Archive for July 21st, 2008

The Limits Thing and Why We Aren't Mining the Asteroids

Sharon July 21st, 2008

One of the more fascinating sections of the book (pg 83 in my used 1977 paperback) is when the book brings up the original _The Limits to Growth_ – they are on the Johnny Carson show and Johnny starts asking about the merits of a manned probe to study comets.

“Johnny jumped in to give the show back to Sharps.  ‘But tell me, Charlie, what good will it do to study that comet?  How will that change our lives?’

Sharps shrugged.  It may not. You’re asking what good new research does. And all I can answer is that it always has paid off.  Not the way you thought it would, maybe.  Who’d have thought we’d get a whole new medical technology out of the space program?  But we did. Thousand are alive right now because the human-factors boys had to develop new instruments for the astronauts.  Johnny, did you ever hear of the Club of Rome?

Johnny had, but the the audience would need reminding ‘they were the people who did computer simulations to find out how long we could get along on our natural reasources. Even with zero population growth -’

‘They tell us we’re finished,” Sharps broke in.  “And that’s stupid.  We’re only finished because they won’t let us really use technology.  They say we’re running out of metals.  there’s more metal in one little asteroild than was mined all over the world in the last five years! And there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids. All we have to do is go get ‘em.’

‘Can we?’

 ’You bet!  Even with the technology we already have, we could do it.  Johnny, out there in space it’s raining soup, and we don’t even know about soup bowls.’

The studio audience applauded.  They hadn’t been cued by the production assistants, but they appluaded.  Johnny gave Sharps an approving smile and decided how the program would go for the rest of the night.  But there was a frantic signal: time for a Kalva Soap commercial.

There was much more after the commercial.  Whe Sharps got going he was really dynamic.  His thin bony hands waved around like windmills.  He talked about windmills, too, and about how much power the Sun put out every day.  About the solar flare Skylab’s crew had observed.  ‘Johnny, there was enough power in that one little flare to run our civilization for hundreds of years! And those idiots talk about doom!’”

In TMIAHM, Heinlein acknowledges that banging up against limits is an inevitable consequence of being human, admits that for individual humans, especially for those without balls enough to go kill things on the frontier, limits are a real problem. Niven and Pournelle, however, argue that there really aren’t any limits at all – and in fact, that the basic problem is that “they” (The Club of Rome doesn’t really have Clubs, so I’m not quite sure how this works) prevent them from using totally obvious, accessible forms of energy and resources like asteroids and solar flares.

NowI’m going to do a full post on the technical feasibilty of both TMIAHM and LH, because I thought it would be fun to post my husband’s professional analysis of technical feasibility, but I think it is worth noting here that much of the above is complete and utter bullshit.  We do not now and did not in the mid-70s have the technology to harness solar flares or mine asteroids – period.  Assuming that Sharps the character keeps up with his journals, he would be ummm…lying to the general public were this a reality.  Now the thing is that Pournelle and Niven did a lot of research on this – “Dan Forrester” is based on a real guy.  They were at JPL and Caltech and all these other places, so they presumably actually knew, as they were writing this story, that this was errant nonsense.  Pournelle’s Ph.d is in something closely enough related that I find it hard to believe that they just did shoddy research or believed what they were told – I think the book contains a couple of out-and-out technical falsehoods, designed to convince readers that the fact that we don’t have all the energy and resources we want is the fault of an ignorant public and a mysterious “they”who just don’t want us to. 

Frankly, I find this much more disturbing than the bigotry.  You see I used to be an academic, and while I’m hardly perfect, I still find the idea that you would explicitly misrepresent technical capacities, even in a novel, really repulsive – even more repulsive than the racism.  This is, I know, geeky, and yes, the standards for fiction are lower than in academia but it pisses me off – fine, try and make the point, but don’t lie to get there. 

But then again, perhaps it is necessary to lie to get there – this was written deep in the 1970s recession, in the energy crisis.  Perhaps the story has to lie to get its essential message across – that limitations, even the external limits of being hit by a comet – the problem is attitude.  A good attitude, and a firm belief in the power of science is what is needed.



Post Apocalyptic Book Club: Lucifer's Hammer – Run, the Cannibals are Coming!

Sharon July 21st, 2008

Ok, I’m not going to try and pretend that I think this is a good book. In fact, I think it is a really, really dreadful novel.  Sufficiently so that sometimes it is funny.  So why am I making you read this? 

The thing is, if this was the “Post-Apocalyptic Novels Sharon Loves” book club it probably wouldn’t take us a whole year ;-) .  A lot of the books are problematic, in part because it is really difficult genre to work in, in part because it is genre fiction – and even if genre writers are good (and some of them really, really are), they also come with genre audiences, and the *perception* of those audiences – particularly for older science fiction, we’ve got to remember that the widespread perception well past the 1970s was that the audiences were all teenage boys.  That means an enormous amount of pressure to write to teenage boys. 

But there’s more – Jerry Pournelle (who a friend of mine says “contaminates everything he writes”) is a serious survivalist – he edited a survivalist journal and a military technology person.  This novel doesn’t just represent an exploration of the issues, it represents advocacy for them – the idea that a disaster is going to be like this.  Because of this, I’m pretty ok with making fun of this book – besides the very 70s elements (which are funny), the messages are just downright appalling. 

I picked this book because people mention it a lot, which means a lot of people have read it – and I see it referred to periodically as evidence that “they” will come pouring out of the cities to eat us any time now, and thus we need to stock up on ammo and small personal tactical nukes.  I think the impact of this book has been far larger than it merits, and thus, I think it is worth talking about.

Ok, before I get serious, a brief interlude to make fun of this big wad of badness:

Now my own take is that my favorite part of this novel is the “genius astrophysicists will save us all” bit – which actually shows up in a couple of other novels. Now I actually had the foresight, when planning my bunker, to make sure that it contains an astrophysicist, and I recommend that all of you include one in your stocking up plans.  I often tell Eric that I married him primarily because of the Ph.d in Astrophysics, which means that he’ll be able to fend off marauding hordes and explain how to make everything – because, after all, we see in the novel that farmers are too dumb to realize that you can make bombs with fertilizers.  Woah – it is amazing what sciencey guys know!  Who coulda figured that out?

Other useful things you can learn from this book, if you are planning your bunker:

1. It helps a lot when you are trying to survive to bang a powerful person’s daughter.  Fortunately, this isn’t hard – the powerful person’s daughter is widely available and more than willing to spread it around - thus she can act as a pawn between the male elks banging their horns together and smile a lot.  Of course, you are most likely to get to do this if you are a tough journalist who can fly a copter, an astronaut, or a major local landowner.

2. Black people are very, very scary, unless they are in space.   Ideally they’d all be there, right?  They turn to cannibalism nearly instaneously – pretty much “Ok, we’re running short on cheetos – who do I eat first?”  They also like to set fires, torture people and do drugs, unless, of course, they are conveniently floating in space.

3. Women are good cooks.  They are also good at sex and having babies.  Occasionally one can ride a horse, drive a truck, go into space or do secretarial work – but these things rarely get in the way of their cooking, screwing and birthin’ babies.  Most of everything that happens after the apocalypse will not involve women much – fighting the cannibals is not a girlie job.

4. Chemical weapons and slavery are bad, of course, but because the enemy is going to be so totally, perfectly evil that they’ve passed humanity, it justifies what we do to them.  So mustard gas is definitely a good thing, and slavery is just what you gotta do – plus, with the slavery, they are mostly black anyway, so they’ll be used to it.  Definitely be prepared to use any means necessary, because the hordes will be inhuman.  Don’t worry about the morality issues.

5.  Farming is humiliating.  It would be worth any price to keep “the lightning” around, because otherwise, well, you’d be a farmer.  It would be wise, along with your astrophysicist, to keep a nuclear power plant in your yard, so that you don’t lose the lightning.  There will be, of course, no technical issues with keeping it going after a major asteroid strike. 

Ok, beyond mocking the book, I’m curious as to why people find this vision of the future so compelling – other than it looks like tv?  That is, it isn’t enough for there to be a disaster, there have to be clear “bad guys” to fight, and all the moral lines have to be unambiguous – if you are a good guy, you can enslave people, murder them, use chemical weapons and still be a good guy, because, well, you gotta.  And the bad guys where a giant flag that says “bad (very convenient when the flag is their skin color) guy”  Even when things do degrade into violence and war, which does happen, and is a legitimate scenario, it is rarely so clear cut.  Why are we so compelled to imagine that there will be actual wars with cannibal hordes? 

I have to say, I think this book and Heinlein’s _Farnham’s Freehold_ which both imagine African-American populations reverting rapidly to cannibalism are an example of just how terrifically *afraid* a lot of people are – that is, the idea that the people in cities are one disaster from coming out and eating us, literally devouring us is really just one step further from the widespread sense that we are one disaster away from people with guns coming to take our food.  I think the sheer level of fear of people in cities, especially non-white ones is really, deeply disturbing.

Margaret Visser, in her wonderful book _The Rituals of Dinner_ which is an exploration of the history of food sharing and table manners (totally fascinating book, btw) starts her discussion with an analysis of the rituals of cannibalism.  Cannibalism is a concept that we’ll see arising over and over again in these novels, so I think it bears some thinking about it.  And one of Visser’s central arguments is that cannibalism always lurks beneath the surface of our meals – that is, we are almost unaware of the degree to which our table manners and culture are constantly a reminder “I do not threaten you this way” – that is, much of our whole food culture is organized around NOT being cannibals.

 She says of the literary use of cannibalism:

Just because cannibalism has been so very successfully rendered taboo, it has always been one of the major “effects: a writer can rely one when he or she reaches for some fully fledged enormity, an atrocity to make our skins crawl.  For thousands of years cannibalism has seemed to us to be everything that civilization is not – which is why Homer’s hero Odysseus, in search of home, city, order and seemliness, must meet and vanquish such creatures as the cannibal Cyclops.  Cannibalism is a symbol in our culture of total confusion: a lack of morality, law and structure; it stands for what is brutish, utterly inhuman.  The idea is that, unlike cannibals, we are upright, orderly, enlightened, and generally superior.  But what we might use for symbolic purposes as an embodimnet of structureless confusion has nevertheless a basis in clear cold fact: cannibal societies have existed since time immemorial.  AS social beings, however, cannibals must inevitably have manners.  Whatever we might think to the contrary, rules and regulations always govern cannibal society and cannibal behavior.”

Visser goes on to observe that this is true even when the cannibals are very hungry – that cannibalism is always structured in ritual – it isn’t primarily a symbol of the breakdown of society.  In “Donnner Party” scenarios, people might eat the already dead, but the killing of human beings for meat is a very structured, acculturated process – but enormously taboo in our society.  So we symbolize it as the breakdown of everything, proof of inhumanity, but in fact, cannibalism is as mannered as our own table rituals, and in fact, a huge chunk of our dietary custom is designed – from our unwillingness to point knives at each other to the way we only ever use food terms for people’s bodies when we are being terribly derogatory.  That is, our customs say “we know, at some level, that  this could be us too” while our writings say that that’s impossible, we’re good guys.

One more fascinating point that Visser makes is that an exo-Cannibalist society (one where you don’t eat your friends and community members, just the enemies you defeat on the battlefield) *need* a continuing supply of enemies to devour – that is, they have to be warlike societies, constantly manufacturing reasons to go to war, because otherwise, the supply of meat dries up.  One of the fascinating things to me is that while we don’t eat people literally, we too have the same requirements – in our case, it isn’t our diet, but our economy, which is based on military Keynesianism (half the federal budget goes to warfare, and into the economy that way) is similarly dependent on enemies – that is, we’ve managed to make cannibalism utterly taboo, but not the culture that needs enemies to devour metaphorically just as badly.

Cannibalism is going to show up over again in this series – from Cormac McCarthy to SM Stirling, comparatively few of the writers can resist the chance to be this dystopian, to symbolize disaster so clearly.  I think when we see it, it is worth asking “What is the writer doing here?  Why cannibalism?  Do they need it as a symbol?  An exploration of fears?  Whose fears?”  It is worth asking also why the rush to respond to the disaster with the creation of “good guys” and “bad guys”.

 Thoughts?  I’ll be back with another post on this – could it happen?  My husband the science dude weighs in!  And more on limits.