Putting the life back in science fiction

American Byzantium, an alt-future

Actually, as a thought experiment, I started playing with what California might look like in the High Altithermal, from about 2100 CE to about 3600 CE.  It’s more complicated than I’d initially thought, of course.  If it’s something you’re interested in, contribute your ideas in the comments, and I’ll work them (or some of them, anyway) into the next blog post or two.

In the meantime, here’s a future that I’m pretty sure won’t happen.  The idea is that US history will parallel Roman history, with the eastern US playing the western Roman empire, Washington DC playing Rome, and the western US playing the Eastern Roman Empire.

I gave an overview of the transformation of the Roman empire in Hot Earth Dreams in Chapter 17, and the idea is that the Roman Empire proved ungovernably large, and Rome proved ungovernably corrupt, so Constantine moved the seat of power to Constantinople around 330 CE, and his sons split the empire into the Eastern and Western empires.  The western empire collapsed in 476 CE, while the Eastern empire transformed over time into the Byzantine empire and survived until 1453 CE.

Following this analogy over-faithfully, the US capitol moves west as the (south)eastern US is devastated by increasing heat, black flag weather, rising seas, and the collapse of civilization in the face of such disasters.  In this case, they move the capitol ultimately to perhaps Portland, although someone might argue that Fairbanks or somewhere near Anchorage might be a better site.  Washington DC gradually falls into ruin before being swallowed by the Atlantic, and what’s left of American culture shifts west, while statelets in the east fight over who gets to rebuild America.

Culturally, Byzantium wasn’t Rome.  They were Christian, spoke Greek, and practiced Medieval-style warfare.  In this alt-future, we can mimic the same shift by, um, let’s see, having western Americans speaking Spanish or Spanglish (except when reading law and science, which would be in English), and mimicking the feudal social structure with something like an unholy mashup of drug cartel culture and west coast capitalism, with CEOs instead of counts and Cartel leaders instead of dukes.  Since a lot of feudalism came from Rome adapting the culture of the migrating tribes of Celts and Germans, this isn’t entirely as stupid as it sounds.  “Celts” as a group were probably as polyglot as today’s Latinos are, and had to experience similar levels of prejudice within the Roman Empire (for example, having red hair in Rome was probably akin to being black in America).  Note that I’m not implying that today’s Latinos are in any way barbarians, nor that the drug cartels are the best that Latino culture has to offer.  I’m more thinking of what is a Latino analogy to the old Celtic and Germanic warbands.  If you think that Latino culture has something better and more resilient to give to the future, let me know in the comments.

In any case, if the USA broke down somewhere in the 22nd century, then the Western American Empire (“Alta Mexica?”) might last for another thousand years.

Now I don’t think the US will replay Rome, so this scenario is presented as a bit of a spoof of the idea that US history will mirror the history of the Roman Empire.  It looks like it could, just maybe, work, so if anyone wants to use it in a story, please be my guest.   If you’ve got anything you want to contribute (comments or ideas), please share those too.

Now that I’ve got that scenario out of my brain, in the next blog entry (or three) I’ll look at California in the High Altithermal, Hot Earth Dreams style, with temperatures spiking over the next ~300 years, sea levels rising over the next ~1600 years, civilization and populations crashing, and everything migrating.  How long might the US hold together, will it fragment, what happens with Mexico, and all that are questions that need to be answered, along with lifeways, transportation, where the settlements are, and so forth.  If you’ve got ideas, put them in the comments, and let’s see what we can come up with.



24 Comments so far
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If you want to re-site a capital, altitude, not just latitude is probably necessary. Unlike the ancient world, ports aren’t quite so important, especially as fixed installations. So father than Portland or Seattle, move to Denver. The Rockies will probably provide a good water supply despite warming, and the mile high altitude guarantees it will not face rising ocean issues, especially salt incursions into groundwater.

If things really fall apart, they can rule from the air (like Well’s “The Shape of Things to Come”) using airplanes or airships.

However the real problem that faces such a split America is how powerful its new neighbors are. Wouldn’t China usurp America’s hegemony, as America is eclipsed, in turn ruling from a more inland, capitol?

Comment by Alex Tolley

China has as many problems with climate change as we do. If we’re moving towards Alaska, they’re moving towards Siberia. It’s possible that, in 1600 years, Beijing would be partially underwater.

Comment by Heteromeles

But the time frames are different. China will most likely eclipse the US in this century, well before climate change has a major impact. This is in contrast to ancient Rome which remained the dominant power after it split and stayed fairly strong in the East after the fall of Rome itself.

With rising ocean level, some parts of China are very vulnerable, but I see no reason why they shouldn’t either retreat inland or perhaps dyke their cities. Hong Kong is relatively easily dyked, for instance.

Comment by Alex Tolley

So how does an economically and politically dominant China play out in California over first the next century, then the 200 years after that, then the 1500 years after that?

I tend to agree that they’ll try to Netherland up, just as every coastal city that can afford it will, over the next decade or so.

In the last 1500 years, basically their entire coastal plain from south of Shanghai to eastern Beijing will flood. Before that happens, south China will become uninhabitable in the summer for some part or all of that, due to high heat and high humidity (unless they have air conditioners).

Comment by Heteromeles

China and California.
China already has close ties due to the shift of manufacturing from CA to China. Over time, we can imagine that the center of high tech development will shift to China. This will allow China to increase their “settlement” of California, and all points north to BC (Vancouver already a new center of Chinese settlement). As China’s wealth grows, I can imagine the US becoming a source of agricultural products for China. (China is already buying up US food processing companies).

The big question to me is whether in this cycle China will become more imperialist, hoping to control the Pacific rim. So far all their aims have been to reaquire offshore territories, e.g. HK, Taiwan. Their move to build on te Spratly islands suggests that they want to exert their power over the East Asian shipping lanes. Could they follow pre war Japan in wanting the whole Pacific?

If the tech business shifts to China, the wealth creation engine of Silicon Valley goes with it. With water shortages, CA agriculture declines and becomes centered on local consumption, reducing its political influence. This leave just teh entertainment industry, which may well have to cater to Chinese markets, rather than the declining US markets.

In extremis, CA could just become a “vassal state” to Greater China. I would use PKD’s “Man in teh High Castle” as a model, with China rather than Japan in control, and based not on military strength, but industrial wealth.

Comment by Alex Tolley

I don’t think we can have any sense of political events in 1500 years. Could anyone predict the world today from 500CE?

Comment by Alex Tolley

Can we really have a sense of political events 1500 years out? Could anyone imagine today’s world from 500CE?

Comment by Alex Tolley

While we can’t predict what will show up in 1500 years, we can say something about what won’t be there. The critical point is that sea level rise will top off in about 1500 years. For California, that means places like Fresno and Chico will be on or near the expanded “San Francisco Bay” that fills a good chunk of the Central Valley. Also, about half of Los Angeles will be an archipelago of low islands surrounded by underwater ruins and salt marshes. Even worse changes happen along the Chinese coast.

Because of this, we can say with some confidence that China won’t have an overseas empire here: all the ports that would have served such an effort will have been swamped. That’s one of my points in Hot Earth Dreams, that environmental changes can shape political systems rather substantially.

Comment by Heteromeles

I think your view is too static. Even teh ncient world extended their ports in response to changing sea levels. And they did this with hand cut stone. Over a millennium, I see no reason why ports cannot move locations. Port Los Angeles may be a bit hard, but San Franciso shouldn’t be. Or perhaps ports will be built upwards to compnsate for rising waters. Maybe ports move to Seattle instead, and rail services carry goods south. (Didn’t we talk about this on CS’ blog – wrt New York?). The other possibility for LA and SF is to build offshore barriers with locks to allow ingress and egress for ships. There is plenty of possible technological development that might make these infrasructure developments much more realistic than they look like today. With 3-D manufacture, only farmed foods need to be moved, and none are intrisically bulky to move from shore to transport ships.

While surface conditions might be unpleasant, these can be ameliorated with A/C and it is likely that we will see integrated, enclosed cities to allow living without much exposure to the outside, possibly living underground.

Or maybe despite the accumulated CO2 damage, geoengineering might prove the cheapest solution to keep parts of the Earth cool enough to live. What I doubt is that we will all just give up and allow the effects of climate change to just wash over us without attempting to fight it, especially if profits are to be made.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Well, assuming the poles melt entirely, there will be something like 16 meters of sea level rise by 2300 CE, and another ~49 meters of sea level rise by 3600 CE. Right now, the average rate of sea level rise is 1.8 mm/year, or 0.18 m/century. The fact that we can rebuild ports and expect them to last a few years doesn’t mean that this assumption will hold in the future.

That’s why I don’t think anyone’s going to be building ports near sea level if we’re stupid enough to get the ice sheets melting entirely. Right now, we’re probably locked in for that 16 meters of sea level rise (that’s the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melting entirely. The rest of it comes from the East Antarctic ice sheet melting.

Comment by Heteromeles

Not really familiar with Mexico, but have the impression that contemporary Mexicans have a greater affinity for first nations than conquistadors/Europeans. If so, then a neo-Mayan or neo-Aztec culture is plausible.

Comment by SFreader

Well, yes and no. I agree that what I’ll call the indigenous peoples have a potentially enormous role to play in the future transformations of California. They’re already here, as farm laborers, and there is demand in some farming counties for trilingual translators in hospitals, because sometimes the farm workers who show up in local hospitals speak only an indigenous language (typically from southern Mexico or Guatemala), not Spanish or English. Potentially they can collectively help bring various Mexican crops and agricultural techniques north, and these campesinos may transform California agriculture.

That said, the high culture of the Mayans and Aztecs is dead and gone, so expecting neo-Aztec or neo-Mayan reconstructionists to take over California is akin to expecting neopagan druids to take over Scotland and to impose Celtic law. Where it gets interesting is with the narcos (check out books by Ioan Grillo, who I just heard on the radio). In the case of the narcos, they really are warlords, they do have increasing influence, and the violence they’re causing is sending thousands of refugees north. If one of them decides to worship, say Santa Muerte with Aztec-style rites, it might catch on, at least where he’s in power.

Comment by Heteromeles


Education levels (including tertiary) have surged in Mexico. Plus 45% of the population is under 25 years vs. 33% in the USA. Remember what this type of demographic profile did in/to the US.

Youthful idealism, energy and search for identity could easily resolve itself via marrying new and old achievements/ pride. And there’s some support for this, but you’ll have to look north of the US to Canada. (FYI – Canada recently elected a record 10 indigenous members to Parliament, including its newly appointed Justice and Attorney General of Canada.) Unless this government goes down in flames over the next couple of years, it’s likely that public support/agreement that indigenous cultures have value/merit in the modern world is likely to increase.

Although Mexico no longer collects ethnicity in its census, (I’m guessing) that the majority of the population can claim at least a trace of indigenous background. And, as recently seen in Canada, it is possible to reclaim one’s ethnic heritage and be a modern people/society.

FYI – My background is western & eastern European stewed in North America. From my experience at extended family and cultural community get-togethers/events, cultural pride is based on cherry-picking the best of the old and of the contemporary. Modern-day Greeks still take pride in being the cultural (if not blood) descendants of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, etc. Ditto modern day Brits and Boadicea. No reason why the same cannot be true of Mexicans.

Comment by SFreader

Note: Context of my thinking is ancient Mexican floating farms (Xochimilco) and communal farming which is still in practice vs. the blood sports and human sacrifices.

Comment by SFreader

I’m not sure if we would see many city states in California, to be honest. I imagine that California would become far hotter and drier, to the point where there would be little freshwater in the entire area. I presume there would be some fishing villages near the coast, but even then I’m not sure because people would probably not be remotely close to the coast in any case.

I would guess that California would be mostly unsettled, with maybe just a few forager types living in greater isolation. Maybe there could be a Native American resurgence, where they feel that its their time again or something.

Comment by Whachamacallit

I think CA will be supplying city water by extensive recycling plus desalination. Agriculture will suffer as we get drier, especially once the aquifers are drawn down. I see no reason why coastal cities won’t survive, even if they are like New Orleans. We have an example in Venice, that despite its negligence in the past, is floating the old buildings along the canals and using pontoon dams to prevent the worst of the flooding of St Marks sq. Wealthier cities will make different decisions on what to save and what to abandon.

While 16m of sea level rise is a lot, I see no reason why we cannot adapt ports using floating docks and cranes, rather than anchored ones we have today. Or dyke ports. Whether we do so will depend on the resources and politics of the time. I tend to be optimistic that modern humans will apply solutions, rather than just abandon infrastructure. It will be instructive to see which cities save themselves. Miami looks like doing nothing, and there is nowhere for residents to retreat to in Florida. NY in contrast is already talking about how to dyke the city. This may be a “red vs blue” state attitude. We’ll see.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Yeah, this is a myth that needs to be busted. With severe climate change, southern California will indeed become a true desert (due to the northern edge of the Hadley Cell moving north), groundwater will be depleted in the Central Valley and elsewhere. However, northern California rainfall and temperature will probably increase to tropical levels. The last time the world was as hot as this (the Paleocene and PETM), the fossils show there was a tropical rainforest in central Oregon.

Even in southern California, rain will fall on the mountains. The streams flowing out of those mountains are largely dammed at the moment, but where there’s water, there’s life.

There will almost certainly be foragers. However, it’s not as simple as “the Indians come back” because they don’t really have a cultural tool kit for this situation any more than we do.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’m aware of the fact that the world would generally get wetter, but I was under the impression that northern California would still be in a rainshadow and thus would still be dry. Guess I was wrong though. And sure, rain will fall on mountains, but the rains will likely be seasonal and without glaciers providing a consisent source, most-if not all-rivers will be ephemeral, so it probably would still be a pretty crappy place to make city states, unless those city states are extremely good at water conservation.

And by “Indians coming back”, I meant more as a political movement than some weird noble savage statement. I was thinking that over the late 21st and 22nd century, Native Americans may get a “It’s Our Turn Now” movement that sees various tribes act more aggressive as the federal and state governments start to lose control and at least attempt to retake some land from European Americans.

Comment by Whachamacallit

We’re basically in agreement, I suspect. It’s worth remembering that the redwoods are in California, and that part of the state receives ca. 40″ of rain in a normal year. The north coast already hosts rain forests, but they’re temperate, not tropical. What makes the Sacramento Valley drier is the rain shadow of the coast ranges, but even then, they currently get 26 inches.

As for the Indians, I’m certainly planning on talking about them in the model.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’ve been thinking about this lately, and I don’t see a division into east and west as much as north and south. There are a lot of little towns along the Canadian border which have decent water supplies and nearby resources. For example, there was a lot of mining in NE Washington State around the turn of the century and most of the mining towns are abandoned, but with modern techniques we could probably revive those mines. There is abundant water and some farming – mainly fruit trees at this point – plus considerable land above the two-thousand foot level. So I’d expect to see a sort of “Northern Frontier” developing in Washington, Idaho, Minnesota, North Dakota, etc.

If someone took a long view and started shipping solar panels, machine tools, and textbooks up to some of the existing small towns it might make a big difference in what the U.S. is like in a hundred years. Any thoughts about this?

Comment by Troutwaxer

I think you’re quite right on the location. As for shipping tech, the big issue is obsolescence, in that it will become increasingly useful decades and centuries from now, not years. There are some interesting sociopolitical issues with that part of the world too, and if I understand right, there are survivalists there all ready, which is both a good and a bad thing.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’m not sure about the timeline. If I understand the science correctly, things are happening on the global-warming front much faster than anyone expected, such that our official reports/predictions are essentially the “best case scenario.” I’m very much a pessimist and expect that Southern California (where I live) will see refugees from Florida and Louisiana before 2040 and hit 3-4 degrees C by around 2050-60. Anyone who wants to migrate north or purchase property along the border will be doing so in the next 20-30 years if they don’t want to be newcomers (or worse, plain ol’ refugees) when the bad stuff starts happening.

As for tech, I imagine that the process of putting together an organization that can fill a hundred little towns with books and equipment, figuring out the farming/ranching issues, plus handling the local political problems will take a couple decades, so what tech to send north can be carefully planned in the next few years if anyone wants to take on this particular project.

My personal preference is to use older tech with adequate spares; the modern stuff is very good and interfaces well with computers, but I’m not sure about quality or how easy it is to repair without access to a high-tech civilization with a long logistics tail. The stuff from the sixties and seventies, while limited, is very tough and doesn’t require chips or transistors. My expectation is that a northern society in a bad warming scenario will probably have to gear down, at least for the first few decades.

Comment by Troutwaxer

There will be a lot of new shallow sea areas- a lot of this could be exploited and farmed – with planted and managed crops, and the aquatic equivalent of livestock?

If the farms become sea, it’s sea farming time?

Comment by Phil K

Well, if we don’t figure it out in the next few decades, such technology won’t be available. Things like fish ponds and managed clam beds might work, assuming there’s enough people to do the work. One thing to realize is that there will be a mass extinction, and it will hit oceanic species as much as it hits the land.

Comment by Heteromeles

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