Thu
Mar 25 2010 2:15pm

State of Nature

A couple of weeks ago a terrific rainstorm hit the town where I live—it was nowhere near as bad as the occasional hurricane I lived through when growing up in Florida, but it was still strong enough to rip down dozens of trees and sever power lines. Much of the neighborhood was without electricity for a while—it took four days for the power to come back on in my apartment, and in the meantime the only lights you could see at night on my street were from flashlights wielded by people who wanted to find their way home while avoiding debris and the occasional live wire.

Now, as soon as the power went out that Saturday afternoon, I knew what to expect—it’s a well-known tenet in SF that technologically advanced civilizations that are stripped of their technology without warning will revert to a crazed state of nature, sometimes within days, or hours! 

(For example, there’s the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” and the film The Trigger Effect; of course, you also see this phenomenon less overtly in more post-apocalyptic novels than you can count.) I went to sleep that Saturday evening expecting to pay for my laziness—I should have spent those first few critical moments filling my bathtub with water, or bartering for a double-barreled shotgun and an attack dog, or gathering up the bottle caps that were likely to take the place of money in the new world.

But to my disappointment, the grim yet strangely exciting apocalypse that I dreaded and yet longed for didn’t happen. Here’s what happened instead:

  • I found that I could pretty much do without being online, at least for a while. Oh, yeah, sure, I had the shakes for the first few hours—what if my Amazon ranking goes up and I’m not there to see it!—but after that I just sort of forgot about the Internet. Every day or so I’d trek out to the local university library, which still had power, and check my e-mail: there was never anything that couldn’t have waited another day for a reply. The low-level sense of urgency and immediacy that seems to attend all online communication evaporated.

  • Vital information was still easy to come by. I saw a sharp uptick in the incidence of strangers speaking to each other in public, and the conversations almost always started by saying whether or not someone had power, and whether something bad had happened near them (a downed tree, a house on fire, etc.) Word of mouth alone was enough to give me an accurate picture of the state of the streets in town—which roads to avoid when driving, and which ones were passable. Everyone carried a map of the town in their heads, the troubled areas marked in red.

  • People turned altruistic! Free beer flowed in bars for those with sob stories about spoiled food in the fridge. Overheard, a couple of times: “I just got power back! Do you need me to charge your cellphone?”

 In short, for four days, those of us with no property damage got by without much trouble (though maybe things would have been different in four months, or under more dystopian circumstances). Which raises the question: why does this strain of SF stories (for the most part) automatically assume that in the absence of electricity, people will give in to their anarchic basic instincts?* One possible answer is that even if a story is pushing the message that technology is a crutch that makes us soft, it still operates under the assumption that technology is vitally central to our modern way of being—it’s hard, if not impossible, to imagine an SF story centering around the negative impact of technology on our social fabric, but that also depicts technology as ultimately incidental to our behavior. A second and possibly better answer is that stories obviously need conflict to power their plots, and so the assumption of incipient anarchy in culture is encoded in the DNA of not just SF, but storytelling itself.

Anyway—the power came back on Wednesday afternoon, and residents of my street stood on their porches and applauded the electric company workers when they finally flipped the switch. Now’s the time for me to take care of all those important things I need to do, I thought, and those things turned out to include checking Facebook and Twitter, watching Youtube videos of Rube Goldberg machines, checking Facebook and Twitter, playing God of War, checking Facebook, and checking Twitter.

*Though I can think of one exception to this offhand: Ada, or Ardor, by Vladimir Nabokov, which takes place on an alternate-history Earth where the use of electricity has been outlawed. In that novel, civilization fails to collapse because people invent elaborate workarounds that allow them to do all the things they would have done with electricity anyway: there’s a telephone-like system that works by propagating sound waves through water, for instance. 


Dexter Palmer is the author of The Dream of Perpetual Motion, published by St. Martin’s Press. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey. (Visit The Dream of Perpetual Motion’s art gallery!)

3 comments
Marcus W
1. toryx
I think it's about availablility of resources. If some people still have electricity and others don't, it really depends on whether or not those who Have Not are likely to get what those who Have have.

In your scenario (which I've experienced myself a couple of times) there was never any question that the Have Nots would get the power back. So it's easy for the Haves to be generous and the Have Nots to chill out about it.

In most apocalyptic stories, however, there is no getting the thing that's lost back. And if there is, by some miraculous stroke of luck, those who Have then the Have Nots will most likely try to take it from them. Maybe it's cynical and pessimistic of me but I think that's pretty likely to actually happen. Civility and charity are nice and all, but they run out real fast when things become permanent.
AlexTimp
2. AlexTimp
@toryx

That is bang on the bell, people have a propensity to get a lot angrier and more panicky if there's no end in sight...
René Walling
3. cybernetic_nomad
I don't know, I like to think we can keep civilization going. IMHO, a lot has to do with your expectation too (and those of your society).

Only the British could have come up with the cosy catastrophy, the Canadians know the environment is out to get you and will win anyways, the Americans tend to go for violent social breakdowns.

I remember after the Ice Storm, I was talking to an American friend about it and their first comment was: "The looting must have been terrible", my answer was "What looting?"

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