Usually I get out to hear a healthy handful of the writers reading at the bi-annual Ottawa International Writers Festival. This year I had no such luck which is a pity since the lineup as usual was enticing. However, I did manage to catch three provocative sessions on the weekend.
The first author I saw presenting and heard reading was Ian Morris who impressed upon us the singular role of geography on what happens and who wins. He read from the opening chapter of his first trade book, Why the West Rules – For Now on Saturday October 23. In the scenario he describes there, a Chinese governor accepts the fealty of Victorian Britain from the sovereign herself and takes Prince Albert back to the Forbidden City as a good faith hostage. As we see now with China’s actual rising, much depends on the accidents of place and the luck of timing.
Professor Morris offers an interesting survey of world history from prehistoric days (even as far back as the times of our more apelike ancestors) to the present. His explanations are curious though not implausible, linked as they are to where our predecessors found themselves as well as what they made of those surroundings. This is not the usual biographical or cultural synopsis. His conjecturing about the future is likewise informed. Global civilization is either headed for singularity a condition which futurist Ray Kurzweil has described as unprecedented progress or nightfall which requires no further elaboration. Statesmanship will doubtless be an important determinant in that momentous coin flip, but so will the regional alignments and resourcing of immediate decades.
Local writer and Citizen columnist Dan Gardner looks at prospects rather differently. In Future Babble he deploys an unflattering group portrait of that circuit of experts who dramatically predict their litanies of impending tsunamis and dystopias with compelling certitude. The problem is they are almost always dead wrong. Even when they’re right, it’s usually so quirky an outcome as to exemplify coincidence. Dan was interviewed on the Mayfair stage on Sunday October 24 by Andrew Potter who seems to share a similar world view. Beloved by the media who egg them on, prognosticators invariably remain shameless when nothing happens. They will return with offhand excuses and a whole new deck of scary futures destined to follow in the wake of the next book deal. Where does our appetite for this schlock come from? Why do we keep believing it? Tune in; read on.
Earlier that same day I was fascinated to listen to renowned Canadian novelist William Gibson. A fantasy and fiction writer, he has earned our permission to play speculative games. So when he read from his new novel, Zero History, the audience was prepared to bend its expectations in the interests of entertainment. Mr. Gibson has set his new book in the relatively near future mostly in London. It’s therefore full of frequently sly references to our own today and more recent past. The plot moves along the shadier fringes of the fashion and entertainment industries. At play is something called anonymous branding as a means of infiltrating the tastes of trend setters. Things get nasty occasionally near the end, but the ambiguous morality of it all kept me from caring much about anyone in the book. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to. As in his earlier work, Gibson exhibits a prescient grasp of how new media keep changing what identity and authenticity mean. For example, he observed during his interview that twitter could be used to create almost impenetrable communications lines. Hiding in plain sight. Maybe that’s our future.
This review is simultaneously posted to the Strategic Praxis (strategicpraxis.com) blog and the Ottawa International Writers Festival (OIWF) discussion board.