Studying Our World to Speak to Tomorrow’s: An Author’s Take On the Ways History Rhymes
Mark Twain once wrote: “History doesn't repeat itself. But it does rhyme.” And it’s true. To understand the present, we need to study the past. And to understand where we’re going, we need to know where we’ve been.
I keep this in mind as I write, alongside the truth of history: What has happened is stranger, wilder and weirder than anything I could make up. So I don’t try to make it up. I do research.
In the world of the Aces High, Jokers Wild series, the founders of corporations set the moral code for the workers. Your parents sign your corporate contact the day you're born. Sci-fi, right?
Try history. This was the system in America not so long ago.
In the 1890s, there were many remote locations of industry: railroad construction sites, lumber camps, turpentine camps, or coal mines. Jobs often existed far from established towns. As a pragmatic solution, the employer sometimes developed a company town. In this ‘company town’, an individual company owned all buildings and businesses.
In some situations, company towns developed out of a paternalistic effort to create a utopian worker’s village. Churches, schools, libraries, and other amenities were constructed in order to encourage healthy communities and productive workers. Saloons and other places or services believed to be negative influences were banned.
In other cases, the company’s motivations were less altruistic. The lack of transportation prevented workers from leaving for other jobs or buying from independent merchants. In some cases, companies paid employees with a script that was only good at company stores. Without external competition, housing costs and goods prices in company towns could become exorbitant, and the workers built up large debts that they were required to pay off before leaving. The idea was, as you can imagine, pretty popular with business owners. In fact, it was popular enough to ban: In the U.S., payment of wages in scrip became illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.
Company towns often housed laborers in fenced-in or guarded areas, with the excuse that they were “protecting” laborers from unscrupulous traveling salesmen. Although economically successful, company towns sometimes failed politically due to a lack of elected officials and municipally owned services. Workers often had no say in local affairs and--justifiably-- felt dictated to.
This political climate caused resentment amongst workers; such was the case at Pullman, Chicago. The Pullman Palace Car Company was famed for its sleeper and luxury rail cars. One of these manufacturing locations was in Pullman, Illinois. George M. Pullman founded the town of Pullman as a place where his workers could live. This town was conceived on the premise of being a model town for his workers, with every aspect complete, including parks and a library.
From the outside, Pullman appeared to be a model town, and guided tours were given to impress outsiders. The town, however, was not a model; the homes on the outskirts of town were shabbily built, some without any kind of plumbing. The rent for these houses was also about twenty-five percent higher than normal for the area. In order to work for Pullman, one had to live in his houses. The problems really came into play when, after the panic of 1893, the workers of Pullman received several wage cuts that, on the average, added up to twenty-five percent. These cuts were bad in themselves, but when coupled with Pullman’s attitude they were a disaster.
The workers formed a committee and, on May seventh, went to Pullman to ask for lower rent. They were flatly refused. Three of the committee members were terminated. This caused the workers to declare a strike. On May tenth of 1894, they walked off of their jobs. On May eleventh, the Pullman Plant closed. Not long later, President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to crush the strike. Dozens were killed in violent clashes.
A national commission formed to investigate the causes of the strikes found that Pullman’s paternalism was partly to blame. Paternalism, a subtle form of social engineering, refers to the control of workers by employers. These bosses, sometimes called "capitalists with a conscience" sought to force middle-class ideals upon their working-class employees. Paternalism was considered by many nineteenth-century businessmen as a moral responsibility which would advance society while furthering their own business interests. With these goals in mind, the company town offered a unique opportunity for workers to better themselves.
However, government observers maintained that while Pullman’s principles were accurate, in that he provided his employees with a quality of life otherwise unattainable to them, they recognized that his excessive paternalism was inappropriate for a large-scale corporate economy and that it caused the town’s downfall. In 1898, the Illinois Supreme Court required Pullman to dissolve his ownership of the town.
We live in another time when people crave stability and corporations hold power. If the Pullman company had today's technology, or tomorrow's, what would they do? What values would they decide that their workers needed to follow? And would people be able to do what the Pullman strikers did, and take them down?
Those were the questions that began the world building for the Aces High, Jokers Wild book series. When profit and paternalistic attitudes mix, terrible things happen. I see it starting now, and I’ve written a number of examples of it, based on a mix of historical events and current technology. When you take the past and ask ‘what would this look like in the future?’, you get some surprising--and uncomfortable--answers.
Here’s a few examples from the series:
The Perfection Mandate: Eugenics In Fancy New Clothes
Today, we’re beginning to understand the language that the code of our own bodies is written in. But we’ve always had a drive to ‘improve’ humanity. And it’s taken us to dark places before.
Using what I’ve learned about eugenics and gene-tailoring, I’ve written Cavanaugh Corporation, a medical mega-corporation with the stated goal of ‘perfecting’ humanity. The problem, of course, is what the Corporation sees as perfect. And what they do with those who don’t measure up.
In a corporation with hand-held genome readers (being worked on now) and genetic tailoring, workers who can’t afford or don’t want gene-editing become a new kind of lower caste in society. Even their DNA keeps them down in this world.
The Citizen Standing Score: Measure Up Or Suffer
There’s a new idea in China that went right into my writing: the Social Credit Score. Digging a little deeper, I found that China hadn’t been the first to try this; America had. Founded in 1899, Equifax originally took note of a consumer’s wealth, his ‘inclinations’, marital state, and ‘amusements’, as well as his ‘deportment in society’.
The idea isn’t new, but the technology to allow it to become intensely invasive and impossible to escape is right around the corner.
Throughout my work, I do this kind of thing: combining the situations of yesterday with the technology of tomorrow. If humans have done it before, they’ll want to do it again. And the tools they have for cruelty, oppression and dehumanization are getting better a lot faster than their education on ethics is.
As I work on Book 4 in the series, tentatively slated for March and called ‘Aces and Eights’, even more historical research goes in. Our genetically modified characters face the history that has created them and the intentions of the people who chose their traits. One of our characters confronts his own internalized loathing of his transgender state, taught to him by a conformist society that values a narrow set of parameters for human ‘perfection’. And all our characters face the climate that our present is turning into their future.
I write partly to say: let's not go down this road any further. We’ve already seen where it goes, and it isn’t pretty.
But I also write to showcase the people who stood up throughout history to say: we are not assets to be used or discarded. Neither is the world we live in.
I write to remind all of you. Don't forget.