Tuesday, 6 May 2014

It's Not the End of the World

One of the things I love best about stories is that when done right, they can convey messages more effectively than mere words. With new stories we can think new thoughts, and with new thoughts we can begin to imagine new ways of being in the world. If last week's post caught you off guard, and if after reading it you're left with some unsettling questions ringing in your ears, it means that my message came through. If, nevertheless, you enjoyed reading "The Messengers" and aren't too unsettled to join me in exploring possible answers to those questions, then read on.

"The Messengers" is a work of science fiction. It follows the conventional (though by no means exclusive) definition of SF in that it takes current trends in science and technology, extrapolates them into an imagined future, and uses narrative to explore that future. If my story differs somewhat from popular science fiction, that's because it's premised on unpopular science and imagines an unpopular future. By this I don't mean that the world of "The Messengers" is a dystopia, a genre that currently enjoys enormous popularity; on the contrary, the message I read in it is one of hope rather than anxiety. But my hope is an unusual hope, and I've come to it by an unusual path. 

A few months ago I had a series of conversations with a friend about a subject that concerns us both. She's a talented artist, and in the circles she moves in she's noticed a strong trend in recent years toward themes and imagery of apocalypse, of an imminent and violent end to the world as we know it. I responded by noting a parallel trend in popular culture- think of how many movies have been cranked out in the last five years that feature worldwide disaster, or zombies, or both. My friend is quite aware of the various challenges our world faces, and as someone who has made a vocation out of her sensitivity to the ideas and emotions swirling around her, she was finding it all a little overwhelming. I think I surprised her when I told her that in my assessment the apocalypse fad is a steaming load of horse manure.

Not that I think current global challenges are anything to sniff at, if you'll pardon the extension of the metaphor. In fact, I think most people underestimate them. But where I disagree with the end-of-the-world analysis is that it isn't based on analysis. Popular culture is designed to sell itself by appealing to our emotions, and a spate of end-time blockbusters tells us more about the emotions that make us easy prey for Hollywood producers than it does about the state of the world.

What antidote would a wizard prescribe to someone suffering from emotional manipulation at the hands of pop culture? To balance an excess of hot air I'd suggest something cold and dry; perhaps an infusion of black bile would do the trick. Alternatively, a daily dose of history could have much the same effect. History is famous for being emotionally unappealing, and it's never sold more than modestly outside the glamorous sub-genre of biography. History, unlike Hollywood, can tell us what really happens when societies face huge challenges, and though it can't predict the future, it can outline for us the probable shape of that future.

"The Messengers" takes place in my hometown of Kitchener (formerly Berlin), Ontario in the spring of 2213. Congratulations to those of my readers who know their history and were able to calculate six hundred years from the creation of the Two Row Wampum in 1613. (Four hundred years from the construction of the Joseph and Barbara Schneider Haus would have landed you in the same temporal neighbourhood). The journey of Laura Erb is an intentional nod to the journey of Laura Secord in 1813. Secord walked 30 km to warn the British forces stationed near present-day Thorold, Ontario of an impending surprise attack by the American army then invading Upper Canada from the east. Her message was received not by the British commander, but by a group of Haudenosaunee (Hoh-dee-no-SHOW-nee) allies camped nearby. It was these men who then fought and defeated the invading Americans. My future-historical fable is both a tribute to these stories and a calculated attack on three myths currently wreaking havoc on our collective psychological immune systems, each buoyed up by a lot of hot air and swollen emotion.

The first is that our future must either progress onward and upward toward an ever bigger, faster, and shinier version of the present, or else face an apocalyptic meltdown that leaves the survivors regressing into the stone age. Both these theories ignore historical examples of societies that attempted to dominate nature and failed, or economic and environmental meltdowns that looked like they would end the world but didn't. That said, I do think the Kitchener of two hundred years from now will more closely resemble the Berlin of two hundred years ago than it will the Kitchener of today- I just don't think we'll get there by means of a sudden and dramatic catastrophe. My reasons have to do with with the unpopular science of thermodynamics, and I plan to devote an upcoming series of posts to exploring that science and its implications for our times.

The second myth, equally pervasive and even more damaging than the first, is that Onkwehonwe (Oh-gwey-ho-wey), or Indigenous peoples, have either disappeared from history or will do so presently. The Onkwehonwe people I've met are tough, smart people who know what they want and aren't going to roll over into the grave of lost civilizations any time soon. I think they have quite a lot to teach the rest of us about travelling the river of life, provided we don't try to jump out of our boat and clamber into theirs. To put it another way, we can't ever become Onkwehonwe, but if we're willing to listen and face the truth of our troubled relationship, we stand to learn and gain a lot.

If you read "The Messengers" early last week you might be interested to know that I've since updated the ending of the story, both for clarity and for better representation of this issue. In the new ending, Laura and the young Haudenosaunee man (he should have a name, shouldn't he?) arrive at Kanohnstaton (Gah-no-STAHT-oh) each in their respective canoes, his towing hers, rather than both in one boat. This is an important detail if you're reading on a symbolic level, and as a trained medievalist I always read on a symbolic level.

There's so much more to say about the ongoing story of indigenous/settler relations that I could write another whole series of posts about it, as well as about my own journey to Kanonhstaton, The Protected Place, in Six Nations of the Grand River Territory. I'll save that for other days, but if you're interested in a good introductory resource on these issues, I highly recommend the writings of Chelsea Vowel, whose blog âpihtawikosisân has, among other things, an excellent "Indigenous Issues 101" section.

The third and final myth addressed by "The Messengers" is that nature is something we find outside, apart from everyday human affairs, and that the lessons she teaches are interesting but ultimately of secondary importance to human knowledge. Correcting that misconception is one of the central projects of this blog, and that's why next week we're going to dive into a series of riffs on one of nature's most beautiful themes, a phenomenon as mysterious as it is central to the crises of our time.


  1. Hi Dylan

    I loved your story and although I'm not an expert on local history yet, I was able to catch some references. I totally agree with your three myths, specially with first and second ones. I'm really looking forward for the upcoming posts about thermodinamics

    Good luck in the contest!

    1. Thanks Angel! As a relative newcomer to the area myself I'm just beginning to understand how intricate and compelling the stories of this region are.

      The first myth, as you know, is a little more complicated than I made it sound, but I'm getting ahead of myself. Stay tuned!

  2. Have you ever read Richard Heinberg's book 'Powerdown'? I immediately wondered if you had, as your story reminds me of some of the ideas he talks about; about how to navigate a transition to a post-cheap-energy society. Though his idea of a best-case scenario possible future world does still include a fair amount of technology. But it's like yours in that the world goes on, and (depending on how wisely we manage the transition) not necessarily entirely badly.

    I like the idea of an ecomony, and society, that uses a small amount of energy from renewable resources just where we decide it's most needed, and puts most of our energy, time, and workforce on improving out quality of life in more non-material ways. Once you're past subsistance level, and have a certain amount of food security, there's a diminishing marginal happiness return on material wealth...

    It's a very hopeful way of looking at a future that's often described in very negative terms.

    1. Right on, Basia. I haven't read 'Powerdown', but I have been inspired by the excellent work that Richard Heinberg and the Post-Carbon Institute are doing.

      That kind of hopeful, thoughtful-tech future is exactly what I want to write about, although you're right to point out that it all depends on how we handle the transition immediately before us. My intention here is to work my way down from the big picture to the small but extremely effective things we can do to aid that transition.