The Background of The Night Land

An Assortment of Ideas

by

Most of what is here is a combination of known planetary geology, climatology, evolution, etc. Conjectures range about 20-50 million years into the future (I stretched it from 20 to 50 to accommodate the development of the Watchers and the Great Ice Age that would have been necessary to cause the disappearance of the oceans) — plus some wild speculation on my part. I feel that this respects the "feel" of the Nightland and provides some areas where new stories can connect without retracing X's steps.


Time Scale

It takes place over a long stretch after 16-20 million years hence (MYH). 20 million years is the upper limit.

Planetary Geology / Weather

  • A small number of deep valleys, actually canyons, in or near old ocean rifts that have widened and subsumed a large portion of ocean.
  • According to story, atmosphere is attenuated at most surface altitudes.
  • We know earth's rotation has slowed significantly, perhaps completely[1]. This could account for the darkness in habitable areas if they were in an area where warmth was still available. There would be a cold side, a warmer side and a twilight area. Cities move west along long roads in the beginning to keep up with the sun.
  • We can assume that the ozone layer is gone or nearly gone.
  • There have been at least four impacts of planetesimals of at least 10 km diameter, and very likely that there has been one impact of a planetesimal of 50 km diameter, enough to cause widespread extinction, changes in climate, etc.
  • The time scale indicated is beyond even the scope of ice ages, but periodic fluctuations in global temperature will be considered, given that the result has to be a habitable one.
  • 50 million years is enough time for continents to drift significantly, supporting the subduction part of the story. However it would take a true catastrophe to cause widespread disappearance of the oceans by this means. Therefore, I assume that a large portion of ocean might have been ejected into the upper atmosphere by a very large planetesimal impact, or taken up in surface rock in molecular/atomic form, or in ice.
  • What will have happened to the moon in terms of distance from earth? I believe it gets farther away, and therefore tides are less pronounced. Water would be moved by an impact, subduction or other means.
  • The darkened sun still provides some heat ... it's not an orange giant yet though. By how much would insolation have to drop in order for light level to drop so that it is dark, or is it ONLY dark in the depths of the valley, and a sinister orange elsewhere, in the dry, high, uninhabitable places?
Conjecture:
  • Magma currents and subduction of crustal plates in the Pacific, plus ejection of potentially new micro-plates in Atlantic, lead to widespread reconfiguration of continental masses, species separation and variety; some species die out over time. Much flooding of low-lying land masses, similar near-term effects.
  • Meteoric impact causes significant loss of ocean and crust to the atmosphere, where increased cloud cover increases albedo and lowers global temperatures significantly. Due to prevailing currents of air masses and atmospheric cooling caused by impacts, there will be mass extinction and significant increase of polar ice caps. Assume that only equatorial regions remain habitable by land species, and rule out low-lying ones that would have flooded. Tropical climates turn temperate, leading to greatest proliferation, land coverage and range of survivor species in regions of sub-tropical Africa and Central America. A large portion of the North American plate will be covered in either ice or water; the western US that hasn't subducted will be a land of many lakes where there were deserts before, as flooding will have subsided and much moisture will have made it to polar ice caps. Over time, some of these lakes will have become very salty, and there will have been much speciation among marine life.
  • Great mountain ranges will rise or appear throughout Eurasia, despite erosion. This will hinder the circulation of air masses, allowing more moisture to become trapped in high-altitude glaciers.
  • As insolation decreases and tidal and magmatic effects slow over time, and due to the significant drop in ocean levels, portions of the Atlantic will separate into many seas, with scattered vulcanism. What was the Atlantic becomes the Land of Seas and Volcanoes.
  • Due to subduction around almost the entire Pacific, the level of the Pacific plate will rise, breaking from the mantle zone beneath as it cools, giving rise to a broad, shallow ocean that in time will not be able to hold and circulate heat in the same way as it did before. This will become a second Land of Seas and Volcanoes, and eventually the Great Dry Sea. This, plus lingering climatic effects of the 100 km meteor impact, will contribute further to cooling and glaciation.
  • With a much larger land mass exposed and with much water in the broad-ranging ice caps, most species will become separated further, and put under great environmental stress from increased harmful radiation, temperature variations, reduction of food sources, competition, etc. Some land animals will develop varying degrees of intelligence (for instance, huge hounds whose range in a western valley near the last of the old cities is thinning), and a very small fraction will employ intent, planning or primitive tools such as rocks or sticks to fell their prey.
  • The impact of a 100km meteor will puncture at least a portion of the pacific plate, allowing a massive pool of magma, superheated rock and water to mix. Additionally, the force, size, density and composition of the planetesimal will eject huge quantities of lithosphere and Pacific crust near a critical subduction zone, rendering a spot where there is virtually no crust and no upwelling of cooling rock, and much stronger than average magnetism. This will produce at one end of a deep ocean trench the beginnings of the Great Valley, into which the bulk of the not-yet-frozen oceans will disappear over time, generally south of the massive "Sea of Fire", in which the two redoubts will appear after the oceans subside. Unlike the ancient moving cities, they will not be able to follow the sun, since the trench runs north/south. In the low places of the Great Valley the hot, bubbling bodies of water can be found near the source of the Earth Current, a once-moderately strong magnetism produced by the nickel-iron remains of the meteor.
  • The Mighty Slope is the remains of one of the subducted continental plates to the south or east, above and beyond which there is little but an airless, desperately cold expanse covered in a mostly permanent glacier. It is on the southeast face of this slope, though less hospitable than areas further north, in the general direction (but not distance) of Mexico City, where the Great Redoubt and all that is left of humanity lives. A cold wind howls from that direction, and at times it seems to carry voices, laughter, or simply silence.
  • North of the Mighty Slope lies the area known as the Great Dry Sea, where the subsiding waters of the ocean once were. Over time they have been disappearing toward the north, primary down a river that runs in a great semicircle counterclockwise along the slope toward the Sea of Fire, where volcanic cones indicate locations of hot magma plumes that punctuate the thin crust over the impact zone.
  • It is pure chance that the Mighty Slope lies, as the rotation of Earth ceases, in the temperate zone just behind the daylight terminator.

Evolution

  • Earth's population has succumbed to significant evolutionary pressure but there is still a remnant of humanity. It is presumed to be fighting with other subspecies.
  • There are species of subhumans (Western-migrating remnants of groups from the African continent) or abhumans (eastern-migrating remnants of a surviving subspecies in Eurasia), large "grey men", humped creatures, etc., who appear to have developed for size and predation. Originally, these came from very far east, but as the glacier crept south and split the European continent, they were driven to the edges of their range and forced to migrate. One group went east, emerging near what once was China, establishing the Place of the Ab-Humans as they descended toward the receding ocean in search of food, stopping or skirting their planned path when they encountered primitive proto-Watcher communities, which they found threatening and inedible. Others migrated West and established themselves in the highlands above the great slope (Sub-humans). It is thought that the remnant of humanity was established in the area generally near Central America, which remained temperate for a long while before the oceans receded.
  • One of the subspecies, presumed most intelligent, has survived long enough to build arcologies, but its population is severely lower than former earth populations. It numbers around 500 million members.
  • Another race, descendants of the Road Builders and dwellers in the last of the mobile cities at the far western edge of one of the old surface continents, on the gradual slope of an old mountain high enough to survive flooding but low enough to avoid glaciation, in the Dark Zone, are the "Silent Ones". Perhaps these have a mutated speech apparatus and cannot vocalize. Before the time of the Redoubt, this was the last bastion of humanity, but also its bane as it was a group of Road Builders who in a fit of desperation allowed in Others (alien intelligences encountered during experiments with Time and Other Places).
  • The intelligent subspecies of the Road Builders, the ones who made the Redoubt, have become sensitive to neo-psychic perception.
  • 20-50 million years is enough time for a new class to evolve (for instance, mammals) after a planetesimal impact; it is assumed that the Watchers represent such a development. Things we know about the Watchers: they are very slow, they "watch", they are averse to electric currents or air disturbances, and they periodically prey on humans venturing from the arcology.
  • We know at one point that there were a large number of moving cities and perhaps minor arcologies, but we don't know if, or when, these might have been destroyed by weather, a meteor impact, or other elemental forces. Presumably ruins still exist.
  • The period of time indicated is so long that evolution of communication cannot be speculated about.
Conjecture:
  • A new class, the "Watchers", will have had time to emerge, from a species emerged from the ocean depths. It will be an organism that moves slowly, has huge bulk and a slow metabolism, a thick skin that retains heat and water, whose metabolism makes use of sulfur, water vapor, minerals and trace quantities of methane hydrate. Originally a dim-witted, communal creature, it is attracted to the waste matter of large plant and animal biomasses, such as that in the roots of the Redoubt, and over time has developed a kind of disconnected purposefulness that can be mistaken for intelligence. Its cellular chemistry and transport will contain at least one unusual element, metallic isotopes that it must range periodically to replenish.
  • There are rumors of living but very alien intelligences beyond the mountains to the distant southwest, where Strange Things Peer, and Whence Comes Laughter, in the general direction of the Mountain of the Voice; these are thought to be related to the Outer Forces, called upon by the Race of Road-Makers, who it is thought built the Quiet City to the far northeast, which lies at the end of a long road that runs past a smallish, hot, almost totally enclosed high sea (the Giant's Sea) that seems to have survived the recession of the oceans. Whatever lives there has, due to the general isolation of the watery highlands, long since ceased to be related to life in the Great Valley, and possibly never was. The Giants and Silent Ones are thought to be descendants of the Others (from Places of Shadow reached when the Road Makers experimented with Time and Other Dimensions) and the Road Makers, respectively, and the Things Which Peer are thought to be another isolated, unrelated group. Owing to its distance and inhospitability, little interbreeding occurred with the sub-human group migrating west, though perhaps some has. No one knows what sort of creatures these might be.
  • One group of descendants of the Road Makers builds the Redoubt; another seems to have receded to the House of Silence, finding the Old City no longer habitable.
  • At 15-16 MYH, it appears that a period of relative environmental stability has been reached, allowing the number of monsters, ab-humans, subhumans, Silent Ones, and other groups to increase, to the point where their ranges encroach.
  • Off and on, there are rebellious factions who attempt to re-settle areas or build new ones. Over the course of millions of years, one group builds the Lesser Redoubt. Another heads East in search of the Atlantic, finding the Lands of Seas and Volcanoes, harsh but still habitable, after nearly extinguishing itself on its trek across the thinning forests to the arid highlands and through the old through the great pass (Panama) down into the humid East. In the East is a land punctuated by dim but intolerable sunlight, moisture, violent storms and earthquakes. Furthermore, it is suffused with deadly radiation from this unhealthy light (survivors have become blind, mutated and very few in number), volcanoes and caves carved out by lava plumes. Perhaps a few of their race / species have survived; regardless, it is not known what happens to them.

Some comments on these ideas

This is an excellent set of ideas that may stimulate writers.

One thing I think we can be sure of is that the people of the Redoubt have NO astronomical knowledge. They may even believe that the world is flat, or (I like this one) a vast hollow cave of rock with them on the floor.

All sorts of real-universe possibilities are consistent with this. Don's suggestions are good ones.

A possible scenario would involve the Earth stopping its rotation[1] (overuse of tidal power?) and the moon decoupling from it and flowing into a trojan orbit.

The Valley could lie on the terminator and as the "night" falls, rather than the Sun genuinely darkening, the valley and the Redoubt slowly move further and further away into the dark hemisphere, over millions of years.

Something is necessary to cut out the stars, but perhaps a permanent high cloud layer would suffice for this.

After millions of years all astronomical knowledge might be lost. This would produce a future consistent with X's story and with the real universe we see today.

Personally, I tend to feel that the Night Land cannot easily be incorporated as a future of the real world. The essence of this class of story, usually known as an Entropic Romance, is that the whole universe is aging and dying. Hence, it is necessary that the sun and stars be actually black and dead, not simply obscured.

It is not really possible to have this future in the "primary world", where stars will last billions of years, not the mere millions that physics thought they would in Wells' and Hodgson's time. Hence the Night Land is not pure science fiction: it is a delicate mixture of SF and fantasy.

But perhaps it is best that the question be left unresolved, with mere hints of explanation provided by the writer. The Night Land is about mystery. I think we are agreed it would be counterproductive to institute any canonical explanation for the background elements.

Hints and shadows, not the light of day.

— Andy Robertson


Essay © 2001 by Don Muchow.