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Plumage from Pegasus
by Paul Di Filippo

Live by the Word, Die by the Word

"[Storytelling]…has been ubiquitous in all cultures over all eras in all parts of the world. Now, a new study in Nature Communications helps explain why: Storytelling is a powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring."

—"How Telling Stories Makes Us Human," Jeffrey Kluger, Time magazine, December 5, 2017

 

The savage, bloodthirsty mob howled outside the gates to Scheherazade Estates, the exclusive, luxurious, manicured private community of mansions in which I lived. I could hear their ugly chants even through my expensive double-pane, solar-uptake windows and the noise-insulation provided by the many overstuffed bookshelves lining my library walls.

"Down with the fabulocracy!" "Professional liars are still liars!" "Homer was a bum!" "No stories, no worries!" "Check your narratological prowess!"

It couldn't be much longer until the irate proles overwhelmed the Estate's private security forces and raced through the grounds, gathering up all us members of the now-despised fabulocracy and taking us away in tumbrils, for whatever rude justice and payback the mob saw fit to exact. We could expect no relief or aid from the civic authorities or formal peacekeepers, since the wave of anti-fabulocracy sentiment had spread to those institutions of the state as well. And even if we fought the rioters off today, I knew the fabulocracy's end was imminent.

What a shame, I thought, not just for myself and my privileged lifestyle, but for the world as a whole. The advent of the fabulocracy had ushered in a demi-utopia, and the planet had never been in better shape. But as with all ruling classes throughout recorded history, we fabulists had, after decades of uncontested stewardship and power, come to take our favored status for granted, arrogating more and more benefits and perks to ourselves and falling into a decadent lifestyle whose media-shared depictions served only to anger those who did not partake equally of our wealth and favors.

How different and hopeful matters had stood at the start of the fabulocracy! When most national governments had collapsed in the 2020s, from a variety of idiosyncratic causes, a desperate and eager citizenry had turned to us, the storytellers, the fabulists, as the last remaining alternative set of leaders. With the example of such storyteller officeholders as Václav Havel and Mario Vargas Llosa before them, recognizing the truth of Shelley's boast that "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world," the voters of the world had swept into office an almost uniform slate of writers, musicians, performers, and artists. And together, we remade the global culture.

All the old icons of power and status were toppled. In their place we installed a new hierarchy of values. Sports, warfare, politics as usual, excessively capitalistic and non-productive glamour professions—all were dethroned. New methods of governance, new recreations and aspirations were elevated in their place. Why, just the substitution of the Poetry Bowl for the Superbowl had catalyzed a thousand other beneficial changes.

But now, regrettably, the pendulum had swung, our rule had grown stale and fossilized, and the commonfolks were eager to try something else.

Putting aside these fond reminiscences, I thought that perhaps I would try to get the perspective of these dissidents, even if it were too late to do any real good. So I rang for my majordomo, Lionel, and he quickly arrived, like the still-loyal retainer he was.

Lionel was now elderly. He had been a top-billing Washington lawyer when the fabulocracy arrived, and soon found himself unemployable. My father had known him professionally, and had taken him on as a servant.

"What do you wish, sir?"

"Lionel, I'd like to hear your honest opinion on this movement to unseat the fabulists. What's behind it? What're the motives of these people?"

Lionel did not immediately reply, meditatively considering the pattern of the library's silk Isfahan carpet first. Then he spoke mildly and to the point. "Well, sir, if I may be frank, it's simply that the average person is tired of being gently spoonfed parables, allegories, vignettes, fables, verses, plays, and narrative arcs as a means of guiding and directing their behavior. They want no more truck with symbols, emblems, catharsis, irony, subtexts, and metafictional enigmas. They long for hard-edged laws, arbitrary and cruel regulations, and factional fights across the aisles of deadlocked legislatures. If I dare say so, they even would relish capricious and quasi-dictatorial strictures from on high. The nebulous kind of direction that the fabulocracy imparts was relished at first, as a change from all these things. But now people seem to want a restrictive set of rules they can precisely follow or slyly circumvent, rather than the multivalent choose-your-own-adventure approach. It seems that the 'agenbite of inwit' was never for everyone."

"I see, I see.… Well, the fabulocracy will never be able to bend enough to provide that kind of insane apparatus, so I guess we are truly finished. Lionel, you may inform the rest of the staff that they are free to leave. I wouldn't want them to be swept up in this mess. The emergency exits to the Estates should still be functioning for a while longer. Perhaps when courtrooms and ESPN and stock exchanges are reestablished, the staff will find a place there, and look favorably upon their former employers. I understand old Norbert, for instance, was once a Titan of Wall Street before he became a gardener. Maybe his son can become one again."

"Yes, sir, he was indeed. And Norbert Junior shows some promise in that regard, as evidenced by his establishment of the practice of trading chore futures among the help."

"I suppose that will be all then, Lionel. I thank you for your many years of faithful service. But before you go, could you send in my wives and children, please?"

Upon making his tearful exit, Lionel was quickly supplanted by the three women I had been lucky enough to marry, and the dozen children which my high-status as a fabulist had allowed me to conceive and support. I addressed them all with a sober but loving demeanor.

"My dear family, I regret to say that the pampered lifestyle afforded to us in the past by my job as a scripter of half-hour cartoons is now at an end. You will find a private helicopter awaiting you on the front lawn. It will convey you to the closest Magical Realist republic where I believe you may find refuge for a time. They should be among the last bastions of the fabulocracy to fall to this wave of hard-nosed antifabulism. Onboard the helicopter is a quantity of gold and other easily traded riches that should sustain you for a considerable time. I myself must remain here to blunt the assault on our family and protect your flight to safety."

I was happy to find my wives and children genuinely distressed by our parting, as in some passage from Tolstoy or Dickens. After saying our weepy good-byes, I was left alone in my library, where I consoled myself with rereading some of my favorite passages.

But before I had barely gotten through the first fifty pages of Swann's Way, the doors to my study burst open and the mob poured in. They were led by a rough fellow I recognized from news coverage: Jimmy Wayland, son of the last President of the United States before the advent of the fabulists.

"Your time is up, Mister Author!" Wayland shouted to the acclaim of his followers. "No more royalties or audiobooks for you! Now you're heading for a reeducation camp, where you'll learn to become a useful member of our new society. Maybe you can take up gerrymandering or some other useful trade. What do you have to say to that, huh?"

Maintaining my dignity as best I could, I declaimed, "'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.…'"

After so many years under the fabulocracy, the crowd seemed somewhat still conditioned to respond in a respectful manner to my speech. But not Jimmy Wayland.

"Okay, smartass, you just earned yourself an extra six months for egregious allusion!"

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