Monday, September 30, 2013


I love good dystopia. I love reading fun thought experiments where something gets tweaked in the society in an interesting way--banning books, subjecting everyone to the thought police, altering human reproduction in some way--and then we see where that society goes. A good dystopia, in my mind, is one that sheds light on our current society by changing some fundamental and then putting us readers in the position of empathizing (or at least following) someone who has grown up with that fundamental.

I'm not going to list all my favorite dystopian literature, but I am going to say "Birthmarked" is getting a spot on the list. It's about a young girl, Gaia Stone, who is a midwife. As a midwife she's expected to hand over the first three babies she assists in the birthing of to the enclave--basically the walled-off upper eschelon of the society. She has no reason to question this practice. It's well-known that kids inside the enclave live lives of relative luxury, with access to education, better food, and better medicine than those outside the walls can afford. Her older brothers both went to the enclave. She, however, was scarred by and accident with hot wax when she was young and so she wasn't picked to be 'advanced.'

Shortly after she delivers her first baby to the enclave, she discovers her parents have been arrested and taken to the prison inside the enclave. She, of course, has to get them back so she sneaks in, just in time to watch the execution of a very pregnant woman. Gaia convinces the man responsible for disposing of the body that she's a relative and quickly slices open the woman's belly, saving the child but landing in prison. From there she slowly unravels the mystery of why her parents were arrested and why the enclave wants the babies in the first place.

There are a number of reasons why I love this book. First, it is a well-told story. I didn't ever want to put it down and was always anxious to pick it back up.

Second, unlike many science fiction dystopias there weren't any egregiously bad science details for me to get hung up on. This could as accurately be classified as a science fiction novel and the science in it is good. There's no magic science allowing people to control others or know things they shouldn't be able to know.

Third, human life is valued within the framework of the story. One of the things I dislike in many dystopias is that human life is considered worthless, or at least very cheap. That attitude is so thoroughly divorced from my experience as a Western person that I have a hard time accepting it. Sure, under extreme situations those of us raised in the western world would have the potential to treat (some) human lives as expendable, but not as an every-day thing. I think the suicide rates and prevalence of PTSD and other psychological disorders among our combat veterans speaks to that strongly. When you're raised with the idea that human life is sacred, living in a situation in which human life is suddenly completely expendable does serious psychological damage.

With the possible exception of the Hunger Games trilogy, that theme isn't even hinted at. It's just assumed that once society descends into chaos human life will become cheap and will forever stay cheap (Margaret Atwood, I'm looking at you). I simply don't think that's realistic. People raised with a western mindset will reassert the value of human life once some measure of stability is possible again. People are too big an investment, even if you don't educate them all that well, to just throw to the meat grinders.

Lastly, instability doesn't last all that long, certainly not decades. Humans, flexible as they are, like stability and will work--hard--to create it. I'm concurrently (sort of) reading Rob Ziegler's "Seed." It's hard to know how long the conflict in that story's been going on, but it sounds like people have been on the move, dealing with serious ecological disasters for decades. That's simply not realistic. Yes, people have been nomadic in the past, but with much smaller population densities. If we returned to a nomadic lifestyle, even if it were a sort of itinerant farming kind of lifestyle, human population would drop to the level that would be supported ecologically within a few years at most and you'd stop having mass starvation all the time. Droughts, floods, or other disasters would occasionally stomp on the remaining human population, but those events wouldn't be yearly. So, yeah, the image of starving farmers drifting zombie-like across the plains is heart-wrenching and frightening, but not realistic.

Far more realistic is the image painted by O'Brien: a smallish city, isolated, but eking out an existence based on locally available resources and the remnants of technology preserved by the (now) upper echelons of the society.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Sunday Science

These will likely be pretty quick posts in general, more notes on something cool I've read that might spark a story idea or add fullness to world building.

Here's one that I already kind of knew from my own research, but in canonized form. According to the 2013 IPCC summary, the water cycle has changed noticeably in roughly the ways we expect. I'm linking to this post that quotes the relevant section rather than the entire document, but if you want to see the whole thing, it's linked too. Anyway, in a nutshell, what the summary of the summary says is that snow and ice cover has decreased and the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events has increased thanks to anthropogenic warming. Also, the amount of the Earth's surface that is subject to the monsoon has increased.

Obviously not all bad--more summertime rain for the regions with monsoons is probably a good thing, especially since those tend to be the regions that depend on snow pack or glacial melting. Not all good, though, since snow pack is an important water source for many semi-arid regions, meaning droughts are likely to become more severe.

Why I like this for science fiction: there are plenty of stories where weather plays a role in setting the tone. Not that I have numbers, but tone or mood is probably the most frequent use for weather period. That makes sense, since most of the time weather is backdrop to the action of life. There are a few where storms or droughts are significant parts of the plot, but not often in science fiction or fantasy. Kim Stanley Robinson incorporates extreme weather into the "40 Days of Rain" series (which is specifically about global warming) and Brandon Sanderson includes highstorms (which are magical in nature, so probably don't really belong here, but I like the usage) in "The Way of Kings." Mostly they are plot devices, a way to throw in some man vs. nature action. This is mostly to say that such man vs. nature is likely to become more prominent in our future.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Science and fiction

I love science fiction. I love the tropes and the exploration of the what if scenario. I love hard sci-fi, where the physics of the world create the drama and I love space opera, even thought it might as well be fantasy.

I don't write science fiction, though. At least not often. I'm far more likely to create a fantasy setting than a science fiction one for the simple reason that I like science too much. I get far too wrapped up in the world building and forget about the human drama, which makes for pretty boring stories.

I have definite world-builder's disease.

It's a shame, too, because there's so much human drama still to be explored. To pick on my own science, climate change has a huge impact on populations, yet it's not something that's very often a feature of books. Part of that is scale, I'm sure. It's easy to tackle a single event--a flood or drought, hurricane, tornado, or tsunami--but the human lifetime is too short to really register climate change. Historically, climate change has more often been the driver of extinction, yet apocalyptic fiction tends to utilize things like plagues, nuclear winters, and meteorites to kill off the majority of the human species. Again, the scale is the issue here. Climate change is slow and a relatively slow famine isn't sexy.

There's also nothing to be done about one.

My plan over the next who knows how long is to post a weekly feature talking about something I've seen in the science world that I think would create interesting drama, or at least flesh out the world of a story. At worst, it's an excuse for me to spend some time talking about cool science ideas I think are underutilized or too poorly known.