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.

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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.


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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.


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.


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.



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Search for Exomoons finds a Planet – Crowdfunded science

New Discovery Funded by Petridish Published in Science! | The Petridish Blog.

Remember the Petridish crowdfunded science site?  This blog donated a few dollars to the Search for Exomoons research awhile ago.  Well, they haven’t found an exomoon yet, but they did just publish a newly discovered planet in Science, a happy byproduct of the successfully crowdfunded research.

When the team looked at the data that Kepler has made public, they found something unusual with the planetary candidate KOI-872.01 (KOI stands for “Kepler Object of Interest”). It had some of the largest timing variations ever detected—about two-hour variations in an orbit that takes a bit under 34 days. But there was no sign of any transit duration variations, which should be present if there was a moon. All of which suggests that the planet was being pulled around by another planet Kepler hadn’t detected.


Hooray.  Though our contribution was relatively tiny, it feels really fantastic to have contributed at all.  Petridish has a number of exciting looking projects currently seeking funding, though I am personally holding out for another SF/space related idea.

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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.

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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.



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Space Exploration as Moody Video

I have no idea what NASA sees as the purpose of this video (fundraising?), but it pushes all my ‘like’ buttons so it seemed best to share it here.  That said, I don’t actually think that NASA will be leading the way, I think it will be competing and somewhat chaotic private interests.  Starting with some eccentric billionaires, but eventually becoming something else.

Youtube link is here

via Geekosystem.

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Asteroid Apocalypse Prevention

Neil Degrasse Tyson at Wired writes about the risk of a major asteroid collision, and what we can do to prevent it.

Currently, it looks doable to develop an early-warning and defense system that could protect the human species from impactors larger than a kilometer wide. Smaller ones, which reflect much less light and are therefore much harder to detect at great distances, carry enough energy to incinerate entire nations, but they don’t put the human species at risk of extinction.

If humans one day become extinct from a catastrophic collision, we would be the laughing stock of aliens in the galaxy, for having a large brain and a space program, yet we met the same fate as that pea-brained, space program-less dinosaurs that came before us.

I am inclined to agree.  We certainly have the capacity to identify potential planet-killers and save ourselves, but we don’t exactly have a good track record of coordinated action. If we are lucky, we will have some kind of functioning asteroid mining industry in place, with indirect technological applications available to ensure that we are able to survive long enough to expand out of this fragile little basket of eggs.

via IO9


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Vesta the Giant Asteroid

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has taken some photographs of the asteroid Vesta.  It is a 500 kilometer wide asteroid that has been kind enough not to stop by and wipe us all out (it is orbiting well beyond Mars).

Dawn will also take advantage of a window into Vesta’s interior, notes Christopher Russell, lead scientist of the mission and a geophysicist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1996 revealed an impact crater 13 kilometres deep, gouged into the asteroid at its south pole. Dawn will peer into that hole to discern any geological diversity exposed by the impact. Three types of meteorite found on Earth — eucrites, howardites and diogenites — are thought to be chips of Vesta, blasted away by the collision. Linking these convenient specimens to particular internal layers of Vesta is a key driver of the Dawn mission, notes Binzel.

I love that we have a spacecraft taking pictures of asteroids way out in space.

via Nature News Blog

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