The Book Circle Party

It was the first Schrödinger Bar I had seen. That is what they called it now, the technical term being too boring to remember and difficult to pronounce. I suppose the name was a play with that cat thing we had read about in school: the bartenders were both dead and alive. It was strange to be served by all kinds of Hollywood stars, you just had to select on your intranet, all the way back to the 20th century, which was close to half a millennium back.

I surfed my intranet – I still had one of those you wore as glasses, though most of the people here were not wearing glasses, which meant they had the really cool contact lens ones – and found a fat man called John Wayne in the 20th century, whom I could not place, and two or three others. Marilyn Monroe, I had heard of, but no, that was too far back for me. I moved to ‘contemp’ and settled on my father’s favorite from just thirty years ago. I was served a drink by her. I knew she was a ninety-year-old woman now, with ironed out wrinkles and sophisticated plasticurgy that made her look around sixty, but this avatar, serving me, was her at the age of 27, when she had her first megahit.

A man next to me who looked vaguely familiar – glassless – ordered a whiskey from her, but of course he probably saw her as someone else. That was the beauty of the Schrödinger Bar. I could recall how, when I was still a teenager, the first AI-shifter bars had become fashionable, and how disappointing the earlier versions had been, all the avatars looking like tattoos gone wrong. But this, this was impressive, I had to concede. It was not a surprise either. I had not expected anything less fashionable at a Book Circle Party thrown by Michelle Bæzo-Anchabadze, arguably the best-known trans-model in the metropolis. I took off my intranet glasses, and the bartender turned into a young biandroid, it had been shaped that way, both male and female, totally unremarkable, so that the intranet could convert it into whatever you selected for yourself. The man next to me turned to me with his glass of whiskey and remarked, “You know it is technically illegal to turn off your intranet now.” He smiled.

“I did not turn it off,” I observed, smiling thinly, “I took it off.”

“Yes, they will have to find a way to get around that one,” he laughed. “I suppose they will just ban the use of glasses for some health reason and insist on contacts.”

“Not for me,” I replied, “My eyes cannot take contact lenses.”

“Oh, there are ways around that one. What’s a little eye?” he laughed again, and extended his hand. “Bruce,” he said, “Bruce Willander, CEO, ESTO Enterprises.”

“I have heard of you,” I noted, shaking his hand.

“I wouldn’t be here, if you hadn’t.” He uttered a short, mirthless laugh. He was a well-built man, entirely blonde, even to the tips of his white eyelashes, with deep blue eyes, but his facial features were that of a black man. I wondered what part of that persona was a construct. There were so many like him in the crowd behind us, some famous, some almost so, and a very few like me.

“I am Anne Nakamura,” I introduced myself. He raised a quizzical blonde eyebrow at me.

“No, you wouldn’t know me. I am here just because I am one of the two nannies of Michelle’s adopted triplet-sons. I am the one who is off-duty this evening.”

“Do nannies still exist?” he remarked.

“Just as gardeners do,” I replied, “You cannot replace them with programs. They are not professors or doctors.”

“Well, I wouldn’t know: I do not go for either children or plants. Damn nuisance both. Though, I must say, if I had known nannies could be as pretty as you, I might have changed my mind.”

I changed the topic instead. I knew this one was heading for one of the eighteen rooms in the mansion, some of them probably being put to good use already.

“You must go to a lot of Book Circle Parties,” I remarked.

“Don’t you?” he asked, eyes surveying the rest of the crowd, looking for someone more malleable than me.

“My first,” I said.


“Really. I mean, the first one with a proper old book, not a modern replica.”

“I guess they are rare in some circles. But Michelle has scored a coup: I was told she has obtained a whole bundle of King Lear, edition from the twenty-first century. That was the last century they made books, what was the word, yes, printed books. Did you manage to read your copy in time?”

“Michelle did not give me a copy. She had only fifty-nine. They went to select guests…”

“I suppose I was one of the lucky ones then.”

“I did read it on the visualizer though.”

“Brave you. I am lugging my copy around for the climax, but, my God, what rubbish: bad executive decision and then rant, rant, rant. Who ever made him king? I stopped in the third act.”

“There are moments though. There was a good and far less verbose adaptation just fourteen-fifteen years ago. My father had watched it with me when I was seventeen or so.”

“Was there? Goes to show it takes all kinds…” With that, he drifted away. I was obviously not his kind.

A small, bespectacled man had taken the screen. I could not tell if he was in our hall or some other room, but suddenly the image of the band disappeared from the walls around us and the face of the man filled them. I knew him. Everyone in our metropolis knew him. He was a professor of chronology at one of our universities, but that did not count. He was also the official time-master, appointed to explain time to the population, and hence he was often in the public limelight. His glasses were an intellectual statement; he could afford the latest lenses.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he announced in a voice that was much larger than him. “Even as we wait for our host, the lovely Michelle Bæzo-Anchabadze, to join us, it is my job to tell you about the historical origins of Book Circle parties, which, as you know, have come to assume a significance in our glorious, peaceful era that was mostly denied to them in previous centuries…”

Michelle had been delayed, and we knew why. Despite the Schrödinger bar, nude android servers – with their perfect bodies and very limited intelligence – and a band playing in one of the halls, her absence had lowered the key of the party. She had been visualizing in one of the 27 other metropolises that consisted of the known earth, and was delayed by an attempted incursion into that metropolis from the peripheries. We called them the peripheries, though of course they comprised more than seventy percent of the surface of the earth. Devastated areas, populated by a few leftover tribes, all exposed to the infection, post-war refuse and solar radiation, and kept out of the metropolises with the help of force fields, laser domes, drones, dogs, whatnot. But despite that, every once in a while, some of these tribes would breach the defenses and enter a metropolis, ostensibly to loot and rape. When that happened, the metropolis was sealed off until all possible contamination had been eliminated, and travel, which was only possible by air from and to that exposed metropolis, suspended.

Not that anyone could stop Michelle Bæzo-Anchabadze from flying – she had Code A Access, available to only a few, usually the executive officers of the metropolises and the security people. But even she had to go through the usual decontamination process, and that was why she was arriving late to her own Book Circle Party. It must have irked her. Such parties were prestigious, and one with 59 copies of a book printed in the twenty-first century? They must have cost her a fortune to obtain!

The professor was obviously improvising a bit, perhaps on instructions to stretch time for her. He spoke on, in the voice of an actor rather than an academic, about how book circles had existed for “millennia”, but their existence and the radical purpose of the ceremony had been largely obscured, even denied, by historians, anthropologists and other such scholars – dated disciplinary predecessors of the academic and far more scientific fields that we had today.

“It is only in our era, the most prosperous age known to humankind, when the 28 metro-corners of the earth live in absolute peace despite the challenging circumstances elsewhere, it is only now that we have been able to question the orthodoxies of the ages, and restore to the book circle its real significance. It is through the book circle, long denied and even, alas, denigrated, that humankind has breathed in, yes, literally, its characteristic features: ratiocination, critical awareness, yes, even that rare category, empathy. I feel honoured to be part of this Book Circle Party. There are some who whisper that the reading of books did not always include such ceremonies, but it is obvious that they were practiced time and again, and the general agreement…”

But now, Michelle Bæzo-Anchabadze was finally here and the party revved up. The band was playing again, plastered on the walls around us. Another six or seven guests arrived, each of them not just famous but mind-bogglingly powerful: the sort of people who cannot be expected to wait even for a Michelle Bæzo-Anchabadze to arrive. Michelle passed by me in her trademark Maverigown – she had made it famous – which changed contours and colours. Right now, it was a frothy beige tulle dress, embellished with golden embroidery and petals to resemble intricate vines. But as she led us – I could see Bruce was right at the back of the elite group with books that trailed her – through the halls and then downstairs (yes, we used the staircase, for such was the occasion), her dress changed to match the floor colours.

Finally, we stepped into the immense domed garden, and Michelle’s maverigown changed into smart, light-colored outdoor wear. She led us up to the center of the garden, where a kind of stage had been raised. Three steps led up to the stage, and at the center of it was a large cauldron, made of transparent steel-glass-alloy, someone said, about three feet in height and a bit more in circumference. Michelle stepped up the stage, while the rest of us stayed where we were, for we all wanted a view of the ceremony. Michelle’s book circle coterie – which included, as far as I could see, all the senior executives of our metropolis – clustered around the stairs, gripping their books.

Michelle stood there, solitary and supreme. She surveyed us.

“This, friends,” said Michelle, as her maverigown changed to a uniform, with stiff collars, insignia and epaulets, “This is my final surprise for the occasion. We will do this exactly the way it used to be done.”

She held a small box, maybe four inches long and two inches broad, above her head between two fingers of one hand, the other hand still holding the Shakespeare by its cover, its pages fluttering loosely. One page fell out and fluttered away from the platform. It was instantly picked up by one of the bookless guests.

“A matchbox,” announced Michelle. “From the twentieth century.”

Michelle took a small stick out of the box, and struck it against its side. The stick flickered into a flame at the third attempt. She touched the flame to the fluttering pages of the book, which caught fire. Slowly, gracefully, she dropped the burning book into the cauldron. There must have been kindling at the bottom; the flame shot up. There was a collective gasp of inhalation amongst us, as the divine life-sustaining smoke drifted out of the cauldron. People edged closer to the platform to inhale it: there were so many medical treatises attesting to its benefits.

Michelle stepped down from the stage. She offered the matchbox to the Chief Executive Officer of our metropolis, who was holding his Shakespeare by its covers now.

“Be my guest,” she said to him.

The others lined up, eager to perform their part in this ancient ceremony and inhale the beneficial smoke.

Photo by Robynne Hu on Unsplash

CategoriesShort Fiction
Tabish Khair

Born in 1966 and educated in Gaya, a small town in Bihar, India, Tabish Khair is the author of critically-acclaimed books, including the novels, Filming: A Love Story, The Thing About Thugs, How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, and Just Another Jihadi Jane. His studies include The Gothic, Postcolonialism and Otherness and The New Xenophobia. Winner of the All India Poetry Prize, his novels have been shortlisted for more than a dozen major prizes, including the Sahitya Academy Award. An associate professor at Aarhus University, Denmark, he has been a Leverhulme Guest Professor at Leeds University, UK, and has held fellowships at JNU, Delhi University, Hong Kong City University and Hong Kong Baptist University (China), York University and Cambridge University (UK), etc.