Adrift in Alien Worlds: The Spec-Fiction Writer, the Casino, and the Celt

Adrift in Alien Worlds: The Spec-Fiction Writer, the Casino, and the Celt

In this post, Christian author Mark Fisher, having spent the week at a writer’s conference in the Atlantis Casino in Reno, Nevada, departs from his usual subject. In a roundabout, rather paranoid manner, he compares the bizarre world of a modern, mega casino with the far simpler worlds-realm of the Celts.

I’ve been spending the week adrift in an alien culture so far removed from anything I know, I feel I’ve been transported to a different planet. I’m in the Atlantis Casino in Reno, Nevada, at a gathering of like-minded writers of Christian speculative fiction. That’s science fiction and fantasy, folks. Yes, a Christian writer’s conference in a casino.

The Writer of Speculative Fiction–Already a Bit Weird, No?

Already we’re a different lot, we spec-fiction writers. Who else sits up half the night dreaming up worlds that never existed, putting our characters in places they don’t want to be, and then dragging our unsuspecting readers into our carefully ordered, but chaotic and dangerous universes? Right off the mark, we’re different from our families, friends, and neighbors. And because we Christians insist on putting God and his Son somewhere in our stories, we’re even more the outcasts.

So here we are, already a bit weird, and now we find ourselves in this casino in Reno, Nevada, surely one of the biggest gambling establishments on the planet. But I could be wrong about that. Remember, this is not my world.

The Machines Await

The Atlantis Casino in Reno, Nevada

The glass-enclosed elevator ride down from the nineteenth floor presents a stunning view of blue-green, snow-capped mountains. Outside is the earth. But then I arrive on the first floor of planet casino. It’s simply one massive amusement park for adults—its own world, really, and a big one. At seat after seat, row after row, people sit at machines, punching, pressing, slapping, hitting, and swiping at colored numbers and digital buttons. Everywhere as I walk, the flashing of red, blue, yellow, green, white, and purple lights hits my eyes. The machines fill the air with their beeps, their music and whirring and tinkling. If gambling is your thing, this is your place.

The Machines Have a Plot

On the second floor, children are standing, jumping, and sitting at large, child-sized video games that do not randomly and frugally dispense monetary rewards. I believe this is a plot. Somehow, the upstairs machines are learning to train the children of the adults below, so that when these youngsters grow up, they, too, will devote themselves to the machines’ downstairs cousins. For down the stairs lies the machines’ true goal of world domination.

They’re Mesmerized, Hypnotized

On the first floor, a middle-aged Chinese man, a cigarette dangling between two fingers, sits and stares at a video poker machine. I think he was there this morning. And possibly yesterday evening. And maybe the day before that. Is that the same, endless cigarette? Has he won anything?

A couple sit side-by-side, punching the slots. Tattoos decorate both their arms. One of the woman’s arms presents the smiling face of a woman etched on flesh. When her arms move, the tattooed cheeks also move. She keeps hitting the screen. Her husband sips his beer and hits his own screen. But the payoff is elusive. The couple doesn’t seem to care. They keep on punching.

An old man well past retirement wearing a wide, floppy, red hat walks with a cane and plops himself before another flashing, beeping device, beside other retired folks, some in wheelchairs. He’ll be there for the evening.

A young woman in short pants, tattoos crawling up her legs and down her arms, sits by the sidelines in an easy chair, drinking wine, resting from a long and fruitless battle with her own personal nemesis. Her machine is so close to a payoff. She just knows it is. But the thing has a grudge and is withholding what she’s owed. In a few moments, she’s going back at it. I can tell. Once–was it yesterday?–she might have won ten dollars. So the big win must be just around the corner. How could it not be?

Intermittent reinforcement, say the psychologists, is the strongest kind.

The Matador

Another man approaches his slot device with his own, unique style. He stares at his blinking antagonist with the narrowed eyes of a matador. His hand rises in slow motion, as if he holds an imaginary sword. This time, he thinks, this bull has met its match. Through sheer force of will, and perhaps skill, he’s going to make it happen. Perhaps if he sneaks up on it, the machine will forget who, here, is in charge and just die. His hand falls slowly, so slowly I stop to watch, fascinated. The hand nears its target button. The fingers punch for the kill. He has style, I’ll give him that. The lights whir, the screen changes, but again, no payoff. This time, as every time before it, the bull wins. But then the hand rises again.

Drinks sit beside nearly everyone. Beer. Wine. Cocktails. I even have one in my hand. How did it get there, I wonder? The waitress stops and asks a grizzled, rough-looking dude in a cut-off tee-shirt what he wants. He orders another beer and returns to his flashing, whirring, grinding companion with a look of concentration. If it doesn’t pay off soon, maybe he’ll punch out her lights?

People fill other entire rooms, sitting at tables before short monitors playing Keno. I don’t want to know how the game works. They’re going to lose. There’s too much cigarette smoke. And everyone seems mesmerized.

Espionage, Thwarted

I accidentally try to walk through the area reserved for blackjack tables. “No, sir. You must go around,” says the serious, uniformed woman guarding the half-moon tables with her life. I could be a spy. Or someone in the know, someone who might cheat and win. Only the house can cheat so it always wins. That’s in the rules somewhere. So I go around.

Tonight, the dice and roulette tables are also full. It’s the weekend and people are desperate to lose their money.

World Domination?

I wend my way through more and more people, room after room, until I’m lost. This place is  so big, I’m always lost. Maybe that’s the plan. Then a terrible thought grips me. The machines have hypnotized all the people. They’ve lost their wills—every last one of them. They used to be normal neighbors and friends. But now they’re mesmerized, punching and pressing and staring at all the colored lights in a never-ending, repetitive dance that has no point, that will never end, that can only lead to total, world-wide disaster.

The machines know a secret no one else seems to know. Tonight, folks—actually, yesterday, today, and tomorrow night, and on and on, forever—it was, and is, and will be a losing game. Once in a rare while a single, devious device decides to spit out a few coins—they’re really paper slips. The other machines wink to themselves and smile. Because it’s all part of the master plan. It’s all to encourage another stunned, hapless, hypnotized victim. Eventually, the machines will have fooled everyone.

In the end, they’re going to have all our money. They’ve already made rooms and rooms full of zombies, and who knows where it will stop? For the last few hours, I’ve even had this compulsion to go downstairs and sit before one. Its name is “Road Warrior”. Its lights are beautiful. And it’s been calling me. After they take over this casino, they’ll learn how to walk, take over the banks, and then it will be on to politics. Could they be marching up the stairs to my room even now?

Ah, But the Celts!

But wait!—This blog is supposed to be about the Celts.

So how different is the ancient world from all this! A man spent his days in the field, out in the wind, under the sky, in the heat of the sun, herding cattle or sheep. Or he’d go hunting, spear in hand, his companions at his side, singing a hunting song, searching the dirt for signs of his quarry. His game didn’t beep, or flash, or whir, or steal his coin. He didn’t even have coin yet. His goal was meat in the pot. His goal squealed or squawked or grunted, and then it sprinted or flew or swam for its life. The hunter would track it down, spear it, and kill it. Sometimes, the quarry had tusks or horns or teeth, and it would fight back. But the hunter was practiced, and he almost always won. Then he and his jovial companions, tired from the day’s exertions, would carry their prize back to the village. Soon, there’d be pork roasting on the spit, or venison dropping into the stew pot, joining cabbage, turnips, and onions. There might also be bread, butter, and honey. And to finish off the day—a mug of ale and blessed sleep on the furs, rest for tired bones.

Oh, how far we’ve strayed! How different our worlds have become! Can we ever go back?

Tomorrow, I’ll be back in planet Minnesota. Next week life will return to normal. Then let’s look at the question: Did the druids worship the darkness?