Battle of the WIPs

A Perfect Slave isn’t really a WIP since it’s complete, but needing some final editing. I’m halfway through that, but I should be just about done by now, almost ready to publish. It looks as if it isn’t going to happen. Why? Because A Well-Educated Boy has taken possession of my mind and won’t let go.

I always spend a lot of time in preparation before I start writing, but what’s going on right now is sheer obsession, or something very close to it. Over the more than a year since Boy made its appearance as a bare-bones idea, it has morphed and grown into something far from the original, rather simplistic, concept. It’s become far more complex, and it owes some of that complexity to questions that several essayists have proposed lately.

It seems that I’m not alone in thinking that science fiction needs to pull its attention from battles that are distant both in time and place, and consider where we are now and where we are possibly going in the near future. I’m far more interested in dystopias than in apocalypse, but the majority of dystopias in current science fiction are written as if they happened more or less suddenly, and as if the entire world (or nation) is in a monolithic state against which the heroes (usually teens) must battle.

That kind of dystopia is, to put it bluntly, a fantasy. Even if we accept that certain trends may converge from many points, as in the world-wide increase in bigotry and fear about the other: people of color, refugees, gender nonconformists, etc., that they could converge into one monolithic, all-powerful government is so unlikely that its possibility approaches zero.

But those fears, taken advantage of by powers already in existence: corporations and the military, could certainly lead to localized dystopias of various kinds. Many dystopias can exist simultaneously, and function in very different way. A Well-Educated Boy will be about two of those possibilities, both of which are actually possible today, and some features of which are already in place.

We are all living in a period of serious upheaval and transition. Most of that is invisible to us because it is taking place over months and years, slowly enough that we become accustomed to what is going on and accept it as normal. For instance, in spite of increased flooding and endless warnings from scientists about sea level rise, some 60% of home owners in S. Florida are unaware of or unconcerned about it. It wouldn’t be that difficult to write a dystopia that focuses on coastal cities and the long-term effects of climate change on lives and property.

Writing this more realistic version of utopia is more difficult, though, when the protagonist is a high school student. How do I avoid turning him into some clichéd save-the-world teen hero? How do I show his gradual realization that there’s little or nothing he can do to change the world, even his limited, local world, without ending the book in a state of despair and hopelessness? What can I give him as motivation for not giving up in the face of overwhelming power?

Books like The Hunger Games and Divergent speak to young people’s need to matter in a world that has very little use for them except as consumers. But how can we expect them to be anything but consumers when heroism and rebellion are presented to them as impossible fantasies with no basis in the real world? What can we give them that will keep them from being consumed by the bigotry and violence currently showing its face in Virginia?

Publishing a fantasy about slavery just doesn’t seem important right now.

Privileged Lives — Chapter two, Part two, Bennett

Chapter one starts here

More banging, louder this time. “I’m coming, damn it! Hold your horses.”
He opened the door and almost got a fist in the face. “What were you going to do next, break it down?” he yelled at the soldier who’d been about to knock again.

The man stepped back and was brushed aside by another soldier. “Bennett Sanders?” Bennett nodded and his protest was cut off before it began. “From now on, you’ll do as you’re told and speak when you’re given permission. Is that clear?”

“Looks like I woke up in the wrong damn country this morning.” Bennett was almost too angry to care what the response was, but when the soldier grabbed his shirt and pushed him roughly backward away from the door, violence from these people was, in an instant, within the realm of possibility.

“Okay, men. Spread out.”

“What the hell’s going on? What are they doing?”

The soldier whipped around and glared at him. “They’re searching. You might be hiding someone. Didn’t you read the info?”

“Yeah, I did. But you could have just asked me.”

“And if you’re hiding someone?”

“Oh, for God’s sake.” Bennett gave up, frustrated. Arguing wasn’t going to get him anywhere. “Hey! What are you doing with my stuff?”

His duffle had been dumped out on the couch and a soldier was pawing through his belongings.

“Tell him to take his hands off my stuff. It’s none of his damned business what I take with me.”

“Clothes and personal items only. The computer isn’t personal. It stays here.”

“It is personal. My whole life is on it. My writing. Everything. I can’t just leave it here. Someone might steal it while I’m gone.”

The soldier who seemed to be in charge grinned. “You aren’t going to have any time for writing, believe me. And I wouldn’t count on coming back.”
The bald statement hit Bennett like a fist. It was the difference between speculating about something that might never happen, and being faced with the reality. But he couldn’t lose his computer. “If I’m not coming back, then I have to take it.”

When he reached out for it, his hand was knocked away. The soldier snatched the computer from the couch and dropped it on the floor. While Bennett watched, horrified, he slammed his boot heel into it. “Okay, take it with you.”
Bennett backed away. This wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be happening. It felt like one of those videos where soldiers broke into houses in far off countries and destroyed stuff randomly—just because they could.

“I thought you were so hot to have it.”

What could he say? Half his life had just been destroyed, right in front of his eyes. Bennett stared blankly at the soldier, his mind numbed by everything that had happened in the last half hour.

“No? Okay, let’s stop playing around. Keep your mouth shut and put everything back in. Let’s go, let’s go!”

* * *

Do they seriously think I’m going to try to escape? Walking to the truck, his duffle slung over his shoulder, a soldier walked on each side of him with another one following. He climbed in and found he wasn’t the first one to be collected. The truck was half full already. Bennett sat on one of the benches and dropped his bag between his feet. The three soldiers who’d brought him out were already gone, undoubtedly on their way to another capture. I’ve been captured. By the enemy. With the loss of his computer, everything of importance to him had been abruptly stripped away. He felt himself slipping into a new mindset: a prisoner. Maybe if the asshole hadn’t crushed it underfoot, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but that one act, so deliberate in its arrogance and power, made him wonder if it was the model for what he had to expect from now on.

He couldn’t even summon up any more indignation. He closed his eyes and let himself drift, aware, but not really paying attention as more men climbed into the truck. For a little while, at least, it had nothing to do with him.

“Okay, that’s it for this batch. Let’s go.”

The voice was almost simultaneous with the truck’s back gate being slammed shut. The sudden noise jerked Bennet back into the present. Two soldiers with rifles occupied the seats next to the tailgate, their weapons held to block anyone trying to approach it. Bennett thought it was unlikely that anyone would try. It wasn’t just the rifles. He’d be surprised if there was anyone not in a state of shock. He let his glance slide over the faces of the men opposite him. Shock and fear. That’s really all it took. Had he tripped the one soldier’s temper, or was intimidation a standard part of the operation?

He looked out the back just in time to catch a last glimpse of his house, already looking abandoned. They hadn’t even given him time to lock the door behind him. Did it matter? If anyone wanted to get in and the door was locked, all they’d have to do was smash it in. What he’d seen in old newsreels of foreign occupations, and bad movies had given him only a glimpse of the possibilities. He looked down at his duffle and let his eyes roam over the collection of backpacks, suitcases, and even a plastic garbage bag, that the other men had brought with them. It was possible that this was now all any of them owned. His mind refused to go any further with such speculations. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes again, and leaned back against the wall of the truck.

He hadn’t given any thought about where they might be going, and when the truck stopped in the high school parking lot and they were ordered out, he found himself only mildly curious. It was an unexpected destination, but at least it wasn’t an open field surrounded by barbed wire, and he was grateful that his memory had waited to bring up that particular image. They were herded through the front door, accompanied by a contingent of armed soldiers that had been stationed by the front entrance. There were no rifles in sight now, but the soldiers all wore sidearms, and Bennett had the vague thought that he should be worried about it.

As they trudged up the stairs to the second floor, the familiarity of his surroundings warred with the strangeness of the circumstances. He’d taught in some of the classrooms that they passed as they were escorted along the hallway. He straightened up from the slouch he’d fallen into and looked around. Most of the doors were open. In In every room, cots, each one with a pillow and a folded blanket at the foot, took the place of desks. They stopped at room 206, and all Bennett could think about was that he’d never taught a class in this room.

“Okay, men,” someone said, as they filed in. “Pick a cot and put your belongings under it. The rules are on the blackboard. You’re free to walk around on this floor. The stairwells are guarded, so don’t even think about trying to leave. You’re here to work, and the daily assignments will be posted on the blackboard last thing every evening. You’ll be taken down to the cafeteria for meals. Lunch is in a couple of hours, so I hope you have good appetites.” The soldier grinned at them. “We’ll be taking attendance every morning when you get up, when you come back from work, and before lights out. It’s gonna be just like school, kiddies.”

And then the soldiers were gone. Most of the men, Bennett included, stood like abandoned objects, the decision of which cot to choose momentarily too difficult. Bennett shook himself, scrunched his shoulders up and down, and headed for the row at the back of the room. He dropped his duffle, shoved it under the cot closest to the windows, and sat down. So this is it. We’re workers. The questions started popping up. What kind of workers do they need? All I know how to do is teach. Will they care, or do we just get assigned randomly? He shut it off. Too many questions and no way to get any answers. Yet. He’d be patient. There really wasn’t any choice. Be patient or go crazy.

Lunch was a typical school food. Had the cooks also been absorbed into the R & C world? If so, meals weren’t going to be anything to look forward to. But he didn’t hear any complaints. It occurred to him that they’d all been pretty quiet. But that couldn’t last. Once everyone had gotten over the shock and absorbed the current reality, they’d probably start complaining and trying to figure out what the hell was going on. After lunch, they went back upstairs to room 206, 14 very subdued men, accompanied, just as they had been going down, by two armed soldiers. Bennett came to the conclusion, not a difficult exercise, that the only time they wouldn’t be under guard was when they were in this room.

Crappy food or not, the meal seemed to have brought a few of the men back from wherever they’d gone into hiding in their heads, and a couple of conversations started up as soon as they were left to themselves. There was no way not to listen in, and Bennett tried to pick up any information he could. But the talk was mostly questions and complaints, just as he’d figured., They were all desperate to know what was going to happen to them, but nobody had anything to offer except guesses. As a conversation near him came to a limping halt, one of the men lay down on his cot, his arm over his eyes. The other one wandered over to Bennett and stuck out his hand.

“Hi, George Grodin. I guess we’re stuck in the same boat.”

“Yeah, I guess we are. Bennett Sanders.” Bennett gave the hand a brief shake.

“Any idea what the hell’s going on here?” Grodin shifted back and forth and Bennett noticed that his hands were clenching and unclenching. He hoped the guy was just nervous and not looking for a fight. He probably outweighed Bennett by about 80 pounds and looked like he worked out regularly.
Bennett shook his head. “If you read that paper they dropped off, you know as much as I do. All I can do is guess, just like everyone else. We’ll be working. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. At least we won’t be sitting around twiddling our thumbs.”

“Yeah. I get antsy if I’m not moving. You know? D’you think there’s any chance of getting out of here? I mean out of town. My ex is expecting me to visit my daughter this weekend. She’s gonna be pissed when I don’t show up.”

“Are you talking about escaping? Not a good idea. Remember that stuff about necessary force? I wouldn’t be surprised if that means a bullet in the head.”
Grodin squinted as if he was in pain. “Do you think they have real bullets in those guns?”

Bennett couldn’t believe he was having this conversation. Grodin was lacking something upstairs, for sure. “They’re military. I’d guess that if they’re carrying guns, they’re loaded. With live ammunition.”

Grodin nodded, looking sad. “Not much point in trying to see my daughter if it’s just gonna get me shot.” He wandered off to a cot on the other side of the room, and Bennett gave a sigh of relief. He lay down with his back to the room, hoping that would be enough to discourage any more attempts at conversation. He drifted in and out of a light doze, coming alert at the sound of a large number of feet. Turning over, he saw two newcomers, and two soldiers on their way out the door. The new men stood there for a minute, looking just as lost as he and the rest of the first batch had been, before claiming the remaining cots. He hadn’t bothered to count the cots, but now he saw that there were 16 of them. He tried to remember how many rooms there were on this floor. Was every unattached man in the town going to be housed here? Sooner or later, he hoped, he’d run into someone he knew and would actually be willing to spend some time with. But right now, he just wanted to be left alone. He rolled back onto his side and shut his eyes.

Privileged Lives — Chapter two, Part one, Bennett

Starts here — Chapter one, Part one, Linden

“What the…?” Bennett struggled out of a dream in which someone outside was yelling, into a day in which someone was yelling, even louder. “It’s Saturday. Can’t a guy be allowed to sleep?” He groaned, and his feet hit the floor as his hand reached for the clock. “Seven o’clock? Can’t be. Why’s it so dark?”

He pulled his robe on, staggered to the window, and opened the blind. No wonder it looked almost like the middle of the night. He still hadn’t managed to accustom himself to autumn’s shorter days; and now this. It was drizzling and the solid gray overcast said this wasn’t going to be a beautiful day. Another not-beautiful day. And the idiot who’d woke him up was still at at it. Probably a drunk just getting home from a beer brawl.

He stumbled into the living room, his body not yet really awake. The curtain over the front window defied him for a moment, but with a bit of fumbling, he managed to get it open. The view from the front of the house wasn’t any more cheerful. And the noise was even louder now, tearing apart what should have been a peaceful Saturday morning. He was beginning to pick out some words when he saw where the noise was coming from—a jeep parked halfway down the block. Right in the middle of the street, too.

“Who the hell do they think they are?” His ears and eyes seemed to come into focus at the same time, and a little thrill of alarm hit him. Big red letters on the back end of the jeep said ‘R & C’. The noise was coming through a megaphone held by a uniformed man in the jeep.

“. . . and stay in your homes. Keep calm, please.”

Before Bennett could start processing the fragments of information, a sharp knock at the door forced a startled groan out of him. “Right! I can see this is going to be a great day. At least they could have waited until I’d had my first cup of coffee. Hold on a sec, will you?” he yelled.

He opened the door just in time to see a man—another uniformed man, cut across his lawn and head for the next house. What the hell is with those uniforms? And he couldn’t wait for someone to answer the door? He started to close the door, shaking his head in irritation, and happened to look down. On the mat was a sheet of paper, already damp and starting to wrinkle. He picked it up and looked around the neighborhood. He noticed now that the man—a soldier?—had a stack of the things and was going from house to house, dropping them off. Ken Hanson, his next-door neighbor, was standing on his porch, holding one, looking puzzled. Up and down the block, people were watching from their front room windows, or standing in their doorways, looking puzzled or angry. Ken noticed him and frowned, waving the sheet of paper. Bennett raised his shoulders in a ‘don’t know’ shrug and went back inside.
Saturday mornings had been blessedly peaceful lately, thanks to the grass that had stopped growing, or had up and died in the summer heat and drought. There was no longer any reason for obnoxious neighbors to bounce out of bed at the crack of dawn and crank up their lawnmowers. It was too good to last.

Bennett tossed the paper in the general direction of the coffee table, and went to put the coffee on. He would have killed for a cup of real coffee, but he couldn’t afford it anymore, except as an occasional treat. He measured out the coffee substitute and the water and sat down at the kitchen table, waiting for the pot to do its thing. He put his head in his hands, wishing he was still asleep, then jumped up, remembering the mysterious paper waiting to be read.

He went back to the living room, almost fully awake now, but feeling the full impact of having been jerked out his sleep. The crumpled paper was face down on the floor. Bennett Picked it up, turned it over, read the big, bold letters at the top, and flopped down on the couch in shock.

“Reclamation & Conservation Corps. The municipality of Cypressville is now under martial law. Read and comply.”

“Martial law? What the hell happened?” Bennett muttered. “I knew I should have watched the news last night. Don’t tell me the conspiracy nutsos finally got it right and we’ve been attacked. Nah. This has to be some kind of joke. Those guys should be out fighting the real enemy, not dicking around in the suburbs.” He went to look out the window again. The men in the jeep were armed, rifles at the ready. They were certainly prepared for something, whatever it was.

It wasn’t an invasion, he realized, with a sick feeling, as memories clicked in. Reclamation & Conservation was the newest branch of the military. He’d always had the feeling, watching the clips and listening to interviews with R & C officers, that it was all propaganda, covering up something that would turn out to be unpleasant if the truth ever got out. Like just about everything that passed for news these days.

He started to read the rest of the sheet, just as the coffee maker beeped. He took the paper with him to the kitchen and laid it on the table, face down again. He didn’t really want to know what it said. As long as he didn’t read it, everything would stay just like it was. The words at the top didn’t really mean anything.

“Yeah,” he growled. “And the soldier with the horn didn’t wake you up this morning, and the jeep in the middle of the street is just a hallucination.”

He could still hear the voice, but more faintly now. They must have moved on down the street. Were there jeeps on other streets, and soldiers dropping those papers off in other neighborhoods? He wasn’t going to think about it without at least one cup of coffee under his belt.

But two cups later, he still wasn’t ready. He got dressed, went back to the living room, and looked out the window to see if there was any activity. Everything looked just as it normally would on a rainy morning. Except—every car was still parked in the driveways. Earl Baker usually took off for the bakery first thing every Saturday morning. The guy claimed that he couldn’t start his weekend without fresh bagels. But his car was still there. Bennett hadn’t heard the old rattletrap starting up, and there was no way to sleep through that, so Earl hadn’t already gone and come back. A couple of the neighbors usually worked on Saturdays, and their cars were still sitting there.

A sick feeling gathered in his gut. He turned around and looked at the paper still lying on the kitchen table. He had to read it sometime. “Martial law,” he said out loud. The words still hadn’t lost their shock value. He made himself go back to the kitchen and pick the damn thing up. He skimmed rapidly over what was beginning to look like the end of his life, of everything he knew.

The news programs had concentrated on the reclamation and restoration part, but there was more that they’d tried to pretend wasn’t that interesting or important. Sure, its mission was reclaiming land for reforestation and farming, like they said. But once in a while, a nosey newsperson asked enough uncomfortable questions that a few more unimportant details came out. To carry out its mission, R & C had the authority to move people out of far-flung suburbs and small towns and resettle them in more heavily populated areas. That’s what reclamation really meant. After all, you couldn’t reclaim land that somebody was sitting on. R & C could also draft anyone it needed to work in the achievement of its goals. And who knew what the hell that meant? Reporters’ attempts to find out were simply brushed aside.

Is that what’s happening? It can’t be. Not here. Not in Cypressville! ‘All roads in and out of Cypressville are now closed. No one will be allowed to come in to the town, or leave. Attempts to leave will be met with all necessary force. Stay in your homes until you are given further instructions.’ It’s an occupying force, Bennett realized. We’ve been occupied! It had been so easy to turn off the TV and forget about it. But this isn’t TV and I can’t turn it off.

On and on, the horror went, in small print. Including the part that told him he was going to be a participant, whether he wanted to be or not. ‘All single men are to pack one bag with clothes and personal necessities, and wait to be picked up.’ Bennett shuddered. Picked up for what purpose? He suddenly understood the terror of people whose countries were occupied by foreign forces. But these were his own countrymen! It couldn’t be that bad. It couldn’t be happening at all, some part of him screamed.

He thought about just refusing to pack, refusing to cooperate. Then he remembered the rifles. Martial law meant that anyone who refused to cooperate could be arrested. Would they even bother with court martials? For non-military citizens? Did necessary force mean they’d just take you out and shoot you? It would be stupid to take that chance, he decided. Better to wait and see what was really happening, and deal with things as they come up.

But sweet reason was having a hard time coping with such an outrageous impossibility. “This can’t be happening!” Bennett moaned. He was a citizen of the United States. He shouldn’t have to think about things like whether to resist and whether that could get him shot. Is this what’s been happening in all those places they’ve shown, where R & C is planting trees and ploughing fields? He could understand claiming any open spaces where trees and food could be grown, but why boot people out of their homes and move them somewhere else? That just didn’t make sense.

It made sense to put able-bodied people to work. They needed people to help them get the job done. But it would just be temporary, wouldn’t it? The more Bennett thought about it, the stronger his sense of relief became. Sure, after the work was done, he’d come back home. And then it hit him. Relocation. What if they weren’t here just to collect workers? What if Cypressville was going to be reclaimed? There would be nothing for him to come back to. Everybody would be gone, their houses empty.

He jumped up from the couch and rushed to the bathroom. He made it, just in time to spew out the two cups of coffee and whatever was left in his stomach from last night’s supper. Shaking and as cold as if the temperature around him had dropped twenty degrees, he knelt by the toilet, trying to find something to make all this not be true.

A little later, he sat at the kitchen table, listening to the coffee maker’s familiar sounds as it pumped out fresh brew. He thought about the price of real coffee, about all the foods he’d had to stop buying because they were too expensive for him to afford any more, luxury items for the rich. He thought about all the things he knew and had tried to ignore, and all the things that the government was probably hiding. There was no room for denial any more. Things had to be a lot worse than anybody had let on if the army could come into a town and declare martial law.

He’d imagined his future as an unexciting but familiar continuation of the path he’d followed for the last few years. Instead, it was now a dark hole full of uncertainties. Mentally, he walked through his little house, cataloging his possessions, none of which would be worth much to anyone else. What would happen to his home and his belongings while he was gone? Would he be coming back, and if not, where would he go after it was all over? He’d never tried to imagine himself as a displaced person, but it now seemed possible that might be part of the unknowable future.

People were displaced by war, by drought, by the coastal flooding that came with the rising oceans. But they weren’t displaced by their own government. Not in America. Wasn’t it one of the sacred maxims of this country that people were safe from arbitrary disruptions of their lives? That they were safe in their homes? As he sat there, Bennett started remembering news stories about doors smashed down and people dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night. That had been going on for years. People would get indignant, but it was always explained as an unfortunate mistake, an innocent person with the same name as someone wanted by the police, a wrong address. Sometime there was apologies, but not always. After a while, it hardly even made the news.

He scrambled two eggs and poured a cup of coffee. But when he sat down at the table, his stomach threatened to revolt again. He scraped the eggs into the garbage, poured the coffee into the sink, and went into the living room, too numb to make any decisions. He didn’t know how long he’d sat there, his head in his hands, when the rumble of a vehicle brought him to his feet. A truck, its back roofed over with canvas, came to a stop in almost exactly the same spot where the jeep had been. Half a dozen soldiers got out and spread out along the sidewalks, while two soldiers with rifles at the ready stood by the back.

“Oh God, it’s really happening!” Bennett ran to the bedroom and pulled his old duffle out of the closet. “One bag? What can I squeeze in besides clothes? Damn it! Why are they doing this?” He grabbed a random assortment of clothes out of the closet and drawers, toiletries from the bathroom, and found that, thank goodness, there was enough room for his laptop. His half-finished novel was on there, and on a memory stick that he grabbed and stuck in his pocket. He could still squeeze in some books, but there wasn’t much time to make up his mind what to take.

Suddenly, there was no time at all. He heard a knock at the front door and a shouted “Open up, Sanders.” His heart skipped a beat, then started to race. They knew his name. They must know everybody’s name, then. And where they’d be. He grabbed the duffle and dropped it by the couch on his way to the door.

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.

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.

Treasure for SF Writers: Creeping Dystopia

“Creeping dystopia” came to me yesterday as a way of describing more likely future  scenarios than the oh so popular and mostly fantasy-based post-apocalyptic scenarios that would-be-SF writers churn out. Creeping dystopias can result in conditions just as catastrophic as those of the PA variety, and probably will, but they will do it more slowly. They will also be more difficult to see, particularly for those writers who draw their inspiration from movies and television.

If you don’t bother to read fact-based articles on climate change, you are probably unaware that conditions at both the poles are changing so rapidly that predictions for sea rise are constantly being revised–for the worse. You may be unaware that millions of trees in the US are dying or already dead, due to drought, and to damage and disease from insects accidentally imported from other countries, and which are thriving in the warmer temperatures at increasing high altitudes. You may not know that increasing numbers of animal species are in danger because their food supplies are changing their migration and seasonal blooming patterns.

These are “little” details that don’t interest the mainstream media because it’s assumed they won’t interest the public. But small details add up to cumulative effects that will eventually reaching tipping points. Only when such a point is reached will the public take notice, and then the world will scream about an apocalypse, as if it was a sudden event, all the while wondering how the hell this happened. No wonder writers prefer pandemics and meteor strikes–thrills and chills, dread anticipation, and the creation of heroes who single-handedly save the world.

Watching the real world change is too much like watching paint drying. The public is trained to want ACTION, to be thrilled with the horrors of what might be but that will always remain in the safe world of fantasy. And most SF writers are happy to pander to that desire.

“Creeping dystopia” shouldn’t be just a term I thought up. It should, but probably won’t, be a call to action for SF writers.

Free Download of Climate Change Anthology

Everything Change, an anthology of climate fiction short stories is now available in either PDF or ePub format from Arizona State University. Twelve stories, with a forward by Kim Stanley Robinson, and an interview with Paolo Bacigalupi. I downloaded the PDF version a couple of minutes ago, so I can’t say anything about the quality of the stories, but with two well-known SF authorts attaching their names to it, it isn’t likely to disappoint. The stories are winners in a contest held by Arizona State.

It’s somewhat interesting that it will also be available soon in Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo digital book stores, but no mention of Amazon. Makes sense if they’re planning to keep the book free, and available in as many stores as possible. Maybe there will be a Kindle version somewhere down the road.

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Oh, that eternal question that besieges writers. Why would anyone even ask unless they can’t dream up ideas with any regularity (if they’re writers) or stand in awe of such mysterious creativity (if they’re readers)? What’s mysterious to me is why anyone would sign up for something like NaNoWriMo and then post on the forums complaining that they can’t think of a good idea for a novel.

You just never know where a story idea is going to come from. In my world, they crawl out of the woodwork, pop up from drains, blow in with the wind, populate the spaces between the lines of almost every news story that I read. They’re like bedbugs in being where you’d least expect them (fine hotels are the physical world equivalent) and it’s impossible to stop them breeding.

I do not need any more story ideas. I do not want any more story ideas. But the little monsters keep coming. The latest one just sprang from a blog post by Peter Watts, one of my favorite SF writers (and thinkers). The bulk of the post (you can skip the intro about his dental implant) was about The Walking Dead, a show that I probably wouldn’t watch even if I still had a tv. But that didn’t keep me from reading.

“…those who complain about the lather-rinse-repeat cycle of Sanctuary-found-Sanctuary-Lost are completely missing the point. It’s almost as though they think The Walking Dead is a show about zombies or something.

“It’s not, of course. It never has been, any more than The Road was about asteroid impacts. The Walking Dead is about lifeboat ethics— about what people are willing to do, to sacrifice, to stay alive.”
Modern life is increasingly becoming about lifeboat ethics, and that simple idea can lead in many directions, including some very bizarre ones. Watts goes on to say, “(Here’s a new direction for you: The Bobbing Dead, the upcoming second season of the WD spin-off Fear the Walking Dead. Survivors on yachts, safe from zombie depredations until bacterial methane bloats enough walkers to let them float out to sea after the escapees. Tell me you saw that coming.)”

And there it is, another plot bunny, bedbug, story idea. No, not floaters. I’ll leave that to Watts. Lifeboat ethics and the coming great flood of climate change. We know there will come a day when tourists visit Miami via scuba diving gear, but what will happen when incoming waters chase the very rich out of their seaside gated compounds? Will they settle peaceably for having one less mansion? Maybe, but not likely. After all, the whole point of living on the Florida coast is access to sun and surf. They’re entitled to private beaches. Their bank accounts tell them so.

Their bank accounts always come in handy when dealing with local bureaucrats, and this dire situation is no different. Suddenly, inlandish neighborhoods are condemned for reasons that you have to be a lawyer to understand. Clear the bastards out, tear down their pathetic middle class shacks, and rebuild to your own specifications. Lifeboat ethics at its very best.

Thank you, Peter Watts.

When Future Fiction Becomes Today’s Headline

This was originally a very short post that I wrote for Google+. I’ve expanded it to reflect how I’ve been thinking about near-future science fiction as a form of prediction. And how that was suddenly forced to change. It’s possible to write about one specific set of facts and give them many different outcomes, none of which will actually happen. SF sometimes attempts to be predictive, but it’s more pure luck than prescience at play when that pans out.

The novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo this year is taken from news headlines and from quieter news that was barely noticed at the time I started working on it. It looks into a future about 40 or 50 years on, assuming that some current trends would continue and have major consequences. I’ve been working on it for a couple of years, off and on, making notes, doing research, thinking about what I want it to show and say.

There was no way that I could imagine its central idea showing up in real life any time in the very near future. Or in today’s news. I don’t know how to feel about it when I write a detail that I’ve never read about anywhere, and then see something very similar in the news.  The novel is set in a male-only internment camp, since separating single men from refugee women, children, and families is supposed to make the so-called transit camps safer.

The headline that provoked this post: “Canada’s Syrian refugee plan limited to women, children and families.” Single Syrian men will not be allowed to enter Canada. Granted, parallel isn’t exact. The current threats are far more serious than those in my novel, but it’s still disturbing, and not something I imagined could come about in today’s world. But that was naive of me, since it already happened, during WWII. While Japanese/American men were fighting in our armed services, their families and friends were being viewed as possible traitors and rounded up to be locked away in internment camps.  Japanese-Americans, both naturalized citizens and American-born, were torn from their homes and their jobs and treated like prisoners of war. Most of them lost everything they had worked for over the years, as their homes and possessions were stolen or sold off.

The parallel between the men of my novel and the Syrian men currently being denied admission to Canada is exact in one way: they are all refugees. My characters are homeless, having lost their livelihoods in a collapsing economy, or driven from the coasts by rising waters as climate change continues on its destructive path. News headlines that we see today are predicting the future when masses of refugees, whether from climate change, economic failure, or war, try to find safety somewhere far away from their troubles, and are refused, just as they are being refused today. We will see more internment camps, more mass drownings, and more murders as a response to “invasions” by foreigners.

 

NaNoWriMo – Seven Billion and Counting

I guess it’s kind of appropriate — the official announcement that world population has reached 7 billion comes one day before NaNoWriMo starts and I begin my science fiction novel. While the world celebrates the birth of the seven billionth baby, an event that should be mourned, I’ll be examining a near-future world in which sheer desperation has driven more than one government to institute compulsory sterilization programs.

Some form of population control is in our future, even though it will be too little and too late. What form it will take is unpredictable. Will it be China’s unsuccessful ban on more than one child in a family, or something more draconian? And just how desperate do we have to become before people understand that the right to have as many children as you want can’t continue?

Discussions of population concentrate on the reduction in family size over the last few decades, even in some nations that have historically encouraged large families. That’s supposed to be good news. But it ignores the reality that the reduction isn’t enough to stop the increase in world population, and that population will continue to increase, even if the rate of increase slows down.

A factor that’s seldom taken into account and certainly never mentioned by mainstream media is the coming impact of global climate change. Disease vectors are changing, some of them spreading to new areas of the world. The eventual flood of climate refugees will overload some areas, bringing people into ever closer contact and making serious epidemics far more common. Food shortages will place more people under the threat of malnutrition and susceptibility to disease. In short, we have created a world in which we have returned to Nature the power to control population.

Some day, we might understand that the personal and political concerns that have made real population control impossible were the cause of the worldwide suffering that is bound to come.

Irene and NaNoWriMo

I don’t generally expect Mother Nature to come along and lend a hand with my novel research, but that may happen this weekend. I’ll try to keep the novel in mind as the next couple of jittery days go by until I know exactly how much damage a hurricane can do this far inland — about 55 miles from the Atlantic coast. One reason I never quite finished my 2009 NaNo novel was the research for the hurricane chapter. I have the memories of living through several strong hurricanes, but those are a child’s memories. And the state was Florida, where hurricanes sweep through in all their awesome force.

The novel supposed that climate change was devastating the US and that hurricanes had changed their nature, becoming stronger, and taking paths that they don’t normally take. When a declining inland town in the northeast is sideswiped by one of these monsters, the devastation seals its fate and sends its residents scattering to seek new, less dangerous lives. I have no background for the effects of a hurricane’s outer winds on a town full of wood-frame Victorian houses. Hence the delay.

Climate change and hurricanes are, of course, only one of the features of modern life that most of us would rather ignore as long as possible. But head-in-the-sand has never worked very well, especially when it comes to change that comes slowly and seems less critical — at least until it bursts over our heads and turns our lives upside down.

This year’s NaNo novel will cover different but equally devastating change, the kind that is at work right now, largely obscured by sensational headlines focusing on personalities and exciting events rather than on meaning or long-term consequences. I have to wonder just how much of it will already have shown its teeth by the time the novel had gone through several drafts and a final editing.

May you live in interesting times.