Sketches for a Substack novel
This post is a further development of the idea I first described in Russia’s Psychotic Break. It started as a round-about way to process Russia’s war with Ukraine, the world, and itself—because I wasn’t able to write about it plainly—but has since evolved into something else.
I feel it will be evolving further, and I’m curious to see the next iterations.
I invite your feedback and collaboration.
Find me at email@example.com.
The Outside World
By the late 2030s, everything happened: machines learned to be indistinguishable from humans in their use of language, sound, and appearance; the distribution of personal identity largely flattened across the various spectra—there were now dozens of equally popular genders, notions of self, and ways of relating to biological and technological species: while some remained rooted in their identities as human women and men, many others started thinking of themselves as other species, cells of larger organisms, cyborgs, ideas, radio-waves; brain implants became ubiquitous, allowing to alter consciousness in permanent ways and to interface with other brains and digital networks remotely, at high speeds; virtual realities have, by all accounts, risen to the ontological level of the one that spawned them; even the space aliens finally revealed themselves and got quickly involved in international politics—at least, that’s what some of the media systems and governments claimed, while others maintained that the UFO on the White House lawn was part of a big tech psy-op.
The notions that the US has become a totalitarian state and that it has disintegrated completely became equally popular among the land’s population.
Reality has fractured and turned into a vivid ever-changing hologram that presented itself in incompatible ways to its many participants and consumers.
So now, the Town’s inhabitants have to develop their own approach to figuring out what’s happening outside its borders and dealing with emissaries from whatever is out there.
The Town & the Institute
A Texas Town, population 300k, has been one of the epicenters of the so-called psychedelic revival since the 00s.
The movement is sometimes mockingly described as neo-Luddite for its cautious approach to technology: members don’t own TVs, personal computers, VR sets, or smartphones, though latest technology is available for public use in community centers called portals and styled as churches. The use of tech is naturally limited by the long queues and the fact that others can see what you’re using it for (so, porn addiction is really hard to maintain). This protects the Town’s population from most of the anxieties of the outside world but provides basic information on what the world’s up to—to those who choose to seek it out.
The organizing force behind the movement is a mental health startup founded by a childless married couple of Russian emigrants, both in their fifties. The company, named The Psychopolitical Institute, is continuously developing an open-ended adaptive worldview supported by an ecology of practices: protocols for using DMT, cannabis, and psilocybin, meditation, psychophysical exercises, artistic expression, communication strategies, and so forth.
Its influence on the Town’s government has been growing for a couple of decades, and sometime around the alleged collapse of the consensus reality the two have effectively merged.
The economic prosperity of the settlement rests on the export of high-quality drugs and courses on how to take them.
The Cult & the Takeover
As the founders and the core staff of The Institute venture further away into the so-called “meta-reality”—a web of imaginary worlds with different degrees of connection to the one where it all started—they start to lose power on the ground.
The mental health framework they had used for the startup early on turns on them. Unsupervised use of drugs becomes considered highly dangerous, and soon, the only groups who are able to partake are those who seek healing from some kind of a spiritual dysfunction, and those who want to join the staff.
The force that slowly takes over is made up of people who profess psychedelic values but don’t partake in any of the mind-altering practices; many of them claim to have mastered endogenous production of DMT—there’s a nationalistic streak to it, their Russianness is supposed to make them “more spiritual”—and exploit their position of “guides” to control those whose trips they supervise. They think of the founders as good people who were broken by the immigrant experience, their continuous use of psychedelics a sign of an unhealed trauma of uprootedness.
The Teetotalers are married to no worldview or ideology and are only concerned with personal power. Their structure is hard to define because no agreements or associations are formalized. They exchange favors for money and slaves—”seekers” who see their descent into submission as a path to ultimate freedom.
In a few hours from the Town by car, there’s a place known to ex-Townies as the Rehab.
It is something of a hotel that provides food, lodging, and a variety of basic tools for creative expression in exchange for putting its stamp—a simple addition of the time and place of birth—on anything guests happen to create during their stay: art, writing, ideas of any sort. There is a little garden where the owners grow mushrooms, pot, and acacias. The place is idyllic, but there’s a peculiar quality—something vaguely suspicious—to the ideas one tends to come up with while in the area.
We meet the protagonist as he crosses the Town’s border, which used to be free to go through but now is controlled by men and women in uniforms he hadn’t seen before.
He doesn’t know it yet, but he will soon move into the Rehab and start working on his magnum opus—The Psychopolitical Handbook.
The Protagonist and his Psychopolitical Handbook
The protagonist’s name is Solomon Divanov. He’s a native of the Town and of the broken reality within which it exists. In his youth, he spent many hours in the Internet “portals,” developing virtual friendships with out-of-towners and digital entities, not always sure which is which. He was a member of a quiet anti-Teetotaler circle, but got out before it got dangerous. His worldview is underdeveloped. He leaves the Town when he hears the first rumors about the guards at the border. His car (his friend’s car, rather) is stopped on the way out, and he has to answer several questions: where is he going, and why, and when will he be back, and how much cash does he have on his person?
He’s not sure if the guards work for the Institute or the authorities from outside. He’s not sure how authority is defined on either side of the border.
This is one of the many questions he’ll have to address in his time in the Rehab. He surround himself with typewriters, rolling tobacco, mushroom and DMT preparations, mirrors, a black phone with a heavy handset, and lots of loose paper. As he writes down his trips, dreams, and ideas, he starts to suspect they are not quite his own, but he doesn’t quite know what it means.
I do, because they are mine.
The Format and the Process
Though I keep thinking of this project as some sort of a novel—a hyper-novel, a meta-novel, a Substack novel—I am not planning (not now, anyway) to write this out in a linear fashion.
I want to describe this world and the stories of its inhabitants in little snippets of writing, audio, art, animation together with the community that’s been gathering here in Psychopolitica. I envision a multimedia mosaic of one sort or another: for instance, I might record a podcast interview with the protagonist, a semi-scripted conversation that would provide a spotty description and a sprawling analysis of the fictional world that he lives in.
Sam Khan of the brilliantnewsletter has volunteered to do some writing.
Jenna Cha, the author of the cover for Russia’s Psychotic Break, has agreed to do some art for the project in 2023.
For this post, I used's Jason Novak’s cartography series as illustrations.
My experience with the Saint Desert series suggests there may be others who would want to contribute in ways only they could.
If you are such person, please send your submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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