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.