long ago, in the future: the big people

With a tribute (Easter egg-style) to the great Ursula K. Le Guin, whose speech at the National Book Awards was one for the ages.

A group of people is sitting around a fire. One of them stands to tell a tale:

Wunzappona there was a place where everything was Big. The people were Big, but more big-around than tall, like say, two or three of us tied together. And there were a lot of them too, crowded into this place, so they were always bumping into one another! And they didn’t walk—they couldn’t walk because their little legs could not support their huge bellies! Like if you were to put an enormous stone on top of a tiny stool. So each wore a machine with wheels just around his own body, which, of course, made them even Bigger! And every day they wore a different one, and threw away the one before, as you throw the shell of a nut you are eating as you walk.

“Outside the place there was a mountain made out of thrown-away machines. And their dwellings also were the shape of their machines, just big enough to fit perfectly around them like your skin fits around your hand. Some of these dwellings were piled high on top of each other. But most of them were spread out, and since there were many millions they spread over whole valleys, beyond where your two eyes could see as far as you could look. But it didn’t matter how far they spread out; the Big people couldn’t get away from one another!

“And then, on top of everything else, they were asleep all the time. Now we often say we are “awake” because our last eye is open, but I don’t mean that. We all still sleep at night, and dream when we are asleep, yes? They were asleep like that! All the time. But still the machines moved them from place to place constantly; they never sat still. So of course they were always bumping into one another! Most of the time they just said, in their sleepy voices, ‘Oh, imagine bumping into you like this!’ And that was how they met.

“But more and more often, they bumped so hard that they died. Even though their machine shells were hard, the people inside were soft, much softer and weaker than we are, like fat snails. And they ate all the time. They only lived to eat, and to dream. While they were dreaming, and bumping into one another, they were using their hands, which still worked on their own, to fill their mouths with food. They could eat everything. The number of things we eat is very small, mostly plants, though we can make a large number of things from a small number of plants—milk and cheese, and jam and flour and so forth. But they, oh my children, oh my brothers and sisters and cousins and kin, they could eat everything. They could eat large animals—because in the Big world there were many animals as large as a person or even larger—and eat birds, and insects, and wood and metal and even earth! About the only thing they couldn’t eat was plastic, and you all know why that is, because it’s the deadest thing there is. And they were strange but they were still alive. While trees can eat stone, and air can eat metal, and insects can eat wood, no living thing can eat plastic, as far as we know.

“They were always hungry; they were born hungry, like babies are. But they stayed hungry, even when they were grown, and just kept eating more and more, like a swarm of grasshoppers, rolling over the city where they lived and eating everything in sight. They – or really their machines – would build a building, and then they would eat it: walls, roofs, and everything inside, as if it were made of bread! Then they would race to the next one, each one of them asleep, dreaming their dreams as their machines sped them on, and their busy hands would take that building apart and devour it inside and out. Like bees build hives, and then one by one the beekeepers take them out and we eat them, hive and honey. But we are careful, and the beekeepers are careful, and we’re not hungry all the time, the way the Big people were, so we always have honey and the bees always have hives. But they were eating their whole place faster than their machines could build it back up.

“Now every so often, in the time I’m speaking of, some Big person would wake up. Not wake as we all did by opening our last eye, but wake as you or I do even today, out of a dream. And when that Big person woke, there they would be, speeding along, with others whizzing by them faster than you can imagine, faster than birds or clouds or falling water and nearly bumping into them every second. And he or she would see the world being eaten, and hear the crunching sound all around, so loud it was deafening—and be terribly frightened!

“And then they longed to go back to sleep, to their dreams, which were full of so-bright colors, the colors of plastic, and of desires we can’t imagine. And most of them soon did, unless they died first. It was hard for the ones who woke up, because they saw how everything happened, but they also saw it was happening so fast, and they couldn’t get out of the machines because their legs didn’t work, and they realized that no matter how Big they were, they were very weak, and could hardly do anything, and so the machines were driving them, and not the other way around.

“So most who woke would die or go back to sleep. But one day, a woman woke up and something different happened. Her name was Odo. And she was just like all the other Big people, but somehow when she woke she made a connection, and that’s why she didn’t die. This is still a very difficult thing to do, and so all great connections are honored with tales. The connection Odo made was between eating and the machines. She realized that the more the Big people ate, the faster the machines drove them, and the more dangerous it was to be in them!

So Odo tried a very simple thing – an experiment they called it in those times, which is a kind of experience that no one else has had before. What Odo did was to stop eating. She was amazed when she found she could do it! It wasn’t so easy. But it was actually easier for her since she was awake, because, as she discovered, it was the dreams they dreamed that gave the Big people their hunger. And when Odo stopped eating, she noticed that her machine slowed down, to where she could use her mind and her hands to tell it where to go again. So she drove it off into the desert, far from the valleys filled with Big people, and she thought about things.

“For forty days and nights she thought, which is Traditional. She thought, and didn’t eat, and grew lighter and clearer, and she decided that the Big people must wake up! Or one day they would have eaten everything, and they would all starve. But how to do it?

“During that time, the large animals were very worried. They were all being eaten! They could see the time coming when the Big people would have eaten them all, to the last one. So they had a council. They came together in the desert, near where Odo was thinking, and they spoke together, and they came to a decision. “Our time is ending,” they said. “We know the Big people will end us before they end themselves, so let us make a pact with this woman whose waking has given her sight. Before we disappear, let us give her our qualities. Horse will give her his strength and swiftness. Bear will give her his sense of smell, and his knowledge of how to find food. Wolf will give her his love for his kin.” And so on, each animal coming forward and saying what he or she would give to Odo.

“Then they all went to where Odo was, and she saw them all in a waking dream, which we call a vision, like those we have when we go out alone far from our kin and don’t eat for a long time. Odo was the first and only one of the Big people to do this, and we honor it in this tale.

“She was ready to receive them, and they gave their gifts each one and then disappeared, telling Odo that from then on, they would live only in her. And sure enough, soon after that, the Big people’s machines made the final attack on the large animals, and they were all killed and eaten, and only the small animals and fish survived because they could hide, and some of the birds because they could fly. Though we say that Bear, and Horse and Bull and some of the others went up into the sky, where we can still see them at night, the stars glistening on their dark hides.

And Odo was silent during this time, living alone in a place the Big people didn’t know, and using the skill Bear gave her to find food. She used another gift as well. Eagle had given her the power to enter the dreams of others, and so she went into the dreams of the Big people and whispered to them: ‘Wake up!’ And most did not, but a few did. And they found that Odo, with the knowledge Deer had given her, had left a trail through the Big place, with markings showing how to find her if they wanted to come. But of course they could only find her if they were awake.

“So most of the Big people died because they ate everything and finally had nothing left to eat but one another. But the few that came to Odo learned what the animals knew, and they and Odo lived happily everafter.

The teller finishes her story and sits down. The others nod, gratefully, and there is a short silence. Then someone looks up and points to the Bear made of stars in the sky. And someone else says, “Yes, this is how we know their names and what they were like, even though we have never seen them. And carry them with us, even though they have all gone from the world.”