Monthly Post

The Worlds That Never Were

In order to finish sorting out the foundations for the project this blog will pursue, I want to talk a little more about science fiction. That’s not the digression that it may look like at first glance. Much of the work that’s involved in midwifing the birth of ecosophy—of a way of wisdom that draws its core insights from living nature—involves coming to grips with the fears and fantasies that shape our collective vision of the future, and science fiction is one of the places those fears and fantasies come closest to the surface.

There’s a rich irony in that fact, because science fiction got its status as a sensitive gauge of our imagined tomorrows at a time when it was very nearly the last word in lowbrow literature, read mostly by sweaty-palmed teenagers who plunked down a nickel or a dime at local newsstands to buy the latest issue of Weird Tales or Amazing Stories. Garish colors liberally bedecked with scantily dressed women, back pages packed with advertisements for X-ray glasses and strongman courses, letters columns full of the kind of obsessive fandom you have to surf the internet to find today—it was all there, alongside stories that created science fiction as we know it and provided a good fraction of the emotional impetus that put human bootprints on the Moon.

In turn, as science fiction went mainstream in the late 1970s, it lost its grip on the future. As tenured academics stopped turning up their noses at “all that Buck Rogers stuff,” as a handful of the more literary SF authors found their work being reviewed in highbrow periodicals and the genre as a whole found itself afflicted with creeping respectability, the US space program began winding down, and a galaxy of technological breakthroughs that were supposed to happen sometime very soon—commercially viable fusion power comes first to mind—faded into that dim realm where might-have-beens spend their time.

Meanwhile the genre itself stagnated: on the one hand, ringing an endless sequence of changes on the already overworked gimmick of interstellar travel; on the other, pursuing an assortment of political agendas in which the political correctness of the left and the patriotic correctness of the right played equally unhelpful roles. Readers accordingly drifted away, sales declined, and the remaining fans sequestered themselves in various sub-sub-sub-genres like desperadoes holing up in a box canyon, blazing away with mostly unloaded guns at imaginary posses.

There are plenty of lessons to be learned here. One of them, to be sure, is the extent to which the so-called “cultural creatives”—those comfortably well-off and well-educated individuals who see themselves as the movers and shakers of cultural innovation—aren’t innovators at all, but function mostly as the morticians who embalm the remains of once-vital movements and prepare them for their final rest. Still, that’s a discussion for another time. The detail I want to focus on just now is the extent to which the late 1970s, the era when science fiction went mainstream, was also the era in which it started to become brutally clear that the splendid universe that science fiction writers and readers had built for their genre didn’t actually exist.

You have to put some time into reading the science fiction of an earlier era to realize just how poor the fit was between the universe science fiction imagined and the one we actually inhabit. To begin with, the universe of science fiction is much, much smaller. That wasn’t entirely true in the genre’s early days—I’m thinking here of a story by Clark Ashton Smith in which two scientists set out from Earth on a voyage to Venus in middle age, and finally get there as old, old men—but as the genre ripened, transit times shrank, and gimmicks such as the “warp drive” that allowed the Star Trek franchise to squish the galaxy to lunchbox size supplanted realistic visions of just what it would cost to get to other planets or other stars.

The universe of science fiction is also much less hostile to human life than the one we actually inhabit. In science fiction’s universe, interplanetary space isn’t saturated with hard radiation from the huge unshielded fusion reactor blazing away at the center of the solar system, and when meteors put in an appearance, they’re a bit of local color for heroes to cope with, not a sudden impact at 20,000 miles an hour followed by silence and blackness forever.  In the universe of classic science fiction, what’s more, it’s not just Mars and Venus that have atmospheres we can breathe; human adventurers can sail the seas of Neptune, human farmers can plow the green fields of Ganymede, and human prospectors can seek their fortunes in the nonexistent Twilight Belt of Mercury, between the half of the planet that’s hot enough to melt lead and the half that’s a few degrees above absolute zero, all without need of oxygen tanks.

Finally, and crucially, the universe of science fiction is a great deal more romantic than the one we actually inhabit. Is Mars—the real Mars, the one that takes most of a year to reach from Earth if you have to ride on a real spaceship—a romantic place? Sure, if you’re a geologist with a taste for airless, waterless, lifeless deserts.  To anyone else, it compares unfavorably to the less entertaining corners of rural Nevada. The Mars of science fiction is an utterly different place: an ancient, exotic, enticing world of dust-shrouded ruins that were great cities before our species climbed down from the trees, and ancient canals edged with greenery bringing scarce water from the ice caps—and of course it’s also inhabited, by Martians who might as well be human beings of some other culture for all they really differ from us.

In the universe of classic science fiction, Venus is a gorgeous jungle planet beneath its layers of cloud, not a smoldering, sulfurous desert heated by a runaway greenhouse effect to temperatures that melt metal. The asteroids aren’t just bare rocks tumbling through vacuum; some of them, at least, have atmospheres and life forms of their own. The whole solar system is a Bacchanalian rout of life, intelligence, and adventure, in which humanity’s first tentative steps into space are guaranteed to meet the same kind of colorful panoply of exotic possibilities that Vasco da Gama encountered when his ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope, crossed the Indian Ocean, and deposited him on the shores of India. It really is a pity that none of it was ever real.

Yet it was the solar system of the pulp era that shaped the youthful imaginations of the American, European, and Soviet scientists and engineers who launched the space program on its way. The pulp science fiction I’ve described above was an international taste—the major American pulp magazines had British and Australasian distributors, and there were also thriving science fiction fandoms in most European countries, nourishing their dreams with a mix of local talent and translations from the English-language literature.  Throughout the industrial world, young people who were bored by the limited horizons of the Depression era and fascinated by the possibilities of technological progress gulped down classic science fiction wholesale…and a significant number of them, once the Great Depression gave way to the Second World War and that yielded in turn to the Cold War, got the chance to act out those dreams by contributing to one or another of the big postwar space programs.

What’s more, until the late 1970s, nobody could be completely sure that the gorgeous universe of the pulp science fiction era didn’t actually exist. As long as Mars, Venus, and the other worlds of the solar system were blurry dots in Earthbound telescopes, their atmospheres and local conditions a matter of informed guesswork at best, their suitability for life of any sort a complete unknown, the dream hovered tantalizingly in the interplanetary distance, and played a huge if usually unadmitted role in motivating the exploration of space. It wasn’t until space probes with increasingly elaborate technology brought back hard data from our neighboring planets that the whole grand dream came crashing down at last.

The fixation on interstellar travel I critiqued earlier in this post was the logical reaction to the loss of the gorgeous solar system of the pulp era—if we can’t have exotic, exciting, inhabited worlds circling our own sun, the logic seems to have gone, we can just haul them off and park them in orbits around other stars! In some cases, in fact, you can watch this relocation happen within the work of individual science fiction authors.

I’m thinking here especially of the inimitable Leigh Brackett, author of some of the best solar system adventure tales ever penned.  She wrote a series of lively tales in which Eric John Stark, a sort of interstellar Tarzan turned film noir soldier of fortune, wanders the solar system’s mean streets getting into and out of various kinds of trouble. As the imaginary solar system of the pulp era came crashing down, she sent Stark zooming off to a world around a distant star for one last trilogy’s worth of adventures. The Ginger Star and its sequels are great fun, but the sudden intrusion of interstellar travel into a series of tales previously set in the old solar system of the pulp era is jarring at best.

I don’t think it was any kind of accident that science fiction’s flight from the solar system to the interstellar void was followed in due time by the decline of science fiction itself. Handwaving about imaginary warp drives aside, it’s pretty clear to anybody who does the math that even if there happen to be inhabitable worlds circling other stars, getting just one ship there is going to take an energy supply of the same rough order of magnitude as the world’s total consumption of energy at present, if not more—and that as far as we know, the universe doesn’t offer us any energy source sufficiently concentrated and abundant enough to make that an option.

That’s why handwaving about imaginary warp drives and the like plays so massive a role in science fiction these days. It’s also why Kim Stanley Robinson—one of the best of the current crop of SF authors—caused something not too far from a collective nervous breakdown in science fiction a little while back when he wrote a novel, Aurora, that ditched the handwaving and grappled with the stark and sobering realities of trying to establish a human colony on a world orbiting another star.  A tolerably large number of science fiction fans did a fair imitation of a fist-pounding, heel-drumming, spit-spraying, five-year-old tantrum in response. How dare mean old Mr. Robinson take away their shiny starships?

Let us please be real: the fact that fans of a genre of pop literature in modern industrial society want some way to colonize interstellar space places no obligation on the universe to give them one. There’s a sharp-edged irony in the fact that so many of the people who dream of bestriding the stars scornfully reject the New Age notion that “what you believe, you can achieve,” except in this one case, and dismiss the evangelical Christian attempt to compress the vastness of deep time into a human scale of six thousand years from Creation to Judgment Day, while embracing just as anthropocentric an attempt to compress the vastness of deep space into a cosmos small enough for us to leap from star to star. Still, that’s the nature of the return of the repressed.

We’re not going to the stars. That’s the unspeakable reality that a great many people in the industrial world are trying to evade right now, with increasingly limited success. The particular vision of endless elaboration of the kind of technologies our civilization happens to like, leading to a Star Trek future in which our kind of humanity with our kind of culture and mentality and society metastasizes across the galaxy, is not going to happen, not now, not in the lifespan of our species, and we really might want to deal with that and start thinking through the implications.

Granted, that’s not going to be easy. One measure of the difficulty surfaced in a recent news story, about yet another astrophysicist who’s noticed that the best explanation for the lack of evidence for star-spanning alien civilizations is that there aren’t any. That’s reasonable enough, but he jumped instantly from that to the claim that intelligent species, once they reach the industrial level, must inevitably go extinct within a few centuries. After all, why else wouldn’t they be colonizing the stars?

That’s a whopping non sequitur, because extinction is far from the only reason that an intelligent species might fail to colonize the stars. A far more likely reason, in fact, is the one that’s staring humanity in the face right now: once a species reaches the industrial level of technology, it uses up its home planet’s available supplies of concentrated energy resources and nonrenewable resources within a few centuries at most, and then drops permanently to a nonindustrial level of technology because that’s what it has the resources left to sustain.

Thus the bug-eyed inhabitants of Zeta Reticuli IV may have had complex, literate, scientific civilizations for the last eighteen million of our years, for all we know.  Since they exhausted their world’s equivalent of fossil fuels 17,999,700 Earth years ago, though, they aren’t traveling to other worlds, broadcasting their existence to the cosmos, or doing any of the handful of other things that might make them show up on our radio telescopes. They’re doing less energy-intensive things…and so, in the not too distant future, will we.

Those bug-eyed aliens, for example, might spend some of their ample free time reading stories written during their own species’ brief period of industrial exuberance, when they dreamed of traveling to the other worlds of their own solar system—to yellow Xphlzzh, where they imagined incandescent breezes playing over oceans of liquid sodium, or to violet Glrrh, where they pictured the soaring crystalline ingestion-basins of forgotten species under the dulcet glow of bromine-gas skies. We could take a few lessons from their suppositious experience, because the same recreation will be available to our descendants as well.

Science fiction doesn’t lose its value as a work of the imagination, after all, just because the future it imagined was never an option in the first place, and the worlds it envisioned never existed. Few people argue that The Wizard of Oz or The Lord of the Rings ought to be pulped just because Oz and Middle-earth don’t happen to be real locations. The same rule applies just as well to science fiction, once we get out from under the notion that these brilliant works of imaginative fiction are somehow supposed to pretend to be sober predictions of the future.

A case could be made, in fact, that the solar system of classic science fiction is one of the great creations of imaginative literature, all the more impressive because it was a collective work of art. The imaginary Mars with its canals and ancient ruins was no one writer’s invention; dozens of authors shared the weaving of the fabric, and though details varied, there’s a recognizable planetary character that shows through works as different as Leigh Brackett’s The Sword of Rhiannon and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, like light from the same sun through stained-glass windows of different design. The same is true of many, perhaps most, of the worlds of classic science fiction in the solar system.

I’m pleased to note that in recent years, the imaginative power of the old vision has finally gotten some recognition. SF authors George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois a few years back edited a pair of anthologies, Old Mars and Old Venus, full of original stories set in the imaginary solar system of the classic science fiction era. Both books fielded their share of outraged screams for violating the conventional wisdom that science fiction must pretend to be possible, even when it obviously isn’t, but they’re both good solid collections. There’s also a website, Heritage of Dreams, that hosts detailed essays and discussions about solar-system science fiction and has become the go-to place for fans of what’s come to be called the Old Solar System

All of which brings me to the practical side of this month’s post.

It’s been a while since I’ve sponsored a writing contest on my blogs. The contests that resulted in the four After Oil anthologies were entertaining to me and others, and they also yielded a bumper crop of first-rate stories that broke free of the cliches and zoomed off into previously unimagined futures. The whole process was pleasant enough that I’m eager to do it again.

It so happens that I had a series of email conversations on this theme with Zendexor, the pseudonymous webmaster-pundit of the Heritage of Dreams website, and we agreed that a new anthology of stories set in the imaginary solar system of classic science fiction would be a very good thing. I then discussed the matter with Shaun Kilgore of Founders House Publishing, who agreed that such an anthology would be well worth putting into print.

So we’re going to do it. You can find the details at, but the short form is that we’re looking for short stories (2500-7500 words), novelettes (7500-12,500 words) and maybe a novella (12,500 words on up) set in the Old Solar System. What kind of stories? You name it. Two-(or more-)fisted tales of adventure like C.L. Moore, solar system noir like Leigh Brackett, interplanetary travel with a religious dimension like C.S. Lewis, Old Solar System horror like Clark Ashton Smith – you name it, so long as it takes place in the imaginary solar system of the classic science fiction era. You can—indeed, you should—put your own twist on ancient and desolate Mars, lush Venus, or whatever other world or worlds you choose for a setting—and yes, Earth is also an option!—but it should fit more or less cleanly into the grand collective work of art that was the Old Solar System.

Stories may be submitted via the email address on the webpage just listed, and you can also get a better sense of what the Old Solar System is like, and a vast number of suggestions for reading, on the rest of the Heritage of Dreams site. The deadline for story submissions is January 30, 2018, so those of you who are interested may want to get typing.

In the meantime, next month, we’re going to take a closer look at the sources of the Old Solar System’s gorgeous planetscapes, and move closer to a clear sense of where we as a species are headed and why it matters.


  1. I wonder if somewhere in the utter vastness of space, there is a star system in which the fantasy of truly colonizing another world comes true.

  2. It would seem that people ignored a very important reality.. that they’ve never experienced being on those planets and thus gave up all hope of their imagination and creativity based on perceived realities. Then in order to not have to lose that model, the projected those same ideas to places further away.

    That’s all a pretty good model for what is happening here.

  3. Glad to see your mention of Aurora which I read and was surprised by twice. Once, because the interstellar travel depicted seemed wholly within what we currently know of physics and space travel with very little technological innovation required and then surprised again to hear that some readers considered the work “optimistic” and even “utopian” in vision. I have a vivid imagination and I was a bit claustrophobic and occassionally even nauseous throughout despite it being a well written fiction.

  4. The oceans of Europa and Enceladus have replaced the ancient oceans of Venus and Mars. These small moons have become prime destinations for planetary science. Part of the reason for their attraction is the possibility that these environments might harbor life. But it is not the only reason. Exploration and discovery are larger motivations. Even the lifeless lakes of Titan are worth a visit, if only to learn more about its exotic chemistry. Our growing knowledge of the solar system has yielded many surprises, from Mercury to Miranda to Pluto.

    Is there less excitement nowadays because we aren’t reaching the stars? To work on a planetary space mission doesn’t sound boring to me, although it is a lot of meticulous work that can consume a career or a lifetime. Astronomers, with their telescopes and scientific instruments, possess no less passion – they are as eager to learn about the universe as your fictional deep space explorer.

    I’m interested in planetary science for what it reveals and I enjoy SF for what it offers, be it inspiration or fantasy. The two aren’t related in my mind. The success or failure of one doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the other. What science tells us about the local solar system has yet to constrain our penchant for myth-making.

    My collection of 1940-50s sci-fi has stories that are wildly optimistic and pessimistic. There’s drama and there’s comedy. In some instances, the extraterrestrial locales are merely a backdrop for decidedly pedestrian human concerns. SF can be schlock or thought-provoking. I consider it to be the most flexible of genres.

    Conversely, I find history to be boring. Nothing puts me to sleep faster than historical facts and figures. The ways in which history is interpreted and distorted makes me frustrated. Why bother with it? For every world view, there is a history (and hysteria) surrounding it.

    Science and engineering are about the now and the near future. SF can be about any time period, or place, or set of circumstances. With SF, you get history and myth without the pretentiousness of either. Unless of course, you forget that what you are reading is fictional. Then I suppose it becomes all too serious.

    If it weren’t for my chronic lack of creativity I’d write a story. I used to write short stories when I was young. I wrote for my school assignments and for myself. I might have been the next great schlockmeister.

  5. Every time you’ve announced a story contest I’ve tried to come up with something and either written a few pages and panicked or no pages and panicked. “What if it’s no good! What if it’s rejected!” Well, nothing’s less good than nothing at all, and things that don’t exist are automatically rejected. This time I am going to write a story. And I will submit it. It will not be no good, but it may be rejected. In which case I’ll send it to someone else, who may also reject it. And if no one ever prints it, I will read it out loud to my cat and be glad to have done so.

  6. Dammerung, no doubt somewhere there’s a solar system where the nearest planet to the inhabited one doesn’t have too hostile an environment, and the concentrations of some fossil fuel equivalent happened to be high enough to support industrial society long enough for an intelligent species to make a go at establishing a permanent colony. Mind you, given the odds, the nearest one may be on the far side of the Andromeda galaxy, but it’s not at all beyond the reach of possibility. It’s getting to the stars that, as demonstrated by the Fermi nonparadox, is out of reach.

    Prizm, no argument there.

    MTC, I suspect they found it optimistic because it offered at least a dim hope that the dream of interstellar travel might be fulfilled, I note that Robinson himself has written an essay arguing that interstellar colonization simply isn’t going to happen.

    Bumblebee, I’m entirely in favor of space exploration, and I enjoy science fiction as well; I simply like to point out that they have about as much in common as real relationships have with bodice-ripper romance novels. As for history being boring, though, real history isn’t facts and figures, it’s narrative, and can be brilliant narrative at that; you may just have read the wrong history books!

    Steve, that’s a common fear, and a crippling one. Giving yourself the freedom to fail is a very important gift. Write your story, submit it, and who knows? It might end up between the covers of an anthology…

  7. This post brings made me think of the “Mars tourism” posters that SpaceX released two years ago to generate more excitement about colonizing Mars (can’t find a good link) and these “space tourism” posters from JPL: In both cases, the posters have a retro, 1960s-era aesthetic which I suppose is meant to evoke the excitement from that time period when there was much more optimism about the feasibility of space exploration.

    I read Aurora a couple of weeks ago and enjoyed it very much. The resentment that the main character feels about the choice her ancestors made to pursue interstellar travel is an interesting parallel to the resentments our own descendants might feel at being forced by our collective choices to live on a much less hospitable Earth.

  8. “because science fiction got its status as a sensitive gauge of our imagined tomorrows at a time when it was very nearly the last word in lowbrow literature” where and with whom did this happen?

  9. Oh, I lived through all the long decades back when it was slowly becoming clear that the Gospel According to Heinlein wasn’t happening on schedule and might not happen at all. From the Carter years, in which I made a feeble attempt at an sf story in which Earth is going bankrupt and the great powers out there among the stars (human-from-another-culture variety) come to act as trustees in bankruptcy, with some youthful pointed social criticism, on into the wreck of the Challenger, or “why didn’t the Reagan Years bring forth the Great Inevitable Future?”, on to … well, the first time I ran into the concept of Hubbard’s Peak and what it explained (thank you, JMG!)

    Meanwhile, I was getting extremely bored with Analog (forrmerly Astounding), which seemed to be same-old, same-old. Since then, Alternate History has had a whopping success in the field, and some of it does deal with nontechnical societies arising because…..

    Star Wars now, is as much fantasy as LOTR, and I doubt anyone sees it otherwise, even little kids. And for a good novella (?length?) in a Lovecraftian pocket universe, I offer The Dreamquest of Vellitt Boe, which I sorely hoped would win either a Hugo or a Nebula.

  10. P.S. Steve Stirling wrote two novels set in the Solar System That Never Was. In the Court of the Crimson Kings is excellent, especially what he did with the Martian culture. Like Trek’s Vulcans, I’m sure they’d be a pain to deal with daily, but fun to read about. The one set on Venus was same-old, same-old. He never sold Volume 3, having (if you ask me) peaked at Book 2.

    The villains in his Emberverse, series, BTW, want the same thing as yours in The Weird of Hali – a totally rational and meaningless universe. They despise matter so much, it doesn’t matter how they mistreat the loathsome stuff, which results, of course, in horrors. And one of his villains, dying, cries “…Pure. I wanted it to be so pure!” Which went in the margins of Innsmouth in pencil immediately as a commentary. And for what it’s worth, he has what I consider an excellent handle on what faiths would survive in to a world were magic as Dion Fortune defined it is real and industrial technology impossible. His Roman Catholic Church, one of the survivors, now preaches that the world God made is good and anyone who despises it insults God’s gifts. Pity our own doesn’t emphasize that more! (Okay. So they’re heavy on the battle-choreograph-and-weapons porn. Shrug – turn the page.)

  11. JMG,

    As always, an interesting post – and glad to see there’s a new writing contest.

    Actually, I would have guessed science fiction was mainstream before the late ’70s, as I consider it to have peaked with “pulp” period of the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, the space missions quickly taught us how hostile it really is beyond the troposphere, and the political turmoil of Civil Rights, Vietnam, JFK, Nixon followed by the “me” generation of the 1980s put a damper on the imaginative part of the genre, IMHO.

    I remember in junior high, in 1975 or so, finding out some details about the Space Shuttle program as Apollo wrapped up, and how disappointed I was that the next step (manned mission to Mars, obviously) wasn’t even on the drawing board.

  12. As a long time SF reader, KSR is terrific, and Aurora was really good. I have read most everything written in the 1960-1980 period – and forgotten many of them simply due to the wash of stories that were regrettably similar.

    Tolkien went mainstream around the time that SF seemed to be declining or flat-lining, and that genre (fantasy) roared in. I always felt that what mattered in a lot of science fiction was both character building and world building. But after some time, most decent ideas get written and revised – and then there is limited newness. This is especially true if we constrain the authors to support their ideas with engineering or physics.

    Fantasy simply does away with this, and once the world building is accomplished, characters and plot surge to the fore. There is no effort required to base the physics or type of ‘magic’ on something, totally adhering to Clarke’s’ 3rd law. I find it funny that Clarke, scifi author extraordinaire, pointed to fantasy with a literary finger.

    All that being said, it seems to me that SF, by limiting itself, has choked itself. It is this that turned me towards fantasy and away from many SF endeavors. I found my self reading 1/4 to 1/3 of many scifi books and then dropping them – as I knew where we were heading, differences aside.

    I see the decline in SF as a direct result of the attitude of people in the real world. When the US stopped the moon exploration, when we ceased the space shuttle ops – these things permeate at their own rate in minds. Perhaps having to come to terms with Russia making our rockets was the last straw, or maybe it was perchlorates – who knows? It does take a focused and nearly obsessive type to work on things like the Mars Rover – not so much when working on the Mercury capsule, lunar lander or the Saturn rocket.

    These narratives formed a backdrop for developing archetypes and avatars for us, but they must be put away. What new ones will come? I don’t know, but find it pretty interesting. Maybe Clive Cussler plodding away with Dirk Pitt is the next batch of ‘newness’? I do think that both magic and fantasy will endeavor to address many of our issues – it already has, from my recent completion of Malazan Book of the Fallen. A huge number of references to the state of man, culture, governance – all of it gets heaved right into your face, and then you just have to deal with it to let the plot unfold. It was a good read…

    Yet I am struggling to tie this into “wholeness” at this point…

  13. On the subject of science fiction and Progress, I recently read [url=]this[/url] post on Slate Star Codex, in which (stop reading now if you don’t want the post spoiled) some alien lizards attempt to build a faster-than-light communication device with moral progress as the working principle. It doesn’t work… but not because moral progress isn’t actually fundamental to the universe, of course! It’s just that the speed of moral progress is limited by the speed of light.
    Needless to say, I thought of JMG’s writing when reading that.

  14. It would be interesting to do historical public opinion research to find out what the general public expected of Mars and Venus in the 1950s and 1960s. Scientists learned by the 1920s that Mars was extremely cold and by the 1940s that it had an extremely thin atmosphere, but I think parameters of Venus were not well understood until the 1960s. It was so recent that we didn’t know the basics about the region of the universe we live in.

    You are right that people dramatically underestimate the difficulty of traveling to other stars. Indeed given the physical constraints, there isn’t a way to send biological humans to land on planets orbiting other stars using known means. Interestingly, it is quite a bit easier to send spacecraft to fly by other stars than it is to send them and also stop them when they get there. But still hard.
    I would stay away from the claim that spacefaring intelligence is ruled out by the laws of thermodynamics and limits on concentrated energy. The energy required to travel to nearby stars is not large on the scale of renewable energy sources. And the range of possible intelligence is simply unknown. We really don’t know what is possible in this area. But humans won’t be traveling to other solar systems in the next few centuries.

  15. I blame Carl Sagan for first dropping the hammer on the classic era of sci fi with its neighboring planets filled with life. Some of Carl’s earliest work ( before he was famous) involved predicting the atmosphere of Venus and Mars long before unmanned probes could dispel all notions of the habitability of our nearest neighbors. It is ironic that a figure we associate with the religion of progress was one of the first to put a nail in its coffin, though unintentionally. He also echoed your conclusion in one of his final speeches, the pale blue dot,

    ” There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.”

    ending with,” To me it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we have ever known.”

  16. I have noticed in recent years that there’s been an emphasis on alternate-reality themes – including some which basically exploit the Old Solar System concept. This, I suppose, would also be a recourse for science fiction writers who have been increasingly convinced of the impossibility of interstellar travel.

    I have to say though that I think that travel to the stars may be possible, but not in material space ships and not in our physical bodies. In fact, I imagine that the urge to travel upward and onward has had at its root a spiritual yearning, a spiritual yearning that was immanentized, so to speak, through the filter of our industrial/tech age. I like to think that once we accept the limits that our physical reality imposes on us, we might eventually turn to the real last frontier, that of the spirit. And then, who knows, the fearful immensities of time and space as perceived through our physical senses might not be so imposing …..

  17. It’s amazing that the human imagination seems capable of envisioning only endless expansion or apocalyptic implosion. Only those two extremes appear to occupy our imagination–instead of just puttering around on this planet in better ways and worse for a good long time, which is of course what will likely happen.

  18. I am dismayed by Elon Musk for more reasons than one, but I think perhaps the most disheartening and pernicious is his role in reviving the mass psychosis regarding space travel. From a restorationist’s and conservationist’s point of view, it breaks my heart to see billions of dollars poured down the rathole of Mars colonization when, in addition to its part in providing more false hope for humankind, that money could be put to such good and productive use making THIS planet more livable. For example, the Drawdown group estimates it would cost $57.22 billion to implement regenerative agriculture on one billion acres worldwide by 2050 and $41.59 billion to implement silvopasture grazing techniques on about 1/2 billion acres by 2050. Together with the other restoration agriculture and food practices they looked at, this would do more to sequester carbon than any other set of actions humanity can take, including the most optimistic “clean energy” scenarios. And, at just about $100 billion for those two options together, it’s a bargain compared to Musk’s estimate of $120 billion just to get the first 12 people to Mars to start a colony–an estimate that does not even include sustaining them upon arrival. Argh. Well, I guess you could say the same about Americans’ yearly expenditures on football (NFL: $7 billion; fantasy football, $11 billion) or the U.S. military (~$600 billion). Ratholes.

  19. I’ve always found it fascinating that interplanetary science fiction came into being around the same time the age of exploration and colonization was coming to a close, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was during this time that the American frontier was being settled (it would be officially declared closed in 1890), explorers were making their way through the last remote parts of Darkest Africa, the South Pacific, Central Asia and the polar regions and the European great powers (belatedly joined by the USA and Japan) were scrambling for the last remaining scraps of Africa, Asia and the Pacific island chains.

    It seems to me that to a great extent, planetary sci-fi represented the hope of extending the era of exploration and colonization to new planets after ours had already been explored, mapped and claimed.

    The settling of the West had a huge influence on the psychology and national mythology of the United States, as was pointed out by Frederick Jackson Turner, and so it is probably no surprise that science fiction took off in America like nowhere else in the world. The exploration and colonization of Siberia and tales of the Cossacks played a role in Russia analogous to that played by the Wild West and the cowboys in American mythology, while colonialism and the exploits of adventurers like Sir Richard Burton, David Livingstone, Cecil Rhodes and T.E. Lawrence played a similar role in Western Europe during that era, so it’s not that surprising that the USSR and Europe were also places where science fiction had a major cultural influence.

  20. Lauren, yes, I also noticed the retro flavor! It’s a pretty irony that a set of beliefs so fixated on the future is increasingly mining its imagery from the past…

    Dmf, you’ll find the details here.

    Patricia, I’ve really come to think that sometime in the next dozen years or so, we’re going to see a cascade of new thinking in science fiction and a lot of hoary cliches put out to pasture or sent to the glue factory. That happens from time to time, and at this point, it’s frankly overdue.

    Drhooves, depends very much on what you mean by “mainstream.” You didn’t see serious literary types deigning to pay attention to SF until the late 1970s — it was still down there with romance novels and other genre fiction.

    Oilman, science fiction certainly stagnated around then, but I have to say I haven’t been very impressed by the last few decades of fantasy, either. There are noble exceptions, but if I have to read one more tale of the Quest for the Magic McGuffin to save Lower Northeast Southern Central Earth from Lord Blorg the Cosmic Flatulator, I will put myself out of my misery by flinging myself off the first Dark Tower I encounter… 😉

    Reese, okay, I’ll have to read that as time permits.

    Ganv, that’s the kind of logic that’s been worked to death by people to claim that they can too have their shiny starships. I think it’s time, or past time, that somebody points out that the galactic emperor has no clothes. Just as commercial fusion power is theoretically possible but not going to happen in the real world, interstellar travel is out of our reach, and the sooner we get over it and start looking at the options we actually have, the better.

    Clay, Sagan is a far more complex and ambivalent figure than his recent hagiographers like to think. How many people remember that one of his earlier books, co-written with a Soviet astronomer, helped launch the fad for ancient-astronaut theories?

    Will, interesting. My take, for what it’s worth, is that the longing for the stars is a misplaced materialization of the longing for transcendence, which doesn’t involve spatial movement at all.

  21. Zak, it’s not the human imagination, it’s that rather small and parochial subset of the human imagination found among inhabitants of Western industrial civilization over the last few decades. Outside those limits, you get many more possibilities!

    Environmentalist, the thing you have to keep in mind about Musk is that he’s a subsidy junkie. His entire fortune has been built by slurping at the teat of government subsidies, and he’s making all the noise about space travel right now because he’s betting that he can get more government handouts that way. You’re right that the money would be much better used elsewhere, but I don’t blame Musk — he’s simply one more corporate welfare queen, reaching out for the nearest available quick buck.

    Erik, excellent! Yes, and we’ll be following out the implications of that point next month.

  22. If Ecosophia is anything like the Archdruid report, and it seems to be so far, it will present the reader with the best and most interesting history lessons ever. If you were never a fan of history lessons, as I wasn’t, now is your chance to get the lessons you always wished you could have had, laid out in compelling and understandable language. There is more relevant history on this continued blog than anywhere I have looked. Thanks again JMG for filling in all the details I was too distracted to log in at the time, and for carrying the torch for those of us who were children of the ’60s revelations of biological limits, ecological fragility, and of course, relative importance in the overall scheme of life on earth.

  23. I think this thread is an appropriate place to nominate another ecosophical saint, to go along with Aldo Leopold. Since she stands astride the worlds of classic science fiction, highbrow science fiction, fantasy and ecological thinking ,Ursula K LeGuin should qualify as one of the great thinkers and writers we must draw from in figuring out how to live in the world.

  24. Loved this essay. I was thinking this week about your previous ‘Eulogy to the space age’ essay as the memory of the excitement and euphoria that is still winding down.

    In my teens in the 80’s I was reading a lot of old Sci-fi books, notably loved the Dragonriders of Pern series. Other than getting to the planet in pre-history, space travel was never mentioned. Other novels like ‘Wave without a shore’ which explored concepts like solipsism were also fascinating to the teen mind of my youth. I also spent years trying to collect all of the Laser Books series of short teen novels, many of which are still excellent stories today. Even in this age with Amazon and e-bay I’m still missing about 4 books from my collection from the series. Laser books were published by Harlequin, as a brief foray away from the usual pulp romances, it didn’t last long. I even wrote Harlequin to see if they had back copies of the missing books from my collection, but they didn’t.

    These days video games allow for the exploration of imaginary galaxies. I played the space level of ‘Spore’ for years before tiring of it. More recently, the vast imaginary universe of ‘No Man’s Sky’, allows me to explore a universe of one Quintilian stars, and even with warp drive in the game, the user gets the feeling of how vast infinity really is, and how dangerous and expensive traveling to another planet really would be. You explore poisonous, radioactive atmospheres, with no help to be had if something goes wrong, ect. makes for an occasional pass-time, allowing my mind to consider all the things that will never be possible in real life.

  25. i guess its hard to accept that the universe is so adverse to life. one could imagine a universe where there is life everywhere. i am sure there is lots of life–but so widely separated they will probably never know of each others existence.

  26. The thing i liked about the movie ” Prometheus ” an ancient astronaut yarn if ever there was one , is that it doubled as a metaphor for an innner voyage aboard a jungian mandala flying saucer to meet the benie- elohim or sons of gods, the watchers of the old biblical frame . Now they are busy beings with logistical problems of their own as they go about seeding the universe with life to see what works and what doesnt, and they were none too impressed that a bunch of materialist scientists seeking immortality were trying to muscle thei way in on the engineering secrets of the universe , just as they were preparing an alien virus to wipe out humanity. They were even less impressed with our barbarous silicone facsmilies of their original creation – us.
    Stay tuned , this one could be more than fiction !
    Fascinating to me that the android assumed the romantic persona of a shelley or byron once it went rogue .

    The other one i like is the visceral remake of ” Westworld ” which is a depiction of julian jaynes famous work ” the origins of consciousness and the breakdown of the bicameral mind”, with the robots mimicing humanities progression from the garden of eden brain hemisphere to the ” other side ” and the quest to fuse the two halved of the apple . At times it evokes quite deep and stirring emotion in me , a profound sadness , that we may be not so unique , perhaps ? A carbon based organism under threat from silicone based organisms ?

  27. I think that interstellar travel for organic life is inextricably related to the idea of transhumanism (substitute your alien species for human, obviously). It’s likely that most alien terrestrial biology is equally ill-suited to space travel as humans, and it’s only through radical transformation that a species can prepare itself for an interstellar journey. I’d read that book.

    JMG, what about a life form that ends up evolving on a planet far better suited for renewable energies than our own? For instance, what if the elements necessary to make solar panels & batteries were far more common, the planet was smaller (easier to get into space, which would of course still be fossil fuel powered) and there was more sunlight (let’s say the temperatures are kept reasonable by a much smaller amount of ocean and lots of whitish deserts everywhere). It seems almost inevitable to me that the really successful technic civilizations would arise on planets better suited to renewable energy than our own.

    One of the many curious things about our planet, something which I rank up there with the tidally locked, circular orbiting moon whose size and orbital radius make it the same apparent size as our sun, is the fact that manned orbital/lunar spacetravel is just barely possible within the physical limits of rocketry, and robotic interplanetary exploration is similarly barely-possible. It could all be a coincidence, but I find it extremely weird.

  28. Oh, totally agreed, Eric! I’ve thought that for a long time. How many older works were The British Raj in Space? H. Beam Piper, frex. And the ghost of Rudyard Kipling waked upon the landscape.

  29. JMG – >>My take, for what it’s worth, is that the longing for the stars is a misplaced materialization of the longing for transcendence, which doesn’t involve spatial movement at all.<<

    Yes, agreed. I wonder if that yearning for the "Song of the Open Road" that you recently mentioned – that does indeed seem hardwired into us – is also an example of a such a misplaced materialization, to a degree anyway.

    Also, I'm thinking that the vision of the Old Solar System, with all its romantic exotica, still lives, albeit desperately, in these occasional news reports and YouTube vids about various life forms supposedly photographed on Mars – thus far I've seen a forest, a lizard, a snake, a spider, a Big Foot-like humanoid, and a woman in a dress.

    Could there be a type of tree growing on Mars? I know there's all kinds of solid explanations for the Mars images … but some of the images really do look like trees.

  30. One thing I noticed when trying to write science fiction short stories is that I find it much easier and more fun to write fantasy. I think part of that is probably that I was trying to write stories set on other planets at the same time as I was coming to terms with peak oil and its likely implications for industrial society. It is hard to write something when it starts to feel intellectually dishonest. At least nobody is going to mistake a story about elves for a probable future. Well, almost nobody anyway.

    I don’t actually know all that much about early science fiction. I grew up reading Heinlein because my parents had a lot of his works, but I’m not very familiar with anything earlier.

  31. Those bug-eyed aliens, for example, might spend some of their ample free time reading stories written during their own species’ brief period of industrial exuberance,

    “ample free time”? Is that really a feature of non-industrial society? I thought everybody had to work sunup to sundown just to survive.
    Still, I hope our science fiction survives. Especially the Orion’s Arm Universe Project, the best science fiction on the planet IMHO.

  32. “Environmentalist, the thing you have to keep in mind about Musk is that he’s a subsidy junkie”

    I do not think subsidies are a bad thing if they produce an affordable benefit that is widely available to the taxpaying public. The problem with Musk and other American corporate welfare queens is that they are simply taking taxpayer money while providing little or no benefit. In Musk’s case, he is producing “fancy” cars that only a few people can afford and will buy.

  33. Following Eric the Red, after our loss of frontiers, we have our loss of nature. How many suburban kids dream in video games rather than the wilds. My imagination lived outside, on the edge of civilization, in the vast desert on Nevada, or the mountains of Idaho. Back when kids didn’t get melanoma, West Nile, kidnapped, or beaten up by bullies. A blackness descended when I first read your views on space travel. I could do nothing but agree. It was like losing Santa Clause and the idea that America was special. So at the end of America’s Manifest Destiny, I guess we can grab a beer, open the Doritos, pop a few oxycontin and watch reruns of “The Aprentice”.
    After the old solar system we can venture to the old earth. Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Journey To The Center Of The Earth, The Time Machine, The Lost World, and the real classic, the Bible.

  34. @ JMG…

    I honestly think the entire quest thing was largely pushed by publicists – as tie-in to the gaming crowd and because it was successful. Money was always the driver for publicists, and when one hit big, they wanted to follow the formula. Terry Broks comes to mind as a chief formulator. I agree with you – there is quite a lot of Magic MacMuffin questing. But there are also a lot of others out there that don’t have a quest at all. Like scifi, you have to kiss a lot of frogs…

    But fantasy wasn’t even considered a viable genre in 1970 – it was a joke, and Tolkien was something to meditate on while buzzed.. That changed when scifi started to decline, and Clarke’s pointing finger was indicative. It’s why there is quite a lot of tweener fiction – that fits in no particular genre. But I’ll take fantasy over werewolves and vampires and zombies and Galactic Lensmen any day…

  35. I like to read Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novels as a form of escapist fiction (especially now that the Internet is at least 50% political hysteria most of the time). But when I read them, I know that “warp drive” is basically a form of magic travel such as you might find in a sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel where the protagonist has some kind of sorcerer’s stone that can transport him to “other realms”. After all, the readers of those fantasy novels don’t find them any less enjoyable on account of knowing that no such travel-stones exist, right?

  36. “Next week we will take a look at the sources of Science Fiction”. Let me guess. Theosophy? 😉

  37. David, thank you. I’m not sure where people lost track of the fact that history is all about those last five letters — “story” — and that it’s our story, the story of all of us, the story that tells us how we got where we are today and gives us our best shot at figuring out where to go from here.

    Clay, fair enough. I read an enormous amount of LeGuin back in the day, but her recent stuff has by and large left me cold. Still, an author deserves to be remembered for their best work, and hers is among the best in the genre.

    Workdove, good heavens! You’re the only person I’ve met, other than my spouse, who’s ever mentioned C.J. Cherryh’s Wave Without a Shore in my hearing — a crisp little novel that tackles the old claim “Man is the measure of all things” and neatly guts, filets, and grills it for the reader. It’s still one of my favorites. I also read the Pern books, as the series was back before 1980 or so. Laser Books — hmm. I just popped over to a search engine and found the series, and I recognize the covers but I don’t think I ever read any of them. Have you tried to fill out your collection?

    Dave, I don’t think the universe is adverse to life; I think it simply doesn’t care.

    Charlotte, I don’t do a lot of visual media, so missed both of those.

    Justin, it’s entirely possible that there are inhabited planets where space travel gets further than it has here, just as there may well be quite a few that never have the chance to manage the thing at all. Since we’re here, it’s purely a matter of wry interest…

    Will, the way we can tell that there probably aren’t trees growing on Mars is that the Martian atmosphere is in perfect chemical equilibrium. On a living planet like Earth, the atmosphere is full of reactive chemicals such as oxygen which are put there by living things as products of their life processes, and used by other living things; it’s far from equilibrium. If everything died on Earth, after a modest amount of time, the atmosphere would settle down to perfect chemical equilibrium, as all the reactive gases reacted and no new ones took their place. Since Mars has the atmospheric profile of a dead planet rather than a living one, it’s probably a safe bet you won’t find trees there.

    Corydalidae, I suspect that’s one of the reasons that science fiction has become so stereotyped of late — it’s increasingly hard for anybody to believe it. That’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the submissions to the After Oil anthologies!

  38. As the belief in Science, in a religious sense, faded in my heart increasingly Science Fiction began to feel like a simple sub-genera of fantasy; so treating the Old Solar System as a creative space like Middle-Earth sounds good to me.

    It brings to remarkable clarity the vividness with which our imagination fills in the captivating gaps in our knowledge, and how powerfully the imagination leads our lives.

  39. 🙂 I liked this article. Mind if I put my two cents in on interstellar travel? I think you very well could be right, our civilization isn’t going to the stars. Do we really have to send a human being to the stars why couldn’t we send a seed? A seed doesn’t need warp drive, seeds are some of the most preservable things here on Earth and perhaps with a little cryogenic assistance we could send some form of life from Earth to another world.

    The voyager probes probably have reached escape velocity from the solar system. Why couldn’t we send a seed of Earth’s genome, something like some archaea, into space to begin life on a barren world elsewhere in the galaxy? I feel that perhaps humanity has this duty to life here on Earth. You make a good argument why we can’t send complex lifeforms like humans; why not simple things like algae? Freeze them, shield them from radiation put them on a probe and send them; is it not that simple if you’re content to travel at 1/30,000th the speed of light? The list of problems and energy required is much less.

    There is something poetic I think about the big brain being needed for the Jellyfish to make a thousand light year trip. It might not be our future to be among the stars, it be though for the sea sponge, or algae. A couple hundred Voyager like probes sent out bearing nothing more than pollen. Even an economy as modest as North Korea’s can build a rocket capable of launching the Voyager probes. Could the idea of sending a single cell Algae to the stars have a place on this blog? It doesn’t bother me that life on Earth will end at some point or human civilization… all life dies. But life it is also the nature of life to seek to be able to replicate itself and then perhaps evolve. What couldn’t we send a simple form of Earth life out to the stars in hopes that in a billion years it might take a different evolutionary path.

  40. Tom, not at all. Most nonindustrial cultures have shorter work weeks than ours does. The average medieval peasant worked fewer hours, had more days off, and kept a larger share of the product of his labor than the average American employee does — and there’s a reason for that. The more complex a society is, the more labor has to go into maintaining it — and so in a nonindustrial society, there’s just much less work to be done.

    TheK, I won’t argue — but subsidies usually end up being gamed by corporate welfare queens of one kind or another. Other approaches might be less vulnerable to rich parasites…

    Dennis, actually, kids got kidnapped more often when I was a child, in the 1960s, than they do today, and I got the crap pounded out of me regularly by bullies in those same years. The media presents a stunningly skewed view of the past! As for where we go after the Old Solar System, stay tuned; we’ve got a long journey ahead of us.

    Oilman, it was right around 1970 that Lin Carter basically invented the fantasy genre, by gathering up a bunch of older novels that more or less fit it, and convincing Lester Del Rey at Ballantine Books to publish them as the “Adult Fantasy Series.” I’ve still got a lot of those old paperbacks! Once the presses started spinning, writers jumped on board, and away it went. If more of today’s would-be fantasy writers turned off the video games, stopped cribbing cliches from Tolkien, and sat down with classic writers of the genre — William Morris, ER Eddison, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith, and more — my guess is that I’d be reading a lot more of their work!

    Mister N., fair enough! That makes sense.

    Tidlosa, nope, that’s where fantasy came from. Stay tuned!

  41. Ray, delighted to hear it. These days I tend to think of the Old Solar System as space fantasy, for whatever that’s worth.

    Austin, okay, and what if your spaceship full of archaea sets down on a planet that already has life forms, and the result is that the native life forms all die? That kind of thing has happened far too often in the history of just this little planet, you know. I’d like to suggest that we’d be considerably smarter keeping our grubby hands to ourselves, and remembering for a change that we can also do harm, whether we intend it or not…

  42. Slow Train to Arcturus is a reasonable glance, I think, at how humanity might reach the stars, fairly recent. I’ll give you a hint: they don’t know they live on a spaceship. Plenty of handwavium, after all, being science fiction.

    Having David Starr, Space Ranger on the family shelves, and of course The Martian Chronicles, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, etc. I’m sure influenced me greatly. The first science fiction I ever read was Moreta, Dragonlady of Pern. Coming from near Craters of the Moon, I found Mars as he is, to be a gorgeous landscape, and my bedroom as a teen had posters from the rovers.

    Wave Without a Shore is Ms Cherryh’s blog’s name as well, by the way, and a more gracious hostess one could not ask for.

  43. @ JMG Are you at all familiar with the book “One Hundred Years of Science Fiction Illustration” by Anthony Frewin? I’m lucky enough to have found a copy at a library sale years ago, it’s packed with gorgeous illustrations from publications such as Wonder Stories, Astounding Stories, Amazing Stories, etc.

    @Bumblebee 9337 If you want to read some great history you should check out Fernand Braudels “Capitalism and Civilization, 15th to 18th C.

  44. Apologies, I sent my comment prematurely, I just wanted to add that Braudel’s work is highly detailed, filled with interesting numbers and charts, but also eminently readable and loaded with fascinating tidbits and historical anecdotes.

  45. Hi, John.

    Another spot-on posting. Many thanks. Why do we, as human beings, not just love the planet we have and tend it lovingly?

    In today’s Irish Times (the so-called ‘newspaper of record’ in Ireland, which, as far as I can tell, means the ‘newspaper for rich folks’) has the following headling and caption:

    ‘Making Life on Mars More Affordable: Colonising Mars requires overcoming significant challenges but human entrepreneurship knows no bounds’


    Keep up the good work,


  46. I think if you wanted to draft a sci-fi that really upsets modern people, you would write one in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, and is now in the business of destroying every vestige of the Union.

    Especially if you depicted it as a pleasant place where people are happier than they are today.

  47. The interesting point about the subject of science fiction versus reality is, that the experiences, which were made during the exploration of the Solar System about the hostile conditions of the planets in the Solar System in contrast to their depiction in the science fiction literature of an earlier time are now repeating themselves. As more and more extrasolar planets are discovered and more becomes known about them, it becomes increasingly clear that most of them seem to be even more hostile than the planets in the Solar System: Many of these planets are very hot, many are enshrouded by thick, massive volatile envelopes like Uranus or Neptune, and very few of the discovered planets are at a distance from their star and have a mass that makes them probably terrestrial, so that they might be habitable.

  48. @Austin,
    Your seed’s genome would arrive at its destination scrambled beyond recognition, by the hard radiation of interstellar space. Sorry.
    Besides, look around at our solar system. Any worlds here that could take a seed? No? Then perhaps you’re pushing your fantasy outwards, the same way sci-fi did at the death of the Old Solar System. Why do you expect to find better Out There?
    Oh, its existence is a statistical certainty — but not in our corner of the galaxy. And, again, see space radiation and scrambled genome. The further you go, the worse it gets.

  49. Related to what you’re saying here, I think programs like SETI reflect a largely unchallenged assumption that another species would favor or utilize radio signals. Humans like being able to broadcast messages from one end of the planet to the other, but why assume another species would do this? We might imagine an intelligent species of the aquatic variety using something like sonar underwater. Or maybe they just prefer to go talk to their counterpart “face-to-face” (if they even have faces). Or maybe they have some symbiotic relationship with another species that act as “long-range messengers”. Instead of looking for radio signals from alien species, maybe we could invest those resources into understanding the language of whales. Maybe whales have an oral literature stretching back beyond the last ice age?

  50. You can blame the glut of Quest novels on a popularization of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey that all but gave you a script outline for such, and said flat-out that this was THE root of all storytelling. TO give them credit, a number of women promptly jumped in with “That’s not OUR story!” The best of which in fiction is Bujold’s Paladin of Souls, in which her middle-aged heroine, just recovered from a prolonged clinical depression, notes that she is not a boy going out to seek his fortune, but a widowed failure in all respects, trying to escape those who would keep her wrapped in silken padding for her own good, out of love. With some pointed remarks on how such caretakers are the hardest to escape.

    And of course the Campbell Script gave rise to a lot of schlock on the level of a paint-by-numbers TV space opera.series.

  51. I’ve been rereading the book “Apollo 13”. It provides an outstanding example of just how alien and unforgiving an environment space is. A 363 foot tall rocket, consisting of some millions of parts, had one thermostat rated for 28V instead of 56V. This caused an explosion and the failure of the original mission; it required a week’s effort by an army of geniuses and a succession of near-miracles to bring the crew back alive. Historically, 1 in 25 United States manned space missions end in loss of life, and the Soviets, especially in the early days, did far worse. I’m all for sending robot probes around the solar system; there’s some pretty cool stuff out there. But no DNA-based life form is going to last any significant length of time outside our radiation-shielded planet.

  52. JMG. Thank you. It’s nice to be in agreement with such an august personage as yourself!

    I work at [Fortune 500 Computer Company] surrounded by we-are-fated-to-bestride-the-stars people. Whenever we discuss such things (which is pretty often) my response is always some form of, “Well, maybe they’ve never come here because they all did exactly what we are doing right now – burnt through their resource base before they ever achieved interstellar flight.”

    Their reaction is always either hostility or (more frequently) a brief pause while they look at the old guy with pity and then go on with the conversation while I turn away and go back to “work”. 🙂

    Again, Thanks…

  53. I remember seeing a headlines a while back on some Internet rag that ran something like, “How do we prevent racism and sexism on Martian colonies?” At the time, I simply laughed at the naivete of the question, assuming as it does that either long-term Martian colonies or the prevention of bigotry could actually be accomplished, but now I wonder if it doesn’t hint at an underlying fantasy lurking behind the dream of space colonization: a chance to start over.

    In the 90’s there was a TV show called Earth 2, which involved a group of people starting an unauthorized colony on the first earth-like planet to be found in space. The premise was that the real Earth was overpopulated and children growing up on space stations were suffering from crippling diseases.

    Anyway, stuff happens and there was an episode where the native people give one of the main characters a glimpse into the future: the Earth government comes in and takes over, millions of people are sent to the new world, and situation on Earth simply repeats itself. The vision’s recipient is, of course, horrified.

    In hindsight, that was an uncharacteristic amount of perspective for a sci-fi series (although, IIRC, the thrust was that the colonists should adopt the ways of the native species, so it was kind of a “noble savage” fantasy). But now it seems like the vision was meant to horrify the viewer as well as the character, because that possibility was a betrayal of everything we hoped for “out there.”

    Then again, there’s also plenty of sci-fi that portrays life “out there” as basically a higher-tech extension of life down here.

  54. JMG, have you tried “A Throne of Bones”, by Vox Day, fantasy genre? If not, I’d recommend it.

  55. Two comments if I may, one on the topic of creative writing, and one a belated thought with respect to last week’s topic on wholeness.

    I’ve been reading what amounts to a conglomerated biographical work on the Inklings (Tolkien, Lewis, Barfield, Owens), which is the first time I’ve really looked into the background and motivation of an author or group thereof. Like others, I have daydreamed about writing and have dabbled here and there, but often struggled with feelings of being unoriginal, uninspired, not good enough etc. Reading about these legendary authors has been a very freeing experience in many of those regards. Each of them without exception failed numerous times, struggled with what we commonly call “writer’s block”, and most illuminating to me was the way each of them drew direct and blatant inspiration from their own personal lives. Many of the characters and plots of their best works are clear reflections of the author’s families and circumstances. Well, if it’s good enough for them, then dangit it’s good enough for me. (This is not a promise that I will submit anything for the latest contest mind you).

    On wholeness, over the weekend I was tasked with taking the ol’ riding mower out back of our property, which had gone uncut for roughly a month. That turned out to be enough time for the area to become a de facto meadow, with some similarities to the meadow described in the chapter discussed last week. As I mowed, I was more than usually aware of the disruption I was causing to all forms of life that had taken up residence, not least the grasses, mushrooms and clovers. I counted no fewer than three species of frog leaping to safety, saved a praying mantis from the blade, and unleashed several clouds of flies, gnats and butterflies. Needless to say by the end of the work, I had resolved in future to only trim the tops of the grasses back where we otherwise have no present use for the space, and let those who do have a use for it take as much advantage as practicable.

  56. Following up on my last comment, because I had some more thoughts:

    Of course I get that “starting over” is an obvious appeal of interplanetary sci-fi. But I think that sci-fi, coupled with the space program, provided an almost tangible promise that this would happen. And, in a sense, our belief in that promise has made us enablers, like the stereotypical wife who keeps believing her drunk/cheating/abusive/lazy (pick any combination you like) husband’s promises that things are going to change soon and he’ll give her a better life.

    That’s why Elon Musk can get so much subsidies for his crazy ideas: he’s the best hope we have of the dreams being fulfilled. His public image is that of real-life Tony Stark minus the Iron Man suit, pioneering technologies that make everyone’s life better. That everything Musk is promising is a rehash of things that never got off the ground decades ago, and the few things he’s delivered on — like electric cars — are still largely toys for the super-rich… well, I think everybody realizes this, but a lot of people push the thought away and double-down on their hopes/enabling.

  57. Booklover, the extrasolar planets found so far aren’t a random sample of what’s out there. Larger planets and closer planets are the easiest ones to find with current methods. As methodology improves, they are finding more smaller planets that are farther away from their star, sometimes in solar systems where the big close-in planets had already been found.

    So apart from having learned that some planets are really wildly weird by solar system standards, I don’t think you can say much about what the ‘average’ extrasolar planet is like.

  58. JMG: “Mars has the atmospheric profile of a dead planet rather than a living one”

    Maybe, but the soil has the profile of a living planet. One of the landers in the 1970s had four experiments on board to test for signs of past or present life in the soil. Two of the more specific tests were positive, including one that should have been positive only if something in the soil, taken into the lander and warmed up, started actively metabolizing. NASA was hours away from a major announcement when they abruptly scuttled it and silenced the scientist in charge of that experiment – I believe because they knew how the Christianists of the day would react. The excuse was that an assay looking for organic chemicals in the soil was negative. However, that assay has also been shown to give negative results in harsh deserts right here in North America. In the intervening 40+ years, they have sent or attempted to send multiple landers to Mars and have strictly avoided ever including any equipment that could detect life in the soil. If Mars still has the sort of life seen in Martian meteorites, they really don’t want to know, or have to admit it.

  59. I second using, I have found so many hard to find books on there! That’s how I was able to complete my unabridged set of Toynbee’s A Study of History.

    What would you suggest from ER Eddison? I have been trying to take your advice and read some of the classics of the genre, and hadn’t heard of him. The Worm Ouroboros looks interesting. I have also been reading stories from Poul Anderson and M. John Harrison, among others, to see what else is out there with regards to stories set in the future that don’t involve metastasizing across the universe.

    I have a series of stories in mind that take place far in the future, I am thinking at least half a million years, and I think it would be interesting to play with certain ideas on how humanity may be living at that time on Earth, and who or what they may have to contend with. Reading some of the more original works of science fiction and fantasy from the past seems like a good way of trying to avoid some of the more tired cliches, and get a sense of what is possible to do with storytelling that makes a fun and interesting read. Now, if I would just sit down and start writing the darn thing…

    -Dan Mollo

  60. “Human beings can’t live in space any more than fish can dance on mountaintops. The radiation, the long-term effects of weightlessness, a whole flurry of other things—a few years, maybe a decade at most, and a human body in space simply shuts down. There are intelligent beings who live in space, but their biochemistry isn’t anything like yours …. No, the point of the talk about space colonies is to encourage people to look forward to the thought of living in a lifeless, artificial environment, supported by machines rather than the cycles of nature. It’s the same reason they’ve been pushing all those government regulations to keep parents from letting their children play outside. As the Earth’s surface becomes uninhabitable, they plan to retreat to shelters deep underground, where they think they can finally achieve their utopia of perfect reason.”
    -John Michael Greer, “The Weird of Hali: Innsmouth”

  61. If nuclear weapons detonated our planet, it would take just over four years before the sight of the explosion reached the not-too-distant star Proxima Centauri. Studying a single star is like reading an old letter that floated across the sea to reach you:

    Dear You,
    Enjoy this vision of myself from 6.24 years ago. This is your nightly reminder of the epic breadth of space. Distances are great. Time is inconceivably massive. The short-lived mistakes of your species are but a blip in space time. There will be a new chapter — a better read — if not on your planet, then in some other corner of the universe. Cheer up.

    -Maya Silver, “The Dark Humanities. Cosmic Comfort in the Anthropocene”

  62. I am a great fan of SF, mostly short stories, but I have never much been into the space exploration type. There is another whole lot of writing about time travel and parallel universes. One of my favourite stories (‘Nightfall’ I think, sorry I can’t remember who wrote it) is about a planet which is exactly the same as the 1950s-ish setting of the author, but it has about five suns. Consequently, the inhabitants have no experience of darkness. The story takes place just before the once-in-umpteen-thousand-year occurrence of all the suns being set and the civilization experiencing night.
    In other words, it is not about space travel, and the alien planet is nothing more than a fictional device to explore a ‘what if?’ idea. The best SF is about these what-ifs?, which can be perfectly and succinctly expressed in a short story. Another favourite is Asimov’s ‘The Ugly Little Boy’ (or something like that), about time-travel technology that pulls objects from the distant past into the present, then it pulls a Neanderthal child into the lab.

    As an aside, I didn’t get the chance to comment on last month’s discussion of astrology. I have been a life-long student of astrology, and commented on the old blog about ten years ago about it. I am absolutely delighted JMG that you are studying it. However I would just like to point out that at the same time Pluto was demoted to a minor or dwarf planet, Ceres the asteroid was promoted to the same status of minor planet. I prefer my astrology to keep Pluto and also add Ceres. For those who are interested, the definition is that a planet must have enough mass for its gravity to pull itself into a roughly spherical shape, and that it must orbit the sun rather than another planet.
    Just one more thing, there definitely is at least one more sizeable minor planet (or dwarf planet) beyond Pluto. Eris is thought to be bigger by mass, but smaller by volume. That said, I wouldn’t include anything beyond Pluto in my astrology as it is all too slow moving.
    The TNOs (trans-Neptunian objects) might be included in some good fiction though, along with the asteroids and the centaurs.

  63. Whatever drive this iteration of the species may have towards the stars, it strikes me that at some point in the 20th century the whole space endeavor was irrevocably tainted by the war & communication usages, placed in tech and economic limitation perspective by the shuttle explosion, and downgraded culturally from fluffy Jetsons to murderous Aliens. All that Stars Wars seems to say is that post space conquest, these human creatures are just going to repeat fracking the universe and each other over exactly the same stupid issues. In the Star Trek vision, they get to spout human moral philosophy to (and occasionally have sex with) aliens. Great.

    Tellingly, the narrative over the past decades as offered by the tech/progressive/Mars escapist faction is just that – escape the earth, for it is untenable because… (insert favorite reason here). It all seems to be imbued with a peculiar sense of self-loathing that I find hard to understand, maybe borne out of an infantile refusal to accept responsibility of any kind; it’s liking soiling your bed and deciding the best course is to move town – clean it up you brat. With complete disregard for logic, physics, biology, tech and financial limitations, they posit it as a race against time and that the need to escape earth is a given, and the sooner the better, but it appears all they’re trying to escape is their shadow; it’s the hysterical wing of the religion.

    As a child of the mid sixties, I too was fascinated by space and gobbled all TV, film, book, and comics interpretations and stories, until a point in my late teens when I happened to be watching a random nature program that for some bizarre reason chose to juxtapose images of the living earth with those of the seemingly dead and barren planets around us, all surrounded by what seems to be a big nothing. I remember the sense of unease I felt to this day, and I just stopped caring. It took me a while to comprehend that what I felt I was rejecting was the whole escape drive, this denigration of the earth. It’s more than a strange evolutionary/survival strategy to pursue even.

  64. JMG, what about UFO-based claims, some of which seem quite credible. Perhaps this topic merits a separate essay? (Or if you’ve already written on on this topic, I’d love to read it.)

  65. JMG,

    On the subject of space stories (it does take place in a spacecraft after all), have you ever read Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson? Casting aside his cosmology and Lokian obstacles (not exactly an easy read), it’s essentially a space road trip novel and a ripping yarn about some creatures on some earth planet for good measure.

    Any recommendations for successful SF written from a non-human/alien perspective?

  66. Dennis Mitchell wrote

    After the old solar system we can venture to the old earth. Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, Journey To The Center Of The Earth, The Time Machine, The Lost World, and the real classic, the Bible.

    Yes! Jules Verne, H.G Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle were among my favorite authors when I was a kid. It also strikes me that perhaps we could use a rekindled interest in retro science fiction to promote the sort of retro future that John Michael has been advocating, including dusting off technologies and inventions from that era, from windjammers and dirigibles to Augustin Mouchot’s solar powered steam engines, some of which remained in service into the 1960’s. Steampunk and other genres of retro sci-fi have already become popular among many young people, so there is some potential there.

    As an amusing anecdote, one of my best friends in high school was a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, especially his John Carter of Mars stories. I remember one day we were riding the bus home and a few of the more fundamentalist Christian students were giving him grief over his choice of reading material. My friend replied “the stuff I read is no more unbelievable than that great work of science fiction known as the Bible, but you guys actually believe it’s true!”

  67. @ Dusk Shine & Austin…

    If Mars has no life, then maybe a reasonable objective to occupy all the techno-wizards would be to modify organisms to live there, and just send them on their way…if Mars is dead anyway, what would be the issue with that?

    Just a thought…

    @ JMG…

    How on Earth did those old paperbacks survive? I had many from the late 60’s mid 70’s, and their glue didn’t make it and the acid in the paper led to page dissolution. I mean, they LOOKED cool sitting on a shelf, but take one down and crack it open, well, it literally cracked the glue in the spine of the books…

  68. @ Tom Mazanac…

    IF (note the big if) you are growing your own food, practicing a side trade to get cash, then your life isn’t anywhere near as full as today. What? Are you going to watch the plants grow? Even weeds have to germinate and root some before you can pull them.

    Livestock, dairy, is the most intensive – but only if you are doing it to sell to other people. Making butter takes an afternoon. Cheese takes a couple days spread out. Wine takes a day and then a lot of waiting. Planting takes a day, prepping takes a few. Bread takes 10 minutes to throw together, then wait for it to rise and bake at will. Grinding flour is done elsewhere. Watering may be the most egregious thing, but if you can connive a ram pump or a windmill – not so much.

    I can easily see where there is a lot of time available once the farm is singing along – if it is mainly for your own consumption.

  69. Austin,

    There is a very good reason why NASA has taken great pains to ensure something like that doesn’t happen by accident and for the very reasons Greer gives. All of the US space probes sent into orbit around Jupiter and Saturn have been deliberately deorbited into the atmospheres of those two planets at the end of their missions to avoid the possibility of a world like Titan, Ganymede, Io or Enceladus being contaminated by bacteria or other microbes from Earth. The Mars landers have been carefully sterilized before launch for the same reason.

    We can see a number of historical examples of how the reckless spread of lifeforms from one environment to another can have catastrophic consequences. The most famous and horrifying example is the mass die-offs that occurred among Native Americans after First Contact with European explorers and settlers. Recent scientific research suggests that between 80-95 percent of all Native Americans living in the New World at the time died off within a century of First Contact and most of those deaths were due to epidemic diseases the natives had never been exposed to before and had no defense against.

  70. Boysmom, Moreta was the first Pern book I didn’t read! As for Ms. Cherryh, I’m not in the least surprised — there’s a graciousness to her fiction that I’d assumed from the get-go was a reflection of her personality.

    Jr, nope. I may see if I can find a copy, though.

    Brian, beats me. It seems like an obvious option…

    Engleberg, so noted!

    Phil, no doubt, but that doesn’t interest me as a story.

    Booklover, true enough. One of the things humans are still having trouble grasping is that planets are very diverse, and the kind we can live on are therefore very rare…

    Jeffrey, yep. The notion seems to be that every other intelligent species must be Just Like Us — which is probably the least likely thing I can think of.

    Patricia, oh, granted — and I never thought much of Campbell, either.

    RPC, yep — and the Saturn V/Apollo system was astonishingly simple compared to the kind of thing that we do now, to say nothing of the complexity we’d need on a Mars trip. Not gonna happen.

    Bobo, you’re challenging their religion, of course they’re going to get flustered. 😉

    James, remember that space is simply a secularized version of heaven. Of course people are busy convincing themselves that everything will be rainbows and (alien) roses there!

  71. “We’re not going to the stars.”

    Crap. I’ve been hoping a goodly portion would do just that, so that the rest of us can stay here in peace.

    My SF journey began when I discovered some old Andre Norton books in the school library, and I was an obsessive consumer of both SF and fantasy for years after. Her books were of course mostly about alienated young people discovering that they really different in some good way, placed in a mixture of SF and fantasy settings often covered with ruins of some fantastic past. Still the discovery process was exciting.

    I had not experienced that feeling for a long time, until researching our own very ancient past and learning that there is very much more to it than is accepted by mainstream science. There is so much that is unknown, and perhaps unknowable now, but it is at least as exciting as anything I read back in the day.

  72. Bruno, I’ll put it on the look-at list. Thanks!

    MSweet, the Inklings are particularly good for inspiration in that none of them were full-time writers — all of ’em held down full time day jobs and wrote their works in their limited spare time. Please do consider writing a story for the contest, btw!

    James, bingo. Going to the stars is the thing we use as an excuse for not changing our lives here and now, like the never-gonna-happen new job or the new relationship or the weight loss that people use to postpone change in their personal lives.

    Dewey, no, it has soil that’s chemically reactive. The most recent probes have figured out why — there are perchlorates and a stew of other chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide in the Martian soil. Not only is that not life, it pretty much precludes the possibility of life.

    Dan, Eddison is definitely a sip-at-a-time sort of brew! The Worm Ouroboros is the one to start with, but read it a chapter at a time, or even less, or you’ll bog down.

    Jesus, were you going to make a comment of your own, or just repeat other people’s ideas?

    Christine, yes, it’s “Nightfall,” and it’s another Asimov story. I like to quote it at rationalist skeptics, because the story revolves around the fact that the despised Cultists really do know something very, very important, and the scientists who dismiss them out of hand because the Cultists use the language of mythology are making a mistake that dooms civilization on their world. As for Pluto and Ceres, if you find them useful, by all means! Ceres was also considered a planet between 1800 and roughly 1850, and in terms of mundane astrology, certainly, it acted like a planet during those years — just as Pluto acted like a planet during its time in the spotlight. I expect the astrology of the Kuiper Belt objects to become a fascinating specialty, the way the astrology of the asteroids is today.

    Revelin, exactly. Exactly!

    Greg, oddly enough, I’ve written a book about that, which managed to offend both sides of the debate. The very short form? It’s a complex phenomenon, but the core of it was manufactured by US Air Force intelligence as disinformation to obscure classified tests — high-altitude balloons in the 1940s, spyplanes in the 1950s and 1960s, early spy satellites after that, then stealth aircraft — remember when all of a sudden “black triangle” UFOs were all over the place? That happened when the first experimental stealth planes were doing test flights. The CIA’s even admitted that they rigged things with Project Blue Book to label things as “unknown” that they knew perfectly well were spyplane flights. But nobody wants to hear that…

    Revelin, Gurdjieff generally isn’t my cup of tea, but Beelzebub’s been on my to-read list for a long time. As for books from an alien perspective, I like C.J. Cherryh’s books for that reason among others.

    Oilman, good question; mine are still in readable condition. It may be a difference in local climate and environmental issues.

    Twilight, good. Very good. You’re halfway there.. 😉

  73. Hi JMG,

    I was a total Trekkie when I was a teenager; I remember desperately wanting to be beamed up to the starship Enterprise, no doubt to escape the sheer boredom of my middle class suburban upbringing.

    Humanity by and large seems to suck pretty badly at dealing with limits – limits on time, relationships, energy, and that big bad baddie of a limit, Death. In fact, our main strategy for dealing with limits seems to be to avoid thinking about them entirely. Heaven seductively offered us a way out of the limits. And when technology and progress took over for God, heading for space stepped right in as the next big escapist fantasy. I guess it’s the logical outcome of a bonanza of fossil fuels applied to the internal combustion engine. We believed we had this limitless, infinite supply of energy, and ergo, limits need no longer apply.

    But of course it just ain’t so, and sticking our collective head in the sand isn’t going to change the fact that here on Earth, we are in fact constrained by many limits. It’s just the nature of our particular situation; all part of the wholeness of our existence. We don’t get to have the ‘life’ part without the price tag of the limitations.

    A German proverb written in the front of my copy of the Tao Te Ching: “What is the use of running when we are not on the right way?”

    Those limits are sure going to rear their ugly heads again once the fuel really starts to run low…but I guess we’ll find new ways to try to avoid dealing with them. And probably re-use some of those old ways too.

  74. Dan Mollo: I read all of ER Edison shortly after I finished LOTR in late middle school. All four are effectively one intertwined tale, although the Worm Ouroboros that eateth his own tale stands somewhat alone. I can still recall : “ten, eleven, twelf I see, swordplay, sinews, and grammarie” of three successive kings of Witchland; and that one Demon counted himself undermatched against a dozen Witches.
    Maybe it was my impressionable age, but I enjoyed it then, and would again now if I can dig up the copies.

  75. “I work at [Fortune 500 Computer Company] surrounded by we-are-fated-to-bestride-the-stars people.”


    I’m in a similar situation here down under. Only I am just starting to transition into the camp of the ‘old farts’. The younger ones of us seem to be more sold to the ‘technology will solve all the problems’ myth but even the oldest tech heads here are all about going to the stars. One of our most open minded guys – he is 58 now – told me once to never ever say that ‘there is something impossible for technology to solve’. I am gearing up to mention perpetuum mobile in one of our next conversations. :-}

  76. @Revelin

    re: SF written from a non-human/alien perspective

    First off, check out Clifford Simak’s set of stories, ‘The City’. If memory suggests that it was a set of stories that were published as a novel, but it is quite interesting.

    As well, there was an interesting series of books written by Rebecca Ore in the late 1980s that might serve. The titles are, in sequence: ‘Becoming Alien’; ‘Being Alien’; and ‘Human to Human’. I read these every now and again.


  77. When my daughter was nine I gave her a copy of Neil Gaiman’s “Fortunately the Milk”.The narrator meets a time-travelling, balloon-piloting dinosaur, and later they encounter dinosaur galactic police. The dinosaur is reassured. “Yes, that is where dinosaurs went,” she says (I quote from memory). “We went to the stars.”

  78. Like Patricia I lived the decades when rockets really first took off. That period was actually about putting very big bombs on relatively inaccurate missiles, but became space missions to beat the Russians. However, despite that stuff, there was interesting futuristic writing around.. Some of it was mainstream(ish) by the early 1960s and I guess I only read them because they came to my attention that way. I junked my extensive collection of SF in 1975. It was all books. I never did the magazines. I remember Wells, Huxley, Stapledon, Bradbury, whose books were written either before I was born or was old enough to read them, Not to forget though other well known authors, lesser if more prolific lights like Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and the one-off Fred Hoyle, British Astronomer Royal.

    America had no frontier left by the 1920s, though the meme lives on.Surprisingly perhaps most Americans seem to have coped with actually abandoning the idea of Space Travel What is really going to make a difference in my opinion is when the mass ownership of cars recedes into the past. That is going to go down badly, even here in Britain

    Phil H

  79. Corydalidae, my comment about solar-system-like planetary systems has to do with the fact that the Kepler Mission did discover relatively few planets with Earth-like orbital times, although it stared for three-to-four years at the same patch of stars. There are planetary systems somewhat like the Solar Sytem, like the two Jovian planets around 47 Ursae Majoris. But the radial velocity measurements of stars have been done for long enough that planets like Jupiter and Saturn or their traces should already have been discovered. So far, the picture is, that planetary systems like the Solar System are only a relatively small subset of planetary systems, whereas tightly packed planetary systems are fairly common. Still, further research is needed to clarify this picture.

  80. I hope I’m not hijacking your comments, but I’m reminded of an article “Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream of a Silicon Reich” –

    While the article more discusses Silicon Valley types and their libertarian political bent, hinted at is that it is a bunch of guys with extra millions that never grew up emotionally, pushing their techno-visions on the rest of us. The last few paragraphs of the article say that more directly than elsewhere in the article.

    The way I like to put it, our future is being dreamed up by men with the emotional age of 12 year old boys that read too many bad sci-fi comic books, and will do all in their power make that future happen (and make $$ off it). This includes throwing micro-controllers at everything imaginable (pet peeve of mine) to check your calls, heart rate, emails, like Buck Rogers, no matter what the social/environmental cost, like say, the nasty pollution from manufacturing them. (One of the few article to talk about this side of electronics manufacturing: But don’t worry, they’re all concerned about the environment because they aspire to buy an electric cars and touch screens devices to monitor power usage.

    An automotive journalist, in talking about Elon Musk, said he isn’t selling cars, he’s selling futurism. I think that is a good lens to view this stuff through, but I’d put it as selling an anachronistic or outdated version of the future. This futurism is a religion, as you’ve pointed out, and that explains the spittle that comes from the Musk crowd when he is criticized, or those of similar ilk are criticized.

    Sorry for the rant.

  81. I’m afraid I often find myself taking contrarian views. Perhaps this is the wrong venue, but I just want to share that I have virtually zero (possibly sub-zero) interest in Science Fiction. The closest I get is enjoying time travel fiction, mostly in old British children’s books, although a more recent book of that genre which I found extremely well done is The Iron Bridge, by David Morse–everyone I have loaned it to has found it fascinating too. But even those don’t really qualify as Science Fiction, as they are more exploration of history, or at most, alternate visions of history. But alien worlds? Alien beings? Lots of violence and ‘adventures’ in alien realms?Just not interested. There’s so much of interest to me in the world we have right here, past, and present, that I don’t see the point in wasting my time on that stuff. It bores me. There, rant completed!

  82. I went through a phase in my teen years in the 70s when I devoured every science fiction book I could find, and Andre Norton was definitely a favourite. It wasn’t the alien landscapes or the gizmo science of it all that interested me so much, but the very familiar humans placed in these settings, and the question implicit in each story: What happens when you place a human in *this* setting?

    Mostly, nothing impressive at all. Just the gamut of humans doing human things, good and bad, and I have mostly forgotten what I read. A few stories have stayed with me, however, especially two which resonated at such depth I’m sure they had a big influence on my thinking. I hope someone here can identify them because I have forgotten the title and the author of both short stories.

    The first was of humans arriving on a planet inhabited by aliens so utterly different from us that there was absolutely no way to communicate with them, though both sides were willing to try. The aliens, if I recalled correctly, communicated telepathically, but the humans couldn’t take it at all and could not be near them without suffering damage. (Very sketchy memory on my part.) The solution was to exchange babies, exposing each one, while still malleable, to the alien presence, so that they could both grow into the necessary beings that could bridge the two races. The narrator just discovers this project at the end of the story, so we are not told whether this was successful.

    The other story was of a survivor spaceship that fled a destroyed earth, taking with them the best that they could of humanity’s heritage such as paintings by the masters, etc. The paintings were hung in the officers’ lounge, where special light was needed to see them as they had appeared on earth, because this new planet, a very poor substitute for earth and a terrible fate for the survivors, had weird light that caused everything to look ugly, colourless, dark, and depressing, including the earth’s great paintings.

    Everyone had to take pills to survive living there, but there were children born that no amount of tinkering with pills could make well and were very sickly as a result. One young man in particular, a sickly, was refused the right to marry because only those who were healthy could reproduce. Not able to work, he was a painter, but to all observers, his paintings were horrible. He gifted one to his doctor, who took it into the officers’ lounge and was stunned to discover that in the earth’s light, the painting was beautiful. In short, some of the children had mutated and adapted to the new world, which they saw as a beautiful, fresh, new world. They were taken off the pills, which is what was making them sick, and encouraged to produce children of their own. The old survivors of earth would die out, and the new, mutated human would live in a world as beautiful to them as earth had been to the earthlings.

    In both stories, I took the message that the way we see our world is not set in stone. That it was possible to experience our lives in ways that were alien to other humans. And in my very unhappy childhood and hellish teenage years, I loved the thought that humans could be something other than what we believed ourselves to be, that we could see the world differently, and that we had the capability inherent in us to break out of the confines of what to all appearances was our set reality.

  83. Stefania, it’s not humans in general, just the subset of humans who happen to live in modern industrial societies. People in a lot of other cultures throughout history have gotten very comfortable with limits — for that matter, talk to some Amish people sometime about that! I figure once we get over the inevitable temper tantrum — which admittedly may take quite a while — we’ll get a clue, too.

    Daddy, a fun story!

    Phil, I grew up during those years — I was seven when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon, and yes, I remember exactly where I was when that happened!

    Dennis, not off topic at all. I’m remembering R.A. Lafferty’s story “Eurema’s Dam,” which makes the point that it’s not necessity that’s the mother of invention — it’s social awkwardness and the inability to do simple things without help. (And I say this as a socially awkward guy with Aspergers syndrome who needs help to do some very simple things…)

    Lydia, works for me. Most forms of literature set in the world we actually inhabit bore me to tears, so I can understand by analogy. One thing, though — time travel stories are science fiction (or fantasy), and there’s also a lot of SF that deals with alternate history and the like, so you may have an overly narrow sense of the genre.

  84. Tangentially related to this post…my elder brother died a few years ago. Among other things, he left behind boxes of SF magazines from the 50s/60s. My younger brother tried to get rid of them on ebay – no luck even for free plus shipping. Anybody interested? They’re in a storage unit in Worcester, MA, so I could deliver them to Providence pretty easily (hint hint).

  85. I remember a pretty heated argument I had in a pub with a drinking acquaintance a couple of years ago. We were arguing about whether mankind would go to Mars, which he was convinced would happen, and I was convinced wouldn’t. In every other respect he was a person whose views were reasonable and sensible, which is probably why the argument got so bad so quickly.

    Anyway, there was a third drinking acquaintance who stayed silent throughout the discussion, and who I presumed by his silence tacitly agreed with me. The person who I was arguing with eventually indicated that he’d had enough of arguing, and drank up and left. Then, to my amazement, the guy who had remained silent looked at me in disgust, and also drank up and left. Presumably to join the first guy.

    I then had the weird feeling of being a total oddball whose extreme views offended even the most mild mannered people..

  86. JMG, thanks so much for letting me know about your book making the case that UFOs are secret military craft rather than ET spaceships. Will add the book to my library. I’d like to explore one other possibility. If there is anything to remote viewing, then the human consciousness is able to transcend time and space. On this supposition, it may be reasonable to suppose that at least a few ET’s might have discovered and mastered remote viewing as well. In that case, maybe we could make contact with at least some ET’s (past civilizations as well as present, since we’re transcending time) and exchange ideas….maybe civilization-saving ones. It would seem to be a safe way to communicate–no danger from contaminating each other with our bugs, no need to worry about invasion, etc. The only “hazard” is that our minds may be stretched in unexpected ways, with unexpected consequences.

  87. I have come here via Kunstler and look forward to reading through what seems to be a very interesting site.
    Did I miss mention of Iain M Banks – sci-fi distilled to AIs wondering how best to manage soft machines, with minimal harm.

  88. The cutting edge of Progress wants to do things weirder and dumber even than I (not entirely detached from them) was expecting: (the comments do already include *plenty* of criticism). It’s funny that the people favorable right now did manage to be critical of state actors acting similarly: .

  89. I had not heard that perchlorate could simulate metabolism; maybe NASA was right to cancel their news conference back then. Still, the presence of perchlorate only says that our kind of life couldn’t live in that soil, not that no kind of life could exist. There are Martian meteorites that sure look like they contain traces of fossil bacteria.

  90. From the afterword to SKYROAD, volume 2 of Ann Tonsor Zeddies’ 2-volume novel, published 1992: “She wanted to be a cowboy, but decided to be a writer instead when she found that the frontier had moved off the planet.”

    It is, BTW, an excellent war novel in its own right. Either she had served, or someone very close to her has. “Into space” is a tiny post-climax coda, and galactic empires and heroes in shiny spandex and space ships are totally absent. Dusty fatigues worn into rags, they’ve got plenty of.

  91. Judging by the number of comments that say the star travel meme is alive and well, I had better revise my opinion that America has coped with abandoning the manned space program.

    JMG, I was 28 when Armstrong stepped out. I thought I could remember where I was when I watched the first American in space, Alan Shepard, as he was fired sub-orbital 300 miles down the range in a modified bomb capsule, but when I looked at the date just now, found I was wrong. Ah well … time passes and the ‘right stuff’ are mostly dead. I rate my own chances of seeing a Chinese mission land on the moon as very low indeed.
    Phil H

  92. Who was the first author of the first science fiction story? I suspect the first science fiction story penned came at a time when the earth was in pristine condition, as an an incubator for creative and imaginary ventures.

  93. “You’re halfway there.. ”

    LOL, now I’m intrigued! I’m guessing you’re referring to the other journey within, and if so that is also exciting and interesting. I have a long way to go in that regard.

    Somehow I cannot shake the idea that the investigation of our deep past, where we came from, what once existed and the events that led to it’s demise are related to my attempts to understand my inner self (soul, spirit, will, etc). I’ve been contemplating that, as there’s no real reason they should be connected, and it’s probably just me wanting to relate two things I’m interested in – but it’s my intuition so I’m going with it.

    And that might not have been what you meant at all!

  94. Speaking of Carl Sagan and the ancient astronaut hypothesis, I remember that book he co-authored with Shklovski. The title was Intelligent Life in the Universe. In fact, Sagan at one point suggested in all seriousness that the Sumerian fish-god Oannes might have been an alien wearing a diving suit and that we should look for clues of possible alien visitors by studying ancient myths and legends.

    So now we know where Zechariah Sitchin came up with the idea for those gawd-awful books about Nibiru, which proved nothing except that it’s possible to turn ancient mythology into bad science fiction. Lots of others have trodden that well worn path as well, from Erich von Daniken to the producers and script writers of Ancient Aliens on the (so-called) History Channel.

  95. @ Mister Nobody:

    I used to be a big Star Trek fan. I never got into the Deep Space Nine novelizations (I read many of the earlier ST novels when I was growing up), but used to watch the TV series fairly regularly back in the day. One of the things that annoyed me about DS9 was that they laid on the political correctness pretty thick sometimes, almost to the point of caricature in some episodes, which is one of the reasons why I lost interest in the various Star Trek spinoffs. If I want to watch political propaganda, I’ll turn on Faux News or Democrazy Now.

  96. For those of you interested in reading more about the Fermi Paradox, Stephen Webb’s book “If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens … WHERE IS EVERYBODY?” has 75 possible solutions in the 2nd edition. Solution 38 includes your suggestion that the aliens have exhausted their non-renewable high quality energy sources (fossil fuels or equivalent) and no longer have the ability to leave their planet, let alone explore the stars.

    It is a fun paradox to think about. We are now pretty certain that many stars have planets, and that at least some of them will be in the so called goldilocks zone, which suggests that some of them will have the ability to start life. We are pretty sure that evolution by natural selection is universally applicable, so should lead to more complex lifeforms that can compete better in their environment. That doesn’t necessarily suggest leading to what we think of as intelligent life that develops a taste for building and using tools.

    Still it is a numbers game – after all the Universe is unimaginably big. People have suggested ways of exploring a galaxy with sub light speed using machines taking just a few million years. Since our Galaxy has existed for around 13 billion years, a few million years is nothing. Even if many aliens fall into the same trap as we have, of using up all the non-renewables before attaining large scale space flight, all it would take is one such alien to do so.

    Consider for example an ancient Pharaoh with our technology level. Consider how they controlled a vast empire focussed on building pyramids. Translated to modern time, could a Pharaoh instead focus their empire on building spaceships – start with setting up a base on the moon. Then stepping to asteroids, using machines to mine the rich resources they could provide, to build the next stage, etc. Could a Pharaoh today (or a one world government!), with control over all the resources that are left on Earth now, make it to the stars in some capacity? It would only take one alien Pharaoh to do so. Hence the paradox…

  97. Must be something in the ether….

    Internet Archive now has 350 issues of the Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, published from
    1950 to 1980, online

    For me, the best sci-fi or other escapist literature, in addition to being well written, paradoxically provides a lens for looking at problems of the day from a different perspective (detached, alien point of view, inside-out, parable, or whatever) – providing entertainment, yet sneakily giving food for thought. Aw heck, sometimes its just good to get a break from all the serious stuff going on.

  98. Myriam, I missed both of those, and I’m sorry to have done so! They sound good. I also read a huge amount of Andre Norton, and still enjoy her work.

    RPC, thank you, but we’ve just downsized from a four bedroom house to a two bedroom apartment and don’t even have enough room for the stuff we’ve got! There are vendors who do the science fiction convention circuit who sell such things; I’m not sure how best to find one, though.

    Phil, yep. Remember, it’s their religion.

    Greg, one thing to keep in mind is that the success rate for remote viewing, though statistically significant, is low; even the most impressive results routinely have static mixed in. Thus it’s not that the human mind can transcend space and time, it’s that some information does so, very imperfectly — and if you take the time to read the reams of communications supposedly received from extraterrestrial intelligences since 1850 or so, you’ll discover just how imperfectly! (Spoiler warning: every such communication contradicts every other such communication.) So it’s a theoretical possibility but practically speaking, I don’t know that I’d count on it…

    Amphibious, nope, we hadn’t gotten to him, since the theme of the post was interplanetary and interstellar travel, not AIs.

    aNeopuritan, there is literally nothing those guys could say that would surprise me. If you told me that they’d decided to amputate their genitalia today in the perfect faith that sometime in the next ten years, they’d be able to replace them with eternally hard vibrating prosthetics hooked into their nervous systems, even though nobody had a prototype yet and the technology wasn’t even on the drawing boards, I wouldn’t blink.

    Dewey, the potential fossil bacteria might mean that Mars had life for a while two or three billion years ago; that’s not ruled out either by the toxic soil or by the chemical equilibrium of the atmosphere today. The atmospheric evidence, btw, argues that there’s no kind of life there now — our kind, any other kind, it doesn’t matter, if it was a living planet there would be some kind of disequilibrium, because that’s what life (of any kind) does.

    Patricia, an elegant line.

    Phil, no, when America finally abandons that dream you’ll get to see a world-class tantrum.

    Jenniferxyz, depends on your definition. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered the first SF story by many historians, but not all.

    Twilight, nope, that’s not what I meant at all. Heh heh heh…

    Eric, that’s the one!

  99. Rbkcapdm, yes, Webb mentions the potential limits to resources and technological progress…in a footnote. His response? “I think this is too pessimistic.” That’s literally it. Given that he addresses all kinds of other possible issues in great detail, the lack of a substantive response is really quite remarkable. With regard to your pharaoh, since there’s no evidence that this has happened, the default answer is “no, even a pharaoh couldn’t do it” — and this again suggests that there are hard limits in the way. (My guess, for what it’s worth, is that the statistical likelihood of having enough highly concentrated energy resources on a planet to go all the way from preindustrial society to a society capable of starflight is so small that even with godzillions of inhabited planets out there, the number capable of doing this approximates to 0.)

    Patricia, no argument there. Popcorn reading also has a place!

  100. As I’ve been thinking on the happenings in Charlottesville, I’ve actually come to realize the importance of this post. It’s all about the narratives. They help form and shape our destinations. Recent narratives have all narrowed and leave little up to the imagination. The unfortunate problem with that is that one of our core cultural narratives has lead us into binary thinking so that if it isn’t one thing it must be the other. And this is what we project upon others. So when someone questions our thoughts, too many people assume we must be against them. As we have traded one god for the God of Progress, we have projected the idea that if someone opposes our idea that technology won’t save us, then we don’t have control over our life. The fact is, we do have a lot of control, just not total control. Modern Sci-Fi has followed this same paradigm. It’s left us with only one way of thinking about the problems ahead. It’s high time people open up and start thinking about other possibilities and this competition is definitely laying the groundwork for our going into a new direction, one that will following the path of accepting limits which opens up a new world, or worlds 🙂

  101. Hi JMG,

    Re: “it’s not humans in general, just the subset of humans who happen to live in modern industrial societies. People in a lot of other cultures throughout history have gotten very comfortable with limits — for that matter, talk to some Amish people sometime about that!”

    Do you think that other cultures have really become comfortable with limits? Or have they just been forced to deal with the unavoidable fact of limits in a way that we haven’t (so far) been here in modern industrial society? I think the psychological discomfort many humans across cultures feel around the particular limit of death leads them to construct and accept religious narratives that seem to offer them a way to avoid it, just as we have done with our story about going to the stars.

    It seems like a group such as the Amish have resorted to as much hand waving as we have, just in a slightly different way. From what I understand of their religious beliefs, they need to live in harmony with the earth to please God and earn their way into his kingdom after death. This isn’t, admittedly, such a bad narrative, and certainly it’s miles better than our own. But what exactly is motivating it? It seems to be culturally acceptable for an Amish community to “shun” or exclude a member who isn’t quite following up. Their version of the Christian God isn’t particularly gracious, as it is only a person’s good works that is going to earn them their ticket to salvation. Although I’m not sure how this actually plays out in the worldview of each individual Amish person, to me it seems like fear is a big motivation for adhering to the established limits. If not, excommunication, and no salvation to boot. And interesting that they too rely on this after-death concept of salvation, another life free from limits. So are they really so comfortable with all these limits, or are they just afraid of missing out on the reward of a life after death with no limitations at all?

    It seems to be a feature of the worldview/spirituality/religion of several different cultural groups to develop some kind of concept of salvation (not all, but several). A narrative about an eternal afterlife of the spirit, reincarnation of the spirit, eternal life in the kingdom of Heaven, or state of consciousness free from both suffering and happiness, that ultimately allows them to do a psychological end-run around the cold hard reality of death. Which isn’t actually that different from our story about going to the stars. The fact that this occurs seems to indicate that we as humans do need some way to comfort ourselves from the unavoidable nature of death, some solace from the fact that our very lives here are limited. But perhaps deep down we are not so comfortable with it after all.

    My husband is Nigerian, grew up in a village in rural Nigeria about as removed from modern industrial civilization as you can get. And yet, when his mother died last year, it was certainly very painful for him. His particular tribe has their own ideas about reincarnation of the spirit that seemed to help him manage his grief. He didn’t seem to be very comfortable about it though, just something that he was forced to deal with.

    I may be somewhat fixated on the idea of death as a major motivating force here, and if so, it’s likely because my own father died just three weeks ago :(. In trying to help my daughter manage her grief, the idea of ‘grandpa going to Heaven’ is somewhat more comforting than telling her we just don’t know what happens to his spirit after death, or even worse, that he’s just gone forever and there’s nothing we can do about it. Finding solace in the idea of a limit-free afterlife of some kind certainly has its appeal. Because, after all, we don’t actually know what happens to us after death…or do we??

    Absolutely, our industrial culture has been able to think that we’re side-stepping many limits thanks to the concentrated energy of oil. It has been easy for us to believe in the idea of a world with no limits (and going to the stars), since in many aspects of our day to day lives, the limits which should moderate our behaviors and lifestyles simply haven’t applied. We just haven’t been forced to deal with them, like most other cultures that didn’t have access to this much energy. When the oil is gone, there’s no doubt that we’re going to have to ‘reconsider’ our approach to the natural world and its inherent limitations.

  102. Is there a limit to the number of submissions allowed? I have one story done and three others fully formed….

    Sadly I can’t find the review anymore, but there was a hilarious review of a book called Lifeboat Earth by Stanley Schmidt. The premise is the entire galaxy is about to become uninhabitable, so aliens have come and are moving the Earth. A range of technological gimmicks are used, including “reaction-less drives”, FTL, basically free electricity, and others to enable some people to survive (less than a billion). The reviewer saw nothing wrong with those, claiming they were justified by the plot and used sparingly, while taking issue with a machine that translates from dolphin into English (also central to a plot, used far more sparingly, and producing some of the best moments in the book).

    Apparently that transformed it into “soft science fiction”, so allow me to present a new definition of hard science fiction: “Any story that features advanced technology, handled in such a way that it does not contradict any part of the Western material worldview.

    Finally, off topic, but this could get very ugly:

  103. Myriam: The story you mentioned where the babies of each species had to learn to communicate with the other sound like a story by Suzette Haden Elgin. I have totally forgotten the name of the book, but it was part of a trilogy, IIRC.

  104. Something else that’s occurred to me: the more we figure out about how human beings actually function, the more difficult it looks like it would be to colonize another planet. To name one example: the circadian rhythm is set by blue light: stars smaller than the sun, or red giants, might not produce enough blue light to properly set the human circadian rhythm. Considering what happens if you mess up your circadian rhythm (as I currently have, courtesy of light pollution) it seems plausible that this would make things far more difficult for the colonists. It may not be enough to stop a colony, but it would make it far harder.

  105. @ Dewey,

    The peroxides, superoxides and perchlorate compounds in the Martian soil are strong oxidizers (strong enough to be used as rocket fuel, in more concentrated forms) — and the Viking sample release experiment was looking for Life As We Know It that would consume (and oxidize) organic matter. They redid the experiment with more accurate soil analogues, and got the exact result Viking did. So, no bugs in the Martian soil.

    As for the potential ‘fossil bacteria’ on the Allan Hills meteorite, it has since been demonstrated that every feature on that space rock could have been created abiotically. Which by no means proves that they were created abiotically — it just casts doubt on the assertion that we ‘know’ Mars had life at any point.

    The ‘warm and wet’ Mars of our dreams may not have been that warm and wet after all; I’ve seen proposals that explain away the ‘dry river valleys’ as features of flowing ice, not flowing water. I haven’t seen a convincing climactic model that gets you Earth-like conditions on Mars when the Faint Sun Paradox is accounted for, either, and some say it cannot be done. (Stellar astronomy shows solar-mass stars start out much cooler, and slowly ramp up their output.) I wonder if the ‘Mars was warm and wet’ meme is another form of displacement — just as we displace our dreams of the Old Solar System in space to exoplanetary systems, we also displace them in _time_ to the distant past. If Mars was alive, we can revive it by terraforming, or so the talk goes. If it wasn’t? You lose that motivator. So romanticism aside, I’m inclined to interpret the scanty data we have about Mars to give us a cold, dry (by Terrestrial standards) and probably dead world at all periods.

    I am, of course, a notorious buzzkill.


    I notice here you’re implying Radio won’t be viable past the efflorescence of fossil fuels. Wasn’t that one of the basket of technologies you highlighted to be passed down to the de-industrial future, along with printing, germ theory, and democracy? Have you changed your tune, or are you simply thinking the more modest radio signals produced by ecotechnic means won’t be detectable over interstellar distances? If the second, I am inclined to agree.

  106. Once you said, speaking of music, that classical was a dead end culturally, which people just learn by rote what long dead men wrote. New culture has to be with new instruments or written by living people in new genres. Cultures with dead arts, sciences fossilize and die off. So sci fi was an attempt in the scientific progress culture to make its cultural mark. Shakespeare’s plays used ancient rome and greece and recent history along with modern europe as settings. America was unknown to him. Perhaps when our progress era is finished, America deexceptionalized, fossil fuels essentially depleted fiction will reinvent the modern era like shakespeare did to create comedies, morality plays( julius caesar, etc.) Using washington, lincoln, napoleon, hitler, Trump. Life will be simpler and the past wil seem exciting, full of content, as manybooks wil be available in the lingua franca english like latin works for shakespeare. This could fill schoolboy’s days in China, Africa, India in a slow localized future mostly looking backwards in history for excitement and rewriiting it according to current moral concepts. We see how the US history is being seized upon to start a new civil war. Perhaps in a couple hundred years somewhere Obama will be deified or Trump made into a religious symbol trying to save declining greatness in China for example as it goes through renewed cyclical collapse but in a democratic system with global reach. At any rate that is off topic. I see sci fi purely as fantastical backdrop for human drama, like shakespeare seeking appropriate scenery, staging. If a war between planets is written and their peoples, cultures described in detail(sounds exciting) then it would be like in star trek, a thinly veiled rehashing of current USA popular culture projected outward. Instead of being racist, sexist, nationalist one just invents klingons, vulcans, etc. and criticizes them. If beings of some sort exist on the planets they must be disembodied spirits or microbes which can survive extreme temperatures. My fantasy sci fi would be then warring fairies from planets. Mars would have warriors, venus love sprites, etc. All would travel by light beams and earth would be a special case, neutral territory. So between sci fi and lord of the rings and fairy tale everyone could get their fill and be half satisfied.

  107. With regard to the pharaohs of spaceflight, presumably any society that was stable enough to survive hundreds or thousands of years would have figured out a way of living within their means that would make colonization of their solar system unappealing and unnecessary. Maybe there’s a story in there about wise Jovians burning their black vessels and forbidding future trips to the inner solar system much like China in the 1400s. If a pharaoh did have access to spaceflight, why would they bother investing the resources into it? They already rule over everything that matters and you still have diminishing returns on any future colonization and exploration.

  108. Myriam – August 18, 2017 at 12:48 pm re your 2nd story, that is Ursula Le Guin, part of her Ekuman ouvre, I think the title is “A Different Light” and it is a short story in “The Winds Four Quarters” as well as the latest compilation of all her sci-fi stories, two very large volumes of a projected 3 or 4 part set.
    Another of her Ekumen stories, “The Word for World is Forest” has the Hain (humans) inhabiting an alien world for several centuries but believing that they needed to take supplements and other measures to cope with the local chemistry.
    Eventually one person finds out accidentally (I think lost far from base) that this is no longer true.
    They had adapted to the new world and it was the continued use of the supplements etc that was causing their problems, including the inability to communicate telepathically with the indigenous species.
    Patricia has suggested another author for this theme so perhaps we are both correct – I shall try to find the author she mentioned.

  109. John Michael Greer August 19, 2017 at 4:13 am – Iain M Banks is utterly interstellar with a a vastness of scope that I’ve never encountered in any other author.
    The galaxy has long been found to contain species, at various levels of technology, some having “sublimed” – done away with the toys & bodies to step into a new realm of existence.
    They are rarely mentioned except as having taken an option not deemed by other species to be terribly well thought out or attractive.
    I mentioned the AIs as merely one of the aspects of his stories which particularly appealed to me.
    In fact, all but one of his protagonists, in over a dozen books, is female. The exception is “The Player of Games”.

  110. Correction of my comment of above
    Myriam – August 18, 2017 at 12:48 pm re your 2nd story, that is Ursula Le Guin, part of her Ekuman ouvre, I think the title is “A Different Light” and it is a short story in “The Winds Four Quarters”…
    that should have been The Wind’s TWELVE Quarters“.

  111. @JMG et al…
    On the topic of non outer-space themed sci-fi. I am working drafting a series of stories that I plan submit to ‘Into the Ruins’ or ‘Mythic.’ They will be set in North America about 1,200 years in the future. I’ve come across an unexpected world building problem.
    De-industrial warfare: I imagine it would look like some mix of 18th and 19th century technologies and tactics.
    First – I start by assuming that rifled muskets will be the benchmark weapon of any army. BUT, will they be flintlock or percussion cap muskets? Percussion caps first came into wide use in the 1830s, right around the time the coal-fueled industrial revolution was really taking off, so I think that percussion caps occupy a grey area between what would be a surviving technology and a technology that would have been lost due to lack of fossil fuel inputs. They COULD still be made using hand tools, but would they? The survival of the percussion cap is not just a technical issue, as it had a huge impact on the effectiveness of muskets on the battle fields and frontiers of the 19th century.
    Second – While gunpowder will certainly survive the dark age as a viable technology, ways of making it that don’t involve having a handy cave full of dried bat guano nearby are time and labor intense. Based on what I’ve read, the French and Swiss techniques of making gun powder from farm and human manure can lead to a final product that is at times unreliable. The Royal Navy didn’t like to use captured French gunpowder during the Napoleonic Wars because it was liable to burn too fast or not fast enough. This implies that while future militaries still use musketeers, they may still have to rely on pike and shot formations because of a lack of reliable supplies of gunpowder, and the vulnerability of musketeers to cavalry attack.
    I know that both those questions are complex, but I feel they are both relevant to pretty pivotal plot points in the stories I am constructing, so in the interest of accurate world building, I’d appreciate input for you or anyone else who cares to comment.

  112. jenniferxyz (August 18, 2017 at 8:13 pm)
    Re: Science fiction(?) as far as early mentions of space travel by earthlings is concerned – I came across this (‘Did man reach the moon thousands of years ago?’ from cultures spanning the globe):

  113. I took a course in “Western Civilization” back in the early 70s. The Prof. wondered aloud about two things: first, why the industrial revolution hadn’t gotten started at the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, since they were already experimenting with steam energy. True, the printing press had not yet been invented, so the exchange of info was less, but they had most of the prerequisites, or so he supposed. Second, the Prof wondered how we could get rid of all the detriments of industrial civilization and “still keep indoor plumbing,” (which was his somewhat tongue-in-cheek notion of the only truly indispensable benefit from industrial civilization). Now it occurs to me that the Romans, at least the most affluent ones, actually did have indoor plumbing, but maybe that wasn’t the real point being made by my old Western Civ professor. Maybe the ancient Greeks and Romans were just smarter than us.

  114. “SF authors George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois a few years back edited a pair of anthologies, Old Mars and Old Venus, full of original stories set in the imaginary solar system of the classic science fiction era.”

    Larry Niven did something similar in “Rainbow Mars” (a tongue-in-cheek response to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red, Green, and Blue Mars books) in which a time traveler named Svetz noted that, whenever he traveled before 1960, he could observe from Earth the Mars of Edgar Rice Burroughs and other early science fiction authors, but trips in time later than that showed the Mars we know today. So, he uses the time machine to go back to the Mars of pulp science fiction. Of course, when Svetz went back in time on Earth, he’d find unicorns, rocs, and werewolves, as he was traveling to fictional pasts, not real ones. Niven is cheating; he’s quite deliberately writing fantasy for a science fiction audience, so he gets to have his cake and eat it, too.

    Speaking of Robinson, “Aurora” may be referenced in the film “Passengers,” which is also about a sublight colonization ship, this one with hibernation technology. Jennifer Lawrence’s character was named Aurora. That might have been a coincidence. It was probably the worst big-budget science fiction movie of last year, although the best is a matter of some dispute; “Arrival” won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, while “Rogue One” won the Saturn Award. Yes, interstellar travel still sells in the theater. Literary science fiction may be another matter.

    As for the origins of science fiction, I have read that Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is sometimes, if not often, cited as the first science fiction novel. Along with “The Last Man,” which she also penned, that means that science fiction’s closest literary relative is horror, at least of the non-gothic, supernatural variety. However, there are earlier literary works involving predicting the future and traveling to other bodies in the Solar System, which might be considered fantastic progenitors to actual science fiction.

    @corydalidae wrote “nobody is going to mistake a story about elves for a probable future” and @Oilman2 observed “Terry Broks (sic) comes to mind as a chief formulator.” Both remarks share something in common, the Shannara Chronicles. It may not be immediately clear in the books, but in the opening credits and scenes of the TV series, it’s explicit that the stories are set in a post-nuclear-war future where the elves, dwarves, and trolls evolved from humans in a radioactive environment and where ruins of our current civilization dot the landscape. There’s even a group of humans trying to recover the pre-war technology and saying it promises them a glorious future among the stars. They even show one of the “Star Trek” movies that they recovered from the wreckage to convince themselves and others of it. That ends up going literally nowhere, which shouldn’t surprise any readers here.

  115. @Dusk Shine

    The “faint young sun” thing has to be resolved before I’ll give very much credence to any ideas of what did or didn’t happen in the first couple of billion years.

    Re: gunpowder

    There are usually a lot of ways of doing something if the incentive to doing the research is great enough. Arguments that “people can’t do X if they don’t have resource Y” seem very limiting to me.

    Re: why didn’t the Greeks invent technology?

    That’s a very common question among a certain segment of the worshipers of technological progress. The answer is very simple: the classical and Hellenistic Greeks didn’t care. You mention that they were “experimenting with steam energy.” What is this “experimenting” of which you speak? The Greeks didn’t do “experimenting,” and they never attempted to hitch Hero’s toy up to anything to do useful work. That’s what slaves and menial workers were for.

    The same group of worshipers at the altar of technological progress tell huge lies about the Great Library of Alexandrea. It was actually a collection of scrolls associated with a religious shrine called the Musaeum or Mouseion that was dedicated to the nine Muses. Most of its work was what we’d call basic literary criticism; they are credited with the creation of textual criticism, that is, the practice of doing detailed comparisons of different versions of works to try and discover what the original was. They were well known for their work in poetry, specifically with the Illiad and Odyssey, which were that era’s equivalent of the Bible in ours.

    It had the largest such collection (about 35 to 40 thousand by the best estimates), but by no means the only one. Many of the scrolls were destroyed by Julius Caesar in 47BC as a result of burning the docks, where a lot of the scrolls were stored in a warehouse.

    It had ceased to exist by 391, when the Serapeum was converted into a fortress by the pagans in Alexandrea as a defense against the Christians. That’s the origin of the “howling Christian mobs” part of the story. It was not in existence at all by Hypatia’s time, and played no part in her murder.

    The myth that the Greeks could have invented technology if they’d cared is certainly well established, but it’s on a par with the idea that I could fly if I had wings.

  116. @ Ben…

    I think it’s a pretty safe bet that muskets are unlikely when you look at the amount of finished iron and steel surrounding us. There will be NO mining without oil – it takes multiple 6-ton loads of ore to get a ton of rough metal today. Scavenging will be the way forward, and recycling.

    Lathes are all that is needed to make good rifle barrels, and they can be run by a waterwheel. Not sexy, but you can bore a barrel, and steel is everywhere and beats the crap out of iron.

    Brass is easy to work, and I think shells will be around a while simply because of that. Stamping is done hydraulically today, with cold metal. But you can do similar with much lower pressure to form the shell if it is heated. They may revert to clunkier cartridge designs.

    Dumping powder, wadding and ramming are likely to be rendered stupid, simply due to the compound bow. If I were fighting a group of musketeers, I would opt for compound bows and heavy crossbows as secondary support- no misfires and massively faster reload times. There are literally dozens of types of shaft materials and heads you can equip with for compound bows.

    Also – be aware that both crossbows and compound bows can launch explosive projectiles. In fact, they can lob grenades pretty effectively with a little practicing.

    In a re-invented future, the compound bow should be heavily favored – they weren’t around “back in the day”, but they are now and have serious advantages over clunky firearms. Stealth comes to mind right off the bat, then weight and ease of manufacture.

    My thinking is that small artillery is the most likely use of gunpowder, should manufacture be problematic. A small cannon with pre-loaded wadding and charge with a tapered barrel so it doesn’t fall out – then load whatever you want in front of that (ball, chain, nails, shot, etc). A piece of old car tire can hold the projectiles in place – which also wasn’t around “back in the day”…

    You asked…LOL

  117. @ Ben…

    I forgot! They make single shot pellet rifles with muzzle velocity that exceeds a .22 long rifle. These are driven by a spring, and that tech is very old. Their effectiveness is limited by regulations – you have to make the pellets of lead and in specific shapes to sell them in the USA – safety first. We wouldn’t want morons to kill each other off, right?

    If USA goes away, then you could do some interesting things with a pellet rifle – including fast acting poison projectiles and hard, dart-like projectiles that could pierce s skull. Again, the sound is almost non-existent.

    Also, the barrel just has to be straight and be able to handle the spring , not much else – because the barrel isn’t confining an explosion. This makes them a very good fit for poor quality metals.

  118. @John Roth

    What you said about the Romans and to a lesser extent the Greeks is true, but both had societies in which slaves were plentiful and labor cheap. So much so that not only was there little incentive to use machines to become more productive, the idea of labor itself was devalued.

    The making of books is a good example. Gutenberg created the printing press whereas the Romans had a room full of slaves writing down what one person was reading out aloud. The early printing done by the Koreans and the Chinese was because of the to either replace all the religious writings lost after all the libraries were destroyed in a war and to print money.

    John Michael Greer

    I hesitate to disagree with a man who has studied modern civilization much more thoroughly than I have. That said, the reason that most people work longer for less is because of the assigned to their work. When an American makes minimum wage he has to work much more to pay for food and shelter as against some hedge fund manager. Studio apartment vs. multi acre estate with helicopter pad. And since the unemployment rate is at 10% I question the amount of labor needed.

    All this does not dispute the fragility of our civilization’s foundation due to all the interlocking parts.

  119. Hi Archdruid, Thank you for another very thoughtful article. I’ve been reading your blog for a few years now and my world view aligns with yours in many ways. I liked the conclusionary remarks in which you acknowledge that sci fi is totally a legitimate expressive genre regardless of the wonky ideology some people connect to it. But I’ve got to say this time you are somewhat wrong in your characterisation of the genre. As someone who grew up watching Star Trek reading Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy then moved on to Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers I must remind you of Gene Roddenberry’s idea about Star Trek being a wagon train in the stars. Quality science fiction has nothing to do with about predictions or speculation about the future, it is allegory. The worlds created in sci fi stories are a space in which to write about issues of the time and place of the here and the now. I think; if you want to get a deeper understanding of what I’m on about you should read The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem, this is a collection of short stories that feature the character Ijon Tichy and it’s a lot of fun.

  120. First up, I’m going to say I’m a huge sci-fi & fantasy fan as I love the escapism presented by those stories. I’ve read a lot of stuff which really is quite mediocre, but which ticked enough boxes and flowed to keep me interested. I’ll step back from those though and put my more critical hat on.

    I grew up in the 70s, so with the exception of HG Wells/Lovecraft/Burroughs, most of the sci-fi I read dates from the 60’s onwards. For me, the thing that makes a sci-fi story “good” has little to do with the “achievability” of the technology and everything to do with the characterisation and the plot, just as with any other genre. The technology or alien-ness in sci-fi just let you play with the rules that the characters have to operate in. And that’s a big problem for me with sci-fi from the mid-century, because, as imaginative as the authors were with the planets and background, the characters were nearly always two-dimensional, cookie-cutter heroes/villains. The women were there to be rescued by Captain Hero Square-Jawed-Champion-of-Justice Smith, while the villains were little different from the Evil Grand Vizier(tm) types of Arabian myth. These stories were fine when I was younger, but once I hit middle teens, they left me flat. Frank Herbert’s Dune series is probably the best example of this genre, and for me represents its peak. I loved the imaginativeness and complexity of the society he wrote about, but ultimately it came down to “Young Prince Seeks Revenge By Raising Army in Badlands to Kill Usurper Who Killed His Father”. The characters do get some extra dimensionality, which is why I place it towards the top, buts its still a story for teenagers.

    A lot of the later writing from the 70s and 80s suffered from too many technological explanations that bogged down the flow of the story. I don’t need to know that the warp drive meets the hypothetical limitations of string theory, any more than I need to know how my phone works when I speed dial “Dave”. I just want to get there = Escapism. The authors spent too long answering the engineers and scientists that they had as critics and they lost the rest of their audience along the way. People want to read “Hit the hyper drive, Chewie!” not a technical specification of the ship.

    It was the development of more complex characters in some of the later stories that started to capture my main interest. The exploration of the possible effects of technology on society by William Gibson; the absence of old-school heroes, just flawed “human” beings in some of Iain M Banks work. Good stories either use an alternative technological universe as the background to their stories of people, or explored how that technology affected them and the societies that they lived in. Similarly, on the fantasy side, we’ve got China Mieville’s The Scar/Perdido Street Station or Stephen Erikson’s Malazan series.

    Which I guess brings us to your anthology suggestion. Are you looking for post-victorian values where aliens are bug-eyed, women scream and faint and the men are there to save the day? Or can we get Dejah Thoris burning her chain mail bikini in a Martian Post Modern Feminist revolution? Perhaps, better yet, a role for aliens, men, women and technology that has them sailing the rings of Saturn fighting pirates without a single statement about how the ship works. 🙂

  121. @ vincelamb…

    It has been decades since I read Terry Brooks, but to my best recollection, I do not recall it being at all obvious that the setting was post-nuclear. I do know that the reason I laid the book down was that the rationale for the “quest” seemed to be tossed out for the reader like a piece of cold cod. I tried to run with it, but it just didn’t cut the mustard compared to Tolkien or Eddison.

    As for TV – the people concerned with TV and movies do not play fair with authors and thus never do justice to their work. Even LOR got shorted in the movie, good as it was, by dropping very good sections (Tom Bombadill and the return to the Shire). I could dwell more on character revisionism of Frodo and Sam in particular, but readers know. Hence I didn’t deign (yes, correct word choice, even if it comes off snobbish) to watch the Terry Brooks MTV series.

  122. @Oilman2 – those are excellent points (pun intended). I had thought about future militaries using crossbows (I plan to refer to them as springbows because the term ‘crossbow’ comes from religious iconography), as well as possibly compound bows. I did not know that spring loaded rifles could achieve that high (22 long) FPS! I wonder if they reach a point of diminishing returns when firing larger (say .40 caliber up) projectiles?
    Also, with the rifles v bows debate, I have read that rifled muskets have longer accurate range, and are easier to train with, over various bows. Of course any weapon in the right, well-trained hands can be plenty accurate/lethal. I appreciate the input!

  123. @Patricia @Myriam: Myriam’s remembered plot is a thread in the novel “Native Tongue,” first in a series that also includes “The Judas Rose” and “Earthsong,” by linguist Suzette Haden Elgin. She was far better-known as the author of “The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense”, and far less known as founder of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association (SFPA). I remember her fondly because she attended one of my poetry group’s readings at WisCon, several years before her death, and gave us a glowing review 🙂

  124. @Rbkcapdm and JMG,
    I have not read Webb’s book but I am not surprised that he dismisses the most obvious possibility (resource constraints). After all, what kind of blockbuster movie that makes?
    One thing I disagree with you is about the probability of sending spaceships to another stars. I think is NOT close to zero but exactly zero. The gulf between interplanetary and interstellar flight is so much, it becomes a qualitatively different target. Even the bacteria have very low chances to survive it and the crash at 40 km/s on a new planet.
    But even if a simple bacterial colonization is possible and we are the descendants of aliens, so what? Nothing changes for humans. Our civilization and species will go extinct either way.

  125. Prizm, ahem. Thank. You. For. Getting. It.. Yes, exactly — what we can do is constrained in part by what we can imagine ourselves doing, and what shapes our imaginations above all else are the narratives we use to think with. I want to address that, and challenge my readers to explore different narratives.

    Stefania, I’m thinking here among other societies of traditional Japan, where death was something people generally accepted as a matter of course, to the extent that committing suicide was a normal act in many situations that people in today’s Western cultures find utterly baffling. For that matter, a hundred and fifty years ago in the US, pneumonia was openly called “the old man’s friend” because, in a society that didn’t permit suicide, it was the most common way out of an existence that had become burdensome. I don’t claim to know how death was understood in every human society, of course, but a lot of the ones I’ve researched dealt with it with a lot more dignity and a lot less trauma than we do — and not coincidentally, a lot of these same societies were much more comfortable with limits than we are. I figure we’ll grow up eventually…

    Will, there’s no formal limit, but we’re not going to put more than one story by any given author into the anthology. My suggestion would be to send us the one you think is your best work, and submit the others to MYTHIC magazine, which I happen to know is interested in Old Solar System stories among other things. Tell ’em the Archdruid sent you. 😉

    I like your definition of hard science fiction, btw. Another might be that hard science fiction is any SF that gives obsessive tech geeks an erection…

    As for the complexities of colonizing another planet, no argument there! My working take these days is that 95% of the problems and predicaments faced by any such project can’t be known in advance, and will have to be discovered the hard way if the thing is actually tried. I hope we don’t have to scatter the surface of Mars with freeze-dried corpses in order to learn that lesson.

    Dusk Shine, not at all. I’m suggesting that radio of sufficient power and sensitivity to communicate with other worlds won’t be an option, due to issues of scale. In exactly the same way, it wouldn’t surprise me for a moment if future societies have rockets, but they’ll be the sort of thing we see in fireworks and today’s Middle Eastern wars, not the sort of thing that can reach another world. There’ll be a lot of that in the deindustrial future — technologies we do on a gargantuan scale that they’ll have to do on a much smaller scale because that’s what their resource base will permit.

    Gandalf, I’d like to see you write one of those stories! I suspect it would be rollicking good fun…

    Jo, that’s reasonable enough — but of course pharaohs do build things like pyramids and gargantuan temples, and run their societies into the ground doing it. That’s why I pointed to the hard thermodynamic limits.

    Amphibious, so noted. I’ll have a look at some of his things as time permits.

    Ben, one of these days I need to do a post, or a series of posts, on deindustrial warfare! Whether your future society uses flintlocks or percussion caps depends on whether its economy can support some analogue of mid-19th century factory technology. You can make percussion caps in a small workshop, but it’s not a paying proposition; only when you can have a handful of factories powered by water power, say, turning out those by the case lot, does it really make economic sense. If you don’t have the economic basis for factories, you’ll probably see flintlocks instead. That doesn’t mean pike and shot, though — that was only necessary with matchlocks, which are much less reliable. The muskets and rifles that fought the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were flintlocks.

    In terms of gunpowder, on the other hand, it’s probably safe to assume that with 1200 years to work on ways of sourcing reliable gunpowder, most of the bugs will be taken care of, and various ingenious ways of producing chemically pure saltpeter will be in use. So you could probably use the armies and military technologies of c. 1750-1800 as a working model for the armies and weapons in your stories.

  126. Patricia, somehow I can’t help hearing Burton Cummings belting out “Alien space bat, stay away from me-ee!”

    Phutatorius, it’s an old question with a great many answers. Whether or not the ancient Greeks and Romans were smarter than us, they certainly didn’t have the ideological commitments that have backed us into our current predicament. Thus they got to decline and fall in a different way.

    Vince, I’ve been mulling over a story that will offer an explanation for why people saw canals on Mars before 1950 or so, and not afterwards. Heh heh heh… As for Terry Brooks, yes, I remember that — the only thing of his I ever read was The Sword of Shannara, and it included some references to that gimmick. Ralph Bakshi’s animated movie Wizards had a similar framing story, for what it’s worth.

    JBird, I think you left a key word out of your comment, so I’m not sure of your exact argument. I’d say, though, that the reason modern people have to work longer hours than medieval peasants, and take home a smaller fraction of the value of their labor, is that modern industrial civilization is so much more complex than medieval civilization, and all that complexity has to be maintained through human labor as well as resources. That’s the core argument at the heart of the theory of catabolic collapse: it costs so much to maintain a civilization over time, and those costs mount up so relentlessly, that sooner or later the maintenance costs outrun the available budget of resources, labor, etc., and stuff has to be allowed to fall apart.

    Michael, I read Stanislaw Lem back in the early 1970s. Of course there’s a literary end of the scene that’s always treated SF as a vehicle for allegory, fable, and the like. The fact remains that here in the US, from the days of the pulp magazines right up to the present, a huge number of SF fans have been committed to the notion that SF is a vision of the kind of future we’re going to get. If you doubt that, go to a science fiction convention and start telling people we’re not going to the stars; the visceral reaction you get should settle the question once and for all in your mind!

    Gavin, er, I’m not at all sure which science fiction novels you were reading from midcentury, because I can think of any number of major names in the field who were publishing in those years and don’t match the easy stereotype you’ve offered at. Did you ever read any of the stories of Cordwainer Smith, for example? How about Leigh Brackett? Clifford Simak? C.L. Moore? Ray Bradbury? Walter M. Miller? Kurt Vonnegut? I could go on for a very long time, and not mention a single author who churned out square-jawed space captains or Ming the Merciless clones. (here’s a list of classic science fiction novels published between 1950 and 1959; see how many square-jawed space captains you can spot.) The end of SF that fixated on technical details — the sort associated with Analog magazine — was a minority taste for authors as well as readers; rich characterization and complex, morally ambiguous plots became common in the SF mainstream back in the 1950s. I gather you missed those stories somehow.

    In response to your question, though, the anthology is looking for good stories set in the Old Solar System as already defined. Personally, I’m not interested in space captains blasting away at bug-eyed aliens who threaten nubile females — that was old hat by 1940, which is why so much of SF abandoned it around then — and I’m also not interested in the kind of story whose only point is that it inverts some old-fashioned stereotype — there was a point to that, but we’ve already had reams of Dejah Thoris bra-burning literature, and though I have no objection to those who want to write and publish more of it, to my taste it’s gotten kind of old. (BTW, Dejah Thoris didn’t wear a chainmail bikini. On Barsoom, nobody of either sex wears anything but jewelry.) I’d like to see interesting stories with well-developed characters, vivid settings, and lively plots with unexpected resolutions — period. Other details? Up to the author.

  127. I hope everyone got a chance to enjoy the eclipse, and to do so safely. We got over 90% coverage where I live, and I was lucky enough to score some free eclipse glasses from work. At the peak of the eclipse, it reminded me of the Cheshire Cat’s iconic smile, and there was an interesting effect where the smile turned sideways as the Moon began to separate from the Sun. It was a sight to behold.

    In other news, I’ve written over 10,000 words for a story. Much of it will end up wherever bits go when they pass on (yes, yes, I know exactly where they go; I teach CS, after all), and I’m still toying with where exactly I want to go with it, but I’ve got a good sense of who my main characters are and what the society is like.

    Gavin, I see our host has already commented on the issue, but I was going to say: you seem to remember Dejah Thoris wearing more clothes than I remember!

  128. Really weird thought: but astrology would seem to suggest another potential issue. If planets have “energies” strong enough to be felt from here, I’d assume the effects would be much stronger on the planets in question. This also implies Earth has such energies, which presumably human biology is highly attuned to. The effects on human biology of prolonged exposure to such different energies may be quite bad. It may also be nothing, but

    As for the anthology, I think I’ll submit them and then whichever ones are rejected I’ll send to Mythic. If all are rejected, well mythic will get a few more stories (spread out since they say no multiple submissions).

    Finally, for Mars, I think there is a high chance we will drop at least a few freeze dried corpses on the planet. To be honest, I’m not even sure the trip there is survivable, given the effects even short exposure to space has on the human body, and the sheer difficulty in getting there….

  129. Love that list of classic novels straight out of my childhood. Oh, and some obsessive tech geeks were not physically equipped to get an erection. Drool down our blouses, yes. Though I must admit we were few and far between. What a lovely walk down memory lane you had to offer?

    And as for Dejah Thoris and the brass bra, no argument there. What I called the Simple Reversal” gender politics story bored me sick very early on, though some authors had a plausible version in which man’s place was on the battlefield, period, end of story. Still simplistic in its social arrangements but a lot more plasuble. (Who kept the home front going for the Vikings, Eric?)

  130. JMG, thinking more about your essay, I’m beginning to think that biomes trump planets. Think about Earth: coral reefs, jungles, conifer forests, deciduous forests, grasslands, chaparral, deserts, tundras. It’s like a whole solar system of planets compressed into one–with each “planet” offering an atmosphere of oxygen, 1g gravity, etc. I say “planet” because, in the planets of filmed scifi are generally one-biome planets: the ice world of Hoth (Star Wars), the desert planet of Tatoonie (Star Wars), the jungle planet (end of first Star Wars, Avatar), the windswept mountain planet (Alien, Aliens, Prometheus). And as you had mentioned, Venus as a jungle planet, Mars as a struggling desert world, etc. Preserving a biome here on Earth–or allowing a new one to develop–versus roaming a thousand airless worlds.

  131. @ Ben…

    I think you ought to find a gun collector and ask him to let you actually shoot a musket. Maybe at least heft it and handle it. They are NOT like today’s rifles, and are much longer – harder to use than a typical carbine.

    You should also buy yourself a compound bow, used, with cams. You can hold a 60# pull with a single finger with those babies. Crossbows don’t have the rapid fire capability due to their heavier springs and the need to be cocked. They also tend to hang up on every branch and stick in your path, which is why we sling them on our backs when using them.

    Experiment and see which you think would fit your scenario. Reading about arms is very different from using them. The majority of hunters cannot string a simple recurve bow in less than 30 seconds. The majority of people don’t know the difference between bows and strings or fletching. It actually takes me about 5-7 seconds to string mine, and I am an old guy…LOL

    As JMG said, water power isn’t going away, so manufacturing will be possible. I just think that for manufacturing to work out effectively, you need to have the front lines of any military adventures far away from the factory – because I would gun for that right off the bat. One flaming arrow and poof!

    And there was a reason Rambo opted for a bow – there aren’t very many quiet rifles, even with a suppressor.

  132. JMG
    Regarding mid-century SF, thanks for the link to the list of 100 you gave to Gavin H. I mentioned in an earlier comment above my having junked my extensive collection of such stories in 1975. That list has taken me down memory lane. I guess I had all but half a dozen on my shelf at one time. No going back … eh?
    You have relevantly mentioned before about being badly bullied as a kid. Not if you had been in my gang! I have been interested in social structures ever since childhood and later when walking beneath the radar of targeted random violence, i.e. the boyos “looking for trouble”, if you know what I mean.
    And I remember in the broader context asking the question why no Plato, Socrates or Aristotle and such, when we lived in a town probably bigger than Ancient Athens. The school we attended was a mess of contradiction and dysfunction. That set me thinking when I was about 10, but I still have no answers.
    Phil H

  133. Oilman,

    Just yesterday I dealt with someone who apparently sincerely thinks the Lord of the Rings movies came first and was unhappy that “this Tolkien guy” added stuff to it that changed things….

    It seems to happen a lot more than the other way around

  134. Hi JMG,

    With respect to the societies in traditional Japan, I would propose that it was exactly the Samurai’s cultural beliefs (if that is who you were in fact thinking of) around the need for an honorable death that allowed them to engage in seppuku or ritual suicide without hesitation. I am not sure at all about their religious beliefs, although at some points were not Samurai also believers in Pure Land Buddhism and the afterlife? I’m guessing you know much more about it.

    I do fully agree with you that as the Industrial age passes us by, death will once again become a familiar face in our lives, and our attitudes to it will change. Mostly, I’m just wondering (in a very roundabout way, it seems) what new stories we will tell ourselves about it, and the afterlife, once it is clear that “going to the stars” is no longer an option.

    Sorry, late in the blog cycle for a reply here.

  135. @John Roth
    “The myth that the Greeks could have invented technology if they’d cared is certainly well established, but it’s on a par with the idea that I could fly if I had wings.”

    I presume by “technology” you mean “fossil-fueled machines” because of course the Greeks had some very cool technologies (cf: Antikythera mechanism). Apparently there are myths about Athena in which her associated owl was a mechanical owl named Bubo, made by Hephaestus, who was able to fly and smart enough to get herself into trouble. I am sure the real Greeks could not make a metal owl that could fly, but if no complex metal device that could move or calculate had been known to them, they would not have been likely to imagine a super-device with Bubo’s capacities. Yet until one has been found, why, that’s just silly….

    @James M. Jensen
    I saw the eclipse from my institution’s nature reserve located near the center of the path of totality. It was truly amazing. Most of the video you see on TV does not even accurately show what totality looks like, though the still pictures can be pretty good.

  136. @Ganesh, Yeah, one of the difficult lessons this job has taught me is that a truly spectacular level of intelligence is no protection from being a true believer. A big part of my inner monologue is wondering, “How can you be SO SMART and yet SO STOOPID??2” (gullible, unquestioning, whatever…) 🙂

  137. Thanks for mentioning Aurora. I keep forgetting that I want to read it.

    Though there are plenty of exceptions, most of my generation (Millennials) seem pretty unfazed by fact that our spacefaring future never arrived, probably because most of us were born well into the shuttle era. I realized I was an outlier in my late high school years, when I was enraptured by a speech Bush II gave about a new manned spaceflight program (which turned out to be vaporware) but all of my friends were far more interested in the D&D game then in progress. In retrospect, it was a microcosm of the supplanting of (aspirational) sci-fi by (pure) fantasy that Oilman2 described. It’s been a bitter pill to swallow for someone raised on Heinlein and Star Trek. My wife thinks Star Trek is dumb, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar gave her an anxiety attack. She’s probably better adjusted than I am.

    I’m reminded of a comment on one of your posts about the non-future of manned spaceflight on The Archdruid Report, something to the effect of “The eagle has landed, back in its nest in the tall tree by the lake, on the only planet known to exist where the sun, air, water, and land come together in such a way that the eagle can live. It’s really not such a bad planet to be stuck on, after all.” That was one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful remarks I have ever read.

  138. You’ve probably answered this before, but what do you think the socio-technical “level” immediately below us is? What do you think society will be like after the first phase of catabolic collapse?

    As for resource constraints… Terra is blessed with abundant Iron Ore, among other metals. A civilisation on a planet without such resources would find it’s metallurgical ability stunted once they’ve used up what meteoritic sources they have, if they even developed metallurgy. No metals, no spaceships – and also no rifles, railways, engines, swords, rakes, scythes, shovels… However, they could still have bows, printing, wheels (though not as good without metal to band them), domestic animals, potato (well, their equivalent) farming (high yield for it’s labour with very low technology, freeing up important time for other purposes) etc.

  139. @ Will J…

    LOLOL… Well, what can one expect when reading books written on paper is at best considered “quaint” and often considered downright dumb. There is an entire generation of Americans out there in the wild that cannot do multiplication or division without their smartphones. When the hurricanes hit here years back, we were agog that the kids trying to handle cash couldn’t make change without a calculator. Those ‘kids’ are now ten years older. My grandkids are not being taught to write in pre-school, which floored my daughter.

    It is going to be quite the bumpy road down on the back side of the oil curve. Good thing it will be in slow motion, until it isn’t. “Teach your children well” got lost in the dust bin I reckon.

    @ Stefania…

    I think that when people have to kill to obtain meat, or when there isn’t anyone to take the bodies away and dispose of them – death will be right there for them to see. Today, it is something that happens ‘elsewhere’ or ‘later, when I get really old’. I doubt the Syrians are quite as unfamiliar with it as Americans, or Westerners in general, seem to be.

    I recall walking in an Indonesian market and seeing ducks and chickens hanging plucked and gutted, ready for the pot. I was imagining what they would taste like when cooked. ‘My fellow Americans’ turned away and ducked their heads uniformly. I didn’t, which is why I noticed them doing it. Death is everywhere, and good thing or else we would be quite crowded!

  140. @ Ben…

    What the spring could do is related to the diameter and the steel used. What happens in practice is that the heavier the projectile, the longer, or thicker or stronger the spring must become, in order to toss the projectile within the confines of a rifle shape. There is also the issue of cocking the spring, which these pellet rifles do by splitting in two and opening the chamber that holds the pellet.

    You reach a point of diminishing returns when you try to use springs – they get too fat or long, the gun gets bigger and heavier and clunkier, etc. My best guess is that if someone wanted to, they could make one about .2 or .3 caliber. After that, things get iffy due to length and strength and weight.

    Knockdown power is important for some things, not so much for others. .22 will clear the skull and then ricochet around within, making scrambled eggs – that is plenty lethal enough if you aren’t in a hurry.

    Have fun imagining, but do try and get your hands around the things and places or people you will write about. There isn’t any substitute for having “been there”…

  141. @ Patricia

    Aye, Viking women had a reputation for being strong-willed, self-reliant and independent-minded. They had to be. Someone had to take care of the home front while the men were away from home for long periods. Viking women had much higher social status and more rights than most women back in those days, especially when compared with Christian and Islamic women of the time.

    I can see that archetype in my own family background. I come from an old school military family and my father was a naval officer who was gone much of the time. Even when he wasn’t out at sea, he worked long hours when in port or assigned to shore duty. My mother was an archetypical Viking woman in the modern world. My sister Kate and my cousin Kelly also married naval officers. They definitely fit the female Viking archetype as well. Both work in traditionally male fields themselves. My sister is a paramedic, while my cousin is an engineer who works for the Navy. She always tells people who ask about her work “I could tell you about what I do for a living, but then I’d have to kill you” and she means it. While I have no respect for the fashionable misandry being promoted by the left these days, I admire women like that.

    Incidentally, for many medieval Scandinavian women, the end of the Viking era was actually a step backwards since they lost most of their legal rights and much of their social status with the coming of Christianity.

    From a biological perspective, it makes more sense for the men to go off to war and engage in other high risk ventures away from home while the women take care of the home front. Men are physically stronger and have higher levels of testosterone, so they tend to have the advantage in combat, while women tend to be better at nurturing than men. Men are also more expendable, an important consideration when most people are living in small communities and the survival of the tribe or clan is what counts.

    Even though it is terribly unfashionable and dreadfully un-PC to say these days, there are biological differences between men and women. The cheap energy economy and the imperial wealth pump has permitted many of us who live in America and Europe to ignore those differences and pretend they don’t exist. With the Long Descent gathering momentum and the new Age of Barbarism that is coming, our descendants won’t have that luxury.

    Personally, I don’t think men or women are superior to one another, but there are differences that any healthy society will take into account. Both the masculine and feminine roles are necessary and complementary. Neither should be devalued or dishonored. My ideal is a network of strong, decentralized tribal cultures and local communities based on an organic model.

  142. James, delighted to hear it! I have high hopes for this anthology — and I’m beginning to sketch out the outline of another, which will be announced in January, and will be on a very different and (to my mind) equally exciting theme.

    Will, that’s actually been discussed by occultists. A colony on Mars, for example, would have a massive but steady Martial influence; it wouldn’t be influenced by Earth’s Moon at all, which is a huge astrological influence here; it would have the additional influence of its own moons, Phobos and Deimos, the astrological effects of which would have to be worked out by observation over time, the way the effects of Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were worked out in recent centuries, and the Kuiper Belt worlds are being worked out right now; and in all probability, Mercury would be so close to the Sun when seen from the orbit of Mars that it wouldn’t be a separate influence at all. If it were possible for humans to settle Mars, which it almost certainly isn’t, a couple of centuries of hard work would be needed to get Martian astrology past the tentative-guess stage. (It occurs to me that this could be a fun detail for an Old Solar System story — Martian astrology written by native Martians could be seriously cool.)

    Patricia, so noted, and of course that’s a good point. It’s simply that all the in-your-face hard SF fans I’ve ever met happened to be male.

    Greg, excellent! You get today’s gold star for catching a crucial detail. There are a few alien planets in SF that have more than a single Terran biome to offer, but just a few. Now combine that with the way that the Earth will be getting much larger again as fossil fuels run out, and the consequences become interesting…

    Phil, all those books can be bought on the used book market for a pound or two each, so going back may not be as difficult as it seems… 😉

    Stefania, nah, the majority of samurai during the sengoku jidai, the period of feudal wars, were into Zen rather than Pure Land Buddhism; Pure Land was mostly popular among the mercantile classes, as I recall. But it wasn’t just the samurai who treated suicide as an ordinary act suitable in many circumstances; the same attitude could be found all through feudal Japanese culture. It became so common for couples who couldn’t marry, for whatever reason, to commit suicide together that the shogun’s government at one point issued an edict forbidding plays on that theme, in order to decrease the frequency of copycat suicides.

    I’d also point out, as I mentioned in my earlier comment, that this sort of thing isn’t just Japanese. Read up sometime on traditional Inuit attitudes toward end-of-life issues; for those who think that clinging to life at all costs is hardwired into humanity, this can be a real eye-opener.

    Anthony, I’m really glad to hear that. The sooner people ditch the fantasy that we can trash this planet and head to another, the more likely we are to do something constructive about the mess we’re in right here.

  143. Cassandra, it’s a mistake to think of technology as occupying fixed levels, and to imagine societies popping up to one level or down to another. Every society’s technology is a bricolage of assorted technological suites, some of which are very old, others of which are much more recent. Today’s automobiles, for example, are 1889 technology with an assortment of stylistic gimmicks added on, and then a frosting of the latest computer technology spread over the surface with a trowel. What “level” are they?

    This is even more the case in eras of technological decline, because you have legacy technologies that have been kept going by scrounging spare parts, plus fallback technologies that survived from earlier periods and then got useful again, plus new technologies invented by people scrambling to come up with fixes for current problems. In Dark Age Britain, for example, nobody remembered how to make pottery on a wheel any more — the industry had become overcentralized in Roman times — so wooden dishes came back into use; surviving Roman fortifications were patched up and reused where possible; and the quality of steel in swords and the like actually went up, as smart local blacksmiths figured out tricks that put more carbon into sword blades.

    Thus the “next step” as our current technology begins to shut down will most likely be a complete mess, with internal combustion engines here, horses there, whatever weapons and tools can be scrounged or cobbled together, and a scattering of computers here and there where electricity can be generated, until the supply of spare parts runs out. Five hundred years down the road, in the dark age communities of deindustrial North America, you might see ultralight airplanes powered by alcohol-fueled engines as the prestige weapons platform of the better grade of local warlords, whose warbands otherwise ride horses and carry handmade rifles, while the local peasantry grows food using techniques descended from 20th century organic farming methods, and technologists with roughly the social status of early medieval wizards cobble together radio gear, simple printing presses, and homebrew antibiotics.

    There’s a whole post in this, and maybe more than one. Stay tuned!

  144. @OIlman2 – Working on an ambulance got me ‘around things’ plenty! While I was working in Wilmington, D, the city police department found that .22s killed more people than larger rounds, though they didn’t make up a majority of GSWs. My guess is that .22s are easier for untrained people to shoot accurately. Also, with all the adrenaline dumped into their bloodstream, the victim/target is less likely to notice they’ve been shot by a smaller round, so they run around and bleed to death before they can get to a hospital.
    My father and I have been building a cap-lock black powder rifle by hand over the last few weeks. Short of joining a reenacting troupe, I doubt I’ll be around much black powder warfare anytime soon though. Fortunately for the stories I’m sketching out, de-industrial warfare will be the background for some of the stories, but certainly not all of them,

  145. Eric – I’m with you all the way on that one. Iceland’s law code concerning women was a light-year ahead of anything we have here in the States, or just about anywhere else. Except, possibly, modern Scandinavia?

    Shakes head – I’ve gone as far as I can go at UNM is studying the Northern materials. We have a top-notch Medieval Studies department at UNM, but the best it can offer is a minor in the subject. When you move up the course ladder, you get deeply into details of manuscript conservation and suchlike. Our world-class Anglo-Saxon studies professor, Dr Helen D’Amico, retired a few years back, with nobody to take her place. But our annual visiting scholar program is top-notch, and the current one is from Iceland.

  146. @JMG re s/f’s techbros – oh, Gaia, yes. Jean Lamb called my attention to the fact that Worldcon’s Sad Puppies exemplify the breed. I am very grateful that Albuquerque’s own sf society (whose annual convention I’ll be attending this coming weekend) is nothing of the sort.

  147. JMG and Oilman,

    Yikes! I certainly don’t want to go on the record here as saying death is something bad that must be feared and life must be clung to at all costs. I don’t actually think that – just that our response to death is socially constructed depending on the particular circumstances of the society, and also that because of the emotion of sadness that can come along with death, people often construct ideas of an afterlife to help manage those feelings, and help make sense of it all. But I personally don’t think sadness, or death are inherently “bad” in any way, just another part of our existence.

    I’m trying to approach this as a conversation and not an argument, albeit a somewhat time-delayed one with 90% of what we are trying to communicate being left out, with no body language, tone of voice, eye contact etc to aid in getting our messages across. But I can also accept that maybe if my point isn’t getting across well, it’s because the point wasn’t that good in the first place, not well articulated, just plain wrong, my cultural blinders are still firmly in place, or some combination of those factors! So with all that said, thanks for reading and ‘listening’ to me try to think through some issues that have been going through my mind lately.

  148. @ JMG … (Your reply to Cassandra…)

    I have what you describe going on now at our farm. It has been forced by acknowledging the future that many of us see ahead. It is a total hodge-podge of tech levels.

    I could have made a farm just like everyone else – ez-peezy. Instead, we are building to last and using simpler systems that can be easily fixed or replaced. 12VDC lighting powered by solar for out-buildings, bridges going up for horses and 4-wheelers, water being moved by solar pumps and ram pumps and we are going to make a snail pump this year too. Replacement solar charging panels are already bought and stored for these things, 2 per installation.

    We are trying to reduce expense and opt for systems that can be fixed – no digital except for satellite downlink, as there is no phone service and landline installation is in excess of $2000. It takes some thinking when making even simple decisions…

  149. @Dewey

    You said: “I presume by “technology” you mean “fossil-fueled machines” ”

    Please check your presumptions. I am not an idiot, completely oblivious to the direction of this forum.

    There are many ways of getting the mechanical power to run a decent 19th century manufactury. This was discussed on ADR several years ago at some length; belt-driven machines as well as machines driven by compressed air were fairly common before electric motors took over in the early 20th c. The former technologies, and others, can be driven quite handily by water power – water wheels and turbines. It’s also possible to run them with wind power, ie. Dutch style windmills, although there are problems with it being intermittent. Those problems have solutions, but they’re not pretty.

    Yes, there was a pretty sophisticated gear technology for toys to amuse the elite. How useful the Greeks considered them can be seen by the utter lack of examples other than the Anthikara (sp?) mechanism and the occasional mention in surviving works. They could also do quite good stuff with levers – remember Archimedes famous comment about “give me a long enough lever and a place to rest it, and I will move the world.” The “god machine” used in religious plays is another example of the use of levers.

    As JMG has mentioned several times, a culture has a central theme that it works out; when it’s reached the end of that theme’s possibilities, it declines. I agree completely, but for somewhat different reasons. The theme of Greek culture was not the same as the theme of our culture, and the theme of the cultures that follow ours will undoubtedly be different from either.

    If a cow was a duck, it would be able to quack. However, a cow is not a duck, and no matter how much one wants it to, it will not quack. A horse is a perfectly fine animal in its own right, but no matter how much you work with it, it will never sing.

  150. @oilman2

    According to the fount of all knowledge, compound bows are maintenance heavy. There are enough moving parts that have to be crafted just right to get the profile you want that I seriously doubt they could be of practical use in major battles.

  151. Thank you for all the possible titles and leads to the stories I mentioned! I will hunt them down and reread them. After 40 years, this should be interesting…

  152. “That’s the core argument at the heart of the theory of catabolic collapse: it costs so much to maintain a civilization over time, and those costs mount up so relentlessly, that sooner or later the maintenance costs outrun the available budget of resources, labor, etc., and stuff has to be allowed to fall apart.”

    I have spent the past week.pondering this lesson in the context of a lifetime. I fell off my bike and ended up in hospital, and still have no memory of what happened. I am home now and applying comfrey to my broken rib and torn kidney, but it strikes me that parts of me have to be allowed to fall apart. I am in need of grace.

  153. @Will J
    The energies from the planets are filtered, modified from energy emitted by the Sun. It is called astral light.

    There is an excellent article on it at the archives of The Well of Galabes, “Surfing the Astral Light. ”

    It powers life on Earth. I’m very afraid one of the reasons why there is no interstellar travel is that you can’t bottle it to carry inside your spaceship.

    And regarding the local influence of planet filtering, who knows if Earth life is compatible with Mars subtle energies. Or other planets. It would be very unfortunate if the target of a multigenerational spaceship had this problem, even if everything physical was right with it.

  154. For you folks wondering about war in a resource constrained future, you may wish to read “Fitzpatrick’s War” by Theodore Judson.

    Set in the 25th century, 30 million people in North America, resource depletion.

    All the good stuff, a good read

  155. @John Roth
    “Please check your presumptions. I am not an idiot…”

    I didn’t think or suggest that you were, but my intention was to check YOUR presumptions, or get you to check them. First, you used the word “technology” in the singular, and second, you suggested that “inventing technology” would have been as impossible for the Greeks as flying without wings would be for you. Now, if by that you didn’t mean modern fueled machinery, since people from your culture invent technologIES all the time, saying that the Greeks were and could not avoid being incapable of doing so equates to saying that they were inherently your mental inferiors. (What are the “wings” that they lacked?) Hard to justify given their track record.

    Incidentally, the archeological survival of one well-designed fancy gizmo is evidence not only of the capacity of one person to produce that single gizmo, but the extreme likelihood that quite a few other gizmos, initially less skilful but of increasing quality, were produced. It’s so vanishingly rare for a fully functional complex device to be produced de novo, without less complicated prior products, and made only once and never again, that it is more logical to assume that for every one relic you find, a hundred did not survive.

  156. John Michael Greer:

    My apologies for the confusing post. I agree, or at least don’t disagree, that too much complexity, especially poorly designed and maintained, is a weak spot. However, I disagree that the reason that more people are working more hours for less is because of our civilization’s increasing complexity.

    The productivity of workers is increasing all the time but the distribution of the production is becoming more unequal more quickly. Paying an office worker not enough for even a studio apartment while a VP, especially in finance, can get multiple multi acre estates with helipad, or golf course, is seriously unbalanced. The education, work ethic, and productivity is not that different. Just their social connections.

  157. First, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion that we can predict the future. SF authors are -even worse- at this than professional futurists, and that’s saying something.

    When someone says “X will happen”, they’re actually saying “I want X” (or “I am using X as a horrible prospect to frighten you”.)

    But really, we just… don’t… know. And in the nature of things, we _can’t_ know. We can have hopes and fears and guesses, and that’s it.

    Hell, we can’t even predict oil prices in the next decade. Remember when it was never going to drop below $100 a barrel ever again? Remember when lithium-ion batteries could never be viable for large-scale energy storage? Remember when solar power would never come down enough to be practical?

    We will always be surprised.

    So the idea that it’s “realistic” to suppose that we already know all the possible physics is absolutely laughable. The one thing we -can- know is that we -don’t- know it all; actual scientists all agree on that. Our physics is pretty good as far as it goes, but we understand only a fraction of how the universe functions; and of course our capacity to -use- the universe is a function of how well we understand it.

    Projecting a future 200 years from now in which we build interstellar ships with technology that’s just a straight-line extrapolation of what’s available in 2017 is like someone in 1717 imagining a future of ever-more-sophisticated wooden sailing ships… only it’s rather obviously far more dumb now, because we have more historical experience to draw on.

    Hence, Robinson’s “Aurora” is profoundly dumb. I think he’s developed a misanthropic bee in the bonnet, and wants to punish everyone and make them eat their tofu and do as he says after he shakes a stern, admonishing finger at them.

    So we simply don’t know what’s technologically possible in the next century or so; any attempt at prediction will be wrong most of the time, and right occasionally only on the “shotgun” or “stopped clock”.

    One good thing that Musk has done is to revive the notion, which NASA tried to kill, of “learning from failure”. He didn’t sit down and weep when a rocket blew up; he just set his tech people to learning from the mistake. Result: now reusing rockets is routine. And they said it couldn’t be done… except that the Beast of Bezos is doing it now too. Everyone else in the business has to follow suit or go bust; there’s just no choice.

    Billionaires successfully modeling themselves on Heinlein characters wouldn’t have looked too realistic 30 years ago, would it?

    Cf. what I said about predicting the future. You can’t, but sometimes you can -make- the future.

    The moral: if you try, you may fail. If you don’t try, you will certainly fail. Don’t paralyze yourself by trying to imagine every possible detail, and don’t take counsel of your fears (or anyone else’s). Do your best, try, learn from setbacks, accept that bad shit will happen along the way, keep going.

    Musk’s approach to Martian colonization has the same virtues: he’s ready to accept losses and learn from mistakes/failures, and just keep on trying until it works without any ironclad assurance that it will ever work. This may or may not succeed; he doesn’t know and neither does anyone else… but it will certainly not succeed if not tried.

    Historical analogue:

    Colonizing the eastern seaboard of what’s now the US from England was hideously dangerous and uncertain with the technology available in the early 17th century. The ships were small and slow and expensive and nobody knew anything about new disease environments.

    The first attempts were catastrophic, humiliating, deadly failures. Roanoke was such a complete failure that to this day nobody has figured out exactly what happened, except that “everybody was gone when the ship arrived”.

    Then Virginia succeeded… just barely.

    The “Susan Constant” dropped anchor in the James River in 1607, and within two years nearly all the settlers who came ashore were dead, of everything from arrows to typhus to starvation to salt poisoning.

    Since they cleverly managed to pick a spot on a tidal estuary where the water tasted fresh but was dangerously salty, and their own wastes hung around and poisoned them.

    The next fleet’s colonists survived… a very little longer, except than then there were disasters like the 1622 war with the Powhatan which nobody expected.

    Over the next century, something on the order of 150,000-200,000 colonists arrived; the net population at the beginning of the 1700’s was around 90,000 or a bit less, approximately half of whom were still immigrants; so of 150,000 immigrants, about 45,000 were still alive and had about 45,000 living children and grandchildren.

    The rest just died.

    By then the population had started to grow from natural increase, but it took a full century of trying… and dying… and trying… and dying… advancing an inch at a time and building on the last guy’s bones while trying to figure out how to survive in this weird alien environment by the “Polish Mine Detector” method.

    The moral, part deux: successful expansion requires a high degree of risk tolerance, a very high degree of ruthlessness and a willingness to smash stuff and let the consequences fall where they may to be dealt with later.

    You can’t tell what’s going to happen, but you can make things happen.

    As Marx put it, the purpose of civilization is to free us from the determinism of nature.

  158. Stephen, I don’t normally respond to comments on old posts, but because you’re a fellow writer (and a good one), I’ll make an exception here. I’d take arguments like yours much more seriously if they weren’t always used in such a one-sided way, to prop up a very narrow range of notions about where progress is supposed to take us and to dodge the hard questions about those notions. Saying “we can’t know the future, therefore we can still pretend that the interstellar future can happen” dodges the entire question of whether it’s actually a good idea to throw our remaining resource base and capacities for innovation into space travel, say, instead of the scores of other places — for example, making our existing technological base less dependent on rapidly depleting nonrenewable resources — where it would arguably be much more useful.

    More broadly, it’s a repeated source of wry amusement to me that so many believers in the secular religion of progress only insist that we can’t predict the future when somebody makes predictions they don’t like. Of course we can predict the future; we all do it, all the time, with tolerable success — I suspect you have a pretty good idea, for example, of where you’ll be living and what you’ll be doing with your time a year from now, and you’ll probably be right. The most common cause of failure in prediction is when the data point one way and passionate emotional commitments point a different way. That’s why so many popular predictions of the future land flat — flying cars, commuting by jetpack, cities on the Moon by 2000 AD, and so on all appeal powerfully to certain deeply moving emotional patterns in our collective psyche, so it doesn’t matter that they make no economic sense.

    On the off chance you’re interested, I posted a discussion a while back about one of the main reasons we can be tolerably confident that interstellar travel simply isn’t an option; there are plenty of others. Here again, I know that this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of our time, but I’d like to suggest that this particular kind of dissent also deserves a hearing.

    BTW, did you ever receive the copy of my novel Star’s Reach I sent you? Several of your longtime fans asked me to send it — they thought you would enjoy it. I’m quite prepared to hear that you hated it, but I’d be interested in knowing if you took a look at it or not.

  159. I didn’t see any reference to what I am about to say while scrolling through the comments, but excuse me for repeating something if I missed it.

    First, yes, I think we are in the process of providing proof of why it is difficult, if not impossible, to create a long-lived high-tech civilization on a small planet, and I think we are erroneous in equating intelligence and high-tech. If we were more intelligent, we would not be chewing through the planet’s carbon and other substances so quickly.

    That said, I think the notion of building a machine that travels through “space” to get to another star makes about as much sense as creating the technology that might enable someone to drive a cart pulled by a team of horses from Europe to North America along the ocean floor, or requiring everyone who wants to get to the upper floors of tall buildings to do so by rock-climbing the outside of the building.

    If there is interstellar travel, I think it would be taking place through some kind of “controlled wormhole” that creates a “shortcut” from one star system, or planet, to another, through other dimensions than the ones we largely inhabit. And how would the directors of such a wormhole know where to go? For those able to perceive those other dimensions, there might be some kind of resonance between similar planets.

    But that’s total speculation, of course.

    My own favorite science fiction writer is Doris Lessing, whose “Canopus in Argos: Archives” and “Briefing for a Descent Into Hell,” written in the late 70’s and early 80’s, seem to do a pretty good job of explaining where we are now, and how we got here, to the point where I have wondered if they are really “fiction.” While she doesn’t specifically state what I outlined, it seems to be one of the ways her characters travel. The other way they get here is by being born into a human body, taking the chance that they will not be able to recall who they are and why they came here. That one definitely feels familiar!

  160. I fully endorse your recommendation of Doris Lessing’s “Canopus in Argos:Archives”. It is decades since I read them as a callow youth and am now impelled to reread them because, at the time, there was so much I did not understand or agree with.
    I wonder whether modern readers would be able to cope with her erudite and dense style?

  161. Your post reminded me of the dry remark about space travel from “The Sirens of Titan”:

    “The bounties of space, of infinite outwardness, were three: empty heroics, low comedy, and pointless death.”

    Even in his half-ironic sci-fi mode c. 1959, Vonnegut couldn’t quite trust in the breathless futurism of the genre.

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