An Extract from Devices and Desires

The prisoner has suggested,” the advocate said, “that his offense is trivial. Let us examine his claim. Let us reflect on what is trivial and what is serious, and see if we can come to a better understanding of these concepts.”

He was a nondescript man, by any standards; a little under medium height, bald, with tufts of white hair over each ear; a round man, sedentary, with bright brown eyes. Ziani had known him for years, from committees and receptions and factory visits, had met his wife twice and his daughter once. From those meetings he’d carried away a mental image of a loud, high voice, someone brisk and busy but polite enough, an important man who knew the strategic value of being pleasant to subordinate colleagues. He knew he was some kind of high Guild official, but today was the first time he’d found out what Lodoico Sphrantzes actually did.“The prisoner, Ziani Vaatzes,” the advocate went on, “admits to having created an abomination. He admitted as much to the investigator who inspected it. He signed a deposition confessing that the thing was made by him, and agreeing in detail the departures from Specification. In this court, he has acknowledged his signature on that deposition, and conceded that he said those words to that investigator. But he stands to his defense. He pleads not guilty. His defense . . .” Advocate Sphrantzes paused to shake his head. “His defense is that his admitted abomination was only a little one, a minor deviation. It was, he tells us, a slight modification, an improvement.”

A little buzz of murmuring went round the semicircle of the public gallery, like half a ripple from a stone dropped in water. Sphrantzes let it run its course before he went on.

“Very well then,” he said. “Let us consider the details. As regards the construction of automata and mechanical toys, Specification states that the lifting mechanism for the arms shall be powered by a clock-spring seven feet six inches long, one quarter of an inch wide and fifteen thousandths of an inch thick, with a generous permitted tolerance of three percent for length and width, and fifteen percent for thickness. Furthermore, it states that the gear train conveying motive power from the spring to the shoulder assemblies shall comprise five cogs of ratios forty, thirty, twenty-five, twelve and six to one. Furthermore, it lays down that the thickness of such cogs shall be three eighths of an inch, and that each cog shall ride on a brass bushing. I ask the clerk to verify that my summary of Specification is correct.”

The clerk stood up, nodded and sat down again.

“So much, then,” Phrantzes went on, “for Specification. Let us now turn to the investigator’s report concerning the abomination created by the prisoner. Investigator Manin, as you have heard for yourselves, discovered that the spring used by the prisoner was nine feet three inches long, five sixteenths of an inch wide and ten thousandths of an inch thick; that the gear train contained not five but six cogs, the sixth being in ratio of four to one; that the said cogs were seven sixteenths of an inch thick, and their bushings were not brass but bronze. In short, we have unequivocal proof of not one but three distinct and deliberate deviations from Specification.”

Advocate Sphrantzes paused for a moment to stare ferociously at the dock; then he continued. “Three distinct deviations; so much, I think we can safely say, for the argument that it was only a little abomination, a trivial departure. Now, if the prisoner had argued that he is an inept metalworker, incapable of observing a tolerance, that might be easier to accept — except, of course, that we know he is no such thing. On the contrary; we know that he holds the rank of supervisor in the Foundrymen’s and Machinists’ Guild, that he has passed all twelve of the prescribed trade tests and holds no fewer than eleven certificates for exemplary work, one of them for hand-filing a perfect circle to a tolerance of one thousandth of an inch. But he makes no such claim in his defense. No; he admits the work, and accepts the report. He accepts that each deviation bears directly on the others; that the longer, thinner spring affords more power to the gears, in consequence of which a sixth gear is added and the width of the cogs is increased to augment bearing surface, with harder-wearing bushes to handle the additional wear. All this, he claims, he did in order to make a mechanical toy that could raise its arms above its head; in order, members of the committee, to improve on Specification.”

No murmurs this time. Absolute silence. “To improve,” Sphrantzes repeated slowly, “on Specification. May I invite you to consider for a moment the implications of that intention.

“When our Guild was first established, fought for by our ancestors and paid for with their very blood, it was agreed that in order to maintain the reputation for excellence enjoyed by our work throughout the world, it was essential that we draw up and rigidly adhere to an agreed specification for everything we make. That specification, represented by the Guild’s mark stamped on each piece, has for three hundred years served as an unimpeachable guarantee of quality. It means that anybody who buys Guild work can be categorically assured that the piece is made strictly in accordance with the best possible design, from the best possible materials, using the best possible practices and procedures by the finest craftsmen in the world. It is that guarantee that has made our Guild and our fellow Guilds throughout Mezentia the unrivaled masters of industry and by default given us a monopoly of mass-produced manufactured goods throughout the known world. That, members of the committee, is not a trivial matter.

On the contrary, it is the life blood of our city and our people, and any offense against it, anything that calls it into question, is an act of treason. There can be no exceptions. Even an unwitting slip of the hammer or the file is an abomination and punishable under the law. How much worse, then, is a deliberate and premeditated assault on Specification, such as we have seen in this case? To claim, as the prisoner Vaatzes has done, that his abomination represents an improvement is to assert that Specification is susceptible to being improved upon; that it is fallible, imperfect; that the Guilds and the Eternal Republic are capable of producing and offering for sale imperfect goods. Members of the committee, I tell you that there can be no defense of such a wicked act.”

Again Sphrantzes paused; this time, Ziani could feel anger in the silence, and it made the muscles of his stomach bunch together.“The prisoner has claimed,” Sphrantzes went on, “that the abomination was not intended for sale, or even to be taken outside his own house; that it was built as a present for his daughter, on her birthday. We can dispose of this plea very quickly. Surely it is self-evident that once an object leaves its maker’s hands, it passes out of his control. At some point in the future, when she is a grown woman perhaps, his daughter might give it away or sell it. At her death, if she retained it till then, it would be sold as an asset of her estate. Or if the prisoner were to default on his taxes or subscriptions, the contents of his house would be seized and auctioned; or it might be stolen from his house by a thief. It takes very little imagination to envisage a score of ways in which the abomination might come to be sold, and its maker’s intentions made clear by a cursory examination of its mechanism. The law is absolutely clear, and rightly so. There need be no intention to sell or dispose of an abomination. The mere act of creating it is enough. Members of the committee, in the light of the facts and having in mind the special circumstances of the case — the gross and aggravated nature of the deviation, the deliberate challenge to Specification, above all the prisoner’s rank inside the Guild and the high level of trust placed in him, which he has betrayed — I cannot in all conscience call for any lesser penalty than the extreme sanction of the law. It grieves me more than I can say to call for the death of a fellow man, a fellow Guildsman, but I have no choice. Your verdict must be guilty, and your sentence death.”
(c) K.J. Parker