Putting the life back in science fiction


Well, maybe 37 apocalypses…
March 8, 2013, 1:19 am
Filed under: livable future, science fiction, Speculation

I had a little bit of fun with the idea of future apocalypses to celebrate the non-apocalypse of 12/21/2012. Now that apocalypses are passe, I’d like to come back to the idea of environmentally induced apocalypses in the deep future. I’m nothing if not unfashionable.

One good place to look for such disasters is Wikipedia, specifically the article on Ice Ages, and even more specifically a little graph about halfway down, on daily insolation at the top of the atmosphere at 65 degrees north on the summer solstice. I’ve reproduced it below.

Insolation graph by Incredio.  Image in the public domain.

Now, I’m not a climatologist, but I’m not entirely ignorant, so I’ll attempt to explain this. Insolation is the amount of energy coming in at the top of the atmosphere. Sixty-five degrees north is pretty much the Arctic circle, and the summer solstice is the time of maximum sunlight. The general idea here is that times of low insolation coincide with ice ages, and the reason there is variation is due to orbital changes due to Milankovitch Cycles.

Now, this isn’t THE explanation of ice ages, because Milankovitch cycles have happened for the past 4.5 billion years. In most times, they don’t apparently result in Ice Ages. Occasionally they do. Other factors such as the position of the continents and the number and size of rapidly rising mountains (which take carbon out of the air through the silicon cycle) also matter. Beyond that, there are (of course) arguments about whether this is the most important value, or whether other factors are more important. Since we’ve got extremely complex models and imperfect climatological record, the arguments about the mechanisms behind ice ages are going to be argued for a very long time.

Despite that, let’s assume that the insolation graph is important, and that when the amount of energy coming in changes dramatically, the climate changes dramatically. Let’s also assume that a rapidly changing climate is generally bad for global civilizations like ours, and that inflection points are good for civilization, because the climate is stable at those points. The logic here is that a rapidly changing climate means that everything (plants, animals, and humans) has to move, because many formerly hospitable areas become less habitable, infrastructure breaks down, and so on. Conversely, stable global climates promote civilizations that create ways to take advantage of a climate that stays moderately stable for a few centuries, whether it is stably hot or stably cool.

In the above graph, between now and 400,000 CE, there are, by my count, 35 peaks and valleys. Each of these is somewhere between 500-1000 years long, which is about how long our civilization has expanded. Ditto with the Romans, come to that.

I’d suggest that we’ve got a very good candidate for our apocalypses here. The apocalypses are the slopes, where insolation changes substantially and keeps changing. At the start of each slope, a civilization that has lasted for centuries suddenly has to radically reinvent itself. In most cases, I’d suggest the result will be a dark age, likely an age of migrations. Sea level will fluctuate, deserts will become grasslands or vice versa, jungles will spread or contract, and so forth, and people will have to move. In my book, that’s an apocalypse for every culture ended by the crisis, although humanity will never be in danger of extinction.

I should point out that what we’re doing with our MegaBelch of gigatonnes of carbon will cause climate to change much faster than what we’re talking about here. If we really go for it and release 5000 GT of carbon in the next two centuries, it will take over 1000 years for sea level rise to max out (at about 100 m above current coastlines), although we’ll reach maximum temperatures in “only” a few centuries after the MegaBelch enters the atmosphere. This is really fast climate change, and while it will be slow in our lifetimes, It appears to be worse than anything on that insolation graph. Appears is the proper term, since I’m comparing the effects of carbon in the atmosphere to sunlight coming in, which is definitely comparing apples to orange groves.

Another caveat is that I’m ignoring all the black swans and most of the gray ones when it comes to future events. I haven’t factored in the megavolcanoes that are undoubtedly going to erupt during the next 400,000 years, nor am I factoring in city killing asteroids (we will get hit multiple times), and giant landslides like the East Kilauea rift, which will raise a gigantic tsunami when it inevitably slides into the Pacific. I can handwave this away by saying that such disasters are more damaging if they hit a globalized civilization, much less damaging if they hit in the middle of a dark age. As the WWII Siege of Stalingrad and the modern wars in Afghanistan have shown, once the infrastructure has been destroyed (which is relatively easy), it’s much harder to wipe out the people who are still living there. Pounding a city reduces it to rubble, but pounding a rubble pile just makes more rubble. On a humanitarian level this is horrendous (and it is not an excuse to keep from rebuilding Afghanistan or other failed states), but it is nonetheless true. A society that keeps its people comfortable is more fragile than one which has to endure disasters on a regular basis.

Regardless climate will continue gyrating into the deep future, however much carbon we blow into the air, and people will live through these changes. On the warm side, the global climate will most likely look like the late Paleocene or early Eocene. On the cooler side, it will look like the Pliocene, at least as long as there is surplus carbon in the air. After perhaps another 500,000 years, our carbon surplus will be gone and we’ll be back into the ice ages proper, with ice free poles in the interglacials and enormous glaciers during the intervening ice ages. Humans will survive, but I suspect our future on this planet is going to be a long history of lost high civilizations, fallow ages, and civilizations rising again during the times climates stabilize.

To put it simply, We Are Atlantis 1.0, and something like this is more likely to be our future than any singularity.



Apocalyptic fun: 34 future apocalypses

I’ve gotten rather tired of the Mayan apocalypse, and being a contrarian, I’ve been thinking more about the deep future instead of the end of the world.

At some point, I made a sarcastic remark about wanting to write about a world “after the 34th apocalypse, except that I’m too lazy to come up with 33 separate apocalypses.” Now, as 12/21/12 comes closer, I’d thought it might be fun to crowd-source the other 33 apocalypses.

The idea of this is to provide future worlds for SF people to play with. Right now, I feel like SF is suffering from “aging white myopia” in that it’s mostly about the fears and fantasies of aging white people (often men), and myopia because most of the serious SF predictions are in the near future, not the deep future. I’d rather start thinking about 21st century problems, which are more about “how do we deal with this crazy world the Baby Boomers left us” than worrying about the death of the dreams we had as teens.

Want to play? Since I’m hoping to crowd source the apocalypses, I’m perfectly happy if people swipe ideas from here. This is about thinking creatively about global crises, and what comes after them.

Anyway, let’s get to the apocalypses

Here are the end points
1. The First Apocalypse is happening now, with a 5000 gigatonne release of carbon into the atmosphere over the next 200 years (this is the IPCC extreme scenario discussed here. This is the path we’re currently on. Temperatures (and extreme weather) peak between 2500 and 3500 AD, with global mean temperatures peaking 9 to 16 degrees F (6 to 9 deg. C) above today. Sea level rises about 230 feet (80 meters) above today, but it reaches that maximum in 3500 AD (almost all rise happens by 3000 AD). Conditions take 500,000 years to get back to what we have today, and we can assume the fall back towards normal in an approximately linear fashion. Thermal gradients between the arctic and the tropics largely disappear at first, but gradually reappear.
2. The 34th Apocalypse happens 525,000 years from now, when the next ice age starts. This is by fiat, from eyeballing the insolation graphs on Wikipedia. At this point, the last remnants of arctic and high mountain civilization are plowed under by the growing glaciers (antarctic civilization finally disappeared in 400,000 AD under the resurgent southern ice cap). This cycle looks a lot like the last Wisconsin glaciation. Due to the profligacy of the 1st Apocalypse, there is no fossil fuel left to rewarm the earth to avoid the ice.

Those are the end point apocalypses. Here are some ground rules:
–What’s an apocalypse? It’s a global event that causes massive change, global migration, and the end of civilization as we know it, although not necessarily a return to the stone age. It does NOT cause human extinction. It can be natural (an ice age, megavolcano, asteroid), or manmade (our current Gigafart).
–Apocalypses have dates attached, but they aren’t necessarily instantaneous. The Gigafart will take 1500 years to reach its full ripeness.
–Apocalypses have stories attached. Where does Apophis land, and what happens during the impact and afterwards?
–There’s time between apocalypses, time enough for human cultures to recover. In 525,000 AD, there will be enough history, myth, archeology, and paleontology, for the people of that time to know that 33 apocalypses have happened before them, and that they are facing the 34th. This means that the people living between apocalypses have to leave a traces. What do they leave behind that survives?
–The Rule of Narrative Conservation: people will be recognizably human 525,000 years from now. Yes, that’s a long time in human evolutionary terms, but this is for our personal fun. “Recognizably human” means that future people will be close enough to us that it’s no stretch for writers to write about them and readers to emphasize with them. They’re born, live, love, and die, and have recognizable conflicts. There is no end of history, and there is no point at which people stop being people. It does not mean that people will be the same as they are today, and it especially does not mean that they will have the same races as we do today. Races change over the course of a millennium or two, and 525,000 years is an enormous time for racial change.
–I’m tired of reading about zombies, werewolves, and vampires. If you want a monster pandemic apocalypse, be more original.
–Science rules. Don’t bother with Cthulhu, Godzilla, alien invasions (cf the Fermi Paradox), or fairies coming back. Similarly, don’t bother with nanotech or synthbio disassembler plagues, unless you can explain in detail how the damn things work from a biochemical and energetics point of view. Otherwise, they’re magic fairy dust, and that ain’t science.

Those are the basic rules.

One Prebuttal: The simplest way to come up with 32 apocalypses is to assume that global technological civilization is a destructive bubble that pops. All we have to assume is that it takes about 500 years (on average) for global civilization to grow and collapse, and it takes an average of 15,000 years for the Earth to recover enough to support another global civilization, during which people are stuck living as hunter-gatherers, dirt-scratching farmers, and similar Arcadian folk. This idea has been done by Larry Niven et al (The Mote in God’s Eye) and Charles Stross (Palimpsest). I don’t mind the idea of civilization as a cyclical irruption in history, but you know, I’m really hoping for something more original. Future history as a drunkard’s walk, rather than a wheel of time. What about two or more cycles of history, spiked with various and epic natural disasters? Or are there 32 totally predictable global catastrophes lurking out there? Or some mix of both?

Come play Edward Gorey with the future. If we get 34 separate apocalypses, I’ll put it all together and send it out to everyone who contributed.



Grim Meat-Hook Future Part 2: Sorry, no starships.

I’ve got to admit, starships are intriguing, as is the idea that someone can build a largish skyscraper with a fusion generator in the basement, and that building will contain a village-supporting ecosystem (powered entirely by the fusion generator) and also be missile-proof. On the bad side, this vision seems a bit, I don’t know, silly perhaps? The skyscraper, I mean. That’s effectively what a starship is, though, and existence of one implies the other.

On the other hand, we can assume the obvious answer for the Fermi Paradox, that the reason we haven’t heard from aliens is that starships are logistically impossible, even if they are possible under the laws of physics. This comes about simply because starships require so many breakthroughs in so many fields. A failure to achieve any of these breakthroughs–power plant, shielding, compact, human-supporting biospheres (or stasis, or computer upload systems that last for centuries), and keeping the crew together for the duration of the voyage–dooms the starship. All of them could be impossible.

At this point, some SF aficionados throw up their hands and scream “therefore we’re all doomed! The Earth won’t last forever, and humans have to.” This is foolish. Yes, of course we’re all doomed to die, one way or another (sorry if this is unwelcome news), but Earth has another billion or more years to run before it becomes uninhabitable, and it’s quite likely that humans on Earth have another few million years before we go extinct, no matter how stupid we are.

The basic point here is that humans will almost certainly survive a transition from our current, fossil-fuel based, economy to one that is not based on fossil fuels, and the only reason I say “almost certainly” is because I’m currently reading Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, and cringing how many attempted suicides the US unknowingly avoided. Anyway, the point is that people will survive, whether we decide to end our dependence on fossil fuels by crashing civilization, or whether we get to innovating and finding ways to do more with less, just as we have for untold centuries.

What will that future look like? In some ways, it will look like the starship future, at least for the next few centuries. As we get nine billion people on the planet, we’re going to have to find ways to feed more people with less land and water. Given how much we currently waste, this may be possible, if not pleasant.

Other predictions:
–Oceanic fishing will largely disappear for centuries. There are so many anoxic zones already that it’s likely that most people will give up fishing, and ships will have to carry all their food with them. I’ve had fun imagining a future Pacific where big, ark-like windjammers travel among the islands, all the food grown or shipped with them and fresh water recycled aboard as much as possible. The islands that survive sea level rise may start to resemble the self-sufficient dome cities of the previous post, since they’ll be less able (or entirely unable) to draw on the sea for their livelihoods. This is a grim thought for those of us who admire the old Polynesian cultures, but fodder for any SF writer who wants to re-imagine the old idea of asteroid belt colonies out in the Pacific, with kite-sailers replacing singleships. Anyone want to mine lava for precious elements?
–Farming will change. We’ll probably start recycling sewage onto farmland (if only to recapture the phosphorus, since we’re running short of mineable sources for that essential element), and we’ll certainly eat less meat. We’re already getting a powerful taste of climate change, with those record-breaking heatwaves and storms, and it’s going to get worse. We’ll have to get used to the idea of crops failing, and we’ll have to get very good at storing food during the good years. Currently, big agribusiness has a lock on both the food economy and politics, but that may fail suddenly, if the few big companies that dominate the Ag industry fail to deal adequately with crop failures, changing climate zones, and other problems. Rural America has been “dumbed down” for most of a century, with the bright kids lured into the cities. We’re facing a time when we need really, really smart farmers. I suspect we’ll get them, and this will affect both agribusiness and politics. Personally, I hope that permaculture takes off in a big way, but that’s because I’m an ecologist and I think it’s cool.
–Politics: It’s amazing how much politics in the US is affected by air conditioners. If the amazingly complicated US power grid starts to fail, people are going to start migrating north, out of current red states and into the blue. Some people say this is what’s driving the current Republican party, and they may be right. America is getting less white, and throughout much of the world, we’re seeing smaller families. There will be a gerontocracy for the rest of our lives, I’m afraid, but after that, who knows? We’re so used to thinking of political economy as growth that it will take innovation to face a future where populations decline.

I could go on, because this is the kind of future that makes more sense to me. Perhaps it’s because I’m a pessimist? Or is it that the idea of human history having millions of years of one damn thing after another is actually more appealing than centuries of adolescent style, unlimited growth? For SF writers, there is good news here:
–there are plenty of Apocalypses to go around. If we really do live for millions of years, we’ll see the end of the fossil fuel age (in the geologic near term), the end of global warming (as I posted on a while back), at least one more ice age, multiple Carrington Events, asteroid strikes, devastating earthquakes and volcanoes, east Kilauea sliding into the sea and inundating the west coast, dogs and cats living together, and so forth. I was toying with the idea of starting an SF scenario called “after the 34th apocalypse” set waaaay far in the future, but I would have had to figure out what all 34 apocalypses would be. The point would be that the end of civilization as we know it might become old hat after a while, with coping strategies and everything.
–Many futures are possible. Given a combination of limited resources and humanity’s incredible capacity for ignorance, boredom, and self-delusion, I predict that people are going to try most options repeatedly. Everything from slaughterhouse dictatorships to drop-out wannabe utopias will appear again and again. Modern giant agribusiness isn’t the first time western civilization tried huge agriculture (see latifundias), and it’s certainly not going to be the last time, although I’m sure we’ll see periods of small farms in the near future. Dictatorships will come and go, and there will always be a new religion popping up somewhere, even if most of them don’t survive much past their creators’ lifespans.
–Science will always be around. It’s common knowledge that most of the world’s current great religions (Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism in its current incarnation, and Islam) were created during the so-called “Axial Age” of empires in Rome, India, and China. They and their descendents are still around, in massively altered form. We’re centuries in to another age of global empires, and I’ve been wondering what new form of religion will come about. The answer was so obvious that I almost missed it: science. History is accretionary, not cyclical. Although Christianity is monotheistic, it early on absorbed a whole body of saints and pagan holidays from the old religions it replaced. Islam and Buddhism did the same thing, and I think the trend is universal among missionary religions. Because of this, I’m pretty sure science won’t go away either, no matter how hard people try to suppress its inconvenient truths. It’s so embedded in all of our lives that, like the notion that God should be capitalized, it’s not going to go away. Science *will* change radically in coming centuries as it subsumes arising cultures, but people will keep doing it. When we go through future ages of upheaval and global empires in coming millennia, our descendents will likely come up with still other “religions” that fundamentally change the way we think. I wonder what they will be?
–Domestication will rule much of the world. As with ants and termites, the human species’ fundamental adaptation has been domestication, which I like to describe as a massive campaign of symbiotic adaptations. While we can live without agriculture, I don’t think we’re going to do so. It’s simply too useful. Rather, I think that evolution is going to continue to take advantage of our domesticated ecosystems, just as it is doing right now. We will see more pests, pathogens, and parasites (including social parasites), and they will only get more sophisticated through coming centuries. I’m quite sure our counter-measures will get more sophisticated too, in a coevolutionary arms race, and I suspect that agriculture in, say, 40,000 years, will look radically different than it looks today. Farm ecosystems will be much more complex, and much of that complexity will be outside human control. Fortunately, I don’t think wilderness will ever entirely vanish, either.
–Similarly, I don’t think machines are going away, and I think that the complexity of mechanized ecosystems will only increase over time. I also think it’s likely that domesticated and mechanical ecosystems will merge more thoroughly than they have already.

In other words, there will be grim meat-hook futures, but I suspect that for every grim meat-hook generation, the next generation will make the best of things, get on with life, and be relatively happy. Things could be worse.



Grim Meat-Hook Future, Part 1: So we can build a starship….

Okay, not quite in the original sense; However, I thought I’d play with a simple idea.  In the future, we can build a starship, specifically a slower-than-light starship that obeys the laws of physics as we currently know them.

What will Earth look like in this case?

Let’s unpack this scenario a bit.  For a starship to work, we will need to have developed a bunch of technologies and practices that we currently don’t have.

These include:
–small biospheres that can support people for long periods of time without breaking down. Remember what happened with Biosphere 2? That’s what I mean by break down.
–light-weight shielding that can deal with debris hitting it at absurdly high velocities.
–Either cheap, compact, very, very safe fusion that can burn continuously for decades (for a torch ship), antimatter that can be cheaply made and safely stored for centuries, rather enormous lasers that can fire for decades, and can be aimed with nanometer precision (for a laser sail), or some form of highly accurate, high-powered linear accelerator and “smart particles” that can be cheaply made, fly at relativistic velocities, and steer themselves with nanometer precision (for a beamrider).
–The social engineering to keep small groups working together for multiple generations, or the ability to store humans in some form of stasis for centuries. Remember what happened with Biosphere 2? We’ll have to do much better than that.

The thing about this is that the world will have these technologies, as do the starships. While the technology will be unevenly distributed, bits and pieces of it will be in use all over the planet. For example, if we have fusion, we likely won’t be using fossil fuels for much of anything, because most large metropolitan areas will have fusion plants. They likely will use these energy to power desalination/water purification plants, so that we can all live by the coast and not worry about continents drying up. As I noted in a previous post, we’re stuck with climate for millennia, regardless. I’m not sure where the waste heat goes or how one maintains one of these magic power plants, but based on current experimental plants, it looks like it requires precision engineering at a scale we can’t yet match. This, in turn, implies a stable infrastructure of some scary-good engineers.

In fact, all of these require a lot of really, really good engineers, which means there will be the infrastructure to educate those engineers, whether they are humans, computers, or both. What does that mean for, oh, consumer electronics, aside from having stuff that’s much more complex than what we have today? Who knows?

But let’s look at the other new technology. Small biospheres implies that arcologies are possible. People can build floating “sea castles,” live in domes in the Arctic, on the sea bottom, or in Saudi Arabia’s empty quarter, or anywhere, and live off whatever they can grow in the domes. If they have enough money, that is. Cities will likely use this technology to produce more food within bounds, while wealthy separatist groups flourish wherever they can set up their biosphere.

Things get really interesting when you look at the shielding issue. I don’t know if the shields on a starship could withstand a nuclear explosion, but I do think they’d be impervious to almost all conventional arms. In other words, for the first time since the Middle Ages, defense becomes an option, and castles make sense. They make even more sense if you can live inside one indefinitely, treating it in effect like a starship without an engine. Of course, this radically changes the face of war. I don’t know whether the great powers will go in for castle-busting munitions (terawatt lasers, perhaps?), or more covert action, but basically, every evil genius with plans for world domination now gets his impregnable secret fortress, fully staffed with loyal minions.

Scary thought, isn’t it? We can also ponder the lives of the people who choose to live inside such fortresses. Presumably, it will be possible for them to live in there indefinitely, or to hold themselves in stasis “until the stars are right,” but I doubt it will be what we lazy, middle-class Americans consider to be a Good Time.

Does this sound like an appealing world? I’m not so sure. It’s likely more Neuromancer than Star Trek. That’s the thing I wanted to bring out: a star-faring culture would look very different than what we normally see in science fiction. It will have a technical infrastructure far beyond what we have today, but there’s no particular reason to think that it’s going to be a utopia where domestic robots attend to our every whim. It could just as easily be a weed-infested world dominated by the domed and armored cities of the wealthy and powerful. The only good news will be that people are willing to live that way.

So here’s the question: what did I miss? Any other easy extrapolations?



What to do with a drunken sailor? Send him round the world?
February 19, 2012, 1:59 am
Filed under: Real Science Content, science fiction, Speculation

This is too good not to share. I’ve been reading Robb Dunn’s six-part blog series on Civilization, fungi, and alcohol, and they are certainly inspiration.

Before I go further, here are links to
One (A Sip for the Ancestors: The True Story of Civilization’s Stumbling Debt to Beer and Fungus)
Two (Fruit Flies Use Alcohol to Self-Medicate, but Feel Bad about it Afterwards)
Three (Strong Medicine: Drinking Wine and Beer Can Help Save You from Cholera, Montezuma’s Revenge, E. Coli and Ulcers)
Four (By looking carefully, Japanese scientist discovers the secrets of termite balls)
Five (Five Kinds of Fungus Discovered to Be Capable of Farming Animals!)
Six (Exhausted Writer Discovers First Cave Painting of Yeast)

As a jack mycologist, I have a fondness for heartwarming stories about how fungi have domesticated humans to make life easier for them. Oh, wait a minute, how humans use fungi. Right…

Anyway, Dunn’s writing includes an essay about how humans may have domesticated grains not to make bread or gruel, but to make beer. He also writes about how fruit flies self-medicate with alcohol (apparently, the parasitoid wasps growing inside them die from alcohol intoxication faster at alcohol concentrations that only leave the flies moderately impaired, and infected flies preferentially head for the hooch at the first chance they get), and then writes about how humans may do the same thing, at least inadvertently.

We’re venturing into GI illness and cholera here. Hope you weren’t drinking anything non-alcoholic while you’re reading this. If you need a drink, I’ll wait. Ready? Apparently, drinks like tequila, beer, and gin, and less often wine and ethanol, can kill bacteria like the ones that give us cholera, listeriosis, and so forth. With cholera, adding gin to contaminated river water will eventually kill the cholera (note the eventually–it’s not instantaneous), and beer seems to have similar properties. Neat stuff, if you’re trying to understand why some people died in pre-modern cholera epidemics, while others survived. Maybe, like fruit flies, humans feel better when they drink not just because of the alcohol buzz, but because the alcohol has taken out a bunch of pathogens. This is a nice concept, especially considering what some of us ate during college.

At the end of the third section, Dunn postulates that the European Age of Exploration might not have happened without beer, wine, and so forth, because they carried huge supplies of these drinks on board to keep the sailors thirsts quenched. Columbus’ ship may have been half beer by weight, for example.

That’s a fascinating hypothesis. At first glance, it seems plausible. After all, we didn’t have Indians sailing east to colonize Europe, even though the Altantic currents favored them. Maybe it was because they didn’t get drunk enough. Maybe the key to conquering the world is to get on a booze cruise with a bunch of your germy buddies, and load up more beer than weapons or trade goods.

I thought about it some more, and realized that we have the beginnings of a replicated historical experiment here. After all, the Europeans may have been the booziest, but they were scarcely the only long-distance sailors out there. We’ve got the Chinese, the Arabs, and the Polynesians (and to a lesser extent, the Micronesians) all cruising the deep ocean. Muslims allegedly don’t drink (although I do like Shiraz wine, first created in Iran, and alcohol is an Arabic word…), Chinese do drink, but they typically have less alcohol dehydrogenase in their bodies to break down alcohol than do Europeans (not that this stops them), and the Polynesians didn’t brew alcohol at all, although the Micronesians did regularly brew coconut toddy. Then again, the Polynesians weren’t sailing into pestilence ridden cities, they were exploring untouched islands. Hmmm. Who got the furthest in world domination? Back before 2000, I mean. That’s why there may be an experiment here.

Is there a link between the willingness to sail with a lot of alcohol and the ability to colonize the world? I’m not sure, primarily because I don’t know how much alcohol Arabs and Chinese carried on their ships. If those data are available, we’ve got an alternative hypothesis to Guns, Germs, and Steel here. Did Europeans sweep the globe because we were willing to drink more beer than anyone else? I don’t know, but it might just be testable.

Now that we’re becoming a group of effete caffeine addicts, it appears that the rest of the world is catching up with us. I do hope that’s a coincidence.

For the science fiction writers, does that mean that our hypothetical generation ships will only fly with alcohol aboard? Will Buzz Lightyear be more than a cartoon character someday? The possibilities are endless.



Anne McCaffrey and Lynn Margulis, RIP
November 23, 2011, 8:40 pm
Filed under: fall, fantasy, Real Science Content, science fiction

Sad news today. Two grand ladies who had a strong influence on me have passed away. I can’t say that I knew them, although I heard both of them speak.

Anne McCaffrey died at her home in Ireland. She is, of course, known for her Pern novels, and I didn’t realize until I saw her obituary that The White Dragon was the first science fiction novel to make it onto the New York Times bestseller list.

Lynn Margulis, winner of the National Medal of Science, died at her home in Massachusetts. She’s best known for demonstrating that eukaryotic cells derived from serial endosymbiosis, the fusing of several prokaryotic cells to form the organelles of the eukaryote (and yes, I’m keeping it simple). I don’t think she was the first person to consider this idea, but she certainly was the one who demonstrated it and popularized the concept.

A copy of Dragonflight was the first book I ever had autographed, and I still have it. As a child in a house with a cat named Smaug, you can guess that I ran into dragons early, but I was drawing Michael Whelan-style dragons as soon as I saw the cover of The White Dragon in my parents’ hands. I’ve had a fondness for dragons ever since.

As for Dr. Margulis, she and I both went to the same school, albeit decades apart, and her books (particularly The First Four Billion Years, which I read for fun as an undergrad) introduced me to the concept of symbiosis, something which ultimately became the topic of my PhD research.

Oddly enough, the first book I wrote, Scion of the Zodiac, is in part about symbiosis, and in part about dragons. Thinking about it, perhaps I should have dedicated it to the two of them.

The world is a better place from their lives and their work, and they will be missed.



The Interstellar Two-Step

Let’s assume, for the moment, that interstellar travel is possible. Let’s further assume that there’s no magic wand of teleportation or FTL, traveling to another star takes a looong time, and it basically means colonizing your starship (or gaiaspore, if starship is too passe for you). The ship may be Charlie Stross’s hollowed out asteroid, or a comet, or something similarly large, but whatever the ship looks like, the basic idea is that people don’t put their lives on hold for the duration of the trip. Rather, they settle into their ship, and then they (or their distant descendents) settle another world elsewhere.

The two-step is an environmental filter. Many technologies that are ubiquitous on Earth, such as cooking knives or internal combustion engines, are non-starters in free fall (where scissors work better) or in small biospheres (gasoline engines). Consequently, interstellar travelers will abandon quite a lot of Earth’s technology when they live in space. They’ll also certainly invent lots of uses for vacuum and all sorts of high energy particles, but that’s another story.

Anyway, once they’ve made the first step of abandoning Earth tech and its associated culture (no car culture in space), once they get to another planet, they’re faced with a new environment where they have to adapt again. Suddenly they have dependable gravity and a huge biosphere to draw on (or at least, a planet’s worth of resources). In the second step, do they simply adapt spacer culture and technology to meet the challenges of the new place, or do they read through copies of the ancient Wikipedia and start experimenting with, say, gasoline engines again?

There’s a real-life analogy to this process: Polynesia. As the Lapita peoples settled the Pacific, they abandoned things like pottery, weaving, and flaking rock (and possibly bronze metallurgy) as part of their adaptation to living on coral atolls. Once they colonized places like New Zealand, they didn’t spontaneously pick up their ancestor’s technologies, even though they had the resources (such as clay) to do them again. Instead, they adapted their Polynesian tool kits to new surroundings.

There are some subtleties here: for example, Polynesians didn’t just abandon pots because there was no clay on atolls. They were abandoning them before they got to the atolls, because they were switching from cooking over an open fire (where pots are useful) to cooking in an earth oven (where pots are useless). Moreover pots are more fragile than wooden bowls, coconut shells, and gourds. Similarly, they switched from flaking rock edges (on obsidian) to grinding, because grinding works on all sorts of materials, including the giant clam shells used for adze blades on atolls, while flaking just works on glassy rocks. The thing is, adzes work better when they’re ground rather than flaked (whatever they’re made of), the Polynesians also had bamboo (which can be shaped with an adze to make a nice sharp knife), and Easter Islanders figured out how to flake knives on their own in any case. The bottom line is that loss of technology isn’t just about losing the tech, its involves a whole shift to other tools and practices that sometimes makes things superfluous. A society on electric cars won’t be exactly the same as a society built around gasoline cars, because the two vehicles have different strengths and weaknesses.

Getting back to the interstellar two-step, it’s a fun to play as a thought game. If you were leaving Earth for space, what would you abandon? If you were planning on getting your descendents to settle elsewhere, would you have them do: resurrect Earth culture, adapt spacer culture, or both?

Examples of adapting spacer culture might range from using scissors and shears in place of knives, to using air guns instead of gunpowder, to using various cooking techniques that work regardless of gravity, but not gravity-requiring methods such as frying. How about transportation? Art? Agriculture? For example, if they kept goats in space, would you have them bring along cow embryos and the means to grow them to re-establish cattle, or would you rather give them the biotechnology to engineer a giant goat that fulfills most of the cow’s roles in terrestrial agriculture?

What do you think? How would you do the Interstellar Two-Step? I’ll say right off that there’s no right answer. This is a thought game, pure and simple.



Cool, Quiet, and Green: What does sustainability look like?

This one’s inspired by this NPR story, about sustainability.

What does sustainability look like? In The Ghosts of Deep Time, I have one character say that civilization is cool, quiet, and green, and that’s still my thumbnail for a sustainable city. To unpack that a bit:

Cool. Forests are cooler than grasslands, not because they get less sunshine, but because they catch more of that sunlight and do things with it. Scientists can actually determine how stressed a forest is by measuring how hot it is. Efficiency translates into less energy loss, which means less heating.

In cities, we tend to waste a lot of energy, which is why they are hot. Most of the sunshine gets reflected, or absorbed into surfaces that it heats up. Most of our equipment runs hot, which means we have to get rid of that heat too. A sustainable civilization doesn’t waste much energy, so it’s going to be cool.

Quiet goes with cool. Much of the noise of modern civilization is wasted energy, gone to making sound waves instead of useful work. An efficient civilization is going to be quiet as well as cool.

Green. This is both in philosophy and color. Plants can perform a large number of functions, from cleaning water to providing shade and cooling air. Moreover, we humans aren’t so far from our evolutionary roots that we don’ enjoy having plants around, even if our thumbs are scummy black rather than green. Obviously, a sustainable city will be ethically green as well, but from a simple design standpoint, I think it’s difficult to have a sustainable city without having a lot of functional plants around.

Anything else? Or can we do without one of these?



Prelude to a Starship

On Charlie Stross’ blog, I think I called starships gaiaspores, because apparently the term “starship” is passe among the cognoscenti. Or something like that. Gaiaspore does have a certain endearing clunkiness, so use it if you wish. I’m mostly calling them starships here.

But I’m thinking about something a bit different. What comes before the starship? If you remember James Burke’s Connections from the late 1970s, you remember that no invention comes about without a long chain of preliminary discoveries. For living in space, we’re going to need a lot of precursors. What are they?

Let’s start science fiction: how do others see us getting to the stars? The science fiction answers range from, well what we have now (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, where Ohio hadn’t changed at all in 200 years, except that the elderly now emigrate to the stars) to planetary destruction (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, where the living, moon-sized spaceships basically ate planets down to the mantle before departing). Charlie Stross seems to break on the large side of the spectrum, talking about hollowing out asteroids and putting slow motors on them. That would require us to digest a few large cities, at the very least.

Assuming a starship is even feasible, it’s going to demand some things we’re currently really bad at, like living at close quarters with nuclear or fusion plants, living sustainably, and living in free fall or microgravity. No culture on Earth lives this way now (although people try it for a few years as an experiment).

So culturally, how do we get there from here? Cultural evolution tends to be path dependent, so it’s not as simple as re-educating the people we have. Imagine turning a Tea Partier into an 18th Century Japanese farmer, or a Papuan highland farmer (both picked because they lived fairly sustainably), and you’ll see the problem. Because of the path dependence, it’s fun to think about where we need to be going before our culture evolves to the point where it can live in space.

What do you think? What do the predecessors to the stars look like? Remember that a pre-starfaring culture has to work on its own merits. Like a bird ancestor, it can’t “half fly.” Those too-small wings have to perfectly good for something else first.

When I wrote Scion of the Zodiac, I cheated on this question. I assumed that we’re going into a post-oil dark age first, and that somehow in that unrecorded time (heh heh) we learned the critical lessons of sustainability that allowed us to go to the stars after the next Renaissance (spurred, I think, by discovering a readable copy of Wikipedia and translating it. No sarcasm there). However, I’ll admit that I was more interested in low tech terraforming than star flight, so I spent more time figuring out how you could survive in an alien biosphere at a low tech level. That last stipulation was so that I couldn’t use magic tech boxes to make life livable. For my “barefoot gaiaformers,” I used three books as my primary references: Bill Mollison’s An Introduction to Permaculture, Jim Corbett’s Goatwalking, and Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running. Those three books are ones I’d recommend for any post-oil bookshelf, but there’s a lot of good material in there for how to run a gaiaspore. Note that none of these books are mainstream, which is why I think path dependence matters. As for the mechanical side, I’m only starting to think about it.

Obviously, I can babble about this for hours. But what do you think? Can we get to the stars from here? If so, how do we make the connections, and what do the intermediate culture(s) look like? If not, what’s standing in our way?



And now for something completely different…
October 6, 2011, 5:23 pm
Filed under: fantasy, fiction, science fiction, Worldbuilding, writing | Tags: , , ,

Oddly enough, I’ve been meaning to put this up for over a week. Originally, I was going to wait until I had the book ready for sale, but you know, reality has it’s own agenda. All of a sudden, a bunch of things suddenly erupted onto my schedule like post-rain mushrooms. Smashwords takes a bit of time to publish things, so I thought I’d put the teaser up now.

It’s my second book, and this one is in the spirit of Poul Anderson’s Time Patrol. The title is The Ghosts of Deep Time, and the book contains a novel and a short story.

From the back cover:

“A consultant finds a fossilized pack in the desert, then finds himself back in the Miocene with a criminal gang.

A game warden busts a group of trespassing druids in a wildlife sanctuary. They vanish in a green flash and he loses his job, only to be recruited for something much bigger.

This is the big secret: time travel is easy. There are over four billion years in Earth’s past. The deeper one goes in time, the more alien the Earth is. Still, people have settled most of Earth’s history. Of course they live without a trace, for that is the law of deep time. To do otherwise could create paradoxes, bifurcating histories, even time wars and mass extinctions.

Where there is law, there is also crime. When crimes span millions of years, law enforcement takes a special kind of officer. An ex-game warden can be the perfect recruit. At the right time.”

Here’s a sample. Enjoy! The Smashwords version will be available in a couple of weeks, and a paper version will be available through Lulu late next week. I’ll add links as things progress.

Update: It’s now available as an trade paperback from Lulu in electronic formats (Kindle, Nook) from Smashwords. Amazon is coming in a bit. In the meantime, you can purchase it from either of these two fine companies.