Saturday, October 22, 2011

Short SF Review #19: The Thirst Quenchers

The Thirst Quenchers, by Rick Raphael
Appeared in Analog Science Fact - Science Fiction, September 1963

There was water in the highlands, in watersheds and spilling unused down to the sea in many areas. Soon the cities and industries sent out great plastisteel arteries to bring the lifeblood of the land to the vast sponges of the factories and showers in homes and food-processing plants and laundrounits. Water for the machine-precise rows of soy bean plants and for babies' formulas and water for great nuclear power plants and water for a tiny, sixty-fifth floor apartment flower box.

They say that science fiction, no matter what year or world it's set in, is really about the time in which it was written. It's something that becomes increasingly obvious as a work of science fiction ages, and the cultural assumptions underlying it become progressively more out of step with the present day. While this may mean greater speedbumps in the path of a modern reader's suspension of disbelief, it also makes the story into a cultural time capsule of sorts - through it, and through the attitudes, concepts and ideas it incorporates, we can gain fresh insight on the time of its origin.

Over the last few years, the 1960s seem to have picked up a lot of traction in popular culture, starting with the success of Mad Men and going out from there; it's got to the point where I've seen clothing stores advertising new lines that are explicitly derived from period styles. That, really, is the core of it, I think - people today are looking to emulate the style of the 1960s while preserving twenty-first century sensibilities. Sure, it had its cultural dark spots, but there was a profound sense of optimism there too; it was the decade of Civil Rights, of the Prague Spring, of Apollo 11... an optimism that would be more than welcome in these cynical times.

Rick Raphael's "The Thirst Quenchers" is at home in the early 1960s, suffused with the sense of technological optimism that reached its zenith in the 1950s and which today is often zeerusted beyond recognition. The story is set in the mid-21st century and follows Troy Braden and Alec Patterson, snow hydrologists in the employ of the United States Division of Agriculture. This is a more important job than it may seem at first, because "Quenchers" is one of those "if this goes on" stories, where a trend of the present is extrapolated into the future. Unlike other roughly contemporaneous stories, which would look ahead and see overpopulation, the future trend that Raphael follows is the increasing demand on water resources.

It's the manner in which this trend is sketched out, and the way society is depicted as responding to it, that makes "The Thirst Quenchers" a true product of that 1950s sensibility. The story depicts a world where the population has grown to a point where the situation demands active, careful management of the United States' water resources - to a point that, from my 21st century perspective, seems both horrifying in its complexity and stunning in its laxness. It begins from the start; we first meet Braden and Patterson ascending a peak in the Sawtooth Range to replace a snow depth monitoring gauge. Such things are of key importance in a world where the water cycle has, effectively, been completely re-engineered to supply the needs of civilization. In the future of "Quenchers," snow isn't allowed to just melt like it does now; rather, after snowstorms, planes are sent out to spray the white stuff "with clouds of black, monomolecular film" that insulates it from the sun so that its meltwater can be directed where it needs to go, when it needs to be there.

As a project in isolation, it would be one thing... but it's not in isolation, and in fact it's probably the least environmentally impacting measure depicted in the story. No, this is a world where "total conservation of every possible drop of moisture" is seen as utterly necessary to the survival of the United States. Where electricity is generated universally by nuclear power and the hydroelectric dams shut down so that the water of their rivers and reservoirs can be redirected into vast pipelines and massive underground aqueducts. The main conflict of the story, after several pages of Braden and Patterson installing the snow gauge and returning to their home base in the thriving metropolis of Spokane, Washington - with a population of over three million in this story's future - centers around an earthquake cracking one of these underground reservoirs, and the desperate struggle to save as much water as possible for the factories and cities that will never, ever let up in their demands.

It's a world where "conservation" obviously means something completely different than today, since it scarcely even recognizes the environment as a thing that exists. Sure, what we recognize today as the environmental movement hadn't had an opportunity to come together when the September '63 Analog hit the stands, but it's still kind of staggering to get a window into some of the assumptions that were prevalent at the time. It's a world where nuclear power is an unqualified good, where nature is something that exists separately from civilization and will get along fine no matter what we do - I'm sure those spawning salmon from drained rivers will just, y'know, evolve legs or something - honestly, it's a world that's bloody unsettling from a modern perspective. The everyday standard is that every drop of water has to be accounted for, that water rations are so tight that bringing five major industrial units online is a substantial and complicated problem, that there are more and more competitors after less and less water... and yet it never departs from that cheery, starry-eyed, can-do, rather dissonant optimism. It's creepy.

It's a story that, bluntly, could not be written today as it is. The cultural assumptions have changed too much in the intervening fifty years. It would be stronger, I think, if there was some sociological speculation in it as well, a look at how American society changed and adapted to not only this kind of extreme water insecurity, but the political changes that would be necessary to manage it - but there aren't any. There are gadgets, though, and a overwhelming spirit that with the right tools, people can solve any problem. There are mobile nuclear reactors and nuclear-powered drilling lasers and nuclear sump pumps.

Today, though, it seems hollow. At the time, I'm sure it was probably intended for the reader to come away with the idea that there will be challenges in the future, but we'll be equipped to solve those problems if only we're smart and courageous enough to tackle them head-on. Today, what I take from it is a sense that this is a world just before the end - that it's desperate to maintain things as they are no matter the cost, without taking firm action to change the situation to something more stable or sustainable. The world of "The Thirst Quenchers" has the tinge of incipient dystopia to it; like society in that world is running on the top of a wheel, having to constantly struggle lest it be crushed.

But you don't have to take my word for it - draw your own conclusions. If you're interested in reading it yourself, the story is available as an ebook from Project Gutenberg.


Previous Short SF Reviews:

No comments:

Post a Comment