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Excerpt: "Politics Is Personal"
A joyous redrawing of the map. (Plus an old orb meme.)
Today and over the next four newsletters, I’m going to share excerpts from my upcoming book Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures. The book illustrates a set of climate scenarios——the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs)——and the culture of the global climate negotiations (aka The COP) in each. The excerpt below is from the SSP2 scenario, a future in which present trends continue with tangible but inadequate progress. Noah, a washed-up U.S. diplomat, has developed a crush on Saga, a prickly Swedish climate activist, leading to a series of minor PR flops. In this scene, Noah confronts Saga while waiting in line for juice.
“Just,” Noah groped for words, “we’re both here. We’re both trying our best to save the world, however badly. We probably have lots in common! I don’t get why you would mess with me even though I have zero control over US loss and damage policy. What did I do to you?”
For the first time in their short acquaintance Saga looked genuinely surprised.
“Do to me? Nothing, of course.”
“Do you dislike me for some reason? It’s the punchable face, isn’t it?”
Saga laughed and then gave him that weird smile of hers.
“I cannot dislike you. I hardly know you. None of this is personal. It’s just politics, that is all.”
“Politics is personal,” Noah said. “It’s about grudges and distrust and favor trading. We ally with those we want to spend time with and give the benefit of the doubt to people who laugh at our jokes.”
“I did just laugh at your joke,” Saga pointed out.
It was true, she had. Well, they can’t say yes if you don’t ask, Noah thought.
“Then maybe we could be friends?” he tried.
Saga shrugged again. It seemed weirdly affected, like she’d learned the gesture from a translator app.
“Why not? Let’s be friends,” she said. Noah was about to reply, but Saga turned around and ordered her juice. The boredly smiling, gender-ambiguous Thai bartender wai’ed and began to manipulate the elaborate, chrome juicer. Noah rocked on his heels, antsy, while Saga patiently waited on the whirring machine. When she received her puke-green drink in an origami cup, she looked at him again.
“As my new good friend,” the sarcasm was back, “could you arrange for Marta Tolmbly to speak at GURR!’s ‘Truth and Reckoning in Climate Accounting’ side event next week? As a personal favor, of course.”
“Umm…” Noah said. He realized the people behind him were waiting for him to order a juice. He gave the bartender an awkward none-for-me-thanks wave and stepped out of the queue. “Normally I’d be happy to, but Marta is personally not very fond of me right now, after the ECO piece. But look, why don’t we get dinner this week, or——what do you call it——’fika,’ and we can talk about how we can help each other?”
Saga sipped her juice, staring at him. She seemed to really take him in for the first time.
“Mr. Campbell, do you like coming here? To the COP?” Saga asked. It was not the reply he had expected.
Around them the pavilions buzzed. Noah became uncomfortably aware of his surroundings. People of all shapes and colors shambled past, peered down at phones or papers, rubbernecked at different countries’ flashing projection murals, stood clumped in conversation, jogged with purpose to their next session, or spun in circles in search of a friend. A writhing ant colony, each worker following another, blind but for the urging of pheromones, trying to build something enormous, bit by bit, even though none of them could see the whole.
“Yes,” he said. “For better or worse, this is where the action is. You feel a part of something here, brilliant people trying to do the hardest thing humans have ever tried to do. It’s always disappointing, but also always so impressive.”
Saga nodded. “I thought you must. You arrange your life and career to get you here, yes? Then when you get here, you network and schmooze. You learn what names to drop to get on the delegation again next year. No matter the outcome, you can find your way back. So, in a way, the outcome doesn’t matter, does it?”
“Hold on—” he began.
“I do not want to be here,” she continued. “It is too hot outside, too cold inside. I always get sick after the COP. I found a bed bug in my hostel, and I do not like to fly. I am here because my organization asks me to be here. I come back because the work keeps being left unfinished. When I leave this Sunday, I hope I never have to return, because that would mean we have won. So, I am not here to make friends. I do not believe politics is personal. Politics begins where there are millions, not these selfish thousands here. And the millions are drowning, and burning, and starving. So, I do what I can to show those with power that you do not do real politics here. Not when you jostle for position and turn catastrophe into an arena of social competition. I am neither disappointed nor impressed.”
Our Shared Storm comes out April 5. Here’s a handy button 👇
Also Coming Soon
I have a story in this great-looking anthology collecting the best of the excellent Terraform series at Vice Motherboard, coming out in August. Honestly an incredible table of contents to be a part of, plus a steller pair of editors. Preorder here!
Works In Process
The last two weeks have been some of my best, most consistent writing days in a long time, plowing steadily through the third act of my novel The Remainder. I worked through a tricky bit that had been holding me up, at a point where the novel tipped from moody downbeat into uptempo action. After that, things moved very quickly, as circumstances forced my characters to make choices based on necessity rather than idiosyncratic motivations. I put out at least 1k+ polished words each working day, which is pretty good for me, and I deepened and reorganized the plot in ways that will make the book a much more compelling whole. Once the climactic events began, I could feel, from having watched the action parts of a bajillion movies, how things should play out, and for a bit there it was mostly a matter of hammering them out while interlacing world- and character-specific moments and details and conversations——a lot of which I’d never really envisioned before the story set them up for me, but which now I can’t imagine the book without.
It was great fun, and I can see why some novelists talk about setting up a situation and a cast of characters and just letting everyone go at it, sometimes even using D&D dice randomness to determine the winners and losers of various clashes. I didn’t go quite that far, but I understand the appeal and would definitely consider taking such a chaotic, impersonal approach to a future project.
That momentum even carried me into some juicy world deepening that I’d been mulling over for some time, but that came out even better than I had planned. I think this is one of those books in which a big part of the pleasure for the reader will come from seeing a thought experiment teased out as far as it will go. Working through all the implications of an interesting premise can actually take a while, so the value the author adds is as much about saving the reader time and effort——compressing months or years of cognition into the hours or days of reading——as it is any kind of aesthetic creativity.
I read a line recently that went something like “a great story is one where the sequence of events could be laid out second-hand by someone with no stylistic flourish, and the listener will still be jumping out of their seat with excitement.” I forget where I saw this, so if any of you know the origin, please pass it on. When I asked some writer friends if they’d heard this before, the quote was met with a bit of defensiveness, a little “well that’s one kind of story, sure, if you’re into that sort of thing.” Obviously, there are books where the pleasure is in the lyricism or the painting of a beautiful picture or in emotional or social insight. But I have long felt that writing a page-turner——as derided as such books can be by ‘serious’ critics and authors——is an interesting skill that I want to have in my repertoire. I often shake my head when I hear high-brow dismissals of “the writing you get in best sellers.” Sorry, but I’d love my books to be best sellers! Writing books that lots of people want to read is kind of the goal! My friend Jaymo often reminds me that Philip K Dick (who guided his stories with another kind of randomness, the I Ching) wrote imagining that his audience was working-class people reading on the train. The Marxist in me likes that a lot.
I’ll be glad if The Remainder ends up being just as much a page-turning mystery as a literary meditation on loss. Thrillers, mysteries and sci-fi/fantasy pulp move culture and shape minds just as much, if not more, as upmarket, award-lauded, bourgeois works. And perhaps more importantly, they are sometimes more likely to reach people who, because of their material circumstances, need fresh ideas more than the chattering culture classes awash in ideology. It’s fine to write for the cocktail party, but just as much I’d like to write for the train.
Like the piece I featured at the end of December, I got this in Finland, this one in the city of Turku. It was frigid and snowy (see below for more snow content), but the lights over the Aura River warmed up the long nights. I found this piece in a little gallery by the river, and got it as a souvenier.
For my birthday, C and I drove up to Flagstaff with really no goal in mind beyond putting some hours into an audiobook and seeing the snow. What with the pandemic, it’s been a couple years since I’ve seen snow, other than small patches of melt lingering in late spring above the rim. I’m not exactly complaining about our 60F winters here in the desert——certainly not while Texas freezes again and my parents are buried under six inches of ice and powder——but nonetheless it was nice, in a centering, rejuvenating sort of way, to reconnect with that particular element of weather and seasonality.
Playing it by ear, we thought we might check out a Flagstaff lava tube that neither of us had been to. I have fond memories of exploring lava tubes in Hawaii as a teenager, and later in my 20s, cat sitting for my late uncle in Hilo. However when we got to the fire road turnoff that would take us there, we found it gated. The hike would be several hours each way, more than we felt like putting in. But by this time we were out in the middle of the Coconino National Forest, surrounded by gentle alpine mountains covered in white, and this seemed like as good a place as any to fulfill our mission.
We weren’t the only ones, oddly enough. The shoulder around the fire road entrance was full of parked cars, and the woods beyond were crisscrossed by footprints and dotted with lumpy snowmen. Families were trickling in and out, deploying saucer sleds on the low-grade almost-hills. This too felt appropriate and energizing, a reminder of how social snow can be. We tromped around way off the fire road, following fresh-drawn desire paths and cutting our own. It’s the kind of thing we’d never do without snow as a buffer, for fear of trambling some delicate or unsanctioned part of the landscape.
Once, back when I was in undergrad in NYC, we had a big blizzard, and that night I went out, compelled by some clarion call, and strolled through Central Park. There I saw much the same phenomenon: an impromptu, joyous redrawing of the map, empowered by the kind of stranger-solidarity that comes from everyone’s steps being made just a bit tenuous and unsteady on the slippery, snow-caked ground. It seemed to me to have a revolutionary energy (to the extent that slice-of-life moments can contain or manifest meaningful breaks with the hegemonic order), and I wrote as much in an essay at the time. It’s nice to find that, fifteen years later, this kind of experience still fills me with wonder.
Eventually we got away from the stamped-down snow and into virgin powder. There we ventured out a little ways, tossing snow chunks at trees and each other, before arcing back.
On the way back we stopped and noticed the ground where the snow had already melted or never reached. It was gushing muddy in some spots, leaving us wiping our boots off on the ice. But where the earth was neither wet nor white, we could see the ash-gray of burned pine needles and charred soil, leftover from some summer wildfire that we’d probably only registered as a vague part of the news media hellscape.
At this spot, anyway, the forest looked scorched but not decimated, and the snow seemed, to our laymens’ eyes, part of a cycle of rejuvenation of soil, groundwater, and trees, the melt carrying rich carbon trickles down into the loam like biochar.
It’s a couple months stale, but I’m still very proud of this mashup I did at the height of the Pondering My Orb and Two Guys on a Bus meme manias. I present: the Orbus.