Worlds apart, connected by words

FICTION

Some time ago, someone started writing a story, and not long after, they stopped. It made its way to The Unfinished Literary Agency, where some writers got together to tell the story. And writers create worlds…

Return to Innocence

THE BEST LAID PLANS

The reason no other animals evolved like humans, is they watched what we did. Then instead of copying us, they concentrated on the important things, like their basic needs and expanding their minds, to eventually speak telepathically, all the while unbeknown to us. It was quite brilliant in its subtlety.

The animal people live alongside a different race: sentient, non-organic, technological beings. And the robots are correct, that they came from the stars, as did we all, and that theirs was a slow evolution with a sudden growth spurt.

There’s a human there, finding her way around on a planet where her ancestors once lived. She’s trying to find something for her son, back on their own home world. It’s a plot device, which allows people to speak in fiction about that which they can’t in real life. It’s what The Unfinished Literary Agency was set up for, way back in her family’s history, and she thinks it will help her son. He’s lost, as she once was, unsure of how worlds revolve outside of physics. But it’s quantum physics which connects us all.

Her son once wrote a plan, presumably one of many, as this was ‘Plan 96’. At the time, he’d said it was a story he was working on, but he wasn’t sure where it was going or how it would end. So he left it behind when the humans left Earth. Now the boy is grown up and lost on the home world, wondering what happened to it.

On Earth 3.0 for the most part, industry is confined to the cloud cities, while the planet itself has been left to nature. In 2142, The Shard is a glacial Christmas tree, abandoned by humans a century before and now a towering forest, as nature quickly moved in.

As Eve walked over London Bridge, the locals – known for their tameness – were keen to greet her arrival. Beavers looked from their dams on the Thames, and a group of crows congregated on the handrail. As a collective noun, they were more a horde than a murder. β€œHello, human,” one of them said.

β€œHello,” Eve replied.

β€œWhat’s your name?” The crow asked.

β€œEve.”

β€œOh no, not again,” the crow said. Then the horde departed, without any enquiry of her business there.

In Threadneedle Street, the old lady slept under a blanket of ivy, as the Bank of England sat on vaults of human gold. The Old Bailey was tightly wrapped in green vines, where various birds conducted industry, and squirrels and monkeys picked fruit. The British Museum somehow looked as it always should, the building itself now preserved as a record of humanity and maintained by wildlife. The British Library too, where all of mankind’s writing is archived, everything with an International Standard Book Number (ISBN). Goswell Road is still long, but now a wide, wooded path to Islington, and Hotblack Deisato’s old office.

A winding wooden staircase took Eve up to The Unfinished Literary Agency, a small, dark room on the top floor, with a crudely-cut window, about the size of a letterbox, at waist height on the far wall.

Inside was surprisingly clean for an office vacated a century before. Eve wondered who’d maintained it, or perhaps who’d remained after the human exodus. She sat at the desk and tried the lamp. It worked.

The walls were full of shelves, with manuscripts stacked a foot high. More were piled on the floor, and in the tray on the desk. There were hundreds of unwritten books, all untold human stories.

Eve looked in the drawers of the desk: Pens, notepads and other stationery, some candles and a tobacco tin. Then she found a name plate, the Toblerone sort that sits on a desk. In Helvetica black upper case, the name proudly proclaimed itself:

PROF. J.C. HESTER

Eve picked up a bound manuscript from the tray and began to flick through it. Someone had gone to the trouble of drawing a flick book animation in the bottom corner, a simple space rocket taking off in a cloud of smoke, with a person’s face looking from the only porthole. After this five second stick cartoon, the manuscript was entitled ‘So long, and thanks for all the humans, by MC Katze’. It was the story of a man and his cat, in which the cat takes her human to another planet, so that he can see the utopia awaiting mankind in the land promised to them. The twist in the tale is, the cat was an agent of Erwin SchrΓΆdinger, who told the human she was operating the spacecraft from inside a box on the flight deck, when she was actually flying it by remote control, and not in the box at all.

Eve heard a noise she wasn’t expecting, which worried her more than it would if it was expected. Her ostiumtractophobia (specifically, a fear of door knobs) was rooted in childhood, when someone (or something) outside had tried the handle of her locked bedroom door. The sound of keys in the door – perhaps ones she’d lost earlier – would be more paralysing still, if it were her door the keys were in.

The already-unlocked door of the office slowly swung open, and a character from one of the Earth 3.0 documentaries she’d watched on the home world walked in.

Looking very much professorial, in a tweed three-piece, topped with a flat cap and a monocle, a chimpanzee walked upright into the room. β€œGreetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. β€œIt’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. β€œWell, it’s not a fish,” he continued, β€œbut that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

β€œErm, yes,” Eve replied, β€œI’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

β€œWell,” said the chimp, then paused. β€œSorry,” he said, β€œI’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

β€œJules.” Eve shook his hand. β€œI’m Eve.”

β€œYes,” Jules said, β€œshort for Julio, see, Jules I mean? Except it’s not, it’s still got five letters. It’s just quicker to say, with only the one syllable. Here’s a funny thing…” Jules lowered himself onto a pile of manuscripts.

β€œWould you like your chair?”

β€œOh no, that’s not my chair. That was here when I arrived, so I’m sort of squatting here now. Besides, sometimes it feels more natural like this. Instinct I suppose.”

β€œSo,” Eve sat back, β€œthis funny thing?”

β€œOh yes. Just one of many anecdotes left over by the humans. You’ll be aware of Sir Tim Berners-Lee, I assume?”

β€œYes, he invented the world wide web.”

β€œClever chap, yes. But here’s the funny thing. The words, world wide and web, are all one syllable. But abbreviated, it’s double-you, double-you, double-you. That’s nine syllables, which is a lot. But I read somewhere that someone suggested he called his invention ‘The Internet Machine’. Well, abbreviated, that would be TIM. And apparently, he was such a modest man, that not only did he give it away for free, he didn’t seek fame or fortune, he just did it for the greater good. It may be apocryphal, but we like it. It’s a rare example of man’s humility, and the web was altruism which could have saved many species. But it all went a bit King Kong didn’t it?”

β€œIt did,” Eve paused. β€œBut you were saying about the Babel fish?”

β€œOh yes, I was, wasn’t I? Well, the name just stuck, in a tributary way. You know, not like the geographical river ones, but an historical – and it is an an, with a silent aitch – tribute. But now it’s the universal translation system for the world population.”

β€œBut how can I hear you?”

β€œOh, I see, yes. Well, it’s not an implant or anything now, no. No, without getting too technical (not my area), it’s carried in the wind, in radio waves, which are only audible to the subconscious. The upshot is, everyone speaks the same language. And really, that was mankind’s biggest mistake.”

β€œOne of them.”

β€œYes, there were a few. But there’d been researchers and ethics committees, scientific essays and peer-reviewed papers, and they all agreed that giving universal translation to the public would generally be a bad idea. Then Google just did it anyway.”

β€œAnd others followed.”

β€œMany. Then everyone.”

β€œSo,” Eve wondered, β€œthe professorship?”

β€œOh that. The prof is in English, language, yes. Before that, my doctorate was in human psychology. I think the way the world changed was what guided me more into the languages, you know, in case they died out, with everyone using the Babel fish and all, and technology always hurrying them along. And the thing about being a professor is, I teach teachers how to teach teachers to teach, which I rather like. Took a jolly lot of work though.

β€œBut next, I want to do something different. I’m studying history, so I can teach the teachers about how it all went wrong. Because although the humans are gone, their past can teach us a lot.

β€œI’m not a religious man, but whenever someone said everyone shouldn’t speak the same language, they might have been right. It’s a good thing if you’re a species evolved enough to debate, but take away certain barriers and an immature race will abuse it, with some using it for their own gain and not for the greater good. Someone was always going to package it up and sell it as a religion, or make it some kind of privilege, when it was around all the time. Us animals – as you used to call us – us people, had been communicating for many thousands of years before humans came along. Then the humans found out and wanted it for themselves.

β€œIt’s a tragic story but it’s a lesson from history which I’d like to tell others about, and of how that led to the evolution of the planet we see around us now. So it was all for the good really. I only hope humanity took that lesson away with them.”

β€œIt might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

β€œHow are things over there?” the professor wondered.

β€œLonely.”

β€œThat’s the thing with humans. When we look at your monuments, buildings, and many follies, you are capable of such beautiful dreams. But within those are some terrible nightmares.”

β€œI know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

β€œWho’s she?”

β€œHe. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

β€œA dreamer then? And that’s the sad thing. Humans who dream are ridiculed if they speak of their visions. They become suppressed. But allowed to explore and discover, those people can transcend accepted human wisdom, in things like politics, which was a human invention anyway.

β€œAnarchy is not chaos, when people are trusted to be individually empowered. An evolved race will sort it all out. But the ones who rise above it all are feared by those who govern and rule, and that leads to conflict. Conflict gets no-one anywhere, but debate can increase mutual understanding to find peaceful solutions. Too many humans were greedy, not just financially but morally.

β€œI studied human politics for a while, and I had to conclude, it was quite a waste of time, for the humans. All it did was hold them back. It was a system which kept radical thinkers beyond its borders of conditioning. And the radical thinkers were only just getting a voice when everyone else did, so it got deafening.

β€œIf you ask me, I’d say most humans are essentially left-wing by nature, only becoming conditioned otherwise. Wherever you lie (or tell the truth) on the political spectrum, beyond that, you’re all human. Yet the one thing you all have in common is the very thing which drives you apart. Individuality is to be encouraged, but you can’t think as one. You’re generally a socially aware species. It’s just a shame there were so many who didn’t qualify by that credential.”

β€œYou have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

β€œSometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

β€œDo you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

β€œI think there’s one thing it will never be able to do, because it shouldn’t, and it ought to remain impossible. That thing, would be the interpretation of messages, of how they’re perceived by the receiver, which of course is completely subjective on the part of the individual, regardless of the intention of the messenger. Words only have meaning for some people if a specific person says them. The Babel fish is a translation device, not an interpreter. Too many humans, in their cut-off personal worlds, their microcosm universes, their ignorance and laziness, quite literally took too many things far too literally. And a breakdown in communication is conflict by any other name.

β€œBut even more fundamental, was humans’ sense of entitlement. A progressive race, but for their own gains. I know there are millions of exceptions, and it’s equally tragic that their voices were silenced. But back in human politics, that would be a victory for the right. More of you need to find your left wings, outside of your politics. You need to metaphorically fly free, or be allowed to, without those wings being clipped.

β€œThere’s a passage I’ve memorised, from one of your films. ‘I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up does rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone’. It was a film one of the crows showed me. Her ten-times-great grandfather had a cameo in that film. He’s uncredited though.”

β€œThat was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

β€œYes, very good too. Now there was a human who used an unfair situation which had been forced upon him, to do good for others, to blow a whistle and bring down a dictatorship. He quietly went about a longer plan, rarely drawing attention, then escaped the tyranny. I suppose we miss those kinds of people, the free in spirit. We are all spirits when we sleep, after all, with the means for the enquiring mind to explore the universe.”

β€œSome more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. β€œWhen all we needed to do was keep talking.”

β€œQuite ironic really, isn’t it?”

β€œLooked at like this, yes.”

β€œBut you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

β€œIt’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

β€œWell, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

β€œHe was in London Zoo?”

β€œChester actually. We moved down to London when the zoos closed. All my family as far as I can trace, were captive bred, as they used to be called. But my great, great grandfather was an immigrant from New York, and he’s the first I can find with the family name Hester.”

β€œEr, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. β€œWell, Boris – that’s my great, great grandfather – was rescued by a writer called Hester Mundis. She found him in a pet shop when he was young. She bought him, not as a pet, but to liberate him, and he lived with her and her eight-year-old son, in their apartment in Manhattan. I know Hester was expecting another child, so she found Boris a home with other chimps in Chester, and I gather he was on TV a few times. She wrote about him too, so he was immortalised in books, which must be a nice thing to have happen to yourself.

β€œSo we took her name, because she became mum to my orphaned or kidnapped great, great grandfather. If it wasn’t for her, I might not be here. I may never have been.”

β€œAnd you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

β€œI worked a lot of other things out there. You do, when you have the time and your basic needs are taken care of.”

β€œYou didn’t feel imprisoned?”

β€œI’d never known anything else. I was never in the wild. Perhaps one day I’ll visit my own home country, but I learned a lot when humans were in charge. There are lots of arguments for and against on both sides. Those are less relevant now, but future historians will have plenty to write about. For now, I have plenty to write of here.”

β€œWhy’s that?”

β€œLet’s rewind a little. A long time ago, a human said that given an infinite supply of typewriters, an infinite number of monkeys would reproduce the Complete Works of Shakespeare. And it stands to reason that, given those resources, they would. But we wondered, why? What would be the point?”

β€œIt was a human thing?”

β€œIt was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

β€œWhich was?”

β€œThe monkeys. No offence to those with tails, but what it really needed was apes. You don’t even need an infinite number of them.

β€œSo after we’d finished reproducing Shakespeare’s works, we got started on the next plan. Then we quickly realised we might need more writers. Not an infinite supply, but far more than we have. Personally, I don’t think it’s possible.”

β€œWhat’s not?”

β€œPlan 96 is to discover and write the answer to the ultimate question, that of life, the universe and everything. But infinite apes aside, I don’t think humans are looking in the right place.”

β€œSo where do we look?”

β€œLook into your heart, and don’t be afraid of yourself, because people might like that person. This was only your temporary home. You were squatters here before your nomadic race continued their journey, to find themselves. For now, you are gone from here, and you need to return to yourself. But there’s a record of how it all started, and how things panned out is recorded in our history. This is where it began and you are always welcome back, wherever you are.

β€œBut keep this. This is yours. You made this.”

Β© Louis Laker and Steve Laker, 2017.

This story will be included in The Unfinished Literary Agency (ISBN: 978-1979983556), available in January.

If we can break it…

CHRONICLES

village_of_the_damned

A still from Village of the Damned

This time of this year is now the first of what I’m sure will be an annual three-day period of reflection. Today is the limbo day. Yesterday, David Bowie was born and tomorrow, the Starman died. His life was art, and even his death was a performance.

Bowie’s music was autobiographical, just like my stories. The easiest way to record my life is as a series of fictional works, just as Bowie did with his music. There is a part of me or my experience in every story I write, and one of my planned books is a fictionalisation of my autobiography. I went to quite some lengths to have stories to tell, and stories only happen to those who are able to tell them.

Those who think and write are the ones who are more likely to be remembered, not necessarily immediately following their departure but many years after they died, they might be discovered. Right now, those people can start to change things. The problem we have, is that people don’t listen, or don’t have the patience. So us thinkers and writers need to be interesting, to counter the typical response to anything educated: β€œBoring!” (For another commentator’s opinion on this phenomenon, see this article by David Hopkins: How a TV Sitcom Triggered the Downfall of Western Civilization).

Social media shares some blame for this dumbing down, especially Facebook. I sometimes tire of a newsfeed populated by β€œX will get pregnant in 2017” and other such completely unscientific bullshit. What is wrong with these people? They are at best naΓ―ve. These people may not work, but do they not have anything more to do in their lives? Like learn? I only use Facebook to keep in touch with friends and sometimes see something interesting posted by one of the more educated ones. Generally, I prefer Twitter.

But then, the power of humanity sometimes gives me reason to be grateful:

Not long ago, there was a very unpleasant trend on Facebook, where people were posting pictures of individuals whose physical appearance didn’t fit some sort of “ideal” and who were in many ways different. So those people were ridiculed and exploited by a disgusting “Tag a friend” craze.

I’m a bit of an activist sometimes and this phenomenon really repulsed me. So I joined groups, lobbied and generally spoke out in defence of the innocent victims of this practice in various fora. A combined effort appears to have worked. Facebook haven’t banned the practice because it doesn’t infringe their editorial guidelines, which are basically free speech governed by algorithms (For the official human rights definition of free speech and my own editorial guidelines, see the Amnesty link on this blog).

It just goes to show that if you believe strongly about something and if you join forces with others, you can make a change.

As I said in my most recent story, Cardboard Sky, we are at a stage in our evolution where we can either guarantee our future as a race, or become history. There needs to be a change of global rhetoric and a focus on a new agenda. It’s a new world order which could be 200-250 years away but if there is to be a future, we need to start the conversation now.

There’s another world, another possibility and it’s within our reach: As more and more white collar jobs are automated to computers and AI, just as blue collar jobs were to machines and robots, there will come a point where paying benefits claimants JSA is a pointless exercise because they will be looking for jobs which don’t exist any more. As such, that part of the benefits system becomes a waste of money and resources. The computerisation and replacement of jobs with AI will impact jobs up to a certain level and even those in relatively well-paid β€œmiddle class” jobs, such as some lawyers, may find themselves made redundant by machines. This is where the idea of a Universal Income comes in: A sum of money paid to everyone, so that they can live a sustainable (if not luxurious) life. This then frees them to re-train for the remaining professions, or to develop themselves into something: Perhaps a writer. There will be more minds available which are free to think and then the conversation continues. Canada, Finland and the Netherlands are at various stages of discussions on a universal, or basic, income for all.

The two biggest political stories last year were Brexit and Trump’s presidential election victory. Both were the results of a disillusioned electorate, frustrated by what they knew but not knowing what they wanted. The far right used this unease to gain traction and the left were found wanting. It was a perfect storm. Both campaigns were based on lies but false journalism and people not checking facts were equally to blame. I have lost count of the times I’ve seen a friend post something on Facebook, only to have to tell them it’s not true. A recent example was this one:

(Questionable, unverified claim begins).

PIN NUMBER REVERSAL

If you should ever be forced by a robber to withdraw money from an ATM machine, you can notify the police by entering your PIN # in reverse.

For example if your pin number is 1234 then you would put in 4321.

The ATM recognizes that your pin number is backwards from the ATM card you placed in the machine

The machine will still give you the money you requested, but unknown to the robber, the police will be immediately dispatched to help you.

This information was recently broadcast on CTV and it states that it is seldom used because people don’t know it exists.

I checked with my Bank of Nova Scotia to see if this was correct and staff said yes this information is correct.

Please pass this along to everyone possible.

(Questionable, unverified claim ends).

Really? Great if it’s true but improbable. As I’m not so gullible as the person who’d posted, I checked the facts; I did some research (It’s false, as confirmed by Snopes). The original poster hadn’t, and what that meant was quite simply, a lie was spread. Nothing major in this instance but this is partly how Brexit and Trump happened, because the uneducated allowed it. It just goes to show how important it is to research and verify facts before publishing something in a public forum.

In one respect, the bottom line to all of this is that if people in general just fucking thought a bit more, the world wouldn’t be in such a mess. I lost some friends in the run-up to the UK referendum vote, simply because I could no longer tolerate their ignorant and closed minds. A typical comment would be, β€œMy granddad fought in the war.” Yes, against exactly the kind of fascism you now spread. But as soon as I started to explain this in a more diplomatic way, I was branded β€œboring!”

β€œI always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.” David Bowie.

He was my hero, my influence and my guardian angel. He was the one who told me it was okay to be expressive, even if others might not approve. He taught me that it’s okay to be myself. Everyone mourns their idols but Bowie was more than that, for me and millions of others: He was a way of life. β€œAt the centre of it all.” At the centre of many lives and mine. Blackstar: A black hole.

It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, future science and contemporary fiction that I could resurrect my mentor. I have a signed copy of his Diamond Dogs album. There will be microscopic fragments of his DNA behind the glass of the frame.

It’s okay to be expressive, for expression is freedom, the very ethos of this blog. Just check the facts. Question, read, learn, and write. We can all be writers and make a difference but we have to ensure that what we add to the conversation is valuable.

It will be a long conversation, which future generations will need to continue. But if we don’t keep talking and educating ourselves and others, there will be no future generations.

And finally, β€œWe did something extraordinary. Someone called it a revolution…Musicians from all over the world came together…With passion, dedication and fucking hard work, we can transform our lives. So stick together. No more conflicts. And play rock and roll.”