Putting the life back in science fiction


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?



Welcome to the Noosphere

To use the high school tactic, if you haven’t heard of a noosphere before, here is Google’s definition: “A postulated sphere or stage of evolutionary development dominated by consciousness, the mind, and interpersonal relationships (frequently with reference to the writings of Teilhard de Chardin)”

This idea crops up a lot in, well, collegiate dorm thinking, and it generally expounds the idea that the world is evolving in stages from inanimate matter towards some grand future where all thinking beings are connected, there’s universal consciousness, the Singularity has happened, or similar versions on the Christian rapture dressed in scientific terminology (Mssr. de Chardin was a Jesuit Priest, so there is a distinct Christian undertone in this whole idea).

I’m going to argue something very different: the noosphere is already here, it’s been growing for over 500 years, and rather than being a rapture of the nerds, it’s becoming quite a pain in the ass, mostly because the sciences it has fostered resolutely refuse to acknowledge its importance.

This whole train of thought was inspired by a quote from William deBuys’ A Great Aridness (Amazon link). In talking about what we learned from Biosphere II, Mr. DeBuys said, “In this respect, Biosphere II proved a true microcosm of Biosphere I, where venality, ideology, self-interest, and other elements of the globe’s political ecology, much more than the workings of the nonhuman world, have generated the greatest obstacles to solving environmental problems, climate change foremost among them.”

There’s that thumbprint of the noosphere: political ecology. Since I’m not a global climate change denier, I see nothing controversial in de Buys’ statement. The “problem” with it is that it lets slip the dirty laundry. Politics matters. Global politics, a signpost of the noosphere of human thought, is now a major factor in the biosphere. Most biologists and ecologists hate this conception, but most would agree that it is nonetheless true. The ecology of politics is another factor to consider, along with the physical world.

Again, there’s nothing new with this idea. The problem is that most scientists want to keep their science somehow pure. Politics happens, certainly, but arguing that politics is integral to a biological study can cause all sorts of problems in fields where nature is considered to exist separately from human thought.

Of course, the noosphere not new. Once Columbus got back from the Indies, human political ecology has been stitching the world together in radical ways (“reknitting the seams of Pangaea” in Charles Manns’ wonderful formulation in 1493). There are whole ethnicities, such as Hispanics, who are the direct result of political ecology. My ancestors have been living in the US since the 17th Century, and my ancestors come from what are now a dozen European countries. National borders (such as the idiotic Border Wall along the Mexican border) now extirpate species (such as the few Baja rose growing in the US), and the most rapidly evolving plants and animals on the planet arguably are pests and crop plants, both of which depend intimately on rapidly changing, human-maintained ecosystems. Political ecology is important.

More subtly and pervasively, the non-human biosphere is dominated by human politics and thought, whether its our effluents causing climate change (“Global Wierding” in deBuys aptformulation), fishing and hunting radically changing ecosystems throughout the world, park boundaries (which turn what used to be huge gradients across which organisms spread into discrete island patches), even concepts of nature which ignore nature outside those park boundaries and guide our actions to favor some species and harm others.

I could go on, and in fact I think it might make a nice book at some point. The problem is that this is a dirty, unromantic conception of the noosphere, one that brings along all the destructive baggage that most of us got into ecology to avoid. It also conflicts with de Chardin’s arguably romantic conception of progress from inanimate nature to a God of pure consciousness. Consciousness (in its human incarnation) is a part of the biosphere now, but the biggest factors right now aren’t our lofty, enlightened thoughts, but rather our worst impulses: “venality, ideology, self-interest, and other elements…”

This is in line with real evolution. While mass extinctions happen (one has been happening for the last 50,000 years or so) major lineages seldom go completely extinct. We add on, rather than proceeding from stage to stage. We’ve still got theropod dinosaurs around (birds), and they’re arguably more common than they used to be. Mammals are an ancient lineage that predates the dinosaurs, and we’re here. So are reptiles and amphibians, along with insects, fish, and so forth. And as Stephen Jay Gould once noted, rather than living in an Age of Mammals, we’re living in an Age of Bacteria, as we have for the last 4.5 billion years. They keep the critical recycling bits of the biosphere working, just as they always have.

What’s wrong is de Chardin’s concept. He saw evolution as progress in stages, from inanimate rock through bacteria, plants, invertebrates, reptiles, mammals, man, then the Noosphere (with celestial, uplifting music, no less). Evolution is more like a compost pile, with new stuff added, often by chance, at irregular intervals, and a pile that continues to churn nonetheless.

So yes, welcome to the noosphere. We were all born here, but we never realized it, did we?



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?