This task is from James Ruse Agricultural High School, the (ooh-err) toppest state school in the HSC ranklings. I tutor a few of their Year 12s and they were kind enough to show me their Module C task, which I’ve had a go at here. Here’s the question:
Use the image below as the inspiration for an imaginative OR discursive piece which explores the result of a transformed outlook on individuals and/or society.
It’s a rule of thumb in high school creative writing that stronger students take the stimulus figuratively, rather than writing a story about the literal fact of the stimulus. (So, if the stimulus is an image of a girl crying into a pot plant, it’s supposed to be more sophisti-mi-cated to write about sorrow for the loss of our natural environment rather than a girl with a raging allergy to begonias). It’s supposed to show your ability to think in abstract ways and how you’ve graduated up past the level of mechanical operations. The other rule of thumb is that science fiction is bad and fantasy fiction is worse. I agree about fantasy fiction – it always seems to wind up being about implausibly-named characters in dragon-infested lands looking for the sword of Doldrum and shtupping their sister – Not that anyone would rip of Game of Thrones. Science fiction, however, I have a lot of time for and I’ve never understood most English teachers’ prejudice against it. I thought that writing a story about a man in some dimensionless green space – with or without a transformed outlook – would be quite hard, so that’s what I did.
If you’re interested in the reflection statement for this, tell me in the comments and I might write one. If you want to read the discursive answer to it, go here.
The construct was green. Jim had expected this; Dr Webb had described the whole process thoroughly and shown the group of vets stills from the simulation. But he was still pleasantly surprised by the construct’s peaceful, dimensionless viridium. Then the simulation loaded, the rectangle outline appeared before him, and he knew that he had only to step forward and open the door.
Some of the guys in the group who were gamers had pointed out that this entry mode was not substantially different to most other VR games. They were removed from the group. For the treatment to stand a chance, Dr Webb said, the simulation had to feel real. Brains already steeped in thousands of hours of gaming were already wise to the tricks of vicariousness and virtual reality, so it was unlikely to help their PTSD.
Privately, Jim had wondered how anyone who subjected themselves to a thousand hours of first-person shooter games for fun could be traumatised by anything they’d seen in Helmand, but some of the guys really were, and so he kept that thought to himself. His brain was virgin territory. Dr Webb thought the treatment had an excellent chance of tackling his PTSD, and Jim was grateful.
He had to be grateful because he had told Dr Webb that he hadn’t minded the violence on his tour, or the experience of the marketplace bomb. It was honest violence. It was the face of all life’s unpredictable energy, its hatred, its frustration with subtlety, packed into two seconds. What he found unbearable was returning to this, the superficial order of life, liberty, and happiness being ruthlessly pursued, while Death and Anger and Hatred glided among the suburbs unacknowledged. Webb had paused as he filled in the form adding Jim to the clinical trial and looked thoughtfully at him. For a moment, Jim had despaired.
‘Well, it’s probably still worth a try,’ Webb said.
And so Jim was plugged into the VR suite at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, being grateful.
‘Move forward – just think yourself forward. Look down. You’ll see a handle, like an ordinary door. That’s good. The sim has started running, so you should open it to the market, just as it was. You’re doing really well, and we’re here, OK? All the time. We’re right here.’
The door was only a crack open, but the helmet was telling his brain that the dusty bright light of Kabul waited for him, and the smell of diesel, dusty, cheap Chinese toys, baking bread, spices, more spices, and unwashed wool was real. He took a deep breath and entered the simulation.
Some things were the same as they had been that day. The muddle of stalls, cars drifting everywhere, men in perahan tunban talking in pairs and groups. Two boys playing tag, one wearing a football shirt from some English team. Aston Villa, that was it. Maybe it wasn’t tag. They were running around each other with both arms out, diving and curvetting. Dog-fighting jets, he thought. Playing airplanes. Our planes.
He could feel the familiar weight of the vest, and the M27 in his arms. So real, he thought. If this place, this time, could be re-summoned at will, did time even exist any more?
‘OK, Jim. I’m going to talk you through it, OK? We’re going to go through it together.’
A boy with tea-glasses on a hanging tray, coming out of the tea house, crossing before him. And there was the woman, leading the small curly-haired girl with a filthy face, to the man at the tool-stall. He watched them have a conversation that transcended time and culture. Can you watch her for five minutes?
And then the blast. ‘OK, freeze it.’
The sim froze before the sound of the blast had left the epicentre. His eyes, though, perceiving change faster than his ears, took in the scene. The shockwave was moving through the air like a sleeve over a wet canvas. Closer to the epicentre, which was a car parked beside the tool-stall, the air was distorted, almost pixelated. As he scanned away from the centre the effect became streaks, then ripples.
Under Webb’s direction he looked carefully around the scene, taking it in like a visitor following an art gallery guide’s spiel. The girl and her father had erupted, like two sports fans jumping out of their seats at a goal. The chai wallah was being pushed ahead of his own tea tray, his body bowing forwards like a sail, like Icarus, like a runner crossing the line.
‘We’re going to advance it a tiny bit. So there’ll be a noise, OK? And the shockwave. But we’re here. OK, Jim?’
The scene moved, forwards, outwards, upwards a fraction but he kept pace with it all as Webb talked him through the changes to the figures and objects. Now respectably dressed in language, announced beforehand, it wasn’t shocking at all. Not at all, he thought. Or no more so than parents yelling at their kids in a mall, or couples liquored up and whaling on each other, or the school shootings which happened always and everywhere.
Even the shockwave, when it hit him laterally, like a car side-swiping him, he was ready for. And the blackness, when it came, was not so calamitous.
The dark suite emerged. Dr Webb glided into view. ‘You’ve done great, Jim.’ Jim was dimly aware of some other person, taking notes. ‘I think we could even try the second round,’ Webb said to the note-taker.
‘He’s doing really well.’
Jim felt the helmet hovering over his head again. All at once he knew it would be largely pointless. The attempt to accustom him to the single experience of immense violence was meaningless. The trauma was not in that moment in Kabul, but in all the rest of it. Life had simply made explicit the force and habit which existed in and around people. The trauma lay in attempting to smooth over that huge rupture in the conspiracy of silence and ignorance that was disguised as civilization. The subduction of the weak and afraid by the strong and angry happened every minute of every day, and countries fought not to prevent it, but to prevent it from being named.
The construct was green. Jim had expected this. Beyond the play-button door the light glowed. The same world waited, within and without the simulation. In the dimensionless construct, Jim sat down and felt peace for the first time in three years.
‘I’ll just stay here, if I may,’ he said.