Created 7/15/1997
Go to Brad DeLong's
Home Page

Walter John Williams

The Discovery of Gaal 97

Walter John Williams is a very good science fiction writer. The passage below is taken from his--very good--novel Aristoi (New York: Tor, 1992). It relates the discovery by a team of explorers aboard the starship Cressida that one of the rulers of their civilization--the Aristoi Saigo--has been terraforming planets, populating them, and keeping the populations in barbarism: depriving them of access to technology.

Among other things, the passage is Williams's comment on the benefits of civilization.

A few pieces of background: words in bold are messages received or past (through virtual reality: what Williams calls the oneirochronon) to people who are not present. Gabriel is an Aristos, one of the meritocratic rulers of Wiliams's civilization. The Therapons (or Therapontes: it's Greek) are his lieutenants. The Realized World is the real world, contrasted with the virtual reality of the oneirochronon.

An hour or so later the ride was over and Gabriel was in his bath musing over his morning. Our love white as snow on mountain peak, he recaled--Clancy's words after love, taken from an old Han Dynasty poem by Jo Wenjun. Brilliant as moon between clouds.

I'm told you have another lover.

The next line. He'd forgotten it till now.

A chill went up his back. Jo's poem had been about a woman saying good-bye to her faithless partner.

For a moment he considered the possibilities. Gabriel wondered if Clancy had meant it as farewell, or if the poem had merely been a signal that she knew of his other involvement, a little reminder to call him back to the Realized World.

FLASH <Priority 1>.

A jet of terror shot through Gabriel. Someone else, he thought, had been killed.

He hoped it wasn't Zhenling.

Aristos, this is Rubens Therapon. The robe we sent to Gaal 97 is halfway through its in-system pass. I've been monitoring the feed, and the data is unmistakable. Forgive the FLASH, but the matter is important.

Gabriel calmed himself.... Report, Therapon Rubens.

The fourth planet around Gaal 97 has been terraformed. Preliminary data indicates that it's inhabited by tens of millions of people, though their level of technology would seem to be rather low. Orange Epoch or worse. There's a lot of burning biomass down there.

Surprise rolled through Gabriel's mind.

Where did he get them? Gabriel wondered. Where did Saigo get all those people? He couldn't have exported them.... He made them. The answer came with awesome force. Gabriel felt his mind stagger with sickness and awe.

Saigo had buil these people, the same way he'd built the ecosystem off which they lived. Built the atmosphere, the trees, the life in the oceans and on the land. Built the entire population--tens of millions--and then left them here to struggle at a barbarized level of technology.

Totally at odds with the Aristoi's ideal of service to humanity. The most loathsome thing of which Gabriel had every heard. The greatest crime in all history....

Gabriel was going to have to come to the rescue, and fast.

* * * * * * * * * *

The probe was shooting through the Gaal 97 system at about one-fifth the speed of light. Its gravity generators were off, to avoid detection, and Gabriel ruled against a change in course this close to an inhabited area. The gravity waves might be observed.

Still, such data as the probe revealed was compelling. The planet had been half shadowed when the probe shot by, and the lit side showed bright swirls of blue ocean and silver cloud, white upthrust mountain ranges and green vegetation, all a far cry from the sultry, sulfurous atmosphere reported by Saigo's first probes.

There was a continuous respectful babble in the oneirochronon as more and more of the Cressida's crew came on line to observe. Gabriel asked for a list of those currently in the oneirochronic environment. Clancy was among them.

Dr. Clancy. Will you make an estimate of the pubic health and sanitary conditions on the planet?

I will do what I can, Aristos. But the status of hospitals and sewers is difficult to estimate from the data available.

I ask only what's possilbe.

Yes, Aristos, I'll do what I can.

Gabriel sorted the rest out into teams and gave each team an assignment, then busied himself with his own speculations until the team reports began to roll in.

The night side showed a scattering of light, faint spots that marked human habitations. Spectrography revaeld that it was biomass or oil that was burning, not gas or electric light--but even with that limitation, some of the glows were quite substantial, revealing cities with populations in the hundreds of thousands and enough sophistication and wealth to light their streets at night.

This was confirmed by another look at the daylit hemisphere.... The largest of the visible cities seemed to be in the vicinity of a million people. Apparently at least some social systems were working well.

Other areas, arid or covered with jungle canopy, seemed to have little population as well, although whole systems could in theory be concealed beneath the treetops.

Gabriel's observation teams proided more detail: wind- and oar-powered vessels on the water, the largest in the neighborhood of eighty meters from stem to stern; draft animals at work in the fields; wagons, riders, and coaches moving on primitive roads. Castles overlooked rivers, star-shaped fortresses guarded cities and invisible borders, regiments marched on drill fields.

Saigo apparently allowed his creatures to fight one another, world-sized galdiatorial games. Thousands could die, shot or hacked to bits by primitive weaponry, and collateral casualties among civilians would be even more appalling. Gabriel was staggered by the brazen callousness of it all.

There was no sign of any engine more powerful than a windmill. These poor nanobuilt inhabitants had been deliberately barbarized.

* * * * * * * * * *

...population estimates stabilized at around 1.3 billion, the final number depending on how many people were actually living under the vast tropical conopies. All lived at Orange Epoch levels of technology or worse.

Windmills, wind-powered ships, oxcarts, and flatboats, but most work seemed to be done by brute human muscle power alone Primitive firearms existed in large numbers--cannons werepicked out on the ramparts of castles and star-forts, and musketeers were seen driling next to other soldiers carrying swords and pikes. Apparently Saigo's creations slaughtered each other with great frequency.

Clancy's report on public health: open sewers down the middle of every street and open cesspits everywhere, some in alarming proximity to wells and cisterns. A few of th elarger urban areas had some proper sewers, but only in a few neighborhoods and in any case inadequate for the observed population. A few aqueducts existed here and there to guarantee good water, but most water was acquired from river, streams, or public wells.

The public health situation, in short, was horrifying. If Saigo had provided his people with as many microbes as he had firearms, disease and plague were bound to flourish....

Saigo was building himself a population base.... But why? If he wanted to challenge the Aristoi directly, he could have given his creatures powerful technology and welded them into abarbaric fighting force.

No, he was up to something else.

"It's a philosophical experiment," Rubens ventured. "He's throwing people together in various ways to see what happens. Perhaps he wants to confirm some theory or other concerning human nature."

"Or political dynamics." This from Yaritomo....

"The simplest explanation is that he's a sadist," Clancy said.... "He's letting people die in hideous ways, and from what I can see every single death is preventable."

* * * * * * * * * *

The second wave of probes hit Gaal 97. Some perched on asteroids to replicate themselves, others dived straight for Saigo's planet. Of these, some orbited at a respectful distance, sensors deployed, while others dove into the atmosphere. Most looked like ordinary objects, very often a simple nail or paving stone that could burrow into a building or roadway and record everything it observed for transmission later. Information was sent in short, unobtrusive bursts, each packed with data, each directed to relay satellites on the far edge of the system....

The broadcast images showed that existence, even for the better-off, more than justified Thomas Hobbes's rmearks on life being nasty, brutish, and short. Heads were observed stuck on pikes above city gates; bodies that showed signs of pitiless torture swung in cages over city streets. Filthy children slept in gutters while disinterested oligarchs in their finery were carried in chairs over the starving bodies. Diseases were various, unimpeded by rational treatment, and often fatal. Disfigurement was even more prevalent: seemingly healthy individuals were often revoltingly ugly, a fact that disturbed Cressida's cultured, gene-enhanced observers almost as much as anything else.

In the country, wandering families of laborers and gleaner slept under haystacks while those with property largely slept with their animals. Famine seemed fairly commonplace--banditry, much of it under the guise of warfare, even more so.

The style of warfare destroyed whole provinces. Campaigns were underway in many corners of the globe, and economic despair, rising populations, and the collateral effects of war itself seeded the armies with more volunteers than could be fed. The primitive firearms available in the more civilized countries increased the soldiers' abilities to terrorize and extort from the population, but gave little power to the civilians' abilities to resist. Only those who could afford large and costly fortifications could guarantee any degree of safety to the local populations, and this was almost everywhere a king, emperor, or despot.

The result, everywhere, was tyranny, a tyranny as total as the tyrants' limited grasp of technology permitted. Not a breath of political freedom was to be discovered except in very isolated rural populations, or mot often in neolithic cultures living in areas of environmental extremity, polar chill or tropical jungle.

It was mass chaos, mass hardship, mass death. The lives of the aristocracy were enviable only in comparison to those of the Demos. The cumulative impact of the probes' images staggered Cressida's crew. Rubens and Yaritomo took to spending several hours each day in tranquil meditation; others buried themselvse in work or sport; Clancy took refuge in unremitting fury.

"Sadist, did I say?" she said. "De Sade was a piker by comparison! Hitler was a trifle maladjusted, Stalin a blunderer, and Chingiz Khan a mere amateur!"

She pushed her half-eaten breakfast away. "If you see any sign of Saigo," she said, "I want you to sterilize his location to half a solar unit."

Probe images floated through Gabriel's mind. Red-armed washerwomen, drunken young men carying weapons, a legless beggar with a coating of artfully applied filth.... "This is the end of him, you know," Gabriel said. "Once these images are seen, Saigo's finished. Even his own people will be appalled--he'll face a revolt in his own domaine."

"It can't happen too soon." She reached out, took his hand. "You can't release the data now, can you?"

He shook his head. He remembered another scene: a marketplace, pop-eyed merchants arguing over the price of vegetables while a wide-eyed girl-child expertly filched a cabbage behind their backs...

* * * * * * * * * *

Gabriel steeled himself against the man's breath. He had yet to make the acquaintance [on Gaal 97, Terrina] of anyone with good teeth....

"Tertiary syphilis," Clancy said, after the man had gone. "The stiff neck? The parkinsonian maks flitting on and off? You saw?" Before leaving Cressida she had loaded her reno with data on extinct diseases.

"I saw and wondered."

"Fourth case I've seen today. Saigo has blessed Terrina with so much ..." Her voice trailed away.... "We've seen smallpox in the hospitals, and cholera, and typhus. All reinvented, so that he could inflict it on the people here." She took a breath, let it out slowly. "Such loving work."

Gabriel approached from behind, put his arms around her. He could feel the tension in her. "Another few months," he said, "we make them all go away."

"Perhaps we could invite him over along with the servants he's sending," Clancy said. "I could drop an antibiotic into his beer."

"At least we're protected." With rebuilt immune systems about two thousand percent more effective than the local variety, and that was just for starter.

"Into all their beers. Into the vats at the brewery. All the breweries..." Her voice, and the fantasy, died away.

In an interview, Williams says:

One of the things that the novel was reacting against was the general feeling in science fiction that barbarian societies are good, healthy, wonderful societies, and that we should all live in them and be two-fisted he-men living out there with nothing but a yard of naked steel between us and the savages trying to destroy us. And I think this is a bad idea. I like civilization. I like penicillin. I like the motor car. I like the nice police force to apprehend my enemies for me, so that I don't have to go out with my yard of naked steel and do it by myself. Oddly enough, the people who really want to go out and be two-fisted barbarians are people who, in any actual barbarian society, would last about two seconds before someone planted a yard of naked steel right in their chests. So I wanted to make a plea on behalf of civilization, and in order to do that I tried to contrast my ultra-civilized, carefree future with one in which the good old primal concerns like disease, poverty, sloth and human misery were the more prominent features.

Question: But by the same token, by the end of Aristoi, the aristocratic society they've built is starting to fall apart, and all throughout the journey of the Aristoi across this planet they find themselves creatively inspired in many ways. So it's more of a mixed message in that way, isn't it?

Answer: Well, I try not to write simple books. <laughs> Basically, I don't think anyone can experience barbarism without being brought closer to a whole lot of human truths, and it was a transformative situation for many of the characters. But on the other hand, it enabled them to better protect their society against the people who were wanting to destroy it. Civilization every so often requires a sacrifice, and requires that there be some degree of tragedy.

Question: The tree of liberty has to be refreshed with the blood of tyrants?

Answer: I'm not sure if that was the particular message of this book. But I think one of the things science fiction is not often open to is the possibility of tragedy. I don't necessarily require that every book that I read be a tragedy in the classical sense, but I have to feel that there can be a tragedy, that tragedy is a possibility, that it's not just Captain Rocket going off to vanquish the evil, sinister, semi-Mongolian space tyrant with his effortless application of good old American pluck and ingenuity.

Another passage from Aristoi, this one about virtual reality.


Created 7/15/1997
Go to Brad DeLong's
Home Page

Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

last modified: