There once was a little, bitty planet lost in the minor Orion-Cygnus arm of the Milky Way galaxy. It was a special planet with many special stories, but no matter how many stories the special inhabitants thereof told, they could never quite discover what was meant by these words from an ancient text: “And the earth became formless and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep.” Aside from that, a void backdrop always felt sort of like a flannel graph to them, and so they layered the void with little people and animals that resembled the people and animals on their planet. Their minds were the greatest flannel graph in the known universe!
One popular, award-winning story concluded with reptilian aliens parachuting to the void over an incongruous blue flannel backdrop, where the friction of their touchdowns in an otherwise timeless-spaceless nothingness destabilized the nothingness into somethingness. This story isn’t as farfetched as you might think. The aliens, being carbon creatures, combusted into RNA when the friction they created sparked into tiny lightning bolts. This was the story with the most flannels and accolades until one important day when a little boy asked his dad why the aliens used parachutes when they were clearly from an advanced civilizations that could have built special spaceships that were meant to cope with a lack of space and time.
“The parachutes were very pretty, son,” said the dad. “They were all the colors of the rainbow.”
But the boy wasn’t satisfied, especially with the idea that all the colors of the rainbows could be distinguished in a void, so as his planet’s forebears had done, he joined the throngs of storytellers and flannel-graphers. He played with all sorts of ideas, layering images upon images from famous artwork, as well as from anonymous graffiti discovered in ancient caves. His volume of work grew in number until he was the most prolific writer the planet had ever known. His 500,000 word sci-fi tomes stretched to fill one entire metropolitan library, and then overflowed into multiple metropolitan libraries. At the point at which his mind turned into a flannel graph resembling Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, the poor boy began snarling and foaming at the mouth. Mistaking him for a rabid dog, the citizens of his village drove him into the surrounding woods. Tired and alone, he entered one of his favorite ancient cave dwellings and wasn’t seen again for thirty-five years.
Meanwhile, the stories and flannel graphs in the world of sci-fi publishing took on many shapes, colors, and designs. At one point, a prophet declared that true science fiction sprang from pure essence, which necessarily meant eradicating all words and swallowing scraps of pure, white paper. Many people henceforth died from both malnutrition and chronic dioxin exposure. Oddly, the population of the planet didn’t diminish because, in some circles, paper-eating increased fertility. But all that is beside the point of this story, which happens to be the boy, whose status grew legendary. Without his eminent physicality present to dispel any myths, he became known as the world’s greatest living thinker.
When he finally stumbled out of his cave, wearing a bedraggled deer hide, and into the suburban nightmare that was now his childhood village, the world held its breath and watched his movements from the convenient security cameras the government had thankfully placed in every square inch of every city and suburb all over the planet, except in deep woods and ancient caves where it had no jurisdiction. The planet had, obviously, become its own self-fulfilling prophecy of epic sci-fi proportions. As the old folks used to say: You are what you eat.
The boy–now a man with a gray beard–ignored it all, including the flying cars and robot-clogged streets. When robot children rudely pointed and stared at the wild man who had survived off little more than locusts and wild honey and an occasional deer steak, their robot parents didn’t correct their young ones because robot parents don’t understand subtlety. The man had a wild look in his eyes, a look of determination and purpose, and they wanted to know what it meant. The flesh and blood children also pointed and stared, and the flesh and blood parents chided their offspring for their rudeness before dropping whatever they were doing to follow the wild man.
In the midst of a city park, he sat cross-legged, straightened his deer skin tunic, and placed his open palms on his knees and began to chant strange words. The world watched, even those who weren’t present, and they mimicked his every movement.
“That’s the answer,” one man shouted. “The answer is a question!”
“What’s the sound of….?” another person asked, but before he could finish his question, the boy who had become a wild man fell to humming.
“Ommmmmm!” everybody else followed along. “Ommmmm!”
And as they gulped and exhaled, the carbon linked to the dioxide in the swirling air felt lonely, purposeless, and it called down a Michelangelic image of God from the flannel graph to strike it with lightning, but, alas, with so much time and space, nothing happened, and the world didn’t become void or begin again or anything else of the kind. On the other hand, a bunch of men in parachutes touched down in the park in order to be in the presence of the greatest living thinker the world had ever known, and this caused all manner of mayhem that eventually led to the arrest of the greatest living thinker, who died three years later of neglect in a federal prison.
Thus ends the tale of the little, bitty planet lost in a spiral arm of an inconsequential galaxy [this is the part of the story where the teacher adds the Planet Earth flannel to the graph. Suggested takeaway moral: Be wary of questioning alien technology when searching for the greatest sci-fi story ever.]
***Image status: This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted”. See File:Galactic Longitude.