A Radical Notion — a Guest Post by James Cambias

My new book A Darkling Sea (Tor Books) [LINK: http://www.amazon.com/A-Darkling-Sea-James-Cambias/dp/0765336278] is not a “political novel.” It takes place on a distant planet, not inside the Beltway. Reading it won’t give you any insights into what I think of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff or the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 1995. I think one could read it and come away without any idea of who I vote for. But there is political content, and it’s actually pretty radical.

What’s the book about? If you read the flap copy or the Amazon summary, you’ll learn that A Darkling Sea is about a conflict between human scientists studying the planet Ilmatar, the intelligent and curious natives of Ilmatar, and another group of spacefaring aliens called the Sholen. All this takes place at the bottom of an eternally dark ocean under miles of ice, in a distant star system.

In the course of the story, characters pull practical jokes, lead an expedition, try to seduce a human, get dissected, make an omelet, steal an elevator, attend a banquet, try out new weapons, get swallowed by a deep-sea creature, discuss numerology, contemplate murder, teach the young, rob a caravan, see something nothing has ever seen before, speculate about life underground, acquire some dry laundry, fight off invaders, and stand up for what is right. Among other things.

If you want more detail, go buy a copy. Better yet, buy two.

The political content is there, but it’s not obvious. At least, I hope it’s not. I hate books that preach. But my political theme was an integral part of the story from the very beginning. It’s why I wrote this book.

Here’s the secret political message at the heart of A Darkling Sea:

Humans aren’t evil.

I don’t mean that humans can’t do evil — one of my characters talks himself into murder and terrorism, and even the heroes end up waging war with all that entails in the way of bloodshed and sorrow. What I mean is that the book assumes that humans are not inherently evil, and our presence in the Universe is not a blight or a cancer.

Lately this seems like a radical notion in SF. Science fiction doesn’t like humans much right now. When James Cameron made a film about humans making contact with beings on a distant planet, he made the humans conquerors, polluters, and destroyers. At conventions and in ‘blog comment threads I’ve even seen SF fans put forth the idea that any colonization beyond Earth would be wrong, even if humans are just settling lifeless rocks.

Even one of the taproots of modern science fiction is infected with this idea. Star Trek is famous for its “Prime Directive” of non-interference. It’s notable how over the various iterations of the series, the Prime Directive went from a straightforward respect for planetary sovereignty to a notion that the very existence of human space travellers must be kept secret from cultures which haven’t built their own starships yet.

In other words, back in the unenlightened Captain Kirk era, the heroes of Star Trek treated less technologically advanced species with the respect due to equals. Kirk et al could have contact and friendships with various planet-dwellers, they just couldn’t barge in and start telling them how to run things.

But by the Captain Picard era, the crew treat low-tech beings more like chimps in a nature preserve, hiding from them and watching from camouflaged duck blinds — and all out of the conviction that contact with humans would be, must be harmful to their “natural development.” Patrick Stewart got to give a couple of barn-burner speeches about how wonderful and moral the idea was.

I’ve never really liked the Prime Directive. I think it’s patronizing at best, and fundamentally useless. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, only a culture which doesn’t need the restraint of the Prime Directive could ever think of it. It’s easy to see how real-world events between 1966 and 1987 brought about that shift in attitudes from Kirk to Picard, but I honestly don’t see how going from excessive optimism and self-confidence to excessive pessimism and self-loathing is really an improvement. There’s a happy medium somewhere, but sadly a pendulum tends to be moving fastest right when it passes through the middle of its arc.

So when I wrote A Darkling Sea, I set out to deconstruct the Prime Directive. One of the driving motivations in the story is the curiosity of the Ilmatarans themselves. The Ilmataran protagonist, Broadtail, isn’t just some random giant blind lobster, he’s a giant blind lobster scientist. His discovery of alien visitors is the greatest accomplishment of his life. And when he learns that there are other aliens who want to take that away, to wall off his world from the Universe again, he is outraged.

Humans are neither gods nor monsters. Writers — especially writers of science fiction — should be able to show that. A society of people who think they are gods will make terrible mistakes, but a society of people who think they are monsters will likely make worse ones. So A Darkling Sea puts forth the radical position that humans are human, and that being human is something worth doing.

91 thoughts on “A Radical Notion — a Guest Post by James Cambias

  1. There was some comment (somewhere – Wiki maybe?) contrasting the non-interference principal of Star Trek with the Special-Circumstance position of Iain Banks’ Culture. Broadly the comment claimed that the Culture wound up interfering less than the Federation. And that makes sense, “We are smarter and more sophisticated and they will never find out” would make it tempting to meddle, as opposed to “we are leaving our calling card with a warning to reflect a bit next time” which suggests any action might have a blow-back in the future. It is also the difference between dealing with children and dealing with adults who need to have some idea of the stakes involved with their decisions.

      1. The Culture is a post-scarcity society run by gods for the benefit of the humanoid inhabitants. Those inhabitants are far too active and productive to be actual human beings (see Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple for a look a what life in a de facto post scarcity society looks like).

      2. Haven’t read those, but read some of the other books by Banks, and I would have to say, “more libertarian and more progressive than thou,” seems to be Banks normal position, as illogical as that is. And yes I found it highly annoying, which is why I quit reading books by him.

      3. Well. it is a soft tyranny run by the Minds, that have full access to your lives, your belongings, your memories, and if you insist on doing something that they don’t approve of, your senses and your brain. Made to look like a libertarian society in that the Minds don’t care what you do outside of particular behaviors. And the thing that bothered me most were that the behaviors seemed more an attitude of esthetics rather than morals or philosophy.

    1. I think that the prime directive was an expression of the popular theme of the noble savage combined with some fool notion that it’s better for people to live lives that are painful, brutish, short and diseased so long as their identity is not interfered with.

      In my English grammars class our instructor mentioned something related to the (apparent) identity-affirming use of the word “aks” in some cultures. To be truthful, I don’t even *hear* it when I hear it, so I don’t care, but I did think that one is not doing anyone any favors by preferencing a group’s unchanging (dur!) cultural quirks over such things as physical well being and employment. That goes for linguistic diddles or for preindustrial ways of life.

      And in an entirely unrelated conversation today I found myself explaining (in the context of interpersonal expectations and conflict) just how unique my own culture is, now non-demonstative and how much any outburst is seen as hostile and any expression of good feelings is indicative of a fraud and untrustworthy liar. (You’re beautiful… I love you… gush gush… ) But I have moved out of that culture… should it have been preserved? I can now hug my friends when we meet and *almost* be comfortable doing it. But I also realize that “back home” the culture doesn’t exist any more either, at least not the same. Should it have been preserved? There was nothing *wrong* with it. It was US, and we were fine. But what would we preserve?

      Change is life.

  2. Humans cope. Why should we expect other species not to? It’s so patronizing.

    We want to know if there are aliens among us (there are – I was awakened this morning by an Amber alert on my cell phone for an entirely different state – to find out there is this new system which I had to opt out of). Technology makes us all strangers in our own land. So, if we can cope with change, it is respectful to assume other people/species will, too.

    Anything else makes us caretakers – which means we impose our wishes on other sentient creatures. Not a good idea.

    1. A perfectly reasonable definition of intelligence is “the ability to cope with change, to adapt.”

      Thus any culture which cannot be defiled by human touch because it will not be able to cope is presumptively non-intelligent and may be harvested for tasty snacks which can be sold at drive-through emporia.

      I’m waiting for the novel in which the last few “aboriginal” survivors of a species-terminating planetary apocalypse steal a spaceship and declare war on humanity: “You have a cure for the rampant radiation which destroyed our race? Baka!! To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.”

  3. Another book that’s amusing on the topic of protecting the locals from us is Margaret Ball’s Disappearing Act.

  4. Interesting. I’ll have to put it on my “to be purchased” list. [Smile]

  5. In one of the Writers of the Future anthologies, volume (mumble) published in (mumble) year, there’s a certain awkward story about benevolent, all-powerful humans screwing up an alien society just by observing it. The aliens were perfectly intelligent, understood the power the humans wielded, and were slowly being driven insane by waiting for them to use it.

  6. Deep nerd alert: one of the gods on one of the D&D worlds is called Ilmater, the weeping god. People turn to him to relieve suffering.

    The prime directive can seem to be a manifestation of self loathing, but it also seems to make a bit of sense. Development in tech, art, and philosophy would take a radical side-ways turn for a while as we tried to absorb all a more advanced alien culture introduced. If you ARE that advanced alien culture, and have been out and about for a while, then you might hold all the novelty the other represents to be more valuable than dropping in for a cup of tea. A couple hundred thousand year or even a couple million years of recorded history would mean there would be a lot of cultural sediment built up. Genuinely new stories, paintings, plays, and such might be very valuable to you. Dropping in to say hello, even if it doesn’t end up “harming” the new guys, would put an end to all that.

    I hate racial self loathing, whether in a story or real life, but I can see a reason for the prime directive, like the man says, at least the Kirk version.

    1. In my “never written” SF Universe, my version of the Federation has something like the “prime directive”. Basically, if a species hasn’t left their home world, you better have an extremely good reason to make contact with them (example of an extremely good reason might be saving that species from being killed off). If the species lacks FTL and has routine space travel within their star system, you can make contact but there are still limits on what you can do (for example conquest, economic or otherwise is forbidden). Of course, my Federation is more interested in “keeping the peace” than “protecting other species cultures”. Now if some planet bound species got high tech because another species tried to conquer them (& failed), my Federation was only interested in what the first species was going to do with that high-tech. Also, if a more advanced species illegally sold high tech to a less advanced species, my Federation was only interested in punishing the more advanced species. [Smile]

        1. Funny. [Very Very Big Grin]

          Mind you, that’s a situation where my Federation would take action. IE some other aliens “interfering” with a less-advanced species. Their mindset is that many “nasty” species (that they had to deal with) got that way because of a “bad” First Contact. Oh, when they heard about Mankind, they were concerned about us because Mankind’s First Contact was another species discovering us pre-space flight and wanted to enslave us. Fortunately we have good relations with sub-groups of that species. [Wink]

          1. Why do people assume that *first* contact is so awfully important that it inexorably marks all future interaction between two cultures? As far as I can tell, the wars never start on first contact, whatever unpleasant faux pas might be committed, except in certain special circumstances – it’s the nth contact after they’ve sized each other up, and someone on one of the sides has a “brilliant plan” that starts a war.

            The Vikings might be a counterexample, but the Vikings went looking for trouble. The Spanish and the Aztecs – or really the Spanish and everyone, but then the Spanish (and the Aztecs) were jerks that way.

            First contact is the practice run. If the captain ends up being eaten and Lt. Snuffy has to shoot his way out of the local jail, that’s just the risk of the business. 😛

            1. Well, there’s the “bad” First Contact where the arriving aliens tell the world leaders “You now work for us”. [Wink]

    2. In Rada Ni Drako’s backstory is the minor detail that she can’t return to her home world (Ka’atia) until they develop as far as the next technology level. She and her half-brother got revenge for what happened to their mother, but in order to protect the rest of the people from the bad guys, the regional powers put the world under interdict, even from her. Non interference in this case included a “native” who’d “learned too much.” Now, why they’d not stopped the bad guys to begin with . . . well, let’s just say that Rada’s dislike for bureaucracy started early and flourishes still.

        1. The “prime-directive” like interactions between nations in the past that come to mind – China keeping strict guard over the proliferation of sikworms until one was smuggled out, Our own embargoes against various countries – it isn’t from any dumb altruistic motive, but rather reasonable self interest (of the government, if not the various parties involved that would otherwise be interacting) – keeping bad actors from buying powerful technology, trying to hang onto a monopoly, that sort of thing.

          1. Actually, a couple years back, I remember reading an article about a stone-age tribe isolated somewhere in the south pacific on an island. They literally *had* had no contact with the outside world. (And, due to the fact that their entire world was a microscopic closed ecosystem with very little resources, their lives were nasty, brutish and short. I remember reading about arrows designed to specifically kill people when the three tribes raided each other for wives and to keep the population down.)

            The anthropologist visiting the island couldn’t convince anyone of the human origin of *overflying aircraft*! They were clearly giant mysterious birds – men cannot build such things!

            If I were one of those tribesmen, I’d want my son to grow up to be an aerospace engineer. Forget the prime directive nonsense and “maintaining the purity of a culture” that the practitioners would drop in a hearbeat *given a choice*!

    3. Having seen the integration of isolated Alaskan Bush tribes and African tribes to contact with the western world… no, not really. culture is very, very resilient, and changes propagate through culture a lot more slowly than you’d think. Heck, even when we come as an overwhelming force, not just a lone ship dropping by, the culture still remains for generations underneath.

      In other words: sure, direct trading contact with the Chinese gave us lovely Ming vases. It didn’t change western art much in the long run, and the Chinese sure don’t paint like the Dutch masters, either. And for all the many, many years of colonization, the armies marching across and the billions of dollars in misguided aid delivered, exactly how much has Africa changed? Cultures don’t swap out their foundations; they accrete new ideas onto the old ones. You can see the Mongol influence on India, but it’s still India. So, too, will passing contact with another civilization be recorded, accepted, and discarded as the culture sees fit.

      1. There are still leftover bits of Celtic culture in the area of Portugal I come from; and Roman culture; and the part that made my life hell as a female child: Islamic culture including the “you’re shaming your family.”

      2. Dorothy, I suspect the Ideological Usual Suspects look at superficial changes (blue jeans, metal cooking utensils, the village cell phone charger) and assume that everything else has been adopted too (evil capitalism, bad religion, the patriarchy, minty fresh breath). The only group I know of that has chunked much of their old culture for a new one, albeit temporarily as things turned out, were the Comanches in the early 1880s through 1900 or so.

        1. The Cherokee did something similar pre-Trail of Tears. It was an attempt to assimilate to avoid annihilation. They gave up on it too, as soon as Jackson sent them packing and slaughtered a large percentage of their population in the process.

          1. What about the Meiji Japanese? After getting a wake-up call that they were a fuedal backwater among world-spanning empires, the Japanese took to modernizing with a vengeance. Eventually, they were able to go toe to toe with the Russian navy in the Sino-Japanese war.

            1. Russo-Japanese war. (Sino Japanese war is soemthing else)

              And bleh – I’m realizing exactly how fuzzy all my knowledge of history is. I have very scattered impressions of rough timeperiods and events and cultures, but so little precision.

          2. Assimilation within a culture is often problematic. The Cherokee succeeded too well, as their tribal culture was particularly amenable to the incoming one, causing the colonists to be envious and resentful — which is why Jackson, angered at the Cherokee’s beating the White Man at our own game, dispossessed them.

            The Japanese, no matter how successfully they adapted to modern times remained an outsider culture, ridiculed and condescended to by European cultures.

            The ultimate example of this would be European Jewry’s realization after the Dreyfuss Affair (and a few additional incidents) that their assimilation into “Western Civilization” could never be complete, thus the founding of the Zionist movement.

            1. Yeah, but the Europeans condescend to everyone. It’s what they *do*. 😛

              More importantly, I think the Japanese completely wiped the floor with the Russian Navy during the war, and it was only a few brief decades after that that they were such a problem for us/the Chinese in WWII.

        2. It’s the breathtaking unthinking arrogance of the Prime Directive that gets me. “We’re so incredibly powerful and awesome and invasive that you couldn’t possibly keep your culture or your political stability or religion if you knew we existed!”

          That’s right up there with the incredibly arrogant racism of “You poor little brown people couldn’t possibly hope to match against whites unless we bend over backward and institute quotas to get you into college / into a job! Unless you’re ‘asian’, because you won’t play our games and stay down, darnit!”

    4. Crap. Am I that deep in nerdsville that I not only got the reference the first time, but actually played a cleric of Ilmater in 2nd edition? *shakes head* I thought I was only in the kiddie end of the pool…

      1. Ha ha ha ha…heh. Nope, you’re not alone. I almost made a joke yesterday about the raise dead spell…because one time I had this elf and, well, never mind.

    5. Poul Anderson offers a somewhat different argument for a Prime Directive in The High Crusade.

      ???!! I thought to google a quick summary and find they made a movie of it??

      Roland Emmerich (Stargate, Independence Day, and Godzilla) brings you John Rhys-Davies in a Monty Pythonesque tale of a band of Crusaders who find themselves in possession of an Alien ship and the Alien to pilot it. Armed with the means to conquer the Holy Land the naive Crusaders set off for a grand crusade only to find themselves not in Jerusalem but at the mercy of an entire alien world….heaven help the Aliens.

  7. The name “Ilmatar” comes from the Kalevala. She’s a spirit of wind or sea, the mother of Vainamoinen. The humans gave the place its name, along with all the other worlds in its star system. The Ilmatarans themselves communicate with sonar-pictures and call their planet “the world” because they are unaware that anything can exist outside it. In my first draft I used the term “Ilmatarainen” to refer to the natives, as a nod to correct Finnish, but my writers workshop members all told me to quit being such a pedant.

    1. ‘Ilma’ means ‘air’ in modern Finnish, but it seems to have meant ‘above’ originally, and also ‘source’. The -tar ending is usually used to indicate female. So ‘Ilmatar’ might mean something like ‘the female source’ or the female part of the source. Or just maiden or lady of air. Most often you see ‘Ilma’ when used as a place name connected to water, Ilmajoki (river Ilma), Ilmajärvi (lake Ilma) and so on. Who knows, maybe Ilmatar had something to do with rain.

      I use the name ‘Ilmakka’ in SCA, that ending basically translates as ‘little’, so, Little Ilma, which at the time period could have referred to a child, but also to a slave, or a wife who was not the primary one if we are talking pagan times (plus ‘akka’ means ‘old woman’, although that does not figure when it comes to the meanings in that name, it’s just accidental). I didn’t want to appear too grandiose. 🙂 I could also have used the ending -kki, that seems to have had exactly the same meanings, but that has been a very common ending for names used for cows (Mustikki and Mansikki are what cows in children’s stories are most often called, or at least used to be) during the last couple of hundred years, so… 🙂

  8. Darkling Sea? now where I have I seen that name recently – Ah yes, Ringo….

    May I express the modest hope that your book be considered worthy of inclusion in the list of “100 Best Books About a Darkling Sea”

  9. The Prime Directive is great for some things, but they got a bit silly and paranoid about on TNG. In one of my stories, I play with a Confederation placing a Bronze Age planet under a “cultural quarantine” that they can’t actually enforce without violating their own rules. 😉

  10. I’ve got a story currently bouncing around slushpiles that basically turns the Prime Directive narrative on its head. An interstellar spaceship of an advanced galactic civilization has an accident, and one of the lifepods lands on a ranch in western Texas, where our present-day protagonist finds it, and helps its occupants get their emergency beacon working so they can be rescued. Being a sf fan and space buff, she thinks this assistance will get humanity’s golden ticket punched and we’ll get to join their civilization. Instead, she’s told that no, humanity doesn’t qualify, neither the Apollo moon landings nor the Space Shuttle count as making us a truly space-faring people, and no, they won’t tell what would, so that we won’t push a prestige-project showpiece that has no fundamentals under it, just to punch our ticket.

    I originally wrote it back when the Space Shuttle was still operational, so I had to rewrite it a little to point to the Shuttle’s retirement with no replacement as yet another data point demonstrating that no, we weren’t truly a space-faring people, just one beginning to dabble in space. So yeah, it’s been bouncing around for a while, and I don’t know how much is weaknesses in the writing and how much is a message the gatekeepers don’t want to touch.

    1. The background sounds kind of similar to ET. Obviously it doesn’t follow the same path, though.

      I once heard David Brin talk about ET. He didn’t care much for how the story made the scientists – i.e. the people who might have the closest thing to a clue in this situation – into the bad guys. His argument was that the scientists would have taken a similar approach to the one that you want your protagonist to follow.

      1. IIRC Timothy Zahn had a similar comment about ET. Mind you, even though I enjoyed ET (admittedly it’s a see once movie) I saw nothing wrong with the *armed* people investigating the landing of ET’s spaceship. If somebody’s landing on Earth, I want somebody ready for trouble checking them out. Also, I thought it would have been more interesting if after Elliott found ET, the scientists found ET with the drama being that ET just “wanting to go home” and the scientists (and others) wanting to learn more about ET’s people (of course thanks to the link between ET & Elliott, Elliott would be caught in the middle).

  11. Mad Magazine’s parody of ST:TNG included a group of slug-like creatures that needed to kidnap and sacrifice some of the Enterprise’s crew members for their religious rites. Picard told them that due to the Prime Directive, he was unable to interfere (i.e. save his own crew members).


  12. Dan Lane can smack me about the head if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression that the Prime Directive grew out of cultural anthropology and the concept of culture shock.

    The spirit of the PD was consistent from the beginning I think, Kirk just wasn’t much of a rule follower. 😛 Having said that, I always thought it was remarkably condescending, and an assumption of superiority and godhood to predetermine that these species couldn’t even know you existed lest they be destroyed or at least forever altered by this knowledge.

    Which is not to say I don’t understand the strong reasons not to tank a planetary economy by the introduction (particularly unilaterally) of advanced tech. I just find this notion of “it’s their natural growth cycle, and we must benevolently stand by while they die in job-lots at each step” to be particularly foul. Societies and cultures aren’t children, even if they were we aren’t their parents.

    1. The Prime Directive might have been pulled from Theodore Sturgeon. I think he wrote some TOS episodes that never did get air, and I’m almost sure I read of it in his short fiction somewhere (cluttered brain isn’t kicking anything loose at the moment, though). I know Rodenberry had his ideas about it, thinking of it as a reaction against U.S. foreign policy, missionary work or some such.

      As for Cultural Anthropology, well, there’s not a smoking gun per se. They have adopted the term and use it as “Don’t Interfere, No Matter What Happens.” To that end, you get the somewhat apocryphal story that every cultural anthropologist, before he goes into the field for the first time, is told the story of the Virgin and the Volcano. Or more aptly the virgin, the anthropologist, and the volcano.

      That tale goes that no matter what the anthropologist does to stop the sacrifice, he either gets thrown into the volcano with the virgin, instead of the virgin, chopped to bits, castrated and staked out for the ants, and other various gory fates depending on the imagination of the storyteller. Strangely enough, we physical anthropology students got told different stories, mostly warning us not getting too drunk to find our tents or our rack in the field, and always wear a raincoat if you’re going to be out in the rain. *grin*

      Of course, I’d make a sorry excuse for an ethnographer, anyways. I’m an interfering kind of guy. Past a certain threshold, of course. Oh, well.

      No smackin’ happenin’, sir. There may not be a clear link, but would I lay some blame on Cultural Anthropology for this? Betcher ass. That particular discipline has a lot to answer for.

      1. Why would it be a bad fate for the anthro to be killed instead of the virgin? Is chivalry dead? Is the blood of an anthro postdoc redder than the blood of a mere native girl? Would it not be noble to die for ethics as well as science?

        1. I suspect they’d stoke the volcano with the anthro and then toss the virgin in to keep him company…

          1. To placate him, perhaps. Would *you* be happy if somebody tossed a raving anthro on you while you were sleeping, perhaps dreaming a happy dream of nubile vixens frolicking through the slopes, discussing liberty and high honor? Or would such a rude gesture awaken your ire, to vent your wrath upon the fools what had the temerity to insult you so? I think the latter would be definitely a time for soothing, rather than spice for the the meal…


            1. Um…can I get a little more info on this anthro? I mean, we’re tossing them hither and yon, I just wanna be sure my ire ought be wakened. Wrath venting should be carefully considered no? And — I took an anthro course in college, there were some gentle folk worthy of note on the degree path…

              And you said there was frolicking and slopes and suchlike…

              1. There are indeed gentle folk worthy of respect to be found there, yes.

                There are also busybodies that spoil it for the rest of them, too. To put it this way, one of my teachers that actually was an “active” cultural anthropologist was:

                A capital “F” Feminist who was convinced that anything paler than cafe au lait was racist (and that I was probably a race traitor of some sort). Also, that all men are rapists. That if you’re not black, your ancestors were slavers and that makes you no better than they. That dirty old white male capitalism destroyed the natural, free, peace loving Africa and Dominican Republic (and et cetera) peoples, and if we could just get rid of it and go back to hunting and gathering, we’d all sing kumbaya in our grass skirts in humble villages where we live in harmony with nature…

                Most of the other professors weren’t much better, and were quite terrified of her. See, they weren’t as chromatically blessed, and therefore were guilty of *something.* See anything familiar in the above description? Not all who go cultural are like that, but cultural relativism is kind of the discipline’s creed. I could see a situation wherein one like that got thrown into a volcano because she was protesting that sacrificing *female* virgins was sexist, and they should sacrifice a male virgin instead (totally okay if you are killing off young males)…

                No, not every one of them is that bad, or nearly so. And yes, I do have a case of bias against that sort of thing. The general tenor of the discipline is one I cannot agree with, however. I’m with Charles James Napier when it comes to respecting culture (not in all things, because let’s face it the man was certainly no saint): my culture has value, too. And respecting my culture means not sacrificing anyone to the volcano.

                1. My obscure humorous redirect went astray. Ah, well.

                  From my associations along the fringe of cultural anthro, I find nothing to surprise me too terribly much in your description. I find no fault in being biased against that sort of nonsense, either. Not sure how you tolerated it, actually.


        2. Well, the whole point of sacrifice is to give up something of great importance. I hate to think of the volcano god’s reaction on being presented with an anthro post doc.

          1. Or sociology with a social work focus. The eruption would make the Yellowstone hot spot look tame. 😀

            1. Shhh! Are you trying to give them ideas? The ash plume would cancel out all our hardworking efforts to warm the planet. Can’t have that.

              Okay, I’ll admit that tossing post-docs into a dormant crater then getting a massive eruption makes me smile. I’m a bad man.

              Hehehe. *grin*

          2. “I hate to think of the volcano god’s reaction on being presented with an anthro post doc.”

            ANOTHER ONE?!

            1. Could be the answer to our energy crisis? I’m thinking a huuuuge geothermal plant, and assembly-line processing…

        3. Ah, but their blood is *blue* not red! ‘Tis the evul raciss, sexist, heteronormative facist, capitalist scum Oxygen that turns the blue blood red, you see. We need to tax the rich so we can liberate the hardworking moms and dads from the tyrrany of having to breathe Oxygen. Fight the power!


  13. When I was in the Navy, 1963, we toured some of the Philippine Islands that hadn’t seen Americans since 46. Party time, everyone that went to the party got smashed and a good time was had by all. No problems, next day one island, while on tour, you know kids, followed the strange newcomers around just to see what we were like. One sailor just before we get back to the ship, yanks all the loose change out of his pocket and throws the coins in among the kids. About a half dozen of us jumped into the middle of him for breaking the unwritten ‘prime directive.’ That’s how I interpret the way the prime directive should be. Associate; but, don’t be stupid.

    1. When my dad was there in WWII, they would always get a bunch of kids swimming near the ship, and the sailors would throw a coin overboard to watch the kids dive for them, because it was fascinating to watch how deep they could go.

      1. Yep, paying for entertainment is good. Skilled divers earn their money. I’ve had friends that came back from Jamaica complaining about how they couldn’t enjoy their tour because of all the kids hounding them- begging. Now if they had learned to Busk.

    2. One of those things that people had problem with in Iraq, failure to understand the monetary discrepancy and the economy distorting effects thereof.

      A number of folks were outraged to learn what the local national tradesmen working alongside the American trades (usually supervisors) were making. Pittance. Pittance I say!

      Even after pointing out that we were already distorting the local economy because what we were paying LN’s was much higher than the local scale, thus encouraging people to drop whatever their current work was and grab a hammer to go do carpentry for the Americans, people were still upset. To their credit, I suppose, they didn’t like getting so much more for the same work. But — paying equivalent wages would’ve made tradesmen working on U.S. camps the highest paid individuals in the country. Who’s gonna want to be a doctor, then?

      This is one of those things I alluded to elsewhere in the comments. I think it’s appropriate to recognize the distortions that disparate economies and tech levels can introduce, but the rest of the patronizing nonsense — just irritates.

  14. First off, your book sounds awesome. I just ordered my e-book. It’ll have to wait till I get home to download it though. All of the wireless networks in the building (I’m at work) are password protected. That much being said, I’m looking forward to checking it out and I’m glad you let us know about it. I sometimes wonder why we get all of these guest-posters who are also authors and don’t promote their work. I just wish I had something to push. And, although I have no problem with Amazon, I have a Nook, so I got my “copy” from Barnes and Noble. It’s available here:


    Take the word of a professional salesman on this: Increasing the ease of buying something (IE by showing someone how they can use _THEIR_ favorite site to buy it) will increase your sales. Including an extra link doesn’t take long either.

    Now, onto the meat of your post:

    I’ve never been a big fan of the Prime Directive in general. I can see some of the reasoning behind it, but it’s always seemed to be a bunch of arrogant crap. The Prime Directive boils down to this : If someone sees our “superior” society, they’ll want to be just like us. Uhh… Not necessarily. Human beings have lots of warts. We’re not perfect. Then again, we’re not all monsters either.

    Like your post says, being human is not a crime. Individuals can choose to be awesome. For every Adolf Hitler there is a Mother Theresa. Good, bad or ugly is a choice made by all of us every day whether we realize that we’re doing it or not.

    I’m going to check your book out either tonight or tomorrow. I’ve got about forty pages left in the book I’m currently working on. If I like it, I’ll try to remember to leave you a review. Do you have anything else published, just in case?

    1. “The Prime Directive boils down to this : If someone sees our “superior” society, they’ll want to be just like us. Uhh… Not necessarily. Human beings have lots of warts. We’re not perfect. Then again, we’re not all monsters either.”

      I think it’s a bit more than that. Exposure to a culture – even when the intentions are benevolent – can have very unexpected results. In particular, there needs to be a lot of care regarding the introduction of technologies. And I’m not even referring to potentially destructive technologies.

      But I do think that the Federation goes overboard.

    2. There are people out there (ZPG supporters) convinced that Mother Theresa is a worse monster than Hitler.

      1. Well, I’ve heard that a lot of the money she raised disappeared, that she never met a tyrant she was unwilling to have a photo-op with, and that her missions (or whatever they were called) didn’t really provide anything other than flop-space for the dying. Other than self-promotion, what did she ever actually do?

        I admit that I haven’t researched the woman in any depth, and all of the above could be unfounded, but I’m suspicious of “everyone knows” stories that make anyone out to be a paragon of virtue.

        1. I don’t know enough about her to say yay or nay. My candidate for sainthood would have been the late agronomist Norman Borlaug. Fed billions. Neo-Malthusians still hate him for that..

        2. That’s exactly what she did in her hospices: she provided a place for the dying to die that wasn’t the street, with people who talked to them and fed them and held their hands. Lots of people complained that she didn’t build hospitals (although they didn’t).

          She also got involved in getting more places for lepers to live without getting harassed, and she built several orders to work with the poor and sick in many places (including the US). She didn’t build orders of doctors and nurses, because there are plenty of orders doing that (or there were, before the Sixties.)

        3. From what little I’ve read and heard that I trust, I suspect one “problem” is that she never tried to overturn the systems in India and other places. She took care of lepers and outcasts but didn’t fight to change Indian culture from above, for example. Perhaps you could call it a pragmatic vocation: her calling was to help those in need, not to break apart the systems and cultures that put people into need. *shrug*

          1. When someone told her about feeding people with fish for a day or a lifetime, she retorted that she dealt with people who couldn’t hold the fishing line. Once she had gotten them to where they could — why you can teach them to fish.

  15. Had an idea for a novel I haven’t written yet that plays into this. Humanity is contacted in the near future by representatives of an alien federation. Congratulations, we’re now “apprentice” members and a race that’s achieved “journeyman” member status will take us under its wing. Of course they can’t give us all their fancy technology yet — they have to teach us the necessary cultural attributes first. Trouble is, humans are maddeningly good at memorizing, photographing, drawing, and just plain swiping little snippets of technology they’re not supposed get into. Keeping humanity 100% isolated from federation tech while trying to teach them to be good little members isn’t possible. You can keep them from getting the FTL drive (maybe), only to have them swipe and reverse engineer the batteries in your communicator.

    I have really got to sit down and write that now.

    1. Brin’s Uplift series had some of the first elements of this. Sentient races discovered pre-spaceflight would be adopted by an older civilization and forcibly indentured for a ridiculously long period of time. And during that period of indenture, the older civilization would “help” the younger species by applying genetic and cultural modifications and other elements. Sure, those things would help. But the modifications also invariably ended up ensuring that the species in question still had to rely on the older civilization even after the official period of time had ended.

      In the setting, Humanity managed to make it out into space before they were noticed, and thus avoid servitude to another race. Though the mere fact that they did so meant that there were lots of races that would happily exterminate Humanity if they thought they could get away with it.

  16. The worst Star Trek use of the Prime Directive was in Enterprise when Archer withheld the cure for a global plague – leading to the extinction of the planet’s dominant species – because Evolution had decreed it so that a mentally inferior species MIGHT have an opportunity to evolve.
    Sanctimonious twaddle.

  17. Congratulations on getting your novel published! Seeing it praised by Vinge—and very highly, in a field where I think Vinge himself is one of the masters—raises my interest considerably.

  18. I think the real problem with ST:TNG is that StarFleet was too effective in covering up the real reason why they clamped down so hard on the prime directive that people like Picard never knew the pious version they promulgated was a cover story to prevent the repetition of a great catastrophe in the past:

    What nobody realized until several decades after it was too late was that while boinking his way across the frontier Captain Kirk became a carrier for a disease that never caused any symptoms in, nor could be directly spread between, humans. Unfortunately humans could spread it to some other humanoid races sexually, and in them it manifested itself as a highly virulent airborne plague with a mortality rate at the end of a decade long latent period high enough that it caused the collapse of civilization and near extinction of sentient life on dozens of worlds. (Think HIV prior to the development of modern treatments but that could be spread like the common cold.)

  19. If only we could get our intellectuals to adhere to a Prime Directive!!! Perhaps the main reason for it is to prevent naive do-gooders from disrupting functional cultures the way they have America and Europe. The PD is a restraint on tinkering by those too full of themselves to anticipate consequences, the kind of gormless twits who imagine that by providing free subsidized health insurance that imposes a high marginal tax rate on folks just getting above subsistence wages they will free Honey Boo-boo to pursue self-actualization.

  20. Two competing concepts The Prime Directive and SETI. Maybe if Father Sandoz had adhered to the Prime Directive he wouldn’t have gotten mutilated. (Russell’s The Sparrow).

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