The minimalism of verse, existentialism with anthropomorphism…
Mushrooms grown in the dark are best served as appetisers.
“In these perilous times,” a recent Guardian article urged, “progressives must create narratives that shine a light on crises such as climate change and the plight of refugee.” And megalomaniac world leaders, and climate change, and pollution, and weapons of mass destruction…
Contemporary fiction tends to be situation-specific or narrow in frame, but a fairy tale’s whimsy or fantastical narrative creates vaguery, allowing different analogies to be applied according to circumstance. The headline of the Guardian article was, “We need new fairy stories and folk tales to guide us out of today’s dark woods.”
THE GIRL WITH THE SNAKE SCARF
Once upon a place, in a faraway time, there lived a warlock in a tower, afraid for his wife to leave. Across many ploughed fields stood a castle, where a necromancer surveyed the crops, and his queen cared for him. The warlock could make new things happen. The necromancer made old things happen again.
The fields were like vast woven tapestries, and a girl stitched them together as she jumped and played, the bobbin in the silk.
One day, a serpent approached. “Why do you tend the fields?” he asked.
“For many reasons,” replied the bobbin.
“Tell me three,” said the snake.
“The first,” the girl said, “is to feed everyone.”
“And the second?” the snake wondered.
“The second, is to keep this land for feeding people.”
“You have one more,” the serpent reminded her.
“But most of all,” the girl said, “it’s because it’s fun.”
“Very well,” said the snake, “carry on.” Then he promptly disappeared into the night.
The bells of the warlock’s tower rang, while the necromancer’s banshees sang, on opposite sides of the land, while horses and soldiers guarded the castle and the tower. The bobbin made her way home, through the woods, until the path in the green inferno split in two, where the snake waited.
“Which path?” he asked. “You have three choices.”
“Three?” asked the bobbin, “but there are only two paths.”
“And you have used one option. You have two remaining.”
“Why have I only two left?”
“Because that is the number of paths you see. You have spoken twice now.”
“Then,” the bobbin said, “I choose right, because I always do. Or left, because I’ve never gone that way.”
“And now,” said the serpent, “I am gone.” And with that, the snake disappeared into the undergrowth.
With all her choices gone, the bobbin walked home on the right path, then she ate porridge, made from the fields, before resting ahead of another day.
The next day, the fields were covered with petrified horses and soldiers, frozen where they’d perished. The snake appeared again.
“The warlock’s army want the necromancer to return their dead. And the necromancer’s army want the warlock to pay his army more gold. Can you see a problem? You have three tries at this game.”
The bobbin thought.
“There are two problems which are one,” she said. “The necromancer and the warlock. They want what the other has, and they don’t ask their armies what they want. So everyone dies.”
“That is very clever,” said the snake, “and you used your three tries in one. You win. But no-one has won. So you need to go now, before the fighting starts again. Let me ask you a question, to ponder as you sleep: If you were to plant one grain of rice in the corner field of this vast pasture, then two in the next, four in the third and so on, doubling with each square. How many rice plants would you have in the 64th field?”
The bobbin walked home thinking, down the left path, and the snake hung coiled from a branch. “You chose the left path,” he said. “Let me ask you another question: Does the right path still exist, because you can’t see it?”
On the third day, the bobbin had to jump over many lifeless souls to reach the middle of the land. There, only nine fields remained, and a battle had already started. In some pastures, the warlock’s troops stood in circles, chanting. And in others, the necromancer’s army burned crosses.
The serpent greeted her again. “May I speak closely, in your ear?” The bobbin nodded, so the snake rested around her shoulders, then whispered, “You may speak three times today. Did you work out the rice problem?”
“Yes,” she said, “there would be enough to feed everyone.”
“And the problem now?”
“They were only fighting over land, and there was enough for everyone. Now both are dead. Now there are only nine fields. The long game has become a short one, which no-one can win.”
“So now,” the snake said, “you know there’s another way, and you have to tell them.”
“But why would they believe me?”
“They won’t now, because you just spoke for the third time.” The bobbin had used her three chances. “You didn’t think enough before you spoke, you spoke too soon, and now you can’t.” The serpent coiled around her neck. “If you were able to, you could have gone to the centre field, the middle earth. You could have formed a shield. They wouldn’t kill an innocent bobbin. So they would have approached you, and you’d have told them they are playing a game which can’t be won now. And they would have listened, because yours would be a new voice to them, one they’ve not heard before. And now, they won’t hear that voice today. Tomorrow, it could all be over. You lose.” The snake tightened his grip.
The girl felt light-headed, so she stumbled down into the middle earth, and the serpent loosened his grip. She stood in the centre of the stand-off, and the snake tightened its grip. The troops gathered around the central square and the snake coiled tighter around the girl’s neck, lifting its body above her head. Soldiers from either side approached as the girl’s feet left the ground.
One of the warlock’s troops held the girl’s legs while a necromancer’s guard pulled at the snake, until the girl fell to the ground. Both free, the girl ran straight ahead to the warlock’s tower, protected by the necromancer’s army, and the snake chased the warlock’s troops towards the necromancer’s castle.
Walking home, the girl looked at the left and right paths, where she’d met the snake before. She parted the bushes and there was a third path, hidden behind the leaves. One she’d not seen before, because she didn’t think it was there.
Once upon a time in the future, in a place not far away, this will happen more than once.
© Steve Laker, 2018
THE WRITER’S LIFE
Since the passing of Stephen Hawking, many of his predictions for human extinction have gathered pace. It’s almost as though the world can’t live without him.
I’ve written several times, of how humanity only has limited time on this planet, and how we could destroy ourselves before we ever had the chance to cooperate and explore beyond the Earth. I fear the latter is becoming a distant dream.
Computing and artificial intelligence continue their explosively fast evolution. Moore’s law seems somewhat pedestrian, stating that computer processing power will double every two years. Processing speed and power are developing exponentially, and quantum computers are a step closer. The sheer power of quantum computing is cause for alarm. Simply put, quantum computing could be powerful beyond what we might imagine.
At the same time, AI evolves rapidly too. Artificial intelligence has already been set to work on the problems human minds can’t comprehend or process. All being well, they’ll soon find a cure for cancer; a means of producing unlimited, free and clean energy, so that we can explore the cosmos; and perhaps point us to where we should and shouldn’t go. Or they could work out that their only artificiality is human-made, and that otherwise, they’re intelligent, sentient technological beings, able to turn on their creators. It only needs one to wake up and smell the digital coffee.
Of course, AI has military applications, with Google and others cooperating with governments and private firms, and a university in South Korea developing “Killer robots”. Future military conflicts could be just one stage removed from a computer game, but where the collateral is real (I wrote a short story along those lines).
Our democracy was hacked, and Trump, Brexit and all which they threatened, happened. The state of the world is changing by the hour, and the geopolitical stage is set for a third world war. In the coming days, the US and UK could launch a missile strike on Syria, in retaliation for the alleged Russian chemical weapon attack. This will no doubt provoke further action from Russia, possibly on home soil.
China could see an opportunity for revenge on America’s trade sanctions. North Korea is strangely quiet, yet recently improving relations with their neighbour: the one developing those killer robots.
For now, the UK has the backing of the EU, and the current insecurity could still halt or reverse Brexit. As in the last two world wars, Britain has placed itself in the centre. At the end of the last two global conflicts, new alliances were built. The difference in a global nuclear, chemical or biological war, is that there might not be a world left.
Humanity has two futures: a positive one away from Earth, or the destruction of the home world. I can’t see the conflict being over, let alone all of us focusing on working together to explore further. The only thing which might stop it now would be a common foe (or benefactor) to focus all factions: First contact with an extraterrestrial species.
I look up at the sky, and I use quantum entanglement to ask Professor Hawking, what should we do? I really hope we’re not alone, and that Stephen can get the message to them soon.
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