“If he was indeed mad, his delusions were beautifully organized.”
- Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey
Pockets sits on the shop window sill trying to beat the lid off a bent tin of quality street with a stick. He reminds me of one of the ragged hominids in 2001 inspired to use clubs to beat the hell out of wild game, and then each other, by a giant alien monolith. He manages to get rid of the lid and fills his pockets with the precious cargo as I open the shutters to another grey miserable day.
January is depression incarnate, a black month of credit card bills, rain and people trying to flog unwanted Bono biographies that they got for Christmas. We are really living in the worse timeline when the two most talked about books are biographies by two absolute bores – Bono and Harry. Both would make you give up on existence if they took the stool beside you in a pub.
“Won’t be many around today,” Pockets says. There’s a kindness in his words that betrays his sympathy for me. “With the rain.”
“Disadvantages of being off the main street,” I reply.
Pockets is staring into the now empty sweet tin, a growing horror enveloping his face. “The thing’s hollow—it goes on forever—and—oh my God!—it’s full of stars!”
I shake him back to his senses. “These bloody sweets are out of date man. You’ve poisoned yourself again. Where did you get them?”
“You gave them to me for Christmas,” he cries.
“Oh, well, it must have been a mistake at the store.”
“Hey, it says the best before date is 1998.”
“Typo I’d say.”
The bookshop feels somehow empty this time of year, like a big house when all the children have grown up and moved out. During Christmas, it was packed solid with excited shoppers, vibrant conversation among novelty music and goodwill wishes all around. Now I lay over the counter, listening to the clock tick, watching pockets pull an endless supply of out-of-date sweets from his coat. Waiting. Just waiting.
Then things take a turn for the worst as the most negative man enters the shop. He is the one person I hate to see coming into the bookshop more than anyone else. The most negative man is a black hole of negativity, an energy vampire sucking the goodwill out of life with a combination of begrudgery and malice.
Today he comes in, ignoring Pockets and myself in the pretence that he’s checking something inside the window. Eventually he lurks up to the counter.
“Well,” he says.
“Well,” I answer. “Any crack?”
He looks at me in horror, as if I’ve just suffered incontinence in his cornflakes. “Crack? I’m being screwed left, right and centre. The whole country is gone to the dogs. It’s no place for an honest man anymore.”
By honest man, the most negative man means himself. By being screwed, he means Intreo want him to come off benefits and get a job.
“It’s a tough time.”
“I hear you’re going out of business.”
“Not that I’m aware of. I actually had a good Christmas. The shop is doing well.”
In a moment of pantomime theatre, he turns and surveys the empty shop slowly and meticulously. “Mmm, looks like it alright. Booming.”
The most negative man inspects a few new books on the counter, turning his nose up at them. One, a new colouring book for adults, he regards with pure disgust.
“Mrs Murphy says your only putting shite on the shelves now. Says you’ve gone all cosmopolitan since you extended the shop. Drinking lattes and selling colouring books for adults.”
“Who’s Mrs Murphy?”
“Ah she wouldn’t come in here sure. Prefers Easons.”
I go into the back room and pretend to be busy stacking shelves. I hope the Most Negative Man will get the hint and leave. He doesn’t. Instead, he follows me in.
“Are these shelves safe?” he asks.
“Of course they are.”
He pulls hard on a shelf. It doesn’t give.
“See,” I grin. “Totally secure.”
The most negative man shrugs and then puts his whole weight into dragging out of a shelf. It wobbles a bit. “That’s not up to standard,” he says matter-of-factly.
“Please don’t hang out of my shelves.”
“What if the fire officer came in?”
“He’d ask you not to hang out of my shelves too.”
“He’d close you down,” the Most Negative Man says sadly. “Be a shame. All because of shoddy shelves. And colouring books for adults.”
“Does the fire officer check places for colouring books?”
The most negative man doesn’t laugh or even smile. He just shrugs and gives another shelf a tug. “You’ll be obsolete soon anyway.”
“You told me I was obsolete last year.”
“More obsolete. Have you heard of ChatGPT?”
I actually had been told about it by a very friendly and intelligent customer. The polar opposite to the Most Negative Man, who doesn’t even wait for me to respond.
“It another step in the development of AI.”
“What’s that?” Pockets asks suddenly, his voice morphed by a mouth full of rotting caramel.
The Most Negative Man doesn’t even look at him, just tuts and shakes his big head. “Artificial Intelligence. There’s a lot of A in this place but not a lot of I.” He laughs at this. By himself.
“How does that affect me?” I snap.
“The AI will be a far better bookseller than you. Well, in fairness, anyone would be more efficient than you but an AI will blow you out of the water. Imagine a bookseller who has read and understood every book in this shop, all two hundred and fifty thousand. A bookseller who can make book recommendations that will be one hundred percent accurate. A bookseller who can actually write the book the customer wants, print it and sell it, all in one sitting.”
“That won’t happen,” I grin. But its a fake grin.
“It’ll happen alright. And you thought you had problems with Amazon! Wait until you’re competing with artificial intelligence booksellers.”
Science fiction could now be made far more convincing by science fact.
The most negative man inspects a shelf of natural history books. Some are old and leather bound. “Are these worth anything?”
“Ah they are but we keep the prices down,” I say. “Some of them are over a century old.”
“Out of date?”
“Antiquated. Collectible. Rare.”
The most negative man shrugs and shakes his head again. “I saw a box of them out in the car boot sale for fifty cent each last Sunday.”
“Not these ones.”
“No, they were in better condition. I don’t know how you’d make money selling books now. Especially with the singularity on the way.”
“I do it for the love of it,” I snap. “And to preserve these great books.”
“The ones that are out of date?”
“Like yourself when the AI comes in.”
“I always feel better when you call pal.”
The most negative man slaps me on the shoulder and grins. “That's what friends are for. Do you wanna buy a set of Victorian mannequins?”
“You haven’t even seen them or asked me how much.”
“I don’t sell mannequins. I sell books.”
The most negative man laughs. “Do you? You could have fooled me.”
“Are you wanting anything?” I ask him, reaching my breaking point. I can feel my face flush and I’m ready for a fight, and just like that, he backs away.
“No, I may go,” he says. “I’ll send you a picture of those mannequins but you probably couldn’t afford them anyway. I might be better waiting for the AI. Won’t be long now.”
And then he's gone.
“Turing had pointed out that, if one could carry out a prolonged conversation with a machine—whether by typewriter or microphones was immaterial—without being able to distinguish between its replies and those that a man might give, then the machine was thinking, by any sensible definition of the word.”
- Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey