Monday, March 17, 2014

Predicting war

A fairly plausible cause of novelist apocalypses are wars: generally big ones.  With the wind down of the cold war, the nuclear apocalypse, outside of the much cleaner EMP limited war version, has faded a bit.
 
Are we correct in predicting the unlikelihood of future conflict.
 
Well maybe not:
 
Erik Voeten, Washington Post, 12 March 2014 (hat tip: MR)
Other than Sarah Palin and certain Russian astrologers, few people foresaw that Russia would intervene militarily in the Ukraine. The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at the College of William & Mary held a snap poll among international relations scholars, which asked: “Will Russian military forces intervene in response to the political crisis in Ukraine?” The results, reported in Foreign Policy, were disheartening: only 14 percent of the 905 interviewed scholars answered affirmatively on the eve of the intervention. (The poll was conducted from 9 p.m., Feb. 24 to 11:59 p.m., Feb. 27. Russian forces controlled the Sevastopol airport on Feb. 28).
So, in other words, only 14 % of the experts could predict military action by Russia 4 days before it occurred.
 
I seem to be more worried than most apocalyptic-handicappers about future armed conflicts (excepting dubious surgical strike EMP attacks) as a very dangerous possibility.  The retreaters of the 1970s (what they used to call survivalists) had their bomb shelters.  We have sustainability.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Death of the mall: the fallout

One of my favorite apocalyptic novels, though it is not always viewed as such, Gillian Flynn's Goodbye Girl, has the sartorial collapse of her Midwestern town centered around the closing of its Mega Mall.
 
Very few commenters on the novel seemed to even pause at the idea that an economic collapse should center around the retail market.  I guess we are a long way from the handwringing over the industrial core (a.k.a. The Rust Belt) of our country.
 
When an apocalyptic novel has a mega economic collapse, it usually starts in the banking sphere; Granted a portion of our economy that does look a bit like a house of cards at times.  But not wanting to get lumped in with those hedgehog prognosticators who are one-note harpies of doom, I feel I must offer alternatives..
 
So here we have consider the start of the retail driven apocalypse. 

This Is the Real Reason Sbarro Is in Bankruptcy
Neil Irwin, New York Times (Economix), 13 March 2014 (hat tip: MR)
Let’s get this out of the way first: The food at Sbarro, the pizza-and-pasta chain, isn’t very good. The pizza crust manages to be both thick and limp, the tomato sauce bland, the cheese the victim of sitting for too long under heat lamps.
Plenty of fast-food places serve food that isn’t very good. But Taco Bell, Arby’s and Long John Silver, to cite three examples, have not found themselves at the doors of a bankruptcy court twice in the last three years, an honor Sbarro managed this week with a Chapter 11 filing...
The reason Sbarro is having a rougher time than other, more solvent purveyors of not-good food goes to the root of its business: You eat Sbarro not because you want Sbarro, but because it is the food that is available at the moment you want some food. The last time I ate at one of its 800 locations was in an airport where the next best alternative was a turkey wrap that looked as if it had been in the chiller even longer than the Sbarro pizza had been under the heat lamp. 
The company is in financial trouble because one of its big bets on real estate — that Americans will keep going to mall food courts en masse — has turned out to be wrong.  
Ms. Flynn's novel also noted the demise of the local second tier tourist sites within her collapsing scenario, so we will need to be on the lookout for other signs.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Resurrecting giant viruses

I remember reviewing a book some time ago, a somewhat fanciful book, that stated that the cause of the pandemic collapse was global warming's melting of the ice caps, and thus releasing all the stored up frozen baddies. I was a bit dubious.
 
Well, the authoress may have been overly simplifying, but apparently there is some legitimate concern.
 
Geoffrey Mohan, Los Angeles Times, 3 March 2014 (hat tip: MR)
A 30,000-year-old giant virus has been revived from the frozen Siberian tundra, sparking concern that increased mining and oil drilling in rapidly warming northern latitudes could disturb dormant microbial life that could one day prove harmful to man.
The latest find, described online Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, appears to belong to a new family of mega-viruses that infect only amoeba. But its revival in a laboratory stands as “a proof of principle that we could eventually resurrect active infectious viruses from different periods,” said the study’s lead author, microbiologist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University in France.
“We know that those non-dangerous viruses are alive there, which probably is telling us that the dangerous kind that may infect humans and animals -- that we think were eradicated from the surface of Earth -- are actually still present and eventually viable, in the ground,” Claverie said.
With climate change making northern reaches more accessible, the chance of disturbing dormant human pathogens increases, the researchers concluded. Average surface temperatures in the area that contained the virus have increased more steeply than in more temperate latitudes, the researchers noted.
“People will go there; they will settle there, and they will start mining and drilling,” Claverie said. “Human activities are going to perturb layers that have been dormant for 3 million years and may contain viruses.”
It should be noted that most pathogens can't just jump around from species to species with ease, so it is not necessarily humans at risk.  But most of our food supply comes from relatives of grass, and we no how a disease that wipes them out would turn out.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Lucifer's Hammer: A Review

Jerry Pournelle, and Larry Niven's Lucifer's Hammer is an apocalyptic novel set mostly within the Los Angeles, California area during the lead up and aftermath of a rather large meteor strike on earth. I read it when it first came out in paperback, and refamiliarized myself with it this time with an audio book.



Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are both very famous within the science fiction genre.  This novel is probably their most successful crossover into a more mainstream style of novel.  That a science fiction novel written and reflecting the libertarian/conservative beliefs of its authors can make it onto a NPR fan-poll of the top 100 Science Fiction Novels of All Time, is telling of the story's punch.

There is a humorous shot at boring survivalist types early in the story.  The humor is in that Jerry Pournelle was very interested in survivalism.  Along with being the editor of a survivalist magazine(see here), he wrote the introduction to Mel Tappan's "Tappan on Survival" (pdf).

As to a broad outline of the story, I do like a summation by Bart Leahy:
Lucifer’s Hammer is probably the first novel to describe realistically the effects of a comet striking the planet Earth. Rather than a hero story, like the movies Armageddon and Deep Impact, Lucifer’s Hammer is more like a 1970s disaster film, such as The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, or the awful Meteor. In a disaster film, the story begins by introducing a large, star-studded cast of characters, often with varying degrees of likeability or ethics, and then threatens them with death from natural forces. Some characters live; some die; the survivors usually learn some underlying lesson; and life goes on.
Note that this also describes a lot of features about a cozy catastrophe, by its narrower definition, which might be summed up as "sorry for all the dead bodies, but we needed to sweep clean up that messy world to build our own cute little utopia".  If you add in the fact that most of the post apocalyptic folks who "matter" at the worlds end are middle class to wealthy, the coziness goes a bit into overdrive at times.

There are many items within this novel that can be seen in later survivalist works: meteors became popular for a while, the defensive berm shows up from time to time (American Apocalypse and One Second After to note just two), even the dangerous boy scouts (Daybreak Zero).
 
So a wealthy amateur astronomer, Timmothy Hamner, spots a large comet heading in from deep space.  As it gets closer there is a slow realization that it is going to pass awfully close to earth after it makes its swing around the sun. The odds are lottery-sized large against the chance for a direct strike: but still.    The crazies jump in, and the powers that be go into denial mode. Much of the novel is spent in the early set up.  As with the disaster movies of the day, the cast is large, and much time is spent with all sorts of mini love affairs.  This is the 1970s in Los Angeles, and there is a lot of sleeping around: light on the detail but described.  Very few of the main characters are particularly appealing, and only become heroic when compared to the cannibalistic, nihilistic, militaristic religious cult that rises up to become a threat.

There have been objections to the novels methodology:
 
The novel shares the time periods obsession with a rising up of the black underclass, and even though most of them would have drowned in Los Angeles, blacks are greatly over represented among the bad guys.  The religious are generally portrayed as ineffective and ignored, or as wide eyed lunatics leading cannibals.  Taking in the very loose morals of the good guys, and the make up of the bad guys, you do have to sort of wonder about the authors' world view. 
Harvey's emergence as the next ruler of the valley community is based on his winning Maureen's hand.  And Maureen knows the role that she plays in guaranteeing this new authority...She acknowledges her role unhappily, but does not challenge it.  It is [] important that the women choose their subordinate role just as the black members of the new Brotherhood Army have chosen their membership.  It seems as though Niven and Pournelle want not simply to present a world where equality based on race and/or sex are dismissed as luxuries; it also seems as if they want to acknowledge the readers' potential discomfort and thus explain the subordination (and extinction) as chosen.  Given this, the essential racial genocide of the novel is passed over as a rational protection of the only legitimate community in the novel.  Niven and Pournell are not asking their readers to acquiesce to direct racism, the reader simply has to acquiesce to the rational decision to eradicate cannibals intent on total destruction.
[B]odily security is based on destroying the primary threats to that insecurity: hunger and then the New Brotherhood Army.  But of course this means that security requires the eradication of most and the enslavement of the rest of the remaining black men and women. This happens in the novel as a simple matter of course.  And the reader is not likely to protest- they are cannibals; and in postapocalyptic fiction cannibalism is the sign of total inhumanity, and thus an inability to enter into a contract.  As Maureen notes, "it made so much sense" (536). Claire P. Curtis, Postapocalyptic Fiction and the Social Contract: We'll Not Go Home Again, p 63-64.
It should be noted that both Harvey and Maureen are multi-cheating partners with comparatively little activity within the novel that would justify their ascension to power.  It is a little odd that so many survivalist/prepper folk love this book, as well as One Second After, as both books involve the small authoritarian state communalizing everyone's stockpiles for the greater good.  Arguably you are allowed to stay outside the system, but it is fairly obvious how things would work in the long run if you don't play ball.  This is not a libertarian contractual society of like-minded preppers on their homestead.
 
Of course for those looking for an apocalyptic action yarn, or for those who agree with this neo-Hobbesian world view,  it doesn't really matter. 

But is the criticism completely fair?  One problem is that the criticism misses the final point of the novel.  The novel does not end with the defense of the stronghold.  The stronghold is safe, and yet in a very tense moment, they elect to go continue on and go on the attack to rescue the very precariously located nuclear power plant.  The book, in a slightly ham fisted way, is trying to make the point that unless we embrace the technological possibilities of nuclear power, the space program, et cetera, we are doomed to fall back on a minimalist life style:  a life style that involves slavery, and poor choices for women, and outnumbered minorities.  It is arguable that any of its polemics are effective, but it is not fair to simply ignore one of the major points of the novel.

And yes, the pro-technology polemics get stale.  But unless you are offended by a lack of appropriate multi culturalism, or Hollywood style sexcapades, it all is a very wonderful apocalyptic romp.  The authors have a tons of interesting speculation on what happens in a collapse.  Shoot, they even worry a bit about how the cannibals would go about recruiting, and how they would  get enough to eat if most of the people they run into are turned into recruits - versus food.  So while, I wouldn't say that it is a perfectly delivered novel, and the setup is a bit long winded, it still does a better job of delivering a large frame (versus the man in a cave, or on the road alone) viewpoint for an apocalyptic disaster than most any other novel out there.  Unlike a lot of todays popular scenarios (plagues and zombies in particular) it does not shirk from dealing with all those hungry people:  they just don't go away and die peacefully.  That it sets up any opponents to the author's favored polemics as selfish, or foolish, strawmen is rather unfortunate.
 
So did I/ do I like it.  At the time I first read it, I doubt I even noticed the social aspects of the book, and while I am more ambivalent now, the action adventure aspects of the story play out interestingly enough to make it a fun read.  It is a bit long, with some amazingly long setups that go just about nowhere.  It is the strength of the reasonably logical combat scenes with the cannibals that make the book.  The cannibals are not strawmen when it comes to combat.  They are better than the amateurish stronghold folks. Except for a little bit of incaution, they would have won the day.
 
We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

Is it realistic?  It suffers some from being both a bit dated culturally and socially.  Nobody is building nuclear power plants in California, and the manned space program is mostly dead.  But the portrayal of the possibilities within a collapsing society are realistic.  You may not like that blacks are over represented in the cannibal ranks, but it is hard to argue against the general idea of rogue military units, and cannibals in general.  The book pays a lot of attention to issues of supply, and is somewhat realistic in that many of the preparations (remember people know the comet is coming) pretty much bite the dust in the chaos that ensues.  It is a seven.

Readability is tougher.  It is not overly sophisticated or metaphorical in its delivery.  But there are a lot of story threads to keep up with, and a lot of them don't really go anywhere much.  This makes for a slow, sometimes meandering read.  I put it in the middle: a four.