Retrotopia: The Scent of Ink on Paper

This is the sixth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator, roaming the streets of the capitol of the Lakeland Republic, visits a newsstand and a public library, and discovers that information and knowledge are two different things...

I swung past my hotel, dropped off the shopping bag with my bioplastic clothes, and went back out onto Toledo’s streets. That makes it sound easier than it was; some kind of event—a wedding reception, I guessed from the decor—was getting started in one of the second floor ballrooms, and the lobby and the sidewalk outside were both crammed with people in formal wear heading in. It took some maneuvering to get through it all, but after not too many minutes I was strolling up an uncrowded sidewalk toward the unfinished white dome of the Capitol.

The Legislative Building back home in Philadelphia doesn’t have a dome. It’s an angular blob of glass and metal, designed by I forget which hotshot European architectural firm, and when it opened twenty-two years ago you could hardly access the metanet at all without being barraged by oohs and ahs about how exciting, innovative, and futuristic it was. You don’t hear much of that any more.  They’ve spent twenty-two years now trying to get the roof to stop leaking and coming up with workarounds for all the innovative features that didn’t turn out to work too well, and the design looks embarrassingly dated these days, the way avant-garde architecture always does a couple of decades down the road. I was curious to see what the Lakeland Republic had done instead.

It took two blocks to get to a place where I had a clear view of the building, and when I did, I wasn’t in for any particular surprise. They’d modeled it on state capitol buildings in the old Union, with a tall white dome in the center above the rotunda and the big formal entrance, with a wing for each house of the legislature on either side. The Lakeland Republic flag—blue above and green below, with a circle of seven gold stars for the seven states that joined together at Partition—fluttered from a flagpole out front. Long rows of windows on each wing showed that there was plenty of room for offices and meeting rooms along with the legislative chambers. The walls were white marble with classical decor, and the peaked roofs to either side of the dome didn’t look as though they were likely to leak much. I thought about what the banker had said about history, and kept going.

Another block brought me to an open storefront with a big gaudy handpainted sign above it yelling KAUFER’S NEWS in big red letters. Down below were more newspapers and magazines—the kind that are printed on paper—than I’d ever seen in one place. I remembered what Melanie Berger had said about newspapers, and decided to check it out.

Inside, magazines lined the three walls and newspapers filled a big island unit in the middle. Signs with bright red lettering on the island unit gave me some guidance: one yelled TOLEDO PAPERS, another LR PAPERS, and a third FOREIGN PAPERS. That narrowed it down a bit, but there were still fifteen different newspapers in the Toledo section.

The proprietor was sitting on a tall stool next to the entrance. She was a scruffy-looking woman in her thirties with blonde hair spilling out from under a floppy cap, wearing an apron with KAUFER’S NEWS printed on it that had seen many better days. By the time I turned toward her, she’d already unfolded herself from the stool and came over. “Can I help you?”

“Please,” I said. “I’m new in town and I don’t know the local papers.”

“No problem.” She pointed to the stacked newspapers. “The Blade and the Journal are the two dailies—the Blade’s the paper of record, the Journal’s the community paper and a lot more lively. The rest of ‘em are weeklies—neighborhood, ethnic, religious, what have you. The Blade’s a buck twenty-five, the Journal’s seventy-five cents, the others are twenty-five, except for the Wholly Toledo—that’s the arts and nightlife rag and doesn’t cost a thing.”

It’s always amused me that everywhere in the former United States, the basic unit of the local currency is still called a buck—that’s true even in California, where what trade goes on around the edges of the civil war is mostly in Chinese currency when it isn’t just barter. I pulled out a couple of Lakeland bills, and got that day’s Toledo Blade and the latest Wholly Toledo. “Thanks,” I said.

“Sure thing.” She turned to another customer who had a magazine open. “You want to read that, Mac, you gotta buy it. This ain’t the library, you know.”

The other guy looked sheepish, closed the magazine, paid for it and left the newsstand. “Speaking of which,” I said, “how do I get to the library from here?”

“Two blocks that way, hang a left, three blocks straight ahead and you’re there.”

I thanked her again, tipped her one of the quarters she’d given me in change, and left.

The library wasn’t first on my list, though. The Blade had a couple of articles on the front page I wanted to read. The wind was picking up, so the idea of plopping down on one of the park benches out in front of the Capitol didn’t particularly appeal; the question in my mind was where indoors I could sit down and read the thing. As it happened, I’d gone less than a block when I passed a little hole-in-the-wall café, and in the window seat was an old brown-skinned woman in a heavy wool coat with a cup of coffee in her hand and a copy of the Journal open in front of her. I took the hint, ducked inside, and a couple of minutes later was perched on a slightly rickety chair with a cup of coffee and the front page of the Blade to keep me company.

The lead article was on the political crisis that had blown up that morning. I’d guessed that the paper would have more details than you’d find in the 140-character stories you get from most metanet news sites, and I was right; for that matter, it had more detail than what you saw on the old internet, back in the day.  I’d seen classified briefing papers on political issues that didn’t cover as much ground. By the time I’d finished the first paragraph I knew the basics—the group that was threatening to bolt out of Meeker’s coalition was the Social Alternative party, and the issue was whether lowering the tariff on three industrial metals counted as a government subsidy for technology—but the rest of the story, part of it on the front page and part of it back in the middle of the first section, filled in the details: who was backing the tariff reduction, who was opposing it, what the various arguments were, what the upper house of the legislature and the justices of the Constitutional Court had to say, and so on. By the time I’d finished reading it I had a pretty fair snapshot of the way politics worked in the Republic.

The other article that caught my eye was a follow-up piece on the destruction of the Progresso IV satellite a week before. That was news, and not just for spaceheads, since it was the first satellite to get taken out by orbital junk in a midrange orbit, and it was big enough that its fragments could turn into a real problem for other satellites in that range. The article quoted the head of the Brazilian space agency and an assortment of experts, with opinions ranging from sanguine to sobering. None of the facts were new to me—I’d been following the satellite situation since my first stint in government a dozen years back—but the story put it all into context effortlessly in a page and a half of newsprint, all the way from the first warnings back in the 1970s, through the slow motion Kessler-syndrome disaster that got going in low earth orbit in 2029, to the increasing pace of satellite failures in geosynchronous orbits in the last half dozen years. Since the 2030s, I knew, the midrange orbits had gotten pretty crowded; the last thing anybody needed was a Kessler syndrome there, too.

I got a refill of my coffee, flipped through the rest of the paper. The business section was going to take careful study, I saw that at a glance.  Some of it was pretty straightforward—several counties issuing bonds, commodity prices in the Chicago exchange veering this way and that, and two full pages that looked like ordinary stock market data, except that I didn’t know any of the companies that were listed—but some of it was right out there in left field. The one that stuck in my mind was a corporation that was being wound up: not going bankrupt, being bought, or any of the other ways that corporations die back home, but winding up its affairs, distributing its remaining assets, and closing its doors. I shook my head, kept reading. The sports section seemed pretty much normal, except that I didn’t know any of the teams and there were a lot of them, enough that I wondered whether every middle-sized town in the Lakeland Republic had its very own. The arts and entertainment section in back had everything from concerts to theater listings to a page of radio programs. I nodded, slid the paper into one of the big outside patch pockets of my raincoat, paid my tab and headed out into the fading afternoon light.

The library was easy enough to find. It was a big two-story brick building with arched windows and a wide porch over the entrance, and a couple of cloth banners out front with CAPITOL BRANCH—TOLEDO PUBLIC LIBRARY on them. The lobby was spacious, with a bulletin board full of flyers. To the left, the door was propped open, and I heard a woman’s voice telling some kind of story about a mole and a water rat; a glance upward met the sign saying CHILDREN’S ROOM. I turned right, and went through the door into what I hoped was the adult section.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d guessed right, even though it didn’t look like any library I’d ever seen. Instead of rows of long bare tables studded with keyboards and screens, it had shelves upon shelves upon shelves of printed books, more of them than I think I’d ever seen in one place before. Tables and chairs clustered in the middle of the room, with people sitting bent over books, and over toward the windows were a few sofas and overstuffed chairs with their own contingent of readers. Heavy carpet covered the floor and a historical mural covered the vaulted ceiling, spanning the distance from the native tribes on one end to a half-built Capitol on the other.

I really had no idea what to make of it all. In place of the clatter of keys and the babble of voices that gave the libraries I knew their soundtrack, the room was as hushed as a funeral parlor. I watched one of the patrons go up to the big desk where the librarians stood to ask a question, and the conversation that followed took place in murmurs. Lacking anything better to do, I crossed the room to the shelves of books. There was some kind of numerical code on the spines of the books, which didn’t tell me much of anything, but from the titles I figured out quickly enough that numbers in the low three hundreds, or at least these numbers, had to do with politics. I pulled out a couple of books, glanced at them, and was about to go to another shelf when I spotted a slim volume titled Changing Tiers.

I pulled the book out, opened it, and found that it was exactly what I’d guessed, a guide for Lakelanders who were moving from one county to another at a different tier. I paged through it for a few minutes, decided that I needed to read it, and went looking for a free chair.

I realized pretty quickly that I’d found the book I needed, because it started out with a chapter on the history of the tier system, and that gave me the key to the whole arrangement. During the Second Civil War, the book explained, the states that became the Lakeland Republic got pounded most of the way back to the Stone Age by Federal airstrikes and two years of town-by-town fighting. When Washington finally fell and the fighting ended, nearly every bit of infrastructure in those states—roads, railways, power grids, water and sewer systems, you name it—was in ruins, and once Partition and the beginning of the debt crisis put paid to the last hope of a fast recovery, Lakelanders had to figure out how to rebuild and how to pay for it. The differences of opinion were drastic enough, and funds and other resources short enough, that the provisional government decided to make each county responsible for deciding what kind of infrastructure it wanted, and taxing itself to pay the costs.

From that beginning, over a decade or so of contentious local decisions and gradual rebuilding, the tier system evolved. A second chapter sketched out the legal framework—certain clauses in the constitution and its amendments, two important decisions by the Constitutional Court, and the laws that regulated what counties could and couldn’t do, and what they could and couldn’t enforce. It was all very clear, and I got out my notebook and filled most of four pages with notes. More to the point, I ended up with some sense of the logic of the tier system and the reasons why it made sense to Lakelanders.

By the time I’d finished those two chapters the last daylight was gone and the window in front of me looked out on a night scene lit by streetlamps and occasional windows. I decided not to read the rest of the book, put it back in its place on the shelves, and headed out into the cold wind.

I don’t get lost easily, or I’d probably have ended up wandering off in some random direction until I could find a cab or something. As it was, I wasn’t sure of my bearings until I got within sight of the Capitol. The sidewalks were anything but deserted—I gathered that Toledo had a lively nightlife scene—but I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the people I passed just then. I was thinking about the book I’d read and the newspaper in my pocket, and the difference between the fragmentary bits of information I was used to getting off short squibs on the metanet and the knowledge-in-context I’d gathered from the longer, more context-rich pieces I’d just taken in. It was a sobering comparison. I decided I’d have to check out Lakeland schools and colleges, and see if the difference applied there as well.

When I got to the hotel where I was staying, though, I had to pay attention, because there was no way in; the crowd from the wedding reception was out in front, lining a narrow path from the door to the edge of the sidewalk, where an ornate horsedrawn carriage waited. I didn’t have too much trouble figuring out what was about to happen, so I stood there on the outer edge of the crowd, waiting for the happy couple. Some of the guests had taken the time to put on coats and hats before heading out into the night air, and I blended in well enough that a young woman pushing her way through the crowd handed me a little bag of rice to throw. I took it, amused, and waited with the rest.

A few minutes later, the guests of honor came out—two  young men in their early twenties, laughing and holding hands and obviously very much in love. I pelted them with rice along with everyone else, and stood there while they climbed into the carriage and waved. The driver snapped his reins and the horses broke into a smart trot; the usual cheering and waving followed, and away they went.

The crowd began to scatter. I turned toward the door and found myself facing the pianist who’d been playing in the hotel restaurant during lunch that same day. Of course he didn’t know me from George Washington’s off ox; he turned to go back inside, and since that was the way I was headed, too, I followed him. The lobby wasn’t too bad, but the stair was a river of people headed for the doors, and so the pianist and I ended up standing next to each other at the foot of the stair, waiting for the crowd to pass by and let us through.

“That was pretty good jazz you were playing,” I said to him, “here at lunchtime.”

He gave me a startled look. “Thank you!” Then: “You’re one of Sandy’s political friends?”

“No, just staying here at the hotel.” He nodded, and I went on. “You play anywhere else?”

“Yeah, this is just my day gig. Friday and Saturday nights I’m at the Harbor Club downtown.” He reached into his jacket, pulled out a little rectangle of stiff paper and handed it to me. I realized after a blank moment that it was an old-fashioned business card. Fancy script spelled out:

Sam Capoferro
and his Frogtown Five

Down below in little print was contact info.

“Show that at the door and there’s no cover charge,” he told me. “See you there sometime.”

A gap opened up in the crowd, and he headed up the stair. I pocketed the business card and waited for another opening.