Saturday, September 17, 2005


The other night I was crashed out on the couch, simultaneously watching the second-to-last week of Rock Star: INXS, reading the final few pages of a nifty sci-fi book titled The Light Of Other Days, and eyeing my newly-bought copy of philosopher and Trappist monk Thomas Merton's autobiography, The Seven-Storey Mountain, that lay abandoned on the floor on the other side of the room. In my world, these three things are related. (My world is just like your world. Only skewed.)

For those not in the know, Rock Star: INXS is an American Idol style competition, the end result being that the winner becomes, you guessed it, the lead singer of INXS; I've caught a few episodes here and there, and, given that there's only one week left to go, I'm somewhat intrigued as to who will be the eventual winner. Moving right along in my capsule summary, The Light Of Other Days is a novel written by Stephen Baxter (who writes hard SF, 'hard SF' being science-fiction that has a lot of science on top of the fiction, but, come to think of it, this one particular book is not all that hard, in terms of the science -- let's call it 'semi-erect' SF) and Arthur C.Clarke, of 2001 Fame. Thomas Merton is a famous (?) writer and monk who spent most of his life in a monastery in the United States but still managed to connect and correspond with the outside world, and given that he spent most of his life trying to maintain a spiritual relationship with the universe, is it somewhat ironic that he died while slipping on a bar of soap while washing in the tub in Thailand? You tell me.

This is the thing. I don't usually like to read while I'm watching TV, because I'm not bright enough to do two things at the same time, and even if I were, I'm sure that something would get scrambled in the process. Something would be lost. This night, however, I desperately wanted to see who would be voted off Rock Star: INXS, but I also was eager to finish the last few pages of this really cool science-fiction novel because it was, well, really cool. So I did both, read and watched. And learned something in the process. I think.

The Light Of Other Days is about a time in the near-future where science has developed to a point where wormholes in the universe can be harnessed to basically be used as viewing devices -- meaning, you can log on to your computer and 'create' a wormhole through which you can spy on anyone and everyone you like. Want to see what's happening in a suburb of Moscow? Just type in the coordinates; the wormhole allows you to shift the perspective, zoom, do close-ups, whatever. The book's characterizations are a bit clumsy, me thinks, but the development of the legal, political, and, ultimately, moral developments are fascinatingly explored.

Because this is the thing: not only can you 'watch' what's going on in the world through these womrholes, but you can also use them to view things in different time periods of the past (but not the future). So historians can look back at the war of 1812, or Vietnam, or the second season of Lee Majors' The Fall Guy, when shit really started to get good. Oh, but that's not all. Eventually the technology develops so that you can link the wormholes to a person's own personal DNA, which means that one can, theoretically, view the developments of one's own life, of one's own ancestors, as easily as watching an A & E miniseries. Think about it. You could see your mother being born, your mother's mother, your mother's mother's mother, watching the events of life like a movie made just for you and your heirs. But that's not all. The end of the book pushes this concept to the ultimate limit, where two of the character's view the history of their own DNA.

What does that mean? Glad you asked. It means that they go back in time. I don't just mean 'back in time' like Bill and Ted or Marty McFly went 'back in time'. I mean baaaaaack in time. They see their grandmother's grandmother's grandmother's grandmother's grandmother's grandmother being born. And then further. They trace a single chromosome of their own DNA to its ultimate origin -- meaning, past people, past apes, past dinosaurs, all the way to single celled organisms, to half-celled organisms, to cells that exist in way pre-historic rock, to...

I don't know if I should tell you this part. Let's just say, the book goes back to before the beginning of life on earth, and provides a conclusion that is startling, sensible, and a harbinger of what humanity needs to do in order to avoid or prevent a piece of asteroid from destroying the earth five hundred years from now. It's a fanastic end to an intriguing book. Too many science-fiction or horror stories don't really push their concepts to their ultimate conclusions. This one does, then beyond. Big time.

And yet, I'm reading the truly cosmic, near transcendent final few pages of prose while trying to figure out if the Canadian chick or the Canadian dude are going to get booted off of Rock Star: INXS. Here I am, through the beauty of fiction, realizing that all life is ultimately futile, that all humanity is, essentially, descended from primordial sludge, that life is nothing more than a neverending series of evolutions that leave us, the people, the ones intensely involved in the process, as little more than bystanders to our own eradication, and yet fuck, was that a good song that Marty sang, the one called 'Trees'. He deserves to win, that dude.

I don't know how humans do it. Thomas Merton didn't either, the monk, which was why he disconnected himself from the world -- to be closer to the God he loved. We could all do that, true, but then we wouldn't be involved in the really important decisions of life, like deciding who fronts an Australian rock band most famous for the fact that its lead singer killed himself while jerking off with a noose around his head. Contemplating the essential mystery of life while secretly rooting for one rock star wannabe over another is something that only a human could do. Something only we would want to do.

I know that it doesn't matter who wins or loses the competition. I know that speculations about the future are a random game at best, a futile, cautiounary warning. I know that what works for one soul will not work for another. But I watch reality rock shows, and read science fiction, and wonder about the lives of monks. And sometimes I do all three at the same time.

I don't think all of this proves the existence of a God, no, but it does prove the existence of myself, the acknowledgement that I exist, that I ponder, that I can consider cosmic themes while listening to cool tunes. That may not mean anything, no, but if feelings are all we have to by, then I'll take those. If only for a night.

(And I do hope and think that Marty wins the competition, by the way.)

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