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America: The Ride

RESIST

This story also appears in the anthology RESIST: TALES FROM A FUTURE WORTH FIGHTING AGAINST, edited by Gary Whitta, Hugh Howey, and Christie Yant. (Proceeds from the sale of the anthology go to benefit the ACLU.)

We have a kid now and another on the way and—the idea is, the hope is—that we are, at least in a technical sense, adults.

We’d always assumed we would know more, would have accomplished more, by the time we got to this point, assumed we would have turned into different people, better people. That was the idea. That was the hope.

Looking back over our shoulders, we can see the track stretching out behind us, an unbroken line from where we got on to where we are now.

The voice of the American ride says:

Please keep your attention focused in a sideways direction.

Reminding us the proper way to enjoy this, which is not to look back, because looking back is the easiest way to get hurt. Or, worse, to convince yourself that you want to get off. And also, it’s also not proper procedure to look forward, no matter how tempting it is to do so. We sit facing west while our tram car moves north, and we do our best not to look in the northern direction, although we are encouraged by what we feel to be a subtle, gentle, but unmistakable angle of incline of the track below us. We are moving up a slope, building toward something, to a higher place. Some of us worry about what this means. Some of us worry about whether an upslope now implies a downslope later, but some others of us say that it doesn’t have to be so, that we are not bodies in flight, our arc through the sky pre-carved by gravity. We are on an engineered system, an amusement, a transportation. This was designed by our best minds, assembled by our best hands, and constantly improved by our innovation and creativity. There is no reason to assume that there must be a high point to all this, that we will eventually have to convert all of this elevation and potential energy into speed and kinetic energy, that what we are storing thermodynamically must eventually be given back, paid back like an entropic or economic debt.

The voice reminds us again to keep our hands and feet inside at all times and to maybe take our eyes off our phones for like, one second, and gaze outward as we make our way along the tracks. Not to turn around in our seats and look backward in the direction of history, at the past which is already gone, but to always look forward, at the grandeur of the vistas, the sweep of world events unfolding, which we are a part of, which is what we paid for, four hundred dollars a ticket, half-price for children (although as they grow, they will eventually turn into full-fare passengers on this ride, and we worry about the mechanics of how that incremental fare will be collected, whether we will be able to pay for them or if they will need to pay for it themselves, who will come for it, and whether we will still be around, whether we will have any warning, whether we will still be able to stay in this car with them or whether they will need to get out and ride in their own vehicles, we worry whether the track might diverge at some point and they will be off into a different set of tunnels and rooms and we will never see them again).

The sweep of history, having this unspoken feeling of forward and upward momentum, while being entertained, all of that goes into the ticket price, and the voice of the woman who narrates the ride, she reminds us that it is our purchase of these tickets that makes the ride possible. We are the customers, but we are also the underwriters of this entertainment. We are consumers of this experience. We are tourists in our own creation.

“We’re moving,” our daughter says, clapping her hands in excitement. “Let’s go! Where are we going?”

She is not a baby anymore. Our wife starts to cry.

“How did that happen?” our wife says. She starts to turn her head back, hoping she might still be able to see the point in the track where our baby turned into a kid who could say things to us, but we stop our wife from looking back, reminding her that the voice will be angry.

Our car moves down the track. We are picking up speed. We are approaching a house. Our daughter asks us if that is our house and we say we aren’t sure, but something tells us that it is. We are headed for a collision, but then a set of double doors opens and we find ourselves inside the living room of our house.

“This feels like home,” we say to each other, but we also hear other people around us saying it and for the first time in a long time we are aware that we are not on this ride alone. In fact, there are other families in the neighboring cars just ahead of us and just behind us, sitting so close we could reach out and touch them. We look ahead and see that it is all families, all the way down, this tram being an endless procession of small car units, all of us connected by the central drive-train powering this ride, subdivided but linked, having our own versions of the same experience. There is a lot of murmuring now as we hear a lot of us saying “Is this home?” “Where are we?” and we start to wonder what we are, exactly, whether up to this point our definition of “we” has been too small. We wonder who we are. But just as we are starting to wonder about how large “we” are as a group, the nature of “we” and the mystery and the wonder and the pluses and the minuses of it, we hear someone say “I don’t know about this.” We have an “I” among us and everyone turns to see if they can figure out who it is, but just as that happens, the tram uncouples from itself and breaks into two, and one part of us goes off on one track and the other part goes off on a different track, and the uncoupling happens again and again and again until we find ourselves alone, together, alone. Together as a small family unit, but now uncoupled from our fellow riders. Alone now, moving in our single transport vehicle, on our own ride, wondering what we are missing out on, what other riders are getting to see.

Now we wish we had paid more attention at the beginning of the ride, had not been listening to the voice to keep looking sideways, at the murals and the dioramas and displays of the ride’s retail partners. But it was hard not to do so. They make it so easy, we did not even have to move, just take out our credit cards and hold them near the edge of our car in such a way that they could be swiped through the many point-of-sale devices installed every fifty feet along the ride, millions, billions of transactions occurring every instant, so that we could instantly own a part of this experience, if we wanted to, to have souvenirs of all types, cultural, historical, key chains and cups with crazy straws. It was part of our duty as riders to help support the sponsors that make the ride possible, and it allowed us to participate, each according to our means and personalities, allowed us to choose how we wanted to enjoy this, all of this. We pass through the house, seeing our living room, our three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms, our kitchen, and we exit back out into the light and what we see is a thousand different tracks, or a million, or four hundred million.

“The ride is broken,” our son says.

“Hey!” we say. “We have a son?” and we kiss him and squeeze his cheeks and he pushes our hands away.

“I’m not a baby,” he says.

“You’re not,” we say, because he’s not, but we wonder. “When? How? Where were you born?”

“Back there,” our son says, “in the house. You guys seemed really freaked out about something and I didn’t want to bother you so I’ve been quiet for a while,” and he doesn’t seem too hurt, already so grown-up and used to being the younger kid, and although we feel like we just met him a moment ago, he has been with us for some time now and we already love him. He is ten, our son, and we look at his hair and his nose and his shoulders and we admire him. Our daughter, now thirteen, seems to have known he was here all along and is waiting for us to catch up.

“What are you looking at?” we ask our new son.

“Cars.”

“They’re nicer than ours,” we say. “Our car is old, huh?”

“Yeah,” he says. “But I like our car. It’s the best one.”

All of the cars move along their individual paths, some up into the mountains, some turn into boats and float onto lakes, some take off like airplanes as we watch in envy, some hit trees and we watch the families inside get out and start fighting and we wonder if they will ever be able to get back on. Our car continues smoothly along its track, not the fastest, nor the slowest.

We notice now that the ride is not what it used to be, less finished, more construction. We see a sign posting notice that the ride is now owned by American Enterprises, LLC, whose parent company, American Entertainments, Inc. is a subsidiary itself of a company called The USAmusement Corporation, which is owned by a German conglomerate, New World Experiments GmbH, owned by a consortium led by Chinese and Korean investors.

You have been chosen as potential partners in an affiliate marketing and peer-advertising campaign …

the voice says, as we continue to roll on through history.

You’re now passing through: Japanese internment camps during the Second World War.

On your left, coming up, you will see Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York in the 1920s.

And if you look over to your right, you’ll see the banks of the Mississippi, and, watch your feet, lift them up to stay dry, as your vehicle is now converting itself into a riverboat, a form of transportation vital to the nation’s commerce throughout the 19th century. No mention of other parts of the U.S. economy in that century.

Backward we go, through American lore and mythology, merchandised to perfection.

We see new ground being broken, dig sites surrounded by chain-link fences, men working in hardhats, large colorful banners proclaiming that The American Experience will be re-launched in the fall of 3015.

This is a part of the ride that seems like we are not on a ride anymore.

We have crossed some line into the backstage area, employees only, where the gears and the machine room and the electrical cords and all of the nuts and bolts of the mechanical ride are evident. Even the voice has dropped some of the theatre from her voice and now talks to us directly.

“The narrated portion of the ride is over. You are now entering an experimental phase, still in testing, for a 3-D version of America, where riders can experience “America” for the first time, in 3-D.”

Our son and our daughter both get excited at the idea for a moment until the voice tells us that we do not qualify financially for that portion of the ride.

“You are welcome to stay in the car, although what you will see will be a flattened, 2-D version of what should be a stereoscopic experience.”

We are given a choice of whether to go on or get out, and we decide to go on, although the voice now also tells us that we need to take some of the things out of the car, as we have taken on too much weight, so our son drops his sack lunch over the side of the car, and we drop a typewriter, and old clothes that the kids used to wear, and our daughter drops a doll whose hair she used to brush when she was a little girl at the beginning of the ride.

We are just content to keep riding this for a while, passing through a room they called Your 30s, which has upbeat, contemplative acoustic guitar music, and Your 40s which is more piano-themed, and Your 50s which has Bach playing and we see some cars getting wine and cheese. We see cars that have God with them, in voice and as a kind of hologram, and we watch God from afar, and wish we could hear what God is saying to the people in the cars lucky enough to have God, but the advertising voices all around our car are drowning everything out. We pass through dioramas of ourselves in cubicles, watching time-lapse movies of ourselves working, working, aging, seeing what we look like at work, seeing how the hands of the clocks in our offices spin around, and somewhere around that point we notice that our lap bars have tightened over our thighs. It could be the slow spread of middle age, and the growth of our daughter, who is in college now, and our son who as a sophomore made the varsity soccer team at his high school and is now taller than all of us.

But it’s not that we have grown, the lap bars really did click down tighter on us, pinning us into this car, pinching us into our seats, and the voice tells us it is for our safety, as the ride is picking up speed now. With a sick feeling in our guts we understand that we are not getting out of this ride until it lets us off and that the reason we are picking up speed is that we are now on a downslope, that somewhere we did pass the high point of the ride. None of us remembers doing that, or even there being a particularly high point, and maybe the high point just wasn’t very high, but whatever the case, we are accelerating now. Whatever we built up in terms of momentum, we are now giving it back.

The idea is, the hope is, we will be able to see everything at least once, that even in this rushed state we can experience all of the rooms, even if it is from a distance, even if it is really other riders who are seeing these things. We can see other cars moving across the country, across “America,” we see all of us on grids, on graphs. We understand ourselves to be bits of socio-economic data on the bar charts and pie charts and flowcharts running down the leftmost column of the multi-colored newspapers that get left in front of the room doors of our discount business traveler hotels. We understand ourselves to be frequent fliers, rewards club members, customer loyalty program participants. We dream publicly. We have agencies, staffed by people who storyboard our fantasies, people who plan out panel-by-panel, shot-by-shot, the public space, the collective mental environment where this ride is located. Creative agencies mapping the conceptual territory, the shared Main Street of our imaginations, where we stroll, arm in arm, down the avenue of our engineered dreams, our civic conversation now just giggles and pointing, saying to ourselves, hey look at this, look at this, and we all look at this for ten seconds until another one of us says, now hey wait a minute, have you guys seen this, look at this, look at this one now, and we all turn our heads and look at this one now, until the next thing, the next thing, our collective attention reduced to the briefest of intervals, not long enough or large enough to hold a dream. And now, no more public dreaming, just expertly conceived narrative products designed to keep us inside the car, looking out the side, murals painted in 2-D to give a 3-D illusion of movement, the sweep of history that we have purchased, that we are part owners of, murals that show us watery images of ourselves, murals with frames around them, to give off the feelings of “Nostalgia” and “Tradition” and “Affordable Luxury” and “Forward Progress” and “Special Times” and “Beer and Friends.” We have no room for dreams or even feelings anymore, our feelings themselves engineered, mood-boarded by people who know how to do such things with chemistry and music and art direction. We feel feelings designed by people who have market-researched us and have seen our private browser searches and know what’s in our darkest of hearts and in our darkest of parts, and know what we really want deep down, all of those feelings calibrated to be emotionally nutritious, or at least emotionally fattening, calorically dense psychosocial-experiential sustenance, allotted into our feed troughs, constituting our collective body, so that we are what we consume, and we consume what we are, so that we are a loop, closed and tight and perfect, so we keep our minds focused on what has been laid out before us, our eyes adjusting to the alternating light and dark periods. Moving room to room. We have kids now and they are babies and they are grown and they’ll always be babies and they grew up overnight, and occasionally we admit to ourselves that we wish we didn’t have either of them not because we don’t love them but because we love them too much. We know how incompetent we are at loving things other than ourselves and loving these kids as much as we do we are quite sure that this excess of love will ruin them. We can already see it happening.

We have to admit, sometimes, in the middle of a sentence, we hear ourselves talking and we become terrified at the sound of our own voice, still so strange and dumb after all these years. Occasionally we wish we didn’t have these kids yet and that we could go back to the days when it was just us, and all we had to worry about was just not falling out of the ride, what kind of snacks we would eat, what souvenirs we would buy. We see ourselves on the in-ride camera, taking pictures of us that we will have the chance to purchase, for $29.95 per print, at the end of the ride, when we get off. We see ourselves on camera, at an earlier time in the ride: we are looking at our family, all sitting together, cars near, now where are they? Where have our kids gone?

We search desperately for our daughter, search desperately for our son, the ride is coming to an end for us, and turning our heads from the side, our necks stiff from having been locked into a position of gazing for so long, we realize what we have just done. We look forward for the first time in years and see the white light ahead, the outside, as we exit this room. We look at the in-ride camera and see our son, and see our daughter, see them in their own cars, with their own sons and their own daughters, and we want to call out to them, to our children and our grandchildren, but the camera is just an image, and we understand that, but we call out to them anyway. We try to tell them about the ride, but we see the looks on their faces, the hope, and we start to understand the impossibility of this ride, how it is a kind of perpetual escalator, a physical impossibility that somehow exists. We see how our children and our grandchildren think that they are on an upslope, believe in the forward movement that they can feel. We wish we could ride the ride again that way. We see the looks on our grandkids’ faces except that they are not looking at the ride, they are looking at their parents’ faces, just as our kids looked at ours, seeing how excited their parents are, and being excited by that, and also knowing already how to give their parents what they seem to need. The kids knew all along. Our daughter is in another car, far away, on an upslope, waving to us. Our son is with his family, and gives us a sad smile. Our own kids, now adults, they know already how the ride works, but they need to show their own kids. The idea is. The hope is. And as we move toward the large exit doors into the next room, it fills us. The hope fills us.

Charles Yu

Charles Yu by Christine Skari

Charles Yu is the author of three books, including the novel How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, which was a New York Times Notable Book and named one of the best books of the year by Time magazine. He was nominated for two WGA awards for his work on the acclaimed HBO series, Westworld, and has also written for upcoming shows on AMC and HBO. His fiction and non-fiction have been published in a number of publications including The New YorkerThe New York Times, Slate and Wired. His novel, The Book of Wishing, is forthcoming from Pantheon. He also served as guest editor of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017.