Putting the life back in science fiction


When you colonize a planet, what do you mine first?

Just a brief, science-fiction question.  The background is that I realized I didn’t know much about, but I suspect it turns out to be terribly, terribly important for designing colonies on other planets:

When you colonize a planet, what do you mine first? Continue reading

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Repurposing Dwarves
August 28, 2016, 8:50 pm
Filed under: fantasy, science fiction, Speculation, Worldbuilding | Tags: , ,

Ah August, that wonderful time when I learn how to navigate selling used stuff on Amazon (pro tip: if it’s selling for much less than $3.00, don’t bother, because that’s about where Amazon’s fees per item tend to land, at least on the stuff I’ve looked at).  And while I’ve been inputting inventory, I’ve had time to think about language, and red dwarf solar systems, and the repurposing of words.

Continue reading



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.

Continue reading



The dust of ages

I came across this little bit when listening to NPR’s On The Media.  The episode is entitled “Digital Dark Age” which of course pricked my ears up immediately, as the digital dark age is something I dealt with in Hot Earth DreamsThe whole hour is worth listening to, but the weird idea I wanted to focus on is the idea of using artificially generated DNA for long-term data storage, an idea put forward by Dr. Nate Goldman in this segment.

Superficially, this is a great idea. Dr. Goldman is working on this idea as a way to store the huge amount of genomics data he has to curate at the European Bioinformatics Institute.  DNA is pretty stable and information dense, so if it’s possible to cheaply generate long DNA sequences and to cheaply read them, it’s a good form of ROM (Read Only Memory).  Dr. Goldman develops this into an idea of caching the great works of civilization in some sort of time capsule that starts by explaining what DNA is and how the code works, then progresses to simple decoding examples, and finally to the whole earth encyclopedia, or whatever is supposed to be in the data cache.  DNA is certainly more durable than known electronic digital media and is smaller than durable analog media like baked clay tablets, so superficially it has a lot going for it.

One little problem with this scenario is the idea that it’s easy to generate and read DNA.  It’s easy now, but I remember how hard it was even 20 years ago when I was in grad school.  This is a new technology.  Indeed, Dr. Goldman doesn’t think this technology will be financially viable for another decade or two, although it’s borderline technologically viable now.

Still, DNA ROM works better if we’re talking about a hypothetical sustainable civilization, as opposed to leaving some sort of time capsule for the next civilization 5,000 years from now or whenever.  DNA is not the kind of storage medium that will allow people to jump-start civilization from a hidden cache.  It’s just too tricky to read and write, even though DNA has demonstrably lasted tens of thousands of years in fossil bones under ideal conditions.

It’s even more suitable when we’re talking about interstellar colonization, where information needs to be stable for thousands of years.   Not only can the genomes of potentially useful organisms be stored as DNA, all the other information the starship needs to curate can be stored as DNA as well.

The other little problem with using DNA to store data is that having such technology widely available means that high-level synthetic biology will be available to anybody who wants it.  After all, if the equivalent of a laptop can generate as much DNA as your average genome, how many more bits of equipment are needed to twirl that DNA into chromosomes, insert it in a cell, and make a new eukaryotic life form?   Letting this kind of technology be available to the public is something that is currently forbidden, at least in current American society.   What kind of societal changes would required for people to believe that such technology is safe?

Still, it’s another possible technology for a hypothetical sustainable and starfaring civilization.  Perhaps in the future, we’ll have computers that are as much biotech as chips, where spam is something you feed your machine to support its self-repair function, rather than something you delete from your inbox.

Or maybe we should try to baked clay tablet thing…

 



“…a insightful examination of our current culture.”
September 17, 2015, 8:22 pm
Filed under: fantasy, science fiction | Tags: , ,

I have no literary pretensions, so my favorite book review comes from The Onion’s online book review every Monday. Back on September 7, Kyle Fowle reviewed Salman Rushdie’s venture into fantasy, Two Years Eight Months And Twenty-Eight Nights (link to the review). Here’s how the review opens:

“Genre fiction has always been poking around the mainstream, but now more than ever it’s enjoying unprecedented success. Sci-fi and historical fiction, fantasy and bawdy romance, superheroes and dragons, are an integral part of the mainstream media diet, be it in literature, television, or film. Perhaps it’s no surprise that fantasy and sci-fi are enjoying widespread appeal. After all, most can relate to the way those genres explore class division, oppression, economic and moral collapse, and the constant fight between good and evil. Such themes feel particularly relevant and urgent in 2015, and the best fantasy and sci-fi writing isn’t an outlandish exploration of the future or some magical past, but a insightful examination of our current culture.” (emphasis added)

Of course I disagree with that last statement. I’m with Tolkien, in that I’m not terribly interested in writing allegories about the modern age, although I agree that good stories have taken this tack. Perhaps this is an example of someone attempting to turn personal taste into dogma? We can also debate whether LOTR, Harry Potter, ASOIF, Star Wars, or Dune are insightful examinations of the cultures of their times, or just worth consuming on their own terms.

Building on the last blog entry, “White Men in the Jungle, I’d say this perception of what makes quality fiction is another problem with cli-fi. My interest is in exploring what, to me, looks like a very outlandish future, to give people an idea of where we’re headed if we keep blowin’ GHGs and swiggin’ every resource in sight. Cli-fi that’s an “insightful examination of our current culture” is inevitably dystopian, sometimes narcissistically so, all about how we’re screwing up, something that all too often turns into a jeremiad. Indeed, it seems that people expect cli-fi to be about the jeremiad, to explore the ways in which the results of our sins will be visited on our descendants, if not to wallow in it.

But I love real creativity, and I think the most creative solutions happen within harsh limits. For instance, I love traditional Inuit kayaks and Micronesian flying proas, because they’re two examples of incredibly creative people taking almost nothing and making something spectacular out of it. In the case of kayaks, the Inuit took driftwood and seal carcasses and made these beautiful and incredibly maneuverable little boats. The proas are those beautiful outriggers with the asymmetric hulls that were the fastest sailboats in the world into the 19th Century. They were built with driftwood and the things you find on a coral atoll: coconuts (logs and fiber), breadfruit logs, pandanus for the sails, and clamshell adzes, because they didn’t even have stone to shape the wood. And proas sailed rings around European square-riggers when the latter first showed up. To me, these boats represent real creativity, far better than anything I could dream up if I was stranded on an Arctic shore or a Pacific island. In stories, I always love it when the author finds a way to get the protagonists through the impossible limits of a story with grace and creativity, when the book has good characters, good plot, and the literary equivalent of a kayak build as part of the climax.

So with cli-fi, we could make it a dystopian examination of our current culture, and that might be insightful, if a little tedious and self-absorbed. Or, just perhaps, we can look at it as an exploration of those strange worlds on the far side of hell that could just be our deep future.

Do you have any preferences?



White Men in the Jungle, and other Cli-Fi issues
September 5, 2015, 12:02 am
Filed under: book, deep time, fantasy, fiction, futurism, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags: , ,

Perhaps I’m borrowing trouble here, but one thing I started thinking about is how much stereotypes and standard tropes underpin science fiction and especially fantasy. Even though educated people know about the Medieval Warm Period, so much fantasy contains the equivalent of Game of Thrones’ “Winter is coming.” Yes, this is great escapism in the middle of summer, but still, there are a huge number of tropes that show up when dealing with fantasy: medieval, Europe, wintry, or mysterious, oriental, and so forth and so on. You’ve seen them, you know them, and writers too often depend on you knowing them.

Yes, I can think of more than a few books that break tropes, but equally, I run into people whose take on writing is conditioned by the metaphors and tropes conjured by words, and this makes communication difficult. One example was when I talked to a writer (with a strong humanities background) online, about how I, as an ecologist probably wouldn’t name plants that were growing in a vacant lot in southern California as a way to describe the scene. Why not? came the question. Well, I replied, because I suspected that the names wouldn’t paint the scene for anyone who didn’t know the plants already. This was scoffed at. Okay, I wrote, the plants I’m thinking of are black mustard and ripgut brome. Oh, those are so evocative of doom, decay, and violence. Perfect for a vacant lot in Southern California. Well, I replied, that’s exactly my point. You just misled yourself, I replied, and you have no idea of what I was actually trying to describe…The conversation deteriorated from there. Yes, this conversation has been changed somewhat, because I want to use it as an illustration, rather than to embarrass someone. The miscommunication is the point.

The idea I’m chewing on, the trouble I’m borrowing, is how to deal with climate change in fiction, “cli-fi” if you want a newish shorthand. If you’re writing about a climate changed world and thinking like an ecologist, it makes perfect sense to talk about a tribe of white-skinned people living in a jungle, because tropical forests are predicted to grow north into modern Oregon if we go in for severe climate change. If you’re not thinking metaphorically (would that be trope-ically?), it’s perfectly reasonable to talk about the descendants of today’s Portland hipsters living a barbarian lifestyle in the coast ranges, in a dense forest of bamboo, briars, kudzu, and naturalized street trees, hunting feral pigs and settling all too often for grasshoppers instead.

The problem is, if someone who reads metaphorically sees this, all sorts of problems jump out. Is it cultural appropriation or imperialism to put white men in jungles? Or to have them happily eat the foods of other cultures, like grasshoppers, which are edgy and taboo in today’s America? Or to work with bamboo? I don’t know. But jungles bring all sorts of cultural baggage and expected tropes along with them. Any place does. That’s why fantasy castles are set so often in fantasy Europe, rather than in the fantasy Amazon, fantasy Congo, or fantasy Zomia. Especially if the characters are white.

Climate change violates these tropes, moving climates, and eventually the plants and animals they support, to different places than they occur in now. That’s why I’m interested in cli-fi, really, because a climate-changed future gives you a huge new palette of possible realities to explore. The jungles of Cascadia may be a real place in 300 years.

The shortcoming of this new palette is that it violates expectations, and I suspect this is one reason why people tend to think of post-apocalyptic stories as set in a ruined version of today’s world, rather than in something much stranger. It’s easier to think of such stereotypes, rather than to confront how strange the world could get.

And it does get more complicated. If you want to write a story set, say, 10,000 years in the future, humans probably won’t have the races or ethnicities we have now. And there’s a whole other set of expectations, stereotypes, and tropes associated with race, especially in America and most especially now. If you want to write a story set in the truly deep future, you can legitimately jettison today’s races and start over. However, how do you write the resulting story without it being seen as a commentary on today’s racial politics? I have no idea. Maybe you don’t. Thing is, it’s unrealistic to assume that today’s racial, ethnic, even gender identities have any sort of permanency. Is talking about this a reflection on today’s racial politics, or just some naive white dude (that would be me), trying to think about what the future might hold? It can be read both ways.

And so it goes. I don’t have any answers, only questions. Authors don’t get complete control over what people read into their work, and readers bring a wide variety of preconceptions with them to any work. Still, if you’re going to play outside established tropes, I don’t think it’s overly paranoid to at least think about how things can be misinterpreted, and possibly to take some steps to head off the worst problems.

Or perhaps I’m just borrowing trouble where none exists. What do you think?



Next up, the ammonia economy?

This is another spun-off “strange attractor” from Antipope. It had nothing to do with the thread it was on, but the topic is interesting enough–if you’re into futuristic science fiction–that I wanted to summarize it here.

The basic idea is using ammonia as an alternate, carbon-free fuel. This isn’t as weird as it sounds, and there are a bunch of industrial efforts out there that might well project us into an ammonia age rather than a hydrogen one. Unfortunately, ammonia isn’t a panacea, so switching from fossil fuels to ammonia synthesized using solar or wind energy won’t be problem free. For those looking for dramatic conflict, ammonia has it.

Anyway, the fundamentals. Ammonia is NH3. If like me you’re lazy, you can go to Wikipedia’s article on energy densities, and find out that liquid ammonia has about 11.5 MJ/L of energy, slightly better than compressed natural gas (9 MJ/L) and liquid hydrogen (8.5 MJ/L), and less than propane (25.3 MJ/L) or gasoline (34.2 MJ/L), among many others.

As for making NH3, right now we make it in huge plants using the Haber-Bosch process, which makes ammonia using natural gas. Nitrogen is ubiquitous as N2 in the atmosphere, but N2 is a very stable molecule, and it takes a lot of energy to break it and turn it into NH3. Still, people are looking for better ways to do it. NH3 Canada is developing a miniature ammonia synthesizer that’s about four cubic meters in size and can produce 500 liters of ammonia per day, with each liter of ammonia taking 2 liters of water and 7.5 KWhrs of electricity to produce it. As a comparison, the average US home uses 909 kWhr per month or about 30 kWhr per day, which is about what it would take to make a gallon of ammonia using NH3 Canada’s technology. If it works.

To save you the math, that’s about 30% conversion efficiency, which isn’t bad. Ammonia synthesis could be used to store electricity from, say, wind turbines. The nice thing about NH3 Canada is that they want to use small units and stack them in banks, while the older technology uses huge furnaces to get efficiencies of scale.

What can you do with ammonia? You can actually mix it with gasoline and use it to run your car, if you get the mix right, and other researchers are working on creating engines that can run on pure ammonia. While there’s less energy in ammonia than there is in propane, it can be handled similarly. Pure (anhydrous) ammonia is fairly dangerous stuff, but then again, so is liquid hydrogen, and so are giant batteries if they’re fully charged. Energy density makes things dangerous.

Of course, ammonia has many other uses. We all know of it as a cleaner and fuel, and it used to be used in refrigerators before people switched to the much more efficient and dangerous CFCs [but see comments]. But it’s primary use is as a fertilizer and to make explosives, including gunpowder. Industrial nitrogen fixation underlies Big Ag all over the world, and it also underlies industrial warfare. Without huge amounts of gunpowder, things like machine guns don’t work, because there isn’t enough ammunition to make them fully functional killing machines.

Similarly, without huge amounts of nitrogen, the huge amounts of corn, wheat, and soy that are required to feed all seven billion of us wouldn’t exist. Some calculate that at least a third of us wouldn’t exist without fixed nitrogen in our food. The US has taken full advantage of this, and forcing huge supplies of cheap food on the world has been a major part of our foreign policy since the Eisenhower Administration. It was one way of beating communism, and protecting our high-yielding corn from things like being pirated by the Chinese is a matter of national security today.

I’m not a huge fan of Big Ag, even though I’d probably be dead without it. Still, if we want to switch from fossil fuels to renewables, adapting and expanding our existing fixed nitrogen infrastructure is a lot easier than trying to build the infrastructure needed to handle hydrogen.

That’s the good part. There are some downsides.

One is that when you burn ammonia in an engine, it produces NOx, which is a major source of air pollution. This can be fixed if there’s a catalytic converter on the exhaust pipe. I suppose, if you’re powering agricultural equipment, it might be possible to capture the NOx, convert it to nitrate or urea, and use it as fertilizer on the fields, thereby getting a second use from the fixed nitrogen.

One big problem with an ammonia economy is the same problem with renewables, which is that you’re capturing energy from the modern sun, and that’s all you get to play with. Fossil fuels use fossil sunlight from the last few hundred million years, and that’s a lot more energy. There’s no fossil ammonia, so we’d be stuck working in a lower energy environment. Currently, industrially fixed nitrogen takes about 1% of the global energy supply, but that’s a fixed 1%, and if it’s used for other purposes, people can starve. We’d have to ramp up NH3 production to store captured renewable energy, not depend on what’s already being made.

Still, I can envision a world where giant farms host an overstory of huge wind turbines, all hooked up to ammonia synthesizers. The farmer uses the ammonia to run his equipment, then uses nitrates captured from the exhaust to fertilize his fields. Aside from the scale and all the problems with nitrogen runoff and pollution, this isn’t a bad setup.

There are some interesting follow-ons.
–One is politics. If most of the world switches to synthesizing ammonia from sunlight or wind, the countries that depend on petroleum exports are out of luck. The only parts of the Middle East that would continue to matter to the US (and possibly China and Russia) are Egypt and Israel, due to the Suez Canal. This means that the burgeoning crises in the region would have to be dealt with semi-regionally, if at all. And that’s bad for all those refugees. Russia is likely to be a hold-out in switching off fossil fuels, since they get so much power from oil and natural gas, but switching to ammonia would change international politics as much as did the switch to using oil in the early 20th Century.
–A second issue is fertilizer. It is feasible to synthesize huge amounts of ammonia, but other elements are essential for plant growth, and the world is starting to run short of minable phosphorus. We may well have phosphorus wars in the future, but the simpler solution is to recycle sewage and manure onto fields. This has all sorts of public health and disease vector implications, but it will keep people from starving And there are menu implications–you want to eat raw salad from a field that receives sewage? It’s a common practice in the developing world.
–A third issue is air pollution. I can easily see people using ammonia to power things like home generators in areas where the power grid is failing, but if these machines don’t have decent filters on their exhaust, they will put out a lot of air pollution. The resulting smog will degrade the performance of any local solar panels, but it might be simpler than investing in huge batteries and a smart grid to provide power when the sun doesn’t shine.

And who will control the ammonia? A nitrogen-based economy has less energy than does the current oil-based economy. Energy becomes power when it is scarcer, even more than it is currently. Right now, we’re seeing how Big Oil distorts politics all over the world. Small ammonia generators, like the NH3 Canada machine, change the current game that is dominated by a few huge producers, because they mean that small-scale producers can make small amounts of fuel, at least in the short term. Probably this means that the advantage shifts from those who produce ammonia to those who build ammonia synthesizers and can best ship the ammonia from producers to consumers. Over time, I suspect that a few big ammonia producers will dominate the industry in any one area. They will be, quite literally, power brokers.

Still, switching to ammonia could slow down global warming, because the great advantage of NH3 is there’s no carbon emission from using it. It beats things like bio-diesel and biomass cold. Unfortunately, we’re seeing increasing methane emissions from the Arctic, so even if we get civilization’s carbon emissions under control, we may be passing the tipping point as you read this. We’ll see.

If you want to write a SF-thriller set in the next few decades, you could do worse than to power the world with ammonia, and make the Politics of N a centerpiece of the story. After all ammonia isn’t just a fuel, it’s a cleaner, fertilizer, and a refrigerant. Who wouldn’t want to get rich off it? Something to think about.