October 4, 2019

Excerpt from a possible third chapter from the work-in-progress Amateur Kittens Dreaming Solar Energy


A few hours later, Petra is sitting in her office alone. As she does most days, she is trying to write. Staring down at the half-empty page in front of her, she thinks hard about just what exactly she’s working on. Deep in her heart she harbors a ridiculous secret. Although she is almost unable to admit it, even to herself, there is a part of her that feels, or hopes, you can save the world with a book, with the book she is currently working, this idea made more ridiculous by the fact that she is writing a novel. But if Ayn Rand could help ruin the world by writing those terrible right wing novels, why can’t she help save it by writing books equally compelling but politically opposite.

Lately she has not been making much progress. If she ever manages to finish it, this will be her eighteenth book. Does any writer really need to write eighteen books? She imagines a different model, a different world, in which instead of some people writing twenty plus books and others writing none, everyone gets to write exactly one book and therefore has to make it count. She loves to read, sometimes she loves to write, and more than anything she loves books, but increasingly she has to admit to herself that books seem just as much a part of the problem as everything else in this world. It was the way they accumulated, every year more and more books filling the bookstores and libraries, more than anyone could ever possibly read. But not only that, there was also the strange way they seemed to cancel each other out. So many people writing books documenting all the violent and devastating ways that ecological breakdown is real and getting worse, and yet then all the opposing corporate interests need to do is covertly (or not so covertly) commission an equal number of books that in blatant or subtle ways call such scientific facts into question. And of course not even an equal amount, just a small number of carefully argued counter-factual books can do the job, making it ever more unclear to the undiscerning reader what is real and what is fiction. In such matters books weren’t anywhere near the most guilty culprit. In newspapers, movies, television and most noticeably online, facts and fictions could scroll by indiscernibly, but the idea that it happens even with books, even with that beloved object, brought along with it a palatable sadness that at times made it difficult to continue writing. And she loved to write. Or at least sometimes she loved to write. If it didn’t do any good, did it really do any harm?

She was getting nowhere with the page in front of her so instead let her mind wander, starting to imagine who Veronika might be meeting and what they might be saying to each other. And then she started to do more than just imagine, she started writing it down:

V was late again. She was always late. The front door of the innocuous looking building had a two-step security protocol: first her fingerprint then her iris, then down the long hallway, through a secret panel in the wall, impossible to identify if you don’t start counting the panels from the very first one, and into a completely unlit elevator which takes you down into the earth the equivalent of a thirty story building. Why all this security every single time, she thinks to herself, but of course she knows why as the familiar elevator sinking feeling lodges in her stomach and she counts the minutes in complete darkness it takes to reach the bottom. Eight minutes. Always exactly eight minutes. For the uninitiated, eight minutes in pitch black freefall might induce panic, but no one was more initiated than V. The elevator smoothly reaches bottom where a second iris scan opens the doors and she’s back in the place she feels most at home, most vital. A long, calmly lit room where they meet at scheduled intervals and effectively work. To the best of her knowledge they are not under surveillance here, though the possibility always exists they might be someday soon. 
– You’re late. 
– I’m always late. 
– That doesn’t make it unworthy of comment. 
– Repetition is the soul of pedagogy. 
Y is staring at a large computer monitor. He has been staring at this computer screen, off and on, for a long as she can remember. On it is the magnification of a single drop of liquid. The liquid they have also been working on for as long as she can remember, still not knowing if it is only scientific fantasy or it might eventually be possible. And yet just a few drops of this fantasy liquid into a tanker full of oil would rapidly transform the oil into a clear, harmless, non-combustible substance, making it financially worthless. (Or at least that’s the hope.) A slight variation might also work on natural gas. And yet it never quite works. Is this the fantasy worth having? Is Y any more convinced it will eventually work than she is? Devoting oneself so fully to the potential of fantasies can also be a backhanded form of despair. 
– Any progress? 
– I don’t know. I haven’t tried it yet. I was waiting for you 
Together they walk to the far end of the room where they can watch the experiment through several panes of thick glass. A few times in the past the experiment has rather violently exploded so they no longer take any risks. Y sits down at the other computer and begins typing the exact same commands he has already typed so many times. As he does so a robot arm carefully positions itself over a petri dish of oil, dropping a single drop of their ongoing experiment directly into the center of it. As it gently ripples outward the darkly viscous liquid gradually turns clear. They’ve seen this happen before, each time getting their hopes up and being disappointed in turn, but this time it looks different. As it is programed to do, the petri dish automatically rolls into a slot in the wall and they both walk back to the large computer screen at the other end of the room. Immediately they can see that something is different, different in a good way. Y is smiling like she’s never seen him smile before. 
– I want to try. 
– Don’t you want to do the rest of the tests first? 
– This looks promising. I want to try. 
– All right. It’s your money. 
Together they walk back to the large rectangular window as the petri dish slides back into its former position. The robot arm lights a single match, dropping it directly into the middle of the petri dish and the flame is completely extinguished as if it had been dropped into a glass of cold water. This has never happened before. Y begins to smile and then laugh. 
– I think that’s it. 
– Are you sure. 
– I’m definitely not sure. But you saw it too. 
– I definitely saw it. 
– I think that’s it. 
Of course there’s also a problem. This liquid is exorbitantly expensive to produce, even a few drops. But there must be a way to keep that information secret. To transform the largest quantity of oil they can find and then simply threaten that they will also transform the rest. To hold that blade over the neck of the fossil fuel industry in order to find out what concessions they can wring out once they have them in a compromised position. But is it really the best strategy? Because once they reveal their hand they will be hunted mercilessly and their days will be numbered. Might it not be better to covertly transform a few carefully chosen oil supplies, leading those in charge to suspect it’s a naturally occurring phenomena, placing every aspect of their self-understanding of their world into question? 
They were now one step closer to obtaining a weapon but what strategy might put it to best use? This was a question to be analyzed and debated for many months to come. Tonight they would celebrate. Y had already sent out the message and the others would be here soon. V couldn’t quite believe it. She now realizes she had never completely believed it would work and perhaps she was wrong. Hadn’t she just seen it with her own eyes? The oil had turned clear and extinguished the flame.

It is late at night when Veronika arrives home and, though she doesn’t completely know why, Petra feels slightly guilty. Guilty for writing about Veronika behind her back. (But, then again, if Veronika is having secret political meetings behind Petra’s back maybe it’s only fair.) And was she really writing about Veronika? Could such a magical and far-fetched story actually be said to be based on anyone from real life? Also there was something undeniably exciting about it, about imagining the love of her life battling corporations and saving the world. In the imagination of literature anything was possible, but was this literature or just some doodle in the corner of a page whose sole purpose was to procrastinate the book she was actually supposed to be working on. (Or could such a doodle eventually become part of the book, be folded back into it.) Petra then wonders if it’s politically irresponsible to write this way, suggesting a few drops of magical scientific liquid can solve the world’s problems, rather than the long, hard toil of activism, dismantling capitalism and collectively finding some other way for humanity to organize itself. She had never thought of it as her job to offer up solutions. And yet, in the current predicament, shouldn’t everyone be working toward a solution, doing whatever they could practically all of the time. (Then again, we’re surrounded by capitalist fantasies. Why not have a few gloriously anti-capitalist fantasies as well.)


As well, you can find my first attempt at a preface here.


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