Murder In Space

David Trammel's picture

I found this article about a 1970s murder committed on a huge iceberg floating in the Atlantic fascinating in a "What If" kind of way. Not just how would you try someone for a crime committed in space but what about in a climate ravaged world? Floating eco-city on an ocean? Underwater colonies looking for protection from the heat and weird weather?

One of my After Oil stories was about a court case and how the justice system would change in a collapsing world. How else could you do a good story with such a problem?

lathechuck's picture


I once sketched out a story in which someone from the dystopian county next door sneaks over the border and tries to cut some firewood. When caught by the forest rangers, he's led to understand that each tree in that forest is a resource that someone in the utopian county will depend on for food, lumber, and/or fuel, because whether dystopian or utopian, everybody's living on the edge. His desperation is no greater than theirs, but they've organized to protect their "commons". (Unlike the dystopians, who destroyed their forest.) The penalty for first-offense ignorance is a year of room and board, pumping water for the forest. (Too bad about the wife he left behind.) The penalty for second-offense, willfully trying to poach a tree, is death. Take the idea and run with it. I certainly won't.

The Utopian society has a very utopian view of human nature. Hungry people don't care about the longterm future. They care about eating right now or keeping warm right now when they're freezing.

I vividly remember Sharon Astyk writing from a decade ago before she decamped to Facebook (I don't have an account) saying that freezing people would throw live baby harp seals into the fiery furnace rather than freeze and they'd come up with reasons why it was good for the baby harp seals.

So don't expect your desperate peasant to care.

lathechuck's picture

There's a striking aerial photo in Jared Diamond's book, Collapse, showing the boundary between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. On one side of the fence is lush forest, on the other side, desolation. He explains that the autocratic ruling family of the D.R. made sustainable management of the forest a priority (because they made money from the lumber), while weak property rights in Haiti allowed random people to consume their forest and ruin the soil. That's sort of what I had in mind, with my story sketch. Harsh justice, not individual forbearance, to protect long-term resources. The Utopians probably also need some form of enforced birth control, to prevent the population from growing beyond their resources.

Another factor in Hispaniola, though, is that the DR is mostly on the windward side of the island, so the mountain ridges extract water for them, while Haiti is on the leeward side and must make do with what water remains. Whether or not that was a significant factor in the "fence photo", I don't know.

I've seen that photo of Hispaniola. It's amazing. I believe you're also right that being on the windward side makes a difference even though that fact isn't mentioned.

Similarly, Edo Japan used authoritarian, rigid, top-down control to keep its mountain highlands forested. They also enforced rigid birth control on the population because they had to. In a lot of ways, Edo Japan was paradise on earth for many, many people. Clean water, good ecosystem, literate society, vigorous recycling, you name it.

If you read 'Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green From Traditional Japan', you'll wonder why we don't all like like Edo Japan.

Then read 'Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660-1950' to see how they enforced population control. A healthy, well-nourished woman is going to bear many, many children. What do you do with them all?

The other book to pair with 'Just Enough' is 'Peasants, Rebels, & Outcasts: The Underside of Modern Japan'. The time period immediately follows Edo Japan but there's loads of overlap and let me tell you, the view from the peasants on the bottom is very different from what 'Just Enough' implies.

'Just Enough' also implies that famines, peasant revolts, prostitution, and military garrisons in every large household did not exist. They did. It is a beautiful book and an inspiration to us all. It's not complete.

lathechuck's picture

I seem to remember reading in one of Diamond's books that there was a remote island, or cluster of islands, in the South Pacific that figured out how to manage a steady-state population, through some sort of humane cultural practices. But then, they were discovered by the Maori's, who sailed over and massacred them, because Maori's had a culture that valued conquest. I hear that the free availability of pornography is a factor in limiting reproduction in our culture, but I'm past that age so I really can't comment on it. Limiting fertility is something that competitive elites discourage: they've needed soldiers to die defending or extending the borders, Crusaders to march off to the Holy Land, and cheap, expendable labor for the plantations.

Maybe this had something to do with "temple prostitution" in ancient times, if the sacred prostitutes held the knowledge of how to relieve the tensions of men without raising babies (whether via sexual practice, contraception, abortion, or infanticide). When women have choice, they usually choose to have only a few children (if any).

David Trammel's picture

"Similarly, Edo Japan used authoritarian, rigid, top-down control to keep its mountain highlands forested."

I wonder if that is why they used charcoal over wood fires? Does charcoal provide more heating for the pound that raw wood?

If you are trying to maintain a certain level of forest resources, but also support your population's need for heating during Winter, you are going to have to ration. If you don't you end up with bare mountain tops and hills now subject to erosion and soil loss. Not to mention, cold citizens.


"Then read 'Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660-1950' to see how they enforced population control. A healthy, well-nourished woman is going to bear many, many children. What do you do with them all?"

I've always gotten the feeling that medieval Europe controlled their population via infant mortality. Women had many pregnancies but also a high number of infants and children under 5 dying. Up until hygiene became something important for disease control and health.

Post Oil societies are going to retain their understanding of germ theory and sanitation, so infant mortality is going to be lower but then food production is going to be a bottleneck. Starvation and malnutrition may bring back infant mortality as well as higher death rates for the old. Populations will decrease and then stabilize but when a post oil city state structure or feudal societies grow to a regional king or queen, populations will increase, especially in cities. That's going to increase birthrates. A wise government might then start controlling their populations thru cultural habits or legal regulations.

Be an interesting thing to add into a story as either background that colors the culture or as the focus of a story. Anyone see the movie "What Happened to Monday?"

Sweet Tatorman's picture

"Does charcoal provide more heating for the pound that raw wood?" A pound of charcoal does have more heating value than a pound of raw wood. However, the amount of charcoal that can be made from a pound of raw wood has less heating value than a pound of raw wood.

lathechuck's picture

Burning wood produces smoke, which contains a wide variety of toxic and irritating compounds, such as acetic acid and methyl alcohol. Under controlled conditions, these "pyrolysis liquids" might be use as feedstock for chemical synthesis. Charcoal, though, burns much more cleanly, since it's almost pure carbon, and it burns hotter. ("Barbecue briquet" charcoal includes limestone to keep it from burning too fast and too hot.) Even when charcoal is burning "cleanly", it can produce toxic amounts of carbon monoxide, of course.