Extinctions to Origins: Nuclear Bombs and Medicine Wheels

“I had just seen, standing a little way back from the steep ridge over which we were passing, three trees, probably marking the entrance to a a shady avenue, which made a pattern at which I was looking now not for the first time; I could not succeed in reconstructing the place from which they had been, as it were, detached, but I felt that it had been familiar to me once…” (Proust, Within a Budding Grove, II.20)

A view from a car window: at the bottom, a tarmac baseline, then the shoulder with the dandruff of plastic bags and paper trash. Moving upward, a gas station stationed along the ribbon-scars of roads carved into the planet for the convenience of our cars. Overlaid across this lower section are the Frankenstein stitches of electrical wires, which separate the service streets from the higher layers, where perch the plaster and concrete apartments, faded, less garish, verging into picturesque. These successions are arranged on an inclining hill, so the farther up the windowed view one’s gaze travels, away from the rapidly passing street—because of perspective the upper stratas seem slower, too, less dopplered by the frenzy of gasoline and advertising—,the older the style of the domiciles becomes, until above the familiar shapes rise the brooding ghost-houses of history, built actually into the landscape, slits of parallel windows or doors in soft, igneous rock, behind which waits a thousand year old dark. Then just brush, rock, trees, maybe Junipers—or kavac (poplars) which I was later told the thin, breezy ones I kept seeing probably were. Towards the top of the window, and at the summit of the hill, the trees give up, ceding to the more persistent seeds of grasses, then finally ending with a defeated shrug of rock, edging unadorned into the sky.poplars

That particular panorama, framed in a back-seat car door on a road back from the stunning ruins of Cappadocia, made me think of those stratified illustrations of archaeological digs, a timeline tipped sideways, with ages of stone, copper, bronze, or (if the museum is of natural rather than human history) the paleo, mezo, and cenozoics, but inverted, so that the oldest layers are at the top (the nothing of the sky, then bare rocks, then plants, then the ancient houses) with the newest at the bottom (electricity, advertising, petroleum, litter, pavement). Looking back, though, I’m not so sure that the directionality needs to be reversed. Evolution does not always travel in one direction, constantly tending upward; neither does history. From a wide enough perspective, time is not an arrow, but a wheel. We might very well be at the point of a revolution, where stages of social and technological “development” begin to wind backward in reverse. What goes down must come up. Underground rest the sedimented layers of human history, but what lies above/ahead of us may be very much the same, falling back through the familiar succession of nuclear, petroleum, electricity, steam, feudal, and all the way down to nomadic or “primitive,” until we again find ourselves looking at the open, star-filled sky.

From the perspective of ecology, of course, this has already started to happen. The biosphere, having reached an apogee of diversity and biochemical complexity 10,000 years ago, when the first proto-farmers in Mesopotamia made the decision to plant instead of gather, and domesticate cows and pigs instead of hunt, has been steadily reduced. There is something hopeful in the coming collapse, and the books I’ve been reading that offer various visions of what might follow. Many things are nearing their peak, and we can begin to see the other side: oil, tyranny, fraudulent economies, and concentrations of power and wealth.

COLLAPSE OF DISTANT STARS

In the same way that environmentalists want to decentralize supplies of food and energy, one of my long-term goals is to try and have a community-based network of writers and readers: culture rather than the culture industry, social relationships rather than those sociologists call “para-social” in which our psychologies are cynically tricked into thinking of celebrities as friends. A participatory rather than passive entertainment, an evolving, human ecology rather than a dehumanizing catalog of mass-produced commodity.

For the first time, I get to write about an author in this blog who I have actually met.

“You must be looking for books in English,” a voice said, in one of the last stalls we visited at the Used Book Fair in Taksim. He was tall, blond, wearing glasses, obviously American. He asked if there was anything in particular I was searching for, and I told him I was a fan of science fiction. I noticed an Arthur C. Clarke book on one of the shelves—I’d just picked up a collection of his short stories The Other Side of the Sky, the pages of which, as I am typing this, are spread out on the table. The volume is so old that the brittle yellow leaves are falling out of the binding as I turn them, as if the book is a tree in autumn. The young man, around my age, informs me that he has a collection of short stories that are “sort of science fiction” by a local author.

“You know the guy?” I ask.

“I am the guy.” He signs it for me, and I tell him I’ll let him know what I think.

Years ago, in Iowa City, in a graduate class called Time and Narrative Theory, we were reading Henri Bergson’s Matter and Memory (it was, for me, the second time). Bergson has a theory about perception according to which images are potential actions. We see things in terms of our possible influence on them. When we look at a glass what really enters our mind is the ability to grasp it and take a drink. A horizon is, in this theory, our ability to travel there. In writing a response, I pointed out that if this were true, we wouldn’t be able to see the stars.

Like Bergson’s theory of perception, I tend to only really see (or write about) stories or novels when they serve, for me, some ulterior purpose: when I can use then to illustrate a point or develop some larger, inter-textual theme. When I’ve actually met the author, this seems rather selfish, and I feel like I should apologize.

Called Ten Tales of Origins and Extinctions, the short stories are wry parables about science, modernity, and belief. In one called “Collapse” a depressed worker at a “mail processing center” (one thinks of Herman Melville’s Bartleby in his “dead letter office”) buys a star, or rather the right to have a star named after him, from NASA, in order to prove his ambition to his girlfriend, who, unimpressed, breaks up with him anyway.

skyline

The impression a work of fiction makes on us often depends on the circumstances of our reading it. It might be worth noting, then, that I encountered “Collapse” after having taking a frighteningly rickety, door-less elevator to a roof-top restaurant (called the Balkon), the evening after I had bought it from the author, looking out over the darkening streets, bridges, and mosques of Istanbul. Dinner was over and we were drinking wine. My wife and her friend didn’t mind my rudeness, ignoring them in favor of a book, since the conversation was in Turkish. It would have been fittingly picturesque if I could say that I was reading under the stars, but air and light pollution make the stars seldom visible here, and by the time it was dark, anyway, we had gone inside to one of the lower floors to get out of the cold.

The story seems to be about distance, and perspective. Because he shows up late for work after his girlfriend leaves him, Horatio must make mandated calls to a tele-therapist. In one of these calls he confides that the star he purchased has died.

“Your star collapsed. That’s amazing!” she says.

Horatio doesn’t see it that way.

Trying to comfort him, she tells him that “since your star was 128 light years away, it’s already been dead for 128 years. It just took that long for its light to stop reaching us.”

Again, somehow, this fails to cheer him up.

Finally, though, the tele-therapist does manage to say something that gives him some degree of solace, in the last few lines of the story. “What I’m saying is that the light of your star resonated long after its life expired. While it will never be visible from Earth again, worlds even farther away can still see it. There are even places where the light hasn’t reached yet…”

The metaphor of “Collapse” is multivalent. The extinction of the star is the origin of a change, one hopes, in the protagonist. Hamish, when I contacted him, told me that many of the stories in this collection had been written around ten years ago, which means that the light of the story did, probably, take quite a while to reach me.

In the Arthur C. Clarke book that is collapsing as I read it, there happen to be two other stories about the death of stars. In one, “No Morning After,” a drunken, day-dreaming rocket scientist named Bill Cross is the only human on Earth who is in the right state of mind to receive an urgent telepathic communique from a distant alien race, who desperately tries to warn him that the Earth’s sun will explode in a matter of days. Bill listens, (“…go ahead and talk to me. I won’t mind as long as it’s interesting”), but laughs it off as a hallucination, wondering what the next one will be, before passing out, with no memory of it in the morning. Four days later the sun explodes.

In another story called “The Star,” the faith of a catholic space-explorer is shaken when his expedition discovers the remains of an advanced civilization that built a Vault to preserve relics of their civilization when their own Sun went supernovae. They had known they were doomed, constructing on a distant pluto-like planet a “Vault” to preserve what they could for explorers to find in the distant future. For the religious astronaut, “it is one thing for a race to fall and die, as nations and cultures have done on Earth. But to be destroyed so completely in the full flower of its achievement, leaving no survivors—how could that be reconciled with the mercy of God?” Then comes the final blow, when he fixes a date for when the nebula-causing explosion occurred.other_side_sky

“I know in what year the light of this colossal conflagration reached our Earth. I know how brilliantly the supernova whose corpse now dwindles behind our speeding ship once shone in terrestrial skies. I know how it must have blazed low in the east before sunrise, like a beacon in that oriental dawn.”

It was the star of Bethlehem.

The cynical, cosmic humor of “No Morning After” and “The Star” reminds me of the sardonic, apocalyptic comedy in many of the 10 Tales of Origins and Extinctions. Clarke’s classic golden-age SF stories and Hamish Dee’s tales speak to the sometimes despairing existential darkness, filled with absurdity and possibility, that envelopes us when the light of long-ago exploded theological doctrine finally stops giving us any real illumination, and we have to look elsewhere.

YESTERDAY’S LONG TOMORROWS

You would think that Science Fiction novels would not age well. Books that predict the future, especially if they predict it incorrectly, should cease to have claim to our interest once that future actually arrives. I find, however, the opposite to be true. There is something satisfying about seeing how the past imagined a chronology that we can now compare to what actually unfolded. It is fascinating, for example, to read how Arthur C. Clarke imagined the moon landing would take place (“Venture to the Moon”) more than a decade before it actually happened.

Like On the Other Side of the Sky (1958), Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955) was written when the after-image of Hiroshima was still freshly burned into the horrified eyelids of the world. It envisions a United States two-generations after a nuclear war devastates the cities, a time we can roughly, although no exact date is given, approximate as now. In order to prevent such a catastrophic collapse from ever happening again, the thirtieth amendment to the constitution has been passed, stating “no city, no town, no community of more than one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile shall be built or permitted to exist anywhere in the United States of America.”

In 1961, as Eric Schlosser has recently revealed in Command and Control, a B-52 carrying a two hydrogen bombs exploded over North Carolina, and as The Guardian summarizes, “one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.”

That single switch, the secret document Schlosser uncovered shows, could have put the world on a very different course, much like the alternate future/history Brackett envisions, leading to a drastically altered present. Ironically, though, there might have been more trees.

The majority religion in The Long Tomorrow has become “New Mennonite,” because “when the cities ended, and men found that in the changed world these of all folk were best fitted to survive, the Mennonites had swiftly multiplied into the millions they now counted” (4). Len and Esau are two young boys that balk under the yoke of neo-amish fundamentalism and a superstitious rejection of all technology, dreaming of the vanished world of metropolises and a mythical place in the Western desert called “Bartorstown” where the old, forbidden knowledge is kept alive. The novel opens with the two sneaking off to a revival meeting where a man is denounced as being from this taboo-defying city, and stoned to death. Shaken but undeterred, the boys continue to go against the prohibitive precepts of the elders, and with the dead man’s radio, plot to run away and travel West.

The landscape of the re-wilded world is beautifully evoked, a rather lovely dystopia, like a Luddite’s pradise. When Len, the morning after he and Esau are caught with the radio and stolen books, and are savagely beaten, looks out of his window.

“The air was full of sound, the screaming of jays and the harsh call of a pheasant in the hedgerow, the piping and chirping of innumerable birds. Len looked out, past the lightning-blasted stump of a giant maple with one indomitable spray of green still sprouting from its side, over the henhouse roof and the home field with the winter wheat ripening on it, to the rough hill slope and the upper wood rising to a crest on which were three dark pines. And a dull sadness came over him, because he was looking at it for the last time” (68).

We are meant, as readers, to sympathize with Len and Esau’s curiosity and restlessness under the stifling rules of their religious community, but Brackett’s evocations of the natural world makes the moral of the text ambiguous, more speculative than didactic.

Derek Jensen, the radical environmental philosopher, has notably argued that all cities are necessarily based on inequality and exploitation. Jensen defines civilization as life characterized by the growth of cities, and claims that because a metropolis can’t be self-sustaining, unable to grow its own food or supply its own energy, it must necessarily extract and import resources from surrounding areas. Because no communities will give up their resources willingly, cities must rely on oppressive structures of power. Therefore, he openly advocates the end of civilization.

Jensen and other radical environmentalists would probably be in favor of something like the thirtieth amendment in Brackett’s novel. The collapse of industrial economies, brought about by resource shortages and the intrinsically imploding mechanisms built into global financial capital, is going to happen one way or another, they say, and the only thing we can hope for is to mitigate the violence of the transition, and try, in the future, to build something better from the wreck.

MEDICINE WHEELS

There other laws I would like to see passed before a ban on cities. Here are some of them: a prohibition on advertising in public spaces. A prohibition of all personal automobiles (or failing that, a ban on all automobiles within the limits of a city). A prohibition on all campaign contributions over 100 dollars, by individuals or corporations. An absolute ban on loans, and instant forgiveness of all private and public debt. At the very least a ban on all interest on loans, including and especially that levied by the Federal Reserve. Of course none of those things could happen, until this turn of the wheel has ended.

svahaSvaha (1989) by Charles de Lint gives a much different take on a post-apocalyptic North America. In his story Native Americans, rather than Mennonites, come out ahead. His narrative presents more than a choice between forward progress and backwards regression to an earlier stage of culture and technology. The indigenous tribes are portrayed as adapting best to a degraded biosphere not because they chose nature over technology, but because their technology is ecological, grounded in understanding of the natural world.

Charles de Lint was one of my favorite authors in my early teens. The Little Country (1991) took my adolescent mind by a storm of celtic myths and music. The mandolin that I travel with has strings that can be traced back to his urban fantasy books and stories, largely set in Newford, a fictional Canadian city, featuring a group of artist and musician friends capable of seeing into a hidden, magical world. I was afraid, when I saw Svaha, that, like so many fantasy novels, reading them as an adult would diminish the memory of enjoying them as a child. Svaha, though surprised me. The fantasy elements were subordinated, this time, to a SF cyber-punk sensibility, that could have been borrowed from the best of Neal Stephenson’s work.

Like The Long Tomorrow, de Lint’s text presents a world post-collapse, where a previously marginalized minority has gained ascendancy.

“When New York and Los Angeles were destroyed by terrorist warheads, the tribes had won back their lands and the first barriers were raised, forming the Lakota Enclave in the Black Hills and the Navajo/Hopi Enclave in the American Southwest. By the time Europe was suffering the chaos of the Food Riots, while the United States and Russia had fallen in a limited nuclear exchange, the Japanese claimed Canada, and the Chinese much of Russia and the States, there were twelve Enclaves in North America, two in South America, two in Australia, one in Africa, and the Soyot Enclave in Siberia.” (20).

The Native American enclaves are connected via “skyhooks” to orbital space stations, and have technology advanced enough to shield them from the results of climate change, radiation, and pollution. Outside these barriers, the megaplexes are controlled by warring factions of Nipponese and Asiatic business interests, with whites and blacks relegated to the slums and wastelands.

The action centers around Ghazee, a Native American “Claver” who is sent to track down a missing flyer that went down in Japanese-controlled Canada, and a messenger from the squats named Lisa Bone who was charged with delivering this prized piece of tech to the Triads. The fantasy elements appear in the form of a Manitou, or spirit: a coyote with mismatched eyes, who in dream-visions compels Ghazee to become a spiritual guide in the wastes, bringing wisdom and hope to the world outside the enclaves.

Jared Diamond (in a book called Collapse), along with others, has pointed out that indigenous Americans comprise of some of the few societies that managed to subsist over long periods of time (orders of magnitude longer than U.S. or European nation-states) without degrading the habitats that sustained them. Nor was this simply a matter of a primitive, savage innocence. Native Americans were involved in an intensive, conscious, and complex interaction with the land and its ecology.

Recently I had a conversation with a Turk, in which he made the statement that U.S. History, as opposed to that of the Mediterranean, was only a few hundred years old. I agreed, but politely pointed out that American history actually goes back tens of thousands of years. Our ancient cities and monuments are our forests, our soil, and our plains, all of which are the product of a different kind of human industry, a sort of bio-technology that leaves no trace and needs few tools, but was human intervention nonetheless. We don’t have antique cities carved in stone (except for Mesa Verde, I suppose), but our nature isn’t “natural.” We have unruined ruins, still growing in the Earth, a living gift from our predecessors (not ancestors, for most of us) that we have largely forgotten.

There is a tendency for white Americans to ironically identify with and romanticize native cultures (see Vine Deloria Jr.’s Playing Indian), but de Lint’s book suggests a different relationship with indigenous traditions than the usual patronizing appropriation and condescending approval. He rightly rejects the idea that native traditions, like environmental movements, must necessarily be anti-technological. In Svaha, Claver tech is far advanced beyond the Yakuzas or Triads, although, as Ghazee says to Lisa “our technologies are as concerned with the clean disposal of wastes as they are with advances. We have cities, integrated with their environment, but we also keep our old traditions” (122).

Progress under capitalism, under the paradigm of markets abstracted from nature and ecological constraints, will always be destructive. It will be able to build skyscrapers, but not to keep the trash from blowing through the streets. It can produce aeroplanes and the internet, but can’t keep smog from choking out the stars. There will be great medical advances, but with most of the world unable to afford them. It can breathe out, but not in, speak but not listen. Development will only in-debt us further, driving us into increasingly frantic cycles of profits and war.

Svaha is eclectic, but not entirely free of stereotypes. The main Japanese character is a samouri, one of the two main black characters a rastafari, and the Chinese characters meditate in zen gardens on the top of apartment complexes, and practice Tai Chi. If you want another book that has a more knowledgeable blending and dismantling of ethnicities and religions, I would recommend one that I just finished, Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon. In the afterword, he mentions that his working title for the book was Jews with Swords. It is an atmospheric and impressively intelligent historical adventure set Eastern Europe of the the 10th century, with beautiful line-drawing illustrations by Gary Gianni. The two gentlemen of the title are an Abyssinian and a Frankish jew, but there are also Kazars, Rus, Radanites, and other permutations on the polyglottic Balkan melting pot, all of which serve as a reminder that it is not only the future that is migratory and multi-ethnic, but also, equally, the past.

RED FLAGS AND ANTI-PROUST

“I looked at the three trees; I could see them plainly, but my mind felt that they were concealing something which it had not grasped, as when things are placed out of our reach, so that our fingers, stretched out at arm’s-length, can only touch for a moment their outer surface, and can take hold of nothing” (Proust, Within a Budding Grove, II.20)

As much as it pleases me to write about books and authors that few people know about, I equally like to talk trash about the authors everyone else seems to idolize and adore. I thought Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust was incredibly trivial and boring. Theorists like Walter Benjamin, I remember, talk about his masterful understanding and deployment of memory. The trees seen from the train window hint at this, I suppose, but Proust’s main skill, to me, seems to be the dubious ability to write endlessly about utterly insignificant details. Perhaps Proust’s secret is that although no one enjoys reading him, they remember, later, that his works were somehow wonderful. If this is the case, that mental alchemy, for me, has yet to happen.

The second book of the seven volume In Search of Lost Time (À la Recherche du Temps Perdu), Into a Budding Grove is a first-person account of a young, aristocratic neurasthenic’s unrequited love affairs, the maliciousness of polite Parisian society, and his own endlessly detailed mental states. Nothing actually happens. The feeling it evokes is similar to that of the Warhammer novels, except instead of actual battle there is only the warfare of social snobbery—gossip rather than chain-swords and bolter guns. I found myself missing Malus Darkblade.

The best I can say about Within a Budding Grove was that reading it was quite conducive to thinking about something else. Proust’s over-articulate and intricate sentences, without actually saying anything, create a kind of cloud of refined language through which your mind can languidly drift. His extensive extended metaphors create the not unpleasant impression that anything could be connected to anything else.

Proust’s novel struck a bitter chord with me because it reminded me of my own fears concerning my extended education: that it was irrelevant, a dabbling dilettantism without any application or purpose. The narration seems morbidly apolitical, like the self-satisfied prattlings of a pampered prince who never leaves the palace, his third eye opening not in his forehead, but in his navel, offering him everything his aesthetic, self-anesthetizing gaze will ever need.

The danger of over-refining your own sensibilities is that it comes at the cost of being able to connect meaningfully with others, and with causes that actually matter. The last novel I want to talk about doesn’t exist. Let’s say the main character is an American, who carries Within a Budding Grove with him to the French Consulate in a country called…um…Murkey. The consulate has a wall around it like a prison, spiked metal parapets pointing outward, and razor-wire coiled around the entrance before the security door with the little intercom where you announce your name to be admitted. It is that razorwire, those walls (or others like them) that keep the character from crossing the border out of fiction. The French, he gets the feeling, don’t trust the Murkish very much.

The protagonist goes to a demonstration on the day of Murkish independence, and is at first repelled by the mass of flags, the fireworks, loud nationalist anthems, and chanting of slogans, all of which reminds him somehow of professional sports-fans. His mind has always maintained something like the intellectual equivalent of the thirtieth amendment in The Long Tomorrow: if more than a thousand people think something (especially within one square mile of one another), it probably isn’t true. He has, like many cynical, post-modern Americans, a kind of ideological kill-switch built into his brain called individualism which activates whenever confronted with the potential for political solidarity, and makes him feel superior. Isn’t this, though, the anti-Proust? The antidote to the solipsism of purely literary studies, of bourgeois artistic indolence?

Is all Nationalism necessarily bad? What if, as his wife suggests, the current Murkish government doesn’t want the Murks to celebrate their independence, because Atta-murk advocated a populist program that took care of even the poorest citizens, and those in power are now trying to subvert that tradition in favor of privatization, a neo-liberal bank-backed global oligarchy, using religion as a club to beat back the progressive gains of history? Is a flag necessarily an unhealthy symbol to rally around, if it can represent not the celebration of a foreign invasion (like, let’s face it, the American), but the repelling of a foreign force (the British in 1913), and the resistance to new types of financial occupation? Aren’t there, anyway, elements of American history, not just the American ecology, that our disillousioned character can feel proud of? Doesn’t it have its Hawthornes, Emersons, and Poes, its activists, scientists, and scholars? Is the nation always the wrong scale at which to think–are politics always a waste of time? He’s not certain anymore.flags

The street they were marching down was closed to traffic, and that, at least, was something he could cheer for. He pretends, for a moment, that that is what the exuberance is about, and that everyone is yelling for the day when all roads will be closed to cars. Trees (maples?) are growing on the side of the street, and in the press of people, the protagonist reaches out to touch them. They are his flags, he thinks. Roots of the past and leaves in the future. The origins of books.

Later, over beers, he will lean back and look up, trying to confirm or deny what he had written earlier about stars in the city, if they could be seen. Barely, he could make one out, but it might be a planet—it might be Venus.

He tries to find a constellation, a pattern, in the books he has read over the past month. Three groups of trees, all of which are seen through windows: the three (Proust doesn’t care enough to name their species) of Within a Budding Grove, which the narrator dreamily contemplates from a train, the “three dark pines” Len Coulter sees from his window in The Long Tomorrow, and then the poplar trees in Capaddocia, viewed from the back seat of a car, in his own adventure narrative. Always behind glass, always when the viewer is moving away. They remind him of something else, some memory, that he is leaving behind and moving toward, reaching out to touch.

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