The following opening to a possible science fiction story came about in response to a writers’ group prompt: “the mist cleared to reveal …” I wanted to show a group of people arriving on a strange planet and seeing their new surroundings for the first time. To make the story work I had to decide how and why they got there and, most importantly, who they were.
My answers to those questions were prompted by the two big news stories of the summer. Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to political prominence in the UK, and secondly, the mass migration into Europe of people from the Middle East and further afield.
The movement that propelled Corbyn has echoes elsewhere as the political left reacts to the austerity programmes adopted by governments in response to the banking crisis of 2008/9. Both events are manifestations of the inability of free-market economics to ensure the fair distribution of the planet’s resources. I invite you to join me in a discussion of this seemingly intractable problem after you have read the fiction piece below. At the end there is a link to a page where I explain why I think the group of people in my story are, like the alternatives proposed by the political left, doomed to failure. This is where you can tell me why I am wrong.
A gentle vibration woke him from his slumber. A quiet voice in his ear. Quiet but insistent.
“It is time, Jason. It is time.”
He rolled over and rubbed his eyes. Memories began to flood his brain. He tested his limbs, wriggling his toes, stretching his arms, clenching and unclenching his fists. So far as he could tell from these initial tests the systems built into the machine had worked. Systems that manipulated his muscles and joints as he slept, simulating normal movement in order to prevent wasting of the former and seizure of the latter.
Cautiously he sat up. All around, the others were doing the same. Tom, Adam, Gill, Jane, Susan and Kate. Seven people. His heart skipped a beat. There should be eight. Where was Jim?
Jim had entered the slumber in the station between Kate and Susan. Jason’s mind began to race. Wide awake now, he thought again about those systems. If the wake-up call had failed in Jim’s station, what else might have failed? It was time to test his vocal cords. No-one had been able to devise a means of stimulating them during the slumber. Tests, however, had demonstrated that there was no loss of functionality during prolonged sleep. Subjects often talked in their sleep, even in the depths of drug-induced slumber. It had been impossible to simulate a slumber as long as that to which he and his companions had been subjected.
“Jim.” His voice sounded strange to him but must have carried. Kate and Susan both turned towards each other, their faces transfixed at what they saw. Or, rather, what they did not see. They should have seen Jim’s smiling eyes and long nose, that cheerful grin they’d all become used to in training.
“Jim.” Both women spoke at once, echoing Jason’s cry. Both slipped from their stations. Jason was already striding towards them. The other members of the team, too, quickly joined in the common feeling of concern for their colleague.
Kate was the first to hit the resuss button. All crowded round and watched as the luminous green line on the monitor screen changed. There was a communal sigh of relief as the semi-cylindrical panel that covered Jim’s station began to slide into the floor of the compartment to reveal Jim. Not grinning yet, but his eyes open, a puzzled look on his face.
“What are you all staring at?” He eased himself into a sitting position.
“Some kind of minor malfunction,” Jason said. “The resuss system didn’t operate on your station. Kate activated it manually.”
Turning to the rest of the group, he continued: “OK, so we are all relieved to see Jim apparently hale and hearty, but we don’t know what other systems may have under-performed. All the more reason to follow the routine we were trained to undertake. Let’s all meet in the gym in twenty minutes.”
“Don’t be a spoil sport,” Alice complained. “I want to take a look outside.”
“That’s exactly why I said twenty minutes. I guess we all want to see what our new home looks like.”
Jason led the way to the observation platform. A bank of screens revealed what cameras on the outside of their vessel were picturing. Nothing much, except a swirling, milky mist.
Adam pointed to one of the screens behind Gill’s head. “Look.”
All eight turned and watched as the mist slowly cleared to reveal –
“And, look, a river.”
“No animals.” Gill, always the pessimist, joined the chorus.
“Or birds,” added Tom.
Jason was silent. The mist had not yet lifted above the highest ground. In one of the screens it was pierced by a bright glow that surely was this planet’s sun. Close to the horizon, lower than the high ground. “It’s still early in the day,” he said. “Come on, it’s time for our check-ups.”
By the time each member of the party had been subjected to a series of physical and mental exercises designed to establish that all were, indeed, hale and hearty, the sun was high in an azure sky and the mist had dispersed. Drops of dew like a million diamonds bedecked the grass and the leaves on the trees. White clouds floated above the hills.
“It looks just like home.” Jason heard the note of awe in Kate’s voice.
Before he could respond Gill spoke, returning to what was fast becoming a hobby horse. “Earth has birds and animals.”
“Well, the atmosphere checks out alright. A lot cleaner than the earth we knew. More like seventeenth century Europe, before the industrial revolution. The temperature is a comfortable 20 degrees. There is no reason to suppose it isn’t safe to go outside.”
“Look there!” Adam pointed to a small screen apart from the rest. With a collective gasp all eight watched as the image relayed by the robotic explorer revealed something even more homely: an array of spiders’ webs, their delicate threads be-jewelled by droplets sparkling in the rainbow hues of refracted light from the sun.
“Well, Gill, what do you make of that?” It was Jim who broke the awed silence.
“Spiders aren’t animals. Nor are the insects they live on. Don’t the rest of you get it? A planet with an atmosphere like Earth’s, a temperature, in this corner at least, the same as earth’s temperate zones, enough water to sustain plant life, ought to be teeming with animals and birds. We should at least be able to hear them, and yet the mike’s are picking up nothing more than the rustling of the leaves in the breeze. I don’t like it.”
Jane had said little since the group’s awakening. Now she touched Gill’s arm. “At least no animals means no humans either. Isn’t that what we wanted? To escape from the horrors our fellow humans had inflicted on Earth.”
A sombre silence followed Jane’s reminder of why they were all here. Each member of the team had been chosen, not just for their particular skills and experience, but for their personalities: tolerant, easy going and with a well developed sense of justice and fairness. Not only would they work together well, establishing a successful community on the new world, their genetic make-up ought to ensure that their off-spring continued the co-operative life style into future generations.
That, at least, was the underlying ideal of the foundation that had recruited the team three centuries before. Motivated by a desire to end the centuries of conflict that had devastated the home planet a group of wealthy individuals had come together initially to pool their resources, creating the Foundation. To begin with they had deployed their vast collective wealth on so called ‘good works’; like a project to green the deserts of North Africa, harnessing the power of the sun to provide clean energy some of which was used to run desalination plants to provide the necessary water.
Aware that uncontrolled population growth placed unbearable pressure on Earth’s natural resources they funded a programme of birth control education throughout those parts of the world where the problem was greatest. This had brought them into conflict with religious leaders but they had persevered, employing retired politicians and diplomats whom they had sent into war zones with a mission to reconcile differences and bring peace to regions torn apart by generations of violent antagonism. That mission had failed, the numbers of people displaced by war and famine continued to increase, threatening the stability of those nations who had finally, in the second half of the twentieth century, learned the value of peaceful coexistence. It was then, in the third decade of the twenty-first century, that the idea of establishing a new start for the human race on an alien planet had been conceived and implemented.
Can society ever be fair and just? Go to the discussion