Short Story Our last effort to bring culture and literature to our readers was such a success we've decided to do it again. So here's another exclusive tale from The New English Library Book of Internet Stories.
This story is by China Miéville, author of the acclaimed novels King Rat, and Perdido Street Station.
You can check out the first story we published, Crusoe.com by Matt Whyman, here.
An End To Hunger
by China Miéville
I met Aykan in a pub sometime late in 1997. I was with friends, and one of them was loudly talking about the internet, which we were all very excited about.
'Fucking internet's fucking dead, man. Yesterday's bullshit,' I heard from two tables away. Aykan was staring at me, gazing at me curiously, like he wasn't sure I'd let him crash this party.
He was Turkish (I asked because of his name). His English was flawless. He had none of the throaty accent I half-expected, though each of his words did sound finished in a slightly unnatural way.
He smoked high tar incessantly ('Fucking national sport: they wouldn't let me in fucking 'Stanbul without sufficient shit in my lungs.'). He liked me because I wasn't intimidated by him. I let him call me names and didn't get my back up when he was rude. Which he was, often.
My friends hated him, and after he'd left I nodded and murmured agreement with them about what a weirdo, about how rude and where he got off, but the fact was I couldn't get worked up about Aykan. He told us off for getting moist about email and the web. He told us wired connection was dead. I asked him what he was into instead and he took a long drag on his stinking cigarette and shook his head, dismissively exhaling the smoke.
'Nanotech,' he said. 'Little shit.'
He didn't explain that. I left him my phone number but I never expected to hear from him. Ten months later he called me. It was just luck that I lived at the same address, and I told him that.
'People don't fucking move, man,' he said, incomprehensibly. I arranged to meet him after work. He sounded a bit distracted, a bit miserable even.
'Do you play games, man?' he said. 'N64?'
'I've got a Playstation,' I told him.
'Playstation licks shit, man,' he told me. 'Bullshit digital controls. I'll give you the ads, though. Playstation ads sing sweet hymns, but you want a fucking analog control stick, or you're playing once removed. You know anyone with N64?'
As soon as we met he handed me a little grey plastic square. It was a game pack for a Nintendo 64 system, but it was roughcast and imperfectly finished, its seam bizarrely ragged. It had no label, only a sticker scrawled with illegible handwriting.
'What's this?' I asked.
'Find someone with N64,' he said. 'Project of mine.'
We talked for a couple of hours. I asked Aykan what he did for a living. He did that dismissive smoking thing again. He muttered about computer consultancy and web design. I thought the internet was dead, I told him. He agreed fervently.
I asked him what nanotech stuff he was doing and he became ragged with enthusiasm. He caught me with crazy looks and grinned at odd intervals, so I couldn't tell if he was bullshitting me.
'Don't talk to me about little miniature fucking arterial cleaning robots, don't fucking talk to me about medical reconstruction, or microwhateverthefucks to clean up oil slicks, ok? That's bullshit to get people on board. What's going to be big in nanotech? Eh? Like any other fucking thing...' he banged the table and slopped beer. 'The money's in games.'
Aykan had extraordinary schemes. He told me about his prototype. It was crude, he said, but it was a start. 'It's old school meets new school,' he kept saying. 'Kids with fucking conkers, in the playground.' The game was called Blood Battle, or Bloody Hell, or Bloodwar. He hadn't decided.
'You buy a little home injection kit, like you're diabetic. And you build up your own serum from the pack provided. Like when you play a wargame you choose how many fuckers on horseback and how many artillery, right? Well, you have different vials full of microbots that interact with your blood, each type with different defences and attacks, and there are miniature repair robots like medics, all of these fuckers microsize. And you make yourself a blood army, with electrical frontline, chemical attack forces, good defences, whatever you've decided.
'Then when you go to the playground and you meet your little friend who's also bought Bloodwar, and you prick your fingers, right, like you're going to be bloodbrothers, and you each squeeze out a drop of blood into a special dish, and you fucking mix 'em up.'
I stared at him incredulously while he grinned and smoked. 'And then you sit back and watch the blood shimmer and bubble and move about. Because there's a war on.' He grinned for a long time.
'How do you know who's won?' I asked eventually.
'The dish,' he said. 'Comes with a little display and speakers in the base. Picks up signals from the 'bots and amplifies them. You hear battle sounds and your troops reporting casualties, and at the end you get a score and you see who's won.'
He sat back a minute and smoked some more, watching me. I tried to think of something sardonic to say, but was defeated. He leaned in suddenly and pulled out a little Swiss army knife.
'I'll show you,' he said intensely. 'You up for it? I can show you now. I'm primed. We know you'll lose because you've got no troops, but you'll see how it works.' The knife waited above his thumb, and he gazed at me for the go-ahead. I hesitated and shook my head. I couldn't tell if he was serious or not, if he'd actually injected himself with these lunatic game-pieces, but he was weirding me out.
He had other ideas. There were spinoffs for Bloodwar, and there were other more complicated games, involving outside equipment like airport metal detectors that you walked through, that set off particular reactions from your tiny little internal robots. But Bloodwar was his favourite.
I gave him my email address and thanked him for the N64 pack. He wouldn't tell me where he lived, but he gave me his mobile number. I called it at seven the next morning.
'Jesus fucking Christ, Aykan,' I said. 'This game, thing, whatever... it's total genius.'
I had been curious enough to rent a Nintendo 64 console from Blockbusters on my way home, to play the thing he'd given me. It was utterly extraordinary. It was not a game. It was a totally immersing piece of art, a multilayered environment that passed through anarchic and biting political commentary, bleak dreamscapes, erotic staging posts. There was no 'gameplay', only exploration, of the environment, of the conspiracies being unmasked. The viewpoint shifted and changed vertiginously. There were moments of shocking power.
I was stunned. I pulled an all-nighter, and called him as early as I thought I could get away with.
'What is this shit?' I asked. 'When's it coming out? I'll buy a fucking console just for this.'
'It's not coming out, man,' Aykan said. He sounded quite awake. 'It's just some shit I did. Nintendo are bastards, man,' he said. 'They'd never license it. No fucker'd produce it anyway. It's just for my friends. The hardest thing, let me tell you, the hardest thing isn't the programming, it's making the housing. If they read off CDs or whatever, no fucking problem. But putting the software into that poxy stupid little plastic square, and making it so it'll fit in the casing with all the right connectors. That's the hard bit. That's why I'm not doing that shit any more. Boring.'