by Joe M. McDermott
In space, no human resources department can hear your complaints. Or so Joe M. McDermott thinks will be the case as the first galactic colonies begin to grow. Here he elaborates on the ideas that inform his new story “Wind Gets Her Own Place,” available in our [January/February issue, on sale now!]
For a time, I worked for a company that was too small, really, for a full human resources department. Even as it grew, no one thought to bring in one until long after I had moved on to fairer pasture, and I think it didn’t last very long, either, if glancing at their LinkedIn page is any indication. Who’s to say?
I mention this because I experienced the growing pains of startup culture, where the bureaucracy that we mostly take for granted in most of our workplaces wasn’t present. It was just a bunch of ducks wrapped in a trench coat waddling really fast and quacking at company problems. An employee has an affair with another employee’s wife? QUICK QUACK! An employee is stealing company resources? QUICK QUACK! A manager is engaging in abusive behavior toward their subordinates? QUICK QUACK! Nothing was ever fixed, and mostly the way to handle every problem was just to fire the person that the owner liked the least, personally, and send out a company-wide e-mail about it. There was no human resources department, at the time, and I don’t really know if that ever changed. When I moved on, I was very pleased not to look back.
When I was working on “Wind Gets Her Own Place,” I was thinking about that experience. In a colony world setting, particularly after it’s been running a few years or decades, it’s going to reach a point where the boring, critical bureaucracy of a functioning human society is just not present to the level necessary to support the growing colony. It happens in business. It happens in countries. It happens in families as they grow and pay taxes and suddenly the organization system that worked for two people in an apartment with few assets, doesn’t work when there are kids, a mortgage, different insurance products, and long term investments. In the colony domes of the future, how best to handle the constant and enduring problem of child abuse and/or neglect? What systems are put in place and what precedents can be set? As the dome grows and children arrive and problem parents come with them, what systems and networks can be put in place to protect them? Who has that power and authority? What can or should they do? Wind gets her answer, and her resolution, but it feels invented on the fly, a custom job for a specific moment. It was as likely to turn out terribly as well as fine, and by the time anyone knows, it will be too late for Wind to do something differently.
In a colony world setting, particularly after it’s been running a few years or decades, it’s going to reach a point where the boring, critical bureaucracy of a functioning human society is just not present to the level necessary to support the growing colony.
As technology efforts grow, growing pains set in. What worked for two guys in a garage, no longer works for a global powerhouse with SEC-filings, international legal and tax obligations, complex warehouse and shipping operations, etc., etc. One of my favorite, long-running story series in Analog is Adam Troy-Castro’s space lawyer. In a complex multi-species, multi-planet future, with complex technologies, someone has to come through and work out the nitty gritty ethical and moral obligations, and build that bureaucratic infrastructure of the future, one case at a time, one problem at a time. Author/editor Chris Brown mentioned this, at a guest post with Chuck Wendig: “SCIENCE FICTION IS FULL OF LAW, BUT DEVOID OF LAWYERS.” And, it’s also devoid of all the things that the law does, quietly, to protect and preserve society, like building codes, licensing, child protective services, small claims court, etc., etc. We all agree that the government bureaucracy is some kind of Vogon nightmare, but we are hard pressed imagine anything better in our wide and varied dreams of tomorrow. In Wind’s case, in this growing colony dome, there is no functioning CPS system. Not really. But, child abuse will happen wherever there are children, and the tight quarters and narrow corridors will only make it harder to see.
It is a question relevant to our current world. We have seen firsthand how the failure to regulate social media technology leads to a calcification of tribal conflicts at the level of a society culminating in an avenue where bad actors are able to promulgate their agendas under the guise of free speech. Moderation is never fast enough, and regulation is just not able to keep up! Cryptocurrency is a sector that is full of bad actors doing bad and semi-bad things, but the technology that created the opportunity moves much faster than the power of government to contain and control the significant problems happening in this sector. The water realities of a climate change future are moving much, much faster than a culture that loves lawns to the point of ruin. Democratic government was never designed to move as fast as technology or systemic emergencies! It is a problem we face over and over, again, and the bureaucracy is always walking behind our changing society, struggling to keep up.