My cat Alexander and I just watched the dvd of Life After People. I watched more of it than he did, and even so I have all the extra scenes left to see (I'll play them tomorrow). But what I saw, with and without cat on lap, really got me thinking about life eighteen years after Life As We Knew It and the dead and the gone.
Because people interest me more than stuff does (no insult intended, stuff), I've been focusing my pre-writing on the characters and the society. Lately I've been trying to figure out just how many people are left, and what they're doing to survive.
Arbitrarily (well, all of this is arbitrary as my brother pointed out, when I said there was a massive drought and he said only if I wanted there to be one), I decided that in the first five years, there was a 50% infant mortality rate. Or maybe only 50% of the babies born then lived to be five years old. Anyway, something with 50% and lots of dead infants and toddlers (no insult intended, infants and toddlers). I pictured Miranda being taught this in what passes for medical school, and her thinking about it as she dreams yet again of baby Rachel. Of course the problem with losing 50% of a mini-generation, not to mention all the babies that aren't even conceived, is that you lose an awful lot of workers. And in a world where energy sources aren't what they used to be, you really need laborers to do the things we count on machines for.
That's why I see such a massively hierarchical society, a handful of nobles, so to speak, and an army of serfs (this morning I was trying to come up with a name for all those laborers, and I played with surf and turf puns, but they're back to being drogs, although now the women are droggies). You heat your house with coal, you're going to need people to keep things clean (I briefly heated my sunroom with coal, and that stuff is filthy).
See how I'm focusing on people rather than stuff? Partly it's to keep my mind off those nasty volcanoes that killed off vegetation. One of the things I have to do is learn what kind of plants live in cold dark environments ( don't tell me, not many; I don't want to hear it). But mostly because it's how my mind works, which is why Life Without People was so useful for me.
For one thing, it reminded me about feral dogs. In one early and rejected possible third book outline, I had a feral dog attack. Of course, being a cat person, I forgot that dogs run in packs (or they would if they were feral), which would make a feral dog attack even scarier.
Feral dogs made me think about how you protect yourself from a feral dog attack, which made me think (albeit briefly, because there's just so much to think about, and I only finished watching the dvd twenty minutes ago) about what stuff people would keep making regardless. Alcohol, for one thing (although that's not much use in feral dog attacks). And some form of bullets.
Also I was very happy to learn from the dvd that rubber tires would last. My goddaughter, when I discussed all this with her in Maine, said rubber wouldn't last. It's bad enough to have bikes be the primary form of transportation. At least now they can have tires.
The dvd also talked about birds and fish. It was very optimistic about both of them, although, of course it was about a world without people, not one without much sunlight. I figure birds will do okay, because I used to feed chickens as a kid, and there is no species quite so nasty (no insult intended, chickens). And I've already figured that fish are thriving, and that it's an immensely dangerous job to go out onto the ocean and catch them, but they're the primary source of protein, only I don't think I'm going to have anything in the book about fisherfolk because it's an interior sort of story (I'm seeing the journey going from Utah to Pennsylvania).
But one thing the dvd mentioned which I hadn't thought about in quite the same direction is what happens to zoo animals. I'd figured that people in power were saving animals, in a Noah's ark kind of way, so that when things got back to normal, they'd be able to repopulate all the species. But in the Life Without People dvd, there weren't any people to take care of the zoo animals, which naturally enough tried to get out of their enclosures and see the once bright lights of the big cities. They had a great shot of a bear climbing the stairs at the 72nd St. subway stop, and a lion hanging out downtown.
This is where things get tricky. In LAWKI/d&g, no matter how bad things got, none of the characters had to fight off a tiger. And my guess is none of the characters in The World We Live In is going to have to either, because even though it's possible, it's not mundane. Feral dogs we can all picture. Rhinos on the highway are just too much.
But there was another thing the dvd showed that really got me thinking, and that was a deserted fairgrounds. There is something so evocative about a rotting Ferris wheel. And I realized that my characters, rich and poor, have hardly seen anything outside their immediate environments. Their world doesn't include roller coasters, merry-go-rounds, bumper cars. How exciting it would be for them to wander into that remnant of our lives. How startled they would be to learn that people used to have dogs as pets.
Of course I stink at writing descriptions and action scenes (no insult intended, me). So my four hundred page epic on the evils of capitalism will probably consist of Luke and his companions sitting around the campfire, talking about the laundry.
We'll see how exciting Alexander finds that!