Sunday, July 26, 2015

A Cautionary Tale Of Technology And Progress

Here is a story that I conceived of many years ago and often started but never finished. The working title was Johnny And His People. I had always figured it would work best written in the style of an epic poem, but I never felt comfortable writing in such a style. When I had a storyteller tell a story on stage, I thought of this idea and thought it worked well not only as a written but as part of the larger story (my novel, Perchance To Dream). I think it's a story worth sharing, a perspective worth mulling over:

     The drumbeat began to work outside of the rhythm now, began to punctuate the song rather than underpin it. At some point the song began to be sung in English, although Dave could not determine exactly when that was.
     <Boom> “The sun rose…and the <Boom> people rose. They rose and they <Boom> readied, and readied, they walked.”
     The drumming was devoid of rhythm now, as the rhythm had been intertwined with the narrative. The drumming was used to accent the story, or to contrast. It seemed to come when Dave was least expecting it, but it played upon and excited his senses.
     “They <Boom> walked towards the rising sun, walked their road of <Boom> life. They walked for purpose, they walked for meaning, they walked towards their goal. They did not know what it was they sought, but they were drawn onward, as a magnet draws steel, as a young woman draws a mate. They walked as their fathers and grandfathers had walked, each generation a little closer to their destiny.
     “Biko was their chief, a wise and honorable man, slow to judgment, slow to anger, strong in his convictions. He led the way through desert and fast rivers. For many moons he had brought the tribe through many troubles and obstacles. The weather that day was good, the terrain flat and easily crossed. They had an abundance of food and would not be required to stray from their path in order to hunt or to forage.
     “They covered many miles that day. But towards evening, they came across a sight unlike any they had seen before. On the horizon they caught a glimpse of something that shone like a stream. As they neared, they saw that is was two long rods that ran together as far as the eye could see. They were cold to the touch and hard, like shiny stone. They separated the land they had traversed from the land they were heading towards, and the tribe was hesitant to cross it. The march stopped, as the wise men came together to piece together the meaning of this thing that seemed to divide the earth.”
     Izzy started the faintest of tappings on the drum with his fingertips, slowly building the steady rhythm louder.
     “And as they sat, as they talked, a faint rumbling could be heard, as though a herd of buffalo was approaching from a long way off. Still they discussed omens and their meanings, as the sound could slowly be heard to grow nearer. Soon, a rattling could be felt emitting from the shiny lines. Something was approaching, and it was following the two lines. The tribe began to get very excited and fearful, as what they were witnessing was quite different from anything in their experiences. They questioned the elders, but even the very wise in the tribe had no answers to what was approaching.
     “At length, the thing that rumbled like a herd of buffalo could finally be seen, a great creature like a monstrous snake that belched black smoke from atop its head. It moved smoothly along the strong, shiny lines at speeds greater than any animal they had known. The people were frightened, not knowing what to make of this terrible creature that approached, but Biko’s strength in the face of danger caused them to stand their ground. Whatever this things was, Biko was prepared to stand between it and his people.
     “As it neared, its speed began to diminish, as though it had been aware of the people who stood near the path it travelled. It slowed as if to confront the tribe, until it came to a rest in front of them. Such was its length that its head had passed well beyond them, while its tail was still far away. And as Biko and his people looked upon the shiny skin of the creature, they noticed that they could see within its vast belly, and there they noticed a large number of people. The people within the belly of the beast were lost in a revelry, as though in the grip of a powerful music during a time of ceremony. They writhed as though seeking answers from the spirit world, but it was as though they themselves had no spirit within them. It was as though they were bodies without spirits, dancing and carrying on as if to forget that fact.
     “Biko stared at the crowd in the bellies—for it had many of them—with incomprehension. Until at length the people, lost in their festivities, began to notice Biko and his tribe. Then the people inside the belly of the snake looked towards the tribe and beckoned to them. Posing and posturing in garish manner, they sought to lure those outside to join in the celebration.
     “The people inside the snake had everything needed for feasting. Sumptuous tables were filled with various delicacies, things that the simple tribesman could only imagine. And in the revelers’ hands were glasses filled with drink. So lost were they in their revelry, they nearly lost the contents of their glasses with their wild and drunken movement. There were wild smiles, almost unnatural, on the faces of all that were inside, and they seemed to want nothing more than to share their wanton pleasures with others. They beckoned to Biko, but he was taken aback. So they called to the others amongst the tribe, and some of those were not taken aback by the behavior of those on the inside of the great animal. A door opened on one of the stomachs of the beast and the revelers yelled to the tribe: ‘Come join us. There is naught but joy upon this train.’
     “Windows were lowered so that still more of the beast’s inhabitants might yell out from its bowels: ‘There is plenty for all, inside. Come, come.’ <Boom>
     “Within his stomach, Biko felt a warning, a fear of this unnatural, drunken ecstasy. There was something wrong, and he knew he must guard his people. But as he looked back at those behind him, he noticed some had started to come forward. Short moments ago, he stood in front of them, closer to the beast than the others dared to tread. But now some were getting closer to it than he himself wished to be. ‘Back,’ he said, to the approaching tribe members. ‘There is something wrong here. Their joy is not natural.’ But his people continued to press forward, intrigued by the excitement they witnessed and the ease of life that the people aboard the beast seemed to have. For life within the tribe had been one of unceasing labor, of constant searching and striving, of always pursuing but never arriving. And here they could see pure joy on the faces of these people—where they went, they went effortlessly, through the power of the beast. And they thought that perhaps these people had found the destiny they themselves had for so long sought. Perhaps they merely wished to believe, tired as they were with the slow trek towards meaning. Biko saw no meaning, no destiny in the beast and the people it contained. Its path was not their path: it ran counter to the sun’s rise while they had always pursued it. Biko thrust out an arm to keep the person on his right from approaching any further. But even as he did so, many others pushed around and continued nearing the beast. And as they did, the people aboard the snake-like thing enticed them onward. And as Biko’s people reached out and grabbed the willing hands that were held out for them, they too assumed the same sort of wild joy in their aspects. They were greeted with drink that smelled like fire, were handed bunches of grapes and sweet meats. As the first few walked into the beast, others became braver and followed. They followed each one after the other, friends and family Biko had known all of his life. His wife’s brother, his cousin with his wife, even the old and the young walked aboard the creature, eager for the temptations that awaited there. Biko feverishly tried to hold back any within his reach, but even as he did, still more walked eagerly past. Biko let loose his grip on a tribe member who was so willing to leave the path he had walked all of his life. Biko had but one thought now, and that was to find his wife and his child. They, he must protect, even if he could save no one else. He looked around at those slow in their approach towards the beast, but could not see them. It was not until he heard the beckoning from the train that he looked up to see them both standing at the door, waving him towards them. And in that moment he noticed a man who stood near the front of the beast, a person who seemed to be more in control of himself. He seemed, if there was such a thing, to be the leader of those on the snake. And he, more than anyone, was fervently gesturing towards Biko to join them. ‘Come, come. Put aside your struggles. Put down your burdens and your doubts and your troubles. Join us. There is nothing but happiness amongst us. You have only to step on board.’
     “There was doubt in Biko’s heart, as he feared that by rejecting the man he might lose his wife, his child. And so he asked the man: ‘Where is it that you go, where is your destination?’
     “The man smiled an unnerving smile, and said: ‘There is but one end, and all men are destined to go that way. Why walk, why labor, when you can join us in a party all the way? Whether you travel slow or fast, it is what awaits you at the end of all your struggles.’
     “Fear gripped Biko’s heart, for he knew what it was that the man spoke of: death. Death awaits all men. But Biko knew this was not an answer, knew there was something more. But the beast was huge and powerful, and it cut over the land. The people had given it power, and it worked its will against the land until it arrived at its final stop. This beast that the people had built would have its way, and there was none left to oppose it, none except Biko and myself. We alone waited outside the beast, for I too felt in my stomach the warning that Biko felt. The people inside wanted our support, wanted us to believe as they believed. But in time they were content with those they had acquired. Soon, they tired of their entreaties and the revelry resumed with their new guests. In a short time, we were forgotten, and the mechanical beast began to lurch in to motion.
     “But Biko would not give up. The doors were shut as he approached the thing, willing to fight for his tribe even though they had abandoned him. He could not enter the beast that had swallowed his tribe, yet he worked his way towards the head of the beast, trying each door as he went. But each was locked, and the people inside were too absorbed in their revelry to pay any notice of him. He stood now at the front of the beast desperate to prevent his people from rushing towards their end. And the beast began to move, to resume its mad rush to nothingness with new faces on board. As it moved, some broke from their revelry to mock and jeer at Biko as he stood at its front and tried to hold it back. It was a futile gesture, even he knew. But he would not abandon the attempt. And the beast went faster along its tracks, and the people continued to jeer, until Biko could no longer retain his footing. And as he fell I heard the jeers, even amongst those who had known him all his life. And they called his death a suicide, but I knew differently. He did what he did because he could do no more, and he could do no less.
     “I stood still as I saw the beast ride over Biko’s body, watched the revelers resume their mindless orgy. As the sound of their drunken shouts and animal howls faded with distance, my legs began to move, carrying me southwards, in search of my tribe.”

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