One thing I haven’t figured out yet about this pandemic is why we’re okay with so many deaths. Not in the sense of “what is wrong with people,” even though, you know, what is wrong with people. But I try to make sense of the world, and this has been very surprising to me, this sudden blandness toward the idea of masses of people dropping dead from a mystery virus.
That isn’t something I would have anticipated, if I had been writing a book about people dropping dead from a mystery virus: everyone going very rationalist about it. In my experience, people are very twitchy about the idea of dropping dead from something. Especially something that’s new and mysterious and you can’t do much to stop it. That ticks quite a few boxes on the list of things that makes human beings freak right the heck out.
I definitely expected more fear and fewer people calmly arguing that it isn’t actually that many deaths if you compare it to five or ten years worth of influenza, and anyway, you have to die of something, sooner or later, and who knows, it might not even be as deadly as they say.
I’m not saying this is wrong, necessarily. It just feels like an inexplicable, planet-wide rescaling of what makes us hysterical. Because for a long time, it hasn’t required much to make us hysterical. We’ve been ready to overreact to very slim threats.
So what’s going on? There are probably a few factors in play—it surely helps that older people are disproportionately affected, and there are identity politics mixed up now—but maybe it’s simply that we’ve grown tired of it. Because I do remember us taking it more seriously in the beginning. But humans recalibrate. You can get used to anything, I read, in an awesome short story about a man who’s sent to Hell (I forget the title), so maybe you get used to this, too.
Boy there are a lot of conspiracy theories out there. It seems like nowadays people will pick up any half-baked idea and turn it into a conspiracy. That’s how it seems. But that’s what they want you to think. In fact, these conspiracy theories are being developed and seeded by a secret network of powerful forces.
I know what you’re thinking: That sounds like a conspiracy theory. Exactly. You see the brilliance of it. If you’re the kind of person who buys into conspiracy theories, you’re lost to the 5G and Bill Gates insanity. But if you’re not, you’re ignorant to the real conspiracy, which is to spread conspiracy theories.
Like all effective conspiracies, it has a public part and a secret part. The public part is what we see: the media, including the social media platforms. Good people work for the public part and don’t even realize they’re part of the conspiracy. For that reason, we tend to let the public part off the hook, even when we see them engaged in bad behavior—like spreading conspiracy theories. The problem seems to be confined to a few bad apples. But over time, you might notice the bad apples don’t seem to go away. You’d expect someone with a cart full of apples to want to remove the bad ones. Instead, the bad apples keep getting rewarded. It takes a real firestorm to remove a bad apple, it seems, and even then, most of the time, the replacement is another bad apple.
Because bad apples are the point of the public part. They’re its most essential feature. It’s the good apples who are superfluous. You look at the public part and see mostly good apples, but what they do is largely irrelevant—which you can tell from how they get replaced more often and more easily. They exist for only one reason: because otherwise you’d be able to see that the whole cart is full of bad apples.
Behind this is the secret part. This is a network of the rich and powerful who want to stay that way—or, more realistically, become more so. They’ve collected vast amounts of wealth and influence via family connections and lobbying, but it’s become a tough sell to convince people they need more trickle-down economics and fewer public services when working-class and middle-class incomes have been stuck in a ditch since 1980. For the network, the nightmare is an intelligent, well-educated, reasonable society. That would be the end of them.
So they need new lies. And after test-marketing a few candidates, they came up with a winner: all of them. Anything that sows discord, that makes people confused, ignorant, or angry at someone else. The more conspiracy theories, the better, because the more enemies people have, the smaller the target on the real conspiracy.
I used to get mad at people who believed in conspiracy theories. My thinking was: It’s 2020, you have the internet, learn how to do critical thinking. But that was on the assumption that conspiracy theories were randomly burped into existence, like viruses—as opposed to bio-weapons expertly engineered in a lab somewhere, like other viruses. Now I have a darker view of conspiracy theories and where they come from. They come from the conspiracy. They have a purpose.
One unexpected benefit of the pandemic is how easy it is to see who’s a selfish prick. Previously you could really only guess at that. Sure, you could pick up hints from how they were standing, or whether they were in the process of berating serving staff, but you couldn’t be sure. Now, though, at least in my part of the world, where it has become mandatory to wear a mask while out of the house, you can see with just one glance who doesn’t give a crap about their fellow citizens.
For example, today I passed by a woman who had a mask dangling from her chin while holding a coffee. So I could tell that she cared about me a little, but not more than her coffee. Two people who stood on opposite sides of the path while holding dogs on leads cared to avoid breathing all over each other, but not so much about everyone trying to divert around them. The dude who pounded past with no mask, breathing all over everyone, didn’t give a single shit.
I really like how this is so clear. Obviously the selfishness itself isn’t great. We can do without that. But you can’t fix a problem without identifying it, and for that, this mask business is super helpful.
I’m not saying we could fix a lot of societal problems by rounding these people up and firing them into the sun. That would be silly. Accurate. But silly. Because we’re not going to be allowed to do that. Also, you know, once you get into rounding people up, for whatever reason, that has a bad vibe. We don’t want to start with that.
We have to live with these people—even though, clearly, they don’t care much about living with us. But that’s okay; that’s what we’ve always done. Now it’s just clearer who appreciates the social contract and who doesn’t. Which I feel like has been a growing issue: How when you live in a city instead of a village, most of the social penalties for being a selfish prick fall away. A person can successfully avoid the appropriate consequences for being a selfish prick forever, because their bad reputation doesn’t stick with them. But not so much now, when they wear it on their face.
But we are kind of all in it together. I have to say, of all the terrible crises to be facing, I do like how this one puts all of humanity on the same side. It’s not people against people, for once. We get to face this one as a species.
WOW is that the most naive thing I ever wrote or what. I mean, probably not; I started this blog when I was 26. But still, that is some real pie-eyed thinking. Yeah, sure, Max, people are going to forget their differences and pull together just because there’s a global health emergency. YOU IDIOT.
I don’t want to overreact, but I do wonder if this proves we’re doomed as a species. I remember sitting in university lectures on how to deceive people for money, i.e. psychology for marketing majors, and wondering where that would end, like what would happen if professional persuasion theory, which deliberately attacks our ability to perceive objective reality, continued to develop. Now I know: people refusing to wear masks in a pandemic as a political statement.
This is my real problem with satire at the moment: I can’t figure out how to make a more extreme version of current reality that’s also kind of fun. Or if not fun, then at least slightly absurd in a way that doesn’t leave you deeply terrified about the future. You don’t want an all-too-believable satire that’s incredibly depressing, is what I’m trying to say. You want a dystopia that’s thought-provoking but also lets you get a good night’s sleep.
For example, if I were writing this situation as a novel, my next step is people start boasting about being infected. As a sign they stood up for their politics, you see. Then they encourage other people to get infected, to prove themselves, and I guess then they go around deliberately trying to spread it. They reposition having the virus as a good thing. Maybe they could have a cool name.
But this is not a fun idea. No no no.
I’m so ready for this, I’ve even dressed up in the fancy clothes I bought for my canceled book tour. twitter.com/MystGalaxyBook…
I can’t verify because of geo-blocks, but apparently the PROVIDENCE Kindle book is part of a special Amazon price d… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…
Never felt so aptly summarized by a sentence: “In all his books, Barry examines how our creations–corporations, lan… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…
I keep hearing great things about the audio book read by @brit_pressley - and now it’s been selected as an Apple Ap… twitter.com/i/web/status/1…
Do you think the world is moving more or less towards capitalizm? I only ask because I was idly looking at the Jennifer Government world map and realised the UK left the European Union, which was quite premonitory.
You know what I think was premonitory, if that’s even a real word, Adam: this blog where I predicted the rise of social media influencers. I mean, my corporate stuff, that’s shooting fish in a barrel. You don’t have to stare at the world for long before you notice people vaccuming up wealth and power while hiding behind logos and heartfelt TV commercials. Then you go ahead and write a novel where everything is like that only moreso, and bam, you’re a modern-day Cassandra.
But the influencer blog! In 2007, I predicted that people would be able to have great careers just being kind of awesome, even in a small way. This was three years and two months before Instagram even existed. I’m proud of that because I feel like I didn’t extrapolate current trends so much as pick it before it happened.
Anyway, to answer your question: I do think we are moving toward more extreme capitalizm. Especially lately! I’ve long thought I got a crucial piece of Jennifer Government wrong, because government of all kinds have never seemed very interested in shrinking themselves. Even when the small-government people get in power, they don’t shrink anything. They only move money from one place to another while continuing to expand overall. So how would we wind up with a tiny government? It seemed more likely that governments and corporations would become increasingly similar until no-one could tell them apart. Lots of shady public-private partnerships, run by people who hop back and forth between the two; that kind of thing.
But look at this! We have a health emergency and the US federal government’s move is to shovel essential resources into the free market and let state governments bid for them. That’s really something. I mean, obviously the free market is a wonderful thing, the bedrock of our modern society, and so on. But it doesn’t work for everything. You get Jennifer Government when you believe the market is always best, no matter what, and even basic education, even healthcare, even fighting fires, is best left in the hands of an unregulated private sector. Which is a creepy ideology to me because it deliberately ignores the concept of market failure: that when it comes to essential goods and services, it can be pretty horrendous to let poor people go without.
So yes! Today, I see more capitalizm than ever. And the world’s most visible examplar of government is so bad at its job—deliberately? By accident? Maybe both!—that I can actually see a pathway where people get so jacked at we-starved-the-beast government incompetence that they give up and look for something better. Or not, you know, better, but shinier, with a better logo.
Providence is about four people on a spaceship who are sent to defend Earth against an alien threat. There are other spaceships, but this is the only one that matters. If they fail, everyone is screwed. But that seems unlikely, because when we learned about the aliens, we plowed everything we had into building these ships, which are immensely powerful, and, to be honest, more than seems necessary to deal with aliens who aren’t even that smart.
I try to write stories that are smart and suspenseful. I’m a big fan of both of those. Especially as I get older, I find I need to believe in a book’s characters: I need them to be making smart choices and asking smart questions. But I also love a story that drags me into it because the simple dynamics of the situation are compelling.
So I hope Providence is this. It has aliens and spaceships in it, which is new for me, and something I’ve wanted to do since… well, since I was about fourteen, probably. Because I really love aliens and spaceships. But it had to be smart and suspenseful and character-driven, too. Hopefully I figured out a way to do that.
If you’re in a place where you could do with a good story, please take a look! If not, I hope you’re doing okay—because I know this isn’t a great time for a lot of people. But we are kind of all in it together. I have to say, of all the terrible crises to be facing, I do like how this one puts all of humanity on the same side. It’s not people against people, for once. We get to face this one as a species.