"Transparency is the new objectivity"
— David Weinberger
This story first appeared in ReVisions, 2004.
The Ashbazu Effect
by John G. McDaid
"In the course of its growth and development, the school came to be the center of culture and learning in Sumer. Moreover, unlike present-day institutions of learning, the Sumerian school was also the center of what might be termed creative writing."
-Samuel Noah Kramer
History Begins at Sumer
There was no question that Enzu had performed all the required actions, and yet, his manuscript had been rejected. He had brought an arua gift to the temple of Nanna, paid the divination priest to prod a reeking sheep's liver, and, much to his wife's annoyance, he had hired a professional omen reader to untie his dreams.
"And what did she tell you, Enzu-dumu? 'Opportunities exist, but there are challenges.'" Mari, who made a few bits of gold on the side by reading dreams for friends, shook her head.
"Something like that," he muttered. In truth, he thought ruefully, the shailtu had said his petition would be granted.
"You don't really believe in that nonsense," Mari persisted.
"No, beloved." Enzu sighed. "What's important is that influential elders still do, and one does well to be seen adhering to the forms."
"Lum." She gave him the eye of death and stormed off into the kitchen where he heard her busily rearranging jars.
Her anger was understandable. He brushed dust from his robe and set down the heavy leather bag holding his tablets.
Approaching the temple for sponsorship had been expensive, and their savings were nearly exhausted. The high life he'd enjoyed as a school-father had evaporated. Gone were the hordes of aspiring scribes paying cash — and offering up delicious and exquisite bribes for good grades.
Gone with the invention of printing.
# # #
After months of arua and wheedling from Yadidatum, his Introducer, he had finally set up a meeting with the financier-priestess at the temple of Nanna. It had been a frustrating wait since he'd sent the tablets, then, finally, today he had been summoned to meet Ningal-ummi.
Trudging up the impressive stone steps, he noticed once again the profound changes. Ten years ago, the lower temple square would have been full of circus acts to entertain the masses: dancing bears, snake charmers, transvestites, the whole nine iku. Now, narrow paths snaked through a huckster's barrow of tablet stalls, some bare wood tables, the higher-end draped in fabric and shaded with awnings. A continuous trickle of Ur's citizens wandered the twisty passages amid racks of texts old and new, and the clink of commerce was constant.
He waited in the inner courtyard. Here there was shade, cool pitchers of water, and the fragrant smell of cedar. Around him strolled and chatted the dealmakers of Ur, dressed in fine-spun clothes, with neatly trimmed beards. Merchants seeking capital for trade voyages down the Gulf rubbed shoulders with engineers looking to publish canal-building texts. He felt isolated and noticed, and wished he'd been able to talk Yadidatum into accompanying him.
When the page called, he was relieved to be led into the dim stone hallways and directed, wordlessly, into a small audience room.
Ningal-ummi sat on a lush cushion, lit from a courtyard door behind, surrounded by stacks of tablets. She offered food and water, and nodded as he presented her with a small silver stylus. Her eyes narrowed as he thanked her for the meeting, formally and correctly, in liturgical idiom.
"You speak Emesal well," she said.
"You are kind. What little I know I learned transcribing for Ugazum, one of your tax collectors."
"He says your hand followed his mouth accurately."
"Again, you are too kind."
"Well, to business." She frowned. "You speak and write capably. So why, scribe, are these tablets so strange?"
"I'm sorry you find them so. I mean only to tell an interesting story."
"Do you? But this story lies," said Ningal-ummi tightly. "You talk of real places, people who still live. But then you describe things which did not happen. The story claims that printing was never invented. It says that the Sons of the Left invaded us and took over our temples, our cities, even our language."
"Your displeasure shames me," said Enzu, bowing. "I mean only to show what might have been, had things happened differently. I call it 'fiction-that-continues-a-line.' What if Ilammadu had not invented molded text? How quickly things might have gone horribly wrong! It serves to show the greatness of our city and our goddess, and the rightness of our path."
"And you believe that Sargon's daughter would now be high priestess in this very temple?"
"It is, apologies, merely a continued line. A logical next step for the Bin-Shimal, to install one of their own, to try to subvert our people's strong faith."
She looked at him wordlessly for a long time. Flies buzzed, and tallow crackled and sputtered in the sconces.
"You are a strange one, Enzu," she said finally. "Despite my protests, I do like this idea of continued lines. But your work is not something we can take up. This is not what the people in the lower courtyard want to read. And certainly not something which can come from the temple, in a year when Sargon's minions still harass the outskirts of Nippur."
Enzu felt like a hammered ox. He stood, but the world wavered darkly.
"You write well," she said, "And your thought is true. We do always live trapped inside our narrow everyday world until something — a vision, new learning, tragedy — knocks us out of it. It is intriguing to imagine how things might be different. With your mind, perhaps you should think about teaching."
"I was a school-father. With less copy work, fewer seek training."
"There might be other opportunities..."
Enzu summoned his courage. "You are very knowledgeable about the printing houses. Do you have any thoughts about who might be interested?"
With a look of dismissal, she clapped for her servant. "I can suggest, but not recommend, that you offer this continued-line idea to the printing house of Beretegal."
Her page scooped up his tablets and guided him out.
"You might think about a different story-line, though," she called after him. "Some might think it a bit obvious for an unemployed scribe to imagine that his nemesis had never been invented."
"Don't take it so hard, Enzu," Yadidatum consoled. "This isn't about making the word of Utu manifest, this is about moving product."
The sat amid accountants and bureaucrats in a beer parlor in the temple sector. A half-empty crock waited in front of him, and a pleasant warm buzz had at least partially whitewashed his despair.
"So what do you think of her suggestion. Who do you know at Beretegal?
Yadidatum studiously played with his straw.
"You taught math as well as writing; you know it's all about numbers. I love your work, but it's just too different. Tablet houses need to sell 500 copies to break even. Bronze for plates doesn't jump out of the river into your basket."
"Well, suppose I publish it myself. Copy it by hand, take tablets around and sell them out of a cart."
Yadidatum shook his head. "You've seen people who do that. How do you think readers see them?"
Enzu sighed. "Hopeless losers who couldn't find a publisher."
"Finish that beer, let's have another round," said Yadidatum brightly, waving to the barkeep. "Say. You know what I could sell? Have you seen these new children's tablets? Stories with simple words and pictures, made for teaching kids to read. Got any ideas that might work?"
"How about trying your hand at tesh? There's a lot of action around the New Year's ceremony. If you could give me two tablets on Enkidu plowing the sacred harlot, it would make a great seasonal tie-in. I work with a top cylinder-seal carver who could do a couple of images."
"Look, Enzu-dumu, you need to build up a track record. Right now, you're an unknown scribe with a couple of tablets in the local library, and nothing on the market. There's always series work. I can get you a slot writing for Gilgamesh."
"Gishtu! What else can Gilgamesh possibly do?"
Yadidatum glanced around, then leaned over. "Well, now that you ask. You want to talk about fiction that continues a line? Well just suppose Gilgamesh and Enkidu were, you know, different. Different together. There's a market for that, too."
"You would want me to write about the gods coupling just to get your ten percent?"
"Hey, Enzu-dumu. That's my job." The server set down two fresh silas. "I want to make you a success. We'll get past this small roadblock." He lifted his jar.
"Beer to you."
"Beer to you."
Mari noted that he "stank like a Gutian," and suggested he spend the night in the tablet room. He didn't argue, and fell asleep at his table, trying to read. His head felt like broken pottery the next morning when Mari shook him awake, announcing a well-dressed visitor waiting in the guest room.
"He says it's business — about your writing." She handed him a basin of water and some aromatic oil.
"Make yourself presentable."
The visitor was dressed in bright, dyed robes, and sported a fistful of ornate silver rings. When Enzu entered, Mari was filling his goblet from their last good bottle of date wine. She bowed, and on the way out, gave Enzu a look that had only one meaning: don't mess this up.
But Enzu saw trouble as soon as the stranger introduced himself.
"I am Ikuppi-Adad, chief administrative scribe of Badizi, ensi of Kish."
"I'm honored to have you visit me." Scribe of the mayor of Kish. Ally of Sargon. Not good. "How might I be of service?"
"I'd like to talk about your writing. A friend of mine at the Temple of Nanna shared with me a copy of a most intriguing and fanciful story, which he said was your work."
Here was what Enzu had been expecting, but he was shocked at the brazen disclosure. A spy within the temple?
"Your kind words far exceed the merits of my humble text."
"For someone like me," Ikuppi smiled, "A mere scribe, your work is a revelation. You must have a rabisu who speaks such visions to you, no?"
"A mashkim?" Enzu detected no reaction to his insistence on Sumerian. "No, no spirit voices. I call it fiction-which-continues-a-line. Like following the curve in a geometric figure; I look at events and project the world. I make it up."
"So. From your mouth to your hand," Ikuppi stared intently into Enzu's eyes, then, "And does the speaker believe in what he makes up?"
"I...I...write..." Enzu stammered.
"Relax, Enzu. Please. Where are my manners? I sound like a lawyer." Ikuppi laughed. "Let us sit together. Here, here, sit with me, let us enjoy this excellent wine. Praise to Geshtinana."
"Praise be," he echoed automatically, and drank to cover his confusion and horror. Was his fiction being taken as an expression of support for the Bin-Shimal?
"What a challenging land we live in, eh, Enzu?" Ikuppi leaned back against the wall, smiled engagingly. "Ten thousand buru of flat earth, with no minerals, no stone, and no trees. In the summer, the fields are baked dry, and no rain for three-quarters of the year."
"Yes," Enzu tried a note of irony. "The Land is a truly a paradise."
"Who would want to be ruler of this? Just one bad harvest from starvation, in fields that only produce because we sentence people to perpetual labor maintaining canals. And harassed on all sides by nomads and poachers, barbarians from the rims of the world."
"They probably look at us as poachers when we send troops up to cut their trees," said Enzu.
"They are savages. Jackals."
"The jackal is a lion in his own neighborhood."
"Well put," said Ikuppi. "Speaking of lions. Do you know where your king is? Lugalzagesi's out shooting lions this week. Well, actually, he doesn't do a lot of the shooting. He has archers and spearmen for that. He mostly does the posing in the chariot for the artists."
Enzu let his mounting rage slip. "And where might Sargon be?"
"Sargon?" Ikuppi replied mildly. "For all I know, he might be reading your story by now. He is an educated man with a taste for literature."
That stopped Enzu cold.
"This isn't about politics, Enzu, this is about markets. As you say in your story, without printing, the fall of Sumer would have been an inevitability. Printing brought your cities together around common standards: language, measurement, law. And those standards reduced the risk in travel and transporting goods, so your markets prospered.
"We're no fools, we did the same up in Akkad. But now we both have reached the limits of what we can do alone. We live in the same Land, along the same rivers, facing the same enemies. Ultimately, it's about unifying the Left and the Right.
"You and I, Enzu, we're scribes, we know the power of the word. And you have used this power in a new way that can help us think through, and shape, the future. If Sumer can't appreciate your vision, Bu-di-zi would be happy, I think, to sponsor such a talented hand as yours."
"I will consider it."
Ikuppi smiled. "I know you are both an honest man and a careful thinker, so I will leave you to 'continue the line'."
When he returned from showing Ikuppi-Adad to the door, Mari was haunched under the courtyard awning, staring blankly at the water basin. The noon sun beat mercilessly in the still air of the atrium. She looked up as he sat next to her and he shook his head.
"With them," he said sadly, "There would only be danger and fear."
"But could you do it for a while? To make some money?"
"Mari, we have enough to live..."
"To live?" She spat. "To live in a barren netherworld."
Enzu sighed, put an arm around his wife. "We will find a way to have a child."
"Useless amulets and boxes of centipedes are all we can afford. The only real solution is beyond our means."
"Beloved, we've talked about this. It's not as simple as buying a host concubine. How could we support her?"
"We could sell this house. My father says we are welcome to move back their farm. That would give us enough room," said Mari, pleading.
"Room, yes. But where could we find work? And what happens when your brother takes over? Would we just become field hands?"
"It would be worth it."
He looked into her eyes for a long time. "Yes," he said, "Yes, it would be worth all of that. But you know your father's fields are becoming less productive. Each year, the white lands expand. And the taxes to support the war in the north grow. How much longer would they be able to afford us?"
"More of your 'continued lines?' Must we live every day in fear of your imagination?" Tears began to leak from her eyes.
"I'm sorry. I have no way to ignore the possible futures which present themselves."
"I'm sorry too. I know you only look for what's best for us."
"And I'm willing to consider your father's offer. But before that, I have one last thing to try."
"What's left?" said Mari. "You've been denied by all your former pupils. The temple has turned you down. And that fool Yadidatum is a useless parasite."
"For a long time, I've been convinced that there might just be one person in Sumer who would really understand my work. One man who might believe in it and sponsor me. I have to at least try."
"Try with who?"
"The inventor of printing."
Everyone knew where Ilammadu lived: an enormous estate just outside Eridu, a three-hour walk south from Ur. So Enzu awoke before dawn, packed his tablets, kissed Mari, and headed out with only the stars and the desert wind for company.
The stars, the wind — and incessant thoughts. Could he really give up writing? Go back to working the land? Given the choice between a comfortable and secure life as a scribe for Sargon, and eking out a hardscrabble existence on a farm, would he be able to make a decision he could live with?
He felt that at last he understood Enkidu's final curse. Civilization was more than humans could bear.
Columns of smoke from Ilammadu's compound were visible a long way off. Even this early in the morning, big kilns were already busy firing the day's production of tablets.
Before he could even see the bakehouse chimneys, guards intercepted him. Half expecting to be immediately turned back, he was surprised that they recognized his name. He was even more surprised when he was welcomed and bundled him into a cart for the ride to the main house.
It was bigger than his whole schoolhouse had been back in its heyday. The walls were mudbrick, baked and painted to the height of a man, with glazed terra-cotta insets of lions and snake-dragons. Above the entrance rose wooden roof-beams that seemed the thickness and length of whole trees. Enzu had never seen such construction outside of the temple and the palace. The guard led him through a maze of passageways, and into an inner courtyard, open to the sky.
In the center of the square stood an enormous stone apzu, an ornately sculpted ceremonial water tank, waist-high and dozens of cubits square. To the side was a table, shaded by an awning, and it was here the guard deposited the thoroughly dazed scribe.
"How much does a tablet weigh?" came a voice from the tank.
Incapable of more amazement, he simply answered. "A standard administrative text weighs about 4 mina."
"Not easy to carry around. And you appear to have several in your bag."
A hand appeared on the lip of the tank, then the head and shoulders of Ilammadu rose, dripping. A crinkled, sun-baked face; Enzu was startled at how young he was, then realized his mistake. The clean-shaven chin was deceptive.
"In just ten years, we have enhanced reading speed by standardizing on left-to-right order. We have made obsolete the crabbed, stuff-it-in-one-tablet stylus-work of the scribe. And we have retrieved the simplicity and beauty of our signs. All byproducts of printing."
"Your invention has been most successful."
"And yet, no fundamental change in the tablet. The costs to prepare and move all that heavy clay." Ilammadu nodded at the table. "What do you make of that material?"
Enzu looked next to him. Piled there was a stack of thin sheets, yellowish matter shot through with rough fibers. The top one was decorated with a series of small, ornate images.
"Paintings. On a substance I don't recognize."
"You will. That is papyrus, Enzu. And those are no paintings — that is written language from the kingdom of the Nile."
"A painted language..." Enzu was intrigued.
"But you see the problem," said Ilammadu.
"Of course," said Enzu, distractedly, staring at the papyrus. He picked up a corner and rubbed it with his fingers. "You could never print into this."
"The priestess was right about you, Enzu. You're a sharp one." Illamadu climbed out of the tank, slipped on a smoothly-woven loincloth. "I'd like to hear your thoughts on something. Come, let me show you my printing room."
Enzu reached for his bag, but Illamadu checked him. "No need — I've already read it."
"Yes, she provided a copy. Most intriguing. I like your voice. It's fresh."
"Thank you. Most of all, I detest repetition and formula. How often can you say, 'his face was like that of a man who walks a long road.'"
"Indeed. Tired phrases from the spoken world of yesteryear."
Ilammadu motioned him into a low, square building, open on both ends, with laborers ferrying materials in and out. To the right, workers hauled wooden trays of freshly smoothed clay to a low, flat stone in the center of the room. Above, two print-men wrestled with an enormous cylinder, balanced with pulleys and counterweights, wrapped with a thin bronze printing plate. As he watched, the sweating men swung the cylinder down and rolled it into the clay, rotating it as it moved, pressing the signs into the soft surface. When the plate reached the end, workers whisked out the tray and began trimming clay with knives, wipers cleaned the bronze plate, and the print-men swung it back into position to start again.
Even though Enzu had been in print houses many times, he still marveled at the speed and efficiency of the process. He knew how much organization went into preparing for this deceptively simple act; the coordinated efforts that prepared the clay, stoked the kilns, and moved finished tablets out to the cities.
"What types of tablets do you print here? Do you produce any fiction?"
"Enzu, I know you are anxious, but what I'm going to show you will explain much." They walked out, past the kiln to a smaller building, guarded by two husky men with gleaming copper knives.
In the narrow entrance room was a table, on which sat three small bronze cubes, a little bigger than a thumbnail. Enzu had a moment of doubt. What could be of such value here? Had Ilammadu lost touch with reality?
"Look at these blocks." Ilammadu presented the three cubes, and Enzu saw raised signs reversed on their faces, clearly tiny printing plates.
"Three different plates. The signs for Ash. For Ba. Zu."
"Supposed they weren't three different plates?" He held the blocks together and Enzu read them.
"Zu-ba-ash. That's what? Not a word."
"Try this." He rearranged the blocks.
"Ba-ash-zu. To be ashamed...of sweat? That doesn't make sense."
Ilammadu scrambled the blocks. "Again."
"Ash-ba-zu." "A unique house of knowledge?" He frowned, thinking. "I'm not...how to say it, seeing your point."
"Continue this line. Ten years ago, we were inscribing words in wet clay with reeds, sign by sign. Then, I borrowed from cylinder seals the idea of molding a plate with a full tablet of signs and rolling it out. Now, suppose, instead of having to cast those plates whole, you could assemble them," he held up the bronze blocks, "from these?"
Enzu's mind spun. "You would need dozens — hundreds of the sign-blocks."
"In here." Through the door was a printing room — but smaller than any he had seen. A compact stone sat in the center, with a rectangular wooden frame suspended above it, and, lining the walls, rack after rack of identical sign plates. A servant carried in a freshly prepared tray of clay, and Illamadu strode to the table, where the wooden frame hung suspended. He motioned Enzu to look, and from beneath, he saw that the frame was packed with rows of the cubes, held in place with screw-presses from the side.
"It's flat!" Enzu exclaimed. "A flat printing form."
"Yes," said Illamadu. He nodded, and the servant slid the clay beneath the frame. "In order to hold the sign-cubes, I've had to give up the cylindrical plate."
Illamadu lowered frame into the clay; when he cranked it back up, the new tablet had taken a crisp impress. The servant slid out the clay, and began wiping the plate with a blackened rag.
"Amazing," said Enzu. "This will make it possible to set up and change texts at will. With a ready store of the sign-cubes, it could be done anywhere, and cheaply." He thought for a moment. "But, it still doesn't address the weight of the tablets. What about that?"
"Suppose, Enzu, the plate did not have to press the signs into the surface?"
The servant had slid a sheet of papyrus onto the stone, and Illamadu lowered the frame. Even before it was raised, Enzu knew what he would see.
Neat rows of signs, imprinted in black, across the surface of the papyrus.
"Continue this line, Enzu. Cheap, portable writing. Texts that can be cast and printed in minutes. We have broken words down into bits. If the word is made of bits, why not the world? I could use a scribe who can help me imagine this world."
Enzu saw it at once, entire. "This is what will make it all possible. The breaking to pieces, the explosion of texts, the world of multiple voices, that's what will create readers who can envision with relish change points and alternatives."
"I admire your single-mindedness," Ilammadu laughed, "But such fiction is still a long way off. There are many painstaking, necessary steps, innumerable small battles to fight, and an enormous weight of tradition to overturn. In the meantime, would you work with me? Move your family down here, become my scribe, and help me make this change happen."
There was no question in Enzu's mind. Fiction could wait, for now. It was only a matter of continuing the line. For he could see, branching out into the future, not only a limitless ocean of texts, but a strange, unknowable pantheon of possible readers, there, latent, in the simple bronze blocks of the Ash-ba-zu.