61 Kepler Littree b
There is a planet – science tells us it’s possible.
On this planet there grow six trees – broad-leaved paperbarks (an improbable, deciduous variety of Melaleuca quinquenerviaeach) – each one younger than the next, all standing in a line along the only fertile stretch of soil on the entire sphere, side-by-side, and ranged from the eldest plant down to the youngest (reading from left to right, as we must, and assuming the tallstand is viewed by a person facing north).
The trees’ whole world is confined to their small, isolated windrow. The planet’s biosphere sustains no life but for these six sentinel specimens of leaf and trunk and branch.
There are no insects or invertebrates here.
There are no soil-borne bacteria.
Mercifully, there are no wood-borne fungi.
No birds, no beasts – not so much as yeast enough to cover the head of a pin (of which there are also none).
As to the possibility – or not – of such an ecological community, science undoubtedly has much to say. Countless planets are, of course, readily able to carry on turning notwithstanding they are bereft of pins. But a paperbark plantation not only living but thriving without the respiratory, metabolic input of microbial life – without the invisible machinations of nitrogen-fixing bacteria and protozoa?
Yet on the planet there are, in sum, just six trees, limbs reaching millennially outward and upward, all standing in a row and ranked from eldest to youngest, beyond which there is nothing but an endless desert called Harper’s.
There is wind here. But it blows in only one direction – from west to east – and in so blowing sweeps up off the plain to meet the eldest of the trees before bustling on along the copse, tugging at the foliage of each of the other trees in turn, elder to younger, and dragging their commingled dropleaves out into the waste.
As to the possibility of a planet having wind blowing in one direction only (and at a constant, unchanging speed!), science may have some contrary wisdom to impart, but –
it is the peculiar habit of the trees to compose fictive prose and verse upon their leaves (science has no dominion here, reader). The result is that, with each complete shedding, the individual tree commends a poem or novel fully-realised to the wind and waiting waste. In this silent work, the tree is not unlike the writer who goes about the business of submitting prose to literary periodicals.
It is the bent of the First tree – the eldest tree – to compose sprawling lyrical cycles in the vein of Virgil or Dante. Which confounds the Fourth and Fifth trees most particularly, since (as a friend once observed), sooner or later the reading world will absorb everything meaningful that is to be gleaned from The Iliad and it will thereafter be transmitted by the great Jungian collective unconscious to future generations of potato-eating writors.
“Don’t you find the language tiresome – the meter unnatural?” the Second tree (a writer of historical epics) asks the First.
“It has stood the test of time,” the First tree replies, “since meter is the most natural of all artistic devices – replicating, as it does, the very breath of the poet.”
The Second tree (though it is loath to admit it) can’t help but observe that those fragments of the First tree’s compositions it receives (lyrical, yet rigid! brittle, yet fluid!) – however fleetingly – before the planet’s singular wind drags them on along the copse and into the desert beyond, find themselves echoed in its own, methodical work, so that phrases of rare and exquisite poeticism pepper the tomes it pens, in its turn, and its meticulously-rendered generals and infantrymen and courtesans come to speak in allusive turns of phrase and tongues not real, but beautiful.
“I have no objections to the form of your work,” the Third tree (crime fiction) says to the Second, “although I have found it to be somewhat bloated – and perhaps a little bloodless – at times.”
“Mine is the ultimate art,” the Second tree retorts. “The historical novel lays bare those most elemental – most universal – of values, isolates them in the minutest details of the past, and sets them to marching, shoulder-to-shoulder, among the dead ranks of history’s grandest assemblies. My work thrills and instructs – as only the lessons of history are apt to do.”
The Third tree (though it will not say so, now, or ever) has just completed the manuscript of a labyrinthine historical whodunnit.
“Why must you always cast the landed gentry in the role of victim?” The Fourth tree asks the Third. “And don’t you find the stink of red-herring cloying?”
“The tropes and mores of my art are but formwork,” the Third tree replies, “scaffolding for the lessons to be learned from the behaviours of my flawed, yet all-too-human characters – whose foibles and neuroses are the real concern.”
The Fourth tree, in its own modernist narratives of choice, is wont to wax lyrical about the deprivations endured by the working class, and the empire-building of the aspirational classes just above it, but finds a villain always (much to its chagrin) in the greedy capitalist and white-collar thug and sociopathic gamesman, who are not (intolerable!) so far removed from the disgruntled heiresses and aristocrats-crippled-by-debt in whose hands the Third tree will so often place the knife.
Worse! The Fourth tree envies (secret shame!) the fatalism of the Third tree’s prose, in which – so it seems – questions of value extend no further than the all-important question of who killed whom. The Fourth tree (a critic unyielding lives in us all!) seethes also with admiration for the complexity and elegance of the Third tree’s plotting.
There is, at root, only suffering and blankness and nihilism to be found in the work of the Fourth tree – that is (as it contents itself), realism.
“The here and now is dull and depressing,” the Fifth tree tells the Fourth.
The Fourth tree can’t help but agree.
“Surely tales of the future best allow us to access our long-dormant, childlike sense of wonder at the world?”
“The artist owes a duty,” the Fourth tree responds, “to understand and lay bare the world in which he or she lives and works. Of course, the reader of today has far less moral right to weigh the merits of such work than the reader of tomorrow – ” (this with a self-satisfied sneer) “ – who must view you’re own speculative flights of futurism and fancy laughable and quaint.”
The Fifth tree is wounded (though it doesn’t say it in so many words, the Fourth tree conjures here that most fearful spectre: genre fiction. Hated label!)
“Speculation is the sharpest tool at the writer’s disposal, when it comes to making sense of the norms of the present day – only by taking them to their logical extremes can we truly understand their folly,” the Fifth tree says. “Technology is a silent empire, creeping outward by increments – its rapaciousness is hard to mark without guidance from minds such as mine.”
The Fifth tree harbours a secret envy of the Fourth, finding something horrid and thrilling in the bold squalor and livid muck of the older tree’s prose (whoever wrote that felt him- or- herself on solid ground?)
The Sixth tree is mute. It receives the leaves of its companions of the copse with playful detachment, calls-back to them constantly, riffs on them, toys with them, feeds them into its own formless work according to the barely-ordered principles of thematic consistency – like a dexterous child halfway taught to dance, who feels the rhythms of common- and- waltz-time and steps accordingly, but cannot yet explain the how and why of the performance – before shedding its own unread work without sadness or regret and casting it out into the sprawling waste.
Because the Sixth tree holds it as axiomatic that all that is written is surely just rubbish.
What’s this unfamiliar sound? Wind blowing downward, descending from up on high! It’s the rushing sound of thrusters firing in reverse, tearing at the stillness of the day – the good ship Travelogue and her sister vessel Premature Memoir come from Earth, and loaded up with hatchets.