Friday, August 20, 2010

SEX, CHEAP LABOR AND FTL DRIVES: THE “ECONOMICS” OF INTERSTELLAR SLAVERY

Mars Needs Women! And apparently half the planets in the galaxy are out for the rest of humanity. Read (or watch) enough SF/SFR and you quickly learn that the institution of slavery is alive and well in the galaxy.

Remember the Orion traders in Star Trek? One green-skinned slave girl in a single episode of that classic series has expanded to an entire evil empire of slave traders in fan fiction novels. Jess Granger’s Beyond the Rain and Beyond the Shadows feature a galaxy where slavery is an accepted practice. Countless erotic SFR novels use the master/slave “relationship” as the setting for, um, adventure.

And, frankly, who can resist the intergalactic slaver as a villain? Not many of us, I guess, myself included. My own Interstellar Rescue series follows the spunky heroines and sexy heroes who fight those slavers across the galaxy. And I’m in good company. The website SciFi Fan lists some 975 titles in the genre dealing with slavery, slaves or servitude, beginning in 1888.

But many readers who will gladly ride along with you as you babble on about faster-than-light drives or jumping through wormholes or encountering and communicating with silicon-based aliens from Planet Moronia want to exit the spaceship when you begin to suggest that there might be aliens willing and able to enslave us noble humans.

“That’s ridiculous!” they exclaim. “Aliens are going to come all the way across the galaxy to pick us up in their spaceships and take us somewhere to work in their mines ( or their bordellos or wherever). If they’ve got that kind of technology, they could just use it to replace physical labor. That doesn’t make economic sense!”

But, of course, that argument reveals a number of cultural, economic and even technological biases. It assumes that human life is valuable, above and beyond whatever labor humans can provide; that transportation is expensive and interstellar transportation next to impossible; that extraction (or agricultural or specialized production) technology is less expensive than cheap and easily replaceable labor; that other special circumstances don’t exist.

Even here on Earth, those assumptions sometimes don’t hold up. Historically, Europeans sailed halfway around the world to steal Africans from their homes, take them to another continent and sell them for profit. Slavery was a booming business in the American South in the years leading up the Civil War. The cotton gin had made it even more profitable to own large numbers of slaves. It took a bloody war to disabuse slave owners of the notion that slavery didn’t make economic sense.

Today we have excellent extraction technology, but the gold and diamond mines of Africa are nothing more than slave pits. Children are used for cheap labor and sex in dozens of countries around the world, even though it is against the law and denounced from every pulpit and televised forum on the planet.

Now suppose that our evil aliens operate from a similar cultural and economic set of assumptions. (This is not such a stretch—most of our SF/SFR aliens look a lot like us.) They get around the galaxy using a known system of wormhole-like jumpnodes that take them from place to place in no time (literally). And suppose that Earth happens to be located almost on top of one of those jumpnodes. Bad for Earth, good for our aliens. Sure saves on transport costs.

We can surely assume that the aliens are going to believe we are inferior, perhaps something less than sentient. So there goes the “value of human life” argument. Now throw in a few twists. Say, there’s some barrier to the use of their own labor in mines or fields (psychotropic fungi in the crystals in my story Unchained Memory, for example, or simply dangerous work). Or maybe humans are interesting for a completely different reason (we’re sexy, or we’re just plain yummy, according to my co-blogger Laurie Green’s story P2PC).

Imagine that our alien slavers steal not whole villages full of humans, dragged off in chains, but isolated households, individuals, groups. How many people go missing in this country every year? How many in the world that are never even reported? Rather than thinking of the slave trade as it really existed in Africa (as ongoing warfare between tribes, with Arab traders a common, terrible sight), think Kunta Kinte being snatched up by unknown assailants (A myth, by the way; The Gambia was on the crossroads of the early Portuguese slave trade.) Would we know we were being taken?

Then there are the ones that are somehow mysteriously returned—probed, prodded, tagged for study and sometimes cruelly used for breeding programs. (At least, this is what the abductees tell us.) Is someone helping us? Is there an intergalactic abolition society out there fighting interstellar slavery?

Well, that was the line of questioning that led me to Unchained Memory and the Interstellar Rescue series. After all, judging from what has happened here on Earth, it’s not so crazy to think we might be slave-bait for a species whose technology has advanced beyond their morality. And I sure hope there is someone who will come to our rescue if that’s true.

Cheers, Donna

6 comments:

  1. I can totally believe the slavery of humans by aliens since the slavery of humans by humans is going on as we speak.

    In my own dystopian future, corporations are the enslavers by dint of controlling all manufacturing, sales, and production. Isn't this what's going on now?

    It's a fearsome future. Science fiction has always been the harbinger, the literature that warns how things can go wrong (and do) if uncontrolled corporate greed is allowed to run rampant.

    Oops. Sliding off soapbox. But I do agree that the SF extrapolations are entirely within the realm of possibilities.

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  2. Great points, Donna. What we know we're capable of as a species, as Marva pointed out in her comments, is the same questions of morality, economics and might-over-right that we carry into our fictional(?) futures with a speculative twist or two.

    "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is as true today and in the past as it will be in the future. "Because we can" may not be a sound argument, but it's one of the most prolific unspoken justifications that exists anywhere...or in any century.

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  3. Thanks for having my back, ladies. I thought I catch a lot of flack on this one, but I guess all the critics are on vacation! :-)

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  4. Thought-provoking post, Donna. I agree with the points you've made, and furthermore I think these themes are always going to be of interest to us because they've had such an impact on our history.

    As our scientific prowess advances, we're likely to come hard against these issues over and over. Anybody see Moon?

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  5. It feels wrong somehow to be 'turned on' - 'entertained' - or whatever by the idea of slavery when the reality of it is so bad but I'm there with the rest of you finding it a legitimate and interesting theme in ANY novel. I just read - Mistress of Rome - set in ancient times and it was a yet another story of a slave makes good. If it can happen in the past, it can happen in the future. It STILL happens in our world now, so why shouldn't some other world fancy their chances with us?

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  6. Interesting. The "entertainment" value, of course, comes from watching the slaves endure, rise up, escape, overcome or rebel, giving their masters what they truly deserve. We do so love an underdog, and it doesn't get much further "under" than that!

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