There was a strange bond between Sir Frank and the sleeping child. Though he visited it rarely, he never forgot it.
It suited Frank's Elizabethan spirit, with its bounce and vulgarity and the London streets packed tight with horse vehicles.
Let's Be Frank
by Brian W. Aldiss

Four years after pretty little Anne Boleyn was executed in the Tower of London, a child was born into the Gladwebb family—an unusual child.

That morning, four people stood waiting in the draughty antechamber to milady's bedroom, where the confinement was taking place—her mother, an aunt, a sister-in-law and a page. The husband, young Sir Frank Gladwebb, was not present; he was out hunting. At length the midwife bustled out to the four in the antechamber and announced that the Almighty (who had recently become a Protestant) had seen fit to bless milady with a son.

"Why, then, do we not hear the child crying, woman?" milady's mother, Cynthia Chinfont St. Giles, demanded, striding into the room to her daughter. There the reason for the child's silence became obvious: it was asleep.

It remained in the "sleep" for nineteen years.

Young Sir Frank was not a patient man; he suffered, in an ambitious age, from ambition, and anything which stood between him and his advancement got short shrift. Returning from the hunt to find his first-born comatose, he was not pleased. The situation, however, was remedied by the birth of a second son in the next year, and of three more children in the four years thereafter. All of these offspring were excessively normal, the boy taking Holy Orders and becoming eventually the Abbot of St. Duckwirt, where simony supplemented an already generous income.

The sleeping child grew as it slept. It stirred in its sleep, sometimes it yawned, it accepted the bottle. Sir Frank kept it in an obscure room in the manor, appointing an old harridan called Nan to attend it. In moments of rage, or when he was in his cups, Sir Frank would swear to run a sword through the child; yet the words were idle, as those about him soon perceived. There was a strange bond between Sir Frank and the sleeping child. Though he visited it rarely, he never forgot it.

On the child's third birthday, he went up to see it. It lay in the center of a four-poster, its face calm. With an impulse of tenderness, Sir Frank picked it up, cradling it, limp and helpless, in his arms.

"It's a lovely lad, sire," Nan commented. And at that moment the sleeping child opened its eyes and appeared to focus them on its father. With a cry, Sir Frank staggered back dizzily, overwhelmed by an indescribable sensation. He sprawled on the bed, holding the child tightly to keep it from harm. When the giddy feeling had gone, he looked and found the child's eyes shut again, and so they remained for a long while.

· · · · · 

The Tudor springs and winters passed, the sleeping child experiencing none of them. He grew to be a handsome young boy, and a manservant was engaged for him; still his eyes never opened, except on the rare occasions when his father—now engrossed in the affairs of court—came to see him. Because of the weakness which took him at these times, Sir Frank saw to it that they were few.

Good King Harry died, the succession passed to women and weaklings, Sir Frank came under the patronage of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. And in the year of the coronation of Elizabeth, the sleeping child awoke.

Sir Frank, now a prosperous forty-one, had gone in to see his first-born for the first time in thirty months. On the four-poster lay a handsome, pale youth of nineteen, his straggling growth of beard the very shade of his father's more luxuriant crop. The manservant was out of the room.

Strangely perturbed, as if something inexpressible lay just below the surface of his thoughts, Sir Frank went over to the bed and rested his hands on the boy's shoulders. He seemed to stand on the brink of a precipice.

"Frank," he whispered—for the sleeping child had been given his own name—"Frank, why don't you wake up?"

In answer to the words, the youth's eyes opened. The usual wash of dizziness came and went like a flash; Sir Frank found himself looking up into his own eyes.

He found more than that.

He found he was a youth of nineteen whose soul had been submerged until now. He found he could sit up, stretch, run a hand marvelling through his hair and exclaim, "By our Lady!" He found he could get up, look long at the green world beyond his window and finally turn back to stare at himself.

And all the while "himself" had watched the performance with his own eyes. Shaking, father and son sat down together on the bed.

"What sorcery is this?" Sir Frank muttered.

But it was no sorcery, or not in the sense Sir Frank meant. He had merely acquired an additional body for his ego. It was not that he could be in either as he pleased; he was in both at the same time. When the son came finally to consciousness, it was to his father's consciousness.

Warily, experimenting that day and the next few days—when the whole household rejoiced at this awakening of the firstborn—Sir Frank found that his new body could do all he could do: could ride, could fence, could make love to a kitchen wench: could indeed do these things better than the old body, which was beginning, just a little, to become less pliant under approaching middle age. His experience, his knowledge, all were resources equally at the command of either body. He was, in fact, two people.

A later generation could have explained the miracle to Sir Frank—though explaining in terms he would not have understood. Though he knew well enough the theory of family traits and likenesses, it would have been impossible then to make him comprehend the intricacy of a chromosome which carries inside it—not merely the stereotypes of parental hair or temperament—but the secret knowledge of how to breathe, how to work the muscles to move the bones, how to grow, how to remember, how to commence the processes of thought … all the infinite number of secret "how to's" that have to be passed on for life to stay above jelly level.

A freak chromosome in Sir Frank ensured he passed on, together with these usual secrets, the secret of his individual consciousness.

It was extraordinary to be in two places at once, doing two different things—extraordinary, but not confusing. He merely had two bodies which were as integrated as his two hands had been.

Frank II had a wonderful time; youth and experience, foresight and a fresh complextion, were united as never before. The combination was irresistible. The Virgin Queen, then in her late twenties, summoned him before her and sighed deeply. Then, catching Essex's eye, she put him out of reach of temptation by sending him off to serve the ambassador at the court of her brother-in-law, Philip.

Frank II liked Spain. Philip's capital was gayer, warmer, and more sanitary than London. It was intoxicating to enjoy the best of both courts. It proved also extremely remunerative: the shared consciousness of Frank I and II was by far the quickest communicational link between the two rival countries, and as such was worth money. Not that Frank revealed his secret to a soul, but he let it be known he had a fleet of capable spies who moved without risk of detection between England and Spain. Burly Lord Burleigh beamed upon him. So did the Duke of Medina Sidonia.

So fascinating was it being two people at once, that Frank I was slow to take any systematic survey of other lurking advantages. An unfortunate tumble from a horse, however, gave him leisure for meditation. Even then, he might have missed the vital point, were it not for something that happened in Madrid.

Frank III was born.

Frank II had passed on the renegade chromosome via a little Spanish courtesan. The child was called Sancha. There was no coma about him! As if to defy the extreme secrecy under which the birth took place, he wailed lustily from the start. And he had the shared consciousness of his father and grandfather.

It was an odd feeling indeed, opening this new annex to life and experiencing the world through all the child's weakness and helplessness. There were many frustrations for Frank I, but compensations too—not the least being closeted so intimately with the babe's delightful mother.

This birth made Frank realize one striking, blinding fact: as long as the chromosome reproduced itself in sufficient dominance, he was immortal! To him, in an unscientific age, the problem did not present itself quite like that; but he realized that there was a trait to be kept in the family.

It happened that Frank had married one of his daughters off to an architect called Tanyk. This union produced a baby daughter some two weeks after the secret birth of Frank III (they hardly thought of him as Sancha). Frank I and II arranged that III should come to England and marry Miss Tanyk just as soon as both were old enough; the vital chromosome ought to be latent in her and appear in her children.

· · · · · 

Relations between England and Spain deteriorating, Frank II came home shortly with the boy Frank III acting as his page. The fruits of several other liaisons had to be left behind with their mothers; they had no shared consciousness, only ordinary good red English blood.

Frank II had been back in the aptly named Mother Country for only a few months when a lady of his acquaintance presented him with Frank IV. Frank IV was a girl, christened Berenice. The state of coma which had ensnared Frank II for so long did not afflict Berenice, or any other of his descendants.

Another tremendous adjustment in the shared consciousness had to be made. That also had its compensations; Frank was the first man ever really to appreciate the woman's point of view.

So the eventful years rolled on. Sir Frank's wife died; the Abbey of St. Duckwirt flourished; Frank II sailed over to Hispaniola; the Armada sailed against England was repulsed. And in the next year, Frank III (Sancha), with his Spanish looks and English money, won the hand of Rosalynd Tanyk, as prearranged. When his father returned from the New World (with his English looks and Spanish money), it was in time to see in person his daughter, Berenice, alias Frank IV, also taken in wedlock.

By this year, Frank I was old and grey and retired in the country. While he was experiencing old age in that body, he was experiencing active middle age in his son's and the delights of matrimony in his grandson's and granddaughter's.

He awaited anxiously the issue of Frank III (Sancha)'s marriage to his cousin Rosalynd. There were offspring enough. One in 1590. Twins in 1591. Three lovely children—but, alas, ordinary mortals, without shared consciousness. Then, while watching an indifferent and bloody play called "Titus Andronicus," two years later, Rosalynd came into labour, and was delivered—at a tavern in Cheapside—of Frank V.

In the succeeding years, she delivered Franks VI and VIII. Frank VII sprang from Berenice (Frank IV)'s union. So did Frank IX. The freak chromosome was getting into its stride.

Full of years, Sir Frank's body died. The diphtheria which carried him off caused him as much suffering as it would have done an ordinary man; dying was not eased by his unique gift. He slid out into the long darkness—but his consciousness continued unabated in eight other bodies.

It would be pleasant to follow the history of these Franks (who, of course, really bore different surnames and Christian names): but space forbids. Suffice it to say that there were vicissitudes—the old queen shut Frank II in the Tower, Frank VI had a dose of the clap, Frank IX ruined himself trying to grow asparagus, then newly discovered from Asia. Despite this, the shared consciousness spread; the five who shared it in this third generation prospered and produced children with the same ability.

· · · · · 

The numbers grew. Twelve in the fourth generation, twenty-two in the fifth, fifty in the sixth, and in the seventh, by the time William and Mary came to the throne, one hundred and twenty-four.

These people, scattered all over the country, a few of them on the continent, were much like normal people. To outsiders, their relationship was not apparent; they certainly never revealed it; they never met. They became traders, captains of ships that traded with the Indies, soldiers, parliamentarians, agriculturists; some plunged into, some avoided, the constitutional struggles that dogged most of the seventeenth century. But they were all—male or female—Franks. They had the inexpressible benefit of their progenitor's one hundred and seventy-odd years' experience, and not only of his, but of all the other Franks. It was small wonder that, with few exceptions, whatever they did they prospered.

By the time George III came to the throne and rebellion broke out in the British colonies in America the tenth generation of Franks numbered two thousand one hundred sixty.

The ambition of the original Frank had not died; it had grown subtler. It had become a wish to sample everything. The more bodily habitations there were with which to sample, the more tantalizing the idea seemed: for many experiences, belonging only to one brief era, are never repeated, and may be gone before they are perceived and tasted.

Such an era was the Edwardian decade from 1901 to 1911. It suited Frank's Elizabethan spirit, with its bounce and vulgarity and the London streets packed tight with horse vehicles. His manifestations prospered; by the outbreak of World War I they numbered over three and a half million.

The war, whose effect on the outlook and technology of the whole world was to be incalculable, had a terrific influence on the widespread shared consciousness of Frank. Many Franks of the sixteenth generation were killed in the muck of the trenches, he died not once but many times, developing an obsessive dread of war which never left him.

By the time the Americans entered the war, he was turning his many thoughts to politics.

It was not an easy job. Until now, he had concentrated on diversity in occupations, savouring them all. He rode the fiery horses of the Camargue; he played in the orchestras of La Scala, Milan; he farmed daffodils in the Scilly Isles; he built dikes along the Zuyder Zee; filmed with René Clair; preached in Vienna cathedral; operated in Bart's; fished in the bilious Bay of Biscay; argued with the founder of the Bauhaus. Now he turned the member of his consciousness among the rising generation into official posts, compensating for the sameness and greyness of their jobs with the thought that the change was temporary.

His plans had not gone far enough before the Second World War broke out. His consciousness, spread over eleven million people, suffered from Plymouth and Guernsey to Siam and Hong Kong. It was too much. By the time the war ended, world domination had become his aim.

· · · · · 

Frank's chromosome was now breeding as true as ever. Blood group, creed, colour of skin—nothing was proof against it. The numbers with shared consciousness, procreating for all they were worth, trebled every generation.

Seventeenth generation: eleven millions in 1940.

Eighteenth generation: thirty-three millions in 1965.

Nineteenth generation: a hundred million in 1990.

Twentieth generation: three hundred million in 2015.

Frank was well placed to stand as Member of Parliament, for all his alter egos could vote for him. He stood as several members, one of whom eventually became Prime Minister; but the intricacies of office proved a dismal job. There was, after all, a simpler and far more thorough way of ruling the country: by simple multiplication.

At this task, all the Franks set to with a will.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, Great Britain consisted only of Franks. Like a great multiplicity of mirrors, they faced each other across counter and club; young or old, fat or thin, rich or poor, all shared one massive consciousness.

Many modifications in private and public life took place. Privacy ceasing to exist, all new houses were glass-built, curtains abolished, walls pulled down. Police went, the entire legal structure vanished overnight—a man does not litigate against himself. A parody of Parliament remained, to deal with foreign affairs, but party politics, elections, leaders in newspapers (even newspapers themselves) were scrapped.

Most of the arts went. One manifestation of Frank did not care to see another manifestation of Frank performing. TV, publishing, Tin Pan Alley, film studios … out like lights.

The surplus Franks, freed from all these dead enterprises and many more, went abroad to beget more Franks.

All these radical changes in the habits of the proverbially conservative British were noticed elsewhere, particularly by the Americans and Canadians. They sent observers over to report on the scene.

Before long, the same radical changes were sweeping Europe. Frank's chromosome conquered everywhere. Peace was guaranteed.

By the end of another century's ruthless intermarriage, Russia and Asia were engulfed as thoroughly as Europe, and by the same loving methods. Billions of people: one consciousness.

· · · · · 

And then came Frank's first set-back in all the centuries of his polydextrous existence. He turned his reproductive powers toward the Americas. He was repulsed.

From Argentine to Alaska, and all ports in between, the conqueror chromosome failed to conquer.

The massive, massed intellect set itself to work on the problem, soon arriving at the answer. Another chromosome had got there first. Evidence of the truth of this came when the drastic modifications in domestic and public life which had swept the rest of the world swept the linked continents of North and South America. There was a second shared consciousness.

By various deductions, Frank concluded that the long-dead Frank II's visit to Hispaniola had scattered some of the vital chromosome there. Not properly stable at the time, it had developed its own separate shared consciousness, which had spread through the Americas much as the Frank chromosome had spread round the rest of the world.

It was a difficult situation. The Franks and the Hispaniolas shared the globe without speaking to each other. After a decade of debate, the Franks took an obvious way out of the impasse: they built themselves a fleet of space ships and headed into the solar system.

That, ladies, gentlemen, and neuters, is a brief account of the extraordinary race which recently landed on our planet, Venus, as they call it. I think we may congratulate ourselves that our method of perpetuating our species is so vastly different from theirs; nothing else could have saved us from that insidious form of conquest.

The End


© 1957 by Brian Aldiss. First published in Science-Fantasy #23 1957.