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"Why Fiction?"

     Our latest title is here, and ready to be shipped on the
AS AN ENDANGERED SPECIES, by your humble servant.  It is satire,
sometimes whimsical, even goofy, sometimes verging on the bitter.
The author wonders why such a marvelous species as humanity,
insists on destroying itself and this marvelous planet we find
ourselvs on.
     The book is dedicated to Janet Greenwald and Garland Harris,
two utterly tireless activists who are giving their very lives to
preserve the world from unwise nuclear contamination.  I have
worked with them; I marvel at their sense of dedication to the
cause, and sometimes feel ashamed at my own limited energy level
and the choices I have made and still make in parcelling out that
     Janet and Garland, and many other activists, tell me they no
longer read fiction, not even mine.  They have no time for it,
and see no need for it.  Another dear friend of mine, Tom Smiley,
now deceased, is memorialized in one of the stories in VERMIN,
"Report to Base."  Aliens from the Andromeda Galaxy have been
here since the late '40's, investigating whether or not there is
intelligent life on earth.  They aren't sure yet.  I call my
friend Thomas and describe him as one of those ultra-busy persons
who has no time for fiction.  Tom fell into despair, and so does
my character.
     In Tom's case there was no comprehension of myth, and I
think that may be the clue to what I'm getting at in this rant.
Tom thought "myth" meant simply "lie."  When I told him that myth
was a clue to values, just as behavior was, he didn't understand
me at all.
     What we do, not what we profess, indicates what we believe.
And the stories we tell, and hear, which may rattle around in our
heads while we are unaware, also affect what we believe and those
stories can influence our actions.  So, while Janet and Garland
write letters and make phone calls and organize demonstrations, I
write fiction; in the case of VERMIN, I have written satire.
     Someone asked George Bernard Shaw why he wrote fiction, in
his case plays.  He referred to Jesus of Nazareth and his
parables, and to John Bunyan and his lengthy allegories, claiming
to be in that same tradition.  He added, "I use art [rather than
more facts], because art is the only way the people can be
     "What I have always wanted is a pit of philosophers."
[meaning an audience of philosophers for his plays!]  "The author
of EVERYMAN was no mere artist, but an artist-philosopher, and
the artist-philosophers are the only sort of artists I take quite
     "Your academic copier of fossils persuades his audience that
his limitations are rules, his observances dexterities, his
timidities good taste, and his emptiness purities.  And when he
declares that art should not be didactic, all the people who have
nothing to teach, and all the people who don't want to learn
agree with him emphatically."
     When asked what authors he learned most from he replied,
"The author of EVERYMAN, Bunyan, Blake, Hogarth, Turner -- these
four apart and above all the English classics -- Goethe, Shelley,
Schopenhauer, Wagner, Ibsen, Morris, Tolstoy, Nietzsche.  Not
Dickens or Shakespeare.  Their pregnant observations and
demonstrations of life are not co-ordinated into any philosophy
or religion."  Meaning, I take it, "They didn't believe
     I tell myself that I am using myth, because facts don't
change anyone's mind, "but a story might.  A story can worm its
way in there to that deep mysterious place where values are
recognized and selected, and loyalties and behavior modified."
     Salmon Rushdie, in a recent article in THE NATION, makes
clear that we're all doing fiction -- if you think today's
newspaper isn't fiction, you don't understand what's going on.
So -- it becomes a question of whose fiction are you going to
believe, and whose myth will you internalize.
     A line in the first story in VERMIN, "Johnny Plutonium," may
help clear this up.  A policeman has accosted our protagonist,
who has placed little piles of sand labelled, "Plutonium," near
the picnic tables at the zoo.  The policeman exlaims at one
point, "It's blow sand, and you call it plutonium, and you want
us to call that truth?"
     The truth our hero want to teach is that there really is
plutonium in the grass at the zoo, and the public is unaware of
     Here's the entire story.  It's about plutonium, but I think
it's also about fiction, and truth.

                       JOHNNY PLUTONIUM
     In our neighborhood there are so many stray dogs, my wife
and I can't take our daily walk here.  We have to get in the car,
pollute the air driving across the river, and go to the park
across from the zoo.  There we can hike all the way around the
football field and the baseball diamond, while keeping the car in
sight in the parking lot.  I resent not being able to walk in our
own neighborhood, and believe I could clear up the matter by
carrying and using, when necessary, a baseball bat, but my wife
won't hear of it.  So we walk near the zoo.
     One day we stopped short in our tracks.  In front of us,
near the end-zone of the empty football field, was a small, well-
lettered sign, stapled to a clean wooden stick, which read:

                       Plutonium  Pu

In front of the sign was a little mound of pale brownish
crystals.  We walked around, but said nothing, to anybody.
     The next day, the sign was gone.
     The day after that, there was a YAF game about to get under
way, when we arrived for our walk.  Youngsters, too young for
such violent blocking and tackling in my opinion, were ready to
play supervised, refereed, cheer-led football.  But the game was
not getting under way.
     Parents of the youngsters were screaming at two young men in
black-and-white striped shirts.  "Well, do something!"  "Call the
police!"  "Get it outa here!"  "I'm not letting my boy play in
that stuff!"
     We were able to get close enough to see that the plutonium
sign was in place, behind another little pile of crystals.
     "I don't think it is plutonium!" one young father yelled.
"I read the plutonium is white!  This stuff is brown.  It looks
just like sand."
     "Yeah, but how do you know?  How does anybody know?" a young
mother asked.
     "Call the police!  Call the F.B.I.!"  More and more parents
took up that cry.
     We resumed our walk, and the game still hadn't started when
we finished our two laps around the entire park.
     The crowd was near panic, when we drove away.  We found
nothing in the newspaper, or the TV news about the incident.
     On subsequent hikes we found more little plutonium signs at
different locations in the park, and on one occasion noticed one
on the picnic table beside the swings and rides set up for
     Then stories did hit the papers.  YAF games were canceled,
or rescheduled.  Some parents pulled their boys out of the
league.  Teams from the affluent north-east heights refused to
play teams form the valley, where the zoo is located.
     The city council saw fit to issue a press release to the
media.  "There is no loose plutonium in Duke City," it said.
"Someone with a sick mind is placing signs that say, ~Plutonium,'
in city parks, for unknown reasons.  It is a sort of terrorism.
Plutonium is nothing to be afraid of.  There is no plutonium in
Duke City."
     Plutonium signs have been found at the university soccer
field, as well as other valley parks.  A popular song has been
written, and played on local radio, called, "Plutonium in the
     For some weeks we saw no more signs on our walks at the zoo.
Then one day two police cars, with lights flashing, were in the
parking lot and two police officers stood near the picnic table.
When we approached, it became clear that they were questioning an
elderly gentleman, who sat on the bench smiling benignly at the
policemen.  "Surely it's not a crime to sit on a park bench,
Gentlemen," he was saying.  He looked each policeman in the eye,
one after the other.
     "Are these yours?" the older of the two officers asked,
waving his hand at several baggies on the table.  Each one
contained some pale brown crystals.
     "They're my gift to the sovereign people," the man answered
     "So, they are yours," the policeman insisted.
     "Well, not really," the man answered.  "Not any more."
     "Did you bring them here?"
     "Yes, I did."
     "What's that stuff in 'em?" the younger policeman asked
gruffly.  "Where'd you get 'em?"
     "I got the material on the West Mesa.  It's called ~blow
sand,'" the old man replied.  His white hair was ruffled, but he
was not.  I marvelled at how calm he was.
     "Blow sand!  Why are you labeling it ~Plutonium'?"
     "In order to raise the consciousness of the sovereign
citizens of Duke City."
     "Do you know what plutonium even is?" the older policeman
asked.  He sounded out of patience.
     "I do," the old man replied, "although most of the sovereign
citizens do not.  It is a man-made substance, designed to cause
extremely destructive explosions.  It is radioactive and lethal,
causing cancer in the lungs and on the skin of those who come
into contact with it.  It remains lethal for more than a quarter
of a million years.  One half-life of plutonium is twenty-five
thousand years, which is more than twice the age of human
civilization --"
     "I don't need a lecture," the policeman interrupted.
     "I'm very glad of that," the old man said.  "Most of the
sovereign citizens do."  We were amazed at his calm manner, and
so were the police.  They seemed to think he should be afraid of
them, and he was not.
     The younger officer said to the other, "I think we should
run him in.  He's been causing panic, disturbing the peace, to
say the least.  We might even make a terrorism charge stick."
     "How can telling the truth be called terrorism?" the old man
     "Truth?" the older cop yelped.  "It's blow sand and you call
it plutonium, and you want us to call that truth?"
     "But it is true that there is plutonium in the grass here."
The old man waved his hand out over the outfield of the baseball
     "Who says so?" the younger policeman barked.  He turned to
the older officer and said, "I still think we should run him in,
     "Radioactive waste, including plutonium, is allowed into the
sewer system, by vote of the City Council," the old man said
     "Well, they have to do something with it," the older cop
said.  He was more interested in the old man's ideas than the
younger one, who seemed to want action without thinking about it.
     "They do, indeed," the man said to the older policeman.  "No
one yet knows what to do with it.  Putting it in the sewer, where
it is gone out into the world, or burying it in the ground, where
it cannot be retrieved and will end up out in the world -- there
are several things they ought not to do with it.  They also ought
not to sprinkle it on the strawberries, or put it in the green
chile stew."
     The man and the cop smiled at each other.  "So what about
the sewer," the cop asked.
     "The sludge from the sewage treatment plant has been spread
on the grass of the public parks as fertilizer.  It contains
plutonium and other radioactive substances, which have been
detected by the scientists at the Special Weapons Lab.  The
report was made public, but never publicized.  So here am I, with
my little attempt at consciousness raising.  I'm willing to
publicize the truth that has been kept hidden."
     "Sir," the younger officer said, "he's been spreading
     "Truth leads to panic sometimes," the old man said.
"Depending on how it is taken.  Truth will not remain hidden
forever.  Truth will out.  When the young ball-players develop
lung cancer, perhaps some years from now, truth will out."  The
old man stared from one policeman's face to another.
     "Shall I cuff him, Sir?" the younger cop asked.
     "For what?" the old man asked mildly.  "Spreading truth?
You'll cause more panic than I have yet caused."
     "I'm going to call headquarters," the older policeman
     "Yes," the old man said, a little eagerly.  "Call the mayor.
Call the TV stations.  Call the editors of the newspapers."
     My wife had been pulling on my arm persistently for some
time, wanting to get away, before anything violent erupted.  I
let her drag me away, and when I looked back, the three were
still talking earnestly.
* * *
Copyright © 1996 Harry Willson

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