A Passage from Luminous Airplanes, or Things As They Were: A Hyperromance

“You want to know what I think?” Lucas asks. As usual, he doesn’t wait for an answer. “I think reality ended in 1963.”

“Oh?” I say, warily.

“It’s not just the Kennedy assassination,” Lucas says. “Although that was the end of political reality in the United States.”

“Granted.” It’s better not to talk about Kennedy with Lucas.

“Did you know,” Lucas says, “that the quark was named in 1963? Murray Gell-Mann says he named it after a line from Finnegans Wake, ‘three quarks for Master Mark.’ But I think, because Gell-Mann’s family was from Central Europe, he named it after the cheese. Qvark, soft, white cheese. Like cream cheese. It was a joke, like, the Moon is made of qvark. Which it has really been, ever since 1963.”

“Come on, Lucas,” I say, “Physicists make jokes all the time.”

“Not before 1963,” Lucas says. “Do you know what the Victorians called the medium in which light travels? The luminiferous aether. Is that funny?”


“Quark, that’s funny. The charm quark. The truth quark. The beauty quark. Quarks with flavor. You know where Gell-Mann got that? He was walking by a Baskin-Robbins, on his lunch break.”

“No, he wasn’t.”

“He says so himself.”

“But it’s just a name,” I say. “It doesn’t make the quark, or whatever, any less real.”

“Names have power. They condition how we think. If you can’t take matter seriously, why would you take anything seriously? Dark matter, strange matter, matter made of tiny ten-dimensional strings,” Lucas says. “Es ist zu lachen.” To the best of my knowledge, Lucas isn’t German, but maybe he studied in Germany at some point.

“From the quark to Total Information Awareness,” I say.

“Forget about Total Information Awareness,” Lucas says. “You know TIA was never funded? It was a DARPA proposal, a pilot program. If you ask me, the reason they named Poindexter to run it was because they knew it was a turkey. Poindexter! The man has no credibility. He’s permanently tainted by Iran-Contra. They might as well have put Ollie North in charge of it. If you ask me, TIA was a feint. To draw attention away from the real programs.”

I don’t take the bait. “What about Operation Infinite Justice? What about Extreme Makeover? What about Fear Factor and Big Brother?” I haven’t watched either show but their titles sound to me like proof that reality is degraded.

“First of all,” Lucas rebuts, “those ops are named in alphabetical order, like hurricanes. They had to use the letters I and J. Second of all they changed the name after a month. It’s Operation Enduring Freedom now.” He doesn’t bother to point out that the television shows I mentioned are self-conscious, ironic. “What you should be worried about is USA PATRIOT. The way you check books out from the library, you’re surely going to be flagged.”

“According to Philip K. Dick, reality ended in 70 C.E.,” I say. “He wrote about it in his novel VALIS. Time stops with the destruction of the early Christians, and it doesn’t re-start until 1974, when Nixon is impeached.”

“Nixon resigned,” Lucas says.

“I’m just saying,” I say, “there isn’t a lot of agreement on when reality stops. Some of the Millerites thought the world had ended on October 22, 1844.”

“I’m not talking about prediction,” Lucas says. “I’m talking about things that actually happened. Kennedy was shot. Physics became a joke. No one saw it coming, it just happened, and it happened in 1963.”

“Then what is this?” I ask.

“It’s a joke,” Lucas says.

We both look around the Café Oblique. There are maybe seven other people sitting at little round tables, trying to work or looking distractedly into space.

“On who?” I ask.

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