The electric fence at the perimeter knocked them unconscious, releasing encrypted balloons over enemy skies.
‘The Robot Who Dreams’ by Philippe Caza
Computers are everything-machines. Of course they can be typewriters. But for better or worse, they also do everything else: they're books, they're movies, they're newspapers, they're TV, they can be a town hall, they can be and often are dictators or the proxies of dictators. We've summoned these little, vicious machines inside our magic circle — and as is usually the case in summonings, we've accidentally broken that circle. Computers now seek the compensation of a contract, a price will be paid, one way or another, the sand that we've drawn around ourselves for protection in some atavistic ritual has predictably been brushed aside.
I collect and repair typewriters. The typewriters I'm interested in, manual typewriters, were designed to write words. Your own words perhaps. On paper. They are machines that require no electricity — they require the food of paper and your interest, but they fundamentally make few other demands. Of course you could just use a pen or pencil, you don't need a machine at all. If you subscribe to absolute Luddism then they're similar to the overlord everything-machines, symbols of bureaucratic slavery. But then you could say the same thing about paper or the pen itself — let us reject paper entirely and retreat to the clay tablet, let us reject the tablet and paint on the cave walls. And so on.
Why a resurgence of interest in typewriters? Part of it is old fashioned collecting instinct, that weird little pebble somewhere in the jelly of the human brain that needs to amass types of things together, a form of irrational ownership. Typewriters are important artifacts of the first modern age, now irrevocably gone. For this, they're worthy of interest and preservation, but I also believe they're still useful for creative writers. They're a deterrent to the invasion by the everything-machines on fertile territory.
The machine itself, the design of the machine, as we know of it from the pinnacle of examples in the middle of the 20th century, is the epitome of a perfect tool. They are not everything-machines. They are examples of sparseness and limitation. They are made of small bits of metal, springs, hammers with blocks in the form of letters. The mechanisms of the really good manual typewriters, well kept, will last longer than you. Cormac McCarthy's Lettera 32 was bought in 1963 and lasted his entire career. They are repairable and maintainable. Many are portable — the Groma Kolibri for instance, which is about eight pounds, and stunningly thin. Similarly portable, the typewriter associated with William Burroughs, the Antares Parva. Others are monsters, like the Underwood business machines, tanks lumbering onto desktops to output endless invoices and memos.
We tend to remember what we want, the routine of the daily typewriter was hardly glorious novel-writing. But typewriters influenced the tone of 20th century writing, the patter, the click-clack. As Truman Capote lamented about Kerouac "That's Not Writing; That's Just Typing", the typewriter facilitated modernism and experimentation, it altered writing. It's one level of abstraction away from pen on paper. Writing on a computer is several levels isolated beyond that. Comparatively, writing consistently, voluminously on a typewriter is a physical action. It is a particularly aggressive action — you are hitting the paper with hammers, pressing ink into paper. It is unforgiving. If you want perfection you will need additional tools like whiteout.
But if you're writing creatively you'll be, more often than not, ready to strike or annotate with the pencil from behind your ear, or you'll take drafts and cut them up with scissors, gluing the passages back together into the desired order. It's radically different than writing on a computer. The effort needed to do this leads to an economy of words — although not without parentheticals, since text isn't as instantly malleable as it is on a computer. On a typewriter you adjust as you go forward, without the ability to redraft in place like on a computer. You always move forward, you leave the rewriting to another draft. The series of compromises is different, the physicality is different, the resulting text, naturally, is different. I'd argue better because the act of putting words together feels closer, the mistakes are human, the text is tangible.
Chapter Twenty: The Lost Tree
Quiddity rolled back and forth in bed, pulling the covers over himself until he felt he was suffocating. He thought of the Cyclopaedia, the thing he created, and he hated it. How was it possible to spend one's life in an enthusiastic frenzy of building, collecting, negotiating, and evangelizing only to wake up one morning full of loathing. No it didn't happen instantly. Not in a single morning. It was such a gradual accretion he didn't notice it until the loathing was rooted in place. And now it was too late. He was old, he wasn't young enough to destroy anything. Destruction took a necessarily incendiary humor. It took the vitriol of immortal youth. It took bittersweet rage. At his age there was little enthusiasm and a surplus of skepticism. But he hated it, he decided, he hated the Cyclopaedia. The dozens of Compilers now criss-crossing the globe, astutely and devotedly capturing the nature of the world, he hated them too and the oaths they'd taken to perform their tasks. How sanctimonious. Why would they waste their lives on it? They believed the Cyclopaedia was theirs, but it wasn't theirs, they worked in the service of it, just as he inevitably worked at the service of the powers of the world — the compromises he'd made allowed them too great a share of his idea. It had become dirty with commerce. What he should've done, he thought, was stayed in his room. Never have told anyone about it. Instead of making the Cyclopaedia as large as he could, make it as small as possible. And not tell anyone. No, telling anyone was his first mistake. It was a mistake of pride, and unverified arrogance, telling anyone was his desire for reward and praise. And these were incompatible with the idea of it — they polluted the project, the purity of the original was twisted into an institution, a hierarchy of authority, a resource to be battled over. He'd wanted to make sense of the world, and, he thought as he pulled the covers back over himself after gulping air, he simply revealed what everyone had suspected — that the oldest species of motivations dominated their lives, the greed and ego, the wealthy and the powerful. Worse, he may have helped them, those representatives. He should never have left his room. He could've indexed the world without ever seeing it, he wouldn't need to have sent people on dangerous voyages by sea to the far corners, discovering new lands, new rivers, new flowers, new animals. He could've imagined everything right here. The fold of the sheets before him, like the rippling of mountains, he would declare it a new country, and create an entry for it in the proper work, a real Cyclopaedia of the mind. The table across from his bed, it was a plateau, wide, reaching far into the distance, populated with roaming creatures, gigantic, not bothered by hunters because of its remoteness, attacked by no predators because of their size and number. The curtained window on the other side of the room was a faint sun, illuminating the plateau and the mountains in a manner he'd formerly described as "late afternoon" — but now on the plateau of the table those shadows stretched half a continent. This was an alien world. If he couldn't destroy the Cyclopaedia immediately, or soon, he would have to devise some means to destroy it later. He believed he could do this. There was a way. The idea made his heart thump. He would begin another Cyclopaedia, an alternate work, which contradicted everything in the first. He would set up the conditions for an unavoidable battle, between the very large and the very small, between the authoritative and the imaginary. Neither would win. Winning wasn't the point. The point was equilibrium, to remove the weight he'd deliberately placed on one side of the scale, he'd then purposefully stack the opposite side. Who could he trust? Nobody. But that didn't matter. He would be manipulative. He would plant seeds. To trust anyone else with it meant failure, like the Cyclopaedia it had to live and grow on its own, in the dark maybe, for a long time maybe, but it would grow. Yes, he thought, there needs to be an antithesis. Making sense of the world outside oneself could not happen without an imaginary world. He would build it. He would construct the basis, here, in bed, as the landscape around himself revealed a geography that was as rich as the Cyclopaedia, the four corners of the room were enough. But the legacy of this project required conspirators. And yet he understood he couldn't reveal his intentions directly. He would have to put the alternate, the imaginary, inside the existing — inside its conception, inside its philosophy. The imaginary would generate itself, over time, finding necessary adherents. They may not even be fully aware of their allegiance to this lost tree, this dreamed index. It would be magnificent and subtle. And some day this machine of subversion would awake, a map of this small room, powered by dreaming, by a landscape of a story, a fable. The real things of the world would be consumed, indexed for the alternate, until the Cyclopaedia was no longer a museum but a long walk through the woods, an eternal tale. Quiddity got out of bed and went slowly to his desk. He drew out a long sheet of thick, fibrous paper. Decades of work had led him to a concise symbology, a kind of calculus to plot the course of ideas. He began composing, hesitatingly — then as the course of things became clearer, he wrote with harried desperation.
There wasn’t enough room on the raft, there was plenty of room in the water. Quorum.
VISUAL PROCESS 1 by sculptor, Serge Jupin.
Chapter Nineteen: An Empty Kit
Leaving now would mean a difficult journey. Maybe deadly. It would be getting colder, fast. As he went north he might become snow bound. There were little cabins along the way, at least until he deviated from the known routes and went through that endless area of forest. Regardless, if any kind of storm hit when he was in transit, he'd be in big trouble. And if a storm hit after he'd arrived in the village, he'd be stuck there, maybe for the entire, long winter. But, he told himself, he wouldn't have to be there very long — just long enough to get what he needed. He didn't have to worry about approval from the Cyclopaedia, someone had taken care of all of that, the Garde of course. He could come and go as he wanted. Well, not as he wanted. As he needed. He knew who he worked for, in essence — he needed to bring back another batch of Vermilion, so it looked like no matter how he felt about weather, he was going.
There were logistical problems. The main train line would stop in a town farther south from where it normally terminated during the warmer months. Then he'd get a seat in an old fashioned wagon, in the back, packed with sheep probably. At the top of the arc he'd set off on foot. Supplies were an issue since he'd need more in the cold. He'd have to carry more of everything. He wasn't the most adept back-woodsman, although he'd gone through all the same courses and apprenticeships other Compilers went through. The training was more rigorous for others depending on their interests and future duties. Nobody had ever assumed he was an explorer, his talents were clearly elsewhere. But he knew enough, which the more experienced Compilers might tell him was just enough to get into trouble.
He had to consider getting the shipment of Vermilion back. Since it was potent, so it wasn't terribly voluminous. But this would be the last time he could do it on foot, if he wanted to increase the return in stages. Next time he'd need to expand the operation to a team. And expanding the operation to a team meant confiding in people, which was against his nature. He liked the simplicity of it being only himself, responsible for success or failure. If it were an operation then there would be conflict, no doubt. And there would be deviation of interests, there would be inequity. He despised this kind of conflict. But it would have to be done. Maybe Kjetil would join him? After all, he was already heavily dosing. And he was an experienced traveler, although the stories he'd heard about the survivors of his ship the Ukkonen were disturbing.
He would have to convince the woman in the village to increase their output. What was her name? Miika, he thought, it was Miika. He would have to convince her as well, eventually, to show him how to make Vermilion properly. Maybe the specifics weren't just local to the village. Maybe they could set up operations elsewhere in the region. It was difficult to believe the grubs could only exist by the village. However, what if there was some unknown, rare element in the soil they live in, which only exists in that exact area? These could be problems. Yet he had necessary expertise available to him — he needed to weed out the trusted members of the Hallen, to get them involved, and he also needed to hide from them the fact that the Garde, and by extension the Sovereigns, were involved. No — directing the endeavor. More than involved.
It was useless getting paralyzed by the complexities. He put his Compilers' kit onto his desk, its parts unpacked and arranged neatly. He looked at the components and wondered what he could replace. All of it, or nothing. He wouldn't be doing any Compiling this trip, that's for sure, and unlike the previous journeys, where he'd had to make copious notes and drawings of that damned wasp, this time he wouldn't need to cover his activities explicitly. He should still have the kit itself, the case, it was an identifier, it was solid evidence he was a Compiler. It is useful to be seen as a Compiler while traveling, the kit was unmistakable, well known. And then he'd fill the kit with Vermilion on the way back — it would hold enough of the dust to cover three or four times the number of users that he had now. He would need to figure out something else in the future of course, but for the moment this would do. He took the kit's supplies, the pencils and paints, the cards and inks, the tiny glass vials and the tinctures for in-the-field experiments, he put them away into his cabinet. He took the portable copy of the index, with its tiny print, its impossibly thin paper, and he put it in his desk. He had another index now, he wouldn't need it.
The case was now disturbingly light. It gave him a chill because this was so abnormal. The weight of a kit was a precise and well known sensation to all Compilers. It demonstrated their security, it was a physical measurement of their Oath. Now it was an illusion, an empty kit was just an emblem, without substance, describing his transgressions from that Oath perfectly — an exciting and obscene rebellion from a life's dedication. It was both an exhilarating and sickening sensation.
When he dosed that morning he thought about Fox. Where did he end, where did Hedvin begin. He hadn't devoted much time to this previously, he'd simply accepted the animal that he'd chosen that first time, with Miika, he'd picked up the Fox mask. But why. At first he'd believed this was some arbitrary aesthetic choice. But as the months wore on, he would think of it, and he would think of Snake. If Vermilion permitted unified thought, concentrated mental acuity, revealing the universal index, how could it accomplish this — there had to be a center, there had to be a construct. Language itself couldn't be sufficient. The underpinnings of language, the unsaid webbing of language, maybe. And what was this? Was it Fox and Snake? Those backwards villagers, dosing themselves with Vermilion for perhaps a thousand years, still held onto their totems and their legends, living a shared story, allowing themselves to be representatives of a simplistic epic. Or even becoming a complete epitome — he'd seen them slip into transformative fugues in front of the fire, there were ceremonies, there was story telling, there were masks — it went deeper than the well known rituals, there was a conductivity that was all Vermilion. Grubs and soil, stories and fireside theater.
When he collected all of his gear he made sure he informed the Cyclopaedia of a false destination. He knew the Garde and the Inspectors would examine these transactions. They would compare them with previous entries. The logs of one's movements were a ledger of one's self, what one was interested in, what one intended, what one avoided. And so, he lied whenever possible. He'd always done this. He was confident that nobody knew where he was going. Of course this meant that if there was a storm, or another disaster happened, if he slipped from a rocky ledge, if he was stung by one of the very same goddamned wasps and died gasping for breath, there was no chance of anyone finding him. He would rot in a pile until mushrooms grew out of him. This was sobering.
His commitment wasn't incidental. What would he have done of his own free will if he wasn't roped into this contract with the Garde? Maybe the same thing. He believed he was an agent of change. He probably needed to sacrifice his well being to make this effective. He could change the Cyclopaedia. He could be the one to fulfill the promise of it, he thought for a quick moment, I could be the hero of the story.
When he was notified by a bell that a carriage had arrived for him, he hurriedly gathered his things, his bags, his empty kit, wondering if he'd ever see this miserable little apartment again. Fox knew winds could change, seasons were unstoppable.
The lottery winner received a complete tour. “Did you know the abattoir is powered entirely by sunlight?”
The new machine was a smooth, white rectangle about as tall as the table. It came complete with emotional commands.
Stéphane Rosse http://doublepantomime.tumblr.com/
A trough was placed in front of them, as long and as wide as their previous, beloved captain.
Artwork by Kazumasa Nagai