Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Embers


An earlier version of this story, titled "At the Border," remains my only fiction sale. When I read the story again about a week ago, I was a little pained by its clumsiness. So here's a new version. I'm still dissatisfied with it, and I don't feel like the story hangs together with the emotional punch I wanted, but progress is progress...it feels like a tiny improvement.


Standing at the border, one almost feels safe, even with assault rifles pointed indiscreetly in your direction. After all, you're behind an imaginary line that serves, through bureaucratic magic, as an invisible, impenetrable force field. Hey Presto! Thaumaturgy by committee, and just like that, the Party can't touch you. Theoretically, at least.

I've come here, to this invisible line in the asphalt, every year since we ran for it back in '22. That was after the Party won the last election – in both senses of the word “last” - and declared certain lifestyles illegal. My roommate and I made the run together, just before the Party got the barbed wire up.

This year Brad has come with me to the border, finally overcoming his fears. If Brad and I step over the faded yellow line that kisses our toes, the unsmiling guards are authorized to take us into immediate custody. This is because we wear brightly coloured pins with catchy slogans on our lapels, and we carry reactionary literature under our arms. Slogans are unpopular back in our old home, unless they're transmitted on one of the Infotainment channels, the only media approved by the government.

The two of us come every year to make fun of the sentries' uniforms - flat blue-green with day-glo orange and gold piping, the Party colours. At least the stormtroopers of old had fashion sense; not these guys. We flash insubordinate smiles as a tank rolls by.

It's hot. Oppressively so. Two of the guards sit in their air-conditioned checkpoint booth, watching television.

Back before the really bad times – during the merely terrible times, I guess you’d say - Brad and I had a house filled to the rafters with books on every subject, in every genre: politics, history, art, the classics, pop culture, gay and lesbian studies, feminism, science fiction, post-modernism, psychology, political economy, romance, sex. We didn't own a TV. TV was the K's weapon, his window into the pliable minds of the people.

The Party leader was in our conversations so much that we needed a shorthand way to refer to him; first, King Rafael, then just K, an ironic play on Kafka's hero in The Trial. Our K wouldn't have understood the reference. I suppose the analogy didn’t work anyway; after all, he wasn’t the one being judged, or not by anyone that mattered.

In September of 2022 all the K's horses and all the K's men came to visit Brad and I. The K had been upset by the latest round of demonstrations, so the Truth Police were out in force, aggressively stamping out the myths and lies that were destroying opportunities for economic development. They were conducting house to house surveys, taking careful notes, producing warrants to examine homes for suspicious paraphernalia.

"Mr. Peter Resnick?" the Truth Officer in blue and orange asked when I answered the door. I nodded. He and his cronies stepped inside, and Brad and I didn't resist, didn't demand a search warrant, didn't call the police. The police cooperated. They were the Living Will of the People, according to the brochures and the posters and the commercials.

In a way, the propaganda was only truth. Most people truly did support the Lifestyle Surveys and the Truth Police. The Party had an 89 percent approval rating if you discounted the stubborn liberals and socialists remaining in the capital city – easily dismissed as loonies, communists, and wackos. In the rural zones and conservative southern cities, the Party could do no wrong. Resistance to the K collapsed simply because the steady erosion of medical care and educational services kept the population so ignorant and sick that they couldn’t be bothered with anything as mundane as human rights. Kids today have never known classrooms or lectures that weren’t sponsored by Coke or Nike or the Gap.

The Truth Police looked askance at our clothing, our hairstyles; one took down the titles of every book in our collection, carefully itemizing them to be sorted into categories later. They made no effort to hide their disgust when they ran across anything of a feminist or sexual nature. In fact, they approved of virtually nothing in our collection but a copy of Atlas Shrugged and two of Anne Coulter’s hysteric turn-of-the-century screeds, all of which I’d bought for laughs.

Of course I had a copy of Fahreinheit 451, and of course they burned it. Not right in front of us, not right away, and not, I’m sure, without at least one too-clever Incinerator musing silently but impotently on the irony. Her last flicker of conscience a tiny spark, dying in the same instant as the last embers of the fire that engulfed our collection.

At least, that’s how I imagined it would be.

"We'll have to come back tomorrow to do some additional checks,” their leader said as they left, “we won't keep you long. But I warn you, from what I’ve seen here, you gentlemen will likely need to attend a full series of adult education courses to avoid a fine or lengthy community service."

I smiled weakly. Dark rumours about the nature of “community service” had been circulating for months, and the blood began to pound in my ears as I imagined the awful possibilities. “I’m sure the courses will be very enlightening,” I said, trying to keep my voice from cracking. The constable gave me a sour grin and left, bootheels clicking smartly on the sidewalk.

Brad and I packed all the books we could fit into the station wagon and left in the early morning, racing the dawn. We didn't stop until we were a hundred kilometers on the other side of the border, our car’s gas and batteries both drained. Our licence plates didn’t take long to attract attention, and soon a sympathetic BCMP officer was directing us to the closest refugee centre.

We were in the local papers (newspapers! What a novelty!) the next day, along with hundreds of others like us. Our actions made us wanted men, but thankfully our new home and our old share no extradition treaties. We were safe, even if we were now exiles.

Brad and I were tried in absentia and convicted of bookrunning. We can never go home.

So today we watch the tanks roll by, as we carry placards displaying obscene slogans like "Freedom to Read.” We have armloads of pornographic magazines and comic books to tempt the guards with. They pretend to be illiterate; it improves their chances for promotion in the Party heirarchy. But if we can get just a few to start reading again, perhaps it will catch on, an unstylish hobby made attractive again by its very forbiddenness. Maybe a guard or political officer with a little more curiousity than most will look past the airbrushed models and sneak a furtive glance at a short story. Perhaps a junior functionary will get hooked on Archie and Jughead, making him a ripe target for more subversive fare.

Brad and I know it’s close to futile. The immersive qualities of television, Net and VR narratives are tough for mere ink and paper to contend with. Net stories are laced with addictive sensory input that utterly engages the user, requiring none of the thought and interpretation that reading a conventional book requires. But at least here reading is still legal, and there are even a few independent bookstores left – with real paper novels, not just kiosks for downloading the latest AI-generated EyeBook.

Just as we’re about to give up for the day, a lean officer of the guard, a fiftyish man with austere features and perfectly groomed black hair, approaches me. We stand on on opposite sides of the border, regarding each other coldly. He tries to hide his contempt; I try to hide my fear.

“I’ll take all you have,” he says, too casually, and just loud enough for the closest guards to hear. “I’m not afraid of your trash. These tawdry magazines will serve as examples of bibliographical decadence.”

The Party line – villainous dialogue that would be laughable if it weren’t delivered with such sincerity. I’ve heard it before. But to disseminate the reading material is why we’re here, so I hand over the Archies and the Asms and a fify-year-old paperback copy of Synthetic Men of Mars with a shrug. Before the officer turns away, I catch something in his eyes.

It’s a glimmer, an ember of some long-dormant flame struggling to find the fuel that will allow it to roar to life again.

Or perhaps it’s only the last stubborn embers of hope that still cling to life within me. Even so, I dare to believe that his stilted dialogue was an overwrought act, and that not every book in his arms will find its way to the Incinerators. Three or four will be carefully tucked into clever hideaways…secret places.

I don’t allow myself to smile until my back is to the border, and Brad looks at me with a question in his eyes. There’s a campsite just a few metres away from the checkpoint; with night descending, it’s time we started a fire.

I gather up some loose twigs for the purpose as Brad retrieves the firestarter from the car. When he joins me next to the firepit, his unspoken question still evident in his eyes, I answer him with a dimly remembered quote:

“‘Tyranny dies; freedom endures; the pages of history turn and turn brighter as long as citizens care enough to write upon them with integrity and truth.’”

I read that somewhere - in a book.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hmm, wow, interesting. A 451-Redux. Or more like what it would be like to be Gilead's next door neighbor.

If you want them, here's my thoughts:

1) You spend a lot of words re-inventing the wheel. The Party society doesn't need a lot of explanation, except where it would intersect the emotional lives of the protagonists. We get that they are nasty and controlling, but apart from the fact that they don't like printed books and certain "lifestyles", and they do like guards and guns in garish uniforms (not so garish as the Pope's Swiss Guardsmen, though), they don't seem terribly evil. So...

2) The characters don't get much in the way of gripping emotional states. Apart from a vague threat to be sent to Adult Education classes, the only real actions that can hold up emotions are the running away and the bit with the guard, but niether seem to affect anyone deeply, in my opinion.

3) While there are regimes that exist today that seek to limit the education level of their people, most empires seem to value a certain amount of literacy. I don't think the problem is so much that people need to be kept in the dark by taking away their opportunities to read for themselves, but rather, that the media drowns the people in a tidal wave of pro-government propoganda and meaningless populist trivia. Maybe you think about mainland China and how they are restricting Internet access to websites the government does not like, yet still encourage devotion to Mao's Little Red Book. Or maybe you think about how a recent American President won his election despite not having a majority of votes. And then there's a constant bombardment of advertising, selling us things we are told we want deperately, despite the lack of need, and the incessant creation of media idols with levels of talent that not only will never span a generation, but probably won't make it past this decade -- they perform on their stage, they marry and divorce, they shave their heads and lose their babies, or adopt ones from less "infotainment"-saturated regions of the world. Is this evil? Or is this just the cost of doing good business? Or are we living in a golden age that our forebears could not even dream of?

4) Again, you're engaging in self-reflective storytelling. We'd have to have a copy of Fahrenheit 451 to get some of the nuances of the story -- although I'd always reccomend Bradbury, so that's a plus in my view. This time around, the self-reflection is more deft than your other story, and there's no bizarre left-turn to throw this story off its track. It all works, but it stll requires some background reading on the part of the reader to understand everything -- most ironic given the tenor of "Embers".

PK Dick was a supreme master of providing a self-reflective background to a story without anchoring it to anything much more tangible than a record shop 1970's San Francisco. He provided personally familiar and emotionally-charged details without going into anything specific: an assault rife became a slem-gun, and a futuristic car became a spinner. Mars could easily have been Earth, except that it was redder and dusty, and the hovels the colonists lived in were just tract housing with dogged hatches. Still, any of the characters could turn out to be a perfect android at any point in the story, and we as readers, as well as the protagonists, are constantly left to wonder as to what is real and what is fabricated -- again, a peak in the art form of a man whose (arguably)greatest achievement was a library of pulp fiction. What was real to PKD? Maybe he was just writing pure biographies...

I kind of like this story. I wish it had more of an emotional punch to it so that I could relate to the characters. They seem foreign to me, and I'm not convinced that you know them at that well, either.

Still, I like the end of a dystopia. That kind of story has a lot of power to it, the kind of "Humanity is really great, we will all figure out how to solve our collective problems, and reach for the stars -- someday!" energy to it that I think you really like. That shows through, and makes this story a better one.

Again, you are really brave to put this stuff online. We are priviledged to see a progression of storytelling points that will see you, well, figure out how to solve your issues as a writer and reach for the stars -- someday! Someday will come, and when it does, those stories will be A-mazing.

Earl J. Woods said...

I can't express how much I value this kind of thoughtful reaction, and the time you spent putting this together. Thank you so much.

I particularly appreciate the point about emotional states. My stories - the few I've finished and the many that sit half-completed on my hard drive - often focus too much on a single high concept, to the detriment of the characters. Especially if I'm trying to create characters who aren't simply thinly disguised avatars of my own personality.

Your third point is very insightful, and expresses the idea I was trying to convey rather better than "Embers." Government and corporate control of the media is a lot more subtle than any fictional distopia, and when I revisit this theme, I'm going to do my best to give it a more nuanced treatment.

Thanks again for the feedback - it really does provide the encouragement I need to keep writing, and more importantly, to do better.