Friday, 20 April 2012

Interstellar Wealth

With a wealth of colourful details, Poul Anderson describes the production of immense wealth on an interstellar scale. He asks us to compare and contrast Classical, Western and Technic civilisations. Terrestrials sailing out among the stars partially resemble Greeks colonising the Mediterranean littoral or Europeans overrunning America. The Polesotechnic League partially resembles medieval European mercantile guilds. However, its continual contact with and incorporation of extraterrestrials changes it unpredictably.

One spokesperson for the League says:

"We do not know where we are going. Nor do most of us care. For us it is enough that we are on our way." (1)

The first story of Nicholas van Rijn tells us that they were on their way to a universal civilisation and a lasting Pax although, as Anderson knew and demonstrated later in the series, nothing lasts indefinitely. The reader might vicariously enjoy the ostentatious wealth of a merchant prince:

"It was an anachronism to have a human receptionist in this hall of lucent plastic, among machines that winked and talked between jade columns soaring up into vaulted dimness..." (2)

Van Rijn unnecessarily pays a human receptionist's salary - and she turns out to be armed in case of kidnapping or assassination attempts. The visiting trade union Lodgemaster reflects that her contract probably has a personal fealty clause - a return to princedom, indeed. Inside van Rijn's domain, the ostentation continues:

"The office was big, an entire side transparent, overlooking a precipitous vista of Djakarta's towers, green landscape hot with tropical gardens, and the molten glitter of the Java sea. The other walls were lined with the biggest datacom Torres had ever seen, with shelves of extraterrestrial curios, and, astonishingly, a thousand or more codex-type books whose leather bindings showed signs of wear. Despite its expanse, the desktop was littered, close to maximum entropy." (3)

That is where van Rijn works but where does he live?

"A mansion among those belonging to Nicholas van Rijn lay on the peak of Kilimanjaro, up among the undying snows. It was an easy place to defend, just in case, and a favorite for conferences." (4)

At a conference, live waiters serve drinks, snacks and smokes to merchants of different species. Van Rijn also has a penthouse, with a live butler and a luxury-cluttered living room, where:

"...van Rijn's idea of a small dinner took a couple of hours, from the first beluga caviar to the last magnificently decadent cheese...A Mozart sonata lilted them welcome; tankards of beer stood beside icy muglets of akvavit and a dozen varieties of smoked seafood; incense from Tai-Tu drifted subtle on the air." (4)

It is probably unnecessary to multiply quotations demonstrating van Rijn's capacity to consume wealth.

The sense of the vast wealth that would exist on an interstellar scale continues in the Imperial period. Duke Alfred plans to detach the Taurian Sector from the Empire and to become an independent ruler of - how many planets?

"The audience hall was huge, and earlier dukes had furnished it with a luxury of gold and tapestry which was somewhat overwhelming." (5)

Yet the planets and populations ruled are so numerous that only a small tax on each subject would generate immense wealth for a sector ruler.

"A cento or two per subject per year, diverted from Imperial taxes, won't hurt any individual so badly he'll make trouble. But it will build a fortune to satisfy any normal greed. He'd retire in time to a life of luxury." (6)

The point here is simply the size of the populations involved. But there is another reason why wealth would be vast. One piece of dialogue lets the cat out of the bag about the potentialities for unlimited wealth in unlimited space in an indefinite future:

" 'Why?...A whole galaxy. A whole universe, a technology that could make every last livin' bein' rich - why are we and they locked in this senseless feud?'

" 'Because both our sides have governments...' " (7) (my emphasis)

Can't we overthrow the governments and share out the wealth between us? Of course, we need to keep generating the wealth by controlling the technology but surely we can do that without hoarding, fighting and imperialism? As an Alan Moore character says:

"When technology has reached...a certain level...weapons are redundant. When you already have...all that you need, then...why fight?" (8)

I set out to write an appreciation of Anderson's descriptions of vast wealth but could not help ending with that last question, especially since, as it turned out, an Anderson character, Flandry's daughter, had already asked it.

(1) Poul Anderson, Trader to the Stars, St Albans, Herts, 1967, p. 7.
(2) Poul Anderson, "Margin of Profit" IN Anderson, The Earthbook of Stormgate, New York, 1978, pp. 70-100 AT p. 70.
(3) ibid., p. 71.
(4) ibid., p. 78.
(5) Poul Anderson, "Warriors from Nowhere" IN Anderson, Agent of the Terran Empire, London, 1977, pp. 37-56 AT p. 47.
(6) Poul Anderson, The Rebel Worlds, London, 1972, p. 21.
(7) Poul Anderson, The Game of Empire, New York, 1985, p. 166.
(8) Alan Moore and Jim Baikie, Skizz, Oxford: Rebellion, 2005, p. 58.

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