Wednesday, October 07, 2015

A Landscape of Dreams

Maybe it’s just the psychology of selective attention, but tolerably often when I want to go into more detail about a point made in a previous essay here, stories relevant to that point in one way or another start popping up on the news. That’s been true even during this blog’s forays into narrative fiction, so it should be no surprise that it’s happened again—even though, in this case, the point in question may not be obvious to most readers yet.

One of the core themes of the Retrotopia narrative I’ve been developing here over the last month or so is the yawning gap between the abstract notion of progress that we all have in our heads and the rather less pleasant realities to which this notion has been assigned. The imaginary Atlantic Republic, the home of the narrative’s viewpoint character, is a place where progress as we know it has continued in exactly the same direction it’s been going for the last half century or so. That’s why it’s a place where income is concentrated in ever fewer hands, leaving most of the population to struggle for survival via poorly paid part-time jobs or no jobs at all; a place where infrastructure has been allowed to fall into ruin, while investment gets focused instead on a handful of high-tech services such as the metanet (my hypothetical 2065 “improvement” of today’s internet); a place where people make do with shoddy, wretchedly unpleasant consumer goods because that’s what a handful of big corporations want to sell them and there are no other alternatives, and so on.

Now of course the immediate response of many people to this characterization can be summed up neatly as “but that’s not progress!” Au contraire, the changes just noted, unwelcome as they are, are the necessary and inevitable consequences of exactly those technological transformations that have been lauded to the skies in recent years as evidence of just how much we’ve progressed. In the same way, my imaginary Lakeland Republic, with its prosperous working classes, its thriving urban centers, its comfortable clothing, and the like, has those things because it made certain collective choices that fly in the face of everything that most people these days understand as progress.

For instance, to cite a detail that sparked discussion on the comments page last week, the Lakeland Republic has abandoned computer technology—or more precisely, after the Second Civil War and the crises that followed, it rebuilt its infrastructure and economy without making computer technology part of the mix. There were a variety of reasons for that choice, but one was an issue I’ve raised in these essays several times already: when you have an abundance of people who want steady employment and a growing shortage of the energy and other resources needed to build and operate machines, replacing employees with machines is not necessarily a smart idea, while replacing machines with employees may just be the key to renewed prosperity and stability.

That’s an issue in the story, and also in our lives today, because computers have eliminated vastly more jobs than they’ve created. Before computers came in, tens of millions of Americans supported themselves with steady jobs as typists, file clerks, stenographers, and so on through an entire galaxy of jobs that no longer exist due to computer technology. The jobs that have been created by computer technology, on  the other side of the balance, employ far fewer people, leaving the vast remainder to compete for the remaining bottom-level jobs, and this has driven down wages and widened the gap between the well-to-do and everyone else. That’s not what progress is supposed to do, according to the conventional wisdom, but that’s what it has done—and not just in this one case.

Since 1970, in point of fact, the standard of living for everyone in America outside of the wealthiest 20% or so has skidded unsteadily downward. The nation’s infrastructure has been abandoned to malign neglect, and a great many amenities that used to be taken for granted either cost vastly more than they once did, even corrected for inflation, or can’t be had for any price. We pretend, or at least the vast majority of us do, that these things either haven’t happened or don’t matter, and certainly nobody’s willing to address the possibility that these things and other equally unwelcome changes have been the result of what we like to call progress—even when that’s fairly obviously the case.

What’s going on here, in other words, is the emergence of a widening chasm between the abstraction “progress” and the things that progress is supposed to represent, such as improved living conditions, a broader range of choices available to people, and so on. The sort of progress we’ve experienced over the last half century or so hasn’t given us these things; quite the contrary; it’s yielded degraded living conditions, a narrower range of choices, and the like. Point this out to people in so many words and the resulting cognitive dissonance tends to get some truly quirky responses; put it in the form of a narrative and—at least this is my hope—a larger fraction of readers will be able to recognize the tangled thinking at the heart of the paradox, and recognize a dysfunctional abstraction for what it is.

Dysfunctional abstractions, though, are all the rage these days.  A glance through the news offers a bumper crop of examples. One that comes forcefully to mind, just at the moment, is the ongoing attempts on the part of US political and military spokescritters to find some way to talk about the US airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, without actually mentioning that the US carried out an airstrike on a hospital and killed twenty-two civilians, including three children.

It really has been a remarkable spectacle, and connoisseurs of weasel-worded evasions have had a feast spread out before them. Early on, the media in the US and its allies was full of reports that the hospital had been hit by an airstrike that somehow didn’t get around to mentioning whose aircraft was involved. Then there were stalwart claims that it hadn’t yet been confirmed that a US aircraft carried out the strike. Once that evasion passed its pull date—the Taliban, after all, doesn’t have an air force, and the public relations flacks at the Pentagon apparently decided that it just wasn’t going to work to insist that they’d somehow come up with one just for the sake of this one airstrike—the excuses began flying fast and thick. The fact that the four officially promulgated excuses I’ve seen so far all contradict one another doesn’t exactly make any of them seem particularly convincing.

What the excuses and evasions demonstrate, rather, is that the US military and government are treating what happened entirely as a matter of abstractions, rather than dealing with the harsh but inescapable reality of twenty-two smoldering corpses in a burnt-out hospital. To the media flacks at the Pentagon, evidently, this is all merely a public relations problem, and the only response to it they can think of involves finding some set of excuses, euphemisms, and evasions that will allow them to efface the distinction between a public relations problem and a war crime.

Now of course it’s not as though this sort of atrocity is unusual for the US at this point on the sorry downslope of its history. The only thing that makes the bombing of the Kunduz hospital at all unusual is that a significant fraction of the targets weren’t locals—they were physicians and hospital staff from the international charity Médecins sans Frontières, who can’t be ignored quite so easily. For well over a decade now, the US government has been vaporizing assorted groups of people all over the Middle East via drone strikes, and according to everybody but the paid flacks of the US government, a very large fraction of the people blown to bits in these attacks have been civilians. Here again, Washington DC treats this as a public relations problem, and simply denies that anything of the sort has happened.

The difficulty with this strategy, though, is that sooner or later you run up against an opponent that isn’t stuck on the level of abstractions, isn’t greatly interested in public relations, and intends to do you real, rather than abstract, harm. To some extent that’s what has sown the whirlwind that the US and its allies are now reaping in the Middle East. In many of the tribal cultures of the Middle East, vengeance against the killers of one’s family members is an imperative duty, and it doesn’t matter how airily the flacks in Washington DC dismiss the possibility that the latest drone strike annihilated a Yemeni wedding party, or what have you. The relatives of the dead know better, and the young men among them are going to do something about it, whether that involves hiking to Afghanistan or, say, joining the current mass migration into Europe, lying low for a while, and then looking for suitable targets.

The same difficulty has shifted into overdrive over the last few weeks, though, with Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war. Russia’s current leaders are realists, which is to say, they assign abstractions the limited importance they deserve. The Russian presence in Syria, accordingly, isn’t a mere gesture, it’s the efficient deployment of an expeditionary force that’s clearly intended to wage war, and is in the early stages of turning that intention into hard reality. In an impressively short time, the Russians have built, staffed, and stocked a forward air base at Latakia, and begun systematic air strikes against rebel positions; work has gotten under way on two other bases; weapons and munitions are flooding into Syria to rearm the beleaguered Syrian army; the first detachments of Revolutionary Guard soldiers from Russia’s ally Iran have arrived.  Russian Spetsnaz (special forces) and airborne units are en route to Syrian soil, where they and the Iranians will doubtless have something to do besides soak up rays on Latakia’s once-famous Mediterranean beaches.

Meanwhile Russia’s Black Sea fleet, led by its flagship, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, has positioned itself off the Syrian coast. That in itself tells an important story. The Moskva carries long range antiship missiles and an S-300 antiaircraft system; there are reports that another S-300 system has been set up on land, and Russian electronic warfare equipment has also been reported at Latakia. Neither the Islamic State militia nor any of the other rebel forces arrayed against the Syrian government have a navy, an air force, or electronics sufficiently complex to require jamming in the event of hostilities. The only nation involved in the Syrian civil war that has all these things is the United States. Clearly, then, Russia is aware of the possibility that the US may launch an air or naval assault on the Russian expeditionary force, and has the weaponry on hand to respond in kind.

Last night, working on this post, I wrote: “The Russian airstrikes so far have concentrated on rebel forces around the edges of the territory the Syrian government still holds, with some longer-range strikes further back to take out command centers, munitions dumps, and the like. The placement of the strikes says to me that the next moves, probably within weeks, will be against the rebel enclave north of Homs and the insurgent forces in Idlib province. I expect ground assaults backed up by artillery, helicopter gunships, and close-in air support—vastly more firepower, in other words, that any side in the Syrian civil war has had at its disposal so far.” This morning’s news confirmed that guess, and added in another factor: Russian cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea fleet, most of a thousand miles from Syria. Once Idlib and the rest of western Syria is secured, I expect the Russians and their allies to march on Raqqa, the Islamic State’s notional capital—and I don’t expect them to waste any more time in doing so than they’ve wasted so far.

All this poses an immense embarrassment to the United States and its allies, which have loudly and repeatedly proclaimed the Islamic State the worst threat to world peace since the end of the Third Reich but somehow, despite a seemingly overwhelming preponderance of military force, haven’t been able to do much of anything about it. Though it’s hard to say for sure, given the fog of conflicting propaganda, it certainly looks as though the Russians have done considerably more damage to the Islamic State in a week than the US and its allies have accomplished in thirteen months of bombing. If that’s the case, some extremely awkward questions are going to be asked. Is the US military so badly led, so heavily burdened with overpriced weapons systems that don’t happen to work, or both, that it’s lost the ability to inflict serious harm on an opponent? Or—let’s murmur this one quietly—does the United States have some reason not to want to inflict serious harm on the Islamic State?

I suspect, though, that what’s actually behind the disparity is something far simpler, if no less damaging to the prestige of the United States. I commented in an earlier post here that the US has been waging its inept campaign against Islamic State as though it’s a video game—hey, we killed a commander, isn’t that worth an extra 500 points? Look at that from a different perspective and it becomes another example of the total disconnection of abstraction from reality.

The abstraction here is “fighting Islamic State.” You’ll notice that it’s not “defeating Islamic State”—in the realm of dysfunctional abstractions, such differences mean a great deal. Obama has decided that under his leadership, the US is going to fight Islamic State, and that’s what the Pentagon is doing.  At intervals, accordingly, planes go flying over various portions of Syria and Iraq to make desultory bombing runs on places where some intelligence analyst in suburban Virginia thinks an Islamic State target might have been located at some point in the last month or so.

That’s “fighting Islamic State.” Nobody can point a finger at Obama and say that he’s not fighting Islamic State, since the Air Force is still obligingly making those bombing runs. It doesn’t matter that none of this has done anything to slow down the expansion of the Islamic State militia, or to stop its appalling human rights violations; that’s in the grubby realm of realities, into which fastidious minds in Washington DC are unwilling to stoop.

Another abstraction that’s getting a lot of use in the current situation is “moderate Syrian rebels.” In the realm of realities, of course, those don’t exist.  The Pentagon’s repeated attempts to find or manufacture some, to satisfy Obama’s insistence that a supply of them ought to be forthcoming, have yielded one embarrassing failure after another.  This is for quite a simple reason, all things considered: the word “moderate” in this context means, in effect, “willing to put the interests of the US and its European allies ahead of their country and their faith.” (When American politicians use the word “moderate” about people in other countries, that’s inevitably what they mean.) Nonetheless, since the abstraction is so useful, the politicians and the Pentagon keep on waving it around. You have to read carefully to find out that some groups being labeled as potential moderates, such as the al-Nusra Front, are affiliated with al-Qaeda—you know, the outfit that the Global War On Terror was supposed to fight.

Such things should probably come as no surprise during the presidency of a man who got into office via a campaign that was never anything more than a blur of feel-good abstractions: “Hope,” “Change,” “Yes We Can,” and the like.  Barack Obama will go down in history as one of the United States’ least competent presidents precisely because everything he’s done has been so utterly fixated on the realm of abstractions. The wretchedly misnamed “Affordable Care Act” aka Obamacare is a fine example. Its enactment has made health care more expensive and less available for most Americans; it took what was already the worst health care system in the industrial world, and accomplished the not inconsiderable feat of making it even worse.

To Obama and his dwindling crowdlet of supporters, though, that doesn’t matter.  What matters is that the resulting mess corresponds, to them, to the abstraction “national health care system.” He promised a national health care system, we have a national health care system—and of course it’s not exactly irrelevant that the privileged few who still praise that system are by and large those whose wealth shields them from having to cope with its disastrous failings.

It’s only fair to note that, deeply immersed in the realm of dysfunctional abstractions as Obama is, he’s got plenty of company there, and it’s not limited to the faux-liberal constituencies that put him into his current address. Listen to the verbiage spewing out of the overcrowded Republican clown car and you’ll get to witness any number of vague abstractions floating past, serenely disconnected from the awkward realm of facts. For that matter, take in the outpourings of the establishment’s pet radicals—I’m thinking just now of Naomi Klein’s embarrassingly slipshod and superficial book This Changes Everything, but there are plenty of other examples—and you’ll find no shortage of equally detached abstractions drifting by in the breeze, distracting attention from the increasingly dismal landscape of fact down there on the ground.

What troubles me most about all this is what it says about the potential for really serious disruptions here in the US in the near future. I’m sure my readers can think of other regimes that reached the stage where moving imaginary armies across a landscape of dreams took precedence over grappling with awkward facts, and once that happened, none of those regimes were long for this world. The current US political system is so deeply entrenched in its own fantasies that a complete breakdown of that system, and its replacement by something entirely different—not necessarily better, mind you, but different—is a possibility that has to be kept in mind even in the near term.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Retrotopia: A Change of Habit

I went back to the hotel for lunch.  The wind had picked up further and was tossing stray randrops at anything in its path; my clothing was waterproof but not particularly warm, and I frankly envied the passersby their hats. For that matter, I wasn’t happy about the way that my bioplastic clothes made everyone give me startled looks. Still, it was only a block and a half, and then I ducked back inside the lobby, went to the glass doors to the restaurant, stepped inside.

Maybe a minute later I was settling into a chair in a comfortable corner, and the greeter was on his way back to the door, having promised the imminent arrival of a waitress. Stray notes of piano music rippled through the air, resolved themselves into an unobtrusive jazz number.  It took me a moment to notice that the piano was actually there in the restaurant, tucked over in a nook to one side. The player was a skinny kid in his twenties, Italian-American by the look of him, and he was really pretty good. Some musicians play jazz laid-back because the fire’s gone out or they never had any in the first place, but now and again you hear one who’s got the fire and keeps it under perfect control while playing soft and low, and it’s like watching somebody take a leisurely stroll on a tightrope strung between skyscrapers. This kid was one of those. I wondered what he’d sound like with a bunch of other musicians and a room full of people who wanted to dance.

As it was, I leaned back in the chair, read the menu and enjoyed the music and the absence of the wind. The waitress showed up as prophesied, and I ordered my usual, soup and sandwich and a cup of chicory coffee—you can get that anywhere in the post-US republics, just one more legacy of the debt crisis and the hard years that followed. I know plenty of people in Philadelphia who won’t touch the stuff any more, but I got to like it and it still goes down easier than straight coffee.

Lunch was good, the music was good, and I’d missed the lunch rush so the service was better than good; I charged the meal to my room but left a tip well on the upside of enough. Then it was back outside into the wind as the kid at the piano launched into a take on “Ruby, My Dear” that wouldn’t have embarrassed a young Thelonious Monk. I had plenty of questions about the Lakeland Republic, some things that I’d been asked to look into and some that were more or less a matter of my own curiosity, and sitting in a hotel restaurant wasn’t going to get me any closer to the answers.

Outside there were still plenty of people on the sidewalks, but not so many as earlier; I gathered that lunch hour was over and everyone who worked ordinary hours, whatever those were here, was back on the job. I went around the block the hotel was on, noting landmarks, and then started wandering, lookng for shops, restaurants, and other places that might be useful during my stay: something I like to do in any unfamiliar city when I have the chance. There were plenty of retail businesses—the ground floor of every building I passed had as many as would fit—but none of them were big, and none of them had the sort of generic logo-look that tells you you’re looking at a chain outlet. Everything I knew about business said that little mom-and-pop stores like that were hopelessly inefficient, but I could imagine what the banker I’d talked with would say in response to that, and I didn’t want to go there.

The other thing that startled me as I wandered the streets was how little advertising there was. Don’t get me wrong, most of the stores had signage in the windows advertising this or that product or doing the 10% OFF THIS DAY ONLY routine; what was missing was the sort of corporate display advertising you see on every available surface in most cities. I’d figured already that there wouldn’t be digital billboards, but there weren’t any billboards at all; the shelters at the streetcar stops didn’t have display ads all over them, and neither did the streetcars; I thought back to the morning’s trip, and realized that I basically hadn’t seen any ads at all since the train crossed the border. I shook my head, wondered how the Lakeland Republic managed that, and then remembered the notebook in my pocket and put my first note into it:  Why no ads? Ask.

I was maybe six blocks from the hotel, by then, looping back after I’d checked out the streets on the west side of the capitol district, and that’s when I tore my shoe. It was my own fault, really. There was a cluster of moms with kids in strollers heading down the sidewalk, going the same direction I was but not as fast.  I veered over to the curb to get around them, misjudged my step, and a sharp bit of curbing caught the side of my shoe as I stumbled and ripped the bioplastic wide open. Fortunately it didn’t rip me, but I hadn’t brought a spare pair—these were good shoes, the sort that usually last for a couple of months before you have to throw them out. So there I was, looking at the shredded side of the shoe, and then I looked up and the first store I saw was a shoe store, I kid you not. 

I managed to keep the ripped shoe on my foot long enough to get in the door. The clerk, a middle-aged guy whose hair was that pink color you get when a flaming redhead starts to go gray, spotted me and started into the “Hi, how can I help you?” routine right as what was left of the shoe flopped right off my foot. He started laughing, and so did I; I picked the thing up, and he said, “Well, I don’t need to ask that, do I? Let’s get you measured and put something a little less flimsy on your feet.”

“I take a men’s medium-large,” I said.

He nodded, and gave me the kind of look you give to someone who really doesn’t get it. “We like to be a little more precise here. Go ahead and have a seat.”

So I sat down; he took the remains of the shoe and threw it away, and then proceeded to use this odd metal device with sliding bits on it to measure both my feet. “9D,” he said, “with a high arch. I bet your feet ache right in the middle when you’re on ‘em too long.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I take pills for that.”

“A good pair of shoes will do a better job. Let’s see, now—that’s business wear, isn’t it? You expect to do a lot of walking? Any formal or semi-formal events coming up?” I nodded yes to each, and he said, “Okay, I got just the thing for you.”

He went away, came back with a box, and extracted a pair of dark brown leather shoes from it. “This brown’ll match the putty color of those clothes of yours pretty well, and these won’t take any breaking in. Let’s give it a try.” The shoes went on. “There you go. Walk around a bit, see how they feel on you.”

I got up and walked around the store. My feet felt remarkably odd. It took me a moment to realize that this was because the shoes actually fit them. “These are pretty good,” I told him.

“Beat the pants off the things you were wearing, don’t they?”

“True enough,” I admitted. He rang up the sale on some kind of old-fashioned mechanical cash register and wrote out a bill of sale by hand; I paid up and headed out the door.

Half a block down the same street was a store selling men’s clothes. I went in, and came out something like an hour later dressed like one of the locals—wool jacket, slacks and vest, button-up cotton shirt, and tie, with a long raincoat over the top, and my ordinary clothes in a shopping bag. I’d already more than half decided to pick up something less conspicuous to wear before my shoe got torn, and money wasn’t a problem, so I bought enough to keep me for the duration of my stay, and had everything else sent back to the hotel; the bill was large enough that the clerk checked my ID and then called the bank to make sure I had enough in my account to cover it. Still, that was the only hitch, and quickly past.

From the clothes store I headed back the way I’d come, turned a corner and went three blocks into a neighborhood of narrow little shops with hand-written signs in the windows. The sign I was looking for, on the recommendation of the clothes store clerk, was barely visible on the glass of a door: S. EHRENSTEIN HABERDASHER. I went in; the space inside was only about twice as wide as the door, with shelves packed with boxes on both walls and a little counter and cash register at the far end.

S. Ehrenstein turned out to be a short wiry man with hair the color of steel wool and a nose like a hawk’s beak. “Good afternoon,” he said, and then considered me for a moment. “You’re from outside—Atlantic Republic, or maybe Upper Canada. Not Québec or New England. Am I right?”

“Atlantic,” I said. “How’d you know?”

“Your clothes and your shoes are brand new—I’d be surprised if you told me you’ve been in ‘em for as much as an hour. That says you just came from outside—that and no hat, and five o’clock shadow this early in the day; I don’t know why it is, but nobody outside seems to know how to get a proper shave. The rest, well, I pay attention to lots of  little things. How’d you hear about my shop?”

I told him the name of the clothing store, and he nodded, pleased. “Well, there you are. That’s Fred Hayakawa’s store; his family’s been in the business since half an hour before Eve bit the apple, and his clerks know a good hat, which is more than I could say for some. So are you in business, or—”

“Politics,” I said.

“Then I have just the hat for you. Let’s get your head measured.” A measuring tape came out of his pocket and looped around my head. “Okay, good. Seven and a quarter, I should have in stock.” He ducked past me, clambered onto a stepladder, pulled down a box. “Try it on. The mirror’s there.”

With the hat on, my resemblance to a minor character from a Bogart vid was complete. “Absolutely classic,” the haberdasher said from behind me. “Fedoras, homburgs, sure, they’re fine, but a porkpie like this, you can wear it anywhere and look real classy.”

“I like it,” I agreed.

“Well, there you are. Let me show you something.” He took the hat, slipped a cord out from under the ribbon. “In windy weather you put this loop over your coat button, so you don’t lose it if it blows off. If I were you I’d do that before I set one foot outside that door.”

I paid up, accepted the business card he pressed on me, and got the loop in place before I went back outside. The wind had died down, so the hat stayed comfortably in place—and the adverb’s deliberate; it kept my head warm, and the rest of the clothes were pleasant in a way that bioplastic just isn’t.

You know what it’s like when some annoying noise is so much part of the background that you don’t notice it at all, until it stops, and then all of a sudden you realize just how much it irritated you? Getting out of bioplastic was the same sort of thing. In most countries these days, everything from clothes to sheets to curtains is bioplastic, because it’s so cheap to make and turn into products that the big corporations that sell it drove everything else off the market years ago. It’s waterproof, it’s easy to clean—there’s quite a litany, and of course it was all over the metanet and the other media back when you could still buy anything else. Of course the ads didn’t mention that it’s flimsy and slippery, and feels clammy pretty much all the time, but that’s the way it goes; what’s in the stores depends on what makes the biggest profit for the big dogs in industry, and the rest of us just have to learn to live with it.

The Lakeland Republic apparently didn’t play by the same rules, though. The embargo had something to do with it, I guessed, but apparently they weren’t letting the multinationals compete with local producers. The clothes I’d bought were a lot more expensive than bioplastic equivalents would have been, and I figured it would take trade barriers to keep them on the market.

I kept walking. Two blocks later, about the time I caught sight of the capitol dome again, I passed a barbershop and happened to notice a sign in the window advertising a shave and trim. I thought about what S. Ehrenstein had said about a proper shave, laughed, and decided to give it a try.

The barber was a big balding guy with a ready grin. “What can I do for you?”

“Shave and trim, please.”

“Your timing’s good. Another half hour and you’d have to wait a bit, but as it is—” He waved me to the coatrack and the empty chair. “Get yourself comfy and have a seat.”

I shed my coat, hat, and jacket,  and sat down. He covered me up with the same loose poncho thing that barbers use everywhere, tied something snug around my neck, and went to work. “New in town?”

“Just visiting, from Philadelphia.”

“No kidding. Welcome to Toledo. Here on business?” Instead of the buzz of an electric trimmer, the clicking of scissors sounded back behind my right ear.

“More or less. I’ll try to talk to some people up at the Capitol, make some contacts, ask some questions about the way you do things here.”

“Might have to wait a day or two, according to the papers. Did you hear about this latest thing?”

“Just that there’s some kind of crisis.”

The scissor-sound moved around the back of my head from right to left. “Well, sort of. Tempest in a teapot is more like it. Something in the budget bill for next year set off the all-out Restos, and so one of the parties that’s had Meeker’s back says they’ll bolt unless whatever it is gets taken out.”


“You don’t have those out your way, do you? Here the two political blocs are Conservatives and Restorationists; Conservatives want to keep things pretty much the way they are, Restos want to take things back to the way they used to be. Okay, lay your head back.” I did, and he draped a hot damp towel over the lower half of my face, then went back to trimming. “Used to be about half and half, but these days the Restos have the bigger half—all the rural counties going to lower tiers, and so on.”

“Hmm?” I managed to say.

“Oh, that’s right. You probably don’t know about the tiers.”


“It works like this. There are five tiers, and counties vote on what tier they want to be in. The lower the tier, the lower your taxes, but the less you get in terms of infrastructure and stuff. Toledo’s tier five—we got electricity, we got phones in every house, good paving on the streets so you can drive a car if you can afford one, but we pay for it through the nose when it comes to tax time.”


He took off the towel, started brushing hot lather onto my face. “So tier five has a base date of 1950—that means we got about the same sort of services they had here that year. The other tiers go down from there—tier four’s base date  is 1920, for tier three it’s 1890, tier two’s 1860, and tier one’s 1830. You live in a tier one county, you got police, you got dirt roads, not a lot else. Of course your taxes are way, way down, too.” He put away the brush, snapped open an old-fashioned straight razor, and went to work on my stubble. “That’s the thing. Nobody’s technology gets a subsidy—that’s in the constitution. You want it, you pay all the costs, cradle to grave. You don’t get to dump ‘em on anybody else. That’s what the Restos are all up in arms about. They think something in the budget is a hidden subsidy for I forget what high-tier technology, and that’s a red line for them.”

“Mm-hmm,” I said again.

 “They’ll get it worked out. Go like this.” He drew his lips to one side, and I imitated the movement. “Meeker’s handled that sort of thing more’n a dozen times already—he’s good. If we let our presidents have second terms he’d get one. Now go like this.” I moved my lips the other way. “So they’ll drop whatever it is out of the budget, or put in a user fee, or come up with some other gimmick so that everybody’s happy. It’s not a big deal. Nothing like the fight over the treaty, or the time ten years ago when Mary Chenkin was president, when the Restos wanted to get rid of tier five, just like that. That was a real donnybrook. This close to the Capitol, you better believe I got to hear all sides of it.”

He finished shaving, washed the last bits of soap off my face with another hot wet towel, then splashed on sone kind of bay-scented aftershave that stung a bit. A brush darted around my shoulders, and then he took off the neckcloth and the poncho thing. “There you go.”

I got up, checked the trim in the big mirror on the wall, ran my fingers across my cheek; it was astonishingly smooth. “Very nice,” I said. While I got out my wallet, I asked the barber, “Do you think Toledo’s ever going to go to a lower tier?”

“People are talking about it,” he said. “I mean, it’s nice to have some of the services, but then tax time comes around and everyone says ‘Ouch.’ Me, I could live with tier four easy, and my business—” He gestured at the shop. “Other than the lights, might as well be tier one. A lot of businesses run things that way—it just makes more sense.” He handed me my change with a grin. “And more money.”

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Retrotopia: Public Utilities, Private Goods

This is the fourth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, having arrived in the capital of the Lakeland Republic, discovers that things are even stranger there than he thought...

I’d already guessed that the hotel lobby probably wouldn’t look much like the ones I was used to seeing elsewhere, and so I wasn’t surprised. Instead of the glaring lights, security cameras, and automated check-in kiosks I was used to, it was a comfortable space with sofas and chairs around the edges, ornate chandeliers overhead, and a couple of desks staffed by actual human beings over to one side; off to the other side, glass doors framed in wood led into what looked like a full-service restaurant. A bellhop—was that the right word?—came trotting over to take my suitcase as soon as I came through the door, said something pleasant, and followed me over to the check-in desk.

“I’ve got a reservation,” I said to the clerk. “The name’s Peter Carr.”

I’d been wondering whether the hotel would turn out to use an old-fashioned computer system with a keyboard and screen, but apparently even that was too complex for local standards. Instead, the clerk pulled out a three-ring binder, opened it, and found my reservation in about as much time as it would have taken to input a name on a veepad and wait for a response to come out of the cloud. “Welcome to the Capitol Hotel, Mr. Carr. We have you down for fourteen nights.”

“That’s right.”

“Looks like everything’s paid for in advance. If you’ll sign here.” She handed me a clipboard with a sheet of paper on it and an old-fashioned ballpoint pen. Fortunately I hadn’t quite forgotten how to produce a non-digital signature, and signed on the line at the bottom. “Anything you order in the restaurant here—” She motioned toward the doors on the far side of the room. “—or for room service can be billed to the room account. How many keys will you want?”

“Just one.”

She opened a drawer, pulled out an honest-to-Pete metal key with a ring and a tag with the room number on it. “Here you go. Stairs are right down the hall; if you need the elevator it’s to the left. Is there anything else I can do for you? Enjoy your stay, Mr. Carr.”

I thanked her and headed for the hall with the bellhop in tow. My room was on the third floor and the stairs didn’t look too challenging, so I asked him, “Do you mind if we take the stairs?”

“Not a bit,” he said. “Comes with the job.”

We started up the stairs. “Do you get a lot of people here from outside the Lakeland Republic?”

“All the time. Capitol’s just four blocks away, and Embassy Row’s between here and there. We had the foreign minister of Québec here just last week.”

“No kidding.” There had been rumors for years that the Québecois started tacitly ignoring the embargo even before Canada broke up; we had decent relations with Montréal these days, but that hadn’t always been the case, and so any news about what was going on between Québec and the Lakeland Republic were worth my attention. “Big official visit, or what?”

“Pretty much, yeah,” said the bellhop. “Really nice lady. Had a bottle of champagne sent up to her room first thing every morning.”

I laughed. “Heck of a breakfast.”

“Nah, breakfast was a couple of hours later, with more champagne. Go figure.”

We got to the third floor, left the stair, and went down the hall to my room. “Just leave it inside the door,” I said, meaning the suitcase. “Thanks.”

“Sure thing.”

I didn’t have any Lakeland money to tip him, but guessed the couple of Atlantic bills I had would do. Fortunately I was right; he grinned, thanked me, and headed back toward the stair.

The room was bigger than I’d expected, with a queen-sized bed on one side and a desk and dresser on the other. I knew there wouldn’t be a veebox, but thought there might be a screen or even an old-fashioned television in the room, but no dice. The only things even vaguely electronic were a telephone on the desk and a boxy thing on the dresser that had a loudspeaker and some dials on it—a radio, I guessed, and decided to leave turning it on for later. Curtained windows on the far wall let through diffuse light; I went over and pulled the curtains open.

The bellhop hadn’t been kidding. There was the Capitol dome, half-complete, rising up above a ragged roofline right in front of me. That would be convenient, I decided, and let the curtains fall again.

I got my things settled and then went to the desk and the big envelope of yellowish paper sitting on top of it. Inside was the notebook Melissa Berger had mentioned, a couple of pens, a packet of papers that had BANK OF TOLEDO printed across the top of each sheet, an identification card with my name and photo on it, a wallet that was pretty clearly meant to hold money and the ID card, and a letter on government stationery welcoming me to Toledo in the usual bland terms, over President Meeker’s signature. Then there were half a dozen pages of instructions on how to get by in the Lakeland Republic, which covered everything from customary tips (I’d overtipped the bellhop, though not extravagantly) to who to contact in this or that kind of emergency. I nodded; clearly the bellhop hadn’t been exaggerating when he mentioned plenty of foreign guests.

I dropped my veepad in a desk drawer and got the wallet and some of the papers settled into the empty pocket. First things first, I decided: visit the bank and get the money thing sorted out, then get some lunch and do a bit of wandering.

Down in the lobby, the concierge was behind his desk. “Can I help you?”

“Please. I need to know where to find the Bank—” All at once I couldn’t remember the name, and reached for the papers in my pocket.

“Out the door,” said the concierge, “hang a left, go a block and a half straight ahead, and you’ll be standing right in front of it.”

I considered him. “You don’t need to know which bank?”

“There’s only one in town.”

That startled me, though I managed not to show it. “Okay, thanks.”

“Have a great day,” he said.

I headed out the doors, turned left, started along the sidewalk.  A cold damp wind was rushing past, pushing shreds of cloud across the sky, and it didn’t take me long to figure out why most of the other people on the sidewalk were wearing hats and  long coats; they looked much warmer than I felt. Still, Philadelphia has plenty of cold weather, and I was used to the way the chill came through bioplastic business wear. What annoyed me a little, or more than a little, was the way that my clothing made me stick out like a sore thumb.

In retrospect, it was amusing. Everybody else on the sidewalk looked like extras from half a dozen random history vids, everything from fedoras and trench coats to the kind of thing that was last in style when Toledo was a frontier town, and there I was, the only person in town in modern clothing—and you can guess for yourself who was the conspicuous one. The adults gave me startled looks and then pretended that nothing was up, but the kids stared wide-eyed as though I had two extra heads or something. As I said, it was amusing in retrospect, but at the time it made me acutely uncomfortable, and I was glad to get to the bank.

That was a three-story brick building on a street corner. Fortunately it had BANK OF TOLEDO—CAPITOL BRANCH above the doors, or I’d probably have missed it, since it didn’t look anything like the banks I was used to. Inside was even weirder: no security cameras, no automated kiosks, no guards in helmets and flak jackets pacing the balcony waiting for trouble, just a lobby with a greeter inside the door and a short line of patrons waiting for tellers. The greeter met me with a cheery “Hi, how can we help you today?” I got out the bank papers, and a minute or two later got shown into one of three little office spaces off the main lobby.

On the other side of the desk was a middle-aged African-American man with a neatly trimmed beard. “I’m Larry Jones,” he said, getting up to shake my hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr.—”

“Carr,” I said. “Peter Carr.” We got the formalities out of the way and sat down; I handed him the papers; he checked them, we discussed some of the details, and he then unlocked a drawer in his desk and pulled out a big envelope.

“Okay,” he said. “Everything’s good. The only question I have at this point is whether you’ve ever used cash or checks before.”

“I’m guessing,” I said, “that you ask that question fairly often.”

“These days, yes,” he replied. “Bit of a change since before the Treaty.”

“I bet. The answer, though, is cash, yes; checks—well, I’ve seen a few of them.”

“Okay, fair enough.” He looked relieved, and I wondered how many people from the cashless countries he’d had to walk through the details of counting out coins. “Here’s your checkbook,” he said, pulling the thing out of the envelope, and then opened it and showed me how to write a check. “Up here,” he said, flipping open a notebookish thing in front, “is where you keep track of how much you’ve spent.” He must have caught my expression, because he broke into a broad smile and said, “Long time since you’ve done math with a pen, I bet.”

“Depends on how long it’s been since never,” I told him.

He laughed. “Gotcha. Glad to say we can help you out there, too.” He opened a different drawer in his desk, handed me a flat little shape of brass. “This is a mechanical calculator,” he said. “Adds and subtracts for you.”

I took the thing, gave it a baffled look. “I didn’t know you could do that without electronics.”

“I think we’re the only country on earth that still makes these.” He showed me how to use the stylus to slide the digits up and down. Once I had it figured out, I thanked him and tucked the calculator and checkbook into my pocket.

“Do you have a minute?” I asked then. “I’ve got a couple of questions about the way you do things here—about banking, mostly.”

“Sure thing,” he said. “Ask away.”

“The concierge at the hotel said there’s only one bank here in Toledo. Is that true everywhere in the Lakeland Republic?”

“Yes, if you’re talking about consumer banking.”

“Is it the same bank everywhere?”

“Good heavens, no. Each county and each city of any size has its own bank, like it has its own water and sewer district and so on.”

“That makes it sound like a public utility,” I said, baffled.

“That’s exactly what it is. Again, that’s just consumer banking. We’ve got privately owned commercial banks here, but those do investment banking only—they’re not allowed to offer savings and checking accounts, consumer loans, small business services, that sort of thing, just like we’re not allowed to do any kind of investment banking.”

I shook my head, baffled. “Why the restriction?”

“Well, that used to be law in the United States, from the 1930s to the 1980s or so, and it worked pretty well—it was after they changed the law that the economy really started running off the rails, you know. So our legislature changed the law back after Partition, and it’s worked pretty well for us, too.” 

“I don’t think banks were public utilities back then,” I objected.

“No, that was mostly further back, and only some banks,” he agreed. “The thing is, the way we see it, there are some things that private industry does really well and some things that it doesn’t do well at all, and public utilities like water, sewer service, electricity, public transit, consumer banking, that sort of thing—those work better when you don’t let private interests milk them for profits. I know you do things different back home.”

“True enough. But isn’t it more efficient to leave those things to private industry?”

“That depends, Mr. Carr, on what you mean by efficiency.”

That intrigued me. “Please go on.”

Unexpectedly, he laughed. “I give a talk on that every year at one of the homeschool associations here in town. Efficiency is always a ratio—more or less efficient at producing an output in terms of a given input. A chemical process is efficient if it turns out more product for the same amount of raw materials, or the ssme amount of energy, or what have you. We get people from outside all the time talking about how this or that would be more efficient than what we do, and you know what? None of them seem to be able to answer a simple question: efficient for what output, in terms of what input?”

I could see where this was going, and decided to head onto a different tack. “And having consumer banks as public utilities,” I said. “Is that more efficient for some output in terms of some input?”

“We don’t worry so much about that,” the banker said. “The question that matters to most people here is much simpler: does it work or doesn’t it?”

“How do you tell?”

“History, Mr. Carr,” he said. He was smiling again. “History.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Another World is Inevitable

I don’t normally comment in these essays on the political affairs of other countries. As I’ve noted more than once here, the last thing the rest of the world needs is one more clueless American telling everyone else on the planet what to do.  What’s more, as the United States busies itself flailing blindly and ineffectually at the consequences that its own idiotically shortsighted decisions have brought down upon it, those of us who live here have our work cut out for us already.
That said, a sign I’ve been awaiting for quite some time has appeared on the horizon—the first rumble of a tectonic shift that will leave few things unchanged. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t happen in the United States, but I was somewhat startled to see where it did happen. That would be in Britain, where Jeremy Corbyn has just been elected head of Britain’s Labour Party.

Those of my readers who don’t follow British politics may not know just how spectacular a change Corbyn’s election marks. In the late1990s, under the leadership of Tony Blair, the Labour Party did what erstwhile left-wing parties were doing all over the industrial world: it ditched the egalitarian commitments that had guided it in prior decades, and instead embraced a set of policies that were indistinguishable from those of its conservative opponents—the same thing, for example, that the Democratic party did here in the US. As a result, voters going to the polls found that their supposed right to shape the destiny of their nations at the voting booth had been reduced to irrelevance, since every party with a shot at power embraced the same set of political and economic policies.

That might have been bearable if the policies in question worked, but they didn’t, they don’t, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that they never will. Proponents of the neoliberal consensus—I probably have to explain that label, don’t I? It’s a source of wry amusement to anybody who knows the first thing about the history of political economy that the viewpoint considered “conservative” in today’s America is what used to be known as liberalism, and still has that label in economics. Unrestricted free trade, no government interference in business affairs, no government protections for the poor, and an expansionist and militaristic foreign policy: these were the trademarks of liberal political and economic thought all through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Those same policies came back into fashion as neoliberal economics, and as “conservative” politics, in the late twentieth century. Since then, proponents of neoliberalism have insisted that deregulation for industry and finance, tax cuts and government handouts for the rich, a rising spiral of punitive austerity measures for the poor, and a violent and amoral foreign policy obsessed with dominating the Middle East by force, would bring economic stability and prosperity at home and maintain peace overseas. That was the sales pitch that was used to sell these policies.  I think most people have begun to notice by now, though, that the policies in question have had precisely the opposite effect, not just once but wherever and whenever they’ve been tried.

I encourage my readers, especially those who favor the neoliberal policies just outlined, to stop and think about that for a moment. Around the globe, where businesses have been deregulated, taxes cut for the rich and government money poured into their hands, harsh austerity measures imposed on the poor, and foreign policy turned into a set of excuses for lobbing bombs at Middle Eastern countries, stability, prosperity, and peace have not been forthcoming—in fact, quite the contrary. At best, neoliberal policies bring a brief burst of relative prosperity, followed by a long slide into increasingly intractable crisis; at worst, you go straight into the crisis phase, and then things just keep getting worse.

Logically speaking, if the policies you propose don’t yield the results you expect, you change the policies. That’s not what’s happened so far in this case, though.  Quite the contrary, the accelerating failures of neoliberalism have been met across the board by an increasingly angry insistence from the corridors of power that neoliberal policies are the only options there are.

What Jeremy Corbyn’s election shows is that that insistence has just passed its pull date. Corbyn’s an old-fashioned Labourite of the pre-Blair variety, and he’s made it clear for decades that he supports the opposite of the neoliberal consensus: more regulation of finance and industry, higher tax rates and fewer handouts to the rich, more benefits for the poor, and a less aggressive foreign policy. When he entered the race to head the Labour Party after Ed Milliband’s embarrassing electoral defeat earlier this year, party apparatchiks rolled their eyes and insisted that he didn’t have a chance. What they hadn’t noticed, and what the establishment across the industrial world has by and large never noticed either, is that the consensus is only a consensus among a privileged minority, and most people outside those rarefied and self-referential circles will vote against it if they’re given half a chance.

That’s what happened in the Labour Party election. When the ballots were counted, Corbyn had staged a monumental upset, winning by a landslide on the first ballot with a total three times as large as his nearest rival’s. What’s more, since his election, people who’ve stayed out of party politics in Britain have been joining the Labour Party in droves, convinced that at long last they have the chance to have their voices heard. Until and unless he loses a general election or some other Labour Party figure mounts an effective challenge against him, Corbyn’s now the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the heir apparent to No. 10 Downing Street should Labour come out ahead in the next election.

Whether that’s a desirable outcome or not is not something I propose to discuss here, as that choice is up to the people of Great Britain and nobody else. Myself, I’m not a great fan of Corbyn’s variety of socialism, or for that matter most of the others; it seems to me that there are many better ways to run a society—though it’s only fair to say that the neoliberal consensus is not one of these. What makes Jeremy Corbyn’s meteoric rise important is that it shows just how fragile the neoliberal consensus actually is, and how readily it can be overturned by any politician who’s willing to break with it and start addressing the concerns of the eighty to ninety per cent of the population who don’t agree with it.

That fragility need not lead to better things. Here in the United States, Donald Trump remains sky-high in the polls for exactly the same reason Jeremy Corbyn now heads the Labour Party: he’s willing to talk about things the political establishment refuses to discuss. In his case the unspeakable issue is the de facto policy, supported by both parties, of encouraging illegal immigration to the United States in order to drive down wages for the working classes and maintain a facade of prosperity for the privileged.

A great many Americans are concerned about that, and not unreasonably so. Whether allowing mass immigration to the United States is a good idea or not, it’s fair to say that sharply limiting the number of legal immigrants and then turning a blind eye to illegal immigration lands us in the worst of both worlds.  The only people who benefit from it are the employers who get to pay substandard wages to illegal immigrants, and the privileged classes whose lifestyles are propped up thereby. Since the voices of the privileged are the only ones that have been let into our collective conversation about politics for the last three and a half decades, the concerns of the broader public haven’t been addressed; now Trump is addressing them, and he just might end up in the White House as a result.

He’s not the only one who’s riding that particular issue to the brink of power. Marine Le Pen, to name just one example, is more or less France’s Donald Trump—though, France being France, she has better fashion sense and a less absurd hairstyle. Europe’s privileged classes encourage unlimited immigration, just like their American equivalents, to force down wages and break the political power of the working classes, and Le Pen’s Front National has harnessed the resentment of all those French voters who have been on the losing end of those policies for decades. Nor is France the only European nation where that’s an explosive issue. The British politicians and pundits who are busy decrying Corbyn’s election just now might want to temper their rage and consider the alternatives: if Corbyn falls, Nigel Farage and the UKIP party are waiting in the wings to harness the public’s frustration with the abject failure of business as usual, and if Farage falls in his turn, what replaces him could be much, much worse.

The mere fact that a failed consensus is cracking at the seams, in other words, does not guarantee that what replaces it will be an improvement. All it means is that there’s an opening through which a range of alternative visions can enter the political conversation of our time, and perhaps find an audience among the disenfranchised and disillusioned. That some such window of opportunity was on its way comes as no surprise; as a student of history, I’ve long taken comfort in the fact that even the most thoroughly entrenched political and economic orthodoxies have finite life spans, and will eventually be hauled out with the trash. Much of what I’ve done over the last nine years on this blog has been a matter of getting ready for the opening of that window, putting certain ideas into circulation among those few who were ready to hear them.

That’s a more important step than I think many people realize. In Germany in the early 1930s, when a failed consensus finally came apart, the only alternative visions that had any significant presence were the Leninist version of Marxian socialism, on the one hand, and a bubbling cauldron of racist fantasies and radical antirationalism on the other; the latter triumphed, and no doubt most of my readers are aware of what followed. In other places and times, less psychotic options have been available, and the results have generally been much better. The Zapatista rebels in southern Mexico a while back favored the slogan “another world is possible,” and of course they’re quite right—but a great deal depends on what kind of other world people are prepared to imagine.

This is why, for example, the last three posts here on The Archdruid Report have been devoted to a narrative describing a future very different from the one that most Americans like to imagine: a future in which the United States slams facefirst into a brick wall of unintended consequences, plunges into a bloody civil war, and fragments thereafter, and in which one of the fragments pursues a set of political and economic policies that go zooming off at right angles to the conventional wisdom of our time. I expect to resume that narrative next week, and to continue it with an assortment of interruptions thereafter, precisely because a less impoverished sense of the possible futures open to us is so crucial in facing the rising spiral of crises that defines our time.

It’s a source of some amusement to me that I’ve fielded a fair number of comments insisting that I have to reshape the narrative just mentioned to fit one or another version of the conventional wisdom. This blog’s focus being what it is, most of them have fixated on one or another aspect of what might as well be called the Ecotopian model—the last really imaginative vision of the future in this country, which was midwifed by Ernest Callenbach in his brilliant 1974 utopian fiction Ecotopia. If you know your way around today’s American Green scene, even if you haven’t read a word Callenbach wrote, you know his ideas, because they still shape an enormous amount of what passes for original thought today.

That’s not a model I’m interested in rehashing. Partly that’s because not that many people outside the San Francisco Bay region find Callenbach’s vision especially appealing; partly it’s because some aspects of the model, notably the claim that solar and wind power can support something akin to modern middle class American lifestyles, haven’t held up well in the light of experience; but it’s also partly because other worlds are also possible. The Ecotopian conventional wisdom is not the only option. It’s an option toward which I have a nostalgic fondness—I was wildly enthusiastic about Callenbach’s book back in the day—but it’s not the only game in town, and all things considered, it’s not the option I would choose today. Thus Retrotopia, as the name suggests, is not going to be full of avid spandex-clad cyclists who dine on the produce of permacultured edible forests, or what have you. It’s heading in directions that are far more threatening to the status quo—including, by the way, the Ecotopian status quo.

The crying need for an abundance of alternative visions of the future, apart from the conventional wisdom of our time, has also driven another core project of this blog, and with that in mind, I’m delighted to announce the winners of this year’s Space Bats challenge. Those of my readers who are new to The Archdruid Report may not know that since 2011, this blog has hosted a series of contests in which readers have submitted short stories set in a variety of deindustrial futures—that is, futures in which industrial society as we know it is a thing of the past, our current complex technologies have faded into legend, and human beings are busy coping with the legacies of the industrial age and leading challenging, interesting, and maybe even appealing lives in that context.

The first Space Bats challenge was a shot in the dark, and to my delighted surprise, it fielded a torrent of fine short stories, the best of which were duly published by Founders House Publishing as an anthology titled After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future. A second contest duly followed in 2014, and produced two anthologies, After Oil 2: The Years of Crisis and After Oil 3: The Years of Rebirth. The fourth contest was launched in March of this year; as before, I was deluged with an abundance of excellent stories, and had a hard time choosing among them; I owe thanks to everyone who submitted a story and made the choice so difficult; but the following stories will be included in the next anthology, After Oil 4: The Future’s Distant Shores:

“Sail Away Home” by Alma Arri
“Finding Flotsam” by Bill Blondeau
“Alay” by Dau Branchazel
“Crow Turns Over a Rock” by Eric Farnsworth
“Notes for a Picnic” by Phil Harris
“The Remembrancer” by Wylie Harris
“The Bald Eagle, the Lame Duck, and the Cooked Goose” by Jonah Harvey
“The Baby” by Nicky Jarman
“Northern Ghosts” by Gaianne Jenkins
“Caretaker Poinciana” by Troy Jones
“Scapegoat” by Cathy McGuire
“Flowering” by John W. Riley

I trust you’ll join me in congratulating the authors and, more to the point, in reading their stories once those see print.

In its own small and idiosyncratic way, my experience with the Space Bats challenge parallels the political earthquake currently shaking the British landscape. All I did was ask readers to come up with stories that broke with the conventional wisdom concerning the future—to set aside the weary, dreary, endlessly rehashed Tomorrowland of spaceships, zap-guns, and linear technological expansion along the same lines we think we’re following today, and imagine something different—and as it turned out, that’s all I had to do. Given the opportunity to write about some less hackneyed future, scores of readers lunged for their keyboards and flooded each contest with quirky, thoughtful, interesting know, the kind of thing that science fiction used to feature all the time, back before it got sucked into the role of cheerleading for a suffocatingly narrow range of acceptable tomorrows.

There will be another Space Bats challenge, beginning in the spring of next year. I invite my readers to propose potential themes for that challenge—this fourth anthology consists entirely of stories set at least a thousand years in the future, and I’d like to have some equally offbeat focus or limitation on the next contest, in the hope that it will inspire an equally stellar collection of stories.

I’m also pleased to note that the After Oil anthologies and my post-peak novel Star’s Reach are far from the only contributions to a growing genre. Founders House, for example, has also recently published Ralph Meima’s novel Fossil Nation, the first volume of a trilogy, which offers its own lively and readable glimpse at a future that cuts across the conventional wisdom of our time and heads off in new directions. Other projects are in the works, at Founders House and elsewhere.

At the same time, it’s worth remembering that the same process is under way on a much vaster scale, and with much more serious consequences. As the neoliberal consensus shatters and the failure of its policies becomes impossible to ignore any longer, another world is not merely possible, it’s inevitable. The question is purely what ideas, visions, dreams, hopes, and shuddering terrors will shape the world that will emerge from neoliberalism’s smoldering corpse—and that, dear reader, will be determined in part by what you yourself are willing to imagine, to work for, and to struggle for, during the difficult years ahead of us.

One other note may be relevant in this context. Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with my alternative-future novel Star’s Reach. Ever since it was published, I’ve fielded requests for more fiction set in the same imaginary future, and while I’m flattered by the requests, my fiction is heading in other directions at least for now. As a result, Founders House Publishing and I have been talking about the possibility of transforming the setting of Star’s Reach into a shared world to which many authors can contribute, and doing at least one anthology—and possibly more—of short stories set in 25th-century Meriga, or the wider future in which Trey sunna Gwen and his companions have their place.

Obviously that’s a project that would require a dozen enthusiastic authors at least. My question is whether anyone’s interested in writing stories for such an anthology. If this interests you, please post a comment here; if there’s enough interest, we can get the project rolling.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Retrotopia: A Cab Ride in Toledo

This is the third installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator arrives in the capital of the Lakeland Republic, and further surprises are in store. 
The train pulled into the Toledo station something like ten minutes late—we’d had to wait for another train to clear the bridge over Sandusky Harbor, and then rolled along the Lake Erie shoreline for half an hour, past little lakeside towns and open country dotted with shore pines, before finally veering inland toward the Lakeland Republic’s capital. All the way along the shore, I watched big two- and three-masted schooners catching a ride from the wind, some obviously heading out from the Toledo lakefront, some just as obviously heading toward it. The sailing ship I’d spotted outside Sandusky was clearly nothing unusual here.

Once the train swung due west toward downtown Toledo, it was more farm country—the twentieth century kind with tractors and pickups rather than the nineteenth century kind with draft horses and wagons. Then the same sequence I’d watched around other Lakeland cities followed: houses became more frequent, fields gave way to truck gardens, and not too far after that the train was rolling past residential neighborhoods dotted with schools, parks, and little clusters of shops, striped at intervals with the omnipresent streetcar tracks and, here and there, crossed by the streetcars themselves. The houses gave way eventually to the warehouses and factories of an industrial district, and then to the dark waters of the Maumee River, swirling and rushing past the feet of a dozen bridges.

“Toledo,” the conductor called out from behind me. “End of the line, ladies and gentlemen. Please make sure you have your luggage and belongings before you leave, and thank you for riding with us.”

As the car I was in reached the far shore, I got a brief glimpse of tree-lined streetscapes, and then brick walls blotted out the view. Some of the other passengers got their luggage down from the overhead racks. Me, I had other things on my mind; it had finally occurred to me that unless I could get a veepad signal, I had no way to call the people who were supposed to meet me and make sure we didn’t miss each other, and I’d checked my veepad one last time and gotten the same dark field as before. I shrugged mentally, decided to wait and see what happened.

The train slowed to a crawl. The immigrant family across from me had apparently spotted somebody waiting for them on the platform, and were waving at the window. They already had their plastic-bag luggage in hand, and the moment the train stopped they hefted the bags and headed for the exit. I got my suitcase down from the rack; the boy who’d been sitting next to me went back to help his parents with their luggage, and I stepped into the aisle and followed the people in front of me up to the front of the car and out onto the platform.

A brightly painted sign said THIS WAY TO THE STATION. I followed that and the flow of people. Partway along I passed the immigrant family standing there with half a dozen other people in what looked like Victorian clothing out of a history vid—the wife’s family from Ann Arbor, I guessed—all talking a mile a minute. The wife was teary-eyed and beaming, and the two kids looked for the first time since I’d seen them as though they might get around to smiling one of these days. I thought about the conversation I’d had with the husband, wondered if things really were that much better at the bottom end of the income scale here.

I went through a big double door of glass and metal into what had to be the main room of the station, a huge open space under a vaulted ceiling, with benches in long rows on one side, ticket counters on the other, and what looked like half a dozen restaurants and a bar ahead in the middle distance. Okay, I said to myself, here’s where I try to find someone who has a clue about how to locate people and get around in this bizarre country.

I’d almost finished thinking that when a woman and a man in what I’d come to think of as Bogart clothing got up off one of the nearby benches and came over toward me. “Mr. Carr?”

Well, that was easy, I thought, and turned toward them. She was tall for a woman, with red-brown curls spilling out from under a broad-brimmed hat; he was a couple of inches shorter than she was, with the kind of forgettable face you look for when you’re hiring spies or administrative assistants.

“I’m Melissa Berger,” the woman said, shaking my hand, “and this is Fred Vanich.” I shook his hand as well. “I hope your trip this morning wasn’t too disconcerting,” she went on.

That last word was unexpected enough that I laughed. “Not quite,” I said. “Though there were a few surprises.”

“I can imagine. If you’ll come this way?”

“Can I take that for you?” Vanich said, and I handed over my suitcase and followed them.

“I’m afraid we’ve had to do some rescheduling,” Berger said as we headed for the doors. “The President was hoping to meet with you this afternoon, after you have time to get settled in at the hotel, but he’s got a minor crisis on his hands.  One of the Restorationist parties in our coalition is breathing fire and brimstone over a line item in an appropriations bill. It’ll blow over in a day or so, but—well, I’m sure you know how it goes.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Ellen’s been having to deal with that sort of thing every other day or so since the election.”

“That was quite an upset,” she said.

I nodded. “We were pretty happy with the way it turned out.”

Outside the air was blustery and crisp, with the first taste of approaching winter on it. The trees lining the street still clung to a few brown and crumpled leaves. Just past the trees, where I’d expected to see cabs waiting for passengers in a cloud of exhaust, horses stood placidly in front of brightly colored—buggies? Carriages? Whatever they were called, they looked like boxes with big windows, some with four wheels supporting them and some with two, and a seat up top for the driver.

I blinked, and almost stopped. Berger gave me an amused look. “I know,” she said. “We do a lot of things differently here.”

“I’ve noticed that,” I replied.

She led the way to one of the four-wheeled buggies, or whatever they were. Obviously things had been arranged in advance; she said “Good afternoon, Earl,” to the driver, he said “Good afternoon, ma’am” in response, and without another word being said my suitcase found its way into the trunk in back and the three of us were settling into place in comfortable leather seats inside, Berger and I facing forward and Vanich across from us facing backward.

The buggy swung out into traffic and headed down the street. “Is this standard here?” I asked, indicating the vehicle with a gesture.

“The cab? More or less,” said Berger. “There are a few towns with electric cabs and a fair number with pedal cabs, but you’ll find horse cabs everywhere there’s taxi service at all. The others don’t produce methane feedstock.”

I considered that. “But no gasoline or diesel cabs.”

“Not since Partition, no.”

That made a certain amount of sense to me. “I’m guessing the embargo had a lot to do with that.”

“Well, to some extent. There was quite a bit of smuggling, of course—Chicago being right on our border.”

I snorted. “And Chicago being Chicago.”  The Free City of Chicago was the smallest of the nations that came out of Partition, and made up for that by being far and away the most gaudily corrupt.

“Well, yes.  But there wasn’t that much of a market for petroleum products,” she went on. “There’s the tailpipe tax, of course, and we also lost most of the necessary infrastructure during the war—highways, pipelines, all of it.”

“I’m surprised your government didn’t subsidize rebuilding.”

“We don’t do things that way here,” she said.

I gave her a long startled look. “Obviously I have a lot to learn,” I said finally.

She nodded. “Outsiders generally do.”

I filed away the word outsider for future reference. “One thing I’ve been wondering since I crossed the border,” I said then. “Or rather two. You really don’t have metanet service in the Lakeland Republic?”

“That’s correct,” she replied at once. “We actually have jamming stations along the borders, though it’s been fifteen or sixteen years since we last had to use them.”

“Hold it,” I said. “Jamming stations?”

“Mr. Carr,” Berger said, “since Partition we’ve fought off three attempts at regime change and one full-blown military invasion. All the regime change campaigns were one hundred per cent coordinated via the metanet— saturation propaganda via social media, flashmobs, swarming attacks, you know the drill. The third one fizzled because we’d rigged a kill switch in what little metanet infrastructure we had by then and shut it down, and after that the legislature voted to scrap what was left. Then when Brazil and the Confederacy invaded in ‘49, one reason they pulled back a bloody stump was that military doctrine these days—theirs, yours, everybody else’s—is fixated on disrupting network infrastructure and realtime comm-comm, and we don’t have those, so they literally had no clue how to fight us. So, yes, we have jamming stations. If you’d like to visit one I can arrange that.”

I took that in. “That won’t be necessary,” I said then. “Just out of curiosity, do you jam anything else?”

“Not any more. We used to jam radio broadcasts from the Confederacy, but that’s because they jammed ours. We got that settled three years ago.”


“Waste of time. Only about three per cent of the Republic’s within range of a ground station, and the satellite situation—well, I’m sure you know at least as much about that as I do.”

I was by no means sure of that, but let it pass. “Okay, and that leads to my second question. How on earth do you take notes when you don’t have veepads?”

Instead of answering, she directed a rueful look at Vanich, who nodded once, as though my words had settled something.

“I’m guessing,” I said then, “that somebody just won a bet.”

“And it wasn’t me,” Berger said. “There are four questions that outsiders always ask, and there’s always a certain amount of speculation, shall we say, about which one gets asked first.” She held up one finger. “How do you take notes?” A second. “How do you find out what’s happening in the world?” A third. “What do you do to contact people?” A fourth. “And how do you pay your bar tab?”

I laughed. “I’ve got a fifth,” I said. “How do you look up facts without Metapedia?”

“That’s an uncommon one, Mr. Carr,” Vanich said. His voice was as bland and featureless as his face. If he wasn’t a spy, I decided, the Lakeland Republic was misusing his talents. “I’ve heard it now and then, but it’s uncommon.”

“To answer your question,” Berger said then, “most people use paper notebooks.” She pulled a flat rectangular shape out of her purse, fanned it open to show pages with neat angular handwriting on them, put it away again. “Available at any stationery store, but you won’t have to worry about that.  There’s one waiting at your hotel room.”

“Thank you,” I said, trying to wrap my head around writing down notes on sheets of paper. It sounded about as primitive as carving them with a chisel on stone. “Just out of curiosity, what about the others? I was planning on asking those sometime soon.”

“Fair enough,” she said. “You find out what’s happening by reading a newspaper or listening to the radio. You contact people by phone, if you’re in a county with phone service, or by writing a letter or sending a radiogram anywhere. You pay your bar tab with cash, and any larger purchases with a check—we’ve got all that set up for you; you’ll just have to visit a bank, and there’s one a block and a half from the hotel. You look up facts in books—your own, if you’ve got them, or a public library’s if you don’t. There’s a branch five blocks from your hotel.”

“Not as convenient as accessing the metanet,” I noted.

“True, but there are more important things than convenience.”

“Like national survival?”

I’d meant the words as an olive branch of sorts, and she took them that way. “Among other things.”

She looked out the window, then, and turned in her seat to face me. “We’re almost to your hotel. I’m going to have to go back to the Capitol right away and see if I can shake some sense into the Restos, and Fred has his own work to get done.  One way or another, there’ll be someone to take you around tomorrow. If you like, after you’ve settled in and had some lunch, I can have somebody come out and show you the tourist sights, or whatever else you’d like to see.”

“Thank you,” I said, “but I’d like to suggest something different. I hear your streets are pretty safe.”

She nodded. “I know the kind of thing you have to deal with in Philadelphia. We don’t have that sort of trouble here.”

“In that case, I’d like to wander around a bit on my own, check out the landscape—maybe visit the public library you mentioned.”

It was a long shot; I figured the Lakeland government would want me under the watchful eye of a handler the whole time I was in the country. To my surprise, she looked relieved. “If that works for you, it works for us,” she said. “I’ll have somebody call you first thing tomorrow—eight o’clock, if that’s not too early.”

“That’ll be fine.”

“With any luck this whole business will have blown over by then and President Meeker can see you right away.”

“Here’s hoping,” I said.

The cab came to a halt. A moment later, the driver opened the door. I shook both their hands, climbed down to the sidewalk.