I’ll be the fire escape that’s bolted to the ancient brick

Charles Stross, author of Accelerando and other sci-fi books, wrote a fascinating post two weeks ago (thanks to Ari for linking it). He talked about the challenge of designing society for posterity: how to make a social order that could run a “generation ship” without falling apart.

Generation starships: they’re not fast.

If you can crank yourself up to 1% of light-speed, alpha centauri is more than four and a half centuries away at cruising speed. To put it in perspective, that’s the same span of time that separates us from the Conquistadores and the Reformation; it’s twice the lifespan of the United States of America.

We humans are really bad at designing institutions that outlast the life expectancy of a single human being. The average democratically elected administration lasts 3-8 years; public corporations last 30 years; the Leninist project lasted 70 years (and went off the rails after a decade). The Catholic Church, the Japanese monarchy, and a few other institutions have lasted more than a millennium, but they’re all almost unrecognizably different.


I’ve been (inconclusively) batting around some ideas with Karl Schroeder — how do you design a society for the really long term? There are a couple of levels to consider: notably, decision-making and economics. And it doesn’t look as if we’ve got any good solutions to either.

You should read the whole post; it’s fascinating stuff. And if you think about it, there’s a hidden question in there. A society that could remain stable aboard a generation ship – an enclosed biosphere hurtling through space – is, of course, a society that could remain stable aboard Spaceship Earth.

Too bad the question itself makes no sense.

Don’t get me wrong: “how do you design a society for the really long term?” makes perfect grammatical sense. You can even start imagining along those lines, as Stross and his friend Schroeder evidently did, for several ‘grafs worth of thought. But if you consider what those actual words mean – specifically, design, society and long term – the question becomes impossible. There is no way to answer it.

Let’s say Stross, or NASA, or even you, come up with a way to answer the question. And let’s say a generation ship – a vessel capable of interstellar travel along a lifespan of hundreds of years – gets built. Here’s what it’ll look like on Day One.

NASA Project Director: Okay, guys, remember what we told you …
Generation Ship Crew: Right, right, we remember.
NASA Project Director: … you’re an oligarchical commune with rotating leadership roles and multiple redundant judiciaries …
Generation Ship Crew: Mm-hmm, got it.
NASA Project Director: … lower the radiation shields every 400 days to prevent genetic drift …
Generation Ship Crew: It’s all in the three-ring binder. We’ve got it.
NASA Project Director: Okay. Just checking. Good luck, people!
(ship door seals; generation ship takes off)
Generation Ship Crew: SPRING BREAK! WHOOOO!

Okay, maybe things won’t fall apart that fast.

But the entire premise of Stross’s question ignores an obvious hurdle: if some social scientist theorizes the Perfect Society for a generation ship, who’s to say anyone inside the generation ship is going to follow it? Especially once they’re light years away from the home world? NASA can tell the crew, “The engineers are in charge; if what they say isn’t law, the ship stops spinning and O2 stops filtering and you all die in six weeks.” But that doesn’t matter, unless every non-engineer aboard the ship also agrees.

To be fair, Stross isn’t suggesting that the Perfect Society be dictated from on high. He closes the post with the question, “What sort of governance and society do you think would be most comfortable, not to mention likely to survive the trip without civil war, famine, and reigns of terror?”

But the question is still irrelevant. Stross can prove, using all the equations social science has to offer, that (say) an anarcho-syndicalist state where the Chief Engineer, the Head Gardener and the Captain of the Dodgeball Team act as a non-legislative judiciary is the only stable state for a closed, high-maintenance biosphere that has to have a population greater than x in 450 years. But that proof is irrelevant to the people inside that biosphere unless they believe it. If I scrub the oxygen filters, I might be convinced after a few years that I’m the most important person aboard the ship. After all, without me, everyone dies.

And even if NASA somehow indoctrinates every member of the first generation of the crew in their Perfect Social Theory, there’s a reason this sci-fi construct is called a generation ship. It will take more than one generation to get where it’s going. Four and a half centuries from here to Alpha Centauri at 0.1c; that’s eighteen generations. Who’s to say your kids will hold to the anarcho-syndicalist ideal with the same fervor you did? Or their kids? It only takes one generation to decide the reactor only needs sixteen control rods instead of twenty for the entire project to fail.

Far more important than the question of what should happen is the question of what will happen.

So let’s say we lock 250,000 engineers, biologists, chemists, physicists and janitors inside an asteroid and slap it toward Alpha Centauri. We tell them, in the strictest language we know, what they have to do in order to stay alive. But once they get airborne, it’s anarchy – not in the “jungle savagery” sense, but in the “no recognized law” sense. What form of social order will evolve?

My guess: the same ones we’ve seen throughout history. The human race evolved in an open biosphere with no set instructions on how best to live. A generation ship changes two of those variables, closing the biosphere off from mutation and leaving a three-ring binder of Best Practices. But otherwise, we’ll probably see what we’ve seen throughout history: warring tribes, dueling factions, a period of disorder that leads to a strong preference for law and a powerful state that arises as a result. A quarter of a million of Earth’s best and brightest go in; forty-five decades later, Augustus Caesar steps out.

# # #

I am going to read a little into Stross’s post now.

I suspect that implicit in the definition of “Perfect Society” is stability. Stross hopes that the Perfect Society will in fact be so utopian that it will not change, because no one will ever have a reason to change it. Not only will it fulfill everyone’s needs, but everyone within it will recognize that it will fulfill everyone’s needs. It’s a perpetual motion machine, requiring only its own input to keep going.

(The first question – if you discover this perfectly stable social order, why do you even have to leave Earth? – might merit another post)

This implicit premise – if I’m right in ascribing it to Stross – highlights a regrettable belief in technocracy. Technocracy is the belief that if we only put the right experts or the right rules in place, the social order will run itself. Our current problems, like poverty, corruption, ignorance and violence, do not well up from human nature. They’re artifacts of an outdated culture. If we pass the right laws, we can get rid of anything we don’t like.

Both conservatives and liberals are guilty of this.

Conservatives follow it in the form of “legislating morality.” Outlawing abortion springs to mind. “If abortions are outlawed, then no one will have any abortions!”, conservatives believe, contra all sense and experience. In reality, outlawing abortions means that women will terminate their pregnancies in dangerous, illegal ways. You cannot change the desire of a woman to own her own body by passing a law.

Liberals follow it in the form of “managerial liberalism.” A recent example: the stimulus package! The federal government passes a $787,000,000,000 “recovery package” to distribute money to local agencies and companies. Shockingly, some of this money has gone to waste. The most recent example: four Congressional districts in Hawaii that don’t exist received over $40,000,000 in stimulus money. Similar bookkeeping problems exist in Arizona, where the fictitious 86th Congressional District has already received $34,000,000. “That’s not what we intended to happen,” say liberal economists like Paul Krugman (who argue that there wasn’t enough stimulus) and Dean Baker. Of course it isn’t. But your intentions are irrelevant. You cannot change the desire of people to scheme for a little extra once the money faucet gets turned on.

Whether on the Left or the Right, technocracy supposes that human nature and cultural trends can be changed by top-down legislation. Draft the right rules, put the right people in charge, and the generation ship that is our world can sail on, untouched and unchanging, until we all turn into Star Children and join the galactic Overmind. In the real world, though, unintended consequences always crop up.

We’re all trapped in this biosphere together, hurtling through the galaxy far below the speed of light. And if we don’t learn a willingness to rule ourselves, throw out the systems that don’t work and take responsibility for our own screw-ups, we’re not going to reach Alpha Centauri alive.


and he points to his survival, and he points me down the road

Perdido Street Station: Weird, original and engrossing; a blend of Cronenberg and Dickens. China Mieville builds a city full of fascinating characters and baroque institutions: the steampunk slum of New Crobuzon, where cactus-men jostle with insect-headed khepri and where the militia stalk the skies on tramlines, capturing criminals and sentencing them to Remaking. In this dense little world we find Isaac van der Grimnebulin, rogue scientist, chartered by a nomadic bird-man (a garuda) to restore his mutilated wings; Lin, his khepri lover, an artist commissioned by a grotesque crime boss to sculpt a statue in his image; Derkhan Blueday, itinerant journalist, who writes for the underground tabloid Runagate Rampant. The sinister government project that unites these three threads will unleash a murderous terror on the city that no one knows how to stop.

Mieville does a lot of detailed, ingenious scene-setting in the first half of the novel, but then devolves into standard Fantasy Quest Problem Solving in the latter half. I suspected Mieville had some tabletop RPG roots, given how the latter half focuses on assembling a party and fighting monsters; Wikipedia confirms it. Not to say that the latter half of the novel is bad, mind you: it just doesn’t have the same grand, Neal Stephenson-esque scope. We get no more tantalizing glimpses of a rich world – vodyanoi stevedores on strike, the intricacies of the Mayor’s office, the institutional brutality of the militia, etc. It goes from being an urban epic to an urban picaresque.

Mieville’s politics are evident but not obvious: a sympathy for labor, a faith in the power of journalism and democracy to shake the foundations of power. Also, you have to go into the novel with the understanding that New Crobuzon itself is the protagonist, not any of the humans or xenians involved. The prolix descriptions Mieville devotes to each overcrowded, architecturally jarring neighborhood will convince you of that. I have little use for overly detailed descriptions of scenery, but I recognize this as a personal quirk.

It’s a tricky read, but I recommend it.

The Ophiuchi Hotline: My second time reading this. I remembered a few of the interesting scenes but not it’s overall scope: a distant future, where the human race has been kicked off the planet Earth by the fifth-dimensional inhabitants of Jupiter. They survive in underground cities thanks to technological advances beamed at them, in code, from the star 70 Ophiuchius. Not all of these advances are distributed freely, of course, and when our protagonist Lilo gets arrested for illegal genetic manipulations, she’s sentenced to death. Yet the mysterious political mastermind called Boss Tweed (really) offers her a way out, if he’ll come work for her …

A breezy little read. It shows the tentative beginnings of what we’d today call the transhumanist strain of sci-fi: the idea of humans changing themselves, through technology, into something no longer recognizable as human. Of course, Ophiuchi‘s far too short and hardly shocking enough to get published today. It would need at least three hundred more pages, more detailed descriptions of fantastic settings, and a few jaunts behind the doors of perception or to the other end of the galaxy.

accidents mean no one’s guilty; ignorance means someone’s killed

This media blow might get political, but that’s no fault of mine:

The Lives of Others: Oscar-winning German film from 2007. Set in East Berlin in 1984, it follows a Stasi captain ordered to surveill a popular playwright and his actor girlfriend. The passion in their lives draws him in, until he finds himself bending the rules to keep them safe. Like The Conversation, but heartwarming and taking place outside of Gene Hackman’s head. Phenomenal – moving, funny and rich in historic detail.

(Note: National Review called it the best conservative movie of the last twenty-five years – which, coming from a magazine that’s spent hundreds of pages defending warrantless wiretaps and detention without trial in the last decade, ranks as one of the sicker ironies I’ve read in some time)

Half-Life 2: Acquired it with the Orange Box; finished it last week. I see what all the fuss is about! The grossout horror aspects don’t do it for me (zombies! ceiling barnacles!), but the shooting felt more intuitive and intense than any other FPS I’ve played in recent memory. The house-to-house urban levels (Anticitizen One and “Follow Freeman”) justify the sticker price – which isn’t much in 2009, so go get a copy.

And the in-game dialogue does not disappoint (as it shouldn’t, coming from the makers of Portal). Dr. Breen’s tired lectures to the troops at Nova Prospekt beat the writing in any given Michael Bay movie, hands-down. “This brings me to the one note of disappointment I must echo from our Benefactors …”

I started in on HL2:Ep1 but logged off pretty early. Given the cataclysmic ending of HL2, I figured that Ep1 would put you in control of Alyx Vance as she fled City 17. Now that would have been cool. But no, once again it’s Gordon Freeman, forced to invade the same Citadel he just spent several hours blowing up. I’ll pick it up again once time has cooled its memory, I’m sure.

Slan: Typical ’40s pulp – lots of action, lots of breakneck pacing, lots of pseudo-scientific talk. In the distant future, the human race has united into a single global police state, fanatically devoted to one end: killing the super-mutants called slans. Slans look exactly like humans, except for the golden tendrils emerging from their skulls that give them telepathic capabilities. That, plus their superhuman speed and reaction time, make them a threat to the human race.

The story moves along at an engaging clip, pausing only on occasion for lengthy lectures on the history of the current situation. In these lectures we get a definite sense of the time in which van Vogt wrote this novel: 1940, when the world hadn’t quite lost its fascination with fascism yet. Because fascism isn’t just jackboots and insignia (though those are essential). It’s any political system which treats culture, genetics and politics as different facets of the same machine, a machine that, if it were only tempered just so, could launch the human species at a lightning pace.

Still, it’s pretty understated. Get past that and you have a classic piece of sci-fi history.

Buffy: I haven’t forgotten you. A couple more episodes, then I’ll have my next batch of 5.

Black Summer: Superhero comics stem from adolescent power fantasies, and the passing decades have not matured that appeal much. Sure, comic books sometimes touch on political issues of the day, but almost always within their own limited language – “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if a super-soldier punched Hitler in the face? and he had a sidekick who was my age?” At the end of the day, it’s still wish-fulfillment. And that’s fine. Indulging in wish-fulfillment gets the human race out of bed in the morning. But let’s call it what it is.

Black Summer is an independent comic series written by Warren “&%$#” Ellis and illustrated, sometimes too ornately, by Juan Jose Ryp. It tells the story that brings the Seven Guns, America’s only cybernetically enhanced vigilante team, out of retirement. Each of the Guns combines cutting-edge information processing nanotech with handguns of unequalled power – some can run faster than light, some can throw tanks at helicopters, some can see through every satellite or computer in the world. Four of them can hold off an Army battalion.

The series begins with the most trusted member of the Seven Guns, John Horus, killing the President and Vice-President with his bare hands moments before they’re scheduled for a press conference. He appears before the White House press corps and charges the (unnamed) President with a number of crimes, including but not limited to prosecuting an illegal war in Iraq and ordering the torture of enemy combatants. He demands a new election take place as soon as possible, and then flies off.

To Ellis’ credit, John Horus is insane. No one – not even his teammates – thinks that murdering the President will solve what’s wrong with America. As one of his allies puts it, John Kennedy was so unliked that he barely got elected, and now look what people think of him. So is Ellis saying violence won’t fix the system? That violence is an ugly but necessary first step? That the system can’t be fixed?

I don’t know that he’s saying any of those. I think Ellis took a dark idea that writers have been batting around since Watchmen (“what if someone truly invincible, and maybe a little bit crazy, were as mad at the President as I am?”) and ran with it. The result is an interesting, and brutally violent, little story. I don’t think it’ll change anyone’s mind on anything important. But, again, it’s a comic book.

rule britannia is out of bounds

WALL-E: Another touching and awesome Pixar spectacle. Pixar has mastered animation to the extent that a one-foot robot with only two words in its vocabulary can emote more effectively than most of the stars expected to carry a summer picture today. They’ve mastered comic timing on a level that puts 99% of comedies released today (Mike Myers films, the [Genre] Movie series) to shame. And I’m not the best barometer for tearjerkers, sensitive twit that I am, but very few human actors can move me like Pixar’s wooden toys, fuzzy monsters, colorful fish or rusting robots.

(No, I haven’t seen Up yet; planning on it)

Red Mars: I started this book when I was 14, maybe, got about 100 pages into it, and couldn’t sustain interest. Don’t know why I stuck to my initial judgment for so long – putting too high a premium on my adolescent judgments – but man, was I wrong. Red Mars works on all levels. As a compelling story of social orders in development, Red Mars tells the story of the first permanent colony on Mars – dedicated scientists at constant odds, each with their own vision of utopia that they seek to impose upon a lifeless planet. I also found myself able to follow the hard science aspects to a greater extent than in other sci-fi novels – I got the importance of aerobraking, and moholes, and the Phobos oscillation on the space elevator. So few engineers-turned-authors can make that work for an English major like me.

But above all else, Red Mars tells my favorite story: of how the war between institutions grinds humans in its wake. Red Mars lacks any overt villains. Though the United Nations and the megacorporations that run it draw no real sympathy, they do have a compelling case: they made a significant investment in Mars by getting the colony there, and they want to see that investment recouped. The environmentalists and the terraformers both make solid arguments for their points of view. Even the saboteurs draw the reader in, with their hokey Rousseauvian mysticism.

What else was I wrong about at age 14, I wonder?

Your Religion is False: Asked and answered, I suppose.

Atheists will never gain much traction in the public forum with the cranky attitude that people like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers adopt in talking about faith. The ancient churches of the world have dealt with better (and better armed) vitriol for centuries. But gone are the years when joking about a holy man would get you exiled from your village, or burned at the stake, or eaten by bears. Laughter is a hard weapon to deflect.

Joel Grus puts humor to good use in Your Religion is False, by taking a John Hodgmann-esque look at all of the major world’s religions. He alternates between straight-faced looks at the absurdity of religious doctrine and exaggerations for comic effect:

Conservative Protestants strictly follow three universal principles, all of which revolve around the idea of “I’m sick of the Pope telling me what to do”:

  1. “If the Bible says it, I believe it. If the Bible doesn’t say it, I don’t believe it. If the Pope says it, for sure I don’t believe it, unless the Bible says it too, in which case I have to ask my pastor what I think.”
  2. “It doesn’t matter how good or evil you are – if you accept Jesus as your savior, you’re going to heaven, and if you don’t you’re going to hell.”
  3. “I’m sick of the Pope telling me what to do.”
The first causes all sorts of problems, as it forces Conservative Protestants to believe that the world is only 6000 years old, to disbelieve in all sorts of useful science, to insist that one man both built a boat capable of carrying and subsequently discovered two members of every species on Earth (including, apparently, all five million-plus species of beetles), and to assert that pi equals 3. The second causes all sorts of problems, as it has allowed a number of Nixon-era criminals to establish lucrative post-incarceration prison ministries. The third is actually an exceptionally sensible position.

And he devotes attention to just about every religion I’ve heard of, from the obscure (transcendental meditation, Jainism, giant stone head worship) to the institutional (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, etc). I think this is the book’s greatest strength and the key to its outreach. Every believer thinks that religions other than his own are silly, or false, or harmful, and wouldn’t mind a chance to poke fun at them. Maybe by seeing them juxtaposed with his own beliefs – equally silly in Grus’s eyes – he’ll have cause to rethink them.

Highly recommended. Buy a copy today.

(Disclosure: I advised Joel on certain portions of the book and provided some feedback on an early draft. However, I think you all know me well enough to know that, if I didn’t think this was a genuinely worthwhile book, I’d put off Joel’s persistent requests for a glowing review with a polite passive-aggression until he lost interest or took the hint. I’m that sort of asshole. But I haven’t; it’s legitimately funny)

god loves ugly

A quick one to start us off: my favorite workout at the gym – to observe, not to perform – is the desultory chin-up. That’s when a guy walks up to the bar and does one chin-up, maybe two, before remembering how hard they were. Then he drops to the mat and walks off like he has something else in mind.

Now to talk about how much reading sucks: I’m glad that the fantasy story trope of “your wish comes true, but it’s twisted” gets less play these days. You know the one I mean: I wish for a million dollars, but it comes in the form of a life insurance payment when my wife dies. Or I wish for time to read in peace and quiet, but I only get it after a nuclear bomb wipes out civilization. Also known as the “monkey’s paw” conceit, after the 1902 short story which spawned it, this slapdash shortcut has been worn into a faceless grit through overuse. Holy hell, it’s annoying.

For one thing: if horror is really just a form of Gothic moralizing (the prince who taunts the Red Death plague gets infected; the girls who sleep around get their throats slashed; etc), then what lesson should the reader learn from this story? “If you get the chance to make a wish, phrase it very carefully”? Great lesson; I’m sure it’ll stick with me in the wish-filled future I anticipate. “Getting what you want without hard work will curse you with sorrow”? I can see that – kind of the Protestant work ethic with slick urban styling – but maybe there’s a better way to phrase it. Really, I see nothing but downsides to telling generations of impressionable children that “getting what you want will ruin your life.”

For another: note that the magical malefactor always picks a particularly ironic way to fulfill the wish. Irony requires intelligence – recognizing a pattern that matches in some ways but differs in others – so we have to presume that the monkey’s paw has, I dunno, some evil genie watching it and waiting to screw over the life of whoever holds it. Because if I had to grant evil wishes, and I felt particularly lazy, I wouldn’t be very creative about it:

Rube: I wish my boss hadn’t fired me.
Genie: Fine! Now your boss hasn’t fired you, or anyone else – because he’s dead!
Rube: I wish I looked just like this for the rest of my life.
Genie: Mwah-ha-ha! You’ll look exactly the same for the rest of your life if I kill you in five seconds!
Rube: So you’re not exactly granting my wishes as much as looking for an excuse to murder people, are you?
Genie: Just for that, I’m going to murder Jeff Probst! Ha ha ha ha ha!

And so forth.

Fortunately, sci-fi / fantasy is a great and terrible beast that eats its young and pits them against each other. Every trope worth naming in the genre has been established, re-hashed, deconstructed and reassembled in the 20th Century alone. Take time travel for instance. Ray Bradbury gave us the notion of the fragile past in “A Sound of Thunder,” in which stepping on a butterfly in the prehistoric past causes the entirety of Western Civilization to be rewritten. Fritz Leiber riffed on this concept, presenting a past that stubbornly resisted time travellers’ attempts to change it in “Try and Change the Past.” Alfred Bester did the same, but with a bit more style, in “The Men Who Murdered Mohammed.” Rather than telling the same tedious story over and over again, sci-fi turned time travel into an open-ended source of inspiration.

Let’s do the same thing with “wishes.” Instead of a wish that twists the speaker’s words, how about a world where every wish comes true – a constantly fungible reality, alien and nightmarish, subject to the most recent whims of the greatest number? Or how about a world where warring nations use Monkey Paws like weapons? Drop a Monkey’s Paw in an enemy garrison, let opposing soldiers start screwing up their own lives until they run out of wishes, then send a black ops team in to mop up the chaos? I picture a hazmat team in full chem-gear, stalking through an outpost filled with titanium statues in tortured poses, carrying out a glowing orb in a lead container. “Let me guess – I’ll bet they wished to be bulletproof. Or maybe to live forever. Gets ’em every time. Who’s paying for the beer, anyhow?”

In an unrelated closing observation: have you ever noticed how the questions “can you do me a tiny favor?” and “can you do me a huge favor?” mean almost exactly the same thing in requested effort?