This is the twenty-second installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator has dinner with Melanie Berger, tells her about his change of mind, and has to confront the hard choices ahead of him.
Mythic, the new science fiction and fantasy quarterly by the publisher of the After Oil anthologies, is also moving toward its first issue. I’m eager to see this take off, and am contributing a short story, “The Phantom of the Dust,” set in the same fictive world as my novel The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth. I’ve been told by publisher Shaun Kilgore that he’s gotten a good initial response to his call for fiction submissions but would like to see more, and he’s also very much interested in book reviews, essays, and other nonfiction pieces related to science fiction and fantasy. More details? You’ll find ‘em here. This is a paying gig, folks; let your writer friends know.
We’d settled on a Greek restaurant close by, a place I’d been for lunch already. I passed that onto the driver as soon as we got into the cab, and slumped back against the leather seat as the driver climbed up onto the seat up front, snapped the reins, and got the horses moving. Neither Melanie nor I said anything. The lights of Toledo rolled by, and I wondered how many people behind the windows we passed were worrying about the war down south, the way I was.
It was maybe five minutes, if that, when the cab rolled to a stop, and the cabby swung down from his seat and popped open the door. I climbed down, paid him, reached out a hand for Melanie; she took it gratefully, got down onto the sidewalk. “Thank you,” she said, when the cabbie was driving off. “For a few minutes of silence, especially.”
“We don’t have to talk over dinner,” I said as we headed toward the door.
“Don’t worry about it. You won’t be screaming at me in a Texas accent for an hour straight.”
I gave her a questioning look, but by then we were inside and the greeter was headed our way. Once we were comfortably settled in a booth over to one side, and the waitress had handed us menus and taken our drinks order to the bar, I said, “Seriously?”
“Seriously. The Texan ambassador wanted to see President Meeker right now, and no, she didn’t care that he was in a cabinet meeting and that she was going to be the first to see him afterwards. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever wished that diplomatic courtesies included the right to slap someone hard enough to send teeth flying.”
I choked, then pasted on a respectable expression while the waitress came back with our martinis and took our order. “I take it Texas doesn’t put professionals in its embassies.”
“Only the important ones, and we’re not one of those. Velma Streiber’s a Houston society matron who has good friends in the Bulford administration and wanted a fancy title.” She shook her head.
“I hope you didn’t have to deal with the Confederate ambassador too,” I said.
“I did, but that was easy. John Bayard MacElroy is your basic Confederate gentleman. He might shoot you dead in cold blood and feed your corpse to his hound dogs, but he’ll be the very soul of politeness while he does it.”
I choked again. Then, still laughing, I shook my head and picked up my martini. She gave me a startled look. “That doesn’t look much like what you were drinking Friday night.”
“It isn’t,” I admitted. “I decided to try a Lakeland style martini Saturday, and liked it.”
That got me a long, considering look, and then a nod. “But that was my day—that and dealing with just about every other embassy in Toledo by phone or in person, scheduling meetings with Meeker, setting up briefings like the one you went to, attending a couple of briefings myself. Oh, and helping out two delegations—I won’t say which ones—that lost their satellite links with home and have no idea how to get by without hardware in orbit.”
That interested me. “How do your embassies phone home?”
“Shortwave radio, of course—the way everybody did before satellites took over. I had to explain that to both delegations.” With a sly smile: “When the Atlantic Embassy loses its satellite links, have them give me a call; I can recommend a good radio firm that won’t even put bugs in the hardware.”
I gave her a dubious look, and she laughed. “I hope the briefing you got was worthwhile, by the way.”
“Even more so than I’d expected. Turns out you’re not the only people interested in freight transit through the Erie Canal.”
“Now surprise me.” She sipped her drink. “Missouri, East Canada, and who?”
“Oh, of course. That’s good to know; I’ll talk to Hank Barker with the Missouri delegation and see if we can coordinate shipping with them. We do a lot of trade with Missouri these days; the wool your suit is made of almost certainly came from their flocks, and possibly from their fabric mills.”
“Barker mentioned that,” I said. “Wool and leather.”
Two bowls of avgolemono soup came, and neither of us said anything until the waitress was gone. “I’m going to risk mentioning a potentially uncomfortable subject,” Melanie said. “The Missouri Republic is the one neighbor we’ve got that’s shown any interest in in learning from our experience. They haven’t gone nearly as far as we have—you still see bioplastic clothing there, and they’ve still got a metanet, though it’s pretty ramshackle these days—but the World Bank doesn’t like them much any more.” She shook her head, laughed. “I’ve been told that people from the World Bank threatened them with trade sanctions two years ago, after they refused a loan, and President Applegate told them, ‘Didn’t hurt Lakeland much, did it?’ That shut them up.”
I laughed, because I’d met Hannah Applegate at a reception in Philadelphia, and it took no effort at all to imagine her saying those words in her lazy Western drawl. Then the implications sank in. “They turned down a World Bank loan?”
“Of course. You know as well as I do that the only reason the World Bank makes those is to force countries to stay plugged into the global economy, so they can get the hard currency they need to make payments on the loan. The Missouri government knows that, too, and they’re sick of it. Since we’re Missouri’s number one trading partner these days, we’ve both got the necessary arrangements to handle trade and investment in each other’s currencies, and a fair amount of private investment from our side heads over there these days, they decided it was time to take the risk.”
“Good timing on their part,” I said, thinking of the war.
“And on ours.” In response to my questioning look: “They produce things we need and buy things we produce. The last thing we want is to see them bled dry.”
“The way my country will be,” I said. She glanced at me, said nothing, and concentrated for a while on her bowl of soup.
The waitress showed up conveniently a moment later, served us our entrees, made a little friendly conversation—Melanie was a regular, I gathered—and then headed off to another table. “As I said,” Melanie said then, “it’s a potentially uncomfortable subject.”
“The fact that your country is set up to weather this latest mess in fairly good shape, and mine might just end up as a failed state.”
Her face tensed, and after a moment she nodded. “If that happens, and you can make it to our border, have the border guards contact Meeker’s office. Shouldn’t be too hard to expedite your entry. I hope it doesn’t come to that, but...” She let the sentence trickle off.
“Thank you. I hope it doesn’t either.” Then: “To the extent that you can tell me, how bad do your analysts expect it to get?”
She considered that. “I can tell you a few things. It’s nothing you won’t hear from your own intelligence people once you get back home—the NIS, isn’t it?”
I nodded. “What do you call your spook shop here in Lakeland?”
“We’ve got three of them: the Office of Political Intelligence in the State Department, the Office of Economic Intelligence in Trade, and the Office of Military Intelligence in Defense. Keeping it broken up like that helps prevent groupthink.”
I motioned with my fork, granting the point, and she went on. “What OPI says is that Texas and the Confederacy were both in deep trouble even before this whole thing blew up in their faces. They both depend heavily on oil revenue to balance their budgets, they’ve both had declining production for years now, and you know as well as I do how badly they’ve been clobbered by volatility in the oil markets. That’s ultimately what’s behind this war—neither of them can afford to compromise because they both need every drop of oil they can possibly get—but this is going to take a lot of wells out of production until the fighting’s over.”
“Or permanently,” I said. In response to her questioning look: “I was told off the record that so much of both sides’ offshore fields are stripper wells that a lot of the destroyed platforms won’t produce enough oil in the future to be worth the cost of rebuilding.”
She nodded. “That’s OEI’s bailiwick and I haven’t talked to them yet, so thanks for the heads up.Even without that, though, both countries are going to be hit hard even if the war ends in a few days—and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end in a few days.”
I nodded. “Military intelligence?”
I didn’t ask for details; she’d told me as much as she was cleared to pass on, and there are lines you don’t cross in our business. Pretty clearly she’d attended a classified military briefing and gotten the latest information about the war, and I could think of at least a dozen signs that would warn the Lakeland government that neither Texas nor the Confederacy was going to back down any time soon. In a couple of days I’d be back in Philadelphia, and I could ask people I knew in Ellen Montrose’s transition team for a summary.
“And if it drags on?” I asked.
She gave me an unhappy look. “Best case scenario is both countries end up economic basket cases, with per capita GDPs lower than the midrange for sub-Saharan Africa, but they both manage to hold together and begin to recover in about a decade. Worst case scenario is that one or both go failed-state on us. Either way we’re looking at a big refugee problem, and a long-term economic headache if the Mississippi stays closed. We can deal with it, no question—it’s just going to take some work. It’s the people down south, in both countries, I feel sorry for”
We both concentrated on our meals for a minute or two.
“And the thing is,” she burst out then, “this whole business is so unnecessary. If both countries weren’t stuck on a treadmill trying to—” She stopped cold, catching herself.
“Trying to progress,” I finished the sentence.
Another unhappy look. “I really don’t think we should go there,” she said.
“I think we should,” I replied “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the things you said Friday evening, and you were right.”
She was so surprised she dropped her fork. After a moment: “I’m sorry. I’m not sure I believe I just heard you say that.”
“You were right,” I repeated. “I spent all Saturday trying to find holes in your logic, and I couldn’t find any.” I shrugged. “I have no idea where to go with that yet, but there it is.” Which was not quite true, but there were things I wasn’t going to say in a restaurant that close to Embassy Row.
She considered me for a long moment, pretty obviously shaken good and hard, and I said, “Come on, I can’t be the only person from outside who’s told you that.”
“It happens,” she said then. “Once in a blue moon, maybe. No, that’s not fair—working class people get it in a heartbeat, more often than not. They look at the way factory workers and store clerks live here, compared to how they live outside, they ask a few questions about why we do what we do, and they have no trouble at all figuring out the rest for themselves.”
I thought about the family of immigrants I’d seen on the train from Pittsburgh, and the conversation I’d had with the father of the family. “But people who are well off, well educated, part of the system.”
“The minority that still gets some benefit out of progress,” she said.
That stung, but I knew she was right. “Yes.”
“Once in a blue moon.”
Neither of us said anything for a while. Our plates got empty and our drinks got refilled; a couple of dishes of baklava came out for dessert, and when we started talking again it was about uncontroversial things, the Toledo Opera’s future plans, funny stories about trade negotiations, that sort of thing. I guessed that she was still trying to process what I’d said, which was reasonable; so was I.
Finally the meal ended. She was looking really tired by that point—no surprises there—so we settled pretty much right away that nobody was going to end up in anybody else’s bed that night. I gave her a kiss, helped her into her coat, and got her onto a taxi headed for her place. My hotel wasn’t too many blocks away, so I waited until the taxi had turned the corner and set off on foot.
The sky was still clear and a rising wind swept down the streets, hissing in the bare branches of streetside trees. Overhead the stars glittered, and now and then something bright shot across some portion of the sky and burnt out, one more fragment of business as usual falling out of the place we’d stuck it and thought it would stay forever.
In less than forty-eight hours I’d be back in the Atlantic Republic: on my way home to Philadelphia, where three decades of effective one-party rule by the Dem-Reps had just gone out the window in a landslide and taken the status quo with it. The new administration would have to scramble to find its feet in a world gone topsy-turvy, where there were too many hard questions and nothing like enough straightforward answers. For that matter. I was going to be facing some hard questions of my own, and I was far from sure I had any straightforward answers, either.
Another chunk of dead satellite traced a streak of light across the sky, dissolved in a flurry of sparks. I kept on walking.
In other fiction-related news, two magazines with links to this blog have something to report. Into the Ruins, the recently started deindustrial SF quarterly edited by Joel Caris, has just released its second issue. I’m delighted to say that it’s a worthy successor to the first issue, with a lively mix of short stories and a letters to the editor column that’s really starting to pick up. Fans may also want to know that this issue includes the first installment of a regular column by yours truly, "Deindustrial Futures Past," reviewing older works of science fiction set in the aftermath of industrial civilization.