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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Death Star Economics and Ethics? (Or, What Would You Do With a Death Star?)

I find it amusing when smart people take science fiction concepts seriously enough to question their validity in the real world.  From rocket packs to hover cars to laser guns, the smart ones have destroyed our childhoods, one reality-based argument at a time.  The Death Star is no different (and I'm going to add to the hurt).

Earlier this year, Paul Shawcross, acting on behalf of the White House, released a statement on We the People in response to a petition requesting the U.S. government to build a real-life Death Star by 2016.*  Because petitions that receive 25,000 signatures require a response from the White House, there wasn't any way to avoid this humorous situation.  Thankfully, they took the issue with a heavy dose of humor and succinctly reminded us that such a project is pretty much impossible -- it would cost $850,000,000,000,000,000 (or, as we poor people like to say,
"a friggin ton of money").  io9 recently explored this number in some depth, using a Centives.net article as support; they concluded that the $850 quintillion figure is more tongue-and-cheek than an accurate measurement (this is one of many conclusions, of course), but it fulfills the purpose of keeping the genocidal geek community at bay.
Disney will probably turn this into a musical in a few years...
Setting aside arguments about how much the Death Star would cost in exact terms, the real question is two fold:  how would a country or a world economy come up with that kind of money, and how would they justify the expense?

First, the size of the loan necessary to build a Death Star would exceed the GDP of the entire world by a factor of approximately 12,100 (based on figures acquired here).  Assuming, then, that the world agreed to sacrifice its entire GDP to pay off said monumental loan, it would still take 12,100 years to pay that loan off, assuming no growth in GDP and no interest.**  And let's face it, there's no way we can assume there won't be inflation, interest, and so on for the next 12,100 years.  I'm no economist, but it seems to me that taking on a project at this point in time, without any easier means for manufacturing the materials and the Death Star itself, would lead to worldwide financial disaster.  Besides, what exactly would a budget debate about the Death Star look like?  Imagine, if you will, the Death Star is 50% behind schedule due to 800 straight years of economic shortfalls, politicians are bickering back and forth, some running around like chickens with their heads cut off in a pathetic attempt to balance the world budget.  Meanwhile, poverty rates increase exponentially, because too many resources have been pegged for the Death Star Fund; healthcare, scientific progress, and so on and so forth have likewise crumbled beneath the pressure.  Perhaps stress-related baldness will become the new "epidemic" of the future...
I'm the Death Star on a budget deficit.  Any questions?
All of this assumes that we take seriously the financial viability of a 12,100-year construction project.  Considering that we can't even resolve the relatively simplistic budget problems in the United States without all of Washington D.C. losing its mind, the idea is just three shades shy of batshit.  Even if the money and resources existed to make constructing the Death Star possible in 100 years (a big if), the political environment surrounding such an international effort would make the project practically impossible.  The United Nations, bless its heart, tries to get everyone to work together towards common goals, but after 71 years in operation, it still struggles to address the most obvious of human rights issues (among other problems).  It's like watching a puppy who tries to jump onto the couch, but its legs are too short, so it keeps falling off -- only this puppy may or may not grow up, may or may not develop more efficient motor skills, and may or may not stare at you with its puppy eyes, vainly hoping that you'll lift it up to your lap.

But the even bigger question is this:  Why would we bother doing this, and what would we do with a Death Star?  Let's imagine the scenarios:***

1) Some large, planetary body is on a collision course with the Earth.  It must be destroyed.
Han:  And that, kids, is what we call a Solo Seduction Device.
Chewie:  Ra-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-gh!
Fail:  If we need something with the firepower of the Death Star to destroy a planetary body, there's no valid reason for constructing the whole thing.  After all, this scenario does not require the laser system to form part of a much larger military function.  You can't exactly threaten the Earth with its own destruction, can you?****  Even so, we could probably put the laser on the Earth without decreasing its firepower significantly (I'm guessing) or use our mountains of nuclear weapons to pound the living hell out of said planetary body.  The latter seems a cheaper option, though certainly less cool than a giant green laser.

2) An alien species attacks us with firepower that far surprises our current military might.  They must be stopped.
It's okay.  There aren't any real people there.
Fail:  Setting aside the fact that such an alien species would have some method of faster space travel than currently available on Earth AND the technological means to subjugate us anyway -- not to mention the fact that building the Death Star would take far too long to make it useful to us -- there is the disturbing question of whether it is right to commit genocide as a last resort.  Are there no other ways?  If not, should we commit genocide for our own survival?  I realize that The Doctor does it all the time, but we are not Time Lords.  We're supposed to have a moral framework.  Then again, "right" is sometimes not an important factor in our decisions as species, since we've committed acts of genocide against one another for centuries -- justifying such activities against aliens would likely fall prey to the "they're not human" argument.  Maybe I need to address this question in more depth elsewhere...

3) Some angry humans (presumably white men and their slave women) want to build a colony elsewhere, but need a giant floating deterrent against retaliation or subjugation by Earth governments.
This is the Martian City of the future, controlled by a corporate oligarchy
a la Neuromancer and filled with good shopping, sexy hotels, and reasonably-
priced sex slaves who will fulfill your every desire.  Every desire.
Fail:  The size of the conspiracy required to make this happen would hardly survive simple scrutiny -- insert any government conspiracy here as an example of just how unlikely these things really are.  Let's say there really are a bunch of angry guys who want to use the Death Star as a deterrent against Earth-ian meddling.  Okay.  So where are they going to get the money to do it?  How are they going to keep that motive secret?  How are they going to take over the Death Star, which would certainly require an enormous staff to function?  It doesn't make sense.

4) We get bored or curious.
The Curiosity Baby reaches for the stars...and burns off his fingers.
Maybe:  We've done a lot of stuff out of curiosity, haven't we?  I don't think we'd do something like this because we've got nothing else to do (or because, well, we can), but in 1,000 years...who knows?

You can come up with more scenarios as you see fit.  They'll all fall apart in some way, or at least present new challenges to the discussion.  The problem with a Death Star is that its primary purpose (if not its only purpose) is to destroy planets (or act as a deterrent because it can destroy planets).  In the Star Wars universe, its purpose makes sense (realistically, not ethically).  But we don't live in that universe, and we probably never will (physics says so).

Now to take this critical eye to the Star Trek universe...

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*Most of you probably know about this story already.  I think it's too funny to ignore.

**I use the word "loan" to indicate the massive borrowing required for the construction of the Death Star.

***Yes, I am over-thinking all of this.  So sue me.

****You can.  I'm fooling myself here.

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