Sunday, January 12, 2014

Among the Angels' Hierarchies: The Novel (Part II)

1. Seeds of the Novel: Apocalypse Where? ...and Garbage

                           "Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive."

                                                            Ursula LeGuin
                                                            Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness  

Looking back, I can see that the first seed of the novel was listening to a panel discussion called something like “writing the apocalypse in a time of apocalypse” at Wiscon (the world’s leading feminist science-fiction convention), back in 2004. I don’t remember specifics from the discussion (we’d been driving all day and I was pretty tired), but the question stuck with me.

How go about writing the apocalypse in these apocalyptic times?  

When I scan the news, I find that, for the most part, it’s mostly a technological, biological, and political freak show. Think about it: The US Congress is being held captive by men and women who believe that a white-bearded god created the earth about 6000 years ago; meanwhile, they lavishly fund projects like DARPA’s surveillance insects, created from the science they repudiate. Then there’s the horror of Transgenic Pigs and Web-Spinning Goats; Robot Jellyfish powered by a rat’s heart cells; Smart Billboards; “safe” memory erasure, and, of course, the great and powerful NSA data-suck programs, to name only a very few of the ‘sci-fi’ things currently out there.

How keep up? And is that even the point?

The best speculative fiction (Sci-fi, Fantasy, both together, and with various blends of other genres) is about what’s happening right now. As Ursula Le Guin once said: “Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.” Speculative fiction is a way of talking about THIS world, the one we’re living in right now. And I would say that because the world right now is so amazingly, tragically, and horrifically weird, speculative fiction may be one of the most useful ways of approaching it, of trying to make sense of it.

The second seed happened while driving home from work in the spring or summer of 2006, listening to the local public radio station. At that time, I was working at St. Vincent’s hospital in Santa Fe, in the medical records department. 
(Working in medical records was a bit like living inside a Kafka novel – The Trial or The Castle – but instead of being the desperate protagonist trying to find a way into or out of the labyrinth, I was one of the faceless bureaucrats working deep in the bowels of the system. I would like to believe that I did not act like a faceless bureaucrat, but the health care system is a vast, clanking, somewhat chaotic machine, dominated by insurance and pharmaceutical companies, and once you enter its domain as a worker-drone, it’s hard not to become assimilated...). 

 On that particular afternoon, the talk-show host was interviewing a journalist promoting a book about garbage (I’m pretty sure it was Heather Rogers’ Gone Tomorrow: The Hidden Life of Garbage; but it may have been Elizabeth Roylte’s Garbage Land…I can’t be certain.). During the interview, the host kept trying to get her to talk about what individuals can do to cut down on waste. It seemed that he was coming from the point of view that all the troubles of the world could be solved if each and every individual, on their own – but still participating in the economy – simply recycled. 

The problem with that belief is that it assents to the economy as it is: We can continue with the kinds of jobs, the kinds of corporations, the kinds of business practices that we currently have – we just need to throw in a little more green energy and social justice and everything will work out fine and dandy.

Ah, but you can’t run the economy – as it exists now – off green energy alone. It’s not going to happen. It is a child’s dream. It’s possible (some day) to have a more just, equitable and green economy (yes, I’m one of those dreamers…and I’m not the only one…), but it will not look like the one we have now. In fact, it will look different in different locales, bioregions, and cultures. And it will require that the Western world live a bit closer to the earth (I mean this literally...and in all senses). 

You can’t have limitless growth in a finite world. This is another child-like dream. Huge corporations, especially energy corporations, already understand this. That’s why they are making a violent and desperate grab for the last of the world’s resources (coal, oil, natural gas, arable land, water...). 

My memory is that the author of the book on garbage argued with the interviewer, saying that the corporate world (and the economy they control) was the major perpetrator of waste. Corporations, and those who benefit from the wealth they generate, are dependent on waste. Planned obsolescence is built into the system. Still, the interviewer doggedly insisted that we were all responsible, and that if we all did our part then surely something in the world would change.

What is wrong with this guy, I thought. Why is he unable to grasp what the author is saying – that the problem is systemic? That the problem is the result of the economic system itself? Half way home, it occurred to me that, just like those who deny climate change, his mind had faltered in the face of such a huge problem. He had stared into a terrible abyss and his mind had shut down. The only thing he could do was fall back on old ideas, spouting some of that good ole American optimism

I was reminded of those Micky Rooney/Judy Garland movies from the late 30’s, where the solution to all problems was to put on a show. Usually in someone’s barn. 



Problem solved!

This happens not just when we are confronted by the effects of the economic system on which we rely, but also when we are confronted by the gargantuan dismantling of our constitutional rights by the corporate influenced executive, legislative and judicial branches of the government; or by the forests, animals, and plants disappearing at a rate too vast for the human brain to process. When I look at the photos of the shrinking polar ice cap (almost nonexistent in summer) or see the videos of the giant ice shelves in Antarctica or Greenland falling into the sea, my mind wants to shut down. What do we do such information?

And yes, there have been catastrophes before (world wars, genocide, plagues), but we’re talking about the end of nature as we have known it since the dawn of man. The human brain, the human heart, the human spine, the human hand, all developed on a planet that now, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists. What do we do with that?

Denial is a very human response. Acceptance, and then becoming endlessly distracted by more trivial things, is also a tried and true response. Becoming depressed and withdrawing from the world (dosing yourself with antidepressants) is yet another response. These responses are all about escape. 

But there is no escape.

2. Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here: An Affirmation?

“When we talk about hopelessness and death, we’re talking about facing facts. No escapism. Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself, not to run away, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on. If we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”

                                                                        Pema Chödrön
                                                                        When Things Fall Apart   

Listening to that interview, I wondered at how I had compartmentalized the enormity of the situation. I drove across town, back and forth each day, to a job I did not like. The drivers in the cars ahead of me, behind me, were, for the most part, doing the same thing. No one was particularly happy. Everyone I knew was mostly living hand-to-mouth. Why continue? What was the point? 

Faces in the hospital, especially those eating in the cafeteria – workers or friends and relatives of patients – began to haunt me. I began to hear Blake’s London in my head every day while eating lunch:


By William Blake
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow. 
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear 

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls, 
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls 

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear 
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse. 

(It’s important to remember that in Blake’s time his use of the word chartered referred to chartered companies – what are now known as corporations. A good explanation of the poem can be found at the 21st Century Socialism site here)

So, I finally reached a point where everything had become impossible. How find a way out of that? I kept returning to that radio interviewer – his optimism, his hope – and how it seemed to be getting in the way of his ability to see the nature of the problem. What I eventually realized was that hope itself was getting in the way of seeing what was right there in front of us all.

So, to cut to the chase (finally!), it seemed to me that the only way out of this collapsing world was by abandoning all hope. We can’t leap over the terrible present by hoping for a just and green future. First, we have to look at what is. 

And what is?

We’re not living on the same planet we were fifty, one hundred, two hundred years ago. And, because we’ve spent so much time doing absolutely nothing about climate change, things are going to get quite a bit worse before they get better. We’re making too few changes far too late. (A great book on the subject of this new earth we’re living on is by Bill McKibben, called Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet)

NO! NO! 

Look away, look away! 

Oh Great Smiley Emoticon Save Us!

But, as I said before, there’s no escape. Not really. It is only by actually looking at what is that we can figure out what can be done. If we’re always trying to project ourselves out of this reality and into what can be – well, we’re lost.

And so, when I started to write the second novel, I landed on a strange, barren planet; one that looked remarkably like the one I was already on…


Next: Among the Angels’ Hierarchies, Part III
                        (A Question for the Damned: “So...what’s your novel about?”)

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