An Audio-Book Review: Darned Pesky Technological Improvements!


Damned If You Don’t

By Randall Garrett

Published by Librivox

Read by Phil Chenovert

 

The Book:

There are a number of popular conspiracy theories one hears over the years. The “Used-to-be History Channel” of late seems to be proliferating a scad of ancient alien contact stories as well as more fringe histories than anyone in their right mind can seriously comprehend. Why are these conspiracy theories so popular? Well, there are a lot of possible explanations.

First: many people do not trust the “Establishment,” which includes government and corporations and, in fact, anyone who is more comfortably situated than you are. In the current political cycle this is being exploited by the candidates… all the candidates!… in one way or other, but it is nothing new. Not really. I wish I could say otherwise, and it does seem to have reached a fever pitch as of late, but I think that is just the brash shrillness of the candidates’ voices as they all snipe at each other like a shiver of sharks that has just gotten wind of a tub of Type O being dumped in the sea. The reaction is mindless as is the conspiratorial reaction to it.

One conspiracy theory that emerges with amazing frequency is the story of how successful corporations have bought the rights to and suppressed the invention of useful technology. It usually comes down to the generation of free energy. It does not matter if it is an automobile engine that runs on water or some gizmo that connects to a standard electrical outlet and then powers your entire house for free. The stories are endless.

Of course, I do not believe in this conspiracy theory any more than I believe that Ancient Aliens came to Earth and built the pyramids (Seriously? Are humans so stupid that we cannot stack sandstone blocks on top of each other without other-worldly help? Heck! As a six-year old, I stacked up sugar cubes that way in a restaurant one morning). If one person can invent such a device or method, soon others will as well. And I doubt there are enough government and corporate funds to suppress all the supposed inventions that have been reported over the years. Seems to me the more clever thing to do when encountering free energy (whether it be by perpetual motion, cold fusion or whatever) would, first be certain it works, second buy the rights, and third incorporate the new technology, putting your company lightyears ahead of your competitors. Then finally, license the same tech to your competitors and rake in the cash from every direction at once.

Would such a technology put workers out of their jobs? Technically, maybe, but the company owning and exploiting that tech is going to need workers and likely more than they had before. Retraining the ones you had before is cheaper than finding a whole new workforce and the odds are the experience of the older workers will still apply. Besides, no new tech transition is instantaneous, it is a process, the people won’t lose their jobs in this case, just learn new techniques to do them.

Some competing fields might get decimated, however. Let’s take coal miners, for example. Cheap/free energy generation will all but wipe out that industry. Not good if you and your community rely on coal. Oh there are other uses for coal, but the demand would go way down and so would the value of the commodity. However, a smart company owning a new cheap energy technology is going to need a lot of employees to make it work and there are going to need them everywhere. They would need the former miners in new capacities.

Besides, there is no proof, whatsoever, that a revolutionary new energy tech exists, so the coal industry’s threats continue to be from more conventional quarters. Too bad, because those communities could use such an economic boost as I describe above.

No matter how damaging new tech might be to the status quo, I seriously doubt any workable technology is being suppressed. Don’t tell me it is corporate greed, because it is that very greed that would make sure one corporation or other would exploit it anyway, with or without governmental assistance or suppression. Besides, we do not have a world government. The USA might suppress an invention, but would Great Britain, the European Union? Qatar? Russia? North Korea? Doubtable.

That’s it for this week’s rant. In any case, Garrett presents us with an entertaining story about just that sort of suppression of a means of generating cheap energy by a very small engine (using water for power, I think). It’s somewhat dated, but it was also written over fifty-six years ago and published in 1960 and worldviews change. These days they change several times a week.

A fellow reviewer wrote that Garrett’s arguments against development taking place too rapidly would not hold up today and in a way, that reviewer was correct but that’s because I think in some ways we have developed too rapidly and our technology and culture is in flux. How that is going to turn out, I don’t know. In the short term we have the 2016 USA Presidential election cycle. Never mind who you support or oppose, the situation is a product of everything that had happened up until now and much of the cause has been the high speed of change and development. We’re confused and grasping for answers that may not be there.

So, maybe the story is not as dated as some might think. Just take it in mind as a way we might have gone. Think of it as an analogue of Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken.

 

The Audiobook:

I sometimes find Phil Chenovert’s reading style slightly annoying. He frequently sounds sarcastic, ironic, sardonic and other words ending in “ic.” However, I have come to think that his style is ideally suited to Randall Garrett’s SF stories. The stories and the characters in them sound that way to me too, so there may truly be no one better for reading them.

It’s an old story that does not hold up on its original merits, but I think it still has something worth saying in it and Phil Chenovert reads it well.

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