Irrational Numbers

Irrational Numbers

by George Alec Effinger

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The death of a pet fish signals an ominous threat of wordwide tragedy... Delta Company “plays” out a war light years away... A running back for the Cleveland Browns gives his all to relive a night from his past…

In IRRATIONAL NUMBERS, as with much of his work, author George Alec Effinger straddles the line between allegorical fantasy


The death of a pet fish signals an ominous threat of wordwide tragedy... Delta Company “plays” out a war light years away... A running back for the Cleveland Browns gives his all to relive a night from his past…

In IRRATIONAL NUMBERS, as with much of his work, author George Alec Effinger straddles the line between allegorical fantasy and science fiction. It’s a vein Effinger mines for a deep, meaningful understanding of human nature. Challenging and disquieting in the way only the best fiction can be, this collection of eight magnificent pieces of fiction will have readers clamoring for more.

George Alec Effinger was a true master of satirical Science Fiction. Before his death in 2002, he gained the highest esteem amongst his peers for his pitch-perfect stylistic mimicry and his great insight into the human condition. Despite a life filled with chronic illness, Effinger was a prolific novelist and short story writer, earning multiple Nebula and Hugo Award nominations. 

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Irrational Numbers

By George Alec Effinger


Copyright © 1976 George Alec Effinger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-0561-9


Lydectes: On the Nature of Sport

(Office of His Democratic Dignity, The Representative of North America

To the Representative of Europe, greetings:

Dear Chuck:

Enclosed you'll find a rough translation of that ms. one of my boys brought back from some planet or other, let me see ... yeah, the star was Wolf 359, the planet was B. I don't remember authorizing that job. Was it one of our joint ventures? Anyway, my team reported finding extensive ruins of some kind of honest and true civilization, but no living things at all. Too bad. Especially if the damn computer's evaluations can be trusted. I don't know about that machine. TECT was a great idea, I guess, and it's a nice plaything for my boys, but I can do without the second-guessing. I mean, after all, if you're going to be an autocrat, you ought to be a real autocrat. TECT takes a little of the fun out of it, if you know what I mean. I suppose you do.

This ms. I'm talking about has my boys all excited. We held on to it for I don't know how long before TECT worried a clue out of it. Now my team says it has the ms. all figured out, and what I'm sending you is the official-for-now version. If anything changes in the next few weeks, I'll let you know. What's fair is fair, I always say, and you never know when I might want something you have. You can't say I don't lay them right out on the table, can you?

Regards to Cindy. Best, Tom)

At the conclusion of the comedy, the actors removed their masks and waited for their due. We applauded and shouted praises, particularly for Melos, whom we all understood to be consumed with a strange fever, a symptom of his advanced age perhaps, or a curse from him who strikes from afar. Nevertheless, it was commonly agreed that Melos had given a performance worthy of the daughters of Memory themselves, and we in the amphitheater felt privileged to be allowed to observe. After a time, though, my companion and I decided to leave our seats and walk slowly back toward the center of the city, where we maintain our modest dwelling, even though I am king of this proud land.

"King Herodes," said Dimenes, my friend, "why is it that a man like Melos performs, even though he is ravaged by illness, and stands to gain nothing but an ephemeral sort of fame?"

"That is difficult to answer, Dimenes," I said. "As we walk along these mist-shined streets, perhaps you can help me unravel that mystery."

"I doubt that indeed," said Dimenes. "I cannot believe that such as I can be of aid to a philosopher king."

I laughed. Before we had even left the grounds of the theater, my companion and I were joined by several young men of the city, among them Polytarsus, son of Proctis; Baion of Memnaris; Lactymion, son of Irion; Stabo of Herra; and others.

(Okay, Chuck, does this look the least bit familiar to you? The names are different, and the subject is new, but doesn't it kind of ring a bell? Think, Chuck. Remember Mr. Martinez? Philosophy 101A? Sophomore year? We had to read that Plato, and we made all those dumb remarks in class, and he was going to report us to the dean. I always wondered what happened to Mr. Martinez. Now that, as it happens, I'm the sole authority on this continent, I guess I could look up old Mr. Martinez and make him nervous. But that's beside the point.

This ms. was discovered in a sealed container made of titanium alloy. Along with the ms. was a map, a candle, and a bundle of stuff that apparently was some kind of offering—-flowers or fruit or something like that. Now, the important thing to note, and I'm sure you will, is that the map I mentioned was of the Earth. The cylindrical titanium container was found in what looked like a ruined temple. My boys dated the contents. They are over five thousand years old. What was a map of the Earth doing on Wolf 359, Planet B, five thousand years ago? Aha. I've piqued your curiosity.)

"Greetings, King Herodes," said Lactymion, son of Irion. His manner was open and friendly, in a way that has endeared him to all the most influential men of our city. He dispensed with the false humility and deference with which a king in other lands is often treated, for I had made it clear in the early part of my reign that I considered myself to be an administrator only, with no special claim to personal honor. I am pleased that my company is sought more for intellectual discussion than for the selfish seeking of favors.

"Good evening to you, fair Lactymion," I said. "Has your father accompanied you? It would indeed be a shame if he missed Melos' grand performance."

"I am afraid that my ancient father will see few festivals to come. He is confined to his bed, on the orders of the physicians."

"I am truly sorry to hear that."

"We were just speaking about Melos," said my friend Dimenes. "I asked King Herodes why an old man like Melos would exert himself so, when it is common knowledge throughout our city that he is near the grave himself, and that the best thing for it would be a regimen of complete rest and quiet."

"Perhaps," said Stabo of Herra, a crude fellow and a bore, "he had to put on the mask and phallus one last time. There is no accounting for the follies of the senile." The remainder of our party ignored the words of Stabo.

(We have guys like this Stabo today, and they're governing billions of people, not that I'd mention any names. Stabo was just born in the wrong place in the wrong time, I guess. Just goes to show you, Chuck. Remind me to tell you what Denny was up to this morning.

My boys asked TECT, of course, about the similarity between this King Herodes and our own good old Plato. Well, seeing as how TECT is the repository of everything there is to know, final and ultimate synthesizer of all knowledge, TECT came up with a pretty outrageous answer. TECT has a way of doing that. Did you know that one of my boys asked TECT "What is God?" a couple of months ago? Can you imagine what the answer was? No, you can't. One long, I mean huge chemical formula. A structural formula that runs on in very fine print for 3,170 computer printout pages. You can guess how this excited my team. They're busy right now, building one. A God, that is. They divided that, uh, ungodly formula into pieces, wherever they decided one chunk could be joined to another with a simple peptide bond (You do remember peptide bonds, don't you? Mrs. Assad, Chem 110B.). It appears that God is a ketone. That's funny. I always thought a ketone was a kind of wall paint. Or Pennsylvania, the Ketone State. Ha ha. My boys tell me that the formula is, let me see—I'm checking my notes here—an asymmetric hydrocarbon. That means that if you made a mirror image of the formula, the two wouldn't be "super-imposable." That's why I can't give you a copy of the formula; my team tells me that if there were the slightest error, typographical or otherwise, there would be no telling what you'd build. Pandemonium, in the truest sense. And who needs three Gods? Two will be quite sufficient.)

"It may be of value," said a young member of our party, as we turned the corner of the Panta and strolled across the neutral square before the thieves' quarter, "to examine the nature of all entertainments, to see what they have in common that so drives men to participate, as much as it drives such as us to observe."

"A very fine idea," I said, peering at the young man who had just spoken. Dimenes saw my perplexed expression, I suppose, for he made an introduction,

"My king," said my old friend, "this lad is Lydectes, son of Auguron, leader of the Logic party in Carbba. You may recall how this young man's father aided you during your long war against the Suprina's bandits."

"Ah, yes," I said. I was somewhat amazed, for I had last seen this same Lydectes wrapped in a blanket, held in his mother's arms. "It has been a long time, indeed, but I am glad that our ways have crossed. I suggest that we follow your idea. Does anyone have an objection?"

There was silence from our group, and the only sounds were the gentle slapping noises of our leather sandals upon the slick surface of the paving stones. "Then let us begin with a definition."

(Sometimes he sounds a little like you, no offense. How you ended up ruling Europe, I'll never know. You and me and Denny ought to trade continents, you know that? You'd be happy in Asia, sitting around and making obscure but philosophic-sounding pronouncements. And I'd love to move my stuff to Majorca. But that would leave Denny here, wouldn't it? Gee, I'd hate to see what he'd do with his sneakiness and my resources. He's bad enough already. And besides, I don't know what Ed and Nelson would say.

Which brings up an interesting thought. Remember when we eliminated the sixth Representative? Everybody except Stan thought it was a great idea: consolidating forces, reducing duplication of effort, etc. Well, maybe it's time for a little more consolidating. I could consolidate Nelson, down in South America. And you could consolidate Ed in Africa. That would give us a lot more bargaining power with Denny, wouldn't it? Think it over.)

"Indeed," said Lydectes, that admirable youth, "give us a definition of sport, a broad definition that entails every sort of entertainment, and we will see if we can find fault. Perhaps in that way we will arrive at a meaningful approximation of what sport means to us, and what proper place it has in the affairs of men."

Once more Stabo of Herra spoke up. "I have an idea," he said, though he had few listeners. "Let us find an inexpensive leaf house."

(At this point, you are probably wondering just what a leaf house is. I did, too, and I asked my boys. After sifting all the material from this Planet B, they came up with a probable answer. That's all I ever get from them, probable answers. Even with TECT's infallible brain; my boys feel a little threatened by that machine, you see, so they always hedge TECT's decrees with some nebulous preface of their own. Do you have the same trouble? Anyway, apparently there was this ancient sculpture or something, I don't really care, and one of my top men said it showed (1) a young man; (2) what appeared to be a pile of leaves; and (3) what appeared to be either a serving maiden on her hands and knees or a German shepherd. That's just what he said, I swear. Now you understand how Denny can keep hinting at taking over, if I got guys in the upper echelons that can't tell serving maidens from big brown dogs. The point is, I guess, that this guy Stabo is trying to get them all to find some cheap bar or whorehouse. I kind of like this guy Stabo.)

"I should think," said Lactymion, "that an adequate definition of sport, in the manner in which you wish to use the term—that is, including all entertainments that free men enjoy—would be that set of occupations that men follow that cannot in their successful performance provide profit, either spiritually or monetarily."

"That is indeed a good beginning," said I. "But under so broad a roof, would you not be inclined to shelter many things that otherwise you would shun?"

"How so?" asked the son of Irion.

"By this I mean such ills and misfortunes that befall a man against his will, and gain him nothing but sorrow."

"For instance, disease and accident," said Polytarsus.

"Yes," I said.

"I, for one, agree completely with the fair Lactymion," said Stabo. "And, considering the matter closed, I plead that we take up again my earlier suggestion."

"Well, then," said Lactymion, frowning and studying his strongly shod feet as we walked along, "I shall have to amend my definition. Sport is therefore those activities that men follow of their own will, wholeheartedly, and from which they derive pleasure but no other gains."

"Ah, better," said the ill-mannered Stabo. "Much better, indeed, do you not agree, King Herodes?"

(Hey, Chuck, I think I ought to remind you, before you get the idea—like I did—to go out there to Planet B and play Alexander the Great beside their wine-dark sea. They're all dead, remember? Sure, you remember. And anyway, Chuck, we need you here. We need you to stand between me and Denny.

One of the interesting things about this ms. and the objects that were found with it is that map of Earth. It was pretty accurate, considering that it was made five thousand years ago, when our ancestors' idea of the universe was rather primitive, to say the least. The only discrepancy seems to be a gigantic island in the Pacific Ocean where there isn't anything today except Indonesia and water. There was a curious symbol drawn in the middle of this island, TECTt says it's probably a mythical land, like Lemuria or something.)

"And what of those athletes or thespians who perform their talents at public gatherings, and who thereby receive great outpourings of gold and silver from the admiring throngs?" asked young Lydectes.

"Indeed," said I. "Would you consider that to be sport?"

"No," said fair Lactymion.

"But there are those who perform with every bit as much skill and taste in other situations, and do not receive a single valius of gold in return. Do you consider what these men achieve to be sport?"

Lactymion thought for a moment before he replied. "Yes," he said at last, "in that situation I would."

"Then," I said, as we began the difficult ascent of the Gaetan hill, "your entire argument depends on the matter of remuneration. But, for the sake of the discussion, if the men in the latter circumstance, exercising their so-called sport for the purest of motives, happen by accident or fate to be rewarded, as by, perhaps, a wealthy and appreciative stranger chancing upon them, would their activity cease to be sport at that point?"

"I realize that my definition was hasty," said Lactymion. "I beg that you demonstrate to me my error." Only one man laughed derisively at this point, and that was Stabo of Herra.

(It gets interesting here. I don't particularly care about these bickerings—I mean, do you think even fair Lactymion of the swift foot remembered any of it after he got home? Not if they had serving maidens bent over all around the place. Or even German shepherds—but we, even we, can sometimes pick up on something if we're paying attention. Pay attention.)

"Let us begin simply, then," I said. The others in our party fell silent, allowing the discourse to proceed. "If, by discussing the moral values of sport, whether it be for pay or for the elevation of the soul alone, we permit ourselves to fall into the argumentative trap of defining good and bad, we shall learn nothing. Let us leave all that aside, except for a single point that I shall mention."

"That is an admirable suggestion," said Lydectes with a smile. "Many a time have my teachers begun to unravel that knot of good and evil, and never yet have they loosened the first strand."

"Just so," said I. "But will you not agree that to emulate the gods is a thing of virtue?"

"I will grant that," said deep-browed Lactymion.

"And I," said my friend Dimenes.

"If we're going on to the House of Sycon," said Stabo, "we must turn aside at this road."

"And have not every one of us seen the gods at their recreation, many times?" I asked.

"Full often," said Lydectes.

"Each morning, before their silver temples, upon the plain of Bry," said Lactymion.

"Until our visit by the gods," I said, "our learned men thought that they had an accurate picture of the condition of the universe, and of our creation as a race, and of the creation of our world and its sun, and of our entire system's place in the cosmos, is that not so?"

"Certainly," said my friend Dimenes, whose place in these dialogues is second to none.

"I do not understand what our scientists have to do with the question of sport, either as game or drama or whatever," said Baion of Memnaris, who had not spoken before.

"You shall presently see, I have no fear," said Lydectes.

"I thank you," I said to that youth, "but if that is the case, the honor for such a discovery shall be shared equally among all of us." At this point, Stabo of Herra left our group, and his part in the conversation is no more.

(I'll miss him.)

"Our scientists once believed that men evolved from lower animals," said Lactymion.


Excerpted from Irrational Numbers by George Alec Effinger. Copyright © 1976 George Alec Effinger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

George A. Effinger was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1947. He attended Yale University, where an organic chemistry course disabused him of the notion of becoming a doctor. He had the opportunity to meet many of his science fiction idols thanks to his first wife, who was Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm’s babysitter. With their encouragement, he began writing science fiction in 1970. He published at least twenty novels and six collections of short fiction, including When Gravity Fails and The Exile Kiss. He also wrote and published two crime novels, Felicia and Shadow Money. With his Budayeen novels, Effinger helped to found the cyberpunk genre. He was a Hugo and Nebula Award winner and is a favorite among fellow science fiction writers.

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