The Outrigger Diaspora

Paul Raven @ 04-10-2011

I’ve filed the 100 Year Starship symposium in the steadily swelling folder of “events that make me wish I was located in the States, or that telepresence was a bit more stable and functional”. Athena Andreadis was one of the many speakers, and I’ll look forward to the full version of her talk appearing in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, an organisation I should really get round to joining. In the meantime, here’s a few snippets from her post-mortem blog post that sum up why I pay attention to her:

… there is still no firm sense of limits and limitations.  This persistence of triumphalism may doom the effort: if we launch starships, whether of exploration or settlement, they won’t be conquerors; they will be worse off than the Polynesians on their catamarans, the losses will be heavy and their state at planetfall won’t resemble anything depicted in Hollywood SF.

Yes, this. Look, I’m as much a sucker for the macroarchitectural fantasies of high space opera as the next person, but it only takes a cursory knowledge of the space programs we’ve had so far to know that the universe beyond the gravity well is, to quote Phil Anselmo, fucking hostile. And that’s before you even start thinking about agressive (or simply defensive) alien civilisations or dangerous new biomes inimical to human life-chemistry. We live on a merest mere speck in an ocean of infinite breadth and depth; to set out without a respectful fear of that infinitude is pure hubris.

Like building a great cathedral, it will take generations of steady yet focused effort to build a functional starship.  It will also require a significant shift of our outlook if we want to have any chance of success.  Both the effort and its outcome will change us irrevocably.

This is pretty much how I’m looking at transhumanism these days; long-range goals are great things to have, but they’re no substitute for realistic and achievable steps along the route of progress. And I’m not sure that we can simply focus on the technological side of things and assume that great strides there will solve our social and economic issues as a by-product; technology and science cannot be discretely set aside from our other projects. The out-bound diaspora of humanity is dependent on its surviving the next handful of decades, and most of the hazards attendant on that timeframe will not be solved by technology alone.

In effect, by sending out long-term planetary expeditions, we will create aliens more surely than by leaving trash on an uninhabited planet.  Our first alien encounter, beyond Earth just as it was on Earth, may be with ourselves viewed through the distorting mirror of divergent evolution.

I read the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic earlier this year, and it struck me then that the planet is already spattered with Zones. But they’re Zones where the Other that left them is Us: they’re the squatter shanties and favelas that have accreted around big cities in the developing world, where the people pick over the stuff we’ve just tossed aside in favour of the next new shiny, where they make do with the cast-offs of yesteryear, and where the street finds new uses for things. A world full of aliens biologically identical to us: plenty of opportunities to practice – if we’re willing – the diplomacy skill-sets we’ll need, should we ever happen across another species on the infinite ocean.


Black Hole Sun, redux: are supercivs sucking at the event horizon?

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

Via Sentient Developments, here’s some brainfood for them as likes their high-concept cosmological hard SF. Y’know how SETI has yet to locate any alien civilisational traces by looking for large-scale exploitation of stellar energy sources? Well, perhaps they’re looking in the wrong cupboard; a new paper from Clement Vidal of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel posits that black holes are the ideal energy source for an ultra-advanced civilisation, and that our own universe might actually be “a science fair project of an entity from an exo-universe”:

Energy-hungry galactic empires might skip tapping stellar energy and simply go to extracting energy from black holes. These collapsed islands of space-time are the universe’s ultimate Energizer Bunnies. They are far more efficient at converting mass to energy than are the fusion engines of stars.

But more than that, says Vidal, is the ability to control the microcosm as well. Today we can manipulate individual atoms via nanotechnology. But advanced alien physicists would tinker with elementary particles and the very structure of space-time itself.

Having mastered control over space-time, a super-civilization might want to fabricate their own black holes for a variety of tasks: waste disposal, starship propulsion, hyper-computing, maybe even time travel.

On the macro-scale, super-civilizations might re-engineer stars using black holes. The quest for immortality beyond a star’s lifetime would be a big motivation.

Suppose extraterrestrials manufacture a black hole to accrete material from a burned-out star, a white dwarf. This would provide abundant energy beyond the star’s fusion-burning stage.

It may be impossible to define sensawunda, but I can sure as hell point it out when I see it. *points*

Aliens among us: Charlie Stross on the corporate invasion

Paul Raven @ 13-12-2010

More challenging ideas from Chateau Stross (or should that be Schloss Stross?) – he’s not the first to frame the corporation as a non-human entity with an alarming degree of power and control over human affairs, but – given the current economic and political climate – it’s a conversation worth revisiting.

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

The comment thread is fantastic reading too, but very long; set aside an hour or so to really dig into it properly.

Here’s a counterpoint from the NYT‘s Paul Krugman:

These days, we’re living in the world of the imperial, very self-interested individual; the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit. Look at the protagonists in the global financial meltdown, and you won’t see faceless corporations subverting individual will; you’ll see avaricious individuals exploiting corporate forms to enrich themselves, often bringing the corporations down in the process. Lehman, AIG, Anglo-Irish, etc. were not cases of immortal hive-minds at work; they were cases of kleptocrats run wild.

And when it comes to the subversion of the political process — yes, there are faceless corporations in the mix, but the really dastardly players have names and large individual fortunes; Koch brothers, anyone?

I find myself somewhat on the fence here, principally because I’m painfully aware that I know enough about economics to know that I don’t know enough about economics. I’m not sure that the corporation as a concept is inherently bad, but I’m very sure that the current protectionist set-up is a root cause of many of our current problems, at both the global and local scales.

What do you think?

What’s the Beef? On Faith and Food

Lavie Tidhar @ 06-09-2010

Just what is the relationship between faith and food? Nearly every major religion (and quite a few minor ones) have dietary restrictions of one sort or another – though they’re never the same!

Jews don’t eat pork or seafood. Muslims don’t eat pork either (and don’t drink alcohol), while Hindus don’t eat beef. Christians, it seems, will eat anything (including the body of the Christ) but otherwise frown on cannibalism, while traditional Melanesian practices don’t. And everyone knows Scientologists won’t eat thetans.

Here’s a handy list, courtesy of CNN.

Does the path to true enlightenment lie in the right meal? Could a new religion be founded on a secret teaching of sacred recipes? Is God living in my stomach?

I ask myself these sort of questions all the time. Why is bacon the Jewish Kryptonite? Why did David Blaine hang from a crane inside a glass box without food and water for forty days at London Bridge, and why did people have barbecues directly below?

Someone I know in Vanuatu once met a cannibal at a party.

“What does human flesh taste like?” she asked.

“Chicken,” he said. (I’m not, in fact, making this story up).

Why does everything taste like chicken?

It’s not like I have the answers. Are some foods holier than others? Are some foods evil? Is Nigella Lawson conclusive proof that there is a God?

And what do atheists eat? What do aliens taste like?

I suspect that, one day, we’ll go to the stars. We’ll find alien planets, and land on them and, most likely, we’ll eat what we find.

Remember when Arthur C. Clarke predicted the satellite? Well, pay attention now. I am going to make a science fictional prediction.

Lavie’s Law (formulated September 7th, in the very science fictional year 2010, at around 11am): Aliens taste like chicken.

Lavie Tidhar is the author of The Bookman (Angry Robot Books) and follow-ups Camera Obscura and Night Music, both forthcoming from the same publisher. His latest book, novella Cloud Permutations, is just out from PS Publishing in the UK. His story In Pacmandu is this month’s featured fiction on Futurismic.

The Ten Errors of Science Fiction

Paul Raven @ 28-06-2010

Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines – nothing tends to rile science fiction folk so much as folk from outside the ghetto loudly pronouncing that OMFG UR DOIN IT RONG, and this piece by Dr Sam Vaknin should provide great fodder for some hard sf advocacy and righteous ire. So fetch your popcorn, kids, as we find out the ten hidden and fallacious assumptions about extraterrestrials in science fiction!

In all works of science fiction, there are ten hidden assumptions regarding alien races. None of these assumptions is a necessity. None of them makes immanent or inevitable sense. Yet, when we read a sci-fi novel or watch a sci-fi movie we tend to accept all of them as inescapable. They amount to a frame of reference and to a language without which we seem to be unable to relate to all manner of exobiology. We evidently believe that life on Earth is a representative sample and that we can extrapolate its properties and mechanisms of action wide and far across the Universe. The principles of symmetry, isotropy, and homogeneity apply to the physical cosmos: Hydrogen behaves identically in our local galactic neighbourhood as it does in the furthest reaches of the Cosmos. Why shouldn’t life be the same?

“In all works of science fiction”? Vaknin must have a whole lot of reading time on his hands…

Snark aside, Vaknin’s major FAIL here is the classic outsider’s misconception of sf, namely that it’s supposed to be taken literally rather than allegorically*. In other words, he’s quite right in that sf makes assumptions about alien life, but quite wrong in thinking that it matters to sf’s function as a form of entertainment**. Put it this way: if you read science fiction for the pleasure (rather than as a stand-in for a doctorate in exobiology, say), I’d guess there’s a 95% chance Vaknin’s article is a classic case of TL;DR. SETI geeks with time on their hands may get a kick from it, though.

Anyway, George Dvorsky takes Vaknin at something closer to face value than I have the time, expertise or motivation to pull off, and manages to do a pretty good job of popping his tyres:

Sure, I agree that ETIs may be dramatically different than what we can imagine and that they may exist outside of expected paradigms, but until our exoscience matures we should probably err on the side of the self-sampling assumption and figure that the ignition and evolution of life tends to follow a similar path to the one taken on Earth. Now, I’m not suggesting that we refrain from hypothesizing about radically different existence-states; I’m just saying that these sorts of extraordinary claims (like alternative intelligences spawning different quantum realities) require the requisite evidence. It’s far too easy to fantasize about some kind of energy-based hive-mind living in the core of asteroids, it’s another thing to prove that such a thing could come about through the laws of physics [my example, not Vaknin’s].


Nice try, Vaknin, but the Great Silence problem is more complex than what you’ve laid out.

For all my bitching above, I do actually find things like the Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence to be lots of fun to think about. If you’re looking for an accessible introduction to the idea (and some of the hypotheses presented as solutions), Dvorsky’s blog is a good place to start… but I’d also recommend the book Where Is Everybody? by Stephen Webb, which is full of great starter seeds for Baxterian space opera stories.

[ * Yeah, yeah, hard sf is driven by scientific rigour and plausibility, sure, but it’s still stories told by humans about what it’s like – or may at some point in the future be like – to be a human in a big confusing universe; even Watts’ Blindsight speaks to the human condition and the state of our understanding of life in the universe more than it does the raw facts we have regarding life in the universe, and that’s about as hard an sf novel as I’ve ever read. You can argue that rigidly hard sf (factual to the detriment of story) is the apogee of the genre if you like, but you’d be wrong. ]

[ ** An essay deconstructing the false assumptions made about gender and race in science fiction, however, would be something worth writing, because humans are the true subject of human literature, even when they’re not the subject that takes the limelight on center stage. False assumptions about people need taking apart far more urgently than false assumptions about hypothetical beings we may never meet, IMHO. ]

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