Fiction: A boring night is looking up (full story)

The zeppelin’s white skin glowed in the city’s lights as it approached the docking tower. Rivulets of water made it shimmer, drawing Tua’s eyes. She yawned, and squinted to re-focus her gaze on the cargo hold. Her mission brief was sparse on details, but the central question was clear: a handful of freight vessels had been dropping something while on approach for docking, beginning shortly after sunset. A few dock workers had seen whatever it was, and reported it to the Shipping Council, but there were no reports of anything falling from the sky, of damage, or of unexplained waste in the canals.

Something was being delivered by people who were willing to go to fairly extreme lengths to keep their business off of any books. Half the time, when Tua was called in to run an investigation, what she found was depressingly harmless. People operating in secret because they enjoyed the challenge, or starting up a strange new business venture that drew attention from “concerned citizens”.

Those didn’t tend to involve the clandestine use of one of the city’s major shipping routes. Freight zeppelins ran constantly around the country. They didn’t move particularly fast, but there was a never-ending stream of them drifting slowly around the continent. It was effectively a massive, airborne conveyor belt, and because it depended on lighter-than-air craft, weight was carefully monitored.

The zeppelin docked with a loud thunk, and Tua closed her eyes to rest them while the vessel was unloaded above her. Waiting was the worst part of this job.

Normally, smuggling investigations required very little effort. Most items that would get a smuggler in trouble were things that could poison the water or interfere with some of the city’s vital functions. Smuggling might allow someone to avoid paying access or import fees, but those were low enough that avoiding them often cost more, even if you didn’t get caught. That went doubly for smuggling anything by air. Tua had helped a gun-running operation in her teens, but that had gone along the canals. It turned out the guns were for an ill-conceived plan by a group to gain control over the city’s common housing system through a mixture of bribery, intimidation, and murder.

Tua didn’t understand it, but there always seemed to be those who wanted power over other people, and those willing to help them for one reason or another. She shifted carefully on her perch, and adjusted her goggle magnification. The next zeppelin was just visible on its approach.

I was one of those willing to help, she reminded herself. Her current gig as an investigator had started as community service after she was caught along with everyone else involved in the attempted takeover. She hadn’t known what goods she was moving, but neither had she asked. It had gotten her better food and housing, and more than enough money to access some of the more interesting clubs around town. It had also been more fun than she had had before or since.

A bell rang above her as the zeppelin finished offloading its cargo, and glided away into the rainy dusk. The next one approached, and Tua watched, her goggles recording everything in case she blinked at the wrong moment.

She didn’t.

An object dropped from the hold, nearly invisible, and vanished between a couple buildings.

“Mark this section of the recording, and send it to Kenneth for analysis.”

Tua basked in the brief adrenaline spike for a moment as the zeppelin  docked, then clambered rapidly down the outside of the tower. Two stories down from her perch, she slipped through an access hatch and closed it carefully behind her. The suit that covered her head to toe would prevent her from showing up on any heat-sensitive equipment, but the more time she spent out on the side of a building, the better the chances someone would notice her.

If the people behind this operation knew they were being investigated, they’d disappear entirely.

There was a soft beep in her ear.

“Go ahead.”

“From what I can tell, you’re looking three rows north, one row west.” Kenneth’s voice was high, and a little nasal. “Based on your footage, there’s no way that hits the water without enough of a splash to draw attention, which means it’s being caught on the way down.”

“Any ideas how they’re doing it?” Tua’s mask prevented her voice from carrying more than a millimeter beyond her lips.

“Nothing you haven’t already thought of. There’s no permanent structure that would allow for it, so they’re putting out a net or something, without anyone noticing, catching the cargo, and pulling it in.

“And there’ve been no reports that might be related?”

“Not that I can find, no. The reports are all from dock workers, and altogether it seems like a considerable amount of something has been coming in at a pretty constant rate for some time now.”

“How much?”

Tua slipped quietly into a stairwell on the south side of the building, and headed down to another access hatch, guided by the display on her goggles.

“We won’t know till you get a better reading. Try to get a recording of the cargo being dropped, and we should be able to figure out how much each package weighs.”

“On my way.”

She heard someone the stairwell one floor below her as she reached her destination. She slipped through her door and closed it silently behind her. She followed her directions through a floor of offices to a utility corridor, and slipped out the access hatch at the end of it.

It let her out onto the roof of a causeway that ran through, and between buildings. Glancing up, she saw another zeppelin coming in to dock, its bulk peeking out around the sides of the building. Two thirds of the way across the causeway bridge, hopped over the side, hooking her grapple on a strut as she fell past it, and swinging up to cling to the underside of the bridge. A catwalk ran under the causeway, put there for inspection and maintenance of the machinery for the moving walkways that carried people around the city. She set off north at a jog, keeping her footfalls light. The hum of motors and gears above her would drown out most noises, but Tua liked to be careful when she was trying to avoid notice. Three rows north of the docking tower, she stopped in the middle of a canal and looked west.

“Kenneth.”

“Wait there for the next drop, then reposition.”

“It’s always ‘waiting.’”

“Really? I had no idea.” Tua could hear Kenneth’s eyes rolling. He worked out of his apartment, and complained bitterly any time he was forced to actually go out and do any investigating.

Tua complained any time she was forced to sit and wait, and most of her work involved waiting. When she told someone what she did for work, they thought it sounded thrilling and glamorous. When she told them it mostly involved waiting around, they generally assumed it was to hide thrilling secrets.

She heard the soft sound of something moving against metal and glanced to the side. A cat had found her, and decided to join her.

“Well” she murmured, “I suppose a catwalk is more your domain than mine.”

Kenneth’s breath puffed against his microphone as he chuckled into it.

“Found another cat, did you?”

“They find me, Ken.”

“Just don’t get distracted.”

“Do I ever?” The cat sniffed delicately at her gloved hand, and then rubbed its face against her fingertips.

“Yes. Often. That’s part of why you record everything in front of your face when we’re working.”

“Then it’s not likely to cause any problems, is it?” Her new companion flopped on its gray-striped side, its paws pressed against her thigh, and blinked up at her, tail tapping gently on the metal grate of the catwalk’s floor.

“That depends.” Kenneth’s tone was dry. “Do you expect the cat to be catching the cargo? If not, you may need to actually look in the correct direction for me to have anything to analyze.”

“Analyze my butt.” She turned her head to glare down the canal, scratching at the cat’s ear with a knuckle.

“Ugh. No thanks.”

Tua grinned. The few times she’d asked about Kenneth’s social life, he’d described himself as being in a blissful relationship with his work. Nearly everything about his life seemed boring to her, but the more she worked with him, the more she realized that he hadn’t been kidding. His life truly was blissful. He got along with everyone, had a few close friendships, and absolutely no interest in romance.

When she got to know him well enough to see the shape of his life, she had said his lifestyle would drive her to jump off buildings just for something to do. He responded that she did that anyway, so clearly her own lifestyle was also too boring, and at least he was content with what he had.

He wasn’t wrong.

Uncovering secrets was an intensely satisfying job – more so than just keeping them for other people – but she did find that her craving for adventure seemed to build exponentially every time she had to just sit and wait somewhere. If something fun didn’t happen soon, she’d have to enter herself into a ring fight just to alleviate the boredom.

The cat hooked a paw into the grate and pulled itself so its head rested on her thigh. She glanced down at it and tickled her fingers on its exposed belly. It immediately grabbed her hand with its mouth and front paws, and rabbit-kicked her wrist. The tough material of her suit protected against thorns and cat claws alike, but he was keeping his weapons sheathed, and his bite was playfully gentle.

She cooed at him, forgetting that the sound wouldn’t escape her suit.

“Tua…”

“Yeah, yeah.”

She turned her head and watched the long, glittering ribbon of the canal. The only disturbance on the water’s surface came from the dripping buildings, and the dripping sky. Movement caught her eye directly under her perch, but it was just the headlight of a small submersible drone, cruising along just above the bottom of the canal. As always, she wanted to know who was piloting it, and why, but that wasn’t the secret she was hunting tonight.

The cat let go of her hand, and sat up, staring at her. She gave it a shrug; she didn’t carry anything a cat could eat when she was working.

Her companion noticed the disturbance just as she did. A little less than one row west, something had appeared on the surface of the water.

“Kenneth, are you seeing this?”

“Yep.”

It was a black circle against the lights reflected in the water, maybe about four feet across. Tua whispered a command and her goggles began cycling through polarization and wavelength filters.

“It looks like there’s some sort of tube or something leading from the surface down to a gap near the base of that building.”

“Yeah. Can’t tell for sure, but-”

An object dropped into the middle of the object with a soft flap, and Tua’s goggles showed it sliding down the tube like a large fish moving down a snake’s body in a time-lapse video. Before it reached the bottom of the tube, it had already retracted below the surface, until the whole apparatus pulled back down to disappear where the canal met the building.

“What the hell was that?” Kenneth sounded almost disturbed.

“What we’re looking for, and it’s something new!”

“Tua…”

“I’m going to find a new perch. It looks like the vines on the side of the building will let me sit right over that spot without sticking out at all.”

“Be careful,” said Kenneth.

“That’s your job, Ken, not mine.”

“Tua!”

“Stop whining, Ken. Mark that spot for me so I can make sure I’m positioned right?”

“Fine.”

She stood carefully, and did a couple squats to warm up her legs again. The cat stood with her, but disappeared back the way it had come as she headed to the row of buildings. Her pulse drummed a little faster as she slipped from the catwalk into the building, and trotted down a narrow utility corridor. Her goggles had identified the building as a farm, which suited her fine. Farms always had a nice collection of walkways to allow people to do as much work as possible without risking contamination of the clean-room environment that kept the crops pest-free. After about 100 meters, she turned to a fire escape, and looked up, checking air traffic.

Her goggles outlined the long line of zeppelins for her, each about a kilometer apart. None of the sensors built into her suit were picking up surveillance beyond the standard stuff that wouldn’t care about her. She took a moment to pick a route, and began bouldering along the side of the building, moving from ledge to vine until she was over the bright orange spot Kenneth had put on her display to mark the drop point.

She hooked a couple straps to the vines around her so she could hold her position comfortably.

“In place. Time for more waiting.”

“Stop,” said Kenneth, “I can’t bear the excitement in your voice.”

“Hey now! We’re about to uncover a new secret! This is about as exciting as this job gets!”

“Maybe. From what we’ve seen so far, the next step is to call in a dive team. You and I might never even know what they find.”

“Hmph!” He was probably right. She hated not knowing.

“Stop whining. Look up so we can see the next one drop.”

She obeyed, pointing her face at the featureless, dripping sky

“At least the last spot had a cat.”

“Maybe this one will have a spider you can pet.”

“You’re so funny, Ken!”

“Nobody appreciate my genius.”

If any spiders were trying to befriend her, she couldn’t feel them through the suit. Every time she thought watching canals or buildings was boring, she could just remember watching the sky, and she’d feel better by comparison. The only changes in the sky were the transition from underlit yellow clouds at night, to overlit gray clouds during the day. Sometimes, a particularly dramatic sunset or sunrise would add a green or pink tint to things.

A zeppelin passed overhead without incident.

“How many more drops do we need to see?” The next zeppelin was a good five to ten minutes out.

“Probably one looking up, and one looking down,” said Kenneth. “Maybe two? Depends on how it’s dropped and on what we can gather from the landing spot.”

“Ugh. I’m gonna be stuck on this wall all night.”

“If it helps, it seems like about every third vessel on this route is smuggling cargo, so the next one should have some entertainment for you.”

“It had better…”

The next one looked different as soon as it came into view.

“Ken, are you see-”

“Yes, Tua. I’m seeing everything you’re seeing.”

There was a bulge on the underside of the zeppelin’s gondola. It was the same color, but looking carefully, even in this dim light, Tua could see that it was divided into three sections. The outer two were much larger than the central one, and Tua guessed they held a lifting gas. As it drew almost directly overhead, the outer sections suddenly deflated and retracted, and the whole thing dropped away, leaving the underside of the vessel completely unmarked. She kept her face turned upward as the object dropped past her, and flapped into its target, in case there was any activity on the zeppelin itself that she’d missed.

“They might not even…” Tua trailed off.

“Yeah, I think you’re right. That’s why nothing odd was showing up on the  weight readings. The two sacks on the sides kept it neutrally bouyant on the underside of the gondola, and it probably had a releasable suction cup to keep it attached enough to move along with it.”

“That’s a really clever system.” Tua was impressed. “They wouldn’t even need to have anyone on the inside or whatever. If they’re a little careful, they could be attaching these things at any point along the route and nobody would notice.”

“I’ve been marking the ones that are carrying the extra cargo, so we’ll be able to track when the last time someone had a recording of the undersides. We should at least be able to figure out where they’re coming from.”

The zeppelin out of sight, Tua turned her gaze downward. With the help of her goggles, she could even see the hole at the base of the building.

“You know, I could probably just dive down and have a look at that hole…”

“And then drown at the bottom of the canal? Doesn’t seem worth the sacrifice to me, but it’s your life, I suppose.”

“Sun, Moon, and Stars, how boring can you get?”

“Hey now…”

“Sorry, it’s just-” She took a deep breath. “Our differences aside, this suit doesn’t just keep me off I.R. scanners, it also feeds me breathable air. It’ll do that under water, too.”

“Even without tanks?”

“Iffy. I’d need to move slow to keep oxygen requirements low.”

“Sounds like you’d get bored halfway to the bottom,” said Kenneth.

“Very funny. It wouldn’t be boring, it would be a challenge, and then we might actually get some answers.”

“Better to get people who won’t suffocate if they get out of breath.”

“Maybe…”

Kenneth sighed. “Look, just watch for the next one so we can at least get some idea of what kind of weight these things are.”

“Watching…”

The gently rippling water below her was hypnotic. Time always passed more quickly when she was staring at the shimmer of lights and colors that made up the canal’s surface at night. After a little while, Kenneth spoke up again.

“Should be something on the next zeppelin, in about five minutes. I’m pretty sure they’re using hydrogen, and from the size of the gas bags, the cargo and container probably add up to around 70 to 75 kilograms.”

“Huh. That’s about what I weigh.” Tua couldn’t see any movement below her yet.

“You think they’re smuggling people?”

“With a drop like that? Not unless they don’t care if they’re intact on arrival.”

“I dunno…” Kenneth paused.

“What?”

“I had some numbers running after we got that first recording. It looks like the water pressure on the outside of the tube might provide enough of a gradual slowdown that it wouldn’t do any damage.”

“Clever system all around.”

“If I’m right, the weight of the cargo would pull it down even without the momentum of that drop.”

“Reeally…”

“The inside of the tube would probably need to be oiled or something, but- wait. Tua I don’t like the tone of your voice.”

“Don’t be silly. How far down do you think it goes?”

There was a moment of silence, and Tua saw movement below her. The tube was slowly rising up below her, pushed by several long, thin rods attached to the hoop that formed the “target”.

“Probably down to the old subway tunnels, maybe below.”

“So maybe a minute or two in the tube?”

“And then someone at the bottom to receive it and clear the way for the next one.”

“Underwater?” The tube had almost reached the surface.

“No,” said Kenneth. “From what I can tell, I’m willing to bet there’s an aerated structure down there. This whole system seems designed to protect whatever they’re smuggling from water.”

“Even though they’re dropping it into a canal?”

The tube reached the surface, and stopped just above it. Looking down, Tua could see it had a flat black cover. The edge of the circle twisted around, and the cover opened like an iris, revealing a sort of gullet, glistening with the oil Kenneth had predicted, and held closed by the water around it.

“Yeah,” Kenneth sounded excited. Tua’s heart was pounding now. “See that? The cargo just slides in, and has an easy trip down. It’s like they’re bypassing the city entirely.”

“Who’s ‘they’?”

“No idea.”

“Don’t you want to know?”

“Sure, but- Tua you’ve got that tone in your voice again.”

“What tone?” Tua carefully unhooked her anchors, and glanced up. The zeppelin was almost there.

“Like that time you got so bored you used your grapple to take a joyride on the underside of a delivery drone.”

“Oh yeah, that was fun!” She stared at the landing spot. It pulled back in about twenty seconds after the cargo hit, and the cover took about five seconds to open.

“How much did you have to pay to cover damage and wasted fuel?”

“That was a legit company. I don’t think these people have the resources to enforce any fines.”

“I bet they have the resources to make you sorry you interfered…”

“Maybe.” Tua pulled out her collapsible baton, and clenched it in her right fist.

“Tua don’t-”

“I’m gonna.”

“You’ll get covered in oil.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Gross,” said Kenneth. “You could die.”

“At least it wouldn’t be of boredom. I wanna know what’s at the other end of that tube.”

“But-”

“They might notice a dive team, but they won’t be expecting this.”

“Because it’s so reckless that nobody would-”

The smugglers’ cargo flashed past and flapped into the tube. Tua hopped after it.

Flap.


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Rethinking society: How can we redesign our lives and infrastructure to survive the rising heat?

From time to time, politicians are accused of taking the “don’t let a good crisis go to waste” approach, and while crises are often exploited by disaster capitalists and demagogues, they can also be exploited by people who want to make the world a better place for everyone. In that vein, I want to take advantage of the current crisis (or the current tiny part of the larger climate crisis), to ask you to imagine a different world.

Summer has arrived in North America with infernal temperatures, and the wildfires seem to be getting worse every year. Between the heat and the smoke, going outside is increasingly dangerous in growing parts of the continent, at least for part of the year. It appears that the bleak reality of climate change is setting in for more people every year now, and I think that makes this a good time to really think about the dangers facing us in a warmer climate, and how our infrastructure, lifestyles, and even clothing may need to change.

These changes have already been underway, at a reactive level. The COVID-19 pandemic may have caused a global increase in mask usage, but the areas affected by the growing wildfire problem have had masks on the list of recommended household safety gear for a while now, because of the problems caused by smoke inhalation. As temperatures rise, many chemical reactions will become more common. Air pollution in general is going to keep getting more dangerous, and wildfires make that problem worse not just by having more smoke in the air, but by burning human structures, waste, vehicles, and so on and releasing those chemicals into the air as well. We’re expected to have more pandemics in the near future, simply because of habitat destruction and climate chaos bringing humans into contact with new animal populations, but we’re also going to want to have masks around because hotter air is more likely to be poisonous.

It’s becoming harder and harder for anyone to believe that life as we’ve known it is ever going to return. We’re gazing into the unknown, and it’s natural for our minds to conjure images – to make spontaneous guesses for what might actually be out in the darkness. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the shape of what follows has yet to be determined.

Let’s continue thinking about masks, for example. I’ve been wearing one in public spaces for 16 months now, and I generally dislike them. I don’t like the close, muffled feel or the way the masks press against my beard. They’re uncomfortable, but also necessary. I think that as the temperature rises, and the necessity for masks increases, I’m going to want to make a re-usable mask that fits more comfortably, and that’s not going to make me feel like I’m suffocating if I have to wear it during a heat wave. I’ve toyed with the notion of a mask with a rigid skeleton, washable filters, and maybe even a battery powered air pump or fan for circulation. If we’re gonna have to deal with a dystopian hellscape of climate chaos and late-stage capitalism, we might as well get a cool cyberpunk aesthetic to go with it, right? Guess I’d better add some infrared LEDs to mess with surveillance equipment while I’m at it.

Aesthetics aside, with the temperatures we’re starting to see, I honestly think we’re approaching a point where going outside is going to require a full-body cooling suit on some days. Liquid-based thermal suits have been around for a while – they’re most famously used by astronauts for the under-suit worn inside a space suit. The basic principle is that the clothing holds a tube against the skin, through which water or some other fluid is pumped, drawing heat away from the body. According to Wikipedia, garments like this are designed to

…remove body heat from the wearer in environments where evaporative cooling from sweating and convection cooling does not work, or the wearer has a biological problem that hinders self-regulation of body temperature.

For the rest of our lives, a growing portion of humanity is going to live in those conditions for at least part of the year. Hopefully the fact that parts of Canada are approaching those conditions has disabused most people of the notion that anywhere on the planet is going to be guaranteed to avoid those conditions. People are going to need to have reliable shelter from the heat, and are going to need protective gear for going outdoors, especially for things like emergency services. What remains to be seen is how easy it’s going to be to build and maintain such garments as the heat continues to rise.

Even if it turns out we can make temperature-controlled clothing easily and safely, we can’t simply exist in full body suits for our entire lives – we’re going to need places where we can just exist, without protective gear, which means not just air conditioning of one form or another, but also common spaces that can be accessed without going outside, or without spending more than a couple minutes between buildings. I think there are a lot of forms this could take, but probably the most familiar would be dormitories, apartment blocks, and “co-housing” setups like this Norwegian project: 

In Vindmøllebakken, the units are arranged around a central core of communal

Vindmøllebakken Cohousing Project by Helen & Hard Architects interior courtyard

Sindre Ellingsen

spaces, which are equally and jointly owned by residents. The main entrance is through a lofty, light-filled courtyard space with an amphitheater, all built with spruce timber and insulated with hemp, creating a warm and welcoming atmosphere for residents to sit or to chat.

For those who want to skip this area of socializing, there is a more direct path from the street to residences that is available as well.

Adjacent to the courtyard, we have a communal kitchen and communal open-plan dining area, providing a space for residents to cook and eat together if they so choose. There is also a lounge and guest rooms. Further up, we have open walkways leading to a library, greenhouse, and workshop.

The architects say that: “The sequence of rooms is designed to create visual connections between spaces and people and to provide freedom to how much and when to engage in communal life.”

Another thing that is already the norm in some areas is to have grocery stores build into apartment buildings. The AirB&B we stayed at in Frankfurt on our move across the Atlantic had a full grocery store in the basement. I’m sure the residents of that building aren’t the only ones who shop there, but if they’re ever faced with conditions that require them to stay indoors as much as possible – like a killer heatwave – they’ll be able to get necessities without ever setting foot outside. Add in things like the monstrous floating cities used by the cruise industry, and subway stations built into the lower basements of skyscrapers, and it’s clear that we have all the pieces we need for cities that can function pretty well with a majority of people never needing to expose themselves to lethal outdoor conditions.

At the same time, the conditions we’ll be trying to avoid are likely to cause problems for both agriculture and freight, all of which brings us back to my long-standing belief that we’re going to need to invest heavily in indoor food production. That can be hydroponics, aeroponics, aquaponics, algae or bacteria farming, insect farming, or even giant, artificially lit underground fields for all I care, but our food crops can’t survive these heat waves and fires any better than anything else can, and the cost of irrigating them is going to start rising exponentially as groundwater continues being depleted and temperatures continue to rise.

It may not be everywhere, and it should not be how we spend all of our time if it can be avoided (I think we need to maintain a broad personal connection between the state of the climate and the general population), but it will be necessary for survival in most parts of the globe at least some of the time. As we look into things like high speed rail networks, I think we might want to consider spending the extra resources to build those underground to protect our transit network from the rising climate chaos. The current above-ground arrangements for mass transit are currently melting, warping, or buckling.

But all of this is just what’s going on in my head, and I think we need as many people thinking about this as possible. How can we adapt ourselves and our society to the way climate change is affecting your region? What would be needed for that change?

What are the obstacles, and how might they be overcome?

What changes could we make at the same time to foster community building and organizing, and to improve everyday life, particularly for those at the bottom? How could we rebuild society to increase everybody’s free time?

We are in uncharted territory in a number of ways. The people in charge know the harm they’re doing, but they’re lying when they say they know what’s best for humanity – they don’t, and they never have. It’s up to us to figure out what needs to be done, and to make that happen.

Anyway, I’m curious what thoughts other people have on how we might change things to survive what looks to be a very tough time.

The image shows a portion of what looks to be a round, multi-story room. On the bottom story, and closer to the foreground, are shelves of plants growing under artificial lighting. The level above has cafe-style chairs and tables overlooking what appears to be a garden with a small tree or a shrub in the middle of it. It looks like both a pleasant bit of greenery, and a small source of food.


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Update: Work-work balance, science fiction and non-fiction

As most of my readers are no doubt aware, in addition to the primary content of this blog, I also write fiction – mostly sci-fi and a little fantasy. Lately I’ve been increasing the amount of time spent working on my science fiction, and that has led to a bit of a drop in posting here. This post is a bit of an explanation, a bit of an apology, and a bit of talking about what the future looks like for me.

In the short term, I don’t expect any major changes to Oceanoxia. I intend to keep posting, and to increase both the frequency and quality of my non-fiction work here. This is partly because it’s my primary means of income, meagre though that is right now, and partly because I feel like it’s the way I can best help to bring about the changes I want to see in the world.

That said, there are limits to the concepts I feel I can effectively explore through nonfiction work and advocacy, and part of my goal has always been to help people see various possibilities for our future. In that regard, my science fiction has begun to fall into three general categories. The first, that some of you have hopefully seen, takes place in the United States somewhere around a couple thousand years in the future. Sea levels are still very high, but just starting to fall slowly, and New York City is a sort of solarpunk archipelago and rainforest. So far everything about that scenario takes place in Manhattan, which has a layout pretty similar to its current arrangement, but with canals where the streets would be, and big lagoon where Central Park currently stands. I’m still figuring out what sort of society it is, but it’s not too far from a version of anarcho-communism or something like it. Cooperatives and councils handle most of the collective projects that are currently managed by government and corporations. Housing and food are guaranteed, and people divide their time between work that helps society run, and activities that fulfil them, at least where the two purposes don’t overlap. Whether or not an activity is allowed depends largely on whether it harms other people in some way, and while there’s collective oversight of things like construction, if someone is “caught” doing something like construction outside of said oversight, there has to be demonstrable harm or danger to people in order to justify intervention.

Because my explorations haven’t gone much outside of New York, I’m honestly not sure what the rest of North America looks like, except that it’s no longer the heart of any sort of empire, and hasn’t been for some centuries. Problems created by greed, hatred, and so on still exist, but they’re not supported at a systemic level in the way we see today, and so have less power to destroy lives. Not a perfect world, but a better one.

The second category is in the far more distant future – tens of thousands of years. Have I mentioned I’m an optimist? I tried not to be for a while, but it got tiresome. At this point in time, humanity is interstellar, and has been for a very long time. The stories I’ve worked on thus far also take place in a better society, but this one is an interplanetary association of sorts, with the various planets governing themselves along similar lines to what I described in the “flooded New York” setting. Some use governments, some don’t, but access to food, shelter, and healthcare are all guaranteed, and insofar as there’s a currency, it’s the hydrogen that’s used in fusion engines to both power technology, and to manufacture and “print out” most materials needed for society. It’s sort of like replicator technology in Star Trek, but rather than just “materializing” finished products, the matter forges synthesize raw materials of varying complexity from molecules formed in a series of fusion reactors, each fueling the next. This setting is also one in which I explore fascism, as a number of planets – including Earth – are under the sway of a fascist society that’s in a sort of “Cold War” with the society I just described. I view fascism as a set of ideologies and political tactics that I think are likely to plague humanity for a long time to come, and likely to re-emerge from time to time, as ignorance, complacency, or fear lead people to those practices. Some of what I’m working on deals with resistance against such a fascist regime, and some does not. The anti-fascist societies are – again – not perfect. There are families and corporations with interplanetary power and influence, and that leads to predictable problems. I’ve been putting less time into this end of things in the last couple years, but I’ve recently resumed work on a novel taking place in this setting, now that I feel like my skill as a writer is closer to being able to tackle the subject matter.

The third category is one I think of as “the gauntlet“. It’s a set of stories taking place within the next century or two, depicting humanity’s struggle to survive a warming climate and the collapse of the current global capitalist order. Reflecting my own expectations for the near future, this is definitely my least optimistic project, and contains a lot of stuff that I fervently hope will be viewed as laughably pessimistic in a couple hundred years, if not my own lifetime (again, I’m optimistic enough to hope that my work will be considered at all on any useful scale. I think there’s a degree of egotism required to continue in this line of work). Some of this stuff is more optimistic, as it deals with the first glimmers of the world explored in the first category above.

Some of this fiction I’ll share here directly. Some is exclusively for my patrons. Some I’ll send away in the hopes that some publication will pay me a little. In any case, there’s going to be more of it around in general. If you want more of my time to go to this blog, and more of my fiction to be available to either you, or to the general public, the best way to achieve those goals right now is to support me via patreon, and encourage others to do the same. The closer I am to being able to actually cover living expenses, the more I’ll be free to just directly share my work with whoever wants to read it, which is my preference. The second best way is to share any of my work that you find to be valuable, by whatever criteria you judge such things.

Life’s chaotic for most of us right now, so however you relate to my work, take care of yourself, and those around you.

Mitigating the harm of climate change, using changes in the climate

One thing that is fast becoming a central theme of my work is the notion that, in addition to decentralizing political power, and creating a more democratic economy than capitalism can provide, we also need view ourselves as a part of the “natural world”. That means moving away from the historical trend of using technology to separate ourselves from the rest of the biosphere, and instead more fully integrating human civilization with the ecosystems that surround us.

This includes a lot of the standard stuff from the solarpunk genre: urban agriculture and urban wildlife, waste management that minimizes or eliminates pollution, and an end to wasteful things like planned obsolescence. It also goes beyond that, to molding ourselves to better suit our ecosystems, and to reduce the amount of labor and energy required to survive in a sometimes hostile landscape.

As the climate warms, the trend in much of the world seems to be towards stable or increasing annual rainfall, but with all of that rain coming in a smaller number of more intense storms. The practical effect of that is a worsening cycle of drought, flooding, and erosion, as the majority of the year is too dry for most plant life, and the sudden, intense rainfall floods the landscape causing landslides, and washing away both plant life and topsoil.

This, in turn, is likely to worsen the next year’s drought, while doing little to provide actual relief, as the water all rushes out to sea, or evaporates quickly following the downpour. The result is a cycle that’s likely to affect a huge portion of currently inhabited land, starting with the areas already suffering from this, like California:

As climate change intensifies the severity and frequency of these extreme events, amplifying refill rates could help the state reach a more balanced groundwater budget. One practice, called water banking or managed aquifer recharge, involves augmenting surface infrastructure, such as reservoirs or pipelines, with underground infrastructure, such as aquifers and wells, to increase the transfer of floodwater for storage in groundwater basins.

A newer strategy for managing surface water, compared to more traditional methods like reservoirs and dams, water banking poses multiple benefits including flood risk reduction and improved ecosystem services. While groundwater basins offer a vast network for water safekeeping, pinpointing areas prime for replenishment, gauging infrastructure needed and the amount of water available remains key, especially in a warming and uncertain climate.

“Integrating managed aquifer recharge with floodwaters into already complex water management infrastructure offers many benefits, but requires careful consideration of uncertainties and constraints. Our growing understanding of climate change makes this an opportune time to examine the potential for these benefits,” said senior author David Freyberg, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford.

The researchers designed a framework to estimate future floodwater availability across the state. Developing a hybrid computer model using hydrologic and climate simulations and statistical tools, the team calculated water available for recharge under different climate change scenarios through 2090. They also identified areas where infrastructure investments should be prioritized to tap floodwater potential and increase recharge.

As things currently stand, flood waters tend to be dangerous. They sweep up badly stored chemicals, human and animal waste, and sediments carrying pollution from past eras, resulting in a mix of poisons and bacteria that can do a lot of harm. Building infrastructure to catch that water, clean it, and direct it into aquifers would be a huge investment, but one that I think would be well worth it, and have benefits lasting far into the future.

Similar to things like food forests and managed prairies, water conservation and banking practices can help us build up not only our own resilience, but also the resilience of surrounding ecosystems.

Image shows the flooded terraces of a Balinese rice farm, creating a sort of managed ecosystem of grasses, trees, and ponds climbing up mountainsides

“For most crops, irrigation simply provides water for the plant’s roots. But in a Balinese rice terrace, water is used to construct a complex, pulsed artificial ecosystem. Water temples manipulate the states of the system, at ascending levels in regional hierarchies.”

The industrial revolution, colonialism, and capitalism all worked to devastate the biosphere of this planet in ways we’re still working to fully understand. We must turn from being consumers of the world, to being stewards of it. In the past, rhetoric like this might have been used to push the idea that we should just “leave nature alone”, but I want to be clear that that’s not what I’m suggesting.

The ecological collapse we’ve created means that we have a responsibility to use our technology and understanding to help our ecosystems survive, for our own benefit. That’s likely to mean increased intervention in what remains of wild spaces, at least in some ways. I think it’s obvious we should work to end the conditions that drive practices like deforestation and over-fishing; but it may also mean things like using banked or desalinated water to irrigate drought-stricken “wilderness”, if we can find ways to do so.

This is a complex issue, and must be approached as such. The measures taken to help one region could prove devastating in another, and it’s almost certain that such efforts will only work if undertaken in a cooperative manner across the arbitrary borders that divide the world into “nations”. As I’ve said before, a better world is possible, but I believe it will require the creation and maintenance of global solidarity. We cannot continue to indulge exploitation and bigotry, if we want to survive.


If you find the contents of this blog useful or entertaining, or if you think that it’s moving in that direction, please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com/oceanoxia, and/or encouraging others to do so. I’d to keep writing, and keep building this into a useful resource for those who want a better world, and to do that, I need money to survive. I’m still pulling in far, far less than minimum wage, and it’d be awesome if I could close that gap.

Fiction: A boring night is looking up

The zeppelin’s white skin glowed in the city’s lights as it approached the docking tower. Rivulets of water made it shimmer, drawing Tua’s eyes. She yawned, and squinted to re-focus her gaze on the cargo hold. Her mission brief was sparse on details, but the central question was clear: a handful of freight vessels had been dropping something while on approach for docking, beginning shortly after sunset. A few dock workers had seen whatever it was, and reported it to the Shipping Council, but there were no reports of anything falling from the sky, of damage, or of unexplained waste in the canals.

Something was being delivered by people who were willing to go to fairly extreme lengths to keep their business off of any books. Half the time, when Tua was called in to run an investigation, what she found was depressingly harmless. People operating in secret because they enjoyed the challenge, or starting up a strange new business venture that drew attention from “concerned citizens”.

Those didn’t tend to involve the clandestine use of one of the city’s major shipping routes. Freight zeppelins ran constantly around the country. They didn’t move particularly fast, but there was a never-ending stream of them drifting slowly around the continent. It was effectively a massive, airborne conveyor belt, and because it depended on lighter-than-air craft, weight was carefully monitored.

The zeppelin docked with a loud thunk, and Tua closed her eyes to rest them while the vessel was unloaded above her. Waiting was the worst part of this job.

Normally, smuggling investigations required very little effort. Most items that would get a smuggler in trouble were things that could poison the water or interfere with some of the city’s vital functions. Smuggling might allow someone to avoid paying access or import fees, but those were low enough that avoiding them often cost more, even if you didn’t get caught. That went doubly for smuggling anything by air. Tua had helped a gun-running operation in her teens, but that had gone along the canals. It turned out the guns were for an ill-conceived plan by a group to gain control over the city’s common housing system through a mixture of bribery, intimidation, and murder.

Tua didn’t understand it, but there always seemed to be those who wanted power over other people, and those willing to help them for one reason or another. She shifted carefully on her perch, and adjusted her goggle magnification. The next zeppelin was just visible on its approach.

I was one of those willing to help, she reminded herself. Her current gig as an investigator had started as community service after she was caught along with everyone else involved in the attempted takeover. She hadn’t known what goods she was moving, but neither had she asked. It had gotten her better food and housing, and more than enough money to access some of the more interesting clubs around town. It had also been more fun than she had had before or since.

A bell rang above her as the zeppelin finished offloading its cargo, and glided away into the rainy dusk. The next one approached, and Tua watched, her goggles recording everything in case she blinked at the wrong moment.

She didn’t.


You can read the rest, as well as other upcoming pieces of fiction, for as little as $1USD/month by becoming one of my patrons over at the Oceanoxia Collective