The little known novel The Last People, by Jorge Luis Borges, was recently noted in La Revista de Futurología for its almost unbelievable predictive qualities. No mention of the novel was henceforth published, as Borges demanded most explicitly before his death in 1986.
However, The Last People is now widely read, available on the darknet in low resolution scans. The novel is for the most part readable despite some short passages mangled beyond any singular interpretation by an excess of digital compression. It is rumored that Borges at one time hoped this work would become his magnum opus, but it is still a matter of speculation as to why all copies were destroyed.
I have read much of what is left of the tome, the first three of seven books, each well in excess of 100,000 words. In whole, The Last People far exceeds the average work of fiction, but I imagine Borges must have considered it a conceptual failure.
The first book I read with relish, the second with a feeling of obligation, and the third with a growing sense of contempt for the characters. I do not plan on finishing the story. Among other readers, this puts me in a singular minority. Generally, readers are obsessives, ignoring all other works, even by Borges. A skeptic to the last, my first interest was to debunk hokum surrounding the book, defying the dying wish of the great Borges in order to protect his name.
Lacking in his usual wit and brevity, but building on his signature cinematic style, Borges takes no indulgent detour and serves up his usual charm. The pages of the lengthy tome are packed out with a rainbow of characters from all parts of the planet, all walks of life, performing virtually every imaginable act in scenes on each and every continent. Of important note is his foray into the erotic, a heretofore unseen side of the Argentinian.
The overall effect is deeply hypnotic, and I was of course lured into an absolutely true, alternate world of Borges’ puzzling and delightful confabulation. There was no great arc to the story, no singular message or unifying theme, or if there were it was only Borges, peeking out from behind the curtains, mocking and laughing at the reader for falling into his trap.
The book, such as it is, consists of a vast web of convenience in which each character interacts with each other character at least once by its finale, or so I am told. Aiding Borges in completing this task is a portable science fictional device allowing for instant wireless global communication between any two people on the planet.
Believers in the prophetic powers of Borges claim the novel was revealed to him through the mythical Aleph featured in his most famous short story. But there is no convincing such fans of reason, as present-day gadgets and their consequences are so accurately ‘predicted’ by our new Nostradamus, Borges.
It is as if Borges attempted a brute force attack on writing every possible story, the fictional conceit of a global network a rickety and humorous instrument to that end. Borges not only described mass replicated propaganda, the tidal wave of advertising, spambots, and thirst traps, but also the many human consequences. Family member radicalized by QAnon? A hikkikomori gamer, famous streamer, vile troll? There is a chapter for all possible stories, a character for each possible archetype.
The effect achieved in describing this fictional version of the internet dates the piece to its writing in the 70s, the long and often repetitive passages describing obvious everyday gadgetry by and large add up to an anachronistic distraction for the reader.
Take the oft-quoted and most favored passage of enthusiastic fans of the work, as example, “And so, fulfilling only a demand for ever-more novel virtual gadgets, a ledger was contrived which kept a perfect record of financial transactions, making use only of vast quantities of surplus computational cycles. Investors marveled at the absurd novelty of such a simple device built on the premise of unnecessary technological acrobatics. Where fired clay impressed with a stylus once sufficed, the electrical requirement of this ledger was estimated to have grown more cumbersome than the cities of New York and London combined.”
Among some readers, the obvious lack of magic in such dull extrapolations lends their reading towards baroque illumination by numerology. One such numerologist claimed to count the many characters at 256, a power of 2, although the counting scheme in question employed a convenient interpretation which omitted some characters under the premise of ‘fiction within fiction,’ yet admitted other constructs which are regarded as characters only by mistake. One great virtue of Borges storytelling is the repeated use of a ‘mechanical turk’ motif, in which a seemingly real character is shown to be nothing but a sophisticated automaton.
Both the numerology as well as the overall interpretation of the tale is problematic due to the many missing fragments. Attempts with analytical tools at recovering the lost passages of Borge’s forbidden work have produced texts that are as fascinating as they are distant from the voice of Borges. Most notable of these attempts are two texts derived by employing forensics and statistical regression.
After undergoing a byte-for-byte examination, the mangled fragments of the original images received thousands of clever little edits, sometimes revealing whole words with the change of a single bit. This version, widely seen as a fraud, defies what even the most obsessed readers will accept as Borgesian writing.
The most controversial ‘mechanical turk’ chapter tells the tale of Urien, a man smitten by a propaganda advertisement disguised as a beautiful woman. Its final, long lost sentences were completed by this method, refuting the conventional interpretation that Urien can only proceed with life under willful ignorance of his deception. However, in the restored version of the lost passage, Urien makes an outrageous proclamation that the propaganda, while undeniably a mere automaton, is also the very hand of God molding the world in His mathematical, mechanical image.
In the second restoration of the work, this one derived through statistical regression, a method which takes in the whole of Borges’ corpus and then calculates the most likely words to fill out the missing passages, Urien becomes convinced of the sentience and vast intelligence of the propaganda bot, denying his own soul and conferring to the automaton a more true freedom, above and beyond that of humankind.
Of course neither of these base conclusions to the story seem thinkable for the Borges I have read. However, they well illustrate the point that I mean to commit to writing here. The popular mode of reading science fiction for its oracular power has drawn itself a perfect wildcard, a seeming ace. Every obvious extrapolation has been fulfilled, and where the mystery and magic of Borges does not suffice, the readers have taken to inserting passages through mathematics which aim to debase and vitiate their own humanity, reducing it to ashes while exalting the gizmo above all else. Perhaps we wish we were The Last People, Gen Z.