Putting the life back in science fiction

November 30, 2010, 9:11 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding

Ah yes, the sound of silence on a blog. That was me finishing NANOWRIMO 2010. 50,000 words, finished with 12 hours to spare.

This is the third year I’ve attempted it and the second year I’ve completed it. Last year’s version is sitting in publisher’s slush piles, and I’m considering self-publishing it on Kindle for Christmas.

One thing I’m finding is that my addiction to world-building makes story telling…complicated. Much of what I wrote this year (as last year) isn’t so much story, it’s trying to figure out the world and how it works, so that I know what the characters are getting into.

Last year I had fun with the old idea of a low-tech culture on an alien planet (think Pern, Darkover, etc). But it had to make sense ecologically. When even the soil is alien, how do people grow enough food to survive? And how did they get there in the first place? And why are they low-tech? The last question was easy: the microbes on the planet think that industrial polymers and lubricants are yummy, because the local plants and fungi use analogous chemicals as structural compounds (yes, the plants are plastic. Be careful in what you burn for your fire!). The rest of it? That was complicated.

This year I decided to tackle time-travel. Learning about the past was the first challenge (I chose the Paleocene for reasons that are relevant to the story). The major NANOWRIMO challenge was figuring out a) who the time travelers are (more game wardens than secret agents, in my view), and b) the hard question: how do you go about designing a culture that is very good at erasing every trace of itself from the fossil record? That’s even less easy than it sounds, but ultimately it was fun to think out and write about. It takes leave no trace camping to a whole new level.

I still like NANOWRIMO, because having that contest helps everyone understand that they need to leave you alone and let you write. That’s not so easy, other times of the year. If you’ve ever wanted to try writing a novel, I’d recommend this as the way to do it.


5 Comments so far
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Is it really that hard for even an industrial civilization to vanish from the fossil record (or, more strictly speaking, fail to be recognized as industrial) after tens of millions of years? It’s not hard to imagine a tool using species that (unlike humans) anticipates consequences a few years more in advance so they don’t end up so many extinctions. Or even if they did cause mass extinctions, would the extinctions be recognizable as byproducts of civilization 60 million years later? 60 million years is long enough to erase even the most durable architectural, chemical, and nuclear traces of industrialization. What little isn’t destroyed could credibly be spread so thin that its discovery is unlikely.

If you’re worried about fossil bones from a suddenly-huge population of the civilization’s species, just presume that the population and technological growth occurred over a very short time (like humans) and that common post-death rituals were such that they left few skeletons behind, like cremation or recycling.

To put it another way, suppose that industrial civilization was destroyed by full scale nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare when the Cuban Missile Crisis became the Last War, and that every human was dead by 1990. Suppose that in 60 million years another species develops technologies and science roughly equivalent to those of the United States circa 1960. What would alert these far-future scientists that such development had happened before? I’m genuinely curious; there may be biological cues that I’m missing because biology is not my strongest field.

Comment by Matt

Hi Matt,

Actually, the problem isn’t the bones so much.

It’s things like pollen and isotopes. It’s also about limiting mining to superficial deposits of whatever. Oh, and it’s about not having any settlements on the coast.

A lot of the evidence I found for the vegetation was from pollen cores, and a lot of it came from studies by petroleum geologists or funded by the petroleum industry.

Specifically, grass pollen is fairly distinctive, and grasses didn’t become common (i.e. recognizable in the fossil record) until about 10 million years after my main setting. Grasses are (with rare exceptions) wind pollinated, and most of modern civilization depends on them (maize, wheat, rice, sugarcane, millet, sorghum, etc). So the first challenge is: what are they eating?

The second thing challenge is that they can’t tap any known oil fields, can’t use any known mining areas, have to clean up all non-degradable litter, and so forth.

They also have to avoid building near any known fossil beds or fossil-forming environments. That includes many coast lines and most (or all) river deltas.

As I noted, it all gets interesting.To start with, almost every human culture has depended primarily on some grass or other for food, and most built their homes near coasts or major rivers when they could.

As for what would remain of our culture: where to start? There’s going to be a layer of plastic in every sedimentary sample from this era, along with an anomalous spike of industrial heavy metals. Every city that’s not scraped flat will be high-quality metal mine, and every nuclear dump site will be readily recognizable as a built environment. Oh, and there are massive changes in the fossil record (and fossil pollen record), human bones being buried everywhere, and so on. Additionally, most humans today live near aquatic environments (shores of rivers, lakes, and oceans) that favor fossilization. There are even footprints on the Moon.

Even allowing for the comparatively pitiful fossil record we have from the Paleocene, if there was a western-style industrial culture present then, it would show up.

It’s fun to think about, simply because our culture is determined to make an impact. Writing about a culture that does the opposite is a fun exercise.

Comment by heteromeles

It sounds like my confusion may be about time travel models more than the effects of deep time on the works of civilization.

Suppose that Alice is reading a book after work. Her neighbor Bob hops in his time machine to travel back 2 hours and steal the book while she’s still at work. There are at least 4 time travel models I recall seeing in fiction:

1) There is some sort of “continuity principle” preventing changes that would be noticed by other humans. Bob can breathe the air and move around in the past, but whenever he tries to steal the book he’s coincidentally noticed by a neighbor, slips on a patch of wet grass, mistakenly breaks into an abandoned house instead of Alice’s, or otherwise fails to complete his mission, no matter how many attempts he makes. This model makes even less sense than other fictional depictions of time travel, but never mind that.

2) Bob succeeds in stealing the book. Alice in the original time line doesn’t see any difference, though, because Bob’s actions have placed him in an alternate time line. In the time line Bob now inhabits Alice will of course discover that the book is missing when she first gets home from work. Bob can never exactly return to the time line he started in.

3) Bob succeeds in stealing the book. The book vanishes from Alice’s hands as she reads it, much to her astonishment.

4) Bob succeeds in stealing the book. As far as Alice knows, the book was missing when she got home, even before Bob stepped into the time machine. Rather than causing a particular object to vanish Bob’s actions caused a particular past to vanish.

It sounds like your time travel model is something like option 3, so that (e.g.) present day mine operators could see mysterious ore depletion in the present due to time traveler meddling, or scientists can notice pollen grains suddenly appearing in samples where they don’t belong.

Models 2 and 4 make detection of past civilizations much more difficult (and much more analogous to the problem of a 60 million years hence civilization inferring human civilization circa 1960). In this case scientists wouldn’t initially know that pollens “should” first appear millions of years later in the fossil record. Likewise, they wouldn’t know the initial abundance of fossil fuel and ore deposits, so there would be no point of comparison to notice metal depletion in old mines or concentration in old city sites. There is already a global layer of heavy metal (iridium) deep in the geological past, and we presume that it has natural causes, so I wouldn’t assume that deep-future scientists would infer civilization from our own metallic effluvia. As for plastics, they don’t fossilize, they’re lighter than soil and water so they tend to migrate to the surface, they slowly* decompose with exposure to air and/or light, and they can’t survive more than a few hundred degrees without complete chemical decomposition. I would be astonished if macroscopic pieces survived 60 million years, and I’m not even sure about notable quantities of microscopic fragments. In our own present, use of polyethylene sample bags, cups, scoops, and other lab ware is ubiquitous. Would a present day scientist finding minute traces of polyethylene in ancient sedimentary rocks suppose that anything but modern contamination were to blame, or pursue the issue doggedly enough to realize that the plastic was intrinsic to the sample?

I will admit that I picked 1962 as a convenient date, not just because civilization nearly ended that year but because it was before there were permanent geological repositories for nuclear waste, and before we’d left any artifacts on the moon or other celestial bodies.

It’s a really interesting idea because it’s sort of a reversed Intelligent Design challenge. What sort of fossil record evidence would be necessary to convince scientists of coordinated intelligent activity in the deep past, as opposed to “mere” biological/geological phenomena that gave rise to notable features?

*On human time scales, quite rapidly indeed compared with geological time.

Comment by Matt

Well, that’s the fun part: I’m writing a story that’s sort of like #2. It’s a limited version of the alternate timeline model: history can bifurcate, but nearby timelines can also fuse. I’m assuming this happens fairly routinely, and it explains why historians investigating events almost never get 100% consistency in testimony, and why you can put your watch next to the bed at night and find it in the next room in the morning. But if you know it happens, you can make enormous bifurcations or fusions in history as well.

I’m also assuming that there is something that will prevent the universe from bifurcating indefinitely (it’s part of the story), so there is an incentive to keep history relatively linear.

Finally, I’m also assuming that time travel is actually fairly easy to figure out, once you know it’s possible. Therefore, erasing evidence of time travel is much simpler than dealing with the crisis that would result if everyone figured out how to do it.

The History Service basically has the job of making sure their future happens, and much of what they do is maintaining continuity in the past.

The Paleocene is a good place for the History Service to put a large base because in this story, one of the major bifurcations in Earth history is the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event, and on the other side of that bifurcation, the dinosaurs didn’t go extinct, and their descendants discovered time travel too…

Comment by heteromeles

Sounds like fun. Who’s the opposition that the History Service has to thwart, the dinosaur descendants? You should alert your blog readers (few though they may be currently) when it’s available to read.

Also, did you read Charlie’s Palimpsest? It’s probably the best time travel story I’ve read in years. Intentional or not, it also reminded me of Iain Banks’ Transition, which is about alternate-universe-hopping rather than time travel as such. In both it turns out that the highest ranking members of the History Service analogs are actually quite villainous, and for similar reasons.

Comment by Matt

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