Putting the life back in science fiction

Hot Earth Dreams and Space Opera

I was going to post this on Charlie Stross’ Antipope, where there’s another interesting discussion developing on space opera.  So as not to chunk 1,450-plus words onto that message board, I thought I’d post my thoughts over here, for those who are interested.

Here’s the background: Writing Hot Earth Dreams was rewarding in a lot of ways, but it wasn’t the surprise best seller that I’d dreamed of.  I’d still like to write a best-seller (I can dream), and I’d read on Antipope that Space Opera was the Thing to be Writing now.

Now I loved Star Wars when I was about seven, and I’ll even admit that I’ve been tempted to join one of those light saber clubs just to do a weird martial art without all the hierarchical BS.  That said, well, what does a book about climate change and the imaginations of my fevered brain have to do with space opera?

(Spoiler alerts, not that you care) In doing  Hot Earth Dreams, one thing I really learned was how to think about deep time (see Chapter 39 if you have the book).  This kind of matters, if you’re going to do anything vaguely realistic like, oh, Alpha Centauri, where the two stars orbit each other every about 80 years or so, in a decently elliptical orbit.  No one’s found any planets around those two, but if there’s an earthlike world around one of them, its climates change 3-5°C at minimum every 80 years, or about middling climate disaster for us every few generations, back and forth.   It’s not a matter of having two suns in the sky (visually it’s one sun and a really bright star).  Rather, it’s that long, slow, inexorable shift, leading to the realization that every generation will be born to a different climate and experience the world that their parents didn’t grow up in.  For some it will be getting hotter and wetter, for others, cooler and drier, and then the world will get strange and change on them.  Weird stuff, and most people just don’t get it, even though the whole world-gone-strange thing increasing problem right now.  Still, most people not getting something is a big problem, so if I want to create a best-seller, I have to be careful about going full on climate geek.  Unless the next edition of Hot Earth Dreams sells really well…

Rather more useful is the idea I got from James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed, that civilization isn’t the endpoint of the development of civilization.  That may sound weird, but highland South-east Asia is littered with people who claim to belong to groups that were once civilized, but lost a battle or whatever and fled into the hills, there to become the epitome of hillbillies.  I used this notion to predict what the future would look like in Hot Earth Dreams.  The tl;dr version is that I suspect that a severely climate changed Earth will be world-wide Zomia, as global civilization crashes, and the few survivors regroup, pick up whatever pieces are left, and build new cultures that may not even be literate.

That puts a rather different spin on one of the central tropes of space opera: colonizing new worlds.  Many SF authors assume that civilization is sort of a state change, although there’s often Vanished Precursors or  some other #CleverHandWave to explain why the galaxy isn’t totally over-run by alien civilizations.  Another problem is it usually takes massive doses of handwavium to explain why the unsustainable civilization of the present can become both totally familiar and totally sustainable (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is guilty of this, but he’s one in a legion).   But what if we assume that civilization is unsustainable, but interstellar colonization is possible (presumably using something like FTL)?  I already covered this idea back in 2013, but I gave it a Lovecraftian spin.  You can have an unsustainable interstellar civilization that lasts indefinitely, so long as you can set up new colonies faster than the old ones die, where a successful colony can builds its own starships and send out new daughter colonies of its own before it too succumbs.  This whole scheme runs into a lot of trouble if you hit the remnants of something else’s interstellar empire, which may be why the galaxy does not appear to host interstellar empires and we’ve never been colonized.

In this kind of environment, we’re far away from Star Trek’s Prime Directive.  The survival of civilization as we know it depends on building new colonies, even knowing that these colonies will be impermanent but cause massive changes to their host biospheres.

As a deep dyed environmentalist I find this idea repellent, but then again, it’s a big source of conflict, and conflict makes for better stories.  Pity the poor colonists who fall in love with a planet.  They’ll undoubtedly become preservationists, but if their colony survives, they can rationally, only hope that, once their civilization has crashed, some of the beauty they love will have survived the colony their building, for their distant hillbilly descendants to love (assuming humans survive at all, which depends on the planet, really).  Within such a universe, a lot of people will either tune out the inherent conflict, try to be conservationists or preservationists (what I do now), or try to find ways to create a sustainable civilization, even if it’s impossible.

Hot Earth Dreams also says something about the timeline of such a universe.  Basically, if we don’t achieve interstellar capabilities this century (ideally in the next few decades), we’d better achieve sustainable civilization, or our species will be stuck on this planet forever (in HED, I assumed the last would be the case).  Right now, I figure there’s a narrow window (basically before 2050–that’s a narrow window when your timeframe is millennia) when computers might be powerful enough to figure out if starships are physically possible, and we’ll still have enough resources to build those ships.  After 2050, things get problematic.  Climate change can start really biting down, making it difficult to find the resources to build a starship (hundreds of millions of climate migrants may be a higher priority).  Alternatively, if Moore’s Law and Koomey’s Law don’t end by 2050, we’ll have computers that are superhumanly intelligent, so that starship probably wouldn’t have humans on board.  If I want a space opera flavored with canned monkeys and not chips (and apparently canned monkeys outsell chips and salsa), then I’ve got to assume that someone (or some AI) figures out starflight within the next few decades.

That puts a lot of constraints on the space operatic culture too, which is handy.  I can look at the kids these days and assume they’ll be middle aged when the world’s going to hell and the option of  bugging opens up .

It also basically assumes that the starships we send out will be a lot like submarines or the ISS, capable of supporting life on the scale of months, not years.  This in turn strongly implies that the star drive is either fast FTL travel or a jumpship (which could go slower than light, so long as no time passes inside the ship while it’s jumping).

Finally, there’s the question of what happens on Earth while jumpships are planting colonies on Alpha Centuri BB or wherever.  I suspect that civilization could be more sustainable on Earth if we got into a pattern where cities revitalized themselves faster than they fell apart, even as the climate worsens.  This has been kind of the pattern for millennia anyway, with “high civilization” bouncing around between Alexandria, Rome, Byzantium, Damascus, etc.  No city has stayed civilized for millennia (possibly apart from Damascus, and it’s falling apart now).  They all fall to wars, epidemics, famines, bad governance, resource exhaustion, and so forth, and only later get rebuilt.  Extrapolating forward, in the 22nd Century, we could see, say, the western US falling apart Iraqi style, while Toronto and Detroit flourish, just to give one possibility.  If there’s severe climate change, the race will be on to get the colonies up, running, and independent before civilization totally crashes on Earth, and the interstellar ops (overgovernment, Star Trust, whatever you want to call it) may be stuck with fighting the rearguard action to preserve civilization until the colonies are self sufficient.  Eventually, Earth will be left behind, simply too drained of anything but history to make it a worthwhile stop on the star lanes.  This will be the fate of all the colonies too, eventually.

It’s kind of a bleak universe, but you know what, it looks operatic, at least on a hot August day.

Oh, and if there are jumpships, then one likely precursor is something Larry Niven wrote about in “The Theory and Practice of Teleportation.”

Those are my rather disordered thoughts. What did I miss?



14 Comments so far
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“I’d still like to write a best-seller (I can dream), and I’d read on Antipope that Space Opera was the Thing to be Writing now.”

Tongue firmly in cheek, I presume? Barnes & Noble’s best seller list has Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at #1. There are other fantasies in the top 100 but no books about spaceships there.

It’s been some years since I bought your time travel fantasies via Smashwords but I think your instincts were on the right track then. FTL starships are easily as fantastic as wizards and fire breathing dragons but they don’t sell as well.

Comment by Matt

I’m sure you are aware that SF as a genre is increasingly unrewarding to authors. Charlie has almost exited the genre and wants to move into urban fantasy (which makes sense given the success of his Laundryverse series). A-list authors have tried to enter other genres, e.g. Greg Bear with “Quantico”.

The fact is that there is a wealth of stuff to read, some of it free. Like online advertising, the value falls as the available attention available is finite.

Personally, I think that you could make a niche in hard SF with a biology twist. To date, biology has been treated rather like “nano technology”, a handwavium approach to the technology, rather than a hard SF approach that worked well will spacecraft technology.

There is a rich world to explore in using bio-engineering to solve problems, create new ones at ecosystem levels, all while being highly readable as the protagonists deal with a particular conflict.

By all means, add spaceships to allow visiting exotic locations.

Comment by WeHateDonTheConTrump

That you Alex? I’m taking all of it under consideration. Charlie seems to have gotten a “space opera or else” message from his publishers, which is a not-so-subtle hint, even though his fantasies (Laundryverse and Family Trade) seem to be doing okay.

As for what’s selling, it seems to be all over the place. I just dove into the Amazon SFF best-seller list, and once you filter out Rowling, Tolkien, and GRRM, there’s not much of a pattern left.

As for what I’ll write, of course it’s about biology, whether it’s fantasy, SF, or something else. That’s where I live. Someday I hope to use all the material I generated from Hot Earth Dreams. The problem there isn’t world building (that’s what Hot Earth Dreams is, on a fundamental level), it’s dealing with the personal, emotional consequences of looking at the collapse of civilization too long and needing a break from it.

Comment by Heteromeles

That’s when you need escapist fantasy. Discovery of portal world that’s uninhabited, hero scientist on team working to figure out how to not screw it up while saving Earth. Sounds like Charlie is already hacking at it from one angle but there’s room for more than one approach here.

Comment by Gregory Muir

“wehatedonthecontrump” is indeed me. Ever since I added new WordPress accounts I have had my subscriptions messed up and I sometimes miss who I am currently “logged on” as. WordPress has become a disaster for my blog subscriptions management.

Comment by alexandertolley

I personally like hard SF, although I also like far future SF, especially when it is Stapledonian in flavor. But while the setting is important, the overriding attribute must be a good story, well written. I am finding a lot of SF fiction is cleverly written but less engaging than a good science journal paper, and certainly, less thought provoking. I think I recall Douglas Adams saying something like that once. I have several novels open right now that I am plodding through maybe a dozen pages every few days. I think the last SF book that I could hardly put down was one of Kathryn Rusch’s “Disappeared” novels.

Comment by alexandertolley

The bio-hacker angle might be a good one to explore. Leo Frankowski did that with Copernick’s Rebellion. He has a bad rep in fandom these days. The idea could do with a nice update.


Comment by Gregory Muir

I’d thought Kim Stanley Robinson had sufficiently thrashed the concept of extra solar planetary colonization. I’ve been leaning towards outer system based civilizations expanding into adjacent Kuiper belts.
Another thing, a culture that’s reached a new equilibrium may not see themselves as fallen, it’s just the way they live now.

Comment by Tim H.

I could answer that question with an essay in itself. The too short answer is:
–What could you get from colonizing the Kuiper Belt that wouldn’t be more easily achieved by, say, colonizing East Antarctica or some useful spot on the abyssal plain?
–In general, living rocky worlds are the best place to colonize, IMHO. Yes, you may run into something that finds you Good Substrate To Grow On (munching optional), but the advantages to living worlds, in our sense of life, are:
–lots of water
–a decent magnetosphere (not gone like Mars, not too strong like Jupiter)
–hopefully an oxygenated atmosphere, because
–that makes for lovely chemistry like those huge iron formations that made civilization possible
–all the other rocks (limestone, petroleum, coal, etc) and minerals that get accumulated by living organisms. Bacteria seem to be very useful in accumulating rare elements, for example.
–All the rocks and minerals concentrated by plate tectonics

Note that these are the industrial benefits of settling on a living planet. Note also that things like water and a magnetosphere seem to go with things like plate tectonics, so I’d expect them to show up together.

A place like Mars, which doesn’t have a useful magnetosphere, also doesn’t have a terribly useful atmosphere. Presumably there are some exposed mineral deposits, but we’d have to find them. The Moon is even worse in this regard, because it’s covered with dust that seems to have some really nasty properties, plus regolith.

Note that this is the short answer. Aside from the non-trivial problem of cross-contaminating biospheres, I’d say that, were I in charge of colonizing other planets, I’d aim for the living ones first.

Of course, this all assumes that starflight is possible. Personally, I strongly doubt it is, but if I’m focusing on space opera, with it’s multiple worlds setting, I really would go with multiple earth-like-ish worlds. The advantages are enormous.

Comment by Heteromeles

A techbase capable of supporting off-planet life would be nearly as impressive a jump as starflight but might be a prerequisite, and how much appeal will living on dirt have to a culture that’s lived off-planet for generations? Anyway, should be good stories to be had either way.

Comment by Tim H.

Big worlds provide some things that we have a lot of trouble duplicating, namely excellent radiation shielding, excellent meteor shielding, and gravity. I suspect those are big incentives.

Besides, you seem to think people can live in ships or in space stations indefinitely. If you don’t understand the origin of Charlie Stross’ phrase “canned monkeys don’t ship well,” you might want to look at what’s been said about this topic on antipope.

Comment by Heteromeles

re: Living in space.
No-one is talking about living in small structures. Think O’Neill colonies. Island 3 is larger than a number of islands on Earth. That is by no means the size limit. Hollowing out asteroids, inflating them or reconstructing them is how populations will live offworld. They will be cities in space.

Gravity is artificial, radiation shielding is by hull mass. No atmosphere means no magnetic field required.

What do Kuiper belt objects have that is attractive to Antarctica? Room. Lots of room. They can support vast populations. If we look at the resources of all the asteroids, John Lewis calculates that these resources could support trillions of people. Antartica can at best support another continent full of people.

I don’t want to rehash whether such colonies can be made to work biologically. They are a thought experiment on what might be possible with “almost unlimited” resources for our Earth population.

Comment by alexandertolley

I’ve got Hot Earth Dreams on my reading list. Can’t think of anything you missed at the moment, just want to say I like your thinking on this.

Comment by Gregory Muir

You are correct, as was Mr. Stross in his canned monkey essay, nevertheless, if the stars are to be our destiny, a human presence off planet will, in the absence of handwavium, be a required intermediate step. If humans can’t develop the means to live off planet for long periods of time, there’s no point in building starships anyway.

Comment by Tim H.

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