Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Handling headlines


Earlier this month, I taught a fiction workshop at a conference in Joseph, Ore. My workshop was "Handling the Headlines." How can fiction exist, I asked, in a world that is weirder than anything you can make up? How can realism exist in a world that is surreal?

As I write this, I've learned Mikhail Gorbachev has become a spokesman for Louis Vuitton. A musical about Osama Bin Laden is on the boards. The Iraq War, supposed to cost only $88 billion dollars, will cost $1.5 trillion. American Home Mortgage, patron to millions of homeowners, is out of business after a week when it lost 90 percent of its stock price. Its debt holdings have been bundled with the Wall Street Journal and purchased by Ming the Merciless.

OK, I made that last sentence up. Everything else is true, and truly weird. If you don't think that mortgage finance is weird, consider that we've been using debt as wealth since the 1986 Tax Reform Act. Looked at the Reagan Way, Iraq will make us all filthy rich.

Nothing in today's news is as weird as an article a student brought into the workshop. It detailed the breakthrough at Intel that will allow Moore's Law to prevail for another decade.

Moore's Law isn't a real law. It's a technological phenomenon, one that has allowed computer circuitry and storage to double in power and halve in price every 18 months since 1965. Moore's Law is weird. It breaks another law that says you can't keep doubling stuff indefinitely without catastrophe. For example, we can't continue periodically doubling our use of plastic or the whole galaxy will be a Wal-Mart in the year 2525.

Plastic is only one of the exponential curves humanity is riding these days. Debt service and oil depletion and population growth are three others. At some point, the laws of nature will step in, and trillions of bankrupt people will starve in the dark.

But Moore's Law keeps on and on, and our computers will keep getting cheaper and better. Twelve people were in my workshop, and we all had a dark history with computers. My own story is typical: My first computer was a Televideo TPC-I, a 64k CP/M machine discounted to $600 after production delays stopped it from being marketed as a $3,000 machine. It's in my closet, in perfect working condition as long as you insert the system disk before you install the write-to disk. It keeps company with two obsolete laptops and an obsolete desktop.

It may be that the biggest danger to our future is the exponential growth of useless computers, and that at some point 150 percent of available American resources will be consumed by the construction and distribution of closet organizers.

So my workshop students decided that you couldn't write fiction about computers. We also decided fiction about politics was fiction about fiction, which is horrible deadly dull. For reasons of taste, we unanimously decided not to write about Paris Hilton or Britney Spears or Lindsay Lohan. Religion was out until the Mayan calendar ends in 2012, when we'd find out who gets to be God for the next cycle.

Then the oldest member of the workshop spoke up. It was Al, who had been 18 and in the American Army when he crossed the Rhine in 1945. Al got across the river but was then shot in the neck. The bullet missed his spinal cord and his carotid arteries. He healed and survived to come back to home in Chicago. Eight years later, thanks to the GI Bill, he was a physician. He practiced for 45 years, keeping people healthy, delivering babies and tending the dying.

"I want to write about this country," said Al, "and what's happened to it." He sat up in his chair. "This is not the country I fought for. This is not the great country I worked in for 45 years. This is a country that has been taken over by charlatans and crooks. That's what's so weird. That a country so great could become so small so fast. It's on an exponential curve, down instead of up, and not because of computers. It's because people have no hearts. You know what I'm talking about?"

None of the rest of us had been in Germany in 1945. None of us had practiced medicine for 45 years. We hadn't seen all the changes Al had. But we knew well, and in our hearts, what he was talking about.

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