Most of the gods and demons who used to inhabit their own particular outdoor places died off long ago, and technology has zapped the survivors.
Today the adventurer’s tale-telling days are over and his crooked ways have been made straight, and every untruth can be revealed. No point in lying: we’ve got it all on tape, as the TV detectives say. If you claim you drove to Nunavut and we think maybe you didn’t, we’ll just look at the E-ZPass records for the toll roads along the way. And if they don’t tell us, the cell-phone towers will. Formerly, a cell-phone tower could follow a phone only when the phone was on, and smart criminals knew to turn it off before committing crimes. Now phones ping the towers and the towers record the presence of the cell phones in the vicinity, often whether they are on or not, and to escape the network’s observation you must remove the battery entirely. Almost everywhere, some degree of electronic connection can be assumed.
I never took much notice of the satellites going over constantly until I was out in the night in Siberia, with its grand darkness. In the middle of the Barabinsk Steppe or some other nowhere, I always studied the night sky before getting into my tent. Amid the stars’ wild randomness, the little dots of light crossed the heavens on routes as purposeful and direct as a cue-ball shot. I carried a satellite phone myself. Sometimes I would pick a likely-looking satellite and shoot a call to it (I thought; actually, the link was more complicated, and to a satellite I didn’t see) and then do something ordinary like make an appointment with my dentist back in New Jersey or talk to my daughter about her week at school. And all this from a region where exiles in former times used to disappear, never to be heard from again.
A favorite word for the technological fishbowl effect is transparency. Anything you do in far places, and anything that exists out there, can, in principle, be seen. Transparency is one of those words whose real meaning is its opposite, the way that countries with ministries of culture haven’t any. Of course, all the technology known or yet to be known won’t see even a part of everything or stop people from making things up. It’s just that the realm of colorful prevarication has moved inside, where the heart does its sneaking. Most of the gods and demons and fairies and windigos who used to inhabit their own particular outdoor places died off long ago, and modern technology has zapped the survivors. If you want to spin a yarn, it will be about something inward and private, like whether you took steroids.
During the days when the Argyle Monster still seemed a possibility in my mind, one of the books I liked to read told about the life of a German hunter and sportsman named Baron Münchausen. This baron lived in the Black Forest in some former time—the stories date to the 1700s—and journeyed through the fastnesses of the forest having adventures. A typical one was his encounter with a young stag he surprised one day in a dark glen. Grabbing his rifle, the baron found he was out of bullets, but he happened to be eating a cherry at the time, so he spat out the cherry pit, loaded the rifle with it, and fired, hitting the stag squarely between the eyes. The stag fell down but then quickly leaped up and ran away. Years later, the baron was again in that part of the woods. All at once, to his astonishment, he came face-to-face with a huge stag that had a small but healthy cherry tree growing between its antlers.
As a boy I did not believe that had really happened, but I kind of suspended final judgment, because maybe it could, you know? Because it was cool, I didn’t altogether rule it out. Today the baron would be a video game. Progress has cleared the outdoors of its tall stories and imaginary beings and redeposited them on screens. Cyberspace is full of invented monsters, and movies seem to be about nothing but winged horses and multiheaded dragons and rivers of snakes. In the first Harry Potter movie, a “full-grown mountain troll” appears in a Hogwarts bathroom and tries to smash Harry with its huge club before Harry manages to kill it by sticking his wand up its nose. Not too long ago, many people believed there really were such things as trolls in the mountains. I mourn the loss; the mountains are poorer without their trolls. As far as I’m concerned, not every last troll has left, and a stag with a tree growing between its antlers is an unlikely sight, but not out of the question completely.
The point is, wonders are out there still. If you don’t on some level believe that, you’re going to stay home with the TV, and “remote” will be what’s lost between the cushions. Technology or no, I expect to see miracles and portents anytime I leave the pavement. A while ago, I was fishing for snook in the Florida Everglades. My guide and I had made our way far back in a gin-clear avenue between stands of mangroves when two manatees swam right beneath the boat. I had never seen a manatee before. They went past faster than Usain Bolt and executed a right turn with marvelous agility and were gone, and I swear I saw mermaids. Naked, brown, extremely sexy mermaids, like the fishermen said.
Contributing editor Ian Frazier's first novel, The Cursing Mommy's Book of Days, was published in October.