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Posts Tagged ‘Science Fiction’

I think I want to write on truths now.

Personal truths. Truths we keep tucked away because, frankly, we really don’t want people to see certain parts of who we are. The weak parts. The failed parts. The lie-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-stare-at-the-ceiling parts.

We don’t want people to sense our own view of ourselves as having fallen short.

Sometimes it – life – is all about movement … momentum … momentum that creeps into your existence, wending its way into your affairs, dictating progress, obscuring goals, moving you in directions you may never have intended, taking on a life of its own …

… and then a moment happens, an unheralded, unexpected, a stop-in-the-middle-of-the-whirlwind-of-your-day-to-day-life sort of moment … and everything changes …

The Monster…

I recently traveled to the Sierra Foothills to visit an old and treasured friend. I’d finished the last two parts of Ronin, the second cycle of the series of books I’ve been working at on-and-off for the past decade. It was the stereotypical, metaphorical weight being released thing; the heavy sigh accompanying the long overdue resolution, and I was going to his place, to relax, visit with him, with his wife, enjoy their good company – and turn over the manuscript for impressions.

The monster had other plans, of course. Woke me up in the early morning hours before we set out, whispering softly she wanted to play. On the drive out she came and went, slipping in and out of the periphery, never quite disappearing. By our destination she rose, as if from slumber, stretched and settled in. A beautiful, sun-shining day gone gray, my time in this wonderful place informed by regular retreats to the comfort of shadows and quiet and the medications that could only blunt the assault, but never drive her off. Two days, long days, one side of me clear, unaffected; the other subsumed in a blanket of dull – and sometimes sharp, throbbing – pain.

2:00 AM, Sunday morning, waking from a featureless, distant dream. Darkness. I sit up, ignoring the accompanying thickness that floods my head. The monster wants to be clear with me: she likes it here, and plans to stay past the normal expiration date.

We know each other well, the monster and me. Headaches … the kind of headaches I get, migraine headaches … the headaches that I live with (there really is no other way to describe the condition) … have a life all their own. They become a constant occasional companion in your life. There is this dance we do, this Monster, the headache, and me, something of a game: she likes to try to sneak up while dropping clues to let me know she’s coming … playing fair, so to speak. And if I’m paying attention, if I’m really listening to the soft murmurs of my body, I can head the bitch off, or at least blunt the arrival and the misery to come.

Not this time, though. Like I said, she’s there for a long haul, an unusual occurrence. Considerations of ice picks and do-it-yourself brain surgery slip in and out of my thoughts, and I breathe again, deep, the effect a dull knife inside as I feel her talons dig in from the base of my skull to the pulsing socket of my eye, streams of persistent fire that make me dizzy and sometimes nauseous (though, thankfully, not this time). In fact, my right eye has a mind of its own; a long tear slips free, tracing its way down the side of my face, unbidden, followed by another, and another, a small stream of salty moisture. There is no controlling the flow; the right side of my head is pretty much operating in its own reality. The phenomena will repeat itself throughout the morning and afternoon, coming and going.

I get up, putting on sandals, and go outside. Nighttime, summer in the Sierras, the weather unseasonably cool, but not so that I’m uncomfortable. The coolness softens things, helps release the tension, but it is an illusion. This will make the monster stronger, of course. Doesn’t matter.

I look up into the night sky, and for a moment, a very brief and happy moment, I’ve got the universe to myself. I forget my unwanted guest and take it all in, behold the stars as they arc across the night sky. So many stars, stars I never see … the sky is blazingly beautiful.

The beauty is marred, though, and I feel the energy drain as she bears down, throbbing pulses coursing through the right side of my head, and I finally give in, turn and head back.

The next day arrives and I shamble through, making the best of things until it is time to go. The journey home to my city is a study in quiet agony and traffic frustration, but as we near our destination I feel my the pain ease off as she finally begins to relent and I am thankful for the sleep that awaits.

… and so the week began and I never catch this other thing that was talking to me in the foothills, ’cause the Monster was busy dancing with me …

Something…

I’d been watching the Civil War again. Just finished, actually. I keep going back. Ken Burns’ documentary is one of those films that never loses its power; it’s 20 years now, and still it retains the ability to draw you in, to stir your heart as it brings to life its long-dead actors. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fault, this time. I read his achingly powerful blog piece written upon completing Ulysses S. Grant’s memoir and started feeling the scratching in the back of my consciousness. It took a while, but I finally gave in. As always, it was well worth the visit.

Tears come easier these years. It’s something I’m noticing, testosterone is dropping a touch, I guess. Well, I know what can be done for that. Kidding aside, I’ve always been something of a softy, afflicted or gifted – depending upon perspective, I guess – with a gentle core that allows the emotion to play out. Of course, we live in a culture where such tears are frowned upon, even thought a sign of weakness, so my tears are oft reserved for the darkness, for the quiet, private places I retreat to to contemplate my karma and wrestle with my demons. It’s funny, in a way, and perhaps sad, this unspoken prohibition on emotion we seem to value as Americans. I recall how earlier cultures had no such curb, like the ancient Greeks, who felt that two men, sharing grief and emotion together, created a powerful bond between them. Then again, they didn’t have indoor plumbing, so I guess we’ve got something on them there …

It hurts to watch this thing unfold, to see the wrongs that fed it, the determination of Lincoln to save the Union, the sacrifices on both sides for their beliefs. You thrill all at once at both the courage and insanity to led so many to slaughter, sense the ache bubble up, seeking a release, feel those forbidden tears spring unbidden from the heart. There’s something here in this story, something deep and profound that goes far beyond trite stereotypes and strikes deep into your soul. North vs. South, brother against brother … yes, yes, I’ve heard it all before.

This is something beyond that, far beyond  … I just don’t know what that something is.

The not knowing is troubling …

How Do You Feel?

It’s kinda crazy out there, these days, in this world we find ourselves in. Uncertainty is the watchword of the hour … things we’ve taken for granted and assumed, ideas and institutions – foundations we built upon – are shown to be vulnerable to failure. The culture is in what seems a perpetual state of upheaval and fear and anger. And we’re all in the middle of it, caught up in the details – or ignoring them altogether – and losing sight of the bigger picture.

May you live in interesting times …

I grew up in a world that is increasingly distant and alien to the world I live in. I look for it from time to time, occasionally catch glimpses, but such sightings are increasingly rare and illusory. I’m not sure what this means. Everything now is familiar and strange, comfortable and disquieting. I look at places I’ve known for decades and it’s like seeing two realities superimposed upon one another – that which once was, and that which is.

Lately I find myself wandering dank alleyways of the internet, poking my nose in the dark places we humans tend to live. Message boards, Facebook pages, blogs and news reports that seem to share a commonality … an increasing sense of the unhinged. I’ve noticed there are a lot more of these places – these dank alleyways and dark places – and it feels like people are gravitating to them in growing numbers. I wonder at this … sometimes. I’m not a Pollyanna, not by any stretch. I “get” the human condition, I know what we’re capable of, the nuttiness that can inhabit us, the madness that can carry us off on wild tangents, the nightmares we can conjure from the best of intentions. It’s all there in the history books, for one thing, hard to miss, and it seems like we’re watching a familiar story playing itself out right now. Everything feels like it’s taken on a life of its own, the pettiness, lunacy, bigotry – it’s all on display, everywhere you look, tearing things up, and no one seems to be aware or care – they’re just letting it all carry them along.

Momentum. You don’t even feel it sometimes. It picks you up and transports you places, places you never dreamed you were going …

Sleepwalking…

It was a week. On Monday, the Monster tried to make an encore performance, making for a loopy kind of day with little sudden explosions going off in the mess she’d made of my head over the weekend. But her heart wasn’t in it; it’s no fun when there’s nothing left to ruin. Tuesday was the living dead day Monday was supposed to be as the exhaustion of fighting the Monster for three days settled in. Wednesday was okay, but only just. Things are picking up at work, which is good in terms of employment, but there is inevitable baggage. Thursday things got busy. Really busy.

Meanwhile, we’re plotting out a renovation at Dartmouth Manor. This is a good thing, as school resumes for the Elektric One, and I prepare to go to war again – and try and get some blog posts in, some editing, and a few new chapters for the third cycle underway. The editorial staff huddled over floor plans for weeks, drawing up schemes to make the best use of the space – for themselves of course. Critters are like humans – self-interest comes first. Got so bad I rolled everything up and threw it in the trash. We’re upending things: the Elektric One is moving upstairs and she’s commandeering my room, I’m moving into the study, and the downstairs becomes the new study/entertainment room. In the process, we plan to downsize more than a little bit. Of course, the boys have their own ideas about what happens with the downstairs, leading to the inevitable negotiations and drama. It got to where the Elektric One threatened to get a real dog.

That shut ’em up.

But the project is on hold … we’ve not been able to do prep work around Dartmouth for the reorganization ’cause both of us are busy with our day jobs, so we’re putting it off for a week or two …

And still I sleepwalk through it all, ignoring everything I’m telling myself that I can’t hear.

It’s right there.

Right there.

And I can’t see it.

Until…

Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?

“… what you witness happened long ago in the here-and-now, in a time and place that never will be, where neither you nor Sienna ever existed,” she replied in a matter-of-fact manner, like she was discussing the weather.

“Say what?”

“Did you look at the stars yet?” I nodded. “Did you see anything unusual, anything strange?”

“Well, it is a bright night,” I replied slowly, looking up.

I heard her chuckle. “Indeed. Look at the sky carefully, Sam. Very carefully.”

Slowly standing to get a better view over the parapet walls, I did as she asked. The stars were blazing, everywhere I looked filling the night sky with a tapestry of brilliant colors that ranged across the spectrum. I took my time, scanning the heavens, trying to figure out what it was Charmayne was getting at. I was about to ask her when understanding finally dawned.

When you look up in the night sky in a city, you see only a few of the stars that would otherwise be visible because of the light pollution. Only when you get really far away from cities and towns do you see the night sky as the ancients did. In those empty places the heavens are a vision of white and amber lights that really bring home a sense of the millions and billions of stars that are out there. I recall seeing the Milky Way while camping with my parents in the Sierras as a child, the bright belt of stars streaming across the heavens, brilliant and glowing, and knew that what I saw then was nothing compared to what I beheld now. There were too many stars, too many colors, and so many of them far too large and close. I squinted, trying to sharpen my focus. I could actually see what appeared to be a glowing haze, green and red and purple, that stretched in places across large swaths of the sky, and in a few areas where there were no stars to be seen, I realized I was seeing black dust clouds, tens, maybe hundreds of light years across.  And with that realization came another, suddenly frightening in its implications.

“Charmayne,” I asked slowly, trying to keep my voice calm, “where are we?” She stood up to stand next to me. I pulled my gaze from the sky and looked directly at her, feeling dizzy and disjointed. “I know this sounds stupid, but we’re not on earth anymore, are we?”

She didn’t flinch, didn’t try to ease me into it. “No, Sam,” she replied evenly, “we’re not. Actually, we’re not even in the same region of your galaxy.”

“Oh,” was all I could come up with. I looked up again. “How far?”

“Very far. Um … about sixteen hundred light years, actually, give or take a few.”

“Uh- huh.” I paused again. The panorama really was breathtaking. “Am I going to get to go home again?”

She stifled a giggle and I looked back at her.

“This isn’t funny, you know…”

=====

When I started A Brown Rose and Dark Puppy, I had an idea of where I was going, what I was trying to do. Still do. They’ve been on hold for a while, but things are sort of falling into place and there will be more “stuff”, as Stu likes to put it, coming up soon. It’s something to look forward to, the writing, the creating.

Small pleasures.

Finishing Ronin was a pain. There were a lot of characters I fell in love with, and I ended up doing terrible things to them. This might sound odd, or even funny to you. I would understand if it did; after all, you have not lived with these “people” for a decade, chronicled their adventures, their loves and hates, successes and failures, thrilled at the discoveries made of who they were, found joy in how they became part of – and worked within – the greater tapestry of your creation.

And you didn’t kill any of them off.

That’s the odd psychosis of writing I’ve increasingly been aware of, the attachment that grows alongside the cold-blooded service to the story a writer is committed to. Even in fiction, there must be truth or, at least, what you perceive as truth.

Truth can be painful. One chapter I wrote involved the death of a beloved character, one I became attached to early on, almost from the moment of her creation. I found myself writing around the event, delaying the inevitable moment of pulling the trigger, so to speak. When I finally did, the event was short, concise and violent, as deaths can often be, and I found myself feeling both satisfied with the ‘truth’ of what I put down … and inhabited by the weird sense of loss and grief that accompanied that satisfaction.

And here it comes again as I write this, bubbling up from nowhere …

Everything springs from your imagination. You craft characters, imbue them with life, learn their histories, grow into their passions and desires, until you know them as you know yourself because, in truth, they are  a product of something that lives inside you that you have developed and polished and learned about with naked intimacy. They are a part of who I am; I don’t think I could ‘write’ them any other way. I’m not sure this is how others write fiction; I don’t really care: this is how I write, how I create, wrapping myself around my character, immersing myself in their realities.

Writing those last few chapters was in some ways an exercise in closure. Normally, when I write a chapter I know where I am starting from, and I know where I want to get to – how I get there, however, is never really known until I take the journey. I don’t plot things out beyond a general understanding that certain things need to occur before we – my characters and I – reach our destination. It is a fun way to work.

But in the case of the entire cycle, I knew how it would end, knew who would die, who would be crippled and changed, what would be lost. So the closer I came to the finish, the more difficult it became, as the events were more delineated, the room for exploration more limited.

What I really wanted to do was get started with the next cycle, to move on in the adventure now that I knew the stage was set in my head, the backstory understood, pieces in their place, mysteries laid out.

But, first, there was a blood debt to be paid.

And I paid it.

And there I was …

Speed Trap …

So I finally caught up with myself.

It was Friday. Friday the 13th. Not that it means anything. The date, I mean.

I missed the insight all last week, just let it slip right on by me. It was right there, right in front of me, but the Monster had my attention.

And I would have kept missing it.

Except … I stopped.

Momentum. Sneaky summabitch. Bad as the Monster is, at least she’s upfront.

But momentum, that’s different. Like I said, you don’t even know it’s happening. You pick up speed, moving along, and everything on the periphery fades, becoming blurred shadows lacking form or meaning. And pretty soon you lose all meaning.

It’s all so perfect. Insidiously so.

We’ve been living under cloud cover for weeks now, here in the City by the Bay, including my small corner of our hilly metropolis that does get sun even when when the rest of the place is covered in gray. At night the fog settles, thick and moist, and the world around us shrinks to a couple of blocks bathed in dim amber light. As it is, if not for the trip to the Sierra Foothills, I would not have not seen the stars in weeks. “Are they still there?” Reggie asks, his discomfiture obvious. Dogs need the stars, I think. Little holes in the sky through which they search for their dreams …

And all the while I’m living a waking dream, existing in a comatose consciousness, leaving important bits and pieces of myself behind, it seems, to pursue …

What?

What is it I’m pursuing?

Silence.

I don’t know.

I know the things I want to pursue … but all of that seems distant, disconnected from my existence as momentum carries me forward, as I make ends meet and keep my eye on the ball and all the rest of the cliched crap, worrying at the future as the center increasingly does not hold and things appear to be falling apart all around us.

The future.

What happened to the future?

Our future?

My future?

I realize there are days now where I am more weary than others, and the road I thought I traveled seems lost in a maze of detours and dead ends. I’m sure on some level it is a byproduct of aging, of seeing the world with older eyes, with a sense of growing understanding of the finite nature of everything.

I mentioned Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece on Grant that brought me back to that war that did so much to define this land I live in. I mentioned tears, as well, and how I missed something and nearly forgot that I’d done so as the week progressed and I fell into the rhythms and momentums that seem to have a hold of my life these days. Coates put up something else, unrelated, but equally powerful. He talked about a lot of things, current events surrounding civil rights, people resisting bigotry and exclusion and related matters … and he wrote of the oddity of being of the city and visiting, living in the woods; of the fear he felt at what might seem simple things, fed by imagination, like the idea he could not see the animals at night, but knew they could see him; at the fury of nature as it cut loose around him. He talked about having less internet interaction than normal, and about breaking his iPhone, being cut off suddenly from everything and not minding.

And one line stood out:

“But out here in the great green, I’m not convinced that any of it matters.”

And the momentum crashed to a stop, fading out, disappearing as if it never were.

And I suddenly realized what the Monster had obscured that night a week before, even as I stared up into the star-filled sky and traced the faint line of the Milky Way and saw all the clues come together for me.

And then the tears came, and they still come, unheralded, unexpected, uncaring …

Something needs to change …

Something …

Postscript

I woke up in the morning
With an arrow through my nose …

~Neil Young –
Last Trip to Tulsa

The Monster returned a week later, Saturday morning. Faint, distant, I could hear her whisper, and as I lay there, thinking on her, I wondered at my life and this thing that shares it with me. I got up and, as always, mounted my defenses, shrugged on my armor, and prepared for the new battle. There followed a shower, coffee, and soon I was in the Buddhamobile and cruising the wet and misty pre-dawn shadows of San Francisco, rolling over slick, reflective streets, winding my way around the City’s periphery until I was at Ocean Beach, by the Zoo, and I drove on, past the Sunset District where I grew up and then the Park where I played with the 40th Ave. gang and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Bar at Beach Chalet where I drank and shot pool while in college, on past the foot of the Outer Richmond, where once upon a time I worked the carnival midway of Playland at the Beach, a ghost that lives on in my memories, now climbing up and around the cliffs where nestled the new Cliff House on the graves of the older incarnations of that structure, finally parking above the ruins at Sutro Baths on 48th Ave.

San Francisco Headlands, near China Beach

My walking companion was waiting, and we talked a while in the Buddhamobile while I finished my coffee, and then we were off, treking through the wet along the paths that hugged the coast, through some of the last remnants of wild that still exist in San Francisco. A pleasant walk, if a little tiring as we climbed and descended rough trails and stairs, skirting the edges of Lincoln Park golf course and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, making our steady way through the at times heavy mist, and as we did the darkness faded, giving way to gray.

We lingered here and there a while on our journey, taking pictures and talking of this and that. Before we knew it we were at China Beach, having passed some of the elegant and expensive homes of the Sea Cliff district, and there below us a man was flowing through his Tai Chi.

And then it was time to go …


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Dreamtime …

The bonfire burns, its light brilliant in the ebon night, brightening the sand to dazzling whiteness, revealing the hull of the nearly finished boat we’ve been helping build. The three of us have moved back from the flames and intense heat, laying on a bedroll tucked in to a depression on the side of a high dune. Up and down the visible length of the beach are more fires, small earth-bound suns on a starless night.

We lay there, in the sand, soft breeze washing over us, listening.

We can hear the crackle and roar of the fire.

We can hear the sounds of the waves washing the shore.

We can also hear the desperate cries of the people still alive out there in the darkness, trying to swim to shore, or clinging to wreckage or some barren rock.  There were fewer and fewer coming ashore as sunset approached.

Li’l blonde puppy found us a week ago. He’s decided his job is keeping the dark puppy company. Had no idea what he was in for’ He’s curled up in the crook of my arm now, sleeping, his slumber fitful, unhappy. Someone screams in the distance and he moans, flailing his paws. The other, the dark pup, lifts his head at the human sound, stares into the distant night, looking like he sees, like he actually sees whoever it is was screaming. Maybe he knew her; he acquainted himself with everyone on our segment of the beach. His eyebrows drop and he softly whines. A moment longer and then he lowers himself, resting his head my stomach, his snout pointed at me now. He blinks once and sighs through his nostrils, the sound long and resigned, then closes his eyes.

Ten ships set out.

There were still three left when their sails disappeared below the horizon. The dark pup watched it all, never making a sound. Ships crashing on rocks, swamped by rogue waves, it didn’t matter. He sat on his rock, li’l blonde puppy sitting beside him, wanting to leave … but he stayed. We all did. We couldn’t not watch.

The beach is all there is. No going back.

Going back was never an option …

===================

“I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world.”

From The Optimism of Uncertainty, Howard Zinn

==================

Dusting Memories

I recently had what I call a Tony Perkins moment. No, nothing involving motels, showers, chef knives, desiccated mommies or spurting chocolate syrup.

It’s like this: a few years back my former wife and I (she’s the sweet lady Reg stowed away with to get to Antarctica) were cleaning house one crisp Spring morning. Now, the apartment we lived in overflowed with books and electronics and art and knick-knacks and stuffed puppies and critters, making it a very warm, cluttery place, even on this cool day in the South Bay. And so, pausing in the middle of one task or another I happened to look up and around at all these things, all this stuff we’d accumulated, and for no particular reason I can recall, I was reminded of a movie, of a scene in a movie featuring Perkins and Donna Anderson. It was a simple, almost boring domestic scene as he makes tea for her and prepares to go to work. Anderson seems normal, nothing out of the ordinary, if a touch distracted, and Perkins seems similarly in place. But there is a look to him or, more specifically, there is a manner of the way Perkins seems to be looking at things that came back to my imperfect memory of the scene. Later on in the movie, of course, it becomes clear why he has this air about him, this way of taking things in. And then again, maybe I was projecting the subtext of his actions on him.

But it was the effect, the underlying sense of the impending, that impressed.

So on that fresh Spring morning, conjured by this scene in the theatre of my memory, I sort of felt the sense of how Perkins’ character saw things, understood that look at the world. This recognition channeled and inhabited my being, becoming something akin to the overused cliché regarding the sensation of someone walking on my grave, if you will.

More important, that was the moment I understood and, more important, accepted something that was becoming obvious, and inevitable.

=======

I think I sorta had a sense of things early on. Maybe it was all those stories I read by Andre Norton about life after the end and survival after a collapse … or the prospect of no survival. Star Man’s Son, (retitled Daybreak, 2250 AD), The Stars Are Ours, the aforementioned Star Rangers (The Last Planet), Lord of Thunder, Galactic Derelict, Sea Siege, Dark Piper … all good, hard SciFi with a common element: the plot device of a failed or failing ancient civilization, or humans dealing with the prospect of the loss of modern civilization.

At 14, I picked up Nevil Shute’s On the Beach and pretty much read it over the course of a day.

After, I lay awake nights, thinking of endings.

=====================

Reading

I don’t know where the reading started, where it came from, not really. Probably the comic books, with wanting to know what the heroes were saying in the word balloons. But I always was a reader. From the age of 7 through 11, every Saturday, my father would drive into town with me, drop me off at the library,  run errands and then go hit a bar. Sometimes – when I was really lucky – he’d leave me there for until late afternoon.

Being in the cozy basement of that old, small-town library was like living in heaven. If I have one regret, it is that I do not have my daughter’s talent for reading books at breakneck speed. I had to take my time. But I read. I read and read and read. I read books about anything and everything, stories about ponies on Islands off the Carolina Coast, about surviving in the American wilderness in the dead of freezing winter during the time of the Revolution, murder mysteries in sunken gardens in South Africa, books about planes, trains and automobiles, short story collections of the macabre and horrific (Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery was my Bible – I read it over and over and over, never tiring of it).

And then there was war, a subject near and dear to most boys’ hearts. I read all I could find to read about war. Anything and everything. Toward the end of that magical time I inhaled Churchill’s history of the Second World War. I knew all there was to know about the American Navy up to and including World War II. I was thoroughly fascinated as only a pre-adolescent boy could be.

And then I found Welles and Verne. I read The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine,  20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and was utterly captivated by the adventure … and then I read The Mysterious Island, a story that was to me at the time the grandest adventure imaginable, and remember being stunned and amazed to learn that Captain Nemo was alive, and was responsible for the existence of the island. (The concept of a character living on past the conclusion of one story to unexpectedly reappear in a second in such a fashion stuck me as incredible!)

Again, though, more endings. Nemo apparently perished and his story ended, a dream of the future lost to the uncaring whims of fate and nature, and I was, in a sense, deeply saddened. Verne’s submariner had come to represent so many things to me that I didn’t have the words or concepts at the time to articulate: the potential of science for man; the mystery of human existence; the deep longing for what is good as a counterpoint to the inevitable darkness of mankind’s nature.

Dad was in the Air Force, in SAC – Strategic Air Command – and during my so-called formative years were planted the memory of military alerts broadcast on TV and radio, of seeing him get in uniform and report for duty. The Cuban Missile Crisis: we had no real idea of what was happening, but there was no escaping something huge and potentially dangerous to everything alive was occurring.

And then, in 1968, at 14, I read On the Beach.

“… what makes On the Beach nevertheless one of the most compelling accounts of nuclear war ever written is its almost unique insistence that everyone–without exception–is going to die. Shute directly addresses the most primal fears of the human race, which has spent most of its history denying or compensating for the fact of personal death … For once, there are no distractions: no invading aliens, no super-fallout shelters to protect the protagonists, no struggle back from a dreadful but exciting postwar barbarism. There are simply a man and a woman reaching the agonizing decision to kill their only child in its crib and commit suicide as the rest of the human race expires around them.
Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, Paul Brians

At 14, given what I’d already lived through, I was no stranger to imagined endings. At the same time, fed by my science fiction reading, I had a strong sense of the value of the world, the potential for what we could be … and then this book sort of brought it all together for me.

But life goes on and eventually the effect of Shute’s novel faded. I joined the Army when I turned 18. While there, I ended up aiming nuclear weapons at the Soviets. You might say I was in my element, though you would miss the irony of the situation if you did. Dunno what I was targeting, but I was in Germany and I could guess … and I soon realized it really didn’t matter; I knew what would happen if the decision were made to use those missiles. My mates used to laugh about how we were such an obvious and easy target that, if a war ever started, we were high on the list of people who would disappear in the first minutes.

To myself I would sometimes think “And we’d be only the first.”

Years came and went and in the fiction I continued to read endings played out: Lucifer’s Hammer, Swan Song, The Stand … all were enthralling, high-octane reads – all apocalyptic fiction. But they never had the effect of On the Beach for me. Maybe I was jaded by my experiences, adulthood, blah, blah, blah. Maybe having lived in the modern world for so long with the concept of the apocalyptic immediacy of nuclear war burned my generation out to the idea. It was all so much of the same, the lingering aspect of annihilation, year after year … and I had a life to live.

But in 1990, I read David Brin’s Earth* and something sparked and I started thinking about endings again. I had a baby daughter, and as I was pushing the threshold of 40, the future was less of an abstract to me.

=====================

Quick Fails

We think in terms of quick fails.

In ancient times a city falls, its men are put to the sword, goods snatched, women raped and sold into slavery. The final drama plays out over a few days or weeks (in John Norwich’ History of Byzantium, he notes during all the religious wars that marked the evolution of the Western and Eastern churches there was the quaint custom that once a city falls, there followed a 72-hour period of sacking, including the requisite raping and pillaging, after which the survivors were more or less allowed to pick up the pieces). Of course, in modern times we are more concerned about plagues, atomic devices, 3-day wars, rogue superpowers rolling over countries they don’t like … that sort of thing …

But what we really need to look at here, really discuss, is the history. The history that gets us to that point where a trigger gets pulled and the shit hits the fan. Earlier, for example, I noted the last century’s wars started in 1914 and lasted 75 years. Of course, we were taught there were two big wars and a bunch of little ones. But this is wrong, because  what we’re really dealing with is a series of connected events and decisions that perpetuated the global conflict. Moreover, it could be argued this war started earlier, perhaps when the HMS Dreadnought, an entirely new weapons system – the modern, big gun battleship – came into being in 1906, triggering the arms race that led to the war. Or you could go back further, identifying events, conflicts, brush wars dating back to Napoleon … or the conflict between the European powers over the new world … and when you think about it, you can trace events back to before the transcribing of the Old Testament or the writing of the Athenian Constitution.

The point (an obvious one, of course) is that 1) everything we do was affected by what came before and 2) it takes a long time for these events to unfold – which, in turn, makes them extremely difficult to impossible to stop once everything is set in motion.

In history, everything is connected. A city is sacked, yes, but only after a torturous series of events, many offering the potential for the city to remain unharmed, having played out over months and years and decades and centuries. Actions taken influence actions to come. The true bookends to historical events are more likely akin to the Dreadnaught example I cited above, which tipped a balance of power that in turn moved the world closer and closer to what would become an inevitable, near century-long war that saw different powers emerge and fall, finishing with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which in turn marked the end of one era while heralding this new one we find ourselves in.

Another example, perhaps a tad less defined in terms of starting points, is the Industrial Revolution.

Which brings us full circle to endings.

… and physics …

Next: A Dark Puppy explains Dark Matters.

* It should be noted that in Earth Brin made predictions of the planet’s future for the 50 years that followed publication, many of which that have panned out with unsettling accuracy…

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