Glimpse of a future San Francisco Bay Area ravaged by inequality

“The hill below his apartment building descended straight into downtown San Francisco, where towering skyscrapers were packed together like travelers in a Tokyo subway. Lights were just starting to flicker to life. The last rays of the setting sun made the Bay Bridge appear to glow from within. On the other side of the water, the Slums smoldered behind the derelict cranes of the Port of Oakland.

The bourbon painted a fiery line down his throat, and a strong sense of déjà vu saturated his consciousness.

Graham’s first assignments had been in Mexico, Brazil, and Bolivia. He had actually shuttled between them for a few years before someone further up the Agency food chain had seen fit to shift him over to postings in sub-Saharan Africa and then Southeast Asia. But his virgin destination as a rookie agent had been Mexico City. He had plied the fraught waters of the VIP cocktail circuit, schmoozed with up-and-comers in La Condesa, and slowly but surely mapped out the intricate web of narco influence and corruption within the federal government.

Upon arriving in Mexico City, Graham had expected he would suffer from bouts of homesickness or cultural disorientation. But those feelings had never materialized. He had immediately caught the rhythm of the place and established a comfortable routine. It was only when he came back stateside that things got weird.

Graham came from a long line of proud civil servants and military officers. He grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in northern Virginia where he played Little League baseball, went to summer camp, and couldn’t get enough of Call of Duty. His friends in town were in pretty much the same boat. That wasn’t to say he was sheltered. His parents dragged him on various road trips to DC, New York, and even Los Angeles. In college, he went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and road-tripped around the country to camp in various national parks with his roommate.

Obviously, there was poverty, sometimes quite severe, in the different American states and cities he visited. But it just seemed like the way it was. Some people had money, and some struggled. A wealthy family meant easier and additional opportunities. If you didn’t speak fluent English or if you didn’t have much of an education, it would be a lot tougher. But if you worked hard enough and got lucky, you could fight your way up the ladder, and eventually retire in the Virginia countryside.

The countries Graham was assigned to were different. There were two groups of people. An overwhelming majority of people lived in abject poverty with no path to bettering their lot, while a tiny minority controlled virtually all the nation’s political and financial resources. The wealthy minority had every incentive to defend the status quo and established an impenetrable moat around themselves to guarantee their fortunes. Privilege was a matter of birth and family. Poverty was deplorable but inevitable. Wealth justified itself.

Of course, it was somewhat more complicated than that. Any sociology or economics professor would layer on all sorts of fancy intellectual models. But Graham’s job was extremely practical. Understanding and influencing an organization or society required a bracing dose of pragmatism. Graham had investigated, and occasionally collaborated with gangsters, terrorists, and mercenaries. On the whole, he found them fairly indistinguishable from their legitimate counterparts in business and government. You could find desperate bottom feeders, ambitious climbers, and bureaucratic gofers pretty much everywhere. That wasn’t surprising. He always studied the socioeconomic profile long before touching down in a new capital.

The surprising part was returning home. Every time he came back to the United States, the country seemed to have shifted in his absence. Public roads fell into disrepair as private gated communities sprang up everywhere. Neighborhoods self-segregated and became more homogenous. Police departments went through forced layoffs and were replaced by contractors like Security who served only paying clients. Young people were either accelerating along astronomical career paths or stuck in a cycle of low-paid contract work. You were either a rock star or a peon.

None of his friends or family seemed to notice. It was like trying to track weight gain by looking at yourself in the mirror every morning. The changes were too incremental. But Graham would live overseas for months or years at a time. To him, the changes were dramatic. The country was stutter-stepping into a new order. Every time he landed at an American airport, the boundary between the first and third world seemed to dissolve a little more. DC felt more and more like Nairobi. Miami felt more and more like Rio. New York felt more and more like Mexico City. San Francisco…

The city sprawled out under his balcony was a cookie cutter of Slum and Green Zone separated by tense sections of Fringe. It was simultaneously the hub of techno-utopian imagination, and a wasteland of half-forgotten dreams and frustrated ambition. It was a living, breathing paradox.”

From Cumulus.

Complement with io9 on Cumulus, my Google Talk about writing the book, and Richard Powers on human civilization as a computer game.

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