Sunday, September 8, 2013

Idea Garage Sale: Borderline

So I was on the Future of the Border panel and there as so much we couldn't get to because one of us (and there were no brown faces on the panel, which is another thing I should have just mentioned that I was aware of) insisted on talking about sovereignity, which is - as I said and maintained and demonstrated - the least important issue on the U.S. Mexican border, at least - I can't speak for Canada, but the Canadian/American citizen on the panel agreed with me. It's a damn shame, because there's all kinds of stories you can tell about borders.

And I think it's important to do so, because science fiction stories of this sort are thought experiments and, carried out intelligently and logically (as opposed to being written to support a premise) they can cause people to think along lines that make real changes for the better. But you do have to be logical about it.

Examples of real border problems, as opposed to the manufactured ones that get all the news time, include the depletion of the shared Juarez/El Paso aquifer (which could be empty by 2025 - that's 12 years, y'all, this is urgent!), the Juarez/El Paso femicide, criminal cartels and corruption operating on both sides, depression of wages, educational poverty, and good old-fashioned racism and classism, and that's even before we get to the fragility of the desert environment. These are all problems that people who don't live on the border could not understand thoroughly even if they didn't completely ignore them.

For these purposes I must count as a person living on the border of the border, insofar as South Texas and Northern Mexico are the same place. Which they are, sort of - geographically and culturally they form a distinctive space. Countries are merely categories and categories overlap and may safely be rearranged for different purposes. I am sufficiently of the border to recognize this, and see for myself the irrelevance and counterproductivity of policies emanating from Washington DC and Mexico City; but I'm not nearly as qualified to speak on them as almost anyone from Nuevo Laredo/Laredo would be. If I can get people to look in the right direction and speak to the right people, I'll will at least not be useless; if anyone mistakes me for an expert I will, alas, be counterproductive.

So anyway, if we take the position (and I do) that only border people will be able to find viable solutions to border problems, one logical approach would be to give border towns a greater degree of autonomy and self-determination than they have now. I have seen the proposition seriously broached, of the numerous sister-cities (San Diego/Tijuana, El Paso/Juarez, Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras, and on down the line) forming into independent or quasi-independent entities in order to focus on matters of moment like water management. The model has weaknesses (violence incident to the drug trade, corruption in law enforcement, and the depressed economy are all intimately intertwined and affected by national-level policies) but all models have weaknesses; and a porous string of city-states in a self-regulating buffer zone between two nations is a pretty close analogy to how the Texas/Mexico border has operated, in practice, during its most functional periods. Formalized and placed into a near-future setting, this would make an excellent background for any amount of genre fiction.

I brought this up at the panel, and Madeline Ashby, our Candaian moderator, said she'd actually written a story like that. Which pleased me immensely and I'd link to it, if it were published yet, which I understand it's not. And in the meantime, ideas being what they are, her story will not be the last word on the possibilities of the setting. Far too many of them exist to be exhausted in a single story.

What, for example, is the economic driver of such a system? Energy springs to mind (I think Ashby had a line of photovoltaic cells along the border, supplying energy to both sides, which is a much more sensible way to get energy to sell than pumping crude oil). Could a coherent buffer zone pull the teeth of the drug cartels by decriminalizing illegal drugs and driving the price down? What other issues could be redefined to present different faces? Could the vital artistic and social life of the border, recently depressed by the threat of violence and strenuous governmental efforts to keep grandmothers from receiving casual visits from their grandchildren en el otro lado, be revived in a buffer zone, importing tourist dollars and exporting entertainment? What happens to agriculture? How are birding checklists rewritten and the birding event called The Big Year redefined, when the nature of the border changes?

That last bit may sound trivial, but it's precisely in the minutiae of everyday life and specialist enthusiasms that change becomes real and meaningful. If you want an outside narrator, a birdwatcher engaging in ecotourism in a border newly reopened after years of being unreasonably restricted would make an excellent one. But I'd rather see a ground's eye view - the kid who discovers a new painted cave, the guide leading the ecotourists through a landscape both battered and bettered by decisions made elsewhere, the mother negotiating the changing face of her city, the ex-narcotraficante finding work as a solar energy technician or on the freshwater pipeline, the team of cross-border detectives charged with cleaning out the cold case files from The Bad Old Days.

And of course, in every borderland, spies and opportunists, smugglers and tax-collectors, law enforcement and outlaw - corporate and political, good bad and ugly all in the same person. What happens to all that drone technology that's being deployed against the cartels, if the economic basis of the cartels evaporates? What's the hot new smuggling item? How does corruption work in the new milieu? Could the border cities scoop the entertainment giants of the east and west coasts with vital new talent taking advantage of changing technology?

Whose story is the most interesting one to tell?

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