Of course we can still write stuff about, like, civilizations on Jupiter or whatever, but when we do, we must do so through a filter/layer/film of something that we can call “obligate dramatic irony”. We now know for certain that the other planets in our solar system are devoid of intelligent humanoid life, so it gets that much harder to suspend your disbelief (a thing that takes work), and so the threshold for how cool a premise needs to be to use the scenario gets elevated. 1
Sci-fi pushes at the frontiers of current science for inspiration, and I think this is rad! This lessens the work needed to suspend your disbelief, increases the wonder and delight because of a thrumming background sense of plausibility, and it’s not like our current understandings of science is not conducive to a wealth of new and fuckingawesomepremises in SF 2.
The flip-side is just that previous frontiers are now largely blocked, and unblocked only through a self-consciously retro aesthetic (or something more clever), if writing, and a layer of obligate dramatic irony, if reading.
Anyways, this is probably something that’s already been talked about by McLuhan or DFW or the assholes who talk about hauntology/disenchantment or whatever. Please email me the key phrase to google if you know.
For context, I mostly socialize in upper middle class and tech- and rationalist-leaning circles, and it’s likely that at least some of what I describe are just quirks of my local culture.
I have this pet theory that I’ve shopped around a fair bit, that it’s much harder for financially comfortable people to make deep friendships.
What do I mean by a deep friendship? I mean one where you can trust the other person to come through when you need them to. There’s levels to this as well, of course. You probably ask casual friends to help you move, but not acquaintances. Close friends could be people who will let you crash on their couch for two weeks without prior notice or who will lend you rent money for the month. People who live more marginal, riskier lives might think about this in terms of who is willing to bail them out of jail or smuggle them medicine.
The thing is, money exists, and can solve most of your problems better than your friends can. If you can afford it, it’s much less annoying to hire movers, book an airbnb, contact your doctor, or call your lawyer – get professional problem solvers involved, in other words. 1
So this dynamic emerges where my rich friends never ask each other for help, pay for services using money, and never do anything unpleasant for each other, whereas my poorer friends are always doing stuff for each other out of necessity and becoming closer knit in the process.
[This is a good summary of my thesis, you can stop reading at this point if I linked this to you in a group chat or something.]
Money does stop working in catastrophic circumstances that we will face rarely in life – someone to comfort us when a loved one dies, or trying to mend a relationship that has turned into a horrible soulsucking mess, or your apartment burns down with everything in it and you’re too catatonic to start replacing your documents and things. For those things, you kind of either have close relationships that are already established, or you’re just kind of fucked.[↑]
The Kitchener public library has a pretty substantial collection of local history books, which are generally very rare and can’t be taken out of the library. One book there that I’ve been really taken with is “My Town”, by E. Joyce Thompson Byrnes. I have found no record of it online.
It’s an incredibly cool book, about Hespeler, Ontario as a small town in the 1930s. (It is now a neighbourhood in my current municipality.) Writing from 2013, Byrnes is playful, reflective, and extremely funny. Each chapter deals with a different facet of life at the time – commerce, medical care, holidays and festivals, and so on. This being Canada, there was in fact an entire section dedicated to hockey and ice skating.
More than anything else the comparison that springs to mind for me is Anne of Green Gables, in that it’s a very saccharine view of life in the period. But it’s also really well researched and I think does a good job of cleaving to reality. Sometimes the suck leaches in from the sides of her cheerful stories – offhand mentions of her classmates dying of smallpox, how shitty winter jackets were for keeping you warm and dry, the whole great depression thing. I kind of appreciated that. It really made me appreciate how good we have it, from the big stuff (like not having 100% of cancers be fatal) to the small (man, ice skates really sucked at the time).
There’s this line of thinking that goes – once a way of life is gone, there’s no way to really understand it. As an example, some might say that people who are working on rolling back post-9/11 surveillance laws are aspiring to a pale imitation of what we once had, and the incredible, ridiculous amount of freedom that was commonplace before then would spook the shit out of this wimp-ass generation. Or in this case, something like – we’ll never get to a truly alienated world again and we don’t understand how much we lost to industrialization and atomization.
But this book had such vivid descriptions of life in the deliciously slow old days, and I feel like I genuinely understand a lot more now about what was lost. It seemed like a tightknit and wonderful community. Shit, is this why historians like firsthand accounts so much???
Between stories of the hilariously dark and fucked up pranks that her mom would pull, her incredibly unique vantage point into the advancement of medical science at the time, and fond recollections of ridiculously cool things that you are no longer able to do 1, what captivated me most was the descriptions of the horses.
The fucking horses, man. I cannot believe how cool they were, I had no idea how much of a tradeoff we made when we shifted to cars.
Get this. You are a milkman, because milk delivery was a commonplace thing back then. You have a horse and a cart attached to it, full of bottles of milk. You know what you were able to do? You were able to literally just chill and read a paperback between your deliveries, because your horse! Got! Your! Fucking! Route! Memorized! It will stop at the appropriate times and know what your routine is at each stop and when to get going again. I honestly had no idea that horses were smart enough to do that. So basically we literally had intelligent self driving transportation for centuries??? 2
Ok, sometimes horses threw a shitfit. There was a really funny story about the baker trying to teach his new apprentice how to do his route, but the horse really didn’t like the apprentice’s vibes. So when the apprentice tried to climb on, it protested by lying down on its side – toppling over the attached cart and sending baked goods flying into the street.
But you know, maybe we need more horse tantrums in our lives and that would make us all better people. I for one would like a greater percentage of my first world problems to be caused by something other than human coordination failures. I would pay money for more of them to be like “sorry, Applejack the horse threw a tantrum this morning and that’s why your package wasn’t delivered” instead of “the local amazon warehouse decided to cut workers and force the remaining ones to work longer shifts again”. Can the aspiring startup founders in the area start working on this please?
Anyways, this is what I got from the first third of the book. I’ve only been able to read it in fits and snatches since I can’t take it out of the library! I might start going over on my lunch breaks. Someone else should start reading it so we can start a fan club.
Final score: 10/10
Stuff like: getting freshly squeezed warm milk from the local farm a 10 minute bike ride away as a treat (she takes the time to assure you that this was nothing to worry about despite the lack of pasteurization, as “the cows had been tested for Tuberculosis”); being able to skate all the way to Guelph on the rivers that were frozen in the wintertime; have a favourite shoe design as a kid that your cobbler was always ready to make for you in the next size up[↑]
Byrne often jokingly questions whether or not society has progressed at all since the 30s after relegating some tale or another, but man, honestly I found myself nodding in agreement more than I expected to (so like – two times, instead of zero times).[↑]