‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ by George Turner
H&C describe Turner as a Campbellian and compare the story to Heinlein’s ‘It’s Great To Be Back’ (1947) and Asimov’s ‘Waterclap’ (1970) and and, for once, the comparison is apt. ‘In A Petri Dish Upstairs’ was published in 1978 but nothing has changed in the intervening years; this is science fiction as bone-headed political thought experiment executed through laborious conversations (with added sexism).
One hundred and twenty years after the (undescribed) Plagues and the (undescribed) Collapse, everything on Earth is ticketyboo under the Global Ethic of Non-Interference. Meanwhile, up in space, the Orbiters, who split off from the rest of humanity three generations ago and control the world’s energy production, are feeling a bit bolshy.
Perhaps I am being a bit dim but I really can’t work out what on Earth the Global Ethic is actually meant to be. At first I took it to be a global libertarian philosophy, all the better to contrast with the communitarian Orbiters. But that doesn’t really square with the Earth’s global government, Stalinist security state and rigid central planning of the labour market. Interference happens all the time. Does this policy of non-interference only apply to the Orbiters then? Well, I’m not sure how you could make a Global Ethic out of that but no, it doesn’t. In helpful bullet point form we are told that:
First: the Power Stations as originally flown were rotated about the long axis to afford peripheral gravity.” Another finger. “Second: when the final Stations were flown, the seventeen formed themselves into the Orbital League.” Third finger. “The they made unreasonable demands for luxuries, surplus wealth, cultural artefacts and civic privilege under threat of throttling down the power beams… So the Global Council of the time authorised use of a remote-action energy blind, a – call it a weapon – whose existence had not been publicly known. The Orbiters threatened our microbeams, so we blinded the internal power systems of Station One… After a week of staling air, falling temperatures and fouling water they cried quits and-” fifth finger “-“the Orbital League has made no such further error since.”
So you can interfere if you want to. Indeed, early on, the security apparatchik responsible for that quote states that “the bloody Ethic means whatever you need it to mean.” Fair enough but that renders the whole story preposterous, as the obvious realpolitik of this statement comes into conflict with the hilarious naivete of the plot. I mean, why would the Global Council let the Orbiters take control of the power in the first place? And, after the attempt at extortion, why wouldn’t they take it back?
Now we come to the Orbiters’ cunning plan. The Global Council denies them anything more than a subsistence wage for their energy, they want funds for expansion. How can they get more money? They perform plastic surgery on one of their young men so that he resembles a movie star and then send him down to Earth to marry the richest heiress in Australasia. Simples. To which the Global Council can apparently do nothing more than throw up their hands and go: “Curses, out-smarted!”