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From the Mountains of Un

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The scientist had never heard of ignorance before she came to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

"Oh," said the Optometrist, "You mean you come from the Mountains of Ignorance. I see, you poor dear. Are you sure you don't want me to fit you some nice rose-colored glasses? It wouldn't take but a moment, everything would be so much nicer."

The scientist could have told him that she was fairly sure the Mountains of Un had been the Mountains of Un long before Wisdom's crusaders had come seeking land to make their own and named them Mountains of Ignorance, whatever that meant. She wanted to ask if this meant he had never gone on pilgrimage to the Mountain of the Unknown, or that of the Unconscious, or the Undefined, or the Untraveled, the Unreal, or — surely an inhabitant of a kingdom named Wisdom had at least spent time learning from the demons of the Mountain of the Unwise…? But that was a very personal question to ask, and she wanted to stay present here, not leap prematurely to Conclusions.

The scientist could have told the Optometrist that she wanted to see more, not less. Instead, she asked him about where the rose color came from, and how did he fit the frames, and what about glasses for people with more than two eyes?


"Why yes," said the shopkeeper, "I am the Editor, and I supply the Optometrist with Frames for his glasses. Most people prefer larger Frames of Reference, of course — I do a very brisk business in sizes suitable for pictures, and sometimes even windows. Would you have any interest in purchasing some?" She spread several examples out for the scientist to examine, and the scientist did so with great delight.

Each Frame of Reference was composed of four polished pieces of wood — "Harvested from the Forest of Sight myself!" said the Editor — carefully carved with useful knowings and joined in a rectangle. One side might have formulae angled every which way, another step-by-step directions for making something out of nothing. Some Frames were carved entirely with maps, or pictographs. One had a side entirely devoted to verbs beginning with gl-; another equations for building and burning.

Frames of Reference

So many new things to investigate! This was treasure worth having.

"Can I pay in questions?" the scientist asked. She paused, then asserted carefully: "I am very good at crafting questions." The statement fell from her mouth as a colorful cascade of folded paper, settling into itself on the ground as an origami rose.

The Editor burst into applause, as did several passers-by. The scientist darkened with pleasure.

"Beautifully said, and so precisely," the Editor enthused. "Well, it's not the usual coin—" she glanced at the Bill Board looming over the fairgrounds, which declared the current rates (1 PICTURE = 1 000 WORDS) —"but I think we can work something out. Knowledge is so scarce these days I might as well start branching out."

"A scarcity of knowledge?" asked the scientist. What a curious idea!

And this is how the scientist heard of the awful Pay-Wall that had mysteriously sprung up around the Sea of Knowledge, and of the hero who had set out to tear it down.

This she had to see. The scientist indulged in some speculation to get her feet off solid ground, and she soon had her head stuck in the clouds, drifting off to where she might meet this General Reader and his band of able club members.


The Pay-Wall glinted up before them, blocking the Sea of Knowledge from view. The crowd's shouts of outrage and frustration trailed into an expectant hush as the General Reader pushed forward.

He drew himself up in a heroic pose, paused to allow everyone to admire his heroic pose, and then bellowed: "Readers everywhere demand access to the Sea of Knowledge!"

For a long moment — at least ten ordinary minutes by the scientist's reckoning — nothing happened. Then a cloth flew over the top of the Pay-Wall, unrolling down into a banner with the words 1 BUCKET OF KNOWLEDGE = 10 000 WORDS emblazoned on it.

"Outrageous!" Roared General Reader. The banner rippled, and a new line appeared: 9 999 MORE WORDS NEEDED

"I'll give you more words!" General Reader cried. "Bring forth the Literary Cannon!"

9 919 MORE WORDS NEEDED read the banner.

General Reader's men hauled forth a beautifully shiny little Cannon, and busied themselves adjusting various parts while the crowd cheered them on. Finally they stood up, bowed to General Reader, and stepped back, one man giving the Cannon a last furtive polish with a cloth as he went.

"What does the Literary Cannon fire?" the scientist asked with interest.

"Tomes of Literature, of course!" said General Reader with great satisfaction.

General Reader and the Literary Cannon

General Reader strode over to the Literary Cannon, and pulled an old, fat hardcover book out a sack next to it. He wrestled the book down the tube of the Literary Cannon with some difficulty, finally resorting to stuffing it down with the end of the pistol he carried on his belt. He turned to face the Pay-Wall, and appeared to come to some decision.

"Surely we can come to some understanding, sirs! You need not wall off the Sea of Knowledge for people to pay you to bring the Sea of Knowledge to them! More knowledge is the future! Those who stand in the way of progress will not stand long! I warn you, I will fire if I must on behalf of readers everywhere! No mere wall of money can withstand the moral force of the Literary Cannon!" General Reader declared in a great rush of words. The crowd burst into applause.

9 844 MORE WORDS NEEDED read the banner.

"Stand back, everyone!" General Reader warned.

9 841 MORE WORDS NEEDED read the banner.

General Reader shielded his face with one hand, and shot his pistol with the other. The pistol's digest pinged off the base of the Literary Cannon, which obligingly belched the Tome of Literature up into the air in a lazy arc toward the Pay-Wall.

It bounced off.

9 341 MORE WORDS NEEDED read the banner.

General Reader flinched.

"Perhaps we need to read it aloud?" the scientist asked kindly. While the crowd had been watching the narrative arc to the Pay-Wall, she had picked up Reader's digest, and now had it hidden in her pocket. She had a hypothesis to test.

"People of Wisdom," the scientist called, "Why do you seek the Sea of Knowledge?"

The crowd shuffled. "How can we be wise without it?" someone called out. "What if I forget something?" chimed in another. "What if I don't know enough to compete?" wailed a third. "I'll get stuck on Conclusions forever!" said a fourth (and promptly disappeared). General Reader mumbled very softly "What's the point in reading if you don't learn anything new?"

The scientist smiled. "I don't know how to knock down the Pay-Wall", she said clearly, and the statement fell from her lips to fizz dangerously in the sand. The crowd drew back, eyes wide. "I don't know how much I don't know" — another fizzing statement in the sand —"I know I don't know many things" — this one did not fizz, and she caught the round glowing ball it became and held it high — "I think we can build the knowledge we need by experimenting together!" and this assertion did not fall but rose up into the sky to burst with implications.

The scientist loaded her fizzing admissions into the Literary Cannon, and asked General Reader if he would do the honors. He bowed to her, and said, pinking slightly with nerves, "Will I lose my Generalship if I d-don't know what every reader wants?" The Cannon fired, and General Reader's inquiry shot over the Pay-Wall to land with an outsized splash! on the side. The Pay-Wall shuddered.

One by one, members of the crowd approached to prime the Cannon with their own fizzing statements of unknowing, and fire their questions into the Sea of Knowledge. The more uncertainties they unloaded into the air and down the tube, the easier their questions came. A pair of people, neither wanting to wait for the other, spoke their uncertainties at the same time, and found what neither knew was a denser, more powerful unknown than what one knew and the other did not. Soon more pairs and groups of people started to pool their knowings to define denser unknowns and chain their questions to build on each other, and the resulting splashes from the Sea of Knowledge grew larger and larger. The air turned festive as people bartered and debated knowns as they competed to create big and bigger splashes. The half-forgotten Pay-Wall began to shed coins as Knowledge splashed against it.

The scientist wandered through the crowd sharing some of the questions she had refined in her travels. Finally, the moment she had been waiting for came: a group of people tried to fire so long a chain of questions fueled by so dense a set of unknowns that the Literary Cannon itself cracked open. The people faltered: how would they launch their questions now? Surely their unknowns were too dangerous to handle without the Literary Cannon to shape and contain them!

As General Reader's men assured the anxious crowd that the Literary Cannon could be reforged — in fact, that this Literary Cannon was the umpteenth Cannon so forged, and that they had a whole school of Graduates working tirelessly to select the materials for the next great Literary Cannon to be forged, and so forth — the scientist watched the banner on the Pay-Wall continue to writhe and unravel. Where shortly after the first question had been fired it had read 1 BUCKET OF KNOWLEDGE = 10 000 (?) WORDS, and then 1 BUCKET OF KNOWLEDGE = ? WORDS, and then 1 BUCKET OF KNOWLEDGE = ????????, it now flickered through a series of assertions like KNOWLEDGE = BUCKET OF ? * EXPERIENCE, KNOWLEDGE = WORDS * EXPERIENCE, and KNOWLEDGE = ? * EXPERIENCE, finally settling on ???????????? as the Pay-Wall slowly slumped down into the Sea of Knowledge and out of mind.