Saturday, June 19, 2010

Adventures in the Plausible Midfuture

A week ago a poster over at SFConsim-l, Gregory Muir, raised an interesting question: 'What has changed in your assumptions about SF and when did it change? Which changes surprised you?' The resulting thread is one excuse for my having been remiss in posting here. (Thanks to Yahoo! Groups' wretched threading it is hard/impossible to follow in full, and parts have drifted into all too typical Internet political debates. You've been warned.)

Rocketpunk Manifesto is, in effect, my endlessly extended rumination on just that question. I gradually became dissatisfied with the SF setting I had created over decades (but never really did much with). It had one bit of para-prediction that looks good in retrospect - the Fall of the Terran Empire as crash of an interstellar real estate bubble. But on the whole it was a generic space opera setting, complete with FTL and Wild West planets. Bat Durston rides again!

On formal grounds All That Stuff is pure fantasy element, right up there with dragons and magic swords. And on one level, creating an essentially operatic universe and then belaboring the technical details of fusion torch drives is an exercise in missing the whole point.

There is a valid counterargument. Most fantasy has non-fantasy elements, and the general modern consensus is that these more realistic elements ought to be done 'right.' If people are going to fight with swords, some of them may be magical, but they should still be functional as swords. In a pinch, if all else fails, you should be able to skewer someone with it.

Likewise, if your starship has to travel a few AU in normal space before the lady singing in Welsh can have her desired effect, it is reasonable and appropriate to equip it with a credible torch.

All the same, the thread at SFConsim-l points to a growing dissatisfaction with the consensus tropes of SF. Why go boldly where Firefly already went? This dissatisfaction has been building for a while; 'Mundane SF' emerged to challenge the consensus back in 2002, and without quite intending to I jumped on the Mundane bandwagon by launching this blog.

But the full picture strikes me as more complicated and textured than simply Space Opera v Mundane SF, and it goes to the tensions inherent not just in SF but in the broader genre of Romance. In SF we (usually) imagine futures, though experience suggests that our best efforts to realistically portray the world of 2100 will, by 2100, be as laughably or charmingly retro, or both, as the future of 1900 seems to us. Or for that matter the future of 1950 with its circular astrogation slide rules.

Future shock is not confined to SF. Jane Austen, circa 1800, 'wrote what she knew,' about young women of the minor English gentry - a world that would likely seem commonplace to any young female (distant) relative of the Tooks or Brandybucks, but is thoroughly fantastical to us.

So I will re-pose here the question asked at the start of this post, along with a related one: Where is SF now, where is it going, and where should it be going?

Related Posts: From the earliest days of this blog, ruminations on Romance, and a couple of looks at the retro-future.

The image, as often, is swiped from Atomic Rockets.


Matt P said...

I cut my teeth on the grand ol' space opera, and to this day I think it's that kind of stuff that I really enjoy the most.

The mundane stuff, done right, can be a whopper, don't get me wrong. I just think there's something more magical about the epics of space opera. Maybe that's just the power of fantasy in all of it, I don't know.

As someone tinkering with his own setting (aren't we all?), I have this conflict on a regular basis. Keep it diamond (or at least cubic zirconium) hard and more true to real life, or have fun with it and go whole-hog? It is a dilemma.

I'm not even sure I care so much about the realism element anymore. I'm finding that I'm more interested in the storytelling aspects and the narrative; as cliched as the point may be, it's the writing and story that interests me the most. A gifted author can make any setting seem real and compelling.

FWIW, the rule of thumb I've adopted is to keep it as real as possible wherever it's possible to do so, but letting SF Story Magic creep in from time to time just for fun. It may be that compromise is the best we can do. There's no way we can get it all right, and even if it's right now it may wind up dating you to readers in 50 years. said...

I'd be the first to admit that I don't read much current science fiction, but the few novels I've found to be absolutely amazing have been The Windup Girl and just about anything by Ken MacLeod, especially Newton's Wake and Learning the Word. But I've also been reading more mundane fare, travel essays and books like A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle or The Olive Farm by Carol Drinkwater.

These books have a unique sense of wonder of living in a foreign land and not worrying about where the Galactic Overlord will arrive and attack before the Nerf harvest.

The SF stories I've found interesting are those that the author has decided to follow current science trends and runs with the implications that they imply. No Hyperspace, no gravity plates, none of that. Hard science trappings, but not front stage.

In Learning the World we have STL travel, near immortal transhumanists, first contact, and a plausible concept tying them together.

The "Star Trek" future is still prevalent in SFRPGs. I've had an argument over dropping gravity plates from a game, and people accuse me of being a stick in a mud! No one cares that you have to warp space to make gravity and that it takes mass or googleplex tons of energy to create gravity. All so that they can walk on a floor that is at right angles to the ship's acceleration.

Sigh. Stick in the mud? No, but I might fling some mud one of these days.

Citizen Joe said...

I think that the rules for the setting depend largely on the audience. If you're doing a book, as an author, you're limited by your imagination an what you can explain through dialogue. Additionally, you have control over all the elements, thus side stepping any potential pitfalls of someone questioning the physics of the setting. If you're doing a movie, you've got a time constraint and limited to what you can simulate on screen. You've also got to sell your soul to the box office. Also, actors usually put their own spin on things, as well as the special effects department. All those factors may go counter to your original concept. Then you've got interactive settings, typically in a game format. This is a hard one to deal with as geeks will tend to abuse any technology they can get their grubby mitts on. They will also tear apart any little crack in physics. I'll focus in on the novel aspects...

I like to start with a "James Bond" opening cut scene. This sets the mood and pushes the limits of what is possible in the setting. If the audience can swallow that, the rest is very plausible by comparison. To that end, you might stuff all the 'magi-tech' into that chapter and have the rest as hard science. Another route is to 'explain' the magi-tech. Hitchhiker's Guide did this with an actual device. Other stories do it with flashbacks. Another example was the movies Starship Troopers and RoboCop where the action was 'interrupted' by interactive news footage. Admittedly, those are all gimmicks to allow for narration. Some people don't like the break in the action, so I would end a chapter on a high note, then have a narration chapter that relates to some of the information earlier in the story. If you don't like the break in the action, you just skip that chapter.
Now if you MUST have magi-tech and you MUST explain it, limit the usefulness and side effects. If you need FTL, keep it away from gravity wells, or require deep gravity wells. If it can be used anywhere at anytime, then have it be used everywhere all the time and then savagely wreck any notion or normalcy with the consequences. For the most part, magi-tech exploitation is only really fun for one chapter after which you've made your point. Think of it more as a shiny object to distract the reader while you actually mess around with the 'plausible' tech.

ushumgal said...

For me, the setting is not so important as how well the story is told. Firefly, for example, may have a 'consensus future' and it may have relied a bit too heavily on the well-worn 'wild west in outer space' trope, but it was well written, with interesting characters and a lot of humor. My favorite scifi novels are Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan books, which also has an essentially 'consensus future' setting, but nevertheless has interesting, well-developed cultures (to say nothing of interesting, well-developed characters).

I think we sometimes forget that, when you get right down to it, the main purpose of scifi is for storytelling - a carefully crafted background universe is of little use if there is no compelling story to go with it.

Still, I would also like to see some more variety as well. The whole business of depicting spaceships as nautical ships, with the crew effectively standing on the walls, hits one of my irritation buttons. But I can forgive Miles Vorkosigan when he turns the gravity dial for the compartment down to zero like a light switch because its an incidental detail in a very enjoyable story.

When the story is not as compelling, this sort of thing can come to the foreground. I remember reading some book (David Weber, I think?) where the ships accelerate by creating a black hole in front of them and falling towards them...while magically moving the black hole as well. If the book had really grabbed me, I could perhaps have forgiven this abuse of poor old Mr. Newton, but since the story itself bored me, the disregard for basic physics is all I remember about it.

What annoys me much more than the common assumption of discovery of FTL, colonization of planets, getting chummy with not-so-alien aliens, etc., is that virtually all scifi depicts cultures basically identical to our own.

Look at how drastically American culture has changed in just 100 years. Is there any reason to assume that it will not change just as much in the NEXT 100 years? I guess it is easier to simply show the readers something they are familiar with, but I like to think that scifi is not just about technical extrapolation, but also social extrapolation. After all, the changing technology itself will have its impact on society, and that is only one of many factors that influence societies.

Citizen Joe said...

That could be another gimmick. If we presuppose that society changes relative to technology, then societal change will occur at an alarming rate in the future. Things may change so fast in the future that people grab hold of the appearance of some social setting in the hopes of maintaining some sort of stability. So there may be areas of 'wild west' in space where people have adopted that notion and thus act and dress in that manner to fit in. Meanwhile the real society is changing every five minutes.

Advanced technology may have led to the point that money is meaningless and thus as a retro backlash, some people do things the hard way for the sake of making their lives meaningful. Others embrace the technology and end up as enormous blobs plugged into vast networks.

Unknown said...

@ Citizen Joe: "I think that the rules for the setting depend largely on the audience."

This. If you're not talking to your audience, who are you talking to? If you're writing a Star Trek book, you'd better be willing to play within the rules of Star Trek (Or with the rules. Dyson Sphere is a kick-ass hard SF Star Trek story). Your idea of a world-dump right at the start is a good one. John Barnes described it as throwing the reader out of an airplane at 30 000 feet without a parachute and not telling them why.

Where is SF now? Stalled and stagnant, just like the rest of Western Culture (And just to forestall the debate, there's not a damn thing we can do about that. Any suggestions you have will just be part of the process, because you live entirely within the stalled and stagnant context). We'll have to completely reinvent the West before we can reinvent Western SF.

Where is SF going? To India, China, Brazil, Nigeria...

Where should SF be going? Wherever the people who are playing with it want it to go.


Albert said...

Dunno if Star Wars and Star Trek had started this, but everything I get my hands on seems a ripoff of them.
Cut here, past there, and you have a brand new setting that looks exactly like any other in the pool.

Stargate, Andromeda, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica and so on and so forth.

The only one I remeber as somewhat different was Seaquest. And even then it was just a "submerged spaceship".

Back on topic, the only books (both SF and Fantasy) I can still read (on average) are the ones written before the 80s'.

And this gets only worse in games and RPGs. Finding a decent PC game or RPG without bucketloads of SF pre-fab material is exceedingly hard.

(I've yet to find a game that was cool as Homeworld. It had a fascinating story AND an original setting AND exceedingly cool ship design AND a true 3D environment)

Note that I don't find annoying soft-SF per se, but the overly standardized use of pre-fab SF elements that looks so common. It makes me feel like the vast majority of what I read/play happens in the same fictional universe. And gives a Deja-vu headache.

The same feeling when I get my hands on yet another fantasy book that is in fact a Tolkien ripoff (or a D&D ripoff, that is itself a Toliken ripoff in the first place).

I see that's easier than creating everything from scratch, but I also see that lots of writers set up a story that would have worked with the ease in a much more mundane setting. Or in a Fantasy one just as well.

Example: Stainless Steel Rat books by Harry Harryson, my favourite books, can be adapted to a more modern and harder setting by just having the main character taking a stagecoach instead of a FTL-able starship. And wouldn't lose anything of its appeal. :P


Thucydides said...

The problem seems to be most literary and movie SF simply takes familier stories and adds a different "stage" to play it out. Star Wars (the movie) is "The Sword in the Stone" with a lightsaber substituting for Excalibur. The entire series of movies is a retelling of Faust.

Other SF series recreate Westerns, Age of Sail sea dramas, Imperial Rome, Samurai epics etc. with shiny techno bling to distract or confuse the reader/viewer. Not that there is anything wrong with this. These stories are still in play because they are classics and speak to something very deep in the human psyche, and cross dressing genres is old hat, see the "Seven Samurai" and the "Magnificent Seven". An SF version of Hamlet or Wuthering Heights done in competent hands would probably be quite interesting.

I have been playing around with an SF setting which retells the story of the Peleponessian Wars (Earth as Persia, the Moon and cis lunar colonies as Sparta and her Allies and wide ranging asteroid and deep space colonies as the Delian League); substitute Torch ships for Triemes and you start to see how easy this actually is.

"Real" SF has to make the actual science the starting point of the story; i.e. if this effect/invention/physical law did not exist, then the story would not either. "Blood Music" by Greg Bear is a fine example of this sort of story, without nonotechnology there is no story. I suspect the reason this sort of SF is not as popular comes from the fact that really out there science is very difficult for the average person to comprehend, and the various ramifications would be even harder to imagine or describe. (Most people working on these types of projects are not writers anyway).

My favorite example is Jerry Pournelle's observation that people had predicted the invention of automobiles for centuries, but no one predicted drive throughs, strip malls, lover's lane etc. If the effects of a fairly simple invention can be missed, how do you imagine the follow up effects of quantum teleportation or artificial atoms?

Since we can usually wrap our heads around Space Opera, and more importantly, the paying audience can as well, then most of the effort and energy of SF will be devoted to Space Opera tropes (not doing so means you need a day job to eat). The unfortunate side effect in my mind is that wile everyone toils away at Space Opera (or reads and watches it), the "real" SF future is coming along unawares, just like strip malls and drive throughs crept into society and culture unannounced and unanticipated.

Anonymous said...

Much science fiction, notably Star Trek, Andromeda and Stargate, does include most of the described elements, such as plentiful and often humanoid alien species and united planetary/system/interstellar governments (I would also add artificial gravity).
However, some science fiction is more interesting precisely because it uses some of these elements rather than all or none of them. Firefly and BSG had artificial gravity and interplanetary government but no true aliens. Pournelle's CoDominium/Empire of Man series had interstellar government, but no artificial gravity, and a single alien species (admittedly mammalian, but with a truly inhuman life cycle and society). The RPG 2300 AD had no unified interstellar government, no artificial gravity and a number of well-thought-out nonhumanoid alien species.
These works also benefited from the fact that the characters and societies depicted had realistic flaws, while the antagonists had reasonably understandable motivations.


Citizen Joe said...

So, what IS plausible?

We've got a big problem with too much junk floating around in orbit of Earth, so a setting like [i]Planetes[/i] could be possible.

Biosphere 3(?) could be possible as an experiment in self sufficiency and closed systems.

A Mars space race could be a background plot device for a whole series. The actual story would likely take place as a political thriller with corporate espionage.

Human exploration of the outer system would be unlikely though. Robotic exploration would be possible and likely.

Rick said...

There is a saying that Teresa Neilson Hayden has at the Making Light blog, 'Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.'

I learned this by experiment. When I wrote a historical fantasy novel inspired by the coolness of 16th century ships, it ended up being about the coming of age of a 16th century princess, because the milieu evokes Gloriana, and Gloriana will always steal the show.

The standard tropes have become standard, and been duly beaten to death, because they are inherently strong. They provide endless adventure towns, a new one for each exciting episode - which is a good thing. Look how the Greeks milked the Trojan War.

Firefly worked so well because of the subtleties, the flavor of another era. The original Dune worked for me that way (but not the sequels).

Everyone loves to hate on Hollywood, including me, but Hollywood has made SF part of the broader cultural idiom. The sense of stagnation in SF may just reflect that it is the equivalent of a mature tech. We can't re-invent it, because it was already invented.

Which isn't to say that new subgenres won't appear, the way alternate history has become an established trope in the current era.

How work gets judged, though, ends up being about story, which is the characters and their actual, immediate setting. Most of what I talk about here amounts to how to build convincing false fronts for your adventure towns, at least as regards spaceships and the like.

Rick said...

Forgot to add, welcome to another new commenter!

Sabersonic said...

As several commentors have mentioned, Space Opera is a very strong sub-genre of Science Fiction mostly because it's familiar and people understand it. It's one thing to create a futurist setting that really stretches the imagination and thought expiramentation of the author to the limit, but if said author looses his audience because they have a hard time trying to even RELATE to the content, then no matter how well imaginative the setting is the story itself is an ultimate failure. Those storytellers and worldbuilders among us should keep in mind that the key to a successful immersion of the audience's senses and imagination is the all important suspension of disbelief. If it's too tight, then it snaps and your audience is lost. If it's too loose then the audience is boared. It effectively what separates the true classics from those that should seek a better day job.

Also into consideration is the type of media the story is presented. For example, in Written Media, the autor can get away with comparing the physiology and behavior of Earth Animals, while Visual Media the creator cannot. The audience isn't so reliant upon their imagination to visualize the alien life forms and creatures as they are with the written media. And considering that not all authors and worldbuilders among us aren't going to be creating TV Series, Movies, and Video Games all by their lonesome anytime soon, we should keep the lessons of the written media to heart and to keep the immersion of the audience/readers as close to how we imagined it as possible without loosing them to such scientific detail and such that is well beyond their heads. After all, not every reader of sci-fi has a degree in the various fields of science.

It's an unfortunate ballancing act. Where the authors and worldbuilders have to create something that will wow and amaze our audience yet make it familar enough so that they are not lost while the story is told. Though it's encouraged to think outside the box, we shouldn't leave the box to the wayside and by extention the viewers.

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Anonymous said...

I have to agree that good storytelling will trump most implausabilities; that being said, I believe that keeping the tech in the background is also important. Keep it subtle. When I read Sci Fi from the '20s, the ones that I enjoy are inspite of the absurd tech they depict; the ones I don't enjoy, it didn't matter how plausible or not the tech was. The writing should drive the story, not the tech, which is just props.

As far as where SF is going, in the near future, maybe detailed examinations on how humans deal with living and working in alien enviornments; also, satire is always a useful tool for exploring both future tech and future societies. I've heard, somewhere, that good SF is a method of examining our culture by reflecting it in the mirror of a future setting...or, something like that.

Your aliens could be bumpy-headed humans with funny accents; they could be giant insects, lizard-people, werecats, or other intellegent Earth animal-derivitives. On the other hand, they could be as 'realistic' as Nibblonians that like on an Earth-like world; or that green-slime-blob-creeping-horror-type-thing living under the ice of a tidal locked world orbiting a Brown Dwarf; or maybe something like a cudlefish-stacked-on-top-of-an-octopus-on-top-of-a-squid based on sulfur living on some volcanic hell of a world, or even a cloud of tiny flying subcreatures connected by sonic pulses to combine into a larger super-creature that lives in the cloud-tops of a Venus-like planet; trying to figure out how these people communicate with humans, what their culture would be like, or even even how they would design the most commonplace devices we take for granted, like spoon or telephone equivilents.

I read an article in Popular Science(tm) about plastic antibodies; maybe this could be extrapolated into plastic people (i.e. androids), and the amusing situations that could be built on this new tech; would these plastic people be self-aware? Would they be used for ordinary purposes or placed in unusual situations? Would they become a threat to humans, be an asset, or would they be our salvation in some way?

Any of these have the potenial of being turned into a good story; most people have forgotten that SF should be an exploration of the human condition in relation to adapting to otherworldly enviornments or future techinical developments. Everyone thought the computer would change the world, but no one forsaw the internet; When the laser was invented, everyone saw the future of directed energy weapons, but who foresaw the DVD?

I say that you concentrate on one aspect of "magi-tech" and let the rest stand as hard as you can, but in the background. Write a good, compeling story and let the tech support it, and your story will be the better for it. At least, thats what my Lit and Writting teachers told me...


Rob L said...

What fascinates me about the near future drives my writing, but not neccessarily my reading. I still enjoy a good space fight and scruffy underdog protagonist, but i don't see those things as realistic parts of any kind of extrapolated future.

I follow robotics and machine inteligence news like a hawk and constantly dole upon its reprecussions on a future economy and environment. there is a likely future where robotics have replaced much of labor. The more labor that is replaced by an automated supply chain, the more commodities aproach a zero value. Along with this is massive unemployment.

Picture the process of building a car - start to finish, for example.

If you automate mining of materials, processing of raw materials into component ingrediants, to ingrediants in a process assembly, to component assembly, these are all simple tasks that will negate human labor once it becomes profitable to do so.

From a marxist perspective, that means that commodities and products produced will approach a zero market value, totaly shifting our relation to goods and the power structures that have formed around our present relations.

Simply, if zero or few humans interact with a good on it's way to market, what value can a good possibly have? Before transhumanism and super compiler nanotech, I trust that this is possible with cheap and easily programable robotics.

I've encoutered few stories that explore the ramificastions of this kind of change and would like to see more. Now, try and string a story around that trope.

As fascinating as it is, it lacks the explosions and 5 o'clock shadowed protagonists for me to turn a page.

Citizen Joe said...

I think that Star Trek's Federation is supposed to be like that. Everything is made by the replicators and thus money has no meaning in the Federation. Then, oddly enough, their ships are heavily crewed. It would seem to me that the big crews on ships are intentional to give people something to do.

ElAntonius said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ElAntonius said...

Oops, fired my photon torpedoes too early.

The implication in Star Trek is that goods have near-zero value, but that experiences are what drive people and that services are really what drive the economy.

IE: The crews of starships do what they do in order to experience the galaxy, and to serve their Federation out of loyalty.

That being said, a world of holodecks and replicators would imply smaller, not larger, crews to me.

Rick said...

Welcome to yet another new commenter!

To anticipate a future blog post, 'hard SF' is often as much about aesthetics or mood as it is about Realism [TM]. This image from an earlier post happens to be a real spacecraft, the ISS, but it has the hard SF look, stark and gleaming against the Vastness of Space.

But a story could occur in a hard SF setting and evoke very little of this, any more than we give detailed descriptions of cars or jetliners. For many stories, the only thing you actually need to know about the spaceships is how long they take to get where they're going, and much a ticket costs. (And you may not even say this much explicitly.)

I assume the Enterprise needs a large crew because they go through so many redshirts in the course of a five year mission!

We can already see some implications of highly automated production in the digital economy, notably what is happening in the music business. Recording and distributing songs is ceasing to be an income source for bands, and instead becoming a way to promote live concerts - something that cannot be automated. Even before the cyber era, 'handcrafted' goods commanded a premium over machine made goods of equal functionality.

In Starman Jones Heinlein mentions a truck stop restaurant that switched from automated serving to waitresses, basically because the truckers preferred some sass with their bacon and eggs.

I could see developments ranging from a 'hobby economy' to a Thorstein Veblen world in which elites keep hundreds of liveried servants, not to do anything functional but simply to show that they are rich.

Citizen Joe said...

Not to be political, but Castro outlawed tractor because they took jobs away from the proletariat. I guess the point being that if you introduce something that takes away jobs, you need to find jobs for those being displaced. This is sort of the inverse of training your replacement before you get promoted. In the case of space, there are no people out there working so robots aren't displacing any workers.

I do cabinetry and woodworking and I've seen the effects of automation on that industry. At one point during my classes, I heard about a group that went to a factory where sheets of plywood were loaded into one end and fully build cabinets came out the other. Then I thought, why are people studying cabinetry if that is on the horizon? The answer, much like the replicators, exists in the quality of the output. If all you're looking for is vanilla products, then automation is perfectly valid and able to provide you with the minimal cost plain Jane functional product. In my case, I work with a natural product (wood) that has natural features (wood grain) that doesn't behave like a perfect input (like MDF or Particle board). The end result is a better quality product that respects the materials put into it, and that shows. In Star Trek, people would complain that replicated food did taste as good as the real stuff. More to the point, it tasted exactly the same as it did the hundred times before, which in the end yields a dull experience.

In the case of the record industry, you've got your CDs and MP3's that all sound the same every time you play it, as opposed to records that might get scratches and such. After the hundredth time listening, a song might become very dull... Meanwhile, the industry is moving towards live concerts, each of which is slightly different and appeals to the local audience.

A potential plausible midfuture could be a divided society of essentially drones that embrace the sameness of efficient production and then an elite wealthy class with full peacock plumage.

Unknown said...

I'd just like to add a point to Rick's comment about the music industry - Record sales were never the main source of income for musicians. Studios made money off record sales. Performers made their money by performing or selling merchandise at their performances.

Yeah, it's a quibble. But a lot of my friends are musicians, and they're making more money on the new model than they ever could have under the old model.

Back to the plausible mid-future and consensus history. So far Fusion is a bust as a power source but useful in other areas of industry. What if it continues to be a bust as a power technology? No fusion torches and no too-cheap-to-meter electricity. How does that change the consensus future? What if asteroids turn out to be big piles of economically-nonviable gravel?

And I don't buy the post-scarcity future. We live in a post-scarcity society but Louis Vitton bags, iPads, and Ferraris are are still grossly expensive compared to any rational measure of their value. Economics is not a rational field (Just like any other social science) and you can't make zoo apes stop competing for status just by throwing more shiny crap into their cages.

You can rationalize a lot about Star Trek's economics just by recognizing that Picard is a military man, a hard-core patriot, and anything he says about Earth and the Federation boil down to nationalism. "You primitive savages just don't understand that the efficiencies of an interstellar replicator-based economy have done away with the evils of previous economic systems."

ElAntonius said...

I'd even argue that, for example, that Picard clearly enjoys more luxuries than the ordinary crew of the Enterprise. Being Captain might not pay more than being a Redshirt, but it does have its perks (not being killed every week is a good one, too!). Or to put it another way, he's paid in status.

I think a way to look at it is this: in terms of post-scarcity, many of us live in a society of plenty that people of even just 50 years ago would envy.

We think NOTHING of even a relatively poor person carrying a device which can immediately contact almost any other person in the country. And it probably has more processing power than supercomputers from 20 years ago.

Even a basic economy car today would likely embarrass a '50s sports car in a race, not to mention having luxuries that would have been mind-boggling to even a wealthy man. And personal transportation is no longer considered a particular luxury.

I mean, imagine going up to some kids huddling around a 7 inch black and white TV, with 3 channels, and telling them: "In the future, no one would bat an eyelash at my 46 inch color TV, with 1500 channels, and the ability to use On-Demand watching" (well, that's still a luxury today, but no one thinks it abnormal to see in a home).

A post-scarcity society (to us) is really just farther along the sliding scale. We surely would look post-scarcity to our ancestors.

Roger M. Wilcox said...

Now now, El Antonius, they were *very very careful* on ST:TNG to ensure that the guys who got killed by beaming down to the planet were NOT wearing red shirts. ;-)

But seriously, folks ... I would argue that, while most modern technology would seem like "post-scarcity economics" to the people of 50 or 100 years ago, and the "diseases of poverty" are now the exception rather than the rule in developed countries, and the food supplies of industrial nations make obesity a bigger problem than starvation, the one area that really HASN'T improved is housing.

Oh, sure, the houses themselves have improved, in some ways tremendously -- but housing costs represent just as big of a percentage of a modern person's income today as they did a century or two ago. (Source for this data: my gut intuition. Or perhaps a body part farther down.)

And this means that homelessness is as big and ever-present a concern in the back of everyone's mind today, as it was back then.

It will not be until THAT ever-present fear is done away with that an economy will begin to "feel" post-scarcity.

Citizen Joe said...

Someone asked me once what I considered high magic fantasy. To which I responded: Modern Day. We are able to instantly communicate to anyone in the world. We can all fly. We see illusions so often that we don't even wonder at it. Everyone has magical transportation devices that can travel a thousand miles a day. Our houses magically create water and dispose of wastes. Some houses are even sentient, distinguishing between friend and foe, locking and unlocking without keys. Anyone has to ability to kill instantly at a distance.

I can go on and on... We're living in a wonderfully/horrifyingly magical world. Although there might be a science behind how everything works, people that use these magical devices usually don't have the slightest clue about it. Meanwhile the effects rival the wildest magic of any fantasy setting.

At first blush, you might look at the accelerating technologies and then expand logarithmically from now. But I don't think that is the cause. I think that it has more to do with the number of minds in contact with other minds. Populations have been skyrocketing, but more importantly communications have increased dramatically, which has increased the percent of communication between people. So, I see advancements leveling off about the time that we reach maximum occupancy on Earth and maximum communication. I actually think we've exceeded the communication ratio already and it is being degraded now with noise. So that really limits us to planetary habitability.

That leads to space exploration for expansion purposes, which leads to more minds and thus accelerating the technology curve. That would make mid future stories slightly better at technology that current while seeking out the next big thing. Once that occurs, technology will accelerate once again. That big thing could be fusion, FTL, gravitics, or even something in the softer sciences.

Roger M. Wilcox said...

... unless we run out of non-renewable natural resources first....

Unknown said...

"but housing costs represent just as big of a percentage of a modern person's income today as they did a century or two ago. (Source for this data: my gut intuition. Or perhaps a body part farther down.)"

Housing and food both represent a smaller proprtion of living expenses than they did a century ago. It's one of the reasons boarding houses are no longer the main residence of the working class.

As a good general introduction to Victorian and Edwardian lifestyles, have a look at Judith Flanders' books. She falls prey to the usual BS about 'Victorian hypocrisy', but she presents a lot of useful information in a readable form.

Unknown said...

"Housing and food both represent a smaller proportion of living expenses than they did a century ago."

Sorry. I should have been a little more clear: At a similar standard of living housing and food both represent a smaller proportion of living expenses than they did a century ago. The problem with this comparison is that a middle-class house is now far larger than a middle-class house of a century ago - Or even than the middle-class bungalows of fifty years ago. We consume far more housing and food than we did fifty or a hundred years ago, so that pushes our apparent costs up. But if we lived on the same amount of land and ate similar quantities of food as our grandparents or great-grandparents our costs would be far less than what they paid.

Living standards for the working poor haven't been subject to the same social pressures as living standards for the middle-class, so labourers are able to afford better accomodation now than they would have a century ago. A bedroom seperate from the living area, a small kitchen, and a private bathroom, don't seem like much now, but it's more than most working class people had at the begining of the 20th Century.

That'll teach me not to post from work when I don't really have time to think about what I'm posting.

zmil said...

"Pournelle's CoDominium/Empire of Man series had interstellar government, but no artificial gravity, and a single alien species (admittedly mammalian, but with a truly inhuman life cycle and society)."

Mammalian? The Moties weren't even vertebrate. said...

The main deal breaker for me in most SciFi (As opposed to SF or Science Fiction) is the prevalence of artificial gravity systems on a space ship... or should I say "A boat that travels in space?"

Look at Star Trek any vintage, Firefly, both BSGs, and just about any TV and movie SciFi and you see boats that fly. (Human ships in B5 didn't have artificial gravity, they were microgravity and spin sections. The Minbari however... )

And a lot of SF novels have boats that fly as well, but it's hard to tell unless they use terms like aft and keel, and mention the bottom of the ship, but the engines are aft...

Most artificial gravity systems are magic: The gravity field doesn't extend past the hull. They some how compensates for the insane accelerations that their ships can do. Gravity plates must consume the energy output of a super nova to operate. And the energy density of the plates must be around the Schwarzschild radius for the thickness of the plate, so why don't they collapse into black holes?

And yet, if you take them away from folks, they will whiiiiine. "Yur tak'n away the sensawunda man!"

It's not a sense of wonder, it's magic! Its patently fantasy.

You can have realistic SF without pandering to the space opera tropes, by realizing that a lot of the stories are the same stories we've always told about ourselves and our lives. The real trick is to remember that those stories always changed to reflect the level of technology used in them. A romance story from 500 years ago will have the same plot for one set in the modern day. Yet the modern day version would seem to be fantastical to the readers 500 years ago because of the level of technology the writer assumes everyone is familiar with and treats like background color. Cars, planes, trains, telephones, TVs, computers, these are all magical devices to that ancient reader, yet the plot is one he can recognize once he gets past the phantasmagorical aspects of the story.

The same is true for realistic SF. And that's what so hard writing it. The only people who know what it's like to live in zero-g are astronauts and most of them don't write SF as far as I know. For us non-astronauts we have to imagine what it's like and watch a bunch of ISS videos.

So, it's hard to write realistic SF that can engage the reader like the more fantastic SciFi stories can. But I believe that it can be done, and make the SF elements part of the background, subservient to the plot. Tricky, but doable.

(That was a bit of a ramble, wasn't it? :-) )

Rick said...

Middle class house inflation (in the sense of bigger houses) strikes me as a variation on the theme that the one thing that will always be in scarcity is status.

A corollary, perhaps, is that the one thing that would most surely toss capitalism onto the dustbin of history would be if you could no longer buy status. Aristocratic societies tried to hold that line, but with very limited success. Communist societies briefly reversed the dynamic - nomenklatura status bringing the trappings of wealth - but that proved unstable.

Thucydides said...

One of my favorite deconstructions is with Star Trek: the implications of the Transporter:

1. There is no need for the sickbay or medical staff, since you can simply beam up the injured party and recreate him/her/it using the template you beamed down with. Same if the crew has the sniffles.

2. You don't need storage lockers, you beam down with the appropriate gear and clothing on. When you beam back up, the stuff you don't need is subtracted from the matrix.

3. You don't need the kitchen or food services either; just add the proper amount of protiens, sugars, ATP etc to the matrix. Dispose of wastes the same way.

4. You really don't need much of a ship after all, just store the entire crew as memory in the transporter system and beam them in and out as required.

You can go on quite a bit from there....

Jim Baerg said...

Ian Wright said:
"So far Fusion is a bust as a power source but useful in other areas of industry. What if it continues to be a bust as a power technology? No fusion torches and no too-cheap-to-meter electricity."

Maybe we don't need fusion to have electricity that's too cheap to meter

I think fusion (and 'renewables')have been oversold & fission undersold for a long time.

Rob L said...

Thanks for the welcome, Rick. I posted here a few months ago, though I believe under a different user name.

As far as modern housing goes, in the U.S. market there is actually a surplus of housing compared to demand, that is, enough standing houses and apartments to shelter every family and single adult that needs a place to live. The problem is affordability, and poor distribution. So people go homeless even though there are more than enough empty units out there.

By the way, the same goes with food. The U.N. released a study in 2008 that totaled world food production to be enough to feed 10 billion people, yet we know what the leading cause of death is in the 3rd world.

And yes, status is what we need most. I recall another study of female workers in Mexican machiadoras that footnotes their average household expenditures. The number one product they purchased was lipstick, so they could go to clubs and compete for acess to the wealth factory managers who frequented the establishments. These are people living in tin shack shanty towns, but they still purchase what they need to compete in their personal social sphere.

What I love about Sci Fi is the ablity to explore social relations in new contexts. The world of today is filled with such unsusual patterns of behavior as these machiadora women.

So yeah, we're looking at a likely future where jobs are teched out of existence. One futurist, Dr. Marshall Brain, (what a name for a scientist!) talks about 50 million jobs lost to automation by 2017. This is supported by trends in the last three market busts being jobless recoveries, directly resulting from technology and rising productivity (productivity rose 250% from 1990 to 2000). The jobs these people have found since then are typically lower paying service jobs, etc.

If you aim a conservative eye on Dr. Brain's (I love saying that) predictions, say by 2050, just about every service and manufacturing job is automated, products are produced so cheaply as to negate cost, and so many people are unemployed, as to totally change what we build modern society around. The only constant is the need for status.

I really don't see a rosey star trek future. Nor do I see some kind of appocalypse. We'll solve quite a few problems, but probably create three new ones for every one we solve, just like we always do.

But, what will we do with all those unemployed people? Will capitalism collapse somewhere along the way? If it does, we've probably got big problems. If it doesn't we'll probably transition into something very different.

I always fall back on an early contact period indian chief talking about huts in his village. When asked why he didn't have a bigger hut than anyone else, he replied that while he could easily find whatever he needed and built as big as he liked, he'd just be showing off. He's already chief, why rub it in? I think once we hit a certain level, we'll seek status in ways that have nothing to do with posessions, wealth, or property.

Rob L said...

Thucydides: "One of my favorite deconstructions is with Star Trek: the implications of the Transporter"

Beyond repairing crew members, a crew member in the memory buffer is essentially immortal. Red shirt dies down there, just beam up his backup. Sure, he has no memory of dying or what happened after the transport, but they're alive, right? How they missed that loophole, I haven't a clue. said...

The Star Trek Transporter: A really nice bit of magic. It's the perfect example of unintended consequences. It was initially just a teleporter: It moved you from the ship to the surface. If they had left it at that, with just a couple of caveats on its use, it wouldn't have turned into the monster it became later on.

It would make for a wonderful weapon. Beam an ounce of antimatter in a magnetic bubble onto an enemy ship and when the bubble bursts...

Anonymous said...

"Mammalian? The Moties weren't even vertebrate."

Sorry, I should have said Mammaloid. The Moties do have fur and an external ear, and give birth to live young.
On the issue of automation, the developed nations, at least, may be moving towards the ultimate expression of the Three Sector Hypothesis, where the vast majority of the population works in the service sector, with only a few percent involved in resource extraction and manufacturing. Farms and factories would be almost completely automated, with only a handful of human overseers, not necessarily on-site.
I imagine that even many of the service sector jobs in such a society, particularly those such as shop assistants, fast food restaurant staff and bar staff might exist primarily for the comfort of interacting with a human face, and to avoid the mass unemployment that Dr. Brain warns of, rather than from technical necessity.
Of course, in a science fiction setting, particularly one with FTL travel and human-habitable planets, the unemployed could be encouraged to emigrate to the colonies, which would lack Earth's automated economy and need human workers.


Rick said...

Some of the tropes we grump about are merely technical limitations of Hollywood F/X or general budgets. The notorious Trek transporter is a perfect example. It was originally put in the show simply to get characters on and off planets with minimum fuss and expense.

Only after it was already established did its plot-killing implications appear, let alone the weirder implications mentioned above.

Aliens with forehead ridges fall into the same class - much easier to cast than arthopods, etc.

On the other hand, the 'boats in space' convention is a bit curious, because it was NOT the rule in 50s era film, when the convention was more tail landers. Trek arguably has to take much of the blame for that one. (Though the old illos at Atomic Rockets often - though by no means always - had that fore-and-aft convention.)

Re economics, one thing I've rarely seen mentioned is that economic growth must be subject to the law of diminishing returns. Until quite recently most people lived in 'absolute' poverty, in the sense of being at risk of starvation or exposure to the elements. Only in my own lifetime has famine ceased to be an endemic condition in much of the world and become something that only happens due to gross misrule, civil war, or the like.

The difference between per capita GDP in industrialized countries today and in the pre-industrial era is roughly a factor of 10. I suspect that another factor of 10 would render most displays of material wealth as irrelevant as elaborate feasts are today.

On SF generally: To me, much the hardest part of visualizing a future era is not the tech but the incidentals, such as costume. It is really hard to come up with clothing that is not either contemporary clothing, perhaps slightly tarted up, or a ripoff of medieval/classical/whatever. Same with architecture, etc.

Citizen Joe said...

Again, I suggest using the idea that society changes so fast and so often that people adopt some sort of retro styles just to have some sort of stability. That simple concept gives you license to put in pretty much any style you want and indeed have multiple conflicting styles.

jollyreaper said...

With regards to the transporter, that's classic "unintended consequences." All they wanted was a means of getting the crew on the planet without a complicated SFX shot. Rather than make it disassemble and reassemble people, you could say it's a wormhole generator. Change the effect a little and there you go. You've moving the complete human through the hole, no different from stepping through a door.

Don't want transporters all over civilized planets? Just say that it consumes a ridiculous amount of energy and the military can afford to do that all the time but most people only use the transporter when traveling between continents. They have to save up energy rations to afford it. They don't use it to go to the restaurant. Because if transporters/wormholes were cheap, people would be hopping about all over the place.

jollyreaper said...

The whole argument between scifi and SF is supposed to be "scifi is cowboys and aliens with rayguns and could work if you removed the aliens and rayguns; SF is about exploring the implications of man's interaction with technology and removing the scifi elements unravels the entire story." Star Wars is scifi. The Matrix is SF. But you can also place "speculative fiction" in the same category as "science fiction" and call them both SF. 1984 is futurism and has a few pieces of technology not present when written and most people would just call it fiction but it really does fall under the speculative/science fiction heading. Same for Brave New World, though the scifi elements are far more prominent with the genetic engineering and super-drugs.

While scifi and space opera may not be as intellectually rigorous and profound as good, hard SF, they can still be quite enjoyable.

Something I always thought would be interesting to do, Star Wars was a recasting of old tales with a scifi gleam. I think it would be interesting to approach the whole story again but cast it back into the original fantasy setting thus also offering the opportunity to correct George Lucas' blunders.

Rather than a galaxy far, far away, the adventure takes place across an entire fantasy world. It's girded with oceans like ours so there's plenty of need for sailing ships. The Galactic Empire settles more neatly back into the role of Roman Empire. The whole planet is teeming with humanoid fantasy creatures from imps to elves to giants and trolls and things invented just for the story. There will of course be slaves which is what droids really are but there will also be artificial creatures like golems and clockwork men. But the majority of those races lack the political skill of the humans who were able to create the Old Republic and bring peace to the planet.

The Force pretty much remains exactly as is since it was pure fantasy and magic to begin with. The good guys use it, the bad guys use it. The Sith are pretty much Sauron and Melkor. Their attempt to conquer the world brought the free races into alliance to defeat them. The Old Republic grew out of that alliance. While those Dark Side followers were crushed, later seekers of power were inspired by them and they took up the dark arts.

jollyreaper said...

The republic grows anemic and internal divisions threaten to tear it to pieces. Cunning manipulation of the crisis brings a Dark Lord to the throne, our Palpatine stand-in. While the crisis is convenient in bringing him to power, he also knows that it is still real and the only solution he sees to preventing the complete disintegration of the republic is overwhelming force.

Palpatine's efforts divide the Jedi because it's unclear whether his actions are a necessary evil or an intolerable evil. Those who oppose Palpatine eventually become branded as rebels and must flee to the outskirts of the empire while his loyalists become his chief enforcers.

The dynamic between Obi-Wan and Anakin is far easier with a rewrite. They were master and disciple and Anakin sides with the side of force while Obi-Wan does not. The conflict that ends in the schism of the Order is when they have their duel. Anakin is maimed and thought dead but his body is reconstructed using black magic. Possibly entombed within living armor? Or a powerful wraith magically bound to a mechanical skeleton? I'm sure something suitably terrifying and awesome could be imagined.

Anakin's wife would be a Jedi who flees with Obi-Wan and the Jedi. Knowing that Anakin's children would be powerful Jedi, the twins are separated at birth, one going with Obi-Wan, the other with the mother. It isn't known that the Witch-King of the Sith is really Anakin, they are more concerned with the Emperor pursuing them.

The whole bit with placing Luke with his aunt and uncle on his dad's homeworld with the fraking skywalker name just doesn't work. He should be raised as an apprentice by Obi-Wan who adopts the guise of a wandering mystic and teacher. The plan with Leia goes awry when her mother dies due to misfortune and a provincial noble family adopts her, not knowing her parentage.

So at this point rebellion grows in the border provinces. Luke grows into a promising Jedi but Obi-Wan remains conflicted as to what they should do. He fears telling Luke the truth would just send him off on a fool-hardy quest to avenge his father's death. He settles for the white lie of his father being a rebel and killed in the schism of the order. What harm could it do? He had no idea Anakin still lived. And at this point in time, the audience might not either to preserve drama.

jollyreaper said...

The whole ball gets rolling with the Emperor's plan for the Death Star replacement, a city-killer. The Emperor has dissolved the puppet senate, having effectively ruled by decree for years but now making it official. And that city-killer would be the center of his new imperial policy.

The Imperial Army and Imperial Navy have grown to monstrous proportion, far exceeding the weaponry seen earlier. The imperial walkers are giant, mechanical beasts stalking the land. The navy ships have foregone sails and are leviathans powered by raw magic ripped from the very stuff of life itself. And the fighting machines of the air are floating ships and sleep ornithopters.

Leia, involved in the rebellion, obtains a spell of banishment for the city-killing weapon. That weapon needs to be something suitably horrible like maybe a demonic force capable of consuming the souls of everyone in the city. She's sent to find Obi-Wan as the rebels are trying to pull together everything they have, especially the surviving Jedi, to destroy this menace. Her ship is intercepted off the coast of a port city on the coast of a desert realm. She throws her mechanical servants overboard with a message for Obi-Wan and is then captured by the Witch-King of the Sith and his minions.

And from here you can imagine how things go. A chance encounter brings master and apprentice together with the clockwork servants. The message is relayed. Obi-Wan recognizes Leia for who she is and realizes that this is the sign he has been waiting for and decides on his course of action. He reveals things to Luke he had to now kept hidden, that he is a Jedi, the arts he has taught Luke aren't just clever tricks and acrobatics but the real deal, and that they're going to have to get involved.

Obtain a boat for passage to the provincial capital of Alderaan to meet with Leia's rebel contacts and meeting the rakish pirate Han Solo and his yeti first mate, arrive to find it destroyed by the city-killer, captured by the Witch-King, rescue the princess and escape, Obi-Wan recognizing now who the Witch-King is in their fight and being killed by him, and a stunning escape to the secret rebel base.

And then you have the climactic battle, the rebels using their combat ornithopters to fight their way to the city-killer weapon where the spell of banishment could be used to destroy it.

jollyreaper said...

You can imagine how things play out from here. The rebels try to setup a secret base in the cold wastes of the south. The Witch-King tracks them there and a tremendous battle is fought. Luke receives a vision to travel to the island home of a surviving Jedi master for training. Han and Leia endure a hazardous voyage to the floating city of Bespin where they hope to repair their damaged ship. The Witch-King is there, sets a trap to lure Luke. He's realized by this point that the skilled ornithoper pilot he fought before seemed too powerful, too familiar. The fight with his old master confirmed it. His wife must have been pregnant when she fled and he has a son, a son raised by Obi-Wan. So begins his plan to turn his son to the Dark Side.

Han is captured and imprisoned in a magical metal slab and sent off with a bounty-hunter to take back to that desert port where Han owes a crime boss money. Confrontation with the Witch-King, Witch-King tells Luke he doesn't know the truth about his father, Luke says the evil Jedi killed him, and the Witch-King says "I'm your daddy!" Luke jumps to his death to escape and is rescued by Han and Leia.

You can imagine how it goes from here. The emperor builds the new city-killer into a flying citadel (major nods to D&D), the citadel is constructed in a remote forested region that's home to the yetis like Chewie. There's no defense shield BS, the fight is going to be more like D-Day. Rebel fleet assaulting the beaches, the assault team going in like paratroops to lead the way to the citadel. The emperor's trick is that the citadel is already complete and it takes to the sky as the rebels have cleared the beaches.

jollyreaper said...

Confrontation with Emperor, Witch-King, and Luke in the flying citadel. The original plan to destroy the thing is completely shot. The force fight destroys the citadel but not after a few deadly soul-killing blasts from its weapon. The Witch-King witnessing the Emperor attempting to murder his son kindles the last spark of decency in him and he kills the emperor. Luke escapes from the citadel, imperial forces are not down and out yet but the yeti population enters the battle and helps win the day. And there's not a damn ewok anywhere to be seen.

You could do this story with a real mix of technology levels. Out in the provinces things are a bit more Lord of the Rings, medieval levels of tech. There's more glimpses of interesting magic in the cities with magical lighting, mechanical beasts of burden, self-propelled carts, looming airships, but also plenty of filth. The magical technology here should still have the feeling of quaintness and whimsy. The stuff brought about by the imperials would then have the sense of horror and mechanization and impersonal might crushing the weak and powerless. And I've always been partial to the idea of evil magic devices being powered by the consumption of living souls, ripping them apart and utterly annihilating the personality, denying them entry into any afterlife. That always struck me as a pretty good gold standard for evil. Especially with a setting with a universal magical chi life force, the idea of burning that for fuel seems about as perverse as chopping up your own family for food.

Anyway, that was a bit long-winded but there should be plenty of room for doing great things like this.

Roger M. Wilcox said...

Jim Baerg quoted an article claiming that nuclear (i.e. uranium) power plants had "insignificant" fuel costs, in other words, if consumers use 10 times as much electric power the plant's incremental costs (in terms of fuel) should be insignificant next to its constant operating costs.

But ... I'm betting there ARE operating costs that vary with the quantity of fuel consumed. Radioactive waste disposal (both high level and low level) being obvious candidates.

Citizen Joe said...

There are infrastructure costs involved with using more power. You need better lines for transmission. Right now, outside my shop, the local power plant is replacing the whole towers and transmission lines to upgrade the system. There are transformers that need replacing too. I don't think that it is so much a matter of making 10 times more energy as it is a matter of wasting 90% of the power capacity. What that really boils down to is that homes and businesses will pay a monthly fee to be hooked up to the grid with a certain peak power level. What that leads to is private substations where energy comes in at low power and then pooled, probably in batteries, and then used at high energy for brief periods. This is a lot like how a solar energy system works. Still, the energy isn't free, you just pay a flat rate.

zmil said...


"To me, much the hardest part of visualizing a future era is not the tech but the incidentals, such as costume. It is really hard to come up with clothing that is not either contemporary clothing, perhaps slightly tarted up, or a ripoff of medieval/classical/whatever. Same with architecture, etc."

Same here. I've just about given up on clothing. I suspect my difficulty there is partly due to bias- I simply can't imagine wanting to wear something besides jeans/cargo pants and a t-shirt. The be all and end all of comfort and utility has been found, why should it change? :P

I've tried for years to imagine how, when, and if good old fashioned wood will be replaced as the material of choice for the average house, without success. Building technology has advanced tremendously in the last half century, and yet it's still centered around various forms of wood- often engineered wood, but still wood. Nothing else has the right combination of workability, strength, and availability. The basic forms remain the same, too, for good reason. I've lived in a round house, and learned firsthand the annoyances of odd shaped rooms. And yet it seems somehow wrong to have Buck Rodgers living in a square, stick built house.

Anonymous said...

Rick: future trends in fashion might be aleviated by "smart" clothes; they look very plain before you 'upload' a pattern into them, then the microprojectors, processers, and optic networks produce an lillusion of whatever you want. January 2090 the trend might be for mideaval dress; in April of that year, dynamic neon lightshows might be all the rage; in December, your clothes would be backdrops to cartoons from the 1920s; February 2091 and the illusions are alternating moving swerls of black and transparancy (highlighting your level of daring).
Or, you could wear all your personnal gadgets like jewelry; the more multifunctional and gem-like, the more chic...
Or, you could combine them both and have some sort of a shapeshifting garment that intigrated all of your personnal tech into a single device/article of clothing; it morphs into whatever color, shape, and/or texture is desired, as well as giving you access to the internet, your PC (or Mac), TV, radio, game gadget, sensors, camping equipment, automotive tools, first aid kit, and everything else you can think of. It might be specialized, generalized, or even would be the ultimate in gadgets; and you'd wear it! Everybody would have one; if they could afford it, that is.

Transporters; They should have been a line-of-sight only, strictly limited range, teleporter; if not a mini-wormhole, then perhaps a 'doorway' made from those 'tightly coiled extra dimensions' high energy physiscs' keep talking about. Civilians have to use Public Teleportation Networks that have a strict coverage zone and can't be used outside of established area codes without a hefty penalty. The military would have unlimited coverage, plus it could use manually dialed coordanates, unlike civilians who have to use predetermaned addresses...especially at public teleport booths:("Please swipe your credit card" "Please enter your destination code" "Please push accept/decline" "Are you sure? yes/no" "Teleport in 5 seconds, thank-you for choosing All Terran Teleport...")


jollyreaper said...

Midfuture structures -- for the most part, they don't change much. Didn't someone post here some rare high-res color shots from right after WWII? Our sense of the past is adversely affected by crummy photography. If we actually look past the technology and consider the structures in the picture, many of them still exist today. How has New York changed decade by decade over the past fifty years? Some new buildings on the skyline, fancier signs, but substantially the same. It's not suddenly the Jetsons with everyone living in saucers on the ends of poles propped up in the sky. Incidentally, as a kid I had my own theory as to why they lived like that. It was after a nuclear war and the surface was too hot for humans to live safely and was ruled by mutant man-beasts.

As for wood, it's a great material. What I would foresee in the future is lab-grown or genetically engineered wood that would allow us to achieve the same effect as using beautiful old-growth hardwoods but without having to sacrifice those beautiful trees. I am sick to death of plastic, just absolutely disgusted by it and would love to see some sort of biodegradable substitute. We've been working on them for years yet so far nothing has really been commercialized.

As far as fashion goes, it's fairly stupid to begin with. The real question is to ask what the common morality is of the culture you're looking at. Will they be more permissive, less permissive, what are their attitudes towards sex and the human body? That will tell you where the hem lines are.

Here's the thing, though: fashion will more than likely look stupid because it is stupid. How dumb was wearing wigs? Completely dumb. Or those damn ruffles and horrible contraptions from the time of Queen Liz I? Doubtless we'll come up with even dumber things in the future. But if we run with that in a scifi setting, we run the risk of making everything look so silly that nobody could take it seriously. I think it's incredibly plausible that Gaga-esque fashions could become popular. I couldn't take seriously any scifi that ran with the concept. It would be too distracting to the drama of the story. So it's actually really useful to not be quite so imaginative when designing costumes so that the audience isn't put out. I mean good God, codpieces used to be popular! Some commentators said they developed as a reaction to the trend of leaving genitals openly exposed in the fashion of the time. I'm not sure how well-documented that part is but some of the historic examples go beyond bulges and can look like erections. If this could be real, historic fashion, the future could only be so much worse.

Unknown said...

Western clothing honestly hasn't changed that much in two hundred years. The lines have been simplified and we don't wear as many layers as we used to (AC and central heating make a big difference), but the basic combination of shirt/blouse and pants/slacks or kilt/skirt is unchanged. A lot of the cut and fabric patterns are the same as well. And youth/dandy fashion resembles the styles of the late Georgian or Regency eras.

Basically if your setting is still recognizably part of the West, the clothes will be recognizably Western. If your cultural setting is a long way from the West, look at the climate the people live in and compare it to the clothes of people in similar climates. Consider what resources are on hand (Dyes, textiles, ornamental materials) and make their costumes out of those.

And remember that fashion is stupid, so have them wear an onion on their belt.

Albert said...

Just a few thoughts on the "automation will make everything for free" theory.

My assumption is the same as the old one for slaves:
A robot/slave is property, an employee is not.

The above means that when a robot/slave breaks, you must pay to repair it.
In the case of an employee, you fire him and take a new one for free.

Ok, civilized nations will force the enterprise to compensate the damage to the worker in some way, but poorer or less-concerned ones don't provide such benefits.
(that's why "made-in-china" products are so cheap)

Now, you said "the robots will raise unemployement to high levels". What does this mean?
That people will be desperate to find a job, and will accept even the poorest working conditions because they need that money to survive.

And the nation can have all the laws you want, but if people is desperate enough, they will even work illegally. (and this isn't so uncommon even in civilized countries)

What this means for me?

Robots remain specialized for jobs where a human wouldn't be suited (either too much precision or too dangerous environment), while human laborers still have a place.
Because they will remain cheaper no matter what.

This for mass-produced goods.


jollyreaper said...

What this means for me?

Robots remain specialized for jobs where a human wouldn't be suited (either too much precision or too dangerous environment), while human laborers still have a place.
Because they will remain cheaper no matter what.

This for mass-produced goods.

I believe this will hold true for the near future. I don't know if this would also be the same as the midfuture. But it will certainly change by the far future. I'll call the far future 60 years out.

What would be the game changer? Self-maintaining machines. No human effort required to keep the gears greased, changing out the parts, or debugging problems. We'll have this when we get the kinks in fusion power ironed out. :)

When I think of an automated factory in the scifi sense, I'm thinking about the entire means of production running from a push-button. Resource extraction, transport, power generation, the manufacturing facility itself, and distribution.

You are very correct about the human being the cheaper part. There are many things that machines don't do well. Car washing is a classic example. Automatic car washes suck so bad because there's no way for the machine to tell if it's doing the job correctly. It just goes through a pre-planned series of motions but there's no ability to test to see if the car is clean.

I predict that improvements made in computer vision systems would see an easy improvement in car washes within the next decade. The car wash arm will use cameras to scan the surface of the car being cleaned and detect if dirt is still present, repeating the cleaning pass until the dirt is gone, maybe focusing a higher pressure water stream on especially stubborn spots.

We're seeing a continued process of replacing human power with machine power in all sorts of activities. So far the trend has been replacing human power with machine power but the brain work is still done by men. Any aid provided by computers is as calculators and visualization tools, handling the brunt work of laborious calculations but they don't generate ideas. Yet.

jollyreaper said...

Right now the fast food companies are starting to replace fry cooks. The fry hopper gets filled at the beginning of the lunch rush and the fries are dispensed into the fryer and then moved over to the holding area automatically. (not rolled out in wide use yet, saw a video of it.) There's automated drink dispensing machines that will fill cups with ice and beverage. Humans are still cheaper for cooking the burgers but for how long?

A video rental store seemed like a pretty secure business -- people love movies, will likely always love movies, and they'll need a place to rent them from. They're now under attack from two fronts. Netflix is distributing via the postal service and is making gigantic progress with digital distribution. And DVD kiosks in grocery stores can hold all of the top releases. That kiosk can replace an entire storefront.

Here's a robotic picker that can stack things on an assembly line. In this example it's putting sliced peppers on pieces of cheese.

High-speed robotic hand with visual guidance.

The kicker here is that this robot has situational awareness. A robot like this will be able to perform assembly-line tasks that have traditionally required humans for the hand-eye coordination. The kinds of luxury goods these days that command a premium because of "hand-picked" or "hand-crafted", indicating a greater care and handling than provided by machine, that stuff could be done by machine in the future. "Hand-stitched" by machine with quality to rival the best seamstress. It's completely plausible.

This situational awareness would be exactly the sort of thing required for self-maintaining machines. Though there's the question of just how far our robotics will go in the future. Nature doesn't worry about "fixing" things. A butterfly's wings don't get repaired. It has a broken wing, it dies and there are plenty more butterflies to take its place. The old butterfly gets eaten or rots and its recycled. But until that time worn out cells die and are replaced as part of the natural biological process. I wear out my muscles working hard, torn fibers heal and I'm back to 100%. I tear up the skin on my knuckles or cut my finger, this damage heals itself. Be interesting to see if self-repair could be built into machines at that level.

Jnani said...

It's interesting reading how often Star Trek (mostly TNG) comes up. I'm a scifi & SF fan, and I almost never watched Star Trek: TNG growing up. Recently, I watched them all - every single one - and loved it (although the first season was a bit iffy).

Why does that work as scifi or SF when so much of the science is inconsistent, faulty, or just plain wrong? Here are my thoughts:

Very few people actually watch or read science fiction for the science. Very few people actually care what "Temporal Disturbance in the Matter-Antimatter Converter Matrix" means as long as its an excuse for some innocents to die, the crew of the Enterprise to be pushed to the limits to save the ship, and in the end grow from the process. It didn't matter that Klingons were essentially Mongolians with forehead ridges as long as we got some sweet Bat'leth action scenes, and the always badass Michael Dorn intoning direly about Honor. In essence, most people watch and read Scifi & SF to see the most epic explosions, the scariest monsters, and the most extreme Romance and heroism.

Where is the future of Sci-Fi? Wherever the baddest action, worst case scenarios, and most lovable rogues are. You come up with a great character, we'll follow him no matter how many gravity plates and forehead ridges he comes up against.

Perhaps theres an inverse rule in here. In real life, the best science is science that helps society move towards great everlasting peace. In fiction, the best science is the science that moves society towards total obliteration.

Albert said...

Self-maintaining machines.

Yeah, we are millenia from something like that. Fusion is far easier in comparison.

Let's play Devil's advocate (for its own sake), although I'm pretty sure you already know its downfalls.

There is hole: starting up cost.

To set up a factory with semi-slave labor what do you need? A big industrial building, a few poor people (that aren't hard to find), some second-hand ragtag equipment for them to operate and the resources to process.

Sure I'm not talking about microchip fabs, but you get the idea.

A fully-enclosed automated fab will have an awesome price.
Thus will be limited to only very wealthy investors.

Another hole: economy is fluid, and if you don't adapt fast you get bankrupt.

A lower start-up cost means that the fab will repay itself in a few years, and then can be abandoned any time without you losing your investment. If you are forced to close your automated fab before it payed for itself, you lose invested money.

Last hole: The perfect place for a fab may not be the best place to mine its resources.

I mean, even a foundry needs 3 products: iron, coke, random additives.

Finding a place with both iron, hig-quality carbon (that is then turned into coke), and all the additives is pretty hard.

I predict that improvements made in computer vision systems would see an easy improvement in car washes within the next decade.

I fully agree with you.
The main problem is: will that high-tech car washer be cheaper?

The point that makes the difference is cost-effectiveness.
Anyone can take a bucket of water with some detergent, a sponge and do the same for far less.
The cheapness of "anyone" will only increase if robots "steal the men's work".

Humans are still cheaper for cooking the burgers but for how long?

As the human disoccupation rises (cheap bots take the place of human workers), people accept lower and lower pays because they must survive, thus will remain competitive.

And if the robots become too cheap, you'll see _real_ luddites destroy the bots.
And then the government will do some laws about it to restrict the bot use and keep people alive.
People must survive.

"Hand-stitched" by machine with quality to rival the best seamstress. It's completely plausible.

Fully agree. But then the human-made things will be the cheaper mass-producted stuff.

Because humans will be cheaper than buying a bot (due to unemployment). Or governments promulgated laws against bots to keep economy from total collapse.

Sounds like a mindwarp, but that is what happens today in most medium-to-high quality products assembly lines.
Bots do the grunt work in high-precision fabs, CD, DVD, chips, electric components are all done by automation. No man can reach that level of precision.

Be interesting to see if self-repair could be built into machines at that level.
That's a common argument to justify the "superiority of biotechnology" in sci-fi.

The simple unglamorous answer is that most machines are sturdy enough to ignore the level of damage that a biological body is able to repair.
Example: shooting a bullet at it, bounces off a structural component, now its paintjob is sorched, so what?
Most industrial robots are even sturdier.

All summed up, what you say applies much better to space-based fabs.
Why? Because keeping alive a Human in space cost a lot. :)


Jnani said...

A thought on the self-maintaining machine front - we already have a beautiful working self-maintaining machine: planet Earth. One can argue, persuasively, that we are gumming up its works, but it still remains a beautiful self-maintaining machine.

One can extrapolate from this that building an artificial self-maintaining machine would at least be on the scale of building a new ecosystem - a synthetic one, perhaps, but an ecosystem regardless.

Stevo Darkly said...

@jollyreaper: Bravo! I really love your re-engineering of Star Wars!

However, no great idea is ever completely original, even though no two great minds think exactly alike. Therefore it may dismay or amuse you to learn that a few years ago Kenneth Hite, an enthusiast of role-playing games, also came up with an idea for re-casting Star Wars in a fantastic Medieval Europe.

His original article seems to have vanished from the Internet, but a fragment happens to survive on my hard drive:

959 A.D. It is a dark time for the Rebel Alliance. The forces of the undying Emperor Heinrich of Palatine are everywhere on the march. He has converted the Byzantine Trade Federation to his evil cult, and infused his venom into their cunning daimones and homonculi. The imperial Storm-Riders in their eerie bone-colored armor spread across Germany, subduing the independent barons, the hairy Wodewoses, the wise dwarves, and every elf or land-spirit of a thousand forests and rivers. The center of the resistance is Liudolf, trained in the lost arts of the ancient and holy Paladin Order, founded by Charlemagne decades ago in the time of the Old Confederation. Six years ago, he successfully rescued the Princess Adeleia from the hidden Astrum Mortis fortress at Ivrea, which he destroyed using the fortis granted by paladin training. But he did not manage to kill Ottokin, the Dark Paladin who serves as the Emperor's occult enforcer. Worse, this year Ottokin managed to trap Liudolf on the sky-city of Magonia, where he cut off Liudolf's hand in single combat with flaming swords. The subtle arts of the Byzantine doctors have grown Liudolf a new one, composed of mandrake flesh and whippoorwill bones -- but now, Liudolf finds himself ever more attracted to the dark powers of the fortis espoused by Ottokin -- his father.
That's full of win. I love the language.

Likewise, I also really love the way you (jollyreaper) thought through and extensively fleshed out your own ideas along this line. Thank you for sharing all that.

In a somewhat related vein, earlier this year I had my own ideas about taking Star Trek and re-casting it in a fantasy world that includes steampunk tech, warlike medieval hordes and a decadent Graeco-Roman-Elvish empire.

Please see:

Sky Trek (airship battle)


Sky Trek: Map

Rick said...

Recasting the Star Wars cycle into a classic high fantasy setting invites the inverse exercise, LOTR as space opera. Most of the conversion is fairly straightforward, allowing that space travel, like sea travel, has some essential differences from overland travel. Mount Doom can of course be a black hole, but what would be the unique Ring that, once destroyed, can't be replaced?

(For that matter, why couldn't Sauron replace the Great Ring? It was a made object in the first place, after all.)

On automation and future economics, a few somewhat random thoughts. With emerging sensor and image processing tech we could probably build carwash machines that compares in performance to human car detailers with sponge and bucket, but there is still the element of personal, human attention, for which there will be some demand for those who can afford it.

On the other hand, how many people will personal services to elites support?

On the third hand, extreme economic inequality could leave capitalism starved for customers. There is a whiff - perhaps a foretaste - if this in the current stagnation. Apparently a lot of big investors are basically just sitting on piles of cash, because there is a shortage of profitable investments.

A bread & circuses welfare state offends the anglosphere's puritan sensibilities, but it may be the most practical way to prevent capitalism from stalling, by providing it with a customer base.

jollyreaper said...

@Stevo Darkly

Glad you liked it. I think the fantasy setting really serves the story more justice because the inherent holes seem a bit more glaring in a scifi setting. Hell, at least lightsabers make more sense here when you lack practical handguns and energy bolt casters have the relative drawbacks of crossbows or early blackpowder handguns. There's a limited timespan where the sight of a combatant with a saber in one hand and a pistol in the other didn't seem completely ludicrous. I'm not exactly sure when the sword became a complete anachronism -- I know they were chosen weapons in duels long after they lost utility in proper fighting. And the more common hand weapons even with the dawning of firearms were polearms, not swords.And later the bayonet on the rifle served when fighting became close-quarters. Even when you grant the Jedi the prescient ability needed to deflect blaster bolts, it would seem a Jedi with a blaster would be even better than a Jedi with a laser sword, no matter how awesome a laser sword is. :)

I've always been partial to Star Wars, it being my first and favorite scifi crush. That made the crappy expanded universe stories really hard to swallow and the prequel trilogy was just a complete disaster.

I like the historic Star Wars rewrite snippet you had. Using that old historic saga language always makes the events sound more epic. :) As a shortcut for fantasy writing, I always did think it would be interesting to borrow more from history when creating the fantasy worlds rather than just ripping off a culture and giving it a different name. The Princess Bride did that, standard fantasy setting with fake countries but we know there are Spaniards and Sicilians so the rest of the world of roughly that era should be out there as well.

I've read some novels where this approach is taken but the results have been fairly uneven. Some create alternative histories with the magic and fantasy in place, others say the timeline pretty much went as is but work fantasy into it. That's actually not as crazy as it seems at first when you look at the way we approach stories set in ancient times. We either accept the fantastic elements literally from myth and have gods interceding in events or we try to strip out the supernatural and tell the story as best we assume the history would have gone, i.e. Troy with Brad Pitt vs. Clash of the Titans.

Unknown said...

@ Rick: "(For that matter, why couldn't Sauron replace the Great Ring? It was a made object in the first place, after all.)"

Because Sauron placed a bit of himself into the One Ring. So long as he held the Ring under his control it acted as a focus, making him more powerful than he had been before. But once he lost it he was wounded and weakened. A piece of himself was missing - The most important part, according to the theology buried in the Lord of the Rings, the part that ultimately came from Iluvatar.

It helps if you understand that Tolkein was a devout Catholic. Sauron (And his former master Morgoth) was incapable of true creation. He could only copy or twist what already existed. Even the Nazgul, the undead crowned kings of Man, were twisted copies of something that already existed (According to Catholic theology). One of the real-world origins of the root -naz was Nazarite.

If you want to 'translate' the Ring-saga into a space opera, I'd suggest making the ring-analogue itself out of several different isotopes of Unobtanium. Your Sauron-analogue may have broke his R&D budget just getting enough of all the different isotopes to make one R.I.N.G. Reclaiming the lost R.I.N.G. is thus the only economically or industrially viable option. And he really wants to get the R.I.N.G. prototype away from his enemies before they uncover its full sun-detonating potential...

Anonymous said...

Jollyreaper: swords were common alongside single shot pistols for naval officers and boarding parties due to you needing a back up weapon so much sooner than you could reload...I do believe that this situation lasted about two centuries.

Swapping from SciFi to Fantasy and back again is always a good way to tell if the story is content dependent or if it is plot driven; If the story falls apart when you change the setting, then it isn't plot driven and probably not a strong story to begin with.

You're right, all fashion is silly! clothes are either stylish or functional (sometimes both, but not very often). Functional clothing design is driven by comfort and practicality. Fashion is driven by...whatever the leaders of the style cult feel like at the time...


jollyreaper said...

Recasting the Star Wars cycle into a classic high fantasy setting invites the inverse exercise, LOTR as space opera. Most of the

Yup. It was called Babylon 5. :) Not really LOTR with the serial numbers filed off but had far more fantasy elements involved than your usual Trek.

conversion is fairly straightforward, allowing that space travel, like sea travel, has some essential differences from overland travel. Mount Doom can of course be a black hole, but what would be the unique Ring that, once destroyed, can't be replaced?

The problem with doing this is that scifi has to have rules that make a little more sense than fantasy. With fantasy you can lay down some magical rules and so long as they're self-consistent, you're good. Scifi wants more explanations. Classic point, the soul. Souls are a part of the Middle-Earth universe. It is established that every being has one, it cannot be added to but powerful beings can subtract from them. Sauron was able to put a portion of himself into the Ring. Why did this give him so much power? The details aren't elaborated on, it just works this way. Sauron cannot grow back that part of himself. Why not? Never explained. Why can he not assume fair form again? Not explained aside from being destroyed once before. We accept this as the magical rules of the universe. In scifi we argue more. We would object to the idea of a soul and so ask "Well, is it like losing a part of your brain? But he's a non-corporeal entity. How can he lose a part of that?"

(For that matter, why couldn't Sauron replace the Great Ring? It was a made object in the first place, after all.)

See, that's a scifi question. :) Souls are never lost in the Tolkein setting. Men go elsewhere from Arda when they die, that's called the Gift of Men, death. There was talk that dwarves don't have souls but that's open for debate. Elves have a very Greek afterlife in the sense that they reappear fully formed and whole in the Undying Lands which is a place that can be journeyed to and is physically located within Arda. It was partially removed after the men of Numenor sought to invade it and now only the Elves can sail to it. But it would be perfectly possible for an elf to die and then return from the Undying Lands, the same as a Greek hero making the journey back from Hades.

jollyreaper said...

Jollyreaper: swords were common alongside single shot pistols for naval officers and boarding parties due to you needing a back up weapon so much sooner than you could reload...I do believe that this situation lasted about two centuries.

Yup, but that's a very specific time period. Scifi that's prior times dressed up in new guise will borrow all sorts of things. Star Wars was clearly a mishmash of the Wild West and WWII. The prominence of blasters in combat and the way they would fire single blasts with each trigger pull is classic Wild West gunslinging. Lucas could have just as easily based the blasters more on contemporary machine pistols and had them firing a flurry of shots. But you'll also note that the blasters are more reliable and can fire more rapidly than the pistols that were used alongside sabers.

Lightsabers really don't make a whole lot of sense in that setting. They're about as bad as the cliche of the modern-day badass who uses a katana as a primary weapon. The ultimate example of this stupidity was from the anime Cowboy Bebop where our hero uses a gun, his nemesis the katana, and despite starting their fight a hundred feet apart they quickly close to sword-fight distance and the bad guy is batting away the gun with his sword while the hero is trying to shoot him.

The Jedi have exactly the same problem as the Highlander franchise. Swordfights are awesome. How do you justify them? Ok, you have to cut off an Immortal's head to take his quickening. Couldn't you just blow his head off? Or barring that, why not shoot him in the chest? It takes a moment before he resurrects so get in place to cut his head off then. There was one episode of the TV series where an immortal trained dogs to take down his opponents and he would then cut the head off. The whole thing of immortals having their own gaydar to detect each other was done to make it easier story-wise to explain how they find each other and also to take away the possibility of one immortal ambushing another -- there should always be a warning.

Any smart immortal in that setting would have disciples who would do his fighting for him and he would simply stand by to take the quickening when it was released. The whole Highlander premise falls apart the moment you start thinking about it.

jollyreaper said...

If you want to 'translate' the Ring-saga into a space opera, I'd suggest making the ring-analogue itself out of several different isotopes of Unobtanium. Your Sauron-analogue may have broke his R&D budget just getting enough of all the different isotopes to make one R.I.N.G. Reclaiming the lost R.I.N.G. is thus the only economically or industrially viable option. And he really wants to get the R.I.N.G. prototype away from his enemies before they uncover its full sun-detonating potential...

In terms of techno-mysticism I imagined what it would be like if a high-tech civilization fell to anarchy with all the satellites left up in orbit. We'll assume these sats were built tough and could remain operational for hundreds of years. There's recon and particle beam sats. So the most powerful weapon in the world is the Mac of Guffin, a magic looking glass (i.e. computer interface) that reveals satellite imagery and can issue valid fire missions. The owners don't really understand what they're dealing with, just that following the rituals in the precise matter outlined will call down fire from the sky.

Running along this train of thought, the Soviets were supposed to have been fairly paranoid with their weapons and kept firing control centralized. Rather than following the American model where nuclear launch codes are transmitted and then acted upon by crews, their missiles were supposed to be able to to fire automatically with no human in the loop save the guy holding their version of the nuclear football.

So for a galactic tyrant of sufficient paranoia, he's more concerned with threats from within his own camp than outside threats. Imagine if his weapons can't be activated without specific permission from himself and the activation is limited. Not ideal from a military efficiency point of view but necessary if he's concerned about the weapons being used against him. And this code-issuing device should not be easily replicated or else rebellious troops could issue their own codes.

He would need a way of generating valid codes that can be transmitted electronically but whose pattern could never be broken and replicated. A tall order. And I doubt he'd keep the interface on his hand for some ewok to cut off in the middle of battle.

To explain a One Ring, you really do need the magic/fantasy element here. Otherwise it's rather hard to imagine an object one could hold in a pocket but would undo an enemy with its destruction. For something like that key I described above, if the tyrant really lost it, you'd think with sufficient time the interlocks could be removed from existing weapons and replaced with new ones that respond to a new key. Those locks aren't meant to be completely unbreakable but not breakable in the amount of time that would do any good for rebelling against him.

Sabersonic said...

Since we're on the subject. One can envision the "One Ring" as a way for Sauron or similar to attain immortality by becoming an electromagnetic life form a.k.a. data, but needs a way to interact with the physical plane that simply not that obvious in addition of, oh I don't know, take command of the other "gifts" the other rulers of (insert world name here) who wear them. A piece of the Overlord that can send back sensory data and recieve commands from the server that houses the electromagnetic life form in a heavily defensible but secret location that can turn any automation or any unlucky sapient being into an avatar of the lifeform itself. One that isn't so obvious until its too late yet hardy enough to withstand the tests of times and the occasional battle axe or blaster.

True, this idea borrows from the original description of how the whole thing works, but it does give a techno-ish explanation of how it can ultimately lead to the big bad's destruction, or in this case banishment to cyberspace. As for there only being one, well any self respecting overlord wouldn't want the override device to fall into the bellows of mass production, not if he want's to be the sole ruler of everything. Such a device might make militaristic sense for mass production, but when one want's to be the only ruler of the planet and not worry about someone else to challenge their dominion you only need one.

Oh, and one other thing:
"In terms of techno-mysticism I imagined what it would be like if a high-tech civilization fell to anarchy with all the satellites left up in orbit. We'll assume these sats were built tough and could remain operational for hundreds of years. There's recon and particle beam sats. So the most powerful weapon in the world is the Mac of Guffin, a magic looking glass (i.e. computer interface) that reveals satellite imagery and can issue valid fire missions. The owners don't really understand what they're dealing with, just that following the rituals in the precise matter outlined will call down fire from the sky. " - jollyreaper

Sounds like Lost Technology rearing its head again.

Though now that I think of it, exactly how plausible is "Lost Technology" in the first place? To create a piece of advanced technology that can last for several millenia without any sign of decay or detterioration just after the obvious environmental abuse of whatever took out the civilization that made it and still be militaristically viable to those who know how to use it is just simply too tall an order economically and materialistically (without unobtanium and similar products mind you), let alone the bonus of self-repair.

Granted, to have a story centered upon this mystical devise only to have it turn to dust at the slightest touch would just be histerical. Anti-climatic, sure, but histerical none the less.

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Sabersonic said...

Continued from earlier reply

As for the incidentals such as fashion, well a futurist would go into detail into what would be in vogue and why. A smart SF writer just adds flavor and suggestion, allow the reader to imagine what they wish. Granted, it'll mug up things when an explanation is needed but when you really get down to it, how essential is downloadable advertisement on your T-shirt to the story at large?

And getting back to the topic of where SF, Sci-Fi, and Space Opera would be going. Well, like fashion I kind of see literary "Fads" for lack of a better word go in cycles. A basic idea that was once considered grownd breaking and imaginative now seen as cliche and outdated would ultimately become popular again in a few decades, with each reincarnation being more unique and distinct then the last yet reflective of the era that it made it comeback.

As for the use of arcane weaponry and tactics in modern warefare, well When all you got is a horse, an AK, and a calvary sword to face off whatever's left immediately after nuclear armageddon, you work with what you got.

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Anonymous said...

A civilization paranoid about nuclear war but who gets wipped out by a mutant virus that kills everyone over the age of 12... by the time the survivors grow up and rebuild civilization, the 'old' world (and its tech) are the stuff of myth.


jollyreaper said...

One more thought about self-replicating machines. I'm not wanting to indulge in bio-wank where "bio-tech living ships are 10000x awesomezer and pwn everything!" But there's an interesting point in comparing the ox versus the tractor.

A tractor is a pretty neat piece of kit. It can run all day without tiring. It can get more work done than an animal team, is ready to work when you turn the key and can be left right where you parked it when you turn it off, doesn't have moods and temperament.

The drawbacks, of course, is that you need a lot of money to buy a tractor. It requires spare parts that are a continuous outflow of capital from the farm. You no longer have manure to fertilize the fields and you are also tempted to go with monoculture crops which now require more artificial fertilizers and pesticides and put you more in hoc to the bank. The tractor requires fuel, spare parts, and none of that can be homespun on the farm. You can't breed two tractors and have baby tractors. You can't graze a tractor and have it fuel itself.

You have the same arguments comparing the horse to the motorcycle as forms of transportation. So the scifi question is "Could you bio-engineer a better horse or ox?" But the other question you have to ask is "Could you use that same bio-engineering to obviate the need for one?" As an example, Leo Frankowski had bio-engineered treehouses in one of his books. The tree lived in symbiosis with the inhabitants, recycling human waste and drawing nutrients from the ground to produce nutritious food on tap in the eating nook. So the question of building a better ox or plowhorse is removed because manual farming is no longer required. We're leaving aside the question of just how big the tree would need to be to harvest enough solar energy to create enough food for the inhabitants. I think the treehouses in the book might have been slightly undersized.

This same line of argument was used to justify the idea of horses in the Firefly universe. Why are planetary settlers using horses rather than hovercycles? Because horses breed don't require an interplanetary supply chain. But this brings us back to the interesting question of just what it would take for settlers on a virgin earth-like world to create a comfortable technological society.

I had a story idea along that line, setting up society from scratch. The premise is a billionaire industrialist's scientists perfect a dimensional portal and have found a way to travel to an uninhabited Earth. The industrialist knows that if he just opens up the world for exploration we'll see land grabs just like we had on Earth with the opening of new continents. So what he does is recruit a dozen groups and tells each one separately that they're the very first new society settling on this planet and they get to figure out how do to things properly. They're settled continents apart and each group is unaware of the others. The question the industrialist wants to answer is whether it's even possible for a human society to be perfected or if they're all doomed to being screwed up one way or another.

Citizen Joe said...

How would a virus make that distinction? Perhaps a dozen years earlier some other virus had been eliminated and that was the last time injections were given. The new virus reactivates the antibodies from the vaccinations which causes everyone that was injected to die. The technologically advanced people die, but the third world nations that never got the vaccinations survive.

Albert said...

jollyreaper said...
But there's an interesting point in comparing the ox versus the tractor.

That's simple.

A common machine does not have to carry around the mass of the digestive system and mass of the reproduction systems.
This obviously makes the tractor more efficient.

For the same reasons, the tractor is less suited for stand-alone operations. But if you have the money to buy it and the infrastructure to service it is in place, a tractor is well worth the investment.

Just a little nitpick: I think you don't examined the "mainteneacne costs" for living beings. Sometimes they get sick, sometimes they hurt themselves, and then you must pay (a lot) for a Veterinary to help them survive.

Also, you can design machines to be cheaper and more rugged by sacrificing preformance.
A third world farmer won't be able to afford nor to keep working a John Deere, but if the tractor was designed to be exceedingly rugged (engine design with loooooose tolerances) and able to work by burning wood (look up "gasogen" on wikipedia), you get a much better and easy to repair piece of stuff.

But even a third world country farmer has access to more infrastructure than a colonist on a new land, so this won't be a big benefit for the latter.

But this brings us back to the interesting question of just what it would take for settlers on a virgin earth-like world to create a comfortable technological society.

Depends from the space in the cargo bay of the colony ship.

Assuming fun scenarios (i.e. no automated self-replicating bots that solve all problems) the colony ship will have a few prefab factories and mines, but their work would be to build infrastructure (i.e. build more fabls and mines and generally setting up the supply chain needed to support a colony)

In the meantime, the colonists will have to use animals or live off supplies.
(or keep using that closed-cycle life support that the colony ship will surely have)

Citizen Joe said...

How would a virus make that distinction?
Maybe the "kill mode" of the virus is activated by sexual hormones. The ones that begin flowing during puberty and afterwards (that is more around the 13-15 years anyway)

How this wouldn't doom the human race to extinction (noone allowed to reach adulthood) is beyond me. :)

The new virus reactivates the antibodies from the vaccinations which causes everyone that was injected to die.

I don't think I understand this.
If the "antibodies reactivate" means that the virus is recognized and successfully destroyed.


Citizen Joe said...

The new virus makes the antibodies for the old virus think that the whole body is infected and thus causes the body to consume itself.

zmil said...

"I don't think I understand this.
If the "antibodies reactivate" means that the virus is recognized and successfully destroyed."

"The new virus makes the antibodies for the old virus think that the whole body is infected and thus causes the body to consume itself."


I'm not up enough on my immunology/too lazy to reason out whether this scenario is really plausible, but the idea of a virus triggering a lethal immune response is certainly valid.

Anonymous said...

As I commented on the Prison Planet post, colonies on earthlike worlds might benefit from a proportion of their populations being derived from less technological societies, such as the Amish, and hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralists from Asia and Africa. In the case of the Amish, they are one of the few groups in the Western world used to using animals for farm work, which would be only more true in the future. Additionally, they are accustomed to using electricity sparingly, and deriving what they do use from decentralized sources such as hydrocarbon-fuelled generators, wind turbines and even solar panels, rather than a central grid.
Eventually the non-Amish colonists would establish sufficient industry to build motorized vehicles and a power grid, and if population pressure or land prices grew too high, the Amish would be free to move away from the original colony site to start new settlements.


Citizen Joe said...

Actually, the Amish are a perfect example of rejecting the rapidly changing society and adopting an arbitrary style for the sake of normalcy. Contrast that to the rapidly changing nature of Tokyo

Thucydides said...

Looking at the question the other way, SF is customer driven, so books and shows are designed to cater to the customer's taste.

I find the Fantasy/SF section of the local bookstore is heavily populated by "series" books, followed by well known authors (many of whom have fallen for sequelmania), then SF classics. Somewhere in there is the gem written by a new author. Similarly, TV has been taken over by series and spinoffs; the multitude of Star Trek branches, Stargate SG-1 and it's follow on's and Bablyon 5 and its short lived follow ups. (Note, not all these series are current, but you get the idea of what the last decade of SF has been like on television). In non SF the situation is equally dire, "Law and Order" spinoffs and Crime Scene Investigation spinoffs (latest: "CSI; Saskatchewan") fill the air.

This is the same as other segments of the entertainment business. Many bands were influenced by the post punk UK band "Joy Division", but few music fans have ever actually listened to the band itself (and many are even unaware it existed). The fans of Madonna far outnumber the fans of Kate Bush, so who do budding musicians look to for inspiration?

Back to SF, the sort of tropes which are popular and easily digested by fans are the ones which get full support. A voyage to Saturn that takes two or more months with a powerful fusion drive is functionally equivalent to the HMS Surprise going for a two month cruise to get to an action station, so nautical tropes can be easily transplanted. Deeper questions like economics, social customs and mores, how people dress etc. can be addressed if they add background detail and depth to the story (and if the author is actually interested in these things); most readers and viewers probably are unaware of these levels of detail and would find them annoying intrusions if the writer does not have a deft touch, or unless they are integral to the plot (i.e "Dune", where the science of ecology is deeply embedded into the structure of the plot; without stillsuits or the lifecycle of the sand worms and the spice, there really is no story).

I would suggest the sort of "hard" and scientifically plausible SF that we are interested in appeals to a small segment of the market; like fans of Joy Division or Kate Bush, we are epicures sampling a small segment of the universe of thought well away from the center of the bell curve.

Rick said...

I love the Sky Trek image!

The Chinese nuclear test video with a cavalry charge is tres cool, but it does have my suspicion meter up. Only in one very brief sequence is there an image showing guys on horseback along with what might be the later stages of a tactical range mushroom cloud. But it might be one of those dummy smoke bombs they use in some training exercises.

The discussion of the One Ring makes the underlying point, I think, that magic in general is essentially personal, in a way that technology is not. Even if someone uploads part of their own personality to a device, there's an overtone with tech that the process could be duplicated, or the information transferred.

Which, indirectly, would explain why something like Niven's 'The Magic Goes Away' theme feels like SF rather than fantasy (at least to me): It treats magic as if it were a tech.

There's a limited market at most for 'real' hard SF, but a considerable market for space opera with some hard SF trappings.

Anonymous said...

Obviously, I shouldn't write posts when I'm tired...If I had actually thought it out, I would have said that an escaped geneticly engineered virus with a 'kill-switch' gene that eradicate it after a set number of generations...leaving the planet free of the disease by the time the surviving kids hit puberty. The 'kill-switch' gene was supposed to be only a few generations, but the mutant version that escaped into the enviornment had a much longer number of generations before its 'kill-switch' engaged.


Thucydides said...

Sky Trek; Heh!

I remember noodling with an idea using the Star Trek universe but having the plot driven by "internal" events for some sort of logical consistency.

"Star Trek: Reserve" takes place shortly after the Borg cube eliminates a huge portion of the Federation Fleet on its way to Earth. While the Starfleet general staff work out the lessons learned and design new generations of starships to deal with the Borg, there is a pressing need to maintain presence in the Federation and on the borders.

Old starships mothballed in parking orbits are pressed into service to carry out the task on a short term basis. The crews are pressed into service from the Academy, but since the ships are old tech, retired members of the fleet are called up to man the engineering systems and run ships systems.

You can imagine the clashes between the fresh Academy crews and the old school Chief Petty Officers needed to keep the ships in operation (as well as the disconnect between the "by the book" wet behind the ears officers and the Chiefs running things in the background via the old boys network).

Of course, the Klingons, Romulans etc. are still out there, but now can outgun and outrun the Reserve fleet ships on the borders. "Shields up" just dosn't quite cut it anymore...

Except for the setting, which is dependent on "Star Trek" mythology, this could be written as an Age of Sail or WW I or WWII piece, but since it is Star Trek, it probably would appeal to a very large audience (even if it was poorly written). This explains why Pocket Books continues to churn out Star Trek books and Paramount tests the waters with various Star Trek teasers and "leaks"; knowing that there is gold in them thar hills.

I suppose someone could "hijack" Star Trek and write a story set in the ST universe that requires some sort of plausible or internally consistent "science" which is fundamental to the story (i.e. "real" science fiction), but I am also convinced this would not be a popular entry in the ST cannon.

Jim Baerg said...

"The discussion of the One Ring makes the underlying point, I think, that magic in general is essentially personal, in a way that technology is not. Even if someone uploads part of their own personality to a device, there's an overtone with tech that the process could be duplicated, or the information transferred.

Which, indirectly, would explain why something like Niven's 'The Magic Goes Away' theme feels like SF rather than fantasy (at least to me): It treats magic as if it were a tech."

That fits rather nicely with this essay on the natural/supernatural distinction.

The next elaboration would be that the distinction between science fiction & fantasy is that fantasy includes supernatural elements, as supernatural is defined in that essay. (Which makes _Star Wars_ fantasy)

Byron said...

I haven't really been following this post, so I have a lot to put in. First, on robots: The problem is that most robots used in industry are in controlled environments. They work in a factory, not outside where there are things we can't control. If we have self-repairing robots, it's only a short step to self-replicating ones, which makes me uncomfortable. Humans are able to deal with a huge range of environments, and conditions that most robots can't.
There's a very interesting article on transporters on
My universe, Duel of the buffoons is set in 2053, and is mostly extrapolated, except for the fusion torches. I tried to deal rationally with the various conditions of living on Luna. For example, they don't have formal clothes, as they would have been too much trouble early on, and people prefer being able to wear comfortable clothes to work.
On Star Wars as a fantasy setting, I actually tried a D&D game like that, but it died quickly.
The problem with Space Opera is simply that the writers make a story set in space. SF has the setting as an important part of the story.
Actually, all of this has lead me to the conclusion that we need to make our own universe and write a story in it. Make a setting, then see what happens.

Sabersonic said...

"Which makes _Star Wars_ fantasy" - Jim Baerg

My only response to that is "How could it not?" Though it would be interesting if there were some in-universe studies on the limits of the Force and how the amount of control and 'force' for lack of a better term corelates to the amount of focus and McGuffin-nites and all that.

"Actually, all of this has lead me to the conclusion that we need to make our own universe and write a story in it. Make a setting, then see what happens." - Byron

To create a completely, or at least remotely original, universe is a good test as to how skilled a writer any budding SF author would become. It doesn't take much of an author to add their own flavor and insight to an already establish setting, though it does help if one has a good grasp of the written language and knows how to create a compelling and plausible plot in-universe wise. However, to create an unfamiliar setting that any reader can potentially immerse themselves in and enjoy every moment of the read is really what separates the 'men from the boys' as it were. Not too many authors can acomplish that successfully or repeadedly.

Though then again, a setting would still have to be something that peaks the interest of any reader and potential fan of the story in question. Not an easy feat, mind you.

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Thucydides said...

The question of clothing is interesting. Clothing tends to come from two sources: functional clothes for work and "ceremonial" clothes to display status and rank.

Even in a "functional" environment like a mining station on the moon, we will probably see something like that evolve. Everyone will wear a skin tight counter-pressure suit for work, but different work categories will need different utility belts or protective coveralls. Obviously the management and administrative staff will have different "outerwear" than the roughnecks who service the 3He mining equipment. Inside the pressure dome, the cut of the clothes will mimic the protective wear, and you can bet the high paid management staff will not be wearing the imitation roughneck gear around town or on social occasions (although they will change into the equivalent of blue jeans around the house).

VonMalcolm said...

@ Jollyreaper

Good Idea, too bad you can't write and market it without George Lucas's permission! This touches a pet peeve of mine with copyright: I don't mind the originators of a work of art sucking every last dime they can out of their work: they should get paid all they can for their work, but I hate the creative dictatorship they have over their work. IMHO, if someone could make a cool/fun/different piece of derivative art (such as a fantasy Star Wars) by using a(n) (even hefty) part of an original work I think they should be able to, with a large portion of the profits going to the original artist/rights holder.

Just because someone has the rights to the original artwork doesn't mean they have the original artwork's best interest in mind: all you have to do is look at all of the bad book, movie and video game sequels to see that.

Some of the problems with 'freeing' derivative art are: Who controls it? How much should each artist get? Would there be a danger of saturating the market with even more cheap sequels? Freeing derivative art would open up a whole can of worms, but I would like to see people's creativity unbound.

One R.I.N.G. To Rule Them All:

Regulatory Integrated Nano Genetics

(Only Sauron's specific Genetic-Nano machines can command the Interstellar Dreadnought: The Barad-dûr, as well as the Nazgûl fleet that supports it.)

Rick said...

I tend to agree that copyright has been grossly overexpanded, largely by pressure from Hollywood. Disney is notorious for this, and so is George Lucas.

A counter argument, though, is that anyone can create a recognizable knockoff of a well known setting, so long as you change the names. But of course it is the familiar names that people want to piggyback onto.

jeeva said...