Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Short SF Review #25: To Bring Down the Steel

"To Bring Down the Steel," by Doug Beason
Appeared in Analog Science Fiction and Fact, October 1993

If only our laws weren't so damned intertwined, tied up in self-serving interests; if only things were simpler. Things had been going downhill for years, and it seemed there were only two paths for the nation to follow: we'd either suffocate in the growing heap of conflicting laws, or we'd start over -- wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.

In retrospect the 1990s were one weird-as-hell time, and not only because I was around to experience them. In the 1990s, the twentieth century as it had been understood up to then fell apart, just like that. The Soviet Union was gone, the Cold War had ended, and people all over were left saying to themselves "well, shit... now what do we do?" At least that's how it feels in retrospect. In the West, the 1990s brought with them a triumphalist 1950s-flavoured optimism, and even though so many of its possibilities were left unrealized, at least those possibilities existed. Politically, the end of the Cold War made the United States a global hegemon, and it's only now, almost thirty years later, that the cracks in its dominance are becoming too large to ignore. At the time, what the US said went, and the world was essentially Washington's to reshape.

Science fiction couldn't not be affected by any of this. Despite what some people would have you think, all art is political, and the implications of a unipolar world -- whether included consciously or unconsciously -- influenced what was written. For me, science fiction of the 1990s is a tantalizing bridge between the present and the past: old enough that it can feel slightly out of sync with the world I know, but recent enough that I can still hear it echoing. Thanks to a trove of 1990s Analogs I came upon the other day, I've had another chance to listen.

Doug Beason's "To Bring Down the Steel" is a story you may never have heard of; according to ISFDB, its sole appearance was in the October '93 Analog, a slim volume with its cover dedicated to Grant Callin's "The Carhart Shale," which itself is a more interesting read now that it can be put next to The Martian. It's also one of the few stories I've encountered that has italics in its title.

In the not-too-distant future, a space mining corporation named... *sigh* ...MiningCorp is in the business of exploiting asteroids. As the story begins, MiningCorp has delivered five two-kilometre asteroids into various Earth orbits, but is missing the vital breakthroughs that would allow economic exploitation of the asteroids' resources in space. Instead, the company has hit upon a plan to get the rocks down to Earth safely: by encasing them in vacuum spheres that, thanks to the force of external air pressure, would be essentially buoyant when close to Earth sea level. The plan is for these sealed-up asteroids to be delivered to the Sahara Desert, where they would then be mined, but MiningCorp has a problem; the government of the Saharan Hegemony is upping its landing fees and demanding a 100% increase in mining royalties.

Stu Mendez is MiningCorp's man in orbit, and the story is told through his first-person perspective. In a conference call with his boss, a company lawyer, and a suit from the State Department, Mendez asks why the asteroid can't be landed in an American desert, and is reminded that "all the legislation that's paralyzing the mining industry... so many contradictory laws in our country that it's hard to do anything" say it can't. Instead the State Department orders MiningCorp to station the asteroid above the Saharan Hegemony's capital, with the demand that it stick to the original numbers. With the government also tapping all of MiningCorp's private lines, Mendez isn't able to ask his boss directly what he's meant to do... but he figures it out anyway.

The sphere is completed; the retrorockets are ignited; the encased asteroid is eased out of orbit on a long path that will take it over North America, over the Atlantic, out to the Sahara. But the next set of retrorockets fire too soon, and instead the asteroid stops descending over the Appalachians and drifting straight toward Washington. It ends up directly over the United States Capitol, in fact, for maximum symbolism.  Mendez's threat is clear -- clear enough that I think it's worth quoting here.

"...Congress, the executive branch, and I guess the judicial branch had better hurry and clear up this regulatory constipation that's strangling our nation. In two days, if the problem isn't fixed, that rock is going to crush Washington DC. There's too much at stake for you to be arguing about this. The only way that rock is going to move is if your country gets its butt in gear and starts getting serious about being competitive again."


The blue circle is two kilometres in diameter, centred on the US Capitol. This was generated by the Google Maps radius tool at obeattie.github.io/gmaps-radius/

With his threat made, Mendez orders the US government to repeal seven hundred and thirty-eight laws -- described only as "every one of them senseless, every one nearly overturned in Congress but tabled because of pork-politics" -- and I can't help but be reminded of how so many legislators today think things like net neutrality, Medicare, or the numberless programs being crushed by the latest trainwreck of a tax bill are "senseless." The writer reminds us that Mendez isn't a bad guy, really; hell, he even reminds them to evacuate the District of Columbia, because he really has no plan to keep from crushing the government into powder. "But even with a million metric tons of rock dropping onto their lap," he says, "do you really think that will give them enough incentive to turn the country around?"

The story ends with two news clippings -- one that, between confirming that MiningCorp got everything it wanted, makes a "Zero Crime Rate in Nation's Capital For Second Straight Month!" boast that really does not look good -- just for starters, consider the consequences being suffered by the evacuated population of Washington, for example, which was 595,000 in 1993, and who haven't been able to go home -- and one that establishes that the US is now using the vacuum spheres as weapons against "an undisclosed foreign country," because that what's the use of that sweet, sweet hegemony without making the entire world serve you? For me, though, what the story really ended with was an exceptionally bad taste in my mouth, and the lesson "if terrorism will enrich you, you should do it, and if you have a power that others lack, you should force other people to do your bidding."

I'm confident that's not the author's own reading of the story, but that's the thing with stories, as with anything else -- you can't put vacuum spheres around a story. Politics always find their way in, and what's perfectly straightforward and normal and unremarkable to one person can very easily be horrifying to another. As a story, "To Bring Down the Steel" is shot through with the sort of politics that continue to dominate in the right wing today; it even has the same knee-jerk recognition of the environment as a good thing, I guess, before hitting the whole "we need to stop STRANGLING ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT" button again and again.

In talking to a friend about this story, she remarked that it was something that could never have been written after 9/11. I agree with that assessment, but want to go a bit beyond it as well -- this is a story that, I think, could only have been written in the 1990s. Like I said, it was one weird-as-hell time.

Previous Short SF Reviews:

1 comment:

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