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Contemporary Speculative Science Fiction

The deaths, when they came, were often as varied and idiosyncratic as their infected hosts. An impressive escalation in car crashes and drownings was surpassed by steep increases in accidental poisonings, jet-pack mishaps, and problems with parachutes. Balancing the scale, was a precipitous decline in hate crimes, domestic abuse, and border disputes.


In my leather-bound notebook I’ve been curating a list of escalating and receding elements I’ve seen, heard or read about since the pandemic took hold a year ago.


Increasing

stand-up comedians

poets

baristas

tight-rope walkers

lion tamers

undertakers



Decreasing

proof-readers

politicians

magicians

editors

dieticians

dictators

anaesthetists



I turn the page, spreading the notebook open so I can see both pages.





Increasing

divorce

planned pregnancy

unplanned pregnancy

jaywalking

swearing





Decreasing

marriage

fences

make-up

highlights

nightlights





The reminder on my phone chirps. Ten minutes until I lecture on Michael Chabon’s work, starting with the Mysteries of Pittsburgh, wandering into Wonder Boys, crawling into The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and ending in Alaska, with The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. As I reach for my coffee mug, I knock over the small picture frame perched on the cluttered desk. I pick it up and set it upright again.


I half-smile at the quote, nestled in its mahogany frame, a gift from one of my sophomore students who was fond of embroidery. The threads of the cross-stitched letters dive in and out of the taut fabric, weaving with ease between the visible and the invisible. She'd given it to me a few years ago, a joke of sorts, as she'd stitched a few friendly spiders in the corners, dangling over the words in the centre.


There is no passion so contagious as that of fear. - Michel De Montaigne


I’d have to disagree with Monsieur Montaigne though, there is something more contagious than fear now. It’s called the Phago-Amygdala Virus Disease, or PAViD for short, which has infected, by the latest estimates, ninety percent of the planet’s population. More than six billion souls have a malfunctioning amygdala. The remaining ten percent are left to wonder whether they might be permanently immune, or wake one day to realize the virus was nibbling their amygdala at a more languid pace.


On the last page of my notebook I've pasted an image of a large, brown tarantula. Taking a deep breath, I flip to the picture and force myself to stare at it for five seconds.


Sweaty palms? Yes.


Rapid heart rate? Check.


Quick, ragged breaths? Undeniably, yes.


I close the notebook with a thump. My amygdala appears to be working within the expected parameters.


I open the folder on my laptop labelled ‘Lessons,’ scanning for today’s lecture on Chabon. But my eyes land on the Margaret Atwood lecture I gave six months ago. That was the day I’d had to explain the PAViD pandemic to my students. The news channels were reporting on how it was raging across Asia. The divorce rate was soaring, people were quitting their jobs, kids were dropping out of school, and Kim Jong-un was dead, dragged through the streets of Pyongyang by his own people. Governments were scrambling to understand PAViD, how to stop the spread. But it had already reached North America by then, though it remained undetected for a few months more.


“Professor Gaskell, what’s an amy-gee-dala?” Skanda had asked, as I was preparing to launch into my Margaret Atwood lecture.


“It’s pronounced a-MIG-dala,” I’d explained, “taken from the Latin for almond, because they’re almond-shaped.”


“So, what do they do?” asked Liam.


“They’re part of the brain that controls our fear response. When we perceive something, within nanoseconds the amygdala decides whether we ought to be fearful, and if so, what our response should be: fight, flight, or freeze.” I said. “PAViD is a bacteriophage, a bacterial virus, that eats portions of the amygdala.”


“Will it kill us?”


“Not directly.” I replied, “But as Henry Hallam Tweedy, professor of practical theology said, ‘Fear is the father of courage and mother of safety.’ Fear has been our constant prickling companion for millennia. It helps keep us alert, wary, always on the look-out for things that can harm us. It's a powerful motivator--"


“But Bertrand Russell said fear is source of superstition and of cruelty,” Skanda countered.


I nodded, “Fear of the unknown leads to superstitions and myths and even religions, as we struggle to explain the inexplainable. What fears do you have, that stem from the unknown?”


I invited them to write on the whiteboard. A list slowly emerged.

Strange noises in the night

People I don’t know

Dogs

Eating something I can’t identify

Democrats

Dying

Telling someone I love them



“Then there is the fear of losing our perceived status in society,” I continued. “This encompasses fear of failure, of being embarrassed, being rejected. Such fear often results in cruelty as we try to maintain our status by pushing others down. When do you feel afraid of failure, of rejection?"



They offered:

Going to the beach, in a swimsuit

Headstands

Speaking up in class

Being laughed at

Karaoke

Farting in a quiet room

Telling someone I love them




“Some argue that fear keeps curiosity in check.” I said. “If we don’t fear the unknown or being embarrassed, then we will try more things. But some of those things may be dangerous, even lethal. Also, if we do not fear authority, then what’s the impetus to obey? Will we resort to thievery and corruption and jaywalking and blasphemy, if we do not fear punishment?”


“But, hang on Professor Gaskell,” Maya piped up. “Just because we aren’t afraid of doing something, doesn’t mean we can’t understand the consequences of our actions. Fear is not the only reason we obey the laws, or why we follow the Golden Rule, to treat people the same way as we wish to be treated.”


“I guess we’ll find out, Maya,” I said. “We can hope that Napoleon got it wrong when he observed that ‘Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.’ For if he's right, once fear is gone, only selfishness remains.”


The reminder chimes again, five minutes until class begins. I look out the open window of my office at the green lawn and benches filled with people lounging in the summer sun. Professor Xu gesticulates broadly as she converses with Orin, the janitor. Liam jumps down from a tree, yelping in pain as he twists his ankle. In the shade of the maple tree closest to my window, Skanda kisses Maya, and whispers, “I love you.”


In the lower corner of my window, swaying in the breeze, a spider weaves a web.


March 06, 2021 20:08

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25 comments

Frances Reine
15:15 Mar 08, 2021

I love the neat little lists and you've got some hilarious items on them too. The second to last paragraph is just lovely, twisting the final little bow. I espeially love, "In the shade of maple tree closest to my window, Skanda kisses Maya, and whispers, 'I love you.'" What a wonderful way to sequence each fleeting observation. Such a thought-provoking speculation as well. In the beginning, I also love, "she'd stitched a few friendly spiders in the corners, dangling over the words" ('friendly spiders', such a teensy quaint picture) You ...

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H L Mc Quaid
16:07 Mar 08, 2021

Hi Frances, thanks for the comments. I'll re-work the dialogue as you suggested, as it does work better, thanks! I'm thinking of using this piece as springboard to longer one, just to see if I can write more than 1500 words before I get bored. :0 Thanks for highlighted what you liked, and being encouraging. :)

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Frances Reine
16:11 Mar 08, 2021

No problem at all :) I can relate to the extreme when you talk about boredom with an idea. I hope this one doesn't sputter and go out because it's truly a gem!

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H L Mc Quaid
16:24 Mar 08, 2021

That's probably why we were attracted to writing short stories, 1,000 words and we're done, and onto the next one! :p

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A.Dot Ram
19:19 Mar 14, 2021

I love this! The use of language is great, the pacing of how it all unfolds, the build-up of reveals. And I'm so intrigued by the philosophical exploration. Also, love how you used the spiders 🕷 (the embroidery and the fear test).

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H L Mc Quaid
19:24 Mar 14, 2021

omg, i love the spider emoji/icon thing in your comment! Okay, back to the essence of your comment. Thank you. The spiders were added in a later draft--but it's hard to imagine how the story would work without them now. Thanks so much for reading and commenting. 🕷💓

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Zelda C. Thorne
11:53 Mar 08, 2021

Oooo I love this concept! So interesting and thought-provoking. You could turn it into a much longer story, even a novel. So many ways this could be approached.

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H L Mc Quaid
12:16 Mar 08, 2021

Huh, i"d not thought about turning this into a longer piece, but I"ve been trying to find a topic/character that I could write something longer about...and I do think there are possibilities here. Thanks!

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Christina Marie
19:50 Mar 07, 2021

Heather - this is really interesting! Love the speculation on what the world could be like - not necessarily for the worse or better, but very different. Also loved the little bits of humour scattered throughout. Small thing, but the last part of this sentence feels a little redundant: "The threads of the cross-stitched letters dive in and out of the taut fabric, piercing one side, poking through the other." I would probably end it at "fabric", but that's just me :) Great work!

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H L Mc Quaid
09:25 Mar 08, 2021

Hi Christina! Thanks for commenting. I re-worked that sentence, hopefully it removes some of the redundancy. I didn't want to tip the scales too far in favour or disfavour of what a 'world without fear' might be like, so I'm glad you had that impression. :)

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H L Mc Quaid
20:14 Mar 06, 2021

So, this is less of story and more of a thought-piece, or a Gedankenexperiment. What might a world without fear be like? What would we do, if we feared nothing?

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Nina Thompson
16:36 Mar 15, 2021

This was such a fun story to read! I love how light and inadvertently funny it was, and how the ending was sort of hopeful and sweet.

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H L Mc Quaid
17:06 Mar 15, 2021

Hi Nina! Thanks for reading and commenting. I tried to add some elements of humour, though subtle, so glad that you did find it funny. And the end? Some people think it's sweet, others think it's creepy. Exactly what I hoped for. 😂

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Holly Fister
16:27 Mar 15, 2021

What a fabulous, creative story! The ending was perfectly creepy, as if the people she was witnessing out the window were possibly all afflicted with the virus.

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H L Mc Quaid
17:04 Mar 15, 2021

Hi Holly! Thanks for commenting. Yes, the end was meant to hint that something might be going on...was it good or bad? we don't know yet. ;)

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Ash Jarvis
02:28 Mar 12, 2021

I rarely reread or rewatch anything, and I’ve read this several times, absorbing all the marvelous details (I absolutely adore “jet-pack mishaps”, and the kiss at the end is perfection), and pondering what it would mean for a society to lose fear. I definitely think there’s enough here to expand it if you’re so inclined—I would love to see what conflicts this causes for the protagonist when they or someone close to them gets the virus.

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H L Mc Quaid
11:52 Mar 12, 2021

Oh, wow, thanks Ash! Glad you found it absorbing enough to re-read. :) For the longer piece, I'm not sure how far back I'll go. I was thinking it might be interesting to explore how people even know about the virus (if it had no immediate, visible symptom). What would be the indicators that something was going haywire? How long would it take to figure out that there was a virus? And, then as you suggest, there's the drama of the interpersonal relationships of people who and don't have the virus. Anyway, the expansion is brewing in the bac...

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Beth Connor
19:15 Mar 10, 2021

This was so intriguing and thought-provoking, I loved it. I love how you created a virus that affected the amygdala. I wonder how this would affect people with anxiety disorders? When my daughter was in Middle School, she would tell me daily that she wished her amygdala had an on/off switch! I am sharing this story with her...

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H L Mc Quaid
11:30 Mar 11, 2021

Hi Beth. That's an interesting question. I'd guess a lot of anxiety is based on fear, so those disorders would dwindle. And an on/off switch would be ideal. :)

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David G.
02:25 Mar 10, 2021

I really enjoyed this! Don’t delete it. The end is perfect. Is the narrator scared of the spider? Does he/she have CAViD? We don’t know. Well done.

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H L Mc Quaid
11:58 Mar 10, 2021

Thanks David! So glad you liked it. :)

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Claire Lindsey
19:18 Mar 09, 2021

This is so imaginative and intriguing. It really does make you wonder, what would life be like without fear? I’m not sure where you’re taking the extended version, but I’d be interested to see your take on how lack of fear impacts the arts. What would writers or musicians or painters do without the fear of how people will perceive their work or of not being good enough? It’s a big question to try to answer but that’s where my mind went lol. Anyways, I love the little lists, especially the lists of fears that the class creates. I laughed out...

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H L Mc Quaid
11:57 Mar 10, 2021

Ha, Claire, if you'd seen my first list, it was full arts-related professions (painters, sculptors, actors, musicians, etc.). But I edited it because the lists were too long. So yes, I had the same thought. I also wondered, what would happen to the perceived quality of art, if more people are participating? Glad you liked the story (and the 'Democrats' bit still cracks me up) and found it thought-provoking. Thanks, as always, for your comments!

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Howard Halsall
01:18 Mar 09, 2021

Hello Heather, I enjoyed your new story. It certainly packs a punch and it’s brimming with ideas. In terms of the notion of fear as a question to consider, it’s ambitious, far-reaching and thought provoking. Maybe we’ll all be asking these questions in the near future and if the lockdowns continue then who knows? Our very nature as a species will be changed for at least a two generations. I liked the ending, in that it brought the whole concept into sharp focus with those three words that are probably the hardest to say for all those reasons...

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H L Mc Quaid
09:09 Mar 09, 2021

Hi Howard, thanks so much for reading and commenting. I will attempt to write a longer story using the themes outlined here, maybe aiming for 7K to 8K words. So, I'm still undecided about whether to leave it up or not. Maybe I should ask people what changes they'd expect to see if there were no fear, and then I can use that as more inspiration for my story. ;)

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