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?