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The Symposium

Essays

   Ron Parker


For a number of years I wrote what was usually a humorous column for the now defunct Turf & Sport Digest magazine.  
In fact, I recall celebrating the appearance of the 100th column shortly before they went out of business,
which may or may not have been a coincidence.
But what I really enjoyed is that I was allowed a lot of imaginative freedom in that column, and that was never more evident than in this, one of my few serious efforts, which originally appeared in the October 1982 issue.
We decided to reprint it here partly because Ellen has always told me it was one of the best serious pieces I ever wrote,
and partly because it somehow still seems topical.
I do think it has an appeal, and perhaps a message.  And while I still consider it a fiction piece, there are days when I wonder if, somehow, it might instead be a look into our future.  I leave that judgement to the reader.



 By the year 2050, mankind was quite simply bored to death.

    The science of robotics had reached such a stage that hardly anyone had to work.  Robots ran all of the manufacturing plants, making the term blue collar labor archaic.
    
    There were robots to manufacture man’s artificial foods (the last ten acres of agricultural land having been declared a National Monument in 2042), robots to repair the aerocars, and in-house robots to handle domestic chores.  There were even robots to repair the robots.  Creativity had become a thing of the past since man had learned that computers could write his books and compose his music far more efficiently.

    Leisure time had become all the time, and there was little to do.  Some sporting events, such as football, had managed to survive, but there was little interest, visually or betting-wise, since the teams consisted of robots.  And, since they were all manufactured in the same plant and were thusly identical, most games ended in a tie unless one of the units malfunctioned during a contest.  Which rarely happened.

   Horse racing still existed, televised daily from the three government controlled tracks.  But, of course, the horses were also robots and, like the football games, there were a lot of dead heats.

   Oh, the government tried to make racing more interesting by programming variable factors into the ‘horses’ in the hope that it would make the outcome of the contests less predictable and stimulate people to wager more of their government supplied credits (the last dollar bill had been sent to the Smithsonian in 2026) through the central computer.  And, unlike most robots, these looked very much like the horses they purported to be, thanks to a synthetic that had been developed by DuPont.

    But it still wasn’t the same.

    The last race run by flesh and blood thoroughbreds had been the 174th Kentucky Derby, won by a champion named Bold Diamond.

    And, oh, what a champion he had been, winning all twelve of his races by daylight and earning a record thirty seven million credits.  Many people hailed him as the Horse of the Century, much as they had done with Secretariat way back in 1973, only in this case it was a more realistic accolade because, for horse racing, the century ended that day in 2048.  There were no future comparisons to be made after the Last Race.

    Bold Diamond, along with the other entrants in the Last Race, was subsequently sent to the Federal Preserve for Endangered Species, for by this time there weren’t very many horses left.  Controlled breeding programs had seen to that.

   And they certainly had no value once racing became automated.  They couldn’t be used as food, because man’s sustenance came from laboratories, not the flesh of other animals.  Their hides were worthless, synthetic fabrics being far superior.  Some people, citing the worthlessness of the animal, suggested that the lot of them be atomized and that the preserve land be used to build another robot factory.  Fortunately there were enough sentimentalists, particularly where Bold Diamond was concerned, to repel such suggestions and at least guarantee the perpetuation of the species on a modest scale.

    It was in this setting, in the year 2051, that a man named Stephen Solis Johnsen announced that he would conduct a series of lectures on the ‘State of Civilization’, while letting it be known that he didn’t consider its state to be particularly favorable.

    Initially, people tended to ignore Johnsen’s lectures.

    Not that he wasn’t respected.  A number of them remembered his reputation as a brilliant professor of sociology at The University before the Teaching Machines replaced the human staff.  But he was also considered something of a radical since it was well known that he continued to write his own speeches and, thusly, disdained the advantages of the computerized thought processes that all public speakers had learned to utilize.

    Some of them considered him the last vestige of some prehistoric era, a peculiar society that indulged in such outmoded activities as human athletics, natural sex and feeding birds by a lake on a summer day.

    And a few viewed him as merely a harmless old fossil that might provide some amusement in an otherwise mundane existence.

    It wasn’t until his fourth lecture that Dr. Johnsen began to attract some attention when a skeptical reporter went to sleep during the speech and inadvertently left his Media Transcriber on.  Since the audio and visual impulses recorded by the transcribers were routinely fed into the government information system, this lecture, to the shock of more than a few members of the media, was promptly disseminated to approximately three billion people.

    So it came as no surprise that his fifth lecture was the subject of considerable attention.  Suddenly, Dr. Johnsen had an international audience.  

    Which presented a problem.

    What, he asked himself, could he talk about that would create the greatest interest?  What subject, if indeed there was one, could at least generate enough enthusiasm among his fellow man that they might at least ponder their future?

    He wanted desperately to talk about the human spirit, about creativity and freedom and independence.  But he knew, in such a mechanized and computerized environment, no one would grasp what he was talking about.  How could they understand something they’d never experienced?

    He briefly considered a discourse on some economic theories he had once promulgated, thoughts that might have altered mans apparent destiny.  But the peculiarities of Reaganomics in the previous century had relegated such ideas, and any discussion of them, to a historical exercise.

    Which was when he began to consider the impact of sporting events on the human condition.

    In his youth he had watched with considerable awe the telecast of Super Bowl XVI, noting how people seemed to identify with the San Francisco 49ers, who were immortalized as ‘the little team that could’.

    He had seen the World Series and, although not much of a baseball fan, recalled marvelling at the intense interest people had shown in the event.

    And he had been to horse races.

    Yes, he recalled, he had seen them all, in one way or another.

    He had the yellowed clippings about Man o’ War and Secretariat, he had seen the videotapes of Seattle Slew, and as an adult had been at the track to see champions like Golden Challenge, Super Nova and Powers Mirage win major races.  

    And he had seen Bold Diamond, the Last Champion in the Last Race, the ultimate personification of man’s once great dream to create perfection before, deluding himself that he had found it, he suddenly stopped dreaming.

    Dr. Johnsen dwelled at some length on his impressions of racing events, the unique combination of man and animal competing for a common goal, so unlike the other sporting events he had witnessed that were confined to the human element and ultimately replaced by mechanical substitutes.  Which was when he realized that the horse was the subject for his most important lecture.

    And it was in this environment, surrounded by hundreds of video scanners and telemeters, that he faced mankind with the faint hope of inspiring what he perceived to be its destiny with a speech about the horse.

    “Ladies and gentlemen,” he began the symposium, “I recognize that a number of you are dubious about my theories.  And a lot of you would rather be at the robotized football championship today instead of listening to me talk.”

    There were a few murmers of assent in the audience.

    “However,” he went on, “I think it is important that we recognize something very disturbing, and that is that if the lethargy that currently permeates our civilization continues on its present course, the evolutionary process will eventually develop mankind into a species of vegetables, not unlike the ancient cabbage.

    “In short,” he said with dramatic pause, “our ennui will ultimately result in the extinction of the human race.”

    A reporter rose and focused a cynical smile on Dr. Johnsen.  “And I suppose,” he asked, “you’re here to save the human race?”

    “I hope to,” Dr. Johnsen frowned seriously.  “Or at least make it aware of what it may have lost in the name of progress and reconsider its values before it’s too late to alter a progressive course of destruction.

    “Tell me,” he glared at the reporter, “how did you get here today?”

    “Why, in an aerocar, of course,” the reporter replied in slight bewilderment.

    “And what are you doing the rest of the day?” Dr. Johnsen asked accusingly.

    “Frankly, sir, I don’t see what that has to do with...”

    “What are you doing?” the Doctor suddenly yelled.

    “Well,” the reporter replied somewhat sheepishly, “I had hoped to catch the end of the football game, then my Cohabitant and I would order an Insta-Dinner and then go up to Level Ninety Seven to bet on the Robot Wrestling matches.”

    “Robots, huh?” Dr. Johnsen sniffed.

    “Is there something wrong with that?”

    “Have you ever seen a horse race?” the Doctor asked quietly.

    “Oh, yeah, lots of times,” the reporter brightened.  “Matter of fact I won a Pick Ten once when Monsanto first entered the market.”

    “No,” Dr. Johnsen admonished, “I mean a horse race.”

    “You mean live animals?” the reporter asked in astonishment.

    “Yes,” the Doctor sighed, “live animals.”

    “But what would be the purpose in that?  The robots we have today are much more efficient."

    “And predictable.”

    “Well, of course they’re predictable.  If they weren’t, why would anyone want to wager on them?”

    “Tell me, young man, have you ever heard of Bold Diamond?”

    “Vaguely.”

    “How about Golden Champion, Seattle Slew, Powers Mirage and Ruffian?”

    “I recall reading about them, yes, but they certainly couldn’t compete with today’s robots...ah, I mean, horses.”

     “Dammit, boy,” the Doctor suddenly raged, “that’s exactly my point.  Don’t you realize the complacency of your civilization?

    “There was a time,” he said in more measured tones, “not too many years ago, when many people thrilled to the competition athletics provided us with.  Football and baseball with real people.  Living horses with fragile legs that gave us courage and power and heart, living jockeys with names like Shoemaker and Pincay and Landuce.  Have we all forgotten our roots, have we all lost the joy and excitement of competition that brought us this far?”

    “But,” a new voice in the audience chimed in, “that was another time and another place.”

    Doctor Johnsen slowly removed his glasses.  “Yes, so it was,” he nodded sadly.  “Still, does anyone here remember when the robots weren’t with us?  When sports were the province of man and...and...a thoroughbred?”

    “I do,” another voice yelled.  “My Grandfather told me about the time that a filly named Genuine Risk won the Kentucky Derby.  Tell me,” the voice continued, “was she really as special as my Grandfather seemed to think she was?”

    “There was such a filly,” Dr. Johnsen nodded, “and, yes, your Grandfather was indeed right.  She was special—a champion in her own time.  It was a world of many champions that people loved as much in defeat as they did in victory.  It was a time when people cared.”

    “Sir,” another voice offered, “you sound as if you think that we should go back to raising horses and letting live animals and people compete in races.  Isn’t that a bit, well, prehistoric?”

    “I suppose you would consider it prehistoric, as you phrase it, yes.  But I would also guess that you came here in an aerocar controlled by the central computer and will spend the rest of the day playing Computerized Xeno after programming your dinner pills.”

    “How did you know that?”

    “The history of man,” the Doctor said quietly, “is filled with mistakes.  Fortunately, until now, he has somehow managed to overcome those mistakes.  Man is a race that was created to fulfill a destiny, not overwhelm it.

    “But somewhere we have lost that direction.”  Dr. Johnsen glared at the assemblage.  “You people have distorted what some of you like to refer to as the prime directive.  Complacency and computerization is all you understand.  You’ll leave here in aerocars and ride around in transcars, and someday you won’t even know how to walk.  You’ll be bred for only one thing, the continued automation of the species, and you won’t even remember your heritage.  Is that your idea of the future of man?”

    “And horseracing will save us?” asked a sarcastic voice.

    “Probably not,” the Doctor sighed.  “But it might bring you closer to your roots, the culture that brought you here.  You’ve developed robots, optimatical scanners, quasar-laser probes and God only knows what else.  But in the process you’ve become automatons.  Civilization, and life, have disappeared.  Didn’t von Darrow’s thesis on the extinction of life on Squatron IV teach you anything?
    “Has anyone here ever actually watched a flesh and blood thoroughbred running for the glory that he was raised to accomplish?”

    The room was silent.

    “Have any of you ever seen a mare in the sunset nursing a new born foal?  Have you witnessed the faltering first steps of a foal in the twilight, or the power of a stud driving for victory in a race devoid of robots and machines and man-made ‘progress’?”

    Again the room was silent.

    “Have you ever,” he smiled reflectively, “seen the joy of a winners circle, the smiles of pride and accomplishment as a thoroughbred is led in, the warm smiles of success.  Does anyone here seriously believe DuPont can match that?”

    Another listener stood up.  “Sir,” he said, “with all due respect, I think you’re living in the past.  We have the best of all possible worlds today with none of the problems our ancestors had to endure.  Aren’t you being just a bit too, well, nostalgic?”

    “I suppose you’re right,” he sighed.  “I guess I am, indeed, the product of an outdated environment.  Long gone days when there weren’t such things as a Pick Ten, or Pick Six, or even a Trifecta.  Days when the development of a living horse and the ability of its rider and trainer mattered more than where it was manufactured.  Days when people loved the blood of the animal, days when...”

    The Doctor began to brush away a stubborn tear.  “Days when it...meant something.”

    Another person stood up.  “Well, sir, look at it this way, that’s progress.”

    Doctor Johnsen walked silently off the stage, his thoughts on the past, the present and the future.

    And he knew that they would never understand, that everything that he had ever seen or learned or even dreamed would be lost in the maelstrom of the future.  And he knew that, by virtue of man’s own progress, the species was doomed to failure.  And that he would never be a part of its history, for there would be no one to record it.

    Sad, he thought to himself.  They will never know the effort that produces a true racehorse.  They will never appreciate the effort that creates a champion—the stud and the mare and the people who care to help one of God’s creatures fulfill its own destiny, to run with the wind.

    The Doctor lay down on a couch, tired and defeated, resigned to the fact that the robots had won.  There was nothing, he reflected, he could do about it.  If his projections were correct, mankind would be extinct within two centuries.  What a fool, he thought to himself as he drifted off to sleep, to think that he could change the course of mankind with a speech about horse racing.

    “But at least I saw it,” he smiled fondly as the darkness closed in.  “At least I was there.”

    Somewhere on a wildlife preserve far from the symposium, a champion named Bold Diamond nickered to a mare in the sunset.

    And they would call the foal Genesis.




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