The Sky Is Watching Us
Paranoia, Modern Literature, and Chinese Spy Balloons
This past week, an F-16 fighter jet shot down a Chinese spy balloon as it drifted over the Atlantic Ocean. For days, the balloon had silently floated, out of sight, hidden in the clouds, over cities and hamlets, collecting information, taking photos, listening to our conversations. Then, in an instant, it crumpled and fell to the roiling waves far below. The Chinese, naturally, claimed it was a weather balloon that had simply blown far, far off course. It sounded plausible-ish (emphasis on the “-ish”), but no one really believed that explanation. Now, multiple “objects” have been observed and shot down over Alaska, the Canadian Yukon and Montana.
First it was just “the object.” Then it was “objects.” The authorities either don’t know what they are or aren’t saying. Thoughts begin to swirl. Could they be more Chinese spy ships? Or could the Chinese have been spying on the Object? Right now… we don’t know. But we know they’re watching.
It's a chilling idea — the implacable, silent observer, which, when spotted, masquerades as something else entirely. Or simple an Object, something on which we can project our fear. Things are not as they seem. Appearances can be deceiving. The clear blue sky is actually watching you. It brings to mind Jordan Peele’s recent science-fiction masterpiece Nope, in which a wisp of cloud turns out to be a cosmic predator. In the real world we inhabit, something as harmless as a balloon is actually a vehicle for surveillance. The world of espionage and spy-craft depends on plausible deniability. But what if it’s just an Object? It can be paranoia inducing when reality becomes slippery like this. If the sky was watching us (isn’t it always thus with satellites, though?), what about our appliances? Is Siri listening? Is our friend’s rescue dog from Sochi really a sleeper agent? Where does it end?
This tension between seen and unseen, reality and paranoia, truth and plausible deniability is a core feature of modern literature. It’s certainly the grist of our current political moment. It’s also a theme running through many of our recent stories set in the world of the Distant Reaches.
Andy Greene’s most recent flash fiction, “The Dragh: A Worry Monster Worth Your Worry,” plays with our tendency to seek an explanation when bad things happen, even if that explanation doesn’t make a lot of sense.
My own most recent Ballads piece, “Dancing Bear,” examines what happens when someone encounters an unknown evil. We all think we’ll react one way; in reality, maybe we’re weaker than we thought.
And co-editor Robert Frankel’s recent flash fiction, “Shadows of Rocks at Noon,” presents a chilling case of art with a hidden meaning — and an artist with a hidden agenda. It’s Pickman’s Model, twisted into a fantasy world.
If you haven’t read these stories, I encourage you to take some time this weekend and explore them for the first time. If you have read them already, perhaps they’ll be worth revisiting for what they have to say about the world and panopticon we all live in.
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