Line and Orbit: Science and the Protectorate’s original sin

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.
– Carl Sagan

One of the cool things about writing – and I think this is especially true of writing anything book-length – is that you’re not always aware of what’s going in there. What you’re producing is coming out of you; in that sense what you

courtesy of NASA

write is a jumbled mirror image of all the fragments of you that make you who you are. Your values, your dreams and your fears, what you think you are and what you hope you might become. Fiction is self-reflexive, though it’s that way implicitly; it’s not a memoir but it is a part of the greater whole that makes up the messy history of you.

So it’s always neat when people find things in it that are unquestionably there but that you didn’t notice at the time. Again, my friend Natalie is a great example of this in that she spotted a big overarching ecological theme in Line and Orbit that I didn’t realize was there at all, and that I don’t recall discussing with my co-author aside from a few things about Melissa Cosaire’s orchids.

But it’s also the case that sometimes things come out in such a way that you don’t think what you meant is clear. Or that you didn’t think through the theme enough to specify it clearly – which is always the risk you run when you’re not explicitly trying to Be Thematic, which I don’t recommend doing (it smacks of ham-handed effort and Look How Deep I Am and people can usually spot it). So I was rereading a bit of L&O the other day – always fun when you can read your stuff with enough distance that you can enjoy it as if it weren’t actually yours – and I spotted something that troubled me a little: that the book might be open to an interpretation of being anti-science. (very mild spoilers under the cut)

The potential problem is the Protectorate.

The Terran Protectorate is an example of that classic trope of a society that’s made technology and science Everything to the exclusion of Everything Else; they are explicitly atheistic and entirely rationalist. And given that they’re the villains – if L&O even actually has villains, which I would contest – it seems to me that it might be easy to mistake this as the reason why they’re set up to be villains.

And I really don’t want that to be the interpretation, because I don’t feel that it’s correct.

The Protectorate’s mortal sin, for me, isn’t that they’re rationalist. It’s that they’re arrogant. They no longer approach the universe with the wonder and humility that’s due to it. Having – they think – perfected a sense of control over themselves, they think they can and should be able to control everything – for the good of everything, naturally, which is always the self-justification of any colonizer or imperialist. It isn’t technology or science that’s led them to this state, but rather the way they’ve used the two, and how that use has affected their understanding of themselves and the universe in general. They’re an example of the kind of scientific utopianism that we saw in the early-mid 20th century in America, to which the atomic bomb did such damage – but didn’t by any means do away with.

The latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st has seen a serious about-face in this regard, a sort of panicked skepticism about technology as a net good, that’s led to all kinds of seriously undesirable results, like the fetishization of what we imagine as the untechnological and creationism and climate change deniers and the current makeup of the House Science Committee.

The Protectorate, before it was the Protectorate, had a chance to go down a different road with the scientific breakthroughs they made. A more Sagan-esque route, that incorporated rationalist scientific inquiry with a spiritual – though not necessarily religious – wide-eyed wonder regarding the work they were doing. But they lost that wonder, and in a sense this was a destructive loss of innocence. The Bideshi – embracers of the strange and slightly cultish, the intuitive and the imperfect, left. Each group lost the benefits of the other. The Bideshi suffered for this as well, if one pays attention; their practice of exiling the people who disobey the strictures of their community is especially harsh and problematic, for all their apparent accepting nature. And in the end their embrace of Adam as one of them is arguably problematic as well; it leads to the deaths of thousands, though the book presents these deaths as necessary. I’d encourage a reader to question that assertion.

In the end, it’s this kind of rigidity and resistance to change that ends up being the flaw in both societies, and that contributes to the destruction that follows. At the end of the book, none of this is really resolved; it’s partly that we were explicitly leaving things open for a sequel, but it’s also that these problems are extremely complex and difficult if one is to do them justice, impossible to address satisfactorily in a single book, perhaps impossible to address satisfactorily at all. By the beginning of the second book in the series, the destruction at the end of L&O has had far-reaching consequences for both peoples, consequences that have resulted in a decidedly grim picture for everyone. The message should be pretty clear: No one is innocent. No one is without some share of the blame in things coming to pass as they have. And no one will escape the suffering that will follow.

Sounds like a downer, I know. For those of you to whom this is unattractive, I invite you to bear with us. I think things might be okay in the end. For a given value of okay, anyway.

And of course, in the end, as in all good romances, what makes the emptiness – and everything else – bearable is each other.

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One response to “Line and Orbit: Science and the Protectorate’s original sin

  1. i think it’s actually pretty clear that the protectorate’s main flaw is arrogance. i mean, they did, on a number of occasions, totally slaughter the Bideshi pretty much because they could. they’re very “we’re right you’re wrong kay bye now”. it’s not their science, it’s what they’ve done with it, and i think you guys hit that right on.

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