Back to: Confessions of a (half-assed) news avoider | Forward to: Introducing new guest blogger: Genevieve Cogman

Science-fictional shibboleths

Let's ignore, for the moment, the point that fiction is an exploration of human interior spaces, and that sometimes a spaceship or a princess is a metaphor; science fiction and fantasy are genres famous for their departure from the plane of mundanity, and usually a spaceship is just a form of transport between inhabited worlds ...

Let me tell you what makes me yell when I kick the tires on an SF/F novel these days.

There is a term of art that developed early on in the field of SF criticism: willing suspension of disbelief. When we read a work of fiction we are taking, as a given, statements that build upon one another to construct a cunningly plausible lie. We suspend our natural disbelief in things we know to be untrue, for dramatic effect cannot withstand the scorn reserved for falsehood. However, there is a limit (different for everyone) to the number of lies we can stack Jenga-style atop one another before our disbelief can no longer be held in abeyance: on reaching this point, the willing suspension of disbelief fails and the tower of implausibility totters and collapses in our minds.

Disbelief can be shattered easily by authorial mistakes—one of the commonest is to have a protagonist positioned as a sympathetic viewpoint character for the reader behave in a manner that is not only unsympathetic but inconsistent with the protagonist's parameters. But there are plenty of other ways to do it.

Certain patterns are guaranteed to make me throw a book at the wall these days (or they would, if I wasn't doing almost all my reading these days on an iPad), or at least stop reading on the spot. One such pattern is sometimes described as "the seven deadly words"; when you can say of a story "I am not interested in these people," the author has failed to hook you on the human content of their drama, and unless they're compellingly brilliant on another, inhuman, level—for example, the works of Olaf Stapledon or (some of) the works of Greg Egan—then that's it, game over. Another pattern is "this is pointless and tedious" (although it's even harder to define than "lack's human engagement"), and a third might be "this makes no sense" (on any level, including deliberate surrealism).

But then we get to more specific matters: specific shibboleths of the science fictional or fantastic literary toolbox that give my book-holding hand that impossible-to-ignore twitch reflex.

(Caveat: I am talking about books here. I basically don't do TV or film because my attention span is shot, my eyeballs can't scan fast enough to keep up with jerkycam or pull in enough light to resolve twilight scenes, and my hand/eye coordination is too crap for computer games.)




Asteroidal gravel banging against the hull of a spaceship. Alternatively: spaceships shelting from detection behind an asteroid, or dodging asteroids, or pretty much anything else involving asteroids that don't look like this:

That pock-marked potato, asteroid 243 Ida, is just under sixty kilometers long. (You could fit London onto about half of its surface area, with room left over.) Asteroids are not close together—bodies wider than 1km are, on average, about 900,000km apart—more than twice the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Smaller bodies tend to be gravitationally captured by larger ones over time (we're talking billions of years here); did you wonder where that rash of craters on 243 Ida came from? If you think of that scene from "The Empire Strikes Back" when you think of asteroid belts you are thinking of a whole bundle of nope.

Comets ... they're a bit more plausible as sources of dust and gravel. But they also originate a whole long way further out. While there's a lot of mass in the Kuiper belt (possibly enough to match a small to medium sized planet, unlike the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter) the volume of space involved is vast—double-digit light-hours across. (One light-hour, the distance light travels in an hour, is 1.079x109km. Over a billion kilometers. If you set out to drive that distance in your SUV at highway speeds, it'd take you roughly 1150 years. Now multiply by a factor of 10-20.)

But basically unless your spaceship is parked on top of a frickin' comet approaching perihelion you are not going to get dust or gravel pinging off the hull ... unless you're insanely unlucky: because now the other shoe trops and we get to Annoying Trope #2.

Newton's Second Law, for dummies. E = 1/2 * (mv2) — it's not just a good idea, it's the law. Notice the huge distances I aluded to above? Well, to get between planet A and planet B in anything approximating reasonable human time spans, you need to go fast. And if you go fast, your velocity relative to the bodies around you is also high. In event of an inelastic collision the kinetic energy transfer is proprtional to the square of your velocity; and this has drastic consequences for space ships. Suppose you're in low Earth orbit and you hit a piece of space junk, for example a screw that's fallen off someone else's ship. It's traveling in pretty much the same orbit as you, but inclined at 30 degrees. What happens? What happens is you get a happy fun experience much like being hit by a bullet from a high-calibre sniper's rifle, because (I can't be bothered to do the trig here) it's packing a velocity component angled across your path at a goodly fraction of orbital velocity, and at orbital velocity a kilogram of water packs kinetic energy equal to about ten times its mass in exploding TNT.

You know what a high-speed car crash looks like, right? Space ships travel a lot faster than that: if they hit something, it's going to be very messy indeed. And that's at sluggish orbital velocities; if you starship is barreling along at about 85% of the speed of light general relativity has something to say on the subject and it's kinetic energy is equal to about half it's rest mass—the equivalent of a 10 megaton hydrogen bomb for every kilogram of hull weight. (The pilot's space-suited body alone packs the energetic punch of a Peak Strangelove 1980s USA/USSR strategic nuclear exchange.)

Human bodies are basically squishy sacks of goopy grease and water emulsions held together by hydrogen bonds and disulphide bridges between protein molecules and glommed onto some big lumps of high-grade chalk. We evolved in a forgiving, water-dominated low-velocity world where evolution didn't bequeath us nervous systems able to comprehend and deal with high energy interactions other than in an "ooh, that lightning bolt was close! Where's cousin Ugg?" kind of way. We can't even see objects that flash across our visual field in less than 50 milliseconds—a duration in which, at orbital velocity, an object will have travelled on the order of half a kilometer.

Intuition and high energy regimes: do the math, or your space combat will be a whole bundle of nope.

(Other related cognitive errors include but are not limited to: Napoleonic navies clashing in space and firing broadsides back and forth at one another's line of battle ... spaceships with continuous high acceleration fusion-powered motors or similar that don't glow white-hot then melt because vacuum is an insulator and shedding that much heat is a hard engineering problem (hint: a 100 ton spaceship accelerating at 1g requires 1 megaJoule of thrust: using a photon rocket for maximum efficiency that's going to require 3 x 1015 watts of juice going in, if it's 99.9% effective at heat dissipation that means it's racking up around three terawatt of leakage, and that's equivalent to about 45 kilotons of nuclear explosions per minute of waste heat) ... warships using active radar to hunt for one another (hint: active sensor reach is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the emission strength, passive sensors obey the inverse square law) ... warships using stealth in space (hint: infrared emissions, second hint: the background temperature you want to avoid standing out against is 2.73 degrees Kelvin, i.e. liquid Helium temperature) ...

Oh for fuck's sake, don't get me started on war in space, we'll be here forever unless we just throw physics to the winds of fiction and delegate all our hand-waving to magic hyperspace or cyberspace technology or something.

Now for a biggie: Mining the lunar regolith for Helium-3. This is junk science on stilts and it just keeps coming back from the dead. It's also a barrel of past-their-sell-by-date red herrings that keeps being rolled out by space cadets whenever they're challenged to produce an economic justification for space colonization. Here's why it's crap ...

Fusion, the Jenga-pile begins, is the energy source of the future. (This may or may not be true: I for one hope it is.) However, the easiest form of reaction you can run in a fusion power reactor is deuterium/tritium. This tends to release most of its energy in the form of neutrons, which can ideally be captured and used to breed more tritium fuel and produce waste heat to drive a turbine generator. The problem with neutrons is that they're rather penetrating and when they slow down enough to be captured by an atomic nucleus they transmute it, often into an unstable isotope. D/T reactors therefore look likely to suffer from one of the same problems as fission reactors: neutron-induced structural embrittlement and secondary activation producing high level radioactive waste.

Aneutronic fusion—which hasn't actually been tested yet in even a prototype research fusion reactor—offers the possibility of running on other fuels and producing <1% of its energy output in the shape of neutrons. Helium-3, an isotope of helium consisting of two protons and one neutron, can in principle be fused with deuterium instead of the (radioactive) tritium and produce power with a far lower neutron output—the energy-bearing product of the reaction is a proton, which can be contained using magnetic fields. Hence the interest in He3 fusion reaction designs.

The first problem with He3 reactors (after—cough—we don't know how to build one yet) is that He3 is incredibly rare. It costs on the order of millions of dollars per kilogram and the global supply is very restricted; there's certainly not enough of it to power a global energy economy even at today's levels. But there is some evidence that He-3 produced in the sun and emitted in the solar wind may be captured in the Lunar regolith. The plan, per the proponents of lunar colonization, is therefore to build vast strip mines on the moon to extract this vanishingly rare moonshine/pixie dust and export it to Earth to power our 22nd century energy economy. And of course estimates that we could power our current level of energy use by processing 4 million tons of lunar regolith per week are music to the space cadets' ears because, well, it means big engineering and thus big steely-jawed engineers with slide rules and socket wrenches on hand to repair the mining machines when they break. Space colony justified!

Except this is moonshine and junk. Firstly, we don't have an aneutronic fusion reactor, much less a planetary base load capacity driven by aneutronic fusion reactors in need of fuel. Hell, we don't even have a working D-T fusion reactor that can produce surplus energy; ITER isn't due to achieve first plasma until 2020 and won't begin D-T reaction operations before 2027, and the Wendelstein 7-X, while promising, is a generation behind (roughly equivalent to where the Joint European Torus was in the 80's).

But let's jump the gun. Let's assume we do have a working fusion reactor. Let's even assume we've put in the decades of legwork required to build a working aneutronic fusion reactor—it's worth noting that aneutronic reactions have to run about an order of magnitude hotter than D-T fusion reactors can achieve, and they're already in the 100 million Kelvin range. But let's play make-believe: are we then going to see large-scale lunar regolith mining to fuel the beasts?

Nope.

Because it turns out that if you can build an aneutronic reactor, then, subject to some considerable amount of fine tuning, you can run it on fuels other than sparkly lunar regolith moonshine and pixie dust—notably the proton-boron-11 cycle and the proton-lithium-7 cycle. Both these fuel cycles are aneutronic and run on isotopes that are readily available here on Earth in sufficient quantities to power our civilization for some millions of years without trying to build massive engineering infrastructure on an airless rock. There's even an aneutronic fusion cycle that relies on proton-nitrogen fusion, although it produces less energy and is even harder to achieve. Nitrogen and hydrogen ... nitrogen makes up about 80% of our atmosphere, and hydrogen makes up about 15% of our hydrosphere, so we're not running out of either of those fuels any time soon, either.

Upshot: any work of SF that takes "Lunar 3He mining" as an economic premise is about as plausible as one that assumes combustion powered by the release of phlogiston.




I've got a whole bundle more shibboleths up my sleeve that flag a work of SF as being implausible (this may account for why I'm more comfortable reading fantasy these days). Faceless 80's style corporations ruling entire planets (hint: who handles the externalities?): small farming planets (hint: just one ecosystem for a planet?): the glib dismissal of life support systems in space as trivially easy to maintain: monocultures of every kind: political structures based on design patterns proven to be unworkable in the context of any society more modern than the late middle ages (empires in space, I'm looking at you): any interplanetary/interstellar setting where the mechanics of trade are lifted straight out of a Joseph Conrad novel, or 1920s era pulps about life aboard a tramp steamer, or maybe the Traveller role playing game: AIs that follow the disembodied-brain-in-a-box mode of Hal 9000: futures in which we wear mini-dresses and three-piece suits, drive gas-burning automobiles (or hovercars: it's just a rabbit/smeerp replacement), carry handguns (or blasters: see rabbit/smeerp), eat the kind of food we eat today, live the kind of way we live today, and most importantly think the way we think today.

And I haven't even gotten as far as genre fantasy shibboliths yet!

So, over to you: what do you stub your toes on when you read SF, that throws you out of the state of willing suspension of disbelief?

Edit: if there's an entry for your pet shibboleth in the Turkey City Lexicon don't bother repeating it here—I'm taking familiarity with the canonical list of cliches as a given.

2169 Comments

1:

For me, it was personal names with too many of the letter "q", "z", or "x". With apostrophes. Big indicator of "call a rabbit a smeerp"; and generally, a given name turns up on page 1...

2:

Large scale conspiracies over large time scales that remain secret and don't fall apart. (This is not *explicitly* limited to SF, but appears more often in branded-cyberpunk than one would hope for a subgenre borne out of Bruce Sterling being politically realistic in a zine.)

Pretty much *any* form of large-scale space travel. Low earth orbit, not so much; but, human beings in tin cans going to other planets within the solar system is an expensive multi-year endevour that is unlikely to be done on a more regular basis than people went back and forth between Europe and the americas prior to steam ships. Forget about interstellar travel.

Any variation on the old chestnut of "robots/ais can't be emotional/creative". On the one hand, this is realistic because human beings have a tendency for othering other races with beliefs and assumptions that don't hold up to any kind of scrutiny (see, for instance, the relatively common belief in pre-1850 US that black people literally couldn't feel pain). On the other hand, we're nowhere near AGI right now and it's already obvious to everyone with even limited experience that AI can be creative (nothing is more creative than a PRNG) and emotional (since emotions are the least complex and most mechanical part of human experience and thus are easy to simulate). Extra bonus hate for robots who are clearly emotional and creative but insist that they aren't.

Designated villans. (Again, not strictly limited to SF, but something that breaks science fiction a lot more than other genres -- it's not entirely unreasonable for a fantasy novel to contain EVIL as a literally-and-materially-existing force in the universe. And, I've seen it ruin a lot of otherwise good stuff: I had a hard time getting through John Shirley's A Song Called Youth because, up until quite close to the end, the neo-nazi antagonists were just Evil People Doing Evil Things even when it contradicted their ideology, before we finally got a good look into the mechanics of control and the details of the ideology that made their behavior make a little more sense.)

Another thing that's prevented me from reading SF recently, that might not be as much an attribute of the medium as an attribute of recent trends in SF publishing, is pointless/masturbatory digressions. (I like Neal Stephenson's digressions because they're entertaining. I'm not talking about that kind of digression.) I found that I was unable to finish The Unincorporated Man because of a number of things that I can only associate with unprofessional habits/lack of skill, and the most egregious was the fixation on extraneous details that fail to flesh out the world and appear to be interesting only to the author (for instance, there are a couple pages about how the protagonist -- ostensibly an old man with his youth recently artificially returned but characterized like a fifteen year old boy -- decides to name his computer Sebastian). To a lesser extent I saw these tendencies in Daemon, even though that book is generally more competently written. Presumably this is related to these books gaining their popularity prior to going through an established publisher, who would have an interest in cutting out masturbatory passages like this before printing.

3:

1 megaJoule of thrust

Should be meganewton, no?

However, I admire your restraint in discussing the snake oil that goes under the name of 3He. For me, it's long been a red flag that things, whether fictional or ostensibly serious, have gotten into "walk away from this" territory.

4:

How about manually-aimed guns? Self-guided bullets exist in the lab and will be standard sniper issue within a decade. You can currently buy rifles with with technology reminiscent of a CounterStrike aimbot (it was too easy to detect cheaters whose reticules would lock onto the enemy's head; much harder to detect one which automatically pulled the trigger at the exact moment your wavering aim happened to coincide with the enemy). And that's just current-gen tech; we could hypothesise a pistol with waterjet-based attitude & inclination control, twisting in your grip to point at the naughty heat signatures in front of you.

And yet, so many SF characters are only as good as their own aim when they try to have a shootout...

(I apologise in advance for potentially derailing this thread onto one of the strange attractors! I can repost this in 100 comments' time if you prefer.)

5:

Faceless 80's style corporations ruling entire planets (hint: who handles the externalities?)

Wasn't part of the point with these that the companies would just ignore them and let the externalities exist and make things terrible for the workers, until they packed up and left when it got too much, all as a sign of their callousness? I mean it was always a very thin cover to criticize global capital doing that.

For me it is aliens in almost any context. Very rare are the examples of the times where they are portrayed in a truly alien way. Far too often they are somewhere between "gross oversimplification of a society, racism-lite", and even more often it is scientific racism of the 20s gussied to slide under the radar (like what The Iron Dream was calling out and most unfortunately, ignored). And that's because they are meant to be that. Niven and Pournell get a lot of praise of the Moties that I've never quite understood, because the society doesn't make sense and what they wrote weren't aliens, they were a reskinned setup of their fears to criticize second wave feminism. Ringo, same, it is just a mob so he can glory in slaughter of the political groups he hates. Even with nice aliens like E.T. they are just McGuffins to trigger growth rather than an agent with their own agenda. Never mind how all these run headlong into the apes/angels problem.

So yeah, aliens. I think Peter Watts is the only one I've read who does aliens really well, because he set out to make them alien instead of a stand in for something else.

6:

1. Ignorance of the fact that FTL travel always implies time travel. Only very interesting human stories can allow me to gloss over that. The Expanse series is my guilty pleasure in that regard. Still they could just prevent the original plot by talking to their past selves with the time machine that they have on board. I think you mentioned something similar while discussing Iron Sunrise.

2. "Let me fix that impossible problem with my space wrench" aka "the inverted tachyon reflector beam closes the catastrophic singularity". Once an author resorts to that resolution, I have to close the book.

3. Not limited to SciFi: Women suddenly lose all competence when a man is around. That's a subset of your "out-of-character" trope.

4. Not limited to SciFi: Otherwise intelligent character suddenly sabotages himself or everybody else so the story has a reason to go on. Even worse is the trope of "let me keep this vital information a secret for no reason other than that it will create an excuse for drama"

and finally the worst offender:

5. Characters being prodigies in 15 scientific fields at once aka "the author is too much in love with their hero" problem. So the master assassin is also a competent computer scientist, chemist, sniper, electrical engineer, race driver and can impersonate accents in 10 languages? This is expanded into the SciFi problem where a colony of 5 people maintain a nuclear reactor, but not as a stupid appliance that they operate like a microwave, no, one of them repairs the machine that took hundreds of professions to come together to make in an afternoon with a wrench.... I struggle to give this one an easy name, but basically it's about any story that ignores that it takes a planet-wide network of industry to make anything technologically advanced in today's age. In my previous job I was asked why we didn't manufacture the mainboards for our appliances in Germany and the answer is: "because there is nobody here who CAN". What makes some authors think that a space station will have someone on hand who can even read the structural specs for the material your antimatter generator is made out of let alone manufacture anything?

Unfortunately the above has made it completely impossible for me to enjoy Star Trek since my late twenties. :( Thanks for letting me rant here though :)

7:

you are not going to get dust or gravel pinging off the hull ... unless you're insanely unlucky

But...but what if you're going through a ring system?
You know some of those asteroids in ESB were potatoes, and at least one shoe.

Seriously now, John Ohno and Mister_DK have brought up some of the reasons I can't stand MilSF (along with what you've said wrt the physics), that the enemies generally stand in for racist/political tropes. Admittedly, I haven't read much of it, mostly seen movies and TV shows, where they always call the alien invaders something like Snakes or Bugs, which seem to be obvious racist epithet replacements. I finally read "The Forever War" a few years ago, it was okay, but such a product of its time that it was difficult to really enjoy.


Anyhow, I would be interested in your take on Nanotech.

8:

Curiously, I have absolutely no problem suspending my disbelief even at the most incoherent setups (like having the guys watching the Millenium Falcon dock at the Death Star perpendicular to the - admitedly probably weak - gravity field of a small moon-sized structure which, the next time you see it, has spaceships that fly around it in the "proper" orientation for its gravity well).

The only thing that consistently throws me off is incoherent characterisations. When most of your characters are obviously characters rather than people, you've usually lost me.

That and conspiracies. But using trains as the main interstellar transportation system? No problem, steam away!

9:

fiction is an exploration of human interior spaces, and that sometimes a spaceship or a princess is a metaphor
yes
A superb example was a re-telling by the still-missed Charles Sheffield of Orpheus/Euridice, with the descent into Hades being the gravity-swing around a blue giant ...
A metaphor for an aspect of the human condition under the writer's examination.
"Go on, tell your story, it'll only be one of the Old Ones, anyway" _ U. K. le Guin.
But still new things can come from those old tales.

As for Rabbit/Smeerp, a much admired (by many) author did that, to my intense annoyance, & I only found out after I'd bought the bloody book which I shall never, now, read.
Anathem.
Utter tripe - why couldn't he simply use the names?

10:

I absolutely agree with your argument on an intellectual level, but I can't let go of the conviction that the asteroid-dodging chase in The Empire Strikes Back is the best 30 seconds of film in the entire Star Wars canon (so far). The cavalier treatment of "light speed" in those movies is a different issue, but never mind that for now.
More broadly, what bugs me is when I'm asked to willingly suspend my disbelief in too many different things at once. I'm usually quite happy to accept hyper-space travel in a story, or telekinesis... but usually not both.

11:

... or manually controlled flying (usually through the above asteroid fields). Trek has been really bad about this, but it was always about the human superiority to the machine (Cmdr. Data the notable exception, but he wanted to be a real boy...).

12:

Well, this is sort of tangential, but I'm remembering a discussion I had with another Steve Jackson Games fan. We were talking about their Transhuman Space setting (which, to be sure, has some of the stuff you're objecting to, such as a helium 3 economy), and they wanted to introduce some added elements, and I objected that all of those elements said to me "previous generation SF" and that, despite its imperfections, Transhuman Space was a fairly pure example of current generation SF.

When I read SF with FTL; or with lots of solar systems with planets generally similar to our local set and similarly distributed; or with FTL that doesn't equate to closed timelike lines; or with time travel in general; or with any version of psionics; or with mutant superhumans (though that's mostly relegated to the comics these days)—all that says to me "old paradigm SF." You know, the sort of stuff that largely defined the Campbellian era, and that gave Star Trek most of its plots, and that defines Traveller, probably the most widely played SFRPG. And that stuff can be enjoyable to read, but it's a partly nostalgic pleasure; it's not remotely a credible "future" now. Yesterday's tomorrow, to borrow Panshin's most memorable phrase.

In contrast, Transhuman Space has STL space travel; lots and lots of robotics and AI; genetically modified organisms, and a major political split between Transhumanists who want more of them and Preservationists who want them banned; and various other things that are projections of current concerns, or actually of the concerns of ten or fifteen years ago, when it came out. It's not nearly as hard as you're looking for (though it makes attempts at hardness) but it's a much more recent future. Even if its global politics is starting to look wildly optimistic. . . .

13:

DOes it really imply Time Travel & therefore (I think) 2nd-Law of Thermodynamics violation?

Not necessarily.
I think there may be a "restricted curvature" get-out for that one.

Lets, suppose we travel at 10c to a star-system in a straight line or a good approximation, thereto.
Slow down, if not stop completely, then turn around & come back the way we went.
We will still arrive back on Earth, by Earth's clocks, after we left, won't we?
But, what may be impossible is a significantly curved path, travelling at same "speed" for the same ship-clock time, aiming to return to Earth, which might break the Universe's causality, or something.
Difficult question - if my hypothesis is correct, then where's the limit, since it should be possible to write an equation for that one, if you were to sit down & think about it for a bit.
I.E. Closed-time-like loops that violate causality are forbidden by something (some equation) written into the Universe's structure, involving a combination of radius of curvature & either/or the angular velocity or speed along the course of said closed loop.
Um, err ....

14:

Farming planets don't ring my alarm bells until they say they're a monoculture. I don't have an issue with farming planets in the same way many countries (currently) have agricultural areas and urban areas. Nothing forces the farming planet to only grow crop x, it can produce a range of crops.

(interestingly a story I read where the planet only produced a monoculture turned out to have a deep and interesting reason for it but it wasn't set up as a monoculture by the greedy human corporation, it was discovered that way and they went ETF?)

If I'm reading a space opera and the like, I don't care enough about the bad physics if there's a good enough story: I've willingly decided to read a space opera after all. I know they're not going to detail accurate space travel, realistic physics and the like. If they're inconsistent about their own rules I'll usually give up, but if their rules remain consistent I'll give them a pass. (The same applies to fantasy for me - I don't care what their rules for magic are, as long as they don't break them, although the characters can misunderstand them but that has to be carefully written.)

My shibboleths tend to the biological. Plagues that kill 100% of people. Viral infections you treat by stopping bacterial ribosomes. (Yes, really happened. That was a paperback, I was on the bus. It caused raised eyebrows when I swore and tore it half.) Ancient diseases to wipe us out - hint, we're the descendants of the survivors, our immune systems are in a dramatic arms race every day. Ancient alien diseases stand a chance though.

There are some tech ones too. People are awful at predicting how tech will change. I posted an infographic a while ago about Moore's Law and what it really means. In 2000 the Bondi Blue iMac was a snazzy, mid-level computer. In 2010 the then new iPhone cost ~1/3 of the price of the iMac, had a slightly worse screen resolution and outperformed the the iMac on everything else. Oh, it weighed <1% of the iMac and would make phone calls too of course and fit in your pocket. I don't make a living making good guesses about what's to come. But there are some shockingly bad ones out there. If you're going to ask me to believe in, say, Ai and cheap fusion power and so on, your homes have got to do better than the 5 years ago model of US TV on a cable.

But bad characters and bad plot will do it more than these every time.

15:

Actually, I thought the trains were one of the few original, innovative, amusing, and redeeming features of the Commonwealth saga. (I bailed on it 50 pages before the end of book 1, when I realized there was another book the same size lying ahead of me if I persisted in banging my head on that wall. As I'm a sucker for the sunk cost fallacy, you may consider this faint praise indeed (and I finished the Reality Dysfunction trilogy).)

16:

Space colonization in the context of no-FTL SF is annoying. If you can spend 20 years in your spaceship flying to another star system, then you can also spend 200 years in your spaceship. You don't need planets anymore.

17:

>>My shibboleths tend to the biological. Plagues that kill 100% of people.

Very long incubation period?

>>Viral infections you treat by stopping bacterial ribosomes.

Maybe the virus reproduces inside bacteria?

>>Ancient diseases to wipe us out - hint, we're the descendants of the survivors, our immune systems are in a dramatic arms race every day.

Genetic drift gradually destroys every adaptation you don't need. Ancient disease is kinda plausible.

>>Ancient alien diseases stand a chance though.

No, if something is utterly implausible, it is alien diseases infecting human being. It's less likely than getting an infection of Pyrolobus fumarii (which thrives at 113 °C).

18:

Mmph. I disagree, conditionally; for 20 years you can just about conceive of carrying consumable materials for -- at 8 tons/year/astronaut (NASA's old estimate for an open-loop Mars expedition) that's 160 tons/person, which is heavy but not obviously more than the weight of a fault-tolerant closed-loop support system for growing/recycling everything including micronutrients for a human-apex food web ... especially if it's a one-way 1-3 astronaut recce expedition to, say, Alpha Centauri (astronauts to die of old age before return).

200 years implies full sustainability. Which means a wholly different kind of LSS. It may need periodic replenishment of raw materials harvested from comets/asteroids, but if you can last that long then you're right, you probably don't need planets. But 20 years? Probably do-able while remaining planet-centric.

19:

-Printers taking the place of nanotech assemblers. Actually, I may use the Smeerp-9000 brand printer in a novel sometime (SmeerpCorp. We're good at branding).

-We live sustainably by depending on these magic boxes here...

...And these magic boxes run off solar power from the domes we live under. In fact, why would anyone want to live in a city under a dome anyway? Is this just a tribute to Bucky Fuller, or what?

-All the biology I need to know I learned in High School. What was my teacher's name again?

-Oh, and, if I got it wrong, I'll just arrogantly tell the person who points it out that they're the only person who noticed that I screwed up.

20:

Rubber forehead aliens are a big kick out, but truly alien aliens are a rarity. Iain Banks had some, and C.J. Cherryh does well with the Atevi, but most aliens act like humans with speech impediment.

I have quite a well trained suspension of disbelief, so as long as the handwavium is consistent within the setting, I don't mind.

Space Opera is a good example - if they make a setting and stick it, I'm quite happy - I'm reading the SF version of an adventure novel after all.

Hard SF I'm more picky about, but I'll also give a pass for time it was written in. They tend to be more a thin story wrapped around a cool science idea, so the idea needs to be good, even if later proved impossible.

For MilSF I think the politics throws me out more than the implausible tactics and free flowing idiot balls.
OTOH Tom Kratman makes John Ringo (no!) look like Tolstoy.

21:

I recall a short story where the new wormhole exit to a new colony was bouncing around all over the place, and the protagonist has the job of trying to fly through it. By the end of the story, he's realised the bouncing was random, and that tethering a balloon would be just as effective. Also, that as the wormhole is tightened down, eventually people will be able to drive trucks through it.

As I see it, Hamilton's take on that is that you could get even better throughput if you had rails. Yes, it's a delightful conceit. And yes, the rest of the story doesn't work for me either.

22:

Just in case you were wondering: an editor is inciting me to commit space opera (don't wait up, even if I agree to do so it won't be published before 2018) so I'm updating my basket list of "213 things Skippy is no longer allowed to do in space opera", just in case I don't feel like writing #3 in the Freyaverse (and do not ask for a third Eschaton novel, Or Else). Tentative idea is to ditch the mundane SF straitjacket and go back to far-future wide screen SF, but to avoid cliches as I would the plague. So think in terms of the space operatic equivalent of Stockhausen, or maybe a concept album by Laibach.

23:

-Calling a 2 kilogram alien blue hexapodal herbivore with an abdominal furcula a rabbit, because someone told you not to call it a smeerp. (cf koala bear)

--Setting the action on the moon of a gas giant, having the gas giant take up most of the sky (cf Saturn and Jovian ring widths) and having the gas giant rise in the east and set in the west every day (cf tidal locking). Didn't you take trigonometry?

--Alien starfarers who are anatomically incapable of lighting a campfire by friction.

24:

I was working out a pitch for one of the Elite:Dangerous SF novella slots until the setup of the whole (Traveller-based) economy completely torpedoed my enthusiasm.

Seriously, you (and everyone else) have to blast your way through about 50 billion credits worth of space pirate hardware to deliver your 20 tonnes of crisps?

Every? Single? Run?

Just play the game and don't think about it too much.

25:

--Alien starfarers who are anatomically incapable of lighting a campfire by friction.

I've discussed this previously, but this is basically the argument for rubber forehead aliens. It turns out that the anatomical structure needed to light a fire through friction is far more restrictive than most people realize. Since you need fire for basically all technologies that would lead to starflight, an alien that builds ships but can't build a fire is a walking contradiction.

26:

I don't mind technologies not directly extrapolated from known: knowledge accumulates and I'm perfectly willing to accept progress in technology sufficiently advanced as to appear to be magic, so long as it isn't posited to be, say, tomorrow. Down the road a century or two is fine for me. This includes potential advances in the physical sciences which appear to be ruled out based on current knowledge. I would consider it a leap of faith to assume that what we know is in some fundamental sense the ground truth of the universe yet when extraordinary advances come they tend to be dazzling precisely because they overturn what 'everyone knows'.

So if someone wants to posit something that lets spaceships travel FTL, I'm fine with that, so long as that's not what the story is about. So long as miracles remain in the background as stage dressing, I'm fine with it. Sadly, one thing that SF may have taught us over the years is that miracles can be rather dull from the viewpoint of ordinary individuals.

What makes me close the file I'm reading would be classical goofs such as poor characters, uninteresting plots, situations. The classic faults of poorly written fiction, in other words. When sales start to fall off the probable is more likely to lie in the classical reasons than in any failure of extrapolation, I think. May our Good Host never be subjected to such!

Mike

27:

Heck Charlie, set the story 5,000 years from now on Earth, make it post-collapse, and have undiscovered continents with strange human cultures on them. And do it with windjammers firing broadsides for all I care. Most planetary SF is just ripped off from the Age of Colonial Empires, replacing "colony" with "planet" and so forth. Spin the tropes back to their origins, set it on an Earth that's become strange, and have some fun. Why use space marines when you can have real ones who aren't wearing red coats?

28:

I was talking about colonization, remember, not just going there and back again. So, 20 years to get to a nearby star, and them how many until you can produce food there? 20? 50? 200?

I guess it can work with a constant delivery of supply ships.

29:

Since you need fire for basically all technologies that would lead to starflight, an alien that builds ships but can't build a fire is a walking contradiction.

Unless they can domesticate/train something else to do the dextrous work.

(Imagine an elephant-analog, with big brains, abstract reasoning, and language, that has managed to domesticate and train a monkey-analog, with manipulator limbs and good binocular vision. Not plausible in our biosphere, but not in and of itself implausible among aliens.)

30:

And then have them carrying the monkeys on a backpack because that way there's always one conveniently to ... trunk.

A human would look at that and assume the monkey was in charge.

31:

If it - technology, social evolution, whatever - appeared in "Snow Crash," you had better think long and hard about it and its implications before attempting to use it.

(To me, at this distance, "Snow Crash" works best as novel-length Bonfire of the Cyberpunk Cliche Vanities.)

32:
Alternatively: spaceships shelting from detection behind an asteroid

This would seem to imply you put down James S.A Coreys Expanse series very, very early in the first book, which seems like it would be a damn shame.

I've got a whole bundle more shibboleths up my sleeve that flag a work of SF as being implausible (this may account for why I'm more comfortable reading fantasy these days).

I still encounter people who get all het up about the inclusion of, say, David Weber, or the latest Star Wars or Warhammer 40k novel tie-in, under the umbrella of science fiction; "They're not science fiction! They're science fantasy, dammit!"

small farming planets (hint: just one ecosystem for a planet?):

I'm curious; why do you find this implausible?

Well, let me back up. I get "this entire planet is literally nothing but amber waves of grain." But, well... let's make some assumptions. Let's assume that interstellar trade involving bulk products produced in the bottom of a gravity well is cheap enough to be ongoing concern, that local competitive advantage can be a thing. I suspect that at this point we're already edging up against your suspension of disbelief, as your tolerance for FTL seems to have massively decreased over time. But let's make that assumption. Let's also make the assumption that either earthlike planets are common or that terraforming isn't the near-impossibility it probably is. (And again, those things by themselves probably already cause you to nope the hell away.)

But if those things are possible, then absolutely small farming planets with a crop monoculture would be a thing. Example here in the real world: Indonesia. Indonesia is a medium-sized country with a wide variety of ecosystems, but if the corporations had their way all the arable land in it would basically be producing palm oil. They'd just ignore the parts of it unsuitable for that.

So it seems logical to me you'd get planets with, say, a continent the size of North America that is suited to the supernal production of one or two foodstuffs for export. The rest of the planet gets ignored except inasmuch as it can be used as a convenient local source of stuff they need to support the major industry.

political structures based on design patterns proven to be unworkable in the context of any society more modern than the late middle ages (empires in space, I'm looking at you)

This just seems flat out wrong. Authoritarian and/or imperial political structures on classic design patterns are still going strong and show no signs of collapsing in ways that discredit the model such that no successor state will want to touch it.

The last bit is important. I live in an imperial state; I'm an American. Prior to us, the pre-eminent global imperial state was the British. China remains governed more or less as it's been for the last several thousand years, by an oligarchic, authoritarian bureaucracy punctuated by the occasional direct control of an Emperor. I could go on.

Why wouldn't we export these models to the stars in the hypothetical situation of interstellar colonization being possible?

It seems, Charlie, (and I have no particular beef with you over this) that you greatly object on an aesthetic (not moral!) level to portrayals of the universe as anything other than it is; a massive, hostile, hard-to-traverse void that will kill baseline humans dead if they look at it funny with massively intractable physical and biological problems that preclude making it less massive, hostile, and hard-to-traverse for said baseline humans.

And that's fine and all, but aside from strongly transhuman settings in which we stop being baseline humans with fleshy bodies that stop working if they absorb a small amount of radiation, it's going to lock out a shit-ton of sci-fi from you. That's okay, I suppose, and you can't exactly control your aesthetic preferences, but it does seem like you're missing out. Although it isn't like there's a shortage of book-media for you to consume, or indeed a fair amount of sci-fi that doesn't involve ever leaving the atmosphere.

Speaking for myself, I love me some traditional sci-fi. Teleportation! Huge, art deco starships that people walk around in wearing shirtsleeves! Reactors that go wom-wom-wom! Laser barrages, chases through asteroid belts and the upper atmospheres of gas giants, guys in power armor wielding giant laser cannons, the whole nine yards. Psychic warriors, shit, sign me up.

Hell, I love drop pods and boarding torpedoes. Do you know how ridiculous that shit is? So ridiculous. Cramming a bunch of people into a torpedo and shooting them at another starship, which they will ram and then board as a battle tactic? That's bananaballs. I love it. Can't get enough of it.

33:

I wrote something about epic fantastic ecology on my blog about 7 years ago along this line.

The TLDR is ...

Elves are always dying out, but why? If you have a race of creatures that arrived in the region tens of thousands of years before humans, and said race lives for thousands of years (or forever), then even with a very slow rate of reproduction, we would expect them to completely dominate the local landscape by the time of your story. Did they all get bored with having sex for some reason?

Dragons in underground caves?! What does it eat? Stupid adventurers can't be in such great supply, and a dragon probably needs to eat at least 3-4 D&D parties worth every few months (5 if the party is mostly dwarves and gnomes). How do they survive in an underground cave system with no exits big enough for their enormous bodies?

34:

Do you feel better now? Probably, and I like your books, but probably the singularity ;)

35:

"Ignorance of the fact that FTL travel always implies time travel."

Or travel between alternate, but almost identical, realities in the QM MWI. So it's time travel or slider tech.

36:
Did they all get bored with having sex for some reason?

That, in fact, is explicitly the case with Tolkien elves. They literally do get bored with having sex after awhile. Well, not bored per se. But they lose the desire for long, long periods of time.

(They also never desire sex outside of the context of being romantically in love with someone, and only have sex while married. Yeah, you can tell Tolkien was a Catholic.)

37:

BTW, stealthing spacecraft is quite possible, but only from limited directions. Think hiding behind a mirror cooled with liquid Helium. Once did a brief analysis of stealthing ICBM warheads using LN2 jackets to reduce their IR signature.

38:

"...warships using active radar to hunt for one another (hint: active sensor reach is inversely proportional to the fourth power of the emission strength, passive sensors obey the inverse square law) ... "

Not really, because the beam is a beam not an omni-directional emitter. It reduced to inverse square law of the reflected signal. That's how the moon was detected back in the 1960s using a low energy laser and no retro reflectors.

39:

In that case, what very often gets underestimated is the area that needs to be covered with that beam.

40:

That's how the moon was detected back in the 1960s using a low energy laser and no retro reflectors.

I have to admit I read that as the Scientists reporting an exciting new discovery. "Sir, sir, we've found a moon!" <looks up> "Oh my god where did that come from?"

41:

Opportunity Cost is going to neuter fusion as a commercial power source. Unless they literally pull a commercial version ready to build out of a hat sometime in the next ten years, they won't be able to start doing commercial fusion power until (probably) mid-century or later - by which time we'll be deep into solar/renewable and the grid/storage system to make it work. Fusion would just be a curiosity at that point, with maybe some capacity added for baseline power.

That's assuming it works out at all. Nature's fusion reactors don't fill me with confidence in that regard - the Almighty Sun is so inefficient that its core's power output per cubic meter is on par with a compost heap.

@Charlie Stross

Has anyone ever done a space opera story with no permanent off-world inhabitants? It's certainly not implausible - if you have comparatively cheap access to space and relatively fast spaceships, then you wouldn't have to have permanent habitats in space anymore than we need them floating on the ocean. You would just send out ships on missions, and have them come back - and the people in such a society might consider space colonies in the way we think of undersea colonies today.

@Dirk Bruere

Stealth in space is an odd debate that's only applicable to a few number of stories. One of the fundamental Laws of War in space combat would almost certainly be that warships have to identify themselves as such with radio transponders, with only space pirates refusing to do so.

@Dave Rolsky

I guess you could rationalize it as Elves being linked to "nature", and receding in power and influence as nature gives way to human-shaped landscapes.

Or it was mostly a brain bug out of Tolkien, where his Elves were leaving/fading away because God decided that their active role in the world was done and they need to go off to a blissful unchanging land to wait until the end of days.

42:

Elves are always dying out, but why?

Because Tolkien, that's why. Tolkien invented the elves of modern fantasy, or rather, everyone decided to copy him. In Tolkien's universe, everything had an explanation. Elves are few because they are not breeding during war time, and for most of their history they are at war. Elves are not dying out in LotR, they are leaving the mortal lands because that's the divine plan... et cetera.

But hey, what we get is elves are dying out, dwarves drink beer out of their axes and humans are too ambitious.

43:

Nope, Charlie's right, google "radar range equation". - the radar range equation varies with the fourth power, because it's inverse square for transmitter to reflector, and then inverse square for reflected signal back to the receiver.

As for moon detection with radars (allegedly as detected by BMEWS - range aliasing can be fun, kids) it isn't very reflective, but there is an awful lot of it...

44:

I read the whole book, blurbed it, and immediately regretted it. It was one of those books I had a loud ranty conversation with in the privacy of my own head but decided to give the benefit of the doubt. (It ... got worse, rather than better, as it went on. Hint: see my point about cultural/cognitive familiarity being a red flag. Never mind the stealth-in-spaaaaace bit.)

45:

On FTL: I think people are overstating the case when they object to FTL that doesn't include time travel.

Look: FTL plus special-relativistic spacetime does imply time travel. So yes, given current physics, FTL and no time travel is impossible.

But this just in: given current physics, FTL *by itself* is probably impossible. So we're not answering the question: "what are the constraints on FTL, given physics?" We're answering the question: "how do we posit new physics, for storytelling purposes, that enables FTL without time travel?"

Put that way, there's a clear answer: drop special relativity; or, more precisely, assume that the symmetries that define special relativity aren't exact symmetries but apply only approximately, and in particular don't hold for whatever handwavium enables FTL jumps. The full FTL physics (which obviously you're only going to sketch schematically; writing full physics theories is kind of hard) includes a preferred rest frame, and superluminal motion is defined relative to that frame. (The microwave background radiation frame is an obvious choice.) Ta-da: FTL without time travel.

I don't think this is a very elegant physical theory, but the idea wasn't to construct an elegant physical theory: it was to permit Space Empires and Interstellar War. Having said which, if you want a realist way of understanding quantum theory (which you should) and if you don't want to adopt the Many Worlds Interpretation (which, however, you also should) then some kind of underlying superluminal physics is quite difficult to avoid, and most implementations of that that have been tried do just posit that the symmetries of special relativity are violated.

46:

BTW, stealthing spacecraft is quite possible, but only from limited directions.

Indeed, I once looked into this and it turns out that there many situations in which objects in space can be quite stealthable. Not spaceships with blazing terawatt reaction drives, it's true -- think in terms of more or less passive satellites and probes. Understanding the characteristics and locations of the threat sensors is key.

See

https://fas.org/spp/military/program/track/stealth.pdf

47:

and do not ask for a third Eschaton novel, Or Else
Ah, yes:
"We fruit-fetishits demand a fair crack of the Whip!"
Second voice, probably Bill Oddie ... "ooh! NOW you're talking!"
Cough

48:

In no particular order, a few other problems (none of them, I'm afraid, unique to any particular flavor of speculative fiction):

* Learning of largely-error-free alien communications with less than several years of intense study. Heck, it's even a terrestrial problem on this planet, and we at least share biological imperatives for communication...

* SF military subcultures that draw their disciplinary and command imperatives from not later than Wellington... when every newly minted recruit in any SF military will have a basic education giving basic knowledge equivalent to the top 0.5% of Wellington's world. Hint: People who have been implicitly taught that knowledge is valuable don't perform well (or predictably) when led by purchased-commission nabobs or subject to arbitrary discipline; if nothing else, see "frag."

* Cultures with no casual or decorative art, popular magazines/equivalents, popular music, or leisure activities not directly related to improving a character's already-excessive competence at something seemingly plot-related. And, conversely, cultures that are purely decadent in this respect.

* Military and exploration efforts that do not focus on logistics and gremlins (as Babylon 5 defined them: "Russian for poor maintenance practices"). As a specific current-day example, well under 5% of the military personnel (not even counting the civilians doing depot maintenance or anything else) in a Western-style "air force" are the glory-attaining pilots of combat aircraft. Hell, less than 40% of the aircrews are the pilots of combat aircraft. And civilianizing the logistics does not make the logistics go away... it just changes the uniforms (from, say, RAF to Lunar Industries).

* Dispute resolution devolving to might-makes-right.

49:

BUGGER
"fetishists"

50:

Nope; for the simple reason that it's a lot cheaper, lighter, and faster to just point the firearm at the thing you want to shoot. Try carrying one around all day, and you'll soon appreciate that any extra kilos of "water-jet firing stability" are singularly unwelcome. Particularly in a pistol, which is a weight-critical item for use at very close range.

The "guided bullet" stuff is really only for deliberate fire from a static and stable position, where stability in the aim is needed for the time of flight of the bullet. It solves the problem of crosswinds and poor range estimation, because all of the smarts are at the rifle end, not in the bullet. Currently, these are only solutions for very low rates of fire (e.g. snipers in the military, and hunters in the civilian world).

It's easy to solve "keep looking in a particular direction while you're moving" in a computer game, but we don't work that way in real life. Try running across country without looking at the ground every so often, and you're going to fall over a lot. In fact, try pointing a rifle while at anything other than a walking pace...

Oh - and the military / paramilitary market are rather keen on being able to hit a particular target among similar targets. Having the weapon decide to second-guess your aimpoint because it's seen something warmer? Pull onto centre-mass when you're going for a specific aim point? Not so welcome.

51:

People who can't do sums. For example, there's an episode in Donaldson's Gap series (which was recommended to me by a colleague whose taste is usually good, but everyone makes the odd mistake) where a spacecraft accelerates from essentially zero (in orbit round a star, so at best a few hundred km/s) to a significant fraction of c in a few hours. Even if we give him a whole day (and, although the narrative didn't actually give a time IIRC, the events indicated less than this) and assume only 0.1c, this still implies an acceleration of over 30g. In a culture where he's gone out of his way to say that they don't have artificial gravity. Assuming the spacecraft even stays together, most of his principal characters are now a layer of strawberry jam on the aft bulkhead. (That's OK. I didn't like any of them anyway.)

The "all for one, one for all" syndrome: if my alien has feathers, ipso facto it also has claws and a beak (and either wings or remnants thereof).

(Not confined to SF): inability to grasp basic genetics, e.g. dark child of blond parents, with no implication anywhere that child is adopted or of otherwise irregular parentage. (I remember a detective story which turned on blood groups, but the author had failed to do the most elementary research on the subject: her victim (blood group AB) was pregnant with a child of blood group O. Much faffing about who the father might be. No realisation that this would have to be a surrogate pregnancy!)

Inability to read an astronomy textbook, e.g. book by Jack McDevitt which turns on imminent close approach to planetary system of compact object, but seems completely incapable of deciding whether compact object is a white dwarf or a neutron star, and keeps giving it properties that are an incoherent mixture of the two. Either would do the job: pick one and stick to it, damn it! (Also, several people who appear to think that the region in between the spiral arms of spiral galaxies has no stars in it. Rubbish. Known to be rubbish since the 1950s when red-sensitive photographic emulsion became available.)

Agree with Heteromeles @24 about non-tidal-locked moons of gas giants (are you thinking about NK Jemisin's Dreaming Moon?)

Most of John Scalzi's Old Man's War, including but not limited to:


  • the idea that a cloned brain would be similar enough to the original that you'd be able to basically imprint it with the original's content (hint: we have a lot more neurons than we have genes, and that's not considering the interconnections);

  • the backdrop of multiple expansionist civilisations, some much older than humanity, which like to colonise planets—this is a universe with a bad case of Fermi paradox;

  • his alien biology, especially the Gulliver-among-the Lilliputians episode—structures don't scale like that.

52:

Eh, in Scalzi's defense, they don't seem to be so much clones as a walking pile of water-phase nanotech. The real question is, "Given that tech, why the heck is anyone mortal?" They should be able to out and out take *backups*.

53:

I finally read "The Forever War" a few years ago, it was okay, but such a product of its time that it was difficult to really enjoy.

I disagree - I think it still stands up well, bearing in mind it's not really about MilSF, mostly it's about non-FTL physics, and about feeling isolated and "other" within society (hardly surprising, as it was written by a returning veteran of Vietnam with a Physics degree).

MilSF is just the setting; it's about isolation on grounds of politics (the first visits home), and sexuality (being "the old queer"). Note that this was far more challenging stuff in the USA of the 1970s, when gays were still barred from the military...

54:

The cultural-cognitive familiarity thing also has me scratching my head a bit, given that you just last year (so two years ago for you, I suppose, given you finish these things a year before we get'em) wrote a sci-fi novel with humanish robots who fundamentally do seem to think the way we think today. The polities and ideologies presented are all different flavors of polities and ideologies that exist today, as are the people, who seem to also think the way people today think except inasmuch as they don't have exact biological need equivalents to humans.

I mean, Medea is fundamentally indistinguishable from any other autocrat (aside from her ability to fork herself) as is Sondra. Krina... seems oddly detached from anything other than a vague sense of decency; she has no recognizable ideological or moral goal aside from being vaguely outraged at the economic system she's spent her whole life studying. And the one group of people who don't demonstrably think and act like we do in a recognizable-to-us culture (the communist/altruist deepwater squid folks) had to massively re-wire their brains in order to manage it.

Seems a bit silly to slag on something you yourself do.

55:

So: You didn't like the latest Ian McDonald, I guess.

Helium-3 aneutronic fusion is waaaay lower on my list of shibboleths than on yours. Mine starts with alternate histories with real-life characters born after the divergence. FDR can't exist in a world where Lincoln was assassinated after the play. That kills almost all of Harry Turtledove for me. FDR analogues, okay, which is why I can accept (say) Kim Stanley Robinson's Years of Rice and Salt.

56:

then some kind of underlying superluminal physics is quite difficult to avoid

The July 2015 issue of Physics Today had a retrospective on John Bell, he of quantum nonlocality fame. In a final section titled "The Great Puzzle" there was this:

"[Quantum] nonlocality disturbed John deeply, since for him it was equivalent to a breaking of Lorentz invariance -- a feature he could hardly accept. He often remarked, 'It's a great puzzle to me. Behind the scenes something is going faster than the speed of light.'"

At this point, I think a certain amount of epistemological humility is in order.

57:

Yes: it's exactly the violation of Bell's inequality that I had in mind. (It's not a problem in the many-worlds interpretation, but Bell was Not A Fan of that approach.)

58:

Years of Rice and Salt had that effect for me - I couldn't buy the premise. The Plague in real life actually did cause mass death and devastation in both the Middle East and China in the 14th century, so a plague that kills 99% of Europeans is going to do the same thing to the Middle East and China.

59:

One key question is, "how much is a kill worth"? Bullets are individually cheap, but if it takes 20,000 rounds to hit one insurgent in a jungle, that adds up -- especially as it exposes your own shooters to opposition fire. Using a Brimstone missile against a single enemy soldier (cost: £100,000) might seem cost-ineffective, but given the estimated lifetime economic value of a first-world citizen (currently about US $4M, in actuarial terms, in the USA) then it might be worthwhile. And as guidance packages get smaller and cheaper, the problem turns out to be target selection and tracking, not can-we-build-a-magic-bullet.

(I don't expect guns to become obsolete, but obsolescent -- in the same way that an officer's sword was obsolescent as a weapon of war by 1914: still lethal, but not the primary killing tool it once was -- is another matter. Think sidearms and personal protection, and a shift from crew-served kit like MGs to rapid-fire missile launchers like the grandchildren of the XM25, with active guided rounds rather than the current straight-line airburst warheads. (Plausible ...?)

60:

The real question is, "Given that tech, why the heck is anyone mortal?" They should be able to out and out take *backups*.

Yes, and indeed in cases where the original owner of the brain in question is not around to be recorded, it turns out that they can turn the clone/android into a soldier anyway, and those trained in this way are better than the imprinted ones. So why imprint? And, given that you don't have to do the imprinting (which kills the original), why would you need to get the initial tissue sample from a left-behind Earthling anyway, when you could just ask some of your own citizens to volunteer? The entire house of cards collapses as soon as he lets non-imprinted clone/androids be trainable.

61:

Nope. I was asked to cover-quote "Luna" and didn't make it out of the second chapter before it tripped my throw-book-at-wall impulse (and not just for the lunar 3He -- there were other things wrong with it too).

62:

Monomolecular edges that cut through anything.

Monomolecular string that's arbitrarily strong in all directions and stable at high heat and just generally invincible.

63:

The last 50 odd pages of the reality dysfunction books is the reason why I will never pick up anything written by Peter F Hamilton again.

I came close to chucking a book across the room a couple of years ago when the action stopped so that one of the characters could have a long interior monologue about how annoying the author found evangelicals. I agreed, but preaching to the choir is still preaching ffs!

64:

Note that the rifle hasn't been the primary killing weapon since Hiram Maxim and Henry Shrapnel... but it's still vital in close combat. The bayonet is still regarded as a useful item, even though it's fractionally effective as a weapon.

The old quote is (from Napoleonic times, but still valid) is that it takes a mans' weight in lead to kill them. Lots of ammunition is fired speculatively, for suppression (too much in most cases, but that's poor training for you); and lots of it is fired at fleeting targets.

Just that alone, is a problem; your reaction time is on the order of a quarter-second at best. You see something in your sights; you pull the trigger; you miss, because by the time your finger moved, the target was gone. This is the source of much "X is rubbish ammo, the natives just shrug it off and keep fighting" mythos - what you remember is the sight picture decision to fire, not the sight picture a quarter-second later; this is one of the things I have to explain while coaching, because it's not well-understood (even by experts).

So, no, the rifle will be around for a while. Because when you have to kick open a door, a grenade isn't always the answer...

65:

Priority requirements for a primary military weapon, roughly:

- it must be deadly to the enemy at expected fighting ranges

- it must not be so heavy, including ammo, that it gets dropped

- it must be reliable enough to work under non-ideal conditions for the expected lifetime of the soldier carrying it

- it must be cost-effective

- it must be selective enough to threaten a specific person in a group, and dispersive enough to suppress the enemy at range

- it must be useable by a soldier in the stress of combat

An automatic grenade launcher or micro-missile launcher is great at taking down a wall, stopping a vehicle, killing a crowd. It's difficult to threaten a single person when you are inside your own blast radius, and the ammo tends to be heavier than a human wants to carry around.

Now, if everybody has cheap, small power-armor, you can increase the useful carrying capacity of a grunt. You also need to carry energy supplies, though, and the dense ones tend to be explosive, turning a lucky shot into a multiple casualty.

66:

Next pet hate, particularly MilSF. Any character that overdoes the description of an item, presumably for exposition or to show off depth of research. If it's got a generic name, that's what people use.

No-one says "where's your M16A4?", they say "where's your rifle?". Far better "he picked up his gun", not "he picked up his Glock 17 with the extra gubbins"... otherwise it reads like Brett Easton Ellis...

After all, we eat with a fork, not a stainless steel Viners model 13 medium fork... we pick up the vacuum cleaner, or Hoover, not the Dyson MD05 with extra-length cable.

67:

You don't need near supersonic smart rounds when you can employ a hummingbird size drone that can do 30 m/s, and see through its eyes before deciding whether of not to fire the small shaped charge built into it.

68:

On stubbing toes: there seems to be a whole genre that's based on the notion that information technology is magic, capable of having sympathetic effects on the real world with no physical basis. (Jeff Noon's Vurt, with its Tokyo flitting in and out of phyiscal existence because it has been virtualized, is an example.)

Another thing that gets to me is projection of human psychological structures and drives on AI systems that wouldn't necessarily have them -- in the "accidental AI" scenario, the system often spontaneously gets not just a better grasp than expected of the world around it, but human-like drives toward self-preservation and social status. Why should we take it for granted that the machine will value its own future existence when there are suicidal humans who don't? (You more often hear this complaint about aliens, but honestly, non-colonial biological organisms are likely, just by virtue of those facts, to have a lot more in common than any biological construct would have with an AI.)

And if I'm not in the reading mode where I'm treating space opera as fantasy with rocket-shaped magic chariots (which, honestly, is the only way a lot of it is tolerable at all), then there's the part where a significant fraction of planets are not only life-bearing, but life that doesn't poison us immediately on contact (and vice versa).

On the flip side: I'm wondering to what extent an Orion drive (the classic Freeman Dyson nuclear putt-putt) gets around the waste heat issue by radiating a lot of that waste heat into empty space directly, and evaporative cooling from the oil on the pusher plate. It can't be total: the colossal shock absorbers that were supposed to absorb the shaped nuclear blasts have to have some internal friction -- but the General Atomics crew did enough math to assure themselves somehow the thing wouldn't melt.

(Declaration of interest -- and spoilers for my trunk novel:

Gur gehax abiry srngherf na Bevba bs fbegf, onfrq ba gurezbahpyrne cryyrg obzof, juvpu vf qrfpevorq ol gur crbcyr jub ohvyg naq bja vg, sbe ernfbaf gurl svaq tbbq naq fhssvpvrag, nf fbzrguvat ryfr. V'ir abj tbg fbzrguvat gb nqq gb yvfg bs ernfbaf gung gur pbire fgbel znxrf ab frafr (juvpu jnf nyernql cerggl qnza cynva gb bar bs gur punenpgref...)

69:

As risk of spoilers: you might want to check out "Invisible Sun" when that novel finally sees the light of day (it's book 3 of the trilogy starting with "Dark State", which is now due out in early 2017). Hint: it's entirely relevant to your trunk novel spoiler, and comes up with a barking mad work-around for one of its other problems ...

70:

A few thoughts on too many above to hit Reply.

FTL & time travel: MacLeod dealt with this in his "Engines of Light" trilogy in a "You can't go home again" way, at least as I remember it. You can go back and forth between worlds at FTL, but every time you return to a planet decades or centuries will have passed, so you're in essence traveling into the future.

Guided bullets: Last year (iirc) there was a demonstration of a sniper rifle with computer assisted aiming. The idea was floated that the software could be hacked to change the target. Add in Wifi/Bluetooth connectivity, and if you have self guided bullets....

As mentioned above "Star Wars" isn't Science Fiction, it's Space Fantasy, with swords and wizards and all that. So I give it a pass (and I think a generational thing, having grown up with it--was 6 when the 1st movie came out and saw it in a drive-in). I think maybe realizing that has led me to reading more fantasy, though still not into much traditional Epic/High Fantasy, and more into the Urban and Fracture Fairy Tale variety. After the last time I went on about this, I realized that what most influenced my taste in fantasy is reading Bradbury as a kid.

I think there was one more thing I was going to reply to but am now forgetting. Probably just as well. Back to catching up on the comments

71:

Charlie brought up guns being obsolescent, but what if you had something that did make them obsolete? Let's say someone figures out - either using solid-state lasers or very small missiles - how to make something that could be carried aboard an armored personnel carrier or humvee, and which could hit bullets and drive them off-course to avoid your troops?

If it's shooting bullets out of the sky, it's probably not impossible for it to also shoot artillery shells and small missiles out as well, too.

Maybe we start getting small snake drones that crawl in the dirt and blow up on the treads/wheels of the vehicle.

72:

Oh, just remembered what the one thing was: "Fetishits" - coprophilia's not my kink.
Yeah, should have left it forgotten.

73:

...then there's the part where a significant fraction of planets are not only life-bearing, but life that doesn't poison us immediately on contact (and vice versa).

Why would it? Most biological poisons are poisonous on purpose: the organisms that produce the poison have a good Darwinian reason to do so (it allows me to eat the thing I have poisoned; or, conversely, it allows my relatives not to be eaten by the thing that has just terminally regretted having eaten me). I'd imagine that a genuinely alien biology would most likely be biologically inert from our point of view: you wouldn't be able to survive by eating it (nor it by eating you), but it wouldn't actively poison you. (It might actively kill and eat you: you can't expect the alien equivalent of a tiger or a great white shark to realise that you are not very nutritious.)

On the other hand, we biological organisms are a bit finicky in our environmental preferences: I do have trouble with alien planets that provide shirtsleeve environments (it wouldn't require too much variation in the atmosphere of Planet X compared to ours to make it seriously lethal).

I don't think we yet have a strong steer on how similar to ours alien biologies might (or might not) be. I can't see a good reason why they'd pick the same stereoisomers: alien life might use left-handed sugars and right-handed proteins, if it used sugars and proteins in the first place. How much of our biochemistry would re-evolve given the same initial conditions is not, AFAIK, well known. But it does at least make heavy use of very common elements: the building blocks would be available anywhere.

74:

Think sidearms and personal protection, and a shift from crew-served kit like MGs to rapid-fire missile launchers like the grandchildren of the XM25, with active guided rounds rather than the current straight-line airburst warheads. (Plausible ...?)

Maybe, but it seems like that is begging an awful lot out of production QA. That's the real key for a dominant weapon; that it works each and every time you need to use it. The spear dominated for such a long time because a pointy stick will always hurt, and doesn't require as much training in use than other weapons do. It took about 140 years for guns to get reliable and simple enough to let them win a battle (Cerignola), for things to get to the point where you could grab a farmboy, drill him for a few weeks, and then have him use the weapon was even longer.

Set aside the implications of the cost crashing of your guidance packages, what are the implications of being able to manufacture things much more complicated than bullets to have the same failure rate as bullets?

75:

Necessary comment: "the eight deadly words" were originated by Dorothy Heydt, and are "I don't care what happens to these people."

76:

and sexuality (being "the old queer"). Note that this was far more challenging stuff in the USA of the 1970s, when gays were still barred from the military...

This is where I had some of the most trouble with it. It seemed too much like Haldeman was trying to be progressive in the post-Stonewall world, but not having much exprerience with actual LGBT people. I don't know that much about him, so correct me if I'm wrong.
Also, I was an Army brat in the years right after it came out, so familiar with some of the attitudes toward gays in the miltary then, my mother had a couple gay/lesbian friends in the Army at the time.

77:

FTL & time travel: MacLeod dealt with this in his "Engines of Light" trilogy in a "You can't go home again" way, at least as I remember it. You can go back and forth between worlds at FTL, but every time you return to a planet decades or centuries will have passed, so you're in essence traveling into the future.

It's a while since I read the "Engines of Light" books, but my recollection is that they posited more-or-less-exactly-speed-of-light travel, rather than FTL. In which case the travel time is near zero for you (in the ship reference frame), but the appropriate number of years for the distance in the rest frame of the Galaxy. Except for the unobtainium needed to get to within a whisker of lightspeed in the first place, that's self consistent and doesn't produce closed timelike curves.

I do suspend disbelief for FTL in space opera, though I prefer ones (e.g. Bujold) in which it's done via wormhole or similar. But previous posters are right that FTL automatically violates causality: if you start at spacetime coordinates A, travel FTL to spacetime coordinates B, and then do something at B, there are frames of reference in which B will be seen to occur before A. (So, if the thing that went from A to B was a missile, say, observer in such a reference frame would see target at B disintegrate before missile fired at A. Physicists generally see this as presenting a problem, and we are hence not overfond of tachyons.)

78:

"... there seems to be a whole genre that's based on the notion that information technology is magic, capable of having sympathetic effects on the real world with no physical basis."

Like non-interactive measurements in QM?

79:

Things that really turn me off of a novel:

a) Characters that have no motivation save to advance the plot.
b) Authors who can't write believable dialogue for their characters.
c) Stuff that doesn't make sense in the context of the novel's imaginary world.
d) The assumption that the Default Person Setting is straight white dude, and that other character types are relegated to at best walk-on, supporting roles.

'D' seems to be the real killer for me these days. If all of the characters are dudes, then where did everyone else go? (If I handed out bonus points if all of the dudes are white and straight, I'd be handing out lots of bonus points to books I don't care for).

80:

(It's not a problem in the many-worlds interpretation, but Bell was Not A Fan of that approach.)

What did he like? He himself and subsequent experiments did in hidden variables, Copenhagen Interpretation/ wave function collapse relies on a magic event, so the last hypothesis standing seems to be many-worlds/aka the wave function never collapses.

If, as it seems to be, the evidence is against hidden variables and Copenhagen relies on a magic wand, what's left other than many-worlds?

81:

given you...wrote a sci-fi novel with humanish robots who fundamentally do seem to think the way we think today.

Keep in mind that the characters are descendants of robots built and designed by Humans, with all the hangups that entails.

82:

One of the things that distinguishes a "proper" scientist is the ability to let evidence take you to conclusions you don't like.

Personally I never saw a QM interpretation I was really happy with. Maybe we should stop trying to kid ourselves that properly understanding it is possible with our jumped up ape brains, or as a better physicist than me put it: "shut up and calculate!" :)

83:

We already have radar-guided counter-battery fire for artillery; one reason everyone with a defense budget these days uses self-propelled artillery is that in a non-asymmetric conflict the position of your old-school non-mobile guns get whacked within 60 seconds of opening fire. (Exceptions: towed artillery work just fine against light forces without their own modern artillery, and lightweight towed howitzers can be schlepped into position by helicopter.)

But anyway ... what you're looking for is to generalize counter-battery fire down to rifle-bullet scale: put sensors on every vehicle such that the instant someone pops a cap at your forces the sensors locate the shooter's position and engage automatically.

(This is going to work fine against irregulars attacking a patrol or convoy, but relies on a lot of logistical support to keep it going, and it'll break down when someone mounts a proper ambush.)

84:

Years of Rice and Salt had that effect for me - I couldn't buy the premise.

I liked it, but my problem was that in 800+ pages there were exactly two mentions of Jews, and only as historical background. In the real plagues Jews came through fairly well (why they were scapegoated for them), presumably due to cleanliness rituals, and there were Jews throughout Europe and Asia--all the way to Kaifeng China. So why no Jewish characters in the book?

85:

IIRC our choice of stereoisomerism is baked-in; can't remember the source, remember reading about it as an emergent property of stereoisomerism observed in the components of protoplanetary dust clouds and attributable to some sort of underlying cosmological chemosythetic process.

86:

Indeed, we've had the MISTY satellite program, which was a stealth satellite. The point is that it's already been done, and Dirk's right, it's not that hard to camouflage a spaceship from observation from a particular direction.

It should also be noted that stealth planes and ships are not universally invisible from all directions. Indeed, they have to fly a precise route (what do they call it, the blue line?) past previously mapped air defenses to be stealthy at all. Stealth as a real-world technology is more Oceans 11 than cloaking device.

87:

RE: FTL
For real fun, consider the experienced time for the people on the FTL going craft

Everyone talks about how time dilates as you approach C, a few mention how there is no experienced time at C, but I'm yet to see anyone who considers how it works if you are going faster than C

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imaginary_time

Mathematically you can handle it easily enough to get a real number. But for storytelling purposes, that real number is now dilating in the other direction - instead of things being slower on the ship relative tot he outside, they are now faster relative to the outside. You then need some sort of time retardation device so that your passengers don't die of old age.

and isn't that a fine externality your worldbuilding then has to handle? If your starship now has a time dilation device for FTL travel, why not drop the FTL travel and save yourself the trouble of patching over all the implications for your story from that?

88:

But you don't need a precision weapon to have the same failure rate as a bullet; you need it to have the same failure rate as (number of bullets fired per target killed), which is some thousands to tens of thousands. A guided missile with an after-launch failure rate of up to 20% isn't useless, because if it works at all it almost certainly strikes the target and destroys it: you just need to ensure a margin more missiles than targets. Whereas a bullet that jams takes out your weapon and ensures all your remaining bullets are useless.

89:

Yeah, it's been several years since I've read them too. So I don't remember what ship speeds were, I'm pretty sure that MacLeod says that shipboard travel time was measured in weeks, so slightly less than FTL? (IANAPhysicist.) And I seem to remember a character in the second book commenting that 50 years had passed on one planet since they'd last been there, though it had only been a couple for them.

90:

Things that annoy me enough to stop reading on occasion:

1. New books that ignore old science/discoveries. e.g. We know that Buzzard Ram Jets don't work now. I prefer magic technology etc. to known inaccurate science.

2. Quantum Computers as magic infinitely fast solve everything machines. We already have a solid understand what QCs are theoretically capable of.

3. In fact most "quantum".

4. Evil AI is Evil. Because, AI.

5. Sentience achieved just by making a network bigger and more connected — "the internet wakes up" trope. In fact pretty much any "accidental" sentience.

6. For no obvious reason all the aliens we meet are conveniently just at just the right technological level for interesting conflict.

7. Terraforming with any unit under 1000s of years.

10. Folk who think "intelligence" is a dial that you can arbitrarily turn up.

91:

It was somewhat common in older SF for a Heroic Genius protagonist to notice/discover something that hordes of other people failed to notice over a period of years. And also have it be obvious enough that a moderately clever reader would make the same crucial observation before the protagonist. That's really unappealing.

I find it grating in both science fiction and fantasy when there's plot-setting dissonance. Like fantasies with powerful and/or common magic that have looked like pseudo-medieval European pastiche for the last 500 years from a peasant's POV. Or where magic has thoroughly permeated war and adventuring but nobody ever applies it to ship navigation, agriculture, household chores, or anything else out of the heroic mode.

There's SF where protagonists have all the ingredients of at least a weakly post-scarcity society but the economy is thoroughly late 20th century (Commonwealth Saga, I'm looking at you!). Also SF where anyone can have a reactionless drive, compact nuclear reactor, self-reproducing robotic factory, etc. and there is no explanation of how the danger is mitigated or indeed in-text awareness that there is extreme danger calling for mitigation. I recently saw a movie where robots have taken all the jobs except those of the Exploited Prole and his friends working in the dangerous grimy robot factory run by an Evilcorp.

Plot-setting dissonance can sometimes be patched over by invoking secrecy or cultural taboos, but it just makes things worse if the dissonance is ubiquitous. Like the Butlerian Jihad of Dune that means nobody ever builds autonomous machines, the Eugenics Wars trauma of Star Trek that justifies the whole Federation of the 23rd century having less genetic technology than the early 21st, or not one person on Earth being able to reverse-engineer the magical superbattery Shipstones of Heinlein's Friday because they're just not smart enough. Though in the case of Friday I kind of wonder if the Shipstone is an authorial wish fulfillment about being able to publish books that can't be copied, transposed to batteries in the story.

92:

It should also be noted that stealth planes and ships are not universally invisible from all directions. Indeed, they have to fly a precise route (what do they call it, the blue line?) past previously mapped air defenses to be stealthy at all.

Yes, if you go back and look at reporting on the faceted F-117, you'll find occasional mention of pilots carrying mission tape cassettes. Those tapes very likely were the result of lots and lots of behind-the-scenes modeling of threat radar sites and calculation of how to fly among them while showing them nulls in the F-117 BRDF(*)

On MISTY I, a similar thing seems to have happened. It was designed to be radar and optical stealthy against sensors in the USSR. On that score, there's no evidence that it failed, but there were other sensors that hadn't been taken into account. So it flew big and bright over guys in Canada and elsewhere who liked to watch satellites. Oops.

(*) BRDF: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bidirectional_reflectance_distribution_function

93:

Ahem: Bussard (sic) ramscoops do work (probably); but they're incredibly good brakes, rather than being good for acceleration. Indeed, they're so good at slow-down that they may have a role to play on interstellar missions for that very purpose; use a propulsion beam system powered from back home, coast for most of the distance, then engage ramscoop for deceleration into destination star system.

Ahem.

Things to watch out for:

Cyber- as a prefix.

Ditto Nano-.

Quantum as an adjective.

These are all egregiously misused fluff which often signals that the author doesn't know what they're talking about and just wants a buzz-word. (This is not always the case, but you should use them sparingly unless you know exactly what you're doing.)

94:

Before I answer, I'd like to note that the two most "throw the book at the wall" examples of supposedly-sympathetic narrator who didn't deserve any sympathy I've encountered were both memoirs. I couldn't read either Henry and June or American Sniper for this reason.

One thing which immediately signals that I'm reading the wrong book is what I call the "drive-by message." You hear a lot about message fiction these days, and it's seldom meant as a compliment, but I like it when my books have a point of view. While I'm no fan of Ayn Rand's politics, I think her books were better for never trying to hide what they were about.

However, if the author is trying to tell a story but feels the need to throw in an aside about how "all libertarians are stupid" or "SJWs caused the downfall of civilization" or somesuch, it takes me right out of the narrative. Unless the writer is exceptionally skillful, it sticks out in a cliche-inspiring way. If you want to write about why people like me are what's wrong with the world, by all means, do it. If it's a good book, I'll probably still enjoy it.

But, if you are writing about about space kangaroo pirates and you have one of them essentially look at the camera every couple of chapters and say "Oh, and by the way, Ridley Kemp is a terrible person," I'm out.

95:

Lately I've been stumbling across a lot of books with really bad orbital mechanics -- the spaceplane that leaves the Earth's atmosphere and minutes later docks with a station at L5, asteroid bases trailing a few million miles behind the Earth in its orbit, spaceships that drift to a stop between planets when their engines fail, military missile platforms orbiting over the north pole. In a few cases, I thought the author was having a little fun with us readers, and we would soon find out about some magic technology -- inertial cancellation, gravitic engineering -- that would explain it. But no. The author just didn't know the physics. I can enjoy military SF and space opera that doesn't have clanking hard science, but some of this basic stuff just breaks me out of the story.

96:

That reminds me of something that really bothered me about the Ancillary Justice universe.

You had a civilisation that had been technologically stagnant for millennia, and yet were able to go around invading anyone they liked because they were the only ones with force fields.

By the time of the novel everyone due to be invaded had known they were coming for about 3000 years, yet nobody had put any effort into physics research. It's a lot easier to reproduce a technology if you know it is possible.

It's slightly more plausible that the starfish aliens have toys that the humans haven't copied yet, but when you can make superhuman AIs at the drop of a hat then there is no reason for them to be beyond humanities ken for long.

97:
Ahem: Bussard (sic) ramscoops do work (probably); but they're incredibly good brakes, rather than being good for acceleration. Indeed, they're so good at slow-down that they may have a role to play on interstellar missions for that very purpose; use a propulsion beam system powered from back home, coast for most of the distance, then engage ramscoop for deceleration into destination star system.

Yes — Bussard (damn… always get that wrong) ramscoop as brake is fine. I only wish that was a feature of the story I was thinking of ;-)

Another one that annoys the heck out of me is brain copying by _just_ copying the synapse connections, and ignoring the neurons themselves.

98:

I don't think that's an accurate account of the narrative.

Having elves leave Middle-Earth wasn't decreed by Eru. Rather, the Valar discovered that the elves had sprung up, and wanted to keep them safe from Melkor, so they appointed some leaders to get them to the West. Tolkien rather strongly hints that this was not a good idea!

99:

(Imagine an elephant-analog, with big brains, abstract reasoning, and language, that has managed to domesticate and train a monkey-analog, with manipulator limbs and good binocular vision. Not plausible in our biosphere, but not in and of itself implausible among aliens.)

Um, no, because the monkey analog

a) has to be probably as big as a bonobo (body weight adds to the friction in most friction-fire devices), and

b) that monkey still has to be smart enough to take the training to make the fire. In other words, unless the elephantoid is deliberately helping the monkeyoid in part of the process, the monkeyoid can make a fire by itself.

And that monkeyoid is a fairly good stand-in for a rubber-mask alien.

Now note that something shaped like a velicoraptor might be able to make a fire. It's not limited to tailless bipedal tetrapods. Getting a starfish to make a fire is something else entirely.

One thing no one (to my knowledge) has ever tackled is the possibly symbiosis between a failing human colony and an intelligent but non-technological alien. The aliens keep the humans alive through whatever their means are, and the humans make fires, cook food, and do other stuff for the aliens. It's in the theme of "humans make great pets." I'm thinking along the lines of 40,000 in Gehenna, mostly because I want to play with dragons myself, but there's no reason that the aliens have to be particularly draconic.

100:

Pasting in a few offhand references to a Black President because, hey, it's the future.

But nothing else changes, and it's still an Orwellian state where the cops gun down the underclass and the citizens gun down everyone else.

101:

my two:

- Things that Have Obvious Consequences or Counters: You postulate a physics paradigm, often there is some very obvious destructive thing that would be kinda easy to do and yet somehow never occurs to anyone.

It often reduces to "I would put a lot of ball bearings in orbit" "I would nuke it a lot" or "I would drop a lot of rocks on it at high velocity".

I'd say "I would nuke it a lot" alone short circuits about 70% of the hard scifi out there, especially the ones that postulate nuclear propulsion systems on space ships

Hint, if you have space travel (yes I am talking to James Corey) and you don't have a way to deal with those three things, you either don't get to keep space travel or you don't get to keep planets

My second is the idea of a small set of actors. This manifests in large conspiracies with only a couple sides, big wars with only a couple of sides. People don't work like that, power monopolies or even duopolies are rare as humans immediately invent sub factions inside the big faction.

There are almost always many actors. Your conspiracy has to contend with many semi competing power vectors rather then one or two opposing ones. Ian Banks got this at least...

102:

Wasn't that basically the plot of the old ACC story "Second Dawn"?

Smart telepathic unicorns with no opposable thumbs and corresponding lack of tech discover less smart creatures with fingers and put them to work.

103:

In a galaxy far, far away, an eldritch monstrosity squats on an airless moon, howling into the void as it weeps tears of bitter ichor, grieving for its lost shibboleths...

That's the problem, isn't it? I mean, we can and have beat on Star Wars for decades, and people will still want to fence with light sabers and watch the Millennium Falcon fly the Kessel Run in five parsecs. It's even more frustrating when producers take that to mean that stupid sells and think that being smart is a waste of time and money.

Beating on shibboleths only helps if it makes a more enjoyable story. It's certainly good to vent, but if a broadside of x-ray lasers sells more books, do we just weep tears of bitter ichor, or what?

104:

But you don't need a precision weapon to have the same failure rate as a bullet; you need it to have the same failure rate as (number of bullets fired per target killed), which is some thousands to tens of thousands. A guided missile with an after-launch failure rate of up to 20% isn't useless, because if it works at all it almost certainly strikes the target and destroys it: you just need to ensure a margin more missiles than targets. Whereas a bullet that jams takes out your weapon and ensures all your remaining bullets are useless.

Wrong comparison. Things are very different between a platform launched munition meant to hit a target unawares (or undefended) and a heavy infantry weapon. The failure rate for the guided missile is much more acceptable because the ship that fired it is over the horizon and the target probably isn't firing at them - and if it is they have a multitude of other defensive systems, it isn't a case of "them or me".

When you are in the middle of a firefight and the other guy is right there trying to kill you quicker than you can kill him, your weapon failing to work absolutely matters.

First consider the cost in lives in that scenario and the resulting pressure from that - do you want to be the representative telling grieving families that yes, their loved one died, but you got a better marginal savings on this inoperable weapons system?

But setting aside that, your cost/benefit then shifts - you aren't just losing the cost of the round, but also all the invested training and equipment for the soldier who just got killed, and the opportunity cost of now not having the dead for future operations. Then tack on the costs of lives lost because you were undermanned, the enemy gaining the march, etc etc etc.

105:

Science Fictions is, and always has been, a sub-genre of Fantasy. Even John W. Campbell, Jr. admitted as such, though as an editor he tried to minimize the logical incoherence.

So. Global corporations ignoring externalities aren't unreasonable. People perceive things locally, so such things are a good model for criticizing current affairs. I still like Mack Reynolds work, e.g., even though he proposed the Communists lasting long enough to turn into a Mandrinate and the West into a Corporate state. What he was doing was depicting current trends in a "If this goes on..." kind of way. (For that matter, BlackWater, the military corporation, gives it even more plausibility than I would have thought.)

We can't always know what would work and what wouldn't. Hiding in an asteroid belt behind an asteroid might work. You essentially need magic to get yourself into that position quickly, but if you could get there it might work. Yes, asteroid belts are mainly empty space, but there's enough small stuff to make high speeds unreasonable. OTOH, it's unlikely enough that it needs to either be unimportant or well justified. (And as you indicate, fat chance of that.)

Since I read science fiction as fantasy, I usually ignore physical impossibilities or improbabilities in the narrative, reading instead for the underlying story. If the metaphor is loose enough, impossibilities at the surface may not be a problem, but things that are quite plausible at the surface level can cause narrative disconnect. If the metaphor gets too lose, I can totally loose interest. I also lose interest if I don't like the character I'm supposed to empathize with. This is a problem I had with Rule 34, though the story was gripping enough to make up for it. (And I think Athena is a quite plausible direction for an emergent AI...one that could lead to either a positive or a negative singularity...or one that's a blend of the two, but still so different that the term singularity is still appropriate.)

FWIW, I think the most likely kind of "super AI" is Alan Dean Foster's Colligatarch (from "The I Inside"). But I doubt that he depicted a likely social structure to arise from its presence.

I can't think of a single wholly satisfactory Science Fiction book, but "Halting State" comes closer than most I can think of. The only problem I have with it is the general unselfish motivations of the holders of power. (OTOH, we aren't shown much of the motivations of those near the very top, so it's not that implausible. In the "Man from Uncle" scene the "false story of what happened" and bureaucratic CYA read quite true.)

106:

More shibboleths:

--Eusocial aliens, where the queen is the equivalent to human royalty. In ants and termites, the royals are the gonads, and decisions are made collectively. Wouldn't it be fun to see collective decision making (thousands of aliens smelling each others' butts to see what they all think) in eusocial alien species?

--The Squad of Marines rule in SF battles. If a group of modern soldiers could take out your futuristic warriors, or at least do a better job of combat, security, or logistics, then your tech (and/or your tactics) are crap. Star Wars stormtroopers are the classic example of this (as is the Jedi, meet shotgun scenario), and the finale of Scalzi's The Human Division was such a horrible example of this that I quit reading the series in disgust.

--Martial arts based on current tai chi or karate. Here's some news kids: what they teach in the mall is designed to keep you coming back month after month, not to teach you combat. They don't spend nearly that much time teaching, say, marines, and marines fight pretty darn well.

One thing novels generally don't get is the spectrum of force, from verbal conflict through unarmed combat, armed combat, missile weapons, bombs, artillery, nuclear war, death star, and so forth. Modern martial arts cover a tiny part of that spectrum, and worse, each tends to be optimized for a particular type of fight (two person sport combat for tae kwon do and judo, health for tai chi, forms for karate, dealing with a mugger for Krav Maga, etc.) While it's fun to see people play with future martial arts, most authors don't understand how existing martial arts work well enough to pull it off.

107:

Your counterfactual is rejected for implausibility. Good try, but nobody would believe it if I tried to sell it in a near-future SF novel.

108:

For me it's almost never the tech/science that breaks things for me, it's unbelievable human reactions to the tech/science. In particular, scientists who are informed of alien science and don't ask questions, or engineers who are shown advanced technology and don't try to figure out how it works or what it's made of. "It's an alloy never before seen on Earth!" "Huh."

(Probably the worst offender I've ever read: Calculating God by Robert Sawyer.

FIRST ALIEN EVER TO COME TO EARTH: "Hello, scientist I have traveled many light years to meet. My people discovered a grand unified field theory of physics which, among other things, disproves the anthropic principle, so there has to be a creator god, and intelligent design is a thing, QED."

PROFESSIONAL SCIENTIST: "Well, I'm super bitter about having cancer or my wife dying or something and that's why I'm an atheist, so we should spend the rest of the book arguing about that."

ALIEN: "Okie doke! Atheists are dumb!"

SCIENTIST: "Nuh uh."

Et cetera. I gave up a third of the way through but I seriously doubt it got any better.)

109:

But you don't need a precision weapon to have the same failure rate as a bullet; you need it to have the same failure rate as (number of bullets fired per target killed)

Not quite. You need it to have a better reliability than (time it takes the other bloke with a reliable weapon to fire back). That might be only one shot. That first bullet from your weapon just has to work, or it will be abandoned as an untrustworthy design (as an operationally experienced type once explained to me, it's also the reason why you always trigger your ambush with a weapon that fires from a closed bolt; you'll guarantee at least the first shot...)

Whereas a bullet that jams takes out your weapon and ensures all your remaining bullets are useless.

Actually, a great deal of military weapon training is about training the firer to clear a stoppage as quickly and as safely as possible. With a bolt-action rifle (short of a case fault), you just work the bolt. With the current and previous UK service rifle, if you're in the habit of releasing the trigger forwards under control after the shot, you can feel the action falling back into place for the next shot, and hence know whether the chamber is empty or not (the current UK rifle holds open on an empty magazine; you can feel the last shot being fired, if you weren't one of those clever sods who put a round of tracer two from the bottom of the magazine).

The rate at which weapons jam under various environmental conditions was trialled very, very thoroughly by the SA80A2 trials team, and they found that the H&K rework had given the British a weapon that's more reliable as anything other than an AKM...

...and that the M16 / AR-15 and G36 were far from the panacea that the fanbois would have them believe.

110:

People laugh at me when I make a similar argument for the US power grid. Between political pressures to do away with coal and how unlikely it is (at least in my mind) that any of the current fleet of nukes will be licensed past about 2045, that looks like an enormous amount of new investment in the next 25-30 years. Unless fusion comes in sooner, and much cheaper, than people seem to think, it's going to be too late to compete with a bunch recently built stuff.

111:

...and that the M16 / AR-15 and G36 were far from the panacea that the fanbois would have them believe.

Really? I thought M16 had a reputation for not being reliable.

112:

One thing no one (to my knowledge) has ever tackled is the possibly symbiosis between a failing human colony and an intelligent but non-technological alien.

Eric Flint's Mother of Demons is close to this, though it's a crashed starship rather than a colony.

113:

IIRC, they travel at near c, so the transition from one destination to the next is virtually instantaneous from the point of view of the passengers. From what I recall, this means the FTL ships are moving from one atmosphere to the next directly, so don't need complicated life support.

114:

One thing that gets me is near future SF that requires vast changes to be happening now for the setting to make any sense. For instance, your teenage protagonist in a story set in 2030 is alive or in users now, so the extensive commonplace genetic engineering they've undergone should be public knowledge by now.

Similarly, and more common in visual media, futures where every non-landmark building older than a few dozen years has been replaced by FutureHouses or similar, ignoring a) the practical difficulties of building new housing and b) how much easier it is to retrofit existing buildings.

115:

Actually, a great deal of military weapon training is about training the firer to clear a stoppage as quickly and as safely as possible.

Generally because someone in a firefight typically does this very badly. (Look at the entire rationale for the idea of a chain gun.)

There has always been a strong tension between the desire of an army for logistics optimization and the desire of the infantry for their opponents to die immediately if not sooner; it's what leads to using anti-armor grenade launchers as direct fire anti-personal weapons. Neither side of the argument is obviously correct. (Here we are, and yes, the first four waves of the enemy are destroyed, but we're out of ammo and waves five and six are coming forward, for example.)

There's no reason to suppose a guided bullet requires software (you can build a nervous system just as readily); there's no reason to suppose it won't fly straight if the guidance fails, either.

Since small arms in general have stagnated on being good enough I would be very surprised to see anything like that developed or deployed; current full-tech capability is caseless ammo and cobalt alloy barrels and no one is deploying those. There's no reason to undertake the expense.

Even light autocannon have trouble selling the smart rounds -- the Bofors shrapnel round for 57mm that blows up all pointed down when it flies over the target, for example, just the thing for shooting up RIBs and small craft, for example -- because it's better, but it's not enough better.

I expect "enough better" is going to involve small autonomous vehicles with very precise aim.

116:

The first strong AI has self-awareness, has wants and desires, has...

A great pair of boobs and an erotic-yet-innocent curiosity about your cock!

Prototype one-of-a-kind androids that are strongly humanlike are by themselves a huge leap--getting robots that can fucking walk down a flight of stairs on two legs is a huge leap, nevermind concurrently developing self-aware synthetic consciousness--but to then add a functioning sex drive and at least recreationally-functional sex organs on top of that gets into silly territory very quickly. These are scientists and engineers at the very forefront of human achievement, and they're thinking like a porno company? Really?

By the time you get to people making a real attempt at a synthetic sex worker (which, by the way would be a type of sexual slavery so grim that one should shudder to think of it) strongly human androids should be common enough that they are a well-established consumer technology (again, slavery becomes a real concern). You'd already see a lot of obviously not human people walking around, because to be a plausible sex partner for a human, you'd need to master all the gross and fine motor functions of a human as well as the social perception and decision making loop necessary to interact with us in an alluring manner. By the time you get to that point, you're already at people, so this "I'm the first of my kind, I'm so special and also beautiful and I'm all yours" appeal doesn't pass the smell test?

And no, RealDolls aren't a real life suggestion that this trope could come to live. RealDolls are expensive sex toys with about as much in common with an AI as a goddamn Furby. Positing current sexdoll examples as a path towards an android you could fuck is absurd on its face except for a very slim segment of the population that is in to that sort of thing--but then again, they'd probably want an android that was explicitly and recognizably not human so you're back at square one.

Also, the number of cute (and usually synthetic) girls who make their first appearance naked and covered in goo after the dramatic opening of some kind of high tech shipping crate is large enough that TVTropes has a page on it.

Why does this one piss me off so much? Because it's literally an idea that the perfect woman is one you buy and assemble out of a goddamn box.

117:

Goddessdamn typos....

118:

WRT First Contact stories;
Years ago I had the idea for a story to be titled "First Contract": a ship pops out of hyperspace at the edge of the Solar System and starts beaming a signal to Earth. It turns out to be the Vita-Meata-Vegemin skit from I Love Lucy, and the alien is an interstellar travelling salesperson looking for new customers. I never got past that idea, then saw a novel with that title and scrapped it.
My understanding is that Sagan got it wrong in "Contact", that the German broadcasts in the 30s were far too weak to make it out of the heliosphere, if that far.
I guess I'm done with the idea of Earthly broadcasts attracting alien attention, unless they decide to invade because of a percieved insult, or to stop the noise pollution spewing out.

119:

>> Why does this one piss me off so much? Because it's literally an idea that the perfect woman is one you buy and assemble out of a goddamn box.

Perfect woman - unlikely.

Perfect female body, on the other hand, why not?
We are talking about a high-tech masturbation device here, not a general AI.

120:

My mish-mash list ... a few already mentioned in some way by other posterss.


Static cultures … Everybody still works, but at what?
Everybody works at the same place for…ever … their entire lifetime!

Nobody ever dies anymore. (Nobody gets sick anymore.)

Psychology is a societal delusion and has nothing to do with that squishy, complex mind-brain thingie.

No one ever learns from past mistakes.

Evolution stops …. No new species or races …

Ayn Rand school of casting and/or character development (‘My way, or no way!’ ‘All of the rest of the world is both really, really stupid and jealous!’)

We’re all perfect specimens … there are no only so-so attractive or physically unfit people.

We’re all perfectly and equally-well educated, i.e., nearly all-knowing about our society and sciences by the time we’re 20, 25 tops!

Kids are still left to figure out all by themselves how to become well-adjusted adult human beings with perfect knowledge of all social nuances.

We will be the same person in our 120’s as we were in our 20’s. The tertiary education, marriages/divorces/children, etc. have no impact and/or have completely predictable effects/consequences.

There is no such thing as social media … what you tell your best friend/lover/spouse will never ever get communicated to anyone else, ever!

Society will always value [job/career] highest!

Fire-building alien … an octopus-like creature that can hold onto and rub a couple of sticks together really, really fast.

Planets have orbits, axial tilts, geography (climate zones, weather patterns, seasons, etc.) that’s why monoculture won’t work.

A planet can be perfectly run by a team of ten technologists.

Number of personnel needed to operate a spaceship … okay, after you’ve worked your 40-hour week, where do you go, and who supplies all of those goods/services? How many excess people do you actually need to ensure minimum strength at all times? How do you make sure that crew returning from extended duration treks remain up-to-date re: technology, social norms, etc.

How aliens wouldn’t sicken and die out if they ever met us in the flesh even though we’re crawling inside and out with all sorts of foreign, yucky very aggressive bugs. (Or, a UFO story where the alien steals some human DNA, replicates it at full blast (superfast) in ‘alien agar’ only to discover that the end product bears little resemblance to humans.)

Abandoned infant humans able to speak/understand ‘human’ by the time they’re in their late teens.

Domestic policing, not theater of war scale … Computer-assisted shooting … there’s computer assisted everything else, so why not add guns? Would probably reduce accidental hits. Every snooping camera is also a ‘gun’ (or, laser, if you prefer). Brand name is easy ... iKill.

Why no one ever wears gloves or otherwise covers up and has no qualms about leaving extremely personal information (DNA) thus providing easy to follow tracks (fingerprints, irises, etc. ).

Everyone has the same digestive and immune system … everyone can eat/drink/wear/touch the same things without ever getting ill. Food never spoils/microbes never hitchhike.


121:

My big tropes are:

Not following Magic A is Magic A or Minovsky Physics: That is, you introduce your magic or physics system and then stick to it. That may mean not fully exploring it in the novel if you're undecided about something (and hence leaving a door open) or it becomes a doorstopper to try and explain it all (see a comment Charlie had about Phangs and living animals in another thread). Heck, it's been a good narrative device before, Larry Niven has written many books around a consistent magical system of magical physics system (like the Ringworld). The detail doesn't need to be great on the system so long as you just keep to the principles. So if magic needs a wand, no wandless magic figured out by the hero alone.

Forgetting your single shot plot tools: Harry Potter has the classic example of the Time Turner as very useful plot item that author made too useful for later plots. The time turner's existence is pointed at as the solution to all other plots for the rest of the series, and is something brought up alot. This is a much bigger problem in long runners, especially shows with many writers, as the writers don't pay attention to each others works. Stargate was the rare show that kept pretty good consistency about this, despite the risk of continuity lockout.

Strawman Political foes: Let's here what the author thinks is right, who they hate, and make it impossible to read if you're not the 'right sort' of person. Mil SF has a problem here, but so does the opposing political view point. This leads into the problem of the author creating a straw utopia or distopia, which is usually an author wanking out their politics. Only when an author really understands an issue can a distopia work. Utopias never work. The worst works are ones that lack any sense of understanding or empathy for the opposition. Heck, even in the mil SF favorite of an extermination war between humans and aliens, Orson Scott Card as well as Jim Butcher and a few others, demonstrated that there's ways to do it without the otherside being monsters.

Evil for Evil's Sake: People believe they are good, or at least working evil for a good end. Maybe they are doing a war crime, but its to make X safe from Y. People rationalize away evil. Dispelling the rationalizations from a character deep in the system can be a good plot.

122:

Possibly more a TV/film shibboleth than books: humans only use a tiny percentage of their brain, so we can turn them into superpeople just by activating everything at once. Limitless and Lucy being recent examples.

Often with the follow up shibboleth that the researchers who develop this stuff only do so for shady semi-criminal enterprises instead of immediately publishing in Nature.

123:

"...and that the M16 / AR-15 and G36 were far from the panacea that the fanbois would have them believe."

I'm a fanboi for the HK417

124:

That one was hoary in written-form SF when A. E. Van Vogt was using it. Or Theodore Sturgeon. (IIRC it's something that John W. Campbell fell for, by way of a certain Mr Hubbard ...)

125:

Mil SF has a problem here, but so does the opposing political view point.

This is (one of) the reasons I bounced off the Honor Harrington series hard. I'm willing to accept the tortuously contrived magic syste--er, I mean space travel assumptions that allow for Napoleonic naval combat in space. But from the prologue where we here that the EEEEVIL Commonwealth has decided to become a ruthless expansionary power Because Welfare, I felt a trepidation that only grew once we arrived at Basilisk Station and met the completely straight-faced and unironic imperialism. Massive colonization of a planet with low-tech natives presented as morally neutral or even positive, complete with condescending nodding along with the local religious leaders, concerned that they will become "crazed" and "uncontrollable" when given access to fire water, uh, I mean Space Drug...

If the characters had managed to achieve something as innocuous as cardboard, I might have stuck it out to see how silly things got. Alas, Honor is (at least in Book 1) the very definition of a Mary Sue, right down to the super special pet that she's allowed to have but nobody else gets one because Rules, and people hate her irrationally for no reason but she's so cool she wins them over in the end and, and, and...

I didn't like that book. Can you tell?

126:

current full-tech capability is caseless ammo and cobalt alloy barrels and no one is deploying those

Not yet, at least. The LSAT project has progressed to troop trials, and the XM25 made it to Afghanistan for a short while (with the caveat that this was very definitely seen as trials, not the finished equipment).

Meanwhile, fill your boots - here's PowerPoint enough for anyone (with appropriate Conference caveats that while some presentations are credible, others are perhaps driven more by the "hey, a trip to Baltimore!")

http://www.dtic.mil/ndia/2015armament/2015armament.html

127:

My point at which suspension of disbelief fails - technology more than 100 years ahead that isn't magic. Humans more than 100 years ahead. Full stop.
Except dystopian global crashes ala Mad Max - which I never read.

128:

I can't take the idea that the universe is going to give us anything as cool as "magic" seriously.

That doesn't mean we won't all be killed by smart machines of course, just that if it happens it will all seem a bit mundane.

129:

Your aliens will need to be able to make fire before they can make fancier stuff, but they don't need to be able to use friction to do it; assuming appropriate local chemistry and geology, flint+steel works fine, or whatever other combination of rocks that'll make spark when you bang them together near flammable tinder. Your Little-Green-Elephants could set up their targets and whack one rock into the other with their trunks. Or you could have a planetary surface with lots of crystals to focus sunlight.

130:

Science fictional shibboleths I dislike:

Names: if you cannot pronounce the names of any the main characters without dislocating your tongue, stop reading or watching the thing.

Anything harder to pronounce than "Quetzalcoatl" or "Republika Srpska" and I'm bailing.

Planets: single biome planets. Just no! (Unless it's been purpose-built by Magratheans)

Drugs: Aliens getting high on milk (Alien Nation), Ginger (Turtledove), children (Torchwood)

Eye-rolling will ensue.

Technology: "Hey, there's a cache of alien tech thats been lying dormant for hundreds/thousands/millions of years and...[pushes button]...works just fine."

131:

Most of this is interesting as hell. And really useful.

I'm still not sure I understand what factors DETERMINE who wins in the fight of willing-suspension-of-disbelief vs. something-really-implausible.

The conversation doesn't usually go in that direction. There are so many other things to talk about.

For instance, Charlie gives some examples of physics blunders that will result in a shattering of his suspension-of-disbelief (and possibly a book smacking into a wall). I have a much more general, physics-pig-ignorant sense of these blunders: I know THAT they're wrong, and I could maybe start to describe HOW AND WHY they're wrong ... but very quickly I'd be blustering & bringing up Wikipedia or Atomic Rockets (or this thread). So when I encounter those same errors in a novel, I recognize them and register them but -- I'm pretty sure even if I memorized Charlie's reasoning and internalized it and chanted it every morning like a Pledge of Allegiance -- they will never have the same effect on me. My hand doesn't twitch.

And no doubt there are things that my hand does twitch for, that Charlie is able to recognize as problematic, but able to suspend nonetheless.

It's definitely true that SOMETIMES, it's harder to swallow something when it's wrong for complicated reasons. When something is wrong in a simple way, it's sometimes simple to file it under "Stuff The Disbelief Of Which Must Be Suspended." But that pattern isn't TOTALLY consistent.

I wonder if, loosely speaking, we also tend to have our suspension-of-disbelief broken by problems that we think are important in a kind of political or ethical way?

I was interested in something on Ian Sales's blog recently -- people will swallow anything, no matter how crazy, so long as it's an existing trope. "FTL, fine. An advanced civilization that never invented gunpowder? Preposterous!"

Here's a somewhat extreme thought experiment. What if I said I found it unbearably implausible that novels are written in syntactically coherent sentences and yet are held to be "from the POV" of a particular character? What if, for me, it's just too much of a leap to imagine away the difference between a screed of text bound by grammatical conventions, and a stream-of-consciousness, arranged by its own mysterious laws, but certainly way more fragmentary and weird than even the transcriptions attempted by various modernists e.g. James Joyce, maybe Dorothy Richardson, Beckett?

Of course that's not true -- I'm able to suspend THAT disbelief incredibly easy. But why?

(Sorry this is a bit rushed :()

132:

Throw the ebook in the virtual rubbish bin stuff :-

The hero going to a black hole, and indeed going close to a black hole (accompanied by various facial gurning and vibration for some reason) and not turning into a blackened crisp via the radiation they put out, let alone the tidal forces. Black holes and people DO NOT MIX.

Aliens coming to earth and appearing in space ships over various photogenic landmarks (and then destroying them) rather than sampling the DNA and dropping a small matchbox sized canister of some deadly biological weapon to wipe out 90+% of the human population without needing to show themselves.

Large troop concentrations of said aliens, invading with inaccurate fire. First, it would take more energy to get them here than a coke can sized invasion force. Second, as above, they aren't needed. Third, troops are pretty dumb even here and now, let alone for a space crossing race.

Human's fighting off any space visiting aliens at all. Worst of all when they are using sodding AMRAAM missiles against something a mile wide, from point blank range, and expecting it to have any effect when they've just shown it shrugging off a nuclear blast.

Human's fighting off said attack, then just brushing themselves off and fixing things up again. Civilisation is very unstable and wobbly at the best of times - any kind of significant damage and the systems start falling apart. Hell, one nuke going off in a city is probably enough to permanently kill the financial system back to the 17th century.

Human's getting shifted en masse via some MacGuffin to a new planet and not ending up as graveyard full of gnawed bones (and yes, there is a third Eschaton novel in what would really happen if you dumped 21st century groups onto even benign planets and gave them supplies. Hilarity ensues.)

Novels where women are not seen as sex objects by men (except the evil villain) because it's the future, and in the future everyone has bought into the dogma of certain right-on groups of today and couldn't possibly have any other view because obviously they have developed, it's the future in'it? Similarly for anything else that's politically 'right on' today. The 1960s movies might look weird to us with the damsel in distress trope, but you can bet our movies/books/etc. will look equally weird for having all women capable of drop kicking a 300lb man to the floor and no male ever even glancing at her tits, despite them strategically on show.

Situations where the evil guy has no motivation that makes any sense to us, or methods that make no sense. If you want to "take over the woooorrrrrlllllddddd" and you have the resources to enact evil plan Mk1, you should have worked out evil plan Mk2 where you just buy politicians to do your bidding instead.

Thinly veiled cover for religious allegory.

And finally, not a 'throw it across the room' thing, but space epics that feel small with resolutely human sized focus and nothing that really gets across scale. Space is big, really big. Yet the stories are too often small in service of an author's desire for 'human focus'.

133:

Frequently a bit of unnecessary complexity will take me out of it. There is a reason why campers still often carry flint and steel, why people prefer cast iron pans, woodwind reeds are still mostly actual reeds, and why you see more working vacuum cleaners from the 50's, than the 90's.

Often the extra failure modes of added parts are unneeded or the activity was designed around the material.

Tech that allows new capabilities never seems out of place in scifi, but complex tech that helps perform trivial functions never seems to have the added points of failure that we see in real life. The times people do use the simple solution, it always seen as a rustic pastime or something that happens only in the neo-slums.

A subtype of this that always gets me are odd elevators (particularly planet-side). In the best examples, the stairs have been replaced by an access tunnel designed by HR Giger.

134:

I have a reasonably high tolerance for extraneous technical details in SF if and only if it's not describing something that violates well-tested scientific principles. If the story has (say) a nuclear thermal rocket delivering going to the outer Solar System, sure, describe it with love. I'll even read wiring diagram fiction for sufficiently interesting devices. But if the story incorporates e.g. inertia suppressors, FTL communication, or force fields, the less said about the imaginary blueprints of the impossible devices, the better.

135:

I suspect that Anathem was a fairly good short story before it metastased ;-)

136:

What really bugs me are not SF novels doing the impossible, but SF novels doing the impossible and forgetting that they'd done it for the sake of creating a crisis.

Aurora busted me suspenders-of-disbelief after they apparently solved most of the HARD problems associated with space colonies only to fall apart trying to solve some easy ones. And the colonists seem to gain and lose IQ points more or less randomly when the plot requires it.

But the one that really blew up those suspenders was SevenEves.

SevenEves had some pretty cool KSP fan-fiction followed by a more-or-less impossible biological and technological bottleneck but OK, for the sake of the story I can get over that... then they completely failed to do anything about the rest of the solar system except sending robots out to collect comet heads for *five thousand years*. Even after a civil war and half the population apparently going through a soft singularity.

(oh, and having the survivalists in the mountain survive the bombardment violates thermodynamics all over the place)

137:

I find the bit about ginger (for example) kind of odd. My cats get high on catnip, which has no effect on me, and I understand that onions or garlic would poison them. And that's close relatives within the same biota.

138:

"Human's getting shifted en masse via some MacGuffin to a new planet and not ending up as graveyard full of gnawed bones (and yes, there is a third Eschaton novel in what would really happen if you dumped 21st century groups onto even benign planets and gave them supplies. Hilarity ensues.)"

I think the Eschaton started them out with perfect cornucopia machines rather than just "supplies".

139:
Novels where women are not seen as sex objects by men

How about novels where, three thousand years in the future or in an alien society, gender dynamics work exactly like they do today, because gender isn't socially constructed and is obviously immutable for all time and universal to all species?

(And the closely allied Smurf-style population dynamics, where only one in ten characters are women.)

Similarly, the future is always capitalism plus representative democracy, because what's good for America is good for a hegemony comprising half a trillion sophonts across a thousand planets.

But the future always has planetary governments because we only have the invasion and colonization of the Americas to draw on and we simply mapped countries to planets.

140:

* "Quantum as an adjective."

Unless the author is Greg Egan.

141:

This all reminds me of reading Stanslaw Lem's MICROWORLDS, a collection of critical essays on SF. I found it a fun read. One particular essay titled “The Time Travel Story and Related Matters of Science-Fiction Structuring” Lem analyzes time travel stories written by various authors and has a pet shibboleth about stories with time loops. He selects “All You Zombies” by Robert Heinlein as an example of a time loop that is “internally contradictory.” Lem thinks Ray Bradbury's “A Sound of Thunder” is “an excellently written short episode”.

I'm kind of partial to time travel stories like Ray Bradbury's “A sound of Thunder”. I picked up a copy of WIRELESS and read your novella “Palimpsest” and enjoyed the time travel overwriting on a vast time/space theme.

142:

Oh, something I forgot but that came up in the last scifi novel I read: never send a human to do a machine's job.

Machines are cheap. Humans are expensive. For instance, if you have contemporary automation with FTL communications and travel, and want to explore distant planets, you don't send a person to do it. People are needy. They get unhappy when they don't have food or water or air. They want to come back and talk to other humans every couple years. And to add insult to injury, they want a salary to boot! If you care about getting exploration done efficiently, you will send unstaffed expeditions.

Manual labor. In Star Wars, droids aren't legally people. They're slaves. Why would you employ a human to do any manual labor at all when a droid could do it instead? An AI that's as smart as a monkey could displace a lot of manual labor. Manufacturing, agriculture, you name it. As long as you have a compact, all terrain fuselage with human-style hands, you can get rid of humans. And it will eventually get cheap.

Hazardous jobs. We already have robots to examine nuclear reactors and safely detonate small bombs. That's only going to expand, yet scifi stories still have humans in hazardous occupations.

The military. Occupations, especially annexations, require boots on the ground, and human soldiers might be better at assimilating territory than killbots. But why do we want humans involved in space combat? Or military action aimed at extermination? You might sometimes be able to come up with a reasonable answer, but it's rare that anyone thinks to ask the question.

143:

So- a lot of FTL haters here. Is there some reason the Alcubierre Drive is implausible that I'm not aware of?

144:

Is there some reason the Alcubierre Drive is implausible that I'm not aware of?

Among other reasons, I find it implausible because it requires exotic matter with negative mass, perhaps in astonishingly large quantities. It's interesting once the requisite exotic matter has been observed. Until then it's just swapping one prayer for another -- never-observed FTL phenomena being traded for never-observed negative mass.

145:

Or to put it another way: I find antimatter catalyzed fusion rockets sufficiently plausible for SF because fusion and antimatter alike have been observed in nature and produced in the laboratory. That's even though nobody is even close to producing the quantities of antimatter needed to drive a Voyager sized probe between stars this way. By way of contrast, nobody has observed FTL phenomena in nature or the laboratory, by means of an Alcubierre Drive or anything else, so invoking FTL via Alcubierre Drive seems like saying FTL via quality brand-name magic (not just generic magic!).

146:

On Wikipedia, there's a long list of hypothetical problems with this hypothetical drive.

Personally, I keep hoping that a NAFAL jump drive is possible, one that doesn't violate causality, but which allows the ship to avoid going through all that spacetime to get from planet A to planet B.

147:

Devil Facial Tumour Disease is highly contagious and as far as we know 100% fatal. Admittedly it does depend on some quirks of Devil genetics, but it's not beyond the realms of imagination to think that HeLa could evolve a way to fool the immune human system. After all it used to be a human and that's sure to give it a head start. It's highly contagious, having contaminated virtually every other cell line.

I'm not suggesting that HeLa is going to kill us all any time soon, but as a plot device in a work of fiction? It would pass my suspension of disbelief test.

148:

I occasionally stop reading some books, but I've never really analyzed the reasons beyond "this particular detail breaks my suspenders of disbelief". I have more tolerance in tv series and movies, though I've grown more cranky lately.

The last time I had to stop reading a book was when I read the Three Body Problem. It's description of the CMB measuring was so Wrong I just couldn't read it. (I have personal issues with this, I worked with the Planck satellite for some years way back. Not in the CMB areas, but I had to understand how the thing worked.)

149:

I just thought of one: Unrealistic Near-Term Manhattanization of American cities. The wikipedia entry on Manhattanization is here.

Essentially, this imagines that all NIMBYs and land use restrictions have been defeated. Even areas that are sprawling suburbia today with layer upon layer of anti-density restrictions and staunch opposition are now apparently Manhattan 2.0, complete with giant skyscrapers close together, tight streets, and the like. Give me more cyber-punk suburbs and rural areas.

Of course, this is just the US I'm talking about. It doesn't apply to areas that have a better tolerance for density and urban development, and the whole "super-dense, grimy noir city" trope probably would work fantastically if you set it in a major Chinese city.

@dhasenan

What I've always liked about Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction works is that he tries to do this - tries to show a future that's the product of social change as well as technological and political change. So in the Mars Trilogy, you have the supplanting of traditional corporations with large cooperative style institutions, in 2312 you have the "Mondragon" and the quasi-legal secondary market, and so forth.

To be honest, I'd be suspicious if even a capitalistic market economy looked too similar to what we have now in 200-300 years - same corporate structure, same financial structures, etc. The institutions and rules involved in such economies has changed drastically in that time.

Manual labor. In Star Wars, droids aren't legally people. They're slaves. Why would you employ a human to do any manual labor at all when a droid could do it instead?

I've been thinking about that. Go back and look at all the folks in the Star Wars movies who weren't soldiers, rebels, or government workers (or in the case of Anakin and his mother, slaves). The regular citizens all seem to be in some form of self-employment: Han Solo flies his own ship, Watto owns his own shop, the cantina owner has his own bar, Boba Fett is self-employed, that one guy runs a greasy spoon restaurant in Attack of the Clones, etc.

Maybe there are only biological "employees" in the traditional sense in certain managerial roles plus governmental roles like the military.

150:

Well, we've had "terminal phase steered grenades" for roughly 30 years. This is grenades that are not communicating with anything for the steering, mind you. It's programmed with an approximate target IR profile and once it's in the descent part of the ballistic curve, it'll scan and aim for something fitting the profile that it is likely to hit. If you want a name, "Strix"

I suspect the main size limitation for "steered bullet" is going to be the size of the steering surfaces, the electronics should be fairly small. I idly suspect at anyone firing them would be somewhere between "happier" and "much happier" if they're fire-and-forget rather than requiring active control by whoever set it loose.

Actually, another limitation is the mass of the projectile, any active steering will bleed off forward speed every time it activates and since there's no engine, this means you have a limited amount of correction to do, before the delivered energy is not worth the extra precision. The grenade I talked about in the first para doesn't rely on kinetic energy, but an explosive payload. It's also powered by gravity throughout the entire descent.

151:

"...good binocular vision."

I haven't read the rest of the thread yet, but I must point out that this one is a real red rag to me. To be sure it did have its uses in school, in terms of providing a spurious "disability" excuse to games masters for my poor performance at ball games which attracted less flak than the real reason which was that I couldn't be arsed with this tedious shit, but that didn't stop me producing a two-page rant in place of the expected two-line answer when it came up in a physics question (to the teacher's approval, as it turned out).

The idea of binocular vision as the be-all and end-all of depth perception is bollocks. I know this very well indeed because I don't have it: I was born with one eye fucked beyond recovery, but my depth perception is just fine. I can catch and throw as well as anyone as long as there is some better motivation than the requirements of some hideously boring sporting activity (a tautology) which I am only participating in under duress. (As is to be expected; the angular resolution of the human eye is too low for binocularity to make any difference at the distances concerned anyway.) Occasionally I have difficulty with the fore-and-aft alignment of small items in close and intricate work and find I am poking something a centimetre or so behind or in front of where I think I am poking it, but even that is a function not of monocularity but of general deterioration in clarity of vision due to age; when I was younger it was not a problem. The only point in which having one eye puts me at a disadvantage is that it buggers my peripheral vision on one side and means I have to move my head to make certain observations when driving when normal people don't. (It does also mean that illusions based purely on binocularity, like 3D movies, don't work, but I don't care about that; I'm not interested, and ordinary movies aren't noticeably not-3D anyway.)

People with two eyes learn the binocular vision fallacy in school and appear to reinforce it by reason of things looking strange if they close one eye. But that is just unfamiliarity: their brains have not adapted to it, whereas mine has, and a brain so adapted doesn't need the extra eye. I'm not saying that binocularity confers no advantage; merely that the overall gain is very, very small, and the post-processing the visual input receives is well able to derive the same information from other cues (I believe there are something like 14 that have been identified).

So any time I see any reference to binocular vision in any context other than totally artificial exploitations like 3D movies, it clashes brutally with the visceral knowledge from a lifetime of experience that the author of the reference is completely wrong, and gets me frothing upon the instant.

152:

Those aren't so much written fiction blunders as Hollywood Movie blunders (rack up the count from "Independence Day" alone and you've covered about two thirds of your list).

153:

Actually the diseases with the highest mortality rate tend to the opposite extreme. Things like Marburg and it's more famous cousin Ebola. Long incubation periods tend to give you lower mortality rates. And even things like HIV which ought to be a good candidate for a 100% mortality rate infection, albeit indirectly, isn't an absolute death sentence without treatment. It's really high, but it's survivable. But, again, a fairly short incubation period, although a long period where you're infected before you die unlike the other two.

There isn't an example of a virus that parasitises a bacterium to cause disease in humans. I can't find one in an animal species although that doesn't mean there isn't one. It's possible for someone competent to set up the story so I'd buy it, but not when the research scientist comes in to say it out of the blue.

I'll stake the on-going arms race that is the immune system against genetic drift thanks. But there are plenty of infectious agents that jump the species barrier, and regard one warm bag of CHONSP and some biological processes as good as any other. They're not specialised to do this, they're just not fussy about their surroundings. There are others that are incredibly fussy and specialised to do this. One of the former, as long as the alien biochemistry isn't too far removed from ours (their physiology maybe, their anatomy and culture as weird as you like) stands a chance.

154:

The Turtledove epic that spawned the ginger trope had one howlingly huge logic hole (in the ginger sub-plot, never mind the rest of the eight book series): Harry seemed to miss the point terrestrial plants produce a shitload of interesting chemicals, including a huge range of alkaloids and weird terpenoids that were evolved as weapons. If your alien invader's biology is close enough to humans that there's a neurotransmitter analog in ginger -- probably a gingerol derivative -- then they're going to be losing soldiers left, right and center to the lethal neurotoxins produced by garlic and pine trees (or similar). And more to the point, when the Lizards tried to colonize Australia their animals and plants seemed to supplant the local biome rather than dying writhing in agony from eating the wrong plant. Ginger-as-addictive-drug was an interesting plot point, but the rest of the picture was missing.

155:

But the future always has planetary governments because we only have the invasion and colonization of the Americas to draw on and we simply mapped countries to planets.

"When I see a planet with just one government I look for the mass graves. It's some kind of natural law or something, world governments grow out of the barrel of a gun." -- Rachel Mansour speaking, in "Iron Sunrise".

(I'll stand by those words today, too.)

156:

I find the use of antimatter outside a laboratry (a rather big laboratry with a collider stashed somewhere) extremely unplausible. How do you generate the quantities needed for applications? And more important, how do you store it?

157:

I read the whole Reality Dysfunction trilogy too. Even though all through the first one the "word" sequestrate grated over and over again. I suppose my best understanding of it is a sort of Dan Brown cross Neal Stephenson thing, where it might or might not be intelligent but its appeal is in how it panders to the worldview of a target audience. Eg Stephenson seems to feel obliged to always include a parable against altruism.

158:

I suspect the main size limitation for "steered bullet" is going to be the size of the steering surfaces, the electronics should be fairly small.

Nope, you missed out the size of the sensor package doing the guidance. If it relies on an external input -- for example, if it's a beam-rider -- you can make it very small indeed, but if you need to image a target and identify it? That's going to be problematic, especially in low light level or poor ambient conditions (rain, fog). Consider how well a smartphone camera CCD performs in comparison with a DSLR's half-square-inch CCD in twilight with a short exposure time, if you want a metaphor. (Exposure time had better be short, or your steered bullet is going to run into a counter-bullet bullet before it reaches its target.)

159:

Disagree. I have about 60% of a normal person's working retinas (plus myopia, presbyopia, and astigmatism on top) but wasn't born with these defects -- they arrived over time. You might have adapted to having only one eye from birth, but to someone who started out with two working ones, the difference is markedly noticeable.

(I also remember the first time I wore a corrective lens -- when the undiagnosed myopia in one eye only was finally noticed -- and I spent the next day nearly falling over my own feet at all the extra depth-related detail I was seeing around me.)

160:

HIV which ought to be a good candidate for a 100% mortality rate infection, albeit indirectly, isn't an absolute death sentence without treatment. It's really high, but it's survivable.

That's a very dangerous myth and I'd rather you didn't propagate it here, please. Per a survey of the literature, median time from diagnosis to death without anti-retroviral treatment is 6-19 months (source). While there have been documented cases of someone surviving full-blown AIDS without treatment, it's about as common as surviving judicial execution by hanging: it's an extraordinary and noteworthy outcome.

For my money the nightmare scenario would be if some lunatic tried to hybridize an influenza virus with HIV. (They're both RNA viruses, so it's not totally impossible, but I'd rate it as implausible to extremely difficult.) HIV is limited because it's not very contagious, but influenza with a supercharged coat protein mutation engine and HIV's immunosuppressant properties and influenza's contagion level? That'd be a potential end-of-the-world scenario.

161:

It would not surprise me at all if adaptation was less successful the older you are; after all that is true for plenty of other things. But the point is that (under the right conditions) it is certainly possible, and works very well; this shows that binocularity is not required for depth perception if you have a sufficiently capable post-processor for visual input. (Again, not particularly surprising, given how so much of what we "see" is synthetic.) Your monkeyoid does not need to be binocular, it only needs to be highly visually-oriented.

162:

"There isn't an example of a virus that parasitises a bacterium to cause disease in humans."

There are certainly examples of bacteria that do not cause disease in humans unless they have acquired the genetic code for the toxin that causes "their" disease from a virus. I forget which exactly without looking it up, but they are by no means exotic; I'm pretty certain that out of tetanus, cholera and botulism, at least two of the causative toxins are built from the descriptions in "foreign" viral genes.

163:

I wouldn't say I find that a stopper but I certainly agree that it does spoil things. Building things to break quickly and be impossible to fix, like 90s hoovers, is a product of capitalist consumerism; I find it disappointing when an advanced and intelligent species is said to be subject to the same variety of moronic idiocy as present-day humans, and unrealistic when the timescaling makes it clear that they indulge it on a long-term basis without wrecking their habitat and depleting their resources.

164:

"I can't take the idea that the universe is going to give us anything as cool as "magic" seriously."

To the average person 300 years ago most of the modern world is magic. Telling them it's not magic and all they need is 20 years of using it plus intensive daily education does not make it less so.
As for our future, what happens when/if most science and technology is done via (say) genetic algorithms? The end products we can use but almost certainly no Human could ever understand.
That's as close to magic as makes no difference.

165:

Another show stopper - big battles, planetary invasions, space warfare - without nukes. Looking at you Star Wars and Star Trek. The remake of Battlestar Galactica at least got that one right to a degree.

166:

I think that the worst thing a book can do to put me off is to fail in consistency. EE "Doc" Smith's "Skylark" series, for instance, is stuffed full of extremely implausible elements, but they all more or less make sense in relation to each other, and so it isn't a problem - until we get to half way through the last book and... what is this he's just pulled straight out of his arse that bears no relation to anything else that has happened anywhere at any time in the series? Witchcraft? Oh, fuck off.

The same series provides an example of how my own ignorance can trip me up. The World Steel organisation struck me as a horribly cartoonish overexaggeration, a thoroughly inept attempt to construct a Really Villainy Villain who is Evil and Nasty and Does Bad Things and is ridiculously over the top - until I found out it was based on US Steel who really did act like that.

Also with EE "Doc" Smith - characters just being plain dumb puts me off, which is why Children of the Lens is my least favourite from the "Lensman" series. In particular, Kinnison going into the Hell-Hole in Space, when he knows it's a suicide mission and won't even do any good, because "Lensmen always go in" - even though he had begun to question that axiom some time ago. (And re. how he gets out, see my first paragraph.)

Things I find bad but not show-stoppingly so:

Things that are just plain wrong. I suppose everyone does this sometimes. Iain Banks is usually very good... but in "Canal Dreams" we have one character burning another one's face off by igniting an oxyacetylene torch off the end of the fag in his mouth. Sorry. No. Doesn't happen. That IB so rarely drops such a bollock makes it stand out even more. Or perhaps a better example would be Tom Clancy getting every single nuke-related thing horribly wrong in the one where the terrorists nuke the stadium. He says at the end that he did it deliberately, but I'd prefer it if he'd just avoided the detail altogether, as the silliness completely ruins every scene that involves the nuke.

As far as the FTL / time travel thing goes I actually prefer stories that don't try and be realistic about relativistic time effects. I think my view is that having FTL at all has basically chucked large chunks of relativity out of the window (even if it isn't described that way, it still gives that effect), so it isn't inconsistent for time effects to have gone with it.

Silly names, as others have said: alphabet soup, conventional names mis-spelt, whatever. I don't really care what a character's name is (or even if they are just "the tall scientist", or something), I just want it to be a normal word that doesn't smack me in the face by looking weird so my reading hiccups. Also, dialogue that uses a character's name every time they are addressed. The few people that do this in real life are pretty irritating; for everyone to do it in every sentence is both a lot more irritating, and very unrealistic.

167:

The concept that has been bothering me is the super high tech society that is obsessed with exploring the universe and finding nice real estate specifically and only as "functional biospheres at the bottom of deep gravity wells" because hey - you have spaceships and wormholes and artificial gravity and the best use is fighting about planets?

If you can do all that, you can build lovely habitats where you are and never have to waste time or money on all that gravity well stuff.

168:

This is something I really liked about Piper and Cherryh, actually; they can build habitats as well as starships, but they can't get the environment completely closed-loop and have to import things to keep it running. I find that entirely plausible; it's really tough to build a small closed environment that works.

169:

Re: '.. turn them into superpeople just by activating everything at once.'

Yea ... grand mal seizures on an on-going basis would be just peachy! (Mayo clinic website excerpt: 'Grand mal seizures occur when the electrical activity over the whole surface of the brain becomes abnormally synchronized.') This is the biologic equivalent of having your army march in step across a suspension bridge. Not a good idea.

170:

How about manually-aimed guns? Self-guided bullets exist in the lab and will be standard sniper issue within a decade.

In addition to everyone else's objections, self-guided bullets aren't a stable outcome. Once an algorithm is aiming the bullet, then it won't be long before cops insist that bullets be programmed not to target them, and it won't take long after that for organized crime to copy the protection method. Some bright spark is going to market a line of tactical clothing that makes bullet's algorithms neglect you. There's a natural arms race between target identification technology and attack avoidance technology, and the biggest losers are going to be any civilians nearby since they weren't minimizing their detection probability. At that point, there's a real advantage to using bullets that are too dumb to fool.

Aircraft have had over-the-horizon munitions for decades, but policy has been to visually identify targets before firing because the spoofing and counterspoofing makes them too unreliable otherwise (except in an all-out war when visual identification would be suicide).

171:

'... you have spaceships and wormholes and artificial gravity and the best use is fighting about planets?'

Agree ... Never could understand why advanced civilizations would literally opt to destroy resources/wealth via warfare ... it takes resources to destroy resources. Typically, the weapons and ammo are single-use, the manufacturing is single-purpose, the people/infrastructure are wiped out.

And who's supposed to benefit from all this ... who's left over if you keep sending your best, most fit/healthiest, most altruistic and brightest to be slaughtered ... what's left in the gene pool?

172:

Star trek does planetary devastation pretty well, they just don't go there often. The payload on the enterprise was shown to wreck planets. They just have crazy shields on the ships
for plot and budget purposes.

173:

"...be Tom Clancy getting every single nuke-related thing horribly wrong..."

Yes. Another plot fail that annoys is when some key element of the plot is just plain wrong. That's why I hate watching those TV shows where the hero escapes by improvising X. Except as I watch it becomes obvious that X cannot possibly work.
Here is one egregious example - igniting a trail of jet fuel in snow, which catches up with airliner taking off and then leaps through the air to blow up the plane. Die Hard:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0Tt7VUMLs8
Utter shit.

174:

Having integrated the gene originally from a virus into your genome, or requiring a plasmid for toxin expression do not a viral infection make. Please learn some microbiology.

175:

Manhattanization...

Oddly enough, some urban planner are pushing for increased urban density, because it's "more environmentally friendly," in that people who live in apartments tend to walk to work, rather than commuting 20 miles in a car.

So yes, there is a push on for this kind of development.

If you think this is stupid in short pants, I'm kind of with you, because in some ways, suburbs and rural areas are a bit more survivable when a crisis hits: you can collect rainwater, grow a garden (or a subsistence farm) and so forth, if you have space to do it. In a dense city, you're warehoused and praying all the resources you need can reach you.

Where I am, they're doing dense clusters of houses without yards surrounding a mall that has a grocery store, a drugstore, a bank, and random other small business. That few if any of these buildings have solar power, rainwater collection, or so forth has escaped the attention of the largely right-wing builders, for some reason that makes no sense to me.

The problem is that modern rural areas depend on tremendously long commutes, because living on a small farm is difficult these days. We don't have good electric pickup trucks yet, and that's one thing we need for a better rural life.

Even in southern California where I live, the major change that we've made since the 1980s is to build the houses closer together and do a bit better job with stormwater. According to a local planning board member that I talked to about a month ago, the idea that local homes should be built with solar and the ability to collect rainwater was dismissed as dangerously speculative and radical, even though we are in a record-breaking drought. What better base for a noir novel do you need than the kind of small-minded idiocy that this board member exhibited?


I think the tl:dr version of this is that anyone who's aware of the basic insanity that is planning and development right now* can have a lot of fun doing a near future noir scenario, whether you want to "cyber-" it or not, especially in the US.

176:

Where I am, they're doing dense clusters of houses without yards surrounding a mall that has a grocery store, a drugstore, a bank, and random other small business. That few if any of these buildings have solar power, rainwater collection, or so forth has escaped the attention of the largely right-wing builders, for some reason that makes no sense to me.

That's totally inside-out. The way it works in much of Europe (and in Japan, minus the gardens) is that you get a square or triangle of multi-storey apartments with stairwells opening onto the streets outside. The internal area is given over to gardens (US: yards), and the retail stuff is at ground level facing out onto the streets.

(Solar happens, but not here in Scotland because we're stupidly far north: rainwater mostly doesn't happen because we're wetter than Seattle, but it could, which is the point.) By having shops at ground level facing out you ensure that there's lots of daytime pedestrian traffic and maximize housing density in the interior of the city without needing to go more than 3-5 stories up. And by using apartments you get to cut down on heating/insulation bills.

177:

I'm in no way trying to support any of the rest of the nonsense that often goes with the statement - AIDS-associated mortality is crazily high (way over 99%) if untreated and we should treat people, absolutely. But it isn't quite 100% as you said yourself.

Your second comment brings up the other leg of the complaint about 100% killer plagues of course, even bio-weapons so far don't have a 100% infection rate that we know of. I'm not going to take chances with being exposed to HIV, getting infected is just too nasty, but for most behaviours short of needle sharing the risk of infection from exposure is pretty low. I'm not sure what the infection rate rate from exposure to Ebola is, it seems to vary between outbreaks but it's one of the most infectious thins we know and it's below 100% infectious.

My virology is spotty and old, but I'm pretty sure they're different classes of RNA virus which suggests your bio-terrorist might have problems. I do remember HIV has a really mutation rate, it's part of its immune evasion strategy, which might suggest all the hard work to introduce Influenza genes as a virulence factor would be rapidly mutated out. But if they're successful it's certainly a civilisation killer, yes. Although people would survive the infection (naturally immune etc) it could be a small enough number with enough secondary infections to wipe out human life.

178:

Re: 25: 'Since you need fire for basically all technologies that would lead to starflight, an alien that builds ships but can't build a fire is a walking contradiction.'

The only thing that matters is the availability of a reliable and flexible/controllable form of energy. Otherwise, the type of energy is irrelevant. (Electricity in a water environment: a few different fish have evolved this ability independently.)

An interesting description of how electric eels hunt their prey. (Good PS note at the end of the article.)

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/12/04/electric-eels-can-remotely-control-their-preys-muscles/

179:

Yes. The planners love to sing the praises of "mixed use development," and sometimes they even build it.

But yes, you're right: it's possible to build a sensible city. When you throw in US politics and the love of cars, things get, well, weird and stupid.

One of the big contradictions that will play itself out in the 21st Century is that, in the short term, it appears to be environmentally advantageous to pile almost everyone into cities, rather than trying to suburbanize the world.

On the other hand, really dense cities only work if food, water, power, and other resources flow into them. If you want to keep death rates down, it's also good to have the sewage flowing out, although many developing cities routinely ignore this little problem.

If things start to collapse, you want to be as far away from the big cities as you can get. This normally puts you in a place that's suboptimal for a comfortable life (those are where the cities got built), but it might be better than the alternative.

180:

I think, if you look at every bit of materials science, at some point you need to really heat it to either refine it, soften it to shape it, cause reactions, alloy it, change its internal structure, and so forth. Hard to do that in an aqueous environment. If you don't believe me, try doing underwater ceramics, rather than underwater basketweaving.

181:

That still leaves open the question as to whether an intelligent species could evolve in a water world that could be capable of very advanced biological manipulation to the point where their "super advanced biotechnology" would be fire.

182:

It's not that I think it's stupid, just that I think it's unrealistic on a time frame of the next couple decades. Resistance to density is fierce in most US cities, and especially in the affluent and upper-middle class neighborhoods that have usually managed to downzone everything. That's the quietly spoken factor in gentrification in cities like Chicago and New York City - it's happening in poorer neighborhoods because most of the rich ones have blocked major changes or densification.

183:

It makes sense in Star Wars. They have such capable starships that getting in and out of gravity wells is trivial for them, so why not live planet-side and fight over planets?

There's another advantage to that which only comes up if you're a Star Wars nerd who has read a ton of the outside fluff. Star Wars has planetary-level defensive shield technology that can essentially make planets untouchable from space assault (hence why the Empire built the Death Star, which can punch through those easily). One advantage of using a planet as a base of operations is that if you become pinned down and besieged, you can probably keep yourself alive and sustained off the planet's surface resources until help comes.

@Charlie Stross

That "flu/HIV hybrid" is scary stuff. Even if it was treatable with existing anti-viral drugs (like with HIV), you'd still have mega-death across much of the world because of distribution problems. I assume in that in most rich countries, the drugs necessary would be nationalized so that they could be supplied at extremely low prices to citizens who need them.

184:

Actually, come to think of it, Star Wars warfare as seen in the movies is a rather interesting combo. Starship fleets that can essentially get anywhere in the galaxy in mere hours, without warning - combined with planetary defenses that are nearly impenetrable unless you have a Death Star. There's nothing really like it in the real world, although the tactics in the battles themselves are definitely call-backs to real historical warfare.

185:

Never met any humans then, eh?

186:

Of course you can do underwater ceramics. Clams do it every day.

187:

No, clams do something much cooler involving calcite and proteins. If you don't believe me, try cooking on a clamshell in the oven at high heat. Be very careful with what comes out, as this is a traditional way to make quicklime.

In general, biological systems are optimized for room temperature reactions in an aqueous environment. Things like space travel happen in a vacuum at widely fluctuating temperatures, in the presence of radiation and such. This is a radically suboptimal environment for living things, and nothing truly lives in a vacuum (tardigrades surviving in a vacuum through anhydrobiosis aren't exactly alive, as their newly-decoded genome seems to show).

Indeed, I'd say that the living ship is another shibboleth that needs to die. If you want to design a living system that handles things like pumping liquid hydrogen around in a rocket motor, go right ahead. It will show you what the problems are.

I'd also point out that the thing that makes humans different from every other species on this planet is both our ability to make fire and our biological need to have it. Unfortunately, this is so obvious that most people reflexively argue against it, saying that whatever it is that makes us special, it has to be something about brains or hands or speech or writing or religion. Just one of those oddities about our species.

188:

The thing that makes humans different from every other species is our need to believe there's a thing that makes us different from every other species.

189:

Sorry, coming in late to the discussion.

I first stumbled into the GURPS Transhuman Space books back in 2009. Was deeply impressed by their extrapolations of technology, politics and culture (particularly Fifth Wave). Later learned that James Cascio was involved in writing the early books, which made sense given his political science background and interest in the intersection of technology and culture.

So circa 2009-2010, I found GTHS to be one of the most believable extrapolations of 21st century "future history", surpassing many dedicated science-fiction books.

Now some 12-13 years after their creation, the GTHS vision still seems one of the "hardest" extrapolations of plausible 21st century history. I've been surprised at how hard it is to find anything else similar as a vision for how the actual 21st century might unfold.

Does anyone recommend any other recent works which paint a "hard sci-fi" vision of the 21st century while taking into account the recent slowdown in Moore's Law, the delays in dealing with climate change, etc?

I've read OGH's Rule 34 (and really appreciated his alternative model for AI portrayed by ATHENA). But other recent 21st century works like Seveneves assume a global catastrophe. It just seems very hard to find anything which is set 2030, 2050, 2070 in a realistic extrapolation from today barring epic disasters.

190:

Okay, I'll grant that one: The problem is not in the ginger as such, but in the failure to think through the implications in proper Wellsian style.

191:

I read "Years of Rice and Salt" not as an alternate history but as what you might call a counterfactual history: Okay, says your experimental sociologist, let's run the history of the world over again, but delete the region where things like Baconian natural science and fossil-fuel-based industrialization took place, and see what happens in the other regions. Robinson seems to believe that it steam engines when it's steam engine time; the alternative conclusion would be that there is something distinctive about the West and that China, India, the dar al-Islam, and other regions would never get there. That's an interesting question even if the method of removing the West is crude and implausible.

If you think about it, it's surprisingly parallel to the Fermi question about where the other intelligent races are.

192:

Hydroxyapatite and silica are also available. The first is usually strengthened/cushioned by chitosan or proteins, but diatoms turn out pretty pure silica glass.

193:

"I assume in that in most rich countries, the drugs necessary would be nationalized so that they could be supplied at extremely low prices to citizens who need them."

Whuuurrurruurh??!?!? A drug that you have to have, because you're guaranteed to die if you don't?

It, and every variant, would be patented, registered, copyrighted, younameited, locked down to the hilt and sold for the most fearful price imaginable. The factory would be more of a fortress than anything else with a private army defending it, tooled up to the balls with the latest kit. Nobody would be allowed out, either, or even to communicate with the outside, to prevent information being extorted out of them etc. There would be what amounted to a war with everyone who didn't have the money. The real army would get involved, either as defenders if they were guaranteed their own supply or as attacking rebels if they weren't. Sheer force of numbers would prevail in the end. Everyone who got away with enough knowledge would set up their own pirate plant. Then the pirate plant operators would be shooting each other up at every opportunity. In fact the best you could hope for would be that nobody would manage to develop the drug in the first place.

194:

If you agree to commit Space Opera, you can either go for really hard science, or commit handwavium.

If you go down the really hard science route, you're not really committing Space Opera, you instantly exclude a chunk of the tropes although you might write hard SF with an operatic overtone that you're happier with and I'll almost certainly buy it.

Down the other branch, one of the key bits of handwavium is how the hell the chorus line and the lead singers move around that hard vacuum so easily. The Expanse novels have a system that allows constant application of acceleration so they burn all the way. Another way is the Star Trek way with some warping of space somehow, so you effectively travel shorter distances.

The latter, applied differently, potentially allows for stealth in many directions, you warp space so all your heat and electronic noise only squirts away from your target. You can't use it in a pitched battle, but to sneak up on a ship or even a group of ships it should be OK. Yes, it's entirely not possible by today's science but nor is bending space in that fashion to move. It's a somewhat plausible use of the handwavium technology. Apply lots of limits to it, like it knackers your top speed etc. but it becomes non-irritating if it's worked in well.

The Expanse stealth tech and hiding mostly worked for me because I cared about the characters and the story. Also, the characters who were trying to hide hid against an asteroid - they practically moored to it - and were convinced stealth technology was impossible. In fact it was: the stealth ship was never said to be completely hidden and undetectable, it had technology on board to spoof typical sensor arrays, and Naomi on a shuttle managed to spot something weird anyway - just not fast enough to usefully warn anyone. But each to their own.

195:

I find the use of antimatter outside a laboratry (a rather big laboratry with a collider stashed somewhere) extremely unplausible. How do you generate the quantities needed for applications? And more important, how do you store it?

Oh, I find it implausible with known techniques too. I just find it considerably more plausible than violating special relativity by FTL-ing around the galaxy. I even enjoy stories littered with physics-violating technomagic or witches-and-cauldrons magic (the Culture setting of Iain M. Banks, Paul Cornell's urban fantasy) if the story is otherwise compelling and if the reality violations have consistent consequences. Violating logical consistency is much worse in a story than violating physical laws.

196:

Seriously - energy not just fire ... all you need to guarantee is that you have/can create an environment where basic chemical reactions can occur. (PVT etc.)


'Hyperbaric welding is the process of welding at elevated pressures, normally underwater. Hyperbaric welding can either take place wet in the water itself or dry inside a specially constructed positive pressure enclosure and hence a dry environment.'

197:

Yeah, I've met a few humans ... and most have actually been quite nice.

198:

Indeed, I'd say that the living ship is another shibboleth that needs to die.

Funny you should mention that.
The discussion here, about building spaceships without fire made me try to think of a form that might work. What I came up with was some sort of aquatic plant, perhaps engineered. Growing enormous pneumatocysts (had to look that up) that float up out of the ocean and through the atmosphere, where once in vacuum it would sprout leaves like a water lily that would act as solar sails. Just having fun with a quick thought, I'm sure you could poke it full of holes (ahem, deflate it).

199:

It, and every variant, would be patented, registered, copyrighted, younameited, locked down to the hilt and sold for the most fearful price imaginable.

That's American thinking, market uber alles.

The way it works in India and the developing world? Anywhere with a major epidemic that's being held to ransom by some shitheaded blackmailer with a patent portfolio? Nationalization without compensation -- at gunpoint if necessary.

Big Pharma's business-as-usual model only works as long as it's not politically destabilizing.

200:

Fascinating thread, tho the diversions into guided bullets are more MilSF than I would want.

Is it not the deal between SF readers and authors that we do suspend belief? I absolutely love Charlies tales of the Laundry, but suspension of disbelief is a given there, surely?

Our good host has suggested, very strongly, that colonisation is impossible. Fair enough, but should we then ignore all fiction that assumes the opposite?

I am not too sure we should, for instance the works of Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and many other authors would be politically incorrect, or summat.

Sort of related, but maybe tangential. There has been some criticism of Cixin Liu here. Personally I thought that aliens that thought our ability to lie was a reason to exterminate us was, perhaps, one of the great concepts in Science Fiction. I also thought that his exposition of the Fermi Paradox was, at the very least, interesting.

I noted the incredibly faint praise for it in Interzone. The critic waited until the last sentence or so to suggest that we should keep an eye on Chinese Science Fiction. The rest of it was, well, damn with faint praise.

People smoke in the future? How can that even be!

201:

I was going to say something very similar.
Any naturally deep water aquatic life form that has evolved to explore the surface has already cracked the ability to exist in vastly lower pressure environments. Expanding to Space is simply learning to cope with the extreme dessication inherent in the system.

How it actually gets there is trickier, but I could see a multipart symbiotic organism, where one part provides lift, another the structure, another the photosynthetic food source etc.

202:

OK, so it's STL or bust, it seems. Let me pitch something:

In the mid-term future (next 100 years or so) humanity gears up for the first attempt at interstellar colonization. The basic idea is to establish what amounts to a conveyor belt made of space ships running to the target system (someplace close by) and back. In other words forget about single ships- establishing a viable and self-sustaining connection between two stars involves creating and maintaining an entire industrialized transportation process. The ultimate goal would be to extract a resource of some kind- something easier to get over there that isn't over here, but something like 90% of the investment goes into the fleet of ships that's expected to make regular runs back and forth. Lets space them out a year at a time- if it takes 100 years to get there (at say 5% c or so) then obviously that's 200 ships plus whatever is in the loading/unloading/maintenance phase of the process. Each ship is a habitat, designed to haul a cargo of supplies and people, and return with the desired resource.

From the point of view of return on investment to the funders back on Earth, the resources being delivered is the point of the whole thing, but to the people on the ships, it's their home and way of life. Depending upon their life expectancy, entire generations would live most of their lives on one ship (and when they get to their destination, there's no a priori reason to assume that most system residents are living on a planet). So these things will need to be big, comfortable, and self-sustaining for at least 100 years at a go.

The point is that the entire infrastructure for this has to be designed and built all at one go (well, each ship is launched one year apart, but everything else has to be in place), because one little ship traveling by itself so far from humanity makes little economic sense. So it's the single largest project every undertaken by the human race. Given international rivalry, there might be more than one "line" operating at a time, but not very many (I could see the US/EU, India/Russia, and the Chinese each attempting this independently of each other).

Assuming an average habitat size of 150 people (a number that I carefully pulled out of my butt) that's 30,000 people in transit at any one time, plus whoever is manning the mining operation at the other end (times the number of international alliances involved).

From a narrative point of view it's an epic that involves many competing political factions and individuals each promoting their own agenda within a broadly cooperative framework. The story would include dozens of point of view characters and entire generations of people. Most of the action would take place on the ships, but some of it is on Earth (esp at the beginning) and some in the target stellar system.

The parameters can be played with. The speed of the ships could be faster so that the transit time is shorter, the ship-habs could be larger, etc. I haven't given any thought as to the technical details- which drives and whatnot.

Plausible? Readable?

203:

Whuuurrurruurh??!?!? A drug that you have to have, because you're guaranteed to die if you don't?

It, and every variant, would be patented, registered, copyrighted, younameited, locked down to the hilt and sold for the most fearful price imaginable. The factory would be more of a fortress than anything else with a private army defending it, tooled up to the balls with the latest kit. Nobody would be allowed out, either, or even to communicate with the outside, to prevent information being extorted out of them etc. There would be what amounted to a war with everyone who didn't have the money. The real army would get involved, either as defenders if they were guaranteed their own supply or as attacking rebels if they weren't. Sheer force of numbers would prevail in the end. Everyone who got away with enough knowledge would set up their own pirate plant. Then the pirate plant operators would be shooting each other up at every opportunity. In fact the best you could hope for would be that nobody would manage to develop the drug in the first place.

You don't see this in the real world though. What's the most horrible disease humanity has eliminated, smallpox? And we're closing in on polio. In both cases the preventions were indeed supplied at extremely low cost, often as a charitable service with positive externalities for the global public.

In the early years of antibiotics those too amounted to a miracle cure for bacterial infections that were often deadly. Nothing like the quote above happened with penicillin.

More recently with HIV/AIDS, some companies that developed antiretroviral drugs did want their monopolies to be enforced around the world until the original patents expired. But developing countries with large populations needing treatment ignored patents in the name of medical need, most of even the rich-world public agreed with them, and nobody went to war to try stop it. In the rich world those patents expired as planned just the same as for trivial drugs with much lower value.

I find it extremely irritating in fiction if somebody invents a cure for death/aging in the form of a drug or vaccine, then ends up controlling every significant politician and oligarch in the world with their power over life and death. Or even maintaining their exclusivity for more than a few years. That ignores the history of successful reverse engineering of basically every widespread invention, and it's terrible psychology. A non-negligible fraction of people that you try to control with the death cure are going to try to ruin you instead of submitting, because they're too young for creeping age to really be scary and/or because threatening people (even indirectly) is a great way to make enemies. The psychology might work if you found a planet full of Homo Economicus instead of human beings, I suppose.

204:

Mayhem,

Correct me if I am wrong about this but on Planet Earth, the movement from aqauatic to terrestrial habitats was incredibly slow, was it not? We are, perhaps, looking at deep time here?

205:

I have absolutely no idea what commodity would justify that effort. Do you?

206:

The point is that the entire infrastructure for this has to be designed and built all at one go (well, each ship is launched one year apart, but everything else has to be in place), because one little ship traveling by itself so far from humanity makes little economic sense. So it's the single largest project every undertaken by the human race.

I think this could be good if the author thoughtfully depicts the drivers and implications of cooperation on such enormous (compared to present-day politics) scales of geography and time. It would need to be speculative fiction of sociology/psychology/politics as much as of space travel. I have read many space proposals that go something like "if everyone in the USA just gave up pizza for a year and spent the money on space, we could easily have a crewed lunar base." But they don't consider where the persuasion rays came from or what they might be used for other than getting people to build stuff in space.

207:

The problem with that should be obvious. Essentially you have the "god of the gaps" problem. 300 years ago there were holes in physical knowledge you could drive a bus through and hence plenty of scope for "magic" advances.

As the holes get smaller the scope for anything new and really impressive dwindles.

Right now to see something new and interesting you either need a multi GW power supply and a particle accelerator or you are waiting years to count individual events from processes so weakly coupled to things we can effect that they may as well not be there.

I fully expect there to be interesting things to be found. I do not expect them to be particularly useful.

Quantum computers will be nice of course, and fusion will be good in a "better fission" kind of a way but they aren't huge game changers. We have most of the good stuff now.

208:

Chris:
Does anyone recommend any other recent works which paint a "hard sci-fi" vision of the 21st century while taking into account the recent slowdown in Moore's Law, the delays in dealing with climate change, etc?

The best example I can think of is half a book: the parts of William Gibson's The Peripheral that deal with the near-ish future. You have to do quite a bit of work to figure out the background situation, though; Gibson is not one for pages and pages of world-building description. A phrase here, a fragment of dialogue there: you have to sift the clues and figure it out for yourself.

Linda Nagata's The Red: First Light is also good in this respect. Quite a plausible alt-future.

209:

The "Engines of Light" space travel system converted the ships into light particles that travelled exactly at c until, by a Handwavium-powered process they were converted back into solid objects. In the frame of the passengers it was instantaneous travel from system to system. At the end of the story refinements to navigation meant they could convert back to being a solid object a lot closer to the target planet (as in, a few centimetres above the landing pad). I don't recall if Ken mentioned the Earth-shattering kaboom! involved with either the displacement of the air to make way for the hull or the matter-to-energy conversion of the atmosphere trapped during the re-emergence.

210:

There's a story which involves First Contact being via a TV signal where the aliens are acting out skits from the Disney TV kids shows of the 1950s and 60s.

211:

"We have most of the good stuff now."

I just don't believe that. For example, one HUGE area of ignorance is why the laws of physics are what they are. Whether they are immutable under all conditions is also not known.

212:

It's not really about pressure, it's about circulation of stuff.

With plants, to answer James Padraic's question, the problem is that they have an open circulatory system. Liquids move through the xylem because they get sucked in the roots and traspired out the shoots. With phloem there is active translocation, but it's cell to cell translocation, not through vessels as in animals.

There's a simple way to make a plant resistant to space: put it in a space-proof greenhouse, and we do that already. Engineering a plant that's resistant to space is a lot harder, because you've got to figure out a mechanism for it to get nutrients in through its roots (which are, perhaps, interfaced with the lunar regolith, and probably therefore in vacuum as well, so most of the chemistry that plant roots use--which involves liquid water--won't work very well), then you have to actively circulate those nutrients to the leaves for photosynthesis (so this plant now has a closed circulatory system with a heart or similar pump), and so forth.

Note that this all takes energy. The advantage plants have with their system is that they've minimized their energy requirements, so that they can grow more (by using the carbohydrates to build tissue rather than power circulation). A plant with a closed circulatory system has a much higher metabolism, because it has to pump all that stuff around, and that cuts way back on the advantage that the plant has. If you look at Earth, there are some (secondarily) photosynthetic animals, including corals, some jellyfish, and a couple of sea slugs. They're all relatively small. I suspect you're not going to see the equivalent of a photosynthetic whale, ever.

As for any life form, we're not sealed in. A deep sea life form may have "solved the pressure change problem" (and many do: there's a big vertical migration in the ocean every night), but they haven't solved the problem of respiring and osmoregulating outside of water, any more than terrestrial species have figured out how to survive a vacuum without anhydrobiosis (which has its own issues).

If you want something like Scalzi's Gamerans, a life form that can live in vacuum, you've got to:
--Make it meteor proof, since it can't react fast enough to avoid getting hit (this argues for minimizing surface area and making that surface very tough and/or thick)
--Make it very metabolically efficient
--If you want it to photosynthesize, you've simultaneously got to maximize its surface area for light exposure,
--and last and probably least, you've got to solve the pressure differential problem between inside and outside in a way that allows it to move its joints.

Of these, I'd say the contradiction between the solar panels and protecting the body is the biggest problem. You can see this design in modern space craft and satellites, where silicon solar panels are big and fragile, while the life support area is as small and tough as they can make it. Making the solar panels out of living tissue really isn't a great option, if you look at it that way, but the other choice is to photosynthesize off the integument of the main body, which drastically limits the amount of energy the organism has to play with.

Hope this helps explain why I'm no longer bullish on living spaceships. I've actually played with the idea for years, and I finally decided that a greenhouse in space was about as close as we could realistically get it.

213:

Technology: "Hey, there's a cache of alien tech thats been lying dormant for hundreds/thousands/millions of years and...[pushes button]...works just fine."

Never used a Model M keyboard, huh?

214:

"...while taking into account the recent slowdown in Moore's Law..."
Slowed, but far from over. Even using relatively conventional technology we still have decades left. For example, currently we are at the 12nm node for cutting edge stuff. Recently IBM demonstrated a proof of principle device at the 1.8nm node and expressed the belief it could go beyond this to sub nm features.
http://www.eetasia.com/ART_8800716190_480200_NT_84758f25.HTM
That is without other tech such as wafer scale integration of chip stacking.

215:

"Technology: "Hey, there's a cache of alien tech thats been lying dormant for hundreds/thousands/millions of years and...[pushes button]...works just fine.""

Any reason why it shouldn't if it has been stored at ambient 2K7?

216:

Well yes, but we're talking living ships, so I'm not seeing that happen any time fast. They might evolve from living in a surface layer of a gas giant too (spitballing hypothetical environments where a deep pressure creature could appear). One of them could say crash onto an aquatic world and find as comfortable an environment as possible in an abyssal chasm. Hmm, is that the plot of The Abyss? I've never seen it.

I'm pretty sure a living ship would be a composite communal organism though - akin to say a man-o-war jellyfish. One part would provide food, another structure or shelter, another defence, and they would be have to be relatively small organisms so that any damaged parts could be relatively easily replaced. If several parts fed off different types of radiation, you'd have the ability to protect the inner core environment.

Why they would ever want to produce an oxygen environment is left as an exercise for the writer ;)

217:

Hmm, that certainly makes sense. Shame, really.

As an aside, what do you think of Baxter's Spline ships?

218:

Re the OP:

Making up words (nouns, adjectives, verbs) and speech structures gratuitously and without any internal consistency. The Merchant Princes series is an example of how to do it right: alt-Low German. Collectively the words and syntax make sense as a language. But mostly I'd say if you're not a linguist by training, don't go there.

Blood magic: these days I can't read any book where the protagonist is special by birth. Extra demerit points for having her/him start in a "lowly station in life".

Masochism: Friends who continue helping and supporting the main character out of the goodness of their hearts, despite the MC being a total narcissist who alternately ignores and manipulates them, and repeatedly leaves them to clean up the messes he/she creates.

219:

I haven't read those stories, but as disbelief suspenders, they sound just fine, as does flying the Millennium Falcon.

One thing I would like to stress is that just sometimes, science enables stories, rather than pooping on the party. Many shibboleths are basically there to make a story more palatable to its target audience, and reality is generally a lot weirder. I keep hoping that more writers will opt for the weirder route and try to make their science harder, rather than simply swiping oceanic metaphors and talking about living starships as, say, space nautiluses or space whales or some such, and having living astronauts as photosynthesizing space-turtle men.

Speaking of which, I've thought about space turtle-people as much as Scalzi did, and perhaps rather more, considering what he attempted to do with their metabolism (IIRC, he plumbed the gamerans backwards). They are one case where having a spot for a large, positronic battery to make up for the lack of photosynthesis would have worked out pretty well (life tends to run off gradients of hydrogen ions, rather than gradients of electrons, so if you want space life based on Earthly patterns, something like the old shibboleth of the positronic battery actually makes a little bit of sense). It might sound rather silly to have space-turtle man shove a large positronic battery up his arse to take a long jaunt in space, but turtle do some weird things with their butts, so it's not as silly as painting space-turtle man green and calling him photosynthetic.

220:

Give me the Anti-shibboleths the tropes done so well that actually the shibboleth's become irrelevant or even better slyly undermined. As long as the rest of the story is well crafted who cares?

Hedging an author with too many rules is only beneficial if they can think of innovative ways around it. Nobody wants to read a book where the author has rules-lawyered all the fun out of it. Also subgenre lawyering is bad m'kay write on a spectrum not in a bucket.

221:

Most authors have do you want fries with this degrees. They don't know anything about science. Most SF fans seem to prefer NON believable SF. Its more exciting then the way science actual works.

Can someone post links of sites to find lists of books that have solid science in them?

I get pet peeves on the Fantasy side. I will suspend disbelief, but it bugs me with how wealthy people are in pre-industrial agricultural societies. In these societies at best a fraction of the 1% are wealthy and they get wealthy exploiting every one else. I always wonder when fantasy books have defined magic systems why the hell the magicians don't use their magic to make money? Make crops grow fast and better, set up a trading empire to sell your superior products.

Fantasy stories where most people are relatively clean. A homeless person would have good hygiene for these worlds. Then you have world where there monsters everywhere and I think, there is no way human civilization could exist with all of these marauding monsters.

222:

On the Years of Rice and Salt... 90% of the native americans were wiped out by european diseases. They lived in far less dense communities and were spread out more in smaller bands. Though they didn't have any defenses.

Here is a video that discusses why we had a plague in North America that killed 90% of the population and we didn't get a plague going back to Europe.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JEYh5WACqEk


Below I posted a link to a course on the middle ages where the processor says e thinks 1/2 of the European population died from the Black Plague. He said that the 1/3 number is just a number people have been saying for so long no one remembers who came up with it. He also says he thinks taht 70%+ of many mediteranean cities died of the black plague. Going to 99.9% is unrealistically high. 90% may not have been out of the ballpark if the disease incubated a little longer. That may not have left enough people left in Europe for technology to advance.

BTW, if you are in the US, check your local library. They market to libraries. They may have these. They are very good.

http://www.thegreatcourses.com/courses/late-middle-ages.html

223:

"Then you have world where there monsters everywhere and I think, there is no way human civilization could exist with all of these marauding monsters."

Try being a chimp in Africa. The answer is that we became the marauding monsters.

224:

"Technology: "Hey, there's a cache of alien tech thats been lying dormant for hundreds/thousands/millions of years and...[pushes button]...works just fine.""

Any reason why it shouldn't if it has been stored at ambient 2K7?

I don't know about hundreds, but for tens of thousands of years and up, you have:-

Radiation embrittlement (at 2K7, it's in space). Crystal growth (tin "whiskers" and the like). Migration, decolloidisation and decomposition of lubricants. De-alloying. Migration of ions in, for example, solid-state semiconductors. Fractures from residual stress. (At 2K7, nearly everything is brittle.) Nuclear decay of quasi-stable isotopes. Probably other mechanisms.

225:

It was exactly that particular shitheaded blackmailer that I was thinking of when I wrote it :)

I suppose it does come down to the situation; but the mere postulation of such a disease had me thinking in terms of what would happen in some form of dystopia, rather than in the world as we currently know it.

226:

I think we brought this up some time ago, but one untapped story is the alt-history idea that all those pre-Columbian voyages from the Old World to the New World actually happened. You know, the egyptians, phoenicians, Romans, Mongols, Basques, Irish, etc. While none of these expeditions actually made colonies, they were sufficient to transfer some basic livestock (pigs, goats, horses) and a whole bundle of epidemic diseases to the New World, centuries before Columbus got there.

When the Europeans got serious about colonizing the New World, they found a rather different place waiting for them, and colonization went very differently than it did in our world.

227:

A few people have mentioned it in specific form, but the generalised case is: Any mention of a specialised area of knowledge that the reader is a specialist/familiar with.

It never works. I'm yet to read or view an account of diving or living at pressure that's not absurdly wrong. I'm even including a story that was written by my cave diving instructor and made into a movie. There was an SF by a major author that had a plot device where the surface pressure on the planet was higher than earth normal. It's something that's bound to be common, but rarely ever explored, so kudos to them for trying to use that. However they got every single consequence of that so scrambled that it was unreadable. I doubt it would have bothered anyone else in the slightest.

228:

Feel free to have faith. I find scepticism tends to be more useful.

Talking of faith, have you tried that quantum suicide thing you keep posting links to? Thought not :)

229:

And I would add to that: stability and social evolution on board the ships themselves. It seems to me a very big assumption that the ideals, motivations, customs, religion, and so on, of a society that has spent several entire generations in total isolation in what is effectively a high-class prison, would retain more than the most minimal degree of compatibility with the ideals under which the mission was conceived. I think an awful lot of the ships would never arrive or else arrive in an uncooperative mood, having decided to change course and do something else, or had one or some of the crew go mental and sabotage the ship, or develop some wacky religious belief in service of which they do unscheduled things... Even without such a catastrophe it would be hard to maintain stability. What of education? The ship may be sent off with a highly intelligent and well-educated crew, but several generations down the line the distribution of intelligence and of scientific aptitude may well have reverted to that typical of the species as a whole.

Come to that, even "normal" societies change hugely over the kind of timescales involved, so the problem is planetside as well as shipboard. How is the controllers' interest in the mission maintained through all this? Does mission control even survive? Do opinions of whether it is a good or a bad idea change for the worse and cause it to be abandoned by its instigators' descendants? And so on...

230:

I know just what you mean - the sort of book that has you screaming "no, no, no!!" at it every other paragraph. But it does sometimes work, and when it does it's a delight. Lieutenant Blouse inventing double-pumping and RLL encoding off the top of his head, for example; he doesn't call them that, of course, and he doesn't even describe them fully, but it is very clear what he is talking about and the recognition brought a big grin to my face when I read it.

231:

Personally, I like looking at generation ships and space colonies through the lens of Polynesian (and to a lesser extent, Micronesian) history, as these are the closest analogs we're likely to get.

It doesn't have to be a high class prison, but things can get very interesting in a wide variety of ways.

232:

Actually Orson Scott Card taps that somewhat with Pastwatch - his one way time travel goes back and forces a more balanced form of first contact with the continent, thereby ensuring a utopian future free of the environmental collapse from our time line, and the slavery devastation of the time line where the Aztecs conquered Europe. It's one of the better books involving time travel, and much better than most of his others.

Going back to Years of Rice and Salt, I think what bugged me so much was that I'd read it before from of all people Piers Anthony. Still, KSR did it much better.

233:

There's also the alt-history SF/Carlos Castaneda mashup by Thomas Harlan (I think the series has died, but it was "In the Time of the Sixth Sun") that started with the Japanese finding the Aztecs, the two cultures fusing, taking over the world, going into space, an asteroid strike happening at some point, and then things got weird. He got three books out of the idea anyway.

234:

Hmmm. Just to throw it out there, my disbelief suspension also factors in how much I'm enjoying the book: for example I find references to 3d printing really annoying, but if the story carries it (Rule 34!), I can let it go. I've just read "long way to an angry planet" by Becky Chambers. It's got rocks hitting the hull of a ship in the first couple of chapters and it kinda ends boringly, but I really enjoyed reading most of it. Actually that's my main bugbear; people who can't nail endings: great start, great middle, but the ending goes sideways and blurmrmnmnsmnms into forgettableness.

235:

"Most authors have do you want fries with this degrees. They don't know anything about science."

Or they don't care.

There is, in this thread, a lot of presumption that using bad science means you don't understand the science, which in turns is based on the fact that many people seem to care about the science FIRST.

But if you care about story first, then the presumption that any bad science in a story doesn't follow.

I, as a specific for instance, have a pretty good knowledge of guns. I will nevertheless fudge the capabilities or limitations as I like to make the story more fun.

There are, I'm sure, gun bunnies that this drives insane and presume I don't know anything about guns because they value technical fidelity first and I don't.

236:

And yet as a species we are capable of being as nonsensical and self destructive, which is why the things you originally mentioned are plausible. We do that stuff NOW.

Or to jump back to the question posed by the person you were responding to "Why fight over planets when you can have habitats in space"

I can think of several behavioral reasons to just that. People (collectively, especially) are not perfectly rational actors. Our tendency to horde and our status seeking alone will justify all sort of things, narratively speaking.

237:

Most authors have do you want fries with this degrees. They don't know anything about science. Most SF fans seem to prefer NON believable SF. Its more exciting then the way science actual works.
To refute I direct you to Dr Travis S Taylor who has more degrees than I'd want, a solid background in astrophysics, and who honestly couldn't write a character I can relate to if I stood over his shoulder and instructed.
He does base everything in solid science at the time, though he also suffers from OGH's issue of whatever cool thing he discovers being rendered obsolete between writing and print.

His right wing redneck rocketeer persona is wildly popular amongst the Baen faithful though.

238:

@Matt/Pigeon/Heteromeles: The most plausible driver I can think of is alien contact. If an alien showed up, explained that there was an entire trading network out there, and we could link up with it if we just made the effort (and underwrote the cost of building the link) I think you would see a race to get there first. The aliens may or may not be playing us, but that doesnt matter insofar as our motivation is concerned.

The effect on human society would be incalculable. The entire planet would be forced into close cooperation even as every political, economic, and ideological faction would strain to gain an advantage over its rivals. There would have to be a lot of institutional and organizational consolidation- hundreds of nation-states and thousands of multi-national corporations would be too complex and disorganized to pull this off. Yet human tribalism wouldnt disappear- just take new forms. The aliens, of course, would understand none of this- a lot of mistakes will be made. There could be a war.

As for what motivates the people to go- they would have to be the type that ''wants'' to live in a small, self-contained technologically advanced village for the rest of their lives. There wont be any shortage of volunteers. Nor will they be entirely isolated during thier trip- once the first ships get going, some enterprising groups could easily set up some shuttles that travel between the ships- they are 1/20th of a light year apart, so traveling between them, while not trivial, wouldnt be impossible. Flight time in some number of months I would imagine. And there wont be any shortage of things to do- the ships will be leaking and breaking down continuously, so repairing them from the inside is a mandatory occupation. Upon arrival, no one is forced to leave. But if they want to re-stock or upgrade their home, they need to sell off the cargo. So the incentives to remain "on-mission" are pretty strong. The interesting question is how long they would maintain their Earth-based national identies. Maybe for one round-trip, but after that?

Once launched, a ship is on it's own, and doesnt need any further direct support from Earth. But over the long term sustaining this lifestyle depends upon maintaining the trade route- everyone is a small part of a larger system that can only continue to function if everyone fulfills their role. It's pretty robust- X % of losses can be absorbed over the long term- there's another ship every year after all. But that robustness itself depends on everyone doing their best in a highly interconnected yet decentralized institutional context. That's probably the most radical change in so far as human culture is concerned- we're used to having a clear "someone in charge" for something on this scale, but here that isnt possible. Even on Earth the timeframe is so long that over-dependence on any one agency to oversee the whole thing is going to fail. It's going to have to be deliberately designed to function independently of the specific actors involved at any one point. I dont think that's ever been done before.

239:

Oh that is a lovely idea. Does anyone know if it's been done? I would be enormously interested in reading something along those lines, even if it were just an essay or thought experiment.

240:

Ships going up and down gravity wells like it was about as hard as the commute to work. If you don't have implausible tech, it absolutely will be a big deal to get up to orbital speed. And the two obvious imaginary technologies that could achieve it, gravity blocking (float up, no need to orbit) or easy access to enormous amounts of energy, are both also, not coincidentally, doomsday weapons. Point a gravity blocker down: volcano in the location of your choice. Turn up the power, and the planet fizzes into a splat like somebody took away the bottle from around the cola. And anything that can casually blast a spaceship to orbit can do the same with an occupied city.

241:

Agreed. I'd even come up with an even nastier scenario which did not require an interstellar trading network out there to motivate human butts off the planet. Whether I'll actually publish anything based on this idea remains up in the air.

My frustration is probably more with the publishing world, in that we tend to see the same damn books over and over and over and over and over again. It's perfectly understandable, but it's really frustrating, especially when, as now (with the Paris climate talks on), many of us are praying that the world will change radically and for the better.

One reason to hammer mercilessly on the humanities students who write, edit, and publish clueless SFF is that there's a lot of cool science out there that can make their books new and different. These ignoramuses ignore all the possibilities and rewrite the same hackneyed stories again, for an aging and diminishing audience, and brag about how new and cool it is. It's not.

That pisses me off, not that I'm part of the industry or have much to do with it. It's this lack of curiosity that is so frustrating to read.

One of the subtexts of Hot Earth Dreams is that there's a full four hundred thousand years out there of future totally unclaimed, for writers to play in. Actually, there's millions of years. You want an Earth with monsters that are well-adapted to dealing with humans? Set a story ten million years from now. I guarantee that whatever's living then will be really good at dealing with us, and in the book, I provided a really good rationale for why recognizable humans will likely still be around then, and a bunch of ideas for how to build said world. And that world will lack fossil fuels, so you can set your medievaloid fantasy there quite easily. You can even have knights riding smeerps if you want.

Do I expect most SFF writers to play in that area? Of course not. All that means is that whoever is crazy enough to try it might end up with a monster best seller that redefines the field and leaves everyone else plagiarizing furiously.

That's the ultimate problem with shibboleths. They're safe. They're clueless. They don't express real possibilities, they just ring another change on what somebody else already did. Yes, I understand that most people don't want to take risks, they just want to have a decent life with a family, but still. Who reads science fiction any more? Do I really need to see another smeerp-gun fight between asteroid miners and mercenaries in another dingy spaceport bar? Where's the wonder in that?

242:

Shibboleths:
Failure to understand orbital mechanics. If you are traveling from planet A to planet B, you generally can't stop at gas station C in between. (Barring huge energy reserves and massive acceleration).

Putting a max speed on your spaceship.

Getting free fall wrong. If your spaceship is thrusting, you aren't in free fall in the cargo hold.

People breaking their internal code of honor without struggle, comment, or remorse.

243:

I read one SF novel which was otherwise quite well written where alcohol was strongly restricted by the ruling powers Because Reasons, and there was never a hint that people were making their own. Prisoners on death row make their own alcohol, people! The instructions for this are somewhere on our junk DNA. I didn't hurl the book, but that was a big thing for me to get over.

244:

I like imperialism, i think is normal, what i don't like is Republics, but what i dislike more is like most of them in SciFi are United Earth, United Federation, United Colonies, or something like that, is like everyone of them is the United States of Space, everyone be welcome, human, black, white, yellow, red, or octopus, we will fight for freedom and liberty because we are space yankees.

245:

I think "The instructions for this are somewhere on our junk DNA." is going a bit far with regard to alcohol. There was little or no alcohol in North America before Europeans introduced it. I think there was some alcohol in Central America and Peru, but I don't think it had the cultural importance that beer (the fuel that built the pyramids!) and wine did on the other side of the Atlantic. Or that sake/rice wine did on the other side of the Pacific, for that matter.

Semi-related: on practically the first page of Alliete de Bodard's Obisidan and Blood Trilogy, her Aztec hero has milk in his morning chocolate. I shrugged and said "Oh well, the author is French" but it did pull me out of the story a bit.

246:

For a reader, a higher level of expertise in a subject will likely result in a lower threshold of disbelief suspension. If you know more about a subject, it's harder to ignore the stuff that doesn't fit your knowledge base.

Biology issues tend to hit me - I've got an extensive background there, so aspects that run counter to known data are annoying. Case in point - inheriting resistance to an infectious agent where the primary means of resistance is antibody-based. Antibody diversity is generated in somatic cells via random recombination events in the precursor cells. Thus, someone who happens to have an effective antibody against a devastating plague will not be able to pass on that resistance, as the germ cells are segregated well prior to the somatic rearrangements leading to antibody formation. Even if the resistance is due to a mechanism other than antibodies (and related processes), if the resistance could arise from mutations in multiple genes then inheritance patterns for multi-locus traits are going to mean that there's going to be lots of inviable combinations in the generations following from the resistant individuals. Stephen King's 'The Stand' was problematic this way....

247:

I'm late for this discussion. I won't repeat some of the mentions. I'll add my own, and add alt-history to this.

The first has to do with demographics. I have amateur interest in demographics, which is a relatively young science. However, one trend is clear in our world/time line: industrialization causes a huge demographic spike followed by a birth rate drop off. So far, I've found SF books limited to the colonization of the solar system the most realistic as they inadvertantly acknowledge the demographic limitations of our society.

As for the previous discussion about fire underwater - don't forget volcanoes. For electricity, don't forget hydroelectric power.

248:


I give a huge pass to writers writing about FTL and ignoring social change. FTL is impossible according to (currently understood) physics, so its inclusion is inconsistent.

Social change is too unpredictable to guess for two reasons. Most trends have been predicted only by first-order backfitting. Urbanization came completely out of left field to the people at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. I doubt many people predicting the effects of the Industrial revolution would have predicted our urbanization rates.

The second reason is that most people who try to predict social change try to make "logically optimized" social changes. However, social change comes through compromise, resulting in very convoluted logic. An extreme example would be western society's treatment of female vs male rape victims in the 1990s and 2000s. It is too easy to forget that any social change is bound to be hypocritical, and thus too unrealistic.

249:

Kind of. There's an old de Camp story from the 1930s called the Wheels of If. A New York City politician gets his mind transferred to an alternate universe where Celtic rather than Roman Christianity converted Britain and the Scandinavian countries. The resulting society started exploring and settling the Americas around 1000 AD so while they established settlements and eventually independent nations, the Native Americans were able to play catch up and by the 1930s had their own industrial age nation states.

de Camp wrote before it was generally known how devastating European diseases had been and I suspect there's other dated details I'm missing but the end product is a North America that includes industrialized Native American states.

250:

The problem is it doesn't make any sense. Imperialism is basically a scaled up protection racket - you smack around the locals and make them cough up wealth and make your profit off of that.

The problem is that technology has made a lot of this impractical. In ancient times barbarians or certain civilized cultures might have tough enough lifestyles that they were more effective fighters and could run protection rackets on their neighbors. Where this breaks down is when technology comes along - having a modern army is much more important than having hardy warriors. Gibbons pointed out back in the 18th century that you needed a modern army to beat a modern army and you needed a modern society to have that modern army. Barbarian hordes, R.I.P. In modern wars your more martial societies tend to lose (e.g., US Civil War or World War II.)

Even back in the 1950s science fiction writers realized traditional imperialism didn't make sense - see for example Poul Anderson. You could come up with scenarios where raiding other planets made a kind of sense (e.g., Space Viking) but the set ups always implied the situation was transitional. Modern imperialism tends to be about either security (Country X is causing us trouble) or getting control of some kind of unobtanium. The Honorverse scenario doesn't make much sense. The Republic of Haven has to have an advanced industrial base to build their vast fleets. They can't attack low tech societies because low tech societies are too poor to be worth looting. So they're attacking opponents who can fight back and paying all the cost of the wars plus transportation just to get their loot. And they have an economy carrying a lot of dead weight. Wouldn't it be a lot easier to just switch the military budget to welfare? Or use your stormtroopers to smack around the welfare recipients? Jerry Pournelle would. Hell, some neocons complain entitlements keep the West from spending more on the military.

Personally I'd like to see a story where the Empire exists to give the ruling class something to do rather than any practical reason. That arguably describes the British Empire in the 20th Century and the US invasion of Iraq.

251:

On, remembered another, not limited to SF:

Heroic limited omniscience justifies evil. Somehow, our square-jawed hero knows that his one suspect knows where the evil macguffin is, so he tortures said villain, and gets to save the city while looking smug.

Someday, I want to read a story where our hero tortures a busload of people, gets 27 leads, and then races around town only to find that all of them are wrong...

252:

I viewed Anathem's "Smeerps" as a sort of roman a clef for concepts and ideas. But the reason everything has been smeerped becomes clear when the plot resolves towards the end.

Not that I cared for that resolution much. I did enjoy the ride leading up to it, though.

My shibboleths have already been mentioned: Lord Nelson in space, an interstellar empire based on trading anything other than information (unless you have a good reason why it's cheaper to transport something between stars systems than it would be to just break up a few local asteroids for raw materials). At which time: what makes it an empire? Intellectual property laws?

253:

At which time: what makes it an empire? Intellectual property laws?

Piper had a good answer for this.

Starships.

Starships are very, very dangerous because they involve really scary amounts of energy. An appreciable mass at NAFAL speeds involves enough energy to re-melt the crust of a terrestrial planet and re-enact the Hadean. Or there are Nicoll-Dyson lasers. Or a gate drive that conserves momentum and can be applied to Kuiper-Belt objects. Or, well, take your pick.

The Empire exists to control and regulate the starships so no one can go around going "nice plant you have there" with them.

254:

That Mediterranean figures match what I've read about other cities that got hit by the Plague. IIRC the German cities and towns that got hit by it lost between 60-80% of their population too.

@Heteromeles

It's a great idea. I'm imagining a huge empire - China-esque in size and population - springing up in the drainage basin of the Mississippi River and other rivers in the southeastern US. An empire built around maize, beans, and squash instead of wheat and rice, but pretty damn impressive.

The tricky part is that they'd still be starting on these things much later than in Europe. They might still be behind in various technologies ranging from wheeled transportation to iron-weapon-making. But with the disease resistance and what they have, they'd certainly be resistant to mass colonization - it'd be more like Europe dealing with China before the 19th century.

255:

I've always though medical immortality might be a good impetus for greater off-world colonization in a SF setting (as well as further population growth, at least for a while, past the Demographic Transition). It doesn't seem at all implausible to me that the elites on Earth might encourage the younger generations to migrate off-world to deflect calls for fundamental political and economic reform on Earth that might require them to surrender power - assuming the capabilities for off-world colonization are available.

@dm

At which time: what makes it an empire? Intellectual property laws?

It could be a change in what determines status, from your material wealth to how many people you have in your service and loyalty. Nobody cares that you have $10 billion space bucks - they care that you can mobilize 10 million soldiers and control a world of 5 billion people.

There might be historical precedent for that. The book 1493 about the Columbian Exchange mentioned off-handedly that a number of the west African societies that sold slaves to European slave traders had a thing where your status was determined by your number of warriors and number of slaves.

256:

Parallel case - in a discussion on on radio recently...
The Human Genome originally took something like 10 years to sequence & cost $_billions, but now a single person' s genome can be sequenced in a couple of days, for approx $1000.
Um

257:

This is the exact same argument that was posited approx 1890-1905.
Don't believe you.

258:

Numbers for "The Death" in England are pretty good, because of the record-keeping in this country.
It varied.
Some places, it was as low as 20%, average was between 33-40%, some places it went to 60%, some villages were completely abandoned, with the few remaining living moving to somewhere else.
And that is where the "one-third" number comes from....

259:

But the reason everything has been smeerped becomes clear when the plot resolves towards the end.
Oh, does it?
But, why should I bother wading through approx 1000 pages of compete trash to get that far?
Stop wasting my time & everyone else's, actually ( Not you, Stephenson, that is. )

260:

By way of making a little extra money when I'm not writing books, I sometimes read and critique books by unpublished novelists by way of explaining to them what they're doing wrong or right. In almost every case that I've critiqued a work of space opera or science fiction, there's a chase through an asteroid field - with lots of asteroids bumping and crashing into each other.

I used to say that Star Wars has a lot to answer for, but in reality the problem is writers who mistake rematching that movie for "research". Those are unpublished writers, however, rather than the pro's you're talking about here.

I sometimes feel a touch overwhelmed by the depth of your knowledge, Charlie. I didn't really know enough about H3 to know it was a shibboleth, but I'll certainly remember it now. God knows I'm sure I've produced some howlers in my time.

You know, I do wonder if there's room in your undoubtedly busy schedule for a how-to book concerning realistic science in writing. I'd certainly read it.

261:

I haven't done much empirical research but my gut feel is that there is a strong BSc bias in SciFi and Fantasy authors.

then factor in authors like CJ Cherryh who despite/because of? 2 classics degrees was writing some of the most plausible relativistic space warfare, (Downbelow Station, Hellburner) and most Alien aliens (even the play to the crowd cat aliens) when half the current generation of Authors were still in nappies.

I'd personally say its not a big shibboleth generating factor.

262:

Wrong. The claim back then was that new physics would be found in the fifth decimal place. And that's pretty much where it was.

Fortunately it has low energy side effects that can be exploited.

My claim is slightly different, that if there is new fundamental physics then exploiting it will be too difficult for it to be useful.

Even if Dirk is right and you can muck around with the laws of nature to create new forms of matter and energy that would revolutionise the world it doesn't actually help if you need to go all the way to the Planck scale to access it. The old GUT scale is a bit closer but it's pretty much discredited these days.

Same thing with black holes. Even if all the cool things people like to think are possible with black holes are true it doesn't help if we don't have one.

263:

"Radiation embrittlement (at 2K7, it's in space). Crystal growth (tin "whiskers" and the like). Migration, decolloidisation and decomposition of lubricants. De-alloying. Migration of ions in, for example, solid-state semiconductors. Fractures from residual stress. (At 2K7, nearly everything is brittle.) Nuclear decay of quasi-stable isotopes."

Easy. Put the cache in a small iron shell. A few hundred metres of iron is easily good enough. And a label saying "warm to 300K before use". All the rest are solved problems, or non problems at 2K7

264:

"Ships going up and down gravity wells like it was about as hard as the commute to work. If you don't have implausible tech"

Not really. I can quite imagine a plausible technology based on Plasma Focus Fusion. It's an ideal concept for use in rocket form.

265:

--Make it meteor proof, since it can't react fast enough to avoid getting hit (this argues for minimizing surface area and making that surface very tough and/or thick)

Not practical, period: we're not talking "thick skin" here, we're talking about impacts with objects travelling an order of magnitude faster than an armour penetrating anti-tank round. You might as well call for a species of tree that has evolved to be volcano proof because trees can't dodge erupting volcanoes.

Mind you, John Varley took a very good shot at the envelope of the problem in his Eight Worlds stories, notably "Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance" with the Symbs (symbiotic bioengineered space suits used by a culture living in the rings of Saturn) ... although the biology itself is basically handwavium.

266:

"Right now to see something new and interesting you either need a multi GW power supply and a particle accelerator or you are waiting years to count individual events from processes so weakly coupled to things we can effect that they may as well not be there."

There is a whole largely unexplored and massively underfunded area of physics that could turn up some very interesting stuff. It is exploration of the interface between QM and classical mechanics.

267:

Never used a Model M keyboard, huh?

Take a car, any car.

Park it in a barn without prepping it for storage -- draining engine oil, brake lines and all other liquids, putting it up on blocks, storing tyres correctly -- and leave it for 50 years.

Now come back and turn the key in the ignition. What happens?

(Nothing, as you perfectly well know, and that's a good thing, because the flat battery will keep you from running the starter motor and fuel pump and wrecking the engine.)

Yes, it may be suitable for restoration and be roadworthy again with a few weeks' work and some replacements for perishable parts, but it's not exactly "jump in, turn key, drive off".

Now look at your average modern piece of crap consumer electronics (as opposed to an insanely over-engineered keyboard that cost as much as an entire modern PC, from back in the day of lead-based solder that didn't form tin whiskers and ICs made on a micrometre process rather than a nanometre scale so they were less prone to dopant migration). How well is it going to fly without a contemporary internet infrastructure and a command and control server to tell it to tie its shoelaces before it bootstraps?

Every so often someone on Ars Technica digs out a circa-1998 operating system, installs it on a circa-2004 laptop, and writes a long screed about how useful/useless it is for their daily office job, which is mostly email, web browsing, and word processing. You know what? Even when the machine works, about 95% of modern websites won't render, and the email clients don't understand modern implementations of SSL. And that's just after 10-15 years.

The idea that we're going to get "turn ignition key and go" responsiveness out of alien high tech artefacts in the thousands to millions of years age-range is just delusional -- unless they've been engineered with "strangers come along and try to turn us on in a million years" as a design goal. In which case, be very afraid ...

268:

Simple answer: there isn't one. Classical mechanics doesn't really exist! :)

I take it you mean the question of why we get something that looks like classical mechanics. I agree it would be good to see that cleared up - all the interpretations are unsatisfactory in one way or another.

Not sure how under funded it is though - most of the work in that area is pen and paper stuff, and the energy levels are amenable to tabletop experiments. My understanding is that research goes slowly in that area because it tends to be unrewarding and hard.

269:

Blood magic: these days I can't read any book where the protagonist is special by birth. Extra demerit points for having her/him start in a "lowly station in life".

Would that trope work for you if tackled ironically in medium-future SF?

Our baby is the product of very deliberate CRISPR-mediated germ-line genetic engineering to give them certain traits. A bunch of ova are prepared and eventually a fertilized embryo is implanted in a host (human or artificial uterus) for the satisfied oligarch/billionaire purchaser who wanted a canned heir or assistant with a laundry list of properties deemed optimal to inherit responsibility for a sprawling satrapy in a stratified, post-rapid-tech-change Grim Meathook Post-Capitalist future. (It could be as simple as splicing the private key to the royal treasury's authentication crypto into their genome, giving them access to the crown jewels without being electrocuted or something, or it could be a more exotic bunch of upgrades. Irrelevant at this point.)

One of the low-paid workers in the clinic has been paid/blackmailed to obtain one of the spare zygotes for an enemy faction, who want to figure out how the next generation of oligarchs/royalty are configured. She does a shell-game with the petri dishes in the lab then self-inseminates using the ACME baby-o-mat, leaves work, and discovers the hard way that the folks who were going to take delivery have just been whacked. At which point her options include a quiet back-street abortion (procuring a dose of misoprostol or similar), or going on the run because her employers' medical service will be very interested if she shows up with an unplanned pregnancy.

Instant cyberpunk dystopian chase novel with added "baby born to low-status parent with a Destiny" High Fantasy cliche! What could possibly go wrong?

270:

The bigger issue is something seldom addressed. We seem to have put all our eggs into a *very* small number of baskets as the lemmings rush for papers on fashionable topics and funding on "sure things". The two biggest wastes are IMHO String Theory and Tokamaks. Give it a year or two to be sure, but I might add LHC to that list.

271:

Said blackmailer is an idiot. He doesn't have a viable lock on the product, he just bought the last barely-economical-to-run factory churning out cheap generics and announced a 7500% price hike. At which point, within days, other pharmaceutical co's saw an opportunity to fire up the manufacturing line at a price maybe double the previous barely-profitable selling point, thereby positioning themselves as white knights while making out like bandits. (As the original generic price had depreciated to virtually zero, though, this is unlikely to harm anyone ... and competition should drive the price back down to marginal again fairly soon.)

272:

There's also the approach taken by IMB in "against a dark background". Secret information only made available to person with special DNA. You don't even need to engineer the person then - all the magic is in the detector.

Doesn't work so well if you allow cheap PCR machines and cloning though.

273:

I take it you mean the question of why we get something that looks like classical mechanics.

Actually, it's dirt simple. If you apply QM to a system on a scale where Planck's constant can be approximated as zero, all of the equations of QM give the same answers as classical mechanics. Classical mechanics is just a special case of QM.

274:

That is true, but given that plancks constant is not zero there are still plenty of fiddly details.

275:

For day to day purposes on a human scale, Planck's constant is near enough to zero as makes no difference. There was a lot of experimentation on the transition regime between QM and classical mechanics in the mid 20th century, but by 1970 or so the experimental questions had been answered fairly conclusively. The Feynman lectures address the issues in some depth, for instance.

276:

once the first ships get going, some enterprising groups could easily set up some shuttles that travel between the ships- they are 1/20th of a light year apart, so traveling between them, while not trivial, wouldnt be impossible. Flight time in some number of months I would imagine.

Forget travel between the ships in that scenario: your intuition is broken. Remember the ships are themselves travelling at 1/20th of light-speed. To get between them in less than a year, your "shuttles" are going to have to be moving faster than the starships.

You can't even chat properly. The ships are so far apart that it takes 18 days for a radio/laser signal to crawl between them. Over a month for an exchange of email (a month and a half if you want some sort of acknowledgement of receipt).

277:

You missed space elevators, although they have their own issues (and won't be "commute to work" fast -- more like "catch the trans-Siberian express from Moscow to Vladivostok").

278:

"Actually, it's dirt simple."

No it isn't. Otherwise physicists would not have been arguing over it for the past century or so,

279:

You know, I do wonder if there's room in your undoubtedly busy schedule for a how-to book concerning realistic science in writing. I'd certainly read it.

That's a job for someone like Dave Clements, not me -- although you could do worse than look at "Hot Earth Dreams" by Frank Landis for the global warming/terrestrial future angle.

280:

"...but by 1970 or so the experimental questions had been answered fairly conclusively."

Nowhere near true. For example, it is not known whether there is a limit on the macroscopic mass that can be put into a superposition, nor the relationship between the mass and the time a superposition can be maintained.

281:

Talking about He3 ...

This actually came up at work in conversation recently. As in, "why are we using He3 in this experiment?" and "isn't that incredibly expensive?" and "what practical use would it be in an operational fusion reactor, given that its basically unavailable"

So, it turns out that minority He3 ions have useful absorption lines for ICRH heating of plasmas, and you really want to heat the ions, not the electrons. Yes it is expensive, but we're only using trace amounts, and an operational DT fusion reactor beeding tritium would also produce He3. As far as I understood what she was telling me.

282:

Wait, ageing and diminishing audience? Do you mean the readers of paper published stuff that is labelled SF? Because as far as I know lots of teenagers and YA are reading stuff that is SF.
However, whether it is labelled as such I don't know.

Relatedly, I saw a book by Lauren Beukes in a bookstore. She wrote "Moxyland", which got a nice cover blurb from our host, and I think comes under SF. However the new book describes it as, I am paraphrasing due to my poor memoery, "near future political .... ....."

No mention of SF at all. I get the impression that some marketing bots are attempting to appeal to different market segments in different ways at different times. Or else being branded as a mere SF author when you are trying to write urban fantasy isn't seen as a good thing.

283:

When reading the OP, the first thing I thought was "I would like to nominate every paragraph of every book ever written by James S. A. Corey."


This would be slightly unfair, because I haven't read them all, just one complete book, and then enough of a couple more to not bother.


284:

I was going to suggest each chapter could be written by a different author with a particular specialty. Though if their fields happen to overlap, and they have differing opinions, could need a bit of negotiating/editing.

285:

One thing I'm tired of hearing about (since I haven't actually read any, unless "Little Brother" counts) are YA Dystopias. Are we trying to raise a bunch of depressives? I suppose they're intended to be uplifting, but...

Once had an idea for an Anti-Dystopian Dystopia, where the protagonist only knows the world they've grown up in, always hearing the oldsters going on about the Good Ol' Days and thinking they're full of it. Sure the world is a crapsack, but the old ways clearly didn't work out well, so how to improve things?

286:

So, what were the good old days like? say, the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s... Having been there, they were shit. Now is *way* better.

287:

...an operational DT fusion reactor breeding tritium would also produce He3...

Tritium (3H) decays to 3He, so anything that makes significant amounts of tritium can be regarded as making 3He, with a lead time of about a decade (half-life of tritium is about 12 years).

The plan, as I understand it (one of our students has just finished writing a PhD thesis on it, but he's not my student and I haven't read the thesis) is to line the tokamak with lithium, ideally enriched in 6Li. The neutrons released by DT fusion then hit the lithium, which breaks up into 4He + 3H. You greatly reduce the problems caused by loose neutrons, and you breed more fuel (the D part of DT fusion is easy—refine water—it's the T bit that's the problem).

Heteromeles@212: best vacuum-dwelling life form I've ever seen in SF remains Fred Hoyle's Black Cloud. Doesn't satisfy any of your requirements, because it's not using a body plan designed for planets.

Guess@221: Greg Egan respects physics: in fact he builds half his plots around concepts from theoretical physics. (I'm never sure how well they work for someone who hasn't got a physics degree...) Al Reynolds is a former professional astronomer, and also tends to respect physics.

288:

There is a term of art that developed early on in the field of SF criticism: willing suspension of disbelief.

A bit earlier than that - it was coined by Coleridge in 1817, initially in reference to his own and Wordsworth's poetry.

289:

Hidden sociopath leads a mutiny on/takes over a generation/spaceship ...

Let's see --- Hares' psychopathy checklist is routinely used to risk-assess individuals for security purposes. In crappy SF, you get an agency pouring billions into a project which inexplicably decides to not do a personality assessment, relying on their gut-instinct instead. Good grief! Major orgs with well-educated/trained HR departments fact-check CVs in detail, run series of these types of tests, and then compare results with the 'feel'* obtained from group (or serial) interviews. Team building/team management is based on such tests being reasonably good at ferreting out major problems.

* Some of these are multiple choice style questionnaires which are then mapped.

290:

NASA doesn't show what tests they're currently using to screen its astronauts, only says that such tests are important. Meanwhile, below is DOD's current take on personality testing to screen for/gauge security risk:

http://www.dhra.mil/perserec/reports/tr11-05.pdf

291:

People have been arguing over how to interpret QM for a century or so. The experimental results have been in for decades and repeatedly validated to many decimal places. Pretty much nobody argues about them any more. This is even true for experiments in the mesoscale, where quantum effects are noticeable but not dominant.

I remember a series of exercises where we took standard QM equations, made the assumption that any term containing Planck's constant was negligible, and derived classical Newtonian physical laws. Physics and chemistry students typically do that sort of exercise in the second or third year of college. Relativistic physics also reduces to Newtonian physics if appropriate assumptions are made (v << c, c >> the escape velocity of relevant gravitational fields, etc).

292:

Whoops. HTML and much much greater than signs did not play nice together. Ignore the parenthetical comment in my last post.

[[ Now as you intended - mod ]]

293:

No idea what NASA looks for, but it seems like Mars One is looking for suicidal introverts, judging from the candidate videos I've seen (and assuming it's not a scam looking for gullible applicants). The son of someone I know* made it through phase 2. Apparently he was cut after some psychological testing, my guess is he was too well balanced.

*and with whom Charlie once had a Twitter argument, for my money Charlie won.

294:

Persinality testing is irrelvant if the system is biased towards selecting sociopaths eg the typical CEO of a fortune 500 company theredore in my mind its one of the more believable tropes.

295:

Underwater metallurgy: electroplating/electroforming. And let's not forget that gold nuggets (and probably native copper) are the result of hydrothermal processing.

296:

And quite a few employers want hand-written CVs to put it to their graphologist, where describing evidence as "mixed" is putting it too lightly. Guess they'd also employ phrenologists if that had not fallen out of favor.

In other cultures, employing astrologers or heating turtle bones might be en vogue.

Sorry, something widely employed in industry is quite often more testament to human gullibility than efficience. And psychometric tests were quite often not designed for employees, but for clinical settings. And with certain ethnic groups or gender.

Also, for what it's worth, the Hare PCL-R has a 5-year test-retest reliability of 0.89. Excellent for a psychometric test, BTW.

297:

Except that we know for a fact that QM and GRT are incompatible and one or both of them have to be modified. Also, there is not much experimental work concerning the QM measurement problem, which is the key to distinguishing between interpretations.
Just a couple of loose ends, and when they are tidied away that will be the end of physics. Reminds me of...

298:

Or their ancestors could have started fires by focusing light using lenses from the abyss dwellers (giant squids?) that would occasionally wash up on shore. This might have led to a primitive eyeball-based trading economy and, possibly, interesting design choices as their technology evolved.

299:

I'll admit up front to being a fan of the Galaxy Quest and Hitchhiker's Guide variety of science fiction. Absurdity is part of the fun, so I just don't care how things work to very much detail. Need a beryllium sphere to power the spaceship? Cool. A cracked one won't work which means a trip to the nearest planet for an adventure? Go for it.

What does bother me is when the story comes to a full stop for several pages of explanation about how a particular bit of science does work. Imagine if they did that in a movie. Everybody stops what they are doing while we sit and get educated.* I like novels that play a movie in my mind's eye. When the writing becomes merely informational, the movie goes dark.

Which means that I'm okay with a plain old 'fusion reactor' as a power source if it's not central to the plot. It sufficiently answers the question about where the electricity comes from without raising any technical plausibility arguments.

*The scene in the first Jurassic Park movie where Hammond explains how they cloned dinosaurs is an exceptional exception. It was set up moments earlier when Grant asked him - "How did you do this?" "I'll show you." The filmmakers were very aware of what they were doing and kept it dynamic and short.

300:

Dirk...
I was going to comment on the 3-way dispute you are having with Jay & dbp, but you have finally hot the nail ....
What's different is that when I first came across this, approx 1967, it was whispered of & you were hushed at if you dared to mention it.
Now it's out in the open all over the place, but with no potential solution in sight.
The late 19thC equivalent was the "Ultraviolet Catastrophe" - which was resolved, originally by Planck suggesting that at a sufficiently small level of "size", the universe was "Lumpy" = "quantized" = discontinuous.
That is our present problem between QM & General Rel.

BUT

Remember that both GR & QM were originally "PAPER" exercises in true Theory, with no apparent practical applications.
Yet every transistor & laser on the planet depends upon QM working as the theory predicts, so it is anything but esoteric handwaving, & on a serious industrial scale.
The mismatch between the two is, what 32 orders of magnitude or 28, or something like that?
When ( & it will be when, it's just that we have no idea if it is going to be next week, or 50 years from now ) this anomaly is cracked, then you can expect really serious alterations to the real world, in the same way, that QM & GR have altered ours.

301:

The two people who make up James Corey - Daniel Abraham and Ty Franks - have openly stated that they wanted to create space opera and weren't interested in hard SF. My copy of Leviathan Wakes had an interview with them at the end of it as an add-on, and they said that the fusion drive in the books is unrealistic.

You could read them as Space Fantasy if you wanted to, just like with Star Wars.

@JamesPadraicR

I'd love to see a story that was basically "how a Mars colony dies". It wouldn't even have to be "they run out of supplies, the promoter back home goes bankrupt, they all starve to death or die when things break down". You could show how the colony has an initial burst of thousands of colonists coming from enthusiast ranks, followed by the dwindling of it over time as the romance wears off, the colony draws few further migrants, and the first Martian-born generation romanticizes Earth and starts moving back.

RE: Aquatic Civilizations

Couldn't they just do a lot of construction on the surface, after bringing materials to the surface of the seas? It's not like going out of water is instant death for sea life - they just have a hard time breathing and supporting their own weight. If they figure out how to keep their gills damp and build themselves support harnesses/waiting tanks, maybe they'd build platforms in shallow water upon which they would do all their metallurgy and dry-environment engineering.

@Tom

It's something else to go back and read Jurassic Park again. Oh, the optimism about genetic engineering in the late 1980s/early 1990s . . .

302:

Phrenology ... yes, my favorite is the Diskworld version.

Meanwhile back to reality ... here's a bit about Einstein's lobes that's the modern day equivalent of phrenology. If you're a fan of Kurzweil's 'Singularity', this may be a good place to start figuring out how/whether to map a human mind.


http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2012/11/14/brain.aws295

Summary: 'Upon his death in 1955, Albert Einstein’s brain was removed, fixed and photographed from multiple angles. It was then sectioned into 240 blocks, and histological slides were prepared. At the time, a roadmap was drawn that illustrates the location within the brain of each block and its associated slides. Here we describe the external gross neuroanatomy of Einstein’s entire cerebral cortex from 14 recently discovered photographs, most of which were taken from unconventional angles. Two of the photographs reveal sulcal patterns of the medial surfaces of the hemispheres, and another shows the neuroanatomy of the right (exposed) insula. Most of Einstein’s sulci are identified, and sulcal patterns in various parts of the brain are compared with those of 85 human brains that have been described in the literature. To the extent currently possible, unusual features of Einstein’s brain are tentatively interpreted in light of what is known about the evolution of higher cognitive processes in humans. As an aid to future investigators, these (and other) features are correlated with blocks on the roadmap (and therefore histological slides). Einstein’s brain has an extraordinary prefrontal cortex, which may have contributed to the neurological substrates for some of his remarkable cognitive abilities. The primary somatosensory and motor cortices near the regions that typically represent face and tongue are greatly expanded in the left hemisphere. Einstein’s parietal lobes are also unusual and may have provided some of the neurological underpinnings for his visuospatial and mathematical skills, as others have hypothesized. Einstein’s brain has typical frontal and occipital shape asymmetries (petalias) and grossly asymmetrical inferior and superior parietal lobules. Contrary to the literature, Einstein’s brain is not spherical, does not lack parietal opercula and has non-confluent Sylvian and inferior postcentral sulci.'

303:

The movie "Moon" not only was mining for He3, but it had an extremely expensive conspiracy to do so. Apparently because they were bad guys who obviously were willing to give up lots of profits in order to be evil.

304:

I would have said the same thing before reading KSR's 2312. That struck me as a plausible extrapolation IF we don't develop human or near human-scale machine intelligence. KSR's future has a great deal of control over human genetics (transhuman body types and gender experimentation), some degree of self-reproducing robotics (necessary to create the asteroid habitats), etc. The implanted quantum AI was a little questionable, since having that level of technology would have many other knock-on effects not visible in his setting, but the rest of it held up pretty well.

But yes, if we're able to machine intelligence that can perform scientific research and experimentation at greater-than-human levels (be it speed, level of insight, etc) than I agree that it's hard to see how the world doesn't become quite strange >100 years out.

305:

"The Martian Chronicles" sort of goes along those lines; the romance of Mars begins the wane, and colonists start to return, along with being called back because of a nuclear war. That last bit never made much sense to me, but I love the book.
Of course, a Hard SF version would be a very different story.

306:

I'm surely expressing an embarrassing degree of ignorance here, but what about dark energy and dark matter? I find it hard to reconcile the statement that we understand nature to N number of decimal places when you look at these new discoveries.

Perhaps dark energy and dark matter will offer no hooks for science or engineering to exploit. But the history of the 20th century -- where we learned how to pry open and harness both nuclear forces and QM effects -- suggests that would be a bold statement to make.

307:

My question is what could possibly be physically traded that couldn't be created at home once the informational pattern is known? Presumably, the same elements exist everywhere in the galaxy.

I loved James Cameron's artistic vision of the interstellar starship created for 2009's Avatar. But the expense of the ISV Venture Star (supposedly powered by laser sail to 0.7c from Earth and then decelerated via antimatter engines on arrival) was justified by the presence of "unobtanium", a hypothetical mineral only found on Pandora. That mineral was supposedly the secret to room-temperature superconductivity back on Earth, thus justifying the fantastic energy expense to get humans to Alpha Centauri and back in 7-8 years.

How would the same physical laws allow for a mineral to form only in one star system and nowhere in our Solar System? Barring this kind of "magic mineral", what other raw material could possibly be worth trading with alien civilizations?

The alternative is that there's no interstellar trade in raw materials, but then what do we humans have to offer in return once the interstellar trading network is discovered? The only thing I can imagine humans offering to an intergalactic trade network is our art, history, culture... the things that make us unique.

That might make an interesting story - about how an alien trading network is willing to give us occasional baubles of ultra-high technology or scientific insights in return for artifacts of our culture. Has anyone written a story like this?

308:

Bingo! I'd read that book in a heartbeat :). I'm happy to go along with the old tropes (the Special Child) if you make it plausible in a near-future society. OGH's plot hook here reminds me of something Heteromeles was saying earlier, about how new scientific discoveries often open up new ways of telling old stories rather than necessarily closing them out.

309:

Greg - Thanks for the specific recommendations. I tried tackling The Peripheral last year, and found myself totally "at sea" trying to figure out the setting. I'll give it another shot. Never heard of The Red: First Light, off to go download a sample!

310:

Tourism. There's something special about experiencing things directly, for humans anyway.

311:

I don't know of a rule that says that life is limited to planets with medium levels of surface water, and you can have some fun discussions with astrophysicists on the topic of how complex a dirty plasma can get.

312:

Or you've got to come up with the biological equivalent of a Whipple shield and/or aerogel, and then figure out the fun problem of articulating joints that are covered by such (thick) surfaces.

I'm one of the advocates for spaceships being warm and fuzzy, I guess.

313:

My question is what could possibly be physically traded that couldn't be created at home once the informational pattern is known?

There are two obvious candidates. One is peculiar chemistry; we don't have the resources in the other solar system to figure out how that particular bit of the local biosphere is making that stuff, but it does something very valuable. (Typically anti-aging or curing cancer in extant fiction; if I was trying for plausible I'd be looking at "wet nanotech industrial substrate" or something, something that allows either better or faster production of something critical to the sinews of power. Maybe it gets the success rate for growing CNS tissue from .03% to 85%, and all the wealthy and the great need it to keep their brains from senescing by stuffing in fresh cloned tissue. Use stem cells and your personality changes, can't have that...)

This wouldn't last; there would be massive efforts to figure out how to synthesize it. But that effort might involve having to be able to support a thousand research scientists and a full-scale AI in the source system, and while the ships are delivering the city-in-pieces necessary to support that to the system of origin they might as well be lugging alien mollusc ligaments back to Earth.

Two is the product of really extreme conditions; there's an Anderson story about a planet that used to be a super-jovian, and then the system primary went supernova and plated it with, among many other heavy elements, stable transuranics. Belief in stable transuranics is no longer with us, but the idea that you can get something in a particular spot because something drastic happened there might hold up. (little pieces of cosmic string? exotic matter? Something. non-baryonic matter is matter of vast squishy possibility at the moment.)

314:

Huh. That's interesting. Reading other articles in the mainstream tech literature, I was under the impression that Intel was having real challenges seeing a viable path for anything below ~ 7nm.

NextBigFuture last year had an article (http://nextbigfuture.com/2014/10/ieee-panel-agree-moores-law-via.html) about the IEEE conference with the quote that "All three morning panelists here agreed Moore’s Law is approaching an end, and it’s not clear what enabling technology could replace it as an engine of exponential technology growth."

One big question is whether we need an entirely new S-shaped curve of information processing technology (ala the leap from prop engines to the jet) in order to achieve human-equivalent machine intelligence? Or can we get there using algorithmic optimizations on the progress we've already made, perhaps with specialized "bolt-ons" (photonics, quantum computing for certain narrowly circumscribed classes of problems)?

And before I get swatted down for veering towards the Singularity attractor, I'm only interested in whether we can develop machine intelligence in the 21st century that is human-equivalent for contributions to scientific and engineering projects. Don't need to open the philosophical questions of self-awareness, "emotional drives", etc.

I have a good friend who's a lead negotiator for the US at the current Paris conference on climate change. He freely admits that it's likely going to require geoengineering or other engineering solutions to avoid catastrophic climate change, given the current thermal inertia locked in and the slowness of the global response.

So from where I sit, the shape of 21st century history is going to depend greatly on whether we see major scientific and engineering breakthroughs in biotech, energy and space. And whether we see breakthroughs will depend greatly on whether our machine intelligence can be developed to become equivalent to BS students, MS students or even PhD researchers. The prospect of having human scientists in 2050 supplemented by vast networks of Masters or PhD level "minds" working on these problems 24/7 gives me at least a little frisson of optimism.


315:

One thing that can rescue some of those technologies from being doomsday devices is restricting the area of effect. You can negate gravity in a 10cm area for almost free, 50m radius cheaply, but at 500m and higher it's absurdly expensive.

If that's a property of the affected area rather than the effector, you can't sidestep it using a large array of emitters.

That would force you to use other technologies for planet-to-orbit mass freight -- or maybe that's not even viable and most of the economic intercourse is based on orbital mining, farming, and manufacturing.

That would still get you from surface to orbit as a daily commute, though it wouldn't get you planets exporting grain to other star systems.

316:

Possible "ultimate resource" - a black hole used as a hypercomputer:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypercomputation

317:

He freely admits that it's likely going to require geoengineering

Geoengineering cannot work.

I really wish people would get this through their heads.

In order for geoengineering to work, we would have to be able to predict weather on long term -- years -- time spans, and not only do we know we can't, we have pretty good reasons to believe there are fundamental causes for that, such that if we had a bunch of Culture Minds willing to help out, they couldn't do it, either.

If we don't have that, all we can do is move the global average temperature. Moving the average temperature doesn't help. Temperature isn't the problem; unpredictable weather breaking agriculture is the problem. Creating big atmospheric zones where the temperature equilibrium has been adjusted makes the weather no more unpredictable, and plausibly less because oh look, extra forcing.

EVERYTHING ELSE is secondary to breaking agriculture. A functioning industrial civilization can move cities if the sea rises; it can build airconditioners, it can move populations. If we lose industrial civilization billions die. And if we lose agriculture we lose industrial civilization.

318:

Anyone care to provide a plain-English explanation of potential applications of Q-carbon esp. re: space tech & exploration?

http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/journal/jap/118/21/10.1063/1.4936595

319:

(Reply also to peteratjet)

Hesitating to teach a physicist to suck nuclei, but... there are side reactions which produce 3He directly. The cross section is much lower and the energy required much higher, but there will be particles in the high-side tail of the thermal energy distribution that have enough energy to make it happen at least to a detectable extent.

Of course, 3He likes to suck neutrons in an attempt to be 4He, only to find that it ends up being tritium and a proton instead, much to its chagrin. This being a far more likely event than reactions with other nuclei at the temperatures of D-T fusion makes it the prime factor in determining the equilibrium concentration of 3He.

AIUI the idea of catching the fusion neutrons in lithium has been part of the plan pretty much from the start (and the US got their fingers burnt discovering that 6Li enrichment is not as necessary as they thought when you have lots of neutrons over about 4.5MeV or so to play with). It strikes me as an odd idea for a PhD thesis in this day and age, but then I'm not familiar with the selection criteria for thesis topics.

320:

People really want carbon for circuitry or substrate in dense electronic devices because it's such an excellent heat conductor and heat dissipation is a major issue with increasing circuit density. (Witness the half kilo hunks of copper heatsink found on high end graphics cards.)

The paper's talking about doing quantum sorcery with lasers to get carbon to form diamond at STP, and how they can get the resulting tiny bits of diamond to link up. This would be fantastically useful if they can, for example, create a diamond thin film as a circuit substrate so the circuit dissipates heat much better.

There are probably other applications with direct carbon circuitry and the moderate magnetism. But I'd expect the thing driving the research is heat dissipation.

321:

And how do you make the wires and electricity underwater?

322:

"an alien trading network is willing to give us occasional baubles of ultra-high technology or scientific insights in return for artifacts of our culture. Has anyone written a story like this?"

Yes - I am sure I have read something of the kind, probably more than one. Unfortunately my memory is not throwing up anything more specific. There is probably something in the vast list of Asimov's short stories. The theme of some kind of human-specific weirdness being the primary determinant of the nature of human/alien relations is one he has used more than once, although the only variant I can remember off the top of my head is the one with the cyanide-breathing quadruped aliens which concerns darker matters than trade.

There is also at least one story in which apparently benign products of human culture turn out to be useful as a weapon. Frequency combinations which sound harmonious to human ears turn out to be actually painful to the aliens concerned, enabling a group of captured humans to escape from an alien zoo by singing "It's a long way to Tipperary" and other music hall favourites. Very silly, but entertaining, and I wish I could remember what the story was.

323:

Agreed, and that's part of the "problem." I'm thinking off all those kids (many of whom I know) who read Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, and have gone onto, um, video games and such.

One of the critical failures in SF seems to be the rise of Young Adult Literature. Once kids have read their kids stuff and are ready to read adult literature, they don't go over to the SF/Fantasy aisle, because that's where the nerds hang out.

We, on the other hand, read The Lord of the Rings, then started looking at what else was sitting in the Fantasy aisle, and kept reading. That split between the aisles is certainly a problem, because kids seem to be migrating out of the store, not across the aisle.

That's just my personal experience. I'd love to hear some counter examples.

324:

Its someowhat both cultural and an agricultural product but John Ringo had some fun with one of his hero's becoming a billionaire by selling Maple Syrup to aliens who found it addictive in return for hi tech geegaws.

325:

@Heteromeles: I guess it depends on whether or not you're an optimist or a pessimist! I rather think (or maybe I hope) that any aliens out there advanced enough to pay us a visit will have evolved enough cooperative impulses to make working with us preferable to working against us.

@Charlie: Doesnt that depend on how much faster the shuttles can go relative to the ships? If they can double their velocity, then traveling between the ships should be quite practical. To travel 1/20th of a light year at light speed takes 1/20th of a year- about 20 days. Double that every time you halve the velocity: .25c is only 80 days.

@ChrisJ: I think you're being unduly pessimistic. After all, the same elements exist everywhere on Earth- therefore there should be no reason for international trade. To make the trade route viable, it's only necessary that something be obtainable there in sufficiently high quantity that the expense of going there is still worth it. Depending upon what shape our own planet is in after a century or so of climate change, that "something" might be organic.

But if that scenario does not appeal to you there is one other resource that we might offer- ourselves. Depending upon how common sentient life is in our section of the galaxy, and how difficult it turns out to be to manufacture GAI of human IQ or better, a workforce of several billion teachable individuals and a reasonably advanced industrial infrastructure might be of considerable value. We could become the galaxy's
Amazon- give us the specs and we'll make it to order, and ship it to the nearest transit point to boot! That might even make us worth fighting over (plot hint).

Our cultural artifacts might be worth something too, much like indigenous crafts on Earth, although in that case we could reduce our costs by faking it.

326:

@Heteromeles

It's a great idea. I'm imagining a huge empire - China-esque in size and population - springing up in the drainage basin of the Mississippi River and other rivers in the southeastern US. An empire built around maize, beans, and squash instead of wheat and rice, but pretty damn impressive.

The tricky part is that they'd still be starting on these things much later than in Europe. They might still be behind in various technologies ranging from wheeled transportation to iron-weapon-making. But with the disease resistance and what they have, they'd certainly be resistant to mass colonization - it'd be more like Europe dealing with China before the 19th century.

Actually, I might do a blog post on this at some point, because things get so very messy so very fast in this kind of alt-history.

If the New World has already been inoculated against old world epidemic diseases, then one of the probable knock-on effects is that the worst of the Little Ice Age never happens.

The argument goes as follows: when explorers hit the New World in the very early 16th Century (1500s) they unleashed a bunch of plagues, the evidence of which is their accounts of large civilizations where later people found it largely empty. By the beginning of the 17th Century, the world was getting colder, and one good candidate for why is that all the regrowing forest in the New World sucked enough carbon out of the air to trigger/exacerbate the Little Ice Age.

There's a nice book Global Crisis by Geoffrey Parker, about the 17th Century and the effects of that little climate shift, a drop of 1-2oC and general crop failures. This is when there were civil and other wars across Europe, the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the Enlightenment (including the Peace of Westphalia, which the beginning of our modern nation-state system), the end of the Ming Dynasty and the beginning of the Qing Dyansty, end of the Kongo kingdom, civil wars in the Mughal, Ottoman, and (IIRC) Russian empires, and so on.

In this alt-history, none of this happened, because the New World was not depopulated, the forests never regrew, and the climate stayed more constant.

It can get arbitrarily more complicated from there. When the Chinese got their hands on things like maize, potatoes, and sweet potatoes from the New World via the Spanish Manila Galleon trade, their population exploded, because upland areas that had previously been unfavorable for rice-based agriculture were suddenly farmable. This population explosion happened all across east and south-east Asia and kind of rebuilt the place, starting in the 16th Century. Pervuian silver shipped to China via Manila also held up the Ming (and later Qing) economies and made Spain rich in the process. Given how huge an impact New World plants and precious metals had on China in our timeline, I'd say there's no way that China would have left these resources with the Aztecs et al. had they gotten over there in the first place.

So a world where the Chinese set up trading relationships with the Aztecs (or heck, colonized them directly) would look very different than what we have. China would have gotten rich, and Europe would have stayed a backwater, possibly trading across the Panamanian Isthmus with Chinese traders.

The basic point is that messing with the discovery of the Americas radically changes history in the Old World too. It's not just a matter of what the European colonists face when they arrive, it's what happens in the old country. The General Crisis of the 17th Century arguably decreased world populations by somewhere around 1/3. If that didn't happen, there would be a lot more poor peasants in Europe, fewer places for them to migrate to, and more countries where the divine right of kings and similar political theories hadn't been disproved by a century of disastrous war. The Qing would still be a bunch of nomads north of the Great Wall, and something else might have brought the Ming down.

What does that all look like?

All you have to add to turn it into a true fantasy world is posit that the Magic Didn't Go Away with the Little Ice Age, or some renaissance researcher codified the rules of magic (per Randall Garret), and you can take off from there.

327:

Biologically? Electric eels and so on... they seem to be jolly good at it, certainly a lot better than Volta's piles were. And insulation isn't a big deal as long as you keep the voltages below the electrode potentials (although you do then find that everything is an enormous capacitor). Also, a general philosophy of electricity that comes from the Thevenin angle rather than the Norton as ours does.

But aren't we looking at this the wrong way? "Doing tech" requires (apparently) some means of concentrating energy. Our methods, naturally, are based on those means which work in air, and water dissipates the energy and buggers them up. But water also allows for other methods of concentration which don't work in air and so aren't the sort of thing that occurs to us. Cavitation, for example, which eats propellers. That shrimp which stuns its prey by means of high-energy acoustic pulses. It's just really hard for us to imagine what might work because we are so used, both intellectually and biologically, to such very different conditions.

I don't think a marine technological species is impossible. I just think its technology would begin and develop in ways enormously different from ours. To write a good story about it would require an author with an exceptionally good imagination and a huge amount of fairly obscure knowledge, to be able to see the differences in environment in terms of their possibilities rather than their limitations, but if it was properly done it could be excellent.

328:

Geoengineering cannot work.

I really wish people would get this through their heads.

In order for geoengineering to work, we would have to be able to predict weather on long term -- years -- time spans, and not only do we know we can't, we have pretty good reasons to believe there are fundamental causes for that, such that if we had a bunch of Culture Minds willing to help out, they couldn't do it, either.

I don't think that is true. Any method of reducing the equilibrium concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere/oceans will reduce radiative forcing. Whether it takes 100,000 years via natural silicate weathering or less time with human help, excess CO2 that humans have been producing with fossil combustion will eventually be bound as minerals again. You don't need long term weather prediction to effects of CO2 falling again more than you need it to understand CO2 rising.

The IPCC is already exploring "net negative emissions" (e.g. geoengineering for carbon dioxide removal) and I expect it will become more prominent over time. Global emissions still aren't falling and even when (if) they do, the tremendous climate lag means there's a lot of warming still to come without active stabilization measures. None of the options look great but it's far from clear that intervention will be worse than waiting an aeon for unaided nature to take care of excess CO2.

329:

"...how much faster the shuttles can go relative to the ships..."

As far as the shuttles are concerned, the ships are standing still. The difficulty with shuttles is that they keep needing fuel/propellant to accelerate away from one ship and then decelerate at the next, so how much of this do the ships need to carry to keep the shuttles moving?

330:

Several shibboleths that violate basic realities about computers and software bother me whenever I encounter them.

Firstly, in a classical computer network, treating a "move" operation as anything other than "copy and delete". When, in a story, a classical AI moves to a new computer, what it's really doing is copying itself to the new computer, then killing the original. Why just not skip the second step, and become more numerous? I vaguely remember one novel about AIs where an evil AI is "killed" in transmission through space by moving or disabling the receiver. Why did the original not wait to delete itself until transmission was confirmed?

(However, thanks to Hannu Rajaniemi, I now realize that in a quantum computer, there is no copy -- only move. But I can't think of any other author who has successfully and correctly exploited this distinction.)

Secondly, any novel about virtual reality in which humans can become trapped or lost in VR is just confused. People minds don't "enter" VR. Our minds stay inside our brains where they always have been; the VR equipment merely fools those minds into thinking they are elsewhere. Even positing computer implants that can interrupt and redirect the sensory stream to your brain, your mind can't become "lost" in VR; you can, however, become disabled or crippled due to the malfunctioning of your medical prostheses.

More generally, if you're thinking of writing a story about virtual reality, read Rudy Rucker's "The Hacker and the Ants". If your plot still holds up after internalizing Rucker's understanding of computers, you might have something.

Thirdly, positing any sort of world-conquering AI that successfully (or nearly successfully) conquers the world the first time it is run. Most prototype software is crap; even more so highly complex, distributed software. It never works the first time. Why should a world-conquering AI be any different? This was one of the objections to Reagan's vision of SDI: the software to manage the defense would need to be so complex it could never be debugged and so was unlikely to work the first time. Think about it another way: despite our limitations, humans rarely keel over dead when the doorbell, phone, and Skype connection ring simultaneously. Prototype software often does, it's called a race condition. How many race conditions would it take to conquer the world?

331:

It's true that QM and relativity are incompatible. It's also true that those incompatibilities have absolutely no practical consequences under any conditions that human ingenuity has been able to devise. If the incompatibilities had consequences that could lead to competing predictions under any experimental conditions, we would have solved that riddle years ago.

@ChrisJ: Dark energy and dark matter are fudge factors that cosmologists insert into their equations to try to explain why the overall structure of the universe looks the way it does. They're possibly nonsense, like the epicycles added to Ptolemaic astronomy to explain the movement of the planets. Whatever they are (if anything), they don't seem to matter at non-cosmological scales of time and space.

332:

Any method of reducing the equilibrium concentration of GHGs in the atmosphere/oceans will reduce radiative forcing.

But not all at once, evenly, over the entire world. You're applying differential forcing somehow, and that will have unknown effects. Since they're unknown, they can't be good.

(Try not to cause an ice age. Go back to the CO2 levels of 1850 and you might well. Oh, wait, poorly understood feedback mechanisms with decadal lag are involved.)

Sequestration is very, very difficult. That hundred thousand years may be as fast as it can happen. And yes, lots of people are looking at the problem. That doesn't mean it can work. (Lots of people have looked at getting people to behave in the common interest for millennia. No known solution.)

333:

" I now realize that in a quantum computer, there is no copy -- only move."

That's the conventional wisdom, but it may be wrong.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-cloning_theorem
http://arxiv.org/pdf/quant-ph/9607018.pdf

BTW, if quantum cloning were possible it may well imply FTL communications

334:

"It's true that QM and relativity are incompatible. It's also true that those incompatibilities have absolutely no practical consequences under any conditions that human ingenuity has been able to devise."

As might have been said just before QM and SRT appeared. Except that when we did get a handle on them there were most definitely applications, albeit lagging by decades.

335:

Sigh.
That pushed me over the edge on buying. As soon as I get a spare $20 I'll buy a copy. Still don't like the price point, but ...
--
Otherwise a fascinating discussion.

336:

I suspect that they are very like Ptolemy's epicycles: "nonsense" in themselves, but required to make the sums come out right because said sums are based on an understanding which is fundamentally wrong at some deeper level. We can't say that some huge big thing which we have got wrong is unimportant until we know what it is and have put it right.

Same with the cosmological constant, which Einstein admitted he made up because it looked nicer (pretty much) and has continued to appear and disappear in various guises ever since according to how the theories of the moment do or don't call for such a fudge factor. Or string theory, which strikes me as a whole mass of shots in the dark because we don't know why the problems we're trying to solve with it arise in the first place and all we can do is make up maths that seems to fit - exactly like epicycles.

337:

Lifespan prolonging technologies - immortality, even - but people still look old.

The amount of money spent on research into the cosmetic concealment of age is three or four orders of magnitude greater than the money spent on life extension.

We'll have people looking 25 years old at 80 long before they think or move like 55-year-olds at 80, and a very, very long time before people live and breathe and reason at 250 years of age.

We'll probably have people looking 25 years old at 55 while I'm capable at spitting fragments of my dentures (or rejuvenated molars) with sheer jealousy... If not with any hope of accuracy, or intellectual coherence.

338:

Shibboleths, or maybe just face desk impactors...
Bad geometry. Specifically, the space battle in the Trojan asteroids, with Jupiter big as house in the background,allegedly 60 degrees away in its orbit.(Space Above and Beyond)

Bad economics. If you have the energy resources and technology to launch an interstellar invasion, stealing our water seems a bit petty. It would be like using the 6th Fleet to knock over a Sicilian post office.Admit it, you're just doing this for kicks.(V)

339:

At this point, there are two geoengineering methods that look like they'll (cough, cough sort of) work:

--Emit no greenhouse gases, and
--Capture what's in the atmosphere in the soil, and, to a lesser extent, in wood.

Things like sulfur aerosols just temporarily ameliorate the problem for part of the globe, and often the side effects far outweigh the benefits. For example, blowing a bunch of sulfur into the high latitude stratosphere might make it cooler in Seattle, but it would likely cause a drought in Bangladesh and surrounding areas, meaning that hundreds of millions of people would still be on the move. Moreover, as soon as the sulfur emissions stopped (and they'd probably have to eventually), the previous cool areas warm up that much faster.

Carbon capture and storage (e.g. putting carbon deep underground) requires (per Vaclav Smil) a global industrial ecosystem substantially larger than today's oil industrial ecosystem. It would have to be built within 10-20 years (oil infrastructure was built over a century), and it would be a net money suck on the global economy. It's doable, certainly, but unless we force the oil companies to bankrupt themselves paying for it, we're not going to get carbon back in the ground this way.

Getting carbon in the soil sort of works, but the problem is keeping it there for more than a few decades. Ditto with growing lots of trees. Still, these are being deployed now and they don't take huge amounts of tech.

This is why people worried about climate change really, really, really want Elon Musk to get a lot of copycats so that we can stop emitting GHG as fast as possible. Trying to get GHG out of the atmosphere and oceans once they're emitted is a hard chore.

340:

The Gene Editing Summit here in DC wrapped up early last week. They seemed very confident that the technology (CRISPR-CAS9) is here to stay and that it works so well that it's time for some controls to be implemented. The primary concern is that demand for the technology will create market forces that cannot be resisted. Here is a link to the website where the agenda, participant bios, and videos of the event are presented:

http://nationalacademies.org/gene-editing/Gene-Edit-Summit/index.htm

341:

Moon mining - even if all the other points weren't valid we still wouldn't have a colony of square jawed engineers on the moon - it'd all be teleoperated by half a dozen bored guys in a converted shipping container (probably outside Shanghai).

342:

Has anyone written a story like this?

"The Big Front Yard", Clifford Simak. A trader gets anti-gravity technology in exchange for the idea of paint.

343:

"Since you need fire for basically all technologies that would lead to starflight, an alien that builds ships but can't build a fire is a walking contradiction."

By way of a counter argument - I think its pretty clear that if anything 'human' is going out there its going to be pretty heavily engineered and creating fire by friction isn't a core skill on a spaceship (hopefully!). You could posit a species that engineered out the unnecessary limbs/appendages/organs (do you need that kidney or would it be more efficient to hook up to a dialysis machine once a week?)... a space faring alien might look like a brain wrapped in a membrane (the skull if probably redundant in space and you can wear a helmet outside your ship) some limbs for movement in zero g spaces (long tentacles for reach and pull maybe?) and some basic sensory organs. Plug into a suit or a machine or a ship as needed less biomass means less environment support (feed off a sugar solution - or maybe beer, Charlie did say beer was essential to space travel).

Anyway tl;dr fire seems necessary for basic technology but it doesn't necessarily follow that an alien species would need to do it by hand (ha) thousands of years after they developed spaceflight.

344:

Unfortunately the above has made it completely impossible for me to enjoy Star Trek since my late twenties.

Original ST was fun. And I was around 10 to 13 years old.

STNG was an amusing watch but it got old real quick that magic was used to resolve plot lines so often. This mostly ended when Roddenbery died and the plots actually had to be resolved in ways that made some bit of sense.

Not to mention that humanity had out grown religion, money, etc... but many of the plots only worked with those things in the background.

345:

Tourism. There's something special about experiencing things directly, for humans anyway.

Fair point. Agree that even if there aren't unique raw materials worth trading, seeing alien vistas and cultures would drive demand from Earth. Of course, we'd need to hope that the aliens find Earth sufficiently interesting in return to want to come here. Otherwise we have nothing to trade for our opportunities to go see the galaxy. Everyone wants to see Paris & Hawaii, not so many are dying to get to North Dakota.

346:

There are two obvious candidates. One is peculiar chemistry; we don't have the resources in the other solar system to figure out how that particular bit of the local biosphere is making that stuff, but it does something very valuable.

Ah, I'm reminded of the silk trade with China. A biological product, created under common planetary conditions (raw materials, gravity, etc), but dependent on a particular species and applied technique.

347:

Where the fuel for the shuttles is stored depends on the drive technology involved, which we haven't specified. Could be anything from open core fusion to solar sails (with the lasers on the ships). I don't have the mental energy right now to go over to Atomic Rockets and do the math.

348:

The theme of some kind of human-specific weirdness being the primary determinant of the nature of human/alien relations is one he has used more than once, although the only variant I can remember off the top of my head is the one with the cyanide-breathing quadruped aliens which concerns darker matters than trade.

Here's one of the shibboleths for me, the idea that Humanity is the Special Child. The idea that we'd stumble blinking into a vast pre-existing civilization (or network of civilizations), and yet we'd somehow be instantly recognized as uniquely valuable, even compared to other intelligent races.

I tried watching Star Trek Enterprise years ago, but couldn't get past the conceit that a newly warp-capable species (which had only recently survived its own Third World War) was supposed to leap to command of the entire Federation within 100 years. It struck me as an exercise in ego-stroking reminiscent of pre-Copernican religions.

Now if it turns out that interstellar trading networks are hungry for any cultural artifacts which add diversity to the pre-existing mix? That seems more plausible. Much like Fauvist artists in the late 19th century were inspired by trips to Tahiti and exposure to new artistic styles. We might have something to offer in trade in that scenario simply for being different and offering a novel perspective. E.g. we're the Tahitians.

349:

Secondly, any novel about virtual reality in which humans can become trapped or lost in VR is just confused. People minds don't "enter" VR. Our minds stay inside our brains where they always have been; the VR equipment merely fools those minds into thinking they are elsewhere. Even positing computer implants that can interrupt and redirect the sensory stream to your brain, your mind can't become "lost" in VR; you can, however, become disabled or crippled due to the malfunctioning of your medical prostheses.

This seems a distinction without a difference.

If future VR technologies could override incoming nervous system inputs, then your mind IS someplace else. The brain has no way of knowing what exists outside the black box of the skull without incoming sensory data. This includes the usual suspects like visual and auditory nerves, but also includes a host of internal "body data" such as the kinesthetic position of limbs and sensations from internal systems like the digestive tract.

Assuming those inputs have been hijacked and are being fed alternate data, you could easily become "lost in VR" with no way out. The horrifying possibilities of virtual reality torture was one of the most spine-chilling features of Richard Morgan's "Altered Carbon".

350:

Or we make great pets.

351:

One key question is, "how much is a kill worth"? Bullets are individually cheap, but if it takes 20,000 rounds to hit one insurgent in a jungle, that adds up

Saw a show on the development of proximity AA shells in WWII.

ABICR

At the start of the war in the Pacific the US was firing 5000 5" shells per downed plane. After they came up with proximity shells that was cut down to 500. Both numbers seem absurdly high to me but I'm not in this field.

352:

That scenario is one of the scenes in the novel he linked to (ie, "The Hacker and the Ants").

353:

If all of the characters are dudes, then where did everyone else go?

My wife and daughter just spent 5 days walking around Jerusalem and a few other nearby towns doing the tourist thing on the cheap. Mostly the older areas. She was struck by how few women were as they walked around.

354:

These things go in cycles. Back in the 1960s and 1970s John Christopher (real name Sam Youd) made a good living writing YA dystopias and he had plenty of company. The 70s were not an optimistic time. We've got a lot of YA dystopias right now because the Hunger Games made a ton of money and every publisher wanted a piece of that action. Same way Harry Potter led to a whole bunch of YA books about kids with magic powers. Eventually there will be a new hit and something else will be the obsession of the hour.

355:

Things to watch out for:
Cyber- as a prefix.

There's a new TV show in the US called CSI:Cyber. I thought that just maybe they get some of it right. Turned it off after less than 5 minutes. Sigh.

356:

Since a lot of the discussion revolves around space opera, I feel obliged to link to the Tough Guide to the Galaxy. But that useful site makes an important point - a lot of these tropes persist in the face of logic and reason precisely because readers want them. They want the tramp steamers in space, they want starship troopers fighting over planets and they want the Napoleonic Wars in space even when it makes no sense. It's not even specifically political - John Scalzi has been noted as a repeat offender and he's left of center politically. He's also very popular- just got a multi-million dollar contract.

It's all a little depressing. The space opera of the 1950s and 1960s may be woefully dated but the best authors tried very hard to make sure the stories made sense and that they were creating a future that might happen. The modern writers largely don't seem to care and neither do the readers. Frankly, if we're not going to bother with trying to create a plausible fictional future, bring on the dragons and wizards.

357:

Ha!

You all missed the biggest one. (Btw - this is actually manifestly destiny depressing, and shows you're not actually thinking).


Environment determines and shapes consciousness.


Your children (12 under) will live in a world without Lions, Tigers, Bears, Rhinos, Elephants etc.

Your children will not only never-have-seen an animal apart from on a screen (that's 2015, today, btw) but they will live in a world where they are now extinct.

You can do the same for abstract ideas as well ("freedom"; "free thought"; "progress").


~


Kinda funny.


#357 and no-one got it yet.

Hint: Eloi and Morlocks.

358:

Forget the rocks hitting the hull. Did you notice the bit where she had starships fueled by algae (!) that is grown in vats on the ship? Presumably, the algae is grown with lights that are powered by the algae that is grown with lights powered by...

359:

Guess you weren't paying attention when I mentioned using Polynesia as a model. Paucity of species is kind of baked in there. Of course, most people live in cities and get by with even less.

360:

>>>Your children (12 under) will live in a world without Lions, Tigers, Bears, Rhinos, Elephants etc.

1. The vast majority of children already only ever see those animals in the zoo. This will not change. They will not go extinct, only "extinct in the wild".
2. Bears are not going anywhere.

Environment determines and shapes consciousness

I like to live in an environment where I am not interacting with large carnivores, thank you very much.

361:

Here's a semi-new idea:

I just found out about the New Age Bullshit Generator which is an automated generator of New Age-y psychobabble, based on the Twitter stream of a well-known practitioner of the art. Fun stuff if you haven't seen it already. I'm just late to the party, as usual.

The challenge for the coders among us is to write the code to use standard SFF shibboleths and plots to generate SF book proposals (at least the elevator pitch therefrom) that writers can turn into novels and thereby pay off their student loans and make a living. It shouldn't be that hard, as the code for the New Age BS generator is available on Github.

362:

Never mind. It's been done. In multiple, different ways (I could add quite a few more on).

there's a random generator for SF props, too.

I guess automating the generation of shibboleths is, itself, a shibboleth. Are shibboleths a strange loop? Or is that a shibboleth in itself?

363:

Might be interesting to compare Einstein's brain to what is known about frequent peculiarities in close relatives of schizophrenics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eduard_Einstein

or maybe developmentally disabled


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lieserl_Einstein#Lieserl_Einstein_.28Albert.27s_daughter.29

364:

One thing that can rescue some of those technologies from being doomsday devices is restricting the area of effect. You can negate gravity in a 10cm area for almost free, 50m radius cheaply, but at 500m and higher it's absurdly expensive.

Of course how the "absurdly expensive" cost is limited by the lower radius items. For quick back of the envelope calculations, if a 50 m radius antigrav can be done at price X, a 500 m radius one can't cost much more than 10^2 = 100 times that.

This is just from using enough of the inexpensive 50 m radius units to cover the 500 m radius area.

Oh, yeah, these kind of basic math errors are one of my science fiction shibboleths. I can't think of any particular examples right now, but I think I've seen and forgotten them already.

And, yes, Dave Clements should write a book about science writing in science fiction, please. ;)

365:

If the incompatibilities had consequences that could lead to competing predictions under any experimental conditions, we would have solved that riddle years ago.
How do you know that this is true & are you really sure of that?
Dark energy and dark matter are fudge factors that cosmologists insert into their equations to try to explain why the overall structure of the universe looks the way it does. They're possibly nonsense,...
Really?
Dark Matter, or something very like it has been "observed" in the sense of producing effects (gravitational) that can not be explained otherwise, & Dark Energy is Einstein's "Big Lambda" form GR theory.
I'd be careful about being so dismissive, actually.

366:

As used by 99% of Psychiatrists & 150% of politicians & property developers, I assume?

367:

Thanks! I might track it down.

368:

"Lions, Tigers, Bears, Rhinos, Elephants etc" have been living in a world without my children since 1962! ;-)

369:

Did you notice the bit where she had starships fueled by algae (!) that is grown in vats on the ship?

I've never read this and I doubt I'd want to. It's interesting to wonder how such a scheme could be salvaged, though. Maybe the algae is genetically engineered to produce thiotimoline, which in turn activates the time engines... *grin*

370:

Of course how the "absurdly expensive" cost is limited by the lower radius items.

Re-read the original post; dhasenan explicitly addressed that question in the next paragraph.

As an example, suppose Antigravity Device Foo affects a given spherical radius and the power consumption increases by volume not radius; reasonable but maybe annoying for large applications. But where does the weight go? A plausible-for-storytelling answer is that it's pushed out to everything around the ADF field, in a region proportional to the size of the antigravity effect; this is all the excuse an author needs to say that two or more ADF units can't operate right next to each other (and makes bringing down ADF vehicles very easy). Large arrays of small machines are not always practical at all, much less as replacements for one big gadget.

371:

Hazardous jobs. We already have robots to examine nuclear reactors and safely detonate small bombs. That's only going to expand, yet scifi stories still have humans in hazardous occupations.

Actually those are ROVs. Which still require people nearby. Until AI gets a whole heaping lot better. And if it's that much better than current state of the art it should impact the plot of almost any book.

372:

Actually those are ROVs. Which still require people nearby.

This seems to be a good argument for humans-in-a-can in orbit around inhospitable places, at least. There's no obvious reason to send humans to the surface of Titan or the interior of Europa when it's so much easier to send expendable ROVs instead. Particularly if the AI is good enough for routine traveling and a human mind only needs to drop in to do specialized tasks; that way one human can oversee multiple semi-autonomous robots widely dispersed over an arbitrarily large area.

373:

There's certainly some element of that. I guess it depends crucially on how good resolution you actually need for the sensor package.

With a beam follower, you can probably get away with somewhere in the region of 30 pixels total, if the shape of the sensor is right (might be able to do it with 4-5 pixels, but to some extent more is better).

I suspect that you can trade resolution for light sensitivity, as long as you can somewhat reliably distinguish "target" from "background" (total flight time is probably going to be short enough that you can risk the possibility of one target being confused with another as they cross over).

I still suspect it would be hard to drop it down below 10 mm diameter.

374:

Once an algorithm is aiming the bullet, then it won't be long before cops insist that bullets be programmed not to target them, and it won't take long after that for organized crime to copy the protection method.

Will not happen. There will be a security back door which only the good guys have access to use and they will thus be able to keep the bad guys at bay.[/sarcasm]

Riffing on current TLA agencies demands.

375:

Tritium is an unwanted product of nuclear reactors. It is produced in the reactor and escapes from the generators sufficiently that it becomes a local pollution problem, found in noticeable concentrations in groundwater near the plants. However its biological halflife is so short it's not regarded as any kind of risk to health.

I could tell you a funny story about tritium and the regulations for disposal thereof...

376:

Here is one egregious example - igniting a trail of jet fuel in snow, which catches up with airliner taking off and then leaps through the air to blow up the plane. Die Hard:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0Tt7VUMLs8
Utter shit.

Sorry you missed the fact that all of the Die Hard movies are comic books implemented with live actors.

377:

genetically engineered to produce thiotimoline

I will see what you did there, in a couple of years! :-D

378:

Where I am, they're doing dense clusters of houses without yards surrounding a mall that has a grocery store, a drugstore, a bank, and random other small business. That few if any of these buildings have solar power, rainwater collection, or so forth has escaped the attention of the largely right-wing builders, for some reason that makes no sense to me.

Because they have certain profit numbers to meet. And to meet them they will take the local zoning/planning rules and then build to fit in those rules while maximizing profit. A thing most of the people making up the rules don't seem to get. They do things like demand a grocery store be built on a unused city lot. Then get upset when no one will build there as the numbers don't work. Real life example here. Most of my business client income is from architects who are more into your thought on things. But reality bites hard a lot of the time.

... the idea that local homes should be built with solar and the ability to collect rainwater was dismissed as dangerously speculative and radical, even though we are in a record-breaking drought.

I'm looking hard at just tearing down my 1961 suburban split level house and building something more ameiable to growing old in and that might have some resell value donw the road. I'd done some preliminary design and are looking to make it so solar can be added later and rainwater collection and drainage is more than just a barrel at the corner of the house.

But I'm sure that a neighbor or two will flip out when they get an idea of what I might do. See this for how a similar house a few miles away had issues.
http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/local/article9107840.html
http://www.architectmagazine.com/design/modern-home-in-raleigh-overcomes-historic-preservation-challenge_o

379:

By having shops at ground level facing out you ensure that there's lots of daytime pedestrian traffic and maximize housing density in the interior of the city without needing to go more than 3-5 stories up.

Building codes in the US make this hard. Having a business below a residential area really ramps up the code requirements for fire safety and such and makes it hard to pull off for a price point that works unless you're talking much taller buildings.

380:

I can think of a third (speculative) capture process: capture GHGs dissolved in the surface waters of the ocean and precipitate them out in some insoluble form, notably carbonate ions to calcium carbonate.

That process is currently going into reverse -- acidification is fucking with diatoms and molluscs ability to build shells. But what if we deliberately set out to drive it, using a combination of large-scale reactors tweaked to produce aragonite at maximum efficiency, and the square-cube law? Aragonite tends to dissolve in an acidified, carbonated solution -- but the more massive the chunk, the lower its surface area will be in proportion to its volume, so the less efficient the dissolution mechanism becomes.

I'd envisage some sort of "floating island" mass sitting on blown bubbles of aragonite, supporting a sub-surface mass of genetically modified organisms tweaked for maximum aragonite synthesizing efficiency and if necessary fed nutrient supplements to keep them going; surround the whole thing with a pumped osmotic membrane to keep the carbonate concentration optimized for shell synthesis. As more matter builds up, periodically detach it in big chunks and let it sink to the bottom of the sea.

Assumptions: that we can build a better shellfish or coral, optimized for producing insoluble carbonates, under semi-controlled conditions. Not plausible in the short term (5-50 years), may be plausible in the 50-500 year time frame (which is what we need to worry about).

Secondary assumption: we can find sources of calcium minerals that are not fully carbon-bound by mining on land, or that there's enough free calcium in seawater to make this process viable.

381:

Actually, come to think of it, Star Wars warfare as seen in the movies is a rather interesting combo. Starship fleets that can essentially get anywhere in the galaxy in mere hours, without warning

In my watching it seemed to be days and weeks, not hours.

382:

Plausible? Readable?

Why would the people of Earth commit their entire GDP to such a thing?

These ships would make US aircraft carriers look disposable and cheap.

383:

If the incompatibilities had consequences that could lead to competing predictions under any experimental conditions, we would have solved that riddle years ago.

How do you know that this is true & are you really sure of that?

That's pretty much the scientific method in a nutshell. If two hypotheses made different predictions under any practicable circumstances, obviously we would run the experiment to falsify (at least) one of them if at all possible. The remaining questions in physics are so difficult to answer precisely because they're so inconsequential.

384:

Note that teleoperating robots is fraught by control-loop lag due to the speed of light. The Soviet experience with their Lunokhod rovers was that driving them on the lunar surface was extremely fatiguing and difficult for the drivers, because of the roughly 1.5 second light-speed propagation time for signals in each direction. (Think of it as like playing a computer game talking to a server over a very laggy link, with no save points, no respawns, and a hundred million dollar penalty in real life if you screw up.)

These days, with some autonomous capability, driving vehicles on the moon shouldn't be too onerous -- instead of trying to directly control, you direct the onboard autopilot to proceed to a specific point. But this will only get you so far; experience with three American Mars rovers shows that when your control-loop is 15-30 minutes, every single move has to be very carefully choreographed in advance, and it's worth noting that those Mars rovers typically travel on the order of single-digit kilometres per year, not per hour.

Now add the repair problem and it gets even worse: messing with intricate assemblies in an unfamiliar gravitational field is orders of magnitude harder than pointing a rover at a target waypoint. Teleoperated humanoid robots ought to be able to do the job, but only if the control lag is short enough for it to feel like real time telepresence to the human operators. That, to me, suggests a moonbase; either on Luna -- with a shirtsleeve environment for the folks controlling the maintenance bots on the surface -- or, for Mars exploration, dug into the surface of Phobos or Deimos. (Use a layer of moon rock for radiation protection, run an antenna farm and/or solar collectors on the surface for comms and power, use comsats in low orbit to relay signals to the ground -- not geosynch or areosync, the signal lag is noticeable -- and you can provide a working telepresence illusion.)

So, bored buys in shipping container outside Shanghai? You can use that for the grunt work of bossing dump trucks and bulldozers around on the moon, but for anything more delicate, your bored guys need to be in a shipping container on the Sea of Tranquility or dug into Phobos.

385:

Shibboleth: "It will take me a couple of minutes to break/bypass the encryption..."

386:

Sticking a Lambda on the end of a GTR equation in no way "explains" Dark Energy. Or if it does, it is as useful as the word "Dark".

387:

A few people have mentioned it in specific form, but the generalised case is: Any mention of a specialised area of knowledge that the reader is a specialist/familiar with.

In the US the common thread is lawyers can't stand to watch the TV show "Law and Order". And doctors have the same issue with the show "House M.D.".

388:

Your interesting proposal about the anatomy of space-going aliens reminds me of H. G. Wells' predictions of how humans would continue to evolve in the far future. He thought: big brains, vestigial limbs and bodies.

Me, I call bullshit. For one thing, we've got a model of what an ideal human body should look like baked into our wetware -- think of beauty and aesthetic sense as an emergent side-effect of our reproductive drive -- and changing the body proportions and appearance of a new model human too far away from that is going to produce massive body dysphoria in them, unless we also tweak their nervous system to match. For seconds, a lot of human reproductive issues revolve around the ratio of skull size of the neonate to pelvis size of the mother: the "big brains" direction is not going to work without external incubation because it'd kill the mother (or require a mandatory caesarian delivery).

We're actually a fairly finely-balanced compromise between a whole bunch of requirements. I can easily envisage a set of tweaks to human cellular biology intended to make us more viable in microgravity, or more radiation-resistant, or less susceptible to ageing and senescence: possibly, much more speculatively, to formalize the endosymbiotic relationship we have with our more useful prokaryotic passengers. (It'd be really useful to regain the ability to synthesize vitamin C, or to build in the ability to break down lignin and cellulose in our gut as an emergency food source and/or to help simplify a space colony or starship's biomass recycling.) But gross morphological departures from the original template are a lot harder, and the stuff I'm proposing is already much more challenging than folks without a biosciences background might appreciate.

389:

Under that assumption a car that can go at 200mph should only cost twice as much as a car that can do 100mph.

If a story requires it some Handwavium can be expended to explain, for example, that a large anti-gravitational area effect is more unstable than a smaller one and hence needs more energy or equipment to sustain it or it can't be held in place for as long etc. etc. Hopefully the story isn't written around the Handwavium, it's just a prop for the real tale.

390:

I thought that was kind of obvious?

(A quick google isn't helping me find it, but a few years ago I pointed out that we're raising the first generation who will never know what it's like to be lost -- that is, unable to orient themselves geographically. If that isn't a WTF moment, I don't know what is! But I will note that on visits to major cities I've pretty much given up on buying local street maps in the past couple of years -- I just make sure I've got mobile bandwidth and a spare USB backup battery.)

391:

Under that assumption a car that can go at 200mph should only cost twice as much as a car that can do 100mph.

If a story requires it some Handwavium can be expended to explain, for example, that a large anti-gravitational area effect is more unstable than a smaller one and hence needs more energy or equipment to sustain it or it can't be held in place for as long etc. etc. Hopefully the story isn't written around the Handwavium, it's just a prop for the real tale.

I was talking about just that if you have a gadget (drone, ship, whatever) which does Things to gravity in a 50 meter radius and is cheap, you can cover a 500 m radius with about hundred of them.

If you handwave it so that the small devices interfere with each other or something, then, yes, but that requires more handwave and needs to be addressed (in my opinion) at least somehow.

The car analogy would (in my opinion again) be more like "if you can fit five people in a car, and you need to transport 50 people, buying a bus is necessary only if it's cheaper than buying ten regular cars". Not about speed in this.

The car speed comparison would be more akin to "if this can fiddle with gravity for up to half a gee, we could use two to fiddle up to a gee".

392:

The idea that we're going to get "turn ignition key and go" responsiveness out of alien high tech artefacts in the thousands to millions of years age-range is just delusional

Aw. Now you've gone and ruined Stargate SG1 for me.

393:

Interesting. There are three things that piss me off, and
only one has been widely commented on: the separation of
compatible biochemistries and compatible exoparasites;
panspermia (still just about plausible) might give both, but
not just one! The others have been been touched on, though.

One is the portrayal of very different societies with the
people (or aliens) thinking exactly like modern westerners.
I have a little experience of pre-science cultures and
education, and the difference in the way that people think
about ordinary life is both drastic and pervasive - much
more than between two post-science cultures. Of course,
describing that well obviously requires actual genius ....

The other is treating complexity as simple (and here I blame
the professionals (both academics and science writers). One
simply cannot have immortality, immunity from all disease
(including cancer and auto-immune ones), AI without the
comparable flaws, etc., without full-blown deity powers.
One needs a workable metamathematics of the mathematics of
the physical universe to do that!

The most annoying nonsense here is the myth promoted by
so-called computer scientists that proving P=NP would have
any practical effect; I could explain why not, if wanted.
Goedel/Turing is more interesting, especially as there are
computational models where its standard proofs fail, but
that area gets seriously arcane quite quickly and the 'state
of the art' is best summarised as 'dunno'.

394:

... (hint: infrared emissions, second hint: the background temperature you want to avoid standing out against is 2.73 degrees Kelvin, i.e. liquid Helium temperature

A minor nitpick, but:

This, as it happens, depends rather a lot on where you are and is mostly not true, though I see it fairly often in science fiction discussions. Most people don't realize how much extra background radiation there is in space, in addition to the 2.725 K cosmic microwave background radiation.

In the inner Solar System, for example, the dominant infrared background is thermal emission from dust grains (plus scattered thermal photons from the Sun). This peaks at around 10 microns (roughly peak emission for something with a temperature of 250-300 K). There's also a significant background from stars and dust in the Milky Way, and the so-called cosmic infrared background (the cumulative infrared emission from billions of distant galaxies).

This is what the infrared background looks like from within the inner Solar System (as seen by the COBE satellite):
http://lambda.gsfc.nasa.gov/product/cobe/dirbe_image.cfm

This doesn't really invalidate the general "stealth is really difficult in space" argument, but it's not exactly correct to say, "2.73 K cosmic background radiation is the only thing out there".

395:

Admit it, you're just doing this for kicks.(V)

Wasn't it "for a fine dining experience", as in "To Serve a Human"? :)

396:

Alien contact, and the resulting international competition for technological advantage, is the most plausible scenario I was able to come up with.

397:

At the start of the war in the Pacific the US was firing 5000 5" shells per downed plane. After they came up with proximity shells that was cut down to 500. Both numbers seem absurdly high to me but I'm not in this field

Sounds plausible...

Firstly, "success" is not "shoot down plane" but "stop plane hitting ship with bomb / torpedo". Hitting the plane is just a bonus.

Secondly, hitting a plane at anything above low altitude is a non-trivial problem in 3-D maths.

- You're firing a barely- or non-supersonic heavy artillery shell upwards, and trying to get the fragmentation to intersect with the aircraft sufficiently to achieve critical damage.

- You're having to "lead" the target (pronounced as in "dog's lead/leash", not the heavy metal), i.e. predict where it's going to be in a couple of seconds time. Any bearing or velocity error, is a miss. Any significant variation in muzzle velocity, is a miss. Note - barrel temperature can be significant.

- Originally, this was achieved with timed fuzes in the shell; effectively "go bang at altitude X", Any mistakes in the estimation of altitude, is a miss.

The "Variable Timed" (VT) Fuze (code word to obscure the obvious) is in fact an omnidirectional radar; anything big enough to register a closing velocity gets the good news once it stops closing - hence the later name of "Proximity" Fuze, once the secret was out. Suddenly, an exact estimation of altitude is less critical, but still important when predicting the "lead" on the target.

If you fire a VT fuzed shell at the ground, you can set it to go boom at a given altitude; i.e. airburst artillery, which is an order of magnitude more effective at killing people than point-detonation fuzes. Of course, in the 90s some bright spark in the US figured that you could spoof said fuzes and get them to go boom fractionally early and ineffectively; basically a manpack artillery shield (called Shortstop, if you want to search for it). So now they had to make artillery fuzes proof against ECM...

398:

I didn't find it plausible, beyond the cost and feasibility of such a system I just don't get the point. I can't imagine there being anything physical worth trading over interstellar distances. Even technology, might as well do that by (long drawn out) communication.

That's assuming that humanity had anything useful to trade.

399:

I was talking about just that if you have a gadget (drone, ship, whatever) which does Things to gravity in a 50 meter radius and is cheap, you can cover a 500 m radius with about hundred of them.

Shouldn't the number required vary as the third power of the radius?

400:

For what it's worth, biological eyes actually do trade resolution for light sensitivity. The size of a retinal cell is fairly constant, but under low-light conditions organisms link the outputs of multiple retinal cells over a larger area to boost the probability of detecting photons.

401:

Not to mention Douglas Hill, who did a whole bunch in the 80s as well.

I think Dystopias and disaster scenarios are particularly popular for YA literature because they solve the number one problem - how do you get most of the adults out of the way so that your teenagers can be the heroes.

The few remaining adults can fill the role of Grizzled Mentor, Primary Antagonist or Figure of Authority while the kids get up to mischief.

402:

I hope you don't live in a neighborhood where a 1961 split-level is considered "historic", much less in need of preservation. I have seen the same mindset somewhat inverted in new neighborhoods with residents' associations, which is why I purposefully bought a house in a neighborhood without such nonsense (for James Padraic R, off West Uintah north of Old Colorado City). There's something bizarre about the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave having many people who want to tell you what color you can paint your house.

Per the shibboleths, for me there seems to be a sliding scale that depends on whether I know and like the author; and I can usually apply my dross filter based on blurbs and jacket summaries.

I will also admit to consuming brain candy, if I find the packaging attractive enough.

403:

Actually, I could see low mass luxury items that are the result of complex biological processes - think spices, for example. There are also variations in crops grown under different environments, i.e. Central American coffee beans have a distinctly different flavor than Pacific coffee beans.

404:

current full-tech capability is caseless ammo and cobalt alloy barrels and no one is deploying those

One of the biggest issues with caseless ammo is that it turns out a significant amount of the heat from firing is soaked into the brass and then ejected. With caseless, you lose that one shot replacing heatsink, instead, the chamber absorbs all that heat and has to get rid of it, and in general, it's not shaped to do that well -- and high strength steels as a class are generally not very good conductors of heat. They have a high heat capacity, yes, but not good conductors, so you end up with a significant heat buildup right at the source. (This, BTW, is why we make heatsinks of things like copper and aluminum -- they conduct heat very well, so the heat gets away from the hotspot fast.)

And when the chamber gets hot enough to light the next round when loaded, you suddenly have a full-auto weapon that you can only stop firing by dropping the magazine.

405:

Pretty late to this party, but Star Trek teleporters annoy the hell out of me. Humans as a species have access to a technology that can manipulate matter on a molecular level. It's too big a thing to allow any other aspect of Star Trek to be plausible (which it largely isn't.) Klingons on the starboard bow? Dissasemble them molecule by molecule. He's dead Jim? Not anymore, the computer had to map him down to the atomic level during his last transporter trip, lets just print him out using old vegetable matter. Explore starnge new worlds and seek out new civilisations? Why bother? We can get everything we need from our Solar System, taking appart matter and rebuilding it however we wish.

406:

Actually, come to think of it, Star Wars warfare as seen in the movies is a rather interesting combo. Starship fleets that can essentially get anywhere in the galaxy in mere hours, without warning

In my watching it seemed to be days and weeks, not hours.

Your watching is wrong. That they are crossing the galaxy in less than a day is explicit in the text, multiple times, from 1977 on. This was a major plot point in at least 4 of the films.


Aw. Now you've gone and ruined Stargate SG1 for me.

Unless, as he pointed out, the hardware is explicitly designed to be that way. Which, per the text, it was. That the aliens built things to last millions of years and designed them to be usable by someone with the knowledge of someone in the middle ages was a major plot point for the series.

408:

Per smart bullets, etc. Another factor to consider is the cost of the improvement versus the projected payoff. This is why the US Army hasn't been able to move off the Beretta M9 pistol for the past 20 years; while there are more effective pistols, they aren't ENOUGH better to justify the expense (and if you're using a pistol in combat for anything other than a last resort, you're doing it wrong).

Nuances can lead to major missteps. When the Army bought the M16, they decided to use a different propellant than that the designer intended, leading to much more fouling and more stoppages on the battlefield. For a long time, the M16 was considered unreliable by the grunts, and they held on to their M14's as long as possible. Over time, most of the design shortcomings of the M16 family have been overcome, and it's likely to remain the main infantry weapon for the foreseeable future.

Equipping a sizable military with a "smart bullet" weapon will probably be much more expensive than replacing a service rifle or pistol. Since small arms make a relatively small proportion of casualties, I'd argue that, even with the technology, it'll be a long time before it's adopted en masse.

409:

The main reason the Swedish Army moved from a 9mm pistol to a 10mm pistol as the general service weapon is that people insisted on breaking the one rule of pistol firing, "never use the 9mm SMG ammo" (it's over-loaded, so relatively quickly causes stress fractures in the frame of a pistol). When there'd been enough severe injuries to self-disassembling pistols, they switched to one that is not ammo-compatible with the m/45.

Having common calibres is only useful if there's full compatibility between the rounds.

410:

He did it twice, then; "So Bright The Vision" had Earth as the galaxy's sole source of fiction.

412:

Oww! It just goes to show that there's no such thing as "soldier proof". That sucks from a logistical point of view. Consider the US military in WWII; there were two calibers of pistol ammo in use (.38 and .45), .30 carbine, and 30-06 for the M1903, M1 Garand, M1918 BAR, and the M1919 LMG/MMG, plus the .50 ammo for the Ma Deuce. Now we have 9mm, 5.56mm, and 7.62mm (primarily for vehicle-mounted MGs), and STILL the 12.7mm for the Ma Deuce. Wait, that's not so much progress after all. Guess it still sucks to be a loggie.

413:

Shouldn't the number required vary as the third power of the radius?

No. If you shield the surface you are effectivly shielding the whole volume. How is the gravitational interaction coming through the surface? Think Faraday cage as an analogy. (Unless of course, there is some higher-dimensional handwaving)

414:

I suspect that future Mars rovers and other robots exploring the Jovian moons will be more autonomous (smart-bots) rather than operated like a drone. These smart-bots will have a set of preprogrammed tasks for the first part of their mission and then go solo for the remainder of their lifespan. However, there will always be drone-bots.

My Shibboleth: Large moon or Mars bases established in the 21st century (including my mythical Armstrong moonbase mentioned in an earlier blog posting). There may be an ISS sized moonbase established by ~2050, but I don’t foresee manned Mars missions happening in my lifetime.

Exempting alternate histories/universes and everything written between 1950 and 1980, they had high hopes for the future. How were they to know we were on the road to a dystopian future. Every time I re-watch 2001: A Space Odyssey and see Clavius Base, I think of what could have been.

415:

There's something bizarre about the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave having many people who want to tell you what color you can paint your house.

Especially as in other regards, such as the environment, your legal system seems to let companies do pretty much what they want to, no matter what local residents want.

I wonder how much of that is displacement control? People can't control what they breath, drink, drive on, work for, etc — but at least they can have some control over the neighbour's paint colour?

416:

Actually you would be amazed how quickly all our geolocation tech breaks down as soon as you get into the real back country all the standard stuff is very reliant on some kind of connectivity. There is a reason why Gaiman is still in business

There are apps that work well with some preparation (spyglass etc) but they are hardly part of the standard kit

The really interesting thing that I have observed with my son as he gets old enough is how completely helpless he is with direction finding and manual orientation. iPhone stops working he is screwed. Been working on that

417:

Sigh. You're confusing national foundational mythology with reality again: it's propaganda, folks, not an actual depiction of reality. ("The Star Spangled Banner" was written in 1814 as wartime propaganda, adopted by the US Navy in 1889, and endorsed by Woodrow Wilson in 1916, not coincidentally during a world war; official national anthem status achieved only in 1931.

That sort of myth builds a nice cultural self-image that people like to see themselves reflected in, but it's not necessarily very accurate (the "rockets red glare" and "bombs bursting in the air" were British Congreve rockets during the bombardment of Baltimore).

So, triumphalist narratives reflect a kind of wishful thinking, rather than an accurate depiction of the world as it is: and yes, the USA's legal framework privileges the strong and big organizations so much that petty control over their neighbours in the hope they won't do something that decreases real estate resale value is about all individuals can hope for.

418:

One of the biggest issues with caseless ammo is that it turns out a significant amount of the heat from firing is soaked into the brass and then ejected.

Absolutely.

Which seems to be why the point of commonality between the H&K G11 and the current US LSAT [1] test articles is a rotary breech, so there's extra air cooling and the breech and the barrel can be made out of different materials.

So, yes, it's an engineering concern but it's well and truly solved. It's just very expensive to replace all that ammo inventory and all those small arms, and the expected benefit isn't all that big.

[1] someone has a sense of humour

[2] the Army wants to go with cased telescoped rounds; the Marines want full caseless. That should be interesting. In both, err, cases, the driver looks like weight of ammunition, rather than performance.

419:

You re-quote yourself & not me ...
And ...& But
We know that both QM & GRE are both "true"
And you state, ex cathedra:
"The remaining questions in physics are so difficult to answer precisely because they're so inconsequential."

How do you know that?
QM looked completely practically inconsequential, except to a tiny community of theoretical Physicists in 1895-1905.
Look at it now.

420:

Re-read the original post; dhasenan explicitly addressed that question in the next paragraph.

Ah, yes, I read it too fast. Thank you for correcting me.

It seems my couple of posts earlier today were talking about things already discussed, sorry. Teaches me to read before responding.

421:

One of the biggest issues with caseless ammo is that it turns out a significant amount of the heat from firing is soaked into the brass and then ejected.

True, but not unworkably so; they seem to have solved this with the LSAT project (the solution involving some isolation of chamber from barrel, so that a very hot barrel doesn't dump heat into the chamber to the point of cook-off).

And when the chamber gets hot enough to light the next round when loaded, you suddenly have a full-auto weapon that you can only stop firing by dropping the magazine.

There was an interesting trial that DoD did with the M-4/M-16 (PDF), in response to some SOF types who were complaining about firing accidents. Essentially, if you run several magazines through an M4/M16 in a hurry, you can get the barrel to melt in about 500 rounds (just under three minutes, if you work at it).

I did hear of a UK demonstration with the L86 at the Small-Arms School where they didn't fire to destruction, but fired instead at a realistic but very heavy rate - you could heat up an L86 to cook-off every few seconds after nine or ten magazines. Note that cook-offs due to heat are not "fully automatic", because it takes time for each round to be heated up by the chamber to the point of ignition - "it just went fully automatic" typically happens because of carbon build up within the body of the weapon and the lack of a safety sear in the design - I saw it happen to a Sterling SMG that had spent all day on the range, and had fired seven or eight hundred rounds.

With air-cooled belt-fed MGs, you tend to carry spare barrels that are changed over every 500 rounds or so. Given that the normal rate of fire, mounted on a tripod, is 100rpm; rapid rate is 200rpm; and that the tripod comes with two spare barrels; at worst you've got five minutes to allow each barrel to cool down, for a well-trained MG team.

422:

Yeah
I want my future back - some bastards stole it!

423:

"Star-Mangled Spanner" surely?

424:

A UK military friend serving at a NATO post in the US, described the Commonwealth types holding a dinner this year to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the US invasion of Canada; there may have been a flambeed dessert in the form of the White House, but the US types took it in good humour :)

After a Regimental Dinner where our band murdered the US National Anthem (it was at short notice, and to be honest they didn't murder it so much as commit war crimes), I did point out that we could have avoided some of the embarrassment if they had played "God Save the Queen", and claimed that it was "My Country, 'tis of Thee" (same tune)...

425:

Long time no hear! Some of the gang here have been wondering how you've been.

Now, back to your post. I was sorta heading in the same direction ... be gentle when you pick apart.


Evolution-in-a-bag (why-we’re-so-special: flexibility and resiliency) – okay, we’ve no idea how evolution would progress, what it would produce anywhere else. But the story premise is that aliens in a routine mapping of the galaxy find something very unusual about Earth: all life is related, despite the extreme range of diversity including being able to occupy every conceivable niche everywhere they look. A series of core samples when examined closely contain life forms from every major geologic epoch. Therefore the aliens decide to study us … in depth.

From a story perspective this provides a platform for discussing differences between alien and humans starting with the solar system, planet formation evolution, ecology, extinction events, appetites and internal controls (homeostasis, satiety, addiction, learning, immune system, junk DNA), reproduction, developmental bio/psych, etc. and what each means when looked at from the different (alien vs. human) point of view. I’m assuming said aliens have really nifty stats software.

What the aliens decide to do with their newly acquired knowledge is up to the writer/reader. Possibilities: aliens feel they’ve become stagnant as a species so want to see how biologic diversification might pep things up for their species, or some groups need/want to migrate therefore need to develop/test alternate proven biologic evolution strategies/scenarios.


Topic change ... carbon capture, Q-carbon

I like this new materials possibility, but it's probably a shibolleth for other posters.

Carbon expulsion instead of carbon capture? What would happen if you could send/vent the excess carbon into space?

Energy sunroof ... Floating gas bags that combine physical sun-screening* with Q-carbon PV cells to generate/store energy.

*These sun-screens would be enormous flat sheets at very high altitudes floating over seldom traveled areas such as the southern Indian Ocean. They'd be timed to drift up/down around the equator in time with the earth’s axis. Supplies, etc. could be done using reconditioned/repurposed ghost ships currently floating in a boat graveyard off Johor in Malaysia. (Maybe the Q-carbon could also be used as a really long extension cord? … The description of Q-carbon makes it sound as though you wouldn’t get the same sort/rate of electric current/power loss as you do with regular copper wires.)


Back on topic ...

Worst shibboleth of all … profit is ‘the’ sane reason to do anything.

Off-topic again ...


Since someone has already ventured into real-world pet peeves:

Personal transportation devices … check any road or highway and about 75% of all cars are occupied by only one person. On a per-car basis – in my neck of the woods anyways - multiple person transportation accounts for maybe 10% of all automobile trips/mileage. Plus - just how many groceries, how much baggage/gear do you really need to haul around? And do you need this capacity every single day? This car trope is insane and a major rethink is overdue. And no, this is not a plug for bicycles. This has to be powered, stable (so four wheels) as well as provide weather/environment protection and privacy for the driver.

426:

never use the 9mm SMG ammo

I may have been on ranges where we were handed 2Z ammunition... testament to the strength of the Browning 9mm, none of them broke :)

Note for all - rather light loadings of 9mm by litigation-averse US ammunition companies has led to the US myth that 9mm is somehow an ineffective ammunition nature; forgetful of the fact that 9mm Parabellum (near enough 9mm NATO, and a +P+ load) had filled graveyards all over Europe.

427:

Not really.

There are multiple forces at work causing development patterns, going all the way back to Eisenhower green-lighting suburbanization as a way to make sure everyone didn't get incinerated when nuclear war started and the nukes rained down on dense cities.

Here are some of the players: Home Owner's Associations, along with the various covenants, deed restrictions, etc. The notion here is that blighted houses drive everyone's property values down, so they mandate certain design criteria in an effort to keep the values comparable. Since the value of your house is determined not just by what it is but by the quality of the neighborhood it's in, this is a way to control the quality of the neighborhood.

In California, there's also the fun with ways of getting around the tax-limiting Proposition 13, which also involves taxing neighborhoods for the expenses they generate, and also (IIRC) involves the HOAs, because no taxation without representation. The boards are allegedly elected, but they control their membership quite easily by doing things like controlling when they meet so that most people can't make the meetings.

There are also planning boards. I've said some things about volunteer democracy, and the planning boards are one. You too can sit for 4-6 hours every month without pay and help decide what gets built in your community. Are you surprised that most of the people on these boards are real estate agents, agents for developers, and major land owners? Me neither. I've had the opportunity to go onto one for years, but because their meeting conflicts with another meeting, I can't do it.

As for the bad design of local developments, it's interesting how, now that solar is taking off, the newest homes have these pyramidal roofs with lots of dormers that would be crappy for solar panels. That's not cost-savings, that's politics. It would be cheaper for them to build simpler roof lines and align them with the local sun.

And that takes us to the final bit of nastiness: US politics. The US grew to be a world power on the back of petroleum, which still powers our military. One of the things most people don't explicitly talk about is what switching to 100% renewables will do to that balance of power, and it's one reason I think that going sustainable is going to be really bloody at some point. HOWEVER, I suspect that this is one reason that the US Right Wing really, really doesn't want to go off fossil fuels, and why moderates like Obama and Clinton want it to be a gradual process (e.g. not on their watch).

At this point, I think it's less dangerous to go sustainable fast, but everyone reading this should realize that this affects every military in the world too, and that a lot of people are going to die in the fighting that establishes whatever the next world order looks like. We've built up a lot of karma with our oil-powered military industrial complex, and I don't think it can be unwound painlessly.

428:

We'll have to agree to disagree on that one. All the ones we see on screen come across to me as taking hours, not days or weeks. The only exceptions were the trip in Phantom Menace from Naboo to Tattooine (which they were doing either with no hyperdrive or a back-up hyperdrive), and maybe the trip from Hoth to Bespin in Empire Strikes Back.

The fluff novels in the Expanded Universe had trips that took longer, but they've overriden by what's on screen in a clash.

@Ken Chiacchia

God, I love Slashdot some days:

Hehehe. "Answer in search of a question" strikes again!

429:

What NASA wants in terms of shorter-time-lag telepresence isn't really constant control in real-time by an operator. They like the whole "program everything into a sequence in advance" model for robotic space exploration, because it keeps power and control over the mission in the hands of ground control (and allows for stop-and-go investigation of stuff). If we do a "humans in orbit controlling robots on Mars" mission at some point, what will happen is that the astronauts will be just sitting there waiting to trouble-shoot rovers executing pre-programmed sequences of tasks as they happen.

Shorter versions: NASA ground control really, really, really likes being in control of every aspect of the mission, and would be very resistant to allowing astronauts to do their own investigations and scientific discovery decisions.

What that means is that you don't need telepresence with unnoticeably short lag-times. You just need it to be much better than what it is now - seconds instead of minutes or worse.

430:

Your future was cancelled due to all the money being pissed away into the sands of Iraq and banker's pockets.

431:

And on the "We Are All Doomed" front...
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-35029962

"COP21: Carbon emissions 'to stall or even decline' this year"

432:

I'm doing this off the top of my head, but here's what I think is going on with your scenario.

Something like half of Earth's oxygen comes from oceanic phytoplankton, and it's generated by metabolizing the CO2 in Earth's surface waters.

Even assuming the chemistry and energetics work out on your proposal (and I don't think they do), what you're talking about is depriving the phytoplankton of their carbon dioxide and sequestering it in the deep ocean in a relatively inaccessible form.

Probably that's a bad idea. To be a little more specific, this is similar to what some people (Peter Ward and company) think happened at the beginning of the Triassic, and the earliest Triassic was a much nastier world than what we're looking at with global warming.

Now, assuming your carbon precipitator works, and you have a magical energy source that can convert the gigatonnes we'd need to convert, I'd suggest building a bunch of them on the continental shelves of the Arctic Ocean and capturing the CH3/CO2 coming out of the sediments there and depositing it in huge aragonite pyramids or some such. Sure it's one of the most hostile oceanic environments on the planet for built structures and the energetics of your system probably don't work (or work efficiently), but you do want to save life as usual, don't you?

433:

The first mention I recall of raising a generation that doesn't know what it's like to be lost is the Shaping the Future lecture, which still (deservedly!) has a place in the Specials sidebar.

With regard to storing excess CO2 as stable calcium carbonate: that's a key part of accelerated silicate weathering schemes. But not by direct artificial manufacture of aragonite from seawater. Instead you try to increase the pH of seawater by accelerating the natural weathering of silicates rich in calcium and magnesium, most easily by increasing the surface area of mafic rocks (e.g. crushing them). The weathering of mafic rocks is thermodynamically favorable at seashore conditions, e.g. MgSiO3 + CO2 -> MgCO3 + SiO2 proceeds without human-supplied energy inputs. But the kinetics are terrible with common bulk minerals like basalts. The fresh rock surface rapidly forms an ion-depleted rind of a few microns that protects the bulk underneath.

The kinetics can be improved by crushing the rock into fine enough particles that it only takes decades for the whole particle to finish weathering. It's also accelerated by putting the particles in an environment where phytochemicals enhance weathering, e.g. agricultural soils; crushed olivine can be used to reduce soil acidity, provide some nutrients, and bind atmospheric CO2 all at the same time. The shallow near-shore ocean environment can enhance weathering also as wave action mechanically abrades the ion-depleted rinds.

Increased alkali and alkaline earth ions in the ocean counteract ocean acidity and enable increased oceanic absorption of CO2 without harming marine shell-formers. Over the long term, formation of stable magnesium and calcium carbonates as solids binds the excess CO2 in geologically stable forms.

Based on the energy and capital costs of existing industrial rock crushing operations, I believe that accelerated silicate weathering is cheaper (not to mention less at risk of catastrophic rapid reversal) than schemes like underground CO2 storage. It's still more expensive than cutting anthropogenic emissions though. It also can't scale up enough to reach negative net emissions until gross emissions fall drastically. It is still a large-scale undertaking even if "all" we had to do was clean up the emissions of 1815-2015. And, finally, it is a slow process by human standards, though rapid compared to natural silicate weathering. It won't appeal to people who hold out hope that humans can somehow stabilize things in the next couple of decades without resorting to geoengineering.

434:

what you're talking about is depriving the phytoplankton of their carbon dioxide and sequestering it in the deep ocean in a relatively inaccessible form.

Isn't the idea, though, that CO2 from the atmosphere will continue to dissolve in the ocean? The ideal being a system that precipitates carbon out of the upper ocean at a rate equal to how rapidly CO2 enters the ocean...

435:

One that always used to get me until I worked hard to train myself to ignore it (or in some cases headcanon it away) was "color vision" and "color displays".

Basically: *our* eyes have R/G/B receptors, so we can fake up a lot of what we can see by just using R/G/B emitters. But even on Earth, animals with color vision don't all have the same number of color receptors and they're not all at the same wavelength. So a light-emitting display made for one set of eyes *will not* look the same (or, really, sane) for another set of eyes.

If the species have enough frequency overlap in total, the monochrome image can be right. The overall intensities can be right. The colors will often be *really* wrong. Almost no fiction "pays attention" to this (with the lone exception I can think of being "The Mote in God's Eye").

...and I just had to stop myself from elaborating for another six paragraphs of ranting. This one gets under my skin. I mostly have to "pretend" that high-tech displays actually recreate every single frequency (and even the polarization) of light that high-tech cameras capture, so that the light coming out of a monitor is literally indistinguishable from the light that entered the collection surface (lens, whatever).

436:

James White's Sector General universe had a passing reference to the issue of colour reception, in that there was a "universal written language" which was not in much favour. One of the reasons being that there was a large appendix dealing with colour mapping between species. (First story, "Medic," and then -- as far as I can recall -- never mentioned again.)

437:

"As for our future, what happens when/if most science and technology is done via (say) genetic algorithms? The end products we can use but almost certainly no Human could ever understand."

This is actually one of my particular shibboleths; the advancement of mechanistic machine learning leads to things "no human could ever understand".

There's a difference between the products of a process being *unexpected*, and the products not being understandable. Take the Google neural-net-generated "slug-dog" pictures. Certainly, they wouldn't have guessed that outcome, but given that outcome, understanding it at both a gestalt level ("there were a lot of pugs in the training set") and a technical, specific level (the cumulative decision functions going on) isn't even the hard part.

Broadly speaking, I think this cliche is related to a very common (some primate studies may indicate innate) flaw in intuitive estimates of probability and its consequences. For example, any particular ordering of a deck of cards(*) has an equal and astronomically-low probability of occurring, and you can't predict it in advance. But once you shuffle the deck, you have one of them, and it's no more alien than any other result.

(*) or position in chess, go, etc. Or particular formations of sentences, word choices, and so on.

438:

I want to reinforce one point: The problem (for me) is not lack of realism but that this is used to retell very old stories with no change. The whole ... recycled in spaaace! trope, instead of going with what ... paaaace actually would imply and using that to make your story more intersting, and less like stale bread.

For me, neither the Algebraist nor the Culture stories by IMB where that realistic (duh), but the Algebraist had a Univese that at least made a show of trying. The fnny thing is that the story, basically set in one gas giant, felt as grandiose as the biggest Culture extravaganza.

KSR mars or Sterlings Shaper/Mech solar system or the solar system travelled byFreya also each felt huge. The things that make SF what it is like sense of wonder don't need everything or anything from the space opera playset.

439:

Isn't the idea, though, that CO2 from the atmosphere will continue to dissolve in the ocean?

Yes, but Heteromeles is right: if you deplete the carbonic acid concentration in the upper ocean too far you starve the phytoplankton and you end up with an anoxic upper ocean, then probably a sulfide-metabolism bloom underneath and the sort of hideously toxic H2S bursts that kill of 98% of life on Earth ...

You've got to be really careful about how far you push a buffer solution: go just a bit too far and you end up flipping into an unfavourable state, and by unfavourable I mean "lethal on a global scale".

440:

Assuming the algorithms are good enough to run the mining side with some human control I think the keeping the meat sacks on earth will still be the cheaper option. I'm not sure that remote repair would be impossible at least for general service jobs but even if you needed to be hands on I suspect it'd still be cheaper to be launching some unfortunate tech every three or six months than to build a base and support for a team on the moon and then supply it and keep them entertained and rotate the staff regularly so they don't get too badly damaged by the low gravity and train their replacements. On top of which you've got all the extra training needed for space travel and survival, maintenance of a habitat etc - that's starting to push your staff costs up rapidly and getting into some highly specialist skills. For Mars I think you're right, the rovers are pushing the edge of what we can manage from earth (still compare the cost of the rover missions with the estimates of manned Mars missions).

441:

I suggest you work your way through the thousands of pages of computer generate proof of the 4 color theorem - and that's the easy one.
https://www.maa.org/external_archive/devlin/devlin_01_05.html

Or take this simple antenna generated by a genetic algorithm:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolved_antenna
How do you propose a Human analyze it in order to understand whether it is optimum?

Then let's move on to a genetic algorithm generating complex code for an AI task. Who do you think could wade through the potentially millions of lines of interlinked code (no nice clean top down design)?

442:

I'm not sure the rock grinding capacity on earth right now is up the challenge to trigger a deadly all around H2S release.
One could start by dumping the rock poweder into an area that's anoxic allready, I hear there are acraily manyo of those. Or, you know, quit fossile fuel consumption.

443:

Sigh. You're confusing national foundational mythology with reality again

Attempted sarcasm, not confusion.

Or, if you prefer, another shibboleth that really bugs me (along with most national mythologies). More so than any SF shibboleth, to be honest.

444:

Not one of his best, but a nice little shaggy dog story.

445:

If I ever get round to writing another space opera, one of the angles I'm going to have to cover (in addition to the no-world-governments rule) is the polities-with-strong-values where the aforementioned values they hold dear are routinely violated in the interests of expediency. (Because that never happens in real life. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, oh and by the way we're going to ban VoIP and Tor because a cell of dipshit terrorists coordinated via SMS and word of mouth.)

446:

I was suggesting it more as a counter argument to the suggestion that any aliens encountered must obviously be able to make fire manually.

As far as 'big brains' go I'm not sure we have enough evidence that bigger is better - whales and elephants both have bigger brains and they don't seem to be running rings around us intellectually on the other hand we don't really know what else they're thinking about.

Reproduction - if you're specifically designing your race for space travel relying on two members of opposite of sex to find each other attractive and mating to reproduce seems messy - if we're going with a thought experiment of a race radically redesigning per the suggestion it would seem reproduction would naturally fall into the domain of lab work, possibly performed in the home system.

Body dimorphism - absolutely, for humans anyway but again assuming a radically modified race this is surely something they'd deal with in the redesign - I mean if you can create a brain in a bag it shouldn't be impossible to fix the psychology side of it.

Anyway mostly a thought experiment as to why an alien doesn't necessarily need to make fire. Assuming space travel is as difficult as it currently looks I personally think its pretty unlikely that you can ship a whole ecosystem around at all. But if you were planning to shoot a bunch of people across interstellar space with a system where every kg counts... well I seem to remember someone shipping decapitated heads about in Saturn's children.

447:

> My question is what could possibly be physically traded that couldn't be created at home once the informational pattern is known? Presumably, the same elements exist everywhere in the galaxy.

Alien artefacts, alien technology.

448:

if you're specifically designing your race for space travel relying on two members of opposite of sex to find each other attractive and mating to reproduce seems messy

The logical shortcut if you're looking to re-engineer humans in particular to colonize a new world (subject to it having an amenable biosphere) would be to hack us so that hermaphroditism is the norm. We've already got the basic components in our genetic toolbox: it lets you retain sexual recombination while allowing all individuals to give birth; your TFR for static population (replacement only) is 1.05 and a TFR of 2.0 actually gives you rapid population growth.

We're a way away from being able to do that, but given that intersex conditions including actual true hermaphroditism occur in our species we've at least got a condition to study.

449:

To extend that answer a bit in light of some of the stuff on QM above...
The no cloning theorem means no two artefacts can ever be the same. You *might* somehow be able to "scan" it and transmit the qubits that describe it, but at that point physical transport looks more attractive. If the item in question consisted of deliberate unique quantum states, you have your "unobtanium".

450:

Indeed, a lot of animals seem to have problems with TV images. Pigeons don't react to images of a hawk on the screen, but they do say "oh shit" (which is "whu" in pigeon language) when it makes a hawk noise. And differences in persistence of vision come into it too: see cats trying to catch the scan line on a CRT.

451:

Status Goods. You trade in rare items from other solar system as a way of showing that you're the type of person with so much influence that you can literally command starships to be built and sent.

452:

"The US grew to be a world power on the back of petroleum, which still powers our military"

It's a good point there are theories of history that say each hegemonic world power, at least the sea based, trade hegemonies, partially became so due to the early mastery of a new form of energy (Dutch = wind, British = Steam, US = Oil / nuclear)

however it's doubtful that renewables like wind and solar and electric are going to replace oil /nukes for military stuff. Too dependent on a complex infrastructure to ship around, and not energetic enough for things like jets

now their effects on the economic infra underlying the military engine is a really good thing to think about

453:

Here's a nice handwave: the field lines of the negative gravity emanations repel each other. So if you try and make it affect more than a small area you end up only affecting a ring around the outside and the middle gets left behind. You could back it up with mention of the skin effect with alternating current, which does the same sort of thing and is unbeatable.

Here's another limitation: it's not negative gravity cancelling the positive gravity, it's just positive gravity but pulling the other way. But to balance the forces and stop the anti-gravity machine plummeting to earth itself you have to generate a double-ended beam, so above the machine it is pulling downwards. This causes a massive downward-directed gale which blows the machine downwards and above a certain size you can't win.

454:

My thinking is that re-engineering your species more or less implies that you think you've already thought of everything and the random evolutionary aspects of sexual reproduction would be undesirable when you can do it all in a test tube (200 LY away in prenatal engineering station V-61).

455:

On the other hand, it's surprisingly easy to fool frogs with relatively low-fidelity video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wSsqk_27vL0

Or even with animation (though the frog gets its revenge on the human in the end):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCOqLdDlbwE

456:

In other news, this argument is following the same script it always does.

Grumble 1: We don't like rubber forehead aliens. Aliens should be alien, and damn the CGI budget.

My rebuttal: Well, species that make technology like ceramics and metals needed fire before they could do so (and kilns, but that's another issue). It increasingly looks like making and using fire is a major driver in human anatomy (see Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human for the detailed version of this theory). Because of this, it's not stupid to expect to see humanoid aliens in high tech settings. It is, conversely, very stupid to expect to find starfaring aliens that look like earthly animals with human-sized brains tacked on, because the earthly species lack the anatomical structures necessary to make a fire. So yes, starfish aliens are more stupid than klingons, but long-tailed dinosauroid aliens are just fine, assuming their shoulders and hands are up to dealing with a fire drill.

Inevitable response: Hey, you just violated my ideology. You must be wrong. Let's see: Oh yeah, I can come up with an uninformed argument that rebuts yours. Take that, meanie!

The usual version is some techie droning on about how humans will be stupid enough to engineer machines that are better than they are in every respect, and these machines will conquer the galaxy. This is, of course, the Apocalypse of the Machines (as opposed to the Rapture of the Nerds, which is the same thing with brain uploading under Google patent) written by people who don't really want to understand other people very much, and who are really enamored with simple linear projections.

The real point here is that, if you want to posit humans being able to visit other stars as humans, that in turn says a lot about what kind of starflight is possible. It also strongly suggests that being able to make fire is a really, really good precursor to biological entities going to the stars. This in turn suggests that any starflight-capable aliens we meet will likely also have evolved around making fire.

Given that humans have come up with a dozen-odd ways of making fire through friction, we can deduce that humans are anatomically really good at making fire. Therefore, it's not stupid to guess that fire-making aliens may well look kind of human, and they almost certainly won't look like starfish. The key thing here is that, if you're designing an alien, you have to know which parts of human anatomy are involved with making fire (hand, shoulders, weight, and mouth), and to make sure that there are alien analogs for each of these functional structures and a bit of pyromania.

If you want to design starfaring aliens that weren't designed by an engineering committee, the above is a really cheap guide to doing a reasonable job.

If you want to design intelligent aliens who are planet-bound, of course none of this applies. I'd expect to see far more structural and cognitive diversity in planet-bound aliens than in starfaring aliens.

Have fun coming up with next round of "you can't be wrong because you're violating my beliefs, you meanie."