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The Continent of Lies
By James Morrow
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 James Morrow
All rights reserved.
A Dreambean Deciphered
When I was ten years old, my father called me into his private study and said, with a solemnity not typical of him, "Son, don't ever let anybody tell you there's no such thing as reality." He rapped on his desk, as if to show me what he meant by reality. "Reality is all we have, Quinjin, and believe me, it's more than enough."
"All right," I replied.
I had no idea what he was talking about.
In time, however, I came to appreciate my father's advice. It served me particularly well in my chosen career as a critic of dreams.
The noostrees have been extinct for more than two decades now, and I suspect that most of you are too young to have eaten their fruits and experienced the programmed hallucinations, the preplotted mirages, stored inside. So let me now assure you that everything you have heard about cephalic apples is true. Compared with a good cephapple dream, gourmet food was about as satisfying as a sore throat, sex about as involving as a blink. For the dreamweavers, you see—those gifted, solitary souls who made the seeds from which the noostrees sprouted—were not mere technicians. The dreamweavers were not mere conduits of the story line. The dreamweavers were artists. Great artists, failed artists, pure artists, corrupt artists. But artists.
Now, I won't pretend that all the cephapples I reviewed could be properly termed works of art. Most of them, in fact, could be properly termed garbage. Other critics got to analyze realistic psychological dreams about love, hate, marriage, divorce, friendship, parenthood, death, and angst. I got to review dreams in which homicidal maniacs stalked through back alleys, sucking out streetwalkers' brains with weaselpumps; in which martial-arts experts felled entire police forces with their feet; in which Antaresian plasmidleopards escaped from circuses and set about terrorizing the nearest elementary schools; in which starship captains brought law and order to hinterland planets, using nothing but their nitrogen-cooled laser rifles and chiseled chins.
I'll tell you something, though. I did not hate the lurid dreams. The best of them had an emotional reality, a core of honest sensation, that brought me nearer to aesthetic truth than did the stuff that the literati were always fussing over. Art, I believe, is where you find it.
The story of why and how I helped destroy the art I loved is really a kind of fairy tale, and it happens to begin with a fairy tale. The fairy tale was called The Toad of Night. I had this dream on the twelfth of Inanna, Anno Galactica 791. That atypical day began typically, the horalbell summoning me from sleep, my consciousness thawing in usual sequence: damn noise ... have to finish that piece on Altars of the Heart ... I hope there's an egg on hand ... are there any really good reasons not to stay in bed all day? I reached out and managed to silence the screaming clock after some graceless slapstick comedy involving not only the device itself but also my overweight cat and a tumbler of water, yet my apartment did not grow quiet. The second layer of noise, as it turned out, came from the vidiphone, which I answered, "Hello," without switching on the camera. Whoever it was, I did not wish to confront him or her in the transmitted flesh.
"Hello, Quinjin." It was Francie, glorious Francie Lem, guiding light behind Dreambeans Deciphered and one of the few electrozine editors in Terransector with backbone enough to print my stuff. Dreambeans was what people who took their cephapples seriously called cephapples; people who didn't take their cephapples seriously called them brainballs. "Turn on your camera," Francie continued, smirking down from the vidiphone screen. "I dislike talking to my mental image of you."
Francie's mental image of me was probably fairly positive that particular morning—in those days, before my adventures with the Tree of Death, I was not unpretty—and I wanted nothing to tarnish it. By keeping my camera off, I prevented her from seeing my rumpled pajamas and whisker-infested chin—not to mention the uncovered floors, the bare-ass light bulbs, the fractured plaster, the furniture intended for beaches, and other signs of poverty overtaking my apartment. As a point of pride, I preferred for Francie to believe that my Dreambeans Deciphered income was subsidiary to my lecturing fees and book royalties, when in fact it paid the rent and put food on the card table.
I told Francie my camera was broken.
"My left ovary," she replied smoothly, leaning toward her own camera, giving herself a closeup. "You don't want me to see the ash heap you call home."
I think I loved Francie Lem, loved her with the sort of oblique, semiconscious love you enjoy experiencing because it entails no obligations. Two decades my senior, she made being fifty-six seem like a good idea. Our face-to-face communication was confined entirely to the vidiphone, so that I had no notion of what the nape of her neck looked like, though I assumed it was as stately and handsome as the rest of her.
"Tomorrow I'm sending you an unsolicited piece on that love dream I was telling you about," I said. "Altars of the Heart. A minor effort, sure, and I could do without the title, but it made me fight tears, and we should all rally behind it." This last sentence probably trailed off as I lurched away from the screen in a successful effort to keep Basil the Cat from singeing his whiskers on yesterday's coffee, which my computer had just now decided to reheat.
"Never mind that," said Francie. "Your task for the moment is to get your mouth over to the Cathexis and swallow the first available fruit. The box office knows you're coming."
"What's the show?"
"The Toad of Night."
"Let me guess—a horror bean."
"Not exactly. You haven't heard the news? Doesn't anything interest you scribblers besides coffee and words?"
My screen showed that, behind Francie, the Dreambeans Deciphered offices bustled with staff members plugging in their thoughtwriters and groping for their coffee mugs.
"What's the matter with The Toad of Night?"
"The press release calls it a modern fairy tale—an allegory on that old Brothers Grimm thing about the Frog Prince."
"Allegories give me hives."
"Anyway, near the end there's evidently a scene where you bury somebody alive."
"Hell, Francie, can't I cover some subtle stuff for once? I wish—"
"So yesterday this poor crazy ten-year-old, Suzie Freed, drops by the parlor, eats the apple, goes home, tosses Baby Brother Phillip into a shipping crate, and sinks the crate in quicksand. Death by asphyxiation."
I was sorry but hardly shocked. Art, I knew—real art—is no prissy pastime, and the dreambean medium, with its unprecedented credibility, had a particularly notorious record of inspiring lunatic acts. Indeed, this Suzie Freed Tragedy was following hard on the heels of the previous month's Wendy Cromboc Tragedy, in which a young woman of psychotic persuasion had thrown herself in front of a maglev train after eating Reinwort's adaptation of Anna Karenina. And before that, the Paxton Wolfe Tragedy. And before that, the Martin Mergeron Tragedy.
"Why do you always give me such weird dreams, Francie? Don't tell me the offbeat is my beat—I've heard it. What about Altars of the Heart? What about—?"
"Quinjin, I need help."
"Let me guess. SUPEREGO wants to shut down the show."
"SUPEREGO wants to shut down the whole goddamned dream industry. The situation demands more than a simple review, of course. It demands a counterblast, and you're the man to write it."
SUPEREGO. Bad news. Very bad news. To wit: the Society for Unconditionally Purging Entertainment by Restoring Ethics and Godly Order. The SUPEREGOists' numbers were growing every day, and my boss was not being paranoid when she suggested they had the power to make cephapple-eating illegal. The SUPEREGOists talked a great deal about God. They knew where God stood on every issue.
Furtively I kissed Francie on her glass lips. "You don't suppose this incident heralds another Vorka Massacre, do you?"
Her habitual breeziness died. "Vorka is an ancient crime," she snapped. "It did not, does not, and never will have anything to do with cases like this. It was completely ... other. Put Vorka in your article, and you'll see what editorial tampering looks like."
Perfect word: other. The next five years would gradually disclose just how other events at the Vorka Psychoparlor had been. But that morning all I knew of Vorka were the grim statistics. I knew that four hundred and six people had bought tickets to a matinee ... that four hundred and six people had eaten cephapples ... that four hundred and six people had assumed they were ingesting an innocuous romantic comedy ... that four hundred and six people had apparently been slipped something else ... that four hundred and six people had gone insane. "Massacre," of course, was an exaggeration. None of the Vorka victims died. But they had all needed shutting up in the bughouse, double locks and steel strictusuits, and not one had ever come within hailing distance of reason. The perpetrator remained unidentified, the motive unfathomed, the crime unsolved. And ever since Vorka, the world lived in fear that the plague would visit again.
The chatter of thoughtwriters began pouring from my vidiphone speaker, but Francie's agitated tones easily beat it down. "I'm expecting a masterpiece, Quinjin. An epic. We'll spread it over the next three issues. Get the Suzie Freed business out of the way, then give us a whole smelly story of Dream Censorship—start with the book burners and work forward. I'll pay on manuscript receipt."
"You pay on manuscript receipt and you'll receive no manuscripts."
Francie showed me a brittle smile and shut off her camera. "Your check is in the mail."
The basement floor of my apartment building was conveniently contiguous with a troglobus station, so that every parlor in Shadu City stood less than five minutes from my thought-writer. Of course, many cephapples of note never played Shadu City. Some never even played my home planet, Zahrim, sole captive of my home star, Alpheratz; I was a seasoned faster-than-light traveler.
As I milled around the subterranean platform, shin-deep in gum and eager for the bus to come whooshing down the tunnel, I realized just how annoyed I was at my editor. She hadn't come out and said so, but she clearly had no intention of purchasing my Altars of the Heart insights. True, it was a conventional dream, it did nothing new with the medium, but it still deserved space in Dreambeans Deciphered beyond the usual capsule review.
My annoyance had evaporated by the time the bus arrived. Staying mad at Francie Lem was no easy undertaking, for, among bean critics, to know her was not only to love her but also to have been helped out of at least one hopeless jam by her. In my case, the hopeless jam was the notoriety I had achieved upon publishing—in an electrozine called Family Hour—a review of that grindingly inspirational bean, By the Wind Grieved.
By the Wind Grieved (A.G. 788). 84 minutes. Weaver: Emory Crostik. A biographical dream that turns you into the self-made bastard Edgar Whittlecrop, who started out with seven veneers in his pocket and, upon discovering the jungjelly used in FTL transportation systems, wound up a billionaire. The viciousness, greed, and spiritual squalor that most historians agree were the hallmarks of Whittlecrop's character are underplayed to the point of whitewash, and the focus becomes how you assembled the first jungjelly derricks and enlisted God in selecting their locations and exploiting the unimaginable wealth they generated. This is the sort of apple we're all expected to adore because it embodies something called "decency in dreaming," but the decency of By the Wind Grieved is a selfish, irresponsible decency, a decency predicated on the belief that the ruthless should inherit the earth, a decency I trust about as far as I can pee mercury ...
From there I went on to attack SUPEREGO, creeping theocracy, the profit motive, and the ethics of the pangalactic bourgeoisie.
After reading the first wave of hate mail, my editor at Family Hour took about five nanoseconds to decide I needed firing, a sentiment destined to sweep through nearly every electrozine office in Terransector. Get labeled "controversial" in this life, and you wind up either fabulously rich or permanently unemployable—more likely the latter, unless, of course, it is your felicitous fortune to run into Francie Lem. Fast as the heroic dogthing in Crostik's Woggle Comes Through, Francie galloped to my rescue, giving me moral support, a cover story in Dreambeans Deciphered, and regular work thereafter.
Troglobus rides are meant to be uneventful, that's their point, so after the expected nonexperience of traveling uptown I left my seat, crossed the platform, climbed to street level, and walked one block to the Cathexis Psychoparlor. It was a warm morning in Shadu City, blessed occupant of a latitude where just about every day managed to be spring. As Alpheratz crept toward noon, giant shadows flowed down the marble façades of the banks and offices hemming Nindukagga Square. Shadu has always been a regal city in my book: clean, rational, a true urban Arcadia, suffused with a smell like noostree syrup.
Above my head a looming, sunstruck billboard exhorted the people of Shadu to go see The Toad of Night. The billboard showed a fairy-tale castle, all buttresses and spires, superimposed over a young girl whose face consisted primarily of teeth. The name of the dreamweaver was also provided: Roger Conchfiller, who, my cephapple-addict's memory informed me, had been responsible for Gratuitous Violence, an underrated comedy of two years ago.
The Cathexis would be open till midnight, but already the line coiled twice around it, with a new clump of customers arriving every few seconds. Yesterday's holovision coverage of Phillip Freed's murder was clearly turning to gold at the box office. Even if SUPEREGO managed to yank it out of the parlor by sundown, the bean would probably turn a profit.
Marching up to the ticket window, I gave my name to a middle-aged woman whose life was clearly not going as she would wish, whereupon a liveried usher, female and pretty, appeared and led me past the front of the line and into the place where dreams came true.
Typical of parlors built in the first half of the century, the Cathexis was high-domed and mosquelike, its rubber chairs filled with amniotic fluid, its voluptuous walls padded for the protection of those occasional customers who wriggled out of their seatbelts and ran amok. Parlors of more recent vintage were nothing but rectilinear warehouses strewn with aquacots, an arrangement more suited to fornicating than to hallucinating. I always suspected that couples who mixed the two media experienced neither to its fullest. (The exception, of course, was the kind of dream explicitly intended to be consumed under the influence of lust. If you played your cards right, you could be party to a kind of quadruple orgasm: yours, your character's, your partner's, your partner's character's. I had known such synchronicity only once, but the memory will always linger.)
The usher pointed to the one vacant seat, and I saw that it held a scrap of paper containing my name, misspelled. Before slumping down, I took the opportunity to observe the other customers, for often such mental notes worked their way into my reviews. ("The audience seemed composed mainly of pimps and kidnip addicts, as would befit this latest assault on civilization from the weaver of Hydraulic Nights.") They were a diverse bunch, all ages and shades, but unified by the zombie impassivity that haunts the face of the bean-eater. Over here bloomed a momentary smile, there a fleeting chuckle, behind me a truncated gasp; no one's dream was completely in step with anyone else's.
By buckling myself into my seat, I caused a mechanical arm to emerge from the floor like a mesmerized cobra. The arm culminated in a gloved hand. The Toad of Night lay in the palm. Like all dreambeans, it was a simple object: no core, no pit, no seeds, nothing but bland meat enveloped in glittery red skin. Reaching forward, plucking my cephapple, I experienced a twinge of nostalgia. In the good old days, the usher brought you your dream on a platter.
Three bites, and The Toad of Night was in my stomach. My senses began shutting down, my incredulity trickling away.
Excerpted from The Continent of Lies by James Morrow. Copyright © 1984 James Morrow. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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