Norwich author imagines a different future
By Cindy Mindell
NORWICH – Twenty-five years from now, the U.S. will look very different than it does today. Retirement age is 75, healthcare is rationed, exit permits are required to leave the country for any reason, and federal agencies monitor every citizen’s communication and behavior.
On a more positive note, the U.S. is now energy-independent but has banned energy exports, leaving the rest of the world to scramble for oil. After Israel bombs Iran, the U.S. severs ties with its longtime ally in the Middle East, making American Jews more vulnerable to anti-Semitism.
This is Martin Shapiro’s 2039, the latest novel by the Norwich resident named in the title.
Shapiro describes the motivation behind 2039 in an encyclopedic sweep of the societal and governmental challenges facing the U.S. in 2011, when he began to sketch out the book’s plot. “The political gridlock in America; the high rate of unemployment; the growing number of Americans on public assistance; the millions of illegal aliens working here; the wind-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the coming downsizing of the Department of Defense; the emerging energy boom from fracking; the CO2 pollution of the atmosphere; the fear of global warming; the coming Affordable Care Act implementation; the government deficits and rising, massive total debt; the quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve bond-buying; Iran going nuclear and threatening Israel with extinction; the Arab Spring in the Middle East; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; gold climbing to new highs; China ascending and Russia resurging – had me wondering how these issues might look in 25 years,” he says. “I began keeping a file of news stories, internet messages, op-eds and the like, relating to emerging technology and the domestic and world issues that would have to play out in some fashion over the coming decades. They were not just going to disappear!”
2039 teases out these entangled conditions and events into what Shapiro believes is a possible picture of the U.S. and the world.
This is the fourth book the Waterbury native has published since 2006. As a writer, Shapiro says that he explores “the full expanse of mankind’s journey, from our ancient past to our not-too-distant future.” Shapiro’s first fictional work, The Scroll of Naska, a three-book series based on the biblical story of Joseph (with a fourth volume in the works), had been rattling around in his head for 30 years before he published the first installment in 2010. The work was inspired by a sequence of events that “reawakened” his Judaism – the Yom Kippur War, his mother’s death, and his oldest daughter nearing bat mitzvah age. Shapiro was recruited to serve as president of the Beth Jacob Synagogue Men’s Club and then as synagogue president. He read The Winds of War by Herman Wouk, which made a deep impression on him and whose style would later influence The Scroll of Naska.
Shapiro was born and brought up in Waterbury in what he describes as “a very vibrant Jewish community.” He celebrated his bar mitzvah at the Conservative Beth El Synagogue, where he participated in junior congregation and studied under the renowned Cantor Irving Pinsky. After graduating from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Harvard Business School, Shapiro and his wife, Millie, settled in Norwich, where they raised three daughters and became involved in civic life.
From 1966 to 1993, he was president, CEO, and major shareholder of a small, national manufacturing company based in eastern Connecticut. He owned a private air-charter service out of Windham Airport (near Willimantic), retiring in 1993 when he sold the manufacturing company.
Shapiro has been active in the Jewish community of Norwich and beyond since the early ‘70s, when he began teaching and serving on the board of Beth Jacob Synagogue in Norwich, where he is still a board member. He organized the supporters and assets to build the new synagogue building that the congregation moved into during the High Holidays in 1979. He has been a board member of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut since 1986 and of the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), and served as president of both organizations.
After retiring, Shapiro discovered the Chautauqua Writers’ Center in western New York, where he took workshops and read at open-mic events. Creating novels came easily, after writing a career’s worth of technical and business articles for industry magazines and conferences.
“When you go for schooling, your coaches, mentors, and professors say, ‘Write about what you know,’” Shapiro says. “I know about Jewish themes; I don’t have to go out and do research for them. Everybody in this town knows I’m Jewish; my Jewishness comes out of me – I use Hebrew words in directors’ meetings, I try to be the model Jew, I am reasonably but not perfectly observant – go to shul on Shabbat, and I may take in a minyan on a morning. I consider it to be a privilege to be Jewish.”
Martin Shapiro’s 2039 follows the travails of a Jewish couple from Norwich, Jonathon and Ida Kadish. One son lives in Hawaii, their daughter is married to a modern Orthodox man and lives in Quebec, and their youngest son is married with kids in Herzliya, Israel. When Jonathon is diagnosed with a serious health issue, he and Ida decide to risk defecting to Canada to join their daughter and seek medical treatment there. “There are many intense scenes where being Jewish and having Jewish values add to the conundrum, intrigue, and suspense in the story,” Shapiro says.
What complicates American Jewish life in particular is the withdrawal of U.S. support for Israel. “With an energy-independent America, who will buy Arab oil, and will we protect the Straits of Hormuz when the oil is going to someone else?” Shapiro says. “Israel is a proxy for us in the Middle East in terms of political thinking – but what do we need them for when we don’t need the oil?”
Israel now turns to China, which has supplanted the U.S. as Big Brother in its great thirst for Arab oil. Shapiro draws on real events to explore this plot line: In 2012, Israel made a deal with China to build the $2 billion “Red-Med” high-speed railway from Eilat, on the Red Sea, to the port of Ashdod, a freight-shipping alternative to the volatile Suez Canal. Last year, a Chinese billionaire gave $130 million to Technion-Israel Institute of Technology to establish a branch of the university in China.
Shapiro is a member of the Writers and Poets Circle at the Harvard Club of New York City, the Christian Writers Guild, and the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association. He regularly attends the Chautauqua Writers’ Center and Canyon Ranch in Tucson, where much of his writing takes shape. He is an invited commentator on Huffington Post, blogging about current events. Shapiro is also a member of the Thorium Energy Alliance, a non-governmental, non-profit educational organization based in the U.S. that seeks to promote energy security of the world through the use of thorium as a fuel source.
“The sum of a nation’s wealth has always been its energy,” says Shapiro. “Throughout history, the more a country controlled energy, the more the people of that society prospered, and it’s no different today. We run on energy and the energy supply from fracking and the tar sands of Canada is going to change the global picture.”
The title of the book is inspired by writer George Orwell’s most widely known work. “When people talk about the book, they usually specify, Orwell’s 1984 or George Orwell’s 1984,” Shapiro says. Three months after publication, with the book gaining some recognition, Shapiro refers to it simply as 2039. When people ask him what the book is about, he answers that it’s his contemporary sequel to Orwell’s 1984.
“This story is for my readers’ enjoyment and to spark their own imaginations about where we might go from here,” he says. “I hope this invokes and provokes discussion among readers and I hope they realize that we, each and every one of us, can influence the future by becoming an active part of the process and a voice for our freedoms.”
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