Friday, March 25, 2011

Top 5 SF Megaprojects that Would Have Had a Tough Time Getting Budget Approval

Anyone who's followed the news when a megaproject is proposed, like a new hydro-electric dam, or a highway or railway, or the design, construction and purchase of a fleet of new ferries, knows that there are huge obstacles to getting budget approval for them. Politicians, bureaucrats, business interests, lobby groups and the public can all stonewall spending in one way or another, sometimes making it a miracle that anything large and expensive gets accomplished at all.

Speculative fiction is full of megaprojects. Everything from city-sized space stations to colonizing expeditions to super weapon development. Some of these expenses are understandable because there may have been cost-sharing (like the Babylon stations in Babylon 5) or long-term benefits or the unifying motivation of national pride or a rich guy's personal dream fulfillment (such as Sad King Billy's city of poets in Hyperion) or whatever. But others make me think they probably got a pretty rough ride in budgetary hearings before they got a grudging go-ahead to start cutting cheques and begin development.

Here are, to me anyway,

The Top 5 Megaprojects that Would Have Had a Tough Time Getting Budget Approval:

5) The Starfighter Legion - from The Last Starfighter
When the peaceful Star League is confronted with imminent invasion by the Ko-Dan Empire and its ally, the traitor Xur, its citizens begin allocating resources to the construction of a military base and a fleet of Gunstars, along with a program to recruit and train starfighters and navigators to man the heavy fighters. Problem is, the people of Rylos - and we're led to believe the citizens of the other League worlds as well - are pacifists. For thousands of years they've worked to weed-out violence in their culture until it is virtually non-existant. What's more, the mere thought of violence makes them physically ill (as evidenced by the look of distaste on the Rylan official's face when he talks about the "gift" to be starfighters, and the novelization where author Alan Dean Foster goes into greater detail about the level of discomfort brought about by thoughts of violence). Anyone in this society who is even remotely tetchy is treated for mental illness, hence the great challenge of finding those capable of not only working on the base, but actually piloting the spacecraft and firing their weapons. You'd think in a society so relentlessly pacifistic there would be serious political, bureaucratic and public opposition to paying for this project. It would be easy to believe that there would be a big push to instead use the funding to support the superior scientific minds of the League in a project to simply augment the defensive shielding of their Frontier drones to do a better job of keeping the warlike aliens out. There must've been some serious political wrangling to get the Legion's budget approved in the years and months before the actual Ko-Dan attack.

4) The repair/replacement bill for the ships lost fighting the Reavers over Mr Universe's moon - from Serenity
So many ships damaged or destroyed, so many lives lost, so many angry surviving families and insurance companies with so very many lawyers. There's no doubt that in the wake of the firefight over Mr Universe's moon at the end of Serenity that some hard questions were asked in Parliament. And not just about the release of classified information on the planetary pacification program or the Reavers. No, there would be some bureaucrats and politicians seriously cheezed about the titanic expenses resulting from when one Operative went wild and pushed an independent contractor freighter captain of marginal legality into severely escalating a custody dispute. The cost of the lawsuit settlements for benefits payouts alone would constitute a megaproject, never mind the money needed to repair whatever crippled Alliance ships that managed to limp away from the fiasco. Then there would be the parliamentary bill to build replacement ships for the ones destroyed in the fight - lots of new capital ships and support vessels with the latest technology from a whole assortment of design firms and contractors just waiting to cash-in. No, it wouldn't be cheap, and it sure wouldn't be easy to get that past the Alliance's naval budgetary appropriations committee. No bureaucrat would want to divert money from their pre-existing budgets, and no Member of Parliament would want to go back to their world and have to explain to taxpayers why their taxes were going to jump to pay for a massive military replacement.

3) The Ringworld - from Ringworld, by Larry Niven
The idea of the Ringworld, or any Dyson sphere or similar supermassive construction really, has always struck me as alternately ultra-cool and yet politically and economically ridiculous. Here's a culture that's decided (maybe because it likes the idea of maximizing the efficient use of energy from its parent star, maybe because it likes the idea of having a whole lotta land so everyone can have a really big back yard with a swimming pool, maybe because it likes the idea of staying close to home) to sink staggering resources (as in quite likely tearing apart all planets in the solar system) over huge amounts of time into building a ring or a shell around a star. Now, if your civilization had that level of knowledge and technology to build the ultimate mega project, wouldn't you also be able to figure out that it would probably just be quicker, easier and cheaper to colonize other habitable worlds in other star systems? Remember, in Niven's Known Space, faster-than-light travel is possible, so high-tailing off to colonize other planets isn't too big of a deal. And when you're talking about a civilization with the ability to tear apart whole planets to build massive constructions around a star, it's not like there's be much chance of serious opposition from native species on those prospective colony worlds. They colonizers could simply break out the mass-drivers, snag some local asteroids, and bomb them back into the stone age - with stones! - then move in and rebuild their society on the new world. You'd also think that a civilization with this capability would know that stars don't last forever, sooner or later they swell into red giants and die off. Any civilization that's building a ring or sphere is clearly in it for the long haul, and should realize its super-long-term chances of survival are best served by moving to other younger star systems, rather than hanging around the home system in a ring or sphere that's going to be torn apart, melted, or otherwise destroyed when the home star starts to expand in its grumpy old age. Because of this, I have to wonder if when the builders first proposed the Ringworld to others of their civilization, if they weren't met with opposition from more conservative elements who would refuse to spend the time, effort, and possibly money on a project that's doomed in the long term and certainly more costly than just packing up the kids and moving to the next system over.

2) The Encyclopedia Foundation - from Foundation, by Isaac Asimov
In the last years of the Galactic Empire, psychohistorian Hari Seldon has crunched the numbers and knows he has to set up a colony on the outskirts of civilization to preserve knowledge and shorten the dark age that lies ahead from tens of thousands of years to a single millennium. So he concocts a grand scheme of setting up this colony of great minds that will rebuild society and disguising it (because he wants to minimize the chances of war-like civilizations preying on it) as a project to compile an encyclopedia of the sum total of all humanity's knowledge. Really? A whole planet just to put together an encyclopedia? All the politicians of the imperial court and all the staff of the galaxy's bureaucracy are supposed to buy that? Let alone allocate the vast amounts of money necessary to set up a government-funded colony of several thousand people with all the latest technology, toys and trinkets? Not likely. My memory of Asimov's Forward the Foundation and the other prequel books written in the late 80's/early 90's is a bit dim, but I seem to recall that Seldon had taken the Emperor into his confidence and obtained his approval for the project. But I also seem to recall that the Emperor was not long on the throne before being assassinated or dying by some illness or accident. Which creates the very real problem of what his successors and ministers would do about the project. To get funding - more importantly, to sustain that funding through the various years-long construction, colonization, and supply-before-self-sufficiency stages, would require that the entire imperial government apparatus know what was going on; everyone would need to know that this was really an ark, not just a big book. And they didn't, because again, this was a secret. So here you have a line-up of new emperors in the next few years, not to mention a horde of politicians and bureaucrats, who think this whole expense (when they bother to give it any consideration at all) is about compiling a book, which, let's face it, a computer could do in a fairly short period of time, and which they'd reasonably expect had already been done at any of a number of universities around the galaxy, or could be done if the order was given. I was a reporter long enough to know that when politicians and bureaucrats don't know what a project is and what it's real goals are, they won't fund it. Hell, even when they do know what's going on, half the time they don't want to fund it either! When the Emperor died, Seldon would have lost his backer. His successor either wouldn't know about the project's true purpose, or wouldn't agree that it had value, and would could very well put the kybosh on it. Worse, the new emperors might not know about it at all, and the Foundation project could get stonewalled by a bureaucrat for red tape reasons, to save money, for political opportunism, or out of simple mean-spiritedness. It's amazing that Seldon's Foundation worked as long as it did, but more amazing still that it actually succeeded in getting the budgetary approval to get its start.

1) The Death Star - from Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
One of the throw-away lines that's never really explained in the original Star Wars movie is why the Emperor decided to finally dissolve the Senate. Oh sure, we know he's a power-mad Sith lord asshole who can't tolerate the idea of anyone else having any real say in how the galaxy will be governed, but he could have told the politicians to go home at any time in the years after he assumed total control. There had to be something real or imagined that provoked him. In recent years, I've started to wonder if it was because the Senate was taking Palpatine to task over cost-overruns on the newly-operational Death Star. Oh sure, there's probably some Star Wars super fanboy out there who knows the everything about everything in Lucas' creation and is able to dig deep into the expanded universe to find the real explanation in the backstory of some minor character like that little hamster guy making gimme-gimme motions for his drink at the bar in the cantina in Mos Eisley to prove he was instrumental in bringing down the Senate by having sex with Palpatine's favourite pet Gungan disguised as the senator from the hammerhead planet or something. But I'm sticking with the budget theory. I think, shortly before Princess Leia was captured, a copy of the final bill for Death Star I was given to the Senate committee overseeing the Imperial Navy's budget. The cost of the station would have been hell to justify in the first place. After all, the civil war was over; the galaxy was at peace. Why, the senators might reasonably ask, would the Emperor need to build a war machine as big as a moon? Couldn't the current fleet of Star Destroyers, with the projected and budgeted-for replacements over the next few years, continue to do an adequate job of keeping the peace? The Death Star may have greater firepower than the fleet, but it isn't anywhere near as maneuverable as the ships, and can't be in as many places at once. In terms of suppressing the growing Rebellion, spending fewer credits adding more ships to the fleet makes more sense. "Ah yes," cackles Palpatine and his admirals, "But the Death Star can destroy an entire planet! That'll show them!" To which the Senators might narrow their eyes (or whatever they sense the environment with) and say "The Rebels, and even the planet's inhabitants, might have it coming, but what about all the valuable resources you're destroying in the process, never mind the tax revenues from those inhabitants - at least while you've got them in your tight grip?" That would have been enough to seriously piss the Emperor off, so the Senators, wanting to live a while longer, would probably have passed the initial Death Star budget. But as the years passed and the thing got closer to completion, costs were sure to soar. Supply lines might have been endangered by Rebel attacks, driving up the cost of materials. Add to that the cost of labour (and I can't comment any better than Kevin Smith did in Clerks), and other assorted incidentals, and costs were probably getting way beyond the initial estimates. When the station went operational and the final bill was presented to the Senate, there was probably an uproar. So much so that Palpatine probably told them to fuck off and go home and then threw one or two of their hover pods around with the Force for good measure. Sure, he rammed the cost through the budget process, but he couldn't do it without serious political opposition and without removing the last vestige of democracy that had probably prevented the Rebellion from further escalation. For that reason, because Palpatine had to push the Death Star funding through so much serious budgetary opposition that it contributed to the eventual downfall of his government, this megaproject tops the list.

So what megaprojects of SF do you think would have faced a tough time getting budget approval?

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