Of Rats and Men

This is a (very preliminary) prologue to a sci-fi novel I’ve been thinking of writing for some time. It’s called 100 YEARS TO VICTORY, but obviously liable to change. My sole question is: Would you continue reading the rest of this book?

It’s been nearly a decade since I built my first cage.

It was an exceedingly small cage. Physically, and literally, it was about the size of a large computer, though its inhabitants were none the wiser to the fact. To them, it would have appeared as a world entire, a world of rolling plains and giant trees and gentle hummocks in which they could make their burrows. That world wasn’t particularly big either. It didn’t have to be. Not when it hosted consciousnesses that were conditioned by evolution to a home range of less than 50 meters in radius. As far as a rat was concerned, the neighboring hill might as well be a foreign country, and its denizens – instinctual enemies, to be exterminated so that its own clan could survive and propagate.

And so the years passed, passing into decades, and centuries. There evolved subtle differences between rats in different locales: The rats in the ice-bound north, for instance, developed white fur and epicanthic folds to protect against snowblind, while males in the torrid south acquired rich manes to attract females. Many thousands of rat generations appeared and disappeared in the blink of a human eye. Arbitrary eons of blood and breeding, and the profound indifference of a Mother Nature that canceled them out over any long enough period of time.

Then I said, “Let there be grain.” Stalks of wheat sprouted out at the bed of one valley. A moment-millennium later, rice appeared in a second valley, and was followed by flowerings of millet, maize, and sourghum in yet other places.

The rat clans flocked down to the new oases of abundance. Old social structures broke down, for it was no longer possible for the alpha rats to monopolize a given territory and its females; the population density was now too big to treat every interloper as a hostile intruder, to be confronted and chased away. New structures arose in place of the old, in the form of vastly more complex dominance hierarchies that mediated the distribution of mates and resources. The rat population exploded, and though their grain-based diet made them far frailer and more sickly than their ancestors, their numbers soon far eclipsed those of the remaining wild rats in the corners and remote places of the map. No plague born of the filth and crowds checked their numbers for long; no periodic violent shift in the power hierarchy made a noticeable dent in their teeming hordes.

An eye-blink later, and the population was a hundred, a thousand times what it had been at “t” equals zero. The burrows delved dozens of meters underground, and some rats even attempted to build earthen structures into the sky, with grain farms on top. Others took a clue from the squirrels and the otters, and began to settle in the trees and dam off streams and lakes. The zone of grain cultivation overspread the entire surface of the Ratlands, displacing roots, legumes, nuts, berries, and lower-yielding wild cereals. All but the smallest and more elusive insects were devoured into extinction, leaving more of the yearly grain crop for the dominant species. The cleverest rats even realized you could store calories from a surplus year by a skilful application of yeast and time. It would be nice to imagine that those inventors became very famous and snagged all the girls at the parties, but let’s not get too carried away here… they were, after all, just rats.

Despite these efforts, some rats began to grow hungry. Oh, there had always been rats at the margins, runts without muscle, mates, or money; nobody cared for those losers. To the contrary, their fellows of both sexes took pleasure in harassing them and biting at their backsides, as is the way of rats. They died as they lived: In the margins, forlorn and anonymous. But as the years clicked by in rapid succession, the numbers of these marginal rats multiplied, and now they were no longer all outcasts and weaklings. For the population had long outstripped the carrying capacity of the Ratlands, and most rats now lived at the edge of subsistence; crop yields declined, as hungry rats learned to dig into the ground to get at the seed grain. The dominant rats had to resort to increasingly brutal methods to maintain the social hierarchy and their own positions at the top of it. But their late-ditch attempts were to be in vain, for a couple of hard winters tipped the Ratlands over into all-out collapse.

Some of the marginal rats coalesced into all-male bands that began to wreck havoc all across the Ratlands. They would kill off the local dominant alpha rat, gang rape his harem, and scour his territory clean before moving on to ravage the next. Left to themselves, a few territories might have pulled through: Some rat broods had become good at planning ahead, storing grain as reserves, while other broods were resilient by virtue of having avoided overpopulation, or over-dependence on grain monoculture. But marauding bands and starving refugees from the worst affected areas spread outwards in concentric tsunamis of destruction, ensuring that what might have otherwise been a limited set of local collapses would turn into a truly global die off.

Zooming around the map as a spectator, I began to notice discarded rodent skins with bones strewn about them; the victims had been eaten inside out. Countless other rats met less gory but no less tortuous ends, expiring of hunger, disease, or infected wounds. Even as mortality spiked, the fertility rate collapsed, as the all-pervading famine and stress made many of the females unable to bear offspring.

An eyeblink later, the population of the Ratlands had collapsed to a tiny fraction of its peak level.

One might have thought that in the wake of so drastic a culling, rat society might begin to slowly, haltingly recover. This was not to be. For in the decades before the collapse, grains had become the dominant crop, and whatever flora and fauna had escaped earlier encroachments was now picked clean by starving rats in those last, desperate months. Long deprived of nutrients due to the inherent nature of monoculture cultivation, and lacking the deep roots of shrubbery to hold the soil in place, the earth dried up as soon as it was exposed to the sunlight. The few remaining grain stalks dessicated and withered away. The lush verdure that had preceded civilization was followed by the desert, and no insect chirps or avian tweets would ever disturb its eternal silent spring.

The remaining bands ran out of new territories to scour clean, and turned in on themselves in a war of all against all.

The last rat breathed his last.

A melancholy wind blew across the Ratlands, now as deserted as they had once teemed with hustle and bustle. It gusted into the empty warrens beneath the grassy hummocks, failing to dispel the stench of death within, and tipped the lake-waters over the earthen dams that rats had built. The floodwaters, at least, were more effective at cleansing the land, replacing the decay of a civilization no matter how primitive with an entirely more elemental and natural oblivion.

Just a few decades later, there was no indication that the Ratlands had ever hosted their namesake. There was nothing more to be learned, so I switched off the simulation. After all, they were just rats.

This was when I first heard the voice, whispering to me: “Would humans do any better? Are we really all that different from rats?”

Comments

  1. Stakhanovite says:

    I’ll try not to be too harsh, but invariably negatives tend to get noticed before positives:

    A bit more context on the story would be good, maybe a short synopsis at the top. Without an idea of the bigger picture it’s only possible to judge the text in isolation. Lliterary quality gets some leeway in the sci-fi/fantasy genre depending on whether the larger story/setting is strong enough, so let us know a bit more about the plot.

    The first thing that strikes me from the text is that it’s too descriptive, each sentence seems to be focusing on very specific details. Some things do require these details, such as new concepts or the physical properties of an object not found in our own everyday life, but not so much the countryside or the cycle of life. This of course may differ in importance depending on the audience you’re aiming for, but it feels like I’m being bogged down a bit in words.

    This then leads into the second problem, which is the flow of the text. Narration and the description of a period of events is tough to get right, but I don’t think you’ve quite balanced it. I can’t quite find the words to be more precise, so apologies for being vague. Perhaps I’m getting too much of a professional/an academic vibe from it, the text needs to inspire the imagination a bit more, Telling me about the rats is a start, but I have to care about it somehow as well. It feels a bit wooden.

    Until I got to the end I wasn’t sure where you were going with it, and in all honesty a story about rats living and dying doesn’t do much for me. I was ready to just close the browser window. However I kept reading, and the fact that it’s a simulation does an important thing; it makes me ask who was running the simulation, why they were running it, and why someone seems so concerned about it to compare the situation to humans? It’s a start, and I’d listen to a bit more on your ideas to see where you’re going with it.

    Hope that helps.

  2. AlexBond says:

    The question which the hero asks in the end is of course interesting and intriguing in the light of the previous context, and I would likely have at least a mild interest in reading a book with such a beginning. But not every reader will read up to that place, and not everyone will find enough similarities – enough to worry – between the present development of the humanity and the described developments in the ratworld. Afterall, those are just rats, and the big picture of a societal collapse becomes clear only at the very end – and it is not too much terrifying, given the obvious constraints of a small simulation world populated but not-too-smart creatures, as opposed to the real world with its multiple resource types, endless outer space and ingenious human intelligence.

    There are two simplest possible answers to the question asked buy the protagonist, and I think most readers would expect any subsequent narrative to follow the philosophy of one of those answers – 1) “Yes humans won’t do any better” – and so the book develops as an apocalyptic story, or at least there are more apocalyptic simulations; 2) “No, humans are much cleverer, foresighted and _humane_ – and so they will do better!” – and so we see a story that depicts or suggests a triumph of humane intellect and other humane qualities. Personally, I find both those ways of thought a bit banal, and I would be disappointed if I have continued reading and have found just one of those answers in the entire text of the novel (instead of, for example, at least some clever mix of those two opposing ideas, or, better, instead of a multitude of other ideas).

    The transition of the narrative from the rats’ world to the narrator’s world is good and striking in the end and, due to the biblical associations, mildly good at the moment of grain-creation. But at the opening paragraphs the transition is not smooth and not easy enough to read and comprehend.

    The Game theme seems to be overpresent in the text – all those males, females, alpha-males and beta marginals, etc. This theme sounds to me like almost entirely alien to the primary theme of an eco-catastrophe and societal collapse. Too many mentions of sex, and the removal of most of them would only make the text better and less packed with seemingly unnecessary detail. Even if the Game is intended to be a major theme throughout the novel, I’d recommend to be more accurate with it. Afterall, caring not only about food and sex seems to be a distinctive humane quality, and an overemphasis on those two materialistic values suggests to readers a very obvious answer to the question how and why humans could do better.

    PS. Oh, seems I’ve missed that it was not the narrator who asked the last question, but some voice.

  3. I didn’t like it because it’s a re-hashing of a lot of contemporary ideas (unchecked human population growth, ecological over-exploitation, HBD, PUA, etc) under a very flimsy “rat experiment” metaphor. If the metaphor was more subtle and the rats’ history made more detailed, relateable and believable, it could become an enjoyable story with a deeper message (a la Animal Farm). As it stands right now, the story is beating the reader over the head with political opinions.

    That’s just my take on it and I’m not a writer. Some of my friends started out in writing by doing a lot of short stories and attending writers’ workshops. You could hone your writing skills & develop the story ideas before writing the actual novel.

    Hope that helps

  4. @all,

    Thank you for your feedback. I’m guessing this first attempt hasn’t been too successful – acknowledged. Will try to fix it somehow. Perhaps break it up into chunks, and place those chunks at the heads of separate chapters?

    Now for some clarifications. I understand, of course, that these will be lost on readers who give up on the book before even finishing the chapter (and that is of course completely the author’s fault); even so, I think you guys who bothered to comment deserve at least that much.

    (1) As you probably guessed, the actual book is about a simulation of the real world on a smaller, manageable scale with human simulacra as agents within in (and touching on the ethics, philosophy, etc. of it, as well as the actual outcome of the simulation – whether its apocalypse, or technological utopia, or something more complex, is necessarily a RAFO matter).

    As such, this “short story” at the start is something of a metaphor. But also something that happens in reality, as a “prelude” to the human-populated simulation, which is much more complex than the one with rats.

    (2) I’m aware that the HBD/game stuff might be coming across too thick, and I should probably remove this in a few places (for instance, that part about different rat races involving in different parts of the Ratlands). That said, a lot of it is based on real rat psychology as covered in Calhoun’s research on the matter. Yes, there really are “alpha rats,” who monopolize females in a particular burrow, and different rat clans really do fight wars with each other. Yes, over-crowding really does force rats to stop internecine wars and socialize – at least so long as resources remain plentiful. All this is not dissimilar from the transition of human society from tribes (very violent, very psycho-sexually hierarchic) to more complex societies in which these impulses had to be held in check. I’m aware, of course, that as an HBD blogger some might accuse me of improperly carrying over my preoccupations to different species, but at least with rats, it is to a (surprisingly?) large extent not unjustified. Although I understand of course that “not unjustified” does not necessarily equal “fascinating and readable.”

    Anyhow, I will think on how to make the prologue more captivating. First drafts are rarely successful at this.

  5. Ken Macaulay says:

    Actually found the few rat details quite interesting, & if anything I would emphasize them, ie. look to ‘humanize’ the rats & their societies a little more.
    Found the narrator a little confusing (who, why, etc) & the game jargon off-putting as it had little context.
    Still, I did read it through with some interest to where it was heading, although I’d want a better lead to the next part as I found it final question a little generic & rather banally handled. Perhaps more context on the narrator & his original question/search would bring it to life?

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