Storm World

Back when I was a youngling, I read a very exciting series of science-fiction novels called The Deathworld Trilogy, by Harry Harrison. The premise was that there was this horrifically fierce planet in the galaxy, with gravity twice Earth-normal, constantly erupting volcanoes, and savage, ravenous beasts that were out to destroy anything that moves. The humans who settled there became heavily muscled with lightning-fast reflexes and a militaristic society that provided some of the best soldiers in the universe. Now that is the setting for old-school science-fiction.

The genre isn’t dead! I picked up a copy of a book called Storm World(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). I figured it would be another tale of heroic humans conquering impossible odds in a dangerous setting, this time on a planet rife with ferocious storms. The story provides the storms, alright, but, boy, was I disappointed otherwise: it was the most unbelievable science-fiction novel I’ve ever read.

The setting is a kind of alternate Earth where we have the same continents and oceans and countries, but on this planet, every year 80 or 90 brutal storms arise in the oceans, slosh around over the sea, and sometimes go charging up randomly onto the land. Coastal cities face a throw of the dice every year, but here’s one unbelievable thing: people choose to live near the shore, even along coasts where these storms have a history of crashing inland. They even live in cities at or below sea level that have been demolished by hurricanes before. I was wondering why everyone doesn’t simply rush to move to the Midwest, to someplace safe like Minnesota. Or Iowa, at least.

These storms are truly horrific, in some cases killing hundreds of thousands of people and turning cities into collections of splintered matchsticks. You’d think governments would be pouring money into defense against the storms and prioritizing research into them … but no. In one case a program that needs $30 billion to begin to be effective gets tossed a bone of $3 billion. It’s like people in the story just don’t care enough.

Now here’s a bad writing decision. Obviously, the most important conflict here has to be between the deadly storms and the human beings subject to their whims, but in a seemingly arbitrary character decision, the author has created a bevy of scientists, and almost all of the conflict is between them! Storms sweep in with impunity, and the scientists squabble over how it happened. Unbelievable. Then two of the most important characters in the story — the Rough-Hewn Empiricist and the Polished Urbane Theorist — turn out to have deeply conflicting opinions, and they spend much of the book arguing. Is this how science is done on any sensible planet? I don’t know why the author didn’t just merge those two into a single brilliant figure of Heinleinian competence who’d simply reconcile the two approaches and solve the whole problem.

(Another awkwardness in the casting: there is perhaps one woman playing an important role in the story. She is not described as “buxom”. There is no romantic subplot. There are no sex scenes.)

If it isn’t bad enough that the scientists are fighting one another, they’re also all mired in these obtuse bureaucracies. People are dying and property is being smashed, and the bureaucrats are all trying to muzzle the scientists working within them. Shouldn’t there be at least one stirring scene where a bold politician cuts through the red tape and unshackles the scientists to do their freaking job?

It just gets worse. After some particularly destructive storms damage his country, the president drags his feet, refuses to acknowledge the problem, and preferentially favors one group of scientists over another. In the most narcissistic episode in the book, this president even ignores the scientists to consult with a science-fiction writer, one who rejects the major conclusions of the scientists and has no qualifications in the field whatsoever. I’m sorry, but disbelief could not be suspended at that point; there’s no way anyone smart enough to be president would favor a third-rate literary hack over the suggestions of his scientific advisors, especially when the lives of the country’s citizens and its economic prosperity were at stake.

Finally, when the story ends, nothing is resolved! There are indications that the storms are going to get more severe, the scientists are still arguing, the government is still just backing whichever side requires the least short-term effort, and all the answers to what’s causing the storms have gotten more complicated. It’s the most blatant set-up for a sequel I’ve seen. And then there’s all this horribly complicated socio-political and geophysical stuff … who does the author think he is, Kim Stanley Robinson?

The author is some guy named Mooney … hey, hang on a sec. I think I’ve heard of him. Doesn’t he have some blog? No wonder he writes such unbelievably crappy science fiction — he’s not even a novelist, he’s some kind of science journalist.

Uh, well, I see the book is also supposed to be filed in the QC900s at the library…it’s not supposed to be fiction at all.

How embarrassing.

I guess that also explains why there are no scaly armored sea monsters or blaster battles, and why there is a long and thorough introduction to the history of meteorology. It also explains the primers on methods of measurement and thermodynamic models of hurricane formation, and all those maps and appendices — it wasn’t just obsessive fantasy worldbuilding.

So it’s poor science fiction, but it’s pretty darn chilling (and infuriating) science fact. It’s realistic in its portrayal of science as a struggle to extract causes and mechanisms from extremely complex evidence, and in the unfortunately accurate description of the warring personalities and perspectives that drive the scientific endeavor. The description of the political processes is even more unfortunate: how the layers of administrative bureacracies and top-down demands of uninformed politicians who have a stake in remaining ignorant and in the pockets of conflicting interests is not reassuring for the future.

So don’t get it for the blasters and the romance. Get it for the summary of the often uncomfortable interface between science and politics, Mooney’s specialty. I give it two thumbs up, with one hand curling clockwise and the other anti-clockwise.

Hey, does this mean those monster storms are real? Jebus, why isn’t everyone moving to Minnesota right now?


  1. says

    Maybe you were being facetious in asking why people don’t just move inland, but in case you weren’t, here’s a serious response.

    The simple answer is, they can’t. Many of the people in New Orleans were born there and were too poor to move elsewhere. In many other countries it’s even work. These countries lack a developed infrastructure (sometimes even irrigation), and the people have no choice to move inland because there is no ability to live there. The sea is very bountiful (ignoring the storms). Inland areas aren’t so bountiful, and could never support a mass exodus of people moving away from the coasts.

  2. Christian Burnham says

    Ah Harry Harrison. A science fiction writer who used quick-thinking muscular atheists as his heroes.

    The Dems could learn a thing or two from Harrison’s ‘Stainless Steel Rat’.

  3. says

    Hey, does this mean those monster storms are real? Jebus, why isn’t everyone moving to Minnesota right now?

    What, and be surrounded by religious nuts? I’ll take my chances with mother nature; at least she’s indifferent.

  4. minusRusty says

    Jebus, why isn’t everyone moving to Minnesota right now?

    Because some of us already live in Colorado?!? :-p

  5. says

    Not to worry PZ, an inventor of EE Smithic proportion is on the verge of introducing (next year or so) his solution to global warming mitigation. Of course that progress could be accerated with the proper assistant (smart and buxom), but mythic inventors working alone are rarely listened to.

  6. Sven DiMilo says

    “Jebus, why isn’t everyone moving to Minnesota right now?”

    What, and have to endure American League baseball????

  7. says

    First, folks should move here to Michigan and help us rebuild an economy that doesn’t rely on global warming…oops.
    Second, I think the big point is not that folks should necessarily move away from coastlines, given most Banladeshis don’t have that option, but to mitigate climate probs where possible, and try to solve coastal problems where possible…say, rebuilding NOLA intelligently.
    Aw, never mind, global warming is BS anyway. I’m packing up and moving to Greenland.

  8. BruceJ says

    Jebus, why isn’t everyone moving to Minnesota right now?


    12 minutes of summer
    State bird: Giant Bloodsucking Mosquitos
    364 days, 23 hours, 48 minutes of winter

    I may be biased, though, I’m an old desert rat …

  9. says

    Ah yes! The many bounties of the sea, like those big tankers feeding the refineries, who in turn feed our lovingly cultivated addiction to oil. Lots of jobs there, and the sea is still the cheapest way to move crappy products from where they are mass-produced, to where people have been taught to need them.

    When I was a kid, we used to marvel at the stories of the 49-ers sending their dirty clothes from the gold fields of California to Hawaii to be laundered. Now we get our ground beef and pet food processed in China! Meanwhile, here at home, we have lost any chance to be independent or self-sufficient. We could not quickly reverse field and support most of our population, inland or otherwise, if and when the flow of foreign product is cut off, so keep those port cities open and wait for the boat son! We’ve been totally screwed, it just isn’t obvious yet.

  10. says

    I picked up one of Harrison’s books. The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to the Circus, or something to that affect. There have only been a few books I have felt compelled to put down and attempt to bathe away the bad. I think the book gave me cancer.

  11. Jazmin says

    Now here, in Michagan’s Upper Peninsula, we are enjoying a fine summer, especially after the four feet of snow we got in April. Unfortunately, Lake Superior is down about a foot and a half because we didn’t get hardly ANY snow during the rest of winter and barely enough rain for the past three summers to keep the big headed Carp happy.

    As far as baseball goes: Go Tigers!

  12. Jeff says

    Ah yes, railing against the infrastructure. But I notice none of you are giving up your frivolous use of it. After all, our oil addiction made the computers you’re using the chair you’re sitting, in fact most of the stuff you own and rely on every day.

    PZ’s story is what happens when politics overtakes science, politics from all sides.

  13. says

    Minnesota really is a lousy place for swarms of coastal refugees. We have more shore than the Pacific Coastline so it really isn’t any safer. The walleye are almost gone, the mosquitoes and deer ticks are really getting dangerous, and the deep blueness of the sky scares me. It makes me sad all the time in fact. No, for swarms of people escaping the coastal storms, South Dakota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ontario – they’re all much safer and much more friendly to refugees. We’ll be cranky if people move in. Minnesota Nice is a myth.

    As for American League baseball, well, we refuse to give up the Designated Hitter rule so don’t even ask.

  14. andy says

    I remember reading Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero… I remember finding it extremely funny. Also got the Deathworld trilogy, quite amusing but nowhere near as hilarious.

  15. Graculus says

    I always thought that Harrison was taking the mickey out of the genre. No one could write characters that badly on purpose, right? Right?

    Anyways, the concept of the Stainless Steel Rat is much, much cooler than the stories.

  16. Christian Burnham says

    Harrison is a hit and miss writer. He’s written a lot of dross, but he’s also written some quite good stuff. The early Stainless Steel Rat books were excellent (at least when I read them as a teenager).

  17. Dave Mullenix says

    Speaking as a neighbor from Wisconsin, we’ve got to build that fence along our southern border NOW! Put it somewhere north of Texas.

  18. Kseniya says

    Awesome book review, I was totally suckered right up to the “non-fiction” line. Bravo! I laughed out loud!

    Furthermore, this review sparked a personal revelation.

    I am now quite sure that Kent Hovind and Ken Ham made the same mistake you made, except in reverse, with a Harry Harrison book called West Of Eden.

  19. Stevencnz says

    Read Harry Harrison’s The Hammer and The Cross series. Basically a story of the Vikings forming an alternate religion to Christianity, and generally causing havoc.
    Decends into religiousity regularly (Visions mainly and ‘destiny’), but still a damn fun read.
    He does not mince words either, the deaths are very horific, but for the preservation of the soul.

  20. says

    massive, massive props to whoever just coined the adjective “EE Smithic”. you, sir, know your English!


  21. scienceteacherinexile says

    When the president ignores scientists to consult with a science fiction writer was the dead give away for me.
    Anyone else?

  22. scienceteacherinexile says

    Although, I thought the title was familiar, but that is when it clicked.
    I hope to get it soon, The Republican War on Science was really good.

  23. Baratos says

    I didnt realize it wasnt fiction until several minutes after reading the post.

  24. Carl says

    This Murderworld by Harry Harrison makes me think of the books by Neal Asher (I think I even read a comparison of the two). Very fast pace space-opera, almost pulplike but very entertaining and with some very cool idea’s, especially about biology.

  25. NelC says

    Ezekial @11: The Stainless Steel Rat books are meant to be humourous, slightly sending up the pulp genre among other things, but humour is a matter of taste. You might find his straight SF books, such as the Eden series, are more to your taste.

    Christian @3: Isn’t one of the Stainless Steel Rat books The Stainless Steel Rat for President?

  26. NelC says

    I think even the third rate hacks of science fiction look down on Michael Crichton. For all that they’ll use such literary devices as FTL drives and whatnot to get their protagonists to interesting places and situations, most of them love science and won’t treat the institution like a two-dollar whore.

  27. says

    scienceteacherinexile (#27), I have to admit that I beat PZ to the punch and read the book when it came out. I think PZ did an excellent job in reviewing the book; he covered some main points as well as interjected his classic humor. Consider the book PharyngulatedTM

  28. Bruce says

    Kudos on the Harrison reference.
    I am shocked to hear that there are no “buxom” climatologists available to help us in our hour of need. Dang.

  29. DaveW says

    Harrison also wrote the wonderful “Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers,” a hilarious sendup of EE Smithic and John W. Campbellian science fiction (with some Tom Swift parody for good measure). On the other hand, I thought “Make Room! Make Room!” was a really first-rate novel, even if it was later turned into the movie “Soylent Green.”

  30. says

    Hey, mister, just because I’m a nuclear physicist doesn’t mean I can’t do climatology.

    But are you sure that’s what you want? After all, Global Warming means more bikinis.

  31. B. Dewhirst says

    I’m (rightly, imnsho) more afraid of the folk in rural Kansas that believe Iraq had something to do with 9/11 than of Hurricanes.

  32. Steve_C says

    I like reading the Warhammer 40,000 books… not great lit there but the fantasy world is rich. Plus it depicts a future with a brutal religious hiearchy, with inquisitors and assassins, genetically and surgically enhanced crusaders. It’s schlocky but fun.

  33. steven pirie-shepherd says

    I was very impressed with Harrison’s “The Streets of Ashkelon” when I was younger. A couple of years ago, I read a piece on the AiG website where a missionary had to introduce the concept of ‘sin’ to a naive group of peoples in some foreign far flung land, specifically so he could then help them to ‘redemption’ from said ‘sin’. It all seems too ‘Streets of Ashkelon’ to me.

  34. gerald spezio says

    PZ, you make a very cavalier claim; “there is no way anyone smart enough to be president would favor a third rate hack over the suggestions of his scientific advisors especially when the lives of the country’s citizens and its economic properity were at stake.” Tragically, that is precisely what occurred. Your claim is almost surely false. I hope that you will consider re-evaluating your position.

    I have lost all respect for Mooney and his yuppie framing pals for many sound reasons. However, his relation of the Bush Crichton peeyar flap is most probabilistically accurate.

    Mooney’s false and totally contrived split about empiricism versus theoretical modeling is more journalistic hype and “milking the controversy.” It is a particularly foul display of yuppie journalism, especially in the name of science communication. Talk about creating issues where no issues exist! Mooney is handled and advised by the Susan Rabinar peeyar publishing whorehouse.

    James Hansen’s critical paper is not mentioned in any of the above blogs. It is a mandatory antidote to the well orchestrated campaign to dis-credit the sound empirical science of global heating. Hansen clearly presents the best science and the gravity of accelerating global heating. Please consider reading it.

  35. says

    The same idiots who consider Michael Crichton to be an authority on climatology, after 9/11, considered Tom Clancy to be an expert on terrorism. Actual experts need not apply.

  36. tony says

    I loved the Deathworld trilogy, too… back in the day.

    I remember reading him again recently, and found his characterization to be juvenile… perfect for schlock SF of which he was a master!

    he reminds me (sometimes) of Keith Laumer – fast paced, and lots of action to make sure you forget the holes in the plot… if indeed you can find the plot. Characters often 1-D (except for the women, who always had another dimension or two… hubbah hubbah!)

    I’d also like to praise the phrase”ee-smithic” my intro to the whole campbellian universe of strong, smart heroes who relied on their fast gun and faster wit, womanly heroines to act as a foil and sometimes a reward, and baddies of James Bond proportions…whose only job was to make the good guys look better… I always wanted a *lens* – obviously mentor didn’t think we wus ready yet, or sumfink.

    Oh — BTW – absolutely great post – and great review. I got the ‘non-fiction’ at 80 or 90 monster storms bit – so I was a bit confused as I read through until the non-fiction disclaimer then my mind-view made a 180… didn’t bother me though – confused is mostly who I am!

  37. Spaulding says

    third-rate literary hack

    Oh, that’s hardly fair. Among hacks, I’d rank Crichton as superlatively effective at suspense, narrative pacing, and marketable plot hooks. He’s good at what he does!

    Now he’s got a nice side gig where he distorts and cherry-picks scientific research to tell people what they want to hear. He’s really good at that too! I’d criticize, but frankly, I’m just jealous. The guy’s got a pretty sweet arrangement.

    But L. Ron still holds the award for awesomest abuse of SF author fame.

  38. Kseniya says

    But Gerald, PZ was being facetious when he made that “cavalier claim,” so I can only conclude either that you’re playing along, or that you took him seriously. I’m simply unable to determine which! :-)

  39. Nes says

    scienceteacherinexile @ 27:

    Yup, me too. Earlier in that paragraph I started thinking that it sounded a little like the Global Warming debate. Then I came upon that line and burst out laughing. PZ had me going until that obvious reference to Crichton.

  40. Orson says

    presenting pharyngula, the cartoon guide:

    “BELIEVE MY THEORY! (who needs to do all the science, like experiments and falsifying conditions?) I BELIEVE MY THEORY!”