* * * * *
At the Indian dance she sat to his left, a little behind him, but leaning forward into his row. Turning her nose from a tepid splash of scentless sweat—from the jewelled net of inverted bubbles cast by the performers—they started to talk business. They spoke over the dance, as if over a bad film. It wasn’t as if what they said would interfere with any dialogue, but still, Graham had felt like grunting arrhythmically to disrupt the dancer’s timing. Exclaiming in misplaced spite.
“Sure. What’s it?” He spoke in numb short hand, as he leant off kilter into the woman’s blind spot—against the fourth wall of the performance—to secret the plastic martini cup of his drink out of her sight. He still wanted her to take him as seriously as she could.
“Call us the PLC—Print Liberation Collective. We’re freedom-fighters, we liberate cultural artefacts from the rich for everyone to read. It’s a splinter group of the old Printer’s Union.” He knew of them, a group of militants who’d been de-licensed after a disastrous denial of service on Noble’s access-points, an attempt to disrupt their in-store, pick-up POD service. The executive committee had claimed such ‘Print on Demand’ services unfairly disadvantaged printers and publishers of all ‘types’—he’d tried to keep his face straight—that was just before they had been hauled from court. Away into matte black vans. Eraserheads all, it’d been news through every feed—of course it had—how they’d been fundamentalist terrorists, seeking to deny the public information.
She continued, “The org used to attack and try and devalue digital text, to prioritise print. That only made them terrorists—ha! ‘Eraserheads’ they were called. But we’ve moved on. We take the fight in a different way.” Everyone knew the main gist of the Collective’s argument: that most reading was done online, on handheld feeders (just forget those airport-style, POD-pulps and their thirty day, copywrit legal lifecycles). Every word read recorded by the publishing Houses, reader behaviour analysed down to the phrase; leading back to advertising, and eventually to targeted texts. The Collective felt that electronic books were de-humanising, ‘alienating man from the production of meaning.’ How anachronistically Marxist! Graham would never have agreed with the Collective before… but now he knew better. His book had been all he’d had left—and now what?
However, access and ad revenues could never be enough for most real publishers. Enter the Arts&Craft editions—bounds nicer than any pleb was likely to buy. Proper bounds for the truly rich. Printed on hi-tech / hi-res paper, ur-leather bindings and chem-treated alloy clasps. Editions certified clean of Inspiration, signed and numbered with plates, each inked and bound with the Author’s DNA. It was a great sideline for the Houses.
“We steal them, Graham. Break into the private libraries of the rich, Robin-Hooding the bounds like guerrilla librarians.” Graham looked blankly at her. He knew the words, but not how they were using them. The Collective would eventually have to explain what it was they meant exactly by a ‘library’ to him later. Even before the Houses had come over with their strong licenses and scare campaigns—meaning that most cheap bounds had to be returned for a part-refund, and that if you wanted a real binding you’d have to pay a premium for it. Even before that, libraries were passé. They were a rich man’s joke, like a ‘reading room.’
Shades shook her head. “We’re stealing the true ‘books’ from the rich, they’ve been taking away our history for too long. Like they’ve done to you. Turning what you knew into nothing but ephemera. We’ve got funding for this collection, and enough to make it public, Graham! You shouldn’t ask where the money’s coming from—best not to—but we need someone like you to help us to build it.”
Their argument wasn’t just a pissing against the rich. Graham considered himself: he used to write info theory, digital down to the quick. Now, he thought, I never expected to own the rights to my work—I sold them as soon as I could. And it seemed worth the money then. But he still believed in his IP, it was his intellect that’d made the property after all. And he could handle collaboration. But that peer-to-peer Authorship, pretending their words were his, pirating his craft—in ignorance of his own will—whether or not he wanted to be ‘interpreted’… Oh fuck! What right did he have to that now?
Paper bounds were made to argue those property rights. They proved true Auteurship—bounds were history. But the world had moved from copy control, to an access economy. And ownership information was the only thing prohibited. It was a losing argument to claim that you owned any content, only the time to access it. The reading public wanted easy access, and they weren’t about to pay the thousands of Euros the Houses charged for each bound. Best that way, wasn’t it? Encouraged them to pay for access codes, and to give away their demographics. After all, that’s what made the trillion euro Metatext go round…
Graham knew it was best that way. Everyone got what they wanted: Houses with the money to keep authoring, readers with access. He was angry that his own work had been lost, but was he right to be?
Still, at halftime, Graham stood with Shades and left with her. He’d started to think that maybe they could help one another—even if the PLC were likely insane.
He met the rest of Shade’s PLC cell in a building which had once been used to house an old press. Their first base of ops—not yet the one he was later holding a (metaphorical) match to. He was given an introduction to their first few bounds. They’d placed their collection in the tubs which had once been used to pulp paper. He knew that wouldn’t do at all. Thankfully, it didn’t take much to disabuse them of the romantic notion of laying low in such a poetic, but obvious hiding spot.
One of them was even in competition for the alias ‘Shades’—imagine, bifocal work goggles, the lower lens mirrored in her style. That man, named Samanya, had seemed to be winking at Graham infrequently from his disco-shades. Brother to Jada, Graham figured the two of them must also share fashion hints.
Next to him, a girl called Cho. She wore her black hair up, ninja-’shush’ing style. While the leather pencil skirt was obviously an affect, her hair in the bun actually seemed like genuine disregard. She pushed in past everyone else, reaching for the bounds, and obviously displeasing Shades.
“Most of this stuff,” Cho had gestured, the bounds lumped on the tables, “are just common texts—recyc’ed bounds from airport Espresso machines and other throw-away, in-situ engineering texts. They’re just for the grassroots libraries. Pulps pirate from their copywrit—now illegal copies.” Shades gave a look to her brother, who pulled Cho away from the bounds while they then let Graham scour for copies of his own works. But even in their shallow disobedience, no one would maintain his kind of architectural thesaurus. He felt weak. Was this where he’d really ended up?
The bounds were un-shuffled, and many of them only heavily barcoded, not even with a passive, shortwave Arphid between them. No one was tracking those pitiful things, God help them! There was nothing there worth any danger to the illegal Collective. Though that would have to change, wouldn’t it?
“We want a lot more than this, Graham.” Shades back in charge. “We need you to design a system for us.” They’d said they wanted their collection to rage against convention.
However, after meeting them all, he’d thought of them less as radical militants, and rather more like old-fashioned bibliophiles. As if they were truly rich, and in love with the bounds themselves. Not that he considered himself revolutionary either, but their insistence on taking and keeping the bounds in those almost fetishistic shelves… open-faced to the walkways, suggested that what they really loved was the print itself. That wasn’t like him. He wanted more from the group.
Yet they had been able to work together. While it hadn’t been easy to get the collection to where it was, it had grown. Eventually leading to the disastrous heist.
By Paul McLaughlan