Friday, August 21, 2015

Unsolvable 5, Part 3

Unsolvable means just that.

Here stands a problem that refuses be fixed.

For example:  Let’s say you’re driving on a bright Tuesday morning, and furthermore, you’re obeying the laws of the road.  But while stopped at a traffic light, surrounded on three sides by other law-abiders, a dump truck behind you suffers a catastrophic brake failure.  And furthermore, the truck’s driver is 23, poorly trained and stubborn.  How can these fucking brakes not work?  He pumps and pumps, and then seeing the future with the clarity of a prophet, he honks his horn.  Which you hear.  Looking into your rearview mirror, disbelief dissolves into the same prophetic vision.  Cars sit on your left and right and straight ahead, and you have exactly two seconds to react.  Two seconds.  But where is the solution to this conundrum?

For my purpose, unsolvable means that the collision is inevitable.  You might live, you might die.  But if you’re lucky enough to survive, pain and disfigurement are pretty much mandatory.  This isn't to say that your future won’t be wonderful, after the surgeries and the profitable lawsuits and finding love with the young lady who pulled you out of the flaming hulk that was your Dodge Dart.  Who knows?  You might have gone into this catastrophe thinking about killing yourself, but the clarity brought by a year of rehab and reappraisals serves to deliver a happiness that you never knew before.  Yet that doesn’t change the essential inevitability.  The dump truck is not going to stop until your car and the five vehicles ahead of you are mashed into an accordion of steel and dying computers.

Climate change is a brakeless dumptruck.

Dogs and writers have their biases.   For this barking writer, the first clear experience with hotter temperatures happened in 1988.  That was the year James Hansen testified to Congress about the coming heat.  And that was the year I visited Alaska. That Federal province was enduring a terrific heatwave.  As it happened, I found myself next to some old-time locals trading stories about the changing climate.  By “old-time locals”, I mean people who came north in the 60s. These were public school teachers given lush deals to serve for twenty-five years or so before retiring relatively young and well-moneyed.  The day’s heat was a subject, sure.  But more important was their shared amazement with the recent winters.  What they experienced in the 1960s was memorably savage, while these recent bouts of anemic snow and ice were nothing.  And winter was an important subject just then.  Anchorage was interested in chasing the Winter Olympics, and nobody in this pack of white educated and relatively happy souls could promise that there would be a winter worth the skiing.

In the end, the Olympics went elsewhere.

And today, winters are so mild that Alaska has trouble pulling off a worthy Iditarod.  A point that escapes people shivering in the “outside”, as they call the Lower 48.



And drought.

Those are my linchpin visions of climate change.  The bias does tend to shift after I come across some alternate view of the hotter future.  Reading Hansen, I find myself more open to the idea of glacial collapse and rising seas.  I’m perfectly happy using sea rise as a backstory to my work.  “Dead Man’s Run”, for instance.  It’s not explicit, but a drowned Miami means refugees and the usual complications.  But being Nebraskan by birth and by outlook, I realize that regardless how wet Nebraska is today--and we are very, very wet now--the entire region is three months removed from catastrophe.  The rain stops, the temperature rises.  Then the native plants go dormant, and the corn, a tropical grass, dies on a shifting plain of dust.

As a genre and as a state-of-mind, science fiction has its strengths.  For instance, my colleagues and I have a stubborn capacity to defeat every kind of thought problem.  How will humans fly to the stars?  How do we make contact with alien minds?  How exactly do we build robots we can trust?  And how do we survive any one of a hundred apocalypses--some of them real but most dreamed up by writers with too much caffeine?

This is our job.  Nightmares are. But thought problems and cleverness only carry so much weight, particularly in a world full of history and inertia and faith and well-practiced incompetence.

Now return to our hero sitting inside his Dart, watching the dump truck bearing down on little him.

A less clever writer, perhaps working in the thriller genre, might see the obvious answer.  There’s no delay for disbelief.  Our driver takes a glance in the mirror and then instantly opens his door, deftly releasing the safety belt, leaping out of the car and vaulting over the next car with time enough to yank a pretty young woman out from her death-trap vehicle.

That’s the genius of thrillers.  Zero thought, all reaction.

And the very clever SF writer?  Well, obviously, someone invents a time machine and goes back to alter certain key events.  Or aliens intercede to save our Dart driver, because they need him for a special mission.  Or maybe every car waiting at the light is sentient, and working at machine speeds, each makes the logical decision to hit the gas, blowing through the stop light while the runaway truck rolls to a harmless stop.

Impossible technologies.

Intervention from the stars.

Noble machines rescuing humans from their inevitable messes.

You can always spot the unsolvable problems.  They’re the ones where we are stuck sitting at the steering wheel, watching events unfold around us, and the only answers we have involve magical thinking.


I’m a lousy blogger.  I admit this.  My output is sporadic and too occasional, my tone falling short of the frothy dash-it-off-today attitudes.  But I do try to make plans and hold to deadlines, and for the time being, Unsolvable 5 feels finished.  I won’t blog anymore about heat or drought or ocean rise.  At least not until some new thought catches my attentions.

But I want to warn both of my readers that Unsolvable 5 means that I have four other Unsolvables cued up, each worse than climate change.

By my estimations, of course.

And for the sake of my two or ten readers, I promise to move faster, spelling out each of the next four nightmares before moving on to the gristly meat of each.

All the best.

To all of us.



(In a different universe, "The Principles" would have won the Sidewise Award, and Alvaro Zinos-Amaro would have delivered this thank you note on my behalf. In this universe, however, my story didn't win, and there was never going to be any little ceremony at the Libertarian Worldcon. And as I should point out, there is a third universe where people don't care so much about the verdict of a jury or press releases to Locus.)

History might be simple.  One narrative, one cast of characters.  A tidy collection of incidents and accidents, wars and mass migrations, leading to this inevitable moment where a decent enough fellow stands before you, accepting an award on my grateful behalf.

But I rather suspect that vision of history is bullshit.

For me, history is a chaotic muddle.  An intriguing chaos, sure.  But the past refuses to leave simple records behind.  Remarkably little data survives from one moment to the next, and almost nothing survives across the centuries.  Worse still, the wisest, most introspective person is hard pressed to explain why she did what she did last week.  That’s why I refuse to believe in any one account of a war or a cabinet meeting or the ins and outs of two friends discussing last week’s weather.

And worse still is the nature of this effortless universe of ours.

Quantum mechanics.  Cosmology.  These twin children of science have quite a lot to say about reality, and according to both of them, we live inside is an unabashedly infinite creation.  There have to be Earths besides our Earth.  Indeed, there can’t be any end to the churning histories.  Every one of these narratives follows its own inspired course.  There’s no counting the vivid characters trying to live their vast little lives.  And that’s why this moment is inevitable:  A tie-wearing fellow accepting this award on my behalf.

At this point, one has to ask:  Why bother feeling grateful?  Seriously, if every sweet moment is inevitable, why bother with a rush of adrenaline and the genuinely surprised smile?

Because the infinite is usually predictable and too often drab.

Because inside the infinite, there are rarities that deserve to be celebrated.

This award, for example.  And in that spirit, I accept the Sidewise and I thank all of you for this honor.

But there’s a greater rarity at work here.

I’m talking about the nominated stories and the authors who wrote them.  An amazing churn of events has given birth to each of us, and it’s hard to believe that any creatures but us could spin these tales exactly as we have done.

The Infinite doesn’t end, no.

But this tiny portion of the Everything has been made Ours.