There is no such thing as a priceless look. Not anymore. Perhaps, as is the belief amongst the commoners, there had never been such an abstraction as ‘pricelessness’. How could there be? It would go against the laws of nature as conveyed by the scholars of the Body-Corporate. And anyway, it’s ridiculous to think of a thing having so much ‘value’ it becomes essentially worthless. Still, if there was such a look, Bartholomew’s face had displayed it when Alice White-Hyphen-Rabbit had handed him the manuscript of her novel last week. She’d given it to him on a material called ‘paper’, which had completely flummoxed him. He’d had no idea what paper was. Which was understandable, when she’d begun the research for the novel, she hadn’t known what it was either. Like her, he’d also cut himself on the ‘paper’, which had produced another potentially priceless look. She’d spent all of this week studying the vid-rec to see whether those looks might have some value in Standard-Exchange-Tokens after all. They hadn’t. Not that she’d been able to detect, anyway.
Bartholomew now faced Alice across the table with a different, more pricable look. She recognized it well, there’s no profit in a look like that, which is why she tried to never have it on her own face.
“What,” said Bartholomew, the manuscript held up in a gloved hand, “am I supposed to do with this?”
“You’re supposed to find a publisher, same as every other time.”
Bartholomew’s face became a complex pastiche of puzzlement, exasperation, and fear. That pastiche was worth exactly 5,485 ¾ Standard-Exchange-Tokens. That’s its current Gray-Book value, at least. “You can’t be serious. No publishers in their right minds would have anything to do with this… thing. And even if I could find one that would, the Priest-Lawyers would never allow it to be transmitted to the Pop-Cult. It’s subversive.”
Alice had expected this. If she was honest, she’d even hoped for it. “I fail to see how it could be considered subversive. Perhaps if you gave me an example?”
“It has tall people in it. Lots of very tall people; people that are way over the standard, and legal, height metrics. I mean, one of your characters is…. How did you describe him? Was it a shade over six-feet tall? And he was one of the shorter ones. That’s just unnatural.”
“People were taller at that time. It is historically accurate.”
“Really? They were taller, you say? So, to describe your heroine as, and I quote, “a woman of towering and majestic beauty, her nine-feet-two-inch-frame all sinewy intelligence’ is to do so in an historically accurate way, is it?”
“I may have taken some license, as regards some of the characters. But it is all accurate in spirit, and comes from historical records about our primitive utopian ancestors. It’s not subversive at all, see? It’s educational. It’s history. It tells us a story of what we were, and how far we’ve come. It holds up a fictional mirror to the utopian nightmares of our past, and reflects back to us how much closer we are to being a truly beautiful and perfect dystopian plurality. We’ve almost completely eradicated class equality, a circumstance our ancestors could never have dreamed possible. That’s a key meta-theme of the novel by the way, the slow irrevocable evolution from ignorant utopian barbarism to righteous dystopian fracture.” Perhaps, thought Alice, she might be starting to lay it on a bit thick.
“Since you mention it,” said Bartholomew, knowing full well he’d made sure that topic came up, “I’m not convinced there is such a thing as ‘sinewy intelligence’.”
“Well, not anymore,” Alice scoffed, “because our modern society has evolved beyond it. It is meant to be historical fiction, remember? History is a strange and mysterious land full of weird and obsolete intelligences. I did research it, you know.”
“I’m still not convinced. How would a sinewy intelligence even work?”
“I’m glad you asked,” said Alice, not really feeling very glad about it. She hadn’t prepared any arguments to deal with the novel’s descriptive minutiae. She’d have to say something though, or she’d never be able to get Bartholomew back on the topics she did want to fight about. Perhaps she had underestimated him? He had clearly put a lot of thought into how he wanted this discussion to go, which is why it seemed to be going his way, and not hers. This would not do at all. “Let’s see,” replied Alice, “You’ve heard of muscle-memory, right?”
“Yes,” Bartholomew conceded, with no small amount of caution. Alice was going to trap him in some tenuous, yet believable, connection. He just knew it.
“Well, sinewy intelligence is the evolutionary precursor of muscle-memory. It was once the most powerful form of somatic intelligence available to humanity. Now it would seem a lot like magic to us, since it afforded the human organism the ability to perform many pre-conscious tasks. Tasks, I might add, that were central to the formation and maintenance of utopian community.”
“What kind of tasks?”
Alice mulled this over. “Do you remember the part in the novel – about half way through, I think – when the township gathered together in the public-common?”
Bartholomew’s face blanched a dairy creamer white. He’d tried to suppress his memory of that part of the narrative. The idea of publically owned land was a vulgar anathema. In fact, it was one of the many ways that he considered Alice’s book to be subversive. Seriously, Real Estate you did not own, or rent, was one of the most repulsive ideas in the whole story. It implied that land could be Unreal Estate, existing as a non-commodified pricelessness. If any of the Oligarchs caught wind of that idea, he’d be publically executed for having seen it written down. Not that he was against public executions, more that he was not so keen on participating in one himself. Executions were things that happened to other people. People that forgot to shelter their Standard-Exchange-Tokens from taxes as required by law, for instance. “I remember,” he said flatly. “The part where they all shared a meal together on the public-common made me vomit.”
“That part was a little grotesque,” agreed Alice, “but that’s not the part I mean. I mean the bits with all the dancing, playing of sports, and plucking of instruments.”
Bartholomew looked green.
“So,” Alice continued, “all of those things required ‘sinewy intelligence’. We’ve developed beyond those primitive practices, which is why we no longer have it. Instead, we have muscle-memory – an evolutionary redundancy inherited from a brutal utopian past. I imagine that will also disappear from our species as we continue to evolve.”
“By the Alchemist’s Abacus,” Bartholomew exclaimed, “I certainly hope so. I had no idea that muscle-memory had such dark and sinister origins.”
“Makes you think, doesn’t it?” Alice beamed a smile that would have fetched a very handsome price on the unregulated market.
“That’s another thing,” Bartholomew continued, “the novel encourages thinking. Not the good kind of thinking either. The kind of thinking that could cause a reader to accidentally break the Thou Shalt Not Think Thusly Charter of ’08. It could lead to all sorts of rampant reflexivity and critical awareness. There would be executions, possibly even private executions.”
Excellent, thought Alice, this is precisely where I wanted this conversation to go. “Surely executions – even private ones – are a good thing Bartholomew. Who’s being subversive now then, eh?”
And just like that, she’d trapped him. This is exactly how Alice had managed to dispense with her last twenty-three literary agents. He’d have to tread carefully now, or he’d be for it. He didn’t want to end up as indentured labor on one of the outer asteroids, as had happened to at least six of her previous agents. Still less did he want to suffer any of the other myriad fates that befell the remaining seventeen. If he remembered correctly, one of his predecessors had committed suicide to escape punishment, only to be reanimated, and then publicly executed. Still another had tried to escape the solar system by hijacking a cargo transport. That one had been captured and forced to teach High School. As for the rest, it didn’t bear thinking about, even though it wasn’t forbidden to do so by the ’08 Charter. No, there was only one thing for it: push through and try to turn it to his advantage. “Is that all you’ve got Alice? Really, I’m quite dissapointed. It was my understanding that you were top of your class in Sociopsycopathy.”
It was Alice’s turn to change color. “I fail to see what that has to do with anything?” She was worried, because she really didn’t have any idea what that had to do with anything. She had to hand it to him, he’d produced a brilliant non sequitur. It had seemed to come from nowhere in the most natural way. Had she finally met her match? Would he, yet again, get to remain her agent? Or, would she end up on the wrong side of the argument and finally get the punishment she had dished out to all of Bartholomew’s predecessors? All she could do now was let him explain what her Sociopsycopathy grade had to do with anything, and hope to argue Bartholomew into a stalemate.
Bartholomew sensed his victory, could taste it. It tasted like peanut butter. “Mwahahaha,” he cackled. “I’ll tell you what, Miss White-Hyphen-Rabbit, I’ll explain it all to you. After I’ve finished the explanation, we’ll discuss self-publishing your novel as ‘Speculative Non-Fiction’.”
Nope, Alice realized, she was completely fucked. Perhaps she would enjoy a new career in indentured labor out there at the system’s edge? Maybe she’d even dream. And when she did, perhaps she would dream of the utopian nightmares that had brought her to that end?