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 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