Who is Sam? Phillip Mann

Star Sailors
James McNaughton
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9781776561018

This book is not science fiction; it is science fact. Global warming, unless controlled, will create an uninhabitable world. The threat is real: it is here, it is now and it is not going away. Only we can stop it … and the clock is ticking. Though a day does not pass without our being made aware of global warming we, as the animal primarily responsible, do not seem able to take the necessary decisive action to avert it. Why is this?

The sad truth, and the truth which underpins the entire narrative of Star Sailors, is that many of our leaders, our politicians. bankers, bureaucrats and multi-national barons of industry – the one per cent who control our economic future, and who, let it be said, are men and women of high intelligence, but sometimes small compassion – simply do not want the profound change that is necessary to avert global warming. They have too much to lose.

No one can claim ignorance of the problems. But, if they do, here is a detailed, thoughtful, entertaining and provocative book which will give them food for thought – if they choose to read it. With pride, I say: “If the warnings of the scientists are ignored, let fiction take up the cudgel, and beat out the truth on a big bass drum.” “Think global. Act local” was the old war-cry of the 1970s, and it was never more urgent than now.

The world in which the action takes place, far from being a weird, science fiction concoction, is recognisably our own, lovely but vulnerable, Wellington. However, it is Wellington, as it might become in 2045, if existing economic and social trends continue. The presence of familiar names, such as Courtenay Place and Lyall Bay, and the restless presence of the sea between Owhiro Bay and Island Bay, may offer the comfort of the familiar. But the similarity is short-lived. Now, almost every aspect of life has experienced a multi-national, free-market economic takeover. It is in the boardroom, behind closed doors, that all important decisions are made. New Zealand society, which once regarded itself proudly as egalitarian, with “Jack as good as his master”, is no more. News is diminished. Advertising abounds. (And, as I write, I wonder how many of you reading this can still remember television without adverts.)

In Star Sailors, Wellington is now divided. Literally. A physical wall protects Mt. Victoria for the elite, and efficiently separates the “haves” from the “have-nots”. Those who live within the wall, (the Insiders) are the very wealthy: the chief executives, managers, lawyers, bankers, media brokers etc. Here, too, are the wealthy aged, some well over 100 years old, who have undergone complex medical treatments … but it has not made them happy. Those who live beyond the wall (the Outsiders) are the rest who, apart from being poor, lack any ready means of social advancement. They must take what they can, whether it be junk-food leading to obesity, or uninspired education leading to boredom, violence, and a resentful rage. Only the clever-but-obsequious and the physically attractive manage to make the transition from the darkness of poverty into the daylight of wealth. But do not underestimate the poor. They are not fools, and soon a simmering rage will boil over into revolution. All they need is a leader. Remember that.

Jeremiah and Karen are a young married couple who have managed to escape the cramped life Outside and who are now working their way up the snaky corporate ladder Inside towards prosperity and influence. They have a modest apartment inside the wall. Jeremiah is a muscular, handsome and biddable corporate lawyer, employed by Venture Group; Karen is an attractive fashion designer. When we meet them, they are dining at an exclusive bathing pool/cafe at Berhampore Beach. There, they have met Trix and Bill, new friends, who are well established in the rich but cut-throat commercial world, but who are more gracious and open-minded than many of the other Insiders we shall meet. Bill is a famous journalist, but he carries an inner sense of failure. BANG. An explosion shakes the bathing pool, as well as any illusion we might have that this is going to be an interesting but inconsequential novel of alien encounter. Jeremiah and Karen, Trix and Bill, are shaken, but unharmed.

That evening, a video prepared by the Environmental Warrior is broadcast in which he explains the frustration that he and others like him feel when confronted by the greed, lies and obdurate behaviour of the all-powerful one per cent, and their failure to take meaningful action to curb climate change. While I am not a terrorist, I found myself nodding in agreement with almost every point that the suicide activist makes. A few quotations will make his position clear. But these pages (150 to 154) resonate throughout the whole book, right to its very end, and on, long after the book is closed. The tired suicide bomber, clearly aware of his fate, explains:

While we have been talking about the environment and social consequences of climate change, the one percent have been seeking business opportunities in adaptation.

While we have been talking about the ruinous effects of inequality on the society and economy, the one percent have continued with business as usual, made more and more money, shored up their holy free-market and made themselves immortal.

The world is going to Hell under their watch … they say that a free-market equals freedom: freedom digs up the fossil fuels and burns them; freedom melts the ice caps, acidifies the oceans and pushed the temperature beyond anything seen on Earth for millions of years.

Freedom ….

Does any of this sound familiar? Well, you get the message and the book pulls no punches.

So what about Sam, the alien? Star Sailors becomes a complex yarn, and I really do not want to try and tell the story. Suffice to say that Jeremiah, Karen, Trix and Bill become friends. When Bill was a young reporter working out of Greymouth in the 1980s, he had the fortune to meet and befriend an extra-terrestrial being, who had been found washed up on the shore near Hokitika. The humanoid alien – initially thought to be Chinese – was given the name Sam by the nurses who cared for him. It is soon established that, despite looking human, Sam has non-human DNA. He is swiftly whisked away by the authorities. However, Sam left a notebook under his hospital pillow and this was found by the nurses who gave it to Bill. The notebook warned of the catastrophic consequences of global warming, even then. That was Sam’s mission: to warn the Earth. Bill recognised that the truth would be suppressed since it challenged the all-powerful, profit-based economic orthodoxy. To Bill, the honest journalist, Sam’s words are prophetic and true. As he explains to Jeremiah and Karen:

We needed someone to lead us against the money-hearts, a rallying point for the world, someone who couldn’t be denied. People want a leader like that now. Non-political, Non-denominational, Someone who can’t be bought out or play favourites.

Sadly, Bill failed to act on his knowledge, and that is the source of his grief.

But then, in 2045, a second alien (Sam 2) arrives on earth. Despite a long period of suspended animation, he eventually recovers. Venture Group have completely taken over the management of Sam 2. A recorded interview takes place between Sam 2 and Klotch, the chief executive officer of Venture Group, but the tapes of this meeting are never made public. They are edited down to a few anodyne moments with Klotch doing most of the talking. The tapes are rubbish.

Jeremiah, who is having serious doubts about what is going on at Venture Group, disentangles the original recording. It is explosive. More lethal than a bomb, it shows Sam 2 comprehensively destroying the arguments of Klotch and stating what needs to be done to save the Earth. Bill and Jeremiah rescue these original, unabridged tapes, and convey the truth for all people to see. This precipitates a revolution which spreads worldwide. An alternative path into the future has opened, and the final chapter allows us to see some of the changes that have taken place post-revolution, as the world slowly adapts to a simpler and less damaging way of living.

So who is Sam? We never really know. In terms of storytelling, he can be likened to the good fairy of our childhood. Or perhaps to David, who took on, and bested, Goliath. Or Rosa Luxemburg, who argued for peace and reform until she was murdered … or the light at the end of the tunnel that some people see when close to death.

Sam allows the story to take place. Sadly, he does not actually exist, or perhaps we should say that his arrival, like Godot, is uncertain at best. It is his message that is important for, like the little boy in the story of the emperor’s new clothes, the message contains the truth. At day’s end, we must face the fact that we are alone on our beautiful world, turning in space. No friendly Sam will come calling. Earth is all we have, and its future depends on us, individually and as a species.

Star Sailors is a demanding read. It is not the kind of book that you can read at one sitting. At 487 pages, I think it is a bit too long, and some judicious pruning would help. Sometimes, too, the use of stream of consciousness to show the dithering of a mind, delays the story. But these are small quibbles. This is an outstanding, deeply serious and timely work.

Phillip Mann’s latest science fiction novel, The Disestablishment of Paradise, appeared in 2013.

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