Dystopian Fiction

Like on most Tuesday afternoons, Cean and Alm were hanging out on the patio of Il Nuovo Caffè Pergolesi. It was a misleading name since the cafe had actually been in the same spot for eighteen years, ever since the business had relocated out of downtown into the Pink House in the slow evacuation of the clearly unstable flood plain after the ’89 Earthquake. The two were on the north deck between the Pink House and Villa Perla, sitting at a table between the buckbrush, ceanothus, and manzanitas that were all part of the Everything’s Coming Up Roses (Native Ones) and Other Things Too Coastal Prairie & Maritime Chaparral Reestablishment Project.

“You know, I’m really glad they decided not to go with the flannelbush around the decks,” Alm said.

“I think they had one, until they realized that kids playing near it were getting skin rashes. They moved it to the east side of Villa Perla,” Cean half-rose from her chair and pointed. “Look! It’s just starting to bloom. I love them in bloom.”

Alm—who was working on a self-improvement kick he over-elaborately called “Childlike Wonder: Why I Lost It and How To Get It Back. A Self-Improvement Project of Observation/Personal Praxis”—stood up fully and looked at the bush for a solid thirty seconds. “Ok. Yeah. I see that. Let’s try it: I love them too!”

“That was unconvincing,” Cean said after a few moments considering the effect. “You did better when I got all excited the other day at twilight because Venus is the evening star again. I felt like you might have actually felt childlike wonder when I started going ‘Look! Look, look look look!'”

“Maybe it depends on the number of times you say ‘look.’ I’m still trying to home in on the mechanism. It’s all part of the observation component of kawilitgibasipop.”

“Of the what now?”

“Kawilitgibasipop. I’m trying to make the acronym into a word and that’s how I decided one should pronounce C.W.W.I.L.I.A.H.T.G.I.B.A.S.I.P.O.O.P.P.”

Cean wrote it down on a piece of paper and looked at it for awhile. “Shouldn’t it be ‘gibasipoopap’ then?”

“No, because then it has both ‘poop’ and ‘pap’ in the same word, and since being a poop and thinking everything is mindless pap is what I’m trying to get away from….”

Cean interrupted, “Yeah, well, I told you before: I think the name of the project is a bit much. You could just call it ‘Trying to Be Less of a Giant Party Pooper.’ That acknowledges the poop, but immediately posits its negation.” Cean started singing, “Every party needs a pooper that’s why we invited you! Party pooper! Party pooper!”

Alm waited patiently for the song to end, knowing that protest would only prolong the singing and raise the volume. “I wanted to call it ‘Dry Blanket’ but figured that sounded too much like disaster relief or, I don’t know, a criticism of bad veggie burgers. Also, since only people our age or older use ‘wet blanket’ I thought the kids these days wouldn’t get it.” Alm made the florid hand gesture they used to indicate the ironic use of “kids these days.”

“I think the kids these days,” Cean replied as she too employed the gesture, “are too busy actually being kids to get your project in any case. I mean, they still mostly have their childlike wonder intact and so the losing and reacquiring of it is just going to look like Grownup Stuff for Squares or whatever it is they think of the things adults do. These days.”

“Yeah, it’s all a veiled mystery. You know how I was trying to interview kids about what they think about adults? I couldn’t get any kind of straight answer out of them. They just rolled their eyes and snorted and squirmed about until they ran into each other and fell in heaps and then tussled around on the ground until they were good and finished.” While he was talking Alm started drawing in his notebook. Cean looked over and saw he was sketching a couple of babies with apparent drinking problems and poker fixations. “There’s no way I can use those interviews as actual data.”

“Did you really think that interviewing kids about grownups was going to get you anything?” Cean seemed genuinely interested.

“Nah,” Alm replied. “But interviewing them seemed like it would at least qualify as performance art. And complaining about it seems like some Grownup Stuff for Squares, so there is that.”

“There is that,” Cean agreed. “Speaking of kids these days….” This time they made the gesture together. “I’m writing a y.a. dystopian novel.”

“Yeah, I know. You’ve told me. Many times.”

“But have I ever actually told you what the plot was, or how I’m handling the setting?”

“No, but I bet you’re going to,” Alm said.

“Yes! I am! And you should feel enthusiasm and childlike wonder!” Cean enjoined.

Alm thought about it. “I’ll try. Let me just go get us some refills. Back in a sec.”

Cean looked around the patio. The regular Tuesday afternoon crowd was supplemented this week by the current Book Arts Exchange group from Tajikistan and their local hosts. The Tajiks were using the Kurganteppe Sibling City Tapchan and having produced their own teapots, dried fruit, soup, and flatbread were introducing their hosts to the rich tradition of Tajik-style outdoor tea drinking. Cean really hoped they were going to recite poetry as well.


Alm returned with their drinks and settled in.

“So, anyway,” Cean began, flipping open her notebook, “the book takes place in a parallel present where after the energy crisis of the 1970s, instead of going for solar and wind and geothermal power and greywater and composting toilets and biomass converters and everything, all the nations decided to double down on their commitment to fossil fuels and their utter conviction that strip-mining the planet for resources was the best plan. Oh, and the population has cranked up to over 7 billion.”

“Why would that even happen? I mean, everything would be terrible. Why would people have a bunch of kids in those circumstances?”

“Well, at the same time, the US government gets hijacked by fundamentalist Christians who believe that fetuses are people and pregnant women aren’t, so abortion and—because it’s seen as moralistically related—birth control and effective family planning are increasingly difficult to find. And the education system is being shot to shit by a government that doesn’t believe in evolution and by association comes to disbelieve in other science. That’s just in the United States. This part is hard to describe but since the global renewable energy revolution didn’t happen, the continued reliance on petrochemicals keeps Western paternalistic colonialism in full swing, and in that, uh, mileu we also refuse to fund either abortion services or effective family planning and birth control in our aid to what were then the developing nations.”

“My grasp of what they meant by ‘developing nations’ has always been bad,” Alm complained. “It sounds like a 50s euphemism for adolescents getting pubic hair. I mean, what the hell?”

“It meant that those nations were going to ‘develop’ all the planet-destroying infrastructure that made the energy crisis such a pain in this country. You know, like cars and lots of pavement and bigger and bigger houses built out of more and more plastics. Basically the idea was that an increasing reliance on petrochemicals and a disdain for the environment was good and a sign of progress while keeping up traditional or low-impact life courses was a sign that you were backwards and primitive.”



“Yeah, I know. It’s really weird. Anyway, the book’s point of view is basically US-based, so the government talks about ‘developing nations.’ Oh! Another reason people have lots of kids is that since the ‘developing nations’ are being strip mined for resources, and the effects of colonialism are still really evident, a combination of high childhood mortality and the idea that you need to have a bunch of kids to, you know, work the land or become diamond miners you can rent out to global conglomerates or whatever to support you in your old age is still really operative. People live in fear of dying in poverty because they are dying in poverty and so they have kids. I haven’t totally worked out the psychology of that, so I’ll have to go and read some pioneer journals from the Oregon Trail or something to figure out what the hell people are thinking when they have six kids in situations where they don’t actually have enough food to feed them. It’s not my area of expertise.” [Editor’s note: Ceanothus and Alm are being very naive and uninformed and just plain wrong here about several things. We hope their future education in these matters helps them make fewer such errors of analysis in the future.]

“I would talk to Anthony,” Alm suggested. “They have a lot to say about colonial and anti-colonial and post-colonial psychology.”

“Yeah, that’s a great idea.” Cean wrote it down in her notebook. “So, anyway, the continued reliance on fossil fuels coupled with the increase in people who are using said fuels has led to the beginnings of massive global warming. The Arctic is losing its sea ice. Glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. Catastrophic weather events are becoming more common and effecting more people because there are more people to be effected. Meanwhile, habitat shrinkage and all the other pressures are causing the Sixth Great Extinction, and there are fewer than half the number of wild animals in this world as there were in the early 70s.”

By this time Alm had his face in his hands. “Why? Why are you writing this? What young adult is going to want to read something this depressing?”

“I’m not done,” Cean said. “So, in this situation, the United States has elected for president a bizarre demagogue nationalist with populist pretensions who gets voted in by playing on the fears of a voting base motivated by both covert and overt white supremacist ideology and action. Neo-Nazis and the KKK are on the rise. People who protest them are being arrested and excessively charged with felonies.”


Alm had his forehead on the table and was making low groaning sounds.

“Don’t despair entirely! What I’ve just told you is background that’s revealed mostly by people alluding to it in conversation. The important thing,” Cean tapped the table and Alm stopped groaning, “is that in this world there are still people who are doing good. The narrative’s real focus is on a parallel present Aulinta. It’s still called Santa Cruz, and my characters who live there are a stalwart band of committed leftists who are just going out and building the system they want, one collective organization at a time. They are still engaged nationally and globally, hoping to slow down the train crash, but their daily focus is around projecting a world in their own town. There’ll be, like, bike repair co-ops and anarchist infoshops holding all-ages punk shows, and anti-capitalist sewing repair skill shares and people running for city council and stuff.”

Alm had his cheek on the table still but was at least now looking at Cean with one eye. “Ok. That seems more young-adult lit. appropriate.”

“Yeah, that’s the point. Oh! One thing that has happened is that the internet has really taken off and individual home computers are nearly ubiquitous and the technology has become such that there are even portable devices with the power to connect to the internet. The platforms for photos and sound recordings and everything are used by every organization and it’s a primary way for people to communicate and interact.”

“Is that a thing that could, like, happen? I mean the miniaturization thing?” Alm asked. “I have a hard time imagining why people would want that even. I only use the internet once a week or so for IRC and looking for travel grants.”

“I talked to the person who does classes on ‘Computers in the Social Context’ up at the university and they said that certain theorists in the 80s were predicting an explosion of computer technology, until we got our shit together and realized that mining everything everywhere all the time was a bad way to live and so we slowed down and have things, you know, the way they are now. But the things I just told you were considered definitely plausible. As long as you’re willing to tank the planet to get them.”

“I just…I can’t….” Alm couldn’t form a complete thought.

“I know,” Cean said gently, “I’m writing this so that kids can see some of the bullets we dodged.”

“Yeah, ok.”

“The reason I bring up the internet thing is that I’ve made a character named Blaize….”

“Hey! That’s an Aulintan name!” Alm interrupted.

“Yes. You’ll see why in a second. Anyway, Blaize has this, like, collective conceptual art project where she has invented an Imaginary Santa Cruz that exists in a parallel present and that takes the other path of the timeline split, the one that leads to our world. She has an internet space where she writes about this imaginary town and puts up photos and makes up characters and all that, and she also goes around Real Santa Cruz and talks to all the punks and anarchists and the well-intentioned and the people who want things to be different and she tells them the, uh, givens of Imaginary Santa Cruz.”

“All the things we have now, you mean?” Alm asked.

“Yeah. And then she asks the people who they would be in that imaginary world, and then people talk about it and then there’s a bunch of people talking about it and then it becomes, I don’t know, a prefiguration machine? Or like when kids are all playing the same game that they’ve just made up, and the rules change all the time but because they are all working on inventing the game together they all know the rules even as they change? And people find this imaginary place helpful, like a form of mental relief, because they know for sure then that they are not alone in wanting things to be radically different. That even though all they can do in their real lives is try and change things bit-by-bit, there’s a place where they can see what the end point could look like, or what the real goals can be.”


“But the global warming….” Alm interjected.

“The global warming can’t be stopped. The animals can’t be resurrected,” Cean replied. “But the global warming can be slowed and habitats can be restored. You know, like our wetlands now that they’ve cleaned up the heavy metals from the car repair places and everything.”

“I see that. They can do something even if it’s not everything they would like to,” Alm had sat up and now actually relaxed and sat back. “The Imaginary Santa Cruz art project is a dream space, so even if they can’t accomplish everything they would like, there’s at least somewhere they can mentally exist where they have the world they would like with the friends they want around. Right? Did I get it?”

Cean nodded. “I’m making Blaize the character that the readers are supposed to identify with. I figure even though the world we have now is not the world she’s writing in, her art project? That imagined shared space? That is something that kids these days, and don’t make the hand gesture because I’m using the phrase For Real this time, can relate to. They play. They have shared games. I want them to know that even though things are good things can always be better. Not everyone lives in Aulinta and so some of the structures we have here are not that widely shared.”

“Hence the exchange programs,” Alm said.

“Hence the exchange programs,” Cean agreed. She looking meaningfully at the tapchan, where the Tajiks had indeed moved on to poetry and were reciting what she was pretty sure were classics from the Persian Golden Age to their hosts, who (not being Persian-speaking on the whole) looked a bit bewildered but, of course, politely attentive. “The book is like outreach. I describe Aulinta as the Imaginary Santa Cruz of this parallel present of whatever you’d call it, Real Santa Cruz, and I give the young readers a model for thinking big with their friends. If the people in Santa Cruz can do it, if people in the world self-destructing can do it, then so can they. You see?”

“Yeah, I do. You have a title for the book?” Alm asked.

“I thought I’d call it The Worm Ouroburos because of the way it loops back on itself to this present. Also it would make for some pretty metal cover art,” Cean concluded.


Alm was silent for a long time. Finally, he said, “You know, if I lived in that parallel present I would start an art project too, if only for the small joy of getting to make up overly-elaborate names for people and places and organizations.”

“You mean like the Own Voices Nomadic Peoples Collective Research Living Consortium?” Cean asked.

“For example. Or Than Which There Is None More British Tea Room.”

“I’m partial to the Woolarama Convergence Heritage Sheep Breeding Program.”

“Yeah. That’s a good one.”

They both sat for awhile, listening to Stefanie’s Tube o’ Tubas Tuba Trust & Symphonic Society go by on the street. They were still a little rusty, but it sounded like they were playing “Dust in the Wind.”

“This. This right here. This is better,” Alm concluded.

“Yes,” Cean agreed.

They sat on the patio well past dusk that day.

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