Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Assorted catastrophes

I’ve been a bit busy recently. That’s what I always say, of course, but I’ve been doing a lot of training so instead of having spare time to read and write about my deep personal passions I’ve spent every evening and all train journeys going though slides trying to remember what I’m supposed to talk about. Yesterday I had a horribly frantic scramble (on the train from Marylebone and later in the NiteNite in Birmingham) to get up to speed with the May 09 version of the Code for Sustainable Homes so that I could inform a select group of builders, local authority staff and the guy who manages training for the National Construction College all about how it works just two days before the 2010 version is released. I think I managed with the presentation but the exercises were a bit chaotic. The feedback forms were good though, even from the NCC guy. Usually I have a little furtive check of feedback, egoscanning for the tutor questions (knowledgeable? approachable?), on the train back but the train before mine had been delayed for over an hour and all the stranded passengers had jumped onto mine. There was no room in the seats and I ended up sitting on the floor in the wheelchair space between two grey suited guys standing primly and, of course, properly. Reading a Darkover book. Yes, I know, but I really rather like them. (I have always wondered why women SFF writers seem to love feudal societies.) The train was crowded enough that the trolley was stuck at the very back of the train, minimising my risk of severed feet. Yes, of course I go everywhere on public transport. It’s so relaxing! Masochist? Apparently.

So today I’m going over the Pennines to deliver a Waste Awareness Course, which I could probably do in my sleep, and I’m taking the chance to write a little something. Daybreak over Manchester looks truly apocalyptic and that’s where my thoughts have been recently. Not over Manchester. In the Apocalypse. I’ve been reading a number of The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWK) books. Darkover Landfall (yes, I know!) and Alas! Babylon! being the most recent. We talked about them over dinner at Julia & Doug’s on Friday. Sally wanted to know what we meant by Cosy Catastrophe (CC).

Some of my favourite comfort books are cosy catastrophes. The quintessential cosy catastrophe is The Day of the Triffids (though the Kraken Wakes is more catastrophe and less cosy). Triffids is a lovely SF novel by John Wyndham, short but effective. The first part, where the hero wakes up on the morning after TEOTWAWKI, blind from an earlier accident, in a London obviously not right, is one of the creepiest pieces of writing I’ve come across. I never read this book alone in the house at night. The terror is contagious.

If this were only going into my fanzine I would leave Triffids at that, assuming that everyone would have read this seminal work of British SF, but some of my colleagues, non-fans, read the blog and, strange though it seems, need a quick explanation.

The Day of the Triffids was written during the cold war era, a time of fear and paranoia, a time when mass unforeseen death seemed quite possible. Was quite possible. Alas! Babylon! looked at this fear in a quite straightforward, nuclear war sort of way. Triffids was somewhat more oblique and the more frightening because of it. When, in my day job, I look at potential incidents and accidents they usually have more than one cause. It is the combination of a number of errors that result in massive spills, explosions etc. One error alone usually results in a ‘near miss’ rather than a full blown incident. Triffids is based on two such accidents and is the more believable because of it.

The first mistake was the development of triffids and their accidental dissemination across the world by industrial espionage gone wrong. Mobile and dangerous plants; plants with some level of intelligence and malevolence. These were my first introduction to GMOs and perhaps why I have always had reservations about them. The triffids were developed, nurtured and spread throughout the world because of the high-grade edible oil they produced. In Wyndham’s world, where it is critical that population and food production balance, it seems fine to ‘domesticate’ this dangerous creature, a plant that can and does kill and feeds off the nutrients from the rotting corpse. Yum.

The second mistake provides the ‘meteor showers’ that everyone watched the night before TEOTWAWKI. Perhaps a satellite weapon, watching the magnificent display resulted in blindness. The hero has been temporarily blinded by a triffid sting across the eyes and on the morning that the book starts, in the anxious and increasingly terrifying darkness behind the his bandages, he is waiting to find out if the damage is permanent.

So, two mistakes herald the end of the old comfortable and cosy world. Millions of people die, either through suicide and accidents due to their sudden blindness or by triffid sting as they stumble outside, unaware of their danger.

What makes it cosy? The way the story is told makes it rather cosy. The hero doesn’t lose anyone dear to him. He goes from being a lonely person in a dead end job to being far more important and far happier in the long term. The human race survives and does not sink into barbarism and chaos. The world is rather saved by this disaster – population is drastically reduced and those survivors have a whole world to repopulate. Nice. Alas! Babylon does the same for nuclear war. Earth Abides does the same for ‘plague’. These seem to be fantasies of stepping back from the edge of ultimate destruction and getting away from the dull and ordinary lives so many of us live.

I’ve always rather liked Cosy Catastrophes, even though I know that these are unlikely scenarios. In Earth Abides the water treatment plant delivering clean water continues working effectively for decades. In Triffids a lovely farmhouse overlooking the Downs is available for moving into without a dull job and a mortgage to support it. In Alas! Babylon! the hero has access to artesian water and enough warning to stock up. We have lived comfortable lives for so long, dependant on our cheap energy and complex systems, that we’ve forgotten what damn hard graft it is to deal with all our needs without such sophisticated assistance. In reality systems break down remarkably quickly when not fed with power or money. We saw that with the oil refinery blockades – a couple of days with no deliveries and we are short of energy for transport and even if we can get to the shops, the shelves are bare. The CCs I’ve mentioned have side-stepped this issue by having lots of people die off very quickly leaving lots of unprotected goods in unprotected shops. Any of us who have been too honest to shoplift might see the thrill of taking free goods without guilt. Even in these books the free cans don’t last forever and we regress to hard labour.

It’s a bit of a joke that fans think we are so clever that we would be the survivors in this sort of scenario when, more likely, we would be surplus to requirements. An ability to build a Civilisation in cyberspace is not the same as scraping a living and keeping the light alive in TEOTWAWKI scenarios. There are other TEOTWAWKI books that are not in any way cosy. Gudrun Pausewang’s book, Fall Out, is a short brutal book about nuclear disaster which has no sign of comfort; a step into horror. And this a kids book. The ultimate of the non-cosy catastrophes for me, is On The Beach, really the end of the human world, a slow and agonising process of waiting for death by radiation poisoning. I only read it once.

Ian frequently accuses me of being a survivalist and wanting to see TEOTWAWKI. Nope. I really don’t. I do a fair amount of research for my job and what I see is a looming disaster, a slow reduction of comfort and possibilities with none of the thrill of the cosy catastrophes. John Michael Greer calls if the long descent. I might call it The End Of The Glorious Future (TEOTGF). We are not the first civilisation to outrun our resources but we are the first global civilisation to do so. In the past, whilst one empire fell another endured for a while. Some ways of life were sustainable, some cultures survived. China was one of those. No longer, I feel, as they purchase resource all around the world and foul their own country to produce junk for us. How did that go so wrong?

We’ve worried about resource issues before. The Limits to Growth, Small is Beautiful, the ‘Good Life’ back to the land movement were all part of a concern about resource. Had we actually taken action then we might not be facing these issues now. We are probably past peak oil, a point where there is still plenty left but it will never be so cheap and easy to obtain again. Why drill in high risk deep water areas, ruin aquifers by fracking difficult gas fields, pollute huge areas extracting tar sands, plant and subsidise the production of biofuel on fertile food producing land if not because the easy stuff has all been used? Much of the material we use in our ubiquitous electronic equipment has limited availability. We’re pumping our aquifers dry all over the World. There’s too many of us and we’re too greedy. Oh for a cosy catastrophe to leave me and my friends in proud possession of what’s left, but we’ve seen that that would not work. We only live in luxury now because someone somewhere is being exploited to make it possible. I wouldn’t be able to extract, refine and manufacture dysprodium magnets to make my personal wind turbine work. I never grow enough food to be able to rely on it. I’m unlikely to achieve more even if my life depended on it. My cosy catastrophe would decay very quickly into starvation, cold and darkness. I’ve got a dozen candles in the house. How long will they last?

I’d like to finish this piece with a solution, a call to action, but this is not a problem, it is a predicament. There are no solutions only things that we do that minimise the misfortune. A bit. Curse you darkness!

We’ve got iPhones. Surely that is future enough for any of us. But I’d hoped for something more in my lifetime. I was hoping for the stars. 

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