SFWA Grand Master – next prediction

You may have heard that Samuel R. Delany was recently named 2013 Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA). He will receive the award at the Nebula Awards weekend in May 2014.

Long time readers of this blog knew he would win the honor last September. Following up on my prediction that Gene Wolfe would receive the award in 2013.

To whom will SFWA give the Grand Master award in 2015?

To be eligible, a candidate must be a living writer of sf/f. It helps to have a long career, a productive career, and mutilple award wins or other acclaim.

Recent events involving SFWA and sf fandom suggest future winners will tend to be one or more of non-white, non-straight, or non-male. (Take this statement as is, not should be).

Given all that, my prediction for the next SFWA Grand Master: C.J. Cherryh.

Long career? About 40 years.

Productive career? Over 60 books.

Award wins? A Campell for Best New Writer, and three Hugos. Probably best known for Downbelow Station and Cyteen.

Non-male? Check, plus the oppressed woman marker of being forced into her byline to disguise her sex and sound more rigorous than “Carolyn Cherry.” And “She now lives… with science fiction/fantasy author and artist Jane Fancher.”

Caveats: I’m not a SFWA member, and wouldn’t bother spending time in the organization’s private chat rooms if I were. I don’t know what sort of gossip, back-scratching, and other primate coalition building goes on in there that can impact the grand master selection. Also, I’ve read a few of Cherryh’s novels and some of her non-fiction on her website. I don’t know Cherryh at all. Given her subject matter and themes, she doesn’t seem the type to wilt and complain about sexism. She seems she could fire a rifle, field dress a deer, solve a calculus problem, and translate text into Latin. In sum, to my mind, Cherryh has some parallels to Elizabeth Moon. And we all know what happened to her.

They say prediction is difficult, especially about the future. Check back in a year to see how it turns out.

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The Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation – From the Cusp, to Intelligence (f_i, part 2)

In our last post, we looked at some of the many ways life could be prevented from giving rise to a pre-intelligent species–say, an animal like Proconsul, the earliest known ape, living about 25 million years ago. In doing so, we knocked f_i down to 0.02. Here, we’ll look at what could prevent the descendants of a pre-intelligent species from evolving intelligence.

First, we have to set aside our self-centered bias and admit a blunt truth: Evolution has no goal. It blindly pursues local optima. There’s no guiding hand ensuring that evolution reaches an unsurpassable pinnacle, i.e., us.

Continue reading

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Ebook Sale, Final Weekend

My ebook sale is entering its final weekend. Now through Sunday, every ebook edition of all my stories and novels are on sale at over 50% off list price. That’s right, for less than the price of a latte, you can buy a novel or three short stories, from most major ebook retailers in countries around the world, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, and more!

But remember, this is the final weekend. Don’t miss out!

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Ebook Sale, Over 50% Off!

As I mentioned previously, now through November 11, every ebook edition of all my stories and novels are on sale at over 50% off list price. That’s right, you can buy a novel for $2.99 or a short story for less than a dollar, from most major ebook retailers in countries around the world, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, and more!

But remember, this sale ends November 11. Don’t miss out!

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The Universe Doesn’t Care

I had a marvelous image: a synthetic planet in the Kuiper Belt–deep deep space, far beyond the orbit of Neptune–made solely from water. We let buoyant fusion reactors drift in its depths, fusing deuterium extracted from all that water to provide the light and heat needed to keep the planet liquid. (All that water makes a great neutron absorber). With a large enough volume, it would have a surface gravity close to Earth’s, or at least, strong enough to keep an oxygenated atmosphere from escaping to deep space. Imagine cities floating on the surface, with permanent night above and deeply lit ocean below, with enough cheap energy to fuel a civilization of a billion people, ten times richer than the modern day US, for ten million years….

Continue reading

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Ebooks on Sale, Over 50% Off!

Autumn is the season to sit near the fire with a good book. To help you do that, now through November 11, every ebook edition of all my stories and novels are on sale at over 50% off list price. That’s right, for less than the price of a latte, you can buy a novel or three short stories, from most major ebook retailers in countries around the world, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iTunes, and more!

But remember, this sale ends November 11. Don’t miss out!


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Panel: The Interplay of Science and Science Fiction

Thanks to Asher Pembroke and Victoria Astley, a while ago I was on a panel with “Analog MAFIA” member Alexis Glynn Latner, and Chad Wilson of the University of Houston to the Rice Physics and Astronomy Graduate Student Association about “The Interplay of Science and Science Fiction.” There’s about an hour of great video that barely scratches the surface of this topic. Check it out!

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Skunk Works Nuclear Fusion

Charles Chase of Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works (the folks who designed the U-2 and SR-71 reconnaisance planes and the F-22 Raptor, among other aircraft) recently gave a talk suggesting his group’s work could lead to commercially available nuclear fusion reactors within 15 years.

Here are some quick thoughts:

He’s talking about deuterium-tritium fusion. Deuterium is a plentiful, easily enrichable isotope of hydrogen. Tritium is another isotope of hydrogen, but very uncommon and has a short half-life (hint, those two facts are related). To produce tritium, you either need a breeder reactor working with lithium-6, or a fission reactor using heavy water for cooling. Neither route is cheap. (Even if the Skunk Works’ fusion reactor is the breeder working with lithium-6, lithium is relatively rare and lithium-6 requires enrichment). Plus, regarding transportation, tritium has the same chemical and physical profile as hydrogen, i.e., it’s very flammable and can relatively easily leak out of containers. The radioactivity of tritium isn’t much of a risk (don’t breathe it and you’ll be fine), but in our litigious age, that risk still has to be mitigated. Still, guys with high school degrees drive tanker trucks of hydrocarbons around without any major problems, so tritium transport is solvable.

Take the 15 year time frame with a grain of salt. Fusion has been 20 years in the future since the 1950s. (I remember my youthful indignation in 1990 when a physicist at Los Alamos made a comment like that). I also remember Pons and Fleischmann, and even if you don’t, you’ve probably heard the term “cold fusion” used to dismiss something as a pseudotechnology. On top of that, as the Pournelle-Anderson law of big engineering goes, “Everything takes longer and costs more.” Given Lockheed Martin’s recent track record with the F-35, well, yep.

One striking thing about comments on the Youtube video (or at Walter Jon Williams’ site) is the large amount of conspiracy theorizing, that Big Oil (and/or Big Banking) will suppress commercially workable fusion. My Midwestern, middle-class upbringing makes me want to dismiss this as paranoia, but I’m a lot more cynical than I used to be. Cynical enough to see the backroom deals that would foil Big Oil and bring fusion to the market. Note that Charles Chase gave his talk at Solve for X, a forum sponsored by Google. A 100 mW power plant would be useful to a company with a massive server farm, such as, say, Google. And while Big Oil can pay for one congressman, senator, or senior bureaucrat’s hookers and cocaine, Google can call up another and say, “We noticed someone used your computer to contact a gay escort service. Sure would be a shame if that hit the WaPo or NY Times.” (And check out the money quote from this link, “The Chairman of Google’s girlfriend was being used as a back channel for Hillary Clinton“). If there’s a power struggle between Big Oil and Big Data, Big Data is already winning: consider, anti-fracking is a mainstream position, while being anti-Google puts one in tinfoil hat territory.

If it’s technically feasible, then it will happen. Imagine a fusion reactor in every small city on Earth that wants one, providing enough cheap electricity to give everyone who wants it a First World lifestyle. All without any carbon emissions or any need to handle fissile isotopes, if you’re worried about those things. It won’t be utopia, of course — no society involving human beings ever will be — but energy supplies won’t be one of its problems. Nor will drinking water (fusion powered desalinization plants at the seashore), overpopulation (wealthy societies have fewer children, because children are only an asset in labor-intensive agriculture, and are a liability in high-tech agriculture and city life), and a host of other issues that techno-pessimists hand-wring over.

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The Fermi Paradox and the Drake Equation – From the Origin of Life to the Cusp of Intelligence (f_i, part 1)

Uncertainty in calculating the Drake Equation has led us to a broad range, with N = [0.84-16.03] * f_i * f_c * L. Despite the uncertainty, we concluded that relatively high values of f_i (the fraction of life-bearing worlds that give rise to intelligence), f_c (the fraction of intelligent species that develop technology detectable across interstellar distances), and L (the lifespan of that high-technology phase of that species’ civilization) would lead to scores, if not hundreds or even thousands, of intelligent species producing detectable signals in the Milky Way galaxy right now.

The radio silence we observe from other intelligent life suggests at least one of f_i, f_c, or L is very low. Today we’ll examine part of f_i, from the origins of life to the cusp of intelligence, from self-replication to genus Homo.

Here are some factors tending to lower f_i:

* It took roughly 4 billion years to go from the formation of Earth to something we would recognize as an animal or plant. (Assumption: only animals or plants can evolve intelligence). If Earth is normal, then we know from the maximum stellar lifespan data that all O, B, A, and the largest and hottest F type stars cannot live long enough. That knocks out about two-thirds of all stellar systems. So f_i is instantly no greater than 0.33.

* Intelligent life requires a lot of energy. (More on this in the next post). Assuming that free oxygen is required for life to generate enough energy, oxygenic photosynthesis has to evolve. (If it doesn’t, all the free oxygen in an atmosphere would rapidly react with carbon, iron, etc. It’s that high reactivity that makes free oxygen so potent in energy generation). If Earth is normal, oxygenic photosynthesis will evolve on any life-bearing planet. The first tranche of free oxygen liberated by photosynthesis will be consumed by metals in a planet’s oceans and surface. (That’s where most of Earth’s commercially relevant iron ore deposits are from). The second tranche of free oxygen will be consumed by gases in the planet’s atmosphere. If Earth is normal, then methane will be one of those gases. Methane would, in effect, burn, yielding carbon dioxide and water.

Methane is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide and water. What happens if most of the methane in a planet’s atmosphere is lost? In Earth’s case, the planet froze over for up to 400 million years. It was only continued volcanic activity, spewing more methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, that allowed Earth to heat up again enough for the global ice cover to at least partially melt.

Without unglaciated land to colonize, intelligence wouldn’t have appeared on Earth. (Even if dolphins and whales are intelligent, they are mammals adapted to return from land to the sea). So with little or no volcanic activity, a planet after the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis could freeze over and remain frozen for billions of years, i.e., until its primary star leaves the main sequence. On average, planets smaller than Earth would be more likely to have cold cores and little or no volcanic activity. Let’s say a third of all planets would be too small to have significant volcanic activity, and thus, couldn’t recover from a freeze over. That drops f_i to 0.22.

* “Without photosynthesis, no free oxygen; without free oxygen, no intelligence” also means that intelligent life could not evolve in an atmosphere without sunlight, because photosynthesis would never arise. Good-bye, intelligent Europans, in your ocean encased by 15 miles of ice. If about a third of all planets on which life arises are moons of gas giants, f_i is now 0.15.

* It’s easy to assume there is an inevitability to evolution. (We’ll talk more about this in the next post). But to get to the cusp of intelligence, life on Earth went through a lot of contingent events. The evolution of photosynthesis. The symbiosis of the first eukaryotic cells. The evolution of sex. The evolution of multicellularity. The formation of the ozone layer, to make land habitable against excessive UV. The emergence of animals. Delay any one of these–at least from photosynthesis to multicellularity–on a planet, and you increase the chances of its primary star running out the main sequence clock.

Why assume any of those could be delayed? Why not? There’s no purpose to evolution: it’s simply the blind pursuit of local optima. In light of that, we’ll lower f_i by another two-thirds, to 0.05.

* One last point. Sporadic waves of mass extinction are a good thing, at least as far as we’re concerned, because they cleared the way for the species that gave rise to us. It may be that Jupiter’s size is in a sweet spot to propel the optimal number of large, dinosaur-killing impacts our way. A smaller gas giant would send too many impacts our way, thus interrupting the rise of the successors; one much larger than Jupiter would not send enough. Even if Earth is normal, there are reasons (hot Jupiters, super Jupiters) to conclude Jupiter is not. So f_i ratchets down again, to the arbitary value of 0.02.

We’re now at N, the number of detectable civilizations in the galaxy, at [0.02-0.32] * f_c * L. And that’s assuming intelligence is inevitable when sufficiently complex multicellular life on land has arisen. Is it inevitable? Find out in the next post.

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SFWA Grand Master predictions update

After one of my predictions came true, I got to thinking about my other comments in that predictions post. Recent events have led me to reconsider them.

Here’s my update:

As a huge fan of Niven growing up, it pains me to write that. As a fan of Delany’s core sf of the ’60s into the early ’70s, the reasons why I write that pain me.

What are those reasons? Delany wrote some great core sf, didn’t he? Oh yes. Even a book I think of as a failure, Triton, fails in a thought-provoking manner. (Though my sense of that book as a failure is evolving). The first 15 years of his career are both necessary and sufficient to name Delany a SFWA Grand Master.

What other reasons could militate for Delany receiving the honor, and Niven never receiving it? Do you need to ask?

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