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A Scientific Romance: the author of A Short History of Progress envisions a world recovering from environmental wounds.

When I began writing A Scientific Romance 15 years ago, I pictured the ruins our civilization might leave behind if it died from its own folly like so many others. My tale is set in Britain and told by an archaeologist who travels to the year 2500. I made satirical extrapolations from things in the news. A character dies of mad cow disease, climate change turns wintry London into a tropical swamp, genetically modified organisms run amok. Such risks were still moot in the early 1990s. But by the time the novel came out in 1997, dozens of people really had died of mad cow disease, and even George Bush now admits that climate change is real. I'm not claiming any gift of prophecy; the signs weren't hard to read. Fictional nightmares, like most bad dreams, arise from inconvenient truths.

--Ronald Wright, February 2008


" February 3, near Hatfield. Evening

GOOD TO BE AWAY and heading north. Middleton was too much like rooting in my own grave.

After Hertford the Lea shrank to a chunky necklace of pools and shoals. I stashed the kayak in a railway tunnel this morning, and started hoofing up the Al; or, as romantic Bird would have it, the Great North Road.

With luck it'll be Supergrassed all the way to -where? York? Newcastle? Edinburgh? How far must I go, and how will I know when I've gone far enough? I'm trying not to think too hard along those lines. I've this notion: one day I'll come over the top of a hill and there'll be green fields and a little cottage with a curl of smoke, a red wain in a pond, some quacking ducks and children's voices. What happens after that I'm not too sure. I'm keeping the imagination to a diet of kitsch, or I'd never sleep a wink.

But I do feel fitter than I've felt in years. I bloody well hope it lasts because my pack weighs fifty pounds [23 kg]-and that's after paring down to three shirts, one spare pair of jeans, the thinnest underpad, and a single measly bottle of McGee's. It'll be dry food -oats, rice, packet stews, and whatever Graham and I can purloin along the way. Dumping the laptop and solar charger would save eight or nine pounds, but then I'd need to carry more paper and pens; and I'd have no music, no references, no way to charge the torch or run any disks I may find. So for now I'm staying computerized.

On the outskirts of Hertford yesterday, I passed a spot where the river's cutting through a rubbish tip--a scree of glass, rust, and polythene like bits of loo paper.

All those things, Anita--Zamfir recordings, yo-yos, xylophones, weedkillers, video games, train sets, televisions, stereos, snuff films, rocket silos, railways, pinball tables, one-armed bandits, oil refineries, nuclear piles, motorhomes, milk cartons, lipsticks, lawnmowers, lava lamps, Kleenex holders, Jacuzzis, hula-hoops, house boats, gravy boats, golf carts, footballs, fondue sets, drinks trolleys, cameras, bottles, beds, airliners--all those splendid Things that made up the sum of the world, which we had to keep on making and buying to keep ourselves diverted and employed--were just garbage-to-be. Ripped, smelted, sucked, blown from the raddled earth; turned into must-haves, always-wanteds, major advances, can't-do-withouts. And pouf! a decade later, a season later, it's ashamed-to-be-seen-in, clapped out, white elephant, obsolete, infra dig, inefficient, passe, and away it goes to the basement or the bushes or the ditch or the bottom of the sea.

"If the Earth should again be peopled,"--Verney could boast--"we, the lost race, would, in the relics left behind, present no contemptible exhibition to the newcomers." All very well in 1826, but who could say that now? Our final century has left more of a mess than our previous million years.

One good thing: some plastics are breaking down in aerated soil, leaving a brittle residue which flakes in the hand like fossil shell. You can almost hear the littered globe sighing with relief; maybe this heat is just its way of sweating out the dope.

You're thinking: Why should you care, David? Why give a stuff about the figure we cut to posterity; especially if there isn't one?

I can't easily say. Maybe it's because you and I agreed with Wilde that there's always something vulgar about success. That's why we loved Bird, why you loved me. Why you revered your melancholy ancestor writing at the dead end of a thousand-year poesy-the lovely old loping alliterative line-while Chaucer claimed the future with his rhyme. Why you loved Akhenaten the misfit pharaoh, and the Earth Commandos. And the Earth itself. Beautiful losers, every one. But you-you were no loser. Not in the living of your life; only in its loss. And even there you were in the vanguard, among the first to fall as the Earth found ways to halt the human infestation.

Now that man has gone--has become perhaps the biggest loser since the dinosaurs--now can we begin to love our kind?

Author of A Short History of Progress, Ronald Wright is well known for his travel writing and fictional works. Published in 1997, A Scientific Romance attracted numerous awards including The David Higham Fiction Prize; The Sunday Times (UK) Book of the Year, 1998; the New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year, 1998; and The Globe and Mail Editor's Choice, 1998. Wright lives in British Columbia.

Excerpted from A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright. Copyright [c] 1997 by Ronald Wright. Published by Knopf Canada. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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Author:Wright, Ronald
Publication:Alternatives Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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