|Enjoying the view of Human society in Tamworth, |
a town without a Wormhole in the English Midlands.
Do you ever get fed up with government? What if you were given a free hand to transform government according to our desires? Or better yet, rebuild Human society from the ground upward? Could you do a better job than the current leadership? These are some of the questions Peter F Hamilton explores in his story "Footvote."
While most of the stories in his collection Manhattan In Reverse are set in the distant future (or in the case of "Watching Trees Grow," in an Alternate Earth in which society developed far differently than our own), "Footvote" takes place in the present. Or at least the present when Hamilton wrote it, back in 2004. A man named Bradley Ethan Murray opens a wormhole to a habitable world he has dubbed New Suffolk. We never learn how he found this Earthlike world, or how he opened this doorway in space-time. Nor do we learn how he acquired the Exotic Matter necessary to keep this wormhole stable and open for his intended two year period. Murray must be a remarkable man, as no one else has observed a wormhole, let along created one, since physicists Albert Einstein and Nathan Rosen theorized their existence in 1935. But however he does it, he succeeds in opening this doorway in space-time, and it is a sight to behold.
And there right ahead of me was the wormhole. It was like some gold-chrome bubble squatting on the horizon. I squinted into the brilliant rosy light it was radiating.
While we never meet Murray, we get some idea of how he intends to structure his new government from his declaration of ideals that Hamilton sprinkles between his scenes.
Some of Murray's tenets seem reasonable. For example, we can all agree with 1) With citizenship comes responsibility, and 3) Government will be a democratic republic. Others are more debatable, such as 35) Police will not waste their time criminalizing trivial offenses, and 39) Any lawyer who has brought three failed cases of litigation judged to be frivolous is automatically sentenced to five years in a penal colony. Later, Murray gets around to barring certain types of organizations, such as any organized religion, and certain groups of people from entry to his new world. The latter include members of the Labour Party, the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrat party (in other words, anyone who served in Britain's government), as well as tabloid journalists, trade union officials, and traffic wardens. As religion has all too often been used to induce guilt and suffering, and also to excuse violence, perhaps we can concede Murray a point here. After all, who wants the guardians of a "failed society" to muck up a new one? Murray's certainly spot-on in banning traffic wardens, given how practically every place you travel in England charges you to park your vehicle. But then he goes too far, and bans the Cast and production staff of all TV Soaps.
Whoa, hold on! Suddenly, this Bradley Ethan Murray character sounds like a real radical!
Hamilton doesn't take us through Murray's wormhole, so we don't get to see what New Suffolk looks like, or how the colonists build their own version of Eden. Instead, he focuses on the probable consequences of what would happens if a large number of people left England. Gordon Brown, then Chancellor of the Exchequer (comparable to the President's Treasury Secretary in the United States) in Tony Blair's Labour government public claims that government revenue has only fallen by ten percent. Yet Janette, a recently divorced mother of two, reads about the European Union sending engineers to shut down failing UK nuclear reactors. She finds it hard to concentrate on the news on this sunny, summer day, as the breeze wafting through her windows brings with it the sewer-like stink from the uncollected trash building up in the town square. She also learns that all British soldiers are being recalled from the war in Afganistan (which doesn't make the United States happy), and nearly everyone in uniform is being reassigned to civic duties, such as helping out in fire departments, serving as prison guards, and providing engineering support for power stations. Russian gas companies are already demanding payment in advance for any gas they will supply England come winter. Of course, Gordon Brown is urging all town councils to "cut down on wastage," although exactly how they can do that, or how much wastage there really is, Abbey can only guess.
What Abbey knows is that she's fighting for her way of life, and the people she loves. Foremost among the latter include her children, Steve and Olivia, who are going away for the weekend with her ex-husband Colin and his girlfriend Zoe. While the children are away, she takes the train with her friend Abbey to join the "Public Responsibility Movement," which is protesting at the entry point to the Wormhole. What she doesn't know is that Colin, a man who used to love her, but now no longer understands or respects her, is planning on taking Zoe, Steve, and Olivia through the wormhole to begin a new life in New Suffolk. He's sold his house, and converted all his savings into transportable goods. Of course, he gets stuck in traffic, as there's always a long line of pedestrians and vehicles heading into the wormhole, which gives us time to understand his views on why he's leaving, and his hopes of what life in New Suffolk might offer. Both parents view the reasons for either leaving or remaining in England in rational terms, yet reach opposing decisions. This gives us some idea as to why they got fell out of love, and got divorced before the events in the story.
As with "Watching Trees Grow," I've tried to give you the ideas underlying "Footvote," as well as a little of the flavor of Hamilton's storytelling, without ruining the conclusion for you. Of the seven stories in Manhattan In Reverse, "Footvote" alone offers us a view of (nearly) contemporary Earth. The story suggests that while our world will never be perfect, most Human societies straddle the knife-edge of survival. Of course, we'd all love to remake government according to our own desires, but from Bradley Ethan Murray's laundry list of principles, we get the feeling that life on New Suffolk will not be superior to what we currently enjoy. The story reminds us how quickly a club, committee, church, company, or any type of Human organization can decline or fold when enough people walk away from it. And Hamilton's story functions as a metaphor for how Human society is constantly evolving, as one set of ideologies is discarded for newer, more "moral" or "equitable" ones. There is a cost for everything in this world, and that cost of change is often paid by those least capable of doing so. But that's me, doing an in-depth analysis of what most people would probably only view as a Science Fiction story that, despite its slightly tongue-in-cheek humor, nevertheless shines a serious light on economic, social, and familial issues.
Perhaps it's a good thing that I'm not running the government. No doubt you'd do better. Still, should you someday grasp the reins of power, I urge caution before you ban any TV soaps. Could Human society, let alone the British government, survive the cancellation of such popular shows as "Doc Martin" and "Downton Abbey?" Think of the chaos that might ensue!