When the Lights Came On

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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When the Lights Came On

The wars were just barely long enough to allow for acceptance, but not forgetfulness.

Less than a generation, so that almost all of those who remained could still remember how it used to be. The optimal window of time for lasting trauma.

Before a person has experienced conflict, it’s a remote concept, far away from everyday life. And then when it happens, there’s a sense of shock, but acclimatisation happens quickly. It’s a survival mechanism. Adapt to the new reality, or perish. The real problem comes when the conflict is over.

A person can become stuck in the perspective of conflict, and the fragility of peace and erstwhile normalcy, such that their life afterwards seems somehow false. Naive, and unbearably precarious; a tantalising prize dangled in front of them, but forever out of reach, even though it could readily be grasped at any time. Conflict can become a prison for peace of mind.

It happened quickly, and really that was the worst part of it. Power was restored, and water supplies, and then mass communications. People went from cowering in makeshift tents and shelters eating rations, to hearing their phones ping once again, and receiving video calls and emails and news bulletins. Automated systems resumed sending unsolicited marketing messages as if nothing had happened. Computers prompted their owners for software updates. The sense of discontinuity and unreality was profound, as if these electronic voices were reaching out from the far-distant past.

When the wars came, we suffered but we survived. But when the lights came on again, we didn’t fare so well.

Every form of prejudice had been reawakened by personal loss. Every type of xenophobia, religious intolerance, and the general hatred of all other groups had come to the fore. Religious zealotry, too, and repressive and backwards ideas enjoyed a huge resurgence. So too did conspiracy theories, class warfare, governmental distrust, civic unrest, and crime.

Theft after the wars was worse than looting during them. Interpersonal violence, and in particular domestic violence, reached levels never before recorded. Police over-reach and brutality became endemic, even in places where such things had not previously been the norm.

Factionalism and radicalisation infected every belief system and place of worship; the very havens that people turned to in times of great upset and uncertainty. And all of it was amplified a millionfold by social media.

Even networks that had fallen into disuse were suddenly swarming with posts, as if humanity had simply queued up its outrage and frustration and disappointment and resentment, formulating thousands of drafts in silence, then pouring them out breathlessly when the machines sprang back into life. The levels of contribution and engagement were even seen as something to celebrate, for a time; a sign of indomitable human spirit, and rebuilding. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Politics swarmed to the far right, faiths intensified and became ever more draconian, and women were once again pushed from the mainstream of their own destinies into support roles, as ancillary players in the lives of the men around them.

Technological innovation boomed, but only in the areas of weapons development, surveillance and espionage, and survivalism. The pressing matters of the environment, and geopolitical instability in the wake of so many battles and losses and shifting alliances, were all but forgotten. It was a dark time for art of every kind, both in reduced output and in the subject matter of what was created. And throughout it all, the stream of notifications, and posts, and thumbs-up continued and escalated.

It was foreseeable, as all the worst things are.

Collectively, we felt we had been wronged — by ourselves, as always — and so we also felt entitled to shout and scream about it. To punish and to hate, in revenge for the lost years and the lost opportunities and the lost futures. It was inevitable. We’d just never before had the ability to pour out the worst reactions of a war-wounded cultural psyche onto the rest of humanity, instantly, and from anywhere.

Broken buildings could be cleared and then reconstructed within a span of years, without carrying across their damage to the next generation. The same didn’t seem to be true for humans, and it took far too many years for governments and the public alike to realise that survival can sometimes depend on stoicism, and forgiveness, and the sweeping away of the past rather than endlessly rehashing it.

But the internet never forgets, and nor does it ever stop growing. That was ultimately the root of the problem. Selective memory and selective focus are essential for the rebuilding of people, and they can only be effective within some measure of consensus.

In the end, we discovered a new type of nostalgia — for the brief era of conflict, when we pulled together instead of apart. Hard times, to be sure, but simple and focused and determined. Struggling up instead of sliding down. Even the worst of us knew the truth of it, and knew that the notifications and the posts and the messages were not part of the solution.

So they turned it all off again, deliberately this time, so that we could have peace.

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