“Once the writer in every individual comes to life (and that time is not far off), we are in for an age of universal deafness and lack of understanding.”
—Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting
Rafe Tilthen ran his dry hands through thinning hair. He watched flakes of skin fall like a lazy sleet upon his oily keyboard, then groped the skin around his mouth, which peeled away like lizard scales despite layers of grease that he could never wash off. These scales lodged like fertilizer in his beard, which showed patches of black hair and gray hair.
In a dusty corner of his desk lay a lone pink pill. He picked it up and blew what he could of the dust, mostly his skin, away from it, then set it back down. Since lymphoma he’d grown accustomed to writing with Benadryl, among a host of other drugs, and tonight, thanks to acclimation, and the desire to get something off his chest, he needed even more. The effects of his evening’s first several Benadryls ran strong in his system, and this was what he loved: fighting against the desire to sleep. He was again a child who didn’t want to go to bed.
So, displacing sleep he wrote:
…to you from a place, barring tragic circumstance, you will never know. Not beyond the grave, for there is no afterlife, that place (y)our ancestors, and I in less _____ moments, once comically groped at with certainty (believed?). No, I write in a state familiar to you, still alive, but in spite of all, hoping my ____ (childish?) thoughts will at least live on. This is the straw I grasp at, the place I am (Earth, let’s call it) while I collect and order my thoughts (better word?), in the knowledge my destiny looms like a pregnant storm cloud: I will die. Soon. I am among the few unlucky (unlucky few?). You have no idea how this feels…
He went on.
One day writers experiencing Rafe’s dimness of mind would use better means of expression, yet with that fecund urgency of a Saturday morning. And all literary fiction produced would be more or less great. The secret of literature, its derivative nature, was out, had been for a long time, and app developers had already taken great swings at it, many programs doing a better job writing than the majority of living writers, especially, unfairly, those among the quickly fading mortal class. The momentous project, the Infinite Literature, had by now created apps poised to deploy the most sage writers of all time. What powered the project, deep learning AI, knew every written word, had read every digitized novel in every language, and readily accessed the best, and most profound, knowledge—from mythologies to science to mathematics. And the cloud-based tools created by this Infinite Literature would soon be at hand for everyone—not just subscribers—to squeeze wisdom and wit from every new writer, into each upcoming novel. It required little discipline and could drive with or without a human being, for it alone knew each story, every road a character has ever taken.
There’s a novel in everyone, apparently.
Unable to pace his loose thoughts, Rafe wrote poorly. He wrote nonspecific lists punctuated with, sometimes without, serial commas. Under the weight of Benadryl, he struggled to heave from his gut precisely what he wanted to say. Words and beginnings flitted quickly past him and missed the page entirely. He rarely reached conclusions, or even mere endings, anymore. So, of course, he jealously dreamed of a little help from the AI to come, the literary assistant of immortals he’d die before seeing. The Infinite Literature. InLit.
General availability was coming soon, just a three-month delay. But it was not yet ready for Rafe.
He swilled a beer on his couch and imagined writing just one great novel in one shift, one long night, InLit correcting his every bad habit, his every human mistake, churning content even as he dozed or grabbed another beer, stared at the ceiling or watched Roomba lights cast shadows up his apartment walls. Perhaps InLit would continue Rafe’s sentences and paragraphs after he’d died, and his novel would come into being posthumously. Would he be the author then? Too philosophical, he thought. Would anyone read it? Better question. There were already so many novels. Was anyone reading those? He then thought the worst: the act of writing had grown into a mere pastime, gone the way of meditation or hitting the gym. Writing was the new reading: magazine reading, airport reading, effortless, self-interested, inconsequential.
When Rafe finished what would never be revised or read, he became aware of the sunrise, the day’s opening gloam, through a tiny window. His Thursday lay before him, already wasted. A tickle in his throat indicated the onset of exhaustion from Benadryls and beers. He brushed a snowdrift of dead skin from his crotch to the floor, watched it descend to the carpet as if in a globe. Once in bed he would sleep for thirteen hours.
For now he stood to watch the sun, and felt again the only gift of dying: pain. Sure, the immortal class might see this sunrise, but could their hearts break? Probably not, he liked to believe. Pink with purple cloudbursts, and bisected by a long, sullen jetstream, the day’s first light show somehow failed to break his heart too.
He brushed his laptop shut and swallowed another Benadryl with a last slug of beer, and mentally prepared for a hangover later in the day—he always had them now—and he went to bed, happily deluded for the moment by a sense of his minor significance. What if he were the last human writer? The last unaided by InLit?
A month later Rafe began another round of chemotherapy. He sat in a semicircle with three other unfortunate, dying patients, the last of Earth’s cancerous. He wrote a few small phrases and clauses in a notebook, among the final fragmentary thoughts scrawled without some help from AI, and decided never to write again.
…mislabeled our frailties as the Human Condition, and extended it (unfairly?) to all. It ought to be the Death Condition, for the few of us who will no longer be.
Too numinous, he thought, and exed out the page. Two months later he would die, survived by two brothers and a sister, all of whom lived forever. Their six novels about him were never read, but they were among the first InLit triumphs.