In Dreams Awake

Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.

(Henry David Thoreau)

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Big Changes

 People have a habit of panicking. Give them a minor change to their lives and they run about like Chicken Licken, sure the sky is falling in (one of my favourite analogies). I'm thinking here about the UK vote to leave the EU, of course - yes, I promised to get back to the writing this time, I know. Bear with me, OK?

 Leaving the EU is a minor thing. There will be some economic wobbles, some jobs will be lost and others created, policies will change, blah blah. But at the end of it all Britain will still be a hell of a lot richer than most countries in the world. The vote, and impending Brexit, is just a wrinkle.

 Now think about some real sky-falling moments.

 When Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas, it caused carnage. Something close to 50% of the population of the Inca empire died in the first two years. It was similar among the Plains Indians, centuries later. Whole ways of life were changed. Or imagine living on Easter Island near the end, when there was no more wood and no canoes could be built, no fish harvested, and the island collapsed into starvation and war. In maybe two hundred years, the Rapa Nui population of seven thousand fell to barely one hundred.

 Think of the Plague of Justinian, 541-42 AD. It killed 25 million people around the Mediterranean, more than a tenth of the population of the world at the time. Some people say it killed 80% of the people in Byzantium alone. Look at the Three Kingdoms War in 3rd century China, which killed 40 million people - two thirds of the population.

 To those alive at the time, these things must have felt like the end of the world. In fact they were exactly that; the end of the world as it was, and the beginning of a new one. It happens, from time to time. There are those who argue that we're on the edge of one now, here in 2016, as the nations which dominated the last century try to hang onto their power and wealth while others emerge to change the balance. It interests me, because a writer doesn't focus his attention on times when nothing happened. He looks for stories to set against a background of events. It's why Casablanca is still so powerful now. It's a love story, but what drives the grief in it is World War Two, and its power to break people apart. Every time I watch it I want Ilsa to stay.

 (See, I told you I'd get back to the writing)

 I've mentioned smallpox in a forthcoming story, The Blessed Land. I want to cover disease more fully though. One way is through a planned novel called Over the Rainbow Bridge, which is set among Plains Indians ravaged by smallpox. I'm interested in the Rapa Nui story too, Another idea is to deal with the results of a volcanic eruption, big enough to cause floods or famine on the far side of the world. Like Tambora in 1815, an Indonesian volcano which caused two years without summers in Europe.

 It's all a bit grim, isn't it? But I've always been fascinated by how the Inca rebounded from the plague and from military disaster. How they managed it, I don't know, but they did, and nearly regained their country at the Battle of Cuzco. What does it take to do that? To suffer the blows and just shrug them off? I wonder whether another people might do the same in the face of ruin by war, or famine, or the emergence of magic into a world which never knew it... pick your disaster. There's so much possibility there.

 I hope you see, now, why I call Brexit such a piffling little thing. It doesn't really change anything, just like most of history's battles only meant one lord winning and another getting killed. Life for most people stayed just the same. Even so, put people in the midst of a minor incident and they'll throw bricks through windows and make death threats, or so it seems from this week in the UK.

 I prefer my chaos in the pages of a book. Where it belongs.