J. Zornado

A blog site about various and sundry things that have to do with writing, reading, film, and the end of the world as we know it.

Month: August, 2012

What is Speculative Fiction?

I’ve been listening to Sting’s third solo-album from 1991, The Soul Cages.  There’s a tune, one of many great songs on the album, called “Jeremiah Blues, part 1.”  I think it speaks to the “speculative tradition” as well as any other text.  That’s what I’m working on—the notion that there is, what I’m calling, a “speculative tradition” in western culture.  I think the title of Sting’s song is a good place to start—it sounds one of the dominant, re-occurring themes of the “speculative tradition,” that of the “Jeremiad,” the sermon style named for the Old Testament prophet, Jeremiah, who was—he claims–appointed by God to reveal the sins of the Jews and the coming consequences if they continued to worship false idols. He is considered one of the Old Testament’s “Major Prophets.”  He would say things like, “Woe unto you, O Israel, for turning to false gods. If you don’t change your ways God is going to f–k you up!”  It was, for him, an obvious case of theological “cause and effect.”  Break God’s commandments and you would feel His wrath. Break God’s law and He reserved the right to punish the unrighteous impunity. Sodom and Gomorrah anyone? 

Most people don’t want to hear anyone saying this sort of thing—it sounds crazy, self-righteous, and off-putting.  So, as you might imagine, Jeremiah was attacked by his own brothers, beaten and put into the stocks by a priest as a false prophet, imprisoned by King Judah, thrown into a well by King Judah’s officials and generally ignored as a madman when he wasn’t being threatened with death.

Jeremiah rather reminds me of Cassandra, another prophet, but from the Greek side of ancient history.  She also predicted the future, having been given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but in a jealous fit he cursed her so that no one would believe her predictions. Cassandra is a tragic representation of one of the fundamental qualities of the speculative tradition–vision combined with a powerlessness to change anything, but filled with a compulsion to prophetic utterance nevertheless. 

From Plato to Pixar (think of Wall-E) the theme of apocalypse (now!) runs like a genetic code through western culture’s most basic beliefs about itself.  It’s a thematic pattern that appears in our religion, our ideology, even how we wage war.  Consider that  it’s been said that war is simply politics by another means—if this is true, and I suspect that it is, then what does it say about our politics (and our civilization) that since 1945 thermonuclear annihilation has been taken seriously as a viable political and military solution to certain global problems?   Lest you think I exaggerate, consider Jonathan Schell’s classic work, The Time of Illusion as a case in point.  His description of a weapon of mass destruction is worth the read, by the way.  The phrase has been misused and abused since 9/11.  A weapon of mass destruction kills hundreds of thousands if not millions.  Conventional weapons do not compare, nor do airplanes used as bombs.  That’s why weapons of mass destruction are so unconscionable—because they cause mass destruction in the blink of an eye.  Like Manhattan, or Chicago, or London, or Moscow destroyed, and an area within a hundred mile radius made uninhabitable.  This is mass  destruction.  And consider the fact that a single Trident nuclear submarine could wipe out a continent.  Now that’s a spicy meatball!

  And so I think it’s worth worrying about the fact that Islam and Christianity are both bent on Armageddon—it’s built in to their beliefs—it’s a fundamental premise of their religious world views.  It’s as if God Himself wants to destroy the planet—after all, He did it once before with the Great Flood, or so the story goes.  Perhaps extinction is a part of His Master Plan? 

Plato was no Christian, though he might have been had he been born five hundred years later.  He thought something was wrong, even in jolly old Ancient Greece, and so he imagined a more perfect union in his great treatise, The Republic.  Why engage in such speculative thinking? Well, it seems that he suspected that something wasn’t quite right in the way Greeks were living together.  Plato wasn’t a big fan of democracy after all.  And so he imagines a world in which order would be maintained by a strict caste system in which everyone would be taught their place and would be strongly encouraged to stay in it.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.  It should be remembered that almost always the ancient speculative traditions were, in the end, optimistic–from death life would come, from the ashes, a phoenix, from the tomb, a savior, from the destruction of the world, a New Jerusalem.  The Great City would rise and it would be ruled by a great philosopher king, or a god.  Or perhaps the Tyrell Corporation from Blade Runner?

Let me end here with a short list:  themes of the “speculative tradition” include: prophecy and warning, destruction and re-birth, an implicit critique of the status quo, a warning and a promise of the consequences if things don’t change.  A vision of how best to live, how to “regain Eden” or how to find Utopia.  More often than not private property was forbidden in this new world order and a kind of radical socialism championed.  Thomas More’s Utopia, for instance. The City becomes a central trope as well. And all of this would be taking place either in the future, or just off the edge of the map—either way new world was just over the horizon line.  If we could only find our way, reach out, we could—in the end—reach it and perfect the human community.

Much of the Enlightenment grew out of this noble ideal—the project of Modernity—to finish the work God had left unfinished, but human reason would light the way, and science, and soon we could know all we needed to know, solve our problems, and end human suffering.

  It never happened.  Meanwhile Darwin came and Nietzsche declared God dead.  Modernity failed. The Industrial Revolution blackened our eyes (and our lungs). War went on unabated. Science offered us more and more efficient ways to destroy ourselves.  Our grand fate to recover Eden slipped away. And on this note entered the 20th century—and as we did the last, great dominant theme of the “speculative tradition” emerged.  By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century the “speculative tradition’s” theme of rebirth into Eden/Utopia gave way to dark visions of Dystopia–destruction without rebirth or hope for recover–a boot stomping on the face of humanity, forever.  And as civilization was about to cast itself into its bloodiest century on historical record, it should come as no surprise that the hope in the future gave way to the existential despair of the present. And the “speculative tradition” in fiction—and film— like Metropolis and Modern Times and later, Soylent Green, I Am Legend, The Matrix, Children of Men, V for Vendetta, and Wall-E—to name only a few—represent 20th-century “speculative tradition” based upon the cautionary tale of the Jeremiad tradition, but this time it is a secular rather than a spiritual Jeremiad, but even so the stakes remain the same:  we must change our ways or suffer the consequences.  Unfortunately the curse of Cassandra is alive and well.

What is 2050?

2050 is about the “power structures that shape our lives.”  Understanding what we mean by “power structures” is key I think to understanding my work as  a writer, as an artist.  I have an agenda:  my story and my analysis of the dominant culture emerge from a basic set of assumptions organized around the fundamental notion that our “nurture” is everything.  So much so that nurture becomes nature, that nature and nurture are one. This means that we develop into the personalities that we are as a result of the material conditions of our existence–as children.

Reading and writing stories reminds us that, among other influences circulating in the child’s early years is the specter of power and its representation as adult-authority, as adult presence, as adult logic, as adult language, as adult relationship. In Lynda Barry’s illustrated world, adults are angry almost all of the time—scowled, pointed eye brows, ferocious mouths gaping.  She represents the children and adolescents as more often then not bemused, befuddled, or as simply resigned to the storm of power reigning all around them.

It’s remarkable there is so little bitterness in the stories Barry tells about childhood, no unconscious need for revenge presents itself in her work.  Her stories are simple acts of remembering simply yet sublimely done. Her power as an artist comes from her uncanny ability to find the tragic in the ordinary and the the ordinary in the tragic.  She chronicles the human desire to forget—the past, the pain, the vulnerability, the powerlessness, of the child–and yet at the same time imbedded in her work is a hard law that, once recognized, liberates:  true forgetting is impossible so trying to forget is fruitless.  We may be able to temporarily avoid, but never to escape completely from the past.

The drama of culture and our lives as members of a society begin as a family drama—and the family drama is largely scripted by the wider culture.  I think this is what Faulkner is getting at when he said, “There is no was.”

And then somebody else said,  “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”  I think these are mutually reinforcing clichés.

There is no was, according to Faulkner because when the past remains unresolved—or unremembered—we are doomed to repeat it.  It follows then that if we remembered the past we might liberate ourselves.

The question remains: exactly what past are we supposed to stop forgetting? Which history is most in need of remembering?  And how will we know?  Who can guide us?

Our very future as a society may rest on our ability to answer these questions.

As children we’re taught to do the right thing. Often we are perplexed with what is the right thing because the right thing is determined by someone else. Ultimately, we must decide for ourselves what is right–but often our judgment is clouded by the neurological trace of trauma and the confusion it leaves behind.

When practicing self-reflection, there is a moment  when we come to realize that we have the opportunity to liberate ourselves from the past—the cycle of suffering– and so become peace makers rather than destroyers or defilers. We see that we have the opportunity to help others, that compassion is life’s fullest expression.

Violence, on the other hand, frees no one.  Compassion frees, violence binds.  But our habits of suffering remain strong, our narcissism is real, our commitment to revenge runs deep, and the belief in the use of violence as a constructive act remains deeply imprinted in our way of life, however questionable a history violence has.  Violence is nothing more or less than the mis-use of power between people.  But some of us might question this assumption, but I ask you, is there good violence?  A right use of violence?

Power rightly exercised is non-violent.  This is not to say it is weak, or passive, or in-active or ineffective.  It is just to say that power rightly exercised between peoples is non-violent.  Violence is consistent with domination, dehumanization, traumatization, subjugation and death.

That those with power mis-use power routinely, even celebrate the mis-use of power and the “right” use of violence in no way justifies these actions as “right.”  The fact that a violent relational practice is habitual, historical or generational in no way condones or makes more acceptable by use something that otherwise remains repugnant.

Literature and the arts has the power to remind us that our adult self-identity has been formed with great personal sacrifice as a child in the face of petty and chronic violence routinely experienced by children. Remembering our experience, and having compassion for our experience unblocks the mind.  It resolves by accepting.  Like a deep breath.

Story is at the heart of everything we do because stories help us remember.  It’s also true that some stories help us forget.  Literature reminds us, through fiction, about truth.

My work, in the end, speaks to the possibility of non-violent, compassionate change, but not just change for change sake, but rather, for the growth and development of the human community. Such work is the work of compassion.  Without compassion and the recognition that in the fate of one lies the fate of all, we will be condemned to repeating the past and living in a world committed to the misuse of power and the disregard for human life.

Global Warming Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner!

As far as I can tell from the data environmental scientists have been presenting for the last two decades, we have passed the point of no return, and we have entered a time where much more of the world—and future generations– will be trapped in misery.  The term ‘misery’ as I use it here refers to: high infant mortality, low standards of sanitation, malnutrition and famine, inadequate drinking water, widespread diseases, war, and political unrest.

The vast majority of the world’s scientists agree that carbon dioxide is a green house gas that contributes to global warming—gas that comes from cars and factories and, well, gas of the methane variety, from vast herds of cattle farting all day and all night all across the globe.

In 2008 goal for the Obama administration was to cut CO2 by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050. We’ve made no progress.  In fact, CO2 emissions have risen since 2008. This is bad.  And now with Greenland and Antarctica melting precipitously, Jim Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientists suggests we may already be too late.  I would agree, though what I believe is neither here nor there.

Scientists tell us that it took 250 years to burn the first half trillion tons of fossil fuel and based on current usage we will burn the next half trillion by 2050.  As the artic ice retreats, Big Oil is already making plans to drill and pump.  Why do we continue to ignore the evidence?   We increase the amount of carbon dioxide we spew into the atmosphere at our own peril.

But not just carbon dioxide. Pollution of all kinds is slowly poisoning us and there are more of us everyday consuming what remains of our dwindling resources.  The world’s oceans come to mind.  Why are they full of mercury?  Why are the last of the wild fish unsafe to eat?  Because coal-fired plants spew toxic pollution as they generate electricity.  There is no such thing as clean coal.  Burning coal releases many tons of mercury into the atmosphere that enters into the water cycle of the planet, and finally, finds its way into your tuna sandwich.  I think this fact puts to shame all those nay-sayers—like Sarah Palin and some members of the Tea Party—who claim that humanity is too small and pathetic a creation to have the power to screw up something so big as the environment.  This kind of ignorance is deadly, and it almost certainly dooms us if the majority of American believe it.

More bad news: nitrogen run-off threatens to engulf the world’s ecosystems as a result of petroleum based fertilizers and insecticides. .  In The Little Green Handbook the authors argue that,“by 2050, the whole globe will be strongly polluted [by nitrogen run-off]. Nitrogen pollution is deadly. It suffocates aquatic animals, it is harmful to humans, and destructive to biodiversity.”

Meanwhile, the acidification of the world’s oceans threatens sea life and widening dead zones are an ominous symptom.  Already massive islands of garbage float aimlessly across the Pacific formed by, you guessed it, plastic, another petroleum derivative.  The death of coral reef along the continental shelves around the globe continues unabated and represents an ominous symptom.  And as Greenland and Antarctica melt into the Southern Ocean and the North Atlantic, rising sea levels threaten low-lying coastal cities and communities.  It’s happening.  Now.  Potable water around the world is getting harder and hard to find for up to 1.5 billion people on the planet. On-going threats of famine stalk developing nations.

Perhaps Mark Lynas’ alarming argument might balance the misinformation that has for years now confused people:  he writes his book, Six Degrees (2007) that should the planet warm even only two-degrees above pre-industrial levels, all bets are off for human survival.  According to Lynas we may be eating each other sometime around 2050.

I’ll have mine medium-rare, please.

Global warming and climate change are only the melting tips of the icebergs.  Industrial civilization cannot survive based upon mythologies of the past and dreams of unrestricted growth for profits, populations or waistlines.  We need a vision for a sustainable future and we need it now.

What Will the Future Bring?

2050 A Future History is a speculative fiction epic in three volumes, though only the first two volumes have been published so far, both by Iron Diesel Press.   I was influenced by Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, along with films like Blade Runner and The Matrix.  But at the same time I’ve always loved the notion of an epic saga since I first came across it in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Herbert’s classic Dune series. Ever since reading these and other works as a teenager some thirty years ago, I knew I wanted to tell a story that big, but since then I’ve developed my own reasons to write, and so in 2050 I combine the elements of science fiction, the cautionary tale, and the fantasy epic to frame 2050 as a “future history.”  

The trilogy begins with Volume One: Gods of Little Earth (2007) and continues in the recently published Volume Two: The Power at the Bottom of the World (2012).  The saga concludes with Volume Three: When Immortals Reign, but that one is still a couple of years off.  

And so, I wonder, what will the future bring?  If you want to know what I think is in our future, check out 2050 A Future History Volumes One and Two.  You can find them at Amazon.com, among others.Image