“There has, in the present age, come about something which all ages previous have lamented and complained about but which has finally, unfortunately, come true for the science-fiction writer. There are no more gizmos, contrivances, or machines to be imagined. Science fiction as a genre has finally consumed the entire landscape of the imagination, every inch of dirt has been claimed. What is left to us is only the, much lesser, task of remolding and morphing of that dirt. At one time Jules Verne with his pen spoke like God and bade the submarine into existence, into the minds of mortals. Gene Roddenberry directed, and the field of instantaneous transport was created in the minds of men. But now, with this latest bout of science fiction that has been thrust upon the world by the rise of the genre, nothing is left for us who remain. We can no longer be gods, we can only claim to be the basest of mortals, making mud pies in that dirt that was given to us.”
Jackson Crather stopped typing and pinched the bridge of his nose. He stood out of his chair and walked away from the desk to stand and look out the window. The day, contrary to his emotional state, burned bright and he looked, slightly angrily though he recognized the irrationality of it, down from his second story window at the patrons entering and leaving the coffee shop which he lived above. A particular child caught his eye. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, much too young to be drinking coffee regularly, but this was the fifth or sixth time that Jackson had seen him patronizing the shop, and since Jackson didn’t spend an inordinate amount of time looking out the window, he figured that the boy must be a regular. He turned back toward his desk piled with unopened, unpaid bills and a letter, he had opened it immediately but found not a check but a request for an article detailing something new from the Science-Fiction Journal of America. The white of the papers on the desktop seemed to make the white of his screen that much more open and insufficient. He had given them galaxies and stars, rockets and moons, and he had received meagre acclaim for his efforts. But he knew, he had always known, and now they knew it seemed that he had never given them anything new. It was always his little mud-pies. His writings weren’t derivative, that was at least one thing he could claim, but his method to research the tiny backwaters of small journals and writers and to creatively acquire the ideas, inventions and technologies that he found there; there, where no one else ever looked anymore, that method was quickly becoming stale. His mines had run dry long ago and what he was pulling was not the pure ore of the vein but the leftovers mixed with dirt and grime. His coal that used to burn so brightly to fuel his mediocre lifestyle now could barely even do that.
He sat down again at his computer to continue the article, but nothing more than the same pathetic point would come out and he was just belaboring it. He knew what the reply would be. “Isn’t that what they said before Shelley wrote her opus? Or before Philip K. Dick wrote about crime prediction? How can you prove definitively that there is nothing new to be imagined when the whole point would be that it’s currently unimaginable?”
He could see their point.
Motivation having left him for the moment, he rose again and decided to take a break downstairs. The familiar smell of rich earth greeted him as he waved at Jen behind the counter and took a seat at one of the open wooden booths. Within a few minutes she had brought him his regular and left him alone again. It was his habit to people watch during his breaks. He told himself that it was his duty as a writer, that he needed it as fuel for his characters, but he knew that it was simply the pull of voyeurism that held him in its grasp. He would have done the sam
even if he had been a plumber, it was his nature as a mother’s nature is to love her child. People did funny things and he liked to think that he was the only one who noticed, that the world was a cosmic drama, and sometimes for some scenes, he was the only audience member. It was a massive feat of narcissism, but if that was his hubris he wondered what the gods would find in it to punish him for. Men were too interesting not to be watched, to be guessed at. Isn’t that the basis for most of the myths anyway? The little things they do, the way they hold their hands or point their feet that tell you they’re in love or trying to hide hatred, the way their eyes light when they’re excited or elbows twitch when they’re about to cry. It was a puzzle for him, and he loved the challenge, though he rarely learned if his deductions were correct.
Today, his attentions were almost entirely on the boy that he had seen walking in from the street earlier. His small hands were clasped around a book, his book – JACKSON CRATHER in bright bold letters on the front cover—and his feet were propped up on the chair across the table. It seemed, from the way that his head was lying lazily on the back of his chair, that he was not fully engaged in the book, which was a near impossibility. It was one of Jackson’s better pieces, and he was clearly about halfway through the novel, by now the hero, a clever little fellow with a wart right above his left eye, would have already been thwarted in his original attack on the monster due to a nasty bit of miscalculation and would be headed back into hiding to redo his calculations for the harmonic frequency that the monster needed to be hit with to disintegrate. It was his only stint into YA fiction, a move to subdue his publisher, but it had turned out well.
He walked over to the boy, unable to resist the conversation that he knew would be interesting, even if only from a boy of twelve. “How do you like that book? It’s one of my
favorites.” He said, expecting the boy to recognize him immediately. His face was plastered on the back cover after all.
“Really? This is someone’s favorite?” The boy said, not even looking up. “It’s okay, I guess.”
“Don’t you like the subtle allusion to Odysseus and the Cyclops that the main themes are playing on?”
“Mister, this book is about as good as white bread.”
“It’s better than anything healthy but it’s not a cinnamon roll,” the kid said with an exasperated sigh. “Why do you care so much?”
“Professional curiosity.” Jackson, trying to hold back his staunch distaste for the child, decided to make a hasty end to the conversation. He was mature enough to admit that he had made a mistake in coming over here. It was not his to know how others might read his books, how they might think about them. And weren’t all children just a little smelly, just a little off-putting?
The boy didn’t seem to even register that he was causing such a revulsion in Jackson. He casually finished the page that he was on, flipped the book over and looked at the picture on the back first, then at Jackson, then the picture again. Nodding knowingly, he turned back to his spot and continued reading.
Jackson returned to his seat across the room, but couldn’t help watching the boy. Seeing his granite expression register nothing, no laugh or smile, no frown or tear. He must have watched him read a whole chapter before he strode back over to the child. “Don’t you want me to sign it at least?”
“It’s a library book.”
“If you don’t like it so much, what would you write about instead?” This was absurd, he knew it was absurd. He was picking a fight with a child, for what? Not liking his book? And it was in that moment that the clarity came. This was his hubris, his downfall. To become a laughingstock, mocked by this child and this community of coffee consumers as his career comes crashing down around him. Here, Nero, behold your fiddle, this tightlipped child with a choppy haircut. Here, Oedipus, is your oracle. Here, Israel, behold your prophet.
“I don’t know. Something new. It’s not like I haven’t read a hundred books basically the same as this one.”
“New? New. New. New. What could possibly be new? Everything has been done. There’s not a single new idea. We have faster than light travel, teleportation, telekinesis, predicting the future, traveling to the past, forcefields, magnetic fields, holograms, and everything in-between. There cannot ever again be anything new.” He had blown the entire last sentence out of his lungs like a man trying to give up his soul.
There was silence. The boy turned a page.
“What if medicine was so fast that wars were basically eradicated?” The boy had spoken seemingly without thought an appeasement clearly to make him go away, but Jackson latched onto it immediately. The idea had merit, it could turn into something reminiscent of Vonnegut perhaps, darkly humorous. He could see soldiers at that first battle learning to be Sisyphus, testing their strength. He was growing excited, and reached out to ruffle the boy’s hair, but the kid drew back.
“That’s not half bad. I’ll see you later, kid.” And he was up and out of the coffee shop to his room.
It had been a long time since he had been inspired like this. The idea was brilliant, radiant. It was the essence of new boiled down to one tiny golden crumb that he now held in his mind. The words flowed out of him with a zeal with a zest that he had never felt before. He was in a dance with his computer, and each step was right, it all flowed naturally from one sentence and word to the next. The emotion was palpable, the words were true, and the story gradually drew to a close in one feverish intensity. He printed it out and rushed to the printer to pull it off and feel the warmth of the paper.
That was the best part of his process, feeling the completed story, hot off the proverbial presses. He quickly glanced over his creation, reading the wry punchline that completed the story. Two armies met after a relative peace for the first battle since the miracle medicine had been created. Any wound that wasn’t immediately fatal would be healed by a little box no larger than a keyring that hung from the belt of every soldier present. The battle lasted months in a time when most conflicts were settled in hours. Finally, the commanders of each army had called a parlay. They met in the middle of the field to discuss terms and concluded that the old ways were best. It would be best settled by a fight of champions and each army would send their best man forward. He liked the medieval element that he had brought in, it was ticking of a clock to a silent room; it was the single cloud added to a warm orange sunset. It was right in a moment when anything else would have been wrong.
The two men had met, knowing that only instant death would be enough to do the other in. Yet, at the fierce approach of the one, his face contorted in rage, his eyes burning like a soul condemned to damnation, his opponent fled. Thrice round the camps the chase went, before he turned to fight, but his doom was certain. And then it was over. He had no energy left to defend against the onslaught. With his death, the battle was decided. Had he not run, perhaps he could
have won. Probably neither would have dealt a killing blow. That was what Jackson implied in the piece, a few simple words here and there were enough to get that point across. Fear, that was what killed men.
He read over it a few times, making minor changes, before shipping it to the Science-Fiction Journal. It was the fastest turn-around for a story that he had ever written. The days after dragged by in the swelter of wasted time. He couldn’t write until word came back. The world had swallowed him up and was holding him like Jonah inside its belly. Here there was no light, no words, no language. Here there was barely food, barely breath, barely light. There was only the immensity of Time; Time to be fought and to be lost. Time that he had divorced himself from and that now, in these days of when all that mattered was what came in the mail, sunk its dirty hooks into his back to drag its alimony out of him, and he paid it, every second, minute, and hour of it while he waited.
Then, over a week later, the letter arrived.
“While we love to see a sci-fi retelling of great myths, we just don’t feel like this has a spot in our present journal. We know that you will have no issue getting it published elsewhere, however, and wish you the greatest luck in that endeavor.”
He sunk back onto the bed as he read.
Trying to understand how he hadn’t noticed the connection as he had written, he searched his brain for any morsel that might alleviate his confusion. Nothing came to light. It was Hector and Achilles, and he was Hector. Could newness be your enemy? The smell of a car just off the lot, the dish of a country you’ve just arrived in, the smell of the first cut lawn of spring—could these be your nemesis? And if they were, if you made yourself the essence of conservatism, if you cling so tightly to what is that you neglect what could be then how could you possible hope
to win? You’re the horse as cars begin to be produced, the candle as electricity is being lassoed and harnessed, you’re conversation as the written word is being introduced. How can you compete?
In these musings he searched for something that would mark him as anything other than the defeated, anything that might give him a small chance against such a powerful foe. For in every example, in every simulation, he was the loser. He was the obsolete, the extinct, the remnant of a fading past.
But as he thought more, he realized that he hadn’t played the simulations in his mind out far enough. For, as far as he was aware, there were still some in this world that loved to ride horses, some that still burn candles and clearly some that still talk to each other, though he might wish they didn’t. The thought found grip and caught hold. He must become nostalgia, the essence of homesickness. That was what science fiction needed—to be reminded of what is back on earth. How many of our John Carter’s and our James T. Kirk’s desire, long for, hope for home? How many times do we see the explorer wish not to find a new river but to stumble through the dense foliage to find their mother’s tomato soup?
He could rebrand. He could use this as a starting point for a new line of writings. It was a good idea, not something novel, like that foolhardy story he had just sent out. That had been okay, perhaps acceptable even, but it was a flash of lightning and then gone. It was a last ditch effort of a dying man to grasp at a life he once had. But he was—
Sitting up out of bed he feverishly looked through his closet for something black. There was little there, it wasn’t his usual palette. He finally settled on a black pair of jeans he rarely wore. He flung open his only window and slammed it back down on top of the jeans, pinning them so the legs hung limply out the window, fluttering gently in the breeze.
He thought briefly about paying for a spot in the paper, he could certainly write something witty and urbane enough to get his thought across, but he disposed of the idea in order to avoid worrying the few relations he still had out in the world. The flag out his window would have to do, though it wasn’t exactly a typical display. Some would get the picture, or if not, he would and that might be enough.
He was dead and he had never felt more alive.
But that was enough of advertising his death, he had a new story to write, something telling of his new shift into not the future, not the places of lasers and gadgets, but to a place of calm acceptance that there is nothing new. There might have been, one day long ago, before the words of people like him had explored that great final frontier. He sat down and opened up a new document. There might have been a place a decade ago for a new writer, but what he needed to be now was old. Venerable. His characters needed to start longing not for the dual-lights of a binary star system, but for the simple pleasure and heat of a single candle, in their childhood room, nestled in the heart of Waukegan, Illinois.
But the white page stared at him with its devouring blankness, the ever-present black-hole. How to start? For hours he sat, staring, pondering, tossing out idea after idea and some stuck for a minute, but didn’t make it past the first paragraph. Inspiration, with her tempting scent, wouldn’t let him out of her spell, though. He knew the point, just not how to get there. He could see the goal, the tree at the center of the forest, but couldn’t find where to put his first footstep. Then he took a step, just a simple sentence, and it felt solid, embracing even, and he knew that he had found the right path forward.
“There has, in the present age, come about something which all ages previous have lamented and complained about but which has finally, unfortunately, come true for the science-fiction writer…