I’ve been amused over the last several days by NBC’s Revolution. The setting is a near future in which electrical power has been shut off for about fifteen years. More precisely, electronic gadgets of any kind don’t work. The show has been OK … but I have some problems with this premise and how they’ve developed it. Truth be told, I’ve been holding at episode 10 until my suspension of disbelief returns. Here’s how it escaped…
The show’s premise has all electricity not flowing. Even the simplest of circuits (say battery plus light bulb equals flash light) don’t work in “Revolution.” Electricity seemingly doesn’t flow. This is different than the field theory of Falling Skies (simple things work) or the destroyed technology art style of much post apocolyptica (most technology destroyed, but some found technology works).
The first and most obvious of science holes is the fact that humans — indeed all complex life with brains and nervous systems work on electrical impulses. Really simple life is largely chemical — but even basic chemical reactions involve the exchange of electrons — which is the very basis of how electricity works. Even if you could (say) stop various metals from conducting electricity, simple electric devices would work if materials akin to the body’s methods of conducting electricity would work. But the converse case is more interesting. Let us continue to digress…
Several episodes into the series, they feature a steam train running from somewhere in Illinois to Philadelphia. While the amount of physical labour to prepare a track is plausible and the number of semi-restored steam locomotives still active in the US makes this somewhat plausible, the biggest problem I have with this idea was the utter lack of mention of the effort to provide water towers every 20 to 50 miles or so — which is one of the items that steam trains required.
But is a steam train the most reasonable choice here? Of all the effort to have it running, is it the best use of post-apocalyptic resources? I really don’t understand why a society in this position would not turn to the large scale use of Diesel engines. I’m not talking about the modern electronic Diesel marvel that you’d find in a modern car or truck, but the all mechanical Diesel engines that still run a fair majority of trains and probably still many trucks.
Many of my readers may not know this, but I’m somewhat of a Diesel fan. If we all had Diesel cars right now and someone suggested changing to a new fuel — this gasoline — they’d be laughed right out of whatever regulatory hearing they were in. Gasoline is pretty much the most dangerous substance that normal people regularly get their hands on (or get on their hands as the case may be).
Not only that, but Diesel engines — especially older mechanical Diesel engines — will run on almost anything. They will even run on used french-fry fat. Mechanical Diesel engines are marvelously simple, durable and robust things. In fact, I have often said that the fuel of choice for a post apocalyptic society would be some form of diesel. It’s stable and safe; it can be made in a variety of ways from a vareity of source materials; it’s energy dense and best of all, it can be relatively low tech.
In the last frames of the 10th episode, meant to be a real cliffhanger, the chief antagonist starts flying a helicopter to fly up and shoot at the motley group of protagonists. The is a helicopter we had seen several times earlier being dragged across country by manual slave labour. While I had been following the series without comment thus far, this part had me reaching for the blog. The annoying thing here is that while the helicopter (and the tanks and the trains and whatever else we have) use electricity for many things, given 15 years, most competent engineers could make them run/fly without electricity. Man is really surprisingly inventive and given a set of constraints, you can count on man to explore the very boundaries of them.
Let’s back up a bit: the opening of the pilot and many of the flashbacks have jet planes falling from the sky. Given Bowing’s most recent problems with electric parts catching fire in the newest dreamliner, I’m quite positive that most planes would make a reasonably controlled landing in the event of a total electrical failure. I suppose there would be some crashes — but to see planes dropping vertically from the sky is simply ludicrous.
Is electricity required to fly? Certainly not. The Wright Brothers used an engine that almost certainly had a spark plug, but there wouldn’t have been any other electric systems on that plane. Germans have shown over the past few decades that small planes can easily fly with Diesel reciprocating engines. While train signals are now electric, and while modern locomotives manufactured recently have modern amounts of electronics for safety and efficiency, there still exists a real pollution problem with the remains of the fleet of older Diesel train locomotives that are still mechanical. They are not as efficient or clean as newer technology, but in terms of this discussion, they are mechanical injection Diesel engines.
Even jet and turbo prop technology don’t put up fundamental barriers here — the action of a jet engine is mostly mechanical and I’m confident that someone with a reasonable amount of specific knowledge could make them work without electric power. Modern turbine and jet engines (the primary difference being that jets take advantage of the air forced into the intake as compressed gas to produce combustion heat and additional propellant) make copious use of electronics, but the fundamental action here is that fuel is burnt (maybe a pilot light is required) and the expanding gasses press on the fins of the turbine to turn the engine.
I suppose the “magic” on display here is that “electricity” … or more properly “computers” add nearly unbounded complexity to almost every object we use. While some of the efficiencies in the engines that power our cars have been achieved by computer modeling of the process (making the very shape of the engine parts more efficient in the turbulence of the engine), substantially most of the gains in efficiency and cleanliness of our modern engines are due to the complexity that computers allow.
A carburetor is a marvelously simple solution to the problem of keeping the gasoline to air mixture at 14:1 in an engine. It relies simply on Bernoulli action to spread a fine mist of gasoline at the right mixture for the engine through most of it’s operating conditions. The mixture actually varies, however, and these variances account for most of an older car’s inefficiency and pollution. The “electronic fuel injection” we replaced this with takes into account the air pressure, air temperature and the amount of oxygen in the exhaust to allow it to calculate from moment to moment what the real stoichiometry is and correct for any inefficiencies.
Getting back to the topic, my point is that while a gasoline engine requires a spark (pipe down in the back about direct injection gasoline engines), Diesel engines do not… and that while many cars would not run without electrical current working (as a force-of-nature issue they present it as), much of our world’s infrastructure still relies on fuels and processes that would continue to work in the absence of electricity.
My short list would include pretty much everything moderately old that runs on Diesel fuel. Old pickups from the 70’s; transports trucks; railway locomotives; most, if not all ships; even as we get into the era of using diesel turbine engines in ships, my arguments above stand.
I suppose it all comes down to artistic license, but the glaring holes in the plot have put me off watching Revolution for awhile. Maybe the Scientific Revolution is what’s required?