The future is nothing like I expected.
In 1969, watching Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin gambolling about on the surface of the moon, I honestly believed that before long there would be monthly shuttles to Mars and, for the super-rich, luxury holiday excursions to the outer planets and far reaches of our solar system…
That future never arrived.
Instead we have: cell phones, laptops and social media. Not quite the same thing as faster-than-light travel and flying cars, is it?
I wanted something grander, something worthy of a curious, ambitious species with big brains and clever hands. Fleets of silver, finned rockets, navigating between the nine planets as easily as my dad’s old Ford got us to town and back. Intelligent robots. Permanent colonies on the moon and Mars. What a letdown when I look around today and realize ordinary citizens are far more interested in cyberspace than outer space. Ambitious schemes to leave our safe cradle and challenge that “final frontier” have devolved into, let’s face it, a sparsely manned space station parked only a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the earth, serviced by a private, for-profit company because NASA can no longer afford to maintain a shuttle to supply it.
A human footprint on Mars? Unlikely, at least during my lifetime.
Which makes me feel cheated. That six-year-old boy, glued to a black-and-white TV, witnessing history, men on the freakin’ moon, wouldn’t have believed me if I told him that’s it, that’s the absolute high-water mark in terms of our presence in space. Sorry, kid, after this it’s robot probes and science on the cheap.
My younger self would be outraged to see his dreams dashed by the cowardice and stupidity of those who make policy and manipulate the levers of power.
A smart lad, he would have recognized a failure of nerve when he saw it. And he would have been the first to point out: a computer is not a robot.
Some might contend there’s no difference but, I assure you, there is.
Those who think otherwise are operating on an entirely different wavelength than me. They likely see nothing wrong with the way the world has turned out and wouldn’t change anything if they could.
I, on the other hand, am appalled by the reality that has been presented to me as a fait accompli and since childhood have made it my mission, my calling to reimagine the whole thing so it conforms to the better tomorrow we were all promised back in those heady, halcyon days when everything seemed possible, the universe ours to explore, the stars our destination.
I don’t intend to forsake those youthful fancies, surrender my dreams, lose my sensawunda because of other people’s temerity and lack of vision.
It’s a major reason why I started reading science fiction almost fifty years ago…and why (for better or worse) I’m the writer I am today.
“How do we change the world? By changing the story.”
Skull Island wasn’t the same without him. The indigenous inhabitants, denied their traditional object of veneration and sacrifice, disintegrated into sects and internecine squabbling, nearly eradicating themselves. Survivors fell victim to the missionaries who inevitably follow in the wake of white explorers, displacing pagan idols, substituting ones more to their liking.
Robbed of its apex predator, the jungle lost coherence and structure, descending into chaos. And then came invasive species, animals and plants foreign to the closed ecosystem, devastating the pristine wilderness.
It wasn’t long before a consortium of Far Eastern financiers and venture capitalists bought the beachfront and lagoon for the equivalent of some beads and hand mirrors, evicting the natives, erecting exclusive vacation resorts catering to jet-setting millionaires and trust fund slackers.
Gift shops featuring statuettes, t-shirts and keepsakes commemorating the Island’s most famous denizen did brisk business, affluent tourists sporting colorful gear celebrating a fearsome creature once dubbed “the Eighth Wonder of the World”.
Descendants of the original islanders toiled in service industry roles, existing precariously, pining for the days when their god still lived and breathed, uprooting trees, bellowing his defiance, exacting regular tribute for the privilege of viewing divinity in the flesh.
For years I’ve suffered from a sense of thwarted nostalgia or yearning melancholy. I’ve struggled putting into words exactly what I’ve been experiencing, this unshakeable conviction that I exist outside of time, not belonging to the present day, out of synch with the rest of the world.
The other day I came across a book titled Endangered Words (Simon Hertnon, Skyhorse Publishing) and while paging through it happened upon an entry for saudade.
Never heard of such an animal and when I checked the accompanying definition, the hair on the back of my neck rose with an audible crackle:
Of Portuguese origin, saudade refers to “a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness”. (A.F.G. Bell)
Silver-skinned rocketships and routine journeys to and from Mars, the outer planets.
A “golden age” of friendly, singing cowboys, camaraderie around the campfire, the home ranch across the next ridge.
I think that’s essentially why I became a writer: from an early age I could see reality wasn’t panning out the way I liked, so it was up to me to create my own private universe.
Come visit me sometime.
Just open one of my books or short stories and say “Hello”…
I’ve always said: Hallowe’en encourages the inner drag queen.
I rarely get dressed up for any occasion, my wardrobe limited to t-shirts, ragged-ass jeans and a fleece sweater to keep the chill off my aging bones.
But this Hallowe’en coincided with the birthday of a dear friend of ours. A costume party was the celebration of choice, its theme “the Sixties”.
Several different ideas passed through my mind, but then Sherron discovered a couple of sweaters in a thrift shop and, well, we were off.
Happy Hallowe’en to my fellow Trekkies.
Photo: Karen Williams
This blog is now ten years old. Ten years to the day.
Well, well, well.
Who could’ve imagined “Beautiful Desolation” would still be around? I’ve seen the stats: most blogs sputter out after a year or two, the individual(s) involved eventually losing interest or not finding the time or unable to post regularly enough to keep it up to date and viable.
I can understand that. Over the lifetime of this blog, I’ve written 450+ posts, averaging about one every ten days or so. Which for a full time scribe and stay-at-home dad is a pretty hefty investment of time and energy. Plus, I’ve never posted just for the sake of posting, I’ve always had something to say or share (even if it’s frequently, especially in the early days, invective and bitter, icy fury).
Right from the beginning, “Beautiful Desolation” was a platform, a bully pulpit from where I could hold forth on subjects near and dear to my indie, contrarian heart. My thirty+ years as a professional author provides me with a host of experiences and encounters to draw from, and I must say it gives me considerable pleasure when young writers contact me and tell me how a certain article or mini-essay or rant I’ve posted inspired them or bucked up their courage during a low patch in their life. My entire career, from the get-go, has been all about empowering myself as an artist and not allowing others to tamper with my work, diluting its emotional, aesthetic and spiritual intensity and passion. That was an obsession for me even before I “turned pro” way back in 1985. I have always fiercely defended my work and questioned the effectiveness/competence of editors who take it upon themselves to “improve” my writing, “smooth out” the rough spots, etc.
I made it plain from those initial posts that this blog is devoted to the celebration of literary, intelligent, innovative, genre-busting fiction that defies fashion and formula and seeks truly new and unique representations of the world around us. I’m contemptuous of amateurish drivel and people who think insisting on proper grammar and syntax is “old school”. I respect authors who make herculean efforts to write and revise their work, laboring tirelessly, excellence their only goal. I’ve been a full-time author for a long time and struggle each day to find the courage and inspiration to go on. It takes me weeks to polish a story, years to finish a full-length manuscript. So you’ll excuse me if I say that, by those standards, dabblers and weekend scribblers and NanoWriMo wannabes just don’t make the grade, sorry.
It’s been interesting to go back to some of those early posts on “Beautiful Desolation”—some of them are very, very angry and confrontational. I’m thinking of my pointed words on contemporary science fiction, Cormac McCarthy’s rather lifeless interview on “Oprah”, the mediocrity that is CanLit and my repeated diatribes against the idiocy that is National Novel Writing Month (“part-time writers unite!”)
The nastier stuff kind of flickered out after the first couple of years, though I’m still capable of delivering withering scorn on command. I’ve said a few things about paranormal romance and shapeshifter-erotic-fiction that had a few people gnashing their teeth and hastily “unsubscribing”.
Ah, well. Some folks are touchy about being sub-literate and dull-witted.
Recently, this blog has taken on a more overtly political tone, which reflects my growing interest in leftist politics, socialism, Marxism…really, anything that is an alternative to the capitalist juggernaut devouring all the resources on this planet, rendering it unsuitable for a growing number of species (a list that will eventually include, y’know, us).
The election of CEO Trump to head Corporation America, the emergence of the far right around the world, as well as the on-going shenanigans of the neo-liberals and their wealthy sponsors, have alarmed progressives and activists, who view the rising intolerance and racism as part and parcel of a system that disenfranchises and impoverishes the masses, in order to fatten the wallets of the elite.
A concerted effort to unite disparate voices and causes under the banner of freedom, true freedom, must be undertaken or we are headed down a long, dark, scary road. I hesitate to predict what our society will look like when we reach the end of that particular journey. My imagination quails at the notion, quite frankly.
But, as I’ve come to realize, one can’t always dwell on these gloom and doom scenarios; for the sake of balance (and sanity), you have to be able to conceive of a better, healthier, more equitable world, a chance at a brighter tomorrow. And so I’ve sought out individuals and organizations, voices that offer entirely different perspectives on where the human adventure might lead us, given the right kind of moral and spiritual leadership. I’ve been fortunate enough to discover people like David Harvey and Terry Eagleton and Slavoj Zizek; Paul Mason, Naomi Klein and Tariq Ali. The LEAP Manifesto and the existence of good, ideologically committed leaders like Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders offer at least the hope for change, the introduction of real ideas into a partisan, over-heated discourse.
Books like Paul Mason’s Post-Capitalism, Klein’s This Changes Everything and Karl Marx’s Capital provide us with workable blueprints for correcting our course, indicating different, less spooky paths to travel, and once absorbed they alter your whole mode of thinking—I’m talking a complete paradigm shift. We don’t have to live the way we do, there are methods we can employ, mindsets we can adopt to alter our lives, our ingrained habits and actually make the world a better place, just by our example.
I’m sure I’ll be writing about this in more detail in the months/years to come.
In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed “Beautiful Desolation” in its various guises. Ten years has given me the time and scope to cover a lot of ground and during that interval I’ve undoubtedly said some things I probably shouldn’t have and managed to piss off an impressively wide assortment of people. But all along I’ve made it manifestly clear to even the most desultory, unwary visitor: if you’ve come to this blog looking for reassurance and treacle, a collegial atmosphere and warm, fuzzy support system, you’ve opened the wrong door, I’m afraid. This site is about the price we pay for having feelings, for being alive and sentient in a world that’s increasingly chaotic and disorienting, our “civilization” gradually losing its thin veneer of humanity, revealing the glistening skull beneath its skin.
“Beautiful Desolation” is, in that sense, the perfect title for this blog.
The more I think of it, what could have been more appropriate?
* * * * *
A few recent developments I should mention:
The Mindful Word, a site devoted to conscious creativity and holistic wellness (hey, how can you argue with that?), has published two short essays I composed, offering advice to young, developing writers…and warning of the possible perils of semi-autobiographical fiction and memoirs. Pop over there to check them out and then take some time to poke around–it’s a cool site.
I also somehow managed to place an extremely odd piece, “A Personal Cosmology”, with The Oleander Review, a literary journal published by the University of Michigan—the issue in question is due out in April. Here’s a sample from “Cosmology” I posted awhile back. Just to give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
Finally, “Happy Birthday” to my pals Laird and Karen—who share the same birth date and the unfortunate tendency to root for two historically dreadful hockey clubs (the Leafs and Canucks, respectively). This lifelong Bruins fan tries not to hold that against them, although sometimes, I admit, it takes concerted effort to restrain my natural tendency to trash talk. But, then again, it’s hard to feel smug when your favourite team includes an unrepentant arsehole like Brad Marchand.
Note: the accompanying pictures are drawn from our Summer, 2016 visit to Greece, Turkey and the Czech Republic. Istanbul, in particular, continues to haunt our memories (and sometimes our dreams). What a magical, terrifying, wondrous metropolis. One day, we hope to make it back…
Endless processions of driverless cars.
Delivering their contents to automated houses.
Under the constant scrutiny of cameras, overhead drones.
Smart appliances reporting preferences, behavior, patterns; mined for data, narcing to their corporate masters.
Election night: voting by remote control, hardly bothering to check the results.
Keeping your head down, mouth shut.
Addicted to livestreaming porn sites.
Disgusted by the state of affairs but powerless to effect any change.
Buying stupid trinkets to fill the void.
Drugs when nothing else works.
An epidemic of suicide in your age bracket.
Desperately lonely and neurotic, verging on anti-social.
In your solitary rooms, secured by triple locks.
Talking to yourself and the listening walls.
Waiting for the knock on your door.
© Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
I. The First Crime Scene
The suspect toes the ground resentfully, tight-lipped, shrugging in response to the Magistrate’s queries. Evincing probity and incomprehension, but also giving the impression of barely concealed insolence.
The man is a pitiful liar.
Again the Magistrate demands that the creature divulge the circumstances of his crime and reveal the location of the body. Corpus delicti. Yet despite Supreme Jurist’s obvious frustration and rising anger, the guilty party continues to fend off his remonstrations with hostile silence.
And then, miracle of miracles, the accused mutters something, a curt, sly rejoinder, sotto voce, practically inaudible.
The wretched beast actually raises his eyes, no longer cowed and obeisant, meeting the Magistrate’s gaze directly. “I said, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’”
The Magistrate is stunned. Everything abruptly freezes, a complete cessation of sound, movement extending across twelve dimensions and countless timelines; the equivalent of a collective, celestial gasp.
Oblivious to the dismay he’d wrought, Cain is washing his hands in a nearby stream, immersing them in the pure, clear water.
Frowning at the stubbornness of the stain.
II. The Last Crime Scene
ARU-2466/TLS-13 spots a glint of white at the base of the escarpment, near a recent slide or rock fall, descends to fifty feet, hovering.
It looks like…could it be…
There are mandatory protocols to follow, the ARU unit knows this. Any evidence of the Ancestors must be recorded and transmitted, the site left undisturbed. After all, this is sacred ground.
But the drone lingers, awed by the scale of its discovery, observing at once that the skeleton, though well-preserved, shows indications of massive trauma. The legs shattered, spine and skull split and sundered. An accidental fall from the precipice above?
A series of rapid, almost instantaneous calculations. Answer: unlikely.
Like many of its counterparts, ARU-2466/TLS-13 is aware of the legends surrounding the End Days. The Ancestors, once a great species, reduced by war, famine, disease and deprivation. Squabbling over increasingly scarce resources, raiding and killing until they were all but extinct.
Could this be one of the last survivors? Isolated, forsaken, appalled by the poisonous wasteland its kind had made of the planet?
Remorseful, perhaps, capable of one final act of contrition, a form of ritual self-slaughter.
The evidence is persuasive but hardly definitive.
ARU-2466/TLS-13 drops a beacon, dipping its wings respectfully as it makes one final pass.
Others will investigate the site, draw their own conclusions.
The drone returns to its regular search pattern, a virtual grid superimposed over a bleak, exhausted terrain.
Continuing an eternal, seemingly fruitless search for signs of life.
© Copyright, 2015 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)
One final plug for my short story “The First Crime Scene”.
Remember? Or maybe I “Tweeted” about it…
Anyway, I entered it in an on-line contest because I liked the site, Inkitt, and its founder was nice enough to issue a personal invite. I’m a sucker for civility.
You can check out the story here, decide for yourself if it’s worthy—and if the answer is “yea”, please click on the little red heart to register your vote.
It’s a good story and if I get a few more tallies, “The First Crime Scene” might sneak into the top five.
It’s not prize money I’m after, my name in lights—no, I genuinely believe this little, itty-bitty tale manages to accomplish a lot in 500 words. Have a look and you’ll see what I mean.
I’ll close off this brief post because, well, I can’t sit here any longer. My first really serious bout of sciatica. A week of pain and finally the meds and my wife’s TLC are starting to make a difference.