The 18th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City, Pennsylvania, and Virginia is upon us. But despite the years that have passed, the event hasn't—and will likely never—fade from the American consciousness: How could something like this happen? And what does it mean that it did?
As with other major tragedies throughout history, the emotional processing of a trauma often takes place within the safe confines of art. This was the case in 2015, when a group of genre writers compiled In the Shadow of the Towers—a story collection that reimagines 9/11 through a speculative fiction lens. While the rest of the world watched the day's newscasts in shock, Towers editor Douglas Lain notes that it was all "terribly familiar" to fans and writers of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. To find a sense of hope—and to come to terms with an event that so closely mirrored their favorite books and films—Cory Doctorow, James Morrow, and more did what they do best: They told stories.
Annihilation author Jeff VanderMeer also contributed to the collection with "The Goat Variations," which puts a new spin on President Bush's now-famous reaction to the news. During his reading of The Pet Goat to a classroom of second-graders, Bush's Chief of Staff informed him about the second plane crash—while the media captured his panic.
VanderMeer's scenario is similar to the one we know—but it's also altered. In "The Goat Variations," the U.S. faces threats posed by Christian fundamentalists, not Islamic terrorists, in 2001. It's this conflict that preoccupies Bush during his visit to an elementary school, in addition to a disturbing discovery made one year before...
The story flashes from Bush's present to 2000, when he learns of a top-secret operation stationed in the underbelly of the Pentagon. The government has been harvesting and studying "adepts," or human psychics, to survey their dreams for important information about the future. "Peter" is an adept of great interest, as he knows how to build a futuristic time machine that could prevent a prophesied disaster in September the following year. But unlike others of its ilk, Paul's machine invades human minds like a virus, and then mentally—rather than physically—transports its users to alternate universes instead of a single future. When Peter instructs Bush to build the machine, the president obeys.
By September 11, 2001, Bush's brain has already been infected. The following excerpt sees him read to a group of young students, and then experience 9/11 in various Americas...
Read an excerpt from "The Goat Variations" by Jeff VanderMeer below, and then download In the Shadow of the Towers.
The time machine had appeared as an image on their monitors from an adept named “Peter” in vat 1023, and because they couldn’t figure out the context—weapon? camera? something new?—they had to wake Peter up and have a conversation with him.
A time machine, he told them.
A time machine?
A time machine that travels through time, he’d clarified.
And they’d believed him, or if not believed him, dared to hope he was right. That what Peter had seen while deprived of anything but his own brain, like some deep-sea fish, like something constantly turning inwards and then turning inwards again, had been a time machine.
If they didn’t build it and it turned out later that it might have worked and could have helped them avert or change what was fated to happen in September . . .
That day, three hours after being sworn in, he had had to give the order to build a time machine, and quickly.
“Something bad will happen in late summer. Something bad. Across the channels. Something awful.”
“What?” he kept asking, and the answer was always the same: We don’t know.
They kept telling him that the adepts didn’t seem to convey literal information so much as impressions and visions of the future, filtered through dreamscapes. As if the drugs they’d perfected, which had changed the way the adepts dreamed, both improved and destroyed focus, in different ways.
In the end, he had decided to build the machine—and defend against almost everything they could think of or divine from the images: any attack against the still-surviving New York financial district or the monument to the Queen Mother in the New York harbor; the random god-missiles of the Christian jihadists of the Heartland, who hadn’t yet managed to unlock the nuclear codes in the occupied states; and even the lingering cesspool that was Los Angeles after the viruses and riots.
[But they still did not really know.]
At this point, his aide would hand him the book. They’d have gone through a dozen books before choosing that one. It is the only one with nothing in it anyone could object to; nothing in it of substance, nothing, his people thought, that the still-free press could use to damage him. There was just a goat in the book, a goat having adventures. It was written by a Constitutionalist, an outspoken supporter of coronation and expansion.
As he takes the book, he realizes, mildly surprised, that he has already become used to the smell of sweating children (he has none of his own) and the classroom grunge. (Ossuary. It sounded like a combination of “osprey” and “sanctuary.”) The students who attend the school all experience it differently from him, their minds editing out the sensory perceptions he’s still receiving. The mess. The depressed quality of the infrastructure. But what if you couldn’t edit it out? And what if the stakes were much, much higher?
So then they would sit him down at a ridiculously small chair, almost as small as the ones used by the students, but somehow he would feel smaller in it despite that, as if he was back in college, surrounded by people both smarter and more dedicated than he was, as if he is posing and being told he’s not as good: an imposter.
But it’s still just a children’s book, after all, and at least there’s air conditioning kicking in, and the kids really seem to want him to read the book, as if they haven’t heard it a thousand times before, and he feeds off the look in their eyes—the President of North America and the Britains is telling us a story—and so he begins to read.
He enjoys the storytelling. Nothing he does with the book can hurt him. Nothing about it has weight. Still, he has to keep the pale face of the adept out of his voice, and the Russian problem, and the Chinese problem, and the full extent of military operations in the Heartland. (There are cameras, after all.)
It’s September 2001, and something terrible is going to happen, but for a moment he forgets that fact.
And that’s when his aide interrupts his reading, comes up to him with a fake smile and serious eyes, and whispers in his ear.
Whispers in his ear and the sound is like a buzzing, and the buzzing is numinous and all-encompassing. The breath on his ear is a tiny curse, an infernal itch. There’s a sudden rush of blood to his brain as he hears the words and his aide withdraws. He can hardly move, is seeing light where there shouldn’t be light. The words drop heavy into his ear as if they have weight.
And he receives them and keeps receiving them, and he knows what they mean, eventually; he knows what they mean throughout his body.
The aide says, his voice flecked with relief, “Mr. President, our scientists have solved it. It’s not time travel or far-sight. It’s alternate universes. The adepts have been staring into alternate universes. What happens there in September may not happen here. That’s why they’ve had such trouble with the intel. The machine isn’t a time machine.”
Except, as soon as the aide opens his mouth, the words become a trigger, a catalyst, and it’s too late for him. A door is opening wider than ever before. The machine has already infected him.
There are variations. A long row of them, detonating in his mind, trying to destroy him. A strange, sad song is creeping up inside of him, and he can’t stop that, either.
>>> He’s sitting in the chair, wearing a black military uniform with medals on it. He’s much fitter, the clothes tight to emphasize his muscle tone. But his face is contorted around the hole of a festering localized virus, charcoal and green and viscous. He doesn’t wear an eye patch because he wants his people to see how he fights the disease. His left arm is made of metal. His tongue is not his own, colonized the way his nation has been colonized, waging a war against bio-research gone wrong, and the rebels who welcome it, who want to tear down anything remotely human, themselves no longer recognizable as human.
His aide comes up and whispers that the rebels have detonated a bio-mass bomb in New York City, which is now stewing in a broth of fungus and mutation: the nearly instantaneous transformation of an entire metropolis into something living but alien, the rate of change has become strange and accelerated in a world where this was always true, the age of industrialization slowing it, if only for a moment.
“There are no people left in New York City,” his aide says. “What are your orders?”
He hadn’t expected this, not so soon, and it takes him seven minutes to recover from the news of the death of millions. Seven minutes to turn to his aide and say, “Call in a nuclear strike.”
>>> . . . and his aide comes up to him and whispers in his ear, “It’s time to go now. They’ve moved up another meeting. Wrap it up.” Health insurance is on the agenda today, along with social security. Something will get done about that and the environment this year or he’ll die trying . . .
>>> He’s sitting in the chair reading the book and he’s gaunt, eyes feverish, military personnel surrounding him. There’s one camera with them, army TV, and the students are all in camouflage. The electricity flickers on and off. The school room has reinforced metal and concrete all around it. The event is propaganda being packaged and pumped out to those still watching in places where the enemy hasn’t jammed the satellites. He’s fighting a war against an escaped, human-created, rapidly reproducing intelligent species prototype that looks a little bit like a chimpanzee crossed with a Doberman. The scattered remnants of the hated adept underclass have made common cause with the animals, disrupting communications.
His aide whispers in his ear that Atlanta has fallen, with over sixty thousand troops and civilians massacred in pitched battles all over the city. There’s no safe air corridor back to the capital. In fact, the capital seems to be under attack as well.
“What should we do?”
He returns to reading the book. Nothing he can do in the next seven minutes will make any difference to the outcome. He knows what they have to do, but he’s too tired to contemplate it just yet. They will have to head to the Heartland and make peace with the Ecstatics and their god-missiles. It’s either that or render entire stretches of North America uninhabitable from nukes, and he’s not that desperate yet.
He begins to review the ten commandments of the Ecstatics in his mind, one by one, like rosary beads.
>>> He’s in mid-sentence when the aide hurries over and begins to whisper in his ear—just as the first of the god-missiles strikes and the fire washes over and through him, not even time to scream, and he’s nothing anymore, not even a pile of ashes.
>>> He’s in a chair, in a suit with a sweat-stained white shirt, and he’s tired, his voice as he reads thin and raspy. Five days and nights of negotiations between the rival factions of the New Southern Confederacy following a month of genocide from Arkansas to Georgia: too few resources, too many natural disasters, and no jobs, the whole system breaking down, although Los Angeles is still trying to pretend the world isn’t coming to an end, even as jets are falling out the sky. Except, that’s why he’s in the classroom: pretending. Pretending neighbor hasn’t set upon neighbor for thirty days, like in Rwanda except not with machetes, with guns. Teenagers shooting people in the stomach, and laughing. Extremist talk radio urging them on. Closing in on a million people dead.
His aide comes up and whispers in his ear: “The truce has fallen apart. They’re killing each other again. And not just in the South. In the North, along political lines.”
He sits there because he’s run out of answers. He thinks: In another time, another place, I would have made a great president.
>>> He’s sitting in the classroom, in the small chair, in comfortable clothes, reading the goat story. No god-missiles here, no viruses, no invasions. The Chinese and Russians are just on the cusp of being a threat, but not there yet. Adepts here have no real far-sight, or are not believed, and roam free. Los Angeles is a thriving money pit, not a husked-out shadow.
No, the real threat here, besides pollution, is that he’s mentally ill, although no one around him seems to know it. A head full of worms, insecurity, and pure, naked need. He rules a country called the “United States” that wavers between the First and the Third World. Resources failing, infrastructure crumbling, political system fueled by greed and corruption.
When the aide comes up and whispers in his ear to tell him that terrorists have flown two planes into buildings in New York City, there’s blood behind his eyes, as well as a deafening silence, and a sudden leap from people falling from the burning buildings to endless war in the Middle East, bodies broken by bullets and bombs. The future torques into secret trials, torture, rape, and hundreds of thousands of civilians dead, or displaced, a country bankrupted and defenseless, ruled ultimately by martial law and generals. Cities burn, the screams of the living are as loud as the screams of the dying.
He sits there for seven minutes because he really has no idea what to do.
. . . and his fate is to exist in a reality where towers do not explode in September, where Islamic fundamentalists are the least of his worries.
There is only one present, only one future now, and he’s back in it, driving it. Seven minutes have elapsed, and there’s a graveyard in his head. Seven minutes, and he’s gradually aware that in that span he’s read the goat story twice and then sat there for thirty seconds, silent.
Now he smiles, says a few reassuring words, just as his aide has decided to come up and rescue him from the yawning chasm. He’s living in a place now where they’ll never find him, those children, where there’s a torrent of blood in his mind, and a sky dark with planes and helicopters, and soldiers blown to bits by the roadside.
At that point, he would rise from his chair and his aide would clap, encouraging the students to clap, and they will, bewildered by this man about whom reporters will say later, “Doesn’t seem quite all there.”
An endless line of presidents rises from the chair with him, the weight almost too much. He can see each clearly in his head. He can see what they’re doing, and who they’re doing it to.
Saying his goodbyes is like learning how to walk again, while a nightmare plays out in the background. He knows as they lead him down the corridor that he’ll have to learn to live with it, like and unlike a man learning to live with missing limbs—phantom limbs that do not belong, that he cannot control, but are always there, and he’ll never be able to explain it to anyone. He’ll be as alone and yet as crowded as a person can be. The wall between him and his wife will be more unbearable than ever.
He remembers Peter’s pale, wrinkled, yearning face, and he thinks about making them release the man, put him on a plane somewhere beyond his country’s influence. Thinks about destroying the machine and ending the adept project.
Then he’s back in the wretched, glorious sunlight of a real, an ordinary day, and so are all of his reflections and shadows. Mimicking him, forever.
Download In the Shadow of the Towers to keep reading.
In addition In the Shadow of the Towers, Douglas Lain is the editor of several anthologies which interrogate recent events through a speculative fiction lens. His 2018 anthology Deserts of Fire: Speculative Fiction and the Modern War works well as a complimentary anthology to Towers. Deserts of Fire features critically-acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy authors like Ken Liu, James Morrow, and A.M. Dellamonica exploring narratives about America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Goat Variations" author Jeff VanderMeer is a Nebula and Shirley Jackson Award-winner best known for his acclaimed Southern Reach trilogy. "The Goat Variations" first appeared in the 2009 anthology Other Earths, edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake.
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