The Great Wall of Mexico

The Great Wall of Mexico: 1. Unreality

In 1988 the philosopher Jean Baudrillard declared that it was “no longer necessary to write science-fiction” because society had entered a “hyperreal” condition in which human experiences exist in juxtaposition with their own absence:

At the heart of hi-fi is music, haunted by its disappearance. At the heart of the most sophisticated experimentation is science haunted by the disappearance of its object. At the heart of porn is sexuality haunted by its own disappearance. Everywhere the same effect of “rendering” of the absolute proximity of the real: the same effect of simulation.

(Quoted in The SF 0f Theory: Baudrillard and Haraway 

There is a hint that society (and we’re talking advanced industrial western here, folks) had ‘written itself’ into this condition of hyperreality. All that McLuhan must have gone to our heads, taken over our minds, suffusing our media, fragmenting our messages.

But long before then, H. G. Wells prepared us for a Martian invasion (near-ubiquitous in our psyche thanks to the Cold War, and rendered here with bunnies), Karel Čapek’s robots stripped work of its dignity, and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis sealed our urban fate in its chiaroscuro condition.

We knew what was coming.

We knew.

Didn’t we?

The Great Wall of Mexico: 2. Non-reality

“At the moment of Sputnik the planet became a global theater in which there are no spectators but only actors.”

Marshall McLuhan.

The Great Wall of Mexico: 3. Hyperreality

The Great Wall of Mexico is a short story by John Sladek. It appeared in a collection entitled Bad Moon Rising in 1974, and then in Sladek’s own volume Keep the Giraffe Burning.

Bad Moon Rising was a deliberate attempt to harness the apparent ability of science fiction (loosely defined) to hold a mirror to human endeavour that somehow catches a glimpse of what is coming. In the introduction, the book’s editor, Thomas M. Disch, writes, “The single theme unifying these stories (and poems) is a concern for the present political scene and the dismal, or dismaying, or downright terrifying direction in which it’s been drifting and/or hurtling…” Plus ça change…

Sladek’s story, set at an unspecified point in 1974’s near future, revolves around the President of the United States of America ordering the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico. The FBI, which has hired large numbers of retirees – they have little to do, are mostly patriotic, and tend to be of a conservative inclination – to listen in on other people’s phone conversations, sends an agent to visit the many retirement homes in the vicinity of the planned wall:

“He explained that the Wall was a population barrier. While our own population was increasing at a reasonable rate, that of Mexico was completely out of control. ‘For years the slow poisons have been seeping across the border: marijuana, pornography, VD and cheap labour. They have seeped into America’s nervous system, turning our kids into drug addicts, infecting their minds and bodies with filth and stealing away American jobs.'”

So far, so familiar. But the true genius of the Administration in Sladek’s story is the Presidential team’s commercial bent. His advisers meet to discuss the Wall:

“‘A wall to write on!’ Karl said. ‘A challenge for our painters.’ ‘Sell off advertising space.’ Dan cracked his knuckles with unrestrained excitement. ‘This could be great for the old folks. Give them something to look at, a new interest in life. You realise that there are over a hundred retirement ranches in the area, and that more than half our retired folks live within a hundred miles of Mexico.’

Filcup seemed convulsed by a private joke. ‘Wait till I tell you the rest, Dan. There’s something in this for the old folks, all right, in phase two. But for now, we’ll not only sell space to advertisers, we’ll build gas stations, highways, concessions. A view of the wall. A view over the wall. Visit the gun emplacements. Amazing plastic replicas of the Grand Canyon, the Great Wall of China, the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem!’

Sladek’s insights into the psychotic State are hilarious and hideous at the same time. He may have thought no such manifestation could ever actually occur. After all, as the jacket blurb of Bad Moon Rising says of its various contributions, “Though the theme is serious, some of the stories are funny. Collectively they at least hold out the hope that, having been warned, we may avoid in fact what they present as fiction.”

I leave the last word to the President of The Great Wall of Mexico, beyond which no satire is necessary, or even possible, in 2017:

A Special Message from the President

The President’s black-and-white image appeared on the television screen surrounded by a black condolence border. He seemed almost too humble to have a clear image. Instead the fuzzy, bleached patches of his face, oddly patterned by liver spots and furrows, gave him the look of a soiled etching. ‘My countrymen, it is a grave announcement that I must make to you this evening. What I am about to say is a block of sadness and grief in the neighbourhood of my heart, as I am sure it will be in yours.

‘Tonight several nuclear explosions occurred at different places along the population barrier between the United States and Mexico. These explosions, let me make this perfectly clear, were accidental… Still, there’s no denying that many thousands, millions, rather, of people have been killed… It is also regrettable that a lethal zone has been created along our border.’

The black border vanished. Jubilant music swelled behind his voice as our leader intoned: ‘On the positive side, very few of our troops in the area were injured… As for the Wall itself, it has been badly burned and cratered in spots. Luckily it protects our border yet with a barrier of radiation. For the present, we are vigilant, but safe. And for the future?’

Suddenly the air about the grey President was filled with tiny, bright-coloured figures; animated elves, fairies, butterflies and bluebirds, tiny pink bats in spangled hose, flying chipmunks and dancing dragonflies. Smiling, he too burst into colour. ‘The future is ours, my countrymen! We will rebuild our Wall taller and stronger and safer than ever, so secure that it will last a thousand years! Come! Help me make this country strong!’


Cover image. For the Creedence Clearwater Revival song of the same name, see below.

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