Sunday, April 17, 2011

Review - "The Fulcrum" (Gwyneth Jones, 2005)

SF Story Review: "The Fulcrum,"

"The Fulcrum"
 2005 by Gwyneth Jones

(c) 2008, 2011 by Jordan S. Bassior

 I read this in Science Fiction: The Very Best of 2005 (ed. Jonathan Strahan) and was astounded by how little sense it made. Furthermore, it seemed to be (in its setting) copying a much better story by George R. R. Martin, which also made very little sense but whose superior style papered over the less egregious logical flaws.


The story is set on a manned Kuiper Belt outpost in the 24th century. Two oddly-sexed "extreme tourists" are visiting this outpost, ostensibly for the experience, in fact because they are hunting rumors of treasure.


Dubious Economics

Now, the first strange part of the setting is that this supposedly occurs in a future in which there has been no manned colonization of the Solar System. This is odd, because they appear to have manned spacecraft capable of reaching any part of the Solar System (as shown by the existence of the outpost). According to the author:

In the close to four hundred years since spaceflight got started, the human race had never got beyond orbital tourism, government science stations, and wretched, hand-to-mouth mining operations in the Belt ...

... and, as another character explains:

"... Eventually, yes, a few fools managed to scrape a living in the deep. But the gravity well defeated us. We could not become a new world. There was nothing to prime the pump, no spices, no gold: no new markets, never enough materials worth the freight."

As Gwyneth Jones clearly fails to grasp, the two statements are contradictory. If there is even orbital tourism, science stations, and mining operations, then there clearly is a market, which space-based producers could supply more cheaply than ground-based ones. This is because "the gravity well" is an obstacle to transit between Earth and other places; it is not an obstacle between (say) the Moon and the Asteroid Belt. The gravity wells of objects considerably smaller than the Earth are so shallow that it is easy to blast off from their surfaces and achieve Solar orbit, especially assuming nuclear-powered rockets (which they must have if they are planting outposts in the Kuiper Belt).

To serve as a centuries-long obstacle to interplanetary colonization, there must be virtually no manned operations beyond Low Earth Orbit. If there are any, then these (originally subsidized) operations logically would perform the economic function of "priming the pump." Once you get a complex economy beyond our atmosphere, it builds on itself, in a virtuous circle.

For instance, the current boom in commercial spacecraft construction is feeding both on orbital tourism and on the desire to make money supplying the International Space Station and other scientific manned space ventures. The motive of the venture being supplied is irrelevant -- it may be scientific, military, or recreational, but its personnel and purposes will need supply, and it can much more be cheaply supplied by contracting from private suppliers whose operations are, ultimately, based near the subsidized venture. And, once enough such suppliers are in place, they can produce and sell to each other, and export some products even to the Earth.

Ironically, "gold," mentioned on her list as one thing not available, is one commodity likely to be present in bulk in the Belt. Along with lots of other precious and industrial metals, and rare earths. It would not be economical with current technology to export them to Earth, but with a technology capable of manned flight to the Kuiper Belt?

Back in the 1950's to mid 1970's, when science fiction writers had seen the immense aerospace advances of the period from 1903 to 1969, there was a tendency to assume very rapid expansion into space, far more rapid than 20th century rocketry actually could have supported. Gwyneth Jones is obviously making the opposite mistake, postulating a period of some 350 years without significant interplanetary colonization.

The Fulcrum

The Kuiper Belt station, "The Fulcrum," is located at a special point in spacetime from which it is possible to tunnel matter transmitter like hypertubes to other planets, which is why this station is maintained so far out from the Earth. Prospectors travel to these planets to try to find ones suitable for colonization. They can claim the planets themselves or sell the coordinates to developers. For no obvious reason, they can only transmit humans and what gear they can hold on them. It is in hope of buying and reselling the coordinates to an Earthlike planet that the weird couple (who call themselves "aliens" for no comprehensible reason) has come there.

Crime but no Punishment

They have spent months there without getting a bite. Then, for murky reasons connected to the plot, their exercise bike is stolen. They go to the station's security chief, Eddie, but he can do nothing. He is a coward, there is no effective law on The Fulcrum, and the real power is in the hands of two rival gangsters, one of whom has a gun, a knife, and a (very) few followers; the other of whom has a knife and a (very) few followers. The first gangster's possession of a gun is a major advantage for him, because it is illegal to bring guns onto the station.

Effective Gun Control?

Here the story runs into another gaping logical flaw. If there is no effective law on the station, and there is a considerable risk of lethal violence, why are guns so rare? Sure, the "world government" mentioned in the story could prohibit exporting guns from Earth to the station, but because there is no law on the station, they could not prevent the Deep Spacers on the station from making guns themselves.

The Fulrcum is only visited at months-long intervals by the Slingshot, a sort of space transport, which means that it must house extensive machine shops. Therefore, intelligent and technically-trained people could improvise guns, swords, body armor, etc. Yet for some reason, nobody thinks of this (including the space tourists, who go through all kinds of stupid convoluted actions rather than simply obtaining their own weapons and defying the gangsters). This seems like Euroweenie "gun control" elevated to the status of some physical law!

Hull Breach!

One apparent justification is given when it's pointed out that the knives the gangsters are carrying could puncture the station hull, and (by implication) heavier weapons would be Right Out. But this is just plain silly: first of all merely puncturing a station hull would not be lethal, assuming that in 400 years of space travel someone has invented and deployed patch kits (Jones seems not to realize just how long it would take a small puncture in a large compartment to evacuate the air in the compartment). Secondly, The Fulrcum as designed is big, and presumably contains numerous sealable airtight compartments (the reall ISS, far smaller and more primitive, certainly does).

Finally, how much would such considerations stop anyone who had real fear of deadly attack? I'd shoot the gangsters and patch the hull leaks when my foes were safely dead! So, I'm pretty sure, would most Americans.

The Point of It All

Anyway, it turns out that on the station there is a secret source of exotic matter, which could be used in some undefined way to build FTL starships, which would enable the Deep Spacers' dreams of large-scale interplanetary colonization to become a reality. This, and revenge, drives the whole rather silly film noir plot.


This was a potentially good idea that became a very bad idea because Gwyneth Jones had to bow in reverence to the gods of Only One Earth and Gun Control. C. L. Moore or Leigh Brackett would have done this so much better -- come to think of it, they basically did do this basic plot much better, more than once.

Oh, the specific story, with similar logic holes which worked better because George R. R. Martin was a better writer? "Starlady," which features wackily stupid ID verification procedures and a similar sort of "gun control" (everyone fights with vibroknives and stunsticks, but no better weapons for no obvious reason because the port is lawless), but which manages to work as a story, because Martin's style is so damn poetic.

Gwyneth Jones' style isn't.


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