Originally published in Axxón (Argentina) 113, April 2002
(Translation: Daniel W. Koon)
To Slawomir Mrózek, for his brilliant satirical book “The elephant”.
There was once a large country and a small country that were neighbors and very different...
In the large country a handful of dull rich men had ruled for years, through the simple, expedient strategy of buying the votes of a public that had been educated in the concept that money moves the world and accustomed to the idea that everything had its price. It was of course a democracy.
In the small country a genial dictator (Great Helmsman of the National Destiny) had ruled for decades, elected every year by its people in elections in which, simply and expediently, he was the only candidate authorized to run. It was, of course, a democracy.
The large country, bulwark of the global economy, fabricated in its sophisticated, sterilized robotic factories all manner and mark of product, each of proverbially high quality: automobiles, sewing machines, stockings, condoms, parachutes, toothbrushes, rocket engines, weapons, medicines, toys, clothes, French fries... and wingnut screws (indispensable element for the most advanced technology of today, as you know). And in such quantities that, in addition to meeting all its domestic demand, it could sell these items to customers in the rest of the world, who bought every screw, even if they grumbled a little about the prices.
The large country was a rich country. One which, as its leaders never tired of boasting, deserved all the riches which it possessed.
The small country made, in a more improvised and workmanlike manner, barely half of all the goods which it needed. It had to buy the rest abroad, particularly from the large country... And it would never have occurred to anyone outside its borders to buy anything produced by the small country, since it was not exactly known for the quality of its goods.
The small country was a poor country. Which sometimes caused its genial dictator (The People’s Illuminating Guide) -- who never tired of saying that it was the fault of bad luck and the fault of the large country -- to lose sleep. But, he added, things would have to change, given time and given his wise direction...
In fact, the small country would have been a miserable and insignificant country were it not for the enormous factory of wingnut screws (indispensable element for the most advanced technology of today, as you know), pride of the nation and of its leader, who had invested two years’ GNP in its construction. It was built (quite coincidentally) by a company from the large country. Its proximity to said country had lowered the construction costs a bit.
The enormous factory, declared property of the people, was one of the largest in the world. To be more precise, it was the second largest in the world, because the first, the biggest, owned by a megacorporation, was located... in the large country next door. Oddly enough, right on the border separating it from the small country.
Which seemed to the leader of said country to be an insufferable arrogance, practically a symbolic insult. Perhaps for this reason he had also chosen to locate his factory of wingnut screws (indispensable element for the most advanced technology of today, as you know) very close to the border with the powerful neighbor: directly across from it, in fact. Face to face. So that in the eyes of all the small and poor countries of the world it was a brashness comparable only to that of David before Goliath. The genial dictator (Inspired Charioteer of National Liberty) liked such classic similes.
What he didn’t like, although he would never have admitted it to anyone, was that, when he had built HIS factory, (he always thought this word in capital letters) he had harbored the not very secret ambition of humiliating his neighbor by surpassing its factory in production. In fact, he had accomplished it... but not for ever, but only for a month. At the end of which the same company that had built HIS factory made notable expansions on the factory in the large country, which was once again the largest in the world.
And that’s how things continued.
Until, one day... just as the genial dictator (Father General of the Nation) was commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the inauguration of HIS great factory of wingnut screws (indispensable element for... etc., etc., etc.) with a brief and inspired speech of six hours to kick off a massive footrace under a punishing sun in the backyard of the factory, it happened.
The Supreme Orator lifted his face to the public. HIS public... and he stopped cold in mid-diatribe. Ten seconds, twenty seconds, a minute... This silence was so unusual that his most loyal supporters, his closest collaborators, sufficiently accustomed to such speeches as to be able to sleep standing up beneath the burning sun and the harangue, woke with a start, as if by instinct.
The situation was totally unheard of. Onstage, the Supreme Leader was... speechless! Fury painted his usually genial face deep purple. Finally, his finger, a trembling finger of justice, pointed at the affront.
A shadow. A strip of shadow, barely two meters in width, in which a handful of astute attendees of the speech (egotists, camouflaged enemies of the people) had hidden themselves from the afternoon sun.
The murmur of disapproval from the rest of the crowd made them flee the shade as quickly as possible, but everyone had already seen their faces. And maybe the rage of the crowd would have lynched them on the spot except that the illustrious and inexorable finger of the Great Guide rose again, pointing to the real culprit: the chimney (the tallest in the world since the last expansion, obviously) of the factory of wingnut screws (indispensable... the very same, etc.) of the neighboring large country. Which, with the complicity of the sun, was in that very instant perpetrating a serious and arrogant violation of the borders of the small country.
It was insufferable, morally speaking.
That very night, a team of surveyors and geometricians, brought together hastily and secretly, analyzed the matter and rendered its verdict. The situation, by a strange coincidence, could be classified as one of mutual overshadowing. In the mornings, the sun, from the East, caused the chimney of the factory of wingnut screws (indispensable... as you know) of the small country to fall right on the backyard of the corresponding factory in the large country (where nobody seemed to mind, in fact, quite the contrary, because some shade in the full sun is welcome... almost always). In the afternoons, the situation was reversed... except that, the chimney of the larger factory being some 50 meters taller, its shadow was a little bit (how to put it?) more extensive. In sum, the wise men determined that the facts were thus and that there wasn’t much that one could do about it.
And they were immediately shipped off to cultivate agave plants (for being fatalists and defeatists), along with the men who had dared to hide themselves that very morning under the invading shade (for being opportunists and agents of the enemy’s campaign of demoralization). And along with them went a disgraced architect who, having seen the Supreme Director depressed and furious, had dared to suggest, flatteringly, that indeed there WAS something that could be done (to prevent him from divulging it, because the clever ideas in the small country were not allowed to come from anyone other than the genial-dictator-who-was-no-longer-so-genial).
The following day, in the most inspired locution in the genial career of the orator (eleven hours, transmitted live by all the radio and TV stations of the small country, of course), the Ruler of the National Destiny addressed the public. He repeated (in its entirety, with dates and all, thanks to his proverbial, autistic memory) the long history of abuses and outrages committed by the large country on all the small countries of the world and declared ENOUGH in the name of them all.
Certain segments of the speech, having been conceived of earlier as sound bites, were reproduced the following day by all of the press agencies (especially those of other small countries). For example:
“Even the patience of the people has a limit, and such an affront brings us to that limit. Tired of symbolic buffetings, one day the people discover that they have no more cheeks to turn, and then the symbol shall be turned against the aggressor.”
The Most High Leader revealed his clever idea only near the end of the eleven hours. He would avenge, once and for all, the trampled pride of all small countries. Since HIS (but he was very careful not to pronounce the capital letters in public) modest factory of wingnut screws (that same one of the high tech, yes...) could not, despite everything, compete with the resources of the great neighboring power... they would defeat it with a symbol. And his people and the entire world learned of the firm decision of the dictator of the small country (and henceforth of all his people) to convert the chimney of the factory into the tallest chimney in the world. And his gesture, hands raised up high toward the infinite, and the chimney’s Latin name, EXCELSIOR, were recorded by all the reporters and news programs of the world, the next day...
No one was indifferent to that publicly launched challenge. Some applauded. Like the ecologists, because they knew quite well that the taller a chimney is, the less pollution it deposits at ground level to be breathed; and the small countries, who saw this superchimney as their own. And the makers of circular supporting girders and of refractory bricks for chimneys, because they foresaw their bank accounts swelling considerably.
Others laughed. Like all the native population of the large country (not that many when you subtracted out all its immigrant citizens from small countries), on account of the absurdness of this challenge to their might. One could not imagine that the megacorporation owner of the factory was going to allow that superchimney to embarrass him like that, right? Of course they would make theirs even taller. (And, at the Stock Exchange, the megacorporation’s stock rose many points that very day, to the delight of its Board of Directors.) Because a symbol is a symbol, they all said. And the psychoanalysts laughed, adding the adjective ‘phallic’ to the previous noun. Humorists around the world laughed and made jokes about this absurdity... and the laughter and jokes cost some people dearly. Because some people cannot abide antisymbolic mockery.
The government of the large country did not even bother to comment.
The professional gamers of all the length and breadth of the planet placed their wagers. The international press sent bemused and incredulous special correspondents to both wingnut screw factories (etc.) and the vertical race began.
The work, according to the experts, would be complex, very expensive and slow. It was not enough to simply stack meter after meter of chimney skyward in a mechanical manner. You had to reinforce everything from the base on up, or the structure would sink under its own weight. Many expressed their skepticism: nobody had had much experience in raising such high chimneys in any part of the world.
But enthusiasm produces miracles: in less than two weeks, with only two partial collapses, by dint of a titanic effort and some victims decorated posthumously as Heroes of the Fatherland (work at high altitudes has always carried its own peculiar risks), and, cashing in its reserves set aside for times of war, the small country succeeded in raising its chimney 65 meters, beating its rival by 15. And they baptized it the Chimney of Dignity.
After the bank credit of the small country ran out, the megacorporation in the large country cashed in its own resources... (although some of the Board of Directors grumbled, in the end they decided to protect the newfound popularity of their inflated stocks and opened up their money purses) and they raised the chimney 30m. Then, the members of OUPEC (Organization of Underdeveloped Petroleum Exporting Countries), for the first and last time in its history, made a disinterested donation to the genial dictator, and the chimney of the small country recouped its lost meters and tacked on another 30. The genial dictator reprised his gesture and his EXELSIOR returned to the front pages of the newspapers, now with an even broader smile of triumph.
Both chimneys were now the tallest man-made objects on the planet. They rose above the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, if only by a few meters, and the former World Trade Towers in New York. They even dwarfed the famous Euromast, commemorative project of the Treaty of Maastricht, which was momentarily halted awaiting the end of the duel of these two colossi.
The duel of heights continued for months, and the financial resources equivalent to the budgets of several small countries were exhausted in enhancing these two chimneys.
When the Chimney of Dignity was nearly one kilometer in height, the megacorporation owner of its rival in the large country calculated its costs vs earnings report and announced, to sighs of relief from its Board of Directors, that it was washing its hands of this entire matter, that it was not profitable to continue constructing such a chimney and that therefore it was renouncing.... The reaction of the people of the large country was so unanimous and outraged that the no longer quite so dull leaders no longer saw any alternative but to dip into the National Budget (there were lengthy discussions in its Legislature, but in the end pride in the national currency took precedence, for once, for a change)... and to subsidize the extension of the chimney for another 70 meters, in a monstrous effort with the obvious goal of definitively humiliating the symbolic pretensions of the small country and its now-almost-never-genial-dictator. So that nobody in the world would ever throw such a quantity of cash his way to waste on a chimney in flagrant disregard of all the rules of economic logic.
But subscriptions were raised in all the continents in support of the Chimney of Dignity. Millions of people, from Alaska to the Island of Tristán de Cunha contributed, with pennies or with millions. Rich millionaires were entertained by this new class of symbolic and futile charity. Workers went without bread in order to have a symbol of the possibility of redemption. The Association to Combat Impotence donated 30 million for the allegorical power of the work. A band of robbers, after holding up a bank in the large country, hijacked a plane to the small country and handed all (in reality, only nearly all) the proceeds of their heist to the Maximum Leader, in a solemn act during which they were all awarded the order of Heroes of the Fatherland.
The Chimney of Dignity matched the 30 meter advantage of its competitor, then it passed the one kilometer mark (that day was declared a National Festival in the small country; the word EXELSIOR was painted on all walls, there were street parties and beer and other alcoholic spirits enough to swim in -- and for free!) and 10 meters more besides. There were dozens of deaths, because the wind and cold at such a height was becoming a problem, but all of the dead had been volunteers. They had had to do it... and they did. The Chimney of Dignity had become a new and shining patriotic symbol. For the first time in a long time, the people of the small country were 200% behind their genial dictator. EXELSIOR!
Finally, the Board of Directors of the megacorporation of the large country flat-out refused to increase the chimney by a single meter more, even with the government subsidies. They were at the verge of bankruptcy. By their own calculation, it would now cost less to simply burn the money in the chimney than to continue plowing it into making the chimney grow. They sold their stocks and resigned, unable to withstand the public and governmental pressure. (Someone even suggested that their insolence was an affront to the principles of Free Enterprise.)
And for once the wrath of the public (who for once was interested in something other than buying low and selling high) left the leaders of the large country with no option but to expropriate the factory from the megacorporation (obviously with a generous compensation), chimney and all, and to announce that it would continue to grow at full speed... And by the way, they christened it the Chimney of Liberty. (And in the small country the dictator was less genial than ever the day he heard this, asking himself why this splendid name had not occurred to HIM for HIS chimney...)
In the large country, once the government had stuck its nose in the matter, it had turned into a matter of National Security. They called in the best experts (military, as one might imagine), who analyzed the matter and gave their immediate verdict: mechanical overload! Imminent danger of collapse! Not only was it not profitable to continue adding to the Chimney of Liberty using more refractory bricks supported by circular braces, but it would be very dangerous. Prudent calculations of the structural loads indicated that they were close to the point at which the lower layers of the cyclopean tubular construction simply could not bear the gravitational weight on top of them any longer and would crack. Something lighter was required.
Secret military files were opened, as well as the secret vaults of other megacorporations... and, thanks to a project archived years before, the method of constructing chimneys in the large country was transformed overnight in a revolutionary way. High-altitude hollow tubular balloons, constructed of a new polymer material (top secret, of course) very light and refractory (but full of helium rather than hydrogen, incidentally) began to be placed on top of each other, vertically. They were maintained in their position by lower counterweights, automatic computer-controlled helices... and, in case the winds intensified, they were also anchored with thick, strong, traditional support cables and a solid lower infrastructure of brick and strut.
In a single day, the chimney of the large country rose 150 meters. Neither the genial dictator nor the press of the small country nor any of his sympathizers ventured a single comment.
But, three weeks later, an apparently inoffensive commercial airplane shot three air-to-air missiles against the Chimney of Liberty, and, only because the balloons were filled with noncombustible helium gas, catastrophe was averted. But four stretches of twenty meters had to be replaced... and the builders, claiming that they were being dragged kicking and screaming, raised the artifact another 40 meters.
The pilot of the plane, pursued closely by four interceptor jets of the sophisticated Air Force of the large country, blew up his plane and himself in mid flight. Although a certain Ecological Army for the Liberation of the Sky claimed responsibility for the attack, the government of the large country did not hesitate to publicly blame the jealous small country and its egocentric dictator.
Emotions boiled over and boiled over even more when the still-genial-but-more-determined-than-ever dictator of the small country announced, one week later in a press conference, that scientists of his country had discovered how to fabricate the famous secret refractory polymer... and that starting the next day the Chimney of Dignity would also be extended by means of aerostatic -- or rather aerodynamic -- structures. Yes, because in place of passive hollow tubular balloons, from now on the new stretches would consist of a type of sponge, through which the hot smoke of the chimney itself would circulate, sustaining it at the same time as scrubbing it of toxins. The new solution was even more ecological... and above all, much more economical, given that the only industrial plant for producing helium was located in the large country and relations between the neighbors were not exactly friendly in recent times... Just to play it safe, the Illuminant Governor went on to blame in advance the envy of the large country for whatever sabotage might befall the Chimney of Dignity, symbol of the irreducible pride of the people, etc., etc... And of course, of the new EXCELSIOR.
In two weeks the two chimneys were again at the same height.
Then, the press of the large country published on the first page news of the arrest of two of the technicians implicated in the project of developing the new aerostatic chimney structures. It was the case of a husband and wife, both Jewish biochemists, who were accused of selling the secrets of the polymer to the dictator of the small country and who were tried and condemned to death as a consequence, despite the almost universal international clamor for their innocence and pardon...
A permanent escort of jet fighters with air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles was designated by each country to protect ITS chimney from any terrorist attack. The following week, the new stretches of the Chimney of Liberty were also supported by hot air, that is, aerodynamically, in the sponge style of the rival chimney, which turned out to be very inexpensive. The press of the small country and its partners seized on this fact to ridicule the immense technological and scientific might of the large country. Which paid scant attention to their derision...
The race upward continued. At the end of a year, the Chimney of Liberty reached the height of Mount Everest and became the Tallest Object on the Planet. One month later, the Chimney of Dignity once more left the Chimney of Liberty in the dust, passing the two kilometer mark. In both countries, the profession of chimneyist, or assembler of aerostatic sponges, turned into the highest paid and most respected calling, albeit the most dangerous as well. The task could not be fully automated by servomechanisms, so the heroic intervention of humans was still required. Books were written, symphonies and songs were composed praising the sacrifice of the chimneyists, who occasionally died at their perilous work, despite working with parachutes, pressure suits, oxygen tanks and a thousand other precautions.
It was a barely noticed incident in the duel of the chimneys that one day, upset by an article (appearing, of course in the foreign press) that characterized the entire chimney episode as a rather pathetic gesture, the for-a-few-moments-totally-ungenial dictator of the small country tightly closed his borders with the large country (and all the others incidentally) and banished all accredited journalists from his country (accused of espionage and sabotage, of course). From that moment on, the only news the world received from the small country was whatever the genial dictator, Shepherd of His Nation, communicated via telephone lines and through carefully controlled radio and TV transmissions.
And the two chimneys kept growing. Now one could make out the top of the chimneys only with sophisticated optical means. But the conventional wisdom, especially in the small countries, was that the Chimney of Dignity was leaving its rival further and further behind.
As the second year came to a close for this Vertical Race, as everyone had now come to call it, a supersecret report landed in the hands of the leadership of the large country. The document, compiled for purely technical objectives, established the thermodynamic unprofitability of the Chimney of Liberty. The chimney, originally conceived as a peripheral structure to serve the factory, had transformed into its center, its axis, its principle object. And a voracious dragon eating its own tail. To keep it upright without its own astronomical weight collapsing, since it did not consist of a static structure, but an aerodynamic one (albeit, paradoxically, immobile), hot gas needed to circulate through it constantly. And, given its immense length, the burst of air at ground level generated by the combustion necessary simply to maintain the structure was comparable to that of a hurricane, the consumption of fuel necessary to sustain it had already surpassed, since months before, not only the amount necessary to produce twice as many wingnut screws (indispensable element... yada yada) as the entire world could consume in 100 years, but also to sustain its own foundry of blast furnaces and a moderately-sized aerospace program. And if it were to continue growing at the present rate, in less than two months the consumption would top the fuel capacity of the ENTIRE large country.
An alert National Security advisor, reading this report, posed the following logical question:
If it’s costing US so much to maintain this chimney, if it consumes so much fuel, how can our small neighbors continue to run theirs?
What are those fools burning in their chimney?
The Information Agency of the large country, which was among the most efficient of the world (as was that of the small country, naturally), felt obliged to forge ahead at full steam. Hysterical searches looking for evidence of massive fuel purchases by the small country, or the discovery of some novel but still hidden source of fuel, all came up negative. In fact the astonished analysts confirmed that for months, just after the expulsion of the foreign correspondents, absolutely no news had come out of the small country. Total silence. And its borders had continued to be the impenetrable barrier they had always been: mine fields, barbed wire, search lights and computer-controlled automatic weapons.
One had to find out, somehow, what was going on. A frenetic program of spy flights over the skies of the small country was initiated. Volunteer pilots, in unmarked aircraft, taking every manner of precaution... just in case.
In the final months, such flights had been suspended because the small country had bled its already agonized budget dry to buy several stratospheric interceptors (from a subsidiary of a well-known weapons supplier... from the large country, of course) which, at least theoretically, could damage the photographic reconnaissance apparatus of its large neighbor. In fact, they had downed one, whose remains the genial dictator presented smugly in the international press, as incontestable proof of the large country’s blatant meddling in the small country’s internal affairs. Causing the diplomats of the large country to sweat ink...
But this time the stratospheric interceptors of the small country were conspicuous by their absence. And the photographs taken by the sophisticated aerial spies, rather than tranquilizing the experts, confused them even more, for three reasons.
First, without having reached their maximum cruising ceiling (a little more than 80 kilometers) the planes had managed to make out the top of the Chimney of Dignity.
Secondly, that in the last kilometers observed, its material seemed to have changed, becoming more... heterogeneous would be the word.
And third, that all of the small country, as seen from the air, appeared deserted, flat as a table, without houses, roads, or factories... not even the one factory of the wingnut screws (Don’t make me say it) which had formerly been its national pride. Not even (the cameras of the spy planes of the large country were very sensitive) persons, animals, or even trees. Only the Chimney of Dignity, vertical, colossal, like the trunk of a monstrously tall and thin tree, it was all that appeared in the photos and films. Erect, solitary... despite which, evidently, no flow of hot gas sustained it.
How had the small and poor neighboring country managed such a tremendous growth in its chimney? What new material was it and from where had it come? Why hadn’t those dozens of thousands of tons of structure collapsed without any aerodynamic support? What had happened to the population, its houses, hospitals, factories and cars?
It was incomprehensible. It was impossible. It seemed a miracle.
Historically it is the soldiers who like to take charge of compiling and analyzing information. And they don’t believe in miracles, on principle. In their paranoid minds, there is a symmetry between the Incomprehensible and the Inexplicable on one hand and Suspicion and Threat on the other.
A new theory arose and won supporters among the military of the large country in a matter of hours, namely that the dictator had finally gone stark raving mad and had buried all his country in order to convert it into a fortress which would serve to support a new and unknown weapon of mass destruction which was in fact the Chimney of Dignity.
If such a thing were true, it would be a very dangerous thing. And soldiers of all countries and all eras have a single reaction to danger, or even the simple suspicion of it...
That very night Operation Chimney Sweep was launched. Four armored divisions from the large country, with artillery support and abundant infantry, crossed the fortified border of the small country, ready and willing to protect their country and the rest of the world from the lethal threat of a crazed dictator wielding the nuclear bludgeon... or worse.
They encountered no more resistance than the automatic return fire of the robotic weapons, which soon fell silent. Beyond the border, the small country was effectively deserted. Not even the most careful surveys with geophones (a type of sophisticated underground sonar) nor frantic random excavations showed any indication of massive subterranean fortifications. All of which, rather than calming the generals who were commanding Operation Chimney Sweep, added to their paranoid panic so that, at a record pace, two military observation satellites which the large country had at its disposal (being rich permits luxury even in one’s espionage) were dispatched immediately to sift through even the molecules of the alleged desert territory of the small country and its suspicious, cyclopean Chimney of Dignity.
The sophisticated methods of space observation confirmed definitively that there was absolutely NOTHING hidden under the deserted surface of the small country. And as for the chimney... the images transmitted were so incredible that, at enormous cost, that very week the government of the large country sent a manned mission into space to check it out in situ.
The result of such an inspection resulted in the final dismantling of the Chimney of Liberty and the passing of the depopulated small country from military occupation directly into its immediate incorporation as one more province of the large country, which had been a dream of its leaders for many years. And, in the face of the protests of the world and all its organizations against such a flagrant annexation, they merely smiled... and offered to retransmit the images taken by their astronauts, free of charge and to all the planet at once.
And thus, the entire world, amazed, had occasion to watch the men of the shuttle, after a nearly acrobatic maneuver of docking and thanks to the adhesive surfaces of their spacesuits, walking up the final few kilometers of the Chimney of Dignity.
And, to their surprise, they realized that the last stretches of the chimney were not formed of polymers of any type, but of a heterogeneous conglomerate of pieces of wood, common bricks, trees, automobiles of all types imaginable, maintaining themselves balanced in utter disregard of all the laws of physics.
Surprised and horrified to discover that, up to the end, there were no longer bits of houses and furniture chaotically assembled forming the chimney, but a mass of bodies, a tangle of human beings. Embracing tightly, the muscles stretched to achieve the maximum height, the maximum extension of their own anatomies. Frozen in the tremendous cold of space, but smiling, fused now for eternity in THEIR project, THEIR pride, THEIR chimney.
And, at the pinnacle of that tremendous and impossible obelisk of selflessness, sacrifice and infinite stubbornness of the people of the small country, the last of them, the only one with his arms free, the genial dictator. Still leading his confident nation, with a proud gesture, his hands raised to the infinite, as if straining to go even further. Converted into his own statue for all eternity, his mouth pronouncing his proud EXCELSIOR, smiling, triumphant...
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