Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Until We Seek Until We Find Ammonia Avenue

". . . we can't all move to the moon . . . "
from Voices From Chernobyl
by Svetlana Alexievich (b 1948)
Nobel Prize in Literature ~ 2015

So Many Memorable Passages:

61: "Is there anything more frightening than people?"

164: "And still we had a great time on May 1.
We came home late at night, and my window had been
blown open by the wind. I would remember that later on."

173: " . . . maybe the moral is simple . . .
You should come into this world on your tiptoes,
and stop at the entrance? Into this miraculous world . . . "

193: "And then the conversations begin again, until midnight. First about him, the deceased. But after that? Once more about the fate of the country and the design of the universe. . . . We’re metaphysicians. We don’t live on this earth, but in our dreams, in our conversations. Because you need to add something to this ordinary life, in order to understand it. Even when you’re near death."

213: "We read Solzhenitsyn, Shalamov, went to each other's houses, had endless talks in the kitchen. We wanted something more from life. What? Somewhere there were movie actors -- Catherine Deneuve -- wearing berets. We wanted freedom."

214: "And the May Day parade? No one forced us to go -- no one forced me to go there. We all had a choice and we failed to make it. I don't remember a more crowded, cheerful May Day parade. Everyone was worried, they wanted to become part of the herd -- to be with others. People wanted to curse someone, the authorities, the government, the Communists. Now I think back, looking for the break. Where was it? But it was before that. We didn't even want to know the truth. We just wanted to know if we should eat the radishes."


124: “Show me a fantasy novel about Chernobyl--there isn't one! Because reality is more fantastic.”

168, 191: "People didn't understand. They'd been frightened over and over again about a nuclear war, but not about Chernobyl. . . . We'd been afraid of bombs, of mushroom clouds, but then it turned out like this . . . this wasn't like anything else."

180: "The apocalypse — nuclear winter — has already all been described in Western literature [and music, e.g., Ammonia Avenue], as if they were rehearsing it, preparing for the future. The explosion of a large number of nuclear warheads will result in enormous fires. The atmosphere will be saturated with smoke. Sunlight won't be able to reach the earth, and this will ignite a chain reaction -- from cold to colder to colder still. This man - made version of the end of the world has been taught since the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century. But atom bombs won't disappear even after they destroy the last warhead. There will still be the knowledge of atom bombs."

Cases in point, of post - apocalyptic fiction, prefiguring (or attempting to prefigure) the real thing:

1. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) ~ Philip K. Dick ~ I have always meant to read this precursor to the movie Bladerunner, if for no other reason than to make sense of the bizarre title. No matter how many times you've seen the movie, try reading the book then re - watching the film with the text fresh in mind, in order to see how much the screenplay has been altered from Dick's original novel.

It was quite touching to overhear the replicants discussing the nature of fiction and the mysterious concept of imagination:
" . . . pre-colonial fiction."
"You mean old books?"
"Stories written before space travel but about space travel."
"How could there have been stories about space travel before — "
"The writers," Pris said, "made it up."
"Based on what?"
"On imagination." (150 - 51)
Made it up! Imagine that!

The movie devotes little time to one of the more important themes of the book -- the human desire to own a living pet, as a status symbol, if nothing else, in this nuclear - damaged world where animal life is so scarce that most pets are battery - powered imitations. Thus the query, if humans dream of real sheep, do androids dream of ersatz sheep?

At the close of the novel, Rick Deckard finds what he at first believes to be a lone living specimen of an extinct variety of toad:
237: "The toad, he saw, blended in totally with the texture and shade of the ever - present dust. It had, perhaps, evolved, meeting the new climate as it had met all climates before. . . . only the top of its flat skull and its eyes projected above the ground. . . . The eyes held no spark, no awareness . . . But it had moved."

238: " . . . he felt its peculiar coolness; in his hands its body seemed dry and wrinkled -- almost flabby -- and as cold as if it had taken up residence in a grotto miles under the earth away from the sun. Now the toad squirmed; with its weak hind feet it tried to pry itself from his grip, wanting, instinctively, to go flopping off. A big one, he thought; full-grown and wise. Capable, in its own fashion, of surviving even that which we’re not really managing to survive. . . . Life which we can no longer distinguish; life carefully buried up to its forehead in the carcass of a dead world."
As John Isidore explains: "Even animals -- even eels and gophers and snakes and spiders -- are sacred. . . . Insects . . . are especially sacrosanct." Spiders have become so rare that any one of them might be "the last spider . . . The last living spider on Earth" (161, 210). A similar reverence for animals is repeated throughout the testimonials recounted in Voices From Chernobyl, from dogs to bird, all the way down to flies, wasps, and cockroaches (see my previous post "Birdwatching"). Chernobyl actually has a lot in common with Androids, in a weirdly ironic way.

2. Roadside Picnic (1972) ~ Arkady & Boris Strugatsky ~ Similar to Androids & Bladerunner, this 1970's novel of existentialist science fiction -- in which alien travelers have stopped by Earth for a brief visit, leaving behind a contaminated Zone -- bears a fictional but striking resemblance to real - life Chernobyl. In the novel (and the related, but very different, movie Stalker) the aliens have left behind a scattering of curious debris -- copper discs, batteries, metal hoops and bracelets -- much as careless Earthlings might litter the site of a Roadside Picnic. Did the aliens even notice that they might be disrupting someone else's habitat in a potentially harmful, even devastating, way? Perhaps not.
131 - 132: “A picnic. Imagine: a forest, a country road, a meadow. A car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radios, cameras . . . A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning they leave. The animals, birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about . . . Scattered rags, burnt-out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp . . . and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, wilted flowers from another meadow . . . A roadside picnic.” [Ellipses in original text.]

128: "How do you think it is all going to end? . . . for humanity as a whole. . . .

"That depends on our luck . . . We now know that for humanity as a whole, the Visit has largely passed without a trace. For humanity everything passes without a trace. Of course, it's possible that by randomly pulling chestnuts out of this fire, we'll eventually stumble on something that will make life on Earth completely unbearable. That would be bad luck. But you have to admit, that's a danger humanity has always faced. . . . You see, I've long since become unused to discussing humanity as a whole. Humanity as a whole is too stable a system, nothing upsets it."

132: " . . . what makes us great? . . . Is it that we re-created nature? That we harnessed forces of almost - cosmic proportions? That in a brief time we have conquered the planet and opened a wndow onto the universe? No! It is that despite all this, we have survived, and intend to continue doing so."

139: " . . . statistics is a very precise science, despite the fact that it deals with random variables. And furthermore, it's a very eloquent science, very visual."
3. Only Begotten Daughter (1990) ~ James Morrow ~ A feminist revision of New Testament Christianity, with a futuristic (2012!) New Jersey - Philadelphia setting, featuring not a nuclear annihilation but one of fire and brimstone.

The novel opens with some clever parallels: Murray Katz & his daughter Julie = Mary & Jesus; Georgina Sparks & her daughter Phoebe = Elizabeth & John the Baptist; New Jersey = New Jerusalem; The Garden State = The State of Israel; Atlantic City (that "burning, outsized Monopoly board") = Anti - Christ; the lighthouse beam = the Star of Bethlehem; the three paramedics = the three Wiseman (64, 125, 151, 29, 35). Instead of “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here” written over the Gates of Hell, it's "All Hope Embrace, Ye Who Enter In" flashing across the entrance to Dante's Casino (64, 127, 169).

Julie Katz is not just a "flash in the pantheon" but may be the one to bring "a new religion, a faith as apocalyptic as Christianity, fierce as Islam, repressive as Hinduism, smug as Buddhism" (57 - 58); or, better yet, she has come "to rescue the masses from nostalgia . . . [to] topple the empire of nostalgia" (110-11): "My mother is outside the universe . . . the God of physics . . . The tragedy of my species . . . is that it does not live in its own time. Homo sapiens is locked on history's rearview mirror, never the road ahead, bent on catching some presumed lost paradise . . . the human race is destroying itself with nostalgia . . . My mother wants us to live in our time. When a species fixates on the supernatural, it ceases to mature. . . . You must live in your own time! . . how can you bring about utopia with one eye cocked on eternity?" (94, 100, 118, 160, 186).
103: "In the beginning was the Word, but now God's vocabulary was growing. The first Word was an English noun, savior, but the second would be a French verb, savoir, to know: at long last . . . we can know things. Three more years of college, and then she'd buy a word processor (no, Word processor) and publish her covenant of uncertainty, declare her kingdom of impermanence, topple the empire of nostalgia -- teach the truth of the heart. The heart was a pump? Yes, true enough, provided one meant: at the present moment in history, pump is the best metaphor we have for what a heart is."

104: "And the kidney was a filter. Earth orbited the sun. Microbes caused disease. Yes! The time of her ministry was at hand. She would take neither the high road nor the low, but a byway of her own devising; she would beam her message onto every television screen in creation, etch it onto every phonograph record, smear it across every printed page. In the beginning was the Word, and in the end there would be a million words, ten million words, a hundred million words, all authored by the only begotten daughter of God herself."

138: "You wanted the masses to embrace reason and science. It will never happen. They can't join in -- there's no point of entry for them. . . . The problem is, only a few people get to be scientists. You see the dilemma? Given the choice between a truth they can appreciate and a lie they can live, most people will take you - know - what."

[And from Chernobyl, 181: " . . . humans do not accommodate science very very much -- they get in the way of it."]

90, 187: "Science does have all the answers . . . we [just] don't have all the science . . . that's the beauty of science. It's self - correcting. It welcomes new data." [And perhaps grants us access of knowledge already revealed but not yet known.]
P.S. The human dilemma:


Could it be . . . Ammonia Avenue?