On Exactitude in Art

On Exactitude in Art

or

The False Law

 

by Daniel Galef

 

The Party had set a timeline for when they expected to achieve certain goals related to the advancement of Communism. All fiction in a futuristic setting was required to adhere to this timeline.

                        —article about early Soviet science fiction

            After the overthrow of the Forty-Tyrants-and-One-Tyrant, the authors of Zgoran-Veldrik (by which was meant, in the parlance of that realm, all those who wrote words upon things that had not previously had words written on them) girded themselves in the expectation of the censorious statutes that inevitably follow such an overturning. The neighboring duchy of Kviničy had been converted to a democracy the year before, and it was reported that more tract-writers had been liberated of their heads than actual politicians, on the line of reasoning that the politicians were mostly just following orders (no one’s orders in particular, but it was generally assumed that they were all at various times following each other’s orders), whereas the tract-writers, if they so chose, could have led peaceful and pleasant lives composing rhymes for greeting cards and shaving cream advertisements.

            Across the river in Grzolo-am-Grzala, political commentary was allowed so long as it was positive. The private commune of Kraeplin was decadently permissive with regard to satire, but defined satire only as a subdivision of humor, and thus the validity of a work of satire was determined by whether or not the judge laughed. In the city-state of Vrilizinij, libel was still protected so long as all the names were properly altered, but the author could still be put to death if the subject of the slander legally changed their name to follow suit.

            But Kommissar Zhevsky, the permanent-interim-acting-premier-for-life of the fledgling Zgoran-Veldrik Republic, was merciful and rational. The state demanded no more than any courtroom (and in the wake of the revolution it might well be said that the entire country had indeed become one great courtroom), that is to say, it demanded only honesty. The writers of Zgoran-Veldrik could write—and, further, should God and their editors so allow, publish—any words, characters, or situations it may please them to write about… just so long as it be the truth.

           The Revolution had turned on the issue of public corruption and dishonesty, and it was this that spawned a governmental policy of complete truth. Still, few expected this to manifest as it did concerning Literature. It was commanded that lies were no less abominable when their nature as lies was not hidden, and indeed the promulgation of Public Lies was even more abhorrent due to the brazenness of their commission. The sentence “Kommissar Zhevsky is a murderous buffoon” was thus permissible, as unassailable as “Snow is white.” How could he object? The Kommissar was a despot, but he was a self-aware despot, and his commitment to Truth was even greater than his pride. However, any dip into fantasy even as toothless as “Snow is puce and vermillion” became a capital offense, unless the accused author could provide concrete evidence of the peculiar precipitation described.

            This echoing edict, passed swiftly but not quite so high on the new regime’s priority as redesigning the stamps, become known as The False Law; not deliberately to suggest that the law itself was in any way false, but, just as The Poor Law constituted legislation concerning those who are poor and The Old Law regulated the elderly, so The False Law was a law concerning those who were false, who spun falsehoods. Naturally the Law was applied retroactively—the past is not a church, it furnishes no sanctuary. And, as in all art, intent was unknowable and irrelevant. All those whose falsehood was on record were in the iron sights of this Law. Fiction became a felony.

           I loitered in the depopulated cafés and watched as pikes paraded down the boulevards decorated with the heads of those writers who had been violently abridged, novelists’ noses sporting Pinocchio prosthetics and the word “LIAR” scrawled across their finally unfurrowed brows. I sipped from gunmetal zarfs of tea that tasted of ash and read that the remaining newspapers—filled now with cautious hedges and “a source may or may not have suggested” qualifiers—reported, in the space previously given over to literary reviews, the latest crop of warrants and execution notices. Soon, I knew, it would be my own turn to answer for my irresponsible fancies.

            If I were King (I thought)—or, indeed, if I were acting-permanent-interim-premier-for-life—I would decree that Truth is an abomination, as cruel and uncaring as physics. When you stumble off the cliff’s edge, Gravity is not merciful. Truth is not beauty. The only literature I would permit would be lies, beautiful lies, heartbreaking lies, tempting lies, unlikely lies, popular lies, repulsive lies, lovely lies—and death to any who breathe a word of truth.

* * *

            The immediate effects of Zhevsky’s reform were unexpected: poets were peculiarly less hard-hit than historians; the most fiery of polemicists were often found, upon fine-toothed sifting of their rhetoric, to have said very little that was objectively false, couched in much that was strictly meaningless. But novelists, as a breed, were extinct. These so-called characters, it was discovered, however lifelike and sympathetic, were literally lies. No such persons were found in the census records, no such events as those related in their plots could be substantiated from newspaper archives. The architects of these perfidies were beheaded one and all, for the good of the people, who deserved to live in a state free of deception.

            Of course, not every writer is a liar, or not every writer a provable liar. Some nonfictions more or less lived up to their name. Even some novels concerned themselves with events so mundane, so banal and unimportant, that their occurrence could not be disproved because their occurrence, if they actually transpired, would have been instantly forgotten. Some fictions were so experimental in style or so obscure in interpretation that it could not plainly be determined what factual assertions were made. The authors of these borderline cases were only half-decapitated, by the benefit of the doubt.

            But there was another class of writers, an entire category with which the machinery of the state could do nothing but wait and observe. Their plots were no less plain, their claims no less interpretable or no less outlandish, than all those who had felt the executioner’s sword. But unlike those who had fallen before them, this class was untouchable by the law as it had been enacted. This was the small writing circle whose adherents called themselves cyclopean-philosophers, or cy-phi, who devoted their literary efforts to writing not of events that it could be decided did or did not occur in the present time, but rather of things in the future.

            No warrant could be issued, no accusation upheld and no crime substantiated, until the time of the narrative actually came to pass. Otherwise, there was always a chance that the events as described may in fact occur. It was of no matter whether the author’s claim was as plausible as the occurrence of a rainstorm on a date some two years hence, or as seemingly impossible as the spontaneous combustion of an as-yet-unbuilt city on the surface of Saturn.

            Happy were those scriveners who had imagined events in the years far beyond their own deaths, who wrote fantasies for centuries to come, and who could not be convicted but posthumously, like the Cadaver Synod of Pope Formosus. They were free to ignore the law and go about their lives, under ceaseless public suspicion but little risk of indictment, like the careful mob boss whose double life is common knowledge but who walks freely, even if not free from the ever-present eyes of a dozen undercover officers.

            Not so free were the lives of the authors who wrote fictions of the near-future, amateur prognosticators who had spun stories which took place a year, five years, or fifty years hence. These writers in publishing their volumes had unconsciously wound them up like an alarm clock—or like a time-bomb. Like a condemned prisoner whose date of execution has been set, they counted the days until reality caught up with their fictions and their falsehood became fact (or, rather, did not become fact). This was the unhappy crew to which I had unwillingly conscripted myself, and this unhappy existence my fate, ensnared in a web of words so thoughtlessly dashed from my own pen.

            Although concrete probabilities would be difficult to compute, clearly it is not a fifty-fifty proposition that a random novel so happens to come to pass exactly as the events are written. For all but a minuscule proportion of the cyclopeans (a proportion whose creative vision, it would seem, was either the dullest or the keenest), the arrival of the date in which their stories were set meant swift arrest, to be followed by swift condemnation, and, it was to be hoped, an axe-stroke not itself unduly drawn out.

            These authors, in a last-ditch attempt to span the gulf between their own unchecked imaginations and mundane reality, could only try to mold the one to more closely match the other. The novels were published, set in stone. But the actual future was as yet still in draft. They pleaded with engineers and city planners, campaigned to change the names of certain geographical features or establish the charity to which their character subscribes in chapter six. The great poet Bergen op Zoom paid a team of actors to play out the events of his epic An Account of the Events of the Next Five Years, over the complete duration of its setting. At the conclusion of his plot, the great artist collapsed, every penny of his bestseller’s fortune paid in acting fees.

            Still, even the best-laid scheme which had succeeded in molding the contours of the human world to the marks on a printed page could still be foiled by as unanswerable a happenstance as a crop blight (in what in the book was a bumper year), or the weather. Every effort was met with variables for which there is no preparation, both natural and otherwise (and there were some dozens of authors, all rapidly approaching their deadlines, all seeking simultaneously to bring the world more in line with their mutually-exclusive predictions). The poet Blitzblini of Rukhsh Street lived under the dangling Damoclean sword of a ballad he had published as a schoolboy in The Zgoranian Quarterly and all but forgotten in the years since, which happened to breezily relay the arrival of the celebrated vessel the Macguffin in the southern port at dawn on St. Simeon’s Day some thirty years hence. By an incredible coincidence, the drama critic Nuvguzbuzvub, writing in The Fortnightly Veldriknik, had, in his own sole foray into literary speculation, facetiously (but that is no defense) asserted the arrival of that same vessel, on that same day, at dawn to the northern port. When bribery failed, both authors ended up on the deck of the Macguffin itself, fighting over the helm. In the scuffle, the ship was driven aground, and both authors decapitated, for convenience, with a single swoop of Sanson’s scimitar. They were buried dos-à-dos.

            Only one scribbler I knew of, among our polyphemian guild, succeeded in writing her way out of the noose, in penning her own Miserere, the intonation of which, like a magical formula, might release her from the False Law. Ixtipius of Spritnig, that long-kirtled and milky-eyed Empress of Letters, on the very morning of the law’s passage, published her fifth major effort, a monumental work of political commentary titled Satire V. Penned furiously in the night, it sequelized and reframed all her previous writings as the events transpiring in a kingdom, eerily similar but distinct, some million million leagues off on a small fixed star in the girdle of the Grand Ophicleide constellation. In Satire II, the universe itself had been ended, which would be noticed even here in Zgoran-Veldrik, but this too was answered away in V by explaining that the calendrical system employed by the characters on this sphere was also distinct from our own, and the now-past deadline for universal expiration was yet, by this alternate reckoning, some million million years hence.

            Her third tome, an unsalvageable fantasia titled simply Falsehoods, was recast in toto as having occurred exactly as related, but in the subjective experiences of its unmanifested narrator. A madman in residence at the Z.-G.-K. Asylum for Lunatics and Lepers, where he had been relegated following the last revolution but two for whistling subversive melodies in public, was retained at modest cost and swore an affidavit to the effect that these had indeed been his unfiltered perceptions, as recounted by himself in person as narrator. As such, neither Ixtipius nor the lunatic had, strictly, been lying.

            The fourth and final of her previous works evaded even these tacks, but Satire V included a belated epilogue for that last novel at its outset, beginning with a single closing quotation mark and proceeding from there, “…she thought, incorrectly. And then she woke up.”

            Ixtipius slipped her bondage, and neither her person nor her writing was ever bound again. The loophole, like a noose, was closed swiftly after her. A cultist of the great’s attempted to follow crudely in his master’s footsteps by a different method, writing a thin narrative which might be summarized briefly in both content and tone as “O! I shall be beheaded! O!” If the tale were untrue, the shrewd pupil was condemned, but such condemnation would itself make the tale true, necessitating his pardon—thus making the tale untrue again, and so on. Zhevsky was not amused. They beheaded him, and then pardoned him afterward. No, I am not interested in such useless cleverness.

            My own little-read volume was titled Vision of Life after the Revolution—the revolution had already been nascently underway, and I was always blessed with a peculiar talent for recognizing those human patterns, the lives that are not rhymes, but eye-rhymes. My protagonist was myself, with my right name. Thankfully, I did not dwell in too much detail on the revolution itself, as it took a number of turns I had not anticipated, but rather focused the bulk of my prognostication on my own personal activities. The boon of a poet’s narcissism! I proved myself correct, following in my own footsteps exactly. But, like a typical paranoid, I expected I would land in the condemned’s garret for one reason or another. Well I knew how easily I might end up on the wrong side of some tyrant—as I had found myself countless times before on the wrong side of schoolmasters and editors and critics (how satisfying it had been to witness the public drawing-and-quartering of one particularly vitriolic reviewer who had proclaimed that my Vision of Life after the Revolution would certainly “be of little consequence or interruption to anyone’s literary lives”!).

            In the penultimate scene, I sit in my garret—and here I am—awaiting the morning knock-up of the executioner, writing something which I did not think to specify. The black glove of Sanson pounds on the door—quickly, now, I hear footfalls—and I am walked to the gibbet. As he starts to bring the blade down, he is struck by a sudden pang of conscience, and frees me. At the very least, it is my consolation to be untethered to truth—whatever happens—the complete opposite of that conniving scholar. In no correspondence with the universe, positive or negative—completely, sublimely vacuous—no way to possibly be proven wrong, nor ever to be proven right—the Word in a world entirely of its own.

* * *

About the Creator

Daniel Galef exists at the shimmering nexus of art and technology, on the bleeding edge of innovation and a cheesy corporate mission statement. His stories have been featured in the Indiana ReviewJuked, the American BystanderBards and Sages QuarterlyBewildering Stories, the Sci-Fi LampoonAtlanta Review, and the 2020 Best Small Fictions anthology. As a graduate student in the prestigious writing program at Florida State University, he is keenly aware of the line between genre fiction and legitimate literature, mostly because he keeps tripping over it and landing in the alligator pond.

His first book is in prerelease and can be purchased online.

If you had a hammer, would you hammer in the morning, and all goddamned day, or just idly as a novelty? What would you hammer?

I spent a moment trying to think of a clever answer to this question until I realized with creeping horror that it is no hypothetical at all:—I do have a hammer, and what do I do with it? Next to nothing. Why, I can’t even remember the last time I assembled an item of furniture that didn’t come with plastic pegs and an instruction manual written entirely in patronizing Swedish pictographs. Now I feel shameful and undeserving of the hammer I have so callously neglected, and so have released it back into the wild in the hopes that it may return to its brethren in the forest and be free to evermore hamm.

You’ve just discovered that you’re a superjucian glass of juice. You have all the powers of a glass of juice, TIMES 1000. A thirsty tween approaches you and you know the time for action is nigh. What is this action?

Concentrate.

Read Daniel Galef’s Dear Aunty Stanky advice letter.

About the Artist

Images from Pixabay creators Kellepics and darksouls1.


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