zero-sum games

EDITORIAL | Why Space Is So Important Thumbnail

Robert Zubrin

The answer: freedom and opportunity.

Dr. Robert Zubrin has long been a strong proponent of Mars colonization and he has put forth a strategy for doing so with existing technology on the (relative) cheap. Hint: We don’t need to build big spaceships in orbit or colonize the moon first. If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend you check out his books Entering Space, The Case for Mars, and How to Live on Mars. These books are understandable to the layman but also include enough nitty-gritty details and formulas to satisfy the more mathematically inclined enthusiast, and they make excellent resources for science fiction authors.

In the brief video below, Zubrin is answering a question about his book, How to Live on Mars, at the 28th Annual International Space Development Conference, held March 28-31, 2009. Watch it and then continue on after the break for my thoughts on what he had to say.

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The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

Whatever good you have heard about The Hunger Games, the reality is more spectacular. Not only is this the literary phenom of our time, but the movie that created near pandemonium for a week from its opening is a lasting contribution to art and to the understanding of our world. It’s more real than we know.

In the story, a totalitarian and centralized state — it seems to be some kind of unelected autocracy — keeps a tight grip on its colonies to prevent a repeat of the rebellion that occurred some 75 years ago. They do this through the forced imposition of material deprivation, by unrelenting propaganda about the evil of disobedience to the interests of the nation-state and with “Hunger Games” as annual entertainment.

In this national drama and sport, and as a continuing penance for past sedition, the central state randomly selects two teens from each of the 12 districts and puts them into a fight-to-the-death match in the woods, one watched like a reality show by every resident. The districts are supposed to cheer for their representatives and hope that one of their selected teens will be the one person who prevails.

So amidst dazzling pageantry, media glitz and public hysteria, these 24 kids — who would otherwise be living normal lives — are sent to kill each other without mercy in a bloody zero-sum game. They are first transported to the opulent capitol city and wined, dined, and trained. Then the games begin.

At the very outset, many are killed on the spot in the struggle to grab weapons from a stockpile. From there, coalitions form among the groups, however temporary they may be. Everyone knows there can only be one winner in the end, but alliances — formed on the basis of class, race, personality, etc. — can provide a temporary level of protection.

Watching all this take place is harrowing to say the least, but the public in the movie does watch as a type of reality television. This is the ultimate dog-eat-dog setting, in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” in the words of Thomas Hobbes. But it is also part of a game the kids are forced to play. This is not a state of nature. In real life, they wouldn’t have the need to kill or be killed. They wouldn’t see each other as enemies. They wouldn’t form into evolving factions for self-protection.

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The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I started the 11-hour Audible.com audiobook of The Hunger Games, by all-time bestselling Kindle author Suzanne Collins, in the evening. Eight hours later, I finally summoned one small spark of the courage of its heroine, 16-year-old black-market hunter-gatherer Katniss Everdeen, and touched a half-frozen, bloody, mud-encrusted finger to my iPhone’s STOP button even though three hours remained. As soon as I awoke a few hours later, I checked the condition of my burns and cuts and was surprised to find that they had healed. No, that wasn’t it; those things had only happened to characters in a book.

The Hunger Games film-release buzz intrigued me enough to dive into the book before visiting the theater. I had previously only heard superficial mentions of a dark, brutal story and did not become interested until some of the advance film reviews suggested that the story might actually convey significant and thoughtful content in an action package. It does.

This is a fresh addition to the list of classic dystopian dramatic critiques of the state that work by showing what the state does to society and human beings in a magnified, allegorical form. The author’s choice of a close first-person voice and sympathetic main character transform the central state’s artificial battle game show into a very human landscape in the context of a post-apocalyptic North America. The nature of zero-sum game-making is revealed through a specific set of living eyes.

The Hunger Games are staged annually as an ongoing punishment for a failed rebellion against the center decades earlier. The center wants the 12 peripheral districts, each also kept isolated from the others, to always remember their subservient status and the futility of resistance. Twenty-four “tributes” between the ages of 12 and 18, one male and one female from each of the districts are selected by a lottery called “the reaping” and travel by luxury express train to the glorious and wealthy “Capitol” to compete in a gladiatorial survival reality TV marathon that the entire nation watches like the Olympics.

Instead of winning on points or being voted off, contestants are to live off the land and kill each other any way they can in a struggle to be the last one alive as days of combat, evasion, and nature survival stretch out before the cameras. Only one can live, winning a year of bonus rations for their home district and personal survival, a generous lifetime income, and celebrity status. Those selected are trained, groomed, costumed, and interviewed before the games. Viewer betting is intense, and sponsors can, at great expense, send players they favor well-timed small gift aid items by precision micro-parachute drop during the games. This makes it helpful for players to make a good impression on potential sponsors before the games even begin, incentivizing them to participate in staged pre-game pageantry.

This Year’s Games

Katniss has been a part-time hunter and gatherer from early childhood. In a starving coal district, she became the sole provider for her unstable mother and younger sister after her father’s death in a mine explosion. She supports her family by recalling her father’s lessons and becoming an illegal hunter in the forest outside the dilapidated District-12 security fence. Officials avoid arresting or shooting her or Gale, her hunting partner, because the officials themselves enjoy buying wild game, vegetables, berries, and herbal products from them.

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