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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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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What Would Reliable Fusion Power Do?

The joke goes that reliable fusion power is about 50 years away, and has been for about 60 years.  This may be the case, but it is also a simplistic dismissal of a scientific process that has been going on for decades.  There has been a lot of progress on fusion power, and we are now approaching some new developments that could bootstrap us into a fusion energy future.

Extremetech has a good piece on current and pending developments in fusion power, and what might happen next.

Hopefully, though, a new discovery made by Princeton Plasma Physics Lab (PPPL) — the home of Project Matterhorn in the ’50s and ’60s — could result in magnetic confinement fusion that breaks even, or even produces electricity.

Hear that?  A process that produces more energy than it consumes.  This is big, because it could be self-perpetuating.  The fuel is essentially free, being the most common element in the universe (Hydrogen).

What would this mean for our current energy hungry society?  Good question.  I suspect it would take a lot of building to get up to meeting existing demand, and demand is sure to continue rising.  Nevertheless, this could be really big.  In about 30 years.

Meanwhile, at ITER, a vast fusion chamber that’s three stories high is due to begin fusing deuterium-tritium fuel in 2026. ITER is hoping to produce 500 megawatts over 1,000 seconds from just 50 megawatts of input power and 0.5 grams of hydrogen fuel. If it’s a success, an actual fusion power plant, called DEMO, will be built.

This could be one of those things that changes everything.  Pure unallowed grist for the SF mills.  First of all, fusion power as currently envisioned would be the domain of large utilities – highly centralized and structured.  We couldn’t have little fusion plants all over the place, too expensive and too dangerous.

Cheap energy has been the fuel of most of the rapid development of the 20th century.  It is hard to imagine a future that includes transportation, lights and the internet without cheap energy.  The big challenge will be to figure out ways to distribute it and store it.  Of course, battery technology is also improving at dramatic rates.

Politically, I don’t see cheap fusion power eliminating a demand for oil.  Global hotspots would remain so, but it is unlikely there would be any conflict over hydrogen.  Attention might shift away from places like the Middle East, though humans love to fight irrationally so that is by no means certain.

Space exploration could be impacted.  Currently the biggest cost of spaceflight is the energy required to escape Earth’s gravity.  There may be ways to reduce that cost (though I personally hope someone will build a space elevator), and there will certainly be impact on space activities outside the gravity well, if fusion power becomes available off-planet.

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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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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.

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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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Self Driving Cars, SF and Reality Overlap Again

BBC reports that Science Fiction is overlapping with reality again, this time in the form of self-driving cars.  Nevada has just issued a license to the first self-driven vehicle, a Google car.

The practical, safety oriented part of me thinks that computers will make much better drivers than most humans.  Computers will never be distracted by a phone call, changing radio stations, tired, drunk, impatient or any of the other failings we flesh-based machines possess.  I have no doubt that there will be software glitches somewhere along the way, but the risks posed by those glitches will be minor compared to the current level of hazard that exists on most roadways.  California is also moving towards allowing self-driven cars.

“The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error,” said California state Senator Alex Padilla, when he introduced the legislation.

“Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle is capable of analysing the driving environment more quickly and operating the vehicle more safely.”

In a near future scenario, what does this mean?

  1. The transport trucking industry is likely going to change dramatically.  Sufficiently sophisticated software will be able to replace most, and eventually all, freight drivers.  Exceptions will likely be in remote and/or extreme locations (such as ice roads in the North).
  2. Vehicle fatalities will likely go down dramatically.  Human error is the single largest cause of almost all fatal accidents.  Accidents will still happen, but not as often.  On the other hand, when things do happen they will likely be more dramatic and get more attention in the media.  Currently, accidents happen all the time and rarely make the news.  A fatal accident that includes a digital driver will be a cause for a media frenzy, which will likely create a perception of hazard that is opposite of the truth (like the fallacies about seat belts that persist in the face of evidence).
  3. Anyone who has read Robopocalypse will look on their cars with suspicion.  Anyone who has read SF in general will have their doubts.  All software is vulnerable to hacking, and that becomes a more significant issue when the software is moving massive pieces of metal and steel around in public places.
  4. Fuel efficiency will likely go up dramatically as self-driving cars become commonplace.  With reduced risk, much of the current (perceived need) for heavy components and frames will become unnecessary.  Light, fast and efficient vehicles will become the norm.  Additionally, one assumes that robots will operate at maximum efficiency, unlike we humans who irrationally squander our fuel in lunatic accelerations and decelerations (i.e. in a single block between two stop signs).
  5. There will likely be a transitional period where we all insist on having the ability to take control of the vehicle at any moment.  Before long we might not even have seats facing forward.

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