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fluid This wildly inventive Indonesian science-fiction story-poem leads us into a chaotic future characterized by constant rain, and the technological lengths people will go to just stay dry. Human ingenuity is endlessly fluid — and so we continue to shift and change, along with our circumstances.

 

 

 

 

A History-to-Come of Helmbrellas: Their Features and Fates

by Norman Erikson Pasaribu
translated from the Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao

1.

The following happened
to your granddaughter, long
after you opted
for euthanasia

—like the others.
She was still in high school
when it all began.
She watched as the spaceships parted the clouds,
and how through their doors
emerged purplish black blobs
that shifted, and stirred,
and loosed a battle cry
like the croaking of frogs and the cawing of crows.
The Ulxians (that was the
term used thereafter) struck.
But the good people of Earth
prevailed in the end.

The alien bodies—
85% H2O, scientists said—
littered the earth.
The day after the victory
she saw the sun’s steady rise.
With each putrid heap
that vanished
a cloud congealed overhead.
The sky turned pitch black.

And then it began to rain.

2.

Then your granddaughter observed
how fickle the weather turned.
Once it rained for a whole month,
setting the campus abuzz with whispers.

‘Tis da Sixth Extinction, her friends said.
She was in her room when she heard
on the radio: the shantytowns in Mumbai swept away,
killing hundreds.

New drains and reservoirs
mushroomed throughout the city; new brands
of disposable umbrellas and raincoats flooded the market
—Ztormz, Water-Zip, Kaza, et cetera.

Her coworkers blew their bonuses on
buying these companies’ shares.
She noticed everyone
in the city bringing umbrellas

or raincoats
wherever they went,
even on the sunniest days,
and she watched herself turn

into one of them.

3.

When the latter became a trend,
nobody was that surprised.

4.

The very first model,
the one that really
started it all,
was, naturally,
the plasma shield.
It was hardly original,
just recycled:
left-over
technology
from warring
with the Ulxians.

The military
had made use
of handheld devices
that erected
plasma domes
to keep the Ulxians
from invading their bodies.
They generated
a wave
that would attract polymer
fragments
from the atmosphere,
turning

the air into plasma.

5.

Those with relatives in the army were the first pioneers.
They procured the devices from their husbands/wives/children—
or from the uniforms that came with the bodies of the deceased.
They’d then mill around downtown or along Fifth Avenue,
like air bubbles with legs. The rain
trickled
down
the domes’
invisible curves,
catching everyone’s eye.

Hey now, dat’z some idea!
thought one onlooker, then two, then ten.
News sites caught whiff of the phenomenon.
“Sheer poetry!” proclaimed The New York Times.
The devices popped up on the black market overnight—
sold not as artifacts, like old Civil War relics,
but as everyday household items.
Megaconglomerates began lobbying the military,
eager to exploit the plasma shield.

6.

In reality,
the plasma shield
wasn’t appropriate
for use in crowds,
and certainly
not on sidewalks.
If there was a sudden downpour,
people who were squeamish
about getting the least bit wet
would hastily activate
their devices,
and the expanding shield
would injure
people
in the vicinity.

The most horrifying incident
made the front page
on almost
all
the news sites:

three shields were activated simultaneously,
colliding and knocking their users over.
The resulting domino effect felled
fifteen others. One victim slammed into a steel bollard.
He died
instantly from severe brain injuries.

7.

Governments the world over
banned the use of plasma shields.
This met with online petitions
and small-scale demonstrations
in front of city halls
in various states.

General Electric’s
R&D Division
seized their chance.
In less than six months
they released
an alternative product,
a helmet-umbrella,
a helmbrella,
that generated
an anti-gravity field.
It worked by momentarily
suspending the raindrops
falling
on the wearer’s head,
which would continue
falling
once the wearer
was out of reach.
This model
also quickly
fell
out of popularity.

Think about it: if rain accumulating above someone
resumes descent, where does it fall?
To earth.
By then who would be walking around on said earth?
Someone else.

8.

Other, newer
models rapidly
became publicly
available.
Unlike when you
or your father were small,
the helmbrella one used
defined who one was
inside.

9.

Not long after the
anti-gravity
model came out,

an electrolysis-
powered helmbrella
was released
and distributed
far and wide,
reaching even
the minimarts
way out in the styx.

The helmbrella
generated
two electromagnetic
waves
that functioned
as an anode and cathode,
splitting the water molecules
into hydrogen and oxygen gas.

This was the first model
to demonstrate stability
under a wide range of
conditions.
And so subsequent helmbrellas
were created in the image of this godly
opus.
The only thing was
the induction process
would sprinkle the user
with grains of salt

which were easily
mistaken for dandruff.
But this was so trivial
that this model is still in use today.

10.

A few people took
the fever too far.
Take the Star Wars fans—the last of their kind.
In conjunction with Honda, they launched
a model made up of miniature X-wings
which circled above their masters’ heads,
shooting laser beams,
incinerating raindrops
at light speed.

This model never caught on.
Obviously, it was cumbersome
and not energy-efficient,
but it did find its niche—
people who wanted to stand out.
Avant-garde designers began to create
all sorts of new models.
For instance,
a helmbrella comprised of
swarming mechanical
fireflies, hot to the touch
(thereby evaporating every
raindrop on contact).
It debuted at Paris Fashion Week.

11.

The Potterheads, who
by some miracle survived
into this era,
tried to make the Impervius charm
a reality. They attempted to invent a water-deflection device
that would produce the same effect
as two magnetic poles of like polarity.
Their efforts have never seen the light of day.

12.

Wondrous news from Jepara, in small-town Indonesia:
a middle-schooler, a loner and film buff
who worshipped Christopher Nolan
built his own: a helmbrella topped with a spike
that functioned as wormhole generator.

The rain would fall
straight into the wormhole
and out the other side,
through the corresponding generator
and into a gutter.

The teen prodigy
was whisked away on a whirlwind
tour of the US. He appeared on:

The Late Night Show

Today’s Science

Hello America

The New, New Thing

But he got depressed,
overwhelmed
by the popularity and offers
from companies that poured in nonstop.
He became a recluse.

13.

The most bizarre model
in recorded history
came from
some religious types. One of those
New New New Age sects.
They bought up all the remaining
anti-gravity helmbrellas.
and did a complete rehaul.

They attached shiny metal orbs that spouted
fire to the top of the helmbrellas.
Naturally, when switched on
the fireballs seemed to hover
above the wearers’ heads.

They baptized it the Holy Spirit Helmbrella.

This design was ineffective in the extreme,
considering it couldn’t handle
all the rain falling on the wearer.
Plus, whenever it poured,
the fire would get snuffed out in places,
giving the ball bald spots.

The other problem was
that if the helmet broke
or a powerful sneeze
caused the user’s head
to tilt forward.
The ball sometimes slid
off onto the user;
and even if the anti-gravity field
made a split-second save
it would sometimes hurl the ball at bystanders.

Surprisingly, its sales were pretty good.
People wore it to be ironic. There were two hundred
reported cases of wearers, three-fourths of them men,
suffering brain damage because of this model.

14.

No one knows
if this craze
will continue,
or if it lasts, how long,
and where it will head,
but one thing is clear: Earth’s remaining inhabitants,
a mere quarter of the pre-Ulxian-invasion population,
has found a new hobby,
after spending
so many centuries
being fed
up with everything:

in the end,

there is nothing new under the sun,

much less under the shade of a tree. Or an armpit.

15.

And that model
that was the classic-of-classics?
The conical elongated cane
that opened and shut
when taken out and put away,
which you brought everywhere,
well into your fifties, even when
taking your granddaughter
to the zoo for the first time?
No one uses it.

‘Tis hopelezzly archaic, everyone says.
What’s nostalgia in the face of practicality?
But you know something?
Your granddaughter still uses it sometimes,
when she misses you or her mother.
She and her wife
brave the rain, hand in hand,
to visit their favorite used bookstore or café,
and she talks about the two of you.
And not a single passerby

stares.

Norman Erikson Pasaribu is an Indonesian writer. His poetry and fiction have appeared in Asymptote, Asia Literary Review, Kill Your Darlings and Cordite Poetry Review. His debut poetry collection Sergius Mencari Bacchus explores the lives of queer individuals in urban Indonesia. The book won first prize in the 2015 Jakarta Arts Council Poetry Competition and was shortlisted for the 2016 Khatulistiwa Literary Award for Poetry. Poems translated from the book were one of the winning entries of English PEN's PEN Presents East and Southeast Asia. In 2017 Norman received the Young Writer (Sastrawan Muda) Award from the Southeast Asia Literary Council.

Tiffany Tsao is a writer and translator. She has authored two novels: The Oddfits (2016) and The More Known World (2017), both published by AmazonCrossing. She has also translated two novels from Indonesian into English: Paper Boats by Dee Lestari and The Birdwoman’s Palate by Laksmi Pamuntjak. Her written work and translations have appeared in various venues, including Asymptote, The Sydney Review of Books, LONTAR, and Asia Literary Review. She currently lives in Sydney, Australia.

Charles Lim Yi Yong (b. 1973) officially represented Singapore at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015) and participated with the collective tsunamii.net, which he co-founded, in documenta 11 (2002).

The Sea State, which exists as the frontier of a climatic and ecological complex, takes us to places that were until recently only a thing of oneiric theory. Singapore continues to grow, both above and under the sea. The Jurong Rock Caverns are Southeast Asia’s first underground liquid hydrocarbon storage facility. Located at a depth of 130 metres beneath the Banyan Basin on Jurong Island, the Caverns will provide infrastructural support to the petrochemical industry that operates on Singapore’s Jurong Island, a cluster of islets reclaimed into one major island and connected to the mainland in the 1980s. When fully operational in 2015, Phase 1 of the caverns will hold some 1.47 million cubic metres of oil storage tanks. This is about the size of 600 Olympic swimming pools. The volume of undersea rocks excavated from Phase 1 equals 1.8 million cubic metres, enough to fill 1,400 Olympic swimming pools.

The Transpacific Literary Project is a platform for writing from across East and Southeast Asia. Read work from our most recent project folio, Fluid.

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