The Mathematics of Persuasion

By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, December 6, 2015

I’m fascinated by the idea of society changing. This week it was announced that women will have access to all combat roles in the U. S. military. It wasn’t many years ago that would have been unthinkable. It’s less than 100 years since women got the vote in the United States, and now we could be close to having a woman President. Or think about the cultural shift of same-sex marriages. I’m already seeing charming ads by wedding planners running photos that feature a man and a woman, woman and woman and man and man couples. There’s also a lot of movement to legalize marijuana in various states. Society seems to be changing fast. But in other ways, it doesn’t. Even though we have a black President race relations are still very troubled. Sometimes I think culture can change fast, but not necessarily individuals.

chessboard growth

This makes me wonder about how an idea gets converts, and how fast a society can transform with a new idea. If one person takes up a new belief and convinces one other person, and they convince one other person, how long before it changes society? Of course, that depends on the frequency of conversion. But if one person converts two, and the two convert four, it would only take 30 doublings to covert all Americans to a new idea, or 34 for the world. See the classic rice on chessboard legend. If each doubling took a year, it would take three decades, but if it took a week, it would take less than a year.

Think about ideas that are emerging now. One that I’m interested in is the plant-based diet. My cholesterol numbers have gotten much better since I started that diet. I’ve lost weight, feel much better, and have much less inflammation. This convinced two of my friends to try it. Most people love to eat meat, but what if eating a plant-based diet turns out to be proven path to health? How long before half the country goes vegan? Most people will scoff at that idea as being downright silly. But it was only 150 years ago that this country had slavery, women couldn’t vote, cars didn’t exist, we didn’t have the income tax, and most folks died of things we consider curable today.

Things change. How long did it take abolitionists in the 19th century to enlighten enough people to change the country? How long will it take environmentalists to convince the world that climate change is something we need to stop?

I wish I knew the mathematics to answer this question: What is the difference between one person making one convert a year, or two converts a year, or three, four, five, or more? Social movements are built around people changing their minds and becoming converts. However, it’s also about old believers dying off. The growth of atheism and agnosticism is mainly due to older believers dying. That suggest that some changes takes a life-time.

I’m reading a tremendous book right now, Countdown by Alan Weisman, that is about overpopulation. Weisman reports from over twenty countries how different cultures view population growth, and their various approaches to sustaining ever growing populations with dwindling resources, in a world where the environment is collapsing. There is no question that we’re on a doomed path. The question is whether or not the mathematics of persuasion even has time to work.

I am writing a series of essays about how I’m looking for signs of hope for the future. So far, the only solution I can find is for seven billion people to change the way they live. Humans do change, but can they change fast enough to solve all the problems we face before we’re forced to live in a post-apocalyptic world? It’s no longer about surviving climate change, that’s just one of many of our problems, and I’m no longer sure it’s even our most threatening problem. Exponential growth, which the world economy depends on, is about to hit the wall. Probably before 2050, or even 2030.

Remember that old domino theory about communism? Well, communism wasn’t the problem, collapsing civilization is what we need to watch. Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, are the early dominos. Americans pay very little attention to what’s going on in other countries, unless they host a war that concerns us. But look how a war in Syria is affecting Europe. Keep an eye on Pakistan. Start counting the countries that are collapsing, and why. What would happen if Mexico collapsed? Pay attention to all the countries that have extremely high unemployment.

We can solve our problems if we can master the mathematics of persuasion. Unfortunately, we have built economic growth on a different set of mathematics which doesn’t equate with the mathematics of a sustainable environment. It’s like the Standard Model and Gravitation, they don’t seem to be related, but should be. We need to build an economy based on using less, and sharing more. That can’t be communism, even the Chinese have learned that. But it can’t be capitalism either. Socialism only solves some of the problem capitalism fails to solve. We need a whole new model. Probably some kind of steady-state capitalism mixed with socialism and environmentalism. But to transform society will require changing how seven billion people live. Is that even possible? We have nothing yet, so convert number 1 is waiting. And even if we had an answer, how fast can we go from 1 to 7 billion?


Defining Science Fiction by Analyzing NBC’s New Show Revolution

It’s very hard to define the term “science fiction,” a topic often discussed in my science fiction book club.  Searching the web reveals endless essays on the topic.  It’s not possible to come up with a one-size-fits all definition for science fiction.  I’m going to take another approach.  I’m going to analyze the new show Revolution point by point, and say which parts I think are science fiction and which I think are fantasy.


Revolution is about a family thrown into a dark world of a collapsed civilization.  The show begins 15 years after a worldwide blackout with a father dying, a son being kidnapped and the daughter seeking her long lost uncle Miles to help her rescue her brother.  The daughter, Charlie Matheson, played by Tracy Spiridakos is a kind of less hard, less savvy, Katniss Everdeen, so the story carries on the current vogue of girl action heroes.  Miles Matheson is played by Billy Burke and he’s your standard action guy.  This is why I loved Breaking Bad so much, none of the characters were cookie cutter clichés.

Strangely enough, the medium level bad guy in Revolution is Giancarlo Espositio playing Tom Neville, a ruthless, but sometimes coldly kind, captain of a militia, who previously played a ground breaking character in Breaking Bad, Gustavo “Gus” Fring, who was also ruthless with a strange tinge of cold kindness.  You’d think Espositio would have tipped the Revolution writers not to go for the obvious, and make him different.  I fear such a wonderful actor will get typecast.


Revolution pictures our world without electrical power or electronic gadgets – a powerful “What if…” scenario.  We’re all so depended on computers and electricity that it’s an intellectual adventure to pretend to live in a time of 18th century technology.   Revolution hints that some kind of force field is capable of dampening all electronics, and even electricity production.  Science knows solid state electronics are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses (EMP) that are generated as a byproduct of nuclear explosions.  However, mechanical turbines should continue to work, and even old fashioned tube electronics might continue to work with EMP fields.

There is no science to suggest that such a energy dampening force field is possible.  It’s just a writer’s gimmick to advance the story.  Does that make Revolution a fantasy?  It’s a damn cool idea, but so is a school for wizards.  In other words, I have to say the premise of Revolution is fantasy.

In Revolution, there is a reason why and how the power got turned off. Revolution’s creators are holding that back as a mystery, like the mystery of the island in Lost. Mystery is one of the prime movers of fiction, so you can’t blame them for holding back, but I’m worried I’m going to be disappointed, like I did with Lost. Unless they come up with other mysteries, I doubt I’ll keep watching.  Bad Robot Productions, the company that made Lost, and produces Revolution, does have a track record for upping the mystery ante every week.

The mystery of who has killed off the power isn’t very science fictional to me. For it to be really science fictional, it has to be plausible, so we think, “Could this really happen?” When Jules Verne and H. G. Wells wrote stories about men traveling to the Moon, people did think, “Hey, that might be possible, what will it be like, and how will they do it?” That’s science fiction.

Contrast Revolution with The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi which is set in the 22nd century after fossil fuels have been used up, after global warming has changed every thing, and after crop monoculture and genetically modified agriculture has failed.  In The Windup Girl Bacigalupi develops kinetic energy machines using springs.  This same technology would work in the world of Revolution, but so far we haven’t seen any ideas like this, and I’m not sure the Bad Robot people think this way.

If the Bad Robot Production people had been truly creative, they would have taken the same scenario and come up with a totally new post apocalyptic society – one without electricity, but very creative.  They would have envisioned new forms of mechanical power, the return of sailing ships and dirigibles, funky new bicycles, rocket powered airships, and new forms of animal power.  They could have had computers like Babbage dreamed about, and new art forms not depended on digital media.  That’s what science fiction is about.  What they gave us is Mad Max Lite.

Post Apocalyptic World

Post apocalyptic fiction is one of my favorite sub-genres of science fiction, and for two reasons.  First, I love how an author imagines people surviving the collapse of civilization.  Second, thinking about how to rebuild civilization offers countless intellectual puzzles for my mind.  Now that’s some good clean science fictional fun.

Revolution is just a post apocalyptic fantasy that allows guys to fight with swords.  At least so far.  Why are guns rare but swords plentiful?  How did they gear up for sword production so fast?  I know I’ve only seen two episodes and the science fiction world building has been slight – mostly using stock after-the-collapse imagery.  In fact, they seem to have gotten most of their imagery from Life Without People.

Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction has a very long history which Revolution must be judged against.  When I saw the show announced this summer I had hoped for a television version of Earth Abides or The Day of the Triffids, or the British TV series SurvivorsRevolution is closer to The Postman by David Brin, more about adventure and less about the details of survival, or efforts to rebuild civilization.  Both feature a ruthless militia leader trying to start a post-civilization empire.

Now, this political subject is a honest science fictional topic.  Rebuilding our society after we’ve mined all the easily available resources is a scientific challenge worthy of much speculation.  However, in the first two episodes, Revolution hasn’t dealt with scarcity.  At one point Charlie’s Uncle Miles, tries to bribe someone with a small chunk of metal, which I assume we’re to think of as gold.  Gold nuggets are very rare, what gold we mine nowadays is molecules of gold processed from tons of ore.

What people use for money in Revolution’s apocalyptic world is a fascinating idea to explore, but so far the show ignores the issue, other than this one transaction with a tiny lump of yellow metal.  Good science fiction will explore all aspects of a possible future.  Revolution takes a Indiana Jones approach to the story, using slight of hand on facts, and diverting viewer’s mind with action and violence.

We have to ask ourselves:  Is a story science fiction if it’s set in a science fictional setting?  I don’t think so.  We are told Miles Matheson is a man who is good at killing people.  Miles’ abilities to fight are so unbelievable that they remind me of the recent Sylvester Stallone action flick, The Expendables 2.  That makes me think Revolution is more inspired by video games than science fiction books.  It’s appeal is to would-be first person shooters than folks who like to read speculative fiction about possible futures.

I wish Revolution’s level of violence was more like Breaking Bad’s, and it focused more on clever plots with interesting science fiction speculation.

Population Dying Off

If the power went off all over our world, how long could we support 7 billion people?  Revolution doesn’t even try to answer that question.  It skips 15 years immediately.  There’s some flashbacks, but no explanations.  The starting point of most collapse of civilization stories are a plague that kills off most of the population, or nuclear war that kills off most of the population, or aliens from space that kill off most of the people, or some kind of natural or cosmic calamity that kills off most everyone.  Revolution looks like the population took a major beating, but we’re not shown how.

I’m currently reading The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, another literary look at the end of the world, much like The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Now this is real science fiction in my mind.  The Dog Stars is serious, philosophical, speculative, and worthy to be called science fiction in my book.  Revolution is decent fun without any real thinking involved.  That’s a shame.  For a story to kill off billions of people there should be more details.

In Revolution most of the population has disappeared and we don’t know why.  The writers obviously wanted a low population Earth for the story but hasn’t explained how everyone died.  In other words, after the collapse stories are so common in the mundane world that the producers don’t even feel the need to explain.  They are using a post apocalyptic world as a setting, just like Star Wars used a galactic empire as a setting.  There’s no science fiction speculation in either, so just accept the premise.  Revolution is an action adventure story set in a realistic but unscientific world.

Surviving the Collapse

I’m disappointed with Revolution because it makes no effort to show people surviving.  Everyone has plenty to eat, clean clothes without having to wash them, there’s no worry about diseases or bad water.  After 15 years, how good will clothes look?  There’s no effort to show how people make new clothes.  I don’t expect Mad Max fashions, but the show should speculate some, at least.

The plot is driven by Danny Matheson’s kidnapping.  Our characters don’t seemed challenged by any other problem.  The two episodes involved plots to set the stage so Miles can kill a bunch of people, and convince Charlie that killing is the way to operate.  The only survival going on is whether the audience won’t be killed off watching Billy Burke kill a dozen tough guys every episode.

Cliché Science Fiction

Whenever I read a new science fiction novel, or watch a new science fiction show I hope to discover a new idea or perspective. It’s hard to come up with a totally original idea nowadays. There just are too many fiction factories out there.  Barring originality I look for creative style – if you can’t deliver a new idea, at least present a mash-up old ideas in a new way.

Science fiction has become as formulaic as a murder mystery. I believe most SF fans find comfort by embracing their favorite sub-genres so writers cater to ever more baroque presentations of the same old ideas, creating Über-clichés. Revolution is merely the current incarnation of a long line of stories about the breakdown of civilization. Some reviewers call it dystopian, but I disagree. The original meaning of dystopia was an anti-utopia. In modern parlance dystopian has come to mean any unpleasant future. That’s a corruption of the original intent of the world. Nineteen Eighty-Four was a dystopian novel because the government of Big Brother was suppose to represent a view of communism, which before Stalin was seen by many intellectuals as a utopian ideal, but Orwell speculated communism would be hell instead of heaven.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was dystopian because it was anti-utopian. Revolution isn’t anti anything. Revolution uses a cliché science fictional setting to create an action adventure story. Collapsed civilizations are a good way to create a setting for rationalized violence, like westerns.  Post apocalyptic stories are good for creating situations where your character can kill a lot of people.  Audiences can’t seem to get enough of that kind of violence.

The proper categorization of Revolution is post-apocalyptic science fiction, which covers stories about the aftermath of collapse of our current civilization.  A common cliché within apocalyptic fiction is freemen versus brutal militias.   So Revolution is a sub-sub-genre.

To further complicate the problem all new fictional creations must compete with the most creative works at the moment. Taking on a new TV show for me, means finding something to watch that competes with my recent favorites, Breaking Bad, Friday Night Lights and Glee.

Watching the first episode of Revolution was a big letdown for me. Oh, it still has possibilities. But most great shows have fantastic first episodes, and Revolution’s was just ho-hum.  I did watch the 2nd episode and will watch the 3rd.  I have hope.  Revolution does have possibilities.

On the big screen they usually go for bigger and bigger action, usually involving saving the world. That’s an expensive proposition for a TV show, but Revolution has a very large scope.  There’s room for lots of action and speculation.  Let’s hope there is less of the former and more of the latter.

JWH – 9/25/12

Survivors (BBC 1975-1977)

Ever since I gave up cable TV years ago I’ve discovered I really love finding a TV series and watching it from the first to last episode.  Preferably from Netflix streaming, but DVDs are an okay second choice.  Watching a complete TV series is like enjoying a very long novel.  I listen to novels all the time, so I’m used to their length in hours.  Average novels are 10-20 hours.  Recently I listened to Anna Karenina and it was 42 hours.  I’ve just finished 38 episodes of Survivors which ran on the BBC for three seasons (series as they say) from 1975 till 1977.  Each episode was slightly less than an hour, so the entire run was equal to one long novel.  It’s a shame actual novels aren’t filmed this way.

Survivors is a post-apocalyptic story set in England about a handful of people who survive a world-wide plague.  In the course of the story we hear that only 1 person in 5,000 survived, another time they guessed 1 in 10,000.  This plague is far more virulent than the famous Black Plague of the middle ages.  Viewers assume the plague was engineered as a bio-weapon from the opening credits.


In the first season Greg, Jenny and Abby each find themselves alone among the dead.  They strike out on their own with very different plans but they eventually meet up and work to survive together.  Most of the episodes deal with finding food, encountering other bands of survivors with different agendas for surviving, wild dogs and rats, and much talk about how to start civilization all over again.  The driving plot of the first season is Abby’s desperate need to find her son who was away at boarding school when the death came.  Greg and Jenny agree to help her enthusiastically at first, but as the season progresses and chances dim, become reluctant to keep traveling.

In the second season, Jenny and Greg have settled with others on a farm and the season is about rebuilding civilization at the rural level.  Charles, a new main character replaces Abby.  Each episode deals with various post-apocalyptic issues, like having babies, finding medicine, fighting roving bands of thugs, producing methane for tractor fuel, handling dysfunctional people, how to decide who does what jobs, making alliances with other settlements, developing trade, and so on.  Many fans didn’t like this season because the action slows.  Stories are about raising sheep and cabbages.  I actually like the second season quite a lot.  Each episode dealt with true post-apocalyptic problems.

For the last season, Jenny, Greg and Charles travel most of the season seeing other settlements, promoting trade, and hoping to get electricity going again.  Our characters do a lot of horseback riding around rural England and Scotland.  Fans felt the action picked up in the third season. 

It’s too bad this show is 1970s television technology because the bucolic scenery, old manor houses, and rustic farms would have been beautiful in modern high definition.  There was a 2008 remake of Survivors that only ran for two short seasons that gives us a taste of what could have been.  The original series never had big production values but that never bothered me because after-the-collapse stories are among my favorite fictional themes, and living is inherently low tech in such a scenario.

Overall, I really enjoyed Survivors, which is only available on DVD through Netflix, so I had to wait patiently for each new disc.  Sadly, the discs are old and scratched so I don’t know how much longer they will be available.  There is a 6-disc set of the entire three seasons at Amazon that came out in 2010, but I wonder how long they will stay in print.  Plus the set is on 5 double-sided “flippy” DVDs and 1 single sided DVD.  In England and Australia the set was on 11 single sided discs.  I consider it bad form, lack of respect and cheapness to put shows on double-sided DVDs, which keeps me from buying it.  I enjoyed the series enough that I know I’ll want to watch them again in the future, but I don’t want to buy it with flippy discs. 

Evidently this show still has lots of fans in England, but it’s little known in America.  That’s too bad because it’s a intriguing show.  It’s not fantastic, but it is thought provoking and I liked the characters.  I was sad they fired Carolyn Seymour who played Abby at the end of the first season.  And many appealing secondary characters get killed – but hey, that’s what life would be like after the collapse.  Survivors introduced many secondary characters over the course of the three seasons, several of which I really got to like before they disappeared or were killed off.

The show had lots of room to grow because of all these additional characters, and I’m sorry the producers and writers didn’t explore their lives more.  Instead of 13 episode seasons the concept could easily have supported 26 episode per year, and the entire show could have run five or six years without running out of interesting topics to pursue.  But then I like technical stuff.  I’d gladly would have watched several episodes about getting the steam trains running again, or getting tractors to run off of methane.  The 1970s was a big back to nature era and this show would have been perfect for the Mother Earth News crowd.

To me, the Gold Standard of post-apocalyptic novels is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart.  In England I assume it’s The Day of the Triffids.  Only Earth Abides takes its story into the third generation after the collapse.  When they remade Survivors in 2008, they should have started with the second or third generation after the original 1975-1977 series.  The actors who play Abby, Jenny and Greg are still alive, so it would be interesting to see them reprise their roles as grandparents.  Instead they modernize the original series and brought in a ridiculous secret government program.

Since Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, every generation has imagined what life would be like if civilization collapsed.  The list of novels is long, and there have been many movies dealing with the theme, but there have been few television shows covering the topic. Survivors, both 1975 and 2008, are the standouts, along with Jericho from 2006-2008.

JWH – 7/8/12

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker–A Powerful Literary Science Fiction Novel

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker came out June 26th and it’s already getting tremendous press.



I listened to the audio edition with pitch-perfect narration by Emily Janice Card.  The Age of Miracles is a science fiction novel told in first person by eleven-year-old Julia, so it feels like another science fiction YA novel, but it’s not marketed as either as SF or YA, and it’s far from another hit young adult novel for adults.  It’s a literary novel about a young girl witnessing the Earth undergoing a catastrophic change called “the slowing.”  Earth begins to slow its spin.  Before the novel is over the Earth’s day is over twice as long.


As soon as I saw the announcement for this book I knew I had to read it.  If you loved The Lovely Bones or The Secret Life of Bees, there’s a good chance you’ll love The Age of Miracles.  However, if you loved Earth Abides, The Day of the Triffids, Alas, Babylon, there’s also a good chance you’ll love this novel.  If you ever wished Catcher in the Rye had been science fiction, then this book is for you.  When The Age of Miracles is pitched to movie producers I’m sure they’ll summarize it like this:  coming of age in the apocalypse.

The editorial reviews collected at rave about this book.  The customer reviews are a bit mixed, with most people loving it, and a few people complaining, some rather bitterly.  A few complainers weren’t expecting a YA novel.  Other complainers object to the science.  I too had trouble with some of the science, but I think Karen Thompson Walker is right in that we’d weigh more if the Earth’s spin slowed.  For those people objecting to her science, just read “If the Earth Stood Still” and you’ll realize Thompson is up on the details.

But I’m not sure the details of the science are important to this story – science fiction has often been wrong about science.  The Age of Miracles is an allegory about how nature turns against us and how we respond.

The Age of Miracles is more literary than YA – there are no teenagers fighting to the death on television.  It’s more literary than science fiction, it’s not about heroic astronauts trying to save the world.  The narrator is telling her story from years later, after the events, so we know she survives.  The Age of Miracles is a very simple tale, a coming of age story set against our world falling apart.

The defining issue with any end-of-the-world novel is how people react.  I can’t help believe that the slowing is a metaphor for global warming, but don’t let that stop you from reading The Age of Miracles if you’re on the wrong side of that political question. The Age of Miracles is science fiction at its best because it’s all about sense of wonder.  I’ve always found tremendous sense of wonder in end of the world novels.  These novels aren’t predicting gloom and doom, but exploring how people face the immensity of reality.

Julia is just an eleven-year-old kid that has a mother and father, a few friends, a music teacher, and a sheltered life where’s she shy and timid, but like most kids her age, wants to fit in.  Half of The Age of Miracles is about Julie coping with normal life.  The other half is about coping with a world going through a lot of scary changes.  The people in this story decide to fight their fears by leading ordinary lives.  This is not a post-apocalyptic novel with Mad Max type warriors.  This is the end of the world coming to suburbia, soccer moms and mini-vans.

Most of the classic end of the world SF novels came from the cold war era.  The Age of Miracles is maybe what J. G. Ballard would have written about the Internet Age facing the apocalypse if he was channeling Harper Lee.

End of the world novels usually draw the reader in by getting them to imagine what they would do in the same situation.  The Age of Miracles is different.  I’m 60, and I’m being asked to imagine how an 11 year-old would see things.  It’s a powerful motif.  I can’t help but wonder how young people feel today growing up and imagining what global warming will bring.

In the past decade there have been a number of literary novels that used science fictional plots and they have been very successful.  In fact, they have generally kicked genre butt.  Stories like The Road, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Cloud Atlas, Never Let Me Go, The Sparrow brought deep characterization and a sense of realism to very far out ideas.  I can’t help but wonder if would-be literary writers haven’t noticed that pairing literary style with the fantastic sells, especially if it also appeals to both the YA and adult readers.

I can only speculate why Karen Thompson Walker wrote The Age of Miracles, but whether intentionally or by accident, she’s hit on a perfect combination of literary and science fiction styles.  Is Ms. Walker a science fiction reader trained in a MFA program?  Or is she a literary writer influenced by all the science fiction in our society.  There’s a good chance that the science fiction genre played no part in influencing the writing of her story.  Did George Orwell need to read SF before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four?  We could assume Karen Thompson Walker is like Michael Chabon and attempts to live in both the literary and SF genre worlds.

Maybe Ms. Thompson is even more savvy than that.  Maybe she wanted to write about global warming and knew the topic would turn off many readers, so she developed the slowing as a stand-in.  If she did, it will be just as effective for making people think about our future.

I bet there will be a lot of literary and science fiction writers wishing they had written The Age of Miracles.  I’m sure it’s going to spawn a lot of imitators.

JWH – 7/5/12

Surviving the Collapse of Civilization – The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

This month, my book club is reading The Day of the Triffids, the 1951 novel by John Wyndham and the response is overwhelmingly enthusiastic.  We seldom agree so much.  Many people consider it one of their all-time favorite novels and relate memories of first discovering the book as a kid.  I’m not sure I read The Day of the Triffids before, but I have vague memories that I might, but nothing distinctive.  I used to read SF paperbacks like eating popcorn, and I remember reading a stupid book about plants killing off people.  The Day of the Triffids is not stupid, and the mature me loves it, but how many SF novels have been about killer plants?  Memory is so unreliable. 

The Day of the Triffids is a classic that has been filmed once, made into two television mini-series, been adapted to radio twice, and has another movie version in the planning.  The Day of the Triffids is a popular novel because the subject has wide appeal:  What if you wake up and everyone else is dead?  My favorite of this sub-category of science fiction is Earth Abides by George R. Stewart from 1949.  John Wyndham adds a couple of twists that make The Day of the Triffids more dramatic.  First, our hero Bill Masen wakes up in the hospital with his eyes bandaged recovering from surgery, but no one comes to help him that morning and he hears all kinds of weird noises that worry him.  Eventually he takes off his bandages and he can see, but he discovers most everyone else is blind.  Civilization quickly collapses, people die, diseases run rampant, and a weird walking plant starts attacking people and eating them.


Yeah, the last is a bit much.  That’s what I remember from reading this book as a kid, the triffids.  I thought them silly, but as an adult reader, I think Wyndham skillfully weaves them into the story in a realistic manner.  The triffids make life hell for the survivors who already have a bleak existence.  Personally, I’d have been perfectly pleased with the novel without the damn triffids, but the story is so riveting that I can accept them.

This book is about surviving the collapse of civilization.  I love that theme.  Earth Abides is one of my all time favorite novels, and I enjoyed the heck out of The Day of the Triffids, as well as other top books exploring this theme, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Postman by David Brin and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.   I’m also watching the 1975 BBC series Survivors and re-watching the 2008 remake – so this month I’m obsessed with being the last man on Earth (okay, among the last).

The Collapse of Civilization

To get you into the mood of these books watch Life After People, a documentary from The History Channel about how civilization would slowly decay if people suddenly disappeared.  Or the National Geographic’s Aftermath: Population Zero.  Or read The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

These documentaries and book show us what life on Earth would be like if everyone suddenly disappeared.  The Day of the Triffids, Earth Abides, The Road, and the like, show what life on Earth would be like if only a few people survive.  It takes a lot of people to maintain civilization, and these stories show us just how dependent we are on each other.  In these novels, the survivors are the carrion eaters who dine of the body of civilization.

Every reader will fantasize what they would do in such a situation.  That’s why these books are so appealing.  There is no easy solution.  You can live off of canned food for so long.  Could you grow food, hunt, herd animals?  Can you make candles and clothes?  How?  What if someone else takes all the candle making books from the library before you do?

Then there’s the problem of other people.  You’d think for each million people being reduced to 100, everyone would care more about each other, but that’s not so.  Everybody has a different idea of how to run things – just watch the reality TV show Survivor.  It’s very hard to get along with other people when you have to work together under apocalyptic conditions.  There’s a reason why hippie communes failed.  And how do women feel when all men see them as baby factories?  Being Eve is a burden.  And if you have children, can you protect them from disease and danger, and feed and cloth them?

We have very cushy lives.  We have lots of free time.  We have lots of luxuries.  What if all of that went away?  Would you want to keep living?

These stories are usually based on the idea of a plague killing most people.  If AIDS had been an airborne virus, or if a strain of Ebola started spreading like the common cold, this kind of scenario could happen.  The Black Plague killed 30-60 percent of Europe between 1348 to 1350.  So the idea of most of the population suddenly dying off isn’t an unrealistic fantasy.  Mary Shelley probably started this genre in 1826 with The Last Man, and its been expanding ever since with post-apocalyptic fiction.  See this list of pandemic stories.  During the cold war in the 1950s two classics, Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and On the Beach by Nevil Shute, became huge world-wide bestsellers.  Being a survivor strikes a very deep chord.

Earth Abides and The Day of the Triffids were from 1949 and 1951.  Earth Abides deals with a natural pandemic, but The Day of the Triffids ultimately suggests our own bioengineering and nuclear weapons will be the cause of our destruction.  But the core message of each of these novels is civilization can come to an end, and even the human race.  The challenge to both the characters and readers is to imagine how civilization can be rekindled and preserved.   The Day of the Triffids brings up many philosophical and practical questions:

  • If everyone is dying, should the strong help the weak?
  • What if protecting the weak threatens the survival of the strong?
  • Is it stealing when stay alive means looting?
  • Does your survival justify killing other people?
  • Should women become baby factories?
  • Who deserves to be leaders?
  • How are group decisions made?
  • Does democracy still count?
  • How do you punish wrong doers in your group?
  • How do you raise the next generation?
  • Should you make kids go to school and learn what kids have to learn today?
  • What foods can you produce that can feed people 365 days a year?
  • What are the appropriate technologies for the new times?
  • What do you preserve from before the collapse?
  • How do you find other people?
  • How do you communicate over a distance?
  • How do you get news?

The fascinating facts of Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero is how long various products of civilization will last.  In 1951 power plants in London were probably coal fired, and as soon as the people stopped feeding the boilers, the city would have gone dark.  In modern America, automation would keep power plants going for awhile, maybe even weeks for sites like Hoover Dam.  But it’s very surprising how fast things break down and decay. 

Decaying cities is nicely reflected in The Day of the Triffids.  Wyndham did a lot of thinking about the idea.  He gives us several examples of how people would organize and disagree, and how various groups would attempt to rebuild civilization, including Christians hanging onto their old beliefs, and military men planning for the return of war.  That’s depressing because it suggests we won’t learn from the collapse.  I’d like to think that people would universally think, “Let’s not make the old mistakes again” and try something new.  But Wyndham, and Stewart, brilliantly suggest not.  They wisely see people as people, and people don’t change, but they do survive.

In all these stories, diverse characters push on through hardships for a myriad of reasons.  Some think about saving mankind, but many just think about getting what they want.  And they all go through different psychological stages, like the Five Stages of Grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), survivors have their own stages.

One of the first stages is denying that the collapse is universal and hoping they will be rescued, and in the case of The Day of the Triffids, the assumption is the Yanks will come to the rescue.  That’s a kind of denial.  Even when the characters realize the collapse is universal many keep asking “When things get back to normal?”  Another kind of denial.

It takes a while for each character to realize that things will never be back the same.  That their old lives are finished, and whatever their new lives will be is yet to be established.  Reaching this level of acceptance often takes them through the same stages as coming to grips with death.  Then they start working on rebirth and life after the collapse.

It is at this stage where Earth Abides outshines The Day of the Triffids.  Wyndham only goes so far with his story, but Stewart takes us into the second and third generation, and makes some brilliant observations.  I really wished that Wyndham had written a much longer book so we could see what happens for another fifty or hundred years.

I highly recommend reading The Day of the Triffids, even with the stupid plants.

JWH – 6/9/12

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