TCS Daily

Cottage Industry and Science Fiction

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - August 10, 2005 12:00 AM

A while back I mentioned Steve Stirling's novel Dies the Fire, in which people's grasp of out-of-date technology turns out to be vital to civilization's survival as pretty much everything modern mysteriously stops working. He's got a sequel coming out, entitled The Protector's War, which continues on the same theme. I took the opportunity recently to catch up with him and talk about science fiction, high and low technology, and other topics.


GR: Your novel "Dies the Fire" -- and for that matter, earlier books like "Island in the Sea of Time" -- depends a lot on ordinary people having hobbies that turn out to be pretty useful. That's partly a plot device, of course, but do you see the widespread possession of all sorts of cottage-industry skills as a good thing?


SS: Well, it's fun for the people who do it, and having a broad skills-base is always a good thing. It's also a sign of the quirky individualism of the American population, also a positive factor.


GR: Do you think that people are more inclined to develop those sorts of hobbies as society gets richer?


SS: Certainly in an absolute sense; you can't afford the time if you're scrambling to stay alive 24/7.


GR: In writing your books, did you interview or observe a lot of armor-makers, SCA types, etc.? Or was it just based on longtime personal experience? What do you think motivates people to take up hobbies like that?


SS: I've moved on the fringes of that set for a long time; and I also made contact with a lot of them specifically for this series. As to motivations... it's romanticism, of course, the same thing that makes people read books like... well, like mine! Living it out is a more recent development, but as you say, people have more spare time these days.


Re-creationism is also fairly big in Britain. I know it exists in Europe, as well, but I'm not sure on what scale. It takes some pretty strange forms; there are Germans who live the cowboy life, for example, so thoroughly that there's a "Lazy Q" ranch in Bavaria, and the proprietor works as an (unpaid) cowboy in Texas half the year.


GR: Is there something inherently appealing about human-scale operations like blacksmithing or weaving? Do you see a parallel in high-tech operations like blogging, podcasting, or independent music labels?


SS: Well, they all have the satisfaction of seeing an identifiable product as the result of your actions -- like writing, in fact, which is an old-fashioned craft industry. (Much though MBA's in the publishing companies hate to admit it).


That being said, I think that the old crafts have a certain advantage because they're hard. Life for most people until quite recently was hard. Being a fisherman or a farmer or a blacksmith was a hard, often dangerous life in a way that few things outside the armed forces or recondite trades like firejumping is today. There may be a certain need for that quality.


GR: Is part of the appeal of these end-of-civilization stories (and secular fads like Y2K preparations) that many people have a sense that our technological civilization is fragile, and that we might be forced back to cottage industry and self-reliance? Do you think our technological civilization *is* fragile?


SS: On the contrary, I think it's immensely resilient. Note that famines generally occur in countries where peasant farmers are still the majority! It's precisely the complexity that makes it so hard to damage; economies are like ecosystems, they're more stable as they grow more complex. They work around damage.


On the other hand, we now know that there are things that could knock us out of our groove. The universe is more given to catastrophe than we used to think; ice ages start in decades or years, not millennia, comets and asteroids hit the earth, frozen methane beds can erupt, or you can get volcanic eruptions that alter the world's climate overnight.


GR: I notice that your stories contain a lot more economics than similar works from decades ago. Are science fiction writers smarter now, or are science fiction readers smarter, so that writers can talk about those sorts of things?


SS: We're better-informed, at least, I think. Also fashions change; people like to see more of the stuff behind the derring-do now. That said, there was a fair bit of it among the better SF and fantasy works of previous times. Tolkien, for example, gives you a very good idea of how the Shire's economy works; he just doesn't dwell on it.


GR:. A theme in your work is that pro-social behavior -- cooperation, taking care of the weak, etc. -- is also usually pro-survival behavior, but that "wimpy" behavior is not. Do you think that's true in real life, or is that just a literary device?


SS: Largely true. Martin Luther once remarked that humankind is like a drunken peasant trying to ride a horse; falls off one side, gets back on, falls off on the other.


Likewise, every age has its characteristic fault; and not only that, but every age tends to scourge itself for not doing what it's actually doing to excess, and for doing what it actually isn't doing (e.g., an excess of misdirected 'empathy' and 'sensitivity' is the disease of our age, but we tend to excoriate ourselves for being brutal and insensitive).


GR: It seems that science fiction and fantasy -- which, like everything else in the 1970s, filled up with tormented antiheroes (Thomas Covenant, anyone?) -- have moved somewhere closer to the traditional "competent man" (and woman) characters in recent years, if not quite to the omnicompetent engineer-types of the John W. Campbell days. Do you agree with that, and if so, why do you think that is?


SS: I agree. And it's because antiheroes are usually dull; they can be done in an interesting fashion, but it's hard.


The problem with literary fashions is that they tend to make people try to imitate the inimitable. For example, generations of young writers have wrecked themselves trying to imitate Joyce, which is effectively impossible.


Right now I'm working on an alternate history series which might be summed up as "What if the background of some of the pulps existed in the real world?"


In the 1950's, we discovered that Earth was definitely the sole inhabitable planet in this solar system, which was a terrible blow to traditional SF.


In my new alternate history, we discover instead that we have two other habitable, and in fact inhabited, planets. Mars is a cold, dry world of ancient ruined cities, thinly peopled by the decadent descendants of lost civilizations (or are they?); Venus a hot, wet, fecund one of primitive humans (and other hominids) with an archaic fauna.


Then I try to treat everything else in as densely realistic a style as I can. It makes for an interesting contrast.


GR: Earlier, you mentioned that life was a lot harder in the old days, and I think that's clearly true. Very few people want to go back to those times, and nothing short of global catastrophe is likely to put us there. But people like to read about them, and reenact them. Why do you think that is?


SS: Adventure has been defined as "someone else in deep ***t, far away", for starters. Few people would really like to have adventures, but it's fun to read about them and imagine them.


And of course that's the environment that formed our civilization for uncounted generations, and possibly the one to which we're more genetically adapted.


Last, and most speculatively, I think there's a general recognition that in some respects our ancestors, by surviving in a harder milieu, had virtues and qualities we are somewhat deficient in.




I think he's right about that.


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A Striking Example from Europe
I ran across these guys in Prague back in 1990. They were active even during the Soviet era.

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