29 July 2019

From The Seeds of a Writer

by Travis Richardson

Listening to the Mueller hearings a few days ago, I have to wonder how our current world of reality is absolutely crazy and how can fiction match the nuttiness that keeps happening by the hour? I imagine it must be a difficult time to write a current-day political thriller that can keep up with the chaos. In David Edgerly Gates’s piece about Phillip Kerr’s Metropolis, he wrote the line:

“The future of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, as frightening as it is, can't begin to conjure up the waiting chaos, and the terror.”

Which is to say how could Fritz Lang (or anybody) have envisioned the atrocities that lay around the corner by Nazi Germany. We now know with history in hindsight what happened, but how much do we know about what is happening today and the future consequences?

I’m currently writing a story with the premise that Al Gore became the US president in 2000. How much of our world would be the different and how much would be the same today if had occupied the office? We'll never know. My focus is about the 9/11 terrorist attack. While I don’t know if it still would have happened, I’m fairly certain Gore would not have ignored the memo titled "Bin Laden determined to attack inside the U.S.” Doing research (which is an infinite rabbit hole) I see a na├»ve United States at the turn of the century, fresh from a victory in the Cold War and an Iraqi butt-kicking. Americans (including me) felt invulnerable to anybody and believed that everybody loved their concept of democracy, capitalism, and non-secular government.

Simultaneously radical religious fanatics from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere looked at the state of affairs of their own countries (and perhaps their own personal weaknesses) and blamed the largest, richest country on earth for spreading misery via the above-mentioned qualities that American’s cherish. While one of Osama bin Laden’s biggest beefs against the US was that the non-Muslim infidels kept bases in Saudi Arabia after the first Iraq war, the reality is that America had been a target of hatred by radical sects since the 1950s. 

A large part of this hatred directed at the US started way back in the 1940s when Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual and future Muslim Brotherhood lead theorist, came to America on a teaching scholarship from his home country. He was appalled at what he saw in America including individualism, women with the power to divorce, mix-sex dancing, and prosperous Jewish Americans. Some of his critiques like institutional racism and a national obsession with materialism have merit, but overall Qutb came to this country with strong prejudices and then he doubled down on his beliefs upon returning to Egypt. He wrote volumes of work, many while in prison awaiting execution for trying to overthrow the Egyptian government. Although he hung in 1966 his writings became the cornerstone of jihadi terrorism for groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS about thirty years later and all the bloodshed that followed.  

All of this is a setup to ask, is there anything currently being planted in our current national discord that will have deadly consequences later? I can’t help but think that the “Deep State” allegations being hustled around by certain media personalities of a certain political persuasion are seeds for future violence. Will these seeds of political gamesmanship lead to a militia-like assault on a government agency and their defenseless employees? Perhaps another Murray building bombing? Maybe this will happen in a year or maybe twenty-plus years from now (or hopefully never).  I can see people believing the lie after being repeated enough to become “truth” compounded with a feeling of victimization that leads to an awful reaction.

Since facts and well-reasoned arguments no longer mtter as each side no longer listens to the other (or so it seems), is there a way to reach out with fiction to change our sideways direction and possibly prevent tragedy? I would hope so, but as Paul Marks mentioned a few days ago, there seem to be fewer readers in the world as a handheld digital obsession of temporal moments has taken hold.  Yet, I hold hope that there may be something that can reverse this trajectory. Something that nobody has figured it out yet. (Perhaps reading will be required by doctors for future mental health purposes.) I also hope for a unifying, zeitgeisty story(ies) that can penetrate through the noise and make a resonating, cross-generational impact on the world. Works like Les Miserables, 1984, To Kill A Mockingbird, On The Road, or “The Lottery” made an impact at their time and are still inspiring readers today. 

Unfortunately, I can't think of any books in the past few decades that are used as cultural reference points. History seems to work in cycles, but not sure how it works with reading. I'm hoping there will be another wave of reading fiction and those stories can net positive outcomes, unlike Qutb's bloody vision theocratic rule. 

What do you think?

(I want to give source credit to The Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright as well as Wikipedia, The Guardian and other digital platforms of endless amounts of information.)  

Travis Richardson is originally from Oklahoma and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. He has been a finalist and nominee for the Macavity, Anthony, and Derringer short story awards. He has two novellas and his short story collection, BLOODSHOT AND BRUISED, came out in late 2018. He reviewed Anton Chekhov short stories in the public domain at www.chekhovshorts.com. Find more at www.tsrichardson.com


  1. Travis, I have to agree with you that, unfortunately, there haven't been any books in the last few decades that are cultural touchstones or reference points. And, like you, I hope that will change. But I fear that there aren't enough readers to where any one book will reach that kind of critical mass. I mean, what sells these days: 50 Shades of Crap, I mean Gray? But one can always hope for the better, can't we. (And thanks for the mention.)

  2. Travis, apparently the cultural touchstones these days are tweets and YouTube videos.
    Being a historian by trade myself (we never retire), what I see is the cyclical nature of various political philosophies. Nihilism (Steve Bannon) is back - God help us all. Same with anarchism. It's almost like a long period of relative peace and prosperity brings out the adolescent in people, so that they're ready to kick over the traces (including stable governments) so that they can start from scratch. Only they have nothing (i.e., ideas, plans) to start with. And they think it's fine. I've been re-reading some old works, and the last few chapters of Mary Renault's "The Last of the Wine", where Athenian democracy falls to oligarchs, malcontents, and the ancient equivalent of nihilists is very chilling.
    BTW - a common factor throughout history is that the nihilists are usually the first to go when the revolution starts eating its own. And it always does.

  3. I can't help thinking that the book that stands out a mile is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. When it first came out, it seemed to us young women a horrific dystopian fantasy. Civilization would surely never go back. Hard-won rights would never be taken away. I shiver to think how naive we were back then. That book has been a clarion walk-up call.

  4. As a boy, I read a lot of SF 'speculative fiction', including dystopian plots. I also read Warren's All the King's Men. Nothing could have prepared me for the current lemming migration.

    But in sci-fi and in quantum physics runs the theory of the multiverse, that our universe constantly divides along multiple timelines. In a timeline somewhere Al Gore won, and in another thread 9/11 never happened, and yet again Hillary won the election, and so on.


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