Authors: Brian Aldiss
Tags: #Fiction.Sci-Fi, #Fiction.Dark Fantasy/Supernatural, #Fiction.Horror, #Adapted into Film
For Bob and Kathy Morsberger,
who appreciate what Mary Shelley started
Alas, lost mortal! What with guests like these
Hast thou to do? I tremble for thy sake:
Why doth he gaze on thee, and thou on him?
Ah, he unveils his aspect: on his brow
The thunder-scars are graven: from his eye
Glares forth the immortality of hell...
Make the beaten and conquered pallid, with brows raised and knit together, and let the skin above the brows be all full of lines of pain; at the sides of the nose show the furrows going in an arch from the nostrils and ending where the eye begins, and show the dilation of the nostrils which is the cause of these lines; and let the teeth be parted after the manner of such as cry in lamentation.
LEONARDO DA VINCI:
Treatise on Painting
Letter from Joseph Bodenland to his wife, Mina:
August 20th, 2020
My dearest Mina,
I will entrust this to good old mail services, since I learn that CompC, being much more sophisticated, has been entirely disorganized by the recent impact-raids. What has not? The headline on today’s still is: SPACE/TIME RUPTURED, SCIENTISTS SAY. Let us only hope the crisis will lead to an immediate conclusion of the war, or who knows where we shall all be in six months’ time!
But to more cheerful things. Routine has now become reestablished in the house, although we still all miss you sorely (and I most sorely of all). In the silence of the empty rooms at evening, I hear your footfall. But the grandchildren keep the least corner occupied during the day. Nurse Gregory is very good with them.
They were so interesting this morning when they had no idea I was watching. One advantage about being a deposed presidential adviser is that all the former spy-devices may now be used simply for pleasure. I have to admit I am becoming quite a voyeur in my old age; I watch the children intensely. It seems to me that in this world of madness, theirs is the only significant activity.
Neither Tony nor Poll have mentioned their parents since poor Molly and Dick were killed; perhaps their sense of loss is too deep, though there is no sign of that in their play. Who knows? What adult can understand what goes on in a child’s mind? This morning, I suppose, there was some morbidity. But the game was inspired by a slightly older girl, Doreen, who came round here to play. You don’t know Doreen. Her family are refugees, very nice people from the little I have seen of them, who have arrived in Houston since you left for Indonesia.
Doreen came round on her scooter, which she is just about old enough to drive, and the three of them went to the swimming pool area. It was a glorious morning, and they were all in their swimsuits.
Even little Poll can swim now. As you predicted, the dolphin has been a great help, and both Poll and Tony adore her. They call her Smiley.
The children had a swim with Smiley. I watched for a while and then struggled with my memoirs. But I was too anxious to concentrate; Sec. of State Dean Reede is coming to see me this afternoon and frankly I am not looking forward to the meeting. Old enemies are still old enemies, even when one is out of office—and I no longer derive pleasure from being polite!
When I looked in on the children again, they were very busy. They had moved to the sand area—what they call the Beach. You can picture it: the gray stone wall cutting the leisure area off from the ranch is now almost hidden by tall hollyhocks in full bloom. Outside the changing huts are salvia beds, while the jasmines along the colonnade are all in flower and very fragrant, as well as noisy with bees. It is a perfect spot for children in a dreadful time like the present.
The kids were burying Doreen’s scooter! They had their spades and pails out, and were working away with the sand, making a mound over the machine. They were much absorbed. No one seemed to be directing operations. They were working in unison. Only Poll was chattering as usual.
The machine was eventually entirely buried, and they walked solemnly round it to make sure the last gleaming part was covered. After only the briefest discussion, they dashed away to different parts of the area to gather things. I saw their quick brown bodies multiplied on the various screens as I called more and more cameras into action. It looked as if the whole world was tenanted by little lissom savages—an entirely charming illusion!
They came back to the grave time and time again. Sometimes they brought twigs and small branches snapped off the sheltering acacias, more often flower-heads. They called to each other as they ran.
Nurse Gregory had the morning off, so they were playing entirely alone.
You may recall that the cameras and microphones are concealed mainly in the pillars of the colonnade. I was not picking up what the children were saying very well because of the constant buzzing of bees in the jasmine— how many secrets of state were saved by those same insects?! But Doreen was talking about a Feast. What they were doing, she insisted, was a Feast. The others did not question what she said. Rather, they echoed it in excitement.
“We’ll load on lots of flowers and then it will be a huge, huge Feast,” I heard Poll say.
I gave up work and sat watching them. I tell you, theirs seemed the only meaningful activity in the crazy warring world. And it was inscrutable to me.
Eventually they had the grave covered with flowers. Several branches of acacia were embedded on top of the mound, which was otherwise studded with big hollyhock flowers, crimson, mauve, maroon, yellow, orange, with an odd scarlet head of salvia here and there, and a bunch of blue cornflowers that Poll picked. Then round the grave they arranged smaller twigs.
The whole thing was done informally, of course. It looked beautiful.
Doreen got down on her knees and began to pray. She made our two solemn grandchildren do likewise.
“God bless you, Jesus, on this bright day!” she said. “Make this a good Feast, in Thy name!”
Much else she said which I could not hear. The bees were trying to pollinate the microphones, I do believe. But chiefly they were chanting, “Make this a good Feast, in Thy name!” Then they did a sort of hopping dance about the pretty grave.
You must wonder about this unexpected outbreak of Christianity in our agnostic household. I must say that at first it caused me some regret that I have for so long stifled my own religious feelings in deference to the rationalism of our times—and perhaps partly in deference to you, whose innocent pagan outlook I always admired and hopelessly aspired to. As far as I know, Molly and Dick never taught their children a word of prayer. Perhaps the traditional comforts of religion were exactly what these orphans needed. What if those comforts are illusions? Even the scientists are saying that the fabric of space/time has been ruptured and reality—whatever that may be—is breaking down.
I need not have worried overmuch. The Feast ceremony was basically pagan, the Christian formulae mere frills. For the dance the children did among their plucked flowers was, I’m sure, an instinctual celebration of their own physical health. Round and round the grave they went! Then the dance broke up in rather desultory fashion, and Tony popped his penis out of his trunks and showed it to Doreen. She made some comment, smiling, and that was that. They all ran and jumped into the pool again.
When the gong sounded for lunch and we all assembled on the verandah, Poll insisted on taking me to look at the grave.
“Grampy, come and see our Feast!”
They live in myth. Under the onslaught of school, intellect will break in—crude robber intellect—and myth will wither and die like the bright flowers on their mysterious grave.
And yet that isn’t true. Isn’t the great overshadowing belief of our time—that ever-increasing production and industrialization bring the greatest happiness for the greatest number all round the globe—a myth to which most people subscribe? But that’s a myth of Intellect, not of Being, if such distinction is permissible.
Pm philosophizing again. One of the reasons they chucked me out of the government!
Dean Reede arrives soon. My just deserts, some would say...
Ever your loving husband,
PS. I enclose a still of the leader in today’s
New York Times.
Despite the measured caution of its tone, there’s much in what it says.
first leader, August 20th, 2020:
Western scientists are now in general although not entire accord—for even in the domain of science opinion is rarely unanimous—that mankind is confronted with the gravest crisis of its existence, a crisis not to survive which is not to survive at all.
Crises which in prospect appear uniquely ominous have a habit of assuming family resemblances in retrospect. We observe that they were critical but not conclusive. To say this is not to be facetious. Professor James Ransome’s comment in San Francisco yesterday brought a sense of proportion to the increasingly alarmist news of the instability of the infrastructure of space—a sense of proportion particularly welcome to that large general public unaware until a fortnight ago that there was such a thing as an infrastructure of space, let alone that nuclear activity might have rendered it unstable. The professor’s remark that the present instability represents, in his words, “the great gray ultimate in pollution,” should remind us that the world has survived serious pollution scares for over fifty years.
However, there are sound reasons for regarding our present crisis as nothing less than unique. All three opposed sides in the war, Western, South American and Third World powers, have been using nuclear weapons of increasing caliber within the orbits of the Earth-Lunar system. Nobody has gained anything, unless one includes the doubtful benefit of having destroyed the civilian Moon colonies, but the general feeling has been one of relief that these weapons were used above rather than below the stratosphere.
Such relief, we now see, was premature. We are learning yet another bitter lesson on the indivisibility of Nature. We have long understood that sea and land formed an interrelated unit. Now—far too late, according to Professor Ransome and his associates—we perceive a hitherto undiscerned relationship between our planet and the infrastructure of space which surrounds and supports it. The infrastructure has been destroyed, or at least damaged, to the point at which it malfunctions unpredictably, and we are now faced with the consequences. Both time and space have gone “on the blink,” as the saying has it. We can no longer rely even on the sane sequence of temporal progression; tomorrow may prove to be last week, or the last century, or the Age of the Pharaohs. The Intellect has made our planet unsafe for intellect. We are suffering from the curse that was Baron Frankenstein’s in Mary Shelley’s novel: by seeking to control too much, we have lost control of ourselves.
Before we go down in madness, the most terrible war in history, largely an irrational war of varying skin tones, must be brought to an immediate halt. If the plateau of civilization, onto which mankind climbed with such long exertion, now has to be evacuated, let us at least head away into the darkness in good order. We should be able to perceive at last (and that phrase “at last” now contains grim overtones) that as the relationship between space, planets, and time is more intimate and intricate than we had carelessly imagined, so too may be the relationship between black, white, yellow, red, and all the flesh tones in between.