In this, the first iteration of the latest Ficticities reboot, I tried out a new search algorithm for selecting a recently published, open-access, online short fiction to read. There are 52 pages of literary magazines listed on the Poets & Writers website, with 25 magazines per page. I used an online random number generator to select a specific page of P&E‘s magazine listings (the number 32 came up), and then the specific mag from that page (number 20). Clicking through on the link to the website for that magazine, I found the current issue. Three fictions are published in that issue; the random number generator selected fiction number 2.
And so, be it driven by chance or by fate, the algorithmic sortilege led me to short fiction number 32.20.2: “Cockatoo Tears,” a story by Daniella Levy published in Qu Literary Magazine. Here’s the link. Tolle lege, baby: take up and read. And then maybe discuss.
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I read “Cockatoo Tears” on Friday afternoon, thought about it, went to sleep and dreamed about it. I was attending an academic conference, chatting between sessions with a woman I didn’t know. “You know,” she told me, “that story is a global warming denier.” I nodded in agreement. The verdict was clear to my dreaming self; is it clear to me now?
“Cockatoo Tears” — sounds a lot like crocodile tears: insincere mourning provoked by fake news. And yes, Allison, the makers of that video might have been exaggerating for effect, amping up the sense of urgency for viewers, prodding them into taking action right now rather than falling back into passive complacency. It’s like your counselor telling you that the cockatoo, moaning in response to the video’s soundtrack, was pining for its Amazonian home, when in fact the bird’s native habitat was halfway around the world on some Indonesian island. Or the video makers might have miscalculated, telling you that, at the present rate of depletion, the rainforest would be entirely gone by the year 2000, but if they’d done the math right they might have come up with the year 2050, say. Or maybe their calcs were correct but their forecasting model wasn’t accurate. The rate of deforestation might not have been as fast as they were estimating, or maybe the remaining rainforest covered more acreage than they realized.
But I’ve read — is it accurate? — that the rate of deforestation has decreased by more than 50 percent since your lemonade stand, so maybe the money you raised did help make a difference. And you know another way we can help stop deforestation? By not buying — or selling — printed books. I’ve also read— is it accurate? — that more than 2 billion books are printed in the US every year, and that it takes more than 30 million trees to make the paper for all those books. If we shifted to ebooks, then those trees would still be standing in the forest. Like this magazine. People can read our story online for free, or they can buy a paper-and-ink version of this issue for eight dollars. Is that price supposed to be a disincentive, a kind of tax, so readers will move toward the online version? Or is it commodity fetishism, the sense that free stuff is worthless, that you get what you pay for, that it’s not a real book or magazine unless you can place it on your coffee table as a symbol of your artsiness and erudition? This magazine probably relies in part on the proceeds from its print version to pay the editors and the writers. Couldn’t they switch to some other source of revenue — maybe a lemonade stand?
This is the year 2000, and what six years ago was the future has become the present. But the future is never really here and now; it’s always there and then. There’s still a future six years out there ahead of us, but now that future is called 2006. Whenever “now” is, there’s always a future six years ahead, six minutes ahead, six hundred years ahead. We can imagine the future, fantasize about it, try to predict it, try to change it, but we’re always living in the here-and-now. It moves ahead second by second, year by year, decade by decade, and we move along in lockstep with it. To think about the future is to outfit yourself as a time traveler to a fictional realm. The future, when it rolls around into the present, might turn out to be pretty close to how we imagined it was going to be. But the accuracy of our prediction depends on a lot of things that can get in between the now and the then. How far into the future we’re trying to see. How many things we’re trying to predict that are beyond our control. So we can be pretty confident that our fictional breakfast bar of six minutes from now will be a lot like the one we’re sitting in right now, except by then your Cheerios bowl will probably be empty. But deforestation in Costa Rica or Siberia thirty years from now? The fictional future we visit in our imaginary time travels might turn out to be very different from the one that actually shows up in the year 2030.
And when the future doesn’t turn out the way we expected it would? Well, Allison, this story we’re in describes one of many possible reactions.