35: The Jackpot

Living on the brink of oil stained societal collapse, everything going wrong in 20 different directions

Christopher Wood, Zebra and Parachute, 1930, © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0

I’m going to write about William Gibson today, for the second time in this newsletter, because while he is best known for a book from the 1980s that sort of predicted the internet, his unique perspectives on time, technology, and inequality feel more relevant to me than they have in years. In particular, his 2014 novel The Peripheral takes his famous premise that “the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed,” to its extreme conclusion in an era of accelerating ecological disaster.

(conceptual, if not plot spoilers, ahead)

Specifically, it envisions a distant future in which a small aristocratic percentage of the population survives—relying on technology that surged forward during a global crisis—while the remaining 80% of the population is, I regret to inform you, extremely dead.

For some reason, I tend to set aside new books by my favorite authors, but his latest Agency just came out as a sort of sequel to The Peripheral so I figured I better catch up. He’s one of my favorite writers, and ever since I started reading him as a teen, his anti-corporate, fascinated-but-frightened brand of scifi has been kind of a touchstone. While some of his early tropes have long been cliche (who’s ready to jack into cyberspace) his later work took on a more muted, meditative tone, densely packed with ideas about social strata, anxiety and drug use, militarism in the private sector and daily life, and weirdly enough, fashion.

For starters I will disclose that, predictably, I loved this book, even though and I could be wrong here, I got a sense that it was not among his most beloved novels. I probably wouldn’t recommend it as an entry point as it’s long, pretty dense, and deliberately disorienting in a way that can make you kind of queasy. Five stars put that on a book jacket. But especially the first third of the book or so is incredibly well crafted. One thing I’ve always loved about Gibson’s prose is that you have to read it almost the way you read poetry. Not due to any actual verse or other affectations; his sentences are very sparse, holding quiet or even silent details that you can easily miss if you’re not paying attention.

It’s particularly hard to sort out what’s going in this one because, and this is not spelled out for some time, it takes place in two different timelines in which characters end up interacting with each other as a result of some scifi thingies. So I believe one set of characters is in the 2040s in rural Alabama, and the other is living 70 years later in London. The first setting is this kind of high tech trailer trash world of extreme gig economy, poverty, sickness, combat injury, PTSD. Smartphones and septic tanks. The latter is all gleaming post-scarcity, high rise towers in a regreened London that’s flowing with resurfaced rivers. It’s a hell of its own, though, actually far worse than the earlier timeline—a cold and tedious society stripped of its social contracts, democracy having been eradicated, and all affairs now managed via kleptocracy in which wealthy families and corporations jockey for power using a combination of algorithms and violence.

Separating the two eras is an intersectional, human-caused global meltdown known as “The Jackpot,” which we learn halfway into the book killed off 80% of humanity and an unspecified majority of other animal species over the span of about 40 years. It didn’t happen all at once, but gradually,

no comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate; droughts, water shortages, crop failures…every last alpha predator gone, antibiotics doing even less than they already did, diseases that were never quite the one big pandemic but big enough to be historic events in themselves. And all of it around people: how people were, how many of them there were, how they’d changed things just by being there.

Keep in mind, this was published in 2014, presumably started at least a couple years prior. But Gibson always bristles at being tagged as prescient, because he always says in writing about the future that he’s really writing about the present. I think about this a lot in relation to Octavia Butler’s Parable series, dystopian books written in the 1990s that many people are pointing out right now were devastatingly accurate. When I first read those books it occured to me that, when fictional dystopian futures seem to come true, it’s not because they predicted the future, rather, it’s because on some level, the worst aspects of humanity just never change.

So in writing about the two eras, Gibson seems to be reflecting on how we are living in both of them today, simultaneously, although neither fully established or pervasive, and running at far quieter volumes. On one hand, it can feel like we’re living on the brink of oil stained societal collapse, everything seeming to be going wrong in 20 different directions. On the other, it feels like we’ve arrived in an advanced future that moves at light speed, but one run on perpetual surveillance, self-dealing corruption, and an ever out of reach ruling class.

Gibson’s work is almost always anti-corporate, if not full on anti-capitalist, but it’s also never explicitly prescriptive. He writes about technology and has a clear fondness for it, but more as a quirk of human evolution than either a root source or a fix for our social ills. So while The Peripheral has a superficially happy ending, it’s not entirely clear what the solutions are to his imagined anthropocenic collapse. I bet some people reading found that frustrating, the lack of a clear assault on tech, opting instead for a melancholy acceptance that it’s always there, always changing, and very often harnessed by a boring flavor of evil, what he calls “the cumulative weight of ordinary human baseness.”

That’s one of the most fascinating things about The Peripheral, and one of the reasons I wanted to write about it here. It doesn’t depict a collapsed future in which everything has gone wrong and everything is bad. In fact, it appears they did fix many of the problems of The Jackpot. Humanity figured it out. We entered a new era of coexistence with the planet. But we were far too late, and it cost us everything.

There is a certain view out there that humanity always figures it out, always innovates its way out of our problems. Whether it’s Covid-19 or the next pandemic or the climate crisis, we adapt, solve the thing at hand, and move on to the next thing, too clever and adaptable to go extinct. And to some extent, our problems and solutions are those of innovation. But when activists use extinction as a frame, the stakes being presented are not necessarily the literal eradication of the species. It’s the potential loss of entire ways of life, biodiversity, entire cultures, demographics (folks of a certain vulnerable age, say), widespread suffering and death that is just as intolerable as extinction.

I have to imagine people who fixate only on developing new technological solutions to problems like climate change really do believe those solutions will lift up all of humanity, and they usually make that very argument. But it’s telling that it’s often people who would very likely be in the 20% who would survive Gibson’s Jackpot. Which makes me think their confidence that we’ll be OK and figure this out is actually confidence that we’ll be OK and figure this out. And that’s not good enough.

As Gibson points out, the price of our survival may well be a world in which we lose our collective decision-making, abandon our sense of morality and justice, and accept a harder, colder world. And most notably, that’s a world in which many if not most are left in the wreckage as technology marches on.


‘It is a sewer’

I was off last week but I had a couple of thoughts about that Michael Moore documentary on climate change that came out, which I will never ever watch fyi. I suspect there is some schadenfreude on the center-to-right surrounding Moore’s glorified YouTube conspiracy video, something like oh the left turns on itself how do they like it now. And I think there is always some suspicion that liberals are somehow hypnotized by Michael Moore and do whatever his movies say. So I just feel the need to say that I literally do not know a single person who has been a fan of Michael Moore for perhaps 20 years. The guy is an asshole.

Anyway the weirdest thing about that movie is that it seems to have these sort of theoretically worthwhile rough ideas like attacking corporate influence on environmentalism, you know a valid concern. But the targets he picks are just completely wrong. Saying renewables have the same climate impact as fossil fuels is asinine. And Moore’s movies always center on one big villain, and somehow he chose Bill McKibben. Honestly, I think McKibben’s particular flavor of environmentalism is overrepresented, but the guy has devoted his life to climate change and doesn’t have a corporate sellout bone in his body. Moore could have done something on the Nature Conservancy or the EDF or Walton, all these BINGOs that went all in on market solutions and corporate partnerships instead of regulation. But Bill McKibben? Like, it’s just actually wrong. Anyway, as McKibben himself put it quite nicely: the movie is a “sewer.” Don’t watch it, don’t believe it, and please don’t imagine that this is what liberals or progressives think about climate change. Goodbye!


Links

  • 81 workers at a Walmart in Worcester contracted the coronavirus. It was forcibly shut down by local health officials, mid-afternoon with shoppers still in the aisles.

  • Harvard won’t divest, and nobody knows what its plan to move toward a “net-zero endowment” means. The announcement trots out the case that they don’t want to “alienate or demonize” fossil fuel companies, a strategy that has accomplished worse than nothing for decades.

  • The Dutch government is taking fast, sweeping climate action, because they are being legally forced to (after resisting for five years). Let’s get a round of applause for the underappreciated approach of just legally fucking forcing things to change.

  • By 2070, one-third of the world’s population is likely to live in areas unsuitably hot for human life.

  • Lots of uh useful insights in this interview with Esther Perel on how to be a couple during quarantine.

  • Liquor store sales are way up (you’re welcome liquor stores) and hot items include 30 racks of Bud and half-gallon bottles of vodka.


Comics

This week I’m going to highlight an artist whose work I have loved for a while now and often provides some calming joy. Her name is Maggie Umber, and she is co-founder of the scrappy indie comics collective 2dcloud out of Minneapolis. 2dcloud has had some fits and starts over the years but they follow in the tradition of indie labels with a distinct ethic and I just love everything they put out they are really pushing the limits of comics.

Umber’s work is a great example, as much of it is painted, and while it is often sequential and has elements of text, there is rarely any dialogue, at least not in what I’ve read. I recommend Sound of Snow Falling, which is pitched as a “paint and paper documentary, observing great horned owls in their natural habitat.” When comics are really good, you can almost hear what is happening in them, and this is a beautiful example.

She’s also been doing these atmospheric spooky black and white comics that have been running in Now: New Comics Anthology, including one in Now 8 here is a panel:

You can buy a bunch of stuff right from 2dcloud and Now Anthologies from Fantagraphics so go do it.


Listening

Obviously I am listening to the new Fiona Apple but so are you so here is something different that would also make a nice pairing with the above pick: Charlie Haden and Antonio Forcione’s guitar and double bass duet, Heartplay. This has been humming in the background quite a lot in the apartment lately. Let’s go with the song Silence:


I Endorse

Arcosanti’s Instagram account. This account was shut down for a minute “due to unfortunate events” whatever that means lol but now it’s back. This is about the time of year I usually go back to Arizona to visit family and friends but that’s a big no go this year so I’ve been especially enjoying this virtual window into the experimental utopian architectural project in Northern Arizona, founded by famed visionary and megalomaniac Paolo Soleri. This was a popular field trip destination when I was in school and one time on the way home from one our van broke down and like 30 eighth graders were set loose to wander around the side of the highway in Arizona’s high desert for an afternoon it’s a fond memory. If you are in or from Arizona, you own a Soleri bell we have two.


Hey I really missed you all last week I took a few days off to sit in my living room in a different way than usual and it was mostly fine, like 60% as good taking days off in the before times. What have you guys been doing? Looks like mostly draining a bunch of Budweiser and Tito’s from what I’m reading in the news but that’s fine do what you gotta do.

One thing I did was I finally took the plunge and shaved my head but kept my beard the same so I basically look like I’m getting ready to storm a state capitol building in a tactical vest I ordered on Amazon. Jamie was nervous about helping and I said, look there is nothing you can do wrong, I’m shaving it all off. But then she was cleaning things up around the ears and left this huge square bald patch. She was like, oh no we had a good laugh.

Anyway gotta run I hope you are all OK and healthy and reasonably happy but then sometimes mad. You are going to be alright.

Tate

PS. If you like this newsletter and want it to continue throughout the entire Jackpot, one important thing you can do is share this with someone you think might like it. Either forward it or post it on your sosh. Bless you. And if you are new please