Review of Mathew Williams’ Source

Source is Mathew S. Williams portrayal of a dystopian future where humanity runs out of water. The first and second part of the book captures the moral ambiguities and human trauma involved with the survival of the human race in a macabre world where there isn’t enough water for everyone to survive. It avoids the simplicities of good versus evil by forcing basically decent humans to face stark choices. which lead them to do horrible things based upon implacable logic and the need to survive. The book presents what will happen if humanity refuses to live within the ecological limits until it is too late, and it effectively captures the horror and cruelity of a situation where people’s most fundamental moral precepts and their very humanity become warped by an inhumane situation. In the book, those characters who cling to their compassion and honor are the ones who commit suicide or go mad.

The first half of the book is very disturbing, yet it effectively drives home the fundamental point that we simply can not go on living beyond the ecological limits of the planet without facing dire consequences. Unfortunately, that message is diluted by a couple limitations of the book.

First of all, the text is interspersed with numerous careless typographical errors. It appears that Williams ran the text through a spell checker, but didn’t bother to proofread the text before posting it online. I started keeping a list of the errors to send to Williams, so hopefully some of the errors will be corrected, but the text really needs a thorough proofreading and some of the awkward phrases need to be cleaned up. This small oversight is a shame because Williams’ spelling errors and occasional ungrammatical phrase mars his good writing style.

More importantly, Williams looses some of the depth and emotional impact of the story by not staying long enough with any one character so that the reader can form emotional bonds with the characters. Williams jumps from character to character too fast in my opinion, so the reader can’t experience the full horror when the humanity of those characters becomes warped and twisted by the exigencies of survival of the race. Partly, this lack of emotional connection is explained by the fact that the book started out as a series of short stories which was eventually strung together into a full book.

Unlike normal fiction which generally has to fit within some boundaries of past human experience, science fiction is a genre which has no obligation to follow the rules of this universe or accord with people’s known experiences. The goal of Source, however, is not escapist fantasy into another universe. The introduction to the book makes clear that Williams wants to raise an important issue for the general public to consider about their world and how they currently live their lives. Making people think about their irresponsible and unsustainable wasting of natural resources is very important. As Williams notes, it is important that the discussion move beyond a limited intellectual community and into the wider public, and science fiction can be a medium to extend the awareness into wider circles.

In order to make people apply the message of Source to their known world, however, the book has to have an element of what is sometimes called “truthiness”. It has to be believable, even it it isn’t wholly true or accurate. Unfortunately Williams’ story fails to be believable at least for me, because it makes several wrongheaded assumptions about how the crisis will unfold, which I simply couldn’t swallow.

First of all, Williams assumes that the water shortage will hit all of the sudden, which doesn’t seem very probable. Best predictions are that the water shortage will hit certain areas, like Africa and China, very early and they will face crises years before the rest of the world. Unlike the crisis hitting on a massive global level all of the sudden, it will happen regionally more and more frequently well before it becomes a universal crisis. People won’t be caught by surprise as William’s depicts, because they will have already seen what happened when most of Africa becomes a drought-prone wasteland like the fragile Sahel region.

Secondly, the crisis will not be crisis of thirst as Williams describes. Instead, the water shortage will cause a crisis of food and material production long before humanity runs out of fresh water to drink. The irrigation of crops uses massive amounts of fresh water, as do many current industrial processes. Williams portrays a world were people live with the same levels of food and manufactured goods as we have to day, but if the world were facing the kind of water crisis which Williams describes, then people would have their food rationed and all the material comforts would be drastically reduced. Basic things like the cultivation of cotton and wood pulp processing,much less advanced things like silicone chip manufacturing waste tremendous amounts of water. Maybe in William’s dystopian future humans have figured out how to produce food, clothes, electronics, and everything else without water, but he makes no mention of how it was done up to the point that where people suddenly run out of water for drinking. Williams mentions that there are no forests left and most people haven’t ever seen trees before. If that was the case, then the planet would be is such an ecological crisis that it would be unable to produce enough oxygen and food to sustain the human race long before the water crisis hits.

Thirdly, Williams assumes that the world will reach a population of a 100 billion before the water crisis hits. This is an order of magnitude beyond what most scientists predict. Most assume that the population will level off around 12 billion and even then most think that the planet will have trouble supporting that number. The crisis will hit long before 100 billion.

Fourthly, Williams doesn’t reckon with the energy shortage, which will likely to hit well before the water crisis. Space travel and the advanced lifestyles which Williams describes will take tremendous amounts of energy. People in the future Earth seem to live in a world where energy is abundant, but the text makes no attempt to explain where all this energy comes from. The idea that people could mine water from other planets is simply inconceivable once you take into account the energy requirements of such an enterprise.

Likewise, there is no mention of the impacts of global climate change in the story. Williams indicates in the introduction that he wants to focus people’s attention on the future water crisis which receives less attention than climate change, but climate change is one of the drivers of that future water crisis since higher levels of evaporation and the melting of the glaciers are causing fresh water sources to dry up. Leaving climate change out of the story leave a gaping hole as to the cause of the crisis.

Finally, the solution of recycling the water from dead people would provide such little water, that it is almost laughable as the solution which saves humanity and averts the death of billions. The human body doesn’t have enough water in it sustain another person more than a short period of time, no matter how good the recycling process is. According to Williams’ tale, the water from a couple billion dead people is enough to keep the 100 billion other people alive.

All of the scientific implausibilities in the story make it hard to treat it as a serious wakeup call. It is a fine story, which does a wonderful job of exploring the moral dilemmas and human responses to the needs of survival, but it doesn’t have enough “truthiness” for anyone to think that it describing our world. Williams should be applauded for exploring this important theme, but he really should have done a bit more investigation before writing a book on this topic. Otherwise, people will instantly see the holes and dismiss the message outright.


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