I mentioned, a few posts back, that John Barnes was one of the few science fiction authors who took the concept of “memes” seriously. He’s also one of the few that occasionally include a favorable mention of labor unions in his stories. At least, he’s among the few that I’m aware of. There is quite the flood of work labelled “science fiction.” It would be a full time job just to keep up with it, which is another way of saying that I’m not all that hip so maybe there are a lot more such authors these days: IDK.
Most science fiction authors do not consistently write from a particular ideological point of view, so what is it about unions? Part of it is that a good story-teller generally relies upon the reader to supply part of the story. Stories, true or fiction, are collaborative efforts, and the readers who have had direct contact with unions are a distinct minority, and most of those experienced the union the way most of us experience an insurance company. Including unfamiliar plot elements such as unions comes with a cost: You must explain and show as otherwise the readers don’t know. (That’s also one of the reasons most science fiction tales resemble a Dr. Frankenstein’s monster of re-used plot elements.) Another part of it is the assumption that in a futurama future productivity is so great that… why would most people need a union? We’re “post-economic,” right? On the other hand, how few hours a week did the early 20th Century economist John Maynard Keynes predict we would be working by the end of that century? Gee, where did all that time and money go?
Whatever. My ulterior motive in bringing up unions here is as an excuse to quote a paragraph from one of the John Barnes books that I recommended in that previous post, Candle. The series that includes Candle was written around the turn of the century, when failed states seemed to be the likely theme for the 21st Century, including the United States. This is part of a recruiting pitch made to the residents of a Seattle orphanage by the captain of a militia hired to protect that part of the Pacific northwest:
“Burton’s Thugs for Jesus is a union shop, represented by the United Combatants, Engineers, Medics, and Chaplains, and we use the standard UCEMC contract for a battalion-sized unit. You get room and board, medical, dental if we ever get another dentist under contract, and locked-in rent control for basic uniforms and equipment. In the event of combat against other UCEMC units, you have a much better POW contract — which can make a big difference if you’re captured — you keep your seniority without penalty if you elect to defect, and you fight under the strict form of the Hague Convention, so the union is a good deal for most of you, and it’s a flat four percent of your pay. You also pay for your training with a five-percent deduction from your pay for your first year, which I waive if you’re decorated for bravery in combat. You don’t pay any local or episcopal taxes.”
Lest I give the wrong impression, unions appear in only some of Barnes’ works. But even those few inclusions are enough to stand out an otherwise silent or hostile fiction genre. When I finished reading the recruiting pitch for the first time many years ago, I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or to weep.
But as Billy Bragg sang:
Money speaks for money, the Devil for his own;
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?