What if…?

The world of speculative fiction starts with that question and imagines a world to answer it. Ursula K. LeGuin is variously seen as a writer of fantasy or science fiction, but most of her work falls into the realm of speculative fiction – imagining a change in what we call human or how we see the world and then watching it play out. Some of those changes may just be an accurate look into our near future; others may be fundamental changes in our world (or set on other worlds).

“The Left Hand of Darkness” imagines a world without gender, in which humans go into heat but are otherwise asexual, and a world whose tropical regions look like earth’s polar regions, with the polar regions colder yet. How would that world play out?

“The Dispossessed” imagines an earth we have destroyed, a revolution ending in stalemate, and an anarchist rebel group settling on the moon while the capitalist rulers remain on earth. The two groups initially have nothing to do with each other, but what happens if your interests and knowledge are shared primarily by those on the other world?

“Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” posits a world with no animal life – only plants. Humans arrive to explore the world and slowly discover it is not what it seems initially. The world begins to appear to be interconnected and plants communicate with each other. This idea may have been far-fetched when written, but we now know that Aspen groves are clones – a single organism with a single underground root structure and many stems. We also know there is a vast underground fungal network and that trees share nutrients via this network – amd they are not just single-organism stands like the Aspens.

“The Word for World is Forest” (which I mis-remembered as the story above, so I re-read it recently) posits a world colonized by humans, inhabited by creatures humans think of as subhuman, and how formerly peaceful people rebel against that subjugation. The book was written during the war in Viet Nam and could be seen as an allegory for that war.

In “The Matter of Seggri”, LeGuin builds a world in which men live inside of a walled city and women live outside the walls. Male children are sent to be with other men at age 11. Women vastly outnumber men and men are used primarily to sire children (and also for recreational sex, working in “fuckeries”) and to provide entertainment via sports. The tale is told from multiple viewpoints (from the logs of explorers who visit the planet) and the world appears vastly different depending on who is telling the story.

LeGuin’s parents were anthropologists and studied the interaction between the modern world and the indigenous peoples of California and South America, so it seems an extension of their work that she plays with the interaction between colonizing humans and other worlds. She wrote many books and stories based on the Hainish universe, an interstellar network of humans, with the center of their civilization being the planet Hain, and Earth being one of the worlds colonized by them in the distant past.

Not germane to the topic, but I couldn’t resist. I never thought of this device as a “food waste disposer” but that is where we dispose of our food waste after digestion.

Half-fast fall colors tour

Being (mostly) old retired people, we decided to do our annual half-fast fall colors ride twice. Episode One was this week. Four of us headed out after breakfast at the Jaybird Cafe (resurrected from the old Blue Spoon Cafe, an experiment by Culver’s that did not survive the apocalypse pandemic.)

Morning sun over the Wisconsin River

We realized en route that we retired in the opposite of age order, meaning the nearly 74 year old Rollie Fingers is still working, and the merely 65 year old Tim Buctoo has been retired for years.

We traveled some of the roads from the coast to coast tour. Here is one of the route arrows. Luckily this is our home territory, so we didn’t have to follow the arrows, as we were going the other way.

We headed across the Wisconsin River via a route that required crossing it a second time (via ferry) before lunch. There was a chill in the air as the fog lifted. Tights, jackets, and full fingered gloves were in order until lunch at the Little Village Cafe in Baraboo. This time we saved room to split a slice of pumpkin bourbon cheesecake before the ride back to Prairie du Sac. We traveled in a counter-clockwise direction, saving the hills for after lunch. A bottle of bubbly was chilling for the end of the ride. Life is tough when you’re retired.

Episode Two will be in a couple more weeks. You’ll hear about it here first.


As a society, we seem to be much more interested in dystopian fiction than in utopian fiction. What’s up with that?

While Philip K Dick has a niche audience as a novelist, his novels and stories have been made into multiple feature films (including Blade Runner from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Hardly anyone seems to know the work of Richard K Morgan, yet Altered Carbon has become a TV series.

Ursula K LeGuin has won virtually every award in the speculative fiction realm, but have you seen the film versions of The Dispossessed or The Left Hand of Darkness? You haven’t, because they don’t exist.

Why do we like dystopian fiction? Is it easier to see how we could slide into that world than into utopia? Do we feel superior because we’re not (yet) as bad as that world? Do we find it easier to root for the rebel fighting a dystopian world than to celebrate a world that works? Does dystopia feel more real, more possible to us? Less fantasy? Do all of these questions take on a different meaning in Donald Trump’s world?

These questions are prompted by my reading of Looking Backward, the 1888 novel by Edward Bellamy. In this novel the protagonist falls into a deep sleep in 1887, only to awaken to a wholly-unfamiliar Boston of the year 2000. His guides to the new world tell him, ” …buying and selling is essentially antisocial in all its tendencies. It is an education on self-seeking at the expense of others, and no society whose citizens are trained in such a school can possibly rise above a very low grade of civilization.” (Bellamy, 1888)

Before we go any further, thanks are due to Martha Kennedy for introducing me to Bellamy’s book. Martha writes of her dogs, her garden, painting, and “The Big Empty” of Western Colorado where she lives.

Bellamy imagines what could have happened in the US as a response to the age of robber barons. America could have recognized the slide into monopoly capitalism and seen that, if ownership of the means of production is going to be centralized, it could be used for the good of society instead of the good of the few in the owning class. Instead we chose to worship the owning class and imagine that we could each (not all) be part of that class if we work hard enough and have the breaks go our way. We make “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” into a goal rather than recognize the origin of the term – that, no matter how hard you pull on your bootstraps, you only pull your boots on, you don’t lift yourself up. It was written as a metaphor for an impossible task.

Why is it that, when we see people behaving badly, we excuse it by saying “that’s human nature”, but we don’t say the same when we see people behaving well? Is it because, in this culture, we have been inculcated with the idea of “original sin”? We are taught that evil is our nature and we must struggle (unsuccessfully) to overcome it. What is the purpose of that doctrine? While we trace it to the Old Testament, it was cemented into church doctrine by the Council of Trent (1545-63). I won’t pretend to be a Catholic theologian, but it appears that the doctrine of original sin has the central purpose of coercing obeisance to authority, with a secondary purpose of stifling any attempt to better the world, as our guilt makes us undeserving of a better world and our rewards, if any, are to come in some afterlife. Monopoly capitalism is thus a completely rational and perhaps inevitable response.

We make selfishness into our nature and cooperation into an aberration. We structure our society to reward selfishness and denigrate cooperation. In 1971, the Youth International Party held its New Nation Conference in Madison WI, with the premise “Build a new society in the shell of the old”. Dorothy Day’s 1969 paper “Reiterates the need to build a new society in the shell of the old, using ‘neither capitalist, nor communist, nor totalitarian means, but accomplished through non-violence.’ (DDLW #895).*” The idea was that we would build a cooperative commonwealth, people would see the benefits, cooperatives and other community-centric organizations would grow, and capitalism would wither away. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. Fifty years later, only a few of those co-ops remain.

Bellamy looks at what we call “menial labor” thusly: “Do you mean that you permitted people to do things for you which you despised them for doing, or that you accepted services from them which you would have been unwilling to render them?” “I should as soon expect our waiter today to look down on me because I served him as a doctor, as think of looking down on him because he serves me as a waiter.”

As for economic competition in the “old world”: “To deliberately enter a field of business and destroy the enterprises of those who occupied it previously, in order to plant one’s own enterprise on their ruins, was an achievement which never failed to command popular admiration.” Sounds absurd when viewed that way, eh?

In discussing this future society, Bellamy uses mostly male pronouns, though his protagonist lives among a family including a couple and their adult daughter. For 142 pages I waited to see if male pronouns were a convenience, or if the writer looked at this new world from an entirely male viewpoint. He finally addresses, however briefly, the role of women in this ideal society. Yes, they are in the workforce; but it appears to be a “separate but equal” workforce.

Bellamy’s book is a treatise on this new society. His protagonist reads a modern novel and says, ” The information Dr. Leete had imparted was indeed extensive as to facts, but they had affected my mind as so many separate impressions…[the novel] put them together for me in a picture.” And there we have the chief weakness of this novel. We don’t so much see the functioning of this new society as read an essay extolling its virtues. This is where LeGuin and others shine. We see a different world through the eyes of one living in it; we see its ambiguities and how it resolves conflict (or fails to do so), rather than just imagining it from a treatise, or pretending conflict never arises.

Utopian fiction
A list only of books I have read and can remember right now. For example, I have not read Lost Horizon by James Hilton, nor Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. An interesting side note: Wikipedia’s list of dystopian literature is arranged by decade, while its list of utopian literature is arranged by century.

The Dispossessed (An Ambiguous Utopia) Ursula K LeGuin – What if anarchists posed a risk to the ruling class in a struggle that no one was winning, so the ruling class offered to help the anarchists set up their own world off of earth (or an authoritarian world kinda like earth)? What would that look like a few generations removed?

The Left Hand of Darkness Ursula K LeGuin – What if people were not gendered and were asexual except when we came into heat, at which time we might take on either sex? LeGuin looks at a world in which any human could potentially bear children. (And it happens to be on a planet where the tropical regions are like our arctic, and the polar regions are colder yet.)

Always Coming Home Ursula K LeGuin – How might we structure society in a post-apocalyptic world? LeGuin writes a novel, an anthropological treatise, and records the music and poetry of this fictional society. (Her parents were actual anthropologists.)

Island Aldous Huxley -What if someone landed on an isolated utopian island with the intent to co-opt/exploit it, and things didn’t go as he planned? Also looks at the use of plants to expand consciousness. In some ways, the anti-Brave New World.

Sylviron Joel David Welty – A scholar of co-operatives imagines a co-operative commonwealth.

Looking Backward Edward Bellamy – What if we had no commerce and no money? What portion of our laws are devoted to private ownership of property? What laws would we still need?

Woman on the Edge of Time Marge Piercy – What are mental illness and mental wellness? What might a future society look like if they defined and treated those differently?

Some of these I read a long time ago so take my synopses with a grain of salt. Feel free to add to this list in the comments. I’m always looking for a good read.

“I never dreamed that any mere physical experience could be so stimulating!”

Okay, now it’s cold. Those of you who recall my Winter Biking post know I delivered newspapers as a kid, and that my parents had a rule that if it were colder than -20 degrees F, I could get a ride on my paper route. I decided to keep that rule as an adult, and ride my bike to work as long as the temperature remained above -20.

I broke that rule this week. Bus service isn’t great on Saturdays, so I rode to work. This is what -21 degrees F (-30 C) looks like. The fog on the lenses is from bending over to lock my bike. I was able to see better than that while riding. I am happy to say that my new Bontrager Old Man Winter boots kept my feet warm(ish) with just dress socks. Now that I’ve tested them, I’ll wear warmer socks next time.

This was the first time it has been cold enough to wear that fleece balaclava. Silk glove liners inside my mittens also helped.The title, by the way, is from Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn) in “The African Queen”.

Temperatures that cold are fun for other things besides riding. If you throw boiling water into the air it will evaporate before coming to img_1458earth. (The actual demonstration starts at about the one minute mark of the video.) If you blow soap bubbles, they freeze. When the break, they shatter like light bulbs. The sensor on my phone had trouble dealing with all that white, but a frozen bubble sits in the middle of the photo.

(If spacing or formatting look weird, WordPress has changed its editing software again and it is pretty buggy.)


Six inches of new snow followed the cold, and -30 comes next. (Update: it never got that cold, but close, and by Friday afternoon should be above zero.) Now I know people are getting soft. No newspaper or mail delivery today (Monday). Also, when it gets cold enough, the snow squeaks when you walk on it.


This morning (Wednesday) we added wind to the cold. -26 plus a 20 mph wind (with a brief shot of 30 mph headwind) yielded a wind chill of ~ -50. (F and C are pretty close together at that point.) About a half mile from work, I thought my rear tire was going flat. There was no way I was going to stop. I was willing to sacrifice the tire and tube. A bit later (when I entered the infamous Pharmacy Building wind tunnel – the cause of that brief but monstrous headwind) I realized I was going flat, not the tire. At that point, my lenses fogged and froze and did look like the picture above. The final climb up the hospital driveway was done by memory as much as vision.

I learned that the wind proof membrane in my jacket gets stiff at that temperature. When I moved, it sounded like I was wrapped in cellophane. I feared the membrane had become brittle enough to shatter, like the bubbles I blew. It still seemed to work the next day. The sound of the tire studs biting into the ice was deafening. I wanted to record all those sounds, but didn’t want to uncover my fingers to work the phone. (Besides, the battery went from 100% to 20% charge just sitting in my pocket during the trip.)

The last time I remember a cold snap like was back in my radio days. I read Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” and an except from Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” (which takes place on a planet referred to, in English, as “Winter”) on the air that day. I recommend both if you want to curl up with a warm beverage and read on a cold day.

You’ve probably read that this cold is due to the “Polar Vortex”, and you may have read claims that this somehow disproves global warming. Au contraire! A high altitude warm air mass made its way to the pole, causing the vortex, which normally circles the pole, to split and send a lobe southward over central North America. It is currently colder in Madison, WI than in Fairbanks and Point Barrow, Alaska, as well as Lapland (Saariselkä). Parts of Siberia are still colder.

For the climate change deniers, or those who don’t fathom the difference between weather and climate, the National Weather Service reports that, between 1869 and 1999, the temperature in Madison, WI dropped to -20 degrees Fahrenheit an average of 12 times per decade. Since 2000, it has happened twice – in 2000 and this week. The average number of days per decade when the daytime high remains below zero has fallen from 15 in the 1900s to 2 this century. The Winter Biking link above also contains a link to lake freeze data from the University of WI Limnology Lab, which also supports the conclusion that winters are shorter and milder than they were in the 1900s.

We’ll see what the groundhogs think tomorrow.

So when some old codger says that, when he was a kid delivering papers, he often rode his bike in below zero weather and seldom does now, he is telling the truth. If he tells you he walked five miles to school (uphill both ways) and he and his brother took turns carrying each other because they had one pair of boots between them, he may be pulling your leg.