Back to the Retrofuture.

I think I’ve belaboured the efforts of the current President of the United States enough – a thankless task in many ways. (His or mine?) One last comment on that topic – the Ayatollahs have solved one conundrum for him. He now has no need to distance himself quite as far from the religious fanatic Benyamin Netanyahu because the equally unbalanced Ahmedinijad has destroyed his regime’s credibility with every observer and policy wonk who felt Iran deserved a fair shake. Time to put engaging Iran on the back burner.

Did you ever wonder how much a gold sovereign bought in 1700 – or a French Livre, or a Piece of Eight? How much was a doctor’s visit or a lawyer’s fee? Having puzzled over the relative values of currencies through the ages, I have to welcome a new book from the historian Robert Allen, Oxford professor of economic history. Entitled  “The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective” it examines the economic underpinnings of the gradual developments in technology that blossomed into the Industrial Revolution.

Those who are familiar with my Iskander series retrofuturist novels will know this is a row I’ve also hoed at times – if in fiction. How do the prices and values of money in history relate to the events? Where Allen points out that strictly commercial factors such as pricing and capitalisation enabled the early inventions to last long enough to prove their worth, I picked my technologists to have knowledge some 400 years ahead of the Gaians of my alternate Earth. Once they had the venture capital to hand they soon demonstrated the superiority of every product they sold.

While Allen apparently credits free trade and imperialism as the factor that provided the necessary store of investment capital (aren’t they one and the same?) I had my Iskanders outright steal it – al la Hawkins, Drake, Henry Morgan and Admiral Vernon – by finding a pretext to attack the ports where Potosi silver was exported. This naturally plunges them into a feud, if not undeclared war, with the Empire who believed their own stealing the silver from the natives was a legitimate theft. Again, the Spaniards in our world considered their murder and conquest of the S. Americans to be more legal than the actions of other Europeans to part them from their ill-gotten gains.

While I haven’t detailed it in any of the novels so far, I do mention in The Wildcat’s Burden (due for release in September) that Iskander is conducting diplomatic discussions with the Empire – now no longer an open enemy – to arrive at a figure for reparations they might pay to wipe the slate clean. I suggest here, that the Iskanders expected the time would arrive that they would be financially secure and able to make peace with the Emperor over this little bit of diplomatic inconvenience. International politics a cynical sham? We calls ‘em as we sees ‘em.

Professor Allen also credits the Black Death of the 14th century with disposing of surplus English population and allowing the survivors to flourish among a more generous division of resources. The result was that the English of the 17th and 18th centuries were not as impoverished as the rest of Europe and had the money and better trained labour force to work with the new inventions. Also, the use of coal to heat London homes was caused by this relative prosperity, and it in turn developed the coal mining industry on a sounder economic footing when its product was needed to fuel the furnaces of the new steam engines.

My European Gaia – approximately equivalent to 1670s England – similarly has a developed coal trade from the north of Lingdon to the city, which is extended to the Iskander installations. Sweden (aka Tarnland) is deficient in metallurgical and steam coal – which was why its good magnetite ores are shipped to Germany etc, where the local coal is used to turn them into steel.

At least one reader has complained that the Iskander developments of steel and steam are starting the inevitable progression to pollution, carbon dioxide overload, and global climate change. There is one big difference between Iskander’s developments within a world population of about 500 millions and our circumstances. The Iskanders already understand the technologies beyond the fossil fuel age and once they have created the infrastructure – the trained people and the plant – they will be able to develop out of the carbon trap before the world population reaches its first billion. There is really nothing bad about burning fossil fuels – only by doing it inefficiently and by six billion people. Henrik Matah intends to develop cheap and clean public transportation based on fusion generated electricity before that monster – the automobile – can establish itself.

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One Response to “Back to the Retrofuture.”

  1. joylene Says:

    Quite fascinating. I’ve wonder often what it would be like to simply be rich enough never to give the cost of anything a second thought. Or, what about a system where currency isn’t necessary? Can’t get my head around that image either. What’s so downright disturbing is tho we’re in economical destress, the money hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just found its way to a selective few.

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