The Queen of All Things in the Realm of Domestic Tranquility and I are huge science fiction fans. We’re not huge fans in the “dress up as Klingons or Hans Solo/Princess Leia and go to conventions where other weirdoes gather” vein, but huge fans none the less. There are limits to how far one should go in your efforts to be a nerd. We draw the line at including favorite lines from movies and TV shows in our daily conversations. Actually, I swipe a foot through that line in the sand once in a while and actually read the books upon which our favorite movies and TV shows are based. Unfortunately, I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to book to screen conversions. I get really annoyed when Hollywood trashes a perfectly good story in favor of some sort of “artistic vision” that a director had in a moment of weakness, egomaniacal pretentiousness or alcoholic stupor. I still can’t watch Starship Troopers without cringing. Don’t get me started. Robert Heinlein must be spinning in his grave.
(Step away from the soapbox. It’ll be okay. You’ll always have the book. I promise.)
One thing I have discovered in my forays across the line in the sand is that I am really fascinated with the social insight of science fiction. I am also amazed by the fact that literary critics and English professors seem to be only recently catching on to this. I mean really. Good writing is like any other art form that stands the test of time. Art imitates life; and, sometimes, life imitates art. Can someone please explain to me why the works of Isaac Asimov or Robert Heinlein are any less relevant as social commentary than the works of Henry David Thoreau or Ralph Waldo Emerson? I challenge you to pick up any science fiction novel, take a look at the copyright date and then read the book. Odds are good that understanding the times in which it was written will reveal a wealth of social context and commentary in the book. For instance, Joe Haldeman’s Forever War makes a lot more sense when you understand that it was written in the middle of the sexual revolution and the Vietnam War. Ditto for Heinlein’s Starship Troopers written in the era of McCarthyism, the Korean War, etc.
One of my favorite sci-fi TV shows was a little, short lived thing called Firefly. I believe it ran as a summer replacement series on Fox a few years ago. I enjoyed the show immensely, and was very disappointed that it didn't get a longer run. Fortunately, they were able to do a feature length movie called Serenity to wrap up some of the loose ends. In one of the episodes, there is a little exchange between characters about why they were going through middlemen to sell stolen goods instead of selling the items themselves to maximize profit. One of the characters replied with a line something along the lines of: "One third of the universe is middlemen, and they don't take too kindly to being cut out of the middle."
When you start thinking about it, one third of the population really is a middleman. You buy your cars from a dealership instead of direct from the manufacturer. You buy your houses through an agent instead of directly from the seller or builder. You get your groceries from a store instead of direct from the farmer. You get insured through an agent or a broker (although some companies have started direct writing programs).
What started me thinking about this was a discussion I had with a mediator not too long ago. For those that aren’t familiar with the tragic comedy that is the litigation world, a mediator is a (supposedly) impartial third party (Hey, look! A middleman.) who aids opposing parties in a lawsuit in resolving their case. The Texas Legislature calls it “Alternative Dispute Resolution”. Mediators are usually former attorneys who got sick and tired of the rat race that is personal injury litigation and decided to become intermediaries for others still stuck in the rat race.
Anyway, back to our story. I have spent the last 18 years working in the insurance industry the last 14 of which I’ve spent as a claims adjuster handling complex, high exposure and litigated injury claims. So, I go to mediation at least a couple of times a month. Sometimes I go a couple of times a week. On this particular occasion, I was at a mediation trying to settle a case as a favor to a co-worker when this mediator was asking me why people in the claims business (and me in particular), needed mediators (and her in particular) in the first place.
First, I found it interesting that a middleman would ask one of their customers why they needed a middleman. To me, that’s sort of like a grocery store manager asking their customers why they don’t milk their own cows or brew their own beer. After some thought and setting aside my natural tendency to issue snarky replies, I answered that I thought it was because we have developed a culture of distrust. Nobody seems to be able to trust anyone anymore. Given all the scandals reported in the news, it’s not surprising. This minister is going to be “called home to Jesus unless you send me all your money.” That politician got caught with $90,000 in cold hard cash in their freezer. Some Nigerian wants to send me millions of dollars and all he needs is the routing numbers for my bank account and a small earnest fee to show my good faith. In small bills, of course.
Take buying a house for instance. My great grandfather bought a house in Austin, TX back in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s with nothing more formal than a handshake. A sweaty palmed handshake I’m sure, but a handshake none the less. I’m not even sure they checked to see if the fingers of his other hand were crossed. Compare that with the inch and a half worth of paperwork involved when I refinanced my house a year ago. The Queen and I had to sign a piece of paper affirming that our signatures confirmed that we were the people our identification verification forms said we were not to mention the form that we had to sign swearing under oath that we were not members of a terrorist organization or that the home would be used for nefarious purposes. Apparently, you can lie about your income and the fact you actually do have a job that earns enough income to pay for this tremendously expensive asset that you cannot afford, but they are going to make certain that you’ve certified on pain of death that you are who your driver’s license says you are. Next time I buy a house, I may just sign all the documents “P.T. Barnum” to see if anyone notices.
Seriously, though, does anyone else see the absurdity of what we’ve come to as a society? We’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even trust ourselves anymore much less our friends, family and neighbors. So, what do we do? We go get middlemen. We abdicate our own common sense, experience and personal responsibility to someone else do in the hope that they will do what’s right for us. For a nominal fee. In small bills, of course.