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Lightning in a Jar · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Encounter at Farpoint
Benjamin Franklin was busy preparing a kite for a new experiment when Zeus appeared next to him.

The physicist was so engrossed in trying to unroll a metallic wire that he neither saw, nor heard, the god who had materialised only a few steps away from him. Zeus harrumphed to make himself known, but the physicist, unconcerned, continued his work. After a few seconds of awkward silence, broken by a distant thunderclap, “Good afternoon, Sir!” Zeus finally said in a deep baritone voice.

Benjamin Franklin didn’t even lift his head, disregarding the greeting. “Mister Franklin?” Zeus eventually added.

“Himself. Pray tell, what can I do for you that cannot be deferred until the completion of my experiment?” Franklin responded. He was fumbling to knot the long copper wire into a small ring attached to the kite’s frame.

“I heard by hearsay that you were conducting fascinating experiments about thunder in these parts. I am quite interested in them, since, you know, I am Zeus.”

As soon as the visitor had spoken the word “Zeus” out, Franklin stood up and examined him. “I imagined you differently,” Franklin said. “Taller, more brawny, more… godlike, if you catch my meaning.”

“I know, I know,” Zeus replied. “I am not as awesome as I used to be three thousand years ago. I suppose I am getting on. Sometimes I discover grey strands in my hair. That is rather unsettling. But blame the painters and the sculptors. They forged me a false appearance throughout the ages.”

“What a disgrace,” Franklin said. “But, if I may be so bold, what made you leave lofty Olympus to venture to this remote country? Did you really desire to investigate on my experiments? I am flattered.”

“I do, Mister Franklin, I most definitely do,” Zeus replied. “Mortals have always been an inexhaustible source of wonder to us gods. Could you be so kind as to explain to me what exactly is the purpose of this kite you are assembling?”

“Well of course,” Franklin replied. “It is aimed at guiding lightning to the ground. I want to prove that this phenomenon which, from the dawn of humanity, has always been construed by the layman as a manifestation of a god’s –” He paused and cleared his throat. “I mean, of your wrath, is a mere natural occurrence.”

“A very bold and ambitious task. Not to mention highly dangerous.”

“Indeed. But isn’t science the epitome of the relentless desire of humanity to haul itself from the primeval mud in which it was born and soar into the heavenly realm of pure knowledge, whatever the cost be?”

“Certainly,” Zeus agreed, “and how aptly put. Your eloquence more than matches your wit, mister Franklin.”

Franklin blushed slightly, and bowed. “Thanks,” he said.

“However, do you think that your discoveries will make people happier?”

Franklin cast Zeus a shocked look. “How do you mean?” he asked.

“It is indiscutable that science participates in the advance of civilisation. Maybe one day, men such as you shall lead humanity to the heavenly bodies that your astronomers barely distinguish through their marvellous telescopes. Imagine the elation mankind as a whole would feel as their finest ambassadors set foot on those remote bodies, that the wisdom and hands of the gods placed close enough to be observed, yet far enough to be unreachable.

“But how does that affect the ordinary man? Consider the farmer who, with the yearly return of the spring, must till his field, plow, sow the seeds, wait patiently on them to grow, praying with each day that the weather brings the right measure of sun and the right measure of rain, until the crops are ripe and harvest time comes at last. Will he be happier when he knows that those planets you mention orbit around the sun by the will of some ingenious law of nature rather than by the will of some omnipotent deity?”

“Well,” Franklin replied, “I see your point. Yet I am sure that at some point in the future, science will be able to accurately predict the motion of the clouds which, for the time being, are beyond human comprehension. And maybe even make the culture of crops independent of nature’s whim. As soon as the life of our farmer is freed from the insecurity caused by the uncertainty of the weather, he is on the path to happiness.”

“Yet, do you think he will be able to fully comprehend the powers at work behind his new security?”

Franklin frowned. “Your point escapes my grasp,” he said.

“While I agree that by harbouring the fruit of our farmer’s work into the haven of science you place it out of the reach of nature’s unpredictability, I am not sure this is so profitable to him. For if your farmer has neither the intelligence nor the education to understand how that science proceeds, then trusting it amounts to blindly putting his destiny into the hands of other men. Albeit they be men of science, yet men they are, fallible and credulous. And their caprice is often more woeful than the caprice of nature.”

“Science cannot do harm. It is only pursuit of knowledge. Scientists are men of integrity. They would never serve an evil cause,” Franklin protested.

“Yet you do not ignore how Archimedes himself used his knowledge to design weapons that protected his city from invaders. Do you doubt science can craft tools of all but infinite power? Think of the desolation a single stroke of lightning can cause. Suppose you find an ingenious way to store this much energy, or some yet unknown other, more powerful energy, in a device the size of a bottle. Do you believe no one on Earth shall endeavour to turn your invention into a fearsome weapon and wield it to rule and oppress? Man is keen to kill his kin, so to speak.”

“Surely if a nation devises such a weapon, others will too, and so shall the balance of powers be reestablished. For science knows of no border or countries. Amongst all the work of man, it is universal, as is art.”

“Wisely retorted,” Zeus said, “and yet. Did that ever deter bloodthirsty tyrants from waging war to their neighbours? What of the lives of those who would awake each day with the fear that they might die before nightfall returns? Do you call Damocles’s dinner, whose story you no doubt know, a happy dinner?”

“Hmmm… Maybe not,” Franklin admitted. “But humanity must nevertheless shake off those asinine creeds about gods and supernal beings governing every unpredictable or uncontrollable events. Rationality should replace ignorance, for ignorance is the loam on which prejudice and oppression grow,” Franklin said.

“And do you think materialism, as pioneered by the famous Descartes, is superior to former animism?”

“Anything that can help people realising they are not puppets at the mercy of superior intellects is.”

“And yet,” Zeus answered. “to Descartes, who said: Cogito ergo sum, I would reply: Multi qui sunt vix cogitant. And for those, the fear of kindling the wrath of an unknown deity is often what coerces into behaving rightly.”

“Undoubtedly,” Franklin said. “However, the definition of right behaviour has always been rather vague and shifty. If study of history serves, that notion tends to reflect the standards of the clerics – who themselves are often indebted, and thus toadies to the rich and powerful – rather than an absolute standard of morals.”

“This is hardly debatable. Yet what will happen once this scheme is laid bare? You shall establish men’s law in lieu of gods’ anger. But in a world were everything is explainable and material, pray tell, what is to become of good and evil? If no superior being exist to punish their misbehaviour, then why should men prefer good over evil?”

“I suppose evil will always be singled out as nefarious to society, and even if no one will incur divine punishment for his wrongdoings anymore, he might well be locked in jail for all his life, which is not such an enjoyable perspective either. And once dead, who knows, maybe a transcendent power shall doom the soul of the wicked to eternal suffering?”

“And why should that power agree with men’s judgement on the matter? Maybe that power shall reward those whom you call evil, and doom those whom you call good,” Zeus replied.

“To that there is hardly any logical reasoning I can oppose. Gods’ ways are unfathomable, and those who seek to decipher their purpose often err. But if it is the case that evil shall be rewarded rather than good, then those gods’ laws would not be much more efficient than men’s laws at ensuring the cohesion of society.”

“So let us hope real deities do not act this way,” Zeus replied. “And that we are rather reasonable beings.”

There was a slight pause. The skies were so dark one could have thought the dusk come. But surprisingly, no thunder had boomed for a while. Franklin looked above at the clouds, then down at his kite, and pouted. “So, if I get your meaning correctly, you advocate that I abandon my studies on lightning and let the peasants believe that if that calamity strikes them, this is the result of some mercurial deity infuriated by obscure blasphemy they committed?” he asked.

“I do not suggest such a thing,” Zeus said, “though maybe you should ponder. Greeks philosophers never released their discoveries to the masses. They kept them enclosed in arcane books that only the wisest could decipher. And so it continued through the Middle Ages. Were people less happy under this policy of secret than they would have been under full disclosure? That is something worth considering, I suppose.”

“Enlightenment of the masses means educating them first,” Franklin said. “But we are digressing.”

“That is right,” Zeus continued. “If you deliver facts and do not give people the means to interpret them, your new knowledge will amount to nil. It will even be worse. If catastrophes arise because some deity has decided they should, people will feel distressed and impotent, but they can hardly act against the purported cause of their woes. If catastrophes arise because of explainable phenomena, people shalll turn their pain and anger on you, the scientists, and ask why you failed to foresee the disaster, or warn them.”

Franklin didn’t answer.

“And never underestimate the capacity of the human mind to populate its world with entities that escape the narrow realm of rationality. Explain hydras, and dragons arise. Explain dragons, chimeras shall replace them. Tell them why stars shine, and they shall question darkness with black stars. Never shall they quench their imagination with the answers handed out by your scientific bestiary. Even Aristotle, the most brillant brain of Antiquity, felt compelled to write the Metaphysics, after he completed the Physic, to study the unexplainable.

“Men were born to be men, not gods. Omniscience is insufferable to them.”

“I wonder,” Franklin said, “how gods do not fall prey to utter boredom.”

“Gods dream, mister Franklin,” Zeus said. “Gods dream their eternity away,” he repeated. He seemed to be lost in fathomless thoughts. “And please,” he added after his glittering eyes had refocussed, “do not suggest that Hermes once wielded lightning. Of all my sons, he would be the last one I would my entrust my weapon to!” He burst into boisterous laughter.

Franklin looked at his guest in surprise. As he did so, Zeus’s body started to grow, until he was about thrice as tall as the physicist. He lifted his giant arms to the sky, and two bolts of lightning sprang from the overhead clouds into each of his hands, wrapping them both in glaring light. Then he lunged them sidewards, and the bolts sprang to a nearby tree, which took fire at once.

“Goodbye for now, mister Franklin!” he boomed, and each of his words was like the rolling of thunder. “Maybe we shall encounter again before your demise! Beware of my lightning, lest we meet sooner than you deserve! Godspeed!”

Another stroke of lightning bolted from the sky, accompanied by a deafening crash. Franklin’s eyes blinked reflexively. When they reopened, the being was gone.

Franklin remained stock still for a moment, considering the place where Zeus was standing just a moment ago. Then he sighed, rolled his eyes, kneeled and resumed his work with the kite.
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#1 · 1
· · >>Monokeras
Okay, glad I didn't go with my own Benjamin Franklin/Zeus fic.

There's a word I should recall, but fails me now, one which describes this type of fiction where opposing views are given form as characters and basically debate each other. Whatever that words is, this story is also. (EDIT: It's "Socratic dialogue")

Despite that, this one reads pretty smoothly. There's only a few jarring examples of anachronistic words slipping into the otherwise highly formal victorian english (such as a "thanks" instead of "Thank you" and "nil" instead of "naught").

As a story though, this is kind of lacking. What we really have is just the classic debate about if education/knowledge/science actually improves lives or not. It's fun to see it couched in this setting, but Franklin could be any random philosopher, and Zeus could, save a few sentences, be any "devil's advocate" from various pantheons through to simply another philosophical thinker. The tie in to the prompt is the only reason it seems that these two voices were named "Zeus" and "Franklin" to me.

Overall, very well written debate, but doesn't give us anything new or interesting to think about. Oh, and the title is totally out of place.
#2 · 1
· · >>Monokeras

I mean, this is a cute discussion, but both participants unwillingness to actually stick to a point and argue it is rather... unsatisfying. Even if, in the end, they both agreed that their points can't be resolved, I'd have much rather seen one of them actually try to draw a conclusion. Zeus throws up a bunch of ideas, ignores the implications, and then vanishes, while Franklin give some idealistic half-answers then rolls his eyes at the end and then goes back to work. Even if there's food for thought for someone who's never considered these ideas before, neither character really seems to care much, and so I find myself mostly disinterested as well. In the end, I kinda feel like Zeus argues himself out of the picture. If dreams are enough for gods, why should they not suffice for men?

It's engaging enough, I guess. I'd like a bit more drama, maybe, or at least some emotions, somewhere.
#3 · 1
· · >>Xepher

Good luck to finalists!

This was more an exercise in prose than a true story. I wanted to have a go at writing a Socratic dialogue in 18th English and assess how good I was at it. That mostly succeeded I think, if what Xepher and others told me is anything to go by, so I’d take that as a positive takeaway.

Zeus tries to convince Franklin that his experiments are of no real use in order to protect his power, but that goal wasn’t emphasised enough and didn’t really come across. Semi-apologetically, the text was written in a couple of hours during a very disjointed weekend.

Thanks to Ran for pointing out how messed the hook of the first version was, following which I made last minute changes to improve it.

As I will probably skip next round, see you for Christmas now?
#4 ·
· · >>Monokeras
Umm, there's still like 32 minutes left for judging, so you shouldn't be revealing yourself or your authorship yet.
#5 ·
Didn’t change anything :)