June, 2018. A kid from the Deep South of the USA, Noah Hastings, is the biggest pop star in the world. One night on stage in New York City, Noah commits suicide by detonating a bomb attached to his chest, killing himself and ninety-one of his fans.
The public and the media, both online and in traditional outlets, run wild with theories on Hastings’ motivation for causing the incident - until authorities conclude it was an act of fundamentalist Islamist terrorism. This only causes the hysteria to ramp up further until no one can agree with anyone on almost anything. Finally, sanity is somewhat restored to western civilisation when the real cause of the bombing is exposed.
The book is told in epistolary style, with faux newspaper articles and blogposts detailing the narrative arc of the Noah Hastings’ bombing aftermath, from a few hours after the tragedy to five years following the event. Represented are mainstream media outlets as well as the wackiest end of the blogsphere; it is often remarkable in the book who is on the right path in terms of getting to the truth of the matter and who is wrong. One journalist, Nina Hargreaves, gets very close to the truth and suffers for it, losing her job and much else along the way. Even though reality exonerates her version of events in the end, the damage is done.
One Last Number is the first novel about the age of fake news. It explores how fractured our perceptions of the world have become, particularly in the age of social media, and how we no longer have collective narratives when large scale tragedies occur. The book looks at how these tragedies get interpreted and re-interpreted by different people with different agendas, online and in traditional media, and how the more we talk the further we seem to get from the truth.
One Last Number is a challenging book for challenging times. Please pledge to bring One Last Number into print and read the book publishers don’t think you can handle.
“A new, dark decade has begun”, by David O’Willery , New York Sun commentary section, June 13th, 2018
Last night, the twenties began.
As I got into a cab to take me to Madison Square Gardens, less than an hour after the bomb had gone off, the details were still hazy. Snippets of news reached me in episodic flashes. Each text from a colleague left me ever more eager to get downtown. The only concrete facts I had was that a bomb had gone off at Madison Square Gardens and some of those in attendance at a concert there had been killed. The number of casualties was unclear at that stage.
Arrival in front of MSG brought with it immediately the full, unfathomable tragedy of what had taken place that evening, a feeling I was wholly unprepared for. Opaque blankets of smoke still billowed forth from the building as an army of firemen ran to and fro. Another cavalry of paramedics was busy entering and exiting the arena, the ones coming in wheeling empty stretchers. The ones coming out again had those same stretchers occupied. Every stretcher leaving the scene had a sheet fully covering the bodies they carried.
At one point I saw a little girl, perhaps eleven or twelve years of age, swaddled in bandages. She was crying hysterically as medical professionals carried her from the arena. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t on a stretcher - until I reasoned that there were only enough on hand to service the deceased, so great was their number.
Speaking to other journalists gathered in front of the site brought me up to speed. It had been a Noah Hastings’ concert. A bomb had gone off early on in the show. Death toll was at least fifty. Most of the dead were under eighteen years of age. Then came the real news: Hastings himself had been killed in the blast. At least, that was what we thought was the real news at the time.
About an hour on from when I had first arrived at the smoldering MSG, word got around the assembled press core that Noah Hastings had been attached to the bomb itself and was likely to have been the one who had detonated it. This was confirmed in age-old fashion: the police wouldn’t comment on any questions regarding Hastings as the assailant. It appeared that one of the biggest pop stars in the world had just committed a suicide bombing, in the middle of Manhattan, murdering a cabal of his most devoted fans along the way.
Eventually, there was a small press conference at which the police confirmed at least this much to us. Also, that the death toll had been confirmed at ninety-two, with several victims not yet identified. That number included, of course, Noah Hastings himself. As the press conference concluded, most of the hacks went home or to the office, determined to escape from the Stygian aftermath of the incident still being swept away. I decided to stick around and see if I could interview a few survivors.
“At this moment in time, I’m choosing to believe that it didn’t happen,” said one girl who was in the balcony during the concert. She was not injured in the blast save for what has been diagnosed as a temporary case of tinnitus. “I mean, obviously it happened – I was there, I saw the explosion – but I don’t think it happened the way you guys are saying it did.”
The “you guys” reference let me know that this was not this girl of fifteen’s first interview that evening. She was wearing a “Noah Hastings for President” T-shirt. I pressed her on what she had meant by her last sentence.
“I don’t think that was really Noah up there tonight. He sounded different, less good than normal. I think that was a stunt double or something up there. No one really died, that’s what I think. It was all just staged so that Noah would look bad. The whole front of the arena was obviously stuffed with crash test dummies or something, I remember that much.”
I managed to interview a handful of other kids who had been in the Gardens when the bomb had exploded. Most of them had a similarly offbeat take to the one told to me by my initial interviewee that night.
“It was a CIA thing – they wanted Noah to go undercover in China and needed to fake his death.”
Noah Hastings is the most famous westerner in China. That includes the president of the United States. He couldn’t walk five feet anywhere in that country without being recognized by people.
“Noah has a stunt double. He was used in Monkey Trouble. Noah wanted to drop out of society, so he hired that guy to take a bomb for him.”
Monkey Trouble was the not wholly successful attempt to translate Noah Hastings’ pop stardom onto the big screen a few years ago. Its plot revolves around a lower primate pet of Noah’s escaping from his Los Angeles mansion and trying to walk across that city, rather surprisingly successfully. In the movie, Noah tries to trace the monkey’s path and bring it back into the fold while stopping here and there to sing a song or two. It is an unholy mixture of Bonzo Goes to College, Singin’ in the Rain and Falling Down that takes on whole new levels of offensiveness after the events of last night. At one point in the film, Hastings makes a joke about suicide bombers that was in bad taste at the time never mind now.
It is not a good idea to take the opinions of a group of teenagers who have just been witness to a bombing at close quarters as being reflective of society as a whole and how they will react to the events of yesterday evening. Yet if social media this morning has anything to say about it, it is precisely that the things I heard outside of Madison Square Gardens last night are being echoed amongst the wider populace. As expected, the automatic connection between a suicide bombing having taken place and Islam being involved in some way runs very deep in the American psyche. Theories in this regard have been widely disseminated online already. I thought about quoting some notable examples of this behavior. I refrained once I realized all of them were unprintable for one reason or another.
This is why I will say again that the twenties have now begun. Hastings Wednesday ended one epoch and begat another. It arrives just at the moment we had started to feel safe in the knowledge that America itself was largely to be free of the kind of terrorist activity seen in Europe over the last decade. Shattered by the act of a young man from the deep south of this country committing suicide with a bomb strapped to his chest, killing almost a hundred children in the heart of New York City. As we scramble around for answers in the coming weeks as to why this horrific event took place, some will fill in the blanks with whatever comes easiest to hand. Be that Zionist conspiracy theories, suicidal stunt doubles, or sadly if so, the hand of international Islamist inspired terrorism, let us be under no illusion that this is simply more of what we have seen before. We are entering a new age, one considerably unlike any that humanity has experienced in the recent past. For how will the newly christened Generation Hastings cope once the conspiracy theories have proven poor comfort? And if we can’t be safe from someone like Noah Hastings, whom can we be safe from? In this nascent era, which began last night, the answer is clear: no one at all.
The reason "One Last Number" is so near and dear to me is that it tackles what I think is the most important subject of our era, namely what is considered real and what is not - and by whom certain things are considered real or not as well. I think one of the reasons we live in such agitated times is that we've gone beyond disagreeing with people on the other side of the ideological fence and begun…
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