Mirror in the monkey cage

POETRY

Give an infinite number of monkeys a typewriter each, and some will eventually transcribe Shakespeare. Others will sit on those antique writing implements and eventually sell them at boot fairs, while still more might not work out what they’re for. It’s all about evolution. Two views, the judged and the judge…

Thinking anxiety2Image: Tambako the Jaguar via Flickr / Creative Commons

Chimps aren’t monkeys, they’re apes. Give one a laptop, and it might realise it has an evolutionary tool.

Dead typewriter

More Pan troglodytes / Homo sapiens collaborations in the poetry section of evolution.

 

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A Clockwork Apricot Pacemaker

FICTION

This story came about while I was having an existential moment: not a personal crisis, but thinking about humanity, and how it could very easily be at a tipping point right now. With all that’s happening on Earth, where humankind could equally destroy itself or use technology to explore and discover, I imagined a new intervention, which might give humanity a common cause.

Some clocks still tick…

Long Now Clock

THE LONG NOW CLOCK

What might humanity do, if we knew there was an impending encounter with beings from another star? Would factions put their differences on hold and unite in addressing the visitors, or might mankind destroy itself before these sentinels even made contact? Because one day, our own sun will rise, and for the first time we know of, we’re not alone.

Ever since our technology allowed us to communicate with each other over distances, we’ve been advertising our presence. If something’s coming, it’s too late to stop whatever it is. Anything seeking us could have any number of reasons, some of which we can’t comprehend. Everything can change, suddenly and for ever, and it’s inevitable that it will. This is science fiction for only so long, when that could be millennia or seconds.

Neither the optimist nor the pessimist can effect the outcome, but the optimist is the happier of the two. Meanwhile, the Long Now Clock ticked.

The Long Now Foundation built the clock of the long now, to keep time for 10,000 years. In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, “Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons re-frame the way people think.”

Danny Hillis, the designer of the clock, said, “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.” The oldest known human artefacts date from around 8000 BC, so the clock would be a measure of how mankind evolved – or indeed survived – over the next ten millennia, when it was started in 2000 AD.

The cuckoo in the long now clock had been silent for 50 years, as Anna Hoshin looked at the automaton, perpetual but frozen. Then in her ear, she got a call from Adam, her virtual assistant android:

I’m thinking you might want to take a look at this, Anna.”

What is it, little guy?” Anna flipped augmented reality lenses up from her spectacles, and looked at the toddler-sized robot stumbling across the study. “Slow down.”

Ah, yes Anna,” Adam gasped, “although I’m short of breath, I have no lungs. It’s all rather peculiar, Anna.”

So what did you want to show me?”

Oh yes, this,” Adam said, as he handed Anna a tablet device. “I’ve worked out that it’s probably a message, but not what it says yet.” The droid sat on the floor and crossed his legs.

Weird,” Anna said, looking at the screen. “Are these symbols, text?”

I’m searching all I have now,” Adam replied. “The Encyclopedia Galactica is a large repository, so bear with me here.” Adam’s oval face became animated emoticon, as his green LED eyes pulsed concentric rings, as he travelled through a tunnel, reading the encyclopedia.

Let me know when you find something?” Anna suggested. She looked out of the window at a peach sunset on a strawberry sky, as ash from a forest fire coloured the atmosphere. A pink sepia dome had been placed over the planet.

You can talk to me while I read. I can still multi-task,” Adam reassured her.

Okay,” Anna said, sitting down, “theories?”

Mere speculation at this stage,” Adam replied. “We need to assume some things.”

I normally do.”

There could be much for you to write of, Anna. You are capable of such beautiful dreams, but be careful. Because you are also capable of horrible nightmares.”

That’s pretty much what I do.”

Well, yes. But let’s make it plausible, so you don’t get carried away and scare people unnecessarily. Why do you do that, by the way?”

Well,” Anna replied, “I only try. It’s a human thing.”

Yes, I know,” Adam agreed. “Even though I’m sentient, and although my kind are recognised as a species with rights, I just don’t understand why anyone would have a desire to be scared.”

Like I said, it’s human. You are a technological being, and even though you have a soul, yours is different to mine.”

But we’re still essentially made from the same stuff, Anna. What you have as an organic body, I have too, made from the materials left over from the big bang. We’re all made of stars, Anna. I’m in touch with the universe, just like you, but through different means.”

Perhaps the difference,” Anna offered, “is that your mind is built upon that of others, with your accumulated knowledge from others’ experiences and recordings.”

But aren’t yours Anna?”

I suppose,” Anna said, “And I guess humans lack something, as there’s more of the unknown to me, unable to learn entire books in a flash, like you have. So I suppose that in itself is a fear for humans, simply not knowing.”

But why do humans like to be scared?”

Perhaps to confront our fears of unknowns, things we can’t imagine.”

Unless there’s someone to tell you?”

Exactly,” Anna nodded.

What are the greatest human fears, Anna?”

At an individual level,” Anna placed her hand on her chest, “it would be the thought of seeing someone you love dearly, brutally killed in front of you, while you were held captive audience, unable to do anything about it. At a collective level, it would be some sudden threat we’d never envisaged or planned for, which threatened us existentially as a race, and we were helpless to do anything.”

So both fears,” Adam suggested, “are rooted in a human fear of helplessness or futility?”

Yes,” Anna agreed, “where we are made to feel hopeless and pathetic.”

Humans,” Adam said. “They’re very insecure, aren’t they?”

“Fuck, yeah!” Anna agreed. “Facebook is humanity’s existential crisis for all to see.”

And mankind has been broadcasting itself for around 200 years now, since the first radio broadcast. Two ticks of the century hand on the Long Now Clock.”

Have you found anything yet?” Anna wondered.

Nothing conclusive,” Adam replied, “and I’m still searching through Encyclopedia Galactica as we speak.”

The message though,” Anna said, “is almost certainly artificial?”

Quite certain,” Adam replied.

Which,” Anna said, “implies intelligence?”

That’s a word with a very broad definition,” Adam pointed out.

Certainly when applied to the humans on this planet,” Anna concurred.

Let’s assume,” Adam suggested, “that it is a message of some sort, and that its intent is non-threatening, perhaps even altruistic.”

Lots of scenarios…” Anna began. “and what we don’t know, is what it is. So what it could be…”

Yes,” Adam interrupted, “go on, this is fun.”

Have you found something?”

Something, yes,” Adam said, “but nothing definite. So you keep guessing, and I’ll keep searching, and we’ll see how we do. Like a game.”

How can you have fun when you can’t have fear,” Anna wondered. “or does the lack of the latter increase the former?”

It’s not that I don’t know fear, Anna. It’s that I don’t seek it out like some humans do.”

Which is more logical. Okay, so let’s play a game of optimism.” She looked at the window. “It could be that they have something which would help us.”

It could also be that we have something they need.”

They might propose a trade. There are more fundamental questions though: Why would they come here in the first place? We have to make a lot of assumptions, even to guess how something so elaborate might be justified.”

To us, it may seem complex, Anna. But to a civilisation far more advanced than ours, it could be the blink of an eye, the flick of a switch, or the press of a button.”

Perhaps they’ve had to leave their own planet, and they want to share ours, Adam.”

That’s a nice thought, Anna.”

But,” Anna continued, “as Stephen Hawking said, we only have to look at ourselves to see why aliens might not be something we want to meet.”

You’re going all apocalyptic, Anna. It could be that they have something they wish to share, because they know it will help us.”

Or we might have something they want.”

Anna, this planet’s minerals are nothing compared to those which are far more plentiful in space, and probably easier to get to for an advanced race if there’s no planetary fauna to worry about.”

Maybe they don’t know we’re here,” Anna said, “and when they get here, they need us out of the way.”

I thought we were trying to be optimists?”

I’m just trying to think which make the best stories at the moment. Of course, if we’re all doomed, that’s irrelevant. Mankind and all traces we were ever here, could be gone in a heartbeat, or a tick of the clock.”

About that,” Adam sat up straight. “I’ve not found anything else out about our message or whatever it is, so maybe something will come to me. But tell me more about the clock.”

Surely you can look all that up?”

But from the human perspective. Why was it made? What does it symbolise to you, other than the time?”

It’s a lot of things, but my uncle wanted it to be a lasting monument to human ingenuity and endeavour. As he said, such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think. That’s all assuming we’re still here. My uncle didn’t say that last bit.”

Who did?” Adam wondered

Me, just now,” Anna replied.

So essentially,” Adam said, “it’s art. And that’s the one thing I think humans will always have over robots, and what I long to know the feeling of.”

The feeling of art?”

Well, yes. All art has feeling. It appeals to the human senses. Whether it’s drawing or painting for the eyes, making music or writing for the ears, human art is evocative. Do you know what the first question is that I’d ask visiting extraterrestrials?”

What’s that?”

Do you have music?”

That’s quite profound, Adam.”

Perhaps, but I’m an android. Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Adam stood and paced around. “It strikes me,” he said, standing on tip-toes to look out the window, “that any race which makes music, is in touch with its senses, and it has a soul. I mean, imagine if whatever it is out there, just wants to come here and share their culture. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

And,” Anna began, “despite our relatively primitive evolution on this planet, we are at a point in history where mankind is becoming more and more connected with the digital and technological, to the point of integration in wearables and implants.”

We are at a point,” Adam added, “where humans invented robots and want to be that invention, and where the robots wish to be human.”

So,” Anna continued, “there could be advanced species out there, which are both organic and technological.”

But still made from the same stars, Anna. And perhaps those races have survived so long, because they’ve evolved beyond conflict, realising that war only destroys things. Maybe they’ve been so long-lived as a civilisation that they’ve transcended war, or it doesn’t even occur to them, because it’s such a primitive concept.”

We can live in hope,” Anna said, looking at the window.

Possibly not for much longer. I mean, we may not have to wait much longer.”

Have you found something?”

Well, I haven’t. But in the time we’ve been talking, every conspiracy theorist in the world has been all over this. So there are some wild ones here, but there are consensual theories which are emerging. The nerdosphere is looking at languages in many different ways, to try to decode the message. But there are a lot of excited people out there, looking forward to meeting something mind-blowing headed our way soon. At the moment, they’re all as frustrated as the biblical scribes, not being able to find the terms to describe what they’re talking about.”

Well,” Anna said, “about half of the ancient alien theorists will be proved right soon. If it’s the ones who looked on the bright side, everyone wins. And whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.”

The Long Now Clock may yet see mankind transcend war, Anna.”

The clock is a symbol of optimism, Adam.”

***


Sunrise was a fresh, golden egg yolk, on a pink bacon sky, flecked with brown clouds.

Anna, there’s something I need to tell you,” Adam announced as he tip-toed in, carrying the tablet computer.

Good morning to you too, Adam. Sleep well? Silly question, I know.”

That’s the thing, Anna. I don’t sleep, yet I sat awake last night unlike I ever have.”

How do you mean?”

I think I feel frightened, Anna.”

You should have woken me if you’d had a bad dream, about sheep?”

No, Anna. It’s everyone. It’s this.” Adam showed Anna the tablet. “They’ve decoded the message. But I’m worried, Anna. Because it’s not night time, so I thought your story would end a happy one. But this message says it’s night time. Look…”

 

***

WE COME. GOODNIGHT LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. GOODBYE.

© Steve Laker, 2017

This story is taken from The Unfinished Literary Agency. Cyrus Song (my critically-acclaimed “Extraordinary juggling act”) is also available as an eBook. Frankly, there’s not much time.

Pump up the 21st Century volume

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The greatest influences on lives are personal, and the deepest impacts upon the personality can live beyond the individual persona. The category winners (and nominees) in the BBC’s recent poll to find the greatest icon of the 20th Century, were all unarguably inspirational, monumental in their personal achievements, and with the power to change our fundamental understanding of what it is to be human.

Ginger Cat Humanity

The poll was completely subjective (none deserved a back seat), but it was refreshing to see so much diversity among the finalists, although women were conspicuous by their absence (iNews attempts to explain why). I owe something to each, as all have to varying extents influenced the way my life went and continues, whether consciously or not. What a wonderful world it would be, if I could gather these people around a table…

Pablo Picasso in the arts and literature seat, takes a break from painting and puts his clothes on;

Icons Picasso

Muhammad Ali in the sports corner, exchanges gloves for cutlery;

Icons Ali

Martin Luther King Jr. wrote down what everyone wanted, so he could be spokesperson to the server;

Icons King

Ernest Shackleton got back from work just in time;

Icons Shackleton

David Bowie poured a drink from a tin can;

Icons Bowie

Nelson Mandela paid for himself, and chipped in for those who couldn’t;

Icons Mandela

and Alan Turing was just Alan at the time, but he worked out who had what:

Icon TuringAll images: BBC Icons

Each had their place at the table, a Venn diagram of human thinking sketched out on napkins. All are icons in their respective worlds, but they settled the bill together. In the end, the vote went to Turing, not for paying for dinner, but for continuing the conversation around the human condition.

In Alan Turing, we have a human who paid the ultimate price for his sexuality, in a century of intolerance; and a scientist who gave us the internet (for free), saved millions of lives, and probably ended the Second World War two years early.

No one person can define the last century, but David Bowie – the closest to my heart, for all his creativity and diversity – has been recognised as the most iconic entertainer. The personification of androgyny with many peers, he was (and is) a deity, the Starman.

Still all male though, which is telling, that the 20th Century was only the beginning of sexual equality and recognition. If our species survives to repeat this poll in another century, then we might be considering people like Michelle Obama, or Greta Thunberg, Alice Roberts or Hannah Fry; or possibly our own children, their sisters and brothers. Maybe the saviours of our race haven’t even been born yet. The 21st Century is only just old enough to drink, after all.

What the Icons programme also did, was to serve as a damning indictment of Tory Britain, a nation with a history of minority oppression, now a regressive fascist regime, brought about by stealth and manipulation.

Maybe this will inspire a young mind, troubled by the state we find ourselves in, to step up and fight for our one race, on one planet, sharing one massive problem. All of the 20th Century’s icons live on, their influence forever changing our world. They’ll never see what a difference they ultimately made, but we owe it to them to continue their legacies.

Collectively and individually, the 20th Century’s icons (and the unsung supporting cast of each) have changed us, the way we think, and the way we behave. But the last century also saw an explosion in the technological evolution of our species, with the potential to create divisions so great that they tear us apart as a race.

I’m part of a rare group, born in the first half on 1970. Because when we turn 50 in 2020, we’ll enter our seventh decade: Conceived in the 60s, born in the 70s, grew up in the 80s, lived the 90s, not dead yet. I have children, and in those young people, I can see a rebellion and a reclamation, as they realise they could be the last generation. We can’t allow that.

We rarely have a chance to reflect on our past, when so much focus is on the future. Turing’s invention allows us to explore the past and plan the future, daily. It gives us human social democracy, to co-operate and to collectively make a difference.

Alan Turing could well be the (subjective) greatest human of all time, when he lives on in so many devices which can give us access to all of human knowledge, and each with the potential to influence change. Of all the (male) finalists, Turing is perhaps representative of the greatest inclusivity. It’s how we keep talking, where all genders and species find a common voice (the Cyrus Song).

Brothers and sisters, pump up the volume. The 21st Century has a greater collective voice, and the means to shout louder, because the internet helps us work together. Sons and daughters, us pan-generationals need you to shout for us and at us, so we don’t lose track (Thanks).

Cat asleep at desk

My latest anthology – The Unfinished Literary Agency – is available now.

For the sake of times gone by

THE WRITER’S LIFE

At a time of year when I see friends on Facebook posting their year in review and wishing a happy new year to all, I wanted to do the same, but I can’t. Even though I’m a writer with a public access blog, I find the exposure of Facebook too much, and besides, there are still people there who judge me on past deeds for which I’ve made amends. In any case, this is too long for the average attention span on Facebook. Nevertheless, I’m anxious.

NHS anxiety

I didn’t know where to start with this. With all I’m going through (dad unwell, my personal independence payment taken away, depression, anxiety…) it’s hard to know where it begins and ends. And that’s what’s been putting me off of writing lately. But even as I write this, I’m reminded that writing is my only coping mechanism for my mental health when I’m on my own. Rather than start from the very beginning, this is the middle of an episode.

Clockwise.jpg

I’m typing from notes I scribbled longhand in a pocket notebook my kids bought me, which compliments the time machine I wear on my wrist. But I was in danger of running out of space in that inner heart, so I’m transcribing my pencil (naturally, the Staedtler Norris 122).

I see my friends posting those year-end sentiments, and I envy them. They’re able to say what I can’t, for fear of judgement. What I have and they don’t, is a self-loathing for all the harm I did when I was drunk (five years ago now). I’ve rebuilt the bridges I burned, but others can’t find it in themselves to do that. I know I’m better off without that toxicity in my life, but it hurts to lose old friends who simply aren’t prepared to talk and learn. As the same species on this lone planet which we all share as a home (and which we’ve broken) humanity itself could fail by its own devices, unless we keep talking.

So to those still reading, to anyone who found their way over from Facebook, and my blog followers, thanks. Thanks for being you, and for being there, even if you didn’t know that’s where you were. You don’t see me when I wobble, but you’re there without knowing it before I fall down. You don’t grab your hands out for me, but my mind latches onto you. I wouldn’t expect you to know what I’m going through, nor my daily life, because we never talk, and because humans don’t do that any more. Writing is my way of talking, and I know you’re there, or you wouldn’t be reading this.

At the end of any day, week, or cliché, love and music make the world go round. There was a time when I though physics did that, but now I realise it’s biology. Because there’s no substitute for a hug with a fellow human, nor any of our cousins, the animals who were here first. While I may be alone, I still have this connection with the rest of the world.

Monkey Black heart Friends

I’m an introvert who finds conversation difficult with anyone besides friends. Even now as I bear my soul and write this, I don’t want to talk about it. When I publish, a part of me will want to take it down again, lest it attract offers of help.

When someone with depression, anxiety, or any other mental health issue tells you they’re having a hard time, and trusts you enough to tell you, they aren’t doing it because they want you to fix them. They’re telling you because they believe you’re important enough to them to know why they’re not feeling one hundred percent. Respect them for doing that, because they clearly respect you.

Happy New Year, peace and goodwill to all humanity and everyone else whose planet we’re squatters on. Personally, 2019 can’t be as bad as the annus horribilis just gone, much of which was consumed by my battle with the UK government’s social cleansing apparatus. Hopefully I’ll win my appeal tribunal, regain my independence and get my life back. In the UK and around the world, all we need to do is keep talking, even if it’s not in the conventional manner.

Happy New Year Modern Toss

Never under-estimate your importance as a human to another conscious entity, no matter how selfish we are as a species. For as long as I have you readers, I’ll keep writing, lest old acquaintance be forgot.

…POSTSCRIPT…

After posting that, two of my friends – old grammar school friends in fact – got in touch, via Facebook funnily enough (via my author page)…

Whatever you’re doing tonight, I hope you enjoy it. 2018, like many years before it, has managed to suck and blow concurrently. In another rotation, we can review 2019 …

… but only briefly.

I was talking to my dog, Pigsy, about you earlier and he said that both of us need to follow Dog’s law. They make a whole lot more sense than the anagram equivalent.

Pigsy went for a walk this morning. I know he enjoyed it but it’s gone now. He’s not wasting time reflecting on whether it was better or worse than any other walk he’s had. Equally, he’s completely forgotten that he ran at the front door so hard & grabbed the mail that the poor fucking Postie had to change his shorts. No, he’s no recollection of the impact with the door, my shouting or the Postie’s pants.

I asked him about tomorrow. He didn’t know what a tomorrow was. I said it was the thing that comes after now. He looked at me with that tilted head that Jack Russell’s have perfected and said “the bit after now, is now … it’s always now, you prick. You still believe you’re the dominant species, right?”

He’s always been a smart arse has my Pigsy but he had a point.

Past events make good stories, but they’re not worth ruminating over. They’ve been. They’ve happened. They’re gone. Unless you’re at the centre of a black hole I suppose, but then everything is happening at once and it all gets horribly non-linear.

Tomorrow. Well, it’s a new year – or it’s a Tuesday. It’s up to us. But, it’s tomorrow and it’s not ‘now’ yet.

Pigsy knows he’ll be going for a walk tomorrow. I’m sure he does; but he’s not arsed in the slightest about it right now. Right ‘now’, he’s stretched across my bed and made it pretty much impossible for me to lie down comfortably. I can’t move him though – he’s making the very best of now you see.

I reckon we should give that a go.

Don’t forget the past & don’t abandon planning your future … but let’s not lose sight of what’s happening now. We’ll miss something new because we were troubling over something old.

I’m not sending this privately in Messenger because I’m happy to wish you a happy new year.

[…]

You are where you are because of how you were wired from before you exited the womb. What happens in the future is already decided; not by god or any higher power but by synaptic connections that started their mechanics nigh on half a century ago. Luckily (or currently), there are too many variables to track to predict where we will be next year – so we can still pretend it was a choice.

Even shorter version – I truly hope your hard wired program has an exit for the subroutine that you call to beat the shit out of yourself. It’s time to leave that behind.

The Earth spins, and travels around the sun. The Milky Way galaxy spins, so that in a day, we each travel around 50m km, every day. So we’re in a different place now, and we’ll be in another in just a moment. Like when the second one came in:

Didn’t want to reply to blog post publicly but hope things pick up for you soon but the main thing I wanted to say was whatever else you do (or don’t do) don’t stop writing… Put simply, writing got you through some awful times before (at least that’s how it looked for the outside). You not wanting to write now should be seen as your ‘inner demons’ trying to make a bad situation worse for you. They are opportunistic like that and worse still no matter how clever you are they are equally clever and you can’t hide anything from them! So grab a pad and your tried, tested & trusted Staedtler Norris 122 and spew it all out onto paper, you don’t have to let anyone else see it as, much of it you won’t want to share with others and that doesn’t matter because committing things to paper seems to be a cathartic act for you.

Names withheld, because at least one is as publicity-shy as me, but I know where they live.

Monkey Black heart Thankyou my friends

To finish off, my next door neighbour did my laundry today, as my washing machine broke down and I can’t afford a new one. He also bought me a box of chocolates. It’s that connection again, almost as though humans are starting to develop telepathy, just as the animals have been communicating for millions of years. And as I’ve noted in the past, open a box of biscuits, take a dog for a walk, and he’s pretty much nailed the day (in Cyrus Song). But there was more: Someone bought a book, another bought me a coffee.

It’s not even next year yet, but things just got better already. I didn’t brick it and take the post down. In fact, I posted it on my Facebook personal timeline. I’m always keen to make new friends there as well as here, and new followers on my author page, where posts besides these blog entries are more suited to a shorter attention span.

Thanks again for getting all this way. You don’t have to meet someone in person to be a kindred spirit. All of this keeps me going and makes it all worthwhile. It’s time to move on, water under the rebuilt bridges, whether travelled or not. Happy New Year, for the sake of old times and new.

Almost fifty of your Earth years

SCIENCE FICTION

There is no such thing as an indigenous Englishman, and Great Britain isn’t a country (a sovereign state that’s a member of the UN in its own right). As the UK and its politics stand, I despise the history of the former, and I’m ashamed by the latter.

As humankind writes its final chapters here on Earth, I wonder how quickly nature will simply erase us. And I speculate in fiction, where indigenous humans on this planet descend from Pangea, and whites are descended from ancient alien invaders.

It’s just a case of history repeating.

A story can begin with one writer, and end up in the hands of another. It’s all down to a plot device, which can be as simple as the means to write…

Hitchhikers_Header3

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.

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’, and all in longhand, using an old silver and black pen. 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.

Hello, human,” one of them said.

“Hello,” Eve replied.

“What’s your name?” The crow asked.

“Eve.”

“Oh 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 Desiato’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 Schrödinger, 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.

“Greetings,” he said, not seeming at all surprised to find Eve in his office. She must have looked puzzled. “It’s the Babel fish,” the chimp said. “Well, it’s not a fish,” he continued, “but that’s what started it. I assume that’s what you’re wondering, how you can hear me?”

“Erm, yes,” Eve replied, “I’ve heard of the Babel fish…”

“Well,” said the chimp, then paused. “Sorry,” he said, “I’m Jules.” He offered a hand.

“Jules.” Eve shook his hand. “I’m Eve.”

“Yes,” Jules said, “short 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.

“Would you like your chair?”

“Oh 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.”

“So,” Eve sat back, “this funny thing?”

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

“Yes, he invented the world wide web.”

“Clever 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?”

“It did,” Eve paused. “But you were saying about the Babel fish?”

“Oh 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.”

“But how can I hear you?”

“Oh, 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.”

“One of them.”

“Yes, 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.”

“And others followed.”

“Many. Then everyone.”

“So,” Eve wondered, “the professorship?”

“Oh 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.

“But 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.

“I’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.

“It’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.”

“It might be too early to tell,” Eve said.

“How are things over there?” the professor wondered.

“Lonely.”

“That’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.”

“I know, Carl Sagan said something similar.”

“Who’s she?”

“He. He was a scientist, a thinker, and an inspiration.”

“A 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.

“Anarchy 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.

“I 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.

“If 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.”

“You have a deep understanding of the human condition,” Eve said, looking around the room.

“Sometimes it helps not to be one to know one.”

“Do you have a theory, on why the Babel fish was the catalyst?”

“I 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.

“But 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.

“There’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.”

“That was The Shawshank Redemption, a prison film.”

“Yes, 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.”

“Some more than others,” Eve added, looking out of the window. “When all we needed to do was keep talking.”

“Quite ironic really, isn’t it?”

“Looked at like this, yes.”

“But you’re looking at something no-one’s seen for some time. For you it’s nostalgia.”

“It’s a feeling of being home. And you speak of humans quite sentimentally.”

“Well, I felt I got to know a few, through my grandfather’s stories from the zoo.”

“He was in London Zoo?”

“Chester 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.”

“Er, how?” Eve turned to Julio.

The professor stood up and stretched. “Well, 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.

“So 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.”

“And you didn’t mind being in captivity?”

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

“You didn’t feel imprisoned?”

“I’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.”

“Why’s that?”

“Let’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?”

“It was a human thing?”

“It was. But there was a flaw in that original plan.”

“Which was?”

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

“So 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.”

“What’s not?”

“Plan 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.”

“So where do we look?”

“Look 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, right here, where it began.

“It all started with a simple device: an old pen, and it’s a story close to my heart. But now it’s yours.”

Jules reached into his breast pocket and handed Eve a silver and black pen.

© Louis Laker and Steve Laker.

The Unfinished Literary Agency is available now.

The view beyond thunder dome

THE WRITER’S LIFE

My last few non-fiction posts have been about me, which might seem somewhat selfish. But I’m a writer with mental health issues, writing about being a writer with mental health problems. And it’s my blog. But I also write about the things which fuel my personal anguish, in a wider world, where I have less influence or control. Today I looked outside, at all the other people, and everything that will affect them personally today.

human-sufferingPixabay

Today someone will lose a parent, a child, a family member, and a friend. The person they lose will say farewell to them all, and someone will have to deliver the news. Many more will live their final day, in countries fractured by conflict, while at home, relationships will fall apart.

Today someone will find out that their partner, parent or child has cancer, or a degenerative neurological disease. At home, a father no longer remembers his children.

Today someone will visit a food bank, hoping there might be some tinned fruit to put in a child’s Christmas stocking, and a parent will go without food so that their children can eat.

Today forests will be cut down to make way for palm oil, and thousands of animals will be made homeless or killed, to feed human greed, while other humans starve. People will murder their fellow humans, in the name of an unrealistic ideology.

Today we will continue to exploit oil and gas reserves, while our planet becomes more sick from the cancer of humans. We’ll add to our pollution of a planet where every living organism is now part-plastic.

Today friends will fall out over ecological and political issues, as their worlds grow further apart and left and right become polarised. Today someone will be verbally or physically abused, because of their colour, religion, gender, sexuality, or opinion; because they’re human.

All of this will all happen again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that. The world spins on its axis. One man struggles, while another relaxes.

I’ve had much cruelty inflicted upon me, when I was homeless, and lately by the Department for Work and Pensions, who regard any quality of life as a luxury to be earned, when food and shelter ought to be a human right in a developed nation with one of the richest economies in the world. But I live under a fascist dictatorship, in a country with a colonial, imperial history. I’m ashamed of where I’m from and what I represent.

Mine is a human shame, and although I feel guilt and remorse for things I inflicted on my fellow humanity in the past, the penitent man inside makes living with everything more difficult. That’s what being human feels like.

But my suffering is nothing compared to countless others. So when I look at things like this, outside my own world and into the wider one, which I care about enough to make it personal, I see millions to whom my life would be a luxury.

I realised that however personally devastating my illness can be, made worse by stress and worry about money and my dad, my world is tiny and simple compared to many others out there. We can’t take time back, but we can think forward, where anything could be possible. We’re lucky to be down here, so let’s not waste our time.

We’re all different, but we’re born the same. We are one race, but the human species has a tendency to forget.

Inside angel

The message inside this card reads ‘Only our wings are broken.’

 

If I had a hammer and a wrench

POETRY

Monkey Black heart symmetry