There's No Vermont in the Bad Reality
In science fiction, the Bad Reality is a treasure-trove of plot. By virus,
war, alien invasion, drug craze or collective mania, civilization has
crashed. The story begins in nightmare and usually gets worse.
But almost all such stories (the published ones, anyway) include at least
the idea of the Good Place. Safety. Haven. Sanctuary. The survivors long
for it, dream of it, journey toward it, die in sight of it, or achieve
it at last. Its Vermont, too cold for contagion, in I Am Legend,
Dryland in Waterworld,
Canada in The Handmaids Tale,
men living wild downriver who have memorized whole books, in Fahrenheit
Apparently were willing to slog through these fictional dystopic
horrors as long as we believe that therell be a Good Place by the
end. Or maybe this kind of entertainment is like a vaccine made of a killed
virus we may sicken, but we dont die.
In this century, the disasters most likely to befall our species are
no respecters of state lines or high ground. Borders dont stop Ebola,
AIDS, or bird flu. Hiding under a desk doesnt protect a child from
a nuclear bomb. Loving our neighbors doesnt protect us from religious
war. Yet some people are immune, some lucky, some aware of the moment
to leave the neighborhood. The Good Place is still possible, though fate,
chance, or magic may determine who reaches that place.
Irena Klepfisz brilliant poem, Bashert, captures
These words are dedicated to those
because a card was lost and a number was skipped
because a bed was denied
because a place was filled and no other place was left
These words are dedicated to those who survived
because their second grade teacher gave them books
because they did not draw attention to themselves and got lost in the
because they knew someone who knew someone else who could
help them and bumped into them on a corner on a Thursday afternoon
because they played it safe
because they were lucky
Klepfisz is writing about the holocaust of the Nazi era. Like thousands
of other survivors and artists over the intervening years, she makes and
remakes the story, trying to make sense of it, why an individual was survivor
or statistic, hero or betrayer, sane or broken. Its both a philosophers
touchstone and a desperately personal midnight question. After all, were
a species of confabulators the constant makers of stories to explain
our perceptions. No wonder young novelists learn to inject hope to deepen
tragedy, and vice versa.
No wonder we humans are so resistant to the nonfictional troubles were
facing. They dont make a good story. An ice age, a fetid worldsoup
or a desert. No clean water anywhere. Theres no Vermont thats
magically safe from glacier-melt or the inexorable ocean or the choice
to die from tainted water or from thirst.
The real world, Gaia or planet or real estate, doesnt have an escape
hatch, except maybe the fictions we create books and movies,
music, churches, hedonism, a future in space to distract ourselves,
to provide the mental escape hatch and not the suicide bombers solution.
TV and blog news, oddly, both take us into reality and protect us from
it. That moment when the tidal wave overran Phuket in 2004
I wont forget it. In my imagination, though not my body, I drown
again and again. That empathy is what moves the world to send money and
food and emergency specialists to strangers
because were part
of it. But also because we have money and food enough, because the tidal
wave didnt destroy our towns, our families, our lives. Because we
didnt drown. Because were not part of it.
So the distant tragedies that bring us closer to each other also separate
us into a fatalistic us and them. Making us feel safer
until the dustbowl, tornado, virus, civil war, or financial crash reaches
Whew. Even a few paragraphs of the Bad Reality wear me out. (You too,
I expect.) Im only human: I reach for the Good Place, and it isnt
far: Woodsmoke at dawn. The sun-washed brilliant leaves on the driveway.
A red-tailed hawk ten feet overhead. The Adagio for Strings
on the radio. Memory, self-questioning, letting go the cauldron
of change in the electric dark of Hallows.
For many people, the really Good Place is elsewhere: Heaven, Nirvana,
Paradise. For me its here, the Earth, and thereve been a lot
of catastrophes in my heaven in the last couple of years.
So many catastrophes that all kinds of people even the people whose
off-planet heaven awaits them have become concerned about
what theyll be leaving behind for the grandkids. These days you
never know whom youll meet on this precious common ground.
Oil-based candidates are actually speaking of energy from wind, water,
and solar (always in the same order, for some reason, and always in a
single sentence). Still, its astonishing that theyre convinced
they have to go there. Is it possible that the world has changed
under their feet and set them dancing for balance?
The haters are flourishing, its an election year in the U.S., and
uncivil war goes on and on and on. Bad news comes at us 24/7. But were
only human; we cant help it: we persist in reaching for the Good
Place. It isn't far.
- “I am Legend”, film directed
by Francis Lawrence, released by Warner Brothers Pictures in 2007,
based on the book of the same name by Richard Matheson, Walker and
- “Waterworld”, film directed
by Kevin Reynolds, released by Universal Pictures, 1995, based on
a script by Peter Rader and David Twohy.
- The Handmaid’s Tale,
novel by Margaret Atwood. Toronto, Ont.: McClelland and Stewart, 1985.
- Fahrenheit 451,
novel by Ray Bradbury. Random House, 1953.
- “Bashert,” poem
by Irena Klepfisz, first published in Keeper of Accounts, Watertown,
MA: Persephone Press, 1082. The poem is available as of 10/31/2008
- The Adagio for Strings
composed by Samuel Barber, 1936. Available as of 10/31/2008 at http://www.goear.com/listen.php?v=9cdcfbc.