Tuesday, 19 March 2013

What The Okies Do

Anyone who has merely a lay person's knowledge and understanding of science and who reads science fiction (sf) usually places a great deal of trust in the scientific knowledge of a hard sf writer like Poul Anderson or James Blish.

Another discipline that can be as esoteric as physics or chemistry is economics, although each of us is obliged to understand the economy at least well enough both to manage our own affairs and to vote in political elections. When reading James Blish's Earthman, Come Home, we accept that:

there is an interstellar civilisation that has an economy and a currency that enable the Okie cities to seek work (this becomes important later);

each city commands those technologies that enable it to do its work - whatever exactly that is?

Volume I, They Shall Have Stars, concentrates on the production of the two technologies, antigravity and anti-agathics, without which cities could not have become Okies. However, there is still the question of what additional technologies the Okies use in the course of their work - and what is that work?

It is instructive to reread the text heeding technical details that might otherwise be overlooked and, in fact, of course, the technological and economic factors overlap. New York arrives in a planetary system where the Earth police are incorporating two warring colonial planets, Hamiltonian republican Utopia and Hruntan imperial Gort. First, the mayor and the city manager negotiate with a Utopian. The city needs supplies, raw materials, oil, germanium, thorium and "...some other rare-earth metals for instruments." (p. 252) The Utopians lack the spindizzy and anti-agathics but are rich in oil which they do not need in quantity because "molar valence" enables them to modify molecular bonding beyond the usual adhesion effects. In exchange for spindizzy technology, New York will be allowed to mine for what it needs.

Because the interstellar currency, the Oc dollar, is germanium-based, the standard contract between an Okie city and a planetary government requires "...payment in germanium 'or equivalent'" (p. 263). When Mayor Amalfi negotiates with a Hruntan, the latter refuses either to pay in germanium or to allow the city to mine for that metal because the Hruntans need it for transistors. When asked what would be the equivalent, Amalfi suggests " 'Equipment...or skills, at a mutually agreed valuation.'" (p. 265)

So far, Amalfi seems to be answering a question about how the Hruntans can pay the Okies. However, he next seems, in the following sentence, to talk about some equipment or skills that he can offer them because he asks what they use for lubrication. This tips off The Hruntan that the Okies have learned molar valence from the Utopians. Attempting to extract this technique from the Okies by force, he falls into a trap, enabling Amalfi to sabotage Gort. So we never learn what work the Okies might have done for the Hruntans and I remain puzzled by the apparent switch in what Amalfi says to the Hruntan.

Fleeing from the police who want to fine them for refusing to vacate the Utopia-Gort system when ordered, the Okies enter the Rift. The City Fathers (computers) predict that crossing this "...valley cut in the face of the galaxy..." will take a hundred and four years, over twice as long as any previous single journey by the city (pp. 286-287). But they should survive the crossing because:

the city, unlike a spaceship, can grow its own supplies and, in fact, the Chlorella tanks are flourishing;
further, there should be no mutations in a region of such low star-density;
the oil tanks are almost full;
" 'Both breeders are running so there'll be no fuel problem.'" (p. 286)

Damon Knight argues in A Sense Of Wonder (Chicago, 1967, pp. 152-155) that, on Blish's own showing, the cities are self-sufficient and do not need paid work. They grow their own food and could mine for oil on uninhabited planets, run their own repair docks and grow the plants from which to extract the anti-agathics. Amalfi says that Okie cities are fueled ships needing to visit civilised planets for power metals but, as Knight argues, they can mine for metals anywhere and could run their own docks. So maybe my uncertainty about the nature of the Okies' work made more sense than I realised?

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