The Technology of our Ancestors

Another recumbent rider who also blogs on WordPress recently wrote about the pros and cons of using ancient technology in preference to modern.  He makes a good point, and he was careful to moderate it with the phrase “a rule of thumb.”  He wrote, “I have developed a rule of thumb when evaluating if a health claim is true or not; If early humans did it, then it is good, otherwise it is bad.”

I didn’t want to instigate a long, drawn-out argument on his blog about this – mostly because I have no real argument – but I believe the subject does beg discussion, and this blog has been cooking in my mind for a couple of days now.

I have some of the same philosophies about life, though the rules are more complex.  I make every effort to buy local organic produce, for instance, and there are lots of farms here about, but coffee doesn’t grow in northern California, so there’s an exception right there.  And we aren’t giving up our computers.

Some of you know that I’m active in the Society for Creative Anachronisms, and that I have long studied the arts of the sword and the bow.  However, if a crazed rapist were to break into the house, you know I’d reach for the Smith & Wesson.  Even the most enthusiastic SCA-er will remind you that it’s “The middle ages as they should have been.”  Like, no Plague, we wear eye-glasses, and if you try to take away women’s suffrage, we’ll kill you with your own sword.

And, of course, there are some of us who simply wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for 21st Century medicine.

So, can we agree that some modern solutions are better than bronze age ones?

Let’s take a closer look at some ancestral solutions, though.   The first question we have to ask is, “Which ancestors?”  The ones from pre-electric 19th century, or shall we go back as far as Australopithecus?  I’m not running around naked on the African savannah for anybody.  The original blog was about shoes, and the earliest known shoes are from bronze-age Mesopotamia.  That’s still a long ways to go back.

Difficult to pick, huh?

There is a popular television show on NBC called Revolution, and the major premise is that the entire world has been plunged into a permanent black out because all of the electricity has been turned off.  Remember that scene from The Day the Earth Stood Still? (The superb 1951 version, not the bastardized 2008 one.)  Well, it’s not 1951 anymore, and the consequences are even more dire.  Suddenly, we’re back to 19th Century agrarian communities.

Revolution is escapist post-apocalypse fantasy, though certainly not as much so as the book Dies the Fire (one of my absolute fave books, by the way!) Have you ever worked a farm using 19th Century technology?  I have.  It’s fun for about a week.  After that it’s just hard work, and lots of it.  And quite frankly, I don’t believe the current world’s population could be fed that way.

So, where do I stand on this issue?  Well, like almost everything else, it depends on the details.

More musings on this at another time.


Books – A Meeting at Corvallis: What would you do?

Books –
A Meeting at Corvallis
S. M. Stirling
ROC, 2004
Third book of a series started with Dies the Fire

I haven’t finished reading this book yet, so it wouldn’t be fair to write any kind of review. But the opening chapters force the reader to come to grips with the concept of crime and punishment in societies that can’t afford prisons, where the human population is about 1/100th of it’s current 6 billion, battling for survival against the elements and each other without the aid of electricity, heat engines, or firearms.

I was put off at one of the main characters, Mike Havel, in the first two books because he hung outlaws. Now, hanging is a pretty gruesome way to kill somebody. But it wasn’t so much as the barbaric method of execution that bothered me, but the fact that Mike Havel, along with being the military and civil leader of the Bearkillers, was also the judge, jury, prosecutor and executioner of the prisoners. Even though the narrative makes it clear that these men deserve no sympathy what so ever, this is not something that my Twenty-first Century American mind can accept as just, no matter how it’s described.

In the third book, A Meeting at Corvallis, a different set of heroes in the story must defend their borders against an incursion of bandits, thieves, rapists and terrorists. This band of brigands is lead by a man of aristocracy and money. The aristocrat has hired the criminals to conduct a stealth incursion into our heroes’ territories.

Now, our heroes defeat the bad guys handily, but now need to decide what to do with the survivors.

Without even thinking about it too much, they decide to hold the aristocrat for ransom and behead the rest.

This is certainly a very practical answer. Our heroes have absolutely no facilities for holding prisoners, and we hold no delusions that the criminals will ever be rehabilitated, and if released, they’d simply find other, less well defended, victims. And our heroes are in dire need of money so that they can buy the weapons and supplies necessary to go about their crime fighting ways.

However – the rich guy, who was the mastermind and prime motivator for the crime, gets to live, and the scum of the earth, who were simply being opportunistic, get the death sentence. Even though this directly mirrors our own justice system, it’s still not right. In fact, the only crimes they actually commit are conspiracy and trespassing. They never get the chance to carry out their nefarious plans. Neither of these are capital crimes in any just system.

On the other hand, if I think about it hard enough, I can’t say that I’d handle the situation any differently. At least I would regret the necessity and have nightmares about it.

What would you do?

Book Review – Dies the Fire

Book Review – Dies the Fire
S. M. Stirling, 2004
First book of a series.

I have a very dear friend I’ll call “Eva” because … well … that’s her name. We’ve known each other since before the snakes left Ireland. In the last year or so, she and her husband have been suggesting that I read a book called Dies the Fire.

It’s a sort of an inverse of the time travel idea, where instead of taking the traveler to the Middle Ages, the Middle Ages are brought to the traveler. This Mohammedian task is accomplished by (select one: A; some deity or B; some space alien [depending on your religion, that’s roughly the same thing, and the book never specifies]) getting so pissed off at the human race, that they (select one: A: cast a spell or B: set off a weapon) that causes every piece of technology invented since the beginning of the Renaissance to stop working. This is accomplished by causing all electrical potential to ground out permanently, and all gun powder and gasoline to burn too slowly to support any kind of explosion. Don’t ask about steam power. It seems a minor flaw in the spell and the story.

I remember seeing the celluloid atrocity, Escape from Los Angeles, the sequel to Escape from New York. In the final scene, Kurt Russell’s character, Snake, sets off a bomb that permanently plunges the entire world into the situation described in the previous paragraph. Snake’s comment at that point was, “Welcome to the Human Race.”

My comment at that point was, “Great! In the guise of saving us from evil technology, you just murdered millions of people instantly, and condemned most of the rest of humanity to a long suffering death by starvation, disease and mayhem.” This is exactly where the book Dies the Fire starts. People are going about their late 20th Century lives, and somebody sets off the Sword of Damocles bomb. From there, the book follows two groups of characters who handle the situation somewhat differently, but come to the same solutions. To wit, it’s time to relearn the sword and bow, folks.

The author doesn’t try to hide his own prejudices, but rather embraces them. Modern humans aren’t really humans because they spend too much time watching television and doing meaningless tasks. But after the Change, the real people emerge.

I can’t help but wonder if I would survive those initial hours and days. The first task is to sus out what’s happened and realizing that it’s global and permanent. If you live in a large city near a major airport, it’s a big clue when the entire world goes dark and silent and airplanes fall out of the sky. But if you’re driving along some rural backroad, what clues would you have? Assuming you could put the clues together, what would you do about it?

Dies the Fire is written almost like a How-To book for just such an scenario. Stirling goes into great detail, and I often get the feeling that he’s showing off his encyclopedic knowledge, and this tends to slow the story down somewhat. For just this reason, I highly recommend this book for anybody who expects to be in this situation.