­xkcd thread

Five-thirds of a yoctomole.

Dan Simmons had a future world where population was held constant at 1 milllion; each woman could have one and only one child. The plot involved a woman and her cousin.

I thought you were pointing out that the population wouldn’t be stable at one million with only one child per woman, which it isn’t in the books - it’s explained at some point that it’s around 300,000 - but yeah… there would be no cousins at all. I’ve never thought about that.

It’s surprising how often often good writers fail basic math. A writer I like featured in one of his books an elite band of mercenary warriors, which the only way to join was by killing a member in single combat. Putting aside what a crappy system that is - forcing you to serve with someone who just killed your friend cannot be great for espirit du corps - the question arises, who replaces the warriors killed in battle? I mean, these guys aren’t immortal. You see quite a few of them die. So that’s it, because they were killed by faceless enemy archers, they won’t ever be replaced?

Or heck, some must die of other causes, or just age out of military service.

Are these sorts of authors bad at math, or are they simply assuming the audience won’t bother to do the math and the ideas they’re laying out are simply a concise way to tell a story about a culture that differs greatly from our familiar real world Earth?

e.g. “To become a member you must kill a member” is a tale of unrelenting pursuit of fighting excellence where the least are always being culled and the whole only gets sharper over time. That’s the core message, and told in darn few words.

This is what undid the elite class in ancient Sparta*. There was no path for upward mobility, only down. There wasn’t even any way for disgraced Spartiates to redeem themselves; so the elite class shrunk and shrunk until there weren’t enough to maintain the system anymore.

*or for that matter, the Purebloods in the Harry Potter books.

What did they do about the occasional twins?

These were far-future humans who had been modified in various ways; I suspect that twins were no longer possible.

In the second volume he does explain that the population is now down to 300,000 (and no one has noticed) and that when the population gets too low, the powers that be fix it back to 1 million (and no one notices) - and also explains that “cousin” means “half-sibling” in their culture, but both of those seem a lot late belated fixes to correct for issues that he had just then noticed, and not like an organic part of his world-building.

Which Dan Simmons story is this?


Thanks. I’ll have to re-read that. It is in my library.

Are the offspring of half-siblings legitimately characterized as cousins? It’s not mentioned (in the post above yours) that men are only permitted one child.


I might not have bothered if you hadn’t written “shrunk” twice.

Good question (and a decent explanation for the retention of the concept of cousin). I don’t recall the details as well as I should - but my vague recollection is that most people in that society have don’t know who their fathers were, so knowing who their grandfathers were would be an even bigger stretch.

No. “50 milliscore” is grammatically plural, even if it’s semantically equivalent to one. Similar to “both halves”, “four quarters”, “100 cents”, etc. See also, singular “you” and “they”, which are always grammatically plural, even when they refer to one person.

We should just get rid of the singular. It’s almost useless. We even use the plural for “1.0 pounds of butter”.

I’m disappointed Randal didn’t lay it out on a rectangular coordinate system with mind on one axis and body on the other.