Fiction

Full English

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Published on Seat of Mars on July 13, 2015

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mars-earth

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Jack opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling. He wondered where he was. The room was bright, with white-painted walls. It was well-lit by the morning sun, which slanted through the blinds and fell in contoured stripes on the duvet covers. Beside him lay Cat, still asleep and lying on her side with her back to him. He watched her as she slept, seeing the gentle rise and fall of her shoulder as she breathed. From outside the house came the faint staccato cry of the gulls, carried on the breeze above the low murmur of the surf on the beach.  He gazed out of the window, seeing only blue. The light seemed brighter here than in London, he thought. It wasn’t a harsh light, and neither was it hot, but it did seem to glow in a way that he thought unusual. He lay there for a while wondering if other people noticed such things, or whether it was just him. Pondering whether to get up or stay in bed a while longer he reached out and touched his girlfriend on the shoulder. His hand slid down her tee shirt to the curve of her side and rested there. She didn’t move, and continued with the soft breathing that Jack knew meant she was in a deep sleep. He rolled over onto his back once more and fixed his gaze on a circular LED light set into the ceiling. This reminded him of something and, presently, he rose and padded softly out of the bedroom.

 

 
 
Down in the kitchen he filled the kettle and flicked the switch. There was no reassuring red light to indicate that it was working. “Still?” said Jack out loud. He tried a light switch. Nothing. They had arrived shortly before midnight. If Jack hadn’t once stayed in this house before they might never have found the small village sitting in darkness at the end of a road not much narrower than the van. The key had been in the key safe and they had fumbled with a pocket torch to open the door. The old granite fisherman’s cottage had been modernised and done out with blonde wooden floors, quartz kitchen tops and designer furniture from Stockton’s. Of course, none of this had been visible until Jack had managed to locate a box of candles in a cupboard under the stairs. “Let’s go to bed,” Cat had said. “I will show you what we do in Argentina when the power is down.”
 
And she had.
 
Now, staring at the cold kettle, Jack was puzzled. He was well aware that other countries experienced power cuts and blackouts, but as far as he could remember he had never experienced one before in his own country. He went and stood at the bay window looking out over a neat patio space edged by borders filled with honeysuckle and fuchsias. The space ended in a triangle of blue sea flecked with small white waves that twinkled in and out of existence moment by moment. Jack's suitcase still lay in the hallway and he unzipped it, flipping open the lid to reveal a jumble of hastily packed clothing and toiletries. Selecting a pair of shorts and a fresh tee shirt Jack slipped on some sandals and, pausing briefly to check his hair in a mirror and grab his wallet, turned the handle of the front door and stepped out.
 
The village street was quiet but for the sound of the gulls and the raucous chirps of a family of sparrows that were squabbling in a tangle of ivy that had grown up the side of the cottage. Hollyhocks drooped down over the sides of the road, shedding their purple petals on the tarmac as bumble bees lumbered unsteadily through the air around them. Jack walked down the hill in the direction of the beach. A few over-sized cars were blocking the narrow lane and Jack glanced back at his own vehicle, checking that he had managed to park it considerately in the darkness the night before. At that moment a jaunty-looking couple of retirees appeared as if from nowhere and walked quickly past him, uttering the obligatory ‘morning’ as they passed by. “Morning,” Jack replied, and with a swish of gore-tex they were gone.
 
Further on down, on a bluff overlooking the beach and the bay, stood the café.  It was a glorified summerhouse, adorned with driftwood to make it look like a beach cabin. Outside it a daily menu was written on a surfboard fixed into a square of concrete. Jack could see people sitting on benches in the garden drinking tea. As he got closer he could hear the chug of an engine and smelled diesel fumes mingling with the salty smell of the ocean. A woman wearing a black apron and a baseball cap stood behind the counter and greeted him. “Morning – what can I get you today?”
 
“I’ll have a coffee,” said Jack, and then scrutinising the menu board added “and can you do me a full English?”
 
The woman glanced back and called out to a girl, perhaps a teenager, cooking in the open kitchen behind her on a gas stove. “Can we do a full English?” she asked. “Yes,” said the girl. “We don’t have any sausages though.”
 
“We haven’t got no sausages,” conveyed the woman, smiling broadly to reveal a gold tooth. “All out of them for now, but I can fry up some extra rashers of bacon.”
 
“No worries,” said Jack. “That sounds great.”
 
The woman looked over at the surf board menu and tapped the keys on the cash register. “That’ll be six forty-five, my lovely. Milk and sugar are over there and we’ll bring it over when it’s ready.”
 
“Thanks,” he said, and paused to turn. “What’s going on with the power? We just arrived last night.”
 
“No idea!” said the woman, leaning forward on the counter, her hands splayed out. “We haven’t heard nothing since half-seven last night when it went off. Not a dickybird on the radio either other than some BBC sounding fella saying over and over that they’re working to get it back again. Sounds like a recording, if you ask me, and that’s exactly what I said to Steve, and he said it probably is and it’ll be up and running again soon enough. If it wasn’t for Ted over there and his gennie there’d have been no way we’d be open right now, I tell you.”
 
“Oh,” said Jack, looking around at the fridge and the lights and the coffee machine. “Is it just round here, do you know?”
 
“We’re just as in the dark as you are, my lover. Far as I know it’s just round here, but then if that was so then you’d expect the telly to be working wouldn’t you?” she nodded at a small television set in the corner of the café. “Nothing, just black. Very odd, I says.” As she said this she handed over a cup of coffee on a porcelain saucer. “And like I said about the radio, there’s this fella comes on every half hour or so and says they’re working on it and that we shouldn’t go panicking or nothing, and then they keep playing God Save the Queen over and over. It’s downright creepy, I says to Jade, in’t it?”
 
The girl in the kitchen looked up and nodded. “Well creepy.”
 
Jack took the coffee and sat on a bench by a stone wall. He could see down onto the beach below where a few people were already lying on towels and a man with a windsurfing board was pulling on a wetsuit. His eyes rose to the horizon, where he could make out the long form of a cargo boat in the far distance. He watched it while he drank his coffee but it was impossible to tell whether it was moving or not.
 
“Full English?” It was the girl from the kitchen holding up a large plate, thumb-deep in assorted greasy food items.
 
“Thanks,” said Jack as she placed it down in front of him. “Anything special going on round here today?”
 
The girl looked slightly bashful, hesitant; as if she’d had men like Jack from upcountry asking her out in the past. “Well, Golowan’s still going on in Penzance, you can catch that.” And, seeing the nonplussed look on Jack’s face added “it’s the midsummer festival. Parades, music, that kind of thing. Oh, and lots of drinking. Gets bigger every year. It’s a right laugh if you’ve never seen it before, but don’t think you’ll get a parking place easily.”
 
“Great,” he said. “Maybe we’ll check it out.”
 
After he had eaten he went down to the beach and walked by the water, which was going out and leaving an unmarked sandy beach in its retreat. The sea was calm and conditions were perfect for kayaking. He tossed a couple of pebbles into the water and held his hand up against the glare of the sun, hoping to spot a dolphin or a shark. He knew the sharks came in at this time of year, although he had never seen one on any of his previous visits. Failing to spot anything larger than a seagull he walked back to the cottage and let himself in. Inside, Cat was still asleep. He brushed his teeth in the en suite, trying to be as quiet as he could. In this weather he was eager to get his kayak down off the top of the van and get out onto the water.
 
“Where have you been?” asked Cat, one sleepy eye open. “I woke up and you were gone. Thought you had left me.”
 
“I’ve been down to the café by the beach. The power’s still off, otherwise I’d have made you a coffee.” As he said the words he hoped they didn’t sounded too apologetic. It was his holiday as well, after all.
 
“Power still off?” purred Cat, her voice husky from sleep. “What is wrong with your country? Sometimes I think we should go back and live in my country. My first world country, and leave your cold, unfriendly country, with your funny-shaped people and your funny food behind.” She snorted a little, as though the idea amused her.
 
Jack knew she was teasing him. She was always teasing him. One of these days he was going to tell her that it annoyed him when she did so. But not today. “I’m going to get down the kayak. The water’s perfect for it and there’s not a cloud in the sky. You can get some breakfast at the café while I get ready.”
 
Cat eyed Jack for a minute and sighed. “No, no, no,” she said chastising him. She switched to a mock cave-woman voice. “Boy can play with his toy when girlfriend not here.  Right now, girlfriend here and in bed.” She pulled back the covers and beckoned him over. He did as she asked, although she detected a hint of reluctance in his manner.
 

“Now,” she said, lying back on the bed “prove to me that not all Englishmen are wimps.”

The Seat of Mars

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Published on The Seat of Mars on June 26, 2015

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Seat of Mars

Please check out my new fiction story Seat of Mars. The story concerns a sudden breakdown of society and all the bedlam that ensues. A new chapter will be added every Sunday.

Think of this story as a bookend. This is one end, starting in the present day, and at the far end is my story Saga and the Bog People, which has just been published in the After Oil 3 anthology. This story, and subsequent ones, will fill in the interim 500 years between now, and that distant future society I envisaged set in Greenland.

I hope you enjoy this story – feel free to leave feedback and comments. When I have completed enough of the story I will publish it in paperback and ebook format.

To view the blog click here.

Discuss this story at the Collapse Narratives Table inside the Diner

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle, 
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars, 
This other Eden, demi-paradise, 
This fortress built by Nature for herself 
Against infection and the hand of war, 
This happy breed of men, this little world, 
This precious stone set in the silver sea, 
Which serves it in the office of a wall 
Or as a moat defensive to a house, 
Against the envy of less happier lands,– 
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.
Shakespeare,  King Richard II

 

 

1. 

It was a quarter to midnight. Cat, her face half-lit by the screen light, cursed quietly to herself. Her boyfriend shot her a cursory glance but remained silent. The pitch of the engine had risen to a tinny whine as the old van struggled up the seemingly never-ending hill. Reflector lights set in the tarmac, glowing green in the darkness, floated past like will-o’-the-wisps as he stepped down hard on the clutch, dropping another gear. There was a slight jerk in the forward trajectory of the vehicle and the engine pitch went up another half octave. He glanced nervously at the temperature gauge just as she looked up from the screen. She frowned and looked out of the window for the first time since Devon.

“Where the bloody hell are we?” she said, noticing the absence of road lighting and other cars. Willie Nelson crooned faintly on the van’s stereo, hardly audible behind the noise of the engine.

“Bodmin Moor,” said Jack. “Ever heard of the Bodmin beast?”

The darkness was unrelenting, although a faint halo behind the silhouette of a distant hill suggested a rising moon. She ignored his question about beasts. “There’s no signal,” she said eventually, her face creased with consternation. She was sat with her knees up under her chin, bare feet on the vinyl cover as she pawed away at the tiny screen which rested on an exposed corner of seat.

Jack sighed inwardly. “I doubt there’s transmitters up here on the moor.”

Cat took this in. The last time she had been somewhere with no signal was in Greece the year before. She thought back to that time, remembered seeing the old man and the donkey walking down the street, taking pictures of him with her phone. She hadn’t known there were places in England with no signal. It reminded of her of home, but not in a good way. That holiday had been with someone else. It hadn’t worked out. Perhaps it was some kind of omen.

“We’ll be over the moor soon enough and then it’s all downhill from there. Should be a signal soon.” He tried to sound reassuring. This journey seemed to be taking forever.

She had been engaged in a group chat with a clutch of friends who were, at that particular moment, strung out in various bars and restaurants across London, Madrid and, indeed, the world. Tina, who worked in the finance department, had just taken a selfie with a waiter, who looked Italian or maybe Spanish. Wot do u think!! said some text below the image of the blonde girl and the tall dark Latino. It remained there on the screen, static, right underneath the ‘no signal’ warning. She looked out of the window but saw only blackness and her own reflection. In the distance, high up on the moor, a single light hovered indicating a lone farmhouse. A thought occurred to her.

“There will be a signal where we’re going, won’t there?”

“Course there will,” scoffed Jack. “It’s got wifi and everything.” Even as he said these words a flicker of doubt crossed his mind. He tried to remember whether the place indeed had wifi, or whether he had just made an assumption. Would the girl be angry if there wasn’t? He sensed problems, even now. This week was supposed to be about getting away from London and their over-full lives. The two plastic kayaks strapped to the roof of the VW attested to that. You don’t just drive for eight hours from London and expect everything to be the same, he thought.

“What is that white?” said the girl.

“Crap,” said Jack, easing off the accelerator. The fog was like a wall and they drove straight into it. It cloaked them, muffling the sound of the engine, a blankness so sudden and all-enclosing that for a moment it felt as if the wheels of the vehicle had left the road and they were now moving through the clouds. Cat pulled her heels further behind her on the seat and wrapped her arms around herself. “When will we be there?” she asked.

Jack glanced at the clock on the dash. “About an hour,” he said, even though he knew it would be more like ninety minutes and then some. This was their first time away together. Unless you counted that night in Brighton, but that was with friends and most of it had been lost in an alcohol blackout. He liked Cat. They’d been together for four months and people at the company they both worked at said they made a good couple. He, the slightly dreamy one who worked in Strategy, and she the exotic catch with the exotic accent who’d come all the way from exotic Buenos Aires. She worked in the HR department of their global marketing and tech agency, had climbed the ladder well in the time she had been there, and showed promise within the company. He wondered what he had done to deserve such a catch. In his estimation, whenever he looked in a mirror, all he saw was a slightly dorky young man, unable to shake off the provincial blandness that his Leicestershire upbringing had instilled in him. Despite six years in London and his best efforts, his accent still retained a slight Midland twang that reasserted itself every time he went home to visit whatever friends he had who still lived there; the ones who had not managed to escape.

Escape. Maybe that’s what this week was about. Getting out on the water with Cat. Eating mussels overlooking the bay in St Ives. Evening walks on the cliffs watching the sunset over the Atlantic.

He caught her reflection in the whiteness of the windscreen. She was still frowning, and looked tired. Her small face was revealed between curtains of tangled dark hair, the dark shadows in the van’s interior emphasising the pout of her lips and her long curled eyelashes. He turned back and focused on the road and the whiteness. It felt as if they were not moving at all.

There were so many things that had puzzled Caterina Ana Gutierrez about this country in the two years since she had landed at Heathrow with a suitcase of clothes and a head full of plans. Her father, who owned a firm that designed steel rigs for the Brazilian oil sector, had made sure she would not have to worry about money while she was away. A year’s rent was paid up front in cash to secure an apartment near Hyde Park, and before she left he had put in her hand a credit card and folded her fingers around it. “Just for you, mi preciosa,” he had said. It was there in case of trouble, and the limit on it was sufficiently high that it could be used to get on a plane “to anywhere” if the need arose.

She loved her life in London. Loved the restaurants, the parties, her flat, her friends. She was equally as comfortable shopping for cast-off jeans at Camden Lock on a Sunday morning, as she was picking out cocktail dresses at Harrods. She kept fit by jogging around Hyde Park most mornings, spent weekends clubbing and was on a mission to dine at as many different ethnic fusion restaurants as one life would allow. Just the previous night she had been at a Rwandan/Ethiopian place eating gored gored and kifto with her friends. Life had never tasted so sweet.

Spending a week in Cornwall was something she had had to be talked into. She had been with Jack for some time, long enough to realise that he didn’t feel the same way about London as she did. When she’d asked him what he wanted for his thirtieth birthday, a week in Cornwall had been his reply. Something to do with him going there as a child, a way to remember his parents, who had died quite young, and re-live his childhood. Fine, she thought. She’d looked it up online. It looked nice enough. Lots of beaches and pictures of stone cottages and boats. It looked a bit primativa, and she wasn’t sure why anyone would want to spend so long away from London – wouldn’t a weekend be enough? – but there was a Tate gallery there, as well as a smattering of Michelin-starred eateries, so maybe there were some signs of civilisation after all.

The terrain had leveled out and all of a sudden the fog cleared, revealing the landscape around them beneath a three-quarters full moon. It was a clear night, and the stars in the dark sky seemed so close. One star shone brighter than the rest in the western sky. “Mars,” said Jack, pointing through the windscreen. “You can tell it’s not Venus because it’s slightly orangey, if you squint.”

She looked. It didn’t look that orangey to her. Typical of a man to say that Venus is Mars, she thought. He shifted up a couple of gears and the sound of the engine steadied and quieted, revealing Willie Nelson once more. “I’d rather see you up than down,” he sang to a sliding steel guitar and harmonica accompaniment. “So leave me if you need to, I will still remember angel flying too close to the ground.

“Good god, can we turn this depressing crap off?” exclaimed Cat, punching the knob on the stereo. Jack felt a spike of resentment once more. But it didn’t last, because the feeling of getting over the moor was a natural mood lifter. It was as if a liminal threshold had been passed, a severing of some invisible line that had reached out from London and held the old VW in a tractor beam since the M25. They had crested the moor and the A30 began to angle down into a descent. A truck passed by, going in the opposite direction, its headlights picking out the white forms of a few sheep sleeping in a field.

But something wasn’t right. At first it was just a feeling, an intimation that something was amiss. They continued to drive along in silence. Cat fumbled with her phone. “Still nothing,” she said. They rounded a bend as they approached the town of Bodmin, population 12,778. The cars became more numerous, and some appeared to be going too fast. Friday night fast, reasoned Jack.

Cat, restless, leaned forward and punched on the stereo again. Willie had only a moment to croon So leave before he was ejected, the CD flung unceremoniously into the glove box. She turned the radio tuner and watched as the little digital display raced up the frequencies looking for something to latch onto. After a moment it halted and the sound of static came from the speakers. There was a voice somewhere in the background but it was speaking French. She pressed it again and it ran all the way through without finding anything. She tried AM but that just resulted in an eerie looping noise that sounded like something from a cheap 1950s alien movie.

“Jesus, don’t they have radio either in Cornwall?” Giving up, she punched the off button once more and settled back in her seat.

The main road, which had taken them over the moor, and would take them all the way to Land’s End if they continued on it, brushed against the outskirts of the town. More cars. They were passing under grey steel shapes that were at once familiar and yet puzzling. The moonlight illuminated the pale cuboid outlines of a housing estate on a hillside, making it look like so many grey boxes lined up and ready to be shipped off somewhere with their human occupants still inside them. It connected all at once in Jack’s mind.

“Lights,” he said.”

“There’s no power.”

Three Little Vines

Off the keyboard of Jason Heppenstall

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Published on 22 Billion Energy Slaves on June 22, 2015

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HeppHouse

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Death by the seaside. I didn't see the ambulance or, later, the hearse that came to take him away. The first sign something was amiss was the letting agent and the young woman, shaking hands on the street outside. No wake, no period of grace in a cut-throat lettings market. Speaking of throats, that's what got him in the end. Cancer of the oesophagus, said Myrtle. She'd lived in the house next door for sixty years and had seen it all. The old man, who'd had neither a phone nor much a voice (but for a chesty rasping sound) used to call on her for help. Help to call a doctor, or a taxi. There was nobody else – no family, no friends – he could have asked for help. "This used to be such a nice street," said Myrtle. "Everyone knew each other back in the day."

When they found him he was slumped at his desk, whisky tumbler half empty. A five bedroom house with five separate lives. Make that four. On the top floor the fat bald man who walks around in his underwear, who hasn't turned off either the loudly blaring TV set or the incandescent light bulb – even for a moment – in the two years since we've lived opposite. Then there is the shifty young bloke, whose hoodie friends, if that's what they are, come and go at all hours of the day and night. Just for balance, let me mention the clean-cut man with the steady job who leaves each morning wearing a high-vis jacket and sparks up a rollie on his way out the door. There must be one or two others living there too, including the one who likes to blast out rave music on a weekend, but none of them thought to check on the old man until a few days after his room had fallen silent.

I never spoke to him, didn't know his name or his story. Sometimes, whilst sitting at my computer, if I peered out the window and through the unruly rose bush with its nodding flower heads, I could just make out the ghost of his face behind the net curtains. He lived and died on the downstairs floor. Witnesses pieced together his last moves. Had he known that this was the day? What had caused him to tidy his few belongings together that evening? To put on his best clothes and to set off on a steady shuffling walk out of the house, through the day-warm streets past walls dripping in purple valerian, Mexican flea bane and Dalmatians, and down to the seafront where the gulls endlessly wheel and the dinghies sit lop-sided in the mud. How long did he contemplate the ocean, knowing that now, after such a long period of waiting, it was his time to embark. And then, when the sun set, to make the return trip, stopping at the off license to buy the bottle of cheap whisky to ease his passage.

On that evening, as he left, had we not yet pulled the curtains on our own lives? Would he have seen us in our illuminated living room, eating our dinner together, talking, laughing and enjoying our lives? Or had we already pulled the curtains and all he could see was a chink of light escaping from the shut-out world within?
 

***

Wasted. I knock on the door, a woman with orange skin answers. She is wearing a gold lamé top, has green lipochemicals smeared around her eyes and wants to know what the hell I want. I am here to clean the apartment, I inform her, and point out that checkout time is 10 even though it is now 11.  She gives a silly little giggle and tells me she isn't going anywhere soon in broad Estuary English. Her baby is sleeping – do I know how hard it is to get a baby to sleep? – and she's paid a lot of money to stay there and the last thing she needs is me telling her to leave. Who do I think I am? I tell her that someone else will shortly be arriving and I have only so long to get everything ready. "Your problem not mine," she says, and shuts the door on me.

Fine, I think. Make the best of this situation. I wander down to the beach and fill several plastic bags with seaweed that has washed up on the shore. These sea plants are marvellous – some have great rubbery bodies with octopus-like suckers, others are luminescent green fronds that look like they could grow on Venus, and I never get tired of the slithering bladdery perfection of kelp. I go back to the car and place my stash of alien sea treasures it in the boot next to the bags of clean laundry that smell of Ocean Breeze detergent. The seaweed is for my pollytunnel, I am turning it into food. I hope it understands and doesn't mind. Cornish people have done the exact same thing for millennia, but I recently discovered that most beaches, and all the seaweed lying on them, are owned by the Queen and that what I am doing is illegal without a license.  Oh well.

An hour has passed and I head back to the apartment. All the lights are on, the windows are open and the big flat-screen is blaring loudly. The BMW 3 series with the child seat has gone. I knock tentatively on the door. No answer. I put in the key and let myself in. Inside, it is trashed. For a moment I think there has been a violent break-in and that the woman and her child are tied up in a closet. But no.

Drawers are pulled out and thrown around haphazardly, the floor is covered in toys – dozens of cheap plastic toys with the price tags still on them – as well as supermarket carrier bags, half-full and empty bottles of Evian mineral water and used nappies that exude a sickly sweet smell. In the kitchen there is a week of washing up. Burned strips of bacon are stuck inside the oven – clearly the aborted aftermath of an attempt at 'cooking' – and the fridge is full of half-eaten steaks, baby food and more water bottles. Every surface is covered with bits of junk: more toys, gossip magazines, colouring crayons, used batteries. In the bathroom there are piles of discarded beauty products, feminine razors galore, and the stash of clean white fluffy towels I left in one of the closets are tossed around and smeared with baby excrement. The evidence of clothes shopping frenzy is there, with price tags, plastic hangers and Next bags all over the place.

Outside there are ten large bin bags filled with trash. I rip one of them open to see what's inside. It's mostly more empty water bottles, dirty clothes and used nappies. I ponder how can one person generate so much waste. Our family struggles to fill a single bag in a week, but this woman has filled one and a half a day. I sigh and get down to work. It takes me until the evening, but luckily the next guests don't arrive until late. They are coming from Germany, so I know that when they leave in a week's time the apartment will be spotless.

The next day and I am onto the next property. It's an idyllic old cottage overlooking the bay in a small photogenic village of the kind you see in lifestyle magazines. A young couple and their small child have stayed there for two weeks. The previous week they had locked themselves out and I had driven over to let them in again. The man had been genial and appreciative but said his wife was 'freaking out' over the matter. This is bad. Whenever I hear that female guests are freaking out over some small matter it usually means the place will be left in a kind of 'fuck you' mess. I wasn't too far wrong.

I hoover up all the sand, clean all the smears off the extensive glass windows and rummage through the bins for food. I always do this. Sometimes there is very little, but on this occasion the bins are liberally overflowing with fresh food. I find packets of organic baby tomatoes from Spain, mange touts from Zimbabwe, Waitrose carrots, packets of butter and bacon, entire unopened litre bottles of Innocent apple juice, chocolate puddings, the cream tea I had placed for them on their arrival. All in all I estimate there to be about £50 worth of unopened and uneaten food. There is more down near the bottom of a black bag but it's covered in a viscous liquid that looks like whale bile, but I leave it alone.

As I drive home I listen to the news on the radio. The man at the BBC says we are officially entering the sixth great extinction. It is the third thing he mentions, after something about David Cameron proposing something or other about reforming some institution, or something, and another item about corruption in the world of football. I slip in a CD. It's a new one I bought. Gravenhurst. There's a song called Black Holes in the Sand. I listen as I drive along the A394, heading back to Penzance.

in the small hours I realise what I have done 

in the small hours I realise what I have done 

I held the hand that threw the stone that killed the bird that woke the city 

in the small hours I realise what I have done
in the small hours I realise what I have done
 
 
 
 
 
***
 

Solstice. A still evening. The mist hovers around the shore, clearing every now and again to reveal St Michael's Mount out in the bay. Feeble waves are plopping on the sand a few feet away from the pile of wooden pallets stacked up as an offering for the goddess. The smells of roasting meat and roasting veggie burgers suffuse the still air, and although it is getting late children weave around the groups of adults sitting on the sand. Looking forwards, out to sea, very little in the way of human creation is evident. Turning 180 degrees, back to the land, it is all supermarkets, busy roads and car dealerships. The sodium lights from the rail marshalling yard light up a faint mizzle as we stand around on this patch of unloved strand (known locally as Dogshit Beach) waiting for the sun to dip below the horizon and the journey towards winter to begin.

There are maybe a hundred of us, ranging in age from the just-born right up to the about-to-be-born-again. There are probably more than the statistical average number of greybeards and women with flowers in their hair. One girl had realistic prosthetic pointed ears that I discreetly have to study quite closely to look for the join. A few tourists hold up iPhones to film it all.

Simon, holding bunches of flowers and a can of accelerant, is leaping around like a pyro, and Ned – who at other points on the calendar can be seen dressed as a giant crow or a tree – is walking around with a shiny new axe that looks suspiciously like the ones they sell in Jim's Discount Store for £3. "Who will be the first to bury the hatchet?" he cries out.

A largeish log had been placed on the sand as a receptacle of absorption. On this midsummer night one is urged to let go of any animosities and frustrations one holds, striking the log with the hatchet and expelling the negativity with a blood-curdling scream – or whimper, as the case may be. People step forwards and strike the log with the axe. One woman, clearly unused to handling the tool, misses and almost cuts off her toes instead. Simon steps forwards with the flowers, calling forth the females. Children, some excited and some bemused, are handed red roses, purple sea mallow and yellow St Johns wort, which they place atop the pile of shipping pallets ready for cremation.

Simon squirts the fuel and touches the bonfire with his flaming torch. Whoomph! The evil spirits of elf n' safety have not been invited tonight. All of a sudden the flames go up and everyone cheers. Fiddles and drums are pulled out and the celebrants begin to dance around the flames as black smoke pours into the sky. Ned comes forward with the hate-filled log and tosses it into the inferno. Another cheer. Cups of cider are refilled, some fire dancing happens and the mizzle comes on a bit stronger but fails to dampen the spirits.

And so another turning point of the year is marked in proper fashion, hatreds and animosities are  cleansed by fire and the days begin to grow shorter. It seems strange to consider that in only six months we will all be on the far side of the sun in our solar system – almost 200 million miles away – celebrating the lengthening of the days and the return to summer, and all that can and will happen in our little earthling lives between now and then.
 

 

Death of Dreams, Death of Literature

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on January 16, 2015

Where have our dreams gone? The death of Western literature

The novel by Vladimir Dudintsev “Not by bread alone” was published in 1956 (*). It was a big hit in the Soviet Union with its criticism of the stagnating and inefficient Soviet ways. Together with other Russian authors, such as Vasily Grossman and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dudintsev was part of a wave of novelists who tried to use literature to change the ways of society. That kind of approach seems to have withered out, both in the countries of the old Soviet Union and in the West.

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At some moment, between the second and the third century AD, the Latin literature died out in the Roman Empire. Not that people stopped writing; on the contrary, the late Western Roman Empire saw a minor revival of Latin Literature; it was just that they didn’t seem to have anything interesting to say any more.

If we consider the high times of the Empire, around the first century BC, it is likely that most of us would be able to come up with at least some names of literates of that time: poets such as Virgil and Horace, philosophers like Seneca, historians like Tacitus. But move to the late centuries of the Western Empire and chances are that you won’t be able to come up with any name, unless you read Gibbon and you remember that he cites the 4th century poet Ausonius to evidence the bad taste of those times. It seems that the Roman Empire had lost its soul much before having disappeared as a political organization.

Often, I have the impression that we are following the same path to collapse that the Roman Empire followed, but faster. Ask yourself this question: can you cite a recent (intended as less than – say – 10-20 years old) piece of literature that you think posterity will remember? (and not as an example of bad taste). Personally, I can’t. And I think that it could be said that literature in the Western world declined in the 1970s or so and that today is not a vital form of art any longer.

Of course, perceptions in these matters may be very different, but I can cite plenty of great novels published during the first half of the 20th century; novels that changed the way people looked at the world. Think of the great season of the American writers in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s; think of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald, of Gertrude Stein and many others. And of how American literature continued to produce masterpieces, from John Steinbeck to Jack Kerouac and others. Now, can you cite a later equivalent American writer? Think of a great writer such as John Gardner, who wrote in the 1970s and is today mostly forgotten. Something similar seems to have taken place on the other side of the Iron Curtain; where a number of gifted Soviet writers (Dudintsev, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, and others) produced a literary corpus in the 1950s and 1960s that strongly challenged the Soviet orthodoxy and played a role in the fall of the Soviet Union. But there doesn’t seem to exist anything comparable any more in Eastern European countries that could compare with those novels.

It is not just a question of written literature; visual arts seem to have gone through the same withering process: think of Picasso’s Guernica (1937) as an example. Can you think of anything painted during the past few decades with an even remotely comparable impact? About movies, which ones were really original or changed our perception of the world? Maybe with movies we are doing better than with written literature; at least some movies didn’t go unnoticed, even though their literary merits are questionable. Think of  “The night of the living dead”, by George Romero, which goes back to1968 and has generated a tsunami of imitations. Think of “Star Wars” (1977), which shaped an entire strategic plan of the US military. But during the past decade or so, the film industry doesn’t seem to have been able to do better than hurling legions of zombies and assorted monsters to the spectators.

Not that we don’t have bestsellers any more, just as we have blockbuster movies. But can we produce anything original and relevant? It seems that we have gone the way the Roman Empire went: we cannot produce a Virgil any more, at best an equivalent of Ausonius.

And there is a reason for that. Literature, the great kind, is all about changing the reader’s view of the world. A great novel, a great poem, are not just about an interesting plot or beautiful images. Good literature brings forth a dream: the dream of a different world. And that dream changes the reader, makes her different. But, in order to perform this deed, the reader must be able to dream of a change. He must live in a society where it is possible, theoretically at least, to put dreams into practice. This is not always the case.

In the Roman Empire of the 4th and 5th century AD, the dream was gone. The Romans had retreated behind their fortifications and had sacrificed everything – including their freedom – in the name of their security. Poetry had become merely praising the rulers of the day, philosophy the compilation of previous works, and history a mere chronicle. Something like that is happening to us: where have our dreams gone?

But it is also  true that man doesn’t live by bread alone. We need dreams as much as we need food. And dreams are something that Art can bring to us, in the form of literature or other forms; it doesn’t matter. It is the power of dreams that can never disappear. If the Roman Literature had disappeared as an original source of dreams, it could still work as a vehicle for dreams coming from outside the empire. From the Eastern Border of the Empire, the cults of Mitrha and of Christ would make deep inroads into the Roman minds. In the early 5th century, in a southern provincial town besieged by barbarians, Augustine, the bishop of Hippo, completed his “The City of God”, a book that we still read today and that changed forever the concept of narrative, perhaps the first novel – in the modern sense – ever written. A few centuries later, when the Empire was nothing more than a ghostly memory, an unknown poet composed the Beowulf and, later still, the Nibelungenlied appeared. During this period, tales about a warlord of Britannia started to appear and would later coalesce into the Arthurian cycle, perhaps the core of our modern vision of epic literature.

So, the dream is not dead. Somewhere, at the edges of the empire, or perhaps outside of it, someone is dreaming a beautiful dream (**). Maybe she will write it down in a remote language, or maybe she will use the Imperial Language. Maybe he will use a different medium than the written word; we cannot say. What we can say is that, one day, this new dream will change the world.


(*) A brief comment on Dutintsev’s novel, which I bought and read in an English translation as a little exercise in cultural archeology. Read more than half a century after its release, it is difficult to see it as still “sensational” as it was described at that time in the Western press, which had clearly tried to cash an easy propaganda victory against the Soviet Union. As a novel, it is slow and overdrawn, although that may be a result of the Internet-caused attention deficit which affects most of us. In any case, the novel has defects. One is the protagonist, Dmitri Lopatkin, so heavily characterized as a perfect altruist to make him totally unbelievable as a real world person. But the book is still charming in its description of a Moscow, which is no more, but which remains perfectly recognizable, even though so much changed today. To see the characters of the book in action, you can watch the movie made in 2005. I already commented a short story by Dudintsev in this post.

 (**) From a group of remote islands known as Japan, a man has been producing one masterpiece movie after another; Hayao Miyazaki. To understand the decline of the Western forms of narrative, you have just to compare two animation movies which came out together in 2014: the nearly ignored  “The wind rises” by Miyazaki and the blockbuster “Frozen” by Walt Disney Studios. It is like comparing Augustine and Ausonius and the ongoing collapse of the Western Empire is all there. 

Diner Cli-Fi #2: The Human Eradication Plan

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on September 25, 2014

the-day-after-tomorrow_tornadoes

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With this post, I am continuing the exploration of the narrative approach to understanding the future, in particular about the effects of climate change (see here, and here). Here, I am reproposing a complete Cli-Fi short story that was originally published on this blog in 2012.

(originally published in 2012 on “Resource Crisis“)

From: Earth Orbital Outpost
To: Galactic Central Command

Progress report: Human eradication plan
(note: time spans in this report are measured in Earth orbital revolutions. One Earth orbital revolution corresponds to 4e-10 Galactic years)


– Strategic Summary

The Earth Orbital Outpost is pleased to report to Galactic Command that the eradication of the creatures termed “humans” inhabiting the planet known as “Earth” is proceeding according to plans. The rapid warming of the planet obtained by the injection of large amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is expected to wipe out most large vertebrates within 40-50 planetary revolutions around the parent star. The planet will be ready for colonization by our species in a few thousand years; when the ecosystem will have been restored.

– The original (1st level) plan

Planet Earth was the object of several preliminary explorations before being selected as suitable for colonization. Upon reaching this decision, the Earth Orbital Outpost was set up with the purpose of facilitating the colonization task. The Outpost proceeded to study the planet, finding that it is dominated by a species, known as “humans”, which has appropriated most of the planetary ecosystem productivity. Individually, humans turned out to be highly intelligent and it was soon clear that the species poses an important obstacle to colonization. A necessary step for colonization was therefore their eradication. The decision was reached also upon the consideration that, if left to themselves, humans were likely to reach a technological level sufficiently high to become a nuisance at the Galactic scale.

Several plans were developed to carry out the eradication program. It soon became clear that sterilization with neutron beams, carried out by the Galactic star fleet, was possible but expensive and, besides, humans were rapidly reaching a technological level sufficient to produce a significant opposition. Instead, it was found that humans could be eradicated at a much lower cost by warming the planet at temperatures high enough to make their survival impossible. That could be accomplished by exploiting the human habit of burning fossil carbon materials in order to obtain energy. According to initial observations carried out about a hundred revolutions ago, just letting humans to themselves would lead them to inject in the atmosphere sufficient amounts of greenhouse gases to cause a warming intense enough to destroy most large vertebrates.

In previous reports, we were pleased to describe that the plan was working. 50 revolutions ago, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere had already picked up a trend of rapid growth and it was calculated that it would lead to the collapse of the ecosystem in less than a hundred revolutions. However, as mentioned earlier on, humans turned out to be remarkably intelligent and the brightest of them were able to identify and understand the ongoing process (that they usually referred to as “global warming.”) Humans built up a sophisticated planetary monitoring system and created theoretical models of the atmosphere. At that point, they embarked in a planet-wide effort to stop global warming by curbing fossil carbon burning and deploying non-carbon based energy sources.

Having observed this development, it was necessary to alter the original plan and intervene more directly in the eradication task, although still doing an effort to avoid the enormous costs involved in deploying the Galactic fleet.

–  The 2nd level plan

Stopping humans from taking measures to avoid destroying themselves turned out to require a quite modest effort – completely within the resources available to the Earth Orbital Outpost. This result may be surprising and, indeed, some members of the Galactic Command had expressed doubt on being able to convince humans – individually very intelligent – to continue actting in ways that were leading to their destruction. Nevertheless, we succeeded in accomplishing this task.

The key element of our action has been the study and the exploitation of the human information network, that they call “the Web.” It is a sophisticated planet-wide information system that has been fundamental for humans in developing their understanding of climate and diffusing this knowledge with their decision makers. However, we found fundamental flaws in the functioning of this network.

In particular, we found that the network is dominated by “super-nodes” which show a higher level of connectivity than most nodes. These super-nodes are called by humans “media” and sometimes “mainstream media”. Surprisingly, we found that the supernodes are managed by humans who are quite unable to understand the basic elements of the functioning of the Earth’s ecosphere. Even more surprisingly, we found that the humans in charge of these media nodes make no effort whatsoever to check that the information they diffuse corresponds to physical reality.

We also found that the humans in charge of managing the media supernodes are easily influenced by other groups of humans which are called “lobbies,” whose role is not easily understood by us. We believe it has something to do with the abnormal interest of humans in a virtual entity that they have created and that they refer to as “money”. Although the characteristics of this entity are obscure to us, it seems that humans (especially males) care about being associated with large amounts of this virtual entity and this, in turn, seems to have something to do with the behavior of human females. In any case, we were able to penetrate the human computing centers which produce this “money” and appropriate large amounts of it for our purposes.

In practice, it was sufficient for the Earth Orbital Outpost to take control of a small numbers of leading human individuals; whom we refer to as “avatars.” This task was accomplished mainly by our control of large amounts of the above mentioned “money” entity. Using money, the takeover of these minds turned out to be extremely easy: we found little resistence on their part and no evidence that our operation was detected by other humans. Our avatars carried out several tasks, mainly providing the media super-nodes with fake data that contradicted the results of the previous scientific investigation on the degradation of the ecosystem.

A special operation that turned out to be extremely successful was to break into the database of one of their best scientific organizations (called by humans “climate research unit”) and diffusing internal data exchanges all over the network. This operation generated considerable confusion among humans as it highlighted several uncertainties in the research; something typical of scientific investigation but that, apparently, most of them are not familiar with.

Assessment of the present situation

The takeover of the human information system (the “Web”) by our human avatars was completely successful and we have been able to turn it into an instrument for our purposes. We are pleased to report that most human leaders have been turned into avatars under our direct control or are completely confused about the issue of global warming. It has been possible to relegate the discussion on this theme to only some minor clusters of the information network. All attempts carried out by humans to diffuse it outside these clusters are met by aggressive denial (humans turn out to be extremely aggressive for reasons that to us appear futile).

As a consequence of our takeover of the information network, all attempts of humans to stop the ecosystem destruction have been halted and appear unlikely to be restarted any time soon. The amount of greenhouse gases being emitted in the Earth’s atmosphere keeps increasing. That is creating a rapid rise of temperatures, as confirmed by the recent observation of the near complete melting of the North Pole ice cap, a planetary feature that had been existing for several million years of planetary history.

It is clear that the Earth’s system is heading towards a tipping point where rising temperatures will trigger a series of phenomena which will lead to runaway warming and to the total collapse of the ecosystem, even without further human generation of greenhouse gases. We have been monitoring the system evolution using climate modeling programs developed by humans, which turned out to be very sophisticated. According to these models, the tipping point could have been already reached or, in any case, will be reached within a few planetary revolutions. Therefore, we expect that the eradication of the human species could be fully accomplished within a few tens of revolutions.

Recent developments and recommendations for the future

Even though the Earth’s climate tipping point is likely to have been reached, humans could still, theoretically, react with various countermeasures, such as restarting with the phasing out of fossil carbon burning, deploying non carbon energy sources, shielding the Earth from solar radiation, and so forth. In order to succeed, however, humans need first to regain control of the planetary information system. Our avatars on the planet report ongoing human efforts in this sense, perhaps triggered by the observation of the melting of the North Pole ice cap.

Given these recent developments, the coming planetary revolutions will be critical for the success of the human eradication plan. The Earth Orbital Outpost will keep the situation under strict and continuous monitoring. We do expect difficulties, in particular with our avatars. Their physical integrity cannot be guaranteed if their role in the eradication plan is discovered by humans not under our control. Nevertheless, they have done their job and their loss will not change the rapid evolution of the Earth’s climate system.

Assuming that things continue to move according to plans, planet Earth will soon be free of humans and of most large vertebrates that could be a nuisance for colonization. We shall therefore proceed with the second part of the plan, which consists in cooling down the planet by deploying space mirrors. Subsequently, natural processes will re-absorb greenhouse gases and restore the planetary ecosystem in about one thousand planetary revolutions. At this point, the planet will be ready for colonization by our species. Ships with colonists are expected to arrive in about ten thousand revolutions from now. Then, a new planet will be added to our Galactic civilization!

End Report – The Earth Orbital Outpost

(note: this story was inspired by Isaac Asimov’s story “The Gentle Vultures” – 1957)

Diner Cli-Fi #1: Nunanut

Off the keyboard of K-Dog

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Published on Chasing the Squirrel on September 20, 2014

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With this Story from Diner K-Dog, the Diner introduces a new Feature, Cli-Fi or Climate Fiction Stories.We recently discussed the need for Narratives that will better communicate the problems faced by  Homo Sapiens as Earth Climate changes in unpredictable ways, and we encourage both Published and Unpublished authors to contribute their stories about possible future Earth scenarios.Stories can be submitted on the Diner Forum for Publication on the Diner Blog.RE

Near the summit leopards roam.  Pushed up from the jungle below for generations it’s been death for them to follow prey too far down the mountain.  Down the mountain to the plain below at the mountain base leopards once hunted but now even their prey will not go.  A mountain of life capped by green jungle where once snow gleamed white over wooded and grassy plains all was changed.  Thick jungle covered everything now and only on the mountain top could a leopard live.

The jungle on the plain was hot and wet with a killing heat not like the desert heat of the far north and south.  The deserts were hotter than here.  But dry, and with water still a place where one could live.  Heat here was less but with air saturated with water this heat killed.  In this jungle sweat and breath could not cool and animals not heat tolerant and people all died.  No men or large bests had lived on the flat plain below the mountain since the jungle had climbed over the snows and made a hilltop oasis where life still bloomed.

The steaming jungle on the plains of this new world gave heatstroke to all.  Silent steaming dark and foreboding, this jungle stretches impassible and endlessly to the sea.  Insects and small slithering things its only inhabitants.  From the ground layers of vegetation hide the sky.  Overhead afternoon storms rain down unseen from the ground below onto the canopy.  Only the rumble of thunder makes their presence know in the empty jungle below.

Far from the mountain where the green carpet reaches the sea, the endless storm rages.  It grows strong and then weak, it begins to lull but it always rebounds to full fury and it never stops raging.  For hundreds of years it has raged never stopping.  As long as this jungle has ruled the plain its companion has been this storm.  A angry storm and a lonely jungle where men who dared to go will surly die.  Yet far out to sea and to the north beyond where the grey curtain of the endless storms edge rains to the sea a boat crashed through waves.

Ron pulled the red striped boom line tight and finished his knot to the boom cleat.  With one hand on the red stripe and one on the matching redundant blue line he steadied himself for the crash of next wave looming ahead over the bow.  Dizzy and weak each plunge into the waves was getting harder to bear.  It took more effort to hold firm with every crash.  Waves of nausea washed over Ron.  The hot breath of the sea in his face.  Job done it was time to go in.

Ron’s crew made way for the pilot house door.  He the last one to drag himself in.  Door closed Dmitry the captain looked at him and asked “All secure?”  Ron looking at him managed a nod and a smile, it was all that was needed.  Dmitry didn’t need words he knew his men were exhausted.  This far south any topside errand quickly drained strength.  The last reading of the wet bulb thermometer said long enough up it would kill.

Ron drank in the cool dry cabin air into his lungs.  His sea and sweat soaked skin luxuriating in the  refreshing cool of the refrigerated cabin air.

“Power on number three” said Dmitry. And with his last word hanging in the air Ablah his ships pilot pressed the glow plug button for engine number three and the timing light glowed yellow.  When it blinked off she pressed the starter down and the number three tac needle thumped up to cranking speed and then bursting up to a powerful idle she let the starter go.

Dmitry picked up the microphone to the ships intercom and announced.  “All sails stowed.  Booms one two and three secure.  Gentlemen we’re going south.  All hands prepare to come about”  Then laying the microphone down he said to Ablah.”  Pilot, at your pleasure, due south.  Full speed.”  Dmitry was a good captain.  He kept formality to a minimum but didn’t let it go.  His manner an internal and external check list that kept everything going right.

Ablah engaged the clutch to engine number three and its generator pushed 75 extra kilowatts onto the ships power grid.  Furling sails and tying booms down she had only needed engines one and two to generate power.  Three had been off to save fuel.  Number one and two together gave 220 kilowatts which moved The Cross along nicely but from here to the other side of the storm ahead the ship would be going at full power.

The Southern Cross displaced 360 tons and from bow to stern was 51 meters long.  Steel, wood and composites made up her bones and skin.  She was built to explore.  Tight and seaworthy she carried no cargo, only the supplies and fuel her crew of fourteen would need on their voyage.  She had maps to tell where she was going yet her destination was unknown.  The southern half of the world had not been visited by a northern man for hundreds of years.  The equator was a zone of fatal killing humidity.  North and south of the equator it was hotter but with water men could live.  Not here, in the equatorial zone humidity prevented people from cooling off.  At the equator heat first incapacitated then killed.

The Southern Cross was the only ship of her kind.  From afar she could be taken for a polar trading schooner of similar size but she had the rigging of a smaller vessel.  In the northern sea her size might be rigged as a barque or as barquentine with fast square sails.  She had none of them.  All her rigging was fore-and-aft.  Management of her sails had to be easy and square sails took more crew and effort to manage.  Where she was going trips too long out of the air conditioned cocoon of the living spaces below decks would be fatal.

Up close she was no polar trader.  Boats in the north were all wood.  Cascadian teak and and Alaskan Redwood they moved lumber to Greenland returning with grain and hemp from that new land.  Wood ships had plied the seas before the age of oil and now with the earth healing with all available oil burned up and gone they sailed the polar sea and the northern parts of the big oceans once again.  Along coasts they traded goods traveling between places wherever men could live as far south as the great desert.  All wood and no engines they worked until they sank or rotted past their intended purpose.

The Cross was different.  If polar traders were like wood and fabric airplanes from the dawn of flight the Southern Cross was like a jet aircraft from the late twentieth century.  Below decks she had the character of a submarine.  A sealed chamber of mechanical equipment cables and pipes with ducting everywhere covering her overhead spaces. Taking everything in and she was like living inside a giant machine. Air in was chilled and dehumidified before circulated around the living spaces.  Several redundant and handmade systems accomplished that task.  Life depended on it.  Diesel powered generators ran everything and drank energy rich New York palm oil from tanks in stowage and from tanks below deck.  Engines needed for when the chaos and heat of the storm would make sailing impossible were electric.  They too ran from the generators.

Nine weeks into her voyage her main generators had been only been running for three.  As she drove south it had become hot.  Three weeks back the ships air vents had been closed and her cooling systems turned on.  By now the crew would have been unable to work topside without it.  That morning her sea motors had been turned on and the ship put into the wind to furl sails.  Now with everything topside tied down and secure with the last generator up and running she was driving due south at nine knots.

Ron moved down the companionway from the pilothouse.  Along the the main central passage ahead to a cold shower and dry clothes.

Refreshed and dry throwing his wet clothes into an empty dryer Ron made his way to the saloon.  There weighed down by the delicious smell of fresh coffee a comfortable chair and the new feel of a ship sailing under power Ron was not expecting an ambuscade when Zhang sat down.

“How do you know they don’t want to eat us” said Zhang.  Hundreds of years of radio silence from the southern hemisphere and then out of nowhere we start getting pictures of paradise.  I think they are trying to lure us down because they are hungry. Why so friendly all of a sudden.”

Ron looked into Zhang’s eyes for a playful gleam.  Finding none he replied.

“If they knew what people from New China were known to eat I don’t think you would have anything to worry about Zhang.”

“Ah you think I’m being funny but we really don’t know what has been going on down there do we?” Zhang retorted.  Pausing only for a quick breath and before Ron could say anything he went on. “The whole story could be a put on and a plan to get us to go down there.  They had dark ages just like we did sure, I get that.  But why the silence afterwards.  This religious reasons story isn’t making sense to me.  Something doesn’t add up.”

Ron smiled wondering what Zhang had been thinking about. Then he said. “Are you afraid they will buy New China and move in just like Old China did when it bought Canada before the dark ages began?”

“That’s not exactly how it happened, it was more complicated than that.  You must have been reading the propaganda the American Dictator put out just before things fell apart.  The ones with money skipped out and moved north just like the rich Chinese and nobody was ever stopped from getting to Alaska far as I know.  They all had ten days free passage before they could be enslaved.  I’m just afraid there could be something devious behind the Southern Leagues invitation and I think we should think about it.  I got to thinking about how much this ship tells about us and that maybe giving the Southern League so much information might not be a good idea.”

“It’s a little late for that.  A voyage six years in the making on a ship that took three years to build.  I’ve been talking to them for a bit over five years from the University of Iqaluit Zhang, get a grip.

Radio in the south was strictly controlled and only used as permitted by their Brotherhood of Gaia for over 230 years.  The brotherhood allowed no wireless entertainment broadcast of any kind and anybody but a navigator for the brotherhood caught using a transmitter would be tried for treason.  It was a really big deal to them.  There was never a real radio silence; it is just that nobody would ever talk to us.  They have been using radio ever since the brotherhood took them from their dark ages but only as allowed for shipping and brotherhood government business under supervision and with training.  Their people feared Americans might still be around to spy on them.  That with a moral dictum of no wireless entertainment from the ruling brotherhood was all it took to maintain the quiet.  Nobody dared break the rules.

But all the time the Brotherhoods inner circle, those who could read and who were allowed to have old records and learning were listening to us.  Now that we are all united under the Siberian Union they deemed us safe enough to contact.  That’s why they waited until only six years ago to break their radio silence.

Zhang, before that they were afraid you would eat them!”

Enjoying hearing himself talk Ron went on.

“Besides which they are not as big as we are.  Steaming rain forests on the south coast of Australia, the north island of New Zealand, and the very tip of the south African coast.  The south island of New Zealand, Tierra del Fuego and Tasmania their only breadbaskets.  Forests in Antarctica supply lumber but overall they are not any further along with terraforming Antarctica than we are with terraforming North Greenland.  Getting plants to survive the long winter night is as hard for them as it is for us.  Like us they are succeeding but it is slow.  Having some luck with the usual grasses and with some Eucalyptus variants like their Antarctican forest trees.

Their entire population is less than that what we have in South Greenland and Labrador alone so I think they should be worrying more about the dietary habits of Nunavut Chinese than we should worry about them”

Ron looked at the wall clock.  Then he said.

“Look, I’ve radio duty in ten minutes and have to run back and see if Dmitry wants anything.  I have been trading recipes with Fulberto on the Northern Star for a few weeks now and it is only ten days until we rendezvous with them on the other side of the storm.  I’ll ask him if he would like you for dinner before or after we arrive in Rio Grande.  Maybe you should be doing something to season your meat.”

Narratives of TEOTWAWKI

Off the keyboard of RE

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Published on the Doomstead Diner on September 21, 2014

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http://edwardhotspur.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/unicorn-skittles.jpgSince I have been involved in Doom Prognostication and Analysis since 2008, floating around various websites from PeakOil.com to Market Ticker to The Automatic Earth to The Burning Platform, as well as my own Yahoo Group of Reverse Engineering and now the Doomstead Diner, I have of course been exposed to probably every possible Doom Scenario that you could conjure up as plausible.

Besides that, since I am a confirmed Full Doomer, I also periodically review the latest in Graphs and Charts that Financial Bloggers post up, or that Climate Bloggers post up.  Overall, just about all this graphology is uniformly depressing newz.  You have to be a believer in Fairy Dust and Skittle Shitting Unicorns to accept any of the MSM Charts which show “Economic Recovery” anywhere, as my friend Jim Quinn from TBP demonstrated once again recently tracking the Collapse of Retail Sales here in the FSoA.

Hard to imagine how folks will be doing too much Shopping as they drop out of the Labor Force by the Millions:

http://research.stlouisfed.org/fred2/graph/fredgraph.png?&chart_type=line&graph_id=0&category_id=&recession_bars=On&width=525&height=315&bgcolor=%23cccc99&graph_bgcolor=%23FFFFFF&txtcolor=%23000000&ts=8&preserve_ratio=false&fo=ge&assad=1&id=CIVPART&transformation=lin&scale=Left&range=Custom&cosd=1980-02-01&coed=2012-10-01&line_color=%23660000&link_values=&mark_type=NONE&mw=4&line_style=Solid&lw=2&vintage_date=2012-11-02&revision_date=2012-11-02&mma=0&nd=&ost=&oet=&fml=a&fq=Monthly&fam=avg

While both Economic and Geopolitical Doom are both present in Copious Quantities, the current scariest long term possibilities come from progressive deterioration of ecosystems and climate change, which by Guy McPherson of Nature Bats Last’s analysis are not too far off and lead to the Uber Doom scenario of Near Term Human Extinction.

http://collapseofindustrialcivilization.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/homo-sapien.jpg

Trying to make sense of the ongoing Collapse and where it might lead requires more than just Graphs & Charts, it requires a narrative which makes sense, is plausible based on current known parameters and trends, and it has to be “accessible” to most people in language and imagery they can understand and relate to their own lives.  Most folks are not Economists, Climatologists, CPAs, Petroleum Engineers or Nuclear Physicists, and any of those are virtually never expert in any other field than their own.  So even experts need a cross-disciplinary narrative to get a good global picture of what is going on here.

Ugo Bardi recently brought up in a few of his blogs on Resource Limits how Science Fiction informed the late 19th, 20th and 21st Century narrative that most people accept as true, that Technological Progress will continue in perpetuity and that the Industrial Culture we have lived under for the last 200 years will not just continue, but become ever more complex and pervasive across the globe.  This type of Sci-Fi permeated its way right down to the Cartoons many of us Science Buffs watched as children.

http://www.dirtytoiletpaper.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/the_jetsons.jpeg

There are numerous other ancillary narratives that go along with this, for instance that Modern Medicine and Science can cure any disease, that Standards of Living will continue to improve for everyone as they join the Industrial Culture, and that Human beings are too small to affect the earth and its ecosystems.

http://islamicbanking.info/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/foreclosed-homes.jpgJust about all those narratives are demonstrably false now.  Country after country falls off the Economic Cliff, basically on a daily basis, and the smaller ones with little access to central credit creation find it ever more difficult to access the energy necessary to keep running an Industrial society.  Standards of Living aren’t improving anywhere, even here at the center of Credit Creation of the World Reserve Currency of the Dollar they are falling as more people each year fall out of the tabulated “workforce”, fewer well paying jobs are available, more McMansions go into Foreclosure and fewer miles are driven in the Happy Motoring lifestyle.  Ecosystems are collapsing everywhere, phytoplankton are down 50% over the last 30 years in world Oceans and species are going Extinct at a rate unprecedented in the Geological Record, even faster than the mass extinction even of the PETM, or Pleiocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which took out the Dinosaurs.

EBOLA GOES EXPONENTIAL

http://www.zerohedge.com/sites/default/files/images/user3303/imageroot/2014/08/20140806_ebola1.jpgAccess to advanced Medical care isn’t improving, Obama-care is a joke, anti-biotics are failing as drug resistant “Super-bugs” evolve, higher percentages of people are born with Autism and other neurological and physiological problems and food becomes ever less nutritious and ever more dangerous as GMO foods are introduced into the food supply.  Besides that, you have the specter of the Ebola Virus spreading Exponentially in Africa, a disease for which there is no cure and a 40% mortality rate at least these days that is what the WHO is reporting.

Denial is rampant through the society of Homo Industrialis, in large part because there isn’t a good narrative to compete with the Sci-Fi Narrative of never-ending Progress and a better life in the future.

http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51uZwKWaZML.jpgIn this Podcast, Ugo Bardi, Jim Laughter (author of Polar City Red) and I chat up ideas around one type of New Narrative, “Cli-Fi” or Climate Fiction.  Through Fiction, you can explore ideas and make comprehensible what is not generally comprehensible just by reading charts and tables, which in fact most folks never look at at all, they just take the word of “experts”, and every possible side in every scenario has some expert they can enlist to justify their POV, so the hoi polloi tends to believe the side with the viewpoint and outcome they WANT to believe is true.

Cli-Fi is only one of the possible Fictional Variants that can be explored here, Econ-Fi is another one since it still looks like Economic Collapse will lead Climate Collapse by some margin.  Energy-Fi is another one, since how we might adapt to a lower per capita energy world of the future has many possible narratives attached.

This podcast looks mainly at Cli-Fi scenarios, both Medium and Long Term. Hopefully at a future date we will explore some of the other ones as well.

In any event, break out the Microwave Popcorn, sit back and contemplate TEOTWAWKI with me, Ugo Bardi and Jim Laughter.

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RE

The Greatest Peak Oil Novel Ever Written

Off the keyboard of Ugo Bardi

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Published on Resource Crisis on September 12, 2014

Herman Melville never mentioned “peak whale oil” in his “Moby Dick”, published in 1851. But the novel can be understood taking into account the fact that the American whaling industry was going through its production peak just during those years. We may consider “Moby Dick” as the greatest peak oil novel ever written.

Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner

In 1970, the United States went through their production peak for crude oil. Production reached a maximum then started a decline that has been lasting up to a few years ago. The peak was an epochal event, it was the “great U-turn” of the American economy, which ushered in a new era of larger social inequality and diffuse poverty.

But the reaction to the peak itself was a deafening silence. Earlier on, the peak had been discussed and extensively debated since the time when, in 1956, the geologist Marion King Hubbert had predicted it. When it arrived, however, the peak was not noticed, not discussed, not understood. It was a non-event, if there ever was one, at least in terms of public perception. The same was true for other important peaks: the British coal peak in the 1920s, the oil peak of the Soviet Union in 1988 and more. These peaks brought great changes in the world and were related to the fall of great empires. But they were not perceived. The same thing is happening with the global oil peak (“peak oil”): the closer we get to it, the less interested the public becomes.

There is a reason why these epochal events leave no trace in most people’s perception. It is because we tend to see the world in narrative terms, not in terms of facts and data. We perceive only the things that generate an emotional reaction on us and in order to generate this reaction there must be a story, a narration. We could say that all narrative is about a quest for something; it is about succeeding against difficulties, it is about the transformations that occur because of dramatic events. It is this transformation that makes our mind resonate with the events described. We react to events because we perceive a narration, not because we read numbers written in a table. Think the other major problem of our times, climate change, carries a tremendous narrative potential; it is not just that it may bring dramatic events but because we feel something for our planet. We perceive the fact that we risk to destroy the earth’s ecosystem and we feel something about it: it the narration of a dramatic event. It is for this reason that “climate fiction” (“clifi“) is so much discussed today.

But how about “peak fiction”? Peak oil (or any production peak) is just a point on a smooth curve that started at zero and will unavoidably go to zero in the future. It may decline faster than it grew (the “Seneca effect“) but it remains a smooth curve. And there is not so much drama involved: we already know (or should know) that, one day or another, we’ll run out of all those things we consume and which cannot be replaced. So, what can we learn from something unavoidable? It is the same as dying of old age. We know it has to happen, someday, but dying of old age is not what novels are written about. Think of the “Iliad” if it were to tell us that Hector died in peace in his bed. Think of Tolkien’s trilogy if it were to tell us that Frodo sold the ring in exchange for a retirement plan.

So, in narrative terms, we must see the peak indirectly, through its consequences and the story that these consequences tell. Think of “Moby Dick”; Herman Melville’s novel, published in 1851. In it, you won’t find any mention of the “whale oil peak.” And yet, there was such a peak (as shown in the image) just during those years. Whales were efficiently exterminated to the point that their numbers started diminishing and, with them, also the production of whale oil. Eventually, the whale oil industry collapsed as a result of its own efficiency. The fact that whales were disappearing was not perceived by the whalers of the time and there is no evidence that they understood – or even imagined – the concept of “peak whaling”. But the melancholy that pervades “Moby Dick” and its basic theme of an unattainable quest shows that Melville perceived that there was something deeply wrong with the whaling industry of the time.

The symbolism contained in “Moby Dick” has been described many times. Captain Ahab’s ship, the “Pequod,” has been correctly interpreted as “America” (or, more exactly, the United States) and the desperate quest for the white whale as a symbol of the desperate human quest for something unattainable. The symbolism of so long ago remains valid today if we replace “whale oil” with “crude oil.” We would want oil to last forever; but that is as unattainable for us, just as killing the white whale was for Captain Ahab. And, just as the Pequod and its crew destroy themselves in their impossible chase, so it may happen to the ship which is America today, destroying itself in the desperate task of squeezing the last drops of oil from the earth’s crust.

Maybe, one day, someone will write a novel which will reflect our plea for crude oil so perfectly – although indirectly –  as “Moby Dick” did for whale oil in its times. If there will ever be such a novel, it will tell how we ended up in the terrible situation we find ourselves in, today. But it will never mention “peak oil” and not even crude oil as a source of energy; just as Melville never says in his novel what whale oil was used for.

h/t “James B

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