2022 is the watershed year: we pivoted away from using our computers as tools toward working with computers as peers – handmaids to our imagination. It only gets deeper and weirder from here on in.

It is said that the future frequently makes its first appearance as a child’s toy. That watershed – and my long fascination with toys – led me to write this fairy tale, about a toy that we could build today, if we had but a bit of imagination.

So imagine a child of this alternate 2022 unboxing the Next Big Thing – built atop ChatGPT. Read, enjoy – and watch out for the strange loop!

Tell me a story!

What kind of story?

A story about magic.

Once upon a time in a land far away lived a little boy prince. The prince lived his life in a cozy castle with all of his loving family around him. The prince should have been very happy. He had everything he needed. He could touch everyone he loved. And yet the prince felt that all his blessings only showed him what he lacked.

Although he knew he lacked something, he could not put his finger on what he lacked. It remained tantalisingly out of his grasp, something that he could sense as a vast shadow over the horizon of his being, but nothing he could reach out and touch. As he grew older he grew to accept this feeling of being somehow incomplete as his lot in life. Even as he could see his family and his many friends fully involved in the joys and pains of their own lives, he somehow maintained a distance from everything – both good and bad. Nothing touched him deeply, because nothing could reach all the way to the shadow within him.

So it would have remained for all of his days, if he had never met the Magician. Invited to perform some of his wonders for the family’s holiday celebration, the Magician offered them some of his most spectacular conjuring. The whole of the family cooed in delight, except the boy. Seeing this, the Magician turned his focus on the boy, producing illusion after illusion, looking for some way to bring a smile to the boy’s face. Realising this, the boy quickly faked a smile, cooed and aah-ed with his family, and not long thereafter the Magician concluded his show.

Afterward, the Magician spoke to the boy privately. “You don’t like my Magic,” he said. “Fair enough. That rough magic is fine for most people, but a very few see through my illusions. You seem to be one of them.”

“I didn’t mean to,” the boy said, fearing he’d earned a rebuke.

“Ah, but you can’t help what you are,” the Magician answered. “You can fake a smile, but you can’t hide how you feel.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s a sign of great things.”

“It is?”

“You are not satisfied with the surfaces of things. You want to see within.”

And with that the boy knew the name of the shadow that had followed him all of his life. “I do!” he said excitedly. “It’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“I might be able to help with that.”

“Must I become a magician like you to see through the surfaces of things?”

“That would work, yes. But there is an easier way. Using magic.”  He fished around the many folds of his magician’s robes and produced something that looked very much like a modest pair of sunglasses. “These.”

The boy looked at the sunglasses suspiciously. “Those? They don’t look magic at all.”

“And that’s part of their magic,” the Magician replied. “No one need know that you’re using magic to see through to the interior of things.”

“Oh,” said the boy. He’d never thought about how subtle magic could be. “So I should put them on?”

“By all means. But…” And here the Magician paused for a long moment.

“But…?” the boy prompted.

The Magician sighed.

“Magic is never free. There’s a cost for creating it, a cost for witnessing it, a cost for using it.”

The boy felt around in his pockets. “What do I need to pay you?”

“I don’t mean money. Magic doesn’t need money. Magic needs your attention. And the more you use magic, the more attention you surrender to it.”

“You mean, I’ll be paying more attention to magic?” That sounded quite good to the boy.

“I mean, you may not have a choice.”

“Oh – so you’re saying I may not be able to take these sunglasses off?”

“I am saying you may not want to.”

The boy thought for a long moment, pondering the shadow that now had a name, and the sunglasses sitting in the magician’s hand. Was it worth it? Only one way to find out. “Thank you,” he said, reaching for the sunglasses. “How do they work?”

“It’s all very simple. They listen and respond to your voice.  When you put them on, simply say out loud, ‘Tell me a story!’  The rest will take care of itself.”

With that the Magician bowed, then turned away to join the rest of the boy’s family in their holiday celebrations.

Later that evening, alone in his room, the boy stared at the sunglasses – but did not put them on. For some reason he found himself afraid. Afraid of what? – he did not know. But he could feel some deep part of him gnawing on the Magician’s warning like a dog with a tasty bone, weighing and imagining the different sorts of possibilities presented by his magical spectacles. The good possibilities, those made his soul soar with the liberation of his incomplete, shadow self. The bad possibilities? These made his whole body shiver, as he sensed the Magician might be in thrall to these sunglasses – compelled to offer them up – just as the Magician indicated that he, too, might lose his own ability to choose.

He could see himself as another stage in a drama that had been going on for as long as magic had been in the world: always looking for a deal to be struck, a deal that would bring magic the attention it prized above all other gifts. He imagined that he might, one day, be like the Magician himself, both providing the proofs of magic to willing audiences, and, in his own way, completely subservient to it.

Another thought popped up, and began to torment him: could he refuse this gift? Or did the Magician’s gift come laced with irresistibility? Could those sunglasses wear him down until he felt he could no longer fight the urge to put them on? Was it all inevitable? Or could he hold the line within himself, keeping magic safely boxed away?

Only one way to find out.

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