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Science fiction writers have a job, and it's time to do it
October 5, 2011 3:30 PM   Subscribe

The Hieroglyph Project. Neal Stephenson: SF needs to stop mucking around with steampunk and dystopia, and start making decent roadmaps for a future where we all want to live. Previously
posted by -->NMN.80.418 (60 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite

 
Hope is so exhausting.
posted by The Whelk at 3:42 PM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


But more than a roadmap, I think SF tends to be a collective polling of where we think we're going, not necessarily where we want to go. Fascist fetishists not withstanding, I'm sure that more of us would believe we're headed toward a future ruled by a technological police state than one where we are travelers amongst the stars spreading peace and love across the universe.

That said, we do need more Buckminster Fullers. And more Buckminster Fullerene shaped buildings.
posted by StrangerInAStrainedLand at 3:46 PM on October 5, 2011 [5 favorites]


Yes.

But ... writers and critics underestimate how much mucking around with genres & tropes that are more comfortable / easier / funner / sillier can work as practice runs for other more groundbreaking work later. And there are also standout works possible even in the most tired areas, though rarer.

Same dynamic as fanfiction I think: the value is mostly that of silly fun, often with additional value as practice and material fodder for other work, and the occasional standout work that has value in multiple ways.

So never underestimate the silly!
posted by feckless at 3:46 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I read this earlier and was disappointed by the broad generalizations that boil down to "society isn't building cool stuff anymore because we suck." At the same time, he never once acknowledges some of the amazing things that we're inventing right now that were totally science fiction ten years ago. Many of those creations are from the very innovative processes that he thinks are dead or broken.

And yes, we all know that NASA canceled the Space Shuttle and there are no moonbases. But look at SpaceX - they're doing incredible stuff with huge dreams! Just because the world didn't turn out like science fiction writers thought it would 30 years ago doesn't mean things are broken and that we're not innovating.
posted by fremen at 3:49 PM on October 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


/wonders if he should mention Intellectual Ventures.
posted by Artw at 3:49 PM on October 5, 2011


I saw a pretty persuasive comment about lack of interest in space travel on Hacker News. The position was that people who grew up during the shuttle era are simply not inspired by space travel the way Stephenson, who is 51, is. We were inspired by computers. All available energy is being expended on web apps and ipads.

Since there is no will to spend massive amounts of public money on space flight and nobody has figured out how to turn a buck on it, we are dead in the water until someone has a motive.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:50 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not sure how SF writers writing about smart robots is going to get us strong AI any sooner.

And yeah, much has been elided. The Human Genome Project and the coming biotech revolution, for a start.
posted by Leon at 3:54 PM on October 5, 2011


Well, to be honest though I feel like on the track we're going on if things go well and we don't fuck everything up then ultimately it's going to be kind of boring. Either things will kind of stagnate and pretty much be the same as now but with shinier gadgets, or maybe we'll have some society where robots do everything and humans no longer have to work. But how does that make for an interesting story?

It really does seem like there are a lot more ways that things can go wrong then go write, but, and here's an important point: Without stuff going wrong, where's the story? There has to be some conflict and a fallen world provides ample opportunity for interesting things to happen.

I do think there's a general feeling, though, that the optimism about the future present in the mid 20th century has kind of dissipated. I think a lot of that has to do with an inflection point how much science was impacting our lives.

Compare the average person's life in the 1920s to the average person's life in the 1940s or the 1960s. Huge changes. Jets, cars, the highway system, even refrigerators were things that people remembered the time before

But now, other then faster and faster computers younger people today don't remember a time when 'things were different'. Even widespread use of the internet is 15 years old.

So what's so interesting -- from a story standpoint -- about faster computers? The only place you can go with that is interesting results in robotics, but that's kind of a cliche now, IMO.
posted by delmoi at 3:55 PM on October 5, 2011


I saw a pretty persuasive comment about lack of interest in space travel on Hacker News. The position was that people who grew up during the shuttle era are simply not inspired by space travel the way Stephenson, who is 51, is.

Yeah, we kind of hit a post-cold war techno optimism ceiling when we perfected (more or less) going up and down to the ISS and nothing of any significance came out of it... Not that there hasn't been cool shit going on in space since then, but it's all been robots.
posted by Artw at 3:56 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think he's missing a big, big point here. The reason we innovated so much in past decades isn't because we were more innovative or more willing to take risks. It's because we tackled the easy parts of the problem first. Then the next several decades up until today have been dedicated to dramatically more difficult problems.

Take his energy example. It's not that we are incapable of innovating in solar, wind, or nuclear power. It's that oil is just unbelievably dense with energy, and it's relatively cheap to pull it out of the ground and burn. In the grand scheme of things, that's the easy part. With alternative energy, you have to deal with much tighter margins of energy-positive processes -- it's exponentially more difficult to do this with non-nuclear power. Solar is expensive to produce both in terms of initial energy investment (to purify and heat up the actual material) and horrendous for the environment to produce (photolithography is a dirty, dirty process).

Then there's nuclear. The biggest issue there isn't aversion to risk, it's actually that governments and nuclear-based organizations get sloppy and don't enforce plant shutdowns when they need to happen. Thus we end up with Fukushima-like situations.

So yeah, it's easy to say we're too scared to innovate. It's much harder to actually work with the nuances of technological scaling mitigated by environmental factors.
posted by spiderskull at 3:56 PM on October 5, 2011 [7 favorites]


I never knew about this, and it's quite depressing:
But to grasp just how far our current mindset is from being able to attempt innovation on such a scale, consider the fate of the space shuttle’s external tanks [ETs]. Dwarfing the vehicle itself, the ET was the largest and most prominent feature of the space shuttle as it stood on the pad. It remained attached to the shuttle—or perhaps it makes as much sense to say that the shuttle remained attached to it—long after the two strap-on boosters had fallen away. The ET and the shuttle remained connected all the way out of the atmosphere and into space. Only after the system had attained orbital velocity was the tank jettisoned and allowed to fall into the atmosphere, where it was destroyed on re-entry.

At a modest marginal cost, the ETs could have been kept in orbit indefinitely. The mass of the ET at separation, including residual propellants, was about twice that of the largest possible Shuttle payload. Not destroying them would have roughly tripled the total mass launched into orbit by the Shuttle. ETs could have been connected to build units that would have humbled today’s International Space Station. The residual oxygen and hydrogen sloshing around in them could have been combined to generate electricity and produce tons of water, a commodity that is vastly expensive and desirable in space. But in spite of hard work and passionate advocacy by space experts who wished to see the tanks put to use, NASA—for reasons both technical and political—sent each of them to fiery destruction in the atmosphere. Viewed as a parable, it has much to tell us about the difficulties of innovating in other spheres.
posted by odinsdream at 3:56 PM on October 5, 2011 [6 favorites]


Finally. Steampunk is cosplay for SF authors, they can dress up their characters in evocative anachronisms and that's good enough for undemanding, uncritical readers. Who needs ideas when you have mood? Sorry, this is why SF lost its subversiveness, authors stopped dealing with big ideas and got caught up in stagecraft.

You want steampunk? Mercury astronauts went into orbit on machines built with fucking slide rules. Every NASA mission until the end of the Apollo program went up carrying slide rules. Beat that.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:57 PM on October 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


I saw a pretty persuasive comment about lack of interest in space travel on Hacker News. The position was that people who grew up during the shuttle era are simply not inspired by space travel the way Stephenson, who is 51, is. We were inspired by computers. All available energy is being expended on web apps and ipads.
Yeah, I feel the same way. Space travel, at least the stuff NASA is doing is just not very inspiring. If they did something like nuclear powered spaceships that could carry humans around the solar system, that would be pretty awesome. But sending humans to mars just seems like a complete waste of resources and not even really all that exciting
posted by delmoi at 3:57 PM on October 5, 2011


Funny, then, that his latest book's is about a World of Warcraft clone. Seriously, I love Neal Stephenson's writing but I think this is a little bit of old man whining about the good ol' days.

I think for the past 100 years or so our future really looked to "science" for answers - plastics, computers, rocket ships. But as we now know, there's a lot of consequences to those things (ie., plastics are toxic, ozone, etc.) The future (and the present) isn't about "big science" as much as laying down a blueprint for being harmonious with the world around us - organic food, long-term thinking, recycling, simple solutions for poor nations, fostering community, ethical biogenetics, etc. We need less trips to the moon right now and more attention to the fact that we're creating powerful things before we understand their impact.

I would think a book like Never Let Me Go is exactly the sort of thing we need, but that'd be classified more as "literature with an alternate reality setting" than true SF. In a way, Stephenson already wrote about from this angle in Anathem. I feel like "science fiction writers" aren't the people he should be appealing to - any good science fiction is always going to be somewhat of an outlier from genre writing because it isn't as much about "the future" but a commentary on the implications of the present.
posted by lubujackson at 3:59 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


A possible stealth approach would be taking an actual real steam powered traction engine to Steampubnk events. Let them hear the thing, smell the thing, enthuse them about the actual real-life engineering that went into the thing and how much more interesting that is than gluing cogs to things and pretending they run on magic.

Also, if it fails, you could use the steam roller to crush all the tables of tat. Die, gluegunned bullshit, die!
posted by Artw at 3:59 PM on October 5, 2011 [10 favorites]


Not sure how SF writers writing about smart robots is going to get us strong AI any sooner.

I just can't wait for the creation of a slave-like underclass! That is definitely the future I want to be living in.
posted by curious nu at 4:11 PM on October 5, 2011


odinsdream: Wow, yeah. The Space Shuttle ET section kind of floors me. Isn't NASA supposed to be great at doing stuff on the cheap?
posted by eyeballkid at 4:16 PM on October 5, 2011


I was always rather fond of the ETs-as-construction-material plan.
posted by Artw at 4:20 PM on October 5, 2011


Artw: Holy shit yes. That is the best idea.

As for Stephenson's essay, I kept thinking, "Do you really think science fiction is going to change this?". Science fiction can, at best, give people an outline of what is possible, and the vocabulary to talk about it. But it doesn't actually get anything done by itself, or even have much power to cause anything to get done.

It reminded me of a Larry Niven short story where a senator who hates how much pressure is put on him to spend money on space exploration goes back in time and cure's an illness that kept Robert Heinlein out of the navy, with the hopes of derailing science fiction and therefore removing the inspiration for going into space. This essay doesn't quite have the same level of narcissistic self regard, for the profession of sci-fi author, but it's close.

We went into space as a species, because we needed to be good at throwing rockets around the planet. We developed nuclear energy largely because we needed to be good at putting bombs on those rockets. The fact that we managed to get so much good out of the space program, was one of the great happy accidents of the 20th century. I'm not sure sci-fi actually had any important role to play in it at all.
posted by Grimgrin at 4:21 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Little has been heard in that vein since. We’ve been talking about wind farms, tidal power, and solar power for decades. Some progress has been made in those areas, but energy is still all about oil. In my city, Seattle, a 35-year-old plan to run a light rail line across Lake Washington is now being blocked by a citizen initiative. Thwarted or endlessly delayed in its efforts to build things, the city plods ahead with a project to paint bicycle lanes on the pavement of thoroughfares.

To me this emphasises an inability to understand the scale of the problem. Energy usage is massive, changing how we use energy is a pretty slow business, especially when at the same time you are trying to drive new technology you are also aiming to change the key motivation from the economic one that has essentially governed all previous choices to an environmental one which has been trivial for much of our history of energy use. Globally wind power capacity has increased by between 20-40% each year for the last 40 years. We now have about 150GW globally That is to say, we have wind farms, it a oretty mature technology and at this stage you are not going to see big innovative jumps (not least because it gets more expensive to do the innovation element once the tech is established and the margins go down) now its economics. You could certainly make a case we need to find innovative ways of financing new renewable energy.

The story of how we end up with the wind energy technology we utilise today is a fascinating one from the view of innovation policy. Essentially, various governments failed to come up with working technlogy (including the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden and arguably Denmark) as a part of the response to the oil crises of the 1970s). A Danish environmental grass roots movement rooted in anti-nuclear protests and effectively linking with some Government engineers came up with the first examples of the kind of turbines we see today - 3-bladed, horizontal axis machines. Quality was gradually improved through trial and error driven by further grass-roots efforts, which saw enthusiasts gather data from all operational farms and published regularly to ensure transparency of performance. Subsidies limiting a share in ownership to individuals living near turbines pushed up acceptance while drawing on the co-operative principle of ownership common in Danish agricultural areas. Those turbines are the precursor to pretty much all the large-scale turbines used globally. (I am summarising this, I can go on at length but its bedtime.)
posted by biffa at 4:22 PM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


The best Science Fiction in the world could not change Seattle's ability to fuck up transportation projects by having a vote to cancel them at the last minute, I'll tell you that.
posted by Artw at 4:24 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's because we tackled the easy parts of the problem first.

This is expecially true about space, What can we do besides send robots to other planets in this solar system. We can't exactly go plant a flag Jupiter. We are making progress with hubble etc, but the progress we are making is incremental and we won't really see payoffs in Stephenson's lifetime.
posted by Ad hominem at 4:24 PM on October 5, 2011


Well, we might see China or India doing a bunch of fun space-race stuff before they hit the same limits. If they get a bit further before stalling that could advance things.
posted by Artw at 4:26 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Why can steampunk not be a world I want to live in? And who is Stephenson to complain, after Snow Crash (dystopia) and Cryptonomicon, System of the World and Anathem (all semi-steampunky)?
posted by DU at 4:27 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here's a Charles Stross article that should depress the fuck out of any wannabe space colonists.
posted by Artw at 4:32 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


I always tune out when someone says "X type of art needs..." Art doesn't need anything, it is.
posted by cell divide at 4:34 PM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Holy shit yes. That is the best idea.

The impressing with engineering bit, or the crushing? I am fond of both.

But yeah, you linked those videos, you get the idea. Steampunk is rubbish by comparison.
posted by Artw at 4:35 PM on October 5, 2011


To what extent can the moon landings be considered a successful innovation? They were successful missions obviously, but they did not create a pathway for others to land on the moon or at least one that has been exploited as yet, so in that sense, they are at best an innovation which has not yet driven a change to fruition, they are perhaps a potential innovation or an ongoing innovation which may have dividends in terms of lessons learned and influence on manned missions.

They obviously had a huge impact on the shape of the space programme but can this be regarded as effectively a spin-off rather than an innovation in itself? And to what extent can these be separated? The same question can be applied to the other influences that the space programme (through for example, its blue sky research elements) had on science.
posted by biffa at 4:37 PM on October 5, 2011


A possible stealth approach would be taking an actual real steam powered traction engine to Steampubnk events. Let them hear the thing, smell the thing, enthuse them about the actual real-life engineering that went into the thing and how much more interesting that is than gluing cogs to things and pretending they run on magic.

Been there, done that. You can even take a class in steam engine operation, as long as you sign a waiver disclaiming all liability for death and dismemberment. Because this stuff is absolutely, terrifyingly dangerous. Pull a lever at the wrong time and the boiler explodes like a bomb. Put your hand where it doesn't belong and it will rip your arm off. Want to watch a live demo of a 3 ton steam thresher in operation? You have to watch it from 20 yards away because it's too dangerous to let people get closer. People got killed all the time with steam engines. People think this stuff is romantic. It's not.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:39 PM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Stuff that can rip your arm off is totally romantic!

You'll be pooh-poohing my idea for Atompunk live criticality demonstrations next.
posted by Artw at 4:48 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


/wonders if he should mention Intellectual Ventures.

IV is pretty much a big pile of patent trolling with a sweet frosting of science to make it look nicer. That This American Life program on the shell companies it seems to run that sue people, to make them buy IV's patents was pretty damning.

The only place you can go with that is interesting results in robotics

Does anyone know that those poor foxcon workers do all day? Why aren't their jobs being done by robots? My hypothesis is that there is such a global oversupply of unskilled labor that robot development is being delayed.

I mean develop an expensive robot to pick fruit when there are plenty of people you can exploit.
posted by Chekhovian at 4:49 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


...or maybe we'll have some society where robots do everything and humans no longer have to work. But how does that make for an interesting story?

The robots rise up and kill all the humans. Duh.
posted by XMLicious at 4:49 PM on October 5, 2011 [3 favorites]


Artw: you're clearly not going to the right steampunk events.

ALthough I've had the most fun recently at the steam-free handcar regatta. crankpunk! or something.
posted by feckless at 5:14 PM on October 5, 2011


Once upon a time, there was a planet where some people were privileged enough to worry about the fate of humanity, and some people were more worried about living out the week. Among the former, some denied anthropocentric climate change and dismissed discussion of sustainability, while others talked about how the government should do something.

Then one or both of the following happened: the oil ran dry, smashing the supply chains that let 7 billion people live; the glaciers melted, releasing their clathrates and global warming went runaway, with hurricanes smashing coastal cities several times a year.

Naturally, the survivors went to war over what was left. All told, billions of people died. When the shooting ended, a very, very few were privileged enough to worry about the fate of humanity, and lots and lots were more worried about living out the week.

They lived happily ever after. The End.

Not commercial enough?
posted by Zed at 5:16 PM on October 5, 2011 [9 favorites]


The impressing with engineering bit, or the crushing? I am fond of both.

Ideally both. I would be so dissapointed if there was no crushing.

People think this stuff is romantic. It's not.

It's one of the reasons I'm still willing to forgive Sterling and Gibson for "The Difference Engine" creating the steampunk genre. They actually had steam engines in all their impractical, smoke belching glory set in the miserable, reeking polluted hole that London was before they started cleaning up the Thames. Well that and the novel used the idea of the difference engine to try and examine how access to computing power might change a society, both for good and for ill, and wasn't just a load of wank about shiny brass and brocade clothing.
posted by Grimgrin at 5:18 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


We went into space as a species, because we needed to be good at throwing rockets around the planet. We developed nuclear energy largely because we needed to be good at putting bombs on those rockets. The fact that we managed to get so much good out of the space program, was one of the great happy accidents of the 20th century. I'm not sure sci-fi actually had any important role to play in it at all.

Interestingly, this was the topic of another Neal Stephenson essay.
posted by odinsdream at 5:26 PM on October 5, 2011


Doh. anthropogenic climate change.
posted by Zed at 6:00 PM on October 5, 2011


They lived happily ever after. The End.

And unlike Stephenson, you actually wrote an ending. Well played, well played.
posted by Ber at 6:36 PM on October 5, 2011 [4 favorites]


Here's a science fiction story: Everybody gets along with everybody else and makes the most out their limited time by making great food and great art and everybody shares.

The title? "Why, Yes, I Have been Drinking a Lot This Evening..."
posted by Renoroc at 6:38 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


This focus on the mechanics and politics of the world follows a decade from 1995-2005 where stories about virtual worlds and futureshock were prevalent.

I think the focus on steampunk and dystopia at the moment is a reaction to the possibilities of the virtual tempered by the reality of technological progress; the future will not be evenly distributed and entropy is given its place at the table.

If the virtual is a world of gods then the popularity of steampunk and dystopia shows that our focus has switched to the world of mortals. The science-fiction of now takes place in stratified societies with problems where the laws of nature apply. Once we were worried about futureshock but now more people are worried about losing what progress we have made.
posted by vicx at 6:52 PM on October 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anathem expresses the same ideas (and bunches of other stuff) much better than this essay. Which I guess isn't surprising, but I guess it is surprising to be reading a book that's set in community with a very long, cyclical and not...pessimistic, but more like realistically utopian attitudes toward social trends, and then to read a piece by the same author lamenting the historically short term loss of a positive culture. I guess that's only surprising because Stephenson acknowledges in Anathem that sometimes cultures just get boring, stagnate and waste away, bur new ones always sprout up through the rubble. Young forests grow quickly.

Anyway, I like Anathem. So far, it's the kind of "positive future" story I need. But I'd like to see more positive stories, and more positive stories. The cliche is that utopias are dull, but I find them much more interesting than dystopias, actually. Our loss of utopian stories reflects a greater loss of optimism in US culture, I think. I wish we could find a new positivity. This is a start: The Apocalypse Makes Us Dumb

Not sure if I'm expressing myself well; I'm pretty sleep deprived. My brain closed hours ago.

Also,

Well, to be honest though I feel like on the track we're going on if things go well and we don't fuck everything up then ultimately it's going to be kind of boring. Either things will kind of stagnate and pretty much be the same as now but with shinier gadgets, or maybe we'll have some society where robots do everything and humans no longer have to work. But how does that make for an interesting story?

This is not even close to the future I see. This seems to be a much more likely path, right now.
posted by byanyothername at 6:58 PM on October 5, 2011


"Is science fiction really think science fiction is going to change this?"

I've been arguing that SF (pre-Steampunk, although I haven't really read much SF that wasn't comics in the last 20 years) has been leading us down a blind alley where everyone watches too much Star Trek and deep down is seriously invested in the idea of space travel as the main answer to the world's problems (ie., leaving them all behind). But at least this thread seems to feel that SF has moved on...

For some reason, after many years on a steady diet of SF and non-fiction, this book of stories gave me a lot of hope for the future. There are no big ideas, no grandiose visions, and no heroes. I don't know if it's ordinariness is exotic, but it seems more a book about possible human futures than a lot of actual SF.
posted by sneebler at 7:55 PM on October 5, 2011


grimgrin: "Do you really think science fiction is going to change this?"

Glares at tiny Space-Age "Android" keyboard.

I also meant to mention that here are some great comments above - thanks.
posted by sneebler at 7:59 PM on October 5, 2011


This is absolutely ridiculous coming from someone who just wrote a thousand page Tomy-Clancy-for-adults novel.
posted by Football Bat at 9:55 PM on October 5, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah Neal, science fiction needs to be more didactic and prescriptive. That'll lively it up some!
posted by speicus at 2:00 AM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Isn't NASA supposed to be great at doing stuff on the cheap?

When you design on-the-cheap, you come-up with wasteful ideas like the disposable ET. It takes real money to design, implement and maintain a continuing system like the ET-as-space-station idea.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:43 AM on October 6, 2011


A little late to the party here, but one of the big reasons the whole "ET as a space station!" thing didn't take off is because of concern that the foam insulation on the outside would slowly "popcorn" off into millions of tiny pieces that would then be whizzing around low Earth orbit (this happened uphill on the Shuttle through the life of the program as it was). You had to have the insulation there to protect both the fuel and the Orbiter on the way uphill, and once you're up there, you would have had to have a way to get rid of it...and if you think it took a lot of spacewalks to assemble the ISS, then nuts to THAT idea. Orbital debris is already a gigantic problem in LEO (that Chinese ASAT test has had real implications for the ISS- we dodged a piece of it last week) without adding to it like that.

(also, the ET isn't just one giant cavity inside- there's two tanks in there, for hydrogen and oxygen. You can see where they join (the "intertank" in that ribbed area about 2/3 of the way up...the "ET as space station" ideas never seem to address that...)

Plus, MAN, can you imagine trying to repurpose your car's gas tank into a water tank after you get where you're going? In a spacesuit in zero-g? And what are you going to bring all your furniture and stuff up in to actually make the damn thing livable? The idea's been around forever, but if we were going to build a modular station, I have a feeling building and outfitting it on the ground was the way to go...

(love N.S., but doesn't mean I always agree)
posted by zap rowsdower at 7:31 AM on October 6, 2011


In my city, Seattle, a 35-year-old plan to run a light rail line across Lake Washington is now being blocked by a citizen initiative. Thwarted or endlessly delayed in its efforts to build things, the city plods ahead with a project to paint bicycle lanes on the pavement of thoroughfares.


As I've started to follow municipal and provincial politics more closely, I've realized that this is the sort of thing that's been missing from much of the SF I've read. The visions of cities of tomorrow seem so much more fantastical when I think about how impossible it is to put in a basic streetcar network, let alone spaceports, glideways and transporter pads.
posted by sevenyearlurk at 7:32 AM on October 6, 2011 [3 favorites]


Plus, MAN, can you imagine trying to repurpose your car's gas tank into a water tank after you get where you're going?

Can you imagine missing the point? Driving somewhere in your car and then modifying your car is significantly different from losing two thrids of the mass you have propelled at massive cost into the upper atmosphere. i don't know enough about whether ET's could be made useful, but your example is entirely irrelevant.
posted by biffa at 7:37 AM on October 6, 2011


zap rowsdower: I think the point was that, clearly, the ET as designed wasn't suitable for permanent orbit. The solution would have implicitly required engineering with that goal in mind, which wasn't attempted.
posted by odinsdream at 7:52 AM on October 6, 2011


This is absolutely ridiculous coming from someone who

Ad Hominem Tu Quoque
 

From TFA (which you should FR before FP]:
In early 2011, I participated in a conference called Future Tense, where I lamented. . . that the real issue [is our] inability as a society to execute on the big stuff. I had, through some kind of blind luck, struck a nerve. The audience at Future Tense was more confident than I that science fiction [SF] had relevance—even utility—in addressing the problem. I heard two theories as to why:

1. The Inspiration Theory. SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers. This much is undoubtedly true, and somewhat obvious.

2. The Hieroglyph Theory. Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternate reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place. . . Examples include Isaac Asimov’s robots, Robert Heinlein’s rocket ships, and William Gibson’s cyberspace. As Jim Karkanias of Microsoft Research puts it, such icons serve as hieroglyphs—simple, recognizable symbols on whose significance everyone agrees.

SF has changed . . . the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone. I myself have tended to write a lot about hackers—trickster archetypes who exploit the arcane capabilities of complex systems devised by faceless others.

Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we [contemporary sf writers] seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects. This seems foolish now that we find ourselves saddled with technologies like Japan’s ramshackle 1960’s-vintage reactors at Fukushima. . .

“You’re the ones who’ve been slacking off!” proclaims Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (and one of the other speakers at Future Tense). He refers, of course, to SF writers. . . . Hence the Hieroglyph project, an effort to produce an anthology of new SF that will be in some ways a conscious throwback to the practical techno-optimism of the Golden Age.
I have my own proposal. Let's not count on sf writers to kick-start our more optimistic future. Let us start with a massive global reduction of knee-jerk uninformed internet sarcasm.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:23 AM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


significantly different from losing two thrids of the mass you have propelled at massive cost into the upper atmosphere

Except it's not. The dry weight of the super lightweight tank flown towards the end of the Shuttle program was 50,000 pounds. The two thirds of the mass you're talking about (and it's actually a lot more than that- more like 90%) is the propellant. If you increase the size of the tank to make it more suitable for habitation, or score it to allow future re-use, you're increasing the weight, which increases the propellant, which increases the weight, and so on and so forth.

The tanks- as built, which is what we're talking about here- were thinner than the walls of a soda can, if you were to scale a Coke can up to a couple hundred feet high. The walls of the ISS, meanwhile- which is the station that we decided to build, rather than using old fuel tanks- are much thicker aluminum, kevlar, and loads of other stuff designed to protect against radiation, micrometeroids, and so on. By the time you would outfit a fuel tank to do all that, you're better off doing what we did, in my opinion.

I didn't phrase the car gas tank as well as I could have- my point was that you wouldn't do it, because it's just silly. Same thing here. Could you? Sure. Would you? I don't think so.
posted by zap rowsdower at 8:30 AM on October 6, 2011


Oh, and a fully outfitted ISS module- with all of the gear already inside, etc, etc,- weighs about 35,000 pounds at liftoff. Not quite as much as an (empty) tank, but close.

I'm not trying to say what we have is perfect, or that we couldn't have done better- just that, from a historical perspective, it doesn't seem to me that NASA missed a huge opportunity by not re-using the ETs.
posted by zap rowsdower at 8:33 AM on October 6, 2011


Oh wow. I just saw this. I was actually thinking about just this very thing on the drive to work this morning:

I have followed the dwindling of the space program with sadness, even bitterness. Where’s my donut-shaped space station? Where’s my ticket to Mars? Until recently, though, I have kept my feelings to myself. Space exploration has always had its detractors. To complain about its demise is to expose oneself to attack from those who have no sympathy that an affluent, middle-aged white American has not lived to see his boyhood fantasies fulfilled.

Sigh. I worry we'll never become a spacefaring race.
posted by limeonaire at 9:21 AM on October 6, 2011


See also: Shareable Futures, a series of blog posts, fictional and nonfictional, about innovations in sharing.
posted by limeonaire at 9:30 AM on October 6, 2011




The cliche is that utopias are dull, but I find them much more interesting than dystopias, actually.

You should check out Jetse de Vries's Shine Anthology.
posted by Artw at 11:45 AM on October 6, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm a little twitchy at the thought of an Ayn Rand-style Libertarian science fiction author talking about how science fiction authors need to start making roadmaps to help shape the future.
posted by ErikaB at 12:35 PM on October 6, 2011 [1 favorite]


his curiously personal streak of libertarianism has soften a lot in the years, it seemed like a lot of Anathem (and to an extent, The Baroque Cycle) was basically apologizing for the grumpy libertarianism in The Diamond Age and the streak of "there are two people in the world, engineers and everyone else" in his early stuff.
posted by The Whelk at 12:39 PM on October 6, 2011


You should check out Jetse de Vries's Shine Anthology.

Thanks! I will.
posted by byanyothername at 3:14 PM on October 6, 2011


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