Grow Strange With Me, the Test is Yet to Come

With apologies to Robert Browning, my version of his famous lines reflects the mashup up ideas rolling around in my head today. For those unfamiliar, and annoyed at having to resort to Google, the original is” Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made.”

Part of what follows, which is coming right off the top of my head, so please don’t expect total coherence, is inspired by a reread of an old blog post by James Wallace Harris: Aging and Reading Science Fiction. There isn’t much in it I agree with, but it’s one of those little essays that make you think more deeply than blog posts generally do. The other part–outliers–is also mentioned in his post, which is coincidental since it’s a topic I’ve been giving some thought to lately.

Given that I’ve been more or less an outlier in almost every area of my life, as far back as I can remember, I continue to find myself on the fringes both as a very senior citizen and as someone on the autistic spectrum. I’ve fielded my share of criticism for being too negative, too critical, too stubborn, too, too, too. But that’s what you get when you insist on seeing the forest as well as the trees, and applying logic to problems, large and small, that invariably provoke instant emotional responses (mostly negative) to any sensible approach.

Our lives are full of tests, which we tend to avoid as much as possible. So we’re constantly surprised when our failure to meet and deal with them results in our being slapped in the face with extremely unpleasant consequences. Global climate change is one. The current political chaos in the US is another. Those are biggies, which we have some justification in avoiding as too large and complex for our little minds to tackle. Then there are the small ones, or those that seem small until we find ourselves facing them. Like aging and death. Yes, that’s a biggie, but we have considerable free will in how we confront them.

My confrontation is as a writer, specifically a science fiction writer. Being close to the end of my life has changed my perspective in many ways. For one thing, I no longer expect that any major human problems will be solved before I shut my eyes permanently. And few, if any, of the wonderful technological dreams will be coming true. When the decades pile up enough so that you can look back and see a fairly good-sized chunk of history, and can add that to what you know of the history that took place long before you were ever on the planet, there’s little room for illusions.

One result is that when I write about current events and how they will affect the near and distant future, the only solutions I can offer are about surviving a future still being shaped by past and present errors that we choose to ignore. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all is going to end in gloom and doom. That may very well happen, but there will be survivors of the various forms of ecological collapse, just as there are always survivors of war. What bothers me is that there don’t seem to be many depictions of that process that don’t also show the survivors as having been reduced to something close to an animal state. It’s a world in which human society had been reduced to a primitive state of constant localized warfare where life is quite precarious.

Is there a way out of this gloomy view of the future, even granting that our grandchildren and their grandchildren are going to live in a more difficult world? The best example I’ve come across is Star’s Reach, by John Michael Greer. I’ve mentioned the book before, but now, having reread it several times, and viewing it from the perspective of current political chaos, it seems the perfect template (not to be taken literally as a template) for considering the future. Greer’s future is post-collapse, post-wars. His world is both stranger than most of us would imagine, and very familiar if you’ve learned anything about the natural world that we live in. It’s a world in which a small portion of humanity has survived disaster and learned to live more sanely and even joyously.

The test is coming. The time when it could have been avoided is long past. We had the chance to avoid it, and allowed businessmen and politicians, and our own willful blindness, to bring it about. Now is the time for science fiction writers to consider how we will deal with it.

Editing, Kitty Adoption, News

The revision of Privileged Lives is going well, although stuff got in the way yesterday and I only did about two chapters. Still… Cutting the fat, expanding scenes, combining chapters, all on the way to a final rewrite. It’s down to 29 chapters, from 38, and I’ll probably combine several more before I’m through. It’s kind of amazing how much I’ve learned since writing it back in the Spring of 2011. And it’s hard to believe it’s been hanging around that long. This is one of those cases where you have to decide whether a book that’s never sold more than a few copies is worth overhauling. It might still languish unread, but it’s worth it to me.

The “stuff” that got in the way of book work yesterday, was one of the massive shopping trips I go on almost every week with my son. Usually, it’s two grocery stores and one or two thrift stores. Yesterday’s started with the local Humane Society. I decided a month or two ago that I missed having a fur ball, so I kept checking out the photos on the HS site. The cat I’m adopting is a ten-year-old orange female who might not have found another owner at that age. She wasn’t exactly abused by her previous owners, but they put her in their basement because of their little kids (no details on that except her inability to cope), and lived down there for a year. She’s still skittish, but didn’t have any trouble with my petting her, leaned right in, in fact, so I think she’ll be fine once she settles down. We’ll probably go in tomorrow to sign the adoption papers and take Stella home.

As part of getting my life somewhat normalized, which used to mean being owned by a cat, I’m cutting way back on the news. I’ve accepted that things are mostly going to get worse as the new “president” lays about him with an axe handle. There’s nothing I can do about it except put my little bit of money where I hope it will do some good. I made a second donation to the Standing Rock Sioux this morning, even though I know that particular battle will probably be lost.


From Pillar to Post

I’m trying very hard to get over the feeling that I’m being thrown from wall to wall in a room that is somewhat padded, to make sure I don’t accumulate broken bones. Broken mind, not so much. In any one day, I swing from pillar to post, thinking I can get back to writing again, and then wondering what’s the point when everything is tumbling into a black pit without a bottom. These are the days when any sign of cheer is more than welcome, though it’s impossible to avoid the notion that anyone who’s the least bit cheerful has to be either oblivious or crazy.

I wonder what our non-US readers are thinking. Surely, they’re shaking their heads in amazement and disgust. Who would have thought that one man could do so much damage in such a short time? It’s enough to make me want to keep my head under the covers and never, never get up

But then there’s this from Chuck Wendig: This is a Test of the Emergency Broadcasting System 

This weekend there came a moment when I thought, I am ashamed to be an American. But then I thought back to the Women’s March, and I think to all the people I know who are active and engaged, and then I realized: I’m not ashamed to be an American. I’m proud of Americans. I’m ashamed of my government. I’m ashamed of this administration, not of the nation it leads. Ten days in and the president is the most unpopular president in history. It proves that you are not alone. We are not alone. And if we make it out of this — if we can stop this bubbling septic shit-stew from boiling over — then we will have been delivered a timely and necessary reminder that our democracy is not shallow, but deep. That it is not simple, but complex. That even in its pillar-like presence, democracy is vulnerable and demands vigilance and the foreknowledge that axes and rot can still bring down this beautiful tree.

And  this, from Literary Hub: Entering Scoundrel Time: a new literary site takes on Trump.

This past Monday, January 30, Paula Whyman and Mikail Iossel launched Scoundrel Time, a literary site dedicated to combatting the greed and evil of our new president. I asked Paula Whyman to take me through their ambitious and hopeful endeavor. More than anything I wanted to be convinced that any literary activism—really, anything at all—can work against such a looming catastrophe.

Maybe it’s hopeless to think that ordinary people can prevail against a cabal of people without compassion, or even the intelligence not to cut down the tree they’re sitting in, but the only other choice is to sit back and watch it happen.

Coming up — Four Years of Inspiration for SF Writers

It’s hard to believe that this country’s most significant and dangerous step into the future is only a day and a half away. The writer in me rejoices, not that I’ve been lacking for ideas. But the humanist in me shakes with dread. Will it be a never-ending nightmare in which the future is the blackest of black comedies, or a black comedy that makes every day a nightmare?

Humans, as a species, aren’t good at facing reality, and the next four years may be the ultimate proof of this failing. Global climate is, in a way, the metaphor that illustrates what such blindness will cost. It is proof that when faced with an unacceptable reality, humans are perfectly capable of rejecting what they see with their own eyes and experience with their own bodies, and retreating into a fantasy world in which bad things simply don’t happen. There is factual, real-life evidence, from every part of the world, that processes we can’t stop are already underway, and that they are proceeding at a much faster rate than scientists were willing to admit until very recently.

There is no shortage of rose-colored visions of a future that won’t be as bad as the worriers and Cassandras predict. Wishful optimism fits both climate change and the upcoming administration. The belief that raising buildings a few feet will defeat the incoming waters, or that the man moving into the White House will, sooner or later, start acting more “presidential,” are dangerous delusions. What will happen, sooner or later, is that the wearers of rose-colored glasses will be the first to scream, “Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” And they will be looking for someone to blame.

From the News: When Reality is Worse than Your Imagination

A lot of my fiction ideas come from the news. A lot of it comes from sources that aren’t  considered legitimate information except as inspiration for fiction. If I were writing an article or a nonfiction book about some of the abuses that go on in our prison system, anything written by prisoners would be just hearsay. I could quote them, but any arguments I based on what they have to say would be subject to challenges as to the authenticity of the details. After all, the public has been trained to believe that prisoners have every reasons to lie about the conditions they live in.

So I have mixed feelings about recent revelations about private prisoner-transport, which starred in a scene of New Serfdom, a novel I wrote a few years ago. Much of what I wrote about the suffering and near-deaths of some prisoners being transported to the property of a man who had leased their services from the prison came from prisoners themselves, in various articles and books. The rest was my imagination. I never thought that the truth could be worse than what I had imagined. I was writing about a near-future dystopia, but it could just as easily have been located in today’s United States.

“… when I showed up at some of these rural jails, the cops there looked at me with a measure of respect — Look at this glamorous Extradition Agent coming in from out of town, he must be like the U.S. Marshals!

“They didn’t know what it was really like.

“My prisoners got sick and threw up on each other all the time. They passed out from heat stroke — the windows barely opened, for security reasons, and the air conditioning was always broken. It got so hot that they would strip down to their underwear, and I would have to buy them buckets of ice and water.

“They were car sick, dizzy, panicked, and claustrophobic.

“Only one of our vans had cushions on the seats. In the rest of the vehicles, they were just sitting upright on a metal bench, squeezed in tight next to each other, with no way to lie down to sleep — for up to seven days in a row. Usually they’d just take off their shoes and sit on those.

“Imagine having convicted murderers next to you when you’re a first-time DUI offender. There were guys who were past due on child support sitting next to a murderer. That’s crazy — speeding-ticket people next to three-time felons.

“Meanwhile, your hands are bound but there ain’t no seatbelts, so if I put on the brakes or swerve, you get thrown like a pinball across the van and slammed against the wall, with no way to brace yourself. I would hear them slamming around back there.

“One night I was driving down the road, and I heard some chains shaking all the way in the back. Rattling, shaking — like a seizure of chains, and now the prisoners were all yelling up to me that this girl needed help.

“This woman had recently been in a car accident. She had metal headgear on, like a head brace, which I think was to keep her from banging her head on anything — and she was also five months pregnant. They actually let us transport individuals like that.

“So we pulled over, I jumped out of the passenger seat, and tried to go back and hold her. I fed her a soda, and she calmed down slightly. Then it was just back to business.

“Sometimes the inmates were 400 pounds and couldn’t even fit back there. I once transported a guy who couldn’t hold his bowels — he was taking a dump on himself and throwing up on himself the entire time. Others were constantly urinating in bottles.

“When we got to the next jail, “inmate cleaning teams” would clean the shit and vomit out of the vans, although sometimes I had to do so myself.”

It gets worse, believe it or not.

The Horrible Things I Saw Driving a Van Packed with Prisoners.

Inside the Deadly World of Private Prisoner Transport

Both articles are part of a Marshall Project series: Life on the Inside

From the News: Gender and Disability in a Post-Apocalyptic Future

Future gender

The subject of gender tends to be extremely divisive. Front and center in the media as it is these days, new questions keep coming up, vigorously debated but never truly answered. I doubt they’ll ever be answered since gender can be looked at from a social, a genetic, or a psychological point of view. An article that caught my eye recently was about the first person (in the US, at least) to be declared legally neither male nor female. It doesn’t, of course, answer any of the questions. In fact, it raises more.

Jamie Shupe can legitimately be considered transgender, although he has no intention of going all the way to surgery. I believe that people should be able to present themselves as whatever gender feels like their real self, but the question that constantly comes up for me is one that impinges on me as a writer of near-future science fiction. In that mode, I see transgender as a possible tragedy in the making. Whatever measures a person may take to change their gender, they remain the same at the genetic level. What if, in the future, be it near or far, the hormones that transgender people rely on to maintain their many of their physiological changes are no longer available? What happens to the male whose transition includes major surgery involving the sexual organs. Without hormone support, he will regress to most of the male physiological characteristics. What effects will that have — socially as well as psychologically? Will I ever write a story about such a man? It would take a great deal of intense thought to do it in a way that is sensitive rather than sensationalistic.

Zika and Climate Change

Again, I tend to see the news in terms of how it will spin out into the future. Zika and other tropical diseases that will affect new demographics is certainly something that attracts me as potential science fiction. Zika is already in the United States, and children have been born here with mental and other disabilities stemming from the disease. Scientists know that climate warming will be accompanied, in northerly nations by an increase in diseases once confined to warmer climates. Can they reach epidemic proportions? Will we see increasing numbers of badly damaged children born to infected mothers? How will that affect the larger societies. The questions, as in the topic of gender, are endless.

The worst-case scenario is that the apocalypse, if there is one, will come gradually, carried by insects, rather than as a sudden disruption of everything we know.

From the News: Questions With No Single or Right Answer

I can’t help noticing, over and over, how much of American debate is about subjects what can never be fully resolved. Questions with no one answer. Questions with no “right” answer. But that’s what most readers want and are angry when they’re denied. They want the mystery cleared up, with no clues left dangling. They want the happy ever after. They want a clear line between the hero and the villain.

I just read an opinion piece in Counterpunch: “Get Over it: Mass Shootings are the New Normal in America. It was a discussion about guns and violence in the U.S., and the political apathy that surrounds the problem. What specifically caught my attention was this: “Progressives and liberals who form the base of the Democratic Party, most of whom supported Bernie Sanders during the primaries, are engaged in a robust debate over whether to switch over to Hillary Clinton this fall, support a third-party candidate like Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, or stay home on election day. It’s the same old question: Do you vote for the lesser of two evils? Isn’t that voting for evil?”

This isn’t a new issue, by any means, and it raises the same questions every time, without any recognition that some questions don’t have a single right answer. In this case, any of the three choices has multiple ramifications, and each person’s decision is based on the ones they consider most important. The crucial point is that we have no way of knowing what the ultimate effect of our personal choice will be. Because that’s what real life is all about. There is no way to go back and make a different choice and then compare the two outcomes.

The value of open-endedness for fiction

That doesn’t stop anyone from demanding a definitive answer, from accusing those who’ve made different choices of stupidity or ignorance, or malign intentions. The open-endedness of real life is an endless source of blame, rage, and fanaticism. I believe fiction should reflect that. Not every time, of course. There’s nothing wrong with happy endings unless we refuse to acknowledge that there are other kinds of endings, including endings that never come to a resolution. It’s commercially risky to write a novel that doesn’t tie everything up with a neat bow, but such novels are richer in meaning, and leave readers with questions that can resonate in memory long after the bright ribbon has faded and grown tattered. Life is complex, and refuses to be simplified down to black or white, yes or no, right or wrong. Good writing rejoices in that complexity.

From the News: Is Trump Working a Long Con? And What Could it Be?

This might be the first of an occasional series — story ideas inspired by the news. Hardly a day goes by without one or two or even a handful popping up. Sometimes, all it takes is a headline. Sometimes, an in-depth read. I have a folder of articles marked to indicate that they’re possible story inspiration. Not that I’ll ever get around to developing many of them as full-fledged novels or short stories. But they might become elements that will flesh out something larger that I’m actively working on.

As much as I hate to even mention his name, I have to admit that the SOB supposedly running for president is fascinating. Or maybe it’s the endless media attempts to figure him out that’s fascinating. More than one writer has suggested that he isn’t really running for president at all — that he has some devious plan in mind. Or is he really the cotton-mouthed clown that he appears to be? Is he deliberately trying to destroy the republican party and ensure that Clinton becomes our first president ? Or is this merely the ultimate self-promotion scheme the world has ever seen, one from which he intends to make a fortune after the political circus is all over?

If I were writing one of those political suspense novels in which the president is the center of  a network of conspiracies, either as actor or victim, The Donald would be the ideal actor. The only problem would be trying to decide which of the theories about his intelligence and intentions would make the most exciting pot boiler. Would it be possible to write the book without descending into parody, or would parody be the best approach? Would he be the hero or the villain? A strong leader who actually has a workable plan to “Make America great again,”or a puppet in the hands of shadowy figures even more devious than he appears to be?