From posts to DAVIDWEBER.NET forums on 6/19/2011

Aspects of the Alignment's Uplift program

    Duckk wrote:

    Andor wrote:

    The MA alignment is on a course of action which is likely to lead to the destruction of their own home planet of Mesa. Not to mention the deaths of billions of human beings and the destruction a of galactic society that has been at peace for a thousand years.

    From the standpoint of any sane Mesan who is not inside the onion they are a cult of madmen trying to destroy their own homeworld. They are deliberately sabotaging one of the planets primary industries, and they are wrecking the markets for the rest.

    Pretty much nothing the MA does is even slightly sane.

    I fail to see how the Alignment's actions seem self destructive to someone not in the onion. The biggest industries on Mesa are arms, slaves, and mercenaries. When the galaxy goes to hell in a handbasket, those products will be in very high demand. If anything, the collapse of the League would lead to a huge upsurge in business. Weaponry and mercs for obvious reasons will be needed by splinter groups, while genetic slaves can be used either has soldiers or as replacements for the citizens who go off to join the military. And with chaos breaking out all over human space, there'll be a lot less scrutiny on Manpower's less-than-legal activities. Mesa would cheer the fall of the League, not worry about it.

   

    Andor has a point. In fact, he has several of them. There are answers for most of them built into the Alignment's structure, psychology, and procedures, many (perhaps even most) of which you guys haven't yet seen. Whether they will satisfy Andor's inability to suspend disbelief or not is, of course, another point entirely, and only time will tell.

    I will say this: What happened with Jack McBryde is indicative of what can happen when a relatively sane member of the inner ring of the onion really thinks about what's going to happen. The inner ring is divorced from the mainstream of Mesa's society in ways which haven't been made clear even yet, and the leadership really does exist in something of a bubble --- or echo chamber, at least --- where the only people they really talk to and (much more importantly) listen to agree with them and share the sense that they are the vanguard of a persecuted and visionary minority out to destroy an oppressive and reactionary establishment.

    I don't think anyone should underestimate the insularity of societies in general, even in an era of interstellar commerce and communication, though, and I don't think anyone should underestimate the ability of the man-in-the-street to remain blissfully unaware of realities which fail to impinge upon him directly. As far as the “culling” of Francesca Simoes is concerned, however, I will give you guys one additional tidbit which I don't believe has been explicitly covered in the books yet (although it's a-coming). Experimental genetic lines in which children are terminated are mostly restricted to the slave population; experimental children placed in family environments like the Simoes are extremely rare and always happen well inside the onion. Another factor that needs to be considered here is that the termination of human lives on the basis of quality of life decisions is a deeply engrained part of the entire Mesan mindset and has been for centuries; the society as a whole brought it with it as part of its rebellion against the Beowulf Code when the Detweilers… relocated in the first place. Simoes' response to his daughter's termination was highly atypical, and his marriage came apart not simply because his wife was traumatized by her daughter's death after both of them believed she had escaped the “danger zone” of which they had been warned (she was) but because his (atypical) desperate struggle to prevent the girl's termination traumatized her still further and let her focus her own pain and anger on him for being so “unreasonable” and drawing out the anguish of the moment unnecessarily (and uselessly). McBryde would have responded to Herlander with the same “Well, gosh, we know it's difficult, but what truly loving parent in his right mind would have wanted his daughter to suffer that way for an entire lifetime?” attitude if he hadn't been instructed to get close to him to keep an eye on him as a potential security risk because of his “irrational reaction” to what was basically a routine medical decision. Most members of Mesan society who know anything at all about Simoes' reaction to the termination think he was some sort of lunatic. They have absolutely no reason to believe that Francesca was a experiment that went tragically wrong, nor do they have any reason to believe the girl represented a deliberate decision to risk allowing parents to love a child who might very well (indeed, possibly even probably, given the program's uniform lack of success to date) have to be terminated. Society as a whole sees this as a case of a tragic (and thankfully vanishingly rare) instance of a defective child who would have been condemned to a completely isolated, hellish existence (or a vegetative one, depending on the reports they've seen) and a parent who, deranged by misguided love, preferred to allow that to happen rather than loving her enough to let her go and spare her decades and decades of unremitting misery. Obviously he was a lunatic!

    The other thing I'll say is that the Alignment has lost a lot of its “sleeper” lines over the centuries. It always assumed that it would lose quite a few of them and based its plans on letting a line go (and having redundant backups in place) rather than risking exposure by trying to “salvage” or hang onto one when there was no suitable generational candidate or there was a communications failure. They have also resorted to assassination in more than one instance to tie off potential loose ends. In the case of the Renaissance Factor's leadership cadres, the “sleepers” are not individual family lines but of groups of allied families, and “the onion” is replicated within those families. These planets have been settled for far shorter periods than most League systems, their elites were infiltrated by the Alignment early on, and clandestine Mesan support (economic, political, and lethal [where serious obstacles can be removed by a discreet assassination or two]) to help them along has been a major factor in how they have become and remained as locally powerful as they are. But it wasn't until the current generation that any members of those families were let into the full strategy, and even then that knowledge was limited to very carefully selected, screened, and groomed individuals. The same thing holds true within the ranks of the militaries of the RF's member star nations, and, in fact, MA influence within the military is largely restricted to a single one of the RF's navies (which one is left to the reader, based on textev already presented ), which is the main reason Darius was necessary in the first place.

    Oh, and I suppose I should point out that the star nation which manufactures the galaxy's genetic slaves and has led the way in artificial reproductive technologies for centuries would be far better placed to “grow” a colonial population for a minimal visible expenditure of immigrants and resources than most other star nations. And there's absolutely no reason why the only colonists they could grow would have to be slaves, either, now is there?

    Just a thought.

   


   

    I know the euthanasia angle hasn't been dealt with as clearly in the books at this point as it has in my own mind, but I've always intended to bring it forward when we see the internal Mesan viewpoint reaction to Herlander. That is, the internal Mesan viewpoint outside of the inner layers of the onion. And I'm not too surprised about your… I won't call it ambivalence, but deep thoughtfulness, let's say, on the question of euthanasia in general. My wife Sharon lost both of her grandparents to a series of strokes. Her mother suffered similar health problems and my grandmother was over 101 when she died, at which point she really didn't know who she was or where she was or what was happening. She only knew that she hurt and she was afraid and that she didn't know where she was, and my grandmother was a strong lady who deserved one hell of a lot more dignity than that. I think the truth is that technology is permitting us to live longer than we were really genetically engineered to survive. I'm not sure that means we can't "upgrade" our basic designed to take advantage of the support technology makes possible, but we are unfortunately in the transitional phase right now. And, of course, the entire question of euthanasia is fraught with all sorts of moral concerns which extend beyond simple "quality-of-life" issues. Sharon and I have both executed living wills to make our intentions known, and neither one of us is especially interested in being stretched out when it's time to go, but I have to admit to some concerns over reports like the one I've read this week about euthanasia and donor organs for transplants in Belgium. Mind you, if someone is going to be euthanized anyway, it obviously makes sense to do so in a way which will permit the greatest possible good to come out of that death, yet this is one of those potential moral quagmires stories like Jerry Pournelle's "Patchwork Girl" have been exploring ever since organ transplants became a practical reality.

    One thing I hope will become clear in the course of the next few books is that the Mesans in the onion are what I think of as benign sociopaths. Quite a lot of what they have to say actually makes sense, and their ultimate objectives actually cast them (in their own minds at least) in the role of the Good Guys. As they see it, the entire galaxy took a tragic wrong turn when those idiots and biological neo-Luddites on Beowulf disagreed with their own enlightened ancestors on the degree to which the human genotype should be improved. They argue (and this is demonstrably true, looking at what they've achieved in their own Alpha lines) that the human race's potential could have been enormously improved over the last six or seven centuries if only they'd been permitted to pursue that goal openly. They don't really recognize, and certainly don't accept, Beowulf's logic, and I'm not sure I've managed to make Beowulf's position fully clear for the reader in the books to date, either.

    Beowulf doesn't reject improving individuals or even modifying large groups of individuals for specific environmental concerns. For that matter, Beowulf strongly supports genetic modification to deal with disease states and inheritable congenital defects. Beowulf's geneticists will work to optimize traits, capabilities, disease resistance, etc., but except in conditions where specific physical qualities — like Honor's high-grav modifications of muscle tissue, CO2 tolerance, enhanced metabolism, etc. — are required to suit human colonists to specific environments, or in conditions where it's necessary to correct a disease state or a physical defect, they will not go one millimeter past the inherent possibilities of the individual genetic material they're working with. What that specifically means is that they won't import genetic material from another source, which is one of the things the Mesan geneticists have been doing for quite some time. Beowulf also specifically rejects the "weaponization" of genetic engineering and bio research generally, which means that something like the "assassin nanotech" is absolutely and utterly anathematized by the Beowulf Code.

    The Beowulf Code's ban on weaponized biotech goes back to Old Earth's Final War. The only real consequence of that war that you've seen in the books are the Scrags, and the Scrags are actually probably the most minor of the military applications of the biological sciences in the Final War. They also happen to have been the only human (or semi-human) bio weapon which was capable of unaided reproduction… thank God. The other bio weapons which were deployed during that war were far, far worse, and the very worst of all were the result of genetic engineering of the human genotype or of weapons specifically designed to attack the human genotype. It took, literally, centuries to undo the damage which was done to the Solarian branch of the human race, and a few echoes of it continue to reverberate through problems which are likely to manifest, even at this late date, in Old Earth-born humans. That experience was the background for the Beowulfers' rejection of anything which could be considered weaponized biotech, and in Beowulfan eyes, deliberate modifications of the human genotype outside very specifically delineated and enforced restrictions are all too likely to wander into a gray area on the borders of military applications.

    The other thing that Mesa doesn't understand about the Beowulf position is that one of the things that Beowulf is most adamantly opposed to is the reemergence of racism in the Honorverse's galaxy. As Beowulf sees it, a deliberate program of "genetic uplift" is entirely too likely to fall prey to ideological control and to be used for ideological purposes. Moreover, Beowulf believes that it is almost inevitable that (just as is actually happening on Mesa) there are going to be different genetic lines which are ranked in terms of "superiority:" Alphas, Betas, Gammas, etc. As they see it, this would be almost impossible to avoid, especially when there are genetically quantifiable differences between the lines.

    Now, the fact that Beowulf feels that way about it doesn't necessarily mean that I share their views entirely, or that I'm unwilling to consider the possibility of evolutions in our bioethics which would mute or largely do away with the bases of their concern. I'm not wildly optimistic about the perfectibility of human nature, no matter what we may be able to accomplish with human bodies, but that's another issue, and I'm willing to concede that over the course of the next thousand years or so the debate over human modification and "improvement" may well be settled in favor of making the changes. In fact, I think it's highly unlikely that it will be impossible to restrain the urge to "improve" humanity in this regard by at least some groups, no matter what mainstream opinion on the issue may be.

    And that, in a way, is what Mesa is all about. The bottom line is that the central purpose of the Mesan Alignment ideology is beneficial. Their driving principle is the maximization of the genetic potential of the entire human race and the rectification of that horrible error they believe Beowulf and the rest of humanity made in the wake of the Final War. The problem is twofold: (1) they are willing to do anything at all that will help them to achieve their goal in the belief that the nobility of their purpose sanctifies any means to which they might choose to resort; and (2) they've long since lost track of the fact that what matters is accomplishing their goal rather than proving that they were right and Beowulf was wrong. They — or, rather, their ancestors — began this project when the revulsion against genetic engineering was still at witchhunting levels. In which the equivalent of the village mobs storming Baron Frankenstein's castle were all too likely and they felt that they had to resort to underground, clandestine, and (frankly) highly illegal means. When they were finally able to relocate off of Beowulf to Mesa, they began a gradual process of offering genetically modified (very carefully avoiding the term "improved") workers and colonists which tended to be snapped up by large industrial concerns. This, in turn, began the long association of Manpower with the transstellars of the Solarian League. They were also very careful never to join the Solarian League, which meant that they weren't covered by the League's policies and laws which had grown out of the Final War and the Beowulf Code. And as their very capable medical researchers began rivaling the Beowulf community they'd left behind, they began attracting a client base of their own — one which generally understood that Mesa was going to be at least shaving the edges of what a Beowulf-sanctioned geneticist would do for them. But well before that stage was reached, the Mesan Alignment had already gone underground and organized itself and — even more importantly — its ideology around the need to defeat rather than modify Beowulf's biosciences code.

    The truth is that for at least a century or two after the Final War, it would have been impossible for Mesa to contend openly with Beowulf over this particular question. The horrible example of Old Earth was still right there in front of everyone and the revulsion against anything which might repeat or duplicate that disaster was far too overwhelming for the Detweilers and their followers to have gained traction against it. What this means is that by the time an open debate might really have become possible again, the Alignment was already completely committed to its clandestine, covert, long-range strategy to change the paradigm by force rather than through reason. And even if that hadn't been the case, by that time Mesa had been so thoroughly blackened (and had blackened itself) through its association with the genetic slave trade that no one would have taken professions of an altruistic interest in the improvement of the human race seriously coming from that source.

    By this point, the Mesan Alignment's innermost leadership truly have become sociopaths where their great and burning purpose is concerned. Not only that, they have a tunnel vision which is literally centuries old. They've been so focused for so long, for so many generations, that they simply can't see what became blindingly obvious to Jack McBryde, which is that if they are in fact right, a fraction of the effort they've spent on building their strategy and the means to accomplish it would have paid for a propaganda/PR campaign that would almost have to have convinced a significant percentage of the human race to agree with them. They wrote that possibility off so long ago that it's not even on their menu of options. And after all this time, the Alignment has to defeat Beowulf (and prove its own moral superiority in the process) in order to justify and, if you will, sanctify all of the effort and all of the wealth and all of the destruction of lives which it has poured into its struggle. It's not logical, but let's face it, logic is seldom the most powerful motivating factor where human beings are concerned.

    And all of this comes back to the point I made, and which you responded to, about the "echo chamber" in which these people live. The truth is that almost everyone lives in an echo chamber to a greater or a lesser extent. Right, left, moderate, socialist, fascist, Centrist, Marxist, you name it, we tend to speak with — and listen to — those with whom we AGREE more than those with whom we disagree. This is where polarization comes from, and I'm not really sure that it's any worse today than it's been in the past. I think it may be more intense these days, and I definitely agree with you that information overload can make that worse, but the truth is that most people find it difficult to steal enough time from the necessary preoccupations of our lives to dedicate the effort to deliberately listen to people we disagree with in the first place. In the case of any persecuted group, or any group which feels it's persecuted, that tendency to close off outside input is, I think, naturally intensified. That same shutting down of outside input also happens when any group has decided that it has The Answer and that "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." In the case of the leadership cadre of the Mesan Alignment, what you have is a group which sees itself as persecuted AND having The Answer and which has developed a messianic fervor for enforcing The Answer, and which by the very nature of its organization (and the need to keep itself small and deeply hidden) has a very small "echo chamber." They not only know they're right, but they also know the rest of the galaxy would turn on them in a heartbeat if they came out into the open with their true agenda, and they see themselves as being empowered by the sublime purity of their objective and the fact that unlike anyone else they do have The Answer (which automatically confirms their intellectual, as well as their moral, superiority over their opponents). That's a very potent motivating force, and they've managed to build a support structure which lets them accomplish goals in pursuit of their over all purpose without ever having to explain to the people accomplishing those goals why they're really doing it, which prevents any of those people working for them from questioning the Alignment's basic purposes, assumptions, and beliefs. In other words, they aren't getting the feedback from their operatives that might help to chip away at that monolithic internal consensus.

    Jack McBryde signed onto the Mesan Alignment because of how it was presented to him when he was much younger. I will say this (and it probably constitutes a little bit of a spoiler): aside from his brother, the rest of his family was not inside the inner onion. And despite his position as chief of security for such an important installation, not even Jack was all the way inside the inner onion. What happened when he came face-to-face with what the Alignment had done to Herlander Simões and Francesca — and the devastation it had wrought in Herlander's life — was that he made the leap into recognizing that the Alignment was proposing to enforce those same policies on the rest of the human race whether the rest of the human race wanted them or not. And when he recognized that, he also recognized for the first time the fundamental sociopathy in deliberately killing billions of people (a probable outcome of even the incomplete amount he knew about the Alignment's final strategy) rather than even attempting to argue the case for genetic uplift in the court of public opinion. And, as the final element in his break with the Alignment to which he had dedicated his adult life, he realized that what he had always envisioned as a goal towards which the Alignment would continue to work (as it had already worked literally for centuries) was, in fact, about to happen. It was no longer an intellectual or a philosophical or even an ideological commitment on his part to something to be accomplished at some indeterminate time in the future; it was a reality which was about to come to pass and for which he would bear a direct personal responsibility.

    That was the point at which his own fundamental morality — which he'd learned from his parents and to which the Alignment's altruistic goal of righting past wrongs and uplifting humanity had appealed in the first place — turned around and bit the Mesan Alignment on the ass. I won't rule out the possibility of that's happening with other members of the Alignment as time passes, either, although I've built in some factors and elements within the Alignment which will mitigate against it, especially if (and I ain't saying whether or not this will happen) someone inside the Alignment looks back and analyzes McBryde's actions with enough intellectual honesty and detachment to realize what truly prompted them so that additional precautions can be taken.

    Sorry. This got much longer than I intended for it to get (which is one reason I tend to stay away from the forums; this happens whenever I get close to them ), but the discussion about the Alignment, where it came from, and how it's managed to sustain its internal integrity (in terms of not springing all sorts of leaks, at least) for so long has come up at conventions and on panels as well as here on the forum. This is by far the most in-depth explanation I've given so far, and even here I haven't told you everything, by any stretch of the imagination. Not only that, but like any good storyteller I reserve the right to change where I've been intending to go all along.

    I will say one more thing, which is that the "telescoping effect" of bringing this part of the storyline forward rather than killing Honor off at the Battle of Manticore and letting her children deal with it has, I think, contributed to the problems some people have had suspending disbelief where the Alignment is concerned. Under my original plan for the series, the Alignment would have been revealed much more gradually, bits and pieces of its strategy would have begun intruding into the open without the "sudden revelation" which is now part of the storyline, and the basic intellectual conflict between the Beowulf Code and the Mesan view of genetic modification would have been worked into the storyline by now in a more complete fashion and in a way which probably would have generated more sympathy for the Mesan Alignment's ultimate objective (although certainly not its tactics and strategy). I've always intended for the Alignment to represent what you might think of as Evil in the service of Good and to look at the degree and the extent to which ends do or do not justify the means adopted to accomplish them. However you slice it, the innermost core of the onion is evil, and yet its members are also human beings who have families, who love one another, who have senses of humor and who genuinely believe in what it is they're trying to accomplish, which actually makes them more interesting to me than if they were simply slinking around in the shadows and twirling their mustaches.

    I hope that ultimately it will also make them more interesting to the Honorverse's readers.