In the United States of America, the disparity between the amount of information being processed when measured against its tangible good had entered the realm of absurdity. Until the 2030s the country's most pressing problems were still identified as variations on the have versus have-not theme, spawning numerous hand-wringings on the "gap" between riches and poverty, which by the turn of the century had been modernized to hand-wringings on the "gap" between "techno-peasants" and "data barons" or "hackerlords." The greatest controversy continued to be focussed on the distribution of wealth, whether financial or intellectual; no one (or nearly no one) had suggested that there may have been too much wealth to begin with.

Thus what lighted the initial fires of the Second American Civil War was, at least in part, a smouldering resentment on the part of millions who felt ignored and disenfranchised by the network nation they lived in. It was not so much that they wanted more information for themselves, or a bigger share of the prosperity it generated-they simply could no longer tolerate the blatant division of inescapable reality and tantalizing image, of painful experience and utopian ideal, of dreary truths and glittering lies. The Atlanta Uprisings of 2036 were of course borne of long-simmering "racial" tensions that had split the land along ethnocentric lines (European, African, Asian, Latino), but it was the abject failure of the world's most Information-opulent society to seriously address the real-life misery within its borders that may have been their true parent. As more violent unrest spread to city after city throughout the republic-eventually to coalesce after the killing of Luther Brown T*R by government agents on January 1, 2037-the less the conflict seemed motivated by long-standing blood feuds as by raw frustration with Information's broken promises.

Some of this only became apparent with hindsight. Two years of death and destruction gutted many communities of the nation, during which most foreign observers saw only a horrendous tribal war: like so many other emergencies of the time, the Second Civil War ostensibly was a predictable climax to the turbulence of centuries past. This was a reasonable enough analysis (the Civil War of 1861-1865 was also fought over issues of race), yet when the fighting finally died more complicated interpretations began to come forth. In RageRoots (2041), Arthur Hong asserted that:

. . . the hostilities might not have happened to the degree that they did had the networks not so blithely insisted that they were not happening at all; conversely, there may have been more interest in averting them had their first skirmishes not been reported as titillation comparable to VR erotica or the latest antics of Teesha Gonzales. . . . Perhaps the war was ultimately the act of a nation "getting back to basics," reminding itself in the most vicious way of the fundamental things that Online and the RAN had obscured for years. . . .

In other words, the social, economic, political, and environmental causes of the Second Civil War were obvious enough, but the cultural ones, the suffocating triviality of electronic amusement and the clash of televised fictions with concrete facts, were just as important; "I want my MTV" is now as notorious a gesture of ignorant callousness as "Let them eat cake" was long ago. Information, in the end, had to share the blame for a strife that fragmented a country and left one million of its people slain.

While the United States was being rent by its domestic carnage, international rivalries on the other side of the globe were approaching a crisis point. China and India, each densely populated, each beset with ecological and biological disasters, and each vying with Japan and each other for economic dominance of continental Asia, had raised their respective military forces to hair-trigger levels of alertness. Both adversaries had stated their intentions to use nuclear weaponry if provoked, and other governments either could not or would not interfere. By 2039 "Helter Skelter" (the colloquial name for the Second Civil War) had burned out the heartland of North America, and the European Community, the Federal Russian Republic, Australia, and the Latin American Union had assumed isolationist stances: Asia's two strongest war machines were left alone against each other.

Neither the Chinese nor the Indians were as swamped with Information as Americans and Europeans were, but their networks were advanced enough and monopolized enough to stir up jingoist, chauvinist fervour among hundreds of millions-British Prime Minister Vankata remarked that each state was "fostering First Millennium hatreds through Second Millennium means." Indeed, the media-induced belligerence that infested both populations was reminiscent of the nationalist manias of the previous century, manias which had inevitably been preludes to war.

The escalations which culminated in the nuclear attacks on Shanghai and New Delhi, therefore, were the fateful product of geopolitical friction, reckless sabre-rattling, and Informational incitement. Chinese Premier Zhao's decision to launch an atomic strike against the Indian capital on May 16, 2039 was probably engendered by ill-founded skepticism of his enemy's retaliatory capability; similarly, Indian Prime Minister Singh's position was dictated by bullying from her own countrymen as well as from the Chinese themselves. Miraculously, no further warheads were exploded after China's first punch and India's response. The staggering casualties of the blasts-over two million human beings killed in thirty minutes, more than the death tolls of the Volgograd bombing and the Second American Civil War combined-had stopped each nation's military command systems cold. Less than an hour in duration, the Sino-Indian exchange was the worst injury inflicted by the Asian people on themselves since the Second World War, yet the relative mildness of the wound was frighteningly ironic. Luis Ison (2002-2043) eventually compared it to "a man falling from a high precipice only to land in water instead of against stones, scraping his knees rather than breaking his back." To be able to speak of only two million people annihilated, as opposed to the billions who were in fact at risk, underscored how much the Exchange had held doom in check.

Worldwide, the reaction was one of mute horror, much as had followed Volgograd's destruction a generation before. But this quiet was also a sign of other nations' exhaustion from their own problems; cross-border pathways of Information were not as well-travelled as they had once been. Network grids still operated, and news and entertainment and data were still sent quickly from continent to continent, but violence, disease, and all manner of upheaval had severely diminished Information's accessibility. A colossal story it may have been, the obliteration of Shanghai and New Delhi nevertheless was described awkwardly, peripherally, in Vancouver and Johannesburg and Sao Paulo and Frankfurt. Recalling Volgograd, journalists and their audiences together sensed the Exchange was beyond the scope of everyday telecommunications-and now there was added the competition from local calamities that seemed altogether more urgent than a pair of distant firestorms. Insofar as "Information" meant intelligence sent artificially from faraway places, it was commanding less and less attention. The sorrow of the Sino-Indian Nuclear Exchange of 2039 was not just in the number of lives that were lost, but in the rest of the planet's numbed, vacant comprehension of it.
It was some time after November-December 2043 that the events of those months were summed up as the "Pacific Catastrophe." History does not present itself ready-made, as serious historians have always sought to remind us, for it is usually only in retrospect that the countless actions on the world stage shape themselves into a salient pattern. That said, however, it did not require much perspective to recognize that the havoc wrought upon the earth between Tuesday, November 10 and Sunday, December 6, 2043, was indeed a single, unspeakable historical milestone. The Pacific Catastrophe was the last, and worst, disaster to befall mankind in the scarred twenty-first century; it also marked the end of the primary stage in the decline of the Age of Information.

In 2048 the newly organized World Parliament enlisted its statisticians to tally the number of casualties left by the Catastrophe. Their figures of nineteen million dead and six million injured were soon denounced as far too conservative-unscientific estimates ran up to twenty-one million injured people (including those bereft of adequate housing, nutrition, and hygiene) and a tenth of a billion people killed. Economic losses were in every sense beyond calculation. The twentieth century's Second World War and Cold War, and the Second American Civil War of 2036-2038, had likely incurred only a fraction of the Pacific Catastrophe's financial damage. Eventually the magnitude of the debacle was deemed by Congressional Officer Ernestina Storig to be "without measure and blasphemed by number-crunching."

Briefly, the Pacific Catastrophe was the series of seismic shocks which struck at several points along the western coasts of North and South America, at the Japanese home islands, in northeast Asia, and at Oceania, during a three-week period in the fall of 2043. These earthquakes-as well as attendant volcanic activity-set off widespread devastation from collapsing structures, fires, chemical and nuclear leakage, and a general breakdown of social order, and these in their turn were aggravated by conditions of overpopulation and internal decay that were already extant.

Like a cosmic game of chance, the huge tremors and eruptions seemed to decimate at random. While the geologic boundaries of the earth's crust and the "earthquake zones" that were strung across the globe had been familiar for over a century, no reliable means of predicting quakes had been devised. There could thus have been no expectation of the sudden occurrence of so many massive disturbances in so short a time (a blink of an eye, geologically): educated guesswork had only deduced the "Ring of Fire" that belted the Pacific Ocean, noted tectonic fault lines, and identified the locations of possible future epicentres. Occasional instances of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, though they had killed many thousands of people, had done so over many decades, so it was assumed they would continue to do so at the same "manageable," irregular pace. Instead, what happened in 2043 was simply a case of far too much, far too quickly.

Beginning-deceptively-in the modestly populated Aleutian Islands, the gargantuan seismic spasms went back and forth around the ocean. Earthquakes visited Guatemala next; then Bulusan erupted in the northern Philippine island of Luzon; the terrible Californian and Peruvian quakes followed, two days apart; Villarrica spewed fire and ash over southern Chile; the Chinese metropolis of Tangshan was rocked; the Kamchatkan Peninsula's Bezymianny exploded; and finally the cities of the main Japanese island of Honshu toppled in an earthquake of stunning ferocity. The scale of these was apocalyptic. To those touched by them, they appeared to be nothing less than the end of the world, and observers elsewhere could barely organize a portion of the relief measures that were needed. As well, the Catastrophe did not end with natural blows-later World Parliament studies concluded that as many as two-thirds of the dead were victims of "man-made" ruin. Industrial, military, and corporate installations, power stations, transportation hubs, medical facilities, and public works infrastructures were shattered along with ordinary dwellings, magnifying the crises enormously. In the places struck hardest, civilization itself had figuratively and virtually fallen to pieces.

The aftermath of the Pacific Catastrophe-the "smoke, rubble, death" of Li's song cycle-saw most of the world's people enrolled, in some fashion or other, to provide aid for the helpless regions bordered around the vast ocean. Emergency food, shelter, and makeshift hospitals were delivered, and survivors of radioactive and toxic spills-where there were survivors at all-were rescued. National armed forces had to replace police departments in areas plagued with crime epidemics; health and sanitation services, too, were in desperate demand.

Prioritization was imperative. The tasks set before humanity were formidable, and they had to be undertaken in order of greatest necessity. First came the disposal of the dead, either through burial, or, more commonly, incineration; then there was the restoration of basic medical ministration and law and order; longer-range planners set about-eventually-rebuilding communities and reclaiming lost or poisoned land. Daunting as these projects were (and some seemed plainly hopeless), there was one problem they were not complicated by: the disablement of the information networks. Not only was the repair of global communications systems not considered of any urgency, many involved in the relief work-that is, many millions of men, women, and children-believed that the lack of intact systems was a help rather than a hindrance to their efforts. The Pacific Catastrophe, and the catastrophes that preceded it, had to be fully faced and fully remedied. A suspicion had developed that Information was not a cure but part of the original disease.

This is not the story of the heroic healing programs that reshaped the world for over a hundred years from the middle of the twenty-first century, of names like Kamali, Dunn, Dadmanesh, Asaoka, or Mohan, of the waves of emigration and resettlement that redistributed the world's population to an extent unseen since two centuries before; those sagas have deservedly been told many times. What is relevant to us is not mankind's determined advance against adversity, but its equally resolute retreat from excess. Information was now to sink from being a symbol of unmet potential to being an inducement of unmatched remorse.

George Case

George Case wrote Silence Descends in longhand, then transcribed the manuscript with a manual typewriter for submission. "This book is not a prophecy, but a critical response to the hype in our society." Silence Descendsis published by Arsenal Pulp Press. For ordering information call 1-888-600-PULP or email arsenal@pinc.com.

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