Monthly Archives: December 2008

Extrapolatory and “plausible futures” fiction

Over at Jyri Zengestrom’s blog I happened upon this statement:

The most disruptive social objects articulate something masses of people urgently feel, but lack a way to express.

…and it fits nicely with a number of things I’ve been reading lately. Not everyone will share my enthusiasm for Warren Ellis’s Freak Angels (a serialized graphic novel, dark and violent), or for the near-future (and alternate-past) genres like Cyberpunk and Steampunk, but it’s obvious that authors in these realms are working with materials that are highly relevant to the present. And I’m reminded of the John Brunner masterpieces Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up that I used in courses 30-some years ago, to get students thinking about possible futures and different views of the present…

I’ve been following Jim Kunstler’s blog for a while now, and his World Made By Hand arrived a couple of days ago and has been inhaled. The novel is interesting on several levels, but especially as an exercise in imagining the contingencies of an all-too-plausible future –that is, as a sort of projective anthropology. A visit to the World Made By Hand website will reward in a number of ways. It’s the first time I’ve seen a trailer for a novel:

and there’s an interview with Jim Kunstler in which he talks about how he wrote the book. Two bits that jumped out at me:

the footing underneath reality is not quite what we’ve been used to…

…when you’re composing a novel like this, you set certain elements in motion and they end up dictating how things will play out –it’s an emergent, self-organizing process

As I read World Made By Hand I found myself marking bits of text that serve as technological and sociological mise en scène, and I feel compelled to lay at least some of them out here. Why? Hmmmm. I suppose it’s an exercise in “projective anthropology” but it’s also part of my own continuing rumination on what-all underpins the lives we lead in the ethnographic present –the unexamined assumptions and contingencies that support our material lives. Anthropology is, after all, one of the means to wrestle with the question: where does structure come from for people’s lives? So here’s a passel of short extracts, with pages noted, each of them a potential jumping-off place for thought and discussion:

since we didn’t have news reporters anymore and you barely knew what was going on five miles away (3)

The turbines and metal parts had long since been sold for scrap and every other useful thing was scavenged out. We couldn’t replace them anymore. (4)

Now, in the new times, there were far fewer people, and many of the houses outside town were being taken down for their materials. Farming was back. That was the only way we got food. (5)

You could still find rubber tires here and there, but you couldn’t get patch kits or the kinds of adhesives that would stand up to a repair job anymore (5)

The strip mall stores were vacant. Spiky mulleins and sumacs erupted through the broken pavement of the parking lot. The plate glass was gone and the aluminum sashes, and everything else worth scavenging was stripped out. (11)

People are on the move again (12)

Being so few in numbers, children no longer enjoyed solidarity in rebellion, and our society was too fragile to indulge much symbolic misbehavior (13)

The various shifting factions worked hard at managing the news even as the TV, newspapers, and Internet were failing in one way or another from irregular electric service (15)

the federal government was little more than a figment of the collective memory. Everything was local now. (15)

We had trouble getting wheat latelybecause trade had fallen off, and we couldn’t grow it locally because of a persistent wheat rust in the soil that returned no matter how you rested a field. Mostly we had to rely on corn and buckwheat, with some barley, rye, and oats (16)

“It’s not all bad now,” I said.
“Weve lost our world.”
“Only the part that the machines lived in.” (18)

commercial entertainment as we knew it was no more, and its handmaiden, advertising, had gone with it (21)

milk was more difficult to keep in high summer because we lacked refrigeration (22)

…after the bomb went off in Los Angeles. That act of jihad was extraordinarily successful. The authorities finally had to start inspecting every shipping container that entered every harbor in the nation. Freighters anchored for weeks off Seattle, Norfolk, Baltimore, the Jersey terminals, Boston, and every other port of entry. Many of them eventually turned around and went home with their cargoes undelivered. (23)

…it was obvious there would be no return to “normality.” The economy wouldn’t be coming back. Globalism was over. (24)

We didn’t have coffee anymore, or any caffeinated substitutes for it (24)

…in the absence of complex polymers and advanced cements…(25)

When every last useful thing in town had been stripped from the Kmart and the United Auto, the CVS drugstore, and other trading establishments of the bygone national chain-store economy, daily life became a perpetual flea market centered on the old town dump, which had been capped over in the 1990s (28)

By then the justice system had ground to a halt like so many things that had once seemed woven into the fabric of regular life (29)

There were no distant markets to send it to because shipping anything was slow at best and often unreliable, and traveling was something you just didn’t do anymore (30)

with the population so far down, and many empty houses in town itself, and the oil gone, and no ability to drive heroic distances, these buildings had no value except for salvage (31)

Agriculture had changed completely without oil. We’d gone from a few people using machines to grow monoculture crops and process them for everybody else, to a society in which at least half the people used tools skillfully with human and animal muscle to feed the other half (35)

With the electricity off, you didn’t hear recorded music anymore. You had to make it yourself (36)

There were still plenty of guns around, but manufactured ammunition was nearly impossible to get (49)

No one years ago would have anticipated how much production moved back into the home when the machine age ended (57)

There were no official safety nets in our little society, no more social services, no life insurance, nothing but the goodwill of neighbors. (70)

A lot of what had been forsaken, leftover terrain in the old days, was coming back into cultivation (74)

“…all these individuals in the town trying to live like it’s still old times, each on its own, each family alone against the world. You can’t have that in these new times or things will fall apart…” (90)

As the world changed, we reverted to social divisions that we’d thought were obsolete. The egalitarian pretenses of the high-octane decades had dissolved and nobody even debated it anymore (101)

In a world without electric powered saws, you had to take care with hand tools (112)

You never knew the weather in advance anymore. You might be said to have a good weather eye but nobody knew anything for sure and some were just better guessers than others (115)

You couldn’t be too careful about infected wounds when there were no
more antibiotic medicines (134)

Less pollution of all kinds ran into the river, no more factory fertilizers and pest control poisons, no more detergents. So the fish had returned in numbers not seen in anyone’s memory (135)

“There’s grievances and vendettas all around at every level. Poor against what rich are left. Black against white. English-speaking against the Spanish. More than one bunch on the Jews. You name it, there’s a fight on. Groups in flight everywhere…” (149)

“This is just a time when nobody seems to know how to do anything, to get things done. A fellow makes a few things happen, and the world falls at his feet…” (162)

…a talented fellow whose fix-it shop was vital in a society that was forced to recycle virtually everything (199-200)

…going back to the old days, when television and all the other bygone diversions held people hostage in their homes after the sun went down, and you could hardly pry people out of their living rooms –as we used to call the place where the TVs lived (208)

“Even back in the old days, in the big hospitals, the docs lost patients,” I said. “What they gained in technological magic, they lost in bureaucracy and inattention and sloppiness.” (229)

“The car wrecked the southland. It wrecked Atlanta worse than Sherman ever did. It paved over my Virginia. they made themselves slaves to the car and everything connected with it, and it destroyed them in the end.” (305)

The immense overburden of skyscrapers in Manhattan had proven unuseable without electric service (317)

I’m sure that a lot of this material is handled in more expository fashion in Kunstler’s The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century, which I haven’t read. Suppose I should, and his earlier writings too.

links for 2008-12-19

links for 2008-12-17

links for 2008-12-15

brief but not uncharacteristic diversion

It’s both a curse and a blessing that I’m so easily diverted… this morning, mention of Alan Lomax’s Cantometrics (in Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music) got me hunting for the various resources I already have and could find to augment what I have. Alas, Lomax’s Cantometrics: An approach to the anthropology of music (1978, audiocassettes and a handbook) is long out of print and seemingly unavailable via the usual sources (though WorldCat tells me that Colby and University of Maine at Orono have it). A Google search led to Tim O’Brien’s posting of a talk by Armand Leroi A New Science of Music: Digital Cantometrics and the Evolution of Music, a 30+-minute YouTube video which I want to listen to (but don’t want to take the time to watch at the moment –though O’Brien provides a transcript). I remembered that Rob Kehler had found a conversion utility that (among other things) extracts YouTube audio to an mp3, so I found his reference in an email message and tried out on that video. It stalled at 74% of the conversion, so I tried, but its conversion dead-ended with no MP3 file. So I fired up Audacity to capture the sound in real time, for listening as I walk or drive. Meanwhile, a trip to the file drawers in the barn did locate the Cantometrics folder, with some photocopies and course handout materials from 20-odd years ago, so I added a few more bits of paper, and more than an hour later I’m ready to go on to something else. So it goes.