This is the twenty-fifth and last installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator spends his last few hours in the Lakeland Republic, finds an answer to a question that has been bothering him, and boards the train back to Pittsburgh and the unknowns that wait there...
There wasn’t much more to be said after that, and so we all mouthed the usual things and I headed back to my hotel. The rain had settled in good and hard by then, so I didn’t dawdle. Back in the room, I got my coat and hat hung up to dry a little, and then turned the radio on to the jazz station, settled into the chair, and read the morning news. I had one more appointment at noon, and a train to catch at 2:26 that afternoon, and not a thing to do until then; I knew that I was going to be up to my eyeballs in meetings, briefings, and two weeks of unanswered textmails the minute I got back home; and just at the moment, the thought of taking some time at the Lakeland Republic’s less frantic pace and trying to make a little more sense of the world had a definite appeal.
I’d already read the headlines, so there weren’t too many surprises in store, though a United Nations panel had issued another warning about the zinc shortage, and meteorologists were predicting that the monsoons would fail in south Asia for the third year in a row. Two more satellites had been taken out by debris; a second jokulhlaup down in Antarctica had chucked another thousand square miles or so of ice sheet into the Indian Ocean; stock markets everywhere outside the Lakeland Republic had had another really bad day; the ceasefire negotiations in the California civil war had gotten off to a rocky start, and more details had gotten through about the opening rounds of the Texas-Confederate war—both sides’ offshore oil fields had taken even more of a hit than the original reports suggested.
That was only about half of the first section, though, and it was the other half, and the rest of the paper, that held my attention. That was the stuff that wasn’t about shortages and crises. It was about what people do when they’re not being held hostage by shortages and crises. There were birth announcements, marriage announcements, obituaries; a new streetcar line out to one of Toledo’s eastern neighborhoods was in the planning stages, with public meetings scheduled to sort out the route over the winter and tracklaying planned to start next May; a high school student was honored for volunteering more than a thousand hours reading the daily newspaper over one of the Toledo radio stations, for blind people and shut-ins; the big local shipyard had just bought another piece of property and would be hiring another three hundred people to meet the demand for shipping.
Then there were the help-wanted ads, pages and pages of them, looking for shipwrights, file clerks, millworkers, secretaries, mechanics, all the jobs that got automated or offshored out of existence back home and were keeping people busy and self-supporting here. There were two full pages of apprenticeship ads—if I’d wanted to become a carpenter, a pharmacist, a plumber, a doctor, an electrician, a millwright, a teacher, or a lawyer, just for starters, I would have had no trouble in the world figuring out where to apply.
All the while, though, the thoughts that had circled through my head on the trip back from Janice Mikkelson’s mansion hung in the air around me, and not even Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos on the radio could chase them away. People knew long before I was born that the things we were doing were going to end really, really badly, and yet everyone just kept on marching ahead, making the same dumb decisions over and over again, convinced that if they just did the same thing one more time it would undo the bad results they’d gotten every other time they’d done it. If you discover that you’re in a hole, the saying is, the first thing to do is stop digging—but that’s exactly what nobody was willing to do, because they’d convinced themselves that digging the hole deeper was the only way to get out of it.
That was the thing that twisted like a knife. The climate mess that was dumping icebergs off Antarctica and had already turned half of Manhattan into a rusting ruin that flooded deeper with every high tide, the Kessler syndrome that was busy putting an end to the space age, the cascading shortages that were taking a bigger bite out of the world’s economies every single year: none of those had happened by accident. They weren’t the result of fate, or destiny, or any of that claptrap. We’d progressed straight into each of them.
Of course progress also churned out plenty of good things back in the day—that’s why the jobs in the help-wanted ads weren’t limited to “peasant.” Somehow, though, most people outside the Lakeland Republic never got around to noticing when the costs of progress started to outweigh the benefits. Everybody kept talking about how progress was supposed to make people’s lives easier and better even when it started making people’s lives harder and worse, and when some part of that became too hard to ignore, everybody insisted that the only option was to go in for yet another round of progress.
And somehow, I thought, I’m going to have to explain all this to the people back home.
So I was in a pretty sour mood, all things considered, by the time the radio stopped playing jazz and the eleven o’clock news came on instead. I turned it off, got my coat and hat back on, grabbed my suitcase, and headed down to the lobby to check out. After two weeks in the Lakeland Republic, I wasn’t too surprised when the clerk wrote something with a pen in a notebook full of sheets of paper, took my key, and wished me a good trip home in less time than it would have taken a hotel clerk elsewhere to get the computer to do whatever it is hotel computers do. Then I was out on the sidewalk under the canopy in front of the hotel door. The rain was still pelting down, but I flagged down a cab to go the train station.
Not quite half an hour later I got out in front of the station, paid my fare, got my suitcase, and headed in. The big vaulted space with benches on one side and ticket counters on the other was pretty well stocked with people going about their lives. I headed over to a window to one side of the ticket counters, stashed my suitcase with the clerk there—I’d asked Melanie about that and so knew what to do—and then headed for one of the restaurants on the side closest to the street. The place was starting to fill up with the lunch trade, but a glance back at the big clock on the wall above the platform doors showed me that I was still early. I went in anyway, asked the greeter for a table for two, got seated at a little table over by the windows looking at the street, shed my coat and hat, and ordered a chicory coffee to kill the time.
I’m not sure how much time passed, and how many cabs stopped to disgorge their passengers on the curb out front, before one of them finally let out the person I was waiting for. It was Melanie, of course, bundled up in a raincoat and broad-brimmed hat the way she’d been when we’d first met. She got most of the way to the station entrance before she spotted me there in the window; she waved, so did I, and then she hurried inside out of the rain and came around to the restaurant entrance. A few moments later she was settling into the chair across the table from me.
The waitress came over pretty much the moment Melanie sat down, so we got menus and talked about little things that don’t matter for a bit, until the waitress came back and took the menus and our order. I waited until she was gone, and then said, “I admit I’m really curious about Meeker’s reaction.”
“I bet,” she said, with a sly smile.
That was what I expected her to say, and she knew that I expected it, so I smiled too. Everybody in my line of work makes jokes about horizontal diplomacy; of course it’s discouraged, and of course it happens, and if you’re in politics and get into that kind of situation you know exactly where the lines are, and edge up to them now and then just to firm up the boundaries. When you get a relationship between two people in politics, you make extra sure that both know where the boundaries are so they don’t get in the way of the relationship, and one of the things that I liked about Melanie was that she was as professional about it all as I was.
“I’ll say this much,” she said after a moment. “You took him by surprise, which isn’t easy to do—but it was a pleasant surprise. If there’s any help you need from our side to help push things along, let us know and we’ll see what we can do.”
“Please thank him for me,” I said. “I don’t have much more of a clue about how to push this thing than I did this morning, though.”
She nodded. “May I offer a suggestion?”
“Focus on cutting subsidies. It costs a lot to prop up the illusion of progress, and if you actually make every technology cover all its own costs, things sort themselves out really quickly.”
“Granted,” I said, “but you know as well as I do that the tech sector and some of the other resource hogs are going to scream the moment anybody tries to push them away from the feed trough.”
“True. The one advantage of this wretched war is that Ellen Montrose may have a little less trouble making that happen.”
I nodded, conceding. “The war and the economy,” I said. “Our stock market had another ghastly day yesterday, and I’m pretty sure the impact of losing the Gulf oil fields hasn’t really hit yet.”
The waitress came back with lunch, made a little conversation, and headed off to the next table. “One thing that might help,” I said then, “is if more people from our side of the border come here and see what you’ve done on this side. I know I was completely clueless about what was going on here, even after reading a pretty fair stack of briefing documents. I’d like to see more people see for themselves, if that can be done without putting too much of a burden on you.”
“We can handle it,” said Melanie.
“I also meant you personally,” I said with a smile.
“I survived the Honorable Velma Streiber,” she said, with a smile of her own. “After that I think I can handle just about anything.”
I laughed, and so did she. We busied ourselves with our respective plates for a few minutes.
“I wonder,” she said then. “If you really want people from your side of the border to see what we’re doing on ours, President Montrose might want to make an official visit. We’d be happy to host something like that.”
I considered her. “That’s a real possibility.” Then: “Have you had any other heads of state visit?”
“A few.” She gestured with her fork, dismissing the idea. “Once diplomatic relations got reestablished after the Treaty of Richmond, we let it be known that we’d be happy to welcome any head of state that wanted to pay a visit, and reciprocate. The President of Chicago’s been here, of course—show me a country in North America he hasn’t visited—and we’ve exchanged state visits with Quebec and Missouri, but everyone else has backed away uneasily from the suggestion.” The fork jabbed down into her chef’s salad. “We’re still North America’s pariah nation, you know.”
“Even though your way of doing things works,” I said.
“No.” She glanced up at me. “Because our way of doing things works.”
We ate in silence for another few minutes. Of course her words made me think yet again of the same frustrating question I’d been brooding over earlier. It must have showed in my face, because she said,
“Penny for your thoughts.”
“Penny for your thoughts.”
“Just wondering why it is that everyone else keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, trying to fix their problems by doing more of what made the problem in the first place.”
“I have a suggestion.” When I gestured for her to go on: “I think it’s because all your talented people get put to work building new gadgets, instead of coming up with solutions for the problems that gadgets can’t fix. That means you have too many gadgets and a serious shortage of solutions.”
I stared at her for a moment. “And since your talented people aren’t working on gadgets—”
“We’ve found some solutions. Yes.” Then: “There was nothing wrong with seeing how far progress could go and still get useful results. The problem was simply that people forgot to stop once they passed that point. We’ve got all the gadgets we need; you’ve got more than you need—and maybe it’s time to stop putting all our talents and our efforts into more gadgets and get to work on some of the other things that go into being human.”
I nodded after another, longer moment, but I knew already that I had my answer.
We talked about other things after that, mostly personal; I promised to write—the Atlantic Republic still has a postal system, though it’s nothing like as good as the one the Lakeland Republic has—and so did she; I paid the bill, we kissed, and then she went back to the Capitol and I got my suitcase from the baggage room and headed for the doors to the platforms.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Train Twenty-two to Pittsburgh via Sandusky, Canton, and Steubenville,” someone called out. “Now boarding at Platform Six. Train Twenty-two.”
I showed my ticket, and a couple of minutes later I was on Platform Six. A conductor took another look at my ticket and sent me three cars up, to a car that was going all the way to the end of the line. I climbed aboard, got my suitcase stowed, and settled into a window seat on the right hand side.
What was going to happen when I got back home, I knew, was a complete crapshoot. Among Ellen’s top advisers, I’d been the most outspoken critic of her planned reworking of government policies, and so it was pretty much a given that once I threw my support to the plan, it would go ahead. Just how far the legislature would be willing to cut government subsidies for technology and stop penalizing employers for hiring workers was another question, and just how much of the broader Lakeland Republic program would be adopted was an even bigger one. The more clear it became that what they were doing worked, and what we were doing didn’t, the easier it would be to push that ahead, but there would be plenty of resistance among those who still thought that it made some kind of sense to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results.
Maybe I could make it work, and maybe I couldn’t. Maybe my term as ambassador to the Lakeland Republic would be successful, and maybe I’d flop. Maybe the other North American nations could get Texas and the Confederacy to agree to a ceasefire before they ran both nations into the ground, and maybe we’d all end up with failed states on our southern borders and a world-class refugee problem. For that matter, though I had high hopes for the relationship Melanie and I had gotten going, there was no way to know in advance if that would work out in the long run or turn out to be a flash in the pan. The future hides in a cloud, and you just don’t know what’s going to pop out of it.
The conductor came through, calling out his “All aboard!” as a last handful of passengers got on. Doors clattered shut. No, I thought, there’s no way to tell in advance what’s behind the cloud that hides the future, but maybe—just maybe—I can make a difference.
The car jolted once, and then began to move.
******************In other fiction-related news, Founders House Publishing—the publishers of Star’s Reach and the After Oil anthologies—has just released the second volume of Ralph Meima’s Inter States series, Emergent Disorder. It’s a harrowing and uncomfortably plausible vision of the United States in terminal crisis, and readers of my novel Twilight’s Last Gleaming may want to check it out. It can be ordered here.