Sunday, June 8, 2014

Four Meals Away From Anarchy

Yesterday morning I was working away on my laptop when there came the most amazing thunder and lightning storm, accompanied by a downpour the weathermen had predicted with the word “monsoon” attached.  Not quite my idea of a monsoon, but pretty impressive all the same.

If this had happened a few years ago I would have hurriedly shut down my computer, disconnected the hardwire to the modem, and resorted to using a myPad (pencil and paper) or neck-top computer (also pencil and paper) until the storm had passed.

Now, however, I just yanked out the power lead and carried on wirelessly.

Ah, how times have changed.

And with the changing times comes the blasé expectation that gadgets will continue to function regardless of what else is going on around you. Not always the case.

I can still remember when I first moved into my last house, the valley was hit by 130mph winds, causing major damage to infrastructure all round and a week-long power-outage. That served as a sobering reminder that, for all our apparent sophistication, it’s all too easy to suddenly leave the technological age of computers and email and instant communication and information behind. Without a regular and reliable power supply we are suddenly back to using a graphite stick on a sheet of compressed tree and the prospect of burning string inserted in wax for light.

In crime writing, the advent of more and more technology has become something of a handicap. Unless you use the old ‘low battery’ or ‘No Service’ excuse, for instance, just about everybody these days has a mobile phone. This means they have instant communication, often internet access, navigation and various other apps at their fingertips. However, the more we rely on this technology, the more lost we are if for any reason it’s abruptly taken away from us, and the further removed we become from the business of day-to-day survival.

Take the cheetah—the fastest land animal. For short bursts, the cheetah can run at up to 60mph (96kph), but in evolving into this sleek speed machine, it has become too lightweight to defend its kills, often expending life-threatening amounts of energy to bring down prey, only to have other scavengers horn in and elbow it away from the table before it’s had a chance to eat.

Not that I’m likening the average human to a cheetah, but it seems that, as a species, we’re in danger of evolving ourselves right out of existence.

Of simply being too clever for our own good.

And that information, of course, came from a quick Google search on cheetahs. When I first started writing, research meant hours spent in the local reference library, not simply surfing the Web from the comfort of your own home. Increasing numbers of libraries have been taking out bookshelves and putting in computer terminals, so has some of that knowledge been lost?

Back in 1975 there was a brilliant TV series on the BBC called ‘Survivors’. Devised by Terry Nation, the concept was that a genetically engineered virus is accidentally let loose, wiping out 95 percent of the world’s population, and leaving the survivors to face both nature and human nature, in their attempts to rebuild a way of life.

The BBC remade the series a couple of years ago, with a new cast and story arcs interwoven with the original ideas.

And it struck me that people thrust into that same situation today would have a much harder time than their 1975 counterparts. Back in ‘75, there were no personal computers, no mobile phones, no satellite TV broadcasting 24-hour-a-day news from around the world, no internet and no sat nav systems. Domestic microwave ovens were still a relatively new invention, and the majority of people did not rely on them as their sole means of preparing a mind-boggling array of pre-packaged convenience food. People still knew how to meet up at a prearranged rendezvous point without being in constant “Where are you?” cellphone communication. They knew how to read a map, mend their own clothes instead of throwing them away, and could prepare a meal from raw fresh ingredients.

In 2004, there was an article published in The Times, which explained the opinion held by the British security service, MI5, that western societies are “four meals away from anarchy”. If there was a terrorist attack hacker-instigated computer meltdown, or some other natural disaster that disrupted the electricity, food and water networks, it would be approximately 48 hours before things began to descend into chaos. The panic-buying and hoarding would start, and—when stocks ran out—violent defence of those limited assets would quickly come into play. As soon as people start to go hungry, in other words, civilisation goes out the window.

So, what if that week-long power-cut I experienced was not a relatively short interruption to normal life, but the start of a global catastrophe? What would I have done then?

What would YOU do?

You need transport, but cars need fuel. With no power, you need to hand-crank the fuel out of its underground tanks and hoard it, because the refineries have shut down and there won’t be fresh supplies being delivered any time soon. And no doubt a lot of other people will have the same idea ...

And cars have become a disposable item. Could you mend yours if it went wrong? No mechanics to take it to, no computer diagnostics at the local dealership to pinpoint the problem. So, maybe you need to resort to more primitive means. Can you ride a horse? Do you know how to feed and care for one? And, even if you do, can you also act as your own veterinary surgeon and farrier?

What happens if you get sick? No Googling the best form of treatment, no paramedics or surgeons, no modern anaesthetic or drugs.

Could you make a fire, build a shelter, identify what’s safe to eat in the wild or what will kill you stone dead? Can you fend off predators—human and animal?

Processed food in the supermarkets—always supposing they haven’t been picked clean by looters by now—has a sell-by date. What happens when it’s all gone, or gone bad? Could you grow enough food to sustain you and your family? Could you catch, kill, and butcher an animal to eat?

Could you kill another human being to defend what’s yours?

OK, I’ll stop now. This is what happens when I let that writer’s ‘what if’ side of my brain loose to run with an idea.

A few last questions. If society as we know it ended tomorrow, what would you miss most?

What about modern life would you be rather glad to see the back of?

Meanwhile, if I may return you to the technological world for a moment, I’d like to give a small plug for my latest ePublication—KILLER FEMMES. (US)

Who can resist 5 suspenseful crime novels set in unique exotic settings … all written by award-winning, best-selling authors … and best of all the complete set is only 99 cents … for a limited time? We couldn’t, so we created the Killer Femmes Boxed Set. Between us, we’ve written over 60 novels and have been nominated for (and even won) numerous awards, including the Edgar, the Anthony, the Agatha, the Macavity, the Barry, the Lovey, and the CWA Dagger.

Killer Femmes presents:
Easy Innocence by Libby Fischer Hellmann
Cross Current by Christine Kling
The Flower Master by Sujata Massey
Killer Instinct by Zoë Sharp
Louisiana Hotshot by Julie Smith

And this week’s Word of the Week is facinorous, which means atrociously wicked, from facinus, a crime.


  1. You got me to thinking, Zoe. A rare thing of course, but I've come to expect that from you. And what has me befuddled is what will my final four meals be? Obviously cholesterol will be an unnecessary consideration to the choices. I already know what I'll be reading--thanks to your suggestion of Killer Femmes, but I just can't get past "sausage pizza with extra cheese" on the main question of the final moments...and what if they don't deliver? Now that twist would be truly facinorous.

    1. Sausage pizza with extra cheese? Really? I never had you pegged as having such sophisticated tastes, Jeff :))

    2. I know, I'm just fool of surprises. :)

  2. Thanks for the edible brain food, Zoë!

    I've thought a lot about this subject over the years, and as a result have done SOME preparation for disasters. But worrying about a long-term retreat into pre-tech? Nope. We have two (mostly) choices: march ever forward into the future, however disastrous it might be, or pick a tech level that we feel is sustainable without risking extinction if it fails, and stagnating there. The latter will never happen, and if you worry about the former, then you'll become an Amish Survivalist Society member (yes, that was intentional...) which means that you've made the second choice after all. History is what happens to us while we're worrying about the future, and so it goes...

    And all this time I thought facinorous was those dinosaurs that looked like they had a face on both ends.

    1. LOL on the dinosaur definition, Everett. Reminds me of the joke about the one-eyed dinosaur -- a Doyouthinkhesarous. I think we'll continue developing our tech to the point where we disappear up our own USB port, or something like that ...

  3. Putting the harsh reality to one side. In the post tech paradise, I will forage in the forest for berries and fruit in a long frock, torn in a designer kind of way. My faithful hound will walk in my shadow to protect me from wolves and my handsome steed will munch at the grass. We will then drink clear water from the babbling brook, relishing the silence, free from eejits yabbering on their mobile phones about hair extensions and Kim Kardashian.

    1. Aah, does indeed sound like paradise, Caro. Would be nice to ignore the Keep Off The Grass signs, the Keep Your Dog On A Lead signs, and the Best Before dates on the fruits and berries, wouldn't it?

  4. When the world was worried about nuclear holacost and NYC was the prime target, we Manhattanites knew there was no way we would be able to escape. We kept a bottle of champagne in the fridge that was central to our plan. When word came that the ICBM was on its way, we would go out, sit on our stoop, pop the cork, and toast all the best days our lives. I have from young childhood been able to cook fresh food from scratch, find edibles in the woods, and catch fish. These were skills my mother and father taught us, but not because they thought we would need them in life or death situations. I would give my food to my grandchildren and help in any way I could to get them into the countryside. Their parents would be savvy. I would keep only the one bottle of champagne for myself. The memories would be mine till the end.

    1. Sounds like a splendid way to go, Annamaria. Of course, you're forgetting about the zombie apocalypse -- something which, I understand, 14% of Americans believe there is at least a small chance of actually happening ...

    2. And the other 86% think it's already happened.

  5. I can't do any of these things. I think living in a large city that I could get food somehow.

    However, I stopped worrying about the end of the world at age 7 when I complained about having to stand in the hallway or crawl under the desk during school air raid drills. My reason: Radiation would get us anyway, so what was the point.

    I figured it was all out of my hands so I stopped worrying.

    Seriously, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a big problem, but I hunkered down with a flashlight and read crime fiction.

    Friends brought me cheese, so I made a lot of "grilled cheese sandwiches," and ate fruit and drank tea.

    It was OK for a short time, but we all (New Yorkers) raced out afterwards and stocked up on LED lanterns and batteries as well as canned goods.

  6. Yes, the answer is yes to all of the above. But, I'm a 60 year old product of grandparents born in the 1800's. I spent summers with my Native American grandmother, who kept a loaded shotgun in every corner of her house, and I saw her use one of them on an ill-intentioned hobo. She schooled me in the ways of plowing, planting, and prepping. We spent hours gathering wild edibles and medicinal herbs. What I didn't learn directly from her I continued to study on my own. My children and grandchildren also benefit from what I was taught and what I have learned.

    While we don't grow everything we eat today, we certainly could if necessary. I still fix food from scratch the same way I did in the 60's and 70's, and save thousands of dollars by doing so. I'll help anybody who needs it in a Missouri Minute, but I'll also have no problem shooting to death anybody who is "ill-intentioned". You could say that it is "in the blood."

    Like Ma Joad said, "We're the people that live. They can't wipe us out; they can't lick us. We'll go on forever, Pa, 'cause we're the people."