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Copyright is a hot-button topic these days. Does information want to be free…or just reasonably priced? I discussed copyright at some length 25 years ago—a year before the first TCP/IP wide area network in the world went operational—two years before the first Macintosh went on sale!—in the following story. It won the 1983 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and I hope you’ll still find it illuminating today.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Melancholy Elephants


Spider Robinson

This story is dedicated to

Virginia Heinlein.

She sat zazen, concentrating on not concentrating, until it was time to prepare for the appointment.   Sitting seemed   to produce the usual serenity, put everything in perspective.   Her hand did not tremble as she applied her make-up; tranquil features looked back at her from the mirror.   She was mildly surprised, in fact, at just how calm she was, until she got out of the hotel elevator at the garage level and the mugger made his play.   She killed him instead of disabling him.   Which was obviously not a measured, balanced action--the official fuss and paperwork could make her late.   Annoyed at herself, she stuffed the corpse under a shiny new Westinghouse roadable whose owner she knew to be in Luna, and continued on to her own car.   This would have to be squared later, and it would cost.   No help for it--she fought to regain at least the semblance of tranquillity as her car emerged from the garage and turned north.   Nothing must interfere with this meeting, or with her role in it.

Dozens of man-years and God knows how many dollars, she thought, funneling down to perhaps a half hour of conversation.   All the effort, all the hope.   Insignificant on the scale of the Great Wheel, of course . . . but when you balance it all on a half hour of talk, it's like balancing a stereo cartridge on a needlepoint.   It only takes a gram or so of weight to wear out a piece of diamond.   I must be harder than diamond.  

Rather than clear a window and watch Washington, D.C. roll by beneath her car, she turned on the television.   She absorbed and integrated the news, on the chance that there might be some late-breaking item she could turn to her advantage in the conversation to come; none developed.   Shortly the car addressed her: "Grounding, ma'am.   I.D. eyeball request."   When the car landed she cleared and then opened her window, presented her pass and I.D. to a Marine in dress blues, and was cleared at once.   At the Marine's direction she re-opaqued the window and surrendered control of her car to the house computer, and when the car parked itself and powered down she got out without haste.   A man she knew was waiting to meet her, smiling.  

"Dorothy, it's good to see you again."

"Hello, Phillip.   Good of you to meet me."

"You look lovely this evening."

"You're too kind."   She did not chafe at the meaningless pleasantries.   She needed Phil's support, or she might.   But she did reflect on how many, many sentences have been worn smooth with use, rendered meaningless by centuries of repetition.   It was by no means a new thought.  

"If you'll come with me, he'll see you at once."

"Thank you, Phillip."   She wanted to ask what the old man's mood was, but knew it would put Phil in an impossible position.  

"I rather think your luck is good; the old man seems to be in excellent spirits tonight."

She smiled her thanks, and decided that if and when Phil got around to making his pass she would accept him.   The corridors through which he led her then were broad and high and long; the building dated back to a time of cheap power.   Even in Washington, few others would have dared to live in such an energy-wasteful environment.   The extremely spare decor reinforced the impression created by the place's very dimensions: bare space from carpet to ceiling, broken approximately every forty meters by some exquisitely simple objet d'art of at least a megabuck's value, appropriately displayed.   An unadorned, perfect, white porcelain bowl, over a thousand years old, on a rough cherrywood pedestal.   An arresting colour photograph of a snow-covered country road, silkscreened onto stretched silver foil; the time of day changed as one walked past it.   A crystal globe, a meter in diameter, within which danced a hologram of the immortal Shara Drummond; since she had ceased performing before the advent of holo technology, this had to be an expensive computer reconstruction.   A small sealed glassite chamber containing the first vacuum-sculpture ever made, Nakagawa's legendary Starstone.   A visitor in no hurry could study an object at leisure, then walk quite a distance in undistracted contemplation before encountering another.   A visitor in a hurry, like Dorothy, would not quite encounter peripherally astonishing stimuli often enough to get the trick of filtering them out.   Each tugged at her attention, intruded on her thoughts; they were distracting both intrinsically and as a reminder of the measure of their owner's wealth.   To approach this man in his own home, whether at leisure or in haste, was to be humbled.   She knew the effect was intentional, and could not transcend it; this irritated her, which irritated her.   She struggled for detachment.   At the end of the seemingly endless corridors was an elevator.   Phillip handed her into it, punched a floor button, without giving her a chance to see which one, and stepped back into the doorway.   "Good luck, Dorothy."       

"Thank you, Phillip.   Any topics to be sure and avoid?"

"Well . . . don't bring up hemorrhoids."

"I didn't know one could."

He smiled.   "Are we still on for lunch Thursday?"

"Unless you'd rather make it dinner."

One eyebrow lifted.   "And breakfast?"  

She appeared to consider it.   "Brunch," she decided.   He haIf-bowed and stepped back.   The elevator door closed and she forgot Phillip's existence.

Sentient beings are innumerable; I vow to save them all.   The deluding passions are limitless; I vow to extinguish them all.   The truth is limitless; I--

The elevator door opened again, truncating the Vow of the Bodhisattva.   She had not felt the elevator stop--yet she knew that she must have descended at least a hundred meters.   She left the elevator.   The room was larger than she had expected; nonetheless the big powered chair dominated it easily.   The chair also seemed to dominate--at least visually--its occupant.   A misleading impression, as he dominated all this massive home, everything in it and, to a great degree, the country in which it stood.   But he did not look like much.  

A scent symphony was in progress, the cinnamon passage of Bulachevski's "Childhood." It happened to be one of her personal favourites, and this encouraged her.  

"Hello, Senator."  

"Hello, Mrs. Martin.   Welcome to my home.   Forgive me for not rising."  

"Of course.   It was most gracious of you to receive me."  

"It is my pleasure and privilege.   A man my age appreciates a chance to spend time with a woman as beautiful and intelligent as yourself."  

"Senator, how soon do we start talking to each other?"  

He raised that part of his face which had once held an eyebrow.   

"We haven't said anything yet that is true.   You do not stand because you cannot.   Your gracious reception cost me three carefully hoarded favours and a good deal of folding cash.   More than the going rate; you are seeing me reluctantly.   You have at least eight mistresses that I know of, each of whom makes me look like a dull matron.   I concealed a warm corpse on the way here because I dared not be late; my time is short and my business urgent.   Can we begin?"  

She held her breath and prayed silently.   Everything she had been able to learn about the Senator told her that this was the correct way to approach him.   But was it?  

The mummy-like face fissured in a broad grin.   "Right away.   Mrs. Martin, I like you and that's the truth.   My time is short, too.   What do you want of me?"  

"Don't you know?"  

"I can make an excellent guess.   I hate guessing."

"I am heavily and publicly committed to the defeat of S.4217896."  

"Yes, but for all I know you might have come here to sell out."  

"Oh."   She tried not to show her surprise.   "What makes you think that possible?"  

"Your organization is large and well-financed and fairly efficient, Mrs. Martin, and there's something about it I don't understand."  

"What is that?"  

"Your objective.   Your arguments are weak and implausible, and whenever this is pointed out to one of you, you simply keep on pushing.   Many times I have seen people take a position without apparent logic to it--but I've always been able to see the logic, if I kept on looking hard enough.   But as I see it, S. '896 would work to the clear and lasting advantage of the group you claim to represent, the artists.   There's too much intelligence in your organization to square with your goals.   So I have to wonder what you are working for, and why.   One possibility is that you're willing to roll over on this copyright thing in exchange for whatever it is that you really want.   Follow me?"  

"Senator, I am working on behalf of all artists--and in a broader sense--"  

He looked pained, or rather, more pained.   ". . . for all mankind,' oh my God , Mrs. Martin, really now."  

"I know you have heard that countless times, and probably said it as often."   He grinned evilly.   "This is one of those rare times when it happens to be true.   I believe that if S. '896 does pass, our species will suffer significant trauma."  

He raised a skeletal hand, tugged at his lower lip.   "Now that I have ascertained where you stand, I believe I can save you a good deal of money.   By concluding this audience, and seeing that the squeeze you paid for half an hour of my time is refunded pro rata."  

Her heart sank, but she kept her voice even.   "Without even hearing the hidden logic behind our arguments?"  

"It would be pointless and cruel to make you go into your spiel, ma'am.   You see, I cannot help you."  

Melancholy Elephants Part 2