Biding Our Time in the Sinking City
Plus my best quote about "cultural fracking."
Today is my birthday, and a month ago I’d been planning to celebrate by getting on an international flight and heading off to Sweden for an exciting few months writing about energy futures around the Arctic Circle. Sadly, this isn’t happening yet, and might not happen for another couple months. We’re still awaiting a decision from the Swedish Migration Agency on my work permit application, a process that is turning out to take a lot longer than either we or the university that hired me anticipated.
This limbo has been stressful. We’ve been in a state of moving and not moving at the same time, our house half packed up, unable to sign off on housing in Luleå, forced to hold hostage the plans of our housemates and subletters, at the mercy of an opaque and confusing process, standing in a queue with thousands of other people waiting for their turn to be let in. All of which, along with a fresh COVID scare in our household, has dramatically limited my writing and thinking capacities in recent weeks.
This experience has given me a new appreciation for how un-flat and un-frictionless the world is. Money moves quite easily across borders——last time I was abroad, I gave barely a thought to how I’d pay for things, and instead just ate a minor surcharge for using my cards. Commodities are pretty free flowing. But people remain sticky and tricky.
Deciding who gets to be where is a real bastion of power for the nation state that, for good or ill, has resisted a lot of the ruthless efficiencies of globalization. Once you immerse yourself in the system, it becomes clear that in most countries immigration is designed to be hard, to require patience and persistence, and in some sense to be arbitrary and capricious, a deterrent.
A lot of people like it that way, and plenty would like it to be even harder and more difficult. For all that these sorts of anti-immigration concerns are stoked by race, xenophobia, and blame-shifting by capitalists and right wing demagogues, it does seem like, at the core of it, some folks don’t like it when others get to move in.
The left, meanwhile, worries about displacement, about rents going up, about swamped labor markets breaking worker power, about the structural and literal violence of colonialism. Those concerns are a lot more valid, but it makes for a muddled picture when radicals demand open borders and human rights and amnesty for immigrants.
I’ve been thinking a bunch this month of Malka Older’s book Infomocracy (and sequels). It depicts a near future in which most nation-states have been dissolved into a larger system of global “micro-democracy,” with each 100k-person “centenal” district electing its own distributed government within the larger governance framework. This system produces a lot of energetic politics, but seems, on the whole, a lot more peaceful, free, and democratic.
Infomocracy is one of the only works of speculative fiction I’ve read that truly seems to get globalization as a fundamentally new trend in human affairs. A few others take a stab at it——Ada Palmer’s Too Like The Lightning comes to mind——but this is the one with a future Earth that, while radically different, is still recognizable. Places and peoples in the world of Infomocracy maintain their unique characters while also being a very porous to both humans and governance. And, without much Pollyanna utopianism, communities are allowed to pick their own policy regimes, while individuals are each nominally able to strike their preferred balance between mobility and stability, between being a cosmopolitan globetrotter and maintaining strong ties with a community and the land.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to strike my own balance on these issues as I get going on my own not-quite-utopian novel project, set in an alternate history with three centuries of very different politics. What becomes of nations and borders a century after global socialist revolution? What does sovereignty for colonized peoples mean in practice in a world in which colonialism was cut short but globalizing development of transportation and communication capacities wasn’t? Given our own fractious immigration/migration politics and culture war, it’s hard to imagine that even a world without economic competition and precarity would avoid fighting over who gets to live where.
The other week C and I shared our visa woes with the cashier at our local burrito joint, where we are regulars enough that we often make chitchat with the staff. The cashier shared her own immigration woes: a relative had recently been deported by ICE back to Mexico, even after a protracted process of community appeals.
This felt like a lot rougher of an encounter with a state immigration apparatus than our stress over waiting for my work papers to come through. Still, the story came with a strong current of solidarity. There’s nothing quite like waiting in line to make one aware of how much we all both depend on and are at the mercy of other people doing their jobs, often people far away who we never get to meet. We Live In A Society and all that. There’s no feeling good about it, but at least we aren’t alone.
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On Cultural Fracking
This week I was quoted extensively in a writeup of “cultural fracking” in the Canadian Media Fund’s excellent 2023 Trends Report. The whole report is pretty interesting and well researched, so I recommend giving it a peruse.
The term was coined by my good friend Jay Springett, who is also featured in the piece. Not long after I wrote “Voice of Their Generation,” a short story about creativity in a future of infinite franchise mashups (and machine-generated content). In an interview about the story, I defined cultural fracking as “the capitalist process of endlessly extracting new value out of the sedimentary layers of meaning that comprise mass culture from the past.”
This report does a great job of expanding on that definition and explaining what it means for independent creatives. Here’s probably the juiciest thing I had to say in the piece:
“Things can be common culture for like a week. We can never go back [to] that period where there were four channels and everyone knew every show, even if they didn’t watch them.… Mass culture was a collection of things that were forced on us [but] that’s never going to happen again. We’re in a new space.”
Press and Miscellany
I got a grant! I obliquely mentioned this last month, but I’ve been awarded $5k from the Arizona Arts Commission to support research and development on my next novel project. I’m very excited to not only have my work recognized like this, but also to be sharing the award list with Lia Woodall and Kris Ann Valdez, who I know from the Mighty Central Phoenix Writers Group.
I mentioned last month that I’d rounded out the year with a couple short story sales. Now that contracts are signed, I’m stoked to be able to talk about them.
I’ll be making my Analog Magazine debut with a collaboration with Corey J. White titled “Family Business.” It’s about seven generations of a wealthy family’s rise and fall and rise and fall in the climate repair industry, and how, when it comes to putting waste carbon back in the ground, the trickiest part might be building institutions that last long enough to keep it there. Corey and I had a story with similar themes come out a year ago in the aforementioned Phase Change anthology, but this is actually the first one we worked on. Originally we wrote it for the Grist Imagine 2200 cli-fi contest, but, since I got hired as a story reviewer on that contest, we ended up shopping it around elsewhere. Very stoked it’s found such a great home!
Also coming out soon, probably this spring, is “Any Percent.” This will be my first piece in the storied online venue Giganotosaurus, and it’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. This story follows Luckless: precarious warehouse worker by day, obsessed speedrunner by night. Any Life™, a neurodigital simulated reality game that allows a player to experience a full, authentic human life in the span of twenty minutes. Luckless is on a quest to beat the world record time achieving in-game “economic victory” a.k.a. becoming the richest person in the world. It’s a story of plutocrats, proles, and labor politics, and I can’t wait for you all to read it!
Art Collection: The Sinking City by Killian Eng
If you aren’t hip to Killian Eng yet, his work is incredible. Fine, sharp detail on huge, fantastical landscapes. There’s usually people in there, but they’re often made tiny by the epic scale of the adventure they’re undertaking.
Eng does a lot of IP work——posters for classic movies, stuff like that——but his personal work is what’s always caught my eye. The prints of those pieces are usually sold in very small batches, and you have to jump on them the literal minute they’re released, furiously refreshing the page like a Swifty on Ticketmaster. One of the two prints of his we have, we snatched up at exactly 10 minutes after release, when someone else let the timer run out on their cart. You snooze, you lose!
Most of our art has come down over the last month, C carefully wrapping it for moving in cardboard and butcher paper. Our house—— where I’ve lived for almost 5.5 years, almost the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere——feels a bit like this sinking city. Big chunks of what made it real and ours have disappeared. We’ve made adjustments, rearranged and recalibrated to keep on living in this place for a while longer. But increasingly it feels like we need to get out before it metaphorically comes down around our ears.
Material Reality: Bees
It’s been a good but uneventful winter season with the garden, which has supplied us this year with copious bok choy and lettuce, as well as green onions and a few other herbs. The beets C planted came up not very rooty, but with great greens. This week it’s been dropping close to freezing at night, so we’ll see what survives the frost.
We had a new visitor in our garden this last week: a swarm of bees. I went out midafternoon to empty our veggie scraps bucket and found them buzzing furiously around our compost bin. The bees only numbered in the dozens, maybe hundreds——far from the mass of thousands you see apiarists shovel with gloved hands as though they were a bizarre, living fluid. They were, however, moving with enough aggressive, territorial energy that I retreated from the bin. Possibly they were the problematically named “Africanized” breed of honeybees. Eventually I pulled on my new heavy winter parka and mittens and rushed out to retrieve our hanging laundry.
We are always a pretty attractive yard for pollinators, but this was a discrete swarm, probably drawn to something sweet we’d tossed or maybe the warmth of the black plastic bin. Or it’s just random, a stop on a young queen’s search for a new hive spot. It’s swarming season, and apparently bees have been getting into all sorts of trouble around the Valley.
I’ve had the pleasure of being involved with moving a bee swarm once before, back in the Bay Area. The way I remember it, I was hanging out with a friend in Berkeley when their beekeeping housemate got a call about a honeybee swarm in an acquaintance’s back yard. It was close by, so we all headed over. The bees had glommed onto a high tree branch, reaching over the back fence. Finding the back neighbors not home, we fetched a ladder and did some minor trespassing. We had only one set of bee gear, so our resident keeper suited up and climbed the ladder with a big Rubbermaid container. My friend and I awkwardly held the ladder steady while they shook the swarm loose into the bin. Thankfully the awkward and precarious angle of the ladder meant that we below didn’t have to worry about handfuls of bees plopping down onto our faces. When the core of the swarm was in the Rubbermaid, we came down and let them sit for a while, hoping the queen was in there to drawn in the loose members of the swarm. Once the bees had coalesced and calmed down, we carried the bin back to our beekeeper’s yard and set it down next to an empty hive box.
Sadly I don’t own bee gear, so I started calling around, seeing if anyone in the ASU sustainability school has bee expertise. Plenty of beekeepers are happy to retrieve wayward swarms and add them to their own hives, though they rarely do this for free, the way my Berkeley acquaintance did. I got a quote from a professional bee removal service that was a bit higher than I’d like, given the terms of our lease leave pest control costs firmly with us. We considered getting a hive box for the bees to move into, since we didn’t exactly mind the bees themselves so much as the way they’d taken over our compost. However a former ASU prof we talked to warned us that, based on our testimony, these did not seem like the nice kind of friendly honeybees one would want to settle down with.
Some googling has informed us that these swarms tend to move on after 48ish hours, unless they’ve decided to make a spot their permanent home. It’s been a bit longer than that now. We’re waiting on the bee guy we talked to to get back into town. But it doesn’t seem exactly pressing, at least as long as it’s cold enough out that we aren’t jumping to spend time on the patio.
A couple times I thought the bees had left, but that turned out to be just chilly morning lethargy. They’re still here, but also don’t seem to be growing in number or building their hive. Maybe they’re caught in limbo, as well, hanging out in some warm dark place until forced out or otherwise given some direction. We’ve all decided to just bide our time.
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