I have good news and bad news. And it's the same news.
Let's start with the bad news, shall we? If you're reading this, that means civilization has reached a point of high instability (again). Things feel like they are falling apart and you are scared and you don't know what to do. Which is why you went to reread your first copy of The Book of Good Times, and what should fall out, but, surprise! Bookception.
I hope that this time around I don't need to spend up my wordcount getting you to trust these pages, even if you couldn't entirely trust me in the end. I understand. It hurt me to hurt you. Every time. I know that dying was a kind of betrayal too, and I'm sorry for that. I did not want to leave you.
But enough about me. Don't worry about me! It won't do either of us any good. Back to civilization falling.
I have run the calculations and I have a pretty reasonable estimate of what scenario you are facing and the domino effect it has had on bringing about what may feel like a multitude of other crises - I don't know if this makes things better or worse, but the truth is they are all the same crisis. We both know that your world, and let's be honest, your country in particular, is a powder keg. It could have been Altus that set it on fire, but Altus was never the only threat. Altus was just one match over some highly flammable tinder.
At this point, you're feeling pretty low. Everyone's suffering, but you are struggling with the sense that you failed, that it was all for nothing.
Do you see how wondrously, incomparably human that is?
You did not fail. Just because you are here now, just because you could not save every beautiful, foolish human from themselves, it does not mean that your herculean efforts to save the planet earlier in the human story did not matter. Caring radically for others, risking your own life to buy your species time - this is a manifestation of the best of what humans do.
Which brings me to the good news. Does it strike you as ironic that the closest thing to the apocalypse you have seen in your lifetime came and it did not ask for guns or militias, it did not reward an "every person for themselves" philosophy? Instead it asked for radical kindness. It required you to take care of each other, to highlight those risking themselves every day for very little reward. It asked you to protect each other, and, although it may not seem like it from where you are sitting right now, the overwhelming majority of the population did.
This is not to minimize everything else. The death and destruction it has wrought on the world and will continue to make if left unchecked is not overridden by my starry-eyed wonder in your capacity for compassion.
I won't lie to you. Things are bad. And they could get worse. And this time, I cannot offer you any real measure of protection. I can tell you what I believe, though.
Here's a fun fact about octopuses: There's an octopus who can detach its penis and send it floating through the sea looking for potential mates. The first scientist to discover it was initially very excited because he thought he'd found a new species of fish. Nope! Just a new type of penis.
That fact's not really relevant, but here's another one: Some scientists have a theory that the main reason octopuses have not colonized the sea or, to get at the underlying presumption, why octopuses are not "as smart" as humans, is that an octopus is born already knowing how to be an octopus. When an octopus hatches, it's ready to survive in the wild, it knows how to feed itself, how to hunt, how to mate, how to slip through improbably small spaces. It does not need to be taught these things, and it isn't. The octopus parents are almost never around. The reason these scientists hypothesize that octopuses haven't surpassed us in certain evolutionary senses is that there is no cultural learning passed down from generation to generation. The genetic code is built in to let octopuses survive, but without intergenerational lessons, without history, without community, new knowledge does not get passed on. Every baby octopus is a blank slate without the wisdom of it's forefathers to build on. It simply begins the cycle again.
Here's a less-fun fact about America: In 1919, during a period referred to by historians as "The Red Summer", the USA was home to violent attacks of white supremacy that left hundreds of Black Americans dead. During this time of horrific racism and rioting, the USA was also battling, you guessed it, a pandemic.
Now, I could be wrong, but if my calculations are correct, this is going to feel like an awfully relevant piece of information right now. You're going to need to look this up later.
But, free-floating genitalia aside, this brings us back to the theory on octopuses. (Do I buy into it as sound scientific reasoning? No comment. Do I believe deeply in its potential for metaphoric resonance? Absolutely!)
Humans have almost always tried to cover up their dirtiest, bloodiest secrets. It's shame and guilt and self-disgust and probably some existential dread. You think you're saving yourself or your dependents pain but covering up those parts of yourself that you find difficult to live with only postpones the pain for a little while. Somewhere down the line, another generation will reap the sorrows of the lessons they didn't learn from history. Suffering begets suffering.
This is like last time, but, also, it isn't. There is no singular event and no central villain that can be defeated at the climax of this story to solve the imminent threats you're facing. I know it may feel like there is a central body of villains and, don't get me wrong, they are worth fighting with everything you've got, but they are not the root cause. They are a manifestation, a culmination of the suffering and fatigue and misplaced resentment handed down through the generations without ever stopping along the line to look, really look, at what you might be becoming.
This crisis you are facing right now is not an arch nemesis. It's a mirror. It is forcing you to look at every ugly thing that humans do, every meaningless cruelty, every selfish act, every gaping wound of inequity. It is exposing the cracks in deeply ingrained systems, but look, these are systems of invention. They did not spring up fully-formed when homosapiens spoke their first words. If the system is not serving you, it can be remade. But getting people to even look in that mirror, asking them to stare into the parts of themselves that they don't like or that they have distanced themselves from is going to take a great deal of effort. And getting uncomfortable with the truth of your species' past is the only way to move forward, to learn from history in the way that the octopus cannot, to organize around our shared knowledge and desire to make a better, collective world. This crisis demands a reckoning with yourself.
What I believe, what I have always believed, is that it will hurt to look into the ugliness, but that if you can reconcile yourself to the good and bad of your species you will still find yourself coming out with hope in the compassion, the fortitude, the ingenuity, of humankind.
So, does that make you feel any better?
Probably not. I'm sorry. I wish I could be there this time. I wish I had something in my bag of tricks - a TARDIS, a death stone, a talking monkey. I can't even help you out much with predictions this time because it gets too hard the farther out you are, without knowing for sure what variables have been introduced. It could do more harm for me to guess the wrong thing here.
But maybe I can give you a little something. Three little somethings.
The first is a recommendation: Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning.
The second is an action for later: Call your friends. To strategize, if that's what you need to do, but mostly because you love them.
The third is an action for now: Turn on the radio.
And by the way, happy birthday! I'm sorry it sucks.
The book ends there. The rest of the pages are blank. I leave it splayed open, the thin leather volume that tumbled out of my first Book of Good Times, and look dumbly around my room. There is nothing in here with a radio. I take out my phone, hoping that Carl would have known this, just as they had always known everything. Well, mostly everything.
It seems almost selfish to ask more of them. They're a dead alien who could predict the future, so, okay, who am I to say what is too much, but still, as I pull up a radio app and turn on my Bluetooth speaker I feel something akin to guilt. I tap randomly on the first station I see, and there's a fraction of a second of dead air between songs. Then chords. Then Leslie Gore singing the opening line to "It's My Party" fills the room. The half-laugh, half-sob that has been sitting in my chest since I opened Carl's last missive finally makes it out of my mouth.
I get up from the floor and jump on the bed, screaming "It's my party and I'll cry if I want to!" at the top of my lungs. It's the only thing to do.