Friday, November 14, 2008

Seldon Crisis

Barack Obama got lucky last week.

What makes it interesting, though, and justifies talking about it in this blog, is the sort of luck he had. Any Democrat with a pulse, and perhaps without, would have won a presidential election six weeks after the worst economic meltdown since the Great Crash. Yet when the financial crisis suddenly altered the political landscape, Obama's campaign troops were already on the ground in states like Indiana and (God help us all!) South Carolina - safely red states, so everyone thought, that would hardly turn blue this side of the Second Coming.

When this kind of luck happens to a general, we call him a genius. Lady Fortune, as old Nick Machiavelli said, is a fickle dame who must be wooed brashly. No one can accuse Barack Obama of being Miles Standish. Since he arrived on the national scene four years ago he has wooed Lady Fortune brashly indeed, and no one can say she hasn't come across for him.

I did not support Obama in the primaries. No serious issues of principle or policy separated the Democratic contenders. Obama's rhetoric, pitched to the reformist/insurgent wing of the Democratic Party, did not especially move me, and I was mainly concerned to have a candidate tough enough to take on the GOP campaign machine, and familiar enough with the DC political machinery to manage it once in office.

Obama ended up proving his political toughness by beating Hillary, which turned out to be much tougher than beating McCain. And in the early going he is showing that he learned from Bill Clinton's early mistakes - and has the shrewdness, wisdom, and confidence to draw on people who went through that experience.

But in some broader, nearly cosmic way this has turned out to be Obama's moment. The chances of history - the twin upheavals of the financial crisis and the election itself - have suspended the usual laws of political physics in Washington. Hillary's greater experience of the old political physics suddenly matters less, and Obama's freedom from identification with yesterday's battles matters more, than I could have imagined a few months ago.

In fact, Obama comes to office in the midst of what feels like a Seldon crisis. The analogy is not perfect, of course. In Asimov's scheme of psychohistory, a Seldon crisis was not a moment of expanding possibilities but of foreclosed ones - when the circumstances of history so converged that the Foundation had only one possible response to the challenges it faced, and so was compelled to take it. Statesmanship, in Asimov's future history, could smooth the transition but not change the new synthesis that emerged.

Real historical transition crises, of course, are not quite like that. (So far as we can tell.) The Reagan era in American history has come an abrupt, dismal, and so far as I am concerned an unlamented end. What follows might be recovery, collapse, or just more muddling along. Obama's opportunities, and risks, are correspondingly greater than those face by Salvor Hardin or Hober Mallow.

No similacrum of Hari Seldon will speak to a crowded room or an empty one to explain the crisis and its solution. Barack Obama will have to figure that out for himself, and history will render its verdict in its usually messy way.

Go to it, Mr. President-Elect!

Read my more formal commentary on the election and transition at the European Courier.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Rix Pix 2008 - General Election

It is finally Election Day (thank God!), and I have already voted. But there is still time before the first bootleg exit poll numbers to give my traditional predictions. Given my dreadful track record on these predictions, I'm tempted to predict a come from behind win for McCain, but I will resist it. So, forthwith:

President Obama ...

53 /45 in the popular vote, and 350 plus electoral votes. I am too lazy to do the state by state tote-up, but a bunch of red states seem set to go for Obama tonight. Conventional wisdom is that the polls tighten at the end, and that the remaining undecideds will break for McCain. But there has been precious little sign of the expected tightening. Obama was sometimes a weak closer in the primaries, but there is even less sign of that. If anything, I would not be surprised if the tsunami builds higher as it hits the shoreline.

Senate ... Dems plus 9, one short of a filibuster-proof margin, but still pretty decisive.

House ... Dems plus 24.

Summary: The ball is in Obama's court to make this a realigning election.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Next Step Foreward

At least for the next couple of decades, the number of people in space at any given time is likely to remain a handful. In the next decade the number of 'Murricans up there at any given time may be in doubt, sad to say. I will bend my rule of avoiding politics here enough to say that it should be no surprise that an administration and party that have screwed up everything they touch on Earth should screw up outer space as well.

Past midcentury we can hope and expect something better than that, but the number of people in space may grow quite gradually through this century. Practical spacelift is likely to remain expensive because it remains near the limit of the practical: We can just do it. Nor is there a practical role - yet - for very many people up there. The ones who do go up there will be much more productive than imagined in the rocketpunk era, a space station crew of ten doing the work that a crew of 100 would have been needed for in rocketpunk.

No tech revolution is needed for substantially cheaper orbit lift. What is needed is traffic demand sufficient to keep a dozen or so fully or mostly reuseable spacecraft, probably two stages to orbit (TSTO), flying on a weekly or at least monthly schedule. That is about the minimim needed for production and operating efficiencies - say, 100-500 launches each year, each one carrying perhaps 5 tons of equipment or 5 passengers to low Earth orbit (LEO). Supposing that 80 percent of launches are freight payloads, total annual traffic to LEO each year is thus in the range of 400-2000 tons and 100-500 people.

This is a lot! Current world demand for orbit lift is less than 100 tons to LEO each year (equivalent to about 20 tons to geosynch orbit), which is why we don't already have a space transportation system like this. No one buys trucks and buses that will run mostly empty. That is why space growth is likely to be gradual - taking off at the critical point at which launch demand justifies economies of scale. At a guess, the transport system outlined above might cost $25 billion per year to operate, corresponding to a lift cost of $5 million per ton or passenger in the early years - compared to some $20 million now - and falling to $1 million per ton/passenger as the transport system matures.

For comparison, the current NASA budget is $17 billion. Supposing that a third to a half of total space spending is on the orbital transport system, about three or four times the NASA budget, from all sources, is needed for a space effort large enough for efficient transportation.

Note that nationalistic competition in space may help in the short run but probably hurt in the long run. On the one hand, nationalist hype fuels budgets, at least for a while. On the other hand, if everyone wants their own orbital transport system, the efficiencies of scale needed for an efficient one get strangled in the crib. This is more or less what happened in the first Space Age, resulting in a burst of progress followed by relative stagnation. A plausible outcome might be two or three launch services worldwide, each run by some bloc or consortium.

Militarization of space, all too plausible a prospect, is a fast trajectory to stagnation. One thing they had most wrong in the rocketpunk era was the presumed high-ground advantage of spaceships against forces on a planetary surface. Spacecraft in low orbit are exceedingly vulnerable to 'ambush' by surface-launched antisatellite missiles (ASATs). These do not need to reach anything like orbital velocity. All they need to do is loft a kinetic target seeker on a suburbital trajectory, so that the spacecraft slams into it. The target's own orbital velocity does the rest. There are countermeasures, but they are expensive and complicated, whereas ASATs are, by space standards, simple and cheap.

War in space, at least between Earth powers, won't be rival interplanetary armadas, it will be waves of ASATS shredding everything in near-Earth space ... and conceivably giving Earth a permanent ring of shrapnel that makes space travel impossible. Orbital shrapnel never fully disperses, or only on a time scale of centuries or longer.

But let us suppose that by c. 2050 an efficient transport system is in place, and perhaps 200 people each year are going into space. We can guesstimate the average number up there at any given time. Half the travellers, say, go up for short stays of about a week - in effect as tourists, even if officially they are 'inspecting.' That means on average just a pair of quasi-tourists in space on a given day. The other half of travellers, however, are going up on longer rotations averaging perhaps six months, so typically there are 50 long-term workers in space at a given time. Perhaps half of them, a couple of dozen, are assigned to a space station; another dozen are on the Moon, the final dozen are aboard one or two interplanetary missions.

By rocketpunk standards this presence is decidedly modest, but it means sending out human interplanetary missions at about the same pace we now send out robotic ones - more or less a mission or two every optimum transfer window. Each will be a comprehensive expedition: That is why you're sending people. Robotic exploration won't cease! In fact the human missions will surely each carry a load of robotic probes as well.

The exploration of Mars will not go the way we imagined it in the rocketpunk era. The crew of the first Mars landing won't be looking down from their orbiting ship, scouting out possible landing points for the first time. They'll be making the final judgment call after decades of robotic exploration that has already begun. Likewise we won't send human missions off at random into the asteroid belt; we will send them to explore bodies already identified as of particular interest.

I've said nothing of deep space industry, because it belongs almost by definition to the next period, when exploration gives way to development. We don't know what those industries might be yet, because we've scarcely begun to explore. But the first such industry is likely to be propellant, by far the largest consumable of space travel. When it is cheaper - including development cost - to crack and tanker oxygen from the Moon to LEO rather than ship it up from the surface at $1 million/ton, we will do so. (Why oxygen? It can be cracked from lunar rocks, and accounts for most of the mass of hydrogen-oxygen rocket fuel.)

Who will pay for all this, and why? I'll talk about that next post.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Farewell to Rocketpunk?

No, not to this blog; in spite of my failure to update it for though all of August, it is staying right here. Nevertheless time, which keeps everything from happening all at once, does march on, and in the fifteen months or so since I launched it, Rocketpunk Manifesto has evolved along with my thinking about space, into something rather different from what I originally conceived. The term 'rocketpunk' was coined, by analogy to steampunk, to denote a style of retro-SF that evokes science fiction of the mid-20th century, especially the first hard SF, a la Clarke and Heinlein, the Willy Ley / Chesley Bonestall illustrations, and so forth.

I am not aware that any such rocketpunk has actually been written, beyond a pair of very short snippets here. It is a bit problematic to write, because the 1950 era is not yet quite remote enough to be quaint the way the turn of the last century is. There are no aether ships in rocketpunk - instead it has shuttles and space stations resembling more-developed versions of the real thing. (Until you find out that the ship's computer takes up a whole compartment, requires binary input/output, and has rather less power than my trusty old HP-10C calculator.)

Since I started this blog, I have found myself more often than not using 'rocketpunk' to denote the original item, or the whole period in SF just prior to the space age, the 'rocketpunk era.' More to the point, however, I have started to rethink our actual future in space. Over the years I had become something of a space pessimist, at least as regards human spaceflight. It is expensive and likely to remain so for a considerable time to come. People involved in the very successful program of robotic interplanetary exploration have a legitimate complaint that human spaceflight is a budget eater, and in recent decades its tragedies have been more spectacular than its triumphs.

Underlying this skepticism, however, was a vague sense that if we couldn't have all the Cool Stuff we expected in the rocketpunk era and the first decade of the space age, then the whole thing was an anticlimax and scarcely worth doing at all. This, on belated second thought, is a somewhat blinkered perspective. The value and potential of human space exploration does not and certainly should not hinge on whether it leads to a future that resembles stories that Heinlein wrote fifty or sixty years ago. That would be roughly comparable to saying that archeology is a wasted effort because it does not resemble Indiana Jones movies.

So what might we expect from and in space in the midfuture? This is the period extending roughly from 2050 to 2200 - starting, that is, a technological and policy generation or two beyond the present, and extending about as far as we can extrapolate without getting lost in a speculative haze. Not by coincidence it is roughly the period in which much of the original rocketpunk was set.

To start with, however - and continuing the theme of the last post - one thing that will probably not happen is space colonization, at least in anything like the classical form we're all familiar with from rocketpunk-era science fiction. Space colonization, at least in American SF, was the ultimate Bat Durston: a recapitulation of the American frontier experience, often culminating in a repeat of the American Revolution in space. The appeal of this is obvious. (At least to those of us in the US; elsewhere in the Anglosphere, including the Great North and especially the Scepter'd Isle, you might understandably have another perspective.)

Heinlein was the great offender here, and perhaps no surprise, since he was only about a generation removed from the 'closing of the frontier' in the United States. Heinlein's Solar System was retro even for the 1950s era, with its habitable Venus and semi-habitable Mars - though in Farmer in the Sky he had Ganymede* being terraformed and settled by, well, farmers. But in the course of the 20th century the impulse toward homesteading has pretty much disappeared. Although immigration to the US is at a historic high, the immigrants no longer come to claim forty acres and a mule. They come to find work in an existing complex economy. Farming is just about the last reason for going into space.

People will go into space to work; in time, if going there becomes cheap enough, they will go there on vacation. Neither calls for colonies as such. If a research station on or orbiting Mars (or wherever) grows large enough, a sort of college town might take form around it. (Though this has not happened yet in Antarctica.) Any such development is likely to be gradual and ambiguous. Some people might retire there, if they can clear the economic and administrative hurtles.

Having and raising children off Earth is much more problematic. A space station or base is not a particularly good place to have kids running around - as Ken Burnside puts it, children are highly efficient entropy generators. Even more serious is the question of whether children raised off-Earth could later adapt to Earth gravity. (Any space structure intended for really long-term habitation will need to be spun, but probably at a good deal less than 1 g.) It is fine to say that the children of thriving space communities might not even wish to visit Earth, but there's a bootstrapping problem, because the first space communities will be more nearly outposts. So, for a good long time to come, pregnant women will probably be bundled back to Earth. The time constraints of interplanetary travel mean that some children in the midfuture will likely be born in space, but the sooner they adapt to Earth gravity the better.

Through the midfuture, then, there is likely to be nothing much resembling colonization, or any true permanent space population, any more than there is in Antarctica. If you were raised on rocketpunk-era SF, as I was, this thought is probably vaguely depressing, but there is no reason it should be. We have traveled the seas for thousands of years; the sea has played a central role in many cultures, and it has been a setting for adventure since before the Argo - all without permanent sea-living populations growing up, all without more than a relative handful of people being born at sea, and with no sea-living population ever developing. There is no essential reason why space should be any different, just because no habitable islands are in reach of foreseeable technology.

* Ganymede lies within the intense Jovian radiation belts, making it difficult even to visit, and it also seems to be the least interesting of Jupiter's larger moons. The outer big moons, Callisto and especially Europa, now seem to have more of a future. One more way that the real Solar System differs from the old rocketpunk version.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

T Plus 39 and Counting ...

As of today, 39 years have passed since the first human set foot on the Moon - and more than 35 years since the last human set foot there. This last fact is more than slightly dismaying, with its lurking hint that the appropriate analogy may be not Columbus but Leif Erickson. According to a surely apocryphal story, some Norwegian-Americans once raised a ruckus at a Columbus Day celebration in New York City, leading a local Italian-American pol to observe that 'when Columbus discovered America, it stayed discovered.' So far, the Moon has not stayed explored.

We are scheduled to go back by 2020 or so - I'm not sure of the exact timetable, and both the proposed technology and the level of commitment are more than a bit doubtful. Is anyone really backing it apart from the human-spaceflight shop at NASA, and the contractors who hope to build the hardware? And, to step toward the heretical, should we go back?

There is a non-trivial argument to be made that human spaceflight - as opposed to robotic exploration - is an idea whose time came and went. In the rocketpunk era no one dreamed of anything else; by oddest of irony the technology of robotic space exploration is itself a product of the space age. In Heinlein's Space Patrol, published in 1948, the first human mission to Venus crash-lands there in 1971 - and it is indirectly but pretty clearly implied that no robotic probe preceded it. In the real space age, Mariner 2 made its flyby of Venus in 1962, revealing Venus for the Dantesque hell it is, with no swamps and certainly no Venusians. Even in the space community, no one now imagines us ever exploring Venus other than robotically; it just isn't worth going there in person.

On the other hand, for really serious research work nearby human supervision is more convenient than managing everything from a distance. I put it in that rather weaselly way for a reason. Robots, at least in any form we can readily foresee, are tools - not substitutes for human intelligence, but extensions of it. Carrying out complex operations on or near Mars, when Mission Control is between six and thirty minutes away due to round trip light lag, sooner or later becomes wretchedly awkward. Put another way, even from a pure green eyeshades perspective a point will be reached where it is cheaper to send some humans who can work in real time, instead of planning every move minutes ahead or programming in advance against every contingency.

Stepping back, our progress in space seems disappointing largely because the rocketpunk era and the opening years of the space age set us up to expect too much too quickly. Rocketpunk writers - especially Heinlein - greatly underestimated the complexity of spaceflight, and therefore its cost. Their mistake was concealed for a decade by the giga budgets of the Space Race. Contrary to what Heinlein, especially, might have imagined, government can do astonishing things if it throws enough money at a problem, and we threw enough at the Moon to get there in less than a decade.

Clarke made more conservative assumptions than Heinlein did. In his novel Prelude to Space (1951) he pegs the first human suborbital flight to about 1960, close to the mark, but the first orbital mission is a decade later, and I seem to recall that in one of his short stories the first lunar expedition - admittedly a big one, departing from a space station - is in 1990. The Space Race compressed the early rounds. Absent the big political push to be first on the moon, we might well be just about where we are now, but with a sense of steady progress rather than triumph followed by anticlimax.

Thanks to the robotic program we have made a more thorough preliminary reconnaissance of the Solar System than even Heinlein might have imagined by this early date. The Shuttle has been a genuine disappointment, though for reasons ultimately more political than technical - the designers did their best, but could not overcome the excessive requirements forced on them in the early 1970s. Yet we have a space station, with a crew continually on board since 2000. It is not the classic bike wheel design (absence of artificial gravity, alas, making for some very unhappy toilet conditions), and it has a much smaller crew than rocketpunk space stations did. This is the real face of automation - 'manning ratios' are much lower than imagined in the rocketpunk era, largely because no one is replacing burned-out vacuum tubes, let alone peeling potatoes in the galley.

As for the future, the rocketpunk Solar System is gone forever, a victim of space exploration. In the next few posts, I'll speculate a bit on what the human presence in the real Solar System might look like in the course of this century and the next.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Fires This Time

California is burning, or a respectable fraction of it is. This is not terribly unusual, nor any immediate cause for alarm - unless, of course, you live in the path of a fire, which we happily do not. (The nearest fires are some 100 km away.) As in much of western North America, wildfire is a necessary part of the California brushland ecosystem; some seeds will not germinate until burst by the heat of a fire. Indeed, our worst fires are often due to having put out too many fires in decades past. Nothing makes for a really impressive wildfire like a canyon full of chaparral that has gone unburned for a hundred years, when left to itself the brush would have been been thinned out by half a dozen fires over the decades.

California's worst fires usually come later in the season - sometimes, with nature's cruelty, just a week or two before the first fall storms, which then bring only mudslides and flash flooding. Such is life in earthly paradise. This fire season is notable, so far, only for coming early, in June and July, thanks to little spring rain and a spell of unseasonably hot weather. Fluky weather happens, and it used to be merely fluky - a rare but ultimately 'normal' variation in the usual weather patterns. Now, however, every hot spell or strong hurricane raises a lurking question in our collective mind: Is this a harbinger of global warming?

Strictly speaking no such correlation is possible. Global warming (or, to be more precise, 'global climate change') did not cause Katrina, or the latest California heat wave. The most we can say is that if you heat up the planet, tropical oceans will spawn more storms, and California will get more heat waves. Nevertheless it is impossible not to wonder if weather patterns that were unusual in the past will be the new usual. Or, indeed, if 'usual' is a meaningful term for a planet that may be shifting from one climatic regime to another.

This is not a screed about global warming. The evidence for anthropogenic climate change is fairly decisive, but I have only casual knowledge of the relevant disciplines, and life on the frontiers of science is far more complex than the media and political worlds care to admit. One thing the global warming issue should put to rest, however, is any doubt concerning the value of space exploration. Before global warming was a policy imperative, or even a political debate, it was a research problem in planetary science.

In the old rocketpunk days, there was a standard scene involving first-time space travellers. After main engines shutdown the passengers unstrap, flail their way through the cabin to the nearest viewport - and, invariable, look first not toward wherever they are going, but back at the Earth they have just left. We as a civilization have done exactly that, and have duly discovered that Earth really is a planet.

If you doubt this, just look at any portrayal of the Earth, as seen from space, before we actually went there and looked at it. In old movies and book illustrations the Earth resembles a globe - continents and oceans, with a few puffy decorative clouds as a nod to the atmosphere. Real Earth does not look like that. It is deep blue and white, in sworling patterns, with the land surface surprisingly inconspicuous - most often a stretch of tan desert. If you spend long enough in high orbit, from time to time you'll get a picture perfect view of the whole Indian subcontinent, or some other striking visual feature, but rarely if ever will it look like a globe.

In short, we did not even know what our homeworld looks like until we left it. (Imaginative views of other earthlike planets still follow the old convention, for a simple reason - if portrayed realistically, most would be more or less indistinguishable from Earth, spoiling the effect.)

It is a cliché - but a profoundly important one - that the most important astronomical body we have discovered by going into space is Earth. This is one of the many things Arthur C. Clarke got right, though perhaps not in a way even he would have imagined. On a scientific level we could not understand Earth's atmosphere till we compared it to other planetary atmospheres. On a human level the most significant image of the 20th century may be the iconic view of Earth above a moonscape. No graduate degree is needed to grasp the contrast between Earth and its orbital companion.

If you are reading this blog, probably none of this is news to you, and you probably don't need to be persuaded that space exploration is worthwhile. But in the geocentric world of politics and public policy, it is something that we need to keep beating over the heads of our decision makers. We may or may not find directly remunerative things to do in space in this century or the next, but space exploration has already paid for itself, many times over.

Housekeeping note: Following a jailhouse interview, Philonikos the Sophist was last seen going into a swanky Ares Hill dinner party. Since Socrates the son of Xanthippus did not show up, Philonikos will find himself the worst-dressed person present. Much more alarming, he is already 4000 words in, and the important murder hasn't even taken place yet. Which means that a short story is pretty well out of the question.

Novels happen. What can you do about it?

Monday, June 9, 2008

An Unscheduled Visit to Athens

A comment thread at Bernita's inspired me to this digression, and what is the use of a blog if you can't have digressions like this. Correct or probable use of historical names here is not guaranteed; I just reached into a grab bag or made names up, though Pericles is intended as the famous politician. Our protagonist is Philonikos the Sophist. We join in medias res, as they say in old style lit crit, since I haven't written a beginning.

As said in Bernita's comment thread, I also have to come up with a plot, since mystery readers sort of expect one.

Death is an Oligarchy

Pericles got right to the point. "Laomedes, the son of Aphon, was killed last night."

"Bad news for people who hire out flute girls," I said. Bad news for Spartan sympathizers, too, but Pericles didn't need me to tell him that. Probably not about the flute girls, either. "What happened, and who by? Or is that what needs finding out?"

He shook his head. "We have him, young man named Thrasymachos, apparently Laomedes' ephebe. They got in a heated argument at a dinner party, and the lad pulled a knife. The Scythians brought him in without difficulty."

Not a very complicated case. "Whose modest little house was the party at?"

Pericles studied the light dancing in his cup. "Kritias'. Assume the regular guest list and you won't go very wrong. Everyone there was an eyewitness, unless they had sneaked off to a storeroom, or the women's side."

The women's side where I grew up was the curtain my mother and sisters got dressed behind. "Why this sudden interest in the tangled love lives of the Ares Hill set?" I asked him. "You didn't send across town for me because some rich guy got his boyfriend upset."

"That's what I'd like you to look into," he said. Pericles is Ares Hill himself, with ancestors who fought at Troy. Mine did too, but stayed sensibly back out of trouble. "I'm not advancing a public prosecution," he said. "Laomedes' family will press charges, a jury will convict the boy in their sleep, and he'll drink his hemlock. The law of the Athenian people says case closed."

I thought about it for a moment. "You want me to help the kid talk his way out of it?" A bloody knife and matching dead body convince most jurors. Extenuating circumstances, including outright acquittal, are whatever sob story makes Athenians weep their way to dropping a white stone in the verdict box.

"I want you to keep the weather hot around Kritias' house," he said, "even after the sea breeze kicks in. I asked you here as a citizen, Philonikos, not in my official capacity as a general. You've spoken up once or twice in the Assembly, not as a great admirer of the Spartans."

"It depends," I told him. "I'm a great admirer of Spartan women." The town is a dump, the men only good at lining up behind spears, and much too good at that. Still the most beautiful city in the world. I shrugged. "Their women aren't the ones poking spears in other peoples' business."

"You have excellent taste and judgment, Philonikos. That is why I pay your excessive rates."

My rates till the next Olympic Games would pay a months' rent on Pericles' house, and wouldn't get me an afternoon with Aspasia. "So," I said, "you want me to pull on threads and see if something unravels, right?"

Pericles nodded. "More or less, yes."

"My rates just went up. If I'm going to circulate on Ares Hill, I'll need one of those pretty gold grasshopper pins, or at least a clean bedsheet to pin it on. The doormen won't let me in wearing this one." I'd need a new mouth, too, because the one I've got says things they don't like on Ares Hill.

"Philonikos, you show up at plenty of parties whether anyone invited you or not, and whenever I've seen you you were dressed. If they won't let you in, slide in behind that girlfriend of yours. Your regular rate, not an obol more."

I had tried. "So that's it? Find out how the Spartans are mixed up with lovers' quarrels on Ares Hill. I'm on it." I finished off my cup and fishcake, and left. No sign of Aspasia anywhere.


It was close to midday, and no one was in the streets. Athenians, except me, are smarter than that. All I had got for my morning's effort was my standard rate, four drachmas a day – payable, apparently, till everyone finally grabs spears all over Hellas. Then Pericles will fire me and spend the money on a trireme.

I kept to the shady side, such as it was, and made my way to that girlfriend of mine's house. Her doorman let me in and announced me. Kalliphryni's lovely voice floated from behind a screen. "Go away, Niko."

"Your enthusiasm overwhelms me."

"Do you know what time of day it is? It's too hot for enthusiasm. If you need to hide from someone, burrow back into the laundry. I'm not letting you under my bed."

It was too hot to be clever. "I need to talk to you, Kalli. Did you know Laomedes, Aphon's son?"

Silence for a moment. "Did?" asked the voice behind the screen. More silence, this time ominous. "I see," she said. "Some rich asshole is dead, and instead of resting up to be divinely beautiful tonight, I'm supposed to tell you everyone who wanted him that way."

"What use is your divine beauty tonight?" I asked her. Tonight was reserved for one of her rich official boyfriends. Kalliphryni lacks moral fiber. Her tragic flaw is fine linen dresses, with tasteful gold pins to hold them in place. She also likes food and a roof.

"You should appreciate just knowing that divine beauty exists," she said. She reached for a tragic dress on a hook, revealing the head and shoulder of a mere demigoddess. "What use was Laomedes any night? I have no idea who killed him, or why I should care."

"Oh, we know who did it," I said. "His ephebe."

"Then the motive won't be complicated," said Kalli. "He done him wrong, or the other way around. You're getting paid for that? If I hadn't been born a girl, I could be a sophist too."

"You were born a barbarian, unable to speak. I haven't heard that stop you." The gods wasted a lot of either brains or beauty on Kalliphryni. She comes from some place off west beyond Greater Hellas, and strictly speaking she is a barbarian. Her native language sounds more like bum-bum-bum than bar-bar-bar, except that from her lips it sounds more like Sappho.

She stepped out, still adjusting a dress pin. Her dress was strong on air and water, hardly any earth; add your own fire. She looked great through it. "Laomedes, son of Aphon," she said. "He goes to – went to – all the best parties, and held tacky but very expensive ones himself. Had hands all over any woman in sight, including me till I kneed him where it hurts."

"Good," I told her. Women where Kalli comes from do things like that. Just because they're barbarians doen't make them stupid.

She poured cups, handed me one, melted onto the far end of the couch. "So he was all over some poor girl," she said, "and the boyfriend got jealous. At a party, right? Patricians are the same everywhere, except back home, only girls like me get mixed up with nasty boys."

"Because your men are all blockhead farmers," I told her. "You say it yourself all the time. Even if you have a barbarian word for oligarchs." It is the only repeatable word she has taught me. "What else should I know about the late lamented Laomedes?" I asked her.

"No one will be lamenting him very much," she said. "Only the mourners, and his brother won't hire many. I take it back, lots of people will lament. Brother Ari is the sensible one in that family. He doesn't do the party circuit. Ari's thing is racehorses, and naturally real estate. So a lovely golden spring has gone dry, never to flow again."

Kalli may hail from northwest of nowhere, but her real, barbarian name, Cornelia, means 'My family used to have Zeus over for dinner.' Barbarian women can be rich – sail to Phoenicia and see – but who ever knew they could be upper class? "Racehorses?" I asked. "The kind with four legs or two?"

Kalli looked at me over her winecup. "The gentlemen are the racehorses," she said. "We only go along for the ride. Ari likes to do the riding, on real horses." She sat partway up. "There's your clever Athenian motive. The horse dealers got Adonis drunk on jealousy, so Ari would inherit and they'd move more bloodstock."

"Adonis?" I asked. Kalliphryni doesn't make jokes about gods.

She got her special Kalli look. "Philonikos the Sophist, smartest guy in Athens, at least the smartest with reasonable rates, finally asks me about the murderer." She sat right up. "Of course Thrasymachos is Adonis. I thought everyone knew that. For a sophisticated Athenian, Niko, you need to get out more."

"I can hardly afford not affording you," I told her. "Adonis is way out of my budget, and I sure won't get him on my looks." Kalli is not really my girlfriend, needless to say. Every basket in the Liars' Market finds its natural price, and Kalliphryni's is not payable in cash, only gifts. My smart mouth earns me an off hour now and then. "Tell me about him."

"Thrasymachos is the gods' special gift to women," she said, "also men. Donkeys, you'll have to ask them." Kalli sat facing her bedroom. "I know girls who would drink his hemlock for him. I'll hand them the cup, but promise I'll save some for him, too."

She finished off her own cup and refilled us both. Her stuff tastes much better than hemlock. "He wants to be king of Athens," she said. "So far he's the king prick." She laughed, cut it off. "He sort of likes me, calls me his little barbarian oligarch. Hemlock? He'd be crushed if he knew, but if it were up to me you'd execute him the way we do it at home."

Thrasymachos might like Kalliphryni, but she really, truly did not like him. I must have raised my eyebrow enough to notice, because she nodded. "He calls me a lady, but he treats ladies like shit, too. I could tell you the details, but they're merely unpleasant, not dramatic."

"Then tell me about his politics," I said. That was why Pericles hired me. "You must have talked politics with him." Thrasymachos might be a jerk, but he was a sharp kid who paid plenty attention. Little barbarian oligarch? Most guys are not politically conscious around Kalli.

"Maybe we just talked family," she said. "Women only have political opinions in comedies, remember?"

"Shut up. We don't let women in the Assembly because it would never adjourn, just argue until everyone starved to death. What's it to you anyway? You're a foreigner." I held up my cup like a toast, and finished it off. "Of course you talked family. I suppose you at least liked his politics, since you're both Ares Hill. Oligarchs everywhere flock to the same branch."

Kalli mixed and poured us both another cup. "Someday I'll have to learn the Greek word for aristocrat," she said, "and teach it to you. No, I don't like his politics."

"He sides up with the democracy? An Ares Hill beautiful boy? That's unusual." Not half as unusual as a barbarian girl with political opinions. Even reactionary ones.

"Democracy? Gods, no," she said. "That's your bad idea, not his. Like I said, he wants to be king. Not the guy they tag here to lead sacrifices each year. A real king type king." She shrugged, then struck her Athena pose. "So especially if he killed someone, nail him up there."

Kalli has an issue with kings. When her grandpa was a boy, she says, the old hometown gave theirs the boot. Perhaps that makes them honorary Hellenes.

She got up. "Niko, it is way too hot to talk politics, or even think about Adonis. I'm going back to bed. Settle anywhere you wish, so long as you're out of here by sunset." She put down her cup and flicked off her dress pins. The dress clung like a desperate sailor for a moment, then slipped under the waves and drowned. She headed back behind her screen.

Kalli had said to settle down anywhere, so I followed. The most beautiful city in the world is not Sparta. It is a western town called Roma, where all three of her sisters still live, along with a bunch of her cousins.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

On Gossamer Wings

Solar-electric deep space drive engines, according to Isaac Kuo at sfconsim-l, may soon achieve a power output density of about 400 watts per kilogram, when operating near Earth distance from the Sun. If you do not see what this sort of technical information could possibly have to do with so lovely an image as gossamer wings, you probably reached this blog by accident, have no poetry in you, or both.

What makes it potentially relevant as well as beautiful is that 400 watts/kg is in hailing distance of the 1 kw/kg that Isaac and I independently chose as a benchmark for nuclear-electric drive, and generally as needed for relatively fast interplanetary travel. A spacecraft using solar electric drive can thus reach the same interplanetary speeds as its cousin, though it will take somewhat longer to reach cruising speed, and somewhat longer to slow down. It is a fair prospect that with a few decades' further progress, by the time we're actually building interplanetary ships the performance of the two drives will be comparable.

This is a big deal, because solar-electric space drive is technically and operationally elegant, while nuclear-anything drive, and especially nuclear-electric drive, is not. A solar electric drive has almost no moving parts. A nuclear-electric drive has lots of complex internal plumbing to draw energy from the reactor and incidentally keep it from melting. This plumbing operates under very nasty conditions, radioactivity being nothing to sheer high temperatures.

Plumbing is a big part of what makes spaceships so expensive, because it is complicated, full of parts that can jam, and as there is never a plumber around when you need one, it has to work perfectly for months at a time. (Even if you have a plumber in the crew, taking a nuclear reactor apart en route is a pain.) Robinson's Second Law: For each gram of physics handwavium in futuristic space tech, expect about a ton of plumbing handwavium.

Nuclear drives are also full of nasty fissionable stuff, tricky and dangerous to work with, requiring heavy shielding to get anywhere near (and radiation goes a long ways in space), requiring extreme security measures in handling and storage, and socially uncomfortable no matter how careful your procedures are.

In short, anything that gets rid of nuclear reactors in space is a huge plus on every level of operation, from spacecraft construction and maintenance to obtaining funding. Solar electric drive with comparable performance banishes nuclear reactors from the inner Solar System. You don't need them for travel, and you certainly don't need them for anything else, because one thing the inner Solar System has an ample and endless supply of is sunshine. Those skies are never cloudy all day.

Solar electric power does gasp for air, or for sunshine, as you move outward from the Sun. At Mars, thrust is about half as much as near Earth. In the asteroid belt it is about a fifth to a tenth, at Jupiter one twenty-fifth, at Saturn one percent. To give this some context, a one-milligee drive, baseline performance near Earth, nudges a ship along at about 1 km/s per day, reaching orbital transfer speeds in a week or two. At Jupiter, the drive delivers some 40 microgees, and a ship puts on about 1 km/s per month, thus the better part of a year for orbital transfer burns.

The time lost due to sluggish acceleration is only half as much, some six months, and a Jupiter mission would likely be upwards of a year each way even for a nuke-electric ship. So until we have regular bus service to Jupiter, the time cost is not dreadful. The inner Solar System, through the asteroid belt, can be efficiently traveled by solar-electric drive, which ought to hold us through this century and into the next.

Of course nuclear-electric ships can be built, but Isaac also pointed out a subtle effect that could sideline them. Over the decades to come we will build solar-electric probes, and later ships, steadily developing the technology, while nuke-electric remains a paper tech, falling further and further behind. A serious advance into the outer system will require a faster drive in any case - by that time perhaps a fusion drive, which can still be two orders of magnitude below the magical performance level of a 'torch.'

Let's mentally sketch-design a solar electric ship. Departure mass with full propellant load is 400 tons, broken down as follows:

Payload, 100 tons
Structures and fitting, 50 tons
Drive engine, 100 tons
Propellant, 150 tons

The drive engine we make an advanced one, meeting the baseline standard of 1 kw/kg. Thus rated drive power is 100 megawatts. If the exhaust velocity is 50 km/s (specific impulse ~5000 seconds), 80 grams of propellant is shot out the back each second. Thrust is 4000 Newtons, about 1000 lbs, giving our ship the intended 1 milligee acceleration at full load. Mass ratio is 1.6, so total ship delta v available on departure is 23.5 km/s, enough for a pretty fast orbit to Mars.

We could 'overload' this ship with a much bigger payload, another 400 tons (thus 500 tons total payload). Max acceleration falls to half a milligee, and mission delta v to 10 km/s - still ample for the Hohmann trip to Mars, for slow freight service. Since we want to go there ourselves, we will stick with the faster version and configure it as a passenger ship. Each passenger/crewmember requires cabin space, fittings, life support equipment, provisions and supplies for the trip, plus the mass of the passenger and baggage - in all, say, about 3 tons per person, so our ship carries some 30-35 passengers and crew.

The cabin structure of this ship might be about the size of a 747 fuselage, divided into berthing compartments or roomettes, diner/lounge area, galley, storage spaces, and life support plant. If the propellant is hydrogen, the tankage will be about the same size; if other stuff is used, the tankage will be smaller. All in all, the hull portion of our ship is comparable in size and mass to a jumbo jet. As space liners go this is a modest-sized one, as its modest passenger/crew capacity shows.

Now, finally, the gossamer wings part. We accounted for the mass of the drive engine, including solar collectors, but have not yet looked at the physical size of the solar panals. They are big. Big. If we assume that about 35 percent of the sunlight that hits them is converted into thrust power, they capture some 500 watts per square meter at 1 AU - meaning that for a 100 megawatt drive you need 200,000 square meters of solar panels, a fifth of a square kilometer.

This trim little interplanetary liner is physically enormous, or at least its solar wings are. The 'wingspan' might well be one kilometer, 'wing chord' then being 200 meters. In sheer size our ship is much bigger than any vehicle ever built (though freight trains can be up to about 2 km long).

Angular, squared-off, an instrument of technology - but how can this ship be anything but a thing of beauty, an immense gleaming-black butterfly? If that is too fluttery, say a dragonfly, or to be prosaic an equally immense gleaming-black kite. Indeed the prototype configuration is much like a box kite, likely for later versions as well.

Something is magical about such ships and travel aboard them. The drive thrust and power performance is the same as for a nuke-thermal ship, but now the milligee acceleration feels appropriately gentle, not merely weak, as our ship glides from world to world on its great sun-wings. (This is not, however, solar sailing, but a sun-powered 'steamship.')

The modest capacity of this immense little ship adds to the charm. With only about 35 passengers and crew this is no tawdry impersonal cruise ship. It all has somewhat the flavor of airship travel as we imagine it - perhaps encouraged by the zeppelin-like proportions of the vehicle, the gondola dwarfed by the feather-light structure that carries it. In early decades the ship will be much more utilitarian, a transport rather than a liner - don't ring for the steward; it's your turn in the galley. But if we go to the planets we will eventually go in liners.

The scenery out the viewports* won't change much after the first week or so spiraling out from Earth. (In fact you probably ride a connecting bus up through the Van Allen belts.) By then it is time for reading, cards, conversation, and flirting, till Mars looms close and the ship begins its long graceful swoop down to parking orbit.

Bon voyage!

* I disagree with Winch. All but the most utilitarian spaceships will have a few viewports, because while there is often nothing to see, when there is it is breathtaking. And fundamentally, why else are we going into space?

Monday, May 26, 2008


Just to say again (alas!) that a soldier's sacrifice is not measured by the commanding officer's judgment or competence.

Memorial Day, 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008


The Phoenix probe sneaked up on me - I had only the vaguest notion that another Mars mission was closing in.

Perhaps it sneaked up on Mars too, because the Red Planet, though a popular fave, does not seem to like us very much. Mars, so far as I can recall, has swallowed up a larger proportion of the missions sent there than any other major body in the Solar System. It has continued to do so even to modern times, including the feet-and-meters folly that lost the Mars Climate Orbiter a decade ago. The old war god even knows how to screw with our heads.

Following a theme from last post, though, aren't Mars and Venus misnamed? Just as Saturn ought to be Juno with her royal diadem, let Sol II be Mars. War is hell, and so is it, with its broiler-hot surface temperature, ultradense CO2 atmosphere, and oh yes, endless sulfuric acid rain. The fourth planet can then be Venus - an endlessly fascinating tease and the most popular girl in class, but treating her terrestrial suitors with dismissive contempt. Quit probing me, jerks!

I'll stop before I get in more trouble, but hats off to Phoenix! Now, apparently, we're actually up to 50-50 on Mars missions. Maybe she's lightening up on us a bit.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Let's Get Around

Moving right along from the 16th century (not good smoke signal, kemosabe), let's put world building aside for the moment to discuss getting around the dozen or so worlds that are in easy reach, for various values of world and generous but not completely outrageous values of easy reach. In other words good old plausible interplanetary space travel, which oddly enough was the major background preoccupation of the true, original rocketpunk. Given that subject, here is the inevitable general reference to Winch Chung's Atomic Rockets site.

First of all, where do we want to go? The tourist guide book has grown enormously in richness and detail since the 1950s, but not much in overall layout. The big loss is Venus. No jungles or tropical world-sea, and certainly neither variety of Heinlein Venusians, the little people in most of his early books or the dragons from Between Planets. Real Venus turns out to be so absurdly Dantesque that it's become like the giant planets; you don't even think of landing there.

Mercury is kind of cool - well, maybe that is not the word I was looking for; let's say interesting, but with a very rugged climate.

The Moon, except that it is more eroded-looking than the old Chesley Bonestall Moon, is pretty much what it always has been: the most common sort of real estate in the universe, pretty worthless except that it is close to a couple of critical freeway junctions.

Mars? We almost lost Mars in 1964, and any native Martian civilization has gone the way of Dejah Thoris, but when all is said and done, real Mars is still the essential rocketpunk Mars. It looks like rocketpunk Mars, which is to to say it looks like the American Southwest, only more so. As far as we can tell, liquid water still occasionally flows there. How can Mars still be anything but the leading attraction, the interplanetary trip you make if you can only make one?

The asteroids. Ceres Juno gets some spiff as a dwarf planet, Pluto's boo-hooey loss her gain. The old asteroid mining mother lode may be played out, except for eventual industries serving deep space customers. My argument here, one of my favorite heresies along with Pelagianism, is that any assumptions about Earth-to-orbit launch cost that make it cheap enough for large numbers of people to go up there also make it cheap enough to send up food, structural fabrications, and so on, at least to destinations in near-Earth space, rather than building a vast industrial infrastructure in the asteroid belt and shipping stuff back.

That said, the asteroid belt is surely full of surprises, and relatively easy to get at - the smaller ones, which are most of them, you can orbit at walking to freeway speed, or even just pull up alongside.

Jupiter's moons, big and small, are way beyond anything we used to imagine, but the big ones are all fairly deep in Jupiter's very nasty radiation belts, which could limit their mass tourism appeal. Saturn's moons also have much new coolness, and probably less radiation. The rings, what can you say? They're the crown jewel of the Solar System and have been since they were discovered, but no one dreamed of their full beauty and complexity till we got close-ups. Shouldn't this gorgeously bedecked planet really have been Juno, empress of the heavens?

Alas, the rings of Saturn are probably murder to drive through, no matter how carefully you try.

Past Saturn we've only scouted a bit, but when we lost Pluto we gained the Kuiper Belt - in fact, we lost Pluto as a "real" planet because we gained the Kuiper Belt. Thanks to Eris, the (partly) known Solar System now extends nearly 100 AU from the sun - the AU, or astronomical unit, equal to the Earth-Sun distance, being the standard tourist measurement used to avoiding having to pack so many zeros with our bags.

In very round numbers, Mercury and Venus are a third and two-thirds of an AU from the Sun, Earth (shock!) one AU, Mars about one and a half AU, the asteroids mostly 2-4 AU, and that is the inner Solar System. Jupiter is near 5 AU, Saturn 10 AU, Uranus 20 AU, Neptune 30 AU, and then the Kuiper Belt.

All of these tourist paradises go around the Sun (or around something that goes around the Sun), and pretty fast toward the center. Mercury books along at around 50 km/s and orbits in a third of a year, Earth at 30 km/s making it in a year, you'll be glad to know, while objects in the outer reaches of the Kuiper Belt, 100 AU from the Sun, mosey along at around 3 km/s (about 6000 mph, a mere crawl), and take a thousand years to make it around the track.

Astronomy 101, yes - consider it a tourist refresher. For travel purposes a pretty good way to visualize it all is as a vast whirlpool. Interplanetary ships - and their destinations - do not travel through empty "flat" space, they travel through the Sun's gravitational whirlpool and are swept along with it. Ships can't just go with the flow, however - if they did, they'd just go round and round and never get anywhere, because they' be in nearly the same orbit as the planet they left.

To get anywhere you have to cut across the flow of the solar gravitational whirlpool, and to get anywhere quickly you have to cut across it pretty sharply, on a "steep" orbit. Cutting across the flow at all takes fuel, or technically propellant. (Some kind of rocket engine is also helpful.) Cutting across it sharply takes lots of fuel, or else an engine with great gas mileage, for which the rocket science jargon is specific impulse.

All of this makes interplanetary navigation endless fun, at least if you're very good at math or have access to nifty software. But let's start with a general question - how long does it take to get around this Solar System of ours?

By way of gross simplification, forget the whole solar gravitational whirlpool and just think of speed and distance the old fashioned flat way. A chemical fuel rocket engine of the kind we've been using for 50 years, with ample fuel tankage, will send you off into the empyrean at about 5 km/s. To slow down again you'll need a lot more fuel tankage, but doable. Since one AU is just about 150 million km, at 5 km/s you will go one AU in 30 million seconds - just about a year.

So, the first-approximation speed of space travel with chemfuel rockets is about 1 AU/year - which, in fact, is a decent broad range for present-day interplanetary mission speeds. Mars probes get there in a year or so, Jupiter probes take a few years, Saturn probes several years, probes to the outer system take decades.

This is too slow for convenient human travel, even in the inner system. How much can we improve it, without invoking too much magic? For speed we don't need more thrust, we need better gas mileage, i.e. higher specific impulse. Classic atomic rockets, of the NERVA type ground-tested in the 1960s, can roughly double chemfuel performance - still dreadfully sluggish.

Various electric space drives, based on well-demonstrated principles (some tested on a lab scale or even in actual service) can improve on chemfuel performance by up to about tenfold. Ion drive is the most famous of these, but it is a very low-power drive, suited to small probes or satellite station-keeping rather than big interplanetary ships. For a big ship we'll need one of the others, but for once we can legitimately handwave the details and simply say that our ship has a nuclear-electric drive, of a fundamentally conservative type that we should be able to build in this century.

Small probes can use solar-electric drive, out to about Mars, but any big ship will need lots of juice, meaning some form of nuclear power. Fusion drive is cool, but actually achieving a fusion space drive verges on technomagic, and it isn't necessary for this speed range. Fission is the stone ax of nuclear energy, but we know how to make a stone ax, whereas we haven't really figured out copper yet, let alone bronze.

A nuclear-electric drive might boot us along at about 25 km/s, five times chemfuel speed, with fuel to slow down again. This comes to 5 AU/year - and now the inner Solar System starts to look manageable, with Mars and the asteroids a few months from Earth, and even Jupiter's moons only about one year away. Beyond that the highway stretches pretty long and lonesome still, two years to Saturn, one way; a decade to the heart of the Kuiper Belt.

The boot our drive gives us will be so gentle we won't feel it, since the acceleration of this drive is only, let us say, one milligee. The ship will take a month to reach cruising speed and another month to slow down, but since it isn't standing still during that time, it comes out to only one month lost to sluggish pickup, on a trip of typically a few months.

Why not save a couple or three weeks by specifying a more powerful drive engine? Because even that gentle 1-milligee drive has a fairly spectacular power output. If the exhaust velocity is 50 km/s, and the drive is capable of pushing a 4000-ton ship at 1 milligee, the required thrust power is a nice round 1 gigawatt, about as much as a large power-station reactor.

In round numbers, let's say that our ship has a "dry" mass of 1500 tons, and carries a 500 ton payload plus 4000 tons of propellant. (For a ship like this, "fuel" and "propellant" are entirely separate. The nuclear fuel is inside the reactor and stays there. The propellant supplies no energy, but is scooted out the back to push the ship along.) At full load our ship doesn't even make one milligee, but as it scoots off propellant it loses mass, and it is down to 2000 tons and an agile 2 milligees as propellant runs out.

The ship's drive engine, including reactor, electric generator, and waste-heat radiators, might come to about 1000 tons, two-thirds of the "dry" mass of the ship, the rest being connecting structure, fuel tankage, and payload bay or cargo pods.

Getting around the real Solar System of planets swirling in the gravitational whirlpool is more complicated that the simple model of speed in "flat" space, and the actual travel time for a ship like this, say from Earth to Mars, is wretchedly hard to estimate short of doing full-on orbit simulation. Slower chemfuel spacecraft tend to use Hohmann or near-Hohmann orbits, with well-known rules. Ships with uber-powerful torch drives can take orbits so steep that a straight-line approximation will do. These nuclear-electric ships can cut fairly steeply across the solar gravitational whirlpool, but they cannot ignore it.

At a guess, a ship like this might be able to make two trips to Mars per Earth-Mars orbital cycle of about 18 months. One would likely be a fast passenger-express run near opposition (i.e., when Earth and Mars are closest, lined up on the same side of the Sun). The other would be a slow freight run, with less propellant and more payload - the positions of Earth and Mars in this part of their orbital cycle are such that "fast" steep orbits use up gas without saving much time.

Interplanetary ships like these are very unsuited to local service, such as the Earth-Moon run - the distances are too short for them to get up to speed, so local missions remain the province of chemfuel or nuke-thermal ships. In fact these ships take a few days just to spiral through the Van Allen belts, meaning that passengers probably take ferries to get out to them.

Now it's time to put on the green eyeshades. How much do these ships cost - and, what we really want to know - how much does a ticket aboard one cost?

I'm going to say a billion dollars, or Euros/whatever, in round numbers, to buy a new interplanetary ship, and cheap at the price - only four times the cost of a 747. Once someone ponies up for it, taking out a loan or the economic equivalent, they have to make payments each year, and also pay the various operating costs of the ship - maintenance, fuel and propellant, and a host of miscellanies including salaries for crew, Mission Control, or both.

Let's optimistically say that the ship has to earn its operators a couple of hundred million a year, and it makes a couple of one-way trips a year. Thus the cost of a one-way cargo mission to Mars, Mercury, or somewhere in the asteroid belt is about $100 million. A trip to Jupiter costs about twice as much. Happily that is not your ticket price, unless you are a 22nd century robber baron and the ship is your personal space yacht. If the ship can carry 100 passengers, the cost of a ticket is a nice round $1 million - what people a couple of years ago were getting for nondescript houses in Southern California 'burbs.

A hundred passengers does not seem like much for ships several times the size of jumbo jets, but interplanetary travellers can't live for a few months in an airline coach seat. They'll need something like train roomettes, plus diner and lounge car, and also a hotel crew of stewards. Hence my round-number estimate of 100 passengers and million-dollar tickets. Of course there will be ships carrying research teams and work crews long before there is commercial service that you can buy a ticket for at any price. But once we have ships carrying hundreds of people around the Solar System on a routine basis, some sort of commercial service seems likely to arise.

Next time we'll look more at these ships, their destinations, and the sort of human Solar System they might produce. Unless I decide to write about something else.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Now for something a bit different ...

Catherine, Queen of Lyonesse, was crowned on St. Barnabas' Day of the year one thousand and thirty-five, as reckoned from King Ambrose, raised on a shield by the ancient Lords and Commons as their champion against the Emperor Theodosian.

As she knelt, rose, and knelt again, amid organ and choirs and heady incense, Catherine traced her royal predecessors. Once she had given her coronation oath there was little more for her to do. She had here three hundred servitors, and in the Cathedral of St. Pelagius, unlike the secular world outside, they all knew their duties. She even knew her own.

Surely on this occasion, Catherine supposed, her thoughts should be lofty and grave. She had to keep her mind on something as her ladies led her before the altar rail and stripped her of gown and kirtle, leaving nothing to her royal dignity but her shift, and even that fallen about her waist. Bishops in a row as sturdy as pikemen shielded her from her subjects' eyes, save only the Archbishop of Kelliwick's, as he anointed her with holy chrism.

Catherine discovered the first arcanum of monarchs crowned and anointed: Chrism was foul stuff. Archbishop Bromley ladled it with a golden spoon onto her forehead, hands, and between her breasts, and it smelt like a grease-pit never once cleaned in those thousand and thirty-five years since Ambrose. After him came Uther Pendragon and then Arthur, his history well known, and the reason why Catherine's sword of state was an empty scabbard.

The Archbishop finished anointing her, and her ladies drew round to dress her in her coronation robes. Lady Solange de Charleville, though a mere maid of honor and foreigner to boot, had the honor of wiping off the chrism. This faithful companion of Catherine's exile since childhood merited a doubtful privilege or two. Lady Solange wrinkled her nose expressively as she dabbed the stuff off. Her dark eyes met Catherine's. "Memento te mortalem esse!" she whispered in Latin. Remember thou art mortal!

"Soyez conscients de Tunstal Castle!" whispered Catherine back. Solange curtseyed, and finished wiping the chrism. Catherine had not yet committed any of her subjects to Tunstal, and hoped she never would. She would not pray for that, only for the possible. She had already sworn to perform the difficult, to uphold right and defend the Church and the poor.

Tunstal Castle was built in the time of the Saxon kings, but Lady Solange had given the further offense of throwing off Catherine's reckoning of her forebears. After Arthur's fall came troubled times, but at last arose Cedric the Saxon, who conquered yet turned Christian, and gave peace to the Prythonic princes as Arthur had given it to the Saxons. Twenty-seven rightful Saxon kings sat on the throne of Kelliwick during six hundred years. Their names and deeds, ably assisted by Catherine's ladies in waiting, sufficed to get her into her coronation robes.

Her Lord High Admiral had not yet discharged his great guns – that would come later, and perhaps leave something standing of Kelliwick town. For now, as the bishops drew aside to show Catherine's people their anointed sovereign, the acolytes of St. Pelly's let off fresh volleys of billowing incense. It wreathed about her, thick with lemon-blossoms and saffron, and other scents Catherine could not name, but as it lifted she had at last her moment of terror, for she desperately wanted to laugh. In her royal and churchly vestments, pure white linen colobium and supertunica of gold silk, she was clad as an angel – and so an imposter. True angels had the form of much fairer maids than Catherine, as all men knew, and with golden hair not red.

She was spared laughing during her own coronation by the order of ceremony, for next she received her unseen sword of state, the scabbard of Caliburn. The Duke of Ashland girt her with it, his right as first lord of her land. Old Ashland had been her father's friend, and it should have been Henry the Third crowned this day. Catherine blinked back tears, at least infinitely more dignified than laughing. Ashland strapped the scabbard onto her baldric-wise, and for a moment clasped her shoulder.

The Archbishop placed orb and scepter in Catherine's hands. The golden orb, surmounted by a jeweled Cross of St. Pelagius, sat marvellously heavy in her left hand. The twenty-eighth Saxon in rightful succession from Cedric chanced to be Kynthred, anciently writ Cynethrith, last of the Edlings. In the way of the world, her cousin Edwin made himself the twenty-eighth Saxon king.

Yet weighty orb, scepter, and Caliburn's scabbard had nothing availed Edwin the Usurper, nor even his fastness of Tunstal in its lake. For rightful heiress Kynthred had a husband, duke of Guienne in the Aquitaine. So it came to pass in the year of the crown seven hundred and eight, that John of Guienne crossed the Narrow Sea with Kynthred's rightful claim and ten thousand lances. Thus ended Edwin and the Saxon line, and began Catherine's own.

A great hush filled St. Pelagius', all the company of her people kneeling as the Archbishop placed the crown imperial on Catherine's head, its great weight crushing down her unbound hair. She had got this far! The world had never thought she would, because if she was an imposter as an angel, Catherine was plainly a much greater imposter as a king. Yet far above her the bells of St. Pelly's rang out in peal, then other bells, church by church across Kelliwick town. Presently the first great culverin boomed from her castle atop Kelliwick Tor, a vast heavy thud as though God's table were overset. Another spoke, and then another, as Catherine was ushered to Arthur's throne.

Archbishop Bromley paid her his homage, then the rest of the bishops, then her lords temporal beginning with Ashland, the Duke of Prydeland, then their enemies the dukes of Dunfolk and Norrey, and the Earl of Carrickferney for his aged father Tearnac. Well-favored and knowing it, Carrickferney smelt of wine, and blew her a kiss as he swore his fealty. The Church might grant a dispensation for them to marry. Catherine had no intention ever to seek one.

The other earls followed, twelfth among them the Earl of Avalon, Lord High Admiral. He too was well favored to Catherine's mind, with the golden locks she lacked; and he did not smell of drink nor blow her a kiss. Yet nor did he conceal self-satisfaction as another gun boomed. Those same bronze great-pieces, in the lower tiers of his ships, had persuaded King Charles of Aquitaine to restore her to her people.

Even Avalon must think her beautiful, Catherine was sure, with the crown imperial on her head! His forebears had called themselves Lords of the Isles, but King John the First made an end to that as well. Twelve kings of the House of Guienne had ruled in turn, and they made Lyonesse mighty, yet a hunting-arrow in Selwyn Forest cut short the thirteenth. All came full circle now, and a new royal line must await somewhere in the wings. For Catherine was last of her house, together only with her sister Anne.

Choirs and congregation rose in voice and countervoice for the recessional, and were overtopped by the blast of the great-organ filling the air, reverberating from nave and transcept. Crowned and anointed, Catherine de Guienne rose from her throne. Forty-three Kings of Lyonesse had sat there before her, never before a queen. She had no husband to draw a sword for her, and she had vowed to take none till she could give him as dowry a kingdom in good order.

How she was to accomplish this Catherine did not know, only that by God's grace she would try.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Fireworks over the Shire

In the same discussion at Carla's blog that inspired my last post, I made an offhand remark about how odd it is that gunpowder weapons play no part in the War of the Ring. What makes it odd is that gunpowder is clearly known and used in Middle-Earth, quite spectacularly during Bilbo's birthday party at the very beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Carla gallantly pointed out that gunpowder is indeed used in a military context (setting off a mine under Helm's Deep), and suggests the plausible limitations to its use - scarcity, and lack of the technology needed to use it effectively in guns. Gunpowder was known and used throughout the Hundred Years' War, but was not important till near the end. These are all good excuses, especially the one about technical limitations. Readers of L. Sprague de Camp's wonderful Lest Darkness Fall will remember that Martin Padway "invents" gunpowder around AD 538, only to find that he can't come up with a mix that will go bang instead of foof.

The objection to this that they are all retcons, efforts to fix the problem after the fact. The fireworks show that Gandalf puts on is indeed a rarity - nothing seen like it in the Shire for near a century, since the Old Took died. But then, everything about Bilbo's birthday party is extraordinary. Hobbit children know all about fireworks, so they can't be all that uncommon. More to the point, Tolkien makes a big point of those fireworks, establishing gunpowder as part of Middle-Earth right at the start of the book, with never any hint then or later of constraints that would keep the stuff from being used in war with full post-1500 effectiveness.

What is going on here? Middle-Earth is after all the triumph of world building, in fact where we learned the possibilities of world building. I don't think science fiction had anything comparable at the time - Foundation Trilogy has the vast sweep, but none of the fine texturing or back-structure. So why this odd slip, conspicuously near the beginning?

As I said in my reply at Carla's, I believe that Tolkien blew it on gunpowder because he was not a science fiction writer. He did not much like technology and industrialization in general, and probably never thought much about them in a technical way. Only a technology geek, however, really associates fireworks with gunpowder. Fireworks pyrotechnics parted ways from the military uses of gunpowder centuries ago - so long ago that, except for later experiments such as Congreve's rockets, they have left scarcely a trace in military history. (I would think that mounting a few big fat Roman candles on the prow of a galley would be as good as Greek fire, but there's no clear indication that anyone ever tried it.)

Thus no doubt to Tolkien, and the vast majority of his readers, fireworks at Bilbo's party were no more a predictor of firefights in combat than knowing that hobbits prefer six meals a day would be a predictor that they prefer living underground. Not that the question of gunpowder in Middle-Earth has totally escaped attention; Googling "tolkien shire fireworks gunpowder" gets about 4200 hits. All the same I bet some of you lived happy and productive lives up to this point without ever considering the matter.

The fireworks passage in LOTR has a much odder oddity - at one point a fireworks dragon whooshes overhead "like an express train." I guess the Michel Delving express just highballs right through Hobbiton, huh? No one would write a line like that in a fantasy novel today unless the world had trains, or main characters came from our world.* This line is a bit of literary archeology, as noted here. Not deliberate world archeology, such as I mentioned last time - Tolkien's languages are the pioneering achievement of that - but a sign of how our own world has changed. It is a reminder that when LOTR was published it was not "a fantasy novel," because no such thing existed. LOTR created, or at least defined, a new subgenre of Romance.

I am (alas!) old enough to remember this. Science fiction was always around; fantasy came into being, as a defined entity, when I was in high school. Certainly there were fantasy elements around, and the term was in use, but there wasn't yet even a stereotype of a fantasy novel. (In the same way, Lest Darkness Fall was just fringe science fiction till it became identifiable as alternate history.)

In the literary culture as a whole, fantasy before LOTR was largely ghettoized within children's literature - Peter Pan, the Oz books, Wind in the Willows. It was creeping out via the pulps, and there was some quite adult fantasy out there, such as James Branch Cabell's books. I remember reading Jurgen in high school - I didn't understand much, but enough to know it was not kid stuff. That was the exception. The Hobbit is a children's book, and hobbits perhaps began in Tolkien's own imagination as more or less talking bunnies, before evolving into short, cheerful English rustics.

In a similar way, Middle-Earth surely evolved as a world - I recall at various times reading detailed textual exegesis that identifies some of this, like successive Troys buried beneath Minas Tirith. Middle-Earth also has some features that are more likely part of Tolkien's deliberate conception, but continue to intrigue me.

The Shire has always struck me as the solid anchor of Middle-Earth. It is the one place where we can most definitely see how it works. (I have seen a very funny Marxist interpretation - the Scouring as the revenge of the landowning classes.) You could probably work out an economic model of the Shire that would fit the picture given. Elsewhere it gets hazier. The Rohirrim have horses and lots of pastureland, I suppose. But where on earth, or in Middle-Earth, are the agrarian provinces that keep Minas Tirith fed and Gondor's armies supplied with recruits? I suppose they are somewhere on the map, but you sure never get any sense of them in the books. Minas Tirith has a lot more in common with the Emerald City than it does with Hobbiton.

Most of Middle-Earth, in fact, is pretty sketchy. This has led Tolkien's legion of bad imitators to the situation described by Diana Wynne Jones, where crowded inns turn up in the middle of nowhere, like finding a busy truck stop along a cracked pavement stretch of Former US 66. Tolkien gets away with it because after 500 pages of watching everyone in Bywater stuff themselves into a coma to watch Bilbo vanish in a flash, we are convinced of the solidity of Middle-Earth.

Also, as I mentioned in my comments at Carla's, the Shire seems more modern than the rest of Middle-Earth. It is set in a timeless premodern past but a sophisticated one, with postal service and the host of specialized trades called on for Bilbo's party. To me it feels a bit like the 18th century; I can imagine young female gentlehobbits reading Jane Austen novels and feeling completely at home. Beyond the Shire, however, at any rate past Bree, things feel about a thousand years earlier - very loosely synologous to Europe in the Early Middle Ages, what used to be rudely called the Dark Ages.

The Rohirrim are, duh, Anglo-Saxons, if the Anglo-Saxons had taken a wrong turn at the Isle of Wight and ended up on the Great Plains. The North-Kingdom has fallen, but its living spark remains as wandering paladins. (What a wonderfully rich and deep word, from late Roman palatini through Charlemagne's officers to a knight without armor in a lawless land.) The South-Kingdom of Gondor is, loosely, Byzantium, or would be if anyone as contemptable, nasty, and just plain byzantine as the Byzantines could possibly be the model for the flawed nobility of Gondor. Beyond Gondor, off to the south and east, is a hot country full of nasty people who take lots of slaves, but are very sophisticated, and did I say nasty? If you answered "Islam, as seen by Westerners on the eve of the Crusades," award yourself a gold star.**

All of this works because if we are the kind of people who read this kind of stuff, the essentials of this geography were already in our mental furniture - even before there were a million fantasy novels on the shelves. Fantasy worlds ever since have for the most part been loosely synologous to some part of the real past, usually Western Europe, for the very good reason that that is where Once Upon A Time still generally happens in our culture.

If you were expecting a brilliant conclusion to wrap this up, you read this in vain, because I have no particular conclusion in mind. So consider these just more notes on world building.

* Aren't steam trains now an archaic enough technology that they could fit into a timeless Once Upon? Not steampunk, but a rather Shire-esque world where populous and prosperous regions have always had trains as they have always had butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers.

** The Fanatic Caliphates, as Diana Wynne Jones generalizes them. And boy are they problematic. My Catherine of Lyonesse world is unabashedly synologous to the (pre-Reformation!) 16th century, and therefore has syno-Muslims, unabashedly called Monites. I had in mind naval warfare in the Middle Sea, ripping off Lepanto and even more the battle of Preveza in 1538. (If you ever heard of this battle before, you are sick. Sick!)

Now, however, it is impossible to have anyone show up with a turban and scimitar without evoking very contemporary issues. Let two galleys meet prow to prow somewhere in the Pylian Gulf, and people will read it as an editorial. Useless to complain; it's a fact of life.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Faking It

First a note of housekeeping for anyone still actually dropping by - I have been even longer than usual in updating this blog, largely due to an interesting work gig that I can't describe yet, except to say that the actual work I'm doing is a great deal like blogging about history. Great work if you can find it, and I hope it keeps going for a while!

This blog has now been going for a year and a week, and this will be my 60th entry, so I've actually been averaging about a post a week - not so well so far this year, alas, but we will try to do a little better!

Spinoff discussion of a post at Carla's blog gives me my text for the day, the difference between convincing and unconvincing fakery. Faking it is of course the heart of all fiction, for once including "mainstream" and the true novel as well as Romance in all of its various forms. The standard of fakery required is high - so high that in one notorious recent publishing scandal a writer found it easier to peddle his stuff as a memoir rather than fiction. In other words, it was easier for him to convince publishing people that his story actually did happen than to convince readers to play along as if it really happened. Fiction, as the saying goes, has to be believable.

All fiction writers fake their characters; writers in most of the Romance genres also have to fake their settings, at least the critical foreground. Moreover, great deal of the stuff peddled as mainstream fiction is actually disguised Romance. Any story that is full of junkies and hookers might as well take place in one of the tougher hoods of Faerie, or down by the cargo airlocks, for all that it has to do with the suburban milieu in which most of the readers live. Even in novels of campus infidelity, the characters are probably getting a lot more action than most real-life professors do. In this last case, though the authors have to invent and explain the bed hopping, so far as constructing the setting goes, all they have to do is oil the hinges on the bedroom doors.

Some authors of mainstream novels about junkies 'n' hookers may have first hand knowledge of that world, just as some writers in Romance genres such as detective fiction are actual investigators. Most of both groups of authors probably fake it, though. They've got to make up their characters and situations anyway, so not why not make up the background as well, with a little research to find out that revolvers don't have safety catches and no one has shivved anyone in decades. (I believe a prison knife is a shank.) Once you making it up, though, you are two thirds of the way to Faerie, which is why fantasy writers have been slipping in through back alleys and the subway tunnels in the last couple of decades.

I have a theory, unprovable and conveniently unfalsifiable, that experienced readers have good intuitive bullshit detectors, even for stuff we don't know. None of us, after all, really knows much. I know a little about sailing ships and plausible space drives, hardly anything about ecoregenerative life support systems or what a 16th century brewery would be like. (Except that it would presumably have some sort of beer or ale around.) You, dear reader, probably have similar islands of knowledge in a sea of ignorance. Yet when someone is faking it and badly, we can usually tell. Something in the fermentation vats smells bad, even if we aren't sure what it is.

How do we make up a world? Most guides to world building are roll-your-own formulas for creating statistical abstracts of a world, or cautions on mistakes to avoid, like a world full of lords with a regrettable absence of peasants to tug forelocks and pay rent to them. This is refining the creative process, not the creative process itself.

Forget a whole world: Imagine a city. We assemble it, I imagine, out of bits and pieces of real cities - not in an exactly literal way, but out of types. If it is a modern city we know what urban shopping streets and suburban minimalls look like, and we imagine them spreading across some suitable landscape, a bay or a river valley. If it is a retro city, for the nearer past you can mentally run the tape back - glass buildings giving way to lower brick ones, freeways flickering into elevated rail lines. For the more distant past you pretty much have to construct a mental Disneyland - at least on this side of the pond we do - based I suspect primarily on old movies, refined by whatever research we've done.

Visualizing the future is odd, because our cultural images of it are mostly retro themselves - the City of the Future is still Metropolis, modestly updated to the 1930s with streamline moderne architecture. Getting dressed in the future is even tougher - what can a woman, to make things more interesting (yes, I'm sexist) put on that will not make her look a) indistinguishable from the present, b) like a 1980s punk rocker, c) an inmate in a minimum security prison in the 1950s, or d) RenFaire? Personally I favor (d), on the premise that if you can't have believable, at least have pretty.

Whatever the era of our city, most of it is forever vague, unless we get truly, obsessively into the world building, and probably never get around to writing anything set in it. Oh, let's be honest, sometimes our worlds are a virtual model railroad layout, intended for nothing but our own enjoyment. Even so it can never be fully detailed. Like model railroaders or film set designers, we not only fake, we have to fake selectively.

Apart from the blur of half-seen and scarcely noticed streets and neighborhoods, what brings a fake city to life, I think, is a combination of a two things: a sense of its overall logic (the warehouses are near the docks), and the telling foreground detail, such as those that hint at a past - grooves in the pavement marking onetime streetcar tracks; a medieval town square that preserves, encrusted under later work, the outlines of an imperial-era forum; a clutter of old building half concealing the stump of a freeway ramp.*

Multiply cities, and the countrysides between them, and you have a world, whole cities and countries receding into the background blur, but still the overall thrust to give it shape and the telling foreground details to give it character.

To be continued!

* Speaking of concealed, underneath all this lies the one unanswerable creationist argument. If God created the universe ex nihilo in 4004 BC, or whatever date you prefer, wouldn't his masterwork have all the features a full working model of a universe should have, including evidence of its simulated past? This same argument, however, leaves conventional creationists arguing for sloppy workmanship on God's part.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Other Side of the Sky

I first discovered Arthur C. Clarke the summer before seventh grade, when I stumbled upon two massive Clarke anthologies in the junior high library. They were laid out like 60s vintage malls, with novels at each end like anchor stores and collections of short stories in between. Between them they were comprehensive, including his most famous novel, Childhood's End, never a favorite of mine, and The City and the Stars, which is. (A billion years in the future, an epic journey of discovery begins with a subway ride - what's not to love?) Among short stories they had "The Sentinal," the germ of 2001; the classic "Superiority;" and several Tales from the White Hart.

Clarke was one of the SF trinity of the 1960s, along with Heinlein and Asimov, and he shares with Heinlein and Willy Ley the chief credit for the rocketpunk vision. Thanks to 2001 he gave the rocketpunk vision its final form: There it was, up there on the the vastness of the screen, a huge spinning space station, hundreds of meters across, and a Pan Am shuttle doing its elegant docking waltz.

Socially, if Heinlein's rocketpunk was retro America even when he wrote it - the 1890s in space, steampunk with rocketpunk tech - Clarke's was more contemporary to the mid 20th century, and utterly and crisply English. Clarke's spacemen sounded like David Niven, not John Wayne. His picture of space operations and space crews strikes me as eminently practical - neither the RAF in space nor the RN in space, but small teams of experts whose relations were more professional than quasi-military. Clarke was also post-imperial. He occasionally wrote about space warfare, but always with irony, "Superiority" as good an example as any. (For my non-SF readers, "Superiority"describes an instance of technological superiority in space warfare being too clever by half, but requires no technical training to understand.)

In the real world, Clarke discovered the properties of the geosychronous orbit, which is why your satellite dish can point in one direction instead of slewing all over the sky chasing satellites. He popularized the communications satellite itself; indeed to the best of my knowledge he created the whole idea of geosats - the realization that looking back at Earth from the other side of the sky (and not just military spying) would be one of the most useful things we could do in space.

Clarke was well ahead of his time in this. Of course he failed to foresee comsats and geosats as we know them today - like everyone else back then he never imagined satellites as we know them today. He assumed that complex orbital relay stations would be large structures with crews. In his classical arrangement there would be three of them forming an equalateral triangle around the equator, enough to give full coverage to the inhabited surface of the planet. The one over the South Atlantic was assumed to be the main one - serving as not merely relay but origin point for global news broadcasts, as well as presumably all the other classical functions of a space station.

Instead we have hundreds of satellites of all sorts (and hundreds more defunct ones). Instead of a single global Third Programme we have scores of satellite broadcasts, satellite phones, GPS, and so on and so forth. In deep space we have explored as much as Clarke in his early days might have expected by this time; we have merely done it vicariously.

Clarke's hard SF was as hard as it gets - never bogged down by the technology, but even more than Heinlein there was always a sense that he'd done all his homework. He had another side as well, semimystical or outright mystical. In The City and the Stars he took on the sheer, immense sweep of time, a billion years, and made you feel it. Sometimes his mysticism - which led him, in part, to live the second half or more of his life in Sri Lanka - also led him astray. Am I the only one who finds Diaspar, the city at the end of time, more appealing than hippie dippie Lys? Perhaps, though, Clarke sensed this; it is Alvin, from Diaspar, who reopens the way to the stars, not anyone from Lys.

Now Clarke himself goes before us, beyond the beckoning stars.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Hard SF: So Hard It's Impossible ...?

This post is once again thanks to Bernita, who a few days ago wrote a boffo review of Grimspace, a new novel by Ann Aguirre. The book sounds like a winner, but I rather ungenerously used the comments to register a general SF grump. As thumbnailed by Bernita,

As the carrier of a rare gene, Sirantha Jax has the ability to jump ships through space -- a talent that cuts into her life expectancy but makes her a highly prized navigator for the Corp.

This is a well-established science fiction trope, that navigating though FTL requires some form of human intuition. (My grump is that this is a sort of authorial special pleading - more on this below.) The intuitive talent may be, as evidently in Grimspace, a rare genetic trait, and usually one that exacts some price from anyone so gifted. Or it may be old fashioned seat of the pants piloting skill, something that can be learned through study and discipline - though probably also benefiting from genetic inheritance, in this case happily rendering the person exceptionally attractive to the gender of preference. Broadly speaking these two types are Luke Skywalker and Han Solo respectively.

In one form or other this is what Romance in all its subgenres is all about. Romance is essentially different from realistic fiction, which is why much of the writing advice you hear is wrong, especially about characterization but also background. In Romance, the knights are bolder, the ladies fairer, the mean streets grittier, and a round trip ticket to the space station costs $100,000, not $20 million. Yeah, my Princess Catherine is tall and has red hair - you gotta problem with tall redheads, take it up with her, not me.

Does this expose my grump at Bernita's blog as bullshit, and incidentally show that hard SF is a contradiction in terms? A curious and little noticed characteristic of Romance is that although it is fundamentally non-realistic, authors in the Romance genres are often quite preoccupied by various types of realism. The author of realistic mainstream fiction does not have to research Anysuburb, USA, in order to write about it. The author of a novel set in Henry VIII's court, or aboard a frigate in 1794, or involving a murder investigation, has some reading up to do.

So does the author whose novel takes place in a completely imaginary royal court, or aboard a starship. The standards of credibility are different, but they are no less demanding and maybe more. People who habitually read the Romance genres tend to know their stuff, and they can tell the difference between a real royal court and one apparently filled with present day 'Murricans who raided a chest full of stage costumes. (Ladies: Show attitude by all means, but a little feminist rhetoric goes a long, long ways.) Starships can work any number of ways, but shipboard organization and procedures are either spaceworthy or not, and it shows.

Science fiction, however, has some peculiar problems - technologies in which, in the real world, we have made too much progress. Spaceship navigation, FTL or otherwise, is a good example. As noted earlier, you'll find FTLs that require rare special gifts or highly trained piloting skills (or both). What you probably won't find in SF of recent decades is an FTL transit that requires classical navigating skills, like those in Heinlein's 1950s vintage YA classic, Starman Jones.

In that novel, starship astrogation (an SF term now almost fallen out of use) requires mathematical talent, to correctly calculate the ship's position and trajectory far out in deep space at speeds approaching the speed of light. The Astrogator is almost constantly on duty for the last 36 hours or so before jump, supported by a team of well trained enlisted men who take instrument readings and feed data into the ship's computer - yes, the starship Asgard has a computer. (A computerman uses a book of tables to convert base 10 numbers into binary, so they can be input into the computer. How's that for a user friendly interface?). The atmosphere in the "Worry Hole" is edge of the chair as the Astrogater solves the final rounds of course corrections, under enormous time pressure - oh, hell, read the book. That is starship navigation as it was supposed to be.

The problem is that, with present day computer technology, not only would there be no computerman with his book of table, there would be no Astrogator - the whole jump would be flown under computer control, with far greater precision and safety than brilliant, dedicated Dr. Hendrix could ever have imagined.

There is no way around this. Intuitive piloting in FTL is one thing, if your FTL is gimmicked to require it, but navigation - the haven-finding art, and for the last 500 years primarily a branch of applied mathematics and observational astronomy - is by its nature logical and regular. No, you cannot plead that this is Romance, because the Romantic archetype of the Navigator is precisely that element of reason - pressing on through night and fog with confidence, relying on mastery of theory and exacting instrumental observation.

This is not the same as intuitive seat of the pants piloting. It has a magic of its own - or had it, because those times are done now. Navigators was born, in the European tradition, around the 14th century - when, amid schematic medieval maps, we suddenly find portalan charts, so accurately drawn that at first glance we could take them for modern maps, real maps to get you where you are going. They began to die sometime in the last couple of decades. Yes, the wise yachtsman still masters celestial navigation in case the GPS system craps out, but if automated celestial navigation packages aren't available it is because GPS killed the demand.

This is even more the case with space navigation, because normal-space (non-FTL) navigation is about as well suited to computerization as anything can be. Sure, the computer could crap out - so could the main drive. They quit putting buggy whip sockets on cars once the likelihood of completing a road trip behind a team of horses became insignificant. They will never start training spaceship navigators, if the prospect is that none of them will ever actually need to use their skills.

FTL has remained the escape hatch, now serving double duty - not only a way to get from star to star in less than decades, but a way to require human navigation, because computer algorithms can't figure it out. This was my grump, because it always feels like a bit of special pleading. How convenient. It is a well established SF trope, and it violates no law of Romance, but I still grump.

Yet what do I say to Bernita? Her counter-grump was a better one:

I shrink from a FUTURE that eliminates the human factor and human instinct in either piloting or navigation.

She's right. I don't want Linux-based spacenav packages; I want the starship Asgard.

One possible solution - the one that gave a name to this blog - is to belly up to the bar and admit that our SF stories are not about The Future, but about an imaginary world where space travel is the way we imagined it just before we started doing it - where the astrogator of a ship bound for Mars makes one last check on her circular slide rule and nods to the captain. But this is also a form of special pleading.

Are there other ways out? One way out might be to observe that our current unmanned space probes are not in fact navigated by computers. They are navigated by people, at JPL, who use computers to do a job that would be impossibly complicated without them. Unless you assume semimagical computers (and so far as I can tell, the AI people aren't even much pursuing HAL style quasi-human intelligence any more), Mission Control is going to be around for a long time to come.

So if you're building a large passenger-carrying spaceship anyway, it could make perfectly good sense to put Mission Control, or at least part of it, on board the ship, making it that much less dependent on control facilities at its ports of call - especially since these may not always be up to the very highest standards. This is Romance, after all.

What the control room crew does on watch, however, is probably not just a jazzed up version of the Enterprise bridge crew or the Asgard's worry gang. (Off watch is another matter, humans being humans.) Computers will indeed do nearly all the piloting and navigating in the usual sense - handflying a spaceship is a ding waiting to happen, as the Mir-Progress collision already demonstrated. So what are the people doing?

Oddly enough we are very hazy on that, or at least I am. I imagine much of their duties will involve monitoring and controlling the computers that actually fly the ship - maintaining software and the like, but especially performing tasks such as simming possible future maneuvers. More direct intervention will be called for only in circumstances that fall outside the flight plan, including all precomputed variations. Which is a technical way of saying "story conditions" - because if your story involves the control crew in their professional capacity, it is a pretty good bet that the ship's regular flight plan is about to get nullified.

As for the part that intuition might play in all this, in skills like navigation, intuition is what you fall back on when the problem you need to solve is not in the manual. (Or, as in Starman Jones, when the manual has been disappeared.) It may be worth noting here that computer programming itself is a notoriously intuitive art, filled with what programmers themselves call deep magic - which is why there are still so many rich geeks in Silicon Valley. No one has yet managed to automate software design, and few are holding their breath for it.

Notice that the above points apply to ordinary, practically-Newtonian interplanetary navigation, majestic in its formal certainty. FTL, if you have it, can be equally deterministic, and chances are that human control crews will still have their hands full getting around through it.

What applies to civil navigation surely applies in spades to space combat. On the one hand, without special pleading it is hard to justify laser-cannon gunners zeroing in on targets with a joystick - and all but impossible to justify the ever popular space fighter, which performs no mission an automated drone cannot do as well, with the further advantage that it is a lot easier in most cultures to write off a drone. On the other hand, the operational environment of space combat, even if formally as clean as in Attack Vector, is liable to turn out in practice to be filled with bewildering ambiguities and uncertainties. Even simple tasks get more complicated when you are being shot at.

I am not sure how all of this plays out, but one way or another, it is possible that the super automated space technology of (non-rocketpunk) Tomorrow will turn out to be at least as complicated in human terms as trying to get a word processor to print a document the way you want it to look, not the way Microsoft thinks you should want it to look. And especially when all hell is breaking loose, as it probably is.