Funny Moments in Far-Flung Futures in Fiction

Yes, another “har har, look what they got wrong about the future” thread.

I’m slogging through The Passage by Justin Cronin (this year’s serious vampire book du jour) and he actually slips in a bunch of crazy little mistakes in two far-flung futures.

The first half of the book takes place in 2020 (before the vampire apocalypse) and features a little girl showing an aptitude for math when watching the “shopping for prizes” part of Wheel of Fortune. But Wheel of Fortune hasn’t used the “shopping for prizes” format since 1990. A little later, a character stumbles upon a big suburban library that still uses stamped due date cards. A public library of any halfway decent size did away with due date cards years ago, which would make this practice about 20 years out of date in The Passage.

But I think the kicker is that when Cronin shifts the story to 90 years after the vampire apocalypse, everybody’s forgotten all about Christmas! Even though there are characters that are alive in 2110 that were also alive in 2020 before the vampires showed up.

I know S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire initially takes place in the past, but I still can’t get over the fact that he thinks New York State is so overpopulated it would become a “Death Zone” after the laws of physics change and technology reverts to stuff used in medieval times. Except for New York City, the entire state is farmland and wide open space as far as the eye can see!

Finally, Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother takes place in the far off time period of 2010 (it was written in 2008) and a major plot point hinges on the world giving up on video games. The hero of the story needs to use and then lose multiple Xbox 3s for the sake of the plot, so Doctorow has Microsoft give them away for free prior to the start of the story (along with the next Halo game). If you know anything about games, you know how ridiculous that was as a plot point even when he wrote it.

In the end, a Republican President (a thinly veiled John McCain) advocates the torture of American citizens, including a trio of teenagers. You know, John McCain, one of the few Republicans who openly fights torture and promised to close Guantanamo if elected? :smack: God I hated that book.

So what are your favorite Funny Moments in Far-Flung Futures in Fiction?

I disagree with a ton of things in the series (I’m not getting the newly released book. I hated the last one so very much) and the amount of death zones was one of those things. Stirling’s reasoning was that everyone from a city ate the countryside’s food and so everyone died.

And what’s the problem with this reasoning?

I can’t think of any metropolitian center (not even in Iowa!) that’s self-sufficient for food; everything’s pretty much shipped in from somewhere else.

So in a ‘Dies-the-Fire’ type scenario, once the ready-food on the grocery store shelves is gone, city-folk are on the shoe-leather express, or starve in place.

Which I don’t think is too far-fetched, but I don’t believe vast parts of the country will become wastelands. The majority of people will die out, yes, but there are tons of small communities that I think will be able to hold their own and keep people out. I think there should have been a lot more small, independent communities.

How about all the “Japan will rule the world” stuff from 80s science fiction? History sure didn’t work out like that.

Oh, and there’s the “three megabytes of hot RAM” from Neuromancer. Three megabytes of RAM being worth stealing and black marketing, you see.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home has a line where an aide is briefing the Federation President one the damage the space probe is doing. It’s mentioned that Leningrad is one of the cities that lost power. Back to the Future II has a newspaper headling announcing the upcoming state visit of Queen Diana.

Back in 6th grade, my school was part of the Young Authors program: Basically, all the kids write their own books, the teachers help them put them together, and a panel judges them. I was already well-known as a nerd, so a couple of classmates who were writing a science-fiction story asked me for help on the science. They were setting their high space opera in the far-future year of 1990.

This was in 1989. They were surprised when I pointed out that that was just next year.

In several of Larry Niven’s older science fiction stories, he devotes a paragraph or two explaining how people will smoke in the future (or in space).

In “Fatal Conflict” an SF film starring Kari Wuhrer, Kari is sent as a spy to the Argos Prison Colony. A subtitle in the screen says: “2030: Argos Womens’ Colony.” So, not only will we have interstellar colonies in 30 years (the film was made circa 1990) but among the very FIRST things we’ll do is build women’s prisons on them!

It sounds crazy because outside of New York City the three biggest cities are Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. None are very populous and all three are separated by 75-90 miles of nothing but farmland.

You know how Americans like to say that people who live outside the US have no idea how big the country is? Well Americans who don’t live in New York seem to have no idea how big the state is either.

Basic NY State Geopgraphic Details (est. 2005)

Combined population, 10 largest cities: 9,327,171

Total Land Area: 47, 213.79

Avergae population density = 9,327,171/47,213.79 = 197.55 people/sq.mile.

That’s just staright-up land area, and not broken down into arable/forest/mountain land zones which would undoubtedly drive that number up even higher.

Now the “Fire” dies in March, the real beginning of farm/planting season.

With no electricity, no gas-powered tractors, cars, railroads, little or no food stock/surplus, no guns to hold off hordes of hungry/starving people…

So, genius, what do ~200 people/sq. mile eat until late August/early September when the crops start coming in? Grass? The grocery store shelves?

Now contrast with Oregon, with a 2000 est. population of 3,421,399, and a land area of 95,996 sq. miles, for a pop. density of only 35.64 pers/sq.mile.

That still doesn’t sound to damned great to me, but it sure as hell beats 195+ peeps/sq.mile in New York, don’t it?

New York City accounts for 8.3 million of those people and only 470 square miles. So redoing your calculations, you only get 21 people per square mile. While it’s possible that they could all work together and swarm into the rest of the state, it’s unlikely. There would be massive local wars and the whole city would more likely implode upon it self, leaving the rest of the state as a bunch of thriving communities, not a death zone.

On top of that, hunting is an incredibly popular pasttime in New York State. Particularly bowhunting (which are unaffected by The Change). These bowhunters hunt deer, turkey and bear, which are plentiful in New York State. So there’d be a lot of food and a means to defend themselves against outsiders.

New York is just as prepared as Oregon for any Dies the Fire situation. It was just easier, plotwise, for Stirling to kill them all off.

There are certain figures which you have to keep in mind. First, human beings need about two pounds of food a day, more if they’re doing hard labor.

Second, New York (like most of the Northeast) produces very little in the way of basic foodstuffs – bread grain and meat. Most of such farming as there is produces dairy, truck, and fruit, and there isn’t very much even of that.

The strictly -rural- (farming and small agricultural towns) population might well be able to pull through if they were isolated but they’re a tiny, tiny minority. They’re a small minority even if you subtract the big cities.

Hunting is not, to put it mildly, going to be a significant food source. And a few hunting bows aren’t going to make much difference when grossly outnumbered by very hungry, very desperate people. Nobody has any substantial number of pre-gunpowder weapons, or knows how to use them, so numbers are decisive.

The NYC people don’t have to ‘work together’ to screw everyone within walking distance; they just have to leave in large numbers. Most won’t make it far and a great many will die in the city, but a small percentage of a very large number is still a very large number.

It takes about two weeks to starve to death, though you get very hungry first. You generally don’t get too feeble to move for at least a week, and more if you have fat reserves or if you get some, albeit inadequate, calories along the way.

Say people can move 10 miles a day, 20 if they’re in good shape. Some large number will have or will get bicycles, which quadruples those figures at a minimum.

Now bear in mind that most of the people -outside- NYC aren’t food producers either. There are only a couple of thousand real farms in the state; the number’s a bit bigger if you throw in hobby farms and part-timers.

Add in the fact that NYC is simply a node in a megalopolis which stretches continuously from north of Boston to well south of Washington DC.

That isn’t a series of cities separated by fertile fields; it’s a continuous stretch of built-up area with scores of millions of inhabitants.

So put the point of your drawing compass in the center of every city over about 100,000 people. Draw a circle 100 miles in diameter. Everything within those circles (particularly if they overlap) dies, unless there are very special circumstances.

The circle is an oversimplification; geographic features will channel movement, of course.

But basically the flow of people looking for food or refuge like pumping in water under high pressure. It will seek out every possibility of movement and flow there. You’d have to flee into the central Adirondacks with a cache of food somehow to pull through.

As for Oregon, the area east of the Cascades is genuinely sparsely populated, with no large cities, and is fairly hard to get to on foot; there are mountains in the way.

It also has a great deal of grain and livestock and relatively few people – even fewer in 1998, before another decade of residential development around Bend and the other interior cities. The winter wheat is already planted.

So they merely get badly damaged.

Western Washington is a complete death zone; Seattle takes it down, though there are survivors on some islands in Puget Sound or in inaccessible nooks up in the mountains.

Western Oregon is “lucky” in that about 3-5% of the population survives, though a series of low-probability accidents and because of human action.

For example, bubonic plague breaks out in the refugee camps around Salem, the state capitol, and then becomes the pneumonic form, which is unbelievably contagious and can kill in less than a day.

(Plague is endemic among ground squirrels in the area and jumps species every once in a while; the refugee camps are a perfect incubator.)

That, and a bunch of other diseases, then spread like wildfire and kill off most of the remaining population of the Willamette valley; there are a numberf of other factors. This enables -some- small, well-defended communities in the Willamette and its fringes to avoid being overrun and eaten out (or just eaten), which is what happens to most.

And a 100-mile circle centered on NYC cuts off maybe about 20% of the state. Again, New York is big, and is a lot more than just the city.

I remember reading a The Futurist magazine in the mid 90’s that was predicting that by 2010 (right now), all heavy industry would be in Earth Orbit.

My first thought was “how?”. How are we going to move billions of tons of factories into Earth orbit, then move millions of tons per day of supplies back and forth, and millions of workers for their shifts?

My second thought was “why?”. What possible purpose would be served by doing this? Pollution? So we dump it in orbit and it comes down just any old place? So we have a permanent haze around the Earth that blocks the sun?

IMHO that’s more you than them. First of all, the how is, you mine the materials in space, from the moon and asteroids and build the industry in orbit. You don’t move supplies into orbit from earth. Getting supplies down FROM orbit is faiirly cheap, as opposed to the opposite way. The workers would live in orbit—one of the first things you’d build would be their living quarters.
Second, pollution wouldn’t “fall” to earth unless we made the mistake of dumping it into a low orbit and there wouldn’t be a haze as that would require an atmosphere. You could conceivably develop a ring, but that would require you make the afforementioned mistake of dumping trash into low earth orbit.

And all this, billions of tons of infrastructure, was going to be built in about 15 years? When we did not have the technology at all?

Not me, bud.

This isn’t quite what the OP is after, but it’s such a great resource I have to share: Paleo-Future.

This entry is cute –

Not quite – the average height of US women is still 5’4" (cite).

We have the technology now. It probably would take more than the 20 years they envisioned, but there is nothing in that proposal that would require discovery or invention of any new technology.

I call Bullshit. The costs and fuel requirements would bankrupt the Earth and be so impractical as to not be impossible.