Thursday, January 05, 2006

Global Rudyard!

Over at Airminded, Brett Holman's PhD blog, we were discussing Rudyard Kipling's rare excursions into science fiction, With the Night Mail and As Easy as ABC. Both of them deal with a future dated to round about now, aviation, and the integration of the world's political economies into one seamless technocratic whole. They are cracking.

No, seriously. Please.

Probably the most serious of the two is As Easy as ABC, which postulates a future where the world has replaced the dangerous and unpredictable system of democracy for the technocratic administration of the Aerial Board of Control. The ABC's motto is Transportation is Civilisation and its chief care the maintenance of the world's federated trading and communications networks. The seamless flow of wealth and ideas around the world mean there is no rational reason to go to war; the replacement of "a system based on Crowds" with a small elite of cosmopolitan civil servants means that no irrational wars are to be expected. Of course, the stinking mob is always dangerous, but waiting in the wings, flying untiring holding patterns over the Arctic, is the ultimate deterrent - the ABC Fleet, whose very existence is kept menacingly vague except when it is called in to reduce dangerously irrational cities to - melted glass. It's probably a good moment to mention here that Night Mail makes it quite clear that the huge, high speed airships are powered by nuclear reactors quite like those aboard contemporary ballistic missile submarines.

There are two obvious analogues to Kipling's ABC. One is the British Empire with its shipping, railway and telecoms network, its supremely haute bourgeoise assumption of capitalist and technocratic perfection, its mighty, rarely summoned navy, and its tiny, super-elite civil service. Kipling actually wrote a poem about submarine telegraph cables, so he probably counts as the Neal Stephenson or Bruce Sterling of his day. In fact, I suppose you could make a case for him as a sci-fi pioneer, following the leading edge of the technological future into the distance. For example: From the spindle-guide to the piston crank/I see Thy Hand, my God/Predestination in yon connecting rod/John Calvin might have wrought the same/Enormous, certain, slow/Aye, wrought it in the furnace flame, my Institutio, about a Scottish ship's engineer (now where have we heard of one of those before?). In ABC, aircraft approach London via one of several navigational beacons placed around the perimeter of the city..not far from the real locations of the VOR-DMEs that mark the Heathrow approach patterns, and the Night Mail's crew enjoy sarcastic deadheading banter over the radio with other ships on the long transatlantic night sector. (In International, mind.)

Another is the European Union. Functional, technocratic integration of national economies, with a very distinct distancing of messy popular sentiment, as a vaccination against war (and revolution), with a multinational administrative cadre, and a vague and terrible deterrent from the sky as an ultimate guarantee? It makes sense, I suppose - in 1999, at Royal Holloway College, I attended a lecture by Sir Anthony Meyer, the Tory who acted as stalking horse against Maggie Thatcher over Europe. Meyer, asked how he became convinced of the necessity of European integration, told how he had been influenced at Cambridge by Lionel Curtis, an alumnus of Lord Milner's staff in South Africa. Curtis, for his part, was a campaigner for federation between the British Empire, the USA and perhaps also Germany, and eventually the world at the same time Kipling was working on ABC.

Perhaps the closest comparison, though, is the sort of thing Thomas "Pentagon's New Map" Barnett and John "Global Guerrillas" Robb talk about. Rebels against the established order, before Victor Pirolo's QRA flight delivers them a bucket of instant sunshine, make it their first task to riotously cut themselves out of all systems. Disrupting the network permits them to establish a temporary autonomous zone. They don't, however, get as far as spreading the outage down the long lines far enough to avoid having the shit nuked out of them until the terrorised survivors beg to be wired back into the system. Which is surprising.

After all, the difference between Kipling's future utopia/dystopia and, say, that of Orwell is the ABC's other big preoccupation after preventing excessive packet loss - privacy, which makes them sound more like ICANN - in fact very much so:
'Now, where is this Illinois District of yours?' said Dragomiroff. 'One travels so much, one sees so little. Oh, I remember! It is in North America.'
- or Cory Doctorow with nukes than Big Brother. Interestingly, Kipling implies that protecting privacy is likely to turn the public in favour of the powerful against any possible rebels.

But the finish delivers the menacing punch of any good sci-fi, ending up with the surviving democrats being extraordinarily rendered into the service of a circus in London.

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