Sharon July 28th, 2008
I thought that during the second week on each book, I’d have us look at it as though it were a work of non-fiction, a preparedness manual designed to enable us to face the crisis they imagine. I didn’t do this with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, because the whole point of the book is that the crisis is ultimately avertable. But most of the works we’ll be reading don’t have that premise – they assume we have to face the crisis and go on.
Of course, the first question this raises is whether this is a realistic worry – something we have to be concerned about. This is one of the other reasons (besides the fact that astrophysicists save the world) that I keep my husband around – he’s very good at analyzing the actual science of a scenario. And the answer to this one is – yes.
Now I don’t plan to convert this site to an asteroid-strike awareness one anytime soon, but a recent article in The Atlantic did explore the fact that large asteroid strikes are actually more common than was once thought, and that we don’t do a very good job of looking for them. Generally speaking, the science of the strike in the book is quite accurate – including the evocative hot fudge sundae analysis. The only significant thing (there are minor ones) they got wrong was the idea that a water strike was actually worse than a land strike – despite throwing up water,into the air, the dust thrown up by a land strike is actually a bigger deal. But, for example, it is perfectly possible to imagine that we could not know that an object would strike us until right before it did, depending on how it came at us.
Still, I hope no one is panicking right now – while I generally agree with the author of the above article (and my spouse) that NASA would be better off spending more time tracking near earth objects, I still think there are better things to worry about than this, if you are not an astrophysicist or amateur astronomer, and can’t do anything about it anyway. Put it up there with giant tidal waves and supervolcano eruptions in the category of “not my job to worry about.”
But many of the books we read will have far sillier premises (if we do the zombies, for example, I’ll expect you all to have zombie-preparedness kits ready), and most of them function fairly well as models of a kind of preparedness. And since honestly, the preparations for most crises, likely and unlikely, from peak oil to zombie attacks to epidemics to nuclear holocaust really aren’t that different – there are some refinements, but essentially you need an evacuation plan and the resources to stay put – most of these books offer an exploration of how to get ready and how to respond to an immediate crisis. So how does this one stand up.
Our Hero, Harvey (only in the 1970s could Our Hero be named ”Harvey”) gets a little nervous when he thinks about the Hammer falling, and he does try and make some preparations for staying in place - if rather late, odd ones. But, of course, the book tells us that “them” will begin rioting, looting and murdering not when they are hungry and desperate, but the moment the bad stuff begins. So Harvey’s rather wise basic precautions turn out not to be all that useful – but Senator Jellison’s do (it helps, if you are planning, to have a compound).
Harvey decides he and Loretta will survive on beef jerky (btw, don’t follow his instructions – the temps at which he dries them are too low for safety) and vitamins. I will say, if you are making emergency plans, I’d suggest a vegetable here and there. He also buys a lot of liquor, which isn’t a bad strategy, but since he knows LA is likely to be underwater, and liquor is in glass and hard to transport, is a bit of a strange choice. But it goes with the manly themes – beef and whiskey are a man’s survivalism – none of this veggie stuff.
Now Harvey does have grits, and this is genuinely useful and interesting – because we’re in a scenario when other people are stocking up, there’s already “unofficial” gas rationing, and Harvey is smart enough to buy stuff that other people won’t think of. This is actually a very useful strategy, even if the world isn’t going to end – as prices of commonly used staples go up, those who can use unusual foods will have a flexibility that others won’t. So grits and cornmeal become Harvey’s grain staple.
And his making of pemmican (which generally has dried fruit in it, but doesn’t seem to) and storing of bacon will work, and are interesting – although again, I’d have put the effort into getting some veggies if it were me. Filling the swimming pool with water is smart, as is using the old bleach bottles for water storage. There is some good scenario modelling here – for example, even though Harvey knows he’s likely to have to evacuate, he does have a strategy for staying in place and making do – and that’s wise even for people who imagine that they might leave town in a more-likely crisis – because sometimes you can’t get out, or sometimes your evacuation plan might lead to a place even worse hit.
Afterwards, we see a shift in people’s attitudes towards resources – the most immediate example of this is that Eileen tells Tim Hamner that he should save the pop-top of his beer can, because no one is making any more of anything. No one ever explores the question of what one can do with beer bottle pop tops (I’m sure dozens of things), but there is a radical shift in the world works in people’s minds.
Now this something that does happen in the face of the disaster. Some of the assumptions about what shifts are made are disturbing, some are interesting, and some are both. For example, a child has a tantrum because of the loss of television, and his father strikes him for the very first time, and explains that the days of instant obedience being necessary for survival have returned. It is an interesting scene, precisely the implication isn’t simply that the father was angry about being interrupted by his son’s tantrum, but that he truly believes his children’s future may depend on their ability to obey when it is essential.
Of course the most interesting question is the one that many people get obsessed with – how do you sort out resources when there isn’t enough to go around. I’ve articulated my own concerns about the fact that so many conversations *start* from this premise – that we create self-fulfilling prophecies. But lifeboat games are interesting, and a fascinating subject for fiction – so how do we sort – by relationship, patronage and usefulness? Or something else?
What do you think?