One of the biggest cock-ups science fiction and fantasy writers make is to imbue heroes or villains with too much power. Whether that happens to be a magic sword, ring, psionic ability or a ‘technology indistinguishable from magic’, is immaterial, because once the hero or villain can effortlessly make mincemeat of his or her enemies you start to lose the conflict a story requires. You also find yourself struggling to bring said story to a satisfying conclusion which is why, in science fiction, when that happens you often find the deus ex machine dropping down on its platform to wrap things up.
When Maxim invented the machine-gun he didn’t suddenly turn him into a world-conquering superman, because it was made by Vickers, and sold. Maybe, for a short time there was an imbalance while some armed forces possessed this weapon while others didn’t, but it was soon restored. When Oppenheimer had his momentary god-complex and considered himself a ‘destroyer of worlds’ it wasn’t long before that technology arrived at the Kremlin and a precarious balance was restored. And now that same technology is spreading amidst other nations and may even fall into the hands of individuals.
Technology, in the end, can be a source of power, of individuals over others, of groups of people over others of nation over nation or any combination of all, including nation over individual. But technology isn’t a ring of power that can only be fashioned by a dark lord. If one person, group or nation can make something, then another can, or they can copy of steal it. The power can always be balanced or undermined and often inevitably is.
The thing about power is that, in one form or another, there’s always some kryptonite lying around. The thing about technological power is that there’s always a chance someone else might get hold of the control levers. And in the world of The Departure that someone might just be Alan Saul, and he might well be able to speak Oppenheimer’s words with more veracity.
If a restoration of balance doesn’t kill him.
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Neal Asher's The Departure is book one in the Owner series and Zero Point, book two in the sequence is published this month in hardback by Tor UK.