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October 22, 2006
Guest Blog: Dafydd ab Hugh Responds

After my post yesterday about Star Trek, my former co-blogger Dafydd ab Hugh wrote a lengthy exposition on the question of whether Star Trek was fascist. Dafydd writes science fiction and has tremendous insight into the ST environment -- plus he's always willing to argue arcane points in depth, which is what we have in common. Here's his response, which he has graciously allowed me to post here. And no, this is not another attempt at work avoidance. -- CE

I rise to make a correction: the original series Star Trek did have money. They used the pseudo-sci-fi term "credits."

For example, in "the Trouble With Tribbles," Cyrano Jones negotiates with the bartender about how much each tribble will cost; Lt. Uhura and Ens. Chekov are at the bar, and Uhura falls in love with the things. So Pavel Chekov does the gallant thing and offers to buy her one. Hence, they do have a monetary system.

It wasn't until Star Trek: the Next Generation that they eliminated money. And then in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (or maybe later in Next Gen, I forget), they brought it back!

I should know: my favorite of my Trek books (and the least favorite among the fans, I think!), Balance of Power, centered around money: specifically, a friend of Wesley Crusher figures out a way to counterfeit gold-pressed latinum using a replicator -- which is supposed to be impossible. Then he and Wesley get kidnapped by Ferengis and brought to an auction held for the estate of a dead inventor, at which the Federation, the Cardassians, the Romulans, and the Ferengi are all frantically bidding against each other for a particularly powerful weapon.

You can buy a used copy from Amazon for one penny, a new copy for 80 cents, or (if you're truly nutty) a "collector's" edition, whatever that is, for $8.00. (I don't get a dime of royalties for any of these, so pick the cheapest one, if you have any interest at all.)

The problem with Trek isn't that it's utopian; it's not -- else there wouldn't be any conflict among humans, though there is. It's that the creators of the newer series, from Mike Pillar to Rick Berman to jumped-up office boy Brannon Braga, were groping for a depiction of a post-economic society... and they didn't have the cinematic chops to do it right.

It all stems from replicator and holodeck technology, which is why we didn't see it in the original series. Once you have those two, then you're truly post-economic: if you get your hands on a replicator, it is essentially Aladdin's magic ring: anything else you want can be replicated, from food to machinery to great works of art. In fact, by the specs, a replicator can even replicate another replicator!

Every economic (monetary) system is ultimately based upon managing scarcity; it's a form of economic triage, shunting short resources to where they're needed. Thus, when there is no longer any shortage of any material object, any traditional material-based economy will collapse: capitalist, socialist, or barter-based.

(The replicators, as presented in the Trek series, were actually magical: they never ran out of mass. They must have had near-perfect reclamation technology to go along with the replicators, else they would run out of mass; everything excreted would have to be run back through the replicators. Presumably, what the Enterprise crew really ate was recycled feces and urine... but magically recycled into canard à l'orange and osso buco.)

But what the writers and producers didn't understand at all, in the beginning, and only dimly grasped even later (when they reintroduced the Ferengi as Julius Streicher-like caricatures of Jews), is that money didn't create humans; humans created money. I don't mean that simply glibly: humans will always find some way to recreate economic activity (witness prisoners exchanging sex for cigarettes). It's impossible to separate commerce from people; even in the Garden of Eden, humans will find something they can sell.

Replicators remove all material objects from the realm of commerce by making them as plentiful as leaves on the ground. So, starting from the assumption that "humans will always find something to sell," what do we get?

The most obvious thing available for selling is service: any human can sell his own services. Even if machines take the place of laborers, a person can hire himself out as a valet or butler, for those people rich enough to afford an actual human servant. It would be a lucrative profession; even now, such servants are paid far more than they were in the 19th century, when the supply of cheap human labor was more plentiful.

But creativity is also marketable: your replicator can make chicken, but it can't make my brand new chicken recipe that I just now invented! I suspect that copyright would still exist; it arose in the first place because it was necessary; creators refused to release their works without it. So a fellow could make a darned good living, even in the Star Trek post-economic society, by licensing his recipes to the replicator company. In fact, different companies would compete with different "license packs" of various dishes created by well-known chefs.

Original art would still have value (exaggerated value in a society where everyone had ample leisure time). There would still be a market for new novels, movies (holoplays, if you prefer), music, and indeed, for anything that hadn't been created yet. And naturally, a replicator cannot make a machine that has never existed before; so inventors would be rolling in green, or whatever color the "money" of that era was.

Daredevils would have no problem making a living, assuming some rating agency could be found to assure that they were actually human beings (or at least living creatures not immune to death or injury). In fact, all circus or carnival type acts would be popular... anything that makes us hold our breath in delicious terror that the man on the flying trapeze might fall and kill himself before our horrified eyes.

Also, let is not forget what is commonly (but erroneously) called "the world's oldest profession." (The actual world's oldest profession is "food gatherer," and every human on earth was employed at it back in the old days, 100,000 years ago.) Even if somebody invents androids which are better at the mechanics of sex, most people will still prefer actual humans.

Which means, since we would still have economic energy, we would still need the units of that energy: money. A faint cognition of that inescapable fact finally penetrated the semi-simian brains of the proprietors of the newer Trek series; they introduced "gold-pressed latinum" (GPL) as the unit of currency. To get around the replicator problem, they limply declared -- without explanation -- that this substance was the only matter known that "could not be replicated." Thus, it was a commodity that had a fixed quantity -- the perfect thing to use for currency. Like gold today, it was easy to test for the quantity of GPL in a trinket or a bar, and it could not be counterfeited.

(In Balance of Power, I actually go into the mechanics of GPL and why it can't be replicated; then I had the counterfeiter figure out a way around it. But unlike the proprietors of Star Trek, I'm an actual science-fiction writer, used to thinking about the future.)

In any event, the Trek proprietors were trying to depict a post-economic society, but they failed miserably. And such a failed depiction of a post-economic society is easy to mistake for a failed depiction of a Fascist utopia.

But give them their due: they were still befuddled; but they were befuddled at a higher level, and about deeper questions!

Two points. One, I'm glad someone else recognized the assignment of just about every stereotype of Jews possible to the Ferengi, something that bothered me explicitly from the moment the characters were introduced -- hunched back, greedy, exaggerated noses and ears, and so on.

Two, I wrote a novel once that attempted to do "space opera" as a sort of anti-Trek, almost a Firefly but with the Alliance being the good guys, more or less. I actually explained the food replicator as Dafydd does above, where every single bit of mass had to go back into the cycle. It's the only way a ship could do lengthy patrols in space, even if one could travel significantly faster than the speed of light; no ship could carry rations that far. I speculated that anyone forced to use a food replicator after being told of its sources would probably lose a few pounds until they managed to overcome it.

Needless to say, that book never got published ...

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at October 22, 2006 10:05 AM

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