I find something deeply unsettling about numbers stations.
I suppose I must have encountered the concept at some point reading spy fiction, but my true introduction to numbers stations came earlier this year from my friend Anthony Atamaniuk. When he played a few examples at a party, I was instantly transported to the nightmarish world of my earliest childhood memories, where the universe beyond my bedcovers seemed to vanish with the fall of night, and every half-heard or half-imagined sound was like a transmission from a cinder planet light-years dead. To me the recordings sounded like outer space, like eternal night, like death.
If you have any interest in the history of espionage, or just in very creepy recordings that probably influenced many a horror movie soundtrack, you have to take a listen:
(You may have heard some of this material before. In fact, if you want to hear where the ethereal voice intoning "Yankee ... Hotel ... Foxtrot ..." on that Wilco album came from, just click forward to track 4.)
What I find most remarkable about numbers stations is that they're not some Cold War relic. They persist to this day, even in this Internet age. I know that composer Olivia Block has been scanning the shortwave bands for numbers stations lately, searching for the ingredients of a new recording project. Somewhere out there, hunted women and men are still pulling out their radios late at night, casting their lonely reports out into the ether like messages in bottles.
I never expected it would take so long to make this announcement, but my Mormon missionary memoir The Accidental Terrorist will be published by Sinister Regard in 2015.
Although it might end up with a different title. And the cover definitely won't look like the one below. And Sinister Regard is actually me.
I'm very excited, nevertheless.
It's hard for me to pin down exactly when I started work on this book. The events it chronicles took place mostly between September 1986 and March 1987, when I was a Mormon missionary serving in Alberta. But before that time span had even ended, I was already learning to tell bits and pieces of the story to an audience. In 1988, I told the full story to a few fellow missionarieswith a tape recorder running. Here's an excerpt, in which you can hear me at age 20 with my Utah accent still fully intact:
In 1993 I started relating the story in email to a non-Mormon acquaintance, but the telling required so much backstory that it eventually grew to three dozen installments. I soon began posting these chapters to a science fiction roundtable on GEnie, where they generated plenty of discussion and interest. In 1995, when I had my first personal web site, I started posting the chapters again, and they've remained a perennial draw.
But it wasn't until early in 1999 that I began trying to spin these slapdash reminiscences into an actual, substantive book. My agent at the time immediately set about trying to sell the partial manuscript, and my first blog post about the submission process dates from October 2000. There followed a long series of outright rejections and heart-breaking near-misses, not to mention a terrorist attack in 2001 that rendered a light-hearted book about a bomb threat virtually unpublishable, and then a major scandal in 2006 that nearly killed the market for non-celebrity memoirs altogether.
That year, frustrated, I began serializing the book as a regular segment of my personal podcast. Again, it went over very well, attracting a lot of attention. In 2009 I cut-and-pasted those segments into their own standalone podcast, again attracting plenty of notice.
All through this, I was frequently asked when the podcast would become available in book form. But despite the heroic efforts of one agent after another, traditional publishers continued to pass on the manuscriptsometimes in the most effusive terms possible.
Eventually, my kind and wise agent Barry Goldblatt sat me down. He knew how important this book was to me, and how much the more than fifteen years of effort I'd put into it was costing me. "We know there's an audience for this book," he said, "even if no editor can see that. You need to get it out there. I think it's time for you to self-publish."
Laura and I had been thinking about that ourselves for quite sometime. The precise timetable is not yet set, but you can probably look for both print and ebook publication in the spring of 2015, maybe summer. Never fear. It is happening.
We're taking time to get everything right because I don't want to put out a substandard product. We've hired a very respected book editor as our, um, book editor. I'll get my first round of edits from her right at Christmasmy own gift to myself! After another round of edits, we'll run it through a professional gauntlet of copyediting, book design, and art. Who knows? We'll probably even change the title back to one of my early favoritesMissionary Man.
I know some of you have been waiting for this book for a very long time. You've probably given up hope that you would ever see it. It's been through plenty of different permutations over the years, and I plan to give you the best version I'm capable of producing. I hope you look forward to getting it half as much as I look forward to giving it to you.
It's been several months since I posted an Ella video, so I figure we're overdue. Here's one I took this past Saturday at Astoria Park during off-leash hours.
Ella spies a squirrel foraging far out on the meadow. For a while she just watches, until I nudge her into action (about 0:27). The thing to note is how Ella bends her trajectory not directly toward the squirrel but to where she predicts the squirrel is heading. She trying to cut it off before it reaches its tree.
It's been a long time since I posted a mix of the month, but the CD Mix of the Month Club hasn't been mixing it up very often lately. A few of us convened for karaoke earlier this month, though, so I figured that was enough of an excuse to whip up a new mix.
My contribution for October, most emphatically not a Halloween mix, is called The Writing's on the Wall. Eleven of the fourteen tracks are available on Spotify, so you can check out a good 78.6% of the mix below:
This post about The Bone Clocks contains mild spoilers.
When grappling with works of genre fiction, most mainstream literary critics can be counted on to demonstrate a peculiar tone-deafness. Take the case of The New Yorker's James Woods, who calls David Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks "weightless," "empty," and "demented." So "frictionless" does Wood find it, in fact, that it prompts him to call into question the soundness of such earlier Mitchell works as Cloud Atlas.
Upon reflection, I have to admit that The Bone Clocks is probably my least favorite of Mitchell's novels (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet being the only one I haven't yet read). But I found it for the most part extremely engaging, even thrilling, and I dispute Wood's contention that "the realismthe human activityis relatively unimportant" when stacked up against the novel's science-fictional premise.
The Bone Clocks is built, like much of Mitchell's work, around a structural conceit that passes the duty of first-person narrator, like a baton in a relay race, to a new point-of-view character every hundred pages or so. Each of the book's six sections becomes, in essence, a novella of its own, conveying the overall narrative from its intensely realistic beginnings with a runaway teenager in 1984 to its apocalyptic, post-oil conclusion in 2043.
Each subsequent section shows us earlier characters through new, illuminating sets of eyes, while in the background we get glimpses of a long-running secret war between two groups of more-or-less-immortal combatants. The fifth section immerses us fully in this ancient conflict before the sixth returns us to the point of view of our original narrator, Holly Sykes, though 59 years have passed since we first met her.
Critic Wood finds the novel entertaining enough, and skillfully written, though he complains that the supernatural shenanigans rob our lowly mortal heroes of their agency. The story turns these sad "detectives of drivel" into mere puppets marched here and there at the whims of their scheming author-god.
It's true that some of the genre material clunks and clangs, most particularly the fifth section's climactic battle between the good Horologists and the evil Anchorites. (I found it perversely reassuring to see that Mitchell doesn't do everything well.) But this does nothing to rob any of the mortal characters of their agency. Far from being puppets, they continue to love, hate, yearn, rage, seek vengeance, and forgive, just like real people, even as they struggle to resist the larger conflict that periodically disrupts their lives in ugly ways. Yes, sometimes the irresistible forces of the novel alter the trajectories of ordinary lives, but no differently than might a traffic accident, or a job loss, or a chronic illness. A narrowing of options does not imply a loss of agency.
Wood insists that the larger-than-life conflict drains the rest of the story of meaning, that what happens "in the novel between people has meaning only in relation to what occurs in the novel between Anchorites and Horologists." I disagree. Mitchell has plenty to say in this book. It's just that critics of Wood's ilk miss it because it's rendered in a register they can't hear (the register of ideas), not the one they're listening for (the register of the human heart). (The irony is, The Bone Clocks is filled to the brim with matters of the human heart.)
So what is Mitchell up to in The Bone Clocks? The key, for me, is in that strange sixth section, depicting the days when our teetering civilization finally teeters too far and slides irrevocably toward collapse. This is when we realize that the battle between Horologists and Anchorites, like all mankind's internecine battles, is what is truly insignificant. Holly's lifelong struggle to ignore the battle waging around her, to carry on with her life despite everything, is the entire point. It mirrors humanity's own struggle to carry on while helpless to oppose the gargantuan forces dismantling our ecosystem and our very society. How often do we raise our heads above the parapet, survey that epic destruction, then do our best to pretend it isn't ever really going to affect us?
It's a bleak view, yes, but one not devoid of hope. The last few pages of the book remind us that, even if our own generation is doomed, the fight is still worthwhileperhaps only worthwhileif there's a chance of saving the next.
James Wood closes his analysis by implying that humanity since Milton has had no need of the good-versus-evil story. "The novel takes over from the epic," he says, "not just because inwardness opens itself up as the great novelistic subject but because human freedom asserts itself against divine arrangement." But from where I'm sitting, as feckless, sluggish governments battle titanic, rapacious corporations with the fate of our species and countless others in the balance, human freedom seems as illusory as ever, and an epic like The Bone Clocks every bit as necessary.
This poem debuted live at Tuesday Funk #48 in Chicago on September 4, 2012, the same day it was written. I've submitted it to a few editors since then, but since they (probably sensibly) turned it down, my birthday present to myself is to publish it here.
It was the early 23rd and I was just the latest turd
Of a miner to get dumped on Harkin's Moon.
I had finished my first shift and took the slow repulsor lift
Up to a weightless bar called Betsy's Grand Saloon.
We were sipping bulbs of beer in artificial atmosphere
And watching servers flit around that hollow space.
My hair still caked with sand, I said the place it sure was grand,
And my new buddies smirked and pointed 'cross the place.
"You see that mope sitting alone like some sad king up on his throne?"
They said. "That bastard is the grandest of the grand.
And if you go and ask him why and make it back, why, then we'll buy
Your drinks all night, and we'll know you're a real man."
But they said, they said, "You have to ask him, sucker,
How he ever got to be such a grand motherfucker."
And then they shoved me in the chest and I was drifting past the rest
Of all the patrons, and the place grew deathly silent.
And I could only stop my flight by grabbing on and holding tight
To that guy's table, and the look he flashed was violent.
Well, I was barely hanging on, my heart was banging like a gong,
And that guy said, "You got a question? Well, then ask it."
Before those hundred pairs of eyes, I had no witty, quick replies,
And though I knew it just might mean an early casket,
I said, "Sir, I don't mean to push my luck, uh...
But how'd you get to be such a grand muthafucka?"
The whole bar's sharp intake of breath was like a harbinger of death,
And I was ready for that mope to grab his blaster.
And though his eyes were filled with rage, I saw the clues to his true age,
The biomods that smoothed his skin to alabaster.
He said, "No one has asked in years, which makes you braver than your peers."
He raised a jeweled fist as if to call my bluff.
"What can you tell about this ring?" It was a massive, gleaming thing.
I said, "That's rhodium? I only mine the stuff."
He snapped his fingers, called for drinks. Amidst the hubbub and the clinks
Of glassware, flunkies Velcro'd me into a chair.
And he took his sad Manhattan from a server clad in satin,
And said, "I'm the one who pays for all this air.
"So if you came here for a kiss, it's time to pucker,
'Cause this is how I got to be this grand motherfucker."
And this is what he said. He said:
It was the mid 22nd, I was second in my class, Ph.D. in physics just within my grasp. Trying to unravel time travel, Testing theories in my lab. Could I grab all the glory, Nobel Prize? Built a model down to size, miniaturized, Fusion-powered on my finger. At the zero hour, fired up the power. Blinding flash, blinked my eyes. Where was I? Found a paper and I found to my surprise It was the late 21st. I was the first to jump through time, But the bubble shortly burst. I pressed the button on my ring To go back. Not a thing. All alone, Stranded sixty years from home.
How to get back, back on track?
Hack a passage to the future,
Stitch a suture in the spacetime fabric.
Found my way to my old college,
Newer now, seeking knowledge
From the sages of the time.
Showed up during office hours
Of a prof named Dr. Powers,
Told my tale to his assistant,
Was insistent that she listen,
Saw her eyes glisten. Frisson
Of familiarity came over me,
there and gone, she was on the intercom.
She shook her head.
She said, "Professor regrets he
Can't see you, but I'm Betsy.
I'm on my way to lunch, but I've a hunch
A bunch of stuff I know could help,
If you let me."
So we talked. Physics.
Noon turned to evening,
Thoughts of leaving fled.
21st century's not so dead,
I was thinking in my head.
But Betsy was believing in my story.
Took the ring apart in her lab,
Put it back together
With some parts from inventory.
She touched my hand,
Said, "Let's test it in the morning."
And she took me home.
But not to sleep.
What more is there to tell? Hurt like hell
To say goodbye, but it worked well, the ring.
She really was a genius.
Safe but aching back at home,
22nd, my time, my apartment,
Walked in. I saw the photos on the wall.
There was my mother as a small girl.
A photo I had seen my whole life,
Like a knife stabbing, shook my head.
My hands were grabbing at the frame,
One name on my tongue,
'Cause holding my mom's hand
Was my brilliant Betsy.
Do you get the point yet?
But I'd known her best as Liz, see?
Grandma Liz. I grew dizzy,
And it hit me like a mountain,
Like a fountain of my DNA,
Circling recursively through time,
Cursèd strands that recombine
In a loop I can't escape, no extraction,
And it's real, it's no abstraction.
The bar was deathly still. There were still some gaps to fill,
Like how he'd traded patents for this lonely moon.
And all the rhodium we mined to fuel forays back in time
Went to the government. What they did no one knew.
He said, "I'll never leave this place 'cause I can never show my face
On the rock of my conception and my birth.
Five years, your contract expires and you'll head home to the spires
Of the place I'll never see againthe Earth!"
And he waved his jeweled hand, just a bitter, broken man,
And my pals they dragged me off to rent some tail.
But the girls in the brothel all wore 21st century costumes,
And I realized this moon was just a jail.
We're inmates trapped without the hope of succor
In the prison that's the mind of the Grand Motherfucker.
I've told this story many times, in many ways. This particular version was written for The First Time: First Crime, an evening of readings at Second City's Up Comedy Club in Chicago on April 17, 2013. I read it again at Tuesday Funk #61 on September 3, 2013, and later posted it as an answer on Quora (to the question "What are you banned from? Why?") and as an essay on Medium (where it became an Editor's Pick). As long as it was available for free in those places, I figured it ought to have a home here too. So here it is. Happy Canada Day.
They caught up with me in the men's room of a bus station in Great Falls, Montana.
Now, the fact that "they" were after me might lead you to presume that I was running from the law, that the cops or other authorities were hot on my trail, but that's not the case. My felony was still two months in the future at that point, though I was on the lam.
I was on the lam from the Mormon Church.
It was the last week of 1986. I was nineteen years old, and I'd spent the past three months in the dreary oil town of Brooks, Alberta, Canada, the first posting of my two-year assignment as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I never wanted to serve a mission, but I grew up in Utah, in a devout family, and to not do so would have meant admitting to my parents and my community and my church leaders that I just wasn't that into Mormonism. I had college to finish. I had novels I was burning to write.
But I also had shame, so like a good boy I put in my mission application papers, hoping for a plum assignment like Brazil or Sweden or Japan, someplace I could at least learn a foreign language and rack up some cool life points. Instead, Canada--and not even the part where they spoke French. Western Canada. For a bright Mormon kid from Utah, this was almost as humiliating an assignment as Idaho. But that's where the grayhairs in Salt Lake City said God needed me.
Missionary life, if you're curious, was horrible. Knocking on doors for twelve hours a day in miserable weather. No television, no movies, no newspapers, no books but the Bible and the Book of Mormon. No dating. No phone calls home. The constant presence of your assigned partner, your so-called "companion," with whom you spend every waking moment of every single day, lest one or the other of you should fall into temptation. Oh, and always referring to each other by your title, "Elder," instead of by your names.
After three months of this, I'd had it. I was stir-crazy and depressed, and I'd figured out that they call it "serving" a mission because it's a lot like "serving" a prison sentence. I wanted to go home, but I knew if I brought it up with our mission president in Calgary, President Tuttle, he'd just find a way to talk me into staying. So, a few days after Christmas, I snuck off to the bus station in the wee hours of the morning and made my escape.
That bus ride--west to Calgary and then south to the border, running for my freedom, running from my duty to God--was one of the most thrilling days of my life. Once my absence became known, the Church activated its remarkable emergency communications network--invaluable in times of natural disaster--to put out an A.P.B. on a fugitive missionary whose only crimes were wanting to read science fiction novels and make out with his girlfriend.
At the border crossing, I managed to avoid the two missionaries they sent to intercept me as I transferred from one bus to the next. I felt like a real super-spy. I felt like James Bond.
But that evening in Great Falls--well, I had a bad feeling as the gray-haired man in the black leather jacket trailed me through the bus station toward the men's room. To show you how useless I am in stressful situations, I went into the men's room anyway, because while James Bond never seems to need to pee, I really did, and I didn't see an alternative.
Sure enough, as I was taking care of business at the urinal, this man in his black leather jacket came in, leaned against the wall, and said, "Elder Shunn?"
To make a long story short, this man was the local Mormon stake president--roughly comparable to a Catholic bishop--and he was there to convince me, if not to resume my mission service, then at least to go back to Calgary and request an honorable discharge from my mission.
Look, it's hard for a Mormon kid to say no to authority figures, which is why I didn't want to talk to my mission president in the first place. Which is all by way of saying that I did go back to Calgary, with delusions of that honorable discharge dancing in my head. To my credit, I managed to hold out against President Tuttle's onslaught of compassionate brainwashing--and that of the people like my parents whom he put me on the phone with--for all of about five hours.
"Oh, Elder Shunn," he exclaimed after I'd caved, "I'm overjoyed at how the Spirit has touched your heart! Oh, and I want you to know that you are in no way on probation or in trouble with me for going AWOL. No, the one who's in trouble is that lazy companion of yours in Brooks who failed to do everything in his power to keep you from getting on that bus in the first place."
Now let's fast-forward two months. I've been reassigned to Calgary, where I'm doing pretty well, with plenty of other missionaries around to keep the loneliness and depression at bay. I'm actually starting to have a reasonably okay time.
It's late February. I'm on temporary assignment with a missionary I'll call Elder Finn. Both our regular companions are district leaders, and they're off somewhere at a mission leadership conference with President Tuttle and thirty or forty other district and zone leaders.
(If this sounds like sales terminology, by the way, that's probably not an accident.)
It's nearly evening, and I'm at Calgary International Airport, where Elder Finn has forced me to accompany him. He's been planning this excursion for weeks, planning for the day when all the mission's most diligent elders are tied up at a conference, and when he's partnered with the infamous Elder Shunn--that one who tried to run away.
Elder Finn, who's only been out on his mission for four months, is planning to fly home, to Sacramento. He's done.
But there's one thing Finn hasn't counted on. He thought I was the kind of missionary who'd help him. He thought, based on my past behavior, that I'd stand by and give him time to get away before calling President Tuttle.
I spent the entire drive out to the airport trying to talk Elder Finn into staying on his mission. He wasn't having any of it, so now I've slipped away from him in the crowded terminal, and I'm desperately dialing numbers at a pay phone. President Tuttle is not at his office, of course, and none of the missionaries whose numbers I can dredge up from memory are home either. The clock is ticking down to Finn's departure. I have this crazy, half-formed backup plan--but am I willing to do everything in my power to keep my companion from leaving?
I rip open the phone book before I can talk myself out of my scheme. I look up Western Airlines and find what I recognize as a local number. I plug my quarter into the slot. My hand shakes as I dial.
The line picks up on the first ring. "Western Air Cargo," says a young man. "How can I help you?"
I take a deep breath. Slowly, clearly, and distinctly, I say, "There's a bomb in a suitcase on Flight Seven-eighty-nine."
And I hang up.
I wish I had time to tell you what happened next--how I watched airport security quietly mobilize, how the plane in question was grounded, evacuated, and searched, how the Royal Canadian Mounted Police--yes, the fucking Mounties--caught up with me, how I was convicted of felony public mischief and sentenced to jail, and how to this day I'm forbidden to set foot in Canada. Oh, right, and how Elder Finn was one of the few passengers that night who actually managed to reach his final destination. That's all a story for a different day.
What I will tell you is what still unsettles me at night and keeps me awake, which is how easily faith and circumstance can warp a rash impulse into an act of terror. Any of us could be standing on that brink without suspecting it, as I well know.