Friday, August 27, 2010

The Best Location in the Nation... Again by Roger Bourke White Jr.

Note: This is a vignette, and is part of a challenge I have taken up. The challenge is to write interesting stories of our future without some bleak post-Holocaust setting. This story is America in 2110, when the world's population has declined from a peak of 11 billion in 2050 down to 9 billion, but it didn't take a disaster to make this happen -- instead the world's population became 90% prosperous urban, and people just found more interesting things to do than have babies. This is about a world that is a comfortable place.

As I flew into Cleveland to visit grandma, I saw some new quite noticeable buildings – large domes – in the heart of the city down by the Cuyahoga River – the area known as The Flats.  I checked my PDA and found out they were, of all things, steel mills!
Steel mills! Yes, in the 1920’s The Flats grew into a steel-making center of the world, but Cleveland’s steel mills had died a rusty death in the 1970’s as 20th century America’s Steel Belt had transformed into the Rust Belt.  Now they were back, but in a whole new way. This could be interesting.
As I was driving to grandma’s I scheduled myself to take a tour before I went home. When I told the family, all got interested, including grandma.
“My Goodness!” she said, “I haven’t been downtown for… ten years? The last time was to see that Rock and Roll museum when they inducted… now I don’t even remember!  …I remember that was the last one, though, when they finished, they moved the whole kit-and-kaboodle out to New York City – said there wasn’t enough interest here.” She laughed, and she was happy to come see what had changed since then, so we made it a family outing.
There was lots of traffic as we made our way to The Flats, and the roads were in good shape, but there were few cars – cars meaning those things that carry humans in them.  The traffic was almost all trucks of many kinds with a few creation shuttles mixed in.
“How interesting.” grandma said as we pulled into the parking lot, “This is the Rock and Roll museum building.”  It was a beautiful location, right next to the lake with a wonderful view of both the lake and the Cleveland skyline.
The tour guide was a creation designed specifically for PR with humans, but different than the usual PR-creation type.  Rather than an android look, it had a robot-looking exterior inspired by Robbie the Robot of 1950’s movie fame, but unlike that movie robot the voice was quick and pleasant to listen to.
“This building is now the visitor center for the New Flats Steel Complex.” the PR bot explained, “Cleveland is still, geographically, one of the best locations in the nation for producing steel.  This plan has been a long time in the making, and five years ago we negotiated with the last humans living near The Flats to help them relocate elsewhere.  A few chose the suburbs of Cleveland; most chose one of the more major human metro areas.  Whichever they chose, we helped them get very nice accommodations, and when they left, we began redeveloping The Flat’s steel-making potential.”
“There are no humans left in Cleveland?” said grandma incredulously.
“Oh, there are still ten thousand left.” the bot assured my grandma, “but they are now all far from The Flats in places such as University Circle and Kamm’s Corners.”
“…Just ten thousand now.” grandma said wistfully, “There were a hundred thousand when I married your grandfather, and half a million at its peak in the 1950’s. It was the sixth largest city in the nation then, you know, just behind Detroit. How times have changed.”
“And changed for the better.” said the bot brightly, “As our construction finishes here The Flats will produce five times the steel it did in its 20th century heyday, but this time with only a tenth of the pollution.  We have come a long way.”
“You don’t need any people to make steel?” I asked.
“Not any more.  The process is well understood, and the work to do so is still difficult, dangerous and dirty, so it is now entirely automated and entirely in the hands of industrial creations.  This is why The Flats is now so attractive once again – the geography has always been good, and now that we don’t have the cost disadvantage of supporting human peculiarities such as zoning laws and pensions, we can once again take advantage of this wonderful geography.”
“Why do you have domes this time?” I continued.
“That’s a good question, but it’s well covered in our VR tour.  May I recommend that you all experience that?  Then I’ll be happy to answer more questions.”
We took the tour, and we all learned a lot.  It was impressively interactive.  My tour was mostly of pictures of things happening in the domes, and it was impressive to watch all the machines moving around, and the red hot pots of pig iron and the gleaming bands of steel coming out as finished product.  Jeremy, my younger brother, who’s planning to go to MIT, got a tour that covered a lot about the chemical processes in steel making.  He saw lots of graphs and charts. Grandma’s tour focused on nostalgia – it was a history of steel making on The Flats, with old black and white photos and lots about the old steel barons of last century.  It took an hour, and we all got interesting tours.
At the end, Jeremy and I had some questions.  I asked, “Why are the mills in domes this time?”
The bot answered smoothly, “Since people don’t have to be near the process, we don’t cool the environment around the furnaces as much. The domes are hellish hot inside, and even warm to the touch on the outside.  The domes protect the environment from the heat and toxic wastes that are produced along with the steel. Those wastes are then gathered and sequestered in the old salt mines under the city.”
“I remember hearing about those.” chirped up grandma.
“They have been put to good use again, just like The Flats have.” chimed in the bot.
Jeremy said, “I notice that this modern process takes only a fifth as much coal as the 1930’s processes, but just as much limestone.  Why is that?”
The bot answered smoothly, “Much of the coal used in the 1930’s process was providing heat.  We are now using alternative energy to do that.”
“You mean like windmills and solar power?”
The bot was a little slow answering this time, “…Alternative.  We get our power from many sources.”
Jeremy pressed, “Wind and solar these days are optimized for electrical generation. If you use electricity to heat the raw materials, you lose all that efficiency you were just telling us about.”
The bot was cornered, and knew it, and relented, “The alternate energy we use the most of is nuclear.  Each of those domes contains a large nuclear reactor as part of its steel making process. This is how we keep both the energy and environmental costs down, and this is why they are dome-shaped.”
“This is why this Flats Revitalization has been so long planned and only been implemented starting two years ago. Now that there are no people living within two miles of The Flats, we have permission to employ nuclear power, and this is why our production costs are now globally competitive again.”
We were all stunned.  I said, “So radiation is part of the toxic wastes that are sequestered under the city?”
“A vanishingly small part.  The vast majority of what goes down there is carbon dioxide.”
There was no more to say at the time, so we left.  But we were all very impressed with what the creations were doing… some of us were amazed, and some were scared.
-- The End --

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