Considering SF, Societal Collapse and Rebuilding

I have been asked to be part of a panel on "Collapse Fiction" at the SF (Science Fiction) Potlatch convention in Seattle on February 24-26, 2012.


The description of the panel from the program is:
A Canticle for Leibowitz isn't the only book about societal collapse and rebuilding. Join us for a discussion of other books with similar themes. What other authors have done it well? How is collapse fiction changing as the threats to modern society evolve, from nuclear annihilation in the 1950s to the ecological and political threats of today?

Being asked to participate on this panel started me thinking of ways to delineate Collapse Fiction and thus this short and most likely incomplete set of questions, issues and categories came to be written as an aid for me in thinking about "Collapse Fiction". I expect to add to and modify this post quite a bit up to the Potlatch convention and following.

Now on to thinking about fiction and collapse.

While the individual types and degrees of social behavior can vary from person to person we list humans are social creatures. I propose for this discussion of societal collapse we consider a simple division of Societal features:
  - Interpersonal norms - Trust, honesty and benevolence
  - Intellectual - knowledge, technology, science
  - Identity - cultural mythology, arts, literature
  - Infrastructure - markets, communications
  - Physical needs - health, food, water
These are not strictly Hierarchical however I feel there are relationships and support (and overlap) between levels. In particular if the Physical needs are seriously compromised then that contributes to a more rapid breakdown and a difficulty in rebuilding. This has an impact on story structure for example if a marauding army comes through and confiscates the grain is there enough seed grain for the next planting?

And it is useful to contrast these with the classic Maslow Hierarchy of Needs
 - Self-Actualization
 - Esteem
 - Belongingness and Love
 - Safety
 - Physiological
The implication is not that there is a correspondence between elements of the two lists but rather that it is useful to distinguish the elements as a way to example various fictional works.

Too often I think the issue is constructed as two phased - collapse and then rebuild (Down then Up) a V shaped model.  I prefer a more U shaped three phase model of collapse, stabilization, rebuild and that in each of these phases there is a survival component; quite probably with some overlap. Of course each of these phases will not be smooth and linear but rather each will likely be bumpy and non-linear.  And of course the slope of the sides of the U are important thus it might be thought of as more of a bowl than a U.

Further we need to realize that the rate of change both during collapse and rebuilding is an important consideration. It raises the question when does simple societal change become so rapid that it becomes societal collapse? And at what point going down the collapse slope it is reasonable to say that there as been a Collapse. This raises the issue of collapse as a Process and collapse as a Condition. For example consider towns and cities which have fallen from their former glory and are now half abandoned?

This of course leads us to consider the systems boundary issue?  What defines the society under consideration?  Is it a town, a river valley, a provincial area, a federal government, a cultural subgroup, an ethnicity or all humans? And are the factors endogenous (from within the system) or exogenous (from outside the system)? And how can a society change within a novel as still be considered the same society or is the novel about transformation or perhaps the novel is about multiple societies and cultural traditions merging.

There is also the question of perspective when one person sees collapse and another sees positive transformation. This can be the case particularly when consideration the cultural and institutional features; for example a set of religious beliefs and institutions which for some have been the primary defining characteristics of a society might be dying off as modern secular Enlightenment views take hold. Thus the same change can be viewed as either collapse or as rebuilding.

To the above we can add the Journalism 4 Ws and an H and adapt them to a typical SF Collapse and Rebuild novel
who - characters in a social setting
what - one or more of collapse, survival, rebuild
where - setting both location and temporal
why - agent or force of nature
how - weapons, climate, famine, disease

Within this conceptual framework in mind I will consider various works and how they fit.

The first novel I would like to mention is Pulling Through by Dean Ing published by Ace Science Fiction in 1983. As many novels between roughly 1950 and 1990 the thing which brings about sudden change is a nuclear war. The system boundary for this novel is northern California primarily in the greater San Francisco Bay area. The exogenous factor that starts the collapse is nuclear weapons hitting San Francisco and other areas. The narrative revolves around Harve Rackham who is a bounty hunter, the young fugitive woman he has just picked up and Harv's sister and her family from the Silicon Valley. Much of the book is involved with the survival of the collapse stage; that is how do you stay alive in the hours, days and weeks following a nuclear exchange. The end of the novel covers some of the stabilization period up through the beginning of the rebuild or as it is labeled in the novel Doomsday plus 176. The original paperback edition has a an end section discussing many of the survival issues as well as plans for a homebuilt radiation detector. This novel along with other stories about the same main character are collected into a single ebook called The Rackham Files which is available from Baen Books but unfortunately the end sections are not included. However the plans for the fallout meter are available for free online:
Thus Pulling Through is an example of a collapse novel with an exogenous impact doing massive damage to health and infrastructure with the survival during the collapse as well as the sustaining and rebuilding being due in large part to endogenous resources such as stocking supplies, planning ahead and the personal human resources of ingenuity and perseverance.

UPDATE:  2012-03-03
The panel was a success.  I have some notes at
What I am adding here are comments about specific works. Some of these i mentioned during the panel.

Title: Saturn's Children
Author: Charles Stross

Collapse of human society by humans not reproducing. Human society ends however robot society goes and flourished. If we consider the larger social system to include human society as a subsystem or social subgroup then perhaps we can view this as a partial collapse (aka decline) with a sustaining period and a rebuilding in a new form. If the meme set continues is the gene set that important. Just as we are overcoming prejudise based on race and gender do we also want to over come prejudise based on substrate.

Title: The Higway Men
Author: Ken MacLoed

This short work is after a major war has started. The second chatper is only about 5 pages long and it alone is worth the price if it makes people stop and think about how simple events can get misunderstood and lead to serious problems.

Title: Little Brother
Author: Cory Doctorow

The impact is composed of two events; first one exogenous which is terrorists blowing up the Bay Bridge and second one being the heavy handed, irrational, out of control response by the Department of Homeland Security which can be considered as either endogenous or exogenoous depending on the boundary. lhe sustaining and rebuilding are partially based on knowledge and skills acquired prior to the impact event as well as the actions of the main protaganist and his friends and accomplists so this can be considered as a endogenous rebuilding.

Title: Fire on the Mountain
Author: Terry Bisson

This work is structured as an alternative history retrospective in which the raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry is successful leading to a slave upgrising and war culminatiing in the creation of a new socialist country Nova Africa. Thus we have a an collapse particularly from the slave owning class. The war is won by the group lead by John Brown and Harriet Tubman which grows from the small number of the ferry raid to a large army with the abolistionists, free blacks and runaway slaves joining the ranks. From the perspective of the slave owners this is a societal collapse however ever the perspective of others it can be viewed as the first steps of rebuilding from a society long in collapse.

Title: Howl
Author: Allen Ginsburg

The first fourteen words of Howl set the scene of the author seeing collapse at a culture level impacting society as well as the "best minds". What is interesting is that another part of the society did not recognize the situation as a collapse in Ginsburgs terms; on the contrary this segment of society saw the works of Ginsburg and others such as Lenny Bruce, Jack Kerouac as causing a social degradation. Thus we see an interesting question of perspective.


Some link gathering

I will often click on a link in a browser because it is something that I expect to want to look at later when I hope to have more time. Occasionally these links and other documents to which they point form interesting and unusual juxtapositions. And I cover a few of these juxtapositions here.

Glenn Greeenwald has an article on the attack drones from the USA targeting those who might be rescuers and/or mourners:

Additional discussion at:

Killing children and any helpful bystanders who come to the aid of injured people is not a really good way to gain the good will of people around the world and to encourage the social connections which help develop a better society.

I think that having a well educated populace with knowledge of social sciences, arts, physical and biological sciences is an aid in developing a rich and more tolerant social environment. So what was the results of the actions of the government of the USA in Iraq both prior to and after the invasion? According this article it has not been good:

And we all remember Obama getting the Peace Prize. Well it looks like there are now some concerns that Prize has not always been justified or was too political.

And in an interesting development we see that PFC Bradley Manning has been nominated:

All of this might lead to a serious and public discussion about the Peace Prize, who gets it and why. If that conversation has a difficult time starting with those who award the Prize then perhaps a way to jumpstart the discussion is to ask them to consider if Manning is more deserving of the prize than Obama.