L.B.: Yesterday’s news

L.B.: Yesterday’s news April 20, 2004

Left Behind, pg. 45

And but so anyway, Rayford Steele and LaHaye & Jenkins are moving along and so must we.

Finally in the terminal, Rayford found crowds standing in lines behind banks of phones. Most had angry people waiting, yelling at callers who shrugged and redialed.

Left Behind was written in 1995, before cell phones had reached the tipping point and become indispensable and omnipresent. Much of the book therefore is occupied with the now anachronistic-seeming logistics of pay phones and pre-cell communications. We’ve already explored this a bit in discussing Buck Williams’ dubious splicing of a dial-up modem and an airphone.

This is a reminder of how much our communications world has changed in just the last nine years. It’s also a reminder, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden noted in comments to this post, that writing about the immediate future is difficult. I’m willing to give L&J credit for degree of difficulty here — anticipating short-term technological changes is tricky. But you’d think they’d have gotten something right.

Airport snack bars and restaurants were already sold out or low on food, and all newspapers and magazines were gone. In shops where staffers had disappeared, looters walked off with merchandise.

What can explain this strange run on “newspapers and magazines”? Millions of people around the world have just disappeared. Actually, since all the children have disappeared, that would be billions of people. In the wake of such an event people would presumably be desperate for news. The morning editions of the Sun-Times and the Tribune would be full of yesterday’s news — events that would seem horribly trivial and out-of-date in the light of the tragedy that has just unfolded.

L&J haven’t given us a clear idea of what time of day it is in Chicago (or what time of year it is, for that matter), but it seems unlikely that the papers would have managed — between whenever the disappearances occurred and whenever it is that Rayford arrives at the terminal — to produce and distribute afternoon extras in time for anything newsworthy to be in the racks at the airport newstands. Time, Newsweek and “Global Weekly” would be even more irrelevant with their stale summaries of the previous week’s news.

As for the rest of the magazines — the entertainment and style and sports glossies that make up the bulk of an airport newstand — I can’t begin to imagine what would prompt someone to think, “Oh the humanity! I’d better get me a copy of Elle.” (And since airport newstands also reserve several feet of shelf-space for porn, the now-empty racks might suggest that O’Hare’s mens rooms would be a very unpleasant place.)

The looting of other shops is similarly strange. I can understand people walking off with, say, the candy section because, hey, free Snickers. But why would people facing a serious apocalyptic calamity bother to walk off with an armful of Sears Tower sno-globes?

The preoccupation with pay phones seems anachronistic to us now because L&J failed to anticipate the cell phone revolution. But the biggest reason that the beginning of Left Behind seems dated and unreal has nothing to do with technological change.

The early chapters of the book are all about people responding in the aftermath of a world-shifting tragic event. We have since learned what such an event feels like. We saw how people responded, what became important and what was set aside. And it wasn’t like this. These early chapters aren’t just technologically dated, they also seem a bit September 10.

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