Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 3. Worth their weight in diamonds

This is the third in a series of posts that question some of the classic tropes in science fiction. This series was inspired by observations made while reading Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey.

The book is a really wonderful space opera, first in The Expanse series, which later inspired the creation of the SyFy Channel show, The Expansein its third season as I write this. But it does seem to accept unexamined some of science fiction’s time-honored (and, in my mind, outmoded) tropes.

In particular, my comments center upon Ceres Station, its population, and its governance, as portrayed in the book. I compiled a short list of outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.

Last week I took issue with the idea that there would be abundant, expendable excess humanity available in the extrapolated setting and time span.

The primary reasons why humans won’t be that abundant are the difficulty of achieving a viable pregnancy in most space (or space-adjacent) environments, and the lowered rates of childbearing among well-educated women who can control their fertility, a reality we already have seen played out in developed nations for several decades.

Today, I’d like to look at the reasons why the humans who do get there won’t be expendable at all. ASIDE from the human rights angle, which ought to be the FOUNDATION of any discussion about the “expendability” of human lives, if we’re not going to have lots of excess babies in space, then Earth is probably exporting the vast majority of the people who live in space.

Every human being who is technically educated to the point of being employable Out Therethen hauled up out of the gravity well is going to be an extremely valuable commodity. 

Hauled up out of the gravity well” alone gives you one reason. In 2009, Michio Kaku explained the cost of transporting someone to Mars this way, in a Forbes article: “imagine your body made of diamonds.

The XKCD Web Comic gives us ALL the gravity wells (in the solar system, that is)!

Even now, it doesn’t cost as much to put a human in orbit as it did in the early days of the Space Race, and that cost will inevitably continue to go down. But I guarantee you it’ll never be so cheap and easy that “anybody can do it.” 

Nor should “anybody” do it. Space is dangerous. Learning how to survive there takes a lot of training and highly specialized (not cheap) equipment. Which brings me to my next point: the “technically educated to the point of being employable” part.

If humans are neither able nor inclined to breed like rabbits in the tunnels of Ceres, that means in space most of the “grunt labor”–and more of the advanced processes than you might imagine–will be done the way more and more of it already IS, here on Earth: by robotsRobotic manufacturing processes are already essential to the current aerospace industry, and this trend won’t go away. I examined this and related automation issues in a series of posts about the automation of labor that started last March. 

Who will manage, troubleshoot, and integrate those robots? That’s the role for highly technically skilled and trained humans. Humans with master’s degrees and doctors’ degrees, sure–but also highly skilled technicians, to keep everything running as it should. We’re already experiencing a critical shortage of skilled labor, and the push into space will only add competition to entice workers in this job niche.

Typically, competition for workers means good salaries, signing bonuses, enticements, and perks added to sweeten the offer. If you want a model for what the workforce of the future will look like, look at Silicon Valley and the current aerospace industrynot the coal mines and textile mills of yesteryear.

Skilled workers, designers, and more are needed to put Spacex rockets into orbit–and the need for such teams will only grow as human expand their enterprises into space.

Moreover, companies are going to have to treat their employees with respect, or those intelligent, educated people will find ways to organize for change, mutiny, or jump ship to sign on with a competitor. How has science fiction not figured this out yet?

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; the XKCD Web Comic, for the gravity wells size comparison chart; to Cerasis, for the photo of robots manufacturing something (I can’t tell what, though, and Cerasis author Adam Robinson didn’t include that information in the article); and to the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, for the photo of the Spacex Team.

Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 2. Oh, the humanity!

This is the second post in a series that questions some basic assumptions that underly several classic science fiction tropes. To start from the beginning of this discussion, go back to last Wednesday’s post.

Last week I took serious issue with the way the people running Ceres Station were doing their job in the must-read space opera Leviathan Wakesby James S. A. Corey.

Apart from the abysmal law enforcement practices I discussed last time, I made a list of other outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres:

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.
I’d specifically like to take up the first point this week, because it’s one of the great, universal “givens” in most science fictional universes: that humans will breed like rats, once we’re finally unleashed like a plague on the universe, and that we’ll mostly all live miserable, short, brutal lives under the heel of this or that authoritarian system.
1973’s Soylent Green created a what-if future (in this case, in New York City) overrun by excess population, as envisioned in both the movie and the 1966 book Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison, which inspired it. Realities have changed since then, but the trope hasn’t.
Yes, life is brutal, out there in the Mean Future, but it makes a handy low point from which Our Heroes can rise up and conquer whatever their particular nemesis is. And I suppose if that’s the story you’re writing, it certainly has a long and–sorry!–storied history as a canon trope in sf.
But seriously. This trope treats human life like detritus, and the vast bounty of space like a zero-sum game. I personally do not see either of these things as inevitable, especially not in an in-system situation such as what we have in The Expanse. Let me explain.
First of all, where are all these people supposedly coming from? Six million on Ceres Station alone? Really? If you are going to treat human beings as if they’re worthless, this implies that there’s an endless, inexpensive supply of them, readily available. But would there be?
This tiny person (fetal development at 16 weeks shown here) would really have a hard time surviving and developing properly in a space environment.
It’s not as if we’re going to be growing them like having litters of kittens out there on the Final Frontier. I mean, pregnancy would be a really hard thing to support in a space-based environment. Yes, I’m going to talk about matters that concern icky lady-parts (note, that’s any lady-part NOT being currently utilized by a protagonist for coitus). If any of you guys can’t handle it, you can skip down a couple of paragraphs.
Like many physical functions, human pregnancy and childbirth have evolved in a 1-G environment. Heck, we can’t even maintain muscle strength and bone density in micro-gravityNot to mention what space radiation can do to sperm or growing fetal cells (yeah, it’s a good thing the squeamish folk skipped this paragraph). Ceres Station supposedly has a gravitation of about 0.3-G, which means mamas ain’t havin’ no (healthy) babies there.
Yes, all that.
I know I’m probably not the only woman who daydreamed, when I was 8 or 9 months along, of floating in micro-G, where my ankles wouldn’t blow up like balloons and my kid’s head wasn’t squashing my bladder into a 1-cc-capacity pancake. But so far the science isn’t encouraging. studies on animals show viability levels are lower, and serious abnormalities can develop. Given that kind of outlook, I’d choose put up with football-feet and micro-bladder.
Also, birth rates fall, even without the environmental difficulties, in more technologically advanced societies. We’ve seen that industrialized nations with access to good birth control (which you’d absolutely have to have, in space) historically show birth rates well below the replacement fertility rate of 2.1 children per woman.
Somehow, science fiction consistently misses this basic fact.
Thus, any model that assumes runaway population growth in an industrialized society is based on a seriously retro–and misogynistic–fallacy. Actually, I believe it’s based on a flawed model promulgated in the 1950s-through-1970s. As far as I can tell, it has not been seriously examined in science fiction since then. I think it’s time we did.
IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover image; to The Ace Black Blog, for the still from Soylent Green; to WebMD for the 16-week-old fetus image; to MumBlog, for the “Pregnancy Symptoms” graphic; and to ValueWalk, for the fertility rate chart. I deeply appreciate all of you!

Challenging assumptions in science fiction: 1. putting my foot in it

I’m probably going to get myself in trouble, writing this series.

Actually, I first began thinking subversive thoughts about the canon assumptions of sf decades ago.

But I wrote the basis-document for this series of posts last summer, while reading Leviathan Wakes by James S. A. Corey (the pen name of co-authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck). It’s the first novel in The Expanse series, which is the basis for the SyFy series of the same name.

First of all, let me say I enjoyed the book, and I do recommend it, although if I go into why the ending disappointed me, it’ll involve spoilers–so I won’t. Go ahead and read the book. Maybe what bugged me about the ending won’t bother you.

In between the squees of delight and the nitpicks, however, I began to form a stronger and stronger opinion, the longer I read: I would absolutely hate living on Ceres. And I bet everyone else would, too.

Why? Because that is a massively dysfunctional, dog-eat-dog society. I’m looking at Ceres, as portrayed in LW, and seriously—that place is a hellhole no Chamber of Commerce PR campaign could pretty up! So why would anyone willingly choose to go there, see what a sorry excuse of a place it was, and then fail to either leave, or work to make it better?

This is not even close to being an exhaustive collection of all the corporations with their eyes on a profitable future in space.

That the cops are run by a corporate contractor is not a stretch, given that we already have corporations leading the way into spaceprivate contractors covering security for more and more corporate and government entities, and for-profit corporations such as CoreCivic run many of our country’s prisons, for well or ill.

GRS (Global Resource Solutions) provided security for the State Department in Benghazi; ACADEMI is better known by Blackwater, its former name; SOC works for the US Departments of State, Energy, and Defense, as well as corporations; Constellis is the parent company of the security firm Triple CanopyCoreCivic is a private prison management company you might remember better as Corrections Corporation of America.

But the clowns and cowboys who pass for law enforcement on Ceres have no concept of professional law enforcement best practices whatsoever. They make some of our more troubled contemporary police departments look like models of even-handed social justice. Even worse for the good people of Ceres, no one in a position of leadership seems interested in requiring them to step up.

Other outstanding reasons NOT to live on Ceres?

  • Human life is apparently cheap, and easily squandered with no penalty.
  • Freedom of speech is nonexistent, and so is freedom of the Fourth Estate.
  • The nutritional base is crap. Seriously? Fungi and fermentation was all they could come up with? Readers of this blog don’t need to guess what I think of this idea.
  • Misogyny is alive and well, but mental health care is not.
To paraphrase, Ceres ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids–at least not the version of it we see in Leviathan Wakes.

Now, I totally understand that sometimes in a story things have to get pretty dark before they get better. The principle of contrast for emphasis is important in most art forms. But I also have begun to get eternally weary of the same not-necessarily-well-founded assumptions being trotted out without all that much examination in novel after novel.

How could such an epic fail of a so-called society as the Ceres of Leviathan Wakes sustain itself? I mean, outside of the canon tropes of SF? Realistically, not too well, in my opinion.

I’ll get deeper into my reasons in upcoming posts. But people, please! We’re writing science fiction, here. Can’t we imagine anything outside of that same predictable rut?

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the Leviathan Wakes cover art. 

I am indebted to the following for the logo images used in the Aerospace Logos montage: to Wikimedia Commons for the Spacex logo; to Stick PNG, for the Boeing logo; to LogoVaults for the Orbital Sciences Corporation logo; and to Space Foundation, for the Sierra Nevada Corporation logo. 

I am indebted to the following for the logo images used in the Security and Prisons Logos montage: to LinkedIn, for the GRS logo; to IDPA, the International Defense Pistol Association, for the ACADEMI logo; to SOC for its logo; and to Constellis for its logo. 

Finally, many thanks to Science Versus Hollywood, for the still image of Ceres Station from SyFy’s The Expanse. 

I appreciate you all!

Looking for something new and interesting to read? Consider these!

One of the things that seems to help our favorite authors more than just about anything we can do (beyond buying their books in the first place) is posting reviews–on Amazon, and on other sites. I know that some Amazon metrics seem to leave reviews out of the picture, but in other ways they help. 

I have been promising myself I’d sit down and write Amazon reviews of some of the books I’ve read recently, and I made good on that promise today. Once I’d started, it occurred to me that I should share some of them here, too. These are all science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novels that I have recently enjoyed. I hope you will enjoy them, too: 

Fluency and Remanence

By Jennifer Foehner Wells

Both of the covers are the work of artist Stephan Martiniere; Wells credits these covers with much of her early success as an indie publisher.

Grabbed me and wouldn’t let go! Thoroughly enjoyable

I ordered Fluency on the basis of a review posted on Twitter, and boy am I glad I did! This is an extremely interesting story of first contact that kept me wondering what would happen next, and happily “hooked” all the way through. I especially liked the complexity of the relationships and the excellent pacing. Jennifer Foehner Wells really knows how to write! (hint: buy the sequel, Remanence, while you’re at it!).

Gripping sequel adds to the stakes–this series just keeps getting better

Sequels often aren’t as good as the first book, but Remanence is definitely an exception to that. Jennifer Foehner Wells takes us deeper into the universe she has created, adds more fascinating non-terrestrials, and adds dramatically to the stakes. I found this just as gripping as the highly-readable first book, and I’m seriously frustrated that she hasn’t gotten the third one finished, as I write this. This is an excellent series. Buy this one when you buy Fluency!

Great news: Valence, the third book in Wells’ Confluence Series, is now in the works!

The Curse of Jacob Tracy 

By Holly Messinger

Supernatural terrors and engaging characters in the Old West 

Engaging characters and imaginative twists on folklore give this western gothic horror novel a special power. Holly Messinger is a promising new writer with interesting tales to tell. The push and pull between the main characters gives depth and resonance, the historical grounding is solid, and the monsters are vivid and challenging. The best news, once you’ve finished? There’s a sequel in the works!

A note about this novel’s cover: Designed by Jim Lin, the cover is an assemblage of images pulled from Shutterstock and Dreamstime. This is an increasing trend with some publishing companies. 

Ready Player One 

By Ernest Cline

The thrill of the game, and a hero with nerves of Adamantium

I’m not a big video game player and I also didn’t spend the formative years of my early adolescence during the 1980s, so at first I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this book, but my son insisted, and even made sure I saw the movie War Games and the documentary Atari: Game Over, in preparation.

I’m glad he did. This is a book about an amazing adventure. The stakes couldn’t be higher–either in the virtual world of the OASIS, or in the gritty reality of a collapsing mid-21st-century world in the grip of recession and the effects of global warming. The story chronicles an epic battle between Big Capitalism and the little man; good versus evil; quick wits, nerve and knowledge versus overwhelming force. You’ll laugh, you’ll howl with outrage, and you’ll love the nail-biting suspense that runs right down to the end.

It took some detective work, but I finally discovered that this wonderful painting of “the Stacks” that forms the background of the cover art is by Joe Ceballos. The Stacks are a compelling image in the book, and I dearly love Ceballos‘ visualization.

The Promise 

By Robert Crais

Suspect (2014) introduced us compellingly to Officer Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie, who play an important part in Crais‘ new book, The Promise

This engaging thriller lived up to all of my high expectations 

I was eager to read this novel in which Crais‘ longtime series characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike meet up with Suspect principals Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie–and it totally lived up to my high expectations.

Elvis Cole makes a promise to a client–not realizing she has many more things to hide than she thought. Scott and Maggie get mixed into the case in the line of duty–but the dangers they face as a result range far beyond their normal occupational hazards.

This book kept me guessing right up to the satisfying conclusion. Scott and Maggie add an interesting new dimension to the adventures of Cole and Pike. I’d love to see all of these characters return for a third engagement sometime soon!

Another note on the covers: These, too are amalgamations from multiple sources, rather than being the work of a single artist. the Suspect cover is the work of MCJC Design, created partially from a photograph by Joseph Baylor Roberts, via Getty Images. The Promise cover is the work of designer Kaitlin Lim, built from the work of several photographers via Getty Images.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon for the cover art for: Fluency, Remanence, The Curse of Jacob Tracy, Ready Player One, Suspect, and The Promise.

The cover painting for Ready Player One by Joe Ceballos is courtesy of Motornomadics

Book Review: A Finer End by Deborah Crombie

Ancient Mystery and Contemporary Murder Mingle in Avalon Territory 

A Finer End, by Deborah Crombie
I don’t often read something published as a traditional mystery, thriller, and even police procedural that I think my friends who are into paranormal or urban fantasy might like, but this just might be the book to bridge that gap.

Set in contemporary Glastonbury (well, almost contemporary: it was published in 2002) at the foot of the fabled Tor, this is Book Seven in Crombie’s “Kincaid and James” series of British mysteries, but it most definitely will stand on its own. 

Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James are experiencing both personal and professional upheaval in this book. They move out of their roles as professional partners and explore their personal relationship–wherever it may be going–while Gemma faces a challenging new professional assignment and Duncan copes with the loss of his erstwhile sergeant (Gemma, who’s been promoted) and begins to learn how to parent Kit, the twelve-year-old son he only recently discovered he had.

Is the mysterious Glastonbury Abbey monk Edmund for real?

When Duncan’s cousin Jack Montfort asks him to come to Glastonbury for a weekend to help with a rather unusual matter, Duncan and Gemma hope spend some pleasant, relaxing time with him and each other. 

But when Jack’s “unusual matter” turns out to be mysterious automatic writing from a twelfth-century monk named Edmund of Glastonbury, in far more literate Latin than Jack could manufacture on his own, the weekend takes a decidedly unusual turn. 

And that’s before the murder of artisan tile-maker and former midwife Garnet Todd upends everything. What was Garnet’s odd obsession with the runaway pregnant teenager Faith Wills, and why is Faith seemingly compelled to climb the Tor, despite her delicate condition? Did someone also try to kill Jack’s girlfriend, the local vicar Winnie Catesby

Why does the pregnant teenager, Faith, keep trying to climb the Tor?


Ancient violence, contemporary murder, and intertwining mysteries reveal themselves through the eyes of many viewpoint characters, and spin into a gripping climax and resolution that you will not see coming.

I’ve been following Deborah Crombie’s work for several years (fairness disclaimer: she’s also a valued friend), and in 2015 I made it a project to read all 16-and-counting titles in her “Kincaid and James” series of mysteries set in Great Britain (a rewarding experience for me, both as a reader and as a writer). 

This book in particular is a master-class in juggling more than the usual number of POV characters while keeping all of them distinct and interesting, and weaving past and present, myth and police procedure, analytical logic and mysticism into a fascinating, multi-dimensional tapestry of story.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon, for the book cover image; unfortunately, A Finer End is out of print, but Amazon still has copies available. The beautiful photo of the Glastonbury Abbey ruins is from TripAdvisorUK, and the evocative photo of Glastonbury Tor is by the AP photographer Peter Morrison, via Fairyroom.

Recommended Reading: The Chet and Bernie Mysteries by Spencer Quinn

Because I am writing an sf novel with a canine protagonist that involves a mystery, I like to keep up with what else is being written in this general category (you might be amazed how many there are). And sometimes I find wonderful things!


Case in point: the “Chet and Bernie Mysteries” of Spencer Quinn. The first two novels in this deservedly-bestselling series, which has now stretched to 8 novels and several e-shorts, are:

Dog On It (2009)
Told entirely from the viewpoint of Chet, the 100-lb. K9-training “reject” with one black ear and one white ear, this entertaining, fast-paced story grabbed me from the very first line. 

Chet lives with his human partner, PI Bernie Little (of the Little Detective Agency). Their home is in an unnamed southwestern state, in a place Chet only knows as The Valley. 

In their first adventure, they’re on the trail of Madison, a teenager who may or may not have been kidnapped, and is the focus of a dispute between her divorced parents. 

Mom Cynthia Chambliss is convinced her daughter has been kidnapped, and hires Chet and Bernie to find her. Dad Damon Keefer (who smells suspiciously of cat) tells Bernie she’s probably run away, but demands details of the investigation. 

Turns out Mom is right, but when Madison briefly turns up again, it almost looks as if the case will come to nothing . . . until she disappears again. Good thing Chet is on the job! He follows her trail–and ends up in deep trouble, himself. 

Will Chet and Bernie unravel the clues in time? Who is the mysterious Russian? Was Madison really in Las Vegas the whole time, after all? And how does the knife in the parking lot fit in? Enjoy the suspenseful fun as you read the book to find out.

Thereby Hangs a Tail (2010)
Chet and Bernie return for a second adventure, this time on a mission to investigate threats made against a show dog named Princess. Her owner, the wealthy Adelina Borghese, is worried.

The partners need the money, so they take what seems at first to be a silly job as bodyguards to a pampered puffball. But when both Princess and Adelina disappear, things get serious very quickly. 

What are the secrets of the ghost town where Chet finds Princess? Who is the sniper? Will Princess and Chet survive their trek across the desert? Where has Bernie’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, Suzie Sanchez, disappeared to? Read and find out! You’ll be glad you did.

Chet spins his tales well, yet remains very convincingly a dog. it’s one of the things I love most about him. He could only have been written by a man who intimately understands dogs. Quinn (actually the thriller-writer Peter Abrahams) clearly has a long and close relationship with the species. (His current canine family members are Audrey and Pearl. They live with him and his wife on Cape Cod).

While the “Chet and Bernie Mysteries” are not at all like what I’m writing, they have been a delicious discovery. I hope you’ll enjoy them, too!

IMAGES: The cover images for Dog On It and Thereby Hangs aTail are both courtesy of Simon & Schuster. Many thanks for both!