We only just finished watching the first season of Revolution the other day, just in time for the new season to start. It raises some great questions about our modern world, and our dependence on electricity and power for just about everything.
This show fits really well with our whole subject of Science Fiction Today, the idea of taking our modern world, and taking it just a little bit into the future. They did it by adding in one element, or rather subtracting one – all the power. They went a little over-the-top, killing all power, even from independent generators or batteries, but then they actually did a pretty good job of explaining why. I’m happy to have watched the show to find out the explanation, and I recommend the show to you – check it out!
Since I am recommending Revolution, I am going to avoid spoilers, and talk more generally about our future in Power – will we have it, will we not? What does our future look like in either case?
The Utopian Possibility – Cold Fusion, Arc Reactors, and the Unobtanium
We can hope, and often do, that Science will invent a new source of power. It’s been an idea in Science Fiction for a while. The dreaming in a modern sense probably started with thoughts of Nuclear Power, and what the future could look like as we move past that – to fission reactors, or the Mr. Fusion of Back to the Future, to the Dilithium Crystals of Star Trek. All Science Fiction needs a power source. In one of the recent episodes of Doctor Who, we saw the singularity which powers the TARDIS.
However, the power is rarely the plot – it’s usually just something that the writer felt like needed to be explained, or else how do we travel at Science Fictional speeds, or through time? This is part of Science Fiction – the need to explain the how of how it all happens.
But sometimes, it’s the plot itself, so let’s looks at a couple of examples. For instance, in the 1997 film The Saint, the action was focused around a scientific breakthrough – the discovery of Cold Fusion. Enough of a breakthrough to power the whole world. And the fight between people wanting to control it, and the people wanting it to be freely available to the world. With the fun twist of the control trying to come out of the broken Soviet Union.
In a lot of ways, this is the sort of breakthrough we’re all hoping for: something to move us past our current use of non-renewable power sources. A lot of the arguments in favor of continuing to use these sources seem to be based on the underlying assumption that of course this discovery will happen – and really, we can all hope they are right. Then of course there are the conspiracy sort of theories about the thought that this confidence comes from the fact that a breakthrough like this has already happened – and we’re waiting until all the money that can be made from oil, etc. is made. I guess time will tell.
More recently, we see the power discussion happening around the character of Iron Man in the movies. Tony Stark builds an Arc Reactor, miniaturized, that powers his whole Iron Man setup. Then, in the Avengers, there is all of the talk about how SHIELD is stepping on his toes by trying to tap the Tessaract for power – at least, as far as Loki’s jabs go. The conversation turns to Stark being the “only name in clean, renewable energy.”
But again, Iron Man is a story of the genius inventor creating something that is renewable power. And it’s a great hope. And one we still have, and keep having. And that keeps not happening. Our future will look great if we end up inventing something like this. Especially if it is the level of power that can keep up extended space flight, power the whole planet, and generally be awesome. Will we see this happen? In our lifetimes?
The Dystopian Possibility – We Run Out OF Power
So while Revolution is a great look at what our society might look like without power, there are others out there. Because everything runs on power, and the things that don’t still rely on power to happen. Everything from the running water, plumbing, to transportation, shipping, movement of food… the basics, much less the fancy gadgets of our times.
One great look at what being in a post-apocalyptic world would be like is Larry Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer. In Lucifer’s Hammer, an asteroid hits the Earth, which is of course pretty catastrophic. The remaining survivors have to try to survive. The basics of society have crumbled, although if I remember right there is still a nuclear power plant that they end up fighting over/fighting for towards the end – because power, at that point, is the difference between civilization and not.
In a world without power… would we have the necessary knowledge and information to even be able to build? Probably not – and so the most valuable man left alive in the story, at least, is a scientist who knows how to do handy things like make mustard gas, or build the basics of mechanics. All because he thought to have a copy of one handy little book:
If you don’t know The Way Things Work, it’s a great book explaining machines and mechanics, full of pictures and written descriptions. This is the guide to building the world without power, pulleys and levers and gears and all kinds of things that can be made to work without power, if necessary.
So of course a catastrophe, like in Revolution or Lucifer’s Hammer, could lead to a situation where we don’t have power, and have to come up with alternatives. But there are more distressing possibilities, like that we don’t invent the next new thing, the currently Unobtainable renewable energy source… Will we see the end coming, then? If so, we could try to peacefully build the level of society that we want to survive. Could we keep a society that is perhaps agrarian but that has running water and plumbing? There are some fundamentals of our modern age – not even enjoyed by the whole world – which would be great for everyone to have, and that if they were all we had, well, would it be so bad?
Maybe. That is why I am really excited for space exploration – in part because, we need to figure out space travel and space exploration before we run out of fuel on Earth to power this exploration! If we end up stranded on the planet… it’s lights out someday!