a novel, by Damien Ober
ISBN 978-0-9571213-8-6. Paperback. 250pp. Publication date: August 2014. Equus Press: London.
Price: € 18.00 (not including postage).
1777. Colonial America. A year after uploading the Declaration of Independence, a mysterious internet plague has broken loose in the cloud, killing any user who accesses a networked device. Seven in ten Americans are dead. The internet is abandoned. The entire continental militia has vanished. Seizing the moment, the British take control of New York and Philadelphia, scattering what little remains of the rebellion.
Just when all seems lost, George Washington reappears from off-the-grid to pin the remnants of the British army at Yorktown. Independence is won, but with the countryside in ruins and internet commerce impossible, the former colonies teeter on the brink of collapse. Meeting in secret, a faction of the Signers of the Declaration code a new error-proof operating system, designed to stabilize the cloud and ensure ever-lasting American prosperity.
Believing the draconian regulations of the new OS a betrayal of the hard-fought revolution, Thomas Jefferson organizes a feisty, small-government opposition to fight the overreach of Washington’s Federalist administration. Their most valuable weapon in the struggle to “save the ideals of the Revolution” is Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America, a new open-source social networking portal which will revolutionize representative government, return power to the people, and make Congress and the Presidency irrelevant…
“Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America is as original as they come – an audacious, exuberantly imaginative novel about freedom and technology and the sacrifices each take from the other. Damien Ober is a writer to be reckoned with.” Scott O’Connor, author of Half World and Untouchable
“Ober’s mix of heady ideas and gorgeous prose make this a uniquely compelling debut. Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America is nothing less than an alternate history of the birth of the United States that hints at our coming demise.” Jim Ruland, San Diego City Beat
“Ober has mapped the modern superstitious US onto the nation’s beginnings complete with vituperative two-party system controlled by plutocrats (now corporations), history replaced by acceptable mythos (sometimes dependent on choice of party), and with modern communications systems providing impossible forms of social networking in which people live without having to experience reality first hand.” Jim Chaffee, The Drill Press
“Doctor Benjamin Franklin’s Dream America is no political tract or history lesson or moralist dystopia or media analysis; or, rather, it is all of these and more – it is fiction writing at its best. And what remains after the excitement of the storyline and the provocation of the thinking have subsided, is the simple poignancy of the fifty-six death-scenes, all the more moving for their simplicity and matter-of-factness. As when William Williams thinks, ‘It was good, to spend a little time in this world, I guess’ (205). It’s so good, to spend a little time in the world of this book. I’m sure.” David Vichnar, Equus Press
Doc Josiah Bartlett, Roger Sherman, Thomas M’Kean and Doctor Benjamin Rush all got the same email. Orders from Congress to form another unofficial little committee. The assignment: do whatever you have to do to keep John Morton alive and functioning until The Articles of Confederation have been uploaded.
Right now, their patient is struggling through another fit of blood-speckled coughing. Fresh droplets make new stellar patterns across the white pillowcases. A whole night’s sky worth of faded constellations. One hand on his laptop, the other up to ward them from the bed, John Morton pulls himself together. “To come too close is to invite death, to tempt it with fresh consumables.” He coughs a few light coughs until somewhere the coughs become chuckles. Morton smiles, then back into his laptop, the glowing crater bashed into the fabric of the bed quilts. His fingers trigger key patterns. Screen light drones the jagged caverns of his face. The room, hung thick with the candle stink of overcooked beef, hints a gray and forgettable day in lace curtains all pulled closed.
No one knows exactly what it is that’s killing John Morton. Both Rush and Bartlett are confident it can’t be contagious, but they stick to the walls all the same. Shem and M’Kean follow their lead. These are all men who know which chances are worth taking. Been taking some big ones lately. Not coming up very good either. New York rests in the King’s hands, General Washington and the Continental Army lapping wounds in winter quarters. It’s been almost a full year since The Declaration was uploaded, three or four or five or 23 years of war, depending on which representative of which state you follow. This Revolution, after all that has transpired, threatens to become no more than collected and distilled and then suppressed ideals, as temporary as a single human generation.
Slowly, John Morton’s typing grinds to a halt. He just sits there. There’s a moment of distinct possibility that he has passed, dead and off for the next land beyond. But then Morton’s eyes shift. He finds the men in the room with him. “I am finished.” He forces a swallow, a long inhale. Eyes wearily scan browser windows unpacked and gaping all across his screen. “Have to update my status,” and he reads aloud the words he’s just then typing, “John Morton is finished with The Articles of Confederation.”
He stares into the letters, the meaning their crooked shapes make in the string. Already this latest status update pulses down the scrolls of countless patriots, just like every thought that’s entered his mind these last five years. As soon as he’d committed to the revolt, John Morton sliced his brain open and laid it bare for the entire social network to peruse. Every thought, every inclination, reaction or bloviation, public in the time it takes to type a 140 characters or less.
Thomas M’Kean takes a step away from the wall in order to show everyone how one makes a fist from a regular old hand. Though still the good reluctant soldier, he’s been lately flashing glimpses of that general they all know is lurking in there. “The Articles,” he says. “Finally, we pull the states together and start putting up a real fight!”
A gesture from Rush to indicate he’s not so sure, but that’s as far as he’ll take it. Sometimes in these settings he has a hard time speaking up. Despite the status afforded him by his deep involvement in the politics and administration of the Revolution, Ben Rush knows he’s not really a politician or an administrator–not truly an intellectual at all–but just a country saw bones glorified by the natural workings of republicanism. Still, though, he makes a good enough gesture towards enlightenment science. But Doc Bartlett? Doc is the true product. No gestures involved. Cured himself of a mysterious fever when he was still a teen and there was no looking back. Always working on learning some dead language, always a few science experiments running in that lab under his New Hampshire homestead. His latest gig is cutting up dead bodies and looking inside. Right now he’s shaking his head, singing a little ditty that goes, ” We have to get them ratified first .”
“Been coughing three days straight.” John Morton types, reads aloud, “John Morton has been coughing three days straight.” He types, scans his status, types, scans his status.
Through this all, Rodger Sherman has looked–as always–softly puritanical, like a throwback to some forgotten age without the internet. He measures each man with a glance. “Have to get them ratified, yes. But as soon as we’ve upload these, the idea of a federated government will be loose. For the good or for the ill. Something will have begun that we will be powerless to stop.” If you didn’t know him, you’d think Roger Sherman was speaking from some other plane, where the results of this reality have no sway whatsoever. But this is the same deliberate and indifferent way he’s plodded through all the grand events of his time. Old Sherm the Cobbler’s just working on another shoe.
A tongue appears, then, in the corner of John Morton’s mouth, crosshatched with swollen veins and dark, purple/gray sores. “My work is done. The rest is up to the people.” He glances at the room’s entire. “We are sure about this? Taking something down is a lot different than putting something up.” He points up then, with a single bloated finger, as if the internet really is only above them. “Sherm is right, once it’s in the cloud, there’s no stopping it. It’ll seep into every harddrive in the country.”
“We are on orders,” Rush reminds them. “Orders from Congress.”
M’Kean and Sherm share a look. They share it with Doc Bartlett, with Morton in the bed. Rush now nodding the nod of someone who knows it’s time for him to nod along. Doc Bartlett clears his throat, “The Articles. What do we gain and what are we giving up?” He lets this sit the length of one breath, then, “The Enlightenment’s most grand experiment enters its next critical stage.”
Rush posits suddenly, gesturing toward John Morton, “Maybe it’s The Articles that made him sick?” They all look at Rush like, how? But the doctor doesn’t have a rational answer, and so he just says, “It is an astounding time we live in.”
John Morton closes a few open files, opens some others, hovers The Articles over the ftp portal and off they go. Signals pervade the air in the room, the text of The Articles of Confederation climbing cloudward. Morton lets his eyes rise to the ceiling, as if watching this thing he’s reared venture off into the world’s mind. He types his new status, lets it sit there a moment, hits enter. “Well, it’s official now. The whole social network knows. John Morton has uploaded The Articles of Confederation.”
Some cautious smiles. The four healthy men all careful not to move bedward, shifting instead around each other in turns, shaking hands and clasping shoulders. “The United States,” one says.
“The United States.”
Bursts of typing again from the ruffled bed. “Portaling our new foundational document into the facebook page.” John Morton reads aloud the name of the page, ” Independent Colonies of America. ” He laughs. “Going to have to start a new page again.” This is because it was decided–from the very first one they launched–that each new phase of the Revolution would get a new facebook page. And that new members would not be automatically carried over from the old. That each patriot would have to perform his own, individual public click in order to affirm consent in every step toward a new nation. The very first ‘official facebook page of the Revolution’ got 1,256 likes in the first hour alone. The next day, John Witherspoon himself, a big public liking ceremony.
But that was six years ago. Time goes by. Things become something else. New groups and pages are created and no one much visits the ones left behind. The old pages just hover there in some forgotten sector of the cloud, these outdated versions of Revolutionary America, just ghost houses now, full of ad drones and profile haunts, crawling with worms. Each of those old pages does have a few living people left–ancient patriots still active and posting, locked into their static hold on progress. Those guys probably think the drones that re-post to the old pages all day are actually human. But they’re not. They’re just drones–empty, lifeless drones.
John Morton looks into the future. “As soon as these are ratified, we’ll be officially organized under a different system. Confederated Articles. Name of the page might change again, but this is a country we’re talking about now. And not just online anymore.” He clicks the new page to life, opens the info tab and types the newest name, reads it aloud as he does, “The United States of America.” He clicks into his status, types, reads, “John Morton is an American.” And he realizes it then, that it just happened. And that it was him that did it. The first man to type the new nation’s name into the internet.
“Already commenting. Five likes already.” John Morton’s eyes tighten in around the screen. “Fans and likes. Friend requests coming in by the dozen. Samuel Adams has commented on your status. John Witherspoon has commented on your status. George Washington wants to be friends with The United States of America!” And there it goes, comments and likes cascading the wall faster than John Morton can scroll to keep up. “Wall-ter-fall,” he says. “The USA has gone Viral!”
“I don’t get it,” Rush says. “How did you make it so you can be a friend of the page and be a fan of the page? Is it a page, a person, or a group?”
Sherm’s thinking about The Articles , wants to know if it’s a ‘these,’ a ‘this,’ or an ‘it.’ He’s trying it in his head a few different ways. This is The Articles . These are them . Or is it they or those or only one? One set. The Articles?
“The tasks of this committee are complete.” Doc Bartlett reveals palms empty of any smartdevice. “You’re going to have to accept my actual in-person gratitude.”
“A new nation has been launched,” M’Kean tells them. “There is nothing as contagious as freedom’s march.”
“I still wonder, though…” Rush glancing bedward, then in a vague direction which he intends to indicate the internet, “…exactly what kind of contagious we’re talking about here.”
“My last act,” John Morton says. “The Articles. Available to anyone. Download and join the Revolution. Become an American.” He tries to let the words hang, but the proud cast of his face is betrayed by a bursting cough. There is blood in his palm–more than the usual misting–and fresh gobs of it in abstract shapes across the blankets. He coughs again and again. The room seems to be coughing back, but really it’s just John Morton, echoing himself, coughing up whole handfuls of blood as the other men inch their way back to backs against the furthest wall. They all know what’s happening here; they’ve each watched a few men die over the years.
Abruptly, the coughing stops. With his head rolled back, John Morton blinks away tears pink with just a trace of blood. Vision clears to show the room bent over him. The glow of the laptop touches only the ceiling directly above, and only slightly, the most vague hint of a soft spot in the shell of this realm–a path out, maybe. Follow The Articles into the cloud and leave this sick body behind. Fingers clicking a few code-sounding clusters of shortcut keys and his profile picture goes dark.
John Morton is dead.