Carrying future

Trapped in a window seat, 53A, between Tokyo and Shanghai. Reading Gibson, brought with me as a talisman, a way of accessing a certain mind set. Few authors can pull my hopeful brain, my dreaming mind, up from the cover of organization and functionality that I have layered over it.

We move so freely, the few of us lucky to have been born into the rich countries and jobs of the late twentieth century business environment. We schedule calls and flights in varying time zones with such frequency that the ability becomes the important part, not the impressive part. We layer organization over the impressive moments in our lives: descending into Hong Kong at daybreak and seeing the islands, oceans, and ships with the first rays of sun splashed across the shallow green water. We sleep through the ascent out of Tokyo in the rain, neon splashed across the bay’s dark surface. All too often we stand in the courtyard of a remote factory or temple staring at our phones rather than at our surroundings.

Sometimes sleep is necessary. Frequently phones bring human connection with their distractions. The world is never as simple as we imagine, and we were never as free.

Reading fiction that is likewise trapped between the chance of the future and the truth of the present is a good way to spend these strange hours of international travel that themselves are both mundane and amazing. And books, like always, are a good reminder that writing is a good way to convey hope.

Capital F future

Sitting in a luxury hotel in Chang’an Zhen, I am thinking about the future.

Not the future as in my personal five year plan, though it may turn out that way. Nor the capital F future of living computers and jet packs, though it may turn out that way too. Instead I am thinking about our future, the shared strangeness that is both hard to see and probably already here, somewhere.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about this future. Mostly from strange Chinese cities though not usually from luxury hotels. It’s a future that seems to slip into view when I’m walking home alone through the evening heat, past street stalls and electric bikes. I find it under neon offering nothing, the store fronts long closed and falsely alluring in the night. It’s a future that I see often after sitting in an Ajisen and eating cucumbers for a while, after drinking an Asahi by myself while reading Fallows and Paul Hawken, Chipchase and Posnanski.

I think about the heating planet and the bliss of air conditioning in Hong Kong this week. I think of the costs of oil, and my job making plastic. I think of those giving up air travel and look at my location. I think about my favorite writers and how frequently they fly. I think about how frequently I fly and whether I would care about flying, about all of this, if I’d never started.

Would I care about the world this way without having sat in so many Ajisens in so many Chinese manufacturing cities, reading on paper and phones and drinking Japanese beer? Unlikely, I think. Without so many evenings watching the lights come on in Chinese apartment towers, how would I know to value all of us? Without watching the neon blink back and forth and eventually off, watching the parks fill with people enjoying the evening and then empty to silence, how would I have learned the size of cities? Without flying, how would I have met so many people, learned from so many places? Without the energy expenditure that damages it, how would I have ever understood our planet?

I watch two men honk at one another, scooting past on e-bikes. They are chatting as they disappear side by side into the gathering dusk. I watch cars at the intersection, red lights hold them stationary, engines running. I wonder what makes so many people want to buy a car, and what would make them stop.

Mostly I think about the difference between making things and growing things, between working and building. After that I think about the difference between being alive, looking at the moon as it rises behind the skyscrapers , and not. It is a difference I only recently started to appreciate.

What will the world will look like when we are gone? Will we have left anything good behind, intentionally or no?

I haven’t yet given up flying. I’m here in Chang’an Zhen. I haven’t yet given up making things, I’m here visiting a factory for work. More importantly, I haven’t yet given up on anything. Walking back from Ajisen I wonder if I will, if the cumulative weight of the capital F future will change my life. I wonder what the next five years will bring, and ten. Whether we’ll all be living different lives, or still wondering. Will Chinese cities still feel like the future in this way on lonely evenings, an amazing combination of factories and urban density, of modern trains and hand-repaired motorcycles, of destroyed air? Or will the world have changed in all directions, become more evenly distributed, for better or worse. On evenings like this I can see both possibilities, a future here and yet often invisible .

Watching the two men on e-bikes fade into the darkness down the street I know one thing: even in the 90 degree F heat and 90% humidity of southern China, I’d rather we all biked than gave up airplanes, and each other.

Becoming one city

In the first long afternoons of light the city looks strangely wide. Swinging down from the hills of Marin towards the Golden Gate it stretches out before him across the horizon from the bay to the ocean. The peninsula is painted white and green and white and green again, the overlapping colors of buildings and hills, trees and houses that remind him of the importance of topography in any representation of San Francisco. There are strange tall points, the TransAmerica building, the Hong Kong-esque apartment towers of Russian Hill, with their tiered balconies, and the oddly-large churches of Pacific Heights, of the Richmond. Coight Tower is small and almost invisible in the light, off to the left. Behind it, reaching out towards the islands and the cranes of Oakland, the Bay Bridge forms an edge to the view of this city framed by suspension towers.

San Francisco, in the right light, is capable of surprise. He is reading fiction again at pace, working through stories of this city first read long ago without the aid of geography. Revisiting his mental San Francisco now with new layers of personal history, the same way he’d obsessed over Shanghai, Tokyo, he discovers buildings and locations. To take a city out of literature and into one’s own history is a delicate act. Often the fragile place of words and imagination is lost forever, mental ties not strong enough to withstand the daily monotony of work and rent and grocery shopping. Sometimes though, on afternoons like this one, the city provides its own majesty, reminding the newly arrived that yes, here is the place of stories, a landscape of the human so varied and involved as to conjure history.

Re-reading these books about this city he is caught up in their description of bridges, of people, and of light. On the bridge now he looks towards the ocean, where the sun is setting into the fog. A freighter works its way towards him, bearing goods from Japan, heading for the port of Oakland across the bay. By the time it docks the light will have faded and the fog moved in on his home, hidden from view on the bridge by the green hills of Golden Gate Park. By the time the light fades he will have crossed the other bridge as well, exploring the train tracks across the bay, where grass fields are lit behind warehouses and beneath freeways that reach towards Cheyenne, Cleveland, New York.

Where are we going?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the future.  I do this a lot, because much of the fiction I enjoy is Sci-Fi, or, to give it more specific labels, near-fi and space opera. These aren’t new fascinations, though I’ve now betrayed this entire blog, which will be discounted as yet more rantings of a whilte male sci-fi-loving web-based writer. 

Science fiction has, for much of my life, pointed the way towards a future.  Not the future, but some possible vision. As someone who is fascinated by people, by their variety and by the conditions which they thrive in, visions of a future are intruguing.  Answers to the question of how could people live” are almost as interesting as answers to how do people live?” As my writing on inhab.it attests, I’ve been fascinated by and gravitated towards cities for most of my life, because they provide a look at more people, in more different situations, than small towns and villages.

I begin with this because I want to explain the origin of this curiousity, in a fashion that won’t get subsumed by the specifics of the following.  

I’ve been thinking about the future a lot lately.  In some way, this piece clarified my thinking, in a way supported by the latest Gibson book.  Having stated that he is no longer as interested in far future, Gibson has moved towards illuminating the undiscovered in the present day.  These recent books are very entertaining, but, as Adam Greenfield says best, read as yarns told about people we (quite literally) already know.”  In some sense, the awe is gone.  

Stein postulates that he might simply be getting old, and that the nerd culture may have passed him by, that there may still be college kids developing things that beat whatever is popular today.  While he is speaking specifically of consumer hardware, the idea holds to the grander scale of a future, and of the newly-arrived fragility of any specific view of it that Greenfield mourns.  Cyberpunk once seemed convincing, but now seems mundane, says Greenfield.  And nothing so viscerally true seems to have emerged.  

As for Stein and the idea of aging out of the future?  He is most certainly right about aging, new things will inevitably be built by those younger and closer to the edge. Facebook is an immediate proof, built by youth and adopted by everyone.  But he is also not wrong about hardware, in that there is no obvious target for a vision of those new things.  Part of this is the specific choice of hardware.  Where will hardware be in a decade?  The evolution used to seem so hard to predict, at any distance. When the idea of everyone having a computer seemed fantastic, there was room to imagine what such a device might look like.  When there was no global network there was room for writers or engineers to imagine a fully interactive version.  

The future, in those specific terms, has been built, and, like always, it was built on the backs of what came before it, on the phone lines and the telegraph wires, much like the non-oil based transit industry is being built on the model of the combustion engine, on the public road system and the personal automobile.  It is not alluring in the way cyberspace was , or sketches of maglev trains strung out across the skies of cities are.  In fact the future-become-present seems boring, and even possible to ignore.

But I think that is unwise.  In this way I think Gibson is right.  The current world is more fascinating, because the variety of the possible is so large, and the ability to learn about it so much greater.  No longer do I have to dream about what it would be like to jump off of buildings in France.  I can see it done, and done well, better than I would be able to were I there.  

That’s not the future, but it’s fun.

Where then is that view of a future we so enjoyed?  I think the future, like everything, is in people.  The fascination with tools has lasted mankind a long time, from the first knife, probably, and there is no reason to believe it has stopped.  Phones, computers, cars, and the internet may no longer be advancing at the pace they once were, or towards the destinations they once seemed to be, but that simply means new things can be built on top of them as they become stable, evenly distributed.  Will we personally adopt what comes next, will we still be at the leading edge?  Probably not, because we will grow old, we will settle for using what we know rather than building something new, and eventually rather than learning something new.

But the future will still be out there.  Or rather, a future will be.  The only question is who will imagine it, write it down, and share it with the children most of us will be raising.

Gone running

In the spring of twenty ten I take up running in the mornings.

At work for much of the last two years on a novel that is taking its time, the chunks of story assembling like the preface to a giant Tetris game on my computer, in my notebook, waiting for the busts of inspiration that will fit them together without seams, I am restless.  Like Gibson, I force myself to turn up every day, in case the writing also decides to.”  Often it does not, and my body, unaware of our shared dedication to a craft that requires hours spent seated, grows antsy.  So, in the mornings, through Golden Gate Park on the edge of the Pacific, I run.

Only one other time have I run regularly, independent of sport. The two years of my life in Tokyo that were without Ultimate drove me to action, to waking up early on my days off and putting five kilometers under my feet before beginning anything else. Strangely those were productive days too, for the writing, and I wonder if Murakami is indeed on to something.

Living here, in the San Francisco of chilly mornings and fog-filled skies, I do not hesitate to challenge my body. The weather will not, an entirely predictable space of days that veer between fifty five and sixty eight without producing sunshine or true rain. At thirty I am slower than twenty two, a change that others have discovered before. Where once I would hurdle the obstacles that separated car traffic from pedestrians in quick repetition for several blocks as I wound my way around Yono Honmachi I now pant up the hills of the park, their dirt surfaces tricky on the ankles. The cold ambushes my lungs, and some days I walk a block or two on each end of the steeper sections, an acceptance of age I gave no thought to in Saitama. There are other things I do less frequently as well now, the climbing of water towers on apartment buildings, or light posts, or tiers of balconies. Yet slacklining has strengthened my ankles, and my throws are better, proof that not all things have been neglected. So too does the habit of jumping random object return, in opportune moments like New York afternoons or Shanghai evenings. But in San Francisco, in the early morning after lunches are made and carpools departed I put on shoes purchased in Los Angeles for this very purpose and wear my body down. Half an hour is sufficient, a fifteen block loop through foliage that sometimes contains cats and sometimes homeless people. Back in my house, face flushed at the sudden return of warmth, I celebrate with pull ups, jumping jacks, sit ups and a shower. It is not Murakami’s religious devotion to the road but it does seem to help.

With coffee fresh and mind full I then can sit at this window, looking out at the world, and compose, my mind awake and body stilled.

Expanding the city

In my absence, Shanghai has grown. To those familiar with the city this will not seem strange, it is the fastest-changing man-made place on earth, and home to some number of people between ten and twenty million.

Yet the Shanghai of two thousand three, and my arrival, was eminently walkable. Puxi, the true downtown, felt small, and Zhongshan Park or Hongqiao represented strangely distant areas discussed in curious tones.

We were looking at apartments near Zhongshan Park,” said my friend, in early two thousand four.

Wow. Zhongshan Park. Really?” we replied, the response one of perceived distance. Even then though Zhongshan Park was not far, the end of Line 2, one of the city’s pair of subways. Yet most of us lived on Line 1, and the single point of intersection was painfully crowded, avoided at all costs.

Hongqiao, further west still, was the province of Japanese companies and strange westerners, English teachers and the like.

I dated a girl in Hongqiao,” a boy once told me, more amazed, by his voice, at the location than the woman. So I spent a lot of time wandering around there trying out restaurants after work in the dark. I used to take the bus out to Hongqiao after school, 20 minutes or more, and wait for her to get off work.”

Even at the time of telling, in two thousand eight, his memory was of a distant place. Today Hongqiao, like Zhongshan Park, sits on Line 2, which has crept outwards to the airport on the city’s west side. Eastward too, though not completed yet, Line 2 is growing. The next time I am here it will reach Pudong’s airport, on the coast, as far east as it can go.

Shanghai has grown into itself. No longer do people cluster in the French Concession, around a handful of Line 1 stops. No longer do all my friends live within a fifteen minute walk. Instead they scatter to places I have never been, areas I never thought of as part of the city”. Yet they are, and were, filled with houses and shops, newly opened malls and supermarkets. Filled with newly opened metro stops.

Because what has grown in Shanghai, what has changed this city from a small sphere to an expansive metropolis, is not the influx of automobiles that crowd it’s tiny streets, but the completion of a metro system beneath them.

A friend asks if I can meet him on Sunday near his house, south west of Xu Jia Hui. I don’t know, I say, unsure of where he means.

For most of my five years in Shanghai Xu Jia Hui was the south west corner, the furthest point, a huge hub of roads and shopping malls that I lived just east of. On its opening in 2006 Shanghai South Railway Station became that point, past Xu Jia Hui down Line 1 . Occasionally I would wander the corridor of stops between those two spots, amazed at all the buildings and shops I’d never seen.

It’s easy,” my friend says of the path to his house, just take line 7 and 9, two stops west past Xu Jia Hui.”

What are lines 7 and 9, I ask, though I know there are now twelve in all.

Oh, there’s a site. Go check out www.exploreshanghai.com he replies. They have an iPhone app you should get.”  These are the kinds of things I would know, if I lived here.  This is the kind of knowledge I suddenly lack.

From the luxurious apartment I’m staying in, near Jing’an, to Guilin, I check. Up it comes, 19 minutes and 4 RMB. About $0.75.

That I can do,” I say.

Later on, walking through the streets near his home, which are filled with newly opened chain stores and old open-air markets, we talk about the changes, both of us here on and off since two thousand three.

Line 9 runs right along Zhao Jia Bang Lu,” he notes, a road we’ve both lived on at times. That would have been wonderful, life changing.”

And Line 7,” I add, is that north-south connection, between 1 and 2 that we always needed, rather than the bus!”

It’s amazing to realize. I’ve been gone a year and a half. When I left they’d just finished Line 6, which, like the G in New York, is the only line that never touches Puxi, winding through Pudong on the east side of the river. Line 4, the ring that encompasses the city’s center, was only a horseshoe, the result of a collapsed tunnel on the southern edge. Lines 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12 were under construction. Shanghai was under construction. Whole streets were torn up and most major intersections given over to diggings. Believing that the cost, an entire decade of frantic physical revisions, would be worth while, we all struggled through crippled traffic and the constant dirt that comes with making huge holes in the ground at two block intervals.

It still is under construction, this city, and the air is often filled with dust. Yet it has grown up, grown into it’s people and it’s global prominence. Sitting in a subway station beneath Zhao Jia Bang Lu, two blocks from my old apartment, changing trains between two lines that didn’t exist when I lived here, I watch the people waiting with me. They don’t look impressed by the station’s existence, by the fact that the train’s clockwork arrival matches the countdowns displayed, or by the fact that their cell phones work in the tunnels, on the trains, under the river. Perhaps they shouldn’t be, having paid for these gifts with a decade of relocation and dirt.

Shanghai has felt like the future for as long as I have known it, a mish-mash of brand new and well-lived-in. In March of two thousand ten it feels, like Gibson once said of Tokyo, as though the future is comfortably all around us. It’s a good feeling, and, waiting for the train, I am glad for those that will grow up knowing it.

Returning souls

In the same time zone on the same continent a week now my body begins to understand its place. It is not the act of transit that leaves me so disconfigured, but the lack of location. In San Francisco for parts of three months, in Los Angeles twice, in Shanghai for a matter of days and Shaoxing a few weeks, I mind not the distances, but the lack of home. To those who frequent airports as business usual and shrug at the list just made, I note again, it is not the travel, but the lack of home.

We humans settle in the same fashion as cats. Chelsie, the cat from downstairs, hops onto the bed to find the afternoon sun. She has explored the closet, the bed’s underside, and the kitchen, looked for new purchases and imports from previous dwellings amid the piles, and is ready to furnace, her fur heated by the long rays of November. She turns once, surveying the alternatives to her spot just beneath the pillows, finds none better as she pushes gently at the comforter, assessing it’s softness, and settles. It is the act of someone who has come to rest in this spot before, who is aware of the benefits, and ready to be where they are. I watch her, as her eyes close in those long blinks that mean happiness, and realize my lack.

In transit for too long, stripped of all habits save the most basic, coffee in the morning and communication before bed, I have lost track of the best spot to settle, of where the light falls longest. With only a month in this apartment in a new city, a new state, and then weeks in a country I had left, with four months this summer afloat, borrowing other’s dwellings, though grateful my soul knows not where to rest.

Re-reading Pattern Recognition on the flight to Shanghai, the layover in Seoul, I remember Gibson’s brilliance in Cayce’s disconnect, her continual lack of comfort. It is a delicate point, and one I had seen but not felt on previous readings. There is a time for all books, or a place, I’ve been told, in long walks through Tokyo, and I agree. They are not places intended by the writer, though those surely exist, but rather specific locations that allow the story to resonate with the reader’s situation. Reading In the Skin of a Lion the second time, in Shanghai in 2003, with the cranes all around and the streets dirty with the sweat of men working underground, laying water and sewage in the hot August nights, the sacrifice of those forgotten builders of Toronto became impossible to avoid.  On successive readings it is the dust of China that returns to me most vividly.

This sense of understanding given to books and ideas by our body’s similar experiences strengthens many things. Yet relying on our bodies this way means that when they have no mooring, no familiar spot in the sun, we too are lost, adrift in the things our minds take in and call forth.

Here in the Sunset years past those Shanghai evenings, with an apartment again to myself during the hours of sunlight, I wait for my soul to return, for my body to remember the place I do inhabit, rather than those that I have.