Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Retrotopia: Neglected Technologies

This is the twelfth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator attends the Lakeland Republic's annual drone shoot, and finds out that not all technological innovations start out from the current state of the art...  

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A rooster yelling at the top of its lungs woke me before dawn the next morning. It didn’t seem likely to shut up any time soon, and I doubted the New Shakers would be happy if I threw things at their livestock, so I got up instead. I rang the bell as I’d been told, and a couple of minutes later, a quiet knock on the door announced the arrival of a middle-aged woman with two pitchers and a bowl. I took them and thanked her; she smiled and curtseyed, and headed off to somewhere else.

I started washing up, and only then realized two things. The first was that there weren’t any outlets for electricity in the room; the second was that the only thing I had to shave with was an electric shaver. I finished washing and got dressed, hoping a day’s growth of beard wouldn’t be a faux pas by Lakeland standards. Maybe half an hour later, I was sitting behind Colonel Pappas in the jeep as it rattled over a dirt road on its way to the Lakeland Republic’s annual drone shoot.

“How much do you know about modern drones?” Pappas had asked me the night before; when I admitted my ignorance, he laughed. “Fair enough. You start talking about drones, a lot of people think of the old first and second generation machines, the ones that used to launch rockets from a mile or so in the air. Those haven’t been in frontline service since the ‘thirties—ever hear of the battle of Mosul?”

I tried to remember. “That was in the second Kurdistan war, wasn’t it?”

“Bingo. Both sides had drones, but the Kurds figured out that you can target them with old-fashioned antiaircraft guns, got a bunch of those in place without anybody being the wiser, and took out most of the Turkish drone force in an afternoon. After that, you had militaries all over the place figuring out ways to target drones, and that’s when the sort of drones you see these days started popping up on the drawing boards—observation drones way up where artillery can’t hit them, and attack drones flying at treetop level where they can hide from radar. Of course then they’ve got other vulnerabilities.”

“Can’t they simply reprogram their attack drones to fly high if they’re going to attack you?”

“Sure.” He grinned. “We’ve got plenty of old-fashioned antiaircraft guns, too.”

So there I was, jolting along a rough road with brown fields of stubble to the left and a line of trees to the right, and a moving dot up above the trees caught my eye. I turned to look; Pappas saw me move, turned in his seat, and handed me a pair of binoculars. Despite the joggling of the jeep, I managed to get the thing in focus: a lean angular shape with broad straight wings, flying low and fast.

As I watched, shards suddenly flew up from the middle of one wing. A moment later the outer half of the wing tumbled one way and the rest of the drone tumbled the other. I managed to follow it most of the way to the trees, then handed the binoculars back to Pappas.

“Wing hit?” he asked, pitching his voice to be heard above the jeep’s engine. I nodded. “That’s the easy one,” he went on. “Good shots aim for the engine or the fuel tank.”

A quarter mile or so on, as another drone came into sight, the road veered suddenly to the right, ducked through the trees, and stopped in an impromptu parking lot where jeeps were more or less lined up. Just past the parking lots was a cluster of olive-drab tents, and past those a fair-sized crowd. Off to the left, though, a bunch of horses were munching grass in a fenced-off field, and as I watched, a dozen or so people in Lakeland Army uniforms rode up on horses, dismounted, and led the animals into the field.

The jeep rolled to a halt. “What’s with that?” I asked Pappas. “Cavalry in this day and age?”

“Nah, dragoons.” He figured out from my face that I didn’t know the word, and went on: “Mounted infantry—they ride to the battlefield and then dismount to fight. Most countries had ‘em until the end of the nineteenth century, and we tried ‘em out in the war of ‘49 with good results. Transport’s a lot less difficult on the logistical end of things if the only fuel you need is hay.”

I got out of the jeep. Pappas hauled himself into his wheelchair, then handed me a pair of earplugs. “You’ll need these,” he said. “Drone rifles use .50 caliber ammo, and that isn’t easy on the ears.”

We wove our way through the tents, through the crowd, and out to the places where the guns were firing. There were maybe two dozen of them in a big arc, each with twenty or so stations for shooters, though things were just getting under way and most of the stations didn’t have anyone at them yet. “Those are first timers doing their qualifying rounds,” Pappas said, pointing to one set of stations filling up quicker than the others; the earplugs muffled his voice but I could still hear him. “Over here, the expert marksmen—you’ll see some of the best shots in the Republic here today. Check this one out.”

“This one” was a short middle-aged woman in jeans and a buffalo plaid wool shirt, cradling a rifle that must have been as long as she was tall. Past her, I could see a dot against the morning sky. She lined up the shot with practiced ease. Even through the earplugs, the crack of the rifle was loud enough to sting.

A moment later, off in the distance, the dot vanished in a little red-orange flash.

“Sweet,” Pappas said. “Right in the fuel tank. That’s Maude Duesenberg—I honestly don’t remember how many drone shoot trophies she’s got on her mantle, but it’s got to be getting crowded.”

“Where do you get all the drones?” I asked him.

“Oh, most of ‘em we make ourselves. Expert class and proof-of-concept shooters get real drones—we buy them through traders in Chicago. You probably don’t want to know how many officers in how many countries sell us a drone or two every year, list ‘em as crashed, and pocket the proceeds.”

I knew enough about the military back home to guess that the Atlantic Republic was on that list. Still, something else had sparked my curiosity. “What’s proof of concept shooting?”

“New or revived technologies. They’re over on this side—let’s check ‘em out.”

Instead of the shooter’s stations elsewhere on the arc, the place for proof-of-concept shooters was an open patch of mostly flattened grass with a long straight view ahead of it. There wasn’t much of a crowd there, just a couple of officers in the ubiquitous Lakeland trench coats, and several dozen kids watching with hopeful looks on their faces. Out on the grass were maybe twenty soldiers who looked even scruffier than I felt, manhandling what looked like a cannon on an oddly shaped mount.

“Oh my God,” Pappas said. “I know these guys—the 34th Infantry from Covington. I wonder what they’re up to; that can’t be an ordinary howitzer.”

I gave him a startled look. One of the officers standing there laughed, and said, “Good morning, sir. Yeah, Carlos and I have been wondering about that since they started setting the thing up.”

Introductions followed; Michael Berconi and Carlos Lopez Ruiz were captains in the Lakeland Army, down from Toledo to watch the proof-of-concept tests. “You probably don’t know about the 34th,” Lopez said to me. “They’re a bunch of maniacs. Every year they come up with some new stunt.”

“That’s for sure,” said Berconi. “You should have been here last year. We were standing here, and all of a sudden a bright red triplane—you know, like the Red Baron’s plane—comes over the trees there and starts jumping drones from above. I heard later they spent two years building the damn thing.”

“I’m surprised the drones didn’t dodge it,” I said.

“They couldn’t see it,” Pappas told me. “Military frequency radar won’t see wood and fabric, and military drones only have video looking forward and down—though I understand that’s being changed. You’re not the only visitor from outside at these events.” He grinned, though there was an edge to it. “Though most of the others don’t announce themselves.”

The soldiers out on the open grass had finished setting up their cannon, and one of them spread his arms in what was pretty obviously a signal. “Here goes,” Pappas said. “You may want to put your hands over your ears; a 75-mm howitzer makes more noise than your earplugs’ll handle.”

I covered my ears. Off in the distance, a dot rose up into the air and came toward us in a zigzag pattern. About the time it got close enough that I could see more of it than a dot, the cannon went off, and Pappas wasn’t kidding; even with my hands over my ears, it packed a wallop. Something blurred the air downrange from where we stood; an instant passed, and then the drone shattered as though it had slammed into an unseen wall. The watching kids whooped; so did the soldiers, and then reloaded.

“What the ringtailed rambling—” Pappas began to say, then covered his ears; he’d spotted the next drone a moment after I had. The same process repeated, except that the second drone only lost half of one wing; that was enough to send it tumbling down onto the range, but the chief of the gun crew regaled the others with a string of profanity that would have gotten a standing ovation from Marines. Then it was hands-over-ears time; they let the final drone get good and close before firing, and so I got a fine view as something slammed into it and sent the fragments  tumbling down to the grass below.

Before the soldiers had finished whooping Pappas wheeled out toward them, shouting, “What the hell are you maniacs putting in that thing?” He was apparently no stranger to the 34th Infantry; they greeted him with sloppy salutes and big grins, and the crew chief and one of the others stood talking with him while the others started breaking the cannon down for transport.

A woman’s voice sounded behind me:  “Excuse me, is this the place for proof-of-concept tests?”

I turned around. She was a twenty-something blonde in a big brown barn coat. “Yes,” I said. “They’re just packing up from the last test.”

“Oh, good.” She turned and waved, and someone hauling a cart with two bicycle wheels came out of the crowd. He turned out to be a young man of about the same age, in a fedora and trench coat that had seen quite a bit of hard wear; one of his shoulders was noticeably higher than the other.

“Are you with the soldiers?” she asked me.

“No, just visiting. I’m Peter Carr.”

“I’m Emily Franken, and this is my husband Jim.” Hands got shaken all around. The cart was full of what looked like antique radio gear—a couple of big metal boxes with dials, switches, and gauges all over the front, and something that I swear looked like a death-ray gun from some old skiffy vid. The kids craned their necks to look at it all, but had the common sense not to touch anything.

“Should I ask about that?” I motioned to the contents of the cart.

“Sure,” she replied. “It’s a maser—a microwave laser. It’s old tech—they made them in the 1950s, but nobody could figure out how to get real power out of them.” In response to my look of surprise:  “There’s a lot of things like that—interesting bits of technology nobody followed up on.”

“What Emily’s not saying,” Jim interjected, “is that she spent two years studying quantum mechanics to find something that would mase steadily at room temperature, and published a couple of papers that are  going to turn three or four branches of physics on their heads.”

“Oh, stop it,” she said, blushing.

“Not a chance. When we were in engineering school, Mr. Carr, Emily was the only person in class who came up with anything really interesting for me to build.”

“And Jim was the only one in the class who could build the things I needed for my projects—so of course we got married right after graduation.” Laughing: “When he proposed, he said I had to marry him so I’d almost have the right last name to be a mad scientist, and a hunchbacked lab assistant too.”

He grinned, pushed his raised shoulder up further, and gave me a bug-eyed look. I laughed.

Out on the grass, the soldiers had the cannon and mount set up for transport, and hauled it back toward the parking lot and the jeeps. I wished the Frankens good luck, and they hauled the cart of electronic gear out onto the field. They passed Pappas as he came wheeling back, shaking his head.

“Even for the 34th, that’s pretty good,” he said when he reached me and the two captains. “You know what they were shooting?  Canister shot.”

Lopez and I looked blank, but Berconi let out a startled laugh. “Seriously?”

“God’s honest truth.” To the rest of us:  “It’s something artillery used to use back in the Civil War and before—basically, the world’s biggest shotgun shell, with pellets half an inch across.” With a motion of his head in the direction of the Frankens, who were busy setting up their gear: “What’s that all about?”

“Some kind of twentieth century microwave laser,” I said.

Pappas gave me a startled look, then turned to Berconi. “What’s on their schedule?”

“Standard three trials—well, but they’ve requested one with live ordnance.”

Pappas let out a long whistle. “This could get colorful.”

Out on the grass, the two had finished setting up their gear: a row of batteries, the two boxes, the death-ray-thing on a tripod, and cables connecting them. Emily Franken signaled that they were ready, and then got behind the ray-thing and aimed it downrange while her husband hunched over the two boxes and fiddled with the dials. The first drone appeared in the distance. I’m not sure what I was expecting—flashes and bangs, a beam of light, or what have you—but all that happened was that the drone suddenly dropped out of the air as though the Frankens had flipped the off switch at a distance.

A second drone met the same fate a few minutes later. “The third—” Pappas said.

“That’ll be the one with heat on board,” Berconi told him.

By the time the third drone went up people were beginning to drift over to the proof-of-concept range, wondering what was going on. As it came close enough to be more than a distant dot, I could see two missiles under each wing. Emily Franken crouched behind the device she was aiming, Jim twisted dials and fiddled with switches, and all of a sudden the drone vanished in a flash and a bubble of red fire. The sharp crack of the explosion, muffled by the earplugs I was wearing, arrived an instant later. The watching kids whooped in delight.

Berconi and Lopez hurried across the grass to the Frankens the moment the flaming wreckage of the drone was on the ground. “What do you think?” Pappas asked me.

“I have no idea,” I admitted.  “What did they do, microwave the inside of the drones?”

“Good question. If I had to guess—well, you know how a radio antenna works? Radio waves hit a piece of metal the right length and set up a current in it? I wonder if they’ve tuned the thing so that it sets up electrical surges in the onboard computer chips and the fuses for the missiles.”

I gave him a horrified look. “You could fry anything electronic with that.”

“Not our gear. All our electronics use vacuum tubes—you hit those with a surge, they just shrug—but outside electronics? Pretty much, yeah.”

I considered him for a long moment, and then wondered whether this whole business had been staged for my benefit. “You get a lot of mad scientists here in the Lakeland Republic?”

“You’d be surprised,” he said with a grin. “Lots of technologies that got invented in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were just plain abandoned even though they worked fine—there wasn’t a market yet, or something else got there first, or somebody bribed the right officials so government policy favored some other technology instead. A lot of engineers here spend their time going through old technical journals and what have you, looking for things that the Republic can use.”

“Like canister shot,” I said.

“Bingo. Or masers, or dragoons—or for that matter canals and canal boats.”

The Frankens had their maser broken down and loaded on the cart, and they were hauling it away, still deep in conversation with Berconi. Lopez headed back our way, while a bunch of soldiers hauled something that looked like a hand-cranked Gatling gun out onto the grass. “Come on,” Pappas said then. “Unless you want to see more here, of course. The expert competition ought to start pretty soon.”

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Too Little, Too Late

Last week, after a great deal of debate, the passengers aboard the Titanic voted to impose modest limits sometime soon on the rate at which water is pouring into the doomed ship’s hull. Despite the torrents of self-congratulatory rhetoric currently flooding into the media from the White House and an assortment of groups on the domesticated end of the environmental movement, that’s the sum of what happened at the COP-21 conference in Paris. It’s a spectacle worth observing, and not only for those of us who are connoisseurs of irony; the factors that drove COP-21 to the latest round of nonsolutions are among the most potent forces shoving industrial civilization on its one-way trip to history’s compost bin.

The core issues up for debate at the Paris meeting were the same that have been rehashed endlessly at previous climate conferences. The consequences of continuing to treat the atmosphere as a gaseous sewer for humanity’s pollutants are becoming increasingly hard to ignore, but nearly everything that defines a modern industrial economy as “modern” and “industrial” produces greenhouse gases, and the continued growth of the world’s modern industrial economies remains the keystone of economic policy around the world. The goal pursued by negotiators at this and previous climate conferences, then, is to find some way to do something about anthropogenic global warming that won’t place any kind of restrictions on economic growth.

What that means in practice is that the world’s nations have more or less committed themselves to limit the rate at which the dumping of greenhouse gases will increase over the next fifteen years. I’d encourage those of my readers who think anything important was accomplished at the Paris conference to read that sentence again, and think about what it implies. The agreement that came out of COP-21 doesn’t commit anybody to stop dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, now or at any point in the future. It doesn’t even commit anybody to set a fixed annual output that will not be exceeded. It simply commits the world’s nations to slow down the rate at which they’re increasing their dumping of greenhouse gases. If this doesn’t sound to you like a recipe for saving the world, let’s just say you’re not alone.

It wasn’t exactly encouraging that the immediate aftermath of the COP-21 agreement was a feeding frenzy among those industries most likely to profit from modest cuts in greenhouse gas consumption—yes, those would be the renewable-energy and nuclear industries, with some efforts to get scraps from the table by proponents of “clean coal,” geoengineering, fusion-power research, and a few other subsidy dumpsters of the same sort. Naomi Oreskes, a writer for whom I used to have a certain degree of respect, published a crassly manipulative screed insisting that anybody who questioned the claim that renewable-energy technologies could keep industrial society powered forever was engaged in, ahem, “a new form of climate denialism.” She was more than matched, to be fair, by a chorus of meretricious shills for the nuclear industry, who were just as quick to insist that renewables couldn’t be scaled up fast enough and nuclear power was the only alternative.

The shills in question are quite correct, as it happens, that renewable energy can’t be scaled up fast enough to replace fossil fuels; they could have said with equal truth that renewable energy can’t be scaled up far enough to accomplish that daunting task. The little detail they’re evading is that nuclear power can’t be scaled up far enough or fast enough, either. What’s more, however great they look on paper or PowerPoint, neither nuclear power nor grid-scale renewable power are economically viable in the real world. The evidence for this is as simple as it is conclusive: no nation anywhere on the planet has managed either one without vast and continuing government subsidies. Lacking those, neither one makes enough economic sense to be worth building, because neither one can provide the kind of cheap abundant electrical power that makes a modern industrial society possible.

Say this in the kind of company that takes global climate change seriously, of course, and if you aren’t simply shouted down by those present—and of course this is the most common response—you can expect to hear someone say, “Well, something has to do it.” Right there you can see the lethal blindness that pervades nearly all contemporary debates about the future, because it’s simply not true that something has to do it.  No divine providence nor any law of nature guarantees that human beings must have access to as much cheap abundant electricity as they happen to want.

Stated thus baldly, that may seem like common sense, but that sort of sense is far from common these days, even—or especially—among those people who think they’re grappling with the hard realities of the future. Here’s a useful example. One of this blog’s readers—tip of the archdruidical hat to Antroposcen—made an elegant short film that was shown at a climate-themed film festival in Paris while the COP-21 meeting was slouching toward its pointless end. The film is titled A Message from the Past, and as the title suggests, it portrays an incident from a future on the far side of global climate change. I encourage my readers to click through and watch it now; it’s only a few minutes long, and its point will be perfectly clear to any regular reader of this blog. 

The audience at the film festival, though, found it incomprehensible. The nearest they came to making sense of it was to guess that, despite the title, it was about a message from our time that had somehow found its way to the distant past. The thought that the future on the far side of global climate change might have some resemblance to the preindustrial past—that people in that future, in the wake of the immense collective catastrophes our actions are busy creating for them, might wear handmade clothing of primitive cut and find surviving scraps of our technologies baffling relics of a bygone time—seems to have been wholly beyond the grasp of their imaginations.

Two factors make this blindness to an entire spectrum of probable futures astonishing. The first is that not that long ago, plenty of people in the climate change activism scene were talking openly about the possibility that uncontrolled climate change could stomp industrial society with the inevitability of a boot descending on an eggshell. I’m thinking here, among other examples, of the much-repeated claim by James Lovelock a few years back that the likely outcome of global climate change, if nothing was done, was heat so severe that the only human survivors a few centuries from now would be “a few hundred breeding pairs” huddled around the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

It used to be all the rage in climate change literature to go on at length about the ghastly future that would be ours if global temperatures warmed far enough to trigger serious methane releases from northern permafrost, tip one or more of the planet’s remaining ice sheets into rapid collapse, and send sea water rising to drown low-lying regions. Lurid scenarios of civilizational collapse and mass dieoff appeared in book after lavishly marketed book. Of late, though, that entire theme seems to have dropped out of the collective imagination of the activist community, to be replaced by strident claims that everything will be just fine if we ignore the hard lessons of the last thirty years of attempted renewable-energy buildouts and fling every available dollar, euro, yuan, etc. into subsidies for an even more grandiose wave of uneconomical renewable-energy powerplants.

The second factor is even more remarkable, and it’s the existence of that first factor that makes it so. Those methane releases, rising seas, and collapsing ice sheets? They’re no longer confined to the pages of remaindered global warming books. They’re happening in the real world, right now.

Methane releases? Check out the massive craters blown out of Siberian permafrost in the last few years by huge methane burps, or the way the Arctic Ocean fizzes every summer like a freshly poured soda as underwater methane deposits get destabilized by rising temperatures. Methane isn’t the world-wrecking ultrapollutant that a certain class of apocalyptic fantasy likes to imagine, mostly because it doesn’t last long in the atmosphere—the average lifespan of a methane molecule once it seeps out of the permafrost is about ten years—but while it’s there, it traps heat much more effectively than carbon dioxide. The Arctic is already warming far more drastically than any other region of the planet, and the nice thick blanket of methane with which it’s wrapped itself is an important part of the reason why.

Those methane releases make a great example of the sudden stop that overtook discussions of the harsh future ahead of us, once that future started to arrive. Before they began to occur, methane releases played a huge role in climate change literature—Mark Lynas’ colorful and heavily marketed book Six Degrees is only one of many examples. Once the methane releases actually got under way, as I noted in a post here some years ago, most activists abruptly stopped talking about it, and references to methane on the doomward end of the blogosphere started fielding dismissive comments by climate-change mavens insisting that methane doesn’t matter and carbon dioxide is the thing to watch.

Rising seas? You can watch that in action in low-lying coastal regions anywhere in the world, but for a convenient close-up, pay a visit to Miami Beach, Florida. You’ll want to do that quickly, though, while it’s still there. Sea levels off Florida have been rising about an inch a year, and southern Florida, Miami Beach included, is built on porous limestone.  These days, as a result, whenever an unusually high tide combines with a strong onshore wind, salt water comes bubbling up from the storm sewers and seeping right out of the ground, and the streets of Miami Beach end up hubcap-deep in it. Further inland, seawater is infiltrating the aquifer from which southern Florida gets drinking water, and killing plants in low-lying areas near the coast.

The situation in southern Florida gets some press, but I suspect this is because Florida is a red state and the state government’s frantic denial that global warming is happening makes an easy target for humor. The same phenomenon is happening at varying paces elsewhere in the world, as a combination of thermal expansion of warming seawater, runoff from melting glaciers, and a grab-bag of local and regional oceanographic phenomena boosts sea level well above its historic place. Nothing significant is being done about it—to be fair, it’s unlikely that anything significant can be done about it at this point, short of a total moratorium on greenhouse gas generation, and the COP-21 talks made it painfully clear that that’s not going to happen.

Instead, southern Florida faces a fate that’s going to be all too familiar to many millions of people elsewhere in the world over the years ahead. As fresh water runs short and farm and orchard crops die from salt poisoning, mass migration will be the order of the day. Over the short term, southern Florida will gradually turn into salt marsh; look further into the future, and you can see Florida’s ultimate destiny, as a region of shoals, reefs, and islets extending well out into the Gulf of Mexico, with the corroded ruins of skyscrapers rising from the sea here and there as a reminder of the fading past.

Does this sound like science fiction? It’s the inescapable consequence of changes that are already under way. Even if COP-21 had produced an agreement that mattered—say, a binding commitment on the part of all the world’s nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions immediately and lower them to zero by 2030—southern Florida would still be doomed.  The processes that are driving sea levels up can’t turn on a dime; just as it took more than a century of unrestricted atmospheric pollution to begin the flooding of southern Florida, it would take a long time and a great deal of hard work to reverse that, even if the political will was available. As it is, the agreement signed in Paris simply means that the flooding will continue unchecked.

A far more dramatic series of events, meanwhile, is getting under way far north of Florida. Yes, that’s the breakup of the Greenland ice sheet. During the last few summers, as unprecedented warmth gripped the Arctic, rivers of meltwater have begun flowing across Greenland’s glacial surface, plunging into a growing network of chasms and tunnels that riddle the ice sheet like the holes in Swiss cheese. This is new; discussions of Greenland’s ice sheet from as little as five years ago didn’t mention the meltwater rivers at all, much less the hollowing out of the ice. Equally new is the fact that the vast majority of that meltwater isn’t flowing into the ocean—scientists have checked that, using every tool at their disposal up to and including legions of yellow rubber ducks tossed into meltwater streams.

What all this means is that in the decades immediately ahead of us, in all likelihood, we’ll get to see a spectacle no human being has seen since the end of the last ice age: the catastrophic breakup of a major ice sheet. If you got taught in school, as so many American schoolchildren were, that the great glacial sheets of the ice age melted at an imperceptible pace, think again; glaciologists disproved that decades ago. What happens, instead, is a series of sudden collapses that kick the pace of melting into overdrive at unpredictable intervals. What paleoclimatologists call global meltwater pulses—sudden surges of ice and water from collapsing ice sheets—send sea levels soaring by several meters, drowning large tracts of land in an impressively short time.

Ice sheet collapses happen in a variety of ways, and Greenland is very well positioned to enact one of the better documented processes. The vast weight of all that ice pressing down on the crust through the millennia has turned the land beneath the ice into a shallow bowl surrounded by mountains—and that shallow bowl is where all the meltwater is going. Eventually the water will rise high enough to find an outlet to the sea, and when it does, it will begin to flow out—and it will take much of the ice with it.

As that happens, seismographs across the North Atlantic basin will go crazy as Greenland’s ice sheet, tormented beyond endurance by the conflict between gravity and buoyancy, begins to break apart. A first great meltwater surged will vomit anything up to thousands of cubic miles of ice into the ocean. Huge icebergs will drift east and then south on the currents, and release more water as they melt. After that, summer after summer, the process will repeat itself, until some fraction of Greenland’s total ice sheet has been dumped into the ocean. How large a fraction? That’s impossible to know in advance, but all other things being equal, the more greenhouse gases get dumped into the atmosphere, the faster and more complete Greenland’s breakup will be.


The thing to keep in mind here is that the coming global meltwater pulse will have consequences all over the world. Once it happens—and again, the processes that will lead to that event are already well under way, and nothing the world’s industrial nations are willing to do can stop it—it will simply be a matter of time before the statistically inevitable combination of high tides and stormwinds sends sea water flooding into New York City’s subway system and the vast network of underground tunnels that houses much of the city’s infrastructure. Every other coastal city in the world will wait for its own number to come up. No doubt we’ll hear plenty of talk about building vast new flood defenses to keep back the rising waters, but let us please be real; any such project would require years of lead time and almost unimaginable amounts of money, and no nation anywhere in the world is showing the least interest in doing the thing now, when it might still be an option.

There’s a profound irony, in other words, in all the rhetoric from Paris about balancing concerns about the climate with the supposed need for perpetual economic growth. Imagine for a moment just how the coming global meltwater pulse will impact the world economy. Countless trillions of dollars in coastal infrastructure around the world will become “sunk costs” in more than a metaphorical sense; millions of people in low-lying areas such as southern Florida will have to relocate as their homes become uninhabitable, and trillions of dollars of real estate will have its value drop to zero. A galaxy of costs for which nobody is planning will have to be met out of government and business revenue streams that have been hammered by the direct and indirect effects of worldwide coastal flooding.

What’s more, it won’t be a single event, over and done with in a few weeks or months or years.  Every year for decades or centuries to come, more ice and meltwater will go sluicing into the oceans, more coastal cities and regions will face that one seawater surge too many, more costs will have to be met out of what’s left of a global economy that’s running out of functioning deepwater ports among many other things. The result, as I’ve noted in previous posts here, will be the disintegration of everything that counts as business as usual, and the opening phases of the bleak new reality that Frank Landis has sketched out in his harrowing new book Hot Earth Dreams—the best currently available book on what the world will look like in the wake of severe climate change, and thus inevitably ignored by everyone in the current environmental mainstream.(You can read the first five chapters of Landis' book here.)

By the time COP-21’s attendees convened in Paris, it was probably already too late to keep global climate change from spinning completely out of control. The embarrassingly feeble agreement that came out of that event, though, has guaranteed that nothing significant will be done. The hard political and economic realities that made any actual cut in greenhouse gas emissions all but unthinkable are just layers of icing on the cake, part of the predicament of our time—a predicament that defines the words “too little, too late” as our basic approach to the future looming up ahead of us.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Retrotopia: A Gift to be Simple

This is the eleventh installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator ventures out of Toledo into a tier one rural county and sees one of the alternative cultures taking shape in the Lakeland Republic. 

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We changed trains in Defiance. The station wasn’t much more than a raised platform running along each side of the tracks, with a shelter of cast iron and glass overhead to keep off any rain that might happen along. The day was shaping up clear and cool; the town looked like old county seats I’d seen in parts of upstate New York that hadn’t been flattened during the endgame of the Second Civil War, a patchwork of clapboard and brick with the county courthouse rising above the nearby roofs. I could see only two obvious differences—first, that the only vehicles on the streets were pulled by horses, and second, that all the houses looked lived in and all the businesses I could see seemed to be open.

The train west to Hicksville came after we’d waited about fifteen minutes. Colonel Pappas and I weren’t the only people waiting for it, either. Something close to a hundred people got off the train from Toledo with us, some in olive drab Lakeland Army uniforms, some in civilian clothing, all of them with luggage and most with long flat cases that I guessed held guns. Once Pappas rolled up the ramp onto one of the cars and I followed him, I found that the train was already more than half full, and it was the same mix, some soldiers, some civilians, plenty of firepower.

I sat down next to Pappas, who gestured expansively at the train. “Not what you’d usually see going to Hicksville,” he said. “Every other time of the year this is a twice a day milk run that hits every farm town between Bowling Green and Warsaw. This weekend it’s six or eight runs this size every day.”

The train jolted into motion, and I watched Defiance slide past. After maybe a mile, we were rolling through farmland dotted with houses and barns. Some of the houses had wind turbines rising up above them and solar water heaters on the roofs, while others didn’t; tall antennas I guessed were meant for radio rose above most of them, but not all. The dirt roads looked well tended and the bridges were in good repair. I shook my head, trying to make sense of it.

“Checking out tier one?” Pappas asked me.

I glanced at him. “Pretty much. I wasn’t expecting to see the wind and solar gear.”

“You’re thinking it’s tier one, how come they have tech that wasn’t around in 1830, right?” When I nodded, he laughed. “Outsiders always get hung up on that. Tier level just says what infrastructure gets paid for by county taxes. You can get whatever tech you want if it’s your own money.”

“What about a veepad?”

“Sure, as long as you don’t expect somebody else to pay for a metanet to make it work.”

I nodded again, conceding the point. “I get the sense that a lot of people here wouldn’t buy modern technology even if they could.”

“True enough. Some of that’s religious—we’ve got a lot of Amish and Mennonites here, and there’re also some newer sects along the same lines, Keelyites, New Shakers, that sort of thing. Some of it’s political—most of the people in the full-on Resto parties are just as much into low-tech in their own lives as they are in their politics. They learned that lesson from the environmentalists before the war—you know about those?”

It was my turn to laugh. “Yeah. I had some of them in my family when I was a kid. ‘I want to save the Earth, but not enough to stop driving my SUV.’”

“Bingo—and you know how much good that did. The Restos aren’t into that sort of hypocrisy, so a lot of them end up in low-tier counties and stick to simple tech.”

“What do you think of that?”

“Me? I’m a city kid. I like nightlife, public transit—” He slapped one of the tires of his wheelchair.  “—smooth sidewalks. Tier one’s fun to visit but I’d rather live tier four or five.”

The train rattled through farmland for an hour or so, stopping once at a little place named Sherwood, before we reached Hicksville. The station there was even more rudimentary than the one at Defiance, just a raised platform and a long single-story building with a peaked roof alongside the track, but Pappas had no trouble maneuvering his wheelchair on the platform once we got off the train. “We’ll wait here,” he told me. “Once the crowd clears someone’ll meet us.”

He was right, of course. After a couple of minutes, as the train rolled westwards out of the station and the crowd started to thin, a young man in army uniform with corporal’s stripes on his sleeves wove his way toward us and saluted Pappas. “Colonel, sir,” he said, “good to see you.” To me:  “You’re Mr. Carr, right? Pleased to meet you. The jeep’s this way.”

He wasn’t kidding. Sitting on the street next to the station, incongruous amid a press of horsedrawn carts and wagons, was what looked like a jeep straight out of a World War Two history vid. Pappas saw the expression on my face, and laughed. “The army’s got a lot of those,” he told me. “Good, cheap, sturdy, and it handles unpaved roads just fine.”

“What fuel does it use?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s diesel. Everything we use runs on vegetable oil if it doesn’t eat corned beef or hay.”

Pappas hauled himself into the jeep’s front passenger seat while I tried to parse that. The corporal helped him get his wheelchair folded and stowed, then waved me to a seat in back and went to the driver’s seat. I got in next to the wheelchair, found a place for my suitcase, and got a firm grip on the grab bar as the engine roared to life.

Six blocks later we were on the edge of Hicksville. “Tomorrow’s action is twelve miles north of town,” Pappas told me. “We’ll be staying right near there—all the farmhouses around here rent out rooms to visitors. Melanie told me you want to see how people live in tier one; you’ll get an eyeful.”

It took us half an hour to get to the farm Pappas had in mind, driving on what pretty clearly wasn’t the main road—now and then I could see dust rising off to the east, and a couple of times spotted what had to be a line of wagons and carts carrying people and luggage toward whatever was going to happen the next day. I speculated about why I wasn’t part of that line—Pappas’ rank, maybe? Or a courtesy toward a guest from outside who wasn’t used to horsedrawn travel? That latter irked me a bit, even though I was grateful for the quick trip.

Finally the jeep swerved off the road, rattled along a rough driveway maybe a half mile long, and clattered to a stop in front of a sprawling clapboard-sided building three stories tall. Two others and a huge barn stood nearby, and fields, pastures, and gardens spread out in all directions around them.

“Welcome to Harmony Gathering,” Pappas said, turning half around in his seat. “I mentioned the New Shakers earlier, remember? You’re about to meet some of ‘em.”

By the time he finished speaking the front door of the building swung open and a big gray-bearded man in overalls and a plain blue short-sleeved shirt came out. “Good day, Tom,” he called out. “And—Mr. Carr, I believe.”

I got out of the jeep. “Peter Carr,” I said, shaking his hand.

“I’m Brother Orren. Be welcome to our Gathering.” He turned to the corporal. “Joe, do you need help with any of that?”

“Nah, I’ve got it.” The corporal came around, got the wheelchair unfolded, and Pappas slid into it. I got my suitcase; the gray-bearded man turned back to the door and nodded once, and a boy of ten or so dressed the same way he was came out at a trot, took the suitcase from me, gave me a big smile, and vanished back into the building with it.

“Things hopping yet, Orren?” Pappas asked him.

“Oh, very much so. You have plenty of company.” He motioned toward the door. “Shall we?”

Inside the walls were bare and white, the furniture plain and sturdy, the air thick with the smell of baking bread. “Tom tells me that you’re from the Atlantic Republic,” the bearded man said to me. “I don’t believe our church has put down roots there yet. If you have questions—why, ask me, or anyone.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll take you up on that once I figure out what to ask.”

He beamed. “I’ll welcome that. Of course you’ll want to get the dust off first, and lunch will be ready shortly.” He turned and called out:  “Sister Susannah? Could you show our guests to their rooms?”

An old woman with improbably green eyes, dressed in a plain blue dress, came into the room from a corridor I hadn’t noticed. “Of course. Come with me, please.”

“Don’t worry about me, Sue,” Pappas said. “I know the way.”

That got a quiet laugh and a nod. Pappas rolled away down a different corridor, and the old woman led me up a nearby stair and down a long hall lined with doors. “This is yours,” she said, opening one. “Give me just a moment.”  She smiled, went on further down the hall.

The room was a simple cubicle with a bed on one side, a dresser and desk on the other, and a window on the far end. The bare white walls and the plain sturdy furniture were scrupulously clean, and the bed had a thick colorful quilt on it. My suitcase had been set down neatly beside the dresser.

A moment later the old woman was back with two pitchers and a bowl. “Here you are,” she said, setting them on the desk. “If you need anything else, please ring the bell and someone will be up to help you right away.” She smiled again and left, closing the door behind her.

The pitchers turned out to contain hot and cold water. Towels and a washcloth hung on a rack near the door, and a little shelf next to it had a bar of soap on it that didn’t look as though it had ever seen the inside of a factory. Two bags hanging from the back of the door had hand-embroidered labels on them, towels and linen and guest clothing; over to one side was an oddly shaped chair that turned out on inspection to be some sort of portable toilet, with a big porcelain pot underneath that sealed with a tightly fitting lid when it wasn’t in use. Tier one, I thought, and decided to make the best of it.

The funny thing was that the primitive accommodations weren’t actually that much more awkward or difficult to use than the facilities you’d find in a good hotel in Philadelphia. I wasn’t sure what I would be in for if I decided to take a bath, but I managed to get cleaned up and presentable in short order, and went out into the hall feeling distinctly ready for the lunch the old man had mentioned. I wondered for a moment if I should ring the bell, but that didn’t turn out to be necessary; as soon as I stepped out into the hall, the same boy who’d taken my suitcase up to the room came down the hall and  gave me directions. As I left, he was hauling away the water pitchers.

Lunch—sandwiches on homebaked whole-grain bread and big bowls of hearty chicken soup—was served in a big plain room in back, where big wooden tables and benches  ran in long rows, and the benches were full of men in Lakeland Republic uniforms; the only people who wore New Shaker blue were a couple of young men who brought out the food.  “The people who live here eat in their own dining hall,” Pappas told me when I asked him about that. “You’re welcome to join them, if you don’t mind eating in perfect silence while somebody reads out loud from the Bible.”

“I’ll pass,” I said.

He laughed. “Me too.  Sundays at Holy Trinity is enough religion for me, but I guess it works for them. They start a new Gathering somewhere every few years, they’re growing that fast.”

I racked my brains for the little I knew about the original Shakers. “Do they swear off sex?”

“No, that was the old Shakers. The New Shakers marry, or some of them do—Orren and Sue are a couple, for example. The brothers and sisters don’t own anything, not even a toothbrush, and live together like the old Shakers did.”

“And the other sect you mentioned?”

“The Keelyites? They’re like the Amish, they own their own homes and farms, but they’ve got their own beliefs and their prophet Eleanor Keely put a third testament into their Bibles. They’ll tell you that when God said we have to live by the sweat of our brows, He meant that anything that’s not powered by human muscles is sinful.”

“We’ve got Third Order Amish back home who say that,” I told him.

Pappas considered that. “I don’t think we have them here yet,” he said. “Now that the border’s opened, who knows? I bet they talk theology with the Keelyites. God knows what they’ll come up with.”

About the time I’d polished off lunch, Brother Orren came in and asked if I’d be interested in a tour of the Gathering—I gathered he’d been briefed by somebody—and I spent the afternoon trotting around the place with a soft-spoken guy in his early twenties named Micah, who had brown skin and a mane of frizzy red-brown hair. “My parents got killed in an air raid during the war of ‘49,” he told me as we walked toward the barn, “and the Gathering took me in. Any child who comes to us finds a home.”

“Did you ever consider leaving?” I asked.

“I left when I was nineteen,” he told me. “Spent three years out in the world, two of them in the army. It was a learning experience. But I came back once I realized that this was where I belong.”

“Do you miss anything from outside the Gathering?”

“Oh, now and again. Still, there’s a song we inherited from the old Shakers; the first line is ‘Tis a gift to be simple’—and that’s true, at least for me. It’s a gift, and as we say, a grace, and I’m happier here than I ever was out there in the world.”

I thought about that as we walked through the barn, the greenhouses, and the rest of the Gathering. In its own way, it was impressive—a community of around two hundred people that met all its own needs from its own fields and workshops, and produced enough of a surplus to make it an asset to the local economy—but something about it troubled me, and I sat up late that night, by the glow of the one candle each room was allotted, trying to figure out what it was.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Flutter of Space Bat Wings

You don’t actually know a time or a culture until you discover the thoughts that its people can’t allow themselves to think. I had a reminder of that the other day, by way of my novel Star’s Reach.

I’m pleased to say that for a novel that violates pretty much every imaginable pop-culture cliché about the future, Star’s Reach has been selling quite well—enough so that the publisher has brought out two more SF novels set in deindustrial futures, and is looking for other manuscripts along the same lines. What’s more, Star’s Reach has also started to inspire spinoffs and adaptations: a graphic novel is in the works, so is a roleplaying game, and so is an anthology of short stories by other authors set in the world sketched out in my novel. All of this came as a welcome surprise to me; far more surprising, though ultimately rather less welcome, was an ebullient email I received asking whether Star’s Reach was available to be optioned for a television miniseries.

For a variety of reasons, some of which will become clear as we proceed, I’ll call the person who got in touch with me Buck Rogers. He praised Star’s Reach to the skies, and went on at length about wanting to do something that was utterly faithful to the book. As I think most of my readers know by now, I haven’t owned a television in my adult life and have zero interest in changing that, even to see one of my own stories on the screen. I could readily see that people who like television might find a video adaptation entertaining, though, and no doubt it would make a welcome change from the endless rehash of overfamiliar tropes about the future that fills so much of science fiction these days.

Ah, but then came the inevitable email explaining exactly what kind of adaptation Buck Rogers had in mind. It was going to be more than just a miniseries, he explained. It was going to be a regular series, the events of my novel were going to provide the plot for the first year, and after that—why, after that, he was promptly going to drag in one of the currently popular bits of hypertechnological handwaving so the characters in my story could go zooming off to the stars. Whee!

Those of my readers who haven’t turned the pages of Star’s Reach may welcome a bit of explanation here. The core theme of Star’s Reach—the mainspring that powers the plot—is precisely that humanity isn’t going to the stars; the contrast between the grandiose gizmocentric fantasies of today’s industrial world and the grubby realities of life in 25th-century Meriga frames and guides the entire novel. An adaptation of Star’s Reach that removes that little detail and replaces it with yet another rehash of the interstellar-travel trope is thus a bit like an adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in which the hobbits enthusiastically sell out to the powers of evil and Sauron wins.

I communicated this to Buck Rogers, and got back a lengthy response of the take-my-ball-and-go-home variety, saying in a hurt tone that I was wrong and just didn’t understand how his proposal fit perfectly with my story. I sent him a polite note wishing him luck in his future projects, and that was that. All in all, I think the situation turned out for the best. I’m not particularly desperate for money—certainly not desperate enough to be willing to see one of my favorite books gutted, stuffed, and mounted on the nose cone of an imaginary starship—and this way I still have the movie and TV rights, on the off chance that somebody ever wants to film the story I wrote, rather than a parody of it.

It was only after I’d clicked the “send” button on the short polite note just mentioned that I realized that there was something really quite strange about Buck Rogers’ final email. He had taken issue at rather some length with almost everything I’d said while trying to explain to him why his proposal wasn’t one I could accept, with one exception. It wasn’t a small exception, either. It was the core issue I’d raised at quite some length: that he’d taken a story about what happens when humanity can’t go to the stars, and tried to turn it into a story about humanity going to the stars.

I don’t think that absence was any kind of accident, either. You don’t actually know a time or a culture until you discover the thoughts that its people can’t allow themselves to think.

This wasn’t the only time Star’s Reach had attracted that same sort of doublethink, for that matter. Back when it was being written and posted online an episode at a time, I could count nearly every month on hearing from people who enthused about how wonderful the story was, and in the next breath tried to push me into inserting some pop-culture cliché about what the future is supposed to look like. Far more often than not, the point of the insertion was to show that “progress” was still on track and would eventually lead to a more “advanced” society—that is, a society like ours. When I explained that the story is about what happens when “progress,” in the sense that word has today, is over forever, and our kind of society is a fading memory of the troubled past, they simply insisted all the louder that the changes they wanted me to make were perfectly consistent with my story.

Regular readers may also recall the discussion a few weeks back of the way so many people’s brains seem to freeze up when faced with the idea that others might choose not to use the latest technology, and might instead keep using older technologies they like better. Further back in this blog’s trajectory, three or four other topics—most notably the prospects for the survival of the internet in a deindustrializing world—reliably triggered the same odd behavior pattern, an obsessive evasion of the point accompanied by the weirdly stereotyped repetition of some set of canned talking points.

It’s fascinating, at least to me, that so many topics brought up in this blog seem to function, for some readers, as a kind of elephant’s graveyard of the mind, a place where thinking goes to die. That said, among all the things that trigger a mental Blue Screen of Death in a portion of my readers, challenging the frankly rather bizarre notion that humanity’s destiny centers on interstellar travel stands at least a little apart, in the sheer intensity of the emotional reactions it rouses. If I try to call attention to the other evasions on the list, I get a blank look or, at most, an irritated one, followed by an instant return to the evasions. On the subject of interstellar travel, by contrast, I get instant pushback: “No, no, no, there’s got to be some grandiose technofetishistic deus ex machina that will let us go to the STARZ!!!”

The question in my mind is why this particular bit of endlessly rehashed science fiction has gotten so tight a hold on the collective imagination of our age.

I suppose a case can be made that its ascendancy in science fiction itself was inevitable. SF in its pulp days found its main audience among teenage boys, after all, and so it makes sense that the genre would fixate on the imagery of climbing aboard a giant metal penis to be squirted into the gaping void of space. Even so, plenty of other images that were just as appealing to the adolescent male imagination, and just as popular in the early days of the genre, somehow got recognized as hackneyed tropes along the route that led from the pulp magazines of the 1920s and 1930s to the paperback SF novels of today, while interstellar travel has so far evaded that fate.

By the time I first started writing science fiction, for example, everyone had more or less noticed that traveling to an exotic future by way of suspended animation, or the couple of other standard gimmicks, had been done to death decades before, and deserved a rest. Somehow, though, very few people noticed that traveling to an exotic planet by way of one of the three or four standard gimmicks for interstellar travel had been overused just as thoroughly by that time, if not more so, and deserved at least as much of a break—and of course it’s gotten even more of a workout since then.

It’s reached the point, in fact, that with embarrassingly few exceptions, you have your choice between two and only two futures in today’s science fiction: you can have interplanetary travel or apocalyptic collapse, take your pick. No other futures need apply—and of course the same thing is true even when people think they’re talking about the actual future. So taut a fixation clearly has something to communicate. I think I’ve figured out part of what it’s trying to say, with the help of one of the authors who helped make science fiction the frankly more imaginative genre it was in the days before the Space Patrol took over exclusive management. Yes, that would be the inimitable H.P. Lovecraft.

Few people nowadays think of Lovecraft as a science fiction writer at all. This strikes me as a major lapse, and not just because the man wrote some classic gizmocentric stories and made the theme of alien contact a major concern of his fiction. He was unique among the authors of imaginative fiction in his generation in tackling the most challenging of all the discoveries of twentieth century science—the sheer scale, in space and time, of the universe in which human beings find themselves.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould coined the term “deep time” for the immensities of past and future that reduce our familiar human timescales to pipsqueak proportions. It’s a useful coinage, and might well be paired with the phrase “deep space,” meaning the spatial vastness that does the same trick to our human sense of distance. Lovecraft understood deep time and deep space to an extent few of his contemporaries shared—an extent that allowed him to take firm grasp of the yawning chasm between our species’ sense of self-importance and its actual place in the cosmos.

If the view of the universe revealed to us by modern science is even approximately accurate—and, like Lovecraft, I have no doubt of this—then the entire history of our species, from its emergence sometime in the Pleistocene to its extinction at some as yet undetermined point in the future, is a brief incident on the wet film that covers the surface of a small planet circling an undistinguished star over to one side of an ordinary galaxy. Is it important, that brief incident? To us, surely—but only to us. In Lovecraft’s words, we are “faced by the black, unfathomable gulph of the Outside, with its forever-unexplorable orbs & its virtually certain sprinkling of utterly unknowable life-forms.” Notice the adjectives here: unfathomable, unexplorable, unknowable. What he’s saying here, and throughout his fiction as well, is plain: the message of deep time and deep space is that the cosmos is not there for our benefit. 

That’s precisely the realization that so much of today’s science fiction is frantically trying not to get. The same sort of thinking that led ancient cultures to see bears, queens, and hunting dogs in the inkblot patterns of the skies has been put to hard work in the attempt to reimagine the cosmos as “New Worlds For Man,” a bona fide wonderland of real estate just waiting for our starships to show up and claim it. It’s not just ordinary acquisitiveness that drives this, though no doubt that plays a part; the core of it is the desperate desire to reduce the unhuman vastness of the cosmos to a human scale.

The same kind of logic drives the fatuous claims that humanity will watch the sun die, or what have you. Let us please be real; if we get lucky, not to mention a good deal smarter than we’ve shown any sign of being so far, we might make it a few tens of millions of years (that is, five or ten thousand times the length of recorded history) before our mistakes or the ordinary crises of planetary history push us through extinction’s one-way turnstile. For all we know, other intelligent species may arise on this planet long after we’re gone, and pore over our fossilized bones, before they depart in turn. “Nor is it to be thought”—this is Lovecraft again, quoting his fictional Necronomicon“that man is either the oldest or the last of earth’s masters.” Spooky, isn’t it? Now ask yourself this: why is it spooky?

The modern attempt to impose a human scale on the cosmos is actually something of an anomaly in terms of human cultures. If the ancient Greeks, for example, had gotten to telescopes and stratigraphy first, and figured out the actual immensity of space and time, that discovery wouldn’t have bothered them at all. Ancient Greek religion takes it as given that human beings simply aren’t that important in the scheme of things. Turn the pages of Hesiod, to drop only one famous name, and you’ll find a clear sense of the sharply limited place humanity has in the cosmos, and a calm acceptance of the eventual certainty of human extinction.

It’s one of history’s most savage ironies that the scientific discoveries that revealed the insignificance of humanity were made by societies whose religious ideas didn’t take that sensible view. Most versions of traditional Christian teaching place humanity at the center of the cosmic story: the world was made for our benefit, God himself became a man and died to save us, and as soon as the drama of human salvation is over, the world will end. Of all world religions, Christianity has historically been the most relentlessly anthropocentric—it can be understood in less human-centered terms, but by and large, it hasn’t been—and it was societies steeped in Christian ideas that first found themselves staring in horror at a cosmos in which anthropocentric ideas are all too clearly the last word in absurdity.

I’ve discussed at some length in my recent book After Progress how belief in progress was turned into a surrogate religion by people who found that they could no longer believe in Christian doctrine but still had the emotional needs that had once been met by Christian faith. The inability to tolerate doubts concerning “Man’s Destiny In The Stars” unfolds from the same conflict. Raised in a culture that’s still profoundly shaped by Christian attitudes, taught to think of the cosmos in anthropocentric terms, people in the United States today crash facefirst into the universe revealed by science, and cognitive dissonance is the inevitable result. No wonder so many of us are basically gaga these days.

Such reflections lead out toward any number of big questions. Just at the moment, though, I want to focus on something on a slightly less cosmic scale. Regular readers will remember that a while back, at the conclusion of the last Space Bats challenge, I wished aloud that someone would launch a quarterly magazine to publish the torrent of good stories set in deindustrial futures that people were clearly eager to write. The publication fairy was apparently listening, and I’m delighted to announce the launch of a new quarterly magazine of deindustrial science fictionInto The RuinsGiven the frankly astonishing quality of the stories submitted to the three Space Bats challenges we’ve had so far, I suspect that Into The Ruins is going to become one of those “must read” magazines that, like Weird Tales in the 1920s and 1930s, defines a genre and launches the careers of any number of major writers. This is a paying market, folks; let your writer friends know.

With that under way, we can start pushing the boundaries even further.

One criticism that’s been directed at past Space Bats challenges, and at the three published After Oil anthologies that have come out of them so far (the fourth will be published early in the new year), is that collapse has become a cliché in contemporary science fiction and culture. Mind you, a lot of those who make this criticism are in the unenviable position of the pot discussing the color of the kettle—I’m thinking here especially of SF writer and prolific blogger David Brin, whose novels fixate on the even more spectacularly overworked trope of salvation through technological progress, with space travel playing its usual hackneyed part—but there’s a point to the critique.

Mind you, I still think that the decline and fall of industrial civilization and the coming of a deindustrial dark age is far and away the most likely future we face. Day after day, year after year, decade after decade, the opportunities that might have gotten us out of that unwelcome future have slipped past, and the same mistakes that have been made by every other civilization on its way down have been made by ours. What’s more, there are still plenty of good stories waiting to be written about how industrial society ran itself into the ground and what happened then—it’s the apocalyptic end of the spectrum of possibilities that’s been written into the ground at this point, while the kind of ragged decline that usually happens in real history has barely been tapped as a source of stories. That said, since we’re talking about imaginative fiction, maybe it’s worth, for once, stepping entirely outside the binary of progress versus collapse, and seeing what the landscape looks like from a third option.

Yes, the sound that you’re hearing is the flutter of space bat wings. It’s time for a new challenge, and this one is going to take a leap into the unthinkable.

The mechanics are the same as in previous Space Bats challenges. Post your story to the internet—if you don’t have a blog, you can get one for free from Blogspot or WordpressPut a link to it in the comments section of this blog, preferably in the comments to the most recent post, so everyone sees it. Stories are due by the last day of June, 2016—fans of Al Stewart are welcome to insert the appropriate joke here.

The rules of the contest, in turn, are almost the same as before:

Stories should be between 2500 and 8500 words in length;
They should be entirely the work of their author or authors, and should not borrow characters or setting from someone else’s work;
They should be in English, with correct spelling, grammar and punctuation;
They should be stories—narratives with a plot and characters—and not simply a guided tour of some corner of the future as the author imagines it;
They should be set in our future, not in an alternate history or on some other planet;
They should be works of realistic fiction or science fiction, not magical or supernatural fantasy—that is, the setting and story should follow the laws of nature as those are presently understood;
They should take into account the reality of limits to growth, finite supplies of nonrenewable resources, and the other hard realities of our species’ current predicament;
They should not include space travel—again, that weary cliché is long overdue for a rest;
They should not rely on “alien space bats” to solve humanity’s problems—miraculous technological discoveries, the timely arrival of advanced alien civilizations, sudden lurches in consciousness that make everyone in the world start acting like characters in a bad utopian novel, or what have you;
Finally, they must be set in futures in which neither continued technological progress nor the collapse of civilization take place.

I probably need to explain this last point in more detail. Through most of human history, progress was a very occasional thing, and most people could expect to use the same tools, do the same work, and live in the same conditions as their great-grandparents. The last three centuries changed that for a while, but that change was a temporary condition driven by the reckless exploitation of a half billion years of fossil sunlight. Now that the earth’s cookie jar of carbon is running short, to say nothing of all the other essential resources that are rapidly depleting, the conditions that made that burst of progress possible are ending, and it’s reasonable to assume that progress as we know it will end as well.

Does that mean that nothing new will ever be invented again? Of course not. It does mean the end of the relentless drive toward ever more extravagant uses of energy and resources that characterizes our current notions of progress. Future inventions will by and large use fewer resources and less energy than the things they replace, as was generally the case in the preindustrial past, and the pace of invention and technological obsolescence will decline very sharply from its present level. Authors who want to put interesting technologies into their stories are entirely welcome to do so—but don’t make the story about the onward march of gizmocentricity, please. That’s been done to death, and it’s boring.

In the same way, history is full of crises. Major wars come every few generations, nations collapse from time to time, whole civilizations decline and fall when they’ve exhausted their resource bases. All these things will happen in the future as they happened in the past, and it’s perfectly okay to put crises large or small into your stories. What I’m asking is that this time, your stories should not center on the process of collapse. Mind you, quite a few of the stories in the first three anthologies didn’t have that focus, and the fourth anthology—consisting of stories set at least a thousand years in the future—is entirely about other themes, so I don’t think this one will be too difficult.

Neither progress nor collapse. That opens up a very wide and almost unexplored territory. What does the future look like if those overfamiliar options are removed from the equation? Give it a try.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Retrotopia: Economics by Other Means

This is the tenth installment of an exploration of some of the possible futures discussed on this blog, using the toolkit of narrative fiction. Our narrator catches a train for the agricultural hinterlands of the Lakeland Republic, and learns some of the reasons why the Republic is so hard to invade.

***********
The phone rang at eight a.m. sharp the next morning. I was in the bathroom, trying to get my electric shaver to give me a shave half as good as the one I got at the barbershop, and failing; I turned the thing off, put it down, and got to the phone on the third ring. “Hello?”

“Mr. Carr? Melanie Berger. We’ve got everything lined up for your trip today. Can you be at the train station by nine o’clock?”

“Sure thing,” I said.

“Good. Your tickets will be waiting for you, and Colonel Tom Pappas will meet you there. You can’t miss him; look for a wheelchair and a handlebar mustache.”

The wheelchair didn’t sound too promising—I had no idea what kind of accommodations counties in the Lakeland Republic’s lower tiers made for people with disabilities—but I figured Meeker’s people knew what they were doing. “I’ll do that.”

“You’ll be back Saturday evening,” Berger said then. “The president would like to see you again Monday afternoon, if you’re free.”

“I’ll put it on the schedule,” I assured her; we said the usual, and I hung up.

It took me only a few minutes to pack for the trip, and then it was out the door, down the stairs, and through the lobby to the street to wave down a taxi. As I got out onto the sidewalk, a kid with a bag of rolled newspapers hanging from one shoulder turned toward me expectantly and said, “Morning Blade? ‘Nother satellite got hit.”

That sounded worth the price of a paper; I handed over a bill and a couple of coins, got the paper in return, thanked the kid, and went to the street’s edge. A couple of minutes later I was sitting in a two-wheel cab headed for the train station, listening to the clip-clop of the horse’s hooves ahead and reading the top story on the newspaper’s front page.

The kid who’d sold me the paper hadn’t been exaggerating. A chunk of the Progresso IV satellite that got taken out by space junk a week before had plowed into a big Russian telecommunications satellite during the night, spraying fragments at twenty thousand miles an hour across any number of midrange orbits. Nothing else had been hit yet, but the odds of a full-blown Kessler syndrome had just gone up by a factor I didn’t want to think about.

Aside from the fact itself, only one thing caught my attention in the article: a comment from a professor of astronomy at the University of Toledo, mentioning that his department was calculating the orbits of as many fragments as they’d been able to track. I didn’t know a lot about astronomy, but I’d learned just enough that the thought of trying to work out an orbit using pen and paper made my head hurt. I wondered if they’d scraped together the money to buy a bootleg computer from a Chicago smuggling ring or something like that. 

I’d just about finished the first section of the paper when the taxi pulled up to the sidewalk in front of the train station. I paid the cabbie, stuffed the newspaper into my coat pocket, and headed inside. The big clock above the ticket counters said eight-thirty; there wasn’t much of a line, so by eight-forty I had my round trip ticket in an inner pocket and was heading through the doors marked Platform Four.

I’d just about gotten my bearings when I spotted a burly man in a wheelchair halfway down the platform. He turned around and saw me a moment later, made a little casual half-salute with one hand, and wheeled over to meet me. Berger hadn’t been kidding about the handlebar mustache; it was big, black, and curled at the tips. That and bushy eyebrows made up for the lack of a single visible hair anywhere else on his head. He was wearing the first hip-length jacket I’d seen anywhere in the Lakeland Republic, over an olive-drab military uniform.

“Peter Carr?” he said. “I’m Tom Pappas. Call me Tom; everyone else does.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, shaking his hand. The guy had hands the size of hams and a grip that would put a gorilla to shame.

“Melanie tells me you rattled the boss good and proper yesterday,” he said with a chuckle. “You probably know we’ve been getting a lot of semi-official visitors from outside governments since the borders opened. Of course they all want to know about our military. Care to guess how many of them asked about that right up front, to the President’s face?”

“I can’t be the only one,” I protested.

“Not quite. Ever met T. Bayard Batchley?”

I burst out laughing. “Yes, I’ve met him. Don’t tell me he’s the only other.”

“Got it in one. Of course he blustered about it in the grand Texan style, and more or less implied that the entire army of the Republic of Texas was drooling over the prospect of invading us.”

I shook my head, still laughing. “I bet. I was on a trade mission to Austin a while back, and we got a Batchley lecture to the effect that everyone in Philadelphia was going to starve to death if they didn’t get shipments of Texas beef that week.”

“Sounds about right.”

The train came up to the platform just then, and the roar of the locomotive erased any possibility of further conversation for the moment. The conductor took our tickets and waved us toward one of the cars. I wondered how Pappas was going to climb the foot or so from the platform to the door, but about the time I’d finished formulating the thought, one of the car attendants popped out, grabbed a handle I hadn’t noticed under the step, and slid out a steel ramp. Pappas rolled up into the car, the attendant pushed the ramp back into its place, they said a few words to each other, and then Pappas wheeled his way over to a place at the back of the car, flipped one of the two seats up, and got a couple of tiedown straps fastened onto his chair by the time I’d followed him.

I took the seat next to him. “Do they have this sort of thing in all the trains here?”

“Wheelchair spots? You bet. We had a lot of disabled vets after the Second Civil War, of course, and got a bunch more in ‘49. That’s how I ended up in this thing—got stupid during the siege of Paducah, and took some shrapnel down low in my back.”

The train filled up around us.  “I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“Oh, it doesn’t slow me down that much.  The only complaint I’ve got is that I’m stuck in a desk job in Toledo now, instead of out there in the field.” He shook his head. “How much did they tell you about our military?”

“Here, or back home?”

“Either one.”

“Here, nothing. Back home—” I considered the briefings I’d been given, edited out the classified parts. “They’re pretty much baffled. We know you’ve got universal military service on the Swiss model, but no modern military tech at all—plenty of light infantry and field artillery, but no armor, no drones, no air force worth mentioning, and a glorified coast guard on the Great Lakes.”

He nodded as the train lurched into motion. “That’s about right. And you’re wondering how we can get away with that.”

“It’s a concern,” I said. “As I told President Meeker, we don’t want a failed state or a war zone on our western border.”

Pappas laughed, as though I’d made a joke. “I bet. What if I told you that we’re less likely to end up that way than any other country on this continent?”

I gave him a wry look. “You’d have to to some very fast talking to convince me of that. With that kind of armament, I don’t see how you could expect to defeat a country with a modern military.”

“We don’t have to defeat them,” he said at once. “All we have to do is bankrupt them.”

I stared at him.

“War’s not cheap,” he went on. “Modern high-tech warfare, square and cube that. Half the reason the old United States collapsed was the amount of money it poured into trying to stay ahead of everybody else’s military technology. I’m not going to ask you how much the Atlantic Republic has to pay each year for drones, robot tanks, helicopter gunships, cruise missiles, and the information systems you need to run all of it; you know as well as I do that it’s a big chunk of the national budget, and I’d be willing to make a bet that you have to skimp on the rest of your military budget to make up for it—meaning that your ordinary grunts don’t have the training or the morale they might have.”

I didn’t answer. Outside the window, commercial buildings gave way to a residential neighborhood dotted with gardens and parks.

“So you’ve got a lot of money sunk in military hardware. Let’s say you guys decided to invade us.”

“That’s not going to happen,” I told him.

“Just for example.” He waved the objection away with one massive hand. “You send in your drones and robot tanks and helicopter gunships, seize Toledo and wherever else your general staff thinks is strategic enough to merit it, and dump a bunch of infantry to hold onto those places. You’ve won, right? Except that that’s when the fun begins.

“All that light infantry and field artillery you mentioned—it’s still there, distributed all over the country, and it’s not dependent on any kind of central command.  It’s got first-rate training, and most of the training is oriented to one thing and one thing only: insurgent operations. So thirty minutes after your drones cross the border, you’re dealing with a full-on, heavily armed insurgency with prepared positions and ample firepower, in every single county of the Lakeland Republic. However long you want to hold on, we can hold on longer, and every day of it costs you a lot more than it costs us. Oh, and a lot of the training our troops get focuses on taking out your high-tech assets with inexpensive munitions. So it’s the same kind of black hole the old United States kept getting itself into—no way to win, and the bills just keep piling up until you go home.”

“I’m a little surprised you’re telling me all this,” I said after a moment.

“Don’t be. We want people outside to know exactly what they’re up against if they invade.” He gestured out the window. “Check that out.”

We were still in the residential part of Toledo, the same patchwork of houses, gardens, and little business districts I’d seen on the way from Pittsburgh, but something new cut across the landscape: a canal. It didn’t have water in it yet, and so I could see that the sides were lined with big slabs of concrete that must have been salvaged from a prewar freeway.

“We’re putting those in everywhere that the landscape permits,” Pappas said. “Partly that’s economic—canals are cheaper to run than any other transport—but it’s also military. You want to try to cross one of those in a tank, be my guest. There’s a lot of that sort of thing. Every county is its own military unit and builds bunkers, prepared positions, tank traps, you name it. Since we’re not interested in invading anybody else, we can put a lot of resources into that.”

I decided to take a risk. “If you’re not interested in invading anybody else, why did your people put so much work into getting detailed topo maps of our territory back before the border opened?”

The bushy eyebrows went up. “You know about that.”

I nodded. “We got lucky.”

“Gotcha,” Pappas said. “Did you hear much about the other side of our dust-up with the Confederacy in ‘49?” I motioned for him to go on, and he grinned. “We sent teams across the border into their territory to mess with their infrastructure. Bridges, power lines, levees, you name it—anything that would raise the price tag. We even got a couple of teams onto Brazilian territory to do the same thing; we would have done more of that if the war hadn’t ended when it did.”

“So it’s all about economics,” I said.

“Of course. You know how Clausewitz said that war’s a continuation of politics by other means? He got that half right. It’s also a continuation of economics—and the last guy standing is the one who can afford to keep fighting longest.”

I nodded. Outside the window, the first of the farms and fields were coming into view, brown with stubble or green with cover crops for overwintering.

“All across this country,” Pappas said then, “we’ve got young men and women doing their two year stints in the army, and showing up for two weeks a year afterwards as long as they can still shoulder a gun—and there’s a good reason for that. This country got the short end of the stick for decades back before the Second Civil War, then got the crap pounded out of it during the fighting, and then—well, I could go on. We found out the hard way what happens when you let some jerk in a fancy white house a thousand miles away decide for you how you’re going to run your life. That’s why President Meeker’s not much more than a referee to ride herd on the parties in the legislature; that’s why each county makes so many of its own decisions by vote—and it’s why all the people you’re going to see tomorrow are putting a nice fall weekend into shooting at drones.”

“Is that what’s on the schedule for tomorrow?”

The bushy eyebrows went up again. “Melanie didn’t tell you?” Suddenly he chuckled, rubbed his big hands together. “Oh man. You’re going to get an education.”