Comic Revival

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Other  |  House: Booksie Classic
When cold logic and reason rule the world, humour can only survive underground. Stemmon sets out to find the source of these secret transmissions, but he discovers more than he expected.

(Note: this is a first draft, suggestions for improvements are welcome.)

Submitted: May 26, 2008

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Submitted: May 26, 2008



Stemmon was seven years old when he first heard it; he was seven and the Second Age of Reason was one hundred and seven years into its Golden Era.
Stemmon’s parents often said he must have been born knowing how to use all the household gadgets, and he certainly seemed to be able to make them do anything he wanted. His favourite machine was the voice-box, like television but without pictures. It was mostly for music and government announcements – in fact these days, in the Second Age of Reason, those were the only acceptable uses for it. But if you knew how to work it – and young Stemmon did – you could find the occasional pirate station hiding in the data stream. At seven, Stemmon wasn’t concerned with the legality of what he listened to – he just liked playing around with the machine. And so it was that one afternoon, his mother heard him laughing.
“What’s up, Stemmy?” his mother asked, anxiously. A page from the Good Parent’s Guide to Your Child flashed before her eyes: ‘Bouts of uncontrolled emotion could indicate mental instability – report all unusual behaviour to your doctor.’ “Stemmy?” she repeated, “What’s wrong? Why did you laugh?”
The youngster looked up at his mother, almost apologetically. “I heard something funny, Mum, that’s all. On the voice-box” he added, gesturing to his headphones.
“What’s funny about the voice-box?” demanded Stemmon’s mother. “Music isn’t funny, and I hope you weren’t laughing at Our Leader, Stemmy. They punish you for that, you know. Our Leader is not to be mocked.”
“Yes, Mum. I mean, no, Mum. I mean, I wasn’t laughing at Our Leader. It wasn’t his voice. It was someone else – he had a funny, squeaky voice and talked all silly. It made me laugh. Sorry, Mum.”
“Well, don’t let it happen again.  Laughing isn’t right, you know, not for a big boy like you. If someone outside caught you laughing like that, they’d be sure to recommend you for testing, and you don’t want that, do you?”
“No, Mum.” replied Stemmon, obediently. He didn’t really know what ‘testing’ was, except that it was something that nobody wanted to happen to them. He was glad his mother hadn’t actually made him promise not to listen to the funny man any more. He would just have to be careful and search the data-streams only when he was alone.
So began Stemmon Harridan’s secret life. As soon as he could, he bought a small, personal voice-box and hid it in his room. He spent all his pocket money upgrading it, so that it was powerful enough to search the entire bandwidth. He picked up sweet wrappers and left them in his room where his mother would find them. This served to account for his ‘missing’ money. It also earned him a few extra visits to the dentist, but it was worth it. Just one month after he had perfected his personal voice-box, he found the voice he’d been searching for. The high-pitched squeaking and strangled pronunciation still made him smile (he’d learned not to laugh out loud – too dangerous) but now that he was older, Stemmon started to listen to what the voices were actually saying. To begin with, it seemed like a string of meaningless sentences, strung together at random. Was this just a computer test, Stemmon wondered, turning out nonsense words at varying frequencies? But after a while, the nonsense developed a logic of its own. There were lots of different voices, Stemmon discovered. As well as the squeaky one there was a low and slow one, then a fast and shrill one, and a loud and shouty one, and a smooth one that sounded a bit like Our Leader. Stemmon worried about that one when he first heard it, but it was alright, he realised, because they called the smooth voice Hercules Grid-pipe Thing (or something like that) and Our Leader’s real name was Arthur Alexander the Third. His momentary scruple thus disposed of, Stemmon gave himself over completely to the glorious world of lunacy and alternative logic that filled his ears every night.
Stemmon spent more and more time listening to his voice-box. He started to carry it with him, bobbing his head and clicking his fingers as if he were listening to music, when all the time he was listening to Eccles and Bluebottle talk about having the time written down on a piece of paper. By now he had heard the same jokes many times, but they still made him smile. He began to look at the world around him and imagine what characters like ‘Dennis Bloodnock’ or ‘Minnie Bannister’ would say about it. He had to work hard not to laugh now at the speeches of Arthur Alexander, Our Leader. He really did sound so much like the awful Griptype-Thynne. Some of the new laws seemed ridiculous – the one about not reading old books, for example. Our Leader claimed that since they were written during an Age of Unreason, the contents were meaningless. But if that were so, Stemmon wondered, where was the harm in them? And why was laughing so wrong that his beloved humour had to hide in pirate stations? The more Stemmon thought about it, the less sense it made. He wished he could find out who was broadcasting these shows and talk to them. Maybe they had the answers. But of course, they were hidden. By now the Age of Reason was more than ten years into its Glorious Rule, and penalties for dissidents had become more severe. It was a miracle that the station had not been discovered already, Stemmon realised, when so many of the other pirate stations had disappeared.
Then, just before Stemmon turned fifteen, another miracle happened – right on the High Street. A woman is a grey-and-black business suit stopped and said, “Excuse me, young man, what time is it?” Stemmon nearly swallowed his tongue. This was the opening line of a sketch he knew by heart – and had heard again that very morning. He fought his voice under control, before he looked at his watch. He stared – it was exactly eight o’clock. The very time mentioned in the sketch. He didn’t dare open his mouth for fear of the laugh that would escape. The stranger looked at him in concern. “Are you alright?” she asked gently. “I have a piece of paper here, if it helps.” Stemmon looked up in amazement – and a little alarm. Who was this woman? Was it possible that she, too, listened to illegal voice-box? His mouth flapped, the laugh had gone and appeared to have taken all powers of speech with it. Then the woman laughed, softly, and whispered “Ying-tong-iddle-iy-po”.
“N-n-n-needle, nardle, noo” Stemmon managed eventually. Then, “You know? You listen to it too?”
The woman beckoned him to bend down his head, then she breathed in his ear three magic words: “I broadcast it.”
* * *
The mysterious woman introduced herself as Marcia, and led Stemmon through a maze of alleyways, into a dull grey building, exactly like the hundreds of other dull grey buildings around the city. The heavy door shut behind him with an earth-shaking boom, waking Stemmon from the stupor he’d been in since he left the high street. He looked around him at the featureless corridor and a feeling of unease crept over him. No-one knew where he was – even he didn’t know where he was. What had he been thinking of, following a complete stranger into a place like this? He stopped dead in his tracks, trying to find a way to ask questions, without appearing rude. Marcia turned and smiled at him.
“Just along here, you’ll meet the Director General.” she stepped backwards a few metres, then opened a door in the wall. She stood there, with the door open, and held out her hand to Stemmon. “Come on, then,” she coaxed.
It was all so harmless. No-one was pushing or threatening him. Marcia had wobbled on her heels when she walked backwards. She wasn’t dangerous – just a lover of humour, just like him. Mentally shaking himself for mistrusting the first soul-mate he had ever met, Stemmon walked through the door. Marcia gently closed the door behind them, and motioned Stemmon toward the middle of the room.
He was looking at an old-fashioned desk, with a smartly-dressed man behind it, and an empty chair in front. Silently, the man gestured to the chair and Stemmon sat down. Behind him, he heard Marcia’s voice, “Mr. John Snagg, Mr. Stemmon Harridan.”
Snagg. John Snagg. Was it possible that here was the one they spoke of on his beloved voice-box – Director-General of the Beeb Easy? He was real? Stemmon didn’t even realise he’d been holding his breath until his chest began to burn. As he sucked in air again he heard Mr. Snagg say, “Thank you, Marcia.” and the sound of the door closing. The silence that followed seemed to Stemmon to last a hundred years. The man behind the desk neither moved nor spoke. Finally, Stemmon found his voice.
“Mr. Snagg? Sir, are you him? The one from the voice-box?”
The face behind the desk smiled gently. “I’m not the John Snagg but I am named for him. The original Mr. Snagg has been dead for over two hundred years. However, I am the Director-General of his programs today. We owe a lot to the vision of those times.”
Stemmon was stunned. “But sir, Mr. Snagg, you can’t mean … these voices, are they from … before?”
“Of course they are, boy. Who today would – or could – create such works of art? Our people are fed cold, hard reason with their mother’s milk. These programs from the past are vital if we are to spark the imaginations of the young. Subduing individual thought serves us well as regards civil obedience and public safety, but it leaves us with our geniuses unnoticed, leaving their potential to rot in the ground. We find humour an invaluable way of awakening and identifying our thinkers.” Mr. Snagg’s face was still gentle, but his voice grew flatter and colder as he concluded this speech. Stemmon’s sense of uneasiness came back in a rush. He didn’t like the turn this conversation had taken. Mr. Snagg was talking as if he was Government, as if he worked for Our Leader. Stemmon stared at Mr. Snagg in horror, not knowing how to phrase the question.
Mr. Snagg answered the look as if it had been words. “Yes, my boy, your ‘pirate’ station is sanctioned by Our Leader. Sorry, was the illegality part of the attraction? All strictly above-board, I’m afraid.” Snagg’s face had lost it’s gentle expression now – it was as blank and hard as his voice. He pulled a sheaf of papers from a drawer in his desk.
“Stemmon Harridan, you will be taken from here to your new home. Where you go from there will depend entirely on what you decide. No, don’t say anything. The situation will be explained to you fully and you will be given until tomorrow noon to make your decision.”
Snagg lifted a large briefcase onto the desk, it’s handle towards Stemmon.
“In here,” Snagg told him, “you will find all the information you need. Take it away with you and study it. Anything you find unclear you can ask me about tomorrow, before giving me your final answer.” Snagg’s gentle smile re-appeared, briefly. “We really would rather you joined us of your own volition, Mr. Harridan.” 
Stemmon stood, and picked up the briefcase. It was heavy, and he remembered that Snagg had placed it on the desk apparently without difficulties. He eyed the little man warily.
Snagg spoke into his communicator, “Send in the escort for Mr. Harridan.” A door on the far wall opened, revealing a pair of guards wearing well-tailored uniforms, and prominent gun-belts. Stemmon started to move towards them when Snagg called after him.
“One more thing, Mr. Harridan.” The chill politeness froze Stemmon where he stood. “Please be assured that we have more than enough information to pull you or any members of your family into testing. Displease us, and it is highly likely that those tests will come back with unfortunate recommendations. You may go.” he added. Stemmon followed the guards blindly, his mind a whirl. It seemed impossible that mere hours ago he had been walking down the High Street without a care in the world. How long would it be, he wondered, before he was missed? Probably not until the evening – he often stayed out all day at weekends. He hoped that his mother wouldn’t start asking questions. Snagg might find that ‘displeasing’.
The guards led him to a small, comfortably furnished suite of rooms. It was all plain, serviceable stuff – not luxurious, but a far cry from the prison cell he had been expecting. He walked in and laid the heavy case on the bed. He turned to see the guards shut his door and heard them take up positions outside. OK, he thought, this is a prison – just not a cell. No leg-irons or barred windows, no windows at all for that matter, but a prison nonetheless.
Stemmon opened the briefcase. It felt like a lot of reading to get through, so he’d better get started.
* * *
Hours later, Stemmon was holding the last two sheets of paper. They were both letters to his family. The first was phrased as if it came from him, explaining that he had been offered a job with Our Leader and would be living at Government House from now on. It promised frequent letters and a share of his salary every month. It was cheerful and chatty – exactly the sort of letter Stemmon himself would have written. It was chilling exactly how much information they had on him, but not as chilling as the second letter. That was shorter, and written in official government-speak. It informed the Harridan family that Stemmon had been found guilty of gross disrespect and sentenced to hard labour for life. An attached slip instructed Stemmon to give the appropriate letter to Mr. Snagg to indicate his decision.
Stemmon stared at the two pages. From his point of view it worked out the same – one life-sentence or another. But for his family … Stemmon hesitated. If he had a government job, his family would be safe. If he was a convict, they would be under special scrutiny for as long as they lived. The job he had been offered made him sick to the stomach. He wanted nothing more than to tell Snagg exactly what he thought of his whole twisted operation, and taking whatever punishment he was given, but he wouldn’t sacrifice his family to his finer feelings.
Stemmon paced his rooms, all attempts at sleep abandoned. What he had read in the files had disgusted him – to take something as beautiful as laughter and use it to entrap anyone who dared to imagine life other than it was. And on top of that, to ask Stemmon himself to work in broadcasting it on the so-called ‘pirate’ frequency. How could Stemmon ever listen to those voices again, knowing what he did now? Knowing that with every quirky observation, Neddy, Henry and the rest would be condemning someone else to Stemmon’s own fate? It was unbearable. But the alternative, the danger it would expose his family to … unthinkable. Stemmon knew he had no choice but to take the job. He re-opened the files and began to study the instructions about how to select material. It had to encourage thought in the abstract, without inciting to direct revolt. He would not make the selections himself, but he was responsible for checking everything that he broadcasted, so he had to know the rules. No dates mentioned, no-one being openly rude to an authority figure, the list went on. Worn out, Stemmon eventually fell asleep amid piles of paper.
* * *
By the time he was nineteen, Stemmon was practically running the broadcast room single-handed. It felt like a lifetime since he had wordlessly handed Snagg the letter for his mother, telling of his good fortune. He had written several letters since – all carefully vetted before delivery, of course. His talent with gadgetry dramatically improved the technical efficiency of the broadcasting systems, and got Stemmon noticed by Snagg and his cronies. Promotion followed promotion and now Stemmon was where he wanted to be. Using his own, private, security check he made sure that he was unobserved. He hadn’t had a spot-check in over a year, but you could never be too careful. A final scan to confirm that all official headsets were offline, and Stemmon’s own disk of audio was released into the system, running subliminally underneath the stream of approved material. He’d been working on this particular disk for the last eight months, and he had others in production. All the ‘unsuitable’ material – not just comedy but literature, information about heroes of the past. Snagg had said he wanted to encourage thought. Very well, Stemmon had decided, I’ll give these thinkers something to think about. He had also managed to alter a good number of homing beacons, devices which enabled Snagg’s spies to identify who was listening to their station. Snagg had lamented the fact that listener figures were dropping, but it had been put down to the natural deadening of curiosity that was an unavoidable side-effect of a docile society.
Stemmon knew he was likely to be caught out eventually, but he also knew that somewhere, out in the great wide world, a handful of young thinkers were waking up. 
--- The End ---

© Copyright 2017 Q Bassellaitch. All rights reserved.

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