Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Summer 2006


Not A Moment Too Soon

(A sequel to "The More Things Change...")


Taral Wayne

One crisis shrugged off, Floyd and Sid returned to the front room. While relatively large as most apts go, Sid's spare room was a tight fit for two chairs and a work station. As well, the lease stipulated no food or drink to leave the food preparation area of the front bed-sitting room, and after the scare of momentarily "losing" 30,000 volumes of hard found fantasy, science fiction, alt, media, and porn, Sid wanted a drink.

"I'm having a gin and meth, what about you?"

"Ice tea or cola's fine, unless you have caffinated soy milk?"

"Does the pope have tits? Sure I got caffe milk." He took a couple of plastic bubbles out of the wall fridge by the front door security panel, and squeezed the mouth bulb, popping it before handing the egg-shell coloured milk to Floyd. He popped a bubble of gin next and pezzed in a gel of meth before drinking. "The building grocer stocks my fridge every week, same menu as everyone. Though, I hear some grocers will leave more fats or carbs if you let them double-debit you under the table. Wouldn't do it myself, mind. Totally bad enough having a "listed" hobby, let alone asking for trouble with Lifestyle Enforcement."

"Y'think? They're mullahs all right. Sister of mine got in trouble once with the white-coats and had her calorie intake slashed by half until she reduced to the official slimline. Everyone knows that's a joke. Twenty pounds under ideal if an ounce. But it looks good on the city calorie sheets at the end of the month, if they can get enough people down to the official body fat index."

"Better than the fat farms." Sid suppressed a shudder. Neighbour down the hall disappeared one night, and wasn't seen for six months, and when his sentence was up he reappeared a skeletal hundred and twenty-five pounds -- for a five foot eight inch man now the official norm. It was best not to talk about such things.

"Y'know," said Floyd, "couple of days ago I ran across a Robert J. Sawyer title in a very late index that's not in the Library of Congress"

"I know the name... uh... well can't be American then. A Canadian writer? That must have been very near the end! Almost all of them made their reps in the last decade or two."

"You can't guess how late!"

"Twenty-ten?" hazarded Sid. Seeing no reaction in his friend's face, he guessed again, wildly. "Not twenty-twenty?"

"Oh hell, no. The last known skiffy text that can be dated for sure, not counting later massaging and spins, is twenty-eighteen. This is the last book in an octology about proto-humans apparently, and was actually published on paper in twenty-seventeen."

"Not! That beats me. Last text in my collection was a second edition in twenty-fourteen. There can't be half a hundred texts in the genre later than that. Can I copy?"

Floyd looked away and was silent a moment. "Wish I could let you, but I found the list on a dealer site, and the guy wants to sell the actual paper hard copy. He won't sell a payload. Figures he can get a lot more for it if it's the only access, than if he sells it as just some curious object. I can't afford it."

Sid's face grew a sly expression. They both knew Sid was born with a cleaner credit line than Floyd, who's parents had both run up debts by living beyond their basic gerontal coverage. "Maybe I could. It would be awful weird having a lump of paper around. I can hardly imagine reading such a thing. Print on non-illuminated surfaces hurts my eyes."

"Gives me a headache. But if you scan it for actually reading, you can burn me a copy. "

"Just think of that or have it in mind all along?" Sid laughed. "No kidding. What's the guy want for it, paper and all."

Floyd got that far away look again. He seemed to look into a Maxwell Parrish print called "The Muse" that Sid hung on the wall, and think about another time, when all books were paper and were the common heritage of all readers, rich and poor. A simpler more humane time was the twentieth century. Then he shook himself out of it. "A hundred a ten thousand Yuan. Or three hundred something thousand Euros, I think."

"Uh, what's that in Eagles?"

"Jesus, I don't know. Who sells anything on the internet in U.S. funds any more? That's just for your protein and rent; toys and servers."

Sid picked up the housekeeper. Like most, it came with the apt and controlled everything from the microwave auto-cook, telecom bundle, home shopping routines, media pick-ups, security settings, personal scheduling, to setting all the clocks, but was useless for anything that wasn't built in when he moved there. He brought an internet site up on the front room wall screen. "I know a conversion page."

"Never mind" said Floyd. "I worked it out with my celtel. It's about eight million dollars. Eight million two hundred and fourteen thousand."

Floyd and Sid both stared at the print on the wall for nearly a whole minute.

"That is rather a lot," said Sid finally.

"Tell me about it. At the rate I'm payloading as it is, I'll use up my natal credit line before I'm sixty-five. And I wasn't counting on retirement before the minimum seventy-two."

"Well, it was only a thought. I don't really have anywhere for a bulky useless object anyway." Sid brightened suddenly. "I could eebay it again after scanning; get most of my credit back right away. Only lose a few thousand in interest and charges."

"Wishful thinking, much?" Floyd said, disgusted. "You and I are already on the watch-list for keeping unusual collections, you want to be actively monitored for owning an actual, physical book. Putting it on the eebay would draw instant attention."

Miffed with being told the obvious, Sid stood up and took the two steps to the wall fridge for another gin and meth. "Aw, somebody with more credit and better norms will buy it, and it's only a matter of time before freeloads are on the net."

"Here's to freeloading," Floyd toasted the other, raising his bubble of milk.

* * * * * * * * * *

The lights came on automatically. This time of year, there was not much sunlight to saturate the roof panels and distribute illumination through the miles of optic fibre that lit the building. Sid's apt looked rather dingier in the true spectrum, dim as it was, than it might have in the brave yellow incandescence of the twentieth century. Not at all warm. More like a tool cabinet, with its human occupant neatly stowed away along with his few compact possessions.

"Ever thought you'd like to have been born a hundred years ago?" said Floyd.

"What, before universal credit? And have to work all your life first, for all the things you needed in your life? That wasn't the only way they were backward either. To see the Louvre or the Himalayas you had to actually go to one of those weird places, instead of a convenient casino sim. People in lots of parts of the world didn't even speak English or Spanic like everyone in America. You had to have a celtel programmed to translate something vile... like French. Most recreationals were illegal, f'Christ sake. People stuffed their faces with pie and sausages instead, courting heart disease."

"It wasn't all like that," persisted Floyd. "I mean, it's true we didn't have all sorts of things we take for granted now, but most things were available in a rudimentary form. People watched vid on a simple display screen called teevee. It wasn't interactive or accessible to your computer or workpad or anything, but you could watch things. Isn't that the point? You had to lug around a paper book, but you had texts to read. Music came on large black platters originally -- did you know that? -- but you had something to listen to. When you come right down to it, what would you have to do without if you were born in 1950 instead of 2050, really? I think even the very last planetary photos, the ones from the Zhang Heng Venus Surface Lander, were in that lifetime."

"Mmm... how sad is that?" Sid had been an avid follower of space exploration as a child, but there had been no missions since he was fourteen or fifteen. "Even Kashmiristan has about a dozen first strike satellites, not to mention the orbital depth reserved for corporate uses, but no one bothers with deep space any more."

"That's exactly what I mean." Floyd continued, "There's hardly anything new any more. Hair fashions, novelty food colour additives, sound bites from the vid, but nothing with substance. It's as if the human imagination ground to a stop, what, forty... fifty years ago?"

"That's not fair. Creativity is as common as ever. Just not in the same... um... art forms. That's all."

"Name some."

Sid pulled at his chin a few times. "Politipop. Adspin?"

"Seriously? Do you really consider making rhymes from old campaign buzz to be an art form? Or adding somebody's advertising graphics to your family photos? Here's me and the guys, and Toyota-Daimler's All New Three-Seater Sollis, with Pre-Installed Smart Nav, Standard Road Guide Quad Reader Heads, All Starting at Only $12,495,000. This is Granny and me and the $198 McCombo TVP Lo-Carb Meal. You even have programs that'll choose from that month's defaults and punch up the photo for you. Art? So's decal-tagging your apt then!"

"Okay, so none of that is exactly Shakespeare or Andrew Lloyd Webber. It gives people a sense of self-expression."

"Yeah," snorted Floyd, "a sense."

They'd had this discussion many times more, but Sid had never seen Floyd as upset as he was now. It was as if his old friend had groped for a long time for an understanding of something just out of reach, and was on the very cusp of grasping it. Frankly, it was rather unsettling to watch. New almost always meant unconventional, and trouble.

"People, these days," Floyd went on, "are satisfied with only thinking they think, with substituting phoney experiences for real ones, with connecting the numbers to simulate real creativity! We're all copy-cats, every dot accounted for and never a line astray!"

"Oh, you think? We've gone over this before, more than a few times!" said Sid, loading his voice with sarcasm. "We both know there's nothing inferior about the modern mind. We just live in modern times, and pretty much everything has been done already. Every idea has been gone over again and again, every intellectual property long ago trademarked ... That's all. " He petered out sullenly, unsure where to go with that thought.

"That's all? As if that weren't indictment enough against society. How can we go on, what kind of future lies before us this way, our lives a lame remake of past epics?"

"But don't you see? That's why there's no new creativity. We have nothing new to say. Its all been said and done, so why loop the same track? Now that humanity has built for itself a virtually inexhaustible supply of culture, our role has evolved into connoisseurs, not creators."

"Consumers, you mean. Culture is marketed to us like soy-flakes or designer cornea implants. Culture was once something people did for themselves, that they didn't pay for pre-packaged and sanitized."

"No. That's where you're wrong! They did pay! We don't have to pay for culture today!"

Floyd stood dumbstruck. This was not where he wanted to go with his thought at all.

"We have broken out of the need to pay for our common artistic heritage now," Sid continued relentlessly. It's allllll at our fingertips -- Mozart, Beatles, Blake, Lao Tze, Hobbes, Surak, Vermeer, Picasso, Voltaire, Hitchcock, Spielberg, Herge, Rushdie, Sophicles, Ovid, Chaucer, Tolkien, Twain, Melville, Miyazaki, Tezuka, Dickens, Dante, Roddenberry, Aristotle, Freud, Moore, Gilbert & Sullivan ... " Sid stopped to take a breath and continued, "Da Vinci, Disney, Mucha, Van Gogh, Nuriyev, Kelly, Guiness, Bogart, Omar Kayyam, Carroll, Baum, Bacon, Debussy, Doors ... " Another breath, "Sinatra, Caruso, Sondheim, Hiroshige, Hokusai, Watterson, Wells, Verne, Asimov, Freas, Pleger..."

"All right, all right!"

" -- and all we have to do is google for it. Nobody to pay a dime to, nothing to prevent us from enjoying all the greatest intellectual achievements of history! And you want to go back to a time when you had to charge up a week's or a year's worth of credit whenever you wanted to enrich your life? Unless you were very rich, people in the 20--th century must have led lives that were culturally impoverished compared to ours!"

"All the same... " Floyd paused, searching through his misgivings for a loophole in Sid's logic. "...people did create brand new things, all the time. Maybe not everyone could enjoy all that came of so much creativity and originality, but it was so plentiful that everyone had access to all they wanted."

"With it costing a week's budget to see Cats on Broadway? Or a whole days's budget for an old-fashioned hard copy book? I doubt it."

"Yet there must have been large enough audiences to support a cast of actors, not to mention cameramen, film editors and all the rest. Or support writers, agents, editors, printers, and booksellers."

Sid conceded there was a time when the cost-benefit equation worked better in favour of the consumer. "But it all changed, sometime a little after the Second Millenium, didn't it?"

"It's one of the big mysteries of the Pre-Digital era. Just as it was finally possible to make all artistic endeavours universal, removing every financial obstacle from between artist and audience, the culture seemed to come to a dead stop." Floyd threw his empty milk bubble over his shoulder, a contemptuous dismissal of the irony. "Well, look, it's nearly twenty-one double-oh, I'd better get going. There's work tomorrow, and they power down the transit for the night, shortly. Seems earlier every year."

"Yeah, the power assistance for the lights goes out at twenty-four hundred too. In fact, the building's fuel cells are over ten years old and a little wonky. Sometimes they brown out even before twenty-three. I guess we'd both better think about packing it in."

"Still," said Floyd, "it vexes me. Why on the verge of utopia does the human genius go dumb?"

"We're lucky at that."

"How's that, Sid? Lucky there hasn't been much of anything new for most of our lives? Wouldn't you like to read a book, see a vid, or download a piece of eye-candy that wasn't forty years old? Or wasn't the product of some embarrassingly amateurish community arts centre?"

"I think I totally wouldn't know what to think of such a novelty! Ha ha. But at least we have the past. It's all preserved for us, forever, thanks to the revolution in digital storage media and the net. It came as just the right moment. Imagine if there had been no digital formats or hard drives for another twenty years. When the technology finally arrived, it would have been too late. With only a finite number of paper books and magnetic tapes to preserve the works of the Modern Age before it ended, we might have lost who knows how much invaluable art. It could have gone the way of lost Elizabethan plays and ancient Greek tragedies. But the timing was perfect. You'd almost think there was a connection; that one caused the other."

"Now that would be crazy," laughed Floyd.

But suddenly Sid seemed to see something his normally more thoughtful friend and fellow collector had missed.

"Just in time... just when all art and literature was freely available to everyone at the push of a button... artists everywhere stopped creating. It's as though art having a cost had somehow... caused art?" But no, somehow that couldn't be quite right. But it was too hard for the 21st. century man who was too used to cradle to grave security (of a sorts) to wrap his head around a variety of unfamiliar concepts, and he let the thought go.

"Now who's being silly?" said Floyd on the doorstep. He gave Sid a high five, and took five on the rebound. Seemingly of one mind, they both looked back into the apt, eyes lingering on the wall poster. The Muse in her nimbus of taffeta and brunette tresses mesmerized them with her elusive smile. What wisdom did she possess that she withheld from them? Then they broke the spell with a shake of their heads. Floyd headed down the hall, a little drunken still from the moment of hypnosis, and Sid closed the door to the apt behind him. Both silently wondered, puzzled by the same disturbing thought. Just what was it they, heirs to the future, had done to deserve The End of Art?

Perhaps fortunately they never worked it out.



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