Back to Mal's Writing Corner
For our proper World-Making post this week, we're going to take a few looks at how ideology and a general lack of understanding of How Things Work can seriously screw up a scenario. The example is this little snippet of wierdness called "Williams/Dorshimer, Inc." by a shadowy individual who claims the name of "UpLink Station-Boomer," brought back from the Digital Abyss by Brother Zibblsnrt. Once upon a time, I did a long and involved critique of this thing -- or something similar, my memory's failing -- and lost the file. But because this is so chock-full of cheese, I'm going to do it again for your viewing pleasure.
Stop here if you don't like the sight of blood and guts.
Everybody ready? Seatbelts fastened and tray tables stowed?
Then I'll begin:
Williams/Dorshimer, Inc is an interstellar corporation founded on Earth during the early 1950s.
And we hit one outta the park on the first sentence!
Seriously, though, it's not entirely impossible that an interstellar/interplanetary corporation could be founded in the 50s. A proper "pulpy" setting (which this is not) could have heavy space industry in the immediate post-WW2 period, or even involve WW2 battles in space, depending on the level of pulp -- a "Lensman"-esque or "Luftwaffe 1946 / Tigers of Terra"-equse setting would work well here. Or, for lower levels of historical pulp, it's not impossible that a corporation would expand offplanet for specific purposes -- look at AT&T, or any other telecom company. AT&T is the heir of Bell Telephone, which was founded in the 19th Century.
Originally, it was a plastics and construction equipment engineering concern, but with the advent of space flight, its owners, Chase Williams and Cassidy Dorshimer, set the goals for their company on a higher level.
Which, consdering the historical model, isn't too much of a reach. A lot of people wanted to help out the US space program, with reasons ranging from pure patriotism to just wanting that sweet, sweet federal money to help their company.
Ignoring the federal ban on private corporations to experiment with their own space programs, they secretly and successfully sent a manned vessel to the moon, shortly after the Apollo mission.
Now this is where we start to get silly. "UpLink" claims that a single corporation specalising in plastics and construction equipment could do the following:
- Design and build a single large heavy-lift rocket, or a series of smaller missiles, capable of launching a manned spacecraft into lunar orbit.
- Design and build support facilities capable of assembling and launching the rocket(s) and providing ground control.
- Build a communications network capable of maintaining contact with a manned spacecraft in lunar orbit at least 18 hours out of every 24.
- Hire or build a recovery crew capable of retreiving the spacecraft from anywhere it might end up on the Earth
- Hire and train a corps of pilots, scientists, and other sundry individuals to make up flight crews.
- Do all of this without attracting the attention of the FBI (if done inside the US) or the CIA (if done outside the US).
- Launch secretly, without attracting attention from bystanders.
- And finally, continue to have enough people making money in the corporation's usual lines of production to keep the cash flowing in.
This is, what we call in the buisness, a fool's game. Doing it secretly is close enough to impossible, as the Soviets found out back in the days of Apollo. Even with their draconian security precautions, the US knew they were working on moon rockets even when they publicly claimed otherwise. Keeping something this large a secret cannot be done.
Due to its early successes, Williams/Dorshimer went on to quietly begin mining Earth-local asteroids and meteors, and in 1971, built it's first space station, from which they launched probes and analysis robots to scout Mars.
Looking at this from an economic point of view, we have to question what WDI is getting back from all this money being spent on secret operations. Asteroid mining, while theoretically lucrative, is competing with established industries back on Earth, and the need for secrecy puts up all sorts of extra costs on every pound of iron or nickel sent back. The return on investment would be small, if not negative.
This activity did not go unnoticed, however, and Williams/Dorshimer soon found itself "loaning" their space facilities to various US government agencies.
Of course, having "ignored the federal ban," it's much more likely that WDI would have its space assets confiscated and transferred to NASA or the Defense Department, its owners arrested, and the corporation itself broken up and nationalised.
Never people to let a bad situation get worse, Chase and Cassidy, along with several of their most trusted staff members, set in motion a plan to change two of their lunar mining bases and one of their Mars bases into self-sufficient habitats.
Now this is, again, something extremely unlikely for a single corporation to do quietly, if at all. A basic mining base would require lots of expansion, not just living space, but greenhouses, power generators, water recycling facilities, etc. On Mars, this is a little easier -- there's air (after a fashion), water and plenty of volatiles (nitrogen, carbon, etc.) available for use.
On the Moon, however, we run into a problem; there is nor water on the Moon, nor is there air or any sort of volatiles that can be used by a habitat. All these things have to come from somewhere, which expands the problem of building self-sustaining habitats.
Completed in early May of 1993, WDI recruited as many of their employees as they could to man these habitats, then declared the corporation an independant sovereign political entity with no ties or obligations to any terrestrial governments.
Point the first: Recruiting employees and then effectively burning their bridges back home is not a good way to ensure worker loyalty.
Point the second: Cutting all ties with Earth will, first of all, make trade with Earth (as WDI is the only off-Earth corporation) that much more difficult.
Outraged, the US government attempted to seize control of as many of WDI's assets and facilities as possible. This came to an abrupt halt when a shuttle carrying a platoon of US Marines was destroyed in lunar orbit by WDI designed 'communications' satellites.
This one is a favorite of mine. When I first read it, it took me ten minutes to stop laughing. Let me sum up what's wrong with this:
- The Space Shuttle can't reach lunar orbit.
- Even if somebody rigged the Shuttle to reach lunar orbit, it couldn't survive the trip back.
- The Shuttle doesn't have the life-support systems needed to keep a platoon of Marines alive for the trip to the Moon.
- The Shuttle doesn't have the room to store a platoon of Marines, period.
- The US Marine Corps is advanced, but it's not so advanced that it has tactics for space-based infantry maneuvers in the year 2002, much less 1993.
- WDI "communications satellites" carrying weapons? What possible commerical use does this have?
- So WDI waited until the Shuttle was in lunar orbit before destroying it? Instead of hitting it while still in low orbit or in boost phase?
Laying claim to both the Moon and Mars, WDI made it clear that any further actions against them would be viewed as acts of war.
And of course, the deaths of a platoon of Marines and the destruction of a Space Shuttle don't count as acts of war by the "sovereign political entity" WDI.
Spurred on by the United Nations, many countries began pumping resources into building a fleet of warships to put down the upstart corporation. This effort was delayed for years by WDI plants in many of the manufacturing and assembly sites for these ships' components.
Two points here. First off, this is where you see ideology clouding the judgement of our writer. The UN here is shown as evil and warmongering, wanting to destroy Our Heroes for the crime of being successful and competent. This, of course, goes pretty much against the entire concept of the United Nations as we know it.
Secondly, one wonders how and why WDI put so many plants into their enemies' factories while being effectively barred from Earth. Paratroopers?
In April of 2001, when the first fleet of five warships had been assembled in high-Earth orbit,
...not being molested or attacked by the clearly-superior WDI forces while under construction, of course...
the Terrestrials (as WDI members had come to call them) received a shock when they were met halfway to the moon by a fleet of WDI warships. Outnumbered almost two to one, the Earth fleet retreated after an initial skirmish that left them with two heavily damage ships. The WDI fleet had been hurt almost as badly, but had retained one vessel at nearly full capacity, and two others still combat-worthy, although severely damaged.
So, the score at this point is: WDI: 3 ships killed, and Earth: 7 ships killed. With the overwhelming advantage in numbers going to WDI.
One can only assume that tactical incompetence is the only reason the nations of Earth didn't sweep WDI's fleet away completely and end this farce.
Realizing that Earth wasn't about to leave matters lie, WDI began building more warships, and proceeded with a plan to colonize the Asteroid Belt and two of Jupiter's moons. With their war fleet interposed between Earth and Mars, WDI felt confident that their superior access to resources and shipbuilding facilities would hold the Terrestrial forces at bay.
The document ends here, without explaining where the industrial facilities to build more warships came from, where the necessary crew for those ships came from and where the people who were colonizing the Asteroid Belt and Jupiter came from.
All in all, this concept isn't entirely new -- the idea of "Colonists vs. Mother Society" has been in use for a long time in science fiction; Larry Niven does a pretty good run of it in his early Known Space books with the UN-Belter conflict. The problems inherent in the WDI scenario tend to stem from "UpLink's" lack of knowledge about economics, politics and history. If the WDI scenario had been moved upwards anywhere from 30 to 50 years -- instead of being a secret history of the Space Race, a future history of the second rush to space exploration and exploitation -- and perhaps stripped of the "black helicopter" theories about the UN (or given some form of justification over the span of the history), it could be a reasonably entertaining RP campaign or fictional series. As it is, though... it's just junk.
Join us next time on "When Timelines Go Bad" when we dissect Cyberpunk 2020!