Thursday, June 30, 2011


A lot of people do not understand something very important about our modern world. That thing is the wide array of very complex systems that exist all around us to make what we have possible. Today, I would like to discuss a few of those systems, and compare them to some fictional ones.

Just recently, a friend of mine moved down to El Salvador, in Central America(which, after significant argument, we determined was on the North American continent. Neither one of us owns a globe). Anywho, he’s been telling me about the various trials and tribulations of the water system in Lourdes.

Which, of course, brings to light something we as Americans take for granted: our water system. Now, just a hundred years ago, if you lived in a rural area, the only facet in your house was the kitchen sink, and it wasn’t a faucet at all: it was a wellhead, and you hat to pump water from it. It was straight ground water; and you basically just had to hope it wasn’t poisonous.

Today, you probably don’t realize what’s going on behind the scenes. There is an extensive network of aquifers, reservoirs, aqueducts, holding tanks, treatment plants, pumping stations, pipelines, waterways, sewers, drains, testing sites, monitoring stations, and, yes, even still wells. All of which work together so that you can turn on the faucet in your bathroom and get clean, safe, drinkable water.

This is a humongous and vastly complex system. I live in Southern California, which happens to be a desert. I live near Los Angeles, which is the second most populous area in the United States. The L.A. basin is a desert, straight up. All that water for the 17.8 million residents? Back in the early part of the last century, engineers literally reshaped the earth to provide it. They drilled through mountains to bring water to this place.

All of this requires constant work to maintain. A whole slew of people, and yet most Americans barely give it a second thought. Now, my buddy down in El Salvador, every other day or so the water goes off. For a long time, sometimes hours, sometimes days. No toilets, can’t shower; and even when the water IS working, what comes out of the tap is not safe to drink. They have to boil it before they can drink it. That’s what its like when you DON’T poor as much effort into the system.

Gasoline is another of those little things we take for granted. This is not, incidently, a lengthy speech about how good we have it. I, as a writer, am attempting to inspire you, as other writers, to stop and consider that things like gas, electricity, and water do not magically appear at your house.

Gasoline, as you are likely unaware, is actually a waste product. It’s what’s left over after literally every other useful thing has been refined out of crude oil, and that includes most plastics. Yes, the environmentalists are idiots when they complain about driving, since that’s actually the smallest consumer of fossil fuels. You aren’t saving the environment at all with your Prius, you did nothing but make Toyota richer, congratulations.

But environmentalists failures aside, the system that supplies gasoline to your car is remarkably complex and un-noticed. Crude oil is brought to U.S. shores mostly by tanker, where it goes to one of a handful of refineries. These facilities put the material through a variety of chemical processes, which refine out a variety or products. Most of them have some variation of “oil” in the name; but for example you’ve hot heating oil and heavy fuel oil(used in power plants and by very large ships).

So now the gasoline leaves the refinery, and it usually does so via pipeline. Yes, that means there are huge piles of gas running by, possibly right under your feet. The contiguous united states has five major pipelines and dozens of smaller ones. Gasoline flows through the pipes to filling stations, where it is then loaded onto trucks to be delivered to your local gas station.

Now here’s a fun fact: the pipelines are not owned by the individual oil companies, but rather a sort of shared resource. Different companies get to put their product in one end, and take it out the other. Checron, for example, can pump in 600 gallons of gas from one of its refineries, and pull 600 out on the other side of the country. Now here’s the fun bit: they do not have to wait for the 600 gallons that they pumped in to travel 3,000 miles. A computer at one end records the deposit, and a valve on the other end opens up. Which means the 600 gallons of gas they pulled out and delivered to the Checron station is not the same 600 gallons they put into the line. Every companies gasoline is the same, is what I’m saying. So the next time you see one of those “chevron with tecron” commercials, feel free to call them on it.

Now, this is where we get to the writing lesson portion of this entry: you have to create similar systems for goods and commodities within your fictional worlds. In a few of my stories, I’ve used a device called the Pollodium Generator, which is basically a very small atomic reactor that uses some science-fiction mumbo-jumbo to generate enough electricity to drive a car.

The generator was small and consisted primarily of shielding. The casing had to be strong enough to survive an auto accident, of course. And then comes the part where nuclear fuel doesn’t last forever. Oh, that surprises you? All right, here’s the short version: nuclear reactors must be refueled far less frequently than fossil-fuel power generators. Where a coal-burning plant basically needs a constant supply of fuel to function, the average nuclear facility only has to be refueled once every 5 years. RTGs(Radioisotopic Thermoelectric Generators) can have very long life-spans(the Voyager probes launched in the 1970s are still running as of this post) but generate very little power and require a temperature difference to work. Then there’s those French attack subs that use almost weapons-grade uranium and will never have to be refueled during their planned service life.

In my books, the Pollodium Generator in the car had to be replaced once every 5 years, though they could supposedly last up to 7. They are apparently fairly difficult to replace, though, so the 5-year timetable is upheld. A plant has to manufacture the generators themselves, some of the isotopes inside have to be made in special reactors, and of course the generators themselves need to be serviced and maintained. It’s a good gasoline replacement, but not a perfect one.

In Drifters(which will likely never see print but is totally available here) the government uses Pollodium generators as a way to control the public. Specifically, they made cars public-property and required all vehicles to be turned in on a five-year cycle to have the generator replaced. You basically cannot own your vehicle, everything is leased from the government.

In the Course Books storyworld, Pollodium generators are used in regions where petroleum is scarce. It makes a certain amount of sense; where oil is available on the same planet, existing systems can be used to move it to where it is needed. However, moving oil between planets is, well, frankly more trouble than it’s worth. Most terraformed worlds(such as Moon Garm) do not have any oil at all. Since these are also typically very carefully-planned colony sites, the Foundation also has the ability to put all the pieces into place for a good Pollodium system.

The Gudersnipe Foundation, of course, handles things quite a bit differently than the government in Drifters. The basic method of “put up all the parts and let capitalism sort it out” tends to work fairly well. The generators themselves are manufactured in Foundation-owned factories(just like a vast majority of products), but are then sold to automobile manufacturers, wholesalers, and distributors. The manufacturers put them in new cars, replace them on warrantee cars, and send the spent ones back to be refueled. Whole sellers sell them to mechanics and auto-part stores where they can then be sold to the public, so if you like your old car and just want to keep replacing the generator, have at it—you can even do it yourself if you’re handy enough.

A cottage industry has even grown up of salvaging old generators from abandoned/junked vehicles and selling them back to the factory to be refueled. Since the standards don’t change, there is a lot of money to be made by anyone willing to go out looking for these old bits and bringing them in. The Foundation even buys reactors that cannot be refueled for whatever reason, simply because they remain radioactive and dangerous for some time, any anyone with the inkling and enough time could theoretically break one open.

So the Pollodium system explains why people can drive for thousands of miles without needing gas. The gas system explains why you can stop at the corner station and fill up your tank. Creating working systems does not mean you have to suddenly start writing realistic fiction—the pollodium generator is in no way realistic. But you have to have systems in place behind the scenes. Just like you can’t make magic without a cost or put an airport in central park, you have to build realistic systems.

Next week, look forward to an article about why everything I just said is wrong.

1 comment:

  1. Man, I had water for like 2 days straight and I almost threw a party, but this morning I went to relieve myself and... sadness...


Feel Free to Drop a Line