Mark A. Carter
 

 

FIREWORKS, fist, and Frankenstein

World famous Canadian Science Fiction novelist Mark A. Carter rants about the Detroit-Windsor Freedom Festival Fireworks, the Frankenstein motif, and the predictive nature of Science Fiction.

So, do you like apples? I don't mean Apple® computer. I'm talking about the fruit. In 1997, seventeen million tons of apples were grown in China for domestic consumption and for distribution around the world. If you like to eat apples, you have probably eaten one grown in China. In fact, nowadays, almost everything we buy seems to be grown or manufactured there. Oh my ...

Every year in late June, Detroit River Days and Windsor Summer Fest, also known as the Detroit-Windsor International Freedom Festival, jointly celebrates Independence Day and Canada Day with fireworks over the Detroit River. Is there any need to mention that fireworks were invented in China over two thousand years ago? And the 55th annual Ford Fireworks presented by Target and produced by the Detroit Parade Company did not disappoint. The Monday, June 24, 2013 ooh ... aah spectacle that has become a summer tradition in this area attracted an estimated million visitors on an evening that could only be described as sultry. That's a lot of sweaty people squeezed into a small area on both sides of the river.

I watched, off and on, for two weeks prior to the fireworks from my eleventh floor balcony facing the Detroit River while the charges were painstakingly set up on three barges on the riverfront near the US Post Office. Then, on the day of the big event, around 3 p.m., regular ship traffic on the Detroit River was halted upstream by CCGS Private Robertson V.C., one of two new Canadian Hero Class vessels on permanent assignment in the Great Lakes, and downstream by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel. A cordon of police boats, with blue lights flashing, stretched across the river farther east and west of the Coast Guard ships to keep pleasure craft at a safe distance. Security was provided by US Customs and Border Patrol, Federal Protective Service, Michigan State Police, Oakland County Sheriff's Department, Wayne County Sheriff's Department, Macomb County Sheriff's Department, the U.S. Secret Service, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Coast Guard, on the American side of the river; and, by Windsor Police, O.P.P, and R.C.M.P on the Canadian side of the river. People assembled on both shores. Hot dog, French fry, and soda vendors sold their wares in the scorching eighty-eight degree summer swelter. And millions of dollars were earned, spent, and written off to present the half hour event.

At 10:05, with lightning flashing yellow above the northern ridge of the Detroit suburbs, the familiar spectacle began. And with people standing at the Windsor Sculpture Garden, along Riverside Drive, and with us on our balcony and our neighbors on theirs, and security tight in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings, I couldn't help but speculate about things going wrong.

ith the blue and red flashing lights on the Detroit River reminding me of Close Encounters of the Third Kind from 1977, and friends rapping on our door at the last minute to join us on our balcony to watch the spectacle, I couldn't help but think: What if? What if one of the shells went askew? What if a skyrocket went sideways instead of straight up and instead of exploding in a giant, red puffball above the Detroit River, it lobbed over to Jefferson Avenue and Woodward and blew Joe Louis' bronze arm and fist off of its triangular suspension and propelled the memorial sculpture over the Detroit River and into an unsuspecting crowd of rubberneckingsightseeers from Deutschland on the Canadian side. Oh my ... it's the Frankenstein motif all over again.

I stated way back when that if it can happen, it will happen. It may seem highly improbable but it is possible. And don't talk to me about technology having safeguards built in, about it being idiot proof. I used to build things all the time and hand it to my sons, when they were little, to test my ingenious devices. And no matter what I devised to ensure that the devices were idiot proof, they never were. The kids would always find a way to defeat my efforts.

Nuclear energy was supposed to be safe too. It was supposed to have redundant safeguards. But no sooner had I watched the 1979 Science Fiction film China Syndrome then what was predicted actually occurred. I mention a nuclear power plant mishap briefly under the "Anthropoietic Sources of Doom, Part 1: Man as Creator" in my 1981 Master's Thesis: The Doomsday Theme in Science Fiction. So, how effective were the safeguards at Three Mile Island, or Chernobyl, or Fukushima Daiichi? And, oh my God, is anybody nervous about Fermi just a few miles downriver to the west? And how effective are the safeguards currently in place at our leaking stockpiles of VX nerve agent stored near highly populated US cities including Dayton, Ohio on the other side of Lake Erie? For those who just need to know, VX is short for :

O-ethyl S-[2-(diisopropylamino)ethyl] methylphosphonothioate.

This is what Wikipedia: the free encyclopedia says:

  VX has no known uses except in chemical warfare as a nerve agent. As a chemical weapon, it is classified as a weapon of mass destruction by the United Nations in UN Resolution 687. The production and stockpiling of VX was outlawed by the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.  


Anyway, I wrote about it and its influence on acetylcholinesterase somewhere around 1978 when I was studying Physiological Psychology. As zwitterion ions go, it's dreadful. The military's plan to destroy US Cold War nerve gas stocks has grown into a thirty-six billion dollar conundrum. Do you realize that the stuff is so deadly that they really don't know how to dispose of it? Now, if that isn't a race against time and a scenario for domestic disaster, I don't know what is. No gold-braided brainiac in the military ever considered how corrosive VX was and that it would cause artillery shells to rust from the inside and to eventually leak their active, super-deadly aerosols. Talk about being hung by your own petard. This is an accident that is going to happen. Duh? Is anybody listening? Get the lead out.

Remember, I stated that the Frankenstein motif is about man losing control of his creation. But are we ever really in control of our creations or is it merely a delusion of control? Some companies calculate the failure of their creations well in advance of their implementation. And the loss and damage, usually calculated in human lives and the subsequent litigation, are considered the cost of doing business. Yep. Ah ha. These are somebody's loved ones. They are not merely a body count, not merely statistics. Ask the people that Union Carbide killed with hydrogen cyanide in Bhopal, India. Ask them about the cost of doing business. Isn't it always about the money?

Part of the problem is scientists themselves. It was bad enough, back in the day, that US physicists took Einstein's simple formula for energy, matter, and light and, as an academic exercise, pushed to see if they could actually construct a functional atom bomb as part of the then top secret Manhattan Project. But once they had success with Trinity was it necessary to actually drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? That was genocide.

And at the scale of the tremendously small, is it really necessary to build bigger and more powerful Superconducting Supercolliders like CERN to investigate subatomic particles? We have finally uncovered the theoretical Higgs boson. But how far do we dare push in the name of science before reality pushes back? Perhaps, as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. suggested in 1969 with Slaughterhouse-Five, we will eventually blow ourselves to Kingdom come and take everything else along with us, as the Tralfamadorians did with their similar experiments. Scientists can see the very big and the very small but cannot see what is right in front of them. Common sense seems to elude them.

So, let me say it one more time: Science Fiction is predictive. Or if you want to get artsy fartsy: Art imitates life imitates art. Otherwise, it's common sense. Fireworks are explosives. Explosives are dangerous. Why are we playing with explosives? Duh?

 

Tralfamadorian courtesy of Tumblr. Copyright © OEK, based on novel: Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

A few days after my envisioned speculation concerning a drone skyrocket and Joe's plummeting fist, the memorial sculpture was loaded onto a flatbed, tied down securely, and shipped back to Detroit. But it never arrived. Somewhere between Dieppe Park and the Ambassador Bridge it vanished without a trace. There is speculation that it was transported to the environs of Sudbury, where the yet unspecified Chinese owners of numerous mines were busily extracting low percentage copper from near depleted veins, and that Joe's fist bought it in the same stone crusher that did in Jimmy Hoffa decades earlier. And combined with every decommissioned penny in Canada, obsolete my ass, and copper pipes from old houses, the entire shit and shebang was smelted, poured, and extruded as copper wire, which was wrapped onto large wooden spools, placed in sealed shipping containers, transported by train across the prairies and the mountains of British Columbia, and shipped across the Pacific, to build the new infrastructure of a modern electrified China.

And that wonky skyrocket may not have been a mistake at all. It is now cheaper to order skyrockets over the internet from China pre-mixed, assembled, and ready to go than to mix the raw materials ourselves. And the imagined firework that went askew and took out Joe's fist may well have been equipped with drone technology and highly maneuverable to make it seem like an accident. Drones have been constructed as large as fighter aircraft and as small as insects. So, a skyrocket steered with drone technology lies within the realm of the possible. After all, who is the biggest maker of microcircuits and soon to be the biggest maker of just about everything in the world? Plus, who has been hacking those American databases and supposedly stealing technological secrets? Don't raise your hands all at once. From soup to nuts, it's China.

A few days after my imagined disaster with Joe's fist there was indeed a fireworks disaster at Simi Valley, California on the Fourth of July. As predicted in my Science Fiction, disaster struck. And you don't have to be a brainiac to guess that it might. So, answer me this: why do we fall into complacency? Why do we put ourselves in harm's way for sheer entertainment value? These fireworks, for example, are dangerous. They are bombs without the shrapnel that we watch blow up in the sky and ooh ... aah aren't they so pretty? But they are still bombs. And when things go wrong, as they did on the Fourth of July, 2013, in Simi Valley, where the fireworks produced by Bay Fireworks of New York exploded on the ground and shot horizontally into the crowd, people get hurt.

At least 35 people were taken to local hospitals following the accident, which launched pyrotechnics into a crowd of 10,000 gathered in the park. - Barbara Jones, Long Beach Press-Telegram

It is only because of the meticulous efforts of the Detroit Parade Company and the diligent protection provided by police organizations on both sides of the river that the 55th annual Ford Fireworks presented by Target went off without a hitch. Thanks.

But this year's success is no guarantee that it won't all go to Hell sometime in the future, and people will be injured, and perhaps lives will be lost. It isn't a matter of if. It's a matter of when and where.

In order to get our Canada Day and Fourth of July enjoyment and entertainment fix we just have to have fireworks. Is that it? The hamburgers, hot dogs, and potato salad aren't enough. In my opinion, fireworks are a mindless spectacle originally used to amaze and to awe an ignorant and stupid public from a simpler time with a tacit demonstration of military muscle in the guise of entertainment. But aren't we smarter now? And don't we have better and safer means of entertainment today? So, for God's sake, be safe everyone. Don't expose your families or yourselves to the inherent danger of pyrotechnics.

I asked at the outset of this rant if you liked apples. So, how do you like 'them' apples?

...

As a disheartening update to this rant, on Independence Day of 2014, while setting off fireworks in his in-law's back yard in Iowa, Dave Rexroth, the head meteorologist at Channel 7 WXYZ in Detroit, had a firework explode in his face. The result was a penetrating injury to his left eye, emergency surgery, blindness, and an immune reaction that forced doctors to perform a second procedure to remove the injured eye before blindness spread to his good eye.Similarly, the Montreal International Fireworks Competition of 2014 showered spectators with sparks from two horsetail devices. Luckily, no one was injured. But, with everyone looking upward, it might easily have turned into a mass Rexroth situation.

When the shells explode, the stuff doesn't just disappear, it comes down somewhere. So there are always pieces of cardboard, ash and dust coming down. That's quite normal. - Paul Marriott

He also mentioned that it is wise to wear sun glasses when viewing fireworks up close.

Why has no one ever told us this? Moreover, why do we bother to put ourselves in harm's way?

The last time I looked, this was the twenty-first century. So, why are we still blowing up colorful explosives, but diminishing the danger by calling them fireworks? Come on, people. We have cable channels, high speed internet, and streaming videos up the whazoo. Isn't it time we saw fireworks as anachronisms of a bygone age, put the dangerous toys of our ancestors away, once and for all, and moved on to safer, modern entertainment?

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - novelist

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