Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My Favorite Scifi Disasters

I've just finished reading Flood by Stephen Baxter. Like most Baxter books, it is somewhat lacking in compelling characters, but is otherwise jam-packed with amazing ideas and grand visions. It is also an example of a grand tradition in science fiction; the mega-disaster story.

The mega-disaster is an unanticipated event that brings devastation on a global (or even interstellar) scale, and the poor humans have to struggle to survive against the impossible odds brought on by nature's cosmic fury. Because when you think about it, the disasters that we're used to--earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc--are really just the tip of the iceberg of what a universe as vast and as violent as ours can throw at us. Humanity as a whole is only slowly waking to the cosmos beyond our tiny blue ball, and the horrors those uncaring forces can wreak upon our lives and civilization.

So what follows below is a list of what I think are the neatest and most thought-provoking disasters shown in science fiction. The criteria to qualify as a disaster here is that they have to be either an accident or a natural occurrence; nothing deliberately brought about by intelligent creatures, human or otherwise. So no invasions, wars, superweapons, etc. Also, inclusion here is not necessarily a reflection of a work's quality, good or bad, but just how interesting the disaster presented was. In no particular order, and beware of SPOILERS:

DISASTER: Megaflood
SOURCE: Flood by Stephen Baxter

Our planet has vast quantities of water stored under the crust. Google "Beijing Anomaly" for a real-life example. Baxter's novel contemplates that a major seismic event along the Mid Atlantic ridge unleashes these subterranean oceans upon the surface, resulting in a decades-long flood that threatens to engulf every single parcel of land on earth, no matter how high. The likelihood of this seems rather remote (the water in the Beijing Anomaly is actually saturated into porous rock, and not a consolidated body of water), but it still makes one think.

The characters mostly scurry about during the novel, more spectators to what's happening than trying to take control of their own fate, one way or another. Even though we know what's coming, its still fascinating to read about how human society breaks down bit by bit as the waters get higher and higher. There's the usual disaster tale cliches (the one scientists who has it figured out before anyone else is ignored and derided, monuments shown in various states of destruction, douchebag survivalists, etc) but it doesn't stop one from enjoying the ride.

REALITY CHECK: The novel is pretty realistic as far how humanity as a whole would react to the disaster. For the people at the end things look dim indeed, as this could pretty much serve as the prequel to Waterworld, when you think about it. But there is a ray of hope at the end, which thankfully doesn't involve a mutant Kevin Costner.

DISASTER: Global Blindness/Murderous Plants
SOURCE: Day of the Triffids

I've never read the book, only seen the 1962 movie, so that's what I'm basing my impression on. This is basically what we today would call a Zombie Apocalypse scenario, except ramped up several notches. Like in a typical zombie tale, you have slow-shambling killers that attack in mobs and want to eat you. But here the killers are the alien plants called Triffids, which move about, shoot poisonous spines at any loud sound, then move over your fresh corpse to suck out your vital juices with their roots. But unlike zombies, they have no obvious weak spot. So all those shotguns and assault rifles you've been hoarding for the collapse not only prove pretty useless, but also attract even more Triffids and tell them exactly where you are.

To make matters even worse, the Triffids were brought to Earth by a meteor swarm, whose weird radiation rendered 99% of the world's population permanently blind. In many ways that's even more horrifying that the killer plants. Imagine you, all your neighbors and your family suddenly being unable to see. You try to adjust and survive, but one by one over the course of days everyone around you goes forever silent. And the last thing you ever feel as you call for them is the sharp stab of a poisonous spine...

REALITY CHECK: The meteor-radiation-causing-blindness thing probably seemed more plausible to 1962 audiences than it does today, but something like the Triffids arriving via spores in meteorites is within the realm of possibility (of course, it might be that the spores themselves that caused the blindness, and people just misinterpreted the data in the panic that followed. For the situation itself, things seem very good by the end of the movie for the sighted 1%, as its found the alien plants hate seawater. Which might be good for the people along the coasts, but the people living in, say, Colorado would pretty much just be screwed. And its pretty much implied that the 99% struck blind are so much plant food.

DISASTER: Super Hurricanes
SOURCE: Mother of Storms by John Barnes

A military strike on a terrorist organization accidentally releases a gigantic reservoir of methane trapped under the arctic ocean floor. The methane leads to a quick unprecedented rise in air and ocean temperature worldwide, and before you can say 'global warming' the warmer oceans begin spawning monster hurricanes far in excess of category five. In short order, island nations like Cuba and Ireland are scoured down to bare rock, and civilization is nearly brought to its knees under a non-stop barrage of wind, rain, and storm surges.

The novel was written in 1995, before climate change really began registering on the public radar, but one of the major effects predicted for global warming is that it would make storms more intense. Barnes just takes that idea to its extreme and gets a good disaster tale out of it. He mixes the eco-crisis with a lot of cyberpunkish ideas (the story is set in 2028) and a wide cast of quirky characters, including a serial killer and a cybernetically enhanced porn star.

REALITY CHECK: Though I don't think storms will ever get near as bad as what's depicted in the novel, its not implausible that we could be facing increasingly intense storms as global warming worsens in the coming decades. In the novel, help unexpectedly arrives from a pair of rogue cyber-astronauts. Given the state of manned space travel today, I don't think that's something we could count on in real life.

DISASTER: Micro Black Hole impacts Earth
SOURCE: The Doomsday Effect by Thomas Wren

A remnant of the Big Bang, a microscopic singularity, gets caught in Earth's gravity. It enters a comet-like orbit around the planet's core, sweeping up and through Earth's mantle, crust and atmosphere like they aren't even there on every pass. As it grows in mass, it plows ever-larger swaths through the planet, throwing human civilization into a panic as whole cities are destroyed. It threatens to make the homeworld into swiss cheese before finally devouring it completely.

REALITY CHECK: In the novel, they played a complex game of asteroid-billiards to capture the black hole inside one. I'm not sure we'd be capable of something like that for at least a century. So if this happened before then, we're basically screwed, and the bet we could hope for is to establish colonies in space before Earth is toast.

DISASTER: The Moon blasted out of orbit
Source: Space:1999 TV series (pilot)

In the far flung future year of 1999, an international base on the Moon oversees the stockpiling of thousands of tons of nuclear waste on the far side of the satellite. However, on September 13, 1999, that stockpile of exotic radioactives reach critical mass, resulting in a catastrophically huge explosion that blasts the moon out of orbit and into interstellar space. The fate of the 311 stranded inhabitants of the base are thrown in with the errant satellite as it careens through one star system after another.

REALITY CHECK: Pretty preposterous the way it was presented. The radioactive waste would have had to have been made of pure antimatter to create an explosion big enough to possibly send the Moon out of orbit, and even then it would have been more likely to just be blown apart rather than just move. Some other factor had to have been at work (as I contemplated in an EARLIER BLOG POST.)

Still, if something like this did happen, there would be potentially catastrophic results for Earth. In the short term, tides would disappear and wreck ecological havoc with many species who depend on them. In the long term, the Moon's tidal effects is what keeps Earth's core 'churned up' and active, resulting in the magnetic field that helps to protect life from the worst effects of solar radiation. So without the Moon, over many thousands of years the magnetic field would diminish and threaten many future species.

Also, what of the explosion itself? A nuclear detonation that powerful that close to Earth would produce enough radiation to fry just about anything electronic in orbit and may even screw up a lot of ground-based systems.

DISASTER: Earth collides with a small star
SOURCE: When Worlds Collide

In this classic 1951 film, a 'dim star' named Bellus is found to be on a collision course with Earth, and will hit within one year. An alliance of businessmen and scientists begin constructing a ship that will take a relative handful of survivors to safety, even as panic and disaster grows more intense as doomsday approaches.

REALITY CHECK; I already wrote extensively on what might happen if this scenario were to happen today in a previous blog post. Go HERE to read all the details of that.

DISASTER: Galactic Core Explosion
SOURCE: various "Known Space" stories and novels by Larry Niven

The alien Puppeteers wanted a stunt that would advertise their new hyperdrive, so they hire human pilot Beowulf Schaeffer to pilot it to the center of the galaxy. Schaeffer discovered that the core of the galaxy is exploding from a chain of tightly-packed stars going supernovae, and that the lethal wave of radiation would wash over Known Space, including Earth and the Puppeteer homeworld, in 20,000 years.

The Puppeteers, wily cowards that they are, immediately pull out of Known Space and even begin moving their entire home planet to safety.

REALITY CHECK: We've learned in the decades since that the galactic core can indeed explode aftre a fashion, but from the supermassive black holes there gobbling up large masses of stars all at once, rather than a chain of supernovae. In the stories, humans and other races think the Puppeteers are insane for moving so fast, considering the shockwave of radiation in 20,000 years away and everyone has hyperdives. Of course, the Puppeteers think the humans and the others are insane for not fleeing right away.

Since the galactic core black hole gorges itself every few hundred million years, life on Earth must have withstood the influx of radiation from it before. However, last time it happened, there might have been no significant multicelled organisms, or life on land. How it would affect us today if it happened is largely unknown.

DISASTER: The Sun-Eater Devours the Sun
SOURCE: The Final Night, a 1996 miniseries/crossover event from DC comics

The Sun-Eater is a gigantic multi-dimensional creature the feeds off the energy of stars. It seemed to be non-sentient, a cosmic-scale animal intelligence simply doing what it has to to survive. It will enter a star system, completely envelop the sun, and feed off its thermal energy for up to several weeks. The absorption of so much heat causes the outer layers of the star to collapse then explode outward. The force of the explosion sends the Sun-Eater to the next solar system and its next meal.

Of course, for inhabitants of the planets orbiting the star the Sun-Eater is devouring, this is a lethal proposition. And that's exactly what happens to the DC Comics' Earth. The sun simply turns black one day, and Earth begins to slowly freeze. There's widespread panic and devastation, and the superheroes have their hands full containing it all. Meanwhile, only a handful suspect that the freeze is only a precursor to a much more explosive doomsday that will soon follow.

The Final Night is by far one of my favorite super-hero crossover stories, back when I was reading comics regularly. DC brought in hard science fiction author Larry Niven as an advisor, to create a plausible (in comic book physics terms) scenario for both the Sun-Eater's nature and what would happen to Earth after the sun goes black. The most intriguing part of the story was how the various super-heroes handled the crisis. Though powerhouses on a human scale, even the likes of Superman, Flash, and Green Lantern are reduced to insignificance next to the Sun-Eater's god-like power and indifference. Plus, there was nothing to throw a punch at or outwit; the Sun-Eater was a force of nature far beyond even them. In the more thoughtful installments of the story, even they give over to feelings of despair and helplessness, even as they fight to save whoever they can, even if it is only for a few hours more of life.

REALITY CHECK: The Sun-Eater seems pretty implausible. But then, our universe is immensely old and big, so who know what oddities it might have spawned? In the story, the characters were able to Deus Ex Machina their way out of things at the last minute by appealing to a cosmic-powered peer of the Sun-Eater. If something like the Sun-Eater ever struck in real life, I doubt we'd be able to do the same.

1 comment:

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