Saturday, September 17, 2011

FICTION: Off The Grid by Ian Chung

I find this true: that even if we were covered by stones and buried in rubble, there would always be a hand with a pen that goes on writing. It is about believing in literature. I was not alone in this belief, as attested by the boom experienced by the publishing industry once the war reached our borders. Granted, the only casualties in the war were bank accounts and corporations, databases and electronically transmitted avatars, and the works of literature pouring forth had all been typed or dictated to machines that spit out pristine papers of environmentally-friendly ink, but hey, we were still a reading generation. Naysayers be damned, even if I knew hardly anyone whose handwriting was classifiable as legible.

At first, the war touched us hardly at all. Sure, the banking system was temporarily offline, but everyone had anticipated this after reading newspaper reports of how the war had progressed in our neighbouring countries. Prudent amounts of cash had been regularly withdrawn, and a morass of regulations had ensured the system did not go into meltdown while we were at it. The novelty of notes and coins kept everyone amused for a week, and the knowledge of being able to afford our daily luxuries kept us happy in the weeks after. Little is known about how those who had failed to economise when instructed to survived, but rumours of a government amnesty for debt for the war’s duration suggested living on credit was not about to make an exit. Assuming these people could find businesses who still walled a fraction of their operations away from the Grid.

For the Grid was not invulnerable, despite what cloud computing experts had assured us when we legislated it into existence. They had also doubted it could ever evolve itself to sentience, although sporadic reports in recent years indicated rogue subsystems were on occasion capable of passing the Turing test. No word yet on who would have been bored enough to challenge a routine subsystem gone rogue rather than just terminating it, but all the newspapers cited anonymous tipoffs, so it must have been true. They did not usually agree on such trivialities.

Without the Grid, shops that still sold writing materials saw their takings grow. Exponentially, of course, since with all factories off the Grid as well, no new stock was forthcoming and prices could therefore be raised in the serene confidence that demand would not flag. Hobbyists who made their own recycled paper and quill pens from feathers and vegetable inks suddenly found their skills of practical use. Except without the power and reach of the Grid, there was no one to market to. I lived between a paper-maker and a pen-maker, but refused to pay for their services until the weekend the stationer’s ran out of my favourite ballpoints.

Of course we should have seen the signs, but logic and reasoning had been dropped from the curriculum long ago in favour of grooming and ad-libbing. (You never knew when a camera crew might spot you and beam its feed straight to the Grid.) Those of us able to would have written articles excoriating our countrymen for their (our?) stupidity, except it would have been a waste of paper and ink. I wrote, but only stories, fables and fairytales that I read aloud to the diminishing crowd at my corner cafĂ©, as more people began to stay indoors. I could never tell if they were more afraid of current affairs, frantically whispered between mouthfuls of synthetic coffee and tea, or the illusory currants that were a running theme in my characters’ sordid affairs. Dared we dream?

The Grid has been brought online again, but we know the war cannot possibly be over yet. The newspaper companies have finally run out of paper and ink themselves, and the hobbyists are not numerous enough to prop up that industry, even if they were compelled to. I do not leave my flat anymore either. I think the tinned goods will last a few more months, and whoever is controlling the Grid now has not seized the semi-independent routines that have kept water flowing through the taps all this time. At night, the holographic shimmer of a mechanical hand clutching a pen in the distance keeps me awake.

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