This is a story of mine that was broadcast on the BBC World Service in 1996. Back then they had a program to which anyone could submit a short story (by mail) which, if accepted, was broadcast three times over the course of a week. At that time the World Service’s weekly English audience was 30 million. Three broadcasts of the same story reached a large number of people, perhaps as many as a million.
I mention this because I figure the broadcast of “Logging On” as well as another story of mine broadcast a year or so later, “The World,” was and probably will remain the high-water mark in terms of numbers for the audience of anything I have published or will publish, not to mention the prestige of having one’s work accepted and used by an organization like the BBC. Not that numbers mean anything in themselves. There is only one reader, and that happens to be you at the moment.
The story was read — dramatized, really — by Don Fellows, an unknown to me at the time but someone I have since discovered was an accomplished and well-known actor (you’ve probably seen him in any number of movies or in a Masterpiece Theater production), American but having spent most of his working life in Britain. He makes the story into something better than it is, as any good actor can (I’m opposed to fiction being read by professional actors for that reason; a good actor can make the telephone directory sound like Shakespeare). But I like to think there’s enough to the story to merit consideration on its own.
Now for the interesting stuff.
The story is of course fiction, a product of my imagination. But there are elements to it that are derived from real events. One of these is the account given by the American student of her trip to Poland and the Nazi death camps. That’s an account, virtually verbatim, that was based on an actual description I read by someone I knew who had made just such a trip. Its inclusion in my story resulted in a complaint to the BBC from the Polish consulate in the UK.
There were also other letters as a result of the BBC’s broadcasts of this story, each of them positive and, judging solely on the basis of the writers’ names (not a good way of judging anything, I admit) from Jewish listeners.
It’s a long time since this story was aired (I got up at, I think, 4:00 a.m. to tape-record the first broadcast [via shortwave radio] — 9:00 a.m. GMT). It’s not the same story I would write now, human personality being, like the river of the Greek proverb, not being something you can step into twice without its having become something different from what it was. But the story is still recognizably my own, and it seems to have largely survived the passage of time.
The version of the Internet portrayed in the story now seems, to say the least, quaint. The Net may have been more advanced at the time this story was broadcast than when the story itself was written, but only by a few years. No texting, no smart phones, no email as we know it today. Finding a weather report for Tasmania available online directly from the other side of the world seemed miracle enough. Messaging with a stranger in Berlin while sitting in your bedroom in Brooklyn seemed like the stuff of science fiction. What hasn’t changed is human nature, and if a work of fiction succeeds it’s because it’s captured some aspect of that alternately admirable or discouraging constant.