MEANWHILE UNDER THE BELL JAR

[I wrote the following in 1986. It seems strangely up to date.]

by John Shirley
[REM:3, January 1986]

“The time of the doomsayers is past,” the famous science-fiction writer said blandly, stubbing out his cigarette. He was speaking on a panel at a science-fiction convention. He reached for his coffee—spiked with Irish whiskey—and his booze-shaky fingers struck the Styrofoam cup, causing it to rock, some of the coffee slopping onto his lap. He frowned down at the stain, in the process pressing one of his double chins into his collar, and allowed a young fannish female shaped like an acorn squash to dab at his crotch with a wet hanky, as he went on: “Those who predicted ecological disaster have been discredited. There are now fish in Lake Erie…”

At that moment, in another part of the North American continent, Professor Bellweather was giving a news conference to report on his EPA-funded study of acid raid. “…acid rain is potentially the most destructive meteorological force the world has ever known. Its effects are more gradual than a hurricane’s, but in the long run it will make a hundred hurricanes together look like a gentle summer breeze. We’ve been dumping thousands of tons of poisons into the atmosphere, and telling ourselves it’s safe to do so because the wind blows the poisons away. But the atmosphere is all one system. To put it crudely, if you pee into one corner of the aquarium, eventually the whole aquarium will turn yellow… Acid rain is eating away the ground covering, the forestation, vegetation, topsoil, and water life in hundreds of square miles of American, Canadian, and European land; if we don’t act quickly hundreds of square miles will become thousands… a massive world famine could result….”

Meanwhile, at the science-fiction convention, the famous science-fiction writer was asked what political system would evolve in the future. “Ah yes,” he chuckled, and those in the audience who knew how he loved to express his political opinions chuckled companionably along. “There are still those who vilify corporate America, but those people ignore the fact that thanks to the administration’s policy of deregulating the major American corporations, we are more economically healthy than we have been in years…”

At that moment, in New York, the city morgue called the commissioner of police to inform him that there was no more room in the morgue for the bodies of the homeless who had been found frozen in the streets. There had been simply too many deaths this year. Now that the number of homeless in the New York area has risen to 40,000, something else will have to be done with the bodies.

Meanwhile, at the science-fiction convention, the famous writer continued: “Tomorrow’s society will be a glowing ferment of free enterprise—” (he paused to sip his whiskeyed coffee, shuddered, and went on, his voice slurring only very slightly) “—growing upon the framework established by today’s corporate America. Are the big corporations taking over? You bet they are, and rightfully so! Their cost-effective mode of operation has shown itself again and again to be the most promising and practical method of dealing with, well, just about anything.”

At that moment, in another part of the city, a 45-year-old man, after receiving a phone call informing him that he had been laid off due to automation, was loading a gun. He was thinking about the special clause in his contract with the large corporation that employed him for 25 years, a clause buried by the corporation’s lawyers in legalese he couldn’t understand, a clause which said—so he had just been informed—he would receive no pension. He was thinking also of his realization that he had been trained for a job which no longer existed anywhere, and his feeling that he was too old to be trained for another. He couldn’t bear the humiliation of starting at the bottom again.
So he put the gun to his head—
Meanwhile, at the science-fiction convention, the famous writer continued: “We must protect the cradle of this new economic freedom, which means fighting communist totalitarianism wherever it rears its head, by whatever means necessary. If the communists take over in Central and South America we’ll be denied access to the resources our economy depends on. The revolutionaries in El Salvador are part of a disease that must be checked at all costs.”

At that moment, in El Salvador, the human rights organization announced: “In the war between insurgents and the US-backed government, 55,000 people have died since 1979. As a result of the policies of the US-backed Salvadoran administration, 50 percent of the population is malnourished, unemployment figures are 81 percent, 600,000 Salvadorans have a vitamin A deficiency severe enough to affect their vision, only 15 percent of the population have running water or sanitary facilities….”

And a 50-year-old woman gave the following testimony: “In our village on January 7, about 80 people were blown apart by bombs. That same day upon finding some people the soldiers separated some and the rest they lined up in a single file and shouted as they opened fire, ‘You’re all guerrillas.’ They sprayed them with machine guns and everyone went down. The majority were children, old men, and old women. That’s how on this day they killed seven of my children…. My little mother also died on the same day. She was 107 years old, a domestic worker. Her name was Josefa Mejia. The soldiers came where she was and I saw her getting killed because I was getting her some mangos to eat. We had been on the run, and I could hardly walk, so the rest left us behind, when they saw her, they said they were going to kill her because she was a guerrilla…. I was hiding under some cover and I heard her screaming, ‘Don’t tear off my breasts!’ They gouged out her eyes…. Then I heard two shots. They shot her in the head and chest. I did not have time to bury her. The dogs and buzzards ate her body….”

Meanwhile, at the science-fiction convention, the panel adjourned, everyone warm with the glow of reassurance. They all went upstairs to the parties that were sure to go on all night….

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