Audra Middleton interviewed me on her sci fi madness blog series today. I talk about what makes a good sci fi novel, researching Truth-Teller Rebellion, and writer’s block. Check it out at http://www.audramiddleton.com/1/post/2014/05/interview-with-kenneth-schultz.html.
Category Archives: Science of the Truth-Teller World
Glofs, glacial lake outburst floods, play a prominent role in my book Truth-Teller Rebellion. Glofs occur each year and are every bit as horrific as in Truth-Teller Rebellion. Over five thousand people died last June when Chaurabari Lake, a lake spawned from the Chaurabari glacier in the Indian Himalayas, burst its banks after unusually hot weather. Global warming means there will be more glofs in the future, at least while there still are glaciers.
Fortunately, most glaciers are in the Arctic and Antarctica where they pose no threat, but many of the over forty Himalayan glaciers are potential man killers. Monitoring of glacial lakes can give an early warning of any threats. In fact, Chaurabari Lake was a known problem, although somehow this was not communicated to those in danger.
Present glofs are small beans compared to the Missoula Floods that carved the coulees of eastern Washington fifteen thousand years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. Three thousand square mile Lake Missoula in Montana went through a fifty-odd year cycle of filling and bursting. When the ice dam blocking it gave way, Lake Missoula would hurl towards the Pacific Ocean hundreds of miles away at speeds up to eighty miles per hour and with a volume many times all the present rivers of the world. Dry Falls in eastern Washington’s Grand Coulee was formed by the Missoula Floods. At three and a half miles wide it’s believed to have been the largest waterfall ever seen on Earth. Today it’s still impressive even without water going over it. I’ve caught trout in the lake below the falls while watching deer feed along the precipice’s face.
Fusion power could take us to the science fiction nirvana of unlimited power, if we’re smart enough to figure it out. Once fossil fuels are gone fission power could provide the energy bridge until fusion power plants are in place. We need to build more nuke plants soon, but can we do that without poisoning the Earth? Our track record on fission plants isn’t very good. Think Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
Fusion and fission are the ying and yang of the atomic world. The Earth’s core is a huge fission reactor. Fission breaks large atoms, like uranium, into smaller atoms. Downside? Fission reactors can run amok and they produce nasty radioactive byproducts that last for thousands of years. Fusion is the way the sun works. Fusion combines two light atoms, like hydrogen, into a heavier atom. A fusion reactor can’t do a Chernobyl. It something goes wrong it just stops working. And fusion doesn’t produce anything that will kill you.
When I was a kid they predicted we’d have fusion power by 2000. Didn’t happen. So why don’t we have a fusion reactor? We’ve spent over fifty years and tens of billions of dollars trying. Scientists are using lasers to replicate the sun. They have been able to fuse atoms, but it’s taken more energy to power the lasers than what has been produced by the fusion. Once they get fusion working it will take more billions of dollars, maybe hundreds of billions dollars, to build the first commercial fusion reactor. Expensive but affordable in the context the seven hundred billion dollars the U.S. spends each year on defense.
It took the best and brightest from across the globe to build the first fission nuclear reactor in 1942. These same people went on to build the first atom bomb in three years. Why can’t we do the same with fusion? For the sake of our great-grandchildren we must fund an innovative organization of our best and brightest to realize the promise of fusion power. Otherwise the energy deficient world of Truth-Teller Rebellion will be mankind’s dead-end.
The events of my science fiction novel Truth-Teller Rebellion take place two thousand years from now in the Pacific Northwest. Fossil fuels are ancient history that my protagonist Cary Bishop has only read about. The average person in Cary’s home town of New Hanford consumes a fifth of the energy used by an American today. No transcontinental jets soar overhead in Cary’s day, just small solar and hydrogen powered solplanes. Ground transportation is by tramrail, an efficient electric powered train. Battery powered trucks ply the streets, but only the rich or powerful have personal electric cars. Ocean transportation is via cargo ships with computer-controlled sails. The world is more regional and insular than today’s. Cary doesn’t eat apples flown in from New Zealand or munch on Chilean grapes.
Despite the regionalization, the overall standard of living in New Hanford is good because of the Pacific Northwest’s excellent sources of hydro and wind energy. Computer technology ensures the superefficient use of this energy. Medical advances have all but eliminated cancer, most body parts are replaceable, and the average lifespan is a hundred and thirty years. Nonetheless civilization is hampered by a shortage of energy and metals. And while water is plentiful in the Pacific Northwest, the drawdown of aquifers over a thousand years earlier has left North America’s Midwest a sparsely inhabited semi-arid wasteland.
The back history of Truth-Teller Rebellion is that the transition from today to Cary’s world was tumultuous. A nuclear war was fought over the dregs of the Middle Eastern oil fields. Wars and famine then took their toll across the globe. The populations of Africa, South America and Asia, which have grown the most over the past fifty years, had the greatest and most painful decline.
The troubled Truth-Teller Rebellion transition scenario is a very plausible one, maybe even the most probable. Mankind has never been very good at long range planning. Our government struggles to create a one-year budget much less a farsighted energy plan. Some people just don’t care about something that will happen thirty or fifty or a hundred years from now. After all, like John Maynard Keynes said, “in the long run we are all dead.” Others do care, but don’t know what they can do.
Global warming has captured the world’s attention and produced at least a modicum of planning for it. The coming energy shortage is an even more serious crisis. How we deal with this looming problem will define the future of mankind.
Mankind has been on a roll for the past hundred and fifty years. We’ve gone from candle light to LED light, from the horse to the airliner, from the quill pen inked ledger to flash drive memory. So the sky is the limit, right? Wrong.
Why? Energy. Energy has defined mankind’s past, present, and will define its future.
Per capita energy consumption in the western world was about constant from 200 B.C. to 1800 A.D. Then it climbed by a factor three by 1900. Today the average person uses eight times more energy than Thomas Jefferson. This increase in usage coincides with the birth and growth of the oil and gas industry. Sixty-three percent of US energy consumption comes from oil and natural gas, twenty percent from coal, eight percent is nuclear, and the remaining eight percent comes from renewable resources.
The explosion of knowledge, inventions, our standard of living, and even the growth in the world’s population over the past hundred years would have been impossible without oil and gas. The world’s population stood at a billion in 1800. It was still under two billion in 1900, but then three billion in 1960, and in now seven billion and climbing.
It’s been a great party but the punch bowl is close to empty. You can quibble about when fossil fuels will be gone but you can’t deny that their exhaustion is inevitable over the next few hundred years. At that time the world’s population won’t be sustainable unless technology somehow bails us out. I wouldn’t bet on that.
It’s more likely that there will be devastating wars over the last dregs of fossil fuels. At the same time civilization will be under stress from global warming. Enough food production to sustain the Earth’s population will be problematic. Not enough food and too many people means famine.
Sometime after the end of fossil fuels a global cooling will likely develop as the Earth resumes its normal rhythm and an ice age begins. The Earth’s human population will have to fall even further.
In two thousand years there will be maybe a billion people on Earth. They’ll have electronic, information, and medical technologies far beyond ours, but per capita energy consumption will be far below today’s modern era. (I first accidentally typed modern err. Hmm. Perhaps ‘err’ is more fitting.) As a result civilization will have stagnated. This world is the backdrop to my science fiction novel, Truth-Teller Rebellion.
Further reading: Look up Paola Malanima’s Energy Consumption and Energy Crisis in the Roman World on the web. It’s short and makes the case that the Roman Empire’s decline was in part due to its own energy crisis. He is an Italian economic historian.
Future blog topics: What about nuclear and fusion energy? What would be the impact of an ice age?