Shan has just finished his masterpiece, but will he ever be able to write again? Will anyone? Or has it all been said now?
Shan inscribed the last word of the last line of his story with the customary flourish of his wrist and then sat back on his haunches, perusing his wok with a vague sense of satisfaction. It was a good story. In fact, it might have been his best ever. A short work, but full of passion and adventure. It was introspective, metafictional, literary and referential. It would take its place amongst the great canon of the Archive, he was certain of it, but still he was troubled. He stood up and walked outside, into the street that wound its way between the houses of the people.
He knew he lived in a blessed age. The long centuries of starvation and warfare that had blighted humanity’s history were now consigned to the distant past. They were now at peace, living in harmony with their surroundings. The only ‘work’ required to sustain society in its modern form was foraging for food in the countryside. But it was a land of plenty, and even this was hardly toil as previous generations would have understood it. Life in this settlement was filled with song and joy, sex and stories. He was one of the Storytellers, and the most renowned for many miles around. He spent his days dreaming up new tales to tell, to add to the great Archive of stories that recorded all the experiences of humanity. There were plenty of others like him here, but none could craft a narrative with such speed and efficiency, and few plumbed the depths of meaning and truth that he did. He wasn’t arrogant: this was just what he’d been told his whole life. He had been a child prodigy.
Phon met him near the village square and asked how his story was going. He bobbed his head. “Done. I’ll submit it to the Council for approval tomorrow I think.”
Phon was a big man, also a Storyteller, but one who preferred to record everyday stories, instead of the flights of fancy Shan favoured. Phon rarely wrote now, because life rarely changed for anybody. He clapped Shan on the shoulder. “You’re a rare talent, lad. Another story, so soon.”
Shan grimaced. “It took me weeks…”
It was hard to put into words. Many Storytellers suffered from writers’ block, but not him. There was always a story to be told. But he had been gripped with a strange ennui throughout his latest burst of creativity. He’d put everything he knew into this story, all his knowledge of the Archive’s other stories, taking well-known pieces from here and there, putting them together into a single, rich, tapestry, perhaps greater than the sum of its parts. It had the potential to be regarded as a masterpiece. But where would he go from here? He knew he’d never better it himself, but that wasn’t all. “I’m worried…we might have reached the end…”
“The end of what?”
Phon laughed loudly and a few passers-by in the street glanced at him curiously. “You must be one of us with a vivid imagination like that,” he said with a wide grin, “didn’t a great man once say ‘there is nothing new under the sun’? Stories don’t end, lad. There’s always something new to be said.”
Shan nodded. “I thought that too…but I just have an odd feeling…”
“You shouldn’t be so downhearted after finishing a story,” Phon said, placing his big hands on Shan’s shoulders and bending down to look him in the eye, “this is a happy day. Don’t even think about the next project: first you have to get this one in the Archive, so everyone can read it. Isn’t that what’s important right now? Worry about tomorrow tomorrow.”
Shan smiled. “You’re right, Phon. Thanks.”
“Hey, thank me tonight when we celebrate the completion of another masterpiece.” Another clap on the shoulder and he was gone, ambling his way up the street.
Shan carried on his way, leaving the village and walking to a spot on the hill overlooking the plain that he liked. It was a good place to think, with the sky filling most of the world. At night, the great reef of stars wheeled overhead, and he was able to dream about other worlds. But were those days over now? His mind was completely blank as he watched the sun slowly sink over the horizon.
After an hour or so, Thera came and sat beside him. She was a Storyteller too, and a talented one. Personally he thought she was better than him, but she didn’t have his renown because she preferred to spend a long time mulling over each of her stories so her output wasn’t anything like comparable to his. As far as he knew, she’d written nothing in months. No one had.
“I heard you finished a story,” she said after a moment.
Shan shrugged. “I suppose.”
“What’s it about this time?”
“It’s about…everything…everything I could think of. I just put all my ideas in there and bodged them all together into something vaguely coherent.” He laughed. Something about Thera made him more honest. He could always his speak his mind to her.
“Sounds interesting. I’m looking forward to reading it.”
“Phon said you were feeling down about something though?”
He sighed. “It’s silly.”
“It’s okay. What is it?”
“I just…” he swept his arm across the horizon, “what if this is it?”
“What if what is it?”
“What if this is the end?”
“Of…creativity! Of human innovation! What if we’ve run out of stories?”
“People have been saying that for generations.”
“I know, but I really think this might be it, Thera. I’ve been giving it a lot of thought lately, and I know Storytellers all over the world are running out of ideas. The Archive is bursting with stories, more than anyone could ever read in a lifetime, but they tell every combination of every possible permutation of narrative. We have love stories, war stories, fantasies, biographies, true life tales, romances, absurd flights of comic fancy…every single story has been combed over by eyes unnumbered and regurgitated and recombined a million times in a million different ways. We’ve said it all, Thera. This is it.”
She seemed to give it some thought. “I think you’re being a bit arrogant.”
“I mean, just because you don’t have an idea right now, it doesn’t mean there aren’t any ideas. Who knows what the future holds?”
“We do.” He looked back at the lights of the village at the bottom of the hill. “Life has been unchanged for how long now? Centuries? Millennia? We know what’s going to happen tomorrow: pretty much whatever happened today. We’ve told stories about the past, about the present, about the future, about what might have been or might still be, but what else is left to say? We have no new experiences. The world is static.”
“Is that so bad? Like you said, there are more stories in the Archive than anyone could ever read. Perhaps we’ll spend the rest of time familiarising ourselves with the classics.”
“Stories aren’t like songs though,” Shan said. As if on cue, the sound of singing drifted up from the village, gentle and calming in the night. It was a very ancient song. They all were. “A song you can hear time and time again and still experience the same rush of emotion as the first time. Songs can make you nostalgic for another time and place. But once a story has been told, it never has the same power again.”
“So what if this is the end? Storytelling is the only real thing we do any more. Will we just go on forever, eating and singing and making love aimlessly?”
“Is that such a bad thing?”
He nudged her in the ribs. “Hey, you’re a Storyteller too…”
“That doesn’t mean I have to take it seriously. Just relax. I’m sure you’ll get another idea soon. Just watch the world move around you; it’ll come.”
Shan smiled as he put an arm around Thera. She was probably right, although he still couldn’t lose the nagging feeling that this was some sort of almighty full stop on mankind’s progress. Where was there to go from here if no new stories were left to be told? What kind of future did his people have? He rested his head on Thera’s and watched the horizon. A herd of mammoths slowly made their way across the landscape beneath the turning stars and he found the familiar sight comforted him.