Charlie Stross on the economic naivete of science fiction

Paul Raven @ 08-10-2010

The Strossmeister crops up in a brief interview at New Scientist*, and says the following:

Science fiction has traditionally been economically naive, with a strong libertarian streak which I think is like a crude Leninism. That’s attractive because it could be used to explain everything, and if only we lived by its tenets, everything would be perfect. Except that we have to assume perfectly uniform and spherical humans of a fixed density for it to work. Humans are complex and if you show them a system, a subset of them will try to game the system for their own benefits. I’ve seen a joking case made that Star Trek‘s Federation is propaganda from a communist dictatorship; they have no money and have replicators to provide everything. But behind the gleaming shiny space ships is a howling vacuum of no explanation.

I think we’re starting to see a move away from that situation, at least in (some) written sf – Stross himself, plus Doctorow, Ken MacLeod, Karl Schroeder, Bruce Sterling and others, they’re all trying to engage those economic realities and make them part of the story. Problem is that economics is an inherently politicised subject, so one reader’s engagement with reality will be another reader’s naive socialist utopia (or libertarian paradise, or, or, or…). You can’t please all the people all the time, after all… and I rather suspect it’s that underlying naive utopianism of Trek that has leant it such lasting appeal.

[ * OK, so it’s a very brief interview, but even so, was “SF author: I am a spaceman” the best pull-quote the NS sub-ed could come up with? Really? ]


India to export thorium nuclear reactors

Tom James @ 22-09-2009

wheels_and_cablesCharles Stross highlights the news that the Indian government is preparing to manufacture and export nuclear reactors that use the thorium fuel cycle:

The original design is fuelled by a mix of uranium-233 and plutonium bred from thorium using fast neutron power reactors earlier in a thorium fuel cycle. The LEU variant is suitable for export because it does away with the plutonium, replacing it with uranium enriched to 19.75% uranium-235.

As countries like India and China continue to industrialise we will see more and more technological innovation from these developing countries. Both India and China are hungry for cheap energy to raise the standard of living for their people. This thorium reactor design is important because it can be used by developing countries with minimal industrial infrastructure:

The design is intended for overseas sales, and the AEC [India’s Atomic Energy Commission] says that “the reactor is manageable with modest industrial infrastructure within the reach of developing countries.”

The reactor design is intended minimise the threat of nuclear proliferation, as it does not produce the right amount of bomb-worthy plutonium-239, and the long-term high-level waste is also minimised. All in all, it looks like a really excellent piece of hardware, and a thoroughly Good Thing.

Thorium is more plentiful than uranium and offers the opportunity of a long-term low-CO2 energy base. I strongly suspect that when the brown-outs start there will be huge public demand for a solution, as it will be difficult for the UK to generate all its energy needs using renewables, and it could well be that the UK ends up buying thorium reactors from India or pebble-bed reactors from China to secure our energy future.

[via Charles Stross, from World Nuclear News][image from Shahram Sharif on flickr]


Fascist transhumanists and 21st century politics

Tom James @ 04-09-2009

chain_crossCharlie Stross has written an interesting and engaging blog post on the future of politics in the 21st century, specifically he identifies the emergence of a new form of fascism that draws on transhumanism, the overhumanists:

To get to the money shot: transhumanism is going to influence the next century because, unless we are very unlucky indeed, the biotechnology, nanotechnology, and telecommunications industries are going to deliver goods that combine to fundamentally change the human condition. We’ve seen the tip of the iceberg so far

And what particularly exercises me is the possibility that if we can alter the parameters of the human condition, we can arbitrarily define some people as being better than others — and can make them so.

Not all transhumanists have good intentions. Earlier I went on for a while about Italy, home of the Modernist movement in art and birthplace of Fascism. Italy’s currently in the grip of a wave of racism and neofascist vigilantism, presided over by an allegedly racist media mogul with a near-monopoly on broadcast media in that country.

So it’s probably not surprising that Italy is the source of a new political meme that I hadn’t heard of before this week: overhumanism

It had to happen eventually. It is sad to see the largely noble ideals of transhumanism (particularly my personal favourite strand of democratic transhumanism) subverted in this way.

Is the spread of fascistic transhumanism as likely as Stross fears? If so, what can be done to prevent it?

[from Charlie’s Place][image from cosmo flash on flickr]


Charlie Stross on the future of nuclear power

Tom James @ 19-08-2009

power_plantCharles Stross has made an interesting point on the view that there is only a very short supply of useable nuclear fuel:

firstly, the supply of known uranium deposits will only last 80-100 years if we don’t recycle it and start burning MOX. I’d like to note that today’s light water reactors are horribly inefficient — they only extract 3% of the available energy from their fuel before it is considered “spent” and reclassified as waste. If we use high burn-up reactors such as the EPR, we can get a whole load more energy out of the same amount of fuel. And if we use fast breeders and run a plutonium cycle we can convert U238 into Pu239 and burn that instead of U235: there’s 500 times as much U238 lying around.

Secondly, we haven’t even tried to build a thorium reactor yet, although we’ve got good reason to believe it would work — and thorium is considerably more abundant than uranium.

As I have mentioned before, nuclear really should be part of the future energy mix of any industrialised country. Renewables can provide a large chunk (depending on local availability) of our energy needs but that still leaves a gap that needs to be plugged with something reliable and non-carbon-dioxide emitting.

David JC MacKay has more on nuclear power in his excellent free online textbook Sustainable Energy – Without the Hot Air.

[image from christian.senger on flickr]


Stross: how I ended up as a science fiction writer

Tom James @ 11-06-2009

lifeCharles Stross is recounting the long journey to his current position has one of the stars of British science fiction, beginning with his first steps into education during the years of Thatcher:

I already knew (from an early age — 12 or so) that I wanted to be an SF writer. But there was a fly in the ointment — a fly called Margaret Thatcher. I turned 15 in 1979, the year the conservatives won an election and the Thatcherite revolution swung into action.

Unemployment soared from around one million to over three million in twelve months as the UK experienced the worst industrial recession since the end of the second world war (largely caused by Thatcher’s dramatic decision to cut most of the state-owned industries off at their knees, on the assumption that the workers would find new and more productive jobs sooner rather than later — a misplaced assumption, as it turned out).

I come from a middle-class background; I could expect to go to university, but not to rely indefinitely on parental hand-outs. “You’ll need some kind of way to earn a living while you’re trying to write,” the careers guidance teachers told me.

A familiar story, as this happy university dropout will affirm (except it was Blair instead of Thatcher and the economic collapse only really started after I left).
[image from The Wandering Angel]


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