Locked and Loaded

Locked and Loaded

Perpetuating an uncertain future – but only so far. This edition published by New English Library 1970. Memorable cover illustration by Bruce Pennington, as featured in Odyssey 27

Our future out amongst the stars looks to be a fairly brutal existence, if much of science fiction is to be believed.  Humans, aliens, and entities of fairly indeterminate origin are constantly threatening each other with weapons of varying levels of sophistication, and then blasting their opponents out of existence.  In the Star Trek universe, pointing a phaser at someone else, or loading photon torpedoes ready for battle, regularly featured in encounters with anyone who looked even remotely suspicious.

In The Arsenal of Freedom, a 1988 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the USS Enterprise visits a deserted planet which used to be a base for arms manufacturers, and receives an unwelcome demonstration of an automated weapons system which can adapt to the threat it confronts.  But the underlying message is that anyone with sufficient money can buy the weapons that suit their needs precisely – in a future interstellar society, you need to defend yourself against ever-changing danger.

In a previous webpost, Weapons of Mass Civilization, I talked about how AE Van Vogt’s 1951 novel The Weapon Shops of Isher describes a world where the balance of power in a future interplanetary society is held by manufacturers of defensive weapons.  The slogan of the Shops, “The right to buy weapons is the right to be free”, sums up the spirit of the time, and the right of citizens to bear arms is seen as a key factor in preventing a ruling imperial monarchy sliding towards totalitarianism.

In the 1952 sequel The Weapon Makers, Van Vogt continued the story of the Weapon Shops – “an independent, outlawed, indestructible, altruistic opposition to tyranny.”  At the heart of their success is the idea that an individual learns to stand up for himself, and that “in the long run the forces which would normally try to enslave him would be restrained by the knowledge that a man or a group could be pressed only so far.”  The Weapon Shops have never intended to overthrow the government, but just to provide the means to restrict the power of the established regime.

All of which sounds fairly reasonable, and may indeed bear some resemblance to arguments used in certain quarters today.  But there is one overwhelming factor – in the story, the balance of power is only possible because the technology of the Shops is superior to that of the government.  Without that, they have no leverage.  Mere equality, let alone inferiority, would achieve little or nothing.

And the government, unpleasant and militaristic though it is, knows that.  So when the first tentative ventures into interstellar space take place, and an alien civilization with technology vastly more sophisticated than anything back on Earth makes its presence felt, all bets are off as regards the future of the delicate stand-off that the human race has maintained over the centuries.

Peace through superior firepower may be a laudable aim, at least in the minds of some, though just how successful such a philosophy would be in practice depends largely on the nature of the enemy.  On Earth today, everyone has a reasonable idea of how advanced are the aggressive and defensive capabilities of anyone else.  There shouldn’t be many surprises.  Out there in space, it might well be a different story.  The Bugs of Klendathu in Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel Starship Troopers, and as portrayed so forcefully in the 1997 film of the same name, having evolved to form a community similar to ants, show themselves remarkably resistant to warfare waged by mere humans with guns.

And the danger remains that, in a highly uncertain universe, there is always likely to be someone who is far stronger and better equipped than you are.  In such a situation, the only solution could be that suggested in The Corbomite Maneuver, a 1966 episode of the original Star Trek series – bluff your way out of it.  When all else fails, and the chips are down, it may be your only remaining option.

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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