ALEXIA AND GRAHAM BELL
Rosaleen Love is an Australian writer who has commented on Australian science and society, in both fiction and nonfiction, for the past forty years. She has published two collections of short fiction with The Women’s Press in the United Kingdom: The Total Devotion Machine and Evolution Annie. Her most recent books are Reefscape: Reflections on the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney and Washington, and The Traveling Tide, short fiction, with Aqueduct Press, Seattle. She is the recipient of the Chandler Award for lifetime achievement in Australian Science Fiction. “Alexia and Graham Bell” was first published in Aphelion 5 in 1986.
I suppose you know about the telephone by now, and you’ve heard a version of its story. Perhaps you think it’s an invention we’ve had for eighty years or so.
You’ll be wrong.
The telephone was invented two months ago by my brother Graham, on a cold winter’s afternoon when he had nothing better to do than fiddle around with a few tin cans, a thermo-amp, some wires, and a junked teletype I found on the tip. I heard some strange noises and when he yelled “Alexia” down the hall to me, I came running, because I thought he was up to his usual dopy experiments, dropping the cats upside down off the roof to see if they’d land on their paws, that kind of thing. But it wasn’t the cats this time. He’d hitched the teletype up so it spoke! I saw it myself, the first time he got it working, and it was playing away like a pianola, but sounding out the words! Words which Graham was speaking into a tin can on the other side of the room! The telephone! Which you’ve all heard about by now, though what you don’t know is its secret. That it’s only been around for two months. Truly.
Why should you believe me? When the history books tell the story differently and antique telephones fetch high prices at the market?
Let me explain. It’s one of those things which was never intended to happen. It was only after the event that all kinds of things fell into place, retrospectively.
I think the responsibility for our present mess must rest firmly with great-grandfather Alexander Graham Bell. Yes, back in 1870 he’d planned to migrate from England to Canada but he missed the boat! So he stayed at the docks and caught the next ship out, to Australia. West, east, what’s the difference? said great-grandfather, but he was wrong. Ever since Alexander overslept, the world of invention and discovery has taken an alternative path. Yes, the path of the telegraph and the censors and communal messenging.
Let me explain. It was only after the telephone was invented that it started influencing the past. Graham’s explanation goes like this: in our day-to-day activities, we are usually working toward a future goal, I am studying to become a censor in Central Control, or I was then, all that’s changed, now, and Graham is saving money so he can invent the ice-aeroplane. Okay, so we’re here, in the present, and the way we perceive the future is influencing what we’re doing. Equally, our present, now, is at this moment an influence on the past of our former selves and others. Graham says it’s obvious to anyone with the intellect of an ant, but I don’t know about the ants, they may be smarter than we give them credit for.
I can see that Graham’s argument has a certain elementary logic all its own.
“Graham,” I had to say, after I’d congratulated him on inventing something that worked for once, even though it was probably going to be good for nothing in the world, then that’s my brother Graham, what can I expect? “Graham, what will Mother say when she sees what a mess you’ve made of her thermo-amp?”
Graham glared at me and made for the cat, but I grabbed it before he could upend it. Surely he knows enough about how the cat uses its tail as an inertial paddle? He doesn’t have to go in for the experimental overkill! That’s Graham, though, a perfectionist. A perfectionist in the creation of knowledge we could perfectly well do without.
He had all the time to experiment because he was on compo from his job as messenger boy, second class. It’s not what Graham thought he was meant for in this life. So he did his best to fall down every flight of stairs between Central Message Control and the jobs he was sent on until finally he broke a few bones and got some time off to recover. Of course what he’s done is make himself retrospectively redundant now we’ve got the telephone, and messenger boys are out of work in a big way. Yes, along the way Graham created our present crisis in unemployment.
This is how it happened. I’ve been a privileged witness to the scene and I have a responsibility to tell the story properly.
The telephone’s great achievement is the contraction of distance. Pick up a phone and dial a number, and it doesn’t matter whether the person on the other end is down the street or across the country.
Now mess around with distance, with length, and you’re going to be messing around with time. That’s what we’ve just recently come to realize. Though we should have known, I suppose. Einstein told us about it. So, basically, what has happened since Graham got busy is that the last two months have expanded out of all proportion, expanded in time that is. Two months have blown out into eighty years! It’s true!
So Graham did something clever, something that worked, for once. The trouble is, it worked only too well.
At first Graham just tinkered about in the workroom. He was excited and chatty about what he was up to, but I’d heard all I wanted to know about cats and aerodynamics and the possibilities of the ice-aeroplane, so I didn’t really listen as closely as I should have. “Imagine!” said Graham. “Imagine being able to speak at a distance, without a written record of the conversation! Think what it’d be like! Privacy! No censors snooping into all the details of our lives! We’ll be able to talk about something without the entire teletype room knowing what’s happening!”
When he said that I was listening, that’s for sure, and I tried to argue back. Imagine, a world without censors reading all the messages! I took him to task on that one, I can assure you. “Graham, if someone can pick up your telephone and speak to anyone else without a record being kept, it will lead to the breakdown of law and order as we know it.
“Besides,” I added, and Graham grew white about the eyes at this. Ha! I scared him properly! “If the censors get to hear about what you’re doing, why, you’ll do them out of a job” (and I was right about that!) “and they’ll be absolutely livid!”
Graham clutched his throat with a strangled cry. “The censors? After me? No! I’m only a child! My mother loves me! How would they get to know about it?”
“Walls have ears,” I said, very smugly.
“Alexia! No! Don’t tell on me! I’m your brother! You’d never!”
Ha! I had him worried! But he’s right. I’m not a censor-snooper. It’s true, I wanted a job as a censor, but I wanted it for the pay packet and the security. I didn’t have to believe all the guff they teach us about law and order. “Be careful,” I said to Graham, but of course he wasn’t. Once he found out what he was able to do, he just had to go ahead and do it. I didn’t tell on Graham. I now know I did wrong. After all, Graham succeeded in subverting the social fabric of twentieth-century society.
I was too busy to notice, at the time. I had my work to do. I confided to my friend Greta, though. We worked together at the telegraph office.
“Mind you, if Graham’s invention works, we’ll soon be out of a job,” I said to Greta, between the dots and the dashes.
Greta didn’t believe me. “At the telegraph office? At Central Message Control? No, Alexia, that won’t happen. No one ever gets sacked from here.”
“They can get you for unnatural interference with the messages,” I reminded her.
Greta was shocked. “Alexia, that’s never happened! No one would do that! It’d be … monstrous!”
“What about redundancy? They can get you on that.”
I shall always remember Greta’s patient reply. “Alexia,” she said, “morse code and semaphore and messenger boys have been around longer than your brother Graham and his crazy ideas. How’s the cat?”
“On the mend.”
“The ice-aeroplane, didn’t you say that was another of his latest inventions?”
“Yes, but the telephone is different! I think the telephone is going to work!”
Greta was unconvinced. “We’d be able to talk to each other without everyone in the teletype room knowing the message.”
“I know, I know.”
“It’ll mean the end of twentieth-century society as we know it!”
“No more censors!”
“Greta, I just can’t get through to Graham. I keep telling him: Graham, the telephone will lead to anarchy.”
“It won’t ever happen,” said Greta, as she lectured me on the moral desirability of the Censored State. “If we were meant to talk to each other down wires then God would have connected us up from birth.”
Graham just kept on working. “Today the passageway, tomorrow the world,” he announced when I came home one evening.
I found a land-line down the passage and a telephone hook-up in my bedroom. “Graham, you’ve gone too far this time,” I bellowed into the phone when it rang. “Get your inventions out of my room!”
“Alexia, will you step into the next room for a moment?” said Graham on the phone, polite and conscious of the historic moment.
I told him a thing or two. “Greta says you’re a social menace, and I agree with her!” This is a true account of the first telephone message. You may know part of the story.
First Graham wired up the passage, then he extended the line to every room in the house. Then he wanted more. He wanted to go down the street and clear across Australia, then out into the world.
And he managed to persuade people! Never mind the censors, they vanished, once the capitalist entrepreneurs took over. Graham had them convinced.
“Gas pipes, water pipes, and telephone pipes!” said Graham, his eyes gleaming and his fingers flying. “One system, one policy, one universal service!”
“One giant monopoly! And money!” replied the capitalist entrepreneur.
“One grand telephonic system linking each farm to its neighbor, each factory to its central office, each nation to the other!” said Graham, still the visionary.
Remember what it said in the paper? “We may confidently expect that Mr. Bell will give us the means of making voice and spoken words audible through the electric wires to an ear hundreds of miles distant.” It happened.
I tried to warn Graham. “There may be a few social problems.”
Graham didn’t pay attention. “Nothing a telephone in every house won’t fix,” he said.
“There may be a few economic problems,” I warned.
“Show me the economic problem that money won’t eliminate!” There was no stopping him.
“Contract distance, contract time!”
“Only a little bit! No one will ever notice!”
“Graham, don’t do it! You are going into the unknown.”
“No need to worry,” said Graham, “I know perfectly well what I’m doing.”
Of course, he got it wrong and we all paid the price. Poor old Greta was one of the first casualties.
“Alexia, what’s wrong? My life … it’s passing so quickly! It seems only yesterday that we worked in Central Control, and now … the telegraph! It’s vanished!”
I tried my best to distract her. “Happy birthday, darling! Fifty candles on the cake!”
“Then things changed so quickly. The telephone…”
“Time’s a funny thing.”
Greta blew at the candles. “Everything started to speed up, and things passed me by, so quickly!”
“There, there, you must have been enjoying yourself.”
“It’s not fair! I haven’t had time to enjoy myself!”
Of course, Graham could explain it. “The distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion,” he said.
“It seems real, to me. How can yesterday become tomorrow?”
“If time contracts!”
“That’s my problem! What’s the solution?”
“I’m working on it,” Graham muttered.
“I can’t wait,” said Greta, “I need it now.”
I discovered that time is more than my perception of it. Time depends on the telephone.
“Nonsense!” you will say. “Time has been around for simply ages, but the telephone, why, it’s only been around for a couple of years!”
“A couple of years? Did you say a couple of years? Why did you say that? I’ve got you, there!”
“Did I say a couple of years?” you’ll say, puzzled. “Why, of course I meant a hundred years. I don’t know why I said a couple of years, and with such conviction. It was just a silly mistake.”
Aha, but silly mistakes always mean something! You’re confused about the issue, admit it. There’s something not quite right about the telephone, something that’s hovering on the edge of your comprehension but which can’t quite make the break out into your conscious mind. You know, more than you can tell.
Greta and I both noticed something happening. I’ve worked it out since then.
When Graham got the marketing men interested in his invention, and phones started appearing in every home, time started to speed up for most people. You know how it is, you feel that last year was only yesterday, and that the years of your life are flitting by so quickly. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation. It’s because last year was only yesterday, for you, though not for me.
The censors joined the unemployed, the messenger boys went off to two world wars, and wherever the telephone spread, time accelerated in its course. It’s only in countries where there are no phones that people still get full value for their lives.
I don’t know why it was that Graham and I have not shared the experience. We’ve either been spared, or punished, for our knowledge. We have stayed outside the onward rush of time. Graham’s happy. He thinks he must have invented the elixir of youth in that first experiment. Only the elixir isn’t a drug made from gold, or precious herbs, or genetically engineered DNA. The elixir is a unique form of radiation which comes from standing too close to a few tin cans, a thermo-amp, old wires, and a teletype junked in a quite specific way, at a time when Jupiter is on the cusp of Uranus and the moon is in the fourth quarter.
I can’t turn the clock back. I can’t personally dynamite every telephone in Australia. But I see I shall have to hijack Graham and take him off to Antarctica. He’ll come with me willingly enough. Where better to design the ice-aeroplane?
There’s a new factor entering into the story. Graham’s started to mutter about a new device to contract distance, only this time on a cosmic scale. He can do it, too. The problem with space travel, says Graham, is that space is too big. It’s one thing to design a spaceship, but then it takes aeons to get anywhere in it. The stars are too far away. So Graham is working on a device to shrink the galaxy.
Instead of us reaching out to the stars, Graham will have the stars reach down to us.
This is the end. The world has suffered enough.
* * *
I, Alexia Bell, being of sound mind, must take my brother Graham to Antarctica, and there build him an ice-hangar for his ice-aeroplanes. I shall lock the door and throw the key from a high window. I make this sacrifice, for you.