Saturday, July 29, 2006

Messing things up even after the end

The Long Tomorrow, by Leigh Brackett (1955; **** of 5)
A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren (1990; **** of 5)
A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1959; ***1/2 of 5)
Swan Song, by Robert R. McCammon (1987; *** of 5)
The Stand, by Stephen King (1990; ** of 5)

Religion plays a major, even inordinate, role in many conceptions of what life might be like after civilization collapses. That, of course, surprises no one. One factor in why armageddon in any form is a threat is that fundamentalist dogma says it basically has to happen for their doctrine to be fulfilled. To prove their way is the only "right" way, they promote massive destruction, although not always actively.

McCammon's Swan Song is probably the most obvious example of this I've ever read, possibly exceeded only by Stephen King's The Stand. Both of these lengthy tomes have strongly dualistic themes, with rampaging inhuman evil leading human evil in an effort to kill off the last of human hope. King's version is overtly Christian in tone, even to the point of having the evil forces based in Las Vegas, while McCammon's has almost a pagan feel, with its focus on a girl who can grow plants magically, an obvious mother goddess image. The main evil character in both is almost identical, right down to his ability to shapeshift, making me wonder if one inspired the other.

An interesting element of Swan Song, though, is a key good character's blatant rejection of the fundamentalist insanity -- literally. Sister, a former NYC street person, starts off being incredibly delusional, ranting to everyone passing by that "the Rapture" would be a wonderful thing. Appropriately enough, she calls herself Sister Creep at that time. Although she never remembers her real name, after the bombs fall, she does remember what happened to her to cause her madness and realizes the whole concept of "Rapture" is crap. Despite the existence of evil, nobody's coming down to swoop the good guys into a wonderful other world -- the only wonderful world that'll exist is if good people create it themselves.

That latter theme is sort of echoed in both Wren and Brackett, but in a different way. In both, a small element of society is trying to save the science and printed wisdom of our civilization ... to the great horror and religious opposition of the majority. Wren's tale is a microcosm of Brackett's -- it focuses on just one group of people, with two who want to save books and teach the children to think opposing several who believe all books are evil except the Holy Babble. The fact that the two skeptics are women in a very patriarchal cult and possibly lesbian lovers (that's never clearly stated, but definitely suggested) creates an extra level of tension.

In Brackett, the fundamentalist impulse reigns supreme, in the form of New Mennonites who overtly reject the science and cities of 20th Century America. The book has a good point that a back-to-simplicity mindset would indeed be a survival trait in the decades after WW3, but coupling that with venomous, Babble-quoting lynchings of people even suspected of harboring scientific devices or ideas is not. They go so far as to pass a 30th Amendment to the US Constitution banning all communities of over 1,000 people or 200 buildings. (Brackett writes one of the few post-WW3 books that postulates a new dark age in which the US survives as a country; in this case, our society is dropped back into the 18th or 19th Century.)

Brackett's New Mennonites would fit right into the Simplification envisioned by Miller: rampaging mobs of self-described "simpletons" murder the vast majority of educated people, then even literate folks, and burn any books they can in their anger at the folks they blame for WW3. That Simplification, however, doesn't specifically have a religious motive; in fact, the whole point of the book is that the Catholic church helps save what knowledge it can.

The irony there, however, is subtle -- the key character spurring the creation of the monastic order of "bookleggers and memorizers" is a scientific, secular Jew (the title character) later canonized for alleged miracles having nothing to do with his eforts to save knowledge. Furthermore, although the monks don't hide the material they slavishly copy over the centuries, they don't actively share or utilize it either. In 3074, the monks have had the printing press for a century ... largely becasue an abbot 500 years earlier specifically rejected a proposal to build one as unnecessary because there was no market for cheap books. (Never mind the fact that cheap books would have made it possible to educate people more easily; in 3074, there's a line noting that the village of Sanly Bowitts has the "fantastic literary rate of eight percent" despite being just a few miles from the abbey and its 100% literacy rate.)

That kind of dogmatic foot-dragging is common in Miller's chronicle. In fact, I'd say organized religion's strength (when not being used to promote hostility) is it's ability to preserve the past when the average level of society is low, but it is largely ineffectual at dealing with the present or promoting a healthy future when average people are educated. The browbeating that works on the ignorant only annoys and turns off the educated, but many churches cannot adapt effectively to cultural change, and tend to speak with a voice of unreason cloaked as "morality."

Toward the end, we see references to the Pope praying for peace as another nuclear war threatens a re-established global civilization that has progressed beyond ours technologically (including space colonies) ... but doing nothing to actually prevent war. Instead of criticizing people for their behavior, how about promoting the common ground humans share regardless of nationality? Had the Church done THAT over the centuries, there probably wouldn't be a threat of global war (Miller's future war OR modern war).

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

A look at the past... or future?

Not far from where I live, the towns of Dana, Greenwich, Enfield and Prescott were evacuated to make way for Quabbin Reservoir in 1938. The people were scattered among various other communities, their houses removed except for the foundations, their cemeteries transplanted, their way of life completely re-arranged. The acreage of the towns themselves -- what isn't now underwater -- was ostensibly annexed to neighboring towns, but much of it is state-owned conservation land protecting the reservoir's feeder streams. Even a railroad and state Route 21 that used to serve that area are gone.

The maps are quite telling (look in the lower right-hand corner): 1938 vs 1939.

Today, I visited what used to be Dana Center. It's accessible by way of a generally passable, still paved road that's closed to car traffic, with grass and moss growing through the cracks and potholes. (On the 1909 map (the first link above), that's the route from Nichewaug through Dana and down along Pottapaug Pond, which still exists as a de facto arm of Quabbin.) A hike of a mile or so through forest that's still reclaiming old farmland at the edges takes you past a modern portajohn, a couple of small trails leading to stone house foundations, a locked hut containing some old signs, and a big rock outcrop I first thought had a stone wall atop it, but found to be a great place to write.

Typical of New England towns, Dana Center had several buildings focused on the town common. I can only guess at what they were from their foundations & my knowledge of NE towns, but I presume the one on the north side, fronted by horse hitching posts, was Town Hall, the one on the west side was a church, and those to the south were houses or shops (or both). The only modern element of the scenery is a stone memorial reading "Site of Dana Common 1801-1938. To all those who sacrificed their homes and way of life. Erected by Dana Reunion 1996."

What did those reunion folks think when they saw the foundations of their homes after all these years? How did that differ from the ideas of their kids and grandkids, who never knew Dana as even a place on the map?

Part of me wishes the reunion folks had also erected something (say a diorama) that would give visitors a guide to who owned the homes and what the Common area really looked like then. But most of me is glad they didn't -- this way we get to see what really happens when nature reclaims things. Dana 2006 is a nice escape from modern society -- lots of sound, but all of it wild: birds of various kinds, bubbling brooks, fish gulping insects on the reservoir's surface, wind in the leaves. The only sound of civilization is a passing plane; this place is far enough in the boonies you can't even hear cars on the nearest state highway.

In some respects, especially with the nonsense going on in the Middle East bringing to mind questions of what kind of future we'll have, walking through Dana today could be a tour of the past or a premonition of the future. Will there be a time when our descendents walk through modern-day towns and see them being overgrown or even crumbling in ruins? If so, why? Will it be because we consciously chose to move to cities or to reduce our population, because some illness struck many of us down, or because we went nuts and decimated ourselves in some brutal manner?

We'll find out ... maybe in the near future.

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

predictions, predictions...

Found this on the Strategy Page BB's Predictions Market, one of many predictions they have listed (some plausible, some clearly ridiculous):

A nuclear weapon (A-bomb or H-bomb) will be used in anger somewhere in the world before midnight Dec. 31 2009. Dirty bombs don't count.

PRO VALUE: $3.35 CON VALUE: $1.43
DATE POSTED: 8/25/2005

So, we've got folks who are willing to gamble on the possibility that someone will NUKE someone else in the next few years ... and thereby profit if it happens? WTF?

That concept is very twisted, but what's interesting here is that 29.8% of those who bought futures on this question think it will happen. That's very close to figures I've seen scientists give when asked to predict the probability of that very same thing happening. Unfortunately, I can't remember where I saw it... ##

One of the guys I work with (rather, worked with; I got laid off Friday) told me he's telling friends not to make plans more than a week in advance because of the war in Lebanon. As he put it, it could explode into WW3 or essentially fizzle out, but it's really hard to tell which.

Jenn (my gf) and I have been talking about this lately, about what our options are if the shit hits the fan. She's known about my interests in this area for some time, but only with the chaos in the MidEast climbing to a new level of brutality has it become something she's beginning to be concerned about. I think we're at the greatest risk of WW3 than at any time since Ronnie Reagan pumped so much $$$ into nukes in the early 1980s.

Being in Massachusetts, we're in target-central if people start tossing nukes around. Although we don't live in one of the cities & therefore are very unlikely to get hit directly, we sit right on the Springfield-Worcester-Boston axis and would get significant fallout from any of them. As I see it, there are at least nine targets within 50 miles of us: those three cities, Hartford, Providence, New London Sub Base, Westover ARB, Hanscom AFB, Bradley Internat'l Airport. Of them, I suspect Boston, New London, and Hanscom would be first-salvo targets. Maybe, if shooting starts, we'd get lucky and have it fizzle out after that salvo.... Worst case scenario, of course, is that everything gets launched, in which case almost any community over 15,000 could have a bomb with its name on it. Obviously, in that case, we're toast.

Short of that worst case, I intend to try to survive... but would obviously rather not have to deal with such events.

## (Added 7/31:) I forgot about this post from last year. It doesn't have the specific figure I was seeking, but does indicate the threat we face...

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Saturday, July 01, 2006


I am
the last bastion
in a sea of concrete,
a see of storms
in the heat.

Before me,
my twin lies raped,
torn asunder by steel,
a place to play games.

Between us there is water.
That is good; it has
been unseen here.
But it does not flow anymore.

That constant noise that resembles flow
is not happy.

steel dragons growl
in passing,
a never-ending series of them
that land nearby but never say hi
like they used to.

Are they depressed at being enchained
or at seeing the glass shards and paint
that deface me?

Distant kin watch from the dust-haze,
but the nearest are harder to see
through the smog,
those brown clouds
that eat away at reality.

and still another dragon comes.
Maybe this one will say hi...