Anglish, Late Flowering, Fictional Mode
Haydn Jan was famed for having read all the books; Bruss, the outworlder from Hellhole who saved him, was not even well-known on Hellhole. This is how they met.
Prised out of retirement to represent the Museum of Terra, Haydn Jan was accepting a text lately uncovered in excavations of the first Martian settlements, but could bring no joy to it. Previous gifts to the Museum included a textbook about cooking animals now extinct, and enigmatic magazines in which starved women in fantastical costume glared from the page.
The book held by Haydn Jan had not survived by merit, but because it was preserved by chance events when greater works were lost. A moment’s study had revealed it to be Anglish, Late Flowering, Fictional Mode, a style held in low regard even in its own day.
Of course, to have survived at all, its organic pages had been soaked in inert polymer long ago, so he was denied the Sense Tactile and Olfactory; still, the finding of such a treasure should have merited the Three Nods To Serendipity. That lapse alone showed how jaded Haydn Jan had become.
Handled with care, just so, a volume will fall open to a place loved by some ancient reader. He cleared his throat and his tiny audience hushed.
Behind him, a display showed the black marks on the page he was reading. Some puzzled over the ciphers, others congratulated themselves on witnessing a rare performance, already thinking how they might embellish the tale at home.
The story involved a hero, the Vatican and a secret society, and after a while his audience grew restless. Feeling somehow responsible for the ponderous tale, he hurried to the chapter’s end.
Terra was an old world, inhabited by a traditional folk, and tourists expected its customs to be plentiful and quaint, a refuge from the datastorm of progress elsewhere. There was a scatter of applause, but they had paid handsomely and were not sure they had received good value.
Old-fashioned drinks were provided afterwards, and Haydn stood awkwardly amongst his audience, an untouched white wine in his hand.
“Skillful, I’m sure,” a man told him. “But don’t see the point of reading myself.”
His wife was scandalised.
“Could just squirt the whole thing,” he shrugged.
“There is pleasure to be had in the words,” Haydn said. “And surprise and beauty in their placement which is lost with nanotech.”
It seemed the man had recently updated his own nanotech, and went on to describe its features with the enthusiasm of a salesman.
This was a world, Haydn thought wearily, which preferred the efficiency of a cerebral data-dump.
Thinking to slip away, he was accosted by the outworlder, Bruss. The man had taken a liking to Bollinger, but after champagne fluteskept snapping in his hands, now swigged straight from the bottle.
“Keen on books are you, mate?” he boomed.
Outworlders were a fiercer, more rugged version of humankind, in the habit of taming raw frontier planets. Bruss was bred for high-gravity and left a trail of wrenched-off door handles and bent cutlery.
Haydn flinched, and smiled the Smile of Reluctance.
Still the outworlder persisted. “What’s your favourite then?”
Haydn Jan had been asked this so often he kept several answers to hand. Sometimes he praised Extracts From Great Literature, by Readers Digest; occasionally he plumped for one of Rowling’s works; this time he considered the merits of both Shakespeare plays.
“Odd goin’ for Much Ado an’ Henry Vee when Hamlet’s the boss.”
Haydn frowned. “One of the lost plays.”
“Read ‘m at school, mate.” Bruss thumped the empty Jeroboam onto a spindly table, buckling its legs. “Everythin’ here’s made of spit,” he complained.
Literacy had followed a trajectory that rose and fell like the use of stone tools. Humanity now infiltrated nanotech at birth, eliminating the years wasted teaching a brain to read. Perhaps this was how the last knapper of flint axes had felt.
Hayden peered into the man’s face, scoured red by dust-storm and UV. It did not seem credible this hulking giant could read, but he had to ask.
“Too right, mate. But I’m here to take the nanotech back to Hellhole. Been out the loop long enough. Time to get civilized.”
“Won’t be needin’ books soon,” Bruss added.
A feeling that was indescribable welled up in Haydn Jan; indescribable because he had forgotten what it was to be young and thrilled by novelty, instead of old and threatened by change.
“Settled by generation ship,” Bruss was saying. “Took books along ’cos we didn’t want to lose everything in a crash like you lot.”
How many books, Haydn wanted to know. The number of Anglish texts in the Museum of Terra – not their nanotech enablings – the books he had actually handled and read, was almost half a thousand. He knew of a hundred more in private hands.
Bruss shrugged. “Folk lit fires with ’em. Hellhole, mate. All volcanoes an’ banjax.”
Haydn’s face fell. For a moment there he had hoped…
“Mind you,” mused Bruss. “Generation ship’s still parked round Hellhole. S’got a library.”
Haydn Jan distantly recalled a feeling he had known when he was young, with a new book in his hands. A feeling those who had not loved reading would never understand.
“And how far is…”
In a way it was unimportant, c-ships employed relativity and cold sleep. It only mattered to those left behind, and he left no one.
“It’s a way away. You can kiss your grandkids g’bye.”
“And your favourite book?” Haydn wondered faintly.
Bruss looked bashful. “You’ll grin.”
“Pride & P, you know?”
“No,” said Haydn Jan, reborn. “But it is the first I shall read when we get there.”