5. Fairy Tales
The best stories are in the old books. The reader function on Lai’s comm may provide access to a treasure trove of nonfiction and an endless stream of news updates, but she finds all of the novels available on it to be rather dull. It’s all realistic fiction, and what does she care about the trials and tribulations of ordinary people living ordinary lives, anyway? For stories like those, all she has to do is listen in on the gossip of her coworkers.
She doesn’t remember how exactly she first discovered books on paper, but she does know that they played a big part in turning her into who she is now. They are beautiful to her, with their stiff covers and creaky spines, thick with richly textured pages and carefully printed lettering. The crisp look of ink against paper seems so much more appealing to her than text on a screen. But all of these benefits are far surpassed by the content of these old paper books, as it seems that writers were once able to craft worlds out of their imaginations, instead of just talking about the time and place that they currently inhabit. Lai feels such a thrill when she finds herself in an author’s speculation of the future, or in some strange alternate dimension where magic has replaced technology. For her, a well-developed fictional world, with its own rules and systems and little flourishes that all make sense, is the ultimate achievement in any story. Writing about the real world, in which every aspect of life has already been figured out for you, doesn’t count.
And so, the desk in her office space is always occupied by at least three or four old-fashioned books. Lai is able to purchase them for cheap at thrift stores and bargain houses, but mostly she borrows them from the Archives, a vast library of records in Pristine Labs that contains the largest collection of paper documents in the city. The archive keeper always nods and smiles at her when she comes in, directing her towards any new titles that she might find interesting; he’s an older human man, and she thinks that he is just happy to see that someone still cares about books.
She spends a large amount of her time at Pristine Labs reading, which she doesn’t see as slacking off because most of her job is just busy work. Being a Land and Air Inspector might actually be interesting if she was allowed to attend the field missions or embark on the expeditions that other imps of her kind are tasked with, but because of her size defect, the Set Gov and the Imp Welfare Union prefer to keep her sheltered. She mostly passes her time at work looking at charts that measure atmosphere toxicity or lists of potential ways to reduce landfill pollution…because heaven forbid that she actually do something exciting.
She is especially bored today, because she has already completed her currents stash of reading materials, and she can’t leave to find another book during working hours. Imps don’t even get lunch breaks, because her kind can survive entirely on sustenance pills and water. Her assignments are coming in especially slowly today, so she has only one option left…she reaches down and opens the very bottom drawer of her desk, and her slender hand closes around the binding of Notebook Number Three.
After her initial discovery of books, Lai was so inspired that she tried to do a bit of her own writing. Unfortunately, this presented nothing but frustrations at the start. She felt that it was disrespectful to her muse to sit and laboriously type out the words of her first stories, damning them to remain untouchable as they traveled from keyboard to screen. She wanted to duplicate the feel of a book, without resorting to the inconvenience of an antique printing press. Felix was the one who remedied the situation, surprising her one day when he came home with a strange gift. It looked like a book, with a plain yet pretty cover made of supple faux leather, but its pages contained nothing but scores of blank lines. He explained that it was called a notebook, and it would soon become her Notebook Number One.
Learning to write was first. Most imps never learned how to write by hand, but luckily Felix, like many humans, had been required to take a few penmanship classes during school. While other owners might have proclaimed that Lai’s interests were unimportant and insisted that she focus on her work, Felix supported her and taught her how to put pen to paper. He made her practice in workbooks before he deemed her handwriting satisfactory enough to move on to Notebook Number One.
But none of that changed the fact that her prose was a clumsy reproduction of the elaborate tales that she cherished so much. She didn’t understand how those whole fictitious universes could be so logical and effortless when she read about them, and yet be so impossible to duplicate correctly when she tried to do it herself. After a while, she was forced to admit that she simply couldn’t write. She would have given up if it hadn’t been for another development: Felix brought home two more imps named Cade and Ema, and Ema’s help turned out to be invaluable.
Lai and Ema didn’t know each other before ending up with a mutual owner, and they didn’t have much in common, but the two girls quickly became fast friends. Ema was stunningly beautiful and rather popular, even by an imp’s standards, and much like Felix, she found Lai’s passion for old-fashioned art forms to be endearing rather than a sign of a bad worth ethic. She encouraged Lai’s desire to write and explained to her the fundamentals of fiction. Whole other worlds and believable characters didn’t just pop up overnight, she said; plots and universes often took years to fully develop, and characters stemmed for the writer’s personal acquaintances and experiences. And it took a lot of practice to master the storytelling elements, such as description and dialogue. Ema talked about how the first fictional stories ever written were things like myths and legends and fairy tales, which were more concerned with telling a story than with encapsulating lots of flowery language. She suggested that Lai should start with simple things and work her way up over time.
So Lai returned to Notebook Number One, filling it with the bare bones of short stories and retellings of notable events. Gradually her basic command of language began to evolve, sprouting plot twists and bits of clever imagery, like a sapling with tiny branches that were beginning to bud out.
It takes her a long time to fill up an entire notebook. When she rereads the carefully penned letters in Number One and Number Two, she is able to note with pride that she actually has improved quite a lot. She still isn’t all that great yet, but thanks to Ema’s help, she is definitely getting better.
Ema helped her in another way, too, by telling Lai a story from the past. The events in the story were true and really happened to Ema, and to Lai, the whole thing seems wildly fantastic and adventurous. Ema actually got to live out the plot of a book, or so it seems. As a writing exercise, and as a tribute to her older mentor, Lai decided to rearrange the true history into a sort of fairy tale.
She plans to write her own book someday, but she knows that she isn’t ready for that yet. For today, she resolves to finish her fairy tale.
For now, this is her story.