Friday, August 19, 2011

The Rough Account of The Group of Twelve: 1. Hilary Ardri (excerpt from R. A. Lafferty's East of Laughter)

‘HILARY ARDRI, a rusty-coloured man, red-haired all over his body (an Esau man). He stood an even two meters tall and was very thick in the arms and shoulders and chest. Like an earlier hero, he was blue-eyed when he gazed out over the land, and he was green-eyed when he gazed over the ocean. He was only moderately intelligent, but he had great mental stamina: he could stay with an argument for thirty-six hours and tire out his opposition. He had, for a while, been in politics where this quality of mental stamina was important. His inquiring mind had one restriction on it, and this was his old family motto: When you have a good thing going, don’t ask questions. He had a remarkable memory for details, and this made up for his not quite remarkable intelligence. And he did have one good thing going, and he didn’t ask questions about it. He had stumbled onto it by accident.

‘Hilary had an enterprise on the shore of a recreational lake in eastern Oklahoma. This was the Computerized Lake-Fish Company. But Hilary did not have a Commercial Fisherman’s License to operate on Lake Tenkiller nor on any other lake, stream, river, pond, or reservoir in Oklahoma. Commercial Fisherman’s Licenses were quite rare and very hard to obtain. The only really good way to get such a license was to be born with it. And why should one bother? Those who did have commercial licenses seldom fished, for there were no longer any fish to be caught in the lakes, streams, rivers, ponds, or reservoirs of Oklahoma. Nevertheless, Hilary Ardri had become quite wealthy from his Computerized Lake-Fish Company. A man from the State Fish and Game Department spied on Hilary constantly to find out how it was all accomplished, but he could find out nothing at all. And the fact was that Hilary himself did not understand how he did it.

‘“I do not break any of your thousand-and-one regulations,” Hilary always insisted to that man from the State F&G Department. “I do not fish at all, not with hook or line or net or jug or dynamite or gaff or harpoon or fish-line or fish-bane. I do not poison the waters to kill the fish. There is no smell of fish on my shore (my own shoreline is only ten meters long), and there is no debris of fish. I have no factory or processing plant. Where is my fish works if I am accused of engaging in commercial fishing without a license?”

‘“I dunno, Ardri, where is it? That’s my own question,” said the man from the F&G Department.

‘“It’s right there, on my table there, taking up only half a square meter of space,” Hilary said in a moment of candor. “That computer, small and efficient and personalized, is all the fish business that I have, is all the business of any sort that I have.”

‘“You deliver packaged fish (excellent fish they are) to more than three thousand Oklahoma stores every morning,” said the man from the F&G Department (his name was Myron McMasters). “How and where do you get the fish, and how do you deliver them?”

‘“My computer there takes care of everything. It gets the fish without hook or crook, and it delivers them by driverless vehicles to the stores. It puts them in stock. It bills them and it collects for them. And it deposits all the profits (the profits are 100%) in my cash accounts and in my security accounts. Hey, these fish are good, are they not, Myron? They’re some of mine. The computer delivers them to me every morning too. And then it prepares and serves them however and whenever my whim desires it. And the driverless vehicle by which it delivers them, well, it isn’t anywhere when it isn’t in use. But I don’t know anything at all about fish.”

‘“What do you know about then, Hilary Ardri?” Myron McMasters from the State F&G Department asked. He had a touch of irritation in his voice, but not too much irritation, for he loved Ardri’s fish and he also believed that one shouldn’t ask too many questions about a good thing.

‘“Computers,” Hilary Ardri said. “I know about computers. I am not known as a big brain among the computer people, but I know a few things that the big brain people haven’t learned. One thing I know is that a happy computer can work wonders, and that a computer is most happy when it can indulge itself in a little bit of sociability. But computers don’t find the society of humans all that captivating. Some computer-owners stable a goat with each computer to keep it from getting lonesome. That’s the second best solution to the problem. But the best solution is to let the computer welcome the guest of its choice, and most computers are kept too clean and antiseptic by their owners to appeal to the special visitors. But I was never bothered by the fetish of cleanliness and over-maintenance. My computer has a poltergeist friend that lives in its maw and does not take up any physical space there. And my computer is happy by this circumstance. So it works wonders for me.”

‘“You’re kidding, of course,” Myron McMasters said. “I’ll solve your mystery yet, Hilary. I’ll solve it yet.”

‘There wasn’t much of a mystery to solve. Hilary Ardri did know about computers, and he knew about them by hard study as well as by sudden intuition. He studied things that other computer people didn’t bother about. He even studied a humorous chapter in an obscure computer operators’ manual, a chapter named Theoretical Things That Could be Effected by a Computer in the Ambient of an Unreal World.

‘“Might as well try some of them,” Hilary had said.

‘To take one example, the one that he did take, he learned that in an unreal world, the amount of fish that may be taken out of a lake has no connection with the amount of fish in the lake. The amount of fish to be taken out is related only to the amount of fish that the computer programs to be taken. It does not matter whether or not there are any fish at all in the lake. In an unreal world, the ambient is never restrictive. The fish will be processed as the computer programs them to be processed. They will be delivered, collected for, and deposited for as the computer programs them to be done. It is a little mental game that one may imagine for a computer. And it is safe, for it will work only in the ambient of an unreal world.

‘But it worked for Hilary Ardri. That wasn’t the first indication that Hilary had that the world was unreal, but it was one of the most telling indications. So Hilary Ardri learned, quite by accident, that the world in which he lived was unreal. And hardly anybody in the world knew that.

‘To be real is to be unique. To be unreal is to be common.

‘And the odds in favor of the world being unreal are prohibitive. There is only one chance in all infinity of it being real. But there are a billion billion and ongoing billions of chances of it being unreal.

‘And besides that, Hilary’s computer had an alter ego, or at least an inhabitant, who became a pleasant friend of all of them in the household.’

-R. A. Lafferty, East of Laughter (1988), pp.4-6


gwern said...

> ‘And the odds in favor of the world being unreal are prohibitive. There is only one chance in all infinity of it being real. But there are a billion billion and ongoing billions of chances of it being unreal.

Did you transcribe that right? 'in favor of being unreal are prohibitive'? Surely, in favor of being *real* are prohibitive (one in all infinity).

Kevin Cheek said...

My computer is on a table between a snake cage and a ferret. I wonder how happy it is?

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Gwern, yeah, I just double-checked and that's the exact wording in my copy of East of Laughter. I agree that it's very oddly phrased. I think he must mean to imply that the 'odds in favor of the world being unreal are prohibitive' *to the world being real*. The overwhelming odds that the world is unreal prohibit there being much expectation that the world is indeed real. And that passage (and the sentiment I'm here assuming it denotes) are crucial to the theme of the whole novel.

Kevin, ha! According to this tall tale from Laff, your computer's a lot happier than mine who has no animal companions whatsoever. But I don't know if there are any paranormal or preternatural entities companioning it. It's often pretty cranky and unreliable so I'm guessing not.

Kevin Cheek said...

I thought about the text, and I believe it would be a little clearer to US if amended thus: "And the odds in favor of the world being unreal are prohibitively small." Lafferty was very precise in his language, and if you look at it carefully, that is exactly what the sentence means. However, it seems awkward to us who, after decades of drift in popular language, use English less precisely. I often feel that Lafferty made no allowances for modern patterns of speech or imprecision in language. He required that the reader acquiesce to his correct use of the language, and if we were too lazy, we missed out. That is why I often read him with wikipedia and both open on my computer. A computer, by the way, which does seem happy except when Norton AntiVirus reports too many companions. I wonder if it can check for poltergeists?

Kevin Cheek said...

Excuse me, that's "And the odds in favor of the world being real are prohibitively small."

Kevin Cheek said...

whoops, I meant "And the odds in favor of the world being unreal are prohibitively large" (or vast, or some such). the rest of the comment still stands. This just proves that without that first cup of coffee my use of language is nowhere near precise enough!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha! Discussing Lafferty WITH caffeine in one's system is difficult enough - without? Don't try it!

I think the bottom line is that his immediate paragraph context as well as the whole novel make the reading we're aiming at here to be likely.

I agree that Lafferty seems usually in total expert control of his language: word choice, syntax and all. Still, there are two problems.

One is that sometimes his books are very poorly edited. Even in East of Laughter, which is overall nicely done, there are a handful of obvious copy errors or type-os. Because these publishing errors do show up in the midst of Lafferty using his own re-invented use of the English language, it can be a tough call sometimes whether we're looking at a printing error or Lafferty's unique prose.

The other problem is that, as besotted of a Lafferty devotee as I am, I have to admit that occasionally I think his stylisings are 'clunky'. I agree with you, Kevin, that 99.9% of the time it's *us* with our uncreative, uninventive, lockstep reader expectations. But I do wonder if there are still a sliver of borderline cases where Lafferty himself might be at least partly at fault for the lack of precision or clarity.

(I don't think the present phrase under discussion is one of those borderline cases. I give him full benefit of doubt on this one and find it reasonably easy to resolve the interpretative issue that arises here.)

'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)