Saturday, August 3, 2013


Everybody knows this guy.

He keeps himself fit, at least compared to most of the population.  He plays basketball at the Y.  Or swims laps.  Or his bike doesn't just stand in the garage, making rust.  He doesn't eat too badly either, and he doesn't smoke, and if he sits all day at work, that's the same for a lot of us.  If there are any historians in the far future, they might name this the Age of Barnacles, judging by how we pass through our days, immobile, straining our nourishment from the currents.

My point is that when you ask the guy how he's doing, he can honestly say, "I'm feeling great."

But three factors are stacked our protagonist.

Extra weight gathers in his chest.

Studies have identified this problem.  Males more than females tend to collect their fat up high in the body, near the heart, which is aids in bringing on the cardiac troubles that prey on boys in general, and this boy in particular.

He is an angry man.

An angry man who smiles, sure.  But listen to the words, watch the face.  A lot of people disappoint him.  His neighbors are difficult, likewise certain family members.  He can lecture at length about how friends have made bad choices and have bad children, while his kids are wonders, testaments to his success as a father and chief Barnacle.  But put him in the wrong mood and those rounded cheeks color, and the voice sharpens, and the air needs to be stabbed for emphasis.  Anger is a recognized problem for the human body.  Chronic readers of medical studies, like me, have come across these conclusions time after time.

And worst of all, he is an optimist.

Our guy has a talent for finding personal hope, for building reasons why everything will work out for the best for him.  Divide populations into two broad groups.  Optimists and Pessimists.  The power of positive thinking has always been one of those intuitively sensible ideas.  But according to the data, people who expect the worst, as a group, have better life-outcomes than people who earnestly believe that they are doing fine and destined for more the same.

Optimism is the worst health hazard for human beings.

I have a rare lust for finding grim possibilities waiting in our future.  Perhaps it's fair to say that I have a genius for disaster scenarios.  Since I was thirteen, I've been anticipating nukes.  I've been mentally open to latent plagues and bright days ending with comet impacts.  Technological fixes populate other writers' works, but not so much mine.  I don't believe in conventional faster-than-light travel--not for our species, at least.  So we aren't going to fly out of here anytime soon.  I have some small faith that Google or the Chinese will build the mind that carries humanity to its best years, but I won't put my own money on the bet.  And I can easily imagine aliens arriving to inspire or conquer us.  (A magically advanced biosphere, even moving at sub-light speed, would have no trouble eating our world whole.)  But believing in the concept is something else entirely.  We've been here for billions of years, us and our watery ancestors have, and it seems unlikely that the gods would show at the last moment or two.

What is real and immediate is global warming.  Oil is going to get more expensive, even if it doesn't run low tomorrow.  (Unless the Persian Gulf turns to fire, which might happen tomorrow.  Really, should anyone be surprised to see a general war break out?)  The planet's food stocks are measured by the days, not by the months.  And of late, after years of worrying about my little bit of money, I've developed an appreciation for the fragility of the global economic system.

Good things are happening all around us, and of course blessings are possible.  Options and solutions will be found and given force, and I'll be happily surprised and grateful.  Even my darkest moods find hope in the corners, survivors endowed with genius, or more importantly, genius-free luck.  But like the man with a heavy chest and a lot of enemies, being endowed with a strong dose of pessimism gives me an advantage over popular experts and optimistic SF colleagues.

Optimism is a weakness of spirit.

Everybody tells stories.  But genuinely compelling stories have adversity.  Great stories involve real people wrapped around richly informed pessimism, and if that guy with the fat chest and deep anger would see the dangers looming, he would stand a chance of getting in charge of his own story, which should be the first goal for all of us.