…being the worldwide travels of R. Duane Gullible, a wide-eyed seeker of scientific truth and technology prowess
Our last account chronicled Gullible’s travel to the Slobbovian capital and his delighted, but alarmed, reactions to some of their latest technologies. In this issue, Gullible travels to formerly secret sites in the hinterlands, now open for business with the West.
My first impression of the Slobbovian capital was that it was cold, gray, and dark, with no neon lights to lighten the mood. The whole city looked like the grim post-industrial districts of Western cities that had lost all their manufacturing jobs. The streets were covered with snow and mud, because dirt was spread on the ice to keep the pedestrians upright. There were many construction projects, but most seemed to be abandoned. I asked Igor, “Why are those apartment buildings crumbling, even before they’re completed?” He said that it was because crooked builders mostly used sand, instead of cement, in the concrete. But inside once you took your muddy boots off, there was a delightful, colorful world of concerts, ballets, operas, theatres–because the Slobbovian state subsidized the arts as much as the sciences.
And what about that science establishment? I got a briefing from an actual government Minister (they had many) on their pride and joy. In the West, if you had a modicum of sense, you could get a Ph.D. But that was just the beginning in Slobbovia. Their science establishment was so enormous (they had more engineers than the rest of the world put together) that they needed additional layers in the S&T hierarchy. There, after getting your Ph.D., if you worked hard and smart for ten years, and joined the right party (easy since there was only one), you got your real Sc.D degree. And that was still not the top layer. The best of the best, and those with the best connections, went on to become an Academician. At this point you could finally say that you had arrived as a scientist or engineer, just in time for retirement.
In the capital, I was taken to see to the world’s longest continuously operating nuclear reactor, located underground, but surprisingly near the apartment blocks housing the nuclear research workers and everyone else. They had cleverly disguised its entrance as an outhouse, little realizing that Western photoanalysts would not know what one was. I also toured the house of their great scientist who eliminated the West’s lead by making the first Slobbovian A-bomb. To me it was telling that their highest reward was to give him a house built before the Slobbovian Revolution.
In the interests of my longevity, I decided to forgo any more trips on Air Slobbovia. Besides, as a rail buff, I had heard that their trains were unsurpassed. The country was so vast, however, that trips were measured in days, not hours. But the scenery was spectacular; countless firs looked like Christmas trees with their real frost, ice, and snow decorations for much of the year. Foreigners paid more, but even so, the overnight rate in a luxurious two-person compartment cruising along at a stately 100 km/hr was less than a stationary Motel 6 at home. On my first trip I discovered that these compartments were not segregated by gender, either. As I was unpacking my toothbrush, a beautiful Slobbovian girl came in and took the other bunk. This could be an interesting, trip, I thought, but a helpful Western woman happened to pass by the open door with her husband. “This will never do! she exclaimed, “George, you stay with Dr. Gullible, and this innocent young woman can sleep with me.”
Next morning I woke with a caffeine withdrawal headache, since I had not found the samovar with the hot tea. As soon as we stopped, I sought my coffee fix at a cafe that showed signs of opening soon, because there was a long line of young men waiting outside. I joined the queue, which soon stampeded into the cafe. Each of the men quickly ordered a half liter of vodka, cheaper than water, which they gulped down before my coffee had brewed. To each his own addiction, I mused.
Later that morning, I was taken to one of Slobbovia’s most advanced nuclear power plants to see the latest RBMK technology. The chief engineer was busy with an experiment they planned to run that night, but he was gracious enough to show me around. He was particularly proud of all the safety interlocks built into the system. I noticed though, that all these were covered with red signs with strange characters and lots of exclamation points. I asked Igor to translate, and he said the writing warned that the interlocks were all disabled. At the closing briefing, over generous vodka and zakuski, I had a chance to ask the chief about these. He said, “Not to worry, we’re just going to run the reactor at a very low power level to see if it can still generate enough power to operate the cooling pumps.” I said, “Isn’t the RBMK unstable at low levels?” He brushed this off with a joke, “Have you heard the one about the airliner that became unstable and crashed on its approach to Warsaw? To see their capital, the Poles had rushed to the right half of the plane.” On our way back to the regional capital nearby, Igor said, “I didn’t get the joke.” “Don’t worry, Igor, it’s just an engineer’s in-joke, but the sooner we get away from here, the better I’ll feel,” I said.
… to be continued
R. D. Shelton