Tag Archives: the future

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.

320px-battalion_march_with_gas_mask-jpg_76839_20120924-43

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.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107

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.

The American Election 2016 and the “Perceval” Future

President Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989

President Ronald Reagan, 1981-1989

When I first began working on the first novel in the Perceval series, Ronald Reagan was president and I thought he was the scariest person on earth.  He wanted to shrink the federal government in many ways but not curtail the executive power of the President. It took a long time for me to create Evan Quinn’s future world, but it grew out of watching what was happening in the world in the 1980’s and how America responded to it.  What was I seeing?

First of all, the supremacy of the military, especially in terms of the national budget and their influence on the civilian part of our government.  This has not changed.  If anything, it has increased.

Second, the rise of corporate power.  At first, this didn’t bother me, but the more I was seeing how corporations focused their priorities, the more alarmed I was.  Their power through lobbying in Washington, D. C. was growing also as politicians’ need for money to fund their re-election campaigns grew. This has not changed.  Corporations are now global, “transnational,” and some banks are “too big to fail.” Money has become a weapon of power. Campaign finance reform has become a joke.

As the years passed through successive presidencies and Congresses with different majorities, these first two points really did not change.  Several more were added, also.  For example:

A media more focused on ratings or entertainment value rather than reporting real world news.  This focus has only worsened over the years.  Now, I have stopped watching some “news outlets” because they are doing such a poor job of reporting real world news (except disasters or terrorism to foment fear) and have begun using British and Canadian news outlets.  Some friends are doing the same thing.  It’s very interesting to get a more objective perspective on my country, especially the American government and politics.

President George W. Bush delivering his second inaugural speech

President George W. Bush delivering his second inaugural speech

There’s been a growing obsession with national security because of terrorism (the terrorists won a long time ago because of our fear which is what terrorism is all about), as well as with law enforcement in terms of cracking down on crime and cracking down on police misconduct. We stop supporting and protecting human rights at our peril as a society and country, but there have been violations of human rights in the name of security and fear of terrorism. Isn’t it only short steps away from allowing a police state to occur within America’s borders?  We must continue, as individuals, to speak out against these developments.

We also now have a presidential candidate, Donald Trump, who does not have a background in democratic leadership, i.e. in local or state government, and has not established that he is a staunch supporter of democracy and its processes.  He is a businessman, accustomed to leading in an authoritarian way and having the final say.  Listening to his demagogic speeches is a scary experience not only because of his egocentric view of the world, but also because of his threatening nationalist words, racist words, sexist attitudes, lack of knowledge or experience in diplomacy, and his violent words.  When I was working back in the 1980’s on the novel, I envisioned just such a candidate winning a presidential election because he pandered to fears of terrorism, of “invasion” from the south, of economic failure.  He closed both our northern and southern borders, increased the powers of law enforcement on local, state, and national levels, and with the help of those in Congress who agreed with him, managed to re-structure the American government to suit is authoritarian needs.

Donald Trump (Photo: Inside Edition)

Donald Trump (Photo: Inside Edition)

I think it would be a good idea for all of us to remind ourselves of the characteristics of fascism (Fourteen Defining Characteristics of Fascism from Rense.com) and realize that we are already living some of them today.  I think it’s also important to research the presidential candidates and their experience and knowledge of democratic leadership.  It’s a good idea to seek out alternate news sources, trusted sources, especially outside the country, that can provide a more objective view to help us to take a step back, or out of, what is happening in order to give it a hard examination with calm minds, not fearful minds.

In the Perceval series, because of the presidential election of 2016, America ends up an authoritarian dictatorship that pays lip service to such democratic institutions as the Supreme Court, the Congress, elections, and the Constitution with its essential Bill of Rights.  Of course, the government in 2048 has perverted the rule of law to suit its own needs and Americans live in a police state.  America has split into regional factions, and a civil war is in progress. Corporate America controls much of the government in Washington. The rich are now overtly in control of American life, and the other 98% work for them just to survive.  As a result, America looks very much as the USSR did in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  It pains me deeply that we are quite possibly at the same political crossroads in 2016 I had imagined years ago.   At least I’m not the only one noticing what’s happening.  And I sincerely hope I’m wrong about the result.

For more reading about Donald Trump and the 2016 presidential campaign, I suggest the following links:

I find The Weekly Sift especially helpful in finding a more objective view of what’s happening this year in America.

Reading as a Writer: “Gypsy” by Carter Scholz

November/December 2015

November/December 2015

Science fiction short stories have the power to transport my mind into another time, onto another planet, or into an experience that I’d never imagined before. Carter Scholz’s novella Gypsy in the November/December 2015 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine took me completely out of my mundane holidays 2015 world (and away from the pain of a sprained foot) and transported me onto a earth spaceship hurtling toward Alpha Centauri.  At first, I thought maybe I was reading an homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but as I continued reading, the story twisted and turned in ways that Clarke’s didn’t.

Space travel in this story is dark, cold, uncomfortable, full of danger, and the ultimate challenge for a human being.  I’m not that interested in hard science in science fiction, but I admired the math and hard science that Scholz included in this story.  They made sense.  Space travelers would need to calculate deceleration, how to change course, thrust, etc.  I didn’t need to know if Scholz’s math was correct or the hard science was true.  What he included in terms of specific detail was enough to convince me of their plausibility.  The details about Alpha Centauri captivated me.  I know little about other solar systems, and researchers in 2012 discovered a planet in the Alpha Centauri system that appeared to be earth-like.  The space travelers in Scholz’s story are on their way to that planet in order to establish a colony.

What fascinated me about this story was the characterizations and human details, both in thought and action.  The reader is dropped into the middle of the “action,” i.e. the space trip.  Each astronaut who wakes to deal with a spacecraft issue adds a layer of backstory through memory and a layer of perspective on the story’s present.  Alpha Centauri is the closest star system to earth but it’s still over 4 light years away.  The trip was supposed to take 72 years, and the crew were put into hibernation.  The ship’s computer has been programmed to waken a crew member if it detects a problem.  So each crew member that wakes has a different problem to solve, challenge to meet.  As each new section begins, more time has passed, more potentially fatal problems arise.

Alpha Centauri - the brightest star to the left

Alpha Centauri – the brightest star to the left

Through it all, each crew member remains committed to the trip’s purpose which allows each to do his or her best to resolve the problems.  The problems are mostly due to human error which I also found fascinating.  We may know a lot but we still don’t know about space travel outside our solar system.  At the same time, Scholz’s writing details what space is like and how the crew members react emotionally.  After about 80 years, crew member Zia awakens to deal with a course issue.  He looks outside to check the coordinates of the stars and discovers an unfamiliar “sky.”  It takes him a few minutes to get his bearings and identify the stars.  He looks at the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Polaris and Cassiopeia, noting

“a new, bright star blazed above it, as if that W had grown another zag. Could it be a nova? He stared, and the stars of Cassiopeia circled this strange bright one slowly as the ship rotated.  Then he knew.  The strange star was Sol.  Our Sun.

That was when he felt it, in his body. They were really here.”

When I read those words, I was there, too, and it was an amazing feeling in my mind.  This sense of displacement, distance, and being surrounded by the vastness of space continued as I read through to the end.  Scholz does not make it easy on the reader, but while the ending left me gasping, it felt totally inevitable given what had occurred in the rest of the story.

Alpha-Centauri-planet-illus-L-calcada-esoS-1024x640

What an excellent science fiction short story!  It is to Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine’s credit that they chose to publish it.  Their stories are consistently good reading, and then every once in a while there will be a story like Scholz’s that reaches beyond  the visible world to reveal humanity’s courage and depth.  Whether you like science fiction or not, I highly recommend this novella, in this magazine, for its human truths.

 

 

Would You Work in a Moneyless Future?

trekonomics book cover

It seems to have popped again in the Zeitgeist, folks.  Yesterday at the New York Times Opinion Pages blog, Anna North wrote about Trekonomics by Manu Saadia in which he examines the economics of the “Star Trek” universe, i.e. a universe in which there is no need for money because people are no longer focused on the acquisition of wealth.  Instead, they are focused on the achievement of goals.  They don’t need money because they can essentially provide for all their material needs with the help of a replicator — for free.  Achievement will be the measurement of success, not money.

julaug2015 the atlantic cover

Derek Thompson’s “A World Without Work” in the July/August 2015 issue of The Atlantic takes a different approach, one that acknowledges a money and market economy but does not offer any ideas for a post-money or market “economy.”  Thompson focuses his article on the development of robots and how much of the work now done by humans will be done by robots in the future.  How will that affect society?  How will it affect individuals?  Families?  We invest so much of our identities into what we do for a living, self esteem will surely take a hit, as well as how we define who we are.  So, the psychological effects could be profound.

CCY_PercevalsSecretCvr_FNL-960x1280.131107In Perceval’s Secret and the entire Perceval series, the entire world is moving toward a moneyless future.  There is an international organization that has begun work on figuring out how to wean humans off money, because in another 40 years or so it will be obvious how addicted we are to it and to the consumption and power that comes with it.  America in 2048 is the poster child for the money-addicted society with its gross economic inequality.  China is not far behind.  The economic issues between America and China not only threaten the global economy in 2048 — the global economy still functions — but also the movement toward life without money.

As I read Thompson’s Atlantic article, I thought about my work imagining the future for the Perceval series, and especially my thoughts the last 15 years or so about money, how entwined it is in human existence, and what would need to happen in order to extricate ourselves from it.  The first thing I looked at, and what Thompson discusses regarding robots doing human work, is the hamster wheel we are all on in order to survive.  That is, I must find a job for which I am qualified in order to earn the money I need to pay for my basic needs: shelter, food, clothing, transportation, utility bills including phone and internet, and medical expenses, and paying off my debt.  In our current society, the only way to get off that hamster wheel is to become independently wealthy — win the big lottery jackpot, or win the big business jackpot and retire with millions in the bank.  For anyone making a “middle class” income or below, they have little hope of ever jumping off that wheel.

But what if no one needs money to pay for basic needs because they cost nothing?  At the same time, robot development has progressed to the point where robots could replace humans in the workplace.  This would require a great leap in artificial intelligence in order for a robot to take over the duties and responsibilities of a CEO for example, but I see this as a possibility.  If money no longer needs to exist, then what?

000-money-backgrounds2-prwHumans would need to make a great leap forward in their own development, i.e. change attitudes, beliefs and ways of thinking to redefine ourselves and what we believe the purpose of human existence is.  Right now, like it or not, the purpose of human existence is to earn money.  Next, there would be a HUGE disruption/upheaval in the financial and economic sectors — banks and investment companies going out of business, people losing their jobs in all areas of human endeavor (all those billing departments, for example) — and if humans are smart they’ll start preparing for this far in advance of it.  Another area of disruption/upheaval: labor unions, government agencies, employment agencies, and anything else related to labor.

For Perceval’s Secret, a world without money, as much as I wanted to include the transition in the series, became just too big and overwhelming.  It threatened to hijack the story.  So, I had to dial it back far in the background and be content with including some specific details showing that a transition has begun.  I needed to find a way to challenge Evan Quinn’s attitude towards money as well as insure that he’d have enough to live on in his new life.  Being a musician at any time can be financially stressful.

Although a world without money won’t be happening anytime soon, at least the discussion has begun….

(There’s a movement already working toward change: The Zeitgeist Movement.  I’ve written about it before here.  They are dedicated to a “no money” future…..)