Archive for July 28th, 2008

The Wasteland, Lucifer's Hammer and the Problem of Believing A Disaster Can Befall Us

Sharon July 28th, 2008

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe, 
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water. 
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.  – The Wasteland

The Wasteland is fundamentally a narrative about an internal disaster – one of my college Professors, the remarkable John Burt, used to say that you could actually track Eliot’s trip through Boston and Cambridge through the narrative, watching as he walked, engrossed by his own depression and misery, decompensating with each step.  And it raises an interesting question, I think - which is how our imagining, our understanding shapes what is happening around us.

A while back I wrote a post arguing that we are experiencing a rapid crash in food and energy, and we can’t see it – that is, we are in the midst of a disaster.  But because most Americans and other rich world denizens are comparatively wealthy, and comparatively insulated – although that insulation is fraying rapidly – we can’t see the disaster when it strikes us as a disaster.  In a way, most of us see the world through brighter lenses than most people actually experience it.  Simultaneously, those of us who are aware of peak oil, aware of the realities of our changing climate and economy see the world through darker glasses than most of our neighbors in the rich world.  It is impossible to ever find a “normal” perspective – that is, there is no point at which we are seeing all the truth, or seeing clearly – it is common to want to say that one group sees the future better than others, but all of us pick and choose and see partly through the lens of what is, and partly through the lens of who we are and where we are and a host of other things.   

There’s a fascinating moment in _Lucifer’s Hammer_ at the end of the narrative of Harvey Randall’s survival preparations.  He doesn’t really believe that the Hammer will fall, but he thinks it would be prudent to prepare.  But the experience of preparing seems, in itself, to make the thing real.  Niven and Pournelle write,

 “Because I’ve got Hammer Fever, and my wife knows.  Loretta thinks I’ve gone crazy – and I’m scaring her, too.  She’s convinced I think it is going to hit.

And the more he did to prepare for Hammerfall, the more real it became.  I’m even scaring myself, he thought.”

I thought in my last post of this month’s discussion, we might talk about whether this experience Harvey has is true.  Eliot provides a more subtle exploration of the question of the relationship between anticipation and experience, but also suggests that there’s a great deal of danger to both knowing, and thinking you know what will happen in the future.

My own experience is that choosing to look at the future as I have does sometimes make it feel much more real and immediate – I sometimes have to make sure that read a wide range of material, because it is a little too easy to read only the bad news, only the things that push one to greater immediacy.  I also find that I warn myself against a sense of artificial scarcity – that is, we are not now where Eileen and Tim were – and while I don’t want to be wasteful, I also don’t want to stop giving things away, to cut my charitable donations before the time comes that I have to.

But I also think that what doesn’t appear here is the sense that knowing (or rather, believing, because while I think the future I predict is likely, I do not claim to know anything with certainty) is empowering.  That is, the fear that Harvey reports is partly a real response to a real danger, partly a perceptual response, but it is, IMHO, most lessened by taking action, and making things happen.  That is, it does simultaneously seem to increase and ease fear. 

 I talk to a lot of people whose partners, like Loretta, don’t want to know things, because they are too scary and too hard.  And I think sometimes people do need their information doled out in small bits.  But I wonder sometimes whether the need not to look sometimes adds to the fear – the fear caused by a partner who does know, is afraid, but without any of the empowering pieces? 

It seems fitting, then, to end as Eliot ends things, with the question of whether we should, in fact, at the very least, set our lands in order even as things are falling down falling down.

I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling downPoi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon-O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

“The Wasteland” is, on one level, the account of a human being having a nervous breakdown – the disaster is internal, rather than external. It is in part a narrative of an internal world that looks, from inside, as though a vast disaster has already occurred. 

I think it raises the question of how our internal understanding of the world shapes the experience we’re having – “The Wasteland” could be viewed as an exercise in pure pathology, the transformation of something clean into something damaged – or the transformation of real fears into something quite a bit greater than those ordinary fears – both simultaneously.

There is, I think, a danger in seeing disaster behind every tree, the end of the world in every action

Post-Apocalyptic Book Club – Lucifer's Hammer – Is This How to Prepare?

Sharon July 28th, 2008

I thought that during the second week on each book, I’d have us look at it as though it were a work of non-fiction, a preparedness manual designed to enable us to face the crisis they imagine.  I didn’t do this with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, because the whole point of the book is that the crisis is ultimately avertable.  But most of the works we’ll be reading don’t have that premise – they assume we have to face the crisis and go on.

Of course, the first question this raises is whether this is a realistic worry – something we have to be concerned about.  This is one of the other reasons (besides the fact that astrophysicists save the world) that I keep my husband around ;-) – he’s very good at analyzing the actual science of a scenario.  And the answer to this one is – yes. 

Now I don’t plan to convert this site to an asteroid-strike awareness one anytime soon, but a recent article in The Atlantic did explore the fact that large asteroid strikes are actually more common than was once thought, and that we don’t do a very good job of looking for them.  Generally speaking, the science of the strike in the book is quite accurate – including the evocative hot fudge sundae analysis.  The only significant thing (there are minor ones) they got wrong was the idea that a water strike was actually worse than a land strike – despite throwing up water,into the air, the dust thrown up by a land strike is actually a bigger deal.  But, for example, it is perfectly possible to imagine that we could not know that an object would strike us until right before it did, depending on how it came at us.

Still, I hope no one is panicking right now – while I generally agree with the author of the above article (and my spouse) that NASA would be better off spending more time tracking near earth objects, I still think there are better things to worry about than this, if you are not an astrophysicist or amateur astronomer, and can’t do anything about it anyway.  Put it up there with giant tidal waves and supervolcano eruptions in the category of “not my job to worry about.”

But many of the books we read will have far sillier premises (if we do the zombies, for example, I’ll expect you all to have zombie-preparedness kits ready), and most of them function fairly well as models of a kind of preparedness.  And since honestly, the preparations for most crises, likely and unlikely, from peak oil to zombie attacks to epidemics to nuclear holocaust really aren’t that different – there are some refinements, but essentially you need an evacuation plan and the resources to stay put – most of these books offer an exploration of how to get ready and how to respond to an immediate crisis.  So how does this one stand up.

 Our Hero, Harvey (only in the 1970s could Our Hero be named ”Harvey”) gets a little nervous when he thinks about the Hammer falling, and he does try and make some preparations for staying in place - if rather late, odd ones.  But, of course, the book tells us that “them” will begin rioting, looting and murdering not when they are hungry and desperate, but the moment the bad stuff begins.  So Harvey’s rather wise basic precautions turn out not to be all that useful – but Senator Jellison’s do (it helps, if you are planning, to have a compound). 

Harvey decides he and Loretta will survive on beef jerky (btw, don’t follow his instructions – the temps at which he dries them are too low for safety) and vitamins.  I will say, if you are making emergency plans, I’d suggest a vegetable here and there.  He also buys a lot of liquor, which isn’t a bad strategy, but since he knows LA is likely to be underwater, and liquor is in glass and hard to transport, is a bit of a strange choice.  But it goes with the manly themes – beef and whiskey are a man’s survivalism – none of this veggie stuff. 

Now Harvey does have grits, and this is genuinely useful and interesting – because we’re in a scenario when other people are stocking up, there’s already “unofficial” gas rationing, and Harvey is smart enough to buy stuff that other people won’t think of.  This is actually a very useful strategy, even if the world isn’t going to end – as prices of commonly used staples go up, those who can use unusual foods will have a flexibility that others won’t.  So grits and cornmeal become Harvey’s grain staple. 

And his making of pemmican (which generally has dried fruit in it, but doesn’t seem to) and storing of bacon will work, and are interesting – although again, I’d have put the effort into getting some veggies if it were me.  Filling the swimming pool with water is smart, as is using the old bleach bottles for water storage.  There is some good scenario modelling here – for example, even though Harvey knows he’s likely to have to evacuate, he does have a strategy for staying in place and making do – and that’s wise even for people who imagine that they might leave town in a more-likely crisis – because sometimes you can’t get out, or sometimes your evacuation plan might lead to a place even worse hit. 

Afterwards, we see a shift in people’s attitudes towards resources – the most immediate example of this is that Eileen tells Tim Hamner that he should save the pop-top of his beer can, because no one is making any more of anything.  No one ever explores the question of what one can do with beer bottle pop tops (I’m sure dozens of things), but there is a radical shift in the world works in people’s minds. 

Now this something that does happen in the face of the disaster.  Some of the assumptions about what shifts are made are disturbing, some are interesting, and some are both.  For example, a child has a tantrum because of the loss of television, and his father strikes him for the very first time, and explains that the days of instant obedience being necessary for survival have returned.  It is an interesting scene, precisely the implication isn’t simply that the father was angry about being interrupted by his son’s tantrum, but that he truly believes his children’s future may depend on their ability to obey when it is essential.

Of course the most interesting question is the one that many people get obsessed with – how do you sort out resources when there isn’t enough to go around.  I’ve articulated my own concerns about the fact that so many conversations *start* from this premise – that we create self-fulfilling prophecies.  But lifeboat games are interesting, and a fascinating subject for fiction – so how do we sort – by relationship, patronage and usefulness?  Or something else?

What do you think?

 Sharon