MisCon 28: World Deconstruction 101
(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)
In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.
Panel title: World Deconstruction 101
Panel members: Steven Erikson, Rhiannon Held, Ken Scholes
Panel description: You’ve learned all about world building, but what can archaeology and anthropology teach us about deconstructing your world? Should yours be an epic apocalypse or a slow, painful descent into the history books?
RH: Have you ever destroyed worlds in your writing?
SE: In the classics, it takes a long time for things to happen. But civilizations rise and fall. I’m not a fan of civilizations being frozen in development. My stories are about falling civilizations. They always leave scarring on the landscape. Landscapes are malleable. There’s a lot under the feet of the character.
KS: My whole series is post-apocalyptic. Three major cataclysms happen and there are few places that are liveable. My short fiction also has a lot of it. In one story, I wondered what Santa would deliver in a post-apocalyptic world. Bureaucracy may still try to hold on. What if in a magical apocalypse, there was a god that worked like the Old Testament? Or maybe it’s us destroying the world.
RH: I enjoy using far past cultures as a foundation. The imperfect knowledge of the past is intriguing. What is passed down may be from songs, stories and fables. I did that with my werewolf species. What they knew about their origins came from their oral tradition. I’m intrigued about it because I deal with it every day. So what do you think about world deconstruction gone wrong? It bothers me that when a population falls, no one considers that there will actually be more resources available. After the Black Death, the quality of life was actually better. In fiction today, we see people scrabbling for resources even though the resources of seven billion people are still lying around. There’s also the problem of dating a site. A dish might have a pattern dating back to 1915, but it’s still modern if people are still using it. Plastic lasts for thousands of years. It can still be reused. In a post-apocalyptic world, goods can still be reused and repurposed.
SE: I sense that a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction is wish fulfillment. You get to shoot everyone and wipe out everything like the Old Testament. Environmentalists wish to return to a hunter-gatherer society. But how can you imagine eight billion people as hunter-gatherers? It’s not sustainable. You have to bring the number of people down with disease or something else. If the infrastructure and technology collapsed, you’ll have starving people. Then they’ll eat everything. In the jungles of Congo, society collapsed and everything was eaten. I don’t think most people think things all the way through.
RH: People don’t consider the knowledge left behind. Everything is written and digitized, but if we lose electricity and the older people die, we lose the knowledge. In one book I read, the characters think, “Oh, we’ll just grow this mold to cure the disease!” You can’t just do that. Where did they get the knowledge? Who survived and what knowledge was passed down?
KS: What’s your preparation for the post-apocalypse?
RH: My family has various skills and we own land on an island.
SE: Uh oh. We live on an island. It’s overdue to fall in the ocean.
RH: But it’s a good barrier to disease. In that situation, you should gain allies as soon as possible to bring skills together.
SE: I think it’s a crapshoot. I’ll think about it when it happens. Maybe it’s cultural. Americans thought this all up.
KS: My military friend has land that’s high ground and defensible. I have a friend who’s an OB-GYN. I have other friends who are nurses, hunters, etc. We’ve got a team. And with my skills, I’m going to raid a music store and become a bard. We’re going to stockpile.
SE: But once you do that, you’ve painted a large target on your back.
KS: Then we’ll get a militia.
Q: My brother would start a cult. He wants to be the head of it. Is hierarchy easier to maintain?
KS: I used to be a preacher, but there is also precedent of a science fiction author creating a religion.
RH: It depends on how many people are with you. With fewer people, it’s more flexible but you run into trouble if you need manpower to build something. With more people, you need infrastructure.
SE: There’s a survival threshold. If there are fewer people to start with, it’s important if someone dies.
Q: In fiction, they think that the military will suddenly disappear. But in real life, there’s a lot of people with military training.
KS: I have a friend who knows many military contacts.
Q: I know a mortician. Morticians have a contingency plan for getting rid of bodies if something catastrophic happens. You can see manuals for this online.
KS: You can also find documents online on what the military will do in case of an apocalypse.
RH: Homo sapiens as a species will survive an apocalypse, but it will only be a fraction of the population. But in fiction, it’s about the relationships.
SE: We wouldn’t be able to survive because we don’t have the knowledge base. But indigenous people will be able to survive.
RH: Ways of getting food will depend on the number of people. If someone has knowledge of farming, it can bring the population up. But if those people die, the lower population will be hunter-gatherers.
SE: A pristine environment depends on location. Prehistoric groups are small. There’s not much up in northern Canada.
Q: There are things that might get misunderstood in the future. Maybe in a thousand years, they might think hoodies were for building tents. How do you interpret the past?
RH: What would archaeologists see from our burial practices? It’s nice because we put dates on our tombstones. But what about the bones? Things rust and rot. Is plastic still there? What would that say about the person?
Q: There would still be pacemakers and cell phones.
RH: They’ll have a sense of our medical technology because they’ll see regrown bones, pins, and fillings. But why would there be drilled teeth?
KS: Obviously, it’s the tooth fairy cult.
Q: In Celtic mythology, there are fairies but there’s also mythologies about war.
SE: You can blend mythologies.
RH: If we have any written materials left, it would be on paper. But that decomposes. They won’t know English. What’s left is what’s carved on monuments like statues.
Q: What about people who are medication dependent, on birth control, etc.?
RH: That’s underrepresented on post-apocalyptic fiction especially since it’s wish fulfillment. The ancient Egyptians used a plant for birth control but they used it too much that it became extinct.
KS: There’s also expiration dates. There will be raids for materials. People will be too busy trying to stay alive to worry about other things.
Q: I heard that if everyone’s still alive after an apocalypse, the canned food would only last for two weeks.
RH: It’s resource stress. There’s not enough for everyone. Then there will be resource wars where they will kill others to take it. In a dystopia with wars, this makes sense. Killing and taking is easier than hunting.
Q: Is that why Central America declined?
SE: It was a fairly rapid fall, but there were ups and downs.
Q: Do you believe in stockpiling? My grandparents are still using stuff they stockpiled for Y2K.
KS: I like to play in the imagination. It’s wish fulfillment, a place to play. It hones down people. There’s a potential for rebirth or to go gently into the night. I write with underpants on my head. I dig into the wasteland of my childhood. In telling these stories, I process the things that happened to me in childhood.
Q: What about repeating history?
SE: It’s our nature. We have short term memories.
RH: When you’re dying, you don’t think ten years ahead.
Q: A lot of apocalyptic fiction seems to be from America. And it has lots of guns. Is it an American fantasy?
KS: I would want every possible tool to stay alive, not just certain tools. Think broadly.
SE: This country has sustained the myth of the frontier. Maybe it’s a return to the frontier. And it ties into notions of liberty.