Chronoliths & Hemispheric Sterilization

Reading this post by Tyler Cowen (as well as the David Brooks column it spawned) brought to mind one of my favorite SF novels:  The Chronoliths, by Robert Charles Wilson (*).  Although Cowen’s notion of the “mass sterilization of half of humanity” differs considerably from Wilson’s scenario, the two share a common focus on how our expectations can shape the future.

The Chronoliths features someone named “Kuin” transmitting exotic-matter monuments (to his own future victories) back in time, with the first so-called “Chronolith” arriving when the novel begins, and subsequent ones appearing over the next twenty years.  Each such monument commemorates the surrender of a given portion of territory to “Kuin”, at a date 243 months from the date on which it arrives.  While the arrival of the first Chronolith is treated as a curiosity, subsequent ones provoke panic, economic depression, & political instability throughout Asia (and ultimately the world).

Though Wilson’s characters largely treat such developments as a given, the underlying rationale isn’t difficult to figure out.  From the beginning, it’s obvious the Chronoliths are the product of technology far in advance of anything available in the time(s) at which they arrive; and, of course, the military implications of advanced technology are obvious.  Moreover, while one Chronolith might be thought an aberration, the arrival of many at semi-regular intervals gives credence to the notion that some organized force really is behind them, and that they are in fact what they purport to be.  Plus, “Kuin” (the conqueror whose victories the Chronoliths commemorate) will sometimes transmit his monuments into the centers of major metropolitan areas (with 9/11-level casualties each time).

Add all that up, and the notion that the Chronoliths are, in fact, what they purport to be – i.e., monuments to conquests achieved on the dates inscribed thereupon – becomes somewhat believable to those in Wilson’s future history.  So also, for instance, is the economic crisis he posits.  Consider:

  • With expropriation by some future conqueror becomes plausible, it’s understandable that both foreign & domestic investors might avoid nations “targeted” by Chronoliths.
  • Investors with a shorter timeframe might nevertheless be concerned about seeing their property, factories, etc., blown to smithereens by, say, a freak Chronolith arrival in a given metropolitan area; or the dangers of political instability & anarchy (see below); or the impact of other investors’ skittishness upon the liquidity of the secondary markets which they’d need IOT liquidate their long-term investments prior to any Chronolith conquest date(s).
  • Also plausible is falling demand for anything one plans to hold for the long term – e.g., real-estate within Chronolith-targeted areas; capital goods; non-tradable durable goods; etc.
  • It’s not implausible that any exporters capable of relocation would outsource operations…and there goes another growth engine.
  • Not discussed by Wilson, but also quite plausible, is a mass exodus of those who can afford to emigrate.  Of course, this hits the labor forces in the Chronolith-affected areas.

So, for starters, we have falling investment, and hits to production, net exports, & consumption.  Perhaps also housing & commercial real-estate crashes, depending on how far demand falls in both of those areas.  A financial crisis would not be out of the question, given local banks’ probable exposure to at least one of the aforementioned events.

Also plausible is the political instability & anarchy that engulfs Asia in the “Age of the Chronoliths”.  After all, if one was reasonably certain that “Kuin” was going to conquer your country in the not-too-distant future; and you didn’t want to emigrate; wouldn’t you try & get on his good side?  Say, by joining political factions, militias, gangs, etc., purporting to fly his banner?  Likewise, it’s understandable that many of the poor, disenfranchised, oppressed – i.e., people for whom the current system wasn’t working – might conclude that a Kuinist hegemony could hardly be worse than their current predicament(s); and that they therefore had nothing to lose by signing on.  Eventually, Chronolith-targeted areas become so unstable that pundits both within & without begin to wonder whether conquest by Kuin could possibly be worse than the then-prevailing instability.  Others, who dislike the notion of Kuinist hegemony, may nevertheless despair of fighting someone who can presumably get inside one’s OODA loop simply by reading a history book…and hence an appeasement faction (dubbed “Copperheads”) is born outside Chronolith-affected regions.

Of course, you also get feedback from all of the above.  Political instability abets economic decline, which increases unemployment, and yields more fodder for Kuinist factions (& their opponents); rinse, lather, repeat.

Thus, by exploiting expectations (via a bit of advanced technology), the Chronoliths’ originators transform the world into kindling for eventual Kuinist conquest.

Aside:  I’ve often wondered whether the scenario of The Chronoliths was also an allegory for the Cold War.

(*) It also brings to mind the Niven short story, “Inconstant Moon”, in which a solar flare cooks the eastern hemisphere during nighttime on the western hemisphere.

Bryan Caplan had a somewhat more optimistic take on Cowen’s scenario.


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