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SF, big ideas, ideology: what is to be done?

A week or so back I was kindly invited to contribute to an SF Signal mind-meld discussion around the question:

Are SF writers "slacking off" or is science fiction still the genre of "big ideas"? If so, what authors are supplying these ideas for the next generation of scientists and engineers?
After thinking about that for a while, I came up with a short essay which you can find below the cut (tidied up a little to remove some annoying snags from the original) ...

This question relies on so many implicit underlying assumptions that I feel some dissection is in order before I can try to answer it.

The first unquestioned assumption is the post-18th century Enlightenment concept of progress. This, if anything, is the ideological bedrock underlying "ideas" SF — that Things Can Get Better. Historically, almost all civilisations prior to the Enlightenment ran on the mythology of a distant golden age in the past, which bequeathed us a bunch of moral precepts and firm knowledge about how the world works which we poor degenerates living in the debased relics of a higher civilisation should turn to for guidance. The very concept that we are actually discovering how the universe works, and improving our lives, was a revolutionary rupture with the past — and one that took a long time to sprout any kind of literary or artistic shoots.

The second assumption is that science fiction has ever primarily been a genre of big ideas. I'm not at all sure that this is the case. Certainly fiction with big ideas has found a home within SF, but that's not the same thing at all! For almost all of its history, most SF has been pulp adventure fiction, conceived and written as escapism — lest we forget, Damon Knight's original characterisation of space opera as horse opera (the Western) with blasters instead of six-guns and space ships instead of horses still holds water. The big ideas are, if anything, secondary, not to mention exhibiting a tendency to date badly and carry sinister ideological overtones (as William Gibson so brilliantly skewered in his short story "The Gernsback Continuum").

Calls for more big ideas in SF are generally a political cri de coeur. We might equally imagine a similar essay in the context of mid-sixties Soviet fiction, calling for more fiction about tractors and breakthroughs in agricultural genomics. Whether earnest depictions of young people in space suits wrangling asteroids and bringing home the carbonaceous chondrites actually make sense is another matter entirely; I'm inclined to think that it's a rather implausible future, unless the earnest young people are robots. Tinned apes don't survive exposure to vacuum and cosmic radiation very well, after all.

But. I have my nagging doubts. Because, despite my cynical pose, I am more than a little sympathetic to Stephenson's project, because I share his axiomatic belief in the loose constellation of post-Enlightenment values that brought us this idea of progress and constant improvement. If only because when you stop moving you're dead, and reverting to a late palaeolithic lifestyle looks like it would be a drag, and that's the most likely alternative long-term future for our species if we burn all the coal and oil, wreck the climate, and turn our back on the Enlightenment's ideological values.

In recent decades SF has been spinning its wheels. In fact, in the past 30 years the only truly challenging new concepts to come along were cyberpunk and the singularity. Both of which amount to different attempts within the genre to accommodate the first-order implications of computers and networking as the defining technology of the near future (as opposed to rockets! for! everyone! a la "Space Family Stone") — cyberpunk was the sociological/post new wave SF modelling of a future derived from the 1970s and 1980s weltanschauung, and the singularity was the chew-toy of those members of the hard SF brigade who actually understood computers. There were other movements, true, and possibly more visible to onlookers; urban fantasy and its hybrid offspring (by way of genre romance) the paranormal romance: steampunk (both first, second, and the current third wave varieties): and a huge bloom in alternate history/counterfactuals as much of the rigorous world-building effort that had formerly gone into the near-future space SF field turned sideways and looked for other outlets. But none of these seem to engage with the future in the way hard SF supposedly did in the 1940s to 1960s. What we call "hard SF" today mostly isn't hard, and isn't SF: it's fantasy with nanotech replicators instead of pixie dust and spaceships instead of dragons. Explorations of Singularity teeter dangerously on the precipice of a tumble into Christian apocalyptic eschatology, and in any event beg far too many questions about the nature of intelligence to make a convincing stab at artificial intelligence.

In fact, those people who are doing the "big visionary ideas about the future" SF are mostly doing so in a vacuum of critical appreciation. Greg Egan's wonderful clockwork constructions out of the raw stuff of quantum mechanics, visualising entirely different types of universe, fall on the deaf ears of critics who are looking for depth of characterisation, and don't realize that in his SF the structure of the universe is the character. On Hannu Rajaniemi's brilliant "The Quantum Thief" — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society. (That's a huge idea, but none of the reviewers even noticed it!) And there, over in a corner, is Bruce Sterling, blazing a lonely pioneering trail into the future. Chairman Bruce played out cyberpunk before most of us ever heard of it, invented the New Space Opera in "Schismatrix" (which looked as if nobody appreciated it for a couple of decades), co-wrote the most interesting hard-SF steampunk novel of all, and got into global climate change in the early 90s. He's currently about ten years ahead of the curve. If SF was about big innovative visions, he'd need to build an extension to house all his Hugo awards.

So what's at the root of this problem? Why are the innovative and rigorously extrapolated visions of the future so thin on the ground and so comprehensively ignored?

I'd put it down to us mistaking Sense of Wonder for Innovation. We used to read SF to get the heady high of a big vision, the "eyeball kick" as Rudy Rucker describes it, of seeing something brain-warpingly different and new for the first time. But today you don't need to read SF to get a sense of wonder high: you can just browse "New Scientist". We're living in the frickin' 21st century. Killer robot drones are assassinating people in the hills of Afghanistan. Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%. There are space probes in orbit around Saturn and en route to Pluto. Surgeons are carrying out face transplants. I have more computing power and data storage in my office than probably the entire world had in 1980. (Definitely than in 1970.) We're carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn't a 1980s cyberpunk vision that's imploded into the present, warts and all, I don't know what is. Seriously: to the extent that mainstream literary fiction is about the perfect microscopic anatomization of everyday mundane life, a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF.

We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don't much like it. And so we retreat into the comfort zones of brass goggles and zeppelins (hey, weren't airships big in the 1910s-1930s? Why, then, are they such a powerful signifier for Victorian-era alternate fictions?), of sexy vampire-run nightclubs and starship-riding knights-errant. Opening the pages of a modern near-future SF novel now invites a neck-chillingly cold draft of wind from the world we're trying to escape, rather than a warm narcotic vision of a better place and time.

And so I conclude: we will not inspire anyone with grand visions of a viable future through the medium of escapism. If we want to write inspirational literature with grand visions we need to dive into to the literary mainstream (which is finally rediscovering fabulism) and, adding a light admixture of Enlightenment ideology along the way, start writing the equivalent of those earnest and plausible hyper-realistic tales of Progress through cotton-planting on the shores of the Aral sea.

But do you really want us to do that? I don't think so. In fact, the traditional response of traditional-minded SF readers to the rigorous exercise of extrapolative vision tends to be denial, disorientation, and distaste. So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

Any answers gratefully received.

617 Comments

1:

Addendum: the inestimable M. John Harrison has a different perspective on what I think is the same dilemma.

2:

I think another part of the problem is that authors can no longer look too far into the future realistically. Technology has become so advanced and so specialized that it takes far more education to even understand the current incarnations, much less make a prediction at where it will be in a few decades. It's hard to write about how technology will shape the future when there's so much we're still trying to get a grasp on about it today.

3:

What usually gets me excited is seeing science fiction that extrapolates from existing physics and sets a story in a setting that winds up exposing that physics. E.g., Glasshouse was fun because an adventure occurred in a world that you imagined essentially (IIRC, it's been a long time since I read it) on the skeleton of a brown-dwarf-based civilization. Similarly with Iron Sunrise. Stephenson's Anathem works so well because he manages to wrap a story around the notion of causal domain separation. This is the kind of fiction that really gets me going.

I think the crutch of the singularity is getting a bit tired, though. Karl Schroeder's Ashes of Candesce manages to do something interestingly different than the rapture of the geeks, while still being recognizably a singularity story; your story about the lobsters was a similar win, although in a different direction. But too often the singularity is used as magic, and the fundamental idea of the singularity is naive on several levels: first, in believing that computer intelligence is possible, and secondly, in believing that it can be benign, or more precisely that anything comprehensible to us can come of it. The fictional shortcut of an intelligence that just does all the hard thinking for us is way too convenient, and doesn't seem like a valid extrapolation of any current CS trends.

The Quantum Thief was excellent, but incredibly difficult to follow for those who are not deeply familiar with the vernacular. I had no trouble following it, but my father found it completely impenetrable (which was disappointing, because I was looking forward to discussing it with him).

4:

The anthropologist Dan Sperber makes the point that cultures tend to construct symbolic systems around ideas or events that they can't consistently integrate with their established body of knowledge. In the case of SF, it's notable that it emerged as distinct genre around the turn of the 20th century, when scientific and technological developments could no longer be ignored, but which could only be understood by specialists. (A parallel case can be seen in modernist art and writing, which fetishised the mathematical concept of form in the same way that SF fetishised scientific and technological content.) For most of the golden age of SF, this situation essentially persisted.

Now, however, the game has changed. SF tried to make sense of new ideas by symbolically projecting it into activities that were distant without being inexplicable --for instance, the alien as stand-in for cultural other, the space journey as an amplification of terrestrial travel. The thing is, these activities are no longer distant to us: cheap air travel has de-mystified the journey, multiculturalism has made the 'other' into the neighbour next door. The result is that SF has been flattened, and it simply lacks the cognitive traction it previously had.

So what is to be done? As far as I can see, it's already happening: the most profoundly counterintuitive and disturbing developments in thought are occurring in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, in that they replace our seemingly intuitive knowledge of our own subjectivity with a big fat imponderable. Some writers--Peter Watts comes to mind, as does OGH--have picked up on this and been stimulated to write accordingly. Certainly, it may not be liked in the way some twee, heart-warming tale of the indomitable human spirit will be, but I'm not sure there's any way around this. At least, I can't see any other obvious intrusion of the incomprehensible into culture that demands to be explored with the same force--though others may disagree.

5:

A question I'd like to see explored, and one which I think science fiction is the right genre for exploring it, is: How many different worldviews, each with their own "facts" and experts, can one community cope with?

Of course, the question is prompted by the increasing polarization over here in the USA, where a popular kid's science show host was shouted down as being anti-Christian when he just happened to mention that moonlight is reflected sunlight.

(And is there an accepted acronym that means, "And I apologize if this has already been covered."?)

6:

There's plenty of fiction showing us how rough life can be in our grimly corporate dystopian future. I'd like to see more fiction showing real, pleasant alternatives to corporatism that aren't just fantasies of a return to pre-industrial utopia.

There's a massive opportunity to inject intelligence and variety back into every aspect of our material culture, and writers aren't showing us the way anymore.

We need fiction that will show us stuff like:

- What kind of society would the hippies have built if they'd all had smartphones?
- Why we'll rarely eat the same variety of apple twice, thanks to a massive diversification and decentralization of production.
- How can most of the young people of the future build vibrant lives despite being locked out the conventional workforce?

Charlie, I know you've thought about this before. There's enough stuff in Accelerando about alternative economic models, and Ken MacLeod mentions similar things. Daniel Suarez also seems to be trying to get at this in an oddly militaristic fashion.

So how can we be inspired to disintermediate vast swathes of the corporate beige goo covering most of the developed world? I'm sure there'd be a lot of interesting drawbacks we'd like to hear about, and it wouldn't exactly be a comfortable process.

7:

> We're carrying out this Mind Meld via the internet, and if that isn't a 1980s cyberpunk vision that's imploded into the present, warts and all, I don't know what is.

And let's not forget - we have a working pseudonymous digital currency, and we even have online black markets for drugs etc. All that's really missing from the cypherpunk vision are assassination markets...

8:

"The thing is, these activities are no longer distant to us: cheap air travel has de-mystified the journey, multiculturalism has made the 'other' into the neighbour next door. "

If you really think multiculturalism has removed the Other from our inner landscape, I got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

9:

SCAM ALERT: The Brooklyn Bridge is not IN Brooklyn. It connects Brooklyn to Manhattan.

This basic error implies this person is NOT empowered to sell it.

10:
How many different worldviews, each with their own "facts" and experts, can one community cope with?
Lady of Mazes, by Karl Schroeder? I guess it's more about the problems of consensual reality than about how things are currently, but it seems like a valid future to abstract out of the present problem you are describing.

But the problem of non-reality-based thinking is one that has been with us for all of recorded history. I wouldn't mind hearing a story about a culture that had successfully inoculated itself against this, but I find stories that take place in cultures like this difficult to take. E.g., The Sunless Countries, by Karl Schroeder, is a great story, but the aspects of the story that had to do with fact-denying totalitarians were not fun. It worked because it wasn't the focus of the story, and because indeed it created some of the conflict that drove the story, but it was still a drag to read about, perhaps because the motivation of the characters on the pro-ignorance side was never clear.

11:

I feel like the problem is that the future ain't what it used to be. The big, basically optimistic futures of classic SF no longer seem plausible, and the replacements are either a) pessimisstic and depressing, or b) quickly veer into Singularity weirdness that is hard to understand and even harder to write. You and a few others have taken on that challenge, which I applaud, but its no wonder that it doesn't have the appeal of the classic vision of "basically just like now, but in space with rockets and robots!"

A case could be made that the SF of the 50's and 60's concerned itself with the logical extension of the technologies mostly developed during WWII -- rockets, atomic power, and so on -- which were mostly concerned with traversing and conquering obstacles in the physical universe, and led neatly to fun Brave New Frontier fiction. Modern SF, concerning itself with extending our newest technologies of computing, networking, and biotech, leads the writer to much darker places.

12:
"The thing is, these activities are no longer distant to us: cheap air travel has de-mystified the journey, multiculturalism has made the 'other' into the neighbour next door. "

If you really think multiculturalism has removed the Other from our inner landscape, I got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn.

Oh, don't get me wrong: enough perception of difference remains to propel any number of right-wing morons to town council seats the like. My point is that the romantic nomination of the cultural/racial other as the bearer of some ineffable mystery has vastly diminished. Compare, for instance, the representation of race and ethnicity now with the various world's fairs and the like in 19th Century Britain and France, which showcased cultures from the 'colonies' in much the same way as zoos did the animals from the same regions.

Of course, when it suits the powers that be to whip up hysteria about a particular religious group, this situation can change fast--though it's a lot less easy than it used to be, and even less so in metropolitan, multicultural areas.

13:

> I feel like the problem is that the future
> ain't what it used to be.

I blame spammers for a lot of that.

Or to expand on that, the advent of spamming may have been what pulled the rug out from under my hopes for some sort of cyber-utopia where we could import information directly into our minds in true mind-meld-y fashion.

It was like watching somebody take a shit on the Cartesian plane.

14:

"Explorations of Singularity teeter dangerously on the precipice of a tumble into Christian apocalyptic eschatology"

Hasn't all of SF always been the secular equivalent of the prophetic books, the scientific version of the Book of Daniel or Revelations? Orwell warning about totalitarianism, John Brunner warning about overpopulation, or even Charleton Heston exclaiming that Soylent Green is people - they're all just modern Jeremiahs. Every work of Utopian fiction is just a rewrite of St. John's New Jerusalem. The term "rapture of the nerds" to describe the singularity is only partly a joke. Every Dystopia is just a retelling of Dante's inferno.

And so SF takes as its basic assumption that we live in a moral universe, one where the Bad get punished, the Good get rewarded and that we get what we deserve.

15:

I'm wondering if the "SF please come up with a new future" idea that's going around is because many of us are coming to realize that we are en route to a horrific dystopia.

We're searching for a way off, and most of the current options seem to be looking backward. In the US I think the main alternatives to business as usual are hairshirt envrionmentalism or an authoritarian religion supportive of the gospel of wealth.

For futures, I did recent realize that there is one thing that a space colony has over any place on earth -- distance. Space might be the harshest environment we've ever considered trying to live in. But its not next to: hungry, displaced poor; antibiotic resistant disease breeding grounds (factory farms); or an increasing number of states with atomic weapons and governments with increasingly questionable sanity.

Which is safer, an environment which will kill you in 90 seconds if you make a mistake, or an environment filled with increasingly desperate people?

For the near future think we need to be spending more time learning how to build "closed ecological life support systems" -- stuff like biosphere 2. Its a precondition to any attempt at off-world colonization, and given how we're trashing our current environment we could stand to learn how to engineer working ecosystems.

16:

"But do you really want us to do that?"

Yes. Yes I do. Please.

17:

I wonder if a lot of the problem is encapsulated by "We're living in the frickin' 21st century". Last week I phoned my mum for her 70th birthday. Or, put another way, I used google voice to initiate a call to my cellphone in New Jersey which was then connected to a UK based mobile phone... which happened to be in the Bahamas at the time. I've no idea how many different systems needed to talk to each other to make this work, but it did. And it was expected to.

When we're living in such a reality, our "sense of wonder" is already being fulfilled on a daily basis. This makes it hard to write "hard SciFi" of the classic school; the potential audience is already living it! "Future shock" overwhelms "Hard SciFi".

18:

I think cyberpunk and the Singularity are only two of the three recent SF breakthroughs. You mentioned the third, and most important, one: whatever it is Bruce Sterling does. I think we're calling it The New Aesthetic now, but it first appeared (to my limited knowledge) with Gibson's Count Zero. For those of you who missed it, CZ has three main plots: an awesome hacker cyberpunk plot, an awesome ronin cyberpunk plot, and a strange little plot about the ineffability of experience as seen through the detritus of our everyday lives. Gibson's interest in that third plot kept expanding until, with Pattern Recognition, it became the whole point of his books. (He was even helpful enough to give that book a much better name than the vaguely unsatisfying "New Aesthetic.")

I'm 20 pages into REAMDE, which I bought blind because Stephenson is cool, and (so far) it's also about pattern recognition: WalMart is like an intruding space ship, or a dimensional rift; aliens walk among us in the form of non-standard neurotypes. If anything, that--the recognition of the gee-wizz sci-fi weirdness of our everyday life--*is* the new direction science fiction has started to take. (And it's just as challenging as the other two! Listen to Warren Ellis complain that he can't keep up no matter how Macx-like his data intake becomes!) The question in my mind is whether or not sci-fi will eventually just merge with conventional literature, but I don't think it will. Gibson, Sterling, and Stephenson (and Stross) can keep up this short-term extrapolation more or less indefinitely as a legitimate subgenre of science fiction. If anything might change, it's the delivery mechanism: we can no longer wait ten years for a writer to read something in New Scientist, write a story about it, and have the story wind tortuously through the Great Publishing Ziggurats to us.

19:

Other than the readers of this blog, I can divide people I actually know into 2 entirely separate camps:-
1) People who know what quantum cryptography is
2) People who read SF.

Perhaps that explains the lack of reviewers who notice what Hannu's tackling in TQT?

20:
Our civilisation has been invaded and conquered by the hive intelligences of multinational corporations, directed by the new aristocracy of the 0.1%.

For an exploration of this, plus AI, have you seen The Fear Index (2011) by Robert Harris? A run-away AI vision of our current cannibalist capitalism comes appropriately from the creator of Hannibal Lector.

Love, C.

21:

I think James Nicoll would take issue with the notion that SF is wedded to the belief in progress. There's been a lot of dystopias, very often based on explicitly reactionary foundations. Who said there were two basic themes, "it's a long shot but it might just work" and "there are some things that Man should not know"?

Arguably someone ought to speak up for progress and optimism.

Also, "which is safer?" >> you haven't thought this through. People have put up with their neighbours for all of history. People never will put up with hard vacuum

22:

You can safely drop the "Science" part when your motivation has become a mindless crusade against capitalism and success. "Fantasy" couldn't be a better replacement.

23:

People have put up with their neighbours for all of history.
You want to try putting that to the test?
You could try asking some Israeliis, or some Bosnian Muslims, to start with!

24:

Psst...Hannibal Lecter was created by Thomas Harris. The Fear Index is by Richard Harris, well known for his Fatherland and Archangel books.

25:

Charlie -

Your "Glasshouse" is one of the most challenging hard SF books I've read. It is still possible to radically envision a future world and future technology that is not "cowboys with blasters".

We do all seem to be running away from the FUTURE as it looks more and more disheartening and soul-destroying.

Perhaps, SF is being replaced by makers (need a better term!) and others who are really reshaping their world and others thanks to tools that make it as easier to print out ideas as 3D objects than to write a novel.

26:

JG Ballard once said that the true literature of the 20th Century was science fiction - I don't think that will be the case of the 21st century - but what will?

it would be nice if we could get away from the cosy consensus that space aliens, big explosions and BF Starships = SF

I'm not sure I'd want to read any of the books that might result.

Agenda SF does not seem to have the impact it may have had in the past - as the theories it expounded have been tried, and more often than not found wanting...

Iain Banks has a hyper-connected, spacefaring, post scarcity, genengineered race of largely peaceable humans, expanding throughout the galaxy, without destroy or subjugating it, and ruled over benign meta-AIs - which even he says is author wish fulfilment

the books are fantastic [in every sense] - and in a way more bizarre than anything other SF writer can come up with...

humans living in a peaceful galactic civilisation?

what are the chances of that happening?

27:

psst...correction to a correction

Robert Harris

28:

"But do you really want us to do that?": If doing so means more novels like those produced by Greg Egan, Hannu Rajaniemi and Bruce Sterling, then the answer is a definite yes! And I think these authors are not unrecognized, they're big names as far as I can see.

"If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?": What is the core message in this context, progress? I don't see how this can ever be obsolete.

29:

You know, I was staring at the page for The Fear Index while typing that, and still managed to balls it up. Time to go for a long walk into the night.

30:

" a true and accurate mainstream literary novel today ought to read like a masterpiece of cyberpunk dystopian SF."

Nonsense. Cyberpunk is as much a point of view and mood as anything else. I doubt most modern day living people have a "punk" attitude or point of view, therefore there's no reason modern literature should adopt this viewpoint.

31:

"A case could be made that the SF of the 50's and 60's concerned itself with the logical extension of the technologies mostly developed during WWII -- rockets, atomic power, and so on -- which were mostly concerned with traversing and conquering obstacles in the physical universe, and led neatly to fun Brave New Frontier fiction. Modern SF, concerning itself with extending our newest technologies of computing, networking, and biotech, leads the writer to much darker places."

IMHO, it never really dealt with nuclear war until the 70's, at least (not *a* bomb, but the idea of hundreds to thousands being used).

32:

"Hasn't all of SF always been the secular equivalent of the prophetic books, the scientific version of the Book of Daniel or Revelations?"

All of SF? No. You seem to have a rather limited view of SF. As Charlie said, "pulp adventure" is a much better descriptor for most of the genre.

33:

"In the US I think the main alternatives to business as usual are hairshirt envrionmentalism or an authoritarian religion supportive of the gospel of wealth."

I am sick and f-ing tired of people using the term 'hairshirt environmentalism'. It's intellectually equivalent to 'dirty hippies'.

We're watching lot of progress, experimentation and adaptation going on. If you can't see that, then you aren't paying attention.

34:

I've noticed something similar with the role playing game medium: as a SF lover, from time to time I tried mastering some SF campaigns, but I had to stop doing it.

If you want to be a bit realistic and not play the equivalent of space samurais with laser swords (at wich point you could very well play fantasy and be done with it), 95% of players will simply have no fun.
The universe will be too complex, the options too requiring reasoning and knowledge, the freedom insufficent and the error consequences too sudden and unavoidable.
As you said, true hard core SF is not good escapism: this does not mean that there isn't plenty space for grand non-escapist SF literature. Simply, different marketing niches.

35:

OTOH overall violence rates are going down down down, there's a record number of governments who've forsworn the right to execute their own citizens, wealth in most places is going up, the places we view as forsaken hellholes have longer life expectancy than the US of a century ago. There are worrying trends like global warming, peak oil, antibiotic resistance and creeping authoritarianism, but to "realize" we're en route to dystopia is as distorted as pollyannish denial of the problems.

36:

I think you downplayed the impact of the underlying assumption that SF once was a cornucopia of "big ideas."

I'm not saying that SF, many different sub-genres of it even, haven't had important and big ideas. There's a lot of books, stories and the like out there after all. But the source of an unusually large supply of big ideas - no.

If you discount the pulp, discount the stories that are rightly "$_SETTING in space" (foreach $_SETTING in (cowboys, knights, pirates etc.)). Then you discount interesting ideas that just didn't work out (I'm not sure who had the original idea of The Jetsons, space cars and all, but all that family of things is nicely wrapped up in one place there - and wrong) and the rest, just how many big ideas have come from SF?

I think SF has a reputation for inspiring imagination, flights-of-fantasy and the like. I think it can still hold its head up and say it does that. Other books (paranormal romance say) might also be able to hold their heads up and say they do it too. But I'm not convinced you need a big idea to do that. You need a story that grips, inspires and so on.

Although I personally loathe Dickens, I wonder how much impact he had on societal changes in Victorian England. He was certainly popular at the time, inspired the imagination, and held up a pretty unflattering light on a number of commonplace things.

37:

Ah -- I've been conflating those two authors then for years, despite having read all those books except the Hannibal books. I won't do it ever again you bet. Thanks!

Though the facts poof the vision!

Love, C.

38:

"Which is safer, an environment which will kill you in 90 seconds if you make a mistake, or an environment filled with increasingly desperate people?"

The latter, of course.

39:

@5:
- What kind of society would the hippies have built if they'd all had smartphones?
---
Assuming a stereotypical hippie of uniform density... I don't think it would have worked out any different. The hippies were parasites on a wealthy society; when the economy went down and stayed down, they wound up having to go mainstream to survive.

Some of the hippies tried ashrams and communes, but few of those lasted for long. Moving down the technology curve freed them from "the Man", but agriculture by hand is hard, dirty work, far different from smoking dope and wearing funky clothes.

40:

If you want to avoid both space fantasy and the Singularity or transhumanism, you might pick up Arthur Clarke. He did a bunch of cosy low conflict books showcasing a unified and peaceful Earth with declining population. Imperial Earth has its space elements, but much of the book is Tour Of Future Earth. I don't think Deep Range even *has* a space presence. I don't remember 2061 but I suspect it fits the pattern.

OTOH, the future can almost be guaranteed to contain a lot more automation and advanced medicine. Possibly not to the point of full AI and immortality by whatever means, the stuff that makes life really weird even without a Vinge/Kurzweil takeoff spiral, but enough to undermine any book that doesn't try to touch on it.

And OTOH again, the big issues right now aren't technological but environmental and socio-economic-political (and the second informs responses to the first.) How do we make sense of a world where we know how to fix the economy and save the environment but almost no one is willing to do it?

41:

I think part of the problem is that young people, and by extension future people, are continuously wired in. Fiction is about characters dealing with situations, and future people will almost never deal with challenging situations alone. The action in a plausible science fiction story should be distributed among many people via communications technology, but it's really hard to write drama that way.

You can write away their phones, but beyond a certain point it becomes implausible.

42:

Have a cigar: that's the most vivid display of point-missing I've seen in many a month!

(I'm off to the pub for the evening. Play nice, folks ...)

43:

"You can safely drop the "Science" part when your motivation has become a mindless crusade against capitalism and success. "Fantasy" couldn't be a better replacement."

Um, perhaps you're on the wrong blog?

44:

I'm trying to cure my addiction to correcting perceived errors. It's a long, hard road. Is there such a thing as a Pedant's Anonymous group? All it's brought me is shame and self-loathing, but I can't stop! Can't stop!

45:

Just thought of this, so perhaps it's obvious to all but me:

Another thing I've wondered about is whether there's a point where something easily doable by your average person is so dangerous that our freedoms have to be limited, just to avoid it? A (silly) example I was thinking of is if it were discovered one could make an atomic bomb with a paperclip, a pencil and a hunk of string.

Now, our gracious host's Laundry series is based on that sort of idea, and the increasingly haggard protagonist is part of an elite corps fighting unauthorized use of arcane knowledge.

But how about this approach: In order for the world to survive, the rulers deliberately decide to split up humanity's understanding of the universe, so three or four different groups would each have their own mental "realities" to operate in, even as they live mixed together within the same city.

This would turn a classic quest tale on its head. As our, let's say, young bright sorts discover the secrets that have been withheld from them, they bring the world closer to the brink of destruction.

(Probably been done, now that I think of it.)

46:

Alex: "People have put up with their neighbours for all of history."

Paws: "You want to try putting that to the test?
You could try asking some Israeliis, or some Bosnian Muslims, to start with!"

Ask the crews of the Challenger or Columbia.

47:

The only important question is what the Future can do for me, Al Franken. (Strangely enough, the answer seems to be make you a Senator.)

I think Edwina Monsoon's answer resonated with many: I don't want more choice, I just want nicer things. It runs counter to a lot of modern theories, but it did seem to hit an emotional spot. Or to paraphrase Joe Jackson: 18 kinds of chocolate chip can't all be the same?!

48:

I have three thoughts.

First, a lot of early rational SF assumes magic. Niven liked psi, impossible energy sources and materials, teleportation, and FTL travel; Heinlein's first period is full of psi, superhuman beings, and time travel. Stephenson seems to be thinking of the space-advocacy and environmental-advocacy elements of 1940s-1970s SF, both of which partially failed and partially became mainstream.

Second, your essays and fiction are very effective at teaching the lesson “don't let Canada develop in the direction that the UK has already gone, because the implications of that are very disturbing.” That is a common role for science fiction; one only thinks of “Solution Unsatisfactory,” “Revolt in 2100,” [i]1984[/i], [i]The Space Merchants[/i], [i]Farenheit 451[/i], or “2340 AD.”

And third, I think this is tied into the widespread feeling in the Anglosphere that conventional politics have failed, that the solution space which politicians are willing to consider has nothing to do with the solution space which will actually solve problems that matter. If you, the [i]demos[/i], feel that you can't control the future, you will be less likely to tell stories about doing so.

49:

"What do we do next?"

Stanislaw Lem wrote wonderful books, if he was alive and capable today I imagine he would still be writing wonderful books. The "Program of Science Fiction" is just how the past looks when you get enough distance to look over your shoulder.

The problem is not with science fiction. The problem is that automation is dividing society into the wealthy and the poor, the wealthy have purchased the state and media organisations and so everything is falling apart for a majority of the population in the "Global North"_tm. Communism died and now capitalism is dyeing in front of everyone as well. We living in a society in which hope is waning. Science fiction can't fix this.

Thats ok, once the field is cleared of the old ideologies new ideas will come along. Human civilizations are not particularly stable, the pendulum will swing the other way in 40-80 years (just look into the past 80 years).

50:

"Assuming a stereotypical hippie of uniform density... I don't think it would have worked out any different. The hippies were parasites on a wealthy society; when the economy went down and stayed down, they wound up having to go mainstream to survive."

Um, no?

They were no more parasites on a wealthy economy than we all are.

51:
...the most profoundly counterintuitive and disturbing developments in thought are occurring in neuroscience and cognitive psychology, in that they replace our seemingly intuitive knowledge of our own subjectivity with a big fat imponderable.
I like this point. We need to learn how to write about the psychological and social future of human beings without churning out stories that are mere propaganda pieces for our pet theories of human nature and economics. There's a real sense in which, in the absence of transporters and FTL starships, the final frontier is actually the problem of learning how to live together in a peaceful and sustainable way. Is there any reason that hacking our minds and our institutions to make us and them better is any less a technological challenge than figuring out how to go to Mars? And what chance will humans have in a place like Mars if we haven't learned to hack ourselves first?
52:

The most plausible futures have only two exits - medieval forever or singularity. Plus, maybe the readership of "real" hard SF is getting older. It's difficult to impress me because I've seen it all before. And if I haven't seen it in a book, it's come to me via physorg.

53:

I'd second JP Lewicke's idea about wanting to see a more radical exploration of diverse socio-economic systems.

I.e. make a hard projection of technology into the near future, but then try to imagine what would happen if we got to that level of technology from a very, very different historical path. Or what would happen if ~15m people woke up in a major modern metropolis with complete cultural/economic/organisational (but not technological) amnesia. The earliest lessons on which our civilisations rest were learnt during a time when we had much poorer technology and understanding of the world. They have not really been much revised since then (being expanded on instead). What if we had to learn them all over again without the baggage of history?

In all of the non-Singularity SF I've seen, social structures either follow a small number of the same, long-ago explored utopian or dystopian patterns, or basically transplant what we have right now. Singularity SF sometimes ventures further, but basically relies on magic (relative to our present capabilities) to work. I'd be thrilled if any SF writer took a third way – pre-Singularity technology, history-free society. Then write a work that would qualify as straight-up (i.e. not SF) fiction were it published in that world.

54:

Also, for optimistic SF about people figuring out how to solve the world's problems, you could do worse than the anthology Shine edited by Jetse de Vries.

55:

I do like this future we're living in.

Of course, I tend to prefer near future SF, so I *would* say that.

BTW, I like Bruce Sterling's nonfiction; I *love* his vision, but I have a hard time getting into his fiction. I really want to like it, but for some reason, I don't usually get hooked on the story.

56:

I think part of the issue is that new science doesn't impact our 1st world daily lives the way it did after WWII for about 50 years. Outside of the Internet and smart phones it mostly seems incremental.

Something as simple as seat belts made a huge difference in our lives in the 60s and 70s. People we knew quit being killed nearly as often. Vaccines, antibiotics, direct dialing, jet airplanes, cruise control on cars, color TVs (that actually had realistic color) that didn't cost 3 arms and 2 legs, walking on the moon, soda in cans that you did have to pay $.03 for, tires that lasted more than 10K miles and DIDN'T have inner tubes, answering machines, Catscans/MRIs, whatever. All of these changed our lives in very noticeable ways.

Now more and more our science improvements seem to be behind the scenes and in many cases mostly appreciated but not really noticed all that much.

Taking up a lot of a story talking about your communicator, flying car, food generator, smart traffic system, etc... used to be novel. Now it's just an improvement over what we already have and tends to not be a way to grab the attention of the reader. So you really have to have meat in your plot to be a serious story.

Now toss in that starting in the mid to late 60s (in the US) way more kids have high school chemistry and physics than before and you have now raised the bar as to what reads like science fiction vs. crazy fantasy. "Lost in Space" or "Space 1999" seemed like maybe possible things with some campy twists back in their day to many adults. Now they would mostly come off as stupid. (Yes they were stupid in their day but many more people back then had no idea just how stupid compared today. A lunar colony surviving the moon being toss from earth orbit. Then encountering lots of plots week by week...)

The population is much more aware of the universe than in the pre 2000 days. Makes it harder to write a story about the future that isn't hard on plot and light on tech. Especially as your tech can look stupid in a few years if you're not careful.

57:

That sounds like a cross between the Laundry series and China Miéville's The City & The City, with a bit of Stephenson's Anathem thrown in.

(In other words, it sounds fantastic. Write up a couple car chases and sex scenes to pad the expository bits and call your agent.)

58:

Of course, the question is prompted by the increasing polarization over here in the USA, where a popular kid's science show host was shouted down as being anti-Christian when he just happened to mention that moonlight is reflected sunlight.

That one got my attention. So I started looking.

I assume you're talking about Bill Nye and a lecture he gave in Waco Texas in 2006?

Here's an article by someone who helped create some of the media buzz about this and how it was much less than you or many others have portrayed it to be.

http://www.examiner.com/article/reporter-of-bill-nye-moonbat-story-speaks

To be honest I wished there was more to it. I like tracking down Christian idiots who get into science debates as fools.

59:

I kinda get a vibe this is the science-fiction equivalent of Lenny Kravitz declaring "Rock and Roll is Dead".

Has the creative well truly run dry? Not by a long shot.

In the last 2 years iv'e read more mind-blowing Science Fiction then the last 15.

What happened is not just that the "SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future". It's that the
truly good Hard Science Fiction writers have outpaced the understanding and comfort levels of the current "main stream " reader . You dudes are ahead of the bell curve of very BASIC science education of the general public. That's a GOOD thing.

60:

I came here to disagree with you, Charlie, and found myself won over. I think you're wrong about the number of new hard sci-fi concepts in the past 30 years (what about genetic engineering, nanotech, the holographic universe, etc) but on the whole you're absolutely right. We're living in a sci-fi dystopia, and people don't want to see the near future because they're convinced it's as bleak as their present.

So what do we, as science fiction authors, do next?

Well, if we're living in a dystopia, why don't we start inspiring a revolution?

Historically, science fiction has also contained speculative social elements, even before they hit big in Orwell's 1984. Can science fiction authors imagine a way to overthrow the stale bureaucratic culture that's trying to assert itself worldwide? (To be plain, I'm hoping for a 'soft' overthrow, through enlightenment rather than bloodshed.) Perhaps the next big ideas should be social, so that we can lead the way to a better future?

I'd like to think that's where science fiction should be going. But then again we authors weren't even able to lead the world into adopting flying cars -- and we tried so hard.

61:

A couple of notes.

One is that the appeal to a previous culture is very medieval European, and beyond that, it's just so much BS. How many times has that notion been recycled?

Here's a better reason why people listened to their elders and the old stories: these people lived through a lot of shit. If they were old peasants, there were probably a drought, a famine, a flood, a fire, and a demented landowner somewhere in their stories. You listened to them because you needed that story to help you survive the next disaster. You also listened if you were the eldest son, the middle daughter, or the youngest son, because that gave you some ideas about what kind of crap you were likely to run into.

This is a worldwide phenomenon, not just one limited to the societies that were founded on the ruins of Rome. Experience was (and is) very, very useful, and a lot of it gets encoded in stories. Hence, stories were about the past, and you lived up to them because that was the smart thing to do, if you wanted to live long enough to pass them on.

For the last couple of centuries, we've been running on this notion that imagination is better than experience. In certain industries (often those associated with SFF) this is true. A little bit. But even in the most cutting edge fields, the paramount importance of imagination seems to be increasingly tarnished. For example, there are now old-timers in the computer industry who have been through a couple of bubbles, and oddly enough, youngsters are starting to listen to them. Witness the Facebook IPO. A lot of people didn't buy the hype this time. I suspect that most of you could name industries where institutional memory is as prized as innovation.

Another issue is that SFF, with a few notable exceptions, can't answer the question "imagine a sustainable future, and a path from here to there." I suspect a lot of us would like to figure that one out, and in the absence of an answer, we get flourishing dystopianism and escapism. If we're all going to eco-hell, we might as well have what fun we can before we die, right? I think this is a defeatist attitude, but I'll also acknowledge that many people subscribe to this notion, and not just Catholics.

The critical problems our species is dealing with to build our future aren't going to be solved with imagination. Most of those problems have been solved already. What's left are all the issues around sustainability, with energy, water, food, and so forth high on the list. These are complicated messes involving, above all else, politics. There isn't one elegant solution to each problem. Rather, there are a lot of partial solutions that involve a huge amount of political wrangling to implement. This isn't part of the Gernsback Continuum. It's community supported agriculture, not food pills.

So I guess I agree: a literature of innovation and new ideas doesn't fit the future so well any more, and that's a problem if it has become the traditional approach in SFF. Fortunately, there are quite a few writers who like diving into more political (small p) novels.

62:

[singing]
Jetsons, meet the Jetsons,
They're the modernstoric famileeee,
From the town of Bedrock,
They're a page right out of historeee!...[/end]

In other words, the Jetsons = the Fintstones, but with different "era appropriate" McGuffins, so they're both actually 1960s Usian middle-class families.

63:

How about we accept that change exists, but that "progress" in the generally accepted sense of the term is at best an illusion, at worst a rather negative ideological construct?

The problem with those Enlightenment values is that when you get all hyped about them you generally end up hating human beings (because they obstinately refuse to become the New Man) and killing enormous numbers of them.

Cf. Marxism, National Socialism, various current mutant religio-political utopianisms.

64:

I've also really struggled with the last few Sterling books, I'm not sure where I'm going wrong.

The Quantum Thief is the only recent SF book to really blow my head off, but there's a huge amount of really enjoyable stuff around at the moment that's not "ground-breaking" but solid, well-written and thought provoking.

65:

Marvin Long: "And what chance will humans have in a place like Mars if we haven't learned to hack ourselves first?"

-- now, see, this is -exactly- what I meant.

Because "hack ourselves" translates into plain English as "give some people unlimited power over other people".

I see the camps and terror-famines in the background -- nothing personal, Marvin, I'm sure your intentions are pure and benevolent (not being ironic there, really mean it).

But that whole -worldview- is pernicious.

The longing for transcendence (particularly in the here-and-now) is only a very small step from murderous world-smashing nihilism, because transcendence is

a) impossible (hence the destructive frustration), and

b) would be undesirable even if it were possible, because human beings do not and cannot know enough to do that at all well.

This remark illustrates why soaring idealism is vastly more dangerous than mere greed and cruelty.

66:

Great post! What I really like about science fiction is its ability to explore alternative philosophies and religions that we can relate to, not its ability to be a roadmap to some plausible future. Realistic science fiction, extrapolated far enough, is probably a lifeless universal void, so I don’t actually want that much reality in my SF.

This is also why I like reading about weird cultures from history like the Pythagoreans or the Samurai – their worldviews were so different from ours that they might as well be from the planet Vulcan! So I guess I like “philosophy fiction” or “religion fiction” more than science fiction per se, and would like to see the genre get back to exploring big ideas in these areas (e.g. Frank Herbert’s Dune).

Finally, I loved this: “Calls for more big ideas in SF are generally a political cri de coeur. We might equally imagine a similar essay in the context of mid-sixties Soviet fiction, calling for more fiction about tractors and breakthroughs in agricultural genomics.” So true Charlie! Where do these agendas come from? Are there really cabals of billionaires and their court jesters (Neal Stephenson? Bruce Sterling?) sitting around thinking of ways to manipulate society in this way, because it really seems like it from where I sit!

67:

Damien: "How do we make sense of a world where we know how to fix the economy and save the environment but almost no one is willing to do it?"

-- this is sorta hubristic.

It translates as:

"How can most people be so wicked and/or stupid and/or duped as to not agree with what's obviously true and good... which is to say, what I and my friends think is true and good?"

It's utterly futile to base one's analysis (or fiction) on a deep desire that human beings not be human beings.

Eg., that they be willing to give stuff up (no significant number will ever do that) or that they not be instinctively tribalistic (not gonna happen).

One of the problems here is that humans evolved in a setting in which everyone lived in small, homogenous groups that agreed on everything important.

Literally and metaphorically, they all spoke the same language.

In a contemporary setting this is impossible, but the bone-deep feeling that it -should- be possible for everyone to see things My Way is still present.

68:

What kind of science fiction would Captain Kirk read?

69:

I suggest picking up Global Frequency for an attempt to tackle that - Warren Ellis writing a series that has been characterized as "It's like a wiki. With guns."

70:

That's - that's beautiful. You've actually captured the problem and the zeitgeist in a single sentence. Seriously, that's going in the quotes file. Well done.

71:

I want more politics, economics and sociology in my SF, Ken MacLeod seems to be the only one who has focused on this area over the past decade or two. The next couple of decades promise to throw up some fascinating conflicts, new economic problems and bizarre hybrid ideologies. We need a Mack Reynolds for the 21st century (but preferably a better writer).

73:

Incidentally, pulp adventure fiction is not "mere" escapism.(*)

It's programmatic. The type from which SF (and a lot of fantasy) spring might be summed up as "the Romance of Western Expansion".

That's a very old phenomenon; Spanish conquistadores tended to be fans of the equialent literary forms in their day -- the stories that Cervantes was sending up in Don Quixote. Contemporary accounts make it clear that a lot of them saw themselves as living out real-world versions of the same plots.

And so on down to H. Rider Haggard, Kipling, Burroughs, Howard and... well... us.

I've certainly always been aware of writing in that tradition.

(*) incidentally, the notion that there's something bad or wrong with "escapism", the desire for wonderful and strange adventures, is the sort of opinion I associate with pickle-up-the-arse curtain-twitching neo-Puritanical prigs of various types, would-be members of the Discourse Police.

As the man said, who is most obsessed with and hostile to the concept of "escape"?

Answer: prison guards.

74:

Really interesting essay and discussion. I don't have much to add to it, but Frederic Jameson's point that 'it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism' seems pertinent here. I think this describes quite nicely the malaise that Charlie (and M John Harrison) seem to be approaching: the present is bleak, but there seems to be no credible route out - hence a certain stagnation in a genre which is ostensibly about the future.

It might be time for another 'New Wave' moment - a reconfiguration of the terms of the debate in terms of both form and content. I don't know what this might look like, but as a reader I'd like to see some sort of critical re-engagement or redemption of the utopian or the utopian potentialities of the present.

Another quote:

'Circling and doubling back, seeing the same sites from different angles, ferns breaking the stones, horses tethered on wastelots, convolvulus swallowing the walls, shadowed by tall tenements, chickens’ feet in damp cardboard boxes, entrails of radio sets, slogans on the railway bridge, decayed synagogues, the flash and flutter, cardamom seeding, of the coming bazaar culture, the first whispers of a new Messiah.' - Iain Sinclair, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings

Also, sorry for the enormous pretentiousness of the above.

75:

The New Aesthetic is something different, in a "know it when you see it" way - it's a not-yet-an-art-movement based around the observation of the irruption of the digital into real life. Have a Wikipedia page. (",)

There have been complaints that writing near future SF is now almost impossible, because the future one is writing either catches up or is invalidated between manuscript completion and books hitting shelves. Gibson mentions in Distrust That Particular Flavor that Pattern Recognition came out just before the launch of Youtube, invalidating a chunk of the plot.

76:

"Iain Banks has a hyper-connected, spacefaring, post scarcity, genengineered race of largely peaceable humans, expanding throughout the galaxy, without destroy or subjugating it, and ruled over benign meta-AIs - which even he says is author wish fulfilment"

-- tastes differ; I always considered the "Culture" to be a rather horrific dystopia.

Me, I like human beings just the way they are, warts and all, and have absolutely no desire to "perfect" them.

Hell, I wouldn't trust -myself- to do that, and I certainly wouldn't trust anyone else to do it!

My own wish-fulfillment future would be more like Poul Anderson's Technic Civilization future-history. Just as credible as Banks' (which is to say, not very) but much better IMHO.

77:

Damien: "How do we make sense of a world where we know how to fix the economy and save the environment but almost no one is willing to do it?"

-- this is sorta hubristic.

I have to disagree with a couple of points here.

One is that nobody is trying to fix it. That's total BS. Many people are trying to fix things. Even more people haven't a clue about the damage they are causing. It's never worth assuming malice, where simple ignorance will cause as much trouble.

As one ecologist remarked, getting sustainable land use would be easy, if some tyrant would simply proclaim that every family got a farm, but that was all they ever got, and their family would have to live off that farm for all future generations. That particular solution (do it right or watch your kids go hungry) works better than almost anything else we've tried. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work, and in our society, it's politically unpopular, to put it mildly.

Personally, I have great faith that we'll get to this extremity sooner or later, and that we might see some real solutions when we do. Right now, we don't have enough people getting the right information or incentives. Massive blackouts, suspect water supplies, and an intermittent internet will probably bring more people around, and the super-rich watching their loved ones swinging from lamp-posts will hopefully do the rest.

Another problem is the idea that people evolved in small, homogenous groups that all spoke the same language. Say what? Have you checked anything about number of languages in the world? That number has been going down for the last 500 years. Normal appears to be bilingual, if not multilingual, and having to speak a different language with the next tribe over--if you're on good terms with them. They may live the same way as you do, they may not. It depends on the territory. If anything, globalization has been a push towards common lifestyles (sedentary with a cell phone) and a common language (English + Google translate). Even this lifestyle is really practiced only by a minority across the globe.

78:

Almost all the things you give examples of are nothing to do with the "new science" of the day, they're at best new engineering, and sometimes just technology finding their market. The equivalents today would be things like the Lytro camera, 3G connectivity, the Wii-mote and Kinect, Hatsune Miko... (and if you want to talk about technologies straight out of the SF playbook, those last two are, absolutely)

79:

It was a lot easier for the golden-age of SF authors to write a great story -- all they had to do was some linear extrapolation. We now accept that we live in curvilinear spacetime, so writing a straight-line extrapolation SF would actually be pretty dimwitted.

Next, I think most SF fans are aware just how much knowledge has and continues to mushroom -- no one's able to keep up with it. This also means a serious risk for any would-be SF writer: unless you're a bona fide expert (or have access to one to proof your work), stay out of SF -- because one of your readers is probably an expert and will out you as a fraud.

What does this leave the SF author with? Creativity -- seeing what happens when you randomly grab hold of any 3 or 4 or 5 unrelated disciplines/facts and then weave/force them together because in your universe, they do relate.

I think that this is where we are heading scientifically and technologically anyways ... integration of disciplines, filling in all of the interstices between same, discovering that points where some of these overlapping disciplines converge are actually brand new areas of knowledge, and then figuring out the 'mini' laws of nature. (Sort of a writer's version of loopy m-brane string theory.)

81:

"I'm inclined to think that [earnest young people mining asteroids is] a rather implausible future, unless the earnest young people are robots."

I feel like one of the things that SF should be doing right now is trying to give us a glimpse of the future where the earnest young people ARE robots. And where those robots are considered just as "human" as the apes.

SF has been full of people questioning how to keep the robots from "taking over", how to avoid a Terminator scenario. I'm of the opinion that the way to do this is to convince people that *robots can be just as human as naked apes*.

I may be biased, of course, as (1) a future where nobody gives a damn whether you were born or compiled is the setting for my current graphic novel, and (2) I hope to live as long as possible, and 'spacegoing asteroid spider robot lady' sounds like a good plan, assuming biological intelligences can be moved onto machine platforms...

82:

You pretty much hit the nub of the thing, which is that the only way we could actually "save the environment" would be for us to all live as subsistance farmers. Any other strategy is going to involve levels of energy use that are, in one way or another, unsustainable or environmentally damaging. Personally I don't want to live in that world, but go enough generations into the future and it's inevitable.

83:

"We're living in a sci-fi dystopia"
No we are not.
We are doing just fine and the rest of the developing world is doing better. You ask people from India or China about the future and you'll get the kind of optimism that is currently unfashionable in the West. FFS, we see *obesity* as a problem!

84:

"because they obstinately refuse to become the New Man"

That reminds me of Oceania, and Winston Smith being what Thoughtpoliceman O'Brien called the "Last Man".

Oceania was a place of perfection ("I will make you perfect, Winston.")

So was the home planet of the evil Brain in "A Wrinkle in Time" (one of my favorite childhood books), and a dozen other SF dystopias.

Perfection, the ultimate Hell.

Maybe we have Heaven and Hell backwards. ;-)

85:

I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss "adventure pulp". These stories could just have well been written as westerns or travel adventures. The fact that they are and were written in space empires or whatever *is* a big idea, and says a lot about the people writing them and their audiences.

86:

"Pacific Edge" springs to mind, but the fact that I can only think of one title off the top of my head suggests that this field is indeed ripe for more sowing.

87:

Almost all the things you give examples of are nothing to do with the "new science" of the day, they're at best new engineering,

But to much of the people reading science fiction the world was changing around them in big ways. Now not so much. So just a few decades ago they were hungry for possible future dramatic changes for the better. Now with the "big" changes over and many people understanding that rockets don't get you to Mars in a week, there's less appeal to such fiction.

While new toys and devices have made big changes in how I lead my life over the last 10 years they have not changed my life in the dramatic ways they did in the 40s through the 50s. When you just had your plumbing moved indoors and got year round cooling and heating for your house vs. the outhouse and a single coal stove 10 to 15 years earlier you tended to be more eager to read what the future might bring. When the improvements to your real life are more incremental wild futures don't seem to hold as much interest. As least as far as many people I've run into.

The crowd here is NOT typical after all.

And I wonder if what we thought of as hard science fiction is popular in India, China, and/or Africa outside of the locally old rich.

88:

There are Israelis, and Bosnians. They exist. My point is made.

89:

Oh, and SM Genocide Fan? We don't want you here. Highway's that-away. (He will whine. He likes communities that kick out people who shit in the water, until it happens to him.)

[[ This is Charlie's blog. It's up to him whether a regular contributor is kicked off or not. Not you. ]]

90:

I'd actually like to point out that while Bruce Sterling was reinventing space opera scifi, he did it in the context of escaping an earth devastated by global warming! (it specifically mentions the melting of the ice caps, at the very least) Talk about ahead of the curve.

91:

It's like a wiki. With guns.

This made me think of New Model Army by Adam Roberts.

92:

> Any answers gratefully received.

(You do not really mean that; no one does.)

Besides quite a few of your books, I have copies of both Schismatrix and another overlooked book: K. Amis' The Alteration. In that book, he tiptoes around an interesting idea: the Protestant Reformation - and the subsequent Jacobin revolutions, which you, along with many self-interested others, wrongly* call Enlightenment - might have been a mistake.

If you are willing to make that premise, you might find something different to write about. But I'd bet against it.

(* If you look up Montaigne's Essays, he was willing to put 'ancients' and 'moderns' in the balance, and calling it a draw, if memory serves. The 'aliasing' of Jacobin takeover with scientific progress was the best con job ever perpetrated.)

93:

If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

You write.

I know that isn't terribly helpful, but I'm convinced it is the right response. Sometimes making the future, including making the future of science fiction, is simply an act of stumbling over it while groping in the dark. We can only know what the "big idea" driving SF is in retrospect. Quite simply, we need to dive deeper into the cave and see if the current cramped passages suddenly open into a great chamber full of wonders.

Meanwhile, writers are going to write because that's what they do. Sometimes it will be dystopian. Sometimes it will be escapism. Sometimes it will be triumphant. Sometimes it will be uncomfortable. Often it will explore the alchemy of mixing plausible science with "what if..." along with the cautionary warning of "if this goes on...".

Exploring ideas is what has always drawn me to SF. I read my fair share of escapist SF & Fantasy. What hooks me though is the human story of discovery and triumph over adversity.

Give us a new idea, put us through the wringer, and give us hope at the end and we'll read an author's every word.

At least I will.

94:

"If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?"

Oh heck, at this rate I'm going to have to go back to one of my alma maters and do a doctorate in the relationship between science, science fiction and the various functions of society. Before people complain, I've got masters degrees in both mathematics and creative writing, and have spent many years doing systems engineering as a career... so I have some idea of what I'm talking about.

One of the big problems is that cutting edge science is not explained in Joe Bloggs terms to the ordinary man in the street. Science fiction used to fulfil this need... note the tense here... it doesn't now because it is very difficult to take the cutting edge science and give it practical engineering applications in science fiction stories. So one of the directions for future science is to go back to fulfilling this need. Only one problem... where are the scientists who can do the translation into science fiction? yes, they are few and far between. And anyway, who wants to be a science fiction writer when they can usually earn more being a scientist?

That brings us back to the question of where next? I fear it will be yet more fantasy or psychological literariness... because that is what people understand!

95:

Your post made me think of Japanese villages that survived the last tsunami -- ones that hadn't built below the warning stones from the previous big tsunami. Smarter than the US, which needs Depression stones or something: "if you fail to regulate your banks and don't use stimulus in a crisis, this is what happens."

Charlie, oh author of the Family Trade and co-interviewee with Paul "econ psychohistory" Krugman: how's the challenge of writing future Keynesian SF sound to you?

96:

Flintstones as middle-class? Fred and Barney worked on a building site. It doesn't get much more blue-collar than that.
I think you're confusing 'middle-class' and 'suburban'.
(Now George Jetson, there's a white collar man...)

97:

Decidedly agreed that sense-of-wonder moments and big ideas are very different things (and that the latter are not by any means unusually preponderant in SF compared to other writing).

I think SF authors can still find some interesting, thought-provoking things to say in contact novels. The possibility that recognisably-lifeform aliens are out there and could give us some sign has not been discounted by C20th science/tech progress. And I'm not sure if the understanding gained has made them seem more or less likely, either. So that's a good one.

Plausible-seeming solar system exploration / pioneering I think can still be written too, and be interesting (beyond characters etc) if it can look convincingly at the engineering possibilities (notwithstanding the monkey-in-tin-can problem) and the political dynamics of it. Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy still reads quite well, seems plausible to the lay reader (who doesn't know quite enough engineering or biology to poke holes in the space elevator or the biological adaptations to Mars), and has aged infinitely better than his set of much more recent global-warming-focused books (which were dated, or at least stating the obvious, already when published tbh).

And finally, as someone already said - the sheer weirdness of our own cognition and neural quirks, and the counterintuitiveness of quite a bit of what we know about how our brains work compared to how it feels that they work - that's definitely an area in which a good SF author could still wow me, or make me sit back, blink and scratch my head, I'm sure. The obvious recent example (that combines this with alien contact as well) is Blindsight.

98:

Big ideas? I thought this was what science fiction was all about.

99:

'Because "hack ourselves" translates into plain English as "give some people unlimited power over other people".

I see the camps and terror-famines in the background'

That you leap from "hack ourselves" to camps and terror-famines, and not to parents modifying their children, says more about your blinders and biases than it does about Marvin.

'transcendence is a) impossible (hence the destructive frustration)'

You do remember humans evolved -- transcended, basically -- from proto-chimpanzees?

'Eg., that they be willing to give stuff up (no significant number will ever do that) or that they not be instinctively tribalistic (not gonna happen).'

The existence of democratic nation-states with hundreds of millions of people and 30+% taxes indicates this is bunk. People do give stuff up (fairly, for some purposes) and the sense of tribe is massively expandable.

100:

here is my idea for wind power. it is sci-fi until someone makes a prototype.

https://sites.google.com/site/verticalwindfarm/

101:

Here are a couple more thoughts, since this is such a great topic. Isn’t the cul-de-sac science fiction finds itself in a symptom of a larger cul-de-sac for our postmodern civilization? To me the Enlightenment you speak of is basically over, having been intellectually annihilated by people like Nietzsche and Lovecraft, and by science itself. The universe revealed by science is neither a beautiful divine order a cause for existential optimism – it’s a Lovecraftian horror! Therefore cosmism, nihilism and antinatalism are the order of the day, and I don’t see much light at the end of the tunnel. This longing to get back to Heinleinian can-do optimism is pure nostalgia, and seems as unlikely to win the day as Salafism.

You ask "If SF's core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?" How about this: Rather than trying to mold the world to our liking using science and technology, maybe people rediscover the art of molding your mind to like (or at least tolerate) the world. Methinks the Stoics, Taoists, Buddhists, etc have a lot to teach materialistic modern people here. This is why I love Dune; it wasn’t primarily about the technology of a Galactic Empire, but about the eternal challenge of mentally and spiritually adopting to the strange universe we find ourselves in.

102:

Charlie
On Hannu Rajaniemi's brilliant "The Quantum Thief" — I have yet to see a single review that even notices the fact that this is the first hard SF novel to examine the impact of quantum cryptography on human society.
Are you SURE?
I've read it 3 times, and it STILL doesn't make any sense (um)
Paws4thot @ 18
Explain?

Matt @ 2
Yes
When we have Graphenes and Silicenes moving into the real-world enginerring market - how do we keep up?

@ 4
where a popular kid's science show host was shouted down as being anti-Christian when he just happened to mention that moonlight is reflected sunlight.
You WHAT?
This really happened?

superbowlpatriot @ 21
You obvoisly have NOT switched your brain to ON

and the other way around - barry @ 32
The so-called "green" party here want to abolish all EVIL NUCEAR POWER - because it's evil - and other equally nutty so-called policies.

andyet @ 83
You forgot the Earth of the Great Brains in "Last & First Men"

Generally
Ther ARE real bastards out there, deliberately exploiting differences and fears for mere personal power, and lots of money.
As there have always been.
But, because of (SF-predicted and used) much improved communications.
We notice them more.
One reason they are so shrill, I suspect, is that they realise their time is limited.
Discuss.


103:

As to the subject in hand...
Perhaps the next thing for SF is to stop thinking of itself in terms of the Genre Of Ideas and become more The Genre Of Useful Allegory? I.e. less 'hard' speculative fiction, more 1984/Brave New World myths?

104:

How does the idea of parents hacking their children not seem terrifying to you?

105:

Other than the readers of this blog, I can divide people I actually know into 2 entirely separate camps:-
1) People who know what quantum cryptography is
2) People who read SF.

Perhaps that explains the lack of reviewers who notice what Hannu's tackling in TQT?

Bingo. My wife read the Quantum Thief and loved it, even though she is not up on Quantum cryptography or even knows much about QM at all. But she loves science fiction. All she knew was that something amazing and beautiful was going on. By the end she had picked up enough to understand the story but I wonder how many people in a mainstream audience would do that? My guess is not many. (My wife is in a book club that reads bland "literary" best sellers for the most part. They're smart people and if you tell them some weird book is good, they'll try it. My wife talked them into reading Swamplandia and they all loved it. But if she had suggested TQT, or Reamde or even 1Q84, they'd revolt. Just too weird).

106:

DamienRS:

You do remember humans evolved -- transcended, basically -- from proto-chimpanzees?

You might ask the Neandertals about how well that process went for them.

Or the chimpanzees and gorillas and orangutangs, for that matter, the first two (at least) of which are eaten by modern humans in significant quantities...

That is not to say that evolution won't be peaceful going forwards, but there is a track record to consider.

107:

Flintstones as middle-class? Fred and Barney worked on a building site. It doesn't get much more blue-collar than that. I think you're confusing 'middle-class' and 'suburban'.

Well many would say you're conflating middle class with white collar. I grew up with and still know a lot of people with blue collar jobs but who earn middle class incomes. Getting your hands dirty doesn't make you non middle class. A lack of income does that.

108:

I've also long been fascinated by the dismissive criticism of escapism. Escapist SF/Fantasy gives our dreams of a better world a shape. It forms the vocabulary of the worlds we wished we lived in. Just as an aspect of cultural dialogue, it's important.

As an example, see the well-circulated story from last year about the Chinese government banning time travel and parallel universe stories. They're so afraid of loosing their grip on power, they're trying to control people's daydreams about a world where they never existed, or were stopped. That's Science fiction come to life.

109:

Reamde wasn't weird. It was just very, very disappointing. :(

110:

Not quite what I meant, although I agree that subsistence farming is in many peoples' future.

No, the basic point is that most of us don't have enough skin in the game to make the difficult decisions. The story I relate to most is about working as an ecologist on an island. Back a few hundred years ago, a couple thousand Indians (tribe now extinct) lived on the island, as their ancestors had for probably 8000 years. They managed the place pretty intensively. Currently, the island has about twice as many inhabitants, is totally supplied by barges every few days from the mainland, and the chunk that's a nature preserve has huge problems with keeping the native plants. The difference is that, under the Indians, everyone worked on tending the island (they didn't have any crops other than tobacco). If they didn't take care, they went hungry or ran out of firewood, and had to paddle thirty miles to get help. Currently, they only have a handful of people tending the island, and these people get fired, rather than go hungry, if they screw up. The results are exactly what you'd expect.

We're basically in the same situation globally. So long as the big issues are someone else's problem, they're not going to get solved. There simply aren't enough people with a strong enough stake in solving them for them.

If you want my view of the future, I figure we're going to learn to live with an atmosphere with a lot of carbon dioxide in it, and most of our current cities will be fossilizing under energy sediments laid down by a rising sea. Our industrial sector will most likely involve capturing solar energy and turning it into hydrocarbon fuels using some variation on the theme of photosynthesis (possibly algae based solar farms running on saltwater, located on the more sun-drenched barren coasts around the world--this technology is already going into place), and the carbon will be released as people burn these fuels (firewood or biodiesel, it doesn't really matter). One of the central conflicts of this future will be over the use of carbon dioxide, whether to use it temporarily for fuel, or to sequester it more permanently in soils to rebuild the soil's structure and nutrient holding capacity. Think of it as the farmer vs. the oilman, at least for the next few thousand years.

111:

Well said sir. One of my recurring nightmares is the rise of an ideology which combines the worst elements of Cosmicism and Stalinism -- the message being: "this universe is a bleak, godless, entropic void from which there is no escape, but fantasizing about another one is magical thinking, and is therefore forbidden!"

The scary thing is, this doesn't seem far from the ideology of the more militant New Atheists these days!

112:

Reamde would be weird from the POV of my wife's book club though, was the point I was making. (I haven't read it yet. It's sitting on my shelf, taunting me, right beside 1Q84 and A Feast of Crows)

113:

It raises concerns, but there's a rather huge and unjustified leap from that to camps and terror-famines.

And if one worries enough, basic SF concepts like generation ships or colonizing non-Earth-like planets are problematic with or without gene-hacking. Raising children on low-gravity Mars and never seeing an Earthlike atmosphere would be a huge experiment.

114:

Again, there's a big difference between "dangerous for those who don't keep up" and "impossible".

115:

Exactly! One of the most pernicious problems in the modern world is the "iodine hack," in which chemical modification of children too young to give consent increases the IQ of the "haves" by 10-15 points over the "have-nots." That's why I've dedicated my life to stopping pre-adolescent iodine hacking in America and elsewhere. Only when we tackle the iodine hack can we move on to the real problems threatening equality, like the immunization hack and the no-wolves-to-eat-us hack.

116:

I would like a sci fi novel with a true progressive vision. 

One of the things a novel could show is a vision of how the future could be different from the awful sense we all have at the moment that the march of greed will continue. At the moment if I close my eyes I would see a future of us continuing to exploit each other and the environment until we bump into a mistake big enough to cause a dystopia. Most likely the bankers/Murdochs/Tories/multinationals setting up a police state or some such. 

Sci fi can be an antidote to this. A big invention, a new form of economics, a new political arrangement. These things offer an alternative to the everyday corruption, greed, incompetence our current societies support. 

I love sci fi set in a different future than this. But the story of how to get there might he even more interesting. 

117:

Well, I wouldn't characterize the New Atheists as such (being one myself). There's a difference between dreaming up a better world as a way to calibrate your own desires and expectations, and forcing others to take your fantasy world, and the moral strictures that come from it, as serious policy. That's dragging us to the other end of the spectrum: bleak nihilism (embrace, reality, it's good for you!) on one hand and living in an untethered Lala land (clap harder, you sinner!) at the other.

Still, we have alot of elbow room in between. That's the playground for Escapist literature, where we define our hopes and fears and build the memetic tools to conquer the later and make the former a reality (as as close to it as is humanely possible).

118:

Subsistence farming isn't going to 'save the environment'. Environmental impact doesn't depend upon energy use, it depends upon where that energy comes from. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables is perfectly feasible, just politically difficult.

And as for subsistence farming, the energy use might be low but the energy used tends to be wood-burning and animal power. Both of those have very high environmental impacts per unit of energy - wood-burning at a subsistence level leads to deforestation, black carbon emissions (possibly the second most important greenhouse 'gas'), local health impacts from soot and PAHs.

Some of the least environmentally efficient nations are the poorest. Their overall environmental impact is limited by low population, not by low wealth, simply because they end up using the oldest, dirtiest, and cheapest technologies around.

Anyway, back to OGH's point, the core message of SF isn't obsolete, it just got updated by circumstance. It is no longer enough to cheer-lead for Progress. Instead, the big idea for the Twenty-First Century has to be Progress-Within-Constraints - the idea of living within biophysical limits and still making headway. This could lead to copious examples of treating the world as a zero-sum game and living badly, but there's already enough tedious MilSF. Personally, I think I'd be up for "earnest and plausible hyper-realistic tales of Progress" through doing ever-more with ever-less energy and materials whilst dealing with the ongoing "denial, disorientation, and distaste". Possibly a bright new future where the generation responsible for the fucked-up climate (that's us, folks) pays back their climate debt to the next generation under threat of a Logan's Run style outcome.

119:

Are there any good Chinese/Chinese Science Fiction books translated into English? They did have a recent World Fair, and that does tend to kickstart speculative fiction.

120:

S&L not that I particularly enjoyed it. "The Unincorporated Man " by Dani Kollin & Eytab Kollin seems somewhat orignal (for science fiction) in regards to "new" economic developments.

121:

This may be a US/UK reframing of the terms?

122:

Good work, there.
I was more thinking of, say, Xtian parents forcing libido-and-intelligence-lowering mutations on their kids.

123:

And here I was thinking "Glasshouse" was a thin fantastic veneer over the problems of young people growing up in the present day.

---

It would be interesting to see other authors replicating Chairman Bruce's literary style, the way he just tells you what his characters motivations are, leaving the reader to imagine for themselves some sort of gradual character development. He seemed to master this in "Zeitgeist", in which characters physically vomit up what is driving them. One can only go so far from the consensus reality with a wink and a nod, for the truly alien you need a literary sledgehammer.

Possibly this requires replicating his omnivorous globe-trotting lifestyle, I suspect he is able to write about ten years ahead of everyone else just by going and visiting the people who are living in some part of it right now.

It's a style that would even work in mainstream literature. "The Interoperation" story in "Gothic High-Tech" would work without the futuristic elements, it's really just a story about a couple of generations of architects.

Previous revolutions in science fiction -- as produced by the likes of Robert Heinlein and William Gibson -- have been just as much about the literary tools as the content.

124:

A fun parallel read with Charlie here is the recent Lev Grossman piece on genre, where he specifically takes on the idea of 'escapism'.

125:

Not really. Been waiting six years for that one. :)

And I wish I could say that fundamentalists turning their kids into low-IQ drones is a self-correcting problem, but markets are also self-correcting and we all know how horrifying that process is to live through.

But of all the problems barreling down on us, genetic modification is low on my worry-list. At least biology is a *science*; the stuff coming out of Wall Street and the White House worries me way more than the specter of cat-eared sex-replicants and tycoons breeding empathy out of their children.

Of course, "politicians are crooked idiots" hardly qualifies as science fiction. The disappointing thing about modern corruption from the POV of a sci-fi fan is that it's all so low-tech and obvious. I love a good hacking scandal because nine-tenths of the corruption I see is white guys in blue suits doing stuff to us that Pericles would have understood.

126:

No idea about Chinese, but there's a whole line of translated Japanese SF, Haikasoru, much of which is good. I collected links to James Nicoll's reviews:
http://mindstalk.livejournal.com/295776.html

127:

As if the raising of children isn't an attempt to mold them to their parents' ideal.

128:

I was born during the first atomic war; been living in the future all my life.

That aside: Older sf missed predicting a lot of social changes. Pizza becoming popular; music distinctly different from pre-rock pop (and some current sf writers haven't noticed the decline of rock); flavored vodkas; Canada's highest court supporting same-sex marriage; the UK Conservative Party choosing a grocer's daughter as Prime Minister; decimal currency in the UK; the decline of smoking; automatic elevators....

129:

I think you're spreading tar with a very wide broom over all of Poul Anderson's Science Fiction stories.

Anderson had an honors baccalaureate in Physics and the first 20 years or so of his Science Fiction writings reflected this very well. He integrated science, technology, social speculation all through the plots. He was careful to stay within a certain sphere of credibility while telling all of his wonderful stories for those two decades.

After that he didn't seem to care much.

130:

Nice rant, and it sounds a bit like many of mine. My basic question is why do you think I was talking about what you think I was talking about?

Currently, American industrial agriculture puts in more calories in energy than it gets out in food energy (and also has similar problems with nitrogen, probably phosphorus, and who knows what else). I'm not going to get bogged in the fight over how many calories, whether it's sixteen in for one out (which I was originally told, without attribution), or thousands to one (which I think is bogus). Can we agree this isn't sustainble?

We already know what the solution is, because many studies have demonstrated it: more, smaller, smarter farms, getting more farmers per acre rather than less, stopping the brain drain from the farms to the cities, and stopping the inputs of fossil fuels by diverting our wastes back onto our fields.

There are a bunch of ways to get to this point, and given the way we normally act, I suspect we're going to do this the hard way, which means a lot of people working their asses off to feed themselves, in the short term. Yes, subsistence farming. If we're lucky, it will be Cuban style subsistence farming. If we're not lucky, it will be Haitian style.

131:

One option would be the Ben Bova route of hard science extrapolation of Mars, Mercury, etc.. though apparently those topics haven't fired off a generation to become engineers.

I personally love hard SF stories that take a big mystery of cosmology and extrapolate out some add-on effect.

'Something like: A human population on a planet around a star with no other stars visible to the naked eye. Someone invents deep infra-red telescopes and finds faint red dots. Leads them to find old records that indicate they originated from deep time experiments billions of years ago and now live in an era when visible universe has red-shifted away. '

Opportunity abounds to visit a society where our concept of the universe is filtered through generations with their own explanations for the dark skies.


Even near future SF has plenty of hard-SF topics that can be covered. One that I enjoy toying with is the idea of neural 'masks'. Don your math mask, extrovert politician mask, engineering mask, etc.. Perhaps at first they start with merely being medically enhanced brain states, but then evolve over time into including knowledge loading. What will it mean for personality consistency after years of neural plasticity at this level? Is there a core consciousness that will survive as a common thread? Or does that come from another mask: Rational mask + stored goal + values ---- all from your decade old storage.

Is the goal to engage multitudes with SF that they will dream about (space opera!) and become inspired to pursue as careers?

If the goal is to capture new deep hard science concepts in a story we have many mysteries in cosmology (Fermi Paradox for one).

We also have topics like: Are we really stuck with the physics we currently see with just mild improvements in our technology left? Is our universe really even hospitable to intelligent life escaping its one star (perhaps we are like those in 1900's not knowing the big discoveries to come). Maybe biology is only good for booting up mecha life and so human thought patterns only are preserved and run by AI experimenters (oh the dystopia fun to be had with that!)

and then finally perhaps the only expansion left is the deep dive into the virtual..

132:

"Fred and Barney worked on a building site. It doesn't get much more blue-collar than that."

In the 1950s, building trades workers were middle class.

My father was a plumber and fitter.

133:

The US has a different class structure from the UK. In the case of the Flintstones, the US class structure is the relevant one.

134:

Let's be precise here: Yes, modern agriculture puts in more calouries of energy that it gets out in food energy. No, that isn't necesarily unsustainable. That depends upon where the energy comes from. Right now it comes from fossil fuels resulting in unsustainably high carbon emissions and depletion of finite oil stocks. If the energy comes from renewable sources, then it can be sustainable.

Something like 75% of the cost of nitrogen-based fertilizers is in the cost of the energy, hence most is currently produced from natural gas. Everyone and their dog right now seems to be researching low-temperature biomass & wind-power fertiliser production. Once that reaches a bearable price, then agriculture can carry on regardless of fossil fuel availability.

And if you'd like to point out some studies suggesting smaller farms are more resource-efficient, go right ahead. The overall upscaling of farms in the US, Europe, Australia, Canada, and NZ suggests otherwise...

135:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=G2VHf5vpBy8#!

The video is a speech by Eben Moglen about disintermediation, innovation under austerity (he thinks the solution is making sure children and teenagers have access to hardware and programs that they can modify), and the utter importance of privacy.

I don't know whether his ideas could save the world, but seeing how far disintermediation can be pushed would lead to some interesting and possibly cheerful science fiction.

136:

Depends what the limiting resource is. Agribusiness is very labor efficient, but consumes a lot of non-solar energy. Salatin's Polyface farm uses less outside energy and I think produces more usable biomass per land, but takes more skilled labor.

Standard organic, I dunno, I've seen an article saying it uses more land (small difference for high nutrition fruits and vegetables, big difference for high calorie staples.)
http://ecocentric.blogs.time.com/2012/04/26/whole-food-blues-why-organic-agriculture-may-not-be-so-sustainable/?iid=ec-article-mostpop1
I'd assume it uses less fossil fuels; dunno if it uses less energy or if there's more energy spent on weeding.

Lack of antibiotic (and pesticide) resistances is also a 'resource', one which organic farming doesn't use.

Dunno about water use.

In the US oil and natural gas (for fertilizer) have been cheap, bulk farmland is cheap, water has been cheap, antibiotic resistance has been free, and labor is expensive. Naturally agribusiness has minimized labor use while consuming lots of the others, though it seems to do well at land as well.

...and I just realized that you specifically challenged about small farms, not alternative farming methods. Oh well.

137:

Still waiting for the next Philip K Dick.

138:
Currently, American industrial agriculture puts in more calories in energy than it gets out in food energy

Isn't that just thermodynamics? Energy is always lost.

139:

Yup. Small farms are not efficient because they are small, efficient farms are efficient because they are efficient.

I'd argue that it's easier for larger farms to be efficient, because economies of scale improve innovation. It's easier to benefit from skilled staff; to justify investments in efficient capital plant; to investigate more efficient production; to change practices in one paddock, learn from the effects, and roll out those changes across a large farm. All this is true for any kind of farming, whether conventional, organic, bio-dynamic, hydroponic, or aquaculture.

Certainly in NZ, our more efficient farms tend to be the larger farms (and we have farms as large as Surrey).

140:

In American usage, "middle class" translates roughly as "someone in the family has a job". It applies to practically everyone.

141:

If you plant a seed and don't do much else and it grows, you harvest a lot more energy than you put in. That energy is less than the sunlight involved, but we usually don't count the sunlight. Overall, a pre-industrialization harvest must contain at least much energy in food as you spent in growing and harvesting the food, otherwise you starve.

I think the intended meaning is that agribusiness puts in so much fossil fuel that it dwarfs the sunlight input or the food energy harvested, that we're eating oil and gas more than we're eating sunlight. Thus things like corn ethanol costing 1 Joule of oil for 1.2 Joules of ethanol produce, or something like that; hardly worth the effort.

142:

In what sense do you consider a "singularity" to be inevitable? I know it's the received knowledge of the Eutropians, and hence holy, but on what rational basis do you make this prediction? Do you have any idea how hard it is to make computers do the cool things we see them doing?

143:

I could see something like Polyface not scaling well in a corporate structure; it involves a lot of skilled labor concentrating on a small farm and group of animals. Give them twice as much land and they may produce less than twice as much food, unless they can find comparable labor. There'd be room for economies of scale in equipment and marketing, but maybe better handled by a cooperative structure.

But, I dunno.

144:

to Nestor @137:

The energy consumed by the farm, as measured, presumably doesn't include solar energy converted and stored by the plants. If that energy had been included, then, yes, the stated result would have been an inevitable consequence of the second law of thermodynamics. Instead, what it means is that much of the energy in the food that we eat comes from fertilizers which are made from natural gas.

to Damien @40:

We know exactly what it would take to make our society sustainable, and what it would take is for most of us to die. It's not too surprising, when put that way, that we're looking for another way out.

145:

I think you mean Extropians, unless I'm way out of date.

I'd say something loosely like a Vingean Singularity is highly likely, just based on increasing automation or increasing understanding of how the brain and biology work. Remember the simple existence of superintelligence was the core of Vinge's concept, and he had four paths to it: pure AI, human/computer interface, "group intelligence", and pure biological approaches like genetic engineering or smart drugs or anything else one might think of. Computer not actually needed.

And on the AI side, it's debatable whether the weirdness of a society where eugenics means everyone has the math smarts of Einstein and the social smarts of Hitler/Goebbels is more than the weirdness of a society of average IQ but where minds can be copied like datafiles and designed to have obsessive and submissive focus on what you want. Fantasizing about accelerating technology spiral is kind of the easy way out, compared to thinking about being able to design a human intelligence to order and then mass produce it.

146:

I was thinking of Keynesian policies for full employment, bank regulation for economic stability, and carbon/pollution taxes to at least point market forces in the right direction on energy and sustainability.

147:

>>It's utterly futile to base one's analysis (or fiction) on a deep desire that human beings not be human beings.

And yet, the desire seems inescapable, and is thus a legitimate part of any study of the operation of human nature.

148:

That's what I thought for a long time, looking in from another country.

So, I was surprised when I discovered that by the standards of many people in the US Steve Jobs's father was not considered middle class but working class, because he did not have a College degree. Also, he had often worked with his hands to make a living instead of being a pencil pusher in an office.

149:

We know exactly what it would take to make our society sustainable, and what it would take is for most of us to die. It's not too surprising, when put that way, that we're looking for another way out.

I suspect that if you told a lot of urban/suburban dwellers in the US and other parts of the world their ONLY option for the future was working a small plot of land for their own food for the rest of their life, well, they'd curl up in a ball and die.

150:

Interesting. This must be a geographical thing or maybe a distinction from major urban centers. But for many (most?) in the US your income defines you as in the middle class. Unions claim nationally that they brought millions into the middle class with the jobs in the auto plants and other places after WWII.

And in the somewhat small town/rural area I grew up in working with your hands didn't create class divisions except maybe to keep you out of social functions of the upper 10%. Now the poor were definitely to be shunned, no matter how they generated the little if any income they had.

As to the UK/US aspect of this side conversation, I missed that one totally. And I normally try and think of such things around here.

151:

Your comment gives me a sad. Back in the mid-20th-Century, blue-collar workers could be middle-class. A man could work in a factory, his wife could stay home and be a homemaker, they could have kids, own a nice little house and car. Not to mention getting paid enough to buy food, and have medical care.

Now all that is gone. So far gone that you seem to think it's mythical.

Hence my sad.

152:

I've never seen sf as a didactic literature. It is: entertainment, art, a way to make a statement about the human condition by exaggerating specific human characteristics, and (paraphrasing Patrick Nielsen Hayden) a mechanism for inducing the numinous in a nontheistic audience. Anticipating science and technology is strictly incidental.

153:

If SF is a product of Enlightenment utopianism, and utopianism is dead, then SF is dead. If SF, on the other hand, is a form of cultural therapy for future shock, then SF is a medicine that the modern era needs in great supply. Hard SF smells heavily of utopianism. More modern strains may function medicinally, as great literature often does. Perhaps in decades hence, we may look back on the traditional era of hard SF and see it not as the golden era but as a period in which SF was temporarily tainted by utopianism.

154:

I've never seen sf as a didactic literature. It is: entertainment, art, a way to make a statement about the human condition by exaggerating specific human characteristics, and (paraphrasing Patrick Nielsen Hayden) a mechanism for inducing the numinous in a nontheistic audience. Anticipating science and technology is strictly incidental.

155:

Thanks. I was wondering if anybody would even understand.

156:

David L writes:

I suspect that if you told a lot of urban/suburban dwellers in the US and other parts of the world their ONLY option for the future was working a small plot of land for their own food for the rest of their life, well, they'd curl up in a ball and die.

No. They will go down swinging.

Whether it's fully sustainable or not, the dominant culture element in the US has political will, resources, and would if need be nuke its way out of such a situation.

Regrettably one can trace a lot of climate denialism to this. Extremist 1970s environmentalists (who were largely wrong on all counts) tried to pose pretty much that question. It poisoned the well for a lot of now middle aged conservatives who aren't sophisticated enough to distinguish current from past situation...

157:

One could argue it's sad that one needed to be middle class to have respect, that working class wasn't good enough.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_class_in_the_United_States
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_income_in_the_United_States

Class has gotten complicated. There's class as role, analogous to Marx's petty bourgeoisie, shopkeepers and doctors and lawyer, 'middle' as in between the bourgeoisie proper (capitalists, filthy rich) and the proletariat -- so maybe the 80-90th percentiles in actual income. Also, people who have to work, but have some degree of freedom and flexibility in how they work, because of being self-employed or having rare skills. OTOH, there's an idea of it as the bulk of the population, or the middle of the income distribution, where even a simple proletariat job can put you into it if unions mean you get paid enough. Then there's simple classism, where a very well paid and self-employed plumber might not be "middle class" because ewww, working with sewage.

158:

DamienRS wrote:


I think the intended meaning is that agribusiness puts in so much fossil fuel that it dwarfs the sunlight input or the food energy harvested, that we're eating oil and gas more than we're eating sunlight. Thus things like corn ethanol costing 1 Joule of oil for 1.2 Joules of ethanol produce, or something like that; hardly worth the effort.

It's not a rule of nature that the inputs have to be fossil fuel. Using composting and non-natural-gas sources ammonia and oil for farm vehicles, which cellulosic waste methanol does fine for.

It's common for fossil fuel advocates to deny that the substitution is possible, and wholesale system change environmentalists to deny that it solves the problem.

159:

The problem with that argument is most of the "renewables" we're trying now are, in fact, heavily subsidized with petrochemical energy. None of them appear to be self-sustaining, especially not biofuels, which have the same energy demands as any other form of mechanized agriculture.

This basic truth is why so many countries have failed to meet even modest CO2 reduction targets; the sacrifices are just too severe. London, for example, is facing a potential drought, to the point where they're considering turning off the water mains and installing standpipes...not because the capacity to desalinate sufficient water isn't there, but because doing so would produce too much CO2. (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2012/05/02/water_vs_energy_analysis/) This is just a taste of things to come. It appears to me that it's simply impossible to sustain our current standard of living without petroleum, which means ultimately we're doomed to slide back; we may be living at the peak of human civilization as we speak.

160:

I enjoy escapist adventure SF, but for the "serious" purpose discussed above, I'll dust off the old alternative "speculative fiction". Great SF asks a "what if" question by proposing some (ideally small) innovation and then logically exploring the consequences. They're lengthy gedankenexperiments that help us think about whether it would be a good idea to pursue something, or warn us about something oncoming. Importantly, the innovation need not be technological---it could be a new form of government, a new business process, a new philosophy, an alternative economy, etc. Of course, a bit of tech novelty is often a good way to justify the changes that are the true focus of attention.

I love David Brin's "Kiln People" as a great exploration of the future of telecommuting. John Brunner's "Stand on Zanzibar" is a fascinating study of population density where the tech is really secondary. Tom Easton's "Sparrowhawk" (and Brin's Uplift series) asked some interesting questions about engineering intelligent animals. Ursula LeGuin looked at pacifism in "Eye of the Heron", and James Hogan at an idea economy in "Voyage from Yesteryear".

The list goes on a long way. Some of these books were better written than others, others more logically thought out. But none of them is outdated today, because they aren't anchored in some specific piece of tech---rather, they're looking at social/political/economic options that may or may not arise in the future. And lots of other books like them have yet to be written.

161:

"We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don't much like it. And so we retreat into the comfort zones of brass goggles and zeppelins , of sexy vampire-run nightclubs and starship-riding knights-errant."

Personally, I retreat towards SF with pretty girls in it or SF with some comical aspect.

http://konachan.com/post/show/107486/bikini_top-city-eshi-headphones-landscape-original

If I can find both at the same time, then it's a major plus.

162:

So you're a fan of John Carter?

163:

Bollocks.

Or rather, yes the energy return on investment for some biofuels isn't great. For other biofuels it is fine. For other renewables it is as good as for fossil fuels.

Yes, corn to ethanol in the US barely breaks even from an energy-in/energy-out perspective. However, sugar cane to ethanol in Brazil is pushing 10 to 1, short-rotation willow to biofuel is similar, and as soon as you get into third generation cellulosic biofuels then the return is better.

Wind is often around twenty. Hydro can be a hundred. Fast-breeder nukes can be 200. These return ratios are better than fossil fuels - conventional oil exploration varies around 15-20, tar sands can be as bad as 5.

Corn-to-ethanol is just another example of a US special interest group (mid-West corn farmers) capturing US government subsidies. That is no reason to write off a whole range of other techniques and technologies.

164:

135: "Lack of antibiotic (and pesticide) resistances is also a 'resource', one which organic farming doesn't use."

Actually a lack of pesticide resistance is a resource that becomes useful during famine years – think of organic farming as an integral part of a "keynsian" agricultural policy thing; organically farm during feast years when there's plenty of food being produced, then switch to the use of pesticides to increase yields during famine years, which will generally not last long enough to produce an endemic population of pesticide resistant pests and weeds, who'll then possess no actual evolutionary benefits over their non-resistant kin when the feast years return and organic farming techniques with them.

Inorganic farming (or whatever the antipode is) produces the trouble that it's stuck always at full production strength – and if you're using a fuck ton of pesticides, resistance eventually becomes endemic and you're stuck having to use organic farming techniques anyway but without that ramping up ability in times of dire need. Of course dedicated orgnaic farming also loses that ramping up ability if their neighbours are all using inorganic techniques... clearly the nations of the global ecotopian alliance must hoist our manpads upon our shoulders and leave giant nuclear mines beneath all the major cities held captive by the parasitic monogamous inorganic governments of earth to force a global consensus on agricultural policy and prevent the tragedy of the commons being played out.

Fear the ecotopian alliance and our mighty manpads!

165:

How is it that every thread on Charlie's Diary inevitably turns into the generic singularity/capitalism/fossil_fuels free-for-all?

166:

Speak for yourself, I really enjoyed Reamde.

Anyway, in reply to the original question: SFF exists as a metaphor, to trick people into thinking about things differently. Whether that be human relationships or politics, the setting allows the author to posit an alternative reality, or to force us to see ourselves as others see us. It doesn't have to be a utopian carrot or a dystopian stick.

The reader or viewer will accept things in SFF that might force them to switch off or never start if phrased differently; if Star Trek:TNG had been a tale of an explicitly socialist society, would the US networks have dared broadcast it? Would 12-year-olds look forward to the next episode of "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", or did the "Night Watch" arc in Babylon 5 get the message across more effectively? What of the original Star Trek's efforts to challenge racism ( that episode with the black/white faces)?

Or should I have said analogy instead of metaphor...?

167:

It doesn't. You forgot discussion of aircraft... ;)

168:

Because discussion of the far future depends upon whether we get through the next hundred years.

The factors you've listed are the three I'd point to for ending civilisation (along with freshwater and the continued threat of nuclear war).

169:

Your friend Sean @ 111
I don't know what you are taking, but I'd stop it if I were you!
"Militant New Atheists" indeed!
Going around bombing abortion clinics, skyscrapers in New York, killing children for witchcraft...
O wait, that's the religious believers.
the "Militant" atheists are, erm, just pointing out, very clearly, that the religious believers are liars and murderers.
Really, really - get a grip on reality - please?

Kyle Marquis @ 115
Could we have that in plain English please - what is the "Iodine hack" - or are you being sarcastic?

@ 118 et seq
Progress - yes, when a relentlessly populist free-"newspaper" like Metro (in London) has a top-of-page spread about Graphene & Silicene [ I found an electronic link HERE you strt to wonder if things ain't quite THAT bad after all, provided the greedy/stupid/religious can be kept at bay for a few more years.
The materials science and technological prospects, using these substances as base-products is truly remarkable.

Cat Vincent @ 124
U.K.le Guin once attacked the denigrators of "escapism", by saying: "Who is it that most wants to prevent escape? ... Answer: "Jailors".

Jez @ 133
You've missed the bit about capital-intensive needs for big Aggrocultural kit. Thus, driving small people out. See my discussion on Allotments, below.

Ted Lemon @ 141
OK, I'm going to mount my hobby-Horse again.
Singularities are inevitable.
We've already been through at least 3.
I] Agriculture and the rise of settled living areas - we call them, erm, "cities"
II] The steam-power singularity, starting with Newcomen, accererated by Watt/Boulton, take-off date 1825-30, completed by Chas Parsons.
III] The electric-distribution singularity, still ongoing, but nearing the end of its sigmoid curve.
IV] Computing power. We appear to be still inside the max-slope section of this one, with no retardation in sight.
V] Materials science breakthroughs, producing major changes in power storage and conversion efficiencies (see Graphene & Silicene, abaove)
VI] ???

None of the above is actually reversible unless one gets a complete, planet-wide collapse. And even locally, it can only go pear-shaped if the nutters get charge of the levers of power. Mind you, as the inhabitants of all the countries of Central Europe between the Rhine & the Dniepr (or even the Volga) found out 1939-45, it can be very bad indeed.

rushmc @ 146
Can I re-phrase that, pretty please?
To: It's utterly inevitable to base one's analysis (or fiction) on a deep desire that human beings not be human beings, provided you are a religious believer.
Um.

Orv @ 158
NO
We have serious tidal power, we have nuclear, oils for lubricants (not fuel) can be sourced from vegetable products.
As for London's water, it is again a POLITICAL problem, to decide to build a 500-km 5-m diam pipe from Kielder Water to London. Nothing AT ALL difficult in engineering terem - the Chinese are already doing something bigger.
But, it's "too difficult" according to the greedy lying incompetents in charge.

AGRICULTURE
The answer is ... Allotments.
I've worked out that the UK could actually feed itself!
PROVIDED
There is a major social/transport restructuring, so that everyone works part-time, and can get to their allotments. You need approximately the ground-area of Suffolk, divi'd up into standard plots [ 10x30 metres approx ] since mine produces a consistent surplus - I give food away. You would still need conventional farms for food that can't be allotment grown - dairy cattle or better, goats, animal-husbandry for meat, ditto chickens etc. But, there is still plenty of room for that.
Like a lot of the problems we've been discussing, the problem isn't implementation; it is the political will to start implementing said decisions.

Re. Fertilisers ... my allotment is NOT "organic" - I use slug-pellets (!) and small amounts of fungicide. But otherwise the basic, heavy clay soil is leavened with horse-manure (free apart from the cost to me of transporting it) and "council" magic black gunge.
Which is domestic "green" waste semi-industrially composted in large bays - reaches approx 75-80C - and the re-distributed to users who want it. Deliveries are rationed, since everyone wants this stuff. The improvement in soil quality, internal livestock and fertility is amazing. Many local authorities in England and Wales now do this, and the practice is, erm (pun!) spreading.

SF as ideas in society
No-one at all has mentioned H G Wells, which really surprises me, given that almost all of his SF wasn't actually about technology, it was about societies, and organising them (or not).

170:

Like a lot of the problems we've been discussing, the problem isn't implementation; it is the political will to start implementing said decisions.

Where most of us here live you also need to get a non fragile majority of the voting population on board. Unless you are planning to go to a dictatorship or China form of government.

171:

I'm wondering if the "SF please come up with a new future" idea that's going around is because many of us are coming to realize that we are en route to a horrific dystopia.

  • Global warming
  • Destruction of the environment and extinction of many species
  • Water shortages
  • Traffic chaos
  • Energy prices going through the roof
  • Economic crisis
  • Political instability, revolution, violent insurrection and terrorist outrages
  • and perhaps the root cause of it all, overpopulation

It's a familiar litany to anyone who follows the news, or indeed anyone not living under a rock. Extrapolating from all that results in grim depressive reading, probably self-limiting it its audience. Not dealing with such subjects leads to a milieu so far abstracted from personal experience that I'd characterize it as fantasy even if the subject matter was ostensibly technological rather than magical. (What is the significant difference between traveling to one of Iain Bank's Culture orbitals or taking that bonny road, which winds about the fernie brae and leads to fair Elfland?) [Not that I'm complaining: both of these approaches have lead to many hours of entertainment for me.]

The outlook is grim, and today's SF has to deal with that.

But... We've been here before haven't we? Nuclear Annihilation is noticeably absent from my list above. How many people regularly went to bed during the Cuban Missile Crisis wondering if their world would still exist the next morning? Dark times, but still contemporary with one of the great modern flowerings of SF. Try finding any Golden Age material not informed by the prospect of mutually assured destruction, most of it exploring how to get out of that particular pickle or the consequences of having done so. [There was one ST:TOS episode featuring a planet with two warring powers: the Yangs and the Coms]

So where is the current wave of SF describing how to get from today's struggling, over-exploited, over-populated world to a workable, livable future?

For instance, if population is the fundamental problem, how can it be reduced without some disastrous "Final Solution" scenario? One ecological solution might be the evolution of some sort of predator to cull the herds. What sort of predator could exist in a modern human technological world?


172:

[There was one ST:TOS episode featuring a planet with two warring powers: the Yangs and the Coms]

Ah, yes. "Wee nob eeble" or something like that.

Interesting morality play. Very stupid as SF. But it was all we had back then so we watched it.

173:

I think a long comment of mine fell off the net somewhere between me and Charlie's server, so I posted it here:

http://climateundercontrol.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/how-to-write-science-fiction/

174:

It was a stone quarry, not a building site! I can be out-geeked but most people will have to work at it. :-P

That aside, I was referring to Fred and Barney's income level rather than their occupations as being "middle class".

175:

There's a lot of talk about something called the 'Dark Forest' theory in Chinese sci-fi at the moment, which, from what a non-speaker like myself can gather, is some kind of attempt to explain the Fermi Paradox along the same lines as Peter Watts - keep quiet or THEY will come and get you.

Pathlight is one place where I've found some recent Chinese fiction (not all of it sci-fi, but there is some). Issue 2 has been put online free.

176:

Can't the next generation of scientists and engineers get their ideas from, oh, political leaders, CEOs, the current generation of scientists/engineers, their fellow students? Why dump the responsibility on a bunch of people (largely) paid to entertain us?

(Rhetorical question, I suspect any author who replied with "Meh, not my problem" would have been edited out.)

177:

An important point you missed is that for the most part the news media do not exist to keep us informed; they exist to deliver our eyeballs to the advertisers who pay them.

News is mostly a form of entertainment. And to keep us coming back, night after night, morning after morning, the mass news media focus on the most addictive formula they can find: which happens to be a powerful depressant drug. Bad things happening to other primates make us stop and stare (for reasons which make perfect sense if you look at it in terms of evolutionary psychology[*]), so the news is systematically filled with bad things: with just a leavening, a unicorn chaser at the end so that you exit the experience without noticing how depressed it makes you.

All told, the world is not as bad as we are led to think it is. In fact, there's a lot of good news out there. For billions of people, today, the world they live in is a better place than it was a day ago, a year ago, let alone a century ago. But it's not prioritized in the media and not brought to our attention because it's not terribly good at selling advertising click-throughs.


[*] not that I'm endorsing ev. psych., but: sometimes it's a useful metaphor.

178:

And therein a big difference between the UK/US that wouldn't easily come to light. In the UK 'working class' families can often by quite cash rich, certainly more cash rich than upper class families and not infrequently more cash rich than middle class families*.

Working class is more akin to blue collar for the UK. Middle class is broadly white collar. There are some fussy and interesting special cases but it's a not unreasonable generalisation.

* There are, or were about a decade ago, a fair number documented cases of people giving up white-collar middle class jobs as accountants and the like to retrain as plumbers (lower class by UK standards) because the income stream was so much better.

Oh, and thank you for completely missing the point on The Jetsons.

179:

#68 - John Norman's Gor books? ;->

#95 - With the repeal of Glass-Steigel, the USians didn't just ignore the "Depression stones", but load them into trucks and haul them away. This was compounded by Greedy Gordon following suit in the UK.

#100 - I suspect you're a spammer. In case you're not. I can see some fundamental issues:-
1) The energy of a mass (either fluid flow or solid body) is Ke = 0.5*m*v^2. In other words it's a square function, not a 4th power one.
2) Your blinds can not be obviously vectored to keep them normal to the wind direction. Their efficiency will vary as the cosine of the yaw angle (taking the normal as 0 degrees).
3) Your kinematics problems have already been solved. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voith_Schneider_Propeller
4) Do you not think that people who live directly to the North of your blinds will object?

#102 - Please don't take this as snark Greg, but do you understand set theory? I can expand the reasoning behind the statement but unless you understand set theory you'd get nothing out of that either.

180:

Just to emphasize that point, what we are getting is all the worst possible news from 7 billion people compressed into half an hour or less and injected into our brain on a daily basis.

181:

You're proposing an existential threat.

There are half a dozen countries with defences against existential threats; they were terribly expensive to develop, require small navies of highly trained people to run and labs full of rocket scientists to build, are terribly expensive to maintain - Britain's small one costs as much as building a decent teaching hospital annually - and are utterly essential for so long as people keep making existential threats.


If you try to impose on a democratic society conditions which were regarded as unacceptably harsh to enforce on the losers of World War II, you'll get voted out of office. If you then remove democracy so as not to get voted out of office while doing such impositions, you're a clear and present danger to humanity, and on the whole fusion is a better way to die than famine.

182:

One author that has been translated from the Chinese I am aware of is Liu Cixin. One of his works is in the Pathlight mentioned in #175, but some of his novellas are also available.

Furthermore there are at least some short stories in Clarkesworld Magazine (eg A hundred ghost parade tonight by Xia Jia and The Fish of Lijiang both translaated by the excellent Ken Liu). But there is bound to be more.

183:

I should point out that London is not, actually, dying of thirst. I am in it right now. Yes, we've been having a drought, but then it rained solidly for two months. Also, the lurking variable here is that desalination is a *completely stupid idea*. The desalination plant in Beckton actually produces less water than the distribution network leaks.

The reason why this state of affairs was allowed to happen was that Boris Johnson, our mayor, didn't want Thames Water to dig up the streets and fix the leaks because he thought it held up the traffic, and so he permitted them to start desalinating.

184:

Okay, thanks for tracking that down. I'll stop citing it, and try to remember to point others to that link when they do.

So instead, substitute Answers in Genesis' ark: http://arkencounter.com/

... which got tax rebates from the state.

185:

Greg, how did you manage to miss that S.M. Stirling already said that in this thread? AND that LeGuin was quoting Tolkien ("the man" as SMS put it)?

On a more general note: Borges, Lovecraft, Vance, Corwainer Smith and Wolfe, among others, have already shown us ultimate or near ultimate ends to the SF process. And there will always be romanticism and sometimes it will take place in Teh Future with Ray Gunz. And there will still be next week's news report types of techno-thriller/SF. But I am fascinated to see what tomorrow's middle horizon SF will be like. I don't see people giving up on attempting that, even if it becomes riskier (or more depressing) every day.

186:

Such things as BoJo not fixing the leaks are always going to be an issue though. Someone, rarely someone as buffonish (IMO) as Boris but still someone, will always have to juggle priorities. Is fixing leaking pipes, almost certainly digging up streets and clogging traffic for quite some time in some places, a sensible balance?

Judging from your tone you think the balance should be to a less leaky water supply. I must admit as a non-Londoner, non-driver I also think so too - although I'm not sure how much weight my opinion should be given there.

But although I'm generally on the green side of the debate, it's a good, specific indication of why it's a debate. And why those impassioned on both sides just think the other side are mad.

187:

As any fule kno, Kirk doesn't read SF. It's all Shakespeare in space, my friend.

188:

Ahem: my take on him is that Bojo is emphatically not a buffoon: he merely plays one to perfection. Beneath the clown-hair, however, lurks one of the sharpest political minds in the UK, and a possible future leader of the Conservative party once Cameron finally pisses off the electorate.

I must confess I liked him better as editor of The Spectator.

189:

"Something as simple as seat belts made a huge difference in our lives in the 60s and 70s. People we knew quit being killed nearly as often. Vaccines, antibiotics, direct dialing, jet airplanes, cruise control on cars, color TVs (that actually had realistic color) that didn't cost 3 arms and 2 legs, walking on the moon, soda in cans that you did have to pay $.03 for, tires that lasted more than 10K miles and DIDN'T have inner tubes, answering machines, Catscans/MRIs, whatever. All of these changed our lives in very noticeable ways."

[USA viewpoint] And truly vast engineering projects. WWII (for the USA) was an incredibly government-run engineering program that did amazing things in a few years. After that, we had the interstate highway program which revolutionized regional travel, airports, the mass use of air travel (along with huge airports), and in California, vast water projects.
We went from airplanes being exotic to the Apollo mission. Socially, the USA went from being a very localized country to a country where people casually moved families thousands of miles.

This wave of changes took place from 1940-1970, only thirty years.

Think of what this would look like to an author born in 1920 or 1930.

190:

"As the man said, who is most obsessed with and hostile to the concept of "escape"?

Answer: prison guards."

And as somebody else pointed out, prison guards are against *escape*; escapism is something else entirely.

191:

Marvin Long: "And what chance will humans have in a place like Mars if we haven't learned to hack ourselves first?"

Stirling: "-- now, see, this is -exactly- what I meant.

Because "hack ourselves" translates into plain English as "give some people unlimited power over other people"."

Do a degree yes, and a degree no.

Take European colonization of the New World. People who emigrated 'hacked' their children - those children would be born in the New World, regardless of their wishes. And usually in circumstances where they would be unlikely to get back to the Old World.

192:

Don't do it; just take the time saved and read Cryptonomicon again :)

193:

"Another problem is the idea that people evolved in small, homogenous groups that all spoke the same language. Say what? Have you checked anything about number of languages in the world? That number has been going down for the last 500 years."

Where are you getting the idea that that was a general idea?

Of course languages diverged the minute that humans had that capacity. However, in terms of bilinqualism, until recently people lived in a small group which spoke a language, surrounded by groups of their (very slightly) more distant relative, who spoke a similar language.

194:

From most authors, it would have been fine. It was a better-than-average airport thriller. From Stephenson, it was a big disappointment, which is a real shame as it started so well.

195:

"Reamde" is a Stephen Bury novel, released under the Neal Stephenson brand because NS sells a whole lot better than SB. It's Stephenson-lite, but still fun, if you have a low taste for intelligent technothrillers. (At his worst, with one hand tied behind his back, NS can write rings around your average thriller author.)

196:

"There are Israelis, and Bosnians. They exist. My point is made."

IMHO, your logic is missing a few steps. Perhaps I should clarify, since you didn't understand my terse reply (although you seem to think that terse comments demonstrate something; perhaps we should both write in English):

People on Earth can have trouble with their neighbors. This trouble can result in trouble, and sometimes lots of deaths.

In space, staying alive is a rather difficult thing to do; it's equivalent to having an active and powerful neighbor trying to kill you.

Perhaps the best analogy is that in space, *everybody* is a guerrilla, striving to survive in a hostile land.

197:

[But today you don't need to read SF to get a sense of wonder high: you can just browse "New Scientist". We're living in the frickin' 21st century.]

I used to read about one SF book a week when I was younger, but now what's happening in the real world and popular science literature seems to be far more exciting and satisfying. Much of SF seems to have been taken over by the 'nay sayers'.

I want to roam the universe, create cyber-worlds, transcend the human condition, control my genome and live forever. SF used to supply this dream, but now (with a few exceptions) it's all about escaping to the past and accepting death as good and change as bad.

198:

"Your post made me think of Japanese villages that survived the last tsunami -- ones that hadn't built below the warning stones from the previous big tsunami. Smarter than the US, which needs Depression stones or something: "if you fail to regulate your banks and don't use stimulus in a crisis, this is what happens.""

The problem is that a bunch of liars, frauds, hacks and assorted scum spent decades removing those stones, so to speak.

The bigger problem is that in general, that bunch did not suffer from what they inflicted upon the world.

IMHO, future historians will put our period into a 'march of folly' series, after the current Crash becomes known as something like 'Crash II' (with 'Crash III' being known as 'The Big One').

199:

But today you don't need to read SF to get a sense of wonder high: you can just browse "New Scientist". We're living in the frickin' 21st century

I appreciate this point but the 21 century is only science fiction to those who grew up before it. Sure killer robots, smartphones, 10 people per CCTV camera etc might all seem like a science fiction novel to someone born in 1960 for those of us* who grew up with these things they are just the standard trappings of every day life.

Perhaps that's part of the problem that is loosely being suggested. Most of the different genres of SF aren't SF to the younger readers, trying to write something that fits their perspective of the future is an odd path to walk.

*I'm straddling this one a bit at the age of 23 but considering my pre-age-ten years are a barely remembered dream I class myself as a child of the 21st century.

200:

I can't ever quite decide whether he does the sharp things by accident or design. I think the stupidities outweigh the smart things, in ways that are hard to dismiss as cover.

What I suspect we might have is someone with moderately poor ability to think on his feet, and an unusually sharp analytical mind when allowed time to think. He tries to cover for the first with buffoonery and since a lot of political decisions actually require thought (despite the best efforts of several generations of politicians to refute this) he could be a very good leader.

Whether he will be... not so clear. Unless Cameron and Osborne pull a miracle, BoJo will be Mayor of London when the tories are looking for a new leader. Not he sure he can do both. Come 2023-ish when he could be the leader of the opposition trying to be PM... not sure how well he'll do.

201:

>>>In space, staying alive is a rather difficult thing to do

And 500 years ago, crossing the Atlantic ocean was a rather difficult thing to do. No reason to think the same thing won't happen with space travel, even WITHOUT taking transhumanism into account.

202:

I'm not sure I see the problem at all really.

The current trend of society is unsustainable for all the reasons mentioned - as you said in a 2011 round-up, we're in for a case of global "interesting times" here, we're close to the bit where capitalism goes to shit.

Surely the natural extrapolation for this isn't "everything keeps going to shit until it creates a massive dystopia", it's "people get fed up and we see something akin to the political changes at the start of the last century" instead, lots of experiments and lots of extremism - facsism and possibly communism rebranded and returning and a significant movement towards fiscal equality through changes towards social democracy without being explicitly named as such.

There's room for a lot of pessimism there, but also a lot of optimism, and likely that's going to vary depending on where on the political spectrum you find yourself.

A near future Europe or World with a far more varied set of economic conditions than the modern neoliberalism or bust, and a range of societies and laws that're far more fractious would actually be a fascinating setting.

Imagine all of the post globalisation detritus you'd have - nationalised call centres in India, abandoned settlements for the tourism of the super-rich in developing countries, and I'd say a crazy oppressive private police, prison and security apparatus infested USA, although that would imply that they got through unscathed, I guess.

203:

*facepalm.

I don't know where this idea of "Y time ago X was hard and now it's easy therefore Z time in the future W will be easy too!" came from or how it got so prevalant but it's one of the most common fallacious arguments I encounter these days.

Comparing the historical development of sailing with plausible future development of manned space travel is so disparate that "apples and oranges" doesn't even begin to cover it.

204:

paws4thot @ 179
My understanding of Set Theory is VERY basic.
I've never been formally taught it, nor had occasion to use it.

privelron@ 185
@cause I was (at least) half-asleep (duh!) I should know, since I've read both the authors quoted on the subject ....

elosie @ 186
Errr ... have you considered that, in fact both sides of the "green" so-called debate, are, in fact mad? BOTH of them?
Which certainly appears the case to me.
Which doesn't help, because there really is a set of serious [in the long-term] "green" problems - and no-one seems to be rither proposing sensible, practical affordable solutions, or is attempting to rubbish the idea that these problems truly exist.

205:

>>>>Comparing the historical development of sailing with plausible future development of manned space travel is so disparate that "apples and oranges" doesn't even begin to cover it.

Are my "apples and oranges" worse than the line of reasoning that goes "since space is hard now it will forever remain hard"?

A CRAPLOAD of stuff was hard/impossible in the past and is easy now. Submarines, airplanes, heart transplants, nuclear bombs (went from a superweapon of a superpower to something a hole like North Korea can build). Don't you think there is a trend of technologies getting easier/cheaper over time?

206:

Ah, that would explain it.

Ok, a set is a collection of items that fit a given criterion, say, "all the people I know". What I did was take that set and divide it according to further criteria:-
1) "People who comment on Charlie's diary".
I then excluded them from further work because they all read SF, and most or all of them have some mathematical knowledge.

2) "People who don't comment on Charlie's diary but know some maths". I presumed they would have some lay knowledge of Quantum Cryptography.
3) "People who don't comment on Charlie's diary but do read hard SF".

I then looked for the union of Sets (2) and (3), that is "People who know some maths, read hard SF and don't comment on Charlie's diary". This union proved to be empty. Hence I conjecture that, if my experience is typical, reviewers of Hannu's TQT are unlikely to posess a background that would allow them to notice the quantum cryptography and its effects on society.

NB - I've revised my original statement slightly on realising that there are some people I know who do have the background but wouldn't buy TQT.

207:

I missed this one earlier - I'd suggest that people who's neighbours have actively tried to kill them within living memory may have a different perspective to you on the statement "People have put up with their neighbours throught history".

208:

Crossing the Atlantic is a lot easier than it was. But both the Atlantic itself and the stratosphere over it are still radically hostile environments compared to the land and the littoral. If your ship sinks/aircraft crashes, your problem is serious. (You ask the passengers of Air France flight 447.)

This is why nobody actually lives in the Atlantic, rather than visiting when it's absolutely necessary to do so.

Space is much more hostile than the North Atlantic or the stratosphere, and even if we improve spacefaring as much relatively as we have seafaring, it's still going to be much more dangerous and difficult. Also, much of the improvement has been improvement in cost - you could cross the Atlantic relatively reliably in 1850, very comfortably in 1930, and very fast in 1976, but it was hideously expensive.

209:

I think it makes sense. Yes, hard vacumn will kill you; so will falling off a ship 1_000 miles from land if no-one notices that you've done so (and quite possibly even if they do).

I'm reasonably certain that no-one has ever tripped and fallen out of a spaceship between launch and recovery, or been swept off one by a vacumn...

210:

Re: 1) People who know what quantum cryptography is

What do they read?

(Always on the lookout for new stuff.)

211:

Are my "apples and oranges" worse than the line of reasoning that goes "since space is hard now it will forever remain hard"?

Different fallacy but to be honest I can't see where anyone was saying that it will always be hard.

A CRAPLOAD of stuff was hard/impossible in the past and is easy now. Submarines, airplanes, heart transplants, nuclear bombs (went from a superweapon of a superpower to something a hole like North Korea can build). Don't you think there is a trend of technologies getting easier/cheaper over time?

Firstly I would argue that there is a larger crapload of stuff that still is hard/impossible. Secondly whilst there has been a positive trend in technological development in many fields I don't think that this is a trend that can be applied sweepingly accross the board, I actually think it is damaging to do so as it blinds you to dealing with reality. Lastly I'm always very wary of erroneous extrapolation. The last century has seen a nice amount of technological development but that says absolutely nothing about future development.

Yesterday's sucess says little about whether or not you will succeed (less, the same, more) tomorrow or run into a brick wall. And that brick wall might be possible to overcome but we don't know the solution, we might not know if it is possible to overcome or we might know that it is impossible to overcome. We just can't judge given yesterday's success.

212:

I've a reasonable amount of cryptographic experience, and I didn't see how Rannu's quantum cryptography was meaningfully or story-formingly different from the conventional public-key cryptography underlying a lot of Karl Schroeder.

213:

One thing Bruce Sterling's style makes clear is that people live in role-playing systems. The systems lay out what is good and bad, what classes of character exist, what kinds of moves are possible, the ways that people can relate to one another. The systems often do not have personal happiness as a goal. As readers we are pleased to see the characters find happiness, but it's only a peripheral concern to them. So far as I can tell, this is a pretty good description of how people actually act. The line between playing a game and actual belief is so blurred as to be meaningless.

Bruce reifies these systems, making them into objects that can be studied and modified.

Another of his shorts in Gothic High-tech, "The Lustration", manages to describe an entire world of people who have fully assimilated the idea of sustainability. It's an epic idea, to have a whole slighly corrupt world, complete with dodgy cops and secret societies, that has the necessity of sustainable resource management as a background assumption that everyone is devoted to. It's far weirder than the fact that they are all giant lizards.

I find myself hating a lot of heros in science fiction and fantasy, who only dream of the restoration of normalcy. Villains at least imagine a different world. Stories where the protagonist looks at the normal world, finds it wanting, and sets out to improve it, are pretty thin on the ground. And the problems we face are the sort of slow-boil problems that require people to do this. We need a way to unlock that headspace.

214:

Because quantum cryptography is cool and new, and public key cryptography is oh so very nineties*.

HTH

*except when being broken by quantum computers, in which case it is very noughties.

215:

Sorry, but choice of job is historically associated with 'class'. So unless you're a 'gentleman farmer' i.e., the job is a hobby and all other factors identify you as belonging to another 'class', if you're a tradesman, then you belong to the 'working class'.

Excerpts from Wiki:
"Middle-class" is typically defined by education, wealth, environment of upbringing, social network, manners or values, etc. The following are typical modern definers of "middle class": College, university education; Holding professional qualifications, i.e., academics, lawyers, chartered engineers, politicians and doctors regardless of their leisure or wealth; House ownership; Cultural identification. Often in the United States, the middle class are the most eager participants in pop culture whereas the reverse is true in Britain.

216:

@Alex & Orv and the rest

The primary cause of the water situation in London, as expected, is political. There is a fundamental lack of reservoirs to buffer demand in the south east.
Back in 2000 it was known that the increase in population would require increased infrastructure, and this was included in the water companies 25-year plans in 2004. They proposed something in the order of 5 new reservoirs to be constructed.

Every plan was rejected at the planning stage by government inspectors (under Labour no less), who claim that, if people would only use less water, the reservoirs would not be needed.
The official DEFRA water plan from 2008 stated that per capita water usage would be cut from 150 L/day to 120 L/day. This was a 20% reduction, which as yet hasn't really eventuated.
So it is government policy that we should use 20% less water. With more people turning up all the time expecting their share...
As someone said above, a policy of hoping people will get by on less than they currently have is madness, whether the thing is water, energy, bread or circuses.

217:

Unincorporated Man is quasi/spacey Ayn Rand...

218:

I think your question betrays a problem. "Both sides of the green debate are made" implies there are precisely two sides. I would argue that there are foaming, frothing mad voices at the extremes, but in the middle there are a range of voices that are harder to hear and often contain reasonable, rational views.

I'm fairly sure, to use my previous example BoJo thinks that water leaking from pipes is a problem. It's less important to him than traffic congestion. There doesn't have to be frothing, although the voices that you are most likely to hear will be the frothing ones - read the rest of the thread about the news as fear-inducing drama between adverts for reasons if you need to.

Perhaps it's being British, or a teacher, or any of a number of things - but I can think people are mistaken without thinking they're the devil incarnate. Michael Hesseltine springs to mind: I don't think I ever agreed with any of his politics. He did, however, manage to explain how he'd reached enough of them that even when I (inevitably) disagreed, I could respect it was rational, analysed response based on what he believed was best. Shouting at him - not useful. Working to challenge his values rationally and change his results based on that might well have worked.

Maggie - not so much. Despite her background, I never believed she thought about the problem rationally - I believe she thought about how to present her idealogical solution so as to appeal to most of the electorate. Not necessarily a bad trait in a politician I guess although as you become more senior, increasingly worrying to the thinking members of the electorate. But then there's something incredibly hypocritical about the SoS for Education that signed the approval for the most selective schools to convert to comprehensives getting elected on the basis of "no more comprehensives" don't you think?

219:

In my abberant decoding, REAMDE is doing something slightly clever: it's a story told from within a MMORPG based on the real world - with a more obvious fantasy MMORG running inside it. As well as T'Rain, there's a game (of cops n robbers).

@Greg: Me too, found Quantum Thief incomprehensible. I give it another go every so often, one day I'll get it.

Ps I do know one major world player in quantum crypto who reads SF- but he's more of a Fred Hoyle fan. In fact he recommended The Black Cloud as the definitive model on how to build and staff critical research facilities.

220:

While the Brooklyn Bridge is not in brooklyn, per se, there are several bridges in brooklyn. I doubt any of them are for sale.

Metropolitan & Grand cross a small bridge over Newtown Creek in the East Williamsburg Industrial Zone.

278 crosses a bridge over the Gowanus Canal (as does 9th street and several other).

/nitpicky brooklyn resident

221:

And speaking of abridged in Brooklyn, I know of a guy whose staging of Hamlet there didn't even include the "To be or not to be" monologue.

222:

"I was born in the '30s. My dream was indoor plumbing." -Don Draper

Some one writing hard sci-fi in the mid-20th century was living a life magically transformed by technology. Cars, planes, electricity, radio, TV, movies, antibiotics, not to mention the sheer accumulation of consumer stuff that was beginning, meant their physical life was fundamentally different than the one they grew up in.

Now the politics sucked at that time, ideology was deadly, civilization threatening. So if we could just kill off the ideologues then technology would save us.

These days we take the benefits of technology for granted but we are very aware of the problems technology caused as well as the left over ones it could not solve. And ideology is an order of magnitude less deadly, we slaughter 100,000's instead of millions in the name of whatever false idol we are worshiping this decade. Scoff all you want, that is true progress.

So our sci-fi is less positive about tech, more positive about ideology than the past.

I do think this project though represents a change in the thinking about the future. I think the second half of the 20th century we took tech progress for granted baring a nuclear war. Now we are not so certain. That makes speculating on tech 100 years from now much more interesting.

223:

That depends on what you mean by "our current standard of living." A friend of mine ran the numbers and is trying to get down to consuming 2 tonnes CO2e/person-year (the rough level at which, if everyone had the same emissions, the climate would tend to stabilize). That requires such incredible austerities as owning a bicycle but not a car; not flying most years; eating meat a few times a week instead of a few times a day; living in a modest house with wood heating; spending a few hours a week kneeling in a garden instead of watching the telly; and buying less consumer goods. He lives in Australia, hardly a friendly environment. Even in 1950, there were lots of Europeans and North Americans who would have jumped to trade that way of life for their own.

One problem with sustainability is that it requires quantitative thinking about issues with serious moral implications. Most people find that very hard. I haven't run the numbers enough myself.

224:

"We are living in a sci-fi dystopia."

"No we are not.
We are doing just fine and the rest of the developing world is doing better."

But that was the point of Charlie's essay, that honest hard sci-fi is no longer popular because it is no longer positive. If you disagree with that premise then you'll need more than a simple assertion to convince me. America, from my point of view, is not 'just fine'.

It's nice to hear that the developing world is full of optimism. I hear their science fiction is top-notch also. Maybe science fiction can only be popular in a forward-looking society, and the explosion of American sci-fi in the 1940-1970 era was just an aberration?

225:

Well, I've not actually read any of Karl's books, so I can't comment there.

226:

Yesterday's sucess says little about whether or not you will succeed (less, the same, more) tomorrow or run into a brick wall. And that brick wall might be possible to overcome but we don't know the solution, we might not know if it is possible to overcome or we might know that it is impossible to overcome. We just can't judge given yesterday's success.

But isn't that exactly the sort of "what if?" idea that SF is good at?

Take the "teleport" device OGH was speculating about a few posts back. While Charlie was interested in the security aspects, clearly it also removed the high $ cost of launch to orbit. Which has huge implications for the idea that it is hard to live (or even spend time) in space.

OGH says "Whether earnest depictions of young people in space suits wrangling asteroids and bringing home the carbonaceous chondrites actually make sense is another matter entirely; I'm inclined to think that it's a rather implausible future, unless the earnest young people are robots. Tinned apes don't survive exposure to vacuum and cosmic radiation very well, after all.

That sounds to me somewhat of a straw man argument, depending on the vision one has. If human minds must be within proximity to machines, then they will be encased in nice spacecraft, controlling robots. They won't be donning spacesuits and doing EVAs. Just as submariners don't have deep sea hard suits, or airline passengers have parachutes. If a teleport device existed, people could take short shifts on a spacecraft until their exposure limits were reached. [ That is an idea I haven't personally read ]. My guess is that economics and politics are more at issue in asteroid mining. But then this is possibly a fallacious VSP argument as Krugman would say.

To answer the OP question. Keep putting together ideas and composing entertaining tales. And don't worry about the getting out dated issue. I still enjoy old SF whose ideas look strange - like solving orbital trajectories with an abacus (Clarke) or interstellar ones with "lookup" tables (Heinlein).

227:

>>>But that was the point of Charlie's essay, that honest hard sci-fi is no longer popular because it is no longer positive.

1. That depends on your definition of positive. For example, the world of "Glasshouse" is so utopian Charlie had to invent genocidal computed worm just to add some action. And the people of Glasshouse are supposed to be the ones left the behind when everyone else basically ascended to godhood.

2. Wait a minute. When was sci-fi truly popular?

228:

Ah, no. That's a rather bizarre reading of "Glasshouse".

229:

GREAT ESSAY!!! The future ain't what it used to be.

One problem is that science fiction failed to teach enough people science. That is partly why our high tech present is so dumb. It is not the fault of SF though. In four years of English Lit in high school the powers that be had us read 4 SF stories. 1984 and Brave New World of course. Fahrenheit 451 and Rescue Party by Arthur C. Clarke.

How can we deal with global warming when people don't understand science and still love cars. And can't explain how a piston engine works. I asked a PhD economist about that.

What is so great about BIG NEW IDEAS when the people who say they love SF don't really understand the Big OLD Ideas? They just pretend to. Newtonian Physics anyone?

230:

Haven't seen it. I don't intend to, either. I'm waiting for the remake where everyone is naked, like in the original stories by ERB.

In the meantime I think I'll go read "Quantum Thief" by that Finn whose name sounds like he comes from Farofistan. From the summaries I've read it looks less difficult to read than "Gravity's Rainbow". I loved that novel by Pynchon because it was full of humor, and the odd bits of Science here and there.

231:

Gracious. I have to confess, when I mentioned the idea of "hacking ourselves" I had in mind nothing as grand as SM Stirling's backfiring utopias or even parents genetically modifying their children.

I was just thinking of things that today would probably fit in the self-help genre (e.g. "Mind Hacks") but which, in time, might give us insight into how better to manage our lives both as individuals and groups (where "better" means more overall happiness and fewer self-inflicted disasters). Practical philosophy for the benefit of ordinary people, but based on real psychological, sociological, and neurological science instead of folk psychology and whatever the latest business management or advertising fad happens to be.

It seems to me there's a big gap between wanting that kind of practical knowledge, on the one hand, and aspiring to "perfect" human beings according to some guru's or eugenicist's artificial standard, on the other.

And it seems to me that if we're going to establish a population that must subsist for an indefinite period in circumstances where tiny errors have the potential to cause mass death because there's no escape -- such as in a Martian colony -- then having reliable practical knowledge about how to maximize happiness while minimizing social dysfunction would be pretty valuable.

232:

A neat thing about Gravity's Rainbow is that the word exactly in the middle of the book is "centre". Or so I'm told, I really don't have the time or energy to check.

233:

Dammit, you should have preceded that with a spoiler alert!

Now I might as well stop counting.

234:

>>>Ah, no. That's a rather bizarre reading of "Glasshouse".

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Death_of_the_author

Charlie, if you need to tell me how to read your books, you are doing something wrong. 8-)

But seriously, "Glasshouse" is full-on post-scarcity. You can have anything and be anything. If that's not utopia, what is? So obviously you need genocidal world war and hideous villains to keep it from being boring (and to think that better anti-virus could prevent it all LOL).

OK, the Vile Offsprings and Ainekos of the universe are probably having the time of their lifes somewhere, but you can't really write a book from the POV of Great Old Gods...

235:

what do we do next?

1) Go back, read and be inspired by the manifestos around Moorcock's New Worlds and "New Wave" in the late 60s. Use new literary tools to break out of the "SciFi-Fantasy" genre straitjacket. Above all make it good literature as well as a collection of interesting ideas.

2) Continue Le Guin's explorations of alternative political cultures. Especially promoting discussion and acceptance of the existence of credible alternatives to right wing authoritarian capitalism (RWAC). Before RWAC makes fools of us all.

Bonus Link. It's TL;DR but essential reading for this topic. http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2012/05/09/welcome-to-the-future-nauseous/ "Even the nearest of near-term science fiction seems to evolve at some fixed receding-horizon distance from the present."

236:

@76:
I always considered the "Culture" to be a rather horrific dystopia.
---
There are still one of two of those I haven't read, so it's possible I haven't yet encountered the answer to the question I've had since the first book: "Why do biological beings exist in the Culture at all?" The AIs run the means of production and transport, manage whatever system substitutes for an economy, and serve as a government in case of war, where they're also the main military force.

It could be that Banks has simply ignored the question for the sake of creating a story, but it causes problems in the "exactly why is this happening?" department...

237:

>>>"Why do biological beings exist in the Culture at all?" The AIs run the means of production and transport, manage whatever system substitutes for an economy, and serve as a government in case of war, where they're also the main military force.

Having not read the books, I can only assume that biological being exist because they don't want to ascend, and the AIs allow them to exist because, this being utopia, the AIs are moral beings who have the same morals as the humans.

238:

@104:
How does the idea of parents hacking their children not seem terrifying to you?
---
Parental selection determines the child's genetic material, right off the bat.

If the embryo shows up with any of several anomalies, they may choose to abort and start over.

After birth, they may choose to have any birth defects corrected surgically.

Then, assuming the parents are diligent, they attempt to program the child to conform to current social and ethical standards.

How's that not "hacking"?

If you're talking about fine-level genetic manipulation, I fervently wish it had been possible for my own parents to edit out the allergies that make my life a misery for half of every year, and I'm still curious about this "color vision" thing which, frankly, sounds like some sort of mass delusion.

239:

The thing is, science fiction that takes scientific details seriously at all has always been rare compared with science fiction that used vaguely sciencey stuff to make stories interesting.

240:

>>>The thing is, science fiction that takes scientific details seriously at all has always been rare compared with science fiction that used vaguely sciencey stuff to make stories interesting.

That's because to take scientific details seriously you need to deeply understand them - to be a scientist, in other words. And scientists usually, you know, do science.

And even if the author is a scientist, he still can only deeply understand the details of his particular area of expertise. Scientists who are experts in Physics, Biology and Informatics at the same time are vanishingly rare.

241:

Science fiction is all you say it is -- and also all you say it isn't.

Analogy: Let's say the works of the Marquis de Sade, romance novels, Christian fiction, fiction about kangaroos, and several other kinds of fiction were lumped into one category/genre. What would one say this category/genre was about?

242:

"If SF is a product of Enlightenment utopianism, and utopianism is dead...." There was utopianism before the Enlightenment.

Whether or not Enlightenment utopianism is dead, there is still living utopianism. Ecotopia, The Turner Diaries....

243:

"Because discussion of the far future depends upon whether we get through the next hundred years."

Not really. If life survives at all on Earth, another intelligent species will eventually evolve. Relatively soon if primates survive; relatively late if the only survivors are microbes deep below the surface.

244:

Mayhem @ 216
EXCEPT in the Lea Valley, where the (fed by surface run-off from large tributary of Thames) reservoirs are completely brim-full.
Note, because "Thames Water " (spit) are our supplier we still have a hosepipe ban - couse OTHER pats of London rely on undergound aquifers which are definitely on the low side.
London is an artesian basin, remember.
Oh, and curing all the pipe-leaks wuld go a long way towards allievating the shortage, but they are (finally) doing something about that.

Eloise @ 218
Point takken - your modification is correct.
But those voices of reason are largely ignored ....

@236&7
The AI's in the Culture also regard the Humans a FUN - & un[redictable, and useful, when things go pear-shaped in ways they don't expect - hence SC.

Anatoly @ 24
Which is why some of us are still mourning the death of Charles Sheffield.

245:

@163: Has anyone constructed a working industrial-scale breeder reactor yet? My understanding was that small-scale ones had produced small amounts of new fuel but that large-scale ones (like the Fermi plant in Detroit) had failed to breed any significant amount of fissionable fuel and been found to be less economical than conventional reactors. Like nuclear fusion energy, breeders seem to be one of those ideas that sounds great in theory and has, for the last 40 or 50 years, always been "just a decade" of expensive funding away from fruition...


@169: Pretty sure by the "iodine hack" he means the increase in IQ that we got by making sure pregnant mothers got sufficient amounts of iodide in their diets -- mainly by adding it to table salt.

Tidal is very limited site-wise, and the nuclear fuel cycle is very energy-intensive (and, again, largely subsidized by fossil fuels.) The promise of nuclear power "too cheap to meter" never really materialized; just building a plant turns out to be an incredibly expensive and resource-intensive process, and then in 30 years you have to seal it up forever and build another.


@209: I think also that part of the difference is that, other than needing to avoid drowning and bring lots of vitamin C, there was nothing inherent in our biology that made sailing bad for us. That's emphatically not the case for space travel. The wasting effects of microgravity and the damaging effects of high-energy radiation are much more difficult to overcome than just realizing you need to bring along a big pile of citrus fruit.


@216: "As someone said above, a policy of hoping people will get by on less than they currently have is madness, whether the thing is water, energy, bread or circuses."

Which is exactly why we're never going to significantly affect climate change. When you really put together the information from the various experts explaining what we'd have to do, you realize we'll never do it. We'd have to give up things like air travel, personal transportation, having a balanced diet year-round (no hothouse tomatoes, no asparagus flown in from Peru) and possibly even having running water and central heating in our houses. Basically we'd have to wind human civilization back to the 1700s. But then, we'll have to do those things anyway when we run out of oil…

246:

>>>The wasting effects of microgravity and the damaging effects of high-energy radiation are much more difficult to overcome than just realizing you need to bring along a big pile of citrus fruit.

They are difficult now, but we already know how to overcome them. Solution for the first one is rotational gravity. Solution for the second is whatever mechanisms Deinococcus radiodurans uses.

247:

"The last century has seen a nice amount of technological development but that says absolutely nothing about future development."

And we've seen a lot of plateauing of exponential growth curves. No manned Mars mission in the 1980's.

248:

> Any answers gratefully received.

Interesting enough, I already have some answers posted on my blog (http://www.pinknoise.net/2012/03/23/optimism-and-darkness-in-science-fiction) and also on Lynda Williams' blog (http://okalrel.org/blog/?p=1595).

As to quantum cryptography in Quantum Thief, I refrained from commented on it for one simple reason: the book got it very, very wrong, so I didn't want to embarrass the author. Basically, he confused encryption with access control.

In the story, access to data is controlled basically by whether the user is able to decrypt it, which means that the data actually is sent. This is not only extremely inefficient (why send any data at all if the user isn't meant to read it?) but also unsafe (because the user actually does have the entire data, even if in an encrypted form; and there are ways to partially decrypt even quantum-encrypted data). The correct access control mechanism should decide whether to grant access regardless of the data's full content (except, perhaps, of some metadata tags), based mainly on the user and request contexts.

249:

>>>No manned Mars mission in the 1980's.

No, but what once done by superpowers is now done by private investors (see: SpaceX Dragon). What was once expensive military projects are now mass products (see: GPS, satellite communication). Space technology IS getting easier.

250:

Not really. If life survives at all on Earth, another intelligent species will eventually evolve.

Ya think?

We have very little prior evidence to reason with, but I'd say what evidence we have suggests that our kind of intelligence (as opposed to, say, bottlenose dolphins or African grey parrots) is very rare/unlikely.

And even if something else comes along that thinks like us, we've used up enough of the easily-accessible resources that they're unlikely to be able to develop beyond the early iron age.

251:

"No, but what once done by superpowers is now done by private investors (see: SpaceX Dragon)."

Still paid for by government.

252:

The old tired argument. I guess SpaceX should have declined the offer to remain purely private... ;-P

253:

"like the Fermi plant in Detroit"

There was a breeder in Detroit? I got a tour of the Fermi II before it was loaded, and I don't recall the guide saying anything about a breeder.

254:

One intriguing variant of the Fermi paradox is that in hundreds of millions of years human-intelligent-type life has only evolved once on Earth. We're it. Other forms of adaptation seem to have evolved many times independently of each other, but not tool-building language-using war-making intelligence.

I think I may have read that first here.

It's not true that future intelligences would find natural resources used up. With the very important exception of fossil fuels, it's all lying around in cities and landfills. And they might find some other means of manipulating the environment, perhaps through biological engineering.

255:

"No, but what once done by superpowers is now done by private investors (see: SpaceX Dragon). What was once expensive military projects are now mass products (see: GPS, satellite communication). Space technology IS getting easier."

No, what was once done *the first time* by superpowers is, in *some* cases, being done, a little bit, by private investors. And in the case of SpaceX, ISTR that they will be getting significant US govt funding for cargo runs to the ISS.

256:

What's a good source of information on quantum computing and quantum encryption, for someone without a lot of engineering or science background? I'll Google it but I thought someone here might know of a source that's not on the front page of Google results.

257:

"The old tired argument. I guess SpaceX should have declined the offer to remain purely private... ;-P"

It's not an old tired argument; it's the difference between doing some suborbital shots and consistent cargo service.

258:

Why do many SF readers prefer escapism? The pro-genocide entity sometimes known as Stevar has for once come close to the truth, but as always, he fumbles the ball.

The critics of escapism aren't analogous to prison guards. The consumers of escapism are analogous to prisoners: prisoners of the mind. They feel constrained by the real world, as delightful and awe-inspiring as the world actually is. They're not satisfied with the universe, whether for sociological, psychological, or neurological reasons.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is necessarily an anti-realistic thing. And as more and more is known about how the universe works -- as the traditional topics of golden age SF have become less and less mysterious -- there is less and less room to maneuver to tell stories in that mode which comfort the imprisoned mind. Many prisoners have shifted entirely away from that mode, preferring the openly fantastic to relieve the tyranny of their sentence. Others succumb to belief systems which are aggressively anti-fact.

Make no mistake: comforting the imprisoned is a noble activity. But so is rehabilitating them.

So. Framing Charlie's question this way I think helps answer his question. What's the next Big Idea out there for SF to use? Putting the reader back into the real universe and making it an interesting and satisfying place to live. The future is already here, right? Embrace it.

259:

There is no money to be made in a purely private space launch company with government being a "customer". Even Arianespace with 50% of the commercial market can barely turn a profit.

260:

"without govt being a customer"

261:

We went from airplanes being exotic to the Apollo mission. Socially, the USA went from being a very localized country to a country where people casually moved families thousands of miles.

This wave of changes took place from 1940-1970, only thirty years.

Think of what this would look like to an author born in 1920 or 1930.

This is what the Show Mad Men is about. All the characters were born between the 1890s and 1940s, and we're watching them go through the 60s, when all that social and technological change came to a head. It was even obliquely pointed out in one episode, where an elderly receptionist died in the office. Burt Cooper, the oldest of the partners, eulogized her by saying she was an astronaut. She was born in a log cabin and died in a sky scraper, 30 stories in the air.

As the series has gone on it's become clear that it's about these characters who were raise din one world and now find themselves living in another one they couldn't have imagined growing up and confounded daily by the differences between expectation and experience.

Mad Men is one of the most SFnal shows on television even though its fantastical elements are restricted to the occasional dream sequence or drug trip. But it addresses the very core concept of Speculative Fiction, especially of the New Wave variety (hell, I'd swear Season 5 was written by JG Ballard if I didn't know he was dead).

I think ultimately this is why it doesn't seem like SF has a purpose any more, because all of our contemporary fiction has become SFnal. Even the straight realistic period dramas address themes that were until recently, the purview of the SF/F genre.

Now that all fiction is addressing large social, technological and existential dilimas through conscious lens of "what if", all that's left is too choose your tropes and setitngs. You can set your drama in an ad agency in 60s Manhatatn or on a space ship in the 24th century. But it's going to address the same topics (which of course bring sme back around to defending escapism as a valid and even necesary element of story telling. Esacapism works both ways, moving forward nd backwards in time).

262:

As to quantum cryptography in Quantum Thief, I refrained from commenting on it for one simple reason: the book got it very, very wrong, so I didn't want to embarrass the author. Basically, he confused encryption with access control.

In the story, access to data is controlled basically by whether the user is able to decrypt it, which means that all those terabytes of data actually get sent. This is not only extremely inefficient (why send any data at all if the user isn't meant to read it? imagine the traffic!) but also unsafe (because the user actually does have the entire data, even if in an encrypted form; and there are ways to gain some partial knowledge about even quantum-encrypted data). The correct access control mechanism should decide whether to grant access regardless of the data's full contents (except, perhaps, of some metadata tags), based mainly on the user and request contexts.

263:

Or just plain mass for radiation protection. Add EM fields for deflecting charged particles if needed.

With all the dangerous, life shortening work already done, angsting over the dangers of spaceflight does not seem very rational to me.

264:

The Fermi I reactor was a sodium-cooled fast breeder prototype. It partially melted down in 1966, was intermittently operated again until 1972, but was never really fully operational again.

265:

One thing about your essay though, is that it seems to be written for adults with experience in science fiction. What about 10 year old kids that are just learning what an orbit is? Once upon a time that was a BIG IDEA though not any longer in the world of adults. But every kid has to come across that idea a first time even though it is old hat in general for SF.

Much of the criticism of SF is as though its educational usefulness for youngsters is irrelevant. And then we end up with kids who can't read. Not to mention the bad science scores. That is really embarrassing for the nation that put men on the Moon.

266:

> Any answers gratefully received.

Interestingly enough, I already have some answers posted on my blog (http://www.pinknoise.net/2012/03/23/optimism-and-darkness-in-science-fiction) and also, more crecently, on Lynda Williams' OkalRel blog.

267:

OTHER pats of London rely on undergound aquifers which are definitely on the low side.
London is an artesian basin, remember.
Oh, and curing all the pipe-leaks wuld go a long way towards allievating the shortage, but they are (finally) doing something about that.

Leaking pipes are wasteful, yes. But as you point out yourself, London is mostly fed from aquifers in that basin. When the water leaks out underground, where does it go? It has to go somewhere, and the answer is that a goodly proportion of it just ends up back in the same aquifer, filtered one more time.

It's the energy taken to pump it up in the first place that may be considered most wasted.

Pipes that burst at the surface are another matter. We were driving back from a party in the early hours one morning and almost drove into this. (It was only a few feet deep across the road at that time, but only one lane of the three on our side had been coned off. From our view, it merely looked as though the underpass levelled off with less head room that usual.)

268:

substitute Answers in Genesis' ark: http://arkencounter.com/ ... which got tax rebates from the state.

Ah, yes. I had forgotten about the Ark park. Ken Ham is a blight on the world of "science". Many Christians AND non Christians feel that way.

As to the tax breaks, this park qualified for them as a profit making institution without special favors. So they get them. I'm in no way a fan of KH or AIG and feel their message is wrong on so many levels but the tax breaks were due to them building a tourist attraction that will employ 100s of people and bring $1 millions to the state.

But hey. It will fit right in with the Big Butter Jesus, if they rebuild it, and the creation museum.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_of_Kings_%28statue%29

269:

Sorry, but choice of job is historically associated with 'class'. So unless you're a 'gentleman farmer' i.e., the job is a hobby and all other factors identify you as belonging to another 'class', if you're a tradesman, then you belong to the 'working class'.

I suspect we're very much into a UK vs. US implied meaning of the term. This is NOT how the terms work in the US. And I took the initial context based on the Flintstone's and Jetson's being originally from the US.

270:

I'm waiting for the remake where everyone is naked, like in the original stories by ERB.

So the books I read in the 60s were edited to have everyone with clothes? Princes Lea/Jabba the Hut clothes but clothes none the less.

271:

France's Phénix and Russia's BN-350 were both connected to the grid in 1973. They worked fine and breed fuel. They were not profitable, we have copious supplies of uranium, so breeding more fuel isn't a priority. Nevertheless, we have the technology.

The energy costs of producing nuclear fuel are included in the EROI figures for nuclear power. Yes, building a nuke plant is expensive and resource-intensive process, but justified because they produce far more energy than they require to build. The current best review article on EROI calculations is Murphy & Hall, 2010 if you want to know more about what is or isn't included in the numbers: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.05282.x/pdf

272:

That sounds like an unnecessary degree of roughing it. I bike to work when it is sunny or sit reading on an electric trolley bus powered by wind turbines when it is raining; live in a (mostly) solar-heated house; have replaced flying for work with videoconferencing so that an hour's meeting with someone at the other end of the country takes me one hour, rather than one day; and haven't eaten meat for decades now, as I don't want anyone to murder animals on my behalf.

I share a car with three other people, so there's one here if I need it, but seriously, sitting wasting my time in traffic? Sod that for a laugh, I'd rather do something I enjoy.

273:

Interesting set of qualifications on intelligence there. But actually there are quite a few tool using species, several that seem to use language or a sort, and a few that seem to fight wars.

If we have a sudden massive depletion of humans thanks to a biological incident (so there's a good chance of the remaining species broadly surviving) where would the other primates, sea otters and the like be in a few thousand generations I wonder? How much are they out-competed for resources etc. by humans and without that competition where would they be?

If you posit a different disaster, knocking things back to insects only our admittedly small sample suggests there's a 100% chance of an evolutionary niche for a tool-using, language using, social animal appearing. Evolution generally works to exploit EVERY niche it can find.

I'm certainly not pretending humans will re-evolve, but I'd be pretty surprised, if we have a biosphere capable of supporting largish organisms, if something that we might recognise as intelligent doesn't evolve.

274:

The higher the level of complexity in a system, the rarer it is. That's all there is to the Fermi Paradox, really.

275:

Sean: "How about this: Rather than trying to mold the world to our liking using science and technology, maybe people rediscover the art of molding your mind to like (or at least tolerate) the world."

I recently got to go to a talk given by Neal deGrasse Tyson. Here is a scientist who nearly revels with enthusiasm about the unimaginable indifference of the universe to the fate of a certain pale blue dot: "There's so much out there to discover and learn and understand!"

276:

Rather than trying to mold the world to our liking using science and technology, maybe people rediscover the art of molding your mind to like (or at least tolerate) the world.

I don't think I want to ever like Polio, starvation due to drought, the inability to walk due to a severely broken bone, freezing to death because I didn't chop enough firewood in the summer, etc...

277:

@108:
I've also long been fascinated by the dismissive criticism of escapism.
---
"Star Trek" was escapist, because it was popular entertainment. "The Lord of the Rings" was literature, because it was taught in college courses.

278:

@132:
In the 1950s, building trades workers were middle class.
---
Back up to the early 1950s, "salesman" was considered to be a desirable, high-status job, white collar with a fast track into upper management.

We're not talking about the sullen clerk at the department store, but something now considered to be a step lower than that - "traveling salesman."

When people were mostly stuck on the farm, the idea of being paid to go out in the world and talk to people was quite the thing. And the old-style markups between manufacturing, distributing, wholesaling, and retailing meant there was a nice cut of the profits for a successful salesman.

279:

re Damien@146:

I agree with everything you propose. Nevertheless, the energy tax you propose would probably, at this point, be insufficient to stop runaway global warming, or severe enough to crash the economy and kill millions, or both. And if China doesn't come on board with it (China won't), it's for naught.

In other words, what you're saying was a damn good idea when Jimmy Carter said it in the late 1970s, but our options have narrowed since then.

280:

Maggie - not so much. Despite her background, I never believed she thought about the problem rationally - I believe she thought about how to present her idealogical solution so as to appeal to most of the electorate.

Although Maggie -- who had a degree in Chemistry and studied under Dorothy Hodgkin no less -- was pretty much uniquely qualified as a politician to understand the problem with chlorofluorocarbons and to her credit she did help push through measures to protect the ozone layer globally.

How many current politicians really, viscerally understand that the Science is non-negotiable? It's not a position that can be varied to achieve balance between competing interests. It is what experiment tells us it is.

281:

re Anatoly @246:

Deinococcus radiodurans is a bacterium, a very simple organism. Assuming that you could splice its genetic repair functionality into humans is rather like assuming that you could take the video screen out of your phone, glue it to the dashboard of a beat-up Honda, and have the car from Knight Rider.

282:

@241:
Science fiction is all you say it is -- and also all you say it isn't.
Analogy: Let's say the works of the Marquis de Sade, romance novels, Christian fiction, fiction about kangaroos, and several other kinds of fiction were lumped into one category/genre.
---
I don't know what you'd call it, but looking at the stuff that falls under the "romance" genre these days, I bet it would sell...

283:

Deinococcus radiodurans is a bacterium, a very simple organism. Assuming that you could splice its genetic repair functionality into humans is rather like assuming that you could take the video screen out of your phone, glue it to the dashboard of a beat-up Honda, and have the car from Knight Rider.

And if it turns out to be possible, how is it NOT transhumanism?

284:

It's not true that future intelligences would find natural resources used up. With the very important exception of fossil fuels, it's all lying around in cities and landfills.

Which in just a few short centuries won't even be cities or landfills anymore, just places where certain complex chains of hydrocarbons can be found in curious abundance, alongside veins of other materials.

Future alien historians will argue over why, at a certain depth, compressed patches of silicon appear in regular patterns that eerily hint at an intelligent arrangement.

285:

And Mad Men even has a character who writes science fiction. I was impressed that he mentions Galaxy as a magazine where he had a story published. Nice research by someone! Although perhaps that someone was a Mad Men writer who was also fan and didn't have to research it -- he just knew it.

I was going to make a wisecrack about the writer being unrealistic in that he is presented as handsome, well-dressed, and possibly the only well-adjusted character on the show. But after all this is the mid-60s -- perhaps he made his Galaxy connection through Alfred Bester, who was moving through Mad Men-ish circles at that time.

286:

I read them in the 60s too! That was a long time ago so I went to refresh my memory.

I found Barsoom as I had remembered it, with the guys clad only in leather harnesses that didn’t go below the waist and the gals clad only in jewels that didn’t hide anything either. Compared to them princess Leia, in her "slave Leia" outfit, is overdressed.

The editions you read might have been censored. I don’t know. All I know is that when I go to the Gutenberg site and do a text search in ERB’s first novel, I find John Carter who tells us he was:

« …naked as at the minute of my birth. »

And then he describes a green Martian male:

“…entirely unarmed and as naked as I, except for the ornaments strapped upon his head, limbs, and breast.”

Eventually, he gets to see Dejah Thoris, a red Martian female :

« She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked…”

I checked in “Warlord…” and found more of the same.

Note that I don’t absolutely need naked pretty girsl to get me interested in a work of science fiction.
I also like the ones that make me laugh!

Since Charles Stross mentions the necessity for current science fiction authors to be more « literary » I can easily respond that I’m eagerly waiting for the science fictional equivalent to Evelyn Waugh. I have read a lot of waggish tales, or extremely witty ones, following the tradition established by Galaxy Magazine and others, but I have not read yet a novel-size SF equivalent to « Black Mischief » or « Men at Arms » .

287:

It's already selling. There's already a category of romance science fiction, with bloggers, critics offering reviews on the titles.

http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/

I mean, just look at the SFWA. They had Catherine Asaro, an author of romance SF novels, as a president for two years.

288:

Not necessarily. I'll admit I'm biased due to where I live (California), but here at least, a lot of people were multilingual, and groups with radically different languages lived in close proximity and even intermarried. Still other groups traveled extensively. The California Indian ethnographies say that many of the Indians were normally multilingual.

In general, when the number of people speaking a language is in the hundreds to thousands, a lot of people are going to be on the edge, talking to people who speak a different language. If the people are at all nomadic, they will routinely interact with people who speak other languages.

289:

"And if it turns out to be possible, how is it NOT transhumanism?"

Same way that artificially enhanced immune systems are not Transhumanism.

290:

See the mathematical concept of "manifold", in particular the construction in terms of an "atlas" of "coordinate charts" and "transition maps". There is no need for objective reality, people inhabit multiple coordinate charts thereby anchoring the charts to one another.

Sometimes when the cops'n'robbers servers go down you just have to dust off the old manuals and play the tabletop version. :-)

291:

I found Barsoom as I had remembered it, with the guys clad only in leather harnesses that didn’t go below the waist and the gals clad only in jewels that didn’t hide anything either. Compared to them princess Leia, in her "slave Leia" outfit, is overdressed.

Maybe I don't remember it in detail or was remembering the cover art which definitely was more along the lines of the princess Leia outfit than naked except for jewels. But man, it's hard to imagine someone in the 9th grade not remembering that detail. :)

292:

I was going to make a wisecrack about the writer being unrealistic in that he is presented as handsome, well-dressed, and possibly the only well-adjusted character on the show.

I think that episode was set in 65. And in 65 radical meant thoughts and words but rarely dress and appearance. Especially if you held a "real" job. That all changed within a year or two.

293:

There's even a nice book on the subject of the human fossil record: The Earth After Us by Jan Zalasiewicz. Curt Stager's Deep Future is also useful.

In some ways, the fact that many elements are in workable forms is a good thing. For example, much of the gold that's currently in circulation is old: it may have been part of some Incan horde brought back by the Conquistadors, part of an old Roman ingot, and so mixed that its source is impossible to determine. Many metals get recycled extensively and have been for centuries.

The problem is sea level rise. A lot of iron, copper, and other elements may end up underwater, and if it corrodes into the ocean rather than being salvaged and reused, they will be lost.

The probable fossil record of our species is pretty interesting, even from an SFF context. Right now, I'm having a bit of fun recreating Lovecraft's dead cities as something a lot more plausible and enigmatic in the fossil department. Another project I'm having fun with is what humans would see of our culture, say, 10,000 years from now. Or 100,000 years from now.

Finally, I should point out that one peculiar institution may fossilize rather well (courtesy Dr. Zalasiewicz). You know those stories of mobsters sinking their victims in concrete overcoats? Concrete is likely to fossilize quite well, and sinking a body coated with concrete into the soft, nearshore sediments is about as good a way to create a fossil as anyone can accidentally come up with. Even imprints of their clothes may be preserved.

How's that for immortality?

294:

See also Swahili, which spread throughout East Africa as a trading lingua franca; or India, where in theory everyone speaks Hindu, English, and their native tongue, plus whatever other languages they care to.

295:

My name for that one was "Conductor Jesus."

296:

I don't get it. SciFi was always about "big ideas". If not, it was merely Fantasy draped in SF clothing...

The problem being that, there are only so many 'big ideas (sic)....

297:

Wind, nuclear, and waste biomass (methane) are about the only reasonable sources for powering agricultural equipment. Anything else is taking energy away from the farm to work the farm. Ethanol production from corn or even sugar cane is an example.

Don't forget that a lot of the energy gets used up in industrial nitrogen fixation (creating fertilizer) and transport.

As for the studies of small farms, they come from University of Wisconsin, I think from Madison. I don't have them, but I'll keep looking.

As for the ascendency of big farms, that's as much a matter of politics as it is of efficiency, and there are plenty of resources you can look at, starting with Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma and working the references out from there. With cheap fossil fuels, energy efficiency of production wasn't as big an issue as maximizing food output and keeping food prices down.

Maximizing energy and resource efficiency requires a different system. Salatin's Polyface farm is an example of resource and energy efficiency, but that took one man most of his life to optimize on a particular site. Certainly Salatin's ideas are transferable, but the farmer has to optimize a complex system to make his particular farm efficient. Big Ag has adopted the opposite approach, making agriculture as turn-key as possible, and keeping most farmers deeply in debt to buy the stuff they need every year.

298:

Just FYI, the first few books of John Carter are available free at Project Gutenberg, along with some Tarzan, a bit of Pellucidar, and many others.

I don't know why he went in for mostly naked heroes, but there you have it. I think the fad for mostly naked, extremely buff heroes riding rampant stallions bareback started with him.

299:

John Carter who tells us he was:
«naked as at the minute of my birth. »
Eventually, he gets to see Dejah Thoris, a red Martian female
« She was as destitute of clothes as the green Martians who accompanied her; indeed, save for her highly wrought ornaments she was entirely naked…”

well that would have livened up the Disney movie...;-)

300:

GWH wrote: -

'Extremist 1970s environmentalists (who were largely wrong on all counts) tried to pose pretty much that question. It poisoned the well for a lot of now middle aged conservatives who aren't sophisticated enough to distinguish current from past situation...'

True. Except that Ehrlich and many of the original players -- on both sides -- are still around, and of course the argument has never abated. Indeed, the songs -- on both sides, again -- have remained the same. It's merely that some new facts and factoids have gradually been introduced into the 'Malthusian/leftists' vs. "cornucopianists/rightists' arguments.

Ultimately, beneath the invocations of Jeavons's Law and the neo-Malthusianisms, this is a religious and ideological argument. Or, as Stewart Brand says, ask someone how much total energy they think humankind should be allowed to generate and use if you want to understand where they're really coming from.

301:


...sinking a body coated with concrete into the soft, nearshore sediments is about as good a way to create a fossil as anyone can accidentally come up with.

...Which suggests that the Mafia need to rethink this whole business of disposing of the evidence.

Imagine, then, that Mafiosi living on this day 'make it to the spaceships' in the sense of living long enough to benefit from the final discovery in medicine: immortality: eventually all the evidence is going to turn up.

'Eventually' isn't any kind of never-never land to beings who know that tomorrow always comes and always will. How about Geological Time as a statute of limitations? Or none? Attitudes and societal conventions will change with lifespans measured in millenia, or aeons, and 'it happened a long time ago' might cease to be usable excuse.

What if you can live for thousands of years, and never escape the consequences of your youthful indiscretions?

And that, of course, is one of the big ideas in SF: adapting to longevity.

Kim Stanley Robinson has covered some of the ground, but not all of it: the comment about science slowing down because of Bohr's bitter remark about the true nature of scientific progress meeting eternal tenure rings all too true; but Blue Mars has a jarring non-sequitur in that the elderly all *look* old - surely an absurdity when research into mitigating the cosmetic effects of ageing far outstrips all effort into actual longevity.

Meanwhile, try this for an idea: geological time might uncover all the evidence of your crimes; but what if artificial intelligences saw the footage, read the files, integrated exabytes of information about everybody, everywhere, and pieced it all together?

Imagine living in a world where everything you ever did suddenly became known to the Authorities... Who have effectively infinite time and infinite administrative resources. Everything! Even - or especially - every chocolate bar you stole, every time you pissed in an alleyway, every time you uttered an opinion about your bosses' ancestry and personal demeanour.

302:

a religious and ideological argument

A lot of the bad arguements from both sides come from people being way too disconnected from how the stuff they need to live is made. Food is a big one. Not many people live down on the farm these days. And it takes a really big problem to change preconceived ideas. I think the Cuyahoga River fire was likely the single biggest catalyst to the EPA. But then the EPA went and wrote rules that referred to things like "any detectable levels" and similar things. So as instrumentation was developed over time that could detect parts per billion you had to try and eliminate them. Even if they existed in greater quantities in the natural surroundings.

So you had an event that galvanized the country (USA) into more rational environmental thinking then rules were developed that pissed off enough people that environmental thinking became a bad thing for many of them.

303:

"SCAM ALERT: The Brooklyn Bridge is not IN Brooklyn. It connects Brooklyn to Manhattan."

Well then, one end of it must be in Brooklyn, right?

304:

All right, go ahead and buy it.

You'll find the upkeep is really expensive.

305:

'A lot of the bad arguements from both sides come from people being way too disconnected from how the stuff they need to live is made.'

Yup. Faith-based communities versus reality-based ones.

And while maybe ultimately all of us live in unreality, some of us would like to appear overtly rational.

306:

Hundreds of the old ideas are worth revisiting from current research. For example, just within the past few hours:

'Tractor beams' of light that pull objects towards them are no longer science fiction. Haifeng Wang at the A*STAR Data Storage Institute and co-workers have now demonstrated how a tractor beam can in fact be realized on a small scale.

http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120524134527.htm

307:

We have robot cars in traffic, Siri seems pretty smart to many, ok we are in our future. As for big ideas, well we've crossed the galaxy many times, not sure if I've read a full novel about a Dyson sphere but the Ringworld is pretty big, if the sequel were a tad silly.

I think I'll chime in with "more of the same". Good stories with the best extrapolation from real science. Will Graphene change the world, might, probably have some stories there. In "Literature" there have been structural and even typographic experiments that were largely unreadable but that 'genre' also comes back to good interesting stories. I expect there are still a lot of great space station stories yet to be told. What happens in the first year of the Bigelow hotel?

People have loved, fought, the human condition, but are we the same, think the same as in classic greek times? How will folks be different out there?

308:

Let's say Earth continues for another billion years or so. If there are still other primates around, I would expect that's more than enough time for at least one species equivalent to ours to evolve. If there aren't any primates left? Racoons, perhaps; or rats. Placental mammals all gone? A billion years is enough time for an intelligent species to evolve from, for example, Scottish wallabies.

As for the resources being used up: without coal, oil, etc., technological advancement would be slower. But I think it would still be possible.

309:

Just back from Japan (again), BTW.

Re: Tsunami stones -- the problem is that they are a response to the last disaster, not a solution to prevent the next one. They also don't meet with the expectations of the following generations who only know the destructive tsunami as something the old folks talk about, if there are any left. There is also the physical reality of Japan's geology.

If a tsunami stone placed a thousand years ago is halfway up a hillside a kilometre from the shore, where do you put the fishing port or harbour the locals need to thrive and survive, and the buildings, shops, houses, roads etc the port needs? A remarkable amount of arable land in Japan is at risk of being devastated by a big tsunami similar to or larger than the 2011 one. Right now farmers are still clearing cars, fuel oil, house fragments etc. out of their fields in Tohoku. However the same tsunami had no effect in Kansai a thousand kilometres to the south-west where the same geology and demands of the population mean the same sorts of places are at risk for the same reason -- it's important to grow rice, because famine tomorrow is more of a threat to survival than a tsunami that might not strike for a thousand years.

Japan is a place where the people roll the dice every day -- while I was there a M4.8 earthquake hit Tokyo, its epicentre only a few km north of the city centre -- I missed it, fortunately (?) being elsewhere at the time. When I left yesterday to come home the weather channels were tracking a typhoon in the Pacific that might hit the mainland. It's a really dangerous place, compared to my own home of Scotland which is geologically stable and not prone to killing levels of weather on a regular basis, but Japan is home to the Japanese who would be safer elsewhere. Prudence dictates that Japan be evacuated completely, if risk is the only factor that counts. Not going to happen though, is it?

310:

I've met and known a lot of people over the years who claim to base their actions on rational thought with no religious or other faith issues interfering. Interestingly many times they come to wildly different conclusions about what we all should be doing. And they mostly all say "Isn't it obvious to you, it is to me?".

311:

Wow, you are so far off base that it's hard to know where to start.

1) The dangers of sailing right through the 18th century were huge. Given the analogies in technology at least as hard as any to be faced by spacefaring.

2) The cost of financing voyages of discovery were such that they required underwriting by nation-states or their historical equivalents.

3) The history of adventures from the 14th to the early 18th century shows a long development from state sponsored to privately financed. (Of course, some adventurers worked as individuals throughout the period.)

I'm sure others can contribute to the obvious parallels.

312:

Um, no.

Yes, you're right that sailing was dangerous in the 17th Century, compared with today. However, it was so routine that some of my (not terribly wealthy) ancestors emigrated to the New World on those ships in the 17th century.

I suspect you're thinking more of the 14th and 15th centuries, with the deep sea basque whalers and Columbus and de Gama? Oh yeah, the Basques were a nation. Never mind.

Actually, really never mind, because the fastest ships in the world, at that particular time, were being made in Micronesia, using shell adzes and driftwood in some cases, and the longest routine voyages were either being plied by Muslim merchants in the Indian Ocean or (a few centuries earlier) voyagers traveling from central Polynesia to Hawai'i and New Zealand.

As Ryan said, comparing ocean sailing to space is apples and orange orchards, because a) there's no gravity well to get a boat off the beach. The problem is keeping it afloat, not having it blow up as it leaves (or enters) the harbor, and b) it's entirely possible to build or rebuild a boat using native materials all over the place, and boats can be reprovisioned with fresh water and foods of some sort even more readily. It's pretty darned hard to rebuild an interplanetary ship on an asteroid, and even finding fresh water is problematic.

313:

Take a look at some of Fred Pohl's posts on his blog:
http://www.thewaythefutureblogs.com/

He was there and, he has pictures. We all wore at least sport coats and ties and a lot of us wore suits.

314:

Isn't the Brooklyn Bridge in both Brooklyn and Manhattan? It depends on the observer, right? Shrodinger might agree.

315:

Another general comment.

I don't have the data to hand, but many mammals in the fossil record seem to have lasted something like five million years on average.

While we're anxious to blow humans up, either through armageddon or transcendence, let's play with the stunningly stupid notion that, just perhaps, we're average mammals.

We've had 200,000-400,000 years of history already, and arguably we may have another 3,000,000 to 4,500,000 years of history in front of us, on this planet.

That's a lot of room to play in, and it really is an underexploited future, come to think of it.

Why won't we conquer the galaxy? Because it's not cost effective, and we run out of cheap energy before we develop the technologies to live in space for interstellar colonization time periods.

So, what happens if we're live on one planet for the next five million years? That's a future not often considered. It's not Vance's Dying Earth, because it's a trivial percent of Earth's geological history. The continents won't even move very far in that time. But there's room for thousands of Egyptian or Chinese histories in such a span, along with global warming, multiple ice ages (after the carbon gets resequestered over the next 50,000 years or so), and a lot else besides.

If someone wanted to be really evil, they could argue that humans are more likely to be like cyanobacteria or ants, lifeforms that fundamentally changed how the biosphere worked, and are still with us at least a 100 million years later. The thought that human descendents may be on Earth until it dies in the sun, now that's and idea to really play with.

316:

And here I was thinking that PVP environments (places with other people) have a greater potential for danger than PVE (places without people).

Perhaps reality has fewer sociopathic types online gankers -- or we've at least come up with better ways to channel their behavior.

317:

I think I was agreeing with you. But the only pictures I saw in my brief scan were from the 30s and 40s.

But I did see this quote.
“Any theory can be squared with the evidence, given sufficient ingenuity.”
—Stephen Law

Which seems to be the standard operating mode of the AIG mentioned in #268:

318:

"The thought that human descendents may be on Earth until it dies in the sun, now that's and idea to really play with.": I think it's already been done by H. G. Wells, and Stephen Baxter re-did it with better imagination, so I doubt this idea is any more fresh than other big ideas in SF.

319:

"As Ryan said, comparing ocean sailing to space is apples and orange orchards": Comparisons like this are always comparing apples to oranges, you couldn't comparing apples to apples since you got only one apple. People do this all time, they're comparing apples to oranges when they use past experience to predict the future, just like you promoted in comment #61, what Rick did is no different.

320:

While I don't disagree with anything positive that you have said, it seems to me that there are a plethora of culturally indigestible things happening. Climate change, evolutionary theory, bio-engineering, complexity theory, etc.

This doesn't mean that SF will pick up well on all of these. Each one probably requires it's own approach, but how do you deal with them happening simultaneously? You can't. Which is what "the Singularity" is really about. (N.B.: It (the Singularity) is not about any particular one of these, it's about the simultaneous conjunction of them. Different people pick one part and say "That's what it's about!", and they aren't exactly wrong, but they aren't right, either. It's the complex interaction. How does the legal system deal with 3-d printers? Should copyrights be allowed on things that you don't let people read? Make? That's traditionally more the job of patents. What if IQ is adjustable with a pill? Skin color? Fingerprints? (Well, I don't expect that one to be a pill, but count on it happening.) Should gene-tailored athletes be allowed to compete? What about mutants? But everyone's a mutant, to dome degree or other. How designer should babies be allowed to be? If you don't like the choices your parents made, can you sue them? But what if their choice was to NOT use gene-tailoring? etc.

Note that most of these changes have a small effect. But they're all happening at once.

Science fiction has never existed, but science fantasy is a lot different from prior fantasy. The closest it generally comes to gods or demons are things like Arisia and Eddore, or some super computer. It's job is to explore what moral behavior is in a postulated environment. It usually does this in the frame of an adventure story, because that's the kind of story that teen-age males can identify with, and that's your gate-way audience, as romance novels are addressed to teen-age girls. This doesn't mean that men or women stop reading, and as they age their tastes become subtler. But not necessarily more realistic. (When I want science I read Scientific American, or Science News, or New Scientist. Fiction has a different purpose.)

Calling it horse opera with spaceships merely says that people's view of a plausible world to imagine has changed. In either case it's basically a morality play, and the primary (serious) issues are dealing with morality.

Science fiction is in trouble now because people are having trouble imagining a plausible future world. It's also in trouble because it's always been a minority interest, and because the reading population is being seduced by alternate choices. Computer games, e.g. But *all* fiction is beset by the competition problem. (Science fiction may be disproportionally affected because it's target audience includes a disproportionate fraction of those who opt for computer games.)

321:

Actually -- we don't know how likely intelligent life is to evolve. A sample size of one is only enough to make the claim that intelligent life can evolve.

Self-replicating intersteller probes seem a plausable enough technology that the lack of us observing any of them hints, that intelligent life is rare in our galaxy.

322:

[The thought that human descendents may be on Earth until it dies in the sun, now that's and idea to really play with]
This is the worst dystopia I can imagine. Not only that we stay as humans just like the cockroaches stayed as cockroaches but also we'll never move off this god forsaken ball of mud.
Would you rather still be a Chimanzee than a human? I don't think so. In just the same way humans are not the be all and end all of creation. We are just a step in the creation of a new kingdom of life. The next Cambrian is just around the corner.
This is where I want sf to take me... not back to a medieval dictatorship.

323:

Wow, you are so far off base that it's hard to know where to start.

Er no. I'm surprised you make such a definitive statement and then offer irrelevant arguments.

1) The dangers of sailing right through the 18th century were huge. Given the analogies in technology at least as hard as any to be faced by spacefaring.

So huge that global empires had been built on the principles of routine sailing for hundreds of years.

2) The cost of financing voyages of discovery were such that they required underwriting by nation-states or their historical equivalents.

I'd love to see a source for that! That's rubbish. Voyages of discovery may have been financed by the government or the crown but building a boat was something that harbour towns could routinely do and sailing them, whilst dangerous, wasn't that hard either.

3) The history of adventures from the 14th to the early 18th century shows a long development from state sponsored to privately financed. (Of course, some adventurers worked as individuals throughout the period.)

So what?? Again I am totally baffled by how anyone can think this is a reasonable argument. At *best* it's a deeply flawed analogy. That's not an argument at all! It's just a statement of your wishes as in "I want to live in Space but people tell me it's hard. That's ok because look these ships used to be hard and now their easy so one day I'll have my own SPACEship too :D" One of the biggest flaws in this analogy is thinking that an space craft is analogous to a ship but that's a myth that's fairly well entrenched in the current narrative.

I would argue more but I think Charlie's covered all these points long before in this blog so I'll save my breath.

324:

"The thought that human descendents may be on Earth until it dies in the sun, now that's and idea to really play with.": I think it's already been done by H. G. Wells, and Stephen Baxter re-did it with better imagination, so I doubt this idea is any more fresh than other big ideas in SF.

Hmmmm....

Existence of Homo Sapiens as a species: about 200kY.

Age of one of the oldest quadruped species: crocodile, about 200MY.

Oldest surviving multi-cellular organisms: Nautilus 500MY, Jellyfish 505MY, Horseshoe Crab 445MY.

Time until the Sun becomes a red giant and destroys the Earth: about 5GY[*].

Chance of H. Sapiens existing as essentially the same species to witness that event: slim to none.

[*] Although the planet will have become uninhabitable much earlier than that.

325:

The Russians have adapted the lead cooled fast reactor for their Alfa submarines (or "Hunt for Red October" fame) to build a nuclear power plant at twice the rated power (280MW thermal, 100MW electric), to be finished in 5 years.

It can also be used in breeder configurations.

326:

>>>>Deinococcus radiodurans is a bacterium, a very simple organism. Assuming that you could splice its genetic repair functionality into humans is rather like assuming that you could take the video screen out of your phone, glue it to the dashboard of a beat-up Honda, and have the car from Knight Rider.

First, we use not so different from D. radiodurans. Trust me, I'm a biologist. And obviously I don't propose to just take their genes and blindly stick them into us. We know resistance mechanisms exists, we need to find what they are and adapt them for human use. (BTW, don't use the word "splice" when talking about genetic modification - you make as much sense as Bioshock).

Still don't like the simple radiodurans, you eukaryotic multicellular snob you? Well, feast your eyes of Tardigrades. Those guys even have brains.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tardigrades

327:

Solution for the second is whatever mechanisms Deinococcus radiodurans uses.

No it's not. You're betraying your ignorance of fundamental aspects of biology here.

D. radiodurans is a prokaryotic cell that is highly resistant to genetic damage caused by ionizing radiation. Note the "prokaryotic" in that sentence. We are eukaryotes. It's like comparing a bicycle to an automobile: one is a lot bigger and more complex than the other, and has a bunch of different subsystems. And even if you compare the physical structure of their genomes, they're not stored or transcribed the same way -- it's like saying you can fit bicycle tyres to a Hummer and therefore drive it on a cycle path.

Genes are useful abstractions at one level, representations of peptide sequences that are transcribed into physical proteins via transcription and translation at the ribosome. The trouble cuts in at the physical level: genes in the cell are effectively physical macromolecules, stored as tightly supercoiled bundles wrapped around histone proteins inside nucleosomes, stored in the nucleus. Prokaryotes don't even have a nucleus; they have a nucleoid instead (you may find this comparison useful). Now, the whole point about D. radiodurans' resistance to ionizing radiation is that it probably arises due to a combination of redundant storage and error correction; DNA organized in the nucleoid and exposed to ionizing radiation ends up with broken or cross-linked bonds where they don't belong, and D. radiodurans somehow fixes this. But the physical mechanism used to fix it is operating in a radically different environment from a eukaryotic cell's nucleosome, and more importantly, the type of radiation damage that's fixable is different. For example, D. radiodurans obviously lacks a mechanism for fixing radiation-induced covalent bridges between nucleic acids and adjacent histone molecules because prokaryotes don't harbour histones.

Suggesting we can apply D. radiodurans' repair mechanisms to human cells is ... well, I'm not going to say it's impossible, but it's very definitely like saying you can fix a broken airliner by recycling components from your automobile. If what you need is a turbojet, you're probably out of luck.

328:

Can I suggest that the bridge itself is in neither, although one of the bridge approaches is in each?

329:

(2) That's sort of true, but exaggerated. Monarchs and parts of governments did finance voyages of exploration, but as private ventures rather than ventures of state as was I think implied.

330:

You could. I expect though that the border between the two boroughs runs down the middle of the East River, and the entire bridge resides in the pair.

331:

Even if you assume the water isn't in either borough the bridge extends quite a bit over the land portions of both boroughs before you get to what most anyone would consider the approaches. In general bridges into Manhattan are frigging huge.

332:

Where the approaches end and the bridge starts depends on the bridge type. Based on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brooklyn_Bridge I'd say this is where the cables pass below the main deck.

333:

#236 and #237 - I'd agree with #244, with the note that the AIs also want purpose to their existences, and find that the hominids give them one.

334:

This is why I have called Banks' Against a Dark Background an optimist dystopia.

335:

Yes, but SpaceX and its future ilk reveal the most serious danger of all: that the Corporate Life Form might break the Gravity Quarantine of planet Earth and infect the rest of the Universe. Once the Corporate Life Form gains access to the unlimited resources of space, there will be no stopping it. Do we really want our future in the Universe to just be condos on Mars? Mixed use development with a fuckin' Chipotle and TGIFriday's on the Moon??!! We need to exterminate the Corporate Life Form here on plane Earth, before it ruins everything!

336:

Shorter: too much SF these days is 'not even wrong'.

When I see archival footage of the 1960s, and read fiction (mostly scientifiction) from that era, I'm struck by one thought repeatedly: people were much less interested in being cool then, and (as usually obtains) were much, much, cooler.

Put another way, people seemed to be less worried about looking stupid, doing things that would embarrass them later on. Some of this was stupidity, some of this was the sense of power from being in a large cohort that (at least in the States) had had it good enough for just long enough that the visceral fear of starvation after failure was absent.

(I was told that one research group or another [TRW? SRI?] were given the task in the early '70s of explaining "The '60s" to power; the answer with which they came back boiled down to, 'Let people get prosperous enough, and they start to act as if they had rights just like aristos.')

Certainly it led to much that was stupid, hebephrenically silly, unreadable, and even objectionable (see: women, depiction of)...but that's what the good part of conservatism, the evolutionary cull-with-time, is for.

I think the pace of discovery and of innovation added to the consciousness of our history of Getting It Very Wrong (airships, technocracy, jet packs, underwater cities, 'too much leisure' as a problem, damn it and viz sup.) have, in these much cooler times, led to a level of self-censorship that inhibits near-to-mid-future S.F.

Funny you should mention Rucker: I dislike a lot of his stuff, but some of it is very, very good, and I think it stems from his mathematician/acid-head's lack of fear of looking stupid, even on Facebook, forever. Our Host does not have Rucker's level of hallucinogen use, mathematical erudition, or non-writing income...but I think some of his best work (the Laundry novels, "Saturday", pieces of "Halting State" and "Rule 34") are precisely where they might well have been awfully dumb if they hadn't been done well.

337:

I can have a condo on Mars? Let those corporate life forms loose.

338:

Anatoly has also trumped you with the reference to eukaryotic tardigrades.

Here is a nice reference on rotifer resistance to IR, another, albeit microscopic, eukaryote.

Note the paper suggests that D. radiodurans resistance is due to proteins that can scavenge toxic products of ionizing radiation that damage proteins involved in DNA repair. They argue that a similar mechanism is involved with rotifers.

Note that the paper also states:
The finding that IR killing of D. radiodurans is paralleled by oxidative damage to its proteins has led to the proposal that the extraordinary radio resistance of D. radiodurans results from unusually effective protection of its proteins against toxic products of IR (33), a conclusion consistent with the ability of extracts of D. radiodurans to protect E. coli from radiation killing

IOW, you can protect against radiation damage by using the protein products of D radiolurans.. Which suggests to me that it may be possible to develop simple compounds that can do the task.

This suggests that it may be possible to "harden" humans to higher radiation doses associated with space travel through foods or genetic engineering, assuming physical technology is not feasible, although I suspect that both may eventually be used.

Certainly findings like these can be extended to experiments on small mammals to test the idea before we state that radiation is an insuperable obstacle to space travel. A successful development might even help allay fears of building nukes on earth for energy generation.

339:

Pohl Anderson's "Starfarers" features an alien (centauroid) race which has no intention of ever leaving its home planet, and is working on millions-year long project to roof that planet over for the time when their star expands into red giant.

340:

Actually, you need to reparse that in a couple of ways.

The point about ants, termites, and cyanobacteria is as follows.

Cyanobacteria and their ilk were the key drivers in oxygenating the atmosphere. Some of them have been unchanged in many ways for, say 700 million years, although some of their descendents (chloroplasts in plants and algae) have continued to evolve in symbiosis.

Ants weren't the first eusocial insects. That honor belongs to termites (which are eusocial cockroaches, and also still around). The key thing about ants is that they are, by weight, the most common insects on the planet. Termites are pretty common too. They're about 100 million years old as a group, although the primitive forms are quite rare now.

The key innovation of ants was going eusocial. Prior to ants, the world was dominated by termites (eating rotten wood) and a lot of non-social insects. After ants took over the insect world, the insect world was largely dominated by ants, with the non-social forms pushed off largely to the margins.

With humans, our key innovation is culture. We're far from the only animals to have culture (where post-natal acquired knowledge is essential in allowing us to adapt to a particular environment). However, we're the only species to date that has made culture the centerpiece of our evolution and adaptive strategy. People who never have biological children can nonetheless have millions of "children of the mind" and profoundly shape how people adapt to the world (e.g.: Gregor Mendel, who was a monk). Even our genetic evolution is arguably adapting to our use of culture right now.

I'd argue that, like oxygen production, eusociality, and many other key innovations, humans going to have a long future in front of us. In other words, culture isn't going away, and it's probably going to dominate a good chunk of the world from here on out.

Given how plastic humans are (due to culture, not biology), I suspect we're going to be on the planet in some form for quite a long time.

If not, we're still likely to be around for another few hundred thousand to millions of years, even if we're simply average.

One thing to realize is that I'm an environmentalist, so this isn't some human superiority complex. Rather, I'm saying that we're never going to get to declare "game over" through either armageddon or transcendence. Rather, our descendents are going to live with the mess we're creating right now, and whatever messes we create in the future.

Personally, I can't think of a better reason to practice conservation, but this future so horrifies some people (#322) that they'd rather imagine any other possibility than this one. As Spock would say, "Fascinating."

341:

Your comment made me think quite literally.

Hacking your child by mutilating his or her genitals.

342:

So, what happens if we're live on one planet for the next five million years? That's a future not often considered. It's not Vance's Dying Earth, because it's a trivial percent of Earth's geological history. The continents won't even move very far in that time. But there's room for thousands of Egyptian or Chinese histories in such a span, along with global warming, multiple ice ages (after the carbon gets resequestered over the next 50,000 years or so), and a lot else besides.

If someone wanted to be really evil, they could argue that humans are more likely to be like cyanobacteria or ants, lifeforms that fundamentally changed how the biosphere worked, and are still with us at least a 100 million years later. The thought that human descendents may be on Earth until it dies in the sun, now that's and idea to really play with.

This is basically the view taken by the writers of Doctor Who. No matter how far the Doctor travels into the future, he finds humans being indomitably human and changing the face the universe through sheer perseverance.

An alternative take that you get at is one I'd like to see: a subgenre of far-future sociological science fiction. Extrapolated plausible civilizations on the far side of an Ice Age. Besides dealing with the usual human politics and romance, they have to work hard at shoring up the biosphere in order to keep it maximized for human habitation. Call it Adventures in the Anthropocene.

343:

Sorry to jump all the way back to the original post so late in the day, this is what I get for not checking my RSS daily.

I've always felt that the idea that SF is about "big ideas" is correct, but not in the way most people mean it. The way the question is posed, it assumes "big ideas" means "predicts likely near-future technological breakthroughs." Usually, this has been mostly wishful thinking with some occasional lucky hits (I don't know about you, but I'm not flying around in a rocket ship using a punched-tape computer).

The first place where (good) SF really does get into the big ideas is when it comes to second-order social impacts. The old "social SF == soft SF" conflation is ridiculous; so long as there are still humans or human-like beings using it, any speculation about technological change (likely or fantastical) requires some thought into how those beings interact with that change. At risk of sucking up to the blogger, Charlie has repeatedly pulled this off in pretty much all of his SF, with particular success in Accellerando and Halting State (I haven't read Rule 34 yet, but I'm guessing that too). Some other authors who pull this off include Karl Schroeder (e.g. Permanence dealing among other things with the impact of the development of FTL on an existing slower-than-light interstellar civilization) and Alastair Reynolds (e.g. the fragmentation of humanity into largely non-mixing castes in a sufficiently large interstellar civilization in the Revelation Space universe). This has a double value -- first, with some near-future tech it gives a chance to think through the possible effects and moral implications in a way that serves as "practice" for their possible actual development (this is a double-edged sword -- the GMO debate is far too much informed by a Mary-Shellian notion of "playing god"); second, even far-fetched, deep-future, or counterfactual leaps just give an opportunity to further explore our moral assumptions (even if human-like AI is as unlikely as it seems, they sure are good for examining our notions of what constitutes personhood or consciousness).

The other area where SF is particularly good on "big ideas" is in the use of "far-fetched" settings or circumstances as allegory. Particularly in popular SF, major social issues are often more easily addressed when they can be abstracted through a lens of SF or fantasy. I'm going to call out Charlie again here for the Merchant Princes series and its examination of the politics of technology transfer and imperialism. Another left-field example (and hitting on one way that escapist science-fantasy can still deal with big issues of this kind) would be the New Caprica arc of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, which managed to allude pretty frankly to insurgency and terrorism in Iraq from a viewpoint that no non-allegorical story could.

344:

Killer robot drones? Are the dronereally robots? I thought they were just big radio controlled airplanes with weapons.

345:

Depends on your definition of "robot". Drones are not controlled moment-to-moment the way RC planes are -- they are given an assignment, and mostly fly themselves. Drones need a command to release weapons, but that's a policy decision -- they do their own target acquisition, and could fire weapons independently.

346:

Afaik, the drones are autonomous for many of their tasks.

"Fly figure-eights over the border for 40 hours and alert for any high confidence IR detects" would drive a human operator to drink. Or at least look at porn on his smartphone.

Hopefully there is still a human element for the killshot. But ask again in 5 years.

347:

I was just thinking of a Stephen Baxter story -- perhaps the same one you were thinking of?

The story is a novelette or novella of the Olaf Stapledon grand-sweep-of-humanity-into-the-future variety that nobody seems to write anymore. Except when they do.

The premise of the story is that the end of fossil fuels means the end of technological civilization as we know it -- but not the end of the human race. The race continues for billions of years into the future, until the death of the sun. For virtually all of that time, the race persists as it did for hundreds of thousands of years before the 10,000-year span of civilization -- as hunter-gatherers, living off the plant life they can gather or wild animals they can kill.

He also posits a span of -- IIRC -- a few hundred thousand years for a high civilization built entirely on genetic engineering (which is where I stole the idea in my earlier comment directed to our blog host). But eventually that too passes.

Baxter (or rather the narrator of the story [if I may be excused for acting like an English major]) seems to view this as a sad outcome for the race. I reserve judgment.

Consider those numbers for a moment. I know every time I come across them I feel compelled to pause and think about them: The entire span of civilization, from the invention of agriculture to today, is about 10,000 years. That's less than 1% of the existence of humanity. Civilization could be a brief, passing phase, the equivalent of the total of seven weeks my wife and I have spent in Great Britain in the course of our lives. I mean, we loved it, they were great visits, but they don't make us Brits.

I find myself agreeing with Ran Prieur and John Robb and bloggers like that. Civilization is dying -- and good riddance to it. I have no desire to go back to hunter-gatherer society, but it's time to replace civilization with something better.

348:

"Civilization is dying -- and good riddance to it. "

Only in the West, as we fade out due to hand wring guilt about having done so well. India and China are on the way up - it will be their civilizations that take us to the stars. Or, alternatively, trigger the singularity. Not timid, gutless, visionless Westerners.

349:

The Unicorn Jelly webcomic did the separated knowledge thing - the Alchemist and Wiccan factions each having some of the knowledge, but not being allowed to investigate or combine their knowledge in case they recreate whatever started the Stormfall.

350:

The premise of the story is that the end of fossil fuels means the end of technological civilization as we know it -- but not the end of the human race. The race continues for billions of years into the future, until the death of the sun. For virtually all of that time, the race persists as it did for hundreds of thousands of years before the 10,000-year span of civilization -- as hunter-gatherers, living off the plant life they can gather or wild animals they can kill.

Which is of course misanthropic BS. It presumes that modern ideas are likewise powered by fossil fuels. Technological civilization has only been dependent on fossil fuels for a few hundred years. We managed pretty well into the 17th century on nothing more combustible than peat moss and olive oil. Yes, the late Renaissance was filthy and riven by religious dogma, but even if we lost fossil fuel-dependent tech tomorrow, we'd still have the knowledge of modern antiseptic medicine and Secular Democracy. Knowledge isn't combustible. It doesn't magically disappear just because there's no more oil or coal.

There would be considerable culture shock and a period of adjustment to new conditions. A fossil fuel-less future might look a little Ren Fairish (and then only at first) but we'd adapt quickly, especially because we'd be under considerable social and economic pressure to do so.

351:

There are a number of fun questions and ideas floating around.

For example: For the tech crowd, how big a village do you need to build an arduino microcontroller from scratch? Right now, we need a planet to build the things, because of goofy-long supply chains. But assuming global civilization fell, do we lose all electronics, or is it possible for, say, San Jose to build useful electronics from raw materials and recycling, and export them locally?

The smaller the town that can build its own computing equipment, the less far "civilization" will "fall." If people can grow computers out of, say, algae (I'm quite fond of the idea of algae doped with quantoplasts), lots of places will be making their own computing facilities.

If it takes elements and expertise all over the planet to make a basic computer or smartphone, then we'll be screwed when trade goes down. In the latter case, we may see a future where computers and phones are people, not machines. A phone, for example, may be someone who knows a lot, and most usefully, knows how to set up a short-wave with a homemade generator, a telegraph key set-up, and lots of scrounged wire. A calculator may be able to build a slide rule and abacus by hand.

So how big a village does it take to make a computer from scratch?

352:

To be fair, we're not the only gutless ones. Consider that in the late 14th Century the Chinese admiral Zheng He was sent with a fleet of ships to carry the Imperial presence to the west, and in the course of seven expeditions landed just about everywhere on the coasts of India, the Arabian Peninsula, and the east coast of Africa. On returning from his last voyage, the new Emperor decided that those trips were a waste of time and effort and contrary to the guiding principles of the regime, and ordered them stopped. The records from the voyages were mostly destroyed.

353:

Re: Carlos 258: Why do many SF readers prefer escapism?

If "escapism" means letting one's mind (intellect, emotions) consider other/alternate points of view, perhaps SF readers have an excess of mirror neurons therefore need more varied, deeper and more stimulating ideas than found in 'regular' fiction. Similar to gourmets often being 'super-tasters' ... which would make SF readers "idea-gourmets".

354:

From what I've read, there's two humans in the loop of most killshots - the 'pilot' and a lawyer. Improving tech would allow removal of one of those...

355:

Enough copper and OCD, and a single person can build a computer: here's a CPU made from relays.

356:

I think mirror neurons just make you enjoy sports more. That's my dad's hypothesis as to why people get so invested with football matches, if you're paying close attention it feels like you scored the goal, or missed it.

I enjoy sci fi but you'd have to strap me down like Malcom McDowell in clockwork orange to watch a full football match.

357:

"When I see archival footage of the 1960s, and read fiction (mostly scientifiction) from that era, I'm struck by one thought repeatedly: people were much less interested in being cool then, and (as usually obtains) were much, much, cooler."

I wonder how much of that is due to how acutely aware we are of the fact that our lives are on display, these days? In the 1960s, if you did something stupid, odds are only the people immediately around you would ever know. Even if you published something stupid, it would probably never be widely known. Nowadays, thanks both to social media and the Internet's culture of mockery, if you do something stupid it becomes part of your permanent record on the Internet and follows you around until you die. It wouldn't surprise me if this has made people more conservative (in the small-c sense) in their actions.

358:

"... is it possible for, say, San Jose to build useful electronics from raw materials and recycling, and export them locally?"

Yes. As long as you don't go beyond vacuum tubes.
That's one reason why technological civilization is unlikely to collapse back much before that of 1914. Most of the knowhow and scitech for that period can be housed in one small room of textbooks.

359:

Vacuum tube technology is possible for a single person to recreate -- there are people who build their own tubes as a hobby. Semiconductors take more sophisticated technology, of course, but the basics of electronic communications -- decently functioning radio transmitters and receivers -- are within the ability of one person to build from scratch, assuming materials like glass and tungsten already exist in refined form.

360:

"Let's say the works of the Marquis de Sade, romance novels, Christian fiction, fiction about kangaroos, and several other kinds of fiction were lumped into one category/genre. What would one say this category/genre was about?"

This would be and interesting category !
It could be said that Sade's work IS some kind of (dystopian) christian romance ...
Saint Donatien (Sade's first name) was only two days ago, so it's too late, but next year, I'll whip a kangaroo.

361:

re Alex @338 and Anatoly @326:

It's not necessarily impossible for these gene repair mechanisms to work in humans, but they would have to be accidentally compatible with roughly 400 million years of ape-evolution-produced spaghetti code. The potential for conflicts and/or terminal side effects is enormous, and it's hard to see how the experiments could even be conducted in an ethical manner.

362:

"Only in the West, as we fade out due to hand wring guilt about having done so well. India and China are on the way up - it will be their civilizations that take us to the stars. Or, alternatively, trigger the singularity."

Maybe. Or it might be Latin America, or other Asian countries. Or some parts of Africa which currently look very unlikely.

363:

So how big a village does it take to make a computer from scratch?

Or, how big does a village need to be in order to become a computer?

If you specialize functions and distribute them across a neighborhood (Calvin next door is a calculator, Mina down the street is a modem, etc.) you can reproduce the home PC with an analog community computer that fulfills the same function, though maybe at a slower rate, since we're using humans with specialized tools to do the things apps do currently.

Which makes me think of the Mundaneum, a proto wikipedia that could be enacted at the local level, forming a sort of analog internet using telegraph wires and pneumatic tubes.

This is why I'm optimistic about a post-fossil fuel world. There's enough good ideas laying around that a few innovative makers could build anything we might need (need, as opposed to want) that would serve a lot of the same major functions we get with computers and the post-modern infrastructure. Some of the infrastructural may need to be rebuilt or repurposed but it could be done.

364:

Having poked a bit at the radiation repair mechanisms it seems there's a cluster of several, some of which (like duplicate chromosomes for splicing in good DNA) are unlikely to be transferable.

But if you aim for a lower level - say E. coli radiation resistance levels - you're basically looking to repair damaged/missing bases on one side of ds system. Unplugging the code is easy - you just read from the 'healthy' chain at each point and replace the damaged base with the partner base. A's and T's always match (in DNA anyway), and C's and G's always match.

I'm nowhere near as sanguine that the dramatic improvements suggested are doable but increasing human ability to recover from radiation a bit by working out how to stimulate some of the similar systems might be doable.

You have to remember that the body is actually pretty good at copying and error-correcting all that code. Red blood cells start with DNA and have to be replaced every 120 days or so. The cells that line most of your gastrointestinal tract are replaced faster (14 days in the small intestine for example). Every time we make a new cell - BOE suggests that billions each second per person - we copy the whole genome with an impressively low error rate. There's a first pass error (the actual copying without proofreading etc.) of about 1:100,000 and then various mechanism improve the fidelity by 2-3 orders of magnitude. So somewhere around 1 error in 10^8 bases just from the copying process. (There are some extra steps too, like if after all this you mutate something critical the cell just dies most of the time.)

365:

If the radiation resistance can be food or drug supported, then your objection is irrelevant.

But let's run with the gene engineering ethics question.

Firstly we can ethically test the engineering is small mammals and primates. This would confirm that methodology and viability of the technique, plus provide some guidance on developmental and toxicity issues. We could probably test the engineering in humans as long as we stuck to the current guidelines on human embryos. This would clearly leave a knowledge gap, but at least our knowledge would be advanced.

Full fledged radiation resistance gene engineering of humans would have to wait for the future. Maybe we would never do it (as per the "hacking" issue upthread), but maybe we, or a successor culture would be comfortable with gene technology to allow its use, especially after experience with gene repair/enhancement.

366:

Yes, in the post apocalyptic world there will still be radio, guns and steam engines. Plus lots of peasants to do the grunt work. In fact, it will probably look a lot like much of Asia today.

367:

I agree with William Gibson, science fiction isn't about the future, it's about today. In that light, the big ideas really address the world we live in, not the one in which we might live. When he wrote Neuromancer, his secret was that he was writing about Reagan and the 80s. I think making the future focus misses the point of the genre.

368:

Someone always beats you to it - though the computer made out of human components in that book was staffed by numerate convicts, rather than citizens.

369:

heteromeles writes (in part):

Why won't we conquer the galaxy? Because it's not cost effective, and we run out of cheap energy before we develop the technologies to live in space for interstellar colonization time periods.

Having children - in modern society - is not cost effective. They switched around from being free labor and support in ones old age to being a biological and social imperative with significant costs and little direct returns (for most families) some time ago.

And yet, there's still something around replacement level procreation going on.

I think we're going to colonize because we want to. The economics don't work, but that's not going to stop anyone, if the engineering can be made to.

The second part - "run out of cheap energy before we develop the technologis to live in space for interstellar colonization time periods" ... wow, now you just scared me. That's a horrible dystopia setting you just proposed there...

370:

"run out of cheap energy"
What does that mean? We already know the cost it will not exceed ie that produced by nuclear, wind and solar. I don't see civilization collapsing at those prices.

371:

One can hypothesize a situation in which say transportation fuel - not an insignificant fraction of the total used - ended up not effectively renewable (say, the worst of the skeptics on biomass fuels and the like turn out to be 110% true), and where batteries for electric transportation turn out not to get much more efficient (Li-Air never makes it out of the lab, etc).

What I interpreted what he was saying as was a worst-case version of that.

What do I think will happen? Nothing like that, I think energy costs are going to drop as we get smarter about it. But I could be wrong.

372:

How to colonize the stars in five easy steps:

(1) Orbital satellites become an essential part of the global economy.

(2) Mining asteroids for metals follows.

(3) It's easier and cheaper to build the necessary machines in space, and repair them, then it is to use machines launched from Earth and disposed of when broken.

(4) Building and repairing machines in space requires a class of self-replicating intelligent machines to do the job. The best and least expensive of this class of machines is human beings.

(5) It's cheaper to keep human beings permanently in space than shuttle them up and down the gravity well.


(6) Cheaper still to have whole families up there, raising children to be the next generation of mechanics.

(7) Once human beings are comfortable living life in orbit, the rest of the universe can be reached given sufficient time.

And that turned out to be seven steps. I'm sure the process will reveal other surprises.

Step 1 is already done. We're well on our way!

373:

And all that needs to be done is reduce launch costs by a factor of around 100.

374:

"I agree with William Gibson, science fiction isn't about the future, it's about today."

More accurately: 1) Writers who set their fiction in the future will, deliberately or inadvertantly, to a large extent write about the recent past combined with the present. 2) Some of these writers think future-setting fiction SHOULD be about the present.

Those who write about the recent past usually think they're writing about the present. They don't realize that smalltown childhood isn't the same as when they were growing up; or 1970s rock is no longer what all the cool kids listen to; or the current crop of leftists uses different buzzwords than they themselves did before they Saw The Conservative Light.

Now: The ones trying to write about today and those trying to write about tomorrow share a problem -- they don't know what's happening today that's important. In the 1950s, US writers mostly didn't notice the Baby Boom and its effects. (College administrators noticed these some time around 1965, I think.) English writers (Arthur C. Clarke, for example) didn't realize England was no longer a great power. [Yes, I meant "England" rather than "UK".] I don't think anyone predicted South Africa's apartheid regime leaving power without a whole lot of people being killed.

375:

I don't know how people come to believe the things they do. Middle class is something everybody knows about but are wrong. My 1965 text book said most doctors were not middle class. Only the one who were at the very top were. And they were lower middle class. No its not likely that your daddy was middle class. But people who are not middle class vote for Republicans who say they will save the middle class by hurting the useful fools who vote for them

376:

I've been toying with the idea of 4th Dimensional Technology for my fiction projects. It has been done before, mainly with the Cube movie series, and in those works it does feel like "it could be possible" but it also feels very much like it's a version of hell/a hellraiser ripoff.

I believe 4th Dimensional Tech is possible, but it seems very out of reach, even grasping the idea of a 4th Dimension is kind of crazy, people regularly think it's "Time" like they understand what that even means. So in that way, I feel there is a lot of untapped potential into that, it sounds like it could happen but it doesn't seem like something that could happen now if people just got their shit together faster, which is what usually happens with stuff like space travel, singularity, cloning, teleportation, etc. People know that if money or resources weren't a problem, we could have all those things eventually.

I also think there is a way of going beyond that but it has to tap into something very common to everybody in a way they haven't thought about before. Like, in my dimensional example, usually other dimensions are hell, fascist tolkienesque fantasyland, chaos, etc. Until Inception came about and tapped into the subconscious as layered dimensions, these concepts hadn't really been challenged in the SF mainstream. Every now and then in SF and fantasy things will "go somewhere" and come back different, usually evil, or like in the indie SF movie Primer, in which it goes back in time. But what about making other dimensions be part of this dimension, and not in the "every molecule is a universe" kind of way, but in a way that you can explain things disappearing and it not being controlled by evil forces. How would people react to that, to an expansion of the universe as we know it without space travel or travel at all?

Answering that and other questions that rise up would make interesting New Future reads, things that actually seem possible, but not for a while. Not now. If people can go to the moon, they can eventually go anywhere. But nobody has ever been outside this realm, and modified realms as well as a 4th dimensional thing (i don't know the actual name) that contains realms is imaginable in a logical way and therefore "possible", yet it doesn't feel like it could be done in the near future.

Other things that sound convincing but can't be done and won't be able to in the near future could work in the same way, since fiction is always going to be about what happens now but different.

377:

The economics are simply that it would require somewhere between 1 and 25 percent of present global energy output to build and run a starship. That's not a faster-than-light starship, that's the one Charlie was trying to get us to design back last year. One that might contain a few hundred people, on a one-way, very slow trip to another star.

This also assumes that we figure out how to create a perfectly functioning closed ecosystem that doesn't way more than, say, 100 times those hundred people, that functions indefinitely, and that can work near whatever the drive for the starship is (see the old discussions for a short list of everything problematic about this concept). Is the drive highly radioactive, or merely a terawatt laser that's somehow aimed accurately at interstellar distances? It also assumes we develop shielding to keep out all sorts of radiation up to cosmic rays, and debris flying very, very fast. There's enough new tech here (star drives, debris shields that will stop any modern weapon, cosmic ray shields) that there's no way we could build a starship now without totally transforming civilization.

Why are we sending out a starship again? Oh yes, to send a few hundred people to another star, to do...something. Save humanity from the eventual death of our planet? The other planet may die first, and it might be cheaper to create an underground civilization here, or move people to Mars.

We're not talking about spending a few hundred thousand to raise a kid in America. We're talking about the equivalent of consuming the resources of, say, the UK or South Korea, putting all that into a very small starship, and throwing it away into deep space, for every ship we send out.

That's what cost ineffective means.

Starships are a great fantasy, but unfortunately, the reality truly sucks right now.

378:

If you believe in "Limits to Growth" and for global GDP within a short time, then starship projects are unlikely ever to be undertaken, except under extreme conditions.

OTOH, if you think economic expansion can continue, with very modest GDP growth (2% p.a.) we have a GDP of 150x after 250 years. OK, that means an economy expanding into solar system, not restricted to earth. If that is possible (it may not be), the starship becomes affordable even with the primitive technologies we are thinking about today.


379:
When I see archival footage of the 1960s, and read fiction (mostly scientifiction) from that era, I'm struck by one thought repeatedly: people were much less interested in being cool then, and (as usually obtains) were much, much, cooler.

As someone who lived through the 1960s in my late teens and early 20s I don't agree with this statement. My friends and acquaintances (and me for that matter), in high school, college, and in the Army in that period were very much about being cool, and as a result mostly weren't very. I'd say that I had no idea of who I was or what I wanted to do until I realized that and decided that being cool and accepted by others who were trying to be cool was preventing me from doing things that mattered to me.

380:
1970s rock is no longer what all the cool kids listen to....

It's not?

I mean: Of course it's not! Everybody knows that!

Furtively hides Jackson Browne 8-track

381:

We managed pretty well into the 17th century on nothing more combustible than peat moss and olive oil. Yes, the late Renaissance was filthy and riven by religious dogma, but even if we lost fossil fuel-dependent tech tomorrow, we'd still have the knowledge of modern antiseptic medicine and Secular Democracy. Knowledge isn't combustible. It doesn't magically disappear just because there's no more oil or coal.

Human civilization as a cycle of growth - crash - dark-ages - rebirth? With each cycle carrying forward some essential ideas of the previous one, or avoiding the most egregious mistakes and achieving progressively greater things? Interesting.

The Romans damn near had an industrial revolution. They'd invented the concept of a production line, and were certainly technologically capable of building a blast furnace. Or a printing press with moveable type. They had established a relatively stable, peaceful, unified regime around the Mediterranean including concepts like the rule of law, free movement of citizens and freedom of trade across their whole imperium. They may have lacked a few crucial technologies, like arabic numerals and gun powder, but even so could the Goths and Vandals have succeeded against a Roman Army armed with mass produced steel weapons? [If you thought Roman Roads were pretty amazing, imagine what Roman Railways would have been like.]

Even if the Roman Empire had never fallen, would we be benefiting from an extra 500 or so years of progress that was lost in the dark ages? Actually, I doubt it. Unified, homogeneous, socially stratified empires tend not to be hot-houses of innovation.

Should current Western Civilization fall, what, I wonder would the people of the following neo-renaissance seek to preserve from the ruins, and what would they view as the fatal flaws that bought down our society? A profound rejection of consumerism? A distrust of evanescent data storage? Enlightenment attitudes as a quasi-religious obligation -- scientific scepticism as an article of faith?

382:

"... what would they view as the fatal flaws that bought down our society?"

Health and safety laws, Human Rights, environmentalism, anti-elitism, moral relativism, compassion, the welfare state...

383:

One big idea we can jettison is colonizing other planets.

Screw planets.

The future of manned colonization of space is the asteroid belt.

What do you get when you cross Space X (privatized space flight) with Planetary Resources, Inc. (privatized asteroid mining?

You colonize Ceres, instead of Mars,in order to establish a logistical base for asteroid prospecting and mining.

http://www.pagef30.com/2009/04/why-ceres-might-be-better-location-for.html

Ceres has no significant gravity well to overcome and lots of water for life and fuel. Instead of Star Fleet starting human colonies on the surfaces of planets, we'll have the Weyland-Yutani Corporation contracting out the space equivalent of oil rig and crab fishing work - extremely dirty and dangerous work with a high death rate.

Work that makes investor back home extremely wealthy and mankind more prosperous.

Maybe we'll have the occasional scientific base established on Mars or floating in the atmosphere of Venus, but they'll be no bigger than a current Antarctic base and be nothing more than a PR stunt.

Forget about the Enterprise, our future is Nostromo.

Seriously though, has anyone besides the Alien/Prometheus universe really examined a stellar civilization driven by corporate greed?

384:

>>>One big idea we can jettison is colonizing other planets.
Screw planets.
The future of manned colonization of space is the asteroid belt.

Of course, once you have colonized asteroids you will have the energy and the technology to colonize planetary surfaces at your leisure...

385:

Then how should we go about colonizing the solar system?

We should just start "small" and just paraterraform just the 4 mile deep Valles Marineris. It's depth would allow it to sustain (with some biological or industrial maintenance and replenishment) a sufficiently thick and breathable atmosphere. They can treat the rest of Mars like we treat the Himalayas.

At 2,500 miles long and 360 miles wide, it's area is 900,000 square miles (about the size of Alaska and Texas combined, more than enough room for any conceivable initial colonization effort). Cities could be carved into the canyon walls like pueblos. The colonists would then proceed with the terraforming of the rest of the planet.

Electrical cables can be strung across the canyon opening creating an artificial magnetic field that wold shield colonists and life on the valley floor from cosmic radiation.

If we become tunnel dwellers on Mars, we can live in floating cities on Venus. The upper reaches of the Venusian atmosphere are Earth like in terms of pressure and temperature and derigibles filled with a breathable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere would be bouyant. We just got to protect the city's external skin from all that sulfuric acid. Factories in the floating city can extract carbon dioxide to produce carbon based nano structures which can be used to build even more cities or floating solar screens to block sunlight. Eventually, the dense, hot Venusian atmosphere can be rendered into habitable structures and sun screens.

As for dying in large numbers, that is the very nature of exploration. Sea going vessels during the age of sail had no idea where they were going, no port of refuge in case of storm, no sure source of water and victuals. Jungle explorers deep in Africa and the Amazon had no way of surviving if anything went wrong - and many didn't. Arctic explorers like Scott often starved or froze to death. Both the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies (both financed by private corporations) nearly died out from starvation. Other colonies like Roanoke did fail.

Just because ships get lost at sea doesn't mean you stop sailing. Just because explorers die doesn't mean you stop exploring. Just because colonies fail doesn't mean you stop colonizing.

If the asteroid miners are going to have dangerous work and high death rates, planetary colonists won't be coming home at all. As Buzz Aldrin pointed out, manned colonization of the solar system SHOULD be one way for the same reasons that the Pilgrims knew they were never going back to England and settlers travelling the Oregon Trail (with many dying along the way) were never going back East. Manned travel to Mars only makes sense if you plan on it being a one-way trip. A trip best made by senior citizens (aka "Geezers in Spaaaaace!").

So don't let the possibility of death scare you off. As Heinlein ponted out "Pioneering means discovering new ways to die".

386:
Ceres has no significant gravity well to overcome and lots of water for life and fuel. Instead of Star Fleet starting human colonies on the surfaces of planets, we'll have the Weyland-Yutani Corporation contracting out the space equivalent of oil rig and crab fishing work - extremely dirty and dangerous work with a high death rate.

Work that makes investor back home extremely wealthy and mankind more prosperous.

That makes me think we'll never get around to interstellar travel at a colonisation level because of the turnaround time on making a profit unless company CEOs and major investors become immortal and CEOs have tenure, or we develop cheap FTL (which all things given doesn't look likely). That said the asteroid belt from a long term investors point of view may be much more attractive.

Though maybe it'd be a better bet to become a space lawyer when the inevitable cases oppose landing asteroids, or parts thereof on earth at high velocities. Actually existing law on this is quite interesting! Honestly.

Which brings up a question that I've occasionally thought about: Suppose humanity discovers there's an upcoming natural disaster, probably a big rock, that will kill every human in say 50-60 years from "now".

What's the best way to leave a deep-time marker with our history and knowledge that says "We were here?".

I was thinking printing all of Britannica on big clay bricks and burying them (in order!) deeply with long-life radiological markers in the most stable geological areas availble and maybe on the moon.

387:
Forget about the Enterprise, our future is Nostromo.

Colour me unconvinced. Social/cultural evolution is pretty fast in the West and the third world. In parts of Asia it seems slower, but it still happens and happens a lot faster than biological evolution.

Unless you're thinking we'll have colonists on Mars inside a generation time (so call that 30 years for a round number), there's a pretty good chance that the culture will look at pronouncements like that as just quaint, misguided blasts from the past. Not necessarily as mock-worthy as Bill Gates and the 64kB quote and so on, but somewhere out there still.

I don't know what the future will be like at that remove - technology will change some things, other things will have happened too. There is, for example, a discussion at the moment that we should have an expectation of philanthropy from the wealthy rather than selfishness. If that, rather that 'greed is good' becomes the social norm, or even just a significant social driver (say 25% of millionaires adopt it as a sensible thing, more valued than just making more money and revelling in it) - I'm not sure what the world of now +30 would look like, but very different to today's world.

388:

Seriously though, has anyone besides the Alien/Prometheus universe really examined a stellar civilization driven by corporate greed?

"Avatar"? ;-)

"Fallen Dragon" by Peter F Hamilton ?

389:
"Avatar"? ;-)

We shoudl have nutron nuked them from orbit on the basis it was the only way to be sure!

390:

@381
[The Romans damn near had an industrial revolution]

they didn't need an industrial revolution they had slavery

forced labour is cheaper than ingenuity

391:
forced labour is cheaper than ingenuity

Is that true given the overheads of forced labour?

392:

that would have made sense - any traditional colonial types would have slaughtered the Na'avi, and taken the Unobtanium...

lightweights...

393:
lightweights...

Ripley would have done it. Twice probably...!

394:

[Is that true given the overheads of forced labour?]

it was for the Romans, or they'd have had steam engines doing the work...

not so good for the Nazis, though

as always depends on circumstances ;-)

oops...Godwin's Law, sorry

395:

"That makes me think we'll never get around to interstellar travel at a colonisation level because of the turnaround time on making a profit"

That problem was solved by economist Paul Krugman in a somewhat whimsical paper he wrote back in 1978 "The Theory of Interstellar Trade".

http://www.princeton.edu/~pkrugman/interstellar.pdf

Tyler Cowen had some interesting comments on this paper:

"My own puzzling focuses on the determinants of real interest rates, given how time dilation changes the meaning of time preference. As you approach the speed of light you move into the future relative to more stationary observers. So can you not leave a penny in a savings account, take a very rapid spaceflight, and come back to earth "many years later" as a billionaire? Hardly any time has passed for you. In essence we are abolishing time preference, or at least allowing people to lower their time preference by spending money on fuel. I believe that in such worlds the real interest rate cannot exceed the costs at which more fuel can propel you into the future through time dilation."

So the basic interest rate formal has to be modified as follows:

Assume you have a spaceship that can approach lightspeed and thus you can make, say 1000 years, seem like 10 years. If you can gain the time value of money 100x faster, that effectively makes the interest rate 100x higher for you. Thus time preference is meaningless. This is a problem for economic theory. Krugman's solution is to force the interest rate to correspond to the cost of making the trip.

Here is the standard compound interest formula:

FV = PV(1+i)n

Fuel costs for the above trip are $X. Let's say you have $1000 to invest and wonder whether it's worth taking a near-lightspeed voyage to increase your return 10 subjective years from now.

Stay on earth:

A = $1000(1 + i)10

Take trip:

B = ($1000(1 + i)1000) – $X

Krugman says that its necessarily true that A=B, for time preference theory to stay consistent; thus i will be driven by X. In the future, given a free market, spaceship fuel costs will be the primary determinant of interest rates. The less the fuel cost, the less the interest rate, and vice versa.

396:

Given our predatory nature, God help any primitive species we come across as we expand into the galaxy.

Then again, God help s if we ever meet a more advanced species as nasty as ours.

397:

Alex @365 said If the radiation resistance can be food or drug supported, then your objection is irrelevant.

Umm, no, because the only way to really know that the treatment works is to actually expose people to lethal doses of radiation. Yes, you can do preliminary experiments with animal models and human embryos (but not in America on the latter, due to political clusterfuck). But real validation requires real testing.

Guys, medicine is actually pretty hard. It takes billions of dollars to get even fairly routine new drugs through testing, because human biology (and, worse, its variation) is horribly complicated and you're not allowed to test it in ways that might kill people. There are allowances for people who are already screwed (e.g. terminal cancer patients), but those won't be relevant for a preventative treatment for radiation damage.

398:

That's funny, your list of things that bring down western civilization are almost exactly my list of things that are good for the continuity of western civilization.

Lest we forget, we're only around 50 years past a point at which environmental considerations ranked so low that the US navy was seriously considering dimethyl mercury as a rocket propellant for ship-based missiles. And only 20-30 years past a point where most of the governments of South America were fascist dictatorships sending death squads to kill off trade unionists and journalists. And so on.

399:

re: colonizing the solar system

Space exploration is an old new idea, but since we're on the subject...

Space colonies won't be self-sustaining for a long time; they're likely to need frequent resupply from Earth (with its handy ecology for things like agriculture and its population of billions for things like manufacturing). Earthlings are going to want something for their support, so the colonies have to supply something valuable.

It costs about $20,000 a kilo to lift stuff into orbit. That cost is mostly energy, and oil extraction peaked a few years ago, so that cost is likely to go up rapidly.

So what's the goal, here? Can anyone name something that (1) is likely to be worth going into space to get, (2) can be found without a lot of very expensive searching, and (3) can be brought home without enormous costs?

P.S. water doesn't cut it. We have water down here. Space water is only valuable if there are people in space, and there will only be people in space if they can supply us with something we need down here.

400:

There are a couple of interesting things about "cycles of civilization," aside from the real fact that they're not truly cycles.

Not all technologies are equal in a crash. The technologies that take the biggest hit during the Dark Ages are the big ones involving civil engineering: roads, large buildings, aqueducts, and other monuments and infrastructure, down to concrete production, which the Romans pioneered). Trade drops off, as does the production of big ships. Dark Age cultures also lose a lot of bureaucratic infrastructure, so distribution of staples becomes erratic, as does enforcement of laws good and bad. Higher education also largely disappears (at least on the large scale).

Conversely, craft/maker technologies do just fine during a crash. For example, they still made pretty good swords during the post-Roman Dark Age, and it looks like there was a switch from bronze to iron roughly contemporaneous with the Bronze Age Collapse in the Mediterranean (the previous dark age, which in some ways was worse than the Roman crash). The thing to remember is that bronze (copper plus tin) depends on long-distance trade, because tin and copper almost never occur together. The Bronze Age world had trade lines that stretched from the Middle East out to Cornwall, Scandanavia, and Afghanistan. Iron is harder to work, but iron deposits are more common than copper or tin, so a blacksmith doesn't need to depend on trading over thousands of miles to get the materials he needs.

If one believes Graeber, a dark age isn't necessarily all bad. For example, the number of Roman slaves fell off dramatically, and to the extent that the Dark Age peasant's life was better than that of a latifundia slave, life may have actually improved for them after Rome fell. Additionally, the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few elites largely disappears. To be sure, much of the wealth disappears, period, but it does seem to disproportionally affect the middle and upper classes.

In the next crash, we can therefore predict that infrastructure will largely disappear, with long-distance, complex projects taking the proportionally biggest hit. This means we'll lose roads, rail-lines, water supplies, power, cloud computing, bulk international trade, satellites, commercial airlines, industrial agriculture, industrial nitrogen fixation, automatic firearms (because bullets will get much more expensive), etc.

What gets saved gets a lot more problematic, in part because it depends on which resources are available to keep building things. There are so many resources bound up in cities that people will undoubtedly spend centuries ripping buildings apart and digging up streets to get at stuff, even in places like Los Angeles that will largely depopulate when the taps run dry. There are likely to be lots of crazy young men who specialize in taking down skyscrapers for the steel in their frames, for one example.

This is why the question of how to create computers out of local products is critical (at least in my opinion). If computer production is only possible through international trade, we'll lose computers entirely during a dark age-level crash. In that case, "computer" and "phone" may become professions, rather than devices. If it's possible to create a computer in a middle-size city using local or regional sources, then we'll see some computing in some places. Laptops may disappear (due to loss of access to lithium for batteries), but a pedal-cranked generator may take the place of the wall plug and battery.

401:

We should just start "small" and just paraterraform just the 4 mile deep Valles Marineris. It's depth would allow it to sustain (with some biological or industrial maintenance and replenishment) a sufficiently thick and breathable atmosphere.

That would be one of my two preferred options if we're ever going to go a-colonizing space. VM is deep enough that you could roof it over with very lightweight film and sustain a greenhouse underneath, with surface pressure high enough to grow crops and not kill exposed humans instantly -- although it would probably be nearly as thin as Everest's dead zone.

The other option is of course the cloud tops of Venus. There's a level about 25km above surface at which atmospheric pressure approximates earth surface pressure, and the temperature is also comfortable. The atmosphere itself isn't breathable, but it's mostly CO2 ... in which an 80/20 N2/O2 breathing gas mix actually works as a dirigible lifting gas! With greather lift per molar volume than He on Earth (although marginally less than H2, if I remember correctly). Result: you could build gigantic semi-rigid airships which human beings could inhabit the gas cells of without protective gear.

There are major obstacles to both habitat locations (including the fact that they're not fail safe: if the airship gas bag or the roof over Vales Marineris rupture, everyone dies) but they are, at least in principle, habitable and large enough to accommodate populations in the millions (which you need in order to maintain the necessary on-planet infrastructure to sustain such a colony in the long term).

402:

Seriously though, has anyone besides the Alien/Prometheus universe really examined a stellar civilization driven by corporate greed?

You are also waiting for "Neptune's Brood", due from Ace and Orbit around this time next year. (I am now going to shut up and keep on writing instead, otherwise it ain't going to happen ...)

Yes, I'm writing a novel about interstellar slower-than-light colonization. You may now point and mock.

403:
Given our predatory nature, God help any primitive species we come across as we expand into the galaxy.

Then again, God help s if we ever meet a more advanced species as nasty as ours.

Is that a species that's never fought an asymetric war and wanted to occupy the ground rather than vaporise the planet? I can't (oddly enough) point to any real examples, but Turtledove & Niven have thought this through to an extent!

404:

The printing press is easy, as a technology it is fairly obvious and was independently invented several times. The problem was a cheap printing medium. With parchment the medium is so expensive that you cannot amortise the cost of typesetting over multiple copies, basically the copyist's time is a small part of the cost. With paper, which is far cheaper, the copyist's time is the bulk of the cost and you can afford enough paper to print thousands of copies. By modern standards early print books were expensive, compared to parchment books they were a bargain. The Romans were nowhere near inventing paper.

405:

Thanks for that. It's interesting. But doesn't the model you cite depend on the investor going along for the trip rather than staying at home which while not necessarily so for the CEO is except in exceptional cases necessary for the investors?

406:

How confident are we that we are the only intelligent life to have evolved on Earth. And I mean human tool using, war making, temple building, space ship riding intelligence.

Serious question, how big would the population have to be and how much would it have to modify the environment in order for us to see it today? Could an late stone age / early iron age civilization of several 100,000 individuals have thrived 200 million years ago and not leave any trace that we would find today?

407:

re: heteromeles @400

I think you're looking at it all wrong.

After a dark-ages level crash, computers probably won't be available, but I doubt it will matter. Society would be losing complexity so quickly that computers would be largely unnecessary.

The big deal is food. When Rome collapsed, it was the collapse of a small urban elite supplied by many times their number of farmers, slave and free. The farmers, mainly, got along just fine during and after the collapse. However, what we eat is mainly produced via fertilizers made from natural gas. If the trade infrastructure goes, our agricultural productivity plummets.

In pre-Columbian times, my continent held between 20 and 100 million people living at the limits of its resources. Now we have over 300 million, and the resources have been significantly degraded. I'd expect that, during such a collapse, the population of North America might drop below 50 million. The good news is that if you're old, or sick, or just unlucky, it's somebody else's problem.

408:

We need to remember that crashes in the past have all been regional rather than global: the fall of the Roman Empire had very little impact on Imperial China and none on the civilizations (and yes there were at least 2 major ones) in the Americas. And note that when Europe had turned on enough lights to start coming out of the Dark Ages that a lot of the tech they "discovered" was imported from elsewhere: gunpowder from China and advanced math like algebra and zero-based arithmetic from the Islamic nations.

Even today crashes are not necessarily going to be global: the financial meltdown in 2008 had effects nearly everywhere, but economies in Africa and Asia and South America were not decimated the way the US and Europe were. One important parameter is the rate at which a crash occurs. If climate change raises the sea level by 10 meters in this century most of the coastal nations are seriously fucked, but if the rate is more gradual we may have time (if we have the will!) to adapt. Similarly with Peak Whatever; a gradual shutdown might allow us to shift to other power sources, for some values of "us".

On the topic of building computers locally, I'd say that we probably can't build them using current generation designs: the cost and materials requirements for even a 40 nanometer fab plant, which is 2 generations behind the current state of production, let alone laboratory, art are just too high, and require too much enabling technology of equal complexity. And there's a reflexive quality to the design and construction of computer integrated circuits in that they use a lot of high-powered computers. I don't see any way for unaided humans to design and layout a 5 billion transistor IC.

One solution would be to build much less powerful chips, using old and routinized technology. The original 8086 and the Motorola 68000 were in the range of 30 to 50,000 transistors IIRC. That's small enough that it would be possible to make copies of the design and/or layouts (I'm sure they still exist somewhere), and could be manufactured with visible-light lithography and relatively simple chemical processes.

409:

Jay: Rockets run on supercooled hydrogen and oxygen = Electricity, not oil, and the price of that is not going to go up to any meaningful degree, ever, barring total civilizational collapse. The most obvious products of a future space presence are the same as we get now, only more of them. EG: Sattelite services, space telescopes and other science projects.

hmm. Actually, an interesting possibility occurs to me at present we mostly torch outdated equipment by dropping it in the atmosphere, but superior maintainance and recycling technology (developed for earth markets, then applied to sattelites to save launch costs) could eventually lead to a very large space presence that got that way via gradual accumulation

410:
early iron age civilization of several 100,000 individuals have thrived 200 million years ago and not leave any trace that we would find today?

Probably not. But if they were a bit higher tech and they'd produced say, plutonium or some kind of long life polutant then we'd have a fair chance of knowing.

Would a Victorian type civ leave traces after 200,000,000 years: if they were into bronze statues, so I read (Baxter, Deep Time, IIRC).

Mind you, that'd be a good start to a book: artificial transuaranic discovered that was made x million years ago.

Would it be better for plot reasons if it was found on earth or in the asteriod belt?


411:

Nitrogen fixation is trivial to do with all-electric inputs, and even doesnt give a hoot if the electric inputs are intermittent. Farm machinery can be, and sometimes already is, run on ammonia. - The total electricity needed for both uses would be insignificant - Industrial agriculture can thus be trivially maintained on wholly renewable energy for all eternity. This is one collapse I see predicted over and over again, and it makes no sense whatsoever - the economic value of the energy inputs into agriculuture are sky high, and the energy forms are absurdly easily substituted. A future in which private cars disappear? I can imagine that. Tractors? .. No. Not unless the world burns in nuclear fire/biowar/similar first.

412:

"Building and repairing machines in space requires a class of self-replicating intelligent machines to do the job. The best and least expensive of this class of machines is human beings."

Fail at 4. I won't go into the rest of the steps.

413:

"Only in the West, as we fade out due to hand wring guilt about having done so well. "

Why do people keep saying this? Why are the unfounded beliefs of the Mil-SciFi people in the 80's still considered to be worth anything?

414:

(part the deuce). "Only in the West, as we fade out due to hand wring guilt about having done so well. "

If anything, most of the West's problems are due to a tiny powerful minority who hasn't felt guilt since kindergarten, supplemented by a strong minority who only feel guilty about not serving their Betters more zealously.

415:

You (and many others here) might benefit from reading a blog post by one Mr. Charles Stross.

http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2007/06/the-high-frontier-redux.html

416:

Ha-hah! He's writing about STL interstellar colonization! He must be crazy!

[mock, mock]

----

Seriously, I'm looking forward to Neptune's Brood.

417:

If it's possible to create a computer in a middle-size city using local or regional sources, ...

I'm not positively sure that organic chemistry can be carried out using only locally obtained resources, but I think so.
I'm also not positively sure that electronics based on conjugated polymers can be made into working devices using only organic compounds, but again, I think so.
I am positively sure that literally hundreds of research labs are working on various aspects of cheaply making integrated circuits based on organic semiconductors. If they really had to, some of those groups could probably team up with other groups in their university and together make a primitive computer from scratch.

They'll need energy, feedstock, food for themselves... How many people you need blows up exponentially once you take into account supplies for the suppliers, and the exponent depends on how bad trade and local organization have become. But there's no need to maintain a global supply chain to maintain electronics.

418:

A calculator may be able to build a slide rule and abacus by hand.

Or a mechanical calculator. They're really not that complicated inside. A crude-but-functional slide rule or abacus shouldn't take more than a weekend if it's not your first time making one.

419:

"In the next crash, we can therefore predict that infrastructure will largely disappear, with long-distance, complex projects taking the proportionally biggest hit. "

Considering how much of the world's population depends on long-distance trade, and intensive energy for food, this would be a colossal die-off (with the obvious knock-on effects to even local civilization.

If 90% of your basic needs are supplied/can easily be supplied locally, then a collapse in long-distance trade networks is a hardship, and mainly for the upper classes.

If you're like us......................

420:

OK, so Charles Stross is sitting at the end of the table looking depressed and all the peasant women are laughing and pointing at him for having written Neptune's Brood:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slAeICdNg7c

I'm not sure who's on top of the table singing about the silliness of Neptune's Brood and mocking Charles Stross for being such an Internet Puppy.

421:

how big would the population have to be and how much would it have to modify the environment in order for us to see it today? Could an late stone age / early iron age civilization of several 100,000 individuals have thrived 200 million years ago and not leave any trace that we would find today?

Heh.

We can't easily rule it out because at any remove in excess of 1MYa the only signs that would be left would be absences in the geological record: for example, our civilization will have left a sudden bioversity crash and empty oil-bearing deposits, but it may not at that point be obvious that those geological deposits were oil-rich at some point in time. There will also be large limestone pavements (of former concrete -- cities and highways) but in time subduction/continental drift will bend, spindle and mutilate them out of recognition.

However, it's worth noting that in evolution, two weapons keep showing up in the arms race: venom and intelligence. In general, both tend to increase over time. Projecting backwards, dinosaurs were (literally) bird-brains -- not as bright as animals of equivalent body weight today (and probably not as likely to be venomous, either).

If I was looking for a sentient species in the fossil record I would focus on the K/T boundary. It's recent enough that brains had become larger, and there was a sudden biodiversity crash as the dinosaurs went down hard and fast ...

422:

(re: running into a civilization of intelligent beings nastier than humans)

"Is that a species that's never fought an asymetric war and wanted to occupy the ground rather than vaporise the planet? I can't (oddly enough) point to any real examples, but Turtledove & Niven have thought this through to an extent!"

Not really; they just took the 'aliens with advanced tech iz dum and droolz; humanz rule!' theme and cranked out a bunch of extruded mil-skiffy.

423:

Oh really? Then how do you explain this?

And there is this item.

You don't need to expose humans to lethal radiation doses to test new drugs. Space travel between say, Earth and Mars, does not expose the crew to lethal radiation doses, just higher ones than we deem acceptable for safety.

Scaling up Apollo astronaut doses for a mission of about 1 week, to a one way Mars trip suggests radiation exposure equivalent to that received on the longest Skylab mission in earth orbit. Those risks were deemed acceptable and were well below lethal doses.

424:

Presumably valves could be made in a reasonable size city, so shortwave radio ought to be possible in a post-collapse state.

425:

Really? You might want to check again, because that doesn't square with any other source.

Most ammonia production plants are huge and require a lot of energy (1-2% of the world's energy supply according to wikipedia), primarily as natural gas. The temperatures and pressures involved seem to work better at industrial scales, rather than in back-yard plants.

The nitrogen produced also supplies up to one-third of the world's human population with nitrogen, and also supplies effectively all of the nitrogen needed for any nitrogen-based munitions industry (e.g. gunpowder and most explosives).

For obvious reasons, these plants have been prime military targets since World War I.

The issue with industrial nitrogen production is that it is dependent on large amounts of energy and hydrogen, and it works best when there are reliable, cheap ways to transport the resulting ammonia to farmlands where it is needed. This is the type of major infrastructure that becomes impossible to maintain during a societal crash, although I'm sure that fertilizer plants are high on the list of facilities to preserve as long as possible.

The big problem with using renewables, especially solar, is that the natural gas normally used also supplies hydrogen for the chemical process. It's certainly possible to make ammonia using electricity and a hydrogen source. Unfortunately, big solar plants tend to be located in deserts where water is scarce, and so the hydrogen would have to be transported in, or obtained via hydrolysis from some other source (and that source is....?). Wind might be practical, again if a source of hydrogen is nearby. However, given the failure modes of the bigger turbines (rotor jump, turbines catching fire and spraying flaming debris), I'd want the ammonia plant well away from the turbines, which means there's some loss of energy through the lines. Also wind energy notoriously fluctuates, so maintaining temperature and pressure in the ammonia plant to obtain high yields will also be tricky.

426:

"One solution would be to build much less powerful chips, using old and routinized technology. The original 8086 and the Motorola 68000 were in the range of 30 to 50,000 transistors IIRC. That's small enough that it would be possible to make copies of the design and/or layouts (I'm sure they still exist somewhere), and could be manufactured with visible-light lithography and relatively simple chemical processes."

Last time I looked "new build" versions of the Motorola 68000 were still being used in embedded systems for industrial devices.

Responsible survivalists (yes, I know that for some this is an oxymoron) should be learning how to program Real-Time Operating Systems (RTOS) since a lot of them were designed to work with Motorola 68000s in embedded systems.

427:

If "escapism" means letting one's mind (intellect, emotions) consider other/alternate points of view, perhaps SF readers have an excess of mirror neurons therefore need more varied, deeper and more stimulating ideas than found in 'regular' fiction. Similar to gourmets often being 'super-tasters' ... which would make SF readers "idea-gourmets".

Quite honestly, the link between a certain type of science fiction reader and syndromes now thought to be caused by a mirror neuron deficit has been noted for over thirty years. It's an informal diagnostic marker for some neurologists.

Science fiction is also a rather narrow genre, idea-wise, though the peaks of the genre can vie with anything in the mainstream literature of ideas, unlike most genres.

It may be, like people who lack color vision but have excellent acuity in their black-and-white sight, that sort of SF reader sees finer differences in a narrower range, while being blind to a broader palette.

I like Nestor's comment at 356, though I don't think there's any evidence to support that theory.

428:

Sigh.....

Electricity is a hydrogen source. The first industrial scale ammonia plant ever built used the output of a norvegian dam to supply the european market via electrolysis fed ammonia synthesis. The only reason natural gas is currently used is that at current prices it is cheaper to do so, But reverting to the original 1900s era process would barely move prices at all, and ammonia is not exactly a dominant cost of doing buisness as a farmer. So no. This is not a problem. It is never going to be a problem. Not ever.

429:

Oh help!
160+ comments since I last looked (!)
[I've been following 2ft-gauge Garratt steam-thrash in N. Wales]
- right -
@ 245 (re 216)
bollocks
You are setting up false non-existent opposites
i.e. Straw-Man
Giving up : "air travel" - as presently done, not all air travel (Zeppelins?) ..."personal transportation" - NO - just more economical (bicycles & cars that lats 30+ years - I own one ... "a year-round balanced diet (called having a FREEZER for you home-grown veg, and accepting that fresh asparagus (Yum! mine's tasting really good right now) is a seasonal.
Please don't do this again?
carlos @ 258
Make no mistake: comforting the imprisoned is a noble activity. But so is rehabilitating them.
And if they are unjustly imprisoned, then escape is a noble ideal.
I think you missed that one.
@ 262 et al
"Quantum Thief is about Cryptography?
Really?
Show please? I still don't understand!
@ 274
The higher the level of complexity in a system, the rarer it is. That's all there is to the Fermi Paradox, really.
BUT all niches are filled, nonetheless - something both evolution and the sky-survey projects are exposing.
There are bodies all the way down from brown dwarfs to sub-Earth bodies - everywhere.
@ 315
The thought that human descendents may be on Earth until it dies in the sun, now that's and idea to really play with.
Last & First Men, Olaf Stapledon
First SF I read @ age 9 (!)
the Dawg @ 346
Autonomous ?
How far?
There's the story of the new handheld radar speed-trap issued to Devon police, back in the late 70' early 80's ..
Test on landscape - zero, test on cyclist - 15, test on sheep -2. test on landscape 400 again - (?!) THEN Harrier jet comes over horizon.
TWO DAYS LATER - Devon cops get letter from RAF saying "PLEASE don't do that again!" Radar weapons-systems on Harrier went "We are being targeted - can we launch air-strike ground missile right now pretty please?"
Definitely OOPS.
347/8
"What do you think of Western Civilisation?"
I think it would be a good idea. [ attributed to the Mahatma ]
Now stop talking codswallop, please?
@ 358
Almost ONE textbook - usually called "The Rubber Bible"
Dirk @ 382
I ASSUME that statement was a sarcastic commentarium on the TeaBaggers and USSAian Right?
Err ... Charlie @ 398 I think he was errr joking?
@ 390/1
Forced labour APPEARS cheap, particularly if you are as institutionally cruel as the Romans.
@ 404 & similar
More importantly, the Romans never had a PLACE-ORDER NUMBERING SYSTEM
I don't think people realise just how important and basic that is, and the idea that zero is a number.
[ I won't go into the differences between zero, nothing, null, nil, nought and "empty", thank you ]
AND
Bruce Cohen @ 408
Correction
advanced math like algebra and zero-based arithmetic from India.
conan e moorcock @ 410
Don't you mean a black obelisk on the Moon?
Charlie @ 421
Actually only SOME dinosaurs went down hard & fast ...
Anything at all with a body-mass > 60 kg (?) didn't make it.
But birds = small ornithschian dinosaurs are still here ....

430:

> Rockets run on supercooled hydrogen and oxygen

You mean like Zenit, Atlas 5 and Falcon? Or Dnepr, Rokot and the CZs to date? H2/O2 is really nice for upper stage propulsion if you're going to stay with chemical rockets once in orbit, but for getting into orbit it's decidedly optional.

431:

....not fail safe: if the [....] roof over Vales Marineris rupture, everyone dies...

Over what time period? As O'Neill explained with space colonies, if the colony roof ruptured, the air pressure would decline only very slowly, allowing plenty of time for the inhabitants to get to shelter and the repair crews to the scene. In VM, one could expect the pressurized space to be broken up into different cells for safety and that each cell would have emergency shelters to retreat to. This is certainly not a major problem to overcome.

432:

It costs about $20,000 a kilo to lift stuff into orbit. That cost is mostly energy, and oil extraction peaked a few years ago, so that cost is likely to go up rapidly.

You're simply incorrect. That $20K/kg is mainly equipment and skilled labor.

433:

The Romans were nowhere near inventing paper.

Only because they never got far enough East. They were too busy obsessing over military conquest, so they ran smack into a giant wall called the Persian Empire, which prevented them from getting to China and learning how to make paper. Imagine if a small band of Roman soldiers, disguised as traders, took the silk road east and went on a scouting expedition to China. They could have returned with paper, noodles, and gun powder, introducing them to Europe 1000 years earlier...

434:
advanced math like algebra and zero-based arithmetic from India.

AIUI the original development of zero was in India but was developed into a full 10-based arithmetic in the Arab countries. Likewise some of the concepts of algebra may have come from India, but a lot of the development was done by al-Khwārizmī and colleagues.

And we have Muslims, primarily in Spain and the Caliphate I believe, to thank for saving much of the ancient knowledge when the Europeans were wiping their asses and starting fires with it.

435:

Let's try this again...

Electricity is not a source of hydrogen. Electricity runs hydrolysis, especially from water. Since the single biggest problem I've seen with solar plants is getting enough water to them to break even, I'm pretty sure that siting an ammonia plant near a desert solar plant simply won't work, for lack of hydrogen sources.

The Vemork plant in Norway started producing nitrogen in 1911, but the Haber process (which is what everyone uses now) was first industrialized in Germany in 1913. Why the difference? There are multiple ways to fix nitrogen, and the Haber process is much more efficient. I assume that Vemork switched over to the Haber process at some point (Wikipedia isn't clear on this point), but realize that it's a 60 MW power plant, it was the world's biggest hydroelectric plant at the time, and it was, yes, targeted for sabotage during WWII (this to prevent heavy water production, not fertilizer production)

If you want to go back to pre-Haber process nitrogen plants, that's fine, but the other processes are much more inefficient. A good chunk of that 1/3 of humanity that currently depends on the Haber process won't have a dependable source of nitrogen under such a scheme.

If you're saying that it's trivial to construct Vemork-equivalent plants around the world to substitute for existing natural gas-powered Haber plants, I've got to tell you that all such hydroelectric sites are already tapped out. Where's that energy coming from again?

436:

Even if the Roman Empire had never fallen, would we be benefiting from an extra 500 or so years of progress that was lost in the dark ages? Actually, I doubt it. Unified, homogeneous, socially stratified empires tend not to be hot-houses of innovation.

1) Imperial China might disagree with you.

2) The thing about the Romans is, they went through periods where the empire contracted back to a republic. Had the empire persisted enough to put down the Vandals and Visigoths, they might very well have eventually had a Second Republican period, which would have brought us the Renaissance about 6-700 years earlier.

437:

Yes, indeed. A certain type of fan wants to reduce everything to a mechanistic problem because mechanistic problems are amenable to solutions and they find nonlinear systems or wicked problems inherently disturbing.

The thought processes in question remind me of authoritarian followers, except that rather than needing an authority-figure to order them around and provide a consistent social hierarchy, they seek a logical framework that provides all the answers. (I think. I'm not certain. Maybe it just overlaps with the Asperger's spectrum way of modeling the world.)

438:

Make no mistake: comforting the imprisoned is a noble activity. But so is rehabilitating them.

And if they are unjustly imprisoned, then escape is a noble ideal. I think you missed that one.

I don't see any sign that the science fiction readership community experiences injustice greater than their non-genre peers. Rather the opposite, I suspect: they're more often white, more often male, more often have a technical education, etc. The world now caters to nerd tastes, as I once pointed out in an acrimonious discussion with Greg Egan (who was trying to claim that "nerd" was as foul a word as "n/gger", which is Exhibit #5271009 why I can't take the unsupported opinion of science fiction writers seriously).

439:

Why are the unfounded beliefs of the Mil-SciFi people in the 80's still considered to be worth anything?

For much the same reason that the unfounded beliefs of conservative politicians in the 60's continue to rule our political discourse: those idiots are still alive and won't shut up.

440:

As to why we would want to have computers, even wimpy ones, in a crash, there are major advantages in any organized society to having good scheduling and operational optimization techniques. One of the great successes of computers from very early on was their application to process optimization and control, whether continuous processes like chemical synthesis or discrete processes like supply chain operation. Intelligent use of computers can get much more efficiency out of even low tech operations1. Note that Rome's Empire lasted as long as it did because they had a huge record-keeping system; the major disadvantage was the accompanying huge number of clerks required, which would be a serious drawback in a recovery. Replacing most of the clerks with a few computers would have many advantages including not having to feed them.


1. For a worked example of using computers to optimize low tech recovery from a crash see S. M. Stirling's Nantucket trilogy.

441:

So what's the goal, here? Can anyone name something that (1) is likely to be worth going into space to get, (2) can be found without a lot of very expensive searching, and (3) can be brought home without enormous costs?

So you must think that Planetary Resources are a complete bunch of bozos, who cannot "run the numbers"? John Lewis has done the early heavy lifting of estimating asteroid resource values, and several others have looked at the economics of platinum extraction. Just suppose that automated factories could profitably deliver platinum to earth at 1/10 of the current price, don't you see any value in that? Then let's throw in the other precious metals and rare earths (that we are continuing our presence in Afghanistan to protect new finds), plus the need for water and organics in those upcoming space hotels and maybe, just maybe there is a viable business?

Conceptually, this is no different that the Spaniards expending large resources to find gold in the Americas. They wanted it for wealth, whilst we moderns see the industrial values instead.

On most discussions about space based platinum mining, the assumption is that prices will decline with new supply. However I am reminded of the 2003 article in Wired "The New Diamond Age" that suggested that mass produced synthetic diamonds would undercut the De Beers cartel and collapse the price of diamonds for jewelry. This did not happen, and diamond prices (per carat) have steadily risen (in fact more steeply since 2000). So we need to be careful about assumptions of supply and demand and price equilibria.

BTW, trade theory requires that there be a arbitrage between goods, not absolute value differentials for trade to happen. High transport costs make it difficult to trade, but not impossible. The old silk trade might be an appropriate analogy.


442:

Actually, the Jurassic/Cretaceous boundary might be a better choice for looking for a vanished civilization. The reason I say this is that there isn't a blindingly obvious reason (or two, or three) for that extinction event, but it happened. Another boundary is the paleocene/eocene boundary, when there was a very large release of greenhouse gases from...somewhere.

In both cases above, I'd vote for a failed alien colonization attempt as the reason, rather than indigenous Terran intelligent species. But the most likely explanation in both cases is an unintelligent cause, one that's hard to piece together from available evidence.

With the K-T boundary, the fight mostly seems to be over whether the formation of the Deccan Traps or the asteroid strike was the bigger cause.

The best evidence that we haven't seen a previous, large-scale civilization on Earth is that there were a lot of easily-extractable minerals (especially gold and iron) available for human extraction.

443:

Several SF authors have done "what-if" stories about the possible survival of the Roman empire.

The most memorable for me have been the ones by Robert Silverberg, because of their literary qualities. He wrote them as short stories first and then sort of stitched a few of them together as a novel:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roma_Eterna

I prefer the short stories in their original form.

But the thing you have to remember about the Roman empire was that it was completely rotten when it came to scientific communications. More precisely they did not have true Science, with its tradition of open exchange of data and analysis. They didn't have patent laws or the concept of a market for inventions either. If you made a scientific or technical discovery you hid it!

Even it they had stumbled upon the Chinese technique for making paper it would not have helped the empire. Roman roads and roman navigation (ships, lighthouses, anti-pirate patrols) were great for moving humans and freight but they had no equivalent in the intellectual sphere. Building artisans discovered how to use cement in one part of the empire but it never spread to all of the empire. If you mastered a technique you kept it secret and shared it only with a few close apprentices.

So, the Romans were extremely far from any industrial take-off, farther even than the pre-Renaissance Europeans who were inching much closer to it when the Black Death suddenly threw a spanner in the works.

444:

There's the issue of economics (I'll get back to that), but something like rare earths aren't an especially good target for asteroid mining, so far as I know.

The issue with rare earths isn't that they're rare, it's that they're a pain in the ass to extract, because there are a bunch of chemically similar elements. The trick is to find where they've been concentrated by geological activity, to be worth mining. In fact, I wrote Scion of the Zodiac precisely around the idea that rare earths are easier to mine rare earths on a planet than on an asteroid, which justified periodic landings on an otherwise inhospitable planet.

The problem with valuables is that if you flood the market, they aren't valuable any more. This really caused huge problems for Spain once they started bulk extraction of gold and silver from the New World. Trying to get rich by importing asteroidal platinum really only works for the first few asteroids. After that, the market's going to collapse.

Yes, I agree that platinum is a great catalyst (around 200 tonnes used worldwide in 2006), and iridium is industrially useful as well (about 5 tonnes used in 2007 worldwide). As the numbers show, they're not used in enormous quantities. What I don't know is whether there's a "killer app" for either of these elements (or for anything else that's more available in space) that would have effectively inexhaustible demand, no matter how much became available. Is there a potential "iridium age" or "platinum age" that I'm missing?

445:

I happen to agree with your analysis. The only reason I suspect people get a little nuts about Roman industrialism is that there's pretty good evidence that in some places, they used factory-line type assembly, possibly using interchangeable parts. Somebody also produced the Antikythera mechanism, suggesting that the knowledge for producing mechanisms existed, even if it never spread far.

Ironically, our society is in a similar situation. We've got most of the technologies, even ideologies, we need to create sustainable local civilizations, or at least, something that's a lot closer to sustainability than what we have now.

What's holding us back seems to be:
--a lack of will to make such shifts, ranging from individuals to politics to industry (Yes, we're as rotten as the Romans were, in many ways),
--a massive backlog of infrastructure that is geared for short-term competitiveness, rather than long-term sustainability
--a general inability to solve complicated problems, again at all levels (from science to politics).
--Probably a few crucial innovations we haven't discovered yet, although to be honest, I'm hard pressed to say what they are.

If I had to pick on our critical failures right now, I'd pick on the first and third issues, and I'd even go so far as to say they're interlinked. Whether it's figuring out how to tinker with an ecosystem to make it more productive and sustainable, or how to tinker with Congress to make it more productive and sustainable, we have a horrible time doing it. It's possible that in two thousand years, scholars will look back and bemoan our current idiocy, and wonder why we couldn't have done...whatever it is we should be doing. It's also possible that complicated problems are what drag down civilizations in general, and we will just manage to get further than anyone else before they drag us down too.

446:

My candidate for what we want to be mining off-earth, at least at the outset: water ice. Given launch costs of $5-10K/Kg at present, a hundred tons of ice delivered to LEO is potentially worth $0.5-1Bn. And we can use it immediately, either as a life support raw material or as a reaction mass source.

Seriously, the cost of mining anything off-earth is so astronomical that the incremental value of processing, say, platinum rather than water is minimal, until we have a mature off-earth resource extraction industry.

447:

The trouble with humans, except for generalising madly, is that they're really prone to misinterpreting data to fit their expectations.

For example, the head of the IMF recently released a statement about the British economy. Rational discourse is impossible because she said just enough things that all sides of the debate can say "She said this look..." and then hang their beliefs on it.

OK, that might be different to a business man. But a business man who wants to go and explore the asteroids and mine them - I really don't know that I'd trust his assumptions without examining them really, really closely. If he thinks he can bring platinum in at a 10th of the current market price, he only has to be out by a factor of 2 in four places to be embarrassed by selling it for less than it costs to mine. And he will have a fair old number of assumptions, estimates and the like in his figures. Unless I've missed ships capable of reaching the asteroids from Earth and returning, robot mining stations and more.

I think each of these is a worthy goal, and I wish them luck. Not convinced it will be a money making venture within a century or more, if ever (you don't need that many underestimates in your assumptions and overruns in your development costs for that to seem a short time before break even) - and while I think we need more projects where the annual bottom-line is not the be all and end all, I think a few more homey ones - potable water, broadcast power, global warming etc. being sorted first might be a better use of the resources.

448:

>>"Damon Knight's original characterisation of space opera as horse opera (the Western) with blasters instead of six-guns and space ships instead of horses still holds water."

Actually the space opera idea originated with Bob (Wilson) Tucker.

Great piece, though.

449:

Alex @441 said So [Jay] must think that Planetary Resources are a complete bunch of bozos, who cannot "run the numbers"?

My observations about those guys:

1) They seem to be funded by a bunch of rich guys who are only risking money they can afford to lose.

2) Their funders seem to be more attracted by the "cool" factor and bragging rights than by hard-nosed profitability considerations.

3) I've met enough rich people to know that they are not, generally, smarter than anybody else. They often seem dumber, actually, because very few of them have experienced the pointier bits of life. They often fall in love with vanity projects.

4) Orbital hotels for the billionaire class may actually be a viable business, at least until a few billionaires get blown up, but its long-term impact is likely to be minimal.

5) All comparisons between space trade in the future and terrestrial trade in the past are unconvincing. Space is just far bigger, far more hostile, and far more lacking in everything that we need to survive.

450:

You don't have to trust that business people get it right or wrong on profits. It's their money and skin in the game, not yours. Suppose Planetary Resources made such a bet and it was incorrect, that their extracted platinum wound up as being 2x as expensive as they thought at LEO. What can they do with that expensive platinum. Liquidate it. Society benefits instead. These bets go on all the time, and eventually the product is sold or destroyed with a below cost return.

Most gold miners lost money in the C19th gold rushes. Did that stop them from trying? Same goes for the punters in casinos and lottery players.

451:

So we're going into space to find water, which is only valuable because we're going into space?

Once again the bureaucracy expands to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy.

452:

Thanks Bruce (408), Busy Bee (417) and Alain (422) for tackling the topic of post-crash computers.

It looks like the crude consensus is that:

a) It's possible to make, say, 1970s or 1980s level computers with a local supply chain using known technology, and it might be possible to use organic chemistry (or even biology) to make computers at the same scale. So if there's a town or small city to support the industry, that town may make, and possibly export, the equivalent of PCs.

b) computers are useful enough to keep around if possible, if only for their spreadsheets. I happen to agree. Good accounting seems to be really useful for organizing labor and resources in any group, and computers make this task much easier.

This ignores truly primitive computing, such as slime-mold computers Slime mold computing works if you can figure out how to turn your problem into a maze with an optimizable path, such as a traveling salesman problem, and if you can keep your slime mold alive long enough to find the optimal path through your maze.

453:

Mining water in space makes it much easier to do other things in space. It currently just isn't practical to launch a probe that requires multiple tonnes of reaction mass to achieve its mission, but if you can have it meet up with a lump of ice in orbit, that's a huge difference to your launch costs. Potentially, it's the difference between the mission being possible and not. Similarly with orbital hotels (or other larger-than-previous space stations); if you can spend a billion dollars to get an amount of water that would have cost you ten times that to launch from earth, your business proposition suddenly looks much more profitable. (Or your science station can support twice as many scientists.)

454:

re Chris 453: I agree that getting water from space probably would save on the costs of being in space, but we have yet to establish any compelling reason to be in space at all. Without that, the next fifty years of space technology will be much like the last: some useful LEO stuff, some nifty vanity projects, some science that is neat but hardly useful, all of it on the chopping block whenever budgets have to be cut.

455:

The best evidence that we haven't seen a previous, large-scale civilization on Earth is that there were a lot of easily-extractable minerals (especially gold and iron) available for human extraction.

I am not sure about that. Do we know how much easily extractable minerals are current sitting under a few thousand feet of water? 100+ MY is plenty of time for stuff on the bottom of the ocean to end up on land and stuff on land to end up at the bottom of the ocean.

Also do we know how much iron and gold we should have? Maybe some one used an enormous amount but Earth actually started with a much higher amount.

You just realize when you start looking at deep time how little we actually know about what happened. We assume that we were the first and that everything we find on earth is all there ever was. But we cant really be sure of that.

456:

We're going into space to find out more about Earth.

We can't drill more than a few km into our Earth's crust so to find out how things are really working we need to go to other planets, the asteroids, the Jovian moons. If we can really predict earthquakes and tsunamis one day it will be thanks to extra-terrestrial research.

Same thing for predicting the next whopper solar storm.

Same thing for the origins of life.

It's all about Science.

And it's about scientists.

If some scientists are grumbling because of money spent on human spaceflight instead of robotic spaceflight other scientists are deliriously happy because their kind of Science can be done better if their instruments are re-calibrated by humans (preferably themselves) every day.

457:

The hydrogen/fuel cell economy would be one large demand sink for platinum. Once a material is cheap and readily available, new uses for it are found.

Stephenson's "Diamond Age" suggested that cheap diamond could be used to coat all surfaces that were subject to wear. Without cheap sources of diamond, and a way to deposit it in films, this industrial treatment would not be possible.

Maybe the same will apply to some of the precious metals?

458:

Actually Jay, we're already using space very effectively for what it has a lot of: useful orbits around Earth, for satellites. There are some useful orbits for, say, observing the sun that we're also using.

I agree that we don't yet have a compelling reason to put humans in space on a permanent basis, and most of space doesn't even provide useful orbits.

Still, we do use a small portion of space quite heavily.

459:

All comparisons between space trade in the future and terrestrial trade in the past are unconvincing. Space is just far bigger, far more hostile, and far more lacking in everything that we need to survive.

Pirates are quite hostile. I'd rather take my chances with nature than pirates.

460:

Von hitchofen:


[The Romans damn near had an industrial revolution]
they didn't need an industrial revolution they had slavery
forced labour is cheaper than ingenuity

Modern economics indicates that is a huge error.

The US south pre-civil-war was significantly economically growth disadvantaged compared to the north and other non-slaveowning areas. Worker salaries have high local velocity ( in the currency flow sense ). Slave systems emphatically do not.

461:

So we're going into space to find water, which is only valuable because we're going into space?

Well, yes, exactly.

But if the lemmings are rushing cliff-wards, doesn't it make sense to use the opportunity to sell them life-insurance policies (with a suicide exclusion)?

462:

Major point of order, though: computers at a sustainable 1960s/1970s level are a lot less useful. That's not to say that they're use-less; merely that they're useful at 1960s/1970s levels. Inventory and stock control, process control, and so on. Databases require mass storage (which in turn is problematic: what are we going to use, magtape or drum memory, or disk drives? All of these have complex manufacturing dependencies). Networking requires cable or radio connections.

Our ubiquitous use of computers arises because we have a lot of cheap, powerful hardware with network infrastructure and cheap storage. The "post collapse computing" scenario we're discussing here ... it's less obvious what they're going to be used for, beyond computing gunnery elevation and windage tables to keep the folks from the other side of the hill at bay.

463:

Exactly. Water offers multiple roles as life support, radiation shielding, propellant (as reaction mass or as LH2/LOX). Lots of cheap water changes the cost equations for infrastructure, especially to facilitate valuable things we do want to do in space. It might be as trivial as station keeping the ISS or other platforms, to being able to bath frequently, or wash down your spacesuit and instrument kits in a dusty environment like the moon.

464:

Actually, we do have compelling reasons for being in space. Or at least for having our robotic proxies in low earth orbit. Consider:

1. Meteorological observation satellites have saved immense numbers of lives over the past 50 years by assisting weather forecasting and giving advance warning of major storm systems' paths.

2. Climatological observation. Ozone hole, anyone? Global atmospheric CO2 level monitoring?

3. TV broadcasting satellites. (Contemplates Eurovision, Fox News: okay, maybe not a tangible benefit.)

4. Satellite phones. Not a consumer tech, but it has pretty much revolutionized communications at sea and in isolated areas, saving lives in the process.

5. Spy satellites. You might argue that military tech is not of benefit to us, but I'd argue the opposite: open skies and the 1960s spysat programs disproved the existence of the "missile gap" and took some of the heat off the nuclear arms race. Later, the VELA and related clusters, designed to detect missile launches and nuclear detonations, gave us a measure of security by taking the edge off the "do we launch RIGHT NOW or wait?" dilemma for nuclear planners. Arguably, they made it possible for us to survive the cold war.

6. GEO Comsats in general. Okay, so lightspeed latency has rendered them undesirable for voice calls and for data transmission that needs low latency -- the signal has to climb 40K Km straight up, then back down again, to connect two points. It seemed like a good idea in the 1950s to Arthur C. Clarke, and it would probably still be a good idea if not for the advent of wavelength dimension multiplexing in fiber-optic cables and the widespread adoption of packet switching for data. However, if you're nowhere near a cable (for example, on a ship) GEO is still better than nothing. And in some cases you can still move a GEO comsat into position faster than you can splice a cable that has succumbed to anchor-induced backhoe fade in the middle of a shipping lane. I reckon comsats still have some mileage left in them.

So: yes, space is useful to us. Directly so. Let us not forget that until 1962 there was no live trans-Atlantic television bandwidth. Raise a glass to Telstar, please!

465:

Alain @456: I would completely agree with you if it were the government sending people into space, but for various asinine reasons my government is more likely to send people to Iran than Mars. Corporations need profit, or they die.

Heteromeles @458: Sure. Satellites are useful. I'm not arguing against them.

Alex @459: By that logic, you should avoid the surface of the ocean, which is full of pirates, preferring to sink your ship. The bottom of the ocean has no surviving pirates.

466:

I'll admit I did have to think about it, primarily because I spent a good chunk of last year looking at deep time for an SFF story, trying to figure out how time travelers could penetrate all of Earth's history and still leave no trace.

You're right, but the geology has less to do with what's on sea floors, and more to do with deposits that are currently a mile or more underground. From what I understand about geology, continents in general are better at concentrating elements for mining than sea floors are (with the notable exception of hydrothermal vents, ahem).

I'd picked on iron mines, simply because the biggest iron deposits were laid down in really old rocks, back when the Earth first got its oxygen atmosphere, and these deposits have been mined for all they are worth where they are accessible. That's maybe not a good case, because iron is quite common, and it's possible that erosion erased all the old strip mines.

Gold's a somewhat better example, because we've gone nuts mining it. Some of the deepest mines in the world go after gold, and they're so deep, and in such geologically stable areas, that it strikes me as unlikely that someone looking for gold wouldn't find the remnants of a deep time mine somewhere if it existed.

The other example is diamonds, which were created in volcanic events (kimberlite pipes) that, so far as I understand, simply don't happen any more. Again, humans have gone nuts mining these deposits, and I think it's unlikely that the remnants of a deep time mine would go unnoticed.

With both gold and diamonds, this analysis assumes that a paleosapient would value gold and diamonds as much as we do, and one can certainly argue about that. Still, the basic principle is to look for elements that were deposited a long time ago, and which we expend enormous efforts mining today. To me, these would seem to have the best chances for harboring traces of fossil mining.

The other bit of evidence is that our cities seem to be mineral attractors. They also tend to congregate along coasts, which turn out to be places where fossilization happens more often than elsewhere. Most of what we know about deep time comes from lowland and coastal deposits. I don't know of anything in the geologic record that could be evidence of a coastal city. These signs would include things like extensive foundations (intrusions of something that looked a bit like concrete into rocks), mineral rich layers in the middle of sandstone, limestone, and mudstone deposits, the odd bomb shelter (deeply buried and heavily fortified) and the like. Jan Zalasiewicz's The Earth After Us is all about the traces we'd leave for hypothetical alien explorers 100 million years from now, and it's a useful book for seeing how various traces of humanity might fossilize.

Personally, I'm trying to figure out how to update some of Lovecraft's stories based on our current knowledge of deep time, What would Pnakotus, R'lyeh and the polar city of the Elder Things really look like? Inquiring minds want to know!

467:

Charlie @464: That would all fall under the "useful LEO stuff" in my previous post. I did not mean to give the impression that I am somehow against satellites.

468:

You forgot the most important thing - GPS.

469:

But if the lemmings are rushing cliff-wards, doesn't it make sense to use the opportunity to sell them life-insurance policies (with a suicide exclusion)?

Oh, the cynicism. And yet fortunes were made selling kit, clothes, booze and sex to gold rush miners. I mean, if you want to join the 300 mile high club, the gals are going to be very special and expensive... And the smart folks will be selling smooth-ish moonshine in your New Eden VM settlement to massively undercut the ridiculous prices of your favorite single malt imported from earth.

470:

Your original comment that I replied to (#441) suggested that asteroid mining must be OK because the business heads must have run the numbers and aren't bozos. Now it doesn't matter if they are or not...

They have a huge, but very expensive lump of platinum sitting somewhere that we won't use at an appreciable rate. Society benefits how?

I apologise to trying to use some rational thought to counter your faith.

471:

Which is why today we have policing of routes, from roads to the oceans, to prevent piracy from being more than an irritant. But historically, robbery was very common, making trade risky, and hence expensive.

So far, space piracy has been confined to SF.

472:

That is the interesting thing, isn't it? It's common knowledge that the people who get rich off all gold rushes are the people who supply the miners, not the miners themselves. Indeed, modern capitalism was created in large part by funding voyages of exploration.

Given this history, it's fascinating to me that billionaires are talking about being the miners, but we don't have companies lining up to get rich supplying them with all that incredibly expensive stuff they'll need, from water to entertainment.

That might speak most strongly to the economics of the situation. If no one wants to be the next Stanford or Crocker (or even British East India Company), the economics of a space minerals rush might be just a bit off.

473:

Whoops! (It's been a long working day.)

Yes, GPS: an absolutely vital tech that's not quite impossible without satellites, but much more difficult and expensive (or less accurate and useful -- e.g. LORAN).

474:

"Rockets run on supercooled hydrogen and oxygen"

Hydrogen slush turned out to be trickier than expected, in practice (cf. Lockheed Martin X-33);

Solid hydrogen/solid oxygen rockets: published over a decade ago in both fiction & nonfiction (inventor: first was the late James B. Stphens, at the time the most patented Caltech/JPL person alive).

475:

carlos @ 438
Yes BUT
The "nerds" are the people with, erm, working engineering solutions, whereas the politicians and religous so-called "leaders" have - what, exactly?
My case rests.

Charlie @ 464
"Telstar" Like THIS do you mean?
Arrrgh!

476:

Your original comment that I replied to (#441) suggested that asteroid mining must be OK because the business heads must have run the numbers and aren't bozos. Now it doesn't matter if they are or not...

My comment #441 was to counter the "there is nothing of value in space" argument. IMO, the only real issue is economics. But business is risky, people make mistakes (c.f. Rupert Murdoch and MySpace). Sometimes those mistakes can be very useful. For example we are currently benefiting from a lot of stuff created during the internet boom. We benefit, the investors didn't.

They have a huge, but very expensive lump of platinum sitting somewhere that we won't use at an appreciable rate. Society benefits how?

OK, you have 100 US tons of pure platinum in cis-lunar space worth perhaps $2.5bn delivered on earth (a 50% price drop in plainum prices dues to teh supply overhang). Let's say that it cost you $7.5bn to get that platinum and deliver it. Do you leave it in space or liquidate it to at least recover $2.5bn?

Maybe your question implied that once liquidated, it is now just 100 tons of platinum sitting unused in a warehouse run by the LME on earth, and depressing prices? [Rather like gold bullion held by central banks?] Firstly, just depressing the price of platinum by 50% would make platinum more widely used, from jewelry to industrial uses. This would stimulate demand and lead to new market projections, which our space entrepreneurs might be able to profit from based on fully amortized space infrastructure and improved experience to reduce production costs to below $750/oz.
Society benefits because all goods made using platinum fall in price. My question back to you would be, what would society lose in this situation?

477:

Stanford, Crocker, Huntington and Hopkins were the principals of the Central Pacific railroad. So in this case they were the ones trying to make the risky infrastructure. It would be a better analogy if they also funded the railroad construction, but that of course, was why they were so clever, it was government doing the funding and risk taking.

My sense is that Planetary Resources is hoping to supply materiel to other customers. Water to to ISS and Bigelow's space habs, err hotels. Water is much easier to extract than metals. Water to Bigelow would be in the same category as supplies to miners. Talk of platinum mining is more easily understandable to most people.

478:

Personally, I figure that computers are useful for the same kinds of things that ayllus used khipus for.

Okay, to unpack this: in the Andes, one of the traditional ways of organizing group labor was through ayllus. The problem with the Andes is that the weather is unpredictable, and in many places only one year in five produces a crop surplus (in most years, crops fail or produce at below sustainability). Also, growing seasons are quite short.

To thrive in such conditions, the Andeans came together in groups called ayllus to make sure all the work got done. Everyone would gang together to cultivate and harvest every single field, rather than doling labor out at one family per field. The extra labor enabled everyone to get their crops planted and harvested quickly, maximizing their chances of getting the crops in at all. They used ayllus to organize planting, construction, irrigation, herding, and most of the aspects of Andean life, and they recorded all the information on their knotted-string khipus. It's an idea that's not unique to the Andes, but since the ayllu idea has worked for several thousand years in one of the most unpredictable climates on the planet, I'd suggest it's a good general model for dealing with global climate change.

Obviously, for smallish groups, you can do the logistic calculations by hand and record them on primitive media. If you're trying to run a town that's much bigger, especially in complex and unpredictable circumstances, a computer is really handy. It's not absolutely necessary, but it makes it easier to organize work gangs, project harvests in advance, figure taxes, and so forth.

The other thing is that currency systems are going to go to hell (most likely), so probably most people will deal in credit. The credit system may be denominated in dollars, but no money will change hands. Keeping track of who owes what, to whom, and when, is something that would be eased by using a computer.

As Bruce noted above, computers are also useful for process control, so that's another application.

479:

computers at a sustainable 1960s/1970s level are a lot less useful. That's not to say that they're use-less; merely that they're useful at 1960s/1970s levels.

But if your post-petrol society is at circa 1920 levels for most everything else, this becomes massively useful, even if it is just for accounting.

Plus, we know a lot more about computers today than when the early models were being built. A post-petrol society computer may only have the hardware specs of an IBM 1401, but it would have much more sophisticated software and the benefit of 30 years of HCI design. It may not run Mountain Lion quickly, but it could still run some sort of GUI interface. Probably on a monochrome green screen.

480:

to Alex @476: You seem to be assuming that a huge lump of platinum is just lying in the asteroid belt waiting for use. But asteroids are made of rocks somewhat similar to Earth rocks.

Here's a source for some rough estimates: http://science.howstuffworks.com/asteroid-mining1.htm

So if a 1km diameter asteroid weighs 2 billion tons and has almost 4 tons of platinum, you have a hard choice. You can drag the whole thing closer to earth, at a huge cost in energy, or you can try to mine the asteroid in place, which means fairly long-term inhabitation of an asteroid while you sort valuable platinum from worthless silicates, which means lots of supplies shipped to the asteroid. Both options seem really expensive to me.

481:

I am not assuming anything at all. All I am saying is that if you can mine platinum (as an example) for the cost stated, then... I don't know what it would cost to mine platinum from a suitable asteroid, and neither do you. Like any mining operation, you need to survey the resources (PR is going to do that), determine the technology to use and scale it so that the output costs fall far enough to be economic. Just like deep water oil extraction, the costs will be high, new equipment will need to be designed and tested, and there will be risks from the inevitable failures along the way, plus market risks from potential supply shocks, competitors etc.

What we do know is that platinum supply is quite limited on earth and will remain so indefinitely. We also know what platinum can be used for today. It has been speculated that with greater supply, some of those uses could/would expand, perhaps dramatically.

482:

Old 80s-level computer chips that do not need present-day fabs to make are less powerful than the present ones, yes but if you assume that we do not lose the knowledge (of RTOS) we gained in the last 30 years of how to network "old" (but new build) chips they can be networked with simple, locally made copper cables.

You won't be able to make a supercomputer out of them but you'll be able to use them, together, for a lot more applications than making gunnery tables.

There are factories out there with thousands of actuators fitted with embedded systems with old Motorola 68000s (newly built) all networked together with cheap copper cable.

483:

Considering those simulations that show the earth as flying around in a shooting gallery of near misses, is anyone considering capturing these into LEO as a cheap way to do asteroid mining? Target smallish rocks that can't actually do any harm, redirect them to LEO and mine. You get resources, and practice for asteroid deflection.

We already can nail an asteroid with a probe, so find a suitable candidate, splatter it with albedo altering paint on one side and wait for it to coast within spitting range.

Someone must've thought of this one before I did, surely?

484:

it sounds like I am...something tells me the grasping interstellar capitalists won't come out of this one very well :-D

485:

I'm sure thats correct - most nations that have used slavery/forced labour on a ideological & economic basis have come to a violent end or a gradual decline, especially the Romans

with one major exception of course...the one you quoted

unpaid labour always looks appealing to capitalist at first sight, but small numbers of slaves won't lead to massive growth and large numbers of slaves mean far fewer paying customers.

but the jury's still out on whether slave labour is/was a major cause of these civilisations collapse, or just a contributory factor

it was a contributory factor in the fall of the third reich for instance, but it was Operation Bagration and the Battle of Berlin what did for 'em...

486:

to Alex @481:

Yeah, this is an economic question, and we can't answer it without real numbers that, at this point, don't exist. My sense of the magnitudes involved makes me highly skeptical, and you seem more optimistic. We'll see.

487:

Charlie: Thanks for allowing the 'Usian' comments to continue. It's a useful term--we wouldn't want to be confused with Bolivians, Peruvians, Canadians, Mexicans, and others who Do Not Matter. It makes for a stronger brand, and as a nation of 330 million Bush Republicans, with absolutely no dissent whatsoever, we are all about strong brands.

Snarki, Son of Loki

488:

Somebody asked what you would do with platinum and iridium mined from asteroids? That should be obvious - you'd make positronic robot brains with them, and send the robots out to mine some more asteroids.....

489:

The way I'd put it:

Once upon a time, there was no place for a certain kind of
thinker to go *except* to Science Fiction... now, if you've got
some Big Ideas you want to play with, there are other outlets,
and many places where you're likely to be taken more seriously.

This is not to say that *all* Science Fiction was all about Big
Ideas, just that it provided cover for people who wanted to work
with them.

And this does not mean that there's no longer any point in trying to
do this sort of thing with SF: it strikes me that trying to work
up a premise into a fictional world with a realistic texture can be a valuable thought experiment. Consider the weak
results of most attempts at writing libertarian SF: perhaps a
limited, one-dimensional philosophy necessarily results in an
unbelievable world portrait?

http://obsidianrook.com/doomfiles/LOST_WORLDS_OF_UNKNOWN_TOMORROWS.html

490:

Platinum and gold are worth lots of money because there is not much around. The more there is the less it's worth. Right now diamonds are cheap. Most Diamonds are kept back to hold prices up. Last I heard real diamonds are not used to coat surfaces.
It took the Romans a long time to fall. In fact they were falling for a lot longer that America has been around. They were always at war because the rich needed to own land to be in the Senate. That's where the real money was.
?The North believed our civil war would be over fast because the slave based economy was so bad. Did not happen that way. >br>The old pre Spanish Andean’s grew more food. It seems that they raised beds and made motes around their food plantings. The water acted like a flywheel holding the day time temp.

491:
they're not fail safe: if the airship gas bag or the roof over Vales Marineris rupture, everyone dies)

Well, Amsterdam is not fail safe...

492:

Right now diamonds are cheap

Even rough diamonds for industrial use don't look exactly "cheap".
data

And gem quality diamonds still cost an arm and a leg.

Last I heard real diamonds are not used to coat surfaces.

So CVD processes to create diamond surfaces don't count? You want surfaces studded with gems?


493:

"Chemical vapor deposition (CVD) is a chemical process used to produce high-purity, high-performance solid materials. The process is often used in the semiconductor industry to produce thin films. In a typical CVD process, the wafer (substrate) is exposed to one or more volatile precursors, which react and/or decompose on the substrate surface to produce the desired deposit." It can be used to make diamond surfaces, but not from diamonds. Last I heard real diamonds are not used to coat surfaces. But yon can do it at home with the right kind of flame. The price of mined diamonds is unknown. But most gem diamonds are kept off the market to hold prices up. Cost is not worth.

494:

There's one application of computers that would be extremely worthwhile: managing the operation of a farm. Assuming that we aren't going to have tons of phosphate fertilizer or truckloads of liquid ammonia available, we need to optimize the yield of every square meter of planted soil. Some farmers are doing that right now, using a lot of technology like GPS and satellite imaging that probably wouldn't be available post-collapse, but the core of the technique is having a database of all the plants with location, local topography, microclimate, soil chemistry, etc, and that part is doable with mostly early 20th century technology (except for the computer itself).\

495:

A lot of people on this blog think that space colonization wont happen because it wont turn a profit for Earth.
I had a lot of ancestors who put all their savings and lives at risk to go to 17th century America and 19th century Australia. I don't believe even one went to make money for Merry Old England. In fact most went to get away from England.
The same will happen now when space launches get taken out of the hands of the state and the 'what about the wee children brigade.' We will go just to escape from the neanderthals and control freak

496:

Actually industrial diamonds really are cheap -- see Ebay and other sources for low-cost diamond tools such as files, hones, dressing sticks etc. They use tiny or badly flawed diamonds, worthless in the jewelry trade, embedded in a metal matrix to provide an abrasive or cutting surface. Diamond is common enough in these forms that the cost of such tooling is market-driven unlike the cartel-controlled (and rarer) gem-quality stones which are priced much higher per carat.

A 1-carat industrial diamond used to "dress" grinding wheels costs 10 quid or less. A 1-carat gem-quality stone for a ring or other jewelry will set you back at least a thousand quid retail and maybe more depending on other factors.

497:

I think you are playing word games. If you vapor deposit carbon in the crystal form of diamond, and it has the same relevant properties (like hardness), it is diamond.

You seem to be arguing that synthetic versions of compounds are not the same as "natural" ones.

498:

"1970's" computers
Well, the FIRST thing to be done would be to get rid of a lot of the unnecessary fancy stuff (a.k.a Windows) and revert to drop-down menus AND SIMPLE, CLEVER programming, using the memories much more efficiently.
Modern "code" is, I'm told, incredibly inefficient, because people don't have to bother about memory-size.
A reversion would produce some really neat coding to get round this atrificial problem we've saddled ourselves with.

hteromeles @ 478
But, you can't do that it's COMMONISM! /snark

d brown @ 490
The Slaveowners Treasonous Rebellion lasted as long as it did, because they made a pre-emptive strike. That gave them a starters' advantage. The completely shite generals the US (North) had to start with didn't help, either.

@ 492 et al
Industrial diamonds are CHEAP
I've got two diamond-caoted shrpening "steels" (one for home, one for plot-tools) neither cost more than £5.
... see also Robt Sneddon @ 496
And those diamonds are mostly, if not all are made in pressure-chambers.

499:

Assuming that we aren't going to have tons of phosphate fertilizer or truckloads of liquid ammonia available, we need to optimize the yield of every square meter of planted soil. Some farmers are doing that right now, using a lot of technology like GPS and satellite imaging...

I'd argue that many farmers have been doing that for hundreds of years, without any high technology. The detailed local knowledge is largely lost already in WEIRD regions, but good farmers do know their land and their crops. Human brains are remarkably good at storing and interpreting that kind of knowledge. Computers might do OK at storing the database, but using that data to optimize the land use is the sort of underwhelming artificial intelligence that's been giving computers a bad name since the early attempts at expert systems.

Also, whereas I'm fairly confident that we don't have to forgo electronics if we can't have globally stretched supply networks, I'm not so sure about massive data storage.

500:

Again with the ammonia. Guys, *perspective* -

Nitrogen fixing has absurdly high economic yield, and it is trivial chemistry to produce ammonia from any powersource whatsoever, air, and seawater. This is not going to stop. Particularily because the market price of ammonia is currently above the point where it is already profitable to do this!
The fossil based producers appear to be either underinvesting in production capacity or outright running a cartel, as the cost of bulk ammonia is currently well over 700 dollars tonne, at which point producing it from any low-cost (<5 cent/kwh) electricity source is a license to print money.

501:

,, lost half a post there? Anyway, producing ammonia from any source of electricity that costs less than 5 cent /kwh* via chemistry that is over a century old, costs less than the current market price of ammonia.

There are much more efficient ways to convert electrons to ammonia under development, but even if all of those research projects fail, the utterly conventional, proven, largescale, techniques we already possess can produce ammonia sustainably and profitably with no increase in price whatsoever. For all eternity.

*This includes lots of renewable options in good locations.

502:

Well, the FIRST thing to be done would be to get rid of a lot of the unnecessary fancy stuff (a.k.a Windows) and revert to drop-down menus AND SIMPLE, CLEVER programming, using the memories much more efficiently.

What are these "menus" you speak of?

I can see our post-collapse people wanting CRT displays -- paper production in the quantities needed for TTY terminals is probably more expensive -- but menu/mouse driven stuff ...?

It's possible to cram a powerful UNIX command-line environment, kernel, TCP/IP stack, compiler, console tools and all into around 20-40Mb of disk space and run it happily in around 1Mb of RAM (plus swap to disk) -- ideally in 16Mb of RAM if you've got 15-30 people working on it ia terminals. Main issue is you need a 32-bit processor with MMU, on the order of a 386DX or a 68030 (or, at a pinch, a 68000 with 68881 MMU). It's how I used to work in the late 80s/early 1990s. That's enough to build non-graphical multi-user/networked applications of the sort we're talking about -- not mp3 players or web browsers or WYSIWYG word processors, but tools and applications for running businesses: databases, typesetting systems, stock control and payroll apps.

Command-line driven systems like a UNIX or VM/CMS or VAX/VMS terminal environment require training: you can't just plonk a trainee down in front of a terminal, give them a mouse, and tell them to poke around, they have to be shown how a conversational interface works, given a repertoire of basic commands, and forced to memorise stuff. These days we try to build software with "intuitive" user interfaces instead, by throwing kilotons of raw distilled processing power and storage at the user in lieu of training them. But we're also expecting everyone to use computers routinely.

In this post-collapse usage scenario maybe 1% of the population will have any access to such devices, and they'll be using them for work: it's much cheaper to train the shaved apes to work around the machines that are three to six orders of magnitude less powerful and can be repaired when they break.

503:

I wonder if the concept of spam would survive the meltdown. We didn't have it before when machines were liek this, but now the genie is out can we put it back in?

What form would spam take in this environment?

504:

You need cheap bandwidth for spam. And we are talking about a post-apocalyptic world with no Internet. You'll get spam in a form of homing pigeons.

505:

A key question is just where in this timeline would thins fall. A decent computer of 79-80 was made of TTL logic a had disk storage in the 2 to 10 MB range. In a post fall setup could the fab plant to build such ICs exist. While nowhere near as complicated as today's fabs on an absolute scale they where still fairly high tech. I have to wonder if we don't have to assume we'd be back at transistor built computers an punched cards for storage. Transistors are much easier to build than a 74181 4 bit ALU chip.

And if we are back at those levels we may be back to using ferrite cores for memory.

At that point we may not have the needed memory or horse power to run Unix. Maybe not enough memory for the API stacks for either Ethernet ot TCP/IP. Even if disk storage is available in sizes greater than 20MB.

I remember just how hard it was to do ANYTHING "neat" at the systems level back in thises days when you have to think about memory, ram and disk, every time you did, well, anything.

506:

I'm thinking these 1970s reboot computers might look something like Chuck Moore's colorforth, running on his multicomputer chips.

507:

More to the point: there will be left-overs.

What's the half-life for usability (as opposed to data retention) of a flash SD memory card? Say, a 1Gb card? They're about as cheap as postage stamps today (if you can find them) and ubiquitous with digital cameras. AIUI you get data in and out of an SD card via serial i/o over a fairly crude interface. And while SD cards are designed to be ephemeral, there are a lot of them out there, and their lack of moving parts means that it's possible that if stored appropriately some proportion of them could still be useable in centuries to come (subject to bad block testing). If enough SD cards and other gizmos survive the crash, then it's possible that solid state mass storage sufficient for servicing the needs of field-improvised mainframes at circa 1960s-1970s levels of technology might remain available for centuries -- in some cases, from landfill sites.

508:

>>>Seriously though, has anyone besides the Alien/Prometheus universe really examined a stellar civilization driven by corporate greed?>>>

Fredrik Pohl, The Space Merchants.

509:

And now I can see how in the post-apocalyptic year of 2237, an unshaven, scarred gamer is prowling the ruins of once great civilizations, looking for still working computer parts, so that he can fulfill his destiny by playing Crysis (the DVD was passed from father to son for generations).

510:

Although the way I coped wouldn't be available in a post-apocalypse world (I hammered Google to find the necessary reminders), for the first time in well over a decade I've just set up two databases and PHP heavy websites over SSH and a command line interface, dug out those old Vi skills to edit some content and the like. When I say just... I finished yesterday.

It's odd... obviously some of the time was spent reminding myself of skills I last used over a decade ago. But even so, it's a job I've done several dozen times with GUIs in the last month or two. Time taken per job... probably 20 minutes. Time using a CLI... (best estimate without the looking up time)... probably 60 minutes. That might get faster if I practise it a lot, at the same time there seems to be lots of switching processes, logging in one way and then another and so on that I guess is duplicated graphically but doesn't feel that way.

My sense is, when done properly, all those graphical interfaces help people work faster as well as pick the skills up with less direct training.

511:

if the fall itself consists of an oil crash, resource wars culminating in conventional/biological/chemical nuclear conflict, and ensuing famine, disease and dieback, computers as they are now, and as they were in the 1980s will be about much as toothache

they won't even burn very well..

a large stick would be more useful ;-)

hands off my rat casserole! get yer own!

512:

Yep. A computer design from the 60s 70s with memory sticks for ram and storage wouldn't be all that bad. There would likely be enough flash around for you to ECC most every thing so you could tell when you reached the write limits.

513:

when done properly

A key point.

514:

Do we ask: "are poets slacking off" or is poetry still the genre of "big ideas"?

Science Fiction Poetry has a prehistory from before the genre of Science Fiction was established. To understand this, we consider the history of natural history and science in poetry from Ancient Greece through the early 20th Century, when Science Fiction and Fantasy became recognized as distinct genres, and note the poetic output of major non-genre scientists.

Poetry was at one time the language of philosophy, science, and all serious thought. Major treatments of Science expressed as Poetry included the works of
Lucretius (especially De Rerum Natura), Parmenides of Elea, Archytas (Pythagorean general, statesman, philanthropist, educator) and Empedocles of Acragas, plus the "Phaenomena" of Aratus and the Latin "Astronomica" of Manilius.

515:

Except that all our ancestors did make money for the old world--shipping fees, if nothing else, and I'm pretty sure at least one of my ancestors came over as an indentured servant. So yes, there was money involved in shipping people out, all the way up to the present. I'd also point out that the earliest explorers created the colonies to get rich back home, and Jamestown was a pretty miserable failure in that regard.

Basic issue is that it's easier to build a dome city on Baffin Island (or under the ocean) than it is to build a city on the moon, yet I don't see any proposals to do that. If we're not willing to do the easy stuff, why do we think that the horribly difficult will be easy?

I think most of the people who are hammering on space colonization here are those who have tried to figure out how we're going to get to the stars, tried to make the math (and physics, and biology) work (I know I have), and come to the conclusion that, absent a miracle or three (FTL travel being feasible and cheap, for example), it's simply not going to happen. Most of us in SF have been so conditioned by all the novels we've read that it takes a conscious de-conditioning effort to realize how much fantasy goes into those stories, and how much they depend on a vision of space (basically, that it's a big, empty place where distance is the major problem) that's simply not true. Space is effectively dirty vacuum to weak plasma, filled with a bestiary of radiation and high speed objects.

516:

I think one answer to the question in the blog post is that we now have big ideas, but we have them at widely varying levels of sophistication. I saw Star Wars when I was five years old, and it was fantastic. It was full of big ideas, but those ideas were at a child's level of sophistication.

Lower levels of sophistication give flashy and exciting fictions, but also don't hold up well to logical scrutiny. Star Wars, Men in Black, and Voltron show up in the shallow end, here.

On the other hand, Dollhouse was a pretty damn sophisticated show full of big ideas, but it got cancelled. As deep as it could be, it tended to be a mess on a narrative level. Its biggest problem was that the characters were extremely difficult to relate to because they were programmable, which was the high concept in the first place.

Where I'm going with this is that there's a tension between the science and the fiction in science fiction, and I think a writer has to choose where on the continuum to place each work. Charlie usually writes near the deeper end of the pool, which is not necessarily the most profitable choice but is the choice that got him the fans he has.

I also think that we do still have big ideas in science fiction, but that they range in sophistication from "Superheroes!" to the very abstruse.

517:

Here's a quick thought experiment, for anyone who wants to settle the asteroids. Call it "the magic tourbus."

Your job is to design a large tourbus. This bus needs to house, say, 10 people for a year.

This bus will be on the highways for a year, and it will not stop moving except for stop signs, traffic lights, hazards, and similar. Provisions will have to be made for a fleet of support vehicles to refuel and re-provision it (just because no one wants a nuclear-powered tourbus rolling through their towns).

It needs to be possible for drivers to switch off without endangering the bus or stopping it.

It needs to be possible to repair the bus without stopping it. This includes everything from windshield wipers to flat tires to a blown transmission. No matter what goes wrong with the bus, it needs to be reparable in motion, and it needs to be reparable by the 10 people riding it. I have no idea where the spare parts will be, but there won't be a truck bringing them up. They have to be on the bus. Or the bus has to never break down or even lose a tire for a year of continuous travel.

There also needs to be provision for things like pumping out the toilets on a regular basis, in a way that doesn't get the bus pulled over by the police.

Design that bus, and then get back to us about a spaceship.

518:

Jay:

"Alain @456: I would completely agree with you if it were the government sending people into space, but for various asinine reasons my government is more likely to send people to Iran than Mars. Corporations need profit, or they die."

First, profit is not necessarily found in deep space.

Second, if it were, it'd probably be more profitable to loot the company and let it dies.

519:

I see what you're getting at, but I'm not sure that's a great example, because given unlimited funds, we absolutely can do that, right now, without having to do anything new with technology.

What that requires is redundant systems and the right people on the bus skillwise. This applies even to the tires - you can have system that lifts any axle while moving, and fixing the tire then requires somebody with ball.

Which is all to say that doing that in real life isn't actually all that difficult, just resource intensive.

We actually do have subs that can stay out for months at a time, in a much more hostile environment. As far as I know, the actual issue for them staying out longer than three months isn't a matter of the sub - it's stocking sufficient food for the crew.

520:

Sorry for the double comment; my iPad reacts strangely with comment forms this morning.

521:

You've waved your hands at all the hard problems that we don't know how to solve.

Question 1: What will they breathe?

Question 2: What will they drink?

Question 3: What will they eat?

Question 4: How will they keep clean enough to not get 17 different kinds of rot on their skins? (This one is soluble with modern technology, I think, but the cost in mass of the solution would be rather high).

Go read Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach before thinking you have answers.

Shorter me: Shaved apes need an immense amount of support to survive off the planet they evolved on.

522:

The thought processes in question remind me of authoritarian followers, except that rather than needing an authority-figure to order them around and provide a consistent social hierarchy, they seek a logical framework that provides all the answers. (I think. I'm not certain. Maybe it just overlaps with the Asperger's spectrum way of modeling the world.)

If the real Big Idea in science fiction is rehab-ism replacing escapism, then I think there are stories in the genre which are showing the way. Bruce Sterling's "Maneki Neko" is a modern classic, but do you remember his later story, "Code"? An immediately identifiable type -- a programmer with a low emotional affect who needs everything broken down into chunks -- who finds the eggtooth to break out of his shell.

More broadly, SF needs stories about figuring out how to ask the right questions, rather than cheap thrills or the forced march of didacticism. (I really loathe LeGuin's Omelas story for just that reason. It's not an apeiron; we know what LeGuin wants you to think.)

E.g., we now live in an era where most of the world's intellectual production is at our fingertips, and we're discussing asteroid mining? again? really? and the number of mining professionals here is approximately zero? And the peak DOOM is just tiresome: if you don't share the kink, there's nothing more boring than watching someone else's masturbation fantasies.

523:

> spam

Almost every flat surface of Pompeii was covered with it. And there were probably people following non-readers around, trying to shill them into the various bistros and scams.

524:

"von hitchofen @485:
... - most nations that have used slavery/forced labour on a ideological & economic basis have come to a violent end or a gradual decline, especially the Romans..."

Slavery by other names was the standard in post-Roman Europe, and it faded away, partly due to the economics of the value of labor after the Plague. It was also the standard in the Americas after 1492, and declined over most of the territory. It flourished in the pre-Civil War South of the USA because cotton is a labor-intensive crop with work spread over the growing season, for which slavery is a good economic match. The output of the cotton plantations, based on a Bad Thing, was shipped to Manchester and became the raw material for the Industrial Revolution, clearly a Good Thing.

Cotton was the second round. The economy of colonial Virginia was based on tobacco culture for export. A labor-intensive crop requiring year-round effort. The market went into a secular decline after 1750 or so, and it became respectable to discuss abolition. In 1792 the cotton gin was invented, and the rest, as we say, is history.

525:

Carlos @ 523
More broadly, SF needs stories about figuring out how to ask the right questions
Err - THAT is a description of how proper science is done.
Paraphrashing Robt Persig: "There aere an infinite number of observable facts out there, which one(s) are you going to select, that are relevant to the problem(s) you want to solve"
Which is one of the resons doing really good science is so difficult - it requires a certain knack (and often luck as well) to see the wood for the trees - or the converse, snf then to be able to follow up on the matters.
Writing SF in "Big Idea" terms has a very similar problem-set.

526:

The Slaveowners Treasonous Rebellion lasted as long as it did, because they made a pre-emptive strike. That gave them a starters' advantage. The completely shite generals the US (North) had to start with didn't help, either.

Agreed completely, (I've just finished Bruce Catton's three volume work on the Treasonous Slaveowner's Rebellion.) With decent intelligence and good generalship that conflict should have ended with a Northern win in 1863 at the very latest.

527:

Basic issue is that it's easier to build a dome city on Baffin Island (or under the ocean) than it is to build a city on the moon, yet I don't see any proposals to do that. If we're not willing to do the easy stuff, why do we think that the horribly difficult will be easy?

For the same reason the C17th colonists went to America, rather than the Outer Hebrides. Motivations are relevant here.

528:

2 points.

Point 1 -

Your price to LEO is off by a factor of 4.

The list price for a Falcon 9 is $54 million, and it can deliver 10.450 kg to LEO in a 28.5 degreee inclination orbit.

54,000,000 / 10450 = $5168 / kg to LEO.

Point 2 -

You are misinformed in re: the cost of propellent.

LOX costs pennies per pound. A Falcon 9 uses something on the close order of a large swimming pool full, ~50,000 gallons.

RP1 goes for way less than $10 a gallon, or the order of $1 a pound.

LOX and RP1 costs are a round off error in the cost of delivering payload to LEO.

529:

Homing pigeons don't fit the spam model.

For instance, they have nutritional value.

530:

The spaceship is just SkyLab/Salyut/ISS with engines. We do know how to make reliable engines, right?

I think your hidden assumption is that there is only 1 vehicle and it must be fail safe so we get a guaranteed happy ending when our hero astronauts return to earth.

Instead, think many spaceships, somewhat more failure prone with perhaps a 50-90% probability of completing the mission. IOW, think of exploration as more like the biological model.

One of the important changes SpaceX and its ilk will provide, is private capital and risk. People will succeed or fail, and those that succeed may be paid well, or get the popular attention. A return to a more heroic age of just a few generations ago.

531:

Didn't Musk just recently say that propellant costs are 2-3% of the launch costs, hence his desire to build a reusable launch vehicle.

The key to low cost space access was always reusability and flight frequency - the same model the airlines use.
The Space Shuttle failed on both terms - not fully reusable, lots of rework between flights and a resulting infrequent flight schedule.

IMO, the real question, assuming that low cost access to space is possible, is "will low costs expand the business?" If it doesn't, then the low costs cannot be realized. If it does, then the arguments of high cost to launch a biscuit to our astronauts disappears and we can focus on the how to achieve the business opportunities.

532:

Writing SF in "Big Idea" terms has a very similar problem-set.

I don't recognize your description of SF as anything that exists in quantity. You might see it that way, but I think you're probably one of those readers who sees very narrow distinctions in a rather narrow field. From your earlier comment:

The "nerds" are the people with, erm, working engineering solutions, whereas the politicians and religous so-called "leaders" have - what, exactly?
My case rests.

I consider you part of the problem. Nerd triumphalism, no one who isn't an engineer matters, politicians and religious people are worthless, etc.

In other words, boring, unrealistic fantasies of one hand designed to make engineers who can't cope with the world as it exists feel good about their place in life -- comforting the imprisoned -- rather than giving them the mental tools to break out of their rut and do something with their lives: rehabilitation.

Many prisoners, once released, commit crimes because they can't cope with the unstructured environment. Once they return, they're on model behavior. I see a lot of analogous behavior among science fiction readers. That cool drip of soma into their veins...

533:

" Stephenson-lite " Lite ? Light ??? EH? Oh come ON Charlie!

I was going to read the rest of the Thread before replying but .. Well Really! The hardback of "Reamde" could be used to STUN an attacking Bisson ! Step gracefully to one side, Bullfighter Fashion, and bring your HB of "Reamde" into line with the Beastly Buffaloes Bonce and Voila! ..which is French for 'Behold ! " you know ..and you have a Bonked Buffalo that is Safely Stunned.

Mind you, in the UK - where you can be charged with carrying a deadly weapon if you are discovered to have a swiss army knife in your pocket - carrying a Hardback of of a Neal Stephenson novel in a public place could be problematical ...


" Darren Day went on trial today, accused of possessing a kubotan, a type of potentially lethal weapon, in public.

The 41-year-old singer, of Cudworth, South Yorkshire, denies the charge of being in possession of an offensive weapon 'without lawful authority or reasonable excuse' in Edinburgh in December last year.

Edinburgh Sheriff Court heard today how even an untrained person could cause severe injury with a kubotan, designed in the early 1970s and first used for 'close impact control' by Los Angeles police."

A mere trifle when set aside the Potential Lethality of a HB copy of "Reamde".


534:

No, my not at all hidden assumption is that we currently only make one spacecraft (the Dawn probe) that fires its engines for an entire year. Those ion thruster fire a thrust equal to the wait of two sheets of paper (if I remember rightly), and are structurally extremely simple.

The problem with long-distance spacecraft (among many other things alluded to by Bruce up there) is that they require ridiculously long burn times. In the shuttle, I'm not sure any engine is fired for more than a few minutes at a time (feel free to correct me. Do some burn for hours?). Interstellar craft, in contrast, are required to fire fusion or anti-matter rockets for years at a time, and strangely, no one says how anything can attain such temperatures and simply sit there without, say, melting down and failing catastrophically a month in.

The point of this little thought experiment is to take an extremely well-solved problem (which I think we can agree both internal combustion and buses are), and demonstrate how hard it is to run them over the time interval we would need interplanetary and interstellar ships to work. This exercise hopefully helps people understand that the gulfs between "physically possible," "doable," and "worth doing," are actually quite difficult to cross, even when we understand the system extremely well.

More often than not, SF writers handwave a new technology that papers over these problems. I'm trying to take away the handwavium.

In this case, my first pass on the design would be two have duplicates of everything (driver's seats, drive trains, engines, etc), and swap them out periodically (in a push-me-pull-you design, perhaps). That sounds like a good idea, except that (to my knowledge) only one production car has been built this way, and it was reputedly a bear to fix, which is one reason they aren't around any more. That doesn't count the fun of highway refueling, or of keeping everyone clean and sane in this little experiment.

Since we've got some hardy souls up there saying that safety isn't an issue and failure is an option, I'm not going to add safety as an issue we need to worry about here. There's no reason to worry about a mechanic losing an arm while working on a spinning motor, so long as the bus never stops...

535:

@ 529
I don't know about homing pigeons, but the feral London ones (Rats are clean compared to them) certainly have shite-value.
As for food - really, really, don't go there.
The number of diseases and parasites carried .... euuuwwww!

Alex T @ 531
The key to low cost space access was always reusability and flight frequency - the same model the airlines use.
Same as long-distance shipping any time after Vasco de Gama, or railways .....

carlos
You reall ARE looking for trouble, are you not?
Insulting the people like me (Yes, I have an engineering M.Sc.) who really make the world work, Kipling's "Sons of Martha", with contempt won't get you far.
Politicians CAN be useful, but the religious, probably have negative value. After all, can you think of ONE scientific or technical adbance that hasn't been condemned or attacked by the bleievers, somewhere?

I think pert of the problem is our current set of politicos, anywhere in Britain, or the USA or Europe have no vision at all, other than getting re-elected.
Even Obama has been forced down this road - I feel sorry for the man.

Coming back to escape from prison - why is it that the engineers and scientists have plenty of escape plans - but they are stymied by the politicians and other "believers" who prefer the prisons?

RIGHT HERE is an example of the "religious" believers attempting to deliberately destroy an scientific experiment which might/could improve people's lives.
But they are not even going to let the tests be run, to find out ....

Final quote.
Geordie Stephenson was never known for being religious, but on being told of the "virtues" of foreign religioud missions, and could he contribute, the old engineer replied: "I will send the locomotive as the great missionary over the world".
And, he was right, wasn't he?

536:

As noted by Elon Musk, fuel costs amount to 0.3% of the cost of a Falcon 9 launch. The rest of the expense is incurred because most of the stack is thrown away.

He wants to go for true reusability. If he can do so, then prices will come down. I doubt they'll come down to 1% of current levels (i.e. what you'd expect of an airline operation -- operating costs are about one-third fuel, one-third crew, and one-third airframe depreciation), because space flight is inherently more complex and edge-of-the-envelope than subsonic airline service, but I can see it coming down to 10% of current levels. At which point we're looking at $500/Kg into LEO, or maybe $0.5M per astronaut (allowing for one ton of hardware and life support infrastructure to keep the monkey breathing happily).

If we can get to $0.5M/astronaut into LEO, then a whole bunch of currently-impossible stuff becomes interestingly plausible, including working on the medical side of protracted microgravity survival and the whole near earth asteroid mining shtick.

537:

Let me add: let's assume SpaceX achieve 100% reusability and a reliability comparable to a Boeing 737. Let us use this as a baseline for operations.

It is still going to cost on the order of $50,000 to put a human being into orbit.

Yes, this is hyper-cheap compared to current space operations. It's comparable to a first-class (not business class) un-discounted air fare from the UK to New Zealand or Australia, i.e. antipodal air travel. It's hard to see how human access to LEO could get any cheaper without building a space elevator (and cracking the not-inconsiderable number of unknown-unknowns associated with that technology: in contrast, SpaceX are dealing with known-knowns and, at worst, known-unknowns).

But it's still on the order of a year's gross income for an average developed world native. And that's still all it takes to get into LEO.

As the space colonization proponents put it, once you're in LEO you're halfway to anywhere in the solar system in terms of delta-vee. But that's a very misleading statement, because you need to take your environment with you -- not just the volume and facilities of a surface-to-orbit taxi, but the Winnebago you're going to live in for the next few years. That's going to entail multiple tonnes of consumables per traveller, plus a much larger vehicle, and although volume increases as the cube of the linear dimensions (i.e. big inflatable habs are not much more expensive than small inflatable habs, in mass terms) it probably raises costs by an order of magnitude.

So in personal terms, it's going to be more expensive for the would-be space settlers than emigrating to the New World was to the 17th century colonials. And if you don't like it on the plantation when you get there, you're stuck -- you can't simply run away and live off the land.

TL:DR; the most optimistic analysis is that space colonization is going to be harder and more expensive than emigrating to the new world, with its 80% fatality rate within 2 years for average settlers. (Barring some rather remarkable tech breakthroughs, the source of which is not obvious or predictable.)

538:

Finally, I'd like to add: the ideological assumptions underlying most of the justifications for space settlements are dubious in the extreme, and don't fill me with the warm fuzzies about the idea of going a-homesteading on the high frontier with such people.

539:

"My sense is, when done properly, all those graphical interfaces help people work faster as well as pick the skills up with less direct training."

YES!

And the thing that most programmers (but not all) don't realize is that you can simulate the ergonomic qualities of a graphics interface using memory-efficient character-based systems. You don't even need a bit mapped screen to do this.

Basically, you set up an interface using normal and special characters within the extended ascii limits. But instead of doing ascii art (remember ascii art?) you're doing an efficient 2D presentation of commands as our present graphic interfaces do.

During the transition years to GUIs there were a few systems which actually offered this.

540:

Elon Musk on reusability.

He is talking $500/lb for the Falcom 9 Heavy w/o high frequency flights, which is within the ballpark of the Skylon spaceplane.

Now I disagree on the need to bring 1000kg of life support
for each trip. That is where lower cost space resources start to make an impact. Cheaper water alone would be useful, and the respired/sweated/excreted/wash water H2O could be easily recycled. The O2 loss to CO2 would be harder to recycle, and would probably be dumped initially. Food represents a smaller mass, maybe a couple of kg/day (wet mass), so a trivial amount for even a week's stay at a base.

So $500/kg might mean $50-100k ticket price to orbit, plus $much/day room rates.

541:

The directors of the Virginia Colony commanded the settlement to find the emerald boulder that they'd read existed in the James River. And the gold mines that were everywhere. It's probably needless to say the Company went bankrupt and the holders of the stock lost their ruffs and cuffs and silver shoe buckles.

They governed so badly and lost so much money the Crown dissolved the Company. Colonists were even more difficult to recuit than before, thus the sending of urban convicts, etc., who lacking all non-urban skills and malnourished all their lives, and not nurished better in the New World with every corner put into tobacco, + malaria (brought by themselves on shipboard infested with African mosquitos carrying the malarial parasite), yellow jack, etc., died in droves.

The Crown also had to take over the East India Company too, due to complete mis-management and financial loss and rebellion-- and this in the midst of riches already made for the plundering -- thus, the Raj. But the asteroids won't have prior inhabitants over which to place a Raj. Presumably.