Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The Imposter: a Tale of the Modern Utopia (2017)



[Note: this blog exists primarily as a record of my read-through of Wells's fiction, and the overwhelming majority of its entries are critical meditations occasioned by specific Wellsian titles. But from time to time I blog other things: accounts of books with Wellsian interest not by Wells, as here, or more rarely short pieces of original fiction that stand as sequels to Wellsian titles, as with this example. In the case of the latter kind of text I'm generally working-out something about the source book via fiction rather than criticism, and the stories have no pretensions beyond actualising that mode of speculative engagement. This piece, for instance, is nothing more a brief pendant to Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905) and my post thereon. That's all.]



:1:

Cade-Gall took the electric express from Saint Petersburg direct to Zurich. He had been detained by problems with the Baltic seaweed harvest longer than he had wanted—a tangle of variously assigned blame and unresolved technical issues after it was discovered the harvesting equipment had not been assembled correctly. The whole affair had interrupted a retreat in which he and two other samurai had been engaged in mapping new high primes, and speculating upon the mathematics underlying that important phenomenon. No matter! He had resolved it, in time. And now he was due his annual week in the wilderness. So he wasted no time on arrival in Zurich, laced his sandals tighter, shouldered his pack and strode out of the station.

He walked the mountains. He bathed in streams so cold they scalded. He ate frugally from his supplies and supplemented that dried diet with berries and grass-seeds and mushrooms. He sat watching sunsets and pondered questions of strength and will and being. On his sixth day he came to Mount Lucendro, its angular head white as a swan, glowering over the damned-up Lake below. He resolved to test himself by climbing it. The cold intensified sharply with altitude, the air was so thin it became only the ghost of air, and the way was sometimes precarious, but he reached the summit eventually and sat, shivering, looking down.

The flank of a glacier, like a frozen hurricane. The world below modeled in miniature. The air bright and clean and smelling of nothing at all, smelling only of cold and of sky.

And from there it was a cautious descent that turned, soon enough, into a pleasant amble along the sinusoidal digressions of the downward path, and so into the valley and along the twilight main road of Ariolo right up to the door of the bright-lit Traveller’s Inn. It was good to get inside. An old-style fire was burning heartily in the grate, cracking its knuckles and being superbly generous with its heat and ruddy light.

Cade-Gall dined on olive-bread spread with some of the richest, creamiest butter he had ever tasted, supplemented with a salad of pepperleaves and spinach, and washed down with a fruit cordial. He stretched in his chair and watched the fire, with that mode of physical exhaustion that complements and sharpens the well-being, as having been well-earned. The inn-keeper added another log to the blaze, and the fireplace growled as the new fuel settled; and steam emerged from the cracks in the block of timber, whistling faintly, and then the log seemed to settle itself and go to sleep.

He was not alone in that comfortable chamber. A group of three young women were sitting together on the far side of the room playing three-handed chess, and a knot of mixed citizenry had gathered in a semi-circle about a second samurai who happened to be there—a man of middle-age who was holding forth, almost after the manner of an actor, concerning some intervention he had been obliged to make on behalf of law and order and against the vagaries of a drunken group who were protesting the pulling-down of some ugly building or other. Cade-Hall looked twice and recognised him, and then shook his head—for a samurai will of course never shirk a duty, no matter how much he or she might prefer to retire to bed and sleep away the weariness and the full-stomach.

So he went over to the fellow, and put a hand on his shoulder, and said: Raine.

Raine twitched and shuddered, danced several steps back.

—Cade-Gall, he cried.

—Citizens, Cade-Gall told the small audience. You must forgive my interruption, but I know this man. Though he dresses as a samurai he has no place in our order. He was expelled for failing the standards of chastity. I am sorry to say he has duped you.

—For God’s sake, man, Raine cried, backing further away, his face mimicking the Tragic Mask. I loved her!

The small audience was astounded.

—Raine, said Cade-Gall severely. You dishonour yourself and your former calling by this behaviour. As I am the law embodied in this place, I have no choice but to take action.

At this Raine darted out of the Inn's main entrance, and Cade-Gall went after him. It was no lengthy chase, for he found Raine sitting on a public bench under the stars, a quarter mile away, sobbing openly. From time to time a bright-lit tram would swoosh past in a crescendo-diminuendo of white noise. Cade-Gall sat down beside him.

—She was a rare soul, Raine said, eventually.

—If your use of the past tense means that she has died, Cade-Gall said gravely, then I offer my commiserations.

Raine turned a face blurred with shadow towards him. Dead? Not dead, no. She has not died. Off, gone, run away. Found some other beau. I was a samurai, man! And once you stripped me of that, what was I? A nothing. Why would she stay, to be with a nothing?

—Ask rather, why would you throw everything away on account of this sexual infatuation?

—I fell in love, said Raine, angling his face away. Such things cannot be legislated. I might have waited, if there had been the chance of her being recruited to the order. But your standards are so … damnably … so …

—What you are doing is wrong, said Cade-Gall. Impersonating a samurai? It must stop. I must have your word of honour that it stops. Have you no dignity?

—I was a samurai! You call it impersonation? But how can I merely impersonate, like a bad actor, when I gave so much of my life to that very calling?

—You left the order.

—Expelled!

—Your actions forced you out. You must take responsibility for that. And now you must move on with your life. You cannot live as an imposter. And, and for what? What good does it do you, anyway?

Another tram, a chandelier of brightness on wheels, rolled down the grooves of the street and away. Raine was on his feet. He turned, as if to say something to Cade-Gall, and thought better of it, and hurried away into the shadows.

The moon was a pale and perfectly circular rock. The stars seeped light. There was a freshness and pleasaunce in the night air.

Cade-Gall started back to the Inn, and spent a further twenty minutes on the telephone to the central records bureau, checking Raine’s index card. It seemed that this was not the first time he had been rebuked for impersonating that which he no longer was. Cade-Gall added his report to the database, recommended Raine be contacted and officially warned-off such mummery in the future, recorded that he had decided to take no specific action against him that day, but that he stood ready to be overruled if another samurai thought this leniency ill-advised. And with that he finally took himself to bed.

The morning’s cold shower was followed by an hour-long run alongside the swift flowing river and back up the far shore, followed in its turn by a breakfast of acorn-coffee and pita and goat’s cheese. This quite put the matter out of his mind.


:2:

He ran into Raine again quite by chance, some months later. Cade-Gall’s experience with marine jurisdiction led to him being called to adjudicate a legal dispute at the English Channel. An enterprising citizen had founded a limited company to build a bridge linking Calais and Dover, thus greatly facilitating travel between London and Paris. with the intention of charging a fee for trains to pass over. There was some question to at what monetary rate—or, according to some parties to the suit, if at all—the World State should lease the seabed for the bridge’s struts and foundations. All judges being samurai, any samurai might stand as judge, and Cade-Gall was specifically requested. So he went, and spent a month listening to depositions, reading submissions and consulting with fellow samurai, before he pronounced his judgment, laying-up a copy of the same in Central Records. It was clear, he said, that the World State owned all land. The fact of being under water did not negate that ownership, or else a heavy blizzard would rob the World State of the land on which the snow fell. But land under a hundred and fifty foot of brine was, of course, not as amenable to development as prime farmland, and therefore he decreed such land be leased at 25% of the standard land value. As with all Modern Utopian legal judgments this was no binding fiat, and could be appealed to another samurai—although absent manifest imbalance in the original judgement, such appeals were unlikely to be upheld. At any rate the bridge builder, and her company, seemed content with his decision. Plans for construction were laid.

Cade-Gall stayed on for a week or so after his work was completed. He was in a clean, small Inn overlooking the sea, and that was where he heard of a fellow going-about impersonating a samurai. This man had, it seemed, gone into an Art exhibition in Saint-Omer and shut it down on grounds of public indecency. Nobody knew why, or in what way the fellow benefitted from his arbitrary intervention. Certainly there had been nothing indecent about the art. The organisers had not been happy, but of course had not thought to query the authority of an individual they assumed was a samurai. It was only when it came up in casual conversation with another samurai that the deception emerged. He was dressed like a samurai, they said, and his whole demeanour seemed … like one of you. Cade-Gall’s name was cross-linked in the central registry as having had prior dealing with Imposter, and the circumstance was still so rare as to occasion a call to him. So Cade-Gall took the train straight to Saint Omer, where he discovered that the fake samurai—who else but Raine?—had done a number of other things: ejected all the houseboats moored along the canal from the town, on no grounds at all (the boats, of course, had gone); requisitioned a museum house from the Old Days to live in, rather than stay in a standard Traveller’s Inn, and several times gathered in public places and restaurants and related tall stories to groups of people: how he had saved a drowning child from a capsizing boat, how he had single-handedly wrestled a bear in Armenia and so enabled a family to flee; how he was involved in research to develop a rocket to fly into space.

The arrival of a real samurai, and the reasons for his coming, went quickly round the town , and Raine fled on the Paris train. Cade-Gall was almost annoyed—he had to meditate for ten minutes in the town square to restore his equanimity. Wouldn’t do to let emotion cloud his actions, of course. But it was provoking. What did Raine think to achieve? Cade-Gall commandeered a plane and flew straight to Paris, arriving over the Central station before his quarry. The flitter overflew the Station zone, where all the various lines ran in parallel to their termini like corduroy. Cade-Gall circled his aerocar round in a wide arc, hornetted it noisily through its descent, threading the Tower of Astronomy and the smaller Eiffel tower—Paris, city of Towers!—to land on the station’s air-platform. The samurai was on the concourse below as the Saint-Omer train pulled in.

Raine saw him immediately, and his expression tumbled. Cade-Gall saw him shift posture, look from side to side as if about to run off. But he changed his mind, and his shoulders dropped. Raine, the only motionless figure, in all the flow of eager citizens disembarking and hurrying onto the concourse. Cade-Gall walked towards him.

—Raine, he said.

Purely by coincidence, just as he spoke a flock of station pigeons thrust themselves into flight, soared and turned close under the vault of the concourse with a noise like sudden rainfall. Cade-Gall’s hand touched Raine’s left elbow. Come along with me.

—Harp and carp, said Raine, distractedly. But he came.

They crossed half the concourse in silence, as people came and went around them. People saw two samurai walking together and thought nothing of it.

—We talked before, Cade-Gall said. I was plain. I expected you to cease your imposture.

At this, Raine snatched his arm out of Cade-Gall’s grip, and stopped walking. And? he replied, in a loud voice. And?

Cade-Gall stopped, and faced him. The murmur of people chatting to one another as they passed. The drip-drip noise of many footsteps on marble, synchronising and syncopating with their own echoes in that cavernous space. The hum of a two-storey electric train pulling away from the platform rose in pitch, then wowed and shifted again as it receded until it blended with the collective coo of the pigeons overhead, perched back on their spars and ledges. Brightness coming through the transparent canopy. The smell of cleanness, and baked bread, and ozone, and somewhere behind it the odour of lavender.

—Do what? Cade-Gall repeated. Raine, you could do anything. You live in a world where literally anything is possible. You could follow any path, travel to any place, be with any partner. We samurai are the ones whose existences are hemmed in by restriction, by the can-not-do, and the must-not-love, and it is a burden we gladly assume. But you? You have literally the entire world before you. You can do anything, and have anything.

—I can have anything except the thing I want.

—To be a samurai?

—I was a samurai, Raine said, fiercely. You expelled me, because I fell in love. Because I fell in love!

—Because you betrayed your oath. Because you broke the rules. Because you showed no discipline, and without discipline the samurai would be nowhere, and without the samurai the whole beautiful World State would fall!

—I drank, often. Alcohol, I mean. I drank, and was reprimanded. I once broke a woman’s arm when trying to prevent her from shouting at some children who were playing by bouncing a ball off her housewall. I was reprimanded for that, but I was still a samurai after that reprimand. But I fell in love …

—I have, of course, checked your index card. I know about your various infractions. The samurai are not hasty, for our judgments must be sound and enduring. You were increasingly demonstrating your unfitness for your elevated role. You cannot complain that you were expelled.

—You will exile me to an island, said Raine, abruptly sulky.

—I haven’t yet made up my mind, said Cade-Gall. We haven’t made up our mind. But it’s likely. Still, if it happens, you can choose which island, among the various that would be appropriate.

—Better to slay me. To send a samurai to a prison island?

—Not prison, said Cade-Gall, beginning to feel his temper erode. Yet another place where you will be able to do whatever you choose to do. Just like this entire world is a place where you are able to do whatever you choose to do.

—There is but one thing that matters in human life, and I have lost it.

—There are an uncountable number of things that matter in human life, said Cade-Gall. And any and all of them are available to you. Travel. Explore. Invent. Work. Create. Idle, if you choose: loaf and indulge yourself. Or paint, or make music, or build bridges, or start a family, or become an expert sportsman. The whole world is built to make all this easy for you. If there is a blue-devil in your head telling you to be miserable, then you cannot blame it on the samurai. Seize your happiness!

But Raine was not to be mollified.

—Status, he said. That which I had, and which you took from me, and which I shall never have again. Status, and the respect of other people, and human beings looking up to me.

—If it is other people's respect you want, then earn it in some other place than the samurai. Win sporting events and earn it that way. Write a great poem and earn it that way.

—You think I want fame? You are misunderstanding me, and I think you are misunderstanding me on purpose. Mayfly fame? The applause of idiots? Why would I want that? Fame is not status. Only power grants status and only one group in our world possesses power, and you will not readmit me to their ranks.

—This is nonsense, said Cade-Gall, reaching out to take Raine by the elbow again to lead him to the exit. Come along with me.

It did not occur to Cade-Gall that Raine would not comply. He was a samurai, and people always did what he told them. But Raine, instead of falling into step, snatched his arm away, took a stride back, and then launched himself rapidly forward, crushing his torso up against Cade-Gall’s. Raine had slipped the skewer from his sleeve as he took his backward step, and coming forward again he braced its handle against the heel of his palm, such that it slid neatly into a slot between the front and back panels of Cade-Gall's leather torso-armour, just under where the thongs were knotted to tie them together. The point went in just below the bottom rib and pushed through at a slight upward angle. It popped the balloon of Cade-Gall’s pleural sac and trenched a path through the right lung. A centimetre of the blade’s tip punctured the muscle of his heart.

It was so very and so abruptly painful it almost didn’t feel like pain—not, that is, in any way that could be related to earlier experiences of pain. It was a blistering implosion of all the nerve-pathways and his whole upper body. It was unavoidably centred, like acid in the chest, like fire running along all the most tender vesicles of the body, and it did not diminish. Had Cade-Gall wanted to scream he would not have had the breath to do it. The closest he came was a flooded gasp, squeezed-out by Raine's momentum in colliding with him, and a tomato-red drool-line from the left side of his mouth. Then Raine stepped smartly backwards a yard or more, holding both his hands up, like a football player, like a base football player who had performed an illegal tackle, or body-check, and was dishonestly performing his innocence for the crowd, and to try to persuade the referee he had done nothing wrong.

Cade-Gall went down hard onto one knee. The motion levered the blade of the knife, inside his chest, pushing the handle down and pivoting the whole thing against the underside of his bottom rib such that the tip swung up. The point sliced smoothly through cardiac tissue. Great quantities of blood spilled internally from the spasming heart and washed down through his innards. He felt torn wide open inside, as if hands had gripped his viscera and yanked them unstoppably in alternate directions; he felt like somebody had emptied a hot-water-bottle inside his torso. The circulation through his veins and arteries all but stopped. His vision was dazzled by the pain almost to the point of sunburst, but at the same time the edges of his line-of-sight greyed, shrank. Vision began its withdrawal down an apparent shadow-tunnel.

He could hear the world around him with a new acuteness. He had never heard with such clarity in his life before. It was the sudden silencing of blood-noise in the ears, perhaps. It was a preternatural apprehension of the material world just as he teetered on the edge of leaving it forever, perhaps. Whatever the explanation, he heard the curled trill of the pigeons overhead with bizarre precision and force. He heard the scuff and slide of feet on the concourse floor, and the audible agitation of the crowd. He heard Raine saying do not panic, citizens! I am a samurai, as you can see. Somebody has committed a dreadful crime, and nobody will leave the station until the criminal has been apprehended! Attend to what I say, citizens! He heard gasps and murmurs and one elderly man crying out in distress. He heard a single loud bang, as on a drum, a funeral drum presumably, and there was also a reeling, shivering sensation of pressure sharply applied, and he understood, though belatedly, that he had keeled over and that his forehead had struck the stone slabs of the station floor.

2 comments:

  1. That's rather good. There's something insistently static about Wells's utopian vision, which I think relates to the megalomania underlying it - and I'll be one of the Rulers, and I'll always be one of the Rulers, no returns!. But it sounds as if the novel (like this annexe to it) is at least aware that there's a problem here.

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