Or, On “Hillman, Charles Dallas, Age: 35, No Partner, Parents: Deceased.”
by Ron Collins
A few days back I was watching an old interview of Bob Dylan in which he said, “I don’t think much of systems. I’d live under a king if it was the right king.” For some reason that’s resonating with me as I write this piece.
I didn’t have much on my mind when I sat down to write a story with what turned out to be the perhaps uncomfortably long title of “Hillman, Charles Dallas, Age: 35, No Partner, Parents: Deceased” [in our March/April issue, on sale now].
Mostly I was envisioning a pulpy kind of James Bond thing with some concept of consciousness at its root. I had a great time describing the opening scene, and then just kind of let it rip to go where it went. Only after finishing did I realize it touched on so many things I’m interested in. That’s a beautiful thing, really. It’s why I often say I’m not sure exactly what I think about something until I’ve written about it.
For example: I didn’t set out to explore how a person is always more than one thing. In my case, for example, I am both a parent and a child of a parent. I am a writer. A male of a certain age, and a husband. I am a cat lover. The list is long because, like all of you, I am more than one thing.
Human beings like to categorize everything, don’t we?
When we’re talking about positive descriptors, our passions or loves or almost anything of non-controversial interest, most all of us gain enjoyment from the process. We like talking about people. Problems arise, however, when we approach touchier issues.
What happens when we discover a person we think of as a great friend also turns out to be a thief? Or a misogynist?
What do we think of an otherwise faithful friend who runs around on their partner?
You see what I mean, right?
People are more than one thing.
In the case of “Hillman, Charles Dallas, Age 35, No Partner, Parents Deceased,” the story makes it clear that Charles Hillman is certainly an example of that. I like that Charles Hillman is so smart—or at least he is in his own way—yet is also so oblivious. He’s a crook in practice, but not quite so in heart. He is more than one thing.
I like that, by definition, the story separates these two parts.
I like how writing him made me think about how the rest of the world interacts with each part of him.
How institutions matter, or don’t. How private enterprise might work, or not.
There’s an element of consent in the story.
An element of treachery.
Something else is here, too. At one point the story touches upon resources.
When I say “resources,” I mean that term in the broadest way—worldwide resources, and the allocation of said items. I mean, I’m talking the biggest of pictures. Relative to us, anyway. I have to qualify that here because this is Analog, and we’re used to talking about things that run from quantum to galactic. But, yes, Charles Hillman—or at least part of him—finds himself in a current-day situation in which the resource pool is essentially infinite.
That term “essentially infinite” requires me to pause.
The Earth’s resources are not actually infinite, but they are very, very large and at least partially recyclable and renewable.
We are, after all, stardust.
Without getting too deeply into the story itself, I’ll note that it deals with finance and other geo-political ideas at these highest levels.
What I’m saying is that people have a hard time grasping how big the world is—in this case, how vast our resource pool is—and that this inability can warp our view of the world.
It is, to be sure, a cliché to note that humans are not particularly good at estimating the magnitude of big numbers. I, being one of those said humans, am no different. When it comes to getting my head around the terms “billion” and “trillion” and other big things, I find I need to look at equivalencies to envision the real size of things.
One of my favorite equivalencies, for example, is that the size of Africa’s landmass is approximately equal to the surface area of the moon.
Knowing this makes me happy.
When I find myself outside at night, and I glance at the moon I take an odd sense of joy at the thought that I’m looking at half the landmass of Africa.
In that light, I recently came upon a report by Americans for Tax Fairness and the Institute for Policy Studies’ Program for Inequality that noted that, by simply limiting a single person’s individual wealth to one billion dollars, the United States could have an extra four trillion dollars to improve the plight of our nation—and, of course, still have the same number of billionaires. Now, I’m not saying that capping wealth at a billion dollars should be policy in the United States, though there could be worse things to happen. What I’m saying is that, whatever your stance on the politics of wealth distribution might be, I hadn’t thought about things in that exact way before.
Additionally, the report noted, of that four trillion that could be recouped, 25% was added from March 2020 through December 2020. In other words, in the first ten months of the pandemic, the combined net worth of billionaires increased by a trillion dollars.
Still, what does it mean? A trillion?
The problem, of course, is that, like other people, I have a hard time getting my brain around those kinds of numbers.
Here’s a little thing I did to put a trillion dollars into a framework I can handle better.
First, let’s note, per that same report, there are some 650 billionaires in the US.
Finally, a nice small number: 650.
Most of us can get a grasp on the idea of how big 650 is.
Simple math (one trillion divided by 650 billionaires) says your average billionaire added about 1.54 billion to their net assets in the last ten months of 2020.
To help visualize how big this, let’s assume every square inch of a page in your favorite book represents one dollar. For sake of further simplicity, let’s also assume your favorite book is my own SF thriller The Knight Deception. I chose that book because it happens to be exactly one inch thick as a 6×9-inch paperback. The Knight Deception has 320 pages, or 160 leaves of paper. So, one leaf has 6 * 9 = 54 square inches, and then 160 leaves * 54 square inches per leaf equals 8,640 square inches total. That means the 1-inch thickness of this book represents $8,640.
Now let me put you into this situation.
Let’s state that your family has grown its net worth by $8,640 during the first ten months of the pandemic (good luck, right?). Feel free to scale that up or down to match your own situation, of course, but for now let’s say your family has managed to weather the pandemic relatively unscathed and even made headway.
Now imagine you are standing side-by-side with an average billionaire at the starting line of a running track a quarter mile around, four laps to one mile. You are holding a copy of The Knight Deception, and right there at that starting line you balance that book spine-up, such that its thickness extends its mighty $8,640 one-inch down the track.
How far down the track would the billionaire’s stack of books stretch?
If an inch is $8,640 and the billionaire added $1.54B to their stash, that divides out to about 178,241 inches. A mile is 63,360 inches, so stack that number of copies of my book together and you get 2.81 miles, or 11.25 laps.
In the same ten months it took you to add that copy of The Knight Deception to your net worth, that billionaire did like The Flash, lapping you eleven times.
Let that settle for a moment.
Eleven and a quarter laps to your one inch.
In ten months.
During the pandemic.
Whatever you think about income or wealth inequality, eleven and a quarter laps are something worth thinking about.
Of course, I started this conversation by noting that people are never only one thing.
So what am I getting at here?
What I’m saying is that people have a hard time grasping how big the world is—in this case, how vast our resource pool is—and that this inability can warp our view of the world. This inability can cause us to fight over things that ought not to be fought over, or to hold on to things that might be better off not to be held.
I’m thinking about things Charles Hillman is or is not.
I’m thinking about which parts of the Charles Hillmans in each of us cause us to make good decisions and which cause us to act frivolously or selfishly. About what might happen if we could actually separate all the pieces of ourselves out from each other and let the “right parts” drive the right decisions—how seeing certain things in dispassionate ways might change how we answer some questions, and vice versa. What are our standards? What makes a decision good? What do we mean by accountability? Who wins, who loses, and why do we care?
It’s what we do with our power that matters, after all.
So, yes, I find that the further I get from having written “Hillman, Charles Dallas, Age: 35, No Partner, Parents: Deceased,” the more I like the questions it brings up in me. Or, perhaps I should say that as more time passes, I can see better how I would answer those questions.
That too, I suppose, is dangerous.
What parts of me are helpful to society, after all? What parts of me are not?
Still, I’ve got my opinions.
I think we could do better.