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.

Friday, June 7, 2013


The old fellow has troubles in the bathroom, and that's why he goes to a trusted physician.  One exam later, the bad news is delivered:  The prostate is enlarged, and according to hard data and the intimate touch of wise fingers, the gland is very likely cancerous.  A great deal can't be known about any single cancer.  Why there and why now, and what does the future hold?  But the total removal of the offending tissue is probably the safest course, and sooner would be be better than too late.

The patient is stunned and angry and of course doubtful...but where most every other American male has to settle for one or maybe two medical opinions, our man has the means to seek multiple experts.

Over the course of the next month, George visits thirty-three doctors.

Persistence pays.  The thirty-third expert stares at the same basic data, but he sees a very different picture:  This is a unique cancer, and though it looks bad to most professional eyes, his gaze is superior.  The tumor is old and slow-growing and it will probably lead to more embarrassment, but it won't ever reach the bones, and every other nightmare scenario is unlikely.

Doing nothing is the best course, one voice says.

Encouraged, George does his usual Sunday work.  He sits and he talks, giving opinions about many current subjects, including the April heat wave that leads the pundits to the topic of Climate Change.

The climate is always changing, says the man dying of cancer.  There is no reason for worry, much less panic, and with a smug grin, he promises the world that it will cold again, come winter.

Monday morning, there's blood in his urine.

That next week is heroic--the stuff of legend.  Thirty-four physicians are visited by one man.  He enters their offices wearing a tuxedo.  (This is his normal, around-the-house tuxedo, with cargo pants pockets and comfortable sneakers.)  Thirty-four times, he disrobes and undergoes frank exams that yield volumes of data, engaging the interest of specialists and experts as well as one doctor who has a significant drug habit.  The druggy is the only encouraging voice.  But like any committed addict, he hides his afflictions well, sounding rational and confident when he claims that George will live to be one hundred and ten.

Bolstered by that single opinion, George writes a long essay about how the world warmed until 1998, and since then, temperatures have remained flat, flat, flat.

Then on Sunday, the pundits sit before cameras, chatting amiably about the big story in Washington.  A young phenom for the Nationals is hitting .433 for April.  Several colleagues claim that the young man will surely break .400 for the year, but George knows baseball.  Hell, he's written books on the subject.  April is just one month, and he suspects that more at-bats and major league pitching will bring that average down, down, down.

That night, our hero can't urinate to save his life.

Last week's diagnostic parade was amazing, but that doesn't compare to the next forty-eight hours.  A hospital suite is given to George.  Another thirty-three doctors are ushered through the doors, and for a long while, the prognosis is grim.  But the last man-in-white is a blessing.  With a wide smile, he tells the patient that nothing is wrong.  Nothing at all.  Every other professional is mistaken, but not him.  George is healthy.  George has a little infection, or maybe a large infection.  But it will pass.

Naked and a little cold, George asks, "Are you certain?"

The last doctor scoffs and shoves several fingers back up into the patient's rectum.  Which is the fifth or sixth time this has happened during the exam, by the way.

"You feel fine to me," he says.

"I wish I could believe you," George admits.

Which is when the doctor calmly shoves his other hand up his own ass, and with a cackle and wild hoot, he says, "Mine is as swollen as yours, and I feel great, great, great!"

Three experts disagree with ninety-seven of their peers.

One of them is brilliant and creative and just possibly right.

Another is impaired in some fundamental way and quite useless.

And very likely, one man among one hundred is always going to be clinically, magnificently insane.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Being Right

Decades ago, I had this friend.

More of an acquaintance, really.  We knew each other from before, from Nebraska, and for various reasons we became neighbors in a foreign land--Texas.  He was a very pleasant fellow, hospitable and talkative.  Certain subjects were safe to discuss.  Football.  Childhood reminiscences.  History and science and war.  He worked in the growing high-tech sector.  I wanted to be a writer.  My neighbor didn't have any great interest in reading that stuff.  Fat historical novels and desiccated technical manuals were his burning pleasures.  But he asked questions and took an interest in my answers.  In very different ways, we were two smart young men, and for several months, he filled the role of being my best friend.

The relationship always had rules and limitations, and I walked into his apartment knowing what was expected.

Conservatives come in different breeds.  My neighbor was a visionary who dressed for the 1950s.  He was mannerly to everyone, though women were a different kind of creature, demanding patience and the occasionally patronizing tone.  He belonged to a church run by an ex-military man who put his prophetic beliefs into a series of taped speeches/sermons.  Sometimes I heard snatches of the monologue coming from the tape recorder in the back room.  The voice I remember was lucid and stern--exactly the kind of authority figure that would appeal to a young man with a PhD in one of the cookbook sciences.  My neighbor didn't hide his political stances.  (I usually like opinions, particularly those that expose my own.)  In his mind, Reagan was a blessing from God, and the United States had a singular role to lead the world, and Communism was the evil of all evils.  We often discussed politics, each making the other angry, but only to a point.  We were careful.  And to his credit, he remained genuinely tolerant of my doubts and pithy, marginally humorous taunting.

I might claim that he was working on me, trying to make me believe in his cause...but really, he had no blazing interest in converts.  Which was one reason why we remained friendly.  What the fellow was was a very smart brain, an engineering-style brain, and he lived in a universe full of simple pure rules leading to predictable consequences.

We were neighbors living inside different Creations.

I don't believe any natural law is simple, and I don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, much less in twenty years.

That is a critical admission, considering that this blog is aimed at science fiction and the fragile art of prediction.

There weren't many topics that made my neighbor spit-flinging angry.  But the Soviet Union never failed to redden his face while he beat at the armrests on his Lazy-Boy.

His disciplined mind believed that war with Communism was inevitable.  War would be violent but endurable, and God's people should prevail.  Should.  But he had little use for our NATO partners, and Jimmy Carter had left our military weak, and he dismissed my arguments that the numbers of tanks and warheads meant little in the application of brutal, uncontrollable force.  War was not a chemical reaction inside a clean flask, I argued.  And the men inside the Kremlin probably knew the limits of war better than certain bright boys sitting in their comfortable air-conditioned Dallas apartments.

It was the early 80s. and I didn't believe in intentional wars of annihilation.  Mistakenly launched ICBMs, yes.  Israel nuking Baghdad, perhaps.  But puffy old Brezhnev deciding to drive ten thousand tanks through the Fulda Gap?  No way.

And I wasn't sold on the deep strength of the Soviet Union.  In college, I toyed around with a future where good Americans escape from some despotic Alaska, seeking refuge in the Far East of Siberia, in a Russia that has collapsed into civil war.  The story never amounted to anything.  But just mentioning that prospect--giving the Soviets any hint of feebleness--made my buddy churn and quake.

A man has to find his pleasures where he can, and for me, his angst was reliable fun.

Of course there always were doubters about Russia's real strength and endurance.  I certainly wasn't alone.  But what drove my buddy bat-poop crazy was a very clear prediction that I made once or twice:  With all the bluster I could manage, I declared that the Soviet state would collapse, probably before the century was done.

Yeah, I'm a genius.

Or more likely, a certain book review had made a big impression on me.  Not the book itself, which cost too much.  But there was a long, comprehensive review, maybe in THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.  Maybe not.  Whatever its history, the book was written by someone with forgotten credentials, and that nameless author saw the Soviet Union as being perhaps the worst-run empire in history.  Where most overlords milked their conquests for gold and slaves, the Kremlin spent its own treasure to keep distant people fed and housed and under some kind of rough control.  Money wasn't flowing into Moscow's coffers, but instead it was flowing out, and what the West saw as a monolithic empire was instead a Potemkin house built from inertia and weak paper walls.

I don't remember exactly when I told my one-time friend about this wondrous vision.

It might not have been while I lived in Dallas, but instead when I returned for a visit.

By then, my former neighbor and I weren't close.  We didn't trade phone calls after I moved away, and we only saw each other at mutual friends' house.  But when I started pounding nails into the Soviet coffin, there was instant vivid tension.  He didn't want this news.  Didn't accept it and couldn't remain polite in the face of this insult.  This was an illuminating moment.  Let's say that you have an enemy--a great treacherous monster that gnaws at your soul--and one day someone tells you that the monster has cancer.  The monster is going to be dead in a short while.  Why would you not want to embrace this verdict?  How can every drop of blood in your body rebel against what on the surface looks like very good news?

Something instructive was at work, revealing an essential part of the human animal.

What we believe is far more important than what is.

I haven't seen the fellow for years, by the way.  Although I'll ask around for news and rumors from those who might know something.

I hear he's the same person, basically.

But that's what most of us are.  We don't change easily and never willingly.

Yes, I lack facts.  But that doesn't stop me from imagining my one-time friend staring at China and Islam, finding all of the purpose that he needs from those two adversaries.

Myself?  I don't have much faith in the staying power of any empire.

Including our own.