The Long Road to the Deep North
By Lavie Tidhar
11 February 2013
Arriving in Krung Thep, Bashō wrote:
Oli stap singaot
City of angels, city of lights. . . Like Bashō himself, the city has had many names over its lifetime. Its full name was The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma. Foreigners just called it Bangkok.
Like the first Bashō, this one, too, had worn and discarded names with each stage of his journey through life, at last taking on the name of a living tree and a dead poet. In that record he left us, archaic in its use of text, its shunning of a memcordist's all-encompassing feed, Bashō nevertheless left us a gift, an elevation of the style he himself had brought into life, the form of poetry in that near-universal contact language, the asteroid pidgin that had come, in its turn, from the beach languages of Melanesia as its island-speakers were brought as workers into space. Bashō had taken the vocabulary and structure of old Bislama and Tok Pisin and Solomon Pijin, applying it to what he saw on his journey, working in haibun to combine poetry and prose into a narrative of human space.
His poetry was neither waka nor haiku. Asteroid pidgin demanded a looser sense of rhythm, a playfulness that underlay a deep struggle to reconcile the future with the past. Bashō wrote:
I came to Krung Thep in order to leave the Earth, but the city pulled me in, its lights dancing seductively [Note the poem quoted above, which translates as: The lights, they call (sing) out, everywhere]. In a roadside beer place I drank a cold Chang and ate steamed fish in lime and chili sauce and sticky rice in the Lao manner, watching the space port and the lights of the planes heading to and from orbit. Earth was suffused with indelible smells, rice vinegar and incense, beer and perfume, brine and rain and sex, of tuk-tuks and plastics, of fire and smoke and human and fish. I was afraid, I had not gone off-world before, I did not know what it would smell like.
From Bangkok he travelled into orbit, staying as a pilgrim in a Church of Robot mission, where facilities were basic but accommodation cheap. There he stayed for several days, in the orbital they call Gateway, the commercial hub of the system, observing traders and tourists, the meeting of Martian Chinese and Lunar kibbutznkis, of Orang Ulu and Man Tanna miners from the Belt, of tentacle junkies and flesh-surfing Others, of Louis Wu addicts and Guilds of Ashkelon games-world mercenaries. Always Earth dominated the view. In one of the observation decks he wrote:
Mi lukluk wol
From orbit, Earth is the centre of the universe, it is Aristotelian. Yet that is a mirage which the Others do not share. In orbit, I saw the world, turning and turning. I sat in a bar with a view of the planet rotating below, listening to conversations while drinking Lao-Lao, the smooth rice whiskey which tastes different here, distilled from hydroponics rice terraces deep in the bowels of Gateway. Conversations all around me, in Martian Chinese and Hebrew, in Thai and in French and Malay, and whenever strangers met who did not share a language they reverted to the old contact toktok, the beche-le-mar of Old Melanesia and the Belt. They said:
'The price of the Lunar Black Rose is going up again.'
'They say there's a strigoi loose in Tong Yun, a shambleau.'
'We were drunk for a week going through Old Europe.'
'The conflict in the Galilean Republics is a concern for us, of course, but one may sometimes profit from war.'
'Jettisoned. It's a one-way trip, that place.'
'Good price for Vietnamese battle dolls off-world.'
'I asked her to marry me. She said she'd think about it.'
'God is a robot.'
'I need another drink.'
Later, I returned to the mission, where the robots waited, patiently. The smell of Gateway is of recycled air, subtly perfumed, of metal and plastic and rust, of concentrated food and Lunar roses and the fresh green shoots of rice. It is an old place, worn down and patched. Brother R. Yu-No-Save-Bagaremap welcomed me. His name, as of most of those in the order, is a function of 'fix,' in this particular case translated back into the old English that lent itself to our pidgin, meaning 'Try not to break it,' or, 'Don't bugger it up.' Like most robots he is old, rusting in places. Like most robots, those half-way missing links between humans and Others, he is searching for him—it—self.
'What do you think of our little world?' he said to me, it seemed with some pride. 'I myself am of the first generation to work on Gateway. With my own hands I helped build it.'
I had heard rumours, that some robots are building their own progeny. R. Yu-No-Save-Bagaremap spread his hands before me. He wanted to talk.
We spoke long into the night. Later, the next Gateway day, I went to the embarkation point and chose a ship at random.
Bashō had taken passage on board the Gel Blong Mota, a vessel centuries old, the family operating it—the Tarilakas—once coming from the island of Mota Lava, in the South Pacific—Man Mota becoming Man Spes.
Bashō stayed in the passengers' dormitories. The ship was almost a mile long. It had been built in Mars orbit, lifetimes ago. The ship smelled of waste-disposal units that never quite caught up. It had a whiff of refuse about it. It smelled of brine from the salt-water tanks, of coconut oil and machine oil and rust. Its air was filled with human pheromones and the smell of mushrooms and burnt plastic. For dinner that first night he had naura, ship-grown prawns. Looking at space from inside, the slowly moving stars, Bashō saw Earth shrink behind, from dominating the universe it became a small blue-white marble and then just a pinprick of light. He had experienced the vertigo that comes with such an experience, the disassociation that can cause both eksuberans and melancholy. He watched space endlessly, meditating. He wrote:
Koko koko -
A realisation of the immensity of space, how humanity's journey across it could never be completed. [Space—go go, go go—you can't reach [catch] [it; its end]].
Asteroid pidgin packing multiple meanings into this modified poetic form, like nestled binary propositions, like the vast inhuman binary trees that were the digital intelligences called Others.
Played seven-handed poker at Nambatri Ples blong Kakai [third dining room]. We are journeying to Tong Yun City, the first and most notable city on Mars, and my fellow travelers are a mixed crowd. For the first time I met a Martian Reborn, a pleasant lady with four arms and red-tinted skin. The Reborn believe they are the reincarnated children of an ancient Martian civilization, whose ruler is known as the Emperor of Time. They spend much of their time in a virtuality (which they claim to be an actual quantum-entangled past) and modify their bodies to better resemble the ancient warriors they once were. The lady's name was Shik'rrrit, and after she had won my chips off me quite easily we spent the next several nights together in pleasurable companionship.
Also in the game was an avatar-wearing Other. The body it wore was a golden, sexless mechanoid, and it assured us it was playing merely for the company, and would keep its playing strictly on our level. 'Mi no save giaman yu,' it told us, I will not cheat / lie to you.
One does not encounter many Others, and communication between digital entities and humans can be difficult at the best of times. However this Other, calling itself Darwin's Choice and telling us it was a devotee of body-surfing (and had in fact been residing for some decades in Bangkok), seemed quite used to humans, spoke easily, and when it lost a hand it did so with good grace.
Solwota blong spes
I fulap wetem
The game became one fixture of his journey. As Ogko is rumoured to have written, life, like poker, is a game of chance and skill and, like poker, has its bad beats. It was a thing for Bashō to contemplate, the long days and the crowded dormitories, watching the stars move, so slowly, beyond the ship. Solwota blong spes: the ocean of space. [The sea of space—is full—with stars, he had written].
It was during that time that he wrote one of his more light-hearted, yet famous, verses. Using the bathroom [smolhaos, in the pidgin of the asteroids] Bashō discovered that this particular cubicle's personality had somewhat abrasive qualities. The mind inhabiting that receptacle of human waste had itself striven to escape the bonds of physicality, becoming peeved with the humans who used it. After one particular exchange during Bashō's morning ablutions, he had written, on the spur of the moment:
I kranke tedei
Mi sori tumas
The toilet—is grumpy today—oh!—I am very sorry.
He had scribbled the poem, in the manner of the ancient poets of Earth, on the walls of the cubicle, where it is said one can, to this day, observe it. As for the smolhaos itself, it was said that he had at last achieved enlightenment, and had been Translated into the toktok blong narawan, the higher-bandwidth quantum protocols of the digital entities called narawan, or Others.
As for the Other Bashō had met, the one calling itself Darwin's Choice, they spent long evenings together, in one of the many of the ship's nakamals, or kava-bars, where that plant, native to the Vanuatu islands of Earth, yet ship-grown here, was processed into the dark dank liquid that makes the body loose and the mind sharp, enhancing the sensitivity of eye and ear. Bashō wrote:
The nakamals are dark and only a solitary candle burns inside the adaptoplant bamboo shack. Long benches run along the walls. We sat in companionable silence—Earth young on their first voyage, rough miners from the belt, wary traders from Lunar Port and those returning to Mars, their home—kibbutzniks from New Israel, engineers and ideologues from the Red Soviet, and Tong Yun natives returning from extended family visits in Lunar space or Earth itself. Passengers on board the Gel Blong Mota heading further out, to the Outer System, to Polpyphemus Port on Titan and the Baha'i habitats and the Galilean Republics, some mostly human, some modified -
A tentacle fetishist in one corner sits in a tub of salt water, drinking kava with us, talking of a night-time ride in Vientiane. A Red Chinese farmer beside him is mostly mech. My Martian Reborn companion, Shik'rrrit, sits beside him, lost in a vision of her bygone empire, her four arms crossed demurely on her chest. I spoke for long with Darwin's Choice; it had taken an interest in my poetry and had, in fact, confessed itself familiar with my previous humble efforts.
'We are not unlike,' it told me, its golden avatar gleaming faintly in the light of the one candle. We spoke in hushed voices, the only other sound that of the hawking of spit that came periodically, like the calling of frogs, as our companions drank from the kava, which has this effect on one's physique. 'We are born in the Breeding Grounds, where evolution merges and splits and mutates billions of lines of code, where each branching is a haiku poem, or statement of beauty and multiple interpretations, together making a quantum renga [chain of linked verses]. We are poetry, in a very real sense. An endlessly-evolving poem, we are beings of pure text.'
'Yet you, yourself, choose to inhabit the physical world,' I said, and it laughed. I learned of DC's habit of inhabiting only non-op kathoey bodies, the transgendered male-female human duality appealing to it in some Other way. 'Few of us do,' it told me. 'We shun the physicality for the purity of the digital world, but for those of us who must maintain our physical existence, the Cores, the platforms on which we run. We must, by dint of being, interact with the physical. But some of us. . .' it hesitated. 'As mathematical beings,' it said, 'we can exist in all worlds, the real and the ur-real. Yet the real is a puzzle in and of itself. To learn the real is perhaps a way of finding God.'
Oli ded, oli bon
I was taken aback by the Other's talk of God. Seeking distraction, I ventured into the farms level of the ship. Vegetation grew everywhere, and the climate was hot and humid. It rained endlessly. Under a sacred banyan tree I meditated and wrote the poem above. The Others—die—are born—back again.
We were approaching Mars, soon to dock in orbit. While in the farms I encountered Chastity, a young member of the ruling family of the ship. 'I am third in line for Captain,' she told me cheerfully, plucking the flowers of the burau tree as we walked through a banana plantation. Yellows and greens, and the smell of rain. . . sunlight danced in a stream. Could we somehow take a seed of Earth with us, and plant it in space, and watch it grow?
With my young companion I went to visit the shrine of her family's ancestors. We found it by a lake on the shore of which a giant banyan tree grew—'The first tree to be planted on the Gel blong Mota,' my friend told me. The banyan of all trees is sacred to the Ni-Vanuatu, it is a place of congress and the sacred drinking of kava.
We walked through the cemetery in that quiet, peaceful place. The graves were simple, unadorned. Each headstone carried only a name and a title. I saw the captains, lying there side by side. Melkior Nambawan, the legendary first captain. . . Melkior Tri, who dealt with the Dragon. . . Joy Tarilaka, who had met Pym the Memcordist, and who traded with Jettisoned, and was changed by their wildtech. . .
On finding a wild mango tree we picked its fruit, and sat by the lake, and watched the water.
At last the ship arrived in Mars orbit. Bashō bade farewell to his companions and descended to the surface of the planet, taking the old space elevator that linked First Station with Tong Yun City.
Tong Yun—immigrant city. It sat under a great dome, a great noisy dusty city, built in the manner of Lunar Port, the surface only the first layer of the city, which spread underground in multiple levels. For a time Bashō stayed at a co-op building, the Martian Sands, where rent was relatively cheap. It was not a wealthy part of town. Robotniks begged outside for spare parts and distilled alcohol, the remnants of some long-gone wars, human casualties cyborged into machine bodies, speaking their own strange lingo, the Battle Yiddish that served the warriors in the way Navajo had the Code Talkers of Earth's second great war.
The place suited Bashō. He wrote:
Tong Yun's smell is of metal baked by the sun, of fresh nambaeit gato deep-fried [Melanesian plain donuts in the shape of the figure eight], of late-blooming jasmine, which is planted everywhere, of dirt (which collects by the side of the road), of fungus and soy and the strange off-road cars that enter and depart the dome of the city and traverse the sands of Mars.
Along Jiang Zemin Road, where it turns onto Arafat Avenue, I found a smokes-bar and there sat for some time, smoking Zion Special Strength, from that strange asteroid of which there are many stories. They were showing Elvis Mandela's classic Night of the Tokoloshe, the Phobos Studios production. I engaged a robotnik in conversation, and it told me of the Israeli-Chinese War, and of life as an itinerant worker after the war, for a time finding employment in the great fish tanks of the Red Chinese then, later, begging in Tong Yun -
'We are obsolete machines,' he told me, drawing on his sheesha pipe. 'Like the robots, in some ways. The parts are hard to come by and fossil fuels do not exist. We synthesize distilled alcohol to power ourselves. It is a hard life, yet there is a harsh beauty in it, too.'
He was, it transpired, a follower of Ogko, and told me of a shrine I had not heard of, a strange and beguiling place in the FDR mountains of Mars, which are known to the Reborn as the Mountains of Time.
Later I walked the streets, cool and calm from the smoke. I saw many more Joined here than before. There are many Others on Mars, and many of the people wore golden thumbs, a melding of Other and human in which two I-loops co-existed. Tuning in and out of the great Conversation I could hear, faintly, the high-level toktok blong narawan overlaying the human chatter. Here, too, I could listen to or watch broadcasts from further out, from the spiders on the edge of the solar system as they converted rocks into more of their get, expanding the Conversation, this network of networks, farther and farther out. On Level Three I saw ancient droids battle each other in the arena, humans placing bets wildly on who would win, who would lose. I traversed Tong Yun's renowned Faith Bazaar and saw slave-girls outside a Gorean temple, robots deep in Zen meditation, a shrine to St. Cohen and a Buddhist temple whose nagas [snake spirits] were alien in shape.
Back on the surface the sun had set and the stars came out beyond the dome. A night on Mars. . . I wrote:
Mi lukluk skae
I no semak skae
Ol star oli difren.
I felt a great joy and a great sadness then, intermingled in me.
Bashō remained on Tong Yun for the Doll Festival, but already his desire seemed to coalesce, to go farther still. He had written I see the sky, it is not the same sky, the stars are different. He departed Tong Yun one early morning, not sure whether he was going to the Red Soviet, or the kibbutzim, or elsewhere. Mars is a lonely planet, its settlements few and far apart. How he travelled is not known. He spent nights out in the desert, in an inflatable dome, or burrowing underground. He visited the lonely farms, where he was welcomed, but more and more, it seemed, he wished to be alone, seeking something he could not put into words. He wrote:
Waking up in the dark of a Martian night, I stare. I am alone, there are no trees, no cherry blossom, no sound of a river rushing by. The moons above, the lights of orbitals, the stars. Now and then the distant explosion of an ice-comet as it comes crashing into the Martian sands, a storm of sudden snow rising, fracturing rainbows. There is a peace in isolation, there on the edge of a great desert, with only the stars for company.
Alone, not lonely. I have the desire to go farther yet. To the Outer System, to see the world Dragon had made, or to witness the strange wildtech of Jettisoned, on frozen Charon. To view the sun from a great distance, and to go farther still, with the Exodus ships, to see what lies beyond. Then I laugh at myself, a small human, here, in this alien place. As I sit here I watch the sun rise slowly. It is very beautiful. I write The sun (our sun)—above—another world.
San blong yumi