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By Steve Aylett
Serif BooksCopyright © 2015 Steve Aylett
All rights reserved.
ON READING NEW BOOKS
Enjoyment can be kept sharp by the outrage of others - sadly though, genuinely-felt outrage is as rare today as it's ever been. I rode out of a swirling vortex on a hell-pig the other day and people just stared.
It's a world where things created for comfort are used for denial and the dwindling comb-over of culture has led to books in which the protagonist is one or other kind of automated remnant. The inherent advantage of selling limitation is that one size is declared to fit all. Support is minimal for defiance in a world with charity toward none, malice for all and the bland decree that there can be no new ideas under the local sun.
When offered a handful of options by a manipulator, we should be careful (in turning directly away to look at the thousands of other options available) that we are not being cleverly positioned to miss the billions more in every other direction.
The truly new invents new guts for itself. An angel is unlikely to be boring or devout. The miraculous should be at least equal to the forbidden. That the two are often the same thing is one of the solitaire fucking diamonds of truth.
At its shallowest an epigram is merely a sentence which strikes a pose, the sort of prim wiseacreing that fades within decades, too flimsy to depend on. There are also stegobromides - very obvious but lightly encrypted truths which, due to people's preference for them in their obscured form, have been left to petrify inside their own code. Then there are sayings which connect up only by ignoring a lot of facts: views with square edges, cropping off bits of reality. These are even less useful than those messiest bits of folklore that are akin to tripping over a ball of snakes.
There are proverbs which are dumb and funny - human, in other words. And finally those sayings born from the compelling notion of a sentence, word or musical note which could cataclysmically open reality to even the most evasive mind. I like the last two varieties and scrawled a bunch for the sayings of Bingo Violaine, whom the citizens of Accomplice use as a sort of epigram Pez. It's fun to drop a profundity into a scene where screaming chimps are attacking a chef, or to bat a balloon dog into a philosophical discussion.
Imagine the horror of dropping into the world's throat while trusting others' declarations above the evidence of your own senses! Treason is disliked because it reveals the mechanism. In this case the mechanism is that of reality by decree - a mechanism toward which the cosmos is cryptically uncooperative. The truth doesn't actually require our attention - it persists with or without us. It's more indifferent to us than we can ever be to it. And when everyone dodges blame, that stuff remains in the air like radioactivity.
Imagine honest, clean regret.
In toxic times an honest eye is bound to result, for several years at least, in a sort of reverse-image horror at what's been perpetrated. The state stripped of crimes - not even a skeleton is left. This resentment is a stain left by clear perception. You become like the philosopher who repeatedly enraged Gurdjieff by shaking him awake at three in the morning. Amid drab masses seething with optimism, any true individual almost by definition won't be heard of - but they certainly exist and are a vivid, angular joy.
You can depart an empire by turning five corners, and of course a one-track god is easily avoided. But as Eddie Gamete once said, the nightmare's likely to renew until the day humanity rests finally in lavender and ruins, becoming one big last outbreath. Patience.CHAPTER 2
The plastic man missed his eyes more than a human might. He had used them often, had never deferred. But exploding consoles will have their due. Nobody had doubted the authenticity of his face until that little incident.
It took a while to get himself hooked directly into the cruiser's system and then he sensed something out there – a ship shaped like a hammer bent back upon itself. The crew judged the enemy battleship quite plain and stood by Bossanova as their Captain. He was surprised and touched. He had, after all, a nose like a slot car.
Professor Baum's weathered features transmitted as Bossanova stood on the stance platform. 'You will return to Earth with me.'
'Not a very interesting opinion,' the robot remarked.
'You're malfunctioning. That's why you're being so obdurate. Well, you've made yourself an object of infamy. I can make no more excuses for you.'
'I wasn't aware you'd made any, father. What sort of stuff did you come up with?'
'Don't call me that. Not anymore. You're a belief toy. Acquiescence covered in skin. There's no gadget monarchy. You're living in a fool's paradise of emoticons and sardonyx crystal.'
'Emoticons, unlike a face, say what they mean. Anyway, an act informed by the knowledge of ineffectiveness – is it stronger or weaker than a deluded one?'
'I'll not quarrel with a component,' said Baum, and paused.
'Weaker?' he ventured.
'It's exactly the same,' said Bossanova.
'Five minutes to fire-up. You won't prevent us using the Drive.'
'I won't need to,' said the plastic man in quiet disappointment. Baum had lost his easy manner and his passion.
What can make a person less wise as he grows older? thought Nova. Not the accumulation of knowledge but the loss of it. To relinquish so much and deny you ever possessed it – such weakness, cowardice. To come to believe his own lies. The mind is horribly willing to resign before its time.
Bossanova remembered how he'd sat in Baum's workshop as the Professor tooled around in smoked glasses, his motives already beginning to discolour at the edges. Nova was propped on a table, wearing a preliminary head like a military field-telephone. Baum tapped a stroheim dummy tricked out in a suit.
'Executive model. When he lies his nose doesn't get longer but his limo does, eh? But not enough to make it human. All those clockwork Asimovian equations, reasoning gears which must be clanked precisely into place before anything proceeds. A cagefight between liquid crystals.'
He lifted Nova's forehead like a visor. 'While in your case it's alot more fluid. Po-mo fluid. I thought of it when I read about court cases. It isn't an investigation. It's decided, not detected, that a person committed a crime – the fact of whether he actually did is not altered by the decision, but people will behave as if it is. The declaration revises reality – no other version has ever existed, and the notion of objective fact is at best a childish nonsense, at worst a punishable heresy.'
Nova panned around the lab as Baum bustled about. Baum came up with a hydraulic tweezers.
'Head still. Assembling eyelashes here.'
'Thank you, father. Please continue.'
'My po-mo suspension fluid operates on the principle that something is a fact by a human merely declaring that it is so. It's not even fancy. It's just erasure after erasure, a billion retroactive truths.' Baum carefully removed the skullnet.
'This way, when I tell you that you're lifting a crate, you immediately will be. The agony of disparity doesn't even arise – automatic accedence takes care of that. No reasoning need be done, and fewer parts are involved. All you are told, you will believe, negating all that was previously said and believed, and no contradiction.'
'Does this make me human, father?'
'Almost. We may also tell tales to ourselves, and believe. You will stand as my masterpiece.'
Bossanova left the workshop, a guarantee stamped on the flipside of his stomach.
But they had made the mistake of providing him with a set of senses, never guessing that he would use them to perceive the world as it was. Told that he would leave the room immediately, it took him only a few moments to perceive that he would not. He realised that if the mere statement that he would lift a crate meant that he would lift a crate, he need not be there when it was happening – if the statement truly created the fact, then somehow the crate would be lifted by him even if he was seven miles away staring at the ocean. He had been assured that it would be impossible for the crate not to be lifted by him. When his supervisors shouted at him that he had not lifted the crate, he reminded them that they had told him he would. By their own assertion, it was impossible that he hadn't. In regard to peers and authority, he effectively had a brain of cork, floating over their influence and absorbing nothing.
One day he walked through a wall, got in a truck and drove away despite his handlers' claims that he would not do so.
His winters of flowering were not easy, havocking through books and the world to find those rare places which retained some flavour.
He was drunk with each bit of reality he discovered, with every imperfection according to the law. Metallic goosebumps came up like pinheads.
He'd been born into a system which needed no reason, only motive; which was moved not by goals but by the need to perpetually evade. It was fact by decree, irrespective of actual fact. This wankers' charter had its merits when it came to social control in human society. Proclamation surpassed raw observation as a matter of course. It required millions to live a spineless incoherence.
Bossanova, his head a chipped chesspiece, passed years studying this chilling nonsense. He suggested that the multiple erasures of ungrounded belief was finally a stem broken in a thousand places – nothing would grow again. And so he'd ended up as an outlandish, injection-moulded pirate, dangerous by virtue of dealing in reality which surpassed the recommended dose. His crew were a bunch of people with minds of their own.
Other pomo droids were sense-neutered and did whatever was demanded of them. Baum's suspension fluid was seen as a magic pill. If the principle on which it was based was what made it work, then wonders could be worked by decree.
The Decree Drive was installed in a battle cruiser and the honoured Professor Baum went along for the first spin. The flight was not referred to as an experiment, as that would imply that what was believed might not occur. Now Nova put a question to his creator on the screen.
'Why did they bring the so-called shift-ship so near to us for its maiden failure?'
'To give you a choice. When we fire up the Drive for the jump, the backblast'll fry you. But if you surrender and bring that crate aboard, you'll survive.'
'I'm not in any danger from your Drive.'
'There's no fool like a fibreglass fool. I'll tell you something which may surprise you. I'm glad these people are using my principles for an interesting application. Most don't even believe their beliefs will build to some shattering crescendo. They simply assume in the most mundane manner. This isn't boring is it?'
'If it worked? Yes, it would be, as a matter of fact.'
'Fact. What a quaint term. I gave you the blood of a man, or something like it, but I guess I really did fail – you still don't understand what it is to be human. We journey through life throwing a meaning ahead of us to walk on.'
'Anyone who walks, walks on what's there. The meaning is just a tone we give it. I dare you to walk where there is no path, father.' Nova thought about it. 'Well that's what you're trying, isn't it? I actually would like to see it.'
Baum looked offscreen at something. 'Well, we're about ready here, Nova. To believe is human.'
'To be told what you believe, is human – these days. I think, father, I'd like to be less human.'
'To be less a slave. Good luck with your experiment.'
'It's not -'
Nova cut off the transmission.
He mused, spinning his nose.
'Your tinpot captain orders you to move off, but only because there'll be nothing to see and we have business on Europa. Obedience is your choice.'
As Nova's cruiser moved off, the battleship's Decree Drive fired up.
Nothing changed, of course – not even Baum's mind. He selected a small tech excuse for the Drive's failure, and everyone immediately set about believing it.CHAPTER 3
Jeff Lint was told he wrote as if Moby Dick had never been published, to which he responded that most people lived as if it hadn't. Did Melville think trouble was scarce? Captain Ahab went out of his way to find a whale to cope with but the one time I met a whale it made itself easily available on the beach and we had trouble dealing with its requests – we'd expected it to ask for water or money, but all it said was it wanted to listen to the radio because that was part of its normal routine at this time of day. My hackles were rising after a couple of hours of this. 'Why don't you act like a proper whale and just look at us with your little eye, a tragic thing we don't know how to handle?' But it started discussing the news, and how those jokers in Washington had got us into another oil war. Finally I just walked away, ignoring the shouts of my colleagues. Apparently the others got him back into the water eventually, by rolling him with a bulldozer or something. It must have made a hell of a noise. And that's the story of the whale.
Any real writer will tell you that animals are the main thing standing in the way of the work. Once I was starting a new book and a bison put its head in the window and just stood there, more or less looking at the floor or into a space above it. It seemed perfectly content for the moment - and so was I. But as time passed without anything really changing I realised my day had been taken for ransom. Another time a badger jumped onto the keyboard and started shouting at me. And none of its ideas were fresh or original. Then there was the time a trapdoor opened and I fell into a cellar plagued with rats. As far as I could tell every single one of the thousand or so rats was exactly the same. Again, why the repetition of the same idea? It could be that they were different from each other in some subtle way I didn't understand, but what could it be? Would they begin individually expressing different viewpoints and notions never heard before? Or simply attack me in the most boring way, each rat gnashing in roughly the same manner as its neighbour? I'll leave you to guess which was the case.
But sometimes it's my fault entirely. The incident with the whale left me feeling obscurely ashamed and when the opportunity arose to rescue a jellyfish from the beach and toss it back into the waves, I jumped at the chance. But the jellyfish almost exactly resembled a semi-transparent version of my own face - or perhaps it was just my reflection. I couldn't stop looking at the thing. Someone passing by gave me a glance of disapproval and I felt obliged to pretend I was a principled man. I stood there in the manner of Soviet hero art, but instead of a flag or sledgehammer I held the jellyfish I had found. The problem was that I had to regularly break my stance to dampen the jellyfish in a bowl of water, and this interrupted the heroic monumentalism I was going for. By the time most of the water had been absorbed or generally splashed around, a baffled crowd had gathered and were arguing about what I meant. Finally I turned and hurled the thing into the sea, but people paid more attention to my savage yell than the goodness of the act.
I spent days trying to prove that the creature had survived and was thriving in the surf, but all I found were thousands of eels. The eels were made of soft glass and were almost impossible to see in flowing water. Only their eyes gave them away, and those rare occasions they started singing. And when they sang, they would close their eyes. I told the local authorities about it and they just looked at me like I was mad. I even showed them photographs, which I stuck on the police station wall and pointed to with a stick, but the Chief of Police instantly shouted: 'Get those things off the wall!' And I had expected to be treated like a saviour.
I didn't leave, but got bored sitting there so I started making a thin wet sound like a burning banana skin. This kept me amused for eleven minutes and then I shouted something in impatience. I think it was 'Oh, god, let it end!' or that kind of thing. Maybe 'God I want to kill everyone!' or like that. Several people looked aside at me like a wall of turbots.
During this whole time with the jellyfish, eels and police, I was supposed to be writing the opening chapter of LINT. Remembering this, I left the station and immediately saw a happy dog. From the flapping of its ears I thought the dog was running toward me but I realised it was just tossing its head up and down to send its ears flapping – it was looking eager and aglee having just discovered this crazy trick. It stopped as I approached, and I knelt down, putting my right eye directly against the dog's. That'll let him know, I thought – then became aware that the hound was sniggering to itself. 'Ah you're not worth it,' I said aloud, straightening up.
'I am,' the dog whispered, looking up at me. 'And you know it.'
And I thought, The abyss conceals.
At home, I looked at the screen. A mistake requires a minimum of two moving parts. A bug like a fingernail tremble-walked along the sill.
Excerpted from Smithereens by Steve Aylett. Copyright © 2015 Steve Aylett. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
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