The Spaceship Exercise

When I was in third grade, circa 1981, our teacher asked us to do a role-playing exercise. First, we split up into groups of five or six. Then we each picked a profession and wrote it down on a piece of paper. At that point, the teacher announced that we were to pretend that each of our groups was crewing a spaceship. We were headed to colonize a new planet, but there had been an accident, and we had lost one of the ship's oxygen tanks. Now, we only had enough oxygen to get three of us to the new planet. We would have to vote on which three of us would survive, based on the professions we had chosen. We were not permitted to vote for ourselves.

The point of the exercise was to show us which professions were actually "survival" professions that would enable a new society to withstand the hardships of primitive life. Doctors, carpenters, botanists, or soldiers would have a better chance of staying on the spaceship. Computer specialists, models, and stockbrokers might be ejected from the airlock. The game led to interesting discussions, because we all had to argue for the usefulness of our own chosen professions.

That day in third grade made a deep impression on me. When I read time-travel novels, I always think of that game, and how very few of us twenty-first century folk have skills that would make us valuable in a primitive, non-technological culture. The novel I just read features a nurse who travels back in time to the seventeenth century. Her medical knowledge gives her status in the community. Without that healing ability, she would be little more than a slave.

If I catapulted myself back in time several hundred years, what value would my skills hold? Or how about this -- what if we were to experience one of the apocalyptic scenarios that turns twenty-first century America into a primitive land without electricity or organized government? Would my profession (professional writer and teacher) have a place in our new tribal world?

In non-technological cultures, storytellers had a place. But there were very few of them; no society could afford to support a horde of professional scribblers when there was game to be hunted and corn to be harvested. In our new post-apocalyptic America, thousands of former writers would be battling it out to take one of only a few positions as a tribal Bard. A few of us might eke out a subsistence living as teachers of the young. For the most part, though, writers would be casualties of the apocalypse; we would have to return to combat, manual labor or childraising to earn a place in the tribe. At night, we would crash into our sleeping furs, exhausted from a day of woodgathering and berry-picking. Only then would we dream the stories that we had no time to write down.