Earth maintained an important garrison on Asteroid Y-3. Now suddenly it was imperiled with a biological impossibility—men becoming plants!
“WELL, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Henry Harris said gently, “just why do you think you’re a plant?”
As he spoke, Harris glanced down again at the card on his desk. It was from the Base Commander himself, made out in Cox’s heavy scrawl: Doc, this is the lad I told you about. Talk to him and try to find out how he got this delusion. He’s from the new Garrison, the new check-station on Asteroid Y-3, and we don’t want anything to go wrong there. Especially a silly damn thing like this!
Harris pushed the card aside and stared back up at the youth across the desk from him. The young man seemed ill at ease and appeared to be avoiding answering the question Harris had put to him. Harris frowned. Westerburg was a good-looking chap, actually handsome in his Patrol uniform, a shock of blond hair over one eye. He was tall, almost six feet, a fine healthy lad, just two years out of Training, according to the card. Born in Detroit. Had measles when he was nine. Interested in jet engines, tennis, and girls. Twenty-six years old.
“Well, Corporal Westerburg,” Doctor Harris said again. “Why do you think you’re a plant?”
The Corporal looked up shyly. He cleared his throat. “Sir, I am a plant, I don’t just think so. I’ve been a plant for several days, now.”
“I see.” The Doctor nodded. “You mean that you weren’t always a plant?”
“No, sir. I just became a plant recently.”
“And what were you before you became a plant?”
“Well, sir, I was just like the rest of you.”
I had to move it from its old spot on the bookcase because it was getting too big. We also had no more room for books. For reference, at the last tree house update two months ago our little tree was 62 cm, and it’s now 71 cm, plus its foliage is quite a lot wider and the trunk is turning into a real trunk. I think we’re going to need a bigger pot.
Yesterday I got a *ping*ping* on my WhatsApp from my friend’s daughter Sarah. The conversation as it transpired went like this:
Sarah: Hey Kate, it’s Sarah, I made mittens today
and I’d like to show them to you[Insert slightly blurry video of her modeling her very finely knit mittens, which caused feelings of shock and admiration and a little bit of jealously to arise within. Yes indeed, I was envious of a ten-year-old.]
Me: WOW!!! I’m so impressed! Mittens are my next project, I made some once but without fingers like those. Was it hard?
Sarah: No not at all, it took me a day to make both
Me: What? Are you joking?? You’re so fast!! [Please note that I was not dispensing patronizing encouragement to a young knitter. I really was in awe of her talents.]
Sarah: No it’s super easy
Me: Are they a kid’s size? [Note pique of interest on the part of time-crunched adult knitter.]
Sarah: No, my mom can wear them
Me: Because I’m going to make mittens for my mother in law and sister in law but I haven’t picked out the pattern yet
Do you have the instructions?
Sarah: Yes but I can teach you
Me: That would be cool! [In my head: thank god, maybe I really will get all my Christmas presents done in time this year.]
maybe next week
Me: Dunno. I’m going to be at the garden tomorrow. But you’re at school. [Damn elementary school!]
Sarah: Ah too bad. But at 4 maybe I could come if you’re still there
Me: Ok let’s do that, next week. Mas and I are there every Thursday so that would work
Sarah: Ok at 4
I’ll be there
Me: Great, I’ll stick around for you to get there. But talk to your mom to coordinate. [I’d just realized that Sarah needs to ask permission for stuff like going somewhere to hang out after school.]
So this Thursday? Or next week?
Sarah: Next week
and Mom said ok
Me: Ok cool it’s a date 🙂
Sarah: Ok see you next week
Janis and I are organizing a group project on climate change (I could be more precise, but it’s not the point of this post) for the first-year master students at CCC, and we picked Mike Davis’s “Who Will Build the Ark” (New Left Review) as a first assigned text. An aside: when searching for the text online just now so I could link it — you need a subscription to the NLR to read it on their site — I came across the blog of an urban planner who posted it on his blog with the intro “New Left Review article that nobody has the time to read right now (even me). But I’m posting it anyway.” I don’t even know how to respond to that.
Anyway, I did read it, as did Janis, and we thought it would be a good text for everyone to read for discussion, not because it contains any astonishing facts about climate change (besides, it was published in 2010 so many of the statistics noted have changed) but rather because of the sentiments Davis expresses regarding being “realistic” and being “optimistic”:
[T]his essay is organized as a debate with myself, a mental tournament between analytic despair and utopian possibility that is personally, and probably objectively, irresolvable. …
In the first section, ‘Pessimism of the Intellect’, I adduce arguments for believing that we have already lost the first, epochal stage of the battle against global warming. …
The second part of the essay, ‘Optimism of the Imagination’, is my self-rebuttal. I appeal to the paradox that the single most important cause of global warming—the urbanization of humanity—is also potentially the principal solution to the problem of human survival in the later twenty-first century. Left to the dismal politics of the present, of course, cities of poverty will almost certainly become the coffins of hope; but all the more reason that we must start thinking like Noah. Since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias.
I really needed to read this essay when I did (last week). Davis isn’t optimistic per se, but our reason for choosing this essay to kick off the project can be summed up in its last sentence:
If this sounds like a sentimental call to the barricades, an echo from the classrooms, streets and studios of forty years ago, then so be it; because on the basis of the evidence before us, taking a ‘realist’ view of the human prospect, like seeing Medusa’s head, would simply turn us into stone.
Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live under continual threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed, destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job that fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors, real or anticipated—by an escape into exotic dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another one of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In the one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.
The fantasy to be discovered in science fiction films does both jobs. These films reflect world-wide anxieties, and they serve to allay them. They inculcate a strange apathy concerning the processes of radiation, contamination, and destruction that I for one find haunting and depressing. The naïve level of the films neatly tempers the sense of otherness, of alien-ness, with the grossly familiar. In particular, the dialogue of most science fiction films, which is generally of a monumental but often touching banality, makes them wonderfully, unintentionally funny. Lines like: “Come quickly, there’s a monster in my bathtub”; “We must do something about this”; “Wait, Professor. There’s someone on the telephone”; “But that’s incredible”; and the old American stand-by (accompanied by brow-wiping), “I hope it works!”—are hilarious in the context of picturesque and deafening holocaust. Yet the films also contain something which is painful and in deadly earnest.
Science fiction films are one of the most accomplished of the popular art forms, and can give a great deal of pleasure to sophisticated film addicts. Part of the pleasure, indeed, comes from the sense in which these movies are in complicity with the abhorrent. It is no more, perhaps, than the way all art draws its audience into a circle of complicity with the thing represented. But in science fiction films we have to do with things which are (quite literally) unthinkable. Here, “thinking about the unthinkable”—not in the way of Herman Kahn, as a subject for calculation, but as a subject for fantasy—becomes, however inadvertently, itself a somewhat questionable act from a moral point of view. The films perpetuate clichés about identity, volition, power, knowledge, happiness, social consensus, guilt, responsibility which are, to say the least, not serviceable in our present extremity. But collective nightmares cannot be banished by demonstrating that they are, intellectually and morally, fallacious. This nightmare—the one reflected in various registers in the science fiction films—is too close to our reality.