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A treasure trove of hard science fiction ideas

While researching a story I’m currently writing about terraforming, I found The Paul Birch Web Archive. If you’re looking for big, hard science fiction ideas, follow the link now and get your mind expanded. Want to speed up Venus’ rotation to give it a day 24 hours long, at the low low price of $20 trillion? Want to build a bridge across the Pacific Ocean or up to low Earth orbit? Want to sail the solar wind and interstellar medium, and reach Alpha Centauri in 400 years? Want to take a one-way faster-than-light trip into the future?

The link again is The Paul Birch Web Archive. Enjoy!

New standalone short story

A Writers of the Future honorable mention


A billion Third Worlders wanted to work in the United States.

As a lucky holder of a daypass, Chalo had the opportunity to teleport to his job, unless he overstayed his shift.

Or lost his daypass.

“Pase de un Día” is just US$2.99 at an ebook retailer near you, including Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords.

Religion and Space Settlement, Part II

Now that we know religious sentiments will be the only rationale for space settlement, how can we expect space settling to unfold and what will space settlements look like?  Here are some initial thoughts.

1. Space settlements will be founded by colossally wealthy individuals

As we discussed previously, the costs of space settlement will be extremely high in the near term. At $400K to put a person on the Moon, and assuming a person requires 10x his mass in initial infrastructure and 1x his mass in replacement infrastructure every year, a lunar colony of 150 people would cost $660 million up front and $60 million every year.

In the farther term, even though the absolute costs might drop thanks to nanotechnology or the like, the relative costs (in a purchasing-power-parity index) will remain very high. So only very wealthy individuals will have the money to pay for these costs.

Given that individuals who amass immense wealth tend to be committed to their work and immune to fanciful, fanatical ideas (e.g. Henry Ford, Sam Walton, Warren Buffett), few of the founders of space settlements will be first-generation billionaires. (Bill Gates is one of the few to walk away from business and devote himself to charitable work). More likely, second- and later-generation billionaires, with inherited wealth, without the pragmatic business-building drive of their ancestor, and a craving for meaning in their lives, will be the primary population of space settlement founders.

1b. …not corporations or governments

Although these entities have the colossal wealth, they lack any religious motivation. Corporations are driven solely to profit. Governments are driven solely to amass the social capital equivalent of profit–support from the powerful, acquiescence from the masses, and deterrence of potential foes. (Government space programs are the equivalent of Mayan stelae, ostentatious displays designed to show foes the power of the government so the foes don’t challenge it).

While both classes of entities are willing to use the religious sentiments of their customers/subjects, they themselves are immune from it. They would still have roles to play in the space settlement process. For example, corporations may profit by providing transport for space settlements, on the principle of “in a gold rush, the only man who gets rich is the shovel salesman.” Governments may provide the impetus for space settlements–consider local governments in Illinois and Missouri supporting vigilantism against the Mormons, or the French government’s alliance with anti-Semites during the Dreyfus Affair as reported by Herzl.

2. Most space settlements will be undertaken by Westerners

There are two reasons why. First, in the near term, most billionaires of the recent past have lived in the US or other Western/Westernized countries, so most of their heirs will too. For the foreseeable future, the world’s new billionaires will come disproportionally from these same regions. Amassing great wealth requires a large number of prosperous customers, which in the near term means Western/Westernized countries. Developing countries may have faster economic growth rates then the US and EU, but the developing countries are starting from a lower base and will have slower growth as low-hanging productivity fruit are picked. Thus, the West will have the lead in large numbers of prosperous consumers for many decades yet.

Second, Western cultures seem more susceptible to intense religious fervor than many others. Perhaps this is a product of the West’s greater individualism and loss of faith in traditional things-greater-than-oneself. The US has long held the lead in inventing new religions (the Great Awakening, the Latter-Day Saints, Scientology, UFO cults, etc.). Europeans spent a century and a half, from the French Revolution until the fall of fascism, devising secular ideologies that filled the same psychological need. The West also has had decades of a high material standard of living, with resulting Affluenza. The developing world hasn’t had enough wealth for enough time to suffer the same ailment. So even if the wealth to build space settlements is amassed in the developing world, the needed fervor is likely to be missing.

2b. …but not necessarily white people

The industrialized West has tens of millions of persons of color, many of whom have imbibed the cultural traits discussed above. African-American history has prominent examples of ethnic solidarity rising to the level of religious belief, culminating in separatist urges. Marcus Garvey, Rastafarianism. (Bradbury wrote sixty years ago about African-Americans escaping prejudice by settling Mars). The growth of evangelical Protestantism and Mormonism in Latin America indicates eruptions of religious fervor could happen among Hispanospheric peoples and cultures, especially those with the most exposure to the US.

3. Space settlements will be established by fanatics

Whatever their skin color and their belief systems, space settlers will have beliefs so intense and/or out of the mainstream and/or confrontational that space settlement–a prodigiously expensive and dangerous undertaking–will seem the best option for them to preserve their way of life. They will be in contrast to average people, folks who go along to get along and adapt their beliefs to life in their home culture on Earth. ‘Fanatic’ seems a good label for the minority who won’t.

4. Space settlements will stay fanatical longer than religious settlements on Earth did

Most of the settlements founded for religious reasons that we discussed last time have evolved over time to have few, if any, beliefs outside of the mainstream.  (Today, the descendants of the post-1848 German atheist-socialists who settled central Texas go to church and vote Republican no less than their neighbors). Pressure, and especially economic pressure, from the outside world ground down the sharp edges of strange beliefs and practices. The Latter-Day Saints’ dropping of polygamy just happened to remove the last obstacle to gaining the benefits of US statehood for Utah.

Space settlements built using foreseeable technology, where settlements would be dependent on Earth for imports of specialized goods and spare parts, would be exposed to those same pressures. But under foreseeable technology, space settlements will be uncommon for reasons of cost.

Nanotechnology, or comparable magic wand technology, changes that. If space settlements have nothing to import from Earth, then they can ignore the threat of economic sanction for sticking to their beliefs, as well as the carrot of economic reward for moving to the mainstream. Also, they will have little, if any, exposure to travelers, traders, and other strangers bearing different beliefs. Thus, space settlements can maintain their fanaticism. (Eventually, the fanaticism will erode for internal reasons. I have a character in New California say “The passion of youth turns into the settled habit of middle age.” But the absence of external pressure will slow the process).

5. You would dislike most space settlement cultures

Remember, space settlers will be fanatics who can’t or won’t fit in with the mainstream of their native culture on Earth. If you’re part of your culture’s mainstream, then space settlers will seem like heretics or madmen. And if you’re a fanatic, you’re probably a different sort of fanatic, and think of all other fanatics as your enemies.

This poses a challenge to an sf writer: How do I make likable a character from a fanatic culture?

But note, what we think of as our cultural mainstream is likely to seem primitive and barbaric to the cultural mainstream in the medium to far future, when self-sufficent space settlements may be possible. An sf writer could write a satire in which a culture thinking all the things we’re supposed to think (democracy is the best form of government, church and state should be separated, markets should be generally free but regulated for the common good, every child should go to college and then work a white-collar office job for the next fifty years) is made up of deranged fanatics who self-exile to escape the Earth of 2100.

Religion and Space Settlement, Part I

In the first two installments of this series, we discovered:

  1. Using foreseeable technology, it would be too expensive to go to space, stay there, find or make valuable things, and send those things to Earth.
  2. Any technology that would lower those expenses would lower the cost of finding or making those same things on Earth, meaning space settlements couldn’t compete no matter how low it cost.

From that, we conclude that space settlements will never happen for economic reasons.

But that doesn’t mean space settlements can’t happen. Human history is rife with examples of settlements founded for non-economic reasons. What do the original US states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and Maryland have in common? Not ringing a bell? Maybe Utah? The Transvaal Republic? The modern state of Israel? Not to mention smaller examples, the Amish, New Harmony, the Amana Colonies, post-1848 German atheist-socialist colonies in central Texas, and post-1960s hippie communes in the US; Hutterites in western Canada; and odd colonies scattered across Latin America. All these places were founded as havens for religious* communities.

(* I use “religious” as a shorthand. The US states listed above had explicitly religious origins, providing havens for Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, Catholics, and Mormons. But Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, had little if any religious motivation, and instead sought a home for the Jewish people as defined on ethnic and cultural dimensions. Likewise, the Voortrekkers felt their way of life threatened by British customs, language, religious practice, and government policies. So “way-of-life” or “cultural” communities, or “communities dedicated to something greater than the individual” might be better descriptions than “religious.”)

This also explains the mystical overtones that advocates of space settlement tend to use. “We need to get off Earth in case a disaster destroys the planet.” Nevermind that in terms of cost, it would be cheaper to protect 1 billion people on Earth from a massive disaster than to set up 1000 people in a self-sufficient colony on Mars, Luna, or the asteroid belt. The spread of Earth-life across the solar system and beyond is seen as something greater than the individual, and rational discussion stops.

Or take Tsiolkovsky’s famous quote. It sounds motivating and galvanizing: “The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but one cannot live in the cradle forever.” The hard-headed, economically-literate sf fan knows the intended conclusion only follows if we let the metaphor cloud our thinking. Why not remain on Earth? We evolved for this cradle. Climbing over the crib walls doesn’t get us into the rest of the house. Instead, it gets us into a frigid, irradiated, airless environment, with no food or toys. But for someone caught up in the religious fervor of Tsiolkovsky’s quote, those economic objections are irrelevant.

Further, to the truly fervent, high costs and low rewards are not a bug, but a feature, of space settlement. Making an investment that will never pay back shows one looks beyond crass economic calculation. If anyone can make a buck in space, then our lunar colonies, asteroid colonies, terraformed planets, etc. will soon be overrun with salesmen and tax collectors.

So if the only motivation for space settlement is religious, along what lines would space settlements develop? We’ll get to that next time.

Economics of Space Settlements, Part II

Previously, I talked about why space settlement, using current technology, would cost too much to ever happen.  But what if the costs were to drop enough, through nanotechnology or some comparable magic wand?

Simple: the price of goods sold by space settlements would be too low to pay back even those new, low costs.  Why?  The same nanotechnology that lowers the costs of space settlement would lower the cost of finding or making those same goods on Earth.

Consider the Niven/Pournelle dream of asteroid mining.  (I cut my teeth on Pournelle’s science fact essays collected in A Step Farther Out.)  All it costs to bring thousands of tons of highly pure iron or nickel to Earth from the asteroid belt are the capital and operational expenses of round-trip travel and smelting.  At current nickel prices, those expenses would have to be less than about $9/lb of delivered nickel to pay off.  For iron, those expenses would have to be closer to $0.10/lb of delivered iron to pay off.  (Remember, using current technology, the expenses would be at least $1000/lb, if not much more).

Let’s assume nanotechnology can lower those expenses 10,000-fold.  It would do so by making both the machines to do the travel and smelting work, and the energy to drive that work, much cheaper than today.  So nanotech-using miners could settle the asteroid belt, ship nickel or iron to Earth, and make a profit, right?

Except for one thing.  Those lower expenses for smelting machinery and the energy to run it would also apply to Earth-based mining.  Reduce the costs of Earth-based mining by, let’s say, just 1000-fold, and iron and nickel deposits that today are too marginal to pay for themselves would become immensely profitable.  For that matter, mining landfills and salvage lots for the iron and nickel in junked appliances and cars would become immensely profitable.  I haven’t run the numbers, but I suspect it would be profitable under those conditions to extract iron at its baseline abundance of 5% in Earth’s crust.

Comparable reasoning would apply to essentially any element or compound.  Regardless of the state of technology, there’s nothing useful to Earth’s economy you could find or make in space you couldn’t find or make more cheaply on Earth.

But, but, strangelets!  Stringlets!  Magnetic monopoles!  Unobtanium!  Yes, there may well be exotic matter out there, but no one’s going to spend a large sum of money hunting for it.  What economic value would it have?  And if it had any, would it be cheaper to substitute for it using terrestrial materials?  The answers very much seem to be “none” and “yes,” respectively.

So, Raymund, there will never be human settlements in space?

I never said that.

But you spent the last two posts stating that human space settlements make no economic sense and never will.

True.  But that doesn’t mean human space settlements will never happen.  I’ll get into the reasons why they might happen in my next post.

Economics of Space Settlements, Part I

As a longtime sf fan, one of the toughest realizations I ever came to is that Space settlements will never happen for economic reasons.

In part, the costs of getting to space are too high.  Charles Stross has discussed the costs at great length here.  To get one person to the Moon, bringing along the life support he needs for the trip, using advanced versions of the rocket technology we have today, would cost about US$400,000 as an optimistic estimate.

That’s far too expensive for anything except government boondoggles or multimillionaire’s larks, i.e., the current state of space travel.

Things get worse as go further in the solar system, even keeping in mind Heinlein’s comment that “Earth orbit is halfway to anywhere.”  The cost of travel to Mars or any other place in the solar system would be even higher than $400,000, for at least two reasons: (1) you have to carry the fuel for the return trip, and (2) you have to carry more life support infrastructure for the years of round-trip travel time forced on you by Hohmann transfer orbits.

Interstellar travel?  Alpha Centauri is about 250,000 times further away than Mars.  The energy cost to get a solitary explorer there in less than one lifetime (at 0.1 c, 40 years in transit) is comparable to the yield of all nuclear weapons ever built, or the energy consumption of the entire world for a couple of weeks.  Generation ships are even worse:  the energy savings from their slower speed (call it 0.01c, 400 years in transit) is offset by the mass of hundreds of people and the infrastructure needed to keep them alive and safe for four centuries.  And we haven’t even touched on the individual and social psychology issues these avenues would bring up.  How well would you do living in your car for four decades?

So nevermind settling the solar system; the idea of normal people going into space is so expensive, it’s a non-starter.

About now, a reader might protest, “But what about nanotechnology?  Advanced materials and cheap energy production will lower all those costs dramatically.”

I read Stan Schmidt’s mid-’80s Analog editorials on nanotechnology, and K. Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation.  Although I think Drexler is intoxicated with his ideas, I completely agree that some of the fruits of nanotechnology–the super-strong, super-light materials and cheap energy referred to above–are entirely possible, and are in fact likely to appear somewhere on Earth in the coming decades.  Yes, those advances will make space elevators and fusion-powered torchships possible.  Yes, nanotechnology would greatly lower the costs of space travel and space settlements.

But.  Nanotechnology would also greatly lower the benefits of space settlement, leaving the prospect as uneconomical as it is today.  More on that point in my next post.