This is a short, fictional piece that I wrote for La Revista de la Universidad de Mexico, as part of their “Diario de la pandemia” series. To read the Spanish version please follow this link.

While we were in the midst of the lockdown in London, and I was sheltering in my house for fear of dying alone in an intensive care unit without enough ventilators to go around, a journalist reached out to me via email for an interview. I found this weird, since I am not an expert in epidemics, or viruses, or indeed ventilators. When I told her so, she ignored me and sent me her questions anyway, which were a list of conspiracy theories about Covid-19. Did the Chinese engineer the virus in a secret laboratory? Was there a link between 5G and the pandemic? How come Bill Gates saw this coming years ago? Was he part of a masterplan by the Illuminati to get everyone vaccinated with a nanochip? And what was Soros’ role in all this? I was asked to offer my opinion.

I really did not know what to answer, as I could not possibly see how my opinion mattered, or indeed how an opinion would be at all relevant. I do not generally believe in conspiracy theories, but then again conspiracies have happened, large and small, throughout history, and will certainly continue taking place as long as people exist. The specific theories that circulated during the pandemic seemed to me exceptionally ridiculous, but there were millions of people who believed in them. So, a better question for the journalist to explore ought to have been why that was. But the journalist was not interested to do a heavy piece, she was writing for a fashion website and just wanted a short, funny, highhearted Q&A with a writer to appear next to an advertorial of a sports apparel brand.

By coincidence (like conspiracies, coincidences are also known to happen) I was writing at the time an article for a popular science magazine on a relatively new technology called “deep fakes”. Essentially, you can nowadays use apps on your phone to create short videos of persons that never existed, make celebrities have sex between them, politicians say whatever you want them to say, and generally amuse yourself and your dozen or so followers on social with fun stuff. Or you can trigger World War Three and Armageddon. Just imagine, for example, Trump losing the 2020 election and a deep fake video have him announcing that the election was rigged and that he does not accept the outcome (same scenario could run with Biden). Or a deep fake video of Kim Jong-Un declaring that he has just launched nukes in the direction of Tokyo. But what is particularly interesting about this terrifying technology for nerds like me is how deep fakes are made using an Artificial Intelligence technique called Generative Adversarial Networks, or GANs for short.

GANs are made up of two artificial neural networks, working against each other. One network constantly creates fake images, starting with white noise. For illustration let’s call that network “Donald Trump” (I am not being partisan here, just bear with me). The other network – call it “Liberals” – takes two inputs: the fake image input from Donald Trump, and a real image from the real world of true reality. Liberals compare those two inputs and call bullshit every time they discover that Trump is feeding them fake images (ok, “fake news” if you prefer). But – and here’s the genius of the system – Trump takes the output of the Liberals’ judgement and uses it to improve the next fake image. Run this back-and-forth dialogue a few thousand times and the Trump network ends up creating fake images that Liberals cannot tell the difference from the real ones. Fake and real are now indistinguishable.

GANs are the ultimate content machines. They can create text, images, music, or videos. I wanted to tell that journalist that her days were numbered, and that soon a GAN was going to replace her, but no need to be mean, right? GANs are also one of Jonathan Swift’s techno-prophecies that has come true.  In Book III of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver is abandoned by pirates on the continent of Balnibarbi. After a visit to the flying island of Laputa, Gulliver is taken to the Academy of Lagado, where “useless projects” are undertaken. There, he is given a demonstration of a word machine, a giant mechanical computer used for making sentences and books. The wise men of the Academy pride themselves for discovering a machine that renders obsolete any study or expertise; for now, even an absolute idiot can write a masterpiece by virtue of cranking the machine.  Equipped with GANs, twenty first century idiots can earn the Nobel Prize in Literature. Or run the world from their office via their twitter feed. Or make the world disappear. Or make it burn. To paraphrase Andy Warhol, reality is what you can get away with.

As I was thinking all that, the end of civilization, Pandemic Apocalypse, Trump versus Liberals, Kim Jong-Un, and getting increasingly depressed, I started reading reports from scientists who doubted that the virus was as deadly as it was initially made up to be.  Apparently, the initial mathematical models were wrong. Their code was full of bugs. The government experts had overestimated the death toll of the pandemic, thereby spooking the hapless politicians who went hysterical and turned half the planet into a colossal prison camp. Voices were raised against the lockdowns, protesting that the so-called medicine was worse than the disease. Meanwhile, the number of unemployed skyrocketed. Miles-long lines of cars (many of them expensive-looking) started appearing on newsfeeds, their drivers waiting for hours to scrape groceries from foodbanks.  Two opposing realities competing for domination of the public sphere emerged, like a pair of adversarial GANs creating a deep fake by imitating reality. Scientists were not being helpful either. They are used to brainy debates where multiple truths can co-exist until data and experiment prove most, or all, of them false. But the process of scientific falsification is unknown outside the walls of University campuses, those latter-day Academies of Lagado.  Out there in the wild, in the cities and the countryside, to figure out what’s real and what’s false is too much effort, people have other things to do, like lining up for food and toilet paper, and so they’re more willing to go with their political or tribal affiliations. Thus, the pandemic quickly turned political. There were Leavers (get out, save the economy) and Remainers (stay in, save lives).  If you leaned to the Left you probably went with Remain, if you bent to the Right with Leave. Living in the UK through the trauma of Brexit, I had hoped that we were past that.

As the lockdowns eased across Europe and people emerged from their homes, like snails after the rain, a lot of talk has now turned into how the world will change because of the pandemic. We will fly less, work from home more, use bicycles rather than buses, greet each other with a namaste or an elbow touch, wear masks and gloves, have virtual sex, use apps that track us, wash our hands with soap fifteen times a day. It all feels a little unreal to me. So I emailed the journalist who had asked for my opinion on conspiracies and suggested that I should write an article about the epidemic being a simulation – the deepest of deep fakes – and explore the possibility that we are living inside a hyperintelligent computer that is trying to predict how (the real) humanity may react in a real pandemic. I sent her my proposal by email two weeks ago and have left several messages on her WhatsApp. She has yet to come back to me. Which makes me wonder if she was ever real.

Perfect day with Lou

imagesIt was spring of 1981. I was in love with a blond girl from the all-girls school that was several blocks away from our own, all-boys school, in central Athens. For both of us this was our last year at school.  Like our schoolmates we were working hard for the national university examinations. We lived like automata: waking up early, going to school till midday, back home for a quick-lunch, then rushing to the tutoring classes that prepared us for the exams. We would finish tutoring classes around ten, sometimes later; we would wade back home to chew our dinner and sink to a sleep soaked in trigonometry.

We had exchanged only a few words till then, a quick hello, glances, as she walked in front of our schoolyard with her friends, on her way home. Girls finished half hour earlier than us boys so they would be safe from our adolescent urges; at least that was the idea. Although whoever cooked up that scheme failed to factor in the invincibility of love. Eros thou art unbeatable in battle, says Euripides in Medea. Our teachers ought to have known better.

Feigning sudden illness I was excused from classroom one hour earlier and went to hide behind some bushes in the little park in front of our school. I waited for her till I saw her coming. She was not really surprised to see me jumping out of the bush and saying hi like a dam ass. Her friends laughed. As if they expected this to happen they shrugged and giggled and left her alone with me. We looked at each other like two ants communicating with telepathy. We had to vanish as quickly as possible from there, prying eyes from the school windows squinted, trying to make up who we were. She told me that her parents were away for the day, that she did not have to go back home so soon. We turned a corner and walked together to another park further away, where we could have some privacy. It was a warm and sunny day, with a cool refreshing breeze ruffling the leaves of the trees. We sat on the grass, and I smelled the sweetness of her sweat, and we kissed. We forgot our automatic lives.

Evening found us still at the park, not having exchanged much talk, just exploring each other’s bodies to the extent that this was possible given the public nature of the place and that we had to keep our clothes on. But even if we had taken them off I would not know what more to do. Women were still terra incognita, unexplored continents where every atom of my body urged me to explore and, hopefully, invade; but without a map how much invasion could I possibly do?

Since that day we saw each other more often, we stole time between tutoring classes to the detriment of our exam results, we became a couple of sorts. After school was out and the exams were over we each followed our  parents to the different places for our summer holidays. Our separation was foretold. Nevertheless, she remained imprinted in my mind like a huge poster, an icon of expanding proportions occupying every space of thought available. That summer was destined to taste of nothing but nostalgia. I constantly sulked as I carried my heavy body around our beach house. My parents thought I was depressed because of too much study. I would swim in the morning and come back to spend the rest of the day indoors listening to my records, and writing letters to her. I would write one letter to her every day, put it in a shoe box, hide it under my bed and wait for September, to return to Athens and send the whole lot to her home address. I listened to “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed over and over, to relive that first date with her at the park.

The Venusian

venusian-scout-ship-49In the neighbourhood where I grew up there lived an old man we used to make fun of.  His name was Vangelis.  Barba-Vangelis[1] was the kind, tender type of fellow who did not mind very much when a ball came crashing through his window or when a can of red paint fell “accidentally” on his head as he walked by.  He was always very patient with us little devils and occasionally, despite our mischievous schemes against his physical and mental hygiene, he would come out of his humble single-storey house to hand us sweets and candy bars.  To no avail.  For no act of reconciliation could ever pacify us. Barba-Vangelis was too nice for us, too patient, too kind, too inhuman. Nature had  programmed us to exterminate him.

At times, our parents would talk about him on the dinner table; whenever all other subjects, politics and such,  run out of their temporary interest.

“What sort of new invention has he thought up now?” my father would ask, a question enough to spark a burst of laughter in all of us.

“I wonder if he is still busy at that ‘Psionic’ helmet of his”, my mother would then add giggling.  “He’s been awfully quiet late!”

One reason why this extraordinary fellow was causing so much of a humorous stir in us was that he came from another planet.  Planet Venus to be precise. But that was not all. For you see, not only was he an interplanetary explorer but an inventor as well, who tirelessly laboured in his scientific laboratory for “the good of mankind and the Galaxy”, to quote his own words.  And it wasn’t so much his alien planetary background that caused us to consider him an oddball, as were his many crazy inventions which never ceased to amaze or amuse us. Take, for example, that “Psionic helmet” thing.  No-one knew what use one could make of it.  Barba-Vangelis was developing it for years.  One day he asked everyone to gather round and witness the first real life demonstration of its use. That was before my family and I moved in the area.  But our neighbours were still talking of that day when Barba-Vangelis, wearing the Psionic helmet, stood in front of them, switched it on and started reciting the rhapsodies of Homer’s Iliad, totally by heart, in the original text.  The Psionic helmet was meant to tune one’s brain to poetry.  By wearing it one became a poet too. What a disappointment!

The list of his practically useless inventions was almost limitless.  To mention but a few, there was the anti-nuclear umbrella which protected one from nuclear fallout, a system that secured safe transgression of railway cross-roads, an electronic device that prevented female switchboard operators from fainting on the job, a detoxicator of Cuban cigars and a supersonic drilling machine for underwater mining.  But his most famous intellectual achievement – one that made national news in fact – was his decoding of Aristotle’s “Physics”.

Using the sacred knowledge of his home planet he managed to uncover the true meaning of Aristotle’s works (please note that he was another extraterrestrial too; Barba-Vangelis, however, never revealed to us from which planet exactly).  In fact, he showed that Aristotle had been cryptically describing in his books the design of a sub-nuclear propulsion system for intergalactic travel.  Barba-Vangelis came out with all the equations and there was a big corporation down in Athens who were interested and quickly bought up all the rights, patents and such.  Nothing was ever heard of his discovery since.  People said that Barba-Vangelis took a large sum of money to shut himself up about such things and that the revolutionary propulsion system found its way to the United States where the scientists are still trying to make sense of it.

His only real friend was Mr Peter Paschalides, the father of my good friend and partner-in-crime Dimitri.  Mr Paschalides worked at the local branch of the National Bank and was a very educated person (compared to the abounding ignorance of our little society).  Some people, including my parents, would accuse him – secretly of course – of being a freemason, a horrid thin to be accused really.  Well, Mr Paschalides would frequently visit Barba-Vangelis’ scientific laboratory and spend hours in there with him, talking about all kinds of subjects and comparing, no doubt, our two different worlds.

This way, and I mean through the good services of my friend Dimitri, I got to learn some of Barba-Vangelis’ private secrets.  That he came to our planet with his friends, many-many years ago, in order to collect samples of our ground for scientific experiments.  That Barba-Vangelis, a young officer in the Venusian starfleet at that time, being of the amorous type, pursued a beautiful young girl and so he cut himself off from the landing party.  Three days of intense lovemaking later, his friends had gone and that was how he was left behind.  He run and run, as fast as he could, only to see his spacecraft lifting off in a bright flame.  His friends had abandoned him on Earth.  He never really forgave them for that and still spoke bitterly of their unexplained delay in coming back to fetch him.  Many years had gone since then and Barba-Vangelis made the best of his awkward situation.  Got a job, bought a house, invented things, never loosing hope that some day his friends from Venus would return.

One cold autumn day I happened to be at my friend’s house when his father, Mr Paschalides, came near to us and, with a very serious tone in his voice, warned us never to annoy Barba-Vangelis again.  What more, he pleaded with us never to go even near his house.  Interpol was after him and we could find ourselves in very deep trouble.  As you understand, nothing could excite our childish imagination more than that.  After that day we would make sure that at least one of us kept tabs outside Barba-Vangelis’ house, in case Interpol showed up to arrest him.  Our secret detective mission was thrilling us to bits and we took it in turns. We even kept a log book of his moves which we regularly reviewed in search of meaningful behavioural patterns. But all this was nothing compared to what really happened a while later.

It was Sunday afternoon and we were back home from Mass, with our families, ready to sit down for a handsome Sunday meal, when the whole of our little neighbourhood was shuddered by a terrible noise.  We all thought it was an earthquake.  Our house shook like a leaf in the wind and my older sister, who was at the time coming up the stairs with a pot full of hot chicken soup, fell, breaking the pot, a leg, and suffering a slight burn on her left thigh.  Then, after the noise and the tremor had subsided, the whole neighbourhood filled with a purple-orange colour, as if a radiant cloud had sat on top of us.  People went to their windows to witness the strange phenomenon.  And there it was! Right above our heads!  A huge flying object that sparkled in bright colours.  It stood there hovering, virtually noiseless, lest a soft hissing sound that appeared to be caused by its luminous rays hitting the air.

“It is Barba-Vangelis’ spaceship!” cried my older sister, with tears of pain in her eyes.

“My God!” whispered my mother and crossed herself three times.

“It came to take him away”, said father gaping.

I cannot remember how long that strange thing stood there.  Not long enough, anyway. For some reason Barba-Vangelis did not come out of his house to board and his impatient friends seemed to fear Interpol’s appearance too.  For after a while they let go of waiting and vanished as spectacularly as they had appeared; with a noise and a shudder as great as the first one.  Nothing was left of the bright flying object.  Not a smell, not a sound, not a trace. As if it had never really appeared. So we all decided never to talk about this to anyone.  Few weeks later, when the sighting of the Venusian spacecraft was more or less forgotten, Dimitri and I were returning from school when we saw Barba-Vangelis coming out of his house with a big suitcase.

“He’s leaving” cried Dimitri.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“He’s going to Venus, stupid, can’t you see his suitcase?” came the answer.

We hid into the little park, inside the bushes and let Barba-Vangelis walk in front of us without noticing our presence.

“Let’s follow him!” Dimitri whispered in my ear.

“What, you think he’s going to his spaceship?” I asked him in a similarly conspiratory whisper.

“Of course he is.  Let’s follow him and see what he does!”

And so we did.  Like a pair of true professionals Interpol would have been proud to employ in her ranks.  Barba-Vangelis paced his way across the main square, climbed up the stairs to the old school and followed the little narrow path that led away from our neighbourhood and into the nearby woods.  Dimitri and I looked at each other.  The woods were a place totally out of bounds for all us children.  Many years ago in those woods many strange killings had taken place.  The victims were all young women found brutally abused and murdered. Someone was arrested in the end, a young electrician who pleaded innocent but was nevertheless sentenced to life, to be later killed by the inmates of his prison during a riot.  Strange thing was that, after his killing, there were a couple of new cases of murdered young women in the woods.  So, naturally, everyone turned to the supernatural. Perhaps the young electrician was truly innocent and he had now returned as a ghost to take revenge on our little neighbourhood that accused him of a crime he never done.  Anyway, whatever the real reason for these strange coincidences was, it was we, the children, who paid the price of adult superstition.  The woods were out of bounds, final. But on that day, temptation and the single-minded quest for the truth led Dimitri and me to break the taboo and defiantly enter the forbidden grounds in hot pursuit of Barba-Vangelis.

We followed him closely as he walked deep into the heart of the woods.  After a while, finding himself a small opening in the trees, he stopped and put down the suitcase.  Dimitri and I hurried under a bush and took cover. That must be the meeting point with Mother-Spaceship we thought. All we had to do now was wait until it showed up.  Barba-Vangelis had not noticed us till then.  Taking his time, he opened the suitcase and took out his Psionic helmet.  After making a few adjustments to a variety of knobs and buttons that clung on to it, he wore it on his head.  He then reached again into the suitcase and took out a long metal rod that looked like a spear. I felt Dimitri’s heartbeat pounding into my ear.

“You know what?” he whispered in a trembling voice.


“I just had a thought…”


“Well, you know all those killings in the woods… maybe it is Barba-Vangelis who did them all.”

“Do not be a fool”, I said.  “Barba-Vangelis is a sheep.”

“He is a maniac I am telling you, just look at him!”

“Shut up Dimitri! We’re going to frighten him and he may cancel the spaceship’s landing!”

“What’s that spear he’s holding then?”

“It’s not a spear, simpleton, it’s an antenna.  He’s signalling Venus! Shut up!”

But my friend would not have any of it.  Whatever went through his mind at that fateful moment, had caused him a bad seizure of panic.

“Let’s go!” he said.  “We got to go!”

And with those words he leapt out of the bush like a frightened rabbit.  The flutter of the leaves made Barba-Vangelis turn around and take notice of our presence.  But Dimitri had already taken flight.  I was left behind in the bush alone, my eyes crossing Barba-Vangelis’ eyes in a moment of terrible silence.  I can’t remember exactly what happened then.  But in an instant that seemed miraculous Barba-Vangelis was leaning over me as I stood inside my little bushy hide, frightened to tears.

“Are you frightened?” he asked in a soft, tender voice.

“No, not really..”, I lied.

“Where did your friend go?”

“He run away, I guess.”

Barba-Vangelis shook his head.  He remembered his friends who had run away too, so many years ago.

“Was he scared?”

“He thought you were the killer of the woods.”

Barba-Vangelis took off his Psionic helmet and sat on the grass next to me.  His face was sad and his shoulders hung numbly at his sides, like the shoulders of a marionette.

“In my planet”, he said, wiping a tear from his eye, “in the endless valleys of Venus, when two persons want to become friends they sit next to each other – like we are now – and dream of the colour blue.  In my planet the colour blue is very different from Earth’s.  It has a different hue. It’s difficult to imagine it if you have not seen it… Then, they blow into each other’s face and their breath seals their friendship for ever.  And friendship, for those blessed with it, is the strongest bonding force in the Universe…”

We sat there like that, silently under the trees.   I was not frightened anymore. I was trying hard to imagine the colour blue.  But all I could think of was blank.  White blank.

“Will your friends come again to fetch you?” I finally asked.

Barba-Vangelis smiled wryly.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“I think they will”,  I said.

His face opened up in a wide smile.

“Yes, they will…” he said. “They will!”

That was my first and last encounter with Barba-Vangelis.  Next month my father, being an army officer,  was moved to another post and we all had to follow him like the nomads we were.  Our life took another turn.  Many years later, when I was at University, I received a letter from my old friend Dimitri.  He was working know as a clerk at the branch of the National Bank in our old neighbourhood.  His father, Mr Paschalides, had retired after suffering multiple brain strokes.  It was then when I learned that  Barba-Vangelis had passed away.  Being a lonely fellow, with neither relatives nor friends on our planet, the neighbourhood, together with the Church, put some money together and gave him a descent funeral.  His grave still exists today in a small graveyard outside Thessaloniki.  It consists of a small tomb and a stone under a cypress tree.  It is a very simple monument.  Only his name is written on it and his nationality.  “Vangelis Hadjidimitriou – Venusian”.

[1]Barba: Uncle (a common familiarising term used in modern Greek for senior citizens)