Friday, April 22, 2011

The Secret Council of Planners Part 1: The First Ithacans.

Alcmaeon says that men die for this reason, that they cannot join the beginning to the end.

Aristotle, Problemata XVII, 3, 916a33.

The bulk of the vast starship Ithaca was built on earth, and then in the last decade it was tethered to the moon. Crews of labourers, the majority of whom would be left behind, worked day and night on its completion. It must have been a beautiful spectacle to watch all that furious work going on into the night, the starship like a gleaming, bustling city viewed from above. It must have been so strange for the people in the cities below, stepping out into the street from humid bars and clubs, looking up at the Ithaca, knowing they were being left behind on earth to die.

There was simply no way to build a starship that could take the whole of the earth’s population. Everybody understood that. And yet, some portion of the human population had to survive. The species, for whatever it was worth, had to survive. A certain percentage had won their place on the Ithaca through merit of various kinds. Great scientists, engineers, artists, philosophers, and athletes were gradually selected while work on the starship continued. That, also, must have seemed reasonable and fair. For the rest, however, it was the same sorry story which had always characterised life on the planet. The other places on the Starship went to the planetary elite: the politicians, the extremely wealthy, and those who were well-connected. You always think that when it comes to life and death moments, some greater dignity should assert itself. But back then, when a person was dying, somebody had to pay the hospital bills, or else they were left out in the cold. And that’s how it was, that was the only way people knew how to operate. That was how the world ended.

Then the Ithaca was completed, and it was time to leave the dying earth behind. The bulk of the crew and passengers were already living on the Starship; others were nearby on the moonbase called Phaedra. The skies were alive in the very last days: shuttles to-ing and fro-ing the remaining passengers to the Ithaca, and furious dogfights with hijacked military jets that were making desperate, last-minute bids to get on board the Starship. That too must have had possessed its own eerie beauty from the calm of the streets below, from outside the bars, clubs, restaurants, and whatever other businesses were still functioning. Finally, a great roaring sound like primordial thunder rocked the whole of the earth, and the Ithaca was engulfed in a crimson flare like the birth of a small sun. Nobody knows what became of the human beings that were left behind. The best estimates of the scientists suggested that the surface of the earth would have been habitable for another two decades at most. Then there was probably a few more years underground, and that was it. They simply couldn’t have survived.

Thus began the 2,370 year journey of the Ithaca from earth orbit to the planet Pantopia in the Gilese 581 star system. For the crew and passengers, it was the beginning of a very strange life indeed. They, and their children, and their children’s children, would live out all of their days on board the Ithaca. The Starship would be their occupation, environment, and culture. They would live always in the middle: between the point of departure and destination, in the intervening stages of journey and a saga, moving always between the stars. Nobody knew precisely what effect this new environment would have on the psychology, even the physiology, of the crew and passengers. To live in an enclosed and limited technological space, always moving but never arriving, never seeming to cease nor ever make any significant progress: in some respects, the Ithaca resembled a vast social experiment where the crew of the ship would serve both as scientist and laboratory rat. Would a new, altruistic variety of social order emerge on the Starship, or would the tribal, territorial instincts of terrestrial life reassert themselves? What would be the long-term effect of living on the permanent night-side of interstellar space, the older rhythms of day and night marked off only by the ship’s artificial lighting? Would the Ithacans feel a new sense of connection to the majesty of the cosmos; or, marooned behind the steel and glass walls of their artificial life-support system, would they feel ever more alienated from the natural, organic world? Nothing was certain in the beginning.

The First Ithacans.

The early generations of the journey were the most difficult. The first Ithacans were characterised by a pervasive and understandable sense of grief and guilt. They had witnessed at first hand the final stages of humanity’s gradual despoiling of the earth’s environment. When they looked down on their erstwhile home prior to the launch, it must have hit them with an extraordinary force: humanity had destroyed one of the only environments in the known universe capable of sustaining complex life-forms. It must have felt like a profound failure on the part of man, in the scale of cosmic time, never to have matured, never to have attained a level of civilisation whereby the human genus actually felt like something that was worth preserving at all costs. And the cost of their survival had been immense and almost unconscionable: the greater majority of the human race left behind to die. These were inauspicious circumstances under which to embark upon the great journey between the stars, and morale was sluggish and fraught in the early generations of the mission.

The social system by which the Ithaca operated was called the labour credit system. This utilized no currency as such, since money was envisioned as one of the primary causes of everything that had gone wrong back on earth. Under labour credit, everybody who worked a standard weekly shift received a weekly credit chip. This chip entitled them to a very good standard of living: they were well-fed, and had a substantial allowance for social and cultural pursuits. There was, however, a higher, luxury level credit chip that entitled the owner to a slightly improved standard of living. The luxury chip was given as a matter of course to the Captain, and all the elite officers and engineers on whom the safety of the ship depended. Normal crew members, however, were also able to earn a luxury chip by working extra hours in a given week. The idea of the labour credit system was to combine elements of communism with the meritorious benefits of a capitalist economy. There was to be no substantial gap in the quality of life between different classes of crew-member on board the Starship. The only difference pertaining, that between luxury and regular credit chips, was first and foremost not substantial enough to warrant envy or generate sectarian class divisions; moreover, the difference was clearly determined by merit, and available to anybody who was prepared to make an extra effort.

It was an elegant system that was perfectly tenable within the small, goal-orientated population of the Ithaca, but there were considerable teething problems in the early years. The Old Plutocracy from Earth found it difficult at first to adjust to the newly equalized living standards and social status. Forming the majority of the ship’s Senate, they lobbied the Council of Planners again and again to introduce further differentiation in the credit chip, in order, as they put it, to incentivise a greater commitment to the Ship’s mission. The Council of Planners were the highest authority on the Ithaca, a small governing body that included the Captain, as well as the Ship’s greatest political, scientific, and philosophical minds. The Council served two functions, one of which was public, and the other undertaken in absolute secrecy. The public face of the Council, naturally, was the daily governance of life on-board the Ithaca: co-ordinating the efforts of the Captain and his crew with the engineers, security officers, AI computers, food-producers, leisure officers, etc. to insure that the Ship functioned properly and the long voyage proceeded smoothly.

The second, secretive activity of the Council consisted of a series of meetings which were convened once every Starship month in an auditorium in the Northern Quarter of the Ithaca. During these meetings, the Council attempted to resolve the issues that they regarded as their gravest responsibility: what precisely was to be done when the Ithaca arrived on Pantopia? What kind of society and culture should the settlers pursue on their adopted home-world? Most importantly, how could they, as social planners, insure that the depressing tragedy of their history on earth was not repeated?

It was due to the resolve of the early Council that the Senate remained unsuccessful in their attempts to reintroduce the class divide by stealth. Those attempts didn’t end in the official arena, however. The first and only contraband substance traded on the Ithaca was money. (All of the drugs which had formerly been criminalized on earth were legal on the Starship; perhaps unsurprisingly, marijuana, LSD, and psilocybin proved to be the most popular space drugs. Alcohol remained popular for a while among the Old Plutocracy, but it had gradually died out by the Middle Generations.) Certain subversive factions within the Old Plutocracy began to produce a black-market currency which consisted of bands of different coloured rubber tubing. The first generation of Ithacans had just relinquished centuries of currency-based economic existence, and consequently the hoarding and exchange of “rubber” became an explosive epidemic in the early years of the journey. This underground economy became organised to the extent of having four banks in operation at its height. Ironically, due to its illegal nature, almost nothing of any real value could be procured with “rubber”; its popularity was largely a matter of ingrained habit, coupled with the illicit thrill of transgressing the Ship’s laws. Once again, it was only through the stern resolve of the Council that this potentially devastating retrogression was stopped in its tracks. “We will not go back” the Captain insisted, in a speech announcing severe prison sentencing for those found in possession of “rubber”. The “rubber” epidemic died out within a couple of centuries.

Crimes of passion were also a considerable problem in those difficult years. These people were, after all, the first of their kind; the first to leave planet earth. Many of the First Ithacans experienced a profound sense of disorientation, a space madness that expressed itself in a heightened appetite for transgressive sexuality and violence. Cast adrift in the vastness of space, hemmed into an artificial environment of clean, precise geometry and humming machinery, the first Ithacans appear to have gone to extremes of the irrational in order to preserve their threatened sense of ancestral identity. In hindsight, it was perhaps the final consecration of a terrestrial human nature that was soon to die out. For even in those fraught early generations, there was also evidence of the beginnings of a change in the human mentality. Gazing at the dance of stars and distant galaxies that swirled around the Ithaca was naturally a popular leisure activity. Nevertheless, in those early years, the observation decks were relatively quiet, and not yet the social focal points that they would become in the Middle Generations. But those who did spend time in the decks began to experience a peculiar mental transformation. It began with a vertiginous trance, whereby the gazer began to effectively forget the presence of the vast Starship, and even his own body, experiencing him or herself as a disembodied consciousness moving freely through space. This was followed by an ecstatic epiphany, in which the gazer’s sense of self was simultaneously obliterated down to the smallest quanta of nothingness, and expanded outwards into a sense of intimate connection to the totality of all matter in the universe. It was simultaneously a faster than light shrinking into the tinniest, most basic and homogenous constitute particle of matter, and a faster than light explosion outward into the myriad, complex, all-encompassing singularity of everything. This experience would soon become as common as gazing at a sunrise had been on earth. It was the beginning of the re-orientation of human consciousness to its new Interstellar Spacecraft Environment, a slow, gradual process that would necessitate newly emergent models of the time/ space/self matrix for all crew members.