The Lottery, Writ Large

Engine Summer, by John Crowley, is one of those science fiction books that doesn’t read like science fiction. The world of the story is so real, so plausible, so tied to our current troubles, that it seems begotten not made.

Early in the tale, the protagonist, a boy named Rush That Speaks, leaves his cozy, low-tech enclave to go on an adventure with Seven Hands, his father. After walking for a while, the two gain a height from which Rush catches his first glimpse of Road. Disused for many years (decades, if not centuries), Road has cracked and crumbled, given way to trees and shrubs. No one has driven a motor vehicle in living memory; the technology needed to do so has been intentionally destroyed. Thanks to anthropogenic catastrophe, the Earth holds far fewer humans than it once did.

Staring down at this strange and wondrous ribbon, Rush asks Seven Hands, “What was it…for?”

“To kill people with,” Seven Hands replies. “The cars….went fast, you see, faster than bats but not so carefully, and so they collided all the time….But in the ancient days, they didn’t mind much…there were millions of them; they didn’t mind a few thousand killed.”

Nowadays, the annual number of deaths by motor weapon, in the United States alone, far surpasses “a few thousand” (Crowley was writing in the 1970s): It ranges from thirty to forty thousand, and the only statistic that reliably correlates with the casualty rate is miles driven (which, in turn, tends to rise when the deathconomy is thriving, and fall when it’s doing badly). Meaning, no matter what laws you pass, no matter how strictly you enforce those laws, no matter how many safety measures you take, Road is bound to claim tens of thousands of human lives per year (as well as countless lives belonging to beings of other species). This is why I refuse to call any motor-vehicle-related tragedy an “accident”: all such tragedies are expected, accounted for, built into the system. In our collective unconscious, we accept rampant bloodshed as the cost of doing business.

Which raises the issue of disposability. Is it true that we simply don’t care about losing thirty to forty thousand souls per year, in a country of more than three hundred million? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we feel a certain irritation with those vast hordes of others who are fucking shit up (e.g., by having abortions, or worshipping at a mega-church, or owning guns, or voting for Trump). Or maybe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we believe that if we fasten our seatbelts and obey “Don’t Walk” signs the black dot in the lottery will never claim us, or someone we love.

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