By John Kass
The post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories I liked best as a boy weren't space operas on distant planets, involving warlike aliens who (weirdly enough) spoke guttural English, as if they were KGB officers in some action movie.
The sci-fi I loved took place right here, on Earth, our Earth, the Earth of the future after the fall. These were sagas of "forbidden zones" around ruined cities, and mutants, and things the survivors had forgotten about the America we live in today.
Some characters were barbaric humanoids living underground. They served machines and ate human flesh. There was no reasoning with them.
One story featured a large mutant hunting cat about the size of a mountain lion. She could telepathically communicate warnings to the boy who searched for lost knowledge in the ruined cities where the "beast things" roamed.
In other lurid sagas of future lost civilizations, there is often an archetype:
And not just any geezer, mind you, but a special geezer with knowledge of the old ones, the forgotten.
This geezer was terribly old, ready for the burial ground, perhaps as old as in his mid-50s.
He'd sit by the fire and entertain the tribes with stories of the forgotten people, who ruled before the death rays fell from the sky.
And what would he tell them of those days before the death came?
Of magical things like creamed corn in a can.
And candy bars. Electric power. Airplanes, cars, salt shakers and vaccines and so on.
If I were writing his lines, I'd have the geezer mention something that has been already assigned to the ash heap of the future by the tribes of the present:
"Privacy?" asked the people in animal skins around the fire. "Can you eat it? Can you get drunk on it? Could they use it to eat as much 'creamed corn in the can' as they wanted, whatever that is?"
The geezer sighed. He tried to explain "privacy" and its twin, "freedom," but these subjects were as terrifying and unsettling as they once had been to the forgotten.
"Privacy?" said one. "Are not a man's thoughts his own?"
Now they are, said the geezer, but not in the old days. There came a time when everyone's thoughts were known, said the geezer.
The people grumbled. One war chief barked at the moon. The geezer looked around nervously, and saw the people fingering their spears.
Then the geezer said (foolishly): The only ones who didn't have to share their thoughts were the leaders and the war chiefs.
One war chief looked at a leader. He hefted his club, a large stone lashed to a springy green limb. They'd have to kill this geezer. He was troublesome indeed.
But they did marvel at his stories, about the technological skill of the forgotten ones of long ago, a tribe that could preserve food in cans and kill predators with fire sticks.
How could such wondrous things work? Carts that fly in the sky? Fire sticks to kill the "beast things"?
Sadly, the geezer said, the thread of the ideas that helped build such wonders had been lost to humankind.
"Were the old ones really 'gods'?" asked the people.
No, the geezer might say. They were just men who forgot their way. Once they had a code, which guided their actions. But they forgot it and gave up freedom to their leaders because, without privacy, their thoughts were not their own.
And even before that they became lost, disillusioned, afraid. The first step was that they became confused, the geezer said.
"Let's just kill this geezer," said one of the tribesmen aloud. "We already have our holy men. We don't need another holy man around here."
"Yeah, shut up, geezer. Take your magic elsewhere, holy man!" said another.
"His skin looks soft," said another. "I need slippers. So let's kill him."
"Let's not," said a clan leader. "Let's keep him alive as long as he tells us more about TV. I love hearing about TV."
So they decided that geezer would live, as long as he'd entertain them with his fanciful stories about fire sticks. And as long as he'd stop talking about "freedom."
As I was jotting notes about the geezer, using the ancient, perhaps subversive tools of pen and paper, a young woman in front of me in line ordered a cheese Danish.
We were waiting to place our orders at the expensive coffee emporium on Michigan Avenue. You know the place. Coffee beverages with caramel and salt that cost about five bucks. But the good thing is that the regular dark roast is under two dollars.
Anyway, she ordered a cheese Danish, and held her smartphone up to the cash register.
"Do it again, please," said the woman at the counter, and I watched.
She did it again, put her phone with its application from the expensive coffee store up to the screen. She got her Danish.
"That's how people pay now," said the woman at the counter. "About half of our customers pay by phone."
Then she told me what I owed her for my coffee.
I paid with cash.
Yes, I know, it was a small, symbolic, futile gesture. It wasn't exactly standing before a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square, but at least I didn't get my head clubbed in by a war chief or clan leader.
"You don't have to take your wallet out, or your card," she said. "Just swipe the phone. It's easy."