My writing process is fairly simple. I write three chapters a day, post them on various forums and then read the comments, insert corrections, etc. (God bless everyone who sends in a typo-note, as there’s no such thing as a minor correction in the writing world.) Sometimes, I get genuinely interesting responses from people who disagree with me – or, rather, with the characters.
I had reached about twelve/thirteen chapters into A Learning Experience when I noted an interesting trend on a couple of discussion forums. People were commenting on what they saw as foolish and/or unrealistic actions by the main characters, the US Government and just about everyone else. A couple of those comments verged into ‘mistake the author for his characters’ territory and were duly ignored. The remainder struck me as interesting – and, in some respects, the inevitable result of commenting on an unfinished book.
As both Kevin and Mongo pointed out in the text, not all of Steve’s actions and thoughts are wise ones. He could have avoided the ‘skirmish’ with the DHS, he could have found less dramatic ways to make his point and he came alarmingly close to committing outright genocide. But such is character development. Characters who are perfect are not only boring, they are unrealistic. A character who grows and develops, on the other hand, is a representative of the whole human condition.
Steve starts out heavily political; he’s alienated from his country’s government, he doesn't trust those schmucks in Washington and he has more or less withdrawn from society. He chooses to spend a large amount of his time dwelling on a government betrayal and grumbling about the sad state of near-future America. And then effectively limitless power (at least on Earth) is simply dropped into his hands. Steve, as several characters point out, could attack Washington and take power for himself. Instead, he chooses to set up a new Wild West and invite anyone who feels like him to reach for the stars.
Over the course of the story, Steve grows to realise – truly realise – that vast power doesn’t solve everything. Nor can he hope to handle everything on his own. Very rapidly, his plans for a libertarian state are challenged by the need for a staff to handle things, for an effective system of government and a plan to defend Earth and all of humanity against an alien threat. Steve, who is armed with technology that makes wiping out large chunks of the Taliban and various global terrorist networks an easy task, comes to realise that it isn't as easy as it looks to rule a state. It sure as hell isn't easy to set the course of the future.
This is a common problem, in and out of both fiction and real life. Every election campaign, politicians make vast promises that, when they are forced to come face to face with reality, they find impossible to actually fulfil. One promise might be impossible to keep through lack of funds, another might be impossible to keep because there are international treaties underpinning the promise and removing them may open up other cans of worms, still more promises may be made when the politician was unaware of certain factors that mandated that the promise had to be broken. It isn't as simple as you might think to become a global leader – or to act as one, once you reach such a position.
These are not the only problems, of course. A single issue might be easy to handle if the President (or Prime Minister, or whatever) concentrated on it to the exclusion of all else. However, very few issues can receive that degree of scrutiny from the Head of Government. It is far more likely that smaller issues will be handled by the head’s subordinates, who may butcher the job or simply decide it isn't politically important. And, naturally, when (if) this blows up in the Head of Government’s face, it’s always his fault.
This represents a major problem with our governments that, as Steve says in elaborate detail, is a major headache for the future. As politicians become more and more interested in looking good, rather than actually looking to the future, we find it much harder to respond to problems caused by the lack of accountability. In their place, colossal government bureaucracies set out to regulate society – with almost no accountability at all. Worse, the departments become more interested in preserving their own positions than doing their jobs.
Does this sound insane? Imagine you work in the Department of Homeland Security. If Congress were to become convinced that your organisation wasn't doing its job, you might lose your job. Your incentives would lead you to find work for your department even if there wasn't anything. You wouldn't say there was no terror threat. Instead, you would ask for more resources to track down the terror threat you need to justify your existence.
I do not believe there is a single government department that is free of the taint of bureaucracies struggling to secure and expand their paper empires. Consider, for example, Britain’s UKBA (United Kingdom Border Agency). The forms prospective immigrants are meant to fill in are outrageously complex (applying to join the army is considerably easier), the requirements are often absurd (how many people really bother to make exact notes of when they moved from country to country a decade or so ago?) and the screening process frankly insulting to one’s intelligence. (How many terrorists would admit to it when filling in their forms?) Or various defence departments around the globe, concentrating more on defending their bureaucracies than defending the soldiers who fight and die in constant wars?
And if you were given a way to establish a society away from all that, what would you do?
Reasonable readers may disagree with Steve’s actions. I would quite agree that some of them were stupid and dangerous. But I don’t think they're unrealistic.
Your mileage may vary, of course.
My intentions with this series are to follow the next generation of Steve’s family by skipping forward fifty years, then another fifty. If you want a sequel, of course, please don’t hesitate to contact me and let me know.
And if you liked the book, please leave a review on Amazon.
Christopher G. Nuttall