Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Short SF Review #17: Attached to the Land

Attached to the Land, by Donald J. Bingle
Appeared in Future Americas, 2008

Who would have thought a city boy like him would wind up here, the patriarch of a clan of ranchers, with land of his own? It was improbable. Of course, the whole thing had been improbable.

If you know where to look, it's not hard to discern a fairly consistent anti-urban pattern within the science fiction genre, one that's lasted through the ages. Granted, it's far from universal - look no further than the ecumenopolitan settings of Trantor or Coruscant for that - but it's there, harkening back to the same call of the wide open spaces that have entranced and enchanted us for millennia. In stories that follow that pattern, it's in the countryside - or, just as frequently, the suburbs - that one finds all the great things in life, the best places one can be, while the cities are wicked, rotten things creaking and groaning from the sins of millions, dirty and full of despair.

Sure, I'll admit I found the rural Montana sky comfortable and inspiring... because when I took this picture, I was standing next to a gas pump that was filling up a van that had been running on fumes for ten miles.

"Attached to the Land," one of sixteen stories collected in the 2008 anthology Future Americas, helps to carry this meme onward into the twenty-first century, for good or ill. The story is set in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming at some unspecified point, but which from clues within the text seems to be at least the middle of the twenty-first century. Our protagonist is Travis Greene, an elderly rancher with a fine plot of land and a growing family - and this is the source of his final problem.

Because there's been another politics messup, and the United States has shattered... or, more appropriately, walked away from itself. The primary background event of the story, the one that underpins the whole of the plot, is a remarkably peaceful - and frankly completely implausible - mass secession of a huge swath of the West, Alaska, and every Canadian province and territory west of Manitoba (which I'll get to later). They organize themselves as the Western Range and Mountains; a name which leaves absolutely no doubt to the orientation of this new federation. Some of the former US states are specifically mentioned as joining so they won't get stuck as the "last conservatives" in "an increasingly urban and liberal United States." There's no Second Civil War because the President and the entire line of succession are Westerners - presumably California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and Oklahoma are not considered "western" by this definition - and the President "just lets the states go."

Considering that only thirteen years ago a President was impeached because he couldn't keep his pants on, I find the idea that a Congress dominated by non-seceding states would let this pass is ridiculous. In fact, let me insert a pertinent quote from the Turkey City Lexicon.

You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit

An attempt to defuse the reader’s incredulity with a pre-emptive strike — as if by anticipating the reader’s objections, the author had somehow answered them. “I would never have believed it, if I hadn’t seen it myself!” “It was one of those amazing coincidences that can only take place in real life!” “It’s a one-in-a-million chance, but it’s so crazy it just might work!” Surprisingly common, especially in SF. (Attr. John Kessel)

Still, it's what we're given in the narrative and it's what we have to live with. A description of how life goes on in the Range, as it's more commonly known, occupies most of the story. In fact, as I write this I realize that this description in fact seems to displace the story itself. There's barely any conflict in this story. By the time we meet Travis Greene, he has already made up his mind as to what he's going to do. Sure, one of his sons does try to talk him around - and that's the only point in this story that isn't the protagonist lost in his own memories.

They're pretty much all he has, because the Western Range and Mountains ensures that there's a tight connection between its people and its land. See, every citizen of the Range must be a landowner - formerly federal land that was doled out in a lottery immediately after secession - and if for whatever reason you end up not owning land, you're kicked out - "into the crowded cesspool of the United States of America to starve and riot with the rest of the impoverished masses." You also have to have enough land to make sure that your children will be able to hold on to some themselves - and therein lies Greene's problem. His solution is, honestly, no surprise.

Now that I think about it, considering that the author appears to reside in Illinois, I have to wonder if "Attached to the Land" isn't meant as a sendup and parody of the anti-urban impulse. Personally, my biggest problems come from that it's hitched itself to reality - I just can't plausibly see events progressing from "here" to "there." For one, the utter lack of a Civil War - the story specificially states "there was no grass roots secession movement," but I highly doubt that tens of millions of Americans would be willing to go along with suddenly not being Americans anymore just because their state governments want to control their own mineral rights.

The other thing that really annoys me about this story is something that's carried through a number of the other stories in Future Americas - the casual assumption that non-Americans want nothing more than to be Americans, or in this case Rangers. Western Canada is included in the Range because "the whole Quebec thing had proved Canada would never stand in the way of any secession." For one, that's a flagrant misunderstanding of the Clarity Act... and for two, I personally find it insulting. Canadians aren't just Americans-in-waiting, nor are we champing at the bit to fly someone else's flag. The prospect of Canadian provinces lining up to join the United States is about as likely as Americans lining up to secede from the United States.

ANDREW'S RATING: 2/5. It's well-written, structurally speaking; I just can't stand it.

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