Falsifiable, Literature, Model, Science

Pump Six and the Perils of Speculative Fiction

I just finished Pump Six, a collection of short stories by Paolo Bacigalupi. A few weeks prior to this, I read Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others and I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between them. Ted Chiang writes stories about different ways the world could work. Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories about different ways the future could happen.

These are two very different sorts of speculation. The first requires extreme attention to detail in order to make the setting plausible, but once you clear that bar, you can get away with anything. Ted Chiang is clearly a master at this. I couldn’t find any inconsistencies to pick at in any of his stories.

When you try to predict the future – especially the near future – you don’t need to make up a world out of whole cloth. Here it’s best to start with plausible near future events and let those give your timeline a momentum, carrying you to where you want to go on a chain of reason. No link has to be perfect, but each link has to be plausible. If any of them leave your readers scratching their heads, then you’ve lost them.

Predicting the future is also vulnerable to the future happening. Predictions are rooted in their age and tend to tell us more about the context in which they were made than about the future.

I think Pump Six is a book where we can clearly see and examine both of these problems.

First, let’s talk about chains of events. The stories The Fluted Girl, The Calorie Man, The Tamarisk Hunter, and Yellow Card Man all hinge on events that probably seem plausible to Bacigalupi, but that feel deeply implausible to me.

The Fluted Girl imagines the revival of feudalism in America. Fiefs govern the inland mountains, while there is a democracy (presumably capitalist) on the coasts. This arrangement felt unstable and unrealistic to me.

Feudal societies tend to have much less economic growth than democracies (see part 2 of Scott’s anti-reactionary FAQ). Democracies also aren’t exactly great at staying calm about atrocities right on their doorsteps. These two facts combined make me wonder why the (Coloradan?) feudal society in The Fluted Girl hasn’t been smashed by its economically (and therefore, inevitably militarily) more powerful neighbours.

In The Tamarisk Hunter, the Colorado River is slowly being covered by a giant concrete straw, a project that has been going on for a while and requires massive amounts of resources. The goal is to protect the now diminished Colorado River from evaporation as it winds its way into a deeply drought-stricken California.

In the face of a bad enough drought, every bit counts. But there are much more cost effective ways to get your drinking water. The Colorado river today has an average discharge of 640m3/s. In a bad drought, this would be lower. Let’s say it’s at something like 200m3/s.

You could get that amount of water from building about 100 desalination plants, which would cost something like $100 billion today (using a recently built plant in California as a baseline). Bridges cost something like $3,000 per m2 (using this admittedly flawed report for guidance), so using bridges to estimate the cost, the “straw” would cost about $300 million per kilometer (using the average width of the Colorado river). Given the relative costs of the two options, it is cheaper to replace the whole river (assuming reduced flow from the drought) with desalination plants than it is to build even 330km (<200 miles) of straw.

A realistic response to a decades long California drought would involve paying farmers not to use water, initiating water conservation measures, and building desalination plants. It wouldn’t look like violent conflict over water rights up and down the whole Colorado River.

In The Calorie Man and Yellow Card Man, bioengineered plagues have ravaged the world and oil production has declined to the point where the main source of energy is once again the sun (via agriculture). Even assuming peak oil will happen (more on that in a minute), there will always be nuclear power. Nuclear power plants currently provide for only ten percent of the world’s energy needs, but there’s absolutely no good reason they couldn’t meet basically all of them (especially if combined with solar, hydro, wind, and if necessary, coal).

With improved uranium enrichment techniques and better energy storage technology, it’s plausible that sustainable energy sources could, if necessary, entirely displace oil, even in the transportation industry.

The only way to get from “we’re out of oil” to “I guess it’s back to agriculture as our main source of energy” is if you forget about (or don’t even consider) nuclear power.

This is why I think the stories in Pump Six tell me a lot more about Bacigalupi than about the future. I can tell that he cares deeply about the planet, is skeptical of modern capitalism, and fearful of the damage industrialization, fossil fuels, and global warming may yet bring.

But the story that drove home his message for me wasn’t any of the “ecotastrophes”, where humans are brought to the brink of destruction by our mistreatment of the planet. It was The People of Sand and Slag that made me stop and wonder. It asks us to consider what we’d lose if we poison the planet while adapting to the damage. Is it okay if beaches are left littered with oil and barbed wire if these no longer pose us any threat?

I wish more of the stories had been like that, instead of infected with the myopia that causes environmentalists to forget about the existence of nuclear power (when they aren’t attacking it) and critics of capitalism to assume that corporations will always do the evil thing, with no regard to the economics of the situation.

Disregard for economics and a changing world intersect when Bacigalupi talks about peak oil. Peak oil was in vogue among environmentalists in the 2000s as oil prices rose and rose, but it was never taken seriously by the oil industry. As per Wikipedia, peak oil (as talked about by environmentalists in the ’00s, not as originally formulated) ignored the effects of price on supply and demand, especially in regard to unconventional oil, like the bitumen in the Albertan Oil Sands.

Price is really important when it comes to supply. Allow me to quote from one of my favourite economics stories. It’s about a pair of Texan brothers who (maybe) tried to corner the global market for silver and in the process made silver so unaffordable that Tiffany’s ran an advertisement denouncing them in the third page of the New York Times. The problems the Texans ran into as silver prices rose are relevant here:

But as the high prices persisted, new silver began to come out of the woodwork.

“In the U.S., people rifled their dresser drawers and sofa cushions to find dimes and quarters with silver content and had them melted down,” says Pirrong, from the University of Houston. “Silver is a classic part of a bride’s trousseau in India, and when prices got high, women sold silver out of their trousseaus.”

Unfortunately for the Hunts, all this new supply had a predictable effect. Rather than close out their contracts, short sellers suddenly found it was easier to get their hands on new supplies of silver and deliver.

“The main factor that has caused corners to fail [throughout history] is that the manipulator has underestimated how much will be delivered to him if he succeeds [at] raising the price to artificial levels”

By the same token, many people underestimated the amount of oil that would come out of the woodwork if oil prices remained high – arguably artificially high, no thanks to OPEC – for a prolonged period. As an aside, it’s also likely that we underestimate the amount of unconventional water that could be found if prices ever seriously spiked, another argument against the world in The Tamarisk Hunter.

This isn’t to say that there won’t be a peak in oil production. The very real danger posed by global warming and the fruits of investments in alternative energy when oil prices were high will slowly wean us off of oil. This formulation of peak oil is much different than the other one. A steady decrease in demand for oil  will be hard on oil producing regions, but it won’t come as a sharp shock to the whole world economic order.

I don’t know how much of this could have been known in 2005, especially to anyone deeply embedded in the environmentalist movement. As an exoneration, that’s wonderful. But this is exactly my point from above. You can try and predict the future, but you can only predict from your flawed vantage point. In retrospect, it is often easier to triangulate the vantage point than to see the imagined future as plausible.

Another example: almost all science fiction before the late 00s drastically underestimated the current prevalence in mobile devices. In series that straddle the divide, you often see mobile devices mentioned much more in the latter books, as authors adjust their visions of the future to take into account what they now know in the present.

Writing is hard and the critic will always have an easier time than the author. I don’t mean to be so hard on Bacigalupi, I really did enjoy Pump Six and it’s caused me to do no end of thinking and discussing since I finished reading it. In this regard, it was an immensely successful book.

Epistemic Status: The math is Falsifiable, the rest is a Model.

Literature, Model

Levels of Reading or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and (Occasionally) Love Literary Fiction

Annoyed with me describing If on a winter’s night a traveller as “very literary” one too many times, my partner Tessa challenged me to explain what I meant by “literary”.

This presented a problem, because I’ve been using literary as a shorthand for “that type of book that people who review books for a living get really excited about but I never seem to like” – basically as a category label, not as a descriptive phrase. Even worse, If on a winter’s night a traveller didn’t really fit into the category anyway; it’s a book that I’m heartily enjoying.

To answer Tessa’s question, I had to abandon using “literary” as a category label and instead treat it as a handle for a concept. But first, I needed a concept.

Levels of Reading

Imagine you ask me to tell you a story and I start with these famous six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

How do you interpret this story?

You could just look at the plot, such as it is. Clearly someone is selling some baby clothes; not very interesting.

Or you could look at it from the perspective of someone who has an idea of the flow of stories. What are the implications of selling baby’s clothes that are never worn? Clearly this is telling us that someone has undergone a tragedy.

Or you could look at it as someone who knows they’re being told a story. What themes seem to be present? Have you read other similar stories? Is this an allusion to them? A deconstruction? Is the author doing something interesting with language?

As a reader, you can expect to fluidly move between these stances. Sometimes, when the action is intense, you will read the book mainly on the first level. But then when you catch a sign that the characters have missed, you might be tossed up to the second level and spend some time contemplating what is being foreshadowed. Or perhaps a chance word will force you to consider the story from a broader social context.

Okay, enough examples. Let’s formalize these reading levels!

I’m positing a model where there are three levels of reading. Any story can be read at any level and most stories are intended to be read at every level at least some of the time. What distinguishes genres like literary fiction from pulp novels is the expected default level and the level at which the reader is supposed to derive the majority of their enjoyment.

Aside: In a perfect world, people could pick whichever books draw them to the reading level they enjoy the most. Unfortunately, I think it is common to attach character judgements to people who have an aesthetic preference for books on a certain level. It’s all too easy to claim that someone who prefers to read at a different level than you do is somehow deficient in some virtue or is aesthetically stunted. Therefore, I’ve attached my estimation of the common judgements made of works that are meant to be read at each level, in the hopes that it will help both me and my readers notice these judgements and avoid perpetuating them.

Level 1

At level 1, the reader is focused solely on the immediate plot. What is going on? What are characters feeling? How does this make you feel? Here you are using your ability to read to connect words into coherent sentences that immerse you in the story.

Stories read mostly at this level: “Pulpy” fiction, “young readers” books, any science fiction or fantasy that sells a lot of copies but is never nominated for the Hugo Awards.

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “shallow” or “lacking in substance”, not appropriate for adults or appropriate only for reading while travelling or on vacation, indicative of unrefined tastes.

Level 2

At this level, the reader is focused on the form of the story. What is being foreshadowed? What character growth is being highlighted? Was that just a callback to the first book in the series? Here you are using your memory and intuitions to connect parts of the text to other parts of the text, even those you have not seen yet.

Stories read mostly at this level: “character-driven” fiction, classical tragedies, thrillers that rely on suspense and foreshadowing, most books that win Hugo Awards

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: “watered-down”, overly conventional, clichéd/predictable, or pandering.

Level 3

At this level, the reader is focused on how the story interacts with the wider world. What sort of tone does the author set? What other works are alluded to, deconstructed, or reconstructed. What techniques are used and which techniques are ignored? What flourishes does the author use? Here you are using your knowledge of culture and conventions to understand the place of the work in the context of a larger corpus of related works.

Stories read mostly at this level: “experimental” novels, deconstructions, “literary” fiction, most books that win the John W Campbell Award.

What judgement is made of stories primarily on this level: incomprehensible, dense, elitist, snobbish, lacking in plot, or read more for signalling than genuine enjoyment

“Literary” as a handle

With this model, I can now use “literary” in a descriptive sense. If I describe a book as literary, I’m really saying that I view the book as one meant to be primarily read and enjoyed on the third level.

Reflecting on this model has helped me systematize some of the things I get out of books. In general, I prefer works that are meant to be enjoyed and read mainly on the first two levels. I tend to feel that novels that expect me to engage with them primarily on the third level have abrogated their duty to entertain me. That said, I can like works that focus on level 3 when they cause me to ponder areas I’m already interested in.

This helps resolve the question that started this whole mess, namely: “if I generally dislike literary books, why am I enjoying If on a winter’s night a traveller”. It’s now clear that I like it because it engages with the experience of being a reader, an experience dear to my heart. If it spent the majority of its time demanding that I read it on the third level while failing to engage with topics I cared about, I think I’d be much less likely to enjoy it.

Understanding this gives me a better heuristic for making book buying decisions when the only information I have is reviews. In general, I should avoid books that are described with terms that suggest that the book should primarily be enjoyed on the third level, unless the book seems to require engagement with a topic I already care about.

On the other hand, I should look for indications that the book encourages readers to occasionally read on level 3. While I tend to rip through books written to be read mostly on level 1, the books that I come back to again and again spend most of their time on level 2, but use level 3 strategically to highlight themes and really drive their points home.

A final note: this model can be applied to any work of fiction, not just books. For example, Psycho Pass is an anime that exists primarily on level 2, but uses level 3 to great effect. Madoka Magica, on the other hand, is primarily on level 3; it would not be nearly as strong of work without the context of other magical girl anime within which it exists. It may even be possible to extend this model to music or art, but here I must plead ignorance and leave that labour to another.

Epistemic Status: Model