Ideals and Reality

One of the great advantages of writing science fiction is that I can create a society from relatively whole cloth and try to make it real to my readers, but there are certainly dangers in making that effort.  If you don’t understand some of the basics of societies – such as economics, trade, politics, the role of beliefs, etc. – you may still have a wonderful story, but one that many readers will not finish, or if they do,  they’ll being saying that the society or culture really wouldn’t work.  Most professional writers understand that, but a number of those fail to ask another question:  How did the society/culture get that way? This was a point brought up by another writer at a recent conference I attended [LTUE], who made the comment about a well-known best-selling book, “The society would work, once it reached this point, but I can’t see how it ever got there, given human nature.”

The reason I bring this up is two-fold.  The first is to point out a few things to aspiring writers: (1) gross errors in world-building can hurt, and (2) given the example, so long as it seems to work, even if there’s no way to have gotten there, it probably won’t hurt your sales. The second is to suggest that, even in our world, political ideologues don’t seem to understand that, no matter how good an idea or principle is, you have to have a way, technically and politically, to get there.

I often get comments on various blogs suggesting idealistic solutions to various problems or difficulties we face today.  Many of these comments suggest “whole-cloth” solutions, whether it be a total free-market system or the replacement of the entire income tax system with a value-added tax, or…  There’s been a substantial number of these idealistic solutions over the years, but the difficulty all of them have is… there’s no practical way to get there from where we are now, except via catastrophe.  History suggests, rather strongly, that civilizations either make gradual changes or ossify and collapse… or sometimes, just implode into revolution or chaos.

What that means is, for example, that short of a civil war, a takeover by a dictator, or the complete and total meltdown of the banking and economic system, we are not going to see the total abolition of the welfare system as now practiced in the United States and its replacement by a totally new system.  Why not?  Because there’s no way to get there from where we are now, because too many people will oppose such radical change – unless our system collapses totally.  Even the threat of total collapse won’t do it.

The same thing appears to be true of dealing with global warming.  Until a few island chains cease to exist, until Miami and New Orleans are drowned, until New York City suffers such a storm-surge and hurricane or Nor’easter that all the subways are flooded and inoperative and the east coast is blacked out for weeks, there won’t be the economic or political support for meaningful measures… and by the time that there is, the problem will be so big that no amount resources will be able to save large sections of the planet where literally hundreds of millions of people live… and given who lives where, it appears likely that a great number of those who oppose gradual but meaningful change are going to be hit the hardest – along with a lot of those who would like change, but don’t have the power to effect it.

In the end, while ideals can prevail, they have to change  underlying political or social conditions first, but when ideals conflict with physical reality, reality wins.


12 thoughts on “Ideals and Reality”

  1. Robert The Addled says:

    Alas – infrastructure is also designed to the PREVIOUS disaster.

    I recently drove the turnpike thru New Jersey and was astonished at how much of it was below sea level according to my GPS.

    I’d love to see some sort of hardline ‘no rebuild’ combined with sacrificial zones like I’ve seen spoken of in Denmark (layers of levee/dike systems w/ parks and farmland in the areas most vulnerable – residential, hospitals and such in better protected zones).

    Yes I realize private property rights and all that – but should it take a Taido earthquake/Indonesian Tsunami level of destruction and death before people start to think? Japan is the anomaly in that they regularly hold earthquake and tsunami drills. The US couldn’t drill its way out of a nitroglycerine soaked paper bag at high noon in Death Valley. Look at the ‘evacuation busses’ that were left behind (instead of carrying evacuees) in New Orleans.

    The 1938 Hurricane that wiped out a big swath of coastal CT and RI – there are areas that were deliberately left un-redeveloped until recently – because people have forgotten the consequences of living in harms way.

  2. Wayne Kernochan says:

    It occurs to me that at least some of the resistance to dealing with problems, by those with political power, comes from the “big frog in a small pond syndrome”. Think of the world as a bunch of ponds; in North Korea, for example, or (as we’re now seeing) in the Ukraine under its former president, or Hungary, etc., there is a choice between growing the economy to Western standards, thus creating a lot of people who are pretty well off, or taking as much as possible for yourself and your family, making you very wealthy in your own pond, but actually less well off than a lot of people in countries like the US.

    If we apply this to the US in particular, the 0.1% use their money for political power that reinforces existing policies that are good for them, instead of both dealing with the need to change and growing the incomes of the other 99.9%. The result, at the extreme (which we may be seeing now) is both heightened resistance to change and a less-well-performing economy (e.g., there is no longer growth in consumer demand, and the employment-to-population ratio has gone down semi-permanently by about 7%).

    If this is true, how then do we (or you, as a creator of worlds) suggest a way to deal better with the “big frog in a small pond syndrome”? I can think of ways, but I’m not really satisfied with them in the long run.

  3. Brian K says:

    “The absence of global warming for the past 17 years has been well documented. It has become known as “the pause.” and has been characterized as the “biggest mystery in climate science,” but, in fact, it really isn’t a mystery at all, it was predicted in 1999 on the basis of consistent, recurring patterns of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) and global climate.”

    Full article at:

    1. Daze says:

      Pfui. Your source has no qualifications whatsoever for making the assertions in his article – and, more importantly, global warming has not paused if you look at the whole of the evidence. Land surface temperatures experienced a completely off-the-wall high in the late 90s, which has only recently been surpassed, but every year in between then and now was warmer than any year ever before that. And land surface isn’t the only part of the globe that is warming, and all that energy that the sun pours in and CO2 prevents from leaving goes somewhere (laws of thermodynamics) and as it turns out is primarily going into the sea, in the massive warming and melting of the Arctic, and into sub-surface sea temperatures.

      Really basic science: CO2 passes UV but stops IR: this means that atmospheric CO2 has a ‘greenhouse effect’ – this has been known for 150 years. This means that, if it were true that the sustained record temperatures of the last decade or so were in fact being caused by some other influence, then it would be even more important that we limit anthropogenic CO2, which can only worsen the situation.

      1. R. Hamilton says:

        Anyone that lives in a low-lying area shouldn’t wait for global warming to find some sucker to sell to and move to higher ground. That would be true even if there were no global warming, because extreme events do happen, and transportation no longer depends on people living near harbors.

        As an alternative to the eugenics of letting suckers drown, put 1-5% of fuel tax towards buying out those living in particularly vulnerable spots, and doing the most cost-effective infrastructure work that will reduce vulnerability for the rest. 🙂 Don’t try to do everything, just do what makes the most difference for the least cost.

      2. Brian K says:

        The author of the article, Don J. Easterbrook, is a Professor Emeritus of Geology at Western Washington University. Your questioning of his qualifications seems to have more to do with the fact that he is questioning the Environmental Religion’s orthodoxy.

        Here’s his website:

        As for the myth of the ‘record temperature’s of the last decade’ for the USA, example:

        The decades 1911-20, 1921-30, 1931-40, 1941-50, 1951-60 and 1981-90 were experienced higher average temperatures with the 1930’s being twice that of 2001-10. The results for 2001-10 are skewed because of higher low average temperatures. To call the average temperatures of the 2001-10 ‘record’ is to ignore the long duration of data (probably on purpose since it too doesn’t fit the orthodoxy) and is dishonest.

        This was confirmed by NOAA’s latest temperature measurements for the USA such that over the last 16 years, the American mainland has experienced a cooling trend of minus 3.8°F!

        Such trends are being experienced globally as well.

        Interesting temperature plot for the last 15,000 years based on the Greenland ice core records. We are actually in a cool phase for the last 10,000 years!!

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    In fiction, I appreciate the existence of a backstory, even unwritten, that provides history and context. In many cases, I’d like to see the prequel material made into a story and published. (Did the Rats _intend_ that a group equipped almost as a doomsday survival colony be planted not merely on another planet, but in another universe, or were they also drawn there by accident or design?)

    In reality, ideals shouldn’t be given up because they’re too big; but they may have to be pursued in less threatening increments.

    1. Steve says:

      I second a novel about how the Rats came to the planet and established Cyador! I just reread Magii and Scion of Cyador and couldn’t help wonder how and why the Rats colonized the continent. Especially since it sounded like multiple ships were part of the expedition…

  5. JakeB says:

    Mr. Modesitt’s comments touch on a discussion on Usenet I had some years ago, where I commented that in a fantasy novel you can make up things from whole cloth, e.g shall we have elves? Sure! Dwarves? Why not? Halflings? Hell yeah! without worrying about, e.g., the genetics of how you get all these creatures in the same world at the same time; and you can have a story set in our world without worrying about working out details because you know them, i.e. we know what technology exists right now more or less, how religion works, what kinds of societies exist — easy enough to add a few more people to that world to tell a story with — but, if you want a world where something important is different, you need to work out all the consequences. I believe at the time I was criticizing a comic book series that had zombies or vampires in it but no evident effects on the way anybody lived except that there were zombies (or vampires) in the world, which was super dumb, yes? (not the Walking Dead, by the way) That’s also why Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is so much lamer than it could have been.
    The way this issue was handled was also one of the reasons I enjoyed the Ghost novels so much. It was restful to be able to read a story where the author has actually worked out the implications of the changes he’s made, so the reader can relax and not worry about having to sit up saying, “What? What kind of dumb crap is this? Do you even remember what kind of world you’ve created?”

  6. Ed Biggins says:

    Is the Earth warming? Yeah, no one who’s bothered to look it up can miss that fact. Has the human race caused it? Probably not. It’s kind of presumptuous and pure hubris to think so. Do the math on the output of the Sun vs human created heat. You might be surprised. (Dr. Michael Crighton wrote a book on this btw) The really sad part of the global warming fight is that we’re going to lose, and in the process a lot of our scientific (grant-chasing) community has lost it’s credibility. Faking reports and tampering with results isn’t science, it’s fraud. Those same billions of dollars in resources would be better spent on something we can change, rather than being wasted on bogus science and blaming civilization for natural cycles.

  7. Brian K says:

    With regard to the ice sheets in Greenland specifically:

    There has been “….an increase in the natural glacier calving process in this regional, relatively tiny portion of the Greenland ice sheet. According to the authors, this is due to regional warming found at the site “HKH” marked by an “X” in fig. 2a below. The key word here is regional, which indicates these processes are localized and not characteristic of global warming.”

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