Thursday, September 04, 2014

After the Collapse

THE GOLDEN PRINCESS, the latest book in S. M. Stirling's postapocalyptic Emberverse series (which began with DIES THE FIRE), came out on Tuesday. I'm a devoted fan of this series, somewhat kinder and gentler than most of the subgenre. After the first half of the first novel, Stirling concentrates mainly on people who manage to create stable communities rather than on post-disaster horrors. These books naturally inspire speculation about how we, the readers, would adjust to a world with no electricity, internal combustion engines, or other advanced technology. (The "Change" that starts the series renders all such technology permanently inoperative.) I would NOT be good at living in a post-collapse world. I don't even like camping; my husband does, and we did it occasionally when the kids were little, but I saw it as the fallback solution when one couldn't afford hotel rooms. Robert Heinlein, who wrote a lengthy essay (found in his collection EXPANDED UNIVERSE) about the skills and strategies needed to survive the planet-devastating nuclear war he anticipated, would be disgusted with my attitude. My reaction to that essay was and remains, "Why would I WANT to live through that? Aside from my family, if they survive, a nuclear holocaust would wipe out most of what I enjoy about living. Just kill me quickly and painlessly with the first bomb."

Stirling's post-collapse world, as I mentioned, isn't nearly so grim. Lady Juniper's neo-Celtic community in Oregon sounds quite pleasant, although of course it would involve plenty of hard work (and I would be part of the Christian minority rather than the Pagan majority, but Christians are tolerantly accepted, so that's okay). Still, there are so many things I'd miss in a world like that. The big things, naturally—advanced medical treatment, convenient transportation, electric lights, the Internet, instantaneous communication of all kinds, TV and movies, household appliances, a constant stream of new books, etc. Day to day, though, I think I'd feel the small losses more acutely. The vast variety of foods we're used to having available all year around, for instance. Chocolate! That disappears until trade is re-established with tropical regions. Also, while we sometimes enjoy cooking complicated meals, I like being able to pop prepared food into the oven or microwave at will. In general, I'd miss the ability to walk into a store and buy almost anything we want (or order it if our local stores don't have it). Perma-press clothes would be another grievous loss for me. I don't iron, and I hardly ever wear dry-clean-only fabrics. If it can't be thrown into the washer, then straight from the dryer to the closet or drawer, I don't buy it. (No wonder women in the nineteenth century and earlier didn't tend to produce literature or art unless they belonged to the middle or upper classes. "Women's work was never done.") Another category of items occurred to me recently while cleaning the bathroom: Disposables of all kinds. No paper towels, no tissues. (I don't think Stirling's novels ever mention what the characters do for toilet paper. Even after a paper industry got going, it would probably be too expensive for such a use. Soft leaves?) Rags for scrubbing, handkerchiefs for noses, all needing to be washed in hot, soapy water after every use. And then there's the problem of disposing of the disposables. In a preindustrial culture, everything that can't be recycled or composted would have to be burned or buried. These reflections remind me to be very thankful for our conveniences such as one-use products (a great advance in sanitation) and frequent, reliable garbage pickup.

If civilization collapsed and our society reverted to preindustrial technology, what would you miss most?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt


  1. Leaves and grass, I'm afraid.

  2. That's what I was afraid of. :) Thanks so much for dropping in!