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.


Kedamono said...

As to there being no "rocketpunk" being written, have you seen The Sky People by S.M. Stirling? It's very much in the Rocketpunk mold, though it is light on actual rockets. :-)

I think it's a genre that's trying to relocate its roots. As more young writers take up the mantle, we'll see more "Rocketpunk" show up. Heck, we might be those young writers. :-)

Kedamono said...

And I forgot to mention two roleplaying games:

Cold Space and FTL Now by Flying Mice Games.

The first, Cold Space, is set in the 1950s and posits a Cold War in space between the West and the Soviet block, with the American Rocket Corps protecting the American way and all that.

The second game takes place after the cold war collapses in the West's favor, but other issues are involved. They both involve FTL travel, but they are in essence, Rocketpunk games.

Ben Aaronovitch said...

Inspired by fond memories of Andre Norton I have been developing a series of short stories set in an era when spacers were real spacers and rockets landed on their fins the way god (and Robert Heinlein) intended.

It just takes me a while to write these things (as my editor will attest).

Jim Baerg said...

I think you dismiss the O'Neill type space habitat too quickly. Given reason to have any significant workforce off earth, a rotating habitat giving one g (or whatever lesser acceleration is sufficient for health) will be built. Raising a generation of lab animals at lunar & martian gravity levels to see if those are sufficient should be a high priority.

A future like the early parts of Niven's Known Space series, with the main action in the asteroid belt & the earth-moon system, while Mars & Venus are of only academic interest seems likely.

Rick said...

It looks like the end of summer was a good time to pick back up with this blog!

Kedamono and Ben - Perhaps my timing was also good with the term and concept rocketpunk. Is the half-century mark the point at which things cease to be merely 'old,' and begin to acquire the patina of the historical past.

Not precisely rocketpunk, but I've thought for some time that if it were up to me, James Bond would be done as a period piece. Austin Powers spoofed the idea, but trying to keep Bond in the present day fails on so many levels. You could do a great Bond against, say, the background of the Cuba missile crisis.

Jim - I actually agree with the idea of rotating habitats, but through the midfuture these are more likely to resemble the classical Willy Ley space stations, i.e. wheels rather than drums. You need a large diameter, a couple of hundred meters at least, to get good spin gravity without nausea problems. A classical wheel station on that scale will have a volume comparable to a large office building, suitable for up to a few thousand people. Which is a lot!

One way the real space future is likely to differ from the rocketpunk vision is fewer people for a given level of activity, because productivity is so much higher. (Remember that Clarke thought comsats would need a crew of technicians to replace burned-out vacuum tubes!)

As to where the focus of activity will be, we truly won't know till we get there! I am partial to Mars, but the asteroid belt is unexplored, and will certainly be full of surprises.

But I suspect that, wherever the the activity is, the job distribution will also be quite different from the rocketpunk vision. Sorry, but no Belters! Space mining is the sort of activity that lends itself very well to automation, while most of the people will be doing things that don't lend themselves to automation.

Anonymous said...

It depends what you mean by Rocketpunk! There are several miniature figure wargames out set in "pulp sci-fi", and at least one set of ship-to-ship combat rules, and a couple of RPGs of varying degrees of accuracy! Also, new "Dan Dare" fiction is being published in the pro-fanzine "Spaceship Away", and the "Jeff Hawke Club" continues to reprint (as do Titan Books for both Hawke and Dare) 1950s comic strips. So, I'd say Rocketpunk is alive and well! Gosh, if we can read about ether flyers, we can surely read about rocketships!
Grif Ingram

Jim Baerg said...

"You need a large diameter, a couple of hundred meters at least, to get good spin gravity without nausea problems. A classical wheel station on that scale will have a volume comparable to a large office building, suitable for up to a few thousand people. Which is a lot!"

So the 1st rotating habitats would be 2 small habitable volumes on opposite ends of a tether (or a few tethers in case a tether breaks). Such a thing can be easily added to until the entire circumference of a wheel station is filled in.

"Sorry, but no Belters! Space mining is the sort of activity that lends itself very well to automation, while most of the people will be doing things that don't lend themselves to automation."

Like keeping the automated machinery in working order.

However, I'm not so sure space mining would lend itself to automation. Earth bound mining uses lots of machinery, but it has humans at the controls. My understanding is that human level pattern recognition is needed to distinguish valuable ore from worthless surrounding rock.

Anita said...

I would think that radiation would be a greater concern for space moms-to-be than kid's gravition adaptation.

Men have always been willing or at least able to take terrible risks to get things done, especially if big rewards are available.

Women tend to think twice if Junior or Sissy is at hazard.

Until the radiation problem is solved, if possible, space will be a place to explore and work. To live, not so much.

Jim Baerg said...

"Until the radiation problem is solved, if possible, space will be a place to explore and work. To live, not so much."

On earth we are shielded from cosmic rays by the atmosphere. At sea level, this shielding is equivalent to about 10 m of water or 3 to 4 m of rock.

So for space habitats to be shielded from cosmic rays we need to put a few meters of dirt from the moon or an asteroid around them. The space radiation problem is (mostly) solved as soon as we have a cheap way to get any material from either location to where we want to put our space habitat.

Rick said...

Grif - Having launched the term upon an unsuspecting world, I no longer have any real control over what exactly 'rocketpunk' means. I take it to mean retro-hard SF, my templates being especially Clarke and Heinlein. Of the two, Clarke now strikes me as a good deal more 'modern' - not in his technology, but in his concept of the sorts of things people would be doing in space. Less like Gilded Age America!

Jim - Something like tethered compartments is a likely start, though presumably with an access tube between them, and some kind of docking structure at the rotation axis - though tether cables will do the actual work of keeping the thing in one piece.

Long-term habitation may be developed first outside of Earth-Moon space, because of travel time. Near Earth it is practical to have personnel rotation times of 3-6 months. For Mars or the asteroid belt that would get eaten up by travel time, so you need multi-year hitches - and for that you need gravity for health. Even the 1/3 g of Mars may not be enough - that is one of the things we'll need to find out.

Like keeping the automated machinery in working order.

Presumably with plenty of duct tape on hand, and if possible a machine shop. My comment on Belters is more directed at the rocketpunk-era vision. I suspect that a fairly small proportion of the people out there will be engaged directly in industries like mining, and a surprisingly large proportion in 'tertiary' activities such as research and administration. (Again, I think Clarke had a more up to date vision than Heinlein did.)

Anita - Regarding radiation, what Jim said. Forget the traditional domed colonies; long term facilities on the Moon or Mars will be dug in. Long term space stations will be very heavy structures, much of the mass in shielding.

Surely in the early days of space habitation, prospective moms will be worried about their kids being able to adapt to Earth gravity, when the alternative is being stuck for life on the approximate equivalent of an offshore oil rig. But if rotating grav structures produce close to 1 g, the issue may not arise. And we may find that you need that much for multi-year habitation in any case.

Anonymous said...

Living on other worlds, like Mars or Luna,(I would think) would be like living in Carlsbad Cavern; if Carlsbad Cavern had Mall of the Americas built inside of it. I think that most colonies or outposts would be split between scientific and whatever commercial interest supported it.

As to space radiation; since most of it would be in the form of charged particles, magnetic or electric fields might take the place of at least a portion of mass-shielding. How expensive that may be, as opposed to surrounding it in meters of rock, needs to be examined.

As corny as it may sound, future rocketships may have corporate or academic sponsorship logos plastered all over them. After all, advertising is the way modern organizations drum up money and customers.

One of the reasons that there aren't company or college towns in Antarctica is that you can fly there in a matter of hours for at least half the year and you can have realtime conversations anytime of the year; Luna takes three days and Mars four to six months to get there. You need the support at hand on other worlds because you can't fly there the next day, or have realtime conversations, most places. If nothing else, letter writing may come back into vogue.

Rocketpunk; what the future use to look like and what the future should be like. The feel of the story might be more important than the nuts and bolts.

By the way, human exploration of Mars or Titan may be done best by lighter-than-air ships. Something to think about.

Big wheels with wings; the classic spacestation of the 1950s may be coming back into fashion. Most of the orbital hotels and research stations envisioned by commercial space ventures use the concept.

Well, people will be people and will do things that aren't always accidentally starting a native population at an off-world outpost. Stranger things have happened. (e.g. American Idol winners getting a bigger voter turnout than the American Presidential vote)

Well that's all I can think of for now.

Fred Kiesche said...

No rocketpunk? How about Allen Steele's stories where Robert Goddard builds a spaceplane to counter the Nazi Amerikabomber? Plus several other tales in that series, ending in a novel (The Tranquility Alternative).

Surely you've read those?

Rick said...

Fred - Dreadful to say, no, haven't read any of them. Nor MINISTRY OF SPACE, though I've heard of it (and failed to mention it). These certainly qualify as rocketpunk, though my own mental image, per my front page illo, is rooted in the 1950s.

Ferrell - As corny as it may sound, future rocketships may have corporate or academic sponsorship logos plastered all over them. After all, advertising is the way modern organizations drum up money and customers.

Aaaarrrggh! That's even worse than calling sports stadiums by corporate sponsor names.

I think you are right, though, about the link between travel and comm time and the growth of quasi-communities (that can then evolve into the real thing). Across interplanetary distances you need a degree of autonomy, in the everyday sense if not the grand political sense. Replacement parts can't be flown in, people can't be medevacced out, and an Earth-based Mission Control can't control in real time.

Mark said...

Hello quiet blog!

There are several groups of people known as "sea gypsies"sorry here's wiki so you never know your luck.

Mr Aaronovitch, whatever you are currently writing I hope that the spirit of Kate O'Mara is dominating...