Saturday, October 31, 2009

Waiting on a Dead World

Waiting on a Dead World

Brian H. Gill

They grew in the light of a golden sun. They studied the soil, stones and waters around them. They studied the stars and fire. They studied the myriad forms of life around them. And they recorded what they had learned.

They lived, engendered more of their kind, watched their young grow and learn, and they died. But their sun continued to shine, and their young grew old, studied, and added to the store of knowledge.

Stars do not grow old, as living things do: but stars change.

As their store of knowledge increased, they came to know that in time their star's inner fires would fail, choked in ash which had accumulated over ages beyond imagining.

Armed with that knowledge, they could prepare.

Some decided to accept the end of their world as their own end, and the end of all who would come after, accepting what was to come.

Others built tiny worlds, moving them as the once-golden sun grew and dimmed - but not enough to spare its inner worlds. They lived, grew, engendered and died: and learned. In time some of them grew restless, turned their eyes to the stars; left the shrunken, glaring ember that had been their sun behind; and sought other suns.

A few would not die with their world, and would not leave. They had learned, long ago, how to record their memories, habits and desires in forms which could endure boiling oceans and the hot wind which swept air from their home.

And so, as their star billowed out, puffing its substance into the void, they left copies of their minds, buried under miles of rock. Not as inert patterns of memory and habit: but active as their living forms had been. For in this way they thought that some part of themselves, at least, would endure.

And endure they did: as their sun burned the last of its fuel and shrank to a white-hot spot in the sky of their now-airless world. At last they ventured up, in mechanical bodies well-suited to the vacuum and cold.

Standing on a dead world, their sun a point of light which would have pained living eyes, they discovered that near-immortality was not quite as satisfactory as they had imagined.

Their artificial bodies were adequate, but did not provide the quality of sensation which they remembered.

Some learned to be content with their new form.

Others decided that they wanted to taste, to smell, to touch as they once had. They wanted to live as creatures of flesh and blood again.

It was not a futile desire. The methods they had used to inhabit mechanical bodies could be used to impose their will on organic creatures, and draw sensations from the living hosts.

There was nothing living on their world. But, they reasoned, just as some of their own kind had traveled the void between stars, others might come to their world.

So they built a huge pattern of concentric rings, surrounded by a pulsing radiance which could have no natural source.

And they waited.

After a very long time, a moving point of light appeared in their sky. It drifted down, until even living eyes could have recognized a mass of cylinders and spheres: a vessel built to carry living beings from world to world.

The vessel landed, opened, and living creatures stepped out. And were met by the waiting minds.

It was worth the wait.

copyright © Brian H. Gill 2009

More: Related post:
Here's what got me started:
"Dead Stars Once Hosted Solar Systems"
Space.com (April 20, 2009)

"At least one in every 100 white dwarf stars may be orbited by asteroids and rocky planets, new observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope suggest. The finding could mean that these now dead stars once hosted solar systems similar to our own....

"...White dwarf stars are the compact, hot remnants left behind when stars like our own sun reach the end of their lives....
If mathematical models that stellar physicists and cosmologists have made are anywhere near being accurate, a star like our sun has roughly 12,000,000,000 years from the time it starts shining to the point at which its supply of hydrogen in the core runs out.

With the fusion fire out, the star starts shrinking - which pushes hydrogen outside the core to pressures and temperatures where fusion will take place. The star starts expanding at this point, becoming a red giant (boiling the oceans of any formerly-habitable planet(s) it may have had) - and eventually forming a pretty-looking nebula around the now-spent interior of the star. The process takes a few million years - something like a thousandth of the star's time on the main sequence.

(I'm leaving out quite a few steps - there's a decent discussion of stellar evolution at the Stellar Database, "Stellar Evolution.")

What's left collapses into a ball smaller than Uranus or Neptune. This object is a white dwarf. Back to that Space.com article:
"...The atmospheres of white dwarfs usually consist entirely of hydrogen and helium, but sometimes heavier elements such as calcium or magnesium are detected contaminating the stellar material.

"Data from Spitzer suggest that at least 1 to 3 percent of white dwarf stars are contaminated in this way.

"Scientists think that the out-of-place elements come from a gradual rain of orbiting dust onto the sun. The dust emits infrared radiation which Spitzer detects.

"The dust is entirely contained within what is called the Roche limit of the star, or close enough that any object larger than a few kilometers would be ripped apart by gravitational tides. (This is the same phenomenon that produced Saturn's rings.) Because of the location of the dust, scientists think that the dust may originate from rocky bodies such as asteroids (also known as minor planets) that were torn apart in this way.

"This could mean that as many as 5 million white dwarfs in our own Milky Way are surrounded by orbiting asteroids.

"For the asteroids to get within the Roche limit to be pulled apart at the seams, they must be perturbed from an orbit farther out from their star — the asteroids could be nudged by as yet unseen planets...."

"Thought for the Day" Won't be a Regular Feature

While looking up the Heraclitus quote about change, I ran into several others: and decided to do a few 'thought for the day' posts.

Given the amount of time it would take to keep finding pithy one-liners, though, that were at least vaguely on-topic for this blog, a daily quote won't be a regular feature here.

Too bad: I enjoyed that.

Thought for the Day: Learning and Understanding

"Much learning does not teach understanding."
(Heraclitus 540 BC - 480 BC)

I'll take this as an aphorism about the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between raw knowledge and a comprehension of how (and why) facts relate to each other.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Thought for the Day: Change

"Nothing endures but change."
(Heraclitus, 540 BC - 480 BC)

So why are conservationists trying to keep everything just like it was?

Hard Science Fiction, Cultural Blinders and Laban's Sheep

Reading an anthology of hard sf - science fiction which the author and readers perceive as involving known science and rational extrapolations of what's known - I've come to the tentative conclusion that hard sf is written by and for city folks.

Beware Cultural Blinders

The collection is "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF", edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (1994). I'm up to page 166 of 990, so what I've read can't reasonably be taken as representative of the entire volume - let alone the entire 'hard sf' sub-genre.

On the other hand, what I've read contains two examples of 'hard sf' writers who may not be aware of one of the most important practical applications of science to date. "Science," at any rate, as defined as a conscious, deliberate effort to observe phenomena and draw conclusions from the observations.

The two examples come from the 19th and 20th centuries:
The first seems like a foretaste of today's ruckus over genetically engineered food products:
"...an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God's making, but the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty...."

And

"...'My father created it,' answered she, with simplicity.

" 'Created it! created it!' repeated Giovanni. 'What mean you, Beatrice?'

" 'He is a man fearfully acquainted with the secrets of nature,'..."
(Rappicini's Daughter, Hawthorne, page 83 in "Ascent of Wonder")
Hawthorne raises worthwhile ideas in this short story, like whether or not an altered human being is a person. The story is also written in the 19th century style: giant economy-size paragraphs; rococo linguistic ornamentation; and all.

What I'm concerned with in this post is the idea that Rappaccini "created" a plant and "...that the production was no longer of God's making, but the monstrous offspring of man's depraved fancy...."

In the case of Rappaccini's shrub, "depraved" is a pretty good term. Some of the implications, though, of the author's description of the plant aren't, I think, quite so good a match with reality.

I Think Humanity's Pretty Hot Stuff - But Not That Hot

Take "create" for example. For several decades now, I've read articles about scientists "creating" life in the laboratory. "Mars jars" are still around - and being fine-tuned, as we discover more about what early Mars (probably) was like.

I'm impressed - and very interested - in research into how life, and the cosmos, got started. I'm not so impressed by scientists "creating" life, though. It's like the fellow in a story who had a talk with God, about humanity getting close to being as powerful as God. They were walking next to a stream. God pointed out that He'd created the first man from clay, and asked the man if he could do that.1 The man said, "sure," leaned over and scooped up some clay. "Oh, no," God said: "You have to make your own clay."

The point is that people work with what we find. We're creative, certainly,2 but we have to start with something. Everything we "create" is made by re-arranging existing parts. We've come a long way, since someone got the idea of setting fire to wood, or weaving string out of plant fibers: but we're still using stuff we find already in existence, made of atoms, subatomic particles, photons, or whatever - all sitting on that spacetime turbulence we call quantum foam.3

Incredible! Colossal! Controlled Evolution!

About 74 years ago Raymond Z. Gallun wrote a story about an explorer who encountered a sophisticated undersea civilization on the floor of the Atlantic. This was no "Atlantis:" the people who lived there were at home under two and a half miles of water, and regarded what they'd learned about the near-vacuum and radiation above them with something between horror and repugnance.

The sea-floor people had technology, but didn't use metal. Their 'robots' were animals they'd bred for specific purposes. As described, the seafloor civilization was impressive. And, of course, portrayed as a triumph of science.
"...Handicapped by the impossibility of fire in their normal environment, the sea folk's advancement had followed another path. Controlled evolution was what it amounted to...."
(Davy Jone's Ambassador, Gallun, page 155 in "Ascent of Wonder")
Remember, that was written in 1935. "The Abyss" wouldn't be written for another 54 years. My hat's off to the author, for imagining a plausible - and quite alien - civilization only a few miles below the shipping lanes.

On the other hand, I got the idea that "controlled evolution" was supposed to be exotic, alien, unfamiliar.

Artificial Life Forms - Like Macaroni Wheat

8,000 - or maybe 10,000 - years ago, someone 'doomed' humanity by planting seeds, protecting the plants that grew, harvesting the next-generation seeds, planting seeds from the best-yielding plants, and eating the rest.

From one point of view, it took us thousands of years to recover.4

My guess is that most people don't think of domesticated plants and animals as "artificial." Wheat, domestic chickens, and big, juicy apples have been around for so long that it's easy to assume that they've 'always been there.'

Besides, "technology" is something new and cool, right? Not the sort of thing that those serfs and peasants do. Or, these days, those farmers.

I think I see this sort of mindset, even among people involved in agribusiness. "Subconscious plant selection" is what a short history of wheat's (controlled) evolution called the process of selective breeding about ten thousand years back.

Jacob, Laban, and Applied Genetics

Me? I don't think we're all that much more stupid than people were a dozen millennia back. But I'm not convinced that we're that much smarter, either. Better informed, in some ways: particularly since writing has made it easier for us to preserve large volumes of precise information.

And I don't entirely buy the idea that Jacob's deal with Laban (Genesis 30:31) was based on "simple" people's ideas about animal husbandry. Whatever century Jacob was born in, it was thousands of years after people had started breeding animals. Jacob and Laban (who doesn't come across as the brightest bulb in the bin) lived in a society that had been breeding sheep for a very long time.

When Jacob suggested that he be given sheep with an unusual coat - and the birth rate of that rare breed goes up right after Jacob takes over management of the flock - I have to consider the possibility that Jacob knew more about applied genetics than a 'simple' person might.

Something to Beware of, Something to Use

This may be easier for me, than for many city folks, but I think it's a good idea for a science fiction writer to be aware of the last ten thousand or so years of technological development - including the artificial species we've developed. Make that 'over ten thousand years.' Someone apparently decided that wolves would make good hunting companions around the last time glaciers started retreating.

Remember: just because we've been using it since time out of mind, technology is technology.

The flip side is that there's an enormous pool of tech innovations - and the problems they caused - to draw story ideas from. Or interesting settings.

Related posts:
Background:

1 Or mud. And, yes: I know that Genesis has two creation narratives. (Starting at Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 2:4)

2 It's written that we were made "...in the likeness of God...." (Genesis 5:1-2) I think it'd be a bit surprising, taking that as a starting assumption, if we didn't share - however imperfectly - some of God's attributes, including creativity. That creative nature is expressed physically. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2366) I don't think it's such a stretch to think that our reflection of "creativity" can't include economic and artistic pursuits, too. ("Economic Justice for All:" Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy (November 13, 1986) (From www.usccb.org/upload/economic_justice_for_all.pdf), particularly paragraph 15 - on page 3)

3 Humanity may have unlocked the last secret of the cosmos in the mid-20th century: but I doubt it. "Quantum foam" still seems to be a pretty good way of describing what happens at the smallest scale we can observe - currently - but I wouldn't be very surprised if someone fine-tuned that model, just as Einstein and company described phenomena that get observable under conditions that Newton didn't know about.

4See "Inventions: Strange; Feared; and Yet-to-Come " (August 25, 2009), footnote 1.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Future and Other Ideas

I'm slogging my way through the introductory sections of "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF", edited by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer (1994). I'll be getting back to their outlook on culture, science, and humanity later.

Meanwhile, I've been reminded of how much "The Future" (capital letters and all) is part of science fiction. And how views of "the future" are so much a part of western culture. I put together a link page for another blog (Apathetic Lemming of the North, "The Future: Just Like Today, Only Different "), to help me keep track of micro-reviews - and the occasional rant - about up-and-coming technologies, and what "The Future" looked like, back in the day.

In this blog, I see I've done a few posts about "The Future" - at least one of them rambling even by my standards. As a convenience for myself, and you, if you're interested, I'm starting a list of posts that are mostly on this topic: I'll probably get more selective about what posts I add to this list, as time goes on.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fear, Assumptions, Facts and Ghosts

"The thing you fear is impossible. Well and good. Can you therefore cease to fear it? Not here and now. And what then? If you must see ghosts, it is better not to disbelieve in them."

Chapter 10.1, "That Hideous Strength" C. S. Lewis (1946)

The Observed Laws of Nature

About the 'laws of Nature' -

" 'Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws....' "

Grace Ironwood, Chapter 17.4, "That Hideous Strength," C. S. Lewis (1946)

First posted in another blog:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Names: Castle Dampthorn, Regsellend, and the Indo-Europeans

Around the start of July, 2007, I got together with my oldest daughter and brainstormed about a fantasy setting I'd been putting together. We came up with what I think is a (barely) plausible dramatic situation that could be spun out as several stories.

I collected our notes, a map I'd drawn and some other material, put the lot in a manila folder (two of them, actually, just to confuse myself), and let the set of ideas lay fallow. I'd labeled the folder "Castle Dampthorn."

The only public evidence of that setting were two images I created, "I Come in Peace" (below) and "Kenningward." The latter was a technical study: I'd intended to make more use of the final result, but the more I look at it, the more it reminds me of a late-20th-century American convention center. Not the visual impression I wanted for tales of bravery and wonder.



Within the last month or so, partly as a result of watching some of the movies Disney Channel's been showing ("Halloweentown II: Kalabar's Revenge" (2001), for one), I started remembering Castle Dampthorn - and noticed some vague, emotion-laden, half-formed notions bobbing to the conscious surface of my mind.

"Halloweentown II"?! Where's my artistic pride?!

I am pretty sure that none of the Halloweentown movies is going to outshine works such as Macbeth or Fall of the House of Usher in any literary or dramatic sense. But that doesn't mean I can't enjoy them - or notice potential in their elements.

I have no intention of re-creating the "Halloweentown" stories - or Macbeth.

On the other hand, I won't be above telling a story that involves an unexpectedly simple (short, anyway) solution - or foretellings that aren't quite what they seem.

Remember Macbeth's optimism, hearing that he wouldn't be conquered until Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane; and that 'no man of woman born' would harm him? (Act 5, Scene 3, 4, and particularly 8, where Macduff tells Macbeth that he "was from his mother's womb Untimely ripp'd." Macbeth was having a really bad day.)

Names of Fantasy Lands: Gibberish, or Something Else?

It'd be possible to use nonsense sounds for the names of people, places, and things in a fantasy story - or science fiction/speculative fiction. No problem, except that you're not making use of associations that readers might have with real words and names.

And, there's a danger of getting names that sound a bit too familiar. Not that anybody'd tell a tale of Princess Oolala of the lost realm of Yagattabekiddin.

Or, an author could use existing, but little-known place names (Captain Antilles, for example, in the original Star Wars movie.) It's been done - successfully, at least from a commercial point of view, in the Star Wars universe.

Or, a storyteller could cobble together names from an older form of the language he or she uses.

That's one of the approaches I'll be taking with the Castle Dampthorn stories.

Old English, Welsh, and Gaelic are fine sources for words and names - but I think that particular vein has been almost mined out. Not that I'll reject any nugget I find lying around, of course.

Words From a Really Ancient Language

My idea, at this point, is to go back a bit. Quite a bit, actually.

Around the 19th century, people studying the European languages found that they had quite a lot in common. And, that European languages had a great deal in common with languages spoken across a wide swath of land, all the way to India.

By the 20th century, quite a few pieces of the puzzle had been found and put together - to the point where it was possible to reverse-engineer the 'original' Indo-European language. Or dialects thereof.

Odds are pretty good that the people who spoke Indo-European lived north of the Black Sea, between the Volga and the Balkans. More or less. That was around five thousand years ago now.

Times change, people move, and dialects shift until they're different languages.

Unlike professor J. R. R. Tolkien, I'm no philologist.

My Indo-European Roots are Showing

On the other hand, an appendix of one of the dictionaries I have includes a sort of glossary of Indo-European roots. I pulled a few out for this post:
ag-
To drive (>Latin agere, to do, act, drive, conduct, lead)
agro-
Field (derivative of ag-, to drive) (>Germanic arkaz > Old English æcer)
alek-
To ward off, protect (>Greek alkë, strength >> English Alexander)
alu-
In words related to sorcery, magic, possession, and intoxication (>Greek aluein, to be distraught >> English hallucinate ) (suffixed form *alu-t- in Germanic *aluth- in Old English (e)alu, ale >> English ale)
gher-
To grasp, enclose, with derivatives meaning "enclosure" (>Germanic *gurdjan)
lendh-
Loin
Open land, heath, prairie (>Germanic *landam > Old English, English, Middle Dutch land)
math-
Worm (>Germanic *mathon > probably in Middle English mathek, worm, grub)
reg-
To move in a straight line, with derivatives meaning "to direct in a straight line, lead, rule" (>Latin rex, king >Old Norse riki, realm >Sanskrit -räjä, räjan, king ('rajah') >Germanic rehatz >Old English riht, right, just, correct, straight >English realm, rectilinear, regent, regime, region ... )
Moist (>>English rain)
To dye (>Sanskrit räga, red)
regwos-
Darkness (>Greek Erebus)
saus-
Dry (>Old English sëar (withered))
sel-
Human settlement (>Italian sala >> English saloon)
Of good mood, to favor (>Old English gesaëlig, happy)
To take, grasp (>Old English sellan, to sell, betray)
To jump (>Latin salïre >> English salacious, sally, salient, assail ...
wei-
To turn, twist, with derivatives referring to suppleness or binding (>Germanic suffixed form *wï-ra-, in > Old English wïr, wire)
To go after something (>Germanic *waith-, pursuit)
To wither (>> wizen)
Vice, fault, guilt
Vital force, perhaps related to wiros (>Latin vis, force)
wiros
Man, perhaps related to wei- (>Germanic *weraz, in > Old English wer, man >> Old English weorold, world)
(Source: Appendix, Indo-European Roots, "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language" Houghton Mifflin Company (1969-1978))

People who have made a serious study of the development of languages found regularities in the way words are formed, and how the sounds of words are passed along from one language to another.

I'm not going to try to follow those rules systematically. And I'm not going to be too fussy about how I cobble elements of the Indo-European language together. Love to, but who has that kind of time?

So, I pulled a few elements out, and came up with these two words:
  • gherlendhwiros or Gerlendwiros (to grasp/enclosure-prairie-man)
  • regsellendh or Regsellend (to move in a straight line/rule-settlement-land
I particularly like Regesllend. It could be the name of a place.

Or, not.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Artistic Temperament: A Quote

"The artistic temperament is a disease that afflicts amateurs."
G. K. Chesterton, "Heretics," Chapter 16 (1905), via The American Chesterton Society

I'll try to avoid that sort of thing. Except in the Narcissus-X blog, of course.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Timing is Everything

A question that comes up now and then, in discussions of more-or-less related topics like flying saucers, SETI, and the golden age of science fiction, is: "Where is everybody?"

Aliens by the Bushel

Science fiction of the first part of the 20th century often had people - not humans, indigenous people - living on Venus, Mars, Jupiter (cut them some slack, Jupiter might have had a solid surface), Saturn: even Mercury, Neptune, Uranus and Pluto were occasionally peopled with more-or-less plausible alien races.

Many of whom looked an awful lot like us: longish torso; hind legs almost half the total heel-to-head's-crown length, lined up with the torso; feet with a well-defined heel; two forelegs coming off well-defined shoulders, head at the end of a short neck.

Sure, some of them had bat-wings, funny-looking eyes, and weird complexions: but some makeup, an overcoat and an oversize hat, and they could walk around New York City without attracting all that much attention. Okay: maybe San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Aliens? Ain't No Aliens Here

At the other end of the spectrum there's Asimov's (original) 'robot' and 'Foundation' universe, where there weren't any aliens at all. Later writers came up with a variation on that, since we don't seem to like the idea that we're the only ones here.

But, that could be the way it is. That exotic-but-familiar universe of earlier sci-fi may be just wishful thinking. We could be the only people who have ever been living in this solar system, this arm of the Milky Way galaxy, or anywhere in the universe.

Considering that we're not selling souvenirs to, and performing colorful native dances for, tourists from the more well-to-do worlds of the Galactic Empire; or slaving away in the lint-mines of Evil Overlord Squig's Unified Worlds; there is a distinct possibility that we're it.

On the other hand, there may be people who are a whole lot smarter than we are, and who don't bother to travel: physically and openly.

As a character in Walt Kelley's Pogo said, whether it's just us, or we're at the low end of the intelligence scale: it's a sobering thought.

We Meet the Aliens: And They're Us

An intriguing variation of the 'crowded universe' scenario would be a setting some tens or hundreds of thousands of years ahead. Humanity set up shop on Mars, built orbital habitats, found its way to the stars, decided it was worthwhile to terraform Venus, and by the time of the story's 'now' there are aliens out there: exotic, strange-looking people - who are as human as you and I, but whose ancestors haven't been near Earth for quite some time.

Then, there's the possibility that we've already been to the stars. People who were essentially like us were around during the last major glaciation; the sea level was a lot lower then, exposing a great deal of the continental shelf.
Earth Was Not Always As It is Now
Think about it: Many major cities are on or very near the coast. Civilizations - the ones that we know of - grew for the most part along major river valleys. During the last major glacial period, major rivers still ran down to the sea - but the shore wasn't where it is now.
Gone Without a Trace
Somebody pointed out that a civilization equivalent to the one that bankrolled the Columbus expedition could have existed during the inter-glacial period before the one we're in - and left no obvious traces of its existence.

You can go further than that. There's been speculation that the last ice age ended fast, with continental glaciers melting and sliding into the ocean on a scale of weeks or months. If that happened, a thriving civilization's cities would have been flooded and sunk beneath hundreds of feet of water - with only a few survivors, who were near enough to boats and savvy enough to get out to relatively calm water while the getting was good.

Even if the seas rose slowly, it wouldn't have been good for any civilization. Think the worst-case global warming scenario, and multiply it by a few factors.
Atlantis? Sure: Makes a Good Story
No, I don't think there was something like our stories of Atlantis. No fantasy-cities, wizards, and all the rest. Still, it would make a good story.

I do think, though, that we don't know all there is to know about what we call 'prehistory' - the period before the civilizations we're aware of started keeping records outside their memories. There's a detail or two about the Sphinx in Egypt, for example - but it's getting late, and I need my sleep.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Nanotech and Keeping Up

Technology is changing rapidly just now. A very cool term, "nanotech," is being used - and misused - quite a lot. I put together a list of posts relating to nanotechnology, for another blog today. Here it is, with the post I created it for included.

I think the post titles give an idea of what gadgets might plausibly be used in stories set in the 'near future.' For anything more than, say fifty to a hundred years out? I don't think I'll be trying to describe how the technology works - just what it does. And, try to make sure it doesn't resemble a clunky version of something being developed this year by some outfit in Japan or Silicone Valley.

From Apathetic Lemming of the North: By the way, as I pointed out in today's post in the other blog, " 'Nanotechnology' Doesn't Mean 'Kinda Small'."

Friday, October 2, 2009

Food, Agriculture, Technology, and City Folks

Back in 1969, writing a story about how everybody would be starving in the immediate future would have been really, like, relevant.

These days, not so much: but some smart people don't seem to have gotten the memo.

I'm most of the way through a book, copyright 1990, by a fairly well-known science fiction/speculative fiction writer. It's well-written - and, just as important, I like the author's style. I'll probably be 'studying' it, later, to see just how the author achieves the tone and mood. And then adapt techniques I've learned to my own writing.

On the other hand, this author - remember, I like the stories - gets on my nerves now and again.

A Digression - Expectations, Assumptions, and 20-20 Hindsight

It's not the author having "the Soviets" still running Russia - and being a world power - in a fairly distant future.

20-20 hindsight is unfair. That little mix-up the Soviet Union had in Afghanistan, and a 600-kilometer-long chain of protesters demanding freedom (August 23, 1989) didn't make the headlines all that much.

The Soviet Union collapsing in 1991 or 1992 (depending on what milestones you use) probably came as a huge surprise to many people who had never lived in a world without the worker's paradise.

Like I say, 20-20 hindsight is unfair.

Speculative fiction writers don't, I think, 'predict' so much as extrapolate something they see - or think they see. For example, a timeline I'd been playing with involved the "Holy Soviet Empire" being a fairly active force a hundred years from now - I might still use that, as a sort of 'alternate history' story. But I doubt it. ("Holy Soviet"? I'd been watching the durability of the eastern Church in Russia - and what appeared to be an increasing realization that religion wasn't going to be stamped out - and came up with some hokum based vaguely on the Holy Roman Empire.)

Food, Agriculture, Technology, Malthus, and Opportunistic Omnivores

I've run into a description of homo sapiens sapiens that called us opportunistic omnivores. One phrase stuck in my mind: 'the first impulse a human has, seeing something new, is "I wonder what that tastes like?" ' I think there's something to that.

There are a few creatures on Earth that we can't eat because they're poison to us - and more that we can eat, but can't digest, like most parts of a tree. For the most part, however - although we do have dietary preferences, which vary radically from one culture to another - we can get nourishment from just about anything we can arm-wrestle down our throats.1

The rather more dignified way to put it is that, for most of the time humanity has been on Earth, we've been - ah - hunter-gatherers. There. Doesn't that make it sound better?

That was then, this is now. About 8,000 years ago some maniac had the crazy idea of taking seeds from plants he and his group liked to eat - and not eating them. Instead, he (or maybe she) planted them and took care to see that no other creature got at the plants first.

The idea caught on - and the human race was doomed. (See "Agriculture as a Mistake," Apathetic Lemming of the North (October 29, 2007))

Right now, we're about a thousand times over the 'carrying capacity' of Earth for our species. Like I said, we're doomed.

We can get by, I'm told, for a little over a month without eating - provided we get plenty of water and oxygen - so I figure that right around November 4th or so, 999 out of every 1,000 people will die: all around the world.

I should probably write a book about it. Some dude named Malthus wrote a book about 200 years ago, saying that irresponsible people were having babies faster than farmers could raise food - and we're all gonna die.

He took a lot longer to say that, and used bigger words - but that's the gist of it. And yes, I'm being a trifle unfair to that particular serious thinker.

The point is, this Malthus made quite a name for himself, by pointing out a terrible disaster that would doom humanity.

It hasn't happen, but his followers are still hopeful.

Wait a Minute Here! Let's Have a Reality Check

That 'thousand times over [delicate] Earth's carrying capacity' is a rough approximation - based on data which I haven't quite finished verifying. Statistically speaking, though - I'm right.

Humanity is doomed.

Civilization is going down with the scrubbin' bubbles.

And we're all gonna die.

Well, that last is almost certainly true: Given time, each human being dies. But seriously? I don't see a rapid increase in the rate, any time soon.

You see, that '999 out of a thousand will die' is based on the assumption that we all practice hunting-gathering.

Which we don't.

And haven't, most of us, for almost ten thousand years.

But if we did - and were living as opportunistic omnivores with tools that made us competitive with coyotes and wolves - Earth couldn't possibly support 6,000,000,000 of us. Each family group of us needs too much land.

So - we're doomed?

Not hardly.

News Flash! Human Beings are Clever

I think that people who are convinced that 'we're all gonna die' - from Malthus to a butterfly expert named Paul, to today's crop of doom-criers, have all missed a subtle, but important, point.

Human beings didn't stop being clever in the upper paleolithic.

We've got a long history (and a longer pre-history) of changing the rules.

Like, 'it's dark and cold at night.'

We don't like being in the dark and cold.

We figured out how to make fire.

Sometime after that, we figured out how to put out fires.

I'm not saying it's all beer and skittles - for example, not too long ago we found out why it's not a good idea to turn off the pumps in a nuclear reactor. Remember Chernobyl? Some of the 'fires' we're learning to put out these days are pretty serous.

But I don't think that people are any stupider now, than they were when someone invented string, or Archimedes got credit for inventing a helical water pump.

You Mean, Farmers Don't Look Like That? Well, Sha-Zam!

Reading that (very entertaining) book, I get the feeling that the author has something in common with quite a few of America's self-described best and brightest.

They haven't a clue what a farmer looks like.

I often get the impression that members of congress, and the 'experts' they listen to, have a mental image of what a farmer looks like that - how to I put this - is alternatively accurate.

He's got a slight posture problem: stands and walks with a slouch. Nothing serious, but noticeable. He wears dirty denim bib overalls, sometimes with a frayed straw hat, occasionally wears shoes - and sometimes has a shirt on. A flannel shirt.

He talks funny, and his intelligence is somewhere between that of an average reality-show contestant and a rutabaga.

If you asked America's serious thinkers to describe a 21st-century America farmer - jump-starting their frontal cortex in the process - America's best would probably realize that Joe Farmer doesn't pull the plow himself, or use a horse - and knows how to read and write.

Actually, the hayseed stereotype isn't all that far from the way (some) farmers dressed - in the warmer parts of America - maybe a century ago. And still do, when weather and work demand it. They do, however, wear boots. Farmers work around and in some very big, very powerful, machinery: and they need to keep their feet more than most office workers.

I think one of the problems that 'intelligent, sophisticated' people have is that, like just about everybody else in America these days - they're city folk.

I don't have anything against people who live in a city, or in the residential areas huddled around cities. For economic reasons, most people need to live close to - or in - cities. That's the way it is right now.

It does seem, though, that city folks - even if they've flown between cities - really aren't all that knowledgeable about what it's like outside the metropolitan areas. (See "The Effect of Information Technology and Media Preoocupation with Urban Events on the Relative Sophistication of Urban and Rural Populations ," Another War-on-Terror Blog (April 13, 2008))

The point I'm making is that, despite commonly-held (and, I trust, unconsidered) beliefs in America and quite a number of other places in the world, people don't have to practice agriculture the way we did a thousand years ago.

One of the big, recent, changes was the "green revolution" in the 20th century. If you're not directly or indirectly involved with agribusiness, you probably haven't heard of it. It doesn't fit the 'and we're all gonna die' model - and good news like that hasn't been relevant since sometime in the sixties.

Based on the fossil record and a few thousand years of recorded history, I doubt the "green revolution" is the last gasp of human ingenuity. These days, we may be more likely to build cute dancing robots, than something of more drearily serious merit: but I don't think we're all that much less bright than the people who figured out how to make tools out of flint.

And no: I don't think that 99.9% of humanity will be dead by mid-November.
1 A vignette.

A diplomat, getting briefed on what to expect from the Terran ambassador, is told: "Whatever you do, don't let the human get hungry!"

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These days it's important to have a "privacy policy" available: so here's mine.

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