“In 2007, the Center for Automation in Nanobiotech (CAN) outlined the hardware and software platforms that would one day allow robots smaller than human cells to make medical diagnoses, conduct repairs, and even self-propagate.
That same year, CBS re-aired a program about the effects of propranolol on sufferers of extreme trauma. A simple pill, it had been discovered, could wipe out the memory of any traumatic event.
At almost the same moment in humanity’s broad history, mankind had discovered the means for bringing about its utter downfall. And the ability to forget it ever happened.”
Excerpt From: Hugh Howey. “First Shift – Legacy.
In Shift, the prequel to Wool, we see the events that led to the creation of the Silos and the apocalyptic wasteland above. At some point in the recognizable near future (2049 to be exact) we see the (new) protagonist Donald meeting with Senator Thurman, basically a symbol for the power behind the throne, the one who gets things done. The name Thurman of course meaning “protector” or “guardian”, attached to “Thor”, God of thunder but also protector of mankind. The Senator (as he is often referred to) has a cynical (realistic) view on human nature and a willingness to entertain any means for a particular end. His ultimate goal: save the species and civilization in the long run. Certainly a Good. Perhaps the ultimate one in a non-theological sense.
Here is The Senator talking to Donald about the costs of space travel:
“In fact, why do you think those eggheads are always dreaming of colonizing some other planet? You have any idea what would be involved? It’s ludicrous. Not cost-effective.”
Donald shrugged. He didn’t think it was ludicrous. He twisted the cap back onto his water. “It’s in our nature to dream of open space,” he said. “To find room to spread out in. Isn’t that how we ended up here?”
“Here? In America?” The Senator laughed. “We didn’t come here and find open space. We got a bunch of people sick, killed them, and made space.” Thurman pointed at the folder. “Which brings me to this. I’ve got something I’d like you to work on.”
What Thurman is working is of course what will eventually become the Silos. Under the guise of constructing a large “Containment and Disposal Facility” Thurman has gained the funds for a huge construction project that will house the remnants of mankind through the coming time. He is able to pull this off via his power, connections (military, political and civil), and compartmentalizing the project so only a select few know of its real purpose. To the rest it is simply a rather wasteful pork project to create some jobs to house nuclear waste.
Years later, the construction project well underway, Donald meets Thurman at a hospital in a Nano tank, a facility where a person enters a large cylindrical container the size of a small room and spends a day in there as the nanobots “fix” their body from all damage. Effectively, an anti-aging room in many ways, or Aubrey De Grey‘s wet dream. The nanobots enter the body and are programmed to shut down after a specific period of time after which the body just naturally urinates them. The person being treated doesn’t feel anything other than a slight metallic taste in their mouths, and, well, effectively living forever. But to light a candle is to cast a shadow:
“You see, you can’t make something for good without someone else figuring out all the bad it can do.”
Senator Thurman released the invisible pinch and studied the pad of his thumb for a moment. He blew a puff of air across it. “Anything these puppies can stitch, they can unstitch.”
He peered across the pod at Donald. “You know why we went into Iran the first time? It wasn’t about nukes, I’ll tell you that. I crawled through every hole that’s ever been dug in those dunes over there, and those rats had a bigger prize they were chasing than nukes. You see, they’ve figured out how to attack us without being seen, without having to blow themselves up, and with zero repercussions.”
Donald was pretty sure he didn’t have the clearance to hear any of this.
“Well, the Iranians didn’t figure it out for themselves so much as steal what Israel was working on.” He smiled at Donald. “So, of course, we had to start playing catch-up.”
“I don’t understa—”
“These critters in here are programmed for my DNA, Donny. Think about that. Have you ever had your ancestry tested?” He looked Donald up and down like he was surveying a mottled mutt. “What are you, anyway? Scottish?”
“Maybe Irish, sir. I honestly couldn’t tell you.” He didn’t want to admit that it was unimportant to him; it seemed like a topic Thurman was anything but apathetic about.”
“Well, these buggers can tell. If they ever get them perfected, that is. They could tell you what clan you came from. And that’s what those crazy Iranians are working on: a weapon you can’t see, that you can’t stop, and if it decides you’re Jewish, even a quarter Jew—” Thurman drew his thumb across his own neck.
“I thought we were wrong about that. We never found any NBs in Iran.”
“That’s because they self-destructed. Remotely. Poof.” The old man’s eyes widened.
Donald laughed. “You sound like one of those conspiracy theorists—”
Senator Thurman leaned back and rested his head against the wall. “Donny, the conspiracy theorists sound like us.”
The book’s suspension of disbelief is not that large. If we accept the premise of the successful development of nanotechnology over the coming decades then something along the lines of what is described is a very credible threat. An invisible enemy that is almost impossible to combat. And we eventually find out, and the problem Thurman set out solve, is that the enemy is already amongst us:
“He gave me this to read.”
Helen frowned. “What is that?”
“It’s like an instruction manual for the—well, for the after. I think.”
Helen got up from the recliner and stepped between him and the coffee table. She nudged Karma out of the way, the dog grunting at being disturbed. Sitting down beside him, she put a hand on his back, her eyes shiny with worry.
“Donny, were you drinking on the plane?”
“No.” He pulled away. “Dammit baby, listen to me. It doesn’t matter who has them, it only matters when. Don’t you see? This is the ultimate threat. A world-ender. I’ve been reading about the possibilities on this website—”
“A website,” she said, voice flat with skepticism.
“Yeah. Listen. Remember those treatments the Senator takes? These nanos are like synthetic life. Imagine if someone turned them into a virus that didn’t care about its host, that didn’t need us in order to spread. They could be out there already—” He tapped his chest, glanced around the room suspiciously, took a deep breath. “They could be in every one of us right now, little timer circuits waiting for the right moment—”
“Very bad people are working on this, trying to make this happen.” He reached for his glass. “We can’t sit back and let them strike first. We can’t let them strike first. So we’re gonna do it.” There were ripples in the liquor. His hand was shaking. “God, baby, I’m pretty sure we’re gonna do it before they can—”
“You’re scaring me, honey—”
“I’m starting to think we’re building them, too. Tiny machines, just like the ones in the nanobaths that stitch up people’s skin and joints, only these would tear people down. And they would be able to unstitch anything.”
“I’m telling you they’re real,” he said, unable to stop himself. “They’ll be able to reproduce. They’ll be invisible. There won’t be any warning when they’re set loose, just dust in the breeze, okay? Reproducing and reproducing, this invisible war will wage itself all around us while we’re turned to mush.”
That’s the threat Thurman is up against. And this is where the NRx analysis comes into play. Thurman is not constrained by petty simplistic morality. He has a problem and he has a solution, perhaps the only real one possible. A final solution if you will. The problem is a hypothetical attack at any point in the future by an invisible enemy against any people’s not their own. The tool for that purpose may already be amongst us, invisible nanos in our bodies and air. Just waiting for a trigger, for someone to give the go-ahead. And like that we will all be wiped out. And with no way of realistically stopping it. And the response by the US (if in time) in retaliating with nanos as well to destroy the enemy would together mean a total end to mankind and its legacy on this planet. All humans dead with nanobots scouring the Earth replicating and searching for any human DNA to destroy.
Thurman’s plan is to strike first. But to do so means wiping out the human race. To prevent that Thurman creates the Silos. He conveniently hosts the DNC on the project grounds, using all his political capital to make it happen. And then stages a nuclear attack on Atlanta on the horizon to get the carefully chosen delegates and guests to run for cover in the Silos to avoid nuclear fallout. Following that, the nanoweapon is presumably unleashed on EVERYONE above ground. The entire human race with the exception of those in the Silos is destroyed. Those in the Silos are given medication to make them forget the past, except for a few in Silo 1, the command Silos. Each Silo is made to think that it and only it is all that exists. The past is erased. And mankind is, for lack of a better word, rebooted.
“Some of us remember,” the doctor said, “because we know this isn’t a bad thing we’ve done.” He frowned as he helped Troy onto the gurney. He seemed truly sad about Troy’s condition. “We’re doing good work, here,” he said. “We’re saving the world, not ending it. And the medicine only touches our regrets.” He glanced up. “Some of us don’t have any.”
The plan is to have all fifty Silos carefully monitored by IT in each Silo, coordinated with the head Silo, Silo 1. The population of Silo 1 is limited, a few hundred tops, as its purpose is not as an ark for the future but rather to monitor and guide the other Silos (without their knowledge). Silo 1 is run as a military facility. Meanwhile, in the other Silos, population is strictly controlled (due to very real Malthusian conditions) by the mandatory implementation of birth control on all females. A lottery picks those who will be allowed to breed. And since the lottery is managed by IT’s systems, you have the perfect conditions to select for whatever genetic characteristics you choose. The book of course paints this in the obligatory cliche progressive view of “horrible”, but it’s really quite common sense if you are in that situation. With limited resources population control is a necessity. And guiding the genetic process allows for the selection of traits most likely to succeed in the world after the Silo.
Because that is Thurman’s ultimate goal. To save mankind from itself. The populations will be kept in their respective Silos for 500 years. Throughout Silo 1 will (secretly) be guiding their evolution and monitoring them, eliminating Silo’s that rebel or present a threat. The IT of each Silo will manage said Silo, with ultimate authority to manipulate procedural outcomes, unbeknownst to the population at large. The inhabitants of Silo 1 work in shifts, with cryogenic technology + nanobot recovery allowing them to sleep for years or decades at a time in different Shifts (hence the title of the book). The nanobot war on the surface will have long since ended and the surface will have been clean for generations at that point. The immediate area surrounding the Silos is still full of nanobots in a large dome as it were, but this is due to Silo 1 continually releasing new destructive nanos to keep the populations scared of the outside world (through witnessing the deaths of cleaners) and within their respective Silos (and not knowing the past or anything else). The rest of the planet will be (free of humans) land for survivors to repopulate.
When the 500 years are up Silo 1’s analysts and computers will determine which Silo has “progressed” the most according to their metrics for potential long term survival (presumably involving many factors such as avg iq, cooperation, social trust, empathy, etc.). That Silo will be released along a long subterranean path to the surface outside the nano-dome (which will gradually dissipate in time), where equipment to begin a new civilization will be available. Fertilizer, seeds of various kinds, tools, maps, etc. And above all, the Legacy: the preserved history of man (that was viewed as advantageous to preserve) that will be carried forth.
The remaining unselected Silos (including Silo 1 and Thurman himself) will be destroyed, having been built with explosives to destroy the top floor and that collapsing all the way to the bottom to wipe it all out. 490k will die, 10k selected to be the future of mankind will live. Why only allow one Silo to live to colonize the (now new) world? Because the point was to create one (guided) culture to rule to world. Starting the world anew with 50 different peoples likely with different loyalties makes no sense and is a recipe for disaster. And having killed 7 billion people, what’s another 490k to increase odds of success.
Do the math on how quickly (especially with modern technology) 10k people can repopulate the empty planet. It would take 1-2k years if not less. A blink of an eye. Exponential growth is an incredible thing.
From a species’ standpoint, Thurman’s plan is to take a world of mutual hatreds and distrust and now equipped apocalyptic technology, and replace it with one carefully selected biological and cultural people. It’s possible in time the new rivalries and destructive capabilities will emerge. But ultimately this is a game of odds. Thurman’s actions, which if successful really only “cost” us 2k years or so before a new repopulated world emerges, have been to take a world likely to destroy itself and replace it with one less likely to. The ultimate problem, extinction, requires an Alexandrian solution.
We’ve seen a similar solution in a different medium before, albeit for much lower stakes. Most readers will of course be horrified by the Wool series’s backdrop and what Thurman did. Compared to a Total Reboot, what is a Mao or Stalin or a Tamerlane? Irrelevant. BUT… if Thurman’s judgement was correct regarding the respective probabilities of survival…. I am hardpressed from a NRx standpoint to fault him for his actions. The new society will be unified, virile, capable of wondrous feats, with a far brighter future before it than that doomed civilization which it replaced. Perhaps it will be able to transcend the bounds of Earth before falling to apocalyptic war, diversifying the species’ assets and ensuring our survival and continuation into the far great beyond.
It is the ultimate in whiggish history to assume that somehow things will work out for the best, that the linear progression of history will inevitably be upwards and forwards toward a brighter future. It takes a Dark Enlightenment to understand that for mankind not all roads lead toward the light; some lead downwards towards darkness, others toward extinction. And it is incumbent upon those of us who would carry the fire to not shirk from our duty when the time comes, however hard the task may be.
I heartily recommend the Wool series, if only to come face to face with this scenario in a very well created world. Though the ultimate conclusion is rather flawed, the story still holds together quite strongly. I for one would add it to my recommended NRx-themed literary fictional canon.