OUT IN JULY…. I took a long look at my stories, and David Hartwell made his masterly editorial judgments, so here they are, out of 215 stories so far.
OUT IN JULY…. I took a long look at my stories, and David Hartwell made his masterly editorial judgments, so here they are, out of 215 stories so far.
Some opinions harvested from Locus online and correspondence by
The once powerful sf magazines have declined in circulation over the last 35 years, and seem endangered. The 1980 circulations vs 2014 of the magazines are : Analog (100,000; 25,000), Asimov’s (100,000; 20,000); F&SF (60,000;12,000), with Interzone now having something less than 10,000. Plainly, they’re in trouble. Meanwhile many other venues in small or online sites have increased the story market. But what of quality and content? I asked this of several people, starting by circulating Lois Tilton’s locusmag.com year summary:
Lois Tilton (appearing at locusmag.com):
Looking back over 2014 to pick my favorite stories, I don’t see it as a really good year for short SF. From many directions come charges that the field has fallen into a rut, and the evidence doesn’t strongly dispute it. Subterranean Press discontinued its high-quality magazine and no new periodicals have yet risen to replace it, although Uncanny shows promise. Overall, my assessment of this year’s stories would have to be: lackluster.
Most disappointing were the old-line print periodicals. There was plenty of good-enough fiction published, but few stories that made me sit up in awe and think: “I wish I could have written that.” I found a lot more outstanding pieces of fiction in the electronic periodicals, most notably Tor.com and Clarkesworld. It was also a good year for anthologies, especially for Hard SF of which I see far too little in the periodicals.
This year’s new author of promise is J Y Yang.
If the field is in a rut, it’s most visible here. Only a few years ago, I recall selecting more stories for my list from this magazine than just about any other venue. Now, not so many. And it’s noteworthy that most of these came from a guest-edited issue: Paul M Berger’s “Subduction” and Spencer Ellsworth’s “Five Tales of the Aqueduct”. Fortunately, the zine continues to publish Robert Reed, although his contributions here this year were not my favorites, and the ever-entertaining Matthew Hughes. I also liked Sarah Pinsker’s “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide”. But this is a decline, overall, from better days.
At one point, this magazine used to vie with F&SF for the honor of premier source of short fiction in the genre. While the zine is less addicted to the work of the same regular authors, it still isn’t publishing a lot of new, exciting work. It did give us what I consider Robert Reed’s best piece of the year: “The Cryptic Age”. I also liked Derek Künsken’s “Schools of Clay”.
Here, stasis would seem to be a feature, not a bug, but given this, I found the quality of the fiction on the upgrade, the best being Craig DeLancey’s “Racing the Tide”.
This just-as-venerable print magazine definitely showed that it’s open to change, continuing a shift from dark future dystopias to more optimistic works that include actual fantasy. The best here is still SF, however, such as Nina Allen’s sophisticated “Mirielena”. I also liked new author D J Cockburn’s debut piece, “Beside the Dammed River”, with a fresh look at dystopia.
I’ve been known to complain in the past that I see too few original anthologies, but 2014 gave me more than I managed to read. The year had a particularly good crop of Hard SF collections, and I’m not going to complain about too much Hard SF.
This one was created by a collective headed by Neal Stephenson on a mission to pull SF out of its rut and imbue it with a sense of “techno-optimism”. There’s good stuff here, real science fiction, which is all too rare on today’s publishing scene. Among these stories, I especially like the realistic, probable futures portrayed by Geoffrey A. Landis in “A Hotel in Antarctica” and by Cory Doctorow in “The Man Who Sold the Moon”.
Reach for Infinity
Another good SF anthology from Jonathan Strahan, the theme being human expansion into space. The best stories are “The Fifth Dragon” by Ian McDonald and “Kheldyu” by Karl Schroeder.
Another anthology from Strahan, this one fantasy and not quite as successful as the science fiction volume. I best liked “On Skybolt Mountain” by Justina Robson.
Carbide-Tipped Pens is another Hard SF anthology, not as good as its title, edited by Ben Bova and Eric Choi. It has a nice piece by Gregory Benford: “Lady with Fox”.
Gregory Benford to those below:
I wondered if you agree with Lois Tilton’s assessment of the 2014 year in Locus online: that the print mags aren’t getting the more interesting stories now. You presumably read them all: do you agree?
To some extent, I do agree. Asimov’s, F&SF, and Interzone were on the weak side this year. That may just be the way things happened to fall out this year, though. Your best bet for finding good stories this year were the SF anthologies, particularly REACH FOR INFINITY and HIEROGLYPH.
Gordon Van Gelder
I just saw you asking Gardner about Lois Tilton’s year-end assessment and it really drove home something I’ve noticed for a while: the younger writers nowadays really don’t write science fiction any more. That’s why better SF stories are showing up in anthologies—newbies aren’t competing with the more accomplished writers. (On a side note, I think it’s also striking that the only two stories Gardner is reprinting from F&SF this year are not by American writers.)
I think there’s some truth to Lois’s assessment, though I have come to a slightly different conclusion. I think the magazines are losing out to editors who are actively inviting writers to be involved in projects (which are proliferating), meaning those writers often don’t’ send stories to general markets. Anthologies seem to be an important place right now. Tor.com is an exception to this, but mostly because it is such a lucrative market. They also have some very energetic editors looking for work. I think the magazines, especially the online magazines, have a different problem: they don’t have very distinct personalities and that impacts on building readership. You always know what to expect from Analog, and I always felt like I knew what to expect from Asimov’s under Gardner’s editorship or F&SF under Gordon or Ed’s. I don’t get a distinct personality with Lightspeed or Clarkesworld et al yet, despite their qualities, and I think that’s an issue.
Jonathan, that’s a major aspect, probably best visible mostly to you anthology editors. I hadn’t even thought of that. But…why should it be that “newbies aren’t competing with the more accomplished writers.”? Maybe the threshold of science knowledge is too high now?
Gordon Van Gelder:
I wish I had an opportunity to sit and chat with you about this, Greg—there are too many facets to it for an online conversation. But among the things I’m seeing are:
(1) A lot of younger writers and readers don’t actually distinguish between science fiction and fantasy.
(2) Many of the up-and-coming younger writers don’t see any advantage to writing science fiction. Fantasy wins more awards, sells better, and has more markets. (David Truesdale reprinted a 1975 interview —http://www.tangentonline.com/interviews-columnsmenu-166/1221-classic-donald-a-wollheim-interview–with Don Wollheim where he said, “I’ve just found this great new novel in the slushpile. It reads like fantasy, but don’t worry—it’s science fiction.” Can you imagine any editor saying something like that now? [Wollheim was speaking of Tanith Lee’s first novel.])
(3) The ones who do write science fiction seem to be interested mostly in computer-related stuff—Artificial Intelligence, etc. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t see enough on other themes.
Incidentally, I ran this piece by Stephen Mazur, who has been my first reader for a few years, He said he sees three kinds of science fiction in the slushpile:
1) Computer-based SF stories about AI, programming, etc.
2) Sci-fi stories about zipping around space via wormholes
3) Lite SF that uses the trappings of the genre, such as time-travel.
Of course, he sees the bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, but it’s still of interest. I remember when Adam-and-Eve stories were filling the slushpile; nowadays, they’re rare.
The above and several other editors have told me an interesting fact: Despite about 2000 members of SFWA, the magazines (except ANALOG) seem to get far more fantasy than sf, and very little hard sf. All the magazines have faced declining circulations for decades and some seem barely hanging on. Yet sf/fantasy publishes the majority of all professional (ie, paying) short stories in English. (There are a few mystery story markets too.) Mainstream markets are tiny. (I estimate, from much browsing and fact-chasing.) In this sense the success of the sf/fantasy magazines, online and print, looms as a troubling aspect for all literature, not merely one genre.
As well, as Jon says: “those writers perhaps never send stories to general markets” – indeed, is true of me. The few stories I write in a year usually go on commission to anthologies.
All this gets us back to the $64 question of why readers aren’t reading or buying SF (hard or otherwise) like they used to, in favor of fantasy. And here I make a distinction between short fiction in the magazines and SF in novel form. The sort of SF which is very popular these days is media tie-in SF. There’s still a huge buying audience for Star Trek and Star Wars (and other franchises) catering to those who’ve seen the movies and loved them, but who aren’t finding what they know they like in the magazines. Kris Rusch wrote a piece for Asimov’s a number of years ago outlining this fact (http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0612/thoughtexperiments.shtml ). Agree or not, sales figures are hard to deny.
This decline in popularity of “hard” SF has been coming for a long time, and while it’s been an incremental shift away from SF to Fantasy in the past, it may have reached the boiling point with the state of the current magazines–print and electronic. Sheila Finch warned the field of this with her essay “Doctor, Will the Patient Survive?” ( http://www.tangentonline.com/articles-columnsmenu-284/2422-qdoctor-will-the-patient-surviveq-by-sheila-finch ) which appeared in Nebula Awards 30, 1996. She saw less and less real SF in the short fiction she was reading and more attempts at fiction that tried to be “literary.” A quote from her essay:
“Gary Wolfe once referred to this trend as “creeping mainstreamism”: a trend that produces stories that embrace all the aspects of literary fiction, style, character development, and so on, but lose the element of speculativeness that marks science fiction. What we’re all too likely to find in the magazines these days (with Analog a notable exception) is the story that might just as well have appeared in The New Yorker or any of the literary journals. What’s happened here?”
Others believe part of the problem stems from a generation of college students arriving to sf out of the soft sciences and humanities rather than the math or sciences departments. Thus, their attempts to write sf reflect this non-science background in their fiction. Exacerbating the problem is that many of the current crop of editors–print or online–are coming out of the same colleges and universities with the same background in the softer disciplines as the writers submitting to them. If the editors truly had an understanding of the history of the SF field–how and why it came to be, its struggles as a new form of literature distinct from the quotidian emphasis the “mainstream” has always made its living promoting as the only true form of Literature–then perhaps at least some of these younger or newer editors could guide their writers in a direction more compatible with sf rather than Fantasy or thinly disguised (as Finch notes) mainstream stories.
All of these elements are now coalescing into what alarms many of us today, but has been seething beneath the surface for decades. In slow increments these various processes have now bubbled to the surface. I fear even armchair science SF, much less Hard SF in the short form, is the boiling frog in the pot.
Gregory Benford: Now, to conclude with a savvy editor:
The mainstream no longer distinguishes between fantasy and science
fiction, it never really did, and the media certainly do not. And
everyone in the field used to take it for granted that it was easier to
write a good publishable fantasy than a good publishable SF story, which
requires some bit of scientific knowledge. It was a commonplace in
discussion. Always, of course, with the reminder that it is very hard to
write a truly first rate short story of any kind, and no year contains a
lot of those, of the thousands being published.
So younger writers saturated with media in the last two decades, and not
in fact nearly as well read in SF as the fans of old, say in effect “same
difference” and shout down anyone who disagrees. I know younger editors
who are not really clear on genre distinctions and don’t think it matters.
This battle is being not lost but drowned in noise. And the mainstream
still thinks it’s all the same and all crap. With exceptions that prove
the rule. The only thing to do if one likes hard SF is to praise it and
publish it, and read it, and criticize editors who don’t publish enough of
it as ignorant or slackers.
The bottom line is that there are literally thousands of published but
less than truly excellent fantasy and SF writers now, never mind the
self-published, and that are desperate not to be judged in comparison with others, especially older and established writers. We all know that is scary. So they deny the existence of any rules, any boundaries, so they cannot be judged. My only answer is, judge them anyway.
Table of Contents:
Nobody Lives on Burton Street (1970)
Doing Lennon (1975)
White Creatures (1975)
In Alien Flesh (1978)
Dark Sanctuary (1979)
Time Shards (1979)
Relativistic Effects (1982)
Of Space/Time and the River (1985)
Time’s Rub (1985)
Matter’s End (1989)
Mozart on Morphine (1989)
Centigrade 233 (1990)
World Vast, World Various (1992)
In the Dark Backward (1993)
A Desperate Calculus (1995)
The Voice (1997)
Slow Symphonies of Mass and Time (1998)
A Dance to Strange Musics (1998)
Comes The Evolution (2001)
Twenty-Two Centimeters (2004)
A Life with a Semisent (2005)
Applied Mathematical Theology (2006)
Bow Shock (2006)
Reasons Not to Publish (2007)
The Champagne Award (2008)
Gravity’s Whispers (2010)
Grace Immaculate (2011)
The Sigma Structure Symphony (2012)
WHAT SCIENTIFIC IDEA IS READY FOR RETIREMENT?
MY ANSWER: The intrinsic beauty and elegance of mathematics allows it to describe nature.
Many believe this seeming axiom, that beauty leads to descriptive power. Our experience seems to show this, mostly from the successes of physics. There is some truth to it, but also some illusion.
There is a ready explanation of how a distant primate came into the beginnings of a mathematical appreciation of nature. Hunting, that primate found it easier to fling rocks or spears at fleeing prey than chase them down. Some of his fellows found the curve of a flung stone difficult to achieve, but he did not. He found the parabola beautiful and simpler to achieve, because that pleasurable sensation provided evolutionary feedback. Over eons this lead to an animal that invented complex geometries, calculus and beyond.
This is a huge leap, of course, an evolutionary overshoot. We seem to be smarter than needed simply to survive in the natural world—earlier hominids did, even spreading over most of the planet. We did go through some population bottlenecks in our past, perhaps as recent as about 130,000 years ago. Perhaps those recent eras of intense selection explain why we have such vastly disproportionate mental abilities.
Still there remain, beyond evolutionary arguments, two mysteries in math: whence its amazing ability to describe nature, and why its intrinsic beauty and elegance?
Parabolas are elegant, true. They describe how hard bodies fly through the air under gravity. But the motion of a falling leaf, on the other hand, demands several differential equations taking into account wind velocity, gravity, geometry of the leaf, fluid flow and much else. A cruising airplane is even harder to describe. Neither case is elegant or simple.
So the utility of math stands separately from its intrinsic beauty. Mathematics is most elegant when we simplify the system considered. So with a baseball we account for the initial acceleration and angle, the air and gravity, and out comes a parabola as a good approximation. Not so the leaf.
And that parabola? We see its simple beauty far too slowly to be of any use in real time. Our appreciation comes afterward. To actually make a parabola work for us in baseball, we learn how to throw. Such learning builds on hard-wired neuronal networks in the brain, selected for over evolutionary times, since knowing how to throw a missile is adaptive. A human pitcher can more subtly affect the trajectory by throwing curves, knuckle balls etc. Those are certainly more complex trajectories and probably less elegant, but still well within the capability of our nervous systems. But for well-learned actions, all that processing goes on at unconscious levels. In fact, too much conscious attention to the details of action can interfere. Athletes know this—it’s the art of staying in the zone. Probably that zone is where the mind runs on its sense of rightness, beauty, economy of effort.
Further, elegance is hard to define, as are most aesthetic judgments. Richard Feynman once noted that it is simple to make known laws more elegant, say by starting with Newton’s force law, F=ma, then defining R=F – ma. The equation R=0 is visually more elegant, but contains no more information. The Lagrangian method in dynamics is elegant—just write the expression for kinetic energy minus the potential energy—but one must know a fundamental theory to do so; the elegance of the Lagrangian comes later, as a mathematical aid.
More recently, it is hard to devise an elegant cosmological theory that yields directly the small cosmological constant we observe. Some solve this problem by invoking the Anthropic Principle, and thus multiverses of some sort. But this ventures near a violation of another form of the elegance standard, Occam’s Razor. Imagining a vast sea of multiverses, with us arising in one where conditions produce intelligent beings, seems to many excessive. It invokes a plentitude we can never see. The scientific test of multiverse cosmology is whether it leads to predictable consequences.
Can multiverses converse with each other? That would be a way of verifying the basis of such theories. Most multiverse models seem to say there is no possible communication between the infinitude of multiverses. Brane theory, though, comes from models where no force law operates between branes, except gravitation. Perhaps someday an instrument like LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, can detect such waves from branes. But is it elegant to shift confirmation onto some far future technology? Sweeping dust under a rug seems inelegant to me.
Evolution doesn’t care about beauty and elegance, just utility. Beauty does play a secondary role, though. The male who best throws the spear to bring down prey is appreciated and may have a choice of many mates. It just so happens that the effective and now beautiful act of spear throwing is describable with fairly simple math.
We make the short step to say the underlying math is also beautiful.
Math’s utility implies that for a suitably simple model of the universe there should be a fairly simple mathematical theory of everything, something like general relativity, describable by a one-line equation. Searching for it on that intuitive basis may lead us to such a theory. I suspect a model that captures the full complexity of the universe, though, would take up a lot more than one line.
When we say a math model is elegant and beautiful, we express the limits of our own minds. It is not a deep description of the world. In the end, simple models are much easier to comprehend than complex ones. We cannot expect that the path of elegance will always guarantee we are on the right track.
Please note that there may be incorrect spellings, punctuation and grammar in this document. This is to
allow correct pronunciation and timing by a speech synthesiser.
This lecture is the intellectual property of Professor S.W. Hawking.
In this talk, I want to put forward a different approach to cosmology, that can address its central question, why
is the universe the way it is. Does string theory, or M theory, predict the distinctive features of our universe,
like a spatially flat four dimensional expanding universe with small fluctuations, and the standard model of
particle physics. Most physicists would rather believe string theory uniquely predicts the universe, than the
alternatives. These are that the initial state of the universe, is prescribed by an outside agency,, code named
God. Or that there are many universes, and our universe is picked out by the anthropic principle.
The usual approach in physics, could be described as building from the bottom up. That is, one assumes some
initial state for a system, and evolves it forward in time with the Hamiltonian, and the Schroedinger equation.
This approach is appropriate for lab experiments like particle scattering, where one can prepare the initial state,
and measure the final state.. The bottom up approach is more problem in cosmology however, because we do
not know what the initial state of the universe was, and we certainly can’t try out different initial states, and see
what kinds of universe they produce.
Different physicists react to this difficulty in different ways. Some (generally those brought up in the particle
physics tradition) just ignore the problem. They feel the task of physics is to predict what happens in the lab,
and they are convinced that string theory, or M theory, can do this. All they think remains to be done, is to
identify a solution of M theory, a Calabi-Yau or G2 manifold, that will give the standard model, as an effective
theory in four dimensions. But they have no idea why the universe should be four dimensional, and have the
standard model, with the values of its 40+ parameters that we observe. How can anyone believe that something
so messy, is the unique prediction of string theory. It amazes me that people can have such blinkered vision,
that they can concentrate just on the final state of the universe, and not ask how and why it got there.
Those physicists that do try to explain the universe from the bottom up, mostly belong to one of two schools,
inflationary models, or pre big bang scenarios. In the case of inflation, the idea is that the exponential
expansion, obliterates the dependence on the initial conditions, so we wouldn’t need to know exactly how the
universe began, just that it was inflating. To lose all memory of the initial state, would require an infinite
amount of exponential expansion. This leads to the notion of ever lasting or eternal inflation. The original
argument for eternal inflation, went as follows. Consider a massive scalar field in a spatially infinite expanding
universe. Suppose the field is nearly constant over several horizon regions, on a space like surface. In an
infinite universe, there will always be such regions. The scalar field will have quantum fluctuations. In half the
region, the fluctuations will increase the field, and in half, they will decrease it. In the half where the field
jumps up, the extra energy density will cause the universe to expand faster, than in the half where the field
jumps down. After a certain proper time, more than half the region will have the higher value of the field,
because the high field regions will expand faster than the low. Thus the volume averaged value of the field will
rise. There will always be regions of the universe in which the scalar field is high, so inflation is eternal. The
regions in which the scalar field fluctuates downwards, will branch off from the eternally inflating region, and
will exit inflation. Because there will be an infinite number of such exiting regions, advocates of eternal
inflation get themselves tied in knots, on what a typical observer would see. So even if eternal inflation
worked, it would not explain why the universe is the way it is. But in fact, the argument for eternal inflation that
I have outlined, has serious flaws. First, it is not gauge invariant. If one takes the time surfaces to be surfaces of
constant volume increase, rather than surfaces of constant proper time, the volume averaged scalar field does
not increase. Second, it is not consistent. The equation relating the expansion rate to the energy density, is an
integral of motion. Neither side of the equation can fluctuate, because energy is conserved. Third, it is not
covariant. It is based on a 3+1 split. From a four-dimensional view, eternal inflation can only be de Sitter space
with bubbles. The energy momentum tensor of the fluctuations of a single scalar field, is not large enough to
support a de Sitter space, except possibly at the Planck scale, where everything breaks down. For these reasons,
not gauge invariant, not consistent, and not covariant, I do not believe the usual argument for eternal inflation.
However, as I shall explain later, I think the universe may have had an initial de Sitter stage considerably larger
than the Planck scale.
I now turn to pre big bang scenarios, which are the main alternative to inflation. I shall take them to include the
Ekpyrotic and cyclic models, as well as the older pre big bang scenario. The observations of fluctuations in the
microwave background, show that there are correlations on scales larger than the horizon size at decoupling.
These correlations could be explained if there had been inflation, because the exponential expansion, would
have meant that regions that are now widely separated, were once in causal contact with each other. On the
other hand, if there were no inflation, the correlations must have been present at the beginning of the expansion
of the universe. Presumably, they arose in a previous contracting phase, and somehow survived the singularity,
or brane collision. It is not clear if effects can be transmitted through a singularity, or if they will produce the
right signature in the microwave background. But even if the answer to both of these questions is yes, the pre
big bang scenarios do not answer the central question of cosmology, why is the universe, the way it is. All the
pre big bang scenarios can do, is shift the problem of the initial state from 13 point 7 billion years ago, to the
infinite past. But a boundary condition is a boundary condition, even if the boundary is at infinity. The present
state of the universe, would depend on the boundary condition in the infinite past. The trouble is, there’ s no
natural boundary condition, like the universe being in its ground state. The universe doesn’ t have a ground state.
It is unstable, and is either expanding or contracting. The lack of a preferred initial state in the infinite past,
means that pre big bang scenarios, are no better at explaining the universe, than supposing that someone wound
up the clockwork, and set the universe going at the big bang.
The bottom up approach to cosmology, of supposing some initial state, and evolving it forward in time, is
basically classical, because it assumes that the universe began in a way that was well defined and unique. But
one of the first acts of my research career, was to show with Roger Penrose, that any reasonable classical
cosmological solution, has a singularity in the past. This implies that the origin of the universe, was a quantum
event. This means that it should be described by the Feynman sum over histories. The universe doesn’ t have just
a single history, but every possible history, whether or not they satisfy the field equations. Some people make a
great mystery of the multi universe, or the many worlds interpretation of quantum theory, but to me, these are
just different expressions of the Feynman path integral.
One can use the path integral to calculate the quantum amplitudes for observables at the present time. The wave
function of the universe, or amplitude for the metric h i j, on a surface, S, of co-dimension one, is given by a
path integral over all metrics, g, that have S as a boundary. Normally, one thinks of path integrals as having two
boundaries, an initial surface, and a final surface. This would be appropriate in a proper quantum treatment of a
pre big bang scenario, like the Ekpyrotic universe. In this case, the initial surface, would be in the infinite past.
But there are two big objections to the path integral for the universe, having an initial surface. The first is the G
question. What was the initial state of the universe, and why was it like that. As I said earlier, there doesn’ t
seem to be a natural choice for the initial state. It can’ t be flat space. That would remain flat space.
The second objection is equally fundamental. In most models, the quantum state on the final surface, will be
independent of the state on the initial surface. This is because there will be metrics in which the initial surface is
in one component, and the final surface in a separate disconnected component. Such metrics will exist in the
Euclidean regime. They correspond to the quantum annihilation of one universe, and the quantum creation of
another. This would not be possible if there were something that was conserved, that propagated from the initial
surface, to the final surface. But the trend in cosmology in recent years, has been to claim that the universe has
no conserved quantities. Things like baryon number, are supposed to have been created by grand unified or
electro weak theories, and CP violation. So there is no way one can rule out the final surface, from belonging to
a different universe to the initial surface. In fact, because there are so many different possible universes, they
will dominate, and the final state will be independent of the initial. It will be given by a path integral over all
metrics whose only boundary is the final surface. In other words, it is the so called no boundary quantum state.
If one accepts that the no boundary proposal, is the natural prescription for the quantum state of the universe,
one is led to a profoundly different view of cosmology, and the relation between cause and effect. One
shouldn’ t follow the history of the universe from the bottom up, because that assumes there’ s a single history,
with a well defined starting point and evolution. Instead, one should trace the histories from the top down, in
other words, backwards from the measurement surface, S, at the present time. The histories that contribute to
the path integral, don’ t have an independent existence, but depend on the amplitude that is being measured. As
an example of this, consider the apparent dimension of the universe. The usual idea is that spacetime is a four
dimensional nearly flat metric, cross a small six or seven dimensional internal manifold. But why aren’ t there
more large dimensions. Thy are any dimensions compactified. There are good reasons to think that life is
possible only in four dimensions, but most physicists are very reluctant to appeal to the anthropic principle.
They would rather believe that there is some mechanism that causes all but four of the dimensions to
compactify spontaneously. Alternatively, maybe all dimensions started small, but for some reason, four
dimensions expanded, and the rest did not.
I’ m sorry to disappoint these hopes, but I don’ t think there is a dynamical reason for the universe to appefaoru r
dimensional. Instead, the no boundary proposal predicts a quantum amplitude for every number of large spatial
dimensions, from 0 to 10. There will be an amplitude for the universe to be eleven dimensional Minkowski
space, i e, ten large spatial dimensions. However, the value of this amplitude is of no significance, because we
do not live in eleven dimensions . We are not asking for the probabilities of various dimensions for the
universe. As long as the amplitude for three large spatial dimensions, is not exactly zero, it doesn’ t matter how
small it is compared to other numbers of dimensions. We live in a universe that appears four dimensional, so
we are interested only in amplitudes for surfaces with three large dimensions. This may sound like the anthropic
principle argument that the reason we observe the universe to be four dimensional, is that life is possible only in
four dimensions. But the argument here is different, because it doesn’ t depend on whether four dimensions, is
the only arena for life. Rather it is that the probability distribution over dimensions is irrelevant, because we
have already measured that we are in four dimensions.
The situation with the low energy effective theory of particle interactions, is similar. Many physicists believe
that string theory, will uniquely predict the standard model, and the values of its 40 or so parameters. The
bottom up picture would be that the universe would begin with some grand unified symmetry, like E8 cross
E8.aS the universe expanded and cooled, the symmetry would break to the standard model, maybe through
intermediate stages. The hope would be that String theory, would predict the pattern of breaking, the mass,
couplings and mixing angles.
Personally, I find it difficult to believe that the standard model, is the unique prediction of fundamental theory.
It is so ugly, and the mixing angles etc, seem accidental, rather than part of a grand design.
In string stroke M theory, low energy particle physics is determined by the internal space. It is well known that
M theory has solutions with many different internal spaces. If one builds the history of the universe from the
bottom up, there is no reason it should end up with the internal space for the standard model. However, if one
asks for the amplitude for a space like surface with a given internal space, one is interested only in those
histories which end with that internal space. One therefore has to trace the histories from the top down,
backwards from the final surface.
One can calculate the amplitude for the internal space of the standard model, on the basis of the no boundary
proposal. As with the dimension, it doesn’ t matter how small this amplitude is, relative to other possibilities. It
would be like asking for the amplitude that I am Chinese. I know I am British, even though there are more
Chinese. Similarly, we know the low energy theory is the standard model, even though other theories may have
a larger amplitude.
Although the relative amplitudes for radically different geometries, don’ t matter, those for neighbouring
geometries, are important. For example, the fluctuations in the microwave background, correspond to
differences in the amplitudes for space like surfaces, that are small perturbations of flat 3 space, cross the
internal space. It is a robust prediction of inflation, that the fluctuations are gowsyan, and nearly scale
independent. This has been confirmed by the recent observations by the map satellite. However, the predicted
amplitude, is model dependent.
The parameters of the standard model, will be determined by the moduli of the internal space. Because they are
moduli at the classical level, their amplitudes will have a fairly flat distribution. This means that M theory, can
not predict the parameters of the standard model. Obviously, the values of the parameters we measure, must be
compatible with the development of life. I hesitate to say, with intelligent life. But within the anthropically
allowed range, the parameters can have any values. So much for string theory, predicting the fine structure
constant. However, although the theory can not predict the value of the fine structure constant, it will predict it
should have spatial variations, like the microwave background. This would be an observational test, of our
ideas of M theory compactification.
How can one get a non zero amplitude for the present state of the universe, if as I claim, the metrics in the path
integral, have no boundary apart from the surface at the present time. I can’ t claim to have the definitive answer,
but one possibility would be if the four dimensional part of the metric, went back to a de Sitter phase. Such a
scenario is realized in trace anomaly driven inflation, for example. In the Lorentzian regime, the de Sitter phase
would extend back into the infinite past. It would represent a universe that contracted to a minimum radius, and
then expanded again. But as we know, Lorentzian de Sitter can be closed off in the past by half the four sphere.
One can interpret this in the bottom up picture, as the spontaneous creation of an inflating universe from
nothing. Some pre big bang or Ekpyrotic scenarios, involving collapsing and expanding universes, can probably
be formulated in no boundary terms, with an orbifold point. However, this would remove the scale free
perturbations which, it is claimed, develop during the collapse, and carry on into the expansion. So again it is a
no no for pre big bang and Ekpyrotic universes.
In conclusion, the bottom up approach to cosmology, would be appropriate, if one knew that the universe was
set going in a particular way, in either the finite, or infinite past. However, in the absence of such knowledge, it
is better to work from the top down, by tracing backwards from the final surface, the histories that contribute to
the path integral. This means that the histories of the universe, depend on what is being measured, contrary to
the usual idea that the universe has an objective, observer independent, history. The Feynman path integral
allows every possible history for the universe, and the observation, selects out the sub class of histories that
have the property that is being observed. There are histories in which the universe eternally inflates, or is eleven
dimensional, but they do not contribute to the amplitudes we measure. I would call this the selection principle,
rather than the anthropic principle because it doesn’ t depend on intelligent life. Life may after all be possible in
eleven dimensions, but we know we live in four.
The results are disappointing for those who hoped that the ultimate theory, would predict every day physics.
We can not predict discrete features like the number of large dimensions, or the gauge symmetry of the low
energy theory. Rather we use them to select which histories contribute to the path integral. The situation is
better with continuous quantities, like the temperature of the cosmic microwave background, or the parameters
of the standard model. We can not measure their probability distributions, because we have only one value for
each quantity. We can’ t tell whether the universe was likely to have the values we observe, or whether it was
just a lucky chance. However, it is note worthy that the parameters we measure seem to lie in the interior of the
anthropically allowed range, rather than at one end. This suggests that the probability distribution is fairly flat,
not like the exponential dependence on the density parameter, omega, in the open inflation that Neil Turok and
I proposed. In that model, omega would have had the minimum value required to form a single galaxy, which is
all that is anthropically necessary. All the other galaxies which we see, are superfluous.
Although the theory can not predict the average values of these quantities, it will predict that there will be
spatial variations, like the fluctuations in the microwave background. However the size of these variations, will
probably depend on moduli or parameters that we can’ t predict. So even when we understand the ultimate
theory, it won’ t tell us much about how the universe began. It can not predict the dimension of spacetime, the
gauge group, or other parameters of the low energy effective theory. On the other hand, the theory will predict
that the total energy density, will be exactly the critical density, though it won’ t determine how this energy is
divided between conventional matter, and a cosmological constant, or quintessence. The theory will also predict
a nearly scale free spectrum of fluctuations. But it won’ t determine the amplitude.
So to come back to the question with which I began this talk. Does string theory predict the state of the universe. The answer is that itdoes not. It allows a vast landscape of possible universes, in which we occupy an anthropically permitted location.
But I do feel we could have selected a better neighbourhood.
This essay was written before Sid Coleman’s untimely death in 2007.
(First published in Trapdoor 25)
In January 2007 Sid Coleman’s wife, Diana, sent a letter to their friends about his decline. It was troubling; Sid was one of those I most admired in fandom—indeed, in life.
But now his particular sort of Parkinson’s had advanced until he could not live at home any more. Diana had placed him in a living facility, where she visited him daily. He went long times now without speaking, she said, but at times a glint of the old Sydney would flicker. His roommate, a cook, remarked that Sid seemed to be a nice man. “Appearances are deceiving,” Sid said, with a sly smile.
Sid The Fan
Her letter set me to remembering. Sid was so much—physicist, raconteur, world traveler—and he gave much to science fiction. His teenage toils for Advent Publishers supported a scrupulous, ambitious role for fans in holding the field to its standards. In 1960 he said in Earl Kemp’s Who Killed SF?, “I am not in science fiction for money; I am in it for joy. Formally, I am a publisher (actually, 14% of a publisher). This is useful: it gets me on the mailing list of PITFCS; it is a handy topic of conversation at parties; it is a means whereby I meet some interesting people; it is a better hobby than stamp-collecting any day. From an economic standpoint, it plays a lesser role in my life than returning Coke bottles for refunds.”
Earl Kemp, Ed Wood, Sid and some others created a fannish publishing house, Advent Publishers, in 1956. He was a teenager when he helped publish Advent’s first book, Damon Knight’s In Search of Wonder. Week after week the fans gathered at Earl Kemp’s apartment in Chicago, catching typos in the photo offset text. Ed Wood, a very large fan with a very large voice, and Sid, maintained an unrelenting dialog about the purpose of science fiction fandom—Ed loudly proclaiming that fandom should “spread the science fiction faith,” while Sid insisted on a smaller purpose, like fun.
Earl Kemp recalled that Sid was at his very best when criticizing someone for what he thought was a shortcoming. Sid’s inimitable trick was to do it with charm and wit that left the target injured but somehow happy about the whole thing and anxious to tell others about it.
Fandom was for him a larger family, an audience for a swift, subtle sense of humor. At a Halloween party in Chicago, he appeared costumed as “Judas Iscariot as Sidney Coleman with thirty pieces of silver,” carrying three dollars in dimes. In a letter of comment he remarked, “The interstate highway now passes through Indiana and Illinois, traversing some of the flattest territory in the nation. It has been said of this geography, ‘You could see a hundred miles in every direction, if only there was something worth looking at.’”
From a fanzine piece: “Did I ever tell you about my great-grandfather, Stephen Rich, the stingiest man in Slonim? When the local stonecutter went out of business, he had him make up a tombstone for him, cheap, with everything on it but the date of great-grandfather’s death. He kept it in his front yard and tethered his goat to it. At least that’s what my mother has always told me, but she’s quite capable of having stolen the whole incident from an Erskine Caldwell novel.”
Jim Caughran recalled, “He could make a story of what he’d done today into a hilarious adventure. He could seize the moment, improvising.” A faculty couple at Caltech owned a gentle German shepherd. While he was a grad student Sid would occasionally do dog-sitting duties. The doorbell to the apartment rang. Sidney opened the door with the dog close behind. “Ha! A stranger!” Sidney said, “Kill, Fang!”
He had an incredible repertory of Jewish jokes. Terry Carr once asked him, “How many jokes can you tell that start, ‘One day in the garment district…’?” He was speechless, then said he couldn’t put a number to them.” Martha Beck was at a science fiction function and got into a conversation with a man who was a physicist. She casually mentioned Sid, and the man said in awed tones, “You know Sidney Coleman!?”
After all, Sid attended high school and university simultaneously, getting his bachelor’s degree when he graduated from high school, a feat I’ve never known to be equaled. Sid went to Caltech for his doctorate with Murray Gell-Mann in 1962, age 25. He attended LASFS meetings. And so he swiftly became a major theoretical physicist. Many fans never quite knew his prominence.
“I’m at the top of the second rank,” Carol Carr remembers him saying.
Sid the Physicist
I first met him in the 1960s, introduced by Terry Carr, who explained with a wry smile, “You’re both in physics and write for Innuendo [Terry’s fanzine], so you should probably know each other.” Sid was already both a better physicist and wit, of course. He was far more subtle and powerful in his mathematics than I.
In the late 1980s he caught the attention of the entire physics world with a calculation, using a “wormhole calculus” he invented for the purpose. It carried the characteristically witty title, “Why there is nothing rather than something: a theory of the cosmological constant.” [Nucl. Phys. B 310: 643 (1988)] In it he concluded that through complex dynamics in the first moments of the universe, it was later able to sustain life forms that could perhaps “know joy.”
He showed how the cosmological constant could be forced to be zero in the early universe. This fit the prevailing prejudice among theorists that the constant, first introduced by Einstein to make the universe static, neither expanding nor contracting. When Hubble found in the late 1920s that the universe is expanding, Einstein said imposing the constant was a blunder, not because it was a bad idea, but because Einstein didn’t see that the resulting equilibrium was unstable. Any minor jiggle would destroy the static state, starting motion. Even with the constant, he should have foreseen that Hubble would either see a universe growing or shrinking.
Sidney had no prejudice either way on the value of the constant, but he did see a pretty way to use quantum mechanical ideas to propose a sweet model—the sort of confection theorists hold dear. I was startled by the intricate audacity of his calculation, as were many others. At the time I had been working on some wormhole calculations myself, much more prosaically trying to find a way to see if we had any wormholes nearby and if they could be found out through their refracting ability. Some wormholes might develop one end that looked as though it had negative mass, since its other end had funneled a lot of mass out through its mouth. These would yield a unique refracting signature, two peaks, if a star passed behind it, along our line of sight. Find the two peaks (rather than one for ordinary wormhole mouths, or any ordinary mass) and—presto, a gateway to the stars, maybe. It was a clear longshot.
Sid had no illusions about his model—it was a longshot, too, that just might be right. Worth a chance. I felt the same.
Everybody liked the “wormhole calculus” because they liked the result, a zero constant. That seemed clean, neat, a theorist’s delight. Sid basked in the attention, though he didn’t think this was his best work. My work, done with several others, got a lot of citation and wasn’t my best, either; wormholes just get good press. Sid quoted Einstein wryly that “If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and the Swiss will declare that I am their citizen. If it fails, Switzerland will say I’m a German and the Germans will say I am a Jew.”
It turned out that the cosmological constant isn’t zero at all. In fact, it represents the highest energy density in the universe, far more important in dynamics than mere matter like us. In fact, it’s close to the value that will eventually give us the Big Rip that will tear everything apart at the End of Time, even atoms. When I mentioned in 1996 the recent discovery that the constant was large, not zero, Sid shrugged. “Win some, lose some in the old cosmology game.”
We haven’t found any refracting wormholes, either. That’s just how science goes.
When Sid’s decline became evident, the Harvard physics department put on a Sidneyfest that ran over a weekend. Some reports on this event, with pictures, are at http://www.physics.harvard.edu/QFT/sidneyfest.htmhttp://www.physics.harvard.edu/QFT/sidneyfest.htm.
Then-president of Harvard Larry Summers opened the Fest before a large crowd with, “There has not been so much talent gathered around the snack table since Einstein snacked alone.”
Nobelist Steven Weinberg gave the next talk, discussing how to calculate Feynman diagrams for quantized general relativity. He talked about work in progress, and at the end said, “I don’t know what to do now. Does anybody else?” This was the place to ask! He added, “In happier times, I would have gone straight to Sidney Coleman.”
Though Weinberg is now at the University of Texas, he shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics with Shelly Glashow and Abdus Salam for work done down the hall from Sid. “Sidney is a theorist’s theorist,” Weinberg said. “He has not been so much concerned with accounting for the latest data from experiments as with understanding deeply what our theories really mean. I can say I learned more about physics from Sidney than from anyone else. I also learned more good jokes from him than from anyone else.”
The noted particle theorist Howard Georgi said, “In his prime, which lasted for a very long time, from the mid ‘60s to the late ‘80s, Sidney was such a towering figure in theoretical physics that even his close colleagues (Nobel prize winners, etc.) were somewhat in awe of him. In fact, we had to be careful about talking to Sidney too soon about new ideas, because he was so smart and had such encyclopedic knowledge that he could kill nascent ideas before they really got started.”
Sidney was a beloved teacher of graduate students, and many of them attended the Sidneyfest. Sid referred to the community as i fratelli fisici, by which he meant the brotherhood of physicists. (Most physicists speak at least a bit of broken Italian, a legacy of the grand and highly influential summer schools organized by Nino Zichichi in Erice, Sicily.) In a physics career one often arrives by train or plane, anywhere in the world, on the way to a conference or academic visit. One of the fondest reflections of being a scientist is to then be greeted by a total stranger, who immediately treated one like an old friend. Erice was like that; the brotherhood of science. With good food.
The town likes the NATO-backed workshops because they bring an elevated form of tourism to the ancient site on a granite spire, perched a kilometer above a beautiful beach. One year a noted German physicist drove down in his brand new Mercedes and parked it outside the workshop buildings, which were once a convent. He emerged an hour later to find the Mercedes stolen along with his luggage and all his lecture notes. The German panicked, and Director Zichichi led him back inside to give him a glass or two of good Sicilian wine. Emerging an hour later, there sat the Mercedes. Zichichi had ties everywhere. The local Mafia had found the thieves. Then they kindly returned the car, washed, waxed and fully fueled—an impressively offhand way to show real power. Sid always loved telling this tale.
I had given a lecture series there in astrophysics, suspecting that the true appeal of Erice was the meal chits they gave out for attendees. Good in many of the best restaurants, these allowed for wine with the meal, no questions asked. This single gesture made the afternoon sessions either lively or dead, depending on the quality and quantity of the wine. But Sidney avoided the wine, focusing on clarifying his own lectures right up to the last minute. His careful, insightful summaries of the state of knowledge in field theory became famous and appeared as a book devoted solely to them.
One of the Sidneyfest attendees who got his doctorate at Harvard remarked, “How do you do physics at Harvard? You go to Witten to give you a problem to work on. You go to Coleman to tell you how to solve it. Then you go to Weinberg to write you a reference letter.” Ed Witten is the Einstein figure of string theory and much else. Weinberg won the Nobel for what we now call the Standard Model.
Though I’ve never met Weinberg, I learned a lot of physics just working through a Weinberg calculation he did as a toss-off for a classified project I worked on in the late 1960s, given the problem by Edward Teller, who had hired me in 1967. Weinberg’s footprint in the calculations was impressive. He came a decade ahead of me in the profession and I rather regretted showing that the method he studied would not work in reality. But physics isn’t just about getting everything to work; it’s about the truth. Weinberg was no sharper than Sid, but he happened upon an insight that proved out true quite swiftly. There is a lot of luck in science; many of the brilliant just don’t hit quite the right problem. Sid won prizes, several Sidneyfest attendees remarked, but not the big ones.
There were many Sid stories. One was about being at a physics meeting where Stephen Hawking spoke up from his wheelchair. This was around 1976, when Stephen could barely control his throat, and struggled to make his points in his semi-unintelligible way. His comment contained a detailed, abstruse mathematical argument and went on for minutes. Sid said that he was tempted to reply, “That’s easy for you to say,” but held his tongue.
Another Sid story: A mathematician and an engineer are sitting in on a string theory lecture. The engineer is struggling, while the mathematician is swimming along with no problem. Finally the engineer asks, “How do you do it? How do you visualize these 11-dimensional spaces?” The mathematician says, “It’s easy: first I visualize an n-dimensional space, then I set n equal to 11.”
At the fest Sidney could not deal with the crowd, so he watched the proceedings on TV in a small room off to the side. At the end he appeared before the crowd but declined to comment, saying later, “At my age you tend to emit a lot of gas, and I’d rather not.”
Sid the Wit
Rather than his physics, I remember best Sid’s brilliant wit. He once remarked about dopey plot twists, “The one good thing about stupidity is that it leads to adventure.” I’ve often thought that applies to life as a whole, too.
Robert Silverberg recalled in a fanzine, “While traveling in France in the early 1970s, Sidney unexpectedly contracted a case of what turned out to be crabs. ‘Unexpectedly’ because this is customarily a venereal disease, and he had been a model of chastity throughout his trip. The offending organisms must have been concealed in the bedding of his hotel room, he decided, and so he had suffered a case of punishment without the crime. But during the trip he had not, however, remained true to the dietary restrictions imposed by the religious doctrines of his forefathers; and, he said, after visiting a French doctor and having his ailment diagnosed for what it was, he was granted a vision of his Orthodox grandfather rising up in wrath before him and thundering, ‘Thou hast eaten crustaceans, child, and now thou shalt be devoured by crustaceans thyself!’”
Carol Carr remembers that Sid’s French was limited, and that a literal translation of what he told the doctor was, “Small animals are eating my penis.”
In the fevered height of the 1970s, when even theoretical physicists had gotten the hip message of the 1960s, Sid had a tailored purple suit. He wore it with stylish aplomb, smiling his owlish smiles below twinkling eyes, pretending to not notice the flagrant color. Once, walking across Harvard Yard, we encountered a student who had a question about a career in physics. I wondered how Sid would reply, since I usually gave a long, windy answer. Sid simply swept a hand grandly down his tailored flanks and said, “Study hard, have original ideas, and someday you, too, may wear a purple suit.”
Carol Carr also recalls: “Sid made the expression ‘enjoying oneself’ a concrete, observable act, and he would sometimes be caught shamelessly indulging in it. Once, at a party, he had just said something funny to a bunch of people. After the punchline he walked out of the room, leaving them all in mid-grin. Several minutes later I happened to notice him, alone in a corner, still chortling to himself. What he’d said to those people had a long half-life, and Sid was a bonafide, dyed-in-the-wool appreciator. If a good joke happened to be his own, he wasn’t about to apply the doctrine of false modesty and let it die before its time.”
When his physics department suddenly needed someone to fill in for an ill colleague, they asked Sid if he could teach a field theory class that the energetic colleague had scheduled for 8 a.m. Sid was a notorious night owl who often had to rouse his dinner guests to go home at a mere 3 a.m. He relished the pleasures of watching the sun come up while putting on pajamas and others stirred. Still, he considered. He felt that he did have an obligation to his department. “I’m sorry,” he finally said, “I just don’t think I could stay up that late.”
He wrote a great sendup of the space program: “Once I gained access to Pioneer 10, it was the work of a moment to substitute for NASA’s plaque my own, which read, “Make ten exact copies of this plaque with your name at the bottom of the list and send them to ten intelligent races of your acquaintance. At the end of four billion years, your name will reach the top of the list and you will rule the galaxy.”
If only A. E. van Vogt had thought of this economical idea!
Of course, Sid had his oddities. He was the worst driver I ever knew, distracted by conversation with his passengers, oblivious to the screech and shouts of near-accidents. Marta Randall remarked on how when she was the lead car on the several-car trip to a restaurant, she always saw Sid in her rear view mirror in profile, attentive to his friends. But then, Feynman considered dental hygiene to be a superstition, despite his rotten teeth. Einstein hated socks. We physicists have our foibles.
Sid did indeed look a lot like Einstein, but he loved SF whereas Einstein deplored it. Lest SF distort pure science and give people the false illusion of scientific understanding, Einstein recommended complete abstinence from any type of science fiction. “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough,” he said.
Now, though, Sid can’t concentrate enough to read SF. For decades he took SF seriously but not solemnly, and his insights led to his role as a book reviewer for F&SF—the only non-literary person ever to serve. His F&SF book reviews skewered the second rate and revealed the excellences of the able. In a review of a novel that did not make the grade in a nonetheless ambitious area, he simply remarked, “This book fills a much needed vacancy in our field.”
Sid is just the opposite. As he fades from us, his departure from our midst leaves a vacancy that echoes, unfillable.
Science Fiction Thrillers
From Dissolving Genres by GARY WOLFE
A genre that science fiction writers have been attempting to colonize with some regularity is that of the suspense thriller. Here the dissolution of genre boundaries is more subtle, since the imaginative material and narrative conventions of science fiction may be retained, while the plot, structure, and tone are borrowed from a mode of paranoid pursuit melodrama pioneered in espionage novels from John Buchan to Robert Ludlum. Initially, those novelists who seemed most successful—at least commercially—in effecting this merger were novelists whose starting point was the thriller rather than the science fiction tale: Robin Cook, Michael Crichton, and Peter Benchley are among the most prominent examples, with Crichton having based nearly his entire career on science fiction conceits. Occasionally, professional science fiction writers have ventured with some success into this arena (Frank Robinson’s The Power, 1956; D. F. Jones’ Colossus, 1966), but for the most part the very intellectual challenges that traditionally define an effective technological science fiction story seem to mitigate against the largely anti-intellectual (or at least anti-scientist), technologically ambivalent tone of the paranoid thriller.
This may be a rare case where the most visible barriers separating two related genres lie in ideologies of power rather than in narrative mechanisms. Nevertheless, science fiction writers fairly consistently try to bridge the gap, sometimes very successfully (as with Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, which freely uses the multiple viewpoints and globe-hopping locations of thriller fiction, but offers a solidly imagined evolutionary speculation as its thematic center; or Ken MacLeod’s 2007 The Execution Channel, which treats themes of terrorism and environmental catastrophe with an unusual degree of political sophistication), more often with mixed results (such as Ben Bova’s Death Dream  or Wil McCarthy’s Murder in the Solid State , novels you have most likely never heard of for this very reason).
One science fiction writer who consistently tried to expand into the thriller market is Gregory Benford, one of the premiere hard SF writers of the last three decades; his most famous novel, Timescape (1980), was praised for its mainstream virtues, particularly its depiction of academic scientists at work in the 1960s, as well as its ingenious plot involving cross-time communication. In 1985, Benford published Artifact, a near-future archeological thriller involving the discovery of an ancient Minoan artifact that seems to contain some sort of alien singularity that, if released, could have catastrophic effects.
Despite the sophisticated physics that goes into the explanation of the artifact (some of which is relegated to an appendix at the back of the novel), this central science-fictional device is for the most part reduced to the role of a MacGuffin (to use Alfred Hitchcock’s term for an object whose sole purpose is to motivate characters) in what is primarily a novel of international political intrigue and adventure. Later, recognizing that novels like this were on the far edge of the genre in which he already had built a substantial reputation, Benford adopted the pseudonym Sterling Blake for his thriller Chiller (1993), a Robin Cook–style suspense novel involving cryonics.
In 1997, Benford returned again to this field under his own name with Cosm, which—despite another ingenious device at its center, again drawn solidly from theoretical physics (a chrome-like sphere accidentally created in a uranium nuclei experiment turns out to be a window into a newly created micro-universe—the “Cosm” of the title)—was sufficiently driven by a simple chase-and-pursuit plot that it briefly attracted the attention of Hollywood. But the novel is the result of two genres virtually laid one on top of the other, with the Cosm itself serving, on the one hand, as an inventive and evocative novum in the most traditional science fiction sense, and on the other as a thriller-MacGuffin like the artifact in Artifact. When the heroine, a Black physicist named Alicia Butterworth, removes the object from the laboratory at Brookhaven where it was created, she finds herself in the midst of an adventure tale involving fundamentalists, federal marshals, bureaucrats, and academic politics, while the provocative notion of a mini-universe evolving at a rate millions of time faster than our own takes a back seat to the cat-and-mouse pursuit plot. As in Artifact, Benford offers an afterword arguing for the plausibility of the physics involved, but for the purposes of the thriller aspect of the novel, the Cosm is for the most part simply a very strange object that might explode, like a smuggled atom bomb or a vial of deadly viruses.
Benford’s most successful foray in transforming science-fictional materials into the materials of the commercial thriller is the novel Eater, published in early 2000. Eater seems almost a deliberate exercise in genre dissolution. It begins as an astronomical puzzle, and in rapid succession turns into a first-contact tale, a world-threatening disaster epic, a tragic romance, a space adventure, and an ontological fable that returns to one of Benford’s favorite science fiction themes: the relation of organic to artificial intelligences in the universe. Benjamin Knowlton is a distinguished astrophysicist at the Mauna Kea observatory. His wife, an ex-astronaut, is suffering from late-stage terminal cancer as the novel opens. When a young colleague presents Knowlton with evidence of what appears to be a highly anomalous astronomical artifact—a repeating gamma ray burster—he is initially skeptical, but hesitant to discourage the enthusiasm of a younger, more idealistic scientist. One of the most impressive aspects of these early chapters is the manner in which Benford convincingly describes the real-life problems of science and science management; the varying styles of intellectual problem solving and reacting to new phenomena are an important part of the characterization of his major figures, and coping with scientific and political bureaucracies becomes an important survival skill as the plot unfolds.
The young scientist’s measurements hold up, however, and the mysterious object—which has many of the characteristics of a black hole—is not only real, but is headed toward Earth at a startling rate. The object, which comes to be known as “Eater of All Things” because of its tendency, like a black hole, to consume objects in its path, proves to be intelligent—apparently the remnant of an ancient civilization that, when faced with doom at the hands of the black hole, downloaded itself into the singularity’s magnetic fields and has been cruising the universe ever since, collecting samples from various civilizations. Now it demands the uploaded minds of several hundred humans—whom it identifies by name—to add to the collection. To underline the seriousness of its demands, it burns a huge swath across eastern North America, including the Washington, D.C. area. The scientists—who by now must contend with paranoid government bureaucracies as well as the all-powerful and possibly deranged alien—face the Abraham-like dilemma of whether to offer up the sacrifices. As a kind of supreme sacrifice, the dying astronaut volunteers to have her consciousness uploaded into a space vehicle, in the hopes that she can at least do some damage to the seemingly invincible alien. As do all seemingly invincible aliens, these have an Achilles heel waiting to be discovered, and while Benford’s version of it is more sophisticated and intelligent than most, the final chapters of the novel veer toward crowd-pleasing escapades and uncomfortable echoes of far less sophisticated works, including such pop films as Independence Day, Contact, and Armageddon.
Eater works well enough as a science fiction novel, in terms of its scientist characters, the depiction of alien intelligence, and the nature of the central problem and solution, that it might seem perverse to cite it in the context of novels that test the boundaries of genre, or that contribute to the dissolution of their source genre. But the solid science fiction narrative at its core is repeatedly diluted by echoes of other genres—not only the thriller, but the epic disaster novel (which Benford had visited before with his 1980 Shiva Descending, co-authored with William Rotsler), the academic novel, and the mainstream novel of science, which Benford had blended effectively with a science-fictional conceit in his classic Timescape.
Still, the novel must be counted as a more successful hybrid of science fiction and the thriller than some prominent examples of the reverse—novels by thriller writers seeking to exploit science-fictional plots—such as James Patterson’s Where the Wind Blows (1998) or Michael Crichton’s Timeline (1999), both of which cavalierly violate the terms of their science fiction rationales in order to expediently deliver the next chapter-ending cliffhanger.
Strolling the streets before Loncon, I saw how the London world works: Autocratic hypercapitalism (Russia, China, some of southeast Asia) without Western checks and balances produces new elites whose dream is then an American or British lifestyle, with education for their children. Having made it big in autocratic countries with corrupt legal systems (if that), a cowed press and rampant corruption, oligarchs and crony capitalists wake up one day and find that they like nothing as much as democratic systems under the rule of law held accountable by an independent press.
They know how their own capricious systems really work, so they buy into the rule of law by acquiring real estate in London, NYC, LA, Paris–driving up prices in prime markets so those with incomes stagnant or falling get pushed aside, unless they already own. American debt bought by Asian governments, notably the Chinese, gives Asians access to credit-fueled American markets and consumers so Asians lend America money to police the world. Balance depends on American-underwritten stability. They know it, so surface conflict often masks inextricable links. China blusters about their neighbors over worthless islands, but won’t tip any scales.
So London streets abound in foreign accents returning money to our economies. Women in saris, business suits and skimpy summer dresses blend with those in full chador—whom I still find creepy. Many long-term Londoners resent the foreign money and rising costs. The virtues of the big-city West are a contested ground, much envied.
John and Judith Clute now find themselves surrounded by a pricey neighborhood, they said, as we were getting into the crowded elevator at the Loncon center. Noting the German manufacturer, I said, “So…this is Schindler’s lift?” Everyone laughed, the Germans a little uneasily.
Pros & Cons
It was a diffuse, crowded worldcon. I avoided the Hugos and found many friends in restaurants doing the same. The tenor of fandom and prodom alike in the last few years has been odd, with many politically correct factions vying, playing Capture the Flag for victimhood status. The worldcon-com’s instant decision to dump its already invited Hugo host–in a sort of PC panic, because some thought he might make non-PC jokes–led many to avoid the whole thing–including Neil Gaiman, who got them the invitation.
”What kind of jokes will you use?” I asked one of the co-hosts, Geoff Ryman. “None,” he said. Reports say it was dull indeed. At least the closing-ceremony audience singing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ to Brian Aldiss, who was 89 that day, was a fitting end.
In Loncon’s aftermath, the internet journalists piled on. Especially grating was http://www.dailydot.com/opinion/growing-generation-gap-changing-face-fandom/
The Daily Dot held that
“Worldcon is like a family reunion,” said longtime convention-goer and fanzine writer Curt Phillips, at a panel about the history of Worldcon. After a few days, I could only agree. It was indeed like being at a family reunion, in that it felt like you were spending your time with elderly relatives. You might want to talk to them and listen to their stories, but you’ll have to tolerate some offensive and outdated opinions along the way.
On 8-10 August there had been a Nine Worlds Con—“about gaming, film, cosplay, fandom, literature, science, geek culture, meeting people and having a really big party.” An agreeing Daily Dot reader said, “A media con, Nine Worlds went out of its way to be as accepting and safe as humanly possible, distributing color-coded lapel clips to indicate your level of comfort when interacting with strangers. A red clip meant “leave me alone.” A green clip, and you’d soon be making friends. You could also wear a badge with your preferred gender pronouns, and there were jugs of ice water in all the hallways in case anyone got dehydrated.”
A fan, Eric Penner, answered, “To a certain extent, Worldcon’s size is a barrier to this kind of inclusivity. A 10,000 person behemoth may not be able to implement gender pronoun badges or a color-coded social interaction system, not just because of the sheer volume of people, but because half of them would dismiss it as politically correct nonsense.”
Another fan added, “Yeah, because those badges ARE politically correct nonsense. The system was developed for people with autism. They don’t pick up on social cues very well, so it would be of benefit to them.”
Another fan differed: “If you were a newcomer attending Worldcon by yourself, or if you were used to the kind of fandom that focuses on things like racebent fanart, slash fanfic, and intelligent pop-culture critique, then you weren’t going to have much fun.
A counter view: “They were informed about issues of discrimination in fandom and were capable of having public discussions about racism and rape culture without having to field noisy interruptions from their peers.”
Mike Kerpan said in retort: “It sees to me that the whole screed from the Daily Dot can be summed up as ‘I can’t have fun when ‘old people’ are in the same building as me and enjoying themselves.’”
Another said: “What I suspect is really the problem in this article is not so much a generation gap as a “media gap”. Journalism has been consistently been getting more shallow, vulgar, sensationalistic, and celebrity driven. It’s clear from reading output from any but the more elite forms of the media that increasingly “journalists” are not well read and sadly, from a less distinguished pool of people who are not all that bright and not very well educated. The same people who are making the decisions to get rid of book reviews in newspapers and are incapable of understanding any kind of historical reference from before their teen years are the same kind of bozos who would not appreciate a focus on conventions with a literary focus. And aren’t the writers and editors of the Daily Dot lucky that they will never grow old?”
Then David Gerrold chimed in: “ Mostly, if you look around at the crowds, at the audiences in the room, if you look at all the various gatherings, the masquerades, the gaming rooms, the media rooms — if you look and see who’s just sitting around and chatting with who, you’ll more often see groups that are age-blind. You don’t see that in a lot of other places — but you do see it in fandom, where people of all different ages interact without age being a judgment on ability or insight.”
Very sound comments, I thought. Some media fan areas are declining, too. I’ve even noticed among younger fan friends how the superhero motif has dried up for them. . The dispersal of interest groups affects other cons, too. An sf pro friend sent me this comment after guesting at Dragoncon,
“Just got home from Dragon Con in Atlanta, feeling trampled and a bit dejected. The attendance figure I heard for this megacon was 75,000; it was spread out over four large convention hotels and just about took over the entire downtown area. But if there were more a dozen or so people who’d ever heard of me or my work, they kept themselves hidden. And the ones I met were mainly 50 and older. I’m seriously considering writing space opera for my next novel … that seems to be the closest to traditional SF that the younger readers want to get. Still, it was an all-expense paid trip, so I can’t complain (much).”
Amid this busy August Daniel José Older launched a petition on Change.org <www.change.org/the-world-fantasy-award-make-octavia-butler-the-wfa-statue-instead-of-lovecraft>
As Kevin J. Maroney speaking for himself as editor of NYRSF said, “This is to request that the World Fantasy Award administrators replace the current award statuette, a (haunting, grotesque, lovely) Gahan Wilson bust of H. P. Lovecraft, with a statuette of Octavia Butler. N.K. Jamison says as of today, the petition has just short of 1400 signatures, including mine. I signed it because it identifies a serious problem; I signed it with reluctance because the proposed solution is not the right one.
Older’s petition offers a threefold argument:
First, that Octavia Butler was an exemplary writer “across the imaginative genres from science fiction to historical fantasy to horror.”
Second, that Lovecraft was an avowed racist and that his image on the award is deeply discomforting to recipients, especially those who are among the races that Lovecraft held in particular contempt (i.e., any skin color other than white).
Third, that Lovecraft was a terrible wordsmith.”
“I urge the World Fantasy Convention to decide quickly on a replacement that can fairly represent all of fantasy and all of its audience and creators, whether it be a iconic creature such as a dragon or chimera (Mamatas’s suggestion); a map (my own preference) or a book; or something more abstract still. HPL’s head should be retired as soon as possible, not out of disrespect for Lovecraft as a writer or as a central figure in fantasy, but as a courtesy to generations of writers whom the WFA hopes to honor.”
But…as Nick Mamatas put it:
“This is a ridiculous petition for several reasons. The one non-ridiculous reason is that H.P. Lovecraft’s racism stains his legacy and upsets many people, as well it should. Granted. With that out of the way, let’s discuss the reasons:
1. Octavia Butler was not known as a fantasist, did not write fantasy for the most part, and did not primarily identify as a fantasist. The one big exception is Kindred, which she declared a “grim fantasy”, even as critics have suggested that it is SF about genetics and evolutionary psychology.
2. She’s a well-loved figure though, which means that there’s a lot of enthusiasm for the petition right now. It also potentially makes a heavy brickbat for anyone who comes out against the petition. A few years ago, some people tried to rally HWA to get the Bram Stoker First Novel category named after Charles Grant…who had little to do with first novels other than having published one himself. (He did cultivate new authors via short stories.) When some objected to the name change, there were all sorts of quivering lips and lamentations that garsh too bad people don’t care that Charlie is moldering in the ground, alone and forgotten snif sniff… So, you were either in favor of the name change, or in favor of digging Grant up and shitting on his corpse, you meanie.
Or, shorter: it is always a bad idea to make a person into a prize, since the prize is then tied to the reputation of the person. (Sometimes prizes are designed to rehabilitate a reputation, a la the Nobel.) With writers, whose works are always up for reappraisal, this is especially fraught. The Lovecraft/World Fantasy issue is an example of that. Is Butler’s reputation so fully bulletproof, forever? Don’t count on it.
3. The petition also claims that Lovecraft was “a terrible wordsmith.” Wrong. Lovecraft was a superior writer. As I put it on Twitter, “he had a pretty clear aesthetic and used polyphony well to build authority for the ineffable.”
Noting this, Baron Groznik said…
It’s interesting to see two factions fight over a trophy, and both totally missing the point of HP Lovecraft, the man. The Lovecraftian apologists pooh-pooh Lovecraft’s undeniable racism with the “product of his times” or “sheltered childhood” brush-offs, too terrified of speaking to their idol’s bald-faced bigotry. The other faction criminalizes him as some such KKK hoodlum with a seething hatred of any non-WASP. But if this debate is truly about busts and honoring writers, let’s not forget this trophy isn’t for some humanitarian award or the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s about writers who have demonstrated exceptional skill in their craft of weird fantasy. In that sense, we’re not honoring any saints here. I imagine if we unpacked the psychological closets of most of the WFA winners, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight. What I’m picking up here is not so much the latest round of Lovecraft bashing (which is nothing new) as much as deifying Octavia Butler as a more saintly and appropriate choice.
Interestingly, there’s an older set of awards named for John W. Campbell, who held views some would claim were racist, and got snookered by pseudo-science like Dianetics (Scientology) and the Dean Drive. Both JWC awards started in 1973: for the best novel in the JWC tradition, a jury award, and for best new writer, a fan vote attached to the Hugos. The World Fantasy Award started in 1975. Woe be to the JWCs if they get attacked for the views of JWC, who died in 1971.
Few seem to notice that this petition, promoted by a black woman fantasy writer, wants to put a black woman sf writer in place of Lovecraft. Self promotion often looks that way: grab an asset developed by others, make it your own.
So be it real estate, crowd attention, or undermining the former great, the con and indeed, fandom, has acquired the air of a contested ground. Think of it as a compliment: sf and fandom are important enough to steal. Some didn’t like the feel of Loncon. Silverberg referred to the media emphasis as a “moron fandom” and Mike Resnick remarked to me, “I think you and I should consider ourselves lucky that we were GOHs when these things were still relatively
fun and relatively peaceful.”
James Cambias remarked, “Meanwhile the younger, more diverse — and vastly larger — cohort of fans are going to Comic-Cons in New York, San Diego, or Salt Lake City. They’re going to DragonCon and PAX and GenCon. Hundreds of thousands of them are going. They enjoy science fiction movies, TV shows, comics, computer games, webcomics, tabletop games, card games, fan fiction, anime, LARPs, and probably some enormous hobbies I don’t even know about. They’re having fun doing what they enjoy. And what they don’t enjoy are serious-minded panels about the need for more diversity. Instead of worrying about making SF more diverse, we should focus on making SF more fun again. Bring the fun and the diversity will follow.”
These currents I saw at Loncon: social commentary, inept economics preached by Marxists (!), announcements that some special complaints were somehow privileged. Yet Loncon wasn’t really supposed to be about grievances at all. It was about our manifest, burgeoning future. You know, that old one, with technology opening new doors to prospects vast and strange.
That’s the sort of future that interests me. I’d like more of it, especially at worldcons.
AN ESSAY FROM ‘STARSHIP CENTURY’
Here we assemble several of Stephen Hawking’s many remarks on the long range prospects of humanity. His hallmark in all such comments has been caution. He feels radiating powerful signals to announce our presence is an unnecessary risk, in case aliens might wish us ill. Risk aversion also features in his thoughts on subjects he has thought on a great deal, since his teenage years, when he was a prodigious science fiction fan.
We are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. There have been a number of times in the past when survival has been a question of touch and go, like the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963, and the frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future. We shall need great care and judgment to negotiate them all successfully.
Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million.
Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.
This is why I favor “personed” space flight and encourage further study into how to make space colonization possible.
But I’m an optimist. If we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries, our species should be safe, as we spread into space. Once we establish independent colonies, our entire future should be safe.
FROM STARSHIP CENTURY
In his 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation”, published in the journal Science, Freeman Dyson famously argued that the long term evolution of technological alien societies might lead to capturing the bulk of all their star’s emissions, forming what came to be called by others Dyson Spheres. Dyson once said, “Science is my territory, but science fiction is the landscape of my dreams.” Though he has never written science fiction, his scientific imagination has inspired a great deal of it. Here he looks again at the very long term, but this time for life far from stars. Still, his focus is their energy needs.
Noah’s Ark Eggs and Viviparous Plants
Science-fiction stories about starships usually depict the universe as a collection of stars and planetary systems separated by vast stretches of empty space. The space between stars is imagined to be filled with dilute interstellar gas and nothing else. The real universe is much more interesting. The real universe contains a multitude of objects of various sizes, giving interstellar travelers places to stop and visit friends and collect fresh supplies between the stars. We know almost nothing about these objects except for the fact that they exist. We know that in the space around our own planetary system there are two populations of comets, known as the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud.
The Kuiper Belt is the source of short-period comets, and the Oort Cloud is the source of long-period comets. We know that they exist because the comets which we see coming close to the sun are visibly disintegrating and cannot survive for a long time. The tail which makes a comet beautiful is proof of its mortality. Meteor showers are the debris marking the graves of dying comets. To keep new comets appearing at the observed rate, the source populations must be large, of the order of billions of comets of each kind. A few of the biggest and closest objects in the Kuiper Belt population can be directly observed, orbiting the sun with orbits concentrated around the plane of the planets. The brightest and most famous of these objects is Pluto. The Oort Cloud is invisible from the earth. It is a spherical population of objects at much greater distances from the sun, loosely attached to the sun by weak gravitational forces.
There is no reason to believe that the space between the Oort Cloud and the nearest stars is empty. We know that a large fraction of all stars are born with planetary systems. It is also likely that large numbers of planets are born unattached to stars. Furthermore, we know that the normal processes of formation and evolution of planetary systems result in ejection of planets and comets from the systems. As a result of these processes, the universe probably contains more unattached planets than stars, and billions of times more unattached comets. The space between our solar system and the nearest stars is probably infested with unattached planets and far more numerous unattached comets. In addition, there may be other objects of intermediate kinds which we have not yet observed, from snow-balls to black-dwarf stars. It is conceivable that some of the intermediate objects might be alive, a population of mythological monsters making their home in space.
The existence of abundant way-stations between the stars is likely to have a decisive influence on the development of starships. We shall not jump in one huge step from planetary to interstellar voyages. We shall be exploring one group of objects after another, first the Kuiper Belt, then the Oort Cloud, then a string of further-out oases in the desert of space, before we finally come to Proxima Centauri. In the history of mankind on this planet, there were two very different kinds of explorers who learned to navigate the oceans. There were the European navigators who sailed from fixed bases in Europe to destinations in America and Asia and came home to Europe with loot from their trade and conquest. Columbus was typical of these explorers, making three voyages back and forth across the Atlantic. But before the Europeans, there were Polynesian navigators who built canoes to sail long distances on the Pacific and populated the Pacific islands from Asia to Hawaii and New Zealand. The Polynesians did not have home bases in Asia and America, and they were not interested in sailing all the way across the ocean. They made their voyages from island to island, stopping to make a new home when they found a new island suitable for raising their crops and pigs and children.
The Polynesians were navigating the Pacific for a thousand years before the Europeans crossed the Atlantic. Island-hopping came first, intercontinental voyages later. It is likely that the future of our traveling beyond the Solar System will follow the same pattern. The evolution of starships, like the evolution of Polynesian canoes and European galleons, will proceed by a process of trial and error. Unattached comets and planets will be like the islands in the Pacific Ocean. We will begin like the Polynesian navigators, modestly. Developing starships one step at a time, we can learn by trial and error how to do the job right. Perhaps, after a thousand years, we will be ready to build grand super-highways conveying traffic along non-stop routes from star to star.
Two things are needed to make starships fly, a place to go and a way to get there. The first problem is mainly a problem of biology, the second a problem of engineering. Let us look at biology first. To have a place to go, we must learn how to grow complete eco-systems at remote places in the universe. It is not enough to have hotels for humans. We must establish permanent ecological communities including microbes and plants and animals, all adapted to survive in the local environment. The populations of the various species must be balanced so as to take care of each others’ needs as well as ours. Permanent human settlement away from the earth only makes sense if it is part of a bigger enterprise, the permanent expansion of life as a whole. The best way to build human habitats is to prepare the ground by building robust local ecologies. After life has established itself with grass and trees, herbivores and carnivores, bacteria and viruses, humans can arrive and build homes in a friendly environment. There is no future for humans tramping around in clumsy space-suits on lifeless landscapes of dust and ice.
The recent revolution in molecular biology has given us new tools for seeding the universe with life. We have learned to read and write the language of the genome, to sequence the DNA that tells a microscopic egg how to grow into a chicken or a human, to synthesize the DNA that tells a bacterium how to stay alive. We have sequenced the genomes of several thousand species. The speed of sequencing and of synthesis of genomes is increasing rapidly, and the costs are decreasing equally rapidly. If the increase in speed and the decrease in costs continue, it will take only about twenty years for us to sequence genomes of all the species that exist on our planet. The genetic information describing the entire biosphere of the planet will be available for our use. The total quantity of this information is remarkably small. Measured in the units that are customary in computer engineering, the information content of the biosphere genome amounts to about one petabyte, or ten to the power sixteen bits. This is a far smaller amount of information than the data-bases used by enterprises such as Google. The biosphere genome could be embodied in about a microgram of DNA, or in a small room full of computer memory-disks.
Looking ahead fifty or a hundred years, we shall be learning how to use genetic information creatively. We shall then be in a position to design biosphere populations adapted to survive and prosper in various environments on various planets, satellites, asteroids and comets. For each location we could design a biosphere genome, and for each biosphere genome we could design an egg out of which an entire biosphere could grow. The egg might weigh a few kilograms and look from the outside like an ostrich egg. It would be a miniature Noah’s ark, containing thousands or millions of microscopic eggs programmed to grow into the various species of a biosphere. It would also contain nutrients and life-support to enable the growth of the biosphere to get started. The first species to emerge from a Noah’s ark egg would be warm-blooded plants designed to collect energy from sunlight and keep themselves warm in a cold environment. Warm-blooded plants would then provide warmth and shelter for other creatures to enjoy. In this way, life could be seeded in great abundance and variety in all kinds of places, traveling on small space-craft carrying payloads of a few kilograms. Since life is inherently an unpredictable phenomenon, many of the biospheres would fail and die. Those that survived would evolve in unpredictable ways. Their evolution would continue for ever, with or without human intervention. We would be the midwives, bringing life to birth all over the universe, as far as our Noah’s ark eggs could travel.
The second problem, the problem of engineering, is to build machines that can take us from here to there. To have space travel over long distances at reasonable prices, we must build a public highway system so that the costs of the initial investment can be shared by a multitude of users. A public highway system in space will require terminals using sunlight or starlight to generate high-energy beams along which space-craft can fly. The beams may be laser-beams or microwave-beams or pellet streams. The massive energy-generating machinery at the terminals remains fixed. The space-craft are small and light, and pick up energy from the beams as they fly along. Unlike chemical or nuclear rockets, they do not carry their own fuel. For the system to operate efficiently, the volume of traffic must be big enough to use up the energy of the beams. Space-craft must be flying along the beams almost all the time. As with all public highway systems, the system can only grow as fast as the volume of traffic. The cost of travel will be high at the beginning and will become low when every terminal is crowded with passengers waiting for a launch.
In every public transport system, things work better if we build separate vehicles for passengers and freight. On the roads, cars for passengers and trucks for freight. On the railroads, fast short trains for passengers and slow long trains for freight. The Space Shuttle was a system designed to put passengers and freight on the same vehicle, and that was one of the reasons why it failed. It was supposed to be cheap and safe and reliable, with frequent flights and a high volume of traffic, and it turned out to be expensive and unsafe and unreliable. The public highways of the future will be like roads and railroads and not like the Shuttle. But the relation between passengers and freight in the future will be the opposite of what it was in the past. In the past, humans were small and light, freight was big and heavy. Cars were small and agile, trucks were big and clumsy. In space today, this relation between human passengers and freight is already inverted. Because of the miniaturation of instruments and communication systems, unmanned spacecraft have become smaller and lighter than manned spacecraft. Payloads of unmanned missions have remained roughly constant while their performance and capability have improved by leaps and bounds. Payloads of manned missions have remained larger while politicians fail to decide what they are supposed to do.
In the future, when missions go beyond the solar system, the difference between passengers and freight will become greater. Freight will no longer be bulk materials such as fuel and water. Freight will be information, embodied in ultralight computer memory or in DNA. Freight will be several orders of magnitude lighter than human passengers. Payloads of unmanned missions may be measured in grams, while payloads of manned missions will always be measured in tons. As a result, the public highway system will consist of two parts, a heavy-duty system transporting human passengers between a small number of metropolitan human habitats, and a light-freight system transporting packages of information along a wider network of routes to more distant destinations. A typical light-freight mission might be like the Starwisp proposed by Bob Forward. The Starwisp is an ultralight sail made of fine wire mesh, driven through space by a high-power beam of microwaves. The wire mesh is not only the vehicle but also the payload, carrying sensors to explore the environment and transmitters to send information collected by the sensors to humans far away. Starwisp could also be a vehicle for carrying Noah’s ark eggs to bring life to remote places. It is likely that the travel-times of voyages will become longer than a human life-time. After life has spread that far, it will no longer make sense for humans to travel with it. Instead of imprisoning human travelers for a lifetime in a space-craft, it would make more sense to load the space-craft with a few human eggs, which could grow into humans at the destination. In the end, we would populate the galaxy by broadcasting the information required for growing humans, rather than by carrying deep-frozen human bodies for thousands of years.
When we are thinking about the spread of life into the universe, the most important fact to remember is that almost all the real-estate in the universe is on small objects. Real-estate means surface area. The universe contains objects of all sizes. Most of the mass and volume belong to big objects such as stars and planets. Most of the area belongs to small objects such as asteroids and comets. Most of the life will have to find its home on small objects. The majority of small objects have three qualities which make them unfriendly to life. They are far from the sun or other stars, they have no atmosphere, and they are cold. In spite of those disadvantages, they can be seeded with life. They can support biospheres as diverse and as beautiful as ours.
The key technology for bringing life to small cold objects in space is the cultivation of warm-blooded plants. Warm-blooded plants are more essential to the ecology of cold places than warm-blooded animals are to the ecology of our warm planet. Life on earth might have evolved happily without birds and mammals, but life in a cold place could never get started without warm-blooded plants. Two external structures make warm-blooded plants possible, a greenhouse and a mirror. The greenhouse is an insulating shell protecting the warm interior from the cold outside, with a semi-transparent window allowing sunlight or starlight to come in but preventing heat radiation from going out. The mirror is an optical reflector or system of reflectors in the cold region outside the greenhouse, concentrating sunlight or starlight from a wide area onto the window. Inside the greenhouse are the normal structures of a terrestrial plant, leaves using the energy of incoming light for photosynthesis, and roots reaching down into the icy ground to find nutrient minerals. Since there is no atmosphere to supply the plant with carbon dioxide, the roots must find mineral sources of carbon and oxygen to stay alive. We see in the light emitted from comets, as they come close to the sun, that these icy objects contain plenty of carbon and oxygen as well as nitrogen and other elements essential to life.
The embryonic warm-blooded plant must grow the greenhouse and the mirror around itself while still protected within the greenhouse of its parent. The seeds must develop into viable plants before they are dispersed into the cold environment. These plants must be viviparous as well as warm-blooded. It seems to be only an accident of evolution on our own planet that animals learned to be viviparous and warm-blooded while plants did not.
The optical concentration that the mirror must provide will depend on the distance of the plant from the sun or star providing the energy. Roughly speaking, the optical concentration must increase with the square of the distance from the source. For example, if the plant is on the surface of Enceladus, a satellite of Saturn at ten times the Earth’s distance from the sun, the intensity of sunlight is one hundredth of the intensity on Earth, and the optical concentration must be by a factor of a hundred. If the plant is in the Kuiper Belt at a hundred times the Earth’s distance, sunlight is reduced by a factor of ten thousand and the mirror must concentrate by a factor of ten thousand. Existing biological structures can do much better than that. The human eye is not an extreme example of optical precision, but it can concentrate incoming light onto a spot on the retina by a factor larger than a million. That is why staring at the sun is bad for the health of the eye. A mirror as precise as a human eye would be good enough to keep a plant warm at a distance ten times further from the Sun than the Kuiper Belt. Eagles and hawks have better eyes than we do, and a simple amateur telescope costing less than a hundred dollars is better still. There is no law of physics that would prevent a warm-blooded plant from growing a mirror to concentrate enough starlight to survive anywhere in our galaxy. The main difficulty in achieving a high concentration of starlight is that the mirror must track the source accurately as the object carrying the plant rotates. The plant must be like a sun-flower, tracking the sun as it moves across the sky. If high accuracy is needed, the plant must grow an eye to see where it is pointing.
These speculations about viviparous plants and Noah’s ark eggs and life spreading through the galaxy are my personal fantasies. They are only one possible way for the future to go. The real future is unpredictable. It will be rich in surprises that we have not imagined. All that we can say with some confidence is that biotechnology will dominate the future. The awesome power of nature, to evolve unlimited diversity of ways of living, will be in our hands. It is for us to choose how to use this power, for good or for evil.