Review: Starbound, by Joe Haldeman

This is the sequel to Marsbound, which I reviewed earlier. In this one, our protagonist Carmen heads off on a relativistic sublight trip to a nearby star to meet with the aliens who were behind the machinations of Marsbound.

I was a little disappointed by this one, not so much for the story itself but for some of the mechanics of how it was told. The basic story is that of the journey, i.e. the preparations, the long trip itself, and what happens once we get to the destination. Those aspects were fairly interesting and held my interest, so on the basic point of telling a good story, I’ll give it good marks.

However, while Marsbound was told from the single point of view of Carmen, “the girl from Mars”, Starbound is told from three separate first-person points of view: two human and one Martian. I can see some justification for the choice, but it ended up confusing me frequently. I could get two or three pages into a chapter and not be sure who the current “I” was. It would have been nice if each chapter could have led off with some identification, even if it was something explicit like the character’s name in the chapter heading.

The second mechanical thing that soured the book for me was something of a cheat. Telling the story of a thirteen-year round-trip voyage is hard to do without boring the reader to tears. Yet Haldeman pulled it off for the first three-and-a-half years or so. Then… I don’t know, maybe he ran out of steam. Maybe he just didn’t want to have to do another nine years of it, so he pulled a rabbit out of his hat and made it go away somewhat magically. He went to some length explaining why we wouldn’t understand the real explanation, but it still felt like a cheat.

So, while I enjoyed the tale, I was disappointed by some of the execution. I’ll probably finish off the trilogy, but I’m no longer quite so excited about it as I was after Marsbound.

Review: The Last Colony, by John Scalzi

This is the third book in the Old Man’s War series, and it unites the storylines of the first two books. John Perry has been returned to human form, and Jane Sagan has been made human as well. They married and settled down on a world named Huckleberry, adopting Zoe, the orphaned daughter of a brilliant traitor.

Everything was going fine, and then the Colonial Union asked them for a little favor.

So John, Jane, Zoe, and the rest of their household are off to form a new colony on Roanoke, except this is no ordinary colony. It’s a mix-mash of divergent cultures and almost seems designed to fail. And then they get the rug pulled out from under them when it turns out the Colonial Union has been… shall we say, less than truthful. From there it’s an engaging story of setting up a colony under less than ideal circumstances, hiding from aliens, and discovering the truth about what’s really going on.

This was probably my favorite of the series so far. It was all fresh material, and there were lots of problems to be solved, both practical and political. John, Jane, and Zoe all did humanity proud, even if it wasn’t always what the Colonial Union wanted. They also peeled the lid off of a static situation, and I’ll be interested to see where the story goes from here.

So, if you faltered during the Ghost Brigades, pick this one up and keep on marching.

Review: Marsbound, by Joe Haldeman

I picked this one at random from a pile of samples and was totally sucked in. It’s a first person narrative of an eighteen year old girl who emigrates to Mars with her family in one of the first waves of colonists/explorers and then actually finds martians… sort of.

The science is pretty good, even for the martians (hence the “sort of”), and it was a lot of that minutiae that drew me in. No, it’s not page after page of technical exposition. Rather, it shows a lot of the “boring” day to day business of riding a space elevator up to an interplanetary ship, making the trip across the void, landing, and living in the harsh conditions of another planet. I suppose I liked it for many of the same reasons I enjoyed the daily details of Nathan Lowell’s Solar Clipper series, i.e. it made the fantastic life of space travel feel real without making it mundane. By the time we got to the “martians”, I was completely drawn into her personal world.

This book also comes close to one of my favorite kinds of conflict, where the bad guy isn’t really a bad guy, just that he is making decisions from his own values, and those decisions and actions end up conflicting with our hero’s goals. There are two bad guys in this. The first is a local administrator who is doing her best to protect the Mars outpost and humanity at large and who makes some bad calls in the process. The second is a distant group that is acting to protect itself at any cost with no apologies to those who get in the way.

In the end, heroes are heroic, bad guys are thwarted, and sacrifices are noble. It finishes with a semi-open happy ending, and I believe there are at least two sequels, so I may be looking at those soon.

Politics in SF/F

I don’t want to read your latest Libertarian screed masquerading as a futuristic civics lesson, nor am I interested in your theories on matriarchal divinity leaping out of your epic fantasy’s exposition. What I am interested in, however, is whether or not a mother has the right to refuse the fetal computer implant thus dooming her unborn child to a life of techno-deafness, or perhaps the vampire debate over easing the draconian laws against overfeeding on the now runaway human population.

In short, I have grown bored with modern politics popping up in my sci-fi and fantasy with nothing more to disguise them than a different flag or pointy ears and a tail. Yes, I know the argument that putting our own politics into these tales gives authors the opportunity to make social commentary in a new light. Uh-huh, yep, got that.

Except that it’s 2012, a presidential election here in the USA. Add or subtract two years and you have congressional cycles along with most of the governors. All of that in a country flooded with media, and there’s no shortage of social commentary. This year is particularly bad as we dredge up debates on issues that seemed settled a generation ago, so when I pick up a nice little escapist book, that’s what I want: an escape. I don’t want to be immersed in yet another argument for or against state-run healthcare.

But I don’t dislike politics in my fiction. In fact, good political drama makes for a great sweeping backdrop to the lives of our individual characters. The world is a-changing, and poor Xaglo and her little podlings need to find a new zhorink if they’re going to avoid being harvested in the fall. That’s high drama, and it’s driven by politics – not the politics of healthcare or immigration, but the politics of genetic diversity and un-zhorinked podlings. Can Karanthia truly prosper with these little half-clones swarming our colony’s gene pool?

Ok, so that one was a little weird, maybe too weird to make a story compelling to us humans who aren’t prone to spontaneous self-cloning. But what are some of the politics we human-ish folks are likely to run into in these far-flung settings?

In space opera, I can see a lot of politics around colonization. Colonies are huge investments. Who should pay for them? Who should profit from them? Who gets to go live on the new world, or perhaps, who do we force to relocate to that new world? How will those colonies be governed? Is there a set process for weaning them off into independence, or is there instead a road towards them become member worlds in some larger confederacy? It makes me wonder if we’ll get a replay of arguments from the British parliament back in the 1600’s and 1700’s.

If we run into aliens – or other races in fantasy – we can debate such concepts as universal rights and law vs. race-specific rights and laws. If the larval stage of the Vanoleks has the intellect of a cow, what rights to we grant it compared to their wiser elders? If an elf can live thousands of years, does his murder call for a stiffer penalty than the murder of a short-lived human? And for that matter, does thirty years in prison really mean anything to such a long-lived elf? Rigellians like to hunt the ape-like denizens of Quatorf-7. These poor creatures don’t qualify for sentient citizenship in the Federation, but should their resemblance to humans be enough to grant them protection?

Many of these aliens or forest-folk or demons or whatever… will have abilities that we don’t, and the political and legal structures will need to deal with that. Babylon 5 did a great job at dealing with the politics around a mixed population of telepaths and mundanes. What about beings capable of magic – should they be restricted from certain jobs or locations? How about those who can fly – do we let the fly freely or do we restrict them public lands? “No peeping angels in my backyard!” What about those hyper-intelligent aliens – do they get all the engineering jobs, or do we institute quotas to keep humans employed?

And then there’s the issue of augmentation. I think about movies like Gattaca where genetic screening and improvements were commonplace. I also think about lifelong computer implants. These kinds of augmentations will cost money. Who should pay for them, the parents, the state, or do we saddle the kiddos with the kind of debt reserved for Ivy Leaguers? If the state pays for it as some kind of universal right, what about those who want their children (or themselves) to remain unmodified? Will parents be allowed to deny their children that advantage? Will those who avoid it for themselves be penalized for not raising themselves to the level of all the other useful citizens?

And longevity? Certainly Social Security is going to need some reworking if lifespans are suddenly boosted to two or three hundred years, but if even if everyone keeps working, there might be problems. Will the young be disenfranchised from the political process by the twenty-two term Senator from Ohio? Will university faculty stagnate after a hundred and fifty years of tenure? Or will rejuvenation require some kind of career sacrifice from the old geezers? Maybe you have to quit your job and start a new career, but would that be a law or merely social custom?

Yeah, those are the kind of political dilemmas I want to see in my sci-fi and fantasy. It’s not that I hate the Libertarians and their free-will utopias. It’s just that they’ve gotten boring. Give me something new.

So, what’s your far-flung political dilemma, or are you still worried that those un-zhorinked abominations will overrun the ballot box with their tentacle spawn?

New Take on the Fermi Paradox

The Fermi Paradox is a classic conundrum both in science and in science fiction. After working with others in 1950 to make a back-of-the-napkin estimate of the number of alien civilizations, Enrico Fermi famously asked, “Where is everybody?” That is, if alien civilizations are common, why haven’t we found them?

In the original formulation, it was proposed that an alien civilization could send out a wave of interstellar colonization to nearby worlds, and after 10,000 years, those worlds could send out a second wave of colonization, and so on, 10,000 years at a hop. If an alien civilization had even a million year head start on humanity, then this glacial but exponential rate of expansion would have gone through a hundred generations by now, doubling the inhabited worlds each time, resulting in about 1030 colonies, or more stars than there are in the Milky Way galaxy. So again, where is everybody?

Even if you discount the possibility of interstellar colonization – it just might be a LOT harder than it looks – there’s still the matter of radio transmissions. We’ve been listening for a few decades now. Why haven’t we heard anyone?

There are a lot of possible explanations. I read an excellent book once: Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb. It put forth fifty possible solutions to the paradox. Some were a bit fanciful, but most went after the notion that the universe is teeming with aliens. In fact, most serious attempts at this go after the difficulty of evolving such a technological civilization. In doing so, they are updating the original values of the variables in the famous Drake equation.

Famous Drake Equation?

Well, it’s famous if you were raised on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos like I was.

The Drake equation is an attempt to estimate the number of technological civilizations in our galaxy at present. It deals with estimates of the number of earth-like planets, the probability of starting life on those planets, of evolving intelligence, and so forth. The final term in the equation is the lifespan of these civilizations. If they last for millions of years, then even rare origins would add up to quite a chorus, but if they tend to die off quickly, then they could all be brief cries against a backdrop of silence.

It’s this last term I want to talk about today. How long do we have? Usually debate around this term looks at possible causes of our doom and ways we might hope to escape to live another day, but a couple of years ago, I ran into a different take on it. It proposed that all independent civilizations will eventually collapse, whether it be through random catastrophe, resource depletion, or more likely simple boredom with life, the universe, and everything. The only escape was through the spark of renewed curiosity that would accompany the discovery of another civilization.

A couple of Ukranian fellows, Bezsudnov and Snarskii, put forth what they called the “bonus stimulation” model. The available white paper is an imperfect English translation, so it’s not the easiest read. Still, if you’re geeky enough, give it a shot.  Their basic idea was to look at a system were each civilization got to survive and expand for T0 time, and then it would slowly collapse back in on itself and die. However, if it encountered another civilization before that, it got to expand again for the bonus time Tb. They then set it up as a cellular automata simulation, like the old computer “game of life” some of us remember from the 80’s.

(From their paper, this shows five civilizations, some expanding and intersecting and some declining towards death.)

They played around with various parameters, but it really boiled down to three: the frequency of new civilizations, their initial lifespan of T0, and the amount of bonus time (Tb) they got after encountering another civilization. After running different simulations with lots of different values, what they found was that there are only two kinds of universes: those where everyone is alone forever, and those where intelligent civilizations expand and fill the universe. There was essentially no middle ground.

How can that be?

Well, if there aren’t enough civilizations or their lives are too short even with the occasional added bonus, then everything dies out in relative isolation. If we live in a universe like that, then we’ll never find anyone, or at best, we and the Rigellians will party for a bit before going gently into our mutual good nights.

However, if there are enough civilizations and they last long enough then that bonus time starts building on itself. It gives civilizations enough time to find not just that first other but then time to find more, giving them time to find more and more, expanding as they go. It looks a lot like ice crystals forming and spreading as water makes the transition from liquid to solid.

In fact, these Ukrainian researchers likened it a state change in matter. As those parameters (frequency, T0, and Tb) reached a certain threshold, the simulated universes all switched over, just like water dropping down to the freezing point. Once the conditions are right, it just happens.

But what does that mean for us? If their supposition is true, which kind of universe are we in, the lonely hearts club or the one where we get by with a little help from our friends? Unfortunately, we can’t tell… yet. That’s just it. It’s too early to tell.

On the face of it, there are three possibilities, all of which would look the same to us today.

1. We’re doomed to be the lonely hearts. There simply isn’t anyone else close enough to help us continue forward. We can enjoy the ride while it lasts, but eventually that ten thousandth generation will fail us, and Shakespeare will be gone forever.

2. There are enough civilizations out there that it’s eventually going to be one hell of a party, but we got here too early. The ever-expanding wave of universal (or at least galactic) civilization will come across our ruins and mourn us. They might be able to salvage Shakespeare, but they’ll never be able to hear it in the original Klingon.

3. Again, it’s going to be one hell of a party, but we’re still on our way there. We’ll meet up with some friends along the way, and by the time we get there, we’ll be doing Rigellian reinterpretations of Romeo and Juliet with Carnuth tossed in to make it understandable to those races with three genders.

I am certainly hoping for that third possibility, but there’s no evidence pointing to it.. There’s also not much I can do except promote science and the notion of expansion and survival. Other than that, there’s not much more we can do but hope.

Or can we game the system somehow?

I read this white paper shortly after it was published, and I’ve been mulling it over in my head ever since. If you found your civilization was on the decline, and you were still alone, what could you do? It might be too late to save yourselves, but could you still find some way to affect the final results?

Maybe you could. One way that comes to mind is spread evidence of yourself. If your society has become too bored to continue – as one woman said, “If I have to watch Tosca one more time, I will throw myself into the orchestra pit!” – you might be able to rely on technology to press on for you.

Send out a fleet of self-replicating Von Neumann probes. Make them smart enough to keep at it, but not so smart that you’re launching Saberhagen’s fleet of Berserkers. Have them leave markers behind. Put them in interesting places. Build them to last. They don’t have to do much beyond announcing their alien origin. It might not give as much bonus time as a live encounter with interactive aliens, but it would be something.

If your probes are flexible enough, try having them seed the occasional world with some simple life forms. They don’t have to hover around prodding life towards intelligence and civilization. Just get some simple DNA going or retrieve samples and push them from catalytic feedback systems into fully-blown single-cell organisms. Most of them won’t go anywhere, but a few of those seeds would take root. It might not be much, but it could increase the frequency of civilizations cropping up.

With efforts like that, you just might be able to nudge the parameters of the universe from the lonely hearts club into the phase change of the big party. You’ll never make it yourself, but that shouldn’t stop you from sending out the invitations.

There’s probably a good story in there. Maybe it’s the role we humans are destined to play as our own civlization winds down thousands of years from now.

Or maybe… maybe it’s already happened, and we just haven’t found our invitation yet.