Monday, September 23, 2013

Vandenberg Spaceport

I'm baaaaack!

Yes, the hiatus has been far too long - I kept thinking 'just another day or two,' after a move, working on Catherine of Lyonesse, an annoying and voltage-draining sinus infection, and, well, work.

The move means a regretful farewell to the F line streetcars, 100,000-ton containerships, and more places to eat than we could ever possibly try. On the other hand, the Central Coast does have a justified reputation as a corner of paradise.

Of more interest to most readers here, the move puts me back within decent viewing distance of launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

Alas, relentless California coastal summer fog rendered the late-August launch of a Delta IV Heavy invisible. As the seasons turn, bringing Indian summer to the coast, I have better hopes for the upcoming Falcon 9 launch, postponed from midmonth and now scheduled for September 29th.

For those who live near the West Coast, or simply want to keep track of launch schedules, here is a Web page listing scheduled Vandenberg launches.

This launch schedule also provides some important - and frustrating - lessons about the practicalities of space flight.

The most important of these lessons is that space launches are rare. Not counting ICBM test flights (one pending, and one I slept through and missed a couple of nights ago), three launches are scheduled between now and March. Throw in the late-August Delta IV launch and it comes to four launches over an eight-month period.

This is surely not an 'efficient' usage of facilities and resources. A space launch center must be broadly comparable to a large airport. The vehicles it handles are about the same size as jetliners, and at least as demanding. They must be prepped, serviced, and sent on their way, using a lot of specialized equipment, and - even more expensive - teams of human expertise.

If a major airport handled one flight every other month ... airline tickets would not be cheap.

In fairness, Vandenberg is not the most heavily used launch center. It is used for polar-orbit launches, particularly for spy satellites, though also for some types of geosats for which maximum coverage of the Earth's surface is important. Polar-orbit launches cannot benefit significantly from Earth's rotation, so they are avoided unless specifically called for.

But sometimes they are called for, meaning that all traffic cannot be consolidated to a single launch site. Worldwide there have been rather less than 100 launches in each of the last few years -74 in 2010, 84 in 2011, 78 last year, and 52 so far this year.

This includes a handful of failures each year; out of 286 attempts this decade, 18 were failures, a 6 percent failure rate. This is, I believe, a somewhat higher failure rate than in the last couple of decades - at least in part, I'd guess, because of more new and inexperienced players in the game.

But any way you cut it, space launches are not an everyday event - more like one or two per week, worldwide.

The problem of low traffic volume does not just drive up the cost of launching rockets. Production of any one given type is only a dozen or so per year - up to 19, in 2011 for the Russian workhorse Soyuz (R-7) and China's Chang Zheng. Individual Western booster types rarely see more than half a dozen launches per year. Forget production-line efficiencies.

This traffic volume also puts paid to reusable launch vehicles. Quite apart from technical challenges, there just isn't the traffic to keep them busy. (And since payloads vary widely, you'd really need a stable of types, just as with expendables.)

In fact, given the traffic level, a stable of expendables is the most cost-effective approach. For any given individual payload they are far less expensive than a reusable vehicle that has to not only get the payload up, but then get itself back down.

Yes, this is a dead horse I have beaten here many times before, and will no doubt beat again. But actually living where I can watch space launches brings some immediacy to the topic.

On the bright side, we are sending some 80-odd missions a year into orbit and beyond. More than that, in fact, since many launches carry multiple satellites. As also noted here before, we have sent missions to every major planet in the Solar System, and a good many other objects.

And I am looking forward to Sunday morning, when that Falcon 9 is scheduled to go up. With a little bit of luck the sky will be clear.


The image, via Flickr, shows a Delta IV Medium launch from Vandenberg, last year.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Worldbuilding on the Fly?

This blog is devoted in substantial measure to world building. The worlds it assists in building may lavish disproportionate effort on fighting space battles, but this is by no means unusual, and is arguably by popular demand.

For this world building task Rocketpunk Manifesto has implicitly advocated for an exacting - some would say anal - approach, calling for careful attention to background conditions and disciplines ranging from physics to economics.

In none of this is this blog unique, or even particularly original. There is indeed an entire cottage industry devoted to arguing for this approach, and occasionally providing some tools alleged to be helpful in the task.

Yet when it came to actual worldbuilding for a novel (and prospective series) I cheerfully ignored my own advice. I do have a map for Catherine of Lyonesse, and I have worked out (or friends and fans of the book have worked out) some genealogies and coats of arms. But I did not formulate most of my background by writing/sketching it out. The greater part of it thus remains impressionistic, often only implicit, rather than exact and formalized.

For that matter, aside from a handful of specific references there is very little obvious connection between the subject matter of this blog and the subject matter of the book.

Which raises the question of how important detailed world building actually is to SF or fantasy fiction, and what the relationship is between stories and the worlds they are set in.

Could this be a right-brain / left-brain sort of thing? (Does anyone even speak that way any more? Or has all of that gone the way of the leisure suit?) I certainly feel that creating interactions between characters calls on a quite different set of imaginative capabilities from, say, creating the technological characteristics of space warcraft.

These differences are not unrelated, perhaps, to those I have those I have suggested between AI as it was traditionally imagined and AI as it has actually developed. In a nutshell, we supposed that a computer able to play winning chess would do so in the same still-mysterious way that human chess masters win. Instead, as it turned out, plain old brute force - if you have enough of it - is quite sufficient.

And humans are capable of thinking in a brute-force way, which is why we can program computers. Yet computer programming itself remains an art, much to the frustration of management types in the industry.

In fact, Catherine of Lyonesse springs ultimately from the same geeky interests that animate this blog. Eons ago, in college, some friends and I came up with a naval-centric 'world game' based loosely on a 16th century setting. Lyonesse, a loose synologue of Tudor England, was my country in this setting.

The game itself met a common fate: It was too complex to design, much less play, and soon faded away. But in the meanwhile, by way of background flavoring, I had endowed Lyonesse with its loose counterpart to Gloriana, with a suitably period name: Catherine.

And as in actual history, once she is allowed to exist, even imaginatively, Gloriana steals the show. The idea stuck in my mind until I finally decided to try writing it, and found that I liked the results.

And for story purposes, it turned out that Catherine was very much more interesting than, say, her ships. Certainly the ships have their own interest - very much characteristic of what I have discussed in this blog. And I could have written stories about them. But Catherine stubbornly insisted on the story being about her. (Egotistical, yes, but what you expect of a royal heiress?)

So here I am.

In short, detailed world building is at least semi-independent of the stories which it allegedly is designed to support. Like building a model railroad layout, it can have satisfactions entirely independent of stories. And, on the flip side, stories do not necessarily call for that sort of background detail.

Stories - at least in SF/F and kindred genres - do call for some level of world building, or at least world-consciousness on the author's part. We wish to avoid glaring inconsistencies, or plot holes that a containership could pass through.

But the knowledge a story calls for is usually impressionistic. Whether a narrative space battle works will ultimately depend on whether it feels convincing. Technical specifics, beyond what the crews would be thinking about in action, are more likely to get you into trouble than out of it.


The image of Henry VIII's Mary Rose is from the so-called Anthony Rolls. These contained (fairly mediocre) sketches of each royal ship, along with such information as tonnage, armament, and crew. All in all a fascinating precursor to Jane's Fighting Ships, though alas only for the English navy.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

How Much Do We Know?

I've finished the first round of editorial revisions to Catherine of Lyonesse, so I'm back to these haunts again after a somewhat excessive absence.

The question in the title has come up here before, though my Google fu falls short of finding all relevant links, but it at least appears in the comment thread to this post from a couple of years ago.

It was brought to mind by an email from a friend (actually, my brother-in-law, who reads cosmology and theology for pleasure), with the following quote, from theologian Karl Rahner:
"...what is called knowledge in everyday parlance, is only a small island in a vast sea that has not been traveled... Hence the existential question for the knower is this: Which does he love more, the small island of his so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery?"
Vast untraveled seas should be near and dear to the hearts of most readers here. For, whatever formal arguments we make, isn't this the core motivation for interest in space travel?

So ... how much do we know? Obviously we know almost nothing about the details of the Universe. The Kepler mission has not yet found an Earth equivalent (in size, mass, and relative orbital distance from its primary). It has found several near-misses, and those are out of a very limited survey. Even with instantaneous anywhere-to-anywhere travel, however, an exhaustive search for earthlike worlds would be ... exhausting.

The more immediate question is how much we know in broad outline, or to put it another way, how much do we know at the level of basic physics. Do we know a lot? Or only a tiny part of what there is to be known, even on a general level?

As often happens here, there are cogent arguments to be made in both directions. As also often happens here, the arguments for each position are not simply contrary, but more nearly orthogonal to one another. The arguments differ on a meta level.

Thomas S. Kuhn, author of the Structure of Scientific Revolutions, has much to answer for when it comes to political and bizz-speak cliches: He launched the word paradigm on its course of infamy. But his core insight was that major developments in the sciences do not just extend our understanding: They transform it.

This insight suggests in turn that just as Einstein supplanted Newton, who supplanted Aristotle, so the next physics revolution should supplant Einstein. Familiar realms will still be well approximated by the older physics. (When your car runs out of gas, its behavior is Aristotelian, not Newtonian.) But entirely new realms will be opened.

The strongest contrary argument (that I am aware of) does not try to refute this point, but instead seeks to render it nugatory. Why should we expect 'the next physics revolution'? Until nearly Einstein's day, fundamental physics was essentially a hobby; since his day it has been an industry.

Once lots of smart people put enormous effort into something, chances are they will figure it out pretty well. The Age of Exploration relentlessly stripped the map of its Here be Dragons blank spaces. The Lost Civilization subgenre of Romance, contemporary with the dawn of SF, was its last gasp.

Parallel reason suggests that if a century of industrial-scale physics research has not superseded Einstein, perhaps the reason is that Einstein essentially got it right. Which is a something of a bummer for FTL (even if FTL is not absolutely precluded), and a bummer on a broader philosophical level as well.

On the third hand ... so far as I can tell, there is a good, robust reason to think that Einstein did not essentially get it right. Proviso that I am going way beyond my physics pay grade here, but I am given to understand that General Relativity and quantum theory are mutually contradictory. On a fundamental level, that is, they cannot both be right.

Indeed, more than that, they must both be wrong - because if either one were valid, we could either dispense with the other or else reconcile them.

God, as Einstein supposedly said, does not play dice with the Universe. To which one famous response is supposed to be, Not only does He play dice, but He throws them where we can't see them. (Another response, attributed to Neils Bohr, was "Stop telling God what to do.")

In short, our fundamental physics is a cobble. It is a magnificent cobble, but still a cobble, a world-view or Universe-view constructed out of contradictory and necessarily flawed theories.

I find this quite refreshing, because on some conceptual level it restores the blank space to our maps. Superseding the muddle of General Relativity and quantum theory may be exceedingly difficult - almost certainly is, since a lot of bright people have been trying to do so for three generations, so far without success. But our physics is still a muddle.

To be sure, this does not necessarily mean that any 'next physics revolution' is awaiting us, even in principle. Theists, at least, can fall back on what the Evil Website calls Bellisario's Maxim: Don't examine this too closely. Though I am not sure how comfortable orthodox believers in the Abrahamic faiths would be with a God who, like mortal SF writers, handwaves His way past contradictions in world building.

Anyway, that would make the Universe even more mysterious.


Whether or not the Universe is ultimately mysterious - or even whether or not we already have learned much about its basic workings, it is is certainly full of Cool Stuff. The image comes from Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The Balance of Technology

In comments on the (relatively!) recent post on monarchy in SF/F I remarked on balance of technology as a key element of successful worldbuilding. Regular readers will not be surprised that the subject has come up before, explicitly so in Space Warfare XV: Further Reflections on Laserstars. (Three years ago - yikes!)

The particular example I gave there of 'unbalanced' technology came from a science fiction novel I once had, in which figured a World War II era heavy cruiser that had been refitted with smoothbore guns.*

This is something you probably do not want - unless you do want it, perhaps because (as in the book) you are dealing with a post-apocalyptic setting having a mix of surviving high-tech artifacts and the much more rudimentary technology that the survivors can contrive on their own.

Needless to say, 'unbalanced' technology has its own interest and appeal, which is one of the factors that has made the post-apocalyptic subgenre so popular. And, to get really pedantic - something this blog never fears to do - unbalanced technologies also have their own logical balance.

My personal guess, for example, is that people who could maintain a steam turbine power plant in operable condition would also be able to keep precision-machined guns in working order, and even provide ammunition and powder, if perhaps in limited supplies.

Likelier 'unbalanced' technologies might include sailing vessels with auxiliary motors available for limited use, and a limited, perhaps dwindling supply of modern weapons. Or drones with canvas wings on aluminum-tube frames, powered by lawn mower engines and controlled by smartphones.

What is not particularly likely, I think, is a simpler linear regress, such as steampunk-era ironclads (cool though they are). Building a 10,000 ton ironclad requires the ability to harness resources on a large scale, and a massive if unsophisticated industrial base. And anyone who has those things can systematically research more advanced technologies, especially if even a few artifacts have survived for reverse engineering.

Disclaimer and proviso: Of course the rule of cool trumps all these considerations, which is why post-apocalyptic futures tend to be heavy on punk rockers and motorcycles.

Which brings us back to balanced technologies. Alas, having brought you this far, I really don't have magic solutions to offer for keeping a futuristic setting's technologies in balance. The further you get from a souped-up present day, the less obvious it is what technologies should fit together neatly.

Does FTL imply that you 'should' also have torch drives for normal space operation? Or normal-space propulsion as demi-magical as FTL itself is? Or could a future starfaring civilization (linked on general principles) be using two-stage expendable rockets to get into orbit, and rendezvous with upper stages to get to wherever the jump points are?

In this case there are plausible (at least plausible-sounding!) arguments going both ways. On the one hand, FTL implies a revolution in fundamental physics, which ought to enable a whole range of new technologies involving pretty much every aspect of life. On the other hand, a century after Einstein, Newton still provides a pretty complete explanation of how our actual space propulsion technology works.

What I can say - unhelpful though it may be - that the general principle of balance of technology also applies to other aspects of the speculative subgenres of Romance. Other things equal, magic too should be in some kind of balance: If every hedge witch can work powerful spells (even if not always reliably), it is hard to then turn around and have magic effects be few and far between.

A bit more vaguely, I feel that this principle applies to social and political worldbuilding as well - suggesting that it is a bit problematic to project agrarian-age institutions such as feudalism or the Roman Empire into a post-industrial future.

On a more cheerful note - from a writer's perspective, not necessarily that of your characters - the balance of technology is dynamic, not static. No small part of the entertainment value of the 16th century is that its technology was in rapid transition, as indeed was its broader culture. Early-modern tropes, such as royal musketeers, existed alongside medieval tropes such as knights in full armor.

And in an encounter it is not always a given that the more 'modern' combination would prevail. The same is broadly true in any era of rapid technological and social change.


* Does this story element ring a bell with anyone? As I recall, the book (which probably dates back to the 70s, at least) also had an attempt to launch a space ark, which did not end well.

The image, from a site called, is described as a post-apocalyptic PC case mode. To me it looks more like a steam powered laser. And no one should be surprised that most Google Images under 'post-apocalyptic technology' involve punk rockers, motorcycles, or both.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Let's Get Whimsical

In comments on the last post I stepped into Large Predators enclosure at the zoo by remarking that the idea of 'uplifting' - genetic fiddling to produce animals with human-level intelligence - struck me as essentially whimsical. (More specifically, I said that it was all about the coolness of talking animals.)

Whimsical is probably not entirely the word of choice for a trope that has firm roots in the early days of self-aware SF. And no, I do not plan to discuss uplifting here. If I did, the post would have a different title ... say, House of Pain.

In fact, 'whimsical' is not the most accurate, fully inclusive term for what I do intend to discuss, but that is the word I thought of, so I will stick with it. The topic is, roughly, the sort of fiction that does not even pretend to be Realistic[TM]. Which, comes to think of it, specifically excludes uplifting, which at least makes a claim to realism.

But we will stick with talking animals for the moment. In non-sfnal form they go back at least to Aesop's Fable, but last century must have been a golden age for the talking animal trope. In spite of Mr. Ed the talking horse, and his progenitor Francis the talking mule, rabbits seem particularly favored - and, as we shall see, notably significant.

At least in American popular culture the most famous talking animal is surely Bugs Bunny. (Not Mickey Mouse, a corporate logo that is all but forgotten as an actual character.) While I don't exactly think of Bugs as whimsical - a term that, at least to Americans, has distinctly British connotations - surely he and the rest of the Warner Bros gang qualify in practice.

Realism, in any ordinary sense, is not even dimly in view here. Yet whatever is going on, it certainly works, and has stood up to time pretty well.

I do not know whether The Wind in the Willows is whimsical, though it is certainly British. It is, sad to say, on that dreadfully long list of books that I have not yet managed to read. The part about simply messing around in boats sounds whimsical - and also a good enough reason to get off my aspect and read the book.

Bugs Bunny and the Willows crowd have in common that they are nominally aimed at children. The Warner Bros cartoons notoriously have plenty for the grown-ups, supposedly flying under the kiddie radar. (This is surely true of most great kidlit, yet probably less important than claimed. It merely gives us permission, as adults, to still watch or read.)

Are children actually more open to, say, talking animals as characters? Because they don't yet know the boundaries of Realism[TM]? Or, like the pop-culture references in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, is this just a pose designed for adults so that we can pretend we are above the talking-animal stuff?

What we call realism is, after all, itself a pure literary convention. This applies both to the kind of realism I deal with on this blog, details of spaceship design and such, and also - I will cheerfully assert - to the 'higher realism' to which serious, non-genre literature is presumed to aspire.

The 'willing suspension of disbelief,' as Tolkien called it, seems in fact to be only loosely related to any sort of realism. There may be benighted souls who can't come to grips with Bugs Bunny because rabbits don't talk. And we can pity them, but they are surely not typical. Most of us have no difficulty with such tropes, any more than we do with the idea that a private detective probably will solve the murder by the end of the book.

The entire Evil Website is, in a way, a meditation on the place, and non-place, of Realism[TM] in fiction.

But to bring this discussion around to the more typical themes of this blog, consider one of the more interesting talking non-rabbits in children's literature: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien, whose opinions on the subject of hobbits are reasonably authoritative, does not mention talking bunnies as part of their background. (Quite surprisingly, he does mention Sinclair Lewis's Babbit, a character I'd never have thought of in relation to hobbits.) The word hobbit fits into a tradition of English words for mythical creatures; compare hobgoblin.

Still, it is hard not to imagine that at some subconscious level, at least, The Hobbit shared some kinship with The Wind in the Willows, and distantly with Bugs Bunny himself.

Having said that, it is hard to see much whimsical about Middle-Earth.


Note: For the first time I have a good excuse for being behind in posting here: I am working on editorial revisions for Catherine of Lyonesse.

The image of messing about in boats comes from a blog by 'An English lady in Prague.'

Sunday, March 3, 2013

High Kings and Galactic Emperors - Monarchy in Science Fiction and Fantasy

Science fiction has been rather curiously given to monarchical government. 'Curiously' in the sense that (at any rate to 'Murricans) it is a form of government associated with the past, and certainly not with rocket ships, monorails, food pills, cyborgs, or the rest of the retro-future paraphernalia that sci-fi still loosely connotes in the popular culture. And even, with a reservation or two, in SF fandom.

The situation in fantasy is somewhat different. In spite of urban fantasy and all the rest, fantasy still connotes first and foremost a setting rooted in a medievalesque past, where kings - and the occasional queen regnant - are perfectly at home.

I have read a number of arguments over the years suggesting that the widespread practice of monarchy in SF says something about the authors who use the trope, and probably not to their credit. (Sorry, no links, but if you want examples, Google is your friend.) Similar critical remarks have been made not just about fantasy authors, but its readers, and the very existence of the (sub)genre.

For my purpose, the virtues or defects of monarchism as a political position are fairly beside the point. Kingship has certainly been widespread, suggesting that it was a workable default position, at any rate in the agrarian age. For an intellectual defense you probably still can't do better than Hobbes' Leviathan. Not to mention that as a critique of anarchism and its cousins, it is hard to improve on solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

But I would argue - in fact, I will argue - that the roots of monarchism in SF have less to do with political philosophy than with basic story considerations.

Bourgeois representative democracy, classical Athenian-style democracy, classical Roman-style republicanism, medieval oligarchical republicanism a la Venice, military juntas, fascistic fuehrerprinzip, Leninist dictatorship of the proletariat, nominally Communist party-committee oligarchy, pure bureaucratic functionary-ism, and both Iranian and al-Queda style theocracy, all have at least one thing in common: The likelihood of a teenage girl becoming head of state under any of these systems is pretty much nil.

Yes, that particular consideration has rather narrow applicability. But it is part of a broader point: Leadership in all of those systems is in some broad sense a workday job. To be sure, rulership is, in contemporary biz-speak, a 24/7 position. But it is walled off, at least in principle, from all the other dimensions of a ruler's life.

Yes, that principle may be honored in the breach: Presidents and dictators do indeed have personal lives that can and do spill over into their official roles. The spillover can even, at times, be substantial, and have some real consequences. But these are the exceptions, not the rule.   

Hereditary monarchy is a different beast. Quoting myself from an earlier post here (and, originally, a now-defunct website), hereditary monarchy is a political system that takes sex out of the bedroom and puts it in the history books.

Admittedly there was not much sex in midcentury SF or F. But the authors of these works knew their history, at any rate Western history. Which, from the Julio-Claudians to the Tudors and beyond, offers ample enough demonstration of the uniquely colorful potential of hereditary monarchy.

Someone in the back row is pointing out that the Principate under the Julio-Claudians was not really a hereditary monarchy. (Nor did the Empire ever quite become one, even under the Paleologi more than a thousand years later.) But that was sort of the problem, wasn't it? With no other constitutional mechanism at hand, a kinda sorta hereditary succession was the least worst alternative, with an added element of uncertainty that ramped up family dysfunction even above the usual royal standard.

And on the flip side, monarchy brings grandeur to family dysfunction. Consider The Lion in Winter. The actual story line has all the makings of a squirm-inducing soap opera. But because it is the royal Angevins (and, yes, brilliantly written) it transcends its soap opera plot.

Or, to put it another way, hereditary monarchy is singularly well-suited to Romance. By fully entangling the personal and the political it provides great story fuel. And story trumps futurism, or even political philosophy, every time.


The Flickr page for the royal headgear above describes it as 'Not THE crown, just a crown.' But the lighting is appropriately cool.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Technology Revolutions, Trends, and Twists

Each of the last two posts has spawned a particularly interesting comment thread. I will, a bit arbitrarily, reserve the one about monarchy (and other political systems) for a future post, and take up here - not for the first time, not for the last - the question of the limits of technology.

As regular readers know, I tend to be a technological conservative. This may be, at least in part, a generational thing. Those of us (old farts) who grew up expecting that controlled fusion, scheduled Moon flights, and Real [TM] AI were all Right Around The Corner are perhaps inclined to be cynical about claims for new technologies. We have been stung before - repeatedly.

If, on the other hand, your tech experience started with PCs, then the Internet, then the mobile Web, and now apparently credible progress toward automated cars, claims about the Next Big Thing probably look rather more convincing.

Let us look at a few familiar and popular technologies, and how they have or haven't panned out:

AI, in the old Asimovian robot or HAL 9000 sense, has to date been a pretty complete bust. The Web offers the perfect environment for the classic Turing test, and so far no prominent blogger (or even obscure one) has been outed as an AI.

But the flip side, as previously noted here, is that capabilities we once regarded as the sole province of human-like intelligence - such as winning at chess, or even Jeopardy! - have turned out to be within the reach of brute-force computing power. If we get driverless cars in the near future, or even midfuture, they will utilize a combination of sensors and processing power that would have seemed fanciful or at least unaffordable in the 1960s.

The computer revolution also has a third side: the Gutenberg-on-steroids impact it has had on communications between people. Rocketpunk-era SF predicted AI that we don't have and aren't even close to. It did not predict the Internet, not even kinda sorta. (One or two stories hinted at the idea, but it never emerged as a trope.) 

Fusion power is also high on the disappointment list. There was a time when the joke was that it had been 20 years away for the last 40 years - now make that the last 60 years. My (somewhat hazy) understanding is that they are making progress, and getting fairly close to the power break-even point.Whether a technology so demanding will end up as a practical power source (or space drive) is another matter, and it is hard to be really sanguine about the prospects.

Astronautics is yet a different matter. Something to remember as we pine for those scheduled moonships is that, on a purely technical level, most of what the space evangelists promised us in 1955 has worked out just fine. Multi-stage rockets can and do reach orbit, routinely, a hundred or so times each year, even if only a handful of their missions carry humans. We have largely scouted out the Solar System, and are moving on to more detailed investigation, such as putting vehicles on Mars.

What failed to pan out in this case were optimistic assumptions about ease and - especially - cost. There is no need for this post to beat the mummified remains of that particular horse.

Now, on to biotech. I can't claim even an informed layperson's knowledge of things bio-, so I have no formal basis for believing or disbelieving much of anything. That said, my first-blush reaction is to regard pretty much everything from radical life extension to 'designer organisms' as hype.

After all, I would argue, the devil is almost always in the details. I tend to picture biotech as most likely providing such agribusiness miracles as flavorless cubical tomatoes (for more efficient packing) that remain blandly edible for decades.

I can even point to a preliminary - and perhaps premature - hint or two in that direction. Genetic technology has not, in its first decade or so, produced the patentable and profitable drugs that Big Pharma was eagerly predicting a few years ago.

The prospects may, however, be more complicated than that. Commenter Thom S, who has a professional background in the field, sketches out a few possibilities.

When I first read the comment, I confess that I was merely grumpy. On a second reading, however, it dawned on me that hardly anything described fit my stereotype of biotech pipe dreams. Nor are they mere cubical tomatoes. In fact, these informed projections compare to my vague stereotypes roughly as the Internet compares to HAL 9000.

Some technology revolutions never deliver on their early promise. Others deliver in spades. And yet others deliver not what was predicted, but instead deliver something rich and strange.

But dammit, I still want spaceships.


The quite cool image comes from Luke Campbell's Google+ page. Because, come on, when it comes to biotech, as with other fields, wouldn't you really want to do the Cool Stuff?

Monday, February 11, 2013

A Force of Nature

Plot is a literary convention. Story is a force of nature.
-- Teresa Nielsen Hayden

What the former Tor managing editor (now consulting editor) and Making Light blogger says about plot surely applies with even greater force to genre. At least in the familiar sense of 'the genres' in the the book trade, which I have argued are all somewhat arbitrary subgenres of Romance.

As the title suggests, however, this post is about that much more primal literary force, story. To make one long story short, I have been offered a book contract.

The other and more relevant story, Catherine of Lyonesse, is quite a bit longer - 135,000 words (prior to whatever editing will be called for), somewhere around 300-400 pages of the old fashioned physical book it will be. (There will no doubt be an ebook version, too - ebooks have more or less taken the place of the old mass-market paperbacks of yore.)

No need to click over to just yet - getting the contract is only the start of the process. And the pace of the book industry tends to be ... stately.

It will be published as a YA historical fantasy novel by David Fickling Books, perhaps best known in the SF/F 'verse for Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass et seq. And because the publisher is British, the final version will presumably have colourful spelling and the like.

(And I shall be paid in pounds sterling, which gives me good personal reasons to be annoyed with the Tories, who are fully living up to Walter Bagehot's celebrated description of them as the Stupid Party. And also annoyed with the LibDems, whom an Anglican God evidently created to demonstrate the utter uselessness of third parties. But I digress ...)

The eponymous protagonist, Catherine de Guienne, is a teenage girl, a fact of which she is blissfully unaware, the concept of 'teenager' not yet existing in her Renaissance-esque world. She is also a royal heiress, a fact of which she is all too acutely aware: Its consequences can sometimes be gratifying, but are all too often alarming.

The basic argument for hereditary monarchy is that it averts succession crises. As the recently reported discovery of Richard III's body under a parking lot demonstrates, it has not always been effective in this regard. When the 'apparent' successor is (what we would call) a teenage girl, the succession can be ... problematic. And there are other complications, such as being raised in a foreign court.

There are no space battles. (On a happier note there are no vampires, sparkly or otherwise.) The original draft did have a couple of early 16th century sea battles, which alas ended up on the cutting room floor.

All of which is to say that the book has pretty much nothing to do with the topics I have usually discussed here. Story, as said, is a force of nature, which brushed aside with cool indifference any impulse on my part to write about something else.

Also, I have been holding out on you, my readers, as the book went from wishful thinking to theoretical possibility to impending reality: My agent advised me against a premature announcement. Which explains, whether or not it justifies, my more sporadic posting over the last year. Blogs, like sharks, need to keep moving, but a lot of the topics I most wanted to talk about would make no sense out of context.

I do not intend to wrench Rocketpunk Manifesto entirely away from its existing course, or turn it into a blog about the book. (At some point I will likely as not spin off a Catherine of Lyonesse blog.) But I will certainly re-broaden the scope to more nearly match the topic range asserted at the top of this page, and explore the host of ways in which the book has more in common with space travel than might be obvious at a first glance.

This earlier post offers one example.

English galleass Hart, 1546

As does this one, which includes a snippet from the draft version.

Which is enough for now. Of course I am chuffed, and chuffed people often make themselves boring. I will try to refrain, but make no promises.

The image of the Royal Arms of Lyonesse was created by me - I got the heraldic lions and other detailing from somewhere, but alas I don't recall where.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Is Science Fiction Tired?

There is much more to say about extrasolar planets, especially given the Kepler findings that are now rolling in. And I intend to say some of it in due course. For now, however, this blog's attention has been distracted by a remark in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
THE OVERWHELMING SENSE ONE GETS, working through so many stories that are presented as the very best that science fiction and fantasy have to offer, is exhaustion.
Yes, a book review based in Tinseltown is an invitation to snark, however unfair. And the author of the review quoted, Paul Kincaid, is pretty grumpy even by the standards of critics, for whom grumpiness is arguably part of the job.

The review deals with several 'Year's Best' anthologies, and as the quoted line suggests, officially it deals with fantasy as well as SF. But the line that most got my attention is specific to SF:

The problem may be, I think, that science fiction has lost confidence in the future.

Which brings us to the question of a decelerando. But before proceeding, go read Kincaid's article. This blog post will still be here when you get back.

Okay, then. Also a confession before proceeding: I have read almost no SF written in this millennium. But that should be no bar to this discussion - after all, I'm not purporting to analyze works of science fiction, only a discussion about science fiction.

(Meta is sooo handy!)

Science fiction as we know it came into being in the decades bracketing the turn of the last century - roughly speaking, from Jules Verne to John W. Campbell. Not by coincidence, this period - as I have suggested here before - was the real Accelerando.

There is a natural tendency to suppose that if the great accelerando brought SF into being, the (relative) decelerando of the current era is killing it. Take the particular example of space travel, simply because it is so awesomely cool. At midcentury, in the rocketpunk era, it was easy to project the technologies of aviation and high-performance rocketry forward, and suppose that in a few more decades we could fly to orbit and beyond as easily and economically as we were then beginning to fly across oceans.

It turned out to be not so easy and not at all economical. Which makes interplanetary travel more problematic as a story element. The reader doesn't need to be convinced that it is possible, as it certainly is, but that it can be cheap, which at a minimum can't be demonstrated with high school physics. (Or else the story has to accept expensive space travel.)

Kincaid, as it happens, does not blame the exhaustion of SF on a decelerando, but nearly the opposite: SF, he argues, "has lost confidence that the future can be comprehended." And, to be sure, that is one of the big arguments that swirls around Singularitanism. A post-Singularity world of super-genius computers (or hybrid cyborgs, or whatever) would be incomprehensible to us unevolved apes.

But not all SF is Singularitan, and Kincaid makes another argument that strikes me as more to the point. SF has become less interested in 'the future' than in its own tropes.

Space fighters, anyone?

As much as I have beaten up on space fighters here, in the broader picture I don't think there is anything so dreadful about classic SF tropes. And this blog, like the Atomic Rockets website, is largely devoted to one such trope, Realism [TM]. Which by no means implies that all SF need adhere to that particular trope.

To climb up on one of this blog's oldest soapboxes, SF, fantasy, and their kindred genres are all subgenres of Romance, which cheerfully admits to its ranks everything from whimsy to hardboiled detective stories.

Which, by the way, answers another of Kincaid's grumps, about stories that in his view didn't 'need' to be science fiction or fantasy. Romance lends itself readily to genre-bending, which is why efforts to pin down what SF is all about are so inconclusive. Subgenres of Romance that are plot-centric are rather easier, such as mysteries or for that matter romance in the usual sense. SF and fantasy, whose identities are more setting-centric, lend themselves to ambiguity.

Whatever happens to SF as such, Romance - including Romance with space settings - will probably continue to do just fine.

In fact, a cheerier essay on SF, in Britain's Grauniad, suggests on the one hand that SF is going mainstream, and on the other hand that space-oriented SF could be due for a comeback. Points which need not be mutually contradictory.


The image of the Hugo award is from Flickr, apparently Cory Doctorow's pages.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Worlds of Tau Ceti? Habitable For Whom?

With the solstitial holidaze safely behind us ...

Tau Ceti has an enduring whiff of the Sixties about it. Peace, love, dolphins. The connotations are not a fluke: Tau Ceti was lifted out of back-of-the-Greek-alphabet obscurity in 1960, when it and Epsilon Eridani shared the distinction of being the target stars for the Project Ozma SETI experiment.

Yes, that was years before the Summer of Love, but - especially in that pre-Internet era - it took time for ideas to filter into the science fiction popular culture. Before Project Ozma, I doubt that many people had heard of Tau Ceti.

It got the attention of Project Ozma's designers because it is close to Sol (11.9 light years) and similar in spectral type (G8.5). Alpha Centauri is closer and more similar, but the prevailing view at the time was that double (and other multiple) stars went poorly with planets. Indeed this remained a cause for hesitation right up until planets were found in multiple-star systems, recently including Alpha Centauri itself.

And now planets - five of them - have (possibly) turned up around Tau Ceti as well. They have minimum masses between 2 and 6.6 times Earth mass, and orbit between 0.11 and 1.35 AU from the parent star.

Tau Ceti radiates at just over half (0.52) solar luminosity. Thus the fourth planet (at 0.52 AU) and fifth planet orbit respectively at the thermal-balance equivalent of 0.76AU and 1.87 AU from Sol.

A bit farther out than Venus, and considerably farther out than Mars. Neither sounds like Paradise World, but depending on a host of secondary assumptions they might both be in the habitable zone.

Minimum masses are 4.4 and 6.3 Earths, which for the inner planet is all too suggestive of a super Venus. The outer planet could be more promising, and if it has a deep hydrosphere the surface gravity could even be comparable to Earth's.

Proviso time: Sky & Telescope throws some cold water on the whole planetary system. The detection method is experimental, and the indications suggesting planets are no louder than the noise in the data. This does not rule out valid detection, but makes it the equivalent of eavesdropping on an interesting conversation at a loud party.

In this case my gut feeling is that S&T is being a bit too cautious - that the Tau Ceti planets will likely turn out to be real. And along with the Alpha Centauri finding, it seems as though extrasolar planets, including kinda sorta Earthlike ones, are - so to speak - creeping closer to Sol.

Reaching Tau Ceti with any semi-demi-plausible drive is outrageously difficult. Refer to the Alpha Centauri post and comment thread for speculation. But it is perhaps time to assess just where we stand when it comes to planets and life.

According to the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopedia, there are now 854 known, that is to say confirmed, extrasolar planets. (The Tau Ceti system is not listed in their main catalog.) Extrasolar worlds thus outnumber 'major' Solar System planets by a hundred to one, an impressive balance.

Planets are common. Planetary systems are odd. So far as I can tell, we have not yet found any systems that look a lot like ours - rocky inner planets, larger gas or ice-rich outer ones, most or all in near-circular orbits. This may be a mere selection effect.

And in spite of the Kepler findings we have not yet found an 'Earth' - a planet of similar size orbiting at a distance closely equivalent to 1 AU. This could be a different sort of selection effect. We are finding a decent number of kinda-sorta Earths, and hitting bingo depends on the constraints you set.

As for the biological implications? Alas, we still have a data set of precisely one. Which means that we don't really have a clue as to how common life is, or what conditions are needed for it to appear.

Project Ozma, like rocketpunk-era SF, lay in the bright glow of the Miller-Urey experiment in 1952. This experiment showed that, given an atmosphere similar to what was then thought to be Earth's primordial atmosphere, the simpler molecular building blocks of light were easy to produce. Life in a test tube seemed just around the corner.

As with controlled fusion and human-like AI, things have not worked out that way. On the other hand, I don't get the impression that biochemists have made a major research project out of trying to brew up living organisms. The project has no obvious application except to generate media hysteria, not good for funding proposals.

Behind all discussions of life lurks the Fermi Paradox. Yes, it is specific to intelligent (or at least interstellar-signaling) life, not life in general. But the more common life is elsewhere in the universe, the more opportunities it has to make its presence known. And the harder to explain why it hasn't.


The image of dolphins comes from this Flickr page. Back around the 1970s, National Lampoon magazine included dolphins (meaning dolphin intelligence) in a list of Great Disappointments. True? False? Irrelevant?