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!

Celestial trifecta

The Super Blue Blood Moon did not look like this from the second floor bedroom of our Westwood, Kansas home. There were branches. There were other houses. It was setting (at totality) about the time the sun was coming up on the opposite horizon, so we only got to see the Frog eat the Moon, but then he ran away with it, below the horizon.

This moon looks way cooler than ours did–but I’m still glad we got up for it.

It was still totally worth getting up for. For one thing, it wasn’t cloudy! We had a total eclipse of the sun in the Kansas City area last August, and it was totally socked in and raining at totality, where we were. So we saw it get dark. We saw the 360-degree sunset. But we barely got to use our solar sunglasses at all.

Somewhere up there a solar eclipse was happening. Very frustrating.
The cloudy “wrap-around” sunset, mid-afternoon August 21, 2017, taken without the proper filter so it doesn’t look as red as it did in real life.

I’ve been pretty busy, these past few weeks, but some things just must be taken time for. The main thing I’ve been doing is making a final push to finish my novel. If all goes well, I’ll be done by Sunday with this part of the writing.

And presumably, the Frog will give us the Moon back tonight.

IMAGES: The gorgeous photo of a previous (September 2017) Super Blue Blood Moon, by real NASA-affiliated photographer Dominique Dierick, is courtesy of Sky News. Thank you! The two “Alleged Eclipse” photos are ones I took last August with my trusty iPhone 6, at my friend Marna’s farm.

Remembering Jake

The Artdog Image(s) of Interest

I’ll write the planned post about another endangered beauty spot a different time. Today I simply want to remember a beloved friend. My dog Jake has gone on ahead of me, as dogs too often do, taking a journey I’m not yet ready to take.

Jake in the back yard with me, in October 2016–Photo by Signy Gephardt

Jake was my writing companion, the co-inspirer of certain dragon body-shapes in my artwork, and my exercise buddy who made sure I took walks as often as possible–at least until his lungs gave out.

He was a rescue dog, an Italian greyhound-whippet mix (thus, a “whiggie”) who came into my life around the turn of the decade. He died this week of lung cancer, at the age of almost eleven.

He will be sorely missed.

Mine’s missing someone at the moment, alas.

IMAGES: Many thanks to my daughter Signy for capturing a moment between Jake and me in 2016, and to Defining Wonderland’s post “Adventures in Dog Watching,” for the Roger Caras quote. The source they cite for the quote image is no longer there.

The next battle

The Artdog Image of Interest

If you’re tired of Na-No-Wri-Mo posts, I’m sorry–gonna inflict at least one more on you. Because once you get to a certain point in your writing, it’s time to–GASP!–show it to someone else!! It’s pretty scary, because even after all that work, it’s inevitable that it’s not perfect.

Gotta be done. Find someone you trust and hand it over. It’s What Has to Happen Next, on the writer’s journey. Good luck!

IMAGE: Once again, I’m grateful to the wonderful Debbie Ridpath Ohi and her web comic “Will Write For Chocolate,” for this rueful look at the truth of a writer’s life.

Making a good finish of it

November–and Na-No-Wri-Mo (National Novel Writing Month) is almost over. A lot of people will be trying their best to close in on 50,000 words by midnight tomorrow. To cheer them on, today’s post is a collection of wisdom about FINISHING.

A 50,000-word manuscript that has a beginning, middle, and end technically qualifies as a novel, in some genres. For my particular genre, science fiction, the contemporary normal finished length is 90,000-120,000 words, so 50,000 words will get you maybe about halfway there.

But no matter how you slice it, 50,000 words in one month is a prodigious chunk! It’s a noble goal, a major effort, and a valuable milestone. So here’s to finishing your fifty-thou, even if you aren’t “really finished”!

One more thing. Once you’ve finished your 50,000 words–or however many you manage this month–take time to celebrate! Yay! You did it!

ANY amount of words add up to more than you had written before, and every special effort deserves recognition. Just be sure to get back into the chair on December 1, and begin again.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Jeff Goins for the quote images for Bradbury and Lamott, to Happy Monkey for the cartoon about finishing your novel, and to 8 Tracks for the mountaintop celebration photo.