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The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

14 January 2010 Blog Home : January 2010 : Permalink

The Future Is Water on Stone

A guest post by Sarah A. Hoyt

Not too long ago I wrote a review of Sarah A Hoyt's new book Darkship Thieves Dark Ship Thieves. Well Sarah's a good internet friend of mine so she asked if she could post something else about the book to drum up sales. I asked her to write something about the background to the book at and what she's produced is a fascinating article about the way that free enterprise always bubbles up even if you try to regulate it away.

I have to say I prefer her metaphor of stone and water to another one which I read today - Norman Tebbit describes the government "carrot and stick" approach to the rest of us:

Our masters these days are willing to use a carrot and stick approach, but they almost always use the stick on the poor old donkey’s nose and inflict a terrible indignity on the beast with the carrot at its other end.
But Sarah Hoyt and Lord Tebbit are talking about the much same problem - the problem of how rules and laws have unanticipated consequences and how society can keep working anyway

PS She has also released a free short story set in the same world - but a few hundred years earlier - to whet your appetite and will probably release another one soon.

There is a Portuguese proverb that says “soft water on hard stone, eventually pierces through.”  I understand there is a similar Japanese proverb.  It’s quite possible, in fact, that there are similar proverbs in every language.

After all, ever since man has had language, or the ability to change his environment, he’s had to deal with those two immutables – water and stone.  And doubtless he’s been noticing the same properties.  Put a stone in the course of running water, and the water will go around the stone.  (It is possible of course to build enough of a barrier to deviate the course of water, or to stop it and form a lake.  Though not always permanently – the water reserves the right to return to its bed as soon as an Earthquake or hurricane frees it.  Also, even when you dam it, the water might back up and flood and create a lake – it doesn’t just stop and disappear.)  Put stones over the tiniest, softest natural spring, and the water will either find a way between them or, eventually, pierce through a stone and run on, in a slightly different way, but unchanged.

Most science fiction writers, when creating a future world seem to “side” with the stone.  They build worlds based on the laws that will be promulgated, on machineries that are created for specific purposes and which work as advertised, or malfunction as not advertised.

Maybe it is because I have had serious problems with authority ever since I first was kicked out of Kindergarten for refusing to stop talking back to the teacher, but I’ve always seen history more as the ways the water gets around the stone.  Governments can work with the stream, deviating it where they want it to go.  They can dam it and create a lake.  They can even, for a time, make the stream disappear and go underground.

But given that the stream is economic activity – which in turn leads cultural activity – what no government has ever managed to do is either stop it completely or will it into existence with a command.  In the same way, no government has ever managed to completely and forever stop technology with a law or to will technology into existence (yes, the financing of big projects can speed up a technological breakthrough – maybe, we don’t know what would have happened without financing – but no amount of financing can will a technology into existence.  You can, for instance, finance projects on perpetual motion forever and there’s very few chances of its coming into being.)  Also, no technology, medicine or process has ever been discovered by mankind that has been kind enough to restrict itself to its expected benefits and drawbacks.

Take fire.  Primitive man probably wanted to make meat easier to chew and tastier.  He might have realized it also had the effect of metals.  I very much doubt he could have foreseen the changes that eating cooked meat would create in his dentition, the changes that the more easily absorbed protein would drive in his brain, or the entire industry of metalurgy.

Closer at hand automobiles and the pill have completely changed both sexual moraes (which could be expected of the second but not of the first,) population distribution and the female participation in the workforce (which only a few could have predicted from the secon) and in the world at large.

So when it came to extrapolating the future for my science fiction novel, I went after these principles.  If I’d been writing forty years ago, I’d have looked at the tendency of government to be ever more stone-like and decided that the water would go around by going to space.  For the moment space colonization seems a forlorn hope.  It will come.  Eventually.  But unless a miracle occurs – and miraculously unexpected discoveries sometimes do happen, we’re Earth bound for now.  (I know what the propaganda line is, including the people who tell me we can’t go to other planets till we learn to take over this one.  This is New Age nonsense.)

On the other hand, we do have other technologies, that were unforeseen many years ago, technologies that empower the individual and particularly the technologically savvy or trained individual.  Internet is one of those.  My friend Dave Freer and I have spent many an hour talking – over the internet <g>, across the world – about how the internet is making it futile for governments to try to tax the most productive of their workers.  This might have had the desired result – for a time, before punitive taxation destroyed the business – when the production was coming from a factory.  Machinery is not easily uprooted.  Buildings, even less so.  Therefore people would try to bear up and pay up.

But today’s worker can work from anywhere in the world.   Unless he’s engaged in the physical creation of something – and even then that is sometimes fairly mobile these days – he can connect his computer, upload and process his data and do what he must do from anywhere at all.  The only thing holding the technology back for now are a bundle of old fashioned regulation and the inertia of human relationships.  In the US at least there are all sorts of regulations for people working at home – safety in the work place and such, designed once to protect home piece-workers for sewing companies, forbid employers from simply telling the worker to go home and work.  This will not hold in place forever.  In fact, it is not holding now, when the pressure of economic crisis is causing the water of productivity to find other outlets.  Companies are simply hiring “contractors” who work “for themselves” at home.  And once that’s in place, countries that tax their educated workforce highest, will find the brain drain running forth like water from a burst dam.

Is it still possible for a government to exact punitive taxation and guide – or prevent – economic activity.  Sure it is.  If most countries are doing it, and there is no good choice.

However, even then it won’t hold forever.  Eventually either some country will break ranks, or a new nation – or type of nation – will form.  In my world these were the Seacities, artificial islands, the logical extension of offshore accounts.  The wealthiest and the brightest go there and they flourish in liberty, for a while.  Meanwhile the land states, saddled with impossible social-welfare establishments look for a way out and – in the way of stone which is a fairly dense material not given to doing much that’s different form what it’s done before – decide what they need are some truly wise rulers.  Which they create by bio-enhancing men.  They create them as administrators and bureaucrats.  They make them all male and incapable of reproducing.  They don’t expect them to take over, to become supreme rulers of all the Earth.

And when they’re finally overturned, they don’t expect them to be smart enough to hide, to go underground, to – somehow – take over again.  (Yes, it does feel, rather like a metaphor, doesn’t it?)  They create a world where all economy is heavily regulated and where all bio engineering – the science that created the rulers, themselves – is forbidden. (And therefore used only by those who have the ability to pay for it on the black market.)

However, remember that water always finds a way through the stone.  An offshoot of humanity has found its way to an asteroid, where it refuses to have a government at all, for fear the same will happen as on Earth.  Of course, they can only manage this because they are a very small society, running on tradition and custom.  They will have to grow – water in large quantities must be hemmed in by some stone, to give it a pathway to run in – and become a society of laws.

They are the Darkship Thieves, so named because they obtain their energy from bio-engineered solar collectors orbiting the Earth and because they do so by stealth, avoiding detection by Earth's authorities.  Athena Hera Sinistra, the hero of my novel – and incidentally the daughter of one of Earth’s rulers – is about to tumble into their midst and have her entire world turned upside down.

Not that this will stop history, or the interplay of water and stone.  But Athena, most of the time naked and unarmed, is one of those individuals who is perhaps best represented by a stick of dynamite, ready to blow the dam wide open... and let the water flow free.