Don Rogers: End of world for Christmas
What is it about dystopia anyway that makes for such delightful pandemic reading?
“The Road,” by the one and only Cormac McCarthy, devastating. “Station 11,” Nevada County’s prescient 2020 Big Read selection whose author’s appearance here was all too eerily canceled by COVID, at the time way too close for comfort to the flu-ish pandemic that ended the world in Emily St. John’s story. And lately, “The Handmaiden’s Tale,” Margaret Atwood’s exploration of consequences if democracy really were to drive into a ditch.
Way, way back in late March, drinking way too much wine — I’m a beer guy — I discovered “The Great Bay: Chronicles of the Collapse,” by Dale Pendell, in those long lockdown hours before it became clear the forecasts of up to 2 million dead in the United States alone by the end of the year were fiction.
Yes, I know, the real toll is serious enough. Keep your distance, wear your mask, wash your hands. As with the Asian Flu in 1958, the last pandemic about this deadly here and around the world, vaccination soon will make all the difference.
Meantime, I’ve got another great dystopian book suggestion for Christmas. I’d give it to my wife if I hadn’t already.
Civilization’s decline in this one — “Heart Wood: Four Women, for the Earth, for the Future,” by Camptonville’s Shirley Dickard — is less pandemic than bad fake food and a swift rise of climate change. Still, it lands in a familiar scorched landscape with lots gone wrong, all the more intriguing for taking place largely in our neck of the woods.
My thirst for dystopian literature these days must be like drinking coffee on a hot day to cool off.
We live for now in a weird twilight of hard times for many of us and never better for others — Realtors, contractors, accountants, sellers of building and garden supplies, anyone able to work from home for a tech giant like Google or Amazon. But restaurants, most of Main Street, local news media, event businesses, ski resorts … well, not so much.
Even most hospitals have been struggling big time for lack of patients while waiting on COVID. And who before now thought running a cash register should qualify for hazard pay?
I’m struck by the rich folk, so many around here retired, white and Progressive, able to hunker down while the essentials provide and pay the consequences. There’s a little something dystopian about that. Not to mention highly ironic. Fodder here for the likes of Phillip K. Dick and Margaret Atwood most definitely.
AT THE HEART
I gravitate to the dystopian aspects of “Heart Wood,” but it’s at least as much northern California pioneer fiction as well as a good look at the Back to the Land movement of more recent times. There’s also a shorter, more mystical segment drawing on indigenous roots involving a certain tree on the other side of the country that falls in a storm and whose heartwood becomes a special writing desk. That desk naturally sits at the core of the story.
I wasn’t prepared to love this novel as I did. I know Shirley just a tiny bit from her labor of love helping edit the Camptonville Courier these past two decades. This was one of those “if you liked ‘The Great Bay,’ well, you’ll have to check out” … and she sent me a copy when her book came out in April. I think it was April.
But what’s not to love? The story, the stories, intrigued me: The college girl who marries an older man and endures so much as she rides the wagon west. The strong woman in current times who builds a life in the foothills and staves off developments and dams. The distressed young doctor in the future who takes a boat up the Central Valley sea from San Francisco in troubled times and finds the ol’ homestead. The stories, all hard and unsentimental, braid together into a cord I found strong and even hopeful.
The tough times in the story make our lives today easier to take. It’s not that tough, after all, waiting on the UPS van, tisk tisking local restaurants trying to hang in there while surprisingly free of COVID in fact if not popular notion. This is nothing like coming over in the wagon, nothing like hacking a new life out of wild hillside and manzanita, nothing like the Black Death of antiquity culling young and old and cutting the human population by fully half in some unlucky places.
No, for all our fright, the human population today is metastasizing — this the true pandemic, the curve still running straight up, up, up. And think of all the far more deadly diseases we’ve all but vanquished. Only too late for the Hawaiians, the Sioux, countless others.
Maybe that’s the allure dystopian stories hold for me, drinking my coffee in the morning as I read on, pages turning fast.
It’s not that I worry so much that they paint the truth if we don’t change our evil ways. One of my favorites, “The Water Knife,” by Paolo Bacigalupi, has fresh water vanishing across the Southwest and unrelenting misery as a result. Well, we have the technology today to desalinate at scale to go with the ability to pump any fluid anywhere. The problem here is money and those lovely politics, which only leave me glum in the present, not for the future.
The future is bright, I’m telling you.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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