Retrotopia: View from a Moving Window

SUBHEAD: It must have left Sandusky headed east toward Niagara Falls, or possibly Erie or Buffalo.

By John Michael Greer on 2 September 2015 for the Archdruid Report -

Image above: Sailing Lake Erie on the schooner Niagara.  From (

[Author's note: This is the second installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Readers who haven’t been following The Archdruid Report for long may find it useful to remember that not everything seen along the way has a simple explanation. See Part 1 here.]

From the window beside me, the Steubenville station looked like a scene out of an old Bogart vid. The platform closest to the train I was riding was full of people in outdated clothes. Most of them wore long raincoats that didn’t look a bit like bioplastic, and all of the men and most of the women had hats on. Up above was a roof of glass and ironwork that reminded me irresistibly of the Victorian era, and let daylight down onto everything.

The oddest thing about it all, though, is that I didn’t see security troops anywhere. On the other side of the border, anywhere you saw this many people together there’d be at least a squad in digital camo and flak jackets, pointing assault guns ostentatiously at the sidewalk.

I remembered the guards at the border, with their clipboards, holstered revolvers, and old-fashioned uniforms, and wondered how on earth the Lakeland Republic got away with that kind of carelessness.

The train finally rolled to a stop, and doors opened. The conductor had warned us that plenty of people would be coming aboard, and he wasn’t kidding: it took better than five minutes for everyone to file onto the car where I was sitting, and by the time they’d finished coming aboard, nearly every seat was taken.

The aisle seat next to me wasn’t one of the empty ones; a family with three children settled in right behind me, one child next to the mother, the second next to the father, and then Mom came up to me and asked if I minded having the oldest child sit next to me.

I gestured and said, “Sure,” and a boy of maybe ten plopped into the seat. “Now you mind your manners,” the woman told him, and he rolled his eyes, sighed loudly, and said, “Yeah, Mom.”

That wasn’t too promising, but he had a book with him, and as soon as he was settled in his seat, he opened it and didn’t make another sound. I was curious enough to give the book a sidelong glance; it was called "Treasure Island", and it was by somebody I’d never heard of named Robert Louis Stevenson; I made a mental note to look up the name and see if he was somebody new I should check out. He wasn’t the only kid in the car who was doing something quiet, either.

Up three rows there was a girl in a blue checked dress and a bonnet who was reading something, too, and behind me, the two kids in the immigrant family were watching everything and not saying a word, though they didn’t look quite as scared as when they boarded.

A couple of solid jolts shook the car. A moment later, I heard the voice of the conductor outside calling out, “Last call for Train Twenty to Toledo via Canton and Sandusky. All aboard!” Doors clattered, the locomotive up ahead sounded its whistle, and with another jolt the train started on its way again.

The station slid away, and I got a street-level view of half a dozen blocks of downtown Steubenville. The sense of having landed on the set of an old Bogart vid was just as strong.

To judge by the couple of clocks the train passed—my veepad was still giving me a dark field and the words no signal—it was right around time for the morning commute, but there wasn’t a car to be seen anywhere; the sidewalks bustled with people, and a couple of streetcars rolled past with bells clanging and standing room only on board.

The train picked up speed and left the downtown behind, but further out was more of the same: streets full of comfortable-looking houses and apartment buildings, with people walking to work or waiting at streetcar stops.

Further on the houses spread out, and big gardens sprouted all over the place, with the last fall crops visible in patches separated by stubble and brown earth. A little further, and Steubenville blended smoothly into the same sort of farm country I’d seen since shortly after the train crossed into the Lakeland Republic.

The farmhouses and barns looked well-tended, windmills spun and solar water heater panels on the roofs soaked up what sunlight came through the broken clouds, and the roads I saw were unpaved but had fresh gravel on them.

A little further, and the train passed a work gang out in one of the fields. That wasn’t surprising—back on the other side of the border, you saw prison work gangs doing labor on corporate farms all the time—but these didn’t have the slouch and the least-possible-effort sort of movement you see in convicts.

They were working their way across a field, digging up turnips as energetically as if they wanted to be there, and others came behind them just as methodically and carried the turnips away in bushel baskets. It was when I noticed where they were taking the turnips that my mouth dropped open.

Just past the field was a wagon with two draft horses hitched up to it. I wondered for a moment if this was an Amish farm—we’ve got Amish in our country, quite a few of them in what used to be the state of Pennsylvania before Partition, and they’re among the few people who’ve really done well in the postwar era—but the wagon had been painted in colors that, though they’d faded, had obviously once been bright.

The people in the work gang weren’t dressed in any sort of Amish kit I’d ever seen, either. I shook my head as the work gang and the wagon slipped out of sight behind the train, wondering what kind of weird place I was visiting. This was the twenty-first century, after all, not the nineteenth!

And yet it was like that all the way to Canton—or, to be more precise, it was some variation on the same theme of outdated technology and inefficient land use. All the farms were absurdly small, one to two hundred acres divided up into the sort of mixed farming that modern agriculture discarded most of a century ago, and I didn’t see any trace of modern agricultural machinery: no harvesting drones, no nitrogen injection systems, no quadruple-wide megacombines, nothing.

What I did see left me baffled, not least because there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. In one place I’d see trucks driving down paved roads and tractors in the fields, and twenty or thirty miles later it would be draft horses and wagons doing the same jobs.

The train passed through I don’t know how many little towns, and those were the same way: in one I’d see paved streets and a few cars and trucks, in the next the streets were paved with brick and streetcars shared space with horsedrawn carriages, and then there were a few that had brick streets and no streetcars at all.

The thing that puzzled me most, though, was that all of the towns, like nearly all the farms, seemed to be thriving. Every scrap of theory I’d learned in business school argued that small towns, like small farms, were hopelessly inefficient and couldn’t possibly support themselves in a modern economy.

I’d guessed earlier in the trip that there must be subsidies involved, but this far into Lakeland Republic territory, that explanation wouldn’t wash. I reached for my veepad reflexively to make a note, remembered as I got it out of my pocket that it wouldn’t get a signal, and put it away, feeling a rush of annoyance at the metanet’s absence.

We got to Canton a little ahead of schedule, or so the conductor announced cheerfully, and stopped in the switching yard east of town to lose some freight cars, gain others, and add three more passenger cars and a dining car to the back end of the train. That went quickly, though it involved a lot of jolts and thumps, and before long we were rolling ahead into the city.

Canton was a fairly big town; according to what I’d read while researching this trip, it had plenty of factories until the offshoring fad of the late twentieth century scrapped the United States’ manufacturing capacity and left the nation at the mercy of rival powers. I’d seen the gutted hulks of old factories outside Pittsburgh and a dozen other cities on our side of the border, and assumed that I’d see the same thing here.

I didn’t. What I saw instead, as the train rolled through the outlying districts of Canton, were what looked very much like warehouses and factories open for business. There weren’t many smokestacks to be seen, but the buildings had recent coats of paint on them, boxcars were being pushed down sidings by switching engines, and a mix of trucks and big horsedrawn wagons were lumbering past on the streets.

Further in, the train passed the same mix of of office buildings, apartment blocks, and stores I’d seen in Steubenville, and then we slowed and stopped at the Canton station.

That had me remembering Bogart vids again. From my window I could see at least eight platforms to one side of the train I was riding, and through the windows on the other side of the car I was pretty sure I could make out two more. Signs on the platforms noted destinations all over the Lakeland Republic—Morgantown, Bowling Green, Cairo, Madison, Sault Ste. Marie—and the place fairly bustled with passengers heading for this or that train.

Some of the passengers from the car I was sitting in got their luggage and headed out into the crowds, and some others came on board, stowed their luggage, and sat down; and the weirdest thing of all was that everyone seemed perfectly comfortable doing without security troops to protect them or modern technology to take care of their needs.

The train finally got under way again, and I got more views of Canton as the track headed northwest through town. About the time the houses started to spread out and the gardens got bigger, the conductor came through the door behind me and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, breakfast service is now open in the dining car, and since so many of the people in this car have been with us since Pittsburgh, you’re first. If you’d like to head back four cars, the dining car staff will be happy to serve you.”

Just about everyone in the car got up and filed back through the door. I didn’t. I’m one of those people who doesn’t do breakfast; if I eat anything before lunch I end up with stomach trouble.

The kid next to me went with his family, and the mother of the immigrant family took her two kids back to the dining car right after them. The father of the immigrant family, though, didn’t join them. After a few minutes he and I were practically alone in the car.

I half turned in my seat, gave him what I hoped would come across as a friendly smile. “Not into breakfast?”

“Too keyed up,” he said, smiling in response. “If I ate now I’d get sick to my stomach.”

I nodded. “I couldn’t help hearing the border guard say that you’re immigrating. That sounds pretty drastic. If you don’t mind my asking, what made you do that?”

His smile vanished, replaced by a wary look. “The wife has family in Ann Arbor,” he said. “They’re sponsoring us, and I got a job offer when we visited this summer. It seems like a good move.”

“Even though you have to give up modern technology?”

The wary look gave way to something that looked uncomfortably like contempt. “Technology? Like what?”

“Well, veepads and the metanet, to start with.”

By this point it was definitely contempt. “Big loss. I can’t afford any of that keech anyway.”

“Why not? You’ve got as much chance as anyone. Work hard, and—”

His expression said “whatever” more clearly than words, and he turned toward the window and away from me.

“No,” I said. “Seriously. I want to understand.”

He turned back to face me.

“Yeah? Did you hear my wife start crying there at the border, once they checked our papers?” I nodded, and he went on. “You know why she started crying? Because she’s been working three different jobs, sixty hours a week plus, to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table—and before you start thinking something stupid, mister, I’ve been working more hours than her since before we got married.

This is the first time she’s had anything to look forward to but that kind of schedule or worse for the rest of her life, until one of us gets too sick to work and we get chucked onto the street or into the burbs.”

“And you think you’ll be that much better off here?”

He gave me a baffled look, and then laughed a short hard laugh. “You haven’t been here before.”

“No, I haven’t.”

“Then open your eyes and take a good plutting look around.” He turned back to the window, and I knew better than to try to continue the conversation.

The landscape rolled by. We were in farm country again, the same patchwork landscape of little farms and little towns, with the same weird incongruities between one place and another. I was paying more attention this time, so I noticed some of the other differences: paved roads, gravel roads, and dirt roads; in some places, streetcars and local rail service, and none of these things in others; towns that had streetlights and others that didn’t.

At one point west of Canton, as the train rattled across a bridge, I looked down and honest to God, there were canal boats going both ways on a canal, each one with a mule pulling the towrope as though it was two hundred years ago and the Erie Canal was still in working order.

With my veepad useless, I didn’t have anything to do but watch the landscape roll by. The people who’d gone to breakfast trickled back a few at a time, and the conversation I’d just had with the immigrant replayed over and over again in my mind.

Of course I knew perfectly well that things were pretty hard for the poor back home, and the statistics that got churned out quarter after quarter showing steady economic improvement were strictly public relations maneuvers—there been a modest upturn after the Treaty of Richmond was signed and the last closed borders between the North American republics opened up, but the consequences of the Second Civil War and the debt crisis that followed it still weighed down hard on everybody.

It’s one thing to have some more or less abstract idea that times are tough, though, and something else to hear it in the voice of someone who’d been on the losing end of the economy all his life. I started to reach for my veepad to look up honest stats on the job market back home—those weren’t easy to find if you didn’t have connections, but that wasn’t a problem for me—and caught the motion just before my hand reached my pocket. What did people do in the Lakeland Republic, I wondered irritably, when they wanted to make a note of something or look up a fact?

I stared out the window, and after a while—the train was most of the way to Sandusky by then—noticed something that made the crazy quilt pattern of old technologies on the landscape a little clearer and a lot more puzzling. The train had slowed a little, and crossed a road at an angle.

The road was paved on one side and dirt on the other; I could see tractors in the middle distance off to the left, where the paved road started, and draft horses closer by on the right. Just where the pavement began was a sign that read Welcome to Huron County.

That got me thinking back over the landscape the train had crossed since the border, and yes, the breaks between one set of technology and another worked out to something like county-line distances.

That made me shake my head. Had the Lakeland Republic somehow divvied up the available technology by county, so that some counties got the equivalent of twentieth century infrastructure and others got stuck with the nineteenth-century equivalent? That sounded like political suicide, unless the Republic was a lot more autocratic than the briefing papers I’d read made it sound.

Then, of course, there was the fact that the farmhouses and farm towns in the nineteenth-century counties looked just as prosperous, all things considered, as their equivalents in the twentieth-century counties, and that made no sense at all. The farmers with more technology should have outproduced the others, undercut them in price, and driven them out of business in no time.

Huron County slid past the window. Farmland dotted with little towns gave way to a mid-sized town, which I guessed was the county seat, and then to farmland and little towns again. After a while, the conductor stepped through the door behind me and called out, “Next stop, Sandusky.”

A few minutes later, the train swung around a wide curve to the left, and ran just back of the shores of Lake Erie. Off in the distance, at a steep angle ahead, Sandusky’s buildings could be seen rising up above the flat line of the landscape, but that wasn’t what caught my gaze and held it.

Out maybe a quarter mile from shore was a big schooner with three masts, white sails bellying out ahead of the wind. It wasn’t anybody’s luxury yacht, that was for sure; from stem to stern, it looked every inch a working boat.

From the direction it was headed, I guessed it must have left Sandusky harbor not long before, and was headed east toward the locks around Niagara Falls, or just possibly toward Erie or Buffalo—since the Treaty of Richmond, I knew, we’d been importing agricultural products from the Lakeland Republic, though I’d never bothered to find out how they got to us.

I sat there and watched the ship as it swept past, wondering why they hadn’t done the obvious thing and entrusted their shipping to modern freighters instead. What kind of strange things had been going on here during the years when the Lakeland Republic was locked away behind closed borders?

See also:
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 1 - Dawn Train from Pittsburgh 8/27/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 3 - A Cab Ride in Toledo 9/9/15 
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 4 - Public Utilities, Private Good 9/23/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 5 - A Change of Habit 10/1/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 6 - The scent og ink on paper 10/14/15
Ea O Ka Aina: Retrotopia Part 7 - A Question of Subsidies 10/21/15


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