Men of Iron

What-if Chiang-style SF story on iron vanishing and the Great Silence
fiction, biology, SF
2012-12-242017-06-04 finished certainty: log importance: 0

On the last day, the aliens took the iron. They set­tled in a polar orbit, and slowly stripped the world of its met­tle.

The satel­lites were the first to go, del­i­cately engi­neered, in a hos­tile envi­ron­ment, and clos­est to the epi­cen­ter - a spread­ing zone of igno­rance which satel­lites entered and then did not return from. The oper­a­tors were mys­ti­fied, then pan­icked; some turned their satel­lites around to scan the galac­tic skies, as did those “intel­li­gence assets” which had not used up too much fuel in sta­tion-­keep­ing in their end­less gaze of the earth. The slow­ly-­ex­pand­ing sil­ver lozenges were spot­ted quickly (to lit­tle avail but later fos­ter­ing a thou­sand debates among aca­d­e­mics in the ruin­s).

The extrac­tion was pecu­liarly lim­it­ed. That any human or liv­ing crea­ture sur­vived indi­cated that the removal of iron was lim­ited to non-or­ganic crea­tures: had iron been removed from hemo­glo­bin and the oxy­gen con­tent of blood reduced to zero, every mam­mal would have asphyx­i­ated in sec­onds. Min­ers reported that no iron seams were acces­si­ble in exist­ing iron mines; yet the iron core of the Earth could not have been removed as the crust had not col­lapsed, the Earth’s orbit seemed to be unchanged, and the mag­netic field retained its usual strength. Naked-­eye obser­va­tions ruled out the pos­si­bil­ity that the core had been removed from Venus or Mars, and Mars retained its red col­or, but the mar­gins of error were too large to rule out orbital aber­ra­tions due to hypo­thet­i­cal removal of giga­tons of iron from the sub­sur­face of either.

The aliens’ moti­va­tions remained unclear. Unknown physics was involved, as no mech­a­nism could even be hypoth­e­sized. A flotilla of ves­sels spoke of a rich inter­stel­lar civ­i­liza­tion, which was impos­si­ble with­out mil­len­nia of peace and coop­er­a­tion, but their actions sup­ported the “intel­li­gence implies bel­liger­ence” the­sis: human­ity had stored up so much data in dig­i­tal libraries (often routed through com­mu­ni­ca­tion satel­lites) that it was impos­si­ble that the aliens could not com­mu­ni­cate with us; and yet they did not, com­mu­ni­cat­ing nei­ther demands nor warn­ing nor expla­na­tion. Per­haps they were doing pre­cisely what it looked like - min­ing for allotropic iron? But why mine in such a destruc­tive method, and why choose the Earth rather than any of the other rocky iron-rich plan­ets, or bet­ter yet, the aster­oids? (One astronomer noted that with the elim­i­na­tion of cer­tain astro­nom­i­cal pro­grams, it was pos­si­ble that the aster­oids had been mined out pre­vi­ously but we had not seen it.)

Iron in any of its deriv­a­tives such as steel, human­ity was forcibly remind­ed, was cru­cial to almost all enter­pris­es. A proud col­umn of steel, deprived of iron, is but a mist of chromium and other adul­ter­ants which sup­ports noth­ing. As the absence crept along the globe, it was fol­lowed by dark­ness and large red pin­pricks of light.

In the for­mer Tokyo, the most elderly looked at the rub­ble piles and fires with equa­nim­i­ty: the world had already ended for them once. In Chi­na, the national dream of the restored Mid­dle King­dom col­lapsed with Bei­jing and Shang­hai. Ankara expe­ri­enced the earth­quake long proph­e­sied by unbe­liever sci­en­tists; as every­where, they cursed God in their own way. In New York, fear of ter­ror­ism gripped the sub­con­scious, and tens of thou­sands died as the bridges dis­ap­peared, and more with the tow­ers; the waters and rub­ble served well to bury their mil­lions. In San Fran­cis­co, the build­ings - rein­forced against earth­quake and kept close to the ground by ren­t-seek­ing reg­u­la­tion and NIMBYism - killed fewer hun­dreds of thou­sands than one would have expect­ed; the irony was not not­ed.

Crops with­ered and rot­ted in the fields of devel­oped nations as the built-up cap­i­tal of indus­tri­al­iza­tion was set back at a stroke to the 1500s, with all mech­a­nized equip­ment, down to the sim­plest iron plow, now use­less. The 1% of the pop­u­la­tion could no longer feed the 99%; the masses fled the dying cities to the fields. One way or anoth­er, the prob­lem would be solved. Peo­ple in the poor­est coun­tries began killing each other with sticks and stones; the sit­u­a­tion is indis­tin­guish­able from before.

Microchips, it turned out, were often exempt from the effect; some man­u­fac­tur­ers used iron in key roles, but oth­ers had moved away from met­als as much as pos­si­ble. Most of the unaf­fected com­put­ing infra­struc­ture was then destroyed by col­laps­ing build­ings, firestorms, or sim­ply dis­abled by lack of power from gen­er­a­tors that became lit­tle more than loops of cop­per wire sit­ting in pud­dles of gaso­line. But many places con­tin­ued to work. The world split between dark and light.

Remain­ing cen­ters of indus­tri­al­iza­tion reached a con­sen­sus that civ­i­liza­tion could (had to) be rebuilt on the remain­ing non-­fer­rous met­als like alu­minum. Baux­ite purifi­ca­tion requires megawatts of elec­tric­ity and ore from Africa. It was real­ized that smelt­ing plants in Ice­land depended on dams bro­ken by the event, and that with the sink­ing of the global fleet, there was no way to trans­port the ore there or to other smelt­ing plants in coun­tries like Aus­tralia. Aus­tralia was pleased to boast baux­ite deposits and end­less coal for smelt­ing; unfor­tu­nate­ly, no sub­stan­tial ship­ping could ben­e­fit from this - the remain­ing ves­sels were back­logged for years on human­i­tar­ian grounds. Hob­by­ists were con­sulted on the con­struc­tion of wooden sail­ing ships.

Men­strual blood con­tains ~0.7mg of iron per day. A human body con­tains 2-4 grams of iron.

Iron min­ing resumed.

The exist­ing crops were har­vested with­out more issues than might be expected at the end of the world. The specter of iron chloro­sis stalked the land. The next crop was small and sick, with pale yel­low leaves. Yields were a tenth of pro­ject­ed. Food inse­cu­ri­ty, already high at the time of the inci­dent, became high­er. Entire coun­tries were denuded of any chloro­phyl­lic or mam­malian life. Rich peo­ple lamented the extinc­tion of toma­toes, apri­cots, olives, pears, and nuts.

The crop yields were the first blow. With food­stuffs defi­cient in iron, peo­ple began to lose their own iron. The next gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren grew up stunt­ed, apa­thet­ic, and less intel­li­gent than their par­ents. Iron sup­ple­ments and iodized salt was a lux­ury of the past. Females were over­rep­re­sented among the defi­cient and the goi­ter­ous cretins, and men­stru­at­ing women were most hard struck by ane­mia. Sex­ism swelled based on sim­ple obser­va­tion. With bio­log­i­cal iron a fixed resource and fur­ther losses inevitable, the long-term trends pointed down.

Old NASA text­books were con­sult­ed. The loss of bio­logic iron would be stemmed by use of self­-­con­tained agri­cul­tural ecosys­tems. Human­ity did not go to space; space came to human­i­ty.

As the cat­a­stro­phe con­tin­ued to ram­i­fy, addi­tional spec­u­la­tion was added to the jour­nals: per­haps the removal of iron was sim­ply a way of neu­ter­ing a planet per­ma­nent­ly. With­out iron ore and with most hydro­car­bon reserves deplet­ed, it would be impos­si­ble for a space-­far­ing civ­i­liza­tion to ever develop again.

This expla­na­tion seemed as plau­si­ble as any.