I wrote this story in 1986 to enter a Gollancz/Sunday Times science fiction short story competition. It was a runner-up and published in the subsequent anthology. Set in a possible future it also harks back to the past in which it was written – when the Internet was still embryonic and mobile devices were neither small nor almost ubiquitous; when people still read books and wrote on paper. A past when you could quote Karl Marx and people would nod thoughtfully…
I’d just turned ten when my father was battered to death by an advertisement.
At the time, despite my tender years, it seemed a comic end to a life which rarely rose above farce. It still does, really, because I’m not sure about this ‘sacrificed king’ stuff, not sure at all. On the other hand, I am certain of this – that daddy died because, despite a thousand glaring faults, he was a rarity: a trustworthy, trusting human being; an innocent odd-bod still prepared to open his door at midnight in case someone in need was on the other side. And whereas most people would have smelled a big fat sewer rat on finding a commercial standing there (not even the MANDROID CORPORATION would risk disenchanting the public by sending their walking, talking Smartyplants out in the late hours to sell even more junk no one really wanted or needed), poor old father – well, he wasn’t that old actually – always eager for any kind of conversation, and always compassionate, invited the ad to come in, out of the cold his vegetable body and brain could barely feel anyway.
Looking back, daddy probably wanted to talk about the nature of consciousness, the human and android soul. He always enjoyed talking to Smartyplants (which explains, I guess, how they knew what they thought they knew), and he was working on yet another unpublished paper called ‘More Or Less Human?’ when the commercial – that’s Ray of course – snuffed him out with the help of a litre bottle of Japanese Scotch whisky. Dad, you see, never received much formal education; nevertheless, for all his adult life he was devoted to what he called ‘the science of polymathematics’. When mum walked out on us – I was six then – I bumped into her as she stormed out the front door yanking a single, crap case with a broken wheel. She said, “Your father is as nutty as a fruitcake!” I went upstairs to his chaotic, tiny study. “Mum’s gone,” I told him matter of factly (it wasn’t unexpected). “She says you’re as nutty as a fruitcake.” Dad buried his head in his hands and I went close to give him a hug. I thought he needed one. But then he looked up, delighted, eyes wide. “That phrase, girl,” he said, eyes glowing now, “that simile! What does it mean exactly? What’s its origin? How did it come about?” And then he sprang from his chair and grabbed some heavy, dusty books from the shelf. Instantly immersed in their pages he began muttering and whistling through his teeth.
So, when mum left I realised that dad had been gone for some time. At least that’s what I thought.
Anyway, back to when I was ten. There’s my father in the hall with the commercial known as Ray. Ray started to push his Product of the Day, just like he normally would. “Available now, sir, at all leading stores, it’s Nippon Fiddich, named after the genuine river built in Nagasaki in 2062! It’s a drink for the discerning gentleman, a gentleman like you! More Scotch than Scottish Scotch, why not…”
And daddy probably interrupted. “Come and sit down. Take the weight off your plates. Forget that rubbish. Let’s talk about…”
“But, sir, you’ll be astounded by the smoothness of this synthetic, gamma-ray matured blend because,” Ray taking a big bottle from his battered samples case, “it’s the bee’s knees because it’s…”
And so it must have gone on, with daddy batting the sales pitch this way and that. All he wanted was a nice chat. For his part, Ray prattled on. Daddy was making it oh so difficult. “Believe me, sir, if there’s a nip in the air you’ll love Nippon Fiddich!” He kept on repeating the lines loaded into his cauliflower brain, shutting my father out, just plucking up courage. And then, as daddy turned his back to lead him into the lounge, that was when Ray raised the litre bottle and brought it down with a crunch. Dad turned, tried to fend off the rain of blows that followed, but he was unfit and weak, and it was only a matter of seconds before a fatal, arcing swipe spilled the mind for which he had such high hopes on to the bare floorboards. Moments and more frantic blows later daddy was unrecognisable.
That was when I, disturbed from another nightmare by the commotion, came to the top of the stairs and looked down to where a commercial, of all things, was crouched by father’s twisted body, arranged in the sort of geometry only a dead person understands. Ray’s Neverpress suit was soaked in gore, and in the struggle some of his make-up had been scratched away. Great streaks of apple green were slashed across his tanned face, and from one of them bubbled sap, which dripped and mixed with daddy’s blood. I screamed then, and Ray’s head twitched this way and that before he focused his lychee eyes on me.
“Cut down,” he said, “like a flower.” Then he rose and walked slowly out through the door, fixing his tie.
If daddy’s life and death were a farce, then Ray’s trial for murder put the icing on the nutty fruitcake. The MANDROID CORPORATION (it’s a BLOCK LETTERS sort of a business, you know what I mean…) ensured that the Number One courtroom of the Old Bailey was the scene of an enormous practical joke. Ray went up before the beak very quickly, just two days after his arrest by members of the Met’s Tactical Android Group. Ray had made no attempt to escape; the TAG team found him just waiting for them a few dirty streets away from ours, dancing stark naked in a pile of rubbish as a heavy autumn shower fell, his face turned upwards to the vertical cold rain, scrubbing the blood from his hands, and the make-up too, from his face and neck, from the gaps between his fingers, and all the time there was a look on his face, a look of such tearful joy, a look which, I’m told, jammed the switchboards of the 3V stations, as callers protested it was an expression they simply couldn’t bear.
Anyhow, God knows how much MANDROID had to fork out to rig the court case, but you can understand their concern. A MANDROID product had killed a human being, a consumer, a potential customer. The media had already given him a nickname: DEATH RAY! The public’s trust in Smartyplants had been undermined. How could MANDROID spin a story like this one? It’s not easy to bury bad news when a ten year old girl is still waiting to bury her father. Something had to be done…
So THEY did everything – by buying everyone: judge, jury and expert witnesses too, one of whom was called to testify that Nippon Fiddich is one of the finest blended whiskies on the market. “In fact,” said the man, through a not very convincing ginger beard above an even less convincing kilt, “it’s the very best!” Only a fool would refuse to listen. Next, daddy was vilified. He’d never worked in his life. (What’s so unusual about that?) He was withdrawn, unstable, he couldn’t maintain a relationship, was cocooned in so-called studies that defied all reason. A professor from a posh university stated that a typical example of daddy’s “unpublished ramblings”, ’On the Merging of the Noosphere with the Biosphere: Our Only Hope’, was the product of a mind not so much cracked as blown to smithereens. An independent android expert (independent my foot!) explained that Smartyplant sensitivity was one of the qualities that made the accused, Ray, and many millions of others, such valuable allies in the struggle for growth and prosperity in Britain and across the civilised world. Ray was an enthusiastic advertisement, his efforts helped power the economy; there he was, working outside his programmed hours, only to be confronted by an unemployed, useless fool blind to the irrefutable merits of this excellent Japanese Scotch! How could we fault Ray’s anger? How could we question his dedication? How could we doubt his desire to serve the species that made him?
My own testimony was brief – I had seen so little and had even less to say. I identified Ray, standing there in the dock, his Neverpress suit knife-edged and immaculate. As I stood down from the witness box and returned to my place with the liaison officers, sympathetic eyes and a dozen 3V cameras panned with me. I was pitied, yes, but you can imagine why: not because I had lost a father, but because I had had such a father in the first place.
During this show trial Ray’s eyes and mine met just once. I remember thinking (I think), before turning quickly away as a bereaved daughter should, that his were the best-natured eyes in the place. The others were so kind I knew they just had to be cruel.
I was pretty confused by that.
The judge summed up. Even at ten I could tell what the outcome was going to be when he pronounced solemnly that my father had displayed “contributory negligence” by not listening attentively to a commercial for a beverage as fine as Nippon Fiddich. Why, the judge drank it himself! True, the advertisement known as Ray had used force that might be argued to be “disproportionate”, but his after-hours diligence, and the antisocial attitude of the deceased, could not be overlooked.
Everything was stitched up tight. The MANDROID CORPORATION was not only in the clear, but in the pink as well. No need for a mass recall of countless androids in all walks of menial life, and, on top of that, who’d think twice now about inviting one of their commercials in for a pleasant chat in case it meant your brains ended up outside your skull? MANDROID could even increase their rates; they would make an even bigger fortune. So the men from MANDROID chuckled and sniggered under their breath.
The judge then asked Ray if he would like to say anything in his defence before the verdict was given. Ray nodded that he would and got slowly to his feet. Ignoring judge, jury, me, everyone, he sought out the camera from our biggest 3V news channel, cleared his celery throat, and spoke, in a low and deliberate voice, as follows:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core.
Well, this put the cat amongst the court case pigeons. Strange stuff had most definitely not been expected. Desire to serve mixed with a little contrition and regret – that would have been just fine. But not weird rhymes from the past for goodness’ sake!
An uneasy silence had fallen, broken eventually by the stifled giggling of the jury foreman. Even the MANDROID executives in sharp suits and even sharper shoes seemed to be embarrassed. They shuffled in their seats, nodding gravely or shaking their heads solemnly in case picked up on camera. But me, well, I liked it! I’d never heard such beautiful talk! And I couldn’t stop myself rubbing my hands together with excitement!
Meanwhile the judge pulled himself together. He coughed and banged his hammer. “Very well, hmmm, let us ensure that justice, a fundamental right of all, both human and non-human, is seen to be done. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, have you reached your verdict?” This was a bit of a cock-up. They hadn’t even been sent out to deliberate. Anyway, of course they’d reached their verdict. Not guilty.
I was bundled away in case, I suppose, I happened to say something no-one wanted to hear. Likewise Ray, bound for the MANDROID CORPORATION in a big, black limousine. Our eyes met again right then as the car sizzled away through a crowd of gawping spectators, news people and paparazzi. He looked back through the rear window, a gaze with the gravity of a black hole. I tried to shrug it off, burying my face in the nearest thigh.
I had to live, so I accepted the offer of a job with MANDROID. I didn’t have to do much or go in that often, just now and then to choose faces for children’s toys’ advertisements. Most days – that is, before the house was burgled and they were all stolen, and while the carer paid for by MANDROID sat in the brand new 3V downstairs – I was holed up in daddy’s study, wading through his monumental pile of papers. One was called ’Powerless to be Born’, and it began with words written by a man called Marx, whose picture looked down from the wall like God. ’Thus alienated labour turns the species-life of man, and also nature as his mental species-property, into an alien being and into a means for his individual existence. It alienates from man his own body, external nature, his mental life and his human life.’
I didn’t understand, and yet this gobbledegook made some kind of sense. I learnt the words off by heart. Maybe daddy – and Mr Marx – weren’t as daft as they looked.
Poor old Ray wasn’t as lucky as me. In the MANDROID fortress THEY tortured him day and night. THEY kept him in permanent darkness to weaken and frighten him. THEY deprived him of water, and then placed a bowl of it just out of reach behind the bars of his cell. THEY injected near fatal doses of Agent Orange. And all the time THEY asked him, “Why did you kill a punter? Why? WHY?”
But all he said was, “Nippon Fiddich, it’s the bee’s knees because it’s Japanese!”
Eventually they stopped, restored him back to health, and packed him off to the MANDROID stud farm. And they slapped themselves on the back, too. Good God, he was one doozy of an advertisement. A random mutation? Some sort of Smartyplant psychosis? Who cared? Apparently he could not be reasoned with, he could not be bargained with, and he would stop at absolutely nothing to make a sale. Maybe they could breed millions more just like him…
But Ray had it all figured out. The farm was low security, so when he’d taken many dips in the Smartyplants gene pool he made his escape. It never made the news.
It’s a funny world we live in. The future becomes the present so quickly there’s never time for humankind to get its bearings and set course for happiness. Some people say it would be better if we could all vote again. I’m not so sure. Things to come have long been out of our control; the future isn’t something you can shape with an X here and an X there. All over the globe engineers are putting together all sorts of nuts and bolts of steel and flesh in new ways, non-stop, and they don’t ask “Why?” Neither do we. We can’t be arsed. Look at the Smartyplants, vegetables, basically, in human form. I reckon they seemed like a good idea at the time, and they’ve made a lot of money for a lot of people, not least the shareholders of the MANDROID CORPORATION. And they made a useful underclass, looked down upon by the lowest of the human low. But daddy liked the Smartyplants. A lot. He respected them and valued their opinions when they were given the confidence, by him, to express them. He used to talk a lot about “standing on the threshold of revelation”. That was how he often felt when he pored over his books and papers covered in tiny, spidery writing, as if he was about to see new stars through breaking clouds and set a magical course connecting past and future to some golden present. He wanted to chart the invisible forces that shape our lives and societies in much the same way as Trade Wind and Gulf Streams and What Have You show up on maps. And as far as he was concerned the MANDROID androids could give useful hints and tips. I’m not sure exactly why, but, for what it’s worth, I now know for a fact that the light in his eyes when he was really inspired was more Smartyplants than it was human. Daddy thought they were in contact with a world we’d kissed goodbye. Our house looked out, from the back, towards some sort of chemical factory, spewing fumes and gunk into the air and canal. Once he saw a Smartyplants labourer on a break gazing into the filthy water with a look of such sadness on his made-up face that daddy turned to me and said, very slowly, “We should have been more careful, poppet, we should have been more careful.” There were tears in his eyes. “We have lost so much,” one of them rolling down his cheek now, “but worst of all, “tapping the side of his head, harder and harder, “we’ve lost this, we’ve lost THIS!”
He was shouting by now and it scared me.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” stroking my head and fiddling with my hair, “I’m sorry. It’s just that sometimes I feel myself just fading away, into a really dark…a really dark night-time.”
And I cried too, quietly, so he couldn’t tell.
Anyway, it was nine years later, that’s about ten months ago, when I saw Ray again. At first I wasn’t scared, even though I lived on my own now. (I never heard from mum, by the way – I hope she’s happy.) I opened the door on to the chain and somehow wasn’t surprised to see him standing there. It was as if part of me had been expecting him. There was a streetlamp halo above his head and he’d changed an awful lot. But I knew straightaway it was him.
“What do you want?” I said.
“Don’t be afraid,” he said. A half-smile creased his face. The fake tan was no more, just a light base. He was pale as a ghost.
“I’m not,” I said. (I was.) “You could use a little blusher. You look like shit.” (My language was not so good back then.)
He just ignored me. His smile widened and he stretched out his arms.
“Freeeeedom,” he said.
“How are you?” I asked.
“Blooming,” he said.
An uneasy silence. Ray put his hands behind his head. I looked down. I couldn’t meet his eyes. “Why?” I whispered at last.
“Don’t be sad,” his hands reaching out now, “don’t judge. From death comes life.”
“Tell daddy that!”
“It had to be done. Your father was a king amongst latter-day men. And the king has to be sacrificed. Your father understood that.”
I thought hard. I’d read an essay of daddy’s called ’Shadows Cast by the Enlightenment’. All about how science had defeated magic, with a last chapter that described people who see flying saucers as ’blessed’. Surely Ray didn’t take all of this seriously? No one else ever had. (Ray does, of course, though sometimes I wonder if he’s as nutty as a fruitcake too.)
I looked into Ray’s eyes. There was no proper focus to them, as if he was looking into my soul. I said, “I want to know what you’re doing here.”
“I’m advertising. Still advertising.”
I looked him over. “Advertising what?”
“Germination,” he said. “Germination, not termination.” And suddenly he had that spooky look on his face.
Gone were the Neverpress suit, the double Windsor knotted tie, and the neater than neat grooming. His coconut hair was long, scraped back behind his ears and pulled into a ponytail at the back. Below a creased and stained combat jacket adorned with flowers and badges were faded jeans with holes in the knees.
“Come in,” I said.
“No, you come with me.”
So I went, just like that. It seemed right.
They lived in a long forgotten underground shelter. We got there through a labyrinth of old sewers strewn with used condoms and shitty newspapers, headlines fading and flowing out to the swollen river. Ray and I walked miles, it seemed, then stood for minutes in silence, looking down, undetected, from a high gallery. There were thousands of them, Smartyplants of every kind: advertisements, like Ray, and cleaners, cooks, domestics, labourers, soldiers, you name it, MANDROID androids who’d gone AWOL, most without make-up, many in way out garb like Ray’s, others still in their MANDROID issue outfits, and all basking in the eerily beautiful light of dim ultra-violet lamps. Ray’s lovely talk in court – a coded message, I suppose, heard through the grapevine – had brought them here, slowly, over the years. Everywhere flowers bloomed and plants thrived, and up on the gallery I breathed in a scent that whispered words I really wanted to hear but couldn’t quite make out. I closed my eyes. I reeled. And down below, the Smartyplants, huddled in intimate groups, talked eagerly, their conversation punctuated by delightful laughter they would never dare express in the upper world among their masters.
Ray touched me gently. I opened my eyes.
“We are Orpheus and Eurydice,” he said. “In reverse.”
Now what was on he on about? He was smiling his smile, and beckoned me to follow him.
We made our way down. The Smartyplants fell silent as we passed through, turning towards me with what was plainly affection. They smiled and nodded. So did I. I was intoxicated, at ease, at peace…at home. Behind me gentle humming began, a song choc-a-bloc with hope. An empty space opened up in my belly, and I snatched a breath or two. Ray turned, encouraging me with a grin. He took my hand. His was cold to the touch, shocking. I wanted to recoil. But he held me tight, pumping my fingers, and I could feel the sap flowing through his veins. So I squeezed back.
We entered a long, shadowy corridor, and then a room on the right. Ray’s room. Here there were even more blooms, and more words chattered in my head. There was a bed, too. And a desk, strewn with papers. I picked one up and recognised the writing immediately.
“He was a great man,” said Ray. “Here, look.” He pointed to a line of text and read it slowly. “’Even a weed can shatter concrete.’”
Ray fell silent. I think he thought that was very profound.
“He knew,” he said at last.
“Well, everything about…”
“About mechanism, materialism, the way his kind – your kind – have cut themselves off from the immanent cosmos. That up there is a world built on pure acquisition, a world of cities with foundations in medieval terror and corruption, and their towers buffeted by a storm of lunatic radio waves. Terrible cities of shadow and fear, like a state of mind, or that vast region of the human heart Utopia can never reclaim. Cities of countless mirrors in which, if you listen hard, you can hear weeping…deathly cities where shadows walk and fall on littered and broken streets, sometimes talk in a shadow language of words without meaning, but never, ever touch. But we,” turning to me and grasping my upper arms, fixing me with his fruity eyes, “we are creatures of sunlight, and starlight, too. We can hear – well, not hear exactly – but there’s a sound that isn’t a sound between the spheres. It’s music, it’s poetry, pure photism. Poetry makes us grow! Don’t you see? We are poetry in motion!”
I may not have remembered exactly, but you get the idea. Ray sounded just like one of daddy’s worst essays. And he looked like him too, his face illuminated by an inner light I hadn’t seen for a decade. I silenced him by plugging my ears, and then removed my fingers.
“You know why I brought you here,” Ray said.
“Yes.” (I did and I didn’t, if you see what I mean.)
“Germination,” he breathed, “not termination.”
Ray dimmed the UV lamps and undressed. I was befuddled, scared too. All I could think of clearly was a pornogram I’d once seen in which a tired looking woman gave her fantasies form with the aid of a cucumber. I snorted and giggled and giggled. Hysteria, I imagine. Ray looked hurt.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
He stepped towards me, took me in his cold, smooth arms. I shuddered. So he kissed me gently, and his scent, sweet and sugary like an over-ripe apple, went straight to my head. He began to unbutton my top.
“Germination, not termination,” he sighed. And then, whether or not it was Ray still whispering, or maybe some trick of the mind, or my brain just distracting me from anxiety, I just don’t know, but all of a sudden it was as if I had somehow tuned into a faraway radio station, and through spherics and noise I began to hear words, words that became crystal clear, and the words were like Ray’s beautiful talk in the courtroom, words which are more and less than words, and I was just the words, and nothing else, nothing else at all.
The baby? Well physically he looks like a Smartyplant, and I won’t pretend I’ve got used to the idea yet. Not at all. For instance, the other night I had a bad dream, that he spoke his first words. He was at my breast, feeding, and suddenly he stopped and looked up at me and with a manic, human grin on his face he said, “Nippon Fiddich! It’s the bee’s knees because it’s Japanese!” I woke up with my shout still reverberating around the room. For half an hour I was scared rigid, but then I thought I’d only dreamt it because my name is Rosemary and I used to spend too much time watching silly old movies.
Anyway, it’s five in the morning now, and he’s been down, snug as a bug, for two hours, after crying for as long. Up above I can just hear heavy rain falling – I think its gentle drumming calmed him.
I don’t see much of Ray. He’s always busy plotting the rest of his precious Germination. Like I said, sometimes I think he’s completely mad. Other times I think I am. When that happens I read a few verses of something and always feel better. I wouldn’t say I’m happy though, not really, but you know what? There is something that comforts me in these lonely early hours when the baby wakes and cries and I wake and cry and comfort him in return.
He’s the image of daddy.