BRIAN W. ALDISS
The far future seems to hold a special fascination and allure for Brian W. Aldiss, and in a field where such stories are relatively rare, he has almost made a specialty out of writing about it. The Long Afternoon of Earth (also known as the Hothouse series, under which title it won a special Hugo Award in 1962) remains one of the classic visions of the distant future of Earth, as well as being a foundation stone of the subgenre of science-fantasy, but Aldiss has also handled the theme with grace and a wealth of poetic imagination in many other stories, including classics such as “The Worm That Flies” and “Full Sun,” as well as the novels of the Helliconia trilogy (and handles a closely related theme with similar excellence in The Malacia Tapestry as well).
Never has he envisioned the far future more vividly than in the story that follows, though, which takes us to a muted, autumnal future, full of echoes and old ghosts; an ancient and ruinous Earth from which humankind has forever departed; a strange world of involutes and Impures and musicolumns, with Venus for a moon and hogs as big as hippos; a world of stately, living music under dusty umbrella trees … .
One of the true giants of the field, Brian W. Aldiss has been publishing science fiction for nearly half a century and has more than two dozen books to his credit. “The Saliva Tree” won a Nebula Award in 1965, and his novel Starship won the Prix Jules Verne in 1977. He took another Hugo Award in 1987 for his critical study of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, written with David Wingrove.
In many ways, Brian W. Aldiss was the enfant terrible of the late fifties, exploding into the SF world and shaking it up with the ferocious verve and pyrotechnic verbal brilliance of stories like “Poor Little Warrior!,” “Outside,” “The New Father Christmas,” “Who Can Replace a Man?,” and “A Kind of Artistry” and with the somber beauty and unsettling poetic vision—in the main, of a world where mankind signally has not triumphantly conquered the universe, as the Campbellian dogma of the time insisted that he would—of his classic novels Starship (Non-Stop and The Long Afternoon of Earth in Britain). All this made him one of the most controversial writers of the day … and, some years later, he’d be one of the most controversial figures of the New Wave era as well, shaking up the SF world of the mid-sixties in an even more dramatic and drastic fashion with the ferociously Joycean “acidhead war” stories that would be melded into Barefoot in the Head, with the irreverent Cryptozoic!, and with his surrealistic antinovel Report on Probability A.
But Aldiss has never been willing to work any one patch of ground for very long. By 1976, he had worked his way through two controversial British mainstream best-sellers—The Hand-Reared Boy and A Soldier Erect—and the strange transmuted Gothic of Frankenstein Unbound and gone on to produce a lyrical masterpiece of science-fantasy, The Malacia Tapestry, one of his best books and certainly one of the best novels of the seventies. Ahead, in the decade of the eighties, was the monumental accomplishment of his Helliconia trilogy—Helliconia Spring, Helliconia Summer, and Helliconia Winter—and by the end of that decade only the grumpiest of reactionary critics could deny that Aldiss was one of the true giants of the field, a figure of artistic complexity and amazing vigor, as much on the cutting edge in the nineties as he had been in the fifties.
Aldiss’s other books include An Island Called Moreau, Graybeard, Dracula Unbound, Enemies of the System, A Rude Awakening, Life in the West, Forgotten Life, and Remembrance Day, a memoir, Bury My Heart at W. H. Smith’s, and a collection of poems, Home Life with Cats. His short fiction has been collected in Space, Time, and Nathaniel; Who Can Replace a Man?, New Arrivals, Old Encounters; Galaxies like Grains of Sand; and Seasons in Flight. His many anthologies include The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus and, with Harry Harrison, Decade: The 1940s, Decade: The 1950s, and Decade: The 1960s. Aldiss’s latest books include a collection, Common Clay, and an autobiography, The Twinkling of an Eye. His Utopia, White Mars, has just been published. He lives in Oxford.
The road climbed dustily down between trees as symmetrical as umbrellas. Its length was punctuated at one point by a musicolumn standing on the verge. From a distance, the column was only a stain in the air. As sentient creatures neared it, their psyches activated it, it drew on their vitalities, and then it could be heard as well as seen. Their presence made it flower into pleasant sound, instrumental or chant.
All this region was called Ghinomon, for no one lived here now, not even the odd hermit Impure. It was given over to grass and the weight of time. Only a wild goat or two activated the musicolumn nowadays, or a scampering vole wrung a chord from it in passing.
When old Dandi Lashadusa came riding on her baluchitherium, the column began to intone. It was no more than an indigo trace in the air, hardly visible, for it represented only a bonded pattern of music locked into the fabric of that particular area of space. It was also a transubstantiospatial shrine, the eternal part of a being that had dematerialized itself into music.
The baluchitherium whinnied, lowered its head, and sneezed onto the gritty road.
“Gently, Lass,” Dandi told her mare, savoring the growth of the chords that increased in volume as she approached. Her long nose twitched with pleasure as if she could feel the melody along her olfactory nerves.
Obediently, the baluchitherium slowed, turning aside to crop fern, although it kept an eye on the indigo stain. It liked things to have being or not to have being; these half-and-half objects disturbed it, though they could not impair its immense appetite.
Dandi climbed down her ladder onto the ground, glad to feel the ancient dust under her feet. She smoothed her hair and stretched as she listened to the music.
She spoke aloud to her mentor, half a world away, but he was not listening. His mind closed to her thoughts, and he muttered an obscure exposition that darkened what it sought to clarify.
“ … useless to deny that it is well-nigh impossible to improve anything, however faulty, that has so much tradition behind it. And the origins of your bit of metricism are indeed embedded in such an antiquity that we must needs—”
“Tush, Mentor, come out of your black box and forget your hatred of my ‘metricism’ a moment,” Dandi Lashadusa said, cutting her thought into his. “Listen to the bit of ‘metricism’ I’ve found here; look at where I have come to; let your argument rest.”
She turned her eyes around, scanning the tawny rocks near at hand, the brown line of the road, the distant black-and-white magnificence of ancient Oldorajo’s town, doing this all for him, tiresome old fellow. Her mentor was blind, never left his cell in Aeterbroe to go farther than the sandy courtyard, hadn’t physically left that green cathedral pile for over a century. Womanlike, she thought he needed change. Soul, how he rambled on! Even now, he was managing to ignore her and refute her.
“ … for consider, Lashadusa woman, nobody can be found to father it. Nobody wrought or thought it, phrases of it merely came together. Even the old nations of men could not own it. None of them know who composed it. An element here from a Spanish pavan, an influence there of a French psalm tune, a flavor here of early English carol, a savor there of later German chorale. All primitive—ancient beyond ken. Nor are the faults of your bit of metricism confined to bastardy—”
“Stay in your black box then, if you won’t see or listen,” Dandi said. She could not get into his mind; it was the mentor’s privilege to lodge in her mind, and in the minds of those few other wards he had, scattered around Earth. Only the mentors had the power to inhabit another’s mind—which made them rather tiring on occasions like this, when they would not get out. For over seventy centuries, Dandi’s mentor had been persuading her to die into a dirge of his choosing (and composing). Let her die, yes, let her transubstantio-spatialize herself a thousand times! His quarrel was not with her decision but with her taste, which he considered execrable.
Leaving the baluchitherium to crop, Dandi walked away from the musicolumn toward a hillock. Still fed by her steed’s psyche, the column continued to play. Its music was of a simplicity, with a dominant-tonic recurrent bass part suggesting pessimism. To Dandi, a savant in musicolumnology, it yielded other data. She could tell to within a few years when its founder had died and also what sort of creature, generally speaking, he had been.
Climbing the hillock, Dandi looked about. To the south where the road led were low hills, lilac in the poor light. There lay her home. At last she was returning, after wanderings covering three hundred centuries and most of the globe.
Apart from the blind beauty of Oldorajo’s town lying to the west, there was only one landmark she recognized. That was the Involute. It seemed to hang iridial above the ground a few leagues ahead; just to look on it made her feel she must go nearer.
Before summoning the baluchitherium, Dandi listened once more to the sounds of the musicolumn, making sure she had them fixed in her head. The pity was that her old fool wise man would not share it. She could still feel his sulks floating like sediment through her mind.
“Are you listening now, Mentor?”
“Eh? An interesting point is that back in 1556 Pre-Involutary, your same little tune may be discovered lurking in Knox’s Anglo-Genevan Psalter, where it espoused the cause of the third psalm—”
“You dreary old fish! Wake yourself! How can you criticize my intended way of dying when you have such a fustian way of living?”
This time he heard her words. So close did he seem that his peevish pinching at the bridge of his snuffy old nose tickled hers, too.
“What are you doing now, Dandi?” he inquired.
“If you had been listening, you’d know. Here’s where I am, on the last Ghinomon plain before Crotheria and home.” She swept the landscape again and he took it in, drank it almost greedily. Many mentors went blind early in life shut in their monastic underwater life; their most effective vision was conducted through the eyes of their wards.
His view of what she saw enriched hers. He knew the history, the myth behind this forsaken land. He could stock the tired old landscape with pageantry, delighting her and surprising her. Back and forward he went, painting her pictures: the Youdicans, the Lombards, the Ex-Europa Emissary, the Grites, the Risorgimento, the Involuters—and catchwords, costumes, customs, courtesans, pelted briefly through Dandi Lashadusa’s mind. Ah, she thought admiringly, who could truly live without these priestly, beastly, erudite, erratic mentors?
“Erratic?” he inquired, snatching at her lick of thought. “A thousand years I live, for all that time to absent myself from the world, to eat mashed fish here with my brothers, learning history, studying rapport, sleeping with my bones on stones—a humble being, a being in a million, a mentor in a myriad, and your standards of judgment are so mundane you find no stronger label for me than erratic?! Fie, Lashadusa, bother me no more for fifty years!”
The words squeaked in her head as if she spoke herself. She felt his old chops work phantomlike in hers, and half in anger half in laughter called aloud, “I’ll be dead by then!”
He snicked back hot and holy to reply, “And another thing about your footloose swan song—in Marot and Beza’s Genevan Psalter of 1551, Old Time, it was musical midwife to the one hundred and thirty-fourth psalm. Like you, it never seemed to settle!” Then he was gone.
“Pooh!” Dandi said. She whistled. “Lass.”
Obediently her great rhinolike creature, eighteen feet high at the shoulder, ambled over. The musicolumn died as the mare left it, faded, sank to a whisper, silenced: only the purple stain remained, noiseless, in the lonely air. Lowering its great Oligocene head, Lass nuzzled its mistress’s hand. She climbed the ladder onto the ridged plateau of its back.
They made toward the Involute, lulled by the simple and intricate feeling of being alive.
Night was settling in now. Hidden behind banks of mist, the sun prepared to set. But Venus was high, a gallant half-crescent four times as big as the moon had been before the moon, spiraling farther and farther from Earth, had shaken off its parent’s clutch to go dance around the sun, a second Mercury. Even by that time Venus had been moved by gravitotraction into Earth’s orbit, so that the two sister worlds circled each other as they circled the sun.
The stamp of that great event still lay everywhere, its tokens not only in the crescent in the sky. For Venus placed a strange spell on the hearts of man, and a more penetrating displacement in his genes. Even when its atmosphere was transformed into a muffled breathability, it remained an alien world; against logic, its opportunities, its possibilities, were its own. It shaped men, just as Earth had shaped them.
On Venus, men bred themselves anew.
And they bred the so-called Impures. They bred new plants, new fruits, new creatures—original ones, and duplications of creatures not seen on Earth for eons past. From one line of these familiar strangers Dandi’s baluchitherium was descended. So, for that matter, was Dandi.
The huge creature came now to the Involute, or as near as it cared to get. Again it began to crop at thistles, thrusting its nose through dewy spiders’ webs and ground mist.
“Like you, I’m a vegetarian,” Dandi said, climbing down to the ground. A grove of low fruit trees grew nearby; she reached up into the branches, gathered, and ate, before turning to inspect the Involute. Already her spine tingled at the nearness of it; awe, loathing, and love made a part-pleasant sensation near her heart.
The Involute was not beautiful. True, its colors changed with the changing light, yet the colors were fish-cold, for they belonged to another dimension. Though they reacted to dusk and dawn, Earth had no stronger power over them. They pricked the eyes. Perhaps, too, they were painful because they were the last signs of materialist man. Even Lass moved uneasily before that ill-defined lattice, the upper limits of which were lost in thickening gloom.
“Don’t fear,” Dandi said. “There’s an explanation for this, old girl.” She added, “There’s an explanation for everything, if we can find it.”
She could feel all the personalities in the Involute. It was a frozen screen of personality. All over the old planet the structures stood, to shed their awe on those who were left behind. They were the essence of man. They were man—all that remained of him on Earth.
When the first flint, the first shell, was shaped into a weapon, that action shaped man. As he molded and complicated his tools, so they molded and complicated him. He became the first scientific animal. And at last, via information theory and great computers, he gained knowledge of all his parts. He formed the Laws of Integration, which reveal all beings as part of a pattern and show them their part in the pattern. There is only the pattern; the pattern is all the universe, creator and created. For the first time it became possible to duplicate that pattern artificially—the transubstantio-spatializers were built.
Men left their strange hobbies on Earth and Venus and projected themselves into the pattern. Their entire personalities were merged with the texture of space itself. Through science, they reached immortality.
It was a one-way passage.
They did not return. Each Involute carried thousands or even millions of people. There they were, not dead, not living. How they exulted or wept in their transubstantiation, no one left could say. Only this could be said: man had gone, and a great emptiness was fallen over Earth.
“Your thoughts are heavy, Dandi Lashadusa. Get you home.” Her mentor was back in her mind. She caught the feeling of him moving around and around in his coral-formed cell.
“I must think of man,” she said.
“Your thoughts mean nothing, do nothing.”
“Man created us: I want to consider him in peace.”
“He only shaped a stream of life that was always entirely out of his control. Forget him. Get onto your mare and ride home.”
“Get home, woman. Moping does not become you, I want to hear no more of your swan song, for I’ve given you my final word on that. Use a theme of your own, not of man’s. I’ve said it a million times, and I say it again.”
“I wasn’t going to mention my music. I was only going to tell you that—”
“What then?” His thought was querulous. She felt his powerful tail tremble, disturbing the quiet water of his cell.
“I don’t know—”
“Get home then.”
He shot her a picture from another of his wards before leaving her. Dandi had seen this ward before in similar dreamlike glimpses. It was a huge mole creature, still boring underground as it had been for the last hundred years. Occasionally it crawled through vast caves; once it swam in a subterranean lake; most of the time it just bored through rock. Its motivations were obscure to Dandi, although her mentor referred to it as “a geologer.” Doubtless if the mole was vouchsafed occasional glimpses of Dandi and her musicolumnology, it would find her as baffling. At least the mentor’s point was made: loneliness was psychological, not statistical.
Why, a million personalities glittered almost before her eyes!
She mounted the great baluchitherium mare and headed for home. Time and old monuments made glum company.
Twilight now, with just one streak of antique gold left in the sky, Venus sweetly bright, and stars peppering the purple. A fine evening in which to be alive, particularly with one’s last bedtime close at hand.
And yes, for all her mentor said, she was going to turn into that old little piece derived from one of the tunes in the 1540 Souter Liedekens, that splendid source of Netherlands folk music. For a moment, Dandi Lashadusa chuckled almost as eruditely as her mentor. The sixteenth century, with the virtual death of plainsong and virtual birth of the violin, was most interesting to her. Ah, the richness of facts, the texture of man’s brief history on Earth! Pure joy! Then she remembered herself.
After all, she was only a megatherium, a sloth as big as a small elephant, whose kind had been extinct for millions of years until man reconstituted a few of them in the Venusian experiments. Her modifications in the way of fingers and enlarged brain gave her no real qualification to think up to man’s level.
Early next morning, they arrived at the ramparts of the town Crotheria, where Dandi lived. The ubiquitous goats thronged about them, some no bigger than hedgehogs, some almost as big as hippos—what madness in his last days had provoked man to so many variations on one undistinguished theme?—as Lass and her mistress moved up the last slope and under the archway.
It was good to be back, to push among the trails fringed with bracken, among the palms, oaks, and treeferns. Almost all the town was deeply green and private from the sun, curtained by swathes of Spanish moss. Here and there were houses—caves, pits, crude piles of boulders, or even genuine man-type buildings, grand in ruin. Dandi climbed down, walking ahead of her mount, her long hair curling in pleasure. The air was cool with the coo of doves or the occasional bleat of a merino.
As she explored familiar ways, though, disappointment overcame her. Her friends were all away, even the dreamy bison whose wallow lay at the corner of the street in which Dandi lived. Only pure animals were here, rooting happily and mindlessly in the lanes, beggars who owned the Earth. The Impures—descendants of the Venusian experimental stock—were all absent from Crotheria.
That was understandable. For obvious reasons man had increased the abilities of herbivores rather than carnivores. After the Involution, with man gone, these Impures had taken to his towns as they took to his ways, as far as this was possible to their natures. Both Dandi and Lass, and many of the others, consumed massive amounts of vegetable matter every day. Gradually a wider and wider circle of desolation grew about each town (the greenery in the town itself was sacrosanct), forcing a semi-nomadic life onto its vegetarian inhabitants.
This thinning in its turn led to a decline in the birthrate. The travelers grew fewer, the towns greener and emptier; in time they had become little oases of forest studding the grassless plains.
“Rest here, Lass,” Dandi said at last, pausing by a bank of brightly flowering cycads. “I’m going into my house.”
A giant beech grew before the stone façade of her home, so close that it was hard to determine whether it did not help support the ancient building. A crumbling balcony jutted from the first floor; reaching up, Dandi seized the balustrade and hauled herself onto it.
This was her normal way of entering her home, for the ground floor was taken over by goats and hogs, just as the third floor had been appropriated by doves and parakeets. Trampling over the greenery self-sown on the balcony, she moved into the front room. Dandi smiled. Here were her old things, the broken furniture on which she liked to sleep, the vision screens on which nothing could be seen, the heavy manuscript books in which, guided by her know-all mentor, she wrote down the outpourings of the musicolumns she had visited all over the world.
She ambled through to the next room.
She paused, her peace of mind suddenly broken.
A brown bear stood there. One of its heavy hands was clenched over the hilt of a knife.
“I am no vulgar thief,” it said, curling its thick black lips over the syllables. “I am an archaeologer. If this is your place, you must grant me permission to remove the man things. Obviously you have no idea of the worth of some of the equipment here. We bears require it. We must have it.”
It came toward her, panting doggy fashion, its jaws open. From under bristling eyebrows gleamed the lust to kill.
Dandi was frightened. Peaceful by nature, she feared the bears above all creatures for their fierceness and their ability to organize. The bears were few: they were the only creatures to show signs of wishing to emulate man’s old aggressiveness.
She knew what the bears did. They hurled themselves through the Involutes to increase their power; by penetrating those patterns, they nourished their psychic drive, so the mentor said. It was forbidden. They were transgressors. They were killers.
“Mentor!” she screamed.
The bear hesitated. As far as he was concerned, the hulking creature before him was merely an obstacle in the way of progress, something to be thrust aside without hate. Killing would be pleasant but irrelevant; more important items remained to be done. Much of the equipment housed here could be used in the rebuilding of the world, the world of which bears had such high, haphazard dreams. Holding the knife threateningly, he moved forward.
The mentor was in Dandi’s head, answering her cry, seeing through her eyes, though he had no sight of his own. He scanned the bear and took over her mind instantly, knifing himself into place like a guillotine.
No longer was he a blind old dolphin lurking in one cell of a cathedral pile of coral under tropical seas, a theologer, an inculcator of wisdom into feebler-minded beings. He was a killer more savage than the bear, keen to kill anything that might covet the vacant throne once held by men. The mere thought of men could send this mentor into sharklike fury at times.
Caught up in his fury, Dandi found herself advancing. For all the bear’s strength, she could vanquish it. In the open, where she could have brought her heavy tail into action, it would have been an easy matter. Here her weighty forearms must come into play. She felt them lift to her mentor’s command as he planned for her to clout the bear to death.
The bear stepped back, awed by an opponent twice its size, suddenly unsure.
“No! Stop!” Dandi cried.
Instead of fighting the bear, she fought her mentor, hating his hate. Her mind twisted, her dim mind full of that steely, fishy one, as she blocked his resolution.
“I’m for peace!” she cried.
“Then kill the bear!”
“I’m for peace, not killing!”
She rocked back and forth. When she staggered into a wall, it shook; dust spread in the old room. The mentor’s fury was terrible to feel.
“Get out quickly!” Dandi called to the bear.
Hesitating, it stared at her. Then it turned and made for the window. For a moment it hung with its shaggy hind-quarters in the room. Momentarily she saw it for what it was, an old animal in an old world, without direction. It jumped. It was gone. Goats blared confusion on its retreat.
The mentor screamed. Insane with frustration, he hurled Dandi against the doorway with all the force of his mind.
Wood cracked and splintered. The lintel came crashing down. Brick and stone shifted, grumbled, fell. Powdered filth billowed up. With a great roar, one wall collapsed. Dandi struggled to get free. Her house was tumbling about her. It had never been intended to carry so much weight, so many centuries.
She reached the balcony and jumped clumsily to safety, just as the building avalanched in on itself, sending a cloud of plaster and powdered mortar into the overhanging trees.
For a horribly long while the world was full of dust, goat bleats, and panic-stricken parakeets.
Heavily astride her baluchitherium once more, Dandi Lashadusa headed back to the empty region called Ghinomon. She fought her bitterness, trying to urge herself toward resignation.
All she had was destroyed—not that she set store by possessions: that was a man trait. Much more terrible was the knowledge that her mentor had left her forever; she had transgressed too badly to be forgiven this time.
Suddenly she was lonely for his persnickety voice in her head, for the wisdom he fed her, for the scraps of dead knowledge he tossed her—yes, even for the love he gave her. She had never seen him, never could: yet no two beings could have been more intimate.
She also missed those other wards of his she would glimpse no more: the mole creature tunneling in Earth’s depths, the seal family that barked with laughter on a desolate coast, a senile gorilla that endlessly collected and classified spiders, an aurochs—seen only once, but then unforgettably—that lived with smaller creatures in an Arctic city it had helped build in the ice.
She was excommunicated.
Well, it was time for her to change, to disintegrate, to transubstantiate into a pattern not of flesh but music. That discipline at least the mentor had taught and could not take away.
“This will do, Lass,” she said.
Her gigantic mount stopped obediently. Lovingly, she patted its neck. It was young; it would be free.
Following the dusty trail, she went ahead, alone. Somewhere afar a bird called. Coming to a mound of boulders, Dandi squatted among gorse, the points of which could not prick through her thick old coat. Already her selected music poured through her head, already it seemed to loosen the chemical bonds of her being.
Why should she not choose an old human tune? She was an antiquarian. Things that were gone solaced her for things that were to come. In her dim way, she had always stood out against her mentor’s absolute hatred of men. The thing to hate was hatred. Men in their finer moments had risen above hate. Her death psalm was an instance of that—a multiple instance, for it had been fingered and changed over the ages, as the mentor himself insisted, by men of a variety of races, all with their minds directed to worship rather than hate.
Locking herself into thought disciplines, Dandi began to dissolve. Man had needed machines to help him do it, to fit into the Involutes. She was a lesser animal: she could change herself into the humbler shape of a musicolumn. It was just a matter of rearranging—and without pain she formed into a pattern that was not a shaggy megatherium body, but an indigo column, hardly visible … .
For a long while Lass cropped thistle and cacti. Then she ambled forward to seek the hairy creature she fondly—and a little condescendingly—regarded as her equal. But of the sloth there was no sign.
Almost the only landmark was a violet-blue dye in the air. As the baluchitherium mare approached, a sweet old music grew in volume from the dye. It was a music almost as ancient as the landscape itself, and certainly as much traveled, a tune once known to men as Old Hundredth. And there were voices singing: “All creatures that on Earth do dwell … .”
THE FURTHEST HORIZON: SF ADVENTURES TO THE FAR FUTURE. Copyright © 2000 by Gardner Dozois. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.