Father, In a Far Distant Time
Return Sample chapter 1
A sampling of Clown civilization
To sample this new society, as we sampled Gennie’s Federation with Mary, let’s invest ourselves in a stroll through the streets of one of the Clowns’ major cities several hundred years later.
Even at a very first impression, the street life feels entirely different. The pavements are jammed with people, and bright with their brilliant clown-like costumes. The people are animated, milling as if at random, noisy and impulsive, but not furiously purposive as the people of the Northern Federation’s city had been. They seem to have no fixed roles, but to just be together, with little routine. No one seems to be working, yet the society appears prosperous. And everywhere, people are speaking to one another. This is a culture of talk.
What language are they speaking? It is a lively compound of the ancient language—the language of the Federation—and the new schema-based language that first plunged them into madness and then brought them to a new sanity. The writing that we see everywhere displayed on the buildings is made up of signs and tags, but the tags refer mainly to the schema, and the Clowns’ passion for history.
When we try to look a little deeper, and understand what’s going on in the buildings flanking the city’s streets, we run into the enormous gulf that separates Clown mentality from that of the Modern World whose form of language we are using. Allow enough time, my Father used to say, and ideas about the meaning of life are bound to diverge. After the basics of life have been satisfied, a society can occupy itself doing whatever it wants. Food, the search for which had shaped history so strongly in the prehistoric and Ancient worlds, had become freely available in the age of the biochemical digestor. Shelter could be as elaborate or as simple as you wanted. After that, the choice was yours. You could use the surplus time and natural enthusiasm of people to build a pyramid, assemble a technological base sufficient to go to the moon, train opera singers—whatever you wanted. Clowns chose to use only a small portion of their time on material necessities, and all the rest on performances and interactions in private and public. Many of the ground floor arcades beside us are dedicated to a thousand interactions totally alien to the English language.
Some of those arcades are clearly dedicated to business, but even these will be hard to describe. Clown industry came mainly out of their mastery of schema, and their technologies of history. For example, we would recognize shops and business trading in arts and crafts. But we might not realize how big in scale that industry was.
The art industry came out of the Clown researches into the history of materials. They had found that fictions accumulated in a consistent pattern: from mastery of a material, to technology, to craft, to art, to philosophy. Abstracting a blueprint for this process, they had learned to apply it at will; what had, in the past, occupied a craft tradition for half a millennium, they could prescribe in an hour or two, accelerating enormously the development of crafts and skills. Becoming able to predict the future development of other people’s arts and crafts, the Clowns could permanently monopolize their markets.
But other businesses would be selling products that make no sense to us at all. Many of these, too, have come out of the Clowns’ researches into history. As they tracked the historical consequences of materials, the Clowns kept finding new engines of evolution arising out of them. Money, for example, often arose out of mastery of a new material. Writing also: clay tablets to be inscribed and then baked; metal tools hard and sharp enough to carve stone; metal-casting fine enough to produce type from which books could be printed. Detecting ever-deeper patterns in this process of cultural evolution, the Clowns developed a systematic technology around the engines behind it, which they could apply to turn any available material into new engines of culture. These new engines of cultural evolution would then become the basis for new industries.
Some of the most impressive displays are for businesses that have no product at all, that simply offer a service. The Clowns have learned how to solve problems without the use of any materials, relying instead on their grasp on the mechanics of mentalitydevelopment itself. Instead of changing the world, or making something, they have learned to solve problems purely through mentality. All trade ultimately involves a satisfaction of values, and Clown-consultants would, for a substantial fee, figure out how to satisfy values directly, by schema-manipulation. That, increasingly, is the commodity their empire is based on. It’s a relief to emerge from the jammed and bustling streets into a large intersection, hollowed out to provide space for an open-air shrine to Josie, and ringed with cafes. We’ll sit for a while and concentrate on what’s going on at the tables next to us.
There’s a loud buzz of conversation. Curiously, everyone seems to be arguing, but no one’s getting angry. If we listen a little more carefully, we’ll notice that what people are talking about is why they don’t agree with each other, and how to take the difference of opinion farther.
This curious style of conversation comes from something the Clowns adopted from Gennie: her engine of questions and prompts. They adopted it not only as a principle of nature, but also as a model for their own interactions. Their idea of conversation is to use the tactic of questions and prompts to locate in each other the origin of differences of opinion. Their goal is, first, to find the question that most clearly identifies a difference, and then, through prompts, to bring that difference into sharper focus. Rather than enjoy agreement in conversation, as most peoples have chosen to do, they prefer to savor difference. In discussion, they abandon agreement as uninteresting, and instead probe deeper, searching always for the historical roots of difference, or for differences in schema. They assume that, once such a difference is found, each person’s point of view will be found interesting. Difference of opinion isn’t, for them, a matter of right and wrong, but of the different origins of the respective opinions. Anyway, only when these origins have been found, they believe, is a resolution of the difference possible, should a resolution be desired.
If you look as if you need help in a Clown city, someone is sure to offer it. My wandering attention has summoned to my table a young man, perhaps twenty three years old, tall and dark. He sits down opposite me, with a quizzical smile.
“You look like a stranger,” he says. “Can I help you?”
“Oh, good, yes,” I reply. “I’m a stranger to your society. I’m looking for someone to tell me more about it. Can you help me?”
“Sure!” he says, his grin widening, What more could a young Clown want for diversion on a sunny afternoon than a chance to talk to a stranger and perhaps be offered a cup of tea?
I order tea for us both. He asks me where I’m from.
When I say I’m from the Modern World, he shows no surprise. This is not such a strange thing to say in a Clown gathering, since this is just the kind of remark they make themselves, as a form of play.
“The Modern World! Well, you should like it here,” he says, with a hearty laugh. “You’ll find this a much, much more congenial society. Let’s see—early or late?”
“Late,” I tell him. “End of the twentieth century.”
“A self fashioned through two millennia of religion, recently hastily adapted to a scientific world view. Consciousness still taken for granted as a ‘gift from God,’ just falling out of the sky at birth— the concept of self-consciousness only a century or two old. Fear of death moderated by a vestigial belief in an afterlife, though one drained at this point of any detailed specifications. How’m I doing?”
“Not bad,” I say.
“Good, a good choice, the late twentieth. Very different from today. The body—medical model?”
“Yes,” I say. He nods. “The arms and legs, primarily muscle and bone for locomotion, right? The belly taken up with chemical processing of food, and elimination. The chest—lungs and heart for gas exchange. Head—brain for decision-making. All of it machinery likely to go wrong and need fixing. Maybe surgery—cut it open, fix it, sew it up.
“For us, on the other hand, arms and legs are for communicating— reaching out, touching, slapping, grasping, walking towards, strolling with. The head’s for talking and seeing and hearing and broadcasting expressions. Trunk is our base, the primary organ of body language. It’s all communication equipment, likely to run out of control and say something we’ll later regret. Needs fixing? Usually nothing that a walk in the woods won’t cure. If the body does get really sick, we’re out of luck. Except we have a very powerful medical principle—not caring too much. You might want to give that a shot.”
My companion is enjoying hearing himself talk. He goes on:
“When the medical model gives out, and you’re looking for some more profound answers, you turn to atoms, right? Carbon-based life. Maybe the secret’s there in the carbon. All around you, you see the atoms of things. If only you knew enough about the atoms, you’d figure out the meaning of life. How’s that going?”
“Not very well,” I say with a smile. “Those atoms haven’t told me much about the meaning of life. But now, you tell me—if what you see when you look around isn’t atoms, what is it?”
Leaning back with his arms outstretched to embrace the entire world, he says, “Transactions.” Then he swings forward, gestures to the people at the next table, and whispers conspiratorially, “See that couple? They’re talking about last night’s play. He’s a playwright himself, very talented. I’m dying to know what he’s saying.
“The women with him, one of our most engaging hostesses. I was at her party before the play, and we trashed it sight unseen. Why not? I’m dying, just dying, to know what they’re saying. But don’t feel bad, it’s not that I’d rather be eavesdropping on their conversation than being here with you, it’s just the sense of the wealth of interactions all going on at the same time.” And he pointed from table to table, judging from what he knew of the people what they would be talking about, and relishing the delights each table presented. He wanted to be present at each and every one. “Think of it! The richness of the transactions going on right now at just these few tables around us. Then think of all the transactions taking place here in one week. Multiply that by all the coffee houses in town, then by all the towns in our land. And by the number of weeks in a year, and the years in a century. Just as you every so often, I’m sure, choke over the number of molecules in a drop of water, or some such other example, we’re constantly overwhelmed by the vast numbers of transactions taking place in every aspect of life throughout the world—in people’s conversations, in the cells of their bodies, between all the world’s creatures, in the weather...”
His face has assumed an expression of agonizing pain, as if the teeming hordes his words have conjured up are an intolerable burden. Then, as quickly, he’s all business again. “Is it conceivable that so many transactions could take place, and not compile to a higher intelligence? Of course not. And that’s what we take for granted, just as you take for granted that atoms make up the air you breathe—oxygen in, carbon dioxide out—and that, in ice crystals, the molecules line up in rows like little soldiers, whereas in steam they’re flying about and colliding like angry bees.
“But even your society has a sense of the creative power of massed transactions. Don’t you speak of your economy as if it had a mind of its own, when all the time you know it’s just the compilation of huge numbers of scattered money transactions? The economy, the marketplace, productive capacity—you speak of the marketplace introducing new products to meet demand, as if such abstractions were capable of acting all by themselves. Well, that’s what we do, only we extend it a little further. And we’ve been able to actually identify some of the “persons” emerging, as huge compilations of transactions self-organize.”
“That’s where our own sense of self come from. I made a bit of fun of your sense of self, but who can say which is right? We sense ours as coming out of all the transactions we’ve already had: one more self-organizing intelligence, growing all the time. How could the Northern Federation not see this! They seem to have believed that there’s as much self at the moment of conception, when your phantasm begins to be realized, as there will be at sixty. Obviously, it’s not our phantasms that makes the most difference in who we are, it’s what we absorb from the culture we grow up in.
“Of course, we believe in the phantasm, too. Only we call it ‘the Original Mentality’—its the mentality we’re born with. Then Josie augments it with what’s really important, really distinctively human— the intelligences implicit in our material inventions, and language, and history.” He jerks his chin at me, as if to say, so what do you think of that!
“And death?” I say.
“Yes, you see—what kind of consolation does the phantasm bring you there? Merely knowing you’ve been an infinitesimal, unmeasurably small part, of the evolution of the species? But for us, consciousness grows out of the entire web of transactions we’ve constructed during life. Death finds those connections we’ve forged still intact. So we expect our consciousness to continue, slowly waning as that web of transactions is gradually overwritten by the connections made by others. Sometimes, if we’ve lived particularly fruitful lives, that self may even enlarge after death, if people honor and preserve our memory. We may become built into language, and live forever. So, we may not have a body, but the ground of our consciousness remains.”
As he’s been talking, I’ve been aware of a disturbance gathering outside. Then a band of Clowns sweeps into the cafe and begins a strange peeping sound, that’s taken up by those around us until the air is filled with it—a piping in the young, a honking in the adult men, an intermediate humming in the women. My companion has joined in, quite unselfconsciously, his mouth opening rhythmically in what could almost be a laugh. The extraordinary sound continues for about fifteen minutes, then gradually it gives way to the former buzz of intense chatter.
My companion turns back to me and explains that we have been present at an invocation of Josie. The peeping sound is how they try to summon her. It’s a communal sounding-out, a sound with no meaning, through which they expect Josie to speak, as if through a higher harmonic. No one will claim to have heard Josie during these peeping sessions, but committees will initiate such a session before making a decision, clearly feeling the need to consult Josie in this way first. Proof of her presence lies in how they feel after having joined in this wordless communion with their community.
My companion excuses himself graciously—he has to join the committee—rises and takes his leave.
Through impromptu ceremonies like this, and in many other ways, the Clowns paid allegiance to Josie, their very own World Figure. The process of penetrating through even-deeper layers of “persons” to a final, single, World Figure now had three powerful precedents: Geos, then the Dragon, and finally Gennie. The Clowns had no doubt that, under the ever-multiplying and fattening layers of engines and “persons” in their databases, lay a single World Figure of unprecedented power. In their fashion, they worshipped her, relishing in advance the ecstasy of encountering one day the full glory of the Figure behind all history and achievement. Glimpses of her would be caught. Though she herself could not be viewed in the moving snapshot way that Geos and Gennie had been viewed, traces of her were evident in the evolution of language, and in twists and turns of history that testified to a guiding hand of matchless guile. Despite increasingly intensive researches into history, though, Josie obstinately failed to appear. As the realization set in that she might never appear, her devotees settled for the corresponding compensation—if she could not be found, it was because she was, after all, the most advanced of the World Figures.