By David Michael Newstead.
A short story based on paintings by Salvador Dali. Read Part One.
Sometimes in my dreams, I still saw that strange place. But all that was left were the fragments of a memory, dark and ghoulish, of a world that was not this one. In quick succession, those pictures flashed through the corridors of my mind as absurd as they were horrifying. Then in a panic, I woke up and I breathed heavy, having had the same nightmare again.
Years had passed and my time in that other dimension seemed so distant to me. Had I imagined it all, I often wondered. Had I hallucinated the whole thing and that old fool who took me there?
No! No, I told myself again and again. That place was real. I knew it had happened, because my mind would never, could never concoct the things I saw there. My fear then wasn’t for my own sanity. Even now, sitting up in bed, I was lucid and aware. Instead, I was afraid just how far this went – how deeply these abnormal truths burrowed into every corner of reality and if the monsters I found in that place would ever pull me back again.
I couldn’t sleep. In the day-to-day world, I felt numb and out of touch. Increasingly detached, I walked around like an automaton, not a person. I felt as if my life was slipping away according to the tyranny of some mundane clock. Or perhaps part of me realized I was always destined to return to that dimension I had left so long ago.
Time passed. Then one day, it happened. I was standing on a train platform checking my watch when suddenly it began to melt from my wrist. In an instant, stainless steel seemed to turn into liquid mercury that rolled off my skin like drops of rain. When I looked up, the rest of the world was falling away too, dissolving right in front of me. Then, something else came into view.
I stumbled forward at first. It was difficult to see, but once I could I wished I was blind to the horror. My eyes watered as smoke filled my nostrils. Then, I heard shots ring out in every direction. Just ahead, there were lines of riflemen and nameless legions, stretching into the distance leveling chaotic volleys of gunfire at each other. Dying men whaled in agony and I tried to run back, but our normal world had disappeared behind me. In its place, soldiers’ bodies littered the ground. Overhead, something shrieked and flew by me. Then, an explosion followed and knocked me down face first. Deafening and bright, flames erupted over the battlefield and, in shock, I covered my ears.
When I raised my head again, creatures not-quite-human were wandering by, wounded and disoriented from the blast. They made noises I can’t begin to describe. Then, the earth underneath my feet started to rumble with the sound of approaching cavalry. The victors had arrived it seemed, already finishing off the last of their opponents in a war without rhyme or reason. On my left flank, the first wave of them descended onto anything in their path, while another group encircled the few of us who survived. Desperate to escape the slaughter, I ran and crawled across the ground looking for cover, but there was nothing. Nothing, but pathetic twigs and pebbles that jutted out from the dirt and wouldn’t protect a man from so much as a sunburn. And when that galloping monstrosity appeared in front of me, I cringed and thought this must be the end!
A moment passed without death and I looked up, awestruck. After all, if the old man hadn’t intervened when he did I surely would have been trampled into oblivion. I was cowering in the middle of a field, dusty and helpless, when he strode out to protect me. Confident and possibly insane, he was disheveled and nude, driven mad by this dimension of oddities. The only thing more crazed and unruly than his eyes, I thought, was his facial hair. But it didn’t seem to matter. He projected all the authority of a thousand generals, screaming at the top of his lungs.
“Stay back!” The old man yelled to the horses and pack animals. “Back I say!”
And for reasons I won’t ever understand, they listened to him, rearing up with fright only inches away from crushing the both of us. Around me, the orgy of violence was fast subsiding. And this crazy old fool had stalled them for just long enough.
I was still trembling on the ground when the real world started to come back into view. While those beasts hesitated to charge forward, their dimension had gradually dissipated into a fog and then the fantasy as I laid there on that same train platform like a lunatic.
“No… No.” I muttered, now waving my hands at nothing. Back in our own dimension, other commuters ignored me the way you disregard anyone talking to themselves on public transit. But if they could only see! Stretched out there on the concrete, I watched the last shadows of that other place recede away forever, stranding me here and leaving that old man where he rightfully belonged.
Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening (1944)
The Face of War (1950)
Girl at the Window (1925)
Melting Watch (1954)
The Burning Giraffe (1937)
The Invention of the Monsters (1937)
The Temptation of St. Anthony (1946)
The Anthropomorphic Cabinet (1936)
By David Michael Newstead.
Last summer, I unexpectedly found a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 in a used bookstore in Washington D.C. The novel had been buried in a pile of miscellaneous paperbacks, hiding in plain sight. For how long? I’m not sure. So when I realized what it was, I immediately grabbed it and headed to the register. I guess I was surprised to even see something that rare. Then again, finding the book in 2016 might have been an omen of things to come. Eagerly, I bought it and re-read it. The story, of course, was the same: Big Brother, the Thought Police, and the rest. The difference was that the world around me had changed since the last time I’d read it. It’s a book that only becomes more relevant with each passing day. And in some countries, it isn’t far from reality as it is.
Besides the narrative though, the paperback itself started to intrigue me: the look, the feel, how the pages smell, how it fits in my hands, the original cover art, and the signs of wear and tear from over the years. This particular copy was slightly beat up, but still in good condition for something printed in the late 1940s. And that’s when I thought about it more. Here’s an object – almost 70 years old now – that’s an analog relic in an increasingly digital world. It is a lingering connection to and a warning from the distant past. When it was first printed, World War Two had just finished and the Cold War was in its earliest stages.
Plenty has happened since then and who knows where this book was for all those years before I got it. Regardless, today some Orwellian themes are just a description of disturbing norms across the planet: widespread government surveillance, propaganda, and political doublespeak. Maybe the methods have been updated overtime, but there’s a reason 1984 and other dystopian novels have had skyrocketing sales lately. George Orwell, for his part, fought against fascism and oppression and passionately believed in objective truth. Safe to say, that battle continues.
By David Michael Newstead.
What if a machine could manifest people’s thoughts? In the sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet (and the Crichton novel Sphere), scientists stumble onto a device like this. It’s of alien origins and it materializes thoughts into reality. Powerful and with limitless potential, the machine could make the world a better place. But instead of this device leading to a new and enlightened chapter in history, it just amplifies the worst parts of people’s psyche: fear, anger, paranoia. In the story, violence and chaos quickly ensue as the characters’ unconscious runs amok.
Unfortunately, the social media landscape is starting to look a lot like Forbidden Planet, more dangerous than it is enlightening. But when platforms like Twitter and Facebook first launched, the idea that they would one day be overrun with rabid misogynists, white supremacists, stalkers, personalized threats, and propaganda would have seemed far-fetched. We have this notion, after all, that technology always makes things better. In this case though, it’s like social media removed the polite veneer that masks everything under the surface of our culture: swallow materialism, intense insecurity, sexism, and racism. The problem didn’t start overnight, of course. No one joined Twitter thinking they were going to get doxxed. But like a tidal wave, problems began moving from the comment section into the real world. And vice versa. Now, the carefree early days of social networking seem wildly naïve. And our optimistic vision of an interconnected world may be the biggest piece of science fiction of them all.
By David Michael Newstead.
Way back in the 1990s, talking about the latest episode of X-Men was the thing to do in my elementary school cafeteria. In case you were wondering, Wolverine was most people’s favorite character. And even twenty years later, the Fox animated series still holds up pretty well. But while some of the social commentary was probably lost on me as a kid, the foundation of the X-Men franchise is hard to miss. X-Men is about mutants struggling to coexist with humans who are often fearful, suspicious, or hostile to their very existence.
This became the vehicle for numerous analogies to minority rights issues around the world such as racial and religious intolerance, ethnic cleansing, and more. The group’s leader, Professor X, is a Martin Luther King like figure, while characters like Magneto take a more radical and sometimes violent stance. There is a version of the KKK called the Friends of Humanity. And mutants everywhere often live in fear that the government is going to round them up at any moment.
Skip ahead to my adulthood and X-Men isn’t as fictional as it used to be. The X-Men were concerned about flying robots that could kill them, government databases tracking them, and something nefarious called the Mutant Registration Act. Today, the real tragedy is that I can copy and paste that last sentence almost verbatim and I’d be describing reality. But just as comic books and cartoon shows have gotten me this far in life, it’s worth considering how the X-Men confronted the challenges facing them.
Over lunch nowadays, I guess things haven’t changed much since elementary school. People talk about the latest show they’ve been binge watching. They mention the characters they like and what they did over the weekend. But now current events make for a strange backdrop to every conversation. It’s a world that’s not so distant from the X-Men and where things go from here is up to us now.