An excerpt from my draft novel, Ship of Fools.
See that rock there, Slim?”
“Sure do, Shorty,” Slim replied.
“What would you say it weighs, about fifty pounds?”
“Seems about right,” said Slim, not liking where this was going.
They were sitting around their campfire, leaning back against their saddles and bedrolls, hands wrapped around cups of cowboy coffee, their horses picketed not far off where they could graze on cheatgrass and storksbill. Slim, no longer so slim, twenty years and too many steaks past the prime of his youth, rested his mug on the shelf of his belly. Neither was Shorty all that short, having picked up the moniker in eighth grade (the last year of his formal education) when the long-awaited growth spurt had failed to spurt, before going on to sprout up to six-foot-two — something about fresh air, sunshine and ridin’ the range agreeing with his constitution.
“A chunk of the local sandstone, if I’m not mistaken.”
“Dead on the money.”
“Result of sedimentary processes over millions of years, am I right?”
“Yep. Sand laid down on an ancient seashore then compressed over time by the deposits that came later.”
“Red on top, sort of cream colored below?”
“Right again. Due to the iron oxides weathering on the surface where it was exposed up on the cliff face, before fallin’ down here.”
The pardners looked up a little nervously at the vertical canyon wall nearest them, just visible in the light of a waning gibbous moon, calculating falling arcs and likely ricochet points.
“Then we agree,” said Shorty.
“We do,” Slim said with a sigh.
“There we have it — consensus reality.”
Slim grunted, nearly spilling the mug of eponymous coffee resting on his paunch. “Dadgum it, Shorty, no we don’t. That rock is real, apart from what you and I think about it, and we agree cuz we’re both lookin’ at the same danged rock.”
The old argument, but Slim supposed it filled the hours of a late autumn desert evening. Easier on the eyes than reading a dime novel by firelight, anyway.
“No, I told you before,” Shorty rejoined, “don’t mistake me for no Sophist. Sure, that rock has its own reality, plumb apart from us. Same as if a tree falls in a forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it really make a sound? Course it does, the sound waves are still traveling through the air, and if nothing else, the squirrels and the deer heard it. Pure piece of human hubris to say otherwise.”
“So the rock is real. Good enough for me.” Simple and to the point, as Slim always preferred.
The opposite was true of Shorty, whose nickname could never be applied to his manner of speech when it came to philosophizing. “But not so fast,” he said. “The rock is real, but the only way you and I can get at that reality is by talkin’ about it, like we just did.”
“Now you hold up a minute, pardner. That right there is an affront to every free-thinking individual…”
“That’s pretty funny, Slim,” Shorty interrupted, “since it’s only by the benevolence of a billionaire hobby rancher that we lead these here ruggedly individualistic lives. Fact, since old Lonnie cut down on the number of cows runnin’ the range, all for darned valid environmental reasons, given the dryness of these parts and the poor quality of the soil, I’d say our ruggedly individualistic trade has gotten a good deal less rugged, wouldn’t you?”
“But my point is, I can look at that rock and make up my own mind about it. I don’t need no one tellin’ me what to think about it.”
“For a rock you never seen before, you sure knew a lot about it. You decide all that for yourself, just by lookin’ at it?”
“No, you picked up some geology along the way. And how was that again?”
“By talkin’ and listenin’.”
“And maybe even some reading, you can’t fool me.”
“Sure,” Slim said, though he had misgivings about the volume and nature of the reading Shorty had done over the course of his career, which apparently hadn’t included much Louis L’Amour.
“So you got a pretty good story about that rock. That’s all we got, is stories, is what I’m sayin’. And some people’s stories, as you know, are different from others’.”
“But that’s not a story, it’s science.”
“Oho, you think science ain’t a story? Granted, it’s the most rigorous method we have of discovering facts and fittin’ ’em together, removin’ human biases and such, but it’s still a story.”
“But I thought you said we had a consensus reality.”
Shorty set down his coffee and stretched out to his full six-foot-two, as if settling in for a long tale. Slim braced himself.
“Well, most times we do. But then there are times of upheaval when the consensus reality gets a mite frayed around the edges. Like way back in medieval times, reality was set by the Church, and everybody just followed along. And then came the Reformation and pretty soon there wasn’t just one church, and then came the Enlightenment with a whole lotta other ideas about how the world works. Pretty soon, people with a lot of book learnin’ started settin’ the narrative for what reality was — scientists, professors, politicians, and in the last century, media moguls. Oh sure, there were some malcontents around the edges, there was the famous Scopes trial, but there was a dominant narrative that you pretty much had to believe in if you wanted to get ahead in life.”
“Be more’n a two-bit cow-puncher, you mean?”
“Now, don’t go disparagin’ our own honorable profession. But then, a few decades back, what came along?”
“The got-danged Internet.”
“Right, and suddenly every person with a connection to the net is contributin’ their own narrative, which may sound all nice and small-‘d’ democratic until you consider the amount of sense a lot of people have.”
“Which often times don’t amount to but a few grains of sand in this whole desert.”
“Right, except none of us should get too high-and-mighty about our own level of rationality. Everyone has a reality-based mind and a mythology-based mind, it’s just that some people spend more time in mythology mode.”
“Come again? We’ve all got two brains?”
“Two minds. Meanin’, when it comes to those things within our control, and which our livelihoods depend on, most of us are pretty rational, even if we’re just operatin’ in our own self-interest. But when it comes to matters farther away from our everyday lives, especially events we can’t really have any control over, then the mythology-based mindset kicks in. We’ll look for any explanation that fits with our prior beliefs and with whatever group we belong to. Sometimes, fittin’ in with a particular group requires completely denyin’ some aspect of reality or another, something like a badge of membership. So that’s how you can have people walking around, seeming perfectly sane as they go about their daily lives, and then also believin’ the most batshit crazy bullpucky in the history of the human race.”
“Now, Shorty, language…”
“That wasn’t such a big deal in the old days, but now with the Internet, all those people with a similar mythology-based mindset can find each other online.”
Slim dumped out the dregs of his coffee before he spilled more of it on his belly, then for good measure spat out the last of the inevitable grounds that always made it into the brew. “Everybody oughta get off those gosh-darned screens and spend some time out here in the desert, get acquainted with actual reality.”
“But remember, most of ’em are railin’ against those same central authorities you rugged individualists love to criticize, the federal guvmint and those eggheaded, ivory-tower academics.”
“They oughta spend more time in the desert too, confrontin’ bedrock reality.”
“Right. Which brings us to how agreement on a consensus reality is enforced.”
“Well, say I told you that rock is actually a dehydrated pink elephant, and if you added water to it, it would get up and lumber off down this canyon?”
“I’d say you were plumb loco.”
“Right. And if I said the world was flat?”
“That’s right. We all police the boundaries of the consensus reality through in-group/out-group dynamics, not by logical reasoning and discourse.”
“Lotta fancy words.”
“What I’m sayin’ is, no one spends time persuading by facts and reasons, they just use some name-callin’ to keep people in line.”
“So people just accept what the consensus reality is, without thinkin’ too much about it. F’rinstance, they just know the world is round because they had a globe in every elementary classroom they were ever in, and also because of pictures from space.”
“Goin’ back to people not havin’ much sense — and not ever gettin’ out here to look at the moon and the stars on their own.”
“Right. So now with the Internet and YouTube, everyone who feels shut out by the dominant narrative can find each other, and they begin creatin’ their own in-groups. Flat-earthers can find flat-earthers, people who want to use the N-word with impunity…”
“Are a bunch of boot-lickin’, horse-apple-eatin’ pond scum.”
“Quite right, only now they can all congregate online, so they go from bein’ a dozen or so in any small town to numberin’ in the thousands in their chat groups and VPNs and whatnot. And if someone who just takes the dominant narrative at face value without too much thought happens into one of those groups, suddenly they’re bein’ called sheep and cucks and brainwashed, and worse. And that either sends ’em runnin’ away, or it sets them up to buy in to whatever narrative this new group believes in.”
“Sounds like that there Tower of Babel.”
“Exactly. And if it’s something like flat-earthers, who’re still a pretty small group despite a couple o’ flareups, it’s not much of a threat to the dominant narrative. But if it’s something at all politically related, like that QAnon a decade or so ago, then we get half the country livin’ in one reality, and half livin’ in another. Which is how we find ourselves in this here Southwest Semi-Autonomous Zone, run by a bunch o’ so-called sovereign citizens.”
They’d come to one of those natural pauses in the conversation, Slim filling the silence with a whistled refrain from “The Streets of Laredo.”
“Strange, isn’t it,” Slim said after a while, “how we get screwed over either way.”
“The workin’ man — and woman. Don’t matter if it’s a single dominant narrative, as you call it, about how the world works, or this current mixed-up one with a lotta competin’ stories, we’re still gettin’ the shaft — some groups worse’n others, o’ course.”
“If I didn’t know better — that is, if it didn’t sound like a cock-and-bull conspiracy theory no self-reliant individual would stoop to believe in — I’d say some sort of shadowy forces were behind the scenes, controlling it all.”
“And who might they be, Slim?”
Just then, the sound of engines from down the wash broke the desert silence. Headlights lit the rock walls a quarter mile away as the vehicles approached, then disappeared as they turned up another branch of the canyon. But the sound didn’t recede up the wash, instead seeming to stop at a spot just over a low rise separating the two tributaries. Whooping and door slamming ensued.
“Reckon we oughta check that out?” Shorty asked.
They rose, Shorty tossing the dregs of his coffee on the fire, then made their way up toward the ridge line, watchful not to step into any prickly pear, loosening their six-shooters in their holsters as they went.