Today's Terraform is something a little different: A story by the French speculative fiction giant Claude Ecken. appearing for the first time in English, as translated by Edward Gauvin. I'll hand the mic to Gauvin now, as he can sum up the piece's pertinence & urgency better than I.
"True story: I first cracked open Claude Ecken while flying home from France on November 9, 2016. At Utopiales, France’s biggest speculative fiction festival, I’d just picked up his last collection, and this was the opener. From 2012, it spoke to me across Charlie Hebdo, the Paris bombings, vehicle rammings, and Brexit, before I’d even begun to imagine our national nightmare. Ecken, a seasoned writer of SF and crime, lays down a challenge to rethink the goals of speculation, now that we’re living five minutes into the future, and that much closer to midnight." -Edward Gauvin
Well, it’s over, you’re out now. You’re safe. You scared me, you know. I don’t know what got into you. It’s like you have no clue what kind of world we live in. Definitely not one from those sci-fi novels you’ve always got your nose in—you know that, right? You’re twelve, you should be a bit more aware of other people, society, everything around you. Don’t think you’re going to become a grown-up just like that, overnight, by snapping your fingers, just because you hit eighteen. It’s a long road and you should already have started thinking about it. A long row to hoe, with as much to learn at school as on the streets… and yes, at home, too. But if you ask me, you’re a long way from even starting to realize we can’t do whatever we want whenever we want, that we live in a society among other people we have to respect just like the surroundings we share with them. I said as much that time you were yelling to me from all the way down the street, like we were the only people there and everyone else—neighbors, pedestrians—had to put up with your noise. Looks like the lesson didn’t take. It’s just not smart, you know? You scare me, because I won’t be around forever to get you out of trouble. Or you’ll have landed us in trouble too, your mother and me.
I don’t know what you were thinking, laughing that loud. I know, you’ve told me a thousand times, Karim told you a joke. He could’ve been more careful, too. If you ask me, you two are a bad influence on each other. I know, he’s your friend, and you’re both in the wrong. Look, I get it. It’s good of you to keep hanging out with him when half your class froze him out ever since his parents had trouble renewing their visa. Talk with an accent and people think you’re refusing to fit in. You see how quickly these things change. But until they invent a universal translator so we can understand aliens, Karim has the same row to hoe as everyone else, that’s just how it is. So do you. Sometimes you pick up slang from the projects, words from the streets that pigeonhole you right away as “at-risk”. And that’s what you’re turning into, you know, “at-risk youth”—they say it like you can’t have “youth” without “risk”—a juvenile delinquent. So watch it. The other day this TV documentary was talking about how at one point they made everybody speak one language. But it goes without saying, if they hadn’t banned dialects at school, at work, in the government, you couldn’t even get through to your neighbor; there’d be even more conflict, all over the country! No, you’re right, it’s not like pushing Karim away’s going to improve his pronunciation, but you’re here to help him, not get dragged down with him.
Honestly, you could’ve taken a quick look around before letting him launch into that joke. Sure, there’s always lots of kids in the schoolyard at recess, lots of commotion—all the more reason! You think with that racket no one’s paying attention, but when there’s a crowd around—that’s exactly when you have to be more careful. You shouldn’t have laughed in front of that paraplegic. So you didn’t see him till after, that’s no excuse. Just like if you accidentally stepped on someone’s foot in a bus. We pay attention to other people, that’s all there is to it. Your epics about first contact with aliens—they always start with the little details. I don’t care if the joke was funny. Karim, he has a good excuse. All you had to do was tell him to wait, just hold off a minute, or else shut him down. No, I don’t even want to hear it. At least not here, not now. Wait till we get home, and I’m in a better mood. Which might not be so soon, with what I just had to go through for your sake.
They checked the files at the station, you know. To see if we had priors. And guess what they dug up? That website, the one brought up on disinformation charges, the one we banned you from because it was spreading rumors. They never proved the charges, and besides, they swiped their info from an official site—a government site, even, which denied everything after the info they leaked. Yes, I mean the one you clicked on three years ago, you had no idea what you were doing, and got our house raided, our hard drives confiscated and combed over for the next three weeks. Normally it wouldn’t have stayed on our record, there’s a statute of limitations for that kind of thing, but apparently they can go further back whenever they need to dig up more on repeat offenders. It never gets deleted, just stashed somewhere. But even if they weren’t allowed to hold on to records like that, how am I supposed to stop them? It’s not like we have control over what they keep in their files to put us away with. I don’t have to remind you about the other two offenses, do I? No, not the fine for not passing the smog test. No—your cell phone. You knew better than to let someone borrow that thing. Not even to help out a friend. Good thing that friend didn’t know his uncle’s phone was being tapped for mail order sales to foreign nationals from blacklisted countries. Sure, they happened to just be from those places, but they hadn’t lived in France long enough to be completely trustworthy. But you don’t care about that either. In those books of yours, you’re always amazed by how they communicate instantaneously between planets light years apart without ever wondering if it’s sanctioned or unsecure. Your friend’s family could’ve been under surveillance for far more serious reasons, and the fact that you lent your cell phone out to people who knew their lines were being tapped could’ve been construed as helping them secretly contact activists, making you an accomplice to who knows what. All of which is to say that once again, there’s a file on us as long as my arm down at the station—nothing serious, of course, but it always feels weird when they look at you sideways in that place. One cop even seemed surprised I’d recently bought a new app for creating websites. Wanted to know what I was planning to do with it. Luckily, I have nothing to hide.
The officer did tell me you’d behaved yourself in the cell while awaiting your hearing. There’s that at least. And the kid in the wheelchair’s family didn’t press charges. Don’t go thinking just because you two see each other out in the schoolyard every day, or because their son didn’t even hear you laugh, that they wouldn’t have sued. You know parents: the slightest whiff of discrimination, and they sue for damages with interest. I shouldn’t say that, but sometimes it’s true. Between the hypersensitive and the just plain greedy, there really aren’t many understanding folks out there anymore. This time they had a chance handed to them on a silver platter: two officers on school patrol come up and ask you not to make fun of other people’s disabilities. Whatever you do, remember this much at least: someone in a dark uniform comes over, billy club out or not, and starts asking questions, don’t look him in the eye, got it? Just look down and don’t talk back. Trying to justify your actions just makes them angry. Next time they think you’re making fun of a paraplegic, apologize. Don’t talk back. I don’t feel like bailing you out of the hole just to take you to the hospital.
Yeah, I know, sometimes it’s hard to come off as the asshole, to let yourself be accused when you’re innocent, but what are you going to do? There are laws. Laws that must be obeyed. Sometimes appearances are against you, and you can’t get anyone to believe the truth. When that happens, swallow your pride, wait for things to blow over. And above all, put out that defiant gleam in your eye—that’s what screwed you over. That’s exactly what they said down at the station. “Rebellious attitude. Flouts authority even when apprehended red-handed.”
What was it you told them again? That no matter what they said, you knew what you were laughing at? See, that’s exactly the kind of thing you don’t say. Even if it is true. Even if you’ve got a witness, or the whole thing’s on tape. That’s not too much to ask, is it? Keep your head down and slide on by, don’t make any trouble, and you’ll live to be twenty with your teeth intact. What is the point of staring down the authorities, I ask you? What could be worth ten hours in a holding cell, or getting worked over if you resist? You won’t beat them; plus, you’re a minor. Between us, I’m not thrilled with your buddy Karim for ditching you there while you were trying to explain things to the cops at school. Fine, he’s got a little more reason than you to keep a low profile, I can’t entirely blame him, but maybe if he’d backed up your version of events, none of this would’ve ended with you in handcuffs and cooling your heels. They didn’t pull too hard when they were dragging you around, did they? They could’ve roughed you up if you’d resisted, and then it would’ve been your punk-ass word against theirs if you’d tried to press charges.
Good thing you didn’t try and get away, there’s that at least. I heard they dragged the girl next door out of bed in the middle of the night—you know, the high schooler who takes piano lessons in the building across the street—because she slapped a boy in her class right in front of everyone else. He was asking for it, getting handsy with his dirty come-ons, but that slap really pissed him off; things went south from there until she took off running. He chased her for a good fifty yards! I guess musical talent wasn’t the only thing she was packing in those hands of hers. But she’s the one who started the whole misguided tiff in public. The slap’s what counted. So the forces of law and order went to pick her up at her home. You did the right thing, not resisting. Still you really have to be more responsible in the future. Your future right here I mean, not in outer space! I know, you’ll say that’s not what those books are about, but sometimes I have my doubts.
You have to stop acting like a child. Come back to earth, unless you want to wind up in jail or some juvenile home. Where’s it say we’re headed for the stars? Not gonna happen. There’s no profit in it, except over such a long term that no one’ll ever invest. Every country on earth would have to pitch in just to get something like that off the ground. That’s not happening, trust me—a world government with the same rights, the same laws for everyone, equality all around? Good thing idiotic stories like that are on their way out. Pipe dreams! Nice enough when everything else is going just fine. But we’re living in reality here. Science fiction is dead. The present is more urgent than any future that’ll never come to pass. The present fills our entire horizon. It’s dangerous to look anywhere else. We’d lose balance. Our world is right here. It might not be very pretty; I wish I could show you something better, but it’s all I’ve got. So take a good look and listen closely: can’t you feel reality all around you? Can’t you feel how tangible it is, how concrete? Can’t you feel it thrumming? Can’t you feel its rhythm, its pulse? Tell me you can hear it, right—the sound of boots? Forget your dreams. This is your world now.
This story was originally published as "Asphyxie" in When I Woke It Was Noon (© Librairie L’Atalante, 2012).