Monday, January 09, 2006

Science fiction is here today: but which one?

I remember my Dad saying, regarding the very cool movie we'd just taken a long drive to see in the theatres ("Aliens," which would then become one of my Mom's favorite popcorn movies of all time -- but then again, I had a very cool Mom who'd hide the chickflix until she knew we'd left...), "if they're so far into the future, why are they all running around with weapons from the 1970s?"

Some folks may have seen this article on hyperdrive developments last week: I was too busy, unfortunately, to blog it at the time, but if you missed it, there's a guy out there, who is for real, who thinks he can have a warp engine working prototype by 2011 or so. (Comment-hogs can see the aftermath on Slashdot.) However, I took Sunday as a VERY quiet day, spent doing chores and reading out Homeward Bound in the front yard (worth reading if you've read the previous books, which are very good, but it bogs down a lot, as it is essentially a set of philosophical musings put to characters... it's the Delian League vs. Christian Ethics vs. Utilitarianism in several flavors), and the two together struck a tiny gong in my forebrain:

Well, outside of seeing through walls with motion sensors, that sounds an awful lot like Aliens...
or, not.

The fundamental divide is this: how long are our legs? Somebody in New York doesn't have to care about the Midwest, or even know where St. Louis is, because his legs are long enough to be in LA in four hours or thereabouts. He can pick and choose where he wants to hang out. On the other hand, if he's an 8th-century peasant, he's going to exploit each and every bit that happens to be near him, because his legs are short, and his options limited. Shaping his environment is mandatory for his physical survival in the same sort of way that access to Blue America's shiny spots are critical to Madonna's bottom line. (which, if anybody's paying attention lately, is getting spanked by gals who have less talent, but actually use it, as opposed to Madam-Reinvent-Yourself, who is brilliant, but produces hack work. But I digress.)

More to the point, how long are private industry's legs? Governments will explore, sure, but they will never fund interplanetary colonisation, because governments inherently act with a sense of ownership concernings its citizens/subjects. NASA, whose manned-program bozo-no-no mistakes are the stuff of tinfoil-hat legend (can you say "positive grounding," boys and girls?), will never "open the frontier," because Congress will never knowingly pay out the nose in order to slash its own tax base with permanent "brain drain" to other planets. Congress is worried about brain-drain concerning the loss of Indian programmers and engineers... Mars just ain't cuttin' it on K Street, unless special government contractors have a need to be up there: but even then, simple economics dictates that such facilities will be a mostly-automated affair.

I've written previously about Golevka. If private industry's legs expand slowly, along the track everybody expects it to, with a travel time to Mars measured in optimistic weeks and transit time to Jupiter in optimistic months, then for the short-term history of human space colonisation, Golevka is "high ground," commercially and strategically much more important than its mass, due to the very specific orbit it possesses.

If you can get to Mars in three hours, Golevka's nothing but a rock.

Take me out, to the Black.
Tell 'em I ain't coming back...

If you can get to Mars in weeks, then Europa and Ganymede look like places we might actually consider settling as we hunt through the Ice Dwarfs for water and other habitable places on the outer edges of the solar system, where the sun is no more impressive in their sky than Jupiter is in ours now. We'll be developing massive amounts of ecological-technology know-how in order to actually settle all these places, and our societies will increasingly find man-made habitats constructed out of ridiculously modified Ice Dwarfs, Moons, (and just plain rocks) to be a good deal as we become experts in getting the most benefit from the least mass.
If you can get to 61 Cygni in 80 days, and Proxima Centauri in just under a month... nobody's going to bother colonising Charon, except as some kind of rich man's suburb or True Believer's social experiment. We'll have the pick of the spiral arm, looking for prime real estate, and not even bothering to do anything but strip-mine anything less than optimal. Mercantilism will be back in style, and "center vs. periphery" will make sense in a way that Blue America never dreamed of regarding Flyover Country. The only reason to ever do anything with a hell-hole like Venus will be to hide from people you'd rather not have to deal with. It'll be Manifest Destiny all over again, only this time there won't be any Indians to stomp all over and break treaties with in the process.
Maybe there won't be any Indians.
Maybe they'll have acid for blood.

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