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Fried Light: A bucket to the stars

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By Roger Snodgrass

In Michael Kandel’s satiric short story, “Space Opera,” which is written as a libretto for a science fiction opera, the curtain rises in a provincial spaceport on the Planet Creeth orbiting the sun Alpha Cygni.The opera’s hero, Bobby “Rocket” DeVries, and his fellow grease monkeys are banging the dents out of a rickety space junker, singing “Let’s return this old bucket to the stars,” to the din of their hammer blows.Then Bobby’s friend Fred runs in with the news that Darg Bahr, the governor of the asteroids is on his way to the spaceport.“The grease apes cheer, for this will mean work,” writes Kandel, (emphasis added) in a stunning and frightening projection.Unless I am mistaken, the author suggests in typically frivolous and exaggerated operatic terms that the endless race to the bottom that we have come to know as globalization threatens to doom mankind far into the future when it will probably be called “universalization.”Well, to be sure, the economic discomfort may only be a recession, but that is hard to say from the meager information provided by the libretto and the failure to give a singing role to an economist.Nevertheless, applying the tools of deconstruction – an inarticulate and risky antidote for national delusion to be sure, but the only one not supplied by the pharmaceutical industry – the opera’s premise offers food for thought.For example, Los Alamos National Laboratory, once the proud defender of the free world, now 60-odd years later seemed for most of last year to be waiting for the execuctioner’s axe. In spare moments, there were peeps between fingers covering eyes that were looking out over the edge of the plateau with longing for the deputy something or other to arrive from a distant bureau with a piece of paper, a memo, a request for information, a sign, anything that might mean work.Another clue the author of “Space Opera” has globalization as a subtext is a scene in which a scientist is blackmailed by a disguised intruder, demanding to be given a vial of a poisonous concoction from his laboratory. If denied, the intruder threatens to expose how the researcher raised the money to send his wife to the state hospital on a neighboring planet a few years back for goiter treatments that failed to help her.Among the companion policies and outgrowths of globalization are not only privatization and the devaluing of physical and mental labor, but families broken by stress and rampant industrial corruption rationalized to pay for skyrocketing health-care costs.“I’m wicked, but I don’t care. Why should I?” the United Asteroids Governor Bahr sings at one point in a paired duet with ironic overtones from “La Bohème.”The short story first appeared in Omni’s online magazine in 1997, but was recently reprinted in the anthology Space Opera, edited by Hartwell and Cramer.It is amazing to see how long it takes for the imaginary libretto of an unproduced opera to have an impact.After years of mass-hypnosis, Business Week published an article on Jan. 31 by Jane Sasseen, headlined “Economist Rethink Free Trade,” with the subhead, “It’s not wholesale repudiation, to be sure, but something momentous is happening as doubts begin to creep in.”According to estimates by the Peterson Institute and others referred to in the article, trade and investment liberalization over the past decades have added $500 billion to $1 trillion to annual income in the U.S.“Yet concern is rising that the gains from free trade may increasingly be going to a small group at the top,” noted Sasseen, who goes on to elaborate many of the consequences deeply encoded in our simple space opera.And now, there’s even a lot of lip service being paid to the globalization issue because of a presidential primary in Ohio, where some of the most obvious damage has been done in recent years.It’s going to be very painful to wake up from this dream. Wholesale, blind faith in radical self-interest organized as markets and corporations, we may yet come to realize, is no more valid than many other forms of make-believe.Bravo! Bravo!