From Here to Eternity

[Journalism tutor once said never mix hobby journalism with personal politics. Disobeyed. Wrote hybrid bastard child. Deliberated posting for hours. Lots of politics. Quite fictional. Very long. Made cup of tea. Cup of tea said go for it. Must obey tea. Article follows…]

*

So, a Human, a Salarian and a Turian walk into a bar, right. The Human says to the bar lady, “I’ll have three shots of Whiskey please.” The Turian walks up and says “I’ll have three shots of Sambuca, please.” They’re both necking their drinks when the Salarian steps forward. Without warning he slams his own face hard against the bar. He falls over, he’s pissing blood, he can’t stand, totally concussed or whatever. Everyone stops and looks puzzled.

“Why’d you do that?” asks the Human.

“Ah,” replies the Salarian. “Your directive. Came here to get ‘smashed’, correct? Estimated effects of alcohol on body, calculated potential disruption in co-ordination skills, concluded that the most obvious course of action was to throw my head into this counter. Disorientation much more efficiently achieved this way.”

Get it? The Salarian is so consequentialist and utilitarian. It’s not the means that matter – it’s the end! Ha ha. Ha.

Yeah, that’s it. That’s the joke. Yeah, well. One for the philosophers in the audience, I guess. Whatever.

*

They say that when you dream about somebody, it means they went to sleep thinking about you. It was late on a Friday night in Munich when the Prime Minister dreamt of me.

“You know,” I said, as he stepped off the shuttle into the busy spaceport of Nos Astra, capital of Ilium, “this is going to be a weird one.”

“Oh, how interesting!” enthused David Cameron. “Where are we?”

Ilium is an Asari planet. It exists solely in the Mass Effect universe (and David Cameron’s mind, for some reason). Big skyscrapers house bigger corporations. Crime doesn’t really exist because nearly everything is legal. Hovercars careen through lanes of air. No double yellow lines, no zebra crossings and no lollipop ladies sporting friendly smiles. Huge cities moan under the weight of 85 million stock brokers.

It has very lax corporate goods laws, which is useful for politicians and businessmen. And it has a 25 hour day, which is useful for more politicians and more businessmen. But I don’t have 25 hours with David Cameron. If he was anything like Margaret Thatcher (and many suspect that he is) I may only have four. You can understand why I didn’t spend more time explaining the average temperature of the planet (63 °C) or the history of the Asari’s 7th Expansion Wave (fucked if I know). I took the Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland by the lapels and dragged him straight to the bar. Straight to Eternity.

I see your point.

Eternity is a small place. For a pub so close to a landing port, it doesn’t have many patrons. The bar is zero deep. Exactly how I like it. Not too sure how Davey likes his bars. Understaffed, probably. He gives me a look that says “why here?” I respond with a look that says “honey mead.” Except it’s a look reserved for the Asari Matriarch serving the drinks, not for Davey.

“We’re here for several reasons,” I say. “One: that bachelor party with the stripper at table three. Two: the pair of friends having a drink other side of the partition. Don’t look. It’s rude. Three: this bar lady, right here.”

She slams down the honey mead. I smile and take a sip. Davey isn’t drinking. He has work tomorrow.

He looks around at the bachelor party, then he looks around for the press.

“Dreams are not orderly, Davey. We start with number three. No cameras, either. But you can do your meet ordinary people bit without them.”

The bar lady tells us about her parents as she wipes down the surfaces. Mother was an Asari, father was a Krogan. They fought on opposite sides during the Krogan rebellions. Her mother knew all along, but the Krogan father only found out a hundred years after his daughter was born. He went apeshit.

“They called me and said they were going to have it out,” she says. “Made me promise to love whichever one survived. Turns out that was easy, since neither of ‘em did.”

“Oh, that’s dreadful,” says Davey. “In the UK, our party had proposed tax incentives for married couples, to avoid such unpleasant situations. Unfortunately, they didn’t go through in the end. Luckily we have a benefits reform in the pipeline. We hope to see more couples like this stay together, and if they do they will be entitled to an extra £34 a week in benefits.”

The Asari Matriarch looks at the Human, a mix of amusement and scepticism in her eyes. I think she’s looking at his chin. No. No, she can’t be. David Cameron hasn’t got one.

“Do you really think it wise to encourage abusive relationships by offering them cash to stay together?” I ask.

“If the relationship is truly abysmal,” he says, “£34 is not going to be enough to convince the innocent party to stay with an abusive partner. Assuming there is an innocent party.”

“And if the relationship is loveless? Not necessarily abusive. But silently resentful? A poor family might be convinced to stay together. To the detriment of a child, possibly.”

“Every marriage, every relationship, goes through problems. Who hasn’t resented their spouse at some stage?”

“Oh, yes?”

“No! I mean –”

“It’s a dream Davey. You can’t control your mouth. It’s your brain talking. Say what you mean. You won’t be able to help it. I’m taking notes by the way.”

“I mean – the point is this: we do not try hard enough. Marriage and partnership is about sticking it out. We give up too easily.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps some of us don’t give up soon enough? We are liable to destroy ourselves. Male and female. Krogan and Asari. At eachother’s throats, til death do us part.”

“This is a complete reversal of the truth.”

“Perhaps.”

The Matriarch rolls her eyes at both of us, like she’s heard it all before. For a second it seems she knows something we don’t. The kind of look born of caution and resignation. Like we are straying into gender politics, and that it’s a pointless sewer from which nobody can emerge without smelling like someone else’s shit.

“Come on,” I say. “Let’s go to the stripper.”

“Yes, quite.”

On our way over I tell the Prime Minister the joke about the Human, the Turian and the Salarian. He likes it. I mean, I think he likes it. It could just be politeness. You can never tell with jokes like that.

The three patrons – a Human, a Turian and a Salarian – sit around an Asari stripper, writhing soundlessly atop their table in a navy blue number. The Human and Salarian sit forward, occasionally gesturing their hands in conversation. The Turian sits stiff, hands on his knees. Do Turians have knees? Oh. Yep. Yep, they do. They’re just ‘not supposed to bend that way.’

All the while the Asari wriggles. Viridian neon light bounces off every bleached, clinical surface. Even dirty bars are clean in 2185. This is where we are headed. This is futuresleeze.

“You said bachelor parties were for very close friends,” says the Salarian. “We’re just co-workers.”

“We’ve been co-workers for five years,” says the Human. “Aren’t Salarian years like dog years?”

“Now, that’s offensive.”

Offensive. The word puts Davey’s back up for a millisecond.

So this is were this is going, he thinks. Of course. What with my big gig in Munich tomorrow and my speech on multiculturalism all prepared. Of course.

“It’s called a belly button. Humans and Asari have them,” says the Human. “And you’re going to be doing shots out of it later tonight.”

“That can’t be sanitary,” says the Turian.

“Not the point, man!”

Why wouldn’t I be worrying about this? It is an issue which must be addressed. All this must be unconscious deliberation. I am checking myself.

“I don’t understand how Asari can find humans attractive. They look just like Salarians,” argues the Salarian.

“What? They’re exactly like Humans!” says the Human.

“Look at that head fringe!” scowls the Turian, with the head fringe.

Multiculturalism has failed. I won’t say those words exactly. However, I feel the forcefulness of the message should remain intact. Multiculturalism has failed. That’s how the Staggers will put it. That’s how the rest of them will put it.

“I don’t understand. Humans celebrate wedding contracts by tempting infidelity. That makes no sense.”

“Don’t embarrass me in front of the stripper.”

“What do Turians do? Do they do this too?”

“I’m just here for the drinks.”

This place is a case in point. Look at this disunity between that fellow with the eyes and this young man with the teeth. Separate voices all throwing up opposing identities. It is not good enough. Not good for a liberal society. We need a new liberalism…

“Salarians don’t have have weddings. My family simply negotiated a reproduction contract.”

“It’s the closest thing you get.”

“A MUSCULAR LIBERALISM.”

Everybody turns to look at Davey, whose outburst has attracted the attention of the entire bar. Except the stripper of course, who continues to cycle through the motions – a seedy, looping program, undisturbed by David Cameron.

I make no apologies.

“You see,” the Prime Minister starts, “there is a division of identity here. It can be very discouraging and even dangerous, since it leaves some young people vulnerable to extremists.

“What I’m about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all.

“In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries.

“But they also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity.

“Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and the mainstream.

“We have failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We have even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values.

Hey, this is good practice. Nice work, REM sleep.

“So when a white person holds objectionable views – racism, for example – we rightly condemn them. But when equally unacceptable views or practices have come from someone who isn’t white, we’ve been too cautious, frankly even fearful, to stand up to them.

“The failure of some to confront the horrors of forced marriage – the practice where some young girls are bullied and sometimes taken abroad to marry someone they don’t want to is a case in point.

The men at the table might be listening but they do not respond. The Salarian blinks, purely for biological reasons.

“This hands-off tolerance has only served to reinforce the sense that not enough is shared. All this leaves some young Muslims feeling rootless.”

“Frankly, we need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.

“It stands neutral between different values. A genuinely liberal country does much more. It believes in certain values and actively promotes them.”

No response. The stripper gyrates, ignored by all.

“They won’t answer you,” I say, guiding Davey away from the table. “But let me. There’s a pretty country-sized contradiction in your speech. To be a liberal country, we must enforce liberalism? That is like God saying ‘I give you free will to do whatever you like – but you mustn’t do this, this and this.’ I don’t mean to compare you to God, of course. It’s just that, right now, it seems to me you are equally ethereal, equally fictional and equally stupid.”

“Yes, it is a contradiction,” he says. “I make no apologies. Liberal society is built on certain principles. To be a part of that society, you should believe in these principles. We should ask more questions of extremists. If they do not conform to a liberal democracy, then they should expect no help from it.

“So let’s properly judge these people,” he goes on.

“Do they believe in universal human rights – including for women and people of other faiths? Do they believe in equality of all before the law? Do they believe in democracy and the right of people to elect their own government? Do they encourage integration or separatism? These are the sorts of questions we need to ask.”

“Wait, Davey. Don’t think I didn’t notice that slight of hand.”

“What?”

“‘Do they encourage integration or separatism?’ is a very vague question, subject to very vague answers. In what respects must someone integrate?”

“In the above respects. In democratic respects. In libertarian respects.”

“In cultural respects?”

“Now you are the one being vague. Yes, in some cultural respects. Language being an obvious example.”

“And if an immigrant doesn’t want to learn your language, you would encourage them. Why not leave them alone? That would be the liberal thing to do.”

“But not the muscularly liberal thing to do. You are failing to listen.”

“Never mind all that,” I say, by means of soliciting a ceasefire. Or a distraction. “Go stand by that pair of friends. The Quarian and the Turian over there. Listen in. What? I don’t know. Just pretend you’re looking at the horizon or something, that’s what I always do. That’s right, the girl with the mask.”

The Prime Minister is an obedient man. He rises unquestioningly. Maybe he’s just tired. Should probably get some sleep. Oh, wait.

He steps up to eavesdrop on the conversation.

“This is why you shouldn’t date Humans,” says the Turian male, gesturing calmly.

“So then, I had to explain about cross-species fluid contact,” she says. “Completely killed the mood.”

“Not to mention that you’re a Quarian. How could he be so insensitive?”

The Turian is incredulous. Then he starts dropping his hints.

“You deserve somebody who respects you. Someone who’d treat you right… If you’re hurting for things to do, we could catch a vid after work.”

Oh ho. She’s not keen. Hee hee.

“If worst comes to worst I did get the nerve stimulation program built into my suit. Oh, yeah. Standard equipment for any responsible adult. Here, let me fire it up. Uh, excuse me, Human. Private con-ver-say-shee-on!”

They call it ‘the MP shuffle.’ An awkward, strafing motion made by half-smiling men in suits with unpredictable hand gestures. One moment pointing at something dull and asking a question, the next stroking non-existent stubble and trying to look interested yet common. All the while their lower body has – completely independently – made several lengthy steps escapeward. Face and legs stretched apart in 180 degree contradistinction. Like the girl in the Exorcist, guest-starring in an episode of Looney Toons.

It is thought provoking. I have genuinely provoked thoughts.

“Man, you scurried back here very quickly, my right honourable friend,” I say, as Davey reaches for a drink from the dispenser. He looks flushed. “I guess that’s just flight instinct kicking in.

“Don’t worry, that wasn’t to teach any lesson against government policy. I just wanted to make you feel uncomfortable. I guess, if anything, it might deter you from excessive state surveillance.”

I was never too keen on that anyway.

He hasn’t forgotten the thread of our discussion. Oh, you wily party leader, you.

“The truth is,” he continues, “that instead of encouraging people to live apart, we need a clear sense of shared national identity, open to everyone. It’s that identity – that feeling of belonging in our countries that is the key to achieving true cohesion.”

“No Davey. You are talking bollocks.”

I had sworn. But he didn’t look taken aback. Which made me look rather taken aback. I carried on anyway.

“The best way to make someone identify with their country,” I continued, “is to make their country work for them. Give them more reasons to be grateful. You’re asking people to change to fit their country, when the country should change to fit its people.

“Furthermore, you’re asking people to be proud of a hunk of rock and a set of colours on a cloth. To me there is nothing more despicable than encouraging patriotism at a time of genuine internal social unrest. There are people out shouting ‘Tory wankers’ on the streets. They’re shouting ‘shame on you’ and ‘solidarity’ and all the rest.

“And can you blame them? Most of them are young people. People you will have charged extortionate amounts of money just to go to university in their home country. Meanwhile the big dogs get off lightly. You’re discouraging patriotism in policy and encouraging it in stupid fucking speeches aimed to distract people from real problems.”

“Terrorism is a real problem,” he answers. “The point is this: the ideology of extremism is the problem. This ideology crosses continents – we are all in this together. At stake are not just lives, it’s our way of life.”

“How many people do you know have been blown up by terrorists?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”

“It’s a sad number no doubt. But not as big as the number of people to be affected in some way by public spending cuts. Not as big a number as the millions of unemployed – two and a half million people out of work.”

“Those people are without jobs,” he says. “Victims of terrorism are without lives, without limbs. Those are things you cannot get back with an interview.”

“Okay, okay. I see your point.”

Oh no. Oh, good heavens. What’s happening. Slowly a rusty, primal cog in my brain clicks slightly to the right. I agree with Dave. This is not his dream anymore. It’s my nightmare.

Outside Eternity information brokers buy and sell with no regard for people’s everyday troubles. Stock market jockeys make money buying up cheap shares from businesses on Horizon, a human colony decimated by a Collector attack. Somewhere beyond the transport depot Salarian workers are getting slaughtered by an ambitious corporate Asari called Nassana.

And here I am. I chill out in Eternity. I agree with Dave.

This is something the world of Mass Effect 2 is not lacking. Someone can be both an enormous dick and an intelligent person, with beliefs of their own – opinions you have to respect. You can ‘see their point’, even if you don’t agree.

“I agree,” I start, “I agree that liberal democracy must be defended from people who would take advantage of it – in some cases. If extremists were teaching in prisons I would want that to stop. But if they were preaching outside universities, that is different. Prisoners have nowhere to go. Their access to alternative, moderating opinions are limited. But students have an entire campus to engage in discourse. Trust in the influence of others as a natural countermeasure to extremist politics. In prison, liberty is curtailed. In law-abiding life, liberty is expounded.

“So yeah, knobhead. I agree with you. I agree that liberal democracy must be defended. But I don’t trust you to choose when or at what cost. You would prioritise the process of ‘integration’ and ignore the everyday elements of millions of people’s lives, which you deem mundane –”

“And you,” he says, “by placing less emphasis on the threat of terrorism, and ignoring separatism, would ignore the lives and limbs of the few, which you deem expendable.”

Somewhere in the bar can be heard the sound of a Salarian slamming his head against a counter. An Asari matriarch rolls her eyes. We are getting nowhere.

We sit in silence for a while. If he had a Blackberry I’m sure he’d be checking it.

Twilight spreads over Nos Astra. The thrusters of hovercars and ships glow steadily, drifting to ground level at random. Like orderly embers caught in the straight, horizontal slipstream of an aeroplane full of chain smokers – all huddled round the emergency exit, tossing their butts out one after another. The distant glowing specks drift along and, eventually, they fall.

In 25 hours someone else might dream of the same place.

Hopefully with better company.

“Look, I’m not asking for much here. I understand that capitalism works. But I also understand that it can run amok. Ilium works. But it isn’t exactly a liberal democracy.”

“I don’t accept that,” he says. “That is a complete exaggeration. You mean to imply that we are siding with big business instead of ordinary young people, when that is simply not true.

A voice on Eternity’s sound system interrupts us. An advertisement crackling out over all the clink and shine, a reminder of the unreality of it all, a break in immersion:

“I’m Commander Shepard. And this is my favourite bar on Ilium.”

I smile because it’s familiar. But also because that ad doesn’t belong here. That realisation is stirring. You think too hard about it, you’re liable to lose your place. Before, Davey’s dream and my nightmare had propped eachother up, a weird stable amalgamation of unconscious minds. But now the world began to disintegrate. This was all Commander Shepard’s fault.

“What a hussy.”

“Excuse me?”

“Nothing. Listen, we can argue left and right until the blue sun comes up, Davey. But what British politics needs is balance. Right now it leans too much toward the privileged and the aged. Balance. Balance should be restored.”

For a moment a glow appeared in David Cameron’s eyes – an ember of understanding. Then he looked around him, as if seeing the spaceport for the first time. He smiled and nodded like he could finally, triumphantly, see my point.

Then he chuckled and said: “Balance must be restored to the force.” And I realised he didn’t see anything at all.

As the Prime Minister got back onto his private shuttle, he turned to wave at the photographers, before remembering there weren’t any. He took off and I hoped against the dissolving, waking world that he’d think hard about at least some of the things we talked about. But dreams are like promises. Brittle things, easily forgotten.

Bye, Davey.

[You can hear the above character dialogues from Mass Effect 2 in Eternity on Ilium. But not the ones with Mr Cameron or me in them, obviously. And here you can read Davey C’s speech at the Munich security conference, February 2011]

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5 Comments

Filed under Politics, Work!

5 responses to “From Here to Eternity

  1. Tom O'Bedlam

    You mad, mad, beautiful bastard.

  2. malaclypse

    Oh fuck. That’s incredible. I almost wish it wasn’t about Mass Effect 2, so that I could share it with all my non-Mass Effect 2 friends who haven’t played it. Mass Effect 2, I mean.

  3. Pingback: The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun

  4. Till

    Hah, great read.

  5. Micheal Morley

    It reads like a surreal platonic discourse! Beautiful. I have nearly the same sentiments. Captialism is failing, Liberalism needs to be revitalized, Politicians are dicks, the status quo is too hard for them to tip over, and Mass Effect 2 is brilliant.

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