Saturday, April 09, 2016

Book 24: Yes, George, because of society.

Can we just talk about civilization for a minute? I'm not sure why everyone seems to think our civilization is so fragile that we're one bad week from savagery.

I've read a lot of post-apocalyptic books, some of them good, some bad, some mediocre like Station Eleven, and the common thread in many of them seems to be a serious doubt that humanity is worth a plugged nickel when it comes to rebuilding our society.

In about 90% of post-apocalyptic books, I'd say, humanity is reduced to scavengers, killers, weirdos, mutants, and generally inept people roaming strip malls and using cars as horse wagons and the like. And only in about 1% of those is there a good reason for the complete lack of civilization.

In The Passage and Lucifer's Hammer and Alas, Babylon and A Canticle for Leibowitz (to name a few) the reason society can't rebuild is because most of it has been physically destroyed by a comet or nuclear war or vampires -- but in those books there are enclaves of humans who did not forget that 2000 years of history has already existed, and so civilization as we know it is being rebuilt pretty rapidly.

Then there are the 90%, like Station Eleven, in which humanity is, well, silly.  In Station Eleven, right at the outset, most of the world's population dies in a terrible flu epidemic; the collapse happens in about two or three weeks, leaving only a tiny fraction of people surviving. That's a setup kind of like The Stand, among others.  Station Eleven starts in modern times, more or less today, and then everyone dies, and then the next chapter we've jumped 20 years ahead to see what the world is like then. It turns out it's annoying.

The people 20 years in the future live not in houses, teepees, log cabins, or caves, but in commercial buildings. Why? Who knows. It's never explained or discussed. People just live in airports or Hardees' or gas stations or whatever, completely ignoring the houses which are both existing and completely empty and not falling apart in most cases (because we're told that.)

The people 20 years in the future, post-flupocalypse, also use horses (but not very many), only they use the horses to pull around cars and vans that they've hollowed out of most of their equipment, for no apparent reason other than, I guess, once you've lived in a society where you knew a minivan existed you're completely incapable of making a covered wagon or other item that's easier to haul?

The people 20 years in the future use bows and arrows, and a few firearms, and their medicine is of the 'soak a needle in moonshine' variety, because medical textbooks seemingly also got the flu? Who knows.  Granted, it'd be tough to do an MRI in a post-apocalyptic world but people would still know how to keep an environment clean and would have access to hospitals, with their large amounts of perfectly good scalpels and sutures and whatever else they have.  But instead, EMTs live in abandoned hotels and sew bullets into people's wounds because it's too dangerous to try to dig it out.

*sigh*.  And I haven't even gotten to the "Traveling Symphony," yet. The "Traveling Symphony" is sort of the focal point of the future in Station Eleven, a group of people who travel the same circuit around the Great Lakes, stopping in the towns along the way to perform musical numbers and Shakespeare plays.  Most of the characters in the future are members of the Traveling Symphony, the existence of which is explained by borrowing a Star Trek quote "because survival is insufficient." At least I assume it's a Star Trek quote; I didn't bother looking it up.

The effect of all of this, the effect of Station Eleven as a whole, is, frankly, tedious.  There were a lot of times I thought about just stopping the book entirely. It wasn't that bad, though, and I sort of wanted to see how the various storylines come together, which meant plodding through chapter after chapter of flashbacks, seemingly random events, and portentous moments that never got tied back together.  The whole thing feels like its been done ad infinitum ad nauseum before, and that's probably because it has, and far better.

Mostly, Station Eleven is just boring.  When it flits away from boring for a moment it becomes, as I said, annoying, and not just in the stuff I set out above. It's also annoying because the story feels almost random, as though it was meant to be the beginning of a far longer story; there's a plot that involves someone named "The Prophet" who turns out to be a character that barely had any importance prior to that, and by about the time "The Prophet" becomes a major character in this book, he's killed off almost immediately.  Characters come and go, disappearing without further mention after they've been introduced, or showing up in such a way as to make a reader think he missed an earlier chapter when this character must have been introduced.  Whole storylines are followed for no apparent reason, and because there are just so many characters, it's impossible to ever really connect to any of them, so when one dies (as many of them do) it's just sort of oh well I guess that person's dead too.

The author couldn't even be bothered to name many of the characters: the Symphony members are frequently referred to by their instruments, as in "The Clarinet." Annoyingly, not only does the author refer to them this way but their friends in the Symphony do, too -- only not everyone gets talked to that way. So there's "Kirsten" and "August" and "The Conductor" and "6th Guitar."


After killing off most of civilization and jumping us forward, the book then (again, annoyingly) goes back to the more-distant past, following along with an actor, Arthur, for I'd say about 2/3 of the book, total: We get Arthur's childhood, his developing career, his whole first marriage, and most of his last year, smattered throughout the book, interspersed with more glimpses of the future, but now in the first few days after the epidemic, then 15 years in, then 3 years in, and so on.

There are enough common threads running through the story to make it seem like the author had something in mind here: Arthur's died on stage in front of a young girl in the play; that girl grows up to travel with the Traveling Symphony, performing Shakespeare, and carrying comic books that Arthur gave her before he died. The comics were drawn by Arthur's first wife, who plays a major role in the book for no apparent reason other than I guess to have drawn the comic.  The comics also end up in the hands of Arthur's only son, who grows up to be the profit and who almost shoots Kirsten before he's shot in a deus ex machina moment that involves 0% emotional payoff.  Arthur's old friend Clark is in the airport where Arthur's son briefly lived after the collapse, and he winds up showing Kirsten that some cities have developed electricity again.  Meanwhile, the paramedic who tried to save Arthur has... gone to Virginia, where he has a kid.

The book just feels so scattershot and haphazard; it feels more like an outline for a TV series than an actual coherent story, and maybe that's what it was intended to be, but it's really not worth reading, at all.

Which brings me back to civilization, which is what I spent most of my time thinking about instead of bothering to pay all that much attention to the book.  Specifically, why is it that people seem to think that anything other than global annihilation would leave us permanently in the stone age? If 99% of the world's population died this instant, that would still leave a phenomenal number of people, and lots and lots of resources.  I've been wondering how quickly society might rebuild, and what level we'd rebuild to, quickly enough.  I figure that if 99% of the world's population disappeared, there'd be some anarchy for a while, but there'd be enough people who know things like how oil wells work and how to run a refinery and such that the biggest bar to rebuilding society would simply be a lack of people to do it.  I mean, if 1% of the people in the world were left but they were scattered all over the globe, it'd be hard to have enough people to get a fully-functioning city back up and running for a while, because cities take a lot of people to run them.

But I figure that at worst we'd spend most of our time at a level of technology roughly equivalent to the period of time from about 1880-1910 -- people could figure out how to make steam engines, and dig coal, and even get electricity going again.  All that stuff was done by people who didn't have automation, computers, and the like.  Heck, the transcontinental railroad was built with men digging through mountains with picks.

I get it, that having society collapse and then be only marginally inefficient isn't as dramatic as having everyone go all Mad Max, but if you want to tell a Mad Max story, give a reason for that to happen.  I mean, even in The Passage [SPOILER ALERT] the army had generators up and running and a semblance of civilization going in the years after vampires killed pretty much everybody in North America in like three days.

Don't just say oh well society collapsed so people forget that steam engines exist.  I won't believe that 20 years after a global epidemic there wouldn't be people who'd think hey man all I have to do is go to one of those old libraries and get a book about how Edison did things and we'd be back to about 1910 right there.  Like any story things should have a reason for being that way, even if the story is totally fiction. "Suspension of disbelief" will let me imagine the flu killed everyone and a prophet can rise based on comic books -- but not that people would entirely forget how every single thing ever worked.

(Also, is shampoo good for 20 years? Because they find shampoo in one house and use it 20 years after the collapse, which means (a) shampoo has a long shelf-life and (b) people forgot how to make soap, which is something humanity has known how to do since 2800 BC.)

What really drove home just how dumb Station Eleven is was the comic book that gave this book its name.  Station Eleven is a comic imagined by Miranda, whose death in the book is also completely devoid of emotion even though Miranda is about the only character who is more than a simple caricature of someone, and in Station Eleven (the comic) Earth has been taken over by aliens, and Station Eleven, a moonlike space station, has escaped with a small number of humans, to drift through space forever. The station is like a small planet but because it was damaged in the escape, the planet is mostly water and islands, and it's always twilight. Half the people on Station Eleven hide in bunkers "undersea" while the others live on the surface, and they're at war because the undersea folk want to go home to negotiate with the aliens while the surface dwellers want to stay here.

I'd have loved to have read Station Eleven, the comic.  Station Eleven the novel was mostly just a waste of time.

Monday, April 04, 2016

15,842 new words: Say what you want about the 1600s those guys knew how to come up with sciencey sounding stuff.

“In other words something like the theory of phlogiston.” 

She laughed. “Exactly.” 

--Red Mars (Mars Trilogy Book 1), Kim Stanley Robinson


Phlogiston was supposed, by scientists in the 1600s, to be an element that was in anything that could burn. Burning, to scientists, was called dephlogistication.  The scientists had it the exact opposite of correct: they assumed that when something burnt, the phlogiston was being removed from it and absorbed into the air; this was why, they felt, a fire in an enclosed container soon went out: the air was too full of phlogiston.

Nowadays, we know that the process which makes something burn involves pulling oxygen out of the air and putting it into the chemical reaction that causes burning. We're so smart!

What did in phlogiston as a theory was real science: experiments and noting physical reality. One of the first observations to challenge phlogiston was the fact that magnesium gains mass when it burns, which seemed to run against the idea that phlogiston was contained in magnesium, since it was supposed to be given off.

That fact didn't trouble the pro-phlogiston scientists at all: they instead proposed that perhaps phlogiston had negative mass.  The concept of negative mass is not at all identical to the idea of dark matter: matter we cannot detect or interact with in any way, because obviously scientists in our enlightened times wouldn't do anything like just making something up to cover the fact that their theories are not working out. Just because modern day scientists rashly publicize controversial claims that in fact are not strong enough to hold up to examination to try to support a theory that was first proposed in 1933 and has not been critically re-examined is no reason to hold against current scientists the fact that they ignore papers which find a complete lack of evidence for dark matter. In the end, it's not even important whether dark matter makes up 80% of the universe, or 90% of the universe,or just 26.8% of the universe, the important thing is that dark matter definitely exists and is a real thing, unlike phlogiston.

Phlogiston. Ha ha those old timey people were such lame-o's.