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March/April 2018
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
Elizabeth Hand
Michelle West
James Sallis
Chris Moriarty
Plumage from Pegasus
Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
Lucius Shepard
Gregory Benford
Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
Index of Title, Month and Page sorted by Author

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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

The Varley Corps Wants You

This year—almost finished, thank god—had been a terrible, horrid, awful, and depressing year for celebrity deaths. And by "celebrity," I unfortunately did not mean those whose sole claim to fame was winning big on a game show, or being rescued from an abandoned well, or wearing fewer clothes than dictated by conventionality, or misgoverning a country. No, I meant mostly people who had gifted the world with incredible, meaningful, unique art of whatever stripe: song, dance, prose, movies, paintings, sculpture, architecture….

It seemed as if every day brought a new headline about the passing of some beloved creator whose work had meant so much to thousands or even millions of people. This unnatural spate of deaths—and it was indeed proven to be statistically abnormal—was having the effect of bringing everyone down. Especially since many of the dying artists were on the youngish side or in their middle age, generally deemed still likely to have a few more years or even decades of creativity in them. Even the deaths of those few beloved icons who were quite elderly seemed unfair. It was as if the whole world were jinxed, in terms of losing so many of its artistic makers and doers and performers all in a row.

And now I myself was about to become the latest casualty at the tail end of this abysmal year.

It had all started with a cough and lower-back pain, which led to many tests and a diagnosis of metastasized lung cancer (I had never smoked, was only fifty-five) and a life expectancy measured in days or weeks.

Although naturally very sad to find myself on the verge of death, I surprised myself by not freaking out totally about it. Maybe my substantial career helped. I had never been a bestselling writer, but over several decades I had accumulated a good run of science fiction books that many people had seemingly enjoyed. They all currently existed in various physical and electronic editions, and I could see them being discovered in used-book stores and online for decades to come. Additionally, although I had many close friends who would mourn me, I had no immediate family to worry about. That was liberating.

And so, in my final hospice days, I consoled myself with the belief that I had left my mark on the world, and that if I had to die, it was sorta neat, in a morbid way, to be part of this anomalous wave of mortality. In the future, people might say, "Oh, sure, I remember. That was the dreadful year when we lost A, B, and C—and also whatsisname." I didn't really mind being whatsisname too much.

Thinking these thoughts in increasingly muddled fashion, I prepared my soul for death.

And then I died.

I awoke lying on a comfortable bed in a lovely room. And I could immediately discern by subtle elements of design and materials that I was in the future. Also, the presence of a floating robot attendant gave away some of the uncertainty.

Instantly, I began running down the possible explanations for my resurrection. The Omega Point, the Matrix, Riverworld—Little did I realize that nothing more than the normal advancement of medical science was responsible.

Plus a spot of time travel.

The door opened and a team of what were obviously medical professionals entered, both men and women. Attired in outfits that resembled innocuous white track suits, they looked like absolutely normal specimens of humanity. As indeed they proved to be.

"Good morning, Mister Rutter," said the team leader, a dark-haired woman. Her accent, naturally, was a little odd, but perfectly comprehensible. "We hope you are feeling well this morning. My name is Angela, by the way."

She introduced her coworkers, and almost before she could finish reciting their names, I rushed to trot out my theories about my revival. Angela smiled, as did the others.

"No, it's none of those scenarios. This is the year 2217, and we have used time travel to surreptitiously retrieve your warm corpse, which we then quickly revivified and repaired. A perfectly indistinguishable inert simulacrum was left in its place. Thanks to nanotechnology, your health has been restored to the optimum you ever experienced in your lifetime, and you now have a long, indefinite lifespan ahead of you."

"Well, of course I'm extremely grateful. I mean, my debt to you is beyond words. But I have to ask why. I assume you haven't revived everyone from my era. What did I do to deserve this? How can I possibly repay you?"

"We ask only that you continue doing what you did in your era. Just keep on writing."

"That's all? But surely you have plenty of writers in 2217 who could do my job."

Angela looked extremely sad and perhaps even a little chagrined. "But that's just it. We don't."

And then she explained.

One hundred years of various unforeseeably detrimental cultural and eugenic practices had entirely bred artistic talents out of the human race. By privileging commercial practicality in education and the marketplace and careers and marriage and reproduction, and by enforcing conformity of speech and thought, generation after generation of straitlaced drones had converged toward utter lack of imagination or lateral thinking or the fire in the gut necessary to create something impractical ex nihilo. Intelligent, happy, capable of certain small steady scientific improvements, the average citizen of 2217 nonetheless had absolutely no ability to conjure up new art. They enjoyed material abundance and peace, but had nothing to say about it.

Yet the human capacity to enjoy art still remained. And the need for art to replenish the human psyche at regular intervals was still in force. But for decades now, the global population of what otherwise amounted to a utopia had been forced to subsist on the legacy of the past. And that legacy, though large, was growing stale.

"We need new artworks that speak to our present moment," Angela continued. "We've tried to engineer creativity back into our genome, but we've been completely unsuccessful. And so when time travel was invented, just last year, we resolved to look for our salvation in the past."

Another member of the team, a young, nerdy guy, stepped forward. "We were inspired by a work of science fiction from your era by a man named John Varley. His novel was called Millennium, and it detailed a similar scheme whereby inhabitants of the past were stolen from their era at the moment of their deaths."

I recalled Varley's novel well. "But in that book, the stolen citizens were needed for breeding, because of damaged genomes in the future. You don't intend to put me out to stud, do you? Because oftentimes the children of artists have no artistic potential whatsoever."

"By the Common Core, no!" said Angela, and all her peers shuddered. "You primitives could never get a breeding certificate nowadays. No, we just need you to stay around for a good long time and make your art for us."

A little miffed at the disparagement of my DNA, I still had to admit that being saved from the grave and given a long lifetime in a near-utopia was a pretty good deal.

"Okay, you can count on me. Just set me up with an iMac that runs Word, and I'm good to go!"

"Such equipment is of course obsolete. But we have methods of brain to aug-sim transcription that you will soon get used to. In the interim, we are going to introduce you to some of your time-lost compatriots. For the moment, until we can orient you travelers to 2217 properly, we have you all settled in a comfortable halfway house."

"So, who are my bunkmates? Mozart, Heinlein, Michelangelo, Balanchine?"

"I do not recognize all those names. But I can tell you that we were unsuccessful with retrieving creative people from the deep past. They were unable to make the transition to 2217 successfully, due to culture shock. Sadly, almost all of them self-destructed, and the others went mad. The boundary for successful transferal is roughly the year 1995, when your primitive internet achieved critical mass. Adults from that era and beyond prove resilient."

"Okay, that still leaves lots of talented candidates. Lead me to them."

After a physical examination, Angela agreed that I was ready, and the team left the room while I dressed in one of the ubiquitous and unfashionable albeit well-fitted track suits. I hoped they had brought forward Perry Ellis or Sonia Rykiel or some other designers.

The transportation from the medical center to the halfway house consisted of a driverless aircar that dipped and swooped through an urban forest of stodgy but impressively large towers. Parkland, laid out gracelessly, frequently interspersed the buildings.

On the way, a question occurred to me, as I recalled the anomalous spate of deaths around the time of my passage.

"You weren't responsible for, um, hastening the mortality of any of your chosen artists, were you?"

Once more Angela looked sheepish. "Knowing the historical record in great detail as we did, we chose to intervene in cases where the artist would reach a state of creative bankruptcy or senility before their historical death. Our medical science is powerful but we cannot yet restore the brain to its youthful plasticity and creative capabilities beyond a certain point of decrepitude. Please be assured that our interventions were carefully constructed for minimal impact on the timeline. And in all cases, we were saving the artist from embarrassment and failure. In your case, for instance—"

"No, please! I'd rather not hear!"

"As you wish."

At the halfway house, eager to meet my fellow time-travelers, I hastened inside.

Well, as I might have imagined, it was just like the old jokes about the social gatherings in heaven. David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Prince, Leon Russell and Lemmy Kilmister were jamming on a small dais in the common room while Michael Jackson danced in front of the stage. The appreciative audience featured Carrie Fisher, Gene Wilder, and Gary Shandling, among other stars. Additionally, there were many people present who had been still living when I died, but, irrationally, I don't feel comfortable even yet in "outing" them as deceased.

I found a congenial table where sat Harper Lee, Ray Bradbury, Umberto Eco, Jim Harrison, E. L. Doctorow and others. I introduced myself, was handed a drink, and pretty soon was lamenting the foibles of publishers.

To compress the rest of the next few months into a flash fiction: we abducted artists had a blast 24/7 until we were finally instructed, to the satisfaction of our hosts, in the protocols and backstory to 2217. Then we were set loose in utopia and told to make new art relevant to the era.

That's when the fun ended.

Reconvened at the old quarters some six months after being released into the world at large, we were a grim and despondent group.

"Mate," said David Bowie, "I confess I'm bloody knackered from trying to get inspired with this dodgy scene."

"Me too," said Leonard Cohen. "It's like suburban white bread slathered with Disney sunshine."

"These cats got no funk in their trunk," Prince commented.

"If we were to posit the twenty-first century as essentially Catholic in its attitudes and symbolism," noted Umberto Eco, "then the twenty-third is positively Lutheran!"

Carrie Fisher tried to rouse us in her best Princess-Leia-inciting-the-rebels manner. "Well, we can't just sit back and diddle ourselves, can we? This is where we're going to spend the rest of our unnatural lives. We've got to do something to restore the kicks, the vibe, the karma! The future of humanity depends on us!"

Very tentatively, I raised my hand. All eyes turned toward me.

"Um, I have an idea.…"

Incredibly, everyone liked my plan.

The assembled talent proved more than adequate for the requisite culture jamming and monkey wrenching. In just a year's time, we had managed to divide the dull and harmonious planet into feuding tribes whose members were newly loaded with ancient neuroses, fears, doubts, suspicions and impossible dreams. Scientific progress received a kick in the pants due to the intense competition among clans (it seemed a faster-than-light drive was finally imminent), and the need for dominance over enemies, real or imaginary, drove one innovative public works project after another.

And so, having sowed the raw materials of chaos and imperfection that all artists needed, we were finally able to get down to doing what we did best: making some truly great art!

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