“Alienation” by Robert Pritchard

R. Z. Markson is not a real person, but I envy him. He is doubly unreal—first, in that this name is a pseudonym behind which an actual person of flesh and blood has published a science fiction novel, and second, in that this name is not even the correct pseudonym. I have replaced it with a similar, and similarly fabricated, name. The reader of a roman à clef would be disappointed without some veil to penetrate.

During the writing of my third novel, I became obsessed with constructed languages, especially those designed to be perfectly logical. Lojban, for example, is rigorously unambiguous and regular in grammar and spelling. To wit:

ni’o la cevni co’a finti le tsani .e le terdi .i le terdi cu kalsa gi’e kunti .ije le manku cu sefta le condi .i le ruxse’i be la cevni cu fulta. . . .

So begins a famous book that in English starts, “In the beginning. . . .” God, as you know, created the universe with words. Another synthetic language, Lincos—or lingua cosmica—is still more pure. Resembling mathematical equations, it contains within itself a kind of primer so that any message fragment, upon being discovered by an alien civilization, could be deciphered. Incredibly, these both failed to catch on with the general public.

In these constructed languages there is only one way to express any given thought. Alas, this is not so in English. How often have I wished to steal the words of another who’d expressed my thoughts more aptly than I could, before I’d had a chance to express them. This is where R. Z. Markson comes in. Under this pseudonym a real person—if I wrote his name, you would recognize it—published a novel that was soon revealed to be largely plagiarized. His thefts, he would later tell me, were clues out of the labyrinth.

If it knew what Markson really believed, the world would call him mad. Alienated would be a better description, to use the nineteenth century’s name for mental illness. He was, indeed, estranged from the world. He was like the final survivor of some disappearing culture: an Ishi, a King Billy. In an interview, Markson claimed he’d originally wanted to write his book in one of the languages of Ophiuchus itself but the publisher refused—making a joke I later realized was no joke.

* * *

A few years ago I traveled to a country I cannot name. It may not be in eastern Europe, but its politics, and its gray concrete architecture, certainly recall that region circa 1970. The regime permits the staging of approved works of theater, and it was to attend one of these productions that I—together with a half dozen other American writers and artists—went to the capital city.

The play—which must also go unnamed, for obvious reasons—is centuries old, and is a much-honored work in that country’s literature. Its young director was said to be the most innovative in his country’s theater. Our party arrived late at night. Seen from the airplane window, the city, home to many millions, was unusually dark. Besides the few of us, the plane was populated only by a scarce handful of, I assume, diplomats and businessmen in brown suits; they were unsmiling and did not speak. From the airport we were immediately driven to the theater. Over our objections, I might add, because we were tired after a long journey with many connections. Nevertheless, our host insisted we head directly to the theater, because despite the hour—it was nearly midnight—the play was about to begin.

The nineteenth-century theater was a massive stone building in the city center. The empty streets, wet from recent rain, reflected the alternating red and green lights that controlled the nonexistent traffic. We entered the spacious, red-carpeted lobby. The atmosphere was funereal. Only a few weak bulbs burned in the large chandeliers. There were no ushers or other employees; there were no patrons besides ourselves. Inside the auditorium, brass fittings glinted in the dim light, red velvet draped the stage and walls. The seven of us, plus our host, were the only audience. The curtains parted and the play began. The actors were heroic and statuesque. They declaimed their lines in stentorian voices. Yet despite the nonnaturalistic staging, the drama was absorbing, and the next several hours flew by. When it ended, we rubbed our eyes and walked out the bronze doors onto the street, where the first light of dawn was breaking.

The following evening I dined with the play’s director. The young man was as dynamic and erudite as promised. He explained that while the regime allowed his plays to be produced, no one was allowed to attend. The entire country, he went on, was being converted to a staged show. I agreed that dictatorship encouraged falseness, but he said he meant something else entirely. Then he spun a wild fantasy of people being replaced by robots who believed they were the people they replaced, and how the world was a terrarium like you might keep laboratory rats in, and how he felt like the last man on Earth, the only one who remembered humanity as it had been. I was, he said, one of the few whom he could tell. His tone was ironic, so one could listen without laughing at the absurdity, but I sensed that under the irony he was serious and grew uneasy, as one would if an otherwise-reasonable acquaintance suddenly revealed an appreciation for cockfights or the sociology of Alfred Rosenburg. When I asked why he felt he could talk to me, he refused to answer.

* * *

Recently, at a party given by my publisher in New York, I met the man who had assumed the name R. Z. Markson—an older, graying gentleman. His career in academia, and a long history of criticism extolling the Greco-Roman and Early Modern English classics, made him feel that to publish a science fiction novel would be infra dig. Nevertheless he had long nursed a surreptitious interest in this, the lowest form of fiction imaginable, but this was not what inspired him to try his hand at it. We adjourned to a neighborhood bar and he told me, in all apparent seriousness, that his book was a record of absolute truth. His theory seemed to have something to do with identity in the modern world.

In the French Nouveau Roman, writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, and Michel Butor experimented with fiction that dispensed with characters. In Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, for example, the narrator is elided from his own narration. Objects, places, persons, and actions are presented directly, but the eyes through which we see them belong to a mind that is a psychological void, a literal No One. In what is known as the Fregoli delusion, the patient is convinced that various people are actually the same person, either in disguise or somehow supernaturally changing appearances. Intermetamorphosis involves the conviction that one’s acquaintances switch or trade identities. The Capgras delusion is the belief that friends and family have been replaced with imposters. Markson was certain they who suffered from these mental illnesses were not sick at all, but were the only sane individuals in a world where madness was a prerequisite. He wrote a science fiction novel—which I shall call The Accursed Gioconda—because the form allowed him to depict literally, by naturalistic mechanisms, what in the Nouveau Roman occurred simply via the ineffable auspices of fiction.

Now you see why, aside from the danger of lawsuits, I have veiled these identities: no one would believe me! Who would guess that the aged scholar, a man to all appearances as cultured as his hero, John Ruskin, secretly believed in crazed conspiratorial fantasies?

Then he promised to show me a device he’d purchased at great expense from one of those men who risk their lives exploring the battlefields of the War of the Iron Tree, where the Amaranthine faction spread madness over half of Europe. This weapon allowed one to play on the human psyche as easily as a virtuoso plays a familiar tune on the piano. History and memory could be scraped clean and rewritten like soft, wet clay. Once I saw it, he averred, I would not be able to deny the truth.

We parted in the small morning hours. I returned to my hotel and slept until the following afternoon. Upon waking, I read in the Times of Markson’s death—of natural causes, in his hotel room, the door locked from the inside. Needless to say, no uncanny device was discovered there. Not long afterward, I learned of the death, on the other side of the world, of the dynamic young director. I went back to The Accursed Gioconda and found the following passage relevant.

I’m at liberty to quote at length here because the writer Markson plagiarized in this section was me.

* * *

The detached retina, in its earlier stages, produces photopsia: flashes of false light. These residues of a person’s dying sight exist only in the brain, as it tries to interpret the neural impulses coming from the malfunctioning eye. In the total darkness of the cave, this hallucinatory aura may be the last thing you see.

From childhood, the cave environment fascinated me, and it became my profession. My research at the University of —— took me to the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea. The karst landscape is conducive to cave formation, and there alone lives the olm. This troglodytic salamander spends its entire life underground, and is the largest animal to do so. It has an elongated serpentine body of yellowish- or pinkish-white, four tiny limbs, external gills that appear red from the blood close to the surface, and nonseeing eyes covered with skin. For perception, it relies on well-developed chemical and electrical senses. It’s ironic this rare animal was my holy grail, since now I am essentially in its position. I went underground a man and come back up an olm, out of my element in the day-lit surface world.

The four of us were exploring the waterlogged caverns when I began to notice strange lights moving in the darkness. Then, as if in counterpoint to my overactive vision in the dark, my vision when the lamps were lit became dimmed. Retinal detachment is considered a medical emergency, but fortunately it is among the least painful of medical emergencies.

I was blind, but my three colleagues helped me return to the surface. That’s when we learned that our subterranean sojourn made us among the few humans on the planet not to have been exposed to a strange transmission. Apparently, while we were underground, Earth had been bombarded by a forty-eight-hour wave of exotic hadrons. These massive composite particles, made up of hundreds of bound quarks, of a structure no human scientist had contemplated, seemed themselves to be evidence of a superintelligent civilization. Yet there was the possibility also of them being simply a natural occurrence, the radiation of some hitherto unknown celestial object on the other side of the universe. In any case, the stream appeared at first to have no effect. A few days later, just as my team emerged into daylight, the first instances of xenoglossia appeared.

This term originally referred to an alleged paranormal phenomenon where an individual suddenly manifests the ability to speak a language he or she had never been exposed to. Despite many purported cases, there had never been a confirmation of xenoglossia before the transmission, and, in a sense, there still was not. To confirm xenoglossia in the old sense required a native speaker to verify the new language, but this new speech matched no language on Earth. Its speakers could, however, communicate with each other. Xenoglossic people began to congregate, and their behavior began to change. Without any declaration, they seceded in spirit. They simply did not participate in anything having to do with the old society. At first, their noncompliance with traffic laws and tax returns, and their total refusal to even acknowledge the apparatus of law, caused the authorities to jail thousands of them. But as thousands turned into hundreds of thousands, and the authorities themselves deserted their posts to join the Xenoglossics, this became impossible.

There were a few others who’d escaped the transmission: miners and construction workers, mostly, a few geologists and spelunkers, and a pair of oceanographers who’d been under ten thousand feet of water in a US Navy submersible. At first, because the Xenoglossia took time to appear, there were many who thought they’d escaped, or were immune, but eventually they too began speaking the new language and drifted away. Only those who were underground during the whole of the transmission, or were otherwise protected, could be counted on not to turn.

We speculated on the purpose of the hadron wave. The collapse of our society, and its replacement by another inhabited by individuals who were physically the same but behaviorally very different, had happened too quickly for scientists to make much headway in studying the transmission. We had access to the abandoned university laboratories, but none of us knew enough about particle physics or astronomy to make use of them. One of my colleagues read aloud an article in the last-ever issue of Scientific American, which opined that the transmission was an invasion by means of a cosmic language, a kind of baryonic beaming of old minds into new heads.

For six months we lived off the detritus of our civilization. The Xenoglossics, of course, ignored us. Then one by one, members of our group—even those who’d had unimpeachable proof they’d escaped the transmission—began speaking the new language. It happened even to my own colleagues from the cave. I suspected them of faking. Perhaps after months of living in a crumbling, deserted city where grass and trees reclaimed the streets and ivy snaked up skyscrapers, they’d simply wanted to be among other people, even if those people spoke an unknown language and had bizarre, incomprehensible customs. Maybe they just wanted to join the winning side. As I was unable to understand the Xenoglossia, I could never be sure whether they were faking. Regardless, inside of a year after the transmission, they were all gone.

This is the story of how I became the last man on Earth.

* * *

It’s just science fiction, I told myself, putting down the book. Because R. Z. Markson died, doesn’t make his beliefs true. Science fiction is usually metaphoric: a concretization of what is true in some more general or spiritual sense. In those terms, this passage from The Ziggurats of Ophiuchus by Robert Pritchard may reflect a simple feeling of alienation.

But something else gnawed at me. Had I—in being the only person on Earth to connect the deaths of Markson and the young theater director—glimpsed the furthest extremity of a plan that some Oedipa Maas, with more fortitude than I, could unravel? Perhaps I was one of those changed who were unaware, happily going about what we believed to be our lives, while in truth our familiar rituals are secretly those of the alien people we are becoming. There’s no way to tell, since a race that could engineer exotic hadrons into a scalpel to commit interstellar psychosurgery would surely find it child’s play to simultaneously remove the memory of their intervention from the minds of their subjects. Am I right now writing, and you reading, in the Xenoglossia?

Robert Pritchard grew up in California and Washington State, attended Whitman College, and studied to be a teacher at Massey University in New Zealand but never practiced the trade. Today he lives in Colorado. Visit him online at weird-proof.org for celebrity gossip, interior decorating tips, and delicious low-cal recipes that will wow your family! Actually, just kidding, it doesn’t have any of that stuff.

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