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Big Brother's Space Program

In an alternate Orwellian universe, space travel really might be of supreme national importance.
by Jeffrey F. Bell (based on characters created by George Orwell)
Honolulu HI (SPX) Feb 28, 2005
In the endless corridor on the 145th floor of Truth Tower, Winston Smith compulsively smoothed the tatty blue bib overalls that marked his status as a member of the Outer Party. It was a rare event when he was called out of his cubicle on the 39th floor and sent upstairs to meet his boss O'Brien. Usually it meant trouble. Sometimes it meant a revealing insight into the true nature of AngloSocialism. Occasionally it meant both.

O'Brien's pert dark-haired secretary Julia gave Smith a glance that combined contempt, pity, and disinterest as he entered the outer office. She curled a manicured fingernail toward the door to O'Brien's inner sanctum without speaking. Smith entered without looking at her, settled down in the guest chair, and waited. O'Brien was always late for appointments with his subordinates.

Truth Tower stood on the radioactive rubble of Rockefeller Center, but O'Brien's office could have been anywhere in Oceania. Smith had been in dozens of similar ones from Yarmouth to Omaha to Perth. They all had the faded official portrait of Big Brother, the standard-issue UV-yellowed personal computer, the compulsory 2-way telescreen showing the Big Brother Channel (this one had a prominent ON/OFF switch that indicated O'Brien's membership in the Inner Party), and the usual wrinkled propaganda poster.

This particular poster proclaimed the Three Principles of AngloSocialism in huge red capitals:




Smith was staring mindlessly at the poster when O'Brien swept in. As usual, his black Inner Party overalls and work shirt were spotless and impeccably tailored. Smith suspected that O'Brien still bought his clothes on Saville Row even though they had both been promoted away from the London branch of the Ministry back in 1984.

"Ah, Party Comrade Smith... We need to talk about your article in the Times about the latest brilliant triumph by our party comrades in the Ministry of Space, the successful test launch of their new booster, what's it called... Delta-4H, that's it." O'Brien switched off the telescreen, cutting off a BBC newsreader in mid-slogan.

Smith knew that this action also disabled the reverse-viewing feature that allowed the Thought Police to monitor the room. O'Brien only exercised this perk of his rank when he wanted to have one of those frank conversations, and frank conversations were very dangerous - even with O'Brien.

Deciding to tread carefully, Smith replied: "I wrote no article about the Delta-4H test launch, sir."

"That is the aspect of your article which most disturbs me, Winston - its non-existence. Please explain." "Well, sir, the results of that test launch were so bad that I could see no way of advertising it in as a success."

"Nonsense. Here at MiniTru, failure is not an option - especially for Winson Smith. I shifted you from Historical Revision to News Correction because you are our best rewrite man. Your announcement of that Space Shuttle explosion over Texas as a final test of our new missile defense system was a work of genius. Did you know that an Eastasian spy was caught in Waxahachie, making seismic soundings to locate that underground base you invented? That's what I call reality control!"

In some indefinable way, O'Brien's manner conveyed the subliminal message that this had been a real Eastasian spy, not some unfortunate oil geologist who had been framed to whip up war hysteria. Smith decided that this was a signal that O'Brien wanted his real opinions. "The Shuttle explosion was no real challenge, sir. It happened so far up that no one could see what really happened, but low enough that it was below the radar horizon of any foreign power. The only hard part of that rewrite was bulk-erasing the seven astronauts."

"This Delta-4H fiasco was impossible to explain away easily. It occurred right in plain sight of too many people. At ignition there was a huge hydrogen fireball that enveloped the whole vehicle. The lower stages were actually burnt black. Then those same damaged stages shut down early. The two amateur recon satellites built by the Young Spies fell into the atmosphere and burned up. The main satellite went into a useless orbit in full view of Eurasian and Eastasian tracking stations."

O'Brien made no objection to this brutally frank summary, so Smith pushed on with his defense. "Now I know that it is Ministry policy to do a favorable rewrite on unfavorable events rather than to suppress them altogether. But in this case too many people knew the true facts to make any major rewrite credible. There must have been hundreds of MiniSpace personnel aware of some of the many failures in this launch. Any rewrite would only shake their faith in the reliability of the Times."

O'Brien frowned. "Winston, nothing you might write could possibly have such an effect - certainly not at the Cape. All MiniSpace personnel are carefully selected, not only for technical skill, but for political orthodoxy. They go through a Thought Police background check that is even more intense than ours. Everyone working in the space program is a certified plusgood doublethinker. They are quite accustomed to holding two contradictory ideas in their heads at the same time and sincerely believing in both of them."

"Let's take this hydrogen fireball. I'm sure a hundred engineers are furiously working even now on stopping the leak, or improving the ventilation, or burning the gas off in some harmless manner. If MiniSpace is running true to form, they are working on all those solutions simultaneously."

"And if you asked any one of those engineers about the fireball, he would tell you that it was perfectly nominal, expected, predicted by numerical models, and even improved the booster's performance in some obscure way that can't be explained in layman's terms. Or to be precise, he would say these things if he had read them in the Times or heard them on the Beeb and knew they were the official AngSoc Party line."

O'Brien's tone became ominous. "But since you decided not to put out any official Party line, no one knows what to think or say. Thousands of people in Florida saw that launch. Children ask their teachers and block leaders what the big white streak in the sky was, and get no answers. Of course no one dares to give their own opinion for fear that it might earn them a free 20-year vacation at Big Brother World."

"You must always remember this, Winston: any officially unexplained event tends to cast doubt on the omnipotence and infallibility of Big Brother and the Party. It makes people more receptive to Goldsteinist and Eastasian propaganda. Three battalions of Mobile Thought Police have been airlifted to Florida to deal with the situation your faint-heartedness created."

Smith saw disaster lurking ahead and decided that a strong defense was needed. "Sir, this was not a matter of faint-heartedness, but merely a matter of judgment. I am not convinced that space exploration is so important."

O'Brien's eybrows rose alarmingly. "Space exploration not important? What an extraordinary thing for a loyal Party man to say! Clearly you need a policy briefing on the key role that MiniSpace plays in preserving AngloSocialism. Let's start with the basic principles of the Party." O'Brien jerked a thumb at the propaganda poster on the wall.

"First, 'WAR IS PEACE'. Back in the days of mass conscript armies and thousand-plane air raids, wars and constant preparation for more wars could absorb the economic surplus which would otherwise go to making the proles into literate, middle-class citizens who would demand political rights. Now that wars are fought with smart weapons operated by small forces of highly-trained specialists, they can no longer perform this vital social function."

"Accordingly, we have started a whole range of new Ministries whose function is to waste capital, labor, and brainpower on non-productive activities in the same lavish fashion that the military once did. Of course MiniSpace is the very epitome of waste. Who else can build a huge complex craft that costs as much as an airliner or a Floating Fortress, and dump the whole thing into the ocean or shoot it into the depths of space - without any economic return whatever?"

"Second, 'FREEDOM IS SLAVERY'. Space exploration is so big that it is inherently a collectivist enterprise. Every space project requires thousands of people working toward a common goal in a strictly regimented fashion."

"The Thought Police are constantly monitoring subversive conversations like: 'If the Party can send men to Mars, why can't it solve Problem X?' When these gripes reach a certain level, we 'declare war' on Problem X and set up a huge bureaucracy to fight that war."

"These crash programs are always modeled after MiniSpace, and everyone accepts this as perfectly natural, since we have presented space exploration as a string of brilliant successes. The Party is gradually collectivizing and regimenting every human activity, using MiniSpace as our model and justification. If you want a vision of the future, imagine the whole human race sitting in neat rows in a giant Mission Control room."

"Third, 'IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH'. A strong space program makes all Oceanians feel that they live in the only true global hyperpower, far superior to mere wannabes like Eurasia and Eastasia. An unbroken record of triumphs in space demonstrates to everyone that AngloSocialism is the best of all possible political systems, far better than Neo-Bolshevism or 'Socialism with Chinese characteristics'."

"Of course, our opposite numbers in Brussels and Peking have space programs of their own, but we at MiniTru make sure that no anglophone ever reads or hears anything about them. MiniSpace gives us a vast reservoir of public confidence in the infallibility of the Party - false confidence to be sure, but that is every bit as socially useful as the real thing."

"So you see that a vigorous space exploration program is essential to the survival of the Party, or any system of totalitarian control by a privileged few. Even the old-time Nazis and Communists understood this in their usual crude way. It's no accident that they were the first governments to start serious work on space travel back in the 1930s. We inherited the basic concept from them and merely took it to its logical extreme, like so much else in our modern society."

O'Brien paused in his lecture and Smith knew it was time to switch into yes-man mode. "As usual, sir, you make everything crystal clear with a few plain words. I knew most of those things in a vague unfocused way, but never put them together into the big picture the way you just did. We should have more of these little conversations with your telescreen turned off. "

O'Brien gave an almost imperceptible shudder and replied, "Even I can't do this too often, or for too long. So we need to come up with a spin plan for the Delta-4H failure immediately. Do you have any notions on that subject, now that we both agree on how important it is?"

As often happened around O'Brien, Winston Smith's brain had been working on several tracks simultaneously. Suddenly he saw the solution to the Delta-4H problem, and all future failed space launches.

"Yes, something has occurred to me. Why do we launch all these rockets from a populated land area anyway? 'Oceania Rules The Waves', after all. We should move the whole operation to some isolated island - better yet, something like a big Floating Fortress. Out in the middle of the ocean, there are no witnesses except those MiniSpace doublethinkers. We could call every mission a success, and who would know differently?"

Smith's mind was racing ahead. "Furthermore, the economic burden would be increased, and spread out over other Ministries. The Ministry of Peace would have to provide a screen against Eastasian subs and planes. The Ministry of Plenty would need to build a whole fleet of special ships to get the rockets out there - special tankers for the rocket fuels too."

O'Brien's stern face broke into a most un-Partyish smile. "Excellent idea, Winston! That's the kind of linear, inside-the-box thinking Big Brother wants. I knew you would come through with a little encouragement. 'Works best under pressure' your file says. Of course everyone's file says that, but with you it actually works. Speakwrite a hard copy of your ideas and I will forward it to MiniSpace with a strong recommendation for immediate action."

O'Brien paused for a moment and then said in a more thoughtful manner: "In fact your work lately has been too good in some ways. You see things a bit too clearly and speak a bit too frankly for an Outer Party member. I think you should not return to your cubicle."

Smith's heart skipped a beat. "What do you mean... N-n-not return to my cubicle?". He still remembered clearly the day his friend Syme had vanished along with all evidence of his existence - 'vaporized' had been the slang term back then, not 'bulk-erased'.

"I mean that you are the kind of man we need in the Inner Party. I had you picked out as management material even back in London. With this sea launch idea the time has finally come. Of course there will be a slight delay before your promotion is official, but you can move into your new office immediately. Julia will show you there."

Smith started to turn toward the door, then hesitated. There was one thing he absolutely had to know before the telescreen was turned back on. "Does this mean that I am now cleared for Inner Party secrets?"

O'Brien was already reaching for the power switch but his hand froze in midair. "Yes - is there anything you yearn to know right this instant?"

Smith took a deep breath and blurted it out: "Give it to me straight, O'Brien -- did we really send men to Mars?"

Jeffrey F. Bell is a retired space scientist and recovering pro-space activist. His attempt to dictate this article on his new speakwriter failed due to the machine's inadequate vocabulary file.

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