Monday, January 28, 2008

Disaster Ringo Style

John Ringo originally earned his chops with the Legacy of the Aldenata, a military science fiction series of the invasion of Earth by seemingly unstoppable cannibalistic alien hordes. Now he takes up yet another familiar trope of post-apocalyptic science fiction, namely the plague that ravages civilization. The Last Centurion is a first for Ringo in that it is written in first-person POV, half memoir and half socio-political commentary, as the protagonist reflects upon the catastrophic combination of an avian flu mutated to spread by casual human contact and sudden climate change.

I've been singularly impressed by the snippets John has been posting on Baen's Bar. Normally a blatant political message in a work of fiction gets my back up something fierce. But the first-person narrator's voice is so intense it carries me right over my normal objections. I feel like I'm sitting right there with this guy, maybe at a bar or in the con suite of some convention, listening to him tell his story.

I'm really looking forward to seeing how this novel ends. As a historian, I can see two possible conclusion, based upon historical models. The most obvious is a devolutionary spiral and permanent collapse back to an early-industrial or even pre-industrial culture. History is littered with examples of civilizations that came apart under the pressures of a major plague combined with climate change that shifted the growing season for key crops -- the most obvious from the title is the Roman Empire (yes, one of the current theories is that an early outbreak of bubonic plague combined with a series of cold winters caused by a caldera supervolcano eruption did the Western Empire in -- see Catastrophe: An Investigation into the Origins of Modern Civilization by David Keys).

However, the long-term effects of a plague can also be major progress in a civilization, as witness the Black Death. In the late Middle Ages Europe was caught in a high-end trap, in which increases in agricultural production immediately went to increases in population rather than economic growth. The sudden reduction of the population as a result of the plague freed both labor and capital for growth. Labor, which had previously been so cheap it had to be bound to the manor by extra-economic means, now came into sufficient demand that peasants and craftsmen could strike a much better bargain for their work. Similarly, the sudden death of a substantial portion of the wealthy elite meant the survivors had a surplus that could be invested in long-term ventures such as art and the various crafts. The result was the Renaissance, and ultimately the modern world.

The key factor in the Last Centurion's future will probably be energy. Given that we have already used up most of the easily accessible deposits of coal and oil, if human culture falls below the ability to extract those vital resources, it will probably be stuck for good. However, if the ability to manage large-scale energy utilization is retained, and even expanded through the development of additional nuclear power plants, it's quite possible that the grandchildren of the survivors will enjoy a world that's actually better.

Given John Ringo's known dislike for a certain kind of fuzzy-minded liberalism that opposes nuclear energy among other things, there are reasons to be hopeful for the long-term future of the fictional world he has created.

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