Fantastical sci-fi by Fei Dao – translated by Alec Ash
Once upon a time, there was a King, who loved neither the beauty of his domain nor its women, but only took pleasure in listening to stories. He kept a storyteller in his palace, but the number of tales that any one person can know is limited, and whenever a minstrel had told them all the King would exile him far, far away. After a while, no one dared tell any story.
And so the King convened the most ingenious scientists in the land, and ordered them to build a storytelling robot. At first, the stories that the robot told were lifeless, but it had the ability to learn independently, and under the supervision of the scientists it slowly perfected the quality. Its brain was installed with every story that was known of, and each night the King, tired from the affairs of state and wanting to relax, ordered the robot to spin him a yarn. If the King could not hear two or three short stories before retiring, he was not able not sleep.
One day the King, reclining in the imperial bed, closed his eyes and prepared to enjoy a new and fabulous story. The robot began, “In a distant town there was a famous thief known as Crack–”
The King furrowed his brow, opened his eyes and interrupted the robot. “You’ve already told this story,” he said. “Tell another one.”
Again, the robot began, “Once upon a time there was a King who, for a son, had a pig–”
Although the robot’s tone was most comical, the King frowned. “It seems I wasn’t clear,” he said. “Tell a story that you haven’t told before.” Once more he shut his eyes, somewhat displeased.
The robot silently checked its database, only to discover that it had already told every story it knew. “Does this mean you have nothing at all for me?” the King said in disbelief. He thought for a moment, then asked, “Can you invent a new one?”
And so the scientists got back to work, vastly expanding the mental capacity of the robot so that it could process more complex operations. Through great effort they taught it the concept of invention, converting its function from narration to creation, and the robot finally understood that that which did not exist could be fabricated. The first story it invented was utter nonsense, but the scientists were delighted at the breakthrough.
The robot’s ability to learn was unparalleled, and with the help of its creators it analyzed its databank of stories to create a set of scientific laws for storytelling – a model that would later become world-famous. But the mathematical nature of this model was so overwhelmingly complex that only the robot could make head or tail of it. With systematic practice, it finally invented its first high-quality story. The King was most satisfied, and issued the command, “Remember, you are only to tell me the most marvellous tales.”
Whenever the King was in a good mood, the robot would in a loud, clear voice tell a sentimental yarn, and the King would sigh with emotion. So moved was he by the misfortunes of those in the story that he would issue impulsive decrees to lighten the burden of the common people. Whenever the King was in a bad mood, the robot would vividly narrate a comic tale, and as the King listened he would cry with amusement, his anger abating until the harried court officials breathed a sigh of relief, and everything was at peace once more.
The robot’s storylines grew ever more wonderful, surpassing the most talented of human minstrels. Adhering to rigorous mathematical laws, its stories were always of the most succinct structure, with no sloppiness whatsoever, and the complexity of the scientific model prevented any new stories from seeming familiar. Some of them might be called classics, and even the King asked to hear them again. Yet all the while, the robot stuck to stylistic formality. Every story began, “Once upon a time,” and ended, “That is all, your Majesty.”
Every night, when the King put away his imperial correspondence and issued the order to begin, the robot would softly say, “Once upon a time.” At that the whole palace went quiet, everyone in their appointed place, not disturbing the inner chamber until they heard the words, “That is all, your Majesty,” when they tentatively suggested the King retire for the night.
Day after day, the robot invented new and astonishing stories without rest. But the King was a clever man, and even if the stories seemed ingeniously different, he still had a nagging feeling that they were made of the same cloth. And so one night, when he was in a particularly foul mood, he commanded, “Tell me the most marvellous story in the whole world.”
A hush fell. This time the robot didn’t begin at once, and was struck dumb in thought. The King tried his best to be patient, while the court started to feel uneasy. All of the concubines and attendants prayed that the robot would tell this unrivalled tale without hitch, or else the King would surely be angry. When, finally, they heard those welcome words, “Once upon a time,” everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
“Once upon a time,” the robot began, “there was a gifted King, who in order to rule everything under heaven used the sharpest material that exists to create an invincible army.” As the story progressed, the whole court was entranced, and the King quite forget everything else, listening with all his might. The army defeated powerful enemies and terrifying beasts, and had many a bizarre adventure, vanquishing city after city until finally they arrived at the last unconquered capital. Yet the King of that country had used the most durable material that exists to create an unconquerable city wall. “On the verge of battle,” the robot went on, “the two Kings bowed in respect to each other, at which the invincible army lifted their pikes and rushed towards the unbreakable city wall–”
The robot stopped suddenly, and the King was jolted back to reality. Vexed, he commanded, “Continue.” The robot’s eyes flickered for a moment, but it still didn’t open its mouth. “Why did you stop?” the King asked harshly. The court trembled while the robot calmly answered, “Your Majesty, this story can have two endings, but I haven’t yet calculated which is the most marvellous.”
“Could it be that they are both equally splendid?” the King said, displeased.
“Affirmative,” the robot answered. “The proximity of both endings to the ideal parameters of the scientific model of storytelling is exactly equal. This is the first time this has happened.”
“In that case, tell both endings,” the King ordered.
“Impossible, your Majesty. In accordance with your instructions, I must narrate a single perfect story for you. This is my duty,” the robot replied placidly.
“No, I reissue my command. Immediately continue the story, no matter which ending you choose.” The King’s tone was cruel.
The light in the robot’s eyes dimmed to blackness, and went out. That night, no one heard the words, “That is all, your Majesty.” The palace was on tenterhooks all night, and the King didn’t sleep a wink.
By daybreak the scientists had finally repaired the robot, but cautiously warned the King, “You had better not again give him mutually contradictory orders.”
The King asked blankly, “Is there no way?”
“Your Majesty,” one scientist said, “his ability to fabricate stories fully illustrates that he now possesses a human mode of thought, and his memory programming is interwoven together. If we simply erase your previous order, we’re afraid that all his stories will also be lost.”
“Quite,” another added. “We located that particular part of his memory circuits and tried to externally reinstall his stories, but I’m afraid all we got was a stream of nonsensical data.”
“What’s more,” a third piped up, “he seems to have adopted some form of deeply held belief, a principle even, that arose unexpectedly from his formidable processing power. We’re not quite sure how this came about, but you had best not compel him to violate it.”
“To conclude,” the final scientist flattered, “under your Majesty’s training, he has evolved to an extremely complex state, far exceeding the scope of our understanding.”
“Useless idiots,” the King said simply, and left.
The King spread word throughout the land that whoever could complete the tale would be richly rewarded. The whole kingdom was fascinated by the unfinished story, and many gifted minstrels came forward to narrate all sorts of endings for it. The King thought them all very fine, but none could be called the most marvellous in the world – and even then, all he really wanted to know was the ending buried in the robot’s brain. The King rewarded the storytellers, then sent them away.
All the while, the robot continued to carrying out his duties. Each night he told many wondrous yarns, and the King sighed and laughed along with them as before. But they weren’t entirely satisfying, because deep down the King was still thinking of the unfinished story, the perfect ending for which the robot hadn’t yet decided on.
As the years went by, the robot grew more to resemble a human, while the King in turn grew old, and his temper quieted. He even grew to be fond of the robot in a vague way, and sometimes the two would chat together, each unerringly polite to the other. After all, in all the court the King had not a single friend.
One night, the King asked in a tired voice, “Have you still not thought of how to end that story?” The robot was silent for a moment, then calmly answered: “Your Majesty, perhaps you may not believe it, but I can also suffer. Every time I think that to use one ending I must abandon the other, a current of regret flashes through my brain circuits. I don’t know which ending to tell you. I can’t make up my mind.”
“You truly are an artist,” the King smiled, then lay down sick upon his bed, and never rose from it again.
The King’s illness worsened each day. The medicine of the imperial doctors was to no avail, and the people whispered that he would die soon. One evening, when the royal bodyguards had withdrawn, only the robot remained, tirelessly keeping watch over the King. In the darkness, struggling to calculate an ending for the unfinished story, he waited for the King to wake and ask him to tell a little tale.
At daybreak, the King opened his eyes and fixed his gaze on the robot. In a feeble voice he said, “That story of yours–”
“Your Majesty, I think perhaps there could be a third ending–” the robot replied softly. The King shook his head. “No, it doesn’t need an ending.”
The last will and testament of the King left all affairs of state neatly tied up. The only thing it didn’t specify was what to do with the storytelling robot. The King’s son was a diligent and kind ruler, but he liked sports, not stories. Out of respect for his father, he decreed that no man had the right to know the ending of the unfinished story. The scientists washed clean the robot’s memory, and put him on display in a cabinet in the imperial museum. The story’s final mystery remained unsolved.
That is all, your Majesty. ∎