Monday, August 6, 2012

A Literature of the Possible?

What, exactly, is science fiction? This question has - no surprise - come up more than once in this blog, notably in the outrageously long 'Last Battleship' comment thread.

Needless to say, this is no claim that science fiction stories are possible. Even setting the trivial response that they are fiction, many if not most of them are not possible. And most of the ones that are possible are desperately unlikely. (Such as, say, Mars colonists blockading Earth in the next few hundred years.)

But, by and large, science fiction does honor the concept of possibility, if only in the breach. FTL is an exemplar. Instead of simply allowing our rocket ships to get from star to star at the speed of plot, we come up with elaborate lines of jive to get around the speed of light. We grasp at the most tenuous threads of theoretical physics to justify our jive - tachyons, wormholes, the Alcubierre metric, whatever.

This blog, for the most part, works similar ground. We naturally want our spaceships (and battles between them) to be cool, but we also want them to be, in some sense, realistic. Even if the broader context in which they happen strains realism to the max.

Even alternate history deals with events that 'might have been possible' if some historical event had played out a different way, or (straining 'possible' even further) a tourist from late-1930s Chicago were somehow transported to Italy on the eve of the war between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Goths.

Fantasy writers generally don't do this. If you want dragons, dragons you get. Great effort may go into internal worldbuilding, but rarely into its logical relationship to our real world. Here, Middle-Earth is the exemplar. It is a triumph of worldbuilding - indeed the benchmark standard, better constructed than any science fiction I know of.

But 'possibility' is no part of that careful construction. Tolkien asserts that Middle-Earth is, in fact, our own world's distant (in historical terms) past, but he puts no effort into connecting the two. He invented the expression 'the willing suspension of disbelief,' and he is very concerned with making Middle-Earth feel believable. He is not concerned with making it seem possible.

This may seem like a distinction without a difference, but I am persuaded that there is indeed a difference, even if it is hard to pin down. All fiction is fake: something we have to set aside to let ourselves be drawn into a story of any sort.

How fiction does this may be easier to see by looking at obsolete tropes, such as the discovered-manuscript framing device. In its day it gave readers an excuse, so to speak, to pretend to believe in the story contained therein.

As imaginative fiction developed in the past century, such wink & nod agreements between author and readers became unnecessary. A form of it remains in Lord of the Rings, easing us into the story world. A contemporary fantasy like Game of Thrones doesn't bother with such mechanisms. The reader's buy-in is (correctly) assumed.

Science fiction, broadly speaking, used possibility as its buy-in. Which is why possible, more or less marks the traditional dividing line between SF and F. This once took the form of those so-tell-me-Professor explanations of how rockets could work in a vacuum, or whatever.

As standard SF tropes took form, these mechanisms went the way of Lost (but conveniently rediscovered) Manuscripts in fantasy. Generally, these days, only hard SF bothers with any explanation of how spaceships work - and mainly, as on this blog, to push back against operatic tropes that have become standard baseline assumptions.

Indeed, a whole movement of 'Mundane SF' was proclaimed some years ago, intended to push back even harder. After all, by any purist standard I am a thorough hypocrite, writing about how to make your fundamentally operatic space battles look superficially Realistic.

But as standard SF tropes have taken hold, the link to the possible has also become a good deal more ambiguous. In the abstract, for example, a nice line can be drawn between Star Trek and Star Wars. One is set in what, at least in the 1960s, seemed like a plausible midfuture. The other is set 'a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away' - that is to say, effectively in the once upon a time of very traditional fantasy. And while you can criticize the corn content of Trek's money-less future, that is nothing compared to the overtly mystical Force.

The first thing to note in this comparison is that it is rooted in Hollywood. Back at the turn of the century, when I wrote the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy, I distinguished 'Hollywood scifi' from real SF. But sometime in the last decade or so, this distinction has pretty well faded. A generation (or more) has come up for which Hollywood looms as large in their formative experience as anything written by Asimov, Heinlein, or whoever.

Which is a way of saying that yes, Star Wars is basically high fantasy in SF drag ... but so what? You could pretty much say the same thing about Dune. And when you get past Asimov's deeply un-Tolkienesque writing style, what about Foundation Trilogy? If Coruscant is a fantasy world, what exactly is Trantor? And how does Darth Vader stack up to the Mule?

Science fiction and fantasy have not exactly converged - they are still (usually) easily distinguished, but more by stylistic features than actual substance.

And all of this takes place alongside the decline of the future as a place for 'nonfiction' speculation. No jetpacks, no monorails, just iGadgets. When your future can't get past the Dick Tracy level, it is time to pack it in.

Or just take your Romance in straight shots.



Discuss:



The visually unspectacular image above was more than enough to tell JPL engineers that the Curiosity rover was successfully landed on the surface of Mars.

Expect prettier images to follow ...

270 comments:

1 – 200 of 270   Newer›   Newest»
 Ashley said...

Earth invades Mars with one tone atomic powered cyber tank with laser to obliterate the Martian microbes, and you complain of no plausible mid-future stories?

OTOH I recognise ennui when I see it. I think that if I were to write a story I would set it after the fall of mankinds galactic expansion. Then it would be about the romance, and you could dress it up in plausibly deniable technological trappings. However, YMMV.

Rick said...

Welcome to a new commenter!

Earth invades Mars with one tone atomic powered cyber tank with laser to obliterate the Martian microbes, and you complain of no plausible mid-future stories?

+ 10

if I were to write a story I would set it after the fall of mankinds galactic expansion. Then it would be about the romance

Sounds like Clarke's The City And The Stars, AKA one of my favorite SF novels.

Anonymous said...

When I think about SF, I imagine my mind's eye looking up, and out, and ahead; when I think about Fantasy, my mind's eye looks inward at my own dreams. A little poetic, but hopefully acurate. Rockets and spells; one is 'how do we make that?' and the other is 'I wish we could do that'...

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...

Humanity's grasp has always exceeded our reach. When we stepped beyond the realm of the actual to the possible and looked at what might come to be, we were talking about magic and occultism. We've had tales of wizards constructing homunculi long before we had Shelley's Frankenstein.

Scifi does share a number of tropes with fantasy but I think that the thing that really fired our imaginations is that such things could truly come to be. Scientific skeptics might disbelieve conventional religions but pretty much every human fears death and would welcome immortality. The strong take on the singularity (rapture of the nerds) feels like a more plausible solution than a religious afterlife, even if there's about as much proof for it.

I think so much of the frustration is the feeling that cold, uncaring reality with its dreary facts and figures stole our future away from us. It's not just the jet packs and flying cars that were stolen but the Enterprise and strange new worlds. It's hard to be exited about what remains possible when there used to be so much more.

Brett said...

@Rick
Which is a way of saying that yes, Star Wars is basically high fantasy in SF drag ... but so what?

For all that, I think Star Wars goes a lot further than a lot of space opera in creating versimilitude. The characters in Star Wars actually seem to live in their world, and they interact with all its technology as if it's mundane to them, which is is. That was Lucas's "used universe" concept.

As for PMF stories in space, robots have given me new hope. I think eventually we'll get our space colonies, even if robots remotely controlled from Earth are the ones assembling them.

Jack Lusted said...

@Brett

For all that, I think Star Wars goes a lot further than a lot of space opera in creating versimilitude. The characters in Star Wars actually seem to live in their world, and they interact with all its technology as if it's mundane to them, which is is. That was Lucas's "used universe" concept.

A brilliant point. I often find it very difficult to read some hard sci-fi books because they spend so much time describing the detail and not enough on the story.

Both Star Wars and Firefly managed to create believable universes because they felt real. People lived and worked in them.

Tony said...

Let's see...

1.The thing I find most interesting about "Mundane SF" is not the principles of the movement, but the tired old art manifesto framework. If you want to write a story about limited possibilites, just write one. Don't make it a matter of artistic principle.

2. I think we lost something big when TV sci-fi (as opposed to semi-hard to hard SF literature) became the touchstone of the technologically oriented youth. We've gone from engaging imaginations in real world possibilites to engaging them in SDN flame wars over the relative merits of Enterprise vs an Imperial star destroyer.

3. The believability of TV sci-fi universes is highly strained. Star Trek TOS was fun as fable-izing and allegory. TNG forward is simple fantasy in space drag. The same can be said for Star Wars, especially the space fighters, Imperial Stormtrooper tactics and marksmanship. Firefly is just Millenium Falcon with a Five Man Band for crew. Meh.

Tony said...

And, oh yeah -- what kind of future (or even fairytale past) is it in which you need a computerized Oscar's trash can to talk to a computer network? All you need is a smart phone app.

jollyreaper said...

There's the gap between believable and plausible. Firefly was very believable but not very plausible.

Part of the problem with over-explained scifi is you are talking about a foreign culture. Anyone writing a novel set in feudal Japan or the old Mayan empire or Babylonia will have to handle a lot of exposition to demonstrate the differences between our society and theirs. We are the aliens here.

If HG Wells tried to write a James Bond story, he'd spend half his time explaining things such as nuclear weapons, electronics, airplanes and gadget cars. You can tell how alien a piece of text is by how many footnotes are required to put it in context -- it shows it was never meant for a foreign audience.

There's a great zombie novella called Night of the Lemures which is presented as a discovered work from ancient Rome. It has footnotes out the wazoo to explain what is in the text, what lay readers would likely miss about Roman culture and civilization.

The trick for any good storyteller is to handle the info dumps properly. The weakness of many scifi writers is they are good at the big picture but struggle with creating relatable characters.

Tony said...

For at least some people -- though I suspect many -- believability is founded on plausibility to the point of inseparability. One may be willing to stipulate FTL and artificial gravity and things of that nature, so that Romance can proceed at the speed of plot. But things like a solar system with dozens of planets, many terraformed by interstellar refugees from the "Earth-that-was"? Please, pull my leg no longer. Let's have some realistic astrography.

The points about infodumping and poor characterization are well taken, but one has to take the social conventions of the time in which a book was written into account.

I've always thought that Larry Niven's characters were real and believable. But his characterization was based on 60s and 70s social conventions that people of a younger generation most probably don't know or understand.

The case is similar for Heinlein, particularly in his juveniles. To a lot of people today -- and to myself at times -- his characters seem straight out of 1950s TV serials and magazine stories. Also, his characters are well-formed to somebody who understands the social cues Heinlein invokes, but many people today are just not aware of them, or their significance. Characters like Hazel Stone (Rolling StonesTime For the Stars) closely resemble people I actually knew when I was a kid. Nowdays there aren't to many people like that around.

The characters in the Foundation Trilogy are ripped straight out of Golden Age Hollywood movies and pulp magazines. Asimov was a Jewish immigrant who grew up in Brooklyn, steeped in American pop culture. I don't want to say he couldn't help himself, but he was a product of his time and place, and if he were following the old writer's advaice to write what you know, well...

The point is that any well done work, if it relies on popular tropes -- and to keep from alienating one's reader with minutiae, a writer has to, to some degree -- is going to seem less and less well done over time, simply because all of the character cues are going to go out of currency. Imagine a characterization based on Snooki's "Jersey girl" personna, particularly her manner of speaking and what she thinks is important. It might make a realistic, believable character today, because readers are plugged-in to the general pop culture vibe (speaking of linguistic cues...). Fifty years from, now, people wouldn't see the characterization inherrent in her dialogue or actions. They'd think she wasn't fully-formed character, simply because they don't know what her words and actions are supposed to convey.

Tony said...

"Characters like Hazel Stone (Rolling StonesTime For the Stars) closely resemble people I actually knew when I was a kid."

Should read:

Characters like Hazel Stone (Rolling Stones) and Uncle Steve (Time For the Stars) closely resemble people I actually knew when I was a kid.

jollyreaper said...

Thing is, people read stories for different things. My sister is completely about the interpersonal soap drama and really doesn't give a damn about the particulars of setting. If there's a good love triangle, a good conflict, physics boners will fly right under her radar. Other geeks will be swept along with the love story and drama and the ship sinking in the North Atlantic and then notice the night sky is wrong and it sucks them right out of it.

With regards to Firefly, the cosmology made no sense but I enjoyed the characters so much I could overlook it. This is rare. When I hate the characters and hate the story then I'm tearing apart the plot holes like vultures with carrion.

I read the whole Lensmen series several years ago. On first blush, it's ten shades of awful. Yes, I know it's influential but honestly, Battlefield Earth was better-written. The thing I found amusing was how the enemies were broadly portrayed as interstellar gangsters who might as well have been toting atomic tommy guns. The lensmen could have easily worked with any of Hoover's G-men.

Regarding Snookie, part of that is that a parody or satire requires a familiarity with the source material. I had that problem growing up with Loony Tunes since I really had no idea who these Hollywood stars were. This is the Weird Al Effect: when a parody remains popular after the original works being parodied are no longer well known to the audience.

What's interesting is when tells a story from the alien naturalist perspective, describing our modern and familiar world in a sufficiently different way to make it seem strange. "The dominant lifeform of the third planet is a hairless primate. Courtship rituals involve the male proffering severed plant genitals to the female. Since the female does not have a season and is perpetually capable of mating, the males are kept in a constant state of sexual arousal and distraction which helps to explain their lack of advancement." I love those kinds of stories.

With some situations, you really had to be there to get the full effect. Second-hand retellings don't do it justice. Similarly, a joke that needs explaining is never as funny, even if it's really good to those who get it.

Was just listening to Dream Theater's Once in a LIVEtime and at the end of Take the Time they break into Freebird. That's hysterical but only if you know the context of people heckling bands by yelling out "Freebird," the Bill Hicks freebird rant, and associated mirth.

Or hell, Dread Zeppelin, a reggae and rock band fronted by an Elvis impersonator. He's even got a Charlie Hodge impersonator as part of the act.

I guess the only way to work around something like your Snookie example is to fully flesh out the character. People who know what she's based on will get the joke and people who don't will still have a real character.

In Iron Sky, the American president is obviously Sarah Palin but is still played broadly enough that she could be any other politically cunning, culturally ignorant, soulless politician.

Brett said...

I wonder if there's an "uncanny valley" type of effect at work with fiction. The plausible and impossible stuff doesn't tend to bother me too much, because I can suspend disbelief for the latter (although my tolerance for soft SF has gone down over time). But the "merely" super-implausible tends to draw my eye and bug me, like that preposterous Firefly solar system.

It's not a huge problem if the plot and story are good enough to compensate, but I do always notice it.

Thucydides said...

The point about fiction being tied to the time and place of the writing and writer is fairly important and often overlooked. Greg Bear's EON is an impressive tour de force in "hard" SF; but since it was written near the climax of the Cold War the setup seems very contrived today. (If anyone were to make a movie, they should subtly suggest that not only is the universe of the Thistledown a parallel universe to the one it enters at the start of the story, they should also suggest that universe is parallel to the one the audience watching the movie is sitting in...).

I'm sure you could point out other examples. The real thing behind Science Fiction is the story should be based on the "what if" element, otherwise it is set dressing for Westerns, Arthurian Romance or Faust (among other things). Not to say set dressing can't be used well, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa transcribed several Shakespearian plays into Feudal Japan (Throne of Blood, Ran) with great success.

What if and the sense of wonder don't even need to be highly contrived. Arthur C Clarke probably paraphrased the very first SF tale ever in the early chapter of "2001":

“Of all the creatures who had yet walked on Earth, the Man-apes were the first to look steadfastly at the Moon. And though he could not remember it, when he was very young Moon-Watcher would sometimes reach out and try to touch that ghostly face rising above the hills. He has never succeeded, and now he was old enough to understand why. For first, of course, he must find a high enough tree to climb.”

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"What if and the sense of wonder don't even need to be highly contrived. Arthur C Clarke probably paraphrased the very first SF tale ever in the early chapter of '2001':

'Of all the creatures who had yet walked on Earth, the Man-apes were the first to look steadfastly at the Moon. And though he could not remember it, when he was very young Moon-Watcher would sometimes reach out and try to touch that ghostly face rising above the hills. He has never succeeded, and now he was old enough to understand why. For first, of course, he must find a high enough tree to climb.'


You know, for some reason I've always been intrigued by Moon-Watcher as a character, even though he's really just an ascended piece of scenery in a lot of ways. I think because the way Clarke sets him up, it's kind of like the perennial plot of an American sports picture. The Ancients, in the role of the Super Coach, give Moon-Watcher and his posse the tools to succeed, but no guarantees. "I've done all I can for you, kid. It's up to you now. Go get 'em!"

jollyreaper said...

That tolerance for soft scifi thing, it's calibrated.

I can completely forgive Babylon 5 for humanoid aliens because a) they're working within the idiom of classic scifi and they're part of the package like greek gods in mythology and b) they're working with human actors.

With Mass Effect, the presence of humanoid aliens (down to alien women having bumpy foreheads but sexy human bodies!) is completely inexcusable. You're bloody rendering the entire game! There's no human actors, not really! There's no reason to not do it proper!

It's sort of the same forgiveness I have for artificial gravity. If it's a live show with human actors, it's filmed on Earth in a 1G field. Nothing you can do about that. Ships have artificial gravity. But if the whole show is CGI, have zero-g for Cthulhu's sake and if there's gravity in a scene, make it a damn spin habitat!

Ray said...

I feel the disappointment too. I'd expected so much more.

But OTOH, I grew up reading the stories where spacers used slide rules to calculate their courses because computers were planetary installations too big to fit on a ship. Now I have so much computing power at my fingertips that even much of the Cyberpunk fiction looks kinda silly. (By 2020, we may have pocket computers with up to 100 pages of alphanumeric memory!) Actually, I may have more computing power in my home than most governments (put together) had during the times that much of the fiction that I read was written. I can look up almost any song and instantly listen to it, most books are right there for the reading. I write code that processes millions of database records in seconds, or even fractions of a second.

The hard byte is that things aren't really that different for us. No major scientific breakthroughs have given us 200 year lifespans, free of crime, pollution, and illness. The leisure life promised by automation and computerization hasn't come about. Instead we work longer hours than any generation since the Great Depression and the economy's still in the hole. We haven't colonized space, we're not really going anywhere. Our kids are lucky if they can move out by their mid-30s. We content ourselves with 'reality shows' and other pettiness. Sometimes makes me wonder if a future generation will have to go back to using the slide rule. (Cue postapocalypse fiction)

Posit an alternate universe where the Cold War culture didn't end. Where we retained our sense of wonder and possibility, our vision and drive to achieve.

I like the old SF. May not be possible or plausible currently, but that's societal and cultural more than anything. And I have no problem fitting my mind into a society or culture that had the vision that we had a few generations ago.

The things that seemed fantastic back then are already beginning to seem fantastic again. Someday, we could even land a man on the moon. Kids today think of that very differently than my parents, who watched it happen, once upon a time, in a land far far away.

Geoffrey S H said...

"The same can be said for Star Wars, especially the space fighters, Imperial Stormtrooper tactics and marksmanship."

In all fairness Tony that could apply to pretty much every sf story of a military nature out there, at least on the shelves of major bookstores. Things get worse when books with even less scientific accuracy and military authenticity than star wars are marketed as better simply on the merits of not being star wars, David Drake being an example (and that "Lost Fleet" man too).

I do wish book covers would at least have some realistic pictures reflecting the story inside, the latest "Rendezvous with Rama" covers are quite frankly a disgrace.

Damien Sullivan said...

Coruscant and Trantor probably are the more realistic parts of their universes. (Trantor's problem is that it's ridiculously overbuilt. Only 40 billion on a planet supposedly turned into super-Manhattan. As James Nicoll put it, the inhabitants would rattle around the multiple levels like peas.)

While the Mule isn't realistic at all, Asimov did try for that link to the possible, where his 'telepathy' was very sensitive EM stuff, as opposed to the outright mysticism of the Force. I forget if that was in the trilogy, or in the Robots and later Foundation books, though.

I'm amused by all the people asserting the Firefly system is impossible, when we keep being surprised by new planetary discoveries, and know of at least two different six-star systems in real life. A rapidly changing field seems a poor choice for taking hard positions on what's possible.

Damien Sullivan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jollyreaper said...

The firefly system is impossible due to:
1. Hundreds of planets and moons with oxy-nitro atmospheres
2. Terraformable with depicted technology
3. That a planet would be terraformed so people could herd goats on it.

Even if we imagine that the system is around a primary a thousand times the mass of Sol and therefore could have that many planets in a habitable zone that many times bigger than Sol's, the technology issue is the bigger sticking point.

Tony said...

Ray:

"The things that seemed fantastic back then are already beginning to seem fantastic again. Someday, we could even land a man on the moon. Kids today think of that very differently than my parents, who watched it happen, once upon a time, in a land far far away."

Now that's how to make a man feel old -- talk about one's parents watching something he also witnessed first hand...

In any case, there's a very real sense in which nobody actually watched a Moon landing. They were able to broadcast live TV from the spacecraft on the way to the Moon, and live TV of surface activities, including the first steps. (That was public relations brilliance -- and a minor technical miracle, at the time.) But there was no live TV of the landings themselves. The videos of the landing sequences that you can see on the internet were taken from automatic film cameras. They had to be physically brought back as unprocessed exposures. When I was a kid, you only saw them long after the fact, generally in documentaries. They were indeed taken for documentary purposes (mostly engineering and historical) in the first place, not at all for news.

The next time someone lands on the Moon will be the first time it will all be on live TV. Now that's something to look forward to.

Geoffrey S H:

"In all fairness Tony that could apply to pretty much every sf story of a military nature out there, at least on the shelves of major bookstores."

Please recall that my points of referrence aren't just what can be bought in bookstores right now. I've got a lot of stuff in my personal library that was first published over fifty years ago. There must have been some works, but I honestly can't recall space fighters in literature before Star Wars. I remember seeing the first full page ad in the LA Times and thinking that the X-wing fighters were some kind of small, fast ship -- perhaps a frigate or destroyer. (The resolution of the color art, transfered to b&w newsprint, was that bad.) It never ocurred to me that they were single person, airplane-sized fighters until I saw a trailer on TV.

There was simply no previous art to suggest that wings and a streamlined appearance was a visual cue for space fighter. All previous winged spaceships in the movies and on TV had been the atomic-rocketship-to-mars type. Literature -- at least the literature I read -- was all the same way. I think the closest any work came was three- and five-man fighters in Poul Anderson's early 70s People of the Wind or single seat planetary-defense/orbital-only fighters in an Analog story named "Common Denominator".

"Things get worse when books with even less scientific accuracy and military authenticity than star wars are marketed as better simply on the merits of not being star wars, David Drake being an example (and that "Lost Fleet" man too)."

Drake lost the bubble with his RCN saga, but Hammer's Slammers is good stuff, particularly for its military and combat verisimilitude.

Lost Fleet is indeed bullshit beyond bullshit.

Anonymous said...

I don't think the Star Wars and Star Trek worlds differ that much really, they just just took different routes to the same end point. The difference is in aim rather than outcome.

Trek may have been imagined as a plausible midfuture but it certainly didn't end up there. It's more a failed attempt at hard scifi that ended up working as fantasy.

Star Wars was always intended as fantasy. The focus is on the character interaction and the only realism that it attempts is in the characters and the look and feel of the world. Things are dirty, noisy and have weight to them. The characters themselves are still somewhat comic-book, but still significantly more rounded and believable than Trek.

This is even more pronounced in Firefly. The scifi setting is almost irrelevant. It's like the painted backdrop to a play. It may be good, bad, realistic, or not; but it doesn't really matter. The important part is the players.
You could turn Serenity into a wagon train or a sea-going ship without any real impact on the story.

Maybe that's a reasonable test for true scifi: "Could the story be easily transplanted to a different setting and still work?"
Certainly Star Wars and Trek wouldn't be too difficult. You couldn't ignore the tech in Trek, but you can just call it magic and carry on.
I don't think 2001 would work in any other setting.

Rick said...

The funny thing about the Firefly 'verse, and ensuing debates, is that if Joss Whedon had just kept his lips zipped the issue would never have come up.

At least for me. I just took it for granted that the 'verse was a typical interstellar setting with an FTL that they didn't bother showing. Saved a bit of budget, and those in the audience who cared at all, would simply infer it.

(Yes, the opening voice-over mentioned the 'system,' but that was vague enough to ignore.)

Just as many shows today get characters across oceans without stock footage of a jetliner taking off and landing.


On SF and F, I tend to think in terms of a sort of scatter plot. Each genre has a gravitational center-point, which individual works tend to cluster around, but rather loosely. Sort of like the Double Cluster in Perseus.

After all, both are subgenres of Romance.


Bad marksmanship by the bad guys is time-honored Hollywood tradition! The wicked don't think they need to aim.

jollyreaper said...

Maybe that's a reasonable test for true scifi: "Could the story be easily transplanted to a different setting and still work?"

That's the gold standard criticism used for a number of years.

I had a post a while back about how Star Wars could easily be done as high fantasy and would probably suffer less plot complications. linkey here.

Tony said...

Anon:

"Maybe that's a reasonable test for true scifi: 'Could the story be easily transplanted to a different setting and still work?'
Certainly Star Wars and Trek wouldn't be too difficult. You couldn't ignore the tech in Trek, but you can just call it magic and carry on.
I don't think 2001 would work in any other setting."


2001 could have been written as Amazonian or Congolese tribesmen coming out of the forest in 1901 (get it?), after centuries of isolation, discovering steamboats on the river, and consequently the global society that those steamboats link to. Sounds like a good H. Rider Haggard or Joseph Conrad plot. In fact, I think it's safe to say that Clarke had the general idea at least in the back of his mind, if not in the forefront, when he wrote both the book and the screenplay.

As for Star Wars and Star Trek, they really are two different kinds of mythology. SW is classical questing and dragon slaying (with the Death Star and ultimately the Emperor as the dragon). Trek, in the TOS form, was "Wagon Train to the stars", as Rodenberry originally pitched it, combined over time with a lot of Cold War and 60s America allegory thrown in. SW could fit in prettym uch anyplace. Teek was most definitely of a time and place, and has kept morphing to meet changing sensibilities in a way SW never really did.

Tony said...

Rick:

"On SF and F, I tend to think in terms of a sort of scatter plot. Each genre has a gravitational center-point, which individual works tend to cluster around, but rather loosely. Sort of like the Double Cluster in Perseus."

Yes, but with a lot of overlap, like a Venn diagram. I have my preferences about what SF is and should be, but denying that there's either no intersection or, to go to the other extreme, perfect union, between SF and F is just plain silly.

"Bad marksmanship by the bad guys is time-honored Hollywood tradition! The wicked don't think they need to aim."

Not if you look at noir or war films. A big part of the plot development is GGs getting burned/iced/offed/done-in/buying-the-farm/bumped-off/etc by BGs, creating a suspense about who gets "it" next, and who is going to ultimately survive.

Geoffrey S H said...

Ah, indeed, my apologies. Nevertheless, that reinforces a point of mine made at many a dinner table: if independent bookstores were in better shape in Britain that they are now, then there would be a greater number better quality books of varying genres for people to read, sci fi included. Waterstones is packed with stuff by Alastair Reynolds, Banks, et al. Enjoyable, but not top class imo.

Regards Hammer's Slammers: I could get into it for some reason. Will try again, but the whole tired trope of mercenaries being more effective than planetary governments, along with some pretty blatant handwavium lasers where more practical weapons would have been just as effective kinda turned me off.

Some hard(ish) sf does lose plausibility for me though- when empires are filled with liners taking hundreds of years with crews genetically modified to make the journey and stay sane while carrying frozen passengers and cargos (looking at you Reynolds) then my sociological side does a facepalm.

They are largely soft, but I would nevertheless be more careful of some of their imitators. Those don't tend to do any research (compared with a small yet surprising amount for sw and st)and cheaply imitate the above two. Eve Online, Stargate and Darkstar One (the game that is) being both popular and even less accurate, with some exceptions in Stargate. I just wish Kevin J Anderson would stick to copying H G Wells and leave space opera alone...

That said, I don't mind artificial gravity and tractor beams, so long as they are in a spacecraft with decks orientated the right way and which obeys proper newtonian physics. And with heat radiators.

|Geoffrey S H said...

1st para addressed Tony's possessing books other from major bookstores.

2nd para: "couldn't"

4th para concerned star wars and star trek.

Even with proof reading I'm making mistakes. Long day. Bed now.

jollyreaper said...

Anyone here read Charlie Stross' Saturn's Children yet? Terrible cover but a very interesting read.

Thom S said...

Just to add my two cents on socio-cultural differences driving characterization in SF, the impression that I get is that the requisite sense of wonder and optimism about the future needed for golden-age rocket-punkery is still around. Its just not in the first world.

Its for this reason (among others) that a SSTO airport forming the hub of a classic city of adventure in, say, Nigeria just seems more plausible than an equivalent plot set in the US.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that verisimilitude is tied into the outlook and expectations of the audience at a given moment rather than a sort of constant 'realistic or not' comparison. What is plausible can change even when our underlying understanding of the facts remains the same.

Unknown said...

Tony:
"2001 could have been written as Amazonian or Congolese tribesmen coming out of the forest in 1901 (get it?), after centuries of isolation, discovering steamboats on the river, and consequently the global society that those steamboats link to."

That works for the overall plot, but HAL really has to be a computer. His cold logic wouldn't make sense in any other entity.

I think that idea would make an interesting setting for Rendezvous With Rama though. A turn-of-the-century steamer washes up on an undiscovered island and is explored by the local tribe.

Maybe it's not a good test then. I've always considered Rama to be fairly hard. (the first two books in the series anyway)

Tony said...

Geoffrey S H:

"Regards Hammer's Slammers: I could get into it for some reason. Will try again, but the whole tired trope of mercenaries being more effective than planetary governments, along with some pretty blatant handwavium lasers where more practical weapons would have been just as effective kinda turned me off."

Well, the powerguns do give a plausible reason why the Slammers -- or any other highly organized conventional combat unit -- don't get bombed out of existence. They keep aircraft from. Also, hiring mercenary armies is not exactly unprecedented in history, from Hannibal all the way to Executive Outcomes and Blackwater. In the Slammers-verse, it most like hiring gunment in the 19th Century American West to fight a range war -- the side with the most money brings in the best gunmen and wins.

"Some hard(ish) sf does lose plausibility for me though- when empires are filled with liners taking hundreds of years with crews genetically modified to make the journey and stay sane while carrying frozen passengers and cargos (looking at you Reynolds) then my sociological side does a facepalm.

Reynolds's universe doesn't have interstellar empires. Each solar system is pretty much left ot its own devices. The enterstellar spaceships are free enterprise. The difficulty for me arrises in believing that there is something so valuable and unobtainable in one system, but so cheap in another, that it would make sense to transport it overspace, rather than just send the specs by radio and build it locally. Even if you count passenger traffic, what would motivate a person rich enough to buy passage to leave home behind? Wouldn't rich people send agents instead? And knowing this, wouldn't all starship passengers be automatically suspected of ulterior motives wherever they get off?

"That said, I don't mind artificial gravity and tractor beams, so long as they are in a spacecraft with decks orientated the right way and which obeys proper newtonian physics. And with heat radiators."

If you've got a means of creating acceleration locally (i.e. artificial gravity), you presumably have a means of resisting it lovally as well. So decks oriented lengthwise are hardly implausible. On a landable ship, it would even make sense, because it's easier to set a cylinder or other aerodynamic shape on it's side, than land one on its tail. It's also easier to load and offload cargo in that orientation. Even in space, fewer, larger decks make more sense, in most cases.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"That works for the overall plot, but HAL really has to be a computer. His cold logic wouldn't make sense in any other entity."

First of all, HAL is not a necessary story element. The story is primarily a first contact novel.

Second, if you want a HAL-like complication, the natural world is full of them. Imagine a lion or a jaguar stalking the party, causing the party to take precautions...which don't work in the end, leaving a lone survivor. That works with cold, logical precision, even if the logic is predator vs prey, instead of conflicting priorities between a computer and human crew.

jollyreaper said...

Rama as a steamer doesn't quite work. Better would be the steamer washes up on the shore of an unknown island in the Pacific. Exploration commences from there. Just remember, that is not dead which can eternal lie...

As far as hard goes, there's two special cases for that as far as I'm concerned. Case One is "It's all hard." No aliens, no handwaves. Some people will allow just a single handwave and all secondary effects have to follow from there.

Case Two is "human tech is all hard, weird-ass alien tech remains within speculative possibilities even if we have no idea how it would be accomplished." So human spaceships to get to Rama don't have reactionless drives, no gravity manipulation, no swooping through space. And even though we have no idea how something like Rama could be built, it rotates for gravity, the RPM given the diameter makes sense for the 1G effective gravity inside, etc. I do remember Rama having a reactionless drive even though it also performed a slingshot maneuver.

jollyreaper said...

e difficulty for me arrises in believing that there is something so valuable and unobtainable in one system, but so cheap in another, that it would make sense to transport it overspace, rather than just send the specs by radio and build it locally.

My sticking point as well. Best I can come up with is various technologies are scrupulously controlled by guilds so any system that wants access to a given tech has to petition the guild to send a delegation. Commontech is had by everyone and is broadly understood. Guildtech is all locked up. Therefore any guild's greatest fear is for their secrets to be found out and become commontech.

In such a situation, there's no real interstellar commerce. Starships are moving people and specialty equipment but there's no bulk commodities, nobody ships Romulan ale or Saturnian buckwheat. If the Delacor System wants to industrialize, they're going to need to petition a number of guilds.

Given that earth-type planets would not be common, likely all have to be customized, terraforming would probably be one of the most expensive, prestigious, and elite guild specialties around. The ruling family has to have a living planet to call home to be taken seriously.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

That falls apart when you ask yourself: how do guilds maintain organization and discipline at STL speeds? Answer: they can't. Also: what could possibly be so arcane and inpenetrable that, knowing it existed, an industrial society couldn't figure out a way to make it for themselves?

jollyreaper said...


That falls apart when you ask yourself: how do guilds maintain organization and discipline at STL speeds? Answer: they can't.


It would need to be more along the lines of a reasonable speed FTL. If it's STL, that gets harder to justify.

At STL speeds, having any sort of meaningful interstellar civilization is meaningless. It would be like aboriginal tribes across several continents with HAM radios. Might be interesting to have a chat at night but you're not exactly setting up a trade route.

Also: what could possibly be so arcane and inpenetrable that, knowing it existed, an industrial society couldn't figure out a way to make it for themselves?


Hard to say. Kind of in McGuffinite territory, or a McGuffin Process. I think part of the reason why the guilds worked is they were pre-scientific method and so it was harder to reverse engineer someone else's discovery. Right now we depend more on patent law to defend IP than real secrecy. The demonstration of a technology has already let the cat half out of the bag.

I'm hard-pressed to explain how a PMF solar system economy would work, let alone something interstellar.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"I think part of the reason why the guilds worked is they were pre-scientific method and so it was harder to reverse engineer someone else's discovery. Right now we depend more on patent law to defend IP than real secrecy. The demonstration of a technology has already let the cat half out of the bag."

Heinlein has a guilded society in Starman Jones, but it's heavily implied that the guilds receive strong legal protection from the government.

"I'm hard-pressed to explain how a PMF solar system economy would work, let alone something interstellar."

With an Earth-based economy and space work being essentially being sent to Siberia for several years, ic ould work, provided the McGuffinite was there. And it could be, in the very limited form os providing volatile consumables from space sources may eventually become more efficient, in terms of supporting exploration, than bringing them up from Earth.

Other than that? Forget the PMF and come again in a millenia or two.

Brett said...

At STL speeds, the only physical good I can think of that would justify the exorbitant cost (in energy and money) of shipping it over interstellar distances would be weird religious/cultural artifacts. Maybe relics from Earth have huge religious significance on colony worlds, so there's no alternative except to ship them . . .

Yeah, this is reaching. Most likely is that interstellar trade just doesn't happen at all.

@Jollyreaper
At STL speeds, having any sort of meaningful interstellar civilization is meaningless. It would be like aboriginal tribes across several continents with HAM radios. Might be interesting to have a chat at night but you're not exactly setting up a trade route.

It would be useful for syncing databases and trading technology (although any civilization that can set-up interstellar colonies is probably hitting the limits of what culture and physics will let them do with technology anyways). I remember that in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, a space-faring culture called the Qeng Ho would put up some really long-lasting, durable radio beacons that broadcast information about technology to planetary civilizations stuck in the endless cycle of rise, fall, and rebirth of technological civilization.

Side-note, but that was a depressing book back-story to read. I've never read a story that managed to make a setting with STL interstellar travel and spread-out space colonies seem claustrophobic before.

Tony said...

Brett:

"It would be useful for syncing databases and trading technology (although any civilization that can set-up interstellar colonies is probably hitting the limits of what culture and physics will let them do with technology anyways)."

The data would mostly be about human events, or astronomical events that closer observers can capture better.

"I remember that in Vernor Vinge's A Deepness in the Sky, a space-faring culture called the Qeng Ho would put up some really long-lasting, durable radio beacons that broadcast information about technology to planetary civilizations stuck in the endless cycle of rise, fall, and rebirth of technological civilization.

Side-note, but that was a depressing book back-story to read. I've never read a story that managed to make a setting with STL interstellar travel and spread-out space colonies seem claustrophobic before."


Just recognition of the limits of knowledge and the tendency of human civilizations to collapse, for one reason or the other.

The part I found intriguing was hoarding of computer code, to the point that there was an economic and social niche for pure code archeologists. Almost every task had been programmed before, and all the dseign patterns had been known for thousands of years. Code ressurection and reuse was a given on any software project.

Also kind of amusing was the decimal time system, based on the second, counting up from the beginning of the Unix epoch.

Unknown said...

Tony:
"First of all, HAL is not a necessary story element. The story is primarily a first contact novel."
I'd say HAL is pretty central to the story, a huge part of it is spent dealing with his actions. When I was saying before about switching settings for a story, I meant doing so with essentially no plot changes.

"Second, if you want a HAL-like complication, the natural world is full of them. Imagine a lion or a jaguar stalking the party, causing the party to take precautions...which don't work in the end, leaving a lone survivor. That works with cold, logical precision, even if the logic is predator vs prey, instead of conflicting priorities between a computer and human crew."
Not really. The crew are dependant upon HAL. He's an integral part of the ship, not a hostile being encountered along the way.
He's also intelligent. You can't reason with a jaguar, and there's no need to try and figure out its motives.
I think the only way to have a HAL-like character in a pre-AI world would be to make him human, but that's a pretty major change.

Unknown said...

Jollyreaper:
"Rama as a steamer doesn't quite work. Better would be the steamer washes up on the shore of an unknown island in the Pacific. Exploration commences from there."

Erm..? That's what I said...

"As far as hard goes, there's two special cases for that as far as I'm concerned. Case One is "It's all hard." No aliens, no handwaves. Some people will allow just a single handwave and all secondary effects have to follow from there."

Surely the existence of aliens is plausible though, even if actual contact is not really?
The first Rama book plays this pretty hard too, as there's no actual contact as such, just an examination of alien tech.

"Case Two is "human tech is all hard, weird-ass alien tech remains within speculative possibilities even if we have no idea how it would be accomplished." So human spaceships to get to Rama don't have reactionless drives, no gravity manipulation, no swooping through space. And even though we have no idea how something like Rama could be built, it rotates for gravity, the RPM given the diameter makes sense for the 1G effective gravity inside, etc. I do remember Rama having a reactionless drive even though it also performed a slingshot maneuver."

If I remember rightly (and it is a long time since I read Rama), in the first book the humans assume the drive must be reactionless, but no explanation is ever given as to how it actually works.

Anonymous said...

It's been a long time since I read Rama, but I think the drive was called a 'space drive' without any other explanation. I got the impresion that it was some sort of field drive, but that's just me.

A concept we might want to consider is the "cultural empire"; not a politically unified civilization, but one bound to point-of-origin by religion, language, customs, architecture, even cuisine; the pre-Roman Greeks' empire was an example.

In an STL interstellar setting, the only thing that I could imagine would be valuable enough to tote across space would be people; fresh DNA, highly skilled techs, scientists, actors/entertainers, engineers, doctors, etc., people would be the 'McGuffinite' of this setting. People would set off to the colonies for the same reasons that people have always gone off to the colonies, (make a fortune, escape a bad situation, start a new life, to make a difference, adventure, romance, etc.)so maybe there is a viable business for interstellar space liners.

Ferrell

jollyreaper said...


Erm..? That's what I said...


Oh, I thought you meant for the steamer to be the ship of mystery for the natives to explore. Even our biggest steamers wouldn't offer too much mystery. :)


Surely the existence of aliens is plausible though, even if actual contact is not really?
The first Rama book plays this pretty hard too, as there's no actual contact as such, just an examination of alien tech.


Some folk are scary and dogmatic about how hard their SF has to be. I'm comfortable with the second case and still calling it hard SF. Humans can explore ringworlds and Rama vessels and whatever. So long as their tech remains hard SF explicable, quite a lot of alien clarketech is permissible.

Rick said...

Welcome to some new commenters!

Bad guys and aiming: Point taken about war movies and noir. Prior to sci-fi it was probably a convention especially in Westerns, and more generally in the 'adventure' genres, such as swashbucklers. (Major characters among the Cardinal's guards will be fine swordsmen. His mooks, not so much.)


Trade in any familiar economic sense strikes me as a nonstarter in STL interstellar settings. Compound interest alone kills it: What return do you need on an investment that won't pay off for 100 years?

Much the same for STL empires or interstellar politics. The time horizon is just too long. Radical life extension might change that, but it has so many implications that it sort of takes over the story anyway.

On the other hand ...

we might want to consider is the "cultural empire"; not a politically unified civilization, but one bound to point-of-origin by religion, language, customs, architecture, even cuisine;

This is entirely plausible, in many settings. The Greeks before Rome, the West after Rome, etc.

So there may well be cultural exchange, some of it carried as starship cargo, but with different motives and dynamics than Smithian economic commerce.


On the SF/F relationship, a Venn diagram is much like what I had in mind, but lacking any kind of sharp boundaries.

Locki said...

jollyreaper said...


... With Mass Effect, the presence of humanoid aliens (down to alien women having bumpy foreheads but sexy human bodies!) is completely inexcusable. You're bloody rendering the entire game! There's no human actors, not really! There's no reason to not do it proper! ....


.... That's the gold standard criticism used for a number of years.

I had a post a while back about how Star Wars could easily be done as high fantasy and would probably suffer less plot complications ....


=============

I think this is why Mass Effect has been so influential on the mainstream Sci-Fi movement - bumpy foreheads, sexy cross-breeding aliens and all. Its major themes (Fermi paradox, Extinction cycles/Synethic Life/Singularity) are impossible to transplant anywhere else.



Its pure unabashed space opera but it would be impossible to transplant to any other setting and consequently its the breath of fresh air sci-fi needed

It spends a lot of time window dressing the usual sci-fi tropes so I could look past the obvious faults. You have to give it 2-3 free handwavium passes (Element Eezo leading to FTL leading to artifical gravity leading to *groan* laserstars/dreadnaughts) but then the the rest is somewhat plausible. I was stoked when I realised they had droplet radiators and acknowledged only handwavium could give them stealth.

Really I like the gold standard test: "could it be transplanted to any other setting?". I think authors are underestimating the intelligence of their audience when they ignore the test. If they pay attention to the test it will not only both pass muster with the old time sci-fi nuts like us it will also make for great commerical success.

Something like the Matrix would also be impossible to transplant to fantasy and it hit mainstream sci-fi like a bolt out of heaven and made a stack of moolah. Ditto Mass Effect and Gattaca. I put the comerical success for these primarily down to them been able to pass the gold standard "Can I transplant the story to a different setting?" and giving us something new and interesting no other setting can.

I'm still pining for my atomic rocket ship and am faintly disappointed I've only got an Android smartphone to compensate me for the fact in all probability I'll never live to see a man walk on Mars.

Brett said...

@Rick
So there may well be cultural exchange, some of it carried as starship cargo, but with different motives and dynamics than Smithian economic commerce.

If I remember right, a lot of the Pre-Columbian chiefdoms among the native Americans in eastern North America had a custom that might be relevant in that situation. The leaders would trade for rare and/or unusual goods that served as big-time status markers, showing that the guys in question were capable of both accumulating rare goods and distributing them to their followers.

It's possible that your colonial societies might evolve something similar, particularly if a lot of the other markers of status (like number of possessions) become less relevant in a futuristic setting. Perhaps the ultimate sign of your status and capability to command vast amounts of resources (human/material/etc) would be that you could afford to build the starships to exchange ludicrously expensive status goods with other colonies and the mother world.

Much the same for STL empires or interstellar politics. The time horizon is just too long. Radical life extension might change that, but it has so many implications that it sort of takes over the story anyway.

It would be interesting to examine that kind of setting, though. They'd be much more patient with long-distance communications, but I think you'd have the same pressure to get interstellar travel speeds up as high as you can. The shorter the period you spend in deep space in transit, the shorter the time period in which there could be serious malfunctions that might threaten the lives of your immortal crew members.

jollyreaper said...

Well, Matrix is kind of funny. I find that people enjoy movies on entirely different levels, as if they aren't even seeing the same thing. It's like with Pixar. Little kids see bright shapes and colors, bigger kids like the slapstick, and adults get the sly humor aimed at them.

When I talk to people after seeing a movie that's well-balanced between action, talking, and big ideas, it's kind of depressing. People tune out during the talking and it's like they're listening to Charlie Brown's parents.

This explains why crap like Transformers works. Much of the audience only goes for the explosions and the only reason why it isn't 90 minutes of explosions is because the budget can't cover that. Any talky bit between action scenes is just padding. Shakespeare or crap, most of the audience doesn't care.

So with the Matrix example there's a small portion of the audience who enjoyed the philosophy, most just liked the stylized fight scenes and you know I'm right because the sequels were utter crap and made scads of money anyway.

Locki said...

Just to clarify my position. Matrix was a great movie and a perfect blend of big idea exposition and action. For people familar with cyberpunk its themes and plot points were familar or predictable but it was great to see it in a new original movie setting.

Matrix 2 and 3 were utter crapola and the greatest cash ins since - well Transformers 2 and 3. Indiana Jones IV too. SW Prequel trilogy as well.

Yeah. The matrix sequels are that bad.

Finally finished Mass Effect 3 too. It wasn't as awful an ending as I feared, certainly not the horrible cash in the Matrix sequels were.

jollyreaper said...

Using the simplest definition of singularity (the point beyond which speculations about the future are pointless) I'm seeing that right now with automation. I can't even begin to imagine what the average American will be doing for work in 50 years, let alone what the justification would be for colonists on some foreign world.

It doesn't even require Culture-level AI gods to make this happen. The kinds of robots we're making may not have the personality of R2 but I can easily see them automating most forms of manual labor out of existence. And while a human might be cheaper to use in some instances on Earth, they're far more expensive on, say, a space colony where you have to provide all the environmental support as well as shipping them out in the first place. Think of the quicksand scene in Blazing Saddles, our hero and his buddy run a rail cart into quicksand. The foreman throws a lasso and saves the cart. "That was lucky! Almost lost a $150 cart!" If he'd spent $200 a head on the laborers and would have to spend that much to replace them, he might have worried about that, too.

Agriculture is like 2% of employment, some countries down to .5%. Manufacturing in this country is I think under 15% at this point. No clothing is made here at this point.

Right now, there's still a lot of hand work being done but it's offshored to sweatshops. If those places didn't exist we'd have to be doing it here. New York would still have a Garment District. But we're reaching the point of automation where human hands just aren't required.

When the human level of involvement in many sectors of the economy drop to as low as agriculture is, what then?

The Star Trek utopian future is we spend more time on each other. More time spent on friends, family, things of cultural value, etc. The dystopian future looks more like Weber's Haven, most people living on the dole with no hope.

One model I came up with for an offworld colony with lots of human inhabitants is the imperial court. All of the essentials for daily life are provided by machines. A small number of technicians are in charge of keeping the machines functional. The bulk of the rest of the society is engaged in the pointless ritual and intrigue of courtly life. It's all elaborate ceremony and pageantry, years of instruction in the custom and manners of elite society.

From a functional perspective, it's a complete and total waste of effort. But for those at the very top, it's a big power and control issue. It's not fun to dominate a machine. Maybe if they had minds and could suffer that would be amusing but they don't. So that's why you need the people, so that you could feel your dominance.

Really, this psychological need is present even in otherwise sociopathic individuals. They may not give a crap about being loved but they want respect, they want people in awe and fear of them. This is why many criminals who should keep their mouths shut end up blabbing and getting caught from big talk. What's the point of pulling off the perfect crime if nobody knows about it?

A kingdom with luxuries and every material want but lacking in subjects, that's not filling the psychological want, nay, the psychological craving. A king must be king of something. A king must have subjects. A master without slaves is incomplete. Such a person is defined just just by what they own but who they own.

Brett said...

@jollyreaper
When the human level of involvement in many sectors of the economy drop to as low as agriculture is, what then?

My guess is that the "Service Sector" will dominate the economy to an even greater degree than it does now. Robots and A.I. will almost certainly displace some of that, but I can imagine situations where the humans are still cheaper (or rather, the humans plus some combination of technology is cheaper than full automation). There might also be a premium on being able to hire "human" services, like hiring a human cook/manservant/yoga instructor.

It's honestly just hard to say. We're like someone in 1920 trying to predict the types of jobs that would appear in the 1990s.

The bulk of the rest of the society is engaged in the pointless ritual and intrigue of courtly life. It's all elaborate ceremony and pageantry, years of instruction in the custom and manners of elite society.

I could see that, although I personally think that we'll get a trend of people forming off into groups deeply immersed in various "Secondary Worlds": the convergence of video games, social networking, television, and augmented reality.

From a functional perspective, it's a complete and total waste of effort. But for those at the very top, it's a big power and control issue. It's not fun to dominate a machine. Maybe if they had minds and could suffer that would be amusing but they don't. So that's why you need the people, so that you could feel your dominance.

I could easily see that happening, particularly if standard "goods and services" become so cheap that they lose most of their status value.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"I'd say HAL is pretty central to the story, a huge part of it is spent dealing with his actions. When I was saying before about switching settings for a story, I meant doing so with essentially no plot changes."

You're losing sight of the big picture. HAL was a plot complication, not a necessary plot point. Any complication taht risked the success of the mission and the lives of the crew would have been acceptable, since the story arc is drawn from discovering that there are aliens, to meeting them. Any complication posing a real and immediate threat to that arc meets the requirement.

"Not really. The crew are dependant upon HAL. He's an integral part of the ship, not a hostile being encountered along the way."

What else is he other than a hostile being encountered along the way? His menace arises from the mission's dependence on his capabilities, and the consequence of his being unreliable. But that doesn't in itself make it a special kind of menace. In the end, it's the conflict of HAL's priorities with the humans' priorities that causes the action, not his previous realtionship with them.

"He's also intelligent. You can't reason with a jaguar, and there's no need to try and figure out its motives."

HAL couldn't be reasoned with either. You do recall the airlock scene, don't you? The logic of mission accomplishment, as HAL conceived it, was no less implacable than the logic of predation.

Also, if you recall the film -- and the book -- HAL's motives were never an issue. His unreliability put him in conflict with the humans, and the humans determined to shoot first and ask questions later. I see very little, if any, distinction between that and having to deal with a big cat hunting you.

"I think the only way to have a HAL-like character in a pre-AI world would be to make him human, but that's a pretty major change."

A human would be a weak substitute for HAL. HAL's function is Nemesis, not internal faction. A big cat in the wild answers Nemesis just as well -- and takes advantage of certain ativistic horros of eating rather than being eaten. Extra credit for that.

Tony said...

WRT the Matrix franchise, it's high-concept navel-gazing. Meh.

Rick said...

Regarding 2001 and HAL, I'll note that both Magellan and Drake had to deal with (alleged) mutiny - by senior officers - that threatened their missions.

In Drake's case the accused mutineer, Thomas Doughty, may have been involved in court politics relating to the voyage. Which is a bit of an analogy to HAL, at least in Clarke's book.


Generally, I don't really buy the argument that SF plots must be unique to SF, not replicable in a non-SF setting. This certainly *can* be the case, but it is not required.

After all, the problem with 'Bat Durstons' isn't just that they rip off Western plots and tropes, but that they do so clumsily.

And I think there is a difference here between SF short stories and novels. Short stories in general live or die by the revelatory hook. Novels, due to their length, live or die by exploration of characters and world.

YMMV, of course. But there is a long-standing argument that 'true' SF is primarily a short-story genre, and someone once noted that SF novels often tend to fall apart toward the end.

Unknown said...

Tony:
"You're losing sight of the big picture. HAL was a plot complication, not a necessary plot point. Any complication taht risked the success of the mission and the lives of the crew would have been acceptable, since the story arc is drawn from discovering that there are aliens, to meeting them. Any complication posing a real and immediate threat to that arc meets the requirement."
Nope, not as far as the point I was making. The decision process and actions the crew take when dealing with HAL could not be replicated with a different type of being.
If you strip down a story as far as you are suggesting then anything is interchangeable.

"What else is he other than a hostile being encountered along the way? His menace arises from the mission's dependence on his capabilities, and the consequence of his being unreliable. But that doesn't in itself make it a special kind of menace. In the end, it's the conflict of HAL's priorities with the humans' priorities that causes the action, not his previous realtionship with them."
It's the dependence that is the key difference. The humans are simultaneously threatened by and dependant on HAL. You don't get that with a predator. With a predator it's a straight up fight - kill or be killed, but killing HAL has consequences.

Regarding reasoning, while the humans are not able to sway HAL, they are at least able to try and reason with him. HAL is intelligent, but his thought process is distinctly non-human.

I agree that a human makes a weak substitute for HAL, but only a human could fulfil HAL's dual role as provider and predator.

jollyreaper said...

I would say I've read some good, long SF but the short stories can pack the most punch. You are correct that good characters and narrative structures are necessary to carry the longer stories. Stephen King's short stories I've found far more effective than his novels.

The question is, how much story does one idea call for? Is it good enough for a short story? Does it need a novella? A novel? A whole series? Does exploring one introductory question branch off into an entire cluster of related ideas?

I'm always fascinated to see how authors answer that question for themselves.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"Nope, not as far as the point I was making. The decision process and actions the crew take when dealing with HAL could not be replicated with a different type of being.
If you strip down a story as far as you are suggesting then anything is interchangeable."


HAL is a convenience, not a provider. In both the movie and the book, the human crew are capable of continuing the mission without his help, and have no survival anxiety about doing it. HAL is a menace because he's f*cking up -- and eventually murderous by way of overcompensation -- not because his absence would be a complete disaster.

There's no "strip[ing]" required to change the nature of that kind of conflict. Any menace that threatens party/team/whatever survival will do.

"It's the dependence that is the key difference. The humans are simultaneously threatened by and dependant on HAL. You don't get that with a predator. With a predator it's a straight up fight - kill or be killed, but killing HAL has consequences."

See above.

Also, not killing HAL has substantially more dire consequences than killing him, even without HAL actively trying to exterminate the human crew. That's why Bowman and Poole were ready to punch his ticket at the first sign of unreliability.

"Regarding reasoning, while the humans are not able to sway HAL, they are at least able to try and reason with him. HAL is intelligent, but his thought process is distinctly non-human."

If somebody or something can't be reasoned with, then there is no negotiation, regardless of theoretical potential. I'm pretty sure Clarke set things up that way intentionally, because HAL's function as Nemesis disappears if he can be plausibly talked into putting down the (figurative) gun, and going quietly.

"I agree that a human makes a weak substitute for HAL, but only a human could fulfil HAL's dual role as provider and predator."

Sorry, but you've waaay overestimated HAL's value as provider.

jollyreaper said...

HAL is more than a simple antagonist. The rancor from Star Wars could just as easily have been a tiger. The sarlacc pit could have been any kind of James Bond death trap.

The problem with HAL is straight up Asimov and exploring the consequences of created beings and denial of free will. HAL with full ability to choose his own actions could think through conflicting orders. HAL lacking that is a classic robot tale for when the laws break down. Robocop had the same sort of problem and resolution in the first film.

Given that 2001 deals with evolution and intelligence which gives rise to technology, I think HAL is thematic and cannot be easily replaced by a leopard or a Geiger alien.

If we are talking about 2001 in the steamer making a ship wrecked landing on on an uncharted island then some wild animal could be a worthy antagonist, something to harry the protagonist in their journey of discovery, but this creature would not be HAL. HAL is a whole separate comment on human hubris.

Thucydides said...

Literature of the possible can have many meanings depending on the value of "possible"

Consider space mining. It has been a staple of SF for decades and in a limited technical sense has been "possible" since rockets powerful enough to send payloads to the Moon and Mars were built.

It became a bit more "possible" when the idea of O'Neill colonies and Solar Power Satellites gave it a (sort of) plausible reason to exist on a large scale.

It became much more "possible" with the renaissance in planetary exploration starting in the 1990's showed us in detail what was available in the Moon, Mars and NEO's

It is even more "possible" today, now that Planetary Resources Inc. is putting real resources into the idea, and have demonstrated some of the technological wherwithal to do so (SpaceX is a large part of the consortium).

You will note that in each era, the "possible" is different and so is the shape of the expected outcome in any of the era's in question. A novel or film about space mining in the 1960's would be far different from one about a rival company racing to beat Planetary Resources Inc. to a NEO in an attractive orbit today.

In another sense, possible also changes in terms of how the audience sees things being done. A 1960 era Space Miner would probably resemble a character from a Heinlein novel, a tough, no nonsense guy who straps on a helmet and pick axe to his trusty space mule. A 2012 space mining story might revolve around board meetings on Earth as each side tries to beat the other company factions into submission with PowerPoint presentations, totally ignoring the teleoperator crew playing Freecell in the control center during the night shift...

Damien Sullivan said...

"when empires are filled with liners taking hundreds of years with crews genetically modified to make the journey and stay sane while carrying frozen passengers and cargos (looking at you Reynolds) then my sociological side does a facepalm."

Which book is that? Certainly not the Revelation Space/Inhibitors series, which has no empires, and the crews cycle through coldsleep or benefit from time dilation.

"The difficulty for me arrises in believing that there is something so valuable and unobtainable in one system, but so cheap in another, that it would make sense to transport it overspace"

I suspect the Ultras are motivated mostly by the desire to zip around between the stars, actual trade being secondary. And agents don't give you personal experience.

Ironically the one thing people can't reverse engineer is the drives of the lighthuggers themselves. Partly because of Conjoiner acausal genius, partly because they're self-destruct on tampering.

Damien Sullivan said...

"What return do you need on an investment that won't pay off for 100 years?"

What if mature civilization interest rates are like 0.1%? You're immortal and everything's been discovered; discount rate of time is low.

There's also a huge distinction between the perspective of people staying in a system and hypothetically sending out trade missions, and that of people on the ships, especially if time dilation is in play. For the latter it's 10 years, not 100.

Plus the basic motivation to go see things, with trade just paying for refueling. Independent peddlers or free traders, not a home-based merchant empire.

"Right now, there's still a lot of hand work being done but it's offshored to sweatshops. If those places didn't exist we'd have to be doing it here. New York would still have a Garment District. But we're reaching the point of automation where human hands just aren't required."

Recall that to an economist trade and technology are almost the same. Trade is like a machine for turning wool into Hondas, except you can't even imagine such a machine.

It's when/if even local services become cheaply automatable that things get interesting. OTOH, the law of comparative advantage says humans will still be useful even if they're less productive at all tasks -- if you're keeping them around, they might as well do something. The *interesting* bit is if elites start thinking the masses can be allowed to die off.

Damien Sullivan said...

2001: the book made it clear was that HAL was a threat created by humans. His maker had made him to be open and scientific, his mission programmers made him keep details secret, he went 'nuts' by deciding to eliminate the conflict by getting rid of the humans he was keeping secrets from.

And the monolith-makers had passed through a machine-mind phase before turning into "energy", just as Dave Bowman is transformed. The monoliths themselves are AI of the highest order, of course.

Details matter.

Geoffrey S H said...

"Which book is that? Certainly not the Revelation Space/Inhibitors series, which has no empires, and the crews cycle through coldsleep or benefit from time dilation."

Ah, I meant "House of Suns". Good book , but some of the world building didn't quite add up (it was admittedly set 6 million years in the future though).

As regards HAL, instead of an animal, perhaps a knowledgeable shaman, with a slight sociopathic side, who had been trained by the exploring tribe to be their guide in all things mysterious?

Bruce Lewis said...

1. I always assume that we'll bypass FTL altogether in favor of wormholes. Once you have wormholes, you don't need interstellar starships -- ordinary interplanetary ships will do just fine. "All space travel is local." Plus: fewer nasty causality problems, more 19th-century-style strategic locations to be defended/assaulted = SF fun.

2. I think technological advancement is already beginning to plateau, and as a result the future will be more like the present (or the past) than we might guess today. Sure, your cell phone will be a peel-and-stick skin decal and your computer will look like a Post-It note (and will be as disposable), but beyond a certain level technology begins to seem fake and unnatural to people and they'll resist it.

I remember when I was a kid, the future was to be a place of inflatable furniture, skin-tight Spandex clothing, and videophones. As it turns out, people prefer the look and feel of wooden furniture, they like loose clothing made from natural fibers, and they go for texting instead of face to face voice conversation. Who knew?

It'll be the same way with AI. Who the hell wants to have to deal with a g__d_m__d talking computer? Not me! Dealing with humans who won't shut the eff up is bad enough -- I don't need some chunk of plastic yakking it up, too. I want my computer to be a silent, tireless slave, not a HAL 9000 that's going to ask me cryptic questions all day and then murder me in my sleep. Just because we can do certain things doesn't mean we will do them. Food pill, anyone?

3. The only justification for space travel is settlement. Without human beings, a location is just a set of coordinates. With human beings, it becomes a place. Our duty is to inhabit the universe, to "till the universe, and subdue it".

4. We'll have massive space colonization when the technology allows it. If some sort of "space Conestoga" existed -- i.e. a means of interplanetary travel as cheap, simple, and forgiving of amateur misuse as a Conestoga wagon -- we'd have wagon trains headed to the Moon and Mars today.

5. Who will go? Who'd want to leave the cool green hills of Earth for some godforsaken planet or moon? Malcontents. Mormons. White nationalists. The Nation of Islam. Religious orders. Criminals. Thrillseekers. The restless. Prospectors. Pot smokers. People who are just tired of the same old daily routine and want something new. Once my kids are grown and gone, I'll go -- if there's a way to go and a place to go to.

6. Our society is in the grip of a terrible evil. Further the deponent sayeth not, but I will say that this evil is reflected in the ennui, nihilism, pessimism, and cynicism that are ubiquitous in our world. Once the grip of this evil is broken (which will probably require a societal collapse, a war, or something equally interesting) we'll see the rebirth of zest, meaning, optimism, and hope among people -- including SF writers.

7. In a few years some bright guy or gal is going to figure out an antigravity dodge. Once that happens, humankind will explode into space.

8. I predict that in the future gold coins will be used as money. Why? Because electronic money is by nature "funny" and untrustworthy. In the future, people will trust things virtual much less than we do today.

9. Ditto politics. Monarchism, not democracy, will be the dominant form of human politics in the future, and for similar reasons.

10. 3-D printing will replace manufacturing on the small-to-medium scale within 10-15 years. We'll print our clothing, shoes, tools, and toys at home; bigger items (e.g., cars) will be assembled in small factories from printed sub-assemblies. People will still shop for fresh foods, handicrafts, one-of-a-kind items, and luxury goods. Designers and creative types will have work.

I'm hopeful about the future. Then again, I'm a dad. Every child a mom and dad has is a wager that tomorrow is worth living for.

Brett said...

That's a pretty epic troll post.

@Bruce Lewis
1. I always assume that we'll bypass FTL altogether in favor of wormholes. Once you have wormholes, you don't need interstellar starships -- ordinary interplanetary ships will do just fine. "All space travel is local." Plus: fewer nasty causality problems, more 19th-century-style strategic locations to be defended/assaulted = SF fun.

We'll need to find some Jupiter-sized masses of negative mass-energy first, or create them.

2. I think technological advancement is already beginning to plateau, and as a result the future will be more like the present (or the past) than we might guess today. Sure, your cell phone will be a peel-and-stick skin decal and your computer will look like a Post-It note (and will be as disposable), but beyond a certain level technology begins to seem fake and unnatural to people and they'll resist it.

That type of phone is going to get replaced by wearable augmented reality glasses in ten years. Google and others are already testing early versions of it, and it's probably just going to get better.

3. The only justification for space travel is settlement. Without human beings, a location is just a set of coordinates. With human beings, it becomes a place. Our duty is to inhabit the universe, to "till the universe, and subdue it".

Very Zubrin-esque.

8. I predict that in the future gold coins will be used as money. Why? Because electronic money is by nature "funny" and untrustworthy. In the future, people will trust things virtual much less than we do today.

Nah, gold is too common in space.

TOM said...

Speaking about HAL, i find quite unbelievable that a present day computer could develop human like thinking, free will, emotions etc.
While i still like Heinlein's The Moon is a harsh mistress, e-brains dont evolve like humans, a compu just gains consciousness, pretty much magic to me.
/Well, at least i definitally wouldnt write a program, that can randomly develop itself.../

Most big SF authors /at least those i know.../ employed FTL technology when it was needed, i dont doubt a bit, that FTL travel would allow you to SEE the past, with Einstein's clock synchronization method, you could even determine, you arrived before you left, but with a non-equivalent sync method, you can avoid that, and preserve casuality, just because you can see the past it doesnt mean you can alter it anyway.
And by the way, we already have quite mysterious phenonema, like quantum nonlocality, that could be explained by FTL interaction, i also doubt space is really void, and it is definite, that if a medium slows down light, reactions can be FTL.

SF vs fantasy : certain universes surely blurs the line...
Personally i like technology until it dont replace humans /that is why a lot of SF deals with robot rebellions, a more plausible scene would be a tyrant ruling with robo armies... or replace e-brains with something more human like, molecular, quantum processors/
And i also like if the universe is connected to ours, even if it is only fantasy.

Tony said...

Re: 2001, HAL, and plot flexibility

Y'know, when we get to talking about plot flexibility, people have no trouble equating FTL spacecraft with steamships, or even sailing ships. They have no trouble with blasters being the SF equivalent of rifles and pistols. They have no trouble with planetary romance being nothing more than Westerns in high tech drag. But when you suggest to them that HAL -- who would have been nothing more than expository furniture, if he hadn't been actively trying to kill the human crew -- can't possibly be equatedwith anythingi n another setting, because he was an intelligent computer.

IMO people are being waaay too literal here. If you substitute the logic of predation for the logic of self-preservation, you still get HAL's plot function -- an extrinsic threat to the completion of the overall story arc.

Tony said...

Bruce Lewis:

"1. I always assume that we'll bypass FTL altogether in favor of wormholes...Plus: fewer nasty causality problems, more 19th-century-style strategic locations to be defended/assaulted = SF fun."

The world isn't going to cater to somebody's ideal of "fun". If you could capture a wormhole and promote it out of the quantum foam, you'd still have to move one mouth from here to there, over dozens or hundreds of light years. That will take a lot of energy that we just don't know how to generate, and perhaps never will.

"2. I think technological advancement is already beginning to plateau..."

I think there are limits to knowledge, simply because the universe isn't going to keep inventing processes and laws to keep us guessing. But I don't know where those limits are, nor how long it will take to technologically exploit to those limits. Still, if you believe technology has plateaued, how do we get the energy to build wormhole networks, where does the ability to produce anti-gravity come from, etc?

"3. The only justification for space travel is settlement."

The only broadly interesting application of space travel is settlement. The only justification is economic advantage in settling people somewhere other than Earth. I'm not impressed that there is one, in the real world.

"4. We'll have massive space colonization when the technology allows it."

Technology and economics. And even stated that way, it's a meaningless tautology. It's like saying we'll have coffee in the morning if somebody brews it.

"5. Who will go?"

People who are qualified and necessary. Even when it's possible to send hundreds or thousands of people into space each year, it will not be economically feasible to send people just for them to be away.

"6. Our society is in the grip of a terrible evil..."

Oh, puh-lease! Grow the eff up, even.

"7. In a few years some bright guy or gal is going to figure out an antigravity dodge."

Magical thinking, not rational thinking.

"8. I predict that in the future gold coins will be used as money."

Not if you want a high tech society, it wonit be. Commodity money is just not capable of the necessary speed and flexibility of negotiation.

"9. Ditto politics. Monarchism, not democracy, will be the dominant form of human politics in the future, and for similar reasons."

Monarchism requires certain power realtionships that can't exist in a high tech environment. The various totalitarian dictatorships were de facto monarchisms or oligarchies. They necessairly repressed free thought an innovation. Kings and queens and dukes and earls may be romantic. They're not rational for a highly complex society.

"10. 3-D printing will replace manufacturing on the small-to-medium scale within 10-15 years."

Nope. Too much economic advantage in process specialization, for mass production purposes.

"I'm hopeful about the future. Then again, I'm a dad. Every child a mom and dad has is a wager that tomorrow is worth living for."

With all due respect, you're full of starry-eyed naivete and romanticism. There's nothing special about that.

Brett said...

I think you just took the troll bait seriously, Tony. So much of that seemed like he was deliberately being ridiculous so he could laugh at our reaction.

That said, I agree with your beliefs on the economic viability of space colonization. I personally think it will only happen if the costs of sending builder robots into space to do the construction/mining/processing/whatever become relatively cheap, and there are enough people willing to pay the transportation costs just for the novelty of living on a space colony. Neither may turn out to be true.

TOM said...

I think, in future, overpopulation can be a factor that leads space travel, either you travel, or you can have only one kid at best...

HAL isnt that terrible new i think, he is the descendant of Frankenstein and other homonculi.
(While drones are the descendant of golems.)

I heard a theory that with strong magnetic fields, you could manipulate gravity, i dont know how solid is it.
I think we are pretty far from knowing everything... they dropped aether as they failed to detect it, now they say again, matter is only a tiny percent of the universe.

Tony said...

TOM:

"I think, in future, overpopulation can be a factor that leads space travel, either you travel, or you can have only one kid at best..."

Overpopulation and cheap space travel seem mutually exclusive to me.

"HAL isnt that terrible new i think, he is the descendant of Frankenstein and other homonculi.
(While drones are the descendant of golems.)"


I hadn't considered that angle.

BUt the point I'm making is that the plot niche that HAL occupies is not contingent upon him being a human creation. As stated earlier, without him actively engaged in homicide, he's just a piece of expository furniture. With him engaged in homicide, his role is that of Nemesis -- a stalking, fearful, seemingly (until identified and confronted) implacable menace. Anything that answers such a description would do. I suggested a large feline predator for a forest setting. But one could imagine a pack of wolves on the North American prairie or in Siberia, or maybe a dragon in a high fantasy quest.

"I heard a theory that with strong magnetic fields, you could manipulate gravity, i dont know how solid is it.
I think we are pretty far from knowing everything... they dropped aether as they failed to detect it, now they say again, matter is only a tiny percent of the universe."


I suspect that antigravity is going to be subject ot the laws of relativity. If you can generate or modify gravitational fields at the level of Earth Gs, one will need the energy equivalent of Earth's mass. So even if plausible, not extremely practical.

TOM said...

"Overpopulation and cheap space travel seem mutually exclusive to me."

Cheap space travel is a thing that can help against overpopulation.

Tony said...

Brett:

"I think you just took the troll bait seriously, Tony. So much of that seemed like he was deliberately being ridiculous so he could laugh at our reaction. "

I've rarely been disappointed when taking such tomfoolery at face value. There really are people out there -- and a lot of them -- that believe in cliches and fantasies, and think themselves sophisticated for doing so.

Tony said...

TOM:

"Cheap space travel is a thing that can help against overpopulation."

Cheap space travel is only relatively cheap. A society that is rich enough to think that space travel is cheap, relative to other things that can be done, isn't likely to be dealing with overpopulation, among the many other symptoms of poverty.

TOM said...

Travel was never an easy thing, yet people went all across the globe to avoid overpopulation, suppression.

Tony said...

TOM:

"Travel was never an easy thing, yet people went all across the globe to avoid overpopulation, suppression."

Analogies to terrestrial travel are simply not relevant. Easy or hard, a journey on earth could always begin with a single step. A journey into space requires a massive leap -- and then you have to bring along everything you need. No stopping at a stream to drink some water, no feeding the horse(s) on forage, no inns along beaten paths.

And traveling around the planet on water was always easier than doing so on land. Van Creveld, in Supplying War, gives an order of magnitude greater energy efficiency for water transport compared to land transport, pre-steam engine. Getting into space is at least ten times less energy efficient than any terrestrial means of travel, including Concorde.

Space colonization to control overpopulation would be just too expensive in a society poor enough to have overpopuation, and unnecessary in one so rich that overpopulation was not an issue.

TOM said...

Travelling to America, or through southern pacific and inhabit Polynesia in boats also required an initial jump IMHO.

TOM said...

Well, maybe i am very optimistic, but i think, terraforming can only require one or two initial jump, after it, you can get the tools and aid to build greenhouses, nurture plants, with CO2 and water, build houses to your family, extend your farm, etc.

Tony said...

TOM:

"Travelling to America, or through southern pacific and inhabit Polynesia in boats also required an initial jump IMHO."

It is believed the Vikings made it to North America in open boats that had been previously used for coastal/river trading and raiding. The Polynesians colonized all of those islands in what amounted to large canoes. Columbus didn't appeal to Isabella that technology had finally caught up with desire. He just put a profit and national strategy motive in front of her. Almost every year, for a hundred years before attempts at permanent settlement were made in North America, fishermen were fishing off of the Atlantic Coast, at least as far south as Virginia.

There was no leap made simply because no leap was needed. If you knew the right winds and started at the right time of year, North America was eaiser than sailing around Africa to the Indies. People in fact went there because it was so easy, and seemingly less of a hassle as far as local competition was concerned. The American Indian may have been regarded as dangerous, but Indian princes were actually semi-civilized, having organized armies with cavalry, guns, and even some real artillery. You couldn't just waltz into the Punjab and take over like you could in Massachusetts Bay or tidewater Virginia.

Tony said...

TOM:

:Well, maybe i am very optimistic, but i think, terraforming can only require one or two initial jump, after it, you can get the tools and aid to build greenhouses, nurture plants, with CO2 and water, build houses to your family, extend your farm, etc."

To optimistic to describe in polite terms.

TOM said...

Of course i didnt denied, that the first seeds will require very much effort to establish, but after you have the basics, it can be easier to extend further, by using local materials, i dont say i would be the first one to rush to Mars... i just think it can be solved without constant supplies from Earth.
/Again, after you have proper seeds./

Being rich dont mean you solved overpopulation, you either has to force people to have only one or two kid, or find new territories for them.

Tony said...

TOM:

"Of course i didnt denied, that the first seeds will require very much effort to establish, but after you have the basics, it can be easier to extend further, by using local materials, i dont say i would be the first one to rush to Mars... i just think it can be solved without constant supplies from Earth.
/Again, after you have proper seeds./"


It would be incredibly hard under any imaginable set of plausible technological circumstances. It won't be cottage industry for centuries, if ever. Outbacking or even communing on Mars is simply not PMF -- or even PFF, unless you stipulate a lot of unlikely technological assumptions.

"Being rich dont mean you solved overpopulation, you either has to force people to have only one or two kid, or find new territories for them."

An ecologist (see Colinvaux, for example) would tell you that a society with high rates of individual wealth will naturally curtail its population growth, simply because ahving and raising kids is so freaking expensive in scuh an environment. Current trends in the developed world seem to bear this out pretty conclusively. The one-child-or-colonization dilemma is simply not likely to arrise.

Brett said...

Those conditions could change, although I'm dubious as to whether it would cause over-population serious enough to merit colonization. If we discover some serious life extension technologies, then odds are that we'll have a short-term, rapid rise in the population before the birth rate adjusts. If we discover some technologies that make child-bearing and -raising much easier on parents (such as artificial wombs, domestic robots, etc), then the enormous costs of having children might go down in rich societies. I'm a bit skeptical on the latter one, since as far as I know the rich in Developed Nations don't generally have a ton of kids, but it's possible.

Even then, of course, colonization is unlikely. While we put some serious strains on the global environment, we don't necessarily have to occupy a lot of space - at the population density of Beverly Hills, we would occupy about 1.7 million square kilometers, less than 1% of the Earth's land surface. It's always going to be much easier to simply build denser cities, conduct denser agriculture (you can build up with agriculture, growing it in buildings with natural and artificial light), and bring resources from space to Earth if we need them.

Rick said...

Welcome to a new commenter!

I am very disinclined to make troll accusations unless someone is being actively disruptive. (I have done so once; the person changed tone and continues to make important contributions here.)


I do disagree with many of Bruce's points - as I often disagree with commenters' points. Taking up a few at random:

Perhaps a matter of semantics, but I would include wormholes as FTL - in general usage meaning anything that gets you around the speed-of-light barrier.

Why would settling in space be the only reason to travel into space? Lots of people visit the national parks with no intent to move to one (or adjacent to one). On a more utilitarian level, people go to offshore oil wells to work, not settle.

In any case, if technology plateaus at anything like the current level, forget settling in space - or even going there much more extensively than at present. At present it costs on order of $10 million for a quick trip to orbit, and $1 billion/year to live there. So you need to reduce costs by 2-3 orders of magnitude. By comparison, the whole Industrial Revolution has only increased productivity (= reducing effective costs) by 1-2 orders of magnitude.


On another topic, from a different commenter:

i find quite unbelievable that a present day computer could develop human like thinking, free will, emotions etc.

I agree. A general trope in older thinking about AI was to imagine it as human-like. Understandable, since human intelligence was the only form of high-level cognition we had any experience with. And we haven't a clue about how it works.

So, for example, it was assumed that any chess machine that could beat a human grandmaster would play chess the way human grandmasters do, and more generally think and behave in a way broadly comparable to human grandmasters.

Instead it turns out that a powerful computer can play brute force chess at grandmaster-plus level, and otherwise have no 'personality' whatsoever.

See much more on this in an earlier post: What Do AIs Want?

Brett said...

@Rick:

Who knows? It's brutally expensive now, but maybe we'd only need to get the costs down 1-2 degrees of magnitude and it would be enough for a fraction of a growing global class of millionaires to put their money towards this kind of stuff out of personal beliefs and ideas. Planetary Science is an example of that - while they're planning to be profitable, they also openly admit that profit is not the first reason why its investors are investing in it.

I don't know. Like I said, I think that if we settle in space at all, it will because the colonies were already built by robots in space, and because there's enough people worldwide who can afford to live there and want to live in space. Otherwise, I think it will eventually be All-Robot aside from tourism - there just isn't enough value placed on space science in any existing society such that it results in steady funding for scientific manned missions.

Perhaps a matter of semantics, but I would include wormholes as FTL - in general usage meaning anything that gets you around the speed-of-light barrier.

Weird question, but are there any SF works where there's FTL and easy space travel, and yet space gets the "offshore platform" treatment with no real permanent settlements? I can't remember any - they almost always assume some form of colonies on other worlds, even when they're tiny compared to Earth (like with Starship Troopers and some of the Prometheus backstory).

TOM said...

Maybe we could move this to the topic about Mars.
I clearly cant see all the technical difficulties, but... why are we so interested, whether Mars once had life and water or not?
Yes curiosity, but there is another thing IMHO.
If Mars once had water and life, it increases the chance of terraforming.

There are life on our planet even in the harshest conditions, arsenic lakes, volcanos, polar ice, deep water etc...

I think with proper technical help, we could infect Mars with life. And once there are life, we can build self supporting and extending colonies, that dont rely on Earth. Maybe after a long time, they could even export their crops to feed the engineers and workers of the asteroid mines.

Going to orbit cost can be reduced by an order of magnitude with laser or microwave aiding, interplanetary costs can be also greatly reduced with ion thrusters and magsails.

A company may build a few ships at first from government money, but if they can found a self-sustaining colony on Mars, eventually, they could rule an entire Empire, they will be equal in every terms to a large developed country.

Third world countries still suffer from poverty and overpop, they can be settlers hired by the rich company.

Jim Baerg said...

"Weird question, but are there any SF works where there's FTL and easy space travel, and yet space gets the "offshore platform" treatment with no real permanent settlements?"

With FTL, not that I know of. However there is a Heinlein novel in which there is easy interplanetary travel but minimal solar system development.

In _Beyond This Horizon_ there are tourism on the moon & scientific bases elsewhere in the solar system, but no extensive off earth settlement. In this case Heinlein wanted to focus on other issues than space travel & assumed for story purposes that there was little elsewhere in the solar system to justify economic development.

Brett said...

@Jim Baerg

Thanks for the reference.

@TOM
I clearly cant see all the technical difficulties, but... why are we so interested, whether Mars once had life and water or not?

Finding life on Mars (or definite proof that it existed there in the past) would prove that life is not something exclusive to Earth. And while it's not entirely warranted, many people would assume that having life arise twice in the same solar system means that it's probably common in the universe.

Of course, it would also make Astro-Biology an actual field with something real to study, so there's that too. :D

I think with proper technical help, we could infect Mars with life. And once there are life, we can build self supporting and extending colonies, that dont rely on Earth. Maybe after a long time, they could even export their crops to feed the engineers and workers of the asteroid mines.

I doubt crops will ever be profitable to export from the surface of a world to feed space colonies. They're too bulky and low in unit value to make it profitable. Exports from a planet's surface will more likely be either specialized products, people, or stuff where having cheap gravity and oxygen is a major plus in terms of cost of production (like smelting steel).

Going to orbit cost can be reduced by an order of magnitude with laser or microwave aiding, interplanetary costs can be also greatly reduced with ion thrusters and magsails.

I like the idea of using lasers to push stuff into orbit. You'll need quite a bit of power, though, and more powerful lasers than we have right now.

Personally, I think the real plus to a Mars Terraforming Project would be that it's the kind of thing that could inspire a religious-level of devotion to the project, as well as serving as a draw to people on Earth. "Bringing Life to Mars!" has more slogan power than "Live in a rotating space station and enjoy the view!".

Tony said...

TOM:

"Maybe we could move this to the topic about Mars.
I clearly cant see all the technical difficulties, but... why are we so interested, whether Mars once had life and water or not?
Yes curiosity, but there is another thing IMHO.
If Mars once had water and life, it increases the chance of terraforming."


Actually, no, it doesn't. If Mars had life in the past, it was under considerably difference circumstances, including a more robust magnetosphere. With Mars's iron core cooled down to the level it is now, those conditions can't be reproduced. Even if you managed to produce a breathable atmosphere on Mars, it would be a constant maintenance project to keep it at a reasonable pressure, simply because the solar wind would keep blowing it away, just as it did the original one.

"There are life on our planet even in the harshest conditions, arsenic lakes, volcanos, polar ice, deep water etc..."

Not the kind that we'd be trying to support with terraforming. Sorry.

"I think with proper technical help, we could infect Mars with life. And once there are life, we can build self supporting and extending colonies, that dont rely on Earth. Maybe after a long time, they could even export their crops to feed the engineers and workers of the asteroid mines."

Yes, let us infect Mars with extremophiles. That doesn't have anything to do with growing corn, chickens, and potatoes for Sunday dinner.

"Going to orbit cost can be reduced by an order of magnitude with laser or microwave aiding,"

Order of magnitude? I doubt it. Remember, every bit of money spent on space is spent down here. Instead of investing in expendable launch vehicles and ground support infrastructure, one would be investing in expendable cargo modules, huge lasers and power supplies, and all of their ground support infrastructure. It's not expending rockets that costs so much money. It's getting into space in any fashion that costs money.

"interplanetary costs can be also greatly reduced with ion thrusters and magsails."

Interplanetary costs are not the problem. It's getting into space that's the problem.

"A company may build a few ships at first from government money, but if they can found a self-sustaining colony on Mars, eventually, they could rule an entire Empire, they will be equal in every terms to a large developed country."

An empire? Based on what? There ain't going to be any such thing as a self-sustaining colony on Mars for a long, long time, if ever. Even if self-sufficient in foodstuffs, a colony just doesn't have the industrial base to be self sufficient in much of anything else, and no commodities -- or even luxuries -- to trade with Earth for the manufactured goods it does need. It would never get off the ground on that basis alone.

"Third world countries still suffer from poverty and overpop, they can be settlers hired by the rich company."

Ri-i-ight... It's not like anybody would actually want to come back to Earth to spend their pay. It's not like forced colonists would be totally unqualified to survive a month on Mars, under any realistic set of circumstances. It's not like sending people to Mars for the sake of sending people to Mars has no business plan attached to it.

Tony said...

Rick:

"Perhaps a matter of semantics, but I would include wormholes as FTL - in general usage meaning anything that gets you around the speed-of-light barrier."

Not semantic at all. But also not what most people understand wormholes to represent. Engineered wormholes would be generational infrastructure projects, much like medieval European cathedrals. Once you create the owrmhole, you have to send one end through space to the proposed terminus solar system.

That is, of course, unless you can target in space, at a distance of light years, the manifestation of one wormhole mouth. Now that would be something. But the strategic implications, if one could do such a thing at will, would be staggering. It's hard to imagine wars being anything but total, when the enemy can appear at any place in your empire that he wants to, and defeating his ability to do so means neutralizing every industrial center he possesses.

TOM said...

In the greenhouses atmosphere dont just vanish, extremophils can still produce oxigen and organic materials that can support more advanced life.


"It's not like forced colonists would be totally unqualified to survive a month on Mars, under any realistic set of circumstances. "

They can work in mines or fields until they become qualified enough.
When europeans went to America, many of them was unqualified, many of them died during first winter, and many of them went to one way journey.

" Even if self-sufficient in foodstuffs, a colony just doesn't have the industrial base to be self sufficient in much of anything else, and no commodities -- or even luxuries -- to trade with Earth for the manufactured goods it does need."

Mars can become a base, a jump point to reach the asteroid belt with the lots of rare materials.
They could profit much from the trade.

http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/02/nasa-researcher-kevin-parkin-discusses.html

"Microwave propulsion should be at least a factor of 3 cheaper than conventional disposable rockets, but for reusable spacecraft a 20 fold cost/performance increase is attainable."

Tony said...

TOM:

"In the greenhouses atmosphere dont just vanish, extremophils can still produce oxigen and organic materials that can support more advanced life."

In greenhouses you're not terraforming. You're just living in an artificial environment. Under those conditions you'd manufacture whatever gas mixture you needed from local resources. You wouldn't wait on biology.

"They can work in mines or fields until they become qualified enough."

Why would mines necessarily be pressurized? How would farm workers -- if that's all they're qualified to be -- turn into engineers, biologists, etc? If they're already qualified to be engineers, etc, why would a third world country send them to Mars, when their skills are needed at home?

"When europeans went to America, many of them was unqualified, many of them died during first winter, and many of them went to one way journey."

At the travel cost, not a major loss. A human being is going ot be worth millions when he gets to mars, both in up-front economic expenditure and the value of his labor at the destination. Even a small shrinkage factor would be pretty hard to justify on the balance sheet.

"Mars can become a base, a jump point to reach the asteroid belt with the lots of rare materials.
They could profit much from the trade."


What trade? Most places to be mined in the Belt (totally ignoring NEO resources, BTW) would be in a bad position to be serviced from Mars, most of the time, for orbital mechanics reasons.

"http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/02/nasa-researcher-kevin-parkin-discusses.html

'Microwave propulsion should be at least a factor of 3 cheaper than conventional disposable rockets, but for reusable spacecraft a 20 fold cost/performance increase is attainable.'"


People that invoke NBF lose a lot of credibility with me.

TOM said...

Sorry late thoughts again.

How about an irrational cause?
Why did people built pyramids, Stonehenge things like that? With their tools it wasnt more cheap than a space program.

They wanted to become immortal, and in a historical sense, Kheops pharaoh and others became.

Those who will build the terraforming seeds on Mars, will also become immortal.
Their descendants might rule the planet /mostly covered by greenhouses/ as kings.

With the trade with asteroid belt, they could become a power similar to Earth. Because it will be easier to reach the asteroids from Mars anyway.

TOM said...

Ok i see you wrote that.

I didnt browsed NBF, i just found this article, i guessed someone from NASA doesnt speak all BS.

"Under those conditions you'd manufacture whatever gas mixture you needed from local resources. You wouldn't wait on biology."

I would use a biological help in it.


"How would farm workers -- if that's all they're qualified to be -- turn into engineers, biologists, etc? "

Their kids could learn and become such things, while in their country they would remain peons unless they are very lucky.

"What trade? Most places to be mined in the Belt (totally ignoring NEO resources, BTW) would be in a bad position to be serviced from Mars, most of the time, for orbital mechanics reasons."

I didnt ignore near earth asteroids... but ok i am not an astronomist, why wouldnt be easier to reach the asteroids from Mars, than from Earth?

Tony said...

TOM:

"How about an irrational cause?
Why did people built pyramids, Stonehenge things like that? With their tools it wasnt more cheap than a space program."


It was something they did with surplus labor and few engineers. It may have been irrational, but if it was a space program level of effort, compare it to current space programs, not to a space colonization program. IOW, even if potlach on a massive scale, just like our space program it was still pocket money.

"Those who will build the terraforming seeds on Mars, will also become immortal.
Their descendants might rule the planet /mostly covered by greenhouses/ as kings."


Romantic by economically implausible. There's just no way to get there from here. settling on Mars is always going to be a high tech endeavor. It can't be grown organically, and it can't be begun at all without a business plan to make it worthwhile. There isn't enough angel financing on Earth -- on ten Earths -- to do it for irrational reasons. (Not that you could get all the superwealthy angels to agree to a common goal anyway.)

"With the trade with asteroid belt, they could become a power similar to Earth. Because it will be easier to reach the asteroids from Mars anyway."

Trade what with the asteroid belt? Greetings? THe Mars you invision, if it has any industry at all, will be using that industry for local needs. As already pointed out, agricultural products simply wouldn't make for trade goods. There won't be an asteroid trade. Period.

TOM said...

"Trade what with the asteroid belt? Greetings? "

Lubricants. Send engineers there for maintenance jobs. Fuel and oxygen.

Tony said...

TOM:

"I would use a biological help in [manufacturing atmosphere gasses on Mars]."

Only if it made business and industrial sense. But extracting oxygen from carbon dioxide and nitrogen from the general atmospheres doesn't need biological assistance. Neither does drilling and liquifying water ice from permafrost.

"Their kids could learn and become such things, while in their country they would remain peons unless they are very lucky."

Who's going to teach them? Shanghaied university professors? Who's going to manage and do the technical work while all of this is going on? More shanghaied experts? What's their motivation going to be? Do good work or get put outside?

Is that the empire you want? A coolie empire run -- to the degree that it could be run at all -- by an enslaved technical class?

Or perhaps you think you can have a class of permanently exiled coolies, led and taught by temporarily assigned professionals? Yeah, that's work real good.

"I didnt ignore near earth asteroids... but ok i am not an astronomist, why wouldnt be easier to reach the asteroids from Mars, than from Earth?"

Because you have to take into account the synodic periods of most asteroids WRT Mars. The transfer window from Mars to most main asteroid belt bodies opens only once every 3-4 years. Windows from Earth open every 1-1.5. Also, asteroids have pretty high inclinations WRT the standard (or "invariable") plane of the solar system. That ads energy to transit requirements. Is Mars "closer" to the asteroids, WRT energy, than the Earth? Sure, but only relatively. It's still an expensive exercise, that has strict timing constraints, relative to an Earth departure.

Tony said...

TOM:

"Lubricants. Send engineers there for maintenance jobs. Fuel and oxygen."

All stuff that can be found or made cheaper locally.

Brett said...

To be fair, it would take a really long time for the solar wind to strip Mars of the new atmosphere you've given it - millions of years long. You might be able to replenish over that period of time, or even set-up the Martian ecology so that it pumps gases into the air to replace those lost from stripping.

That's much better than what would happen if you terraformed Venus. You'd have to constantly monitor Venus and block out some of the sunlight, otherwise the planet would immediately heat up and go back into another runaway greenhouse effect.

Sean said...

How would terraforming Mars benefit any hypothetical colonists anyway? For starters I'm uncomfortable with the idea of decimating the natural habitat of any native organisms that may exist on Mars and also its always struck me as a pointless endeavour when you could easily get along just fine with colonies built within the confines of a pressurized domes, or better yet, colonies built underground. Really terraforming is nothing but a selfish waste of resources advocated by snake oil salesmen like Zubrin; terraforming other worlds may destroy not only the life that may exist there, but would destroy their natural history - opportunities to study the geological and chemical make up of such worlds would be scuttled by our contamination of these alien environments. Hmm, now I feel a sudden urge to watch the Wrath of Khan.

Anonymous said...

I really don't find the prospect of terraforming Mars superior to simply building lots of biodomes and underground cities on the planet. It costs less and takes much less time to simply build pressurized cities than change the enviornment of a whole world. Besides, I'm thinking that the first outposts on Mars (or any other in-system world), would be a research outpost, somewhat more extensive and self-sufficent than an Antarctic research station; you'd only get a visit from a supply ship once a year or two, so there would likely be a much slower turn-over and a slow build up of 'stay-overs'; poeple who for one reason or another decide to remain after their tour is over. As the permanent population grows over the years/decades/perhaps generations, the support systems grow in size and scope, with side enterprises (perhaps grown from hobbies)becoming the seeds from which local industry springs. Even if the first permantely manned Mars outpost is only a few decades away, the first truely self-sufficent colony that is capable of surviving even if totally cut off from Earth would not emerge until the turn of the 22nd century.

Ferrell

Brett said...

I don't think the "we would lose our chance to study the natural environment" really holds water. Realistically, any serious terraforming effort is probably going to happen a long time after the colonies are present on Mars, with decades or even longer to study Mars in its unterraformed condition.

It's not going to be like in Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars Trilogy, where they start the terraforming process a mere 9 years after the first manned mission there.

TOM said...

"All stuff that can be found or made cheaper locally."

On a metallic asteroid?

I dont say, begin with terraforming the whole planet. I say the greenhouse cities can keep extending, until they cover much of the planet, and there will be a self sustaining biosphere covered by glass.


By the way, in another thread, most people said, that even the mining of a near earth asteroid is a scam...

Unknown said...

Tony:
"Y'know, when we get to talking about plot flexibility, people have no trouble equating FTL spacecraft with steamships, or even sailing ships. They have no trouble with blasters being the SF equivalent of rifles and pistols. They have no trouble with planetary romance being nothing more than Westerns in high tech drag. But when you suggest to them that HAL -- who would have been nothing more than expository furniture, if he hadn't been actively trying to kill the human crew -- can't possibly be equatedwith anythingi n another setting, because he was an intelligent computer."

Ships, guns, and planets are just objects though. HAL, because he is sentient, is a character. In my opinion, removing a character is a major change, whereas substituting one object for another is a minor one.
This is particularly true of HAL because the dialogue between him and Dave is the most memorable of whole story.

jollyreaper said...

One other thing that could make for good storytelling, the office politics involved with the higher ranks.

http://bubbleheads.blogspot.com/2012/08/wow-just-wow.html#comments

Sub guys talking about the latest scandal (married, much older sub skipper knocks up 23-yr old, fakes his own death, removed from command) and how it's par for the course.

Every history I've read about the human details of gearing a military force up for war talks about the winnowing process of removing officers who are successful in peacetime due to political skills but lack the mettle for a combat command. Unsuccessful commanders will be fairly or unfairly blamed for their failings which can lead to rapid promotion of junior officers who are either good or lucky.

Bruce Lewis said...

You know, I quit reading this site a couple of years ago due to the high number of grouchy, vinegary, cynical cunts that made up its commentariat. The articles were fun, but gleaning the comments for exciting ideas had come to be a fruitless chore, and I have plenty of chores already.

Then, a few weeks ago, I decided to give it another go. The subject matter is just so interesting, and -- I figured -- the sourpusses must all have killed themselves by now in despair over the delay of the Singularity, or the fact that people still believe in God, or whatever.

So I cam back. And what did I find?

The same grouchy, vinegary, cynical cunts.

It's not that the site is bad. The articles written by our host are always well-done and interesting. I'm just not sure why this place is even called "rocketpunk". It has some connection with rocketry, I suppose, but absolutely zero punk. Punk (as in punk rock, not jailhouse punk) was for all its faults all about verve, imagination, and a stiff middle finger thrust gleefully in the face of the Conventional Wisdom.

In other words, everything this place ain't.

To our host: please forgive me for returning and posting my comments here. I see now that it was a mistake. I'll take my leave of you again, this time for good. I wish you the best of luck in future endeavors.

To the rest of you: no need to reply. I won't trouble you again with my "starry-eyed romanticism". You can go back to agreeing with one another now, secure in the knowledge that you are collectively right about everything.

It's places like this that make the average person hate science fiction.

Fucking off now, sir.

Tony said...

TOM:

"On a metallic asteroid?"

"[L]ocally" in terms of energy, not physical proximity. I'm sure that carbonaceous and even volatile-bearing asteroids can be found within just a few kps of any mining site asteroid. Ceres, for example, is susptected of having an icy mantle.

"I dont say, begin with terraforming the whole [of Mars]. I say the greenhouse cities can keep extending, until they cover much of the planet, and there will be a self sustaining biosphere covered by glass."

If they can find and export a product that will give them the exchange credits to import what they need to build up an industrial base, that might be a possibility. But there's a can't-get-ther-from-here problem with that. There's no product that an early Martian economy could profitable export, certainly not on the scale required to support industrialization.

"By the way, in another thread, most people said, that even the mining of a near earth asteroid is a scam..."

In the context of the corporate trial balloons currently being floated? Probably. In terms of energy advantage compare to main belt maining? They're more economical, presuming that all of the resources -- except for sunlight and maybe some locally acquired volatiles -- come from Earth.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"Ships, guns, and planets are just objects though. HAL, because he is sentient, is a character. In my opinion, removing a character is a major change, whereas substituting one object for another is a minor one.
This is particularly true of HAL because the dialogue between him and Dave is the most memorable of whole story."


Forester's African Queen was just an "object"? Excuse me!? The large French frigate in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was just an "object", and not a character? Please.

On the other hand, exchanging a natural predator for HAL doesn't remove a character. It just provides a different one, in the smae role, and with the same implacable purpose -- satisfy its objectives at the lethal expense of the crew/party. And if you think interacting with a natural predator isn't a dialogue...well, we're simply not inhabitting the same reality, AFAICT.

jollyreaper said...

@Bruce

Not sure if you're still reading this but what the hey.

Rocketpunk's goal is trying to strike the balance between romance and realism. It's an ongoing debate with no good answer in sight.

With any group that's been hashing over ideas for a while, newcomers will step into well-trod debates unawares and thus not know the history. I do think it's incumbent upon the old hands to be respectful when bringing someone up to speed. Some people have a problem with the idea of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Don't let a few people color your impression of the entire group.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"@Bruce

Not sure if you're still reading this but what the hey.

Rocketpunk's goal is trying to strike the balance between romance and realism. It's an ongoing debate with no good answer in sight.

With any group that's been hashing over ideas for a while, newcomers will step into well-trod debates unawares and thus not know the history. I do think it's incumbent upon the old hands to be respectful when bringing someone up to speed. Some people have a problem with the idea of disagreeing without being disagreeable.

Don't let a few people color your impression of the entire group. "


He says he was "gleaning the comments for exciting ideas", J. One of the major functions of this blog, as I understand it, is in fact to de-excite, and inject a little reality. Maybe he's just not suited to a culture of realism.

TOM said...

"If they can find and export a product that will give them the exchange credits to import what they need to build up an industrial base, that might be a possibility."

I dont think, Mars doesnt have rare materials (above iron), and you can dig deeper because the core isnt that hot.
It can be pretty enough to support a local industry, and there can be both rational and irrational reasons why would people want to go there, and some of them stay there.
Maybe some of them go there for sheer romanticism, maybe some of them will be exiled from Earth, some of them thinks they can make new breakthroughs with the housing/terraforming projects (adapting to new environments is a pretty strong force that advance evolution), some will think on a new world, they can find possibilities they cant find on Earth, etc.

I also have doubts, you can just go straight to the asteroid belt, and ignore Mars as a jump point. If there will be a decent population there, that accustomed to living in an alien world, they can be hired and shipped more easily to do building, maintenance etc jobs on a piece of rock floating in deep space.
Again there can be both rational and irrational things, it is easier to say someone, go to a planet that has sky, you dont just sucked to outer space if the habitat would happen to be hit by a small meteor...
Then the new generations of Martians will be more ready ro venture further.

Tony said...

TOM:

"I dont think, Mars doesnt have rare materials (above iron), and you can dig deeper because the core isnt that hot. It can be pretty enough to support a local industry,"

There won't be local industry without the importation of millions of tons of tools and other supplies that can't be made locally, at least not initially. Once again, you can't get there from here.


"and there can be both rational and irrational reasons why would people want to go there, and some of them stay there.
Maybe some of them go there for sheer romanticism, maybe some of them will be exiled from Earth, some of them thinks they can make new breakthroughs with the housing/terraforming projects (adapting to new environments is a pretty strong force that advance evolution), some will think on a new world, they can find possibilities they cant find on Earth, etc."


All those things could be true, if there was a "there" there, But there won't be. The initial infrastructure would be just too expensive to establish.

"I also have doubts, you can just go straight to the asteroid belt, and ignore Mars as a jump point. If there will be a decent population there, that accustomed to living in an alien world, they can be hired and shipped more easily to do building, maintenance etc jobs on a piece of rock floating in deep space.
Again there can be both rational and irrational things, it is easier to say someone, go to a planet that has sky, you dont just sucked to outer space if the habitat would happen to be hit by a small meteor...
Then the new generations of Martians will be more ready ro venture further."


Once again, you're totally ignoring the first step -- actually establishing a large, self-sufficient Martian community -- for which there is simply no rational, economically achievable basis.

jollyreaper said...


He says he was "gleaning the comments for exciting ideas", J. One of the major functions of this blog, as I understand it, is in fact to de-excite, and inject a little reality. Maybe he's just not suited to a culture of realism.


But you're being a bit of an ass about it.

The way I see it, there's being agreeably correct where you can win someone over to your way of thinking and there's being disagreeably correct where someone might see that your reasoning is correct but take such an offense to your approach that they tell you to piss off.

Some people see that as six of one, half-dozen of another. I think there's a profound difference.

The purpose of the blog, as I see it, is not not to "de-excite" but to open the eyes to new possibilities and excite people in new ways. And if someone decides they don't like realism, we can obligingly point the way towards science fantasy.

You don't take an earnest and sincere student of healing from a primitive society and crap all over his gods and tell him his ideas are foolish; instead, you point out that you have very effective ideas on how to heal people, introduce him to the scientific method and let him decide for himself what he believes about his own gods. If he discards them, fine. If he keeps them yet practices scientifically-sound medicine, it's not hurting anyone.

And for Cthulhu's sake, what we're talking about here isn't anything as momentous as medicine, it's an artistic pass-time musing about a speculative future none of us here will ever live to see. Getting insulting or hotheaded over it is as useless as quarreling over sports.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"But you're being a bit of an ass about it."

When people start talking about our society being "in the grip of a terrible evil", that's pretty much where I have to step off the train, tact-wise. It's cliche-mongering, which is irremediably intelligence-insulting. If you want to say I'm an ass for the way I responded, fine, I'll be an ass, all effing day long.

"The way I see it, there's being agreeably correct where you can win someone over to your way of thinking and there's being disagreeably correct..."

(Eliding because the rest amounts to the same complaint.)

The way I see it, you don't insult people's intelligence with cliches that you don't even bother to substantiate (i.e. "Further the deponent sayeth not..." -- which happens to be cribbed from Heinlein, BTW). I did not accuse the man of being a troll, but others have, and I have to admit that my mind is open to that possibility, especially after his rant, telling all of us -- including you -- that we are a pimple on the ass (to borrow a turn of phrase) of SF.

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

"All those things could be true, if there was a "there" there, But there won't be. The initial infrastructure would be just too expensive to establish.

Once again, you're totally ignoring the first step -- actually establishing a large, self-sufficient Martian community -- for which there is simply no rational, economically achievable basis."

Sending there probes to search for any tiny traces of life has any rational economical basis?
And if they find something, will it give us new cures, make us all happy, we living beings on Earth werent all that alone?
Mars' geology, history, yeah, do we really need to understand such things, will it result in an economic boom?

Of course things will begin with very small steps.
A tiny research base at first for example.
Some boring millionaire will find out, go there, spend some months at there.
Build an additional greenhouse to the research facility.
Okay we found something valuable there. Maybe if we could get some tools we could make more scientific progress...
Someone will find out, Earth is on the brink of a nuclear or other crisis, he can be safer in a new world...
Maybe only a thousand year later, i think there will be a proper seed...

Tony said...

TOM:

"Sending there probes to search for any tiny traces of life has any rational economical basis?
And if they find something, will it give us new cures, make us all happy, we living beings on Earth werent all that alone?
Mars' geology, history, yeah, do we really need to understand such things, will it result in an economic boom?"


There's a considerable difference in scale between sending a robot every couple of years and sending hundreds or thousands of people, plus everything they need to survive and develop an industrial economy.

"Of course things will begin with very small steps..."

And develop over a very long time scale. A thousand years might not be too long, and probably not long enough. But that takes us out of the PMF into wild pseculation land.

Brett said...

I suppose he could still be trolling, but this post did feel more like he was a thin-skinned Space Cadet than a troll. I owe you a Coke or something, Tony.

He's probably still stealing glances at this for responses, so

@Bruce
Then, a few weeks ago, I decided to give it another go. The subject matter is just so interesting, and -- I figured -- the sourpusses must all have killed themselves by now in despair over the delay of the Singularity, or the fact that people still believe in God, or whatever.

The articles on this site were always about interjecting realism into the discussions on spaceflight, as well as common tropes of Science Fiction - going back to the earliest posts about the unlikeliness of space colonization as imagined in all the "Bat Durston" era of space opera.

If that doesn't appeal to you, then there are no lack of other places to go where you can get a lot of back-slapping and unrealistic optimism about the future of manned spaceflight. In fact, I daresay that most manned spaceflight enthusiast communities on the web will be like that. They might even indulge your beliefs about the Future of Gold Coins.

@jollyreaper
The way I see it, there's being agreeably correct where you can win someone over to your way of thinking and there's being disagreeably correct where someone might see that your reasoning is correct but take such an offense to your approach that they tell you to piss off.

To be honest, I'm not sure what "disagreeably correct" would have meant in Bruce's case. Most of his ideas were crazy, and there was next to no way to counter those that wouldn't come across as harsh. Moreover, it's not like he actually tried to engage in a dialogue - he just ran off crying after his first post in the thread.

I've also just re-read Tony's response, and it's not that harsh. The only times it ever really got nasty were when Bruce went off on his whole "society is in the grips of a terrible evil", and when Bruce ended his post with a rather pompous close.

As always, though, Rick's the blog-master. If he thinks I was too harsh, I'll ease off next time. I honestly did think he was trolling, though - so much of that post felt like someone coming in and posting a bunch of silly stuff just to get a reaction. Seriously, anti-gravity? Gold coins?

Tony said...

Brett:

"I honestly did think he was trolling, though - so much of that post felt like someone coming in and posting a bunch of silly stuff just to get a reaction. Seriously, anti-gravity? Gold coins?"

That "deponent sayeth not" business was the red flag for me. It comes out of Heinleinia, though I forget the exact work and situation. If you're going to go all melodramatic about society on me, at least substantiate it a little bit -- and don't steal lines from a popular author.

"I suppose he could still be trolling, but this post did feel more like he was a thin-skinned Space Cadet than a troll. I owe you a Coke or something, Tony."

Coke is fine, leaded.

I'm not completely ready to say it was a troll to set up a righteously indignant rant. I've met Space Cadets that in fact believe all of those things. Around the year 2000, you could usually find one or two (or three or four) at a Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society meeting on Thursday evenings.

Sean said...

Brett said: "I don't think the "we would lose our chance to study the natural environment" really holds water. Realistically, any serious terraforming effort is probably going to happen a long time after the colonies are present on Mars, with decades or even longer to study Mars in its unterraformed condition."

I wasn't trying to suggest that it would be anything like Red Mars, I apologize for giving that impression. But humanity, with all of our scope and capabilities, has been seriouslu investigating the Earth since the classical era (albeit with pit stops along the way) and even today we're discovering great new features of our planet, and I imagine it'll be centuries before we've exhausted all we can discover here on our world. On Mars it will be millennia before we exhaust all we can discover, and even then, there is always the possibility of discovering even more - why take the risk of destroying what we can learn just so we can beautify a planet?

TOM said...

"sending hundreds or thousands of people, plus everything they need to survive and develop an industrial economy. "


I would say, send there some robots in more waves, that can produce basic stuff like steel and glass, and dig, then dozens of people in the launch windows.
The first waves constructs the greenhouses that can house the later waves, who expand the dig sites and colony.

At first, they only sent prisoners to North Siberia, now there are also cities with free people there. Well, there is also a possibility, that Mars will be like to North Siberia /the climate is somewhat comparable.../

We also dont see now, what can be the real economic value of Mars, maybe it can be a GIANT biological testing ground, you can make experiments there, that would be too dangerous on Earth, and more expensive in space.
Well ok, an all infected planet isnt a friendly place, but gives economic value of making bases there, that can be seed centuries later.

About the shipping cost, in another thread, a guy who wasnt all the dreamer type (he was quite skeptical about many ideas), said that ha sees a possibility, that with a combined system of airplane, scramjet, laser aid, rocket, maybe skyhook in the stratosphere, going to orbit costs can be reduced by a magnitude, but maybe two.

Call theese things wild speculations, but i think such things are necessary in most SF, that is why this blog is about space, and not cyberpunk life on Earth.

TOM said...

Late thoughts again...

Mars as a bio-research planet.

On Earth, you need very strict security protocols, terrorists, animal protectors can attack your lab... Space is also quite limited... even if you dig underground you'll still have trouble.

In space, no building materials.

On Mars, you could build a continent sized complex with research labs, GMO grounds, spawning vats, anything you want.
Shipping the research samples wont be that expensive.

Of course, you'll need cities for your workers.

Unknown said...

Tony:
"Forester's African Queen was just an "object"? Excuse me!? The large French frigate in Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World was just an "object", and not a character? Please."
Well yes... obviously. Sometimes an object can be seen to have character but this only exists in the mind of an intelligent being. It is ultimately inanimate.

"On the other hand, exchanging a natural predator for HAL doesn't remove a character. It just provides a different one, in the smae role, and with the same implacable purpose -- satisfy its objectives at the lethal expense of the crew/party. And if you think interacting with a natural predator isn't a dialogue...well, we're simply not inhabitting the same reality, AFAICT."
I think we'll have to agree we're not inhabiting the same reality then.

You can have an interaction with an animal but you can't have a meaningful exchange of ideas with something that, as far as we can tell, does not have ideas.

Sean said...

TOM said..."Mars as a bio-research planet."

A solution in search of a problem. No government, corporation, research institute, or university would ever care that much about terrorists to build their laboratories on the surface of another planet when facilities such as Fort Detrick,Plum Island and Porton Down do the job just fine.

Unknown said...

Brett:
"I suppose he could still be trolling, but this post did feel more like he was a thin-skinned Space Cadet than a troll."

If you go to Bruce's profile on here, then take the link to his web site, you get a pretty clear idea of where he's coming from and what sort of guy he is.

jollyreaper said...

Yeah, I just took a look at that blog.

"Do you hate those idiotic “Coexist” bumper stickers? The ones that spell the word out using the Islamic crescent, the yin-yang, the Magen David, and the Cross as letters? God knows I do. The presence of one of those things on a car is a guarantee that the person who put it there is a gormless, trend-following liberal tool who in a just world would be staring forlornly through the barbed-wire fence of a concentration camp instead of sashaying around town in their cute little car spreading the brazenly nonsensical idea that people with diametrically-opposed and fundamentally-incompatible worldviews can somehow live side by side in peace."

I'm not sure if he means liberals should be placed in concentration camps by right-thinking conservatives or if they would be sent there by the all-conquering muslims if not protected by right-thinking conservatives.

"As the United crumbles, the States will become more and more important. Even if you come from one of the 49 gay loser states outside of Texas, you should make it a point to know and love your home state. After all, someday your state may not be a government — it may be the government."

Yeah. It's not going to be possible to have a civil discussion of competing ideas here.

Jim Baerg said...

TOM: "I dont think, Mars doesnt have rare materials (above iron), and you can dig deeper because the core isnt that hot"

Do we know that Mars is lacking rare materials?

I would expect the elemental composition of Mars to resemble Earth. Like Earth it has water & internal heat to do some separation & concentration of rare elements into ores. Unlike Earth it hasn't had a metal using civilization searching for & mining all the easiest ore bodies for the last few millenia. So mining on Mars isn't totally implausible. It requires some major price drops in surface to orbit transport for both Earth & Mars, but that's true for doing almost anything off Earth. (Note to some: I know this point was made by Zubrin, but don't dismiss it just because you think he's way off base on many other points.)

jollyreaper said...

Also, he's a big fan of Franco!

"Héroe de la guerra contra el comunismo", War Hero against communism.

His site is backlinked from Free Republic. Yeef. Talk about your space cadets!

jollyreaper said...

Regarding planetary mining: that gravity well I think is the key. If you are doing things *on* Mars then it could very well make sense to mine the material locally. If you are doing thing *off* Mars, the asteroid belts seem to be the way to go. Only if the cost of spacelift drops to next to nothing would it make sense to consider any other possible advantages to doing things planetside, if they exist.

It's the same thing with globalization. It only become economically possible to make everything we need overseas and ship it here if oil and thus the cost of transport is incredibly cheap. Absent that, it makes no sense at all.

TOM said...

On another planet you can make research that requires large areas, like testing crops that can tolerate extreme circumstances, without the fear, that their pollen infects regular plants.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"Well yes... obviously. Sometimes an object can be seen to have character but this only exists in the mind of an intelligent being. It is ultimately inanimate."

HAL would have been inanimate if some human had not programmed him to be a certain way -- just like the French frigate being a certain way only because the people aboard made her that way, or the African Queen. For story purposes, the personality of a ship/plane/train/whatever can be taken to be its own personality, even if in reality it would come from some human or group of humans animating it.

"You can have an interaction with an animal but you can't have a meaningful exchange of ideas with something that, as far as we can tell, does not have ideas. "

Ummm...why does having a meaningful exchange of ideas matter? It made HAL less impersonal, but it also didn't affect his purpose. He couldn't be talked to once he decidedwhat he had to do.

Also, who says one can't have a meaningful exchange of ideas with an animal? He attacks your group, communicating to you the idea that you're prey and, right now at least, the most enticing item on the menu. The group, in defending itself, communicates the idea that it ain't going to be so easy, maybe you should try some other kitchen. The animal comes back later fro another, perhaps successful try -- No, I'm going to eat you. It gets a (painful but not debilitating) spear or arrow wound in the process -- see, we can bite too. And back and forth, until the ultimate resolution of the conflict.

Tony said...

TOM:

"I would say, send there some robots in more waves, that can produce basic stuff like steel and glass..."

Sorry, T, but you've read too much bad SF. Robots can barely sample surface rock, and you want them to set up heavy industry.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"It's the same thing with globalization. It only become economically possible to make everything we need overseas and ship it here if oil and thus the cost of transport is incredibly cheap. Absent that, it makes no sense at all."

Then all of those children in adult bodies are protesting and vandalizing over nothing. Give it enough time and it will fix itself.

jollyreaper said...


Then all of those children in adult bodies are protesting and vandalizing over nothing. Give it enough time and it will fix itself.


Way to marginalize a movement. *thumbs up*

The ironic thing is if we do solve the peak energy problem, that would be good for our civilization in the short-term and bad for the planet in the long-term because there would be no incentive to fix the way we're doing things.

Rick said...

We are all a bit of an ass sometimes - I do encourage everyone to try and be less of one here, for the sake of the conversation.

That said, our recent visitor must have changed his profile blog link - the blog I see listed there now is a church choir blog, recently started, with no incendiary content.

(Unless you *really* don't like church choirs. For my own part, agnosticism is no bar to my fondness for traditional church music. OTOH, 'contemporary Christian' music, like secular Christmas music, is plainly the Devil's work.)


I've never thought of this blog's goal as to 'de-excite' anything. I do question the likelihood of many popular space tropes. Sometimes I offer alternatives. Often, and shamelessly, I try to offer more 'realistic' approaches to highly improbably things such as Mars colonists blockading Earth.


On Mars, I rather lean toward Sean's view. But I think it is beautiful as it is - which is why Mars exploration produces so many cool images. That said, Mars may look like the American Southwest, but the similarity is a LOT less than meets the eye.

Loosely related, see my older post on Garden Worlds, Park Worlds.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Way to marginalize a movement. *thumbs up*"

They're self-marginalizing, by way of being immature and confused about the way the world necessarily works.

"The ironic thing is if we do solve the peak energy problem, that would be good for our civilization in the short-term and bad for the planet in the long-term because there would be no incentive to fix the way we're doing things."

That depends on how the potential problem is resolved. There's no reason at all to presume that any resolution is necessarily a bad one. You're like the fan that roots for a bad season because you think it will make the team better in the long run. But instead of "suck for luck", you're advocating rooting for poverty, for the sake of the environment. Gee, I wonder why people just can't get behind that...

Also, in totally apolitical terms, the planet isn't at risk, nor the environment, in the long run. They'll both be here long after us. Heck, they've overcome worse disasters (e.g. dinosaur killers) than we could ever possibly author.

If we foul our own range to the point we die out or simply just decline into insignificance, well, that's just another thing, as far as the planet and the environment are concerned. Our lookout should naturally be to prosper as much as possible without fouling our range.

There are lots of arguments at what level of accomplishment and resource usage that comes at. It's hardly a decided question, largely because we have nowhere near a large enough statistical unverse to even begin guessing. We'll just have to wait and see.

jollyreaper said...

They're self-marginalizing, by way of being immature and confused about the way the world necessarily works.


Or to restate it: "They disagree with me, therefore they are immature and confused."

That depends on how the potential problem is resolved. There's no reason at all to presume that any resolution is necessarily a bad one. You're like the fan that roots for a bad season because you think it will make the team better in the long run.


Not so much. I'd like an adult conversation about the priorities of our civilization, what we think is important, what we want to promote, and how we'll get there.

At this point we still can't even get people to agree on whether or not there is a problem in the first place. Are we engaging in reckless, unsustainable growth or are we being good little capitalist boys and girls?

But instead of "suck for luck", you're advocating rooting for poverty, for the sake of the environment. Gee, I wonder why people just can't get behind that...


Again, a misrepresentation. I'm simply looking at the graphs. Real value of the dollar dropping year over year, worker pay dropping since the 70's, corruption of the financial system, destruction of our communities through terrible urban planning and misallocation of resources, our inability to meet fiscal obligations or maintain our existing infrastructure, and an inability to have a conversation about what all this means.

Also, in totally apolitical terms, the planet isn't at risk, nor the environment, in the long run. They'll both be here long after us. Heck, they've overcome worse disasters (e.g. dinosaur killers) than we could ever possibly author.

Yes, but what comes next is an environment significantly different than what came before. You don't just clear-cut a forest and expect the same thing to grow back to replace it. You'll get something growing back, assuming you haven't completely poisoned the soil, but it will be different, sometimes subtlety, sometimes drastically.

If we foul our own range to the point we die out or simply just decline into insignificance, well, that's just another thing, as far as the planet and the environment are concerned. Our lookout should naturally be to prosper as much as possible without fouling our range.

Well yeah, that's the whole point. I'm not a fan of hyperbole, especially in a cause I support, because false arguments made on behalf of something perfectly defensible makes it all look like bunk. Saying we have enough nukes to destroy all life on Earth is silly. We could most certainly end civilization as we know it. Even if we did manage to kill every single human being, there's still going to be weeds and bugs. I think it's sufficient to say that a nuclear war is something you would never, ever, ever want to live through. Just point to Germany, 1945 and imagine no occupation that could at least restore order, just famine and radiation poisoning and your hair falling out and your kids starving to death at your feet. That's already perfectly awful enough without even talking about nuclear winter.

There are lots of arguments at what level of accomplishment and resource usage that comes at. It's hardly a decided question, largely because we have nowhere near a large enough statistical unverse to even begin guessing. We'll just have to wait and see.


Evidence vs. belief, two bunnies and the puzzle of the puzzle.

http://imgur.com/gallery/1BXxi

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Or to restate it: 'They disagree with me, therefore they are immature and confused.'"

Whether or not they disagree with me, behaving like spoiled little children, violently demonstrating and vadalizing, doesn't win any arguments. That's a fact.

As for whether or not they are confused, yes, that it is my opinion. But it's based on having lived in this best of all possible worlds for near on five decades now. I've seen it all before, two or three times. It's boringly predictable, lacking any common goal or workable program. In a nutshell, it's confused.

"Not so much. I'd like an adult conversation about the priorities of our civilization, what we think is important, what we want to promote, and how we'll get there."

Excellent. Can we leave out the cliches and demonizations this time?

"At this point we still can't even get people to agree on whether or not there is a problem in the first place. Are we engaging in reckless, unsustainable growth or are we being good little capitalist boys and girls?"

Why is it either-or? Why do we have to engage in stereotypes of complex, deep, broad issues and positions?

"Again, a misrepresentation. I'm simply looking at the graphs. Real value of the dollar dropping year over year,"

Is that "real" value relevant, when what people buy, where they buy it, how they buy it, and why they buy it has changed so much over those same years? Used to be I'd have to own at least one suit to go along with my work clothes, and if I worked in an office, own two or three suits to get through the week, plus leisure wear. Now I don't own a suit, work in an office, and my work and leisure wear are essentially the same. Used to be that a 25" tube television cost $500 in 1970 dollars. Now you can get a brand name (RCA) 32" 1080p HDTV flatscreen for $240 in 2012 dollars (just checked on walmart.com). That $3,000 Corolla my parents bought in 1973 is still a Corolla, at a buying-power-equivalent $16,000.

"worker pay dropping since the 70's,"

Mine has gone up considerably. What has actually happened is that the value of manual labor has gone down in the US. And a majority of those exported manual labor jobs are the best jobs around, where they're being sent. Globalization may mean recession here, but it's not a bad deal everywhere.

"corruption of the financial system,"

As if that's anything new. Ever hear of Credit Mobilier, or Teapot Dome?

"destruction of our communities through terrible urban planning and misallocation of resources,"

What communities would those be? Poor inner-city ones? And what "terrible" urban planning are we talking about? Portland, Oregon, where nobody wants to or can do business, because it's overplanned and unattractive to expanding companies -- on purpose?

Not to start an argument here -- just pointing out that rarely are these things as simple as some people wish to make them seem.

"our inability to meet fiscal obligations"

That will fix itself, one way or the other. And it's hardly a species -- or even cultural -- survival issue.

"or maintain our existing infrastructure,"

Plenty of infrastructure projects going on all of the time. Infrastructure maintenance as a national problem -- sometimes even a local one -- is ludicrously exagerated and over-exagerated.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

and an inability to have a conversation about what all this means.

The reason it's so hard to have a discussion is that one side or the other -- often both -- spews cliches and stereotypes rather than looking at facts and applying rational thought to a cost-benefit analysis. That can be said of globalization, anthropogenic global warming, environmental protection, [YulBrynnerVoice]etcetera, etcetera, etcetera [/YulBrynnerVoice].

How about we try agreeing on terms first, before making assertions of fact.

"Yes, but what comes next is an environment significantly different than what came before. You don't just clear-cut a forest and expect the same thing to grow back to replace it. You'll get something growing back, assuming you haven't completely poisoned the soil, but it will be different, sometimes subtlety, sometimes drastically.

And totally irrelevant to the planet or the bilogical environment, over the long run.

"Well yeah, that's the whole point. I'm not a fan of hyperbole, especially in a cause I support, because false arguments made on behalf of something perfectly defensible makes it all look like bunk..."

Juxtaposed with:

"Evidence vs. belief, two bunnies and the puzzle of the puzzle.

http://imgur.com/gallery/1BXxi"


Sigh...

Anvilicious and misleading caricatures aren't hypberole? Really? J? Bubi?

jollyreaper said...

You portray a handful of idiots doing stupid things at a protest as representative of the whole. That's broad-brushing.

Now I could call that demonization. You think it's factual. Likewise, I think I'm making a reasonable call based on what I see and you call it demonization. Common ground is hard to find.

Your TV argument. Yes, I can buy wonderful toys. But the buying power of the dollar is dropping, our incomes are not keeping up with inflation, and the gains in productivity made over the last generation are accumulated at the top. And it isn't the cost of electronic toys that's bankrupting American families; medical bankruptcies are cause #1.

http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speed-up-american-workers-long-hours

So we have to go back and ask some fundamental questions of ourselves. What is best in life? (We'll ignore Conan's answer.) What is the purpose of coming together as a civilization? What are our duties as citizens? What are the obligations of the state? What are our obligations to each other? How might we best meet them?

There are radically different questions and world views depending on how those questions are answered.

I agree with the notion that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins. Likewise, my fist-swinging had best avoid the area of your nose and things will be peachy.

Unfortunately, nobody can see eye to eye on this. Look at the libertarian take on discrimination in a business. Rand Paul says he disagrees with a business owner excluding black patrons but feels the government should have no say in the matter. "Let market forces decide." Black people already can't eat there. The only way voting with the wallet would work is if sufficient numbers of white people stopped eating there. So, is it a fair choice? Maybe blacks could open up their own restaurant next door, win over the whites with better food. That's a market solution, right? Only nobody will rent to a black. Can't have them dirtying up the block, don't you know. So blacks can only open up restaurants near where they live, which happens to be the ghetto because decent folk aren't allowing blacks to move into the neighborhood.

As for terrible urban planning, I'm talking about sprawl and zoning rules that encourage it. Everyone needs a car, everything has to be miles apart, with no decent mass transit to be found. We're struggling to pay for this infrastructure monster and are fighting a losing battle.

The founder of Strong Towns is a conservative christian who was originally skeptical of the hippies and greenies in the New Urbanism movement. His thinking has come closer to their way of thinking simply on account of seeing the failure of traditional, big, dumb planning.

http://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/

Make of it what you will.

We often forget that the American pattern of suburban development is an experiment, one that has never been tried anywhere before. We assume it is the natural order because it is what we see all around us. But our own history — let alone a tour of other parts of the world — reveals a different reality. Across cultures, over thousands of years, people have traditionally built places scaled to the individual. It is only the last two generations that we have scaled places to the automobile.

How is our experiment working?

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"You portray a handful of idiots doing stupid things at a protest as representative of the whole. That's broad-brushing."

The "Battle of Seattle" was not a "handful" of anything, J. Apparently, you wish people to believe that such incidents are negligible hooliganism. A lot of people are simply glad that they don't get any worse.

"Now I could call that demonization. You think it's factual. Likewise, I think I'm making a reasonable call based on what I see and you call it demonization. Common ground is hard to find."

Call it what you want. It doesn't change the facts that, routinely now, protests advertised as peaceful and educational just don't turn out to be that way. We can argue all day about degree and kind surrounding the facts, but the facts have to be stipulated first. I'm willing to stipulate whatever facts you can prove. I'm not willing to stipulate any "facts" you baldly assert.

"Your TV argument. Yes, I can buy wonderful toys. But the buying power of the dollar is dropping, our incomes are not keeping up with inflation, and the gains in productivity made over the last generation are accumulated at the top."

My income isn't keeping up with inflation right now because there's this thing called a recession going on. Before the recession I was beating inflation seven ways from Sunday.

If you're talking about the blue collar guy, well, to a large degree his prosperity was overinflated by a huge industrial-tech bubble that lasted 50 or so years, then popped, as bubbles will. We won WW2 hands-down, economically. And we benefitted from that massively, for a long time. Time's up.

There's nothing evil or dastardly about that. It just happened. Gotta get used to it.

"And it isn't the cost of electronic toys that's bankrupting American families; medical bankruptcies are cause #1."

40 years ago, the treatments and therapies that cause those bankruptcies didn't even exist. People just died. I know you don't like me invoking my age and experience, but I can remember a time when cancer killed, pretty much as a matter of course. The survivors were few and exceptional. Even The Duke, with all the manliness and badassery ever bestowed on one man (except for Chuck Norris, of course) couldn't beat "The Big C". (And when cancer victims died, they banrupted their families just as much, if they were breadwinners.) Now, not surviving -- for several decades -- an early cancer diagnosis is the exception. The same can be said of many diseases.

But it cost a lot of money to make those changes in mortality. And it costs a lot of money to keep them. I personally think we need to reprioritize and reorganize how we pay for those things -- maybe in ways that some of my conservative friends might not appreciate or agree with, but, by the same token, also in ways my liberal friends might not like either.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/06/speed-up-american-workers-long-hours"

Please don't invoke Mother Jones (or HuffPo or Kos) at me. I don't invoke National Review (or Drudge or Daily Beast) at you. In fact, I don't rely on any agenidized, partisan outlet for factual information, or even analysis (because they so often get their facts wrong).

If you've got me pegged as some kind of conservative crumudgeon, you've got me wrong. I'm an independent crumudgeon who thinks and owns my own thoughts. I'd absolutely love it if you could be the same, even if we don't always agree.

"So we have to go back and ask some fundamental questions of ourselves. What is best in life? (We'll ignore Conan's answer.) What is the purpose of coming together as a civilization? What are our duties as citizens? What are the obligations of the state? What are our obligations to each other? How might we best meet them?"

I like Conan's answer, maybe because it's so uncivilized that it fairly illustrates what civilization is supposed to be -- the difference between endless, rapacious exploitation of the weak, vs the conservation of all valuable contributors through a rational division of labor between the protectors and protected.

And that's all civilization is or needs to be. The idea that it has any purpose beyond defense of the collective against the predatory outsider is -- IMO, of course -- invented nonsense. All of the art, culture, science, etc, is a fringe benefit of civilization, not it's ultimate cause.

"There are radically different questions and world views depending on how those questions are answered."

I take a historical view of those questions and answers. Civilization is, first and foremost, living in cities. Why did people first live in cities? Because it made defense easy. Why did people keep living in cities? Because it provided certain economic advantages, which made defense of an even broader territory possible. (And created the imperative for territorial conquest -- oh, well...can't take the good without the bad.)

"I agree with the notion that your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins..."

I'm of two minds on this. I've heard black people (i.e. Larry Elder) say that capitalism should be allowed to take its course. I've heard white people -- more of them than you would probably think -- insist on government intervention. What I personally think is that, over the long run, capitalism would eventually work. It certainly eventually would have ended slavery, if the South hadn't pitched a fit and attracted unequivocal government action. I think the balance is between wanting to fix things right now and respecting an individual's right to run his business as he sees fit.

I don't think there's one right answer. It's one of those cost-benefit things that people just don't seem to want to come to grips with. It can't be: we'll wait until society has evolved, and then use government intervention to clean up the dusty corners. It has to be all one way or the other. And it has to be that way right now and forever.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"As for terrible urban planning, I'm talking about sprawl and zoning rules that encourage it. Everyone needs a car, everything has to be miles apart, with no decent mass transit to be found. We're struggling to pay for this infrastructure monster and are fighting a losing battle."

If it's a losing battle, then it will be lost. But I doubt that it's a losing battle everywhere -- or even most places. Like all protracted conflicts, military or economic, the contestants learn and adapt. The right balance will be struck eventually. Insisting on an absolute approach, to absolutely solve some perceived crisis, is always the wrong way to go.

"The founder of Strong Towns is a conservative christian...

Make of it what you will."


I make of it that he's still just an activist with a vision. I loathe visions and causes, of any political stripe. They've led to so much more trouble than pragmatic action, even when that action is ocassionally mistaken.

"We often forget that the American pattern of suburban development is an experiment...

How is our experiment working?"


Way too early to tell. If you assert to me that it has already failed, or -- even if I agree with you that there are problems -- that problems cannot be solved, then you lose me. There's nothing rational to discuss on that basis.

Unknown said...

Tony:
"Ummm...why does having a meaningful exchange of ideas matter? It made HAL less impersonal, but it also didn't affect his purpose. He couldn't be talked to once he decidedwhat he had to do."

Because that's where the emotion is. That's what makes people care about the story.


"Also, who says one can't have a meaningful exchange of ideas with an animal? "

Are you seriously saying a relationship with an animal or an inanimate object is the same as a relationship with an intelligent being?

Tony said...

Unknown:

"Because that's where the emotion is. That's what makes people care about the story."

There's a ton of emotion involved in interacting with a predator. It can motivate a whole plot. Ever seen Jaws? Plenty of people cared about that story.

"Are you seriously saying a relationship with an animal or an inanimate object is the same as a relationship with an intelligent being?"

For purposes of story? Certainly. It happens all of the time. Memphis Belle is a loving sweetheart that will bring her boys home. The African Queen comes back from the dead to save Charlie and Rose (in the movie version). In almost every war movie you've ever seen, the enemy army, navy, or air force is corporately treated as a person, with a definite identity, attitude, and style -- Jerry, Fritz, Charlie, The J*p, Luke the G**k, Tommy, Yank etc. Jaws I've already mentioned, but we could also point to The Ghost and the Darkness, or William Blake's Tyger.

In all these cases, the perception of intelligent life and purpose is present. That's all the writer need establish to make an otherwise inanimate of unintelligent entity into a vital character.

jollyreaper said...


I make of it that he's still just an activist with a vision. I loathe visions and causes, of any political stripe. They've led to so much more trouble than pragmatic action, even when that action is ocassionally mistaken.


In other words you never bothered to read the link I provided and address the points he made, just like you refused to read the Mother Jones link.

I think the only thing we can agree on is that we're both going to be disappointed with the 2012 election, regardless of the winner.

jollyreaper said...


Are you seriously saying a relationship with an animal or an inanimate object is the same as a relationship with an intelligent being?


I agree with you, there's a big difference. Moby Dick is Ahab's enemy but so much of it is his own projection, his psychosis creating a monster for him to fight. This is completely different from, say, O'Brien in 1984 or Warden Norton in Shawshank Redemption. Those men were real, serious threats, no figment of imagination or misapprehension. Or compare the protagonist in Into the Wild who was his own worst enemy.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"In other words you never bothered to read the link I provided and address the points he made,"

No. He's Cause Guy. Cause Guy brings nothing but pain and suffering. Someday you'll understand.

"just like you refused to read the Mother Jones link."

I explained that I don't let other people tell me what to think. Mother Jones is trying to tell you what to think. National Review is trying to tell you what to think. It's not partisan, J. I just don't lend my time to partisan screeds.

Think for yourself. Express your thoughts in your own words. Don't lean on voices that aren't you own.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"I agree with you, there's a big difference. Moby Dick..."

Strange how nobody mentioned Moby Dick -- maybe because it doesn't fit the profile.

Oh, and nice work reasoning from the specific to the general, J.

Thucydides said...

Jumping upthread a ways, it was noted that megalithic buildings and monuments ike the pyramids or Sonehenge could be compared to space development in terms of resource expenditure.

However, it seems fairly clear that many of these megalithic constructs were actually some form of observatory or astronomical timekeeping system that allowed these early civilizations to accuratly mark the seasons and (presumably) determine the best times for planting, harvesting or other events related to the agricultural year.

Being able to do these things could mean the difference between life and death for the community, as being off when planting (for example) would mean the crop either died during a frost or wasn't ripe in time for harvest season. Space exploration and development simply does not have that sort of life or death payoff for any community, nation or civilization.

Naturally this is a bit saddening for fans of solar system spanning civilizations (like myself); we can see the end product but are unable to find the starting conditions to set the plan in motion. Even McGuffinite like 3He as a civilization saving fuel is a large handwave (one I am happy to make, if needed)!

If I am forced to make a prediction, I would go for something really unlikely, such as manned spaceflight being driven by insurance companies deciding it is cheaper and more cost effective to retrieve "dead" satellites and space debris than leave it in orbit to threaten "live" space hardware. A manned spacecraft is presumably more flexible in how it can retreive space debris than a robot, hence the development path. You can run with this idea (or run it down) as you like, but consider how many things have gotten off to a start for equally strange and seemingly unrelated reasons.

TOM said...

Okay Tony, i admit i read and watch maybe too many SF, but if we cant build robots that can produce steel and glass (and i havent talked about all jobs required to build up a colony...) then, okay maybe near asteroid mining can be viable, but nothing else, how will you establish, support, maintain an asteroid mining colony, with all the big travel times?? Interplanetary costs arent marginal with manned spaceflight.


Back to shipping costs, how about skyhooks?
As far as i know, they can be constructed from carbon nanotubes.
(If it isnt enough, they can be reinforced with a string of strong magnets)
A sailed ship from orbit can lift something up from the ground with no propellant, and you get infinite solar energy in space.
Okay it is another thing it will take a week to lift the stuff up.

TOM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Thucydides:
"Being able to do these things could mean the difference between life and death for the community, as being off when planting (for example) would mean the crop either died during a frost or wasn't ripe in time for harvest season. Space exploration and development simply does not have that sort of life or death payoff for any community, nation or civilization."

Space exploration is ultimately a life or death payoff though. Perhaps not for this generation, but sooner or later an extinction level sized asteroid will hit the Earth again, unless we have the technology to prevent that.

Thucydides said...

Unknown, we have known about this since the 1980's and it hasn't impelled anyone to act yet, the odds are imponderable. OTOH nyou need to put the crops in every year, and in a marginal agrarian society, you must get it right or everyone starves.

Unknown said...

But these agrarian societies must have been getting it right enough for centuries before they built things like Stonehenge. It just offered an incremental improvement in predicting seasons.

Also, massive structures like that were needlessly oversized and elaborate for their scientific purpose, and their main function was almost certainly religious or celebratory. You can quite easily make a functional Stonehenge out of wood for a fraction of the cost, and I expect that they had been doing so for many generations before.

Some actions have been taken regarding identifying asteroids and tracking their orbits. Once one is identified as actually dangerous then we'll see if a modern society can make a Stonehenge-level effort.

Tony said...

TOM:

"Okay Tony, i admit i read and watch maybe too many SF"

Nothing wrong with SF, just bad SF. By that I mean SF that presumes that whatever an author needs to push the plot along can be conveniently found, simply because anything you need can be found in the future.

"then, okay maybe near asteroid mining can be viable, but nothing else, how will you establish, support, maintain an asteroid mining colony, with all the big travel times?? Interplanetary costs arent marginal with manned spaceflight."

It'll happen if the costs can be brought to an economical level. If they can't, it won't happen. Yes, that's a tautology, but it's an instructive one -- trade depends on the economics of transportation, like it pretty much always has.

TOM said...

Otherwise, i'm not sure, overpopulation and unemployment, and resources for space programs are so mutually exclusive...

In China, most families can only have one kid, and they has a space program... maybe they didnt send anything to Mars, but maybe eventually they will think, colonization is GLORY, and a way to erase the strict regulations.

The development of robots can also lead to unemployment.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"Space exploration is ultimately a life or death payoff though. Perhaps not for this generation, but sooner or later an extinction level sized asteroid will hit the Earth again, unless we have the technology to prevent that."

Too little risk, not justifying the cost of immediate remediation. On a time scale of tens of millions of years, an extinction level event is no more likely to happen today than it was ten thousand years ago, or ten thousand years in the future. If it happened ten thousand years ago, we're probably not having this conversation. If it happens tenthousand years from now, well, that's really their problem, since no human institution of asteroid/comet safety is likely to ever last that long. If it happens today, or a century from now...that's just our bad luck.

Tony said...

TOM:

"Otherwise, i'm not sure, overpopulation and unemployment, and resources for space programs are so mutually exclusive...

In China, most families can only have one kid, and they has a space program..."


Scale, T, scale...

Tony said...

TOM:

"...you get infinite solar energy in space."

Except that you don't. You get more joules per square meter of collector, because you're not losing energy to atmospheric scattering. But you still have to build and maintain the collector. That takes other energy. It takes power to find, extract, refine, form, and assemble the necessary materials. Depending on the breaks, one could easily foresee a solar-powered space economy that used 90% of its power output doing nothing but building and maintaining solar power systems.

Unknown said...

Tony:
"There's a ton of emotion involved in interacting with a predator. It can motivate a whole plot. Ever seen Jaws? Plenty of people cared about that story.

The only emotion invoked by the shark was fear. The real relationships were those between the three men on the boat.

"In all these cases, the perception of intelligent life and purpose is present. That's all the writer need establish to make an otherwise inanimate of unintelligent entity into a vital character."

That's it. It's a perception of intelligent life. It's projected on the object by a human. Without the human it has no intelligence, which is why objects are readily interchangeable.

Would a story work with just objects? No humans at all? I don't think so.

TOM said...

Does that mean, that the only major problem with my skyhook idea is maintenance costs?

Ok, i havent talked about the maintenance costs (i said the energy is the infinite one), but this applies to any off-Earth operation and transportation.
(On planets, there are much less to care about small meteors.)

Scale ok i understand that.
But still some steps has to be made eventually.


Industrial revolution was very far from painless...
They chased away the peasants from their lands, and they had to slavework in factories.
If, for example new gens of robots can replace all assembly line workers, what will you do with them?
Colonization would be a nice solution to erase unemployment, and make the new step in human evolution, create a new balance.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"The only emotion invoked by the shark was fear. The real relationships were those between the three men on the boat."

Yeah, all of those encounters with the shark don't constitute a relationship. They just kind of happened. The real story was three men on a fishing trip. It's not like the fishing trip itself was motivated by the shark's predator-prey relationship with the community of Amity or anything. It's not like the progress of that trip was fashioned by the predator-prey relationship that the men in the boat had with the shark outside.

WRT emotions evoked by the shark, yeah, fear and apprehension are big ones. But there is also determination, competitveness, hate, and respect (both foe the shark's capabilities and those of other people on the boat). None of these emotions would have been given scope without the challenge the shark created. And that challenge was created by the shark's relationship with the men on the boat and the wider community that it threatened.

"That's it. It's a perception of intelligent life. It's projected on the object by a human. Without the human it has no intelligence, which is why objects are readily interchangeable."

Without the human, HAL has no intelligence either. He's just a machine, with the capabilities and expectations that humans gave him. When he fails to perform up to expectations, just once, the humans are ready to hit the STOP button, just like they would any other machine.

If you want to invoke HAL's emergent capabilities of self preservation, I could just as easily invoke those of an airplane under stress, intentionally applied by the pilot (those wings are fluttering and the spars are groaning, better back off), or a steamship under engineering stress (when the boilers start knocking and the safety valses start discharging, watch it). Heck, your car has a personality that manifests itself when you push it too far. Don't listen to those warnings and it could kill you just as easily as HAL could.

"Would a story work with just objects? No humans at all? I don't think so."

Exactly. That's true of any story. Whether it's HAL, a great white shark, or the big cat that comes in the night, the story is in human actions and reactions. All have the role of Nemesis. Trying to imbue one with unique qualities is both invalid and pointless.

Tony said...

Re: TOM

The point I'm trying to make is that hwatever expedient you imagine, transportation and energy costs dominate considerations of expansion into space.

Nobody's going anyplace, from anywhere, until space travel is way less exepsnive than it is today. And one can't invoke something like tehters or space elevators, or laser launchers because one needs a market for their service first -- and that market won't exist unless launch and interplanetary costs are already so low that such systems would be just another competitive system.

"Free" solar power isn't free. You have to build the collection and distribution infrastructure. When you count all of the energy costs of finding, collecting, processing, and implementing the necessary resources, the surplus power for running other activities probably won't be all that much.

Unknown said...

Tony:
"None of these emotions would have been given scope without the challenge the shark created. And that challenge was created by the shark's relationship with the men on the boat and the wider community that it threatened."

Yes, the shark creates the challenge and the environment for these emotions to be experienced, but it plays no part in them itself. The shark has no competitiveness, hate, or respect. It is still interchangeable. It could be a whale, a squid, or even a storm.

"Without the human, HAL has no intelligence either. He's just a machine, with the capabilities and expectations that humans gave him. When he fails to perform up to expectations, just once, the humans are ready to hit the STOP button, just like they would any other machine."

That depends on whether you view HAL as a genuine AI or not. If you treat him as a complex but ultimately predictable machine then he's not intelligent. If, on the other hand, you accept him as an independent, thinking being with his own ideas and motives, then he is.

""Would a story work with just objects? No humans at all? I don't think so."
Exactly. That's true of any story. Whether it's HAL, a great white shark, or the big cat that comes in the night, the story is in human actions and reactions. All have the role of Nemesis. Trying to imbue one with unique qualities is both invalid and pointless."


Sorry, that sentence wasn't clear. "No intelligent beings at all" would have made the point better. A story without humans is possible, but not without any intelligence.

In the end this argument just comes down to whether you think HAL is genuinely intelligent or not.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"Yes, the shark creates the challenge and the environment for these emotions to be experienced, but it plays no part in them itself. The shark has no competitiveness, hate, or respect."

All of those emotions are directed at the shark at one point or the other. "You're gonna need a bigger boat," is as much a statement of respect for the shark's apparent capabilities as it is a statement of fear of it. Hate and competiveness toward the shark are both evoked in the line, "Smile, you sonuvabitch!"

"It is still interchangeable. It could be a whale, a squid, or even a storm."

If HAL was a whale, a squid, or a storm, he wouldn't be any less of a menace. Maybe HAL represents man's hubris, rather than the gods' (or nature's) wrath, but that's a minor quibble, not a significant point of comparison.

"That depends on whether you view HAL as a genuine AI or not. If you treat him as a complex but ultimately predictable machine then he's not intelligent. If, on the other hand, you accept him as an independent, thinking being with his own ideas and motives, then he is."

Strong AI or not, HAL is a human creation and -- to put not too fine a point on it -- piece of property. Humans imbued him with all the expectations they would of any machine. He was expected to behave in a certain way, and as soon as he didn't, he became nothing more than a dangerous menace, to be put down as soon as possible.

"Sorry, that sentence wasn't clear. 'No intelligent beings at all' would have made the point better. A story without humans is possible, but not without any intelligence."

And? If the story is set in space, in the wilderness, or in Middle Earth, it's still a quest, and HAL's role can be met by any force that represents Nemesis.

"In the end this argument just comes down to whether you think HAL is genuinely intelligent or not."

Actually, no, it doesn't. It comes down to whether you accept his plot function as Nemesis. If that's his role, then any form of implacable foe can be sunstituted. Is he or isn't he nemesis? Why or why not?

Brett said...

I remember astronaut Don Pettit writing about how real astronauts spend a huge percentage of their time just doing the maintenance work necessary to keep them alive.

I wonder if that would be a barrier to a colony on, say, Mars. The first wave of colonists might be willing to go just because they'd be the Founders of the Mars Colony, but what about follow-up waves, particularly if there's no serious prospect of monetary gain or return to Earth (as with most historical migrations)?

Thucydides said...

I think there is one big difference between HAL and your everyday Nemesis; HAL is explicitly depicted as a character rather than a "force of nature", and is more like Professor Moriarty, a thinking (and presumably feeling [Dave, I can feel my mind going....I'm afraid]) being capable of choosing an independent path.

Tom, many of your suggestions are far beyond the state of the art. Skyhooks require mass produced nanotube fibers in the billions of tons, and there is no technology that I know of that would allow a sail to launch from the ground. As Tony says, there needs to be some kernel that drives the rest; carbon nanotubes will be mass produced to create airplanes, cars, electrical power lines and even kitchen cabinet doors by the time the state of the art and costs are in line to gather up enough carbon nanotubes to make a skyhook. (The only place I will disagree with Tony is if/when it becomes possible to actually build a skyhook, then you will see investment money flowing towards space exploration and development because the prospect exists to reduce transportation costs by one or two orders of magnitude.

WRT the Industrial revolution, peasants left the land quite willingly, since existence as a serf or tenant farmer was pretty marginal so long as you were tied to the land. Factory work gave you a chance to get ahead (the alternative was to go to the colonies and get land free and clear; to become a property owner); while Charles Dickens looked at factory work and life in horror (as a propertied gentleman) and we see these standards of living as being a step above slavery with our 21rst century perspective, remember they really were living a step above the agricultural slavery they had escaped.

In a different context, Robert Kaplan pointed out that in failed states many people would look upon being in a warlord's gang or militia as being a step above their previous existence, so where you stand really is relative.

Brett said...

The same goes with corruption, although there are obviously limits with that. Mexico under the PRI regime was very corrupt, but when you remember that pre-PRI Mexico went through a ten-year civil war and a period where leaders were getting assassinated left, right, and center by their rivals, a system where they buy-off potential political competition seems much more humane and civilized.

TOM said...

Ok, i guess i tend to think not in PMF, just one correction to Thuclydes.

"t I know of that would allow a sail to launch from the ground. "

I didnt said it launched from the ground, i thought it will be assembled in orbit, yes a precursory to that would be near Earth asteroid mining.


Change topic : HAL is different from a shark in a sense, it can talk, and meant to serve humans, but choose a different path, otherwise, his story role is similar.

With Space Fantasies, what if questions can be quite interesting.
What if in some other place, they tried to mimic human brain with compus, that resulted in C3PO for example?
Or they ban compus because a robot rebellion?
Or they can make humans immortal?
Find mysterious alien objects, hostile ethereal creatures in hyperspace etc.

Thucydides said...

A sailed ship from orbit can lift something up from the ground with no propellant, and you get infinite solar energy in space.

Misunderstood that remark then.

Unknown

Stonehenge was the last in a series of structures, archeologists have discovered the remains (post holes really) of a series of similar wooden structures on the site of Stonehenge and in several other "henge" sites. Obviously the priests or astronomers who had the knowledge to build astronomical markers would have ammased a great deal of political power or capital over the centuries, so rebuilding the device in stone as a celebration or reminder of that power isn't far fetched.

Many of the megalithic sites date to the same era, so it may be we are seeing the culmination of some sort of religion/timekeeping system after many centuries of development across Europe. This could well be due to the success fo the priest/astronomer class in developing a large enough agricultural surplus to support a large and specialized population.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"I think there is one big difference between HAL and your everyday Nemesis; HAL is explicitly depicted as a character rather than a "force of nature", and is more like Professor Moriarty, a thinking (and presumably feeling [Dave, I can feel my mind going....I'm afraid]) being capable of choosing an independent path."

The difficulty I see with that interpretation is that HAL is just expository furniture until he becomes a direct threat to the human crew. Then his role is in fact Nemesis.

WRT his ability to decide upon and plot a fate for that crew, this is no different than what a big cat can do, even though its motivations are a bit more fundamental.

Likewise, HAL's ability to feel fear and apprehension may be more refined than that of a big cat, but the cat can definitely feel and act on those emotions. Human actors can feel empathy for the big cat even when thy're killing it. In fact, given the cat's likely place in their animistic pantheon, it would be a tragic duty, just like the lobotomizing of HAL.

Unknown said...

Tony:
"It comes down to whether you accept his plot function as Nemesis. If that's his role, then any form of implacable foe can be sunstituted. Is he or isn't he nemesis? Why or why not?"

I've not disputed his role as Nemesis. My point is that exchanging an intelligent character for a non-intelligent entity is a major change to the story.

Locki said...

Tony and HAL,

I'll admit your logic is sound.

But I'd argue that on the face of it HAL has the bona fides to be an AI character and not easily substituable with a mutinous officer. HAL is the most iconic AI creations in sci-fi. HAL has so permeated our culture that even grade-school kids who've never watched or read 2001 think HAL and his glowing red eye when they think of an AI.

It may have been the first serious sci-fi where a computer behaved unpredictably and became the nemesis.

Now from a literary point of view HAL may be an easily substituable character (insert mutinous officer/leapord or whatever) but you have to agree 2001 would lose much of it flavour and feel if HAL were merely a human XO with a perpetual bad hair day and paranoia.

I also agree the themes of 2001 would be much less powerful and resonant if HAL were a human antagonist

jollyreaper said...

The whole argument with HAL comes down to whether he is a conscious, sapient being or whether he is just an elaborate machine.

If I were a demented serial killer genius, perhaps I would build a house that was a maze of twisty rooms filled with deathtraps. I might kidnap people and place them in the house and see if they could escape. If I had no more hand in it once the traps were set, if I did not try to rig anything, then it's man vs. machine. Ultimately those machines were the construction of my mind and thus an extension of my will but are incapable of forming thought or bearing malice.

If I had a central computer running the traps and triggering explosives, deadly blades, playing prerecorded messages from me and so forth, it's still just an elaborate machine. It's not alive.

The Soviet Dead Hand system was supposed to be an automated way of ensuring a revenge strike if the Soviet high command were incapacitated. It's unclear whether such a device was truly built or whether it operated as advertised. If it got accidentally triggered, went on lockdown and would launch in 2 hours and the only one who can stop it is a New Soviet Man and a beautiful computer scientist, it's still machine as nemesis.

HAL is clearly depicted as a conscious being. He is as much a person as Frankenstein's monster.

The WOPR machine from War Games should be a giant chess machine, not sentient, especially given our technology. It's clearly sentient, though. It is a non-human person. Similar to what happened with Johnny 5 in Short Circuit.

The Titanic was certainly a character in any movie made about it but was not alive. The Overlook Hotel in the Shining is not only a character but also imbued with supernatural life and malice.

To put it in Star Wars terms, the Millennium Falcon is a character but a machine and not alive. R2D2 is a character and a machine and is clearly alive with personality.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"I've not disputed his role as Nemesis. My point is that exchanging an intelligent character for a non-intelligent entity is a major change to the story. "

Please articulate why you think so. So far you have simply asserted that intelligence makes a difference in how Nemesis operates.

I'm failing to see it. Once HAL transforms into Nemesis, he becomes implacable and, quite literally, unreasonable. Any threat to the human crew, animate or inanimate, can manifest those qualities of character. A hurricane is implacable and unreasonable. A predator is implacable and unreasonable. An enemy tribe, once it has determined to exterminate you, is implacable and unreasonable.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"HAL is clearly depicted as a conscious being. He is as much a person as Frankenstein's monster."

A more apt analogy is that he's as a much a person as Damien.

"The WOPR machine from War Games should be a giant chess machine, not sentient, especially given our technology. It's clearly sentient, though. It is a non-human person. Similar to what happened with Johnny 5 in Short Circuit."

I don't think it's ever made really clear that WOPR is a strong AI or a poorly programmed expert system.

Johnny 5 is just a corny invocation of the emergent AI trope.

"The Titanic was certainly a character in any movie made about it but was not alive. The Overlook Hotel in the Shining is not only a character but also imbued with supernatural life and malice."

I think Titanic is imbued with personality by overimaginative and romantic filmmakers. In books the ship is clearly just a ship.

The Overlook is a setting and a supernatural locus. I've never regarded it as a character in and of itself.

"To put it in Star Wars terms, the Millennium Falcon is a character but a machine and not alive. R2D2 is a character and a machine and is clearly alive with personality."

Millenium Falcon ocassionally has almost as much personality as R2D2. Also, personality can be found in a dog as much as in a human -- oftentimes moreso.

jollyreaper said...

Definition of NEMESIS

1
capitalized : the Greek goddess of retributive justice
2
plural nem·e·ses
a : one that inflicts retribution or vengeance
b : a formidable and usually victorious rival or opponent

Nemesis (sometimes called fate) - in classical mythology, Nemesis was the Goddess of Divine Retributive Justice or Vengeance. Written with a small letter, the term means a rival or opponent who cannot be overcome. It also means any situation or condition that one cannot change or triumph over and an agent or act of punishment.

The term is from the Greek nemesis, meaning “retribution” and nemein, meaning “to deal out” or “dispense.”


The difference I see comes right down to the definition of evil.

In the term the Bible often uses, evil is a synonym for bad. You can have bad weather, a bad omen, a bad fate.

The other way it's used implies a moral agency and conscious intent. A hurricane is not, in this sense, evil, even if it is bad. A forest fire isn't doing what it does out of malice.

One man kills another, why? Was the killer avenging a wrong? Did he kill for selfish cause? The cliche for Mafia stories is one guy whacking another and it's nothing personal, it's business. Does this really make a difference? In the eyes of the law, no. Among Mafia types, maybe. Did anyone have a choice? With honor killings the killers will declaim that they had no other choice. "My sister was raped by this man and he refused to marry her. Our family honor could not be restored with her still alive. I had no choice but to kill her, no choice at all!"

If you're going to say HAL is nothing more than a force of nature, what then of the honor killer?

I think there's literary merit in exploring the conflicting perspectives. Two people trapped in the same situation, one of them might see a number of options while the other sees no way out.

Someone who feels as if he is constrained by a course of action and is incapable of doing otherwise is still choosing to go through with it. His hands carry out the act, not anyone else's.

By your argument, Milton's Lucifer is exactly the same as HAL. He could no more not rebel against God than an apple could fall up. Therefore he could just as easily be replaced by a plank of wood or Kristen Stewart and Paradise Lost would play out exactly the same with no difference. A Wermacht officer who followed orders reluctantly is no different from a battlebot operated by the central war computer.

Why is the Most Dangerous Game scarier than any old story about a guy getting shipwrecked on an island filled with dangerous animals? Because a human being should know better than to hunt other people for sport. A tiger or a snake isn't evil. The aristocrat hunting people, he is evil in the moral sense of the word.

I mean seriously, according to your take, HAL going nuts is absolutely no different from the oxygen tank rupturing on Apollo 13. Both stories involve space missions, both missions are jeopardized by faulty hardware. Would 2001 feel anything like the same story if an oxygen tank blew up there? No.

jollyreaper said...

Most people feel sympathy for HAL. He is a victim of circumstances, struggling to fulfill conflicting orders. You don't feel sympathy the oxygen tanks. They failed due to a short circuit. It was an engineering mistake made on the ground.

If you don't feel any sympathy for HAL, if you don't see him as a living mind, that's your perspective. But he absolutely could not be substituted and have the story remain anything like itself.

jollyreaper said...

Not a lot of skull-sweat goes into most Hollywood productions in general so they tend to play loose with the science and philosophy. If the animals talk, they're clearly meant to be thought of as people. And that's fine if all of the talking critters are herbivores and the villains are carnivores. You end up with whole weird areas when you have dogs and deer and sheep as friends and nobody ever asks "Wait a second, that dog won't be vegan. Who does he eat? Does he have to murder to live?"

A more apt analogy is that he's as a much a person as Damien.

If you mean the antichrist, there's a great question of whether or not he has freewill. Did Satan choose to rebel? Was he set up to fail by God or was he given choice and chose poorly?

Barring a Satan figure, death itself can be completely impersonal. We all die. We create the image of a grim reaper or angel of death to carry it out but such a figure is no more needed than wood nymphs to put the leaves on the trees in the spring.

If some man is attempting to complete his life's work before death and it draws near, there is no entity there, no thing bringing his end, but he may personify death in his own mind, consider it a great struggle.

I don't think it's ever made really clear that WOPR is a strong AI or a poorly programmed expert system.

It's Hollywood science but it's meant to be alive, the same as with KITT in Knight Rider.

Johnny 5 is just a corny invocation of the emergent AI trope.

But he's clearly meant to be alive, a person. Pinocchio is an animate puppet, a being of magic who is finally transmuted into a real, live boy.

Honestly, one of the few movie robots I can think of meant to be an unreasoning machine is the Terminator. He's a humanoid cruise missile. The sequel shows he has the potential to become a real being if the AI chip is set to read-write. You can always discard the sequel if you like.

As I said before, you don't look for real science in Hollywood movies, you look at how the characters are presented. Calvin's Hobbes is supposed to be an imaginary friend, residing in his mind and projected onto a stuffed tiger. The toys in the Toy Story movies are magically alive.

I think Titanic is imbued with personality by overimaginative and romantic filmmakers. In books the ship is clearly just a ship.

Same as in every Titanic movie I've ever seen. The personification is left on the level of what you'd mentioned in your previous post with the Memphis Belle or African Queen. All of the emotion is projected by the humans on these things. They do not return the love, are not depicted as having thought or emotion.

jollyreaper said...

The Overlook is a setting and a supernatural locus. I've never regarded it as a character in and of itself.

That's not correct.

"In the film, the hotel possibly derives its malevolent energy from being built on an Indian burial ground, while in the novel, the reason for the hotel's manifestation of evil is possibly explained by a theme present in King's previous novel Salem's Lot as well as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House: a physical place may absorb the evils that transpire there and manifest them as a vaguely sentient malevolence."

In the Cthulhu Mythos, occult artifacts are like radioactive evil. You spend enough time around them, you will go insane. It's the nature of the artifacts but driving you mad is no more intentional than plutonium giving you cancer.

The Overlook is meant to have agency and intent. It's supposed to be actively picking away at the minds of its victims.


Millenium Falcon ocassionally has almost as much personality as R2D2. Also, personality can be found in a dog as much as in a human -- oftentimes moreso.


What? The Falcon does not talk, cannot move without a pilot, doesn't do anything on its own. Would you consider a balky hyperdrive or mechanical failures personality? The Falcon never went off on any mission of its own. You're making it sound like Herbie the Love Bug.

Tony said...

Re: jollyreaper

1. HAL isn't evil or malevolent. He's just stuck for an answer that satisfies all of his priorities. He just chose what for him seemed to be the most optimum answer. The fact that his choice was constrained by incomplete data is an interesting comment on the nature of choice, but it doesn't change what his role is in the development of the plot. He's there to be an obstacle to Bowman's success in accomplishing the mission.

2. Sympathy for HAL's predicament is not unique to high intelligence antagonists. One could generate just as much sympathy for an apex predator in an animistic worldview, for essentially the same reasons: Here, our brother the leopard has turned on us, instead of eating his natural prey. We must therefore kill him, which is a sad duty we do not take lightly.

3. WRT definitions, I think it's pretty obvious that literary Nemesis is not limited by intent. I'm talking here about the salient attributes of Nemesis -- implacability and lethality.

4. I agree that Lucifer's fall is an interesting question in ethics. But since literary Nemesis need not be made up of evil -- in fact shouldn't be -- it's irrelevant to the issue.

5. The malfunction on Apollo 13 is clearly not Nemesis. It's succeptible to analysis and mitigation. It doesn't keep trying to kill -- though I admit the movie tries that idea out a couple of times -- it's threat to the mission is entirely evident from its first manifestation. Everything after is consequent to the malfunction, even if some (like the CO2 scrubbers) takes some time to realize.

6. Personification of vehicles is older than the New Testament, perhaps older than the Bible. I'm not sure why you think the Millenium Falco is immune. Han and Lando both surely personify the ship in their own minds, and talk about it as if it were a trusted steed. And the ship does manifest personality, for example when Han wants to power it up and it balks, until Han gives a it a good thump with his fist. Anybody who's ever owned a car or a horse gets the joke, and understands it as the Falcon manifesting a little bit of a difficult personality.

Rick said...

In the HAL debate, a critical element to me, as a writer, is 'dialogue' in the narrow sense.

By our literary convention, only people talk, except in (nominally) children's stories, which 2001 certainly was not.

Surely, from "I'm sorry, Dave ..." to "Daisy, Daisy ...," Hal's stage dialogue identifies him as a character in a strict sense that even vividly portrayed vehicles do not meet. Though such vehicles, along with tigers and sharks, can certainly be characters in a broader sense.

Tony said...

Rick:

"In the HAL debate, a critical element to me, as a writer, is 'dialogue' in the narrow sense.

By our literary convention, only people talk, except in (nominally) children's stories, which 2001 certainly was not.

Surely, from 'I'm sorry, Dave ...' to 'Daisy, Daisy ...,' Hal's stage dialogue identifies him as a character in a strict sense that even vividly portrayed vehicles do not meet. Though such vehicles, along with tigers and sharks, can certainly be characters in a broader sense."


That's certainly true, as far as it goes. But, in textual analysis, it seems to me that ultimate purpose is much more illuminating than specific manifestation.

jollyreaper said...

Point 1: You are trying to reduce HAL to a McGuffin. The Maltese Falcon itself was not important in the story, it could have been anything. It drove the plot.

Yes, HAL is an obstacle. But you have not explained how a rogue AI and an exploding oxygen tank are the same thing. They remain completely different and vastly change the feel of the story.

If a man is coming after our protagonist to kill him, the would-be killer is a threat. Is he trying to kill our protagonist because said protagonist bedded his wife? Killed his brother? Raped his daughter? While the motive might not have any direct bearing on the mechanics of the fight, it certainly changes how we feel about our purported hero.

Point 2: Wait, is HAL a force of nature or a high-intelligence antagonist? We have three examples of nemesis here: man hunting our hero, animal hunting hero, and the natural environment threatening death by exposure. All three of those can prevent him from accomplishing his goal. Each represent a vastly different kind of story to tell.

These are your three basic conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. While elements of all three can be in one story, they are not interchangeable.

point 3: Implacability and lethality are not required in a nemesis. A bitter sporting rivalry might not be lethal. Two industrialists might hate each other's guts and have a lifelong feud but not have even resorted to blows. And it might not even be reciprocal. Someone who finds success easy might have a colleague he considers to be a friendly rival who is secretly consumed with bitterness and jealousy and misinterprets every kind word as passive-aggressive affronts, the thousand injuries of Fortunato borne as he best could, don't you know.

Point 4: I brought up Lucifer specifically because this is a case of a constructed/made being where the question of freewill could be up for debate. These sorts of questions can really only be explored in scifi and fantasy. Lucifer wasn't constructed from pure evil to begin with, he was the greatest of all the angels. The Islamic version of the Fall is interesting. "When God created Adam (see Islamic view of Adam), he commanded all the angels and Iblis (whose rank allowed him to be considered equal to that of an angel) to prostrate to Adam as was termed 'the Best of Creation'. All the angels did so. The jinn Iblis refused to obey, and was brought in to a state of rebellion against God." Some interpretations see this as hubris but other interpretations say that Iblis loved God too much to place Adam so highly, that Adam was to be God's Regent on Earth and thus afforded the same respect one would give God. The jinn have freewill and can sin. Did Iblis rebel or did he do exactly as God should have foreseen?

point 5: So now there have to be repeated attempts? Does there need to be ideation and motive? At first you just said that HAL was simply an impediment.

point 6: Personification of a vehicle. I'm not arguing that people do it, I'm just making the point that there's a difference between something that's personified and something that really is alive. R2D2 is alive. C3P0 is alive. Same with Chewie. And all three are essentially persons, even if two of them speak in languages the viewer cannot comprehend.

The General Lee is treated with affection but is not alive. KITT is alive and treated as such.

jollyreaper said...


That's certainly true, as far as it goes. But, in textual analysis, it seems to me that ultimate purpose is much more illuminating than specific manifestation.


By this definition, you could say Greedo isn't a person because Han Solo simply needed a way to establish his badassery and he could have just as easily thumped a music box to make it play his favorite tune or beaten some four-armed alien in a bare-knuckles bar fight or coldly dismissed some woman he had a casual fling with who was crawling after him for attention.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Point 1: You are trying to reduce HAL to a McGuffin. The Maltese Falcon itself was not important in the story, it could have been anything. It drove the plot."

Straw man. HAL, in his final form, is a plot complication, not a plot motivation. I've been very clear about that all along.

"Yes, HAL is an obstacle."

So you in fact do recognize that he's a complication, not a motivation?

"But you have not explained how a rogue AI and an exploding oxygen tank are the same thing. They remain completely different and vastly change the feel of the story."

Red herring. I never said they were the same thing. You did. They are both plot complications, but when you brought the comparison up, I in fact pointed out why they are not the same kind of plot complication. One is actively trying to kill the crew. One is simply a malfunction that has potentially, but not necessarily lethal consequences.

We could go even further in noting that without the oxygen tank explosion, Apollo 13 is an entirely different story, motivated by entirely different objectives. Without HAL, 2001 is still a story about first contact with aliens intelligence.

"If a man is coming after our protagonist to kill him, the would-be killer is a threat. Is he trying to kill our protagonist because said protagonist bedded his wife? Killed his brother? Raped his daughter? While the motive might not have any direct bearing on the mechanics of the fight, it certainly changes how we feel about our purported hero."

What does this have to do with anything? What motivates a plot complication is interesting and can even have moral and ethical significance. But it doesn't change the fact that a plot complication is still just a plot complication.

"Point 2: Wait, is HAL a force of nature or a high-intelligence antagonist? We have three examples of nemesis here: man hunting our hero, animal hunting hero, and the natural environment threatening death by exposure. All three of those can prevent him from accomplishing his goal. Each represent a vastly different kind of story to tell.

These are your three basic conflicts: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself. While elements of all three can be in one story, they are not interchangeable."


The three motivations have different moral and ethical significances. But they still lead to an implacable foe (in our example, anyway) complicating the progress of the plot.

"point 3: Implacability and lethality are not required in a nemesis."

Not in every case. But in the case of 2001 it is a necessity. If HAL is just a quirky robot that does goofy things from time to time, he's comic relief, not Nemesis.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"Point 4: I brought up Lucifer specifically because this is a case of a constructed/made being where the question of freewill could be up for debate...Did Iblis rebel or did he do exactly as God should have foreseen?"

Like I said, an interesting ethical discussion. But HAL is by definition without free will. He is trapped by his conflicting priorities. it's even stated in 2010 that the conflict should have been foreseen and mitigated in some way by the mission planners.

"point 5: So now there have to be repeated attempts? Does there need to be ideation and motive? At first you just said that HAL was simply an impediment."

HAL being a complication is not mutually exclusive from him being a recurring one. The same goes for a predator or a storm. The dramatic role of Nemesis is in fact to repteatedly foil the best layed plans, not to show up, knock the protagonist on the head, and have done with things.

"point 6: Personification of a vehicle. I'm not arguing that people do it, I'm just making the point that there's a difference between something that's personified and something that really is alive. R2D2 is alive. C3P0 is alive. Same with Chewie. And all three are essentially persons, even if two of them speak in languages the viewer cannot comprehend."

R2D2 is a dog with a strict sense of priorities and even stricter obedience and loyalty to who he perceives his master to be. IOW, he's a border collie in the shape of a can.

C3P0 is more of a person, but still something of a cipher, being included essentially for comic relief and convenient trranslation services. And Siri could do the translation, if they had just known about smart phones a long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away.

Chewbaca is just a trusty sidekick. Aside from being carpeted, he's of course a person. Nobody would say he wasn't. A bit of a straw man here, in that regard.

"The General Lee is treated with affection but is not alive. KITT is alive and treated as such."

And? KITT is pretty muc a trusty sidekick too. As I have been trying to point out, one should disregard specific manifestation and look for ultimate purpose.

Tony said...

jollyreaper:

"By this definition, you could say Greedo isn't a person because Han Solo simply needed a way to establish his badassery and he could have just as easily thumped a music box to make it play his favorite tune or beaten some four-armed alien in a bare-knuckles bar fight or coldly dismissed some woman he had a casual fling with who was crawling after him for attention. "

Except that Greedo, as a plot device, did not exist to prove Han's badassery. He existed to communicate to the audience the existence of an important antagonist. Han having to kill him is not just a demonstration of badassery, it's also a demonstration of the kind of people he deals with on a business level.

And Greedo's personhood is pretty sketchy. He's basically a mook.

Chris Lopes said...

The problem with the HAL analogy is that HAL really is more than a plot device. In the context of the story, he's the ultimate expression of humanity's technological progress, where mankind has created (warts and all) a non-biological copy of the human mind. The flaws that HAL has are the same that all human beings (and their technological creations) have. The first step in Bowman's process of transcendence involves him taking back control of his environment by killing (HAL), in much the same way as Moonwatcher before him. He has to overcome the technological world he lives in to go beyond it.

Yes, you can create a similar story involving some other outside threat, but it wouldn't really be the same. It would lack the symbolic transcendence the Kubrick and Clarke were working towards. In the end, the man who finds the steamboat isn't changed on a fundamental level. His world view would be, but not him.

Tony said...

Chris Lopes:

"The problem with the HAL analogy is that HAL really is more than a plot device. In the context of the story, he's the ultimate expression of humanity's technological progress, where mankind has created (warts and all) a non-biological copy of the human mind. The flaws that HAL has are the same that all human beings (and their technological creations) have. The first step in Bowman's process of transcendence involves him taking back control of his environment by killing (HAL), in much the same way as Moonwatcher before him. He has to overcome the technological world he lives in to go beyond it.

Yes, you can create a similar story involving some other outside threat, but it wouldn't really be the same. It would lack the symbolic transcendence the Kubrick and Clarke were working towards. In the end, the man who finds the steamboat isn't changed on a fundamental level. His world view would be, but not him."


Killing HAL is Man transcending his self-made technological shackles? Is that your thesis?

In that case, my thesis is that a person can find moral significance in the shape of a cloud.

Tony said...

Chris Lopes:

Please understand, I'm not down on morally significant storytelling, but I don't find HAL, or anything that happens to him, to be morally significant. He was programmed wrong and reacted consistently with that programming. So says Doctor Chandra, who we can take as a fair representation of the author's voice. There's simply no moral significance in shutting down a computer program suffering from a logic error.

Unknown said...

This is where we disagree. I think there is a moral significance is shutting down a program when that program is self-aware and intelligent. Especially so when it is aware that it's being shut down is begging you not to do so.

We don't really know whether we are anything more than computer programs suffering from logic errors.

Tony said...

Unknown:

"This is where we disagree. I think there is a moral significance is shutting down a program when that program is self-aware and intelligent. Especially so when it is aware that it's being shut down is begging you not to do so."

If there is moral significance in that, it only derives from the system designers making the system self-aware in the first place, but still succeptible to restraint from programmed priorities that the system cannot decide on for itself.

Also, we know that HAL was not exactly an invention of Clarke or Kubrick. They got advice from the early AI crowd, particularly Marvin Minsky, who were sure that computers would naturally be self-aware by the turn of the century. It would interesting to have Clarke and Kubrick around to ask them how much they felt backed into a corner about self-aware computers by their own determination to be as "realistic" as possible and to listen to the most prominent experts in various fields.

"We don't really know whether we are anything more than computer programs suffering from logic errors."

Actually, we do. A logic error is a failure in human conception. A human is above being such an error himself simply on the grounds that he can identify and correct it -- or avoid it all together with a little astute planning.

Thucydides said...

The primary difference between posters here is if HAL is a sentient being or "just" a machine.

A sentient being can act as Nemesis (Think of Clint Eastwood as the Man with no Name) just as well as an animal or force of nature, but animals act out of instinct and forces of nature are essentially mechanical (so much heat goes into ocean "A" plus wind plus current = hurricane).

Sentient beings have motivations of their own, and even if their purpose in the story is Nemesis, the authour has a much greater degree of latitude with the character. Maybe you really can reason with HAL (Dave tries several approaches). Maybe you can outflank the Nemesis by going in the emergency airlock (but perhaps the Nemesis can do other things to thwart you). The Nemisis is not limited to force, it can also use persuasion (I'm feeling much better now, Dave) or other means of manipulating the character and environment.

OTOH the other forms of Nemesis are limited. Environment or forces of nature will continue until you reach shelter or they blow themselves out. A predatory animal will continue to stalk you until you kill it, evade it or it finds easier prey. Only a sentient character has agency, and thus expands the possible story arcs and outcomes available to the author.

This isn't to say that great stories can't be written with natural Nemesis figures (Moby Dick comes to mind), but the nature of the story is different (especially where the characters imbue the animal or machines with projected characteristics).

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"OTOH the other forms of Nemesis are limited. Environment or forces of nature will continue until you reach shelter or they blow themselves out. A predatory animal will continue to stalk you until you kill it, evade it or it finds easier prey. Only a sentient character has agency, and thus expands the possible story arcs and outcomes available to the author."

That's true as a matter of principal. But Clarke doesn't let HAL be actually sentient. HAL is considered a member of the crew only until he becomes unreliable. Then he becomes nothing but a threat to the real (read: human) crew. HAL is stuck in a dilemma he doesn't have the inner resources to resolve in what humans would consider a rational manner. He doesn't have these resources because he is not programmed to have them.

One can argue that HAL could have acquired the necessary resources through learning and experience. That may be true, but it is not relevant to the story as constructed. In the story as constructed, HAL is transformed from a member of the inner circle into nothing more than a dangerous predator with absolutely no power of reason.

IOW, whether or not HAL had greater story potential, Clarke used him as a classical antagonist and Nemesis. Being a results (and not process) oriented man, I see no trouble deriving that result from any number of threatening entities, in any number of plausible settings.

Chris Lopes said...

Actually HAL does try to resolve the conflict in other ways before settling on murder. There is scene where he is having a conversation with Bowman (which, without Clarke's explanation of what is going on with HAL, is totally wasted). In that conversation, he tries to bring up the subject of rumors of mysterious artifacts, and the bizarre situation of the survey crew being trained separately from Bowman and Poole. It's clear (in hindsight) that HAL is trying to get Bowman to ask him a direct question so he can answer it.

The other attempt at a solution is in the antenna circuit. That circuit is the first to "fail" because HAL wants to cut Discovery off from Earth. If he can do that, he can tell Bowman and Poole about the really cool mission they are really on, as a possible leak is the reason for keeping the information from them.

HAL's decision to commit murder only comes when he sees his own survival (and that of the mission) at stake. By that time, HAL knows Poole and Bowman are planning to turn him off because he has become unreliable. From HAL's perspective, it's a matter of self defense.

BTW, Poole and Bowman's choice to turn off HAL is no different than if they'd decided some other crew member had become danger to themselves and the ship, and needed to be secured. The only difference is that they couldn't just throw HAL in a closet somewhere until they got back to Earth. Turning him off was the only viable solution.

jollyreaper said...

Excellent points, Chris.

Thucydides said...

Tony

Many humans get stuck in a dilemma they doesn't have the inner resources to resolve a rational manner due to circumstances, lack of knowledge or being overwhelmed by emotion, so you can hardly claim HAL is in a unique situation.

Humans in this position can try to rationalize their way out (Chris suggests that HAL is actually trying to do this, although it is much less clear in the movie) and when thwarted or backed into a seeming wall, lash out at their tormenters.

Now you may be entirely justified in saying HAL is NOT a sentient being and therefore is stuck in a recursive loop (this is, after all, the explanation trotted out in 2010), but I think you are outnumbered here by people who feel that HAL is a sentient being, and as portrayed in the movie, that is how most people would indeed think of HAL.

Clarke's downgrade in 2010 could be either a rethinking of the subject after many years, or perhaps he realized that he wasn't clear about HAL's status when he wrote 2001 (although from the context I would state that Clarke did want the audience to beleive HAL is a sentient being, or at least leave the question as open).

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