Tales from Bizarro-world
Once upon a time there was a world which was culturally productive but rather inegalitarian. Then the inhabitants invented ‘social justice’ as a device for legitimising their mutual hostility, and soon things were in a pretty pickle.
The wise man and the perpetual money-pot
The Pied Michael of Govelin
The magical glowing lamp of Naga-shima
Olimar and the X-ray specs
The wise man and the perpetual money-pot
There was once a king that ruled over a people who always had plenty and never went hungry. But one day his ministers came to him and said, “O king, our seers predict there may soon be relative suffering and general diminution of living standards, if something not be done pronto.”
Therefore the king, who could not bear to upset his people – they were liable to depose him if he didn’t deliver – consulted a great wise man. This great wise man had many accolades and honours, accorded to him by the other wise men of the College of Magic Numerology where he was employed.
“O wise man,” the king said to him, “what can you do for my people, for they have grown fat and comfortable, and will not gladly suffer any diminution of their living standards, yea not even for the sake of more jam tomorrow.”
“O great and noble king,” the wise man said (for he was well versed in the lore of flattery) “there is said to be a magic pot which will keep producing gold coins and never stop until you tell it to stop. I will find this pot for you and I will learn how to use it, and apply it for the benefit of thine people, who are clearly a difficult crowd.”
And so the wise man procured the magic pot and began using it with the aid of his special skills, and there was much plenty in the land, and relatively little risk of a serious downturn. And the people rejoiced and said, “Truly this wise man is extremely learned and efficacious, and truly our form of government is highly satisfactory to produce such wise men and magic pots, as and when needed”.
Now after many years had passed, the king’s ministers came to him and told him that the danger of temporary impoverishment had passed, at least until the next royal election, and that it would therefore be safe to stop using the pot. At first the king refused even to consider ceasing, as his popularity ratings had never been so high. But when it was pointed out to him that an infinite supply of gold coins might eventually lower the brand value of the Crown, he reluctantly agreed and told the wise man that, while it had been wonderful using the magic pot, it was now time to call it a day.
The wise man duly went off to implement the king’s instructions. However, after some time he returned and said: “O great king, it pains me to say this, but we cannot turn the pot off.”
“Why do you not simply tell it to stop?” the king asked.
“People are so used to the pot being in operation,” the wise man replied, “that if we turn it off they assume the effect will be to make things worse, and if they assume this they proceed to act in accordance with their assumption, and things do get worse.”
“Ah,” said the king “I believe that is called a self-fulfilling expectation. But why can we not give people a lot of warning in advance before stopping, so they can get used to the idea very gradually?”
“We tried that, but as soon as we announce that it might stop at some unknown future date, people start trying to be clever and to do sooner what they think everyone else will do later. The effect is the same: things immediately get worse.”
The king thought for a moment. “There is nothing for it,” he announced. “We will just have to keep the magic pot switched on for ever and ever.”
At this the wise man groaned, for he had given many promises that it would be possible to turn the pot off again without adverse consequences, resulting in a win-win scenario, and it now looked as though the nightmare his critics had threatened had become a distinct possibility. Fortunately he was due for retirement (and replacement by an equally wise man, or woman) the following week.
And so the magic coin-producing pot went on and on producing coins. And the land was flooded with currency, eventually leading to some extremely bizarre effects.
But that is another story.
The Pied Michael of Govelin
There was once a town called Govelin that was sorely plagued by a group of wicked child-hating ministers. These ministers had sent their agents to infiltrate all the schools in the town, in order that the pupils be infected with pernicious ideology, and this had caused much pestilence and sickness.
The wicked ministers were trying to bring the poor children of Govelin more and more under their control, and wanted them to spend more and more of their hours and years at school, proposing (among other things) to force everyone to stay on until the age of 18, rather than 16 – even though most Govelinites were already married by 17, or at least having regular sexual intercourse.
The people of Govelin were much oppressed by this wickedness and cried “who will deliver us from the plague of pseudo-egalitarian ideology, so that our children may once again know the answer to seven times nine, and what the capital of France is?”
One day a charismatic man appeared calling himself Pied Michael, who proclaimed: “Hear me, people of Govelin; I can deliver you from the evil educationalists, and bring back traditional values, such as times tables, spelling bees, and the birch, so that your children may once again feel proud to be Govelinites.”
The people were much impressed by the man’s fine manner of speaking, and said “Pied Michael shall be elected Commissioner of Schools, and he shall free us from the plague of the evil educationalists, and truly our children will become little geniuses, and not the hopeless dunces we have at present.”
And so Pied Michael became Schools Commissioner and set about implementing his ideas, which he believed would revolutionise education in Govelin. His policies included the creation of institutions run by parents, called Free-though-financed-by-confiscation Schools.
However, after a few years, it became clear that things were not really getting any better, and the people of Govelin began to grow restless. Pied Michael consulted his policy advisers, who told him: “Your ideas are sound, Pied Michael, but the problem is that the teachers are utterly opposed to implementing them. We regret to say they have become infected with the child-hating sickness of the educationalists and will never be brought to agree with you.”
So Pied Michael went to the people of Govelin and asked for a mandate to override the views of the entire teaching profession, but this the people were too afeared to grant him.
Then the Pied Michael of Govelin grew into an awesome wrath which was terrible to behold, and he vowed vengeance against the people who had frustrated his idealistic plans.
And in retribution, he decided to join the evil educationalists, whom he had previously condemned, and to take up their policies, implementing them even harder than they had done. He endorsed the hateful and oppressive law demanding that all children be forced to endure daily attendance at school until they were 18. But he also invented new rules requiring that children spend longer and longer hours at school – from the time they got up, until it was time for bed – and even that they had to spend their school holidays at school!
Finally the Pied Michael grew so wrathful and disillusioned that he arranged for all the children to disappear into the Cave of Komperhensive, a place so terrible that none who went in were ever heard of again.
The magical glowing lamp of Naga-shima
There was once a brave samurai who was lord of the village of Naga-shima, which was located on the edge of a mighty Ocean. His vassals would have lived lives of security and contentment, but for one thing: they lacked fuel to light their houses and cook their vegetables.
One day, puzzling over how he might aid the villagers, the samurai came across a lamp glowing strangely in the dark. On an impulse he rubbed the lamp, and an enormous genie emerged, hugely powerful, and frightening to behold, and also glowing strangely. Spoke the genie: “O great samurai, you have unleashed the Genie of the Glowing Lamp. My name is Atomsplitter and I have the power to grant you, via this magic lamp, infinite and never-ending energy to generate light and heat, and to make everything you do go a little bit faster. But beware: if you misuse the energy, you will beget death for yourselves and for all who come near you.”
The samurai thought for a moment and said, “Grant me the gift of infinite and never-ending energy, Genie, and I promise we shall apply due care and diligence, and act only on expert advice.” The genie laughed a contemptuous laugh, for he had heard that one before, but he at once granted the gift of infinite and never-ending energy.
All went well for a number of years, and the people of Naga-shima were able to enjoy a much higher standard of living, but eventually they grew complacent. “What can happen?” they said. “The genie was no doubt exaggerating the dangers, as genies do. Let us stop worrying – it’s no biggie.” And they started to become careless.
One terrible night the winds stormed, and the waves lashed, and it turned out that someone hadn’t screwed the top of the lamp on tight enough.
There came a terrific explosion, and the village of Naga-shima was instantly covered with a billion particles of the Dust of Death, which the genie had warned about in his written instructions.
The villagers tried to contain the Dust by sealing off various areas, and by sweeping it under the carpet, but to no avail. However much the Dust was neutralised, there was always more of it.
The village official kept reassuring the residents of neighbouring villages that they needn’t worry as everything was under control, but every time it was announced that the problem was sorted, another source of leakage emerged and the official had to admit they were still working on it. Eventually people stopped believing the official altogether.
A few brave Naga-shimans tried to wash away the Dust, but they had to do something with the dirty water, and the only place to flush it was into the Ocean. Gradually, more and more of the Ocean was poisoned, until eventually all the fish in it were dead.
Following this episode, there were a couple of years during which magical glowing lamps were shunned by policymakers, before they once again came into fashion, as there were few viable alternatives.
Olimar and the X-ray specs
There was once a very naughty American boy named Olimar, who loved to find out what other people were up to, by peeking through keyholes and listening at doors.
One day he discovered a very effective way of spying on others without them realising, by using special X-ray specs which he had bought in a catalogue of cheap bugging devices.
Olimar was able to see what everyone was doing and thus to learn all their secrets. He discovered to his delight that he was able to carry on his naughty activities while appearing all virtuous and innocent, as though butter wouldn’t melt.
Together with his best friend Dave and a number of other naughty boys, Olimar formed a big club, and the boys began a systematic programme of spying on innocent victims which lasted for several years. Many, many boys eventually became involved, but Olimar was the undisputed ringleader.
The boys regularly spied on many ladies while they were undressing, including Angela and Dilma. They even spied on François.
Being able to penetrate into other people’s affairs made Olimar and his pals feel like masters of the universe. How they laughed and giggled over what they found, and how clever they felt, peering into every crack and crevice!
However, one day one of Olimar’s friends blurted out to someone what they were doing, and quickly reports about the shenanigans of Olimar, Dave and their pals were plastered all over the local newspaper.
Soon there was a procession of angry citizens protesting about what had happened. Angela and Dilma were furious that they had unwittingly been ogled in their underwear, and demanded that action be taken.
According to reports, the spying club had a huge membership. Practically everyone had been secretly ogled. Whether on the loo, in bed, or at a high-security diplomatic conference, it was impossible to be sure one wasn’t being spied on. Olimar was said to have got inspiration for his methods from a similar episode some decades ago, involving another naughty boy named Starzy.
There was a huge outcry, and Olimar, Dave and their pals were red-faced with shame.
But then it emerged that loads more people had been up to secret ogling, using the latest technology. Businesses had been doing it; so had political parties, town councils and newspapers. Especially newspapers.
Soon it was grudgingly accepted that there was no longer any meaningful right to privacy, and the whole matter was forgotten. No one knew whether Olimar and his pals had stopped carrying on their shameful activities. Probably not.
There was once a patriarchal society in which lived a kind old university professor. This professor thought the cleverest women should join universities, but that women in general were too interested in other people, and too keen on making everyone toe the line, to have a beneficial effect.
The professor had a daughter named Cinderelia who was extremely precocious, far more so than any boy. Cinderelia loved nothing better than to learn languages, solve equations, and think about the riddles of the universe. Everyone agreed she was sure to become a professor at the University one day, like her father.
But when Cinderelia turned 18, her life was turned upside down, for on that day her father married a harridan named Lady Priscilla. Lady Priscilla sat on many committees for good works, and headed numerous organisations for the general improvement of mankind. In other words, she was a fearful busybody and mediocrity, and full of hatred for all who were cleverer than her.
When Lady Priscilla moved into the professor’s house, together with her Ugly Daughters and Sons (who were all blockheads) she took an immediate dislike to Cinderelia, and began to plot her downfall. Gradually, over the weeks and months, she poisoned the old professor’s mind. On the one hand, she argued forcefully in favour of “women’s rights”, and insisted that her Ugly Daughters should be admitted forthwith to teach at the University. On the other hand, she suggested that Cinderelia was too ‘individualistic’ and insufficiently ‘socialised’, and that it would be good for her to learn the meaning of failure.
The professor, who was besotted with his new wife, soon came round to her way of thinking, and used his influence to get juicy positions at the University for all of Priscilla’s Ugly Daughters and Sons, and also their Ugly Cousins. And he arranged for Cinderelia to be exiled to a distant cottage and be forced to fend for herself, while her Ugly Siblings continued to be waited on hand and foot. Also he had Cinderelia stripped of all her prizes and accolades, and her smart clothes, and he gave them to the Ugly Siblings. Not long afterwards, the professor died of a tumour (said to be caused by his body rebelling against the maltreatment of his daughter), and his earlier benevolent influence on academia was quickly displaced and forgotten.
Soon the University had become a hotbed for mediocrities of every kind. How they laughed at the pathetic Cinderelia, languishing and pining in her cottage of poverty, where she was forced to scrimp and save to keep the wolf from the door. The common people, who were too foolish to tell genuine research from meretricious nonsense, merrily went to the University’s regular Celebrations of Excellence, where they cheered the marvellous results supposedly being produced.
Many times Cinderelia begged an audience of the grandees at the University. Once or twice they granted her leave for a short interview in which their representative curtly dismissed her requests and complaints.
“We suggest you apply through the proper channels, like everyone else.”
“But I am too old to start again at the beginning!” cried Cinderelia.
“That is not my concern. Good day to you.”
Secretly the folk of the University were greatly confounded by Cinderelia’s complaints, since normally no one dared to criticise the great University, and there was little public sympathy for someone so foolhardy as to suggest the great University might have made a serious mistake which it refused to rectify.
Whenever it looked as if Cinderelia might get a supporter from outside the University, who might set her up in a new independent department, they arranged for a few poisonous words in an influential person’s ear, and the words quickly spread to the would-be supporter, who immediately retreated and would nevermore have anything to do with Cinderelia.
Or they promptly set up a new department of their own that was intended to remove any possible raison d’être for a facility not associated with them. This resulted in some loss of brand value for them, since there was soon a whole host of dodgy pseudo-departments – Faculty for Socio-Religious-Legal Studies, Institute of Sci-Fi Fantasies, Department for Thinking Outside The Box etc. – but this didn’t bother them if it had the effect of keeping Cinderelia out. Because by then, it had become a matter of some loading that Cinderelia not be allowed to show she was any good at research, as this would (a) put them in a bad light for having refused her all those years, and (b) quickly show up the inadequacies of their own people.
And so it went on. Every year the University, now with Lady Priscilla at its head, crowed about how well they were doing, and about the successes of their professors, and how much money in donations they had received from foolish billionaires who wanted to make themselves look good. And they sent out many glossy publications with pictures of shiny happy researchers, many of them relatives of the original Ugly Siblings.
And after 50 years, Cinderelia was still languishing in her cottage, frustrated and miserable – though it must be said that awareness of her plight was gradually increasing.
published 3 October 2013
This site is a publicity device, not a sample. Topics are chosen to be of general interest, rather than because they represent the writer’s research interests. ‘Balance’ is aimed at, in the sense of challenging the assumptions that are most dominant.