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Global disaster. World destruction. The Apocalypse.

They’re the stock and trade of science fiction writers. After all, when you’re imagining the future, Earth could become the hub of a galactic empire, the gleaming homeworld of a cosmos-spanning race. Or the coin could land tails and our few thousands of years of human history will in some way be derailed, leaving behind wilderness or wasteland. Post-apocalyptic worlds have been imagined hundreds of times, and as I sit at my laptop mulling over one such concept that might form the setting of a novel, I find myself wondering, “If civilization were to hit a brick wall tomorrow, and Earth returned to a world of wild forests and primitive villages, what remnants of our technology would still be useful?” Say a tribal chieftain and his flunkies somehow dug up a long-buried Walmart or Canadian Tire store, how much of what they found would be of any use to them?

It’s easy to guess what would be useless junk. Anything that requires electricity to function.

Without the infrastructure to produce 110V 60Hz electricity, microwaves, toasters and toaster ovens, vacuum cleaners, blenders, hot plates, George Foreman grills, Instant Pots, electric shavers, hair dryers, clothes dryers, washing machines…a long list of items would become no more than shiny doorstops. Freezers and air conditioners would tease with their unfulfilled potential. Televisions, radios, projectors, iPads, cell phones, game consoles and more would not only be inoperable without power, they’d have no content to deliver anyway. Certainly, all of the ‘smart’ fridges, heaters, lights, music players, and security systems would merely mock us with their brilliant—and completely useless—sophistication. Computers and smartphones—the technological darlings we can’t live without (we think)—would be inert lumps of exotic materials.

Gasoline would be worthless after a few decades, so forget about cars (sorry Mad Max). It’s conceivable that some contrivances powered by rechargeable batteries might last a long while, if kept topped up by solar chargers, but that doesn’t make your Tesla a sure bet because synthetic hoses, gaskets, and a host of other parts break down with time. Heck, most roads would crumble thanks to thermal expansion and contraction, and pervasive weeds growing through every available crack.

Another category that would no longer be useful is items that are too specialized for a particular purpose or related product. Forget refills for this or that air-freshening system. Motor oil might still come in handy for lubricating wooden axles or something, but fuel injector cleaner not so much. Not gas stabilizer, not carburetor cleaner, not rad stop leak, brake fluid, or a whole department’s worth of Canadian Tire stock. All those car parts and fancy accessories to pimp out your wheels would be only curiosities. The same with all those star-athlete-endorsed pieces of esoteric equipment for all of the strange sports and recreational activities that somebody has talked us into trying but will leave future generations stumped. Our twelve-and-eighteen-speed bikes might amaze until they hit the first big rock.

Fishing rods would attract some initial interest, though they’re not as practical as nets or spears. Firearms would be treasured marvels, but only while ammunition supplies lasted, if it had never gotten wet. And not assault weapons—or not for long, They might put a warlord at the top of the hill, but wouldn’t keep them there because of their voracious appetite for ammunition. Boring old rifles and shotguns would be the real treasures to a hunter-gatherer society. While camping gear made of advanced materials would be a coveted prize, the use of accessories like Coleman-type stoves would have to be so rigorously rationed as to be nearly useless. Water filters and firestarters, yes. Hiking GPS, nope.

It occurs to me that our far-future descendants won’t much appreciate the fancy-looking and amazingly lightweight plastic gardening tools and wheelbarrows we consider so convenient (and cheap!) once they break after the first hard use. Think of how many of our consumer goods fall into that category, quickly obsolete or broken, meant to be discarded and replaced.

Lightweight, durable, and even dirt-repelling clothing and footwear would be a hit (although eye-stabbing colours might not serve well for hunters stalking their supper). Current styles might well run afoul of the moral standards of tightly-knit rural communities, though. I suspect the swimwear section might well end up in a big bonfire.

You know what I think would be among the most desirable department-store items to a future subsistence society? A good sharp knife and a non-stick frying pan. Seriously, what preparer of food can’t use a knife whose blade keeps its sharp edge and a cooking dish that doesn’t require big muscles and handfuls of beach sand to get the bear grease out? And let’s not forget books! Real, hardbound paper books chocked full of valuable information or entertainment.

Try this out for fun: look around your home and calculate which of the things you see would still be valued in a world stripped of our technological infrastructure. (Voilà! You’re a science fiction writer!) In a way, it’s an exercise to decide which of our clever creations has lasting value because, when you think about it, the more technically advanced an object is, the more likely it is to be rendered obsolete by new advancements too, not just a societal breakdown. I’d love to know what you come up with.

And that’s not even talking about our cultural products—music, art, movies, literature, and games. Those might leave people scratching their heads only a generation or two from now, no apocalypse required.


Childhood's End coming to the SyFy channel in December 2015.

What do you look for in science fiction? Pure fun? Escape? New knowledge?

My impression these days is that a lot of the SF being published is pure space opera, or quasi-paranormal scifi-fantasy, alternate history just for the steampunk gadgetry, or TV and movie series spinoffs. There’s nothing wrong with reading that’s just for fun—I choose it sometimes too, although I don’t feel inclined to write it.

Ideally, though, the escape SF provides is fun even when it’s dealing with something serious. It should be entertaining even as it compels us to learn something about ourselves. The SF novels with staying power do this well—they raise the genre to the level of provocative literature while still giving the inner child in us a big kick.

Classic SF from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Larry Niven often explored the “big crazy artefact”: Clarke’s mega-spaceship Rama or Niven’s Ringworld, Greg Bear’s Eonseries asteroid and, more recently, the Bowl Of Heaven from Niven and Benford. They set up a mind-boggling concept and then explored all of its dramatic possibilities while finding ways to reflect our human foibles and challenges. As if Newtonian and Einsteinian physics were a muse.

Then there were the sociological treatises of Isaac Asimov (the Foundation series) and Ursula K. Le Guin (The Dispossessed). Thought provoking, but still absorbing stories. And, of course, the outright cautionary novels like 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451 which forced us to examine the implications of political and technological developments. These days, a good number of post-apocalyptic stories, like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy follow the same path (as did Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). I could add Hugh Howey’s Wool series to the list.

Since the earliest days of the computer revolution, and especially the coming of the internet, there’s been a big trend from William Gibson, Charles Stross and others to examine technological saturation in society to extreme degrees, as well as the politics of surveillance and the death of privacy. In these books we face quandaries that we’ll have to face in real life very soon.

It’s interesting that Philip K. Dick’s stories, most featuring some form of altered reality, have inspired more movie treatments than any other SF author I can think of. Movies like Blade Runner, Total Recall, Johnny Mnemonic, and The Adjustment Bureau haven’t always been that faithful to Dick’s original material, but they’ve provided food for thought along with the special effects and other movie magic.

Military SF from Robert Heinlein and others reflected and commented on military conflicts of their day. Modern examples include the Forever War series from Joe Haldeman and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. Even stories about aliens like Stranger In A Strange Land and Clarke’s Childhood’s End ( now becoming a TV event) are mostly about humans. Educational, you could say, but math class never held my attention so well.

Then there are the “what if” novels that writers like Robert J. Sawyer do so well, tackling issues that are just on the horizon: what if rejuvenation treatments worked for one person but not their spouse? What if everyone in the world could get a glimpse of their future? What if the World Wide Web became self-aware? We can learn something about ourselves, our society, our priorities and morals from all of these, but they are so much more than intellectual exercises.

By all means enjoy a good romp in space, a clever time travel tale, or a Nazis-won-the-war alternate history. But don’t be afraid to order a richer fictional meal that’s brain food as well as comfort food. You might find it even more satisfying.