The Big Idea: Marcus Sakey

Maybe you don’t lie awake at night, wondering what it would take to break the world, but that just means you’re not Marcus Sakey. His new novel A Better World (the sequel to Brilliance, which is itself headed to the big screen) explores what it takes to grind things to a halt, and to throw life quickly out of balance. And what does it take? Well, as Sakey explains, the real question isn’t what does it take… but how little.


What would you do if there was no milk on the shelves?

Take a moment and honestly ponder it. If you run out of something, you go to the store and replace it. That’s part of the modern social contract. You need bacon? Diapers? Medicine? Get in your car, swipe some plastic, and those things are yours.

But what if out of the clear blue sky you could no longer depend on that?

That’s one of the central questions I wanted to explore in A Better World. The book is the sequel to last year’s Brilliance, a novel about an alternate present in which, since 1980, one percent of people are born savants. At first the ‘brilliants’ are a curiosity; then a concern; and finally, as they exceed the rest of us in every field, a source of incredible social tension. One percent of the world is now objectively better than the rest—but they are outnumbered 99-to-1.

The first book set up the looming conflict, the cliff on the horizon. With the sequel, I wanted to walk up to—and maybe over—the precipice. But that walk was the point. See, most dystopian novels begin after the apocalypse, when the world has already changed in fundamental ways. I love those books, but I wanted to write one about society falling apart; an exploration of how small failings can splinter the larger whole.

First, I had to figure out how it would happen. I love this kind of research—it’s one of the reasons I write. To make sure my details are accurate, I’ve shadowed gang cops, trained with snipers, gone diving for pirate treasure, held a human brain, and even been pepper sprayed on television. (Seriously: check it out).

In this case, I went to the crazies. Sorry—the survival enthusiasts. There are a surprising number of people who spend time preparing for just this kind of scenario. Googling the end of the world is actually a really interesting rabbit hole to lose yourself down.

Anyway, it turns out it’s a lot more plausible than you’d think. Despite the advancements of modern life, our world is extremely fragile. In fact, those advancements are part of the problem.

It used to be that grocery stores had storage space for all kinds of goods. So when the beans were running low, someone went to the back, grabbed another case, and put them on the shelf.

Not anymore. You know the scanner at checkout? It plugs into a database that tracks inventory and automatically reorders products as needed. There are no back-up supplies. It’s not just grocery stores, either. Pharmacies, manufacturers large and small, even gas stations all work this way. The system is called ‘Just In Time Inventory’, and it’s far more efficient, allowing companies to reduce their overhead expenses and avoid waste.

The problem is that it’s very intricate, and the more intricate the system, the more vulnerable. Break any single gear, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

Okay, fine. But how do you break that gear? After all, stores are supplied by a vast network from all over the country. There are multiple redundancies, and the nature of the free market means that if one company fails, another is quick to eat its lunch.

The answer, it turned out, was to exploit the complexities of another system. In A Better World, a small group of terrorists hijacks trucks in three cities, and kills the drivers.  (Actually, they burn them alive, because they want to make the strongest possible statement, and they’re, you know, intense.)

As a result, insurance carriers for trucking in those cities immediately suspend coverage. They can’t cover that kind of liability. This would really happen—think of all the flood coverage suspended post-hurricane.

But without insurance coverage, trucks can’t leave the depots. In one night, a group of determined individuals can break the intricate chain that puts milk on your supermarket shelves.

In my case, because I recently had a daughter, and because I really wanted to gut punch my readers, milk isn’t the real problem—baby formula is. The first time you meet one of my protagonists, he’s staring at the empty shelf where the food for his three-month-old daughter normally rests.

He’s staring at it, and he’s wondering what the hell he’s supposed to do now.

And if I got it right, hopefully that’s a question you’ll ask yourself.


A Better World: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s Web site. Follow him on Twitter.

48 Comments on “The Big Idea: Marcus Sakey”

  1. The typical (fans are slans) science fiction fan identifies with the 1%. My wife and I joke (not where fans can hear us): “I should be running the galaxy. Meanwhile, I live in my mother’s basement and hope that the Singularity does not leave the station without me.”

  2. Amazing doublethink required to simultaneously mock disaster preppers for being crazies, yet admit they’re right about the fragility of systems we depend on. Almost as if they’re not crazy. But then who would you mock?

  3. Is the answer to find a nursing mom and hire her to also feed his baby? Because that would be awesome, and the first option that occurs to me. . .

  4. As a result, insurance carriers for trucking in those cities immediately suspend coverage. They can’t cover that kind of liability. This would really happen—think of all the flood coverage suspended post-hurricane. – Actually, no.

    Most commercial liability policies have a terrorist rider, in which the US government would step in to reimburse the insurers after a certain (admittedly high) loss level.

    Another option would be to use National Guard troops as truck drivers. Most National Guard units are already set up as “logistics” units (AKA “drive trucks for the military”) and if they can’t drive, they can certainly ride shotgun.

  5. Okay, I think I might have to check this out, because I do love post-apoc/dealing with the world crumbling story.

    But I’m concerned about getting another book that has a rather…loose grasp of just how our economy *works*. (See: WWZ, and it’s complete disconnect from reality re: CA agriculture. Loved the story, world building made me crazy. Er.)

    That the author starts out by mocking survivalists instead of treating them like valuable sources of information isn’t a great start.

    Break any single gear, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

    But see, the thing is that there is no “single gear” – the economy is a web, not a chain. And it routes around damage like crazy, to the extent that physics and the legal system allows. Shortages are overwhelmingly a result of those two coming together (see: CA rolling blackouts).

    As a result, insurance carriers for trucking in those cities immediately suspend coverage. They can’t cover that kind of liability. This would really happen—think of all the flood coverage suspended post-hurricane.

    By my understanding, that’s not an awesome comparison. Flood insurance companies stop taking *new* customers in an area that has a hurricane bearing down on it, and for really rational reasons. They don’t dump old customers when a hurricane appears on the horizon. (Raise rates, yeah, but they only drop customers when facing legal restrictions on how much they can charge to insure the things at risk.)

    The Terrorism Insurance Act ( was a reaction to the insurance company’s reaction to losing billions on to previously rare-to-impossible events, and allowed for coverage in the case of murderous nutjobs being murderous.

    It might turn out that the book’s text does a better job wrestling with the issues than this blurb does – or that (like WWZ) any errors are easily over looked in the quality of the story telling.

    (As for formula replacement – regular milk, condensed milk (diluted) powdered & HTP milk, stretched with cooked cereal, electrolytes (salt and sugar) then smuggled fluid milk, then smuggled cows and dairy goats. It would take two weeks, tops, imo, before any US city was leaking like a sieve.)

    And that’s assuming the people burning truckers don’t get rooted out and publicly cut down within two days for messing with the Teamsters and the Family’s livelihood. (If that turns out to be part of the story, then I stand corrected.)

    So I’m interested, but will likely borrow this on Kindle before (or instead) of jumping in to buy.

  6. I read the excerpt and the paragraph about the cyberattack on the electrical grid made me wince. For a writer who prides himself for making sure the details are accurate, his disregard for basic E&M is lamentable. But I guess this sort of research provides zero chance of an adrenaline rush, unlike hanging out with the k/o/o/k/s survivalists.

  7. It used to be that grocery stores had storage space for all kinds of goods. … The problem is that it’s very intricate, and the more intricate the system, the more vulnerable. Break any single gear, and the whole thing grinds to a halt.

    Something like this happened after 9/11. Auto manufacturing plants typically rely on JIT, in order to keep from having a large (and taxable) inventory on hand. Because many auto manufacturers are located in Michigan, many of the parts suppliers are located in Canada (which has more lenient tax laws on inventory). This means that there are trucks that move from the parts suppliers in Canada to the auto manufacturers in the USA on an hourly basis. But following 9/11 the border clamped down and what used to be a five minute pause became an hours-long sabbatical. As a result, auto manufacturers were left without parts and factories had to shut down because JIT wasn’t working. To fix that, manufacturers now typically keep a day’s worth of parts in stock as a buffer for when deliveries get delayed.

    I suspect that the same thing would happen in your scenario. There is already a US law that permits the the US government to order people to work in case of a “national emergency”; it is an outgrowth of the laws proposed by Nixon during the railroad strikes of the 1970s. Reagan famously used it against PATCO (air traffic controllers). So there would only be a slowdown and not a stoppage of goods, along with a thriving black/grey-market in the most perishable items.

    As for baby formula, there is always goat milk and soy milk and (ghu forbid!) actual human milk that could be substituted. The crisis in only a crisis to those who would complain when given Smarties instead of M&Ms .

  8. As the mother of a child who spent his formative candy years in the UK, I much prefer Smarties.

  9. .
    I did roughly 100 hours of research for my chapters on CyberWar 2020 in my 2,500+ page Facebook-serialized ALZHEIMER’S WAR. I boast again: I coined the term “Cybenetic War” in 1978, had it published to several million readers in 1979, and have spoken with the head of Cybercommand, who thanked me for invented the term (now shortened to Cyberwar) as it helped him explain to the Joint Chiefs what his teams were doing.
    “Cybernetic War” [Omni, ed. Frank Kendig and Ben Bova, pp.44-104, May 1979]
    ISSN-0149-8711, $2.00
    lead article, summarizes the history of computers in the military, and predicted the SDI debate. “Cybernetic War”, reprinted in:
    [The Omni Book of Computers & Robots, Zebra Books, Kensington Publishing Group, paperback, ISBN: 0-8217-1276

  10. I’ve been waiting for Brilliance to come out in an ebook format I can read. I don’t Kindle or Nook. NOw I want this new one. Who is the publisher? Maybe I can buy an epub version from them

  11. This book was amazing. Before you jump to the conclusion that the author doesn’t know what he is talking about, read the book and see how he works it all together. And, you know, also keep in mind that it is a work of fiction. Best read of the summer, couldn’t put it down!

  12. I thought Marcus did a great job of not only asking that question, but putting the pieces in place to make sure the answer was totally realistic. The addition of a broken federal government system and terrorists who are smarter than their prey. Fantastic book — looking forward to seeing what he has up his sleeve for Book 3.

  13. The survivalists usually come in for a mocking because they have a tendency to focus on the Mad Max part to the exclusion of actually, you know, surviving long-term. I watched a few minutes of a YouTube video of some clod explaining how he was setting up his generator and inverter to run his fridge. I guess he was planning of having lots of cold brewskis on hand or something. For the hundreds of dollars he blew on those items he could have started a decent garden. Nothing like knowing how to grow your own food.

    There are reasonable “preppers” out there. On a truck board someone was asking what they should do to turn their pickup into a bugout vehicle. The very first response was “buy a bicycle.”

  14. Had already picked this up along with Brilliance a few days ago (based off raves about Brilliance and their low price), now I think I need to bump both up in the TBR pile…

  15. Poo. just found out that both books are published by Amazon publishing. So non-nook/kindle formats are unavailable.

  16. I presume that Calibre can reformat them for you; Calibre can even turn things into ancient ebook formats like .lit and .pdb. It’s free, even, and available for pretty much every platform. . And no, I’m not affiliated with them in any way; I’m just a fan.

  17. Follow-up question for Marcus: so, do you still feel that people who try to prepare for disaster are crazy?

  18. Brief warning about Calibre: Amazon ebooks are encrypted using the credit card number used to purchase them. (I know, right?) You need to enter the number into Calibre in order for it to decrypt the book. I’ve heard a lot of people using Calibre, and I’ve used it once without it coming back to haunt me, but it’s worth knowing this information ahead of time.

  19. Maybe I suffer from an underdeveloped suspension of disbelief, but the blurb has just ruined the book for me. There’s no way that insurance companies would pull up stakes just because of a few murders (however gruesome), or that, if they tried to, the government would allow the situation to become a full blown crisis. Hell, even if I could believe that both the insurance companies and the the government would fall down so badly, I couldn’t believe the competent individuals would not simply step in and drive the rigs themselves, insurance, government, and distant legal liability be damned.

    The fact that the author makes such a big deal about his research, and then gets this kind of thing so hilariously wrong doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book.

  20. Yeah, what Jeff said is exactly how I felt as well. Humans are a little bit more resilient than that.

  21. Have any of you read Rebecca Solnit’s book about the improvised communities that spring up in the wake of disasters, ‘A Paradise Built In Hell’? It’s pretty fascinating. Her argument is that by and large people look after one another when the shit dramatically hits the fan. The people who freak out – and sometimes make things very, VERY much worse – are bureaucrats and elites, and sometimes (e.g. re Katrina) the media. Worth a read.

    (Marcus’s book looks worth reading too!)

  22. I didn’t notice that an excerpt existed, and wouldn’t have skimmed it if I hadn’t seen complaint(s) about “that’s not how it works.”
    I’ve a smattering of knowledge of applied physics and, important here? I’ve met a few people (applied smile and nod, too often). It’s been a few hours, and I recall the character who got it so wrong as /not/ being named Levi and whether it is good or bad for the book that the character shows a very good understanding of electricity for somebody with a doctorate in communications depends on that _character_.

    Somewhere, I recall seeing a complaint: “[Mike said it was blue and Sara said it was black! It can’t be both! How could the author screw up so horribly!]”

  23. I always find it interesting that the same research into the same topics can lead to such drastically different scenarios. Counting single novels and series I’ve destroyed civilization as we know it (TM) about five times, by five different means, and so I’ve been back to the well of research to smash the world five times. (About six more times in short stories, too, while I’m at it).

    And the overwhelming impression I came back with is of tremendous robustness, redundancy, and ability to rebound. I don’t see pulling out one little pin and the whole thing comes down; rather than a delicate rain forest orchid, I see something more like kudzu, tumbleweeds, or mountain lichen, all but impossible to kill. (One reason why I tend to prefer to pound the snot out of civilization in my fiction; it takes a lot to kill that thing).

    I’ll be quite happy if we never experimentally confirm which of us is right about this. I’m fond of my comforts and have too many people I like that I would hate to lose. But I just find it interesting that people can read the same basic sources, play with the same basic ideas, and end up with such divergent takes on it. Probably demonstrates that this is why there needs to be more than one writer in the world (another example of redundancy!)

    Come to think of it, there’s an idea for an alt history. Say this 19th century — steampunkish sort of guy, maybe an engineer or machinist? maybe from somewhere in New England? — goes back to King Arthur’s time, and decides he wants to change things toward modernity, but finds he can’t because medieval civilization is just too homeostatic, stable, and rugged … where, say, another writer might have him step on a butterfly and change the results of an election millennia later …

  24. Of the many things which are absolutely necessary to the functioning of modern society, liability insurance is not to be found among them.

    For one thing, as others have noted, this isn’t the sort of thing against which the carriers carry insurance anyway. But on top of that, even if the insurance companies collectively said “okay, we’re going to stop writing new policies and illegal cancel all policies already in force”, the actual real-world effects would be relatively small. The trucking carriers don’t own all those trucks – there are a lot of individual owner-operators who would keep driving (doubtless armed to the teeth, but hey). And on top of that, the large networks that do own their trucks, and for which the drivers are employees, generally have poor control over those trucks. If big shipping lines said “okay, we’re going to utterly close down operations nationwide because our insurer dropped us, you’re all fired and we want the truck back”, how many drivers would comply? How many of them would take the truck and keep driving, especially in a situation where they could make more money as hazard pay from companies that needed their product to move?

    Doubtless there would be legal tangles to handle afterward, but that’s hardly something that could bring down civilization; in fact only in stable situations could it possibly matter, because in emergencies you simply won’t get the police or the courts to care. If the shelves are bare and people near riot, are cops going to pull over trucks full of food because they don’t have the right paperwork?

    Besides, we already have the proper response to attacks on lone shippers – you implement a convoy system. With modern communications, it would probably only be a matter of hours to self-organize the first convoys, at which point the insurers are happy again and disaster is averted. And many a wolf pack found that a convoy under escort was a harder target than a lone vessel…

  25. I see people have already taken out the liability insurance crisis plot point.

    Hate to break it to you but a man thinking oh my god, what should I do, the store is out of babyfood is …. a man thinking of what-ifs in front of a computer.

    90% of what we use we can make at home. How do you think babies got fed after they were weaned but before they had teeth in all the centuries before processed food companies? That’s right, women made baby food at home.

    From a very good high-end cooking blog: “There are all sorts of products out there for people who want to make their own baby food at home, and for each of them, a legion of parents who swear by them….At least in the early stages, I’m making almost all of my purées in stockpots and saucepans. Sometimes I’ll use a steamer basket (or an ad-hoc-ed one, from a mesh colander), but most of the time I’m just simmering foods until they get soft enough not to offend a certain 7 month old’s sensibilities. (I am joking, of course. This baby gleefully eats his shag carpet.) Down the road, I expect to be doing more roasting, on old baking sheets and roasting pans. And even further down the road, I plan to use my slow-cooker like it’s going out of style to get all of those stewy, flavorful dishes that will easily purée…..”

    Without electric food processors it’s more work, that’s all. But every meal every human ever ate that was cooked was cooked over an open fire until the 18th century (when the French invented the cooking range).

    I think it’s not the lack of our latest creature comforts that make civilization fragile, it would be the destruction of the natural world around us. And we’re killing it with nary a care in the world.

  26. 90% of what we use we can make at home

    It’s the other 10% that makes any idea of the destruction/devolution of civilisation scare the crap out of me, along with (I suspect), all the other people out there dependent on medication/s.

    The devil’s in the details of course but generally speaking I simply wouldn’t survive an apocalypse, period. Still enjoy reading about them of course… :)

  27. Having now read the book (no spoilers here!) I stand by my earlier assessment – this was a premise that could have done with more research. For those looking into books with similar settings, I recommend finding someone who lived through a natural disaster (hurricane, earthquake, storm, etc) with large scale power outages. Conn in 2011, Ike in 2007 or Tenn in 2003 were storms that caused road blockages as well as taking out powerlines. Homestead after Andrew would be a good choice for people wanting to get a pre-9/11 perspective. (And it’s not like powerfailures only happen in the USA.) The book also suffered from what I think of as an ‘urban-progressive federal-level tunnel vision’ – not paying enough attention to the many layers between DC and the street level.

    Having said all that – once the action got going, it was an interesting and fast read.

  28. In spite of the majority of comments here, I liked the author’s description in this post and immediately borrowed the book from my local library. Thanks for the recommendation! Started reading last night – seems like a good book for this summer heat wave.

  29. Speaking of getting basic research wrong – the idea that you can just feed a baby anything milky instead of formula is information that’s not only bad for a story (trucks can’t bring in formula, but they can still haul cow and goat milk?) but dangerous.

    Formula exists because mammals don’t all produce the same type of milk. Cow, goat and human milk are not fungible. Soy milk is not milk at all, and the head of one soy milk company served jail time for claiming that soy milk was a substitute for formula (a claim he backpedaled on rather quickly when the feds got involved, and the reason your box of soymilk says it’s not to be used as infant formula). As for human milk, pretty sure they don’t sell it, or rent nursemaids, at Safeway, and humans don’t lactate on command. Solids are fine for older babies, but then, parents of children that age aren’t going to be rioting if the shelves are empty.

    So no, I don’t have any suspension of disbelief issue with the idea that a parent with a very young infant would reasonably freak the hell out to find out there isn’t any formula available and won’t be for the predictable future, and not because they were acting like picky children given the wrong candy. I do have Raised Eyebrow issues with the liability insurance thing, but that’s already been adequately discussed at length.

  30. My siblings and I were born before commercial infant formula was widely used but also during the time when breast-feeding was considered ooh yuck. Parents made their own formula, using cow’s milk and Karo syrup. I still remember my dad mixing it. All eight of us grew and prospered, as did the vast majority of other children of our era. So it’s not like cow’s milk will poison kids if there’s no Similac.

    To be fair to the author, I read the sample available at Amazon, and the father in question, on finding no formula on the shelves, went right to the dairy case–no milk–and then the baking aisle–no evaporated milk. He didn’t dissolve into a puddle of helpless because no formula. I have problems with other aspects of how the author describes grocery store stocking practices, and then there are the things others here have brought up. But while I was prepared to snark mightily at the “Oh noes, no formula!” aspect, it really isn’t made that much of in the book. It’s a sentence or two, to hook the reader’s interest.

  31. @mythos and BW –

    I agree, the formula thing was both less of an issue and handled better than it could have been. What threw me back out of the book was the reaction of the mom of said infant – just sitting and waiting for formula to show up, and not on the phone with her mom circle talking about the issue. It was also a disappointment to me that once the problem was solved, there never was a case of trying to help anyone else.

  32. “it’s not like cow’s milk will poison [most] kids if there’s no Similac.”


    3% of infants — I was one of them — are allergic to the proteins in cow’s milk, which is the base of a lot of commercial infant formulas; many of them will also react badly to sheep’s or goat’s milk. It can take up to 10 days after introduction to realize that a parent’s dealing with an allergy, and vomiting and bloody stools in an infant? Fun!

  33. The book is the sequel to last year’s Brilliance, a novel about an alternate present in which, since 1980, one percent of people are born savants. At first the ‘brilliants’ are a curiosity; then a concern; and finally, as they exceed the rest of us in every field, a source of incredible social tension. One percent of the world is now objectively better than the rest—but they are outnumbered 99-to-1.

    And this is the point at which I noped out of reading this post. I hold two Cambridge degrees and am working toward my PhD, and I take deep, immediate and abiding issue with the idea that outstanding excellence in one specific task means that someone is “objectively better”. As in, skin crawling. Quite aside from which, I am entirely unconvinced that staggering brilliance in narrowly-focussed areas would cause the kind of upheaval that’s described. But mostly, just ew ew ew no, especially ESPECIALLY with the really… troubled history of the term “savant”.

  34. Yeah, I went back and read the sample, and it was teeth-grindingly bad on multiple levels (reference to the “national institute [singular] of health”, portrayal of the president’s cabinet as a bunch of stove-piped idiots [plausible, but not plausibly presented], and the bit about only savant hackers being able to break the government software protocols [my own area of expertise] all set me off). Again, maybe my suspension of disbelief is just sub-par, but this seemed pretty poorly written on most technical measures, which I just can’t accept in a technical thriller.

    We already live in a world where some fair fraction of the population is at least 10 times better than their peers at specific tasks (this is well established in software engineering, but it seems self evident that it is true in many fields), and this doesn’t cause significant social strife or tension. Even if the “savants” were 100 or 1000 times “better” than average people, we’ve already got 1000:1 differences in wealth and income (if not even greater) and it doesn’t lead to apocalyptic social collapse.

    Weak sauce.

  35. keranih: Was there any banding together in the face of adversity? Because I live in Chicago, and I know what happens when there are major blizzards. People help other people. And I know what happens when there are week-long power outages. People help other people. And I know what happens when there are massive floods. People help other people. And not just professional helpers. Ordinary people with ordinary lives.

    I’ve seen pictures of people running extension cords out to the street so perfect strangers could charge their phones. After 9-11 shoe store owners were handing out athletic shoes to women who had to walk miles home in high heels.

    Yes, there are pockets of chaos, there are assholes and “I’ve got mine, Jack”s, but in my experience, after any major disaster or disruption? People help each other.

  36. Nope. I am in the food logistics industry, and while I would love to read an sf novel that dealt with the food supply chain, this isn’t that book. Sorry.

  37. Cally – Yeap. That sort of thing exactly. People checking on other people, asking for and offering assistance. People being very visible to each other. Dozens of lines of intersection – using our formula example – lone retired men would note announcement or gossip about available formula and would pass that info on to moms/families. Inside the neighborhood, moms would share out formula – cut it with whole milk, if needed, to make it last longer – and go door to door asking for donations to the pool.

    And a bunch of someones would be making supply runs and selling the extras – someone would know someone who knew someone. It happens nearly every year someplace along the Gulf coast or Carolinas.

    Mass panic and looting in the streets (or even fighting at the super market) wouldn’t be realistic, but what was in the book wasn’t either.

    As for formula vs cow milk – formula’s not exactly perfectly exchangeable with human milk, either. We are not anywhere near the place where we can gene-engineer human milk and then can it (or dehydrate it) for formula.

  38. @BW: Starbucks Frappucinos aren’t poison, either, and in a situation where it’s that or starve, the Frappucino is better, but I doubt many people would say that a parent who gave their kid Similac instead of a latte is just being a fussbudget. Evaporated milk and corn syrup was indeed a common formula, but nutritionally incomplete, with renal issues, iron deficiency and scurvy problems in addition to issues for babies who did not tolerate cow’s milk. As keranih says, formula isn’t identical to human milk, but it is much closer than soy milk or evaporated cow’s milk mixed with liquid sugar – and, of course, if the food supply is interrupted, you’re not going to be finding store shelves bare of formula but well-stocked with Karo and Vitasoy.

    (Also, you do know that “MY parents did X and WE turned out okay so X is fine” is one of the secret codephrases of fuddyduddyhood – welcome, fellow old grump!)

    Which I guess is a long way of saying that I lack suspension of disbelief over others’ lack of suspension of disbelief about the formula thing. What I took away from that was the author’s trying to show the fear and panic that would be created by an interruption in the food supply. It’s one thing if I can’t buy food at the grocery store; I’m an adult, and even if I didn’t have some disaster prep going on, I can probably survive for a while on canned beans and stale Cheerios or whatever else I have in my house. But if I can’t feed my infant child? That’s a whole different layer of panic.

  39. @mythago: For me, and for many others in the thread, the basic concept is pegging the BS meter. More so in the past few days in my case, having heard a long and interesting discussion on NPR regarding “terrorism insurance” and how many large companies now carry it. I would be very surprised if Wal-Mart, Kroger and SuperValu (the three biggest grocers in the nation, whether under their own name or others) don’t already carry that or something like it.

    And in the off-chance they don’t, and the scenario posited came to pass? We have these things, State by State, called the National Guard and the Air National Guard. Doesn’t matter how supposedly pusillanimous and/or paralyzed the Federal government might be; these folks are under the command of their own State governments, by law. They have trucks, they have aircraft, and they have weapons. (Unless one wants to go down the pseudo-libertarian rabbit hole of GOVT IS EVIL AND INKOPETENT of course; I have little doubt otherwise that we would get the goods to where they needed to be, even in extremis.)

    I think the philosophical term is “false premise.”

  40. Wow, the comments are harsh! Sakey didn’t get his science right so f*** his story? If you read the story and didn’t like it, yea, ok, harsh on it. Otherwise you’re talking out your back flaps. Simplifying the science behind a story so that, you know, an actual, entertaining story can be told is good craftsmanship. Rumor even has it that our host has skipped lightly over background details – or so I’ve heard.

    Brilliance was a good read so I gave this story a chance and, well, I liked it. Good story telling and kudos to Mr. Sakey. I look forward to your next.

  41. @Ambivalent: By me, it’s not a matter of getting ‘science’ wrong but of getting REALITY wrong. I have the same problem, in microscale, when reading the late Tom Clancy in several cases: i.e., the US Air Force does not have Corporal as a rank, US Coast Guard ships are not captained by Captains (O6), etc.

    But this isn’t micro, it’s macro. For the scenario to work, NOW or in the not-too-distant future, it assumes (and feebly attempts to address) total incompetence and/or gridlock at the Federal level, it ignores resources at the State level, and as noted above it doesn’t give much credit to human/American decency. (Nor practicality: I used to sail for one of the two shipping lines that provide Alaska with something like 80% of its consumer goods and vital supplies – rubber ducks to fire trucks. I know from supply lines, and I know what would happen if one of those shippers suddenly went under. You think the auto industry bailout was huge, you ain’t seen nothin’.)

    At some point, the suspenders of disbelief lose their elasticity – and go *SNAP*.

    (Harlan Ellison described it perfectly in his review of the movie OUTLAND – the idea seems plausible and the action carries you through it, but 5 minutes after it ends, you’re thinking “Wait, WHAT?!”)

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but The Big Idea does not seem to be intended as a forum for writers to plug their work without criticism. And I suspect most if not all of the writers who throw their names into that hat appreciate that fact.

  42. @Don. Nope, criticism is good and if the story doesn’t work for you then it doesn’t and I am interested in hearing why even as a Sakey fan.

    What made me all prickly is some of the commenters in the string declaring the story to be crap based upon The Big Idea intro. Don’t want to read it?, that’s cool. But taking time to publicly crap on the story without having read it? Hmmm.

    Oh, and I agree with your take on the over simplification of the supply system, being peripherally involved in it myself. It just wasn’t a big enough fault in my mind to pull me out of an otherwise interesting story and, if you’ve read Sakey’s non SF work, you will see that he writes some really ugly personalities into his characters. Strong characters but decency and happy endings are hard to find.

    Thanks for taking time to post a response.

  43. I will frankly state that the description, not by Scalzi but by the author, put me right off, aside from my earlier points. I am well tired of “hard” SF, where “hard” means A) ‘here are lots of equations to back up my premise’ and/or B) ‘A certain percentage of us are WAY smarter than the rest of the hoi polloi and should therefore be running the universe.’

    (Go look up “Dunning-Kreuger Effect” for info on the latter.)

    Further, deponent sayeth not. (H/T Harlan Ellison.)

  44. Anybody notice similarities to Atlas Shrugged, Fountain Head? Same philosophies, breadth, depth, cliches even?

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