If Vulcans Can Do It….

Sometimes I like to issue a rant about some aspect of somebody else’s writing that is Done All Wrong. Usually it’s actually writing that I really like, since I don’t bother to read stuff I don’t like, if I can help it, and if I like something enough to mull it over obsessively, I’ll usually find something that–in a very interesting way–does not make sense.

So here comes my latest such rant, aimed this time at the entire world of Star Trek, which I am very familiar with, having not only watched a lot of it in various forms, but also having read some twenty or thirty Star Trek novels over the years.

Just so you don’t misunderstand my intention here.

Magic in Sci Fi?

Of course, I don’t regard Star Trek as science fiction; it’s space fantasy. I’ve discussed my issues with the term “science fiction” before.  But I’m well aware how most people use the term, and the Trek universe is generally one based on a strictly secular version of consensus reality. Deities turn out to be aliens (sometimes poorly-behaved aliens) quite regularly, for example.

Except that various aliens have magical powers.

What Vulcans and Others Can Do

It’s not called magic, of course, but the difference is purely semantic.

Consider the powers of Vulcans, which vary according to the training and the natural gifts of the individual involved–and possibly according to who is doing the writing–but can include the following:

  • Telepathy by touch
  • Inducing temporary unconsciousness by touch
  • Telepathy at a distance (without speed-of-light delay)
  • Killing at will by mind power
  • Locating water or other resources by mind power alone
  • Transfer of the mind and all its memories from one body to another
  • Rapid self-healing
  • Perfect prediction of impending earthquakes
  • Acceleration of interstellar ships by mind power alone

There are other telepathic species, too.

Then there several different types of shape-shifters; there are giant space-going jellyfish who can not only change their own form but can also manifest objects, such as fruit, at will; and there are the Q, who are omnipotent.

None of this involves advanced technology. These are simply species who have natural abilities that humans do not, or that humans have to a very limited and imperfect degree.

Why Not Humans?

The problem is that in real life, many humans have claimed to have telepathy, telekinesis, precognition, and other special powers, and not to a merely limited or imperfect degree either. In fact, one of the things traditional cultures all over the world seem to agree on is that humans have, or at least can acquire, superpowers. The main reason for ignoring these claims is out of a conviction that they are impossible.

If these powers aren’t impossible, then when hundreds of thousands of people all over the world across hundreds or, in some cases, thousands of years all assert “yes, I can do this,” why should any logical person doubt them?

Is the supposition in Star Trek that humans collectively and spontaneously deluded themselves into thinking we had powers we don’t, but that other species on other planets coincidentally do?

To Magic or Not to Magic

I enjoy reading fantasy magic, and I’m not actually convinced certain forms of magic aren’t real. I may be a skeptic these days, but I am far from close-minded. But I do like fiction to be self-consistent.

And if magic is real for Vulcans, it ought to be real for Earthlings, too. There is no logical reason for it to be otherwise.

Non-magical Special Powers

It’s possible to give aliens special powers that humans don’t have without creating an internal discrepancy. If you’ve decided to treat magic and the paranormal as impossible within your fictional system, simply look to the world of non-human animals for a view of what’s possible.

  • Pit-viper snakes can “see” heat
  • Many insects can see ultra-violet
  • Many animals can echo-locate
  • Some whales can use focused sound as a weapon
  • Many animals are venomous
  • Some migratory birds may be able to “see” lines of magnetic force
  • Platypuses can locate prey under water very precisely by perceiving weak electrical currents
  • Some fish can produce enough electrical charge to stun or kill other organisms in the water
  • Dogs may be able to anticipate earthquakes by hearing very low-frequency sounds in the earth
  • Some frogs can freeze solid and survive
  • Some invertebrates can survive complete dehydration and the temporary cessation of all metabolic activity
  • Some animals can change color at will

Most of this will not be news to readers, but few of us are used to imagining what these abilities would look like in a humanoid sci-fi character–some of them would look rather like what Vulcans can do, actually.

Magical Space Fantasy

Or you could go the other way and just straight-up put wizards in space. I believe some authors are doing just that, but it’s not common. Somehow, the presence of advanced technology in a story is taken to preclude magic. I can’t think why.

I’d kind of like to see the different types of magic developed by wizards on different planets, personally.

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Some Thoughts on Education

I’ve developed a habit, it seems, of using this blog to share some world-building work I’ve done that didn’t quite make it onto the pages of my new book, Ecological Memory.

Not putting everything I’ve imagined into the book was deliberate on my part. As I’ve explained before, the reason to have a fully-developed fictional world is not to share every little brilliant detail with the reader (that impulse is a major source of “darlings” to be killed) but rather to make the few hints one does give the reader seem real. And yet I do want to share these details—and some of you seem interested. These posts get “liked.” So here is another one.

Getting an Education

So, I’ve already told you some about my fictional, post-apocalyptic world. I’ve told you about money. I’ve told you about clothing. And I’ve told you about food. Now let me tell you about school.

Educating Children

In the story itself, the educational system is still re-evolving. When society collapsed, a lot of children died, and few new children were born for several years After, producing a lost generation. The children on the older side of the gap were all home-schooled or just not schooled after the collapse, while those born in the first ten years or so After were so few and so spread out that it was difficult to develop institutions to serve them—hence references to boarding schools “for the county’s few high-school-aged children.” So the system I’m about to describe was not yet fully developed at the time of the story, though some aspects of it were already in place, at least in some areas.

Education for Little Kids

For the most part, children under about 12 years old are home-schooled. Universal home-schooling is possible because virtually everyone lives in multi-family groups; babysitters and tutors are always available. Also, a public education system exists to give families the tools they need to teach children.

The educational method currently called “unschooling” has become the standard. That is, there is no set curriculum, and adults assist children in learning what the children themselves are interested in. I realize unschooling sounds bizarre to people who aren’t used to it, but I’ve seen a version of it in operation, and it really does work. Kids love to learn, at least until they’re taught to associate learning with boredom and frustration.

Some may object that children won’t learn the right things without guidance. That’s a valid question, and my response is two-fold.

A Digression into Educational Theory

First, unschooling might look the same as children running around with no education at all, and it probably feels similar to the children, who get to spend most of their time playing—but from the perspective of the parent it is very different. Unschooling is labor-intensive for parents, who must keep track of the child’s abilities and interests and stand ready to steer the child in the right direction. A game or a household chore can become a learning opportunity, but only if the parent stands ready to make it so.

Second, much of our standard education consists of setting and enforcing standards for what children are supposed to learn when, but such standards can do more harm than good. The standards are designed for the developmental pathway of the majority of children, but there is a large minority of kids on different pathways, kids who are naturally slower or faster in this or that subject. Many, perhaps most, of these kids eventually catch up, either with special help or, in some cases, without. It’s easy to find adults who were slow readers as kids but who read just fine now.

The problem is that while mild developmental delays may be temporary, the stigma associated with being a slow kid—or an unusually smart one—can have permanent consequences (I speak from experience; I was slow and fast at the same time). As the saying goes, trying to force a square peg into a round hole is not just ineffective, it also damages the peg. Unschooling offers an alternative in that kids can move along whatever developmental pathway happens to be theirs, irrespective of whether they are in the majority or not.

Yes, of course they’ll have to confront the norms and standards of the wider world eventually, and that will be difficult for those who are still neurodivergent in one way or another. But let them do it when they’re older and have the emotional maturity to deal with the problem as a practical challenge rather than as a source of fear and shame.

Back to the Imaginary Future

So, in my imaginary future, unschooling at home has become the standard for children under 12 or so. The switch to multi-family living has meant that parents don’t need as much outside professional help, and the public education system works to support parents as educators, not replace them.

The system has two main components. First, there are free educational activities available at the weekly markets for all ages and ability levels. Second, there are children’s educational centers in each town that offer optional children’s classes, tutoring, field trips, equipment and supplies, plus classes for parents. Parents can also use the centers for day-care on an as-needed basis, and children can meet and socialize with other children there. The centers give children all the resources of a fully-equipped school, but without taking education out of the hands of parents.

Some centers also offer day-care and enrichment for elderly or disabled people–it’s good for the young and the old to have contact, generally. Some centers are associated with semi-private children’s sleep-away camps.

The centers are usually run by either private charities and church groups or by groups of parents, with funding and oversight by the state. Some are run by the state directly. None charge any fees for use.

Education for Teenagers

For adolescents, there are schools, usually boarding schools (since transportation is either slow or expensive). These are usually run by the town directly with state money and oversight, though there are private options, too.

To enter such a school, a student must be able to read, write, do basic math, and have a basic understanding of history, geography, and science. The program is six years long (in practice, five to seven years is typical) and covers the equivalent of high school and some college. Students can get school credit through various other means, such as testing out of a class or documenting an independent project for credit. Since most graduates do not go on to higher education but instead become farmers like their parents, job skills are not the primary focus of school. Instead, the point is to shape young people into responsible, well-rounded citizens and to provide the unity of educational experience not provided in childhood—the idea is to get everybody on the same page.

Most schools are divided into three stages. Within each stage, students are free to work at their own pace, but they must complete each stage to move on to the next. Curricula and schedules vary somewhat between schools, especially between states, but it’s possible to describe a typical example.

Stage One

Students spend two weeks on campus (a weekend trip home is optional) and then one week at home, year round, except for breaks around holidays. Three days per week, students take classes in English, Math, and History. Recess and lunch are used for practicing a second language–no English allowed. One day per week is dedicated to Art, Music, and either Dance or Drama. One day per week is either presentations by students and faculty (students may attend any they like) or all-day field trips in play-based or service-based science. Free athletic play is encouraged in the afternoons and at recess. Most classes are “flipped,” meaning that students learn new material as homework from books, videos, or computer tutorials and then go to class to practice with help from the teacher or older students.

The material covered includes some things we cover in middle school, as well as some high-school stuff.

State Two

The basic structure is the same as in Stage One, but with six main courses, not three. English is split into Literature and Writing, Math is split into Algebra and Geometry, and History is replaced by Civics and Social Studies. Rather than all being funneled into Art, Music, and Drama or Dance, students can choose among many electives, including various art options, science options (such as chemistry, biology, astronomy), computer programming, and history classes (such as Russian history or the history of the American labor movement). The Friday science field trips continue, as do recess and lunch in a second language. Students are encouraged to act as near-peer tutors to younger students, and may skip class to do so once per week.

Stage Three

Now the schedule and structure changes. Students spend a single week on campus and two weeks at home, working on semi-independent, student-designed projects.

Projects can belong to any of six categories: engineering, science, social justice, journalism, performing arts, and fine arts. Over the course of the Stage, each student must complete at least two projects in each category. Each year, at least one project must be individual, at least one must be group, and at least one must be service-based. It’s OK to do a lot of small projects or just a few large ones. Students still must earn credit in various academic subjects, such as Creative Writing and Algebra II, but each student can decide—with the guidance of an adviser—how to cover those topics in interesting projects. For example, a group of students might decide to produce a play about a robot together. Depending on each student’s role in the production, the play could count as performing arts, fine arts, or engineering, and involve credit in creative writing, advanced mathematics, electrical engineering, and social studies. All projects must be approved ahead of time, and must be evaluated by both the student and their adviser afterwards, before credit is awarded.

Besides working with advisers, students may also take short classes, usually only three or four meetings in a single week, in various topics that might relate to their projects, and can request classes on certain topics they need. There are also electives in advanced math, computer programming, history, and various trade skills—all of which give homework that must be completed independently while the student is off-campus. Either CPR/first responder certification or lifeguard certification is also required. There are discussion groups on various topics, too, which students may join. Students may attend the day-long field trips with younger students, and are encouraged to serve as tutors to younger students in class. Students are also encouraged to develop projects in partnership with outside businesses or farms (other than that of their parents), and to serve apprenticeships. Upon completing a project, students must give a presentation to the school, sharing what they have learned.

Upon graduation, most young people take a year or two to work and travel before returning home to farm, take up a trade, or start a business. Sometimes such trips evolve into an extended life of wandering, or the young person may settle down far from home—usually a result of falling in love with someone met while traveling. Only a small minority of students go on to college.

College and Beyond

College does exist in the story, but it, too, is still in a process of rapid evolution. Because of the demographic hole, there have been few if any “college-age” people for some years, and those few have had little if any prior formal education. Most students are therefore older people attempting a career change, and curricula must be extremely flexible, embracing both experienced adults who may have degrees already (from Before the collapse) and the younger set who never passed third grade. Then, too, there are so few college students of any age that most schools can’t rely on tuition for their budget. Instead, they are workshops, labs, museums, research facilities, think-tanks, or other groups that take on students as a side-line.

Also, all colleges are new since the pandemic, and they are all very small, with only a few hundred students. Many are not sustainable businesses and are not going to stick around very long.

In time, higher education will expand and stabilize somewhat. While the college-educated remain a small percentage of the population, more young people coming up means more students, and more schools able to rely primarily on tuition. And while most schools remain small, a few large schools with thousands of students do emerge and become the basis of new cities—I’ll explain that in a later post.

But the basic educational structure my characters are familiar with remains.


“College,” as such, is no longer about earning a degree. The important credential is now guild membership–guilds act as agents and advocates for members and insure that members have whatever qualifications are appropriate. They also charge booking fees, fund-raise, and otherwise collect money on behalf of members, who then receive a guaranteed income and other benefits. The idea is to free the professionals in certain fields from the direct demands of the market so they can concentrate on their work.

Students preparing for such a field take college-level classes, but they leave school when they are ready to join a guild, not when the school confers a degree, leaving most programs somewhat open-ended. There are also no “majors” as such. Rather, each school has one or more “tracks” that students follow from enrollment—in some ways, the undergrad and graduate levels have collapsed into each other because the boarding schools have taken over the function of the first year or two of college.

How many years a track might take depends on what kind of work the student is preparing for—anywhere from two to six years is common.

Once a student is ready to stop classes, he or she chooses a guild application sponsor, who may be a member of the college faculty but need not be. The sponsor is a professional mentor and senior guild member who vouches for the student’s ability to work in a professional capacity—in general, one cannot work in certain fields without guild-membership, so sponsors temporarily extend their membership to include the student. In some fields, such as medicine, the student’s scope of practice is sharply curtailed. With rare exceptions, students earn no compensation for their work during this period, which is considered an extension of their schooling. Indeed, they must pay a fee to their sponsor. Some sponsors unofficially fund their students, though.

Sponsors often work with multiple applicants at once, and the fees can be a substantial part of their income.

Besides allowing the student to gain professional experience, sponsors also supervise the student’s work and provide any necessary hands-on training. After anywhere from a few months to a few years, the sponsor guides the student through the process of applying to a guild and signs off on the application.

There is no guarantee any guild will accept an applicant. In fact, since guilds guarantee members an income for life, they do not accept more members than what the market seems able to bear–if too many qualified people apply, then some must be rejected despite their qualifications. It’s also not uncommon for individuals to take a few classes without intending to try for membership, simply as a matter of personal and professional development. Very few people are guild members, but between college courses and public educational events at the markets, the population as a whole is fairly well educated.

Guild members are recognizable as such because they dress differently than other people, at least in formal or professional settings. Most guilds specify professional dress and most have a cowl, collar, or shawl that identifies members of that particular guild. Some give members rings, instead of or in addition to specialized clothing.

Once someone joins a guild, it is possible to join other guilds without a sponsor, but the application process is otherwise the same.

After College

The new version of a doctorate is senior guild membership. Senior guild members are properly addressed as “doctor” and are acknowledged experts in their field. Guilds are run by senior members–not all actually involve themselves in administration, but they are the only ones who can. It is they who vote on whether to accept new members. They also can also serve as application sponsors (they need not belong to the same guild the student applies to). They are recognizable by a silver pin the wear on the chest.

In some fields, such as journalism, entertainment, and education, senior members are few; the standard is that membership alone is enough for practice, and senior members are needed only to keep the guilds going. In other fields, such as medicine, the standard is senior membership, and both applicants and regular members have limited roles.

For example, in medicine, an applicant might be an orderly, a medical technician, or a paramedic. A regular member might be a physician’s assistant or a medic (a practitioner working under the remote supervision of a doctor). A doctor must be a senior member.

Science occupies a middle ground in which most researchers are senior members, but regular members can have full careers just as masters’ level people do today.

To become a senior guild member, no additional coursework is necessary–though there are professional development courses available through many schools and through guilds, and many would-be seniors take them. Some also go back to college to broaden their knowledge-base. In medicine and some other fields, an intensive apprenticeship is necessary. In some cases, the applicant must write and defend a dissertation. In all cases, the applicant assembles a portfolio of professional experience–the process is less one of further education and more a demonstration of already-acquired skill. The prospective senior works with a liaison from the guild who may or may not act as a mentor but at least provides guidance through the process.

On becoming a senior guild member in one guild, joining a second as a senior does not require a repeat of the process of application, only a mutual agreement.


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Let’s Do the Book Launch A-gain!

Yeah, the title of this post is supposed to be to the tune of “Time Warp.” It’s just a jump to the left, people!

So, after a fairly awful summer on my end, it’s time to have a party. While Ecological Memory has been available for sale since mid-July, the formal launch party is now set for October 14th, in Keene, NH.

In case you can’t get there in person, it will be on Facebook–all you have to do is go to the event page at the correct time and click on the posted video.

Here’s how it will work: they’ll be some friendly milling about and refreshments and so forth, and then we’ll connect to Facebook Live and I’ll read some selections from the book and talk about the story and my writing process for a while. Then we’ll open it up for questions from folks both in the room and online–people watching online can type in a question as a comment on the video feed and well have someone monitoring it who can read off the questions for you.

I’ll have books available to purchase, or you can bring in books for me to sign, if you’ve already bought one elsewhere. If you’re watching online, you can make arrangements with me afterwards to get a signed copy. If you get an electronic copy, let me know and I’ll happily sign a card or something!

Besides buying copies from me directly, you can also buy from Amazon or from my publisher. Just click on the links.

The whole theme of this launch will be a celebration of the people who helped make the book happen, so I’m hoping that as many people as possible from my Acknowledgements section can make it–a reunion of the team, as it were, though many of these people haven’t met each other before.

I hope you can make it, too.

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Happy Birthday! And Other Personal Items

Everyone who has been born has a birthday. Mine is today, which is why I bring the subject up. I’m an August baby. Other than the fact that I enjoy having my birthday celebrated, is the specific day of my birth important to know?

More to the point of this blog, are the birthdays of fictional people important to know?

On Birthdays in Fiction

There are a few novels that include birthday scenes–the Harry Potter books begin on the title character’s birthday, and in 2001: A Space Odyssey the first hints of trouble for the mission appear on Frank Pool’s birthday (though as I recall, the date is not given). But these are exceptions.

The vast majority of fictional characters do not have their birthdays mentioned in print–and for good reason. Their birthdays are irrelevant to the story. That’s part of the reason we also seldom read of fictional people using the toilet; not only are bathroom activities unpleasant to think much about, they’re irrelevant to most plots.

But there are two good reasons to at least know when your fictional people’s birthdays are, even if you don’t tell the reader–and there are also a couple of ways to decide when their birthdays should be.

Making Room for Nature

Yes, we all must pee, poo, and get another year older, until we die–the same is true for most fictional people. In most stories, we can let readers assume that characters are voiding their bladders and bowels in a timely fashion “off camera,” yet there are stories where such assumptions cannot be made. For example, if a story is set entirely in a broken elevator and takes place over the course of 24 hours, you’re going to have to acknowledge the physical needs of your characters or lose believability. You need not actually describe the bodily functions, just make clear they’re happening or provide a plausible reason they aren’t.

In a similar way, if your story takes place over the course of a year or more, it’s a good idea to decide when your major characters’ birthdays are and what they like to do on those days. A missing birthday is less obvious than an absence of poo in an elevator, but it’s still best not to preclude birthdays by accident–and once you start thinking about the issue, you may decide that someone’s birthday offers opportunity for character development or plot advancement after all.

Why Is This Month Different From All Others?

While I doubt anyone could guess my birthday from my personality alone, it’s hardly irrelevant to who I am and how I perceive the world. I associate the late summer with my birthday, to the point that blackberries, a fruit I enjoy only slightly, seem special to me; they ripen around my birthday. They’re mine.

Throughout my life, preparing for and celebrating my birthday has been a major part of my summer–that sounds as if I were rather vain about it, but I’m not, not especially, anyway. It’s just that I need to decide whether to have a party early enough that invitees won’t be inconvenienced, and that means starting to think about what I want several weeks in advance at least. As a practical matter, my summer is different than it would be were I not a summer baby. As far as emotions go, my childhood memories and deep associations include a link between late summer and birthday parties.

I like my birthday, but even if I did not, the fact of it would still shape my perceptions of this part of the year.

If you want to understand your characters’ inner life, knowing when their birthdays are and what their birthdays mean to them is a good step to take.

When to Give Birth

Your birthday is a biological fact; you came out of your mother’s womb on a certain date, and the anniversary of that event is your birthday. Unless you were born by scheduled caesarean section, nobody chose that date, it just happened.

(Induction can be scheduled, too, of course, but as the length of labor is unpredictable, so is the birthday)

But when you imagine someone into existence, you don’t necessarily imagine their birth. You get to decide their birthday, and you can decide it any way you want to.

You might find that a certain date is indicated by other aspects of the backstory, or perhaps the date is actually demanded by some aspect of the plot. Good. That makes it easier for you. If you don’t have such guidance, you can pick an arbitrary date, though that might feel unsatisfying. You can also fall back on astrology–whether you believe in it or not–or choose a date that is personally meaningful to you. As with names, you’ll have to decide whether to take leave of realism by making the date fit the character too closely.

My Imaginary Birthdays

I actually only started thinking about fictional birthdays recently. None of the characters in either of my published books had established birthdays at the time of writing. Some have since gained birthdays, though, and more are on the way.

I’ve always known how old Andy is in Ecological Memory, though since his age is a bit of a mystery in the story I’m not going to spill the beans. Not yet, anyway (there are sequels on the way!). But I can tell you the birthday I’ve recently “discovered” for him.

It’s October 30th.

Why? First of all, it’s the birthday of one of the several people I based Andy on–which makes him a Scorpio, which is pretty well consistent with both his personality and that of the model. In fact, the match is a little better than it may seem at first, since there are aspects of Andy’s personality that don’t make it into the story. I don’t exactly believe in astrology, but I like the idea that Andy’s birthday is based on something.

I also like the idea of Andy, who is socially ambivalent at best, having his special day somewhat overshadowed by sinister and raucous Halloween.  Even if he wanted to be the center of attention on his birthday as a child, it wasn’t going to happen–and at the same time, being linked to Halloween is quite fitting for a man who researches bats and who, as a boy, studied dead insects and live snakes. He likes things other people do not like. He is not even easy to like himself. There is something liminal about him.

And then there’s the fact that the story takes place from April through September, so an October birthday for Andy gets me out of having to explain why his birthday wasn’t mentioned.

All that being said, though, I know people who don’t resemble their astrological descriptions at all and whose birthdays seem quite arbitrary. And Andy being Andy, he probably wouldn’t tell Elzy about his birthday, anyway.

Any day could do.

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Some Thoughts About Food

A while back I wrote a couple of posts on different aspects of the world depicted in my new novel, Ecological Memory. The book is set in New England some number of decades hence and after the sudden end of our civilization–and the beginning of a new one. I did quite a lot of world-building while working on the story, but kept explication to a minimum, for reasons I’ve explained elsewhere. I still like the world I built, though, so I’m using this blog to share some of the details that didn’t make it into the book.

I’ve already written about clothing and about the money system. Now, I’m tackling food.

Food Options After the Pandemic

After the pandemic and subsequent collapse, fossil fuels are not used again, nor are renewables ever used so intensively as to deliver as much energy as fossil fuels did (intensive energy use itself causes environmental problems, almost irrespective of where the energy comes from). As a result, energy is more limited, so food options are limited in certain ways. On the other hand, some aspects of the diet have become less limited due to cultural changes.

New Limitations

Without fossil fuels, internal combustion engines can run on biofuels or electricity, and electricity itself can be generated by renewable means. The problem is that without fossil fuels, energy is so expensive that a lot of technologies we take for granted simply become impractical.

The losses most relevant to food are home refrigeration units and long-haul food delivery trucks.

There are possible work-arounds, such as electricity-free evaporative-cooling pots or hyper-efficient rail transport, but the book is set only twenty years after the collapse, and society is still very much in transition. Not all options have been explored or developed. For the most part, therefore, people simply do without both refrigeration and non-local foods–especially fresh non-local foods.

The emphasis on local foods is exacerbated by two other factors: international commerce has not re-emerged yet at all; and most people who survived the collapse experienced starvation and now are unwilling to depend on anyone but themselves for food (in much the same way that many survivors of the Great Depression never again trusted banks).

Without Refrigeration

Without refrigerators or freezers (or their equivalent), meat, milk, and anything containing egg go bad almost immediately in hot weather. Left-overs (even of cooked vegetables) don’t keep long. Cheese, yogurt, smoked meats, and many other preserved foods keep longer, but are still not reliably safe in hot weather. There is no ice in the summer.

A couple of dietary changes let people get around those problems:

  • Fresh meat is served only on special occasions; the meat of large animals is served fresh only at large social gatherings or at restaurants when there are enough eaters to consume the whole animal.
  • Meat is usually eaten smoked in the winter and dried in the summer.
  • Milk is not drunk fresh by people who don’t have their own dairy animals; cheese and similar products are seldom eaten in the summer.
  • Milk alternatives made from nuts, soy, or grain are popular even among those who consume dairy, since they keep better.
  • Preserved foods, such as jams, jellies, pickles, sour kraut, and canned goods, are dietary staples except in the growing season.
  • People are very careful to eat what’s available when it’s available and to not leave left-overs.

Without Transportation

It’s not that there is no transportation; goods can still move by draft animal and by water. It’s that transportation is slow and expensive, meaning that most foods, especially dietary staples consumed in quantity, must be grown locally. Products that keep well and are eaten in small amounts, such as spices or luxury goods, can be transported regionally, or sometimes nationally, but they do cost more. Communities with water access have substantially better access to non-local foods than land-locked communities do.

Foods that are difficult or impossible to get in the US included:

  • Chocolate
  • Coffee
  • Vanilla
  • Avocado
  • Black Pepper
  • Cinnamon

Those last three can be grown indoors in containers, but seed is not widely available (commercial avocados can be grown easily from pits, but belong to varieties that will not fruit as container plants) and production would be limited.

Chocolate is a real loss, but the role of fat-rich candy is occupied by caramels, fudges, and by candies made from various nut butters. Coffee is replaced by a mixture of chicory root and black tea (chicory tastes like coffee but has no caffeine) in much of the East, and by ephedra tea in much of the West. Ephedra does not contain caffeine but does deliver the stimulant ephedrine, and reportedly has been used in the same manner as coffee by Mormons who avoid caffeine for religious reasons.

Foods that are either not available across wide areas of the country, or available only in small quantities produced in greenhouses, include:

  • Bananas
  • Citrous Fruits (oranges, lemons, etc.)
  • Pineapple
  • Nutmeg and Mace (same plant)
  • Dates
  • Coconut and Coconut Milk
  • Maple Syrup
  • Cane Sugar
  • Seafood

Salt, while widely available thanks to intense demand, is expensive in inland communities.

Note that beet sugar is available across much of the country and is indistinguishable from cane sugar, but that the dominant sweetener in many areas is honey, as it does not require any processing.

In general, diets vary a lot geographically.

Cultural Changes

During the collapse, many people starved to death before local food production could be ramped up. Most survivors not only remember being very hungry themselves, but also remember watching loved ones succumb to starvation. Such experiences have to have a long-term effect on people.

I already mentioned the reluctance to depend on store-bought food. Other effects include both an extreme aversion to wasting food and some experience eating foods that were taboo previously, such as rats, worms, or certain organ meats. While some survivors are happy to never eat such foods again, others retain a fondness for at least some of them. Likewise, many people ate, and some still like, lesser-known plant-based foods, such as cattails, acorns, and crab-apples. In general, the limitations imposed by changes in technology are balanced by a cultural interest in eating more kinds of food.

At the time of my story, most people–and all adults–did go through the collapse, and their experiences are still culturally dominant. As time goes by and the survivors are gradually supplanted by younger generations, the shadow of hunger will lessen. More people will be comfortable not living on the land, for example. However, some cultural changes are likely to persist, at least to some extent.

Sample Menus

In the story, I do describe several meals, in whole or in part. Some are eaten while hiking or backpacking and don’t reflect what the characters eat at home, but others hint at the dietary changes I’ve been discussing in this post.

  • The lobster bisque Elzy eats on Baily Island (the word “bisque” does not occur in the text because I didn’t learn it until recently) includes canned corn, not frozen or fresh–it’s June and local sweet corn is not ready for harvest yet.
  • The egg salad for sale at the dockside cart is made to order because the only way to keep egg from spoiling is to leave it in the shell. The cart sells no meat products, either, because there is no way to keep it cool.
  • The same cart also sells fried oyster-root, a food not available for sale today, but popular among the survivors.
  • Three beverages (chicory, blueberry wine, and hard birch beer) not common today appear in the text and are treated as normal by the characters.
  • There are references to sheep and goat dairy, but none to cow dairy. Cattle are still part of the human food stream, but most meat and dairy operations are extremely small-scale, and it is easier to keep a couple of goats out back than a cow. Smaller animals are also less intimidating for beginners, and the vast majority of  people in the time of the story were beginners at animal husbandry until relatively recently.

But let’s explore food beyond what’s described directly in the book, shall we?

Let’s say that you are a member of one of the “forest families” described in the book. You live in the woods of inland Maine and you keep a garden, hunt, fish, and gather, and also buy some extra foods at market every month.

The major staples of your diet are potatoes, beans, apples, dried venison and venison sausage, the eggs from your small flock of chickens, and the honey, salt, and corn meal that you buy at market. In the cooler months, you also buy cheese and butter. Most of your apples are sour, so you use them in cooking and for making hard cider and vinegar.   You grow modest amounts of sweet corn, green beans, kidney beans, lettuce, kale, tomatoes, and several varieties of both summer and winter squash (other forest families have different crops, and you all sell your extra at market). You gather and eat large numbers of wild berries, nuts, cattails, and mushrooms. When squirrels or raccoons raid your garden, you happily kill and eat them. Sometimes you kill and eat one of your chickens, and wild geese, ducks, or a turkey are reason enough for a feast. You almost never eat wheat products and your kids have never had rice.

To flavor your food, you grow chili peppers, mustard, basil, oregano, garlic, onions, and (in a pot that comes indoors in winter) ginger. Wild juniper berries are also a great seasoning, especially with meat. You buy sunflower oil at the market for cooking, especially in the summer. Besides water and hard cider, you drink a lot of cedar tea, especially in the winter. In the morning you have chicory and black tea, which you have to buy.

Most of your diet is strictly seasonal. Fresh fruit and vegetables dominate in the summer. Besides the green beans, egg is your primary protein then. But you pickle and can as much as you eat, putting food by for the winter. In the latter part of the season, your potatoes start coming in. You haven’t had any for months, so it’s a welcome change, but unlike other summer fare, they keep well, so there is no rush.

As the growing season ends, meat, potatoes, and winter squash dominate. You bake beans and buy canned brown bread (a Maine specialty) from your neighbors, and sometimes popcorn. You’re hunting a lot, and for every successful hunt there is a fresh meat meal and then everything else goes into smoked sausage and jerky.

As the winter wears on, you finish the last of your potatoes and squash and your hens stop laying. You eat some of them, the older birds unlikely to produce much next year–fewer animals to feed is a good thing. You eat a lot of sausage, fish, and cheese, a lot of baked beans, and a lot of jams and pickled vegetables–you eat the jam with corn bread or mixed with yogurt or soft goat cheese.

In the spring, your hens start laying again–you incubate and hatch some, to replenish your flock–but little else changes, initially. Food is still tight and, by now, boring. You’re running out of things, your options getting narrower and narrower. Mostly, you’re eating sausage, eggs, and dried apples and nuts. Maple sugar is an exciting early harvest, but not much else is available. If fish runs have been restored to your nearest river, you get shad in May, and some people at the market will have fresh rhubarb. In late June, you can start harvesting lettuce. In July, fruit and vegetables finally start coming in and the cycle begins again.

It’s a pretty good way to eat.


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You’re Still Invited, But….

Just a quick note, here:

My book-launch party did not occur–due to a family emergency, I have post-poned it until October. I’ll let you know when we have dates.

But the book did launch. You can buy your own copy on Amazon or at the website of my publisher. I’ll post links shortly.

-best, C.

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You’re Invited!

The cover of the book, Ecological Memory: a casually-dressed woman sitting in front of a map of the coastline of New England, with the title at the top.I’m officially publishing my second book on Monday!

From the 22nd of July on, you’ll be able to buy copies from Amazon, or from the website of my publisher, Saltwater Media. In the following weeks and months, I’ll add more venues to the list.

You can also pick up a signed copy from me at my launch party, if you happen to be in Keene, NH on the 22nd. It’ll be at the campus of Antioch of New England, which has only one building, so the festivities will be easy to find.

There’ll be food, me reading excerpts of the book, questions and answers (the questions and answers might even match!), and much social milling about. It’ll be great! Doors open at 5PM.

Online Options

If you’re not in the neighborhood, but do have access to the internet (and a Facebook account) you can still attend, as I’ll be broadcasting it on Facebook LIVE. The broadcast will start at 5:45 PM, when the reading starts, and continue to the end of the question-and-answer period, at 7 PM.

(Alas, I do not see any way to schmooze and enjoy snacks over the internet, so I won’t broadcast that part)

OK, How Does This Online Party Work?

Glad you asked! Honestly, I just figured this part out today–it involved wandering around our local library with my husband’s smartphone and my laptop both signed on at the same time. But at far as you’re concerned, the procedure is quite simple.

  1. Log on to Facebook (if you’re not on Facebook, find a friend who is) sometime shortly before 5:45 PM (Eastern Daylight Time) on Monday, July 22.
  2. Go to the event page for the party: here it is. It’s public, so you don’t have to be friends with me on Facebook for it to work.
  3. Click “Going.” I’m not sure if this is necessary, but it can’t hurt.
  4. Look in “Discussion,” (not “About”). You’ll see a whole bunch of comments. One of those comments (probably the most recent) will be a video posted by Christopher Seymour.
  5. Click on the “play” arrow on the video.
  6. Comment on the video to say you’re there–it’s good to know who’s watching.
  7. If you have a question or a comment, simply comment on the video. Chris will see your comment and read it aloud at the next good opportunity, and I can reply just as if you were sitting in the audience.

If you want to buy a signed copy but can’t attend in person, shoot me an email or comment on this post and we’ll make arrangements.

I do hope you can come. There will be other readings and signings, but there’s only ever one launch!

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