Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Return to Tomorrow - Chapter XII - Uranium, Diamonds, and Other Garbage

This book is like the anti-Star Trek.  There's no joy to space exploration, just the misery of being displaced by time due to traveling at relativistic speeds.  You don't do it out of a sense of adventure, or because it's profitable, or because you want to, you do it because it's too much effort to stop and try to make a new sidereal life for yourself.  And you may not have had a choice in the matter, depending on your skillset and how far a captain was willing to go to "hire" a person with your talents.

It's just so depressing.  There's not even a sense of wonder from seeing new worlds shining in the light of foreign suns, just a materialistic hope that there's something down there you might be able to sell on the next world you visit so you can buy enough booze to temporarily suppress the pain of your pointless existence.

Or, since this came first, maybe Star Trek is the anti-Return to Tomorrow.  Anyway, lets get back to it.

The Hound has landed on Earth again, and things have changed since the last visit however many years ago.  Corday is trying to haggle with someone running a shipyard just outside New Chicago-

"You mean Candia," said the superintendent.  "I recollect somebody sayin' there was another town here once, but Candia's been around - let me see - darned if I know.  Maybe six-seven hundred years.  Real old.  We got some buildings they say go clear back to the Third Triarchy.  Oldest in Halloland."


"Halloland, the continent."

"You mean North America."

-and the city itself, whatever it's called, is now a megalopolis "sixteen levels high, suburbs extending eight hundred miles all about."  There's a "mechanical renaissance" going on at the moment, which is good news for the Hound since it means Corday should be able to get year-old replacement parts for pretty cheap, even if these rapid advances in technology confuse him.  Some new air filter "broke air into individual atoms and used the unwanted impurities for power," while uranium has been rendered completely obsolete by something called "cataphan," an ore extract shipped in from Pluto that you can pour on sand to run an engine "two million H.T.U. of heat to the jib."

Yet despite these technological wonders, Corday is of the opinion that each time he returns to Earth, "the human race was not quite as vital as the last time he had contacted it."  So this futuristic society is apparently racing along the tech tree in a listless fashion.  Or maybe Corday's just cranky that the yardmaster is talking about the Hound as "a bloomin' antique" and the language gap is such that it's getting hard to converse even in "lingua spacia," the business jargon of rocket men.  But Corday doesn't have any options, this port is the only place on the continent with the "racks" an old ship like the Hound can land on comfortably.  And where else are they gonna put down?  Asia?  Africa?  No, sir!  This here's a respectable tramp freighter.

So, the haggling.  The first challenge is working out exchange rates, since the locals are using something called "tylers."  Corday has to do this by hand, with a pencil on paper, using the price of a plate of ham and eggs from the spaceport restaurant as a unit of conversion, and figures out that the repairs and upgrades and whatnot will all cost upwards of thirty thousand dollars.  And I guess there's a bank or something nearby that will take whatever centuries-old currency the Hound is carrying and swap it out for current cash?  Wait, no, they don't need to exchange currency, the Hound is currently unloading a cargo of "Mizar puronic" fur, gold and scarlet pelts worth eight billion spacebux-

"Hey now, don't let yourself get skidded. My guess is they're worth twenty billion if anybody ordered eight, just on the principle. Women will be women."

Sure is lucky the Hound happened to land on Earth at a time that civilization was thriving and willing to shell out so much money for luxury items, and wasn't being consumed by war, or decided that wearing the hide of dead animal was barbaric.  Then they'd be no better off than that ship that landed with a hold full of uranium last May, or the Molly Murphy and its cargo of useless diamonds that are now sitting behind a shed.

You know, maybe Jocelyn and the other space traders need to change their angle.  Luxury items and fuels can go out of style or be rendered obsolete by advances in technology, but sometimes the most valuable stuff on a ship from the deep passage is just old "junk."  Corday's pistol for example is an antique that the shipyard master wants to swap for two brand-new "burners," while the crew of the Wanderbar IV did well by selling off the ship's library.  And the aforementioned Molly Murphy didn't go home emptyhanded, it managed to recoup its losses by selling stuff to a museum like some six-thousand-year-old flag - "Red, white and blue.  Stars.  Pretty."

I think our heartstrings are supposed to tug at the thought of the great US of A being forgotten, rather than our brains throbbing as we wonder why this civilization can't look this stuff up on Wikipedia.  Did that great revolution against the whites end up destroying much of society's historical records?  Were those dastardly hypnotists undertaking a Cultural Revolution to purge the new order of antiquated ideas?  Or is this the result of a different apocalypse that Corday missed while he was mining hot rocks off Betelgeuse?

Hmm, six thousand years... Ole Doc Methuselah was last seen at about a thousand years old, if I remember correctly.  So either those stories and this one don't belong in the same continuity, or else, thanks to the magic of relativistic travel, all that nonsense with the Soldiers of Light and galactic empires and extra-galactic travel with miraculously-fast engines all came and went without Corday and the other folks on the Hound of Heaven ever being aware of them.  Heh.  The idea is not without its appeal.

All this to say, Corday eventually gets a deal worked out for new parts, especially after he realizes that he saw a whole mountain of that "cataphan" stuff somewhere else, causing the yardmaster to give him a cigar even though "I won't even be dust when you come in here again."  He returns to the Hound to report to Jocelyn, and bumps into Snoozer just inside the airlock.

"Jocelyn aboard?"

"He's got some people up there," said Snoozer, brushing out the folds of a scarf she had wheedled out of a peddler.  "Are you going townside, Mr. Corday?"

But Alan was up the ladder and into the big cabin in a rush.

You know, Corday, maybe you haven't made any friends aboard the Hound not because you still don't fit in with that band of misfits, but because you just aren't good with people.

Jocelyn is conferring with a Regiment Hauber, who wants to set up a colony on Johnny's Landing.  You remember, the planet with the abandoned colony the Hound and that other ship found, but didn't bother to investigate?  Corday does, and tries to protest, but the archdick keeps interrupting.

Alan started to speak in a rush, but he was halted by a flash in Jocelyn's usually languid eye.

"He thinks highly of it," said Jocelyn. "He was once there. These gentlemen head up a potential colony, Mr. Corday. We may have the pleasure of carrying them and their equipment. Now tell these gentlemen frankly what you know of Johnny's Landing. Is it fertile?"

"Yes, I-"

"And unit gravity?"

"Of course, but-"

"And there's no animals except those useful to man?"

"No, they-"

"And water and air were good?" said Regiment Hauber.

"Of course. But I-"

"What were you going to say, Mr. Corday?" said Jocelyn. "Go on and tell the gentleman."

Corday eventually finds his tongue, and... well, it's a bit confusing.  You might think that Corday is objecting to Jocelyn taking some rubes to a planet where the last batch of rubes went all Roanoke without the courtesy of leaving behind a note.  But instead Corday tells Jocelyn about that "cataphan" stuff, how it's the fuel of the day and worth two thousand spacebux an ounce.

And then the exchange comes to a screeching halt so the author can talk about space colonization for two pages.  Using the power of editing, I will pretend that these paragraphs come somewhere else in the chapter, so not to interrupt the flow of the confrontation between our two main characters.

So Corday thinks he's gotten Jocelyn good, and is faintly mocking when he makes his declaration about how valuable "cataphan" is.  So I guess the idea is that Jocelyn will decide not to ferry the colonists in favor of going after that lucrative resource, thereby sparing Hauber and his settlers the horror of colonizing a previously-colonized planet.  But Jocelyn pulls a fast one on Corday, reasoning that since the "cataphan" deposit being used by Earth right now is a small vein on Pluto, by the time the Hound came back with more, society would have undoubtedly exhausted it and discovered an alternative fuel.  So Jocelyn apologizes for his "rather young" officer distracting his passengers and asks that they excuse his "bric-a-brac," and Corday gives his boss a "glare of pure hate" before stomping out of the cabin as Jocelyn and Hauber discuss how many people to bring and how much space to devote to supplies.  They're thinking three hundred women and one hundred men, which falls about a hundred people short of the minimal size for a healthy gene pool.  Hope some frisky long passage ship comes by to visit before the population dies out to inbreeding.

Snoozer was still at the air lock.  Alan scarcely saw her, such was his bitterness over this venture.  Ten thousand tylers the passenger.  And a high bill for freight.  And half a dozen of the best young men shipped forever and the prettiest women detained

Look, if they want to go, what's the harm?  What if they've made their peace with the idea of never seeing anyone from their hometowns again?  That's what being a colonist means, they're willing to make a new start somewhere else.  Just because you got shanghaied and had your life ruined by the captain you inexplicably continue to serve doesn't mean that everybody else hates space travel.

 and a colony planted where a colony had suddenly perished before-

Now that, that's a better thing to be angry about.  Although it's undermined by your total lack of interest in this mystery and your failure to investigate it.  And compounded by your failure to mention this fact to the colonists about to be sent there.  What, are you afraid of harming your relationship with Jocelyn?

"Are you going to hit dirt?" said Snoozer.  "I have six of these funny tylers-"

"The man's a devil," said Alan with heat.  "A devil!  A devil!"  And he walked angrily down the gangway and out of sight while Snoozer, drooping, her new scarf not so pretty to her now, looked after him through misting eyes.

So shoot him or something, sheesh.  Or at least stop doing his bidding if he's so evil.  But Corday can't do that, because being a space tramp is all he knows, he doesn't belong anywhere else, there's nothing but heartbreak and confusion waiting for him on terra firma, and yadda yadda.

Now, rewinding a bit to the author's spiel about space colonies.  We're told that most colonists are "convicts, political refugees, defeated nationals or the eugenic outcasts," and only rarely do people like the idealistic and wealthy Hauber undertake a private enterprise to settle a new world.  This is because Earth, despite its people's long history of settling new lands and building empires, is wholly uninterested in colonizing other planets.  This is due to the logistics of the process.

Regiment Hauber might or might not know the truth about other systems.  But a colony, laid down anywhere out there, could not expect intelligence of its whereabouts to return for generations.  News would not circulate widely in the vessels of the long passage for more than a handful of millenniums.  No other ships would stop unless the planet was rich.  It was abandonment complete and isolation utter, a somewhat frightening prospect even to a brave man.

I'm pretty sure that not every single one of those people who traveled to North America from Europe did so only on the condition that they'd be able to return if they wanted to.

So all things considered, Earth is pretty neutral on the subject of colonies.  There's no immediate advantage to setting them up, and since interplanetary trade is problematic, as we've seen, there's little material benefit.  But Earth's governments don't try to discourage people from leaving, either, since it's a "minute but welcome" drain on the planet's bloated population of ten people per arable acre of land, or "about one hundred sixty per cent of what current agriculture could provide."

So... the planet is in the middle of a "mechanical renaissance," but is suffering from overpopulation and presumably a terrible famine because there's not enough farmland to feed everybody.  Unless they're importing food from off-planet?  Shipments of grain from Alpha Centauri?  Suddenly, encouraging colonization sounds like a very good idea.  As does the invention of some kind of birth control, maybe something simple like a pill?

The notion of interplanetary combat is also raised, but dismissed - Earth's leadership knows it has nothing to fear from a rogue colony, since technology on their planet will keep advancing while a colony will start out decades if not centuries behind due to the quirks of relativistic, one-way time travel.  And of course any attackers "would have to compose itself of soldiers very desperate indeed to leave their homes behind them - for the men in any force from any star would not return home in time to resume concourse with their peoples."  As if everyone in Earth's historical imperial armies could be certain of returning home after pacifying the native populations of wherever they got shipped to.

There are non-human civilizations out there, however, but although "Many hostile and even terrible races had been discovered out amongst the stars but none of them with enough technology to conquer or attempt to conquer space."  We'll kill a few of them next time.   And the notion that some alien empire out there might have started far more advanced than Earth, so that by the time it reached our planet it would still have a technological edge, isn't even considered.  As is the idea that Earth might enter a dark age and fall behind its colonies or rival galactic civilizations.

All this to say, for a story exploring interstellar, slightly-slower-than-light commerce, it's not giving us any reasons to view such a thing as practical or beneficial - at best you can load up a colony ship to get rid of some excess population as a fire-and-forget sort of rocket, at worst you're like the people on the Molly Murphy, throwing your life away to haul in a load of worthless shiny rocks.  This will make the story's final message all the more baffling.

Back to Chapter XI 

No comments:

Post a Comment