“I am a Luddite decided. Let me sweat—let me bleed.”
– The Gavin
The sedge, at last, has withered from the lake—because of global warming. What was the lake is now but saltpan paved in polymer cement. What were the teeming languages and linguas Franca of those peoples that knew soil have long since been swept away upon a tide of, firstly, Tech neologisms, and, secondly, whole new tongues sprung up from code. No one speaks in nested clauses any more; no one remembers Kraftwerk.
It has long since ceased to make any sense at all for the cramped and Tech-hungry denizens of this superheated earth to speak of real property, as such. The stratigraphy of the social order is no longer to be read from above as a map of wealth and its concentration according to such primitive notions as an exclusive suburb—divisions of class are no longer made patent in the enclosure of garden greenery or lawn-yardage or floor-space as once they were—since the landmass of those continents being yet habitable to mankind is strewn uniformly with gargantuan sprawls of high-rise stacks within which all earth’s people cluster as stromatolites crowding seafloor vents, there to gather rapt around their screens and rare-earth oculi and spectral holograph displays.
The last great novel penned—I say penned, though the archaism is disingenuous, since no one that now lives knows of what stuff a pen was made—the last great novel breathed audibly into a microphone and thence set and rendered in bit-text by software not yet so sophisticated in its predictive and suggestive powers as to deny the speaker a claim to authorship of less than 51% of the finished whole—the last great novel thusly composed was not quite shouted though was yet expectorated with commingled histrionic ardour and abject mortification into the cortex of a processor more than a century ago.
Yet into this world are born persons of caste and class and social standing, since these are—for all their augmentations and infallible kidneys—people still.
The world beneath their very feet—the vast machine halls and interminable network of tunnels that comprise the cavernous underground installations of Mainland California, the Antarctic Complex, and Vista Negra CTC—teems with automated plants whence issues Tech, the lifesblood of the world. Innumerable units of Tech—Tech staged and timed and tightly controlled in its release to the consumerist masses above. Tech that gives meaning and purpose to all human life, so that it is insufferable (perhaps even incompatible with living) for a person to be barred access to the very latest functions of which Tech is capable by the force majeure that is the brute fact of new software outstripping the processing power of those rapidly aging units they so cherish.
In slow increments measurable only by the half-century (if at all), the human population of this blazing late-terminal-Anthropocene earth has cleaved into three tiers, the descending order of which may be expressed, in sum, thusly:
1. Those privileged and exultant few who can afford the newest Tech—the Tech that is required to support the very latest software upgrades that emanate as a periodic ghosted plague from within the endless banks of QIN’s forbidden Terracotta City; and
2. Those whose means do not permit them access to this vanguard Tech, and who are therefore cast onto uncertain shores; their lives devoted to a queer spiritualism, of sorts—long days given over to vain hopes and prayers—entreaties to forbearance spake into the ether; supplications that the Deadstock Tech that is their only worldly lot will cope with and sustain the latest QIN OS—though all the while they know it that, inevitably, there will come the day their hardware is overtaken and so outmoded by that one upgrade too many: the dreaded SLVR BLLT coup de grâce that is the undetectable QIN KLL CDE (since few things are so certain in life as the inexorability of obsolescence, and [as I have already intimated] obsolescence spells the end of living, if not life); and
3. The poor (there will always be a poor)—the poor, who have failed at every stage of life to keep pace with Tech’s assiduous rate of change and who languish, therefore, in the squalor of outmoded Tech that is incapable of sustaining anything but the most hatefully deficient ARCNE programs, and who dream of one day scraping together funds or favour sufficient to own (if only the once!) a genuine unit of PrimeGen Tech loaded up with all the wonders this must surely entail.
Poor Jhn pauses in their work with a sharp intake of breath and marks the tabletop rattlings of the manifold loose objects that are arrayed around them in the humming Argon dayglo grotto of their flat. The tiny tools that mark Jhn as a TINKRR—a desperate dreamer; one that dreams in poverty; dreams only of concocting that most alchemical of distillates: the Tech jailbreak—Jhn’s tiny tools vibrate against the surface of the bench, shiver at the urgings of a fearful tremor that is transmitted from somewhere far away and many miles underground. Drawing their breath to them and tasting vapours sulphurous and sour on the air, they bows their head and prays that this latest derangement of the peace is caused only by the annihilation of one of the last remaining islands in the embattled Indnsn Archipelago by the eruption of a supervolcano and not the tectonic rippling of something altogether more apocalyptic: the subsidence and collapse of a Tech plant under Maui.
Steak, we are told, was once flesh of the cow. It has long since been insupportable to graze cattle, so that protein-rich tissue cultured in vast Petri Plantation factory farms is all the steak the people of earth now living have ever known. A joke worn thin with retelling at innumerable mealtime troikas—but that retains its popularity even now—runs thusly:
There once was a person who, as a child, had tasted steak cut from a cow. But as the child grew, the cows began to go extinct. Persons started to grow meat in labs—as those trendy, overpriced batcheries purport to do to this day (though why anyone should want to pay BTCNS100 for a srln is beyond me).
When they was grown, this steak-eater was worked as a batcher making me8. One day, they thought for a joke to grow a me8-mass in the shape not of a steak but of a human baby. They took this me8-mass baby home and roasted it in the MCROWVE for their friends. What a surprise for the friends to see a cooked baby served up on a platter! One of them was very upset and asked their host why they had cooked a baby to serve them. The steak-eater said:
“It is only me8 in the shape of a baby!”
But no one in the room laughed. Someone else said to the steak-eater:
“Because it is the shape of a baby, it looks like it is a baby – how can we eat something that is the shape of a baby without believing that we are, in some sense, eating a baby?”
“A baby is not a shape,” the steak-eater retorted. “Likewise, the mere shape of a baby does not a baby make.”
“In that case,” said the first of their friends, “I will have a forearm—sliced as thinly as you like.”
III. A Bus Stop
Freedom of movement is not assured in this brutalist tomorrow [it is not assured even today, since movement always has its price—time and space each levy their silent tolls; the passage of a body through either quantity demands this]. Whoever rode the bus for free?
In the earliest, most storied phases of the 21st Century, several among those public hospitals that housed within the bowels of their cavernous strip-lit halls a ward given over to the practice of geriatric medicine devised a novel solution to a perennial problem then prevailing in that long-defunct field: the problem of their legion patients wandering off in a demented trance at all hours of the day and night and falling to unsanctioned vagrancy beyond the confines of the facilities that would keep them. In an effort to ensure the swift, efficient regathering of these urinous wraiths, the superintendents of a great many infirmaries ordered the construction, near to the public entrances of their hospitals, of an enticement to, and rallying point for, roving decrepitude—a grease trap, of sorts, being designed to capture shuffling and shambolic knots of the insensate elderly and so regather them to their warders. One is, of course, reminded of the midnight prawn-fisher, who, in antiquity, invited school-prawns into the bait-net with a fluorescent lantern held atop the surface of the water.
There was much poignancy—of the kind that only the most prosaic of objects being considered in their most heartbreakingly of human aspects can produce—in the selection for this purpose of the mock-or-decoy bus stop. In countless such structures erected within an easy walk of innumerable hospitals across the globe (an easy walk for porters and wardsmen, if not for Nan and Pop), whole generations of implacably energetic though yet irredeemably withered souls from whom all earthly reason had long since fled might settle upon short zincalume benches and wait with fixed and boundless patience (perhaps even in a state of regressive contentment) for a bus that would never come; might wait thusly in blissful ignorance of the snare upon which they had so gladly lighted.
Since the truth of old age was this: that the inborn faculty of the human spirit once called adventurousness was the plenary province of minds and bodies being youthful in their vigour. Just as the suckling babe craves only sleep, warmth and the tit, the aged of the distant past drew succour only from mundanity, familiarity and routine.
There are no buses on this dying earth; nor Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or old age. In sum—tragedies will outlive us all, though ghosts cannot—there is nothing in creation that might alert the healthy populace of this myopic future world to the inevitable decline upon which all that is meaningful in human life is predicated. So it is perhaps to be expected—though it is nonetheless tragic, in a sense—that there is nothing extant in all the world to elicit hope that facultative decay might be evaded (if not escaped), since no lamb ever feared the wolf that mewled in fields bereft of wolves, and, therefore, every moment in a person’s life now assumes the same value—each moment is no more and no less pleasant, poignant, or meaningful than any preceding or ensuing moment. And where death holds no dominion—where the foregathering of personal doom exercises no influence upon the waking mind—life can be aught but endless, reedy twilight.
Yet there has survived unto the very human twilight of this imminent future world—against all vain odds, it must be admitted—a single hospital-commissioned bus stop, and this now stands sealed within a hermetic prspx sarcophagus positioned for display out front of a museum at Sydn3y. It will come as no surprise to the reader to learn that, while buses and the infrastructure that was so vital to their civic function vanished from the world several centuries ago, that most aggressively humourless species of outspoken fuckwit that once frequented them has more than survived the great upheavals of the receding epoch—it has thrived.
Today, one such fuckwit stands before the last remaining example of an intact 21st Century bus stop still standing on all the several surfaces of the earth. Without invitation (as readers of any generation will understand, the asshole seldom requires an invitation), they turns to a hapless bystander and says:
At this, they suppresses a grin of delight at what they fancies is the historical accuracy of this once mundane line delivered in earnest pantomime, before shuffling off into a certain future about which they cares as little as the lamb stood bleating at the abattoir gates.
IV. The Smoker’s Lot
Though Kraftwerk and cows, buses and the elderly have long since been consigned to a mouldering terabit boneyard in some cramped and dismal corner of the big-data storehouse that is modem history, the inexorable dereliction of all things good and decent that attends every sweeping societal change (be it achieved by processes piecemeal or else wholesale) has nevertheless suffered its share of unlikely survivors. Among them stands the Marlboro Man himself—though his chaps and spurs have not met with horseflesh in some 350 years or more. Still, by the grace of the blessed Peters Jackson and Stuyvesant, there are smokers abroad yet!
Yes: a small and well-heeled tribe of smokers of tobacco, stalk and leaf, still prowls this powder-coated wasteland—alight, and venting fumes into the silent tunneled deeps of the upwardly-engineered landscape around them. Tobacco of every cut and colour: tobacco twisted into cigarettes; tobacco cured and rolled by hand so as to form trad. Cubano cigars; tobacco stuffed into arcane pipes; tobacco put, universally, to the flame (it is a strange and paradoxical adjunct to the tremulous flickering of the individual flame that the vibrant constancy of fire endures undimmed across all time).
Nicotine inhalers, nebulisers, and vapourisers: these are now but ancient relics of a happily forgotten time. Indeed, while those Tech units being engineered to deliver substances ranging from VDKA to methylamphetamine into the bloodstream have been popular adjuncts of contemporary life for almost three centuries, those systems geared toward the ready inhalation of FNE VRGNIA FLKE oil-evaporate—technologies developed in response to the far-reaching public-and-personal health-care backlash against the habit of smoking tobacco as that term is properly understood mounted in the latter half of the 20th Century and well into the 21st—have never been half so popular as one might have anticipated while lifting a finger to the winds of change some several centuries ago. A certain reckless indifference to tomorrow is a defining human trait and, as such, it prevails here still.
The smokers of today are, therefore, heirs to a wild lineage of personal irresponsibility.
Science, being productive (at times) of infinite wisdom is also necessarily capable of producing infinite folly, and has therefore tried and so inevitably failed at every stop and station in its progress to eradicate the addictive smoker. It is a fact of no small notoriety among the smoking faithful that the genetically-engineered tobacco crops of centuries past—plants bred so as to minimise the carcinogenic content and tar yield of each draw—produced a mouth-feel (as the smokers of the day rightly complained) that was akin to inhaling the fumes of rancid vegetable matter, while the smoke itself was said to taste of nothing so much as nickel.
In any case, there exists now a closed class of connoisseurs for whom the inhalation of nicotine suspended in non-toxic gaseous fixatives-exultant has ever been but a poor imitation of inhaling tobacco smoke proper—and who cling on, therefore, to the ancient practice of smoking.
It ought be noted here that the persons of this particular time and place understand something that was undreamed of in the 21st Century. No—to say that they understand this truth is to misstate the position: it is to miscast the true extent of the understanding in issue. The persons of this particular time and place know it innately, as a truth felt bodily and to which they are born more than inculcated, that the world in which they find themselves is but one incarnation of all possible and so real worlds. There are, they know, countless other instances of the world in which they happen to find themselves—some radically different, others differing only by incrementally greater or lesser degrees, some all but identical to their own—and these exist most certainly at the imminently-to-be-divided terminal ends of their own endlessly forking branches in a ceaselessly bifurcating network of capillaries and arteries and veins the substantive vascularity of which is time. Every cause, as they say, has its innumerable effects—every world its innumerable alternate worlds spinning on and on upon their unnumbered axes in parallel.
So it is that the persons of this future earth know it that their every inexplicable or intractable mood, whim, habit or compulsion is, in its truest sense, simply the echo—felt across the horrifying thinness of time’s dividing fabric—of the most exacting experience/s of one or more among the countless other incarnations of themselves that certainly exist on the other side/s. So it is that the intractable smoker regards themselves just as the balance of society does: as a happy, fortuitous medium between the non-smoking version of one alternate lifeline and the slave to those most damaging substances of addiction that is another, more extreme incarnation of themselves.
Against such a backdrop, it makes little sense to speak of depression or of hopefulness—much less of addiction—since, properly understood, these states (and, indeed, all other humours, good and ill, of which the human heart is ever a hapless vessel) are simply the echoes of the peculiar life-experiences of a certain homologous being then existing in a certain disparate now (or nows)—and so on and so on, in an infinite outward spiral of regression and distance and degree, instantiated being imparting feeling to instantiated being ad infinitum.
Do you find this thought comforting? You ought not to be comforted. There can be no solace in the idea, any more than the unhappy alcoholic propped at the bar ought find succour in the sight of his doppelgänger slouched upon the pavement outside sniffing petrol. Any more than it ought comfort you to dream yourself dying slowly and in pain, only to realise that it is not a dream at all, but a happenstance glimpsed through slow-turning screws of a veiling fog.
Still: the smokers of today are more than tolerated here. They are all but unremarkable. Which is not to say that substance abuse—whether involving tobacco, or any other substance, however imbibed—is no longer the marker of class and status it once was. The crucial difference, however, is that society has undergone a virtual upending and inversion in this regard. Since the production of tobacco in underground hydroponic acreages is a costly business, the enjoyment of tobacco products is a vice available only to the wealthiest classes of the world. And of those persons drawn from among these wealthiest classes that would smoke, only the topmost 12% are able to afford the prohibitive annual membership fees levied by the landlords of the earth’s few remaining Smokers Lots.
Of the 20 or so licensed SLs that are now inclosed upon the fabric of the world (these rank—it will come as no surprise to the reader to learn—among the most lucrative and sought-after [and therefore valuable] classes of property still available to the would-be investor in all the continent/s extant), the smallest boasts a membership of just 17 persons, and is quartered in the last free state of Aust, in HBRT-TAS—is situated, so it happens, upon the former site of the most barbarous Victorian Age horror that was the Hobart Zoological Gardens.
Today, solitary smoker Drk paces back and forth upon the Lot and smokes and smokes, incessantly—smokes cigarettes end on end until the plstic slabs at their feet are littered with butts and ash. Oblivious to their surroundings, Drk does not mark the arrival upon the scene of another of their kind.
“Gt a <lite>?” asks the newcomer, startling the silent, restive Drk from their pensive reverie.
“<Y>” Drk answers, and proffers the HT-SPT that is implanted in their wrist. The stranger presses the wavering tip of their cigarillo to the glowing element and nods their thanks.
“U.hear.bout/QIN.tbcco.plnt/Maui ?” the cigarillo smoker enquires of the silent Drk.
“<Y>” Drk confirms, glumly.
“Price.TBCCO will > +++ now,” cigarillo observes.
“We.r/gon <Xtinct>,” Drk says, forlornly, and spits an immaculate strand of bitter spittle onto the surface of the Lot.
V. One-Arm and the Arctic Rarebit
Can you picture a world in which there dwells a race of people for whom it is not only an initiatory rite of passage to amputate the leftmost arms of its young people, below the elbow, upon their reaching the age of majority, but something that is made actually necessitous by their means of subsistence and survival? Such is the strange case of the Salvage Tribes of the Temperate Circle, although I cannot and will not elaborate further upon this queer custom, since to do so would be to flout a taboo of no uncertain notoriety in those latitudes being gabled by the Aurora Borealis.
Suffice it to say that certain despicable excesses of Soviet economy once concealed beneath the now-soupy Arctic and Siberian tundra (not to mention towering banks of official records, dispatches, and procurement/consignment orders suppressed, buried or else burned over unspooled decades) has caused, across unremembered generations, certain physical mutations in the peoples of the North. This, in the age instant of the tale at hand, has long produced the genetic duplication of the left upper limb in the region’s children.
Among the more patient breeds of persons now inhabiting the carbon-dioxide-parceled planet, the Salvage Tribes occupy themselves tirelessly with the gathering of the scrap mineral and metallurgical payloads of the Wild North that are their only living. The raison d’être of these peoples is most commonly formulated and expressed thusly:
Always there is gold in it—or else copper wire.
Indeed, the Salvage Tribes are a race of peoples whose covetousness of cast-off rare-earth resources is exceeded only by their love of fables, allegories and well-worn exempla of all kinds. There is a Salvagi parable held especially dear by the Tribes of what was once a small corner of Lapland, the substance of which is as follows:
A wise man stands in a sealed room in which there is a blowfly buzzing all around him. The man simply stands rooted to the spot and claps and claps, unceasing—hand meeting hand in the exact same quarter of the airspace before him in unending repetition.
The thrust of the saying is, of course, that persistence is the surest path to the attainment of one’s goals; or, as the lesson is sometimes expressed more succinctly: the spider that stands and claps inevitably catches the fly. But the saying has another meaning—a meaning of more immediate relevance to the tale here told: two hands are better than three (a third arm, tending to move sympathetically with its nearest mate, will all too often confound that other limb’s purpose/s), while one-handedness will either be the foredooming of the weakling or the making of the great and resourceful man.
One-Arm rises from their BoPET bedroll, packages it into a bindle, and sets out walking purposefully into the superheated day. They has heard tell of an unspoiled toaster lurking among the crumbling ruins sheltered by the Nazarene palm forest to the north of their homeland. As they walks, One-Arm spies the suggestion of movement among the sand dunes that undulate beneath a wavering haze of heat in the barren space before them. They pauses, and watches unmoving as a solitary rarebit hops onto the plain and saunters over to them.
“Do corpses sweat?” ponders the rarebit, inscrutably.
It is salient here to note that the Salvage Tribes have another saying—this time of a more hyperbolic ring—that is also apt in context of the tale at hand: The man that knows nothing either speaks the loudest or is mute. One-Arm cannot clap, though their reticent silence in this instance is decided by most sober reason. Ritual tradition and observance—attaining, as it necessarily does, the tenor of profoundest and unmoving religiosity is most difficult to unseat among isolated populations of persons. So it was that One-Arm, being born with only two arms and not three, was nonetheless required to undergo the initiatory ordeal of amputation of their leftmost upper limb.
“I do not know,” answers the young Salvagi, serenely.
“Precisely,” the rarebit agrees.
Hearing this, One-Arm catches the glinting of a certain unmistakably Tech redness in the rarebit’s eye, and so understands at once that the specious wisdom of the creature’s speech is in fact aught but a rhetorical device—the output of corrupted programming being contrived to allow the beast to interrogate and so to gather information from those humans the paths of whom it might contrive to cross. Contrary to its original coding, it will—and, frighteningly, it can—learn. And from that learning it can—and will—extrapolate, interpolate, and think. And from this extrapolation, interpolation and thinking, it can—and will—philosophise (which is, as even the most primitive of readers will readily appreciate, an insufferable faculty in a machine).
Considering the market price of the metals that are contained within the rogue robot-rarebit’s frame, One-Arm zaps it without hesitation, drinks of its iron-rich Tech-artery leakage, and thence slings it over their shoulder and lights out for home.