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Analog Tale for a Digital Age

Past and present intersect through analog technology in the fictional story, "The Landline."

By Bruce SterlingPublished 8 years ago 19 min read

The teenage kids hanging out at my machine shop didn't know why I wanted a telephone. A plug-in phone, with wires hanging out of it, was a joke to them. They'd never seen a fax machine in their lives.

At her day-job, my wife found out that I could retrieve my old phone number, the one I'd used at my Hollywood office, back in the 80s. She figured that this old number might be a luck charm for us. Maybe some studio geezer would call us up and demand some historic film props, she said. My wife was the wisecracking type.

I no longer built any film sets and models–the digital FX boys had taken all that business away. But I'd kept the scraps, and I had the machine shop, where we made RenFair stuff and Civil War reproductions. Somewhere in my big racks of steel shelving, I still had my old-school Bell telephone unit, with its black plastic shell, gray pushbuttons and long curly-cord.

It took me some work, but I found it, stored with all due care, among two dozen Japanese anime robot kits, and my mint back-issues of "Fangoria," "Cinefantastique" and "Famous Monsters of Filmland."

Then I plugged in the old phone's little pinch-clip. Sure enough, we had some dialtone. Seconds later, the phone rang.

I grabbed the handset, and through sheer reflex I blurted out my old response.

"Musial Magic Factory, Gil Musial speaking!"

Some confused teenage kid was on the line, asking for "Mr Musical." This kid had the strange idea that I was still in the movie business. So, naturally, he wanted money from me.

This kid's dad was one of those storage-locker vultures. These guys bid sight-unseen on abandoned storage properties. They sell whatever they find.

The kid told me that they'd found a trove of movie stuff belonging to "Clarissa Dean."

I hadn't heard that name in twenty years. But I knew "Clarissa," before Clarissa gave up her acting career. She'd gone back to Minneapolis to be plain Dianne Claude again. Sometime later, Dianne married some dentist, and I had heard no more.

The kid insisted on reciting the directions for me. He spoke slowly, so I could write down every street turn with a paper and pencil, supposedly. When I said I could just “Google-Map my way there on my Android,” he laughed at me as if I was stoned.

However, there'd been one red-hot period in our checkered youth when "Clarissa Dean" was the prettiest creature that I ever put my two arms around. Clarissa had the looks, and boy, did she ever have the body. But she just couldn't get the breaks in Hollywood. The star-maker machinery gave her a few nibbles, and then spat her back out. That happens in L.A. every day.

Why Clarissa would have any of my stuff, lost in some storage locker of hers, that part I couldn't figure out. The two of us had ended badly, but not that kind of badly. All FX guys are pack-rats. I may lose clients and also my girlfriends, but I don't ever lose my stuff.

This kid on the phone promised me that Clarissa's locker had feature films in canisters, with production stills, paperwork, all of that. "Clarissa Dean" didn't exist any more, so they naturally couldn't find her, but they had found my name and phone number in her documents.

So, they just cold-called me from a pay-phone. If I didn't show up with some cash pronto, my new friend and his vulture dad would dump the lot.

I told him I would show up. The kid then insisted on reciting the directions for me. He spoke slowly, so I could write down every street turn with a paper and pencil, supposedly. When I said I could just "Google-Map my way there on my Android," he laughed at me as if I was stoned.

I text-messaged my older son Jimmy to come look after the shop. The teen boys would cut their fingers off with bandsaws if left alone. Then I took my pickup out to the stated address.

As I arrived, L.A.'s blue skies opened up Blade-Runner style. The kid was waiting in a concrete doorway behind some tall chain-link. Clarissa's storage boxes were soaking on the gravel under a palm tree.

My new friend turned out to be an East L.A. Mexican kid. Not any gangbanger though, but a surprisingly clean-cut type, with a stately linen jacket, a dapper bow-tie, and nicely shined shoes.

What with the thunderstorm, we lacked any time to go through Clarissa's boxes. I flipped them open, just to check: chock-full of analog media. Movie reels, tape cassettes, newspaper clippings, looked like some business papers, too.

The kid had four of these boxes, so he simply demanded four hundred bucks from me.

I put three hundred-dollar bills into his hand. I figured it would be hard to argue with that.

The kid looked over my hard-earned money and his smiling face fell. "What are these?" he said. "What happened to Ben Franklin's face? Did you make these, or something?"

"Yeah, I'm in the FX business, we make lots of money," I said. Having lived with Jane for twenty years, I'd learned how to dish out sarcastic one-liners.

We heaved Clarissa's boxes into the flat of my old Toyota, which was filling up with rain like an aquarium. "So, did you make those shoes, too?" said the kid. "What are those, astronaut shoes? Those are weird."

My shoes were bright purple plastic Crocs. The wife bought them for me, due to that sense of humor. Besides, Crocs work out great on a shop floor.

"Can't you write me a check?" the kid whined. "I can't spend your play-toy money."

"Kid, this stuff is analog media. It's all junk now, it's totally useless. Get over it. If you don't like my money, hand it back to me."

He gave me back that cash without even one wince. Then he looked me up and down. "What size are those shoes you have?"

"I wear nines."

So did he. So I gave him my Croc shoes, and I threw in the big Gerber multitool off my belt, because, somehow, he'd never seen one of those marvels, either.

Then I drove barefoot back to the shop with my loot.

I took care to hide the new boxes among the old ones I possessed, because of the issue of my wife and Clarissa. I will frankly admit that I have been known to err when pretty girls pass me by. On the occasions when I slipped up, and when she found out, Jane never took that well. Dramatic scenes ensued, Jane being pretty good at those.

Jane was a Los Angeles creative. She wrote movie scripts, for movies that weren't produced. She wrote dialogue, for computer games that didn't get released. Sometimes she wrote confessionals for women's mags, under her pseudonyms. It followed that Jane wrote a whole lot. Sometimes she even made some money from her writing. But nobody knew who she was.

Once the Internet came along, Jane got excited. She finally caught on big-time, with her one-woman, homemade mommy-blog.

Her blog was a big sob-center of emotional support for American women burdened with teenage sons. Jane had two of them. The boys were no better behaved than me at their age.

So Jane had thousands of her devoted blog users crying on her shoulder every day–but the Internet never pays a creative a dime for anything. Jane's fame as a blogger ran at a big loss for us, and when she finally gave it up and shut the blog down, it vanished as completely as a rainbow goes. Not one trace of it left anywhere.

Nowadays, with both our boys grown, the wife was getting the double-whammy of menopause and that famous empty-nest issue. Jane's creative writing had turned into Jane's creative complaining. I heard a lot about the stark meaninglessness of our lives, and the gray emptiness of our dark years ahead, along with her usual left-wing girly beefs about the environment, and health care, and whatever.

Jane needed a strong sense of direction to get out of her rough patch. So, I found her a day-job selling smart-phones with a service provider. That kept her occupied most days, and it helped with the bills.

On weekends, I arranged some nice surprise outings for her–like whale-watching, or a Balinese gamelan performance, or an underground comics convention. These entertainments perked Jane right up, even if she said my treats were silly or that I spent too much money on them.

Sometimes all we need from life is someone to throw us a line. If you think your world's falling apart, it feels better if you take a weekend off, and go see some other world. So I just took charge of that for her: there was a lot of detail work, some directing and organizing, but I enjoyed it.

I guess you could say that I was making up for those stormy periods in our marriage, back when I'd lacked impulse control below the belt line. Time passes, things get forgiven. Things even get forgotten.

Except for the boxes of red-hot mementos from the former girlfriend. A situation better left unmentioned, so I went through those lost boxes bit by bit. I used discretion.

It wasn't entirely pleasant material, inside those lost and forgotten boxes. It turned out I was indeed inside those boxes. I was all over the boxes of "Clarissa Dean."

It wasn't entirely clear to me when I'd first turned things sideways, and married Clarissa Dean instead of marrying Jane Feldstein. That probably wasn't even my fault. Clarissa had saved an old issue of Variety with a report on my first movie as a director. Oil War, they called it.

By the time Oil War was released in theaters, Al Gore was already President. It wasn't clear whether Gore had been elected by himself, or whether maybe some jealous husband had shot Bill Clinton, throwing Al into the Oval Office.

But President Al had seen my movie Oil War, which was your basic bang-bang action shoot'em-up with a computer game tie-in. He'd made some joke about oil wars at a press conference, probably because Al Gore was a notorious stiff, and a President needs to make jokes in public.

So anyway, the President of the USA had recited a snappy one-liner out of my action movie. Even though Al didn't get that line exactly right–not just the way Jane had written it–it sent America out to the multiplexes in a storming wave.

With this nice little earner under my belt, I was in a better negotiating position in directing my next film. I could tell all about that, because Clarissa had a whole lot of paperwork about my scheme to run an unknown actress, "Clarissa Dean," in the lead role.

This new film of mine was called Girl War–the studio's title, of course. Girl War was about a gang of armed Afghani feminists, who wipe out the masterminds of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in a devastating sneak attack.

These scrappy chicks throw off their burqas, and they come out blazing with US-supplied M-16s and Victoria's Secret underwear.

I had production notes from my scriptwriter Jane Feldstein, calling this "the dumbest, most cynical idea in the world," but that didn't matter. Everybody knew that I was banking on showing off Clarissa Dean in undies. It made good business sense. That product placement had all been arranged, and my new diva Clarissa was looking at some lucrative lingerie modeling accounts. Clarissa didn't mind that. Clarissa was a movie star.

What Clarissa did mind was that I was having an affair with Jane Feldstein. Everybody knew that I was bedding Clarissa, because it was Hollywood, people expect that. But nobody knew, or at least nobody was supposed to know, about Jane. But Clarissa did know. Clarissa was the director's perky, pretty actress-girlfriend, but my geeky, brainy scriptwriter was my slave.

Only an oppressed girl could have written a blockbuster script about female oppression, that was all about getting men to sit in movie seats and stare drooling at Clarissa's assets. But boy, did they ever stare. And even women went along.

The President didn't say anything about this movie. He didn't have to. Girl War exploded across screens worldwide. It was even pretty big in the Moslem world, where various terrorists half-heartedly offered to kill me, but only because they felt so outflanked and so ashamed.

With my third movie, the snobby critics had it out for me. Part of it was about the so-called "sophomore slump," but a lot more was about some fancy legal arrangement I'd made with the "Gore Superhighway."

The "Gore Superhighway" was something vaguely like the Internet. But, instead of being run by crazy Silicon Valley libertarians, Al Gore's Highway was a tightly controlled federal project which was all about "justice" and "fairness." There was a lot of earnest federal work there, all about intellectual property issues, with music, and film, and book rights, and education, and science, and such.

As a popular young movie director with a promising future in cinema, I'd been called in to help the Administration with its Highway governance policies.

The result was a Washington insider thriller called The Fracture. This third movie of mine had a big ensemble cast of bankable Hollywood stars, while Clarissa Dean had a juicy role as the seductive White House intern.

The Fracture was a fantasy techno-thriller. It was all about a crazy scheme by power-mad oil companies to break America's bedrock into pieces, sucking out the oil and gas, and fatally polluting the planet's sky.

It was brutal social satire to say that Big Oil would shatter the literal rock, and poison the drinking water, right under America's feet. The critics called me out for the improbability of that–a dystopia, way too bleak, an armageddon, all the usual.

But the controversy in The Fracture wasn't really about me, the director–it was about the screenwriter, Jane Feldstein. By now the movie biz had me all figured out. I was a with-it new guy from the FX biz who knew how to block and frame an effective action scene. My technical talent was easy for them to forgive. They didn't mind my big-scale disaster movies. They even forgave me for cutting a smart deal with the federal digital people.

All the lightning was falling on the scriptwriter. There were serious people in Washington who really hated Jane Feldstein. They didn’t hate me. Hating a film director is corny. Film directors have names in big lights, they are affable, they have lots of rich friends. Hating screenwriters is easy, because they're private, they're too brainy, they read too much and they spend all their times in small rooms.

So, certain people in the Beltway suddenly hated Jane Feldstein, about as much as they hated Jane Fonda. But to do whatever credit to Jane Fonda, that opposition had never slowed Miss Fonda's show-biz career.

Jane Feldstein wasn't buffaloed, either. Clarissa Dean had collected all kinds of material about Jane Feldstein, because Clarissa hated Jane's guts. Clarissa also owed Jane all her success as an actress.

Clarissa had whole three-ring binders devoted to her bitter rival–she'd even hired private investigators to follow Jane around. There was brainy and bespectacled Jane Feldstein, showing up for Hollywood political fundraisers. Jane Feldstein was joining solidarity committees. Jane Feldstein was at the feminist shoot your husband and get out of jail free Monopoly card raffle. Jane was acting severe and serious, while Jane was still rushing across country to fling herself into my bed whenever she got the chance.

When Clarissa charged into my fourth movie, New World Order, it was the high point of her career.

New World Order was, of course, all about the Kyoto Protocol. This was just before Gore's re-election, and Washington had finally figured out that control of energy was control of everything that mattered in America. Once Gore shut down the fossil-fuel business to avoid a climate catastrophe, whole vast sections of the right-wing establishment were going to die. They would die fast and awful and forever, like bison machine-gunned from railroads.

Clarissa Dean, who was a seductive, curvaceous, blonde creature who had married her director, well, she had to star in this blockbuster political movie. Some genius had to make that idea look plausible. That genius would be my female scriptwriter, who had been undergoing hostile Congressional committee hearings. Jane Feldstein had a lot on her mind.

Jane wrote a terrific script in which the comely young bimbo, played by Clarissa Dean, grabs the inconvenient truth from an older man, her domineering lover, and leaks a massive scandal to the press. That was the script of New World Order: a self-satisfied, twentieth-century fossil-fuel magnate fatally kisses the wrong girl. He therefore loses everything he knows and thinks he understands.

The viewer can tell by the director's kindly camera angles that the villain in the movie, Randy Coke–sensitively portrayed by John Travolta–is not an inherently evil man. He's just a man unable to sustain the awful burden of his industry's lies. His entire world is a lie, really. He is living in a lying world that should have been an okay world–he was living in it, he was richly rewarded for it, he has money, fame, and hot and cold running women–but his world is disastrously untrue.

I saw that movie. I borrowed a projector, I broke the film out of Clarissa's can, and I ran it one night, alone of course. It was probably a pretty good movie, because it won a couple of Oscars. I didn't understand it.

I never understood political movies. I don't like them. They're always full of that "is it fact? or is it fiction?" stuff that you always see in "taut, explosive technothrillers." Like, do Chinese cyberspies really break into the New York Times? Does the NSA have a giant spy-base in Utah? How am I supposed to know about all that? Do I even care?

Go ahead, just wait a year, or two years, or maybe five years. Then try to find this, later. There will be no sign of this website, because it’s just made of pixels. No remains of the machine that you read it with, either.

Obviously, not many people have seen my movie New World Order–at least, not many who would be reading what I am writing here. Because I'm Gil Musial. I'm a major-league film director who made a bunch of hit movies that nobody in this world has ever seen.

And I am writing this confession for an audience of people who are also going to disappear. You, I mean. It's not that I myself am going to disappear–I'm used to that, you never heard of me before, so what.

Then there is this other guy, the "Gilbert W. Musial," the Hollywood big-shot, the star director who wore tinted shades and a floppy hat and grew a beard because he was so famous, well, he disappeared. Totally. Him and his darkroom empire, the awards, the yachts, the private vineyards, the cocaine, he vanished. Not even there. Nobody, not around, he had no kids, no tombstone, nothing.

So that's all gone, for sure, but it's you that I worry about. There are not just many of you readers left nowadays. I worry about you. You people don't know each other. You have no library, and no commonality.

There is nothing physical or solid or lasting about this confession of mine. There's not even a cardboard box! Go ahead, just wait a year, or two years, or maybe five years. Then try to find this, later. There will be no sign of this website, because it's just made of pixels. No remains of the machine that you read it with, either.

Then try to find the other "readers" of this story, a story that you once saw on some screen. This isn't a movie screen, where you're all sitting in the dark together, breathing and laughing together. This is a digital screen, a private thing that's the size of your desk, or the size of your lap, or the size of your hand.

Those desk people, and those lap people, and those hand people–they don't know you. They don't talk to you, they don't care about you. You have no evidence to offer them about this story. Maybe you never read this story at all.

I'm not gonna tell them about it. Now that I got this much off my chest, I care even less than they do.

Now that we've reached this stark point, really, it's just you and me here. And I am the guy who wrote all this, not you. I'm the creative, while you're just the audience. We're alone.

So: are you gonna pay me anything for this thing of mine that you just read? No, you're not. Are you gonna buy a movie ticket, make me a rich guy, and indulge my need to hire sexy actresses? Nope. I entertained you, but you're not going to pay me one dime. You know what? You can take a hike, Jack.

You don't even have my email. Go to hell, you and your cheap, flimsy, digital technologies.

Okay, so I know that's not much of an ending for you. But I don't have any proper ending to offer, even to myself. I got some boxes, I got them by a landline phone call. I got them by accident, really.

These boxes have stuff on paper. I can read paper. The boxes had photographs, and set-design art, and tapes and movies, too. Some stuff I could still see and hear, if I found the old machines to run it with.

Then there was that other "stuff." Pretty clearly, this was the stuff of the greatest concern to my professional associates, Clarissa Dean and Jane Feldstein.

This was their fatal quarrel, their deadly quarrel, their vivid, living, cat-fight drama in another world. It had all come to a head somehow, and they'd had it out with each other–probably in some bloody tug-of-war with my guts.

That was all preserved in some silent, plastic archive of weird little brown plug-in things. Storage gizmos of some kind, as square and solid and serious as Al Gore. Computers, but not as we know them.

So, I can throw these weird little memory units away. Likely, nobody would notice that or care. Maybe I can break them into dust with hammers, that would be safer. Or, maybe I can pry open those Pandora boxes somehow, and try to revive the contents, and release that into this world.

Just try to revive those dark and forgotten energies, and let them loose into reality, somehow. I don't know how to do it yet, but maybe I could learn. Would that fit in any more? Would that make any sense to anybody, anywhere?

I wrote about it, so now you know about as much as I do. But hell, I still don't know.

science fictionliterature

About the Creator

Bruce Sterling

Hugo-award science fiction author, journalist and critic.

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