Saturday, 31 October 2015

Prometheus and the Quest for Fire

Prometheus Statue

Originally I was going to incorporate some thoughts on the recent Aronofsky film Noah in this post, but I ended up dedicating an entire post to that movie. Onstead I will write some thoughts about the Aeschylan play, Prometheus Bound, and the legend of the Greek god Prometheus (which happens to be one of my favourite Greek plays).

The Greek Legend

Like most myths and legends there is no single story that we can say 'that is the story of Prometheus', and the details change depending on who is telling the story. With Prometheus, the general consensus goes to Hesoid, who wrote a short treatise (or should I say poem) on creation called The Theogony. As the story goes, Promentheus was one of the titans, the gods who existed prior to the Greek gods that we all know, however he was one of the minor titans. When the Greek fods rose up against the titans Prometheus betrayed his kin and joined with Zeus and the other younger gods. However Prometheus wasn't all that much of a friend to Zeus because through a slight of hand, he managed to trick Zeus into taking the bones from a sacrifice while keeping the meat for human consumption. I will make mention of this interesting idea of sacrificing livestock to the gods, something that seems to have been a part of many of the ancient religions, and is also something that God instructs the Jews to do in the Old Testament (though the need for sacrifice was abolished after Christ since he is seen by Christians as being the ultimate sacrifice).
However, while it is tempting to have a discussion on sacrifice, I might leave it for another time because I wish to focus on something else, a story that many of us know: the gift of fire to humanity. As the story goes Prometheus stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave the secret to humanity. In response Zeus punished Prometheus by having him chained to a rock to have his liver eaten daily by a eagle only to have it grow back at night. Years later Heracles comes along, slays the eagle, and delivers Prometheus.

On the Greek Gods

This following section is just a few thoughts that I have on the nature of the gods in the ancient near-eastern world so I am only working on my own speculations as opposed to any formal academic proposition (and since this is a blog, and not an essay, I feel free to make such speculations). Anyway, my belief is that the Greek gods live in a prehistoric period and developed much in the same way that ancestor worshipping cultures developed. In was not uncommon for the Roman to deify their emperors, and I suspect that a similar thing occurred in Greece as well. When they actually lived is hard to say, however no doubt they existed at a time shrouded in myth - most likely prior to the Mycenean age. As you read through a number of the myths (such as the Library of Greek Mythology or The Metamorphoses), you will notice a progression from the mythological to the historical (or at least the Trojan war in Apollonius' case, however Ovid does through to the ascension of Augustus Caesar).
Thus it is my theory that there is some truth to the story of Prometheus, however so much of it is hidden in myth that it can be very hard to uncover what the actual story was. What we do know is:
  1. He participated in a rebellion against a king by betraying the said king;
  2. He then played a trick on the new king that was no doubt for the benefit of the king's subjects;
  3. He then gave the subjects of the king specific knowledge that made their life substantially easier;
  4. He was then punished for his transgressions, either with imprisonment or exile;
However, it is unlikely that he would have been rescued by Heracles since the events in which Heracles takes part occur in the generation prior to the Trojan War, and this was probably added at a later date.

The Gift of Fire

No doubt we can all appreciate the usefulness of fire. Not only can we use it for warmth and light, but it allows us to do things that we normally wouldn't be able to do. For instance, with fire we can cook our food (especially meat) so that when we eat it we are less likely to suffer ill effects (cooking meat acts to destroy any bacteria that may be in the meat). We can also strengthen wood and smelt metals. For a while I always thought that we used coal to smelt metal, however it wasn't until the 17th century (at least in Europe) that coal was used. However, outcrop coal (and peat) was used as early as the Bronze Age in Britain, though the techniques of coal mining were practiced in China as far back a 1000BC. Thus, as can be seen, fire is an essential part for the development of technology, and without fire, in reality, little can be done.
It is interesting that the story of the 'Theft of Fire' is one of those stories that had been perpetuated around the world, though unlike the Flood myth, I suspect that the reason these stories exist is due to the destructive potential that fire has. For instance, a tribe that knows how to create fire can literally destroy an entire forest as well as hold dominance over a tribe that doesn't. Yet, in my mind at least, it is hard to imagine a society that exists without fire. To me, fire is one of those discoveries (or at least the ability to create fire) that can give a society the ability to develop other technologies, such as metal working.

Rise of Civilisation

Let us go back to Prometheus, and the Aeschylan tradition of the myth. Unfortunately we only have one play surviving from the original trilogy: Prometheus Bound. The entire play is set on a rock in the Causus mountains to which Prometheus is chained, and a parade of people pass by and have discussions with him before a chasm opens up and swallows him. There are a number of anachronistic elements in the play, however that is not what I am interested in at this time. What I am interested in is how Prometheus is portrayed as the benefactor of humanity. In the earlier traditions is was simply the theft of fire that Prometheus is known for (as well as the trick with the sacrifice), however as the story develops he ends up bringing a lot more to humanity, ideas that form the foundation of civilisation such as writing, mathematics, agriculture, and medicine.
These elements are interesting because it demonstrates an understanding of the foundations of civilisation. Agriculture results in a movement away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle and forms the foundation of settlements as the people no longer are required to move to where the food is located. Writing forms the basis of trade as merchants are able to keep track of stock as well as debts (and in fact some of the earliest incidences of writing are inventories). Mathematics not only assists in trade but also forms the basis of architecture. It is interesting that the theorem that is attributed to Pythagoras was not actually developed by him, but was known to both the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians.
Yet this no doubt is a later addition to the myth since by the time of Aeschylus Athens was a pretty advanced city state (compared to other cities). They had a functioning democracy as well as a vibrant literary and philosophical culture. They had a pretty advanced navy as well as understanding of sophisticated military techniques. In fact, if we read some of the plays we can also see how they understood modern psychological illnesses (something which I will discuss at another time).

Prometheus in the Modern World

Mary Shelley

I probably should look at how Prometheus, or at least this aspect of Prometheus, is explored in the modern world. Shelley's husband wrote a lyric play called Prometheus Unbound, however the themes of that play do not line up with the topic that I am speaking of here, namely because he explores the spiritual and the relational aspects of the play as opposed to the idea of Prometheus delivering technology to humanity. However, Mary Shelley, in her book Frankenstein (otherwise known as the Modern Prometheus) does.

What is interesting is that a number of people that I have spoken to have actually commented on how badly the book is written, however that is not my interest here. Rather it is the themes that sit behind it, in particular her drawing upon the myth of Prometheus. I am sure many of us know the story of Frankenstein, that is Doctor Frankenstein decides that he wants to create life, however when he does so he is so horrified by his creation that he immediately rejects it and then finds that for the rest of his life he is running away from this horror that he has created. In a way it is a modern version the Faust, the story of the brilliant scholar who becomes so board with the learning that is available to him that he sells his soul to the devil to learn the secret arts, however the catch is that he can only live another twenty-five years, and as those years draw to a close he seeks to escape his fate with no success.

There are a couple of ideas that come out of this reading (which I do not claim for myself, but rather from wikipedia that in turn sourced these ideas from the introduction of the Gutenberg edition). The first is that in the later legends Prometheus was responsible for creating humanity, and in the Roman legend he used clay as the means (which is oddly reflective of humanity being created from the Earth in the Bible). Frankenstein reflects this as Victor Frankenstein also creates life, however unlike the myth, he did so in rebellion against the laws of nature and is thrown into torment because of this. We need to remember that Frankenstein rejected his creation, and was punished for it, however Prometheus did not reject humanity, but gave them civilisation, and in turn was punished by Zeus for doing so (possibly because it empowered humanity meaning that Zeus was threatened by them). However Prometheus during this time was seen as 'a lone genius' which represented humanities desire to control nature and seek greater scientific knowledge, however this knowledge would come at a price, for as Prometheus suffered, so is humanity is danger of suffering in striving to become gods themselves (though we need to remember that humanity was cursed not because they sought scientific knowledge in the garden, but the knowledge of good and evil - there was never a prohibition on science, but in knowing good and evil humanity is more likely to use scientific knowledge for evil).

Modern Science Fiction

Wikipedia refers to an article by Benji Taylor about the 2012 film Prometheus where he explores a number of themes arising from the movie that are reflective of themes that can be taken from the legend, in particular the idea of the origins of humanity. While I personally did not like the movie, the idea of humanity's quest for their origins is intriguing. Even though the film takes its title from the name of the spacecraft that is used to travel to this world, it also suggests that it is looking back to the myth in which humanity was first given the gifts of civilisation. Since humanity is now taking another step of discovery, moving beyond the confines of Earth to explore the galaxy, naming the craft after the titan is probably appropriate.

However, Promethus is not the only film in which the name of the titan is attached to a principle spacecraft. In the television series Stargate SG1, one of the first capital ships that the humans develop in their war against the Goa'uld is called the Prometheus. Once again, like the film above, we are seeing a nod to the Greek titan whose gift of civilisation to humanity created the first steps for them to be able to reach for the stars.

Yet it is not just film that we find Prometheus being acknowledged, for Prometheus also appears throughout the astronmonical world. For instance, there is moon of Saturn, a volcano on Jupiter, and an asteroid. NASA has even named their nuclear propulsion program after the titan, once again acknowledging the gift that he bestowed.

Meaning of the Myth

If we go back to Hesiod, and in particular his Works and Days, we will see a story about the ages of humanity, beginning with the golden age, and then moving to the silver, to the bronze, then to the age of heroes, and finally to the modern age in which Hesiod was writing. What we are seeing is a degredation from the perfect race of humanity (that is the golden) to the struggles and difficulties of the modern age. However, another interesting thing to note is that as the races degrade, the technology rises, suggesting that technology does not necessarily make life easier, but in fact makes it more difficult.
This is in part what I see in the myth. We are given the knowledge of fire, but in response we end up having many more difficulties (the myth also includes Pandora being sent to humanity where she opens her box inflicting humanity with all of the troubles that befall us - however another myth adds a further box that was opened, a box that contains hope). Take for instance the invention of nuclear power - it can produce incredible amounts of energy, but it also has the ability to destroy the Earth. In fact people do not see the benefits of the technology, only the drawbacks, and there is huge opposition to it. Industrialisation has brought us the modern world, but what it has also done is made us dependant on the technology that it has produced. We no longer know how to grow our own food, nor fix our own car - we require specialists to do it. Law has been developed to protect us but has become so complicated that we require specialists to assist us in navigating its warrens.
This, I believe, is what the myth is telling us. We are given this technology, and sometimes it seems as if this technology is a gift to us from the gods, however it has a draw back because in many cases every step forward appears to be two steps backward. In a way it is like the cultures of the ancient Greeks and Romans - their cultures were built on the backs of slaves, however they could never even consider freeing the slaves because their economy was so dependant upon them that to get rid of them would result in their society collapsing.

Creative Commons License
Prometheus and the Quest for Fire by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me. All images on this post are © and/or ™ their relevant owners. If you are the owner of any of the images used on this website and wish them to be removed then please contact me.
Bonfire: Use permitted by Fir002 under the creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 Unported
Pythagoras' Theoren: Use permitted by Wapcaplet under the creative commons attribution share-alike 3.0 Unported

Sunday, 25 October 2015

USSR - An Alternate 90s

Capitalist USSR

My first forays into Youtube was simply to upload videos of trains (for the benefit of my brother, who happens to love trains), and this basically continued for a while until I discovered a channel called The Alternate History Hub. Okay, to be honest with you, I had watched some videos, usually some of the older movies and the BBC Shakespeare episodes that were available (and I did try a couple of cat videos, but to be honest with you I really don't like watching videos of cats being cats, because cats being cats are so much better in real life, and as for trains and trams, well I basically uploaded them as opposed to watching videos of them, well, usually). Anyway, it was through the Alternate History Hub that I really began to discover some of the many, short, wonders that Youtube had to offer (and in fact I ended up spending an hour today watching some of these short clips).

Alternate History
While I prefer the term Counter-factual history, wikipedia seems to think that it differs from alternate history in that it tends to refer to a much more thoroughly researched form conducted by academics. However, Alternate History is also described in the same article as a genre of fiction. As such what the Alternate History Hub produces, and what I am writing here is not so much fiction, but an analysis of what 'might have happened if ...' so it is more counter-factual history than the former.

I do find counter-factual history interesting, probably because I love history, and consider myself a amateur historian (despite the fact that I do have a university degree), however the few books that I have read on the topic I have found quite boring. Not so much the product of the Alternate History Hub though, but then again they make videos, and their videos can be quite entertaining. 

The thing about counter-factual history is not so much speculating on what might have happened, but rather using a counter-factual scenario to understand how the particular event had an impact upon the world that we know today. As such I believe counter-factual history actually plays an important role within the discipline. However, I don't want to say too much more on this topic but rather move on to the post itself.

What if the USSR did not collapse
The Alternate History Hub is always encouraging us to leave comments on their channel, however after I watched their video on the collapse of the USSR and their scenario on how things might have turned out differently I felt a blog post was more appropriate. Before I continue, I probably should let you watch the video first.

Reason for the collapse
The first thing that we must consider when looking at a counter-factual situation is understanding why the event occurred in the first place. Okay, there are a lot of speculations as to why the USSR collapsed, including Russia blowing all of their money on defeating Regan's mythical Star Wars program (though I have always argued that Russia had already solved that problem by building a shuttle fleet, and even then they could have easily avoided it by nuking America directly from space, of which they always had the capacity).

GorbachevAnyway, the collapse of the Soviet Union came down to two factors: Gorbachev's reforms and economic stagnation, both of which I will look at:
  1.  Gorbachev's reforms: The major reforms are Perestroika and Glastnost, both of which were social reforms. Perestroika gave greater autonomy to the Soviet Republics while Glastnost gave greater freedoms to the Russian people. These freedoms not only included the release of political prisoners, but also greater freedom of speech for the population and greater freedom of the press for the media. With both of these reforms in place, and the economic stagnation that the Soviet Union faced, the decline and fall was inevitable. 
  1. Economic Stagnation: While communism was great in theory, unfortunately it did not take into account human nature. The problem that the Soviet Union faced was that by giving everybody the basic necessities of life meant that there was no incentive to work. If a tractor on a farm failed to work there was no incentive to get it fixed because the state would give you a new one, and there was no incentive to even use that tractor because, well, you were going to get housed, clothed, and fed anyway. As such people simply did not work, or if they did, they didn't work hard, so you ended up getting food shortages, and the infamous breadlines.
Soviet Bread LinesSure, they had lost the war in Afghanistan, and they also had an economic crisis, but America had faced these two problems in the 60s and 70s as well. However, it was the introduction of Gorbachev's social reforms that spurred on the collapse of the empire, which culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, what if the Soviet Union hadn't have collapsed? What would have prevented this collapse, and how would have the world turned out differently.

Well, I don't wish to repeat everything that The Alternate History Hub has said - in fact I am proposing a different scenario, however I will touch upon what they did explore simply because that could have been one of the possibilities. Basically, when Gorbachev began to flag his reforms, the Communist Hardliners knew that this was going to be a very, very bad idea, and quickly moved in to replace him. From that point they began to crack down even harsher on any form of dissent, and the result of that crackdown was explored in the video above.

Economic Reform
So, in my counter-factual scenario Gorbachev wasn't removed, nor did he implement Perestroika or Glastnost. However, let us consider what did happen in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Well, we all know that many of the communist states in Eastern Europe became independent, and the Russian borders retreated to where they are today. The capitalists quickly moved in and bought up all of the state run enterprises as bargain basement prices, and war erupted in Chechnya as they also attempted to break away. In the Balkans the former Yugoslav republic literally disintegrated into chaos resulting in a decade long war that ended with NATO intervention.

However, let us not forget that the collapse of the Soviet Union also had an impact upon the other side of the Eurasian continent: China. As communism was disintegrating in the West, China was facing its own problems with a population that was also becoming very agitated at their lack of freedom and the oppression of the communist state. This culminated in a mass student protest at Tianamin Square in Beijing, which was brutally crushed by the Communist Regime, and led to one of the iconic images of the 20th centuries: a lone man standing up to a column of tanks, who has since affectionately come to be known (at least in the West) as Tank Man.

In response to the collapse of their communist brothers in the West (though brother's makes it sound as if they were closer than they really were) China decided to enact their own reforms. However, they had learnt from Gorbachev's mistake, and did not go down the road of giving people greater freedom of speech, or loosening controls over the press, but rather they introduced economic reforms which resulted in them becoming the economic powerhouse that we known today.

The Counter-factual Scenario
Let us suggest that there were three possible scenarios that the Soviet Union faced in the mid-eighties: 1) the reforms that Gorbachev enacted that eventually led to the collapse; 2) a hard-line response as outlined by the Alternate History Hub and; 3) a decision to reform the Soviet Union economically. My proposition is that instead of going down the path of social reform Gorbachev and the politburo decided instead that they would reform the Soviet Union economically much in the same way that China enacted reforms heading into the 1990s.

Radio Free EuropeOne of the issues that the Soviet Union was facing during the Cold War was propaganda being broadcast from Western Europe, and while they might have had controls over the media with the Eastern Bloc, they had little control over what came in by the airwaves from the West. Western goods were also being smuggled into the Eastern Bloc where they were being sold on the Black Market. I remember once speaking to an East German who grew up in the Eighties and she would tell me how plastic bags, the ones that we simply can't seem to get rid off, were a highly sought after, and if you happened to own one then you would be highly envied by your peers. So while Gorbachev would not have necessarily changed these things immediately, they would have been in the radar.

We also need to consider what occurred during the early days of the communist revolution. Back in 1918-1919, Lenin has attempted to implement radical reforms to create a collectivist state, however it quickly came about that this simply was not going to work. Granted, Lenin has other problems at the time, such as the civil war, and that many of the factory workers had fled to the country due to famine and lack of work in the cities. Russian infrastructure had also been destroyed after years of war - first World War I, and then the Russian Civil War. It was clear that the original ideas were simply not going to work, so instead he introduced what he called 'State Capitalism' or 'The New Economic Policy'. This policy resulted in a mixed economy consisting of both state and private industry.

So, with these ideas in mind, let us then begin to explore out alternate scenario.

Agricultural Reforms
So, while the collective farms weren't necessarily dismantled, the politburo's first steps towards reforms went through the agricultural sector, which included paying the farmers based on the amount of goods the farms produced. By introducing this incentive within a couple of years output from the agricultural sectors increased dramatically. However there was still the problem of machinery because there were an awful lot of tractors sitting idle, and the farmers were claiming that to be able to produce crops they needed tractors. Gorbachev responded by suggesting that if they needed machinery then they had to purchase it, though the government would be willing to issue loans if the machinery needed to be repaired of replaced, which would be paid back from any income produced at a later date. At first the farming community requested new tractors, but a number of them realised that since they weren't being given the machinery, but rather taking out loans, they realised that they could get ahead by repairing the machinery that they already had, which over the next few years resulted in a number of the collective farms (payment was made on a profit sharing arrangement where the more industrious members of the community would be entitled to greater shares of the profits) becoming quite prosperous.

Soviet Farm

Mechanics would be paid based on the work that they did, and with machinery that was not repairable the government would buy it back off of the farmers. As for general maintenance around the farm, once again payment would be made based on work done as opposed to simply being a set wage, and payment would not come from the government but from the resources available in the collective (and if there were no resources then loans would be made available).

These reforms moved into the industrial sector as well, with factories being paid based upon their output, however that would be restricted based upon need. A factory simply could not expect to continue churning out tractors and expect the government to purchase them because the government wasn't doing the purchasing, the end user was. There was also a question of quality. If the factory wasn't producing quality goods then they would expect two things: they would have to rectify any faults due to production at their own cost, and the end user would end up looking elsewhere for better quality goods.

Tractor Factory

Mind you, this didn't did all happen in a vacuum, the Soviet government had sent people out into the west to visit governments and academics to discuss the best methods of economic reform. While in the west we were seeing the implementation of the theories that came of the Chicago School of Economics, the Russians were more interested in the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, so these academics, who were currently being sidelined by more fundamentalist capitalists, were approached to offer advice. Further, a number of left-of-centre economists were also approached to discuss their concepts.

Property Ownership and Banking
With these new reforms in place, the economy begins to chug back to life, and the shelves slowly begin to fill up again with produce. Money begins to move through the system, and the workers begin to find that they have something that they did not have before - disposable income. The problem is, other than the basic commodities, the workers don't actually have all that much to spend their money on, and there isn't a real banking infrastructure for the workers to store their money. During this time the government is moving through some further reforms, having brought a number of Western academics on board (some of them who had been quite keen due to a lack interest in their ideas out west).

The next stage, which begins in the late Eighties, is to create a system of private land ownership. Since the workers now have a disposable income, the government slowly begins to introduce policies regarding rent and home ownership. The occupants of mostly state housing are given the option of either paying rent to the newly formed housing commission, or to purchase the house through a system of loans. Many decide to take the second option. While many lived in small apartments, as the economy began to grow, the option to purchase larger dwellings became available.

Soviet Housing

The Soviet government also began to establish a banking sector, but like China of today, they didn't create a single bank, but rather four banks (the Soviet Agricultural Bank, the Soviet Merchantile Bank, the Workers Bank of Russia, and the Investment Bank of the Soviet Union) that would eventually end up competing with each other - as such the seeds of competition were being planted.

Along with that each of the republics, and regions, were also given the ability to establish their own banks as well. Once these banks had been established, the Soviet government then proceeds to sell its loan books and passes the authority to issue debt to the banks, who then eventually use their own capital. While the boards are still made up of government officials, the banks are also given independence.

It is at this stage that the Soviets also begin to engage the west economically and members of the Politburo begin to engage the United States and Western European governments to discuss opportunities for investment. The Russians, whose coffers are beginning to grow, seek opportunities to invest abroad, while discussing arrangements from Western companies to invest within Russia. However we are beginning to get a little ahead of ourselves here, so let us move onto the next topic - the Soviet Satellite states.

Reform Sweeps the Eastern Bloc
Many of the Eastern Bloc nations were pretty much ruled from Moscow, so the reforms enacted within Moscow also applied to many (but not all) of the countries in the Eastern Bloc. As the success of Gorbachev's economic policy became evident in the Soviet Union, similar reforms were enacted in the neighbouring countries. While these countries were much slower to grow economically than the other Soviet Republics, by the mid-nineties we begin to see economic turn-arounds here as well. Yugoslavia does not collapse as it did in our time-line, however it still remains one of the more backward areas of the block, as does Bulgaria. However in countries such as Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and Poland, we begin to see a change in their circumstances. However Berlin and Germany still remain divided.

The revolt in Tianamien Square does not occur, since the Soviet Bloc did not collapse. There are still rumbles of discontent, however these are quickly crushed, and the decision to free up the economy in China does not occur, which results in China remaining pretty much a backward country. Without the collapse of communism, Sadam Hussein is still able to play both superpowers off against each other, however the economic reforms to lead to a thawing in relationships. Further, Sadam is not encouraged to invade Kuwait, and the Gulf War never happens. As a result Osama Bin Laden is not given the opportunity to build his rhetoric against the United States and Al-Quiada does not become the threat that it did.

First Gulf War

In the United States
Within the United States George Bush is still elected, and is still defeated on domestic issues, namely because the heated rhetoric of the 80s has died down by this time. However culturally the United States would be a much different place to those of us who grew up in the nineties would have remembered it. To us the bleakness and emptiness of a world where we had won the Cold War simply did not exist. It would still be simmering in the background. The Russians are still the enemies, and while the rhetoric of the Regan Era would not be as intense as it was, it is still in the background.

The rise of the left simply does not occur, as the enemy of the people is still external as opposed to being internal. Movies and television that focused on a government intruding into our lives simply would not exist, but rather the cold war era spy thrillers would still be very much the favourite. Sure, there would be stories where drug smugglers where the bad guys, as well as science fiction, but in many cases the us and them struggle would still be focused on external powers.

There would still be proxy wars being fought in Africa, however as the Soviet economy expanded, similar economic policies would be implemented in those countries, such as is occurring today with Chinese money flowing into places such as the Sudan. This would not begin to happen until much later. However countries such as Cuba, and Venezuala, would not be as isolated as they are today.

The Economic Miracle
In our time line we speak of the Chinese economic miracle, however in this alternate timeline the economic miracle occurred in Russia, and as Russia would have had at least a five to seven year start on China, the results of this miracle would become evident much earlier, say around 1995. By this time Russia has a fully functioning stock market, however it has yet to be opened to the entire world, and only those within the Soviet Union and satellite republics would be able to invest (though certain investment banks in the West would have privileged access). There is a functioning middle class, and the first few Russian billionaires are becoming evident. The Russian standard of living is beginning to grow, and the discontent, and food lines of the Early eighties, have all but disappeared.

However, there are still very heavy censorship laws. The media is still state owned, and the new class of millionaires tend to be card-carrying members of the communist party (much as is the case in China today). The average person on the street has more money, and more opportunity, than they did previously. However, unlike China, very few are allowed into the West to study, and it is only the children of the governing elite that are sent to the prestigious universities.

Moscow Skyline

As for resources, the Soviet Union is incredibly large, meaning that they don't actually need to hunt for resources internationally, at least not on the scale that China did in the 2000s. By 1997 the Soviet Union is seeking trading partners outside of Eastern Europe and begins to discuss trade with China. They also begin to focus on their allies in Africa and the Middle East to establish strong partnerships as well. In our time-line China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001, however that occurred because the Soviet Union had collapsed. In this time-line there is no need, and as such globalisation does not grow as rapidly as it previously did.

Instead we end up having two competing economic blocs - the Soviet Bloc and the Western Bloc. By the year 2000 the struggle becomes less of a war of rhetoric and more of an economic war, and both blocs attempt to outdo each other. However trade does start becoming interconnected. Trade treaties between the two blocs begin to be signed, and investment opportunities begin to open up. However, since Russia does not need to seek huge amounts of resources outside of its borders, the mining boom never occurs in Australia. Further, 9-11 never happens, which means that the governments of Australia and America are focusing more on domestic issues, and while there is still rhetoric between the East and the West, it is not as strong as it was previously - with the rise of living standards in the Soviet Union, the cold-war rhetoric of the 1980s just no longer works.

For those of us in Australia, I would suggest that in this time-line the Coalition would never have been able to claim to be the better economic managers, and it is unlikely that John Howard would have been able to have remained in power as long as hid did. As for Tony Abbott, I suspect that he would have ended up being little more than a footnote in history.

With regards to China, as I had previously mentioned, the economic miracle would not necessarily have occurred. However that does not necessarily mean that China would have remained a backward nation, rather its development would have been much slower, and it would probably not have become the economic powerhouse that we know it today. Instead reforms would have been influenced by the reforms in the Soviet Union (which would have become the world's second largest economy, in conflict with the United States for the role of the first), and would have grown a lot slower. However, its economic development, no doubt, would have begun to accelerate at some point, probably around the 2010.

Stock BrokerThen there is the question of the Iraq War and the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. Well, without 9-11, or even the first Gulf War, the Iraq War no doubt would never have occurred. Okay, Sadam would have continued playing both sides off against each other, but he would probably still be in power today. The Global Financial Crisis may have occurred, but it would probably have taken a different form, since with the Evil Empire that was the Soviet Union still hovering in the background, Western Society would have been somewhat different. As for the Dot-Com crash, well, that would still have happened, and on that note I wish to finish off with the rise of the Internet.

The Rise of the Internet and the Space Race
Technology is a funny thing and there are a number of reasons why they advance, the most common being competition. It has been suggested that the reason Europe advanced the way it did was because of the intense competition between the nation states. Technology also increased dramatically during the cold war due to competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. If Russia had not begun putting stuff in orbit, the Americans would have had no reason to do the same. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has been no real need to continue the Space Race, and competition moved from being between nation states to being between companies.

The increase in technology in our time has pretty much been consumer driven. As companies try to outdo each other for a finite share of profit, they are encouraged to produce better, and more useful, gadgets for the consumer to buy. This no doubt would have continued in our alternate time line. The internet has been around since the 1960s, and had been growing since. In the eighties we were able to communicate with computers over long distances, however the technology was very, very primitive.

The rise of the internet in the 90s would have still occurred, particularly since the Cold War would have been simmering in the background. The Soviet Union would not have commercialised it as quickly as we did, namely because of the need to control the media. However it would have developed within government, military, and business circles due to the need to be able to compete with the West. Computers would have begun to appear in Russian homes by the early nineties, but these would have been more like the computers we used back in the Eighties. In many cases the uptake in this new technology would have been much slower.

 Like China today, the Soviets would have a very tight control over the internet - China has the Great Firewall, and quite possibly the Soviet Union would have what would colloquially be termed as the Berlin Firewall. Like China, the internet would slowly begin to appear in Russian homes by the end of the 1990s. This would give the Russians a bit more of a head start since they would learn from the Dot-Com crash. As with their previous experiments, they would begin with a very tight control over internet usage, and then slowly release commercial sites onto the market. In a way they would have their own version of They would also be monitoring the content of the internet closely, and shutting down websites that did not meet their criteria.

No doubt the space race would have continued, but after a short hiatus. Since the Russians needed to reform their economy, they would have had to put a short term hold in their space program, however once the economy successfully turned around, they would be back into it in full swing. The Russians already had an operational shuttle fleet, though during this time they would have simply been performing routine maintenance on the Mir, and also their satellites. By about 1995 you would have seen a renewed push into space, though the international space station would not have existed. Mir would have been retrofitted and unlikely to have been decommissioned.

Come 1998 we would begin to see a new push by the Russians for the moon, which would have spurned the Americans into action. Already on the back foot with regards to space technology, they would have had to play catch up in getting another space station into space. However they did have a shuttle fleet. The two space stations of the 1980s would have been retrofitted, and by the early 2000s there would be two operational space stations orbiting the Earth. The Russians, with a head start, would already have the foundations of a lunar colony, and by 2008 it would be fully functional. The West would also have a similar lunar colony as well. By about 2015 the two superpowers would now be looking further afield.

However, we would also begin to see skirmishes occurring in space, as both superpowers try to disrupt the other, and this would become quite clear by the mid-naughties. No doubt there would be an incident, beginning with a spacecraft being destroyed, and possibly even an attack against the rival's moonbase, that would suddenly bring the world to the brink of another war. The newspaper headlines would dominate this, and high level talks on the Security Council would begin in earnest. The result would be a new treaty that would establish sovereignty in space, however limited weaponisation would be allowed, purely for defence. The treaty would establish sovereignty for the blocs to their outer orbit, and any intrusion by a satellite, or spacecraft, would be considered a violation of this treaty. Tensions would still exist, and no doubt skirmishes would occur, but at this stage boundaries would have been set (and the moon effectively divided in two).

Finally, what about the technology that we enjoy today, such as smartphones, flat screen TVs, and Wi-fi internet? Well, they would still all be available, and we would still have all of the things that we enjoy these days, namely because the competition to push these ideas forward will still be around. Robots would probably be further developed, particularly since they would be very useful for space exploration. It is difficult to say where the Soviets would stand, however they, no doubt, would have their own version of the predator drone, and we would have construction robots operating in space and on the moon.

Construction Robot

Well, that was fun, and this scenario would make a great setting for a novel, or even a roleplaying game. As with all of my writings, the ideas here are all available for use by anybody and everybody (though I do not claim any right over any of the pictures, they are simply there to add some context, and colour, to this post). As with all of my posts, you are free too use it on two conditions:
  1. I am attributed as the source of the idea and;
  1. If you wish to use any of these ideas (not the pictures, as they are not mine) commercially, you contact me before hand so that we can nut out the agreement.
Hopefully I will get around to writing some more of these scenarios in the future, and already have a couple of ideas, however at this stage I will finish off here, and once again give credit to the Alternate History Hub for the work that they put into producing their other scenario.

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USSR - An Alternate 90s by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

KIC 8462852 - An Alien Civilisation?

Red Star

Okay, you may have not picked up on this interesting story that hit my Facebook feed this week (I get a lot of news stories through Facebook namely because I follow a number of newspapers - its my main source of news these days) but apparently some scientists have discovered a star that may have an alien civilisation inhabiting it. The reason they came to this conclusion is that the distortion that stars produce when they may have planets oribiting them is so great that they have concluded that it is either a swarm of comets and asteroids, or a Dyson Sphere

Okay, scientists generally put 'alien civilisations' as the last possibility for any astronomical discovery, though when they first picked up the radio waves eminating from a quasar, they did jump up and down suggesting that they had picked up alien communications (though as it turned out it wasn't the case). Sure, we do have some Christian sects that love using the line "Yeah, there are extra-terrestrial entities out there - God and his angels" but when we are talking about extra-terrestrial beings most of us don't put God into that category (and if we do it would be more akin to extra-dimensional). However, the idea that this star is the home of some aliens is certainly intriguing.

Some Things about Astronomy

I'll first say a few things about how they work out whether a planet is orbiting a star. Basically when there is a planet orbiting a star parts of the light will be blocked, however that blocking tends to be fairly regular, and quite minor. I still remember when they first worked this out as they had discovered a star that they believed had four planets the size of Jupiter orbiting it. However the problem we have is that this is all speculation. We can only adduce that the star has planets around them based on the light being blocked. We can't get a close up to those stars to actually be able to see those planets.

However, the amount of light that is blocked is generally quite small, which is why scientists are so baffled when it comes to KIC 8462852 (I think they have run out of names for stars so they have started using numbers, though if you think you have a better name for a star you can always pay some money to the Sydney Observatory - mind they have now given the star the name WTF star, which I must say sounds heaps better). Apparently we have about 20% of the light being blocked, which suggests that there is more than just planets around the star. The theory is that it could be a swarm of comets, though due to the apparent age of WTF star (it is too old) that may not be possible (though one scientist has suggested that maybe a collapsing dwarf star has pulled these comets into WTF star's orbit). 

WTF Star Location
Another thing we must remember is the distance WTF star is from the Earth, namely 1480 light years. You probably already know this but a light year is the distance that light travels in a year, but the other thing about light years is that when you look at something a light year away you are seeing what it looked liked a year ago. This means that when we are looking at WTF Star we are looking at it as it was 1500 years ago, which means that we are seeing the star as it was at the time when the Roman Empire had just collapsed - that is an awful long time ago. That means that if this is an alien civilisation then we are looking at the civilisation as it was one and a half millenia ago, and considering the advancements that we have made in that time, no doubt there may have been great changes in that society as well.

An Advanced Civilisation

There is a maxim that say that once everything has been discounted then the final answer, no matter how absurd, must be the correct one. Okay, we have only just discovered this star, and there are still a number of hypotheses that we have yet to discount (such as the comet or asteroid theory). The other thing that we need to remember is that there is a huge amount that we don't know about the universe, despite the fact that we have people running around claiming that scientists have all the answers. Check out this video that I recently watched on Youtube:

Anyway, let us suggest that what we have discovered is actually evidence of an advanced civilisation, and that what is causing the light to be blocked is actually a Dyson Sphere, then what does that mean for us? Well, first of all since the star is one and a half light millennia away I would say not much. Even if we sent a single there tomorrow that said 'Hi, how you going?' they aren't going to get that signal until one an a half millennia in the future. As for launching a rocket to take us there - you can forget it - at today's technology that won't be happening because you will need some form of FTL drive, or what one would consider a generation ship (namely a massive spaceship designed to have an entire civilisation live on it).

So, let us put aside for a moment the distance this star is from us and the length of time that it will take to reach them (considering that by the time we get there for all we know the civilisation may have died out) the question should be 'should we contact them?'. My response would be an emphatic NO. Look, these guys have managed to build a structure so huge that it blocks out 20% of the light of their sun. Now, if this structure is a Dyson Sphere (an super-massive structure poitulated by a guy named Dyson that is designed to collect energy from a star) this indicates that these guys are super intelligent and super advanced. If we were to contact them it would be like the Australian Aboriginals making contact with the British Empire to negotiate a trade deal - we all know what the British thought about Australia when they first arrived (hint - they called it Terra Nullis).

Remember, when the Europeans built their boats and headed out to all corners of the world it wasn't to build peaceful relationships with the inhabitants of other continents, it was to conquer, subjugate, and colonise. Even if these creatures are nowhere near as barbaric and greedy us, we still need to remember that they are much more advanced than we are, and considering that we are looking at their civilisation as it was 1500 years ago, then no doubt they have advanced much further since then (if they haven't been destroyed that is). This means that to them we are either a planet that is ripe for colonisation, or a threat to their existence, which means making contact is probably going to be a really bad idea.

Technological Superiority

Finally I wish to say a couple of things about their technology. While this is speculative, if they can create a Dyson sphere this is it also possible that they would have been able to develop some form of faster-than-light drive? If they haven't is it then possible that such a drive is not possible? Well, that may be the case, but it may also be the possibility that since space is huge, and that our existence doesn't draw that much attention to us (the earliest radio waves have so far only travelled about 150 light years into space) it could simply be that they just don't know that we are here. Even if our radio signals have hit an advanced society, we must also remember that to be able to pick up these signals the society needs to point their receivers in the direction of Earth. Since space is so huge, and there is nothing about our star that screams out 'there are sentient beings on this planet', the chances of such a civilisation accidentally doing that is minimal at best.

Dyson SphereAs for the Dyson Sphere, we also must remember that it is a theoretical structure. The concept has always baffled me because one of the reason that Earth is habitable is because it rotates on its axis, which means that the side facing the sun doesn't burn to a crisp while the side facing away from the sun doesn't freeze. The problem I had with the Dyson Sphere is that if it was built as was popularised in Larry Niven's Ringworld, then wouldn't the civilisation end up burning up because there was nothing to allow it to cool down? Okay, Dyson didn't actually postulate that we would live on the sphere, but rather that it would simply be a way of collecting energy. However, the other interesting thing (which isn't raised in the Wikipedia article) is if the shell concept it used, then wouldn't this eventually act live a oven, causing everything inside the sphere to turn into a Sunday roast (and this is ignoring the fact that there may not actually be enough metal in the solar system to create the things)?  Well, glancing over the article, it appears that this shell was only one concept, and other concepts were considered as well, such as a net or web like structure, or a series of satellites. If that were the case then it would make a lot more sense, however where we are at this stage, and the fact that politicians are still running around screaming that coal is good for humanity, we may not get to that point for a long time now.

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KIC 8462852 - An Alien Civilisation? by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.
"NGC 6866 map" by Roberto Mura - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Power Games - Shakespeare's Tempest

The Tempest

I initially suggested that I have seen the Tempest three times (on my Goodreads and Booklikes posts that is) but now that I think about it I believe I have only seen it twice before I saw this production (and I believe that both of those previous productions were also by the Bell Shakespeare Company). Anyway, when I discovered that they were staging another production (this time only in Sydney) I pretty quickly booked my tickets because it happens to be one of my favourite Shakespearian plays. It is also quite apt that they chose this play because my understanding is that John Bell, the guy behind the Bell Shakespeare Company, is also retiring (this is said to be Shakespeare's final play, though he did return to assist John Fletcher in producing another play – Henry VIII, which as it turns out is the only play that anybody remembers John Fletcher for, and as far as a Shakespearian play goes it is pretty poor, which is why I ignore it when it comes to Shakespeare's canon).

The Tempest - Bell ShakespeareDespite this being a play that I studied at University, it is still one of my favourites, though I suspect that when one gets to university the fact that we chose to study English literature has a different effect upon us than when we are in High School where we are forced to study the subject, and as such have a violent reaction against any of the books that happen to be on the syllabus. Anyway, many of the commentators consider The Tempest to be one of those 'problem plays', a category which I reject because we simply cannot categorise Shakespeare. Okay, we have this habit of dumping his plays into one of three categories – comedy, tragedy, and history – but to be honest with you this is something that has come about in later years. It was not as if Shakespeare categorised his plays – he was not bound by any convention that later scholars have forced upon him. It is these conventions that have caused modern scholars to scratch their heads when it comes to plays such as The Tempest and Troilus and Cresida.

Anyway, before I begin to write about The Tempest, I'll do what I have done in the past and give a brief synopsis, and then write a few thoughts on the production itself before exploring some of the themes that come out of this play (though since this production is one of the interpretations, this time offered by director John Bell, I should at least explore some of the ideas that he has proffered).

A Storm


The Tempest is set on an island somewhere in the Mediterranean. While numerous directors have placed this island on the outer reaches of the world in more recent times (at one point being somewhere in the Bering Straight, and even on an alien planet) the action occurs somewhere between Italy and North Africa (namely because a number of the characters are on route from Naples to Tunis for a wedding). The protagonist of the play, the sorcerer Prospero, used to be the Duke of Milan, but being an academic he handed the day to day running of the state to his brother Alonso while he retreated into his rooms to pursue a life of academic study. This turned out to be a mistake because Alonso, with the help of the King of Naples, ousted Prospero and declared himself duke. Prospero then took his daughter Miranda and fled to a deserted island to plot his revenge.

It turns out that this island wasn't uninhabited. It was ruled by the witch Sycorax through her servants Ariel and Caliban. Prospero engaged in a battle with Sycorax and defeated her – casting her out in the same way that Alonso cast him out of his own dukedom. He then enslaved Caliban and Ariel to his will and became the ruler of this empty island for the next twenty five years. In one way he is a king without a country, but in another way he is a king but he isn't because his kingdom is a world of spirits (as I will explain shortly).

Propero's desire for revenge comes about in due course as a ship carrying his enemies soon sails into his waters. Prospero then conjures a tempest (much to his daughter Miranda's horror), wrecks the ship and brings the passengers onto his island and subsequently under his control. Thus begins a series of power games where Prospero, from the background, torments and haunts the survivors of the shipwreck through the spirits of the island and his own magical powers.

However Prospero soon begins to tire of these games, and in the end he brings the castaways all together, reveals himself to his prisoners, and offers them forgiveness for their crimes against him and seeks repentance for his power games. In the end everybody lives happily ever after (with the exception of Alonso - in Bell's production as he ends up storming off in a sulk).

John Bell's Tempest

In the booklet that I picked up at the play John Bell explains that he has had a lot of experience with this play. He has performed in it three times (twice through his own company where he took the role of Prospero – both productions which I have had the pleasure of seeing) and he has directed this version – which happens to be his final production as he retires from the organisation that he has founded (and it is probably appropriate that he finishes his career with a play that has traditionally been considered Shakespeare's last). I have to admit that a friend of mine is not a particularly big fan of Bell Shakespeare, though with my limited funds, and the lack of offerings among the Australian theatre scene of quality productions, I am unfortunately limited in what I am able to see (though fortunately the British Theatre Company does film their plays for cinema's around the world – and I have been fortunate enough to see some excellent productions this way – especially King Lear).

I am probably going to have to agree with my friend that the standards that are offered in Australian theatre have a lot to be desired. While the earlier productions of the Bell Shakespeare Company I have seen were actually really good, having now seen a number of their productions in the last couple of years I have come to see a lot of them as being very hit or miss. Their production of Henry V (and to a lesser extent Henry IV) were brilliant, however some of their other performances really didn't impress me. With this version of the Tempest I have to be honest and say that at the beginning I really wasn't enjoying it, however when the play continued after the intermission I began to warm to it quite a lot. At the end it was one of those very few plays that I felt that I should stand and applause at the end (I didn't do that with Hamlet, despite the rest of the theatre doing so).

The Ship in the Storm
The thing with this performance is that the entire action seemed to take place within the mind. Bell had returned to a very minimalist performance. In fact there were very few props on stage (with the exception of the bowls of fruit during the feast scene, and the chest of clothes offered to the two clowns). The stage was surrounded by an off-white scene, the director suggesting it to be a realm of torn paper. However my perspective saw it as a realm of the mind, where Prospero have taken the characters out of the real world and placed them into a world of his own imagination. This is particularly clear with the scenes where swords were drawn – none of the characters held swords, despite them making such movements as if they were. This was a realm in which Prospero was in complete control, and the only place where this can occur is within his mind.

Of course, taking the play out of the real world and placing it into the realm of the imagination – or Prospero's mind, goes to demonstrate the magical qualities of many of Shakespeare's plays. For a director and actor who has been performing Shakespeare for many years, John Bell clearly understands the timeless nature of the Bard. In fact it was the biographer Ben Johnson who claimed that Shakespeare was not a writer of his age but a writer for all time. However, to be able to see Shakespeare in that context one needs to be willing to inject their own thoughts and interpretations into a production. No two productions are similar – each of them are crafted by the director and the actors – it is like a melting pot where the words of the original author are cast out for all who wish to grab them and transform them into their own interpretation and their own understanding. This is probably why Shakespeare was so sparse in his stage directions and his descriptions – he was not writing for his time but for all time.

Prospero as God

I know that there are probably many Christians who will consider such a statement to be little more than heresy. However the truth is that in his own domain Prospero is god. He is in complete control of the island. Nothing happens without his knowledge and his say so. In Bell's earlier productions, Prospero would be present in every scene, even if he had not originally been written into that scene. This was to impress the point that nothing happened on his island without his knowledge. He was a dictator and a tyrant. He had to know what was going on to be able to maintain control. This is not surprising considering that he is a deposed ruler. He had lost his principality, and he was not going to make the same mistake twice. This time he had bound both Ariel and Caliban to do his will, and in this production is it quite evident – Ariel has a bracelet on his wrist and Caliban has a rope tied to his back. These two things show that they are always under Prospero's control. In fact even Ferdinand at one stage has his legs bound by chains. 

Prospero's Power

If we consider that the play occurs entirely within Prosperos' mind, within a world conjured up entirely by him, our understanding of his control becomes even more evident. In a way everybody is in control of their own mind – but then again are they? The idea of mental illness says otherwise as people fight thoughts that regularly intrude, or whether they live in some dream world that they have created. Yet this is a realm that Prospero has created for himself. He is a deposed prince, yet he has learnt his lesson. He was deposed as prince of Milan, but then retreats to this island at the edge of the known world and overthrows another ruler – Sycorax.

CalibanWe are led to believe through the play that Sycorax is evil and deserved to be overthrown, but is that really the case? Was Sycorax truly evil? We are led to believe that because of the base nature of her child Caliban. Caliban is a creature that is seen as being uncivilised and crude – which is why he ends up joining with Tricolo and Stephano. Both of them are painted as being the basest of society – both of them are clowns, servants of the dukes and princes that are trapped on the island. Bell goes further here to dress them in the costumes of clowns to show are lowly they are. This is something that we see regularly with Shakespeare – the servants are considered to be spiteful, crude, and untrustworthy. They are not fools, as some of the fools have been painted, because the fool in Shakespeare takes a completely different role. These guys are clowns – to be mocked and ridiculed, to be shown how they are not fit to live in civilised society and must be kept under control.

The Isolated Island

It is interesting how Aldous Huxley, in A Brave New World, borrows this idea from Shakespeare. The line "Oh Brave new world, That has such people in 't" is moved to the title of his book exploring a dystopian future. In many ways we see the tempest coming out in that particular book. Here is a boy, who grew up isolated in an Indian reserve who only ever had a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare to read, who is introduced to modern society. In a way Huxley is painting a similar picture to Miranda, who has grown up knowing only one human – her father Prospero. She is innocent and has no idea of the Machiavellian nature of human politics. The only world that she knows is a world that is under the complete control of her father.

I bring up this idea of Huxley namely because of my previous comment about Tricolo and Stephano. One idea that I picked up from A Brave New World was the idea of the working class. The state does not necessarily see the working class as dangerous – they aren't - rather they are wasteful. To give the working class too much freedom does not mean that their positions are in danger, but rather because if they had too much money or too much free time then they would spend it all at the pub getting drunk. We are not talking about an educated population that can see through the lies of the government, but rather a population that unless they are being productive, will only end up being a drain on society.

This is the case with Stephano and Trincolo – they are drunkards – or at least they were in Bell's production. They have become separated from the main party (in fact we have three separate groups in the play: the servants, the nobles, and the exiles) and have become left to their own devices. Thus they are influenced by Caliban, who is not that intelligent either, to assist him in fermenting a revolt against Prospero. However, like members of the said class, they are easily distracted. Caliban attempts to persuade them to help with his revolution but they become distracted, first by the wine, and then by the clothes (that are put before them by Ariel).

The Clowns

This seems to suggest that Shakespeare has some contempt towards the lower classes. In fact in most of his plays where there are representatives of the lower classes, they are always crude, base, and easily manipulated. Sure, Shakespeare would write his plays to appeal to them to an extent, particularly since he could be very crude in his own right, but there is also some contempt towards them as well. Okay, most, if not all, plays of the era tended to focus on the upper classes and it was rare, if ever, that there would be a piece of literature where the lower classes played leading roles – we are always dealing with kings and princes here – yet we still get a glimpse of the lower classes coming through, even if they were painted as being untrustworthy. Take Johnson's The Alchemist for instance – here we have a group of servants who are given the run of their master's house while he is away and they end up running a rather dubious scheme where they pretend to be magicians.

Despite them being painted a crude and untrustworthy, they are also painted as being comical in their own right. Once again I am not speaking about the fools, who played very important roles in a number of Shakespearian plays, I am speaking of the servants. Take Twelfth Night for instance – along with the romantic comedy we also have the farcical comedy that takes place in the lower reaches of the castle where the servants goad the butler into making a complete fool of himself in front of the lady.

The Primal Forces

I have written elsewhere on the Tempest about how the island is portrayed as a form of garden of Eden. However this isn't something that John Bell explores in this particular production. What we do have is what could be considered the primal forces. I have suggested that the world in which the characters are drawn into is a spiritual realm within Prospero's mind. It is a realm that has no form or substance – in effect it is a world that has yet to be created, yet is being created by Prospero. It appears to exist within the clouds and within the minds of the actors.

Prospero & ArielYet despite this the primal forces seem to be at play. We have Ariel who represents the air and Caliban who represents the Earth. The air is the source of life – without it we die – however the Earth is muddy and dirty, forever trodden upon beneath our feet. This is why Caliban connects with the base servants of the nobility. Like the Earth, they are base and dirty, and exist only to support society. We see this as Caliban is dressed in brown, while Ariel is dressed in light blue. Ariel is the air, and as such he is everywhere, and unlike the other productions that I have seen where Prospero is in every scene, here we have Ariel floating around, never out of sight for too long. While he may be on stage, and while we may see him, the characters in many cases are oblivious of his existence. Even though he may not be seen, or is acknowledged, he is still floating around, never far out of sight.

Yet another element is brought forth in this interpretation – the fire. Miranda is dressed in orange and red clothing, suggesting that she is the fire – the spark that warms us, yet is uncontrollable. When we watch fire burn we are enchanted by its beauty, yet in another way it can be destructive. Miranda is not painted as destructive though – instead she is beautiful, dancing about, uncontrollable, yet she submits to the will of her father.

The water is also present, though not represented by any of the characters. Maybe it is Sycorax who was the water, the original ruler of the island that was defeated. Certainly ancient philosophies saw water as being the primal substance that from which all other substances arose. The island is surrounded by water, and it is the violent and untamed aspect of the ocean that brings the nobles onto the island. Yet despite that it is Prospero who is in control of the water, who conjures up the tempest to torment the sailors and to bring them under his control. They have drifted into his waters, waters that he has complete control over, and he raises up the tempest so as to frighten and imprison them.

A Shakespearian Prospero

There seems to be some debate as to whether Shakespeare is painting himself into the play through Prospero. One writer suggests that the two characters cannot be any different – Prospero is a loner, a failed ruler, an academic that shuts himself away from the world; while Shakespeare was a successful business man and said to have been fun to be around. This may be the case, yet both Shakespeare and Prospero are masters over their worlds. Prospero creates and dominates the island as a magician, while Shakespeare creates and dominates his productions. Shakespeare was an author, a playwright, a director – he created his plays and he had complete mastery over the production, just as Prospero has complete mastery over the island. Anybody who has ever been in a theatrical production knows that the director has the final say – the play belongs to the director and the director's decision is final.

Sure, Prospero was driven by revenge, by a bitterness at finding himself at the wrong end of a nasty political manoeuvre. However it is clear that Prospero is also an academic – a role that does not necessarily sit easily with that of a ruler. Politics is a nasty business where one has to regularly look behind their back to make sure that the ambitious person with the knife is not sitting there waiting to sink it in. This is where academia does not sit well with the profession as academics are after knowledge and wisdom, while politicians are after power. To take one's mind off the pursuit of power, even for a moment, can be one's downfall.

However Prospero still desires power, even though the power that he seeks comes through his books. He has been usurped and banished by his brother, but he takes his books with him to this secluded island where he once again conjures up his power. He binds Ariel and Caliban to his will, Ariel being the patient servant who does the will of his master believing that one day he will be rewarded with his freedom, while Caliban is the untrustworthy slave who needs to be constantly watched for fear that he will rebel. Miranda is also his subject, but she comes in under a different mantle altogether – she is Prospero's daughter, his flesh and blood, therefore her submission is that of the child to the parent. Unlike Ariel and Caliban, she does not yern for freedom because in her mind she is already free. She is her father's daughter and unlike the servant or the slave, she does not see any life beyond submission to the father or the husband.

Yet there is also a fourth – the prisoners – represented by the nobility who have become shipwrecked on the island. However while in part they are prisoners they do not realise that they are as such – they see themselves only as castaways, trapped on the island during a freak storm. They aren't approached by the servant or the slave, but are left to their own devices. It is not until they are lured in by the feast, and are then driven off by the harpy, that they realise that this is no ordinary island. In fact it is the scene of the feast when they come to realise that this place is not your typical island, and that there are more forces at play than meets the eye.


The play is also about transformation. Like the 'Murder of Gonzalo' in Hamlet, where he attempts to rewrite the past to turn Claudius from a rightful king into a brutal usurper, Prospero transforms the island into a stage, enacting a play in which he is the director.  In a way this is one of the roles of the playwright, and in many cases the academic and the historian. Shakespeare does this all too often, turning the Scots in Macbeth into barbaric savages who are unable to rule their kingdom, and Richard III into a hideous monster that will stoop so low as to murder two children. Our perspective of Richard has been forever tarnished by Shakespeare and these day when we think of him all we see is a hunchback shuffling along screaming "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse".

Prospero is an academic, and as an academic he is the one who provides a portal to history. We only understand and see history in the way he wants us to see history. He is not a failed ruler who cared more for his books than for his kingdom, he is a ruler that has been kicked out of his kingdom and his desire to punish those who were responsible is his right. However he is also the matchmaker, the one who brings Miranda and Ferdinand together, and the one who imprisons Ferdinand to force him to work for Miranda. By bringing Ferdinand under his control, through binding him with his daughter, he has created a loyal servant, in much the same way that he has bound Ariel through his promise of freedom.

Yet we also see a transformation within Prospero, and this transformation comes through his daughter Miranda. She is horrified when she learns that Prospero is responsible for the storm, and is subtly working him to drop his lust for revenge, despite him telling her that it is his right. At the first he is a deposed ruler seeking revenge against his enemies, and in the end he is the forgiving father, the one who forgives his enemies and lets them live, but also seeks their forgiveness for the wrong that he has done. We also see another transformation as he willingly gives up his power, frees not only Ariel but all his captives, and then renounces his sorcery to return to his rightful place on the throne of Milan.

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Power Games - Shakespeare's Tempest by David Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.If you wish to use this work commercially please feel free to contact me.