Tag Archives: Science Fiction

What a Quaint Idea

S. prepared to leave his hermetically sealed house for work. Outside, the great city of Delhi, also known as the Big Kof, stirred to life. Giant purifiers rumbled in the outskirts, trying, and failing, to maintain the mandated PM 2.5 AQI of 1200. In the hinterland, the shattered remnants of a centuries-old agricultural society struggled to save the harvest season.

No birds sang.

Miniaturisation and Some Problems in Respiratory Mechanisms for Avians. In one of his explorations of the city’s archives, in the academic section, S. had found this old paper from one of the bigger scientific journals. The biggest journals, of course, were about respiratory mechanisms, miniaturisation and portability. This paper was a several thousand-word white flag, admitting that birds and breathing masks didn’t go together. And hermetically sealed birdcages were not a sound investment in a world falling apart. So there were no birds left to sing.

S. waited at his doorstep for his vehicle, listening to the hiss as his door sealed shut. Goggles protected his eyes from the early morning smog. Today it was a Level IV, which meant he ran an immediate risk of temporary blindness if he were to remove them, which he wasn’t going to.

There wasn’t much to see. The road disappeared a dozen feet away, and his neighbouring houses were dim visions. An Air Police car went past, the masked policeman giving S. a quick glance. Not that they would suspect him of anything. This neighbourhood had administrative officers and researchers, hardly the place to find a malcontent. The Air Police prowled the city, looking for Violaters: anybody out jogging, or exercising, or, Vayu forbid, sneaking around on a contraband bicycle. The Governing Council authorised strict and immediate action against anybody trying to breathe more than permitted, and strenuous exercise was a Red Violation. Immediate banishment, and complete denial of respiratory aid. It was rarely revoked. A few weeks, and it became a capital punishment.

The government vehicle arrived, and S. was sealed in for the rest of the journey. He was senior archivist at the Documents section, which oversaw the storage of every single piece of administrative and academic printed material. And any historical documents which had been saved.

It was the Red Season of the year 178 ATS, that is, After The Smog. There were three seasons of the year, with Red coinciding with a slight dip in the temperature. In his researches, S. had discovered that the pre-Smog people used to call it ‘winter’ from a very ancient word, ‘wintruz’, which meant ‘the wet period’. But the Red Season was neither cold nor wet. It was Red because the air quality was in the Red Zone, the worst of the year.

The best time of the year, people said, was the Blue Season, because tiny parts of the sky could be seen if one stared upwards for a few minutes, on a good day. S. did not bother either way. The differences in periods of the year were just academic.

Of the events immediately preceding the Smog, very little could be reliably established. What was known was the basis for industrial society had been saved, although there had been losses. Populations had been decimated. Small towns and small cities were in ruins. The Big Kof had endured because of what historians S. knew called ‘urban inertia’, that is, a city could actually be large enough, and chaotic enough, to survive an event like that, and the deaths of a few million. So Delhi had grown and enveloped its outlying urban centres, and a megapolis had emerged. The agricultural areas around it, dependant on city dwellers for their markets, had also survived precariously.

The rest of what had once been a country was largely shattered, except a few cities as big as Delhi.

But much of what had caused that cataclysm was still unknown. Some documents survived; most had not been permitted to by the Governing Council. Too complicated for a society whose members already had to deal with the physical complexities of daily existence. The dominant and official theory was farmers of the hinterland had risen in revolt over some obscure grouse and burnt their crops, causing the thickest smog in the history of mankind to envelop the city permanently. But there were heretical positions on this, uttered in whispers.

S. went to his office from the underground parking area. There was a lot of work, and some pending requests for locating material in archives. His colleague, T., had already arrived. T. drove himself, and was a member of the ruling party. There was really just the one party, but appearances had to be maintained, or the other cities would laugh at them.

The ruling party blamed the farmers for the cataclysm two centuries earlier. Committed party members firmly believed that the air quality was better than in the past, and they also advocated the continued and indiscriminate use of SUVs. Therefore the ruling political formation was known as the Suvver Party. It frowned on the idea of public transport. Anyway, almost everyone who used public transport in the pre-Smog years had died after the cataclysm because they could not afford the expensive respiratory devices or the sealed houses, as S. had discovered in the archives.

T. was a Suvver, and therefore powerful, although he was not a bad worker. S. nodded at him and got to work.

The rules were very strict about speech. Even inside sealed government buildings, air flow was regulated, and workers were warned about not using more than their allotted share. So long speeches, or conversations longer than the very brief, were discouraged. Raised voices were a serious offence. Phones came with auto-cutoffs to prevent long conversations. Any action that could cause overuse of the air supply was punishable. Even names were reduced to a few syllables. S. remembered a famous case where a low-ranking official had been found with an antique walking machine in his house. The records said the machine used to be called a ‘treadmill’ by the ancients. The official had been banished from the city immediately.

S. got back to his work. There were reports of more Breather activity in the suburbs.

***

“So, you saw the reports,” said V., at his house, after S. arrived in the evening. This was their weekly informal gathering, with a few other friends. At least none of them were Suvvers, so S. could relax with them.

V. was a noted expert on miniaturisation, and a talented engineer, and thus favoured by the Council. This was one of the few residences in the city where the oxygen usage was not permanently monitored.

There were half-a-dozen of the friends already present, a collection of senior doctors, a chemist, a webcaster and other specialists.

“So, you saw the reports,” said V. again.

“About the Breathers? Yes,” said S.

“Is it true that more graffiti has turned up in the suburbs?” asked J., the webcaster.

“Yes, and at several places,” said S.

“Fundamentalists,” said P., the chemist, a moderate.

The Breathers had suddenly emerged a few years ago. From some stray reports, their activities had become a regular occurrence, and the Air Police had been deployed to track them down. Mainly, what the Breathers seemed to want was purer air. What exactly that implied, nobody knew. Their graffiti asked for the right to breathe without masks, for instance. They asked for lower restrictions on air usage, and uniform distribution to the less privileged. They called for use of public transport, and smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Radicals. Utopians. Some of the graffiti, I am told, even says there was a time when people breathed without masks, and went for runs in the open,” added P.

“Theoretically, that may not have been impossible, you know,” said V.

“Yes, in the pre-industrial world. Theoretically, the great god Vayu, in which our beloved Suvvers believe so much, also exists,” retorted P.

“Anyway, S., someone gave me this, so I wanted you to take a look and tell me what you think of it,” said V.

It was a fragment of what appeared to be an official report from a monitoring agency. It was not too different from what the Governing Council issued. But it indicated that the AQI of PM 2.5 was 80. S. looked up, incredulous.

“When was it dated?”

“We do not know. It is only a fragment. It is said to be from the early 2000s, by pre-Smog reckoning,” said V.

Nearly two decades before the cataclysm.

“So, what do you think?”

“Clearly a forgery.”

“That’s what I told them,” said P., triumphantly. “It has been proven that AQI of PM 2.5 has historically never been lower than 800. It’s just Breather propaganda, but they don’t know where to stop. 600, or even 500, and we could just dismiss it as a fairy tale. But 80? That’s just a poor forgery.”

“But that does not mean they are wrong to demand better air quality,” said Q., a respiratory diseases specialist.

“What, you are a Breather now?” asked P.

“No, but are you a Suvver?” said Q.

The chemist and the doctor had these friendly arguments all the time.

“You know if you start discussing what the Breathers want, there will be no end to it. You don’t want to engage with radicals, or you will go down a series of rabbit holes,” said P.

“A rabbit,” explained J., the webcaster, “Was a small burrowing mammal of the family Leporidae, now extinct, of course. The metaphor refers to a theoretically unending or complicated topic.”

S. thought about the fragments which V. had got from his sources in the past. Some claimed to be from the years just before the Smog. Some talked about policies by the long-dead administrators of the city.

“You remember that paper which talked about something called the Odd-Even system? Something about rationing car usage?” asked S.

“Of course. A card-carrying Suvver would have a cardiac arrest if he were to read it,” said V.

“And the one about an order from some ‘Supreme Court’ about banning fireworks on Diwali?” said S.

“That one would have got us all exiled,” said P.

Diwali was a sacred day for Suvvers. The bursting of firecrackers, and lighting of giant oil lamps which gave out greasy smoke, and the burning of large effigies labeled ‘farmer rebels’ was an important part of government-mandated celebrations. Not bursting fireworks on Diwali was another punishable offence.

“So what are you driving at, S.?”

“So what I find interesting is this pattern. There seems to have been an attempt at curtailing emission of what used to be called ‘pollutants’ by citizens. Daily pollutants, that is, or seasonal mass pollutants. It is interesting how the dating indicates these were from the period just after this fragment.”

“You mean there is a possibility that the administrators back then were thinking of measures to check increase in PM 2.5?” asked Q., the doctor.

“That and other particulate matter. Their sub-categories appear to be somewhat primitive, though. Not as many as our reports have. What I am saying is, is it possible that there is an element of truth in this?” asked S.

There was a brief silence. Even in unregulated conditions, the group was not used to long, free-flowing conversations.

“You mean it is possible that these factors actually led to a rise in particulate matter?” asked V.

“That is your field. I just see too many coincidences,” said S.

“Still, no mention of farmers or stubble burning, is there?” asked P.

“We haven’t found it so far. Also, I have often wondered. The countryside was farmed for centuries, and stubble was, presumably, burnt as a seasonal activity. So could a giant peasants’ uprising alone have caused the cataclysm?” said V.

“You know, just saying that would get us all exiled,” laughed P. It was an abrupt sound to hear, because under section 7, sub-section 13 (c) of the Manual of Prohibited Activities, laughter, which required considerable use of the lungs, was quite clearly outlawed.

The group drifted off into other topics and finished their dinner. As they were leaving, P. asked S., “Still thinking about the fragments?”

“Perhaps, yes.”

“Don’t worry. Just Breather propaganda. A fairy tale.”

S. called for his car and left for home. Two SUVs passed him on the way, one apparently carrying a senior Suvver. There wasn’t much to see outside, so S. adjusted his face mask, which he wore in the car, in compliance with regulations, and again thought about the fragments V. had shown him in the past few months.

PM 2.5 at 80? What a quaint idea.