Friday, November 28, 2008

Bob knows already

About science fiction's uncanny oracle, and U.S. politics, and Katrina. With poetry.

Science fiction has a problem particular to its genre -- how to communicate all the information about the made-up SF world to the reader. It doesn't help the reader's suspension of disbelief to have the narrator tell them. ("In this future world, people routinely flew using jetpacks" ...) A good author would have these details emerge incidentally along the course of the book. But of course most SF authors are not good. So there grew up the tradition of implausible expository dialogue in which people told other people things they already knew, so that the reader would know them. This became known self-mockingly as As you know, Bob. "'As you know, Bob, people fly using jetpacks these days,' said Fred."

Bob is rather uncanny, as you can see. He knows everything. Yet people persist in telling him what he already knows. Of course he must do it back to them too. All of his life people have been telling him things he already knew; it's the only way he's ever related to people. So he tells people things, assuming that they already know them. Sometimes they don't really already know, but it doesn't matter; there's something in his manner that makes people not listen to him, or people don't listen because there's nothing they can do anyways. He'd be Cassandra if the kind of SF that he grew from had anything remotely female about it.

For the last eight years or so, or more, what some Bush servitor named the "reality-based community" has been Bob. People already knew everything bad that was happening. But, of course, knowledge was powerless. Speaking truth to power was about as productive as speaking truth to the wind.

One of things that people knew about was what would happen to New Orleans if a major hurricane hit. There were plans aplenty to rebuild the levees, regenerate the barrier wetlands... but there was no way that Republicans wanted to spend the money. So they waited until afterwards, and then said that there was no way they could have known, just as they are with the banking crisis that everyone who wasn't in the tank predicted.

But in a sense, everyone knows. Everyone knows that the system that we're in doesn't really serve us; we just don't want to hear it, because we don't think there's anything we can do. I wrote about that in the Savior Machine post as "forgetting", but can people forget what they never really knew? No one is teaching people that the system can be otherwise -- but somehow, I think that they must know that it can be.

Let this all serve as an introduction to a Katrina poem, the best of the many that I wrote about that time. It contains Bob the useless prophet, a figure who I hope will be limited as an archetype to these last eight closing years of the twentieth century. Because if future historians don't see this year as the real boundary between the 20th century and the 21st -- if the Bush years were the first years of the 21st century -- then God help us all.

As You Know, Katrina

It was in New Orleans
That he first appeared
He was white, in his 50's
With wild hair and a strange fixed grin
And burn in his eyes
Somehow he was always facing you
He never said much
Just stood there, ticking
No one knew him

We were sitting on the curb
When someone's radio played
And we didn't pay much
Weather alert
Attention, but he was standing there
His eyes got brighter, his mouth opened
"As you know," he said
"We live in a bowl"
A bowl? People shrugged, smiled
To each other, but he went on
Something about how we knew
About global warming and
Hurricane cycles and the
Corps of Engineers and the
Levee system
No one could laugh, quite
So we went home, or just away

Over the next days
When we couldn't find a car
And were standing, talking, looking
For some wood, there he was
The first wind
Blowing his hair every way
"As you know," he said
"We live in a racist society"
And one old man said all sour
"We know that," but he went on
No stopping him, about how
As we knew
The city, the police, the plans
Were made for certain
To get out
Certain to not
We couldn't get away
But the sound of hammering wood
Drowned him for a while

The next days
Some said they'd seen him
Standing in the water
When you ran for the Superdome
He'd be by the side
"As you know," he'd say
And all about Bush and some
Man we didn't know named Brown
And about corruption
His eyes glowed so you could hardly look
It seemd like his smile
Might freeze forever
People waded by as fast as they could
Making hand signs
And somehow we knew
What was waiting

When we were trying to get out
After the food was gone
People would see him coming
And drive him off if they could
It was all jammed together
As you know
About the weather and crony capitalism
And how
As we knew
We'd never see that reconstruction money
"Stop it, stop" people would yell
But it was the same eyes, grin, hair
Always the face
The words

When we got out
We'd meet sometimes at the shelters
"Did you see him?" someone'd say
And someone'd say they saw him
Dead, water flowing through that grin
Or shot at last
Or just gone away
But we knew

We knew he'd come back

1 comment:

  1. The Rev. Ivan Stang often asked his friend Bob Dobbs to explain things to him. Years later, we, at Fox, realized that echo chambers (better than Reich boxes) could be built to encompass the entire US population and spread the message of Bob's puppets: Karl and Dick. We were even able to produce subliminal "As you knows" with our chryron messaging. As you know, at last count, we have control of 38% of the population; you will be assimilated.