Pharyngula

Storm World

Back when I was a youngling, I read a very exciting series of science-fiction novels called The Deathworld Trilogy, by Harry Harrison. The premise was that there was this horrifically fierce planet in the galaxy, with gravity twice Earth-normal, constantly erupting volcanoes, and savage, ravenous beasts that were out to destroy anything that moves. The humans who settled there became heavily muscled with lightning-fast reflexes and a militaristic society that provided some of the best soldiers in the universe. Now that is the setting for old-school science-fiction.

The genre isn’t dead! I picked up a copy of a book called Storm World(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). I figured it would be another tale of heroic humans conquering impossible odds in a dangerous setting, this time on a planet rife with ferocious storms. The story provides the storms, alright, but, boy, was I disappointed otherwise: it was the most unbelievable science-fiction novel I’ve ever read.

The setting is a kind of alternate Earth where we have the same continents and oceans and countries, but on this planet, every year 80 or 90 brutal storms arise in the oceans, slosh around over the sea, and sometimes go charging up randomly onto the land. Coastal cities face a throw of the dice every year, but here’s one unbelievable thing: people choose to live near the shore, even along coasts where these storms have a history of crashing inland. They even live in cities at or below sea level that have been demolished by hurricanes before. I was wondering why everyone doesn’t simply rush to move to the Midwest, to someplace safe like Minnesota. Or Iowa, at least.

These storms are truly horrific, in some cases killing hundreds of thousands of people and turning cities into collections of splintered matchsticks. You’d think governments would be pouring money into defense against the storms and prioritizing research into them … but no. In one case a program that needs $30 billion to begin to be effective gets tossed a bone of $3 billion. It’s like people in the story just don’t care enough.

Now here’s a bad writing decision. Obviously, the most important conflict here has to be between the deadly storms and the human beings subject to their whims, but in a seemingly arbitrary character decision, the author has created a bevy of scientists, and almost all of the conflict is between them! Storms sweep in with impunity, and the scientists squabble over how it happened. Unbelievable. Then two of the most important characters in the story — the Rough-Hewn Empiricist and the Polished Urbane Theorist — turn out to have deeply conflicting opinions, and they spend much of the book arguing. Is this how science is done on any sensible planet? I don’t know why the author didn’t just merge those two into a single brilliant figure of Heinleinian competence who’d simply reconcile the two approaches and solve the whole problem.

(Another awkwardness in the casting: there is perhaps one woman playing an important role in the story. She is not described as “buxom”. There is no romantic subplot. There are no sex scenes.)

If it isn’t bad enough that the scientists are fighting one another, they’re also all mired in these obtuse bureaucracies. People are dying and property is being smashed, and the bureaucrats are all trying to muzzle the scientists working within them. Shouldn’t there be at least one stirring scene where a bold politician cuts through the red tape and unshackles the scientists to do their freaking job?

It just gets worse. After some particularly destructive storms damage his country, the president drags his feet, refuses to acknowledge the problem, and preferentially favors one group of scientists over another. In the most narcissistic episode in the book, this president even ignores the scientists to consult with a science-fiction writer, one who rejects the major conclusions of the scientists and has no qualifications in the field whatsoever. I’m sorry, but disbelief could not be suspended at that point; there’s no way anyone smart enough to be president would favor a third-rate literary hack over the suggestions of his scientific advisors, especially when the lives of the country’s citizens and its economic prosperity were at stake.

Finally, when the story ends, nothing is resolved! There are indications that the storms are going to get more severe, the scientists are still arguing, the government is still just backing whichever side requires the least short-term effort, and all the answers to what’s causing the storms have gotten more complicated. It’s the most blatant set-up for a sequel I’ve seen. And then there’s all this horribly complicated socio-political and geophysical stuff … who does the author think he is, Kim Stanley Robinson?

The author is some guy named Mooney … hey, hang on a sec. I think I’ve heard of him. Doesn’t he have some blog? No wonder he writes such unbelievably crappy science fiction — he’s not even a novelist, he’s some kind of science journalist.

Uh, well, I see the book is also supposed to be filed in the QC900s at the library…it’s not supposed to be fiction at all.

How embarrassing.

I guess that also explains why there are no scaly armored sea monsters or blaster battles, and why there is a long and thorough introduction to the history of meteorology. It also explains the primers on methods of measurement and thermodynamic models of hurricane formation, and all those maps and appendices — it wasn’t just obsessive fantasy worldbuilding.

So it’s poor science fiction, but it’s pretty darn chilling (and infuriating) science fact. It’s realistic in its portrayal of science as a struggle to extract causes and mechanisms from extremely complex evidence, and in the unfortunately accurate description of the warring personalities and perspectives that drive the scientific endeavor. The description of the political processes is even more unfortunate: how the layers of administrative bureacracies and top-down demands of uninformed politicians who have a stake in remaining ignorant and in the pockets of conflicting interests is not reassuring for the future.

So don’t get it for the blasters and the romance. Get it for the summary of the often uncomfortable interface between science and politics, Mooney’s specialty. I give it two thumbs up, with one hand curling clockwise and the other anti-clockwise.

Hey, does this mean those monster storms are real? Jebus, why isn’t everyone moving to Minnesota right now?

Comments

  1. #1 Allan Mullery
    December 17, 2009

    hrdcrrr mn ! lv t

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