Sunday, July 20, 2008

Burning Fiction

"Paradigm Shift"

An elderly man and a 6-year-old boy walk side by side. They are dressed in matching garb: lightweight breathable silver jumpsuits and silver goggles. The old man's outfit also has a cape. This makes the pair look like an intergenerational (intergalactic!) superhero duo. They both have long-ish hair, the real color of which is hard to determine due to the fine dust that coats it. As they walk, the boy looks up at the man and says: "Grampa? Would you tell me about when you were a kid, back when they used to burn the man?"

"Well... okay," Grampa clears his throat, "When I was a young man, Black Rock City was only here for one week out of the year."

"That's all?" asks the boy.

"Yep. It was a very special week, full of celebration and meditation, art and humor and all kinds of fun. The climax of the week came on the second to last night, when the giant man would be burned down, and we'd all dance in the light of the fire. A day or two later, we'd pack up all our stuff and split, taking care to leave no trace that we'd ever even been here."

"Where did everybody go?"

"Well, back then there were lots of other places where we all lived. We had a much larger society, which we called 'Default World' and we Burners came from our various homes in all different corners of Default World to be here. But that larger society had many problems. Many problems which we don't have now."

"What kinds of problems?"

"Oh... all kinds. People didn't know how to share--"

"WHAT?! But HOW--"

"I know, I know it sounds crazy. And in many ways it was. Default World was marked by insanity in almost every aspect of daily life. Since people didn't know how to share, there was great competition for resources, everything from food and shelter to land and energy."

"Energy? But that's the easiest thing in the world for everyone to get! Why would anyone compete for something that's free and unlimited?"

"That's a little complicated, but back then, most people didn't bother to harness the wind and the sun the way we do now. We can generate much more electricity than we'll ever need just from those two sources, but we happen to be living in a very sunny, very windy place!"

"That's for sure!" says the boy.

"Without generating energy from the wind and the sun, most people got their energy from what we called 'fossil fuels.' There used to be this black oil that came out of the ground which could be burned to generate heat, electricity and to make fuel for all sorts of vehicles. It was also used to make plastic."

"Hahah... nobody MAKES plastic! We just harvest and recycle it!"

"Yes, but where do you think it all came from originally? Someone had to make it."


"So with oil from the ground being used for so many things that people depended on so much, it became the most valued resource in the world. But it wasn't like the sun and the wind. It wasn't unlimited. And by the time I was your age, we were already running out of it."

"What happened?"

"As supplies got smaller and smaller, and demand for oil got bigger and bigger, people started fighting over what was still left in the ground. Actual wars were fought over it!"

"What are... worz?"

"Oh, right... you wouldn't know about them, would you. Well, a war was a terrible thing in which large numbers of people would try to kill large numbers of other people."

"People tried to kill each other?!"

"Sad but true. It was not a very good time for humanity."

"I'll say!"

"The oil war era was a painful and difficult time for many, but we Burners kept right on doing our thing, coming out here to the desert to celebrate and remind ourselves that nothing lasts forever. I think our attitude and yearly pilgrimages helped prepare us for the big changes that were to come."

"What sorts of changes grampa?"

"Well, things went roughly like this... after 8 years of the worst leadership the modern default world had ever known, the people elected a new leader, a very nice man who was very smart and who promised positive change. And things did start to change for the better, surprisingly quickly. It was remarkable to see the entire mindset of the United States of America shift."

"United States of America?"

"That was the name of the country that used to span the continent we're standing on."


"The whole thing."


"Yeah, it was pretty impressive for a while there. And even though the new leadership accomplished a great deal during its first four-year term in office, and even though the overwhelming majority of people around the entire planet were happy with the changes that were taking place, there still were a few people who wanted things to continue the way they had been going under the bad leadership."

"Really? Why?!"

"Because they were bad, greedy people. We used to call them 'motherfuckers' or 'assholes.'"

"Haha! Assholes! That's funny. I have an asshole."

"Yes you do. And what comes out of it every day?"


"And what is poop like?"

"It smells BAD!"

"Which is exactly like everything that came out of the people we used to call assholes."

"Haha! Yucky."

"You said it. Well, when the next election rolled around, the bad people decided to try a very mean thing to gain support for the leader they wanted to install in power."

"What did they do?!"

"Well, they wanted to make it seem like the other leader, the nice smart one, wasn't any good at protecting the country from enemies, so they waited until his political party was having a big convention, and they unleashed a terrorist attack on the city that was hosting the convention."

"What's a terrorist attack?"

"Well, it was a kind of fighting that was meant to scare people, so that you could get them to do what you wanted. Most people thought terrorists were a real threat who came from far away places, but it turns out the worst terrorists were just sneaky bad people in our own country who only made it SEEM like their attacks were done by the far away people. Then after the attacks, they said 'You see! We told you there were still great dangers! You need to put OUR guy in power or else there will surely be more terrorist attacks!'"

"But THEY were the ones doing the attacks!"

"Of course. But not that many people could tell. Most people thought it was the far away people doing them. Unfortunately, the bad people chose a form of attack that hadn't been tried before, because they figured it would be extra scary, and things kinda got out of hand."

"What did they do?!"

"They released a highly contagious disease into a city. This was where the good man's convention was taking place, remember?"

"I remember."

"A few people in that city died right away. It was terrible."

"Whoa. Were people scared?"

"Yes. Very. The disease was supposed to kill people very quickly, and run its course. But the bad men who created it made some mistakes, and most people carried the disease for a couple days without knowing they had it before dying of it themselves. Since people had come from all over the country for the good man's convention, when the convention was over, they brought it back with them to every part of this land. People started dying everywhere. It was so terrible that eventually, one of the bad men responsible for the original plan revealed the truth about what was going on, in the hopes that it might make it possible for people to figure out how to stop the disease. But by then it was too late. Many people had already carried the disease to other countries. It spread quickly all over default world. Whole populations were wiped out as the disease quickly ran through its life-cycle."

"How did we survive?"

"It all came down to good timing, really."

"What do you mean?"

"The Democratic National Convention of 2012, took place at the same time as the first few days of the Burning Man festival that year. When the news broke that people were dying in every single state of what had been the United States of America, it was Saturday morning. That night, when everybody gathered at the giant man, which was the only time when everyone at the festival would all be in one place, instead of burning the man down, an announcement was made. The news about the disease affecting the rest of the country was revealed. The organizers of the festival then suggested that people stay in the desert for a few more days, to wait and see what would happen. We never did burn the man that year, or any time after that, to this day."

"Did people stay here?"

"Most of us did. A few felt they had to go, to return to loved ones, or try to help out at hospitals. But a strong feeling passed through the entire community that we were supposed to stay right here and wait. It was very difficult at first."

"Because you were scared?"

"Well, yes. Nobody knew if the disease would be able to reach us out here. But also difficult because in those days, Black Rock City was only meant to be temporary. Fortunately, by then, we had developed some centralized solar and wind power for the city, and many Burners either hooked into it or had their own solar and wind generators. Biodiesel was also big at the time. Water was scarce, of course, but a miraculous thing happened."


"It rained."

"And you collected the rainwater?"

"Smart boy. We sure did. We collected it in every kind of container you can imagine. The rainwater kept us going long enough to get word from the outside world that the disease had run its course. There were small pockets of survivors, mostly in remote places. All major cities had been decimated, and most suburban areas too. The plague had spread like wildfire, but once it ran out of fuel, or victims, or hosts, it just sort of burned itself out. That was the first major change."

"There were more changes?"

"Well sure. With so many people killed off so quickly, those of us who survived couldn't go back to the lives we were used to. There was no economy, there was no industry. Even though it soon became safe to go back to the cities and towns of default world from a disease standpoint, in many many places the survivors of the plague turned to violence, and lots more deaths occurred. So we stayed put out here in the desert for a little longer, monitoring the situation via radio and internet. Eventually those sources of information fell silent. Gradually, we sent expeditions out into the surrounding areas to find out what was left of the world we had once known and hopefully bring back news and supplies. When they returned, they came back with food, water, some medical supplies, some good drugs and even some composting toilets."

"Like the ones we use today?"

"Almost the same! Whenever there was news of interest to every Burner, we'd all gather around the man, to hear the announcements--"

"That's what we do!"

"That was when the tradition started. So we gathered to hear what the expeditions that returned had to tell us, and we learned all about the devastation of default world. But they also said it was relatively safe to move freely about, as long as we had vehicles that could run off of either electricity, or vegetable oil. For most of us, this meant our range of travel was fairly limited, so we knew it would be difficult to return to where we'd come from even if we had wanted to, even if there had been anyone left in those places. So we organized many supply runs, and prioritized the things we knew we'd need most. After food and water, more composting toilets was first on the list! Then came the materials we needed to start building the greenhouses. It was the beginning of our long-term settlement here and the whole society you know. Some people did decide to try their luck back out in default world. We never heard from any of them again. Interestingly, the theme of that year's Burning Man festival was 'Paradigm Shift.'"

"What does that mean?"

"A big change in the way things are."


[to be continued]


Christian Roman said...

Nice story, Jon! Very heartwarming tale of the fall of civ as we know it and BM in it's place. My only problem is I kept thinking of the 70 year old guy I met on my first burn who kept trying to convince me the aliens were using con-trails from jet planes to seed the clouds with deadly diseases, and how he'd choose to run the world if he was able...

Dr. Brainwave said...

You just made me think of an old man I met on my first burn who dressed as a mostly naked Santa Claus, sat in a chair on the esplanade and invited people (mostly young men I think) to sit on his lap. One of the creepier things I did that year. Or ever.