The Paper Age      Sci-fi story

This story is taken from ‘6000 miliard. Sci-fi povídky’ by Jan Váchal, published by Nakladatelství Penrous in 2009. The translation is by Andrew Oakland.

The Paper Age

Since becoming Director of the International Museum of Civilization and the research institutes connected with it, I’ve not had much to complain about. I enjoy the work immensely and, besides, my elevated position allows me to arrange things as I wish them to be.

        My greatest success has been the establishing of a new museum centre. It is essentially made up of two separate but complementary units. The first of these is the education park for natural history and evolution, which simulates the evolution on Earth of flora, fauna and humankind. All this is done in multi-layered holograms of the highest quality, which achieve perfection in projection and succeed in showing visitors in a relatively short time what occurred over thousands of millions of years. The development of civilization on Earth is presented so that visitors can converse with figures from a given age; in this regard the park is quite unique and unparalleled. You can stroll through ancient Rome and talk with citizens, craftsmen, soldiers, politicians, even slaves about their lives, needs and desires. The programme contains over ten thousand simulations from the whole course of history. The second independent unit is the museum itself, which is housed in three huge airships that float above the park. Here visitors can acquaint themselves with the museum’s extensive and various collections while enjoying a bird’s-eye view of the park. The first airship is thematically focused on the development of the Earth and the solar system, from the Big Bang till the present day. The second contains collections of evolutionary development from the first manifestations of life on Earth and the formation of organic carbon and on through the Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Tertiary eras. The third airship is concerned with humankind and its evolution as a species from the Dryopithecidae and on through all species of Homo in sequence, and also with its social evolution – from the Stone Age through the Copper, Bronze and Iron Ages, on through antiquity and into the modern era, to the Paper Age and right up to the present, plasma-digital age.

        Naturally I give my full attention to all collections, but I have to say that I have taken a great fancy to the Paper Age.

Good morning, Elén.” I greeted my secretary as I stepped into the room.

And good morning to you, Professor.”

What’s new?”

That container over there,” she chirped, pointing to a desk in the corner. “It’s marked for your attention.”

Who’s it from?”

        “A Dr Burie. I think it came from Prague.”

       I was thrilled. “I’ve been waiting for this. Dr Burie is leading the archaeological excavations in Prague. He notified me the day before yesterday that he’s made a great many highly significant findings.”

        My secretary made a deferential display of sharing my pleasure, even though she had no knowledge of the matter.

        I flipped off the lid of the container and took a look inside. “My goodness, this is magnificent! Look at this document, Elén. A great rarity. Written on what was known as carbon paper. Used for the most part in the twentieth century. Our ancestors were nobody’s fools. This super-thin paper saved a lot of space.”

        “Associate Professor Benink claims the paper was so thin so people could use it when they went to the toilet.”

        “Benink is a charlatan. It’s a long time since anyone paid attention to his pseudo-scientific spoutings. Even a first-year student of archaeology knows that when on the toilet our ancestors used whatever was to hand, even strips of newspaper.”

        Elén shrugged. A good secretary doesn’t involve herself in scholarly debate.

       “And this is of exceptional value, Elén!” I was now enthusing over another object I’d fished from the box’s depths. “The menu card from a works canteen.”

        “What’s a works canteen?”

      “These days we’d call it a ‘public eatery’. This one was at some kind of government office. Wait a moment, it’s rather dirty.” I wiped it carefully with a beta-anti cloth. “This was the canteen at the Ministry of Defence.”

        “And was being defended?”

        “I don’t know. Maybe there was an outbreak of some disease or infection.” My reply was a casual one as I had another point to make. “Look at the meals. Monday: Remo slice with rice. The same thing on Tuesday and Thursday, although on Thursday it’s with potatoes.”

        “And what was a Remo slice?”

        “A very popular food in the second half of the twentieth century, judging from how often it appeared on menus. No meal was without Remo. Or without Uho. That was a universal brown sauce that was served with practically everything. Remo came in roulades as well as slices. There was even something known as the Remo bird.”

        “Bird? What kind of bird?”

        “Probably a small one like a blue tit or a chaffinch.”

        “I see.”

        “On Friday they had ham pasta.”

        “It sounds fascinating! I wonder what it can be.”

        “To be honest, Elén, I’ve no idea. Perhaps Dr Zouliová would know – she once took an interest in cookery books.”

        My secretary nodded as though she understood.

       I gave up my search of the container. “I’ll go through it properly this afternoon. Anything else, Elén?”

       “Yes, Professor. An appeal has come in on the data-collection line from the Chief Finance Flow Controller.”

        “Oh God! He’ll be meddling with our funding. Every year they send us less.”

        “Maybe this time they’ll be giving more.”

        “I hardly think so. If he wanted to give us more, he wouldn’t ask to see me.”

        “The recording is on your desktop, Professor.”

        “Thank you. I’ll take a look at it straight away.”

I was right, of course. The controller was summoning me to a meeting concerning a reduction in the UXC-BGF/TRE funding flow – the flow that led directly to us. The question was how much we stood to lose. It was necessary for me to prepare myself well. In addition to the usual statistics – number of visitors, expenditure and the like – I prepared a presentation by which I wished to convince the controller and his officials that money invested in us was money well spent. I would need to dazzle them somehow.

We thank you, Professor, for the information on the workings of your museum in the period since the last audit.” With these words the Chief Finance Flow Controller sought to draw a line under my account.

       “I would like to acquaint you with one particularly striking success recorded by our institute, Chief Controller. I believe it will serve to convince you that funds invested in our research activities are recovered with interest.”

       “Please do, Professor. Blow your own trumpet.”

I thought it best to let this comment pass. “Chief Controller, Assessors,” I said. “Researchers at our affiliate archaeo department recently made a discovery – in the very centre of Prague, on the historically significant Letná plain – which is truly unique and I believe to be of epoch-making significance. It concerns a sarcophagus that is very well preserved and contains an astonishing volume of material from the Paper Age – a comprehensive set of books – bound books, which today are very rare – and an abundance of other archival materials, not least newspapers and magazines. The sarcophagus was discovered quite by chance. For its time it is uncommonly large. In some of its parameters it is somewhat reminiscent of the libraries of the early twenty-first century, but in terms of its overall conception it is absolutely unique. Indeed, I have no hesitation in declaring it the only one of its kind. It is unique, too, in terms of its shape, which I struggle to describe. It resembles most closely an octopus with a single eye.”

        “I congratulate you, Professor. But the fact of this discovery can hardly be expected to influence the decision of this committee. Our financial resources must be directed towards the transfer of new technologies and data storage, not to the excavation of old paper. No offence intended, you understand. The Council for Great Decisions has resolved to provide substantial support for the development of bacteria-based storage media. I struggle to grasp the volume of information a single bacterium can remember and how simple it is for mega-channel links based on super-light sugars to collect and disseminate this information. It is a true revolution that cannot be stopped. Such technologies will certainly work to the benefit of museums, too. I imagine that you are in favour of new technologies.”

        “I’m not sure, sir.”

        “Of course. You are a champion of paper – of the past, of history. I understand perfectly. I once saw for myself a few books in a museum. Our ancestors’ mastery of this technology is truly impressive, I agree. I am in no doubt of the importance of your museum for public education, not least of the young. But I am afraid, Professor, that you will have to get used to a reduction in the funds we can award you.”

He was right. I had to get used to the idea. Worse still, I had to deal with it. For many years to come our money supply would be tighter than a hangman’s noose. But there was one thing the controller was wrong about. I actually disliked the new storage technologies and although I was under great pressure to introduce them in the museum, I was resistant. What bothered me was not so much the speed of their development as the fact that they swallowed everything in their wake; old, proven principles simply fell by the wayside. All things considered, bacteria didn’t do a great deal for me. I knew a few things about them from my studies in our collections; what’s more, my knee was aching, which my grandmother used to say was a bad sign.

                     Black Friday on data exchange

                  Information collapse inevitable

                  Crisis! Crisis! Crisis! What next?

                  Council for Great Decisions resigns

                  Memory bacteria decimated by unknown epidemic

                  “It can’t be stopped,” top hygienist admits

                  Universal Data Bank shareholders ruined

                  All we’ll know is what we remember ourselves

                  Better-days prophet Big Zeus to build Data Ark

                  Panic on information highway

                  “Pray for our data,” urges Church

All media wrote like this, respectable and less respectable. Erstwhile tabloids and erstwhile broadsheets came to have a great deal in common: with the relentless passing of time, everything became more and more general. All sources of reason dried up.

The new Council for Great Decisions was called the Crisis Council. To my great surprise it summoned me. In official terms I was invited to take part in a consultation. But the fact was, they were pleading for help. I came with a detailed proposal for the resolution of the situation, which the Crisis Council accepted unanimously and immediately. Suddenly they were assigning me a finance flow massive enough to sink a small submarine. But I was not smug for having told them so – I had work to do and I got on with it. It was not enough simply to take on a great many new staff; all had to be retrained. In all disciplines. We would be needing all the accumulated knowledge of our museum. No longer were there voices claiming that the museum was an unnecessary, expensive luxury or a recreational resource for a few crazy bookworms.

The chairman of the Crisis Council arrived at the agreed hour. I was waiting for him.

        “I’m most curious to see what you have for us, Professor.”

        “I believe that you and the Crisis Council will be satisfied. Everything is going according to plan. My people are simply magnificent – full of initiative and prepared to work day and night. All sense a purpose in their work and know they have the support of the public. This crisis has brought everyone together. We have experts in all imaginable disciplines, but older members of the general public are getting involved, too. All we needed to do was revive one old technology.”

        “Please lead the way, Professor. I wish to see it for myself.”

        We ascended by a winding staircase and proceeded along an outer gallery. Then we passed through a door on to the inner gallery of a great hall. The area below us was dotted with hundreds of tables with people sitting behind them. These people were the first to have mastered the old technique of writing by hand; on to snow-white sheets they were writing down everything they could remember.

        “These are the scribes of the modern age, Chairman. Knights of the pen. The inheritors of the Paper Age. Here they sit writing of their present so that it is recorded for posterity as the past. Littera scripta manet. The written letter remains.”

© Jan Váchal