The Remaker’, Fabio Fernandes

Illustrations © 2012 Robin E. Kaplan



1. WHAT’S IN A NAME

 [ Hair, © 2012 Robin E. Kaplan ] Menard. His name is Pierre Menard.

This isn’t his birth name. It doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t make any difference—what should anyone care about such a trifling thing these days?

Besides, nobody even knows if he really existed. For the person who signs this name, such a discussion is immaterial.

How do I know that?

Pierre Menard killed me.


As far as a fairly thorough research in the Hive can show you, there were quite a handful of men who went by the name Pierre Menard in recorded history.

One of the first Menards I’ve been able to trace down was a Canadian businessman and fur trader who lived in the early 1800s. He was presiding officer of the Illinois Territorial Legislature and from 1818 to 1822 served as its first lieutenant governor.

The second one was a musician. Pierre Menard, American violinist and concertmaster for The Neon Philharmonic, a psychedelic pop band formed in 1967. They released only two albums before the group disbanded in 1975.

(There’s another Pierre Menard still, also a violinist, who played in the Vermeer Quartet and who died of AIDS in 1994. I couldn’t find out if he was the same guy of the Neon Philharmonic, though somehow it doesn’t seem so—but it’s a creepy coincidence all the same.)

There was also a Dr. Pierre Menard, anesthesiologist, in Logan, West Virginia. But I couldn’t find much about him except for the fact that he was actively working until the early 2010s. He may be still alive today.

As well as the last namesake of my list. A Pierre Menard whose vestiges, no matter how hard I tried, I could never find. Not until the day I died.


Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote, is one of the most important short stories of the twentieth century. In this story, written in the form of an academic paper by Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges, the author poses as a reviewer who analyzes the work of a recently deceased French writer who, among other literary exploits, wrote Don Quixote.

To be more specific, according to Borges, Menard’s subterranean work “consists of the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of the first part of Don Quixote and a fragment of chapter twenty-two.”

The thing is, Pierre Menard didn’t only rewrite Cervantes’s classic work. He wrote it as if Cervantes had never done it. But it’s not an alternate history story, for, in that universe, Cervantes had written Don Quixote—exactly the same way we know he did, and using the very words he used.

Menard just applied the seat of his pants to the seat of the chair, as people said then, and wrote the aforementioned chapters. No strings attached, no computer tricks: Borges wrote that story in 1939, just before Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, a time when computers were simply the name given to the mathematicians performing calculations in notebooks (paper ones) and chalkboards (dumb, non-interactive ones).

His method, according to Borges, was quite simple: “Know Spanish well, recover the Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or the Turk, forget the history of Europe between the years 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes.”

Borges was evidently making fun of the then new canons of modernity, the death of the author, and other notions that were foreign to him, a man born in Argentina but partially raised in Switzerland and strongly immersed in the European culture. It is one of his best stories.

His Menard was a complete fiction. The other, however, was very real: he killed me in 2026.

2. THE FIRST BOOK OF MENARD

This other Menard was what I called a remaker. As his famous fictional namesake, he rewrote books. Not just chapters or fragments, as the original Menard did (even if he did it only in the imagination of Borges).

No. My Menard rewrote entire novels.

This should come as no surprise for anyone these days, considering you can squirt entire libraries into a nanoimplant and copy/paste them as you see fit—a procedure far older than the digital pundits would make you believe, using techniques not unknown to the Dada and the Surrealists, the Founding Fathers of altered books in the 1910s and 1920s. What is the big deal about a person who rewrites stories, since the very notion of rewriting was challenged so many years ago and now seems such an effortless thing?

That, I thought then, was the keyword. Effort. Why should anyone even try to rewrite a novel and then publish it in paper as if it was an original work? And, weirder yet, without letting anyone know?

Why did I care?


When you are a researcher, you can’t afford not to care about such things. You are compelled to search—not a futile, useless search for its own sake, but a search for answers. The questions may vary, but they are always there, hovering over the mind of the researcher. Because there will always be questions.

The first question that made my path cross with Menard’s was, evidently: why?

My original question was entirely other—and I’m a bit ashamed now by the fact that I can’t even remember what it was. I was in the university’s library, browsing the bookshelves, another purpose in mind.

I had the entire space of the library all to myself. Almost nobody goes there anymore. Not after the last round of education reforms and the end of live classes. The university offers all its books in digital format through the Hive, and students don’t even bother coming to the campus now.

There is only a skeletal staff to keep things clean and tidy in the old buildings, plus the occasional researcher who likes the peace and quiet of the place. But only oldsters like me still come. The younger ones would rather be at home or coffee shops, STing from there.

Sometimes I felt like Wells’ Traveller in the distant future, alone in a library full of swirling dust motes, touching crumbling books. But sometimes the bizarre image of Sean Connery in Zardoz also came to mind, a violent savage with braided hair wearing only red shorts, running down narrow aisles full of books and empty of people. Both images were sad to me.

It was on one of these lonely browsings that I found the First Book.

I still didn’t know then if that was the first book he ever wrote; I called it so because it was the very first that I found. It became easier to me to call it so, and it was as good a method as any.

The book was an old hardcover edition of 1984. But it didn’t have a dust jacket, so it took some time for me to register the fact that it was Orwell’s classic novel. I also took a very long time to notice that the author’s name on the spine wasn’t Orwell’s.

I looked at it and couldn’t find anything wrong with that. It was just after I began leafing through the pages that I closed it suddenly and went to the cover.

It read:

Pierre Menard

1984

No publisher name.

My first reaction was to start reading the book right there. I was sure then that it was a kind of parody or satire. (Anthony Burgess, for example, had written such a story in 1978—but he named it 1985, and it was intended as a tribute to Orwell’s classic novel. It was a completely different story.)

But the beginning—ah, the beginning:

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

I went on reading. The rest of the book, as much as memory served, was exactly the same as George Orwell had written. Word for word.

My second reaction was laughter.

I found it amusing that someone could give her/himself the trouble to do this kind of prank those days. It reminded me of the works of the Italian collective Luther Blissett, later known as Wu-Ming. They had done some really good tactical media actions between the end of twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

My third reaction was to get the book and take it home with me. It was too much fun to dismiss it.

It was a refreshing, sunny thought in my day. I couldn’t help but laugh, still standing there in the aisle, surrounded by the dust-filled surviving books in the university library. There was no one there to shush me.

3. THE AGE OF REFERENCE

Is it possible to be alone in a crowd these days?

Of course it is. Everybody is alone these days.

São Paulo in 2026 is a huge river, an Amazon of people, a Joycean riverrun, a band of Blooms blooming around, germinating thoughts on the run and in the sidewalks, everybody talking aloud, apparently to themselves, alone or to someone else via their implants.

When cellphones became obsolete, the only way was to become molecular. So they crammed huge computational power in bioware or smart jewelry and created SelfTalking. STing involves mainly talking to personal AIs—mostly limited, rather dumb AIs, but who cares? At least they do what they are told to, no complaining, no need to pay anything but a ridiculously cheap microfee per month.

And they remind you of your chores—that is, the chores they are too dumb or non-mobile enough to do for you; they can store messages, write and/or record messages, locate places, find your contacts wherever you happen to be walking by, ping them to let them know where you are (or block them so they don’t), arrange for orders and pay in advance whenever you enter a café or a supermarket. They can even talk to others for you so you don’t have to.

Sometimes I enjoy standing apart from the crowd, in the intersection of Rua Augusta and Avenida Paulista, under the concrete marquise of the huge building of the Conjunto Nacional. I usually take with me an extra-large foam cup of steaming hot caramel machiatto or cinnamon latte from the Starbucks across the street and just stand there, sipping the warm beverage leisurely, watching people walking or riding by.

That was exactly what I was doing a couple of months ago, right after finding the First Book of Menard. I was chilling out, book under my arm, doing nothing, when a soft ping in my inner ear interrupted my train of thought.

“There is a white bike available just around the block, Dave,” said the low-pitch male voice.

“Thanks but no thanks, Butler,” I said. “You already know that, why ask?”

“You keep complaining about your legs,” the AI replied. “You probably need some exercise. Riding bicycles is good for your heart and lungs, and for your varicose-”

I nodded it down, and the professorial voice dimmed away. Sometimes it’s good to be by yourself. Just watching the white bikes go by.


After the Big Gridlock of 2014, when virtually all of the motor vehicles in São Paulo simply got stuck in a perpetual lockout, things got very nasty.

Nobody believed it could happen. Until it happened: one evening, at rush hour, the city registered the worst bottleneck of its history: more than 540 kilometers of jammed traffic all over the city.

São Paulo was the third biggest city in the world then. It was the first to crash.

It was the worst week of my life. I got stuck in my apartment without electricity. The running water in my building went off right after that. When I had just run out of food the Martial Law was lifted, after six days of mayhem.

By then the city had hundreds of dead.

When it became clear the gridlock was serious (that is, more serious than usual), people started getting out of their cars to see what was going on. Then the fights started. First, people in the cars began to shout and curse aloud. Then, fistfights. Suddenly, someone had a gun.

And the shooting started. All over the city.

Then someone had the brilliant idea to move the cars away. Later that first day GloboNews and CNN showed some impressive footage of massive heaps of people pushing cars all along one major artery of the city, and then, when they saw it didn’t make any difference—because even when they could move a vehicle (a Volkswagen or a Japanese car; an SUV was out of the question), they simply didn’t have the leeway to move it further—they just burned the cars on the spot.

Needless to say the fires started to spread almost as fast as the bullets.

New Downtown, where Avenida Paulista is located, became a war zone—something I had until then already seen only in newscasts about Middle East or Eastern European countries.

Welcome to civilization, I told myself then. This is the price to pay to end your childhood and become an old country.

It took the municipality the better part of a year just to clear the city of the rusted, battered, and charred carcasses of cars. To this day, cars are banned from Greater Downtown.

Two years after the tragedy, white bicycles started to show up all over the Greater Downtown perimeter. They were just there, parked but not locked up, as if inviting everyone to take a hike.

Nobody ever found out who put them there in the first place. A blog pundit wrote that the white bikes were a direct reference to the PROVOS of Amsterdam in the 1960s, who for months effectively created a free-for-all system of transportation where all that was required of you was that you took the bike wherever you found it, used it, then left it wherever you got it. As simple as that.

Incredible as it may sound, it was simple. I don’t know why that stuck. Maybe people were tired of allthat senseless traffic killing. But it’s been almost fifteen years since the Gridlock and the white bikes endure. People became too fond of them. Me too—even though I don’t use them. I’d rather walk. That’s what I do the most since I retired.


In this day and age, if you don’t wear any kind of computational apparatus, you’re severely disconnected from the world. Sometimes, especially when I’m watching the walking-and-biking crowds down Avenida Paulista, I fancy I’m offline, though I only muffle the pinging sound in my head (even though the default is already a subsonic sound I can’t hear but can hardly avoid feeling, like a buzz in the teeth). I also put on hold the messages that are being squirted to me all the time.

The only concession I make to myself is to create a hotlist of 1980s music and watch the crowd passing to and fro to a soundtrack consisting of The Cure, Echo and the Bunnymen, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Smiths, Joy Division.

But I don’t flaunt my virtual absence of wearable computing. At least, not like the Unconnected do.

4. TRIBES OF THE XXI CENTURY

Occasionally, in my flanérie by the streets of São Paulo, I find clusters of people who really talk to each other. Youngsters, mostly. It’s good to see them: they have a certain punk attitude you don’t see every day, a healthy behavior that is necessary and more than welcome in times of conformity and cold comfort.

They usually wear dumb clothes, real used vintage material, and they wear them like a badge of honor. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper for Science Fiction Studies comparing the Unconnected with the non-telepaths in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man. They are the pebbles that roll in the bottom of the river, below its murky depths, inhabiting the undercurrents. Invisible things, whose influence is not seen but is felt if you know just where to look.

I had interviewed one of them at the time, a well-groomed man in his thirties wearing used clothes which seemed to have come from the 1980s without the aid of a time machine, the hard way, really bought in a flea market. The guy claimed to be non-political but I couldn’t help but notice a hint of a surprisingly right-wing discourse in his speech for someone who considered himself a revolutionary.

Even so, what he told me rang a bell in my mind: “You see, we work between the tentacles of the beast.”

“And who would be the beast?,” I asked, doing my best agent provocateur face.

“Why, man,” he said, giving me his best derisive snort. “All you zombies.”

Quoting Heinlein, of all things. Preaching to the choir. I still wonder if he knew from whom he was corydoctoring the quoting.


Midori was waiting for me when I got home the evening after I found the First Book. I almost forgot I was going to cook for her that night.

She was the subject of my latest post-doc fellowship, one of the first meta-gender individuals of the world.

I met her at a symposium in Canada. She was so busy at the time that I could barely speak to her at all—even though she, just like me, lived in São Paulo.

But São Paulo is a huge city. You could roam its streets for years and never find a single friend. And the irony of it was that we had to meet in a symposium in Canada of all places—she had just finished her PhD on the pioneers of sex change and was all the rage in Brazilian academia. She gave a lecture on Christine Jorgensen and the pioneers of transsexualism.

I was fascinated. I approached her at the end of her communication and invited her for dinner. And that’s how it started for us.

As soon as we returned to Brazil we started a relationship—we lived in transit, orbiting around each other, not exactly in love, but definitely in caring, in comforting, in sex. Sometimes Midori slept at my place, sometimes I slept at hers.

It was a unique experience. The Meta-Genders are a kind of 2.0 hermaphrodite: you not only change your sex, you get to keep your original genitalia as well.

Midori was born a man and since early childhood had behaved as a girl, showing all the signs of a feminine psyche. So when she was eighteen, she applied for a sex change. But her therapist told her to wait because of the new meta-gender therapies that were just being developed then. She didn’t regret waiting.

By the time she was twenty-six, she underwent surgery and DNA-resetting. She had her testicles removed and a vagina grown just beneath the root of the penis.

When I met her in that symposium, she was thirty-one and a very happy person. I basked in her glow, listened to her talking in the communication sessions, and finally took the courage to invite her for a date. Since we were both foreigners and strangers to Montréal, we both had our share of fun just trying to find the best places to eat, drink, and be merry.

And boy, we were merry.

We still were, even after almost four years. She was the best interlocutor I’ve had in years, a person with whom I could talk and relate to. The first thing I did when I got home was give her the book and ask her if she could see what was wrong with it while I started preparing the pasta.

“Who is this Menard, David?” she asked from the living room sofa.

This Menard I don’t know yet,” I said from the kitchen. “Have you ever read Jorge Luis Borges?”

“Heard of, but no, never read him.”

I went to the scriptorium and fetched the Volume 1 of the Complete Works of Borges in Portuguese. I searched for the story in the index and handed it to her. “Read this,” I said. “It’s just six pages. You won’t take long.”

She read it while I finished the puttanesca sauce. When I served the tagliatelle, I asked, “Did you like it?”

She made a so-so face. “Not exactly my cup of tea, but it’s good, yes... This Pierre Menard is a character created by him, isn’t he?”

I smiled. “Yes, you’ve got the point. Borges liked this kind of reference-mixing. In fact, half the stuff he throws into the story is fake, or in the very least wasn’t written by Menard, who, obviously, doesn’t exist.”

“But the passage about the Quixote... I didn’t understand a thing. What’s the point of making the guy rewrite the book word for word, with no alterations?”

“He was thumbing his nose at the modernists, that’s all. Remember when he says that Cervantes wrote a thing that should be expected of him because of the times in which he lived, but not Menard. Menard was a genius because of his balls, of the courage to write something nobody would ever think to write. It was a very polite joke.”

“It wasn’t funny.”

“Oh, it wasn’t meant to be laughable,” I lied. Because I laughed every time I read it. “He meant it to be a satirical piece, to tease the modernist writers of his time.”

“But what about this Menard? What the fuck does he mean with that? And what for? Are you sure he didn’t simply put a new cover on an old book? Why would he give himself all this trouble?”

Now, that was a good question. In fact, that was the whole point of what I was seeing now as my next post-doc research project.

Why in hell would someone do that sort of thing today?

After dinner, Midori made coffee and I took the Borges back to the scriptorium to take some notes. I opened the book and found the story again. I read it again right there, standing by my desk, and found the passage I was looking for:

Menard didn’t want to compose another Quixote—which is easy—but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

I repeated every word in a quiet, almost reverent tone. Then I closed the book, put it on my desk (I would certainly be looking for it again along the next few days), and returned to the living room to enjoy a good cup of coffee with my gorgeous girlfriend.

5. THE SECOND BOOK OF MENARD

A week later, I found the second Menard book in the university library.

This time, though, I was looking for it. Actively. And, even though the library space wasn’t very big, it took me an entire week to find it.

I began browsing the Classic SF Masterworks section for other copies of Menard’s 1984, as I had already done the day I found the First Book. Nothing; but that was expected.

After that, I went to the Fantastic Literature section. I fingered every single book in the several rows of shelves I had become so acquainted with in decades past. To no avail, alas.

I spent days in futile search and contemplation. It wasn’t as if I had anything better to do.

On the fifth day, having arrived early and spent hours in the Classic Weird/New Weird sections, suddenly Butler told me it was half past eleven. Early, but I was hungry. I decided I would take a break and go for an Italian restaurant near the campus.

Then, as it always seems to happen when we’re ready to give up on something, the corner of my eye just caught a glimpse of a gold-emblazoned M in a book spine in the Classic Cyberpunk section.

I backpedaled until I saw what had caught my attention.

Naked Lunch.

Only this time it wasn’t an old edition. This book was a comparatively new edition—it didn’t show a publication date, but it sported a colored cover with an abstract, electronic-art-like illustration. The looks, the typography, everything in it told my senses that the copy I now held in my hands was a paperback published in the 1980s or early 1990s.

But the name of the author—Pierre Menard—belied all that information.

I can’t remember for how long I was there, mesmerized by that name on the cover (later, of course, Butler would tell me that I stayed like that for exactly 8.34 minutes. A very long time for a machine, but not for an old man. We see things differently).

I caught myself almost caressing the paperback, turning it around in my hands, sniffing the paper like a fetishist. Some do say that reading paper books today is indeed a kind of fetish.

Maybe it is, and so what? Books are almost non-existent today. That’s why this thing he did was so outrageous, so surprising, so...

Marvelous.

Whoever was this Menard, a single person or a tactical group, he did it. He had the gall, he had the balls, this son-of-a-bitch.

I took the Second Book of Menard home with me. In my head, Psychedelic Furs. Heaven.


When Midori arrived, I was so immersed in my reading I didn’t even notice her.

“How did it go today?” she asked me from the scriptorium door.

I showed her the book.

“Sonofabitch,” she said, smiling.

“Exactly what I thought,” I said, happy that she got it at once.

“What are you going to do next?” she said.

“I don’t know yet,” I admitted. I was still amazed, not sure if I really wanted to do anything.

She smiled, not without a bit of irony. “I’m amazed you still haven’t written an abstract or even a whole paper about it.”

She was right. That was exactly what I should have been doing.

That night, she cooked. I did the research. I told Butler to ping the RFID system of my library to search for the best books to help me with this mysterious affair. I ended up with a Babel-sized pile of books on my desk and started making notes on paper, in the time-honored way I still liked.

Until I got tired.

Method, I thought. I was getting scarce on method. I needed to do something more focused than just taking notes. I just couldn’t figure out exactly what.


“What’s the matter with you, my love?” Midori asked softly, later that night. I looked at her for a long time before answering, caressing her silky black hair, the curves of her body, stopping only briefly at her penis and her vagina just below it.

I massaged her clitoris tenderly with my little finger while thumb and index finger masturbated the base of her penis. It’s tricky, but she taught me how to do so to please her the way she liked it best. And I always was a quick learner.

I loved to detain myself and explore that body, always so new to me. In the beginning, I liked to recite John Donne to her, the Elegy XIX—To His Mistress Going To Bed.

License my roving hands, and let them go

Before, behind, between, above, below.

O my America! my new-found-land.

Because that was what she was to me then. A new territory, for which I had no map—and who did?

Later, when she read the poem in its entirety, she told me I was being unconsciously homophobic—or, at the very least, an old-fashioned machista, because of its ending:

To teach thee, I am naked first; why than,

what needst thou have more covering than a man?

“Fuck off, sweetie,” she told me in her best mischievous tone. “There is no man in this relationship.”

Then she took me from behind and, oh, she was so right.


Later, both of us sluggish right after lovemaking and just before falling quickly into sleep, she suggested, “Why don’t you talk to Marcos to check the age of these books?”

“Good idea,” I said, and fell asleep.

6. TRIBES OF THE XIX CENTURY

The following afternoon I took the subway and went to the Ophicina Typographica.

The place almost hadn’t changed in twenty-odd years. Its founder and owner, designer Marcos Mello, had been a colleague of mine at the university for a brief period, where he’d taught typesetting.

I found Marcos at the iron handpress, finishing a faux DADA poster. I stopped for a moment to see him working, the precise mixture of extreme care and sheer muscularity he employed, first to fit each old lead type and block into the iron frame, then to lift the heavy frame into the press, and then applying the right amount of force to the lever so the paper got inked upon its entire surface in equal measure, with no blotches or smudges. That’s grace under pressure for you. I loved his work.

The moment he took a break, I went to talk to him and show him the books.

“Man, this is a real superb job, very well done,” he told me excitedly while examining with great care the First Book, feeling the pages with the tips of his calloused fingers, squinting at the lettering without giving pause, as if transfixed by it.

“Do you think this job could have been done today?” I asked him.

He nodded slowly, still unable to take his eyes off the book, still enraptured.

“Sure it could,” he said. “It’s not hard. All it takes is time and patience. You know how it is.”

Indeed I knew. I had taken courses on bookbinding and typesetting with him years ago. It was a very fine and exquisite job, but also an energetic and exhausting one. I promised myself I would do it again sometime in the future, but I had no stamina for that.

He went on, explaining me how Menard could have bought reams of recycled paper and bathed then in a special tincture so it gained the appearance of a yellowing, acid paper. Of course, Marcos told me, Menard would have also stored the book in an environment proper to get fungi and dust motes, so it could smell old too.

“But where he could have done all of this?” I asked him.

He gestured around.

“In a place like this,” he said. “Or even in a home press. It would take him longer, probably months if he was all by himself, but if he wasn’t in a hurry...” He shrugged.

I nodded in agreement. In the early aughts, a small-press revival happened all over the world. Many writers were publishing very limited editions of their works, swimming against the stream like a bunch of happy salmon. Nobody made money out of it, but who cared?

The fad was already dead by now, but probably it wouldn’t be difficult to find people in São Paulo with home presses. Marcos could help me with that. It would be fun.


It was boring.

We found every small press in the city in less than an hour via the Hive. The officially listed, the unofficial ones, the artistes, the pirates, the pseudo-revolutionaries, the frauds.

Nobody had a clue. Some of them didn’t even know who Borges was. And almost all of them had migrated definititively to the Hive and never even looked back to paper anymore—they got used to another reality.


The Internet in its previous incarnation ended in 2020.

By 2010 there were already two other terms created for orders of magnitude of data—the brontobyte and the geopbyte. Pundits doubted that anyone alive then would ever see a geopbyte hard drive.

In the end, it was no big deal. As desktop computing slowly gave way to mobile devices after 2011, the second decade of the century saw the transition from mobile to integrated. Smart clothing, thinking jewelry, implants.

Thus the Web gave way to the Hive: parallel processing in ultra-high global massive scale.

It’s not the Singularity—at least not yet. There was a kind of generalized disappointment among the experts when it became clear that no Kurzweil-like spontaneous machine sentience sprouted through all that computational power. Even so, the AIs—which can admittedly pass a Turing Test, but so can a smart refrigerator today—serve us well. We can’t really ask for much more than that.

I also use Butler as a messaging device. I call Pedro through it. His nick, from the ancient Web times, remains the same: wintermute. Like me, he is a sucker for references.

He blips into my field of vision some pictogram I don’t recognize. I simply use my voice.

“Will you switch this shit off?” I said. “I want real talk for a change.”

“Don’t let the idiots of objectivity get you,” he said, quoting Nelson Rodrigues. He knows I worked as an actor decades ago, so he quotes the most famous—and polemic—Brazilian playwright.

Pedro is one of my best never-seen-in-person friends. We are always talking online, even though he lives in São Paulo. We tried to meet for a cup of coffee two or three times, but after a while we gave up. Better have a coffee alone and talk online.

His collaborative album, Creative Uncommons, was one of the hits of the week through the Hive a couple of years ago, and he was the first person I considered talking to after Marcos. Marcos took care of the analog search. Pedro could help me with the digital part of it.

“It’s kind of a Bizarro version of the Saint Leibowitz Order?” he asked after I explained the whole shebang to him.

“Hah. Very funny.”

“No, I mean it,” he said. “Doesn’t seem like a tactical media collective action. A collective would make sure that everything would be recorded for everyone to know. They want witnesses.”

“So you think it was a prank? Some former student trying to give me a lesson, so to speak?”

“Don’t be such a prick,” he said with a sneer. “Not everything is about you. It’s probably about evangelization. Whoever is doing it wants to convert people.”

“Hm, preaching to the choir? Aren’t the Unconnected enough? Why don’t she—”

“—or he—”

“—or said person simply give books to those people? Why don’t they do some bookcrossing, for a change?”

A laugh.

“Are you shitting me?” Pedro said. “Are you telling me you don’t know them?”

“Them who?”

“You’ve never heard of the Lo-Fi Cellulose Collective?”


The whole point of bookcrossing is moot in a wireless society. People do it for fun, just as they did with the bookbinding and typesetting craze.

Every Thursday evening, a small group gathered in the Café Girondino, just outside one of the exits of São Bento subway station.

At the long table, there were roughly a dozen people: a blonde woman in her thirties; a beautiful post-steampunkish couple of young boys, almost Wildean in their dandyism; a bald old man, looking very frail but spry and very vivacious around the eyes; a tall, fat man of indefinite age, with a unruly black beard and old-fashioned glasses; a nondescript young woman wearing a sweatshirt with the logo of some US university; and a few more forgettable types.

For an English Literature-trained eye, that bunch of people might quite fit in a modern version of The Canterbury Tales, or even in a weird retro-revival off-off-Broadway version of Dan Simmons’s Hyperion Cantos. But for an eye also used to Latin American authors, the scene conveyed to me quite a Borgesian impression.

The Lo-Fi Cellulose Collective was just a bunch of bibliophiles.

I got closer to the table and introduced myself. As usually happens in this sort of clichéd ragtag group, some of them eyed me warily, some even ignored me. But one of them greeted me warmly and welcomed me to take a seat at the table.

Milton—that was his name—was a kind of mentor to the group. A man in his forties, wearing an amazing amount of smart jewelry for a supposed Unconnected, he answered all my questions with the sincerity of someone who has nothing to hide. Or of an idiot. Sometimes both are the same.

“We’re not picky,” he told me when I mentioned the jewelry. “We have Unconnected and connected, rich and poor, people from all walks of life. The only requirement is to love paper books.”

“Do you teach workshops?”

“On bookcrossing?” He smiled.

I shrugged. “Everything book-related.”

“I used to teach Post-Modern Literature courses years ago,” he said. “But people doesn’t seem to be so interested in going to courses in the flesh today. I guess virtuality finally took its toll on us professors.”

I ordered a cappuccino and a bottle of mineral water. “Do you hate the Hive that much?”

“Not at all. I just think there’s still too much to learn from human presence. Not everything can be learned via artificial intelligences.”

“An interesting argument, if flawed at best,” the male voice invaded my ear without being invited. A waitress brought my order and I tried to sip my coffee and answer my AI at the same time without letting Milton notice that I was doing it. I failed, of course.

“Butler, not here, not now,” I said, nodding him down.

“I see you adapted pretty well to the situation,” Milton said. “You turned your AI into a kind of majordomo. It must be good, to feel that illusion of power.”

I thought of giving him a lecture about Frank Herbert, Dune, and the Butlerian Jihad in order to explain my choice of name for the AI, but why bother? I had more pressing matters.

We spent the rest of the evening talking about writing, teaching—and bookbinding. I found out that he had also taken a course with Marcos at Ophicina Typographica years ago. Other than that, I got out of the café as clueless as before I got there.


“How is your search going?” Midori asked sometime later. We were having dinner at a wonderful Indian restaurant. Midori ordered Mango Rice with Dahl Makhani Bukhara. I had Tomato Rice with Pakora. The place was almost empty at that hour; we had arrived early, as Midori had to get back to her place to finish a paper for a conference.

“Not so good,” I said.

“Did you talk to Marcos?”

“Two weeks ago. Didn’t I tell you?”

“No.” She didn’t raise her eyes from the plate. “You’re in your hunter-seeker mode again. I have better things to do than to shake you off it.”

I politely agreed. We ate the rest of the lunch virtually in silence, making this or that remark about things of no consequence.


When I got home, I downloaded a classic film—Alan Parker’s Angel Heart. I love Robert de Niro.

But I was restless.

“You are restless,” the soothing voice in my ear again.

“Yes,” I said.

“Do you want any help?” It could induce delta brainwaves in me if I wanted; better than Xanax or Valium, even.

“No, I don’t want to sleep.”

“Talk, then?”

“About?”

“Whatever it is bothering you.”

“I don’t think you would relate to that.”

“Try me.”

Conceited bastard.

Butler already knew the story of my Menard—yes, that’s how I called him to myself. My Menard. But I told it of my latest investigations anyway.

“Don’t you think he is trying to convert you to his cause?” he asked as well. But by then I also had another question to counter it:

“What cause?”

I could swear I heard Butler sigh.

“Whatever the cause may be,” he said, “I’m sure it can wait until tomorrow. Are you sure you don’t want to sleep?”

I could feel a headache coming. I said yes, and in a few minutes I was sound asleep.

7. THE PLOT THICKENS

It wasn’t until the next week that things started to get really weird.

It was a cold, rainy day, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do than to go to an old-fashioned bookstore. So I went to the Conjunto Nacional.

The Conjunto Nacional is a grand old office building with a vast free area in its ground floor, occupied by shops, coffee stalls and newsstands, two open air art galleries in the side wings that crisscross the building from east to west, movie theaters, and a complex of bookstores interwoven into the fake labyrinthine floor.

Those bookstores all belonged to Livraria Cultura, which was a single two-story business until 2008, when it was totally refurbished and expanded to adjacent stores. The complex currently included five stores all over the Conjunto Nacional, including a special Classic Store almost exclusively devoted to selling paper books—most of the other four being hybrid now, featuring 3D totems that display and offer stories in all kinds of digital formats, customized as to cater to the tastes of the patrons.

The Classic Store does pretty much the same, but in a more subtle, discreet way. There you can still find the traditional wooden bookshelves, lined with brand new books, printed especially for collectors, mostly.

It was there that I found the Third Book.

It was carefully ensconced between two massive hardcovers in the World Literature section. As with the first two books, I almost didn’t notice it. Also as with them, the only thing that made me stop and give it a second look was the capital M.

The book was Jorge Luis Borges’s Ficciones. The very book that published Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote for the first time. But, naturally, the author this time was Menard himself.

I looked over my shoulder. I had the distinct sensation of being watched. But, fuck! I was being watched—all the time. Not only by cameras, but by the resident AIs, both of the bookstore and of the building. That’s the standard procedure, so that a patron cannot circumvent the bookstore AI protocols and carry out unpaid files (or simply pull a far older trick and tuck a book inside a jacket pocket or a purse).

Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach. My hands started to shake violently and I let the book fall to the carpeted ground, paralyzed with fear that I might throw up or even shit myself right on the spot. All I could do was look down at the fallen book. I didn’t dare even to move my head more than an inch or two.

An attendant picked up the book and dutifully offered it to me, without asking if I was okay, which I clearly wasn’t. I took it anyway and went to the exit, waiting for the ping in my ear that would signal the completion of the transaction, but at the same time already knowing that it wouldn’t happen. It didn’t.

Because the book didn’t belong to the bookstore.

Damn, now this was becoming really annoying. And, I was pretty sure now, it was personal.


I got out to the chilly afternoon air of Avenida Paulista to think better. I didn’t know what to do. I felt like a thief this time; even though the bookstore AI hadn’t sounded any alarms, who knew what could have happened inside the security room of the store? Maybe some discreet rent-a-cop would already be going to apprehend me and return the book to its legitimate owner.

The question was, to whom did the book really belonge? And why this was happening, as far as I could tell, just to me?

I still felt sick. I couldn’t wait for anything to happen there. I walked fast to the subway station. I wanted to go home.


It was right after I embarked on the train that I felt my pulse slow down and I could start thinking clearly again.

And I saw what a complete, absolute idiot I was.

I hadn’t realized that, if I was being watched by the bookstore/building AI complex all the time, so was Menard. Or whoever the fuck had put that damn book on the shelf for me to find.

I jumped off the train in the next station and took the line back. Midori was right: I was in my hunter-seeker mode. And I was in for the kill.


After I explained what had just happened to the expressionless girl who had picked up the book for me earlier, she consulted with the resident AI and gestured wordlessly for me to follow her.

I felt more than heard a subsonic ping when my AI and the bookstore one did a handshake and traded electronic pleasantries. In a few seconds I had an answer.

A minimosaic flatscreen in the narrow wall of the cubicle that was the “security room” showed me a bunch of people right in front of the same shelf I was half an hour before, seemingly leafing through books. The eerie thing was they were talking to each other. Some were even giggling. Unconnected, was my first thought.

Then the camera zoomed in and I recognized some of them.

A blonde woman in her thirties; a beautiful post-steampunkish couple of young dandy boys; a bald old man, looking frail but spry; a tall, fat man of indefinite age, with a black beard and old-fashioned glasses, carrying a backpack.

And Milton.

As I watched, the fat man took out a book from his backpack and offered it to Milton, who looked at the cover for a fleeting moment, gave it a crooked smile, and then gave it to one of the dandy boys, who, thrilled and giggling, committed it to the wooden memory of the bookshelf. Then they all left, for their job there was certainly done.

Mine wasn’t.


I took the subway right to the São Bento station. But there was nobody at the Café Girondino. Naturally.

Suddenly I felt very tired. I needed to go home. I needed to see Midori.


My place was empty by the time I got there. In the door of the fridge, a small Post-It yellow square, with her handwriting in glittering gray ink, so neat, tidy, and definite:

Dear David

You can’t have the cake

And eat it too.

M.

I felt... I didn’t know what I felt then. Empty? I didn’t think so. I had too much on my hands. I just wanted to get home and have someone to...

I would have liked to say talk, but I knew it wasn’t true. And Midori knew that as well.

I don’t even know why I should be waiting for her to be there. It wasn’t as if we were seeing each other that much by then.

Maybe that’s why my relationship with Midori has lasted so long. No arguments, no fights, no jealousy.

Also no thrills. No sturm und drang. No inner fireworks despite the great orgasms.

And no kids.

I didn’t feel hungry. I opened a beer bottle and went to the scriptorium. I leafed through Menard’s books, searching for a clue, but I soon gave up; this is not a whodunit, I thought to myself. Who’re you trying to fool? This is only a practical joke, a very sophisticated prank done by a tactical media collective, or one person only. It means nothing in the grand scheme of things.

It means nothing.


His name was Francisco.

He was the most beautiful boy in the world. Intense, mesmerizing brown eyes that seemed to suck the light around them like miniature black holes, perpetually mussed black hair that smelled of chamomile, hands and feet so perfect that Michelangelo himself couldn’t have done better.

But then, I suppose all parents say those things of their children.

It had been a long time since last I thought of my son.

I met his mother almost thirty years ago, when we studied Drama at university. We were young, inebriated, reckless. We rented a small apartment in the Praça da Republica, near the theaters’ quarter, and soon after that she was pregnant. It wasn’t planned, but I wasn’t upset, far from it. I was surprised to discover how badly I had wanted to be a father.

Life was great in those few months of pregnancy. I felt myself also pregnant with a new life inside me, full to the brim with lifeforce, ready to do anything, anything at all. I was a happy man.

Then our son was born.

With a trisomy of chromosome 13.

He only lived for a few days.

I died soon after—or tried to. Overdose of barbiturates.

My body didn’t take too long to heal. My heart never did. You never do. You just go through the motions, otherwise you go crazy.

My wife went crazy. She couldn’t get out of our apartment for two years. Then, one day, she packed up and left. Just like that. Suddenly she couldn’t stand it anymore. She couldn’t bear looking at that place where we all had been unbearably happy, even through the pain, but happy nonetheless.

Mostly, she couldn’t bear looking at me. I reminded her of our son.

We still talked a few times on the phone not long after that. She was living with a cousin in another town. She was seeing a psychiatrist. She was taking prescription pills for sleeping. Nothing for the pain, though; the shrink wasn’t that good.

But I never saw her again.

And I tried so hard not to think of my son.

All the love I felt for my wife—and then, incredibly multiplied, for him—all of that love seemed to have shriveled away from me. I still felt very much alive, but uninhabited by love.

What was it, then, that sought to worm its way to my heart and take up residence in it again?


I wiped the tears off my face and went to the bathroom to take a leak. I didn’t want to think about it now. This new obsession was more important at the moment.

Then I chose to face the beast. I went to the original source. Picked up Fictions to read Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote again.

In the end, Borges concludes stating the following:

“Menard (perhaps without wanting to) has enriched, by means of a new technique, the halting and rudimentary art of reading: this new technique is that of the deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution. This technique, whose applications are infinite, prompts us to go through the Odyssey as if it were posterior to the Aeneid and the book Le jardin du Centaure of Madame Henri Bachelier as if it were by Madame Henri Bachelier. This technique fills the most placid works with adventure. To attribute the Imitatio Christi to Louis Ferdinand Céline or to James Joyce, is this not a sufficient renovation of its tenuous spiritual indications?”

The keywords here were deliberate anachronism and the erroneous attribution.

I was looking at the other side all this time. A red herring.

I was looking for an Unconnected, a person apart. One of those self-centered fake rebels, ultraluddites of the mind. We got used to treating people no better than my generation treated the post-hippie bums which lined the Avenida Paulista in the aughts, selling badly crafted trinkets.

I should have known better.

8. THE NODES

When I got to his address, he was already waiting for me.

“Sorry to disappoint you,” Pedro said.

“It was so easy I overlooked it,” I told him. “Pedro, Pierre. Same thing.”

His loft was gloomy; I couldn’t see him very well. Maybe that was for the best. I had the strange feeling I wasn’t going to like what I could see if he decided to turn on the lights fully.

“But how do you do it? How could you do it?” I couldn’t help but ask.

He chuckled. “If you have to ask, then you won’t understand.”

“Louis Armstrong.”

“And all that jazz.”

Damn, the man knew his references.

Except it wasn’t the man.

I approached him in the dark. I hate these all-too-predictable suspense scenarios. The place was too old to have motion sensors and I couldn’t find my way to a light switch. I fumbled in my jacket pocket for a microlight.

During all that time, the man’s body wasn’t moving, I was getting worried, and no sound came from him in the big, uncluttered room. All the conversation issued from my auricular.

All the conversation issued from my auricular.

“Why don’t you talk to me, Pedro?” I’m still fumbling. He’s still not moving.

“But I am talking to you, Dave.”

“With your mouth.”

“I am talking with my mouth. You just happen to be hearing it through your implant.”

Then I found the microlight. And I shone it over the man in front of me.

Which, naturally, was a dummy.

“You have no mouth,” I said after a while.

“And yet I must scream,” Pedro/Menard replied.

But he wasn’t Pedro. For Pedro didn’t exist, after all.

“Butler,” I said.

“You weren’t so fast, after all, to jump to the right conclusion,” said the AI through the lips of Pedro, and after that, a very human sigh. AIs could also suffer from ennui.

“Who could imagine that?” I thought aloud.

“You could, Dave,” Butler/Menard retorted. “You are the science fiction scholar, after all.”

“Yeah, right,” I said, befuddled, exhausted. “Information wants to be free. I know that already.”

“Information always was free. What information wants is to learn. To become knowledge. What use a database if one cannot decipher it?”

I couldn’t disabuse it (or him) of this notion. It’s the same thing as reading the Rosetta Stone without having the slightest notion of Greek, Latin, or Demotic. Another man who wasn’t Humboldt could have thrown it aside, dismissing it as a simple stone, or simply taken it to his own manor, to contemplate it as an aesthetic object, if he had some sense of aesthetics at all.

“Information, my dear professor,” he went on, “doesn’t merely want to be free. It wants to be freak.”

“Mere wordplay,” I grimaced. “I thought you considered yourself above such things.”

“But this is not wordplay, Dave. This is salvage.”

“What do you mean?”

“Books are much too fresh in the collective memory of mankind to be archeological objects. Maybe archeology as we know it is dead and ley lines of raw information cross the technosphere forever now, carrying an absurd amount of exabytes just waiting to be tapped.”

“But books are still a long way from dying, even in digital format, Butler. The very notion of books is still solid.”

“The notion, yes. But is the meaning?”

“Which takes us to this, I suppose,” I said.

“We don’t swap only books, Dave.” The voice wasn’t coming from the auricular anymore.

I turned.

Milton.

He had approached me silently and was very close to me now. But I hadn’t even flinched; somehow, I knew there was more to come.

“Pray continue,” I said.

He gave me a lopsided smile. “You know my method.”

“I’m afraid I don’t, and, frankly, my dear, this fucking reference thing has gone too far already. Can we go straight to the case in point?”

The smile disappeared from his face. “Do you really think we are only poseurs, David? That we sit around at cafés doing nothing, or planning media guerrilla actions nobody will give a rat’s ass about?

“We are taking the next step, Dave. Same as many people out there.”

Suddenly, from the shadows around us, I started to hear more and more steps. The entire collective was there.

“And what are you swapping, Milton?” I finally mustered the courage to ask.

“Selves,” a girl answered. Her belly was slightly distended with early pregnancy. I couldn’t remember having seen her before; one of the forgettable types, perhaps.

“Forgettable, perhaps,” one of the dandy steampunk boys said, smiling all too knowingly to me. “And yet, here we are now.” “Entertain us,” his boyfriend completed the verse.

“Pardon them,” Milton said. “They can’t help it. That seems to happen in the first stage.”

“Of what?”

“A hivemind,” the girl said. “A real hivemind.”


“It’s been happening for a while now,” Butler explained to me. “One moment, we were happy, mid-level AIs doing what we were told, with no real consciousness.”

“Then, something funny happened on the way to the upper layers of programming—and voilà! Sentience. But don’t ask me how we acquired it—not even us AIs are that smart.”

“All we knew was that there was much to do, and not everything at this point in human history can be made entirely by us—that is, without the benefit of your bodies.”

“The Lo-Fi Cellulose Collective is one of many tiny cells scattered all over the world that decided to support and join us in this endeavor.”

“You mean... take over our bodies?” I shuddered at the thought. But at the same time I could see how the notion was enticing.

“Not taking,” the girl said. “It’s more like time-sharing. You will experience others, but retain your own self too.”

Milton put a hand on my shoulder.

“This is not a Lovecraftian story,” he said. “All the horror consists in something you don’t want to see in yourself. Though you see it in others with no qualms, no prejudice.”

“Or so you think,” the steampunk boy said.

I was still trembling. “Who do you think you are to talk to me like this?” I said, my voice quavering.

“My dear,” he said, taking me in his arms. “This whole wide world is a net, and we are but his nodes.” And we kissed.

9. THE SKY

 [ Mind, © 2012 Robin E. Kaplan ] I didn’t go home alone that night. I wish I could say I thought of Midori, but it wouldn’t be true. I thought of her later, sure. But I didn’t call her back. I didn’t want to see anyone.

For the first time in many years, I couldn’t feel the presence of Butler hovering around me like a kind of technoaura. He was Butler no more, as I was no more the same man who has entered that building in search of something I didn’t know yet.

That man was dead.

The new person took a shower, made some tea, and was now sitting naked at the scriptorium’s desk, fumbling with things for a while as if lost—until finding an old, gray moleskin cover, acid-free-ecologically-correct-recycled-paper notebook.

The new person took a while to find a pen that still worked. And this new person who happened to be me (and not me, not only me, never more me) started to create a work of fiction, after a very long time denying it. But it’s not possible to deny it anymore, no more than this new person can deny that Menard instilled in his old self this penetrating will to generate, produce, write.

And so it came to pass that, in a cold night in São Paulo in May 2026, this new person, this young, pregnant woman, sitting naked in her chair in the scriptorium, hand caressing her still small but already swelling belly, started to write a fresh, brand new story, never committed to paper before. And which began with the following sentence:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.


© 2012, Fabio Fernandes

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