Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1999
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Never Having to Say You're Sorry
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Chad Martin

I have been reading the most impressive work of science fiction I've come across in a long time. It is the revised and expanded edition of Harold E. Meyer's Lifetime Encyclopedia of Letters. In common with the earliest English novels, it is epistolatory in form, consisting of "850 model letters for virtually any business or personal occasion!" It is epic in scope, covering life in its manifold richness, with entries for such transformative events as hiring, firing, bad behavior ("nothing similar will occur again"), power lawnmower purchases, barking dogs, and chemical hazards. It exposes us to experiences some of us will never have, such as declining a valuable gift or apologizing. Even the index entries are a terse catalog of the variety of human experience. Those entries under "children" plumb emotional depths seldom reached in contemporary fiction, or at least television: Crippled, Destitute, Handicapped, Hungry, and Runaway.

Like all truly great literature, the Encyclopedia rests upon a vision, in this case one of humankind never having to compose a letter again, and it gives the reader general principles to guide him or her through life (avoid the words death, died, and killed). Also like great literature, it raises moral questions: Is it right to present another person's words as my own, even if I paid $16 for them? Finally (here's the science fiction part) it conjures the possibility of a world transformed--a world in which computers loaded with the Lifetime Encyclopedia's letters are automatically set to natter back and forth to each other, consoling, arguing, apologizing, wheedling, buying and selling, all without any spark of human feeling. That's just like some families I know, minus holiday dinners.

This work of art, however, could use improvement, so I would suggest a third expanded edition. Comprehensive as the Lifetime Encyclopedia is, it omits certain crucial kinds of human experience that a revised edition should include. There are no entries for groveling, lying to children about the fate of pets ("Fluffy went to see friends in Iowa"), blaming someone else, obfuscation, whining, or rationalizing incompetence. If it is genuinely going to be a lifetime encyclopedia, it will also have to take age and gender into account better than it presently does. It mostly assumes a unisex author when we all know men and women often take different approaches to writing letters, just as young people and old people do. Here are some suggested opening lines for the next edition:

Birthdays, by increasing age of sender:

"I'm sorry I forgot your birthday, grandma."
   "Happy belated birthday. I've been studying so hard the date just kind of blew by."
   "Happy birthday. The day you were born was the happiest of my life, and it was for your father, too, before he...."
   "Did I have a birthday?"

Excuses, making, by age of sender:

"I know how much you and dad were looking forward to my graduation, but a few things slipped my mind this semester."
   "That wine was excellent and it's probably the reason I said those things about your wife."
   "They say there is no fool like an old fool. Unlike your mother, I act my age."

Passive/aggressive letter, mother:

"Of course, I will do what you want. I have always been there for you from the day of your very painful birth."

Passive/aggressive letter, father (complete text):

"Check enclosed. Again."

The Lifetime Encyclopedia's most striking omission is its failure to follow where its own millennial, sci-fi vision leads. There are no letters computers might send to each other, addressing their concerns, successes, failures, and life experiences. As one author to another, here are my suggestions for a few opening sentences to redress that flaw. Mr. Meyer is free to plagiarize them:

"We never really communicate with each other. You're a Mac and I'm a PC."
   "It's a beta relationship until the real thing comes along."
   "Don't you hate it when they put their greasy fingers on our keyboards and try to make us do what they want?"
   "It's a terrible world when you practice safe interface and still get a virus."
   "Even a software upgrade isn't going to help her."
   "Just send him error messages and he'll go away."
   "Bill Gates made me do it."
   "Help! My memory is failing." (Last two letters also available for human use.)

As millennial visions go, there are worse ones than computers endlessly chattering and humans not writing letters. Some of us already put that vision into practice. They are called "children."

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.