Order in the Heavens

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This edition published by Minster Classics 1968.

Political power comes from the skies. The Chinese leader Mao Zedong once observed that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, but in order to be effective that gun must somehow be transported, as quickly and efficiently as current technology permits, to the scene of the action where it can be used. A weapon is only useful if you can point it at the people you want to control.

In recent centuries in the history of this planet, it was sea power which enabled the European empires to enforce their rule across the Earth. These days, it is primarily air power, often combined with sea power, which is the main focus for projecting control over far-flung areas of the world.

In the current issue of Odyssey, which has just been issued, we explore the possible political structures which might exist in the future as humanity expands beyond the confines of the Earth. And, to be entirely realistic, those structures will need methods of enforcing their power over large distances. So, for the foreseeable future, whether it is air or space power which is the mainstay of military might, it will be to the skies that anyone will look to see where control is based.

Jules Verne foresaw the importance of air power in his science fiction novels. His Robur the Conqueror of 1886 described the “conquest of the air” through heavier-than-air vessels by the far-sighted Robur. His aircraft Albatross demonstrates its superiority over the dirigibles that other, less visionary men saw as the only way forward for powered flight at the time.

But Verne’s 1904 sequel Master of the World takes on a far more sinister theme. Robur is now a dangerous madman, threatening the population from his machine Terror which combines the roles of aircraft, ship, submarine and land vehicle. He expresses his fanaticism in his ultimatum to the governments of all nations: “I hold control of the entire world, and there lies no force within the reach of humanity which is able to resist me, under any circumstances whatsoever.” Even the secret agent sent to stop him observes that the Terror was “a machine infinitely superior to any that had ever sprung from the hand of man, and against which men were powerless…”

In reality, it has not been individuals who maintain dominion from the air, but nation states. HG Wells predicted this in his 1933 novel The Shape of Things to Come, which we touch on in Odyssey. The Dictatorship of the Air is seen as largely benevolent and the only effective means of establishing global power following the chaos of war and economic crisis which nearly wipes out civilization. However unlikely such a virtuous dictatorship might seem given the problems inherent in human nature, which seem all too evident, it forms a scientific utopia to carry the human race forward.

As planets become increasingly subject to domination by air and space power, we may see the vision expressed by the evil Hugo Drax in the James Bond film Moonraker, when he plans to wipe out the existing human race on Earth and replace it from his city in orbit with his own followers: “From their first day on Earth, they will be able to look up and know that there is law and order in the heavens.”

Or perhaps our descendants will look with fear to what may emerge from the skies, regardless of which planetary surface they are standing on at the time. Verne’s Robur made that all too clear, over a century ago. And even if one believes that the forces of law and order are in overall control and firmly on one’s own side, and that they only mean harm to evil-doers (which obviously don’t include us), there is a certain vulnerability in knowing that they can strike from above at any time with little or no warning. If nothing else, we may all look the same from up there, and mistakes can easily be made. And also, as history tells us, political allegiances can change frighteningly quickly.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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