Monday, November 14, 2011

A Story for All Times

Science fiction is like country music.  There's the real thing, like Johnny Cash, the Stanleys, the Carters or Merle Haggard and Willie; then there is what mega-sells, the plastic neo-Nashville hat acts (three chords and a cliche, as I refer to that dreck).  Classic SF is anchored in the real, and the author has something authentic to say that would be as true set hundreds of years in the past as hundreds in the future.
For all the cheap production values and deliciously hammy acting (fun to enjoy in itself), Star Trek was and is a worthy successor to H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and Arthur C. Clarke; without the props and sets, it told us stories that improve with age.  Stories that we want to go back to and find deeper meaning.
Episode #76, aired 2/28/69, "The Cloud Minders," is so relevant today it is startling. 
The Enterprise arrives at planet Ardana to obtain a mineral, Zenite, much needed on another planet to halt a crisis.  Kirk and Spock beam down to the Zenite mines to negotiate, somehow not knowing what Ardana's deal is.  The miners are acting violently, but the security forces of the leaders who dwell in the floating cloud city above disperse them and invite our intrepid Star Fleet emissaries to meet with them while order is restored and the mineral can be gathered. 
They observe that Ardana society is divided between the laboring Troglytes in the mines and the elite in the luxurious city above.  Turns out that the mines were in the midst of a rebellion, and Kirk and Spock get involved with Troglyte infiltrators who have managed to enter the city.  Dr. McCoy, meanwhile, has discovered that the Zenite emits an odorless gas which degrades the Trogs' mental capacity and plays havoc with their emotions.
The infiltrators, free of the effects of the gas for the first time, begin the realize the full extent of their mistreatment.  After several tussles and reversals, the rebels accept the filtering masks the Enterprise crew has devised, and clearheaded, with Kirk as ally, demand equal treatment.  The Enterprise departs with its mineral shipment; a good week's work done.
You can see the disorienting gas as advertising/broadcast propaganda/sickening pollution; the cloud-dwelling elite as the globalized 1% in control of commodities, production, and labor; even the infiltrators as the OWS and the Arab Spring.
When that 1% go too far with unaccountable authoritarian capitalism and the always-bad decision making of centralized control, they won't collapse and go away.  They are already using their billions in cash, which they understand will be devalued by inflation and eventually worthless, to buy agricultural land and establish safe havens (look back to a previous post, "Mystery Ranch," for a description of Dubya Bush's well-prepared, off-grid Crawford TX retreat).  One hedge fund group is already the 15th biggest farmer in the U.S.  A former hedger, with millions to spend, is buying large tracts of farmland in eastern Sudan and western Ethiopia (good soils, Nile river water, dirt cheap labor).  They are as good as the best SF writer at looking into the future.  Better, actually.
As has been the case in feudal societies and for a while in South America, the superrich are building up secure gated compounds, with high walls and security guards (thousands of soldiers will be coming home, to what other employment?).  Greenwich, CT and Cali, Columbia: the same scenario.  Many mansions now have large Cummins generators and plenty of diesel fuel to power all the conveniences their owners are accustomed to and do not intend to lose.  Several years ago I knew, in contented little Elizabethtown PA, a local baron (fortune and land from his father's trucking company serving Hershey Foods) with many acres and a garage-size building housing a generator, backed up by a pair of fuel tanks behind a fence.  There were two repair shops loaded with tools and parts, and you can bet on less visible alarm systems, guns and ammunition.
The elite in Beijing, China, are now insulating themselves from the killing air pollution by installing advanced air filtration systems in their buildings and homes.
The cloud city imagined on Star Trek  -- it's not fiction.


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