Maps in a Mirror, page 24
If I wasn’t a science fiction reader, per se, why did my impulse toward storytelling come out in science fictional forms? I think it was the same reason that my playwriting impulses always expressed themselves in stories aimed at and arising from the Mormon audience. The possibility of the transcendental is part of it. More important, though—for Mormonism is not a transcendental religion—is the fact that science fiction, like Mormonism, offered a vocabulary for rationalizing the transcendental. That is, within science fiction it is possible to find the meaning of life without resorting to Mystery. I detest Mystery (though I love mysteries); I think it is the name we put on our decision to stop trying to understand. From Joseph Smith I learned to reject any philosophy that requires you to swallow paradox as if it were profound; if it makes no sense, it’s probably hogwash. Within the genre of science fiction, I could shuck off the shackles of realism and make up worlds in which the issues I cared about were clear and powerful. The tale could be told direct. It could be about something.
Since then I have learned ways to make more realistic fiction be about something as well—but not the ways my literature professors tried to teach me. The oblique methods used by contemporary American literateurs are bankrupt because they have forsaken the audience. But there are writers doing outside of science fiction the things that I thought, at the age of twenty-three, could only be done within it. I think of Olive Ann Burns’s Cold Sassy Tree as the marker that informed me that all the so-called Mysteries could still be reached through stories that told of love and sex and death; the need to belong, the hungers of the body, and the search for individual worth; Community, Carnality, Identity. Ultimately, that triad is what all stories are about. The great stories are simply the ones that do it better for a particular audience at a particular place and time. So I’m gradually reaching out to write other stories, outside of both the Mormon and the science fiction communities. But the fact remains that it was in science fiction that I first found it possible to speak to non-Mormons about the things that mattered most to me. That’s why I wrote science fiction, and write science fiction, and will write it for many years to come.
A THOUSAND DEATHS
“You will make no speeches,” said the prosecutor.
“I didn’t expect they’d let me,” Jerry Crove answered, affecting a confidence he didn’t feel. The prosecutor was not hostile; he seemed more like a high school drama coach than a man who was seeking Jerry’s death:
“They not only won’t let you,” the prosecutor said, “but if you try anything, it will go much worse for you. We have you cold, you know. We don’t need anywhere near as much proof as we have.”
“You haven’t proved anything.” “We’ve proved you knew about it,” the prosecutor insisted mildly. “No point arguing now. Knowing about treason and not reporting it is exactly equal to committing treason.”
Jerry shrugged and looked away.
The cell was bare concrete. The door was solid steel. The bed was a hammock hung from hooks on the wall. The toilet was a can with a removable plastic seat. There was no conceivable way to escape. Indeed, there was nothing that could conceivably occupy an intelligent person’s mind for more than five minutes. In the three weeks he had been here, he had memorized every crack in the concrete, every bolt in the door. He had nothing to look at, except the prosecutor. Jerry reluctantly met the man’s gaze.
“What do you say when the judge asks you how you plead to the charges?”
“Very good. It would be much nicer if you’d consent to say ‘guilty’,” the prosecutor said.
“I don’t like the word.”
“Just remember. Three cameras will be pointing at you. The trial will be broadcast live. To America, you represent all Americans. You must comport yourself with dignity, quietly accepting the fact that your complicity in the assassination of Peter Anderson—”
“Anderson has brought you to the point of death, where all depends on the mercy of the court. And now I’ll go have lunch. Tonight we’ll see each other again. And remember. No speeches. Nothing embarrassing.”
Jerry nodded. This was not the time to argue. He spent the afternoon practicing conjugations of Portuguese irregular verbs, wishing that somehow he could go back and undo the moment when he agreed to speak to the old man who had unfolded all the plans to assassinate Andreyevitch. “Now I must trust you,” said the old man. “Temos que confiar no senhor americano. You love liberty, né?”
Love liberty? Who knew anymore? What was liberty? Being free to make a buck? The Russians had been smart enough to know that if they let Americans make money, they really didn’t give a damn which language the government was speaking. And, in fact, the government spoke English anyway.
The propaganda that they had been feeding him wasn’t funny. It was too true. The United States had never been so peaceful. It was more prosperous than it had been since the Vietnam War boom thirty years before. And the lazy, complacent American people were going about business as usual, as if pictures of Lenin on buildings and billboards were just what they had always wanted.
I was no different, he reminded himself. I sent in my work application, complete with oath of allegiance. I accepted it meekly when they opted me out for a tutorial with a high Party official. I even taught his damnable little children for three years in Rio.
When I should have been writing plays.
But what do I write about? Why not a comedy—The Yankee and the Commissar, a load of laughs about a woman commissar who marries an American blue blood who manufactures typewriters. There are no women commissars, of course, but one must maintain the illusion of a free and equal society.
“Bruce, my dear,” says the commissar in a thick but sexy Russian accent, “your typewriter company is suspiciously close to making a profit.”
“And if it were running at a loss, you’d turn me in, yes, my little noodle?” (Riotous laughs from the Russians in the audience; the Americans are not amused, but then, they speak English fluently and don’t need broad humor. Besides, the reviews are all approved by the Party, so we don’t have to worry about the critics. Keep the Russians happy, and screw the American audience.) Dialogue continues:
“All for the sake of Mother Russia.”
“Screw Mother Russia.”
“Please do,” says Natasha. “Regard me as her personal incarnation.”
Oh, but the Russians do love onstage sex. Forbidden in Russia, of course, but Americans are supposed to be decadent.
I might as well have been a ride designer for Disneyland, Jerry thought. Might as well have written shtick for vaudeville. Might as well go stick my head in an oven. But with my luck, it would be electric.
He may have slept. He wasn’t sure. But the door opened, and he opened his eyes with no memory of having heard footsteps approach. The calm before the storm: and now, the storm.
The soldiers were young, but unSlavic. Slavish, but definitely American. Slaves to the Slavs. Put that in a protest poem sometime, he decided, if only there were someone who wanted to read a protest poem.
The young American soldiers (But the uniforms were wrong. I’m not old enough to remember the old ones, but these are not made for American bodies.) escorted him down corridors, up stairs, through doors, until they were outside and they put him into a heavily armored van. What did they think, he was part of a conspiracy and his fellows would come to save him? Didn’t they know that a man in his position would have no friends by now?
Jerry had seen it at Yale. Dr. Swick had been very popular. Best damn professor in the department. He could take the worst drivel and turn it into a play, take terrible actors and make them look good, take apathetic audiences and make them, of all things, enthusiastic and hopeful. And then one day the police had broken into his home and found Swick with four actors putting on a play for a group of maybe a score of friends. What was it—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Jerry remembered. A sad script. A desp
And Jerry realized that he was weeping. The soldiers sitting across from him in the armored van were looking away. Jerry dried his eyes.
As soon as news got out that Swick was arrested, he was suddenly unknown. Everyone who had letters or memos or even class papers that bore his name destroyed them. His name disappeared from address books. His classes were empty as no one showed up. No one even hoping for a substitute, for the university suddenly had no record that there had ever been such a class, ever been such a professor. His house had gone up for sale, his wife had moved, and no one said good-bye. And then, more than a year later, the CBS news (which always showed official trials then) had shown ten minutes of Swick weeping and saying, “Nothing has ever been better for America than Communism. It was just a foolish, immature desire to prove myself by thumbing my nose at authority. It meant nothing. I was wrong. The government’s been kinder to me than I deserve.” And so on. The words were silly. But as Jerry had sat, watching, he had been utterly convinced. However meaningless the words were, Swick’s face was meaningful: he was utterly sincere.
The van stopped, and the doors in the back opened just as Jerry remembered that he had burned his copy of Swick’s manual on playwriting. Burned it, but not until he had copied down all the major ideas. Whether Swick knew it or not, he had left something behind. But what will I leave behind? Jerry wondered. Two Russian children who now speak fluent English and whose father was blown up in their front yard right in front of them, his blood spattering their faces, because Jerry had neglected to warn him? What a legacy.
For a moment he was ashamed. A life is a life, no matter whose or how lived.
Then he remembered the night when Peter Andreyevitch (no—Anderson. Pretending to be American is fashionable nowadays, so long as everyone can tell at a glance that you’re really Russian) had drunkenly sent for Jerry and demanded, as Jerry’s employer (i.e., owner), that Jerry recite his poems to the guests at the party. Jerry had tried to laugh it off, but Peter was not that drunk: he insisted, and Jerry went upstairs and got his poems and came down and read them to a group of men who could not understand the poems, to a group of women who understood them and were merely amused. Little Andre said afterward, “The poems were good, Jerry,” but Jerry felt like a virgin who had been raped and then given a two-dollar tip by the rapist.
In fact, Peter had given him a bonus. And Jerry had spent it.
Charlie Ridge, Jerry’s defense attorney, met him just inside the doors of the courthouse. “Jerry, old boy, looks like you’re taking all this pretty well. Haven’t even lost any weight.”
“On a diet of pure starch, I’ve had to run around my cell all day just to stay thin.” Laughter. Ha ho, what a fun time we’re having. What jovial people we are.
“Listen, Jerry, you’ve got to do this right, you know. They have audience response measurements. They can judge how sincere you seem. You’ve got to really mean it.”
“Wasn’t there once a time when defense attorneys tried to get their clients off?” Jerry asked.
“Jerry, that kind of attitude isn’t going to get you anywhere. These aren’t the good old days when you could get off on a technicality and a lawyer could delay trial for five years. You’re guilty as hell, and so if you cooperate, they won’t do anything to you. They’ll just deport you.”
“What a pal,” Jerry said. “With you on my side, I haven’t a worry in the world.”
“Exactly right,” said Charlie. “And don’t you forget it.”
The courtroom was crowded with cameras. (Jerry had heard that in the old days of freedom of the press, cameras had often been barred from courtrooms. But then, in those days the defendant didn’t usually testify and in those days the lawyers didn’t both work from the same script. Still, there was the press, looking for all the world as if they thought they were free.)
Jerry had nothing to do for nearly half an hour. The audience (Are they paid? Jerry wondered. In America, they must be.) filed in, and the show began at exactly eight o’clock. The judge came in looking impressive in his robes, and his voice was resonant and strong, like a father on television remonstrating his rebellious son. Everyone who spoke faced the camera with the red light on the top. And Jerry felt very tired.
He did not waver in his determination to try to turn this trial to his own advantage, but he seriously wondered what good it would do. And was it to his own advantage? They would certainly punish him more severely. Certainly they would be angry, would cut him off. But he had written his speech as if it were an impassioned climactic scene in a play (Crove Against the Communists or perhaps Liberty’s Last Cry), and he the hero who would willingly give his life for the chance to instill a little bit of patriotism (a little bit of intelligence, who gives a damn about patriotism!) in the hearts and minds of the millions of Americans who would be watching.
“Gerald Nathan Crove, you have heard the charges against you. Please step forward and state your plea.”
Jerry stood up and walked with, he hoped, dignity to the taped X on the floor where the prosecutor had insisted that he stand. He looked for the camera with the red light on. He stared into it intently, sincerely, and wondered if, after all, it wouldn’t be better just to say nolo contendere or even guilty and have an easier time of it.
“Mr. Crove,” intoned the judge, “America is watching. How do you plead?”
America was watching indeed. And Jerry opened his mouth and said not the Latin but the English he had rehearsed so often in his mind:
“There is a time for courage and a time for cowardice, a time when a man can give in to those who offer him leniency and a time when he must, instead, resist them for the sake of a higher goal. America was once a free nation. But as long as they pay our salaries, we seem content to be slaves! I plead not guilty, because any act that serves to weaken Russian domination of any nation in the world is a blow for all the things that make life worth living and against those to whom power is the only god worth worshiping!”
Ah. Eloquence. But in his rehearsals he had never dreamed he would get even this far, and yet they still showed no sign of stopping him. He looked away from the camera. He looked at the prosecutor, who was taking notes on a yellow pad. He looked at Charlie, and Charlie was resignedly shaking his head and putting his papers back in his briefcase. No one seemed to be particularly worried that Jerry was saying these things over live television. And the broadcasts were live—they had stressed that, that he must be careful to do everything correctly the first time because it was all live—
They were lying, of course. And Jerry stopped his speech and jammed his hands into his pockets, only to discover that the suit they had provided for him had no pockets (Save money by avoiding nonessentials, said the slogan), and his hands slid uselessly down his hips.
The prosecutor looked up in surprise when the judge cleared his throat. “Oh, I beg your pardon,” he said. “The speeches usually go on much longer. I congratulate you, Mr. Crove, on your brevity.”
Jerry nodded in mock acknowledgment, but he felt no mockery.
“We always have a dry run,” said the prosecutor, “just to catch you last-chancers.”
“Everyone knew that?”
“Well, everyone but you, of course, Mr. Grove. All right, everybody, you can go home now.”
The audience arose and quietly shuffled out.
The prosecutor and Charlie got up and walked to the bench. The judge was resting his chin on his hands, looking not at all fatherly now, just a little bored. “How much do you want?” the judge asked.
“Unlimited,” said the prosecutor.
“Is he really that important?”
“Mr. Crove is an American,” said the prosecutor, “who chose to let a Russian ambassador be assassinated.”
“All right, all right,” said the judge, and Jerry marveled that the man hadn’t the slightest trace of a Russian accent.
“Gerald Nathan Crove, the court finds you guilty of murder and treason against the United States of America and its ally, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Do you have anything to say before sentence is pronounced?”
“I just wondered,” said Jerry, “why you all speak English.”
“Because,” said the prosecutor icily, “we are in America.”
“Why do you even bother with trials?”
“To stop other imbeciles from trying what you did. He just wants to argue, Your Honor.”
The judge slammed down his gavel. “The court sentences Gerald Nathan Crove to be put to death by every available method until such time as he convincingly apologizes for his action to the American people. Court stands adjourned. Lord in heaven, do I have a headache.”
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