Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: Three tales the river told

This week, Futures is taking a trek courtesy of Three tales the river told, the latest story from Stewart C. Baker. Regular readers will recognize Stewart as he has perviously taught us How to configure your quantum disambiguator, revealed the truth about Love and relativity and examined Failsafes. You can find out more about Stewart’s work on his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals the inspiration behind his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing Three tales the river told

This is kind of a heavy story, in a number of ways. But perhaps it should be: although it’s unlikely that the Yellow River would dry up to such an extent you could walk along its empty river basin for a month, climate change and other human-caused issues are projected to have a serious impact on rivers.

Will it be so big an impact we have to live underground to survive, drinking reclaimed water a la the Fremen in Dune?

I sure hope not.  But since I’m a bit of a cynic, I’m equally sure we’re on a path to find out.

Other than general anxiety about the mess we’re making of our planet, the inspirations from this story came from a number of places.

Rivers, oceans and other bodies of water have always fascinated me. Perhaps it’s because they’re so vast and ever-changing, and speak to the wanderlust that lives on deep inside my soul even though I’m somewhat of a homebody in practice. Or perhaps it’s just some ingrained awareness of how vital they — and water in general — have always been to the arc of human development and survival.

The title came first with this one. For that, I’m indebted to Vylar Kaftan, who runs an annual Rummage Sale contest on Codex Writers Group where you write a story from someone else’s title, and to Aimee Ogden, who provided the title itself.

For the rest:

Part 0, set in UnderGuangdong, and the general idea for the setting, pays homage to Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest, which features a future world where people live in cities under the earth after the surface has been taken over by desertification. Although my story doesn’t have nearly as many aliens in it, of course.

Part 1, with the archaic characters reading “Weep, Mothers, for Your Children”, is from an even stranger source: real life. The only thing I’ve changed is the location. I remember seeing a number of reports about ‘hunger stones’ being revealed in the Elbe river due to a drought in 2018. In real life, although the path of Yellow River has changed many times, as a rule it does so much farther downstream, where it overruns its banks and floods the countryside around it before settling into a new course. These course corrects have literally changed the course of Chinese — and world — history, affecting battles and wars, and the longer, more subtle conflicts that accompany commerce and settlement.

Part 2 looks a little at one of those. Kaifeng is on the Yellow River’s south bank, and was regularly flooded in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Ming Dynasty river engineers eventually stopped the worst floods, but in 1642 the governor of Kaifeng broke the dykes on purpose to stave off a peasant rebellion besieging his city. Turns out, that was a terrible idea: the resultant flooding, famine and disease killed hundreds of thousands, and severely decreased Kaifeng’s importance. If this sounds interesting to you, check out the excellent Controlling the Dragon: Confucian Engineers and the Yellow River in Late Imperial China by Randall A. Dodgen, which uses a mix of primary and secondary sources to paint a fascinating, complex picture of China’s relationship with its second longest river.

I’m not sure where part 3 came from, except a belief that gulls are likely to survive just about anything. (My mother, who is a birder, insists that ‘seagull’ is not a type of bird, hence ‘gull’.)

Is the gull’s appearance at the end of the story a good thing? A sign of ongoing life in the face of apparent mass extinction?

I’m ambivalent, but — as above — I sure hope we never get to the point where seeing a single bird is cause for thankful tears.


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