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Barbarians At The Gates: A Parable Of Dueling Philosophies

by Geoffrey Hart

“Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good.”

Thomas Sowell

History is not a precise science. It deals in many unquantifiables, and documentation is often scant or contradictory. The collapse of Western civilization in the late 20th century or early 21st century (records have been lost and start dates are unclear), a pivotal moment in human history, is a textbook example of how such knowledge is profoundly contextual, and how myth often overtakes fact through the passage of the years and loss of context. Historians therefore disagree over precisely when the loose collection of tribes known to history as Economists, or by their pejorative nickname, the Quants, first invaded the peaceful western lands that resulted from that tumultuous period known, for reasons that elude scholars, as the Great Brexit. There is nonetheless broad agreement that this world-changing event occurred in several phases as different tribes of barbarians swept across the broad plains inhabited by the Brexitans like a hurricane of conflicting ideologies.

Those historians who cling to the discredited doctrine of environmental determinism propose that the Quants were driven from their former lands by a warming climate, a theory that is justifiably scorned by modern theorists. Social historians point out, as did leading philosophers of the era, the lack of evidence for such a driving force, though perhaps that evidence is concealed beneath the waters that consumed the coasts of eastern North America and Eurasia. Instead, they propose the Quants were driven from their native societies by a relentless accumulation of social pressures created by their endless bickering, which led to vigorous intellectual debate and a proportionally high body count. So the Quants fled, bringing their logical positivist philosophy into direct conflict with the more sensible Brexitan theology that recommended peaceful coexistence and cooperation, with occasional forays into coopetition with their frenemy states. This clash of cultures inevitably created conflict between the Brexitans’ blind faith in their Pax Brexitannica and the Quants’ blind faith in their mathematics.

Whatever the merits of each proposed explanation of the serial invasions, the sequence of historical events and their consequences are reasonably clear. First came the Hayeks, emerging from the dark woods of their blackly forested eastern homeland. They came singing, at great length, of dwarves and golden rings, their male warriors accompanied by burly blond shieldmaidens who fought every bit as fiercely as their men. Each invader bore two throwing axes, which doubled as debating tools and tools for felling trees to construct the temporary camps they built to protect their goods while they ravaged the countryside. Historians believe that these camps acquired their name (laagers) from the prodigious kegs of pale amber beer that fueled the invaders’ aggression, but which slowed the invasion whenever they were forced to pause their assault to brew more because supplies had run low. Their taste in beer appalled the gentle Brexitans, whose phlegmatic nature was undoubtedly encouraged by their languorous parliamentary debates in a chamber hung with red tapes and the many mellow wines they preferred to sip while debating.

The Brexitans, who were a sedentary agricultural people, had never met axe-wielding barbarians before, and being unprepared for such vigorous debate, were quickly overwhelmed, their hastily repurposed agricultural implements having proven singularly ineffective debating tools. Waves of refugees fled westward to escape the onslaught—and ran straight into the second wave of barbarians.

The second wave originated around the same time the Hayeks began to establish their new home, when the Keynesians invaded from the west, arriving at the storied shores of the Brexitan lands on overpriced, yet technologically impressive, landing craft that bore nimble swordsmen on horseback. Upon clearing the beaches of defenders, the horsemen immediately began raids with the goal of freeing the Brexitan markets. By capturing goods and departing before the villagers could respond to their lightning-quick raids, they liberated the Brexitan–Hayek society from the burden of production by selling these goods back to the original owners at a handsome profit. Although this stimulation of demand seemed (paradoxically) to have improved the economic lot of the Brexitan­–Hayek culture, the barbarians were broadly resented, not least for their insistence on drinking a weak beer the Brexitans disdained and the Hayeks openly mocked. This led to spirited debate wherever the two tribes came into contact, swords and axes both reaping a red harvest. (Here, we use red in the sense of bloody, rather than in the traditional historical sense of unrepentant socialism, whose waves had crashed upon the Brexitans and receded several generations earlier.)

The third and most intimidating of the tribes were the Friedmans, who were clad in powerful and impenetrable logic that turned aside the staves of the Westerners, the axes of the Hayeks, and the swords of the Keynesians with equal ease. They rebuffed those futile prods with crushing swings of rhetorical bludgeons mounted on long staves that kept them at a safe distance from the commoners they preferred to oppose, while still delivering crushing logical blows to the slow witted or unwary. The origins of this tribe are unknown; based on what little evidence has been gathered, they appear to have sprung into existence, sui generis, in a storied western city, Chicago, famed for its winds, which may have inspired the blustery Keynesians.

Though the Brexitan­–Hayeks were a peaceful society, they were hardly defenseless. In addition to their doughty peasants, who had belatedly learned to wield their staves and pitchforks and rakes and hoes with surprising effectiveness when suitably provoked, the Brexitans had a secret force of elite warriors they could call upon in times of crisis. These elite warriors, the Empiricists (or Emps for short), spent years mastering the skills of logic and the scientific method, and worked in cloistered monasteries known as laboratories, where they were instantly recognizable by their knee-length white coats. These coats had been carefully designed to shield them from fire, caustic chemicals, and even small explosions, and had proven effective in countless skirmishes and occasional pitched battles between laboratories with different prevailing central dogmas. Where these warriors were available in sufficient numbers, their ruthless application of empirical logic drove the Quants to their knees; many ran in terror before the Emps could close to within rhetorical range. But there were never enough Emps, and the Quant tribes easily circumnavigated the Emp forces and defeated them by cutting their supply lines. Without funding to support their forays into the field, the Emps were forced to retreat to their laboratories and conserve their resources against future need.

A fourth tribe of Quants, known as the Ecologists, had settled among the Brexitans shortly before the invasions by the more aggressively rhetorical barbarians. Etymologically, they were related to the Quants through the shared phoneme “eco”. The meaning of this term is lost to history. Some believe it translates as “dealing with numbers”; others suggest it to be an obscure Indo-Turkic word for troublesome nomads. Little credence is given to the theory that it related to cultivation of diverse gardens, as no archeological evidence has been evinced to prove these gardens ever existed. Unlike the fiercer Quants who came later, the Ecologists understood the importance of coexistence and diversity, which was no doubt why they fit in so well in the lands of the Brexitans. Unfortunately, they had embraced a life of quiet contemplation of nature, and were no match for their more vigorous relatives in the heat of battlefield debate.

Had there been enough advance warning, the Brexitans could have relied upon their elite hereditary warriors, the Dawkinses. The founder of this quasi-mystical order, motivated by a seemingly unquenchable desire to selflessly spread his genes, had briefly run amok among the Brexitan women and inseminated more of them than any historical figure had achieved, even the legendary Genghis Khan. Some historians estimate, based on recent genetic evidence, that nearly 10% of all modern Brexitans bear genes from this lineage. Irrespective of their founder’s amatory exploits, these soldiers were masters of the secrets of the heart, and used them to seduce their enemies into breeding with them. Over time, they would defeat their foes by, quite literally, becoming their foes and agreeing not to fight among themselves. (Making babies, referred to as “the continuation of diplomacy by other means”, was more fun in any event.) But growing babies into warriors took more than a decade, there were few pure-blood Dawkinses remaining, and the Brexitans’ time was short.

So it was that the Brexitans came up with a desperate strategy: they would give all their money to the Friedmans, in the hope that descendants of the other two tribes would turn on them. (Even if that didn’t happen, they rationalized, it would be good for the economy.) History had shown that epic battles among the three Quantic tribes tended towards the Hobbesian; that is, they were nasty, brutish, and short, even by the bloodthirsty standards of historians. The hope of the Brexitan government was that their troops, no longer outnumbered, would be able to move in once the dust settled and mop up the few surviving Quants, thereby restoring peace to their lands.

Sadly, their bold plan failed, as the Friedmans, who represented an estimated 1% of the total population of Quants, took the money and withdrew overseas to a mythical haven in the far west, known to students of mythology as the Cayman Islands, or by their shorter colloquial name, famed in song and story: Avalon. Though this greatly reduced the military pressure being exerted on the Brexitans, the remaining Quant forces were still too powerful for them to meet in open battle.

All seemed lost, until a new group of nomads entered the picture. They were known as Neocons, a word believed to comprise a portmanteau combination of the words neophyte (meaning naïve and inexperienced) and con (meaning an attempt to deceive). They were champions of liberty, though not to be confused with the Rands, who in turn are not to be confused with the randy Dawkinses. (You can see how ancient English makes life difficult for the intrepid historian, as there are many subtle linguistic traps into which the unwary may fall!) Neocons viewed any interference from governments as sacrilegious. Led by their general, the infamously subtle Ponzi, their scheme made short work of the other Quants, and became the de facto government of the Brexitan territories.

Historians, being historians, have drawn many lessons from the events of this turbulent period, and disagree bitterly over which lesson is most defensible. Some believe that those who don’t learn the lessons of history are doomed to be conquered by Economists. Dawkinsesians are too busy spreading their seed to be bothered much with history, which some take as a different lesson: that if you screw around too much with the economy, it will only end well for those doing the screwing. Neocon historians believe that no nation can long endure without a powerful and aggressive military. And Ecologists grumble that if only governments listened to them, utopia would lie within our grasp. But nobody listens much to them, which is probably a good thing.

The truth of this matter may never be discerned, for such is the curse of history: that so much of what we know must be inferred from scant evidence. Yet the true lesson, I feel, is this: that barbarians come and go, some fleeing with the family silverware and others teaching us how to get along with the real business of life, which is finding a way to enjoy life and someone to enjoy it with. Success in life, as in government, depends on knowing which type of barbarian one is dealing with.

~

Bio:

Geoff Hart works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 49 stories thus far. Visit him online at geoff-hart.com.

Philosophy Note:

I’ve always been fascinated by how real historical events are transformed into myths and legends that retain only a superficial resemblance to the truth. The aspects that are retained tell us much about what cultures found sufficiently important to preserve. This story may have been triggered by reading The Mongoliad and musing about mass population movements and “the continuation of economics by other means”.

A Very Short History Of Right-Wing Science Fiction In Poland

by Stanisław Krawczyk

Several years ago, I spoke to a British science fiction author at Pyrkon, a Polish convention. I told him that the history of SF in Poland had had a marked right-wing component. Many leading writers had grown up in the Polish People’s Republic, a post-WWII state formed under heavy Soviet influence, and they had developed strong negative feelings about the state and its proclaimed socialist ideology. In consequence, they later disliked all manner of things associated with the left.

“I know,” the author told me. “I’m from Britain and I’m left-wing. I grew up under Margaret Thatcher.”

Much of North American and British SF now leans to the left. It would be simplistic, of course, to ascribe it all to the writers’ biographical experience with Thatcher and Reagan. It would also be simplistic to explain everything in Polish SF with a reference to the Polish People’s Republic. Still, if we want to understand the strong right-wing leanings of SF prose in Poland in the 1990s and their partial reverberation in later decades, going back to the 1970s and 1980s is inevitable.

We should keep in mind, though, that the “right-wing” label is, necessarily, a generalization. More research would be needed to clarify what a right-wing worldview meant for different groups and in different periods. I hope that such research will be carried out in time.

Under the Soviet shadow

The late history of the Polish People’s Republic coincides with the early history of the Polish SF fandom. Among the several dates we could choose as symbolic starting points for the latter, the most suitable seems the year 1976. It was then that the influential All-Polish Science Fiction Fan Club was founded in Warsaw, and its members took part in the third edition of EuroCon, itself organized in Poland. The fandom began to grow quickly in the mid-1970s, and so did the number of SF novels and short stories. Throughout the 1980s, more and more independent fan clubs were also set up, and more and more grassroots conventions were organized.

In most cases, science fiction writers and fans were not directly engaged in the dissident movement. However, they often had little love for the state authorities. To begin with, they shared in the broader discontent with the deteriorating economy and political oppression. In the book publishing system, the combined effect of printing issues, paper shortages, and state-wide censorship was that some books suffered delays that could last years. And a severely limited access to Western culture was a major obstacle for those interested in SF.

Because of censorship, this enmity could not be openly expressed in public. However, it did find an indirect expression in the subgenre of sociological science fiction. Its foremost author, Janusz A. Zajdel (1938–1985), a nuclear physicist and a committed member of the Solidarity movement, published five novels in this subgenre. They may be read as universal visions of enslaved societies, but they may also be read as a veiled criticism of the realities of the Polish People’s Republic. The novels quickly became popular, and Zajdel was posthumously made the patron of the most important award for speculative fiction in Poland.

To the right and against the left

The years 1989–1991 were a political breakthrough, ushering in the Third Polish Republic. Censorship was gone, and the available spectrum of expression became much wider. As part of my PhD, I have studied commentaries on public matters in the central journal of the Polish SF field, Nowa Fantastyka. Liberal, progressive, or left-wing ideas were very rare; right-wing ideas were quite frequent. This image seems even sharper than in the whole Polish society, which did turn towards the right overall, but which also gave the most votes to a post-communist coalition in parliamentary elections in 1993 and which elected a post-communist candidate as president in 1995.

A recurrent thread in the journal was negative references to the Polish People’s Republic. These were part of a narrative that attributed a positive role to the Polish science fiction of the 1980s, casting it as instrumental in the social resistance against the authorities and underscoring its advantage over that decade’s “mainstream literature”. A strong opposition was thus constructed between the SF field and the authorities. Only later was serious consideration given to the idea that the latter may have treated sociological SF as a safety valve, enabling the publication of allegorical criticism as an apparently ineffective form of protest.

A few less regular threads can also be traced in editorials and columns in Nowa Fantastyka in the 1990s. They can be summarized as religious and bioethical conservatism, a critique of cultural trends associated with the left (political correctness, relativism, feminism), and a critique of the European Union. Each of these themes was only represented by a small number of texts, but together they demonstrate that right-wing ideas were expressed much more often than liberal or left-wing ones.

In addition, in the early 1990s two key figures of the SF field decided to try their luck in politics. Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz was a spokesman of a right-wing party between 1993 and 1994, and Lech Jęczmyk was a candidate of two other right-wing parties in parliamentary elections in 1991 and 1993. However, neither became a successful politician, and this kind of involvement in the public sphere remained rare.

The 1990s pessimism

Apart from the commentaries, a right-wing worldview permeated science fiction itself. According to a later essay by Jacek Dukaj – an accomplished SF writer in his own right – this manifested partly in “the conviction that destructive civilizational processes were inevitable,” which replaced a previous sentiment, “the sense that there was no alternative to the Soviet rule.”[1] Indeed, Polish science fiction in the 1990s was largely pessimistic, and its anxieties appear similar to those in right-wing discourse outside the SF field: in the media or in parliamentary politics.

One common theme was the spiritual fall of Western Europe, or even all Europe. Possibly the most influential writer dealing with this topic – then an author of numerous novels and short stories, now a well-known opinion journalist – was Rafał A. Ziemkiewicz. His short story A source without water (Źródło bez wody, 1992) will be a good illustration. In that story, Western Europe has been dominated by Islam; the Roman Catholic Church, too, has become lax and soft, and must be renewed. The moral corruption also has a sexual side, which is revealed in a notable detail. One of the characters we follow is an important official who forces himself to sleep with women he despises. He does so to maintain a womanizer’s façade, which he needs to safely turn down the offers from highly placed gays. Western Europe was also shown at times as a direct threat to Polish independence, as in Barnim Regalica’s short story collection Rebellion (Bunt, 1999). It presents an uprising against the European Union, which has taken away Poland’s sovereignty.

Another significant theme was abortion. Here a telling example is Marek S. Huberath’s novelette The major punishment (Kara większa, 1991). It shows a man imprisoned in an afterlife which is part hell, part purgatory, and which resembles a combination of Nazi and Soviet concentration camps. A part of the afterlife’s population are embryos that have been torn apart by abortion and now need to be sewn back together by women who had aborted other embryos. An editor’s note accompanying the piece in Nowa Fantastyka called it “a dramatic pendant to the . . . discussion on abortion,”[2] and several months later another editor commented on the readers’ reactions: “It appears that even an artistic voice in favor of life can evoke angry reactions, and that ‘the civilization of death’ has determined followers among our readers.”[3] Other notable examples include Tomasz Kołodziejczak’s Rise and go (Wstań i idź, 1992), which highlights the ubiquity of abortion and euthanasia in the macdonaldized United States, or Wojciech Szyda’s The psychonaut (Psychonautka, 1997), in which Christ is incarnated and killed again as an aborted foetus.

Beyond a stereotype

Despite the caveat I made in the introduction, it may seem at this point that the contemporary history of Polish SF is a monolith. However, there are a few ways to illustrate that this image would be inaccurate. First, in 1990, a 15-year-old Jacek Dukaj published a short story The Golden Galley (Złota Galera), focused on an extremely powerful and rather immoral organization that blended corporation and church into one. The story was hailed as the first in the subgenre (?) called “clerical fiction,” which also featured some pieces by writers who might be easily identified later as right-wing. Perhaps the authors’ aversion to state oppression was such that they would not accept a hegemonic political role of any institution, even the Roman Catholic Church, which may have seemed poised for similar power in the early 1990s. If we looked from today’s perspective and focused on the cooperation of the Church and the political right throughout the Third Polish Republic, the phenomenon of “clerical fiction” would be impossible to explain.

Second, Polish SF and related commentaries (at least those in Nowa Fantastyka) became less visibly right-wing after the early 2000s. Of course, these attitudes have not disappeared; one illustration would be the national focus of many alternative history novels in a multi-authored book series Switch Rails of Time (Zwrotnice Czasu, 2009–2015). However, capitalism has grown to be a much more powerful force than the right-wing worldview in the field of SF in Poland. Together with the concurrent generational change, it means that fewer and fewer writers have been treating science fiction as a means to changing people’s minds, including a change towards the right. Instead, fiction has been perceived more and more as a market commodity, aimed at giving people what they already want. This is in itself a very short look at a very complex process, but the bottom line (to use an economic metaphor) is that the space has shrunk for SF which carries openly political ideas.

Third, some recent developments indicate a growing potential of left-wing science fiction. For instance, in 2020–2021, a fan group Alpaka released a collection of queer speculative fiction, Nowa Fantastyka published an issue devoted to LGBT+ topics, and Katarzyna Babis – illustrator, comic artist and political activist – publicly criticized a number of older works in her YouTube video series The Old Men of Polish SF&F (Dziady Polskiej Fantastyki). There have also been noteworthy ideological clashes in the Polish science fiction and fantasy fandom around Jacek Komuda and Andrzej Pilipiuk, two writers active since the 1990s. It is too early to say that the left-wing worldview has established its presence in Polish SF, but it may happen.

Questions of capitalism, questions of context

Right-wing science fiction in Poland had its time foremostly in the 1990s (and early 2000s). Some of its elements remained, but in general Polish SF became less overtly political. Do the current developments mean that the genre is on track to active involvement with the public sphere again, right-wing, left-wing, or otherwise? It is possible, given that capitalism itself – or its present version – is increasingly becoming an object of public critique. The book market could change to create different conditions for writers and readers. But it is just that, a possibility, and even in that case it may also be other genres of speculative fiction that will carry the political mantle this time.

Regardless of what the future holds, we have seen that the ideas conveyed through Polish SF in the 1980s and 1990s were related to the historical context of those two decades (including the writers’ own biographies). When the context changed, the ideas did, too. This is not to say that there is some social determinism at work here; I prefer to think about fiction as a response to the empirical reality, not just its reflection. This response sometimes goes in surprising directions, as in the case of “clerical fiction.” However, we can understand SF better if we understand its context. And we can certainly say it does not naturally lean to the right or to the left; it can do both, or neither.

To know more about these leanings, we would need to look at other science fiction traditions, too. Would a hypothesis hold that other post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have had a similar ideological trajectory in their SF? Has there been a markedly different trajectory common to the countries of Western Europe? And what about other regions, such as Latin America?

If context matters, it is not just the national context but also the regional and global one. This broader story, however, has yet to be told.

~

Bio:

Stanisław Krawczyk is a sociologist and opinion journalist living in Warsaw. Once engaged actively in the fandom, he has now published a book in Polish, based on his PhD, on the history of the science fiction and fantasy field in Poland. He has also studied video games and the situation of the Polish humanities and social sciences under the recent research assessment regimes.


[1] Jacek Dukaj, Wyobraźnia po prawej stronie, część trzecia [Imagination on the right side: Part three], Wirtualna Polska, https://ksiazki.wp.pl/wyobraznia-po-prawej-stronie-czesc-trzecia-6146199054882433a, April 26, 2010.

[2] Maciej Parowski, Marek S. Huberath, Nowa Fantastyka 7/1991, p. 41.

[3] Lech Jęczmyk, untitled editorial, Nowa Fantastyka 3/1992, p. 1.

Notes On The Debates In The Federal Convention Concerning A Council Of Oracles

by Ron Fein

JULY 27, 1787, IN CONVENTION

The postponed question being taken up of whether the Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary should be joined by a Council of Oracles.

Mr. MADISON moved that such a council be constituted as a separate body within the Legislature, equal to the House and Senate, its consent needed for all legislation.

Col. MASON approved heartily of the motion. The oracles’ wisdom had proven critical during the late war. At the siege of Charleston, only their foresight averted a defeat and ignominious surrender. And General Washington has credited his victory at the battle of White Plains to their guidance. If New York had fallen to the British, the war may have lasted seven years rather than four.

Mr. GERRY. No one disputes that the wisdom of the oracles wd. guide the men of the representative assemblies in their judgment. But the Council of Oracles shd. form a fourth branch of the general Govt., not a body within the Legislature. The oracles shd. not be burdened to vote routinely on matters of roads and tariffs &c., but instead bestow their insights upon the other three branches as needed.

Mr. KING concurred with Mr. Gerry. If the oracles are constantly occupied with mundane questions, the spirit may depart from them. Let them advise the other branches of the Govt. when needed, and otherwise tend to their own inscrutable affairs.

Doctr. FRANKLIN did not see the necessity of a separate Council of Oracles. In Greece the Pythia at Delphi speaks to those who seek counsel, whether high or low, for one day per month, nine months per annum. But she forms no part of any Govt.

Mr. HAMILTON remarked that the case of the Pythia was not applicable. Greece is divided and the priestesses must be available to Sparta even when it marches agst. Athens. Our object is a Govt. that unites the States, not one that advises them in their wars agst. each other.

Col. MASON. Further support for this proposition derives from the varied locations of the temples. Without a separate body in the Govt. empowered to restrain the secular branches, will Massachusetts heed the words of a priestess in Virginia if her words differ from those of the one in Boston?

Mr. MADISON. The oracles are all infallible and their advice, if understood correctly, is identical. But they may phrase their words differently, or men may understand them differently, leading to misunderstanding. A council of them wd. speak with one voice.

Mr. SHERMAN agreed that oracular guidance is indispensable. Men are corrupt and shortsighted; the advice of the priestesses is always correct even if we fail to understand it. But fallible men must interpret their words and make their own decisions. The oracles shd. not be encumbered by formal positions in the Govt. given their sacred duties in their temples &c.

Mr. KING apprehended that if the oracles formed a part of the Govt., that unscrupulous men wd. attempt to bribe them to secure advantage.

Mr. WILSON. The priestesses must remain pure and holy. To further embroil their delicate and virtuous constitutions in daily affairs wd. strain their spirits overmuch. The Executive and perhaps the Judiciary are well advised to consult the Apollonian priestesses from time to time, but they shd. not be given a role in the general affairs of the Govt.

Col. MASON’s opinion had been changed by the arguments used in the discussion. He was now sensible of the necessity of protecting the oracular priestesses in their spiritual domains and not overly enmeshing them in the affairs of men.

Mr. MADISON was content to withdraw the original motion and propose another in its place. He moved that, from time to time, the Executive shall seek the advice and counsel of an oracular priestess when he shall think proper; and further, that he may require the opinion of the principal officers of the Govt. regarding the correct interpretation of her words. 

The motion passed unanimously.

~

Bio:

Ron Fein is a writer, lawyer, and activist based near Boston, Massachusetts (USA). Find him at ronfein.com and on Twitter @ronfein.

Philosophy Note:

The Framers of the U.S. Constitution sometimes showed great wisdom and foresight, but they were blinded in many ways by their own prejudices, divisions, and misconceptions about how the new United States of America would develop. What if something like the Oracle at Delphi, widely accepted as capable of accurately divining the future, had been available to them? Would they have been able to take proper advantage of this amazing resource? My guess is not.

History

by Stephen Sottong

The guard led me down a narrow path between a series of anonymous, razor-wire-topped chain-link cages until, somehow, he knew the one that was mine. The cage was a three-meter square with a concrete floor sloping to a hole in one corner large enough to function for sanitary needs — if one could function in the total lack of privacy. The hole stank of previous use. The guard pushed me inside — not roughly but decisively. I made no protest, too drained to care. My family and my life’s work were gone. The irony struck me — I was a historian and now my life was merely history.

I sat on the cold concrete, waiting, dozing only to be awakened randomly by screams, or a single gunshot, or guards taking prisoners away.

The sun was barely high enough to shine into my cage when the gate opened and a boy of about eight was thrust in. He stood there, small, thin, dressed in old but serviceable clothes, shivering, although this winter morning was not particularly cool courtesy of the warming that had caused this chaos. The boy and I stared at each other. He was about the same age my son would have been. Patting the concrete next to me, I made room for him. He sat, leaving a gap between us, and continued shivering. I lifted my arm, offering to put it around him. He hesitated and, when a gunshot rang out, finally leaned into me.

We sat, waiting, not speaking, perhaps afraid to interact in this perverse place.

Half an hour later, a guard came around, opened the gate and handed me a small loaf of bread. I took it. It was still warm. Its heady scent masked the stench of filth and decay around me. I wanted to tear into the bread, ravenous, but, instead, moved it to the hand still around the boy, broke the loaf in two and gave the larger piece to him. The guard watched this tableau and left.

We ate. I wished I had water.

The sun rose, baking the concrete expanse. By the time it was too warm for me to have an arm around him, two guards arrived. We got up, me stiffly after sitting on the still cold concrete. The boy offered me his hand and helped me up. A woman took the boy, and a man marched me down the long rows of cells with their seated occupants, some silent, some weeping. I trembled in spite of the heat contemplating what awaited me.

The guard escorted me to a building. At the entrance, he presented me with a bag. Inside were my notebooks. Here rested the sum total of my worthless, lifelong pursuit of the past, preserved on the one media that could survive the disruptions of these times – ink on paper. I held the bag closer than I had the boy, afraid that both I and my life’s work might be destroyed at any moment. The guard deposited me in a room with two chairs, one in front and one behind a desk.

I sat, waiting, clutching the bag.

Two guards entered through a side door and examined the room. A uniformed man followed. When I finally recognized the man was The Leader, I was too surprised to react. The guards on either side of him precluded an assassination attempt — not that I had the energy or will to try.

“Don’t get up,” The Leader said and took the seat behind the desk. He looked older than his years, military hat low over his eyes, uniform faded. The scar running the length of his right cheek appeared even redder and more ragged than in his pictures. “Feel free to take notes,” he continued.

In spite of my shock, I managed to pull out one of the notebooks and found a pen at the bottom of the bag.

He sat back in the chair, steel-gray eyes focused on me, “I read in your journals how you’ve documented the warming climate and loss of prime land with sea level rise. So you realize that means current population levels can’t be sustained. I feel I’ve been tasked to ensure that whatever part of humanity,” he stared directly at me, eyes stern but sad, “if any, that survives will be the best possible. Without intervention, the strongest and cruelest tend to survive. I’m trying to preclude that by testing for empathy and altruism. Congratulations. You passed the test. Had you not shared the bread with the boy, you would have been culled from the survivor stock.”

My hand trembled, but my fingers somehow transcribed his words.

“So, I have an offer for you. You’re a historian. I want an honest, factual account of events. I know I’ll come off as one of the monsters of history. I don’t want you to sugarcoat the facts, just be open-minded. If you accept, you’ll be assigned a place where you can observe and record these crucial times.” He leaned forward, arms on the desk. “Understand, you will likely be considered complicit and your observations suspect.” He paused, still staring at me. “Will you take the position?”

My life was history. How could I refuse such a vantage to record it? “Yes.”

He rose. “Good. You’ll be taken to a room where you can rest and clean up.” With that, he and the guards departed, leaving me, for brief seconds, alone, rooted to my chair in shock.

A guard eventually escorted me out of the building, past only empty cages — perhaps fearing I’d give away the secret to survival. He made no attempt to restrain me and seemed more guide than minder.

We had nearly reached the gate of the facility when we passed an enclosure where boys of perhaps six to thirteen were kept. The one who’d been my companion pushed his way through the milling group to the chain link. I stopped. He stared at me, wide-eyed, clutching the wires. We held each others gaze. The guard made no attempt to move me along.

I queried the matron, pointing to the boy. “Does he have family?”

She shook her head. “All dead.”

The longer I looked at the boy, the more he resembled my own — before the plague took him. “I’ll take him.”

She frowned and turned to my guard who pulled out his radio, spoke briefly into it and then shrugged at the matron. She beckoned the boy to the gate, releasing him to me.

Notebooks under one arm, boy under the other, we walked toward our escape, exchanging glances, evaluating each other. With all we’d both lost, we could do worse.

~

Bio:

Stephen Sottong lives in beautiful northern California behind the Redwood Curtain. He is a 2013 winner of Writers of the Future and has been published in several journals and websites. A full list is on his website: stephensottong.com.