“Whose picture is this, Daddy?” The little blond girl is 11 years old, and, as she flips through the iScraps, her smooth round face shows the first twinge of the questioning mind that will disturb the complacency on which all future happiness depends.
“That’s my grandfather.”
“Your grandfather? He doesn’t look a bit like us,” she said, staring at the image. “He’s black-haired with a pinched face, and squinting as if the light hurt his eyes. And he doesn’t look a thing like your grandfather.”
“You’re thinking of my father’s father, whom you used to play antique video games with at the Happy Valley. This is my mother’s father. He died long before you were born. I can barely remember him, but people who knew him say he was a strange bird. He was a writer of some kind, but he seemed to spend most his time reading dead languages. It’s funny to think, but his language is now as dead as the ancient ones he cared so much about.”
“What language did your grandfather speak?”
“It was called English, just like what we speak, but it has so changed that most people have to take a course in Old Modern English—sometimes they call it Christian English—just to read those old writers. It was full of difficult rules that no one wanted to learn—what they used to call grammar and usage. I studied it in school and tried to read one of my grandfather’s books. I think he must have been crazy. He was on the wrong side of everything, and every cause he ever took up was eliminated by the Great Progression. He would have approved of your curiosity, though, which is a good reason not to ask questions about the past, especially about your ancestors. And, by the way, when you go back to your schoolhome, I wouldn’t mention this conversation, much less use a word like ancestors. It might get us all in trouble.”
“What’s wrong with thinking about the past or wondering who my great-grandparents were?”
“Everything, darling. In the first place, it doesn’t really matter who they were or who anyone is. After a couple of generations, we are so dead that no one can even recognize our picture. Your children will not have heard of my grandfather and probably not even your grandmother. But even if we could remember our ancestors, it is very unhealthy to think about these things. It leads to trouble.”
“What sort of trouble?”
“Well, imagine if you found out your great-grandfather was a racist or one of those selfish sexists who refused to share his wife with other men and women—and I believe both these charges were made against my grandfather—you’d be embarrassed, wouldn’t you, sweetie?”
Her moon face, forming a smile, nodded up and down obediently.
“Or imagine he had done something really great, like sacrificing his life for an endangered species or saving famine victims in Haiti or Somalia, then you might be tempted to go around bragging about it, and the other children at school would feel bad—they used to call this envy—because they didn’t have a hero in their family. If you once start thinking about your family, you might want to learn something about old history, when people were proud of their nations or even their skin color, when they talked about traditions.”
“Well, this is another word you should forget. In my job as social-controller, I have to study some of these old things, because there are some ugly parts of the world—and believe me, you wouldn’t want to go there—where people still want to talk about the bad old times. They are like the Japanese Christians I once learned about.”
“What are Christians?”
“Oh, they were silly people who thought it was important how many forms the Great Spirit had appeared in. We know the Spirit is one but in everything that lives, but in those days some people said it was many, others said one, but these poor people thought it was just three: not two, not four, but three. Incredible, isn’t it? Anyway, some Christians had gone to Japan, but when a wise ruler outlawed their religion—don’t ask, it’s not important—some of them secretly kept it up, handing down certain handshakes and mumbo-jumbo for hundreds of years. When the first Americans—America’s the old word for the bio-sector we live in—visited Japan, one of these Japanese Christians brought out some string of beads and said that all he knew was that their god had a mother.
“That is sort of what these tradition-keepers believe, and it is my job to show how foolish they are and make it possible for them to progress. We could just let them pass over in the Happy Valley, of course—capital punishment is illegal—or put them in schoolcamps in the desert, but it is easier to give them free computers. Some of them still think they can record their ancient books and share what they know. What they don’t know is that we not only monitor everything and everyone, but we can change it all up to confuse them. That is the great Principle of Wiki—and ‘Blessed are the Wikid for they shall rewrite the universe.’ You must have been taught that text at your schoolhome?
“Back in my grandfather’s day, people were always killing each other over who they were, or thought they were. Different colors, different spirits, even different ways of lubing each other, though in those days they said ‘loving,’ which is a much less precise word. Even then, these people had no power. There were still hundreds of different bio-sectors, each with its own government, but nearly all of them were controlled by wise men who knew the only way to eliminate war and hate was to eliminate differences.
“I think you must have learned some of this at your schoolhome. How Marx abolished differences in wealth, and Freud eliminated sexual differences, and Dewey, perhaps the best of all, eliminated all those petty distinctions that arise from remembering who your people are or were—look, I am even falling in with the way they used to speak! In principle the revolution was complete long before 2000, but there were still large numbers of holdouts, called Muslims and Christians, Frogs and Krauts, and other people devoted to their own sectors, and here in the West-Atlantic Sector there was even a group of people calling themselves rebels. Why nobody put them in jail is beyond my understanding. Perhaps they were too insignificant to bother with.
“Instead of moving forward with the great revolutionary project of uniting the entire mammalian ecosphere, some of these people actually started looking for their roots. Some were content to pay a genealogist to trace their ancestry back to some English king or African prince. (You’ll end up like them, if you don’t watch out!) These worshipers of imaginary ancestors were pretty harmless, but there were reactionaries who were far worse. They wanted to study what they called history, but what was really self-glorifying lies about ancient people slaughtering each other over how many gods could dance on the head of a microchip. (Don’t ask me what a microchip is; it’s just some tiny thing they thought was important in those days.)
“Others wanted to go back to the selfish old times when one man paired off with one woman—and only a woman—for life. Think how boring it would be, dear, if children could only have one mother.”
“But I have only one mother, and I heard you tell Mom that you loved her and her alone.”
“That’s just the way we are. Perhaps it’s a failure on our part.”
“And besides, every one of my cousins knows who her real mother is.”
“You shouldn’t say ‘real mother.’ They are all their real mothers. You understand. If your mother and I decided to take other partners, you’d be just as happy, wouldn’t you?”
The girl nodded mechanically without smiling.
“Anyway, this is where my grandfather comes into the story. He wanted to restore all the bad old things. What he called love of country, we know was xenophobia; what he called Christian marriage was selfishness and hatred of gay people; his opposition to abortion was really just hatred of women; his talk about chivalry and honor was part of his bigotry, and when he defended ancient languages and traditions, he was just revealing his small-minded rejection of diversity.”
“My grandfather was not really even a leader of these reactionary bigots. When he died, his pictures were not shown onscreen anywhere; he didn’t even get talked about in what were called newspapers. (Don’t worry; the last newspaper disappeared when I was in my teens.) He rationalized his failure to achieve celebrity by claiming that individual men and women were not really important in and of themselves—and he was certainly right on that one—but, instead of understanding that as social mammals we are like social insects, for whom all that matters is the tribe or colony, he imagined that human beings were links in a continuous chain, and not just in a genetic chain (which is pretty obvious) but in a chain of tradition that makes it important to know what our ancestors believed and maybe even to trust their judgment, at least their collective judgment, more than you trust our own. Now this is foolishness itself, because my personal judgment and your personal judgment have been formed by the Wiki, and whatever discrepancies that might occur will be corrected in the future by the mechanism known as informational servocontrol, which makes us bold to say, ‘the individual is all, and the all is the individual.’
“Well, my grandfather was too blind or too willful to understand the great principles that were already progressing the world even in his own day. He thought it was important to read Vergil’s Aeneid. Yes, I know you’ve read it in iMind, but that is a series of talking images that circulate through your nervous system. He meant reading the entire book with his eyes and lips, and that book was, I can tell you, long: It was made up of 12 sections, called books, each with hundreds of lines of jingles. Your grandfather was silly enough to read it in a dead and useless language called Latin—he could even quote some of the Latin by heart—but even in English he insisted on a translation made in an impossibly antique form of Old Modern English, by someone named Dryden.
“My mother, who retained some sympathy for the poor old guy and may have secretly agreed with him—I hope you won’t tell her I said this—she used to say that her father would say things like, ‘He who is ignorant of what took place before his birth must remain forever a child,’ and when asked specifically why Homer and Vergil were so important, he would quote an even older geezer named Gee-Kay, who said that those who count in any generation will always be talking of Troy. I have no idea of what this is supposed to mean. I can count—especially when I am iMinded—but I am never talking of Troy, except today, of course. What they meant by Troy was a war fought ever so long ago in which brave men killed each other, all over the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.”
The blue eyes in the round face opened wider.
“Apparently, the old guy thought it was important for people to know who they are, and to know who they are, they have to know who they have been—that is, who their people were—and to know some of the things their people knew. He knew this could no longer be done in school or eventually even in public. So he put little groups together, cell by cell, to teach people to teach themselves and their children. They had a monthly newspaper and, for a while, they had access to the Wiki-World-Web, until the Progression in its course put the Web into proper order to serve the world.
“Eventually, they had to do everything in print, which was safer, because no one important really cares about print anymore. Families and communities collected books and worshiped their Triunity—usually in Latin or another useless language called Greek—because dead languages are unknown and therefore secure. They set up little schools—first openly and then in secret—to teach their children to read Dante and Shakespeare, Cicero and Saint-Paul. I know these names don’t mean anything to you, and they shouldn’t. His whole conspiracy was hopelessly regressive and ineffective, not really Wikid at all, and when the Progression was complete, all these writers and readers and thinkers—names for things that no longer exist—simply faded away. They were flushed out of the iMind, and no one reads books, except for the few hopeless cranks I have to track down to be Deweyized in a schoolcamp. You see how silly the whole thing is, don’t you?”
“Yes, silly,” the little girl agreed, but as she walked away, her father noted that the twinge—was it doubt or curiosity?—which had appeared only once or twice in the past, was now hardening into something like the frown line or eye crinkles people get when they are repeatedly sad or happy. Perhaps it was time to take the girl to see her grandmother.
“Dum spiro, spero,” he muttered to no one in particular.
Translated from Neo-English.