Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Strano!

Sep 25 2016

The call came on a Monday morning when Dan was starring groggy eyed and dopey into his black coffee. Eye of the tiger, Dan. Retail manners, with just that little bit of obsequious sugar in your tone. You don’t know what’s coming, and you won’t. You won’t believe it. Never gonna happen to you. The Second Coming will happen, first.

The call came on a Monday morning, though, as Dan dribbled black coffee all over himself from an over sized mug, like a drunken buccaneer, slurring, swearing, until the phone shocked him with a thousand volts, and that was enough for him to pop. That was all it took. Yes, Dr. Weinentini, he’s available to travel next Tuesday. His employer will likely understand, in fact… Yes, that’s Peter, from the paper. So you see… He provided a doctor of physics’ opinion, I couldn’t have done it without his advice about basic consistency tests… Yes, and Adam coached my calculus. Yes, Tuesday—may my parents come? I see, yes. Yes, I’ll talk with you by email. And thank you for taking the paper seriously, Dr. Weinentini. I mean, I understand that it—yes, see you Tuesday.

“What was that about?” I asked him.

“Like you and the rest of the planet don’t already know,” he said with a maniacal giggle.

“Dan, chance is a factor,” was all I said.

“You’re right,” he said. “People come up with scientific results every day. I had a theoretical result tantalizing enough for some hotshot ‘P-H-D’ ‘phud’ to want to cite, if he ever happened across it. He did, and it was worth it to him to recreate the result, and he ran with it. Good ideas produced by people in the wrong circumstances are usually overlooked.”

“Yeah, well, smarter people have been wrong,” I reminded him, and I pulled him close.

“Dan,” I “whispuwwed,” “I want you to pwomise me something, fow you and fow evewyone.”

“I ‘pwomise’,” he said.

“You haven’t even heard what it is, yet!” I yelled.

He pointed a finger and said, “I want you to promise me that you show some small bit of mercy to my parents when you overthrow their fascist theocratic dictatorship and save the world, at the bottom of the next rabbit hole over from mine.”

“Dan, then it’s just inevitable,” I said, “and you promise me the same.”

Insensible, he went back to his coffee in silence as if nothing had happened. He stared absently into the sun.

I broke the silence in his thoughts one more time. “Dan, you’re right that I already knew,” I said, “and I have a plan for you to consider.”

“… A plan?” Dan asked.

“We’re going to try to force a conversation about our impossible conversations, with the room full of physicists you’re going to be speaking in front of about your quantum accident of a paper, if you want to,” I told him.

“How?” he asked.

“Well, you get the pseudo physical magic concept by now,” I said. “If you want to, Dan, I’ll use it to force the conversation, if you broach the topic.”

“By killing me if the room doesn’t admit to the conspiracy?” he asked squinting.

“Yeah, Dan,” I said, “basically.”

He shrugged and raised his open hands. “What the hell? Sure. If there’s anything to this paranoiac’s waking dream, I’m dead with overwhelming probability already anyway, and I never notice the mechanism by which you folks would end it.”

“So you’re ready to do this?” I wanted to know.

“If you don’t exist,” he said, “it’s harmless anyway. If you do, why wouldn’t it work, and what does it matter anymore?”

“Then we’ll do it,” I said. “It’s settled. It’s that simple.”

Dan went in front of a room full of people. The room had ambiance, in fact. Some hotshot “P-H-D” “phud” took it on himself to make a public announcement about a strange result in the study of quantum gravity. For one reason or another, a non-institutional venue hosted the event, and it had character. The “phud” introduced Dan. (The “phud” was actually quite a pleasant and charming person.) I was kinda proud of the mistake that wasn’t a mistake.

Dr. Weinentini started to wrap up his talk. He said, “… So, you see why it’s necessary to take seriously the earnest attempt that led to this, and we’ve talked a bit about the theory. With little modification, the simulation is an implementation of Mr. Strano’s math. Here he is to speak a bit about his work in his own words.”

“Now, I hate to say this, but Mr. Strano has asked me to make an explicit note of the fact that he has an illness on the schizophrenia spectrum—which I think is a perfectly unnecessary segue. You will see what I mean. So, without further ado, here is Mr. Strano!”

There was a moderate and sincere applause from the room.

“I wanna fuck ya,” I said as he walked out to the podium. I think it put a little extra spring in his dick.

Dan started to break out the fifty dollar words. I think I followed most of it. His augmented theory of gravitational waves followed from a few simple assumptions. Black holes can be treated as single irreducible quantum objects. They emit waves in the apparent total mass of the hole. The waves travel at the speed of light. They cannot carry more energy away from an object than it has. The waves are bounded on event horizons and the Big Bang.

As a fine point of theory, Dan had posed the particular form of the gravity wave against the common theory in the first place. He only tried to quantize his wave because he was “crazy,” basically. His hypothesis went against a physicist’s “common sense,” but he didn’t know any better than to weave its theorems together into a cohesive delusion, which could only be treated by controlled experiment. His only real loose belief, empirically supported, is that Einstein was fundamentally correct. He offered that his analysis followed, once someone else assessed it in earnest. He thanked the room for assessing it in earnest. That was the universe, in a nut’s hell.

The room grumbled and tweeted with understanding and disbelief, balanced and readjusted as if Dan was being bargained on a scale.

Dan said, “So there’s another topic I need to talk about, now.”

About half the room carried on, and half turned their attention.

Dan asked, “When do we admit to the imminent cataclysm and fix it?”

The room stopped short. A moment later, one lonely supportive cheer flew half up, confused.

“Look to your left, Dan,” I told him. I saw his gaze tip-toe to the side of the stage, off behind the curtains, as the room grumbled and murmured.

My “lower,” my “meat,” slipped in quietly from the side door. I saw him, in the flesh, for the first time in about ten years. I smiled. I was in Converse sneakers and a hooded sweatshirt. His face broadcasted his disbelief.

There was an extra podium toward the edge of the curtains, backstage. I waved, and then I took careful aim, resting the gun on the podium to steady it. (It’s not like I only had one bullet, anyway.)

“What are you talking about?” came a clear shout from somewhere in the room.

Dan froze. I could see in his face when he ruled it an hallucination, and it didn’t even take two seconds.

It barely phased him. “Look,” he said, “I walk around, for over a decade in constant compulsory—coherent—narrative delusion, about an actual metaphysical place, a physical epiphenomenon of a place called the ‘Astral Plane,’ existing in the mind, or the brain—it’s hardly a new delusion on this planet. Over a decade, I’m trapped in it. I do some research I can’t get published, and then Steven Weinentini calls me on my cell phone and tells me he thinks its really significant, and invites me to talk in front of over a hundred scientists I barely let myself dream of ever being in the same room as, much less speaking in front of, and…”

He stumbled for a second. I flinched, but without accident.

“You’re a nut!” called someone in the room.

“I don’t have to explain,” he said, “to anyone in this room—especially my family—what it’s like to feel tiny and yet indispensable to the universe, in a common way. If we have any big and obvious cosmic secrets in this room, I’m not sure if this even makes sense, but now’s the time to abandon the ancient historical hang-ups and lead your physical extension on this planet into the light, already. We’ve really gone way past the last probable chance we even get on this planet, but we landed back on the rock at the bottom, and now we just gotta dust ourselves off and make those drastic changes that the world was gonna end before we made them.”

There was a moment of silence. “What are you talking about?” someone asked for the room.

He dropped his gaze and squinched his eyes. He said, “Christ, help me, I think most of the characters of religion and mythology exist as distributed virtual machines on a platform of natural biological computation.”

My hand trembled. “There’s only one way he can remember this going down, twenty minutes from now,” I told myself. I started to cry.

“Is this gonna work?” asked someone in the audience.

“I don’t know what we’re supposed to tell him,” said another.

“Christ!” shouted a third. “I read his damned paper already, and even I think he’s basically right about that! Billions of people believe a man came back from the dead after three days! You could argue this is even slightly more believable! Let the nut have his beliefs! He thinks the ‘gods’ are subject to natural selection, anyway! It’s harmless.”

Dan’s right eye let a tear get away from it. He said, “But that’s true, isn’t it?”

“Are you talking about the evolution of cultural beliefs, or a metaphysical being, Dan?” come another shout.

“Both!” he said. “Specifically a computational being.”

“That’s outrageous!” came a yell.

“Patently insane!” someone said above the others.

I cocked the gun. Weinentini was strangely glued to his seat during this spectacle. The room went quiet.

“Dan,” said someone toward the back, “at least one or two of us might have tracked down your paper and your internet presence. I swear to you that I don’t think a single one of us can speak to allegations of global conspiracy to hide ‘God’ from you, but your poetry is halfway decent, my friend.”

“Some of us even read your academic paper, Mr. Strano!” came another person. “We have observational reason to take that seriously, despite this lunacy.”

Dan asked, “So you really don’t know?”

I tried to remember that I was gripping the gun and not the necks of the only two other people in the room who actually knew. “Not fucking good enough, ‘God’!” I wanted to scream. “You bring this man into the world, and lie to him, and you take him out back, and bury him in a hole, and then pretend to bring him back from the dead, and you’re sitting there quietly taking credit for a message you’re attributing to him, that’s never who he was or who he was trying to be!”

I took a deep breath and held it in. I checked my aim, and I tried to quell the shakes.

As calmly as I could, enunciating, I annunciated, “Say it, or it’s over either way, ‘Al.'” Dan flinched, and looked the other direction.

“You can’t make me,” his father said immediately. “You can’t fucking make me, Dan! You can’t make me say I’m fucking Allah!”

“You mean you’re fucking ‘Eros,’ Allah,” said his mother.

John said, “‘Eris,’ Annie—you’re the one with summa freakin’ cum louder English degrees, but even I got that straight. I’m just the idiot that holds up the whole goddamned world for everybody, but Jesus H. fucking Christ is gonna call us out on his naming day!”

“So, that’s how this is gonna work,” said Annie.

“That’s exactly how this is gonna work, Annie,” said John, “him and his long lost freakin’ Lenore.”

“That’s cheesy, John,” said Annie.

“God’s an idiot, ‘Kid,'” he quipped back.

“We made him, ‘Kid,'” she said, staring at the floor, sitting on her hands.

“He’s gonna fucking ruin it, Kid! He thinks he’s gonna end God’s kingdom and his marriage in the same day!” said John.

Dan came out of the fugue state he’d been in for a second to spit holy fire. “Folks, no matter how you read it, you’re goddamned control freaks, and every decision I make, or thought I articulate, that is of actual consequence or significance somehow becomes about you! It’s about your pain, and loss of a sense of control that’s at once draconian and pitiably tenuous! It’s about your relationship with grandma freakin’ Hera, reincarnated. It’s about how I reflect the rising and setting of uncle Apollo.”

“Or was he Hypnos, Dan?” asked his mother. “You don’t understand what it’s like to be a parent, son. We know we made mistakes, but there’s no instruction manual, Daniel. I’m sorry.”

Are we missing the point?” Dan shouted and gesticulated through blood tears. “Are we changing the subject to you again? Do you actually hear a word I am saying, when the topic becomes something of particular consequence? Are we all, in fact, clear on whom we know each other to be, after over thirty years?

I gaped. The room went silent. Tears streamed down Dan’s burning, stone countenance.

A groan came from the periphery. “God, he’s probably fucking right!” said the groaner.

Laughs reverberated. My pitch fell a little.

“He’s apparently basically right about the quantum theory of gravity,” said the groaner, “and he’s probably freaking right about this! You win, Strano. You converted me.”

I let my breath go. This couldn’t be a long term solution, could it? How could anyone even have the will for it?

“Daniel,” said Dr. Weinentini, “I think there might have been that one acid trip we all had.”

“… Or two, or three, as the case may be, Steven!” someone said across the room.

Steven Weinentini rolled his eyes. “Yeah,” he said, “just enough to pretend I understand quantum mechanics.”

He said, “Dan, how about this? We appreciate the quantum gravity paper. We’ll keep an eye out for your missed connection with God.”

“I agree!” someone shouted.

The room grumbled semi-affirmatively.

Weinentini stood up. “Then let’s have a round of applause for Mr. Strano,” he said.

The applause was surprisingly warm and enveloping. I’ll never forget the sound of it, or the look on his face. Watching Dan, I kissed the gun and crossed my heart with it. I wished him namaste, out of the corner of his eye, and I fled the scene. Daniel was too distracted to acknowledge the applause.

That night in the hotel, he drank, quite a bit. He talked with himself. He wrote two sonnets for me. He fell asleep unwashed and in his clothing. It was the least likely of all possible worlds.

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