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.
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.
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 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:
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 as he speaks about his new film “Elysium”:
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.
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:
I imagine similar criticism might be made of almost any TV series.
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:
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:
Of course, he doesn’t mention what mechanism makes this collaboration possible, but we all know what it is.
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:
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:
Politicians are described as using global crises as an excuse to extend their power globally. The slippery slope is described:
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:
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.
“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.
‘…The privileged class of Copies will grow larger, more powerful — and more threatening to the vast majority of people, who still won’t be able to join them. The costs will come down, but not drastically – just enough to meet some of the explosion in demand from the executive class, once they throw off their qualms, en masse. Even in secular Europe, there’s a deeply ingrained prejudice that says dying is the responsible, the moral thing to do. There’s a Death Ethic – and the first substantial segment of the population abandoning it will trigger a huge backlash. A small enough elite of giga-rich Copies is accepted as a freak show; tycoons can get away with anything, they’re not expected to act like ordinary people. But just wait until the numbers go up by a factor of ten.’
Thomas had heard it all before. ‘We may be unpopular for a while. I can live with that. But you know, even now we’re vilified far less than people who strive for organic hyper-longevity — transplants, cellular rejuvenation, whatever — because at least we’re no longer pushing up the cost of health care, competing for the use of overburdened medical facilities. Nor are we consuming natural resources at anything like the rate we did when we were alive. If the technology improves sufficiently, the environmental impact of the wealthiest Copy could end up being less than that of the most ascetic living human. Who’ll have the high moral ground then? We’ll be the most ecologically sound people on the planet.’
Durham smiled. The puppet. ‘Sure — and it could lead to some nice ironies if it ever came true. But even low environmental impact might not seem so saintly, when the same computing power could be used to save tens of thousands of lives through weather control.’
‘Operation Butterfly has inconvenienced some of my fellow Copies very slightly. And myself not at all.’
‘Operation Butterfly is only the beginning. Crisis management, for a tiny part of the planet. Imagine how much computing power it would take to render sub-Saharan Africa free from drought.’
‘Why should I imagine that, when the most modest schemes are still unproven? And even if weather control turns out to be viable, more supercomputers can always be built. It doesn’t have to be a matter of Copies versus flood victims.’
‘There’s a limited supply of computing power right now, isn’t there? Of course it will grow – but the demand, from Copies, and for weather control, is almost certain to grow faster. Long before we get to your deathless utopia, we’ll hit a bottleneck — and I believe that will bring on a time when Copies are declared illegal. Worldwide. If they’ve been granted human rights, those rights will be taken away. Trusts and foundations will have their assets confiscated. Supercomputers will be heavily policed. Scanners – and scan files – will be destroyed. It may be forty years before any of this happens – or it may be sooner. Either way, you need to be prepared.’
Not long ago, Rob Fisher asked, back at his blog, before he started writing here, whether there is a correlation between an early enthusiasm for science fiction and later being a libertarian, and if so what might be the cause of such a correlation. And I seem to recall the notion finding its way here also, although I can’t recall or find where. It may have been in a comment thread. My take is that SF embodies the idea that things could be very different. Maybe a more general version of the same idea is that SF leads to political radicalism of all kinds. There was certainly a huge enthusiasm for SF on the left before World War 2. Think only of H. G. Wells.
I recently mentioned to Michael Jennings that I too went through a big SF phase in my teens and twenties, while in the process of becoming a libertarian, and that although I subsequently stopped reading much SF, I did later become very keen on reading history. I still am. The connection between reading SF and reading history, at any rate in my mind, is that just as SF says that the world can be very different, history is all about the fact that, in the past, the world actually was very different. Things change, from era to era, from epoch to epoch. History and SF both say that very loudly. Libertarianism, and all the other isms, say that also.
As far as history is concerned, I’m thinking of things like how the sea, in the European Middle Ages, far from being any sort of defensive wall (as Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt famously describes it – and as it later became) was actually more like a motorway system, for those able to command the vehicles to make use it of. I’m thinking of how very different life was if most of the people in the place you lived in were illiterate, perhaps including you. I’m thinking of how very hard it was even to preserve the great ideas of the past, let alone accumulate new ones with any success, before the printing press was contrived. I’m thinking of what a difference swords and bows-and-arrows and gunpowder and machine guns successively made, and what a difference atom bombs and hydrogen bombs have made to our own time. I’m thinking of what a different world it was when it was very hard to send messages of any complexity (or for that matter human beings) any faster than a succession of very expensive horses could gallop.
Michael’s response was that reading lots of SF, then becoming something like a libertarian, then reading lots of history, is a fairly common intellectual biography. So rather than ramble on, let me ask commenters. Does that sequence of interests ring any bells with any of you good people?
Disappointingly, it seems that some of these scenes of the happy family life of a Star Wars stormtrooper may have been faked. In the comments to this Daily Mail article, “John, Bristol’ claims that “the small one is a Lego toy.” I shall leave readers to make up their own minds.
You can’t blame them. It would go to anybody’s head.
You can, in a way, blame Frederick Lindemann, the first (and last) Viscount Cherwell.
Apart from the facts that he more or less founded Oxford physics and so got a laboratory named after him and was some sort of scientific adviser to Churchill, most of what I know about Lindemann I learned today, from this site, aimed at children in secondary schools, and Wikipedia.
Lindemann ought to be more famous. He developed the first theory of how to recover when an aeroplane goes into a spin, and learned to fly so that he could repeatedly and dangerously put it to the test on his own aircraft. Umpteen pilots owe him their lives. Umpteen Germans owe him their deaths: his hatred of Nazism was “almost pathological” and – well, let Wikipedia give you the flavour:
Lindemann’s achievements in science, though distinguished, have been surpassed by those of other scientists. But never before or since has a single scientist, in his role as a scientist, been so close to the seat of power. He was like a Grand Vizier of old. His name may not be that famous, even among scientists, but his role in the Great Drama has become a folk memory; a fantasy.
In the 1950s Isaac Asimov, writing under the pseudonym Paul French, produced an enjoyable series of science fiction novels for teenagers featuring David “Lucky” Starr, Space Ranger. (In which occurs the first known appearance of the lightsaber trope. I didn’t know that.) Like the Lone Ranger, Lucky has a faithful sidekick. Like James Bond – whose career began at about the same time – Lucky has gadgets. And backup. On Lucky’s wrist there is a tattoo which is invisible until Lucky exerts his will, triggering some chemicals or hormones or something, which makes the tattoo become visible. Then they sit up, take notice, and hasten to do what he says, because the tattoo reveals that he is a member – indeed, the youngest ever member – of the Council of Science.
The Council of Science!
Quoting Wikipedia again:
In a later novel in the series, Lucky Starr and the Oceans of Venus, the Council of Science is described this way: “In these days, when science really permeated all human society and culture, scientists could no longer restrict themselves to their laboratories. It was for that reason that the Council of Science had been born. Originally it was intended only as an advisory body to help the government on matters of galactic importance, where only trained scientists could have sufficient information to make intelligent decisions. More and more it had become a crime-fighting agency, a counterespionage system. Into its own hands it was drawing more and more of the threads of government.”
And just for a while a year or two back it all looked like coming true. Lindemann’s heirs back in the saddle again. Maybe not the tattoos, but the Scientist taking the President’s calls, speaking with grave wisdom to the frightened assemblies and governments of mankind.
You can’t really blame them, can you? For remembering their time of glory and feeling just a smidgeon of pleasure that those days were here again?
From the story quoted by Brian in the post below this one:
All content on this website (including text, photographs, audio files, and any other original works), unless otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons License.