North and West

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I'm writing this in the White River Motel in White River, a couple hundred kilometres northwest of Sudbury. This is the first long distance transit trip I've taken since my Boston run back in February 2020. It's been a long time in coming.

To accomplish this, I caught an early GO Train from Kitchener to Toronto, then caught a GO Train from Toronto to Barrie, then hopped aboard the Ontario Northland bus from Barrie to Sudbury. After staying overnight in Sudbury, I walked over to the VIA Rail station and boarded the train to White River. Before the pandemic, this train operated thrice-weekly, but today only operates weekly, with a train from Sudbury to White River heading out on a Saturday, and a train returning from White River to Sudbury on Sunday.

There's a lot to recommend this trip. The scenery, especially during fall, is among the best in Canada this side of the Rockies -- better even than what the current Canadian travels when it goes through Northern Ontario. For railfans, it's also among the last places where the classic self-propelled RDC "Budd" cars now travel. It's also a working train, serving communities between Sudbury and White River where no other connection is possible.

These days, it's amazing to think that one could travel from Kitchener to Sudbury using only public transit in a day, or reach White River in two. But the truth is that this trip is remnant of what was possible just thirty years ago. White River is on the Canadian Pacific mainline where trains passed through daily from Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa, on their way to Thunder Bay, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. Whatever gain Metrolinx has been able to make in recent years, adding service to southwestern Ontario and the north of the GTA has been lost throughout most of the rest of the country thanks to malicious negligence from Conservative and Liberal governments.

Indeed, one other reason to take this trip is because it's very possible that it won't be here in ten years. The new equipment that the federal government has invested in VIA is welcome, but applies only to the Quebec-Windsor corridor. The proposed High Frequency Rail plan would be good, if it were more than just something on paper, but again it focuses on the "core" network, while ignoring the rest of the country that the railroads helped build. The Canadian transcontinental train is operating only once a week, and is only set to go back to twice-weekly operation once the pandemic ends. Deteriorating equipment and absolutely deplorable treatment by Canadian National has turned the service into a slog of a ride.

Riding from. Sudbury to White River, I can see how much this country needs its trains. Even in their reduced capacity, the service brings Canadians to portions of their country they wouldn't otherwise see. They brings people to medical appointments they couldn't otherwise reach. They bring families together.

Canada needs to reinvest in its passenger rail system across the country. The White River line should operate daily, not weekly. It should operate from Toronto, to Sudbury, to White River, to Thunder Bay, and then to Winnipeg. The transcontinental Canadian should be daily. There should be trains serving Winnipeg and Vancouver via Calgary as well as Edmonton. And we should restore service to the Northlander now.

This will cost money to invest in equipment and to negotiate a deal with the freight railroads to give these trains space to operate efficiently and at the fastest speeds possible, but it's worth it. It would boost the tourism industry in several areas of this country that could use it. It would improve the quality of life of many Canadians. All of Canada needs this, not just southern Ontario. And we need to make our politicians do it.

They Walked Like Capitalists
Clifford Simak's They Walked Like Men Reviewed

clifford-simak-they-walked-like-men.jpegPlease note that this review contains serious spoilers about the novel, They Walked Like Men.

Like many lifelong readers today, my love of reading began when my mother read to me as a child. My mother was different, however. As a librarian who loved science fiction, she moved quickly past younger reads onto her own collection of books, introducing me to writers like John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Douglas Adams.

Years later, going through university studying for an urban planning job that the government cut as I graduated, trying to make a go of it in the soul-crushing IT industry, and finding solace in writing Doctor Who fan fiction, I had a couple of lucky breaks. One, I met my wife Erin through our writing. And two, as we started our life together, she set up a new tradition: every night, before going to sleep, I would read to her. I still do. I started with some of the books my mother read to me.

Returning to a book after two decades away can be startling. Cultural mores change. Some books reveal misogyny and racism you didn't realize was there because it was so prevalent around you when you first read it. Others surprise you by how well they speak to the conditions of the world in the author's future, but your present.

One such book is Clifford D. Simak's They Walked Like Men. Published in 1962 when the writer was 58, it's been largely out-of-print since 1979 and lies forgotten amongst his more notable works, such as All Flesh is Grass (1965), or the Hugo Award-winning Way Station (1963).

They Walked Like Men is set in what was then contemporary urban America - a place of downtown department stores and lunch counters that may be hauntingly familiar to older Gen-X readers remembering their childhood. Our protagonist is a journalist named Parker Graves, who literally stumbles into the story when something sets a trap for him outside his apartment door.

In the meantime, strange things are happening in urban America. The owner of a locally-renown department store sells his building, and to everyone's consternation, the new owners announce their intension to close the store and not replace it. Other businesses start getting offers for their establishments - way more money than their businesses are worth, and in cash - and many decide to close up shop to move out to... they're not clear on where, yet. And as the buyouts continue and more buildings shutter, Graves and many across America realize that there is nowhere to go. Even the wealthy are homeless. People may have as much money as they've ever had in their lives, but nobody is selling. Only some mysterious force is buying.

Simak's They Walked Like Men has a pulp noir feel. It is of its period and has a nuclear family outlook on relationships and gender politics. There are other flaws as well: the mysterious force (aliens, of course, who can shape-shift into anything) eventually single out Graves as a possible go-between between them and humanity, but why did they lay the trap for him at the beginning of the story, save as a means to suck the reader in?

But Simak's novel is remarkable because the shape-shifting aliens plan to take over the Earth in a unique way. They're not all-consuming locusts, or ruthless colonizers, but something just as devastating: real estate developers.

From the novel: "I see you do not realize," said the Dog, "exactly what you have. There are, I must inform you, few planets such as this one you call Earth. It is, you see, a regular dirt-type planet, and planets such as it are few and far between. It is a place where the weary may rest their aching bones and solace their aching eyes with a gentle beauty such as one seldom comes across. There have been built, in certain solar systems, orbiting constructions which seek to simulate such conditions as occur here naturally. But the artificial can never quite approach the actual, and that is why this planet is so valuable as a playground and resort."

And that, right there, is an indictment of corporate America.

The aliens don't want violence. However, they have discovered humanity's (really, America's and its allies) true weakness: the desire to accumulate brightly coloured pieces of paper, a.k.a. money. And being extremely capable shape-shifting aliens, they can provide that paper, in perfect replicas. It seems a strange thing to them as something humans could want but, hey, they like the smell of skunk oil, so who are they to quibble? Besides, they provided it, humans took it, and so the Earth is theirs, now.

Simak's book came out as America was taking its leap into suburban development and urban sprawl. It captures the feel of the start of white flight and the decline of urban downtowns across the country. Millennials may not appreciate the book from the Gen-X viewpoint that remembers Woolworth's now gone and lunch counters given way to fast food chains and trendy coffee shops, but Simak ably invokes the shift of wealth away from what little financial equality was achieved in the 1950s to the huge amounts of wealth now held by the richest one-tenth of one percent today. And Simak goes further, questioning the nature of money itself.

When I hear that it would cost just $30 Billion to end world hunger, and Jeff Besos could pay for that from what he finds in the folds of his couch, I ask myself: is that money in the one-percents' hands even real? When did we hand it over?

We did hand a lot of it over, as tax rates for the richest among us fell, while everybody else's wages remained stagnant compared to inflation. In the early 1980s, my family was able to support themselves in a downtown Toronto home on a single civil servant's income. That's unthinkable today (like father, not like son. No government planning job for me). But does all that we've handed over really amount to the tens of trillions of dollars now in unnamed bank accounts, or have those numbers been inflated in other ways?

I think Simak said it best, when Graves confronts the aliens and reveals what he sees as a key flaw in their plan: "You broke one rule. The most important rule of all. Money is a measure of what one has done - of the road he had built or the picture he had painted or the hours he has worked."

But the aliens don't get it. "It's money. That is all that's needed."

Really, money isn't work. Work is work. Money is faith - faith that by receiving this token, or this sheet of paper, or this electronic payment, your bills will be paid tomorrow. It's a promise. And humans over the centuries have tried hard to twist, finagle, and renege on that promise.

Even the fringe who pine to go back to the gold standard where all economic activity is weighed against the metals in our vaults ignore the fact that all the gold that we've ever mined in our history could be melted down into a cube that can fit inside an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If a golden meteor that same size crashed into the Earth, it would not cause worldwide disruption, until we mined it.

Some have suggested placing a hold on the bank accounts of every billionaire, removing every cent above each billionaire's first billion. Mikel Jollett on Twitter suggested we replace that money with a trophy that says, "you won capitalism". But if we confiscated the tens of trillions that we believe to be there, do we really solve every problem? Or do we enter a period of tremendous inflation that helps debtors, but hurts everyone else?

The aliens' plan still delivers a devastating, and unique, blow to humanity. It's like the plan the Nazis had to undermine the British economy with high-quality counterfeit pound notes writ large. Brilliantly, the aliens don't fully appreciate what they've done.

Simak's They Walked Like Men ends on an ambiguous note. The protagonist's victory, as a journalist, is that the information about the aliens gets out to the public. The people are left to decide what to do with that information. We aren't shown what happens next.

Maybe Clifford Simak didn't know or felt that it was a question that deserved its own novel that he wasn't willing to write, yet. Either way, it's a question that resonates today given the gobs of money that exist solely as electrons within the one percenters' digital accounts: what do we do when we realize money is an illusion? How do we measure our worth if money - and increasingly work - doesn't matter anymore?

Clifford D. Simak's They Walked Like Men is still out of print, but eBook copies are available through Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks.

The Curator of Forgotten Things Wins a Region of Waterloo Arts Fund Grant

I'm very pleased to announce that I was among 30 other recipients of the Spring 2021 Region of Waterloo Arts Fund grants. The official announcement has just been released (also here). The funds will cover my expenses as I start work on writing a full first draft of my post-work novel The Curator of Forgotten Things (see samples here, here, and here). I am delighted and honoured to be included among the likes of Carrie Snyder, Andrew Smith, and the Grand Philharmonic Choir, not to mention all the other worthy winners.

From the press release:

The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund is awarding 31 grants, totaling $191,255, in response to dynamic proposals submitted by a wide range of artists and arts organizations. The Spring 2021 round received 86 applications seeking a total of $588,745 in grants funding.

The Arts Fund, a not-for-profit corporation served by a volunteer Board of Directors, is one of the few granting bodies in Canada that awards grants directly to artist-led projects. The mandate of the Arts Fund is to contribute to the creative vitality in our community by providing meaningful grants and other advocacy support to local individual artists and to arts and culture organizations.

Regional Council generously allocates the equivalent of 67 cents per capita to the Arts Fund for granting purposes, so that residents and visitors alike may benefit from the vibrancy of the local arts and culture sectors. Often, these supported projects are also able to attract additional funds through earned revenue, grants from provincial, federal or private sources, sponsorships, and in-kind donations. Since its establishment in 2002, the Region of Waterloo Arts Fund has supported 854 projects, for a total community investment of $4,682,792.

Of course, now I have to write the thing, but I'm optimistic. I've finished a decent draft of The Sun Runners, and I'm ready for another project. This will be a very different story from the space operas I've been writing in the past couple of years: Earthbound and bittersweet, maybe with just a touch of The Night Girl, considering the nature of our identity as the jobs go away due to automation (or, "what if the robots take over, but they're nice?").

Thanks again to the Region of Waterloo Arts Fund for their support. I won't let you down!

Storm Building

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Some volatile weather this week in southwest and south-central Ontario. Barrie was hit by a small tornado earlier this afternoon. Well, we say small, but it was certainly large enough to do some significant damage to a number of homes. Fortunately, I haven't heard of any serious injuries.

We had one person post an impressive video of the tornado on the ground. And while it was impressive, and it might be helpful to Environment Canada in cataloging it, I have to say as a man with in-laws in Nebraska that, should you ever find yourself within two blocks of a tornado, _take cover immediately_. Get to the lowest level of your building, find yourself an interior room with no windows, and sit against the wall. Seriously, the man in the video was filming in front of a sliding glass door. Someone from the American Midwest is already imagining a branch being picked up and sent straight through that window, and where would that man be then?

I've found that the people of the American Midwest take tornadoes far more seriously than we do. Their public buildings have signs showing you where to go when a tornado comes near. They respect the power of these things. We don't. And as climate change expands Tornado Alley to the northeast, we're going to run into more encounters like this, and people are going to get hurt.

Take care, people. These things may be impressive to watch, but the full experience goes way beyond that, and we can't handle that.

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