Rebuilding from the Stone Age is haaaaaaard…

The other week I read a marvellous short story by blogging friend Eric Wicklund, who posts extremely good stories on his blog. His setting involved a US carrier battle group, mysteriously transported to an alternate universe where magic worked. But so did twenty-first century tech, at least while it could be maintained.

The evil Hexan super-scientists attack the Earth ship Acturus with their deadly ravening rays in this scene from
The evil Hexan super-scientists attack the Earth ship Acturus with their deadly ravening rays in this scene from “Spacehounds of IPC”. Public domain, via Project Gutenberg.

The story got me thinking about the way modern technology is founded on inter-linked networks of technologies, machinery and so forth. Those inter-linkages have only become more complex as time goes on.

What would happen if they broke? That’s not new, of course, even in science fiction. One of my favourite books as a kid was E E ‘Doc’ Smith’s Spacehounds of IPC, a crazy tale of high-jinks and science first published as a serial in Amazing Stories in 1931. Today it’s of its time – we’d call it ‘dieselpunk’, I suppose. It had everything – evil Jovian super-scientists, ravening death rays (I’m not kidding about the adjective), refulgent energy shields (again…), pedicle-waving aliens, and a lot more, all in Smith’s trademark purple prose.

Much of the plot revolved around a computer – a word Smith used in its original sense of ‘somebody who does computations using paper and a slide rule’, named Percival Stevens, who was cast away on Ganymede with his girlfriend Nadia, in a self-propelled fragment of their spaceship after it had been sliced up by the Hexans (don’t ask).

Once on Ganymede, which was just like Earth, Stevens had to build a power plant to reactivate their motors, along with a radio to call for help –to do which he had to construct an industrial base, starting from ore dug out of the ground. Conveniently, apart from being a genius scientist-mathematician who knew how to smelt iron, build thermionic valves from scratch and so on, Stevens was also a champion archer, an expert at unarmed combat, and built like Hercules. So they got their chunk of spaceship working and dashed off to Saturn (which was just like Earth) where Stevens repaired a power plant needed by the friendly Titanians to defeat the vile Sedlor, before returning to Jupiter to face the evil Hexan super-scientists (who, themselves, were fighting a war against the Vorkuls…)

The whole plot was supremely silly and Robert Heinlein, apparently, had Smith on about the ‘desert island castaway’ sequence. Smith evidently insisted that it was plausible, and that he himself could do all the things he’d described.

I should add, for all the cheesiness of Spacehounds, it had a lot of real physics in it. Smith’s spacesuits were right – he anticipated the challenges faced 35 years later by ILC Dover when they made the Apollo moon suits. There’s a space battle sequence that remains the sole SF account I’ve ever seen to correctly describe the way of stopping energy (electromagnetic) weapons, per known physics principles (it involves frequencies).

None of this is surprising. Edward Elmer Smith was very smart – and he had a PhD, which was unusual in the 1930s outside universities. He worked as a food technologist and apparently was responsible for inventing a way of making sugar stick to doughnuts. He only became ‘Galaxy Smasher Smith’ of an evening, when he got home to his typewriter.

So yes, I think Smith was very well aware of just how monolithically corny his plots were.

The point is that virtually everything in Smith’s heyday – and everything we take for granted these days – is built on a wide and inter-connected technological base. The dependencies are often invisible. To build Product A relies on 500 other technologies, services and processes all working, including a transport network which itself is dependent on another 500 technologies.

Isolate the equipment from its support and you’re in trouble. Could you build a lithium-ion battery from scratch, starting with a shovel to dig up ore? Or a circuit board? Or a silicon chip? I couldn’t. How about a Pelton wheel? No?

It bears thinking about.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


6 thoughts on “Rebuilding from the Stone Age is haaaaaaard…

  1. It really is true. Once you start thinking about the dependencies of one industry, then you realize all the dependent industries have their own dependencies. Did I use the “D-Word” enough just now. It truly is mindboggling to consider everything you need just to make a simple can opener. It ain’t easy. It’s guys like E.E. “Doc” Smith and Robert Heinlein, Harry Harrison, and Keith Laumer who bring home to us just how complex civilization is. Often they remind us, just how crippled we are without it. It makes a body want to learn how to make fire without the use of a lighter. That’s why…I went out and did just that.

    1. It’s an issue that troubles us here in NZ because of the earthquake problem. I made the point in the book I wrote on it that our vulnerabilities have increased as time has gone on. High tech has left us more fragile than thecsettlers in this sense. They did, as routine, all the stuff from well digging to firefighting that our civil defence authorities list as emergency survival skills these days. It’s a serious problem: a guy I talked to in Canterbury University told me that when the next big quake happens on the Alpine Fault in the South Island, the west coast could be cut off for up to three months. No power and all road, rail and sea links damaged. Ouch.

  2. ‘Stevens had to build a power plant to reactivate their motors…’ As soon as I read this line I thought, I bet he doesn’t bother with all the mining and raw material extraction. BUt to give him credit Doc Smith was thinking ahead of me. His story may sound overblown, but I bet even today it would make a cracking film; not taken too seriously, something in the style of Indiana Jones (but in space).

    And the idea that all technology is interlinked reminds me that all nations are interlinked and that even large countries like the US, Russia and China are dependent on imports of raw materials for their industries and can’t be fully self-contained. No country can go it alone without co-operation from the outside world.

    1. It would be a brilliant movie. I hadn’t thought of it as Indiana Jones, but that’s exactly spot on! It would be especially good if done in the right ‘period’ deco stylings, which Smith effectively described the ‘dieselpunk’ look – the thick x-ray glasses worn by the scientists, the bronze and copper metallic look and the rest. All up-to-the-minute when he wrote the book, and now, of course, absolutely classic.

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