Will the Last Person to Leave, Please Turn Off the Words by Ken Lamberton

Dear Nephew,

Your letter arrived today, posted three weeks ago, so our delivery service is slowly improving. I immediately recognized the bold lines dragged across the velum by your strong left hand. The distance and time between us collapses when I hold your words in my hand. I’m smiling now as I write, thinking about this new skill I’ve discovered at penmanship recognition. To think, it was nearly lost by humankind…that, and penmanship itself. I was a child when the charters dropped longhand from the curriculum cursive, or running writing, I think they called it. The days when all that writing required were two thumbs and little thought.

You are too young to remember–your whole generation, in fact–but I was there during the Great Falling. In the days since the collapse of the digital age, and the subsequent end of the modern era itself, civilization such as it was contracted into what became known as the Second Agrarian Age
or, as some would call it, the Age of Underwood. What began as a great upheaval, as the convulsions toppled world markets and a consumer-driven society, finally ended with a whimper. Thus humanity relaxed into this simpler epoch. As simpler, more manual, epochs go.

I thank you in advance for your question. Your Uncle Maurice may be the
only one left to tell of it, these words by my own hand (rendered here by the strikers of my vintage typewriter) one of the few records.

Even the explosion of virtual and cyber speed-reading courses (cultish, those Evelyn Woodites!) couldn’t keep up with the falling words–they just continued slipping from the pages. Imagine! Speed reading was our response to the Virus! Then the “Säuberung.” E-books purged from e-readers as if tossed into the pyres of Berlin.

By then it was too late. The great libraries had already succumbed to CAD, the Colossus Amazon Database, and physical books, what we called “binders,” became obsolete. Their blank and dusty shelves made room for the Amazon servers, you know. Every branch library already being airconditioned. People would have forgotten the smell of aged paper, printing ink, and glue except for the e-reader aerosol apps (100 percent DRM compatible, indeed!). Personally, I never cared much for the
smell–yes, I admit it. Strange, you must think, coming from an anachronistic binderlover. But it always reminded me of something moldering in a damp corner. Toluene. Ethyl benzene. Benzaldehyde.
Ironic how the breakdown of cellulose and lignin would finish the binders we held onto as relics of the past. Deemed carcinogenic by the Incorporated Bureau of Food and Drug, culminating in the privatized government’s Volatile Compounds Act (VOCA), it all spelled the end for binders. Of course, I didn’t believe it, but social media raged against the dangers as if it were some great plague. That’s when the first library cleansings came.

So how did it all begin, you ask? What sent us back to the Typewriter Age? Well, you won’t find it in the history books. Ha! I can tell you, however, with utmost certainty, that I knew the man who caused it. Indeed, I can trace the collapse to a single person.

His penname was Theodore Cecil Drew, a pasty-skinned, mole-rat of a man, a computer scientist-turned-bad-novelist. Life is a sexually transmitted disease, he liked to say. He had steel-gray eyes like my favorite Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character, John Carter. But he was no warrior hero and wouldn’t garner even a second glance from the likes of Dejah Thoris. (He may have been prematurely gay.) I got to know him after the publication of his first novel, a stack of which I stumbled over outside his apartment. We lived on the same floor in the same dreary building, but we had never met until the day I fell headlong into the stairwell and came up sprawled among his paperbacks. (Someone apparently had emptied the packing box they came in before stealing it.) I must have blacked out. The first thing I remember is opening my eyes and seeing the name “T. C. Drew” splashed across dozens of garish covers of half-dressed women wielding fully dressed swords. T. C. Drew. It was minutes before I could recall my own name.

I immediately took an interest in his stories–he could tell them better than he could write. (He told me he made most of his money writing copy for an ad agency, coming up with clever names for companies like Verdant Oasis Sewage Treatment and Well-hung Studs Construction Company.) We began meeting every afternoon over vodka martinis, his way of recovering from six hours of daily writing. He shared his unpublished manuscripts with me, and we would discuss his predictable plot twists and characters among his furious rants about publishing. He fumed whenever he found his titles in used bookstores, knowing that he would never see a cent from the sales. “But when you sell a car,” I reasoned with him, “the automaker doesn’t expect a cut in the deal.” “I’m not talking about a machine whose value crashes as soon as it’s purchased,” he said. “I’m talking about the
undiminished value of intellectual property, my intellectual property!”

Ah, dear Nephew, as the great Edmund Burke once said: To read without reflecting is like eating without digesting…

He came up with the idea that reading a book should be like fine dining “ceno litterae,” he called it, that words should be savored, each bite a delicacy to be experienced once and then held only in memory. He imagined words on the page vanishing as the pages were turned. No
going back. No rereading. As with all fine meals, the reader would be left with only the experience. A very expensive experience. At Café Libro his imagined establishment of elegant book dining a good title would end with “Bonae litterae!” The final words at the final chapter. The end would be literal. After finishing your crème brulee you don’t return to the filet mignon.

I thought it was brilliant. That it could revolutionize the publishing industry, and I began thinking about a way it could work. I figured with the prevalence of ebooks and e-readers like Kindle Fire (what a prophetic name that turned out to be!), Café Libro just needed a good push. I recalled
the public flurry over the “discovery” of Harper Lee’s manuscript, a sequel to Mockingbird. This is exactly what we needed. A famous author–think John Grisham or Stephen King, or one of the greats like Suzanne Collins–willing to sell all rights for a next novel for, say, a ninety percent royalty against sales. A book that could be read only once unless repurchased. What would be the risk?

I began working out the details. Sony already had a smart app called “Confide” that would erase email messages once they were read. I developed a similar algorithm that permanently removed words from an ereader in the same way. At first, a digital decay time signature made the words disappear as the pages were turned. This was fine dining, after all. But then we found a way the program could detect eye movement (oh the convenience of built-in cameras), and the words just tumbled from the page line by line as the reader scanned them.

It worked but the program was imperfect. Despite Digital Rights Management (DRM) and Persistent Online Authentication (POA), hackers were able to download our authors’ books for peer-to-peer sharing. We’d been Napstered.

Then we hit on it: Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser!

Remember Schrodinger’s cat? All possibilities are real. Photons exist as
particles and waves until observed! Then reality collapses into one possibility or another. Once observed, it’s as if the original reality never existed.

Essentially, the quantum eraser–a program downloaded onto every e-reader with a book purchase–allowed seeing words in the present to alter them in the past. Masterpieces, once viewed, were erased before they were created. Like a time traveler killing his own father before he is born. We called it Quantum Flux, the Observer Effect. Unfortunately, you know the rest. The program took on a life of its own. To see was to annihilate. First ebooks, then entire digital libraries. Then the digital universe. All gone.

Attempts to restart the digital age have all failed, as you know. Light travels
across time. What we see is always past. Because it was quantum technology, anyone who tried to fix the program had to live outside of time–haven’t figured out that one yet. The Quantum Eraser Virus remains
as persistent as the common cold. Clever little beastie, that QEV program. At first we thought it was hiding in human implants–pacemakers, cochlear and ocular enhancement devices–because these were unaffected in the beginning. Maybe it was. Then we discovered its ability to mimic viral RNA by replicating its “genome” and packaging copies of itself like actual viruses. Living viruses! What are cells but living computers? And DNA a programming language? Some are calling the synthetic organism a
new life form! Imagine! (It’s more cyborg, in my mind.) The Mars rovers were never so lucky (before they too became infected– someone at JPL must have sneezed!). QEV’s mutation rate keeps it one step ahead of the
immunologists. Clever!

All is well, I guess, in this age without silicon technology. Some say the
Lambert-Fisher in Antarctica has reversed itself and parts of Florida are re-emerging from the ocean….

One last thing: I’m in possession of a spare Underwood if you should tire of
putting pen to paper. All you have to do is come see me. Visitation hours start early on weekends. Don’t wear orange.


Your Uncle Maurice (Theodore Drew)

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