The Ecology of Alt-History, Or: The Hippos, the Hippos, the Hippos Are on Fire

Today, Sarah Gailey takes off her B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy blogger hat and puts on her author hat (which is probably some kind of pith helmet) to talk about her forthcoming novella River of Teeth, an alt-history about that time America almost launched an industry of mass hippo farming. Uh huh.

Did you know that forest fire suppression ultimately creates worse forest fires?

I’m probably oversimplifying this a lot, but here’s the basic concept: forest fires clear out flammable deadfall and undergrowth and help certain species of plants (especially some conifers) reproduce. When meddlesome humans try to stop forest fires from happening, we curb the removal of all that kindling; eventually, when a forest fire happens that we can’t stop, there’s a greater fuel-load for the fire. The result is more intense, longer lasting fires that spread farther and do more damage than they would have if we’d never dumped a bucket of water on a smoldering pile of pine needles.

Humans love to get in the way of perfectly good systems. We are like a kid who spills nail polish on the carpet and scrubs at it, spreading the stain farther while frantically shouting “I can fix it!” We create problems everywhere we go. It’s just what we do. We invade ecosystems, take them over, mourn that they don’t look like they did before we arrived, and then implement programs to try to put things back the way they were (save for all the comforts we want to keep).

I wrote a book about it.

In 1884, New Orleans hosted a World’s Fair. Some Japanese visitors to the fair brought a gift to give away—samples of a flower called the water hyacinth. These beautiful purple flowers are native to South America, but they grow today on every continent. Grow fast, and reproduce vigorously. And they’re extremely difficult to eradicate. Shortly after that Worlds Fair, water hyacinth took over the waterways of the Mississippi and the Louisiana Bayous.

At the same time, there was a problem in the rest of the country: not enough meat. Too many people, not enough animals to eat. Why weren’t there enough animals? Well, there are lots of possible answers to that, but about 20 years later, Americans in the former Great Plains would experience the ecological disaster of the dust bowl, so one wonders if perhaps the spread of unsustainable and ill-informed grazing practices had something to do with the insufficient meat supply.

So, America had two big problems—invasive plants and not enough meat—both of them related to ecological crises of our own manufacture. These crises disrupted the growth of the American machine —the dream of a widespread capitalist empire that couldn’t be hindered by the efforts of God, man, or nature.

So we did what we do: we came up with a solution.

We tend to assume we can control the solutions we develop. We assume that because we have opposable thumbs and money, we can outmaneuver nature. We see a creature that poops where it pleases, and we say to ourselves, “surely I can harness that thing for my own purposes!” For a long time, it didn’t occur to humans that there are some creatures that don’t need to outhink us, because they weigh about 3,000 pounds and have the bite force of a freight train. We don’t see facts when we want to see solutions.

The water hyacinth was a problem, and the meat shortage was a problem, and for a time—for a brief, glorious time—America saw a solution. We were going to fight an invasive species with the power of our big, important brains. We were going to get ourselves some hippos.

The thing that blows people’s minds when I give them the elevator pitch for my novella River of Teeth is how close this idea came to fruition. I don’t know why people are so surprised—human beings love solving things, and hippos are a pretty brilliant, obvious solution, if you assume that they’re as docile and malleable as, say, sheep. They’re already kind of meatball-shaped. And someone’s gotta eat the water hyacinth. It’s the perfect answer to the problem, if you don’t think about it too much.

And humans don’t like to think about things too much. If we think about things too much, we realize that the answers aren’t easy. If we think about things too much, we recognize our own limitations. If we think about things too much, we always come back to the same conclusion: we are the problem.

So instead, we decided what America needed was more giant, stubborn, aggressive megafauna. We came up with cute names for the meat we were going to harvest off that megafauna. We drafted legislation to birth an industry. We put it to a vote.

America came this close to having hippos in our waterways, eating the water hyacinth. Inevitably, though, those hippos would have taken over the waterways. That’s what hippos do. They don’t really have a natural predator—they’re too big and too mean. They bother crocodiles for fun. There’s simply no way that hippos could have been introduced into a new ecosystem without dominating it.

Imagine a forest fire, but instead of crackling flames singeing your hair at the ends, you’re surrounded by a flood of angry hippos who have run out of water hyacinth and are looking for their next meal. Thats what River of Teeth is about. It’s also about a lot of other things—cowboys and friendship and explosions and fashion—but more than anything, it’s about ecology. It’s about forest fires. It’s about what happens when human beings decide they have a solution, and the inevitable chaos that results from enacting it. It’s about the things we do to prevent the fires we’ve caused.

Preorder River of Teeth, available May 23 from Tor.com Publishing.

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