|The Early Days of a Better Nation|
Monday, May 18, 2009
The details vary, but it's always the same dream.
I'm outside my home, or in some other familiar place, and the sky fills with flying machines that engage in slow or sudden movement. Within the dream I remember previous instances of the dream, as dreams, and feel surprised that I'm now seeing it in reality. A few nights ago I saw bursts and trails of sparks in a twilight sky, like fireworks, but far bigger, and silent. I remember thinking that this was like the recurrent dream I have, of a sky filled with machines that sometimes look like ghostly outlines of gigantic military aircraft, and sometimes blocky shapes of complex alien spacecraft.
I feel no fear; at most, some apprehension. The main feeling is awe, and a sense of anticipation.
I wake and, as usual, I haven't had enough sleep. Many years ago I read of an experiment where volunteers lived in a cave without any information as to whether it was day or night. The object was to see whether they would continue to show evidence of a diurnal cycle. Sure enough, their bodies settled in to a circadian rhythm, but for a twenty-five hour day.
I miss the longer days of the home planet.
On the home planet there are enough hours in the day. You remember this. You know what I'm talking about. You recognise the suspicion. Have you ever felt at home here? Doesn't the word 'home' mean someplace other than 'Earth' to you? Maybe not, in which case I envy you, and intend to avoid you. To ca' canny, to evade, to back off. In fact I have never met anyone who knows what I'm talking about. I'm looking for you here, now. This is what this is about: SETI.
Some banal music does it. 'Sailing' by Rod Stewart. That's a good one. It's diagnostic. It's like hearing a chord or a bar from your national anthem in a foreign country.
Nostalgia was originally classified as a disease. People died of it. It has been bred out. Perhaps we are adapting. There are insects whose eyes are most sensitive to wavelengths not present in the spectrum of the sun. They can't have been here long.
Still missing the home planet, I get a coffee and a cigarette and connect to Antiwar.com. It's a terrible way to start the day. I should start with some science site, or NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day. I might recognise something. What I find on Antiwar.com is always familiar.
Outside, overhead, I hear the heavy choppers. Peering through the window as the sound gets louder, I see them. Black helicopters, in real life. Other military aircraft will fly over at some point today. If they are loud enough I might go outside and look. It's childish, I know, but I always go outside and look. I used to think I could predict upcoming wars by upticks in local military activity: low-flying aircraft, army trucks refuelling at Tesco. These days it's harder. The baseline has moved up. It's like background radiation.
I walk to the local co-operative supermarket and buy the broadsheet for myself and the tabloid for my wife. She's still asleep when I get back. I make a bacon sandwich and eat it over the paper. I skip. I've read most of the interesting articles already, on Antiwar.com. I've read the science news in this week's New Scientist. Being the science correspondent of a British quality newspaper must be the easiest job in the world. On the evidence I see I could file a week's stories every Friday before breakfast. And I wouldn't perpetrate stupid errors, like saying that nanotechnology deals with particles so small that they are not affected by the laws of physics. Sometimes this thought drives me to flashes of berserk rage.
Calmer now, I take the red-top and the cereal up to my wife, kiss her and disappear for the day. I bound up the steps from the back of our street to the main road, in time to smoke a cigarette at the bus stop. A white van from Environmental Services loiters, engine idling, a few yards away. When I finish the cigarette I walk to the litter bin, stub out the cigarette and drop it in. The white van moves off. I wonder if they were waiting to slap a fine on me for littering. (You think I'm paranoid? This really happened.) A black helicopter labours across the sky from north to south, like a water-boatman rowing itself across the surface tension.
There's a lot of surface tension these days. The bus arrives and I take the front seat on the top deck. When I was a child I used to sit in that same seat and imagine that I was gliding above the street on a gravity sled. I still do.
Flying three metres above the surface of the planet, I arrive in Edinburgh. At Festival time players and promoters pester passers-by like cults. I once had an idea for a story about a play at the Festival that started a cult. A real cult, not a cult hit. It was a science fiction play called Mine! All Mine! The idea presented in the play was that we are a lost mining colony. 'Face it,' the play's promotional leaflets would say, 'we never liked the place. That's why we've messed it up.' We are alien visitors inserted into the genes of a promising hominid species, warping it to our own ends, which are to dig up all the metals of the planet. When we have fulfilled this function the mining corporation fleet will arrive with our pay packets and return tickets. Then we can all go home and at last get enough sleep. This proves to be so popular that the protagonist sees it take off and become a real movement to strip-mine the earth. At the end we see him very old, waiting on a ruined Earth for the great ships that will carry him home. We know that they are not coming.
What distinguishes his situation from ours?
Around the city centre I orbit widdershins. I go up Lothian Road and left along Bread Street to the West Port and the Grassmarket. There I describe three epicycles, around Armstrong's, Transreal, and Mr Woods' Fossils. In the first I find costumes for my characters. In the second I find science fiction. In the third I find aliens.
From this lowest point of the Old Town there are short cuts through space-time to any part of the city I want to visit. Through a wormhole gate I arrive at the Library. I sit down at the information terminal and search the index, then go to a shelf for a book. On the home planet, great racks of shelves of books index the information stored on the computer network: a much more rational system. I leave the Library and walk to Word Power, where I scan shelves of books on anarchist spirituality, feminist quantum mechanics, holistic terrorism, and pesticide resistance.
Sometimes I think resistance is futile. The next war is pencilled in like a summer holiday. The aircraft are booked, the cargoes are loaded and the sunshine is packed.
'How do you avoid being worried all the time?'
My daughter needs a lift, in more senses than one. During wars our family car becomes a tiny revolutionary cell.
'For one thing,' I said, 'I do worry a bit. But, yeah. Well, I have other interests. There are things to get on with. Anyway, in the long run I'm not all that worried. People want control over their working lives and they don't want to be thrown out of work by forces they have no control over, and so on and so on. Now we could get that - not without struggle, but without a violent revolution. As for war, well, I think there'll be some more wars, but there's no reason why there should be a world war. Once this mad American and British project to conquer the Middle East is defeated, there'll just be different powers. Their interests could clash, but that doesn't have to lead to war. Lenin said it did, but that was before nuclear weapons and television and the Internet.'
'So you're quite hopeful really?'
'Sure,' I say. 'In the long run.'
She grins and hops out and disappears into her block of flats. I wave and drive away. The Bridge is bright in the evening. Burn-off gas flares from the refinery beyond the horizon. Landing lights come on over the North Sea, staying still in the air for minutes on end. I drive past the hill where her brother and I watched the New Year fireworks light up the horizon from Leith to Grangemouth. We walked back between the wooden walls of gardens. The Ferry with its trees and houses, its noisy peace, the faded covenant in the museum, the Covenanter Lane between the war memorial and the harbour, is surrounded by a great wheel of engineering work - the bridges, the airport, the motorways, the naval yard, the refinery - like a space habitat or a generation ship. It carries me home.