Some things really do change. The ecology movement of the seventies expressed itself in commercials, school filmstrips and short science films that portrayed the killing effect of uncontrolled technology. Mountains scooped out by loud, diesel smoke-spewing machines; rivers covered in detergent foam and rotted fish; urban deserts of trash, rusting car chassis and bed springs; streets slimed with oil spots; beaches covered with tar and dead, blackened birds.
Much of this hell has been redeemed. Cities have cleaner air. Rivers and lakes have been saved from death. The Clark Fork River here in Missoula shows few signs of the car metal and trash that lined its banks only two decades ago. Nevertheless, the large-scale trend continues. American lakes and rivers may be recovering, and its cities' air more breathable, but worldwide the effects of uncontrolled technology are worse than ever. The deterioration of the ozone layer, and the accumulation of greenhouse gases goes on - global phenomena that national borders do not constrain.
Science fiction has functioned like the ecology movement, but instead of showing us what is, it shows us what might be if we continue on the way we are going. Reading "Queen City Jazz" by Kathleen Ann Goonan, ten years after its publication, I say to myself, "Well, things have changed, and this nightmare of nano-technology seems just that - a nightmare, an unreality that we have woken from, in part due to the book itself, and all efforts and communications like it that have steered us from the disasters depicted in their messages." The overarching tendency unfortunately remains. We don't hear much alarm regarding nano-technology currently, but genetic engineering and its "dreams" of cloning and tissue- and organ-production wiggle and waver on the edges of our sleeping, and stand front and center in our waking.
Kathleen Ann Goonan blends together experiences bequeathed to us by the ecology movement - a land much cleansed of the plagues of industrial technology - with the fevered dreams and unbalanced waking of a biologically and genetically based technological sickness.
The Ohio River and its tributaries with their earthen banks figure beautifully in the story. In the first chapter Goonan presents the land strong and good, and the central human character, Verity, the same.
-She trod water for a minute...feeling the cool, pure pull of the depths of the river, wondering what it would be like to dive deep and never come up, but flow along the bottom in long, powerful surges and never take air again, but breathe only lovely, cool green water.-
In the last chapter, the land and river live and abide:
-Looking west, Verity could see where the rivers wove back into one...Everything looked so hazy, so wonderful. The Territory, pristine and bright, lay ahead of them, beckoning.-
In this story, Verity brings the substance, the reality and life, spontaneity and plain obstinate earthiness, to a city diseased but not dying - a city caught in a torturous cycle that uses the natural seasons only as a trigger for its own numbingly predictable cycle of nano-technologically engineered processes. The city is Cincinnati, "enlivened" a few decades previous. "Enlivening" is a controlled process authorized and directed by city governments using the new technology of nano-engineering. This technology involves the "building" of materials and end products from "within", rather than from "without". Instead of taking natural resources and shaping and forming something by external processes and tools - shaping sand and rock into bricks and steel into buildings using blueprints, moulds, hammers, rulers - nano-technology involves manipulating cellular- and molecular-level processes that carry out new instructions for growth. We humans can plant a seed that grows into a building; regenerate limbs or grow new and different ones; and biologically transfer information.
At the start of the separate sections of the story, Goonan quotes Eric Drexler from his book "Engines of Creation," the primer and manifesto of nano-technology.
-The technology underlying cell repair systems will allow people to change their bodies in ways that range from the trivial to the amazing to the bizarre. Such changes have few obvious limits. Some people may shed human form as a caterpillar transforms itself to take to the air; others may bring plain humanity to a new perfection. Some people will simply cure their warts, ignore the new butterflies, and go fishing. -
If Drexler sees that nano-technology has "few obvious limits," though, Goonan gives us glasses to treat our pathological myopia. What she sees in our blind spot is fantastic, bizarre, hellish. One wonders how Drexler could be so blind as to equate possibility with limitlessness. The foresight that sees limits in every choice we make is a function of imagination, not intellect. Nature, according to any philosophy, is at some level an image, and imagination and nature are deeply akin. So in "Queen City Jazz," Goonan shows how the river and the light of the sun on the clouds, the cold of a winter snowstorm, the "lovely, cool green water" washes away the mud from our eyes, and we can see again.
Goonan's writing is superb, her story credible, if at times complicated and confusing. She gets into the minds of those who think that possibility is the same as freedom, who think that if we can do something, we should try doing it, instead of realizing that if thinking can take us as far as formulating the possibility, it should be required to take us beyond to formulating the consequences. If the land - the deep flowing rivers and the wind and trees - can hold out against human-induced plague, though, the land will have a much greater chance if humans make choices to constrain themselves. Goonan takes us through the winding recesses of both the land and the human intellect and imagination, showing us the beauty in it all, but also the malleability of both, for better or worse.