The Devil Is In The Details...


So just how many people would there be a century or so after nine colonists were stranded?

Oh, I know I could have just made up the answer, but I wanted it to be semi-realistic. Raup's EXTINCTION talked at length about populations too small to sustain themselves and how the vagaries of statistical "random walks" inevitably hit the zero line. Easy enough to figure out, I thought. As a long-time role-playing gamer, I was tempted to pull out the dice and start rolling, but even better, I thought, would be to set up a little HyperTalk program.

What were the parameters of that program? Well, I had Gabriela Rusack, one of the book's characters, outline those for the ship's computer at one point. Here's a portion of that scene. "Ghost," by the way, is an artificial intelligence, an agent of the crippled ship's computer...


"Gab, be reasonable-" he started, and I cut him off again. Funny how it's always the other person who's being unreasonable.

"No, you don't understand, Jean. There are nine of us here. Nine. Back on Earth, a species with only nine representatives would be considered as close to extinction as it is possible to get."

"But not extinct," Jean insisted. "In desperate trouble, yes, but not extinct. Not yet. No one would have given up in that kind of situation."

"Maybe not. But we'd take the remaining members of the species and slap them into zoos and try to breed them in captivity, though--because we'd know that there was no way they'd survive out in the wild. Without help, they'd be dead." Ghost hadn't said anything, though I knew he was recording it all. I wheeled around on him. "Ghost, set up this program. We'll ignore the males--it's the females that count. Start with a breeding stock of three women."

"Four," Jean corrected me.

"Three," I repeated, more firmly, and he just shook his head. "Figure that half of any offspring will be male, half will be female--any problem with that, Jean? Fine. Figure two of each three children will reach puberty." I held up a hand to stop Jean's protest. "Actually, I think that's being optimistic. We don't have medical facilities or a trained internist, don't have antibiotics nor do we know if there are plants here that have healing properties for us. Between accident and disease, I think two out of three is being damned kind to us. We're going to see high infant mortality in the first year. My gut feeling is that it's going to be more a fifty/fifty proposition, but let's go with two of three."

Jean just shrugged, so I continued. "All right. We already know that the fertility rate's gone to hell. Figure each female past puberty will produce between 0 and 5 offspring--and before you bitch about that, Jean, remember that we're going to lose mothers and children in childbirth because surgery's going to be high risk, and we're going to have miscarriages that leave some sterile, and we're going to have infertile females, and we don't have the technology to fix any of that. We may have someone who's just the perfect breeding machine, but I doubt it. I think my parameters are pretty close to what we're going to see. You got all that, Ghost? Run random projections based on those figures a few hundred times and see how many generations you get."

"I already have," Ghost said.

"Well?"

I'd have sworn he hesitated. Maybe it was just a glitch in the communications gear. "In all projections I ran, the line died out. The longest sequence was 40 generations; the lowest 2. The average was 7.480 generations."

Jean's mouth was open in soundless protest. "But," he said, and the word hung there for a while between us. "You stacked the figures, and you're assuming that nothing changes. Maybe we'll eventually find herbal medicines, maybe with Ghost's help we can set up some of the lost technology. Maybe we'll be more resistant to disease than you think, and the infertility problem--especially if it's due to the LongSleep--may disappear after the first generation or two. Hell, maybe we'll be found, Gabriela. Maybe we'll hear from Earth."

"You notice how often you're using the word 'maybe,' Jean?"

"We have to have hope. Things can change."

I just shook my head at him. "If you expect humankind to flourish here, Jean, then things had better change. They'd better. Otherwise, I don't see that there's any hope at all." I swept my hands to take in the stelae of the Miccail, set here on the Rock ages ago. "There were hundreds of thousands of Miccail, Jean, just a few millennia past. They lived everywhere around here, in a land that they knew and understood, a world that gave life to them, and they're all gone, every last one of them. Two thousand years ago, something happened to them, something that sent them into such a steep decline that when a thousand more years had passed, there weren't any Miccail left at all. Not one, out of those hundreds of thousands."

I stooped down and picked up my knife. I started cleaning dirt from the grooves in the stone once more, trying to bring back what time and weather had tried to obliterate. "There are nine of us, Jean. Aliens, all. Intruders. Tell me again about hope."

He didn't answer.


By the way, that's about what my Macintosh gave back to me, too. I ran the program about a hundred times or so and had a few long runs, but most often the population died (i.e., there were no more females left of child-bearing age) before eight generations.

So a fertility-enhancing mutation was not only nice, but essential. Hey, the plot's thickening!

This is my family...

How many times, in casual conversation with friends and family, do you find yourself talking about someone else: Grandma Eva, Uncle Bob, your niece Sara, your cousin Danny or Jo Ann at work? All the time, right? Our colonists were going to be grouped into extended Families, and since the HyperTalk program had given such an impetus to the plot, I thought I'd also let the computer help me make up the Families.

Surely that wouldn't take too long, right?

When the program was written (a few hours later), with a click of a button I could find out how many children a woman had, along with the sex and life span of her children. I started with the original colonists and worked my way slowly through the succeeding generations, assembling a family tree for each of the women. Within the parameters of the program, the results were entirely random.

And at the end (far too many additional hours later), gee, I had several family trees that reached six and seven generations into each family line. I knew the sex, birth and death years of each human who'd ever lived on Mictlan up to the actual start of the novel. Again, I could have left it at that, but I didn't....

I didn't have names for these people. I could have simply made up names as I went along, but surely assigning a name to everyone wouldn't be too hard to do...

Wrong.

The task took me several days, going through each family line, finding names that weren't just standard, white bread American--remember, this was a racially and nationally diverse crew. I discovered that while it was relatively (Hmm, there's a pun in there somewhere) easy to come up with unusual male names by looking through history books and various other sources around the house, it was damned difficult to find equal numbers of female ones -- there is a dearth of women in our history books. Without Denise's stash of Ms magazines, I would have had to do some serious digging.

Listen up, folks. Building an entire genealogy for your world is not an exercise I would recommend to any other writer. By the time I was seven generations in, even with an assumed low fertility and high infant mortality, I was looking at a total of some 500+ people. In 20/20 hindsight, I don't know that I'd repeat the experience, given the investment in time. However, when it was done, I knew my characters (and all their relations). I think the book is richer because I could connect characters with ancestors and see the familial connections between them.

Interestingly, too, the exercise continued to drive the plot, because when I looked at the number of people alive year to year, the resulting graph show a climb, a slight dip followed by a steep climb, then a leveling and a steady decline over the last 10-15 years. Obviously, a reproductive crisis was upon the Families. I could also see the Family to which my main character must belong: one of the six surviving Families had by a single female of child-bearing age living a century later. If that woman died without issue, so inevitably would the family line. She would be my main character, then: Anais.

The lineage also gave me a sense of history. As an accident of randomness, several people 'died' in Year 23. Okay, then there was a large scale incident that year. There was also a sequence where many of the children weren't living much past age eight or nine -- aha, a fatal childhood disease, the "Bloody Cough," had arisen. The lineage, as you can see, helped flesh out the colonial history; I fit events to match what I was seeing.

Oh, and yes, I'd originally thought to have all the family trees appear in the book as yet another appendix. Only a truncated form survived. If you're morbidly curious, you can view the original.


I had the aliens and the humans, for the most part. But people (of any ilk) aren't all there are in a world...

TO MOVE ON, CLICK ON THE "LIFE" STONE BELOW.


 

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