Aug 172015

Last time, I pontificated on what would happen after the events of the recent disaster movie “San Andreas.” This time… the decided non-classic 2008 remake “The Day The Earth Stood Still.”

A recap: in the original 1951 version of the film, mankind is beginning to tinker with space rockets and H-bombs. Humanity had been under observation by a galaxy-spanning civilization prior to this; they had been satisfied to leave us to our own devices prior to this, but now that we might pose a threat, an emissary was sent to give a message to Earth. The message was simple:

Little Bunny Foo Foo

The aliens don’t care what we do, so long as we don’t spread out troubles off-world. If we grow up, we can join the larger civilization; if we don’t, they’re perfectly capable and willing to simply erase us. To display their power, alien technomagic is used to shut down all human electrical systems across the planet, except for things like hospitals and airplanes. This is a temporary blackout to bop humanity upside the head. Power comes back on, alien flies off with a “don’t be a dumbass” message, credits roll.

In the 1951 original, the aliens are kinda dicks (lets face it: humanity armed with gigaton-yield H-bombs and 10,000-ton Orion battleships poses precisely no threat to the aliens given their vast technological superiority), but their motives are understandable and they demonstrate an unwillingness to kill unnecessarily.

But then there’s the 2008 remake.

In the remake, the aliens aren’t here to deliver a message. That task was left up to the film makers: the remake isn’t a warning about militarism and nuclear power, but rather about how evil and stupid humanity is for trashing the environment. The alien plan is to go straight to wiping out humanity. The reason? There are extremely few life-bearing planets in the universe, humans have messed up this one, so we are to be wiped out to let terrestrial life get on without us. The mechanism of the apocalypse is rather confounding, however. The aliens have a form of very small self-replicating robots that eat anything and make more of themselves. Not quite nanotechnology (the robots seem to be about the size of gnats), but the result is still a “gray goo” where cars and buildings and people and trees are converted into more little robots. Given the abilities of the aliens, you’d expect that the robots would eat all the people an all our stuff, but no: the robots are going to eat *everything.* The plan is to shave the entire biosphere down to bedrock, stripping the world of all life. The aliens would then re-seed the Earth with selected species that they have spirited away to safety in a few little “arks.”

Yeah. It really is that dumb. In order to save the Earth, they are going to wipe it out and start again, and just sorta hope that the limited lifeforms will be able to successfully take root and restore the planet.

So in 1951, the aliens are a bit dickish. In 2008… they are monsters. Worse, they’re *dumb* monsters. Given  their power, you’d think they’d ignore Earth and use their gray goo to terraform Mars and Venus… turn the Venusian atmosphere into a vast collection of carbon based fusion engines that can not only speed up the planets rotation to give it a reasonable day, but also move it away from the sun a bit. Shoot a whole lot of stuff from Venus to Mars. Build similar fusion engines on Europa and move it out of Jovian orbit and shove it in-system. Wander past Mars while chucking a good fraction of the water ice onto Mars to give it a real hydrosphere. Drop Europa into Venusian orbit, transfer more water to the planet. In the end, turn three dead worlds into three living worlds.

But… no. Because life is so rare and precious, the aliens are going to kill all life on Earth because they’re annoyed with one species.


Anyway, what actually happens in the movie? Well, the roboswarm is unleashed on the East coast (Virgina, I believe) and begins to eat its way to New York City. It’s shown converting a football stadium, trucks on the highway and other human-occupied vehicles and structures into more little robots. The swarm gets to Central Park and starts eating everything when the aliens change their minds, shut the swarm off, and take off. As they go, more technomagic used to shut down human machinery across the entire planet. Roll credits.

So, what happens next? Well, it can go two ways, based on your assumptions about that shutdown magic: is it a short-term phenomenon, lasting maybe a few hours, or is it permanent? As memory serves, some mention is given that this might be a permanent issue. So, let’s go with that.

What all shuts down? Clearly, all electrical and electronic systems shut down. But it also appears that non-electrical systems also stop. What looks like an old-school mechanical wristwatch is shown to have stopped. An oil refinery is shown shutting down… including a “flare” that simply stops burning. It would seem that the alien technomagic is really quite powerful.

So, mankind loses all out stuff. Given how bloodthirsty these aliens are, you can assume that the hospitals also shut down. Everyone currently opened up on operating tables can be assumed to be dead in a few moments. Airliners soon begin dropping from the sky. Crews of submarines suffocate. Crew and passengers on ships at sea start dying within a few days.

There is no food transport, so cities quickly devolve into horror zones. Of course, on the East Coast of the US, entire counties have simply ceased to exist, replaced with bedrock covered with a layer several yards thick of dead micro-robots. On the edge of that field of destruction would be horrors straight out of Lovecraft: people and animals consumed to greater or lesser degrees stuck in buildings converted to Swiss cheese. Survivors have to deal not only with the ragged edges of eaten-off bits, but also their bodies being full of multitudes of sharp-edged dead microbots.

Blood and screams everywhere.

Chemical factories and storage facilities on the edge of the swarm are toxic nightmares since the pipes and tanks have been partially consumed, letting fun stuff like hydrofluoric acid and the like spill out. Oil refineries and storage tanks are apocalyptic nightmares. Any nuclear powerplants that have been partially consumed can be expected to melt down in short order.

Longer term: a massive crash in human population. If the alien technomagic continues long-term, anything more advanced than steam power – and perhaps not even that – won’t work. This means tractors. No modern fertilizers. No food processing facilities. So never mind the trouble in transporting food… there won’t *be* any food.

The aliens ill-conceived mission was to save terrestrial life from the ravages of mankind. But after the power goes out… a lot of species would find themselves on the verge of extinction. Take a major city like Tokyo. Even though they will have no news from the outside world – (the last anyone heard from the TV, the aliens had unleashed some sort of nightmare in the US and now the power is down and even flashlights don’t work) – the people of Tokyo will, after a few days, largely come to understand that rescue ain’t coming. Tens of millions of people wholly dependent upon technology that no longer works would strip the city bare of processed food in a few days. And once all the canned veggies and packaged ramen and dehydrated kaiju has been consumed, there will still be millions of people who need to eat. People will start flooding out into the countryside seeking food. And what will they find? Farms. Unless the farmers are able to defend their farms – an unlikely prospect – the starving hordes will consume all the critters. Farms and ranches are able to support humanity because the critters are harvested in a rational, sustainable fashion, but in a world without power, people will slaughter what the find, when they find it.

Cows. Sheep. Pigs. Dogs. Cats. Horses. Deer. Chickens. All will soon be on the edge of extinction, and several will very likely go over the edge.

And then winter sets in.

You want to stay warm? Guess what you won’t be using: heating oil, electricity, even coal. All gone. So if you want warmth, that means burning stuff. What will there be to burn? Well, lumber and paper and building supplies and building, at least for a while. But how many home are equipped with proper fireplaces or wood burning stoves these days? If the cities haven’t burned to the ground, you can bet that a whole bunch of them will explode come winter. Forests will be chopped down just as fast as human labor can handle it.

And then summer comes… with no air conditioning or electric fans or water. Three cheers for heat stroke and cholera!

And all those nuclear reactors, sitting idle with no power to run their cooling systems? Meltdowns. Lots of ’em. With absolutely no way to deal with them, they will explode, burst into flame and remain glowing radioactive sores for the duration.

So, in short: the population crashes 90, 95% in the first year or so. What about long term?

Human society will be forever mutilated. Many regions will be in the dark about what happened, with perhaps not even a rumor about aliens. All they’ll know is that the power went out and they can’t get it back on. Most of the planet will know something about the aliens, and will be able to put two and two together. Much of the industrialized world will know a fair deal about the aliens, including the fact that an alien weapon was in the process of consuming the eastern seaboard when the lights went out. Their descendants will tell tales of the demons from the sky that came down and ended the Golden Age. Humans will *hate* and fear the aliens and incorporate that into new myths and religions.

An important point was that Klaatu the alien told a human woman and child what it was all about, about how humanity needed to get its act together. But this message is almost certain to not spread. The two are left alone in the meddle of Central Park, surrounded by a New York City that has been largely devastated by the roboswarm. It’s by no means certain that these two will even live to meet another human. Manhattan has been trashed; there’s likely nobody else left on the island. the bridges are probably eaten away, the tunnels flooded. Unless there are boats, they’re probably stuck there, on an island with no buildings that are not structurally compromised, with a good chance of no access to food and clean water. Additionally, they are surrounded by many square miles of the dead microbots. These little beasts are built like insects… insects composed of sharp edges and blades. When the wind blows, the air will be filled with microscopic razor blades. These two survivors will probably drown in their own blood by the end of the day as every breath brings in more little razors to chop up their lungs. So the aliens message will be lost on humanity: aliens showed up, butchered tens of millions of Americans, and then vanished.

Humans are reasonably clever. It’s possible that technology will survive here and there… perhaps the technomagic doesn’t work underwater or in deeply buried facilities. Perhaps the technomagic can be countered: one of the first things people will try is surrounding simple electrical devices with Faraday cages. Perhaps that will work, or some other countermeasure will function. If so, human society might survive in some recognizable, albeit limited, form. And if so, preparing mankind for the return of the aliens will be the main concern after simple survival. So if the aliens show up again a century or two later to see how things are going, to see if humanity has turned into nature freaks living at one with Mother Gaia, they might find a largely depopulated world stripped of much of it’s forests, with vast swathes of radioactive ruin, bristling with weapons – nukes, lasers, missiles, etc. – shielded against the alien technomagic. If the aliens unleash another roboswarm, humanity may well have discovered a way to simply shut it off. But even if so, the aliens are sure to still be far in advance of mankind; the fight will still be decidedly one-sided. But int he process, the planet will be wholly trashed.

In short: Aliens come to save life on Earth, because life is so rare and precious. In the end, they ruin the surface of the planet because they (in actuality, the writers) are monumentally dimwitted.

 Posted by at 6:51 pm
  • brightlight

    S.M Stirling’s ‘Emberverse’ series has Alien Space Bats shutting down electricity, many chemical reactions relating to gunpowder, steam power, etc. How and why and never really answer.

    And then the series gets weird.

    • Tango_Charlie

      I remember reading an Emberversefic a while back that was nothing but “Everything dies because physics has changed”.

      • Scottlowther

        Any technomagic that makes gunpowder no longer combust will almost certainly screw with many chemical reactions needed for life.

        Many years ago I had some dealings with someone claiming to be sterling. He did not impress… From what I gleaned, this “emberverse” would fit in with that guys politics – guns are bad, only those trained in martial arts are worthy of being allowed to defend themselves. Bah.

        • brightlight

          This is the guy that created the ‘Draka’.

          Its been awhile since I read the first book but I think he did touch on the fact that without power a lot more than the lights would be impacted. Little things like the medications people take each day. All the cardiac, AIDS cocktails, insulin are gone. You’ll have a huge die off just from that.

          I also remember that you didn’t want to be anywhere near a city because once the food ran out people would turn to the nearest remaining source: ‘long pig’.

          • sferrin

            “Long pig” LOL Reminds me of a scene in Supernatural.

          • Siergen

            He’s up to the second generation born after the “Change” now. In the first book, one of the characters is an engineer who does some basic experiments to see what still works.

            The engineer remarks (as I recall) at the level of control that whoever is limiting technology must be able to wield. Boiling water in a geyser still expands explosively, but boiling water in a man-made sealed tank won’t burst the tank. Similarly, lightning still works as usual, but won’t flow down a copper wire connected to a lighting rod.

          • Herp McDerp

            Yup, after the Change, more than ninety percent of the population dies, including just about everyone over the age of forty. The Change also seems to mess with people’s minds a bit … I mean, even more than you’d expect from their altered circumstances.

            Here be spoilers!

            I’ve read the first set of novels and skimmed parts of the later books. There are strong hints that the characters either are living in a simulation or (more likely) are copies of their “original” selves in an artificially created tailored universe. The Alien Space Bats are our descendants, and they’re also responsible for what happened to Nantucket in Island in the Sea of Time. (In fact, a couple of characters from Island make a guest appearance.)

          • Scottlowther

            That reminds me… in the late 1990’s I had an INGENIOUS IDEA for a novel that I simply threw away when I heard about “Island in the Sea of Time.” In my story, due to bad planning the Earth is kinda split in two… Eastern hemisphere and Western. One day there is a Mighty Flash, and everybody wandering around America suddenly realizes that we’ve lost communications with the East. When the satellites overhead pass beyond the horizon, they’re not replaced with the one that were over the Eastern hemisphere when the flash happened. We’ve lost half our space assets. Finally some weather and spy satellites get a look at Europe and Asia and Africa and find that something has gone *really* wrong… Lots and lots of forest, some farmland, a few low-tech cities and a bunch of towns. Word finally comes in from Iceland… the island got cut cleanly in half, with some major geological funniness along the split-line… and with the eastern side of the island populated by Norse-speaking barbarians. Naval expeditions get to Britain and Japan and find that in that hemisphere, it is approximately the year 1000.

            At the same time, a major flash int he sky for the peoples of Europe and Asia; they lose communications with America. long story short, they find North and South America populated by Mayans and Inca and the like, also the year 1000-ish.

            The rest of the novel would tell two separate stories, how each “world” handles their predicament. In the modern-America version, the US is *clearly* the top dog, so the remnants of the US Navy are able, more or less, to enforce a blockade on the eastern hemisphere to keep modern people from plundering the primitive eastern hemisphere. A sort of “prime directive” is put into place to allow the East to develop on its own… more or less. The sudden appearance of satellites in the night sky can’t help but change things.

            Things would be different in the Modern East world, with no clear dominant superpower. Everybody in the modern world would have maps of the mineral wealth available in the Americas, and there’d be a land rush as former colonial power try to grab what they can… joined by the likes of Japan and China and India and whatnot.Wacky hijinks ensue. American civilians and military forces deployed to the Eastern hemisphere have to decide just what they’re going to do with themselves. Britain’s population suddenly spikes.

            And then I read about “Islands.” Drat.

          • Herp McDerp

            I think you’d enjoy Robert Charles Wilson’s Darwinia. The basic premise starts similarly — half the world disappears and is replaced by something else — but then veers off in an entirely different direction. There’s a fairly good summary (with spoilers) on Wikipedia at … Recommended.

          • Scottlowther

            Read that years ago. That sudden zing into left field took me by surprise…

          • publiusr

            I kinda like the idea that Water is no longer H2O–but just..water. It can’t be split. Rock cannot be cracked into oxygen. Super stability in materials.

        • Brianna

          I’ve read most of Stirling’s books, and while I can’t honestly claim I ever talked to the guy, based on his books I highly doubt he’s the sort who thinks technology and guns are automatically bad. If he’d been the sort, he wouldn’t have been so frank about all the violence and chaos that technology dying introduced into the world. I think he just likes to play out alternate history and “what if” scenarios. And while I agree some of the means by which he starts those “what if” scenarios are pretty bizarre (alien space bats magically kill all efficient energy sources needed to fuel technology), the subsequent “what happens next” parts are always well done.

          • Scottlowther

            > while I can’t honestly claim I ever talked to the guy

            Me neither, it was over Usenet or some such. And of course you can never be sure that the person you’re communicating with via test is actually who they claim to be.

          • Herp McDerp

            Stirling posts as “joatsimeon” in various alt-history venues, including Usenet.

          • S.M. Stirling

            I’m actually sort of a technophile, in real-world terms.

            The books are -fictions-, not screeds, interesting settings for adventure and thought-experiments.

            And adventure, as the saying goes, is someone else utterly in the crap, far far away. Plus you should keep in mind the old saying about “interesting times”.

        • publiusr

          If I had to weaken any other planet’s threat to Earth and I had all that Handwavium technomagic –I’d just beam all the valuable stuff out of the surface within easy mining depth–replace with rock–and leave them with agriculture. A more eco-friendly world devastator.

          No need to come in later to kill and destroy.
          I think there is a TV series where martial arts is all that’s left–well–that and the crossbow.

  • xvdougl

    Well you have the outline for a far better movie. Sounds like a dystopian fun for all. Gort and Ted’s unintended adventure.

  • Can’t say I’m a big fan of the genre as a whole, mostly because of the logical gaps that get hand waved away. In all of these “hundreds of millions of people drop dead and die” scenarios, no one ever discusses what happens to the bodies. There would be millions of tons of corpses and I would imagine the disease and vermin would be quite literally uncontrollable. This is assuming society collapses before there can be any attempt at organized burials.

    I know, I know, it’s a movie/novel, not a textbook. But still . . .

  • outsider

    I hate Hollywood.

  • Rick

    what I get from these is: powerful race with a history of weapons development feels threatened by another race. The powerful ones claim moral superiority but already have both the capability AND the will to carry out genocide. These things do not arise in a vacuum. Leading one to believe that their “peace” is thru simply eradicating all possible dissent.

    No one gets “warriors” or becomes skilled in the arts of killing fellow sentient beings without practice. those so-called “peaceful” tribes everyone sings kumbaya about always have a “warrior” class-sometimes rolled into a “hunter” class but always more elite.

    One does not become a warrior without practice killing other humans. Which is the opposite of “peaceful”.

    I can’t remember the short story title or the writer, some golden age stuff with “atomic piles” for the engines. Basically the galaxy is policed by an extremely powerful, mysterious and technologically advanced race (kinda like Vorlons now that I think about it) who enforce the rules to all the other sentient species in the area. They declare some tasty worlds off limits to colonization, and explicitly forbid Humans from going there.

    Well, the plucky Humans go there anyway (I think they were unaware of the prohibition until they’d travelled years already) face a blockade of the enforcer race, and even though their big colony ships were unarmed, decided to go anyway rather than die meekly. (Might’ve been Niven because they did use what became later called “the Kzinti Lesson” in the Known Space universe).

    Anyways, broken, battered but still hanging on, ships make it through. the scary enforcers show up with more fleets and basically say “congratulations, you’re persistent enough to get the nice colony systems, and stubborn enough to take over the enforcer job”. Which the current enforcer species had done in their turn, and so on, as each passes the torch and technology along to the next.

    I miss when sci fi used to be about the *best* of humanity instead of nothing but the *worst* for the last few decades.

    • Scottlowther

      The story sounds vaguely familiar, but I can’t place it.

    • Paul451

      Roger Dee Aycock’s The Interlopers.

      • Rick

        that’s it! thanks

  • B-Sabre

    There was a similar story I read awhile back – aliens, a bit less advanced that those in this movie, decide to pull the nuclear fangs on Earth, pretty much by direct military action. They eliminate all nuclear weapons and facilities, and then seed the Earth with a “chemical” that prevents high-energy or high-pressure reactions. (This was the 1950’s, so no nanotechnology. How the chemical renews itself is not made clear.) The civilization collapses, massive die-off, and the usual hijinks. Thirty years later they come back. The US is in the process of reconquering Europe from the Asiatic hordes, using pikemen, arbalests, and steam-powered “centrifugal guns”. Back in the US, turbine-powered trucks and computers are in use in a “low-energy” civilization. The aliens observe this, and decide to establish contact. The problem is that the humans have decided that they obviously can’t beat the aliens technologically, so they’ve invested in “psychometry” (the old Hari Selden science of Arthur C. Clarke) and are carefully observing the aliens, and are laying plans to eventually overthrow these arrogant, callous bastards….

  • Phil

    Yeah, but that movie had the best polygraph scene I’ve ever seen.

  • Bibidiboop

    Three things, in the original story I believe it is implied that Klaatu, and all of galactic society is actually under the dominion of Gort and robots like it. That was left out of the movie, obviously, but it’s an interesting difference.

    Second, there is actually a theory which a friend of mine came up with which makes The Day the Earth Stood Still remake into an amazing movie. I’ll quote some old posts of mine from elsewhere.

    “I’m in love with the explanation that political inertia drove those
    aliens to the action they took. In real life, it’s often easier to enact
    new laws than it is to eliminate old ones, especially with factions,
    such as a planetary clean up company, putting all its weight into not
    changing the law.

    “So, at one point they wanted to preserve life bearing planets, because
    at some past point they actually were highly valuable, and they created a
    contact and test protocol to preserve those worlds against native life
    forms. But tech changed to where any world can be made life bearing, and
    the laws didn’t catch up; star travel became extremely frightening to
    natives, but the space federation doesn’t realize it, because they
    completely take it for granted as normal and non-scary; the faction
    which handles first contact doesn’t want to give its power up; factions
    too cheap to build new worlds or convert dead worlds, want native life
    bearing world species dead, so their factions can take the cheap world;
    greedy, bigoted, or power hungry species don’t want new species getting
    into the federation, so they make sure the entry test doesn’t change, or
    that it gets harder; as a whole the public doesn’t care, thanks to the
    normal reasons.”

    Lastly, one result of all high energy technology shutting off is a massive, possibly cannibalistic, human wave emerging from every high population zone. If we assume the average person can travel 20 miles per day, and they’ll starve to death in maybe two weeks (14 days), then the wave will cover 280 miles.

    “Dies the Fire” by Stirling goes over the topic rather well. Although his series gets worse as it goes on, in this humble reader’s opinion.