Category Archives: the future

It Can’t Happen Here?

Recently, I finished reading Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. This novel has become famous again, as well as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and other novels that depict life under a totalitarian or fascist regime, because of the 2016 American presidential election.  Lewis’ concern was more about HOW  fascism could happen in America, not with life after fascism was established. According to the very good introduction by Michael Meyer (the English professor at the University of Connecticut, not the actor or the movie character) and the afterword by Gary Scharnhorst, the influences on Lewis in 1935 were the National Socialist movement in Germany, and Huey Long in Louisiana.  Long inspired Lewis’ Senator Buzz Windrip, and how the German people chose fascism inspired his American scenario.

When I was developing the America of 2048 for the Perceval novels, I knew I wanted a fascism in America that was established by a new political party that had arisen when factions from the GOP right and the Democrat right came together in support of Corporate America. The new party, the New Economic Party, participated in free democratic American elections which they won because they promised Americans wealth and security. When they won the presidency and a majority in Congress, they closed the borders, suspended the Constitution, and formed a dictatorship with some of the trappings of a democracy like elections and Congress. Like the Soviet Union, especially in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A military coup would not work, nor would a civilian coup. There could be no forcible takeover of the government. It needed to be chosen by the people.

Lewis agreed with me. In It Can’t Happen Here, the American people elect Buzz Windrip despite all the signs that he would become a dictator: a 15-point manifesto promising people money and then abolishing Congress and the Supreme Court, the creation of his own personal army called the Minute Men, and his emphasis on showmanship rather than substance. Windrip himself wasn’t particularly wealthy, but he had a lot of very wealthy friends, and he had plans to steal from the US Treasury and ferret away millions for himself.  It takes Lewis a good third of the book to really get into the story, but once he does, around the point when Windrip wins the presidential election, it really gets interesting. Lewis lays out the steps Windrip and his administration take to make Congress obsolete, disband the Supreme Court, and restructure both the government and the country, creating 8 provinces instead of 50 states. The Minute Men become the thugs that enforce Windrip’s every wish, and anyone who speaks or acts against the government either disappears, is arrested, and/or shot. An Underground resistance arises, led by the Communists in America (I found this REALLY ironic) and by the man who lost the presidential election and fled to Canada.  Americans flee to Canada in droves, becoming refugees. Production and profits become the determinants of life or death.

It astonished me how familiar this all was.  I had not read Lewis’ novel before, but my thinking for what happens in America to produce my America in 2048 was much the same. Lewis shows how easily a fascist dictatorship can be established in America.  Just elect the right guy. And any fascism would be firmly grounded in Capitalism, i.e. the wealthy would have all the power and control, forcing everyone else to work for their benefit and profit. In the Perceval series, I’m concerned with how such a political system affects the people who live under it, psychologically and emotionally. Especially when violence and abuse are accepted and commonplace.

My May 2017 The Atlantic has arrived and with it reader response to David Frum’s article in the March 2017 issue, “How to Build an Autocracy.” Ezra Klein’s response in a Vox article (published as a letter in the magazine) included the argument that Congress has the power to stop any president from getting too powerful. He writes, “Congress is more powerful than the president. It comes first in the Constitution for a reason. The public should demand more of it, and care more who runs it.”  Well, yes. But what if Congress agrees with the president and has no intention of stopping him?  We seem to have this situation now in America.  Congress, and the GOP leaders, don’t seem to have a clue what to do. Klein writes that the 2018 elections when many of those in Congress face election, could be crucial for stopping the current president.  In the meantime, we are probably fortunate that the current president isn’t nearly as smart or savvy as Buzz Windrip in Lewis’ novel, and that he didn’t think to build his own personal army as Windrip did.

Being a Creative Writer: Under Oppression

In 2017 America, we have access to countless narratives of people existing and surviving under oppressive conditions, be they social, psychological, or political. In my own life, I’ve read Soviet writers who worked in the USSR as well as Western writers who visited the USSR and wrote about their experiences and observations afterward. I was reminded of this today when I saw in The New York Times an article by Margaret Atwood entitled “Margaret Atwood on What The Handmaid’s Tale Means in the Age of Trump.” In this article, Atwood talks about her novel and its setting: an America which has gone through a coup that establishes a strict patriarchal rule based in 17th century Puritanism. Under this oppression, human rights, especially women’s rights, are minimal if they exist at all. Only “the elite,” i.e. those in power, have human rights and freedoms. They dominate and control everyone and everything else. Atwood wrote this story in 1984, during the Reagan era in America. It was in 1984 that I first met Evan Quinn, the protagonist of my Perceval series, and began to explore who he was and what his story was.

Since the November 2016 election, I’ve been thinking about the role of the writer in a society that is hostile toward the arts, especially literature, and is obsessed with money. Commerce rules in America, and there’s nothing sweeter than gigantic profits. The sign of success? Your income level, earned, or especially, unearned, as in investments. If you are a member of the Working Poor, you are not a success according to American society. The number of writers in the top 1% income group are few. Most writers fall somewhere between the Working Poor and the middle Middle Class. And no, I don’t have specific statistics on that, just what I’ve observed in Minnesota which is an active literary area in the country. For the last 2 months, we’ve seen a new president and government that wants to keep writers either subservient to them or silent. They’ve acted to destroy the press, calling various media news outlets “the enemy of the people.” They’ve acted to cut federal government support of the arts by defunding and abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. This government doesn’t like writers.  Why?

Moscow. First secretary of the Union of Soviet writers Konstantin Fedin (tribune) makes a speech at the fourth Congress of Soviet writers. Photo TASS / Yevgeny Kassin; Vladimir Savostyanov

For the same reason the USSR’s government didn’t like them. And I know that I may be making a controversial comparison here, but please bear with me (I’m not making the Nazi comparison because it’s redundant). The Soviet government established rules and bureaucratic procedures by which every citizen had to abide, except for the ruling elite who enjoyed all the power and perks. Writers observed life in the Soviet Union and how this system affected that life and they wrote about it. And many were “disappeared” because of it. The government tried to corral writers into a governmental structure called the Union of Soviet Writers which was created in 1932 by the Central Committee of the Communist Party. If a writer gained membership in the Union (and the Communist Party), he enjoyed financial support and publication. If a writer was not a member, he enjoyed poverty and being banned from publication. Members of the Union had to adhere to the Party’s Socialist Realism in all their creative expression. In this way, the government controlled what the writers wrote.

Example of Socialist Realism in architecture: All-Russia Exhibition Centre in Moscow (from Wikipedia)

I’m a bit surprised that the Bannon-Trump government hasn’t thought about merging the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities into one artist union with departments for literature, painting, music, dance, etc.  (In the Perceval novels, it’s called the Arts Council.) Perhaps they haven’t yet thought of it, or maybe they have and have concluded that it would be a waste of money since they believe the arts are not very profitable but dangerous to them.

What should American writers do right now and going forward? As always, write the truth as you experience it. Whether in nonfiction or fiction, writers need to continue doing what they do best: observe, witness, reveal, and be clear and true in all of their words. In the April 2017 The Writer, Gail Radley (“Through the Looking Glass”) writes about what facts are and how to find the truth. She’s comprehensive in talking about the internet, trusted sources, and how to tell when a website is not to be trusted no matter what it looks like. Her tips could also apply to government websites masquerading as private websites.

Write to resist. Write to witness. Write to record for posterity, whether in a fictional format or nonfiction. If you have activism running through your blood, protest and demonstrate non-violently, peacefully, and meaningfully. Keep it simple. Writers know how to reveal character through dialogue, right? Use that skill to actively communicate to your elected representatives or when you are protesting in a group.

I know, I know. All this sounds rather paranoid. Perhaps it is. But I do think that those in power right now are truly serious about what they want to accomplish. Those who disagree with them, anyone who wants to insure the arts will be available to anyone and everyone forever, all need to be just as serious and determined in what they want to accomplish.

Adam Burns, or Characters that are cut

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Not Adam, but close to how I imagined him

Adam Burns has been on my mind a lot lately. He was an old guy, a bum, a journalist in hiding in a very early draft of Perceval’s Secret.  Evan Quinn met him once, in a wooded area not far from the Minneapolis neighborhood where the Quinns lived. Evan was ten years old. He knew Adam as “Old Man Burns,” the neighborhood drunken bum. The encounter Evan has with Adam brings into laser sharp focus for Evan the danger that his family is in. Adam isn’t really drunk when he meets Evan — he’s acting drunk and stupid — and he tells Evan that his father must leave the country. Later, Evan learns that Adam was murdered, his body found along the Mississippi River, a bullet in his brain.

I killed off Adam Burns and that entire encounter with Evan. In fact, just before Evan meets Adam, Evan and his friend Paul Caine have been hounded and abused by Harold Smith and his gang. I didn’t realize it at the time I cut out that entire section of the draft, but Harold Smith would become Evan’s nemesis in the Perceval series. He survives in flashbacks in Perceval’s Secret as well as in the flesh late in the novel. But I never put the childhood section back into the novel. And Adam Burns was lost, except in my mind. Now he haunts me.

Have you ever been haunted by characters that you’ve cut out of stories or novels? It’s strange. It’s like they want their own stories, they do not want to be forgotten. I have yet to figure out why Adam keeps popping up in my mind. What’s his deal?

When I began work on the Perceval series, it wasn’t a series. It wasn’t even a novel. It was a short story about a ten-year-old boy who wanted to be an orchestra conductor when he grew up, but the circumstances of his life in America in 2048 would make that dream impossible to fulfill unless he left the country, according to Adam “Old Man” Burns. Evan senses that Burns has a secret, and indeed he did. I knew his backstory although I never wrote it. It was enough that it was secret and something dangerous that Burns must protect or he could lose his life.

Adam’s backstory: first of all, Adam Burns wasn’t his real name. He made certain no one knew his real name, including me. He’d been a famous journalist on the East Coast during the Change, the period of time during which the New Economic Party (NEP) consolidated power in America with a permanent majority on the federal and state levels of government.

Like any journalist worth his salt defending Freedom of the Press as well as the Bill of Rights, Adam had reported on those in power, exposing their corruption, greed, and lust for power. He’d reported on their narcissism, comparing them to the greatest dictators of the 20th Century. He knew the NEP cared only about enriching itself and insuring that they got everything they wanted. Adam had reported also on the Resistance, the Underground, and the Civil War. But the NEP wanted the American people to know only what they told them. So they waged war against journalists, arresting many who simply disappeared. The NEP wanted complete control over the media. They silenced the media by any means necessary.

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The people had rebelled — the country was embroiled in a Civil War, with western states seceding, southern states threatening to do so, and Washington slamming shut all of America’s borders. By the time Evan is ten, Adam has been underground for over five years, running for his life. In Minnesota, he thought he’d be safer because Minnesota was a hot bed of resistance, led by Evan’s father, a poet, and Paul’s father, a composer. Artists throughout the country had joined the Underground, the loosely organized resistance movement. They could offer Adam a way out of the country.

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I cut Evan’s childhood section when I realized that I was writing a novel and I needed to restructure it to focus on his adult life, what eventually became Perceval’s Secret. Now I find it a bit ironic that Evan carries a dangerous secret in the novel, one that could cost him his life. So perhaps Adam did survive in the importance of keeping dangerous secrets.

Made America Great Again

banner-make-america-great-againTy squatted to paw through the wastebasket’s contents before emptying it into his giant gray thick plastic barrel on wheels. Rich people threw everything away. He’d found treasures in their wastebaskets sometimes. One night, he found a brand new children’s book that he took home for his daughter’s birthday. Another night, he found a perfectly good tie, a beautiful tie of dark green with subtle thin black diagonal stripes. He wore it to Mass on Sundays. Now he hoped to find something for his patient, hard-working wife.

She had warned him not to trust a liar and cheat. That man would not keep his promises. Why should he? He was rich. He didn’t need to work to put food on the table, pay for expensive medicine for his wife, pay health insurance premiums, and the rent. All that man cared about was getting more money for himself and his friends, no matter how he did it. Ty hadn’t believed her. That man had said everything Ty’d been thinking, and promising to make America great again. But nothing had changed.

Ty spotted a spiral notebook toward the bottom of the wastebasket. He pulled it out, opened it. Writing in ink filled only two pages. The rest of the notebook’s pages were clean. His daughter could use this in school. He dropped it into the cloth bag he wore around his waist. Ty had been cleaning rich men’s and women’s offices at night for the last two years. During the day, he taught third grade at an elementary school two blocks from their apartment. He could walk to that job, but he had to drive to the night shift job. Buses stopped running after about 12:30 a.m. His wife drove the car to her day shift in “catering” at one of the big hospitals in the city. Gas was expensive.

That man had turned back the clock really. No, not turned it back. Ty had studied history in college and knew that in America democracy had prevailed for 240 years. Then that man took over. A celebrity businessman used to getting his own way by any means possible. And his family, giving his kids big jobs in the government like dictators usually did. He hadn’t a clue about who really did the work in America. And he didn’t want to know. Yeah, the first thing he did was to stop the flow of information as he banned one media organization after another from covering his activities. He used the courts to keep them so tied up they didn’t have time to do their jobs. He signed off on “reform” that ended Social Security so that “people will have more money in their paychecks now and save more for the future.” But wages hadn’t increased. How was he supposed to save when he could barely make enough to support his family?

That celebrity businessman wanted to show the top 1% that he was truly one of them and not some wannabe. So he made certain that business got what it wanted, and unions didn’t. He made certain that the tax breaks benefited the wealthy so they could keep all their profits. He made certain that he got the money from Congress to do what he wanted even if it meant gutting all spending even for the military. But he still ran up the national debt as if he could just declare bankruptcy again, no problem.

Ty regretted supporting that man. But what could be done now? He and his party were in power and changing the government to suit themselves. They called it “a permanent majority.” He didn’t like that at all. They weren’t helping him or anyone like him and his wife. Ty emptied the rich CEO’s wastebasket into his barrel and moved on. They were all bullies really. Now they were in power, they bullied all they wanted — even other countries. That celebrity businessman decided that America got nothing from being in NATO, from being allies with other countries, from free trade. He made America isolationist again. And his young daughter endured all sorts of bullying in school.  It wasn’t safe for anyone who didn’t look like that celebrity businessman, that ugly celebrity businessman.

His back ached. His wife thought it was because of the lifting he had to do, but Ty knew it was because of his shoes. But he couldn’t afford new shoes that would give his feet the support they needed. So, his back ached. He massaged his lower back as he pushed the giant plastic barrel out of the CEO’s office and down the hall to the next office.

CEO's Office?

CEO’s Office?

Writing the Future: the Mars Trilogy

KSR Mars TrilogyThis past week, I finished reading the final novel in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, and Blue Mars. Besides bringing our beautiful planet earth’s physical attributes into focus for me to the point of overwhelming gratitude, this trilogy also provoked thoughts of just how difficult it is to write the future.

But how hard could it be to write the future? I mean, all a writer has to do is make things up, right?

Wrong.

For Perceval’s Secret and the rest of the Perceval series, I spent months creating the world of 2048-2050, thinking about all aspects of human life, plus environmental, political, geological, and technology concerns. I read books about futurism, which I hadn’t really known existed before. I read futurists’ predictions about the mid-21st century, fascinated by what they emphasized and what they didn’t. Then I had to put myself into the future I’d created in order to look for major holes in logic or in setting, and to write about it with confidence. It was hard.

I can only imagine the amount of research Robinson must have done for his trilogy.  He focuses a lot of his attention on the science of Mars, the science of human survival on Mars, and surprisingly, the geology of Mars because of one character, Ann Clayborne. Robinson put me there on Mars with his characters, especially for the first two books. I found it totally plausible what the characters experienced in terms of the Martian environment as well as in social and political terms. He didn’t spend a lot of energy, however, on technology which surprised me. He covered as much as he needed and no more. And I was quite satisfied with his future for the first two books.

Mars Bonneville Crater (Photo: NASA.gov)

Mars Bonneville Crater (Photo: NASA.gov)

But not for the third book, Blue Mars. The first two books remained true to their setting, i.e. Mars with all the challenges it presented. In the third book, Robinson takes us elsewhere in the solar system because humans have settled other places and Mars politically wants to have influence over them. While this was plausible from a social political point of view, I missed the survival experiences of humans on Mars. I missed how the personalities and desires of the core ensemble of characters intertwined and propelled the story in interesting and surprising ways. And it wasn’t because I didn’t like the younger generation of Martians. I found it fascinating how, in the third book, Robinson focused so much on the social aspects of living on Mars.

It took me several days after I finished the third book to figure out why I felt so dissatisfied with that last book. I realized that Robinson had abandoned the explorer and survival aspects that had begun the trilogy and shifted to a medical aspect. In fact, I realized that the gerontological treatment he introduced in the first book had struck me as a mildly interesting literary device to extend the lives of the original settlers through the trilogy. But it didn’t bother me at all in the first and second books. It bothered me in the third book which became a meditation on memory. So, the trilogy ends not on new ideas about space exploration in our solar system and beyond, but on a small group of people who are trying to remember their pasts. While interesting at times, I thought it belonged in a different book entirely, one about the medical and physical aspects of living off earth.  A book about the future trying to recapture the past or the old chestnut of humans seeking immortality.

Mars (Photo: NASA.gov)

Mars (Photo: NASA.gov)

Had Robinson run out of ideas about Mars settlements in the future? Had he lost interest in the science? Or had he written all he wanted to write about them? I don’t know, although it felt that way while I was reading the third book. Robinson showed that humans would do everything possible to recreate earth and life on earth in his trilogy, and I wondered how humans would evolve to adapt to the Martian environment. I continued to read despite my growing dissatisfaction and impatience with the third book because I really enjoyed Robinson’s prose, and I loved the way he threaded two elements through all three books: the Red vs. Green struggle, and John Boone and his death.

Finally, Robinson demonstrated just how difficult it is to write the future. I was very impressed, however, with just how far he went.