We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Let’s cheer up about technology

Optimistic science fiction does not create a belief in technological progress. It reflects it. Stephenson and Thiel are making a big mistake when they propose a vision of the good future that dismisses the everyday pleasures of ordinary people – that, in short, leaves out consumers. This perspective is particularly odd coming from a fiction writer and a businessman whose professional work demonstrates a keen sense of what people will buy. People are justifiably wary of grandiose plans that impose major costs on those who won’t directly reap their benefits. They’re even more wary if they believe that the changes of the past have brought only hardship and destruction. If Stephenson wants to make people more optimistic about the future and more likely to undertake difficult technological challenges, he shouldn’t waste his time writing short stories about two-kilometer-high towers.

Virginia Postrel.

Samizdata quote of the day after tomorrow

The real conspiracy is hiding the fact that the US government has had FTL and time travel technology since the 1950s. The first sightings were USAF space-time machines being tested on backwards jaunts of about 5 to 10 years. Navigation was a problem in the early days.

Why keep it a secret? Would you want the Soviets to get that technology or face average Americans rushing off into the void to claim their own planets? Real smooth way to crash the economy and get a bunch of people lost in space and time.

But now that NASA has gone public with their starship program and the astronomers have started naming ‘earth like’ extrasolar planets it’s only a matter of time before they announce a FTL breakthrough. How do I know all this? I pulled it out of my ass and why would my ass lie to me?

– Commenter “AlfredHerring”, trumping this Guardian article claiming that the real UFO conspiracy consisted of the US government faking their existence.

Meet the culture war – in deep space

I continue to read science fiction quite a good deal these days – it seems to be a trait of libertarian-leaning folk – and I noticed that Eric Raymond has an essay up on why some people, such as those that tilt left, are trying to make life tough for those with a different perspective. In this era of self-publishing and all the possibilities created by tech (something SF fans don’t need reminding of) it is surely particularly silly for any group to try and boss others around.

In a nutshell, Raymond says that certain types of science fiction writers suffer from “literary status envy”.

Here is a good paragraph:

Almost the worst possible situation is the one we are in now, in which over the last couple of decades the editorial and critical establishment of SF has been (through a largely accidental process) infiltrated by people whose judgment has been partly or wholly rotted out by literary status envy. The field’s writers, too, are often diminished and distorted by literary status envy. Meanwhile, the revealed preferences of SF fans have barely changed. This is why a competent hack like David Weber can outsell every Nebula winner combined by huge margins year after year after year.

To those on the outside, this all may seem fairly petty stuff, and in a way, it is. It is, I suppose, a phenomenon of what gets called “the culture war”; it is also, perhaps, a sign of how there have always been attempts – sometimes successful – to create things such as literary “establishments”, with the attendant phenomenon of people pressing their noses against the window, as it were. T’was ever thus. In the end, so long as there are low barriers to entry into writing such fiction, and a free market in the production and distribution of said, then the kind of science fiction I want to read will exist.

From the earth’s core to the uttermost star: how far up and down should property rights extend?

I see that government ministers have authorised an expansion of fracking in the UK. In general anything that riles up the Greens pleases me. But only in general.

As I understand it – OK, make that “I think I remember reading somewhere” – it has hitherto been the case in the UK that if you own a property you also own what lies below, not just immediately below such that you can prevent someone excavating their bomb shelter under your house, but all the way down in a long thin cone to the Earth’s core. So a property owner can forbid fracking beneath their land however deep the drilling. Anyone know, is this right? And whether it is or not, should it be?

I really do remember reading somewhere a science fiction story in which the entire universe had been assigned to various Earthly nations based on what cone of sky was above the territory of each country at midnight on a particular date. I cannot recall how or if that story dealt with either the effects of terrestrial boundary disputes, possible objections from as yet undiscovered alien species at their involuntary inclusion in one of these thin but infinite empires, or the curvature of spacetime. Granted that “to the edge, if such exists, of the universe” is taking property rights a tad too far, how far above your house should your property rights go?

A Marxist throws down the space-gauntlet

Why outer space really is the final frontier for capitalism

The question is, why haven’t the moon’s resources been thoroughly plundered by now? Why hasn’t it provided us with the energy necessary to colonise the rest of space? I’ll tell you why: it’s because capitalism is weak and timid.

In principle, it shouldn’t be this way. Capitalism, said Rosa Luxemburg, always needs a periphery. There needs to be a non-capitalist outside to appropriate – new land, new resources, to provide profitable investment opportunities. Whether it takes the form of colonisation, privatising public goods, turfing peasants off their lands or creating “intellectual property”, there is a need to accumulate beyond the existing realm of capitalist property relations.

The geographer David Harvey points out that the world capitalist system needs to find $1.5tn profitable investment opportunities today in order to keep growing at its historical average of 3% a year. In 20 years’ time, it will need to find $3tn

Let he who dares accept the challenge in proper fashion. Still, betcha Richard Seymour will be the first to complain when the space barons do start exporting capitalist property relations where no man has gone before.

The ideal gift for the person who has everything

From the world of Star Wars.

Maybe Samizdata’s own Paul Marks could get one and send a death ray in the general direction of the Economist.

The Golden Age

The Golden Age ; The Phoenix Exultant ; The Golden Transcendence by John C. Wright.

Politics, which is the recourse to the use of force to organize interpersonal relationships, was unknown to the majority of the citizens of the Golden Oecumene.

I am always looking for science fiction that is not lessened by the author’s flawed worldview. In the Golden Age trilogy I found that and then some.

There are three volumes but this is one long novel. I found it to be money and time well spent.

This is a far future tale set in what is almost a post-scarcity economy: humans have immortality thanks to mind recording; vast energy and computational resources; can tailor their sensory experiences however they wish; and can choose between living in their own invented universes, the real world, or anything in between. But the laws of economics still apply: the author realises that there is still scarcity of human effort and attention. Phaethon, the protagonist, is attempting to achieve “deeds of renown, without peer”, and it is a struggle. Says the author in an interview he gave:

There would still be rich and poor, even if the poorest of the poor were absurdly well off by our standards. No advancements can eliminate differences in the abilities of men, or the differences in how men value the abilities of their fellow man (which is what causes inequality of prices and hence of incomes).

There is artificial intelligence, the most advanced of which are self-aware computers called Sophotechs who have intelligence vastly superior to humans, and it is possible to argue that the existence of these would make humans redundant. However, from the novel:

“It is true that the Sophotechs can perform any of these operations more swiftly and more efficiently than can we. But it is also true that they cannot do everything at once, at every place at once, as cheaply as everyone wishes. There is always someone somewhere who wants some further things done, some further work accomplished. There is always someone willing to pay much less for work moderately less well done.”

The setting is the Golden Oecumene, a solar-system spanning civilisation. In the interview the author describes the depicted society as a libertarian utopia with no public property. This state of affairs has persisted for so long that characters find violence unthinkable. If there were to be violence it would be dealt with swiftly by robotic constables. There is a parliament which does very little, and a rarely used court system. Most contractual disputes are worked out by Sophotech arbitrators. Finally, there is the College of Hortators. → Continue reading: The Golden Age

Neill Blomkamp must be living in some parallel universe

Neill Blomkamp must be living in some parallel universe as he speaks about his new film “Elysium”:

The 33-year-old film-maker, who moved from South Africa to Canada as a teenager, adds that “healthcare, immigration and class” are his targets, and “it’s not really the future I’m talking about”. “It’s not science fiction. This is now. The divide between rich and poor is getting more and more extreme.”

Actually Neill, never in human history has there been a smaller percentage of humanity living one failed harvest away from communal starvation. Is the divide between rich and poor actually increasing and more extreme than, say, in the eighteenth century? Or any time before then actually? In reality never has a larger percentage of humanity been, by any reasonable definition, middle class, than right now.

The fact large areas of poverty exists at all in our technologically advanced age is a dark miracle wrought largely by state imposed impediments to trade, disincentives to employ, insecurity of private property title and many other government policies of the sort Matt Damon (that tireless supporter of state education whose children are in a private school) strongly approves of.

If I had the option of living in a nifty orbital torus filled with fellow capitalists, I would want it to be well defended too, Neill… mostly in order to keep out all the champagne socialists.

The problem with Doctor Who

I enjoy watching the BBC’s new Doctor Who episodes. They are fun and light and occasionally even have good science fiction ideas. But there is a problem I have always struggled with, and I stumbled on this beautiful description of it:

Now, one might think that a 900 year old time travelling alien who has fought and survived genocidal interstellar wars would have a slightly more mature perspective on socio-economic conditions in late 19th century Britain than would a bien pensant upper-middle-class Islington leftie BBC employee living in the early 21st century. But one would be wrong.

I imagine similar criticism might be made of almost any TV series.

From commenter Steve 2 via another comment about LETELU via David Thompson via Brian.

Robert Charles Wilson

In my ongoing quest to read science fiction with sensible politics and economics, I thought I would give Robert Charles Wilson a try and am reading his novel Spin, which is very enjoyable so far. On his web site he has published some talks he has given, including this:

Total up the man-hours necessary to bring even a cheap conventional color TV into your home, and the result, I suggest, would be absolutely staggering. And that work in turn rests on an absolutely colossal body of prior knowledge, all of it generated piece-by-piece and preserved and transmitted over generations.

This reminded me of the famous pencil essay. He is writing about all the things that went into making a TV advert for a car:

So even something as inherently humble as an automobile commercial stands as striking evidence that we, as a species, have an absolute genius for collaboration. Even without conscious intent — and after all, of all the billions of people necessary to produce that ad, only a handful of them actually wanted it to exist — we can still create something in which our collective ingenuity is embedded and embodied.

Of course, he doesn’t mention what mechanism makes this collaboration possible, but we all know what it is.

Neal Asher

It is by no means necessary for my enjoyment of art that the artist has vaguely sensible political views, but it helps. Looking for a science fiction novel to read, discovering that the latest Alastair Reynolds was something to do with global warming, I instead took Amazon up on one of its recommendations and tried Neal Asher, who has a blog, and at the time had recently written this:

So, Cameron is a nannying statist who wants to stick a minimum price on alcohol per unit. What on Earth is he thinking? Does he think that this will result in fewer pavement pizzas and fat slags crying in the gutter on a Saturday night? Does he think there’ll be less violence on the streets after chucking out time on a Friday and less chaos in A & E over the weekend? If he does think that then he’s an idiot because the people responsible for that drink in bars where the price is already way above his damned 45p a unit.

He has also written favourably about fracking.

The novel I chose was The Departure, the first of the Owner trilogy. If anything it had too much action for my taste. If Alastair Reynolds writes film noir, Neal Asher writes Bruce Willis and explosions. The science is sensible enough: there are no exotic physics and the technologies discussed are robots, giant space stations and brain-computer interfaces. The politics is very interesting. Asher seems to have perceived a slippery slope and extrapolated in the extreme. Something like the EU has, thanks to a complacent populace, taken over the whole planet. This is the Committee and it has long since stopped pretending to be democratic and gone outwardly Orwellian. Cigarettes are illegal; armed robots are used to control rioting crowds; selfish, individualistic dissidents are taken away for readjustment by pain inducer; and clever scientists are allowed to do research useful to the state but are considered a risk and kept under scrutiny or even lock and key. The protagonist is one such scientist who sets out to get revenge.

The action includes novel ways of killing people, fantastic feats of computer hacking to fool officials who trust their computers rather too much, zero-gee small arms combat and lots of expensive things getting destroyed. Interspersed is plenty of discussion of the political situation that has lead to all this.

Statism gets a good kicking. Government is described as the biggest killer on the planet. A Committee member is scorned for her belief in “knowledge-based societal planning”. Fiat currency is scorned when the protagonist uses gold to make a purchase. There is a subtle reference to the purpose of practical politics as described by H L Mencken. In a history of NASA, the agency is described as “moribund under its stifling level of bureaucracy”. One chapter opens with a description of how people obtain things forbidden by the state:

The greater the power and extent of the state, the more room there is for corruption. The more inept state services and industries become, the more pies it takes its huge cut from and the more regulation it imposes, the greater the call for black markets.

Politicians are described as using global crises as an excuse to extend their power globally. The slippery slope is described:

Make the process slow enough to sit below immediate perception and they will grow accustomed to their enslavement; they even might not realize they are wearing any chains at all.

My biggest criticism is that the theme of overpopulation runs strongly through the book. There are food, housing and other resource shortages, and while it is acknowledged that the Committee members are doing very well for themselves, this is very much in a zero sum sense. At one point the protagonist wonders about “the mindless, ever-breeding swarm” governed by the Committee. In a discussion of how government waste prevented development of technology, he claims that the only technology needed was birth control.

The author understands that technology and people can overcome resource shortages. In a sub-plot on Mars, the colony has hydroponics which are somehow not applied on Earth, though robotic farming is. The colony has problems as a result of events back on Earth and the administrators plan to cull the population but the author understands that people create wealth:

Yes, they had problems over food, air and water production and usage and, yes, by killing off many personnel these could be eked out, but they would still eventually run out and those few remaining here would die. Better by far to apply all those useful minds to their present problems, since brainpower was all that could save them.

It is obvious that centralisation and misallocation of resources is enough to cause all of the economic problems described in the book. But none of the characters seem to connect these dots and I am not sure why. I am worried the author has not either. Perhaps the rest of the trilogy will make things clear.

Samizdata futurist quote of the day

“Lots of hard problems have proven to be tractable. The planetary genome and proteome have been mapped so exhaustively that the biosciences are now focusing on the challenge of the phenome – plotting the phase-space defined by the intersection of genes and biochemical structures, understanding how extended phenotypic traits are generated and contribute to evolutionary fitness. The biosphere has become surreal: Small dragons have been sighted nesting in the Scottish highlands, and in the American Midwest, raccoons have been caught programming microwave ovens.”

Page 170 of Accelerando, by Charles Stross. (First published in 2005. )

Whatever you think of Stross’s non-fiction views, such as on libertarianism, his fiction often includes hilarious passages such as this.