Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Way the Future Wasn't

It’s a funny thing, this attempt to discuss the future in advance. Much of the time, like everyone else in the business, I talk about the future as though it’s a place we simply haven’t reached yet, with a geography that can be explored at least to some extent from the vantage point of the present. That’s not entirely inappropriate; so much of the near future has been defined in advance by choices already made and opportunities long since foregone that it’s not at all hard to sketch out the resulting shape of things.

Still, the choices we make in the present are as often as not defined by our beliefs about the future, and so there’s a complicated series of feedback loops that comes into play. Self-fulfilling prophecies are one option, but far from the most common. Much more often, predictions about the future that gain enough of an audience to become a force in their own right kickstart patterns of change that go ricocheting off in unexpected directions and bring about a future that nobody expected.

Industrial civilization’s attempt to expand out into interplanetary space, the theme of last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report, is a case in point. The handful of space technologies that turned out to have practical uses, and the technological advances that spun off from each of the major space programs, weren’t anticipated at all by the people who ordered the rockets to be built, the satellites to be launched and the astronauts to risk their lives. Cold War rivalry played a major role, to be sure, but that rivalry could have expressed itself in any number of terrestrial ways. What very few people noticed then or later was the extent to which all parties involved took their core assumptions and ideas from an utterly improbable source—a genre of pulp literature that most people at the time dismissed as lowbrow trash suitable only for twelve-year-old boys. Yes, I’m talking about science fiction.

I’m not sure how many people have noticed that science fiction is the one really distinctive form of fiction created by industrial civilization. Romances, satires, and adventure stories are practically as old as written language; the novel of character and manners had its first great flowering in tenth-century Japan, and detective stories were written in medieval China; even fantasy fiction of the modern kind, which deliberately cashes in on legends nobody actually believes any more, flourished in Renaissance Europe—it still amazes me that nobody has rewritten Amadis of Gaul to fit the conventions of modern fantasy fiction and republished it as “the sixteenth century’s number one fantasy bestseller,” which it unquestionably was. Science fiction—the branch of literature that focuses on the impact of scientific and technological progress—is the exception.

It’s important, for what follows, to be clear about definitions here. A story about traveling to another world isn’t necessarily a work of science fiction; the ancient Greek satirist Lucian wrote one about a ship tossed up to the Moon by a waterspout, and Cyrano de Bergerac—yes, that Cyrano; you didn’t know he was a real person, did you?—wrote a ripsnorter about traveling to the Moon and the Sun via a series of even more unlikely gimmicks; both of them were engaging pieces of absurdity riffing off the fact that nobody actually thought the thing could ever happen. It took Mary Shelley, watching the rain splash down on a Swiss vacation as her husband’s literary friends toyed with ghost stories in much the same spirit as Lucian imagined moonflight, to create a new kind of literature. Frankenstein, the novel she started on that vacation, became a bestseller precisely because it was believable; recent advances in the life sciences, especially Alessandro Volta’s eerie experiment that caused a frog’s amputated leg to kick by running electricity through it, made it entirely plausible at the time that some researcher might take things the next step and bring a dead body to life.

Take a single scientific or technological breakthrough, combine it with the modern world, and see what happens—all through the 19th century, and into the 20th, that’s what science fiction (or “scientifiction,” as it was often called) meant. Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, the two great masters of the early genre, rang just about every change on that theme that the technology of the age would justify. Of course both of them wrote voyages to the Moon; in an age of explosive technological progress, traveling to the Moon had moved just that little bit closer to plausibility, but it was just one of the many lively improbabilities they and other authors explored in their stories.

Except, of course, that a good many of them didn’t stay improbable for long. The feedback loop I mentioned earlier was coming into play; in the first decades of the twentieth century, a generation that had grown up on Verne and Wells started putting scientifiction’s dreams into practice. Captain Nemo’s Nautilus quickly took on an uncomfortable reality as the first U-boats slid down the ways. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” provided the conceptual blueprint for the first generation of tanks, just as his The War in the Air got militaries around the world thinking of the possibilities of aerial bombardment. Most of the other technological notions in turn of the century science fiction got tried out by somebody or other during those years, and those that worked found ready acceptance among audiences that had plenty of fictional models in the back of their minds.

Meanwhile, the fictional models were shifting focus. It was in the 1920s and 1930s that science fiction changed from a genre about any kind of scientific and technological advance you care to name, which it had been until then, to a genre that was basically about space travel. Slowly—it wasn’t an overnight change by any means—stories about spaceships and alien worlds came to dominate the pulp magazines that were the major SF venue of the time; voyages to the Moon became old hat, something to stick in the backstory; Mars and Venus became preferred destinations, and then E.E. “Doc” Smith shot the characters in his Lensman series across interstellar space, and what Brian Aldiss later described as science fiction’s “billion year spree” was on.

By the late 1940s, many of the most popular science fiction writers were working within a common vision of the future—a future history that began sometime in the near future with the first voyages to the Moon and then went on from there, colonizing the solar system, then leaping the gap that separated our solar system from others and beginning the settlement of the galaxy. Whether humanity would meet alien life forms out there in space was a subject of much disagreement; the more romantic authors peopled Mars and Venus with intelligent species of their own, but the spectrum ran from there to authors who imagined a galaxy full of empty but inhabitable planets just waiting for Homo sapiens to inhabit them. Even among the imaginary galaxies that bristled with alien species, though, they might as well have been human beings; the universe of the original Star Trek series, where the vast majority of “aliens” were extras from Central Casting with a bit of funny makeup splashed on, was a pretty fair reflection of the SF of a few decades earlier.

It’s a useful exercise to go back and read essays by the SF authors of the 20th century’s middle decades—Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were particularly prolific in this vein, but there were plenty of others—and take in what they had to say about the coming Space Age. It wasn’t, by and large, something they felt any need to promote or argue for; it was simply, necessarily going to happen. There would be the first tentative flights into space, followed by the first Moon landing; somewhere in there the first of many space stations would go into orbit, perhaps as a way station to the Moon; Mars and Venus were next on the agenda, first the landings, then the bases, then the colonies, growing as naturally as Jamestown or Plymouth into booming new frontier societies; the asteroids and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn would follow in due order, followed by the outer planets and the cometary halo, and then would come the challenge of the stars.

Among the most fascinating details that popped up here and there in this literature, though, was the conviction that science fiction itself—the literature, the writers, and the subculture that grew up around it in the 1930s and became something like a force of nature in the decades that followed—would play a major role in all this. I’ve long mislaid the title of the Isaac Asimov essay that argued that science fiction had the role of advance scouts on the great onward march of human progress, revealing new avenues for advance here, discovering dead ends and boobytraps there. That wasn’t just Asimov exercising his unusually well-developed ego, either; SF fans, droves of them, shared his opinion. "Fans are Slans," the saying went—I wonder how many people these days even remember A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan, much less the race of superhuman mutants that gave it its title; a great many fans saw themselves in that overly roseate light.

What makes this all the more intriguing is that all this happened at a time when science fiction was widely considered very nearly the last word in lowbrow reading. Until the paperback revolution of the late 1950s, most science fiction appeared in pulp magazines—so called because of the wretched quality of the paper they were printed on—with trashy covers on the front and ads for X-ray spectacles and Charles Atlas strength lessons in the back. The cheap mass-marketed paperbacks that picked up from the pulps dropped the ads but by and large kept the tacky cover art. ("There has been a great deal of talk about the big questions of science fiction," SF author L. Sprague de Camp said once. "The truly big question of science fiction is ‘What is that woman in a brass brassiere doing on the cover of my book?’") As for the stories themselves—well, there were a handful of very good authors and some very good short stories and novels, but let’s be honest; there was much, much more that was really, astonishingly bad.

Just as the young engineers and military officers of 1910 had all grown up reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, though, as America stumbled into its age of global empire after the Second World War, a very large number of its young men (and a much smaller but still significant fraction of its young women) had grown up daydreaming of rockets to Mars and adventures with the Space Patrol. All that was required to make those daydreams a powerful force in the American collective imagination was a well-aimed shock, and that was supplied in 1957 when a small group of Soviet scientists and military officers talked their superiors into letting them strap a 22-inch steel sphere on top of a big new ICBM and launch it into Earth orbit.

The advent of Sputnik I sent the United States into something halfway between a tantrum and a nervous breakdown. Suddenly it became absolutely essential, in the minds of a great many Americans, for the US to beat "godless Russia" in the Space Race. For their part, delighted to find an effective way to goad the United States, Soviet leaders started putting real money into their space program, scoring one achievement after another while Americans played a feeble game of catch-up. Before long a new US president was announcing a massively funded plroject to put men on the moon, the first rockets were blasting off from Cape Canaveral, and a nation already intrigued by the notion of outer space, and alternately amused and intrigued by the space-centered folk mythology of the UFO phenomenon, signed on to the opening stages of the grand future history already sketched out for them by decades of pulp science fiction.

For the next decade and a half or so, the feedback loop I’ve described shifted into overdrive as fantasies of a future among the stars shaped the decisions of politicians and the public alike. By the time the Apollo program was well underway, staff at NASA was already sketching out the next generation of manned interplanetary spacecraft that would follow the Moon landing and cutting blueprints for the probes that would begin the exploration of the solar system. That’s when things started to run off the rails that seemingly led to the stars, because the solar system revealed by those probes turned out to have very little in common with the "New Worlds for Man" that the fantasies required.

It takes a while reading old books on the prospects of space travel to grasp just how wide a gap those first planetary probes opened up. Respected scientists were claiming as late as the 1960s that the Moon was a world of romantic vistas with needle-pointed mountains glinting under starlight; it turned out to be gray, largely featureless, and stunningly dull. Venus was supposed to be a tropical planet, warmer than Earth but still probably inhabitable; it turned out to be a searing furnace of a world with surface temperatures hot enough to melt metal. Since 19th century astronomers mistook optical effects of telescopes pushed to their limit for markings on the Martian surface, Mars had been the great anchor for dreams of alien intelligence and offworld adventure; when the first Viking lander touched down in 1976, the Grand Canals and alien swordsmen of Barsoom and its godzillion equivalents went wherever wet dreams go to die, and were duly replaced by what looked for all of either world like an unusually dull corner of Nevada, minus water, air, and life.

Those were also the years when Mariner and Voyager probes brought back image after image of a solar system that, for all its stunning beauty and grandeur, cointained only one world that was fit for human habitation, and that happened to be the one on which we already lived. As the photos of one utterly uninhabitable world after another found their way into one lavish National Geographic article after another, you could all but hear the air leaking out of the dream of space, and even the most vigorous attempts to keep things moving launched by science fiction fans and other enthusiasts for space travel found themselves losing ground steadily. To stand the title of Frederik Pohl’s engaging memoir on its head, science fiction turned out to be the way the future wasn’t.

And science fiction itself? It fragmented and faded. The boost in respectability the space program gave to science fiction gave it a larger and more critical market, and thus midwifed some of the greatest works of the genre; a series of loudly ballyhooed literary movements, none of them particularly long-lived, zoomed off in assorted directions and, as avant-garde movements generally do, left most of their audience behind; efforts at crass commercial exploitation, of which the Star Wars franchise was the most lucrative example, came swooping down for their share of the kill. While other media boomed—visual media are always a couple of decades behind print—the sales of science fiction novels peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s and then began a decline that still continues, and a genre that had once exercised a potent gravitational force on the collective imagination turned back into just another option in the smorgasbord of mass-produced popular entertainment.

It’s a trajectory worth studying for more reasons than one. The intersection of imperial extravagance, technological triumphalism, and anti-Communist panic that flung billions of dollars into a quest to put men on the Moon made it possible, for a little while, for a minority of visionaries with a dream about the future to think that their dream was about to become reality. The dream unraveled, though, when the rest of the universe failed to follow the script, and a great many of the visionaries found themselves sitting in the dust wondering what happened.

That’s not an uncommon event. The dream of a new American century hawked by the neoconservatives a decade and a half ago, though it ranked down there with the tawdriest bits of pulp science fiction, traced the same trajectory. The election of George W. Bush and the 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington DC gave them a window of opportunity to try to make that dream a reality, and it turned into exactly the sort of disaster you’d expect when a group of academic intellectuals try to impose their theories on the real world. It would be less embarrassing if the notion of invading a Third World country and turning it into a happy little puppet democracy hadn’t been tried over and over again, without a single success, since the Spanish-American War.

For that matter, the movement toward sustainability in the 1970s, the subject of a great many posts on this blog, followed a similar trajectory. That movement, as I’ve argued, might have succeeded—I grant that it was a long shot at best. Yet the rush of initial enthusiasm, the real achievements that were made, and the bleak discovery that the political and cultural tide had turned against it and the rest of the dream was not going to come within reach are very reminiscent of the arc traced above.

Still, the example that comes most forcefully to mind just now is the one this blog is meant to address, the movement—or perhaps proto-movement—trying to do something useful in the face of peak oil. Right now it’s still gamely poised on the fringes, attracting members and brief bursts of attention, weaving disparate perspectives into early drafts of the vision that will eventually catapult it into the big time. That’s still several years and a Sputnik moment or two away, but the increasingly frantic attempts of both American parties to treat the end of the age of cheap energy as a public relations problem suggest to me that sooner or later that time is going to come.

The temptation when that happens, and it’s a potent one, will be to assume that whatever window of opportunity opens then can be counted upon to last, on the one hand, and will lead to whatever encouraging future the vision promises on the other. Neither of those is guaranteed, and depending on the shape the vision takes, neither one may even be possible. The question that needs to be kept in mind, straight through from the giddy enthusiasm of the initial successes to the bitter winding down that will more than likely follow, is how much useful work can be accomplished during the interval we get.


John Michael Greer said...

All the time while I was getting this post up online, I kept wanting to mutter "Ghu guide me as I pub this ish." (If you were there, you'll grok the fullness.)

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

It has become more and more apparent to me over the past decade that science fiction can be every bit a fundamentalist religion as any other form of mythic narrative. And like many other religions its adherents will brook no heresy, such as exploding the myth of never-ending technological complexity.

Another great post, sir.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Interesting and thought provoking analysis, as always.

Perhaps it is because I am just a little younger than you are (thought not much), or because I am Canadian, or because of the particular books I chose to read, but the 'march to the stars' never really seemed quite real to me, even though I've been a dedicated SF fan for years. I guess I always saw that old saying "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" as applying quite handily to SF. If it's fantasy, the magic is straight up magic (gods, wizards, what have you) ... in science fiction, the magic is dressed up as technology, but it's still magic, and it's still fantasy. (No offense intended to those who work with 'real' magic, of course, I'm using the term in the vernacular sense of "stuff that can't really happen in any ordinary way".)

I think the biggest thing I've gotten from SF is new ways of thinking. I have often said, quite truthfully, that my religious views are unreasonably influenced by the science fiction books I've read. Alternate universes, strange gods, ethical dilemmas that one would not perhaps be prepared to address straight on in their familiar Earth-bound contexts ... I am grateful to the SF writers for giving me the chance to explore those ideas in a safely-alien context, and then, after some pondering, integrate those thoughts into my every day existence.

It would be really nice if we could get in our space ships and fly off to other worlds, but it would be really nice if there were hobbits in the New Zealand meadows, too.

Ah, well. At least in books you can go anywhere at all ... even to places that can only exist in the imagination.

Harry J. Lerwill said...

I remember as a child, getting my first science book. In the astronomy section, it talked about how a passing star had drawn matter out of the sun, which coalesced into the planets.

The steady state theory was given as the most respected idea, but the big bang got a mention. Back then the idea that the universe was growing was new, but at least they thought it would only grow so far, then collapse back.

The latest theories of dark matter and dark energy have moved this scientific paradigm in an interesting direction.

Science now says that the growth of the universe may be infinite. That the farthest galaxies are speeding up as the move away.

Not in a million years of fiction would I have expected science to fulfill the dreams of economists. an infinite universe.

Shame about the energy inside it being finite. As above, so below...

SweaterMan said...


A timely post, as I've been reminded via Wikipedia that the first science fiction film, Jules Verne's "A Trip to the Moon" was released on this day back in 1902.

I will try to comment more tomorrow, but as a former "rocket scientist" your post of last week and this week's post definitely struck a nerve. As a matter of fact, I was re-reading A.C. Clarke's "Imperial Earth" this morning and was struck by just how commonplace space travel seemed in that story (admittedly not one of his best, just one of the many of his that I have in my collection). And that from a novel after the tail end of US manned moon exploration.

Anyway, S-F also had a heyday in the late 70s-early 80s in regards to the worldwide Internet network -Vinge, Gibson, Rucker and Sterling had the technology vision and it's attending social consequences down fairly pat by 1984 or so. It just took another 10-15 years before it was realized in the real world.

Anyway, more to say if I can find the time between work and gardening about the demise of our space age and the work that inspired it. Regardless, while these last two posts put me in quite the melancholy mood, I am quite glad for your breakdown and exposition and what the aftermath of these programs will present to our energy-constrained future.


Joe said...

The window of opportunity will not come with the realization by the general public that peak oil is real.

The real window of opportunity opened decades ago with the initial discovery and production of huge amounts of oil. That window is now almost closed, so we (as individuals and small communities) need to make good use of the meager time remaining before it closes completely.

Rich_P said...


Thank you for another insightful post.

Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” provided the conceptual blueprint for the first generation of tanks, just as his The War in the Air got militaries around the world thinking of the possibilities of aerial bombardment.

British historian Richard Overy notes in Why the Allies Won (a great example of so-called "analytical history") that Wells' work was instrumental in creating support in the United States and Great Britain for long-range, strategic bombing. Overy is critical of the entire Anglo bombing campaign, noting, for example, that none of the other major powers saw much "merit" in strategic bombing, and that its greatest contribution to the war effort was forcing Germany to shift much-needed men from the Eastern Front to the antiaircraft defenses in the heartland.

In terms of fiction, Catch-22 is probably one of the most critical counterpoints to the early science fiction works about massive airships swiftly and easily winning wars across the globe.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

Although it would be a transparent ripoff, I would kind of like to hear Trey, standing on top of Troy Tower, looking out over the remains of the grid, say "if you look at it with the right sort of eyes you can almost see the high water mark where the wave broke and fell back."

On a related note I was talking to my economics proffesor after class a while ago about the prospects for growth. I was trying to convince him that growth would be negative for the next several decades but he wasn't having it. He replied "don't you watch Star Trek." I didn't get the chance to explain that fiction measures our expectations, not our prospects.

So, JMG, what do you think the prospects of The Long Descent and Ecotechnic Future have of catching our collective attention and spawning feedback loops and what might those loops look like?

Nice post, as always,

LewisLucanBooks said...

"...go ricocheting off in unexpected directions and bring about a future that nobody expected."

A great, thought provoking post! Way back in the early 80s, I came within 24 hours and one phone call of becoming a tattoo artist's apprentice. But, I wanted to sleep on the offer. The phone rang, it was on an application I had put in months before and had forgotten about. So, I went with the bookstore, instead, which led me out of the city and to this small town.

Looking back, life careens off in unexpected directions. You make choices but always have to remember that you live with the consequences, good or bad. Opportunities present themselves.

I have in my bookstore case a little paperback book I hadn't really taken a good look at. It doesn't have, what we in the business call GGA. Good Girl Art. The ladies in the brass bras. "Great Science Fiction by Scientists," Collier Pub., 1962, Edited with an introduction by Groff Conklin (who?). The only names I recognize are one each by Asimov and Clarke (and, didn't he invent, or help invent, the communication satellite?) The copyrights on the stories run from 1930 - 1962. I may have to dip into this volume, with your current essay in mind.

Of course, we now have this whole genre of book / story that has to do with after the: economic collapse, EMP, peak oil, ecological and population disaster, plague, whatever. Probably has it's root in "after the bomb" literature. Often shelved along with sci-fi. There's a pretty lively thread over at Green Wizards, about those books.

I am very conscious that we're in a window of opportunity that may slam shut at any time. I just bought a treadle sewing machine. I like that, unlike the beast I am sitting in front of, my computer, that there are a finite set of skills I can master to operate said machine. My window of opportunity was getting it at a time when such things are not very valued. I had the opportunity of gas to haul it a distance, and may have the gas to haul it out to my retreat in the boonies (out of town, but not too far out). It is very heavy, and I can just move it myself.

Maybe a hundred years from now, someone will go on a quest for the semi-mythical sewing machine, rumored to be somewhere in the wilds of Lewis County. Maybe a quest to impress his lady love. I hope he or she has a strong back. A cart with a large dog or a small pony.

tOM said...

Ah, lost visions.

I think we will have our noses rubbed in sustainability and economy as climate change floods our coasts and droughts our plains. Our recession has dampened fossil burning and future famines will do much the same - but will it be enough?

Mayhaps the american empire is only on loan now, and the Chinese, and others, will just call in their notes and take payment in ownership stakes, then changing the immigration laws and moving extra populations to what fertile areas are left unflooded - conquering by debt rather than by threat.

Kevin said...

Nice analysis. It is indeed rather shocking to compare, say, C.S. Lewis' Malacandra with high resolution photographs of the actual surface of Mars. I don't recall even getting a chance to see how Venus compares with Perelandra - I think the probe melted or broke apart by time bits of it reached the surface.

It would be interesting to have a working definition of "useful" in terms of actions that might be taken during the window of oppurtunity that you anticipate.

Kevin said...

Well... We'll always have fantasy. Its authors usually seem to have a better grasp of the ontological status of their creations.

SophieGale said...

I've read Slan in the last year. Please let it rest in well-earned obscurity! Men and women often write SF and read SF for very different reasons. I've always found military/hard tech SF to be the least interesting stories: full of bloated monologuing and often barren of character development. I prefer stories that talk about class, race, and gender. You can explore a lot more of that territory in "a galaxy far, far away."

And as it happens, one of our Broad Universe broads ("Promoting, science fiction, fantasy, and horror written by women"), is doing a new translation of Amadis of Gaul. Sue Burke usually posts a new chapter every Tuesday.

Don Mason said...

Trashy Sci-Fi Faves:

Flash Gordon Movie Serial from the ‘30’s:

Cheesy model space ships that spewed sparks and backfired as they took off. Cheesy monster iguanas with rubber horns. Fascistic soundtrack from Wagnerian operas. And hot babes: a girl-next-door blonde who always needed rescuing vs. an evil, scheming brunette, the daughter of Ming the Merciless.

We watched it on Community Discount Theater with host Larry Goodman every Sunday morning after church. (Frankly, I found Flash Gordon’s adventures on the planet Mongo to be more believable than some of the things I was being asked to believe in church. I’ll take flying around in a home-made space ship contraption built by Dr. Zharkov any day – particularly when it’s also occupied by hot babes.)

Everything by Robert A. Heinlein: from “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” to “Stranger in a Strange Land” to the Vietnam Era’s “Glory Road.”

Many movies about giant bugs from outer space have been filmed, but “Starship Troopers” is the best. The way the director maintained the right-wing, fascistic philosophy of the book was perfect: the intelligence section agents for the good guy humans are dressed in black uniforms like the SS, fighting to maintain the purity of their species. And hot babes as Space Marines, showering with the guys. Quick: How do I enlist?

Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars series: Ten great, trashy books (the eleventh in the series was written by his son).

Swashbuckling swordfights on Mars! And great cover art featuring hot Martian babes who fortunately look just like hot babes here on Earth (except that when Martian babes get pregnant, they lay eggs.)

John Wyndham: “Day of the Triffids’ is great doomer porn – almost everyone on Earth goes blind after looking up at a war satellite designed to blind people, and then they are stalked and eaten by walking, carnivorous plants from the Amazon. Features a hot babe who is the author of a book called “Sex is My Adventure”.

Unfortunately, “Rebirth” didn’t really feature any totally hot babes, but it did inspire a (mangled) line in the Jefferson Airplane’s tune, “Crown of Creation”: “In loyalty to their kind, they cannot tolerate our kind. In loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction.” More fascism, seems like. But logical fascism, if there is such a thing.

Reading all of that science fiction made me what I am today.

Which brings us to another fascistic idea: the social necessity of burning books to prevent them from polluting the minds of our young people…

Andrew Beyea said...

"and it turned into exactly the sort of disaster you’d expect when a group of academic intellectuals try to impose their theories on the real world."

Sounds a bit like the world of finance, does it not?

Robo said...

Those ‘Sputnik Moments’ of American motivation were fueled by boundless fossil energy, vast production infrastructure, simplistic concepts, popular optimism and superpower politics.

Future motivational opportunities might not be so obvious in a context of depleted resources, empty factories, discouraged citizenry and discredited political systems.

The most likely inspirational event to occur in the next few years will be some kind of general panic. That will not be a good time to be standing in the middle of the street talking about visions.

In the days of Jules Verne and even Arthur Clarke, fiction was seen as something quite distinct from the everyday routine. Today, it seems like almost everything in our daily lives has become some kind of fiction, whether scientific, social, religious, political or economic.

It’s a fantasy world of personal media and pretend games played with invisible friends. A desperately childlike state that’s induced by the cognitive dissonance of an outer reality where most of us increasingly don’t want to be. Unfortunately, it won't be long before that outer reality starts to unavoidably thrust itself into the spaces between all those earbuds.

Anyone who reads a blog like this has already seen the Sputniks circling overhead. At this late stage, I believe the best that folks like us can do is make our preparations for the coming reality as inclusively as possible. Then we can hope that family, friends and neighbors might eventually be persuaded to peek out of their respective fantasy worlds and take a look around before things get a little too real.

Clarence said...

since you invoked the great god ghu, this silliness seems apropos.


Cherokee Organics said...


Magical feedback loop thinking sounds to me like the chant "Drill, baby, drill" or "the secret". Both disturbing thoughts in themselves...

Do you think our attention spans have become less? The reason I ask is because if a Sputnik moment came along would we recognise it for what it is? Would it be able to hold our attentions long enough that we did something about it?

Agriculture and living within the limits of the naturally supplied energy is an interesting way to focus your attention. You not only have to live for today, but you also have to plan for the future. That may sound mundane and boring to some, but it's the way most people in the past have lived their lives. We in todays society are the exception and not the rule.

I reckon when conditions force the population at large to accept the limits to growth as a reality of their existence, then it will be too late. My reasoning for this:
is that energy will be scarce;
the easily extracted minerals will have been extracted and sold off;
manufacturing is and continues to be shipped off shore;
public infrastructure has been under invested in within the past few decades to ensure that prices for consumers remain low; and
given the overall level of indebtedness of countries. The question arises as to who would loan funds to countries to purchase the necessary energy, skills, tools and resources to retool. It will probably look more like loans to third world countries so that they can buy more product and get more in debt. ie. a drip feed system.

Dunno, agriculture looks like the safest bet to me. You have to eat...



Hey Don,

Thoughtful comments.



hadashi said...

JMG, Heinlein's word 'grok' is definitely one of my favorites. I used to love my science fiction too - despite the photo I actually have about 5 years on you, and I grew up in that environment (though an ocean removed from the actual rocketry you spoke of in last week's post). I did enjoy reading your explanation of where all the sf literature went; I couldn't work it out. I was wondering where your essay would lead, so the trajectory model of where many movements go was very enlightening. 'Peak peak oil' is a new one for me ;-)

anagnosto said...

As a teenager I devoured quite my share of Science Fiction, taking adavantage of the selections by an older brother. I do not think Science Fiction was such a new literature. Without the technical make-up, I consider it a fantasy branch of travel literature, just like the Odisseia or the medieval travels of John of Mandeville, Marco Polo, or if you have social aims, those of Gulliver. Take Heinlein, to me, it was more interesting for his "utopian" sights into possible different societies and ethics than because of futuristic technicalities.
I must say I never took a moment in the last 20 years to realize the influence real world was having in the success of this literary branch, although I noticed how its niche and public was taken over by fantastic literature of all pedigrees. Curious.

phil harris said...

When did you gradually stop reading SF? (Perhaps stopped looking for the next bright idea; the novel twist?) For me, it must have been early 1970s.

Suddenly I am thinking now, in Britain, of another fiction genre that illuminated my imagination in childhood: an imagined historical past. Not as original as SF, but often as 'other-worldly'? Very attractive place to go, and it even crept in to actual life. Could be scary though when it stopped being fiction. I can remember when quite small, dallying behind and suddenly finding myself alone in the Long Gallery at Henry VIII's (and some of his wives) palace. As the reality rose in the silence, I ran.

andrewbwatt said...

At some point, I tried to put together a hypothetical crew manifest for a ship to go to Mars to establish a colony. The number of specialities a ship needed to get the colony going ...

Looking at that primitive spreadsheet, and realizing just how many warm bodies, in how many disciplines, we'd need to send, and how big the ship would need to be for them to go on the journey...

That sort of killed my enthusiasm for reading sic-fi.

Babaji said...

Thanks for sketching out a valuable perspective. Certainly the trick—if there is one—would be to skate where the puck is going to be, and be waiting for the future when it arrives. Our spiritual community with its state-of-the-art online multimedia studio sits in a village on the edge of a vast wilderness area, surrounded by fertile fields, cows who will never be slaughtered, herds of innumerable goats and sheep. The locals love us because we are the first Westerners they've ever seen come to study their culture, not change it. We'll continue to hold the fort and put out the message as long as we can. But realistically, we're not expecting reinforcements.

Texas_Engineer said...

Logged on this morning expecting a list of your favorite authors - instead got an elegant review of the uniqueness of Sci-Fi. Thanks for another great post.

Can't resist mentioning my favorites:

Heinlein, Bester, de Camp, Asimov, Clark, Bradbury, Campbell, Dick, Huxley, Wells.

And the movies I am still waiting for:

"The Foundation Trilogy" and "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress."

Siani said...


Good post.

The only real constant, for now, is Change...and it comes fast or slow at its own whim.

Les said...

An apposite, if depressing warning; thank you. We could sum it up as “don’t get cocky, son.” We will try to bear this in mind when making our choices based on our own vision of the future. It seems appropriate to get those choices aimed at achieving something that is of itself satisfying and not overly dependent on the rest of the ducks lining up. As in simplifying life in such a way that is enjoyable as well as sustainable, but not getting hung up on the idea that everyone around us should see what we are doing and emulate us (and us failing if they don’t).
One nit to pick – I would argue that you are drawing a long bow to suggest a feedback loop between the early authors of scientifiction and actual scientists. I would suggest what you are seeing is more likely the zeitgeist that seems to surround most discoveries/advances – the same zeitgeist that sees so many things being developed independently by people working in the same field at the same time; from Newton and Leibniz’s development of calculus, through Darwin and Wallace, to the many recent shared Nobels we see for discoveries published by different, unassociated people working on the same problem.
I suspect that HG and his ilk were far more likely to be able to keep up with the literature than more recent writers, so were more likely to be tuned into that zeitgeist. Then, unlike the scientists and engineers of his time, HG didn’t actually have to go to all the bother of building and testing his ideas, which probably gave him an advantage when it came to publication…

Speedscribe said...

Thank you for the post, Mr. Greer. You'll soon have another deluge of post commentary on this topic, I'm sure.

Modern science fiction seems more like "science porn": high-tech fantasies written by and for those who lust after Permanent Progress. The common technology imagined in these stories appears increasingly less realistic, and indeed more fantastic, than that found in so-called modern "fantasy" fiction. I can't keep my disbelief suspended long enough to actually finish such works.

I get very irritated with authors who still write stories with interstellar spaceships powered by fusion reactors and piloted by genetically-engineered human beings. A recent example is Greg Bear's recent Hull Zero Three, which I'm currently reading and may or may not finish. Do "hard" science fiction authors read the news anymore?

I was at best a B student in math and science, and I can't read through anything more scientific than Scientific American. But when I finally grasped the concept of peak oil production and then accepted it as a fact, it didn't take me long to figure out that our industrial civilization wasn't going to last forever. It doesn't take a PhD or master's or even a bachelor's to understand reality -- does it?

idiotgrrl said...

I kept wanting to mutter "Ghu guide me as I pub this ish." (If you were there, you'll grok the fullness.)

Giggle, giggle, snicker, snicker.

But you know, I got a lot of my ethical guidance in real world situations from sf. From Heinlein, when I was a child, that you never abandon a cat in your care.

From Schmitz and others, in young adulthood, that clones and aliens and artificially created sentient beings are human beings, with rights.

From Bujold, in old age, that "Reputation is what others know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. Guard your honor and let your reputation fall where it may." And in the same passage, that it hurt more to have a good reputation when your honor is in shreds, than vice versa.

And from Brin, to beware of those who would subvert democracy and the values of the Enlightenment (and NOT meaning the endless consumption now preached as The American Way.)

A preacher's kid. Learning her most valuable ethics lessons from sf writers.

Mister Roboto said...

What you discuss in the end of this post I think ties in a major way to the American middle-class tendency to get oneself through life by believing things that are manifestly untrue. That's why you have folks on liberal blogs who are smart enough to know better *still* clinging to the pipe-dream of the future amongst the stars, that's why mass denial became the defining feature of American cultural life in the wake of the sustainability movement's political defeat, and that's how a political movement such as the "Pee Tardy" (as I read a commentor on another "doomer" blog calling it) that fervently believes that growth and natural resources are virtually boundless, can become a political movement to be taken seriously. It would indeed be a tragedy if the nascent Peak Oil movement were crushed under the weight of our ongoing collective tendency to kid ourselves so very deeply.

Scyther said...

Lately I have wondered whether planet Earth could afford to squeeze out even one more manned moon mission, let alone Mars. An interesting project would be to calculate the total fossil-fuel cost of the manned moon missions, wouldn't it?

Consequently I am boggled that there are still people, even scientists, who think that humanity will have some kind of near future off-Earth. IOW, that we will escape extinction by jumping to another planet. The sheer nutty dangerousness of that concept is breath-taking. We can't manage climate-change on Earth and yet we can travel light-years and terra-form other planets? Not right now of course, but quite soon when we develop the awesome technology - warp-drive, presumably.

It's all mapped out in Star trek, why worry?

Maria said...

I think the only reason I read SF as a girl was because my brother liked them -- we are only 11.5 months apart in age, so we shared each other's interests, books, etc. He went on to get a PhD; I hated college with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns. So there you go.

You have, however, awakened an interest in getting my hands on a steampunk novel or two. I might find some food for thought there.

DIYer said...

I'm thinking I need to go re-read The Foundation Trilogy. It has some things to say to the discussions we are having now.

Bill Pulliam said...

Two paths in the evolution of the SciFi genre have long annoyed me. First, that it became synonymous with space travel and alien invasions, and second, that it then somehow got lumped in with the Fantasy genre so that we now have Sci-Fi-Fantasy all run together as one word. You'd think that SF and Fantasy would be antipodal, with the one (supposedly) founded on scientific and technological advances and the other founded on magic and mythology, two things which this society doesn't seem to be able to reconcile under any other circumstances! I guess folks don't really care so much whether the bearded dude and the buxom woman in the brass brassiere are wielding swords or ray guns...

Back to its having become synonymous with space travel, that leads to the bizarre phenomenon of Margaret Atwood refusing to describe herself as a science fiction author. How in the world can "Oryx and Crake" and its apocalypse-by-biotech NOT be science fiction?? But there are no spaceships, so it must not be. ChickieNobs Bucket O'Nubbins, anyone?

I wonder about the current ubiquitous zombie/vampire craze. I don't follow it in great detail, but I gather there is a developing trend where the zombies are brought about by genetically-engineered viruses. I care for vampires even less, but I wonder if they are going to start going the same way, with pseudo- medical/biological explanations for them. We already have ones that sparkle in the sun instead of bursting in to flames, after all. So it seems like perhaps we are coming back to where Mary Shelley started us off, leaving space and resurrecting Frankenstein (or at least his monster). I am getting the unsettling impression that a whole cadre of young people are actually expecting the zombie apocalypse to really happen, just as earlier generations expected to live and work in space.

When I worked in Academia, by the way, I had a quote from "Frankenstein" on my office door... it was not generally well-received.

Justin Patrick Moore said...

Like Sophie Gale, I prefer my SF to be about social structures: race, class, gender. These have always been the most interesting to me. And those who excelled at this style, people like Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Leguin seem to be able to slip from Fantasy to SF with ease... using the form more as a medium for getting across ideas that might be tricky otherwise.

Also there has been a great deal of environmentally based SF. While I really enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson's "Mars" trilogy (for much of what I thought could be applied to Earth) I liked his "Three Californias" even better. The first was a version of California after a neutron bomb had been detonated in America. The second was something along the lines of where we are now -analysis of militaristic trajectories and hyper-capitalism extrapolated out a bit further, with the ensuing social discohesion of youth, and the third was a community that had moved towards environmental sustainability without being a utopia. That book showed with striking accuracy what political struggles over water in California might look like, and how even in a such a society there can still be personal misery.

Bruce Sterlings "Heavy Weather" about a hypothetical F6 twister sweeping through Texas & Oklahoma, a Tornado powered by changes in the jet stream, also seems like it could be probable. A good read.

While some of the technological progressivism in Cory Doctorow's "Makers" may not play out, other aspects, such as tent cities and favelas springing up in Florida are prescient. Also the whole aspect of salvage in that book, making new things from the detritus of industry.

Earlier this year I read Kunstler's two post collapse novels, followed by Starhawks "The Fifth Sacred Thing". All had much to offer.

Palo Bacigalupi has written two books, both winners of various SF awards. His YA title "Shipbreaker" is set in a salvage yard where kids tear apart old ocean going vessels for the metal.

So SF is still a lively place, but the setting has returned to Earth and our environmental concerns.

GHung said...

JMG- Your initial comment reminded me that I've never read the unabridged version of 'Stranger..', released in 1992, so it's likely I've not groked it in its fullness. An additional 60,000 words (oh my).

I also haven't read the original, full edition of Podkayne of Mars ( which always seemed incomplete to me), also released after Heinlein's death. Perhaps the foreknowlege that Poddy dies causes my hesitation. One wonders how many of the great sci-fi novels I haven't fully experienced, due to publisher editing....

You said: "For that matter, the movement toward sustainability in the 1970s, the subject of a great many posts on this blog, followed a similar trajectory. That movement, as I’ve argued, might have succeeded—I grant that it was a long shot at best."

I'm not so sure the long shot has failed; it's only our expectations that were a long shot. The novel of sustainability is, as yet, incomplete, a work in progress. At least around here it is. Let us not edit the ending prematurely.. Our task is to get as many folks to read it as we can, to share the water. It's clear from the comments so far that even the more obscure sci-fi stories planted some pretty remarkable seeds.

Thanks again for another great, well written post, creating a literary wormhole into the past and future. Still "good to go".

Brad K. said...

@ Cherokee Organics,

"Dunno, agriculture looks like the safest bet to me. You have to eat..."

I have trouble, when I read the word "agriculture", avoiding thinking about modern agribusiness, as practiced here in the US and by Monsanto around the world.

Diminishing resources, including working-age farmers and easy credit, limit the sustainability of the model. Agribusiness farmers engage in business that happens to include raising grains or livestock that they depend on other industries to process into food.

Most small operations are more subsistence type operations, few producing more surplus than they can sell at the farmers market or a roadside stand.

Jerry Pournelle claims that the Space Shuttle program was eminently successful when started -- it successfully employed the 22,000 scientists gathered at the height of the Apollo program. My own observation is that America, and other nations that import and export food, are playing the same political game that kept the Space Shuttle lingering on when it should have been replaced by something that made good use of resources, actually produced desired outputs, and depended on growing new resource people instead of hanging onto the now-renowned pioneers.

Sharon Astyk's "A Nation of Famrers" is compelling -- but feasibility is still a question.

Blessed be.

Cathy McGuire said...

Another good post – I’ve loved science fiction since I first picked it up in 4th grade, but it was Kate Wilhelm’s “Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang” and Ursula LeGuin’s “The Lathe of Heaven” that struck me hard… space exploration seemed a lot like Hardy Boys in Space, but the women scifi writers were getting into human psychology and human-created disasters, which seemed so much more real to me. (And I still think that way about their writing).

I got to meet a bunch of the big names in the ‘80’s (Brin, Pournelle, etc.) because I’d written a couple children scifi’s and that got me to the conferences as an author… I remember that the “hard scifi” guys were disdainful of the “soft scifi” writers – kind of like cowboys looking down on city slickers… I wonder how those guys are handling this fall from grace?

I suspect there has been a quiet increase in that search for faster-than-light-travel (the “wormholes”) now that the steel buckets have been stilled. I finished reading Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy last week, and one thing that amazed and amused me was how calmly he described a civilization that spanned a galaxy as if it was America with its worldwide military bases – and the description of the world-encircling central city of Trantor made me shudder! No blade of grass or tree, except in the one emperor’s park (he was probably looking out on Central Park when he wrote that)… and how he assumed that even the fallen civilization would somehow be able to keep the magic machines running for 300+ years after those who knew how to build them were gone… such wishful thinking!

But if you’re right about scifi leading our thoughts (or reflecting/leading in a feedback loop) – what do you say about all the dark scifi that is prevalent right now? Starting with cyberpunk and now with the apocalyptic books, we aren’t writing ourselves into any kind of livable future… I can see your novel as an attempt to create such a future – one that has found a new balance after the crash… but as you say, even if we grab for such a future, there’s no way to count on the vision being realized… but isn’t that true of each of our lives? As someone turning 56 in a couple weeks, I realize that my visions of who I’d be and what I’d do have not borne the fruit I expected… possibly the ability to “vision” was built into humans to push them to grow in ways they wouldn’t otherwise.

Peck's Bad Boy said...

I remember Slan it was one of my favorite stories as a young kid. I later had trouble finding it but remember the theme and tracked it down.

GHung said...

Don M. wrote: "Which brings us to another fascistic idea: the social necessity of burning books to prevent them from polluting the minds of our young people…"

Gosh Don, my step grandson was up a few weeks ago and was excited that I have open wireless (internet) installed. I asked him what he was doing and he replied that he was "burning a book". Taken aback for a moment, I realized that he was downloading a book to his Kindle. Funny how things change... It then occured to me that, the way things are headed, "burning books" will be as simple as someone hitting the master delete button. Books that don't get deleted as "inappropriate" may be edited, en mass, to provide a new ending, beneficially written for whomever controls the "master editing key" of the time. Re-writing history has never been easier.

Of course, there will emerge a literary integrity guild, a subversive group dedicated to preserving literature in its original form.........

Who could imagine such a thing?

Bill Pulliam said...

Ghung -- the main thing that the unedited version of "Stranger..." impressed on me was the importance of having a good editor.

noxpopuli said...

I wonder if you have read ANATHEM, by Neal Stephenson. Stephenson posits an ascetic, agnostic, monastic teaching order which survives for thousands of years, surviving in large part because of the social conditions you describe: in the order's history, which spans countless periods of natural and social disasters, any looters/invaders immediately discover that the order's treasures are primarily intellectual, and move on after stealing all of the food. There's nothing there, to all outward appearances, to take or destroy.

To reiterate one of the lessons from your post last week: if one does not propagate the taunt/want cycle by buying and having the latest shiny objects, then one is not much of a target for folks who can't have them.

ANATHEM is an alien invasion story, no doubt. But it shows glimmers of long-range constructive thinking.


John Michael Greer said...

Eremon, that's embarrassingly true -- I use the adverb because SF used to include a lot of critique of that sort of technofetishism.

Apple Jack, no argument there; I still read and enjoy SF as a branch of fantasy. Thanks for the reminder, by the way; I really do need to take Clarke's Law apart here one of these days.

Harry, give it fifty years and the Big Bang will be out of fashion again. Science, like every other human activity, is powerfully shaped by cultural fashions and presuppositions.

SweaterMan, E.M. Forster had the internet down cold a century ago in "The Machine Stops," too! I look forward to your further comments.

Joe, you're talking apples and orangutans. The window I have in mind is of a different order, and on a different scale, than the one you're discussing.

Rich, thanks for the reference! You've also pointed usefully to one of the common failings of early SF -- the assumption that whatever the hot new technology was would turn out to be invincible.

Tim, we'll get to that. It just figures, though, that an economics professor would insist that a bit of cheap media exploitation like Star Trek was a valid source of evidence for the shape of the future!

Lew, the idea of a heroic quest for the Holy Treadle Sewing Machine has just about made my day. Thank you!

tOm, hang onto those thoughts about empire. We'll be discussing that in quite a bit of detail down the road a bit.

Kevin, good. Malacandra and Perelandra were based on the best current ideas about Mars and Venus at the time Lewis wrote his space trilogy, and of course he shared the same fantasy of an essentially humanized, domesticated solar system -- he simply used a much older model for it. The poet Robinson Jeffers was very nearly the only writer of that generation that grasped the stunningly inhuman nature of the cosmos -- and I doubt very much that Lewis would have been able to read a single poem of Jeffers' without throwing the book across the room.

Houner said...

Years ago I read a novel that would fit nicely into the science fantasy mold. It talked of a nation that had fallen into serious decline and an as the decline progressed whispers of an unknown world were heard. At one point the heroine, or hero as she would now be referred to, came upon a valley in which flickering lights could be seen in the huts. Astoundingly they were tallow candles and she then knew the world she had believed in was truly lost.

Then a techno magic a valley in the mountains, hidden by an electronic shield and inhabited by beautiful people and a real hunk she just couldn’t do without magically appeared. The place was a combination of Shangri-la and New York City. Abounding in endless techno and monetary plenty, without the distraction of poor folks, everyone worshiped the almighty dollar and inculcated the perfect emotion – greed. The nasty techno-science myth generated by that book, Atlas Shrugged, [Yeah, I really read it three times, then I grew up and realized what dangerous nonsense it is] has for over two generations been a bible for the likes of Alan Greenspan, a generations of neo-con economists and now Tea Party types. In that context the works of Clarke and Asimov seem benign. It also demonstrates the power of myth even if that myth is massively destructive to our society.

Now we anticipate a brief moment in time in which the current myth is extinguished and a desperate world is ready to listen. Looking back at a Science Fiction such a hope is akin to the regular appearances of an electronic apparition in the Foundation Trilogy which guided the nascent society on its path to the future. Unfortunately events overran this nifty plan when a long known and expected appearance of an electronic apparition was not witnessed by anyone due to the turmoil associated with events then ongoing in the wider universe of the novel.

As with the novel our expected “window of opportunity” will open at some point in the midst of increasing chaos due to our accelerating collapse. Sadly that long coveted moment of enlightenment when the wider society realizes the true nature of our predicament will likely be lost, extinguished in the chaos of then ongoing events.


John Michael Greer said...

Sophie, I didn't say it was good; I said it was influential -- and a clear assessment of Slan and works like it makes a very useful starting point for understanding a lot of what was up in 20th century America. Thanks for the link to the Amadis translation!

Don, I'd put in a word for Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe -- unbelievably trashy, but fun.

Andrew, good. You get today's gold star.

Robo, the thing most people don't remember about Sputnik I is the sheer panic it caused in the US. It's when America wets itself in fear that change becomes possible, at least for a little while.

Clarence, thank you! Quite a few old favorites there.

Cherokee, "too late" is a judgment call; too late for what? Most of the things I've been proposing in this blog for the past year or so are workable when you've already got resource shortages and are scrambling to get by with salvage and scrap -- that's why I hope to see enough people who know how to use the salvage and scrap, and can teach those of their neighbors who are willing to learn.

Hadashi, "peak peak oil" is a very crisp way of putting it. Thank you! Not that the phenomenon itself will peak, of course, but the movement -- inevitably.

Anagnosto, it's precisely the shift from wonder tales about new technology in general, to travel tales predicated on space travel, and then to general fantasy with bits of machinery thrown in here and there, that I want to trace here.

Phil, I dropped out in the 80s when cyberpunk became all the rage. I found it stunningly dull -- a tame rehash of then-contemporary hacker-and-slacker culture with just enough spaceships thrown in to sell it to Tor Books -- and most of what wasn't cyberpunk was basically going through overfamiliar motions.

Andrew, that's one of those little difficulties in the way of the dream of space migration. When European settlers got to America, they didn't find a wilderness -- they found two continents that had been thoroughly settled millennia ago, but 98% of the inhabitants had just died of smallpox. Mapping that experience onto the far more overwhelming task of settling someplace that doesn't even have a biosphere is a grand source of misperceptions.

John Michael Greer said...

Babaji, and since nobody knows exactly where the puck is going, getting as many people spread out up the rink in as many places as possible is one of the few options that promises some hope of success.

Texas, I figured a list would simply distract attention from the point I wanted to make. I can certainly see a movie of Moon, but the Foundation Trilogy? A vast, unworkable mess. Hard to do it in less than a 30 hour miniseries.

Siani, thank you.

Les, the zeitgeist isn't some sort of outside force; it's composed of the conversations and collective imagination within a particular culture or subculture. Newton and Liebniz were both part of a lively, fiercely competitive mathematical community in seventeenth century Europe, working to exploit the possibilities opened up by Descartes' revolutionary algebraization of geometry, and the calculus was a logical extrapolation from work that they and others had already done. If they'd both grown up reading stories about brilliant mathematicians who'd figured out a way to represent dynamics in the form of equations, it would be fair to say that those stories hadn't simply reflected a zeitgeist, but had actually helped inspire their discoveries; that's exactly what happened with SF and some branches of modern technology.

Speedscribe, "science porn" is a great phrase! You're right, of course, that a lot of hard SF is busy circling the wagons, or perhaps circling the drain, making believe that their favorite gimmicks still work; I'd like to see some hard SF get past that and grapple with futures in which the endless gravy train doesn't keep rolling.

Grrl, the best of the genre was stunningly good, and not least because of its willingness to grapple with massive moral issues at a time when most other contemporary fiction was busily evading them.

Mister Roboto, bearing the weight of a civilization's blind spots and habitual self-delusions is the natural environment of subcultures like the one that's grown up around peak oil. I worry a great deal more about what happens when it becomes popular in a big way, five or ten years from now.

Scyther, good. You're quite right; the core premise of most SF is falsified by the mess we've made with the technology and the biosphere we've got.

Maria, do that. We'll be talking about that quite soon.

DIYer, I'd recommend that!

Bill, you're preaching to the choir! I think Atwood is trying so hard to claim that she's not a SF writer because there's still, in many minds, a division between SF and "real literature," and she's staked out her territory firmly on one side of that boundary. As for vampires and zombies, that's going to be the theme of a post one of these days, possibly this October; I don't think it's accidental, or comforting, that so many people in contemporary America are putting so much effort into fetishizing death.

Nano said...

@Bill P.

The "current" Zombie/Vampire thing has been brewing for a while. Watch G. Romero Zombie flicks in order. They are a social commentary at one level and fun horror flicks at the other.

I think they reflect the myth that my generation and the one before me is living. Long gone are the Gods, space monsters, Leary's idea of SMILE (squared) we are now left with a zombie waste land to which we have to wade and fight with in order to find some sort of isolated peace, while still having to go on the holy sewing machine quests!

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, that's good to hear. It's still got a couple of years to run as a monthly blog serial, but I'll be interested to see if I can find a home in print for my SF novel-in-progress Star's Reach when it's finished, revised, and ready for publication.

Ghung, I'll take your metaphor and raise you. The sustainability movement of the 1970s was the first volume of a series -- perhaps a trilogy, perhaps not -- and ended, as so many first volumes, do, with apparent disaster and the surviving characters scrambling around to pick up the pieces. (Think of the last chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring.) Now we're in the early chapters of volume two; the pace is picking up as our heroes and heroines hunt for the lost secrets of Green Wizardry. Will they succeed in their quest? There are still a lot of pages to read...

Cathy, I'm not sure what to say about cyberpunk and the fad for "dark" SF, as I find much of it unreadably dull. Still, I think a lot of it comes back to the same turn toward nihilism I tried to anatomize in the "Alternatives to Nihilism" series in April: the sort of brittle, jeering, sullen cult of ugliness and despair for their own sake that you find in people who know they've cashed in their ideals. SF reflects that as much as any other cultural phenomenon; it's not building a future so much as it is reflecting the self-loathing of the present. Now of course that offers some possibilities for action, at least for those who are willing to grapple with the betrayal at the root of it all, and suggest alternatives.

As for "Star's Reach," in its own way it's a very ambitious project, though I know my limits as a writer well enough to doubt that it'll succeed as fully as I'd like. In my own way I'm trying to sketch a future that could actually happen, and in the process punch past the paired fantasies of infinite progress and total apocalypse that have hogtied so many people's visions of the future. There's more to it than that, but the rest will have to wait for further developments...

Peck's, I was never really a Van Vogt fan, but whatever fires your thrusters...

John Michael Greer said...

Nox, funny you should ask; having been encouraged by a couple of commenters last week, I went out and found a copy at the local public library, and read it. Still digesting it, and getting over my irritation at the way Stephenson dodged all the really interesting dimensions of Platonism -- not his fault, really, as those have been being dodged by all and sundry for the last three centuries -- but your comments about monasticism are of course quite apropos.

Houner, someone pointed out a little while ago in a discussion of Ayn Rand that she herself ended up on Social Security and Medicare in old age. So much for the sturfy self-reliance of the self-appointed elite! As for the Foundation Trilogy, there's an important lesson there about the shelf life of prophecy, which I'll be discussing in some detail down the road.

Stu from Rutherford said...

Robo and Cherokee Organics both touched on the identity, nature, and possibility of a Sputnik moment. They may both be right: What should be such a "moment" could be missed due to lack of attention span, and what will actually be that moment (perhaps production at the Gawar field plummeting) could produce too much panic for something meaningful to happen.

Perhaps after the panic subsides there will be that "window of opportunity" to point out that the party is over.

Such observations do not win popularity contests. I ran for public office twice on what amounted to a "peak oil" platform and got mostly blank stares. After the first one, I got serious about gardening, keeping a pantry and learning how to repair things. I ran again just to make sure the first one meant what I thought it did. It did.

However, the window could be instrumental in increasing the number of people making useful preparations. I'm too old to care about the popularity angle, so I'll take advantage of it. We need the reinforcements (in the words of Babaji).

PS. Thanks to JMG for mentioning Amadis of Gaul and to SophieGale for posting the link to that new translation.

Will said...

john: your writing is good, I really value The Long Descent. but be careful about too facile historical comparisons, especially to recent history. you keep mentioning the burden of the defense budget. many countries in the past have been ruined by excessive spending on war. ours is not. we spend barely 4 percebnt of GNPon defense, versus 6under Reagan and 8 percent etnam. we are being squeezed not by defense cosst but by declining
real returns on investment especially in energy (as you note) and by over-investment in unsustainable meicine costs of keeping old people alive an extra year or two (which you do not note). the incomptency of leaders
in the Iraq-Afghan adventures does not mean that inaction was an option, nor need it imply that all such 'since the Spanish-American war" are futile. we shot our way into Japan, South korea and Germany. all are doing well, not puppets, and also democracies. best wishe, bill

Tracy G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Michael Greer said...

Stu, I think they've both got a point, but there will still be things that can be done when the panic hits, as I've suggested already.

Will, er, you're either missing my point or dodging it. May I repeat it? Whenever the US invades a, please note, Third World country (last I checked Germany, Japan, and South Korea don't fall into this category) and tries to turn it into a happy little puppet democracy, the result is failure. More generally, I'm not sure where you get the idea that I'm fixated on the defense budget as such; the cost/benefit ratio of empire is a much more complex phenomenon than that -- though given that the US spends nearly as much on its defense budget as the rest of the world put together, it may be worth asking why.

Andrew Brown said...

I'm late to the party this week. We're in day 5 of our vacation from electricity. (Hurricane Irene blew through, taking the internet and a few other conveniences with it.)

I think one of the remarkable things about SF was its willingness to look into the future. I taught a college course on "utopianism" and one of the questions I was posing to the students and to myself was: why were the vast majority people so incapable of and uninterested in envisioning a future that was any different from the present.

Your earlier insight about people's unconscious realization about their lifestyles being unsustainable may have something to do with it. But as you note, as far as we can tell, literature that played with futures was rare to non-existent. I find that really interesting and somewhat baffling. But then I grew up reading science fiction, so obviously I'm a cultural mutant.

LewisLucanBooks said...

Sorry. This might be a double post. When I clicked on "Publish Your Comment" I got another screen that wanted my phone number. Er, noooo ...

I don't read fantasy. Too many long names with too many consonants. :-)

@ - tOM According to the Idaho Statesman newspaper, the Chinese want to buy a 50 square mile section of land next to the Boise airport. To build a self-sustaining city that will be a special economic zone.

They are also looking into similar deals in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

idiotgrrl said...

Re: "Rich, thanks for the reference! You've also pointed usefully to one of the common failings of early SF -- the assumption that whatever the hot new technology was would turn out to be invincible."

From a Worldcon panel entitled "The Myths of Physics in sf", "The tech is science fiction. The budget is fantasy."

Among the myths: that from the great theorist conceiving it to the engineers building it to it being good to go is only a matter of a few months. [Insert horse laughs from those in the business.]

andrewbwatt said...

TO: Bill Pulliam,

I've talked to more than a couple of people about the horrors of zombies and vampires and werewolves (oh my), and we came up with a theory. It's not a theory backed up by a lot of data, but we decided it was worth arguing about over a beer or two.

The Zombie Apocalypse appears to be an expression of fear on the part of some that some ghastly tragedy is going to result in vast hordes of people not being able to eat, work or manage their lives. Maybe a bank crash, maybe the failure of the transport network, maybe something else. But the fear of rampaging, almost mindless hordes, coming after you, is really about a mass breakdown of society.

The ravening Vampire, on the other side, is perhaps a representation of an aristocracy or oligarchy run amok. A small cadre of individuals who use combinations of advertising, fascination, magic, and other mysterious powers to drain all the life from other people... The current "sparkle in the sun" thing is a revision based on the idea, perhaps, that we no longer regard vampires as creatures only of the night ... indeed, the unrepentant oligarchs with no sense of noblesse oblige are the only ones who can spend vast amounts of time out in the sun, playing and enjoying themselves...
And werewolves may be in a sense stories about beings that appear human but are really sociopaths in disguise. They might look like you and me, but they don't think or act like we do.

As for the technological progressivism, in a sense it's already begun. A group of adults and I held a skill share in my house, to learn soldering and basic electronics assembly. And my friend Geoff has been pressuring the folks in India who make the Jaipur Foot to share that tech with the First World — so that the folks who can't afford $10,000 leg replacements have other options.

This is part of the Green Wizardry task, too... communicating with the 'developing world' while the communications window is open and the Internet works, to transfer back some of the "appropriate tech" that we in the industrialized nations think we've already bypassed.

I built one loom this summer... I suspect I'll be building another in the near future.

LewisLucanBooks said...

The zombie craze is to desensitize us to the idea of cannibalism. We all remember what Soylent Green was.

Tully Reill said...

With last weeks and this weeks post, the thing that keeps cropping up in my thoughts is how the real-science/technology (such as Voyager, Skylab, the Shuttle, etc.) and Science-Fiction will combine and blur together into a potential new mythological cycle centuries down the road ahead of us.

artinnature said...

Regarding the "Window of Opportunity"--I envision a secret revolving door, like in the old movies, very few know where it is located, and it will appear as if out of nowhere. It is massive and its rate of motion is not easily altered. Now it is open only a fraction of an inch, and we can barley glimpse the (ecotechnic) future on the other side, but cannot pass through it. Once it is open far enough, Green Wizards will pass through, but when perpendicular (Peak Open?) said Wizards will begin wedging their bodies crossways into the passage, in hopes of keeping it open a bit longer, admitting a few more.

kayxyz said...

Star Wars caught my eye. Recently a pal provided me a copy of a great movie musical from 1964. Only one of its kind, the sun set on the Hollywood musical, unfortunately, with the advent of Star Wars. Wish o i wish i could "order" the two actors in the musical to do more and more.

Wish I could "order" all the molecules pulled out of the air, reassembled, and I could view Hamlet as it was performed in Shakespeare's day.

To return a moment to JMG's previous comment: if the US military changes I'll alter 80% of my lifestyle?! As much as 80%? I've already had one work-at-home position, and if i earn a promotion, i may be able to work at home full time. Granted, peak oil may prevent me working at home, viewing and correcting databases. I've already thought seriously about transitioning to farming, riding a bike, providing my own entertainment in my own yard, so the US military can be right-sized and right-engineered with a vengeance.

kealolo said...

The Archdruid Report has long been one of my favorite reads, springing from one of my favorite minds, but I'm not a "commenting" sorta person. Still, I'll post this "attaboy" for the last two columns on space exploration & scifi, because those things have meant a lot to me over the years and because once again JMG has expressed something close to my own thoughts, and written better than I could.

My life was enough influenced by scifi that an account of it would read a bit like scifi in places, and as an unexpected result of my projects, I not infrequently found myself getting support from notable scifi authors, astronauts, and the like. I found myself in a bit of an odd position - a "radical" green campaigner of some note who also was a public space-exploration proponent. The same impulses which had me saving whales also had me pushing for O'Neill colonies; they seemed about equal longshots in the 70's. Those enthusiasms never died, but as I immersed myself in real systems over the decades and tried to identify my own delusions in an ongoing process, many inherent limits became visible, and here I am.

Still, I think that a love of scifi, and the whole experience of living with the space program, were necessary to become who I became, and that's not lessened by the fact that man will not colonize the rest of the solar system. Big-picture thinking and a certain audacity were nurtured by those things, making my life a bit more preposterous and hopefully a bit more useful to the world. I think scifi may become even more valuable during the long descent, though I suppose it could become a false narrative of the legendary past rather than a false narrative of the future. Who knows... in 2000 years, some religions may feature references to Klingons, martian babes, and all the rest... and be the more interesting for it.

ViewFromHere said...

Enjoyed the post Mr. Greer... but thought you might be taking it towards a genre of fiction that seems to be gaining market share-- dystopic futures. Seems there are more and more authors writing about our uncertain futures- Kunstler, Lessing, even Albert Brook's new book 2030. As a agricultural scientist I've been dreaming, scheming and penning a few words here and there for my own future dystopic novel-- an Agro-Eco Thriller. Ag sciences providing a frighteningly good source of fodder for a dystopic adventures in food production.

Best hopes...

Susan said...

As it happens, I met my husband at a science fiction convention (ConFusion in Ann Arbor). We used to go to lots of cons, and our kids grew up in fandom with the kids of other fans we knew, but we've sort of dropped out of that scene for the last several years. FIAWOL became FIJAGDH. Life happens...

I have noticed that quite a few people seem to want to live in the future (SF fans), or in the past (the SCA), but very few seem to be fully happy with the here and now. I wonder in which era people of future centuries will want to live. I can imagine there might be quite a bit of nostalgia for a past golden age of muscle cars, sexual license, and rock'n'roll (Elwus!), just as the Romantics of earlier centuries fixated even on earlier ages of chivalry, etc.

I missed your previous elegy for the space age, since I had to drop out of normal space for a few weeks to attend to my Father's death and funeral. I second the emotions of many commenters here. It could have been, and maybe should have been, but probably never would have been, even under the best of circumstances.

However, I can imagine one scenario in which humanity gets its act together to build a significant infrastructure in space, even if it does not lead to O'Neill space colonies or domed cities on the Moon: If we detect an asteroid or comet that will hit the Earth in a few decades (which may happen with the asteroid Apophis if it passes through the so-called "keyhole" on Friday the 13th, 2029), we could have a sort of "When Worlds Collide" crash program to save ourselves. Instead of just deflecting the next space rock to come our way, we could also start mining it with robots (or maybe even a few humans), and have a permanent presence in space (which would be necessary to protect against a permanent threat to our very existence).

As Larry Niven pointed out a few years ago, the reason the Dinosaurs are extinct is because they did not have a sufficiently advanced space program...

Cherokee Organics said...


I wrote "I reckon when conditions force the population at large to accept the limits to growth as a reality of their existence, then it will be too late."

I don't know what "too late" means either which is why I posed the question. It's the not the present environment though.

What I do know is that there is a tendency among people to delay making any change until they are certain that conditions indicate that this is the only way forward. People always hang onto the familiar beyond its use by date. There was a discussion many months ago about the society living on Easter Island, or the Viking colony on Greenland. These are good examples.

This is on my radar because up my way this can be a matter of life and death - and it's a fine line. If a bush fire is in the vicinity, do you stay and defend your property, do you leave early, which way do you go, which way is the wind blowing, what's the topography like between you and the fire, how much water have you got on site, are you physically and mentally up to the challenge etc.

Again, I dunno, but it doesn't make the risk go away.



Phil Knight said...

Interesting that no-one has mentioned J.G. Ballard as an avatar of Sci-Fi. Here in the UK (since the Punk era at least) he's been seen as the prophet of the future.

Although ironically his utterly grim vision of the decades ahead is as unlikely as any cornucopian one - you need as much energy to sustain a Ballardian world as an Asimovian one.

Bob said...

A great post, and, dare I say, less of a downer than most. Frankenstein is my favorite book, as the metaphor of the monster works on many levels (such as the risks of releasing an idea or work of art into the world, and thereby relinquishing control of it). I agree that most Sci-Fi is junk, but so is most "serious" fiction, too: nearly any highly praised novel of ten years ago is either panned now or forgotten, to say nothing of other genres like mystery, crime, or romance. More importantly, some so-called writers of serious fiction (the aforementioned Atwood, Ian McEwan, Don Delillo, and others) have incorporated science fictional elements into their recent work, which on one level is the ultimate endorsement and mark of success. Regarding the dominance of the space opera, I remember being exposed to the concept of "speculative fiction," which was essentially a less outlandish branch of Sci-Fi, that focussed on Earth, the relatively near future, and one intelligent species: us. More recently, there has been a movement for Mundane Science Fiction, which embraces many more rules; I suppose it is an attempt to reject to some degree the myths of progress and apocalypse you have addressed here. Also, Science Fiction has infiltrated movies in less obvious ways (people don't refer to the current wave of super hero films as sci-fi, but that is what they are), and even music. So, I say, Science Fiction can claim the ultimate victory: it has become an integral part of many facets of mainstream culture, to the point of being undetectable. Whether that is a good thing or not, well...

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ ViewFromHere - Agro-Eco Thriller. Been done. "The Windup Girl." But, go ahead. I'm sure you can do it different and better!

John Michael Greer said...

Andrew, one of the reasons for that was that for most of human history, social and technological change have been so slow as to be barely noticeable; it was a safe bet that the next decade was going to be like the last one, absent the vagaries of politics, war, and weather. We've been through a very atypical age when that isn't the case. Mind you, I agree that the capacity to think through possible futures is one of the real gifts of SF, though it hasn't been used to anything like the extent that it could have.

Lew, no double post problems. Me, I read a lot of SF but preferred fantasy or stuff on the borderline; unfortunately fantasy went in directions I found even less welcome than SF. Oh well.

Grrl, funny! Not a bad description of most of the future-tech claims circulating in the peak oil scene, too.

Tully, good question. I'd say the best answer is to start writing and telling the stories now.

Artinnature, that's a useful metaphor. Meanwhile, there's half a dozen brightly lit and loudly announced emergency exits elsewhere, and all of a sudden the lights go on and the sirens go off; people rush toward one exit or another. The thing is, nobody actually knows where they lead.

Kayxyz, I think you missed my point. It's because of the US military and empire that people in the US get to use far more than their share of the world's resources and industrial products. When that empire goes down, around 80% of what's supporting your current standard of living is going to go away, and when the process ends you're going to be living in a politically fragmented and economically bankrupt Third World country that still happens to be called the United States of America. You will be much poorer than you are today -- quite possibily poor as in "how am I going to get enough to eat?" Is that a bit clearer?

Kealolo, I hope that people 2000 years from now aren't using Klingons and Martians as figures in their myths, in the full sense of the term -- that is, the stories they use to make sense of the world and themselves. On the other hand, they'd make great figures in folktales! But I'd certainly agree with you about some of the upside of SF, and it would be nice to see some of that flow into whatever new genres of literature rise after the twilight of the space age.

View, I'm not a fan of dystopias; I know they have an important place, I just don't enjoy reading them.

Susan, I'm very sorry to hear about your father. I've also noticed the fixation on living in the future, the past, or some other nonexistent place, and will be discussing it at some length shortly.

Cherokee, in one sense it's already too late; most of the people now alive on this planet can pretty much count on shortened lives and a plummeting standard of living over the decades to come as the consequences of a lot of very stupid choices catch up with us. In another sense, though, "too late" is an abstraction; at every point, the question is what to do about the current situation; some options have already been foreclosed, others remain open, and the choices made by the unthinking masses are probably not a good thing to follow.

Phil, Ballard's very much of a British taste, I think. I could never stand the man's writing -- I'm sure he's very good, but it rubs me entirely the wrong way.

Thijs Goverde said...

I'd never really thought of SF books as actively helping to shape the collective human mind in a way that helped produce more science.
If you think about it for a while, it's self-evident that this should be so.
However, I'm a bit leery of self-evident things so I'll certainly check out the book Rich_P mentioned, in search of evidence.

Seems that even I, in spite of my lousy gardening and complete lack of other survival-oriented skills, may still make myself useful by writing a couple more books.

Which is what I was going to do anyway. But now it'll feel less selfish to just sit down and write.

Have to check out the Overy book, before I can really, unashamedly, feel good about it, though.

John Michael Greer said...

Bob, that's a useful point, of course. The one rule of Mundane SF I don't follow in my blog/novel Star's Reach is the one about no aliens; radio contact with an alien species is a core theme of my plot, partly because it seems plausible enough and partly because it allows me to talk about some themes that are crucial to the story.

John Michael Greer said...

Will (offlist), please read the paragraph above the comment bar again. I don't mind answering the occasional off topic question or comment, but if you want to have an extended conversation about the US' imperial overstretch, you'll need to save it for a time when that's the topic of the post -- that'll be four to six months from now, by the way. In the meantime, we're talking about the impact of science fiction on contemporary ideas about the future; if you'd like to comment on that, that's another matter, of course.

Phil Knight said...


I think Ballard isn't mythical, in the sense that he doesn't present humanity's redeeming features (compassion, heroism etc.) In fact his characters tend to be one-dimensional ciphers (they're all J.G. Ballard talking to himself really). His ideas are interesting though - how we become our landscape, our automobiles, our consumer products.

I don't think I could recommend a book of his that would change your mind about his writing, but his life story is worth investigating (he was brought up in a Japanese POW camp, trained as a surgeon, was widowed early in his life, was in many ways a determined Luddite). His work does make a strange kind of sense in the context of his own life.

That said, I'm not going to advocate him too strongly, because I personally much prefer Colin Wilson.....

Mister Roboto said...

@JMG: I failed to make myself as clear as I might have. What I was trying to say that if the Peak Oil awareness movement becomes popular, it would be a shame if the movement neutered itself by thinking that it "had it made" the way many in the sustainability movement of yesteryear probably thought of their movement, to its ultimate detriment. Americans of middle-class origin have such a pronounced tendency to deceive themselves with pretty stories that I share your concern.

Though I have to admit, I would likely enjoy being able to say to the young'uns "I was Peak Oil when Peak Oil wasn't cool." (In my case, 2003/ 2004.)

ganv said...

Thanks for the insightful piece. Visions of the future are very central to mass social movements. Over and over in human history these visions have been partly realized leading to overconfidence in other parts of the vision. I see wise advice against overreach in your last paragraph, and would be very interested to see you amplify on how to apply this to the vision of future resource depletion.

John Michael Greer said...

Thijs, good! Don't make writing too much of a virtue, though; it gains half its charm by being at least a bit of a vice.

Phil, I don't doubt that he's a serious thinker and I know that many people enjoy his work. It's purely a matter of my personal taste, which is far from infallible. There's a difference between the abstract recognition of quality and actual aesthetic enjoyment; I can recognize the greatness in certain modern artists, for example, but their work leaves me cold or actively repels me; I get none of the delight I get from, say, a drawing by Rembrandt or Hokusai. Ballard falls in the former category for me; I simply don't enjoy his prose.

Mr. Roboto, thanks for the clarification. That makes a good deal of sense.

Ganv, it's actually been a central though not always overt theme of this blog all along, warning of the dangers of what the old Marxists used to call "premature triumphalism." I'll be revisiting it down the road a bit.

Susan said...

John Brunner wrote some terrific books back in the 1970s, such as Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. Those efforts predicted things like CNN (Brunner called it the English Language Relay Satellite Service) and the sort of environmental and social degradation that have become all to normal nowadays.

Distopian stories often have a bigger impact in the long run than utopian ones. It's the old, "If this goes on..." Oh, you mean, if we keep doing "X" then it will lead to the end of civilization as we know it? Well, maybe we really don't want to keep going down that path after all!

Several people have noticed the similarity between "A Clockwork Orange" and modern life in certain precincts of not-so-Great Britain in 2011. I wonder how that happened?

The predictive or proscriptive aspect of literature was only possible during the Age of Change that we are just now leaving. In previous centuries, change of the magnitude that we have experienced since World War I was slow or nonexistent; I'm not sure how a science fiction writer of the middle ages would have handled the invention of the horse collar (a useful thing, but not as revolutionary as, say, the steam locomotive or electricity), but absent the changes made possible by the use of fossil fuels, the world of one century would look pretty much the same as any other century. Is that the future toward which we are heading?

I remember reading an old Ace Double called The Masters of Evolution. I don't remember the story, but the concept seems logical enough. Even without fossil fuels we can still make (r)evolutionary breakthroughs in certain fields of science and some useful technologies, especially biological (plants that use a more efficient form of photosynthesis, or Niven's "Stage Trees", for instance). And, of course, we may actually see some interesting things happening in the field of nanotechnology before the end of the petrolium age.

Human ingenuity and curiousity will still be with us long after the last drop of oil is extracted from the Alberta tar sands, so the future may not be as bleak as we might assume.

BTW, we decided to have Dad cremated instead of buried with all of our other departed relatives down around Detroit. No one in our family still lives there, and we have little desire to even visit (it's just too depressing), so it looks like he's going to end up scattered over Lake Michigan (assuming the DNR doesn't object to that kind of "pollution").

Or, we could just keep him on the mantel for a while and put him in my future rose garden (just like in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Susan said...

And speaking of the end of the Space Age, there's this story from Yahoo News that I just saw today:

Space junk littering orbit; might need cleaning up. Ya think?

We don't need no stinkin' aliens to quarantine our little mudball planet; we seem to be doing a fine job of it ourselves...

hadashi said...

You think that skill share sessions might replace Tupperware parties? That would be great!

. josé . said...

On most blogs, I try to read all of the previous comments before posting something, but I can't keep up on this one!

I credit science fiction (and my addiction to science fiction) with teaching English to this immigrant boy. I remember reading the Foundation Trilogy with a flashlight under the sheets. (My parents had a strict lights-out policy, and I was cheating.)

The Foundation specifically (or what I remember of it) give me some hope for the near future. A resource-limited planet that uses intensive information and design to build a rich civilization. As a software designer, that's certainly the future I'm working toward, even as I try to prepare for the next step down in the catabolic staircase.

I too tapered off of SF in the 70's, as I went to college and changed my major, in steps, from chemistry to psychology and philosophy. The two novels that were most influential, though, were dystopias that haven't shown up in the discussions yet: Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, both by John Brunner. I always considered SoZ as the prototypical (and best) cyberpunk novel, even though it written in the '60s. And for years thereafter, I had a manila folder labeled "Sheep", into which I put clippings of environmental disasters like Love Canal and Three Mile Island.

But the Mushroom Planet novels ... those were the best :)

Don Mason said...

@GHung wrote:

“…’burning books’ will be as simple as someone hitting the master delete button. Books that don't get deleted as "inappropriate" may be edited, en mass, to provide a new ending, beneficially written for whomever controls the "master editing key" of the time. Re-writing history has never been easier.

Of course, there will emerge a literary integrity guild, a subversive group dedicated to preserving literature in its original form.........

Who could imagine such a thing?”

Unfortunately, Bradbury’s “Firemen” would then have to be renamed “Digital Editors.” It doesn’t have quite the same literary punch.

And it would really suffer if they tried to film it. Even Julie Christie couldn’t save a movie featuring “Digital Editors” as the bad guys – not even Julie Christie in her 1960’s, hot babe prime.

Don Mason said...

@andrewbwatt wrote:

“The Zombie Apocalypse appears to be an expression of fear on the part of some that some ghastly tragedy is going to result in vast hordes of people not being able to eat, work or manage their lives. Maybe a bank crash, maybe the failure of the transport network, maybe something else. But the fear of rampaging, almost mindless hordes, coming after you, is really about a mass breakdown of society.”

That sounds like some of my neighbors here in “mass-breakdown-of-society”, deindustrialized Rockford – particularly the part about mindless zombie hordes who are not able to manage their lives.

Although I don’t think a bank crash would faze them, since they don’t have any money; and if they did, they certainly wouldn’t know how to put it in a bank, let alone how to get it out once it’s in there.

And a failure of the transport network would also have little effect, since they already don’t have cars - other than the cars that they steal once in a while so that they can do their drive-by’s. The police just found another one parked in front of the house across the street. No keys in it, so they weren’t finished using it. (They take the keys so that nobody steals the car that they just stole. These guys may not be able to manage their lives, but they aren’t completely stupid.)

“The ravening Vampire, on the other side, is perhaps a representation of an aristocracy or oligarchy run amok. A small cadre of individuals who use combinations of advertising, fascination, magic, and other mysterious powers to drain all the life from other people... “

Yep, we’ve got a few of those here, too. Not actually living in my neighborhood, of course. But their presence is felt. They’re sort of night-averse vampires, though: They spend their day draining the financial life out of our neighborhood, and at night they retire to the safety of their big homes in the small, wealthy enclaves surrounding Rockford.

They don’t come here at night, though – not ever. They would be destroyed. They’re terrified of the dark.

“And werewolves may be in a sense stories about beings that appear human but are really sociopaths in disguise. They might look like you and me, but they don't think or act like we do.”

So the crack heads and junkies we’re seeing around here are actually like werewolves: they seem relatively normal until they light up or shoot up. And then watch out, because they turn into animals. But it’s only a temporary condition, and after a few hours, they go back to being relatively normal…

Yep, we’ve got all of ‘em here: zombie horde apocalypse, parasitic financial vampires, and crack head/junkie werewolves.

Ashley Girardi said...

Actually, I don't think Star's Reach violates the rules of mundane SF at all, at least not according to wikipedia. The tenets of mundane SF that pertain to aliens (once again, according to WP) are:

-That there is no evidence whatsoever of intelligences elsewhere in the universe. That absence of evidence is not evidence of absence -- however, it is considered unlikely that alien intelligences will overcome the physical constraints on interstellar travel any better than we can.
-That interstellar trade (and colonization, war, federations, etc.) is therefore highly unlikely.
-That communication with alien intelligences over such vast distances will be vexed by: the enormous time lag in exchange of messages and the likelihood of enormous and probably currently unimaginable differences between us and aliens.

-That therefore our most likely future is on this planet and within this solar system, and that it is highly unlikely that intelligent life survives elsewhere in this solar system. Any contact with aliens is likely to be tenuous, and unprofitable.

Justin G

simon.dc3 said...

Ugh...JMG...Thank you (?) :(
I love sci-fi and love reading Analog Science Fiction and Fact (previously known as Astounding, the one that gendered many of those sci-fi visionaries you mention).

Alas, ever since getting acquainted to Finite Resource late last year (unfortunately am a bit late to reality) by way of Dr. Albert Bartlett's omniscient presentation "Arithmetic, Population, and Energy" and then everyone else I've found since, sci-fi doesn't hold the sway it held over me before.

You know, something deep within gave me a sense a epiphany when I started researching Peak Oil and Resource unlike few things have done in my life. This sense of liberation and anxiety and my love still for Analog Science Fiction and Fact leads me think it could be the perfect medium to engendering that proto-movement you speak of into full blown consciousness, specially if handled by some of those well-versed in physics, thermodynamics and the limits of a finite system. Much like the editor of Analog himself is, Mr. Stanley Schmidt; though am not sure if he's much up on the limits of a finite system :D

Kevin said...

I agree with Hadashi: skill share parties are a great idea. I'd certainly attend if I knew of any in my town.

Asturchale y Chulo said...

Just two minor points: First, I don`t think Cuba was an underdeveloped country by the time of the Spanish-American war, by the standards of the time. In fact it was attracting European inmigration, and not the other way round (a couple uncles of mine went there, incidentally).
Second, following your post a pattern emerges: Sci-Fi wanes away, the American Century falls into discredit, the quest of a sustainable civilization dies. It looks as if people were just getting tired of trying things altogether. I think we have chosen to stay at home and just update our Facebook account. Sci-Fi isn`t as popular as it used to be, certainly, but it`s much worse than that: Blockbusters are not a world event as they used to be some twenty years ago and pop stars are just not as popular as they used to be. We keep talking about U2, Madonna and the Rolling Stones because there just isn`t any replacement for them.
I have been lately reading "Intellectuals" by Paul Johnson, and it amazes me the leading role that people like Sartre or Bertolt Brecht played by the middle XXth Century. My generation is just plain too tired to listen to some philosopher preaching for yet another "revolution". They have failed too many times. It`s a too old world. I think we are all in the mood of the author of Eclesiastes.
In a sense it`s as if this world was turning medieval again: each one isolated in its own little hamlet, just waiting for the next harvest to arrive.

rcg1950 said...

If you thought Slan was bad you must have missed The Silky (also by AEvV). But for males 12-14 not so terrible.

I'm surprised no one on a blog like this has mentioned Forbidden Planet (the movie of course, the book I believe was just an adaption from the screen play). Still, in my opinion, the best sci-fi film ever. "Monsters from the id" wreaking vengence upon a techno-utopian race endowed with enormous hubris. A prescient theme indeed considering the film was made in 1956.

Kieran O'Neill said...

I've seen the point made a few times that the purpose of science fiction is not so much prediction of the future, but something closer to a grand thought experiment in how people and societies would respond to particular situations. The point was also made, if I recall, that most science fiction is actually writing about the issues of the present, despite setting them in a fantasy future.

I think something similar has been echoed by quite a few authors, even William Gibson. Again, I can't find the interview, but somewhere he said that the reason he now writes about the present is that it is much weirder than anything he, or anyone else, could have predicted in the 80s. I think he said something to the effect that if he had gone to a publisher with a novel featuring cellphones, the fall of the Soviet Union, and HIV, he would have been laughed out of the office.

Anyway, here are some essays I could find by prominent contemporary sci fi authors featuring parallel thoughts to this one:
Science Fiction after the Future Went Away - Ken MacLeod
The future isn't dead. We simply overtook it. - Warren Ellis

And of course, Bill Gibson:
"A couple of weeks ago I happened to read Charlie Stross's argument as to why he believes that there will never, ever be any manned space travel. It's not going to happen. We're not going to colonize Mars. All of that is just a big fantasy. And it's so convincing. I read that and I'm like, "My god, there goes so much of the fiction I read as a child."
What if this is it? Not only what if we've already destroyed the planet, but what if this is the only one?

Cherokee Organics said...


Who is the great god Ghu? The reference is completely lost on me.

Years ago, I had a mate Matt, who I'd known for about three decades (we became friends as 7 year olds at primary school) who used to be my guide for all books Sci Fi and Fantasy. Alas, no longer as he moved to Norway to work in the oil extraction business - such is life. I never had a good conversation with him about Peak Oil, but I'd like to. Oh well.

I have to admit that I'm a fan of the UK author Peter F Hamilton. Very improbable but a ripping good yarn all the same.

Hey Don,

Starship Troopers was a real laugh! It was gritty and yet amusing at the same time. Never took itself too seriously. The constantly updating body count was a particularly unusual touch.

John Wyndham, Day of the Triffids stopped me enjoying fireworks displays for years afterwards.

Hey Sophie / Justin,

As a recommendation, try some Jack Vance as he completely ignores technology and instead focuses on human interactions, witty dialogue, interesting scenarios and good characterisations. For an awesome space series try the Demon Princes series of 5 stories. In short he provides everything you need for a good story. He is one of the great authors from the US in the 20th century.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Brad K,

Industrial agriculture. Where do I start? You ask some difficult questions, but you get to the truth of the matter pretty quickly. It is difficult to be on a farm of my size and produce a surplus. I'm only about 40% self sufficient.

Historically, it's worth pointing out that 90% of the population were involved in agriculture. Today it's around 2% and that is only because of the fossil fuel subsidy.

It's only because of starvation that we sussed out things like: Rhubarb stems were edible, but the leaves were poisonous. Think about it.

You've hit on my big concern.

How do we feed ourselves once the economic cost of extracting and supplying oil becomes too high? Already here we pay about $6/gallon for fuel and you can see the costs of staples rising. By the way thanks for printing all that extra money because it's artifically inflating the value of our dollar which makes purchasing oil cheaper. Thanks also for crashing your economy as it reduces demand for oil, which in turn lowers prices. Well done.

In big agri business, oil is used everywhere. It's the only way to keep labour inputs low.

I worry about grains as I've just finished a book by Sara Pilzer about growing grains on small holdings. It's a tough school and I'm in a warmer area (but less fertile) than most of you lot in the Northern hemisphere.

Dunno. As I've read plenty of times before here on this blog, "before enlightenment, fetch wood, carry water".

On a positive note, we're coming into an early Spring so a lot of the fruit trees are blossoming and some such as the Early Moorpark Apricots (and the Quinces - Smyrna and Champion) are now in leaf!

Thanks to a ruling from the WTO they're now importing apples from countries with fire blight! Well done, we used to be self sufficient in apples....

PS: I settled on a name for the farm "Fruitwood".



Twilight said...

As resources become more constrained it's quite possible we'll see a window open where conservation and sustainability become fashionable – it will be too late to save the present system of course, so people may become disillusioned. And the pace of events will be moving very rapidly, so it's unlikely to last too long before people get swept away in whatever social disruptions come along. But if such a social sentiment happens then it should be encouraged, as anything that causes more people to learn skills and techniques that may be useful is a good thing. It may just cause someone to learn the one crucial skill that allows them to survive.

It's also possible that some branches of such a movement may end up evolving into things that are less than savory. But that doesn't really matter, as such social/political structures as typically happen when societies collapse would evolve out of whatever is available anyway.

While a widespread and long lasting social movement towards sustainable living would be a wonderful development, it would be foolish to put all one's efforts in that basket. What appeals to me about the green wizard approach is that it does not require such a thing. It's likely the skills and knowledge that make it through to some future time will go through some very narrow paths, perhaps sometimes no more than one person who passes them along to one other, repeated for generations. It's not a glorious movement, it's kind of grubby and dull, but it has the best odds of success. And you can start today. If a compatible movement builds up around you, then great, and if it goes away again you're no worse off.

hapibeli said...

If, as I believe, we humans must visualize first, and then when enough of us do so around the same subject, we manifest it within this reality, we should consider carefully what we want to happen to us. The fact that the more of us can spend time imagining ways in which to prepare ourselves for a future of less affordable energy, we will bring about just that future to many more of us, than just we who imagine it. Whoaaa! My brain is now starting to smoke! Maybe I'd best slow down as my day has just started and I might lose a few million cells at this rate! LOL! LOL! LOL!

hapibeli said...

I was a rabid sci-fi fan from 14 old years till after my Vietnam service. Something changed in me then and I lost most of my interest in it. Maybe the reality of what we can and will do to each other took away much of the glamor and faith in humanity's potential. Whatever, the reality of the grasping for profit and power gave me a somewhat more nuanced view of our direction as a species than the hype and glory of sci-fi and its descendant literature. The reality of my spouse, my children and their love and their dreams, seemed ever more pressing than thoughts of far away glories, beings, and exploding stars.
Nowadays I look up at the beauty of the heavens and thank the Great Spirit for the moments I have left and what exists for me in the present reality. Their will be a new life for me one of these days, and I may well see what exists up and out beyond our solar system, but I doubt I'll be able to provide any publisher with the details! LOL! LOL!

hapibeli said...

Got to say JMG that I enjoy your tale of the future as well as your "Descent" series immensely.

nutty professor said...

...and I thought that I was the only person who ever found and read the ragged copy of SLAN in the library paperback bin as an impressionable kid. Thanks for the memory! I wonder about the intense predilection for golden age science fiction for some of us and the relationship with alternative forms of spirituality, alternative myths and narratives. I know you don't wear your comparative religion scholar druid hat that often but I hope you will address this one day, at least take it a little further than you do in your books. I truly enjoy this blog. thank you.

Sue Burke said...

Thanks for mentioning my translation. If anyone wants to rewrite Amadis of Gaul to fit modern conventions, my translation is Creative Commons 3.0, so go ahead and use it, and feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the text.

sgage said...

"Starship Troopers was a real laugh! It was gritty and yet amusing at the same time. Never took itself too seriously. The constantly updating body count was a particularly unusual touch."

Fiction borrowing from fact. and only slightly exaggerating.

I was a paperboy during most of the hottest part of the Vietnam War. No kidding - young people actually rode around on their bicycles (before and after school - I did the morning and afternoon papers) and delivered actual paper objects, containing the day's printed news, to their customers.

Anyway, I read the paper every day. Every day the body counts appeared on the front page - daily, weekly, cumulative. We must be winning! We killed 10 times as many of them as they did of us!


escapefromwisconsin said...

Authors in the golden age of science fiction imagined us living in space colonies and interplanetary flights as commonplace as plane and train trips. In the year 2011 what is the reality? The same day this post came out scientists warns that there is so much trash and debris in orbit around the planet, even outer space may become unusable:

Scientists in the US have warned Nasa that the amount of so-called space junk orbiting Earth is at tipping point.

A report by the National Research Council says the debris could cause fatal leaks in spaceships or destroy valuable satellites.

It calls for international regulations to limit the junk and more research into the possible use of launching large magnetic nets or giant umbrellas.

The debris includes clouds of minuscule fragments, old boosters and satellites.

Some computer models show the amount of orbital rubbish "has reached a tipping point, with enough currently in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris, raising the risk of spacecraft failures," the research council said in a statement on Thursday.

In other words, we’ve polluted outer space as thoroughly as we’ve polluted the planet earth. And now we’re discussing radical measures to clean it up such as harpoons, nets, and giant space umbrellas (really). It’s a serious issue – how could we possibly cope without having satellites tell us where we are via GPS and beaming twenty-four hour sports entertainment into our homes? Maybe we could build the Mega Maid from Spaceballs

So rather than romantic visions of colonization or contact with other worlds, we’re debating how to clean up all the trash we’ve dumped around our own planet. This is the real face of humanity. Welcome to progress.

Will said...

John: about Sci Fi and space travel -- your last two articles were bang on target, and also heart-rending. facts, as George Orwell once wrote, are inconveient things. it is looking more and more like (fact) nothing made of matter can travel faster than light, and (fact) no form of nuclear power is light enough to push its own weight at high speeds. which means we are stuck with chemical rockets,and even the planets are off limits to us except for small scientific robots. this world is all we have, all we will ever have. it ought to be enough, but we are doing a bad job of managing it. for a good read, with some encouraing aspects, see Rambunctious Garden by Emma Morris, about how we humans can (and ultimately must) manage the Earth better. bill

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and all--

I agree with Grrl and others about SF as a way to explore ethics and human dilemmas--always the big attraction for me, too, growing up and even now.

Anathem is waiting at the library, I'll get it today and see if I agree with JMG about its question dodging.

Oddly, or maybe not, I started tapering off SF when I started reading more (ostensibly) serious books about the way our own actual world functions in its material, cultural, and non-material aspects and what people thought/think about said functions, ideas and beliefs. My "great books" education had the hoped-for (by the profs) effect on me, I guess. And then there was botany and systems theory (in a non-mathematical way), and so on...

Oh, and would da Vinci's notebooks and their flying machines be a form of science fiction?

@Bob and others,

Another "literary" novelist whose most recent book functions in a speculative area: John Banville's Infinities is set in what appears to be modern Ireland (with differences), is narrated by Hermes, and involves a mathematician whose revolutionary equations have knocked over some of our assumptions about time. Beautifully, poetically and classical/Shakespearean in its comedic approach (though Banville dispenses with the unities, as did Shakespeare).

Mundane Science Fiction?

Interesting idea. My daughter and I once made up some rules for fantasy, which I guess you'd call Mundane Fantasy. One is that (borrowing from Tolkien) the protagonist shouldn't be the person with the ultimate world-saving magic powers (one of the places where HPotter falls down), and another of which is that use of magic should not be the game changer (or plot rescuer) and must always exact some physical price when used.

And JMG, regarding the theme of this week's post, so if peak oil community writings and thought get pervasive enough to become a cultural mainspring our future might bend in an ecotechnic direction? Things that were lost (such as appropriate technology) can reappear: look all those classical works that resurfaced during the Renaissance to culture-swerving effect.

To wit: I usually froze food and never canned (except jam) before this year. Now, jars of salsa. etc. are cluttering up the place. It's largely your (and Sharon Astyk's) fault! ; )

Jon said...

If the stories of sci-fi novels laid the groundwork for the space program, what kind of stories do we need to lay the groundwork of the post-peak world?

Certainly there must be a shift in the philosophical frameworks that have driven the last few hundred years. We need new heroes, new ways to live, respect for different choices.

Who will be the H.G. Wells of this new genre?

I think the outlines of stories of that genre would be a great discussion.

John Michael Greer said...

Susan, he did indeed -- The Shockwave Rider was a fave of mine back in the day. As for ingenuity and curiosity, of course those will be around; just don't assume they'll be put to the same ends that have obsessed our culture!

Jose, it's clearly time for me to reread the Foundation trilogy as well. The Mushroom Planet books, too, maybe.

Justin, thanks for the correction! I'd read an essay on the movement that simply said, "No aliens" -- which seemed reasonable enough, but my story headed in other directions. I'll have to look into Mundane SF-related venues for publishing Star's Reach when it's done.

Simon, that's a promising notion. While we're at it, is there any way to order a couple of crates of the retired engineers who used to read every issue of Analog back in the day, and send long critiques on every bit of bad physics that slipped past the editors' eagle eyes, complete with calculations they'd done on the spot with their slide rules? The peak oil movement needs them -- the giddy handwaving that too often passes for talk about renewable energy sources, just for starters, belongs in a Ray Palmer magazine...

Asturchale, your point one is quite true, and is probably the reason the US didn't end up fighting a guerrilla war there, the way we did in the Philippines after seizing them from Spain. Your second point -- that's a fascinating issue, and one I'll need to think about.

Rcg1950, I don't do a lot of visual media, thus don't tend to think of movies very often. As for Van Vogt's other novels, well, the less said the better; I don't think it's accidental that his stuff has vanished off the bookshelves.

Kieran, many thanks for the links. I'm glad to hear that reality is starting to sink in -- now if the writers in question can turn their considerable gifts to crafting visions of what we can do, given one and only one planet.

Cherokee, thu Great God Ghu was invented back in the 1930s by SF fans as the deity who allegedly ruled over SF fandom. The archetypal trufan (="true fan"), when he wasn't up to his eyeballs in the latest issue of Astounding, could be found hunched over a hectograph copier producing a fanzine, muttering "Ghu guide me as I pub this ish..."

Twilight, exactly! You get today's gold star for Getting The Point.

Hapibeli, thank you. Your first comment brushed up against an issue that, against my better judgment, I'm probably going to have to discuss a few weeks down the road in so many words: the limits of magic -- that is to say, what happens when the vision of the future you build up so carefully and forcefully collides with the hard limits of the universe. More on this later.

John Michael Greer said...

Professor, that's an extraordinarily complex issue, but one I probably do need to address down the road a bit.

Sue, thank you! That's very generous of you. Years ago I had the chance to read an old translation that had been gathering dust on the shelf of a university library since the gods alone know when, and thought it would make a rousing contemporary fantasy epic once the very different conventions of today's fiction were applied to it. I hope somebody does that.

Sgage, feh indeed.

Escape, whether it's a complete image of humanity, it's very nearly a perfect portrait of industrial civilization, which can be best defined as a very ingenious scheme for turning resources into pollution as fast as possible.

Will, many thanks for the book suggestion -- I'll check it out. Down the road a bit -- though it will probably be in Star's Reach rather than here -- I have a corollary to White's Law to suggest, which may just sum up the points you've made and the broader one these last two posts have tried to make.

Adrian, oh, Anathem's a pleasant read -- it has the standard bad habits of modern popular fiction, but that's hardly avoidable at this point. I just wish Stephenson had grappled a little more extensively with the implications of radically nonhuman intelligence from within that perspective.

Jon, I think the crucial thing at this point isn't to try to plan out what that literature would be like, but to get to work trying to write it. As with any creative project, too much analysis early on can strangle the process; it's far more valuable to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and the tips of the fingers to the keyboard, and get at it.

The single best piece of advice I ever received on the subject of writing came from SF editor George Scithers, who used to run Asimov's back in the day. He argued that every writer has a couple of million words of bad writing stored up in his or her brain, and the only way to get rid of them and get to the good stuff was to write them out. That applies to a potential project of the sort you're discussing; as Chesterton said, if something is worth doing, it's worth doing badly.

So I'd like to challenge you to imagine the kind of story that might help spark the kind of visions we need, and then sit down and write it! That goes for everyone else reading this who has thought of writing a SF story one of these days...

Matthew Heins said...

Now THAT'S what I wanted to say last week! Anyone believe me? Anyone care? ;)

BTW just cracked Apocalypse NOT today, looks like a good one.

I think I'll switch into more of a reading than writing mode until I can write what I mean to say without making it seem I am in dispute with people I'm agreeing with. ;)

Have Fun,


Scyther said...

Edgar Rice B. was probably my favorite SF writer (the John Carter series) followed by Jules V. or perhaps Heinlen. But SF was never my favorite genre, the unreality of it was simply too apparent.

Certainly it is interesting to consider the genre as yet another product of the fossil-fuel age, soon to whither entirely away. People might read some impossibly saved copy centuries from now and find it as strange as we do Baewulf.

Robert said...

Oh, hectographs! And gelatin pads before them.

Gelatin pads are a pretty easy technology to resurrect, if one also has or can make paper, and can cook up the ink on a stove (or over a fire). They work rather well if one isn't thinking about long-range preservation. It was a long long time ago, but I dimly remember making my own gelatin pad and ink in junior high school just to see whether I could get it to work.

And lithography is very, very good for things that you want to last. If I remember, it needs a carbon ink rather than an iron one, but well-made carbon ink lasts longer and doesn't eat the paper away like iron ink does.

Hmm, I'll have to look up the ink formulae again. I wonder about finding second-hand lithographic stones . . .

Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

Robert said...

Asimov's Foundation trilology was an important book for me in my 'teen years, back in the '50s. I think it's well worth re-reading now. Back then I particularly liked wrestling with the problem of how to make a mathematical model to predict future history. (Then I became a professional medieval philologist, and I came to understand just how impossible that task would be.)

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Marion Zimmer Bradley yet. Her books about Darkover, with its old, weary civilization and the encounter between it and the brash young spacers from earth who eventually rediscovered it, are really what prepared me -- rather well, I think -- for the things we've been discussing here. There's no optimism about a brighter future much of anywhere in MZB's writings, at least none that I remember.

Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

siddrudge said...

@Cathy McGuire said: ". . . possibly the ability to “vision” was built into humans to push them to grow in ways they wouldn’t otherwise."

Cathy, this nugget of insight is worth exploring. If we could tap into this 'built-in vision' thing you mention, I think we just might discover the real purpose for human creativity. And isn't that really the very essence of this weeks (and last weeks) discussion -- the limitations and boundaries of human imagination?

Whether a science fiction novel, a Space Station or a Sistine Chapel ceiling -- these are uniquely human expressions of wonder, yearning and faith -- deep and profound, transformed into splendid matter.

And whatever IT is that drives vision and creativity -- IT is as potent as jet fuel!

There will be no 'peak imagination.' I'm betting my life on it.

John Michael Greer said...

Adrian, and I'd meant to say -- I like your idea for Mundane Fantasy, though I'd go a bit further. I once imagined a subgenre I called Hard Fantasy, along the lines of nuts'n'bolts Analog SF, which would have the one hard rule that the magic in it had to be real magic, producing the effects that real magic produces -- that is to say, change in consciousness in accordance with will. Of course it went nowhere in the age of Harry Potter, but I still like the idea.

Matt, enjoy!

Scyther, oh, granted -- I plan on having fun with what SF looks like from a future perspective in further episodes of Star's Reach.

Robert, good! I'm more intrigued by movable type, but here as elsewhere, dissensus is the name of the game. Bradley, yes -- I wasn't a big fan, but I read quite a few of the Darkover novels.

Don Mason said...

Asturchale y Chulo wrote to JMG:

“… following your post a pattern emerges: Sci-Fi wanes away, the American Century falls into discredit, the quest of a sustainable civilization dies. It looks as if people were just getting tired of trying things altogether. I think we have chosen to stay at home and just update our Facebook account. Sci-Fi isn`t as popular as it used to be, certainly, but it`s much worse than that: Blockbusters are not a world event as they used to be some twenty years ago and pop stars are just not as popular as they used to be. We keep talking about U2, Madonna and the Rolling Stones because there just isn`t any replacement for them…

…It`s a too old world. I think we are all in the mood of the author of Eclesiastes.
In a sense it`s as if this world was turning medieval again: each one isolated in its own little hamlet, just waiting for the next harvest to arrive.”

Hank Williams, Chuck Berry, the Beatles, the Stones, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash – it seems that most of the popular songs that have stood the test of time were written before the mid-70’s.

If you pull out a guitar and play their tunes today – just one voice and one instrument, which is the true test of a popular song - they still work: Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” or “Johnny B. Goode”; Jobim’s “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” or “Wave”; Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or “Hey, Good Lookin’”.

The lyrics and melodies still hold up forty or fifty years later.

The songs from last year are now largely unlistenable – and most people didn’t even bother listening to them when they first came out.

In an earlier post, I said that Julie Christie was “in her 1960’s, hot babe prime”. I hereby retract that statement.

Julie Christie really didn’t peak until “Shampoo”, which – although it was released in 1975 – had actually been filmed a couple years earlier (the star/producer Warren Beatty held the release back because he didn’t think that America was yet ready for the movie.)

Julie Christie didn’t really become a maximally hot babe until after she turned 30. (In hotness, maturity counts; and she needed to grow up.) Which means that Julie Christie peaked in the early 1970’s.

After that, surgical enhancement of the naturally-attractive female form became all the rage, and we are now are forced to view a succession of unnatural freaks; i.e., in the real world, some women have large tops and large bottoms; some have small tops and small bottoms; and some have large bottoms and small tops. But in nature, you almost never encounter a large top with a small bottom, which is now being foisted upon us by the miracle of modern medicine as the required standard of female beauty. (Disclaimer: I always dated and eventually married medium-large/large.)

So Julie Christie was one of the last of the naturally-hot movie stars.

Peak oil in the U.S. was (depending on your source) in 1970 or 1973.

Peak space race was the United States moon landings from 1969 through 1972.

So in the early 70’s, America simultaneously hit Peak Oil, Peak Space Race, Peak Rock ‘n Roll, and Peak Julie Christie.

Cheap gas, great tunes, naturally hot babes, rockets blasting off into outer space – it all peaked forty years ago.

We were living the good life at the top of the hill in a science fiction fantasy world.

Maybe this helps to explain why so many people feel that “What’s the use? It’s all downhill from here.”

It’s not the end of the world, but the world we’re currently living in is definitely downhill from where we were living forty years ago; and the world were moving to is way down in the misty valley below.

And who knows? It may be a little medieval hamlet.

Because it sure isn’t a colony on Mars.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@JMG - Yup. I remember the Mushroom Planet books. But how about ...

"The Spaceship Under the Apple Tree" by Slobodkin. 1952. It was the first in a series.

Besides looting the library for Sci-Fi, I have to thank the Fred Meyer stores. Anyone from the Pacific Northwest would be familiar with them.

In the 1950s, they built one of their multi-department stores out in the north end of Portland. We had never seen such a thing, before! At least twice a week, after dinner, Dad would say, "Well, boys, let's go down to Fredies, and ...look around."

Next to the candy section was rack after rack of paperback books. One whole spinner rack was frequently changing sci-fi. All the stuff the library wouldn't order. Trashy paperback originals, you know.

That's where I found the Burroughs books. I wasn't really interested in the Mars books or Tarzan. But I did like the Pallucidar (?) books. Hollow earth stories. Fred Meyer was also where I found the Herbert Zim nature guides.

Robert said...


Moveable type, yes, that too!

In Junior High School, back in the '50s, in Berkeley, all the boys had to take four semesters of shop. In my case, print-shop was one of the four, so I've actually set type and run a hand-press before.

(The others were wood shop, tin shop and mechanical drawing. All top-notch! And we had to learn the use of a slide rule -- which I still have -- in Algebra. Ah, those were the days of a useful education!)

But printing with moveable type takes a much larger investment in equipment, and I haven't got the space to keep all that equipment. Cutting quill (or reed) pens and making inks, and teaching others to do the same, and teaching young people to read, are more my speed now, as I come to the end of my seventh decade of life.

Nor are we going to move. We've lived in our (now) hundred-year old house since 1974, and over the decades we've "gardened" an excellent community in our immediate neighborhood. In our block alone, we now have eight children, all under the age of about 3 1/2. When my wife and I get even older and creakier, they will all be teenagers and able to help out. Some of the young couples are avid gardeners, too, and one family has chickens.

Although our neighborhood is in a small city (Providence, RI), within two easy miles on foot there are two rivers, and also two very large cemeteries from the late 1700s and early 1800s, one on the bank of each river. With so much water and so much good land that has never ever been cultivated, if things fall apart too badly, one can always grow some food.

Robert Mathiesen (Mageprof)

Asturchale y Chulo said...

Don Mason, I think we are talking different things. Maybe we are running out of talent but that was not my point. My point was this civilization has grown worn out. People simply don`t care anymore.
My wife used to be member of a canoeing club. She is Polish and back in the days when the Russians occupied the country, she says people were much more involved than they are now. Back then, people gathered there and worked to keep boats and facilities in a good condition. Today, new members they just join to get cheap canoes and never drop by to help.
Reminds me a lot of the twighlight of environmentalism that JMG mentions in his post.
Maybe it is capitalism which encourages individualism, maybe it was TV first, then the Internet which has turned us completely passive creatures, unable to take action in real environments. Maybe we have just learned that our old leaders (Marx or Ayn Rand, I don`t care) and our old idols (Elvis or Madonna, good or bad artists) are not worth the pain.
I see this generation lying on a couch or else sitting in front of a PC, watching and waiting that someone else actually does someting.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hey sgage,

Thanks for the reference - I was a bit young to remember the Vietnam war.

They've stopped kids from doing paper rounds here too because of public liability / workers compensation concerns. So get this, they deliver papers wrapped in plastic and throw them out of the windows of a van. I'm not sure I could have come up with a more energy intensive way of delivering newspapers if I tried.

I also used to deliver the morning and afternoon papers by push bike plus at one stage I was also doing a chemist round delivering prescription medicines. This went on despite the weather. There was no pocket money forthcoming so if I wanted any money I had to go out and earn it. I feel for kids who get money and things without contributing to the household economy - it sets them up for later disappointment.

Much respect.


phil harris said...

Songs and Julie Christie.

And we old heroes, you and I, are too old to change the world, to win Julie’s notice, nor even catch her eye. (Believe me, occasionally there were girls as good-looking as Julie on my bus to work!) But we remember her swinging in to town (to where else, The Record Shop) in her first hit in the British ‘slice-of-life’ movie 'Billy Liar'?
Goodness me, she is only a few months younger than I am. "We have heard the chimes at midnight, master Shallow" [Shakespeare; remake, Orson Welles]
No wonder then, what with SF and Julie Christie, and the songs, as another poet said: "They mistook the brightness of the moon for the prosaic light of day - Music had driven their wits astray - and one was drowned in the great bog of Cloone."
But the 20thC was different. Though we did not understand it, and we could not know it, our “generative axioms” and “mental topology” (‘Mirror of the Past’, essays, Ivan Illich, 1992), were radically different from those of other times and the generality of humanity. What Illich calls the social creation of disvalue which forces us into economic activities and growth? Did we but know it. Some of us have woken up, but it is getting late (in that regard some stories never change!).

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG and all,

Not sure that culture has peaked. Story telling and music are pretty low energy requiring activities and hard times produce different entertainment than perhaps what we are used to now or in the past. Sometimes in hard times people have to sing better or tell a better story to ensure they get fed.

Last years music was actually pretty good, and whilst I respect the opinions of commenters here, statements saying that the old times produced better culture than today doesn't really cut it with me. Respect to all those that disagree though.

I try very hard to live in the day, remembering yesterday and looking towards the future. It's not easy to achieve sometimes.

By the way I liked your story about the million words. So very true. I haven't read Star's Reach, but get it published and you'll guarantee 1 sale here.

On a different topic. People were mentioning about lots of space junk. It got me wondering because on any clear night if I head outside, within 10 minutes I'll see a shooting star (yeah, I know they're meteorites, but I like calling them that anyway). There's virtually no light pollution here so you get a clear view of the stars and the milky way. Stuff must be falling to Earth at a pretty big rate for them to be this common. Or, are we in some sort of meteorite shower? What do you lot reckon?



idiotgrrl said...

However - one thing old Bob Heinlein called on the nose (OK, two things) - was The Crazy Years. He fudged the peak at 1966, being (I guess) unable to decide between 1964 and 1968 but knowing such things peak during presidential election years. he was only 2 years early. As for arguments, like Spider Robinson's, that we've been in The Crazy Years ever since, naah, Unc' Bon called the Fourth Great Awakening on the nose; the rest is aftermath.

Likewise - for those who remember - I just dreamed up a slogan for a T-shirt or bumper sticker (Danger, Will Robinson! Partisan content here!) "Perry and Bachmann in 2012 --- Revolt in 2100." You all off the younger generation, hit Google for both references. Then read the tales. After reading Revolt, read Atwood's Handmaid's Tale.

P.S. The 2012-2100 story arc actually follows the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, complete with duration, but with totally different content. America will not go Communist; theocrats are actually more likely.

And science fiction taught me that.

We now return you to your regular Saturday morning programming.

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...


Since no-one else has done so yet (AFAIK), I would like to post a defence of cyberpunk. Gibson's Sprawl trilogy introduced me in the late 90s to a world of decline and shortages, in which the rich held all the cards, and the rest just hustled their way in world of cheap technology and biz, intermingled with independent tribal thinking on the one hand and mindless consumerism on the other. Stephenson's Snow Crash, around the same time, actually shaped the real world as we know it now, and described the collapse of nation-states followed by the rise of successor entities based on anything from organised crime syndicates to ethnic groups to philosophical entities. Both authors, in other words, anticipated the world in which we live and described ways forward through the times we live in. Don't knock cyberpunk ;-)

@Cherokee Organics:

Ai, be' digwyddodd i'r Gymraeg? I gave a great link for Welsh names, and you went for English? Aiyoh... (Well, at the end of the day,it's your property...)

@rcg1950 Again, since no-one else has mentioned it, Forbidden Planet was based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, written in 1610 or so... Plus ca change and all that...

I had never heard of Slad before reading this post. I had read the Foundation trilogy and thoroughly enjoyed it... in my teens. I don't think it stands up now, though, compared to cyberpunk. Sorry, but there it is.

Jason said...

I never liked Ballard either, nor Aldiss and Moorcock come to that. I did like reading Larry Niven once upon a time. Relative to this post, and as good a confirmation of it as you'll get, I recall a piece of his called simply Space, a non-fictional record of the activities of the Citizens' Advisory Council for a National Space Policy, which he set up with Jerry Pournelle.

It was textbook example of what JMG has mentioned is the way democracy can be made to work for you -- get a bunch of people together and make a noise. The Council wanted to energise the US space program and produced documents called things like, How to Save Civilisation and Make a Little Money. They wanted to use the market to boost things and came up with some neat stuff which has signally failed to occur.

What strikes one is the tremendous confidence:

Twenty-five years ago, my ambition was to tell stories. It wasn't long before I decided I could save civilisation too.

I wonder what he's thinking now? I'd really love his reaction to this post. It's significant that he couldn't allow himself to write his own disappearing-resource story as sf -- it's a fantasy called The Magic Goes Away. Convenient -- fantasy with built-in obsolescence, ready to give way to the rational. I'll admit re-reading it left a bad taste. The highest compliment he can pay ancient magicians is to say they thought like modern scientists, and he positions our technoculture as their heir. (Riding on a cloud, the characters wonder if any human after them will ever see this view of the planet... you can feel Niven grinning through his beard at the cleverness of those who now do.)

He always has this idea that knowledge should be used to gain power. Did Campbellian sf really exist? Did people really think we were that clever?

I've been playing with a couple of ideas for 'mundane fantasy'... yes, more like JMG's version, with stuff that can really happen, but more on the energy work and trance front than on JMG's Golden Dawn style. My methods can certainly impact the physical as well as the mind (see my latest blog post for a little interesting stuff...) Set in the real world plus its offshoots, like Susan Cooper for grownups, but lacking the crude light vs. dark thing... we'll see if it amounts to anything!

Cathy McGuire said...

However, hope seems to spring eternal:

China Launches its Space Station, Tiangong 1
Funded by: China's National Space Administration
How much: Undisclosed
What it is: Tiangong 1 ("Heavenly Palace" in English) will be China's prototype space station, weighing in at 8.5 tons. The station itself will be launched in early Fall, with 3 follow-up missions planned over the next two years, the last of which should place Chinese astronauts on the space station.

‘the 8-ton experimental prototype is designed as a test bed for the technologies China will need for its future space station program, including docking technology…Kulacki has observed that at 8 tons, China's Tiangong 1 is much smaller than the 80-ton U.S. Skylab launched in 1973, or even the 22-ton core module of Russia's Mir Space Station, which launched in 1986. Right now, the International Space Station has grown to tip the scales at 450 tons. Looking ahead, China currently plans to complete its 70-ton space station in the early 2020s.”

Mexico begins its own Space Program
Funded by: Agencia Espacial Mexicana
How much: Undisclosed
What it is: A General Director of the Agency of Mexico's newly founded space agency will be named this Fall, solidifying their aims for developing their own space program and codifying their policies for exploration of space.

Cathy McGuire said...

@Bill P: You'd think that SF and Fantasy would be antipodal, with the one (supposedly) founded on scientific and technological advances and the other founded on magic and mythology, two things which this society doesn't seem to be able to reconcile under any other circumstances! Actually, at cons (at least in the 80’s) the SF and Fantasy often avoided each other, with a kind of mutual distain.

@JMG: The poet Robinson Jeffers was very nearly the only writer of that generation that grasped the stunningly inhuman nature of the cosmos -- and I doubt very much that Lewis would have been able to read a single poem of Jeffers' without throwing the book across the room. And I was amazed to read how unpopular Jeffers’ work was with his contemporaries – after his first burst of success – apparently no one really liked his “cold hard – but beautiful– universe" POV. His “The Purse-Seine” is my favorite : – “…We have geared the machines and locked all together / into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now/ There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable / of free survival, insulated/From the strong earth…”

LewisLucanBooks said...

Interesting. Several people have mentioned Margaret Atwood. She's coming out with a new book:
"In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination." Coming in October.

kayxyz said...

OK, 80% drop in standard of living, it's clearer. May not have enough to eat. Got it. Resources: I've only taken showers for the past 4 years in my bit for H2O conservation. Have a rain barrel but live in an apartment, no place to put it. I know how to sponge that shower gray water into a bin and use it outside on plants and herbs. Come December, I'm signing up for a marketing-farming course. I write a business plan and if selected, get to take the course, then get access to a quarter acre garden plot. My BP has to state what farmers market or local restaurant I'll sell to; the profits are mine. Supposedly I'll get ground-floor news of which landowner/farmers are looking to sub-divide and sell land.

Have already been contacted by my local unemployment office about "help" with mortgage payments, including learning about farmland for sale. Sure, it is probably a front for the TBTF banks. I have access to land in another state, if it comes to that, for gardening. Switched my diet to vegetarian. Own a tent, a sleeping bag, a solar shower. Have some skills for barter. Know how to can and freeze. Have the background to become a registered nurse, if it comes to that.

I've already lived my nightmare visions of having no food to eat, so I'm working toward sustainability, and come Jan-Feb 2012, I'll be a step closer.

sgage said...


"His “The Purse-Seine” is my favorite : – “…We have geared the machines and locked all together / into inter-dependence; we have built the great cities; now/ There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable / of free survival, insulated/From the strong earth…”

The Purse Seine blew my mind the first time I read it. The mixture of abstract and concrete, and imagery that I had the experience to really fill in, just stopped me in my tracks.

hadashi said...

Both this blog and the comments have become required reading for me, and for how many others is that true, I wonder. Most weeks, the odd first-time commenter (but longtime reader) appears out of the woodwork, and some weeks there’s a meteor (or shooting star) that JMG has to ‘take out’ for resorting to schoolyard insults. I’d love to read a 100-thing-about-me from each of you.

1,000,000 words to eject before the good stuff starts? Well, I got started in 1988. Do endless rewrites and editing count? I hope so. If only I hadn’t slowed down for a decade when I concentrated on haiku.

JMG, you need to be careful. See where the off-the cuff use of the phrase “brass brassiere” led to? Hot babes and peak Julie Christie. No wonder that I keep reading!

@Cherokee Organics Chris, I personally would have liked to see you use your own moniker as the name of your farm. I used to be a milk boy in Kiwi-land. A milk run earned more than a paper round.

@ Cathy McGuire and @siddrudge More quotable stuff from the two of you. “The purpose of human creativity” makes me tingle. I’m doing my best, but it ain’t science fiction.

I grok you in fullness, all of my friends.

Red Neck Girl said...

I remember as a young woman during the 'space age' I realized there were no horses in space. What was life without horses?! Not my cup of tea! I still loved SciFi, I just wasn't volunteering for a colony ship.

If I have any regrets it's that I didn't take advantage of the real estate boom in the county of my birth and squandered my time and money. Shucks and other comments!

Right about now I'd really like to be in my twenties, even informally apprenticed, to a highly talented horse trainer, much like my best friend was when she was a teen in a situation where she was exposed to a multitude of horses daily. As a result she can tell by watching (but without describing, dang it!) the exact moment when to ask a horse to respond. (And with her current disability couldn't describe it if she could point out the tells.) She's told me often enough before her health crisis that if she could sit my problem 'child' it would be awhile before she'd let me ride her!

I currently have a three or four page piece I'm playing with describing the adventures of a woman on the Pacific Crest Trail during the initial collapse of the USA from catastrophic quakes, (separated by some months) on both sides of the nation.

The USA would never pull out of a double tap of that magnitude.

I liked good westerns as a kid and basically there would be a similar era on the way down.

I know people will die in job lots at the failure of our infrastructure but giving the dark a fixed stare is only giving the dark a chance to stare back and that's a contest you will lose. I prefer to keep my eyes open as well as my mind, there are options out there but you have to look for them and be ready to use them to their fullest.

For the mathematics of the stars we gave up the artistry of the natural world and our ability to merge with it. We will be very busy learning how to be a part of nature again. Even at my age I have no intention of being a drop out in Hard Knocks Finishing School.

Wadulisi Tsalagi

Robo said...

Asturchale y Chulo earlier brought up the idea of the worn-out and tired society. There was discussion of the high rate of change in modern life versus the gradual evolutions of earlier times. Then the example of people who join a club or organization then don’t have time or energy to participate. Finally, there have been many observations and examples that illustrate the apparent decline of Western popular culture as expressed in music and literature.

It does seem that the developed nations have come to a point where almost everything has gotten to be “too much”, and we are all suffering from at least one form of exhaustion.

The basic human organism is apparently incapable of absorbing environmental and lifestyle changes anywhere near as quickly as technological societies have been forcing themselves to do since the burning of fossil fuels made it so easy to speed things up.

Maybe the joyful and creative flames have died in so many of us because we have blown them out with the onrushing wind of our speeding contraptions and frantic consumptions. Perhaps our inner creative fires will have a chance to rekindle when things start to slow down. We’re not machines, after all, much as we’ve tried to be.

Younger generations in the most depleted and desperate cultures seem to have widely recognized this need for change, and appear to be addressing the prospect of a lifetime of economic decline. As mentioned earlier, many are attracted to things like vampires, zombies and werewolves. Perhaps it’s a way to pre-connect with a perceived future that will be more primitive, mythical and magical.

Ironically, they use the latest high-tech gadgets to form their tattooed virtual tribes, ignoring the centrally-programmed mass communications regimes that so shaped the lives of their parents and grandparents.There’s a movie out this weekend that may be directly addressing this techno/mythic split . It’s a science-fiction / zombie horror hybrid called “Apollo 18”. Haven’t seen it yet, though.

hadashi said...


The basic human organism is apparently incapable of absorbing environmental and lifestyle changes anywhere near as quickly as technological societies have been forcing themselves to do since the burning of fossil fuels made it so easy to speed things up.

The premise for Alvin Toffler's Future Shock

John Michael Greer said...

Don, I know it shows my age, but I'm fond of the bumper sticker that says, "It's not just that I'm old; your music really does suck."

Lew, with me it was the drugstore down on First Avenue, three doors up from the barbershop and two from the small appliance repair shop. They had a good selection of trashy paperbacks, and magazines -- that's where I bought my first copy of F&SF -- that's Fantasy and Science Fiction to the nonfan world -- with stories by LeGuin, Moorcock, and Zelazny among others. Pellucidar with an E, by the way; I used to win trivia competitions with details like that.

Robert, of course! Dissensus, again; there's got to be a good amount of diversity of skills being preserved.

Cherokee, I don't think culture has peaked at all -- the specific culture of late industrial civilization is a pretty fair mess, but that's a passing thing. One thing to look forward to, though none of us will see it: the decline and fall of a civilization usually gives rise, after an interval, to true epic poetry. The Gilgamesh epic, the Iliad and Odyssey, the Mahabharata, the Nibelungenleid and the Arthurian legends -- well, I could go on. That's probably six to eight centuries from now, but if past experience is anything to go by, the results ought to be stunning.

Grrl, the parallel between Revolt in 2100 and the trajectory of Marxism gets you today's gold star for perspicacity. Marxism is a Christian heresy, anyway, so the parallel's very exact. The bumper sticker's a good one, too, though nobody will get it; I've pondered a button saying RUSSELL EIGENBLICK FOR PRESIDENT along the same lines, knowing that it will get blank stares.

Carp, as with Ballard, I don't claim it's not good; I simply don't like it. Among other things, I don't share the values and interests of the hacker-and-slacker subculture that's its main audience and the source of most of its themes, so it's a bit like reading erotica written by somebody with passionate fantasies about sea slugs; however proficient the prose may be, it simply doesn't speak to me.

Jason, I enjoyed Moorcock when he was still writing trashy heroic fantasy; the sophisticated literary stuff he's doing these days, not so much. Niven -- yes, I'm not surprised he thought he could save the world. I recall his story in one of the Dangerous Visions anthologies that insisted that the technology at the center of his story was inevitable and we'd all better deal with the consequences. No, it didn't happen, either.

Cathy, that piece of Jeffers is one of my very favorites. He was so controversial back in the day that his publisher stuck a note in one of his books of poetry distancing themselves from his opinions. Can you imagine anybody getting that bent out of shape about a poet these days?

Lew, interesting! Thanks for the link.

Kayxyz, good. That's exactly the sort of thing I'd like to see more people doing, because it's going to mean that many fewer people struggling to fend off death from hunger, sickness, and exposure, and failing.

John Michael Greer said...

Hadashi, Scithers never did explain that, so I don't know whether rewrites count or not. The experiment is ongoing!

Red Neck, keep working on that story. I'll have something to say about such ventures shortly.

Robo, it's an interesting question, what's behind the exhaustion you and others have described. Spengler argued that it's an inherent part of the life cycle of a society, and that there are effective responses to it that we haven't had the wit to embrace yet. More on this soon.

Hadashi, which was in turn the premise for John Brunner's The Shockwave Rider -- so once again we cycle back around to SF!

Don Mason said...

Asturchale y Chulo wrote:

“Don Mason, I think we are talking different things. Maybe we are running out of talent but that was not my point. My point was this civilization has grown worn out. People simply don`t care anymore…

…Maybe it is capitalism which encourages individualism, maybe it was TV first, then the Internet which has turned us completely passive creatures, unable to take action in real environments…

…I see this generation lying on a couch or else sitting in front of a PC, watching and waiting that someone else actually does something…”

People are still people, so the problem is not really lack of talent.

Technical proficiency is still very high, and in some cases (like music), the production qualities are much higher. Some hit records in the 1960’s were literally recorded in garages, and they sounded like it. Today a digital studio in that same garage can produce some amazingly high quality recordings.

But there’s an excited energy in that primitive ‘60’s analog recording that is often missing in most of today’s flawlessly Auto-Tuned digital music. What happened?

Forty years ago, we tried to change the direction the world was headed; we failed; and now – just as we feared - the world is headed off a cliff.

What would be a reasonable human reaction to the impending doom?

Probably the “Denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance” progression.

Obviously, the vast majority of people have not made it to acceptance yet; they are still stuck somewhere back in denial-anger-bargaining-depression.

Unfortunately, our mass culture baby-sitting service of TV/Internet/text messaging/Ho-Ho’s/avoidance-of-human-interaction is not encouraging them to progress and start acting like adults.

If nothing else is able to force people to mature, impoverization might.

The pyramid scheme of global finance capitalism is breaking down; and without the money to pay the bills, the socialist welfare state is breaking down along with it.

When people don’t have the money for a TV, an Internet connection, or even for food, then they may have to emerge from their infantile cocoon and actively deal with reality.

It's unfortunate that it looks like it's ending up this way, but actions - and lack of actions - have consequences.

Forty-six years ago, Bob Dylan wrote a song that might be appropriate for a future, foreclosed America:

“Once upon a time
you dressed so fine
Threw the bums a dime
in your prime
Didn’t you?

People’d call,
say ‘Beware doll,
you’re bound to fall’
You thought they were all
kiddin’ you

You used to laugh about
everybody that was hangin’ out
Now you don’t talk so loud
Now you don’t seem so proud
about havin’ to be scroungin’ for your next meal

How does it feel?
How does it feel?
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone…”

Cherokee Organics said...


"your music sucks" - I guess we have to agree to disagree on this one. I hear you though, man.

Still Kanye West's latest album was a truly dark and melodic look at US culture. I enjoyed it and it gets a lot of play on the youth station JJJ here. No need to respond as I'm being serious and not trying to stir you or anyone else.

I enjoy the zietgeist of music and I reckon as times get darker, the music just gets better. I agree with you about the epics too and would love to read them, however, we unfortunately probably won't be around at that time.

I look forward to your treatise on vampires, werewolves etc. I've seen some of the True Blood show and it's just silly. The things they brush off as normal would send most people into post traumatic stress syndrome for decades. If that town was Cherokee, I'd be packing my bags for friendlier climes.

To all those that mentioned John Brunners "Stand on Zanzibar", I just wanted to say how much I also enjoyed story plus all of the insights in the quotes at the start of each chapter. I'm in awe of such writing.

Hey Carp,

I know... It's just that no one around here would get it as there's little Welsh influence. It was actually the Scottish who settled these parts (something about the relatively cold winters and mountains I guess) and I too claim heritage from them on both sides although my lot have been in Oz for around 7 generations. I'm probably showing my ignorance too, but after all this time, all I can claim from the Scotts is a name - Years ago I had three lovely Scottish ladies working for me (by a strange coincedence) and it took me ages to attune to their accents.

Hey hadashi,

Yeah, I know. Unfortunately, there are legal issues around the use of the word Organic that I don't want to go into. It's enough to say that the whole orchard and vegie beds is done on an organic basis but do I want to go to the hassle of being certified and audited as organic? What a nuisance.

Anyway, for commenters here there's a kind of intimate tone and sometimes I feel that I've revealed too much of my own opinions, some of which are socially unpalatable and I only hope they don't come back to bite me. Oh well, if ever you're in the area drop by and say hello.

Much respect to the kiwi's too. Milk runs would have been so much heavier than newspapers - although the Saturday Age newspaper is pretty weighty. I remember the milk runs, with reusable bottles, full cream (with the cream at the top of the bottle) and the foil lids. The winter mornings down in the south island would have given Melbourne a run for it's money too!

Hey Robo,

Peak complexity is something I've been thinking about recently - it sounds like what you're talking about. We're just on the other side of the top of an inverted bell shape curve (like Hubbards curve).



Les said...

@Cherokee Chris asked "Stuff must be falling to Earth at a pretty big rate for them to be this common. Or, are we in some sort of meteorite shower?"

We've just come through the Perseid meteor shower, which are associated with the Swift-Tuttle comet.

We'll soon pass though the leftovers of the comet Tempel-Tuttle, which are known as the Leonid meteor shower, as they appear to originate in the constellation Leo.

Many/most of the shooting stars you see are roughly the size of a grain of sand when they hit the atmosphere. 'cos they are doing some significant speed relative to us when they arrive, they get a bit warm (~70km/sec in the case of the Leonids).

Likelyhood of a city destroying meteorite in our lifetimes (or even the next several thousand years)? Pretty much nil - all the likely and sizeable earth orbit crossing objects have been mapped and they are going to miss us for the forseeable future.

The only wildcard would be a comet on a parabolic or hyperbolic orbit (ie one we've never seen before).
Again, pretty unlikely, as even with an orbital period of, say, 100,000 years, there's been plenty of opportunity for them to be cleaned up over the last 5 billion years (the approximate age of the solar system).

You only have to look at the moon to see why the likelyhood of a really big collision is so low. Everything that is likely to hit us already has...


Phil Knight said...

Believe it or not, there actually is a theory of peak rock music:

Maybe someone should create one for Sci-fi...

Myriad said...

The most risky and most-often-wrong predictions of speculative future SF are the predictions of what is going away. Star Trek, for instance, flippantly dispensed with routine poverty, disease, crime, and class conflict. Good luck with that. On the flip side, a remarkable number of dystopian future novels describe societies where the government has somehow managed to successfully suppress -- not just drive underground, but actually prevent -- all unregulated sex (or all sex altogether, when artificial gestation is thrown in). Good luck with that.

JMG, a central feature of your vision of the future is a long list of "things that are going away." Some entries on that list have sound rationale for being there, others not so much. One frequent possible weakness is the assumption that just because certain things exist today as part of a specific complex interconnected economic system, they can only exist that way.

The actual future is invariably more complex and diverse than any visions of it. For instance, even considering the entire materials life cycle, LED lights are more practical than candles, in any future except one in which the knowledge of how to make them has been completely lost. A scenario might be completely plausible in which they are extensively used, but produced in only a few dedicated enclaves, and transported by sailing ships and mule carts.

Thus, the closest literary archetype for our long-term future may never have been the starship heroes of space SF nor the dehumanized downtrodden proles of dystopian screeds, but rather, the elves of Tolkien and a thousand derivative genre fantasy books. Aren't the elves always lamenting a previous age of greatness (which, when examined more closely, always sounds violent and generally unpleasant)? Aren't they usually seen living in harmony with nature and yet exerting a certain mastery over it, in a garden-tending way, shaping species and environments to their own benefit? And isn't their appropriate-magic usually based on crystals (i.e. silicon)?

If so, let's not forget to leave a few terrifying weapons of mass destruction hidden away underground, so that future dark lords and future questing heroes will have something to contend over.

JP said...

The Vampires and Zombies are just the temporary generational fixation on death. It's the province of the Xers and the Millenials. It's just a Thing that Faustian civilization apparently Does with Clockwork Regularity.

Nothing more than the sex<------->death pendulum.

It will swing back again with the next generations.

Really, though, that's all it is.

What's past is present again.

Another random internet commenteer noted:

"Which is where we get "Quoth the Raven" from, and why Gothic Horror, Graveyards, & Tombstone designs were such a Victorian hot topic.

The book & movie Pollyanna shows Pollyanna convincing two Progressives obsessed with Death & Decay in their own ways--old Mrs. Snow who is an invalid who is quite focused on designing her coffin; old Mr. Pendergast who lives alone in a cluttered and not well taken care of mansion--and is rumored to keep children who trespass on his grounds locked up in the basement--to instead start thinking about life. Mrs. Snow gets up and out of bed and helps with the Bazaar, Mr. Pendergast does the same and takes it one step further of adopting Jimmy Bean--Pollyanna's friend."

John Michael Greer said...

Don, "Like A Rolling Stone" as the anthem of deindustrial America -- that works. That works very well. A bit of Asturchale's comment also makes me wish that Allen Ginsberg could rewrite "Howl":

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Twitter, staring apathetic vacant,
Dragging themselves through the internet at 3 am looking for a pointless chat..."

Cherokee, of course! Dissensus applies here also.

Phil, that'd be a slam-dunk; track the total number of new SF novels published per year, and you'll get a very nice curve on which you could probably do Hubbert linearization.

Myriad, that's an interesting argument. I think you're stretching things a bit by comparing the things that the Star Trek universe claimed we'd get rid of, like war -- which has been around throughout human history -- with some of the things I expect us to lose the ability to produce or maintain, many of which have only been in existence for a short time and depend on nonrenewable resources. There's also the economic issue, which most fans of technology avoid altogether -- whether or not it's possible to make something is, in practical terms, far less important than whether making it can pay for itself given the economy in existence at the time; if LEDs go out of existence, it'll most likely be because maintaining the enclave that makes it would cost too much compared to the other alternatives. Still, the elvish model is interesting, and worth thought.

JP, thank you! A good historical parallel is always a welcome argument here.

Hal said...

Trying to post again.

Could it be that a lot of the tiredness that a lot of the posters are reporting is, well... tiredness? Especially when it comes canned with all of the nostalgia for the pop products of a generation that really, weren't that great, folks. I'm saying this as someone who falls squarely in the middle of the boom: date of production 1953. All I'm saying is, is it possible that there's a general malaise that has probably leaked into the larger population and a lot of popular culture because of the very real exhaustion felt by the mid-40s through mid-60s currently making their way through time's digestive system? I know I sure feel that way a lot of the time.

Not just from age, of course. It's daunting, knowing what's most likely ahead for our children if not for us, and probably why a lot of people just push the snooze button rather than waking up to the enormity of what needs to be done. It seems that two dangerous reactions available to those who allow themselves a trickle of reality, is either to frantically step up the pace, or just to lose enthusiasm entirely for the human project. Either leads to exhaustion.

I have had enough psychological counseling in my life that I know I suffer from depression. Not clinical, or enough to need meds, but depression that tends to manifest itself as lethargy rather than sadness. I think this is just what a lot of people are going through these days.

When I was in my 20s in the mid-70s I studied the Club of Rome report and writings by Ehrlich, Dassman, and enough others to already have a pretty negative attitude about the future of industrial civilization. But I was anything but exhausted: I looked at it as a great adventure ahead. Little did I know that it wouldn't catch up till I was old enough to be exhausted by the thought. But at the time, I studied martial arts, body work, herbs, gardening, community, political action, and thought I would live in a better world for all of the changes coming. Sometimes, I can still rekindle that spirit, or at least maintain a slow pace, step-by-step, building something I hope will matter. I sure hope young people today can capture a little of that feeling and not be sucked down into the terminal depression and bitterness of their elders.

Oh, and rock & roll has always been crappy music. It's just that youth once gave it enough energy, excitement, and immediacy that we could ignore it. The last hurrah of that kind of vitality went out not long after the Clash broke up, if you ask me. Now that it's the province of the geriatric crowd, I don't blame the young for going for other sounds, or recycling the old stuff.

SophieGale said...

Late night catch up:

RUSSELL EIGENBLICK FOR PRESIDENT: I love it! For one wild moment I thought about creating a Facebook fan page for him--then I thought, do I really want to attract folks who "get it"? I soooo do not provoke the Fae!

"Millennials Have the Answer to the Country's Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt" : Us Boomers may be tired, but the authors of this article assert that the Millennial Generation (1982-2003)are raring to go! By the end of this decade one out of three adults will be Millennials. --And more power to them!

I read mostly science fiction and fantasy, and I keep adding new writers to my list. I'm looking for three books--maybe four--in this coming week.

Music: I've recently discovered that I like goth and industrial. I'm 60, ok? Six months ago I did not know Bauhaus and Inkubus Sukkubus. I was getting into Aqualize last night... And I've recently discovered a couple Native American bands and an Indo-Celtic group. No, I can't sing along, but I can definitely tap my feet.

Vampires, werewolves, zombies, etc. I recommend everybody find a copy of Stephen King's Danse Macabre. Published in 1979, it was a survey of horror films and literature over the previous three decades. King is very good at explaining what horror is and how it works. According to King, horror works on "phobic pressure points." And because books and film are mass media..."the horror genre has often been able to find national phobic pressure points, and those books and films which have been the most successful almost always seem to play upon and express fears which exist across a wide spectrum of people. Such fears, which are often political, economic, and psychological rather than supernatural, give the best work of horror a pleasing allegorical feel..."

When I picked it off my bookshelf the other day, I was surprised to rediscover that it opens with the launch of Sputnik: "Terror--what Hunter Thompson calls 'fear and loathing'--often arises from a pervasive sense of disestablishment: that things are in the unmaking." Sputnik was one of those moments. There are plenty more coming our way. I haven't read enough "sparkly vampire" books to decode that particular flavor, but zombies? Read World War Z by Max Brooks. (He's the son of Mel Brooks, BTW, and Anne Bancroft.)

Unknown said...

This is my first post and I couldn't get Google to show my name in the heading. I'm Deborah Bender.

"So in the early 70’s, America simultaneously hit Peak Oil, Peak Space Race, Peak Rock ‘n Roll, and Peak Julie Christie.

Cheap gas, great tunes, naturally hot babes, rockets blasting off into outer space – it all peaked forty years ago.

We were living the good life at the top of the hill in a science fiction fantasy world.

Maybe this helps to explain why so many people feel that “What’s the use? It’s all downhill from here.”

1968 was one of the worst years of my life so far.

1969 was the year that feminism began to revive.

I recognize that the directions Second Wave feminism took were influenced by the requirements of advanced capitalism, and not all its outcomes were good for women. On the whole, however, I think that women today have wider prospects and more dignity than they had in 1969, and not just in advanced industrial countries. If you need a reminder of how unhappy patriarchy made both men and women, watch the first or second season of Mad Men.

This present moment of ordinary women having some choices about their lives might become another thing that passes with the end of cheap fossil fuel.

dragonfly said...

Myriad said:
...even considering the entire materials life cycle, LED lights are more practical than candles, in any future except one in which the knowledge of how to make them has been completely lost.

Lest anyone take this claim at face value, a very broad laundry list of what is required to manufacture a Light-Emitting-Diode (LED):

* High purity metals (gold, steel, copper, nickel - these must be mined & refined).
* Ultra-high purity semiconductors (silicon, gallium-nitride, carborundum - these must be mined and refined).
* Optical grade plastics (and the infrastructure to create them).
* Various acids and cleaning chemicals (and the infrastructure to create and store them safely).
* Clean room facilities for semiconductor production, assembly, testing and packaging of the finished LEDs.
* More specialized equipment than you can shake a stick at, and all the incipient infrastructure need to create and maintain that equipment.

Of course, once the LED ends up in it's final application, it requires electricity, though granted, not much.

On the other hand, a candle requires a beehive and some cotton or similar material for the wick.

Danogenes said...

Fascinating lens for exploring the recent past and its failures. Though you should give credit to Sterling and Gibson and Stephenson for transcending technology and painting pictures of a near future that grows directly out of the present stupidities.
Does Kuntsler's "World Made by Hand" count? Attwood's "A Handmaid's Tale" Speculation on the future doesn't necessarily need assumptions of technical innovation.
But the main question, perhaps for next weeks post, is where do you see an indication of new fiction painting an engaging picture of a post oil, post climate crisis future. It is ever so possible, as long as we postulate a very grim, bloody and difficult culture war between here and there.

Rita said...

I was almost 9 when Sputnik went up. One of the results was that even schools in small towns like Roseville, CA began to worry about proper education for "gifted children." I went from being something of a bother to my teachers (since I could already read and do arithmetic I was bored a lot) to a national resource. But this push to educate me to full capacity ran up against the reality of pre Woman's Movement America. With my BA in hand in 1970I was still given typing tests and asked if I could do ten key (calculator) when I hit the job market. Ironically, it appears that one effect of 2nd wave feminism was to damage the public schools. The smart, capable women who had the choice of teaching or nursing in earlier generations could now enter many other professions. That could not help but dilute the talent pool that went into teaching.

And, speaking of "groking"--do you know where your water brothers are right now?

John Michael Greer said...

Hal, that's possible; middle age creeps up on us all. Still, I think there's more to it than that.

Sophie, I'll have to check that out. I'm not a great Stephen King fan, but there again it's a matter of personal taste -- I don't enjoy horror in general -- and a good nonfiction study ought to be worth reading.

Deborah, for what it's worth, I don't think the end of the age of cheap energy needs to mark the return of the rigid gender politics of the past. It's going to take some hard work to keep things more flexible, I grant, but I think the option's still there.

Dragonfly, nicely done. You get today's gold star for paying attention to whole systems.

Danogenes, it's very much a matter for next week's post. Stay tuned...

Rita, there are enough of them that I'd have a hard time keeping track. Never thirst!

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ JMG - Stephen King also wrote a book on writing. Called, oddly enough, "On Writing." It's really good. Has a lot of biographical information, also.

Lots of people dismiss King out of hand because they don't like horror. King actually has a body of work (growing larger all the time) that has nothing to do with the paranormal. I always recommend "Delores Claiborne" or "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon." His most recent book, four long unrelated stories is "Full Dark, No Stars." I actually thought about it a bit when I was finished. 2 were paranormal or horror. Two were not.

idiotgrrl said...

Well, for next week - because I've been reading Spengler's first volume, I find myself wondering what the architecture of the coming culture will look like.

It sure won't be Faustian. Not with the way we'll be getting our noses rubbed in the fact that there are, so, limits, and not even the dauntless striver whose schtick is the conquest of matter can override those limits. Talk about massive culture shock!

Also, as a neopagan, I think I see the shape of the new religion still in the bud. Especially since the roots of the so-called Old Religion go back to the Third Great Awakening ~ 1900, just like the strange path all the arts took and the split between the pretentious and obscure Fine Arts and the - if you ask me, often much better - popular arts. And as Spengler points out, the birth of socialism, which is part and parcel of whatever this cultural mutation was.

[Note: I refer to the 20th Century as a Mega-Awakening. There have been others in out history. Count backwards at roughly 500-year intervals and you'll see every last one of them until the mists of time swallow them up. And they always mean a massive change in the cultural direction.]

Anyway. Just curious. Betcha, though, that in the near future, as David Brin put it, "[even] the Virgin Mary will take a new interest in planetary welfare."* Not to mention all the earth-centered religions coming to the fore.

*Earth, published 1990.

DeAnander said...

Holy cow, stayed up too late wading through that thread!

Brief thoughts: I seem to recall an interview with Niven (or Pournelle?) in which he claimed to have been the instigator of the massive Reagan-era SDI boondoggle: a deep parallel to Wells' earlier role with the Brit government if so.

Glad to know I'm not alone in my fond memories of Sheep and Zanzibar (I thought Sheep was darker and better).

Odd to find little mention of the growing presence of environmental/systems thinking (and warning) in SF, starting with such charming tales as Schmitz' story about the tinklewood (?) farm (complete with evil capitalist liquidator villain and highly localised and intelligent kiddie heroes); proceeding to the environmental and resource subplots of the original Dune (pity it turned into such a franchise); continuing in e.g. the radical, scathing cultural crit of Tiptree (really Sheldon)... then there is Martin's Tuf Voyaging, a long-time favourite with a pointed environmental message. Not to mention lesser lights like Moffat's Ragged Rock and its sequel.

I would defend Stephenson, Gibson, and Sterling as social critics who write somewhat in the tradition of Swift and other luminaries, using a "fantastic" world to illustrate the madness of the real (ha!) one. Sterling's "Distraction" in particular is either painfully funny or amusingly painful, depending on my mood. And Stephenson's "franchlets" qualify as high satire imho, of the devolution of society under neoliberalism.

Re: traditions preserved via a narrow gate, I have heard that at one time traditional Haida weaving methods were remembered and transmitted by as few as five or six living women. A close call. What really troubles me is how much knowledge and skill was lost *forever* when the N American indigenes were decimated.

Returning to an earlier thread (sorry but I have been offline for 2 months and am playing catchup to the detriment of my sleeping habits) on the tension between efficiency and resilience: Taleb on "antifragility" may be worth a look.

Speaking of the attempt to replace reality with virtuality and entertainments: in my extended family there is at least one person whose addiction to online infotainment and gaming approaches genuine dysfunction. Anyone else witnessing this? a family member or FOAF who never leaves their room except for groceries, spends all their waking hours online, can barely converse with people in face space yet chatters away all day happily over Skype, fighting imaginary campaigns in imaginary landscapes? I think in Japan they call 'em Hikkomori. I am really worried about this subculture and would be interested to see what JMG makes of it. Talk about "The Machine Stops" -- what the heck will the hikkomori do when the lights go out? And what place will there be in the world that's coming, for such physically useless persons?

Dammit, this thread is almost turning me into one!

Time to sleep. Thanks JMG for adding your poignant take on "the future we were promised". It resonates strongly with my own.

Gaianne said...

@ Chris 9/2/11

When I read your comment about the importing of fireblight-infested apples into an apple-self-sufficient continent, my stomach lurched a little bit.

Not that I am overly surprised: A couple years back a big-box chain store brought late-blight-infested tomato plants into my corner of North America, with devastating effects on local gardeners. This is all just part of doing business.

My deeper point is that your comment resonated with my suspicion that industrial agriculture will gradually destroy almost all of the species we currently rely on for food, and so any survival plan needs to look off the beaten path to food species that are (and are likely to remain) of no commercial interest.

This is not so easy, but I believe it is necessary.


Phillip Cozens said...

JMG, thanks you for another good read.
A programme this week on BBC 4 had a number of the world's most eminent economists opining on what was wrong with the world economy. Tellingly, not one mentioned resource constraints or energy prices.

this wont hurt much said...

I hope that we can put a tenth of the energy( human not machine ) that went into all those sci fi stories and the space program and re direct it into rediscovering simpler more efficient and sustainable ways to improve our local communities. JMG thank you for sharing, and for some of us jaring memories or storys of ways things were done that were in fact simpler, efficient , and sustainable.

Brad K. said...

@ Rita,

About "even schools in small towns like Roseville, CA began to worry about proper education ", Seth Godin makes a damning comment about the nature of public education in America.

"A hundred and fifty years ago, adults were incensed about child labor. Low-wage kids were taking jobs away from hard-working adults.

. . Factory owners insisted that losing child workers would be catastrophic to their industries . . . It wasn't until 1918 that nationwide compulsory education was in place.

Part of the rationale . . was that educated kids would actually become more compliant and productive workers. Our current system of teaching kids to sit in straight rows and obey instructions isn't a coincidence . .

Large-scale education was never about teaching kids or creating scholars. . .

. . Every year, we churn out millions of of workers who are trained to do 1925 labor."

@ JMG,

I read Stephen King's "Carrie" and "Firestarter". They seemed to be fair parapsychic fantasy stories, if a bit morbid. Then I saw the movie "Carrie", and haven't been interested in King since. It seems I completely mis-read the point of the book. Ah, well.

@ DeAnander,

"what the heck will the hikkomori do when the lights go out?"

I suspect what will happen is what has happened through history, only the term "hermit" or another for non-social loner will emerge. Some forged a niche in religion, others in secular seclusion. Many of those ill-equipped for general social intercourse have found niches that enriched mankind, and I suspect they will continue to do so through limited social contact.

I suspect you are correct. The pain of losing their world-view will be personally devastating to them. Even now, though, I am hesitant to define "normal" for someone else, or define someone' (non-violent) future.

DeAnander said...

@Gaianne (hello!) -- I have been thinking similarly of late and am trying to acquire local plant literacy, so I know what species of wild plants are edible, if less large and tasty than the commercial cultivars. My garden plan includes encouraging and propagating the wild edible species as well as conventional gardening. Dandelions for example are nutritious and tasty, as are nettles, burdock, lamb's quarters, etc. All "weeds" which have mercifully escaped the gene vandals and seed patenters.

DeAnander said...

@escapefromWI re orbital space junk, I've been out past the civilisation boundary for a few weeks looking at real night skies -- glorious -- and am appalled to see how busy the arc of heaven is with satellites these days -- one trundles through the field of view every few minutes.

I wonder what our descendants will make of these busy little lights, legacy of the fallen culture?

meantime the sheer amount of junk in orbit is part of the theme that's been building in my head for some time: the next era (aside from Salvage) is the era of Clean up Your Room :-) repair, resuscitation... everything around us, from biotic systems to human infrastructure, is ragged, fraying, poisoned, sickly, on the verge of collapse. a huge repair and cleanup task awaits the next couple of generations, and of course that's just so boring and unromantic (not to mention girly) compared to the manly swagger of endless expansion, conquest, and conspicuous status-displaying consumption. who wants to clean up their room when we can party till we drop? (and duke it out, mano a mano, over the diminishing remains of the loot)

Augean Stables move over; the cleanup from the 16-20th century binge of industrialism plus imperialism may spawn metaphors and fables that eclipse even the old greeks.

LewisLucanBooks said...

What I remember about Sputnik was that besides a push to academics, there was also a real push to fitness. Suddenly, our little grade school had this horrible regimented program of calisthenics. For the fattest little boy in whatever grade level I was in, it was horrible. (Turned out I had a wonky thyroid. Later corrected.) Probably didn't do me any harm.

Anyone remember the song "Telstar" ? In homage to a communications satellite. it was such a ... hopeful song. I darn near wore the 45 out. If you do, now try and get it out of your head :-) .

hadashi said...

This may well be a fitting wrap up comment on this post on the demise of science fiction. On the site , the following "SF" book is advertised:

Sci-fi, by John Carrick

Ashley is now 15, and her parents have returned from the dead - only to be killed again, on her birthday! Ashley and her younger brother, Geoff, are sent to a hell-hole of an orphanage, where they must survive. Gangs and killers rule the district by fear, but Ashley kneels for no one.

It kind of says it all with respect to the discussion in the last 150 or so comments :-)

GHung said...

I haven't seen anyone mention Stephen King's "The Stand", IMO one of his best; an excellent blend of Sci-Fi, good vs. evil religio-horror/fantasy, and apolcalyptic doomer porn. The hero(s)/heroin(s); the brilliant deaf/mute partnered with the illiterate simpleton ("M-O-O-N: that spells [everything]); Captain Trips (the super-flu virus); Trashcan Man (pyromaniac, brilliant in the mini-series); the Walkin' Dude (Devil) and his tragic bride; and, of course, Mother Abigail, the ancient black sharecropper, God's spiritual leader/prophet to the good guys. Lots of great characters in this one, and great conceptualizing of how folks may react when thing fall apart in a big way.

The TV mini-series (3 parts) did a fine job of capturing the essence of the novel, good enough for those who may not have time for a rather long novel. I got it for $5 on the discount rack (DVDs).

idiotgrrl said...

Off topic for this week, but on topic generally - On the Fourth Turning forums I raised the question of Russia essentially living off its victory gardens in hard times, and Justin77, who lived and worked in post-Soviet Russia for several years, referred me to this article.

I think it's relevant to everything you've been saying.

Scyther said...


Succulent weeds are a reliable and effectively labor-free way to secure tasty greens with good trace minerals. However, one will get very little calories from weeds and greens in general. The vegan subsister requires an evolved system - a "technic" one.

Excepting perhaps the small percentage of very best soils in the temperate latitudes, such a system requires significant initial inputs of minerals and labor. Creating and maintaining a system that can reliably provide sufficient calories and nutrients is I suspect (based on quite a bit of work on my own) beyond the scope of an individual or family.

Myriad said...

@dragonfly: Sure, and a thrown rock requires only a rock while a Manchu composite bow and arrow requires...

Actually, this comments thread doesn't seem to be the right place for that specific discussion. My main point is that speculative fiction of all kinds tends to organize each future scenario around one single consistent motif.

In my youth, nuclear war, in the public imagination (including countless works of fiction) meant either immediate total human extinction, or a social and cultural clean slate for a few scattered survivors. That's because those "end of the world" possibilities (with or without also beginning a supposed new world) fit the motif. They are also much easier in all respects to think about. A messy aftermath for hundreds of millions of survivors would be far more likely but almost literally unimaginable.

Such simplification is fine for fiction, but it is never accurate prognostication. The habits of storytellers ill-serve prophets. And yet, historically, serious prognostication appears to be as motif-driven as popular fiction.

The issue I wonder about in the ecotechnic scenario is predicting the survival (or reinvention) or disappearance of technologies based on their complexity (necessity for centralized specialized manufacture from traded and transported resources) without regard for their value. High-complexity low-value technologies (SUVs) disappear. Simple. Low-complexity high-value technologies (knives) tend to survive. Simple. Low-complexity low-value technologies (dolls) tend to survive, at least sporadically. Even hungry people make dolls.

The likely simplicity-breaker, the unknown territory, is high-complexity high-value technologies. Composite bows, silk fabric, and Almagests aren't quite, I admit, in the same complexity class as dynamos, calculators, and automatic firearms. (Nor are they quite as valuable.) So there is little historical precedent for what happens to them in a protracted collapse, especially when information on how to make them starts out in millions of copies, instead of a handful of scrolls in libraries.

As fine as Little, Big is, My favorite John Crowley novel, in fact my favorite single book of any kind, is Engine Summer. It depicts a tiny portion of a post-collapse world, merely hinting at the diversity of it, but visits stable communities (Little Belaire, and arguably Dr. Boots' List), scavengers and reconstructionists (the latter represented by a puzzle-solving hermit poignantly oblivious of how tiny a scrap of the past he possesses), and preservationist enclaves (the off-screen manufacturers of the indispensable Four Pots). Certain elements make it unrealistic, but it is realistically complex, an odyssey of dissensus.

Gaianne said...

@ DeAnander 9/6/11 (Hi! Good to see you here!)

and @ Scyther 9/7/11 I agree--partly. Potatoes can be raised organically (I have had success) but have many vulnerabilities. Less "technic" perhaps is Jerusalem Artichoke (not an artichoke at all but resembles a sunflower) which can be gardened or encouraged in the wild--although deer tend to eat them. The last two years I have been (successfully) learning how to leach the tannins out of acorns, and acorns are freely available anywhere there are oak trees.


Knut Petersen said...

Lately, I discovered surviving remnants of sci-fi lore in the awkward machwerk The Next 100 Years of a geopolitical consultant, George Friedman, which is plain military porn void of insight in the areas of energy, ecology and spirituality (IMHO).

Three points, related to this blog, I would like to highlight:

1. Friedman believes, that the US does not need to actually win wars -- chaos and destruction is just right, since America's main objective is to hinder any menacing power from emerging...

2. He also believes, that future energy is supplied by space-based PV and sent to earth surface via microwave (hilarious!).

3. Moreover, he is sincerely advocating the advent of space-based warfare guided by 'battle stars' and moon bases controlling every blip on earth.

Someone tell that guy about the end of growth and the curse of complexity...

Unknown said...

Bender here, with cheery information about acorns as a food source. The chestnut tree was once common in forests east of the Mississippi and it was a food source for foraging domesticated pigs. Then a blight wiped them out, altering the ecology of Eastern hardwood forests. Now you have to feed your pigs.

A fungus called Sudden Oak Death has arrived in Northern California, where it is killing entire oak forests. They think it arrived on plants from overseas sold in nurseries.

There are more than twenty species of oak in California, and it hasn't spread to all of them yet, so it is possible that some species will be resistant. Sudden Oak Death has many non-oak hosts that are common wild shrubs and trees, and it doesn't kill them.

No one is talking about a scorched earth strategy to eliminate it; the only control in place is regulations against hiking in the affected forests during wet weather.

No treatment that's effective on a wide scale has been developed. People can save the one sick oak in their yard if they are willing to spend a lot of time and money.

Gaianne said...

@ Unknown (Bender) 9/9/11 11:06 PM--

Thanks for the heads up!

Different oak species here, but Sudden Oak Death is an unexpected worry all the same. I'll be watching out for this one.


Don Stewart said...

After thinking about the problem of imagining the future, I come back to the book A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance. It relates, in story form, what it was like to live in Edo Japan on solar energy plus gravity. Japan had a stable population of 30 million people for a long time. My guess is that if you forced the existing people in Japan to live on solar energy and gravity, a lot fewer than 30 million would survive. Therefore, the issues are both recovering from the collapse of a certain kind of modern culture and also remastering the skills required to live on solar plus gravity.

I cannot think of any fundamental way in which we modern people are more prepared to live on solar plus gravity than the Edo Japanese. Therefore, I regard the stories laid out in the book as about the best we can achieve--and that won't be easy. So simply reflecting on what they knew how to do and beginning to master those skills is perhaps the beginning of wisdom.

Don Stewart