“Revolution” and History

What Lancaster County Could Teach Hollywood


You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip,
Skip out for beer during commercials,
Because the revolution will not be televised.

~ Gil Scott-Heron

Landis Valley Museum Farm

Behind the South Shed at Landis Valley Museum

Some irony adheres to my starting my viewing of NBC’s new post-apocalyptic TV series Revolution only a few days after I went out to Lancaster County’s Landis Valley Museum for their Harvest Days.

A Norwegian friend has been curious about Revolution, having read the books by Canadian-American author S. M. Stirling belonging to Emberverse, or the Change series – the clear, probably unpaid progenitors of the show. He wanted me to check it out. Stirling’s premise does raise all sorts of possibilities and interesting questions for culture critics, historians, tech geeks, and futurologists: how would society redevelop if electricity, internal combustion, steam and gas power, guns, and explosives suddenly wouldn’t work anymore? Who might survive, and what might they need to know to do so?

Candle making by dipping racks into tended wax

Candle making could be done on racks, using tallow and beeswax

But as serious sci-fi readers, we were both wary. “It’s a story about family” had an ominous ring to it (Little House on the Post-Urban Nightmare Prairie, perhaps?). And NBC couldn’t do without the guns and explosives – what U.S. citizen would watch if something didn’t blow up? – so Revolution has set itself up with certain glitches. Further, network television hedges its bets with audiences and avoids realism, lest it offend a shrinking segment of America’s pampered sensibilities.

I braced for a host of coincidences, a dominantly white cast, and sexuality and adolescent temper tantrums reminiscent of children’s literature circa 1950. And on those counts, and many more besides, the series has met my low expectations. (Where I’ll give it credit is in portraying women as both courageous and capable of violence. Unfortunately, the female characters’ dialogue is often at odds with their actions.)

Blacksmith at Landis Valley Museum

The blacksmith shaped hot iron for many purposes

Beyond the expected, after a day at Landis Valley, a living-history village and farm where they demonstrate the pre-industrial lifestyle of the Pennsylvania Germans (also called Pennsylvania Dutch, from Deutsch, “German”), the holes in the Revolution society gaped alarmingly. I suspect that in the scenario as they have laid it out, only the Amish, Mennonites, and historical reenactors would survive – and certainly not the middle-income computer workers and pencil pushers of the series, whose knowledge of their forebears came only via the History Channel. (Nor was I impressed by the ex-marine; he would have been “ex” in the Marine Corps before the lights went out.)

The immigrants to Pennsylvania from the Rhenish Palatinate, whose lives Landis Valley Museum carefully preserves and presents in detail during the Harvest Days, would have been in much the situation Revolution sets forth, but with the difference that they wouldn’t have had dead iPhones to moon over and lost shares of Google to lament (endlessly). Reliant on natural resources, simple and limited tools and human- or animal-powered machinery, and their labor to survive, they developed communities throughout this state and spread inland across the country, choosing self-sufficiency and finding city living, even then, too costly.

These communities made their own candles for light, using tallow (the fat of animals) and beeswax and, sometimes, bayberry – though the labor needed to extract wax from the berries still makes it a bit of a luxury item. Certain oils would burn in lanterns and lamps with wicks, spun from cotton and wool fibers (before flame retardation was applied to such things), but dipped candles would have been the norm. Racks of these could be dipped at once, but the process took many hours and careful tending of the wax.

Tavern cooking at Landis Valley

Apples, pumpkin, and tomatoes would be cooked and preserved

Despite the presence of enough candles to make Pier One delirious (and most look like that’s where they came from), Revolution features no candle-making activity. Since I doubt stocks of 15-year-old candles would have lasted even a smaller population, I can only assume there’s a hidden cadre of candle makers somewhere. (Or does Hollywood think they outsourced to China?)

Storing food constituted a particular challenge for America’s settlers. Drying, smoking, and salting meats all preserved them – and are conspicuous by their absence in Revolution – but vegetables and fruits would  be boiled in large batches and sealed in containers. Ice was as valuable a commodity as cotton or grains, and after suffering numerous deaths from diarrhea brought on by spoiled food in the hot summers, colonists in the United States began to store ice amid layers of straw and sawdust, as well as keeping food in springhouses where water kept the temperature down. (The excavations at Jamestown in Virginia suggest ice storage as early as the mid-1600s.)

Chopping logs at Landis Valley Farm

Wood was needed for building, fencing, and firewood

For plowing, hoeing, scything, chopping firewood, crafting lanterns and utensils, and shoeing horses – among many other things – a good blacksmith was essential in any community. Tools broke and needed repair; blades required sharpening.

One of the most irritating features of Revolution is the widespread use of swords – apparently, every Renaissance Faire in the nation was raided, and then some – juxtaposed with the absence of metal workers of any kind. In fact, maintenance of weapons and tools is nonexistent in the show, and most look as if they just arrived off the shelf from Cabela’s or a backwoods Walmart. In a society that Hollywood deems “medieval” (they’re off by a few hundred years), people dependent for their food and protection on their crossbows and knives will hardly bang them around without restringing, sharpening, and oiling. As for the gun toters, when one complains how hard ammunition is to come by, you’re sorely tempted to suggest his followers try to become better shots, since no one seems inclined to work on more bullets.

Spinning at Landis Valley Museum

Spinning turned carded wool into thread

Never mind the cast-iron stove; you’re going to want the metal workers when it comes time to break the sod – or to skewer or shoot your neighbor.

Revolution also bewilders with its widespread presence of books, which one suspects is purely to give an old-timey feel to the series. (No e-readers, after all.) To preserve paper books would be both essential and a tremendous challenge in a society cut off from Internet-based knowledge and limited severely in both the overall knowledge base and the ease of communication. Books would contain “all there is to go on,” and yet, being easily burned, they would also be coveted by the panicky and desperate for fuel. Plain paper stock would go even faster into fires in colder climates, to heat, cook, boil the unsafe water polluted with human waste, sterilize instruments, and keep any metal forges running.

Quilting at Landis Valley's Harvest Days

Quilting and churning butter were essential activities

Just as books would constitute a valuable commodity, and paper and ink even more so in this post-technological society, so the German settlers in Pennsylvania found it. They made paper from linen rag stock, and mills sprang up along the creeks of Philadelphia to serve the city’s demand. Rittenhouse Town, established by a German Mennonite family along the Monoshone Creek, was the first paper mill in British North America, converting what weavers had produced from flax into yet another product, which it sold to printers in Germantown, Philadelphia, and as far as New York.

With Landis Valley’s Harvest Days having offered these and a host of other examples of the settlers’ industry – from soap making to pottery, coopering to wood carving – the comparative idleness of the characters in Revolution stood out like a sore thumb. Repeatedly in the series, the wandering young woman and her neighbors who seek first her uncle, then her brother, come across large groups dawdling around drinking, playing cards, and trying to sell pre-disaster bling and clothing. At one point, the small band arrives in a visibly unguarded Pontiac, Illinois market, and the former Google employee says, “Great, they’re having a sale on heroin.”

Well, they might be. Given the need of the survivors in such a culture for serious labor and available resources, an addict contributing nothing and draining the culture likely would have an incredibly short life – so supply might well exceed demand, to the point of putting the substance in pockets for almost nothing. But I think the screenwriters simply went for some “post-apocalyptic chic” with that line, ignoring the improbability that, with survival at stake, people would dedicate their time to extracting opium from hard-to-find poppy seeds and refining it for recreational use.

Rittenhouse Town, Philadelphia

Bakehouse and homestead at Rittenhouse Town, site of first U.S. paper mill

Fifteen years, after all, is not such a long time. While the growth of the World Wide Web over a matter of a couple decades may cause us to believe that people develop terrifically in such periods, this presupposes a base on which the technology can grow. The premise of Revolution, like that of Stirling’s Emberverse novels, is that what remains of the human race must begin all over again – without the help of the previous three or four centuries.

In the first few years after a technological wipe-out, extreme violence would shatter the fabric of everyday life. Cities especially would suffer, losing most of their population to disease, starvation, hypothermia, and fighting. Rural residents and those who escaped to the countryside would fare better but still undergo tremendous losses.

Wood Spoon Carving at Landis Valley

Wood carving was not merely decorative but for utensils

Possibly, society would then begin to organize. In his Change series, Stirling highlights as future leaders those not merely willing to use violence but familiar with history, hands-on practice, and the earth. (His Portland Protective Association is led by a former history professor and Society for Creative Anachronism member.) Revolution, however, turns to ex-military members and relative pacifists, none of whom seem engaged with building society. The Monroe Militia, when not killing people, spends time reading and taxing – and the people it taxes spend far more time remembering “the good old days” than developing a remotely sustainable lifestyle.

Of course, the dystopia Hollywood wishes to present depends on violence and “family drama,” with all hope of a restored society lying in the miracle of the power coming back on. This makes the show rather dull, really. Watching people wait and mope has never had great appeal in human history.

Hayride at Landis Valley Museum

Horse hitched up for a hayride

The Landis Valley Cookbook opens, “Since the first arrival of German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania in 1683, they have been a constant source of wonderment to the rest of the outside world.” That communities of their descendants, particularly the Amish and certain Old Order Mennonites, remain so fascinating lies in their living closely to a pre-industrial lifestyle.

Hollywood might thus learn that it is how a people engage with their circumstances, not what they wait for, that makes them intriguing.

2 thoughts on ““Revolution” and History

  1. S. M. Stirling

    I was most definitely not paid for “Revolution”, and I note with considerable smugness and self-satisfaction that most of the objections you raise in the above article applies only to the TV show, and not to my books. In which blacksmiths and food preservation are both of considerable importance!

    One of the primary ways in which (in my opinion) this show screwed up was to make the action turn around what caused the blackout and how to reverse it.

    This is boring, obvious, and sacrifices much of the potential dramatic possibility of the concept. Exploring the ways in which people adapt to the situation is much more interesting and opens many more possible alternatives than a “mad scientist in a cellar” plot.

    • Joanna Mullins Post author

      Thank you very much for your response! I was pretty confident this was Hollywood running on its own with the basic premise, and I am pleased to receive your confirmation (and disassociation of the Change world novels from the show).

      I too found the emphasis on getting the power back on to be misguided. I have previously found the similar theme of interstellar space explorers only wanting to go home to make for unfortunate viewing, and I’m afraid the approach comes from the same barrel. Do you have any idea why this has become the case in Hollywood screenwriting?

      I look forward to reading the novels (after I finish the 900-something-page one I had bestowed on me before them). They have been well recommended to me, and I find the premise quite intriguing – when thoughtfully handled, as I feel confident it will turn out to be in the books.

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