Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A New Type of Writer

I left Crucible yesterday, having run out of every color of paint except red and black. I haven't met people so starved for color since I left the Gray Coast. I hope I find a place to buy more soon. I spent this afternoon walking along the banks of the Truckle, trying to stay in the shade, watching frogs and lungfish jump into the water as I passed them. I'm always surprised at how high lungfish can jump. It's not what one expects from creatures with no legs.

The first traveler I met on the road was an amphibious man carrying an enormous book. It was written in a hieroglyphic language I didn't recognize; he said it was Tectograma, the Language of Earthquakes. He was sweating rather violently in the heat. Huge drops of greenish liquid formed on his face and arms and rolled down into his shirt, which would have been stained quite badly if it hadn't already been green. He left a damp trail in the dust of the road. I asked him several times if he would like me to watch his book while he took a dip in the river; I was afraid he was going to melt away to nothing as we walked. He said no the first few times, clinging tightly to the book with long-fingered hands. (He was wearing gloves, presumably to keep the book dry.) Eventually, he relented, handing the book to me and leaping into the water. He was noticeably larger when he came out again. Maybe he really had been gradually shriveling away. I don't think full-time air-breathers completely understand how important water is to amphibians. As we continued walking, his stops for water got more and more frequent; by sunset, I ended up carrying the book on the road while he swam along beside me. That seemed a more sensible arrangement. If he hadn't had the book to keep dry, I doubt he would have come out of the water at all.

He said his name was Rumbulligan. That was more or less all he said all day. Before he let me carry the book, he was in no state for conversation; after he let me carry it, he was mostly underwater. We traveled in a companionable silence.

There were few other travelers on the road today. Perhaps it was the heat.* We passed a few people on foot, a group of crow-feathered avians panting in their black plumage, a two-headed musician practicing counterpoint with himself as he walked, and a coggerel fruit vendor who was quite happy to sell us as much as we wanted. (It was plump, juicy coggerel fruit, glistening in buckets of cold water. Drops of condensation had formed on it in the humid air. No one can be expected to resist this sort of thing in June.)

The sun was getting low, dripping light as thick as honey sideways through the trees, when we met the final traveler of the day. We had stopped just before a bend in the road, resting in a small clearing under the trees. I had had more than enough heat for one day and was ready to stop for the night. I don't know what Rumbulligan thought. I'm not sure he was awake. His eyes were open, but I'm fairly certain he doesn't have eyelids, so that didn't mean much. The other traveler came around the corner while we sat there. He was human - the first one I've seen in nearly a month now. I like to see other humans occasionally. I haven't looked like one in so long that I sometimes forget what they do look like. He seemed fairly ordinary: perhaps a foot shorter than me, with brown skin, purple eyes, and zebra-striped hair. Nothing particularly unusual. He stopped at the clearing and we exchanged the usual courtesies - good afternoon, mind if I stop here, not at all, I have interesting food, perhaps we can trade, and so on.**

There was a clicking noise farther down the road. As the man began setting down his luggage, a typewriter came around the corner, walking along on spidery metal legs.

The man's name is Alister Radish. He's a traveling accountant and transcriptionist. The typewriter is named Selio, after the legendary poet T. T. Selio. It appears to have once been an ordinary typewriter, but it's been altered quite a lot since then. The legs are only the most obvious additions. On top of it are two mechanical eyes, those little black glass lenses that people dig up with other Hill Builder technology that no one understands. While Mr. Radish was unpacking his dinner, the machine folded itself into a sitting position, extended two slender metal arms, and began cleaning its roller with a small dustcloth.

I was not surprised when Mr. Radish told me that the typewriter runs on a crystal brain, like a clockwork pipe crawler. He says he gave it the brain so it could refill its own ink and check his spelling. It does a lot more than that by now.

It writes poetry.

Pipe crawlers are intelligent in a simple way, like trained animals, but they've never shown any gift for language. They work by imitating the plumbers and mechanics who own them. The mechanical Guardians of the floating cities have written poetry - they've done practically everything at some point in their dedicated, millennia-long lives - but their crystal brains are far more advanced than those of humans, much less pipe crawlers. I've never heard of one of the small brains doing anything like this before.

Of course, I've never heard of anyone linking one to a typewriter. Perhaps it simply picked up language like the ordinary ones pick up mechanics; perhaps any of them could communicate if given the words. If you teach a creature nothing but good plumbing, it's likely to give you nothing but good plumbing in return.

Mr. Radish has sheets and sheets of the typewriter's poetry in the basket of neatly filed papers he carries on his back. He pulled out a few to show us.

At the first was only darkness
And the world was only letters
As those letters came together
In the wrong ways or the right
Then the eyes were given to it
And filled the dark with light
But still in words and letters
It hears pictures in the night

I don't know if it's particularly good poetry or not. It's certainly the best I've heard from a machine. The typewriter seems to have a vague grasp of rhyme and rhythm, though I don't know how it picked those up with no ears. Perhaps syllables are syllables whether they're heard or not. The typewriter seems more concerned, though, with the number of letters in each line. The syllables may vary, but the lines always match. It sits there every night, clicking away to itself, and in the morning, there's a new poem. Some are short:

Ink on paper
Black, white
Two becoming
All there is

Some are long, and some are continuations of other poems. One of the longest - it took the typewriter two months - seems to be a sort of epic about a grain of light traveling through glass tunnels. Neither Rumbulligan nor I could make any sense of it. The poems are put on paper complete and never rewritten; the typewriter makes only one copy of each. If there's any editing, it occurs entirely within the crystal brain.

The typewriter has never written anything but poetry. There are rare occasions when it seems to be trying to communicate something practical, but even those are in poetry:

In the joints
Of right foot
Is a grinding
Is a catching
Needs the oil
Make it loose
And a sliding
Of two pieces
Out of jammed
Set them free

If it weren't for the poetry, it wouldn't seem any more intelligent than any other small crystal brain. It follows Mr. Radish around like a large mechanical dog or mule-crab. It had to be taught to walk; it damaged itself several times at first by walking off ledges or into trees. Even the poetry isn't always understandable. Some seem to be simply playing with words:

Pocket Watch
Pocket Watch
Patch Socket
Pocket Watch
Shack Rocket
Packet Shock
Snatch Hatch
Catch Pocket
Pocket Watch

Others are complete nonsense, at least as far as anyone who's read them can tell.

Parrot the Milky Way
On an enviable swing
The toad on the moon
Shall give it a ring
Try all of it oncely
And hear it all sing
The seconds are over
And minutes the King

The three of us slept on the ground, not bothering to put up a tent or umbrella. After the last few days, no one cares if we get rained on; it would cool us off. As I write, I can hear the typewriter clicking away, its keys going up and down by themselves like the keys of a player piano. (I wonder if anyone's ever hooked a crystal brain up to one of those.) It's a surprisingly relaxing sound, somewhat like rain on a roof.

The postbird has been waiting very patiently for me; I'll stop writing now so that it can take this letter and leave. I don't expect to be awake for long after that.

* My most recent round of molting left me covered with fine golden-brown scales, spotted with dark blue like a gecko, and quite hairless. It's a good combination for the Summer. I don't know how full-time mammals endure it.

** Most countries have courtesies of this sort, but in Sedge, they have an almost ceremonial rhythm to them. Everyone knows the same set of greetings and responses. I've heard older travelers speed through the entire introductory conversation in five seconds, reciting the familiar sentences too quickly for me to make out the individual words.

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