Neal Stephenson Inspired Madeline Ashby To Write This Wild, Clever Tale

Illustration for article titled Neal Stephenson Inspired Madeline Ashby To Write This Wild, Clever Tale

Tomorrow sees the publication of Hieroglyph, a book of optimistic science fiction spearheaded by Neal Stephenson's famous call to arms . And we've got an exclusive excerpt from Madeline Ashby's weird, bracing short story, in which she imagines a world without border fences.


Top image: "Border City" by Daniel Leivick.

You can read more about Ashby's story, and the ideas it explores, at the Hieroglyph website. In this piece, "U.S.-Mexico immigration has become a reality television-style competition, with newly arrived contestants living and working under constant and pervasive surveillance in Mariposa, a "planned prototyping community" or "cultural moat" on the border."

And you can meet Stephenson, the book's editors, and some of the contributors to the Hieroglyph anthology at one of the book's upcoming public events. Including an event this Wednesday at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, which includes Rudy Rucker, plus Annalee Newitz and myself. Annalee will also be moderating an event this Monday at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.

So here's some of Ashby's glimpse of a strange new future...

Excerpt—"By the Time We Get To Arizona," by Madeline Ashby

The buzz in Ulicez's molars intensified as he drew nearer to the border. They'd said it would help him find his way; so long as he kept north it would keep humming along, a tiny siren song buried deep in his mouth to lead him ever onward. Really there was no need for the chip to vibrate, but the folks from Mariposa said it had to do something more than just tell the drones where you were all the time. It had to add value, they said. It had to be user friendly, so Ulicez and all the others wouldn't have sat in the dentist's chair for nothing.

They could have put the chip under the skin, but then Ulicez might have been tempted to pick it out and sell it. So now it sat there in one of his teeth. He didn't know which one. They'd put him under for the surgery, and there were a couple way in the back, on the right side, that really fucking hurt. But they both felt just like bone when he ran his tongue over them. And neither one ached any more than the other when he sipped from his canteen.

"Why are you walking?" his mother had asked. "They said they would send a truck for you. You know, a truck? With air-conditioning? Like they did for Elena?"


Elena was waiting for him in Mariposa. Apparently they processed women differently. Something about establishing baseline reactions. Hormones. That was the official explanation: they needed more than the three-month probationary period with women, because the pheromone detectors positioned all through town could be totally thrown by menstrual cycles. But maybe they just wanted to see what the reunion would be like. If it would be romantic enough. Real enough. That was what Elena suspected. So she'd stepped up into the truck. She was smiling at him when the locks clicked down behind her. The black trucks that rumbled down from Mariposa had no drivers. Their doors locked automatically. They could take you anywhere, and you couldn't do a thing about it. To him, getting inside one of those things sounded like a pretty stupid idea. And technically, they hadn't said he couldn't walk in.

He started just before dawn, when the sky was a bad bruise. He stopped in the living room, where his mother slept in the good chair. She was still half asleep when she stood up and kissed him good-bye.


"There's extra ammo in the blue tin," he said, before he left. "I left the latch open, so you can get it open quick."

She rubbed the swollen joints in her hands and smiled at him. "Things aren't like that, anymore," she said. "It's better, now."


He didn't know if she was talking about the war, or her arthritis. Either way, he waited until she'd turned all the locks in the door before starting down the hallway and out of the building.

It was not far to Mariposa; the desert was all solar farmland, now, and much smaller than it used to be. That was what the border looked like, now: a river of black photovoltaic cells open like flowers to the sun. Corporate surveillance flutterbys zoomed over and around them, automatically alerting the Border Patrol when they spotted a human darting northward whose gait, temperature, expression, and other secret factors did not fit the proprietary algorithmic definition of "employee." Where the river stopped, Mariposa and the other border towns began. Mariposa was the latest.

Illustration for article titled Neal Stephenson Inspired Madeline Ashby To Write This Wild, Clever Tale

Mariposa sat in the space once occupied solely by tarantulas and the rocks they hid under. It sat half on one side, half on the other. They'd dropped it just west of the Nogales-Hermosillo highway like a flat-pack explosive device. It was still in the process of unfolding itself, Tab A into Slot B, still growing into a "planned prototyping community" or "cultural moat" or "probationary testing ground" or whatever it was meant to be. Ulicez had looked up pictures of it and it still looked raw and new, more like a movie set than an actual town. Given that everyone going there was auditioning for something, he supposed that made sense.


On the way out of Nogales, El Tejón joined him. Ulicez had no idea what the old man's real name was. He'd been called Tejón forever, likely because the whiskers on his chin were streaked with white like a badger's. But now he melted out of the alley like a tomcat and kept pace with Ulicez without any appearance of effort or exertion. It was as though he'd been waiting for Ulicez to pass by, even though Ulicez had told only his mother that he planned to walk. Then again, it was somehow fitting that the old man be the one to take Ulicez across. They had crossed the same distance together so many times before, although by another route.

"Mariposa?" the old man asked.

Ulicez nodded.

"Teeth hurt?"

He nodded again.

Tejón sucked his teeth and spat. Such was the extent of his commentary on that particular subject. As they headed for the highway, the ads began to diminish, the surfaces rendered inert by their shared demographics and direction. The last bus stop woke up as they shuffled by. It noticed the logo on Ulicez's backpack and gave him the old bit about working at Walmart, where it surely must have come from. It told him how you could train at the nearest location and go anywhere with that training, because the system was the same everywhere, world without end, amen. Siempre más trabajo. Siempre.


"Jesus," Tejón said. "That ad hasn't changed in, what, ten years?"

"It was around when I was little." Ulicez whistled the jingle and the old man laughed. They each waved good-bye to the ad (it was bad luck to be rude to the ads) and kept walking. At the highway interchange, Ulicez went ahead to help Tejón over the guardrail, but the old man threw his leg over without any trouble. They stood together on the rise by the crossroads, the old city at their backs and the new one burning white like a star in a field of glittering black. Above them, the real stars were winking out. Beyond the mountains, the night sky crinkled away from the horizon like burning paper.


"Have you been back here, since?"

"For school. Once. Field trip."

Tejón laughed. It came out all at once in a sharp bark. "Field trip. Puta madre." He shook his head and spat again. "Did they tell you how many people used to die here, on your field trip?"


Ulicez said nothing. Of course they hadn't mentioned it. They were there to look at the solar farms, after all, not to relive ancient history. The corporate outreach lady stood in front of his class with her transparent tablet shimmering in her hand and never breathed a word about the war. The guns. The heads.

"They don't know, do they? About before?"

Ulicez shook his head.

"Well, they'll never hear it from me," Tejón said.


Tejón said nothing as Ulicez approached Mariposa. There was a clear demarcation between the farms and the town; the farms grew in gleaming black rows behind neatly cut curbs, and beyond the curbs were maquilas, and beyond the maquilas stood Mariposa, the city of transformation. The hum in Ulicez's teeth stopped and he turned to mention it to Tejón, but the old man was already gone.


Then the maquilas began to trill the end of the night shift. Squinting, he thought he saw Tejón drifting into the crowds of exhausted factory workers hustling toward the buses that would take them home. Or maybe it was just another old man with salt in his beard. For a split second, Ulicez wished he could access the logs from all the drones they had passed under during their walk. It would help him confirm that Tejón had really been there. It was like that in the night, way back when. One minute the old man would be at his side, or his father's, hefting a shovel or pickaxe or flashlight, and the next he would be gone, having disappeared down a bend in the tunnel like the badger he was.

Now Ulicez faced the white stucco wall and the tiled arch that bridged its welcoming gap alone. He peered up at the lantern they'd hung from its center. It flickered, golden, with artificial candlelight. Slender palms, bereft of any dust, grazed the edge of the wall. He stepped through the arch.


Nothing happened.

He looked to his left, then to his right. No guards. No helpful theme park types, no strategically placed neighbors circling him like sharks. This early, no one was out. He saw another brown guy delivering mail. The mailman lifted his eyebrows at him, gave him a silent nod, but said nothing. And maybe that was that. The mailman's eyes had clocked him. Maybe that was enough.


He pushed forward into town, past the rows of bone-white stucco homes with pretty new red roofs. Why did everybody do that Spanish Revival thing out this way, Ulicez wondered, when it just made the houses look like shopping malls? Here everything was raw: the pavement black and even and soft as the soles of new shoes, the skinny little lemon trees leaning perilously over fresh sod lawns, the botflies so clean and quiet he didn't notice them until they flitted away. Here they didn't drain your blood, or chew your tissue; botflies harvested only data.

Mariposa extended fifteen miles from the border on either side, subdivided into a compass rose of quadrants with their own set of homes, businesses, schools, and service centers. In the center was a brick-paved plaza. And in the center of that stood a labyrinth of cacti and other succulents. They grew exactly where the old border crossing station used to be. He knew the spot all too well. Blindfolded, he could have pinpointed it on a map. They must have planted the maze on sod; obviously, they had not dug very deeply. Ulicez had seen aerial views of it: a twisted, thorny spiral buried deep in the new city's heart. Try as he might, he could never plot the way out. The thorns meshed together too tightly.


Now he stood before it, fingers curled tightly around the scorching wrought iron that made up its fence, and peered inside. He lifted one hand and poked his index finger between the thorns. Beside him, one of the dusty pink prickly pear flowers in the garden unfurled. "Are you lost?" it asked.

"Not really," Ulicez said. "Actually, I'm going home to my wife."

"You should take one of my flowers, then," the cactus said. Ulicez could not spot the speaker doubtless hidden somewhere in its folds, but that didn't matter. "It'll score you some points at home."


It wasn't until he was walking away that Ulicez realized the cactus had made a joke.

Reprinted from Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future by permission of William Morrow/HarperCollins. Copyright © 2o14 Madeline Ashby



Corpore Metal


Nice PE reference, Ashby!