The Value of Dystopia by Brandon

In response to Michael Solana's "Stop Writing Dystopian Sci-Fi—It’s Making Us All Fear Technology," which had inspired "We Need Dystopias Now More Than Ever."

Solana's essential message is, "Technology is our salvation, so why do those pesky Luddites keep trying to challenge progress and scare us?" Science fiction, like life, has always contained both utopian and dystopian themes, optimism and pessimism. If dystopias are suddenly overrepresented — which I think is untrue — it's probably worth asking why they're so popular, and maybe even trying to learn from them.

Perhaps they'resymptomatic of something important: frustrations with roots in very real social grievances, as with the co-existence of extreme poverty and technological near-omnipotence in Elysium; or concern with how tech's extraordinary possibilities are often subverted for cheap and exploitative purposes, like in Andri Snaer Magnason's Love/Star and M.T. Anderson's Feed; or, per Paolo Bacigalupi's fiction, the day-after-tomorrow imminence of resource scarcities and ecological catastrophe; or misgivings about the interconnected, seemingly fragile nature of globalization's networks, which are exposed by so many zombie/outbreak movie plots.

From a certain perspective, The Hunger Games is a parable for a moment when teenagers and young adults struggle to find jobs in a hypercompetitive marketplace. It's also an obvious parable of unconstrained big-government power. Solana's take is, "So what the hell are we supposed to make of the Hunger Games?"

An interesting historical aside is how much dystopian sci-fi — here I use the term "dystopian" loosely, as does Solana, who seems to think any story with conflict, such as Battlestar Galactica, is anti-technology — was written by cyberpunks of the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of those authors, such as William Gibson and Charles Platt and Bruce Sterling, were also early adopters and techno-proselytizers. They had a front-row seat from which to appreciate science fiction's great, lasting lesson: that technology is inseparable from human nature, culture, economics and history.

Antibiotics and washing machines and packet-transfer protocols and high-yield crop varieties are all tech. So are AK-47s and online identity theft and flash-crashes and multiple pesticide-resistant corn. The Google campus is a marvel of technology's possibilities; so was the East German surveillance state. The world is a messy place, as is progress. Sci-fi, and its dystopias, reflect and reflect upon that tension. They nourish critical thought. Rather than embracing tech on faith, as an article of secular theology, we'reencouraged to understand that technology isn't a magic-wand principle that absolves people from the hard work of progress.

Instead Solana sees technology as "perhaps the only thing" that can solve society's most pressing problems. He calls for a Panglossian science fiction, its highest purpose to "prepare people to accept the future without pain," an antidote for those Luddites who "have challenged progress at every crux point in human history."

It's telling how he refers so flippantly to that social movement. (And, the copy editor in me can't help but mention, so nonsensically: "At every point in human history"? Did Ned Ludd, smasher of mechanical looms, also invent a time machine?) Luddites weren't broadly anti-technology, but rather opposed a particular piece of machinery that threatened their livelihoods. I've no idea whether their stance was beneficial to society at large, but calling it anti-progress is a stretch, unless one thinks progress and technology are synonymous, inextricable and very simple. ("Why do we keep writing sad stories about the West African slave trade, when we could be writing fabulous tales about fast ships and cotton gins!")

We need fewer dystopias and more Star Trek, laments Solana. And indeed Star Trek is one ofour most powerfully positive, and flat-out powerful, sci-fi stories. But what makes it so inspiring, apart from the transcendent fun of a good adventure smartly told, isn't holodecks or transporters or photon engines. It's the vision of an egalitarian, multiethnic and muscular democracy, in which great power is wedded to humility and generosity. As for the technology, the Klingons and Borg and other bad guys have it, too.

Image: Enokson/Flickr

Gathering Material by Brandon

I keep meaning to finish something new. Soon.

Image: Muskrat gathering grasses. To eat? Line her burrow? Make something special?

A Bed-Stuy Wilderness by Brandon

Recently I read of a neighborhood group who dedicated themselves to restoring their local outdoor space, a stretch of weedy canal-side land kept blissfully free from further development by pollution. They were, explained the article, making ecological improvements. Before-and-after photographs showed volunteers tromping on tall grasses and plants, and later tending to a few Home Depot-style outdoor shrubs planted in a barren bank of mulch.

It feels mean to criticize such decent, civic-minded efforts, yet the photos made me cringe. What resulted from the improvements seemed far less verdant than what existed before. Those unkempt, untended weeds were full of life, giving home and shelter to insects and small animals; and the land was wild. Sure, it was just a vacant lot — but such is the nature of wild in a megacity. Nobody tended it, nobody directed it.

Wildness as a value has fallen into disfavor among some conservationists. One hears a disdain for wildness: nothing is pristine, therefore nothing is wild. But to be wild isn't to be unimpacted by human activity. Wilderness is undirected, uncontrolled. It's where life continues regardless of what we do. Not outside the human sphere, but not within it, either.

On my corner is a vacant lot. It's maybe 40 feet on each side, and despite the march of gentrification down Bedford Avenue and up Myrtle, nobody's built anything there. Bordered by a concertina wire-topped fence, the gate locked, it's inaccessible; people throw trash inside, and street garbage accumulates in unsightly drifts on the outside, but it's left alone.

Each spring the lot is fast overgrown by weeds, that derogatory label we give to plants guilty of thriving, particularly in conditions — compacted soil, disturbance, dehydration — we've created. I use the term, too. It was in the Weed Atlas of NYC that I learned their names: stinging nettle and lamb's quarters, clover and curly dock and purslane, crabgrass and ragweed and mugwort, and most of all horsetail, which by mid-summer forms a hip-high forest. Morning glories climb and cover the fence. Bumblebees buzz from flower to flower, climbing in and out until the blossoms close in afternoon. Rats move through the brush. Sparrows gather there in the morning, our songbirds, and calling insects sing at night.

Unglamorous species, all, but wild. Give me a rat in the weeds over a snow leopard in a zoo, a horsetail patch over the High Line's manicured, unnatural nativity.

Early this spring I thought I might grow something in the lot. A pollinator garden, I hoped, packing dozens of mud balls with lovely-sounding seeds — agastache and penstemon and linaria, sunflowers and moonflowers, black-eyed susans, foxglove and lupine and teasel — and late at night tossing them over the fence. In coming weeks I watched the field. My flowers failed to grow, which was disappointing but gave me a new appreciation for the lot's life, for all that did grow so dense and rich.

Then one afternoon, that life was gone. The plants were cut to bare ground, the morning glories torn out. The trash had been hauled away, and along the fence were black plastic boxes of rat poison — as if that would control rats anyways, and as if environmental point sources of neurotoxins were any better for the neighborhood. The land was, to my eyes, despoiled, my neighborhood's wildest and most beautiful place destroyed. My heart ached.

Shortly thereafter I went away for several weeks. When I came back, a new generation of weeds was already shin-high. The morning glories were well up the fence, growing so fast they'd climbed the weeds, too, and for a while the lot was a field of their blossoms. Within two months the weeds were tall again, the morning glories splendid; my flowers still didn't grow, but no matter. They didn't belong. The lot is verdant. The trash is back too, but that's peripheral. The bumblebees feed, the sparrows sing each morning.

Image: Brandon Keim/Flickr

The Improbable Bee by Brandon


How does a bee find a flower? Perhaps, if it lives in a hive, another bee tells it where to go, but even that first bee needs to find the flower, and anyways most bees are solitary. So that bee flies off to forage, and if it's lucky it spots something of the right color, and that something turns out to be a flower. Not just any old flower, necessarily: Some bees are generalists, but others specialized -- for long-necked flowers, or maybe morning glories, or pea plants or penstemons.

Will they always be successful? Of course not. But there's always a chance; and so bees fly. And what distances! Out in the tarmac sea of a stadium parking lot, the center of a Utah saltpan with no plants for miles on any side, on a third-floor balcony in an industrial Brooklyn neighborhood, where there's a box of linaria: A bee will come by, with eyes so powerful he can a fringe of red, a signal of readiness, at the throats of their fingertip-size blossoms.

Soon he's doused in yellow pollen, like a celebrant of Holi, the Hindu festival of colors, and carries it home. If these blooms are good, he knows, so nearby linaria might be ready, too; he can smell these with antennae sensitive enough to detect part-per-trillion concentrations, to recognize single molecules floating in air.

What are the chances of that? Maybe some enterprising postdoc or apiarist has calculated them. Whatever they are, it boggles the mind; and yet it happens, again and again, an invisible equation of uncertainty, from which calculation -- trillions upon trillions of times -- the living world blossoms around us. You can reach out and touch it. Plant a flower, and a bee will come.

I think of the technologies we would derive from bees -- all those tech-press standbys of scientists who would use their eyes to make cameras, their antennae to detect bombs, their aeronautics to make, appropriately enough, new drones. I tend to be skeptical, though this could be useful enough. But will any of these bees ever make the flowers bloom?

A John McPhee Coincidence by Brandon

One winter morning two years ago, I visited my favorite bookstore. It was -- past tense, as it closed that spring -- a cozy place that struck just the right balance between old and new, rare and common, the sort of place you visit to just be around books. Every few weeks I'd go in the hopes of finding something I'd overlooked on all my other visits … which, inevitably, was the case.

On this morning I was looking for books by John McPhee, my favorite writer. I've read most of his works, but they happened to have a copy of Coming Into the Country, his account of life in Alaska, which I'd borrowed from a friend, lost, and consequently never read.

I lingered by one of the shelves as a young woman brought her selections to the counter. One of the books was of the mountaintop-air-crash-saga-of-survival genre. I don't remember the author, but Ginger, who never let a customer go unedified, remarked that he was very similar to John McPhee. The girl replied that she loved McPhee and was a journalism student at the University of Maine, where her class had recently participated in a conference call with him.

What a lovely coincidence, I thought! As she left, I gave Ginger my own McPhee find, and she said it was $30. Why so much, I asked? It was a signed copy, she said. I looked at the inscription and it read:

"For the Spider Lake Lending Library and the Redcoat Air Force with an appropriate salute from the other John McPhee, October 1978"

Spider Lake is deep in the north Maine wilderness, not far from Allagash Lake, where John McPhee, floating in a canoe just after ice out in the 1970s, received a float plane visit from a certain state game warden who'd written him several years earlier, lamenting the inconvenience caused by the author's now-famous name -- since his own name, too, was John McPhee.

"His uniform jacket was bright red, trimmed with black flaps over the breast pockets, black epaulets. A badge above one pocket said "STATE OF MAINE WARDEN PILOT." Above the other pocket was a brass plate incised in block letters with his name: JOHN MCPHEE. I almost fell into the lake.

He was an appealing, friendly man, and he did not ask for my fishing license."

McPhee memorialized McPhee in a New Yorker essay entitled "North of the C.P. Line," describing this alternate-universe version of himself who in so many ways lived a life he wished for himself: immersed in nature and wise to it, rescuing hunters and catching poachers, keeping track of fuel by instinct rather than dial, calling moose and catching brook trout.

The "Redcoat Air Force" was, I believe, a nickname the plane-flying wardens had for themselves. How did the book end up in my hands? The unfortunate, inevitable end to every story, perhaps -- much of Lippincott's library came from estate sales -- but I like to think some karmic hand reached down and graced that great coincidence with one more.

Spring Birds & Photography by Brandon

Of late I've felt ambivalent about my own photography. As Juhani Pallasmaa wrote in The Eyes of the Skin, we've elevated sight above the other senses; we regard the world -- see the world, in that telling metaphor for understanding -- in a disproportionately visual way, diminishing our other senses and the fullness of lived experience.

As I capture a moment in an image, so much is left out. Sound, taste, smell, feel, knowledge. And this holds not only for the photograph but the time preceding it, during which I'm engaging the world with an eye -- again, a sight metaphor -- to producing an image. I'm paying too much attention to surface details. Seeing rather than experiencing, and transforming experience to aesthetic.

This holds all the more for photographing animals. It's not just that I can't capture in an image, say, the tremolo calls of tree swallows, or the thrill of having a migrating kestrel stop in my industrial Brooklyn neighborhood, the scurry of a killdeer, the tree creeper's sign of spring. More than that, I'm in some way turning a conscious being with its own inner experiences, an individual, into a two-dimensional visual referent of some species unit: no longer an individual, but a generic red-tailed hawk (in this case likely a juvenile, else it would have known better than to perch so low, in plain sight.)

It's not a reason to stop taking photographs, which is something I enjoy, the process of which encourages attentiveness. But it's something to keep in mind, a guiding principle, a reminder that an image is only one aspect of reality. And sometimes, when I encouter something especially beautiful or special, I can honor it by not taking any pictures at all.

Thoughts on Taxidermy, Fashion & Bighorn Sheep by Brandon

Seen on the G train: A bookish young hipster bringing home the taxidermied head of a bighorn ram.

As a kid I saw bighorn sheep several times, though I'm not sure whether the memories are my own or appropriated clips from Marty Stouffer's Wild America. Probably both. Sure-footed and wary, deep-chested rams colliding with an impact that should crack the mountain.

Recent lines from the New York Times: Two interior designers live in a 2,000-square-foot TriBeCa loft featuring "a stuffed baby seal in a glass-encased seascape diorama … and many other taxidermied creatures, including a wallaby, a hawk with a rabbit in its talons and an enormous lion’s paw, claws fearsomely intact."

Less recent lines: So-and-so, directors of the play 69°S., in which white-parka-clad puppeteers on stilts recreate the Antarctic ordeal of Ernest Shackleton's icebound crew, are "the kind of theatrical couple who collect old taxidermy."

It's easy to envision. The mounted deer head, or even a mountain goat; fox on the floor, weasel on a table, beside some early-industrial instrumentation of indeterminate purpose and terrariums made from laboratory glassware.

Maybe so-and-so aren't like this. Maybe they deviate from type. The point is that there is a type, a predictable bohemian aesthetic, a kind of. (One that, should I sound too superior, I happen to share, at least somewhat. Not being able to afford large-animal taxidermy until it falls from fashion and lands in eBay, naturalist prints take their place. A dozen or so. Including one of a bighorn, natch.)

Fashion alters and cheapens what it consumes. If you're not careful, you lose what you buy, especially when fashion and personal taste -- identity -- converge for a time in agreement. When cultural waves recede, they cause erosion. Awareness is a seawall.

There are at least two distinct currents to this mainstreaming of naturalia. Label one the Nineteenth Century Explorer: Spiced with steampunk, evoking an age of mannered discovery, gentleman adventurers launching expeditions and returning with tales to delight drawing-room crowds. A spirit of mechanical marvels and curiosity cabinets, maps drawn well but incompletely, of biological ephemera and naturalists' drawings.

Where does it come from? A rejection of overt consumerism, possibly, inasmuch as natural history seems intrinsically less commodifiable and more authentic than other subjects.

A necessary thrift amidst a stagnant economy and fears of collapse; pressed flowers and folios taken from library discards are, in their non-boutique varieties, reasonably priced.

A psychic escape from the pervasive sense that no space on our map remains blank, that civilization has filled its container and is pushing back inwards. A need for nature in denaturalized lives.

Or maybe the meaning is not so dark. Maybe naturalia frames emerging appreciations of urban and suburban ecologies, or a sense of new, as-yet-unfilled maps arising in digital and social space, freed from old topographies. Maybe it's nothing more complicated than an appreciation of beauty.

Maybe it's all these things.

The second of naturalia's currents is easier to decipher. Hipster rustic, a reclamation of 19th and early-to-mid 20th century white Americana as a rich and authentic source of culture. Then as now, times were hard; people were tough, self-reliant, frugal; naturalia of a piece with the lumberjack henleys and Red Wing boots and engineer jackets.

The fashion industry, as frivolous a professional class as exists, needed for the last several years to clothe themselves in utility. Once that might have seemed like co-option, revolutions drained of power through branding, but it felt more like guilt. If you're going to blow $300 on impulse with unemployment at 10 percent, it should be made of waxed canvas. Go Forth, advises Levi's.

The economy's better now, of course, so fashion has moved on to chillwave hiker. The art school kids walking to class late in winter look like they're off to climb Mt. Rainier in the early seventies. The Chelsea boys look like they've come back and changed for dinner. This summer they'll go on day trips to Yosemite.

Animals are a part of all this, for explorers and hikers alike, but as setting. A sign, a signifier, a t-shirt drawing of a deer based on an image found in the first page of Google's image search. And I can't shake the feeling that naturalia debases nature, turns animals into objects, renders our beautiful, extraordinary living world and its inhabitants as aesthetic commodities with no more or less meaning than paisley or a bright colorway. It's life as accessory.

That pleasant young man on the G train.* A bighorn's head, severed from any sense of its heaving flanks and liquid eyes, its meaning as a species or experience as an individual. It is signage.

I give my gum to the rats and whistle at the mockingbirds.

* Of course, for all I know his dad took him to see bighorn sheep when he was young, and he studies them in graduate school and always dreamed of having one's head and is himself named Ram. Et cetera.