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After The End of the World by Ernest Lilley
SFRevu Column  ISBN/ITEM#: 0501EL
Date: January 1, 2005 / Show Official Info /

Kalutara, Sri Lanka (Image Collected December 26, 2004) Taken by a QuickBird satellite, the only commercial spacecraft to offer sub-meter resolution imagery, this picture of the Tsunami shows its deadly beauty from space. Go To Quickbird Image
You know the details by now. The Day after Christmas 2004, tectonic plate subduction in the Indian Ocean caused a 9.5 magnitude quake, which spawned a tsunami which swept over the coastal regions of Sri Lanka, India and other areas. The death toll continues to climb, but has already passed 100 thousand.

Science Fiction has often used natural disasters, as a starting point for a story, though meteor impact has always been the favorite. Arthur C. Clarke, who lives in Sri Lanka, and was untouched by the wave, wrote about just such an event in his book Rendezvous with Rama, wiping out vast sections of the Mediterranean with an asteroid generated Tsunami at the beginning of the book. Following that event, he proposed, mankind take serious steps to prevent its recurrence, and start deep space scanning in, pardon me, earnest. Though space guard enthusiasts have often said, it's not a matter of if, but when, the odds on asteroid impact are more or less astronomical, though the consequences could be every bit as great. The comforting thing about them is that the earlier you detect an incoming rock, the less effort it should take to convince it to pass us by.

Earthquakes are a different sort of beast altogether. We live on a volcanically active world, and there will be quakes. We tend to group population centers on coasts, where they're most vulnerable. Like families who set up their houses on flood plains and show up on the news every year or so being choppered out of their homes, we know huge populations are at risk but we do it anyway. Won't we ever learn? Actually, we learn pretty quickly, but the lesson isn?t about staying out of danger. It's about how to respond to it.

I read a short story a few decades ago about a morning when residents of a coastal town wake up to find the ocean has disappeared. So they go down to the where the beach was and stare out over the sand. After some reflection the characters pile in the family station wagon and drive out to see where it went. The story ends with the wife screaming at the husband to drive faster as they try to outrun a wall of water moving at a hundred miles an hour. Somebody will remind me who wrote this and I'll add it in here later. It was pretty good.

Now, you can tell this has to be a pretty old story, because the disappearance of the ocean would be pretty well covered by TV, internet, satellite and airborne imagery. It illustrates what David Brin refers to in his Uplift Series as 'monkey curiosity', the tendency to run towards unusual phenomena. It's a wonder we've survived this long. But to these costs there are benefits. Was fire found by someone who went to investigate a lightning strike, or tread in the still warm ashes of a burnt forest?

On the other hand, we have a built in response to danger, aptly named the "flight or fight" response, and our cultural bias is towards the former, while wisdom lies most often with the latter. We equate flight with cowardice, and standing our ground with courage, but history shows that the sooner you act the better your chances of success. That extends from your own skin outward, to kin, kith, clan, and humanity.

The real trick is to be able to tell the difference between interesting and deadly, and the answer isn't to create more government agencies to announce the crisis in its own time, weighing the danger of panic against the danger of inaction. If everyone in the world had a web enabled phone, an ad hoc warning would have saved many of the hundred thousand. Would better communications have saved more on 9/11? Actually, it already had. Of the four planes that went down, only three struck their targets and the passengers of Flight 93, who were in cellular communication with authorities, almost certainly brought down the plane rather than let it be used as a weapon. So, sometimes fight is the right answer, but the key is information.

You may think that a proposal like giving every one in the world cellular/internet access is absurd. But if you consider that the actual cost of even an advanced device like a BlackBerry or Treo is probably about $100. Divide the Billions of dollars of aid that are sure to be sent for relief on that by a hundred and you?ll see that you could give phones to a lot more folks than this disaster killed.

It is a dangerous and unpredictable world we live in. Common sense won?t guarantee our safety, though it will reduce the odds against us to things really in the realm of the cosmic. We?re all going to die eventually, and the trick is not to do it without having lived a bit first. So go ahead, find the level of risk you're comfortable with and live there. But when the tide suddenly goes out don't just stand there.

As Gandalf peers over the edge of the abyss in The Fellowship of the Ring before falling to his fiery fate he passes on possibly his greatest contribution to the art of survival possible.

"Fly?you fools!"

The other piece of advice not to be dismissed being, of course, "look before you leap."

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