The Mask Of Caliban – Michael Pryor
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Australia, many years in the future. A place of darkness, overpopulation and environmental degradation. A rigidly stratified society controlled by supercomputers called Artificial Intelligences. Caliban, a streetperson and petty thief, is given the chance to create a new life for himself. Drawn into a complex game run by the Artificial Intelligences, Caliban suddenly discovers that he is not only fighting for his identity, but for his life…’
Michael Pryor says
Mask Of Caliban was written from a classic Science Fiction impulse:
What if this goes on? Looking at a number of current trends (overpopulation, environmental degradation, a growing division in society, the development of artificial intelligence) I tried to bring them all together in the context of one person’s struggle for survival.
The basic motif of a journey was important to me. Many of our greatest stories are essentially journeys. But I wanted my story to be of a trek that was an internal journey, an exploration of a person and what makes them human. I’m concerned when people don’t take charge of their own lives. Sometimes they let their lives simply drift away, sometimes they let other people dominate them. I want to show that people can do something about what is happening to them. This is important on an individual level, but also in a wider sense. When a whole society turns into sheep, and forgets to ask the hard questions, we’re in trouble.
The Mask Of Caliban begins
Even though distances are hard to judge in the chamber, it must be large. Doorways open onto it, black and uninviting. The ceiling is a low dome, with a cupola, full of silver light, at its centre. Golden motes of light hover and dart high over the heads of the scattered crowd.
No two individuals are the same. Jade robes clash against rainbow stripes. White, cream and saffron seem to meld. Tall bulky figures stand in front of shorter. Some seem to be wearing glass and metal, while others are naked, with patterned and jewelled skin. All of them stand close to the marble walls of the hall.
The marble walls are expanding and contracting almost imperceptibly. A moment’s pause and, as if on cue, the crowd glides away from the walls, and the individuals begin to move in intricate, silent patterns across the floor. There is no sound of conversation or of feet moving on the smooth surface.
There are no shadows.
A hundred figures dressed in rainbow ribbons and gaudy silks cross from one side of the chamber to the other, intersecting the paths of others but never interfering, except for a nod here and there, and an occasional frown. The Primes know their dance well. As if on command, the dancers part and resign themselves to the walls again, posturing and preening themselves as they retire.
A single figure moves forward and stands in the middle of the vast chamber. He is old. Tall and lean, dressed in a simple grey robe, he stands easily in the centre of the vast space. There is something sparse about him, as if there is nothing to spare. His hair is grey.
He glances upwards. Like the first stars coming out at night, small holes begin to appear in the marble ceiling.
Through these small holes, wan grey light struggles to enter. Once through the holes it falls in tight, almost solid, shafts. The golden motes part to let them through and the light surrounds the solitary figure.
“I stand before you in the Hall of Light and Sighs as the first born,” he says, and his voice fills the room effortlessly. “I am the Speaker.
Another figure steps from the crowd. He is wearing a dark overcoat and dark trousers. He is shorter and more solid than the Speaker. “As the second born, I am the Witness,” he says. His voice is curt, almost angry. “Does anyone challenge our right to these roles?”
The Speaker nods. “We shall continue our leadership and guidance, confident of your support.” He pauses and surveys the glittering crowd. Feel free to depart, or enjoy the Hall of Light and Sighs, its antechambers and its loggia.”
Quietly, all drift away, disappearing one by one through the many doorways. Overhead, the pinpricks of golden light mass in the centre of the chamber uncertainly, before resuming their random movement.
The Speaker turns to the Witness after watching the last leave. “We have a traitor among us,” he announces calmly.