January 26, 2013
If You Want To Write A Disaster Novel
Hey disaster novelists: Remember bicycles, skate boards, roller skates, and push scooters.
I'm reading some after-the-electromagnetic pulse disaster novels where the electric grid has collapsed. Lots of people walking home or fleeing home on foot. In the vast majority of these novels there is no mention of any means of human transportation between a car and walking. So some guy has to walk home hundreds or thousands of miles across a post-apocalyptic landscape to get back to his family. Every person he comes across either is on foot or has some Mad Max truck fuel. What's with that?
Is this bias by the authors due to a total lack of bicycles, skate boards, roller skates, and push scooters in their rural or suburban neighborhoods? Am I so out of touch with life in some American states that I'm mistaken in thinking that large areas have no bikes? I do not think so. In the United States annual bicycle sales at 20" wheel size and above run at 11 to 14 million per year. If we suddenly couldn't get any gasoline easily tens of millions could bicycle and maybe well over a third the population. Throw in skate boards, roller skates, and other smaller stuff and 3 mph travel seems avoidable.
What's even weirder: post-plague novels have this problem. So, fine, most people do not own a bicycle. But if 99+% of the population has just died surely there is a bicycle for each and every person still alive. Hiking is really optional in such a scenario. The average travel speed should be above 10 mph if almost everyone dies.
And another thing: If almost everyone dies then stale gasoline is not not a reason for all cars to stop working. You could still cruise around in a diesel Jetta or Benz or a diesel pick-up truck. The diesel fuel will last a long time.
So make your post-disaster personal transportation realistic.
One other thing: If you are writing a self-published Kindle book find someone you know to read it for grammar and spelling.
Update: A practical point for preppers: If you are the kind of guy who keeps a gun and a backpack full of food and camping gear in your trunk (never knowing when civilization will collapse while you are far from home) then you should put a bicycle in there too. If you are keeping all your prepper gear at home then keep bikes at home too.
This brings up another point I do not see in WTSHTF disaster novels: What's cheap to buy extras of before TSHTF to use for trading once civilization has collapsed? Water filters. Bicycles. Think of the trading value of a bike WTSHTF. How about superglue? Stores for a long time with lots of uses. Ditto duct tape.
Randall Parker, 2013 January 26 02:35 PM
Keeping bicycle tubes and salt and glue is a lot less sexy than guns and 4x4s. It really is too bad - we would be a lot more resilient to disaster.
I'm an urban dweller - very much so by any measure (bicoastal, but haven't owned a car in 12 years, depend on the local supply chain for fresh food, walk or take public transit most places, live in a dense environment that has similar crime rates to rural areas, but tends to freak people out because the homeless are in plain sight rather than jail), but I'm willing to bet that my habits of canning my own stuff, regularly vacationing in what they call extreme environments, and participating in self-organized civil service will do better than a gun nut, come The Revolution. If you disagree, please let me know how much potable water you have right now in your control, if you have at least two plans for where you ands yours will go ICE, and if you have the means to get there without fuel you do not have on-hand. and that's before you have to get Davey Crocket.
A quality knife, good shoes, a lighter, a hat, and a pair of chopsticks are things I never leave home without. The cell phone is next.
LOL, I fully agree regarding bikes. I think Stirling is the only author who makes much use of them. The Ring of Fire series makes a little use of them, but not nearly as much as I'd expect. That's about it.
The protagonist often tries to relocate with a heavy pack full of everything he might need. Such a pack is a lot easier to carry in a book than it is in person, and just begs for someone to ambush the protagonist. (We used to call that "back pack survivalism" in the survival news groups. And laugh at the idea. The place for resources is where you intend to settle down, not on your back.)
Stale gas: I've used gas that was 5 years old in my chainsaw. The first trick is to store it cold, in a full container, and avoid temperature swings. Second trick, which I did not use, was to use a fuel stabilizer. Just make sure to have some extra fuel filters, or run the gas through a heavy duty filter before trying to use it.
BTW, diesel also needs to be treated as above. Do a web search on "fuel stabilizers".
Another lack I've noticed is how seldom large buildings are used. Look around and you will see large malls out in the middle of a paved parking lot, but the survivors are busy making forts out in the middle nowhere? Sheesh. (Stirling pulled that one.)
Note to "Food": being any sort of nut is bad for the health. When people ask me about firearms, I usually recommend they do not buy very many. The farmer's armory usually held a .22LR rifle, a 12gauge shotgun, and a deer rifle. I might suggest adding a handgun to that, considering population density and how active the scofflaws are these days. But, yes, being part of a group that has it's act together increases the odds of surviving enormously. Especially if one or more of them is a gun nut with enough firearms to arm a neighborhood watch, or a vigilance committee. ("Lone survivor" is a teen fantasy. In reality, it's a good way to have a short life expectancy.)
We saw some hard times back in the 50's, much worse than today. Indicators I watch for when people start talking about how bad it is are 1) broken boxes of ammo in the stores indicating people are buying by the round, and 2) broken boxes of margarine in the stores indicating people are buying by the stick.
Some people with lots of guns (or at least their wives) can their own stuff. Some preppers are pretty wide spectrum in terms of what they do. Speaking as someone who grew up with lots of guns a lot of people have guns just because they hunt. That was true of my father. So my bedroom had an arsenal. But it wasn't thought of as an arsenal. It was like the furniture and the appliances.
Water: I want a good idea for how to filter salt water because I can walk to salt water.
Speaking of that walk to salt water: Another simple thing needed is a collapsible (storable in a small space) cart that can attach to a bicycle.
Regards storing fuel: I was aware that one should store gasoline in a full container. How long does it store with stabilizer? Same question for diesel.
Seldom use of large buildings: Yes, this is really really stupid. In one book I'm reading after TSHTF a group of city dwellers allied with a National Guard unit move as a large group to a park area that has no structures. Then they start building. Why not to a small town? Some town would welcome the protection. If the town had large houses with few occupants per house and vacant houses there'd be ample space.
A shopping mall: Yes, why defend many smaller structures where one bigger structure offers great visibility to see people approaching? A large group that is well armed could certainly take one over. Take the right mall and it'll even have a bed store and a furniture store as well as big lavatories.
"Water: I want a good idea for how to filter salt water because I can walk to salt water."
Katadyn Survivor 35 Desalination Watermaker
Though if you're not going anywhere, a solar distillation setup might be better. I brought this one up because it's portable.
RE: solar distiller, I recall seeing a nice design on the web a while ago, proposed but not to my knowledge ever mass produced. The design consisted of a black pan into which you put your lake- or sea-water. Over this goes a glass cone or pyramid, clear. The sun warms the water in the pan, the vapor condenses onto the glass and runs down the sides into the lip of the glass cone (and not back into the pan). Lift the cone and pour the water from the lip into your water jug. Very simple. It was proposed as one of those "Africa appropriate technologies" that is cheap to make, dead simple to use, consumes no power other than the heat of sunlight ... and never came to market in the west. sigh.
Dean Ing did novel after novel set in after-the-bomb worlds where a good handyman got on his bike and took over the world (anyway, survived and got the girl). 'The Chernobyl Syndrome' is 2nd hand at Amazon. He's still around- did a mystery with a Gypsy detective last year.
That desalinator at $2200: Expensive.
I think one would need to build one's own solar desalination device. Shouldn't be hard during cold weather. The air will cool. During warm weather one would also need a solar panel to generate electricity to cool the evaporated water back into a liquid state.
One survival book I read suggested a pit-style desalinator/dessicator. It requires plastic sheet, a container and a rock. You put non-potable water or damp material (e.g. plants) in a pit, with the empty container in the middle. Cover with clear plastic sheet, place a rock to make the low spot over the container. Solar heat evaporates water, it condenses on the sheet, droplets slide down to the lowest point and fall into your container. Apparently it is supposed to work in warm weather also.
Drugs would be good trade goods. If one has the risk tolerance to keep seeds for marijuana and opium poppies before TSHTF, they'd be fairly easy to hide now, and easily transportable wealth afterwards. On the lower risk tolerance end, antibiotics, local anesthetics, and serious painkillers.
It took more than a few chapters for me to figure out this is what was going on in The Diamond Age. Although the problem there was probably petroleum depletion.
I guess I always assumed that after a few years, the roads would be horrible, covered in rusting debris, and it would be difficult to keep tires inflated. Perhaps not a fair assumption, but that does limit the viability of bicycles.
Slow Apocalypse byJohn Varley has bicycles, lots and lots of them. There are whole sections talking about long and short range use of them.
Slow Apocalypse byJohn Varley has bicycles, lots and lots of them. There are whole sections talking about long and short range use of them.
If the North Vietnamese could operate their war logistics using cargo bicycles, I'd say that novelists discount the idea at the risk of their work failing to pass the laugh test.
Quote: "Is this bias by the authors due to a total lack of bicycles, skate boards, roller skates, and push scooters in their rural or suburban neighborhoods?"
I suspect there's a bit of bias about bias by Future Pundit. Suburbs and small towns, with their limited street traffic, are great places for bicycles. I grew up in such a place and biked a lot growing up. It's the big cities where biking in the frantic traffic approaches insanity. I know, I commuted that way in Seattle for a couple of years. I almost got mangled or worse twice. Bikes and stretch buses don't mix well.
And yeah, I see a lot of people doing precisely that, including on the street in front of my apartment. That doesn't make it sensible. Greenways on side streets make far more sense that painted white lines on city arterials.
If there's a literary reason, it's that biking is seen as 'too civilized' for a post-disaster future. Writers don't mention games of tennis either.
Michael W. Perry, editor of Across Asia on a Bicycle
I've always thought that a hang-glider would be an ideal way to travel in a post-apocalyptic situation. You could only carry just so much gear, but that would be true generally. Crossing large expanses of water would be out, though. Too, one would need expert-level expertise *before* the SHTF, since, like everything else in that situation, what you have is mostly what you're ever going to get.
BTW, what are some titles that you've been reading recently?
A co-worker pointed out that most gas these days contain ethanol, and storage time really takes a nasty hit with that. Bummer. Alcohol plus water plus time equals vinegar, results in corroded fuel systems. Not good.
There should be a way to take that alcohol out. Add lots of water, let settle, and pour the gas off?
Nasty roads? No problem. If the road gets too bad, pedestrians will create foot paths. I used them many times along side well traveled roads without sidewalks. (GAH!!! GOAT HEADS!!! >insert copious vulgarities here
Hmph. Character limits.
I'll second the old Lee Loader. Loaded many a cartridge with them. Try to find a single primer loader to go with it, using a hammer to drive in a primer makes me nervous. The primer loader with a tray takes up too much room.
You might be able to find a lifeboat size reverse osmosis desalinator for less than $2200. I saw one on a bulletin board for $250, but did not act fast enough.
Michael W. Perry,
I get that a lot of people ride bicycles. I cited the sales figures. I see lots of people bike to work in the suburban environment where I live. Lots of people are even bicycling from suburbs to New York City.
What I'm wondering about is whether there are parts of the United States where, aside from kids, hardly anyone bicycles. How else to explain the blindness to bicycles on the part of so many amateur ebook disaster WTSHTF novelists?
Off-road bikes have much tougher tires. People ride down mountain paths from 4000 feet above Santa Barbara over really rocky trails with no problem. But in disaster novels they've got people walking instead of biking from day one after the EMP supposedly fries car electronics.
And, btw, some of the EMP disaster novelists seem unaware of the US government facility where they let car companies test cars for EMP to make them more resistant to EMP damage. The companies do in fact design to reduce EMP vulnerability. We would still have lots of cars after EMP.
Could be an age issue. I tried to commute on a bike for a while, but the bikes that I can afford have cheap spokes that break under my wt. The bike I'd need (at 6'4" and over 300#) would cost as much as a used car. Most bikes that might fit me are those accursed road bikes, not off-road types. Most of the off road bikers either are or want to think of themselves as some sort of jock, and they do not use baskets, panniers, etc, so there just isn't that much market for a survivalist bike.
BTW, I recommend not using "survivalist" or "prepper" due to bad publicity. I have found excellent survivalist info on the frugal living or country living boards. I used to hang out on Graybeard Outdoors. Good bunch back then. (lost my connection and I'm mostly posting through a filter these days):
I view all these 'end of the world' scenarios the same way I view the 'zombie apocalypse'. They're a goofy and fun way to prepare for emergencies and natural disasters. But since you asked, driving a car or riding a bike would be the quickest way to catch a bullet in the head from someone who wanted it. Anyone who didn't immediately realize that just failed the 'zombie apocalypse'. haha
I suspect that "bicycle blindess" in post-apocalypse fiction is due mainly to authors (1) being sedentary folk, and (2) walking long distances allows for a more varied, more mythic story line.
There's also practicalities. A bike affords higher-speed movement, mostly. But if you're moving your main character by bike, he/she has to carry the @#$%! thing on reaching a stretch where it's impossible to ride. And that's awkward and real in a way that fantasy novels almost never deal with. It's just another one of those nitty-gritty life details that authors always glide over. (Like the need to crap every day or three, which is never described either, but which could involve some planning in post-apoco situations.)
@Publius: Portaging a bicycle for short distances is not a big deal. Most of the time you can "walk" the bike over the rough terrain. Carrying a bike for short distances is doable, because most bikes weigh less than 35 pounds. Besides, apocalypse survivors who bike for hundreds of miles will be quite fit.
The other thing is, someone on a bike is going to be able to out-run someone without one pretty easily.
Carrying the bike is a lot easier if you can take off one of the pedals.
From the photos I've seen, the trick to pushing a loaded down bike is to tie a stick vertically behind the seat and lash a stick to the near side handle bar (or shove a stick inside the end). The bikes in the photos of the Ho Chi Min freight bikes looked like well made beach cruisers, with clinch brakes instead of coasters.
Using a bike that way allows carrying a lot more wt, and being able to take cover and return fire faster than riding the thing.
A bandit can see someone on a bike far enough away and soon enough to set an ambush. Would be a problem starting maybe two weeks after a crash?
The local book store closed, so I'm putzing around on the net, looking for books I can read in spite of being behind a filter. (Lost my ISP as well.) Can't really give anyone any new titles.
In some sections where you can't ride you can at least push the bike. Look at mountain bikes and where people go with them.
I see the risks of bicycles far outweighed by the advantages. Try walking hundreds of miles thru hostile terrain without the ability to carry enough food. Bicycles cut traveling time (and therefore food supply needs) and also make it easier to carry stuff.
Some disaster novels I'm reading:
- A Long Winter's Journey by Greg Walker.
- Apocalypse Z: The Beginning of the End by Manel Loureiro.
- Going Home by A. American.
- Diary of the One Percent by Culex Pipiens.
- Dark Grid by David C. Waldron.
- Selection Event by Wayne Wightman.
I can't remember all the disaster novels I've read. But a couple of note:
- Our End of the Lake by Ron Foster and Cheryl Chamlies.
- Lights Out by David Crawford.
They've all helped me refine my thinking about societal collapse scenarios and how to prepare. I think preparation is really hard to do well. For a very deep collapse defending your stuff is really hard. Hiding seems key.
BTW, I read many books in parallel with other books. I like to compare ideas from different books. I'm reading Roman Empire books, disaster novels, psychology books, machine learning books, and books on other themes in parallel. I've typically got 50+ books I'm cycling between on Kindle DX, Nexus 10, PC, and even hard copy books.
@Randall Parker 9:31 PM --
I agree about pushing bikes more conveniently, and several commenters have mentioned ways to do it.
My point about bikes, though, is that while they do let you move quickly (and carry more gear than is comfortable to haul on your back), they're not cost-free. They do require rollable terrain, which may not be hard to come by in parts of North America (or the world), but isn't everywhere usable. (And that's not even getting into the issue of spare parts and repairs.)
Also, depending on the state of society (how badly social things have broken), your characters may need to travel with less visibility than bikes permit — using concealment and cover, which will force a much slower pace anyway.
In truth, the "bikeability" of a post-apoco world is a gauge of how bad things are.
@Publius, IIRC, the Japanese pulled a flanking move through a jungle and swamp, using bikes, during WWII. They are more useful than even most riders are likely to believe.
Dude, you just haven't read the right p-a fiction. Bicycles feature heavily in GAMELAND. Of course, it's not strictly p-a, as the long-abandoned Long Island setting given up to zombies is quarantined from the rest of the world, but the same basic concepts apply. Bicycles and underwater breathing apparatuses ;o)
Dark Road, sequel to Dark Grid by David C. Waldron, is a post-apocalyptic featuring a young family fleeing on bikes (using the pull-behind and carry-seats that once carried their toddlers to help carry what they can). It even features barter and trade. You can read it as a stand-alone, if you want to see how one PA novel that uses these works.
@Phillip Harding, 12:41 pm —
Yep, Japanese troops used bikes to carry materiel through jungles, along trails. As did the Vietcong. But I wonder how much riding they did on those jungle trails while thus burdened?
I think the point of this whole discussion was about authors putting their characters in post-apoco stories onto bicycles as a way to get from Point A to Point B by riding them, no? No one disputes bikes can carry loads. But my point was that bikes aren't go-anywhere, do-everything vehicles. Like all such, they have limits.
In a maybe not related way, it occurs to me that everyone who rides a segway looks at least faintly ridiculous while doing it. Am I alone in thinking this?
In the Iron Man movie, Jeff Bridges looks pretty good on his segway.
But the cigar might be essential for the look.
I near laughed myself sick at a photo of the Chinese riot police riding segways with sub machine guns at the ready. People who get shot at DUCK. Try that on a segway.
Try a search on Chinese Wheelbarrow. Interesting.
@Mthson said at February 1, 2013 10:12 PM:
Yeah, but he's not moving in that photo. It's both the motion & posture while in motion that make one look ridiculous on segway.
After the big earthquake in Japan a couple years ago, no trains were moving in Tokyo until the next day. Every bicycle in the city sold out.
As a cyclist and home mechanic, I'll say that there are a few problems with post-apocalyptic bicycles. Chains, depending widely on condition, will last perhaps 1,000 - 5,000 miles. Even if we assume a single speed, I would guess the best possible length would be around 10,000 miles. Also, bicycle tires are only good for, say, 5,000 miles, and are quite vulnerable to punctures. By comparison, a modern SUV tire might be expected to do 60,000 - 80,000 while providing impressive puncture resistance. If a puncture does occur in the tread area, it can be patched quickly and with minimal materials. So, for day to day use they would be fantastic, but for the sort of continent-crossing trips we see in post-apocalyptic stories, they might not be so great.
The thing that gets me about cars in these stories is that there are all sorts of options for running them in the absence of gasoline. Natural gas conversions are available right now. In WWII, cars were converted to use wood gas, and North Korea uses them right now.
There is a bike in Ballard's Empire of the Sun.
I think there is a bike in Jack London's The Scarlet Plague.
@Jeff - Use a hole saw to cut disks and string them on wire. Use as a replacement for tire. You will wear out your tail bone before you wear that out.
Need extra chain, for sure. Should be able to oil chain using wrecked cars.
I hate dust and grit in chains and on sprockets.
Post-apocalyptic bicycles: Gotta store some parts.
Figure out how long society will stay collapsed. Stock several copies of what you need in several caches (assume theft and robbery) that are each well hidden.
Natural gas: the assumption in most WTSHTF stories is that centralized systems collapse. So no natural gas pipeline.
If I was going to seriously prepare for a post-apocalyptic scenario I'd store diesel fuel underground in several well hidden locations. The diesel could either power a vehicle or power an electric generator to recharge an electric bicycle.
But if you can ride around on an electric bike or car after TSHTF you will attract a lot of unfriendly attention that will lead people back to your lair. How to live well but inconspicuously after TSHTF? Seems like a very tough problem to me.
How long will bicycle tires last? If you can store them in a pure nitrogen dark container how long will they last?
Bike tires? Someone I knew in alt.survival long ago complained that he was unable to keep bike tires for more than a year. He was living near Bakersfield, California at the time. (I've had bike tires elsewhere stay good for many years, like 5 or more.) Maybe sulfur compounds in the air? The best I can think of is to bury some under ground up tires so the air is saturated with whatever outgasses. No idea what to use as a container. Weld one up?
Lone survivors, aren't. Humans survive best as part of a mixed age, mixed sex, group. Member selection, though... That's rough to figure. So many people who see a need to form such a group are rotten group members, so many who would be good members see no need. Good luck on that one.
Members of several villages up here in Alaska have discussed what to do if things collapse, and these are people who already know they can live together when times are rough. (Try getting snowed or frozen in for a few months, you learn how to get along, or you don't stay.) Unfortunately, few of them have any sort of medical care lined up. Just an idle thought.
I did some searching on the web and read people saying to put tires in sealable plastic bags for long term storage. My guess is if civilization falls apart you only need to store a few years of tires and such. A smaller version of civilization will come back together at a lower population density.
Lone survivors: the problem as I see it is that it is hard to get a group of people all to save enough stuff for WTSHTF. Preppers can't find enough fellow preppers who have the money to spend to prepare and the willingness and skills to do it right. So you end up not being able to form a motivated group until it is too late.
Also, the bigger the group the greater the visibility. The smaller the group the better your odds of hiding somewhere undetected. Hiding is the best defense. Any group with enough stuff to survive is going to be targeted by quite well armed predators. We've got way more guns and bullets than anything else we'd need once TSHTF.
Alaska: It has the very big advantage that people starving in the more densely populated areas won't try to get to Alaska to escape. Too far and too cold and forbidding. A rich person who wants to survivor TEOTWAWKI ought to buy and store enough stuff near an Alaskan village to keep him and all the villagers alive for a few years. The risk of raiders would be much lower.
Plastic breathes a bit. I'd put all the rubber products (tires, tubes, brake pads, elastic for slingshots) in one bag so to concentrate fumes outgassed in one place to minimize drying out. (Had a thought that they could be put in a spare tire or discarded tire for the same purpose.)
Survival group size: Take it from me, you CANNOT carry a long gun while working crops, or doing any sort of work at all. Broken glasses, black eye, broken nose, etc. BTDT. Need someone to stand guard and watch. Men are better at spotting movement, women are better shots. Guards needed go up slowly compared to number of workers. More fighters is also a good thing.
Who to recruit? Perfect ain't hap'nen, but anyone kicked out is a security risk. Might end up having to kill someone who is dead weight or a security risk. (shrug) Not something to look forward to.
Best is a group with something in common aside from "survival". In the past, groups were usually patrilinial, women joining outside groups. Basically extended families. (Cherokee worked out something different, but matrilinial better not be confused with "soft" or "easy". Push comes to shove, women are much more ruthless than men, note abortion.)
But, I really recommend studying Fernando's blog:
He was in a big city, but he comments on being in the country. His fans pulled him past his experience so take his more recent comments with care.
I also very strongly recommend doing a web search on "survival kosovo". We might end up with that sort of situation instead of Argentina.
I've read part of Ferfal's book. I found it repetitive and he really needs a good editor. But he makes excellent points.
If the situation is total collapse then you've got to get out of a city and hide. If not total collapse then Ferfal's points about how hard it is to guard a country house are very pertinent. In the sort of situation that Ferfal lived thru in Argentina there's a big advantage to living in a well guarded apartment building. You need a building that has few and guarded ground floor entrances and not windows on the ground floor. However, lots of city and dense suburban housing stock does not map to anywhere near what's ideal from a security perspective.
Also, whether the city is a good place depends on the city's demographics. A city that currently has low crime, low social pathology, high educational levels, etc stays viable at much greater levels of economic collapse. If you are near a city that is not that way (say Baltimore) then you've got to get away from it sooner.
Groups: the problem is that most people are not in elaborate social and familial networks. Lots of unmarried people living far from where they grew up without lots of ties. Putting together a survival group is therefore hard.
I do not currently have the means to survive after an EMP or (even worse) a VEI 8 volcanic eruption. I do not live in the right sort of place. I'm going to build up the means to survive some weeks without electric power and without water. I'm probably even going to accumulate enough food to be covered for calories (assuming I'm not robbed). But I'm unclear on what to do to handle worse collapse scenarios.
If there's any sort of serious disruption, I'm dead meat. I need medicines, so I'm not really involved with the survivalist community any more.
People live through the darnedest messes in the most amazingly unlikely places and circumstances. Still, it would be a good thing to set up a place to go and have hiking shoes and/or bicycle to get there.
I keep thinking "Gain significant financial interest in a mall in the middle of a parking lot..."
Don't forget to read up on Kosovo.
Medicines: How long are their storage lives? Also, how many places make them?
There are different disruption scenaries with differing lengths of disruption. Some areas will emerge out of disruption months or years ahead of other areas. So the ability to travel long distances during early stage of collapse or even later could make a big difference to your prospects of survival.
Stage 4 cancer. Experimental drugs.