TO FAN THE FLAME



First appeared in Analog, November 1988, pp. 106-116.

Thomas A. Easton



"It never happened," Janine Hilbert said, shaking her dark head. Once she meant the Nazi extermination of the Untermenschen. Another time, she denied that men had ever set foot on the moon. "Special effects," she said. "Studio shots, and animation, and actors."

Her father was flabbergasted. "Where did you get that idea?"

"That's what the veedo said." Or the bookdisk. Or, God help us all, her teacher.

Her understanding of science was no better: She thought, because someone or something had told her so, that living within a hundred kilometers of a nuclear power plant would sterilize her and make her hair fall out and her bones glow. She thought the universe was only six thousand years old, and that evolution was a prank played by a deceiving god.

"How can you possibly...?" Ben Hilbert threw his hands into the air as if he too thought that he could appeal to some deity. "You're bright. You can read. Can't you think? The next thing I know you'll be saying Nixon was a saint!"

"Oh?" Her jaw moved around a wad of gum. Ben tried not to react to that as well. She was, in many ways, too typical a teenager. "What bookdisk is that on?"

He threw his hands into the air again. "I would not tell you if I knew!"

Ben Hilbert was not sure that Janine remembered her mother. Elly had died in a plane crash when the girl was only two, and he still missed her, for herself, for himself, for what he knew was missing in his single parenting of their daughter. Perhaps, he thought from time to time, if she had lived, Janine would not now be so empty a receptacle for every delusion floating in the air. Elly had been sharp, as sharp as only an international economist had any right to be, and she could not have helped but set a good example.

What was wrong with his own example? He was a marketing vice-president for Officom, a company that made and sold office communications equipment. He was home most weekends and evenings, and when he was not, he had always had good babysitters. Perhaps, he told himself, his image was just too prosaic to impress his daughter.

On the other hand, he had spent time in his company's purchasing and hiring departments. And he knew that Janine, however much she aggravated him, was not unusual. Most of the parts and machinery--and even people--that Officom needed had to be imported. Domestic goods grew shoddier and more expensive every year. As for the people--they were as filled with nonsense as Janine. Most were useless.

Except in the muggy summers, Ben was happy that Officom had set its headquarters in the District of Columbia. Much of the company's business was with the government, and Ben spent many hours in the vast stonepiles that yearly sank a little deeper into the swamp that underlay the nation's capital.

Those hours, he told himself, would have been many fewer if the Civil Service only had the sense to hire abroad too, like most major corporations. He had hoped to get the go-ahead today on the GSA modem contract, but.... "Mr. Hilbert," said the slender man before him. He was young, despite the evidence of the bald spot over which he ran a nervous hand. "You do realize that we specify domestic sourcing, except in cases where there is no domestic source?"

He nodded. He had dealt with Robert Dorking before. He was a GSA purchasing agent who had never given Ben the least hint that he was not content with the thick book of regulations the bureaucracy provided for him.

"You do realize that there are dozens of domestic modem sources? And that we have bids from those sources?" He paused to let this ominous news sink in. "Perhaps you can tell me why we should take your bid seriously? When even the paint on your product is imported?"

Ben Hilbert nodded again. "You know," he said. "And I know, that most of those 'domestic' modems are frauds. They may have domestic paint and domestic labels. They may even have domestic cases. But their chips and circuit boards are just as foreign as mine. The two brands that are made here do not work."

Dorking leaned back in his padded chair. "But the labels...."

And you believe what you are told, Ben thought. Aloud, he said, "We've gone round on this before, but I'll say it again." Briefly, he stroked the air as if he were soothing a nervous animal. "There is no truly domestic source for the price and quality we are offering."

Dorking shook his head. "Price is not the object. We should support...."

"It should be," Ben interrupted. "So should quality, if you really want the IRS to get its money and the DOD and CIA to know what is going on in distant places." He did not add that if Dorking went with another bidder, Officom would appeal. The company had done it before, and won. Appeals officers seemed more flexible and realistic. Perhaps they understood what might happen if the government really had to rely on American goods. Or, worse, what would happen if Officom went to the papers.

As he had in the past, Dorking nodded grudgingly. "We've got to give you credit for honesty," he said. He sighed, hinting that perhaps, after all, he did feel some frustration when regulations and reality conflicted. "And you are the low bidder. You'll get the contract."

"C'mon Janine! They're waiting for us!"

"We're going to the track, Daddy!"

Ben Hilbert lived in a Virginia suburb, where the streets were lined with shade trees, sprinklers kept wide lawns green in summer, and every back yard had its pool. Now the leaves--oak, hickory, chestnut, tulip poplar--were turning, and the red brick of his house sat warm amidst a sea of color. The roses that climbed the trellis beside the front stoop were white, as was the woodwork that edged the roof and windows. The shrubbery was yew and laurel and lignum vitae.

The nearby houses differed only in the colors of their trim and the placement of their shrubs, but Ben never noticed. More to the point was the houses' contents: On the right, three houses down, lived the two teenagers who had screamed for Janine. He presumed that there were parents too, but he had never met them. The children dominated that household, as Janine did his, and when they all left together, roaring in an antique Corvette down the leafy streets to lay their money on the horses, the quiet was, for a time, hard to accept as real.

"Hallo, Ben." A tall man in a worn brown cardigan stepped carefully through the bushes that separated Ben's yard from that on the left. He had a beer in each hand. "Sometimes I think the whole city must be quieter than a single adolescent."

"You've never had one, Walter. But I am glad I'm not at the track." Ben slipped the pruning shears he had been using on the roses into a hip pocket. He accepted the bottle the other offered, raising it in a silent toast. Walter Meader had been in his house when the Hilberts had moved into the neighborhood, and he had been a friend ever since. An artist who ran a gallery in Washington, he had no technical mind, but Ben sometimes thought that only improved the quality of their friendship. They couldn't talk shop with each other and were thereby forced to diversify their interests.

"This year's fad sport. You look annoyed."

Ben snorted. "People believe what they are told too damned easily." He told Walter about his daughter's gullibility, and then about bureaucrats who wanted bidders to lie about their sourcing. "I wish I knew why." He shook his head like an old bull bedeviled by a horde of flies, or of wolves.

"We used to be hot."

"I know."

"So did the Japanese. And now look at them. They're being shoved aside by hungry up-and-comers. Korea's on top now. But China's coming, and Manchuria, and Vietnam."

Ben nodded and tipped the beer back. "I have some more inside."

Walter followed him in the side door to the kitchen. "We were hungry too, right after the Second World War." Ben thought of the history he had studied, of the deprivations of the Depression years and of wartime shortages, and nodded again as he passed his friend a beer. "When peace came, there was a lot of pent-up demand, and the energy, the sheer optimism, the saved-up war pay, to go for it. There was plenty of motivation, and it showed. We got everything we could ever dream of wanting. Even the moon."

"Maybe that was the problem." Ben paused. "We relaxed, and we taught our kids to relax. So they never had to push. They never learned to study, or to work. And test scores fell, of course. Why did we fail to see it happening?

Walter shrugged. "We did. But we blamed everything else. It was not fashionable to blame the kids, or their parents. The experts preferred to point their fingers at crime rates, TV, drugs, welfare statistics, the divorce rate. The educators decided we were asking kids to do things that were too hard and started dumbing down the readings, simplifying the math and history, dropping languages, editing out sexism and racism and...."

Ben snorted. "They should have been looking for ways to get folks hungry again."

"Take away the veedos. Tax us into the poorhouse. Make us hump for our goodies. Or hand us another depression."

"That wouldn't have made them very popular."

"They would have lost their pulpits."

Ben reached into the fridge for the other pair of beers he had promised. Then he led the way outside again. "Be nice if there was another way."

"Time will do it. First us, then Japan, now Korea, next Manchuria. Eventually we'll see the rest of the world rolling in goodies and feel deprived once more. Then we'll get our asses in gear again."

Ben shook his head. He did not think that any nation's prosperity should be built on some driving sense of inferiority. Granted, such a sense could make a very effective motivator. It had, in fact, been responsible for much of history's upward spiral of progress. But was endless progress really the point? Could it not be possible to reach some level of technology or wealth that let people say, "Enough"?

He said as much to his friend, who paused to sip his beer before adding in a quiet voice, "You'd still have to have that hunger for learning. Without it, you lose the skilled technicians you need to maintain your 'enough,' and then, Poof! Decline."

"And government can't do much, can it? It can't make people hungry for learning when they think school should be made as easy as possible."

"The real problem," said Walter, "may be that people have abdicated the responsibility to think for themselves, to understand whatever lands in front of them, to take charge of their own learning. I see it every day at the gallery. People come in and look at a painting. Then they shake their heads and say, 'I don't get it. The artist must be a genius. At least, he's a lot smarter than I am.'"

"The artists love it, don't they? And poets, songwriters...."

Walter, nodding, stopped the motion abruptly. "Yeah,.... But, y'know, that's partly because there is someone there. An artist or poet, someone whose perceptiveness and sensitivity are proven just by being in the gallery or magazine." He laughed. "But what if you took the artist out of the picture? Hang a veedo screen on the wall, with a graphics computer generating random images, like flames in a fireplace. Let people see whatever they can, without being told what to think, and maybe they could start thinking for themselves."

"In a small way, anyway." Ben sounded skeptical.

Walter shrugged as if to say that his idea was small indeed. "From little acorns,...."

Usually, Ben put his conversations with Walter promptly out of mind. They had nothing to do with his life, except for that valued niche his friend happened to occupy. But this time, he could not forget. The automated veedo came back on the way to the office the next morning, and then again when he was supposed to be working on a proposal. Finally, he gave up trying to block the idea out of his consciousness. He got a styrofoam cup of coffee from the coffee-maker in the corner and let his mind go where it wished.

That veedo, he thought, would be a far cry from actually creating art. But if it really helped enough people learn to take responsibility for their own thinking and perception, even in such a small way, it might indeed help the nation. It probably would not make anyone hungry for learning. It might make them itch to do something on their own.

Perhaps more to the point, it might help combat the helpless attitude of many to technology. Someone had once said that high enough technology is indistinguishable from magic. But that, he thought, was true only if you did not believe you had the ability--and perhaps, he wondered, the responsibility?--to understand it. More people might believe in their own ability if they grew used to seeing things, even small things, on their own. And that, in turn, might make them more receptive to education. The responsibility to understand, he supposed, was another matter, and a harder one. Even people who had the ability, and knew it, often seemed reluctant actually to use that ability. It was hard work, after all, and if you really understood what was going on, you were at constant loggerheads with those who did not. So the hell with it.

Yes, the hell with it, he told himself. But Officom makes and sells electronic equipment, and we have a helluva designer down the hall. He sighed as he crumpled the empty plastic cup. He was, after all, a marketer. And Sam Gaul's office was just down the hall.

A workbench stood where any other office had a desk. The wall above it was occupied by a pegboard. The tools and blister-packs of small parts that should have hung from the pegboard's pegs were strewn across the bench, as were disassembled phones, modems, and fax machines, spare circuit boards and chips, and scraps of wire. Sam Gaul sat at a smaller table from which the kipple had been banned. It held a computer workstation and nothing else.

Sam's round face, fringed by a reddish beard touched by grey, turned up as Ben leaned in the doorway. "Hey," he said. His voice bore more than a touch of the Scotland that had borne him. "Tell me that some customer hasn't changed his mind."

Ben shook his head. "Don't tell me you're overworked." He gestured at what Sam had been sketching on the computer screen; it seemed to be a hot-air balloon the size of a small city. He could just make out a helicopter sitting on a broad flange around its base.

"Ah, hobbies. It's an aerostat." He saved the image and blanked the screen. "But what have you got for me today?"

"Maybe nothing." Ben described the automated veedo his friend had suggested and was delighted when Sam keyed his computer for a fresh design file. "A flat screen," he said as he typed. "A hardwired program built into the frame. A loop on the back so you can hang it on the wall. It's easy!" His thick fingers banged the keyboard while Ben watched. A name for the device--AUTOVEEDO--appeared on the screen, a description, a sketch, and the command that sent a copy of the file to the office of the company's lawyers. "I will build it," he said. "They will patent it. You will sell the thing. The conjugation of invention."

"And now you can tell me," he added, "where the hell you got the idea." When Ben explained, he said, "It might even work. We'll have to see about feedback."

Bleary faces were turned all in the same direction. Beery voices rattled down the length of the polished bar:

"Look't them tits!"

"The hell you say! That's an elephant's ass."

"Not any more. That bit's turning into a mushroom cloud."

"I wanta see the game."

"Shaddap and lookit that."

"Helluva fart!"

"I wanta see the game!"

A name, "Bonnie Dilton," was readable on an envelope on a flat surface in the foreground. The young woman to whom the name seemed to belong sat in a straight-backed chair, staring alternately at the bookdisk in her hand and at her unseen watcher. The room behind her bore all the earmarks of a college dormitory cell.

She sighed, clearly bored by whatever textbook she was studying. But then her eyes opened wide and her posture stiffened. She read aloud: "'In the middle of the last century, America was renowned for the intensity of its creative energy in business, science, and art.'"

She looked up, her forehead wrinkling, her eyes narrowing. Then she murmured, "So what happened? So...."

A man, considerably older than Bonnie Dilton, muttered at the can-opener in his hand. "Goddam, cheapjack, shoddy, busted shit!" He shook it. It rattled. "Didn't last a month! Buy American, like hell!"

He looked up, staring directly at his invisible observer for a moment. He turned and left the room. When he returned, he had a screwdriver in his hand.

A voice came from another room: "What are you doing, Jack?"

"I am going to take this sucker apart." Even as he answered, he knelt on the floor. He found the screws that held the device's case together and began to turn them.

"You've never done that before."

"Then it's about time, isn't it?" As he lifted the case off the can-opener, a small screw rolled onto the floor before him. He picked it up, shook the broken appliance again, and was rewarded when a small, flat piece of metal with a hole in one end fell out as well. "Aahh," he said. Within moments he had found where the loose parts belonged and reassembled the can-opener. "That wasn't even hard."

Ben Hilbert watched as Sam Gaul punched for replay after replay. "They love it in the bars. The Dilton kid has just had the first real insight in her life, and God knows where it'll take her. That fellow just discovered he can think. In just a small way, maybe, but that's all we hoped for, and it's a start."

"How did...?"

The red-grey fringe around Sam's face quivered as he laughed. "We put in a minicam, a mike, and a transponder-recorder. When we query it, it bleeps back whatever it's recorded."

"What did the lawyers say?" Ben had an uncomfortable feeling that the "feedback" Sam had provided could mean trouble.

"Didn't ask them. I figured the production models won't be bugged, and we could get away with murder on these freebies we're giving away." He punched one more retrieval code. "Mostly it's empty rooms and vacant minds. But look at this one."

A teenager stared back at them. He was watching an Autoveedo, not Ben, but the illusion was perfect. To one side, an arm faded into unfocused fuzz. The picture jiggled as if the boy were trying to adjust the picture he saw. He muttered, "Goddam. Why didn't they give it a freeze button? I wanta keep some of this stuff."

"That's Peter McLeod," said Ben. "His family lives not far from me, and I gave one to his father just yesterday. Do you think we should add a way to stop the picture?"

"It's doing just what you wanted as it is." Sam shook his head. "Watch...."

The boy turned his back and walked away from the camera. The watchers could see a desk across the room. A personal computer waited atop it. Peter McLeod sat down, turned the machine on, and began to type. "A graphics program," said Sam.

Images began to form on the screen, but without the random dance of the Officom product. The boy swore again, slammed the heel of a hand on the corner of his desk, and tried again. Sam chuckled. "He will get the idea eventually. As long as he keeps trying."

"It's a hit. They gave Sam and me raises. But it was really your idea, and...." Ben shrugged. He hefted the cardboard box in his arms. "I have a dozen of them here. It's all I could do. Sell them, or give them away."

Walter Meader laughed. "I'll hang them on the walls," he said. "Maybe they'll work here as well as in a bar. Certainly, they should impress the ignorant at least as well as those." He gestured at the prints and watercolors that covered the walls of his gallery.

When Walter took the box, Ben stepped closer to what seemed to be a landscape, although the hills bore a distinct resemblance to mounds of raw hamburger. "I see what you mean.... But, it's being carried by the chain department stores, and selling steadily. It might not...."

"It might not fit the image?" Walter set the box on a glass-topped display stand containing several abstract plaques. "If anyone sneers, I will simply look superior and let them think that I too am a genius."

When Ben left the gallery, he did not return to the office. It was not yet quitting time, but if he left the city now, he could get home not long after his daughter. And there were two more Autoveedos in their cartons on the seat beside him. One he planned for the wall of his living room. The other he wanted to give to Janine. Perhaps, he thought--he hoped--it would work on her as it had on Bonnie Dilton and Jack and Peter McLeod. If it did not.... At least, it was attractive. He was sure she would give it wall-space. And then--it was a piece of his work, and through it she might gain a hint of the example he craved to set.

Traffic was light, and he actually made it home before his daughter. He had removed the Cezanne print from the wall over the diskrack in the living room and was hanging an Autoveedo from the hook when she came in.

Her initial reaction was everything he had wished: "Oh, Daddy! It's just what we needed. Everybody has one! Turn it on!"

He obeyed, but even as the screen glowed to life, Janine spotted the second carton on the coffee table. "Another one?"

"I brought it just for you."

"Thank you!" Her arms went around his neck, and her lips were warm on his cheek. His hopes rose, and he asked himself if she had already seen one, and found it stimulating.

Unfortunately, Janine showed little tendency over the next few days to spend less time before the veedo set or cavorting with her friends. Certainly, she showed no tendency at all to spend more time with books, either from school or from her father's library.

Yet she was watching the Autoveedo. It glimmered on the wall of her room when Ben walked by the half-open door, and he had seen it jutting from her purse on the way to school and play.

He did not understand until weeks later, when he saw Janine and three friends sitting in a circle on the lawn. He had met the friends before; he knew them as Tony, Mikal, and Mair. Tony was the blonde, his thin face spattered with freckles. Mikal was short and stocky. Mair was as dark as Janine, though taller and thinner. All four now sat with their legs crossed, in the style of tailors or Hindu mystics, and their heads bowed. In the center of their circle lay the Autoveedo.

He was going to speak to them, to ask them what was going on, when Walter Meader laid a hand upon his arm from behind. Ben jumped. "I didn't know you were there," he said.

Walter smiled sadly and gestured toward the circle. "I've seen this in the gallery too. Our gadget does indeed stimulate some people. But others it bemuses. They say it helps them meditate."

"Have you taken them down?"

Walter shook his head. "Why? They do what we wanted, with some people. As for the rest? Maybe some just are not born to think."

"But...." Ben's mouth hung open. What about his daughter? Would even Elly have been helpless? Or was there some other way to reach her? "The principle is sound, isn't it? It's just this gadget. It distracts them. We need another...." His voice trailed off.

Walter touched him again. He shrugged. "We might publish bookdisks sprinkled with illegible words to encourage interpolation, but they do not read. Your company might make keyboards and number pads whose letters and numbers easily wear off, to encourage memory. But someone would market stickers."

Ben thought of Jack, whom the Autoveedo had stimulated to repair a can-opener. "What about appliances and tools with repair kits? With instructions? Or no instructions, but drawings of the insides?"

Walter nodded. "That might help. It would urge people just a bit at a time toward thinking for themselves. The effect would be subliminal and incremental. It would work like the Autoveedo, by making people itch in such a way that they must do their own scratching. But what do they do now, when something breaks?"

"They throw it out."

"And some of them--heck, most of them--always will. They'd rather have someone else do their thinking for them."

Ben Hilbert slumped, and he turned away from the circle on the ground. "Which is how we got into the problem in the first place."

Walter squeezed his shoulder. "Come on over to the house. I have some beer, and remember, the thing does work on some people. Give it time."

Janine and her friends had fallen silent when they heard her father approaching. Now, as the two men left the yard, Janine murmured, "Blue in quadrant three."

Tony added, "Pink in two."

"Intruding black."

"Yellow bar."

As they spoke, a few of the figures they mentioned passed across the Autoveedo screen. "What are you and Tony trying to do?" asked Mair.

Janine shrugged. She wasn't sure. "Prediction?"

"Practice helps," added Tony. "It comes slow, you know? But I know we can do it." He paused, holding one index finger over the Autoveedo screen, and said, "A green spot, right there!" He pointed, and in a second, indeed, a green spot appeared an inch away.

Mikal wondered aloud, "Can you call the shots with anything else?"

"I've been thinking of the track," admitted Tony.

"But not yet," said Mair. "You need more hits. And closer ones." Her expression was skeptical, as if she thought that the Autoveedo might be stimulating their thought processes in an entirely useless fashion. At the same time, she seemed to be wondering at her own skepticism. If Ben and Walter had been watching, they might have suggested that the Autoveedo was stimulating her thoughts as well, if less directly.

"We'll get them," said Tony.

"We'll be good enough soon," said Janine.

"And then!"

"Give it time," said Mair. She sighed.