Have you noticed that there’s a bit of a trend in the media I like to favor stories about the end of civilization? The Tribe; Cloverfield; Zombie movies; Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future; pPower Rangers RPM… Forget I said that last one.
It’s enough of a pattern, in fact, that I’ve created the new category “Eschatology” to group together all my postings on the subject. It’s a term I like because it’s comparatively less common, outside ecumenical contexts, than “apocalypse” or “armageddon” (Or, as zombie fans would call them, the “Zompocalypse” or “Zombiegeddon”. I believe I have never heard anyone use the term “Zombeschaton”.). Also, I like to pretend that I get the words “Eschatological” and “Scatological” confused, but that shit ain’t the end of the world.
After a few years trying to find this show, most of which were spent trying to remember what it was called, I discovered a bit of an oddball in the Eschatological family. It’s a 13-episode 1985 educational series produced by Mississippi Public Broadcasting for the purpose of teaching basic library skills to young people. I am not making this up.
The series, which I eventually discovered is called Tomes and Talismans, is set in the twenty-third century, though the only evidence of this you will see in the show is that the costume department seems to have been propertied as a result of a traveling Doctor Who exhibit losing its wardrobe.
In the twenty-second century, we are told, pollution and overpopulation are serious problems. Not problems which will in any way impact this series, but we wanted to remind you that it is the future. Also, Earth has been colonized (They do not say “invaded” for some reason) by a “primitive” species called “The Wipers”. Despite being a primitive species, the Wipers — Basically a combination of “generic 80s punk character from every show you’ve ever seen” and Space Rednecks (They kind of remind me of the Locos in the first episode of The Tribe, demonstrating that New Zealand is at least 20 years behind the US in Post-Eschaton Street Punk Technology) — have overrun the earth, which is lame because their “favorite pasttime” is disrupting information technology (Bachelor number two is from the Dark Star solar system, his hobbies include golf and disrupting all channels of communication and information storage). What with the pollution and overpopulation and alien invasions and all, the people of Earth collectively decide to say “Fuck it” and just move to a nicer neighborhood, organizing a mass evacuation to another planet, using their jealously guarded Video Toaster technology to beam the entire human race to another planet. It is the year 2132 and humanity has the technology to teleport itself to another star system, but not to fend off invasion by a race of drunken rednecks. Remember this, because it will become a theme.
Among the last to be evacuated are the staff of the Last Library, a vast underground repository of all of human knowledge preserved in dead tree format, approximately the size of the fourth floor of the Loyola-Notre Dame library. The staff consists of Miss Bookheart (A graduate of the Stephen Ulysses Perhero School of Thematically Appropriate Character Names) and a team of mentally handicapped associate librarians. One of them shows her the front page of today’s “World Daily News” (Sidebar: When I first saw this show, about a quarter century ago, there were lots of things which I thought were silly. An alumni of Star Trek, I thought it was silly that in the future, they’d keep all these books as hard copies instead of on a computer. What did not occur to me then is what turned out to be the silliest “future” prediction of them all: That newspapers would still exist in the twenty-second century.), helpfully reporting that Earth has been evacuated. One of her flunkies brings her a copy of “The History of Wipers On Earth Volume 1” and asks whether history books should get shelved under Fiction.
The easiest way to enjoy Tomes and Talismans is to pretend that it ws made by Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. In that light, almost every line of dialogue becomes a form of the “We need to get this man to a hospital!” “A hospital? What is it?” joke.
This requires rather a lot of imagination.
Bookheart calmly explains that history is nonfiction — that is, fact-based, as opposed to fiction, which is invented or made up stories — and that under the Dewey Decimal System, which was invented by Melville Dewey to help find information in a library, history books are categorized in the 900s, which spans from 900 through 999.
If you found that paragraph stilted, you aren’t using your imagination hard enough, but I’ve successfully captured the feel of this show.
The sidekick asks how future generations will be able to find anything, since they won’t have been trained in the Dewey Decimal system. Miss Bookheart waves off his concern: the Dewey Decimal system was created *to* help people find things (If you did not think this actually addresses the question, we are on the same page.), and surely future generations will be able to figure it out. Miss Bookheart seems to have forgotten that she is talking to a man who is apparently trained in library sciences, and who nonetheless forgot that “history” isn’t a subdivision of “fiction”.
They namecheck “How to Eat Fried Worms” and “The Great Brain”, two of my childhood favorites, while lamenting that they will have to leave all of bookkind behind, as humanity has apparently decided that they are going to leave all their books here to be rediscovered later, rather than, y’know, taking them along to be not-un-discovered.
Most of all, Miss Bookheart will miss her dictionary, as they will not have them in the White Crystal Star System or wherever it is that they’re going, and she explains what a dictionary is. Even her assistant looks a little tired of her incessant exposition, but, hey, don’t be so snooty, dude, you’re the guy who thought history went under fiction.
Shock and horror, though, volume three of “The History of Wipers on Earth” is missing. And because it is a nonfiction book, containing many true facts, its absence from the library is a major oversight, so, stopping only to explain how the card catalog works, Miss Bookheart sets out in her bookmobile to check the crazy old hermit who was the last person to check the book out. His grandmother had apparently written some fiction novels about the Wipers. Novels about Wipers, you ask? They’re books containing made up or invented stories, products of the author’s own imagination, but that’s not important right now. What is important is that the wipers have been around at least three generations.
While she’s out for a drive, a wizard appears. Surely, you say, I am making a snarky analogy? No, I mean a literal wizard, in the form of a tall, skinny, hooded black dude with a cheap video toaster effect around him. He’s called “The Universal Being”, and he casts a slow-time whammy on her in order to preserve her for posterity.
In episode two, we discover that a hundred years have passed and Earth has been visited by a race of aliens called the “Users”. The Users are an advanced civilization, evidenced by their cleanliness, their polyester primary-color clothing, and the fact that they all speak very slowly and precisely and have trouble with concepts a normal person would find intuitive, in the way TV uses to indicate that someone is smart, but which is based on austistic spectrum disorder. Only they speak a bit slower and over-enunciate their words, the way Jim Brady does post-Hinkley.
They’ve got headbands which allow them to speak any language, only not very well, because they insist on using the term “story inventor” for “author” and such. This is the kind of society where the adults sort of mill around looking stern, while the children do all the work. The kids in question are Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Abacus, Variant, and Fat Kid (I only made up about half of their names), and they’re having a hard time with the concept of “books”, what with their not having “instant information access”, which I think is retro-future for “hyperlinks”. He demonstrates by asking their computer to define a book. It says “A stack of paper bound between two covers. Use of: A form of information storage used on earth”. But Abacus objects to the “use of” definition, since one of the two books they’ve found (the other is The MacGuffin Of Wipers On Earth Volume Three) is Cinderella, and she’s got a theory that maybe, just maybe, this story might not be an accurate treatise on the dressmaking skills of talking rodents. They look up “invented story”, and the computer explains that an invented story is a story that is made up. In a moment of insight, the writers will later have Athos note that knowing the definition of a word (the ability of their magical translators) does not per se lead to understanding its use.
The director’s nephew Pixel shows up and gives them a “Bookmobile Stops Here” sign he found, then leaves. After discussing the possibility of mobile books, they decide to look it up, and it occurs to them that if they go and find a bookmobile, they might find some books, and that would flesh out their database. They do stop to make fun of the Fat Kid first, though, proving that the writers’ desire to be cruel to fat people overrides even their need to make the kids all act like aspies.
They promptly find the bookmobile, but not before Athos drops his gameboy. Finding the sleeping Miss Bookheart inside, they make a big production out of how they use the word “ceased” to mean “dead”, and meet the Universal Being. Which DOES NOT PHASE THEM AT ALL. Fiction befuddles them, but wizards? Old hat. He tells them that the librarian will awaken when read a passage from a certain book. Variant, the token black User, asks if he could clarify, and he does. By which I mean that he tells them that it’s going to be a *specific* book, and they will have to *find* it and *read* it. Thanks. He does go so far as to explain that it’s a book by E Nesbit, which the User kids need to keep recapping via headband technology. Working from first principals, they determine that fiction books are shelved alphabetically by the three letters on their spine, and that those letters correspond to the name of the story inventor. This is kind of cool, in that they are deducing library organization from first principle and all, but it’s also tedious, since it consists of many iterations of “User notices X”, “User theorizes X”, “User confirms X”. Note that i used X all three times here. There’s not really a deductive trail: “Look: the last name always begins with the same letters as the three letters on the spine” “Could it be that the three letters on the spine indicate the inventor of the book?” “Yes. The three letters on the spine match the beginning of the name of the inventor of the book.” This is an old rhetorical trick called “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them,” also known as “The Really Boring Method”.
The writing prompt for the Maryland Functional Writing Test, some fifteen or sixteen years ago when I took it, was typically some variant on “Tell us about your most X moment” where X was an adjective such as “scary” or “embarassing” or “proud”. The trick to passing the Maryland Functional Writing Test was that you were basically guaranteed to fail if you did not adequately address the prompt. The way you did this was that, whatever the prompt was, you made your first sentence be: “I am going to tell you about my most X moment.”. Then you basically could write whatever you wanted for three paragraphs (Though technically, the rest of the first paragraph should be paraphrases of the topic sentences of the remaining paragraphs. Then three paragraphs consisting each of a topic sentence followed by two supporting sentences), then you ended with the sentence “Now I have told you about my X moment.”
If you failed this test, you could not graduate high school.
So they track down a copy of E Nesbit’s “The Story of the Amulet”, read a bit, and Miss Bookheart awakens. At first, she’s skeptical that she’s been asleep for a hundred years, and questions everything, such as the Users’ ridiculous clothes, their ridiculous headbands, and basically, the hokeyness of the entire setup, but she believes them when Athos tells her that it’s the year 2223 — this proves that she’s been asleep for a hundred years!
She takes them back to the library, which, despite being sealed in an underground vault, is not spotless and well-maintained like the bookmobile, but filthy, and looks to have been looted. There, she explains the various parts of books, such as the copyright page, which shows that The Story of the Amulet was first published in 1979 (Except that The Story of the Amulet is a real book, and was published in 1906. Their copy is a 1984 edition, which really ought to make it a valuable antique), the table of contents, foreward, preface, glossary, and index.
Meanwhile, the Wipers, enthralled by Athos’s dropped cell phone, decide to erect a magnetic dome over the User base, trapping them. Because these crazy, violent, drunken rednecks who hate all forms of education and learning have magnetic force field technology. Episode 4 points out that this is the only thing the Wipers have ever invented. They don’t have the wheel. They don’t even have irrigation mining and roads. But they do have magnetic force fields.
Via radio, Athos tries to guide his dad to the vault — he narrowly escaped the User transmission post before its destruction. Bookheart pulls out an atlas and sends the kids off to get the card catalog. They stop to reflect on how the humans really love alphabetical ordering, and sort out what a card catalog is. But when they come back, she praises them for being as fast as her assistants back in the old days. Personally, I believe this, because her assistants were plainly mentally handicapped. After they locate a suitable book — a travel guide to the area where dad is lost — she sends them back to find the author and title cards, because the call number has been smudged on the subject card. Since there isn’t time to ask her what title and author cards are, they reason them out from first principles, taking about ten times as long as just asking.
Dad, trained only in being a Doctor Who companion, immediately twists his ankle, so they have to guide him to a horse farm for refuge, since he doesn’t have any food or supplies. As the kids don’t know what a horse is, she has them look it up, because time is of the essence. Now, I haven’t seen this show in twenty years at least, and I could not even consistently recall the title until a few months ago, but I do remember that Anton Chekov has just hung his gun on the wall.
Bookheart recalls that the Wipers didn’t like horses for some reason, and suggests that Abacus look up Wiper Superstition in the card catalog to find out why. Unfortunately, the only book in the entire library-of-all-human-knowledge with information on the subject is (Duh-Dun-DUNNNNNN) The MacGuffin Of Wipers On Earth Volume 3
In episode 5,
The Magical Negro The Universal Being appears to Dad and gives him a scroll. The scroll explains that the salvation of the world rests in the system which divides all things into ten. Bookheart immediately decides this means the Dewey Decimal System. Because everything must be about her and her stupid library. The scroll also gives a list of call numbers with cryptic crossword clues.
Dad gets the idea behind the Dewey Decimal system and thinks it’s a great idea. He does not think much about the fact that he’s lost in the woods with a hurt foot and no food.
Users have a thought-frequency-thingy which lets them memorize numbers autonomically (I’m increasingly surprised by how well the writers thought some of this stuff through. Not the dialogue or anything, but they do manage to be fairly consistent in thinking through the impilciations of how things work: this dead-tree library is the repository of all human knowledge because the Wipers have destroyed everything more advanced; Users consider both alphabetical and numerical organization strange because they don’t need to organize things, having, essentially, a neurological O(1) search capability), which means that they don’t actually need to learn the logic behind the Dewey system, but Bookheart has a pathological need to teach people the Dewey Decimal system, so she teaches them anyway.
They turn up a book on lasers, a book on holography, the complete works of Shakespeare, the MacGuffin, a book on mythology, a book about gemstones, and the encyclopedia. What does it all mean? Find out next time on…
Well, anyway. The entire series is on YouTube. For example: