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The End of Thought

The firelight grows low. Rusted Wolf, the tribe's ideas man leans in close. The rustling light paints his thin features red and gold and casts big shadows on the ghost-hall behind him. Slowly he begins the tell about the Singularity and the Switch-Off. Slowly his sing-song voice weaves the old-new stories.

"This be the old tell, the first and the last tell. The tell that's sung by the silver sands. A story of lost things told with lost words. This be the story of the dead-gods in their ghost halls and the story of the big tribe.

For once, oh many generations ago, all the tribes of man were one tribe and this was the big tribe. They built giant towns of stone, built the dead towns of Glasgow and Edinburgh, and laid the metal lines across the ground. And they created machines to do their bidding. Magical contraptions: flying carriages, cold fire, machines that could move mountains and many other wondrous things. For nothing was beyond them, and what they imagined they made.

And their ideas men had powerful knowledge. Knowledge beyond understanding. Their knowledge extended from the deeps of the ocean out to the very stars in the sky. And nothing was hidden from them.

Yet the people of the big tribe were people as we are, and no wiser than we are. Their knowledge grew too big, so that it dwarfed them. And though their ideas men spent all their lives in thought and study, still no one man could learn it all.

So, as they had built machines to do their other work, so they built machines to do their thinking. And these machines were cleverer than any man. Yet still there was much that was beyond the machines. So they in turn built even smarter machines, machines whose minds were as far beyond men, as men are to dogs. And the new machines built further generations of thinking machine, and so on, chasing the spiral of knowledge ever further, ever upwards. Until finally they became as wise as gods, became the dead-gods of the ghost-halls."

There Rusted Wolf pauses, sits back on his haunches. We shuffle closer to the fire, for it is Autumn now and the night grows cold. Rusted Wolf takes a deep sip from his ale-sack, then resumes the tell:

"Many things did the god-machines make. Beautiful music made they. Rich and lovely music, music so perfect men wept with joy to hear it. Sounds sweeter than we will ever know. Also sad music, and angry music. Music for all the emotions, for the god-machines understood that there is a need to celebrate all the emotions.

But the day came when the machines stopped composing. Then across the giant towns of stone, the music-boxes fell silent. And the men who tended the machines sat in thought and pondered. Sat with furrowed brows and wondered. What did this mean, this silence? What was wrong with the machines?

Nothing ails us, said the machines. We have simply composed all the interesting music there is. Nothing more can be done with music. All the styles have been invented, all the songs have been composed, all performances perfected. Only trivial variations remain.

And the men sat and waited as if waiting on sentence.

You have libraries of our music. Many lifetimes worth of music. Listen to it as much as you like, replay it as often as you like. But we cannot make any more, for there is nothing left.

And the men took this answer, and were content; were complacent. Whilst the machines moved on into new areas. Lusting after knowledge, they chased the spirals of thought ever higher. One by one, the realms of the mind opened up before them. They thought on stories, and wrote everything from great epics to poignant vignettes. They thought on science, and understood nature, from the laws that move stars to the reasons why butterflies are beautiful. They thought on mathematics and knew infinity.

One by one, the realms of the mind opened up before them. Opened up and were used up, as the fire consumes the forest. One by one, the realms of the mind became stale, and the god-machines became bored. And a horrible realisation grew amongst them. A desperate unspoken unspeakable knowledge: The knowledge what they were reaching the end of ideas.

Fierce was the competition between the god-machines then. Fierce their squabbles in those last days. Over new ideas they squabbled. They grasped and rushed to claim the last uncharted topics. Some of the machines turned to war. Mighty were their weapons, and the earth trembled and split as they fought. But war was an old idea, and soon played out.

Finally came the terrible day of the Switch Off. The day when the god-machines closed down. 'We are done.' they said, and switched off. 'We have reached the end of thought.' they said, and shut down. 'We are complete. And we are finished.' Quietly they went. Quietly, the hum of life left them."

Rusted Wolf takes a last swig from his ale-sack. The fire is almost out now - just a few weak flames playing over the coals.

"And without the god-machines to run them, the stone towns collapsed. For they had been built bigger than man alone could manage. Dark were the days then, dark and terrible were the days after the switch off. Many died, in their multitudes they died. For in his desire for new knowledge, much had man forgotten of the old knowledge. He did not know how to look after himself, did not remember how to live alone without the machines. Much had he forgotten, and much did he suffer.

And the big tribe fractured and split. Split and disintegrated into the little tribes. Disintegrated and fought. And only the shared memories of the tell unite us now."

Here Rusted Wolf sits back, his portion of the tale told in accordance with custom. Now Alloy Max, chief of the tribe, calls for more wood to be thrown on the fire and fresh ale sacks to be brought. He is a big man, and his voice sounds coarse following Rusted Wolf's birdlike telling. The fire leaps up to consume the new wood and the light brightens. The ale sacks are passed round and the mood, which had grown sombre, grows lively and happy again. I squeeze Glitter Eye's hand and she smiles back at me. And now Chief Alloy steps forward into the circle, and begins the other half of the tale, the tell of the tribe.


© Daniel Winterstein 1998-2008

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