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.
As the young baseball season builds up a good head of steam, I thought that now would be a good time to ruminate on the idea of curses in baseball and how they originated and the raw science behind them.
Science, it sometimes seems, is nothing more than the belief that the universe is comprised of a succession of infinitely smaller particles rotating around relatively bigger ones. The word science descends from the Latin words for knowledge and cognizant, scientia and sciens, and as such, a scientist attempts to predict the behavior of systems using a series of principles built upon mathematical theory and experimentation. As with its philosophical cousin, religion, science would not exist without the inquisitive nature of humankind to fuel it with questions.
Why are we here? A religious person might ask. Not to be outdone, the scientist will counter with How are we here? And, as one would expect, the popular answers are diametrically opposed. Why: the will of a superior being. How: the evolution of an inferior one. Both may ask: What does any of this have to do with baseball?
So, while scientists toil away on the formulation of a Unified Theory of Everything that will unite the macro and quantum worlds, and religions hold fast to preserving mysterious non-answers in lieu of incomplete ones, perhaps the time has come for humankind to focus on a different set of questions, and in doing so, will provide the answers we apparently need to explain our universe. Figure 1.1, to the right, illustrates the effectiveness of this technique in the recent discovery of a unified theory and the answers we as humans have sought our entire existence. The main question: Way to the Chicago Cubs always lose. Enlarge the above image for the answers.
The Green movement, not unlike any other call for societal change, is propelled by one gallon of science, a pint of conscience, and two (or three) loads of bandwagon (what ultimately makes it a movement). This bandwagon–I’ll call it a “band-station-wagon” (maybe one of those mythical Chrysler electric vehicles), features a panda bear high-fiving a sea turtle on one side and a smokestack in the shape of a flower on the other, and it’s packed as tight as a clown car with well-meaning citizens who are as afraid of being associated with the “other side” as they are concerned for the environment.
You’ll find me somewhere in the backseat smoking an imaginary cigarette dreaming of a tobacco hybrid that releases zero-tar, oxygen-rich vitamin smoke when it burns.
As more passengers come along for the ride, cliques arise, factions form, and we sometimes find ourselves at odds. Environmentalists pushing renewable energy and energy independence applaud bio fuels and Brazil for their sugar cane diesel while the conservationists worry that the proliferation of sugar cane fields will encroach into if not destroy precious rainforest in the process. Electric cars reduce emissions in the city, but the electricity needed to recharge the battery is generated most likely at your neighborhood coal or gas burning electric power plant, not to mention that the manufacturing process for the batteries is not that environmentally friendly.
All the while, Papa Gore in the driver’s seat tries to convince scientists that the “warm up” isn’t just a statistical spike in the standard warming-cooling cycle from the last ice age. Even the zero-emission vehicle I helped develop as a proof of concept, a ’67 Volkswagen beetle (yes, again with a Volkswagen, Fahrvergnügen!) transformed to run on the expansion of liquid Nitrogen (“the cool car” we called it) would only truly be “green” if the energy expended to liquefy the Nitrogen were to have been generated using solar power or some other green fuel (reducing the “cool car” to simply an inefficient method of storing solar energy to use later).
And, a quick poll of fiction writers would suggest that while the majority profess a green leaning tendency, many of these same writers would still rather see their work in a print journal than an online lit magazine or e-published, even if the electronic publication might be seen by far more readers than the print, even with the rising quality of online publications. We still want our contributors’ copies. We want to display it on our shelf. It’s an object d’art, something that can’t be “unpublished” because the website didn’t pay their domain registration or the editors decided they would rather change aesthetic course and truncate part of their archives. POD technology solves many of the environmental concerns, but to some, POD technology has become interchangeable with the term “POD publishers” some of which have soiled the POD abbreviation making it almost synonymous with a vanity press. Electronic submissions reduce waste, but so does recycling.
Technophiles have been predicting the demise of books (printed material in general) for nearly two decades now on the basis that printed material is no longer an efficient method of storing data (even less so than a papyrus scroll by comparison to digital). But the publishing industry moves at a glacial pace (just ask any writer who has ever submitted any material anywhere or has waited for their book to finally hit the shelves). It is true though that the proverbial writing has been scrawled on the stall of the literary restroom (years ago in fact). Newspapers are now closing up shop, or converting to online formats (as even the NY Times has projected in five to ten years), and libraries are converting to electronic reference materials. People of a certain age still claim printed material is easier to read, but the upcoming generations have become much more accustomed to the electronic format. Imagine these receding glaciers we hear so much about in global warming sermons. The ice is printed material. The rocks are electronic. Kindle and his future siblings have arrived, certainly for convenience, but also to reduce mass-market bulk waste.
That leaves the books and literary journals as works of art in their own right–their content and their bindings. Just as artists still paint with brushes and oils on a canvas cloth, books will find a rightful place in the arts. As an avid lover of books, their smell, the feel of them in my hands, even the weight of the pages as a metaphor for the content, I am certain books will endure. Who will read them? Who knows?
At the risk of having my “green” card revoked, I will admit that I’ve always enjoyed driving my car, preferably a five-speed junker from another decade, a car with stories to tell. Even in Europe where a grid of passenger trains connects the rural crevices with the urban armpits, I clung to my road-tripping ways by purchasing, from its ninth owner, a Volkswagen camper van that had already clocked over three hundred thousand miles and chewed up two engines all under one coat of paint–the factory sunflower yellow had turned to Melba Toast umber by the time I got it. That van had an almost indescribable odor, like a Rif Valley hashish lab masking the scent with pine needles and vodka, all underneath the scent of something I’ve always called the “Volkswagen smell” (anyone who has ever owned an old Beetle will know this right away).
The van also came with a spectrum of stains on the carpet, rips in the seat, and, of course, a collage of stickers so thick on the back that I was positive people followed me just to finish reading them (or they were following me for other, more sinister reasons).
These stickers were a patchwork life story of the van in countless languages: stickers from camping sites, cities, beaches, almost everywhere it had been in twenty-plus years. My favorite was a faded bumper sticker featuring a man under an umbrella peeking over the top of his sunglasses on rainy beach. It read: “The Weather is here. Wish you were beautiful!” That play on the famous “wish you were here” postcard ranks for me in the upper echelon of all bumper stickers, in the rarified air of “Gas, Grass, or Ass, nobody rides for free,” and “If you’ve seen one nuclear war, you’ve seen them all.”
On a trip through Southern France, the engine threw a rod, just outside San Tropez (not an inexpensive place to break down), where she was put to rest, finally ending her road tripping days.
I suppose I could write what I would call a “Tales from the Van” creative non-fictionesque alter-egoist semi-humorous memoir (among other hyphenated modernisms that seem to fit), but what fun would that be. I’m much more interested in what happened in the van in the twenty years before I got it. Writing platitudes be damned. “Writing what you know,” translates for most into “Writing what you think you know,” which as it turns out, is often off the mark.
Perhaps the story begins on an automotive assembly line in 1974, or better yet, the birth canal of Mother Volkswagen.
All M.C. Escher works (c) 2009 The M.C. Escher Company – the Netherlands.
All rights reserved. Used by permission. www.mcescher.com
My daughter has a game in which a battery-operated elephant shoots plastic butterflies up into the air from its trunk. Meanwhile, everyone lucky enough to have one of the multi-colored nets clamors for the butterflies as they float to the ground. Usually, the kids (3-5 year-olds), have a try at it and invariably are unable to catch anything except by sheer luck, so they hand the nets to their parents and watch while the adults in the room scoop pink butterflies from the air, a scene only topped in silliness by watching those same adults attempting to dance at their respective company holiday parties.
Imagine the butterflies as words, the nets pages, and the net holder, a writer in search of the story already alive inside this elephant’s gravity well, the beginning of this story its ending, drawn ultimately to rest after its pieces can float no further down.