When we go back to stuff I wrote in the past, moving forward, I think we’ll call it “From the Vault.” That’s the sort of thing we’ll do on Tuesdays and Thursdays, on those Tuesdays and Thursdays we actually do something.
This is a fragment — an incomplete chapter one of a book never written, dating back to the early 90′s. As with pretty much every science fiction writer who was once twenty, this was the beginning of my dystopia novel. Back in the days when I figured I was going to graduate school as a matter of course, I had seriously considered Utopia and Dystopia as a concentration and field of study. I was considering that alongside 19th and 20th Century American Poetry, of course. It never entered my head to go for a Ph.D. in the Modern Superhero Story, which is a pity since that’s what I’d clearly be able to nail.
To that end, I started writing my dystopia. I called it America the Beautiful, because I was very, very earnest about it. This was going to be a call to arms — a warning for the ages that would rank with Brave New World and 1984.
You know. Just like all the other dystopias out there.
Well, I never got out of the first chapter. But rereading the first chapter I’m a little amazed — as unsubtle as the title was, the opening, the establishment of tone and character… it’s better than I expected when I went back to reread this. I’m actually moderately interested in what Thomas’s story would turn out to be.
Not that we’ll ever find out. At least, if I ever pick this up, it’ll be significantly different than whatever I intended fifteen years ago.
There is one thing I like in this, as well. To me, a good dystopia — I mean, a really good and scary one — had to be compelling. You had to get the sense that the people living in that society were perfectly content to live in that society. I didn’t believe 1984 would ever happen for the sheer fact that if the entire world was uncomfortable and unhappy, someone would do something about it in a power bid. Brave New World was far more likely, because as scary as that would was, you could believe the people living in it enjoyed themselves. And when people were happy, they weren’t rebelling against the social order.
Anyhow. Here it is. I hope you like it.
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America the Beautiful
Thomas had been dreaming when the thunder woke him up. It had been a dream of sunshine and blue skys, in a field that was well mown, so that the smell of hay and grass hung in the air. It was a good smell. A healthy smell.
There were nervous voices all around Thomas. Chattering though it was hours after curfew. It was pitch black except for when the lightning flashed through the windows. There were twenty five windows in the room.
Thomas’s bunk was by a window. He had a window six months, then was placed across the aisle by the lockers. It was fair that way. Fair for everyone in the study cell. It was Thomas’s turn right now to be on the left side in the upper bunk by the window. Then he would be on the left side on the lower bunk by the lockers. Then on the right side on the lower bunk by the lockers, then by the window, and then back to where he was, but on the lower bunk. And then it would start over with him being on the left side in the upper bunk by the lockers, and the whole thing would start over.
There were eight bunks in a study cell. Eight students. And there were twenty-five study cells in a ward, which meant two hundred students per ward. The Hamilton institue had ten Beta wards, so there were two thousand students at the Beta level. Half male, half female.
The chattering was getting louder now, so the Voice-of-WorldNet spoke up. “Beta-stus of Ward Six,” it said in its cool, pleasant female voice. Half the time WorldNet was female, half the time it was male. “It is past the curfew hour. Talking keeps your fellow Beta-stus awake, and that is unfair to them. Please refrain from talking.”
The noise lessened slightly, but not much. There would be two more messages before the Hall Proctor would be summoned. Until then, there wouldn’t even be a record beyond `mild disturbance,’ and that was no big deal.
Thomas thought about his dream. It smelled like the playground back when he was a pupil at the Hall Primary Instruction Center. It had been thick with hay and warm air, out in the country, and students got to run in the fields during recess times. That had been some years ago. Thomas was sixteen now. Two years away from Tertiary Apprentiship. He had been at the Hamilton institute since he was thirteen.
There was another rumble of thunder. Thomas rolled over and faced the window. There was an old tree just outside the window. Old and a little twisted, but with a smattering of leaves still on it. It wasn’t dead. All the outside and inside lights were off, so he could only see the tree when the lightning flashed, giving him glimpses of bark, twig, leaf.
“Beta-stus of Ward Six,” the male voice said. “It is past curfew. By talking, you are acting in a divisionary manner. Please refrain.”
Thomas wondered what time it was. The active ID on his wrist had a chronometer, but at this hour of the evening he’d have to illuminate the dial to check the time, and that would make a record on WorldNet that he was awake and active. That might bring the Hall Proctor sooner, or it might mean a visit to a Medical Proctor to see if he were all right, since his usual routine was off.
Another flash of lightning. The tree branches looked ominous.
Thomas was in Bunk Sixty-Six Upper in Ward Six. Six and six and six were eighteen. One and eight were nine. Three threes made nine. Two threes made six. Three sixes made eighteen. Two three-threes made eighteen, and so did three two-threes. Thomas was sixteen, which together made seven, which had no divisors. It was a prime number. So was two and so was three, but not six, or nine, or sixteen or eighteen. Four fours made sixteen, and so did two eights. There were eight students in a study cell. There were forty students in a class, which was five eights. Five was a prime number. Thomas’s Study Cell was number Eighteen in Ward Six. Six and eighteen made twenty-four, or four sixes. It was also three eights. Factored, it was two by two by two by three. Three twos and a three. A two bracketed by threes.
The field had been warm, and there were children playing in it, and Thomas had been playing with them. He was sure of that, though he couldn’t remember the game. It might have been a counting game, because Thomas liked those. He liked them almost as much as he liked drawing.
Study cell eighteen was part of Class Four, Study Cells Sixteen through Twenty. They were Betas and all of them liked to draw. They were all good at it, too. Class Four was devoted to the draftsmen and the artists, who would one day be architechts and civil engineers, graphic designers and city planners. And of course illustrators and artists. Not too many artists — you didn’t need too many artists. But one or two, maybe. You needed more illustrators, of course. People to illustrate manuals and draw figures and diagrams. Cartoonists and animators to make amusements for the Gamma children and Delta adults. But artists — so called fine artists — weren’t needed in great numbers. Just a few. They worked for the Alphas and Betas.
The hay had been freshly mown, so it must have been late summer in his dream. That made sense. Everything made sense if you thought about it.
The tree glowed with the lightning. It was old and its branches were bare.
The funny thing about sleep was you never knew when it was going to happen. Thomas knew he had still been awake when the final warning sounded — the warning that got everyone to quiet down. He had been awake that long, staring out the window at the occasional flashes of light that let him see the tree. And he was sure he was awake longer than that, though he couldn’t check his active ID to know. He just lay there, staring and thinking about his dream and thinking about the numbers, and then the gentle tones of First Alarm was waking him up and it was six twenty-five in the morning.
It was thursday, so breakfast was oatmeal with skim milk, toast, a banana, three strawberries, a cup of tea or coffee — student’s preference — and juice. It was apple juice today. The oatmeal had brown sugar and maple syrup cooked in with it, so that it was like having a bowl of sweets for breakfast.
Each Ward filed into the messhall one after the other. Each Ward had five minutes to file through the line and collect their trays. They would sit at their wardroom tables, two tables per Ward with one hundred students each, and wait for the tone to sound. They then had twenty minutes to eat before the cleanup tone sounded and the Ward collected their trays and set them in the disposal. Ward One started collecting their trays at seven on the dot and began bussing them at twenty-five after, which was when Ward Six was collecting their trays. In that way, everyone had exactly the same amount of time to eat, which was only fair.
The chime to start eating, which was the same chime for Ward Seven to begin collecting their trays and for Ward Two to buss theirs. Breakfast was kept fast paced to discourage conversation. Later on, lunch and dinner would be leisurely, allowing Thomas and his classmates to discuss what they had learned in the day, what they had thought about this and that, and so forth. But at breakfast-time, you had to eat quickly and compose your thoughts for the day. Thomas’s thoughts were usually about what he was eating — that and counting chimes. They all had their active IDs on, of course — they didn’t come off — but with the passing of the years you just got used to listening for the chimes. Every five minutes, another would sound — Word Seven would start eating, while Ward Eight collected their trays and Ward Three would buss theirs. Then Eight would eat, Nine would collect, and Four would buss. Then Nine, Ten and Four. The next chime would be for Ward Ten to start eating and Ward Five to buss their trays, and then the chime would sound for Ward Six to buss their trays. It was for Ward Six alone, which Thomas liked though he knew he shouldn’t.
As soon as the tone sounded, Thomas dove into his oatmeal, the silver flash of the spoon’s bowl getting cut off as it cut into the brown oats, and then shoveled up the thick, warm paste into his mouth, and then back down, flashing of silver again. Up and down, up and down. It took twenty-three good sized spoonfuls to empty the bowl of all its oatmeal. Thomas had counted once.
Thomas usually ate his oatmeal first, on Thursdays. Then he would eat his toast, and then have his fruit with his tea, saving his juice for last. Today the strawberries were frozen — a little flake of ice in their center. It was wonderfully cold against his tongue, compared with the hot, red tea.
And then the juice. Cold against his teeth, washing out his mouth. He always finished with his juice, because he liked the feel of the cool liquid and he liked the tartness of the fruit, whether it was apple, orange or grapefruit. At the Hall School, the apple juice had been much sweeter, like syrup. This apple juice was tarter, and Thomas liked it very much.