Sunday, February 26, 2006

How NOT to write an apocalypse story

The Aftermath
by Samuel C. Florman
Thomas Dunne Books, 2001
RATING: * (of 5)

This book has to be the "Left Behind" of scientific apocalypse stories. Where that series preaches religion, this book plods on and on about modern civilization's great achievements and how important it would be to replicate them, even though doing so would be nearly impossible in practice. It's plagued by wooden writing; characters that are largely just names, titles and self-aggrandizing adjectives (about the only place some of them come to life is between pages 64 and 77); abysmal knowledge of human behavior; and list after list after list of minutia.

In short, it definitely violates at least Vonnegut's first rule of writing fiction.

The beginning is fairly typical. We see plausible short vignettes of the last moments of everyday people worldwide who get caught in the firestorms or tsunamis sparked by a massive comet slamming into the eastern Pacific and its fragments elsewhere.

The only problem with that is that the book is set up as a personal journal alternating with a survivor's "official" history, meaning Wil Hardy could not possibly have seen any of those events. Why? Because he's one of about 1500 people on a cruise ship in the Indian Ocean at the time. Most of them are engineers and their families, with a couple hundred crew who are mostly young and single.

While Florman is clearly knowledgable about engineering and some aspects of the history of science, this book falls flat on its face when talking about numerous other areas. For the sake of discussion, let's accept as plausible his imagery of the comet-crash causing an atmospheric firestorm that burns almost everything except for a "safe zone" that barely touches land in eastern South Africa and southern Madagascar. Common sense says such a global fire would spew trillions of tons of ash into the sky and probably blot out the sun for a long, long time.

The Tambora eruption of 1815 is generally believed to have caused the "year without a summer" of 1816, where summer frosts were reported in New England and Europe, halfway around the world. THAT ejected "only" 150-180 cubic kilometers of ash into the sky. Obviously, a comet causing the global destruction Florman envisions would send up FAR more -- he says it's about 16km in diameter (p. 36), more than half again as big as the one that killed the dinosaurs. Yet, he has the darkness and icy cold descending suddenly (despite the oceans' natural heat reservoir) and breaking in just four days.

How is that remotely possible?!?

What's FAR worse is his abysmal comprehension of trauma psychology. Face it: the people on this boat are suddenly isolated, their entire civilization annihilated, friends and any family members not present gone (although I suspect other pockets of survivors would in fact exist), a large chunk of their educations and technology now useless, etc. As he writes, "Her scientific terminology could not soften the horrifying reality that apparently human civilization had been destroyed." But shortly thereafter, the children are playing Bingo and Capture the Flag?!? Sure, the younger ones might not grasp the situation, but kids are extremely good at picking up on adults' cues, and they'd KNOW without doubt they would never go home again. Simply keeping the meals on time will NOT "keep chaotic nightmares at bay" for long.

Curiously, from a psychological POV, the added trauma of having their boat run aground and slowly sink would've been beneficial. Instead of being trapped on a boat with nowhere to go and little practically useful to do (a situation tailor-made for rapid "decompensation" as psychologists say), everyone now had to work to survive. That CAN help stave off traumatic meltdown for many people, but we can still expect to see widespread signs of PTSD cropping up in short order. Not everyone would get its full-blown, seriously debilitating form, but almost everyone would see some symptoms. In Florman's world, almost no one does.

A comparison to a real catastrophe is in order here, for perspective: A woman I spoke to from Mississippi said the simplest PTSD sign --"drifting off" in mid-sentence -- happens frequently to almost everyone she knows who lived through Hurricane Katrina. And they KNEW they could get help elsewhere, even if everyone nearby was "on their knees" as she put it. That lifeline would be GONE, completely and irreparably severed, for Florman's characters.

That said, it IS plausible they'd make the effort to save whatever they could of their books, tech, tools, etc. It's human nature to avoid trashing the past, and they would only really see how irrelevant many of their skills now are for basic survival by experience. Unfortunately, we never see that in Florman's world -- long stretches of the text are meetings between engineers talking about how they'll make those skills reality again, with very little discussion of what skills they REALLY need now, and even less actual ACTION. Even the survival skills they know of come from books and are described in lists.

And that's even after they meet a town of surviving Zulu. Common sense says the cruise people would aim to learn as much as they can from the Zulu -- and that element DOES pop up occasionally -- but their attitude is clearly aimed at rebuilding civilization even before they have a steady food supply, huts to live in, etc. In several places, Florman praises the "need" for some form of bureaucracy, and many pages are devoted to essentially listing how many people will be devoted to this impractical project or that... with no depiction at all of the engineers actually getting to know their new hosts as people or trying to determine what THEY might want from the future. (In fact, the major images they borrow are from the Afrikaners, not the Zulu, and I'd imagine that might offend a few Zulu.)

At one point, a character says, "What do we do if the survivors in this very strange corner of the world do not care to join with us in our enlightened enterprise?" That line's a great depiction of both arrogance and the overall clunky writing style. It's arrogant in the same way missionary work is supremely arrogant, because it assumes other ways of living are somehow inferior simply because they're different and/or less complex. It's clunkiness should be obvious; can you imagine anyone actually SAYING that casually? Neither can I, but Florman routinely has characters speak this way.

Such phrasing strongly reminds me of some autistic people I've worked with over the years, and I DON'T say this in any derogatory sense, just as a description. Couple the phrasing with the book's apparent lack of comprehension of how humans really behave under stress and it makes me wonder if Florman is himself autistic.

Even the name they give their makeshift settlement -- situated improbably away from a river instead of on it, and a pretty long hike from the Zulu village -- demonstrates an autistic inflexibility: "Engineering Village." Couldn't they at least have named it after a famous engineer or scientist -- say, Hawkington or Einsteinville? It is, after all, the place they may be living forever, and I could easy imagine many engineers among them wanting to honor scientific heroes.

The Zulu have also suffered, of course: When the newcomers visit the Zulu village (Ulundi), they're shown to "one of the few buildings that remained standing amid charred ruins" by children playing in those ruins.

Again, WTF?!? Somehow, despite their own homes being in ruins, many of their people, crops, and livestock dead (and probably others escaped), and their clan structure wounded, they can supply several deliveries of food to the newcomers, some of whom apparently do nothing but talk. HOW? The fact that this occurs in the Southern summer is helpful, but not enough to make it believable.

Vonnegut's rule #6 (link above) says the characters should have nasty things happen to them "in order that the reader may see what they are made of." There's plenty of nastiness in The Aftermath, but we never really see what the characters are made of, nor how they got to be the way they are. They're all one-dimensional, especially the stereotypical enemy marauder "Queen Ranavolana."

This woman is probably the most implausible character of them all: what little we know of her history is clear on the fact that she's a young American drifter, drug addict, and loser. I find it very unlikely she'd ever be able to convince a bunch of rugged criminals from Madagascar to buy into her story that she's "sent by the Creator to be their savior" and the reincarnation of their island's brutal 19th C. queen, whose name Florman misspelled. She'd be FAR more likely to end up being forced into sexual slavery, especially after civilization's demise.

Florman makes repeated reference to the fact she gives her pirate fleet red sails, even at one point having the cruise ship's captain claim he'd never seen any ships with sails that color. Huh? I find that extremely hard to believe; you can see almost every sail color imaginable at any sailing race or Tall Ships event.

About the only realistic thing surrounding her existence and threat to the engineers and Zulu is the proposal to create a militia; although it seems pretty arrogant to base it on American methods and not on whatever survivors of the South African or tribal police or armed forces there are, if any. There are probably some, and they'd be FAR more likely to have weapons than the cruise ship folks.

At least Florman makes a token recognition of this arrogance, with the captain saying (unheard by anyone), "There are other democracies in the world...." His chronicler, Wil, also privately seems to recognize that the techno-philic obsessions his group has ignore much of their new reality, writing, "To hell with the scientific view and to hell with the demands of technology. ...Why have we survived if we do not carry on, if we do not reproduce...?"

But events showing such recognition of their situation are few and far between. Florman talks blithely about turning lactic acid from corn into plastic, in blatant denial of the fact there wouldn't BE any surplus corn. He has the "good guys" predictably defeating the pirates and planning year-long sailing voyages solely for the sake of exploration around the world ... rather than fishing or some other survival function. (Where are the supplies coming from? Who can be spared to go? what if there really ARE other survivors... and some are pirates? What about basic bad weather, which would probably be VERY unpredictable for YEARS after a massive comet strike? Yes, such trips should eventually happen, but NOT in the first year.) He has sewer and water lines beign built as if by magic, but out of what? Brickworks, sawmills, blacksmithies, and other enterprises "were busy day and night" within the first six months ... despite the fact that many survivors would be in shock, hungry, injured, and have little access to any of the materials for such enterprises. Ninety percent of the planet BURNED, remember?!?

I could go on (and on and on) about how BAD this book is. But I'm sure you get the drift by now. Just file this one in the "don't bother" category.

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Sunday, February 19, 2006

by fire and ice and ...

The Life and Death of Planet Earth
By Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee
Henry Holt/Times Books, 2002

RATING: **1/2 (of 5)

How many ways can the Earth end?

Probably more than anyone with anything less than a (slight) obsession with the concept is willing to consider.

Just so happens, I guess I have such an obsession, at times anyway. So do Ward and Brownlee, who spend over 200 pages exploring just about every possible doom the Earth will eventually face over the next 6-8 billion years.

Before I get into analyzing what they say, I'll give a quick timeline as they see it (not quoted from them, but culled from various places in their book. The quotebox layout is simply for display. All dates, obviously, are estimates.):

Next few centuries: Global warming sparked in part by human actions.
2-10 MY: Ice Age resumes, with periods of warming just like last million-plus years.
100 MY: Continents begin to re-coalesce into a new Pangaea.
250 MY: New Pangaea firmly established, with extremely arid interior and stagnant oceans, sparking large-scale extinctions.
500 MY - 1 BY: Solar warming moves habitable zone beyond Earth's orbit.
500-700 MY: Plant photosynthesis ends as CO2 levels gradually fall below 10 ppm, with periods of oscillating plant expansion and dieoff; growing heat causes life to retreat to poles.
approx. 15 MY after that: Atmospheric O2 levels have fallen to about 1% of present, extinguishing what's left of animal life. Beyond 60 deg. C, only bacteria, algae and some fungi survive.
1 -1.2 BY: global mean temp. is about 70 deg. C. Oceans begin evaporating, causing the "moist greenhouse effect" that features brutal storms. Plate tectonics comes to a halt from lack of water, eventually resulting in a global ocean. Last bacteria fry around 235 deg. F. @
2.5 - 3.5 BY: "Runaway greenhouse effect" takes over at about 200 deg. C, after all water is gone. Earth becomes like Venus.
3 - 4 BY: Andromeda Galaxy (M31) merges with Milky Way. Gravity and other forces might sling solar system into deep space, or might not.
6 - 7 BY: Sun expands to giant size, possibly reaching Earth orbit. Solar effects cause Moon to swirl back to collision with Earth & possibly cause Earth to spiral into Sun. If not, Earth ends up scorched cinder orbiting white dwarf after Sun goes nova.

Whew. Anything I left out?

Oh, yeah, the "accidental armageddon" causing events -- huge comets or asteroids (it took one about 10 km across to cause the K/T extinction 65 MY ago, and would take one about 100 km across to sterilize all life) or supernovae in the galactic neighborhood (think Sirius; when it goes, its gamma rays will have some serious effect on everything within about 30 light years. We're 12 LY away).

This catalog makes nuclear war look like a game...

Now, I can't realistically refute most of what they say; it seems pretty plausible that, essentially, Earth's life path from here on will retrace its path of the last 4.5 BY, as they propose. But I do take issue with some of their assertions within the various future periods.

First off, obviously, is the near future. There, they allege that the combination of global warming and subsequent ice age return will cause survivors to be "starving" even "thousands of years forward." I strongly doubt that; human gene-lines flexible enough to survive the coming few centuries will have adapted to the new conditions and created or found new food sources. Yes, the short-term will probably see extensive starvation as our ability to fuel modern agriculture runs dry (assuming we don't get our collective head out of our ass very soon and change gears completely), but the population will eventually decline to a stable level. I suspect we'll still have agriculture in some places, maybe even cities, but having people recall what the Space Needle or global warming is (p.71) after a few thousand years is nonsense.

The resumption of ice age doesn't mean civilization has to vanish, although there's little doubt large swaths of the planet will be inhabitable only by the most intrepid folks, as in Antartica today. I could see people having outposts on the ice caps, even towns if we have the foresight to plan technology for that purpose. I'm not the first to think of this, BTW; Michael Kube-McDowell envisioned the Weichsel people with whole cities on the ice, and even an ice-based construction technology, in his novel Empery.

It will, however, mean major changes. Most humans will have no choice but to retreat toward the equator and change how, where, and maybe even what we farm, but I think we're capable of that. Earth will be a drier place, but we've lived through such times before. We can do it the same way we did it then -- by having very dispersed paleolithic-sized (or maybe medieval) populations or by taking the genuinely global outlook that is today struggling to be born and nurturing it. The former would be a likely consequence of nations feuding over dwindling resources; the latter is the only way to face our future and still retain those elements of civilization that are actually beneficial. Not all of them are.

What we do and which elements we keep may determine how long humanity survives as a species, because events AFTER the ice age are likely to be far less hospitable, if Ward and Brownlee are right.

As they note, "we must either take steps to sustain the habitability of our own world or find another at a younger stage of planetary life. ...If we can't engineer or evolve our way around our planet's inevitable decline, then we'd better go planet shopping." (21-22).

The former is, is the sense of planetary time, a band-aid approach -- it's necessary if WE want to stay alive over the short-term, but won't have much effect on life's overall path; only planet-hopping can keep us alive indefinitely, if that's even possible or desirable. In general, I think it is, at least for the next several millennia; as I've said elsewhere, it's necessary if we want to evolve AND maintain civilization. The neo-paleolithic option above will allow for evolution, but not civilization.

If finding other living worlds proves to be effectively impossible, survival will require us to change our attitude to one that sees our talents as being in the service of Earth-life as a whole -- a change we really need to make anyway, since other Earths won't be accessible for a long time.

This outlook flies in the face of a thread that pops up occasionally in this book. On several occasions, Ward & Brownlee express a clearly biased view of other lifeforms. For example, they note "human-level intelligence and technology would never develop on a water-covered planet. There would be neither the need nor the opportunity" (31) -- How would they know? This assertion might be true of technology, but not necessarily true of intelligence; they admit whales and dolphins have "large brains and some level of sophisticated communication," but aren't willing to acknowledge that much of our complexity is cultural, not due to basic intelligence. We have the advantage of being FIRST, but not (hopefully) the only Earthlife to become technological; I strongly suspect we can help other species to do at least some of what we've done.

Elsewhere, they attribute the fact that our current climate "norm is not normal" (79) to long-term causes -- a 70 MY greenhouse gas cycle, orbital cycles#, and continental drift (specifically, the creation of a land bridge between North and South America). While all are indeed factors, they never mention a factor that at least needs to be considered because it's far more timely -- agriculture. Starting just after the Wisconsin/Wurm glaciers receded, people made major changes to the tree cover around the world in an accelerating manner. Apparently, the use of fossil fuels for 150 yrs or so will have a long-term climate effect more profound than 10,000 yrs of slash-and-burn agriculture? That may be true, but evidence would be far better than simply asserting it as fact.

Speaking of evidence, their attribution of sources seems very unprofessional. Yes, they have a pretty lengthy bibliography, but have almost NO references within their text: No footnotes (except to some photos), no direct quotes, and few references to other scientists by name. In several places, I found comments that were clearly referring to something they'd read, but there's no way to actually find out what that was without reading EVERY bibliography source. In some cases, I've seen sources that contradict them (for example, they assert that Ice Age America included "huge deserts and sand dunes" (74), but an Oak Ridge Nat'l Lab map I've seen says only one pocket of America was sandy desert then), and I'd love to see their source. Same's true of their core point that earth's biological fecundity peaked around 300 MY ago and is now slowly declining; Science Daily says the oceans experienced a huge peak 4-6 MY ago.

While I understand they're writing for a popular audience, that's not an excuse for inaccuracy and dumbing down the text. They have a lot of material to work with and the thesis makes sense, but the inaccuracy, occasional redundancy, and spots of arrogance only weaken their ideas.


@ -- This figure is how they wrote it (it stood out as one of two Fahrenheit references, p. 143, amid all of the other Celsius and metric references. I'm not sure if they meant F or C, but there is a significant difference between them.) For scientists, their phrasing is woefully imprecise in other places, too. On p. 34, they write, "Earth's proportion of water to its weight is small ... less than one-tenth of one percent." Weight means nothing in science; the term is mass, and that figure is accurate, but WAY off -- the actual figure is 1/50 of a percent (.023%), if I'm calculating the figures here properly. Saying that is similar to saying "Earth's population is less than 30 billion" -- true, but it gives an extremely distorted impression of the facts.

# -- There are three orbital cycles -- of 95,000, 41,000, and 22,000 yrs. Regarding the first of these, they contradict themselves. On p. 80, they say we're currently at a position where Earth's orbit is closest to the Sun in January and farthest in July, meaning that "summer [sic] snows may last longer than the long-term norm." On p. 82, they note that a previous interglacial (i.e. WARM period) was at a time when "orbital eccentricity was at a minimum" and "just such a pattern of minimal orbital eccentricity is underway now." Huh?!? Only one of those assertions can be correct. For more info, see the Naval Observatory's orbital cycles page.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Back in the game...

Hi, all,
(If anyone's still visiting this blog...)

I know it's been months since I last posted here. Some you have seen comments on your blogs, so you know I'm still alive; and I've seen a few blogs I used to visit vanish. (Tara? Tonya? Where'd you go? Hope you're still OK.) My day job has pretty much coopted much of my writing inspiration, but I'll try to get back to posting here at least weekly or so...
Anyway, that said, on with the show...

Today, I got a post from a list I'm on that included the following line:

"Reduction to a mere physical survival will reduce our
existence to pure boredom. And what do we do with our souls then? We
have to live and, if necessary, to die for what we believe in."

I basically agree, but think the issue we need to isn't so much personal survival as collective survival. If we as a species don't correct the problems that are now fueling ecological destruction, religious apocalypticism, and the ever-present risk of nuclear war, the whole concept of revolution will be meaningless. Of course, making those changes is itself revolution.

The key as I see it is showing how such changes will increase the well-being of future generations. People need to learn that surviving this year, while important, is less so than ensuring our grandchildren & beyond have a world they can live in, be a part of, and, more crucially, have a role in, rather than separate from & superior to, as our culture not-so-subtly teaches. We need to be able to frame the changes, which will be very culture-shaking and to many people demoralizing, as positive and growth-allowing (not in the overpopulation, economic or material senses, but in the long-term, intellectual, spiritual, health, and other senses).

For that to work, people need to see a wider goal, have an outlet for pent-up frustrations that Taker society breeds. I believe that outlet is space: We need to change our attitude regarding Earth to one of nurturance AND to tap the adventurous elements of human ability.

Some people may say such expansion just exports Taker attitudes, but I disagree -- LIFE itself expands whenever it has the chance, and there are VAST spaces out there with little or no life that may be perfectly suited for colonization without any need to invade and impose a rapacious culture on them. In Earth's history, life has done this without our help, but for Earthlife to survive long-term, our help is necessary, because eventually Earth will become uninhabitable by any lifeform. Homo sapiens will certainly be long gone by then, but whatever species are our intellectual descendents deserve an opportunity to live. Maybe they'll thank us, maybe not.

Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee #, and others, suggest that Earth's overall capacity for harboring life has already peaked and is in its long, slow slide toward death, just as an individual person eventually gets old and dies as body systems shut down. I believe that's one reason intelligence, language, and tool-using capabilities evolved when they did, as the only long-term hope for life to continue, and human adoption of that kind of responsibility would certainly be a far more uplifting philosophy than the object-centered, self-centered, or imaginary-being-centered philosophies/religions/political systems that have dominated human civilization.

Some see a Leaver philosophy as being diametrically opposed to civilization (see, for example, most of the writing here), but I don't. It's just opposed to a certain KIND of civilization, and for change to be successful, people need to see that they aren't losing the benefits of civilization, but gaining benefits of another kind that will make up for some of the challenges the transition period will inevitably bring. The change ahead needs to be a conscious effort to change, to select what we keep and what we discard of Taker society.

We CANNOT let that transition be a "collapse" on a global scale in which most of humanity that survives returns to medieval, neolithic or hunter-gatherer lifestyle; doing so would be a denial of the gift of intelligence evolution has bestowed upon us and our responsibility toward other lifeforms long-term. Given how much of Earth's fossil fuels we've used, it might also make it impossible for a future species to do what we haven't yet done, since fossil fuels are reasonably a crucial stepping stone to space travel. (It might not; Ward and Brownlee suggest Earth has maybe 500 million years in which animal life can continue to flourish. That might enable the fossil fuel supply to replenish itself, but wouldn't our doing it right when there's room for error be better than forcing a future species to do it out of desperation, or, worse, to evolve the intelligence to realize Earth's dying and can do nothing about it?)

BTW: Taker and Leaver are references to Daniel Quinn's Ishmael & related books. In brief, "Taker" refers to a society that believes its way is the only way to live and that humanity has the right (even the duty) to dominate other lifeforms for our own benefit. In other words, our mainstream society. "Leaver" by contrast is an attitude of "live and let live" in which the fact of their existence gives other cultures and species their own value and right to survive independent of whatever usefulness they might have to us. For more info, visit Quinn's main site or one of many forums, such as IshCon.

#-- I'm almost done with this book and will be reviewing it here soon.

ALSO: Having glanced over the old posts, I see a LOT of spam, so I think it's time to enable that word-verification-thingy (of course, they aren't real words, but *shrug*)... Hope it's not too much of a hassle.

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