Stalled On The Launch Pad

I enjoy dabbling in writing, and I have even sent a few stories to magazines in the past. (No luck, but then I’m not the only person to have a collection of rejection slips and I won’t be the last, either.)

Anyway, I particularly like world-building. And (dare I say it) I’m actually fairly good at it. The key to it is being able to spot connections between things. If you postulate ‘X’, then perhaps it also implies ‘Y’? Or maybe more importantly, perhaps it doesn’t imply Y (and the gaps can be as important as the filler, sometimes). Unfortunately, I’m perhaps not so good at coming up with stories to fill these worlds.

Most recently, I’ve had a steam-punk setting pestering me…


…Except there’s a slight twist – it’s not an alternate past but actually a future.

It goes something like this. Sometime in the mid-21st Century, the oil crisis finally happens. Unsurprisingly enough, the world doesn’t handle it too well. A vast range of industries are dependent on petrochemicals – not just cars but also things like plastics and agricultural fertilisers. A reduction in the supply of fossil fuels also means that electricity generation takes a big knock. The lights don’t quite go off – there are still solar cells and nuclear plants – but there are a lot less of them, and many of them are running off methane. Also, it becomes a lot harder for people to travel, which has a big knock-on effect on transport and industry.

Also, while all this is going on, the climate is still hotting up. Straight off, you have a recipice for worldwide political and economic chaos. Let’s call it the Collapse. Note the capital letter and the definite article – this is one event where you won’t need to ask which collapse, any more than we need to ask which bomb is the Bomb.

Now, steampunk makes a big thing of brass and steel and wood, and I like that sort of aesthetic – so why not play with that a bit? First off, without much oil left, plastic is a lot more expensive. Secondly, there are all these useless dead cars littering the landscape – perfect for a bit of recycling for all the shiny metals. (I’m being optimistic there and assuming recycling’s still a going industrial concern…) But, that’s all a bit believable and boringly conventional, so why not throw in an SFnal twist? I decided to assume that there’d been a Mars mission just before the Collapse. While the astronauts were there, they found life. Single-celled, chemotrophic life living inside vents deep in the planet’s crust, where it was fed by warm hydrocarbon-gas updrafts from the planet’s cooling mantle. With no other energy source available, this life has had to get very creative indeed with its chemistry.

And it accidentally gets released when the mission returns to Earth. And it turns out that the Martians can eat hydrocarbon polymers. Guess what? Plastic rots.

Actually, this is a bit of good news, believe it or not. It means that with all that rotting plastic releasing methane and so on, rubbish dumps can now supply the world economy with biogas. Or what’s left of the world economy, anyway.

Anyway, roll on a century or two and let the dust settle a bit.

So, let’s just take stock. We have a world with a much smaller population. After the end of hydrocarbon fertilisers, there’s enough food for about 2 billion people, so that’s how many there are. The Holy Land problem is (if you want to be optimistic) arguably solved – during the Collapse everything got a bit out of hand and some capital-A bombs got tossed around. The upshot is that Israel/Palestine in particular aren’t geopolitical problems anymore, simply because they still glow at night. It’ll be a few centuries before anyone can live there again.

The world’s technology has been largely knocked back to wood-burning engines and steam. I say ‘largely’ because high tech still exists, the problem is getting the electricity to run it. There are still atomic power stations and solar panels, but there’s only so much energy they can supply. (Also there are transportation problems for things like uranium ore – consider the problems of carrying radio-isotopes on a clipper ship.) Basically the world has a tenth of our electric supply but at a hundred times the cost. Most people light their homes with methane lamps. Gas-lamps are the new vogue. Most people will only ever see electric light in government buildings or in hospitals.

It also means that globalisation has been largely reversed. Less transportation, less communications, less mobility. The people of Century 22 are far more settled than the people of Century 21.

Also plastic rots, so everything is copper, brass and wood. Martians are eating your plastic sporks, dammit!

So, timber is big business. West Antarctica and Siberia are thus presumably two of the new, iceless world’s wealthiest states. Probably Canada’s doing well out of this too.

But there’s another catch. I mentioned the ‘if X then what of Y?’ issue before, didn’t I? The X here is partly rotting plastic and partly people lighting their homes with gas. And where will you find lots of rotting, methane-emitting plastic? The previous civilisation’s rubbish dumps, that’s where. And what country had the most ‘disposable’ culture of any? The United States, of course. And dare I say it, which of our current states seems least likely to cope with an oil crisis? Umm, the United States.

So, the Collapse was *even worse* in the States. Basically, they’re gone. There is no America. The Washington Monument sticks out of a stagnant tropical swamp, covered in vines and tilting off to one side. And the rest of CONUS? Fragmentation. No governing authority. An effectively-empty, post-urban wasteland. Lots of abandoned, methane-seeping rubbish dumps. No army and not many people to get in the way.

It seems to me that the New Imperialism of the New Century will centre around the Great Powers trying to control the New World’s refuse dumps. If it’s steampunk, that implies neoVictorian, right? And if it’s neoVictorian, that implies pith-helmeted, moustache-twirling upper-class idiots adventurers roaming the tropically-warm plains of post-Collapse America, taking potshots at the natives with their shiny revolvers, right?

There almost certainly is a story in all of this. Unfortunately, my brain just can’t seem to find it.

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