By Steve Beck
North America, circa 2035, is a dangerous blend of high technology and rampant barbarism. But isn't this a contradiction? How can factories churn out cars, computers, and advanced weaponry while governments are still struggling to impose law and order?
Herb Helzer, in a letter appearing in ADQ 3/3, argues strongly that you can't have it both ways. Yet this, he believes, is exactly what Car Wars is trying to do. The Food Riots ended nearly two decades ago, and the reemergence of heavy industry suggests that North America's recovery is just about complete. If society were that prosperous, Mr. Helzer argues, then two fundamental elements of this future world - death sports, and marauding gangs of outlaw bikers - could not exist. Society would be too "civilized" to tolerate the one, and too powerful to tolerate the other. Thus, he concludes, the world of Car Wars is illogical and absurd.
Mr. Helzer's view is controversial, but thoughtful. It deserves a thoughtful answer.
A little thought and research will reveal that Mr. Helzer's arguments are built upon a faulty premise. He has assumed that, in 2035, the rebuilding of the world is further along than it really is.
Consider the "true" pattern of North America's economic and political recovery. Most of the fat corporate dinosaurs of the Age of Prosperity were wiped out in the worldwide economic collapse, but technological know-how survived. After things settled down a bit, leaner businesses expanded into the empty niches of a restructured economy. These new corporations are probably run more efficiently than their predecessors were (The recovery of German and Japanese industries after their partial destruction in World War II followed a similar pattern). It is again possible for businessmen to make money - in some cases, lots of money.
But for many, living standards remain quite low. Remember that the recovery of North America is not uniform in any sense. The most civilized areas appear to be the northeastern U.S., the Free Oil States, Canada, parts of the West Coast, and maybe Quebec and the Dessert Autonomous Region. Even in these areas, not all sectors of the economy are in good shape.
To an affluent 20th-century American, it might appear that the mere existence of heavy industry, sophisticated technology, and the mining and manufacturing industries needed to support them implies a uniformly healthy economy. Not so. Consider the economy of the 1980s Soviet Union. This supports a vigorous space program, a formidable military force, and advanced fusion research, yet at the same time has trouble supplying the Soviet citizen with shoes and toilet paper.
The Soviet economy is shaped by the priorities of the state; a free-market economy is shaped by the priorities of the consumer. In 2035 North America, high-priority "necessities" include food, electricity, a TV for low-budget entertainment (even the Waltons had their radio), arms for self-defense, and maybe a vehicle for personal transportation. "Luxuries" that relatively few people can afford might include air conditioning and genuine beef hamburger.
Cloning technology is a special case. Like elective plastic surgery in 1985, most people can't afford it, but those who can will consider it a "necessity" and pay a fortune for it. So Gold Cross makes enough of a profit to stay in business.
What money is around, therefore, is channeled into those industries that supply "necessities," but overall industrial output, and per capita income, are probably less in 2035 than they were at the close of the 20th century.
Mr. Helzer's mistake is that he tried to extrapolate the entire 2035 economy using ADQ as his only source. He failed to realize that the successful autoduellist, to whom ADQ's ads and articles are geared, has a bit more wealth than the average citizen (though most of it is tied up in vehicle, equipment, and maintenance costs). If Mr. Helzer had also read Hovel and Garden or Pedestrian's World, he would have had a clearer view.
Economic conditions in North America have strongly affected its political recovery, and vice versa. In most areas, elaborate schemes for redistributing income are among the "luxuries" that have been abandoned; the Car Wars era is one of independence and self-reliance, of "every man for himself." Federal taxes are difficult to collect. Doubtless many Americans have scored on the whole idea of supporting a large central government, given its demonstrated inability to either promote prosperity or ensure domestic tranquillity.
The Car Wars era has been compared to the Old American West. In many ways, it's more like the Middle Ages. Central authority has broken down, as with the fall of Rome - although Washington, D.C., is making a limited comeback (shades of Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire). Some areas are governed well, and others are governed hardly at all.
Again, we have an age of painful recovery, with "kings" trying to keep the local barons in line, merchants trying to restore trade, large numbers of struggling peasants, and heroes with armored steeds and shiny weapons.
Would death sports be eliminated as society began to rebuild itself? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Mr. Helzer contends that only a civilization in decline would tolerate such violent entertainment. But look at the enduring popularity of bullfighting in the Spanish cultures ever since the 13th century. And mortal duelling between gentlemen, while not precisely a sport, was "acceptable" in many Western cultures until the end of the 18th century.
As support for his position, Mr. Helzer asserts that the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome "thrived" only during Rome's decline. The study of the rise and fall of these games, however, suggests that this is not entirely true.
Gladiatorial combat sprang from an old Etruscan custom of staging fights between slaves as a funeral rite. It was introduced to Rome in 264 B.C., at the funeral of Brutus Pera, and was soon adapted as a form of entertainment. These combats were immensely popular even before Rome rose to glory under Augustus, who became emperor in 27 B.C.
After the Empire began to break up, Constantine the Great prohibited gladiatorial combats in A.D. 325, but his decree was upheld only in the Eastern realm. Credit for abolishing the combats in Western Europe is often given to Flavius Honorius and his decree of A.D. 404. But Honorius was a weak emperor, and gladiatorial battles are thought to have survived his rule, persisting even after the last emperor of Rome, Romulus Augustulus, was overthrown in A.D. 476. According to this view, it was Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, the first great European king to rise in the wake of Rome, who finally put an end to the combats around A.D. 500.
Was the popularity of these battles really so closely linked to the ups and downs of the Roman state? It seems they were affected more by the rising influence of Christianity. Constantine was the first Christian emperor; Honorius's decree was supposedly prompted by outrage over the martyrdom of Telemachus, a monk who heroically intervened in a gladiatorial combat and was stoned by the annoyed crowd; and Theodoric and his people were Christians of the Arian sect. Obviously, lethal games were not as popular among the devout - especially considering the role early Christians played in them.
In the Middle Ages, the Catholic, or "universal," Church enforced its moral standards throughout most of Western Europe, and was powerful enough to forbid warfare on holy days. In 2035 North America, there is no comparable institution. Over the next hundred years, perhaps, some vigorous sect with peace-loving ideals may expand across the continent to fill that role (The Mormon Church seems a likely candidate, with longer odds on the Zen Baptists or the Disciples of Beaver Cleaver). But current conditions are similar to those between the fall of Rome and A.D. 500. Violence is already being restricted in the more "civilized" areas, but blood sports are still to popular to be banned entirely.
A common argument in favor of autoduelling and other blood sports is that they provide violently entertaining spectacles for the unhappy masses, who might otherwise go out and create their own.
Blood sports are also an important means of economic mobility. How else can a kid with wits, guts, fast reflexes and damn little else find a way to fill his pockets? Instead of becoming a criminal, he can enter Amateur Night at the local autoduel arena. Those who try to make a living and fail get themselves killed in the process, freeing society of any obligation to support them. Those who succeed can attain uncommon riches and glory - incentive enough for many to take that risk.
Also, with reduced tax revenues, few governments can afford large standing armies or police forces. The existence of blood sports provides society with a class of (generally) law-abiding and competent warriors who are neither trained nor supported at government expense, but are available as mercenaries or minutemen in times of crisis.
For the days of the roving bandit gangs are still very much with us. As in the Middle Ages, even when life in town is relatively quiet, travel between towns can be fraught with peril. There is still plenty of lawless land where the bandits lurk.
These bandits survive in the wilderness much the same as bandits have throughout history. They have their hide-out in the hills (or in the abandoned cities), with lookouts posted and traps for intruders. For basic needs like food, sex, petty cash or replacement parts for their vehicles, they roll into poorer, lightly defended communities and take what they need through force or intimidation.
Bikers will not be "shot on sight," because not all bikers are outlaws. Some are harmless vagabonds, taking odd jobs here and there when they need money for beer and other expenses. Some bikers are even "good guys," like the chivalrous Paladins. So even bandits can go quietly into a town where they are unknown in order to sell parts salvaged from "abandoned" wrecks and buy things they can't steal.
Few bandits are rich, but many are comfortable enough. Contrary to what Mr. Helzer apparently assumes, a heavily armed autoduellist or trucker is not their typical prey. These are avoided under normal circumstances (although abnormal circumstances are certainly possible).
A more common target might be a family traveling to another town to look for jobs. Example: Abandoning their bleak prospects in Snorkle Corners, Ma and Pa and Betty and Bob have loaded all their most prized possessions into their '23 Fnord sedan and set off to find the Promised Land. What they couldn't carry they sold, and the cash is stashed in the glove compartment...
Bigger prizes are available to the larger bike gangs. Even a trucker might not be safe from them, especially if his company is trying to boost profits by cutting corners on vehicular weaponry and armor. In some cases, an overwhelming show of force might be enough to convince victims to surrender while their vehicles and cargo are still intact, in exchange for their lives and the opportunity to walk to the nearest town. Of course, such a large and successful gang would draw a lot of attention to itself, and would have to relocate often (see Larry Sewell's "Bikers Are People, Too" in ADQ 3/2 for other aspects of biker banditry).
The outlaws don't always have to pick a fight in order to earn a living. Smuggling is a worthwhile option for talented bikers who would rather skulk than shoot.
The truth is that, in a well-managed campaign, outlaw bikers can be more than easy kills for player characters. At the very least, they can be interesting troublemakers, and the world of Car Wars would be much less colorful without them.
Admittedly, North America, with its telecommunications system, and other technologies both existing and dormant, will recover much more rapidly than medieval Europe did. And in only a few decades, perhaps, highway duels and biker gangs will be suppressed, and surviving blood sports confined to a diminishing number of arenas. Perhaps. But a mere 18 years since the Food Riots isn't long enough to restore a world. Rome wasn't built in a day.