Prometheus West's "Portraits of Power"
Copyright Richard Schwartz, 2001
Few people, unfortunately, will read the book
under review beyond its bombastic and, frankly,
insane introduction. In his introduction,
Prometheus West claims to have visited the
year 10000 A.D. He claims that his work was
initially written in a language called
``Egg 4'', which (according to West) is really more of
for engraving thoughts into cubes of topaz
than it is a written language.
The author claims that his work is a kind of
galactic extrapolation of Machiavelli's
``The Prince'', but this is not so at all;
West's book concerns the
description of power, whereas
Machiavelli's work concerns mainly the
retention of power.
At any rate, the reader who forges on beyond
the introduction is in for a subtle and
frequently dazzling description of power.
West states at the outset that he does not care
about Machiavelli's petty Italian princes,
struggling for control of a few miles of
territory. He does not care about prime
ministers, or presidents, or even the
great Roman emperors. He has bigger fish
to fry. Alexander the Great, Attila the
Hun, Napoleon$-$these characters hardly
make it onto West's radar. West is not
concerned with the power that has been
but rather with the power that (according
to West) will be.
He claims that his
is primarily a work of history, though
the skeptical reader must regard it as
a work of pure speculation.
Surprisingly, the author begins his treatise
with a history of counting. Several chapters
are devoted to this discussion but perhaps we can
summarize the main point in a few paragraphs. Primitive
people only needed to know fairly small numbers.
Perhaps they had to barter goods in small
quantities or keep track of their animals.
Accordingly they invented special names for
the first few numbers: one, two, three, etc.
As human society grew in sophistication,
people needed more systematic methods for
keeping track of numbers. Eventually the
decimal system was invented, allowing
people to speak, in principle, about numbers
of arbitrarily large size.
For West, the relevant feature of an advanced
system of counting is that the large numbers are
referred to only indirectly, in terms of
smaller numbers. Thus, a million is a
thousand thousands and a billion is a
thousand millions. The numbers are like rungs of
a ladder which reaches up into the stars
but, linguistically speaking, the ladder must constantly
fold back on itself, so that the higher
rungs can refer to the lower ones.
West argues that the power we have seen so far
(meaning, by the early twenty-first century)
has been of a very primitive sort. The power
of Augustus, say, was so limited
that it can be described directly, without
reference to simpler notions.
Thus, Augustus had so many
men in his army; he controlled so many
square miles of territory; he had so many
slaves working at the palace; and so on.
The power of Augustus
rated as a seven, say. You could count
it on your fingers, so to speak, in the same way you
might count oxen.
By contrast, West recalls (if we may be permitted to
use his phrasing of things) the meteoric rise of
Li Qan, who first became known to Earth on
15 June 2751. At the time the Earth was unified
under the treaty of 2401, and ruled by a small
council of ``administrators''. The primary administrator
was Warbuck 5, who governed the Northern
Hemisphere. Warbuck 5 was
in possession of the Atomizer, a weapon which
could instantly destroy a land mass three times
the size of the United States. There was no
need for armies, for the power of the administrators,
backed by the threat of the Atomizer,
was beyond challenges of any sort.
Li Qan was born in what is now southern Alaska on
15 June 2721, though
nothing else is known of his origins. Ten years
after his birth it was rumored that a ten year
old boy had willed that
the colors red and blue would be interchanged, so that
what was formerly seen as red was now seen as
blue, and vice versa. This incomprehensible rumor
was neither confirmed nor explained, though several
weeks later new rumors circulated that the colors
had been returned to their original status.
Nothing more was heard for 20 years, until
Li Qan entered the political arena on
15 June 2751. Witnesses said that essentially
nothing transpired. One minute Li Qan appeared
and voiced his wish to rule the planet; the
next minute Warbuck 5 abnegated his position and
handed him the controls of the Atomizer.
(Having no use whatsoever for the Atomizer, Li
Qan immediately destroyed it.)
Given the limitations of space which constrain this
review we will not dwell on West's account of
Li Qan's benevolent but absolute fifty year reign. (To summarize
quickly, no political events transpired
during the fifty years; but at the end, certain
features of human thought had been altered in
such a way as to produce a more harmonious society.)
The point West makes is that Li Qan's
power cannot be figured directly. We can say
only that it instantly
dominated Warbuck 5 and the Atomizer.
According to West, the great Li Qan was the
forerunner of a new strain of human being, a
kind of mutation which became dominant
only several hundred years after its first
appearance. West takes nine chapters
to explain the differences between the
new strain and the old, but frankly this reviewer
found most of the account incomprehensible.
The cryptic claims such as ``It became
possible to shorten the distances between
points in space'', unfortunately, did not
have their intended effect, whatever effect
may have been intended. The exposition here
would have profited enormously from specific
examples. In the end, it seemed to this
reviewer that West was trying to say that
the new strain of
human beings was identical to the old
strain, but the surrounding universe
had changed so as to be an easier
place to live in.
West tells us that,
by 4500 A.D., the hundred light year neighborhood
of the Earth had been carved up into numerous
``sectors'', each of which was ``managed'' by a
single ruler. West describes the method of
governing as one of ``axiomatic rule''.
By this he means that the code of laws
put forth by the rulers was such that it
could not be disobeyed, in the same way that
a law of arithmetic could not be disobeyed.
At the same time, the code of laws was
just as natural as the laws of arithmetic,
so that obedience was effortless.
West again points out the impossibility of
describing the power of the Sector Managers,
though (in keeping with his central thesis)
he does give an indirect comparison.
Another feature of the new strain of
humans was that their strength grew exponentially,
rather than linearly, in their numbers. Thus,
an ``army'' of thirty was thousands of times
as strong as a single person.
a renegade army of 1000
attemped to sabotage part of Sector 19443B.
No details survive the attempt, except
the duration: It lasted 4 seconds. Following
this 4 second interval of ``confusion'',
the army of 1000 vanished without a trace.
West describes the steady growth of the human
race through the fifth and sixth millenia.
New mutations and machines arose, territories
expanded dramatically, and individual Sector
Managers merged into shadow-like conglomerates
which controlled vast territories of space.
Aside from these changes, West recounts,
nothing of any consequence happened
for several thousand years until the
advent of Krotus 1.
From the book under review, the physical attributes
of Krotus 1 are impossible to ascertain. He is
described, alternatively, as ``cubical'' and
``featureless''. No accounts of his size, for
example, are given. He might have been the
size of a sugar cube and he might have been
the size of a solar system. It is not made
clear, for instance, if he had moving parts
or if he reflected radiation of any kind.
few details of how Krotus 1 assumed control
of the vast portion of space then occupied by the
He says only that the Sector Conglomerates
were universally aligned against him but
that this alliance was ``crushed'' the
instant Krotus 1 desired it.
Neither does he offer an account of the new
method or rule.
He says, simply, that Krotus 1 no longer
desired axiomatic law to
be the method of governance. The replacement
for axiomatic law is not explained.
West suggests, however, that the replacement
was indistinguishable from axiomatic law.
Crowding out this complete lack of factual
information is a wealth of speculation on the
agenda of Krotus 1. West explains that he
was neither good nor evil, that indeed these
terms had no meaning to Krotus 1. He was
simply ``a force for change''. Amazingly, the
changes he effected were, at the same time,
completely fundamental and completely
undetectable. In the end, West concludes that
Krotus 1 had a predilection for ``symmetry'',
and that all his changes were designed to make
things more symmetric.
We shall not chronicle, with West, the rise of Krotus 2,
Krotus 3, and so on. According to West,
Krotus 2 was really the same being as Krotus 1,
though improved in a way only comprehensible
to Krotus 2. The same goes for Krotus 3,
and so forth. West ends his amazing chronicle
with the rise of Krotus 14, leaving us to
draw our own conclusions.