Karl Schroeder’s Space Shuttle send-off

Paul Raven @ 22-07-2011

Karl Schroeder is guest emcee at Charlie Stross’s rostrum while the latter is a-travellin’, which is fine news in my world – Schroeder has been quiet of late (how dare a writer I like not provide me free brainfood on a regular basis!), but when he speaks he says powerful things. Powerful things like this:

Not only had the combination of Space Shuttle (most expensive yet most useless spacecraft ever constructed, a monstrous money-pit that cost $200 billion to develop, $1.5 billion for every launch, demanded a ground crew of over 3000 and had nowhere to go–and International Space Station (also fantastically expensive and in the wrong orbit to do any meaningful research) sucked all the oxygen out of space exploration for the average Joe; not only have most of my readers never witnessed a human being go beyond Earth orbit; but NASA’s Darwinian selection process for its astronaut corps has, for thirty years now, guaranteed that only men and women who agree to toe the party line will get into space. In order to become an astronaut, you have to accept, in a Winston Smith sort of way, that real space travel is barred to us. –That somehow, Apollo never happened or was some sort of fluke, and that the best that humanity can do now is clamber to the edge of that vastness we once soared through, and blink at it nervously. Because the Shuttle and ISS are both emperors without clothes, and if anybody involved in the projects actually admitted it, we all might collectively wake up, and demand something better.

All of which is why I’m heaving a vast sigh of relief that thirty years of mediocrity is finally ending this week. Farewell, Space Shuttle. I’m not going to miss you.

Me neither… though I prudently kept my opinion on the downlow yesterday, because there’s a whole lot of national identity stuff tied up with America and the Space Shuttle program, and applauding the Shuttle’s demise is like poking a bear with a sharp stick. But that bear really needs poking; so many of the laments I noticed yesterday seem to totally overlook the economic and philosophical shortcomings of the Shuttle program, interpreting it on a very basic symbolic level only.

Much in the way that some people interpret any criticism of the Israeli government as inherently anti-Semitic, criticising the Shuttle program is perceived as either anti-American or anti-space-exploration, or sometimes both at once. This irrationally defensive attitude highlights the lack of purpose that has echoed at the heart of the American space narrative for so long, like rapping your knuckles on a venerated statue and hearing the hollowness within as its worshippers gasp at your blasphemy.

When dogma is all you have left, it’s time to redefine your relationship to god.

[ For what it’s worth, I think you can have your pie and eat it; I grew up watching the Space Shuttle launches on TV, and they shaped my consciousness in a huge way; I can also appreciate the symbolic – and technological – sublimity of the Shuttle itself. But it was always more token than tool; if we’re serious about going beyond the gravity well – and I believe we should be – we need to ask ourselves why as well as how. The answer to the former will inform and qualify the answer to the latter. ]

Saturnine storms and the second space race

Paul Raven @ 07-07-2011

T’ain’t just us Earthlings experiencing erratic weather, y’know; check out this rather vast storm on Saturn, courtesy the Cassini probe. Audio is also available.

Storm on Saturn - image courtesy NASATomorrow, if all goes to plan, the Space Shuttle will launch for its very last mission before retirement (to fates as yet undecided – museum piece or rich man’s megabauble?) Cue inevitable soul-searching all over the place; here’s The Economist sounding the death knell for outer space.

It is quite conceivable that 36,000km will prove the limit of human ambition. It is equally conceivable that the fantasy-made-reality of human space flight will return to fantasy. It is likely that the Space Age is over.

Today’s space cadets will, no doubt, oppose that claim vigorously. They will, in particular, point to the private ventures of people like Elon Musk in America and Sir Richard Branson in Britain, who hope to make human space flight commercially viable. Indeed, the enterprise of such people might do just that. But the market seems small and vulnerable. One part, space tourism, is a luxury service that is, in any case, unlikely to go beyond low-Earth orbit at best (the cost of getting even as far as the moon would reduce the number of potential clients to a handful). The other source of revenue is ferrying astronauts to the benighted International Space Station (ISS), surely the biggest waste of money, at $100 billion and counting, that has ever been built in the name of science.

Well, space cadet is as space cadet does, right? Here’s a response from Paul Gilster at Centauri Dreams:

As commercial space efforts move forward, a broader defense of a human future in space has to take the long-term view. Given the dangers that beset our planet, from ecological issues to economic turmoil and the potential for war, can we frame a solution that offers a rational backup plan for humanity? Planetary self-defense also involves the need for the tools to alter the trajectory of any object with the potential to strike the Earth with deadly force, and that means expanding, not contracting, our space-borne assets. Such work is not purely technical. It also teaches the invaluable lesson of multi-generational responsibility and holds out the promise of frontiers. Such challenges have enriched our early history and provide us a clear path off our planet.

We’re also a curious species, and it’s hard to see us pulling back from the challenge of answering the crucial question of whether we are alone in the galaxy. There is a huge gap, asThe Economist points out, between where we stand with space technology today and where we fantasized being as we looked forward from the Apollo days. But a case can be made for steady and incremental research that gives us new propulsion options and broadens our knowledge of how life emerges even as it protects our future. A future that includes gradual expansion into space-based habitats and the exploitation of our system’s abundant resources is an alternative to The Economist’s vision, and it’s one the public needs to hear. The infrastructure that it would build will demand the tools and the skills to move ever deeper into our system and beyond.

An editorial piece at New Scientist is similarly – if cautiously – optimistic about a NASA renaissance rather than a recession; there’s certainly lots of can-do rhetoric from them, not to mention hungry competition from up-and-coming nations with cash to spend and ambitions to fulfil. But given that the new proposed NASA budget will axe projects like the James Webb orbital telescope – Hubble’s successor, basically – I’m not sure how much mileage there is in brave words and stoic chest-thumping. Hell, some folk are even wondering whether the Space Shuttle program itself wasn’t a massive and very costly mistake [beware irritating interstitial ad; via Chairman Bruce]:

The selection in 1972 of an ambitious and technologically challenging shuttle design resulted in the most complex machine ever built. Rather than lowering the costs of access to space and making it routine, the space shuttle turned out to be an experimental vehicle with multiple inherent risks, requiring extreme care and high costs to operate safely. Other, simpler designs were considered in 1971 in the run-up to President Nixon’s final decision; in retrospect, taking a more evolutionary approach by developing one of them instead would probably have been a better choice.


Today we are in danger of repeating that mistake, given Congressional and industry pressure to move rapidly to the development of a heavy lift launch vehicle without a clear sense of how that vehicle will be used.  Important factors in the decision to move forward with the shuttle were the desire to preserve Apollo-era NASA and contractor jobs, and the political impact of program approval on the 1972 presidential election. Similar pressures are influential today. If we learn anything from the space shuttle experience, it should be that making choices with multidecade consequences on such short-term considerations is poor public policy.

And if we’ve learned anything from life in general, it’s that expecting politicians to think further ahead than the next election is a doomed enterprise. For my money, I think space exploration still has a future, but – in the West at least, and particularly the US – that future will be increasingly dominated by private enterprise.

This is a nicely resonant topic for me, as it happens. I spent last weekend in London for the Science Fiction Foundation‘s Masterclass, and one of the topics we tackled was the representation of space exploration in contemporary science fiction texts. The inescapable conclusion (for me, at least) is that space sf is dominated by a sense of nostalgia, but also – especially in what you might refer to as “heartland” sf venues like Analog and Asimov’s, whose readership were around to be inspired by the hollow rhetoric of the Apollo program – there’s a void at its heart.

Old-school space advocates have a tendency to talk about space in terms of glory, accomplishment and a sort of noble and patriotic heroism, a taming of the wild rolling plains… indeed, that whole “final frontier” riff probably sounds even sweeter, after ten misguided years of failed attempts to plant the stars’n’bars on other more mundane frontiers – as far as we know, space has no uppity natives to object to your delivery of democracy and neoliberal corporatist economics, which gives it a blank-slate patina that you can’t get anywhere else.

But therein lies the problem, and – or so I suspect – the reason why the American Dream (Extraterrestrial Edition) has faltered: beyond that noble rhetoric, the Apollo program was an ambitious (and successful) pissing contest with Russia. All the other motivations and ideals were grafted on after the fact, and they’ve all fallen away like burned-out heat-shielding. America still wants to be doing stuff in space, but it doesn’t really know why; the narrative has collapsed, and that’s why there’s no money for it.

Meanwhile, out in the BRIC, growing economies are looking for trophies, boasting rights and… well, new frontiers. The torch wasn’t passed; it’s been snatched by the trailing pack, and it’ll be interesting to see what they do with it. I suspect it’ll turn out that pioneer bravery and Competent Persons will have their own renaissance, and turn out not to be something exclusively American in character after all… but ambition always comes at a price.

There’ll be more stories to tell about space, I feel sure. But I’ll bet my boots that an increasing proportion of ’em won’t be written in English. 🙂


The Singularity is the deus ex machina of the transhumanist narrative

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

The presumably pseudonymous Extropia DaSilva neatly sums up my problems with Kurzweil-branch Singularitarianism (and one of the major reasons I repeatedly identify as a fellow traveller of the transhuman project rather than a card-carrier) over at H+ Magazine; in a nutshell, the Singularity is the ultimate authorial handwave:

The ancient Greeks also gave us the phrase “deus ex machina,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” A deus ex machina makes audiences and readers roll their eyes when they encounter it in a play or a story, and we should likewise roll our eyes when we encounter a deus ex machina being used to resolve all questions regarding the feasibility of achieving transhuman goals within our lifetime. “The Singularity will fix it” is a deus ex machina.

It also turns transhumanism into an infinitely variable explanation. Just like the myth of Demeter, you can continue to believe in the swift and inevitable success of transhuman dreams if you can invoke a godlike power that can fix anything. Hell, you can even posit a total rewrite of the laws of physics, thanks to the Singularity hacking the program that runs the universe. So even if some of our dreams turn out to violate physical laws, there is no reason to abandon faith.

To me, there is something deeply troubling about using the Singularity as a kind of protective barrier against all skepticism regarding the likelihood of achieving transhuman goals within a generation. It is difficult to reason with people who use the Singularity concept in this way, and even harder to have a logical debate with them. They have a deus ex machina to hand that can demolish any argument designed to show that transhuman dreams will not inevitably come true within our lifetime. This kind of reaction takes reasonable, scientific expectations of a brighter future and pushes them dangerously close to being an irrational pseudo-religion. And I find pseudo-religions boring.

I actually find pseudo-religions fascinating, but as subjects rather than objects; indeed, it’s the current schismatic/metastasising phase of transhumanism-as-pop-culture-meme that attracts my interest, far more than the promises of the technology on which it builds. The latter is pure speculation, which has its own intellectual rewards, but the former feels more like a chance for me to observe the way ideas spread and mutate in the antfarm of a networked global society.

(Now that I’ve typed that out, I realise it makes me sound like some sort of cultural peeping-tom. Ah, well. 🙂 )

However, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater here, I think the Singularity has a certain value in its ability to attract attention. From a personal perspective, I would probably never have discovered transhumanism if it weren’t for the rash of science fictional Singularities I encountered over the last decade or so. Compressing the transformative power of technological change (and our convergence with such) into a momentary timeframe makes the underlying point – that we change as our technologies change, and that the relationship is a positive feedback loop – much clearer to the uninitiated.

However, that same temporal compression chimes with the transcendent Final Trumps of apocalyptic religions, and there’s a very frustrating human tendency to read metaphorical truths as literal ones (which I claim no immunity from myself, I might add); explicitly reframing the Singularity as a rhetorical narrative device might make it a slightly more useful thing, but I suspect the real root of the problem is that we all secretly long for something to swoop in and fix everything for us (hence the 90s popularity of the alien intervention narrative – surely an extant intelligence greater than [or perhaps merely different to] our own offers hope of us surviving our imminent civilisational bottlenecks?).The Singularity’s seductiveness lies in its tendency to brush aside unanswerable questions.

I imagine anyone who’s written fiction knows the temptation of the deus ex machina; the only alternative to its deployment is to think hard and rationally about ways to overcome an obstacle. Religions – and their rationality-tinged descendents, like Singularitarianism – are an inevitable by-product of human intellectual laziness.

Transhumanism is a philosophy, but Singularitarianism is a cult.

Narrative warfare: Operation Sockpuppet

Paul Raven @ 18-03-2011

It’s all coming out about Operation Sockpuppet, sorry, Operation Earnest Voice, the Pentagon’s online psyops software grab (which lends a certain level of extra credence to that HuffPo analysis of the HBGary fallout, of which I said at the time ‘my first reaction to reading that piece was “what took them so long?”’ – sometimes being right is no fun at all). I’ll look forward to the concise explanation of how this is totally different to the sort of state espionage upon civilians that goes on in China (which I expect will boil down to “it’s bad because it’s Them doing it”).

But you’ve little cause for alarm, as it’s honestly only going to be used on brown people who speak funny:

Centcom spokesman Commander Bill Speaks said: “The technology supports classified blogging activities on foreign-language websites to enable Centcom to counter violent extremist and enemy propaganda outside the US.”

He said none of the interventions would be in English, as it would be unlawful to “address US audiences” with such technology, and any English-language use of social media by Centcom was always clearly attributed. The languages in which the interventions are conducted include Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Pashto.

Centcom said it was not targeting any US-based web sites, in English or any other language, and specifically said it was not targeting Facebook or Twitter.

Thanks, CentCom; it’s very comforting to take your word for it! Certainly more comforting than, ah, not doing so.

My favourite paragraph from the Guardian piece linked is this one, though (emphasis mine):

This month Petraeus’s successor, General James Mattis, told the same committee that OEV “supports all activities associated with degrading the enemy narrative, including web engagement and web-based product distribution capabilities”.

That’s pretty much an open admission that modern warfare is fought with stories for weapons. Granted, a close reading of history will show you that’s always been the case, but the internet provides unprecedented new opportunities for weaponizing narrative… which means we need to wrestle ownership of the world’s narrative back from those who want to write hackneyed and blood-spattered rise-of-the-Roman-Empire stories over and over again.

Science, science fiction and the real world: some perspectives

Paul Raven @ 23-11-2010

OK, here are three interesting essays about science fiction and its relationship to reality we inhabit. I’ve got a lot of other stuff cluttering up my brain today, so I’ll leave it to you lot to do your own synthesis…

First of all, Roz Kaveney at The Guardian:

One problem with being a long-term reader of science fiction and fantasy is that you get blase about science itself because you have seen it all before. My sense of wonder was overloaded by the time I was 16; I am never going to get that rush again. Even major breakthroughs make me go ‘Whatever!’.


Another part of the problem is that we do, in fact, live in a world that is a collage of a lot of sci fi tropes – but, as the writer Neil Gaiman’s Second Law tells us: “All scientifically possible technology and social change predicted in science fiction will come to pass, but none of it will work properly.” It’s amazing that we have tiny mobile phones with which we can send photographs of masturbating walruses to our friends on the other side of the world, but less fabulous that you lose signal in a five-yard patch on the Hackney Road just as someone is telling you something important. One of the reasons why Dick and Ballard speak to our condition so well is that they saw the future and it was pretty rubbish.

Secondly, Damien Walter, also at The Guardian:

Looking at the television screen, and the surrounding mediasphere, it seems difficult to deny that much of what might once have been real has been displaced by fiction. Fictional conflicts stand at the heart of dramas that help us ignore the truth. Coke and Pepsi have been fighting it out for decades, but if one ever won would we notice that both are just fizzy brown water with sugar in? The neocons are going to save us from the Taliban – or is it the other way round … Every day it’s getting harder to tell one group of religious fundamentalists from another. Kate and Pete and Brad and Jen are in and out of love – but how’s your own marriage doing? The ConDem coalition is squaring off against old New Labour. No one believes this is representative democracy for a second but, gosh darn it, the theatre is so good we just can’t help watching, even while the real power is snatched by corporate actors behind the scenes.


For the last few centuries the realist novel has done little more than find ever more obsessive ways to reflect back at us the comforting fictions we accept as reality, making the contemporary literary novelist merely a second idiot, retelling the tale the first idiot already told. Realist fiction’s unquestioning acceptance of modern life makes it difficult for the contemporary literary novel to find anything resembling the truth when it tackles issues of poverty, race, gender, politics, society or philosophy. The easy cop-out of post-modernist relativism beckons.

If the outer world is flooded with fictions, then perhaps Ballard is right when he claims that “the one small node of reality left to us is inside our own heads”. Maybe our inner world of dreams and imagination offers not merely escape, but our best way of finding truth in the confusing fictional landscape of modern reality.

And thirdly, Athena Andreadis, not at The Guardian:

I could point out that the sense of wonder so extolled in Leaden Era SF contained (un)healthy doses of Manifesty Destiny. But having said that, I’ll add that a true sense of wonder is a real requirement for humans, and not that high up in the hierarchy of needs, either. We don’t do well if we cannot dream the paths before us and, by dreaming, help shape them.

I know this sense of wonder in my marrow.  I felt it when I read off the nucleotides of the human gene I cloned and sequenced by hand. I feel it whenever I see pictures sent by the Voyagers, photos of Sojourner leaving its human-proxy steps on Mars. I feel it whenever they unearth a brittle parchment that might help us decipher Linear A. This burning desire to know, to discover, to explore, drives the astrogators: the scientists, the engineers, the artists, the creators. The real thing is addictive, once you’ve experienced it. And like the extended orgasm it resembles, it cannot be faked unless you do such faking for a living.

This sense of wonder, which I deem as crucial in speculative fiction as basic scientific literacy and good writing, is not tied to nuts and bolts. It’s tied to how we view the world. We can stride out to meet and greet it in all its danger, complexity and glory. Or we can hunker in our bunkers, like Gollum in his dank cave and hiss how those nasty hobbitses stole our preciouss.

What are you thinking?

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