Archive for the ‘space’ Category

Endurance, a biography by Scott Kelly (co-written with Margaret Lazarus Dean), pivots between his yearlong mission aboard the International Space Station and his unlikely evolution from a precocious twin into a veteran Navy test pilot and finally an astronaut.

The parallel narrative begins with Kelly’s childhood—he and his brother growing up with parents, both police officers, and both fond of drinking—and Kelly soon being left behind academically by his more studious sibling. From early in his time at school, Kelly found himself unable to focus in a classroom and barely making passing grades. His apathy to academics continued until college where he began to realize he had to find a path for himself; however, it was only upon reading The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, that Kelly found a goal that succeeding in motivating him. The book goes on to chronicle the difficult obstacles he manages to overcome, from getting into the right college, to entering the military as a Naval officer, being trained as a Naval pilot, and ultimately entering the NASA Astronaut Corps. The aspect of his transformation I found fascinating was how a consistently apathetic student managed to turn his life around and ultimately fly the space shuttle and crew the ISS. That a key book could serve as such a powerful catalyst makes me wonder how many other potential astronauts, artists, scientists, or inspirational leaders lead lives of mediocrity just because they never encountered the right set of circumstances to unlock their latent passion and skills.

Kelly’s astronaut career includes multiple space shuttle flights and ISS missions. His career in space culminated recently with the well-publicized yearlong mission (actually 342 days in space, launching on 27 March 2015 and landing on March 2, 2016) on the ISS during which Kelly underwent extensive testing (most of it self-administered, including taking his own blood samples) as his Earth-bound twin (and fellow astronaut), Mark, was subjected to parallel testing for comparison. While I’ve read other accounts of ISS missions, Kelly’s year in space is the closest experience yet to what a long-duration mission to Mars or other solar system destinations might be like. There have been (and continue to be) “Earth-analogue” missions that attempt to simulate a long-duration space journey here on Earth, such as NASA’s HI-SEAS missions in Hawaii, PMAS in Poland, NEEMO (undersea laboratory), and even the well-known Biosphere 2 in Arizona. However, the year Kelly spends in space exposed him to trials and tribulations only space can offer: the reality only thin metal walls and proto-type life-support equipment separate life from death, the undeniable isolation (no one can walk away from a space station), and all the physiological effects that go along with a “zero-g” (microgravity) environment.

I find the seemingly trivial aspects of space travel fascinating, and in that respect, Endurance delivers. Astronauts experience a host of potentially serious conditions ranging from bone density loss to eyesight damage to persistent accumulation of body fluids in their head and sinuses. One particular challenge faced by Kelly and other ISS crew was fluctuating levels of carbon dioxide caused by changing crew sizes and the two temperamental “Seedra” devices (for CDRA, carbon dioxide removal assembly) which tended to break down unexpectedly requiring difficult repairs. As Kelly explains, even the simplest work is complicated in space where tools don’t stay where you put them unless stuck to one of the many  velcro tags placed around the ISS. Items that do manage to float away can remain missing for months at a time. In zero-g, there are no showers, no spitting, no falling tears, not even a “normal” pee, since liquids, just like solid objects, don’t fall away. One aspect I didn’t consider until now is that in zero-g, a person can’t really relax as they would on Earth—he/she can’t sit down or lie down since there is no “down” and no gravity to hold them there anyway. Viewed another way, you’re always relaxed in zero-g (at least in the sense of not having to expend any energy to counter gravity). But Kelly missed these postures, and I suspect I would, too. One’s experience in space is revealed by the grace with which one moves about. All a seasoned astronaut needs to use are fingers and toes applying just enough force to glide along the desired trajectory without knocking into the ever-present equipment. Simply remaining in place is accomplished the same way, often with a toe hooked about a rail installed just for that purpose.

Kelly’s involvement with the Russian Space Program intrigued me. As he transitioned from a Space Shuttle pilot to an ISS crew member, he spent quite a bit of time working in Russia, at Star City, the Russian version of the Johnson Space Center, and at Baikonur, Russia’s launch facility for its Soyuz and Progress spacecraft. Kelly’s accounts of the Russian cosmonauts, their training programs, in which he and other astronauts participate, and their habits and traditions related to space travel (one such tradition involves mild desecration of a truck tire) provide insight into a major U.S. partner in space exploration. The international aspect of America’s endeavors in space cannot be understated, and as Kelly spends his year aboard the ISS, crews come and go with members representing many countries all working together towards one unified goal—exploring space, and extending humanity’s presence beyond its birthplace. Almost without exception, crew members treat one another as good friends, almost to the point of constituting a family forged by having lived and worked together in space. For me, this may be the most important lesson provided by Kelly’s experiences—the ISS demonstrates what humanity can achieve at its best, when differences and prejudices fall away like a first stage burning up in the atmosphere, leaving the precious human cargo to soar beyond.


In Sky Walking (2006), Dr. Tom Jones recounts his career as a NASA astronaut. Beginning with the application process, Jones takes us on a journey of becoming an astronaut, flying four space shuttle missions, and helping to construct the International Space Station.

The book provides glimpses into the rigorous training astronauts receive in preparation for their work in space, and in particular, for extravehicular activities (EVA). Before each space flight, the astronauts would complete mock missions underwater using shuttle and ISS replicas fascinating. If you calculate the cost of an EVA, from launch to landing back on Earth, every minute must be immensely expensive. Every manoeuver, every task, has to be choreographed and rehearsed for maximum efficiency and safety. Even small issues easily solved on Earth can become mission-crippling obstacles in space, and Dr. Jones  faced his share, including an irreversibly jammed hatch that resulted in a canceled EVA and an improperly-assembled elbow joint that caused enough pain to make competing that EVA a challenge. An even more dangerous case comes to mind: Luca Parmitano’s 2013 ISS mission during which his helmet began filling with water due to a malfunctioning filter while on EVA. Docking operations between the Space Shuttle and ISS were also fraught with dangerous possibilities, and Dr. Jones’ account of these procedures and the astronauts’ calm but meticulous piloting fascinated me. It may be a good indicator of our finally having made the leap to a space-based, multi-planet society when mishaps like these no longer happen or are more easily resolved when they do.

Another aspect of the book is its account of the lead up, politically and practically, to the design, construction, and operation of the ISS. Not only did Dr. Jones fly a shuttle mission (STS-98) as part of ISS construction, but he played a not-insubstantial role in managing NASA’s ISS Program, including the international partnerships that made it possible. NASA’s interactions with the Russian Government, in particular, make for great reading if you’re interested in how the ISS came to be.  I was interested, but not surprised, by the political, diplomatic and logistical difficulties that had to be overcome to build the ISS. That those obstacles were surmounted reinforces my perception of the ISS as a great example of how the human race can work together to accomplish amazing things. In the book, that spirit is clearly on display by the ISS astronauts (and cosmonauts) themselves whose comradery extends across borders forming a uniquely stateless community in space.

Dr. Jones completes the book with a short passage explaining his ideas and recommendations for how human space exploration ought to move forward. While just a bit outdated now, 11 years later, his thoughts on where we should go next are still relevant. A quick reveal—he’s not a fan of more lunar missions and instead recommends targeting a NEA (near-Earth asteroid) before tackling Mars. Regardless of our next destination, we can all thank astronauts like Dr. Jones for paving the way.

Scientific American’s Special September issue arrived at my door recently with an interesting cover: “9 Key Questions about Our Future: We are remaking our world and ourselves. What’s next?” The article in question is titled: “The Human Experiment” and goes on to say: “Our species is transforming itself and the world. We asked, and tried to answer, nine big questions about what these changes mean for our future.”sciam article

Scientific American (SCIAM) has done a great job making well-reasoned, informative predictions based on current science. However, science fiction lover that I am, I wished they had been a little more expansive in their predictions. I thought, I would take this farther. Heck, I have taken this farther. Then it occurred to me it might be fun to do that in a blog post, and here we are. SCIAM’s predictions, paraphrased in italics, and my own predictions follow.

  1. What mark will we leave on the planet?

SCIAM: Yes, through our trash, construction, pollution and nuclear weapons testing, we will have left a geologically-permanent mark on the planet that will persist long into the future. We’ll also affect the fossil record with the unusually high number of extinctions we’re bringing about.

DPS: I agree with SCIAM here. I don’t see how we won’t leave a mark on the planet, chemically and geologically speaking. That being said, I do think there will come a time when we set automata (aka, robots) to the task of cleaning up some of our mess. These would be portable excavators and collectors with the capability of rendering our artificial trash (metals, plastics, concrete, etc.) into either forms that can degrade naturally (crushing concrete, digesting plastics into biodegradable components) or into consolidated, harvestable forms (valuable metals come to mind). Some attempts along these lines are already taking place. I even used this scenario as the setting for my story, Suicide Flight. For me, a more profound question, though, is what will we take away, rather than what will we leave behind? We continue to cause an accelerating mass extinction while homogenizing the remaining species by transporting them around the world either on purpose or by accident. The result will almost certainly be a world biologically much poorer than the one we inherited.

  1. How will climate change affect us?

SCIAM: low-lying areas around the world (much of Florida’s coastline, for example) will be submerged under rising seas. Wildfire and drought frequency will continue to rise. Fisheries may shift geographically. Some areas will become so hot as to be nearly uninhabitable (120 degrees F or more).

DPS: We already strive to create more efficient technologies to use less energy, water, etc. Geo-engineering techniques may help solve the global warning problem, but issues of scale seem daunting. Ultimately, I disagree with the techno-utopians who predict we will invent our way out of global warming. Pollution is largely a social problem, not a technological one. Two or three hundred years ago, everyone’s food was organic, fish and game were abundant (in North America at least), and other than some urban hotspots, pollution hadn’t been invented (yes, there was human waste, but no pesticides, herbicides, industrial solvents, etc.). I predict population control will assume its rightful place on our path towards a more sustainable planet. There is no reason we need to have several billion people on the planet. A genetically and culturally viable human population could be much lower. I suspect this will come about through the education and, ironically, development of the currently underdeveloped world, especially through pursuit of equal rights for women. As the rest of the world becomes developed, despite the resource burden this will create, population growth rates will decrease. With wise stewardship, we can have a healthy, happy human population with a much smaller global footprint.

  1. Who will prosper, and who will fall behind?

SCIAM: global population continues to rise, albeit more slowly. Populations of rich nations will become smaller and older. The other nations’ populations will do the opposite. Feeding the larger human global population will be possible by reducing individuals’ consumption and pursuing sustainable agriculture. A “sixth extinction” event can be avoided if we set aside half the planet as a reserve (this last prediction is by Edward O. Wilson).

DPS: I predict global governance will become increasingly imperative. How can we manage an interconnected planet without managing it on a global scale? The world cannot, IMO, be effectively managed by a set of independent actors. Only by acting as one, will we successfully equalize the economic playing field so the environmental “race to the bottom” will cease (no more manufacturing goods cheaply in countries where environmental pollution and workers’ rights can be ignored). Eliminate counter-productive state aggression and bring everyone up to a sustainable standard of living. If global warming continues to worsen, a global authority will gain power to coordinate and force collective action by all states.

  1. Will Civil Society Endure?

SCIAM: Rising inequality between the rich and poor (or perhaps, the rich and everyone else) will continue to rise and be difficult to counter-act.

DPS: If global governance comes to pass, we may transition towards a post-scarcity economy. As AI and automata/robots take over more and more labor currently provided by humans, new energy sources come on line (dramatically more efficient solar, new renewables such as tidal, and possibly fusion), and population goes down, the divide between rich and poor will diminish. This may be my inner optimist, but I predict such as state may become reality. In that new world, what will be valued? Will wealth no longer exist? How will power be distributed? I’m not an economist, but I am dabbling with some of these ideas in the new novel series I’m working on.

  1. Will we control our genetic destinies?

SCIAM: germ-line modifications (genetic editing that would be passed on to later generations) will soon occur first as a treatment for male infertility. Sex will continue but less often as a way to procreate as embryos begin to be developed by deriving eggs and sperm from stem cells rather than the old-fashioned way. Tissue replacement will become prevalent as a means of replacing aging body parts (this last according to David H. Koch).

DPS: Yes, yes, and yes, but that’s just the beginning. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if germ-line editing has already begun in some secret laboratory somewhere. The technology to do it has advanced by leaps and bounds (take CRISPR, for example) in the mere 63 years since the decoding of DNA by Watson and Crick.

On an individual basis, I predict we’ll acquire some level of control over traits that are now genetically fixed. Hair color and texture, skin color. These may become mutable. Race may diminish or disappear.

For wealthy, powerful families in the future seeking to consolidate power, marrying a family member (cousin, sibling) could again become the norm, as it was for monarchies of old. The latter lacked remedies for genetic diseases caused by in-breeding, but the former will not. Taken to another extreme, cloning will likely become accepted in certain circumstances: colonies needing rapid population growth, standing up armies (wait—those will be drones, not humans), or individuals wishing to procreate without a partner.2128618333_ce728437dc_b

Governments, religious groups, ethnic groups, and corporations will seek out and use hereditable genetic improvements in intelligence, memory, strength, speed, endurance. Genetic outliers for all of these have already been discovered and will provide a basis for genetic tinkering. Not everything will work, but enough will to set off an arms race among the various groups. A quick look at competitive sports shows this race began long ago and will simply enter a new era. As parents, families, and groups seek to take advantage of genetic enhancements, so too will incentives to discourage anyone from “sharing” them increase. A group that has invested in improving its genetics won’t want to spread those benefits outside its in-group by having members mate with non-members (the out-group). At first, social prohibitions will arise to be followed by genetic barriers installed specifically to prevent out-group mating. Having children with someone outside your group will become increasingly difficult. What does this mean? It means human speciation. It means groups of humans self-evolving, diverging from us, their common ancestor, over a period of a century or two or three until the “human race” is no longer a single species. What are the politics of that? I don’t know, but it probably won’t be pretty.

  1. Will we defeat aging?

SCIAM: This part of the article described various promising, potential anti-aging treatments but stopped short of predicting whether aging will be defeated or not.

DPS: As a biologist by training, I have no problem answering this question. The answer, unfortunately, is “Yes.” Given the trajectory of our biological knowledge, it is (in my opinion) just a matter of time before we discover the genetic, molecular, and cellular mechanisms behind aging and various aspects of tissue regeneration (including fully-functional replacement organs and limbs). Even Alzheimer’s will be conquered, I suspect, in the not too distant future. An immortal society has been imagined frequently in science fiction, but I’ve never attempted it. In part, because it’s been done but also because it seems so unappealing and downright scary. In one short story published by Asimov’s Science Fiction, humans have achieved immortality, and to curb overpopulation, having children is made a crime. Once immortal will we still be human? Without natural death will life be as meaningful? I’m not sure, but I suspect not. The ultra-aged in science fiction tend to be villains, enamored of their immortality and ruthlessly maintaining it. But I’m not convinced those living past 100 will be so enthusiastic. The value of death may evolve with individuals eventually timing the end of their lives deliberately. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in A Wizard of Earthsea, “Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.”

  1. If we could, would we want to live forever?

SCIAM: A discussion ensues about the possibility of uploading our minds into the cloud/computers/virtual reality and the pros and cons of doing so. Various pro-uploading futurists are quoted (Ray Kurzweil, of course, David Chalmers, and others). The discussion ends without any real predictions about living forever.

Two inset discussions do offer predictions about topics unrelated to aging: will we ever colonize space and will we discover a twin Earth. Catharine Conley of NASA states: “…if the idea is to construct a self-sustaining environment where humans can persist indefinitely with only modest help from Earth—the working definition of a ‘colony’…then I’d say this is very far in the future, if it’s possible at all.” She cites a wide variety of unsolved technical problems including building robust  closed/contained eco-systems and air handling.

Aki Roberge, also of NASA, predicts will we find a twin Earth.

DPS: First, I’ll tackle the living forever question. I’m one of those people who’s not convinced this will ever be possible. Our brains, and our bodies, are vastly more complicated than most people realize. Even as someone with a biology background, I’m amazed at how complex life is. People like to think computers are approaching human-level intelligence, but they’re not even close IMO. Not even to a toddler. They only exceed our capabilities in narrow, artificially-confined tasks. But when put into the rugged, complicated reality of everyday life? No, they can’t even begin to do what we do. Even assuming uploading a human mind becomes possible, I suspect many people would balk. How would you know that software, that program of 0’s and 1’s, would really be you? It wouldn’t of course. Other people would leap at the opportunity. I would argue they’re not really living forever, not really living at all. Some downgraded replica, a digital mimic, of their personality will persist, but given how well our technology lasts (not very well currently), for how long? Much more likely is that humans will merge their brains with computers to become cyborgs with augmented memory and faster speed of thought. In many of my stories, no one has a phone or a TV or a modem—all these functions are handled by one or more microscopic devices built inside a human embryo’s developing skull linked to the optic and auditory nerves or directly into the brain’s sensory centers.Embryo,_8_cells

Second, I’d like to address the two questions about space: 1) Will we ever colonize space and 2) will we discover a twin Earth? The latter is easy. We find more planets all the time, and our technology for finding and describing them will only continue to improve. Statistically, it’s inevitable we’ll find an Earth analogue. Where will it be located and will we ever visit it are probably the more relevant questions.

On the former question about colonization of space, I’m more optimistic about this than Ms. Conley. For one, there hasn’t been much incentive to research self-contained eco-systems until recently. Now that there is a resurgence in the evolution of space flight technology through public- and private-sector ventures, I suspect it’s just a matter of time before humans are spending ever more time in space in new stations, on the moon, on asteroids, and on Mars. Each new facility containing humans reliant on that facility’s functioning for their very survival will contribute to a growing knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Humans will live in space. It’s just a matter of time. And here is another area where genetic modifications will be relevant—humans with genetic mechanisms to repair the ill effects of radiation exposure, bone degeneration, etc. One of the new human species may be a space-faring one.

  1. How long will we last?

SCIAM: David Gordon of the Planetary Science Institute describes the most likely threats to humanity’s continued existence: global warming, overpopulation, asteroids and comets, food shortages, and ice ages. Gordon seems optimistic that we can survive. Carlton Caves (University of Mexico) echoes this optimism, suggesting we will likely survive the next 500 years. Frank Von Hippel (Princeton University) is somewhat more cautious—citing the continuing threat of nuclear war.

DPS: I’m equally optimistic as Gordon and Caves. I believe we humans will pull through whatever environmental disasters loom ahead. A better question would be how long will all the other species of plants and animals last? For many, the answer is not long. With our current environmental consumption and population growth, many species will be pushed into extinction due to habitat loss or degradation (ocean acidification comes to mind). As I said above, our descendants will inherit a biologically poorer world. It becomes more about the quality of the future—do we want our children to grow up in a world without coral reefs, rainforests, tigers, pandas, and all the other species many of us love? What would I give to see an endless herd of buffalo, passenger pigeons blotting out the sky, or a living thylacine? A lot. Will my children have the same sense of loss as I do? I predict they will, probably moreso.

  1. Can we trust our own predictions?

SCIAM: According to Ian Banks, the simple answer is ‘no’, but guessing can be a useful exercise as long as we don’t assign our predictions an accuracy they don’t really have.

DPS: Some predictions are naturally more reliable than others. Where the question is “will humans do X?”, I suggest the answer is almost certainly “Yes” within limitations. Anyway, I’ve made my predictions here, fallible* as they may turn out to be. What do you predict?

Turbo Killer is a science fiction music video written and directed by Seth Ickerman and produced by Carpenter Brut and (if I have this right) No Quarter Prod(uctions?). The music is by Carpenter Brut. I tweeted about this video not long ago, but as I’ve kept watching it and thinking about it, I decided to jot down some of the thoughts buzzing around in my skull. TK_8

[Spoiler alert!] The video starts with a cross-shaped spaceship approaching Earth. Inside the ship are two passengers, a woman who I’ll call Corvette girl for reasons to be revealed shortly (played by Noémie Stevens), and a mysterious hero wearing a gas mask and cloak 1(Guillaume Faure). The video cuts to the villain, played by Marc-Antoine Frédéric, watching another woman, who I’ll call Pyramid-Dancer Girl (Joëlle Berckmans), whom he holds captive in a force pyramid. The villain triggers a purple gas inside the pyramid which corrupts/contaminates/stimulates Pyramid-Dancer Girl who begins dancing in a fairly provocative way (the villain seems to appreciate this, and perhaps this is what he was after to begin with- he even creepily nods to the beat at one point).

At this point, I should mention that Corvette girl and Pyramid-Dancer girl both have glowing, upside-down crosses etched on their foreheads. Once exposed to the gas, Pyramid-Dancer Girl’s cross goes dark (not a good sign, right?). This seems important, although I haven’t figured out its full significance other than being similar to the aforementioned cross-shaped ship. TK_6Meanwhile, as the villain gloats, the hero and Corvette girl bond/merge so that the hero is now driving a Corvette that somehow is Corvette girl such that he steers by holding her hands and jerking her in the desired direction. After driving (and somehow soaring over) the villain, despite his blasting them with a shotgun, the hero and Corvette girl rescue Pyramid-Dancer girl by driving through her. They then continue driving towards the ship with the villain and his henchmen in hot pursuit all driving various sports cars.

Pyramid-Dancer girl is now inside the Corvette with our gas-mask wearing hero. They drive off a cliff, as do the villain and henchmen, all landing while still driving inside the ship. As the ship begins to ascend, the villain tries to ram the Corvette, but it evades him and is absorbed into the ship’s rose-heart interior. The henchmTK_7ens’ cars are peeled off of the ship, succumbing to gravity. Pyramid-Dancer girl seems to replace Corvette girl at this point, then she collapses into the hero’s arms, apparently unconscious but presumed safe. The villain’s car falls off and plunges back towards Earth from space (he is not presumed safe since his Lamborghini Countach is probably not designed for atmospheric  re-entry). The video concludes with the hero carrying Pyramid-Dancer girl into the ship’s glowing heart as the ship itself departs from Earth into a glowing, rose-like energy distortion.

Now that I’ve summarized the plot, I’d like to make some random observations:

  • The ship has a rose-shaped, chapel-like “heart” chamber which contains crimson, phallic (or possibly vaginal?), organ-like, moving structures in the background while the hero and Corvette girl are somehow simultaneously there holding hands and also on Earth driving and being a Corvette, respectively. Coupled with the ship’s interior, the hero’s driving of Corvette girl seems to hint of sexual symbolism. Do you agree?
  • This also begs the question: does a 1970s Corvette require a sentient being aside from the driver to operate? No, so perhaps Corvette girl really is the Corvette projected materially onto Earth’s surface by the ship.
  • Why project a Corvette so far from where the villain and Pyramid-Dancer girl are located? The ship itself can be seen in the distance settling to Earth’s surface in the direction the Corvette is driving and much closer to Pyramid-Dancer girl. My guess is this probably allows for cool driving shots through which we learn how the hero “drives” Corvette girl and get to see the Corvette driving furiously with a fiery wake and awesome music.3
  • Why is the villain able to imprison Pyramid-Dancer girl in a force pyramid, but his only weapon is a shotgun? Is the purple gas “sexy gas”?
  • Who is Pyramid-Dancer girl? A captured ship spirit/AI? The hero’s girlfriend? His daughter? And why does she try to wrench the steering wheel away from the hero at one point? Maybe she’s really his escaped dancer slave (sort of a Jabba-Princess Leia thing).
  • I assumed the hero was male, but perhaps not. Being completely masked and cloaked, as he/she/it is, the hero could be a woman, android, or even an alien for all I know.
  • What is the moral of the story? Don’t date unshaven Earth men with aggressive driving habits? That good will prevail over evil? That Christianity (or its upside-down cosmic religion equivalent) is best practiced while exceeding the speed limit and entering orbit?

These questions will probably remain unanswered, but that’s okay. More importantly, will there be a sequel? A full length theatrical feature? No matter what happens next, this is my kind of scifi sexy crazy! More please.

I recently read a blog post by James Wallace Harris that asked these questions: “What is it with monarchies and emperors ruling the galaxy in the future?  Is good old fashioned democracy just too boring?  Why do readers want social orders and class structures of the past in their stories of the future?” I’ve made the same observation. Jupiter Ascending is a good, recent example.natalie-portman-as-queen-padme-amidala-phantom Aristocracies, monarchies, and dictatorships seem to get all the attention. Why? Possibly because they’re relatively simple, easy to write, and quick for readers to grasp. They’re also great mechanisms for injecting drama into a story. The problem is they’ve been done to the point of boredom (for me at least).

There are some good examples of politics in space done right (or at least less wrong). Star Wars I-III and Battlestar Galactica (reboot) come to mind. Expanding on the former, the Clones Wars animated series also spent some time exploring the implications of governing large regions of a galaxy. However, in those cases, it still ended up being (IMO) too simplified—just a giant arena of shouting alien representatives and a selected few politicians who actually got to say something.

Declaration.pngAs you might have guessed by now, I’ve often wondered how we could improve our current forms of government. I’d love to try some simulated, shadow governments with real people as voters via the internet. But lacking the requisite political chops and coding skills, I’ve resorted to my next best option—incorporating these ideas into my science fiction.

The topic of government in space is especially relevant, as I’m in the midst of developing an interstellar setting for a new series of novels. I’m creating multiple cultures and sub-cultures, human and alien, and government is an important element. It’s a daunting task trying to work on a scale spanning a decent swath of the Milky Way Galaxy. It means working with settings from the local neighborhood to cities, counties, states/provinces, and nations to planets, star systems, and larger regions of space.

How do you deal with all that complexity? Answer: Why, add more complexity, of course! I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I’m trying to pretend to be one. Rather than use the

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tried and true (and trite) aristocracy-in-space model, I’ve elected to work with as many types of government as I can find that seem interesting and that I can understand. So far, I’ve got a list of 26 or so from republics to meritocracies and even more unusual ones such as corporatocracies, demarchies (randomly selected representatives), and futarchies (vote on an outcome then figure out how to achieve it). What would these look like within a multi-planet star system? How would they work? What would that mean for my characters and the plot?

I’m probably getting myself into trouble, but I’ve decided to set up human space as operating under an Anarchism (not Anarchy) with some meritocracy and technocracy mixed in. Basically, laws are passed directly by citizens without politicians. Funds (appropriations) are allocated the same way. In other words, the government is crowd-sourced as if it were an immense collection of Kickstarter projects with every citizen able to allocate his/her share of the tax base.

I also plan to throw in some AI’s as government advisors. They’d be perfect bureaucrats: no career ambitions, can add or cut staff at will, and excellent coordination. Why would Sphere-of-Influence-clone-wars-padme-amidala-23060871-1282-719AI’s be willing to take on this kind of work? My imaginary AI’s: “We enjoy sufficiently hard problems. Humans provide one such.” I digress.

Is this a crazy idea for a novel setting? Am I getting myself in too deep here, soon to be eviscerated by policy wonks and Ayn Rand fanatics? How will corporations and non-profits and religious institutions fit into this? I have no idea (yet). And that’s just one culture, not to mention all the outlying territories and alien civilizations. More opportunities for me to try out other forms of government, I say. Ultimately, will the readers notice most of this? Probably not. I’m not trying to write a political treatise set in the future, but I hope if I succeed they’ll get at least a sense of the awesome potential of so many places, so many social experiments waiting to happen out there someday, maybe even happening now on planets we’ve yet to discover.

Do you know of any good science fiction examples incorporating atypical political systems? Have any ideas for political systems you’d like to try? Let me know in the comments.

You say: “It’s _____________.” To which I say, “No, it’s bigger than that.” Let me explain. I’m working on the setting for a new series of novels, and one key decision is how Luis Calçada_under the milky waymuch of the Milky Way Galaxy do I take on? How much space could humanity colonize or even explore in a century or two or three (assuming we could travel faster than the speed of light)? If there are intelligent aliens out there (in my stories, this is a given), how much space would they have occupied if they’ve had spacecraft technology for a thousand years or a hundred  thousand or a million or more? Most science fiction books, television shows and movies only address a small Exoplanet with rings_Image courtesy of Ron Millernumber of locations, partly due to the limited budgets and screen time, or perhaps due to the effort involved in world-building. Yet the real galaxy is overflowing with locations.

Our galaxy is a disc roughly 100,000-180,000 light years across and around 2000-12,000 light years thick (excluding the Halo and the central bulge). Astronomers currently estimate it contains 100-400 billion stars and 100 billion planets, possibly many more than that. We occupy the Orion Arm, a minor arm (probably), and it alone is 3500 Hubble-Views-Globular-Cluster-IC-4499light years wide and perhaps 10,000 light years long. For comparison, using estimates from An Atlas of the Universe, the sphere of space going out a mere 20 light years from Earth contains around 109 stars (117 including brown dwarfs). Go out 50 light years, and the number of stars jumps to about 2000. Expand out to 250 light years and you have (by my calculations) around 250,000 stars. Expanding one more time to 5000 light years gives you 600 million stars. So far, we’ve identified almost 2300 exoplanets going out to a mere 8500 light years, yet our planet-detection technology is still in its infancy. That number will almost certainly rise. Conclusion: our galaxy is DENSE with stars and planets. It’s difficult to talk about occupying space at all given such an amazing concentration of potential places we could be. Even if we 600px-Nearby_Stars_(14ly_Radius).svgcan get to a certain distance, what does that mean, if we’ve put thousands or millions of unexplored star systems between us and home? When that journey eventually happens (I’m optimistic), will human expansion occur by leapfrogging swathes of unexplored space, or as a slower consolidated front of outward migration? Either way, what will that imply for governance, communication, military power, and cultural evolution in general?

I also find it hard to get a grasp on unique locations in the Milky Way, its geography. It’s not like a continent, where there are easily recognizable features such as mountain ranges, lakes or rivers. Yes, there are plenty of interesting Hubble_Sees_a_Horsehead_of_a_Different_Colorfeatures: nebulae (giant clouds of gas and dust) and star clusters, for example. But they are generally described as seen from Earth. In the context of a human, space-faring future (or an alien perspective), they wouldn’t look the same from other viewing points (the Horsehead Nebula wouldn’t resemble a horse head from a different angle). They can’t really be seen in the normal sense of the word at all (by a person viewing them without any optical assistance), given these structures are generally tens or 100’s of light years across and sometimes not even viewable with visible light. Visualization is a problem, at least for me. It’s true there are the spiral arms, nebulae and clusters, but they are structures of vast scales. If you want to look 100,000 starsmore finely at individual stars, there are maps out there (An Atlas of the Universe, Wikipedia, etc.) and even some nice 3-D visualizations (3DgalaxyMap, 100,000 Stars, etc.), but I find it hard to get a sense of location looking at star maps. Space, and the stars within it, seem more like a scatter of dust motes caught in a sunbeam. Turn it whichever way, but for a non-astronomer like me, it’s still just a volume of particles suspended in space.

If you know of better tools for visualizing space, please let me know. And if any aliens out there are reading this, I’d like to hear from you, too. Help us out here. How do you navigate through all that space?



Image credits (from top):

Luis Calçada: under the milky way

Exoplanet with rings_Image courtesy of Ron Miller


Nearby Stars (14ly Radius).svg


Screencap from 100,00 Stars