T-Thirty

It was a bright, cold day in April T30 and the clocks were striking fifteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Churchill Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him. All the time he kept his Sma-pho in his left hand, not ignoring for more than a few seconds the confusing images which swarmed across the screen. A thin cord ran from this to his right ear, into which similarly discordant sounds were relayed. Very little made any sense individually. The cumulative effect was often exhausting. To avoid re-booting, one had to be on-line at all times.

The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and wet dogs. At one end of it a coloured poster, too large for indoor display, had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face, more than a metre wide: the face of a man of about fifty-five, with a tired blue eyes and a mop of blond hair. Winston made for the stairs. On each landing, opposite the lift-shaft, the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BO-JO IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with virtual mandolin lessons. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which sat on the table, a La-to. By pressing the F6 key it was possible to dull the sound but not to quell it. With the La-to broadcasting into Winston’s left ear and the Sma-pho into his right, Winston went into the kitchen. Here the La-to sound was magnified: every room in every flat had a speaker.

This one was defective – though not to the extent that the Goo-go’s Compliance officers had identified – and made it seem as if the voices were coming from under several feet of gravel. On the whole, this distorted commentary was preferable to the clear messages relayed in other parts of the flat. Often, as now, the sound and the vision bear no relation to each other. At the moment, for instance, his Sma-pho screen was showing a man demonstrating a blender while the sound was a commentary on some sporting event. The La-to screen, which he could glimpse through the doorway, alternated between images of Bo-Jo and grainy footage of an exercise class. The gravelly text, in so far as he could hear it, seemed to be reciting the terms and conditions for the latest Fa-bo upgrade.

On the counter was a bottle marked ‘English Tawny Wine – Port Flavour.’ Finding a handle-less mug he poured himself several inches of the liquid, steeled himself and knocked back the whole lot in one go. The effect was of drinking turpentine while being hit in the throat with a truncheon. He reeled back slightly, in the process knocking out his earpiece.

There was about five seconds of blissful silence, broken only by the dim twitter of the terms and conditions, before an ear-piercing shriek like a nuclear alarm came from the speakers. This was replaced by a monotonous message delivered in a Eurasian accent.

“Hello, sir, my name is Clive, how are you today? IP Address 174-778-889554-002 – you have a serious interface problem with your Sma-pho. You have ten seconds to adjust or reboot.”

Winston scrambled for the earpiece, his vision almost obscured by panic and the effects of the Tawny Wine. Eventually he had to follow the lead from the Sma-pho with his right hand.

“…you have five seconds,” Clive cheerily informed him.

Winston found the end of the cord and jammed the earpiece back in place.

“Thank you for complying,” Clive said. “Have a nice day.” There was a click and a loud buzz. Winston knew the buzz would continue for at least an hour,.

He sat down at the table. A ‘reboot’ was an awful setback and normally resulted in several frustrating days on the Sma-pho to a series of interchangeable people like Clive in order to re-connect his devices to the World Grid, or Wo-gri. Without connection one became a non-person, unable to communicate or purchase. Everything was now paid for using Sma-phos, to which credits were uploaded from whichever of the four organisations one worked. When un-rebooted, both the Sma-pho and the La-to let out a continuous whine that was intolerable indoors and, outdoors, was audible enough to make one shunned; a warning to all that the owner had transgressed in some way and was an object, not of pity, but of scorn and perhaps fear.

Much could be monitored through one’s devices but they didn’t on their own provide enough information to feed the insatiable behavioural algorithms. In public, Compliance Officers were everywhere: in shops, busses and restaurants, ever vigilant, recording and noting everything: while indoors, each room of each dwelling contained a motion- and sound-activated camera. Disconnection, or even masking the camera, was impossible as this was immediately detected by the sensors, leading to the re-boot nightmare Winston had recently experienced. It was wise to assume that every action and every sound would be recorded and analysed. As the posters continually emphasised, Bo-Jo was watching you.

Well, Winston thought, perhaps not quite all the time. It was a strange anomaly of his flat that instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, the camera was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove. By sitting there, and keeping well back, Winston was able to remain outside its range, so far as sight went. He could be heard, of course: but so long as he stayed in his present position he could not be seen.

For some time, Winston had been vaguely aware that the world was not as it should be. Everyone’s memories of life before the Plague ten years before had been re-ordered. He had no access to first-hand reports of that time as all libraries and record offices had been closed and had never re-opened. The records of the world had been digitised and were available on-line at any time, presenting a version of history that appeared both logical and plausible. Books held in private hands were distrusted: as all discussion took place on-line it was easy for those whose views were heretical to be discredited and, if they persisted in their folly, unsubscribed. To be unsubscribed was a permanent form of being in reboot. It cut one off from all forms of communication, remuneration and consumption to an extent never previously possible. Such people effectively vanished as completely as if they’d vaporised. Few could long survive this exclusion.

Some people are less susceptible to re-ordering than others. Winston Smith, though unremarkable in many ways, was one such. His mind retained an impression of what life had been like in early 2020, when he had been 40. This wasn’t a firm or clear recollection, rather as the memory of a vivid dream; but one which, strengthened by consistent repetition, came to assume all the qualities of reality. The details were blurred, as if viewed through muslin. What was compelling was the suggestion of something very different from the present. There were times when his present-day life seemed to recede into an equally shadowy state, when the world of Sma-phos and Goo-go made no sense to him. Then his real or imagined past became all the clearer. It was if his mind could accept an unvarying level of normality but that the source of this shifted between the world in which he was forced to live and the one he believed he could remember.

It was clearly impossible to share these thoughts with anyone else. Agents of the various organisations were at work everywhere, that was well known. None the less, whenever his perceptions of this uncertain past were most lucid, he would sometimes catch a glance from a colleague at work, or from a stranger in the street, which communicated an affinity of outlook. It was this, coupled with the unusual geography of this room, which had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

From the drawer he took out a notebook and a pen. These things were now almost unknown and he had procured them by accident some months before. This had seemed to be an omen.

A few days before, Winston Smith had started recording his thoughts on paper, an almost unheard of occupation. Winston hand-wrote with difficulty – many people could not now do so at all – but the effort seemed to give extra power to his observations. He had decided to start with a resumé of the world as it now was. This seemed the easy part. He suspected that, pre-2020, people wrote things with their hands all the time. By using the methods of a past age, he argued to himself, he might somehow be able to conjure his memories of it back to life.

He picked up the pen. Before writing, he re-read what he had written so far.

“Since the Plague of 2020 there have been four organisations: Am-zo, Sai-co, Fa-bo and Goo-go. Between them, these control, supply and manage every aspect of life. There is also a government, or ‘the authority’. This has four departments – Supply, Food, Society and Information – whose roles closely reflected those of the four organisations. I work for Fa-bo (allied with the Ministry of Society). My job involves studying transcripts of Fa-bo (Min-Soc) broadcasts and cross-referencing these with the thought processes, as detected by the monitor device in the earpieces, of the users allocated to me…”

Winston paused. More than once when at work, he had felt that one of the users he was analysing was in fact himself. His duality of memory enabled him to hold an objective and a subjective view of a situation simultaneously. He could see himself, the analyst, and himself, the subject, as two distinct entities. To Fa-bo, only the former was seen an important. Personal perceptions were transient and subjective, and so suspect: what mattered was what the algorithms created and the systems recorded. These were permanent and objective records of human behaviour which could be used to control human behaviour in the future.

In the background, the Sma-pho and the La-to continued their discordant chatter about the efficacy of supa-lax and the and the winders of the new Goo-go package. He found, when he was involved in his journal, that he could fade these away to something no more annoying than the buzzes of a bee and a wasp in the next room.

He turned his face back to the notebook.

“The world is divided into about 200 countries but each follows a very similar model to Brit-la, where I live. Four organisations; four ministries; and, irrespective of the official system of government, one figurehead to give a give a sense of unification. Here, this is Big Bo-Jo.”

Big Bo-Jo was a shambling, blond-haired man who delighted in strange utterances which often caught his listeners off-guard: a sinister clown; a village-idiot savant; an eccentric everyman. For as long as Winston could remember, Big Bo-Jo seemed, according to the posters, not to have aged at all. Winston was, as a result of his unorthodox view of the world, far more aware of the passage of time than most. The lines that were forming around his eyes and on his hands were, self-evidently to him, evidence of aging. Yet, when he chanced to mention such things to others, the reaction was one of incomprehension. The cause, he was told, was the shortage of this product or the over-supply of that foodstuff. Matters were even now in hand to resolve these issues, whereafter change and decay would be largely a thing of the past.

For this and other reasons, Winston increasingly felt himself to be in a false position in most conversations. He therefore now shunned casual chit-chat in person (a fact noticed by the organisations’ agents) and online (which had been detected by the algorithms). His increasing withdrawal from life, a rare but not unprecedented phenomenon, was thus fast making him a target of official disapproval in exactly the way that this diffidence had been intended to avoid.

“Abbreviations, such as Am-zo, Bo-Jo and Brit-la, are preferred to the longer forms. This is partly because of the growth of Textspeak as vernacular, and partly to propitiate the desire for monosyllabic usages by Eurasian states. For the same reason the year-designation T30 is preferred to 2030 as being both shorter and signifying a break from the pre-Plague era when matters were arranged differently.”

At this point the journal stopped. He picked up his pen and, after some thought, started to write.

“The Plague gave the organisations their power; it was through this power, and our connivance in its application, that much of the world’s population survived; and now the organisations are reaping their rewards.”

His vision briefly clouded and he saw a chaotic vision of hundreds of people in a street in which barrows and tables had been set up, on which wares of all kinds, from fruit to items of clothing, were displayed. People were helping themselves to these, talking to the traders, proffering pieces of paper or metal discs and putting the goods in a bag and moving on. On one level, it made no sense: on another, it seemed achingly normal.

Still in this half-trance, he picked up the pen again.

“The main way in which this manifests itself is in the organisations’ complete control of the processes of supply and demand. Five centuries of free-market capitalism might never have happened. Am-zo, for instance, effectively controls all non-edible goods, from supply to delivery. Demand of a particular type of product is stimulated by reducing supply. This has recently happened with toothbrushes, which for months had been almost unprocurable. Prices rose, making them more desirable. Then, just as the illegal black market showed signs of moving in to redress this, Am-zo unleashed a flurry of promotions for toothbrushes of wildly different kinds. 

“After a few weeks or months, the supply was just as suddenly turned off.  Supply dwindled, prices rose again and people, even those who had bought more toothbrushes than they might use in five years, became fretful at an impending shortage and bought more at ridiculous prices.”

He looked down at what he had just written. Was he the author of these thoughts? ‘Five centuries of free-market capitalism might never have happened.’ What did that mean? What was free-market capitalism, anyway?

The hand that picked up the pen seemed now to have a volition of its own.

“All this happens at different times with different products. Toothpaste, for instance, generally follows an opposite cycle to brushes so it’s rare that both commodities are easily available at the same time.

“The uncertainty that all this engenders leads, each time, to a Pavlovian reaction that Am-zo, by being perfectly in control of the process, is able perfectly to predict. The bewildering and confusing choice and the Soviet-era uniformity are in their own ways equally disconcerting. The lessons of the Plague have been well learned by Am-zo and the rest: desire is stimulated by alternating but unpredictable cycles of dearth and plenty. Occasional cornucopias exist mainly to make the periods of no-choice all the more serious by comparison, so inflating the value and thus the price of what is permitted to be available. Very similar patterns of over- and under-supply, and for the same reasons, can be observed on Sai-co regarding foodstuffs.

He paused. He was, he now realised, slipping into a very different style from the one he would have used for the terse summaries he wrote at the work or the Textspeak that he and others used for communications. Why was this? He never wrote like this now but had the sense that he, and others may have done so in the past. He re-read the last passages.

What he had done, he now saw, was to mix fact, opinion and conclusion, often within a single sentence. He had never knowingly written in the way before. Writing was now largely functional, to communicate facts, orders or information. The organisations’ systems performed the analysis and made the decisions. As they had access to so much more data than any human or a group of humans, this was universally accepted. The system would, so the official logic ran, always make the best and most rational outcome. This pen-and-paper approach, however, was rapidly changing the way Winston’s thoughts, and thus his expression of them, worked. He could feel the pull of very unfamiliar currents.

But that didn’t explain some of the things he had written. What was the ‘Soviet era’? What did ‘Pavlovian’ mean? What, for that matter was a ‘cornucopia’. He stood up, went over the La-to and typed the word in. ‘Archaic – discontinued,’ the message said. This was encouraging. The word had existed once: he had not invented it. A slight thrill ran through his body. He moved back to the alcove. His left hand was getting tired so he picked up the pen in his right and carried on writing.

“The networks (Goo-go) and the information portals (by Fa-bo) operate in a different way. Because the Grid must be functional at all times, Goo-go cannot distort supply to the same extent. Both organisations constantly add or remove features or functionality and set up pseudo-competitors which offer a bewildering range of deals, options and packages between which users constantly need to choose. Old arrangements are often amended or withdrawn at short notice and urgent action is often demanded of consumers as a result. The fear of being put in reboot provides all the incentive necessary for this advice to be followed.

“The collective result of the lack of choice, or too much of it, and the threat of loss of connection or functionality means that everyone exists in a constant state of heightened digital anxiety. This has made the organisations the dominant factors in people’s lives. 

“Governments, which once had the power to control or influence behaviour in their domains, exist mainly to give a public and collaborative face to the work of four intensely private and self-interested organisations.

“The advantages that the organisations have derived from the Plague are so substantial and overwhelming that it is impossible to escape one of two conclusions. Either the Plague was conceived and executed by their collective actions; or that it never existed at all, or not to a significant extent, but that the organisations’ reporting of and reaction to it created the situation from which they are now able to profit.”

Winston put down his pen with a jolt. The chatter from the Sma-pho and the La-to was clearer. He was also aware that he had strayed dangerously far into another reality. He scanned back over what he had just written. The conclusions, notably the Plague-denial, were alarmingly unorthodox. Any one paragraph would surely result in unsubscription. He found himself flicking a glance at the camera on the wall. A tiny light flicked back at him. He realised that, preoccupied as he had been, his chair had shifted round so that he was, possibly, within the camera’s arc of view.

At that moment there was a knock on the door.

Winston froze. If he were being observed, not to answer it would appear strange. If he were not, he could do without the interruption. The knock was repeated. Sound was recoded as well as vision so the matter had become impossible to ignore. Without troubling to put away his journal, which the T30 part of his mind had almost forgotten about, he got up, crossed the room and opened the door.

He was expecting it to be the pallid and permanently defeated-seeming Mrs Parsons, his neighbour from across the corridor, whose violent and sinister children often caused damaged to their flat or devices which, when her husband was not in, Winston was expected to help repair. In fact, it was Parsons himself. He worked for Goo-go, in what capacity Winston did not know: discussions about any aspect of professional life did not form part of social dialogue.

Parsons was a fattish but active man slightly younger than Winston. At first acquaintance, he had seemed to be of paralysing stupidity, unthinking and unquestioning. Further acquaintance had, however, caused him somewhat to revise his view. There was, on the rare occasions when they were alone together, the suggestion of an affinity of thought or perception. Indeed, only a week before, they had passed each other on the stairs and Parsons had given him a half wink. This conveyed to Winston’s febrile mind, fresh from the creation of the first paragraphs of his journal, the salute of a kindred spirit.

For a while, Parsons stood in the doorway beaming at him. “It’s the toilet,” he said at last. “It’s jammed again. The cistern. Last time you lent us a spanner.” Through the open door, Winston saw Parsons’ elder son rush past, a toy gun in his hand.

“Bang-bang, re-booted spy, you’re under arrest! Hands up!”

Winston obediently raised his arms.

“Nippers, eh?,” Parsons said jovially, moving a couple of steps into the flat. Winston retreated. “Keen as mustard.”

Winston nodded weakly. His mind was still not settled in his present reality, that of neighbours needing help about broken cisterns, juvenile spies and the camera behind him capturing every details of the exchange. Instinctively, he glanced over his shoulder.

“Oh, don’t worry about Bo-Jo,” Parsons said, now advancing into the hallway and pushing the door shut behind him. “He knows the cistern’s been on the blink for month. It’s a Covex X-13/F. Waiting for the next product releases, eh? Then we’ll have plenty of choice.”

Following another instinctive impulse, Winston now looked over his other shoulder, towards the alcove. The paper and pen, remarkable objects, must have been clearly visible to Parsons.

“The spanner, old man,” Parson said. “Any chance?”

Winston retreated still further so that he was now standing in the middle of the living room in, as he now realised, must be a very defensive position. He made an effort to pull himself together. “The spanner,” he said. “I think it might be…” He had no idea where it might be. He felt his mind fog over again.

Parsons came towards him and rested his hand lightly on Winston’s shoulder. Social physical contact, outlawed during the Plague, was another thing that had never been revived. Suddenly, Winston felt his mind return back to 2020. The current reality seemed no more than a rapidly fading dream.

At the same time, Parsons flashed him a wink, of just the kind that he had earlier done on the stairs. Winston felt a deep sense of completeness, could sense a vibrant and diverse life swimming in his mind. He focussed his gaze and found that Parsons had moved across the room and was studying the pages of his journal. From time to time he nodded to himself. On reading the last paragraph, he turned to face Winston, his eyes shining.

“Well, old man,” he said slowly. “Now, then…” Winston’s heart leaped.

There was a blur of noise behind him and the last thing he felt was the agonising pain in his left elbow.

*

When Winston came to, he was strapped down in a bed in a white-washed room. A man was standing over him, smiling. For a moment, he thought that that he was about to do something to help the pain that still throbbed in his arm. Then the man raised a blackjack and the pain amplified a hundred-fold. Winston passed out again.

*

He was asked questions, but had no recollection of them, nor of his answers. His will had, after the fifth truncheon blow on his left elbow, become vitiated. Yet still a part of him clung to the other version of history he had touched. Still a part of him resisted.

He looked up to see a familiar face beaming down at him.

“Parsons,” he gasped. “So they got you too…”

Parsons smiled, this time not one of complicity. “They ‘got me’ a long time ago, old man.” This time is was Parsons’ hand that brought the truncheon down on his arm.

“Room 101 for him,” Winston heard his neighbour say before he once again lost consciousness.

*

What passed in Room 101, Winston had no memory of.

Some weeks later, he was sitting outside a café in Covid Square, under pale April sunshine. On the building opposite was a huge poster of Big Bo-Jo. Now the face seemed neither confused nor floundering but confident and serene. Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of Winston’s nose. His weakened left arm hung by his side, the other gripped the glass on the table. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. There was only the present reality, not the one that had now faded into a barely-remembered dream. He was whole again. He loved Big Bo-Jo.

He wiped away his tears and looked at the poster more closely. Something had changed from normal. At each corner was a large image. These were familiar but he had not seen them in this context before. Of course – the Am-zo logo top left, then Sai-co; and, at the bottom, Goo-go and, on the right, his beloved Fa-bo.

The images were swelling and blurring, while Big Bo-Jo’s face was becoming less and less significant. Winston’s tired eyes moved from one image to the next, back, down and round again: but the longer he looked, the less difference between them there seemed to be and the more they shimmered into a composite, so that already it was impossible to say which was which.

Brian Quinn

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