Review: The Colony

The Colony

Discovery Channel

“Reality TV”

From the network that gave us Mythbusters comes a show that seems to be a fusion of Junkyard Wars and Survivor. The show takes 10 people of varied backgrounds – a physician, a nurse, a handyman, a marine biologist, a couple of engineers – and sets them in a world where most humans have perished from a global virus.   Each episode has started with a head shot of Adam Montella, a “Homeland Security Advisor,”  telling us “We are on the edge of a global catastrophic disaster.”  The background shows a grim picture of Century City in ruins.

The “world” where these 10 survivors spend the next 10 weeks is located in an abandoned warehouse park on the edge of the Los Angeles River.  They are cut off from communication, electricity, and running water.  They must solve the problems of shelter, food and water and even the occasional “marauder” in the archetypal form of a motorcycle gang.

If you read the credits carefully, there is a disclaimer reading, “The participants in ‘The Colony’ experiment are presented with situations that were created by the producers.  They receive support from off-camera experts when their health and safety may be in danger. Viewers should not attempt to engage in the activities depicted in the experiment.”  So, they aren’t really cut off from the world.

I don’t believe this show was envisioned to be an actual show about people surviving.  You know they are going to survive for ten weeks, or they wouldn’t have a show.  There are experts on hand to advise and help the cast with their projects.  However, it does provide a vehicle for inspiring discussion about how people react in extreme conditions.

There are ethical questions to consider:  Is it really okay to steal food from somebody else, knowing that you may have condemned them to death by starvation, just so that you can have another day’s worth of food?  Would it have been better to invite the guys who owned the goats to join them in the Sanctuary?  (Not in the script, though.)  In order to survive for long, they are going to have to reinvent agriculture, a very labor-intensive activity without 21st Century technology to help.  They’re going to need every hand they can get come the harvest.

Questions of desperation: How hungry do you have to be to eat a carp caught in the Los Angeles River?

Questions of personality: Okay, the handyman is probably over-reacting in order to get more air time on the show.  Do you notice that the camera rarely focuses on the quieter, more rational types?  The handyman is an a-hole, but his skills are necessary for the survival of the group.  When does one side of this equation overrule the other?

The show offers a lot of instruction — I didn’t know about the wood gasifyer, but, day-um!  How kewl is that?  I suspect that the little two-stroke engine that they attached it to won’t last long on that fuel, but it’s still a good idea!

I don’t believe this show will offer a lot in the way of plot twists and surprises, but it’s still good fodder for discussion of human nature and survival.


Book Review – Conquistador

Books –
S. M. Stirling
ROC, 2003

If you’re not, as I am, a native Californian, you may skip the next paragraph.  It probably won’t mean much to you.

I have often wondered what it would be like to visit pre-Columbian California.  To see all those animals that have gone extinct since the arrival of Europeans, including the many native tribes.  It would be breathtaking to look upon the Yosemite Valley, Mount McKinley, Mount Shasta, the San Francisco Bay, Death Valley, the Mojave Desert, the redwood forests, and the wild Pacific coast before modern technology put its footprint there.  Being able to time-travel back to these days has been the core of many a personal fantasy.

I won’t begrudge living in modern California.  If it weren’t for modern technology, much of it invented here, I wouldn’t be alive today.  But the fantasy remains.

This is sort of what S. M. Stirling does in his book, Conquistador.  In the very first chapter, he opens a gate to a parallel universe, a staple in modern SF for lo these many years, where Europeans never made it to the Americas.  A young veteran, just back from the war in the Pacific, invites his friends on an adventure through this gate, and by 2009, where the bulk of the story takes place, things have progressed quite a bit.

It dawns on you during the early parts of the book, that the story doesn’t start off in our universe, either, but one that is very similar.

The vet, John Rolfe, decides that secrecy is the best policy, and manages to hide his universe  for over 60 years. But the problems with secrets is that they become increasingly difficult to keep.  Along comes Tom Christiansen, a game warden for the California Department of Fish and Game, who literally stumbles across this secret.

After this, the book takes on the familiar tone that Stirling set in his other books.  Huge fighting Swedes, beautiful plucky women, lots of battle scenes, descriptions of weaponry, and an array of stereotyped support cast.

We follow Christiansen through a travelogue of this Alternate California, which isn’t entirely pre-Columbian anymore since Rolfe’s arrival, but it’s close enough.  Those of you who are purists when it comes to native species ecologies will be aghast to learn that Rolfe has introduced a number of large game animals from Africa and Asia to the California landscape, which certainly adds to the exotic nature of the narrative.   You’ll also cringe at the part where we learn that the native human population of North America is about 10% of what it was before Rolfe, due to that ol’ friend, disease.  Stirling is quick to point out, however, that Rolfe was not any sort of epidemiologist, and had no intention of killing anybody through germ warfare.

Note to self: Upon discovering alternate universes, hire a group of ecologists and epidemiologists.

If you liked other Stirling books, you’ll like this one.  And vice versa.