Review of 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 a system 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. In 4907 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.

West offers few details of how Krotus 1 assumed control of the vast portion of space then occupied by the human race. 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.