I had the honour of hearing Ray Bradbury speak at a writer's conference I attended some years ago. This story isn't based on what happened. But then again, it is, because he gave us magic and a much-needed reality check, all in one well-chosen speech.
Pens, quills, styluses for sale at the Story-Maker's Faire. Typewriters, telexes, telegram-forms, and these are just the midway stalls. Paper, parchment, pretty little pixels glittering in the sunset.
Inspiration? Buck a throw, mac, a buck a throw, try your luck, send the pretty lady on your arm home with something she can show off to Mother.
The noises and colours and lights and the smell, that reek of sugar and used toner cartridges. The hawkers shill like hawkers always do, claiming publishing is just a case of money on the table and a straightforward game of skill and chance. The hipster rubes pretend they don't care, then blow the whole night's entertainment budget on one crap shoot, just when they think none of their friends are looking.
There's more to the Faire than the bric-a-brac, though. Past the midway, under the big top, there's a trio of stages with speakers pronouncing on Writing of the Future.
The first stage is made of unpainted steel, welding seams blackened like torture scars at the corners. The stage is lit with a tangle of fluorescent tubes hanging above it, all wrapped up with various colours of rubber-insulated wires. It's impossible to make out which wires are for support and which supply the electricity.
The stage is set with two objects. The larger one is an apparatus made of the same steel as the stage. It might be a giant mobile. It might be a time machine. It might be a feat of engineering impossible to categorise within the bounds of known history. It might be, come to think of it, from outer space. In the blue-white glow of the fluorescent tubes, there are gears and levers, buttons and handles, the screw of Archimedes and the engine of Babbage, all fabulated together into a skeletal thing.
The smaller object is human in form and male in gender. He has curly hair that bounces from his head in flaxen coiled springs. He has round, wire-rimmed glasses, and a grey bow-tie pinned to his white shirt. He stands next to the apparatus where the largest set of levers are clustered.
A crowd forms. The man begins to speak. He explains that the apparatus is a Story Machine, and that it will tell a story however the reader wants it to be told. The machine can make the story happy or sad. It can let the reader read it from the male protagonist's point of view or the female protagonist's point of view. The reader can decide how quickly the action goes, and how the characters will react to each plot point.
Some teenage boys at the back of the hall call for a demonstration, and the man on the stage gets flustered. As it turns out, the machine is not finished. Not all of the parts are installed yet. Without the parts, no content can be uploaded.
"I'm really sorry," he stammers. "There's been a lot of bugs."
Robbed of their grand finale, the crowd dissolves. Some people wander back to the midway. Others make for the second stage.
The second stage is made of wood that looks like it spent a very long time in the sea. Grey and softened, weathered and warped, it's held together with rusty nails and old baling wire. The performance area is lit with hundreds of thick white candles held in dozens of tall iron candelabras.
In the centre of it all is a large red velvet armchair. A woman in black pajamas with very short-cropped hair sits upon the chair, legs wrapped in the lotus position.
Once the crowd has settled, she begins to tell them of a Future of Writing where the reader will choose to engage directly with the text and guide it. The reader's choices will shape the text, and the reader will choose what the outcome of the characters' predicaments will be.
"Doesn't that just mean the reader is the writer?" calls out someone.
"How's this all going to work?" calls out someone else.
The woman rolls her eyes skyward and shrugs. "That's not down to me," she demurs. "I'm a creative. The technologists will determine the process."
"Surely the writing process for something like that —" a third someone starts, but the woman rises from the chair and starts wandering the stage, blowing out all the candles.
Yet more crowd members head back to the midway. Those that remain shuffle towards the third stage, unsure if they'll be bigger rubes for staying inside.
The third stage is dark, but the afterglow from the young man's fluorescent tube display reveals the silhouette of a man standing alone upon it. He is tall, not just tall but large, and the observant notice a glint from his eyeglasses just before he flicks the switch and... turns on a backdrop of flashing incandescent lights! The stage turns out to be wooden but sturdy, and the lights that blink in sequence in the background make the running effect known to anyone who has seen a marquee.
The man tells a story involving no more technology than a bicycle, a film projector, and a ball-point pen. The crowd roars at the punch-line that ends it. He tells the one about the circus, the one about the typewriter, the one about the wallpaper, and the one about the apples. The entire audience laughs, cries, wonders together. They have known these stories all their lives. They have never heard them told before.
Finally and too soon, it is time for the man to wind up. "This stuff," he says, gesturing at the other two stages, "this is fascinating stuff, really thought-provoking. But remember: no matter how the story gets told, in the end what matters is that it is a good story." Before the crowd has a chance to burst into applause, he flicks off his incandescent marquee lights and quickly slips down the stage's back stairs, gone before anyone had a chance to even ask for his autograph.
Five minutes later, out in the parking lot, all that can be heard are ballpoints scratching in notepads and fingers tapping laptop keys.
A good story. It's all there ever was to be had.