of my test and you can stop being such assholes and start being nice any time you want. It’s 2:59 in the afternoon on a sunny Thursday and I thi
© Michael Alan, 2012