Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Unobtainium: Who should have it?

“Unobtainium” is an SF/fantasy in-joke. It means any substance that is desirable and hard to get, enough so to become a plot point. In James Cameron’s CGI tour de force Avatar, the mineral being exploited from the planet of the Navi is called unobtainium, his nod to the fan community.

When works of SF feature an unobtainium as a McGuffin, it sometimes turns out to also be a metaphor for power, and who should have it. Here are some examples. Spoiler alert!

Anti-Ice: No-one should have it

Anti-Ice by Stephen Baxter is often thought of as a steampunk novel. The time period is right, and there is a Jules Verne-esque esthetic, especially to the spacecraft. But the sensibility is much more H. G. Wells.

Anti-ice is a meta-stable compound of antimatter and water ice. Detonation of miniscule quantities can fuel steam engines; detonation of merely small quantities can destroy entire cities The novel begins with the complete annihilation of Sebastopol at the end of the Crimean War, by an anti-ice bomb designed and deployed by a British scientist.

Britain, it develops, is in control of the only known terrestrial deposit of anti-ice, in Antarctica. A few years on from the end of the war, Britain is experiencing a period of progress and prosperity fueled by anti-ice, an accelerated Industrial Revolution with all the attendant woes and disruption.

What very few people know is that the Antarctic deposits are nearing exhaustion. The scientist whose bomb destroyed Sebastopol, and whose anti-ice-consuming inventions have filled the years since, reveals to the narrator that this is his intention. There is no human country or society that can be trusted with the destructive power of anti-ice. The only solution is to use it all up. In the aftermath, Britain may fall, but humanity will survive.

The Stars My Destination: Everyone should have it

The Stars My Destination (alternate and equally splendid title Tyger, Tyger) features a McGuffin called PyrE. PyrE, like anti-ice, is capable of releasing vast energy. It is psychically active: it can be detonated with a thought.

Earth is at war with the rest of the solar system, and is ruled by enormous corporations, to whom PyrE is a closely guarded military and economic secret. In the climactic scene, the protagonist Gully Foyle seizes a box of PyrE and teleports randomly around the world, hurling handfuls of PyrE into crowds of corporate serfs and bellowing instructions for how to use it. Earlier, he says to the assembled authorities:

“Who are we, any of us, to make a decision for the world? Let the world make its own decisions. Who are we to keep secrets from the world? Let the world know and decide for itself.”

The Stars My Destination holds out the clear possibility that humanity may not survive. After his recapture, Foyle says “There’s enough left for a war. Plenty left for destruction… annihilation… if you dare.”

Black Panther: Only good people should have it, but they should use it to help other people

A moment of silence, please. Stan Lee was a genuine cultural hero, and we need his kind.

If you saw Black Panther, you’ll have recognized by now that vibranium is a form of unobtainium. It’s described as “the hardest material in the world” (harder than Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton? Don’t ask), but as Andy Serkis says to Martin Freeman “It’s so much more.” (“It’s my preeecioussss!” Oops.) Not only does it seem to be an energy source—a much safer one than anti-ice or PyrE—it has effects on the plants and people of Wakanda that can only be described as magical.

Wakanda has kept vibranium strictly to itself, thereby ensuring its survival in a world dominated by European powers. The moral question at the heart of the movie is whether it’s right for Wakanda to continue to do so—or whether the possibilities of vibranium should be used to help less fortunate Africans and African-diasporans.

I have to admit I’m uncomfortable with this answer on principle. Especially (and I say this as a member of the African diaspora) with an answer structured along tribal lines, no matter how inclusive the tribe.

Besides—if you read both of the books I mention above, you know that my description of the ending isn’t complete. There’s a joker in each pack. There may be one in the deck of Wakanda as well, but Marvel’s creators have not yet revealed it.

Sten: The benevolent philosopher-king should have it. Oops. That didn't work out too well.

The Sten series, eight books all told, is by Allan Cole and the late Chris Bunch. Bunch wrote several other books on his own, which we quite enjoyed.

In these books, unobtainium is referred to as anti-matter 2, or AM2. The entire galactic economy, including interstellar travel, runs on AM2, and the only being who knows where to get it is a functionally immortal human called the Eternal Emperor. He is not an emperor in name only; he's the absolute ruler of most of human space, and most of the alien species in the galaxy are subject-allies.

Life in the Eternal Empire is mostly pretty good. There are exceptions, of course. It's pretty lousy for a debt-serf on a corporate planet, which is how our hero, Sten, starts out. Also... it turns out the Emperor is not exactly immortal. He can be killed, but within a few years after his death, a copy appears. The new Emperor has all of the old Emperor;s memories and abilities, and his first act is to restore whatever's gone awry in the Empire during the interregnum.

Except the copy isn't always perfect.

The series ends with the final destruction of the Emperor and the instruments of his regeneration-- as well as the new that someone has managed to figure out how to synthesize AM2. The Empire is over. The future's uncertain...and full of possibilities.

Available! High-Voltage Lines, Knocking from Inside

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