Geology: the Missing Science

Doesn't that sound like the title of one of those ancient textbooks you could find in the back stacks of school libraries? Still, as far as science fiction goes, geology does not have a big role.

I did not grow up studying, or at all interested in geology. It helps that I grew up in Illinois, where all is glacial till, and bedrock only emerges at odd locations, like Starved Rock State Park, a favorite place to visit and climb around in my childhood. You are no longer allowed to climb around there, but we used to do incredibly dangerous things. That's what geology is for. And then I moved from one glacial landscape to another, New England, all drumlins and the traces of glacial lakes. There are a lot more things you can fall off of out here, though, so that was some progress.

 Fun fact: if you Google "geology", pretty much all the top images are of the Colorado Plateau

Fun fact: if you Google "geology", pretty much all the top images are of the Colorado Plateau

I only developed an interest in geology when I started spending a lot of time on the Colorado Plateau, around Four Corners, the area that holds most of the famous national parks of the Southwest, like Zion, Bryce, the Grand Canyon, and Canyonlands. Geology there is bold and in your face.

I've set one story specifically there, in the future in Escalante Canyon ("The Breath of Suspension"), and several in an area of an alien planet that is similar to the Colorado Plateau (the Tessa Wolholme stories, "Above Ancient Seas" and "The Last Castle of Christmas"—I really should get back to that world....)

Geology strong affects what humans do, how they live, and how their world looks and feels.

Enjoying it is one thing, understanding it is quite another

Over the years, I acquired a number of books and wall charts on the geology of the region. I would read them, trying to distinguish the various geologic eras I was looking at (from the deep Paleozoic at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, through the Mesozoic strata in Zion, to the youngest rock in Bryce, halfway into the Cenozoic). I'd see how all of these locations are part of one gigantic multilayered structure, the Grand Staircase. Even when I was successful, I still didn't really get what was going on with the Colorado Plateau.

So, recently, after my last trip there (Boulder Mail Trail, Escalante Canyon) I decided to learn a bit more about geology in general. That doesn't mean that I got all interested in the things like the Moh's Scale of mineral hardness, which every geology text feels obliged to spend some time on. I know diamonds are harder than talc. Don't push me any farther. But I did want to figure out how the land had formed,and what in particular made the region of the Colorado Plateau so specifically interesting.

Several levels of explanation

One interesting thing I found was that there are some quite good books on the geology of the Colorado Plateau specifically, and some good popular and lightly technical books on geology in general, but they don't overlap much. Larger scale geology books and textbooks seem uninterested in the Colorado Plateau, while the more regional books spend little or no time on the larger picture into which the Colorado Plateau fits. I get the impression that canyon country geologists are their own breed, somewhat crusty, somewhat stuck in their ways, kind of like Boomer science fiction writers. Geologists from other regions are reluctant to mess with them, or trespass on their turf. Or maybe, more properly, their caliche. In several of the books I read, they were dubious about plate tectonics. The books are a decade or two old, and they couched their objections as anyone with a working set of analytical tools usually does: "hey, let's not go overboard here, this is cool, but we should be careful about using it to explain everything" followed by a muttered "punk kids think they can tell me how to look at a landscape."

So, next time, we'll check out cratons, the rift valley of the Rio Grande, and other such interesting matters.

How much do you know about your geology?

I was on a panel at Readercon, and someone in the audience wanted to talk about leaving your body to science. I wondered if you were allowed to pick which science, and whether anyone ever left their body to geology. None of the mortuaries around here seem to offer fossilization as an option.