Harvest

{An issue of my newsletter, Leaflet}

I wrote a short story about what it feels like to have once been able to fly, which The Altantic has published online; the title is “Trajectory.” As a sidebar, the magazine has also posted a short interview with me about the story. I feel like it’s a good story; I hope you’ll check it out. It happens to be the most recent piece of fiction I’ve written—from just slightly before we entered the end-times. (The photos and air quality numbers coming out of California the last couple of days are kind of freaking me out.)

I also wrote an essay for the website Public Books about a best-selling comic novel from 1919 about social climbing, written when its author was nine years old. This one I wrote way before the end-times—almost a year ago—so it’s almost unbearably lighthearted, sorry. Here’s the original dust jacket of the comic novel, somewhat artificially freshened up by photo editing software:

Daisy Ashford's "The Young Visiters"

In other news . . .

I dreamed recently that Keanu put on a sky blue textured rubber body suit that blocked out local noise and allowed him to hear the distant signal and learn that Trump had sold us to aliens for meat and they are coming for their harvest.

“He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel.” —Raymond Chandler, The Long Good-Bye

If you haven’t been reading Peter’s ongoing autobiography, told in year-by-year Instagram selfies, you should. Start here.

Write through the disenchantment, reads advice to myself that I have not been able to follow. More useful, in the same notebook: It’s hard to mourn while one is still being traumatized.

“Watch yourself. Every first-rate journalist has just one ambition—to become a second-rate author.” —Egon Kisch, quoted in Antonín Liehm’s Politics of Culture

There’s a new evolution in podcasting that I like: Two of my friends were recently interviewed in depth about their lives: poet and doctor Laura Kolbe, interviewed by Jordan Kisner in Thresholds, and teacher, activist, and birder David Robinson, interviewed by Sam Sebastian in How Are You Doing, Really?

“Writers need to hide in bourgeois life like ticks need to hide in an animal’s fur: the deeper they’re buried the better.” —Rachel Cusk, Outline

It’s fall migration season here in Brooklyn, and I’ve posted photos of Northern parulas, red-eyed and warbling vireos, and American redstarts on my blog. Also, on a hike upstate last weekend, I got a photo of a great blue heron shaking itself dry like a dog.

“To forget the past so easily seems scarcely loyal to oneself.” —W. N. P. Barbellion, Journal of a Disappointed Man

Here’s a photograph that I seem to take at the end of every summer:

Reading with n+1 at the Ace Hotel

I’ll be reading from my new science fiction story at the Ace Hotel on January 24th at 7pm. Also reading will be other contributors to the winter 2017 issue of n+1, including Dayna Tortorici, Nikil Saval, A. S. Hamrah, Sam Frank, Naomi Fry, Joshua Cohen, and Thomas Bolt. The Ace Hotel is at 20 West 29th St., NYC. Subscribers to n+1 get in free (hint, hint), and tickets for others cost $10. RSVP on on Facebook to reserve a place.

Hindsight is 20/20

Ronald Reagan is often credited, especially among historians on the right, with having defeated the Soviet Union by challenging it to an arms race so costly that the Soviet economy collapsed, taking the political authority of Communism down with it. Some historians on the left prefer to credit Reagan’s diplomacy and arms negotiations, and to tip the hat to his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev, but in 1986 Gorbachev himself acknowledged in a speech to the Politburo that the nuclear-arms threat from America was tantamount to an economic one: “We will be pulled into an arms race that is beyond our capabilities, and we will lose it because we are at the limit of our capabilities. … If the new round [of an arms race] begins, the pressures on our economy will be unbelievable.”

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I wasn’t aware that there was a plan behind Reagan’s buildup. It seemed, rather, to be a mysterious and almost autonomous process, driven by fear and nationalist rivalry, not strategy. I was a child, of course, and maybe I didn’t understand. But I find that as an adult, I still harbor a doubt, perhaps unfair, that Reagan fully intended his strategy. I don’t doubt that he wished the Soviet Union ill, and there’s no question that he thought that stockpiling nuclear weapons would harm the Soviet Union, but I’m not quite persuaded that he understood in advance that military-induced economic stress could trigger a spontaneous collapse of political authority in the Soviet Union, of the sort that Hobbes alluded to when he wrote that “The obligation of subjects to the sovereign, is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasteth, by which he is able to protect them.”

Quite possibly he did, though. I was startled, a couple of weeks ago, to discover that a very articulate explanation of Reagan’s strategy had been published two decades before Reagan even took office. In the science-fiction novel His Master’s Voice, published in Polish in 1968 (and translated into English in 1983), Stanislaw Lem accurately predicted not only Reagan’s military strategy but the economic rationale behind it.

His Master’s Voice concerns a team of American scientists secretly attempting to decode a message transmitted in a stream of neutrinos from a distant galaxy. Because the team works under threat of a takeover by the American military, who fear that the Soviet Union might also learn of the message and decipher it first, the narrator has occasion to look back, from the novel’s imagined future, on America’s military strategy in the 1970s (which in 1968, of course, had not yet happened):

In the seventies, for a while, the ruling doctrine was the “indirect economic attrition” of all potential enemies; Secretary of Defense Kayser expressed this with the maxim “The thin starve before the fat lose weight.” The competition-duel in nuclear payloads gave way to a missile race, and that in turn led to the building of more and more expensive “antimissile missiles.” The next step in the escalation was the possibility of constructing “laser shields,” a stockade of gamma lasers which would line the perimeter of the country with destroyer rays; the cost of installing such a system was set at four hundred to five hundred billion dollars. After this move in the game, one could next expect the putting into orbit of giant satellites equipped with gamma lasers, whose swarm, passing over the territory of the enemy, could consume it utterly with ultraviolet radiation in a fraction of a second. The cost of that belt of death would exceed, it was estimated, seven trillion dollars. This war of economic attrition—through the production of increasingly expensive weaponry that thereby placed a severe strain on the whole organism of government—although seriously planned, could not be carried out, because the building of super- and hyperlasers turned out to be insurmountably difficult for the current technology.

Remarkably, Lem was not only predicting that America would engage in an arms race in order to sap the Soviet Union’s economic capacity, but also predicting that someone like Reagan would come along and accelerate the arms race by adding laser defenses to missile offenses, much as Reagan did in his 1983 “Star Wars” speech, which launched what Reagan called the Stategic Defense Initiative.

While googling to see whether anyone else had already written this blog post, I discovered that Lem himself explained his clairvoyance—sort of. In a 1986 book, One Human Minute, Lem wrote that years earlier he had gained access to “several volumes on the military history of the twenty-first century,” and though at first he feared betraying his knowledge of their contents, he soon realized that “The safest way to conceal a remarkable idea . . . was to publish it as science fiction,” and therefore slipped one of the secrets into page 125 of the novel he was then working on, His Master’s Voice. (A more mundane explanation is possible, of course: he might have punked English readers by slipping into the 1983 English translation a passage that wasn’t present in the 1968 Polish original.)