Qi Xing Hua (亓兴华 (1951–2006) with his wife Ling Na)
At a certain point in life, you realize that losing friends is normal and to be expected. I lost my parents and then heard that Qi had died of pancreatic cancer all almost within the same year.
Qi Xing Hua (亓兴华 (1951–2006) with his wife Ling Na)
tRump’s grotesque occupancy of the American Presidency ‘woke’ us all up to the need to choose a side, and fight like hell to win, and overlook anything that might stand in the way of winning. The last election and its (January 6th) aftermath was a struggle for survival in several senses of the word, and now, it seems like we are having a brief respite, a chance to lick our wounds, and return to our lives.
Really? No, sorry, it ain’t over, now we have to prepare for the next round.
It is a difficult prospect to face. But look around - the whole world is battling for its political future. There are many reasons to be scared. Maybe this state of affairs has always existed, and we just didn’t know it, or could not see it. But the domestic political battle lines are certainly more sharply divided than any time in living memory. Every society is in the throes of political civil strife, even if in some cases it is hidden below the surface.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall, and the awakening of China from its Maoist isolation perhaps brought the issues into light. Previous to the late 80s, we were able to hide from our divisions behind the Cold War. But then Communism surrendered and we danced on its grave while Russia shivered and went hungry and built up resentment against the West. Nationalism, chauvinism, tribalism, Fundamentalism etc. all revived there and in other former Soviet States, and in China too, albeit in a different form. This authoritarian virus started infecting the West too, and the source, like the recent Coronavirus, is difficult to exactly pinpoint. Liberalism was suddenly seen as weak, even though it had won the Cold War while maintaining peace and prosperity. It was seen as bloated, corrupt, and perhaps worse, “neo-liberal” and racist. We thought we still had a functioning system of justice, but cell phone cameras captured a different story. While some say this snapped a distorted picture, justice is very much about appearances, and it only works if the public image of it appears fair.
And the rise of the mostly American tech oligarchs put a spotlight on economic inequality.
So Liberalism lost its luster on both the left and the right. The hypocrisy and historical blindness of much of “woke” culture makes it worse. And add the mind-numbing repetitive “super hero” fetish of big budget mass entertainment along with the ubiquitous social media addiction added to the isolation and uneasiness among much of the Urban “intellectual” class. For those and other reasons, Liberalism no longer commands loyalty among the majorities in the West.
I still see myself as a liberal, because I believe that the technical transformations of the last 20-30 years have or will soon create a vast human economic redundancy. It is not just robots on the factory floor, but throughout our entire economy. Legal Zoom is putting lawyers out of work, to name just one example. But at the same time, this tech revolution has potentially solved the greatest economic problem that society has faced since it started planting crops - production and distribution. We now have the means to produce enough of almost everything and get it to almost everyone. Computer technology (look out your window - see the Amazon Delivery Truck?) has largely solved the logistical issues. If that technological revolution is intelligently combined with science and a renewed respect for nature can keep us going for at least another generation.
The population is shrinking worldwide, so this is all happening just in time, as we are going to have fewer workers in absolute numbers. I believe all of the above is making “Atlas Shrugged” style capitalism inefficient by comparison, and efficiency was capitalism's hole card. Can capitalism be harnessed for the job? Look how inefficient our capitalist health care system is. We will need to phase it in and bid out the work, but for the most part we can cut out the middle man. The only outcome foreseeable if Capitalism remains is hacienda-like societies, with the Super-Haves living on Islands of immense wealth, the Haves living in gated communities and the Have-Nots - the dispossessed 90% - living in dilapidated inescapable poverty.. What Bernie Sanders has been preaching about is coming to pass and it is out in the open where everyone can see it. I optimistically think we can now solve the fundamental economic problem. We can shelter, feed, educate everyone. Companies, and people can make money getting this done, but because the goal - better living conditions - is a societal goal and not a corporate goal, the government will have to control the purse strings.
The labor market will exist for those who can work and want more, and economic inequality will certainly continue. Talent can rise, and live brilliantly, but nobody needs to be a billionaire. We can rebuild infrastructure and neighborhoods, and use economic incentives to bring a higher quality of life to people in both urban and rural neighborhoods. It is not “pie in the sky” anymore. We can afford wealth redistribution - it will not break us. Inflation, the great fear, is not what it used to be, because it is caused when too much money is chasing too few goods. But we can produce the goods cheaply, (except for occasional structure constraints) so prices need not rise.
There is a real problem with this though. Bureaucratic inertia, self satisfaction of the managerial class, loss of visionary purpose, and eventually corruption and nepotism always seems to set in. It always happens. The Chinese have understood it for thousands of years. It is the Dynastic Cycle, (朝代循環), the rise and fall of governments. In the beginning of a new regime, it really doesn’t matter what form or structure government takes, monarchism, socialism, New Dealism, or Islamic Theocracy, the youthful human energy of a new beginning can make things happen. But eventually, it all turns, and complacency dooms it. They lose the Mandate of Heaven (天命）and the next revolution begins to build to take its place.
We can perhaps avoid that by building in an expiry date into the reforms. Try it for ten years, then all the laws and regulations lapse, and this intrusion into capitalism will require a thorough re-examination and house cleaning. Nothing lasts forever and we should recognize that up front. But we will need more than one or even two terms of an Administration and therein lies the problem. Our built-in inability to affect even a mid-range plan of action, much less a long term plan.
But all this will be impossible in the current political climate, which is largely caused by a ginned up and phony mistrust of elites that is instigated by the (here I lapse into a tired Marxist trope) “lackeys of the plutocrats”. In other words FOX News and its fellow travelers. To explain why this plan will work would require a degree of analytical thought that our mass culture does not seem able to come to grips with. This new economic situation of mass unemployment combined with unparalleled wealth that has been created by exponential increases in marginal productivity goes against all ‘common sense’. It will be easy for the Rs, (Republicans, or the Right) to convince their base to allow them to kill it. We on the ‘Left’ will first try and explain it, using Robert Reich’s charts and emojis, but that of course will get nowhere, so we will have to try and use our narrow majority to get about 1/10 done of what is needed, but that probably won’t work and this “failure” will be used to overturn our narrow majority in 18 months. We will lose Congress. When you throw in tRump to this situation, you can see how it is easy to be pessimistic. (yes I know I was optimistic a couple of paragraphs or so ago…)
In frustration many try to blame this political climate on a “fascist retrenchment”, but that is perhaps overkill, based on faulty historical analysis and a failure of imagination. The Situation today is different than when the old style fascism rose. The post WW1 right wing dictatorial regimes came to power when people were mostly only one generation away from peasantry. But post WW2 had seen the rise in material prosperity, and, except “on the periphery”, 50 years of peace. (Yes, I know that is a cruel oversimplification to the millions who live on the periphery). This new US-based, faux-populist authoritarianism is being born out of completely different conditions from Post WW1. We have been raised comfortably with a lifetime to enjoy the political freedom the last Great War provided. In addition, we have a historical rear view mirror which warns us how bad fascism can actually get. So if it really comes, it's not likely to repeat in exactly the same way. I am just saying we will need a different word to describe it.
All that is clearly apparent to “the opposition”, but how they still justify their abandonment of democracy to themselves, I have no idea. I guess they say we liberals are overreacting, that tRumpism wasn’t that bad. But I think we are not reacting enough. As an American who was raised in the same society as tRumpists, this disconnect is what scares me the most. To call them “enemy” serves no useful purpose, and as I said above, it is not really accurate, at least not yet. But I oppose them, and because I know them, and am bewildered by all that, the situation is more than deeply concerning to me. I am aware this weak armchair opposition of mine might show my age, and approaching irrelevance. And it might be typical of American liberals too.
But first and foremost, I remain committed to the liberal values as a moral imperative, in addition to the technical reasons I explained above. Government by definition should serve the needs of the people, not the rich who can and do buy politicians. At the same time I am aware that the 18th century grab bag of ideas that a few Western philosophers called the Enlightenment” just might be an ideology that has lost its muscle tone. The Chinese certainly think so.
But I dither and digress. Here we are, seeing the outlines of the next fight. So my advice to myself and anyone else is forget about the long term for now. As long as tRump is in the fight it makes it easy for us to find our purpose. His continued presence is a monumental insult to the nation. tRump recently said he likes the idea of simply taking over as Speaker of the House if the Rs win six or so more seats next year. Unlike his “reinstated by August” comment, that is not totally batshit. We know what cowards and moral hypocrites the Rs are now. tRump wouldn’t even have to run for Congress to do it. There is no Constitutional provision that requires the Speaker to be elected to anything. He just needs a majority of the House to vote for him. And who could doubt he could get it from the Rs?
From there it would be a short (two year) limo ride back to the White House.
So this is why we have to stay in the fight. He is a monster, that that is all the reason we need. Until that monster is put down, politically or legally or both, we have to stay engaged and united. The right is ignorant, morally wrong, legally wacko, and oh yeah, definitely in the minority. But they are united. And dangerous. We have to stay united, and defeat the tRumpian plutocracy. And that means continuing to fight, not letting FOX News get the upper hand, and that means steeling the Biden Administration to not bend to the Rs. And sometimes, it will mean cheering for our overly ‘woke’ allies who we might otherwise disagree with.
After that - well somebody smarter, and perhaps even more evil might rise in tRump’s place. That will probably be the next generation’s war to fight.
But it is just as likely that we might somehow discover a Lincoln-like figure among ourselves to keep the flame alive and give us a new purpose to believe that we can keep our liberal values alive. It’s a tough way for us boomers to spend our retirement, but let’s face it we owe it to the kids.
The Trilogy is an alt-history of the last decade. It starts with “The SwiftPad Takeover” which is a serial killer thriller combined with a peek at the business of starting up a worldwide social media system, as well as a fanciful sci-fi-techno tale about the features of an advanced social media app.
“The next book is “The SwiftPad Insurgency” which moved time ahead about 5 or 6 years. Now SwiftPad is a worldwide mega success. It has changed not only the characters in the story, but the city of Portland itself, bringing in money and influence to the city. Politically however, the nation has descended into fear and terror as a boorish monster has taken over the government and caused major disasters.
Portland, rich, turns into a human catastrophe with a million refugees. The city mobilizes to aid the homeless people who have descended on the city, and this infuriates the @RealPrez. One of the principal creators of the “SwiftPad” app is kidnapped. Much of the novel is about urban warfare, and its aftermath.
“The SwiftPad Extinction,” the final novel, follows the action from the previous installment as nationwide the conflict spreads. Simultaneously the world is hit by a pandemic of a bizarre disease with unpredictable symptoms, that baffles science. The story is about the coalescing of the nationwide resistance to the dictatorship. It is also about the main character’s search for his kidnapped colleague and for a cure for the pandemic.
The first book was written with no thought it would become a trilogy. My career as a corporate IT troubleshooter came to an end before I was ready, so the first book was meant to be, in part, a satiric account of the IT business from different perspectives, from the C-level negotiations, to the business of “consultants”, down to the people who actual do the technical implementations. It was sort of a ‘revenge of the nerd’ story if you will.
It was completed in 2014, so I had no idea how the 2016 US Presidential election would turnout. But as the deepening realization hit of what tRump actually wanted to do, all that seemed to cause me to be consumed by politics. I could not believe it was my country, the United States, that I was watching. So, I turned that to writing as an outlet, and decided to write a sequel to “The SwiftPad Takeover”.
“The SwiftPad Insurgency” was published in 2019. “The real “Insurgency” in Portland, when DHS Security troops were kidnapping people into unmarked vans happened in July 2020. I wasn’t looking to make prediction, but only to find a story angle where I would be familiar with the setting and locale. I live in a Portland suburb. By listening to the rhetoric coming out of the White House and right-wing News, where the word “Portland” was used as an epithet, it seemed like a logical outcome.
The characters, and the thread of the story itself took on a life of their own. I had only the vaguest idea where I was going as I was writing.
I took most of the technical ideas from my own experience. But I did a fair amount of technical research. I studied specs for high end process control systems. I took most of the technical ideas on Internet hacking from my own experience (as an Internet security administrator for Oregon State Government and a system monitoring specialist in the private sector). I did recycle some of the back story of Nate and the origins of telepathic recording and transfer of mental images from a previous unpublished work from many years ago, (when I did research on 1970s technologies). I read a book about Ed Snowden. And I certainly did do a lot of research on existing technologies as disparate as light plane flight specs, current EEG sensing and recording of brainwaves for legitimate usage.
I was surprised by how violent things could become. I hate violence, and am uncomfortable writing about it, but I think it is important not to be too comfortable when writing. The study of the past has been a serious lifelong hobby for me, so as I wrote, I thought a lot about how much pointless violence happens during revolutions and how horrible civil wars often turn out.
So, the violence is meant to be a warning. We are in some ways sleepwalking, like Europe was in August 1914. The threat of civil conflict is real and our responsibility to avoid it is paramount. This Trilogy is a fictional warning. It is not a prescription. As the author I claim no ability for prognosticate.
I also discovered, to my surprise, that I could create and write under deadlines and pressure. I need to say, that on one level writing the Trilogy was a collaboration with my editor Linda Franklin. She didn’t get involved until I was “done” or thought I was. But during her engagement almost every day she would send me notes on things that were weak or missing. I would make corrections and because I wanted us both to stay engaged I wrote a number of major (and maybe the best) storyline additions overnight. If I had to describe the perfect editor, it would be Linda. I was lucky to be introduced to her by Inkwater Publishing, a great organization that got me on the right track in a number of ways. (Masha Shubin, also from Inkwater did the interior design and implemented my ideas for the covers.)
Honestly, it is hard to think of a specific genre. I guess it is alt history, like Phillip Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle”, about life on the American West Coast if Japan had won World War II. Or John Brunner’s novels, such as “The Society of Time”. about time travelling in an alt-world where the Spanish Armada successfully conquered England. As I think about “The SwiftPad Trilogy”, it really is about a second Trump Administration. But it is also speculative fiction in that it extrapolates where technology might be taking us. It is also social commentary, about where our social behaviors are leading us. There is a bit of the old “ripped from the headlines” about it too. But really, I hope it is more story about the characters who work through the problems that are unexpectedly (to me and them) thrown at them.
One thing I don’t want it to be, is a counter story to something like “The Turner Diaries” which is a right wing fantasy about a revolt against a “liberal” government. My books are not made to inspire anyone, but to frighten them. “The Turner Diaries” was a handbook for Timothy McVeigh. On the surface The SwiftPad Trilogy” might seem like something similar, but that is not what the books are about. Yes it recounts a civil conflict in the US from a particular side, fighting a corrupt wannabe dictator, but the “power” is far away, most of the time. The issues in the story personal and “locally sourced”. And it is clearly fanciful. There is no attempt to attach anything real to any real people, except in satire. If it is a “Protocols of a Libtard Qanon”, then it is obvious satire. The difference is QAnon believers really believe tRump is Q or is close to Q. The SwiftPad Trilogy is fiction. It is not “liberal Anon.”
Some negative. I can’t deny the Trilogy is political and people who see it through that lens only, and dislike my politics, will likely dislike the books. I certainly don’t disguise that it is (in part) a revolt against a tRump-like figure. Wackos like those that attacked the Capitol on Jan 6 tell themselves “we have the guns”. And clearly that is true. The story is a bit of a meditation on how it might play out, especially in a city like Portland where almost no one is armed. While the extreme right is armed in an infantry sense, those advantages are not necessarily so overwhelming. I wanted to explore how that might play out in a “war game” like scenario.
Fun books. Carl Hiasaan is a particular favorite. Donald Westlake.. I like le Carre, and the noire writers of the 30s and forties, James Cain, Dashille Hammit, Raymond Chandler, Eric Ambler. I like Walter Mosley, Of course Tomas Pynchon. I don’t know Don deLillo, Jonathon Lethem. I thought Joan Didion’s “Play it as it Lays” was great, and I have read much of her nonfiction. John D. McDonald, Martin Cruz Smith, Phillip Roth, Kingsley Amis, James Ellroy – and of course the greats, Shakespeare, Melville, Faulkner, Ken Kelsey (“Sometimes a Great Notion” is the greatest American novel, needs to be read again and again…) but I read a lot of history too. Recently half of my bookshelf is history.
Gravity’s Rainbow. I got it right away, and most people shake their heads and say it is incomprehensible. I studied a lot of 19th and 20th century German history in college, and some physics too. And his sense of humor really appealed to me. So, of his more recent work I have been indifferent to though.
I’m wife and I were both decent runners in school. We try and help each other stay in shape. We hike and do camping in the late summer. Nothing too radical, maybe 5 days in the woods at a time.
I have a couple of ideas. I want to write a mystery set in the 50s. Maybe through the eyes of a young boy. Also thinking about a comedic-satiric political scandal in a modern small city. A la Anthony Trollope. Comedy is hard, as they say, but I like to read it, so, maybe I can pull it off.
Do what you like to do. The hard part though is knowing what that is.
Don’t quit your day job.
My wife Mary and I live outside of Portland Oregon now. We like to go backpacking, biking, and enjoy playing with our grand daughter, who lives with our son and daughter-in-law not far away.
I grew up in Barnegat NJ, and had a Huck Finn childhood, surrounded by woods, streams, and meadows. In the 1950s, 1200 people lived there. I have two younger sisters, Laura and Liza.
My Dad was an amazing story teller, and a town character. Mom was from the mountain region of North Carolina. She graduated from college and taught us kids to read early. My parents bought a set of Encyclopedia Britannica, along with the Britannica Junior set and also a set of books of mythology and heroes, such as William Tell, William Wallace, and Robert the Bruce, (through my mother’s Appalachian family, legend says Bruce is a direct ancestor).
We moved from Barnegat to a north Jersey suburb when I was 12. I ran track and cross country at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale.
I studied Economics and History at the University of Kansas, moved to Eugene Oregon, and then met Mary. I did various jobs, and then went to China to teach English. Mary joined me. After two and a half years, we returned to the US, broke, with Zach on the way, and I got a job in a Florida strip mall computer store. It was a hard few years, but I learned computers and the associated technologies. I went on to a career in IT, from which 30 years later I retired from IBM. During that time I wrote intermittently, mostly on “Farewell the Dragon”.
I have a few ideas as to what kind of fiction I will write next. I love history, but the responsibility of “sticking to the facts” is more than I want to take on. So in the meantime, I am exercising, reading a lot and occasionally writing book reviews for my blog.