Plotting the recovery: optimism, SF and Squid

All I ever wanted was a world without maps. –Michael Ondaatje

This is footage from a flashmob snowball fight in Washington, DC that was organized via Twitter. During the snowball fight, a snowball hit the Hummer of an off-duty police officer, who proceeded to pull over and exit the vehicle before waving his gun around.

What’s interesting is that at first, the crowd just laughs.

They have every right to. This is ridiculous behaviour. It’s a temper tantrum. I saw less whining yesterday at Toys R’ Us. I’m serious — there were bored, petulant four-year-olds with better self-control than Detective Baylor displays here. Granted, we all speak out of turn on occasion. We all lose our temper. That’s a human failing. It happens to everybody, and almost always at the most inopportune time. We ask for forgiveness, we shut up, and we move on.

Most of us don’t happen to be carrying a weapon at the time.

Since Tuesday, I’ve been asked a lot about moments like this. Reactions. Provocations. The moment at which a situation goes bad. What Peter “did wrong,” or how he “brought this on.” Let me be clear: telling me he “asked for” what happened to him is akin to telling me that women in short skirts are asking to be raped. And if you like swallowing that kind of logic, then I hope you take some time this holiday season to invest in some kneepads and the suppression of your gag reflex. You’ll need both, eventually. Me, I’ll be busy holding police officers to a higher standard than the rest of us civvies.

Earlier, my husband asked a very simple question: is this the world you want? And if it’s not, how do you create that world? Karl told me once that it’s the task of every generation to re-build civilization, and at the moment I’m inclined to agree. If you think that the behaviour we’ve seen in the clip above and elsewhere (the beating of Peter Watts, the tasering of a 10-year-old child by Officer Dustin Bradshaw, the arrest of Star Simpson for wearing a blinking sweatshirt to Boston-Logan, the death of Robert Dzieka?ski, the shooting of Amado Diallo, the list goes on…) is inappropriate, then you’ll doubtless spend some time plotting the recovery.

When I write science fiction (or anything set in the future), plotting the recovery is part of my job. I have to reconcile three very important things: human nature, current science and my own desire to tell you a story. I do much the same thing at OCAD, where I’m part of the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program. I have to think critically about what is enjoyable and what is possible, and try to balance the two. 99% of the time, this means hoping for the best while preparing for the worst — acknowledging that failure is what most often steers human history, not success. This makes writing an optimistic SF story very hard, sometimes. And even though I’ve written what can be classified as optimistic stories before, and while I recognize the need for optimism both creative and political, I can’t be optimistic all the time. In fact, the challenge is so great that when I first heard of the Shine Anthology I had no clue what to submit.

Luckily, I was away on a retreat with both Peter and Karl. We stayed up until two am batting around story ideas. You’ll think I’m joking, but one of the ideas we worked up was about the decline of borders around the world. “What if the whole world was one country, except for some tiny insignificant backwater full of holdouts convinced of their nation’s inherent specialness?” we wondered. “What if the whole rest of the planet had already sat back and realized that we share this world in common, that what we do here affects everyone out there, and that borders are nothing but bedtime stories?”*

Getting three writers with competing schedules to work together on anything is a feat far more difficult than herding cats, so we never wrote the story. But now I really wish we had. As an immigrant to Canada, I was always taken with the idea. I had the final line of my portion picked out, and everything. (Plotting the recovery, you’ll understand, is the process of finding an endpoint and working backward to make it both possible and probable. Sometimes the last words are what come first.) The last line was uttered by a man with a bloody face and a rough voice, to a woman miles and miles away, in what used to be another country. “I’m coming home,” he says. Then he starts walking.

Sometimes we really do see the future.

In the world that I want, I’m no longer afraid. I’m not scared of asking police officers or security detail for help, and that means I’m not scared any more of the guys who hit on me on the train or the mutterers there or even the people who shout back at them, who are the truly mad ones. I’m not scared of parking lots. I’m not scared of writing posts like these, because of what they might do to my citizenship potential. I’m not scared of what will happen to Peter. I am no longer feeling time burning away the fuses of my resolve, each fibre curling away into a blackened husk of its formerly strong self. I am not afraid, because there is no longer anything to fear. That is the world that I want. That is the place where we’re all free.

When Caitlin emailed me to tell me what had happened and to ask me to make some calls, I was watching the footage of John Lennon attached to this post honouring his and Yoko Ono’s “War is Over! (If you want it.)” campaign on the anniversary of his death. As I received the email, Lennon was saying these words:

Our society is run by insane people for insane objectives. I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends and I think I’m liable to be put away as insane for expressing that. That’s what’s insane about it.

I don’t know how we get from the world Lennon described, this world, to that other one. My imagination is probably my best compass. As Ursula K. LeGuin wrote:

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.

Lately I’ve been thinking about something one of my students told me last year. He almost never spoke up in class, but in the final week he shared an insight from his years in Wing Tsun martial arts. “From the moment our opponent makes a move, we know he’ll wind up on the ground,” he told the class. “We don’t know how, or what move will put him there, but we know how the fight is going to end. Everything else is just a movement leading to that outcome.” I’ve intuited this lesson on a creative level for quite some time — as I said, sometimes the last lines come first — but the quietly confident tone of my student’s voice made me hear the words in a different way. Maybe they can be applied elsewhere. Maybe we should stop worrying about what will happen and start thinking about the decisions that are ours to make.  My mother said this about her cancer: it is a series of decisions. Between diagnosis and remission there are choices. They are not easy. They demand things you never thought were possible. They eat at you, they take chunks away, and at the end you look different. But you arrive. You come home.

I won’t lie and say I’m not worried about tomorrow. I am. But I also know that worrying is not what ends the story — plotting is. Plotting, and planning, and imagining. I know what is possible. I know what is probable. I know what I want. And I have a nasty habit of achieving it.


*Note: I paraphrase.

2 thoughts on “Plotting the recovery: optimism, SF and Squid”

  1. I sometimes think of science fiction as a friendly (because it’s not real) warning. It’s trying to make the world a better place by showing what could be if we don’t step carefully. To achieve that goal, it’s often a requirement to be pessimistic about the far future so that the nearer one can be optimistic. It’s not all “prophecy.”

    As for batting around story ideas that seem to be prophesy, I think it’s just sensitivity to memes. I sometimes wonder if that’s what Bob Dylan meant by, “Come writers and critics, who prophesize with your pens.”

  2. You should appreciate this Ray Bradbury’s quote: “I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it.”

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