The Silk Mind

Ashlin Smith is bored with his apparently pointless job in the Royal Badger Survey, and is trying to quit so he can go and be a blacksmith like his family expected. However, the true purpose of the Badger Survey is a lot less boring than he knows or would prefer.

Ashlin, Jenna, Justin and Derk face monsters natural and unnatural as they are tangled up in political intrigue and the civilization-threatening side-effects of ancient sorcery.

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34. Library Politics

The Royal and Public Library of Atlar was in a southern suburb of the capital. It was nestled in a wooded park surrounded by the homes of wealthy merchants, about a mile inland from the sea, and high enough uphill that there were trees here more than eighty years old. The library building was relatively new, although it was built on older foundations.

There were visitors most days. Although it was nominally a public library, in practice most of the general public were too busy, too dirty or too illiterate to come in and read the books. There were scholars from the trade and church schools, and researchers from the various branches of the Crown Office.

The job of librarian was undemanding as long as you could read, at least partly understand the incredibly complex numbering system used to decide which shelves the books went on, and keep the place tidy.

The contents of the library were: books (thousands of them); librarians (two); assistant librarians (one, newly hired); odd staircases, mezzanine levels and balconies that seemed to be designed to interact with and further complicate the book-numbering system (various) and absolutely no monsters or crazed murder cults.

Ashlin had checked this inventory quite carefully before agreeing to take on the post of newly-hired assistant librarian.

“Morsen,” he asked the chief librarian, “I am having trouble understanding this. Some of these books are stored out-of-order according to author and date. Their index codes sort them out of order, I mean. So these ones with ‘A’ in front of the number go over here with yellow tickets on the shelves, others with ‘M’ go over there with white tickets, and I can’t find where the ‘X’ ones go. What am I not understanding?”

“Yes, right, the lending dependency order. Hmm. Hard to explain. Certain books can only be lent to or taken to the reading room by people who have read the corresponding books that come earlier in the series. So say there’s an ‘X' book by some author, perhaps. There might be another book of his that is classified under ‘M', and it goes over there with the others. If someone wants to read the ‘X' book, they need to get their library card stamped with the ‘M' book index first. Obviously we shelve the books apart so that people aren’t just browsing them willy-nilly.”

“Obviously. Or rather, no, not obvious at all. Why?”

“It’s for efficiency.” Morsen chuckled, looking around the chaotic geometry of the library with an ironic and knowing grin.

“It doesn’t seem very efficient. It seems needlessly complicated and puzzling.”

“No, well, it’s not for library efficiency, Ash. It’s more a matter of social efficiency.”

“This is one of Doctor Grey’s schemes, isn’t it?”

“Ah yes. Here, see this entry here? A Treatise on the Races of Man, by E. Kendrik. X--559--312--1.”

“I see it. So what?”

“Well, if someone wanted to come in and peruse E. Kendrik’s master work, they would have to first get a stamp for, let’s see, M--559--312--1: On Measurements of The Distance To The Sun by E. Kendrik. You see?”

“Not really. Was this E. Kendrik a notable scholar?”

“Absolutely. In fact I’ll bet he is referenced in many a bibliography in the ‘M' section.”

“So what is the purpose of this, what did you call it, lending dependency order?” Ashlin puzzled over the list. Most of the ‘X’ books were preceded by ‘M’ books by the same author, or ‘A’ books by other authors, sometimes mentioning the author of the ‘X’ book in the subtitle.

“It’s best explained by example, and this happens to be a good one, so let’s dig out old Kendrik and you can see what’s going on.” Morsen fetched a key, and unlocked a cupboard wherein he found A Treatise on the Races of Man, while he sent Ashlin to get On Measurements of The Distance To The Sun.

“Now, let us compare these works so you can see what I mean. Here Kendrik goes in some length into the question of why there are men with different heights and eye colours and skin colours, and purports to define and explain their attributes and propensities.”

“And what does he have to say about it?”

“He is of the opinion that the perfect and pure men are the eastern branch of the Thrann, and delineates the exact facial proportions, hair and eye colour and so on. He praises them for creating the first great civilization. His explanation for the darker and differently-shaped races is that they are begot by The Depravity.”

“What does he say about the Fer Shea?”

“He disputes the existence of their earlier and more advanced civilization. It makes them rather inconvenient.”

“They certainly can be that,” muttered Ashlin.

“Hmm?”

“Nothing. What was that about depravity?”

“The Depravity,” intoned Morsen, with mocking solemnity. “Now, see what he says The Depravity is, here ...”

“Wow. I don’t think he understands begetting. I don’t think you can beget that way even with a woman.”

“Indeed. He also says,” Morsen turned a few pages. “Ah, yes: the seed of the black man is black.”

“Does he mean children?” Ashlin wrinkled his brow, “because that sounds ...”

Morsen just stared back, placidly.

“Oh. Oh, no. And how did he come to that conclusion?”

“I have no idea. I am reliably informed that he is incorrect.”

“That's an awful book.”

“More so because, although I am pointing out the most absurd parts of it, if you ignore them, or are ignorant of where he is mistaken about them, he makes a clever case for the subjugation of the lower races of men (for their own good) and for the supremacy of the perfect race, that some might find plausible.”

“That sounds unlikely.”

“Granted, but if he is believed by anyone powerful, great harm could be done. Even without that, if people of so-called pure Thrann extraction seek to breed only amongst themselves to preserve some notion of purity, harm may come to their children from in-breeding.”

“So, nobody is allowed to read this book.”

“Until they have read the other one,” Morsen clarified.

“Why?”

“Well, in his earlier years, Kendrik wrote on a number of topics, and in the sphere in which he studied, botany I believe, he made useful contributions. It is important for them not to be lost, and unfair for them to be disparaged. You'll find them indexed in the 'A' section. But it is dangerous for his well-earned reputation in one field to be used as a crowbar to force his more dangerously-wrong opinions into discussions and decision-making where they could do harm.”

“So, this book about the distance to the sun ...?”

“Yes.” Morsen giggled. “Sorry, I can’t help myself. Guess.”

“Guess what?”

“Guess the result of his measurements of the distance to the sun.”

“Uh, a million miles?”

“Less.”

“A thousand?”

“Eighty-seven miles.”

“What?”

“I know.” Morsen slapped his knee. He wiped away a tear.

“But, it’s hardly that across the middle of Atlar. If the sun were only eighty-seven miles away, then at sunset in Ganport, the sun would be setting fire to the roofs in the capital. How didn’t he realise?”

“He was a stubborn and increasingly confused old man. He didn’t study astronomy, or trigonometry. He was firmly convinced he was a respected and great mind, whose opinions should carry weight and authority regardless of whether he understood his own calculations or checked his facts. He wrote that book only a few months before he died. The Treatise on the Races of Man he wrote years before that.”

Ashlin was shaking his head. “So before you read the dangerous but more plausible book, you have to read the obviously insane and ridiculous one, to completely destroy your respect for the author.” It seemed unkind. “Why not just get rid of the dangerous one?”

“What! Wash your mouth out, young lad. This is a library! We don’t get rid of books. We store them and retrieve them and make them available to scholars. But appropriately, and carefully.”

Morsen patted him on the shoulder.

“Also, you can’t bury bad ideas. We can’t make them not be. Sooner or later every bad idea in written history will occur again to another mistaken mind. Better by far for people to read both books, and associate the bad idea with the ravings of a senile and bitter old man, so if they hear it again from another source, they won’t accept it so easily.”

Ashlin shrugged.

“You know what, Morsen? I don’t even care. This smells of politics, but it’s indoor non-lethal politics and there’s plenty of books to read. I’ll put these back and get on with indexing the new volumes then?”

“Good lad.”

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