In the greenhouse

The greenhouse was vast, so vast it was easy to forget that it was aboard a spaceship. It was also very warm and humid. Since Neenan was feeling so much better, Opel had brought her along to do a shift planting seedlings. The work consisted discarding the seedlings that were clearly dead or dying, removing weeds from soil beds, and planting out the seedlings.

“Why did you bring weeds with you?” Neenan asked, while pulling up some stray greenery.

“That wasn’t deliberate, I can assure you” Opel replied, “we probably brought some insects with us as well. It’s hard to move a large greenhouse and thousands of kilograms of soil without also bringing some other things along with it.”

Neenan held out a gloved fist-full of bristling green plant-life for the older woman to examine. “Is this stuff weeds?”

“Ah, those are,” Opel replied, pointing. At Neenan’s perplexed frown she asked: “You really can’t tell them apart?”

“All this stuff just looks like plants to me,” Neenan said grumpily. “I guess I thought Nahilander technology would be more… high-tech.”

That made Opel smile. “High tech?” she asked rhetorically. “Our technology is ahead of most other civilizations we’ve encountered, but we can’t eat spaceships or computers. And we’ve only ever found one way to grow food. Or perhaps you were referring to our finely-crafted traditional Nahilandian hole-punchers?

The hole-punchers were battered, ancient plastic trays, bristling with finger-length protrusions, that fit exactly over the seed-bed containers. Once a bed had been cleared of weeds and the soil raked, the tray was pushed down onto the bed and then lifted, leaving precisely-spaced holes for the seedlings to be dropped into.

Neenan found the whole situation bemusing, and slightly surreal. “I can’t understand why you all take turns at doing this,” she said a minute later, “I’m not complaining, it just seems really inefficient.”

“Inefficient?” Opel asked, “how so?”

“Everything about this is inefficient!” Neenan exclaimed. Opel looked at her blankly.

“Shifts only last two-and-a-half hours, right? And when we got here, we spent the first twenty minutes just saying hi to people, and getting the people from the last shift to show us what to do.”

“Well sure,” Opel agreed.

Neenan continued: “And, do you remember when I asked that man earlier why you don’t water the plants less when they’re smaller but turn the sprinklers up for the bigger ones that need it more? He said that with so many people working just a couple of shifts a week it’s really hard to change anything, because it would take forever to train everyone.”

“Sure,” Opel said again, “it would be a nightmare to get everyone in one place at the same time. I suppose you could do the re-training in small groups, but that would be even more complicated to organise. Sometimes it’s better to just keep things simple.”

“But if you had just a few people working full-time, training wouldn’t be such a problem. It would be more efficient,” Neenan said.

“Ah, I think I understand what you’re saying,” Opel surmised, “you mean it would be more efficient at planting seedlings.”

“Isn’t that the point?” Neenan asked.

Opel burst out laughing.

“Did I say something funny?” Neenan asked in annoyance.

Opel howled with laughter, tried to calm herself, and then laughed even harder, to Neenan’s total lack of amusement.

“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t laugh,” she said finally. She let out a few more chuckles, and said: “I should thank you Neenan, you’re helping me understand how the people from Florence think. You really do consider things separately. One thing at a time, every individual task done perfectly for its own sake. I appreciate it very much.”

“I don’t understand what’s funny,” Neenan said resentfully.

“Oh, your question, what’s the point? For a Nahilander that’s a very odd question to ask. I mean, what’s the point of anything? To be happy, to have a nice life. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, surely? The point is always the same, for us anyway. When you said the point was to plant seedlings – it sounded to me like you were declaring a sort of vocation. Like you had discovered the true purpose of life was to plant seedlings. Like you planned to go to a monastery and devote the rest of your life to the contemplation of seedlings.”

“The point of planting seedlings is to plant seedlings,” Neenan said stubbornly, “so later you can have fruit. That’s the point. So you should try to do it more efficiently.”

Opel shook her head, still chuckling. “That almost seems to make sense, the way you say it,” she said, “but no-one would want to do the work you speak of, just planting all the time. Of course we have the robots do as much as possible, but there are some tasks only a human can do. Seriously Neenan, if you have a group of people who want to eat delicious fruit and who also want to spend as little time as possible doing boring repetitive work, our way really is the most efficient. You don’t agree?”

Neenan was unconvinced. “Maybe that works in Nahiland,” she said dubiously. “It would never work in Florence though.”

“You don’t speak much of your homeworld,” Opel pointed out, “I’d love to hear more about it.”

“Florence is pretty boring to be honest,” Neenan said.

“Every place seems boring, to the people who come from there,” Opel replied.