Saturday, September 12, 2015

Nitpicking recent (great) hard SF novels: AURORA and THE MARTIAN.

Is interstellar travel by bio-humanity even possible?  Not according to my dear bro and esteemed colleague Kim Stanley Robinson. Whose new novel AURORA follows one of the first… and possibly last… efforts to send a generation starship to a neighboring star. Naturally, any KSR book is worth rushing out to purchase… though like many of his other works, there is a very strong sense that the author has a point to make. 

Starting with the fact that he's been asked for thirty years: “Hey, Robinson, how come you never leave the solar system!” AURORA is – foremost – his answer.

Why? Because it cannot (in any reasonable way) be done. Aurora proclaims: “There. I left. For a bit. Okay? But there’s nothing interesting out there. And getting there is too hard. Let’s focus on fixing our home.”

In fact, I got no bones to pick with KSR’s Odes to Our Planet – (hey, one of my tomes is EARTH) – and its solar siblings. Moreover, I find his politics to be interesting, grownup and major contributions to our grand discussion of how advanced human societies may govern themselves. I tend to emphasize the role of regulated competition in the synergies that he seeks, that might offer our Enlightenment experiment extended success and wisdom. Still,
 I agree so often with KSR's general zeitgeist that it's actually refreshing to get a chance to pick at some disagreements, for a change!

Moreover, when it comes to Aurora’s stay-home message, he had to expect folks would accuse him of stacking the deck.

Of course Robinson's fundamental premise is one that I violate like crazy in my Uplift Universe… that Einstein’s law is the law. Let's start by assuming any interstellar travel endeavors that take place in the future must obey, and indeed use technologies that are within “squint” range of our own. We can see them in the distance as plausible extensions of things-currently-known. We are - for example - on the verge of achieving some kind of fusion and can collect traces of anti-matter… so it is not untoward to imagine an interstellar ship propelled by either fusion power or antimatter. Or else, since KSR veers away from those energy sources, let's instead picture a combination of electromagnetic launch plus laser boost from home, followed by a series of planetary swing-bys in the target system–

-- exactly the combination that I used earlier, in Existence. But no unobtanium. No warp drives. No uploaded people who get downloaded into new bodies at the other end. And… most tellingly – no suspended animation or deep sleep or cryo-storage.  Those are cheating.

I’m not so sure about that last one. If KSR cannot squint and see it as plausible, I sure can. Indeed, the technologies that he chooses to include are only ones that are hard and likely to remain just barely on the edge of possible -- especially the closed ecosystem methods needed for a generation ship.  Techs are excluded if their existence would make interstellar travel much, much easier.

But let’s hop over for some other opinions. Starting with a pair of sagacious reviews at the Centauri Dreams site. The first, by my fellow “Killer Bee” Gregory Benford, addresses a number of the social aspects of KSR’s novel, including plot elements that seem designed to make the expedition more likely to fail.

In another fascinating followup, honorary Killer Bee Stephen Baxter dissects some of the physics and engineering behind KSR’s starship.

== My own riff re AURORA ==

Okay, my turn.

1- First, where I absolutely agree with Kim Stanley Robinson is over the biggest of all Big Lies in hard-SF tales about humans conquering the galaxy... the notion that it will be easy for ortho-humanity to colonize other earthlike worlds. A mere cloning of the European experience settling the Americas, stepping off the boat, inhaling the fresh air, chopping some trees and pushing back natives, building prosperous farms, then cities... this re-figuring of the American West in space is a standard motif, from Poul Anderson to Lois Bujold and a thousand other authors, and although it is so alluring a dream, it ain't necessarily so.

A point that Stan hammers repeatedly, in AURORA, is that living ecosystems defend themselves. They have predation pyramids and immune systems and it seems improbable that human settlers will just fit right in, finding it easy to eat but not too-easy to be eaten... or simply poisoned by a zillion incompatible chemicals unfamiliar and lethal to Earth biology.  Some authors have pointed out this problem before -- Ursula LeGuin, David Gerrold in his Cthorr series and I've poked at it. Indeed, the SF author with the biggest galactic empire of all -- Isaac Asimov -- gave himself an out by assuming that all 25 million human-settled worlds had been free of metazoan life when robotic machines came along to terraform them for humanity. (See this resolved and made clear in Foundation's Triumph.)

So, at one level, KSR is offering a badly-needed splash in the face with some cold-water reality, countering a hoary and overly-lazy old SF trope.  And yet... 

And yet, there is such a thing as way-overcompensation.  In fact, it now seems likely that alien life forms will use plentiful adenine as their energy molecule and as one of their nucleotides.  And the 20+ amino acids that we use in proteins just happen to be the ones that are most thermodynamically stable and easiest to produce and collect.  I am not saying there won't be bizarrely different biochemistries out there!  But if you take twenty life worlds out there, I bet some will supply most of what we need to eat, enabling us to supplement with transplanted foods.  The poisoning or immune system problems are bigger unknowns. But are you saying it will be forever beyond human science to analyze such things and reconfigure versions of humanity that would be capable of coping?

Indeed, this notion of us adapting to new homes is one that both KSR and I have dealt with, before. Trouble is... it distracts from AURORA's core polemical message.  And that message is a heavy one.

2- Alas, we keep running into the same problem, even among fellow members of our Promethean guild. To envision that your current set of problems might seem quaint to people just a generation hence. 

In this case, when an author uses tech-science difficulties to stymie his colonists, the question then arises… might not the next mission learn from these mistakes? One has only to squint and picture that successor ship finding Tau Ceti’s obstacles quite surmountable.

Especially since… and this is kinda crippling… (spoiler alert!) .... Earth eventually saves some of the returning colonists by sending them exactly such a trick of technology.  One that will change utterly the design of the next wave of starships, making them four or five orders of magnitude simpler, safer, easier, cheaper and quicker!  

In other words: okay okay, so generation ships are barely plausible. But then, in that case, how about skipping them to something better?

3- Another deck-stacking… Robinson presumes Solar System civilization is just barely rich enough to have afforded to send a few generation ship expeditions… but not (generations later) wealthy enough to make expeditions increasingly a matter of proliferating whim. In the end, the stay-at-home lesson boils down to an assumption of permanent (if relative) poverty.

Indeed, the simplest way to perfect your systems for a generation ship is simply to keep such a ship as a freestanding colony in the Solar System. There might be ten thousand such habitats in a rich civilization.  Pick a few that volunteer to have no physical contact with others, for a century. Many of the closed ecology problems KSR discusses could be old-hat and solved.

4- Ah, but a strong moral point against generation ships is the commitment of your grand-children to a stressful and dangerously limited life in which they had no choosing.  Stan does a good job conversationally weighing the ethical tradeoffs... if leaning on the scales a bit. But again, our conclusion is simply to find something better than generation ships.

For other scenarios about starships and generation ships, see Starship Century: Toward the Grandest Horizon, an anthology of stories and articles about our longterm future in space, edited by Gregory and Jim Benford.

5- KSR’s no-Captain premise may allow lots of colorful chaos, murder and plot-propelling societal collapse. But it also is silly. Even if the population aboard ship lives according to Robinsonian prescribed post-Marxian according-to-needs principles combined with Rothbardian no-coercionism and LeGuinian anarchic individualism (that predictably shatters under stress) they’d still have backup plans and those would include occasional emergency drills that familiarized them with age-old techniques. Those drills would include meritocratic selection of a ceremonial captaincy – AI -chosen, perhaps – that could assume command in a crisis. Should that arrangement then fail in order to drive the plot? Sure! But stacking the deck should be subtle. Even just a bit. It should not be based on everyone aboard having never cracked a single book about ancient eras of exploration.

6- What I find stunning is that in this book KSR indicts his own prescriptive utopia as brittle and incapable of resilience! I am sure the intended message was “if my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition, then no one can, hence forgetaboutit.” But that is not what the reader derives. Rather, the book’s take-away is just “my super-mature society can’t handle an interstellar expedition.”

Indeed, from the behavior of the denizens of Aurora, one is left to conclude something fundamental about this ship and expedition – that it was created by the folks back home, and carefully staffed, with one goal in mind – to be a “Golgafrincham B Ark.” A dig that should be self-explanatory, if you are sf’nally literate.

The most disappointing thing is that Stan Robinson is generally a master of problem-solving fiction, making him an archetype of what I believe to be the fundamental premise of Sci Fi, making it the opposite of traditional fantasy. The premise that children might – sometimes — learn from the mistakes of their parents. But not this time. By that metric, Aurora is, for all its tech-heavy recitations — alas – far more polemic than science fiction.

Do not get me wrong! Kim Stanley Robinson is a treasure of the science fiction genre.  Anything he writes is an eye-opener. In this case, his dissection of the Wild West mythology of colonization is a very important contribution to the adult-end conversation that SF should provide. Go give Aurora a read. 

And now, let's move on to another terrific - if flawed - best-seller.

== Nitpicks on THE MARTIAN ==

Hey, I agree that The Martian is a great book! That is... if you adore problem-solving fiction as a break from the tediously unimaginative and unhelpful gloom of this era of cheap dystopic hand-wringing.

Andy Weir’s The Martian deserves its plaudits and I look forward to the film.  

Still, a novel that’s sometimes called “competence porn” – presenting itself as a rigorously plausible Robinson-Crusoe-in-Space on every page – does merit scrutiny.  My pal Joe Carroll – the best space engineer I know – loved the book but offers up these cavils. (Let the techie crit commence!):

1. It seems unlikely that there would be enough light inside to grow useful crops except right near windows or LED lights.  Mars gets only ~43% as much sun as earth; the hab windows will be small; and LED area lighting is likely to be only a few percent as bright as outside.

2. His quantitative chemistry was sloppy.  He's confusing the pleasantly simple ratios of volumes of gas at the same pressure and temperature, with liquids.  You don't get 2 liters of liquid H2O from 1 liter of LO2 (liquid oxygen): 1 liter of LO2 weighs 1.14 kg and gives 1.14 * 18/16 = 1.28 kg = 1.28 liter of water.

3. Baselining a full 1 atmosphere for the hab, rover, and EVA (ExtraVehicular Activity) suits doesn't make sense to me (The International Space Station, ISS, uses 14.7 psi (pounds per square inch) but only 4 psi for EVA; Skylab used 5 psi).  I think it should probably be more like 6-7 psi.  That allows enough N2 dilution of O2 to make fires less of an issue in 3/8 gee. I think NASA would use 3-4 psi pure oxygen in the EVA suits.  When the suit pressure is comparable to the N2 partial pressure in the hab or rover, you don't have to pre-breathe O2 before EVA to avoid bends. 

4. I don't think his composite pressurized structures are very realistic.  Flat floored "tents" are very hard to do.  I think it would be far lighter, stronger, and safer to have a cylindrical pressure shell, with a lightweight raised flat floor inside, and space under the floor panels for storage. . I also think that 60 seconds from resin mix to strong cure may be reasonable for a patch material, but it makes a lot of what he did nearly impossible.  But if he let it get cooler than intended, he could stretch the cure time.

5. I can't see any reason for such high acceleration leaving Mars. I think the best initial T/W (Thrust to Weight ratio) would probably be less than 2 Mars gravities or less than 0.7 Earth gee. Even with a single stage and no throttling, that would probably be  less than 3 gees max to low Mars orbit, and approximately 5 gees to rendezvous with the rest of the crew in a hyperbolic flyby.

Ouch! Burn!  That is… if you are a real nitpicker! ;-) But... isn't that Weir's readership? Indeed, the pickiness of these nits only shows how terrific the general execution truly is.

For more fact-checking, see also: A Mission Controller reviews The Martian and The Science of The Martian.

Seriously, as a "space cadet" since way back in my days as a post-doc at the California Space Institute .. and currently on the advisory board of NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts group and the B612 Foundation, I am thrilled to see "competence porn" rising in popularity.

Now, on to Matt Damon. Go for it Good Will Hunting.  Give us something for (forever young-minded) grownups.


  1. 'Cause Grownups shouldn't carry Grudges...

    I have not been a big KSR fan. Matter of taste I guess.

    I do think we might have a shot at dropping into an alien ecosystem and thriving. Once in a while an imported species does so. Rats on most Pacific islands. Kick butt big time. And a more recent if tragic example. A tree snake that has in effect eaten all the avian life on Guam. Reasonable analogs I think, an island isolated by lots of water, a planet by lots of vacuum and distance.

    Food we could manage. Immune system seems a bit Gaia to me. Might happen. Big business in water purifiers for trace toxins and I am sure we would screw things up expensively and fatally on a regular basis.

    Not the most glorious sunny horizon for Humanity, that we might be rats or snakes.

    Some planets of course would be teaming with cats and mongooses...


  2. KSR is ... odd. The First Hundred in the RGB Mars trilogy were able to invent technologies beyond those on Earth, while struggling for survival. Their ship was made from left-over shuttle parts, but a handful of crew left on Phobos were able to create a planet-spanning soletta out of raw moon-rock. Their chief physician invents (effective) immortality. Etc etc. The drastic technological leaps and giant technological projects wrought by tiny groups in isolation were the least satisfying things about the series for me. For KSR to suddenly become tech-shy when dealing with interstellar travel is ... well, odd.

    Re: Poison planets.
    It seems that we always find any large organic molecule in that we are capable of looking for star forming nebula. So the base elements are going to be the same wherever life forms. Hence, as long as the chirality is right (or left or whichever it is) then we can turn alien life into feed-stock for Earth life.

  3. I believe you under-rate the difference between invading Guam and invading an alien, 4 billion year old ecosystem that may be left vs right handed, or use two unfamiliar aminos in all proteins, or who consume and metabolize carbohydrates in a different way and hence might absorb Earthly cell walls without even triggering our immune systems.

  4. I haven't read Aurora, but as paul451 says, if the 100 could colonize Mars, why not pick a similar dead world to colonize?

    Colonizing a living world might be a bad idea, and morally dubious if our biology accidentally wrecks it. Better to stick to dead worlds and start fresh, slowly terraforming it outside the domes, assuming that the various element recycling processes are in operation.

    By the time the first human stellar missions are underway, and if they are to use world ships or fully recycling life support, I think the biology will be pretty well understood by then, both theoretically and practically. It may even require engineered humans who can at least hibernate, if not go into some sort of cryo sleep.

    My guess is that robots will populate the galaxy before humans. They don't have any of the biological problems that beset humans, and are much more versatile in colonizing different worlds, using different phenotypes. We humans may either stay home, or colonize just a fraction of the robot worlds.

    Asimov had the spacers worry about the differential growth rates of Earth humans vs the Spacer worlds, leading to the eventual breakout of Earth. But my sense is that the robot dominated worlds like Solaris could have simply produced robots that could have colonized the galaxy instead. Asimov famously talked about planetary chauvinism when O'Neill introduced his space colony ideas. But he, as do most of us, express human chauvinism. We just cannot seem to accept that the galaxy may not be the domain of humans, rather than advanced, intelligent, machines.

    As regards the Martian, it was a very enjoyable yarn and it deservedly is now a movie. Yes it can be nitpicked, as can any fiction, but the nits are small and don't break the story. It is the SF movie I am most looking forward to.

  5. Was given Aurora last week for Father's day. I suppose I should finish it before seeing 'The Martian'.

    Of course KSR has a point in saying we should be looking after the old homestead before we head off for pastures green (ish), and I do agree that interstellar travel has been way over-romanticised as the solution to our problems (as in, er..., 'Interstellar'?). In all honesty, we have enough to occupy ourselves in the local neighbourhood for now, and I doubt we'll turn our attention to what lies beyond the Solar System it with any force for another century or so. Even so, we'd be a pretty poor bunch if we gave up on the enterprise without at least a few exploratory attempts.

    Robust ecosystems certainly can resist invaders (I believe this has been noted in the uplands of Hawaii, and 'Tas' certainly sees any feral cats and foxes off.). They don't even have to be that 'robust' if they're given some help. I did my bit helping replant a section of native vegetation in NE Victoria a few weeks ago. It turns out the remnant trees in cleared fields benefit enormously from windbreaks consisting of native vegetation. Hard to believe this stretch of grass choked easement (looking North) should become a bit of box-ironbark woodland in a few years (like this. What will happen over the next 2-3 years is that trees and woody shrubs will grow and out-compete the 'invader' weeds and grass for water. They will die off, and the understorey plants can be re-established by direct sowing. The environment will be able to support small birds and animals that control the insects that have been devouring the remnant trees.

  6. Yipe. I hate the pair of horrid, brittle dangerous Ironbarks we have on our property. Eucs should never have been imported to California. But Ironbarks are especially awful.

  7. "'Twas a man from Ironbark, who hit the Sydney town.."

    Heh! Maybe specimens from robust ecosystems are naturally invasive?
    (Actually, you can probably blame the preponderance of eucs in the Australian bush on several thousand years of Aboriginal 'fire stick' agriculture. That which survives...)

    Australians, in turn, curse the radiata monocultures. Redwoods and oaks seem to fit in more peacably, but that may just be the effect of slow time.

    Anyway, we planted plenty of other things, as well.

  8. Will suspended animation ever get cheaper than living? If so, a lot of people will be bobbling themselves here on earth as well as spacefarers.

  9. "Maybe specimens from robust ecosystems are naturally invasive?"

    This casts our accidental destruction of biodiversity on earth an in interesting light; if we render our local ecosystem non-robust, will the resulting humanity a couple of hundred years hence have trouble acting as an invasive species of robust alien biomes?

  10. 1) Predictions of evolutionary biology from first principles have not the best track record. Still, given the sample space of exactly one, and the 4 billion year history of life, the rule of thumb seems to be "Everything goes".
    2) ...still, complex life sure looks like a freakish one time event, so I'll throw out a number: for every 10^27 extrasolar earthlike candidat worlds, expect 1 that we can settle. That's actually pretty good odds, I think.
    3) Much as I love Star Trek, it is an 18th century vision of the future. I say this because the attrition rate for English colonists - with amenable conditions - was 1 survivor for every 10 dead.colonists. So expect LOTS of failed interstellar colonies.
    4) Another term for closed ecosystem generation ship is "coffin". They've got to be granted at least a bacterium's ability to metabolize their environs.
    4) I don't want this to be complete downer. David Gerrold in '73 (The World of Star Trek) turned me on to the vast human enterprise required to build and maintain the Enterprise. His example, I recall, was a 747. Perhaps a better examination would be a nuclear-powered supercarrier. I'm willing to bet we could put one of those in orbit today, if we really wanted to. Get us to Kardashev level 2, and interstellar voyages are not impossible, just very, very difficult.

  11. I would recommend people read the Science Fiction webcomic Freefall which takes a look at some of these issues on colonizing worlds, including right- vs. left-handed biochemistry. The humans of this colony are, in fact, terraforming a dead world. And while three of the main characters are a modular robot, an uplifted wolf, and a squid-alien that uses an environmental suit at all times, it isn't a soft and squishy science fiction.

    There's also stuff on robot rights, what it means to be a sentient, the problems with terraforming and geoengineering, and so forth mixed in. And it's been running on a MWF format since the late 90s, so you have a good archive to build on.

    Seriously. Go read it. :)

    Rob H.

  12. Just finished "The Martian". It reads very much like "Popular Mechanics in space". It was dense with ingenious little fixes for problems, but totally lacking in big ideas. How much better a novel would this have been if the Hermes crew knew they'd never make it back to earth. Where are the existential questions?

  13. How deeply embedded is no-compromise radicalism in the Republican Party? One news item (see below) is revealing. Take two data points: (1) only once since WWII has a GOP-controlled Congress negotiated with a democratic president, with the aim of fashioning a compromise for the good of the nation -- that was the Miracle year 1995 when Newt Gingrich crafted Welfare Reform and the Budget Act with Bill Clinton... and Newt was immediately punished by Hastert, DeLay, Murdoch etc, declaring 'never again will we negotiate.'

    Totally consistent is the news (2) that Rick Perry has dropped out of the race for GOP presidential nomination. For all of the fact that he's a right wing conservative, the three term governor of a major US state has had to lace his dogmatism many times with pragmatism and compromise -- unlike the stunningly and hatefully zealous Scott Walker. Of all the GOP aspirants, only Perry was "squintable." You might peer ahead and envision him in the White House, actually doing a real job. (Even if he'd bring the entire horrific Bushite Corps into office with him.)

    Of the rest? Kasich seems sapient and will never rise above his current 2%. He's in it for the increased post-nomination speaking fees, as are several others.

    The rest are like standing strips of litmus paper, dipped into the angry, seething brew that Rupert Murdoch and his Saudi co-owners of Fox have stirred-up in Red America. And in slightly varied colors those strips all seem to say "uncompromisingly-loco."

  14. locumranch10:53 AM

    The 'Humanity as rats, weeds & pests' trope was very popular among Sci Fi circles back in the late 60's & early 70's, yet this once dominant mindset seems to have been entirely forgotten, only to be replaced by either humanity as 'demigods & x-men' (OSC's fave) or humanity as precision-made paper-shuffling clerks & techs (one favored by our host).

    Indeed, it seems to me that the Sci Fi trope (or more specifically its evolution) says more about our cultural zeitgeist than it does about humanity's supposed future, starting with the Aristocratic Renaissance Man-of Leisure trope (propagated by Verne & Wells) which became the White Man's Burden model (colonising the uncivil stars) which became the Rogue Individual/Space Western model (popular in the 50's) which (much later) became the 'mea culpa' tree-hugging environmental catastrophe trope that remains popular today.

    Insomuch as KSR's 'Aurora' seems to take a 'clean your room or you can't go out & play' (maternalist) approach to humanity's future, our host's criticism of KSR's 'biologism' mostly reflects his own paternalistic faith in both a clockwork universe & humanity's tinker toy (mechanistic) future, both of which are made laughable by a level of parental posturing bordering on narcissism, especially when humanity's future will be more chaotic, far bloodier & much more biological than they can even imagine.


  15. locumranch11:18 AM

    "How deeply embedded is no-compromise radicalism in the Republican Party?" (DB)

    I guess the US Republicans didn't get the memo that identified them as mere avolitional cogs in the Democratic party machine, and -- before you try to send them to bed without supper -- you should consider Mario Silva for his very liberal sentiments:

    "There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part. You can't even passively take part! And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop! And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!"


  16. @locum our host's criticism of KSR's 'biologism' mostly reflects his own paternalistic faith in both a clockwork universe & humanity's tinker toy (mechanistic) future

    can you be more specific, using examples? I've only read a subset of DB's works, but I don't get the sense that it is a mostly mechanistic future that he writes about. There is plenty of biology and chaos. Or are you just criticizing a technological future, because that would be somewhat counter factual given our history and what is clearly happening right now. We may not get lots of spaceships, but I expect that technology will continue to develop as it has done.

    Speaking of "spaceships", I read today that Lubin at all have been financed by NIAC to further investigate a multi-kilowatt laser array and 10 gm "camera sail" to reach 0.1c. While I am skeptical of the motives behind the plan, if it was possible to demonstrate fractional c velocities using this approach, it would be a bug leap for sending multitudes of micro-probes to explore and monitor the solar system all the way to the Oort cloud.

  17. AT... cool it. Locum is... er... cogent today. And though he strawmans my meaning ("the GOP never negotiates") into his own fabrication ("Brin wants Goppers to obey democrats")... I still want to encourage comments that are at least not-insane.

  18. Anonymous12:40 PM

    I try to be polite at all times, but still....

    Government in a democracy requires compromise and negotiation. Only absolute dictatorships can approach a no-compromise, no-negotiation mode of government, and even they can't sustain that forever. They just tend to collapse with the grace and gentility of the French Revolution or the Russian one.

    Actually, the one thing I find most implausible in short-term future sf is seeing private enterprise cheerfully trying to explore the solar system. Historically, exploration has been pretty much a government enterprise -- James Cook's voyages in the Endeavour, Darwin's trip on the HMS Beagle, HMS Terror's (failed) voyage to hunt for the Northwest Passage were government funded. Private enterprise exploits: the conquistadores, the East India Company, and the voyageurs knew that there were resources that were easily exploited, and their shareholders and backers knew they would get their profits quickly. I do not foresee this -- even with squinting -- for many decades: the the next feet on the Moon will get there with taxpayer money. So will the first feet on Mars.

  19. While Anonymous just made some good points, I find it ironic for an anonymous poster to say: "I try to be polite at all times, but still...."

    Irony. But I'll take yer werd fer it.

  20. locumranch2:22 PM

    Alex requests 'more specific(ity), using examples' of David's 'mechanistic' future:

    Like a concept of human 'progress' that presupposes that humanity must invariably improve, advance or move in a more 'desirable' direction, David assumes that fruits of technology (and/or politics) are similarly predestined to be more 'desirable', begging multiple definitional questions about the nature of 'desirability', 'predestination' & evaluation which amount to little more than wishful thinking and/or clockwork (mechanistic) religiosity. This, unfortunately, is Pinker's argument also, one that imposes an ideologically 'desirable' framework upon items of uncertain significance.

    Just as Pinker 'knows' that decreasing crime rates reflect 'human betterment' as opposed to diminished & decreasing public liberties, David just 'knows' the most desirable, preferable & therefore best 'racheted' political path into an uncertain (but unidirectional) future, one replete with the bread, circuses & other social appeasements that made the Roman Empire into the successful powerhouse that it is today, so much so that he can declare (with utmost confidence) that the 'anti-science' & 'anti-progress' GOP is on the 'wrong side of history'.


  21. "Like a concept of human 'progress' that presupposes that humanity must invariably improve, advance or move in a more 'desirable' direction, David assumes that fruits of technology (and/or politics) are similarly predestined to be more 'desirable', begging multiple definitional questions about the nature of 'desirability', 'predestination' & evaluation which amount to little more than wishful thinking and/or clockwork (mechanistic) religiosity. "

    Utter and complete strawmanning bullshit. Entirely fabricated by a many-screws-loose mind. In fact, like Franklin and Jefferson, I avoid prescribing details of "progress"... only that our kids and their kids should have every opportunity to know more and do more and be better than us according to standards that THEY choose....

    under the proviso they cannot bully each other into narrow paths. The opportunity of subsequent generations to say "Okay we now see THAT was kinda a mistake" and back out of wrong paths is essential.

    Notice that yet again, he chooses an interpretation that is not only without a scintilla of basis in anything I said, but known by him to be likely to be loathsome to me. Of course we are used to this, by now. He truly cannot conceive in terms of positive sums. It is all stark either-or. It is actually, on a clinical level, very interesting.

  22. Supernova balls:

  23. Any publicity is good publicity for Starships. The problems of generational habitats, space-faring or no, are legion in SF.
    The old tension for humans is moving versus home improvement, one would imagine a settled solar system and a millennia of total habitat experience before the journey would even be considered.

  24. I thought KSR already messed with the idea of interstellar travel in 2312 via having some of his hollowed out asteroids with self-engineered space humans leave the Solar System. These were existing and presumably sustainable little societies... where if it takes 1000 years or more to get there, the people can hang out in the asteroid and live their lives out in the mean time. One can argue what the smallest number of people would be for such a viable colony, but... Well, I haven't read Aurora yet (i do intend to at some point)... but it does seem a bit different from other KSR books. We'll see, I'm sure I will have more to say after I read it!

  25. The minimum number of people needed may be lower than you'd think. After all, if we can freeze embryos and then thaw them out successfully, then you can have a genetically diverse group of people born to each generation - and could even have people required to have a bottle baby before they can have a natural one (limiting births to two for several generations and then three occasionally to help deal with inevitable losses would prevent overpopulation).

    Indeed, if you have robots capable of building replacement robots or repairing themselves fully, then the robots can do the hard work while the humans keep an eye on them. The only real chance of a total failure is if the colony is breached by an anomalous object, or if some sort of social discord happens - and a group of 100 people could very well be so inclusive so to not risk incorporation of the Other into the crew.

    Rob H.

    Rob H.

  26. Hi Rob

    We have an actual real world experiment on the minimum population size
    New Zealand
    The Maori colonized in about 1100AD - the Europeans got there about 400 years later,

    We know that there was no backwards/forwards trade between the Maori and the original population
    (There were several missing plants/animals from the Polynesian "toolkit" - if they could have got them from home they would have)

    It looks as if about 100 people were able to set up rapidly growing stable population - growing to about 250,000 in 400 years and reaching the population limit for NZ using their technology

  27. @Duncan - any studies on the genetic diversity of the Maori population compared to other places? Any data on health or diseases in the population? Over the last 900 years, is there evidence of evolution occurring - new variants in the DNA rather than just gene swapping?

  28. Mel Baker5:48 PM

    I agree with a lot of KSR's points about the environment, but Aurora did feel like I was being clubbed on the head with the message about how interwoven we are with the Earth and how tough it would be to travel so far over such a long period. Then he upends his own rule about generation ships so his folks can return to Earth, a world and solar system that didn't feel even vaguely like it was a thousand years in the future.

    KSR has backed off from his Mars trilogy, pointing out how much more toxic the Martian regolith is than he originally assumed, still it was as if he kind of abandoned both his ideas about how quickly technology will advance in the coming centuries and the idea that people will generally speaking work together to solve their differences.

    KSM always has a great, new and different core idea for each of his novels, stretching the narrative power of the novel. He certainly did that with the character of the ship's AI. That made the novel worth reading, but unlike say the Mars trilogy, 2312, The Years of Rice and Salt, The Science in the Capitol series or the magnificient Galileo's Dream, I won't be rereading Aurora anytime soon.

    On The Martian. Oh, my God what a tedious read. Great story idea, terrible execution. Which reminds you why being a great Science Fiction author like David or KSM also means you have to be a great storyteller. That said, The Martian will likely be a great movie, but that certainly says something about Hollywood!

  29. Judging from Dr. Brin's description of Aurora, it seems that a big part of the problem is that Robinson has the would-be colonists trying to make a bridge too far. To go directly from planet-bound civilization directly to an interstellar one seems akin to saying "Bleriot has just crossed the English Channel, so now let's draw up plans for intercontinental passenger airliner service". Trying for an interstellar colony before having colonized either Mars (as his own trilogy depicts), learned to inhabit free space as O'Neill advocated, or (preferably) both is skipping way too many steps.

    In fact, I would argue that Robinson's own set-up inherently requires a massive free space infrastructure of the sort that would force the participants to solve many of the problems encountered on the voyage. The energy required for his electromagnetic scissors slingshot plus laser propulsion would require at least the energy equivalent of a 100kt nuclear explosion for *each* kilogram of spaceship, fuel, and payload (~4.5 * 10^14 j/kg). I didn't check the numbers on the Centauri Dreams critique, but the above makes their estimate of 100,000TW for the power required a plausible one. That 10^17 watts means that you need at least a Kardashev level 1 society to supply power in that quantity. Even if we were able to produce that much power on Earth (they have workable fusion plants, after all) doing so would fry us in our own waste heat.

    So, in short, a society already has to be one with long experience at space-faring before it can even begin to actually implement interstellar travel by humans. It seems to me that this experience base cannot but render the problems Robinson describes as relatively tractable.

  30. Hi Alex

    Re Maori
    They rejected a genetic study a few years ago - don't know of one since

    The Maori must have been the most exogenous society in history, they went from a population of about 250,000 - to a minima of about 100,000
    (western disease + muskets in the hands of other Maori)
    to about 500,000 now
    But there are apparently no (zero) pure bred Maori!
    That means they must have married outside their own society at a ferocious rate

    The Maori were incredibly adaptable
    Polynesian society
    Expansion society using plentiful resources
    Steady state agricultural society
    Then the Europeans arrived and the Maori did better than any other native group
    That is 4 radically different societies in 600 years

  31. "A mere cloning of the European experience settling the Americas, stepping off the boat, inhaling the fresh air, chopping some trees and pushing back natives, building prosperous farms, then cities"

    That didn't even happen in real life.

    See "1493" by Charles Mann, especially those zones in the Americas subject to malaria and yellow fever carrying mosquito - from Virginia to Brazil. The death rate among European colonizers was excessive and their first attempts to bring in white indentured servants from Europe was a failure since their White Work force soon died out. Attempts to enslave the Native Americans failed in large part because the succumbed to diseases brought by the Europeans. So they brought in African slaves sine Africans were less subject to the ravages of mosquito borne diseases.

    Oddly enough the limits of the malaria zone in the Unites State conformed to the borders of the Confederacy. North of the line European labor didn't die in droves and there was no need to bring in African slaves.

    So a lot of our history, including the Civil War, was determined by the mosquito.

  32. Anon,
    "Historically, exploration has been pretty much a government enterprise -- James Cook's voyages in the Endeavour, Darwin's trip on the HMS Beagle, HMS Terror's (failed) voyage to hunt for the Northwest Passage were government funded. Private enterprise exploits: the conquistadores, the East India Company,"

    "Historically" most exploration has been by self-"funded" small groups; from the Polynesians to the Vikings. The kind of grand global voyages you site all come from a very narrow period in recent European history. The vast majority of human history used a different model.

    That's why I cringe whenever space cadets fall once again into the "Moon vs Mars" destination-debate, or fantasise about a future President issuing another Kennedy-style grand challenge (with funding to match). It's facing in the entirely wrong direction, arguing about entirely the wrong issue.

    If you believe that space settlement is ultimately beneficial to your society, then the role of your society's government is to enable small groups (whether business or personal) to do the rest on their own dime. Government's role is not to stage grand show pieces like Apollo or a Martian equivalent, or (with less funding) the Shuttle, or ISS, or SLS.

    What prevents moon/Mars advocates from making their own way? Cost. No-one except governments can afford space missions. So right there, that's your "grand challenge", the only challenge that will actually change things. Lower the cost of getting to and operating in space.

    (Like the Viking king supposedly funded the development of a type of ocean-going ship that any village could afford to buy; thus seeding the age of Norse expansion.)

  33. @Duncan
    "The Maori colonized in about 1100AD - the Europeans got there about 400 years later,

    That would be C1500. Apart from Abel Tasman's brief visit in 1642, who arrived before Cook in 1769!?

  34. Hi Tony
    I left that open,
    There was Tasman, - then there were a number of "possible" visits -

    The date the Maoris arrived is a bit open - from 1000AD to 1200AD,
    So the Maoris were effectively isolated for 400+ years - could have been as many as 700 years

    From a star ship example POV I erred on the conservative side


  35. Duncan that’s terrific what you cited about the New Zealand (Maori) Polynesians. Very interesting. Though given their penchant for — irritability — one does wonder a little. Though one protagonist in EARTH was a maori billionaire. Onward Aotearoa!

  36. Hi David
    I'm not sure the Maoris are or were "irritable"
    Historically they were - unsafe to cross - rather than irritable,

    There is still some prejudice here - but if we can achieve a more equal society then I'm hoping we will reduce that

    You do encounter "Maori Scots" especially down here in Southland and they can be a little irritable but I'm not sure if that is Maori or the Scots

    The Maori/European intersection was "interesting"
    First the Maori encouraged settlement, if you had Europeans you had access to their world
    One of the first Maori to be taken back to the UK set the pattern
    He was introduced to "Society" and wowed them, when he returned he stopped in Australia and swapped all his gifts for muskets and ammo
    Then he took over his tribe and proceeded to subjugate his neighbors

    After a couple of rounds of conquest the Chiefs at the top solidified a very shaky hierarchy by signing the Treaty of Waitangi - effectively accepting Queen Victoria in return for the Empire recognizing their positions

    The Maori did lose out after that - the temptation to sell your enemies land to the Europeans was too great!

    But compared to any other native people they did very well,

  37. Scots/Maori = Mac Nac Feagle?

    The Maori certainly retained a lot more social cohesion than their counterparts on the 'West Island' (a completely different race and culture). We've only recently begun to realise just how much Australian Aboriginals worked with the environment.

  38. Hi Tony
    Your "natives" were almost the direct opposite,

    A society that had operated with no major changes for 30,000 years,
    They had to have come to terms with their environment - and all changes MUST be negative

    Compared to;
    Polynesian island culture - itself not that old
    Expansion - food available - New Zealand before man, beaches full of ready protein (seals) forests full of flightless birds
    Expansion over - sustainable agriculture -
    Just reaching the limits of the land and moving into the "warrior culture"

    Then the Europeans arrived
    The Maori were used to massive changes so they coped well

  39. Government or private space expansion? I'd say that's fungible: any entity with enough money to launch spacecraft likely might as well be government. Was the East India Company subject to the Crown more than the reverse?

  40. [Update] Malcolm Turnbull is now Australia's Prime Minister. He may be a bad un. He couldn't possibly be a worse un.

  41. Midboss576:06 AM

    This description of issues with colonizing brings me fond memories of my games of Alpha Centaury and Civilization: Beyond Earth. Those two games confront you with the ugly reality of colonizing a alien planet with its own ecosystem: the wildlife will take exception to your presence. Both the fluff and the the gameplay mechanics reinforce the fact that for the first half of the game, the biggest threat is the ecosystem. (damn mindworms)

    Whenever I imagine space colonization happening in some future, the scenarios from these two games are the closest to how I imagine it will happen:
    - We will seek to colonize other worlds not just for the fun of expanding, it will be because we messed up Earth so badly that we need another planet to survive. (AC predicts some nasty global war, BE predicts a mix of war and ecological disaster)
    - When we get there, early stages a pretty much going to be us in sealed habitats eating artificially processed food cause as Deidre Skye reminds us: that native fruit might look tasty, but it is extremely toxic to humans.
    - To properly go beyond simple survival, either the world or humanity will need to chance. Beyond Earth does a rather good job of showing this with its affinity system: - purity: humanity stays the same (give or take minor cybernetics and genetic improvements) but they terraform the new world gradually (at the expense of native life). - Supremacy: humanity convert into cyborgs/mechanical life and are therefore no longer subject to classic biological issues like compatibility or illness. - Harmony: humanity splices themselves with the local life and therefore become compatible with the new world.
    What is interesting is that neither system is being right or wrong. Each perspective is shown with both its pros and cons.

    Even though Alpha Centaury is old (by game standards), I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the topic of space colonizing.

  42. Tim H.7:28 AM

    KSR's "Aurora" read a bit like Heinlein edited by Garrison Keilor's "Worst Case Scenario, inc.", but don't let that stop you from reading a good book. I've found KSR's work to be entertaining reading, even when, as in "Aurora", the author's thumb is clearly on the scales of the story, but someone needs to point out some downsides of trying to make a living in the middle of an alien ecosystem.

  43. @ Midboss57 Colonizing a living world may be immoral as well as potentially hazardous. By the time we are have the technology, it may be unacceptable.

    If we have the energy and technology for star travel and colonization, it is going to be far easier to terraform Earth and repair its ecosystems, with the benefit of a huge payoff for the population of billions, as opposed to a tiny number able or willing to colonize a new world.

    We could start right mow by more rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels and doing a much better job of capturing and recycling/destroying our waste streams.

  44. Midboss

    "....please don't go. The Drones need you. They look up to you....."

    who spent/wasted too much time on those darn games!

  45. @Tony Fisk - just last week I was wondering how Abbott was still PM. I know nothing of Turnbull, so no idea how he will fare.

    In the meantime the UK has a new Labour Party leader who came "out of nowhere" and upset the Blairites in the party. This seems similar to the wave of support for Sanders in the US.

    I've pooh-poohed DB's "2014 as the year of change", but we do seem to have a rolling stirring of the populace from the "Arab Spring" (2010) onwards. There does finally seem to be a pushback against the political system favoring the wealthy elites, whether it is more commutarian like Syriza, of the Labour party, or more "nativist" like support for Trump, and the various "far right" parties like UKIP and France's National Front (FN).

  46. David, thanks for the great review of KSR's Aurora! I don't like it when writers create straw men only for the purpose of knocking them down, which seems the case here. Much more would I have liked to have read a more cogent, best-case scenario gone wrong.

    For example, I love monster movies, but I hate it when you see the tropes like, "Let's split up (so the monster can eat us)" as you see in Alien. Or how monsters can violate conservation of mass and go from 12 in. long to 7 feet long in hours (again Alien, but also in J.C.'s The Thing). That's why, to me, Michael Chrichton's Prey may be the best book on the subject because it doesn't violate such obvious laws or fall into such tropes.

    I agree that it is easy to use "warp points" et al to go to the stars easily and I respect that KSR didn't do that. But give me your very best people doing their very best and then failing and I'm much more likely to buy your argument.

  47. Good pts JD.
    Hey Tony congratulations! Please do tell us more about Turnbull. But he'd have to be a pure demon to be any worse.

  48. A.F. Rey3:44 PM

    Going off-topic for a moment, it appears that the GOP has decided to actively try to destroy a global climate deal.

  49. This 'unofficial' video of Abbott and Immigration Minister Dutton joking about Pacific Islanders and rising oceans was probably the final straw (especially as it came a day after Abbott congratulated himself on his 'strong stance' on climate leadership in the region. Utterly delusional!).

    Plenty of information about Turnbull on the Internet. He is an intelligent bloke with a hide like a... political pachyderm. He was leader of the LNP before Abbott managed to oust him in 2009, over whether or not to support the Emissions Trading Scheme proposed by Rudd. At the time, Turnbull stated categorically that he was not willing to lead a party not committed to effective action to combat climate change. He lost by one vote (sound familiar?). Today, that fine rhetoric appears to have been pushed to the background, as he's stated his support for the Abbott's anaemic proposal for emissions reductions.

    Certainly way better than Abbott (I would at least hope that the attacks on the Renewable Energy industry cease, and *maybe*, a Science Minister?) but don't expect a sea change on other contentious issues until the next election.

  50. Tony,
    Re: Abbott/Turnbull

    I guess that breaks the "disloyalty" stick they've used against Labor since the Rudd thing. It will be funny to see the Murdoch parrots spin that.

    (More importantly, it will kill working-class support for the Libs, which should guarantee a massacre at the next election. Turnbull could never relate to the majority of the voters. You saw that way back in the Republic pleb. The man nearly single-handedly lost over an issue that had 70% support.)

    "We will seek to colonize other worlds not just for the fun of expanding, it will be because we messed up Earth so badly that we need another planet to survive."

    Except as refugees (obvious contemporary example is obvious), failed civilisations don't launch large scale colonisation (or even exploration) missions. You're too busy trying to survive the day.

    Only wealthy, successful civilisations are able to launch colonisation missions. Whether those missions are centrally funded or privately self-contained, you need a level of free wealth that isn't available during a collapse.

    (Sometimes, colonisation/expansion may be the last thing a wealthy civilisation does before it declines; the expansion being a spasm-warning of the civilisations over-reach, but you still need the wealth for the expansion.)

    Re: Alien ecosystems.
    Although this is my personal colonisation bias (anti-planetary chauvinism), it seems to me that if you have the technology to operate a generation-ship for 160 years without access to sunlight or outside resources, then you can surely build hundreds or thousands of such habitats throughout the target star system and leave the single living alien world alone (except for research.)

    As Alex said, colonising a living world is probably immoral, by any reasonable standard. Hell, it's one of the (many) reasons I'm against colonising Mars. Just-in-case there's remnant bacterial life.

  51. Me,
    "(More importantly, it will kill working-class support for the Libs, which should guarantee a massacre at the next election. Turnbull could never relate to the majority of the voters. You saw that way back in the Republic pleb. The man nearly single-handedly lost over an issue that had 70% support.)"

    OTOH, when Turnbull bombs at the polls (as he did as Opposition leader), that leaves Bishop well placed to knife him for the top spot before the election. Her profile is rising amongst both Lib-base voters and swing voters, while Hockey's is falling.

    (I noticed in the polls that Palmer's not picking up the protest vote this time around, it's going to the Greens again.)

  52. We are encouraged to nit pick? My biggest one is that competence porn is fantasy as much as regular porn is. I don't see it as science fiction. Individuals DO innovate, but they do it immersed in a market context. That context is rarely portrayed as it distracts from the fantasy. So, competence porn on a Martian set simply strikes me as magic. Unless the number of innovations are small or the context is portrayed, it wouldn't happen that way with a real human being. Just like sex in regular porn, it doesn't happen that way. Fantasy.

    To phrase it in our host's language, show me an example of a small group of humans innovating without a market context supporting them. When did it ever happen in our multi-thousand generation history?

    Of course, it's practically a trick question. We've had a market context for all of us since modern humans appeared. The prime difference between archaic humans and us IS the market context. Our distant ancestors may have developed the archeulean hand axe the way some birds develop nests, but we don't innovate that way anymore for the vast majority of what we do. The few innovations produced that way can be counted and include our milk sugar tolerance for some, blondeness/whiteness for northerners, and a general inability to sit still or some arctic tribes.

    I'll finish my nit picking by explaining that I've been on innovative teams. It is a deeply satisfying experience. I encourage everyone to try it. However, it works best as an orgy. If you are doing it alone, you have no idea what you are missing. 8)

  53. locumranch7:26 PM

    Kudos to you, Alfred, for cleaving to the official narrative of individual powerlessness wherein competence springs from conformity, innovation from the hierarchy & creativity from committee because no individual,from Galileo to Einstein, has ever accomplished anything of creative note without the unanimity of bureaucratic support & overwhelming social consensus.

    Blessed be the Great Consensus without which Science, Civilisation and (even) Human Survival become fantastic impossibilities.


  54. Alfred, sorry, but competent innovation has happened many times outside of markets. Warriors desperately innovate.

  55. Alfred,
    I don't think markets have any causative effect on innovation. Rather they provide a mechanism (a pressure) to spread the best innovations around a society. That makes "society" more innovative, but isn't actually adding to individual creativity.

    If there's no mechanism to spread the best innovations, you virtually start from scratch each generation. If you can spread the best ideas, then each generation of innovators are building on the work of prior ones, not solving the same problem over and over.

  56. @locumranch: You are occasionally funny in your inability to comprehend. This time I suppose I'll have to take the blame, though, since David is trying to offer a counter-example that suggests I didn't explain properly.

    @David: Of course they do. Individual humans are the only source of innovations no matter what. What I'm trying to describe is that our ability to do so depends on a deep reservoir of ideas that spring from marketed contributions from everyone else. The real power in what we do as individuals derives from what we've amassed in all of our civilizations.

    In chapter 2 of your transparency book (pg 49) you made a ‘prediction’ about nothing of recognized value being lost ever again. I think this has been going on for thousands of generations. What has changed is it has grown easier (cheaper) to preserve what we know, thus the recognized value of a thing need not be high for us to bother preserving it. This idea has been in my head for many years and colors my answer when someone asks what the minimum colony size has to be for Mars or somewhere else. The answer is “Enough people and tools to preserve those things of value and teach the next generation to do the same.” Some of those tools are languages that encode what we know, but don’t know that we know.

    Basically, I’ve come to the conclusion that a small group of humans, whether one of our old tribes or a starship full of colonists, aren’t the same kind of humans that we are as members of a civilization like ours. Context matters. Aliens who spirit away a few human samples for their zoo miss most of what we are. There are times when I think ‘We’ needs to be treated as a singular and plural pronoun simultaneously.

  57. @Paul451: I’d counter your position by pointing out that you use a much narrower definition for market than I think makes sense. I’ve seen something similar with the word ‘analogy’. Some use it strictly. ‘A’ is to ‘B’ as ‘C’ is to ‘D’. Some use it broadly. ‘A’ is analogous to ‘B’ because one can ‘squint’ at each of them until one sees only an abstraction and recognize the equality at that meta-level.

    The version of ‘market’ you are using (apparently) is that of a trading ground. The version I’m using is also a breeding ground. I put to you that your market is also a breeding ground and that is its real power. Maybe you are using a different world for that? Maybe you are categorizing behaviors different? For me, a market is a trading ground because it is a breeding ground of ideas. Who in their right mind would depend on utter strangers to provide the basic means they need to live? Food? Water? Shelter? Yet… we do and have for a very long time in a way that deepens (on average) with each generation. Why? Because some ideas are so incredibly contagious that they spread. Some ideas are so incredibly impactful that we’ve been rewritten. One of the most contagious ones is that we can depend on market participants to innovate. Build a better mousetrap and someone will buy it. Of course, it doesn’t always work. Some live. Some die.

    It’s not that markets cause innovation. We are both individual and social. Innovation that occurs within the mind of one person occurs at both levels simultaneously BECAUSE we are both. Alter us socially and you alter our markets. There is no cause and effect between the levels.

    One way to look at it risks sounding loony. Homo sapiens already passed through a singularity. We emerged from it with a gestalt mind that has been growing ever since.

  58. @Paul451 Yeah, I don't understand generation ship stories that don't account for radically increased longevity. Given the increasing pace of research into genuine anti-aging therapies (e.g., Google's Calico initiative, Craig Venter's Human Longevity Inc., etc...), it's hard to see how we'd end up with the technology to launch an interstellar ship before developing relatively effective "gerontological treatments" (a la Red Mars). Wouldn't be a generation ship, then, I suppose...

  59. locumranch10:07 PM

    Paul & Alfred almost 'get it' but full deviant self-awareness still escapes them.

    That's the reason why I stick around this site.

    Our friend David Brin is an author (a creative individualist) who justifies his uniqueness with a degree from a university conformity-factory.

    He's also a Poster Child for a WEIRD-o outlier group which argues (in oblivious fashion) that the WEIRD statistical anomaly is somehow representative and predictive of normative humanity.

    The only 'gestalt mind' is one of your own imagining, confusing individual deviance (and/or exceptionalism) with that of the greater consensual conformity.


  60. I get it Alfred. Well-explained. I do believe there are cases of profound individual creativity and inventiveness. But yes, the substrate of ideas, methods, tools reciprocal feedback from peers and support from parents, farmers and cops... these are vital overall.

  61. Individual v collective

    In my experience most actual work takes place with individuals
    Groups are good for sparking ideas but you need to separate to work on them

    However we are all "standing on the shoulders of giants" - the tools we use and the information we need are all from other people

    When I was an engineering student it always amazed me,

    Some really really smart person had spent most of a lifetime developing a mathematical tool or arrangement.
    Now that he or she had done the heavy lifting an ordinary mortal could follow and use those tools after a couple of hours instruction

    Everything we did from dynamics to structures to thermodynamics rested on numerous lifetimes work from really smart people

    So individuals do the "work" and are "creative" but each time we do something we are building on the massive structure we have inherited

    Markets - I really don't see markets as having played a massive role in this
    IMHO this really started to take off after the printing press made spreading of knowledge much easier and we moved from the "wizard in his tower" to the scientist publishing his work

  62. Laurent Weppe4:56 AM

    * "There does finally seem to be a pushback against the political system favoring the wealthy elites, whether it is more commutarian like Syriza, of the Labour party, or more "nativist" like support for Trump, and the various "far right" parties like UKIP and France's National Front (FN)."

    Far-right parties are not, have never been, and will never be anti-elitist parties. It's especially obvious in the FN (whose heiress just politically euthanized her aging father in order to inherit faster): its political platform can be summarized as "Give us power, and we'll guarantee white plebeians preferential access to the scraps falling from the upper-class' table at the expense of their neighbours of arabic and african descent".
    People who vote for the european far-right are not pushing back against wealthy elites, they are, deliberately, kowtowing to the most ruthless oligarchs in the hope to get some meager reward for their submissiveness: they're behavior is the same as the southern Whites who for generations voted for Dixiecrats then for the GOP.

  63. Jonathan S.8:05 AM

    Yeah, the idea of "anti-elitist" support for Trump, the very definition of "wealthy elite", does seem a tad oxymoronic.

  64. @Laurent. People who vote for the european far-right are not pushing back against wealthy elites, they are, deliberately, kowtowing to the most ruthless oligarchs in the hope to get some meager reward for their submissiveness

    Good point. Even in the US, the Tea party is divided over Trump. However it does seem that the message the Trump supporters are getting is that they will do much better under his leadership. This may well be because of the implicit [or should that be explicit?] racism he promotes. I don't see that they are hoping for crumbs from his table, although they may well be hoping to get "back on top" and have less competition for jobs. I am well aware of the meme that we have in the US - "only rich people create jobs", which supports you assertion of getting crumbs from oligarchs. I don't think that is a meme in the UK, at least it wasn't before I left. Britain seems more looking back to a post WWI/WWII "Little England", which is more implicitly racist.

  65. Those individuals capable of profound creativity do indeed exist. I always wanted to be one of them and in all the modesty I can muster, I think I've done my share. 8)

    It's just that I think competence porn takes that desire to the level of fantasy and in doing so, fails to portray real human beings. Whether any one person is at the profound level isn't the point. We can all innovate and what counts as profound tends to be judged later by the appropriate market. The individual cogitates. The collective processes and seeds. Fantasy focuses on the individual, so only part of the person is portrayed.

    The giants aren't just the people who came before us. They are here now in the plural/singular sense. We are both individual and giant because we preserve collectively what we value privately. Every child we educate becomes part of a giant.

  66. @locumranch: Heh. I used to be a fan of gestalt mind ideas, but I grew up and began to see the mysticism many of their proponents were pitching with the memes. That is a big turn off for me.

    I have little doubt that a 'transcend' mind can exist in the sense V. Vinge described. I wouldn't be shocked to learn that we are part way along the path toward building one of our own because we managed to externalize some of our thinking and create inter-dependencies between individuals that go beyond family bonds. In this sense, a human being who is part of our civilization isn't the same kind of human as one in an isolated tribe. No mysticism is required for this insight, so I can toy with the idea without feeling like my sanity is slipping. I still try to be careful, though. The siren sings sweetly.

    As for deviances, you might be surprised one day. I'm just as much a fan of SOA as you. Maybe more so. For now, though, I'll settle for dispelling anyone's belief that I'm an acolyte of Ayn Rand. 8)

  67. locumranch12:28 PM

    Insomuch as we are all unlike the other 7 billion people who do not gather here, we are all deviants who derive our own rather (unexceptional) version of 'special-ness' from (deviant) self-awareness, for it is only in our fantasies that the exceptional become common & the common become exceptional: Ayn Rand Be Damned**


    ** a quick read & a fairly accurate dystopia.

  68. Huh... thr thought-provoking locumranch, dropping by for a visit.

  69. Printing press, schminting press: it was learning to make paper that did the trick.

  70. Hi Jumper

    Paper was important
    But paper + scribes is not that much cheaper than vellum + scribes

    It was the two or three orders of magnitude change in cost that came with the printing press that made spreading and preserving new ideas become the default

  71. I see it as a two-part system. Actually movable type is part 3. Everyone knows Gutenburg, no one knows the paper developers in Europe. Islamic Spain and Portugal.

  72. Matt G5:24 PM

    Jumper said...
    Will suspended animation ever get cheaper than living? If so, a lot of people will be bobbling themselves here on earth as well as spacefarers.

    Check out "Lockstep" by Karl Schroeder, which depicts an interplanetary (arguably interstellar) society built around using hibernation to great effect. His solution even gets around many of the problems with traveling and visiting your neighbors in a non-FTL world, yet still works much differently than the society built on "bobbling" by Vinge.

  73. Duncan,
    "But paper + scribes is not that much cheaper than vellum + scribes"

    I look at it this way: Paper was so expensive that you paid people to scrape the ink off used pages because it was cheaper than buying new paper/vellum/etc.

    Moveable type was a meaningless invention when the raw material cost more than the wages of someone to scrape each page by hand.

    Cheap paper changed the game. Moveable type was a side-effect of that, not a cause.

  74. Jonathan S.7:32 PM

    Being a "deviant" is no big deal, really. To quote the first chorus of the Rush song "Vital Signs", "Everybody's got to deviate from the norm..."

    Alfred, I'm uncertain why "competence porn" is incompatible with the idea of building on what others have done. I haven't read The Martian yet, but from the trailers for the movie it doesn't look like our stranded astronaut invents any new technologies, he just has to figure out how to use the supplies he has to survive for far longer than he's supposed to. In kind, it's not that different from the Apollo 13 astronauts having to construct an air filter from available materials (although Our Hero doesn't have the assistance of Houston in his endeavor; on the other hand, his deadline is a little longer than theirs was too). What's the issue with a hero who uses his training and his intellect to survive, rather than muscle and a fast car?

  75. Hi Paul
    Yes they did pay to scrape - but think about the costs
    Vellum - worth re-using
    Scribe, skilled labour, - 1 small book/month?

    I page scraped = 1 hour unskilled labour? (bet it was less)
    Scrape enough for a small book - 1/2 week unskilled labour?
    So about 1/10th of the time - and as unskilled v skilled 1/40th of the cost?
    Even with new vellum the "Scribe" would be 90+% of the cost

    Vellum is a byproduct of the sheep industry - I suspect that it was not actually that expensive

    BUT as one famous SF writer has his character timeshifted back to post roman Italy find it would be very price inelastic
    Not that expensive BUT if you want lots the price would go up without increasing the amount available

    Paper had been introduced to Europe some 400 years before Gutenberg - but until the printing press was invented there was not a huge market
    You could only save 5% or 10% of the cost of a book by using paper over vellum and it was not nearly as long lasting - so why use paper?

    When the printing press cut the cost down and increased the required volume paper came into it's own

  76. Catfish N. Cod5:48 AM

    I have not read all of Aurora yet, but given the arc of KSR's prior outputs, I have to question why he decides on his polemic stance in the first place. The parental-environmentalist conceit that Earth is so vitally important that we must not only prioritize her, but give up our dreams for the future in favor of settling down as penitent caretakers.... to use another of your conceits, Dr. Brin, that smacks to me of the sort of paternalistic priest-King thinking that is diametrically opposed to the dynamic society this site seeks to promote. Worshipping at the altar of Ecological Stasis, seeking eternal forgiveness for the sins of being (1) an invasive species ourselves and (2) the hub of networks of many more such.

    I'm totally in favor of better ecological stewardship, but sorry. We were a disruptive species from the get-go 100,000 years ago. And disruptive species happen. They sometimes happen for the better, even. I'm sure the ferns were terribly upset by the first species to figure out lignin; but without that species we would not have the biome known as "forest". I'm sure the first amphibian insectivore to fully emerge from the water was disastrous to a glorious diversity of insects that thought they had dry land all to themselves, but all the mammals, birds, dinosaurs and reptiles owe their existence to it.

    We ourselves have created two new biomes which are being populated and have not yet achieved their first climax state; "farm" and "city". Like all newly created biomes -- or biomes being recolonized, as after volcanic eruption -- they look sparse for now. But nature adapts. With an intelligent species around, nature can even get a boost.

    Colonizing planets -- or, as I prefer to frame it, providing the seed-shell for the Terran biosphere to reproduce herself -- is indeed likely to have a failure rate. And like the 16th-17th century expeditions, a high death rate may ensue. But there's no way the conclusion should be drawn that "this means colonization is a bad idea". A much better idea was seen in the video game ALIEN LEGACY (Sierra, 1993), where you play the captain of the second colony ship into a new system. The native life killed everyone in the first colony attempt; your task is to use what they learned to succeed where they failed, analogous to the Roanoke and Jamestown colony attempts in the future USA.

    Not all seeds land on good soil and sprout. This does not invalidate sending out seeds.

  77. Tim H.7:37 AM

    Nice point, but it could be tough on the individuals comprising the seeds. Now, if the primary colonization target was to be off-planet, like the civilization that built the starship and planetary surfaces a secondary goal, it'd take a lot of drama out of the story, if I was in the story, it's how I'd want it.

  78. Smurphs9:51 AM

    RE: Competence Porn
    One of the most competent individuals I have ever seen in fiction is a fellow by the name of Tom Orley. He’s the main reason I visit here.

    God, I hope he gets home someday!

  79. @David: I finally made it to ch 5 of your Transparency book. I wish I had read that far years ago. It's obvious you get it with your definition of accountability and a market of ideas.

    Much to the annoyance of your fiction readers, some of us are going to be clamoring for a 20 year update for transparency. I know. You'll have to assign that work to dit.Brin. 8)

  80. Catfish,
    "Colonizing planets -- or, as I prefer to frame it, providing the seed-shell for the Terran biosphere to reproduce herself -- is indeed likely to have a failure rate. [...] Not all seeds land on good soil and sprout. This does not invalidate sending out seeds."
    "but it could be tough on the individuals comprising the seeds."

    It's r/K all over again.

    Personally I think we'll adopt a K-strategy for early colonies, simply because the first colonists will be too high profile to be expendable. Once the process becomes self-sustaining, self-funding, and anonymous, it'll be more of an r-strategy.

  81. David
    Re: Alfred's demand for a 20yr update for The Transparent Society.

    Your publisher might like the idea of an anniversary re-print of the original with new short essays between chapters. (As is often done with short story anthologies.)

  82. Duncan,
    Not "paper", cheap paper. That was the game changer. The printing press was not a new idea, even moveable type had been invented before (the Googles says at least 300 years earlier in Europe). But without cheap paper, there was no advantage to using presses.

    The cost of a professional scribe was high, but that reflected the luxury status of books. You were spending so much on the material, it made sense to produce something of high quality. Calligraphy, illumination, etc, wasn't necessary; in theory, anyone with clear handwriting would suffice, but that disproportionately detracted from value the final product. Like mounting expensive jewels in a cheap setting, what's the point? And like cheap scribes, cheap-looking moveable type printing added nothing to the value of luxury books, therefore had no market. Meanwhile higher-quality etched-plate and carved-block printing were even more expensive than hand-scribing for low volumes of expensive books.

    It was only when the price of paper dropped by an order of magnitude, and paper became effectively disposable, that the advantage of cheap printing could be realised. But the idea was already there, waiting. Result, not cause.

    [Googling around, it is suggested that Gutenberg was actually inspired by seeing the paper-manufacturing presses of the new German paper mills. Cheap paper may have even more directly inspired his invention.]

    There's an analogy with the space program. When launch costs are so high, it makes sense to spend more money squeezing as much spacecraft per kilogram as you can. Instead of bulk metal framing, individually carved and etched isogrid panels. Slow but rad-hardened electronics, bespoke designed for the mission. Etc. That limits who can perform space missions. It also makes the hardware completely bespoke, hand-built, preventing any advantage of economies of scale.

    But if launch costs drop enough, suddenly you can become "wasteful" with mass. Use simple bulk metal structures, off-the-shelf electronics wrapped in dumb bulk shielding, etc. Buying someone else's design at a lower cost, even though it's not exactly customised to your mission. (Cheap, wasteful, mass-produced Red Dragon, vs MSL's expensive bespoke sky crane.) And launching experimental systems that haven't been rigorously tested in large expensive vacuum/vibration/heat chambers on Earth, because it's cheaper to test in space.

    That's why I'm hoping that if SpaceX cracks even partial reusability, the price will drop to the level where the default assumptions of space development shift. (Something you already see traces of in cubesats/nanosats.)

    For example, DARPA is playing with the idea of a robot-serviced GEO platform for refuelling and repairing satellites. Robot (teleoperated) systems are still hideously expensive, just much cheaper than using humans in space. However, if the price of launch gets low enough, then the cost of launching and supporting humans in space drops, while the cost of robotic systems remains high. Similarly, cheap launching of bulk radiation shielding, letting humans operate safely at GEO.

    Suddenly the cost-balance between a manned and a robotic station shifts towards humans. And it would be amusing to see Clarke-style manned GEO spacestations suddenly back on the table. A general platform in the most over-subscribed GEO slots, providing power, cooling, propulsion and on-site maintenance for multiple comms operators.

  83. Aside: Apparently the scientific instruments on MSL Curiosity only cost about 10% of the $2+ billion development budget. Most of the cost was the development and construction of the sky crane.

    Make it worthwhile to develop standardised "off the shelf" landers and rovers, to get the price of the lander/rover down to the same price as the instruments, and suddenly you can saturate your target with missions.

  84. @Paul451: From what I learned about robotic space missions, part of the high cost is sufficient testing to ensure high reliability BECAUSE launch costs were so high. Low launch costs don't guarantee humans in space. What they do is guarantee more activity in space. Some of it will probably be human.

  85. I thought the boom came not from moveable type or cheap paper, but from the killer app: form documents. Nobody expected it to be pretty or enjoyable, or even to last a generation. It just had to contain information. Making it a form meant that more illiterate workers could process them. just know how to write the date and a name, easier than real reading. it was also faster than writing the whole stupid document each time.

  86. Sociotard,
    "Boilerplate" came later. 18th/19th century. Hence the name.

  87. I was taught the killer app was the indulgence form. 8)

  88. Sounds as if the printing revolution required all three

    Cheap paper
    Printing press
    "indulgence forms"

    what was paper used for before printing? - if paper dropped massively in price there must have been a volume application before printing
    What was it?

  89. Duncan,
    "what was paper used for before printing? - if paper dropped massively in price there must have been a volume application before printing
    What was it?"

    I actually have no idea. But paper mills with their large format paper presses definitely existed well before the printing press.

    (I don't want to diminish Gutenberg excessively. He put a number of inventions together at the same time, moveable type of course, the screw press, the moveable/rolling bed, oil-based inks, etc. Without him, it likely would have taken a century for all the pieces to come together. From our POV, history would be little changed, but from their POV it must have come out of nowhere. It was one of the few "in your lifetime" continent-wide revolutionary inventions before the modern era. Was there any previous invention that went from niche-to-ubiquity so fast, so widely?)

  90. Anonymous11:48 AM

    Just read Aurora. This book is just so depressing. Seriously with 25th century technology they couldn't make it in a just slightly hostile location? In Neal Stephenson recent novel "Seven" they recovered from 7 survivors that were all female and went on to re-terraform Earth.

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