Pick a Future, Any Future


surrounded by booksWhen I say that I am a voracious reader, I’m not exaggerating. In any given week I will get through about seven books, a slew of daily newspapers, and a bunch of junky magazines I drag home from the supermarket because I feel too guilty to just read them while standing in line to pay for my groceries.

And yes .. I’m a speed-reader. Always have been, just born that way. Most of my family are the same … speed-reading book junkies.

My tastes are catholic, and I routinely run the gamut between politics, humour, philosophy, current trends, and plain old fiction. I like mysteries and stories of alternate futures, worlds that might have been or are yet to come.

all our wrong todaysOne fascinating book that still has real estate in my brain is a terrific new novel called, “All Our Wrong Todays, ” by Elan Mastai, a Canadian screenwriter who lives in Toronto. Like every sci-fi movie or novel, the book presents another vision of what our future could or should look like.

In this case, Mastai asks us to hold two separate realities in our mind simultaneously, and see the beauty and the horrors in both. From the jacket,

You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.

     Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

     But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career and–maybe, just maybe–his soulmate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future–our future–is supposed to be.”

Since the book is set in current day Toronto, I sometimes realize I’m actually travelling on the streets referenced, half expecting to see Tom wandering by, struggling to find his place in this upside down world in which he’s found himself.

In the end, our hero comes to see that it is our every day actions and dreams that shape the future in which we find ourselves living. If you dream it, you can make it.

dystopian novelsWhile this book presents a fairly utopian future (that we j-u-s-t missed … ) the public’s interest in dystopian literature has been on the rise for .. oh, nearly two years now. It’s simply not possible to deny that the current reality of America’s highly partisan politics was postulated many years ago. Sales of books like It Can’t Happen Here (Sinclair Lewis,Brave New World (Aldous Huxley,) 1984 (George Orwell,) Ready Player One (Ernest Cline,) and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood have boomed with each new outrage and indignity unleashed in the United States.

These books provide us with some idea of what can happen to any nation when individuals with a taste for dictatorship manage to snow the people for long enough to step into power. By the fall of 2016, I was already saying that I felt like Poland nervously watching Germany in 1939. And yet, many still, even today, see nothing wrong with a national leader believing that the country over which they wield power, should be his personal property, run only by himself without dissent.

In 1990, attorney Mike Godwin came up with what was to become known as Godwin’s Law – the belief that, sooner or later, in any online argument, someone will bring up Hitler. It may be an inevitable consequence of free speech, and certainly is frequently used inappropriately, but by 2017, even Godwin said that Trump’s populist and fascistic campaign really did beg the comparison.

dystopia bookThe best dystopian novels are about characters like ourselves, whom we can cheer on through the worst times, and mourn when they suffer losses. We want to see how people react in the face of a world they have to navigate despite the viciousness of nature gone mad, or of all-powerful despots and their evil minions. The survivors are the rebels, the quick-witted, those who manage to turn a horrific society into a place where they can simply live without fear, against all odds.

They battle the commonplace as well as the absurd. In “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel‘s character faces a world decimated by what seems to be a mutation of the common cold.  In “The Age of Miracles,” Karen Thompson Walker‘s young heroine struggles to find meaning in a world where the sun has slowed, and the days become longer and longer.

Does our interest in alternate – and especially dystopic –  futures stem from an attempt to  control the outcomes? Act as a sort of “SciFi Survival 101” handbook to coping with the possible pitfalls which may arise?  Soothe our worries of how to live in our current reality by reading about futures impossibly worse?

I know that my dystopian readings alerted me early to where the Trump presidential campaign was headed, and what was likely to ensue if he was elected.

ciut bill kingIt’s funny – way back in October or November of 2016, pre-election, I was a guest on Bill King‘s radio show, along with Jane Harbury and Bob Segarini. I was asked if I thought Trump would win the election, and found myself the only person who thought it very likely to happen. Like Cassandra of legend, my predictions elicited only scorn. But I could see it and feel it, and I knew the world was about to change dramatically.

Sadly, I was right then, and can only hope that my other beliefs of how quickly and how tragically the U.S. will be damaged – perhaps to a point of no return – while the current administration tears down the nation, are exaggerated. Tho’ … I doubt it.

dystopian novels 2The sad truth is that the steady drip drip drip of horrific executive orders, ‘breaking news!‘ and the knowledge that the hands of the nuclear clock steadily move more surely to midnight, has already taken an enormous psychological toll on most thinking humans on the planet, leaving us more prone to mental and physical disorders.

Until the world feels a bit more like the grownups are in charge, I’ll keep devouring the novels that hold out at least a little hope for a brighter future, even if it’s only in fiction.

 

Dreamers and Cassandras


“Yes: I am a dreamer – For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”Oscar Wilde

In mythology, Cassandra was a tragic figure, blessed with the power of prophecy, but cursed to have no one believe her words. There are echoes of this syndrome in modern literature, where Cassandra’s name is frequently invoked when prophecies and warnings are not believed.

pompeii-victimsHistory is littered with cases of warnings ignored. The victims of Mount Vesuvius‘ eruption in August  of AD 79 ignored all of the mountain’s tremors as the molten rock  increased within, and only marveled as all of the animals, including rats, fled the town. The wells and streams suddenly dried up, but the Pompeian’s brushed off that warning as being due to hot weather.

To mix my metaphors, that sounds a lot like Nero fiddling while the continent burns … or like a politician, one of the largest recipients of fossil fuel money in the US,  blithely and inaccurately, showing and telling how a snowball in winter disproves climate change.

Similarly, the Indian Ocean‘s tsunami and earthquake of 2004 was predicted, not just by ‘dreamers,’ but by the Pacific Ocean Tsunami Warning System. Even as one government official had his calls to action ignored, he found himself termed “crazy,” and he was banned from certain parts of Thailand, as he was believed to be a threat to tourism.  For seven years, the countries in the tsunami’s path were warned of the coming event. There was another clear warning of disaster when the sea in Indonesia receded several hundred meters after the earthquake, but few knew or believed a tsunami would follow.

tourists-escape-tsunami-2004

More than 230,000 people were killed, 500,000 were injured, and 1.7 million were left homeless.  But at least they got those tourist dollars.

maori-paintingAnd what of those whose ‘visions’ prompt such ridicule? If you’re not going to believe a Tsunami Warning System, you’re certainly not going to give credence to the Maoris, who believed that seeing a spirit canoe called waka wairua sailing over a lake near Mount Tarawera in New Zealand in 1886 was a sign of an impending disaster. Even several European tourists claimed to have seen the canoe, which legend said was used to transport the souls of the dead. There were physical signals as well, as the lake’s volume rose and fell rapidly, and the rocks released hot water.

But that’s just silly people believing in legends, right?  120 people died that June 10th, and several native Maori villages were completely destroyed.

While I am not advocating a belief in legend and mythology, I think it’s interesting to consider how humans deal with information they don’t like, or refuse to believe. There is a knee jerk denial, inevitably coupled with sarcastic laughter directed at those who are explaining what is about to happen. Public ridicule becomes the norm, with the object being to drive the truthsayer’s reputation into the ground, and to mute their words from society’s hearing.

That shortsightedness doesn’t prevent disasters from occurring … in fact, it’s more likely to hasten the disasters.

frozen-soviet-soldierBy June of 1941, Josef Stalin had received more than 100 warnings about Germany’s intention to attack. Germany, meanwhile, was assuring Russia that they were just massing troups at the Soviet border to ‘protect them against British bombing.” Oh, the lies we will believe in the name of keeping safe! The Soviet Intelligence communities had their warnings ignored., while the head of Soviet intelligence, who had also warned Stalin of Germany’s intention to invade, ended up shot.

775,000 German soldiers and at least 800,000 Soviet soldiers died  in Operation Barbarossa.

Prior to the Gulf War, the CIA and US military intelligence had warned the US government about the impending invasion of Kuwait. Those warnings were not only ignored, but led to the granting of a $1.2 billion loan to Saddam, just two days before the invasion. Indeed, the US was so contemptuous of the warnings that it took four days for maps of Kuwait and Iraq to be loaded onto their computers, post invasion.

25,000 Iraqi soldiers died, as did 248 UN troops, and 100,000 Iraqi civilians.  A million more Iraqi civilians died later, due to sanctions imposed against their country.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar? Perhaps you remember September 11th, 2001.

“… starting in the spring of 2001, the CIA repeatedly and urgently began to warn the White House that an attack was coming.

By May of 2001, says Cofer Black, then chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, “it was very evident that we were going to be struck, we were gonna be struck hard and lots of Americans were going to die.” “There were real plots being manifested,” Cofer’s former boss, George Tenet, told me.

….  And there was one more chilling warning to come. At the end of July, Tenet and his deputies gathered in the director’s conference room at CIA headquarters. “We were just thinking about all of this and trying to figure out how this attack might occur,” he recalls. “And I’ll never forget this until the day I die. Rich Blee looked at everybody and said, ‘They’re coming here.’ And the silence that followed was deafening. You could feel the oxygen come out of the room. ‘They’re coming here.’” ”     (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/11/cia-directors-documentary-911-bush-213353)

Insolence, a belief in one’s own superiority, and a lack of imagination always work against those who doubt naysayers and whistleblowers. Consider the case of Bob Ebeling, an engineer who worked for the company that produced the rocket boosters on the Challenger space shuttle.

christa-mcauliffePrior to the January 28, 1986 launch, Mr. Eberling had warned that the extremely cold weather would prevent the O-rings from sealing properly and would cause an explosion. But a delay was nixed by executives under pressure to get the shuttle into space, and he was told it was ‘not his burden to bear.’

And so millions of viewers, on the ground and on televisions around the world, watched as the shuttle exploded, 73 seconds after takeoff , killing seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who had won her seat on a NASA educational program.

After World War I, the German economy was a mess. Inflation, massive unemployment, and a crushing debt imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, requiring them to pay the equivalent of 100,000 tons of gold as restitution, led the Nazi party into power. One of Hitler‘s main propaganda points was that Germany would refuse to pay anything ever again. It would be “Germany First.”

trump_it_cant_happen_hereEconomist John Maynard Keynes said that the Treaty was dead on arrival. Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a French army commander, warned that the treaty was not the end of the war but rather a suspension of it, and that Germany would be much more formidable in a new war, invading France and staging attacks into England from there.

They were right, but ignored. And despite those tinfoil hatted lunatics who deny the Holocaust, by the end,  almost 50 million people were dead.

The list of tragedies that could have been prevented by heeding the warnings, either of dreamers or Cassandras, or by the use of simple common sense,  or by listening to those  who could sense what was coming based on their own knowledge and experience, is very long, and filled with millions of casualties.

Americans were given ample warning of what would happen if they allowed themselves to elect a president whose sole intention was of ransacking the treasury for his own personal gain, a man who demanded total control of an entire country and delighted in a chance to remake it in his own image .. a place of carnage and destruction that he could survey from his gilded palaces.

trump-power-grabTheir own constitution offered all the information they needed to prevent his rise to power. Their vaunted ‘checks and balances’ produced nothing more than a last line of defence – the Electoral College – that folded like a cheap suit. Now that the fox is in the hen house, it’s going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to get him out, and will likely produce millions more victims to add to that very long list of innocents,  murdered through the elected officials’ casual ignorance, or a  stubborn belief in their own infallibility brought about by a controversial electoral win.

Like the victims of Pompeii, or the tourists that ran forward into the retreated waters of the Indian Ocean to catch stranded fish, we seem to be waiting, mindlessly, to see what will happen next, as the ante keeps getting raised. Like them, we will be buried under what we refused to see coming.

We were warned, by dreamers and Cassandras, but didn’t listen.

“A basic weapon of regime changers, as fascists realized nearly a century ago, is to destroy the concept of truth. Democracy requires the rule of law, the rule of law depends upon trust, and trust depends upon citizens’ acceptance of factuality. The president and his aides actively seek to destroy Americans’ sense of reality. Not only does the White House spread “alternative facts,” but Kellyanne Conway openly proclaims this as right and good. Post-factuality is pre-fascism.”   (http://time.com/4690676/donald-trump-tyranny/)