You Shall Be Overcome

Just got back from Washington DC, where the mood among friends and family is decidedly gloomy these days.  The cold wind blowing past the White House, through the Mall and up to the Capitol Building seemed more like a metaphor than a weather phenomenon.

We were on our way to the National Musem of African-American History and Culture, which turned out to be truly extraordinary.  The average time spent there is apparently two hours, but in that span we were unable to view all of the History portion below ground, let alone the Culture section in the floors above.  The history of slavery in America is worth exploring, no matter how much you think you already know about it:  the displays were eye-opening, from a human, moral/spiritual and economic perspective.  It goes without saying that colonialism’s exploitations left deep scars in the Middle East, Asia, South America and Africa, where regional conflicts persist in a post-colonial world.  And all the European nations with empires and colonies participated in slavery, which might be seen as a sort of imported colonialism, where the exploited masses were forcibly removed from their home countries.

You’ve probably heard this benighted argument:  slavery in America ended 150 years ago, so how can the problems faced by African-Americans today still be blamed on slavery?  Just move on, get over it, right?  Wow.  Of course slavery’s effects didn’t end with emancipation:  Jim Crow laws, segregation, lynchings, economic discrimination and the myriad forms of racism did not magically go away in 1865.  For example, laws made it easier to arrest and imprison blacks than whites in the South, and the prisoners could be leased as labor, the profits going to the state.  That sounds like slavery didn’t vanish at all!  The Voting Rights Act, Brown vs Board of Education, the Selma marches (in which my personal hero, William Sloane Coffin, participated), the Civil Rights movement, Black Panthers and so much else, all appeared side-by-side, giving me a brand-new perspective on current events, for example, Black Lives Matter.  The glib response, “All lives matter,” seems all the more hollow and callous in this context.

Then seeing it through the eyes of so many African-Americans (schoolchildren as well as the elderly who may well have marched with Martin Luther King) in the museum made this history more real and more powerful than all my previous reading could ever do.

In my novel Fourth World, and especially in the sequel (almost finished!), colonialism is harsh and cruel.  But this is real:  don’t miss this museum!


The Chaos President

With apologies to the Bard and his Richard III:

Now is glorious summer/ made the winter of our discontent/ by this son of New York.

The daily outpouring of executive orders, decrees, announcements and tweets has sent the nation into a tumble.  Sure, executive orders are expected, but the rollouts have been bungled, resulting in mass protests, traumatized citizens, stranded legal immigrants, people uncertain of their health care, and ad hominem attacks on members of the Judicial and Executive branches of government by a president who shows little understanding of the Constitution.  He thinks in terms of “deals” and negotiates with world leaders as though they are just some guys trying to out-deal him; insults, tirades, even slamming the phone down are all part of hardball deal-making.  Beyond the sense of chaos lies the frightening denial of truth by alt-facts and outright ignorance.  He seems to think that UC Berkeley orchestrated the violent protest on campus this week, and talks about Frederick Douglass as though he were still alive!  It’s all quite bewildering– almost like an intentional obfuscation.

To my skeptical (all right, semi-paranoid) mind, this flurry of confusing developments resembles the distractions and shrewd misdirections practiced on the population by the one world government in Fourth World.  In the case of our president, our own Richard III, was he trying to sneak something past his supporters, hidden in plain sight?  What is the one thing he did this week which will enrich him personally? 

No, not his placing Stephen Bannon on the National Security Council- more obfuscation.  It’s the executive order to deregulate the financial industry.  Let financial advisors no longer seek what’s best for their clients, and let banks run things as they did before 2008!  Take away reforms that protected consumers.  The president has many friends, he says, wth “nice businesses,” and these friends are having trouble getting loans.  His “friends” include his own businesses, and this is the type of conflict of interest everyone saw coming.  With all his other executive orders, his supporters can say “See?  He’s taking action, doing what he promised!”  But can they point to this gift to Wall Street as one of Trump’s promises?  Sad!

Alt-Cuisine: Yum!

Molecular gastronomy- already outdated in a food culture with an ever-shortening attention span- was known for deconstructing dishes and presenting them anew as foams; solids as liquids; cubes as spheres; cold as hot and vice-versa.  But all that required complicated cooking techniques and expensive equipment. When we can now genetically-engineer an industrial tomato to taste like an heirloom, how long will it be before we can grow plants and animals as foams, spheres, liquids, or simultaneously hot and cold?

Let’s hope the growing (pun intended) interest in local, seasonal, organic and sustainable agriculture can hold our attention awhile and resist the allure of technology.  Let’s keep food slow, and keep it real!

Here’s an excerpt from a dystopian restaurant scene in Fourth World:

“Welcome to H,” said the menu, pronouncing the letter “ahhhsh” in a langorous, caressing way.  “Tonight’s special is the ‘Tout Not Sashimi’, a crudo mousse translated from the recombined genes of three extinct species:  Pacific tuna, Monterey cypress, and arctic walrus.  We are also featuring the rare Atlantic codling, where Chef Hubert cooks a recently living fish.  Farmed off the low-mercury coastline of the Greenland District, our codling is spin-poached in a bold, yet contemplative, bath of piscine neurotransmitters and herbal amino acids, garnished with just a soupcon of white Eurovin foam.”

“Eurovin foam?” Cira was aghast.  “But Eurovin’s not even made from grapes!  It’s a fermentation product of recombinant seaweed.”

“So?  Seaweed goes with fish.”  The menu had dropped its accent, and now sounded like someone from New Jersey.  “You want wine made from grapes?  Try the Quarantine Zone!”

“Menu, read only.”

“Certainly.” Click.

We Live in a Sci-fi World

Who says the world of the Jetsons never materialized?  There is now a technique for implanting human stem cells into early pig embryos, creating a chimera (an animal with two different genomes) in order to generate- within the growing pig- human organs suitable for transplantation.  Only one example of the many potential risks is that human cells may migrate into the pig’s brain, giving the pig partial human intelligence.  And from this self-aware pig we would harvest the desired organs!  It sounds monstrous, doesn’t it, sort of like The Island of Dr. Moreau; but the goal is to meet the huge need for transplant organs, and to save lives.  Nevertheless, a little voice somewhere in our minds is shouting out a warning.

Here’s an excerpt from my novel, Fourth World, written several years ago:

Dr. Neelin glanced at Benn, then went on, “Now we enter the thorax.  We see Bob’s lungs, his heart, an atrophied thymus gland.  And here is the esophagus… the hilum… some rather enlarged lymph nodes… ah.  Can anyone tell me what this is?”  He was holding the heart, in its glistening gray pericardium, off to one side- and there, in the back of the chest cavity, continuous with the left lung, was a kidney!

“Come now, speak up- it’s just what it looks like.  That’s right- a kidney, in Bob’s chest!  Poor old Bob also suffered from hypertensive renal failure, and this was an attempt to generate a new kidney for him.  But given the early stage of technology, there was no guaranteeing where those wandering stem cells- those naughty rascals- would end up, was there?  Searching for their home in the retro-peritoneum, they settled and vascularized instead at the back of the thorax- which, by the way, looks remarkably similar, to a seeker molecule.  In this case, to Bob’s extreme chagrin, the little kidney actually put out a small daily amount of urine into Bob’s lung!  This gave him a productive cough, confused his doctors, and …”- Neelin threw another quick glance in Benn’s direction- “…probably didn’t help with Bob’s halitosis, either!”


Hope Marches On

This inspires me as a science fiction writer, imagining a dystopian world of the not-so-distant future.  Protests- and, in Fourth World, rebellion– against an authoritarian government are inevitable, even essential.

Yesterday, under threatening skies, we stood with the Women’s March rally at the Civic Center in San Francisco, while our daughter was marching with half a million women in Washington, D.C.  The passion, angst and anger were palpable, sometimes straining the sense of solidarity, as so many different agendas, pre-existing attitudes and goals were funneled into a few city blocks jam-packed with a hundred thousand people.  Many women had brought their children to learn the value of participation, while others emphasized personal and political power, or immigration, or sexual freedom.  All of these were important, but women’s rights remained at the core, and that focus allowed the first real glimmer of hope we’ve sensed since Friday’s inauguration.  Everything from the tide of history and hard-won progress, to the moral power of fighting injustice, and even the genetic reality of being women, were impossible to deny.  The president and his advisers may be able to put a D.C. spin on jobs, taxes, trade, alliances, border walls and carbon dioxide emissions, but the unforgettable Women’s Marches that took place across the country and worldwide will not yield so readily to spin.


The End of 2016 Was Painful

On New Year’s Eve morning, running for a ball on a damp tennis court, I slipped, fell and broke my left wrist!  Still had a wonderful time that evening with old friends, but now the reality of hunt-and-peck typing is settling in.  And thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t want to be a dictator.  In Benn Marr’s world of 2196, a computer would simply recombine DNA from multiple species (rhinoceros?  A chunk of coral reef?) in order to generate a therapeptide promoting rapid bone growth, but alas, in 2017 all we have is Norco and an icebag.  Actually, I wouldn’t mind a recombinant psychopeptide that would stop me from chasing after every ball.  Happy New Year to current and future readers!

How true is fiction?

After reading Fourth World, some folks have asked me how much of it is autobiographical.  “Are you kidding?” I reply.  “It’s science fiction!”

But on reflection, there is plenty of autobiography in it; it’s hard to resist pulling some characters in from my own life, for better or worse.  The competitive colleague, the snooty wine taster, the abrasive professor- all these are reducible to caricature, but I try to refrain from that extreme.  There are personal heroes and, I’ll admit, family members represented as well.  Besides the characters, real life is also reflected in my fictional world of 2196:  Big Pharma, colonialism, authoritarian governments, genomic manipulations and their ethical quandaries, and of course upcoming missions to Mars.  Painting these current concerns and aspects of my real world- things that I think about- into science fiction is, in a sense, autobiographical.  Science fiction is often lumped together with fantasy, but they lie on a very wide spectrum.  At one end, pure fantasy would have less autobiographical content, I suppose; my writing, lying at the opposite end of that spectrum, is based more on my own experience.

Consider the flip side of the coin.  I was at a reading of Moonglow (a very enjoyable read; get the book!) at Diesel Books in Oakland recently, and Michael Chabon addressed the question of the interface between novel and memoir.  Moonglow is written in the form of a memoir, but it is actually a novel, as stated on the cover.  Even “facts” passed down from one generation to the next within the plot of the novel turn out to be distorted or just plain made up by the characters.  But the author admits that much in the book is historically true, or true to memory.  Then he adds the caveat that all memories, to some degree, are fiction.

I agree:  Some of my memories may even be science fiction.