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The Dissertation Defense of Anathema Device, Historian of Science

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Newt:  The device is named after a real person?

Anathema:  Oh, yes.  A fine old Lancashire name.  From the French, I believe.  You’ll be telling me next you’ve never heard of Sir Humphrey Gadget.

Newt:  Oh, now, come on (laughing).

Anathema:  Who devised a gadget that made it possible to pump out flooded mineshafts.  Or Pietr Gizmo?  Or Cyrus T. Doodad, America’s foremost black inventor?  Thomas Edison said that the only other contemporary practical scientists he admired were Cyrus T. Doodad and Ella Reader Widget.

Newt:  I really must have banged my head.

Anathema:  I did my Ph.D on them.  The people who invented things so simple and universally useful that everyone forgot that they’d ever needed to be invented.  Sugar?”

—BBC’s Good Omens Radio 4 Dramatisation

 

THE DEPARTMENT OF HISTORY WILL CONDUCT THE FINAL PUBLIC ORAL EXAM OF

 

ANATHEMA DEVICE

 

UNIVERSALLY USEFUL: THE FORGOTTEN LEGACIES OF EPONYMOUS INVENTORS

 

ALL ARE WELCOME AND ENCOURAGED TO ATTEND

 

A COPY OF THE DISSERTATION WILL BE AVAILABLE FOR REVIEW TWO WEEKS BEFORE THE EXAM IN THE HISTORY GRADUATE LOUNGE

 

Anathema stood at the front of the classroom, calmly explaining four years’ work to audience members both hostile and supportive. She’d rehearsed her short talk enough that it came easily. At breakfast that morning, she’d been reciting it under her breath between bites of toast until Chana told her to knock it off.

You’re going to do fine, babe. Seriously.

You don’t know that! she’d said, almost in a wail.

Doesn’t your magic book say something about it. Like, I don’t know, ‘In the ivy clad halls of knowledge, ye will pass your defense, Anathema’?

Anathema had sighed. I told you, nothing about my graduate program is in the book. I don’t appear in any prophecies until this summer.

Since neither of them wanted to talk about the summer—or even next week—that had effectively ended the conversation.

 

“…and so, as you can see, it was not just the simplicity and ubiquity of the inventions, it was also the aforementioned social factors that lead to this forgetting. Moreover, the act of forgetting in fact encouraged the widespread adoption of these innovations, making them more ubiquitous, and continuing the cycle. Thank you.”

She took a deep breath and smiled at the polite applause, then awaited the questions.

The questions from her committee were easy to handle—she’d been working with Professors Gordon and Weyloux for four years, and knew their interests. It helped that they both prefaced their remarks with compliments on her skills at close reading and critical analysis, and that their auras glowed with warmth and approval. She hadn't worked as closely with Professor Hendrik, but he was always thoughtful and considerate, and she knew he wouldn't try to ambush her.  

The outside examiner was a little tougher, but Anathema had gone over her reader’s report with the kind of close reading skills a prophet’s descendent can develop, so even the questions on Heidegger failed to rattle her.

“..and your point is well-taken, Professor Pierre, but Heidegger’s work obviates the object. With these eponymous inventions, it is the source of the object that is erased first, and then the effect. The semantic spread of their names to cover any small bit of machinery actually takes focus away from the usefulness of the objects, until the words became used to describe useless machinery as well. As I noted in my conclusion…”

And so on. She could feel herself relaxing as she realized that she was indeed knowledgeable on her topic, even without generations of ancestors’ commentary to guide her.

“Thank you, Anathema. And now we’d like to open the floor to questions from the audience.”

The first person to raise her hand was a tiny bulldog of a woman from the Art History department. She had a warm aura, but grilled Anathema mercilessly on the size and material properties of the inventions until Professor Gordon waved her back down and called on someone else. Unfortunately, that someone else was the sleazy professor who co-taught History 501 and hit on every young female graduate student with an accent (and a few Asian-American women as well). Anathema had put him off with her best withering glare, but he still worked innuendos into every conversation she was forced to have with him. Fortunately, over the course of his five-minute question it became apparent that everyone else clearly found him as tiresome as she did, which gave her the confidence to simply answer,

“No, I don’t think so. Next!”

As the creep started to draw an offended breath, Professor Gordon called on an older man who taught Eastern Philosophy.

“I didn’t read the dissertation, but…”

That question was easy, mostly because she could say, “As I noted in both my Introduction and Chapter Three…”

Next:

“I have a question. Actually, three questions and a comment…” Anathema tried not to roll her eyes, and was rewarded by the tiny art historian snapping, “You get one question, Bill. Pick one.”

The historian of Early Modern Japan wanted her to talk about Adorno, which was unexpected, but she managed to toss something off that seemed to satisfy him, though for the life of her she never could remember what she’d said later.

Then her committee was standing, and Professor Gordon was saying,

“Now we must ask you all to leave the room while we deliberate” and waving them all, Anathema included, into the hallway.

Outside the door, Anathema’s friends and classmates crowded around her. The art historian handed her two pages of handwritten notes and bustled off to something more important. And then someone tapped her on the shoulder and she saw Chana standing there.

“I told you you would do great,” she said. Anathema just smiled back as Chana continued, “I have to run or I’ll be late for my TA section, but I wanted to tell you congratulations.”

Anathema raised an eyebrow. “Shouldn’t you wait until I officially pass?”

“Sweetie, I don’t need a magic book to see the future on this one. Anyway, you can tell me all about it this evening.” With that, she turned and jogged down the hallway.

After a few more anxious minutes while her friends tried to distract her, the door opened.

“Congratulations, Dr. Device!”

Smiles and handshakes and applause all around.

 

*****

 

Her thesis committee took her out to lunch at the fancy restaurant where they held faculty receptions. While Anathema poked at a piece of seared tuna drizzled with wasabi-basil coulis, her professors once again took turns at asking her questions--a much more difficult set. Professor Weyloux, who she should now be calling Ken, asked if she had a job lined up. Anathema shook her head.

“You know, there’s a postdoc that would be perfect for you at the Kuhn Center. Two years, very generous research support, and it’s nomination-only. If I put your name in you’re almost certain to get it.”

“That sounds wonderful, but…I can’t. I have to go to England.”

“Oh?”

“Family commitments.”

Professor Pierre—Flora—smiled. “In that case, how about a visiting professorship, or whatever they call them in England, at Anglia Ruskin? My colleague Nicola is looking for someone for the next year. Her department would be thrilled to skip the whole search process, and they’d love to have a young scholar of your caliber.”

For a moment, Anathema was tempted. Would it really be the end of the world if she did academic research in addition to the other research?

Yes, it would.

I appreciate the offer so much, but I can’t.”

Martyn Gordon looked at her. “I don’t want to pry into your personal business, but is this why you pushed yourself to finish so quickly?” Before she could answer, he turned and explained to Flora, “In our very first meeting, she informed me that she had to defend by January of her fourth year.”

Flora raised an eyebrow. “So many students are determined to pull that off, and then they’re the ones applying for seventh year funding.” The professors laughed in gentle mockery of students and their foolish ambitions.

Martyn—she was going to used to their first names, she’d earned it—continued. “I’ll admit I was initially skeptical, but Dr. Device here is one of the most organized and serious students I’ve ever had the pleasure of mentoring.”

Ken nodded agreement. “I was the co-teacher the year she took History 501, and I still remember how she showed up to my first office hours with a stack of note cards tracing everyone on the syllabus who cited or was cited by Novick.”

“Notecards?” asked Flora. “I thought students today did everything on their phones.”

Anathema spoke up. “I had an old-fashioned education, and a card index is very efficient. And to answer your earlier question,” she looked over at her advisor, “yes, I’ve known for my whole life that I would have to go to England this year for the family business. But I wanted to do a PhD while there was still time.”

There was a brief awkward pause until Flora spoke again. “I hope you’ll at least submit an article to History of Scientific Inquiry. You could very easily adapt your fourth chapter into an article for us.”

Anathema smiled and promised to try,  knowing that it would be pointless to do so. Even if she submitted the article tomorrow, there was no chance of making it through peer review before Armageddon.

 

*****

 

The rest of the afternoon was filled with paperwork and errands: bringing her hardbound dissertation to the rare books library, turning in the piece of paper that confirmed that she had passed, getting the main library to sign a form saying she had no outstanding books or fees. (That last one was easy—Anathema had never had an overdue or lost book.)

She arrived home early in the evening to find a cake, a stuffed snake, a homemade banner reading “Congratulations, Dr. Device!!!” and Chana. Anathema picked up the snake.

“What’s this for?”

“For the snake-fighting portion of your thesis defense!”

“I don’t think a plush snake is going to be hard to defeat.”

“That’s because your thesis was so good. Speaking of which…”

“Yes?”

“How’d it go?”

“I thought you already knew.”

“I know you passed, I want to hear what they said!”

So Anathema cut a slice of cake, took it over to the sofa, and told her all about the lunch, and the various offers to help her career. Chana stared at her.

“And you said no?”

“Of course I said no. You know why I can’t.”

“Did you tell them why?”

“Can you imagine? Gordon still hasn’t stopped making fun of me for reading New Aquarian. If I told them about The Nice and Accurate Prophecies, they would have revoked my doctorate on grounds of insanity.”

Chana sat silently for several minutes, biting her lower lip, until Anathema set her cake aside and said “Whatever it is you want to say, just say it.”

“I, it’s just…I don’t get it. I mean, I do, but…I applied to every job, postdoc, and one-year appointment that was even remotely in my field. I got one skype interview, and that was it. If I can’t find something next year, I’m going to have to find something else to do with my life. You just got offered a brilliant career all wrapped up with a bow on top, and you’re turning it down because your ancestor predicts that you’ll be in England to watch the world end. It’s like if you won the lottery and decided not to cash in your ticket because your horoscope said not to!”

“I thought you believed in Agnes,” said Anathema, trying not to sound as hurt as she felt. Judging from Chana’s aura, the effort was not a success.

“I believe that she could see the future,” said Chana. “But even you admit that your family doesn’t always get the interpretations right. And I don’t believe in any Antichrist, of course." She took a shaky breath. "And assuming you’re right about all of the world ending, why do you have to go to England? Why can’t we spend these last few months together?” She was close to crying by this point, and Anathema could feel tears threatening her own eyes. She reached out and took Chana’s hands.

“I wish I could. But I have to be there. It’s in the book.”

Chana pulled her hands back. “I know. You have to move to a small town in England and rescue your predestined boyfriend from a car wreck.”

“More of a predestined hookup, really. The book says we only do it the once.”

“All the more reason not to break up, then. Hell, even if you end up wanting to keep him, you know I’m fine with open relationships.”

Anathema sighed. “I really do wish…but you’re not in the book. I checked! I went through all the really obscure ones to see if any of them might be a reference to you. And I can’t risk it. If there’s any chance of stopping Armageddon, I have to take it.”

Chana scrunched up her face and wiped quickly and angrily at the corners of her eyes. Then she relaxed and summoned up a rueful smile. “Well, at least it’s a novel reason for being dumped.”

There were a dozen things Anathema wanted to say, but she knew better than to let any of them out.

 

*****

 

The following morning, she was packed and ready to leave—first to her parents’ house for last-minute strategizing, then off to England to find a town called Tadfield, and within it, the Antichrist. 

Chana drove her to the airport. “Well, goodbye, I guess. Have a nice apocalypse.”

Anathema smiled. “Be safe. Make sure you find somewhere storm-proof, and stay off the roads if the weather looks…weird.”

“Why? Didn’t you say that Armageddon was by definition everywhere? Even a fallout shelter isn’t going to save me from the world ending.”

That was true. But Anathema’s heart was slightly less pragmatic than the rest of her, so she repeated, “be safe,” and turned away.

“Hey!” Chana’s shout made her turn back. “If the world doesn’t end, call me or something. Just to let me know you’re okay.”

“I will. Or you can call me. Say you told me so.”

Chana nodded, then rolled up the window and drove away.

Anathema took a deep breath. This was her destiny.

 

*****

SIX MONTHS LATER

 

Newt was upstairs on the telephone (landline), reassuring his mother that everything was fine. Anathema took advantage of the relative privacy to contemplate the book again. She’d agreed to burn it, but…

She wasn’t sure what to do. Up until now, she’d had an easy excuse for walking away from anything too important. There was a certain assurance in seeing your life all mapped out, even if you didn’t like the route or the destination. Ironically, when the future held certain doom, she’d felt calm. Now, the future was terrifying. Every decision seemed huge and fateful, freighted with unknowable consequences. Beginning with the decision to burn the book.

She traced the cover with a fingertip. She could try opening it to a single page. According to Newt’s theory, any page she opened to would be the right one. 

“Mr. and Mrs. Pulsifer,” she muttered. She liked Newt—he was sweet and oh-so earnest, like a puppy that accidentally destroyed computers—but she wasn’t at all sure that she was ready to spend her life with him. Even if it was predicted by Agnes.

But that was the trade-off, wasn’t it? Choice for knowledge. And maybe the book would give her something a little more interesting than just “Mrs. Pulsifer.”

Wait.

She wasn’t Mrs. Pulsifer. She would never be Mrs. Pulsifer. Even if she and Newt did end up married, they would be Mr. Pulsifer and Dr. Device. Or the other way around. She’d worked hard for that PhD, and nothing that happened in the future could strip her of her title.

Anathema put the lid back on the box. Agnes had only gotten a small detail wrong, but that was enough for now. Anathema had already built a life and an identity that Agnes had never mentioned, and she’d been good at it. She could do it again.

 

*****

 

Late that night, the Further Nice and Accurate Prophecies now safely reduced to ash, Anathema crept downstairs. Newt had a bit of a snore, but that wasn’t the cause of her insomnia. She’d lay awake wondering if she’d done the right thing. She knew she’d done the right thing, but she couldn't help wondering. Anathema wasn’t used to second-guessing her decisions. She would never know for sure that she’d made the right choice, because she’d just burned the only thing that could have given a definitive answer.

Anathema reminded herself that even Agnes had missed some things. Or maybe she hadn’t. Maybe the “Mr. and Mrs. Pulsifer” was chosen specifically to spur Anathema on to discarding the book. Why Agnes would go through all that trouble only to encourage her to burn the book, Anathema had no idea, but it was possible.

“This is not a productive cycle of thought,” she told herself aloud. And yet, she couldn’t stop thinking through the implications. Maybe Agnes had written out the prophecies in the hopes that she would use them, and hadn’t seen what would become of the book. Maybe she had written them out just for her own gratification, knowing they would be burned. Maybe the book was actually blank inside.

Maybe she wanted to give Anathema a choice.

“It all comes down to free will, doesn’t it?” She’d never really believed in free will before. But now she was going to have to live it.

She heard a faint ding, and realized it was coming from her coat pocket. Listening to make sure that Newt and his field of destruction were safely upstairs, she pulled her phone out. There was an email from Chana.

Another decision: should she read it?

Unlike the book, the answer to this one was yes.

Hey you. We had some _really_ weird weather out here, so I’m not going to say I told you so, but it looks like the world isn’t ending quite yet. I’m safe. Hope you’re doing well. Let me know if you ever want to chat—even just a friendly catching up. Good job saving the world.

Anathema smiled at the phone. She wasn’t sure what she was going to say in reply, but she liked the options.

Her thoughts turned once again to the future. Maybe she would get back together with Chana. Maybe they would reconnect as friends. Maybe she would stay with Newt, or even with both of them. She could end up marrying someone else, or she could live alone as the solitary witch of Jasmine Cottage.

Maybe she would publish that article, get a postdoc or teaching position, pick up the academic career that had been offered her. Maybe she’d live off her inheritance. Maybe she would get a job with Greenpeace, or write a novel.

She had helped save the world. She had written and defended a thesis. She had threatened supernatural beings with a bread knife. Whatever the future held, she could handle it.

The rest of her life opened before her, its pages blank, waiting for her to fill them.