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The Last Original Title

Steven Jenkins charged up the last three steps, burst in through the office door and threw the book on the desk. Then he bent double, his hands on his knees, panting and gasping for air.

Across the desk sat Robert Monroe. He was a careful man, thorough and restrained. He was just easing into his nine hundreth year, and had hoped to develop some of the cantankerousness that the senior members of society were respected and avoided for. Instead, his heart wasn't in it. Looking over spectacles that sat on his nose for effect rather than need, the best he could manage was, "Good grief, man, don't you young people knock any more?"

Jenkins, a comparatively spry two hundred and fifty year old, just gasped and shook his head in response. He pointed at the book then went back to leaning.

Monroe looked down at the book. It resembled a million other books; the covers and spine were precisely bound in leather, with faint gold embellishments to the corners. There was no text anywhere on the cover. Monroe, exasperated, removed his glasses and waited for Jenkins to recover. "Well?" he said.

"The... title..." struggled Jenkins before lapsing into silence again.

Monroe picked the book up and flipped to the start of the title. Slowly he turned through the pages, a small smile appearing on his face, until twenty pages later, he stopped with a short chuckle.

"Clever," he said, then stopped. His eyes met with those of Jenkins. Monroe's face fell.

Suddenly he reached for the intercom. "Miss Williams, I need you to arrange an immediate appointment for me with the Minister for Culture. It is a matter of some urgency."

His secretary's voice crackled through the speaker. "What shall I say it's about, Mr Monroe?"

Monroe swallowed dryly. "It's about the last book we'll ever publish."

Monroe pushed open the door to the Minister of Culture's office hesistantly. Despite himself, he was somewhat awed. The office was furnished in dark wood with a heavy mahogany desk at its centre. Understated decorations subtly proclaimed a time honoured style reaching back through the centuries. A line of classical paintings of ex-politicians led to the Minister seated at the desk.

"Ah, Mr Monroe," said the Minister, "Please do come in."

Monroe shut the door and took a chair in front of the desk. The minister was not a big man, and appeared even less so when seated opposite Monroe. Still, Monroe knew, the minister compensated with a sharp eye, and somehow maintained a youthful outlook despite being well into his third millenium.

"So how can I help you, Mr Monroe?" The Minister hunched over his desk with a look of intent anticipation. "You realise I am quite unused to meeting with publishers?"

"I thank you for your time, Minister. I'll not delay either of us unnecessarily. But I really think you ought to see this." Monroe slid the leather-bound book across the desk, "The last original title in the world."

The Minister took the book and opened it. His eyes quickly scanned across the pages. "Oh, I say," he said, flicking pages. A sincere smile broke out on his face. "Oh, indeed, that is rather amusing. Oh, most definitely so." He flicked through more pages. "Oh, yes. That is most entertaining." He flicked the book shut. "I'm really very impressed. With a title like that, the book should practically sell itself. It'll be a wonder if you have to market it at all."

"Indeed," said Monroe. "In fact, without wishing to undermine my own company, I will say it is the first noteworthy publication we have made in several centuries."

The Minister shrugged. "It's really not my place to judge. However, I must confess to being somewhat perplexed. I received a somewhat garbled message that you wished to see me concerning the last book you'll ever publish."

Monroe nodded, his throat suddenly dry again. "When was the last time you read anything that excited you? Something truly new and unique?"

The Minister shrugged. "Regretfully I must admit that I don't set aside nearly enough time for literature." Then with an apologetic smile, he added, "I don't so much read, as dabble."

"That may be so, but surely you must have noticed a decline in the originality of modern literature?" Monroe tapped the book. "That really is the last original title in the world."

The Minister laughed nervously. "Oh come now, surely you can't know that." He studied Monroe's flat expression. "Really?"

Monroe sighed. "I wish that were the case. Unfortunately, the publishing industry has been trying to ignore the problem, myself included. But a standard twenty page title has only so many possible combinations of words and letters before you must get repetition."

The Minister flicked through the book's title again. "I suppose you've considered increasing it to twenty one pages?"

"We could, but what then? Do we later increase to twenty two? Then twenty three? But that's only the thin end of the wedge. We can cope with repeating titles by listing author and publisher names. But what about the text itself?"

"The text will repeat soon too?" The Minister frowned.

"Very soon, Minister." Monroe suddenly realised he was sitting on the edge of his chair. "We're already seeing repetition of large amounts of content. There are only so many ways to express ideas and only so many pages we can have in a book. We simply don't have enough word combinations to go on forever."

The Minister set the book down and steepled his fingers. "I see." He sighed and spoke quietly. "This could bring our entire cultural development to a halt."

"I know. Without some means of expression, we'll stagnate."

The Minister drummed his fingers together. "When our ancestors found a way to make us immortal, they anticipated we would run out of resources. Metals, wood, fuels - they reached to the stars so that we might have these things. They devoted their time to researching our future for us. They provided for us. Little did we ever imagine the development of our culture would be stopped not by metals but by a shortage of words."

Monroe nodded. "That's why I brought this to you. However, I fear I was too late."

The Minister remained silent a moment, then gave a broad but cheerless smile. "It has been said of me that I am an optimist. Perhaps, even, too much so. However, I refuse to give in until every possible avenue has been exhausted. Don't close the company just yet. I'll be sending the Minister of Technology to see you very soon." Then he added, "If it's no trouble."

The crowd before the stairs of Publishing House was remarkable, thought Monroe. He hadn't expected so many people to turn up. Though, as he pushed his way past the hordes, he recalled that novelty was fast becoming an extinct concept.

Well, he thought, this, if nothing else, should change all that.

He reached the front in time to catch the Minister of Culture coming to the end of his speech.

"... ko wooh tayan tay nohn tu..." said the Minister with some difficulty. As he spoke, he struggled to read the script he held in one hand while manipulating a device at his throat with the other hand. Each word was layered over a recording of the Minister's own voice, and further layered over a rapidly changing pattern of distortion. The effect was more like playing a musical instrument than speaking. "... wi shn dor kabil ar!" ended the Minister triumphantly. Then with a look of some relief, he added, "And very approximately in Old-speak, 'I heartily condone the adoption of New-speak immediately.'"

As the applause started, the Minister waved to the crowd and walked down the steps beside the stage. Monroe met him at the bottom.

"Really, I can't fathom the intricicies of this magic box yet," said the Minister, handing over the device to Monroe. "And as for the text..." He waved a series of complicated lines, arrows and shapes at Monroe. "Let's settle on saying it'll take some getting used to."

Monroe grinned. "Never mind. It's a solution of sorts. The people can see its value; they'll back it. This should prevent repetition for at least a few million years."

The Minister beamed. "Most true, Mr. Monroe. Our forefathers provided the technology; we provided the ingenuity. Together we are unstoppable."

"Jad fi kal," said Monroe, fingers working the box.

The Minister stopped in his tracks. "Say again, Mr Monroe?"

Monroe smiled. "Most eloquently put, sir."

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