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Sunday, August 11, 2013

Lessons From Elysium

I take some risk drawing lessons from a film I haven't seen, save the trailer below:

Synopsis: Earth is a slum. By government fiat, the elite few live in a posh space station with all sorts of amenities that include some really astounding medical technology, which - by government fiat - is unavailable on the surface. The protagonist wages a personal war to get access to said medical technology for himself and others.

I can't find the article, but I recall reading an interview of director Neill Blomkamp in which he stated that the film touches on universal themes of the haves keeping the have-nots down by force, that it is not intended to be analogous to any specific conflict. Personally, I think the atmosphere resembles that of East Germany more than anything else, with Elysium in the role of Waldsiedlung, the "secure housing zone" for the Party elite.

I also think of the third-season episode "The Cloud Minders" from the original Star Trek series, but the commonalities are only superficial - a flying city (atmospheric and not orbital in this case) and a laborer/elite caste system. The similarities stop there. Stratos city dwellers are a decent folk defending themselves against the violently antisocial Troglyte miners, not knowing that the Troglyte barbarity is a product of the psychoactive xenite gas in the mines. Once Kirk discovers the root cause and makes it known, the problem is easily solved with gas masks.

The haves can't keep the have-nots down by force unless they have the power to do so. How do they get such power in this film?

Not having seen the film, I lack a critical piece of information: how Earth managed to become a gigantic Somalia. I suspect that Blomkamp neglected to think this through, as Gene Roddenberry and J. K. Rowling had failed to conceptualize the economic systems within their respective franchises. From history we know that only command economies (especially Communist or Fascist) or constant warfare can create entrenched poverty on such a scale. Elysium seems to have managed to completely eliminate the middle class.

Thus the lessons boil down to these two: free markets and freedom from war.

While the causes of Earth's rampant poverty may be nebulous (at least they are to one who hasn't seen the film), other economic unfreedoms are easily spotted. First and foremost, government has allowed monopolies of technological know-how, particularly that behind the Med-Pods. Realistically, such inventions would have been developed simultaneously by different parties scattered among different nations. The government managed to corral and/or eliminate all that talent, like a cross between a medieval guild and the Mafia. So next time someone talks about regulating the Internet, slap them silly with a Matt Damon poster.

Second, the government has managed to prevent non-elite Earthlings from colonizing space. (Rand Simberg, please pick up the courtesy phone.) This may have been accomplished by a combination of anti-space-emigration rules and monopolies on key technological advances necessary for cost-effective space settlement. The decay of Earth would have occurred over a long time, and assuming sufficient technology, many in the middle class would have settled the "suburbs" of the Solar System - moons, asteroids, Mars, lower Earth orbit, etc. Some might have built cushy underwater habitats - a far easier task than going off-world.

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