by Joe Aultman-Moore
In this best of all possible universes, I led an international team that translated the book. The book explains the history of the universe and everything in it. We know this is the best of all possible universes because the book says that it is the best of all possible universes.
We know that the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it because the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it. The book explains that our lives have cosmic meaning in relation to the universe and everything in it as explained in the book. The book tells a history of the universe in which we play a unique and central role. Our unique and central role is to understand that the book explains the history of the universe and everything in it.
At least, this is what we are told it says.
As the book explains: because we have been created with a specific unique role in the universe, every action, every thought is infused with cosmic meaning. If you pick this flower, or linger over the sight of a star shining through the trees, it ripples out through space-time. Drive this type of car and it might result in a disease in a loved one, or a promotion. Cursing excessively might cause a plague. Make this particular form of sacrifice and your family will be favored for generations. Donating money to this organization could heal cancer. Or change the trajectory of a comet. Certain impure thoughts or choice of breakfast cereal, to watch or not watch a certain film could result in the collisions of galaxies or the implosion of neutron stars.
Fortunately, the book also contains rules for living. What is right and what is wrong. Payments for certain goods and services. What and how to eat, what to wear, how punishments should be carried out for certain crimes, how marriages may proceed and debts be paid.
Every moment of our lives, every thought, when taken in relation to the book, takes on importance that reverberates back to the moment of genesis and forward into eternity. It’s all in the book. Not necessarily as direct prescription, but as an allegory. Not that this makes it purely metaphorical. Can a metaphor, when only interpretable as a direct infallible truth, really be considered mere metaphor?
This is, at least, what we thought when we began the translation.
The book is old, of course, ancient beyond history. In the long span of generations, societies shift, languages and power change. Sometimes, observations of nature do not match exactly the phrases in the book. Some passages, on superficial reading, seem antiquated or outdated. Place names that no longer exist, though they are present tense in the book. Currencies and units of measure no longer in use. Some phrasing is grammatically ambiguous, and could be interpreted in several ways. The book was written in a language that died thousands of years ago, and has been translated by generations of scholars, motivated by the cosmic importance of their work.
My team was commissioned by international consensus to execute the greatest translation of the modern age, to preserve the original perfectly—yet understandable in modern idiom. This way, we might shape our society as literally on the original as possible, to return to the original units of measurement, and replace the new maps with the old.
I speak many modern languages and have studied all the bygone ones the book has been written in. But this was an undertaking of much vaster importance and magnitude—I knew I had to become closer to the original than anyone alive. With international governments’ assistance, I procured every document in the world composed in the ancient language, the work of several years.
The following decade was spent so immersed in the old language that I became fluent, even started to dream in it.
This language is subtle and beautiful, but not easy to understand. Many words do not translate easily, there is a certain shape to them that is lost in the process—some flavor of meaning. Sound and rhythm. The feel of words in the mouth. Each as important to language as pattern, tempo and melody is to music, or the feel of food on the tongue is to eating.
Everything is, in those ancient words, as beautiful and mysterious as a moonless night, when the blinding world becomes transparent and you can see again the loneliness and grandeur. I became obsessed with the fullness of the ancient book and came to understand it as if a lover had whispered the words to me. Multilayered ironies, poetics, alliteration, double-entendres, even witticisms—revealed themselves.
As did the impossibility—the futility—of true translation.
Then came another terrible revelation.
The universe described in the original language is not the universe described in later translations. The words are similar, the grammar translatable, but the entire worldview—the whole cosmos of the original is lost. Where the original gives mystery, the translations have certainty, where it is subtle they are blunt, where it is reverent, they are commanding.
Still, driven by this awesome task, I succeeded in making the greatest translation of the age. Such a complete understanding of the—should I say poetics?—of the original had never been written in modern times. It was a complete disaster. The translation was banned and any copies rooted out and destroyed. I was excommunicated from society, disgraced—lost career, friends and all social standing and sentenced to live in exile. It would’ve made too many people curious about the contents of my translation to execute me outright.
In the decades since, however, my translation occasionally springs up somewhere before being found and destroyed. It comforts me immensely to know that it is still out there.
I think it is because some people prefer mystery to certainty and beauty to comfort.
Joe Aultman-Moore is a librarian, guide, and writer living in Haines, Alaska. His award-winning essays and articles have appeared on Daily Science Fiction, The Dirtbag Diaries, and Taproot among others. Find more of his work at jaultmanmoore.wordpress.com/publications-2/ and on Instagram @joeaultmoore.
For me, science fiction is about tweaking aspects of the real world in order to play with ways of thinking and being. At its best (Bradbury, Orwell) sci-fi brings us back to reality with a new perspective.