I celebrated my tenth birthday ten years after the first lunar landing, a decade and change removed from the Summer of Love. By 1979, hippies had lost ground to gold chains and disco balls, and, though three in five boys still aspired to be astronauts when they grew up, the profession had suffered a credibility crisis when it appeared as though lunar missions were a thing of the past in favor of orbital surveys. I courted the idea of committing to astronaut training like my three best friends (one third grader had already chosen dentistry and another was destined for the family hardware store), but the summer before my fourth grade year, in between doodles of my inexplicable fascination with factories billowing smoke from giant chimney stacks, I settled on “writer” for my when-I-grow-up profession.
After I purchased (my mom purchased) my first typewriter at a garage sale, I hunt-and-pecked my way through a muddy mess of a “novel,” a disjointed wreck that only a ten-year-old can produce. With this accomplishment behind me, I determined that success as a writer would depend on whether I’d have my first novel published by my twenty-first birthday (insert moment for laughter to subside), an arbitrary line drawn as a subconscious method of forcing me to chose a more attainable goal like astronaut training.
I turned twenty-one at a bar in Southern Spain without a single thought of the great novel that never materialized. After a failed first attempt at college, a stint in the Construction Battalion, a hitch as a short order cook, construction of a zero-emission vehicle, a degree in physics, a career in software, over a hundred short stories, two books, three agents, countless rides on the publication roller coaster, and three plus decades later, my first novel has scratched itself to the surface, inspired by the doodles of my fourth grade year. And the smoke that filled the page in those drawings still lingers over Jonesbridge like a closed door to the sky. In the unlikely event that I had qualified for and endured the arduous program of astronaut training, I think Jonesbridge would still have bubbled to the surface, but perhaps with a little less rust.
I am often asked where my inspiration comes from. How do I choose what to write about. I wish I had a good answer for that question, but the smokestacks I drew as a ten-year-old have never let me rest. So began my circuitous path to Jonesbridge and its two companion novels, stories that I hope are seasoned with the same determination and survival instincts as the process they endured in coming to be. So, If you’ve run out of gas on a stretch of road where the telephone poles have turned to pillars of salt and you reach at last the intersection where history meets the future, take off your shoes, wade into the ditch, pull aside the carrion and you’ll find the way to Jonesbridge.
The sky is your canvas, and on a clear day, a clean cerulean slate with which to work. Every decision affects the composition of your masterpiece: a valley cut by a river, sandwiched between strip-mined hills. Smokestacks should be spread apart for maximum coverage and staggered, allowing the roiling gray clouds, each on a unique trajectory and column of air, to facilitate collisions in unexpected ways, whipping up a black dragon to swallow the sky, the setting sun an opaque disk in its throat, its tail reaching beyond the horizon carried by a breeze. This allows soot, the moss of progress, to gather from ashen rain on the leeward sides of the stacks.
Your complex must have access to a body of water, preferably a river, one with a ponderous current, almost stagnant, not diluting but churning your chemical soup, allowing it to seep into the water table, perhaps even leaving ochreous rings in the drinking water tanks. Shimmering eddies of heavy metals swirl along the shore, the stain glass on your cathedral to production, fish scales, metallic green and orange, the colors of the war machine.
Your plant must also find itself in calm, settling air, a valley perhaps where wind will not dissipate so quickly your contribution to the sky. Fog and mist rising from the warm water, air heavy with vapor and smoke, must meet in the middle, must join and fuse as though your valley cups in its hands, the fruits of production…
One for all, and ALL for Industry! In Jonesbridge, they have perfected the art of pollution. Take a deep cleansing breath of sulfur dioxide, taste the iron. Wander through the soot-cloaked streets of brick, once red, as the gargoyles of Industry peer over the factory roofs. Stroll the alleyways of war wreckage in the salvage pit where you might find a relic of the Old Age and a hint to the magic their technology wielded, and if the sky clears long enough to see the Great Gorge, stare into the horizon dreaming of the world beyond.
On Monday July 20th, I appeared on the program Hearsay with Cathy Lewis on NPR Virginia talking all things Jonesbridge. I come in at about the 32 minute mark, but the whole show is great worth a listen especially if you’re an Orange is the New Black fan.
Listen to the Podcast of the July 20th show.
Our screens stare back at us as we divulge our family secrets, what we’ve eaten and where, what the weather has done to our plans, how proud we are of our children, how angry our parents make us, how the headlines have ruined our otherwise fantastic day. We reveal our opinions on politics, religion, race, gender, and our conviction in, or our denial of, climate change, sharing day and night with people that, if they exist, we may or may not know, like, or understand. We do this between taking selfies and filming the police, while dining or going to the bathroom, while under the spell of our hand held electronic devices that link us to the breadth of human knowledge and the depth of human conceit — all beneath the omnipresent eye of advertisers and no fewer than fifteen Big Brothers tracking our digital movements, cataloging our preferences, searching our dissent, compiling mindprints of us all, willing participants. Why then would we create new dystopian worlds when our own reads like an Orwellian sequel?
In a society where the news cycle delivers daily tidings of mass shootings, city-leveling earthquakes, terrorism, environmental disasters, and genocide, in our entertainment, many of us still hunger for tales of post-apocalyptic misery and dystopian worlds. Confronted with the question of why, as someone who both writes and reads dystopian novels, the answer does not come to me as easily as I imagine it should.
I first picked up a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four as a freshman in high school–in 1984–the same year of Van Halen’s epic album of the same name. As 1984 came and went, we had some fun at Orwell’s expense, with the same derision the media had in 2012 for the Mayan calendar misinterpretation of the apocalypse. “Hot for Teacher” would blast from our jam boxes for another year before I revisited Orwell as required reading and again as an adult three decades later until I came to the conclusion that the title was the only misstep in Orwell’s prescient masterpiece. The similarities are uncanny from Osama Bin Laden as a Goldstein-esque enemy of the state, to the constant surveillance under the Patriot Act and Homeland Security, but there were no selfie sticks in Air Strip One, and if the cameras ever stopped watching in modern America we would shrivel up and die from lack of attention. Dystopian novels are not and should not be in the prediction game other than the reliability of humans to be humans.
Eighty-three years have passed since the publication of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian canon Brave New World in 1932. Huxley, whose face would go in the prominent position of George Washington on a Mount Rushmore of dystopian authors (though some would argue that Yevgeny Zamyatin deserves this position), preceded Orwell by seventeen years, and upon receiving a copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Huxley agreed with the critics and praised Orwell’s work, but went on to explain to Orwell, in a letter, why Brave New World’s vision of the future was a more sensible and probable approach to keeping control over the masses. He ends his legendary correspondence to Orwell with this statement: “Meanwhile, of course, there may be a large scale biological and atomic war — in which case we shall have nightmares of other and scarcely imaginable kinds.”
With this statement in 1949, Huxley paints the backdrop for the post-modern post-apocalyptic novel. Apocalyptic horrors that propel us toward our extinction are not always dreamed up from the sixty-sixth floor of a windowless office tower. We can imagine such events–we have witnessed them: the aftermath of Hiroshima, of Chernobyl and Fukishima, of famines in Sudan and wastelands where volcanoes have given the countryside a clean shave, earthquakes that have toppled cities and epidemics such as AIDS and ebola that have struck fear into the heart of our world. Drill down on any one of these, extrapolate their effects, and you find an apocalypse in the making.
Tethering the bones of the dreamed-up cultural cesspools and dystopian wastelands are sinews, no matter how tenuous, of optimism and hope. If a story exists, and is told, after the world has descended into ruin, that infers that something survived to tell the tale. These stories underscore our understanding of ourselves, that we are much more likely to overcome calamity than to avoid it. Perhaps our passion for dystopian fiction is a glimpse into the doomsday prepper that lives in each of us, a way we reassure ourselves of our own human will and capacity to survive anything.
The familiarity with our own time and place numbs our detection of the dystopia we live in, but we are acquainted with it. We read about it in the news, cry over it, squirm beneath the bureaucracies and injustices of police-state tactics and social inequality. We see it in the world. Dystopia resonates. It binds. The dystopian novel mimics microcosms of oppression found in all corners of our own world. It is a familiar song written in G-flat minor, performed in F-sharp major, foreign enough to make our ears twitch, keeping us enough at arm’s length to be entertained by our own folly, while still showing us our own resilience in the bleakness–road signs to how we can find beauty and hope in our world no matter what happens.
In one week, Jonesbridge: Echoes of Hinterland will finally be unleashed. In the meantime Entropy Magazine has put up an excerpt .
“As compelling dystopian novels must, ME Parker’s Jonesbridge reaches towards us with two arms, that of the familiar and that of the uncanny, and it’s impossible to decide which is the more disarming and disturbing. In propulsive prose that nonetheless carves out its own lyricism, Parker traces his characters’ trajectories as they seek transcendence from the mechanistic blueprints that have been veritably etched into their minds and onto their bodies. Yet transcend they do, finding in the scars of their condition the very glimmers by which they might navigate to elsewhere and otherwise. Parker keeps us riveted such that we feel triumphant in their fragile victories, conjoined and complicit in their fates, and ever-thankful that there are further volumes in which to dwell alongside them.” –Tim Horvath, Author of Understories
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Adnvace copies will not yet be rusted, but they might taste a bit salty. Pairs great with a barrel of beer.
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