Monday, May 29, 2006

Posing the 100 Year Question: The Underkill Answer

One of Earth's possible futures is what PZ Myers calls "Wallowing in Poverty and War and Desperation". It's what happens if we run out of resources.

James White's 1979 novel, "Underkill" describes in detail what sort of life we might have in such a grim world. It's long out of print but a few copies are available secondhand from the likes of Amazon.

White's books are normally optimistic, with compassionate, determined individuals solving problems and crossing the stars. But "Underkill" is set in an Earth critically short of energy. Society is authoritarian, violent and stratified, food and resources are low , and terrorists are causing more and more casualties.

White's characters - husband-and-wife doctors Malcolm and Ann, and police inspector Reynolds - are still compassionate and determined, but they are fighting a losing cause.

"Hello Doctor Malcolm" , said the boy smiling "I'm sorry , I was dreaming about rats, and one of them bit my arm. Is Nurse mad at me?"

"Of course not", said Malcolm "But she would like you a lot better if you were to ask her for something to eat and drink, Tommy. I know you don't feel hungry, but that is because your stomach is very small and not used to much food. But you need food to help your broken arm and legs mend. Do you understand that? And it's nice , clean , food, like the Uppers eat".
Tommy later has a nightmare about school:
"You are a stupid, sneaking, snivelling wretched boy said the Senior Educator in his quiet, angry voice. You are nine years old and you still act as if you had just come out of the nursery"

"Nobody likes walking the wheel" he went on "But your wheel is one designed for a child half your age, and little more than a toy. Yet you cry and faint, and don't make enough power to light the room much less help run the machines. All you want to do is the tidying and cleaning jobs where you can work by yourself, because you say your classmates are a bit rough on you. Or you hang about when the older boys are at advanced classes. But remember boy, the knowledge of mathematics and reading and writing is not a gift. It is a privilege, which must be earned by hard work. Perhaps a few of our boys will eventually become technicians or planners or medics. But we are in the business of producing the future power walkers, food processors and artisans, the kind of responsible citizens which enable this city to survive"
So much of this book is horribly believable. Especially a confrontation between another doctor and a group of terrorists:
"You destroy from within by using the structure of society against itself. When fair-minded people bring in liberal laws, you turn them to your own advantage and discredit the people who are trying to keep the laws. The death penalty is bad, barbarous you say, but you yourselves don't hesitate to use it against people who have done you no wrong"
There is more to this story than pure doom. Reynolds suspects there are aliens somewhere on Earth influencing events :
"It worries me , Doctor" said Reynolds. "Gadgets like your scanner turn up in all sorts of places. But one finds that pre-Powerdown technology was never that good".
And indeed there are aliens, whose appearance and methods are just about unique, even in science fiction.

"Underkill" is worth reading simply as a Dreadful Warning, but it is much more than that, and the ending of the book left me stunned and perplexed. It greatly deserves to be reprinted, and would actually make a good TV drama.


Cllr David Morton said...

two excellent Posts. I followed the link to PZ's site and very thought provoking. I'm an optimist in that i tink we will shift to a war economy when we are finally forced to confront the scale of the challenges. However that assumes we realise in time. And will we have a Churchill?

Roger Owen Green said...

Clearly, we COULD be around, if we have the political will. I worry that the U.S. is so damn arrogant sometimes, that the things that will need to be done (conversion to other energy sources, e.g.) won't be, even though the technology exists NOW.

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