Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Harry Turtledove: Noninterference

Harry Turtledove's Noninterference explores the consequences of violating the noninterference principal when exploring a world that hasn't achieved contact with other societies. Turtledove takes the best possible example of a minor intervention that goes awry with beneficial consequences that persist through the ages on a developing planet and extrapolates the possibilities. As articulated in Star Trek's Prime Directive, there is something sacrosanct about allowing each civilization to find its own way. In this case, the actual effects on the subject planet appear benign, though extensive. But benevolent consequences are no defense against violations of the Prime Directive. In any case, Turtledove focuses on the effects in the exploring (and interfering) civilization.

The Federacy's Survey Service is responsible for exploring newly discovered planets and making occasional visits to developing worlds. They're in a constant battle with the private Noninterference Foundation, whose Purists argue that it should be disbanded and no contact should be allowed with pre-technological civilizations. In this environment, when news comes back of the effects of the prior interference, the head of the service tries to cover up all the evidence, even stooping to violence when necessary. She convinces herself that it's for the protection of the important work the Survey Service, and therefore justified.

Given all this context, we get to see chase scenes, violence, narrow escapes, bureaucratic bungling, the power of the press, and the importance of independent parties monitoring everything the government does. Turtledove (co-)won the Prometheus award this year for The Gladiator, and his libertarian tendencies show clearly here. He isn't actually very concerned about the Prime Directive—If he were, he could have easily manufactured a simple intervention with disastrous consequences, rather than one with pervasive, long-term, apparently favorable effects. His focus is really on exposing the incentives of bureaucrats to cover up their mistakes, and the unlimited power they draw on because they have access to the public purse.