Sunday, June 01, 2008

Three really compelling "imagineering" novels

In the last two months I have read three novels that had a deep impact on me, often moving me to tears. They interrupted my life. I had trouble putting them down. And then, at the end, they didn't end. They are books about what the world could be -- both the "good" and the "bad", and how intertwined those are -- always -- and what courageous leadership and aliveness are in the face of that. Most interestingly, given the unknowns about our world and its future, these books end with the integrity of intense mystery about what happens next. They end at the edge of the future, waiting for us to take action before the next chapter can be written. They are true to life, especially our lives now. They are the kind of book we need many more of.

The one I just finished minutes ago is UNAFRAID: A NOVEL OF THE POSSIBLE, by Jeff Golden, the sometimes radio talk show host who interviewed me in Ashland, Oregon, years ago, and then interviewed Jim Rough, creator of the Wisdom Council. In his listening audience were three citizens who found each other with Jeff's help and went on to organize the Rogue Valley Wisdom Council, a remarkable democratic experiment that was videod by a team led by Joseph McCormick who went on to co-found Reuniting America. The RVWC was studied and woven into a thesis by grad student Elliot Shuford, who went on to co-found Healthy Democracy Oregon. All this from a visionary talk show host -- what Peggy Holman would call a "possibility journalist" -- who went on to write AS IF WE WERE GROWNUPS, a series of "wouldn't it be great if some politician gave these" speeches.

In UNAFRAID Golden lets his possibility-imagination run even freer, while staying thoroughly grounded. His tale explores a JFK who survives the 1963 assassination that in real life killed him. The assassination attempt in Golden's book changes JFK's life and makes him overwhelmingly popular -- a popularity he uses to begin creating the world so many of us have dreamed of. The adulation and anger with which his initiatives are met mirror that which surrounded FDR -- and, on the other side, GWB -- meaning that Golden paints a full-spectrum politics, not some insipid fantasy. It is the politics we have and that we can expect with the next US president, whomever (s)he is. But Golden's JFK embodies a dream of sanity from a progressive perspective, the leader so many hunger for, humble but determined, clear-thinking, deep feeling, humorous, wise, vulnerably human.

The story unfolds through the perspective of Caroline Kennedy as she cares for her children and reviews a manuscript for a biography of her father (JFK). It opens on September 11, 2001, when she looks out the window of her penthouse apartment at the vista of New York City dominated by the Twin Towers. The unembellished fact that those two towers remain standing throughout the novel -- often the site of luncheon conversations between her and the biographer -- is a powerful statement of the kind of world Golden's Kennedy left behind. The reader alternates between the print of the regular story and typewriter font of excerpts from the biography Caroline is reading.

I won't tell any more of the story, but the sense of possibility, embedded in the frictional context of real politics, is powerful. I suggest this is a must-read, particularly for folks in the Obama campaign.

Of the other two compelling, very well written books I will here just say that both are excellent stories of immediate possible futures shaped by global warming. THE RISING by Tom Pollock and Jack Seybold explores how rapid sea rise from collapsing Antarctic ice sheets impacts US society in ways that are very real and very disturbing, although the book offers some real hope readers could choose to live into. PRAIRIE FIRE by Dan Armstrong features the reactions of farmers to a food crisis triggered by global warming and peak oil, exacerbated by big agricultural market profiteers -- again in a way that their real-life counterparts could actually live into. I call this kind of "live into it" story "imagineering". We could really use several thousand more such imagineering novels to help us navigate the rapids of change into which we are heading.