A Happy Day in the Microchip Future
by Harry Harrison
“It’s graduation time. Father. You don’t want poor little Henry to be all alone at his graduation.”
“Doesn’t matter a damn to me,” Father muttered, flipping through the printouts from his broker to see if he were any richer than he had been the day before. He wasn’t. The computer, with unarguable precision had gone through his portfolio in microseconds and had determined that he was four-thousand-two hundred and eighty-three pounds thirteen pence poorer than he had been twenty-four hours earlier.
“Don’t curse,” Mother said, her mouth set in a very Mary Whitehouse manner. “It sets a bad example for little Henry.”
“Little Henry – who is no longer that little – has a far filthier vocabulary than I shall ever master, most of it learned from X-rated pictures on the tube.”
“You’re deliberately changing the subject to provoke me. I was talking about his graduation, let us not forget that. Now are you coming with us – or do I report this dereliction of duty to our family counsellor next session…”
“I’m coming,” Father grumbled, hurling the printouts into the shredder. “Let’s get it over with. What time does he graduate?”
“In exactly two minutes. And you will wear your jacket. For my sake.”
Still grumbling, and poking his arm into a recalcitrant sleeve, Father walked into Henry’s room bare instants before the ceremony began. Henry, with morterboard and gown, stood before the TV screen absentmindedly squeezing a pimple on his neck. Mother stood proudly next to him wearing her best dress, her great-grandmother’s moth-eaten fur stole about her shoulders. The TV screen, which completely covered the wall, was filled with an inspiring scene of ancient and crumbling institutional stone buildings, ivy-covered and sun-washed. Kipling’s recessional boomed loudly from the speakers.
Father stood next to his wife and son just as a bell chimed and the screen cleared. The headmaster – or an ancient actor who looked very much like a headmaster – swam into focus. He nodded solemnly and the tassel of his morterboard swung over his eyes. He pushed it aside with a conspiratorial smile and spoke.
“Welcome, welcome to this most important of ceremonies. A transition, a time of change, the moment when a youth puts his childish things behind him and steps forward like a man to, face the vissicitudes of adult life. You have successfully completed your assigned course of study … Henry Winterbottom…”
“Just a computer simulation!” Father barked. “Hear that hesitation before Henry’s name. Searching the records and inserting it into the program…”
“Oh, Father, please stop. You’ll ruin it all for little Henry!”
“It’s all a load of old horseapples anyway,” Henry said, giving a last victorious squeeze on the pimple. Ignorant of his less than willing audience the headmaster simulation droned on. Mother listened to everything and believed it, shedding large tears at the solemn words intoned as the headmaster thrust forward a rolled sheepskin. The picture faded as the printout pinged and Henry’s certificate of graduation emerged.
Pushed on by Mother’s urging Henry tore the sheet off and slid it into the frame that had arrived in the post the day before, then hung it on the waiting nail that Mother had so carefully hammered in over his bed.
“What a wonderful moment this is,” she said loudly to impress herself, since father and son were obviously bored by the occasion. “Kiss your old mother, darling, for this is a moment you will remember the rest of your life.”
Henry wriggled helplessly in her damp maternal grip while Father lit a decarcinogenized cigarette.
“Now if no one minds I’d like to get back to work,” he said, blowing out a cloud of healthy, tasteless smoke.
“Not yet,” Mother said, mopping her eyes on a lace-bordered handkerchief. “It cost nine pounds to rent that cap and gown and I’m not going to see it go to waste. Henry enters university right now.”
“I gotta go to the toilet,” Henry whined, a drop of blood swelling out like a small red balloon on his neck.
“That can wait,” Mother told him firmly, dabbing his skin with her soggy hanky, blood and tears blending in irrelevant symbolism. “It’s not going to take that long.”
Nor did it. Now that he had his certificate of graduation from the lower school, the educational program accepted his application to university. Loud trumpets sounded the processional and even older and more ivy-covered buildings appeared on the screen. They faded to disclose a pipe-smoking and authentic professor in his deep chair in his study. He smiled in most welcoming manner and pointed with the stem of his pipe.
“You’re a very lucky young man … Henry. You’ve been accepted as a student in university thus setting your first foot on the steps that lead into the roseate future. I envy you in many ways, recalling those golden days of my own youth when I too took this momentous step…”
“Bullshit,” Father muttered to himself, wondering how long it was going to go on. Henry nodded sullen agreement and Mother pointedly ignored his interruption. The professorial fake droned on far longer than was necessary, finally and reluctantly getting to the point.
“…so that is what I wanted you to hear my dear … Henry … before we go ahead with your admission to this great centre of learning. I will keep you from this great moment no longer. Please insert the university.”
The professor froze in midsmile, his smoke hung unmoving in still air, time stopped as the computer waited for the next instruction.
“Where’s the goddamned university?” Father asked.
“You had it,” Mother told him. “I saw you looking at it just yesterday.”
“That wasn’t the university, it was the stock exchange. Henry, where is the goddamned thing?”
“On the table. I was using it to hold down the model I was gluing together.”
He walked over and picked up the thin wafer of plastic and brushed bits of dried glue and plastic scraps from it. In his hand he held an entire university; the books in the libraries, the professors and the programs they taught, all of the courses and exams and grading circuits and intelligence that mankind had so painfully acquired through the ages. Father had bought it for three pounds.
“Get on with it,” Father said. “I have to get to work sometime today.”
Henry slipped the university into the slot in the terminal.
“I’m so happy l could cry,” Mother said, and did.
Henry’s higher education began.
First published in Into the Eighties Supplement, as ‘Talk to the Wall and Be Certified.’ I scanned this text from a photocopy of the magazine page, but don’t have the details of which magazine it was a supplement to. I’ll dig a little further and post the details when I have them…