Apocalypse 2020, Canberra: Day 1

New Year's Eve was the clearest day for over a month, with blue skies visible and hardly any smoke haze at all. It was even relatively cool - low 30s, centigrade. We all rushed around opening doors and windows, airing our houses and hanging out washing, and enjoying the outdoors. Meanwhile, along the coast a couple of hours drive away the news was worsening: towns evacuating to the beach, into boats, onto lakes. The Navy was called out and a couple of ships set sail from Sydney, to help with refueling and evacuating duties. The roads to the coast were cut off, the power was going out, and nobody knew when the phone lines would crash. The last pictures showed nightmare scenes: children wearing facemasks as their boats puttered away into the midday darkness, fleeing the glowing orange shore.

As evening closed in we left for a small backyard gathering. As I stepped out the front door a drop of water fell on my face and I swore, startled: I haven't felt rain since September, when I was in a completely different and much wetter country. In our friend's backyard we stood around in the open, drinking beers (well, I had a shandy) and enjoying the light spattering of rain. It wasn't enough to put out a fire, but at least it might give the firefighters a chance to control a few fire fronts, maybe even get some backburning done.

Then, in the space of twenty minutes around 6pm, the smoke rolled in. We were sitting under the shed door, playing some retro video games, when we noticed the smell. Unlike the dank, stale smoke of the past weeks this was fresh and it smelt close, like someone next door had lit a campfire.

It wasn't a campfire.

The smoke just kept rolling in, thicker and thicker. Even my eyes - apparently unaffected by the weeks of smoke before - started to sting. Everything tasted like smoke. The RFS Fires Near Me app said there was no new fire, just the same record breaking monsters that we've watched since spring.

We drove home through a ghost town. This was worse than the worst ever fog. No police cars. No other partygoers. No kangaroos or rabbits dashing across the roads in front of us, although we could barely see the sides of the road. When I climbed out the passenger side of the car, I could see a haze of smoke around my husband, getting out on the driver's side.

This morning he set his air filter up in the living room, running on the turbo setting. At 10am friends arrived: they needed respite from the smoke. They wore industrial facemasks, even inside, mopping reddened eyes and wheezing. We sat around the air filter, becoming experts in air quality indexes as we checked hourly updates. The Air Quality Index says that pollutant levels over 200 are hazardous. As we went to bed, they reached 2000. By morning they were well over 3000. Carbon monoxide levels are considered poor at 100; they peaked early this morning, about 5am, a little over 240.

As the day progressed, households sent people out to scour shops for more facemasks, and a few businesses opened despite the public holiday to sell them at discounted prices. People turned off their evaporative coolers (the kind that draw air in from outside the house) and hung wet towels over gaps in windows and doors. By early afternoon, as the carbon monoxide levels dropped back below 150, bad moods and short tempers eased and we were able to offer each other snippets of positive thinking: at least the cooler temperature and lack of wind would be a benefit to the firefighters. At least the fires were still a good 40km away.

Later in the afternoon, with carbon monoxide levels now back to fair at 68, but the pollutants still climbing, even the hardiest eyes began to sting and tempers once again frayed as the thickness and intensity of the smoke brought back visceral memories of past bushfires.

Pollutant levels peaked about 8pm at 5185 - almost 26 times the levels considered hazardous. Three hours later a light breeze has brought an easing, and the pollutants are slightly below 5000 - although the carbon monoxide is creeping back up.

The cooler, less windy conditions have allowed many to flee the coast along temporarily opened roads, through precarious conditions, bringing them home to the relative safety of a city that is not at present on fire, although it certainly smells like it. My son is asleep in my bed, near the air filter, exhaustion having overtaken nausea and stinging eyes. We are desperate for relief, but we know that any wind strong enough to clear our air will cost more houses, and maybe lives.

I've had a request to fill the January 1, 2020 nodeshell because I created it. Of course, Nemosym has beaten me to it with far more compelling material than I have but, hey, I have to start this Quest somewhere, so:

Writing: As many noders know, I sold a book last autumn. It should be out before the end of this year. The Con (and other stories) takes place at a Toronto-area hotel simultaneously hosting an SF Convention, a meeting of the Jane Austen Society, and (according to the principal narrator), an actual alien presence. Of course, the narrator may be delusional, tale-spinning, or both. Alternatively, the alien presence may really exist. So my first published novel/la will be drama/comedy/SF with an embedded YA subplot and a Jane Austen crossover. Due to its relatively short length, it will include two related short stories, because who doesn't tie their drama/comedy/SF with an embedded YA subplot and a Jane Austen crossover into a broader fictional universe?

It's also a meditation on the nature of belief and reality and the ethereal things that drive human beings: stories, belief-systems, and love, for example. I didn't sell on theme, however, and I don't worry too much about how each reader will process the thematic elements. The publisher believed in the characters and the story, and that pleases me a good deal.

You will be able to purchase it as both a hard copy (paperback) and an e-book. The e-book, I am told, won't feature different fonts for the major and minor narrators. You'll have to hold an actual, physical book in your hands to see that feature.

The beta readers include my wife, my friends Kristen and Darby, my nephew James, and Singularity Girl, my one-time teen sidekick, who has grown into a friend and a mother and actually inspired one of the characters. Partial beta readers-- people who read one of the stories and provided feedback, or read a select portion of the novel-- include RedOmega, lizardinlaw, Jet-Poop, and a few others. My friend T, who teaches mathematics, read a portion that includes a math reference, to see that I knew what I thought I was talking about. M, who is the age of the YA characters, gave me feedback on those portions.

Viewing: I haven't yet watched the latest Star Wars, because I cannot get excited about the post-original-trilogy continuity, simultaneously cartoony and egregiously self-serious. I'll see it, but, in the end, there were three fun movies called Star Wars that channelled mythology through pop-culture tropes, and we'll always have 1977. I have a perverse curiosity regarding Cats, but I may wait for the video. I spent a good part of today watching The Irishman, Martin Scorsese's brilliantly-made but too-familiar account of CRIME and CORRUPTION in America, 1950s to 1980s. The movie apparently stays fairly true to the book, but truckloads of people have called into question significant portions of the book. Truth aside, De Niro gives a great performance, the de-aging CGI works and, for what it's worth, Anna Paquin does just fine with her whole seven words of dialogue.

The evening of Boxing Day, with the Christmas celebrations now slept away, we watched the first two episodes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I expected to be underwhelmed, because I assumed nothing would live up to the hype generated by the show's first three seasons. It won us over. Well-acted, expensively-produced, and funny, it makes for a strange kind of comedic, female successor to Mad Men. We'll continue with it in the future. However, we have the fourth season of The Expanse to see first. We might even get to that on the weekend.

More immediately, we're going to watch the return of Doctor Who tonight. I like the new Doctor, and wish she had consistently better writers. Maybe this season will gel. As someone who generally follows no more than two TV shows at a time, it's kind of nice to have one to tune into each week, like in the old days. Current series feel like long-term commitments. When do people find the time?

When did we start taking our fantasies so seriously?

Reading (hard copy): Having finally gotten around to reading Jeffery Eugenides's Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex last month, I've turned to some non-fiction. Kurt Andersen's Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History is not an academic book, per se, but it showcases considerable learning and cites numerous sources in arguing Andersen's thesis. The book sees America as both historically and increasingly fantasy-prone. He also argues that, although "conservatives" (and putting aside here that no viable definitions of "conservative" or "liberal" exist in American discourse, other than, if you see yourself as one of these, the other is teh Bad Guys) were the first and loudest in decrying the moral and cultural relativism of the 1960s, they have benefited the most from it. You want fantasy thinking? Armies of self-proclaimed conservatives, evangelical Christians, and other supporters of traditional values loudly champion America's serially adulterous, compulsively lying, irreligious president as a gift from God.

The book is not without its flaws. I argue its author misreads The Wizard of Oz, which is rarely a good sign. He identifies as "American" some trends which strike me as characteristic of human history. However, he offers much that he can support, you know, with evidence. In particular, I like when someone documents, yet again, the very recent vintage of much that constitutes America's version of old-time religion.

As historian Sarah Vowell writes in her review, "The people who should read this book won't-- because it's a book-- but reality-based citizens will get a kick out of this winning romp through centuries of American delusion."

What do we do with a culture that believes everything it reads online?

Reading (electronic): Thanks to bizarre chance and poor weather, I stumbled onto a forgotten controversy from more than a decade ago, and spent an hour or so swimming in that. In January of 2006, a reporter from The New York Magazine wrote an hilariously sensationalist piece entitled "The Cuddle Puddle of Stuyvesant High School." Stuyvesant is an elite NY public school that takes top marks to enter-- unless you pass yourself off as Typical Teen and just walk in, which is what the reporter apparently did. The article focuses on a tiny clique that contains a range of queer kids. Anyone who works with or even knows a few teens would immediately perceive that our intrepid reporter misrepresents more than she understands. Rude jokes and sexy banter get reported as declarations of lifestyle. Kisses and crushes become orgies.

If the article was inflammatory, the comments across the World Wide Web frequently wandered into hysteria. "Ancient Rome has nothing on New York," opines one poster, in response to accounts of such things as same-sex kissing. Another doesn't know if they've "ever read something so disgustingly atrocious" and "cannot believe that nobody is doing anything about this!!" Bad examples in the Media come in for blame, of course, and we get parallels drawn at one forum with that pinnacle of Accurate Teen portrayal, Larry Clark's Kids. Someone waxes nostalgic about the days when being queer at high school meant your life was in danger. And some religious home-schooling sites added the article, at least at the time, to their arsenals of justifications for not sending your offspring to a public school. A talk radio host expresses outrage because one girl says to another that she wants to have her baby. I work with teens, and sir, that is an old one.

At Freerepublic, one poster responded that "We badly need to bring back the stocks and whipping post." I have a few questions for that poster, assuming he or she is not just a troll. What activities, real or imagined, of these teens, would he see as deserving of flogging? Just curious-- did he vote for Trump? Or were the references to stocks and whips merely to heighten his response to an already sexualized piece of writing?

Granted, many people, even at the most pearl-clutching of sites, identified the article as, in all probability, distorted, exaggerated, and just possibly, projecting some of the author's fantasies. Faculty and students complained. A Stuyvesant student editorial that decried inaccurate reports about public schools generally called the Cuddle Puddle piece "more misleading than derogatory," but noted that the invasive and ethically problematic actions of the reporter played a key role in the school's tightened door security. One of the girls profiled commented at the Gothamite ("Lesbo Sluts Run Wild at Stuyvesant High!"):

The reporter talked about social activism and awareness. She took hours of notes on our ideas both politically and socially. And what did she do???? She published trash and splashed my name, and the names of my friends all over it. There are, unfortunately no lesbo sluts running wild, and the name "cuddle puddle" was something the reporter pulled out of thin air. It is in fact a group of kids hanging out in a hallway, doing all the normal things that kids who hang out do...there is no excessive hooking up, no crazy sex, and a very small amount of "offensive lesbian activity."

It is interesting what survives in odd corners of the World Wide Web.

reQuest 2020: an E2 reVue

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