The year is 2100. Years of corporate dominance have led to the world having a single economy: hence, it made no sense to have more than one government. Plato argued that democracy would lead to populism and eventually to tyranny. What he did not foresee, perhaps, is that tyranny, to survive, often depends on buffoonery. The tyrant cannot fail gracefully, or even ironically, and escalating terror is not always possible. Hence, the tyrant must present a facade of compelling, menacing illogic.
Elections for world president, such as they were, therefore became a contest between embodiments of staggering idiocy. Knowing that they were being ruled by fools made people feel curiously comforted. No matter how miserable their lives, the madness of the ruler gave light relief.
And, by and large, their lives were really miserable. By 2050, most skilled jobs had been outsourced to robots. In a wildly unequal society, many people found employment only as entertainment or as exceptionally cheap labour. The exceptions were people outstandingly good at interpersonal skills, who provided a warmth or insight that no algorithm could quite match. Among these were the professionals at Associated Serfs’ Mediation, known as Albert Square Mediation before Albert Square was replaced by a slave market with heliport. The board of Albert Square Mediation had kept the same initials; the firm’s post-2080 title reflected the company’s social conscience. They were happy to mediate between serfs and masters, formerly known as employers, and to do so with a degree of honesty and transparency that occasionally created a frisson of risk.
2080 had certainly been an eventful year. More than 100 years after the Voyager spacecraft had been launched, alien life had made deliberate contact with the Planet Earth—or Banana, as it was then known, since its name changed yearly according to corporate sponsorship. The aliens had been attracted by radio signals—not from astronomers, but from misaligned satellites beaming Laurel and Hardy films and I Love Lucy. The aliens had been reassured, by what they had seen, that they confronted a great civilisation. After 3 months of discussions with the leaders of Planet Earth—sorry, Banana—the aliens felt sufficiently disabused, and disappeared, never to be seen again, muttering polite nothings about the standards of our snooker players.
2100 brought a different challenge. These aliens did not come for cultural exchange, or for trade as it was conventionally understood. They made it very clear, through a series of silent movies, that they wished to eat the inhabitants of Planet Shell (formerly known as Earth).
“But suppose we’re poisonous?” asked the world’s leading biologist.
“That’s just a risk we’ll have to take,” communicated the aliens via a mime suspiciously resembling a Noh drama.
The people of Planet Shell quickly realised they had three different problems:
Aliens wanted to eat them;
They didn’t know what else would satisfy the aliens;
They weren’t quite sure what the aliens would like as a starter.
The aliens demanded, via a series of bleeps and a deafening gong, to be taken to the planet’s leader.
The people of Planet Shell took one look at their leader and invited him to enter a very dark cupboard, smeared with mustard.
“What we need,” said a civil servant clutching a dictionary and a witchdoctor, “is a mediator.”
“Gas or electric?” asked the high priest of all voodoo slaves (Surbiton branch).
“Not a radiator, a mediator,” came the reply, as the witchdoctor silently conjugated Greek verbs. “Someone to help us negotiate with these carnivorous aliens. Someone to help both parties to go away happy, Or at least satisfied. And I don’t mean in a culinary sense.”
The world’s civil servants scoured the internet (so much easier, if less reliable, since everybody had had chips implanted in the prefrontal cortex) for a suitable mediation firm. There was one key problem. Most mediation firms were nothing but a safety valve: a way for masters to continue to oppress serfs, while observing human-rights law. Very few firms openly and conscientiously sought to elicit and respect the views of both parties.
In the ruins of what had been a Victorian house, on the edge of a heliport, the head of ASM blinked as he was summoned into space.
“Me?” he said. “I last had a paying customer in 2097. The serfs just pay in kind. Weirdly, it’s usually cabbage, Still, good for the eyes, I always say…”
He was invited to stop speculating about his eyes and start speculating on how to save mankind.
“Well, it’s very simple you see.”
“Go on,” said the civil servant, toying with putting the gun down.
“These aliens want to eat us all. But that isn’t necessarily what they actually want.”
“On the contrary,” said the civil servant, “they’ve made that abundantly clear. They keep sending us ultimatums laced with ketchup.”
“Yes, but what people actually want isn’t always the same as what they say they want,” averred the mediator.
The civil servant insouciantly waggled the gun. “Go on.”
“People want things for a reason. Maybe the aliens are hungry. Or frightened. I would be—in fact,” he said, glancing at the gun, “I am. Or maybe they’re angry about something. At any rate, it can’t hurt to ask them why they’re so keen on eating us. Then maybe we can present an alternative.”
Reasoning that, on the planet formerly known as Earth, the dominant life form was the common cold virus, the aliens had spent years learning how to sneeze sociably, but had not mastered the art of speech. It did not help that they had no larynxes, and could only communicate by expelling air rapidly from their breathing apparatus. Long conversations, on their planet, meant certain death.
Fortunately, the mediator had vast experience of interpretation.
“If you’re short of air,” he said, “just use body language. Raise one tentacle for yes. Two tentacles for no. Three tentacles means you’re happy. Four tentacles mean you accept Berkeley’s conclusions on the nature of existence. Five tentacles mean you’ve rejected Berkeley in favour of a shallowly Marxian materialism. Six tentacles means you’re hungry. Seven tentacles means you’d like a cup of tea.”
The head alien goggled and scooted backwards.
“It seems a little wary of your tea,” remarked the civil servant.
“Tea is nothing to be frightened of,” said the mediator. “It is the cure to all human ills. Except perhaps being eaten. At least if you’re a biscuit.”
The civil servant glared balefully. “Perhaps,” he said in a voice that could have chilled a thousand suns, “it would be best not to liken ourselves too blatantly to widely accepted snacks.”
The mediator, unusually for those days, used a pen and paper. It was partly his way of respecting confidentiality. He had also found that using a pen encouraged creative thinking, often needed to overcome stalemates and address profound grief. He made brief, cryptic notes, just to get his mind going.
The alien stared at him with all 13 of its eyes, before grabbing the pen with two tentacles and manipulating the pad with another five.
“We are not hungry,” it wrote. “We have learned how to photosynthesise from your Banana bacteria.” (“It’s called Shell now”, the mediator whispered.) “Who, incidentally, are very impolite.
“But we are concerned. We have seen you on Banana kill and enslave each other. And it gives us an overwhelming sense of sin.
“We have read your Graham Greene novels and we understand sin. We are frightened of it. We cannot bear it. We cannot bear to witness your sin.
“We have read your holy books backwards…”—the civil servant arched an eyebrow—“…and forwards. We do not understand your sin. To sin is illogical.
“To be illogical is to be non-mathematical. To go against mathematics is to go against the universe. Every sin destroys the universe. We must destroy you before you destroy the universe.”
“I think I understand your reasoning now,” said the mediator. “But why eat us?”
“Waste not want not,” replied the alien.
“So what you need,” said the mediator, “Is to be less concerned about our sinning. Either because we stop sinning…”
“That would be best,” said the alien, in a way that would have been heartfelt, had it had a heart.
“Or you see it as harmless or even providential.”
“IMPOSSIBLE” wrote the alien in large black letters.
“Implausible,” said the mediator, “but perhaps not impossible. In a universe of infinite possibility anything is possible.”
“You are mathematical,” sighed the alien.
At this point, the president of the world, by repeatedly headbutting the inside of the cupboard, activated his communication chip—which, naturally, beamed to the space station, since this was the centre of earthly—Bananaly—Shelley—power.
“Tentacled sucker…” he began.
“Our tentacles have no suckers,” thought the alien.
“…on this planet, we kill all terrorists. And anyone who wants to eat my mother is a terrorist.”
“It is not personal,” wrote the alien. At this point, the mediator turned off the screen.
“You see what we’re up against,” he said to the aiien. “A man born to sin.”
“Born to sin?!” gasped the alien. It paused to recharge its breathing apparatus.
“I — do — not — know,” it said, “if you are demon or interesting theologian. But we must talk.”
Over the next few months, the aliens had animated discussions with a series of mystics about Original Sin, Inevitable Sin, Forgivable Sin and even Providential Sin. They learnt that pride was the root of all sin, and that, paradoxically, condemning another for his sin might be a greater sin than the sin itself.
“We are sorry,” said the head alien. “Perhaps we should eat ourselves.”
“That won’t be necessary,” said the mediator. “Biscuit?”