Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Them Bones: Mother Nature Shows a Little Mercy

(For the previous entry in this series, click here.)

Them Bones, 53-59:

Weather plays a more important role in Them Bones than in most SF novels. Waldrop doesn't let the Sun People, or Bessie and her archaeologist colleagues, forget that they live at the mercy of powerful natural forces: flooding rivers, irate mammoths, and powerful storms. That Nature is more merciful than Man one can infer from the fate that befell Madison Leake's twenty-first-century contemporaries, who conquered the natural world and then destroyed themselves. As long as human beings respect Nature's power, natural forces can cut them a little slack.

Madison's fourth chapter begins with a natural disaster in the making: a violent storm approaching the Sun People's town: a “huge black thunderhead,” glittering with lightning. The townsfolk have differing attitudes toward the storm: members of the Buzzard Cult welcome its destructive force, chanting and “rocking” on their feet in a ritual reminiscent of the Ghost Dance (p. 56), while others join Sun Man in praying to the Woodpecker. Took and Sunflower are otherwise preoccupied, as Sunflower has begun birthing her child.

The storm begins, and Waldrop lays on the effects pretty thick. The great cloud rolls over the town, revealing a green and violet underside. The rain comes in sheets, accompanied by thunder “loud as a 155” (55). (Given that Private Leake is narrating the chapter, I assume he means a 155mm artillery piece.) Lightning lances down, igniting several huts and detonating the temple. Sun Man stops chanting long enough to organize a fire brigade. Chilled air rolls in and a hailstorm begins. "We don't have weather like that where I'm from," Madison laconically notes. I take it he was from one of the coasts - even today, the Midwest and Mississippi Valley can have storms just this violent.

In the midst of the storm Madison sees Sunflower, and the midwife, and a small, covered bundle that Sunflower carries in her arms, very quietly. Waldrop doesn't tell us what has happened to the baby. We don't need to guess.

The rain abruptly shuts off, and the silence becomes so profound that Leake can hear crickets, flames, people splashing through puddles. Then he sees what has interrupted the storm: the massive, serpentine length of a tornado uncoiling from the cloudbank, headed straight for town.

Madison, moved by what force Waldrop does not say, drags Sunflower to the summit of the temple mound and displays her dead baby to the storm, as if to say “Enough!” And at this point Waldrop segues, not for the last time, from sci-fi into magic realism. 

The tornado, which has been sucking up “trees, alligators, fish, boulders” (58) now misses the town – the funnel cloud lifts off the ground, glides over the temple and houses, and sets down off to the north. Everyone sees “a huge flat sheet of light," possibly lightning, more likely a magical special effect, "envelop[ing]" the temple and its surroundings. The storm, as subtropical storms often do, abates quickly. 

Spared from destruction, the townsfolk proceed to the temple to give thanks. All except Madison and Took and Sunflower, who know what they have lost.

Coming next: Bessie learns of the mounds' mythic past.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

No Galactic Civilization for You (Part Three)

If population pressure won't push human beings out of the Solar System, and the pursuit of mineral wealth won't carry us far (before compound interest overtakes us), our concern for species survival might still propel us across the galaxy. Last spring Stephen Hawking made a public statement in favor of interstellar exploration and colonization, arguing that humans should not “keep all our eggs in one fragile basket.” Without extrasolar colonies, all of humanity could succumb to a local extinction-level event like a gamma-ray burst or asteroid collision.

While I agree with Professor Hawking's sentiment, I believe that finding a haven for humans and other terrestrial species – I assume we'll want to save them too – will prove quite difficult, and take much time and expense. Extrasolar planets are more common than we used to think, but terrestrial life forms will need water, Earthlike gravity (too much or too little will fatally stress circulatory and skeletal systems), and a breathable atmosphere, conditions which we will only find on a small minority of planets. The third condition poses the real problem: free oxygen is rare without some sort of indigenous life form, presumably carbon-based, to generate it. Alien life would excite and stimulate us intellectually, but presents colonists with problems. It may generate prions and allergens and other toxins deadly to humans, or to the Earthly creatures we bring. It probably will not be biologically simpatico with terrestrial organisms, products as we are of several billion years of separate evolution under an alien sun, so we will have to replace it with our own imported species, which raises serious ethical questions. If somehow we find alien species which we could safely eat or exploit, they may not want to coexist peacefully – they may want to eat us, and may become quite good at it, as Robert Wilson posited in one of my favorite SF novels.

Building settlements on a lifeless alien world, or terraforming a near-Earthlike one, comprise possible alternatives, but more expensive ones than colonizing a planet with free air and water. Of course such worlds already exist relatively nearby, in our own Solar System.

The question with which I started this series is “Will humans colonize the galaxy?” and while I obviously can't provide a definite answer, I still don't think we will have a motive to do so. Finding a single extrasolar biosphere haven for humans and dolphins and penguins and brine shrimp and other Earthly creatures is a worthy and even necessary goal, and in the longer term we will probably need two or three of them as extinction insurance. I don't think we'll need a galaxy full of them, and since we'll have to travel a long distance and spend a lot of resources to find and colonize a suitable New Earth, limited need and high expense will keep the number of them small.