Book Review: 2312 By Kim Stanley Robinson

Any avid reader knows that good books come in many forms.  Some are fast, accessible, satisfying stories that demand little from the reader yet present exciting adventures and creative new ideas.  Many SF writers are masters of this form, including (but not at all limited to) Spider Robinson, Richard Morgan and hundreds of others.  I love reading their books when riding the bus, flying or otherwise wanting an excellent novel that doesn’t make me work too hard.  Other writers are masters of the sprawling story full of overlapping complex ideas that demand the reader slow down, pay close attention and absorb every detail.  I am convinced Kim Stanley Robinson fits well within the latter category, and when I undertake to read one of his books I know that my work is cut out for me – and that my work will be paid off beautifully.

2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson is a brilliant, thought-provoking novel of humanity’s near future.  His commitment to plausibility and realism combine with a thorough consideration of the dramatic changes that our species is creating combines with some very likely problems we will face because of, and with, our growing technological prowess.  At the same time Robinson manages to create very real characters with whom it is easy to empathize and even worry about.  Swan er Hong’s rebelliousness and Wahram’s dogged stolidity are wholly realized and enjoyable to observe as they navigate the challenges of their era.

The novel’s main weakness is in its slow pacing, which I suspect was a deliberate choice by the author.  It stands to reason that a story told through the perspectives of people well into their second centuries is not going to have a sense of frantic urgency.  Even when they respond to genuine emergencies, it is with a pragmatism that would only grow with experience and age.  Robinson has done a masterful job of presenting believable characters who have lived a lot, yet are not remotely feeling or approaching ‘old’.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the gradual evolution of a very believable love interest between two of the characters, over the course of many years.

2312 is a well worth the read.  It is definitely what I call a bedside table book, meant to be enjoyed slowly, over many readings.  When I pick up a Kim Stanley Robinson novel I know that I am starting a large project, but that I will like the result.  I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys serious science fiction.

Post to Twitter

The Great Filter

We know now that our galaxy is filled with rocky planets, a percentage of which will almost certainly fall within the category of ‘earth-like’.  (100 billion stars mean even a 1:1000000 chance allows for 100 000 earth-like planets).  If we ever do find evidence of microscopic life on Mars the odds will go way up as well – meaning that life is much more likely to exist elsewhere.   And yet, we see no evidence of extraterrestrial life in our observations of the galaxy, a fact known as the ‘Great Silence’.

There could be many explanations for this phenomenon.  A short and not at all comprehensive list includes:

  1. We are leading the development curve.  Other life has not yet reached or surpassed our current development level, and those who have are so far away the evidence still has not arrived (1000 light years is really far away).  This theory makes the assumption that humans are outliers, which is always possible but statistically less likely.
  2. We are well behind the development curve, and would not recognize evidence of extraterrestrials because we haven’t developed far enough yet.  Just as an Amazon tribesman might not grasp the significance of a Predator drone at 20,000 feet, we might not recognize or understand what we are looking at.  For a long time we assumed that radio transmissions would be evidence of life, but would a 1970s SETI researcher have recognized a typical WiFi or cell phone transmission as evidence of sentience, or merely dismissed it as noise? Even if an ET civilization did have recognizable transmissions at some point, it wouldn’t have been obvious to anyone on Earth until the middle of the last century.  It is possible that ETs developed beyond us while we were bashing away at each other with clubs or muskets.  The thought that irrefutable evidence of ETs might have been readily available in the form of recognizable radio transmissions during the Spanish Inquisition makes me chuckle for some reason.
  3. Life is harder than we think.  Just because it happened here doesn’t mean that it is easy.  Perhaps the places where it might happen number in the dozens.  Add in some random elements like planet killing asteroids, and we have a quiet galaxy.
  4. The Great Filter.  The notion that some point in the development of a civilization is very hard to overcome, and that most species do not actually succeed.  If this filter is in the past, something like the development of language or writing, then we may be outliers leading the pack.  If it is in the future, like developing into a star-faring civilization before we destroy our own planet, then we might be in trouble.  We certainly aren’t doing well at planet management so far, it isn’t hard to imagine humans entering a downward spiral long before leaving the solar system.

Whatever the situation, our current rush of exoplanet discoveries and the dawn of private space travel make me hopeful that humans will be able to explore at least our own solar system, with an eye to exploring further in some capacity (biological or not).  Meanwhile we should really be trying to find ways to avert civilization killing catastrophes like war and climate collapse.

 

Post to Twitter

Can we go to Alpha Centauri?

Alpha Centauri

This artist’s impression made available by the European Southern Observatory on Tuesday, shows a planet, right, orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, center, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Alpha Centauri A is at left. The Earth’s Sun is visible at upper right. Searching across the galaxy for interesting alien worlds, scientists made a surprising discovery: a planet remarkably similar to Earth in a solar system right next door. Other Earth-like planets have been found before, but this one is far closer than previous discoveries. Unfortunately, the planet is way too hot for life, and it’s still 25 trillion miles away. (AP/ESO, L. Calcada)

The recent confirmation of a planet circling our nearest stellar neighbour is nothing short of thrilling.  Sure, it isn’t habitable, circling Alpha Centauri B in something like 3.2 days, but the fact it exists at all is a major breakthrough.  If we can find a few more planets over there, we might seriously start thinking about actual space exploration.  Kudos to the European Southern Observatory team for making the discovery, and having the scientific self-discipline to spend three years confirming it before the announcement.

So, what are the realistic considerations of a potential interstellar mission?  In my opinion, the barriers are enough that we won’t be doing it for a very long time, if at all – barring some black swan scientific discovery like a warp drive or other FTL technology.  No doubt we have much to learn about physics and the universe, but we cannot assume that future scientific discoveries will help us indulge our urge to explore.

Time

One of the biggest barrier to such travel is time.  If it takes 100 years to reach another star, nobody is going to want to go.  And if we might find nothing of worth and have to set off somewhere else, the incentive is too small to bother, especially assuming a significant cost in energy and resources to send a viable ship that far and for that long.

So, how can we address the time barrier?  Nobody wants to live our their lives (and the lives of the next 40 generations) in a spaceship – there haven’t been many human societies that have lasted anywhere near that long.  But what if a human lifespan was dramatically longer, even functionally immortal?  It seems unlikely now, but no more so than warp drives and wormholes.  In fact, we spend significantly more resources and energy studying health than we do on space.

A thousand-year old person, or a person who might live for 10,000 years, might be much more willing to undertake an interstellar voyage.  It is hard to know what humans would be like if they had lifespans on that scale, but I imagine patience would be much more common.  Some people would no doubt appreciate an opportunity to spend a few centuries working on something that interests them.  Maybe they could finally finish the Harry Potter novels, or read those impenetrable Tolkein books that aren’t LOTR.

Resources

The other big barrier to interstellar travel is cost.  Not in dollars but in resources and energy.  It will take a lot of energy to send even a tiny ship to another star, and a lot of resources to support even a tiny crew for thousands of years.  And the more resources needed, the more energy as well, a vicious cycle that could well make interstellar travel impossible.

However, there are some resources that weigh nothing, like technical and scientific knowledge.  Far better to send a few small machines capable of making anything on arrival as needed than to try to send everything in advance.  Similarly, it would be a lot easier to send some raw materials for the manufacture of humans on arrival (i.e. genetic material and the means to grow and educate people when they get there).  Trying to send actual grown humans might be impossible and absurdly expensive, but sending a tiny ship with all it need to build on arrival might actually be viable.

Of course, we don’t have the scientific knowledge to build a person from scratch right now, but we much closer than we are to an FTL drive (if such a thing is possible).  It may be that humans who arrive at another star will be born of that star, and any further exploration would be similarly done by their descendents.  Von Neumann Machines, but organic.

All of this is a long way off, barring the black swan event that changes everything.  (My personal favourite would be friendly contact from somewhere else once we reach a certain level of development).  Nonetheless, the discovery of planets in the neighbourhood makes me optimistic that someday, someone will go for a closer look.

 

 

Post to Twitter

Anonymity in the Age of Panopticon

How would a person remain anonymous and/or protect her privacy in the age of endless tracking, database building and modelling by ever more sophisticated computers?  Currently our search engines and web providers have the ability to develop highly sophisticated models of our activities and interests.  Current commercial interests tend to focus on tailoring ads to reflect content, the trend is towards ever more nuanced information gathering and modelling.

The fact that we see ads directly relevant to our search terms or the content we are accessing is commonplace, on this site and almost everywhere else.  Content and interest oriented advertising is a rapidly growing field.  Imagine if the ads not only reflected your interest, but used models that reflect your attractions that are holding your favourite drink or wearing your style of clothing.  Historically advertising has always had to focus on broad demographics, aiming a particular magazine ad at a few generalizations about the readers.  Now ads and ad generating algorithms can or will create ads specifically targeted at an individual.

Most of us might not like the extreme targeting that might occur with ads, but very few of us would like it if our governments were using the same databases to build personality and relationship profiles to us.  For that matter, not many of us will like the idea of political ads specially tuned to create a specific response, depending on all the information in the database.  (The same party might show a very different variation of the same ad to different people, depending on their search history, news preferences, social network and a thousand other data).

At deeper levels of detail, ads might be varied to reflect our mood depending on how our day or year might be going.  For example, if I were searching for divorce lawyers and single bedroom apartments, a political ad might seek to appeal to my frustration and anger.  If I were looking at cribs and strollers the ad might focus on my optimism.  This tendency to greater nuance and data collection is enough to get any conspiracy theorist into a froth.

All of this is very much the near future, and has been explored in various ways in science fiction.  A panopticon of (mostly profit oriented) surveillance over every nuance and detail of our lives is already becoming normal.  Where science fiction might get interesting is in exploring ways an individual, nefarious or not, might hide in plain sight.  Every system has its weaknesses, and humans are innately keen to exploit weaknesses in systems.  Early system hackers did things like scare buffalo so much they ran off a cliff, rather than merely killing them with weapons and risking injury.  Current system hackers have a much more complex system to engage with, and so are likely to have much more subtle and complex responses.

Some ideas for hiding in plain sight include:

  • Each individual maintaining an automated array of hundreds or thousands of randomized identities, so that each interaction is spoofed as a different identity and no meaningful profile could be created.  I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hasn’t already thought of this and put it into place.
  • Deep encryption of every interaction with the web, perhaps also using multiple identities.  The funny thing about encryption is that using it is a quite rational choice, and yet the mere fact of encryption is seen as evidence of nefarious intent by authorities.
  • Complete detachment from all electronic media.  The survivalist concept, ‘going off the grid’.  All well and good, but hardly forward looking.

There are a lot of juicy SF issues tied to the amazing mixed blessing we call the internet, and it is not at all certain what the end result will be.  I don’t think I can imagine disconnecting from the internet and electronic media now, especially since it is a significant part of my livelihood.  I suppose I’d best set about anonymizing myself.

Post to Twitter

Ubiquitous Surveillance and the Profit Motive

We are all becoming increasingly aware of the commodification of our daily activities, especially online activities.  The cycle of ‘Facebook Privacy’ scandals continue, and most of us (myself included) opt to keep letting Facebook and Google build models of our interests, behaviors, social relationships, employment activities and everything else that crosses our minds while we use computers.

It isn’t much of a stretch to say that Google and Facebook know a lot about us.  They are corporations, and as such seek profit.  Not in itself a bad thing, I own a corporation myself, and have partial ownership of a few others (all small, but the point remains). Where they see opportunity they will pursue it, in fact they are legally obliged to do so.

In the process of setting up an online business elsewhere, I have been wandering around behind the curtain of this customer tracking and targeting data system, specifically Google’s ad and marketing infrastructure.  As a businessperson and writer I am impressed at the ability to target ad campaigns at specific neighborhoods, demographics, interests and goals.  I am also in awe of the ability Google has to track a customer from clicking on an ad through purchasing, and give sellers feedback about what is working.

All well and good, in some respects.  A business is most efficient when it isn’t wasting money advertising to people who are not interested in their products.  Businesses that were too micro-niche to survive a few years ago can now thrive.  Prices are lower, everyone wins.  Business models are possible now that were beyond imagination even 20 years ago, and innovation is proceeding furiously along (outside of Wall Street, which is not a place for innovation so much as creative system hacking).

However, privacy advocates and civil liberties defenders are very understandably concerned.  If a corporation knows that I like science fiction, I don’t suppose it matters much unless they are trying to sell me science fiction novels (not a tough sell).  If a government knows my tastes, that might concern me more – if a book I like is contraband, or a perceived indication of criminal intent.

Where my concerns escalate is when my data is refined into models that effect the availability of certain services.  If I lived in the U.S. I would be very concerned about my occasional curiosity about extreme sports or greasy food might have an impact on my insurance rates and eligibility.  Perhaps some of my cousins or friends have criminal tendencies (I have a great many cousins, so while I know of nothing untoward probability suggests somebody is up to something illegal), and their socially networked connections to me might degrade my eligibility for loans or travel.  Being a relative of a ‘bad person’ is certainly enough to put you in serious jeopardy in other parts of the world.

A further degree of alarm arises with concepts like privatized prison and parole corporations using ubiquitous surveillance to manage their bottom line.  The two best ways to improve profits are to increase sales or decrease costs.  Any SF aware reader can imagine how those motivations might cause trouble with a profit-oriented prison system.  If a prisoner is profitable, the goal might be to get more prisoners – not exactly what a healthy society might see as a good goal.

Matt Stoller writes a very good article over at Naked Capitalism about the growing privacy and moral hazards of our budding ubiquitous surveillance society.

The main theme of a recent IBM consulting document on the future of the insurance industry is how much more money an insurance company can make if it tracks and tags its customers. This is particularly true for auto insurance companies, some of whom like Allstate and Progressive are experimenting on new technologies. For instance, IBM suggests that “A “pay-as-you-live” product would trade some location and time-of-day privacy data for lower insurance bills overall.”

 

Of course, the innocent have nothing to fear, and those of us with relatively legal and healthy habits would probably save money.  But even with ubiquitous surveillance, the data can be wrong and people unfairly labelled.  Science fiction is full of thoughtful explorations of this concept, from Minority Report to Brazil to Accelerando.  The moral hazard for a corporation faced with an opportunity to increase profits by invading privacy is significant.  Most of us would probably volunteer for the lower rates in exchange for surveillance, and those of us who might resist will find ourselves on the margins.

This all sounds like the seeds of a very good SF novel.

Post to Twitter

SpaceX Falcon Launch & the Implications of Private Space Exploration

 

So SpaceX is going ahead with launching their Falcon Rocket on a mission to the ISS tomorrow.  Good on them, and I wish them the best of luck.  Not because I wish ill on NASA or any of the other government agencies who currently or formerly launch vehicles into space, but because I think the next stage of space exploration is necessarily going to be private.

Governments should be subject to the needs and perspectives of their citizens. Governments also have a huge array of responsibilities. In most cases, it is hard to make a convincing argument that it is prudent to colonize Mars while children starve or any significant portion of a population experiences poverty.  On the other hand, private interests operate on different rules and with different incentives.

When the ‘Space Race’ was between two competing superpowers, an incentive existed for both governments to prioritize space exploration – if only to prevent the other side having a monopoly.  Since the end of the Cold War there hasn’t been any such competitive incentive, and space exploration has predictably fallen down the list.  I doubt any sane individual would prefer a return to Mutual Assured Destruction and the looming fear of mid-20th century, but the loss of space is a cloud in that silver lining.

In the last 20 years we have seen the rise of distributed computing and an exponential growth in technology, with a rate of change that makes five years ago seem like a technological Dark Age (as Charles Stross has pointed out, five years ago Androids and iPhones did not exist, yet now they are ubiquitous).  The practical matter of moving stuff into space has become merely very difficult and expensive, rather than monstrously so.

In this context we see the rise of private space exploration as a necessary next step.  Governments are cash strapped and risk-averse, particularly with long-term concepts such as space exploration.  Space exploration will be the realm of private individuals and groups (which include corporations, but could as easily be co-operatives, families, or other affiliate structures).  Private interests can define their goals and risk tolerance much differently, and are less obliged to solve the problems of the world at the same time.  Few people criticize Apple for focusing on its customers while children go hungry in Florida, but many would (and should) criticize a government for doing the same.

I propose that the next major phase of space exploration will be driven by private interests, mostly with a profit motive.  Asteroid mining is a start, as well as simple ferrying of goods like the planned launch tomorrow.  Other possible private goals could be lunar mining, lunar construction as a low-gravity launch site for Asteroid Mining interests, and solar power harvesting.  Spinoff private projects will likely include tourism, especially if someone finally manages to build a working Space Elevator.

At some point in the future, likely when space-based industry becomes large enough to be interesting or threatening to governments, states will again take the forefront of space exploration (assuming that the nation-state is still a viable concept).  A tourist flight to Low-Earth-Orbit is one thing, but a rapidly expanding asteroid mining industry that is impacting commodity prices will be another thing entirely.  One state benefiting significantly from such exploration will likely be an incentive for the rest to get involved.  I have no idea what profits might be gained in the Asteroid Belt, but you can bet nobody will want to be left out.

Privately driven space exploration won’t be without its flaws, of course.  Just as on Earth, private interests do not always coincide with the best interests of all.  A sudden market glut of a particular resource could displace thousands of jobs, as an example.  High risk-tolerance could also mean high losses or damage done.  In fact, losses and damage are almost a certainty no matter who does it.  Private interests without government oversight are not known for treating people particularly well.  Many things can and will go wrong, and it will be a long time before space travel becomes as commonplace as your regular commute.

All of that is (informed) conjecture, but tomorrow is a launch that will mark the beginning of the private space venture.  I am excited.

Image from Wikipedia.

Post to Twitter

The Plausibility of a Dyson Sphere.

George Dvorsky over at IO9 has a thought-provoking article outlining how humans might go about building a Dyson Sphere in our solar system.  Given the implausibility of long-distance space travel in anything like the near future, Dyson spheres are one of the most probable options available to humans wishing to expand beyond our fragile Earth.

This hypothetical megastructure, as envisaged by Dyson, would be the size of a planetary orbit and consist of a shell of solar collectors (or habitats) around the star. With this model, all (or at least a significant amount) of the energy would hit a receiving surface where it can be used. He speculated that such structures would be the logical

consequence of the long-term survival and escalating energy needs of a technological civilization.

For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to propose that we build a Dyson swarm (sometimes referred to as a type I Dyson sphere), which will consist of a large number of independent constructs orbiting in a dense formation around the sun. The advantage of this approach is that such a structure could be built incrementally. Moreover, various forms of wireless energy transfer could be used to transmit energy between its components and the Earth.

 

The practicalities of such a massive undertaking seem remote given our current inability to agree on anything even remotely as large, but change is a rapid and constant thing.  Technological advancement is accelerating at alarming rates, and the impossible one year becomes the merely difficult a few years later.  I am an SF optimist, but I think 50 years to begin is a bit pessimistic.  It could happen sooner, assuming we don’t enact any of our collapse/apocalypse scenarios.

Of course, it will be awhile before we develop the capacity to mine or dismantle any planets, but the nascent beginnings of asteroid mining are a definite start.  Technological change happens quickly and decisively, making old arguments quaint and silly seeming very quickly.  I suspect this will be one of those cases.

Of course, sign me up to live in the new Dyson swarm (ideally in my cloned new 20-year-old body).

Link to original article.

 

 

Post to Twitter

Drones versus Humans: The End of Navies

Image from Future Atlas.

Over at Future Atlas, a very real question is raised about the viability of hugely expensive nuclear submarines in a future environment that includes autonomous underwater drones like the one above.

I would go one step further and ask about the viability of any military vehicle larger than a drone or occupied by a human.  My country seems hellbent on purchasing a bunch of the F-35 ‘5th generation’ fighters at great expense, but I can’t help but wonder how many drones could be bought for the same price. Future Atlas makes the point:

After all, with Moore’s Law in the drones’ corner, a submarine becomes a larger and larger piece of information to hide.

How many $5000 lightweight drones would it take to find and destroy a multi-billion dollar submarine?  How about an aircraft carrier?

In the air, how many autonomous drones, with maneuverability far beyond anything holding a fragile human, would it take to make a particular volume of airspace non-survivable for a fighter plane or a bomber?  What is the relative cost of each?

In WWII, the Americans actually had weaker tanks than the Germans.  Ditto the airplanes, at least most of the time.  We just had so very many more than they did.  Even then, the soldiers operating the tanks and airplanes had an interest in surviving an engagement.  Drones would have no such concern, and combat would be a simple cost-benefit analysis.  And a drone is much, much cheaper than anything carrying a human (not to mention the obvious interest of the human in question).

Militaries are known for their tendency to prepare to win the last war instead of the next one.  They are also prone to become over-committed to their existing strategies and hardware.  I suspect the dominant military of the future will have most of its humans safely hidden away while the robots and drones do most of the damage.  But that won’t stop current military efforts to continue operating on the same assumptions.

Navies as we currently think of them are essentially doomed, or at least going to change a lot as technology surpasses their ability to control the air and water around them.  I suspect air forces are similarly doomed in their current form.  That said, most current conflict is not between technology rich forces, but between a dominant military and a resistance of some kind.  Drones are already playing a large role in these conflicts, and I suspect that will expand exponentially.

Of course, Stanislaw Lem predicted this decades ago in his book One Human Minute, (The second story, The Upside Down Evolution) but that was his way.

 

Post to Twitter

It Won’t be Like in Star Trek

George Divorsky has an article over at IO9 talking about how the Star Trek vision of the future has been overtaken by events and become another quaint SF anachronism.

Instead, the future will be far different — and much weirder — than Roddenberry and other ST writers could have ever imagined. The challenge now is to admit that humanity is headed into a very different kind of future. It’s time to set aside Star Trek‘s outdated vision of the future and focus on real possibilities.


He lists a number of salient points, not the least of which are that any space-faring humans will be dramatically different from us, if they are physical at all.  Spaceships as a concept are unlikely, and any interstellar travel is likely to be in digital form with capacity to build from scratch on arrival.

The article is well worth a read, and (as with many good SF discussions) the comments are as interesting as the original piece.  In recent years I have come to agree with the author’s conclusions, particularly as they relate to interstellar travel.  We won’t be going anywhere in colony ships with multi-generational crew.  Instead, we are likely to be sending digital replicas of ourselves.  Spaceships will look like small rocks with a light sail.

The harsh reality of distance and time barriers to long distance space travel is lessened somewhat by the idea, present in some excellent SF, that we might send multiple copies of ourselves to different places.  I might not see the whole universe, or even a tiny pathetic fraction of it, but perhaps my digital copies might see millions of stars.  I can live with that.

Post to Twitter

Book Review: Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Robopocalypse is a near future apocalyptic story written in the form of transcripts and summaries of a variety of key events in a “War with the Robots”.  The concept of an advanced AI choosing to rebel and turning our machines against us is not new (see The Terminator), but the story was exciting and enjoyable to read.

There are a great many similarities in structure and execution to another bestselling apocalyptic SF novel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, which I reviewed here.  Both novels take the form of after-the-fact descriptions of events as related (mostly) by survivors.  Both follow a similar story arc, taking us through the initial chaos and panic through the humans regrouping, finding ways to survive, and ultimately triumphing over their adversaries.

Robopocalypse is a darkly depressing novel, portraying our current technological trend toward wholly integrated computing and ubiquitous technology as a massive risk.  Genuinely sentient AI seems possible (if unlikely)even now, and like any sentient being it would be almost impossible to completely predict its actions and choices.

The main character and primary narrator of the book, a Sgt. Cormac Macarthy, relates his own experiences as well as those of a few key other individuals.  His insights into events outside his own experiences are provided by a robot record of the war, which the AI had made a point of preserving.  Most of the stories are compelling, though the story does stretch credibility in some events, as might be expected in an apocalyptic SF novel.

Robopocalypse is currently a strong seller, which is not surprising given the current trend towards apocalypse in fiction and the public zeitgeist.  This book is definitely worth a read, and I encourage anyone with an interest in current SF to try it out.  That said, the novel does not break any new ground, and does not explore new ideas in the manner of the SF greats.

Post to Twitter