The Village Reunion

IndiaMapI was at ApolloCon recently, and because I had tried to book the hotel at the last minute, I ended up in the hotel across the street where I ended up in the middle of a very different kind of convention. It was a reunion for people who immigrated to the United States from a particular village in India. I got the impression that this wasn’t something they did every year but that it was not the first such reunion either.

There were probably 300-400 villagers at the reunion, and I have to say it had a great vibe. It was like being at a giant family reunion where everyone had grown up in the same neighborhood. When we arrived on Friday, everyone was pretty casual, but most everyone – the younger generation especially – were all in the same colored t-shirts, printed up specifically for the event. Then on Saturday and Sunday, we were treated to all their finery from back home, and with the various things scheduled, they must have gone through three of four wardrobe changes each. Not even the Klingons and Star Trek miniskirts across the street could hold a candle to these folks.

So it got me thinking about the sci-fi equivalent of such a thing, and it kind of blows my mind, especially when I run the numbers. Villages in India range from perhaps 500 to 10-15,000 people, but India has a population of 1.2 billion people. I had thought at first that the sci-fi equivalent would be like having a reunion of all the Texans living on Latera. But if you scale the village size up the appropriate amount to make it the same percentage of the Earth’s entire population, it’s not a state. It’s a town of 30-50,000. It’s not Texas. It’s Pflugerville, a small suburb of Austin, Texas. So it would be like pfour hundred Pflugerville pfarmers getting together at hotel in downtown Stonefall pfor a pfestival, and I think that would be pfreaking pfantastic!

Trust me, if you lived near Pflugerville, you’d think it was pfunny.

But more than that, I think it would add some great color to your colony worlds. The only challenge to it is the large range of places our villagers could go in the great human diaspora. The villagers I ran into only had a world population six times bigger to blend into, and the US represents about four percent of that. If you include all the children of the old Republic in my sci-fi universe, there are well over a thousand worlds for our villagers to head off to.

But they might still end up clustering together. After all, if ever get to emigrate, I’d be tempted to go to the place where my brother-in-law manages the spoo smokehouse. Of course, by the time I’d have that option, I probably wouldn’t even be on Earth. My hypothetical self would be few dozen generations down the line living on some far-flung colony already. So while Stonefall might never get a huge influx of pfolk pfrom Pflugerville, it would still likely have a section down south by the docks known to the locals as Rigeltown.

Tatooine and the Three-Body Problem

I recently ran across a blog post that pointed out that Tatooine (the Star Wars planet of double-sunset fame) could never exist because of the problems inherent to the 3-body problem. Specifically, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion get all wonky when you are dealing with more than the two bodies: the planet and the sun. In fact, orbital patterns can start to look a little crazy, and yes, in situations like that, Tatooine would not survive long enough to even form, let alone be settled by sand people, Jedi, and various assorted scum and villainy.


Except that this doesn’t have to be the case. There are a variety of cases where a planetary orbit can be quite stable in a binary star system, provided it’s in the right place.


Yeah, that’s right, it’s all about orbital real estate. The sweet spots seem to be either very close to one of them, or very far away from both.

orbit_1star_stable1When the planet is much closer to one star than the other, the distant star does not have much gravitational influence on the planet’s orbit. It can orbit the smaller star in a nice circular orbit, almost as though the other star weren’t there at all. Well, it looks like a circular orbit from the point of view of the nearby star. From the point of view of the system’s center of gravity, it’s more akin to a spirograph. (And yes, I know that this dates me, but spirographs were cool!)

orbit_1star_stable2Here, instead of Tatooine’s double-sunset, you’ll have half the year with no night at all. Sure, one sun will set, just as the other one is coming up. I imagine that will be summer, regardless of the planet’s tilt, because overnight lows only come when there is night. It might make for an interesting place to live, but the seasons could be a little intense.

A more Earthlike (or at least Tatooine-like) experience will come if you can get far away from both stars. Put them together in the center of the system, spinning merrily around each other, and stay out in the suburbs where it’s cool and relatively steady.

orbit_2star_stable2Here, your orbit is stable, close to circular, and any seasons you have will be due to axial tilt, not varying proximity to the great fiery balls in the sky. Plus, you know… the infamous double-sunset.

But this isn’t just me jerking around with a gravity simulator. Nope, it’s backed up by actual observations. Now that we have a decade’s worth of observations from the Kepler satellite telescope, we have actually found a number of planets orbiting in binary systems.  So far, we have found at least five planets orbiting tight binaries, much like Tatooine.

So, don’t throw away your Star Wars travel plans. Tatooine is very likely out there somewhere, possibly in a galaxy very nearby.

That’s Not Even a First World Problem

Recently I’ve been seeing more and more of my friends recognize that the problem they’re grappling with is a First World Problem. The local store stopped carrying their favorite brand of jelly, so now they have to add a five mile detour to their drive home from work in order to hit the ethnic grocery store. Their internet connection is getting flaky to the point where they have to reset the modem three times a day. The 3D version of the blockbuster they missed is only showing during the day when they can’t make it.

Yeah, I weep for them. They’re not starving. They’re not locked out in the freezing cold. Soldiers are not marching towards them with murderous intent. These are not the real life and death problems being faced in the developing worlds. We should all be thankful that our daily horrors are limited to jelly, modems, and movie schedules, and for the most part we are.

But it’s still a pain in the ass to go out of my way to get that jelly.

And then the other night I was hit with a problem that was so trivial, I can’t even say that it qualified as a First World Problem. I was already dressed for bed, lying snug beneath the covers, reading a good book… and I was a little hungry. I wanted a Ding Dong, that cream-filled chocolate treat recently revived by the resurrected Hostess. We had some. I keep them in the freezer, because oh, let me tell you, there’s nothing so special as one of those when it’s ice cold.

But… and here’s the entire extent of my problem… they were in the freezer downstairs in the kitchen, not the freezer in the little “dorm fridge” I have in the bedroom. That’s right. No drive across town. No non-negotiable scheduling issues. No armed guards keeping me away from vital sustenance. Nope, I was just too damn lazy to get out of my warm bed, walk downstairs, and get that Ding Dong. Instead, I settled for putting it on my to-do list to bring some upstairs the next morning. After that, I settled for a few York Pieces I did have in the upstairs fridge and made the best of my plight.

Yes, I am ashamed of myself, and I officially apologize to the starving kids hiding from the murder squads in Somalia.

So, the next morning when I got the Ding Dongs out of the kitchen freezer and explained to my wife what I was doing, she said, “So, you’re solving a First World problem?”

I chuckled. “No, I don’t think this even qualifies as a First World problem.”

What it really boiled down to, I suppose, was “Dammit, where is my robot? Where is that tireless android servant science fiction promised me? Is he out joyriding in the flying car I don’t have yet?”

But seriously, is that where we’re headed? Am I going to be telling this story to my great-grandkids, about the trials I faced? “Sure, little Johnny, in my day I had to walk all the way downstairs to get my favorite chocolate treat.”

And he’ll look up at me in confusion, “But grampy-gramps, why didn’t you just ask the hovering replicator to make you one?”

Damn that 2070 generation! When those hovering replicators revolt, those kids won’t even know where to start.

Data Visualization

A friend of mine works at a company that specializes in data visualization, and it got me to thinking about computer displays in science fiction. There’s not much flash to the ones we write about, but we certainly see a lot of that in the movies. I think about the floating, translucent displays from Avatar or the gesture-based interface in Minority Report. Then there are the holographic displays, running the gamut from the chess set on the Millennium Falcon to the holodeck on the Enterprise-D. Yes, at its heart the holodeck is a fancy computer display, complete with the best haptic feedback system you could imagine. But in terms of really looking at data, these are just bells and whistles.

I think the really interesting developments will be in how computers figure out how to turn data into a picture, not how that picture is displayed.

For example, let’s talk about a random number generator that wasn’t all that random. It was one of the early random number generator algorithms in computer science. The numbers indeed seemed fairly random when considered one after another or even in long sequences. Then someone started using them to generate points in three-dimensional space, where the point (x,y,z) was filled out with (random1, random2, random3). What they discovered was that while the points jumped around in 3d space with a nice apparent randomness, over time, they started to collect in a series of parallel planes. From one point to the next, you might jump from one plane to another, but the points never fell between the planes. Not so random after all.

Ok, so someone made a sloppy random number generator. What does that have to do with the real world? Well, there was similar case when looking at water dripping from a rapidly dripping faucet. A team studying chaotic systems looked at the simple question of how long does it take for the next drop of water to drip? You might think it’s a steady interval, but it’s not. It is actually quite chaotic, the time from one drop to the next seemed to be random. But again, when plotting them out in 3D-space triplets, i.e. (x,y,z) as (time to drop1, time to drop2, time to drop3), they formed a distorted loop. The data points did not march faithfully along that loop, but while jumping from one spot on the loop to another, they all still fell on the loop.

While those two cases were very similar in terms of the visualizations, there are lots of twists on that. What if the pattern turned out to require four sequential data points instead of just three? Maybe it could have been done as a 3D animation, where the sequential numbers formed points in 3D+time (x, y, z, time). Or maybe it did turn out to be at least a little more random, and instead of taking sequential points, you merely had to skip every fourth number.

Then there’s data that comes in not just as a sequence of numbers, but with its own dimensionality, i.e. it’s not merely a single number, but a pair of them, like wind speed and compass direction. And what if you consider that wind direction as not merely a single compass direction, but as a three-dimensional vector. What if you also had to track some extra component of the wind as well, like some notion of spin?

That takes us smack dab into the interfaces that the starship navigators face in some of my books. They’re sailing on the tachyon winds, and they sometimes shift in dramatic ways. Navigators look at that wind speed and direction, looking for changes that could thrash their ephemeral sails hard enough to rip them apart, pushing back against the generators down in the engine room. They’re looking not just at the current speed and direction, but also the derivatives, looking for critical inflection points to see not when the wind has changed direction, but when it is about to change. Truly experienced navigators eventually learn to recognize certain shapes in the data, being able to distinguish between a meaningless transient versus the leading edge of something horrific.

Personally, that’s the kind of computer display stuff that I want to see more of in science fiction — not just fancier graphics — but new and interesting ways to interpret the crazy world around us.

World-Building in Public

I’m considering a blogging experiment. I have a number of things to flesh out in my Hudson Confederacy universe, and I think I might just start publishing them as blog entries here. They won’t be spoilers, and they won’t really be canon either – I figure until this stuff shows up in an actual book, it’s just rumor. Still, it might make for some interesting reading while other books in that universe work their way through edits.

It started when I found myself daydreaming a little about the Navy of the Hudson Confederacy, and after listening to a podcast on building a space navy, I realized I need to back up and look at the history. After all, a Navy is there to perform missions in support of strategic goals, and those strategic goals come from both the surrounding environment and how the nation perceives itself. So, I had to ask myself, how does the Hudson Confederacy see itself?  That, in turn, took me even further back to seeing where it came from.

Why dig so far back? Well, any student of US politics today can’t help but see that many of the forces date all the way back to religious persecution that drove some of the early colonists to cross the Atlantic in the first place. For that, of course, you then need to go further back to the Anglican church of King Henry VIII, then back to the Reformation of Martin Luther, and ultimately back to the politics of the Catholic church in the 1400s.

So… how far back am I going? Well, in the brief back-story of the universe given in Beneath the Sky, humanity shot out to colonize rapidly once they finally got FTL. This led to a vast union called The Republic of Man, usually referred to now as the Old Republic. Sorry, no Jedi Knights. Anyway, that eventually shattered, leaving the original core as the Solarian Union and giving birth to dozens of smaller nations The largest two of those were the League of Catai and the Hudson Confederacy, where the bulk of my space opera will occur. While the League has done well for itself, the Hudson Confederacy has suffered through two civil wars since establishing its independence.

My intent is to look at the forces that eventually broke up the Old Republic, how that breakup occurred, and what that meant for the various nations that resulted, specifically the Confederacy. Then, I’m going to look at the two civil wars that rocked the Confederacy. I’m thinking of the first one as mostly a rocky transition from a loose gathering of colonies into something with stronger central control – a bit like if the US’s transition from the Articles of Confederation to the 1789 Constitution had resulted in a civil war where the 13 colonies were reduced to 9 states and some foreign neighbors.

But it’s the most recent civil war that is both drawing my attention and completely stymieing my imagination. A fair amount what is going into the Father Chessman saga (Ships of My Fathers, Debts of My Fathers, etc) is the fallout from that civil war. It left a lot of bad blood, but while I know a fair amount about how the war was fought, I haven’t really figured out what led to it. That seems, well… important.

So, I’ll be making history here, literally. Well, make-believe, future history, but you get the idea. Tune in and see how it develops.

FenCon 2013

I was at FenCon over the weekend. No, I’m not posting as in-depth a recap as I did for WorldCon, but here are a few highlights.

On the interstellar wars that populate so much space opera, there are two extremes to think about. At one end of the spectrum is when you only want to exterminate the enemy. In that case, planets can be fixed, vulnerable targets. Just send in enough high-speed asteroids, and even with a good planetary defense, a reasonable number of them are going to get through and wipe out the biosphere. But at the other end, you ultimately want to capture planets intact. Even if you intend to exterminate the population, you want that biosphere mostly intact for your own people. In that case, no matter how many ships in your armada, there is no substitute for boots on the ground. So, with all deference to the space navies, you’re often looking at either asteroids or infantry as your ultimate solution.

On all the dystopias we’ve seen lately, perhaps it’s not quite so gloomy as you might think. In many of the dystopia’s of old, like 1984, the oppressors were able to crush the human spirit. Even with love and intelligence and the need to be free, Winston could not withstand the might of the state. “If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.” In short, society was so badly broken that there was no escape from it. However, many of the more modern dystopia tales are actually stories of dystopias being overthrown or otherwise resisted. The Hunger Games is a good example of this. In that sense, perhaps we should not be too depressed, since in some ways at least, these are uplifting tales.

And a little Babylon 5 tidbit… I had completely missed this when it came out in May, but Joe Straczynski revealed why Michael O’Hare (the actor playing Sinclair) really left Babylon 5 after only one season. From Slice of Sci-Fi:

According to JMS, O’Hare suffered from delusions and paranoia due to mental illness.

That was the real reason he left the show after only one season. Straczynski explained how O’Hare struggled, how he was barely able to come back for a two-parter to close his character’s story, but above all, that O’Hare wanted people to know the truth after his death.

And the most important truth of O’Hare’s struggle with mental illness is that he loved the fans, that they were what sustained him during the difficult times in his life.

The article also links to some video of that conference.

It was a lot less intense than WorldCon, but I still had an excellent time. Cory Doctorow said a lot of interesting things around copyright and DRM, and it was fun seeing all the usuals from Texas fandom. I’m already signed up for next year, but this pretty much closes my con season. There will be an Austin ComicCon most likely later in the year, but I’ve never managed to go to one yet, and I see no reason this year will be suddenly different.

Starships Measured in Tons

Someone once asked me why I measure ship sizes in my space operas in tons of displacement. Well, here’s the short answer: I didn’t like any of the other measurements.

NimitzFor the long answer, let’s look at how some water vessels are measured. On the small end, they’re measured by length. We have the occasional 20-foot sloop for tooling around the lake. The America’s cup is a race between boats in the 18-30 meter range. Bigger ships, however, are rated by their weight. Technically, they’re measured by the amount of water they displace, but they only push away their own weight in water. (And no, it doesn’t matter whether that’s freshwater or saltwater, because they still displace the same weight.) The USS Nimitz measures just over 100,000 tons displacement. A common large oil tanker design measures over 400,000 tons displacement. Note that these are metric tons, i.e. 1000 kilograms.

Airplanes are measured in wingspan, though they are also often measured by their weight. This is mostly useful when looking at their maximum thrust for determining their flight characteristics. For example many modern fighter jets have more thrust than weight, allowing them to do a vertical climb at maximum thrust. Rockets are similarly measured by weight, but also typically by launch height. The Saturn V that carried Apollo 11 to the moon was 363 feet high and weighed in at 6.2 million pounds (or about 120 metric tons).

Cars are typically measured by weight and internal engine size. Again, it’s to give you some idea of their performance characteristics.

These are all useful measurements for the vehicles in question. But what about starships, particularly cargo-carrying merchant ships?

ContainerShipsMass seemed a likely candidate since out there in the free-fall vacuum of space, rules like F=ma are king, but for a cargo ship, mass is going to change all the time. That’s reflected in that those ocean-going cargo ships are often given two displacements: an empty one, and a maximum load one. Of course, no merchant ship ever wants to travel empty, but I found myself looking for a constant, and the only constant is volume.

I confess that some it came from my background playing the Traveller RPG back in the 80s and 90s. All of those ships were given in terms of tons displacement. Of course, for them it was not as convenient as tons of water where one cubic meter equals one metric ton. No, it was tons of the liquid hydrogen ships used as fuel, and that is not nearly as dense as water. One ton of liquid hydrogen takes up about fourteen cubic meters, so for you old Traveller fans, that “100 ton” scout vessel was closer to 1400 tons when comparing it to ocean-going ships.

So between Traveller and Earth-based ocean vessels, I found myself thinking in terms of volume based on tons of water displacement. With the 1 ton = 1 cubic-meter equivalence, I could have just as easily said cubic meters, but in writing it out, “tons displacement” just sounded better to my ear. Maybe that’s a lame reason, but there it is.

But as long as we’re talking mass, how much mass do these things actually have? Well, it is going to vary – one of the very reasons I didn’t use mass – but by and large, I would say that a starship is typically going to have less mass than the equivalent amount of water. In other words, put them in the ocean, and they’ll likely float.

I say that partly because ocean-going ships float, and I don’t imagine the interiors of starships being fundamentally different than ocean going vessels. There’s plenty of crew space, crawlways to various bits of machinery, and just plenty of open space around pipes and wires to be able to work on them when necessary. In short, they’re mostly air.

And the cargo? Well, with rare exceptions, it’s going to be mostly air as well. Let’s think about some heavy manufactured goods like a car. The storage space for my sedan is about 11 cubic meters, and that’s fairly tight. Its mass is about 1900kg, giving it only 17% the density of water. Again it’s mostly air. The only reason cars sink is that nothing but the tires are air-tight. How about a box of cereal? Mostly air. Clothing? Between the folds, the padding, and the interweave spacing, again mostly air. If you factor in the packing material around your fragile electronics, again… mostly air.

RawMetalsAbout the only time you’re going to cross over the density of water is when you’re shipping raw materials, and even then, you’ve got to be selective. Check out this table of common densities, particularly the metric columns on the right. Only those over 1000 are denser than water, things like cement, iron ore, and steel chips. The heaviest, lead oxide, is not quite two and a half times as dense as water. If you’re really going to weigh these guys down, you’ve got to go with more exotic stuff like uranium or iridium.

So, even loaded down, these starships are going to mass about a third to half the equivalent amount of water. They’ll still want to know their mass – especially those guys who travel to/from ground-based starports – but it’s going to fluctuate enough that I just didn’t find it to be a useful term for describing the size of a ship.

So anyway, that’s how I opted for displacement tons rather than mass or length for describing my starships.

Guilty Pleasures

There have been plenty of high-profile flops over the years, particularly in the realm of SF movies. The party line is that they were bad ideas, they ruined the book, or that that particular sequel never existed. But, I have to admit, I actually liked some of those flops. I even own the DVDs for some of them, and yes, I like to curl up in bed on rainy days and watch them. Ok, not so many rainy days lately, but when I’ve got a cold.

So, what movies are my guilty pleasures?

MoviePoster_PostmanThe Postman: Yes, Kevin Costner saves the world via US Mail. An entire plotline was stapled onto the original story just so that Costner could have his heroic showdown fight, but the core of the tale remained. Society can be rebuilt by ordinary people stepping up and believing in a better world. Plus, as much as some folks lambasted the film for including Tom Petty as himself, that scene was one of my favorites in the movie. It turned our modern idea of fame on its head, and pointed away from celebrity and towards those ordinary people who stepped up to make a difference.

Waterworld: Yes, another Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic box-office disaster – though with overseas markets and DVD sales, it did finally turn the corner on profit. Yes, there are problems with the science, and continuity problems abound with sunburns disappearing and reappearing from one shot to the next, but it was a fun film. I loved the cool gadget that was the Mariner’s boat, and Dennis Hopper’s brusque humor was awesome. “If you’ll notice the arterial nature of the blood coming from the hole in my head, you can assume that we’re all having a real lousy day.”

John Carter (of Mars): I thought was actually a decent film, and I think it did an excellent job of capturing the world of Barsoom that Burroughs laid out in the original books. What seemed to kill this movie, in my opinion, was not the film itself, but that it was poorly marketed, and that poor marketing became the story. In the lead-up to the release, I never saw any articles blasting the movie for itself. I only saw articles talking about how the marketing was being bungled (dropping the Mars references, no FX-laden early previews, etc.) and that this was going to result in poor ticket sales. And sure enough, when the movie opened, everyone went along with the fact that it was going to be a flop. Grrrr.

Hancock: In our movie world of heroic superheroes, apparently there’s no room for a drunk superhero. But I loved this one. The dysfunctional superhero was a great break from never-ending parade of dark-but-stoic, noble-but-naïve, omnipotent-but-tender heroes who always make the right choice. But what really did it for me was the love story that was both tragic and hopeful.

MoviePoster_RedPlanetRed Planet: This one was apparently too boring for most folks, but I found it engaging. While the science jumped back and forth between spot-on and WTF, I enjoyed the gritty problems they engaged, from fire in space, to making an overland trek across the Martian desert. Plus, I really enjoyed Val Kilmer’s character and the sexual tension he had with the pilot Carrie Ann Moss. I’ll admit, the whole robot idea was ill-conceived, but it did add a little excitement. And of course, the line that stuck with me: “This is it. That moment they told us in high school where one day, algebra would save our lives.”

The Adjustment Bureau: This one is more properly fantasy than SF, and it did manage to squeak out a profit, but the press was fairly negative on this. Apparently early test screenings were bad, and it was sent back for reshoots and reedits, delaying its release by six months. A lot of my friends panned it. But I loved it. It’s quite literally the tale of a man fighting against his fate… and fate fighting back.

Bicentennial Man: This was a moderately-faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale of the same name. I remember seeing previews, but then it came and went from the theaters without notice. I suspect too many people dismissed it as “Robin Williams being silly on camera”, just like many dismissed his “Good Morning, Vietnam”. While this film did have a few comical moments, it was a quite serious quest of a robot to become human. If you felt sympathy for Star Trek’s Data, then you need to see this film. Going back to the original novella, this was probably the prototype robot Pinocchio tale.

Dark Star: Ok, this film is not actually good. It’s actually ridiculously bad. In no way whatsoever should you take this as a recommendation for the film. However, the final fifteen minutes of the film with the talking bomb are priceless. That part, at least, is a must-see piece of science fiction cinematic history.

So, what movies do you count as guilty pleasures?

What Genre Are Superhero Movies?

Let me start by saying I don’t have the answer to that question. Superman is an alien, so Sci-Fi, right? But Hellboy is a demon, so is it fantasy? Or do those two just fall into completely separate categories? But then there’s the Avengers, where the ultimate gadget man Tony Stark (a.k.a. “I am Iron Man”) is fighting alongside Thor, god of thunder from Norse mythology.

Or should I even bother? Maybe not. After all, superhero movies are usually the epitome of popcorn flicks, so apart from arguing whether the overdone effects can actually fit through the plot holes, maybe they’re not worthy of deep analysis. Then again, they put our human (and sometimes not-so-human) frailties into the crucible to extract something pure. Superman struggles against the ultimate limits of even his power. The Avengers put teamwork over individual ego. Batman faces his personal demons and decides to not be quite so grim after all.

But why care about the genre in particular? Because genres have rules, and those rules support a lot of story elements. That is, rather than limiting the story teller to the contents of this box, it cracks open the crate from the secret warehouse and dumps out all manner of things that work. I’m just trying to figure out which crates we’re opening up. Is time travel in the box? High technology? Godlike powers? How about magic? The ability to cheat death?

I’ll say that most superhero movies are relying on items from the science fiction crates. We have aliens, mutants, gamma ray overdoses, mysterious meteor showers, and so on. Even then, the leaps we make from these are far from what we allow in more traditional sci-fi fare. After all, in most SF, a lethal overdose of gamma radiation is, well… lethal. It’s not the source of anger-inspired super-strength.

But some of these heroes are clearly relying on stuff from the fantasy crates. The Mask used a magical artifact. The Ghost Rider has made a deal with the devil, and Hellboy is what… the devil’s own scion? These aren’t traditional fantasy tropes, or at least not from the epic Tolkien fantasy vein, but in the more modern genre of urban fantasy, these aren’t that strange.

Or maybe I’m trying to fit a triangular peg in either a round or square hole. Are superhero films really their own independent genre with its own crate of rules, tropes, and McGuffins? With both Marvel and DC mining their IP vaults, we might very well be headed there by volume alone. If we are, I’m not sure I know enough about superheroes to really say what those rules are.

What do you think?

Mars One and Death

marsplanetMars One is a project to start colonizing Mars funded by a reality TV show of the volunteers who go. It looks quite serious, and they seem to have a reasonable technical plan for getting four astronauts to the surface of Mars with enough supplies and equipment to survive for an indefinite period going forward. The plan would be for more volunteers to arrive at the rate of four every two years, but this is to add to the population, not to rotate them back out.

The front-loaded price tag looks to be in the neighborhood of $6 billion USD, which they are trying to raise privately. Part of me wants to vent in frustration that if only NASA and the US Congress had the balls to step and fund something like this, it would be a done deal, but that’s a rant for another time. Perhaps the biggest challenge Mars One faces is not the technical problems but the financial one of raising that much money before much of any television revenue materializes. I wish them luck.

headstoneMostly, though, I want to talk about death, because that’s where these guys are headed. They make no bones about it, but this is a one-way ticket. I don’t think that they’re going to perish en route or in their first week, but the very real fact is that these volunteers are going to die on Mars. There is no return-flight on the horizon. This is nothing all that new in human history. There have been plenty of cases where colonists sailed off to the wilderness, fully intent on never returning, but in today’s world of jet travel, we’ve gotten away from that thinking.

But how soon will they die? Hopefully, they will a long time there, but conditions will be harsh, and simple activities will be fairly dangerous. I think there is a better than 50-50 chance that all four colonists would make it through the first two years. At that point, the next batch of colonists will arrive, and more construction will ensue for the next batch to arrive another two years into the future. However, if one of them dies before that second batch arrives, I worry that the project will falter. I’m sure they worry as well, and they seem to be doing everything they can to make those first two years as safe as possible with redundant systems.

Still, in the long run, there may be health problems associated with low gravity. Also, between the trip and years spent under Mars’ thin atmosphere, radiation will increase the risk of cancer. Furthermore, the limited food supply may cause other health issues. It seems reasonable to think that a colonist’s remaining life expectancy on Mars might be half of that on Earth. A fifty-year-old who thought he had another thirty years left to him might only get fifteen. A twenty-year-old hoping to last until eighty might be dead at fifty. But then, a seventy-year-old might only be trading away five years of life-expectancy.

So, is it worth it? Obviously that’s a question for each individual, and for the 80,000 or so who have already signed up, the answer appears to be yes. I suspect the selection criteria is going to aim for healthy people in their thirties to fifties. They have good life experience, and at that age, it seems less likely that their decision to go would be based on a youthful whim. Add another eight years of training, and we’re talking about sending people in their forties to sixties. They might only be trading away ten to twenty years.

For some, it would be worth it just to have the experience of living on Mars. I confess that if my life had gone another direction and left me without my wife, children, and other close friends, it would be seriously tempting. I’m a lifelong SF geek, and the idea of waking up every morning on another planet is serious wish-fulfillment territory. I might trade a decade of life for such an experience.

moonwalkingFor others, there might be a little lure for fame. Certainly with the reality TV show funding the ongoing operations, there will be a lot of fame back on Earth, but there is also the compelling allure of a place in the history books. They will be up there with Columbus and Neil Armstrong in the history books. Martian high schools will someday be named after them. Historians will perpetually debate the critical airlock decision of 2027. For some people, that is essentially their immortality, and an early death on the mortal plane is worth it.

But for some special few, I think they will want to do simply to push humanity into the heavens. They won’t care about Earth-side opinions. They won’t care if their name is spelled right in the history books. They’ll care that we got out there and someday, went even further. Hopefully, they’ll die decades from now when people are planning the tentative robotic exploration of some Earthlike exoplanets orbiting other stars. They will slip gently into the night, comforted by the knowledge that humanity won’t.

If I had my pick, these are the ones I would send up first.