Communion Of Dreams

Only nine left.

As something of a follow-up to yesterday’s post, first a quote:

The universe is probably littered with the one-planet graves of cultures which made the sensible economic decision that there’s no good reason to go into space — each discovered, studied, and remembered by the ones who made the irrational decision.

That’s the “roll over” text of this xkcd cartoon:

Can you name the nine who are left?*

And related to that, here is an excellent hour-long item you really should check out when you get a chance:

An Audience with Neil Armstrong

It’s in four parts, so you can watch them in chunks. And it really is very good. Armstrong has given very few interviews over the years, and has always been remarkably self-effacing. This is an informal discussion with the man, and it provides some wonderful insight into the whole NASA program in addition to the mindset which led to the Apollo 11 mission.

Jim Downey

Whither SF?

I’ve mentioned Charlie Stross several times here. As I’ve said previously: smart guy, good writer. I disagree with his belief in mundane science fiction, because I think that it is too limited in imagination. Which leads almost inevitably to this formulation on his blog today (and yes, you should go read the whole thing):

We people of the SF-reading ghetto have stumbled blinking into the future, and our dirty little secret is that we don’t much like it. And so we retreat into the comfort zones of brass goggles and zeppelins (hey, weren’t airships big in the 1910s-1930s? Why, then, are they such a powerful signifier for Victorian-era alternate fictions?), of sexy vampire-run nightclubs and starship-riding knights-errant. Opening the pages of a modern near-future SF novel now invites a neck-chillingly cold draft of wind from the world we’re trying to escape, rather than a warm narcotic vision of a better place and time.

And so I conclude: we will not inspire anyone with grand visions of a viable future through the medium of escapism. If we want to write inspirational literature with grand visions we need to dive into to the literary mainstream (which is finally rediscovering fabulism) and, adding a light admixture of Enlightenment ideology along the way, start writing the equivalent of those earnest and plausible hyper-realistic tales of Progress through cotton-planting on the shores of the Aral sea.

But do you really want us to do that? I don’t think so. In fact, the traditional response of traditional-minded SF readers to the rigorous exercise of extrapolative vision tends to be denial, disorientation, and distaste. So let me pose for you a different question, which has been exercising me for some time: If SF’s core message (to the extent that it ever had one) is obsolete, what do we do next?

Well, I dunno about Charlie, but I plan on writing a couple of prequels to Communion of Dreams, which I understand have touched something of a nerve in people precisely *because* it is hopeful in the face of a harsh reality.

Jim Downey

(PS: sometime today we should break through the level of 500 total sales/loans of CoD so far this month. Which is almost twice the previous month’s tally. Thanks for affirming my vision, folks!)

Game on.

One of the principal characters in Communion of Dreams is a mystery child who is a prodigy at Game theory.

Game theory first started to interest me back in college, when I was studying economics (one of my undergraduate degrees). I haven’t kept track of all the developments in the field since then, though I do still pay attention when I see something relating to it. And this item caught my eye over at MetaFilter (and if you don’t read MeFi, you should – it has the most intelligent and diverse conversations I’ve found online, and such writers as John Scalzi and Charlie Stross are regular participants). It is a brilliant application of Game theory:

Here’s another brilliant application: get your *free* copy of the Kindle edition of Communion of Dreams all day today. You don’t even need to own a Kindle – there’s a Kindle app/emulator for just about every computer/tablet/mobile device out there. Seriously, it’s free – and it is good, going on the reviews (an average rating of 4.8 stars from 16 reviews to date). Go download it now, if you haven’t had a chance to do so yet!

Jim Downey

Publishing – how it actually works.

Charlie Stross recently wrote a series of long posts on his blog which explains how commercial fiction publishing actually works, at least from his well-informed perspective. I read those over the weekend, and got some nuts & bolts info that I had only known vaguely before – a nice intro to the whole process as I stand on the verge of it happening to me. I would heartily recommend that anyone interested in the economics of publishing or getting published take a look.

Then, as luck would have it, this morning Stross was the first to post in a discussion related to this topic on MetaFilter: How to Pay the Writer.

Interesting. Thoughts?

Jim Downey

You can’t get there from here, version 2.0.

Bit over a year ago, I wrote about Charlie Stross’s pessimistic views on space colonization. Pointing out that Stross was correct in terms of the current technology curve, I said that the bigger issue was a failure to understand that forecasting breakthrough technologies is almost impossible. From my post:

The thing is, it is difficult in the extreme to make solid predictions more than a couple of decades out. In my own lifetime I have seen surprise wonders come on the scene, and expectations thwarted. Technology develops in ways that don’t always make sense, except perhaps in hindsight. 100 years ago, many people thought that commercial flight would never become a reality. 40 years ago, people thought that we’d have permanent bases on the Moon by now. You get my drift.

Everything that Charlie Stross says in his post makes sense. You can’t get to that future from here. But “here” is going to change in ways which are unpredictable, and then the future becomes more in flux than what we expect at present. For Communion of Dreams, I set forth a possible future history which leads to permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars, and Europa, with functional space stations at several other locations outside of Earth orbit. Will it happen? I dunno. I doubt that exactly my scenario would come about. But it is plausible.

And I have pretty much the exact same reaction to this item from Wired:

Rocket Scientists Say We’ll Never Reach the Stars

Many believe that humanity’s destiny lies with the stars. Sadly for us, rocket propulsion experts now say we may never even get out of the Solar System.

At a recent conference, rocket scientists from NASA, the U.S. Air Force and academia doused humanity’s interstellar dreams in cold reality. The scientists, presenting at the Joint Propulsion Conference in Hartford, Connecticut, analyzed many of the designs for advanced propulsion that others have proposed for interstellar travel. The calculations show that, even using the most theoretical of technologies, reaching the nearest star in a human lifetime is nearly impossible.

Well, yeah. And if you asked medieval blacksmiths about about building a weapon that could kill a million people instantly, they’d also say it was impossible. For them, it was. For us, it’s technology which is 63 years old as of last month.

I’m sure everyone attending that conference (professionally, anyway) knows more about rocket science than I do. And probably about any exotic propulsion technologies on the horizon as well.

But that doesn’t mean they’re right. In fact, even if they aren’t elderly, they’re very probably wrong.

And even they know it. From that same article in Wired, after saying this:

The major problem is that propulsion — shooting mass backwards to go forwards — requires large amounts of both time and fuel. For instance, using the best rocket engines Earth currently has to offer, it would take 50,000 years to travel the 4.3 light years to Alpha Centauri, our solar system’s nearest neighbor. Even the most theoretically efficient type of propulsion, an imaginary engine powered by antimatter, would still require decades to reach Alpha Centauri, according to Robert Frisbee, group leader in the Advanced Propulsion Technology Group within NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Frisbee says this:

As for interstellar travel, even the realists are far from giving up. All it takes is one breakthrough to make the calculations work, Frisbee said.

“It’s always science fiction until someone goes out and does it,” he said.


Jim Downey

Fox and squirrel.

Standing there, looking out the window to the driveway just below, I saw the fox take the unwitting squirrel. One quick, quiet leap from behind a tree, a snap, pause to snap again at the struggling grey mass, and it had breakfast. A pretty, lethal thing, yellow-red short fur, characteristic long legs and bushy tail, eyes sharp as it looked around. Probably weighed twelve to fifteen pounds, lean and long. Made me consider keeping the cats inside.


Peter Diamandis received a standing ovation for his presentation on the absolute need to go into space. It wasn’t just that the attendees at the Heinlein Centennial Gala were predisposed to his message – it was because his energy and enthusiasm swept away all doubts that this was *going* to happen, that it was economically inevitable, once we realized that it was actually possible. What’s that? Charlie Stross and others have said that while something like asteroid mining might be possible, it won’t lead to colonization? Yeah, that’s the argument. But Diamandis calculates that one 0.5 kilometer metallic asteroid will contain a *lot* of valuable metal…to the tune of 20 Trillion dollars worth. Sure, such asteroids only comprise about 8% of the known bodies anywhere near our space…but still, you’re talking tens of thousands of such asteroids of varying size. That’s a damned big incentive to build infrastructure, and once the infrastructure is in place, once the basic research has been done and there are multiple private corporations, countries, and even private citizens exploiting this resource, there are going to be some who find it advantageous to actually locate in space (semi-)permanently.

Diamandis joked that his strategy is going to be to issue a lot of ‘put options’ for the precious metals, then announce that he is going to go grab one of these asteroids and use the procedes to finance the expedition. Hey, when a man worth that kind of money makes such a joke, people should take it seriously.


I watched, one afternoon last week, while my mother-in-law suffered a slight TIA. She was sitting in her wheelchair, having just gotten up from her afternoon nap, and was finishing some yogurt. I was sitting and talking with her, when she just slowly sort of folded in on herself. While she is 90 and suffers from Alzhemer’s, she is usually capable of responding to direct questions about immediate events (how she feels, if she likes her yogurt, et cetera), but she suddenly went quiet, almost insensate. I checked to see whether something like a heart attack was in process, and asked if she was hurting or if there was some other indicator of a serious emergency. Eventually I got enough information to conclude it was likely ‘just’ a TIA or some similar event, and got her back in bed. I monitored her, and all seemed to be well. She woke two hours later, with no evidence of damage. But it was an indication of her condition, and likely a hint at things to come.


I want to have Jeff Greason’s baby.

Greason (pronounced ‘Grey-son’) is the head of XCOR Aerospace, and is one of the many companies trying to build the infrastructure of private commercial spaceflight. He and his company have accomplished a lot in the development of dependable, reusuable, and powerful rocket engines…engines sufficiently well engineered that they show no indication of wearing out after even thousands of operating cycles (being turned on and off). As he explains, the two biggest problems previously with rocket engine design was that there was wear leading to failure on both the throat of the engine (where the burning fuel exhausts) and on the nozzle (which creates the high thrust needed). The XCOR designs have engineered these problems out, and they’re still waiting to find out what other life-span problems the engine might have. And once you have dependable rocket engines, you can build a reusable and dependable vehicle around them.

But that’s not why I want to have his baby. Yes, dependable reusable rockets is a critical first-step technology for getting into space. But as Greason says, he didn’t get interested in space because of chemical rockets – he got interested in chemical rockets because they could get him into space. For him, that has always been the goal, from the first time he read Rocket Ship Galileo by Robert Heinlein when he was about 10. It is somewhat interesting to note that similar to the setting and plot of the book, XCOR Aerospace is based on the edge of a military test range, using leased government buildings…

Anyway. Greason looked at the different possible technologies which might hold promise for getting us off this rock, and held a fascinating session at the Centennial discussing those exotic technologies. Simply, he came to the same conclusion many other very intelligent people have come to: that conventional chemical rockets are the best first stage tech. Sure, many other possible options are there, once the demand is in place to make it financially viable to exploit space on a large enough scale. But before you build an ‘interstate highway’, you need to have enough traffic to warrant it. As he said several times in the course of the weekend, “you don’t build a bridge to only meet the needs of those who are swimming the river…but you don’t build a bridge where no one is swimming the river, either.”


In one of the sessions, people got to talking about what drives technological development, and one of the big things that people focused on was war. This has been a common theme in a lot of SF, including my favorite series Babylon 5 (see the Shadow War arc). I don’t entirely buy it. I tend to think that economics are a bigger force in tech development – even in wartime, most of the tech developed isn’t something like a pure weapon such as the atomic bomb; it is all the support infrastructure which has dual-use and can be adapted easily after a war because it is economically advantageous.

But this discussion took another familiar turn: that only after we have threatened ourselves with extinction through something like a nuclear war, would we find the will to go into space in a big way. That, actually, is one aspect of Communion of Dreams, but I don’t see mankind being able to survive a major nuclear exchange and then still have the capability to get into space. The infrastructure necessary to support a space-faring tech is really quite extensive, even if you have just small private companies and individuals building and using the rockets/spaceplanes to get to low-earth-orbit. Take out that infrastructure…wipe out the industrial base of the major nations, or even kick it back 50 years…and you will not have access to the kinds of composite materials, computing systems, et cetera, which are necessary components of any spacecraft. Burt Rutan will not be making SpaceShipTwo unless he has the parts – it’s that simple.


There are a few things I’ve learned in my 49 years here. One is that we age, and we will die (sure, I’d love for Heinlein’s rejuvenation technology to come into play, or some version of ‘Singularity’ to save me from personal extinction…but I’m not counting on it.) It might be through something like the advancing senescence of global warming which we should see coming but act on too late. It might be something quick and unexpected, perhaps one of Diamandis’ $20 trillion rocks taking us out before we get around to using it for other purposes.

We should be like the fox, not the squirrel. The quick-witted one. The one who takes the future and makes it his own, rather than the one who is unpleasantly surprised for a brief and painful moment.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)

You can’t get there from here.

Charlie Stross is a smart guy. And a fine writer, with significant Science Fiction cred. So when I saw an item posted by Cory Doctorow on BoingBoing yesterday titled “Futility of Space Colonization” with a link to Charlie’s full post on his blog, I was curious. From the post:

That’s the first point I want to get across: that if the distances involved in interplanetary travel are enormous, and the travel times fit to rival the first Australian settlers, then the distances and times involved in interstellar travel are mind-numbing.

This is not to say that interstellar travel is impossible; quite the contrary. But to do so effectively you need either (a) outrageous amounts of cheap energy, or (b) highly efficient robot probes, or (c) a magic wand. And in the absence of (c) you’re not going to get any news back from the other end in less than decades. Even if (a) is achievable, or by means of (b) we can send self-replicating factories and have them turn distant solar systems into hives of industry, and more speculatively find some way to transmit human beings there, they are going to have zero net economic impact on our circumstances (except insofar as sending them out costs us money).

And then this, about the question of colonization in our solar system:

But even so, when you get down to it, there’s not really any economically viable activity on the horizon for people to engage in that would require them to settle on a planet or asteroid and live there for the rest of their lives. In general, when we need to extract resources from a hostile environment we tend to build infrastructure to exploit them (such as oil platforms) but we don’t exactly scurry to move our families there. Rather, crews go out to work a long shift, then return home to take their leave. After all, there’s no there there — just a howling wilderness of north Atlantic gales and frigid water that will kill you within five minutes of exposure. And that, I submit, is the closest metaphor we’ll find for interplanetary colonization. Most of the heavy lifting more than a million kilometres from Earth will be done by robots, overseen by human supervisors who will be itching to get home and spend their hardship pay. And closer to home, the commercialization of space will be incremental and slow, driven by our increasing dependence on near-earth space for communications, positioning, weather forecasting, and (still in its embryonic stages) tourism. But the domed city on Mars is going to have to wait for a magic wand or two to do something about the climate, or reinvent a kind of human being who can thrive in an airless, inhospitable environment.

Colonize the Gobi desert, colonise the North Atlantic in winter — then get back to me about the rest of the solar system!

OK, like I said, Charlie is a smart guy. Go read the entire thing – I think that he has nailed the economics of the matter of space colonization pretty solidly. He’s right with all the physics, energy requirements, et cetera, from everything that I see and know on the subject.

And he’s dead wrong.

Oh, I think that he’s right – right now, it is hard to come up with a pragmatic, practical argument for the possibility of space colonization. But his argument reminds me considerably of this item posted on Paleo-Future last week:

Aerial Navigation Will Never Be Popular (1906)

The August 14, 1906 Lake County Times (Hammond, Indiana) ran an article by Sir Hiram Maxim titled, “Aerial Navigation Will Never Be Popular.” An excerpt, as well as the original article in its entirety, appears below.

But I do not think the flying machine will ever be used for ordinary traffic and for what may be called “popular” purposes. People who write about the conditions under which the business and pleasure of the world will be carried on in another hundred years generally make flying machines take the place of railways and steamers, but that such will ever be the case I very much doubt.

That item goes on to talk about how flying machines will undoubtably be adopted as weapons of war, but that they will forever remain too expensive and risky for any other venture.

The thing is, it is difficult in the extreme to make solid predictions more than a couple of decades out. In my own lifetime I have seen surprise wonders come on the scene, and expectations thwarted. Technology develops in ways that don’t always make sense, except perhaps in hindsight. 100 years ago, many people thought that commercial flight would never become a reality. 40 years ago, people thought that we’d have permanent bases on the Moon by now. You get my drift.

Everything that Charlie Stross says in his post makes sense. You can’t get to that future from here. But “here” is going to change in ways which are unpredictable, and then the future becomes more in flux than what we expect at present. For Communion of Dreams, I set forth a possible future history which leads to permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars, and Europa, with functional space stations at several other locations outside of Earth orbit. Will it happen? I dunno. I doubt that exactly my scenario would come about. But it is plausible.

And with experience in dealing with exploration and colonization in our neighborhood will come the necessary technologies to go further. Even without a dramatic technological leap, it would be possible to slowly expand outward through the Kuiper Belt and into the Oort Cloud, playing hopscotch from one asteroid or cometary body to the next over generations, out past the edge of our ill-defined solar system and into a neighboring one. I’ve seen calculations pertaining to Fermi’s Paradox indicating that a race with little more than our technology could basically spread across the entire galaxy this way in a matter of less than a million years. Add in that any race doing so would undoubtably maintain at least some minimal rate of technological improvement, and you’ll experience a logarithmic growth which would include some truly stunning (to us) tech.

I am surprised that a writer of Stross’ calibre isn’t able to come up with scenarios which allow for him to imagine this happening, for it to make economic, practical, pragmatic sense. Besides, there is more to human motivation than simple economics – there are plenty of instances in our own real history where people have done things for reasons which do not make sense in economic terms, and accomplished goals which would otherwise never have been attempted.

So, yeah, you can’t get there from here. At least now you can’t. But give us a few decades…

Jim Downey


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