These days, I never know what to expect. I trained as a historian, and always thought, I hope I never have to go through tough times like . . . whatever era I was studying. Secretly, though, I feared that I might.
As I got older, I worried more and more about whatever that tough time might be. Older people do well in some crises, but not in others. When my husband and I moved away from the Oregon coast, I let out a little sigh of relief. Because we thought maybe the problem would be something like the Juan de Fuca Plate letting go out in the ocean, which would have decimated the entire Northwest Coastline. Where we lived, help wouldn’t arrive for weeks.
That’s survivable for younger people, not necessarily so for older ones. And I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to walk out if needed.
Then we moved—and had an actual earthquake here in Las Vegas last 4th of July, the first one I’d ever experienced in a place I lived, and it was . . . startling, but not a big deal.
The pandemic and economic crises, those are big deals and I’m so happy to be in a city. I get to see people. I am in a good place to survive these kinds of things, even if they continue for years.
We also live downtown, so the protests have flowed around our building, bringing the news home almost every night. As I type this, a helicopter flies overhead for the fifth night in a row, because peaceful protestors are gathered at City Hall.
With my training in history and because I spent some of the turbulent years of the 1980s as a journalist, I know that these moments will remain indelibly on my memory and, if we’re lucky, will promote actual change, not lip service. That perspective, which comes from being older, gets me through this long anxious spring.
What I don’t know—what I want to know—is what happens next. I told my husband that I want to flip to the end of the book that is 2020 and see how this all resolves (or if the stupid author leaves us on a cliffhanger).
And that feeling, that sensation of not knowing what will happen next in this drama of our lives, that’s missing from every single novel or history book I’ve read about big crises. Because the author always knew what happened next, so the author chose the right details to include.
Right now, we’re drowning in details that might be important by December or might be completely forgotten. The jokes, the memes, the passing comments, all those little things will lose their reference point if history marches forward in a way we don’t expect.
The outrages pile up, and if they don’t get resolved, they will be remembered the next time anger flares. Many of us, who lived through other times of protest, who grew up believing that things would be so much better in the twenty-first century, are surprised that we’re still fighting the same battles, with the same words, that we used fifty years ago.
In long epic novels, fifty years can pass in the turn of a page. In life—well, I was ten fifty years ago, and I remember some of what happened that hot summer, and have forgotten most of it. I think that’s the summer I read Andre Norton for the first time. I remember the pile of library books beside my hammock, next to my glass of water (no soda in our household!). But I’m not sure that was the Andre Norton summer.
That was a long time ago, and I couldn’t have predicted being here, in this city, with a helicopter circling overhead. Nor could I know that I would be writing science fiction, much as I loved Star Trek (in reruns—and yes, that was TOS, before it got that acronym).
Fifty years is not a page-turn, but considering what we’re fighting, it should be. That throughline is predictable—to historians and historical fiction writers. Now that we’ve lived through the beginnings of the protests.
The ending is what we don’t know.
Just like we don’t know what will happen with the pandemic. Or the economic crisis. Or the election. Or what other surprises this very dark year has in store for us.
Recently, I saw a quote from Winston Churchill: “It is not given to human beings—happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable—to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.”
He spoke those words in late 1940 at the funeral of Neville Chamberlain, as London struggled through the Blitz, which makes what we’re going through seem tiny. Churchill had no idea what nightmares awaited.
Just like we had no idea what this year would bring on New Year’s Eve 2019. I was hoping 2020 would be a better year. I was relieved to see the backside of 2019.
I could not imagine what we’d be looking at now.
We don’t know how 2020 will end. Some of us will never see that ending (just like Neville Chamberlain, who was Britain’s Prime Minister until May of 1940, had no idea he wouldn’t see 1941).
I’m always looking for ways to improve my fiction, but I have no idea how to easily incorporate this feeling into a novel. It’s more than uncertainty, and definitely not that kind of what will happen next? that you find in the best thrillers.
In good novels, you feel like you’re in the hands of someone who knows what’s about to happen, even if you don’t.
Right now—and I’m sure in every previous crisis in human history—it feels like we’re bumbling through a series of events, waiting for them to coalesce into a coherent whole.
I don’t think that would make for a good novel or even a good novel series. We like narrative. Narratives require focus. And we don’t have one at the moment.
We will in hindsight.
And that’s about the only thing about the future that I can be certain of. One day, we will look back on this and seek ways to understand it.
One day, some of us actually will understand what we see.
And that’s all the certainty we’re going to get.