Science Fiction to Science Reality: The Post Apocalypse Edition

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Last year I read a lot of newly published books on Climate Change and Psychology. This takes patience on many levels, not least of all due to the fact that I have mild dyslexia. While I may not read as fast as most people, in some ways it feels like a secret superpower because I retain the majority of what I read and can expand upon it endlessly.

By the time this past holiday season rolled I was burnt out on real life doom and gloom and petty manipulations. I needed a return to a familiar space, Science Fiction, but more specifically, Octavia Butler’s familiar writing. I consider Octavia Butler “light reading” much to the amusement of my spouse. Her writing style is crisp and clean. She has the ability to say a lot in so few words and I feel her presence in her words. I get her. I get where she is coming from. I discovered her writing much too late though. If I had found her sooner, I could have potentially met her in person, she only lived 20 minutes away from where I live now.

She’s one of the few dead people allowed to life rent free in my brain. She sits at the kitchen table writing and thinking while William Morris paces back and forth on an ornate blue and cream rug practicing his speeches in the adjoining living room. High up in the corner of a bookcase Ryunosuke Akutagawa curls up like a cat watching everything below and taking notes. My brain is a proper Craftsman-style house. Writers, artists, thinkers, historians, and long-dead family and friends pass through for a visit now and then. Occasionally, the random stranger wanders through too.  Only Ryunosuke is amused.

It’s always a party when Kurt Vonnegut shows up. Pat Frank and George R. Stewart prefer coffee on the veranda, but I’m getting carried away.

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Where were we?

Oh yes, what can we learn from fiction and in particular Science Fiction. Well, who isn’t familiar with Gene Roddenberry? George Lucas? Or Stephen Spielberg? Can you seriously say their scripts, movies and show have had no influence on the art of science? That they do not act as muses for scientists and engineers? Many of us are still waiting for hyperdrives and holodecks! Do you want to make a Computer Engineer swoon? Discuss The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein or the short stories of Isaac Asimov.

When considering the offerings of Robert Heinlein one has to chew through the sexism. I’m not going to excuse it on the faulty argument that he was “a man of his era.” He wrote The Moon is a Harsh Mistress in 1966 and there were plenty of men “of his era” that were not so blatantly sexist. Still, putting that aside we have a framework offered to us on how to build a resistance movement with minimal causalities and disruptions. By working in “cells” what is similar to creating “partitions” in a computer to keep data corruption and bugs from causing a full-scale shutdown. Redundancy in technical writing is bad, but redundancy in organized systems is good. What else works with cells, bugs and partitions? Trees! Let’s say a branch gets broken and damaged in a windstorm. If the tree cannot adequately thicken the cells in that area to help heal it over, it effectively self-amputates or “partitions” the branch from the rest of the body to prevent the spread of infection by cutting off supplies to the affected area. By reserving its strength, the tree lives another season and regrows the start of a new branch the next Spring.

I once read an article in an Architectural e-zine where an Architect proposed that perhaps the best way to “save” a building in a major earthquake might be by designing rooms(cells) of it to fail. (Presumably, this would help dissipate the force of energy produced by the earthquake upon the total surface area of the structure.) I appreciate the “out of the box” thinking, but how big is this man’s house? How many people have “spare rooms” to let collapse in the event of a major earthquake? I think if you have a bunch of unused rooms in your house it’s too big, and you should consider downsizing.

Octavia Butler imagined our current climate crisis in a book published in 1998 called Parable of the Sower and the sequel Parable of the Talents. Her story takes place in the early 2020’s and fortunately our here-and-now is not as terrifying as the one she wrote about, but some of the themes are eerily similar. We’re all aware of how politics impact our lives. What I focus on though is how individuals and communities shape the impact they have on the world around them. We have within the psyche of the American mind this image of “Rugged Individualism.” It’s represented in the notion “survivalist man” who can do everything and brave all challenges alone. I used to work very hard towards the idealism of the survivalist (wo)man but reading Science Fiction helped me understand that no person can be an island unto themselves for very long. In the end, it doesn’t matter how much of an introvert or anti-social being you thought you were. By the end of any lengthy stay alone in the mountains or in your head you’ll find yourself ready to make friends with anything not trying to eat you.

Science Fiction at its root is a cautionary tale of the successes and failures of individuals and groups. A forest and it’s trees. Sometimes the people are represented as alien races or other types of lifeforms, but it is in our human nature to find commonalities in order to relate to things no matter how alien it may appear on the surface. Octavia Butler worked hard to push this boundary to see where our tolerances might lie. Read her short stories Blood Child, Amnesty or the book Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis 1-3). Whenever I think my writing or ideas are getting “too weird” Octavia Butler challenges me to make it weirder.

Pat Frank wrote Alas, Babylon in 1959 and gave us an alternative history novel before all the cool kids started doing it. He showed us what living in Florida might have been like had the cold war been a hot one. Like Octavia Butler his writing is crisp and clean. A lot said in so few words. The imagery from some of the scenes in this book still put a smile on my face. I love this book so much that in the twenty years I have been with my spouse only once have I ever threatened him with a tomato, no sorry, ultimatum. “Read this book or divorce me.” He read the book in an afternoon. I made brownies and coffee. Crisis averted.

Finally, let’s close this post with an honorable mention, Earth Abides by George R. Stewart published in 1949. Yes, I know all the books and authors I’m mentioning here are old and dead, but that’s part of the beauty of it. To survive the future, you have to understand the past! A serious disruption in our ability to maintain our resources can put us back by ages. Fictional stories give our minds a playground to explore different theories and ideas of how to solve problems. Some of those solutions are found by going back to the basics and other solutions require us to unhinge our brains like a snake’s jaw and consume ideas we once thought too big to swallow.

There’s a scene in Earth Abides that made me laugh out loud and that is a very rare feat for any book! (I also dare you to make me cry too, while reading David Brin’s The Postman I was mad that I wasn’t more upset about a particular death.) What’s interesting about Earth Abides though is that there is an interracial relationship and a character with Down’s syndrome. It’s the only fictional novel where I can distinctly remember a character with a developmental disability and again, this book was published in 1949!

Whether it’s a Science Fiction, Romance or any other genre the one thing I can’t abide is when an author takes over two pages to describe a computer console or a room. I’m looking at you George RR Martin.


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Links:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-a-virus-exposed-the-myth-of-rugged-individualism/ (March 2022 Issue)

A24 Is Adapting Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower | Tor.com (July 26, 2021)

Legend of Wendigo: Indigenous Wisdom for the Modern Day

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Wendigo (English translation of Ojibwe word wiindigoo) Cree language: wihtikow or wetiko. There are 21 other spellings of the name. The term is from the Proto-Algonquian family of languages. These First Nation tribes that carry the story of Wendigo inhabit the cold North American territories of Eastern Canada, the Plains region of the United States and the Great Lakes region of both the United States and Canada.

The story of Wendigo is often told during times of famine and starvation. It is a reminder that cannibalism, in particular, is wrong and evil in the eyes of the people. Historically, many indigenous tribes name themselves in their own language as “the people” to define themselves as different from the buffalo, bear, or other animals. Through generations of retelling, stories remain relevant when they are able to convey the social mores (aka values) of a people when dealing with adversity. While cannibalism has ceased to be a pressing concern for modern people, these stories are given new life in the hands of respected storytellers. The story of Wendigo now expresses a shared concern for a new metamorphosis of cannibalism in the form of greed, filth, and malevolence itself.


Original Story elements:

Wendigo is an anthropomorphic giant that uses treetops as snowshoes and eats humans. At other times Wendigo are humans inhabited by the Wendigo spirit and partake in cannibalism. Both the anthropomorphic giant and the human Wendigo share characteristic traits of being emaciated, skin and bones, their fate is to always crave more flesh and never be sated. They can grow in size by how much they have eaten but never fill full.


This last part is important as we consider the allegory of Wendigo, to have so much and never be satisfied, never be content or feel full. Now in modern North America where so few of us are like to die of starvation the parable takes on a new meaning when we think about greed. I think about Wendigo often. As a modern storyteller, I view the story of Wendigo a gift and a warning from the Proto-Algonquian speaking tribes. What more could we have learned if Colonialism and Manifest Destiny had not prompted my White ancestors to massacre, oppress, and enslave “the people” of so many tribes. Some North American tribes are extinct. We will never know their language or their stories.

Personally, I see Wendigo as a disease of greed that spreads through developed nations. We let people die for profit. We turn a blind eye, we redline or bar them from certain public spaces in society. It is not profitable to simply be a good person. The Millionaires and Billionaires of our nations became what they are at the expense of other people and once shared natural resources. When they finally have earned so much money as to become social elites, then they chose to donate back some of their wealth, and we’re all supposed to be grateful.

I distinctly remember sitting in a mall food court looking at the classified ads and being alarmed that there were several job postings for sociologists and psychologists to join advertising and marketing agencies. The idea of it made me sick to my stomach. I felt like any sociologist or psychologist that accepts such a position is committing an act of betrayal. Shouldn’t those of us that study the operations of society and the mind itself be required to take the Hippocratic Oath to, “do no harm?” Human psychology has become weaponized for the sake of selling products and services. Welcome to the world of Neuromarketing.

The language of advertising has changed over the years from “You should buy this product because it has x, y , z features.” to “You deserve to have this fine product because you work hard and your money and time is important.”

We also like a good deal. We like to feel like we’re savvy shoppers that know how to get a good bargain. It’s common in American supermarkets to see yellow tags calling out these bargains. The tag might read something like “2/$6.00” or “Buy 2 get 1 Free”. Because of the rise in current inflation one of the stores I shop at now regularly offers bargains of “Buy 4, Get 1 free”. I feed a family of three. I really don’t need five boxes of macaroni and cheese! Unless I’m rotating my disaster preparedness food supplies, I rarely need five of anything.

These “bargains” stay around month after month. If you find yourself increasing your portion sizes and buying more you aren’t really saving money. This also increase pressure on the food system and the workers involved in making the product to produce more. We find ourselves stuck in a cycle; our food portion sizes become bigger, our waistlines become bigger and eventually we become depressed and sometimes, we eat more because we are depressed and then we start running into health problems related to obesity and then we become customers for diet aids, diet apps, ubiquitous “healthy food” alternatives, books, podcasts and whatever else because our frustration grows and now we’re hungry for solutions, for acceptance, and validation and the advertisers answer are calls.

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I’ve been trapped in this cycle myself for decades. I have clothes in three sizes for when I’ve lost some weight, for when I’ve gained some weight, but mostly I stay somewhere in the middle of the two. I save a lot of money by the mere fact that I hate to shop for anything, but also because I remember when I was poor. I grew up during a recession, we didn’t have a lot of food, but we were able to hunt and fish for our meals. Later as a young adult in the city and on my own I often had to skip meals to pay rent. I was stuck in low wage jobs, sometimes working two or three jobs in an effort to get enough money to save some of it. It took me nine years, but I got a bachelor’s degrees with only $10k in student loans. At my most desperate I was eating one small meal a day, every other day.

 No one talks about hunger in America as an individual. It’s something to be ashamed of and you’re not supposed to admit that you’ve been there. It’s something that happens to other people. It’s often only talked about in broad terms. I’m not embarrassed though. I’ve got nothing to lose in admitting that I have been there. One time I was so hungry I went to McDonald’s hoping to take three ketchup packets to eat for the day. I just wanted a few calories. I just needed to get through one more day before I could get my paycheck. There were no ketchup packets for me to take though, because I was in a McDonald’s in a poor part of town where there were a lot of homeless people, and they didn’t want the homeless people taking all the ketchup packets. I cried walking home, salt tears I could barely afford to give. There was nothing else to do but curl up on my mattress on the floor and wait for the next day.

I carry the trauma of never wanting to be so desperately poor again. Some people in America who have never been are aware that it could happen to them and the thought alone terrifies them into certain behavior patterns. Both the fear of not knowing and the fear of going back can be harmful in their own ways. So we eat and eat. We wear fat on our bodies and never feel full. We are diseased like humans with the Wendigo spirit, starving for something to make us feel full and yet we continue to feel empty.

We search for fullness in food and we search for fullness in “stuff” like home furnishings, books, clothes or whatever. We let ourselves be convinced that we need to be upgraded to the latest and greatest phone, car or tv, because gosh darn it, we deserve it. The answer is not in “stuff”, its within us, within our connections to other people and an appreciation for the grand scale of nature itself.

Let me sell you hope for the low, low cost of free.

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We can take a walk within nature and not be judged. The bees don’t care about skin color. The trees don’t care about the way you walk, and the birds don’t care if you have a speech impairment. None of them know the difference between an attractive human and an ugly human. Be not judged by superficial artifacts, but by spirit. Be kind to yourself and to others, not because it sounds like a nice Hippie bumper sticker, but because if you deserve anything, it’s to be accepted for who you are and not for the profits you can bring to a company or its advertisers. Wendigo. When is enough ever enough?

Many cultures and religions have stories about the dangers of greed. What other stories come to mind on the topic of Greed?

Any Job Can Be A Nature-Led Job: Essay Part 2 Security Guard

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I was the only female security guard at the private security company. My supervisor was my roommate, a man we’ll call “Bear”. A big, quiet former Marine. We had our own “Jay and Silent Bob” routine. Few people ever heard him speak; he would just look to me to speak on behalf of both of us. There were no women’s guard uniforms, only men’s. My utility belt was the only thing holding my pants up. Once while trying to put myself back together in a tiny bathroom with all my assorted gear, my pager took a dive in the toilet bowl. There were no cell phones back then. I’d get a page with a phone number. Then you find the nearest landline phone and call the number on the pager.

Most of my coworkers were middle-aged, overweight, white men who had once dreamed of being in the military or police but couldn’t pass the psyche tests or fitness evaluations. My roommate and I were the youngest, fittest, and only drop of diversity in the whole company on account of me being female and him being Apache, not that any of them knew he was Apache. Bear was promoted to Supervisor shortly before I joined. He was the only one licensed to carry a firearm on the job. The rest of us had long heavy flashlights and mace.

During training I was with a guard who worked the mall out in the valley. A fight broke out on the mezzanine level between two young women with a somewhat large crowd on young people watching on. The Guard said, “I’m going to deploy my mace.”

“Really?” I asked. “I know it’s only my second day on the job, but why don’t we just pull them apart? You grab one from behind and I’ll grab the other.”

“No, look, I’ve been doing this a long time. We have to be more assertive.” As he pulls out his mace I step into a nearby store where I can watch from behind glass. The Guard muscles his way through the crowd and sprays the girls with the mace, except, you know where I’m going with this right? We’re inside a building with no wind. Of course, the girls get the worst of it with it being sprayed in their faces, but the whole crowd immediately reacts.

People are yelling, screaming, crying and stumbling every which way trying to get out of the pepper spray cloud, including the Guard himself. Fortunately, there was a bathroom nearby. I felt bad for the girls, so I led them to the bathroom to help wash their faces. I learned through sobs and snot that the fight was over a boy and he’d played these two friends. “Alright, well I guess the lesson we learned today is that no guy is worth getting maced in the face.”

By this time the Guard had rinsed his own face and was waiting for us. The girls got a 24-hour trespass notice for the mall and I got lectured about how I needed to respect his authority. Our second day of training was uneventful and then I was on my own for my assignments. There was a streaker at one of the nicest retirement homes in Spokane. Don’t ask me why some guy thinks it’s fun to go running down the halls naked at a senior living facility, but there you have it. He wasn’t a resident and no one was knew which door he would sneak in from. They were all locked except the front door, where the guard spent most of their time. I suspect he was a former employee with a set of keys.

The previous guard assigned to the place was morbidly obese and the streaker apparently was a rather fit fellow running about like he did. The guard could never catch him and couldn’t outsmart him either, I guess. When my roommate handed me this assignment there was an unmistakable twinkle of amusement in his eyes. The Senior Retirement place was one of my favorite places to work. I never got to chase the streaker though. He never showed up on my watch! The residents were lots of fun. It was like college dorm rooms, but no one had to study. They were always having fun! They had an indoor swimming pool, a library, a movie theater, and they went on daily excursions.

My other regular assignment was working out of the Old Flour Mill which had been turned into a cool place for a handful of small shops and restaurants. It was right on the river in the heart of downtown. As a security guard you keep hourly logs to note any activity of interest. Most of the time your log just looks like: “S/O Reynolds – 5:58pm -Nothing to report.” (S/O for Security Officer)

As someone who likes to write, that just seemed like a waste of paper. So, I started working on my descriptive sentence and scene setting. I’d head to a special access point at the top of the Flour Mill so I could describe the sunset. I carried a highlighter in case there was any relevant information I might need to report. One time during a perimeter sweep near the water at dusk I heard splashing, only to discover a large rat pulling a fish as big as it was to the shore. I was impressed. The rat arched it’s back and showed teeth. “I don’t want your fish.” I laughed. Since I didn’t move any closer the rat decided it could eat, but it kept its eyes on me, just in case.

I also once met a guy who called himself “Spider.” He followed me around chatting my ear off for about an hour and then decided to leave. As he’s leaving, he said, “I was gonna rob the cigar shop, but you’re just too cute and I don’t wanna get you in trouble.” Gee, Thanks, buddy. Another time I watched a teenage girl slip a necklace into her pocket at the hippie store. I came up to stand beside her and said, “You can put the necklace back or you can pay for it.” She started to protest, but I looked her in the eyes. She pulled it out of her pocket and put it back. I introduced her to the store owner at the counter. The girl came back and got a job there. A few weeks later she happily skipped up to me and showed me the necklace around her neck and said, “I paid for it.” with glee. It made me happy too.

Here’s what I learned about human nature. People will often try to get away with things like petty theft because they feel invisible. They think no one notices them and the sad fact is, they aren’t wrong. The people I met who tried to steal things weren’t doing it because they wanted to sell it for food or anything, they were lonely, depressed, bitter and sometimes angry.

I worked that job for nearly two years. I never carried the pepper spray. I never threatened anyone with a show of force. The only holds I ever put on anyone were hugs by mutual consent. All the shops owners at the Flour Mill loved me because on my watch there were no thefts, graffiti or fights. The only shopkeeper that didn’t like me was the Cigar Shop owner, because he couldn’t get over the fact that I wasn’t a man and I didn’t walk around like King Kong.

I was 18 when I started. I wasn’t even old enough to drink alcohol in my state. The craziest assignment was three nights of “guarding” a 56,000sqft industrial building. A fired employee threatened to come back and stab everyone. Again, I was the only guard on duty. It was hot, it was August, there were lots of hot, noisy machinery and long thick plastic sheets that separated parts of the manufacturing line. It also had seven huge doors, left open for ventilation. They were so big you could fly a small plane through them.

Fortunately, that guy never showed to fulfill his threat. The line supervisors were rightfully angry that the only protection hired for them was one guard with a pager and an oversized flashlight. My being there was a joke. It was disrespectful to both the employees and myself because the company was too cheap to provide proper security for such a large, loud, wide-open building. “What do we do if we see him?” The supervisors asked. “Call 911, then scream real loud, maybe I’ll hear you.” I said dryly.

I have a history of training in all manner of violence, but I don’t practice violence. I practice empathy, first and always. No one can “make” you a killer. The decision is ultimately always yours to make. I had brief stint in the Marine Corps. I’ve done kickboxing, Mixed Martial Arts, Karate, survival training, hunting, camping, hiking, rock climbing. When I was younger, it was not unlike me to swim across a lake, just because I could.

For me, my only opponents are the goals that I set for myself.

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Sometimes I’ll choose the path of chaos, but I’ll rarely choose the path of violence. I remember the last time I did, decades ago. I was in my early twenties walking home in the dark, in downtown Spokane. This man was lurking in some dry bushes under a streetlight, no less. Mister Mugger, Are you afraid of the dark? I could clearly see him squatting there, plotting something. I continued casually walk down the middle of the road to see what he would do. Is he dumb enough to try and mug me? Yes, yes he is. As I approached, I was thinking about what kick I might do. As if on cue, my ancestors being the mischievous assholes that they are, turned out the streetlight above him. He jumped out and said, “Give me —” Boom! He got the Half Moon. My leg swung out and up, dropping my heel onto his clavicle (the bone between your neck and shoulder). He fell like a rock. I sauntered off telling him to “Go get a real job.” The streetlight came back on.

You wouldn’t have known it to look at me. I probably looked arrogant dropping a man and strolling off like I do that sort of thing all the time, but in truth I was angry. Angry that he thought robbing people was a good idea. Angry that its people like him that make other young women afraid to walk alone in the dark. Angry that he mistook for a victim. I am a survivor! An embodiment of the three-legged dog with one good eye and a half-chewed ear that goes by the name of “lucky.” I’ve died more times than most people have lived. Was it the right thing to do? Drop kicking him like that? I don’t know. My power isn’t that I know how to fight back, it’s that I know what I’m capable of, and I’m capable of A LOT.

Nature-led Lessons:

Greet new people and opportunities with an open mind.

Practice empathy every day.

Know yourself and you’ll know your power.

You don’t have to be afraid of the dark when you’re the scariest thing lurking within it. Bwhahahaha.


What are your capable of? Do you know what your power is?

Note: I’ve just about finished chewing through my reading on “Deep Adaptation” so that will be my next post.