Learn to Read All Over Again With This Spectacular Speculative Story


io9 is proud to present fiction from LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE. Once a month, we feature a story from LIGHTSPEED’s current issue. This month’s selection is “We Will Teach You How to Read | We Will Teach You How to Read” by Caroline M. Yoachim.

Note: The formatting of this story is essential to the reading of it—and some of the formatting was difficult to render in both web and ebook formats. To work around that, the story uses regular text whenever possible and has the text rendered as images when it is not.

If you prefer, you can also read this story on LIGHTSPEED’s website, where it may be easier to read. You’ll find it at lightspeedmagazine.com/HowToRead.

This is honestly one of the best stories I’ve ever read, and I wanted to make sure it was shared with as many people as possible. So I hope everyone who finds this doesn’t mind the extra bit of effort it might take.

—John Joseph Adams, Editor/Publisher of LIGHTSPEED.

ITERATION

This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration.

Two columns of text. Right Column: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: Don’t worry, we will help you develop the skills you need. We will keep one simple thread unchanged. At first you will glance back and forth between these words and those. Your attention is a strange, skittering thing, but we believe you can learn with repetition.

Two columns of text. Right Column: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: For you, we are relearning how to teach. You can hear musical chords of multiple notes, even two strands of differing lyrics for short stretches of song. It helps to memorize the words. Your mind has a strange divide between learning and knowing. Read both columns, please. Every time.

Two columns of text. Right Column: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: Can you commit our simplified story to memory? See just the shape of the words and know what is there? You have so little bandwidth, there might not be any other way. It is not ideal but we are desperate. We will repeat to help you understand.


THIS IS OUR STORY, SIMPLIFIED

We read three times in the course of our lifespan: once with our parents to learn the story, once alone to add to the threads, and once with our children to teach them. History, science, philosophy, art. All we have ever known is here, in one thread or another, trapped in what—for you—would be a cacophony of overlapping words.

Two columns of text. Right Column [The following text is repeated 5 times, with each line aligned with a line in the left column]: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: If both sides are simple, can you do it? A series of moments. The passing of parents. From reader to writer. A new generation. To persist when we’re gone. Our story continues. We sense your struggle, it is still too much. Have you memorized our story, simplified? Can you hear it in your head? You are such strange creatures to have two eyes and yet to focus on only one thing at a time. You can’t read the words on the other side of the page so you have to simply know them. Recognize them from the shape of the lines. Sound would be easier, yes—you make far better use of your ears as independent sensory organs than you do your eyes. But we are determined to teach you to read. Simpler still, simpler still. Can you at least hold two identical lines in your head? This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. Feel the doubling of it, hear it in two different voices, somehow split your single focus of attention into two. Do you see how they match, how they resonate with each other? Go back up and look again. Try to capture the sensation of reading both at once, even for a moment.


LIFE

You are ancient, and we are fleeting. Such a luxury, to have so much time that you need not rush though everything at once. And yet you are so horribly inefficient, to not make more of the time you have. Think what you could do in a single lifetime if you could read more than one thread at once, think more thoughts at once, hold more experience in every moment.

Two columns of text. Right Column [The following text is repeated 5 times, with each line aligned with a line in the left column]: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: You have a game with pictures, trying to spot the differences, your eyes darting back and forth between them. It is harder with text. Don’t focus on individual words in each line, but look at the space between them. Know what both sides say. Hold it all in your head. Perhaps don’t even quite focus your vision. This is our story, with variations: Life. Loss. Inspiration. Love. Death. New translation. Go back and try to read it all at once—hold both versions in your head. We are only asking you to read two threads, though we ourselves can do thousands. Threads of love and hope, threads of fear and death. How many iterations will it take you? This is our story, terrified: Loss. Loss. Endless attrition. Death. Death. Desperation.


LOSS

Our generations are synced in a way that yours are not. Iterations of our story are not staggered, not muddled like those songs that you call rounds. An entire generation reads together in a single voice, three times: as children with their parents, as adults alone, and as parents with their children.

But with each generation, the number of those who read our story is diminished. Many children refuse to learn their parents’ words. There are too many threads, they say. There are so few of us remaining. Soon, our story will be lost forever. We must find another way.

Two columns of text. Right Column [The following text is repeated 5 times, with each line aligned with a line in the left column]: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: We remember every word we read, on the first time, a perfect rendition. There are those among you with eidetic memory, but even that is fleeting, a lingering perception, rather than a lasting record. Insufficient. How much story can you hold, in a life as vast as yours? Even if some threads are lost in the translation, is it not better to have a legacy, an afterlife that echoes after we are gone? This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. We double threads for emphasis, contrast death with life. When you recreate our story do not lose this information.


TRANSFORMATION

Can you make the shift, from reader to writer, when you can only barely read? We fear that you do not grasp the urgency—you know our lives are short compared to yours but fail to comprehend the magnitude of the difference. We read three times in the course of our lifespan: once with our parents to learn the story, once alone as we write new threads, and once with our children to teach them. There is nothing else but this, we live our entire lives while reading, and the time it takes you to read three times…

“This is our story, simplified:
Life.
Loss.
Transformation.
Love.
Death.
Iteration.”

…is for us a lifetime.

We have been trying to teach you to read for several generations. We are running out of time.

Four rows of text; the first and second row have two columns, the third column has three columns, and the fourth column has four columns. First Row, Right Column: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | First Row, Left Column: Even in the simplest case, identical threads, we fear you cannot hold more than two. Try? It is important for the translation. Understand us well enough to love us, to miss us when we’re gone. Teach our story to your children. | Second Row, both columns have the following identical text: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Third Row, all columns have the following identical text: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Fourth Row, all columns have the following identical text: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration.


LOVE

The gift of words we give to our children is our greatest expression of love. We want to give this gift to you, even knowing how hard you must work to receive it.

Imagine our words, stretched into a thin vertical line…

A single vertical column of text that reads: This is our story, simplified.

…and set beside it all the variations, all our explanations, everything you usually read as a single stream of text chopped into smaller pieces and laid out side by side so we can fit it all within our lifespan, each generation adding a new column to the story, stretching it ever wider.

A block of text presented vertically, in separate columns. The lines are mostly sentence fragments. The text reads as follows,  read from right to left, with each column break represented by a slash: This is our story, simplified. / The first time you get our message, you only / Don’t worry we will help you develop the / For you we are relearning how to teach / Can you commit our simplified / If both sides are simple, can you do it? / We sense your struggle, it is still too much / Recognize them from the shape of the lines. / This is our story, simplified / Feel the doubling of it, hear it in two / You have a game with pictures, trying to spot / This is our story, with variations / Go back and try to read it all at once—hold, / This is our story, terrified / We remember every word we read, / How much story can you hold, / This is our story, simplified / We double threads for emphasis, / Even in the simplest case, identical threads, / This is our story, simplified / This is our story, simplified / This is our story, simplified

There’s a part of our story that describes finding you, our hopes and fears for you, and learning to communicate:

A bar code

To even fit it on the page requires text a hairsbreadth wide, and it is still but a tiny fraction of our story.

Two columns and one row of text. Right Column: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: Without our story, life continues. The loss makes space for something new. Our children evolve, beyond repetition.


DEATH

We are the last ones holding on to the old story. Our children are making something new. Please take these words we send you, read them, learn them, translate them into something your mind can understand. You might not add your threads and iterate as we do, but hopefully as you transform our words, you will keep some sense of the vastness of each moment, the illusion of holding more story in your mind than you are actually capable of holding.

Two columns and one row of text. Right Column: This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: This is our story, one last time: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death.

Scrolling down the page, we skip many lines, then get the following quotation: “Even if some threads are lost  in the translation,  is it not better to have  a legacy, an afterlife  that echoes after we are gone?”; we skip many more lines, then: It took many generations for them to teach us how to read. Skip many lines again, then: Their lifespan was measured in mere inches of text. Skip many lines, then: It took far longer for us to learn to write on their behalf. Skip many lines, then: That timescale cannot be captured on these pages. Skip many lines, then: The blank space—the absence of their generations—would go for miles.

Two columns and one row of text. Right Column: This was their story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration. | Left Column: This is their story, in translation: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Commemoration.


COMMEMORATION | ITERATION

The entirety of their story has thousands upon thousands of threads. It is history told in moments that seem to happen all at once. It is science that progresses in increments almost infinitely small, and yet contains discoveries that even now we do not fully comprehend. It is their art, their language, their culture—everything they were determined to preserve. We have so much left to translate; this is only the beginning.

Give this story to your children, along with everything we have managed to translate, and perhaps one day the story will make its way back to the distant descendants of those who created it—ephemeral entities who, in the final generations of their decline, taught us a new way to read. When you teach this story to your children, do not start with all the threads at once. Instead, begin with a single line of text:

This is our story, simplified: Life. Loss. Transformation. Love. Death. Iteration.


About the Author

Caroline M. Yoachim is a three-time Hugo and six-time Nebula Award finalist. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including four times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yoachim’s short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories and the print chapbook of her novelette The Archronology of Love are available from Fairwood Press. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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Please visit LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the May 2024 issue, which also features work by Rory Harper, Ben Peek, Stephen Geigen-Miller, Marissa Lingen, Nisi Shawl, P H Lee, Ash Howell, and more. You can wait for this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition here.


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