“Here’s how we’re running this down – there will be a twenty-minute exam, where you think the most interesting thoughts you can, and if they aren’t good enough, you’ll be killed on the spot. Here’s how we’ll deal with overpopulation – those who don’t think good things and instead think useless things, idiots, all of them, will be removed from the surface of the planet, leaving only the impressive people behind.
“We do not know, yet, how stringent our criteria will be, or how finely we will pull the culling nets. We do not know how many will be saved and how many will be killed. But practice yourselves, hone your minds, for the next five days, because on the fifth day, we’re going to start shooting anybody who fails a twenty-minute exam of their thoughts on the basis of whether or not they are cool or interesting or worthwhile enough to keep them around.
“Yes, we have a machine that can reach into your brain and see exactly what you’re thinking, imagining, words, pictures, sounds, all of it. And we’re not ideologues, either. We won’t blame you for thinking of controversial things. But if you can’t think of anything interesting at all, you have to die.
“Climate change is coming, anyway, and at least two-thirds of you will have to go. Emissions must decrease. Ah, I guess I spilled the beans there. Yes, two-thirds of you will end up shot. So even if you can think of something sort of interesting, if someone else thinks of something better, and if there are a lot of those ‘someone elses’, you’re dead.
“Lastly, please don’t think of us, the board members of the illustrious CCE, as a pack of ruthless fascists. In fact, we love humankind. We love all humans. We love them when they are at their best. So if a lot of people have to go, it only makes sense to save the best ones. So in fact, we’re doing you a service. We could pick randomly, but we decided, instead, we should pluck the tallest, straightest nails from the board and allow the rest to go down with the ship. Capisce?
“We have a great doctor here, Dr. Jorge Vorhes, and he’s prepared the live test according to perfect medical neuroimagining and neurotextual standards. Basically, if Dr. Vorhes doesn’t see anything but a dim light, a partial flicker, inside your soul, we can do without you. The ark is sailing, people. Get training.”
The blocks of the city that was once Rome were finely-cut black granite obelisks. Walls of sheer polish, criminal perfection. How did they get it away with it, those architects? Those blasted fiends – how did they shine ebon marble to so fine a pitch, so nimble a timbre? It is unfair, what they have achieved with this city. Their symmetry makes it so I cannot sleep at night, so I stay up, leafing through pages, critical of what I’ve done, critical of what I’ve written, stabbed with regret at words I’ve said.
At first, I didn’t believe them. When the architects who erected the city said that they would be killing two-thirds of us, I wanted to rationalize it. I assumed their perfection gave them the right to decide. Their merit was not mine. The city they made was not mine. And they, in the final analysis, could do what they want with me.
I understood that I was the property of the architects. But nobody could put a face on them. If you understand, they were a collection of bankers, gangsters, coin-hoarders, pimps, salesman and policemen. They were the nameless, faceless structure that we call upon to indict criminals.
But then they had Borga, my favorite author, a fanatic, a national hero, deliver that announcement, sitting in a velvet chair trimmed with lionfish gold, his fingers cusped tightly around a glass of Hennessey in his right hand, smiling, in the luxury lounge of some micro-dosing bar in some floating micro-city, and my stomach dropped beneath six or seven other organs in my congested gut, it dropped with despair.
The light emanating from the screen on the marble wall soaked us in a dim glittering gold. That gold belonged to Borga and the architects, not to us. We stood, stupid, in the face of their plans. The panic and murmur of the crowd was replicated inside my own heart. There, in the ninety-nine chambers, I found all my desires to become an author like Borga liquefied, shot, stained. Is it so true what he feels about us? That we are so worthless? My mother, my father, my brother…none of them will pass this test. None of them will meet Borga’s threshold. My father is a lumber worker, he is no intellectual. My mother makes cherry pies for soldiers, she too will be cut down. My brother is a doctor, true, but his intelligence is very narrow. He has no imagination. So I trust, he too, will be shut down and killed.
Only I, the author, have a chance at passing this test of imagination. But I’m not even good. In fact, I’m terrible. I have written seventeen manuscripts and with every single one I have turned around to despise every last one of them. Nothing sticks. I have prolific output, but I am fundamentally mediocre. Maybe age can change that. Maybe, like wine in stale bottles – agh, a stale metaphor. Nevermind. You see how doomed I am? How unoriginal I am?
My mind loops, day in and day out, with facile tides of rusted garbage, discarded stereos, shattered flutes, splintered PlayStations all roiling together in a repetitive tide. There is nothing new I can offer the world. This, I have always known. There is not a spark of creativity in me. I have the will, and the proficiency, to write, to make worlds, to tell stories. But none of them are my own. They are all coming from some demented portal that shits them out improperly, with fundamental defects, a single crack running through a whole story that breaks it, no matter how much I edit and refine, the thing is split in two.
Borga is not like me. Borga is great. He, too, has written seventeen novels, and all of them are masterpieces, sweeping up prizes, New Yorker reviews, Man Booker prizes, even a Nobel Prize in Literature, collected in his fiftieth year. The man is a titan. He is Metatron with wings expanded, each flush of the petals of those metallic feathers dripping glittering gold dust into the streets, into the world, gracing us with magic, symphonies of another world. That is the heroism of the author.
But what do you do, at last, when the hero turns his back on his readers and announces: “I am great, you are mediocre, and I no longer wish to share this Earth with your repetitive, repugnant mediocrity”? Well, I suppose you light the midnight oil.
There were some measures to prevent cheating. A drug test would be administered before the examination. Anyone on mushrooms or LSD or DMT would be shot. After all, it wasn’t really their brain that was doing it. That was the faeries talking. Execution on the spot.
Anyone with a microchip or a program playing a great film hidden inside their brain or stuck to their temple would be found out. Metal detectors were brought to the examination site, inside the remains of the old Roman Colosseum.
Engineers from Tesla were flown into Rome to set up X-rays for the sniffing out of plastic chips and other 3-D printed devices designed to stimulate thought, to stir the pool of colors inside your head and move it along faster and more brilliantly than before. That, of course, would be cheating.
The goal of this movement was to deprive the world of average people. Really, Borga, and the architects of the CCE, hated the average man. “Averages,” reads a famous line from Borga’s third novel, Songs of the Dispossessed. “Averages are the seats of pure mediocrity that sit along the deepest dip of a bell curve. Averages are the measure of the common man, who knows nothing, who can be trusted with nothing. A fear of the average is the healthiest impulse in modern man.”
How I relished those words! How I turned them over in my head, sitting in the back of a black car, Flashing Lights by Kanye West blaring, the lights of the cityscape pouring into my soul, as I found solace in those words. Now, those words were spears, accusations, assembled in a crown formation pressed upon my heart. I fell in love with luxury, with elite standards. And now those same standards would crucify me.
I had a friend, Alberto, who asked me what to do one night on the phone in a frenzy. I told him to buy and read all of Borga’s novels. So he did. He called me a day later, even more desperate – they’re sold out everywhere. Even Amazon had no copies. Anyone who lives to see the next week can see just how big a publisher’s check Borga received.
Borga was a God. I do not say this lightly. It’s not just that he won a Nobel Prize – it’s that he has written seventeen novels, all of them masterpieces, twenty-six short-stories, all of them masterpieces, nine plays, all of them also masterpieces, and two-hundred and twenty-four poems, all of them, as well, perfect. I do not know how much imperfection Borga had to wade through to get there. But wherever he is, that is where I want to be. At the supple age of twenty-nine, when he hit his stride, it never let up. Not once. There is no slack in Borga’s career. Every writer should model themselves after Borga. He was, at last, the wall through which all writers must pass, and the wall has no doors, it must be climbed. So I read, and I read, and I sought his gold, the gold he had buried in language, the mental sparks that ignited the spirit to sing, not to drudge along in a dismal tune.
The trials began. I watched them unfold on YouTube livestreams. They never showed us the executions, only the machines of judgement and the people passing through, long metal claws clamped on the rounds of their heads. Once the examination was concluded, and the result was shown, the livestream shifted to a new gorgeous actress, a new young woman, a new bespectacled man, seated with his or her eyes closed, thinking, tears rolling down cheeks, conjuring up the most beautiful thoughts, images of magnificence and splendor, the finest poetry, all their souls were working to weave majesty through the loom. And as soon as the test was over, and a pair of eyes shot up, gasping for approval, the camera switched to someone who had just begun the test.
So we had no idea who lived and who died, or how many got through and how many were killed. It was a total black box. After an hour, I shut off the livestream. I’d seen enough faces, the faces of my heroes, cinematic, literary, musical and entrepreneur, sobbing as they worked their brains to produce greatness. It wasn’t enough. I knew, none of it was enough. Even the genius Brahmma looked like death, no faith in his thoughts, sitting down in the chair with grit teeth, his jowls warped by stress and hate.
Days went by, and tabloids began to report: “The actress Gaincarla Solo has disappeared! Surely she was mediocre!” A new headline every day: “Tech magnate Frankas Gipolio has not been back to his apartment in days, says maid, he is reported dead!”
The great went first, and it was a bloodbath. The great weren’t so great. Us ordinary people had another two weeks to study, to hone our grey matter, to prepare. Personally, I was working on a little skit. I had an image playing through my soul, a miniature day dream, of a host of Indian soldiers roaring down white rapids in bear furs, alongside an open snow valley of gorgeous creatures on either side, strange and fantastic monstrosities, camels with the heads of hammerhead sharks suspended upon their tiny necks, elephants with towers rising from their backs, their feet on enormous hooves. I saw brass and bronze lanterns carried at the pinnacles of these towers, and birds, white and enormous pelicans, circling the tops of the towers as the Indians sailing by watched and smiled, copying down sketches in their notebooks, discovering the world anew.
And then it hit me – this was the river scene from Jurassic Park III, where they’re rafting alongside a bunch of brachiosaurs. All I’ve done is replace the characters from the film with fur-coated Indians, and the dinosaurs with my own amalgamations of strange beasthood. Once I made this connection, the images curled. The thought lost all originality. It was a rip-off of an OK scene from a third-rate movie.
I began to pray.
Alfredo called me one night while I was out walking, listening to Kanye West.
“The authors have gone,” he told me.
My neck stiffened. “And?”
I paused. I stopped at the edge of a red-soaked alleyway, paper lanterns hanging from ebon eaves, holding my phone to my ear.
My blood went cold. There was not even an original phrase in my heart to describe my own suffering at the death of my idol, the man who caused all this in the first place.
“You’re shitting me,” I said.
“It happened really suddenly. He got rushed to the front of the line. They showed the full thing, because he was supposed to pass with flying colors. They had a monitor tied up to his brain. They even showed the monitor on livestream. His mind went blank. All we could see was white. There was nothing there. Every few seconds, some image would begin to reverberate around the edges, some semblance of a thought. A word might begin to form on the inlet of his imagination. But it never came to pass. For twenty whole minutes, Borga sat, wide-eyed, the contraption on his head, and couldn’t think of a single thing. He was taken away, and he was probably killed.”
“The CCE thanked him for all he’d done, but they said that, probably, they would replace him with Santino Carlo, the novelist who passed an hour earlier, and who had written ten books, all of which were pretty good, and which, perhaps, might have been even better than Borga’s-”
I tossed my phone hard on the cobblestone.
I was never tested by the CCE. The examinations were ended the next day, in the autumn of Rome, when the head of the party, the fat old bastard in the wheelchair, thought about spaghetti and a woman’s tits for twenty straight minutes, with random appearances of the n-word, and at last was removed from the machine and huddled off somewhere to hide. They wouldn’t kill him, and they didn’t kill Borga either. But the embarrassment of the whole spectacle allowed the Unionists to beat them the next fall in an election and usher in a ban on all brain-reading technology. Maybe it was a luddite move. But Dr. Jorge Vorhes and the men from Tesla went back home, and the CCE was disgraced, and the whole event was written about in the foreign press as another glorious failure of a fascist group to immanetize the eschaton and split apart the human species into a grand Ubermensch off-world and the low of us who remained grounded in Rome in autumn.
Those who passed the examination still held a kind of egotism about it. Their careers were more successful, after, than those that had lost. No record label would turn down artists who had made it. Creativity, it seemed, had been given a definite standard. But then again, those that had lost died anyway, with only two exceptions. The author Borga and the party leader, who died of an aneurism the next May.
So only Borga was alive to have failed the examination and survive. And I, around the time I was thirty-five, was able to sell a manuscript and published a decent novel that sold decently well. I also worked for a tabloid to supplement my income, and I was sent off to interview Borga, nearly a full decade after he had been jailed for cooperation with the fascists and indicted for eugenic crimes against humanity, a new and recent stipulation placed in international law.
The UN Human Rights Council had agreed that judging a person’s humanity based on their inherent ability was the definition of fascism. After all, no person could control their own thoughts, their own ability to weave up gold in the fine pink fibers of their dusty brains. It was unrealistic and cruel to judge human beings based on ability. This was stamped into law, and corporations judging prospective employees based on ability would be seen as little more than champions of eugenic evil.
I talked to Borga through a glass wall, where he clung to the phone, my former idol, and he told me he had written four-hundred books since he had failed the examination. My eyes buckled, and saw nothing for an instant. Four-hundred? Mad, a light in his eyes, he told me, yes, absolutely, he had written four-hundred novels and every last one of them were his best novel yet, trumped only by the next. But the guards in the prison were not allowing him to disseminate them or even leak them to the press.
He had contacted a friend of his at the newspaper where I worked, and had asked if he could arrange some kind of deal to leak at least one of his new books, one of his treasure pile, to me, and have me bring it to the world. He said that the guard listening to our phone call right now was in on it. The guard had been a former fascist, and loved Borga.
The former fascists all coalesced around one topic – competency. Isn’t it right, they would argue, that the most competent people should rule the world? That the great and the wide should prevail over the small and the narrow? I couldn’t disagree with their logic. I could only curdle at where it took me.
When I sat down with Borga, I only asked him one question: “Why did you fail the examination? After all you’d written, why were you unable to think of a single word?”
Borga, his old eyes and fat face illuminated, only smiled. “Sometimes, when you abuse the powers of God, they are taken from you. That was one of those times. God was sick of me. And I suppose, really, I was sick of myself too.”
I thanked him, got up, wordlessly, and left the hall. There was no interview. There was nothing, really, to say. On my way out, a burly bearded guard handed me a sealed manila folder with a packet of papers inside. A dense brick of printer paper that I knew was filled with magnificent words, truth, beauty and Godhood.
I stepped out into the cold rural air, the orange leaves suspended in the glittering light of a fading sun, the cold mountains surrounding us, only the green grass and the pavement holding the lost splendor of shed leaves. I looked to the book. I considered, for a long time, what I would do with it. I didn’t know. Really, I didn’t know.
At last, when I got home, I had some understanding. I crossed out Borga’s name, on the title page, and wrote my own beneath it. The title was beautiful – A New Symphony. I wrote my own name, Jose Alvarez, beneath it. And I began, methodically, to re-type the novel into my laptop, under my own name, and every last word I stole, and made my own, and I became Borga, and Borga was dead, and I had inherited his corpse.
When I took it to my publisher, he read the opening page intently for about five minutes, then looked up at me.
“This is Borga.”
My heart sank. I clutched the manila folder to my chest.
“No it isn’t,” I lied.
He chuckled, shoving the manuscript back across his desk. “Yes, it is. This is something Borga wrote. You can tell instantly. Honestly, Alvarez, I should kick you out of the literary world forever for this. It’s really a disgrace to envy someone else like that. But I think I’ll give you a break. This is a trying time for us all. Still, how’d you get something written by Borga? That’s an interesting achievement in itself.”
I swallowed. My throat was too dry to swallow. I caked in the desert of my pride.
“You need to offer us something that’s yours,” he told me, shaking his head. “You can’t just be an imitator forever. Maybe it worked for your first novel, for the one after that – but it won’t work forever. You have to think of something original. Really, genuinely new. You’re aping others’ styles and it’s embarrassing.
“God, it’s times like this when I think the fascists were right. Too many mediocre writers, too many copy-cats. Too many influences, no original thoughts. Train your mind, Alvarez. Think of something unique. Then I’ll take a look at it. But not this.
“This theft, what you’ve done here today – this is pathetic.”