Category Archives: Blog
In part 1 of the series, we compared today’s population with that of Earth before the Industrial Revolution, call it 1750. Assuming farmers back then were as productive as possible, the food supply back then supported a population about 11% of what it is today. We rounded this off as If civilization collapsed, there’s a 90% chance you’d starve to death.
But let’s say you’re in the 10% of human beings who survived the civilizational collapse. You’d live a joyous life, back to the land, right? Wrong.
There’s a 90% chance that, if you survived, you’d be a subsistence farmer
France in 1750 was one of the most prosperous places on Earth. Yet the best estimates of French society of that day are that about 98% were commoners, with the vast majority of them being peasants. Not all peasants were serfs, tied to a nobleman’s land, but even being a free peasant working a farm one owned himself in 1750 would have been a lifestyle you would hate.
Yes, I know, The Biggest Little Farm shows how farmers live “life in perfect harmony with nature”. So says a big city film critic, and how could they be wrong?
Easily. I lived on a farm part of my childhood. Do you want to know the specifics of being a dairy farmer? “Living in perfect harmony with nature?”
Get up at 5 am. Guide the cows into the milking barn. Hook up their udders to vacuum pumps and store the raw milk in a giant thermos. Finish milking them by 7 am. Spend the day maintaining things on the farm, going into town for supplies, or working in the city for a steady wage and benefits. Then, at 5 pm, milk the cows again. Yup, twice a day, 365 days a year. Stop milking the cows and the cows will stop giving milk.
Some days, you have extra herd management to do. The cows will only give milk if they’ve given birth to a calf. Cows like to calve in the depths of a Midwestern winter. And they like to calve in safety, i.e., in the woods at the back of the 300 acre farm. Hopefully you can find the calf before it freezes to death or catches a serious infection.
But a cow that gives milk to its calf doesn’t give milk to the farmer. So you take the calf from the cow at a very young age, pen the calf up, and feed it formula.
Don’t forget, half the calves are male, and give no milk. So every spring, you castrate most male calves and fatten them up for the slaughterhouse. Watch the futures prices to guess when is the best time to sell them for 60 cents a pound, maybe $400 each. Maybe you’ve made a profit. Maybe.
And remember, this is in the late 20th century! Without electricity, you don’t have vacuum pumps. You squeeze cow udders by hand. Far slower than using a pump. Be optimistic and call it four hours instead of two. Or in other words, in 1750, you’d spend a full working day just getting milk out of cows.
And then what do you do with it? In 1980, a tanker truck drives to the farm and pulls milk from the giant thermos. 1750 lacked tanker trucks. And giant thermoses. So you have to either consume/sell it immediately or convert it into a long-term storable product, namely butter or cheese. Hope your hands didn’t get tired squeezing cow udders, because now you have to crank a butter churn for hours.
TL;DR Working on a dairy farm with 1750 technology would be hard work. Actually, working on any farm at that tech level would be hard work. And that’s the work 90% of the survivors of a civ collapse would have to do, or else last post’s estimate of 90% of humanity starving to death would be too low.
Hey, on the bright side, if you can sit at a desk and process words, you can probably sit on a stool and squeeze cow udders all day.
I can still hear the objections. “My MFA in Creative Writing and my carefully curated taste in political candidates proves that I’m suited for a higher state than mere farming. After all, 2% of French people in 1750 were priests or nobles, and many commoners lived well, too.”
Sure, let’s say the 1-in-100 chance hits, and you both survive the famine when high technology collapses and you find yourself a member of the upper classes in the new, low-tech order. You’d still be worse off as a 1750 aristocrat than a middle class citizen of Western Civilization in 2020. I’ll explain why in my next post.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a lot of interest in the collapse of civilization. The YA book and movie markets are glutted with dystopian images of collapsed cities and zombie-apocalypse TV series The Walking Dead is past nine seasons and still going. Serious descriptions of collapse are bandied about by the globalist elite (consider the number of presidents and prime ministers listed as notable members of The Club of Rome, authors of The Limits to Growth, and everyone is familiar with the concepts of Peak Oil and Climate Change. Prepper magazines abound on newsstands.
Whatever the reason, millions of people spend time daydreaming about the collapse of our high-technology, high-energy civilization. I grew up in a rural area, in a time before smartphones and wars for oil, so I understand in part the appeal of a quieter, slower way of life. But I know too much to believe that the collapse of high-tech civilization would allow the human race to build a no-fossil fuel, low-energy utopia. The human race has lived a low-energy lifestyle for most of its existence. Reverting to the energy consumption and technology levels of, say, Western Europe in 1750 would be really bad idea. This blog series will explain why. Today’s post will talk about the first reason. It’s kind of a big one.
There’s about a 90% chance you would starve to death
There are somewhere north of 7 billion people on Earth today. In 1750, before the Industrial Revolution got rolling, the consensus of world population estimates was about 800 million. In other words, world population back then was about 11% of what it is today.
That had nothing to do with population restraint. Human beings have had sex at a pretty steady rate since the end of the last Ice Age. The only limit on population growth has been food supply. So the reason world population in 1750 was a tiny fraction of what it is today is that’s the maximum number of people that could be fed with the agricultural technology of the time. The obvious conclusion is that, if we revert to 1750’s technology, we’ll revert to 1750’s maximum population.
I can hear the protests now. “Without our rampant pollution, farm yields will go up.” “We’ve developed superior crop strains that, if available in 1750, would have increased food supplies.” “In 1750, the kings and priests hoarded excess food, which we won’t allow.” But that’s all BS. Maybe not the superior crop strains, but the only reason US farmers get 140 bushels of corn per acre is through ongoing crossing of inbred corn strains. Those inbred strains don’t breed true. Seed companies have to keep producing those corn strains every year. Want to bet we can keep producing corn hybrids every growing season indefinitely? Without the modern infrastructure of telephones, computers, biology labs, and transport used by today’s ag scientists?
I can also read the minds of the protestors. I won’t be among the nine out of ten starving to death. It will be someone else. Really? Is that a bet you want to take? My skills are too valuable for society to let me die. Really? I can sit at a desk and process words as well as you can, and the pay ain’t bad, but the niche I work in is probably similar to yours: a job that only exists because of the economic and technological bounty of the last 250 years.
But, sure, you have a 10% chance of being one of the lucky ones who survive. You still don’t want a civilizational collapse. I’ll get into why in my next post.
I became a fan of Rush back in the early ’80s, the first time I heard Tom Sawyer over the radio from KBFL, at the time the student-run radio station out of Buffalo (MO) High School.
The three members of the band were all virtuosos on their instruments, but the thing that raised them above other bands of that era was the song writing. Lots of science fiction (2112, Red Barchetta, The Body Electric, and more) and stuff that’s science fiction-adjacent (Countdown, obviously, though Digital Man and New World Man fit with the cyberpunk esthetic of the early ’80s). But most of their other tracks, with their recurring themes of individualism, resistance to authoritarians, and introverts and outsiders trying to find their way, spoke to me as well. And most of those lyrics came from Peart’s pen.
Peart, who died last week of glioblastoma, aged 67, took influence from science fiction, but in turn, science fiction took influence from him. Last month (December 2019), the Libertarian Futurist Society nominated The Trees, an anti-equal-outcomes parable, for the 2020 Prometheus Hall of Fame Award. Kevin J. Anderson, a long-time friend of Peart’s, novelized the band’s last studio album, Clockwork Angels. And Rush’s music has popped up in my own stories in different ways.
- “1001001” from The Body Electric is the email username used by the mysterious hacker who contacts Clay Shieffer in the beginning of my first novel, The Blank Slate.
- Closer to the Heart is part of the Alignment with the Universe hymnal in the last two Stone Chalmers novels, To All High Emprise Consecrated and In Public Convocation Assembled.
- A close reader will also realized that Closer to the Heart is also a hymn sung by Tao Pacem, in The Reincarnation Run.
In addition to Peart’s relevance for science fiction, he also exemplified some positive traits creative people of any stripe should emulate.
After the album Caress of Steel failed to meet their record company’s expectations, the band faced a choice. Record an album more in line with what the suits wanted, or follow their weird. They followed their weird and recorded 2112, which ended up being their best selling album to that point and laid the groundwork for the next four decades of their successes.
When asked about writing the lyrics to Limelight, a song about the pluses and minuses of fame, Peart said, “I didn’t want to be famous. I wanted to be good.”
And he was, for a career lasting about fifty years, speaking to the hearts of millions of fans worldwide. All because he and the other band members forged their path and stuck to it, regardless what the suits and the critics said. You can’t ask for more than that in this life.
Some science fiction writers publish manifestos. I’m suspicious of that. Number 1, they’re always some attempt to dress up in fancy verbiage the concept that science fiction should change so that the manifesto writer sells more books and earns more money. Number 2, and even more important, writers who write and publish manifestos aren’t writing and publishing stories.
What follows, then, isn’t a manifesto. Consider it a useful guide if you’ve found me for the first time and want to learn more about the kinds of science fiction and related genres I write.
My website tagline is From Middle America to the Ends of the Universe. What does that mean?
- Though not all, most of my lead characters are straight white men. Write what you know.
- Whatever their demographic, I treat all my characters with respect. Respect means I depict them all, hero or villain, major or minor, including women and minorities as real people, warts and all, some good and some evil, and not as politically correct caricatures of moral superiority.
- It’s very likely that religion will be a major part of the human future. My reasons why are set forth in this blog series (1) (2) (3) (4).
- Skillful, honest, hard-working scientists and engineers can solve most of the world’s problems—and the biggest obstacle they face is corrupt, inept, or evil special interests.
If any of those points turn you off, no worries. You have so many choices in today’s science fiction marketplace that you can find other writers better aligned with your tastes.
On the other hand, if you want to learn more about my worlds, the links in the banner above will give you more information about my titles and where you can find them.
CV-2 Books has published two new books of mine, and rolled out “print singles” editions of some short stories, so far in 2019. Here are the covers and links to more information.
Apparently there’s a big football game coming up this weekend, which makes this a good time for a post about the future of football. This post isn’t hard sf, but there is some science fiction content. Not simply because it’s a prediction about the future beyond the end of the next sports season or the next election cycle, but primarily because it’s based on cliodynamics, theories of historical processes. For Asimov fans, think of it as baby steps toward psychohistory as depicted in the Foundation series.
The NFL has been in a Golden Age since about 1985, the year the original incarnation of the USFL collapsed. In 1984, NFL team revenues ranged from about $23.2 million to $29.4 million. We’ll round off at $26.3 million per team. In 2016, total league revenues were about $14 billion, for an average of $437.5 million per team. (The Cowboys nearly doubled that, $840 million, and only the Patriots, Redskins, Giants, and 49ers exceeded the average). Call it four doubling times in 32 years, apply rule of 72, and you have an average per team revenue growth of 9% per year.
As Herbert Stein famously quipped, “If something can’t go on forever, it will stop.” Even if the NFL had smooth sailing for the next three+ decades, we can probably rule out average team revenue of $7 billion for the 2050 season.
And the sailing won’t be smooth. Consider the squalls already blowing in the NFL’s face:
- The concussion problem. Lawsuits from ex-players; a decline in youth football participation as parents keep their sons out of football, leading to less interest in football and a weaker talent pool, reducing the appeal of the NFL’s product; a mounting distaste for the public for such a violent sport.
- Calibrating the level of violence to please owners and casual fans (who want their stars to be protected from blindside hits) while keeping hardcore fans (who want the game to remain the province of tough guys).
- Pricing out Joe Sixpack. What was the minimum in the 2018 NFL season for a family of four to park, sit in the upper deck, and buy four hot dogs, three sodas, and a beer for Dad? $500? Especially when the only thing more boring than sitting through an NFL commercial break while watching TV is sitting through the same commercial break in the stadium.
- The anthem protests of 2017 have faded from the public eye, but watch for more activism to pop up, especially if political forces put a tailwind behind them. And if you think Commissioner Goodell learned his lesson and will keep politics off the field, you think he’s far more principled than I do.
- Patriots fatigue. What’s next for Tom Brady? Stem cell injections? Cyborg implants? Breaking George Blanda’s record as oldest NFL player ever? The Patriots playing in fifteen Super Bowls between 2001 and 2030? Yawn.
From all this, it’s a given that per-team NFL revenue growth will slow, and may soon decline.
Once revenue shrinks, we’re into a decline-of-Rome dynamic. The elites faced with dividing a shrinking pie will do what they have always done throughout history: scheme against one another to each carve off a bigger slice at the expense of the others. This tendency is compounded when the elites presiding over the Golden Age, who worked together to make that Golden Age happen, die off and their heirs expect the easy money will keep rolling in. When you’re a spoiled child, it’s so much easier to blame your peers than to reconfigure your system for a new, more austere, era. (FYI, among owners of richer NFL teams, Jerry Jones and Robert Kraft are both over 75).
Given this tendency, how will it manifest?
The obvious target is revenue sharing. Almost all of the NFL teams share merchandise revenues and split gate proceeds. The only exception? The Cowboys. The $300 million more in revenues than any other team Cowboys. (Jerry Jones negotiated an opt-out for merchandise and ticket sales sharing and so far is the only owner to opt out). When other envious owners realize the best way to enrich themselves is to follow the Cowboys’ lead, they will. Result: richer teams will be better able to sign great free agents, will gain fans, and will get richer; poorer teams will be less able to compete, will lose fans, and will get poorer. With more teams out of championship contention, fewer fans will follow the NFL, and the revenue decline will accelerate. This leads to a decline in the salary cap, which increases labor unrest because players are just as accustomed as the owners to increasing revenues. Another strike, maybe a lockout.
But there’s more. Currently, all NFL teams share TV revenue. But for the prosperous teams to keep their revenue increasing, TV revenue sharing will have to go away.
Here’s the crisis point: a group of 6-8 prosperous-team owners gives the NFL an ultimatum. Reconfigure TV revenue in their favor, or they walk and form a new pro league.
If the NFL caves, then 16-24 teams become perennial losers. Their fan bases implode; they can’t hire any good free agents; they become near-automatic Ws for the elite 8. The decline accelerates. Eventually, teams go out of business, and you’ll have a league where the elite 8 dominate. Maybe it’s still called the NFL, but with only 12 teams arranged in geographic conferences to minimize travel expenses, with games only streamed, not broadcast, and uniforms gaudy with advertising like NASCAR drivers’ suits.
If the NFL rejects the ultimatum, the teams bolt. No doubt the divorce will be messy–the player’s association might try negotiating the best possible deal, or maybe try to start a third, player-owned pro league. But the teams would only issue the ultimatum if they believed they would come out ahead.
So far, I’m confident in my predictions. Whether the new league is called the USFL or something else, whether it starts play in 2025, whether the Cowboys are its first champions, is just clickbait. Check back with me in fall ‘25 and we’ll see how close this prediction is to reality.
I watched my first James Bond movie at around the same age as I became a science fiction addict, so the two genres feed off one another in my subconscious for that reason. But not just that reason. Both genres have the same roots in pulpy, male-oriented action-adventure fiction.
Fiendish villains? Check. Plotting to unleash high-tech horrors in a bid for world domination? Check. Stalwart heroes out to stop them? Check. Treacherous yet beautiful women only our heroes can tame? Check. That’s all great fun regardless of the genre label. Especially with some twists and turns on the formula to throw surprises your way.
Sounds like your kind of series? Book 1, The Progress of Mankind is available now in ebook, paperback, and audiobook. Book 2, The Greater Glory of God is available for ebook preorder now. Paperback available May 3. Audibook coming later in May. Book 3 is in the publishing pipeline and the fourth and final book is under draft.
Still not convinced? Don’t take my word for it. Sfreader.com called The Progress of Mankind “[A] thriller-style science fiction tale that’s a quick and fun read…. A good start to a promising series.”
I’ll be back soon to talk about the cover art for the series, where the titles came from, and how Larry Niven has nothing to do with The Greater Glory of God.
Interstellar Travel: Laser Sails and Tractor Beams
If Einstein is right, then it’s impossible to get to Alpha Centauri in less than 4.3 years.
If Newton is right, then getting there in a fraction of a human lifetime, though possible, is extremely difficult. Tsiolkovsky’s Rocket Equation tells us you would need an immense amount of propellant and an immense amount of energy to throw that propellant at high speed out the back of your ship. As in, $100 quadrillion dollars worth of antimatter per passenger.
It would be much simpler if you could leave the energy and propellant source behind. But how?
Enter the laser sail. Nutshell: light exerts pressure when it reflects off an object. Assemble a bunch of lasers and aim them at your ship. Turn the lasers on and they’ll accelerate your ship. Keep the lasers turned on until you reach your cruising velocity, then turn the lasers off. Your ship will coast at your cruising velocity until you reach Alpha Centauri.
Problem. How do you slow down?
In Avatar, ISV Venture Star carries antimatter engines to slow down on the approach to Pandora. Other powerful rocket technologies would work. By only needing to fire the engines when arriving, you cut your fuel requirement by 75%. We’ve cut the cost to a mere $25 quadrillion dollars of antimatter per passenger. Maybe there’s a cheaper way.
You could use aerobraking. The ship dips into the atmosphere of a planet or other large body and uses atmospheric drag to slow down. The Motie ship in The Mote in God’s Eye dives into the atmosphere of its destinatation star. Can it work? In theory, but you’re coming in at 40,000 miles per second or faster, and missing your insertion trajectory by just a few degrees either way can send you into a fiery death (and catastrophe for the planet or star you’re impacting at 0.2c) or hurtling off into space with no chance to get back to your destination.
Back in the ‘60s, Dr. Philip Norem pointed out that if you charge your ship, the galaxy’s magnetic field will turn it. You can approach Alpha Centauri from behind. The lasers back at Earth will know when you’ll be in position, and can fire again. This time, the Earth lasers will slow you down. The only problem is if you haven’t mapped the galaxy’s magnetic field well enough, your ship wouldn’t turn onto the correct trajectory, the Earth lasers will miss, and your ship will coast into space with no chance to get back to your destination. Even if you can tune your ship’s charge to deal with unexpected galactic magnetic field strengths along your flight path, you still have to go a long way out of your way. (guesstimating from the picture to the right, 15-20 light years).
Physicist and science fiction writers Dr. Robert Forward came up with another way to use Earth-based lasers to slow your ship. It requires two concentric disc mirrors stacked together, with the smaller disc on the Earth side and the larger disc on the destination side. The smaller disc needs mirrors on both sides.
To decelerate at the destination, first detach the larger disc from the smaller. When the laser beam strikes the larger disc, light reflects and hits the smaller disc. This slows the smaller disc to a stop at the destination. The larger disc sails off at a fraction of light-speed into interstellar space.
And if instead of one small disc, you use a medium and a small disc, you can make a round trip. Use your laser to return the small disc to Earth while the medium disc remains at your destination. See the picture to the left.
The biggest drawback is that the large (and medium) discs can only be used once. Thousands of square miles of mirrors wouldn’t be cheap. Still, it’s the best of these options.
Is there any other way to slow down at Alpha Centauri?
Yes. Tractor beam. (Ctrl-F for “tractor beam” after you follow the link. Huge thanks to Winchell Chung, Atomic Rockets’ proprietor, for all his work, including the three images I grabbed for this post).
Wait, aren’t tractor beams as impossible as faster-than-light travel? And even if they weren’t, how much energy would it take for a tractor beam on your ship to grab Alpha Centauri or one of its planets to slow down?
The answers, respectively, are no and wrong question.
Tractor beams may be possible. If a light beam with carefully tuned properties hits an object, the beam can pull the object toward the light source. Or, as first envisioned by physicist Victor Veselago, surfaces with negative refractive indices (NRI) are another. If you hit an NRI surface with light, the light would exert negative pressure on the surface, pulling it closer rather than pushing it away.
Granted, both concepts are far from implementation. But if either one works…
Scenario: lasers near Earth accelerate the ship toward Alpha Centauri. The ship coasts for a while. Then one of the following scenarios occurs:
- The laser controllers at Earth calculate the date the ship needs to start decelerating, and about 4.3 years before that date, the laser controllers fire a beam of tuned laser light that will pull the ship toward Earth, i.e., decelerate it.
- Just before the deceleration start date, the ship deploys an NRI sheet. Earth’s lasers fired 4.3 years ago. The laser light strikes the NRI sheet and decelerates the ship.
- Both tuned light and an NRI surface are used.
Regardless of scenario, the result is the Earth-based laser acts as a “tractor beam” and slows down the ship at Alpha Centauri. No shipboard rockets, no aerobraking, and no galactic magnetic field surfing required. You could also use the Earth-based laser to accelerate the ship back to Earth at the end of the mission.
(Of course, the ship is trusting that Earth will turn on the laser beam at the right time. But for my purposes, that’s great. Stories come from where things can go wrong).
Whether the tractor beam approach is better than Dr. Forward’s multi-stage structure would come down to cost. Big throwaway mirrors may well be cheaper than giant banks of tunable lasers or big NRI sheets. Especially because we would only need Earth-based lasers to slow our ships until the human colony at Alpha Centauri builds its own bank of lasers to decelerate incoming ships and accelerate ships back to Earth: not many missions to pay off the R&D costs for tunable lasers or NRI sheets.
Even in deep space, money talks.
Ebook bundles are a great way to find new authors in genres you love. My novel Take the Shilling will be part of the Cyborg City ebook bundle (Amazon, Kobo, and more presale links at Bundlerabbit). That’s 11 exciting science fiction stories for just $3.99! Here’s the full list of titles.
– “T.I.N. Men” by Russ Crossley
– “Club Anyone” by Lou Agresta
– “Take the Shilling” by Raymund Eich
– “Technological Angel” by Barbara G.Tarn
– “Walking on a Sea of Clouds” by Gray Rinehart
– “Demon Days” by Carl S. Plumer
– “Coffee Cup Dreams (A Redpoint One Romance)” by J.A. Marlow
– “Inside the Sphere” by M. L. Buchman
– “Imposters” by Blaze Ward
– “Programmed for Danger” by Karen McCullough
– “The Suit” by David Sloma
Go to your preferred ebookseller to preorder now or buy on September 29. Enjoy!
Some people you might never meet in person, but you get a strong sense of who they are from their writing. Sf writer, computer enthusiast, and technology strategist Jerry Pournelle, who died last week at the age of 84, was one of those.
You’ve probably heard of his first collaboration with Larry Niven, the 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye. It’s probably the best novel to not win either the Hugo or Nebula (beaten for both by LeGuin’s The Dispossessed). Don’t take my word for it, Robert Heinlein called it “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read.” (And if you find Robert Heinlein’s praise a strike against it, both my blog and my sf are probably not for you). Having first read Mote after reading almost everything Niven had written to that point in my life, Pournelle’s distinctive worldview was quite clear. Sf had featured galactic emperors before, but in a “once upon a time” fashion, obscured from our present era by mythic epochs. Pournelle’s galactic empire emerged quite clearly from an alliance between the US and the USSR’s combined spacefleet (!) and a monarchial human colony world. And not only was it a real galactic empire, but a high church Christianity was its state religion! Definitely against the grain of most ’70s sf, with its rational computers governing spandex-clad, hedonistic atheists.
Other aspects of the Niven-Pournelle collaborations that have a strong (to me) Pournelle fingerprint are the identity of the virtuous pagan in Inferno, the techno-feudalism of Oath of Fealty, and the battle to save high-tech civilization in Lucifer’s Hammer.
He also wrote solo novels and stories in the CoDominion/galactic emperor setting of Mote, edited the There Will Be War series (being republished and continued by Castalia House), blogged about computers and politics, and a lot more. Whatever the topic, you could tell Pournelle had wrapped his mind around it and had something important to say.
But the single most distinctively Pournelle thing I ever read isn’t sf at all. It’s A Step Farther Out, a collection of “essays on technology, civilization, and saving the world” that mostly appeared in Galaxy magazine during the editorship of Jim Baen during the ’70s.
For those who weren’t there or don’t remember, the ’70s were much like today–an era when the elites proclaimed that the good times (for the 99%, that is) were over, when the most sensible solution to energy shortage, nuclear power, was demonized by facile word-flingers in the pay of anti-American propaganda machines; when we were told that only massive economic redistribution (again, from the upper parts of the 99%, not the elites, to the world’s impoverished billions) could stave off catastrophe.
Pournelle demolished the doom-and-gloom narrative in about a hundred pages.
Then he pointed out how we could get to space, and how we could live once we got there.
While I’m not convinced by the asteroid mining “cash on the barrel” arguments for space settlement, I still think space settlement is utterly possible. Pournelle’s essays are a major reason why… and a major reason my blood boils when I see the self-centered incompetence and corruption of the Western worlds’ ruling class.
I’m pretty sure Pournelle’s blood boiled at that too.