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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

The Very Last Miserabilist in Paradise

AS HEAD of the Psychoneurocist Reconstructive Corps, I had spent most of the last ten years doing administrative work. The wikiocracy created by the Global Citizenry Mandate featured a minimum of redtape—nothing at all like the masses of confusing and contradictory official procedures deployed by extinct entities like the European Union or the United Nations, Facebook or al-Qaeda—but still inevitably somewhat time-consuming. One supervisor managing ten million Therapist Advocoaches scattered across the planet necessarily had his hands full, even with the help of a dozen subordinates and some advanced artificial intelligences.

Consequently, I had never once actually utilized my professional skills during the past decade of massive changes. Never once had I sat down with a client unable to make the transition to the new post-scarcity paradigm and guide them to acceptance and understanding and, ultimately, the happiness and sense of infinite possibility and security that were their birthright. And with the program winding down, as the last recalcitrant or damaged or frightened or congenitally disabled souls were repaired and brought into the light, it had seemed unlikely that my therapeutical touch would ever be needed.

Yet here I was today, about to see my first, and probably only, client ever. He had been shunted higher and higher up the chain of frustrated and despondent TAs, all of whom had proven utterly unable to help him. Now, finally, I was the client's last hope for accommodation to the new world order.

A trifle nervous at facing such an intractable case, and feeling very rusty, I asked the AI receptionist to usher the fellow in.

A trim, weathered man in his sixties, slumped and shuffling, Pablo Boxajalopi radiated unease, suspicion, weariness, fear, anger, and hopelessness. I had practically forgotten the body language associated with such a suite of baseless neuroses. Imagine when vast numbers of human beings had gone about like this all the time! At least back then, their emotions had been a reasonable response to the conditions of the time. Boxajalopi's anachronistic aura and attitude hit me forcibly, like a palpable wave of black water. Nonetheless, I still managed to project as much bonhomie and camaraderie and upbeat positivity as I normally always felt.

I stood and offered my hand, opening with a bit of small talk. "Mr. Boxajalopi, it's a pleasure to meet you. I'm David Wiregrass. What an unusual last name you have. Basque, isn't it?"

Boxajalopi dropped down ennervatedly into a chair. "Yes, yes, it's Basque—at least, a century ago it was. But my family has been American for generations."

I decided not to play games or mince words. "Well, Pablo—I may call you Pablo, I hope? Yes? Wonderful! Well, Pablo, as a longtime American, a citizen of the famously optimistic nation that always believed in a can-do, pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, shining future of wealth and opportunity for all, why aren't you happy now that such a day has arrived?"

Chin down, Pablo mumbled into his chest. "It's all a sham. A temporary glitch in the greased downward slide. An anomaly in our one-way plummet to a post-apocalyptic world."

"Come now, Pablo, can you really make such an assertion seriously? Have you looked around the planet lately?"

"All a Potemkin village," he asserted with not very much conviction.

"A Potemkin village? The entire planet? Do you realize how paranoid and solipsistic that sounds? Why do you seek to deny the glorious reality of our current condition, Pablo? Do you want humanity to wallow in misery?"

"It's the natural human condition."

"Pablo, the only 'natural human condition' might be loping naked across the savanna. But our species hasn't been in that state for several million years. We've always relied on our brains and technology to improve our condition, and that's what's allowed us to remake the world into what you see today.

"We have a total solar-hydrogen economy, utterly sustainable, nonpolluting, and capable of producing up to eighty terawatts of energy per year, more than our population can even use. We have plenty of fresh water thanks to graphene-membrane desalinization plants on every coastline. The Greenhouse Effect has been negated by several bold yet safe feats of macroengineering. Toxic contamination of every variety has been remediated by engineered microbes. Why, this shirt I'm wearing was manufactured using waste from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch! And a plethora of GMO supercrops, plus efficient modes of distribution, ensure that there are more than enough calories for all.

"But all of these material improvements would mean nothing without the perfection of the Plectical Ethical Calculus. Once moral actions had been given a scientific basis, we learned how to adjust our behaviors and institutions to accommodate and facilitate peaceful and wise socioeconomic mutuality. When you factor in new brain-amplification and optimization technologies, all administered via simple noninvasive nanotech pills, the result is the first truly sane and mature planetary population in history. War and inequality, hatred and prejudice have vanished. Robot labor produces enough wealth to ensure a living-wage annual stipend for every inhabitant of the world, freeing people to pursue any avocation they desire.

"Pablo, what more could you desire?"

Pablo Boxajalopi suddenly banged his fist on my desk. "I desire my old job back! I was one of the best science fiction writers around!"

I sighed. "Now we come to the crux of your difficulties, Pablo. I've read your case file. I know you were a science fiction writer, and a fine one—for your era. You can still be an author. You just can't expect to write the same type of science fiction you once specialized in. I know your self-image and career were heavily invested in delivering bad news about the future. But there is simply no market any longer for dystopias or jeremiads, Cassandra-like warnings or parables of defeat."

"I absolutely refuse to believe that! Humanity has always screwed up! Hubris clobbered by nemesis, that's the great old Aldiss definition of science fiction. And my mentor, Dom Tisch, promised me money and glory if I just spent my career reminding people of the utter nihilism behind life's fašade. No, my brand of sf, the most vital and important kind, is still needed, even in paradise! Why, I could—I could write a novel about the unforeseen long-term side effects of all these damn brain drugs!"

"They've been in use for a decade now, Pablo, with no bad consequences. How long-term are you looking at? And if some side effects did show up, we have the understanding and technology and willpower to correct them."

"Well, what about natural disasters? Earthquakes, tidal waves, hurricanes, typhoons, volcanoes?"

"True, we will never eliminate those. But our predictive powers are much greater now, our infrastructure sensibly reinforced, and our response methods totally humane, generous, and practically instantaneous."

"Evil geniuses and crazy dictators!"

"Extinct."

"Cutthroat corporations!"

"Run by consensus from the bottom up, not top-down."

"Gray goo!"

"Blue goo."

"Overpopulation!"

"The Plectical Ethical Calculus, combined with the eradication of poverty and free birth-control devices—"

Pablo Boxajalopi slowly laid his head down on my desk and began to cry. Through his sobs came a litany of titles. "Stand on Zanzibar. Brave New World. Nineteen Eighty-Four. Soylent Green. The Road. The Machine Stops.…"

This breakdown was a highly positive sign, but I did not attribute the victory to my rhetorical or empathetic skills, for I had merely repeated all the classic arguments he had already heard from numerous Therapist Advocoaches. No, he had simply reached the point where the constant undeniable input of his senses had delivered the hard truths of paradise past the mental barricades he had erected.

After Pablo ceased weeping and refreshed himself, I said, "Pablo, if you offer your consent now to a mental tune-up that promises to eliminate the last vestiges of your neuroses, I will supply you with the theme of your next science fiction novel. It's a classic threat that we have not yet devised a solution to, one which you overlooked in your catalogue. I'm sure you can spin a great book from it—with, no doubt, an upbeat finish."

Pablo smiled wanly. "Really? You'd do that for me? Please, tell me, what is it?"

"Alien invasion."

"Of course! How could I have forgotten! A perfect menacing novum! Yes, yes, I'll undergo your treatment, and I'll still produce a great cautionary book!"

Chuckling to himself, already plotting his next novel, Pablo Boxajalopi allowed himself to be led away by the medical team.

I didn't have the heart to inform him that a ship bearing the embassy from 51 Pegasi b had arrived just that morning, with news of Earth's acceptance, now that we had gotten our affairs in order, into the Cosmic Comity.

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