Friday, February 29, 2008

James P Hogan's "Making Light" (short story, humor): Organizational stupidity, illustrated

This hilarious story about the behavior of large organizations falls in the same class as Clarke's "Superiority" & Russell's "Allamagoosa". Great concept, superb execution.

Story has some Biblical references & acronyms from US government. Lack of familiarity with either doesn't comes in the way of comprehensibility, but I suppose those familiar will have a little more fun that I did.

Story summary.

GOD ("General Operations Director" of "Celestial Construction Company, Inc") is involved in bidding for the "Contract 15,000,000,000 BC". Contract involves "the creation of a standard Mark IV universe - plenty of light; the usual suns, planets, and moons; a few firmaments here and there with birds and animals on the land; fish filled waters around the land... Deadline for the contract was seven days - a piece of cake".

This project is "a little different from the previous Mark IV's" because of "the optional extra that Design Engineering had tagged on ...: people. Unlike the species that made up the usual mix of Mark IV animal forms, which simply consumed resources and multiplied until they achieved a balance with the environment, the people would have the capacity to harness fire, make tools, and generally think about how they could be better off. This would produce an awareness of needs and the motivation to do something about satisfying them. Eventually the people would discover that, as their numbers and their demands increased, they would no longer be able to satisfy their needs with the resources that came readily to hand. At that point, the computer simulations indicated, they could simply give up, they could fight over what they had until it ran out and then be obliged to give up anyway, or they could develop the intellectual potential inherent in their design and apply it to discovering the progression of new resources hidden around them like the successively more challenging, but at the same time more rewarding, clues of a treasure hunt."

"What the purpose of the game was, Design Engineering hadn't said. The GOD suspected that it was more for their own amusement than anything else, but he ... was quite curious himself to find out how the people would handle the situation."

Soon, the first object from bureaucracy comes: "Equal Employment Opportunities Creation" are "objecting to DE's proposal for the people on the grounds that it would discriminate unfairly against the animals."

To overcome it, a fix is suggested: "Why not make all the species equally intelligent?"

Only, original plan involved "that the animals would do most of the work for the people in the early phases and provide a lot of their food. If we made them equally intelligent, the situation would qualify as slavery and exploitation. We'd never get it past the Justice Department."

Another solution is suggested: make people "strong enough to do all the work themselves, and have them just eat plants."

But this also has a problem: "They'd have to be at least the size of elephants on an input of vegetable protein. Then food gathering would become such a problem that they'd never have any time left over for mental development".

This actually might have worked somehow if only the designers had access to the latest "Infallible Biological Modeler" ("IBM")! But "systems angelists" haven't yet delivered it.

After exhausting all options, they are forced to drop people from proposal; so only a standard Mark IV will be built.

Unfortunately, the troubles have just began. This time, it's "FAA" ("Feathers, Aviation, and Aquatics"). They are now claiming that "birds and fish aren't safe"! "According to FAA regulations, all flight-control and navigation systems have to be duplicated... Our birds only have a single nervous system. Also, we're allowing them to fly over water without inflatable life jackets." FAA also wants birds to be fitted with "bad weather landing aids"! Problem with fish is: "shallow water species don't have coastal radar"!

Why this wasn't a problem till now? "They've never really bothered to check the regulations before, but the controversy over the people has attracted their attention to this project".

"We can't go loading the birds up with all kinds of duplicated junk. Their power-weight ratios are critically balanced. They'd never get off the ground." Furthermore, "They don't fly in bad weather... They just sit in the trees. If they don't fly, why do they need aids for landing?" But FAA won't budge; it's regulations!

"I called the FAA guy ... and told him that the only way we could equip all the birds for bad weather landing was by making them all walk. He said that sounded fine." Great, so you can have non-flying birds but not flying ones!

Since non-flying birds & fish with radar sound silly, both are dropped from the universe!

But aha, bureaucracy is big. "The birds were supposed to spread seeds around to produce enough vegetation to support the herbivores. If we reduce the quotas of herbivores, we'd have to cut back on the carnivores too. And without the birds to keep down the insects, we'd have the Forestry Cherubim on our backs for endangering the trees. With the trees in trouble and no shallow water fish to clean up the garbage from the rivers, the whole ecosystem would break down. None of the animal species would be able to support themselves... if the animals become unable to support themselves, we'll have to put them all on welfare." But "HEW" ("Department of Harps, Eternity pensions, and Wings") is not interested in funding the massive welfare.

To move the project forward, "All forms of living organisms would have to be deleted from the proposal."

But now you have objection from "EPA" ("Environmental Protection Angel"): "Without any plants at all, the levels of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur compounds from volcanic activity would exceed the permitted limits... We would not be able to issue operating licenses for the volcanoes." While the "limits were set to safeguard only living organisms", "There is no clause in the regulations which specifically exempts lifeless planets". Sorry.

With volcanoes gone, "there wouldn't be enough planetary outgassing to form the atmospheres and oceans. OK, the atmospheres and oceans would have to go. But the volcanoes were also intended to play a role in relieving the structural stresses and thermal buildups in the planetary crusts... The GOD told him to revise the proposal by deleting the volcanoes and making the crustal formations more earthquake prone."

Now you have an objection from "HUD" ("Department of Highlands, Undulations, and Deserts"): "the mountain ranges you've proposed don't quite come up to the standards set out in our building codes for the increased level of seismic activity."

But dropping mountains also has problems with "Occupational Safety and Health Angelcy". "All those fissures opening up and landslides going on all over the place ... it would be a bit hazardous for the animals". OK, there are no animals, but there are rules!

So we now "make the planets completely inactive. There would be no mountains, no fluid interiors, no mobile plates - in fact, no tectonic processes of any kind. The planets would be simply featureless balls of solid rock that could never by any stretch of the imagination be considered potentially hazardous to any living thing, whether one existed or not."

Now "GAO" ("Great Accounting Overseer") has a problem: these planets "don't serve any useful purpose at all. They're just a needless additional expense on the cost budget."

Planets gone. Now we have "DOE" ("Dispenser of Energy") to contend with: "This idea of having billions of stars just pouring out all that energy into empty space with none of it being used for anything at all ... would be terribly wasteful and inefficient." Never mind that "The planets never used more than a drop in the ocean." There is a principle involved - some energy is useful to someone.

Next version: "Instead of being concentrated into masses sufficiently dense to sustain fusion reactions and form stars, the stellar material would be dispersed evenly throughout space as clouds of dust and gas in which the small amount of free energy that remained would be conserved through an equilibrium exchange between radiation and matter. The DOE was satisfied with that. Unfortunately the EPA was not; the clouds of dust and gas would exceed the pollution limits."

This is where the GOD got creative, & used the ultimate managerial weapon. Called a really long meeting - just 2 days to go for submission deadline. Keep the invitees sitting all through the night. Tire them out. Now pass an innocuous version of proposal when everyone wants to go home & no one is in a mood to object. No further objections will come, since proposal will immediately be sent to client.

That is how our evolution based universe (as opposed to created one) came into being. On the face of it, "All that was left of the original plan was a pinpoint of exotic particles of matter, radiation, space, and time, all compressed together at a temperature of billions of degrees." Engineers had worked out this new method that will give results "just the way we planned... the stars, the planets, the oceans, the mountains ... the birds, and the fish, and the animals, all the way through to the people".

You see, "The research people developed some things called 'Laws of Physics' that they buried inside it. The angelcies will never find them. But they're in there, and they'll make it all happen just the way we planned. We ran the numbers through the IBM last night, and they work."

Collected in.

  1. David Hartwell & Kathryn Cramer (Ed)'s "The Ascent of Wonder: The Evolution of Hard SF".

Fact sheet.

"Making Light", short story, review
First published: Judy-Lynn del Rey (Ed)'s "Stellar #7: Science Fiction Stories", August 1981.
Rating: A


Adam said...

Hi Tinkoo, this is Adam from the indian science fiction forum. How did you get a hold of the James P. Hogan story "Making Light"? I've found an e-book copy I can buy but that is all.

Tinkoo said...

Adam: It's in "Ascent of Wonder".

I'm not aware of a download link.