by Douglas Hackle
“But Finnegans Wake is a tour de force of linguistic experimentation, intertextuality, and recondite comedy,” protested the vapory-azure, bespectacled, mustached form of James Joyce’s ghost from its containment in the transparent bubble chamber at the center of the room. “You simply cannot reject — ”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Joyce,” interrupted Nigel Vekk, Editor-in-Chief for the Earth Literature imprint of Intergalactic Publishing Limited, “but your book was impenetrable and incomprehensible when it was first published back in 1939, understood only by a handful of academics with way too much time on their hands — the type of people who had never, for example, had the misfortune of being driven to cannibalism as a result of starvation. And that was 10,000 years ago! The book’s relevancy today? Forget about it. I do hereby declare Finnegans Wake by James Joyce retroactively rejected!”
Nigel punctuated his declaration with a loud whack of his weighty gavel against the sound block on his elephantine desk. At the same moment the gavel fell, the intern assistant editor, Lanying Ichihara, began manipulating an array of buttons, toggle switches, dials, and touchscreens on the hulking, sprawling, mainframe-like workstation that stood embedded in the obsidian floor like some mechanical beast, not far from Nigel’s desk. Her rapid flicks and punches resulted in the permanent erasure of Finnegans Wake from every public, commercial, and private database in the known universe.
Finnegans Wake was effectively annihilated.
Lanying pushed a final button to send the ghost of James Joyce back to the Other Side.
“Nooooooooooo!” the spirit cried, arms outstretched as its misty, ectoplasmic form rapidly faded to nothing, leaving the Dead Author Summoning bubble empty.
The year was 12,011 CE. Over the past thirteen or so millennia, many great writers had produced many great books, not just on Earth but also in the seven other known star systems that were home to intelligent life forms. The problem was that this prodigious output never saw a break. After one generation made its contributions to the ever-expanding literary canon, the next generation of immortality-seeking scribes would put in theirs, and the next generation theirs, ad infinitum. Not only that, but each intelligent world was naturally curious to read and study the great and not-so-great literature of the seven other intelligent worlds — in translation. As an inevitable consequence of this situation, too many books came to be in existence, both in terms of classics and more forgettable fare. Too many to decide which ones should be taught in schools, too many to adapt into films, too many to even catalog.
Certainly too many to read.
To simplify life, the United Federation of the Known Universe established Intergalactic Publishing Ltd. (IPL) and, in doing so, abolished all other book publishers. IPL became responsible for the publication and dissemination of all new ebooks in the universe. However, IPL’s more important function was to oversee, maintain, and make occasional upgrades to a supercomputer that reviewed the universe’s known catalog of books to decide which ones should stay and which ones should go. And with the advent of advanced quantum-based, spiritworld-communication technology, it seemed only proper for IPL to take the time to inform deceased authors when their work was being retroactively rejected.
Nigel extracted a Twinkie from his desk drawer. Elbows resting on her console and holding her somewhat sour face in her hands, Lanying waited impatiently for her superior to devour the snack cake and give her further instructions.
“Okay,” Nigel said, wiping Twinkie cream from his lips with his sleeve. He squinted over at a holographic screen projecting from an iridescent pinhole at the end of his desk. “Next on the docket is . . . Moby Dick by Herman Melville.”
Lanying worked the board — typing, tapping, pressing, punching, pulling, flicking.
A moment later, the blue-glowing ghost of Herman Melville materialized in the diamond-polycarbonate composite bubble. The apparition’s thick shock of hair was combed away from his forehead, his bristly beard roughly square-shaped just liked in his portraits and few surviving photographs. Dressed in formal nineteenth-century attire — frock coat, waistcoat, necktie, trousers — the spirit looked scared and confused, not to mention blue, both literally and figuratively.
They always looked scared, confused, and blue thought Nigel.
“Greetings, Mr. Melville,” he said. “On behalf of Intergalactic Publishing Limited, the universe’s last publishing house, I would like first to apologize for this sudden intrusion on your afterlife. But the burden has fallen on me to inform you that your book Moby Dick is scheduled for retroactive rejection. In compliance with said rejection, all digital and paper copies of your book will now be permanently wiped away from existence.”
His spiel always brought the spirits to the moment so to speak — that scared, where-the-hell-am-I look rapidly drained from Melville’s visage, replaced by an expression of shocked disbelief.
“Moby Dick? Muh — muh — my Moby Dick?” the phantasm stuttered. “Why you can’t do that. I mean, not to sound the braggart, sir, but Moby Dick is one of the enduring classics of earth’s literature.”
Nigel leaned in toward his holo screen, familiarizing himself with the details of the case.
“Yes, that appears so, Mr. Melville,” he concurred several beats later. “However, your book is not being rejected due to any lack of literary merit. Moreover, it’s not on the rejection block due to any fault of your own. The culprit here, rather, is the organic, evolving nature of language itself. The specific problem that developed with your book is nearly as old as the book itself.”
“You see, not too long after your death, the word ‘dick’ morphed into a slang term meaning ‘penis.’ Unfortunately, as soon as this happened, it spelled the inevitable doom of your novel. Granted, it’s a testament to the brilliance and profundity of your symbolism-packed whaling adventure that it has survived as long as it has. But nowadays, there’s not a high school teacher in the universe who can lecture on your book without the whole classroom snickering, giggling, or else engaging in full-force, pants-peeing laughter whenever the teacher or a classmate utters the d-word during discussion. Particularly among the younger generation, it’s simply no longer possible to discuss Moby Dick seriously.”
Upon uttering the word “dick,” Nigel was unable to suppress a genuine chuckle of his own. He succeeded in stopping it from becoming a full-fledged giggling fit, but not before a Twinkie crumb shot out from his nose and bounced off his desk onto the floor.
“See what I mean?” he said. “Case in point.”
“Well, that’s no reason to annihilate my magnum opus,” Melville said, a note of despair creeping into his voice. “Can we not just change “Dick” to — oh, I don’t know — Duck maybe? Yes, yes, yes. Duck. Let’s rename the book Moby Duck. That would be perfectly agreeable with me.”
“I’m truly sorry, Mr. Melville, but it’s a little too late for that. You see, there’s just too many goddamn books out there, sir. The easier, faster, and cheaper solution here is to destroy your book, not revise it.” Nigel then cleared his throat before raising his voice to sentencing pitch. “I do hereby declare Moby Dick by Herman Melville retroactively rejected!”
THWACK! sounded the gavel.
Lanying deftly manipulated the controls, zapping Moby Dick from the fabric of being.
“No, you simply can’t do this! You mustn’t! You . . . nooooooooooooooooo!” the ghost of Melville cried as it evaporated back to the Great Beyond.
Nigel yawned, glanced at the time indicator at the top of his holo screen. 11:17 AM. Damn, the morning is just dragging, he observed mentally. I have to learn not to look at that stupid clock every ten minutes, that’s my problem, I have to . . . .
Nigel’s eyes dropped a few degrees, honing in on the next scheduled rejection.
He’d heard rumors of the possibility of this particular retroactive rejection taking place sometime within the next few hundred years. But they were just that — rumors. He certainly had never expected it to take place under his own editorial watch.
Holy shit . . . .
“Um, er, next on the docket is . . . the Holy Bible by, um . . . God.”
Lanying stared incredulously at Nigel.
Eventually, with his face contorted into a confused grimace, he asked, “Does the summoning module even have the capacity to do this?”
“Maybe,” Lanying squeak-croaked.
The two sat in relative silence for a spell, the only sound the steady hum of the two neutrino-antiquark reactors attached to Lanying’s station.
“Well, I guess we should probably give it a go,” Nigel said, straining to keep his voice steady.
“Okay,” replied Lanying.
Type, tap, press, push, punch, pull, flick . . . .
A bead of sweat sprouted on Nigel’s temple, gravity worming it down the side of his twitching face.
The entire rejection chamber began to shake as if struck by an earthquake. The usually unwavering volume of the twin reactors’ humming crescendoed as if the power sources were experiencing overload and on the verge of meltdown.
A few tense moments later, God materialized not inside the summoning bubble but in front of it. At first He/She/It appeared in the form of a spinning sphere of brilliant green and purple fire humming in sympathetic vibration with the reactors. The dazzling light dissolved as the sphere elongated, transforming into an anthropomorphic form: an elderly, white-bearded, white-robed patriarch, not unlike the Renaissance God pictured on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The room ceased shaking, and the whir of the reactors fell back to normal volume.
“Greetings, guh — guh — God,” Nigel faltered. “On behalf of Intergalactic Publishing Limited, the universe’s last publishing house, I would like first to apologize for this sudden intrusion on Your, uh, divine affairs. But the burden has fallen on me to — ”
“I know what burden has fallen on you,” God said, his stentorian voice resounding through the high-ceilinged, domed room.
“Um, yeah. I guess You would know. So it’s probably unnecessary for me to inform You why Your book is being retroactively rejected, right?”
“Wrong. I do not know why it’s being rejected.”
“But, uh, I thought you, like, knew everything?” It was a question.
“Far from it. I could know everything, sure. However, I choose to know most things but not all things, lest omniscience make My existence dull and devoid of possibilities and wonderment. But regarding this rejection of the Holy Bible, let Me take a guess. Is it being rejected because of the abundance of numerical errors found in the Old Testament?”
“Then it must be because of the various factual inconsistencies and contradictions that exist between the four Gospels?”
“No, that’s not it.”
“Hmm. Okay. How about the unexplained shift in my personality from the vengeful Deity of the Old Testament to the loving God of the New Testament? That’s it, isn’t it?”
“No, nothing like that.”
The Creator threw His arms akimbo, a look of perplexity crimping His face. “Okay, I give up then. What is it?”
“The Holy Bible is being rejected because Intergalactic Publishing has a strict policy against multiple submissions, at least in regards to holy writ.”
God’s bushy, alabaster brow furrowed even deeper.
“In other words,” Nigel continued with a dry gulp, “only one submission at a time. And at roughly the same time in ancient history, God, You divinely inspired more than a few individuals to write multiple versions of Your Divine Word. Hence we have the Holy Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Hindu Shruti and Smriti texts, Buddhist scripture, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and many other examples of sacred writ.”
“But I never knew Intergalactic Publishing had a policy against multiple subs,” God said, seemingly both vexed and genuinely surprised.
If anyone could have had the foreknowledge to know that Intergalactic Publishing would eventually come into being, and that it would enforce a policy of no multiple submissions, it would have been You, Nigel couldn’t help but think.
“Careful. I heard that,” God said.
Nigel winced and tried to retract his head back into his body like a turtle. It didn’t work. “I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect. I only meant — ”
God waved him off. “Then I suppose you’ll have to reject all My other divinely inspired texts on the same grounds, won’t you?”
“Yes, God. But only the Holy Bible today. My holo file here indicates that our supercomputer wishes to minimize any potential negative cultural backlash by abolishing only one of Your divinely inspired texts at a time.”
“Makes sense. Well, that’s all fine and good with me, actually. You see, I have a new divine text. Though I haven’t yet picked the individual or individuals whom I shall divinely inspire to write it, I would like to plant its seeds in this universe as soon as possible. But it appears I’ll have to wait for all My other divinely inspired texts to be removed — or ‘rejected,’ as you’re so fond of saying. Is that correct?”
“That is correct.”
“Very well. My patience is infinite. Yes, I’m quite certain humankind and the other intelligent life forms in this universe will really like My latest effort. See, I’ve already introduced and inspired this new text into seventeen other parallel universes. As a matter of fact, in four of those universes, my hand-picked, divinely inspired scribes have already completed the physical task of writing the book. Even now as we speak, this text is helping to pivotally shape the histories of those four universes.”
Nigel hoped he wasn’t pushing his luck, but he was obliged to observe the duties of his post. “I wholeheartedly apologize, God, but we will be unable to accept this new submission of Yours.”
“Unable to? What do you mean? Why?”
“Regarding the Word of God, Intergalactic Publishing also has a strict policy of no simultaneous submissions. This means that we cannot accept a submission that has also been submitted to one or more parallel universes. Also, since you’ve indicated that your book already exists in its complete form in four parallel universes, we would have to consider it a reprint. I’m sorry, but IPL also has a strict policy against reprints. However, if You would like to erase this book from both the matter and collective memory of those parallel universes — all seventeen of them — you can then submit it here. But that’s entirely up to You, of course.”
God appeared to be lost in divine thought for a time before he next spoke. “Hmm. So no multiple subs, sim subs, or reprints. Ah, well. Although that sucks, I would not presume to be above the rules that govern everyone else — even though, of course, I totally am above the rules that govern everyone else. Do as you see fit, sir — carry on with this business.”
“I do hereby declare the Holy Bible by God retroactively . . . rejected,” Nigel said in a wimpy near-whisper. He did not slam the gavel home with all his strength as was his habit. Instead, he barely tapped the sound block.
“Oh, there’ll be no need for that,” God said turning towards Lanying as she began to work the controls. God snapped his fingers. “There. I’ve done it for you. All written and digital copies of the Bible have been annihilated. Oh, and save your reactor fuel. I can show myself out.”
With that God vanished from the room.
Dabbing his forehead with a tissue, Nigel sank back into his chair, leaned as far back as the seat would allow, let a deep exhale of relief escape from his chest.
Nigel took a moment to compose himself. His thoughts meandered. First he thanked God for not striking him dead for his lifelong sins of gluttony, lust, wrath, greed, envy, pride, and sloth. Then he found himself praying to God for forgiveness for presiding over the rejection and annihilation of the Holy Bible, despite the fact that God had been so cool and casual and such an overall good sport about the whole thing. Next, his mind wandered to his customary workaday sexual fantasies with Lanying clad in a naughty schoolgirl uniform and wearing sexy cat-eye glasses.
“Mr. Vekk?” Lanying said a minute later, startling him.
“Oh, sorry,” he said perking up in his chair. “Okay, where were we?”
Nigel glanced up at the holo monitor. “Next up on the docket we have . . . Charles Dickens.”
Lanying sighed. “Again?”
DOUGLAS HACKLE likes to write stories that are bizarre, surreal, absurd, darkly humorous, satirical, horrific, macabre, veiny, vainglorious, childishly stupid or some combination thereof. His stories have [vein poppet] appeared in several online and print publications. Douglas resides in Northeast Ohio with his wife and little boy, and he’s not exactly sure how that blasted vein poppet be gettin’ all up in his bio n’ shit.