Hallmark does invent some holidays. Sometimes that’s a good thing, for instance, today is Science Fiction Day. Hurray! Read some, write some, watch some, play some. I’m celebrating with option B, write some!
When Mom bought the toy farm I thought it would be fun. I thought I’d get first pick of all the deliveries. But the piles of broken dolls and Lego bricks and fast food tchotchkes overwhelmed me. And, we needed the money from every pound of plastic mulched.
Into the trenches they went. We shoveled the heavy fungus-laden dirt over them. Once a week Mom churned it with a big backhoe.
It was two months before I saw the first mushroom ghost. Some toys, they had this plastic that I guess was delicious to our fungal livestock. Ghostly threads of fungus outlined the fashionable toys of years past. Eaten. Replaced. Remade.
I got so freaked out I tried to convince Mom to sell the farm. The pale memories of toys filled my dreams. I tried to beg out of my chores on the farm, which worked for the dead months of November and December.
But January came, and the spring cleaning bump. I couldn’t hold out any longer.
Then, one day, I found her. More eerie than the rest. Also more perfect. The curve of her cheek was dense and soft. Her hair was a delicate fan of pale threads. I thought her name was Mycella. I took her home; dressed her in real doll’s clothes. We held a tea party and invited Mom.
High off the creative rush of Inktober 2016, I wrote a short story the other day. I wrote it in the world of my desk-drawer-half-written-novel, in which the San Francisco Bay Area of 2115(ish) is blanketed by a soaring, window-filled arcology. I’ll get back to that ambitious undertaking eventually, but nothing stops me from worldbuilding in the meantime.
It starts like this:
Stories about people’s tattoos are the worst. Listening to them tell about the pattern and the inspiration is boring, repetitive, and whatever meaning they capture on a person’s skin is utterly opaque to any other person. The aesthetics though, can be pure. Clean. A statement of commitment. A moment of clarity captured forever.
No one asks me about my tattoos during my work day, or even out at public clubs with friends. It’s not that they’re hidden under sleeves or skirts, though some are. They are not for common display. Their aesthetics are private; selective. And they are not drawn in ink, but in light and cells.
The futurist debt I owe to the Institute for the Future for this story stems from two streams of work: the soon-to-be-released New Body Language research I led (UPDATED: listen to my release podcast with Mark Fraeunfelder!), and it’s continuation under my colleague Bradley KreitEverything is Media. We drew on signals from cutting-edge DARPA funded research on implants, artists and hackers, and entertainment both popular and fringe. We also included my talented colleague Jamais Cascio, who has long explored the notion of the panopticon and it’s participatory incarnations in the present and nearish future. My contribution this year was to think about the implications for intimacy, hidden meaning and interpersonal care. The contrast of these two streams of foresight research beg the central question of this story: in a world where everyone could be watching all the time, what would you do to have an utterly personal, strictly intimate experience?
But I was also inspired by extracurricular science and art. The morning I wrote this I was reading about this fascinating study about how plants use light. This small finding, about how light may be beamed from leaves to roots, helps us get closer to understanding how living organisms perception of wave-based energy (light, sound etc) interacts with chemical signaling (molecules in host and symbiote tissues) to go about the business of living and growing. Signals of light excite plants and set of more chemical signalling than photosynthesis.
I’ve also been thinking quite a lot about the skin microbiome, both professionally and on my own. Throw a little CRISPR on humans and epidermal chimerism in there, and you get the possibility of a tattoo that altered the substance of human skin and its interaction with different fungi and bacteria. In other words, tattoos that are completely invisible unless excited by certain kinds of light and promicrobial mists.
Finally, we’re already in a world where privacy is something that you pay for (one way or another). Private clubs have been the work-around for a variety of intimate experiences, up to and including sex, drugs, and rock and roll. What would be more intimate than sharing invisible tattoos and dropping acid with 20 strangers with whom you share nothing else?
So my SB challenge and so many other things have been on hold for the past week. I’m not done grieving, and won’t be for a good long while, but I do need to start writing again. My kick in the pants came from the realization that it was Viv’s turn to do the regular blog post in our blogifying map forecasts series.
I started writing it and then I stopped. I decided to share her words instead. It still took me most of the day to track down links and proof and whatnot. It was both cathartic and helpful to tiptoe around the cognitive dissonance of writing about forecasts bathed in optimism bordering on hubris with ruminations on mortality rattling about my brain.
Regenerative medicine will replace, restore, maintain, or enhance tissue and organ functions, dramatically improving patients’ health and quality of life, and potentially reducing the cost of their care. Tissue engineering will heal diabetic foot ulcers, reducing the need for amputations; organs grown in a lab will ease our dependence on donor transplants; and tendons, cartilage, and bone regrown with autologous cells will be used to repair injuries and joints. Advanced prosthetic devices and biomechatronic-based limb replacements will interface with the body’s nervous systems to give users a range of natural function and movement.
When we first presented this forecast at a conference, our colleague Vivian told a story that illustrates the potential, and some possible pitfalls, of the growing capacities of regenerative medicine. It was part of a complicated dance of vignettes and exposition with Vivian, Bradley and myself that will remain one of my fondest memories of working here.
Image by Rachel Hatch
Of course, when you get sick enough, you end up having to go to the doctor for help.
That’s what finally happened with Eric, who has Type 2 Diabetes. He is a very successful 56 year old lawyer. He has a history of working too much and not taking very good care of himself. He was overweight, ate poorly, and didn’t track his blood sugar levels consistently. As a result, he has had some serious complications from his illness. Last year, he developed a foot ulcer that just wouldn’t heal. The doctors had to amputate his foot. His eyesight also deteriorated because of damage to his retina. And his doctors have been warning him that he may need to go on dialysis. Eric’s body is failing him.
The re-telling below is a Chinese fairy tale I loved when I was a child, filtered through my California lens of Steinbeck, and my transcendentalist lens via Thoreau. More on that after the story. The divergent palates of the Diablo Hills, and the steep Chinese landscapes that the original story canvases inspired this story. I was driving across the Dumbarton Bridge at dawn. You know how hard it is to behold something that beautiful while driving? So I backed into describing from my observations. And that lead to this. Enjoy.
Thistle Fairy and the Seven Jewels
It was very dark. Only a few isolated cones of brightness punctuated the black. Slowly, edges started creeping into the world. Things remembered their shapes as the night faded. The world saw itself for the first time since yesterday, and it was all painted in shades of gray.
Sunrise Fairy stretched languorously in her resting place behind the gray hills. Another morning, another long journey across the world returning color to all the shapes and beings. Why couldn’t everything remember its own color overnight? Why did she always have to make the rounds, whispering and tapping with her kit of colored stones? Surely someone could share the load a bit. She needed help, she realized. Her job required wonder, and she was all out of it.
She cast about, and she smelled, and then saw a tangle of jasmine filling out a hedge.
“Jasmine Fairy,” she said, “do you remember the colors of things in the world?”
Dainty Jasmine Fairy quivered fragrantly, but remained silent.
Sunrise Fairy went then to Crane, perching in the marsh on one long leg. “Crane, you are very tall and fly very fast, do you remember the colors of the world? Would you help me remind things of their colors?”
Crane blinked slowly, and returned his head to its resting place beneath his wing.
Irritated, Sunrise Fairy went to Black Oak. One look at his gnarled silhouette, and she didn’t even bother asking.
As she stomped away, something stung her leg, just a little. She looked down.
“I’m sorry, I was just trying to get your attention. I remember the colors of things in the world. I can help get things going.”
Sunrise Fairy regarded the squat little weed fairy at her feet, barely reaching her knee, a tangle of jagged edges with a mop of deceptively soft-looking pale fur atop her head. “What are the seven true colors?” she demanded.
“Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet,” Thistle fairy responded, without missing a beat.
“What is the difference between inspecting and beholding?” Sunrise Fairy persisted.
“Beholding is to see with awe. And, um… seeing not only what is but also what could be?”
“Alright, Thistle Fairy. I think I can trust you with my jewels. But remember, they must be given without reservation, in awe, or they won’t work right. Got it?”
“Got it,” Thistle Fairy answered solemnly. Sunrise Fairy turned away, enjoying the luxury of focusing on just one bright tile mosaic, rather than the whole world.
Thistle Fairy hefted the bag reverently. She turned and trotted down the hill, keeping her eyes open. Wonder can come from anywhere, she reminded herself.
She was so busy looking about that she didn’t see a big hunk of granite in her path until she tripped on it. She tumbled head over heels, and found herself staring up at the sky. Then she saw it–there above her in the sky where it met the hills. It wasn’t a color. It wanted to be a color. She reached into the bad and pulled out the first stone, a bright fiery red. She threw it up into the sky, and color blossomed.
It wasn’t exactly red. It was more like mauve. But it was beautiful, and not bad for a first try, Thistle Fairy told herself, smiling with awe.
She continued on down the hill, and soon spied a line of poppies just starting to open. “Orange!” she said aloud in her excitement. “Here, here, take the orange stone,” she offered the poppies.
“Oh no,” said the poppies, opening hastily in the growing light. “We’re already quite orange, we remember just fine. You should give that orange to someone else.”
Just then she saw a garter snake twist from behind a hunk of serpentine. The black and gray stripes from his head to his tail looked terribly plain. She offered him the orange jewel. He flicked his tail amicably, and when she had tossed it to him, he curled his long narrow body around it. The dull spots between his dark stripes became a brilliant orange. The scales gleamed. He hissed his thanks, and slithered away.
Thistle Fairy then offered the serpentine the green jewel. [no thank you,] the rock rumbled. [i do green rock well enough on my own. you should give that to someone else.]
She continued on until she came to a great stand of wild mustard alongside a winding black road. She scrutinized the riot of tiny blossoms. She liked them–they were overgrown and rambunctious, like her. She offered them the yellow stone.
“Oh, we’re already quite yellow! See? Fit for a painting. You should give that to someone else,” the wild mustard assured her.
Thistle Fairy perched at the edge of the road. It smelled of tar, fresh and black. A shimmering line ran down it in ghostly silver. She wondered where the road went. She had never been this far away from her patches of thistles in the hills. On a whim, she rolled the yellow stone down the line. It became a shockingly gold ribbon, winding with the road around the hills. Thistle fairy smiled, and followed it.
Soon she found herself in the marshes. Well, above the marshes! Her road had become a bridge, her shining yellow line stretching across the whole bay. She looked down at the swamps, crisscrossed with low levees. She spied a frog singing under the bridge. “Good morning! Would you like this green jewel?”
“Hehe, I’m already green sweetie. You oughta give that jewel to someone else,” the frog replied.
Thistle Fairy shrugged and gazed across the swamp, muddy and crusted with salt. It didn’t look quite right. In fact, it was downright ugly. She threw the green stone out into the water–and it turned a beautiful jade color.
As she looked between the jade water and the mauve sky, she saw her home, those rolling hills, from a distance for the first time. She knew that they would be greening soon, and later they would be gold and brown. Now they were just another shade of gray. But she also knew she could change that this morning. With all her might, she pitched the indigo stone to the hills. There. Now that was fit for a painting: mauve sky, indigo foothills, jade marsh, yellow striped road.
Caught up with the scene, she was nearly back to the hills before she noticed moving at all. She stopped short against a plant that was almost as spiny as she was, but much, much taller. Agave, she thought. She looked in the Sunrise Fairy’s bag. She drew the blue stone, and the agave, now a subtle blue, smiled quietly.
Thistle Fairy was heading up the hill when Sunrise Fairy caught up with her. “How are you doing? I can take over soon, I feel so much better! What do you have left there?”
“Just violet,” said Thistle Fairy, holding up the stone. “I just haven’t seen anything that needed to be violet.”
“Why don’t you keep that one for yourself?”
Photo: Flickr CC/blueturbanphoto
Thistle Fairy shrugged bashfully, and stared at the ground around her. The she saw the most familiar thing in her world. “You know, I would rather give it to these Thistles. After all, we have the same name.” She tossed the stone down into the patch of thistles, and their pale choking blossoms became a stunning violet. Thistle Fairy’s own shock of fluff reflected them.
Sunrise Fairy nodded. “It suits you both. Thank you for helping me this morning. You payed close attention, and colored the world in a good light. I hope all little children and seedlings can grow to be a little more like you.”
And as the Sunrise Fairy sped off, coloring the rest of the world as the sun rose, and everything else regained color for another day.
The original story centered on Rainbow Fairy and Morning Glory Fairy, with very blatant moral lessons: modesty, generosity, piety, and intelligence. I think I kept most of those, with the addition of mindfulness, spunkiness, and renewal. And the violet transformation was in the original: there is absolutely nothing autobiographical about the purple hair. Really.
So, why Steinbeck and Thoreau?
Steinbeck taught me to see California. When I travel I bring a section of East of Eden with me. It’s near the beginning: the hills, the droughts, the rivers and their floodplains, the rhythm of the brown hills and the green hills across the years and across the decades. I attribute the fact that I identify as a Californian to Steinbeck, for although I was born and partially raised around the Puget Sound, no writer from that area has instilled such a vivid and nostalgia-inducing picture in my mind of Washington, or taught me to truly see the land anew. (With the possible exception of Tom Robbins, and the house consumed by blackberry brambles.) I also love Steinbeck’s voice: I learned a lot from the solemn realism of his writing, and the painful empathy his era wrought in him.
Thoreau is another matter, not California related. From him I get sheer transcendental awe. I can’t really describe how important a force this is in my life. To behold nature, to fully participate in perceiving the natural world, is to be more conscious; in other words, to see more perfectly.
*embarassingly, I had to change the title and character of this story when I realized my botanical confusion between thistles and nettles. Thistles are the pretty ones. Drat.