“In the year 2018, nations have bankrupted and disappeared, replaced by corporations.”
“In the year 2018, nations have bankrupted and disappeared, replaced by corporations.”
In the morning I took my visiting parents just past the limits of the northwest suburbs for a nature walk. The place we went is a wildlife refuge carved from old ranches to protect two endangered species of songbirds who rely on this very specific habitat threatened by encroaching subdivisions. The drive took about forty-five minutes as we passed through a series of landscapes—urban freeway, frontage road, suburban chain sprawl, county road, and finally an old ranch road that followed the course of a gorgeous creek flowing clear and full over denuded limestone. A sanctuary of ecological recovery, where even the invasive ash juniper trees whose noxious spores fill the winter skies were finally being cleared out.
We walked a trail that followed a beautiful stream lined with cottonwoods and live oaks and dotted with the long-haired muelys we have growing on our roof but which I had never seen in their native riparian habitat. My mother, who lives in the woods up north, is more interested in mushrooms than people, and does not own a mobile phone, found a spot that I would have walked right past where there was a small redbud tree with the first fresh fuchsia blooms of spring. She sat down on a rock and watched the different butterflies come and visit the tree, slowing the walk into a long stillness that required no spoken language to communally summon.
I looked at my phone as I was taking pictures and noticed I had no signal, after hours of nonstop breaking news bulletins while the regime drama of the day unfolded. And I realized the butterflies had momentarily replaced the phone alerts, and the only thing streaming was the burbling creek. Some kind of pointer in how to secure liberated territory in the age of atemporality.
I remember a guide once told me that beaver only became nocturnal after the arrival of European hunters. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that there are a lot of wild animals living in the heart of the city that only come out while most of us are sleeping.
We live behind a row of light factories that shield a stretch of riverfront woods from human attention, a slice of ephemeral urban habitat. At night we hear the mysterious hoots of the big barred owls that live back in there, the howls of the coyotes, the crazy skronks of the big herons. In the mornings when I walk the dogs after sunup, we see the fresh tracks in the sand of all the critters that have just passed through, and sometimes we see who made those tracks.
The human space on the other side of the hurricane fences that hem in the factories is just as wild, and one of the things you learn over time is that a lot of those animals living in the woods head out into the city to hunt while we are sleeping. Scientists have tracked the coyotes who have colonized Chicago, and I have seen their Texas cousins at the edge of downtown Austin, trotting across the railroad tracks and down alleys. They say that urban raccoons are rapidly evolving to be more intelligent than their country cousins, as they solve increasingly challenging puzzles we make for them, like how to use your proto-hands to pry open a big plastic trash bin secured with bungee cords. If you spend enough time walking back in the woods behind the factories, you start to see the little portals the wild animals travel through to leave the woods and enter our zone of food—the bent-back corners of chain link, the drainage pipes, the spaces under the gates designed only to lock out people and trucks.
The other morning when I walked out onto the street at 4 a.m. to exercise the dogs before our early flight, there was a big semi parked along the lane, engine idling, waiting for the door factory to open for deliveries. The trucker was in there, sleeping, right by the gate where the foxes pass in and out of urban space, squeezing under the gate and through the bamboo curtain along the old roadbed to their dens back in the bramble around the drainage pipe. Sometimes we see their bushy tails in our headlights when we come home from an evening out. I wonder what they hunt in the spaces between the warehouses, after we go to bed.
That morning we didn’t see any foxes, just a free dog trotting under the streetlamps in front of the electric church. A yellow retriever mix, a color that registered luminescent in the weird municipal light. My dogs didn’t see it it, and it didn’t seem to see us, which was fine by me under the circumstances.
We often see strays in the woods along the river, usually from afar, sometimes awfully close. They always seem to avoid contact, and move like apparitions—through a gap in the foliage, walking along the distant bank, crossing the shallows. Only occasionally will one approach you, and when you “rescue” a dog like that and take it to the adoption shelter, you wonder if you have deprived it of a liberty it enjoyed.
Our street is crazy beautiful at night, where nature meets noir. That morning the sky was clear, with a crescent moon and Venus nearby in the western sky. The street is a vestigial remnant, once the road to the ferry at the edge of town. It’s wide and straight, three long blocks, dimly lit, with beat-up metal prefabs on one side and a few houses tucked into the woods on the other. When I looked back to make sure yellow dog was not following us home, it was sitting right in the middle of the road, perfectly still, looking right at me.
Just then a raptor flew from one of the lampposts through the beam of the streetlamp, swooping for something in a neighbor’s yard. You could just make out the red of the hawk’s tail feathers for a moment before it went back into shadow. I wonder if the avian hunters have come to enjoy the light pollution of the city, the way it keeps the empty lots glowing like a dark room where someone has left the TV on.
After I put my dogs back in I took one of the leads and stepped back out to see if the dog was still there, but it was gone.
The other day I found a military helicopter hovering over my house. We live in the flightpath—the ancient avian flightpath and VFR aid of the Lower Colorado River, and the approach to the airport—so passing helicopters are a daily experience. But you could hear how close this one was, and you could hear the distinct chop, that heavy and slow Nam vintage sound of a Bell Huey. Apocalypse Now. When I stepped out of the old trailer I use as my front yard office, there it was, close enough that if you were on the roof you could probably jump and grab the rails. And as soon as I got my phone out to film it, it peeled off as if caught snooping.
We see all sorts of curious things in the sky over here. An abundance of raptors live in the woods between the highway and the river. This time of year, when the trees are still naked, the hawks lord over the forest floor and the big barred owls come out at dusk. In the morning the osprey cruise over the river, dive-bombing the fat fish when they come up close to the surface. Sometimes you will see a northern caracara, the rugged crested eagle of the Mexican flag, sitting on the rocky beach gnawing on fresh kill. The belted kingfishers buzz around in pairs, their rattling calls like machine reels. If you walk back around the old wetland remnant behind the dairy plant, chances are one of the big herons will lift up into the foggy air before you like the last pterodactyl.
Under skies like this, it’s easy to become both a birder and a planespotter. If you pay attention, you start to notice weird stuff passing over. I saw a Mitsubishi Zero once, Tora Tora Tora all the way, the first of many warbirds, usually old fighters flown by the outfit that used to call itself the Confederate Air Force, and sometimes a big bomber. Once in a while the fighter jets will come screaming over at a low altitude, presumably trainers from one of the USAF bases in San Antonio. The Austin airport used to be an Air Force base, with B-52s pointed at our southern border. Wolverines!
I started using one of those flight tracker apps on my phone to augment the silhouettes I see in the sky, pulling up flight plans and call sign info. They don’t show military aircraft, but they show everything else, and I am sure at some point I will have a Trevor Paglen-worthy revelation of some dark traffic beyond the corporate jets headed out to the oil patch and the mysterious windowless cargo planes lumbering off to faraway shores. Last fall I saw an eastbound jumbo jet at around 20,000 feet with an escort of five fighters in tight formation. The app didn’t show the 747 or whatever it was, but said the fighters were registered to NASA. I watched their avatar on the screen, supposedly en route to Ellington base in Houston, but then they headed out over the Gulf and suddenly disappeared. The truth is out there.
Seeing signs of the military-industrial power of the federal state used to be a curiosity more than a threat. Little moments of wonder, manifestations of the technothriller fantastic in the mundane fabric of everyday life. They feel different now, under the dark mien of the new jefe and his scowling barons. When I posted the video of the chopper over my house a friend joked that I must have provoked such attention with my writing. I should be so lucky, I said, knowing that the likely explanation was the curious design of our house, a buried modernist bungalow camouflaged by a shaggy green roof, and the natural proclivity of all pilots to gawk at interesting sights. But there’s no question that the everyday projections of federal force are now infused with fresh fear, because that’s how they want us to feel. Especially, it seems, how they want some of our neighbors to feel, here under the Six Flags.
The ICE raids started yesterday. Forty-four people rounded up here on the first day. At the bar last night, two friends who teach grade school told us about their terrified students sharing the viral news, wondering if they would go home to find their parents gone. We heard from people we know worried about how they might be affected, asking us how we might help. The newspaper says the raids are focused only on “criminal aliens,” but you know it is also about generating fear, about actively destabilizing community. You know it’s about retribution and discipline, in a “sanctuary city” whose leaders have the temerity to express defiance. And when you see the armed representatives of the federal state now, rolling out into the streets, you realize that Texas and Yemen are not so far apart.
I went to a protest last night. I think the last time I participated in a group protest was when I was a freshman in college, long enough ago that the guy who was president had been elected on the sucker-baiting slogan “make America great again,” and the thing we were protesting about was our fear we would die in a nuclear war. I guess it always comes back around—this time, with all the indicia of actual fascism thrown in for good measure.
Those 80s protests were fun. We gathered on the quad and pretended to die. I started dating one of the other members of the nuclear freeze club, an art major, and we would go around New Orleans spray-painting nuclear death shadows on the sidewalks, as if anyone would notice. We had other events focused on the wars in Central America, and I started writing about the events for the school paper and through that got to interview some amazing people, including Hunter S. Thompson, whose gonzo was profoundly missed last year.
This protest was different, though it made me instantly remember how good mass protest can feel. There were thousands of people. The mayor was there, most of the City Council members, and one of our local Congressmen, the one who holds LBJ’s old seat. I saw leaders of the business community I know from my work as a lawyer, old neighbors, young radicals, one of the clerks from my old company’s accounting department. And every goddamned one of those old Austin hippies that I was sure were an endangered species. I guess the specter of dictatorship is a great way to get us all off the couch and on our feet.
The march across the river and into downtown had amazing energy. Most the people who chanced upon the crowd joined in, except when we passed the Hooters, which (of course) appears to be a haven for trumpism, as evidenced by the beefy young Tex-bros standing out front trying to look scary tough but clearly flummoxed by the size and diversity of the crowd. The threat of violence was only evident if you went to the back of the march and found the police escort of unmarked, dark-windowed vehicles loaded with cops ready to maintain order if things got out of hand.
I watched the formal part of the inauguration, including that insanely dystopian speech, with the Harkonnen figure of Sheldon Adelson in his sponsored seat on the dais and the weird moment where all those uniformed officers suddenly appeared behind the new President as he spoke. But I didn’t stick around for the parade—I went for a run, and then to a neighborhood meeting. I already saw one dystopian inaugural parade, and it scared the shit out of me, profoundly changing how I perceived my own country.
I was there when Bill Clinton was sworn in, as a young Senate staffer, back at the upbeat beginning of the Long Boom that turned out not to be so long after all, when the political parties really did seem to bleed into each other at the edges. But it was when I went back in January 2001 that I could start to smell the failures of our democracy that got us to today—some of which may be attributable to the diminishing political diversity that followed the “End of History.”
I got to go to the 2001 inaugural because I was a lawyer, and it was lawyers who made Bush 43 president. I remember going to work the day after that ballot, a gray morning full of the heavy feeling of there being an election and no one knew who won. W and his people were holed up in the hotel next door to our office, and from my window I could see their bulletproof limos idling in the drizzle. That day and the interregnum that followed pulled back the curtain to reveal how much mythology and falsehood lights the theater of our democracy. But you wouldn’t have known it from the party the lawyers threw on Pennsylvania Avenue that January 20, the kind of party prosperous lawyers throw to celebrate their victories as advocates without much regard to who the client is, or the cause.
I am pretty sure we would not be where we are today if it had not been for that election that failed to produce a winner. The next inaugural was transformatively frightening, seeing the open public Washington where I had spent most of my twenties as a young public servant turned into a militarized zone. All of the major public buildings were barricaded, the East Lawn of the Capitol building torn open like some Mordor hole, the great oaks of the People uprooted to make room for the new underground Congressional bomb shelter masquerading as a Visitors Center. There were machine guns everywhere, snipers and spotters in black tacticals on every rooftop, radiation detectors at every checkpoint, and the protesters mostly got rounded up, leaving their signs to be trampled on the sidewalks. I saw Dick Cheney looking every bit the dark cyborg lord of the Deep State as he peered out through the window of his shiny black limo at the people screaming their hate. Maybe you would say it was all Osama’s fault, but that day I saw the institutional face of our military-industrial complex coupled with the mass American Id. It was scary, it never really went away, and now it has pure rampaging Id at its head.
This week Barnes & Noble published an excerpt from my forthcoming novel Tropic of Kansas that was described as “spookily prescient,” but for me it was really just a slight extrapolation from the Washington I saw on that cold day in 2005—my effort to use literary naturalism in speculative futurism, trying to learn from the living masters of this curious field. Now I’m starting to see other things out there that I had thought too implausible when I put them in the world of the book, like the marriage of capital and military force. I am still digesting this astonishing passage in the Maureen Dowd profile of Palantir founder Peter Thiel, where Thiel shows her a picture on his phone of him, the the President-elect, and Erik Prince of Blackwater, together at a celebratory costume party at the home of one of the other plutocratic mega-donors. It’s not hard to imagine them conspiring to realize a Randian fever dream corporate state, complete with privatized military and intelligence forces. Maybe Rollerball nailed it after all, with its corporate dictatorship of 2018.
To paraphrase the sensei, dystopia is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Ask the people out there in the back 40 of Trumplandia, who voted the way they did because they know they got their unfair share of it.
One of the main reasons I wrote this book was to search for what kinds of better futures might lie on the other side of our dystopias. I don’t know that I figured that out, though I hopefully wrote an entertaining story that helps promote the idea of inventing sunnier tomorrows. But art as protest is no substitute for actual protest, and last night’s march was the real deal, an authentic expression of community and solidarity among an incredibly diverse group of people. Today’s will be even more so, actualizing a future that we know is coming. There may be some dark struggles ahead, ones that will make the grim Zeitgeist of the GWOT seem tame by comparison, but I am pretty sure the people I saw out there last night, and all their kin in other cities, have the stuff to win the day. It shouldn’t be that hard to cross the Mason-Dixon lines of the mind incubated by the algorithms of advertisers, and reach across the chasms that divide this weekend in search of some new permutation of union.
In the movie version we were taught to expect, things would have turned out differently.
You could see that version playing out right after the event, in the pictures that emerged of special ops soldiers gone neo-cowboy, Grizzly Adams beards on horseback in the cold desert, outfitted by REI and action movie propmasters, hunting down medieval necromancers in their Blofeldian mountain hideouts—a postmodern western of virtuous retaliation.
But the movie lost its final reel when the bad guy escaped capture at the big showdown. The ending never resolved, and even when that thread closed a decade later, it was enabled by illusion, and too late to close the wounds.
This was at the same time, you may recall, that the hypercapitalist abundance of the Long Boom that had been inflating everyone’s retirement accounts for the preceding decade, disguising the workplace as playpen, was revealed as a gigantic scam procured largely through fraud.
In the movie version we would not have used our injury as pretext to make a whiteboard war real in our naive neocon fantasy that we could defeat radical Islam by toppling one of the region’s strongest governments. In the movie version the dictator would not have eluded capture so long, and we would have found his cache of secret weapons.
In the movie version, when New Orleans flooded, we would not have abandoned the poor to fight it out. Heroes in uniform would have rescued them, instead of shooting them on the bridge as they too tried to escape.
(Do you remember at the time, when the news earnestly disseminated stories that people in New Orleans were slipping into cannibalism?)
In the movie version, I suppose the bankers might have been even more criminal than they were in real life, but we would not have had to spend the better part of a decade propping up a fragile simulation of prosperity with zero interest monetary policy designed to make entropy look like growth.
In the movie version, the principal force of “change” would not be a hate-spewing narcissist freak allowed to use the mass mind manipulator of mainstream media to stoke the darkest embers of our primitive tribal natures.
On days like today I read the news and feel like we let Osama win, by breaking the master narrative and failing to heed “the better angels of our nature.”
There’s a more hopeful future out there, one we can imagine, but it won’t manifest without us doing a better job of mapping it out. It’s a future based on diversity, equality, a conception of prosperity that embraces the limits of the land and sky that sustain us, and a freedom that finds its strength in the collective genius of many individuals rather than silverback cults of individual power acquired through competition and consumption.
The end of the Cold War extinguished the utopian visions that fueled most of the progress of the post-Enlightenment West, and 9/11 shifted the American movie into torture porn mode—the Cheneyite narrative that we must become evil ourselves in order to combat dark forces and protect our “homeland.” Fifteen years later, we can’t seem to navigate our way back to a more redemptive endpoint. Perhaps because we need to envision a new place to go—an aspirational destination, the kind of thing that our social theories and speculative fictions used to provide. Dystopia may be what sells, but it’s not a place I want to live. No one person has the answers—especially not a politician or another boss—but maybe the chorus of the networked multitude will soon write its own music.
We live at the end of the road in an industrial part of East Austin, but the road used to continue on, following the course of the Lower Colorado downriver to what used to be the bigger towns like Bastrop. While the old road is now an empty lot that abuts the woodland floodplain, it’s still right of way that’s used by telecom infrastructure, the line of poles marching off along the trail of the past. I read last year in Tung-Hui Hu‘s amazing book A Prehistory of the Cloud how something like 90 percent of the Internet traffic in the U.S. travels over fiber optic cable laid in old railroad right of way, and I’m sure there are plenty of other spots where data travels along the path of pioneer trails, many of which were Indian trails and before that animal trails. Google Fiber has been coming out here lately in their big cherry pickers, hanging new line on these poles, which they share with TimeWarner and probably AT&T and the local power company. The ethereal future is anchored in the deep memory of the land, and sometimes even makes inadvertent habitat for the wildlife it might otherwise displace.
The hawks that live in these woods love those telecom poles, and you find them up there most mornings from daybreak until the beginning of the work day. Their favorites are back in there past the door factory, where the right of way runs along the fenceline of the dairy plant. Between the plant and the woods are ten acres or so of empty fields, bulldozed thirty years ago for the industrial park but never developed. Dudes come in and mow those fields twice a year, keeping the baby mesquites and retama from taking over. Most of the year, there is just enough cover for small mammals to think they can probably make it through, but always patchy. And so the hawks watch, and wait, and feast, while the trucks and planes come and go in the near background of the human space on the other side of the fence. They never let a dude with dogs get too close, but close enough that you can usually make out the silhouette of what they may be holding in their talons—usually mouse, rat, or vole.
The pole in this picture is right by my front yard, visible from the door to the 1978 Airstream trailer that serves as my home office. So I often see whoever may be perched up there, and usually have ready access to my real camera, the one with better zoom than my phone. I have yet to succeed in getting my shot without causing the raptor to fly off after a second, but I’ll get there. It’s been raining all week, a freak occurrence for Central Texas in August, so I was hoping the downpour would better mask my simian stumbling. It did, but not enough.
The empty lot next to that pole sold last year, and the construction supply warehouse back in there just got listed for $11.6 million. Just west of here, Oracle is building a gigantic new campus. The economics are finally approaching the point where the numbers will work for a gigantic dairy plant to get relocated to make room for offices or apartments. Some of us work on protecting these little pockets of wild urban habitat, and we’ve had good success, but even if you keep the buildings back along the road you can’t really do anything to limit the human bustle—indeed, those of us who live back in here are the most permanent human presence, even if we try to make our own yards into better habitat. So some of the species will move on, like the barred owls that hang out in tall trees just below this pole, where the city drainage culverts empty out into an Anthropocene lagoon that nourishes the thirsty cottonwoods. Maybe we should see if Google and Oracle want to chip in for the conservation efforts.
Yesterday afternoon when I got up from my desk and the downpour had settled into a light rain, I heard a coyote howling back there in near-perfect sync with a police siren hurtling down the nearby highway. I guess that is as close as we are going to get to talking to each other, for now. But our Anthropocene future is going to require us to learn how to make better home for wild nature in the city. We could start by remembering that there is no such thing as an empty lot.
My schedule for Armadillocon, for those of you planning to attend in Austin this weekend:
Blurred Lines SF by Writers from the Mainstream
Fri 5:00 PM-6:00 PM Ballroom E
C. Brown, Catmull, W. Siros, Weisman*,
Panelists will discuss the phenomena of SF writing by mainstream writers. Does anything make it different? What can we learn from these writers?
Sat 1:00 PM-1:30 PM Southpark B
SF and the Environment
Sat 3:00 PM-4:00 PM Ballroom E
C. Brown*, Dimond, Latner, Reisman, Schwarz,
How is SFF affected the ways we define ourselves and our environment? How is SFF changing? How is our conversation about the environment changing? What books and movies on this topic are especially interesting?
Sat 9:00 PM-10:00 PM Ballroom F
C. Brown, McKay, Schwarz*, White, Young
Why do we love them? Which ones do we love, and which not so much?
[pic: The U.S. border where it walks into the Pacific, viewed from Tijuana.]
If I had never left Iowa, the state where I grew up, I might find all this talk of building border walls more persuasive. Iowa is a long way from Mexico. But I’ve lived in the borderzone longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, and spent a good bit of time crossing over. Since 9/11, I’ve seen the U.S.-Mexico border become one of the most fortified places on Earth. Six hundred miles of sophisticated new physical barriers have been constructed since 2006, in the places where the Border Patrol said they were needed, expanding on the barriers that have been going up since the Clinton years—like the fortification pictured above that comes up out of the Pacific between Tijuana and San Diego. Other sections are fortified by the “virtual fence” of sensors, drones, blimps, surveillance towers and armed patrols—much of it using technologies and methods developed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s easy to talk about border walls. I’ve written about them—here, here and here—arguing that their real purpose is not so much to actually keep people and contraband out as it is to persuade citizens far from the border that the legal fiction the wall renders tangible really exists.
It’s not as easy to look at border walls, especially if you don’t live within driving distance of one—or don’t want to confront the reality that diversity is the future no matter what barriers we may erect. But there are other ways to experience the reality of U.S. border fortifications that already exist.
Last year, for a conference in Monterrey, I conducted an experiment in looking at the border wall without ever getting up from my chair. Drawing inspiration from the work of the artist Jon Rafman and the Mexican photographer Alberto Rodríguez, I traversed the length of the border in Google Street View, on both sides, looking for holes in the wall. Here is some of what I found. Even better, try it yourself. Open Google Maps, find a spot along the border, launch Street View, and look for a way to cross. If you can find a hole, click on it, and see what happens.
Border wall gate at Brownsville, Texas
21st century border wall as minimalist land art, looking at Arizona from Sonora
Hole in the border wall, Matamoros
View through the border wall, Mexicali
Texas backyard: trampoline, border wall, nine eyes
FM 1419, Texas
Border wall gate, Arizona
Forager in the shadows by a crack in the border wall at Matamoros, Gateway bridge span in the background
DMZ of “Friendship Park,” San Diego Imperial Beach, looking at the border wall where it goes out into the Pacific
Spectral street dog in Tecate, “Pueblo Magico”
Under construction, Arizona
Nogales, pedestrian crossing
Arc lights over the border zone, suburban San Diego
Nogales, long view
Art museum with border wall, Texas
Memorials to a few of those who didn’t make it alive
Arizona DMZ, at the spot where this Border Patrol officer made the Google car turn around.