by Kai Staats
Of Trantor, Star Ship Enterprise, and Biosphere II
I grew up a silent believer that some day we could achieve the utopian harmony depicted in Roddenberry’s Star Trek television series, a world in which everyone had equal opportunity at education, a job which was rewarding, and a sense of purpose to uphold the greater good.
But as I grew older and explored more of the world, I recognized patterns of behavior (those around me, my own) that are clearly instinctual and intrinsic to our species. In the recent half dozen years, we are discovering that truly, much of what makes us human is at least given propensity in our DNA.
In this capacity, Isaac Asimov was unfortunately more accurate with his portrayal of Foundation & Empire than Roddenberry with the Federation of Planets when Asimov envisioned a galaxy twelve thousand years from now. Humans remained selfish, xenophobic, and tribal as we are now. It is part of our survival mechanism, to seek others like us, to use what resources we have to propagate that which is familiar. To survive.
In 1988 construction of Biosphere II had just started outside of Oracle, Arizona. It was an attempt at simulating life on-board a large space station or distant, lunar or Martian colony. It failed in its primary objective to be fully self contained for two years, but today continues to be a learning experience for University of Arizona researchers.
[As an aside, Oracle was the last home of Edward Abbey, famed author and fierce protector of the remaining wild places in the American Southwest. But it would be another year before I was introduced to his writing by an ASU environmental studies professor who bragged about getting busted for sneaking into the Palo Verde nuclear power plant (and had photographic evidence to prove it).]
That same summer I returned for my second stay at another kind of biosphere in the isolated wilderness of the Washington Cascades. My first time on volunteer staff, Holden Village was for me a place and time for transition, leaving behind the last few days of high school but not yet ready to dive into the university. It has for fifty years served in the same respect for thousands of people who need a place to just stop for a while, and allow life to breathe.
The Dreams of Karaen
I do not now fully recall the experience of those three months, for that was many, many years ago, but I am able to return to bits and pieces, mixed in my memory as moments embedded in emotion.
As with my fifth time to the village and second time on Staff just this past fall, I recall relishing the isolation from the rest of the world. No roads connect Holden to the outside. No radio. No television. Mail service ran once each day in the summer, but only a few times a week in the fall, winter, and spring. At that time, ten years before the Internet had taken hold, of course, there was no email, Facebook, or blog entries. Even now, guests are not granted access and staff may use it only for limited personal function.
As with a Jewish Kibbutz, African village, or town in rural Iowa, the sense of community is very real. All staff and guests live, work, and play interconnected such that no one is an island. The action of each individual affects the people around them.
There is no privacy in a village of just a few hundred people whose three meals, work, and worship all take place at coordinated times, in particular places each day. Only in the solitude of the trails high above the village, at the edge of the glacial kettle ponds and ice blue lakes, on massive snow fields did I find time to be alone.
The Village has been for me a repeat experience in communal living, one that I have come back to from time to time, and was the foundation for Monitor Gray. Those fantastic places in the Washington Cascades were central to the dreams of Karaen, her escape.
While an isolated village may feel suffocating to those accustomed to the anonymity of a large city, there is an incredible sense of commitment to the greater whole, a feeling of belonging which compels everyone, to some degree or another, to make certain their hands do the work of the village.
In return, everything is provided. You will never go hungry. You will never be without shelter at night. You will never find yourself unable to pay the bills. The Village cares for those who care for the Village.
The Towers of the Gray were born as self-contained cities in which everyone was given an assigned job independent of their education, vocation, ethnicity, or former training. There is something incredible about a place that trusts anyone to get the job done. Roddenberry’s Start Trek utopia appeals to all of us, at some level.
Only in the aftermath of 9/11 did I realize how much a tower (the Bible, Lord of the Rings, New York City and now Dubai) represents dominion over a place and time. To topple a tower is to capture the flag, or at least to find a weakness in the enemy’s defenses. In Sands, Jon initiates the beginning of the attack on the Gray empire.
In a small village, there isn’t room for a great deal of hierarchy, for several layers of managers who do little more than shuffle paper to motivate those below them. The power structure is simple—the Directors make the final call. They interact with the Villagers daily, eating, working, and playing side-by-side, but they command the direct respect of their staff and the guests who visit for a few days, weeks, or months.
While I was far from perfect in my eighteen year old form, stubborn, and bent on bucking the system, what transpired at the close of that summer broke my trust in the people I had come to know, violating my sense of safety in the world. The details are not horrible, but for a young man who was just beginning to find his way in the world, it was unsettling. I returned to Phoenix devastated and turned to writing as a means of working through my experience.
Monitor Gray was born.
In the original chapters of Monitor Gray there was no mention of the Elders. The controlling elite were interwoven some two years later (if I recall correctly), motivated by the loss of my college sweetheart (and now lifelong friend) to a future we could not share for her religion would not accept me without my conversion.
They told me to cut my hair, to change my attitude, to accept their history as my own.
But in their village I saw believers in a fairytale who preferred to accept what was given to them rather than embrace the discomfort of questioning. I walked away but never ceased to resent the rules ascribed to the will of God but written (and rewritten) by man. They made no sense. A modern system of cult pretense designed to keep the ignorant and superstitious at peace, a kind of mind altering drug willingly consumed.
It was then that the twelve Elders gained selfish rule over the world of the Gray—controlling, manipulating, always monitoring. Even our dreams are of their domain.