The Long View 2005-01-05: Apocalypse; Asteroids; Demographics; Super Vixens

I remember emailing John Reilly regarding his speculation that the cityscapes in the Japanese zombie videogames/movies known as Resident Evil always look Canadian. He immediately confused me with someone else.

Apocalypse; Asteroids; Demographics; Super Vixens


What long-term political impact will the recent tsunami have on the eastern Indian Ocean area? God knows, but I am already seeing fractured references to the thesis of Michael Barkun's book, Disaster and the Millennium (1974). As the title suggests, the book argued that there is a correlation between disasters, particularly natural disasters, and millenarian movements, which sometimes take the form of revolutionary movements. The proposal probably has merit, but one should note how qualified the correlation is supposed to be:

Disaster is the cause of millennial movements as a last resort when the known order has failed. Disaster is a necessary but not sufficient cause. There must be: 1) several disasters; 2) traditional millenarian ideas; 3) a charismatic leader adapting these ideas to present circumstances; 4) an isolated and homogenous population in which the disasters occur. Cities are unlikely loci; these are all country movements. The ecstatic behavior common to these movements is "resocialization," not psychosis, and a means to continue "disaster utopia," since disasters are good for some, and frequently lead to a rebuilding of community: disaster "prefigures the millennium."

One should also note the delay: the movements that book discusses tend to appear ten or fifteen years after disaster undermines the existing order of things.

* * *

Speaking of the sociology of religion, I am giving some thought to attending the annual meeting in St. Paul this summer of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations. The topic is Civilizations, Religions and Human Survival, which dovetails nicely with both millenarianism and the Clash of Civilizations. I was actually invited to come do a stand-up Spengler routine. I can manage that, provided it's not a morning session.

My problem is that I don't really have an academic affiliation, so it is hard for me to justify the time and expense. (By the way, if any of you need an adjunct teacher in the New York area, please let me know.)

* * *

Probably all those disaster movies in the 1990s permanently linked tsunamis and asteroids in the public mind. Be that as it may, there is some evidence that they have actually been linked on several occasions well within historical time:

That’s the theory of this Australian geologist Ted Bryant. And his evidence is that tsunamis have hit this coastline every few centuries, he says. One washed over the Wollongong area in 1500 AD. It wasn't big enough to destroy civilisation like in the movies, but the film Deep Impact does give a feel for what happened 500 years ago... Ted’s certain all this happened in 1500 because he’s carbon-dated the tiny pieces of shell washed up by the big waves. But the next step his proof needs is evidence that 300-metre-wide chunks of that comet do fall down every few hundred years...And judging from Doug Revelle’s signals, meteors the size Ted needs arrive once every 120 years or so...And surprisingly, it's not that initial big splash that creates the tsunami. Rather, the impact shoots a jet of water kilometres into the air and as that jet falls down it gives birth to the deadly tsunami.

Every 120 years? 300 meters? Maybe an asteroid defense-system would not be a useless Chicken Little Machine after all.

* * *

For the most part, I tend to think that culture shapes technological development rather than vice versa. Cultures do what they do, and the important trends are rarely predicted and never controlled. So, I was not altogether surprised to see this story about the decline of artificial birth-control

At a time when the medical community has been heartened by a decline in risky sexual behavior by teenagers, a different problem has crept up: More adult women are forgoing birth control, a trend that has experts puzzled -- and alarmed about a potential rise in unintended pregnancies...the finding that the number of women who had sex in the previous three months but did not use birth control rose from 5.2 percent in 1995 to 7.4 percent in 2002.

John S. Santelli [is] a professor of population and family health at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Even as he cheered the news that a growing number of teenagers are using contraception, Santelli wondered whether doctors are neglecting women.

"Maybe we're failing with women over 21," Santelli said.

Robert Heinlein once remarked that he had collected demographic projections for 40 years, and all of them turned out wrong.

* * *

Speaking of disasters, over the weekend I viewed the film Resident Evil: Apocalypse. The concept here was Night of the Living Dead meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the super vixen augmented by the same immortalizing virus that makes the dead so restless.

I am hooked on these Canadian horror films. The Stars-and-Stripes may flap from every flagpole, but the cityscapes still look like edited versions of Toronto (for some bizarre reason, the necropolis in this film was called "Raccoon City"). And no matter how much human flesh the extras consume, no one is ever very rude.

There is little point in criticizing the science in these films, but may I remark that it would take more than a five-kiloton bomb to blow up Toronto, no matter what animal the city is named after?

Copyright © 2005 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Death Troopers Book Review

Death Troopers
by Joe Schreiber
LucasBooks, 2009
ISBN: 9780345509628
$7.99; 256 pages

A friend recommended this book to me nearly three years ago. I finally picked up a copy, and it was a blast! Oh, the days when you could throw iconic characters into any situation you wanted! As long as Han doesn't die in the end, you could write just about any kind of story.

Thus we have zombies in spaaaace! And Star Wars! It was a fun and a quick read. For those who like this kind of thing, you are likely to enjoy it as much as I did. Things moved along quickly, sufficient explanations were offered, and our heroes escaped to return to the canonical Star Wars universe. Although I have to think Han might have ended up with PTSD from this one.

My other book reviews


The Red King Book Review

It's the end of the world as we know it

It's the end of the world as we know it

The Red King
by Nick Cole
Amazon Digital 2005
$0.00; 285 pages

I don't usually read ebooks. I have an irrational love of physical books, with their scent of slowly oxidizing paper. I find that I will do almost anything to avoid reading ebooks. Thus despite having over 700 physical books in my house, I only have a dozen or so ebooks.

I picked this up because it was free. And because I liked Soda Pop Soldier. In a free moment, I pulled the book up on my phone to pass the time. I found that I could not put it down. That was a pleasant surprise. No other ebook has yet done that to me, although I don't make a habit of buying electronic versions of the books of my favorite authors. Nick Cole may just break me of that habit.

I like The Red King because it is a pastiche. I hope Cole won't hold that against me. I like pastiche. Especially when it is done well. And this is done very, very well. I feel like Cole and I probably read and watched the same things growing up, because I really enjoyed all those sly references to other books, movies, and videogames.

However, just because your book is a pastiche, doesn't mean you lack imagination or skill as a writer. I usually judge authors by their characters, and the ultimate test is whether I feel like a character isn't a character at all, but a person. Holiday, the hard-drinking screw-up who finds that he has survived the end of the world because he was sleeping off a bender, seems like a person to me. I am inclined to cut him some slack, because I kind of like him, even though he knows his way around a bottle.

Much of the supporting cast meets my other criterion for good characters: they seem like someone I've met. A character created to fill a role, or a slot, or a stereotype just doesn't seem like a real person. However, most real people really are pretty stereotypical, and you have to observe them to be able to represent that faithfully. Reading about people who seem like I could run into them on the street makes a book a pleasure to read, and this book was indeed a pleasure to read.

Finally, I just like the end of the world. I've been reading both fiction and non-fiction on this subject for 15 years, and it is perennially interesting. The apocalypse is about us: who we are, and who we'd like to be. Every end of the world has it's own story to tell, and I'd like to see where Cole is going with this. Oh, and look, I can got get the other books right now....

My other book reviews

The Long View: In Search of a Usable Apocalypse

John never thought much of the increasingly popular zombie apocalypse. He did do a pretty favorable review of World War Z, but he regarded zombies are mere meat puppets. Nonetheless, John was a scholar of the apocalyptic, a subject has mostly become a matter of folk religion in America. Recently, the zombie apocalypse is pretty popular, but in the late nineties, the viral outbreak [minus re-animation] weighed more heavily on people's minds.

Pestilence is one of the Four Horsemen, but the ancient world may have feared disease less than you might think. In Roman times, smallpox and measles didn't really get going until the middle Empire, and malaria didn't really affect Republican Rome. The real age of pestilence doesn't start until after the Age of Exploration, which brought more regular contact between different populations. There is some evidence to think that not only syphillis, but tungiasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and typhus were brought from the New World. Montezuma's revenge indeed.

There is a great bit at the end here about Jack London's apocalyptic fiction. I had never heard of these stories before. The Call of the Wild this ain't.

In Search of a Usable Apocalypse

On a Saturday in 1995, I went to see the film "Outbreak." I liked it. It stars Dustin Hoffman as an Army biological warfare scientist who defeats an epidemic of a terrible new disease from Africa, a virus carried to the U.S. by an infected-but-adorable monkey. Hoffman is getting better as he takes himself less seriously. Donald Sutherland's gleefully villainous portrayal of the general determined to stop the disease by incinerating the people infected is worth the price of admission.

(The attraction of the film is not lessened by the fact it is almost identical in plot to the film adaptation released a year or two previously of Robert Heinlein's novel, "The Puppet Masters." In that film, the part of the plague is taken by mind-controlling extraterrestrial leeches. It too stars Donald Sutherland, and one or two other people in "Outbreak.")

Monkeys and villains aside, the movie contains a number of signs of the times. For instance, a long-running government conspiracy to cover up the disease is revealed. Or maybe the conspiracy was to cover up the fact a cure had been found for a certain strain of the virus. Or the fact there was a department doing this kind of research at all. Anyway, Washington was responsible for it. The writers, no doubt, have been watching the popular FOX series, "The X-Files," most of whose episodes posit some vast, secret malefaction on the part of the U.S. government. The series is made in Canada, which might suggest an anti-American conspiracy right there, since Donald Sutherland is from Newfoundland. But no, that way madness lies. Let's just concentrate on this killer-virus business.

Consider these two television listing for the evening after I saw "Outbreak":

"Earth 2: The colonists discover another group of settlers who have been weakened by a deadly virus."

"Lois and Clark: A deranged scientist plots to release a deadly virus. Lois's attraction to a government agent irks Clark."



Ryan interviews Paul Cuisset

My friend Ryan had his first freelance piece published in Joystiq: Amy Guiding Hand.

In the survival horror genre there are moments every player remembers: the sound of shattering glass and the snarl of undead dogs breaking through the windows of a mysterious mansion in Resident Evil; the intensifying crackle of radio static as unseen enemies give chase through the foggy streets of Silent Hill.

With upcoming downloadable title Amy, director Paul Cuisset (best known for his work on Flashback) and his team at VectorCell hope to add their own trademark moments to the genre. First and foremost, Cuisset said his goal was to bring survival horror back to its roots while simultaneously moving the genre forward.


I Am Legend Movie Review


Directed by Francis Lawrence
Written by Mark Protosevich, Akiva Goldsman, Richard Matheson, John Corrington, and Joyce Corrington
Starring Will Smith and Alice Braga

Will Smith is not the first action star to portray Robert Neville on the big screen. Charlton Heston's Omega Man is another memorable performance based on the same story by Richard Matheson. Matheson's novel is one of my favorites, original and unexpected. It is a modern apocalyptic classic, identifiably influential on any number of zombie and vampire stories.  Anyone who has not read it should.

This version of I Am Legend differs from the book in a number of ways, including having an ending that reverses the circumstances of Neville's death. However, I think this version is both a faithful adaption of the source material, and in some ways superior to the original.

Smith's Neville is a masterful study in loneliness. This is an element that is done well by each medium. Gaunt and haunted, Smith gives us a good sense of what it would feel like to be the last man on Earth.

Always dancing on the edge of madness due to grief and isolation, Neville relies on his routines to sustain him. Fortunately, his obsession with finding a cure for the plague that swept man from the Earth is strong too. A bit of OCD seems to have some survival benefit.

When Neville finally meets another human, he no longer knows how to interact with her. This is really where this version diverges from Matheson's. 

The crucial difference is hope. There was no room in the novel for hope, or providence, both of which figure in the original theatrical ending for I Am Legend. Another ending was filmed, but it performed poorly with test audiences. I can see why. The original ending attempted to combine Matheson's dark and subtle conclusion with a bright and happy Hollywood ending where everyone rides off into the sunset. That ending was terrible, and I'm glad they redid it.

The theatrical ending is the happier, because in the Aristotelian sense, you cannot really say a life was a happy one until you see how it ends. In the alternate ending, Neville's whole life has been for naught. All his efforts, fruitless. All his suffering, pointless. Plus we get a lame version of the "monsters are people too, they are just misunderstood" trope. The way the vampire/zombies were handled in the novel made this seem like a good idea for the movie too, but their characterization in the movie is too feral to support this. 

By spending his life, Neville redeems himself from the brink of despair. The sappy alternate ending is not plausible because Neville no longer had any will to live. The providential arrival of another survivor allowed him an opportunity to die for something instead of nothing. Admittedly, the Legend tagline doesn't make near as much sense anymore, but the Job-like turn of this remake more than makes up for it.

My other movie reviews

James Burke: Connections

One of my favorite shows on PBS was Connections, by James Burke. Burke had a breezy, familiar style
that truly annoys some people. Since he was making a science popularization, he tends to skip over things that don't fit the narrative neatly, but the gist of it is generally pretty good. This series made an indelible impression on me at a young age, and I think I have been affected by it ever since. I have a tendency to see everything as connected in strange and unusual ways, and I have an interest in a great many different fields of inquiry.

Connections probably also played a part in my interest in the Victorian era, because a seemingly disproportionate amount of my memories of the show center on technology of the Victorian era. It really was an amazing time with an unsurpassed rapidity of technological change.

The beginning of episode 1 of Connections also shows a bygone era of mechanical switches. There is a sequence demonstrating the controls of an elevator, that relies entirely on mechanical relays. I can't think of any object I have worked in the guts of recently that actually used a mechanical relay. Everything is solid-state electronics now. No moving parts, which is nice, but when those little things break, they are usually broken forever. You can't repair them easily. Its often cheaper to discard consumer objects with this kind of controls than fix them, which makes me sad in a vague way.

In the modern survivalist movement there is also a passion for XIXth century technology. The advantage to this is much of it does not depend on very much outside assistance or electricity. And also it is more easily repairable if it breaks. Thus, all sorts of books are sought, chemistry, horticulture, medicine, all from this period or shortly thereafter. Many of these books are available for free on the internet, since their copyright has long since expired. Thus, in true James Burke fashion, the internet is now enabling the spread of XIXth century technology. For example: Mackenzie's Ten Thousand Recipes, a collection of soaps and elixers and whatnot made from things you can easily find in nature.

I've sometimes pondered this, and wondered how long it would take to reestablish a XIXth century level of techology after an apocalyptic event. The knowledge is all out there, the trouble is getting hold of it when you need it. A thing that has been done once can be done again. For example, every village used to have a blacksmith. The level of technology you need to start making iron and steel is pretty low, the problem is finding someone who knows how to do it!

Watching this first episode of Connections again, I can really see where the whole zombie phenomenon comes from. There is a part near the middle where Burke is walking down a highway littered with abandoned cars that reminded me strongly of Zombieland. Really the whole first episode does, because it is about a technological apocalypse: flickering lights and chaos. Burke was trying in this episode to call to mind our utter dependence upon modern technology. Perhaps at the time, no one thought of this much. Well, Burke got what he was looking for. Now it is much more commonplace for people to express anxiety about the fate of modern technological civilization. Zombies are just one popular manifestation. Survivalists another.

I suppose that it is really a doubt about the ability of our civilization to sustain itself. 50 years ago, Western Civilization still had a great deal of residual self-confidence in itself, but now much of that has dissipated. So I suppose the question is whether that confidence can be restored. Thus my interest in metahistory. So in true Connections style, James Burke is ultimately responsible for everything you see here.

For more on James Burke, check Knowledge Web, a project of the James Burke Institute.

Tim Powers Book Optioned for Pirates of the Caribbean Movie

From Locus Online. This should be good for Powers' book sales. On Stranger Tides was not one of my favorite Tim Powers books, but then again I read it while I was all hopped up on painkillers whilst recovering from a tonsillectomy. Many older Tim Powers books are hard to find, so hopefully we will see some reissues.

h/t DarwinCatholic


Zombie Modeling

The FSS sent me this paper modeling the spread of zombies as an infectious disease. Well, really they are using an ODE, but it is the same kind you use for infectious diseases that actually exist. The results are unsurprising to anyone who has ever seen a zombie movie, but I do appreciate that Max Brooks' solution in World War Z seems to be favored: swift eradication by coordinated effort.

The next go around on this particular model would probably try to include seasonal variables like Brooks talked about, zombies freezing in the winter and thawing in the spring, zombies roaming the ocean bottom, and so on.

This is a good example of what could be called the formal sciences. When applied to actual diseases, this method allows us to understand and predict the behavior of uncounted disease microbes as they spread through a population, but without reference to the physics or biology involved in much detail. Only some very general details are needed to set up the differential equation, but the result is still applicable to what happens in reality. The formal sciences are a recent invention, coming only during and after the Second World War. They are especially notable because they very obviously ignore Popperian notions about science, and simply produce highly certain conclusions that are easily verifiable.

h/t The Family Social Scientist