Sunday, November 04, 2012

All that in 3 centuries

kw: book reviews, science fiction, space fiction, interplanetary politics

Is the key to longevity a dose of androgyny? Could Al Gore's global warming film have been too conservative? Might we, and soon, command energies sufficient to make visiting Mars no more costly than taking a cruise ship from Los Angeles to Sydney? Can quantum computing lead to conscious computers? Is there a genuine solution to the problem of poverty? In Kim Stanley Robinson's novel 2312 the answer to the first question is Yes, to the last it is No, and the rest are Maybe's or qualified Yeses.

The backdrop of the novel is a combination of continued ecological destruction on Earth, continued technological progress in both access to interplanetary space and ultrafast computers, and progress in anti-aging, at least for some. From a viewpoint near the year 2400, the plotline centers on converging events in the year 2312, including the rewilding of Earth by animals and plants that had been propagated in thousands of spacefaring zoos (also used as interplanetary cruise vessels) and a turning point in the relationship between humans and their mechanical creations.

An important subplot is the courtship between two main characters, a 113-year-old "man" and a 137-year-old "woman", Wahram and Swan, with the interesting complication that both of them have both fathered and mothered children. On the spectrum of male-female, which today has only two endpoints plus a tiny cluster of hermaphroditic "errors" that are typically corrected by surgery (and a tiny number of people who become medically switched to the opposite pole), our two protagonists, and apparently all who partake of extended longevity, are near the 25% and 75% points.

I found myself wondering, "Who pays for all this stuff?" Is it really affordable for Swan to go from Mercury, her birthplace, to Earth, Venus, Titan and other locales near Saturn, and back and forth a few times between some of these places, and then to Mars? Saturn is a billion or two billion km from everywhere else, so to get there in a month you need to crank the old rocket up to around 600 km/sec, some 20 times the speed of Earth in its orbit. The 2312 Solar System is apparently filled with city-sized hollowed-out asteroids running shuttle service hither and yon, but the velocities implied by the narrative mean you need huge energy expenditure from time to time to keep your cruise ship from heading off into interstellar space. It is stated that there are 16,000 of these zooming around. You also need a pretty fast shuttle just to catch one to get on it.

Well, I can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the multitude of interesting ideas the author weaves into the book. The idea of walking around Mercury near its terminator, so you are just ahead of being baked by the Sun, leads to some interesting plot devices, including a long tunnel walk by Swan and Wahram. A walking speed of under 4 km/hr is sufficient at Mercury's equator, and at a greater latitude, the speed needed is less so you can trot ahead enough to get in a few hours sleep before the Sun catches up with you. You just need a space suit with an air and food and water supply for 176 days, and a way to eject waste, to do a circumnavigation on foot.

A big political notion is the balkanization of humanity. The possible rise of self-directed, quantum-computer-based AI in one secretive culture, and attacks on Mercury and a couple of other places that could only have been carried out with the help of extremely capable "qubes", drives events toward one of the pivotal events in early 2312. Considering the probable need for petaflop or even exaflop capability in a phone-sized device that is required for this to work, is 300 years enough time? Probably so, and maybe quite a bit less. The bottleneck in AI progress will be, as it always has, programming not hardware. You can't program what you don't understand. Assuming humans return to space in the next century or so, and learn to (and can afford to) hollow out 30 km asteroids and colonize them, balkanization is the most likely outcome. Unity is hard to achieve, and harder to maintain, as the increasingly creaky American experiment, and the faltering European experiment, demonstrate.

The book ends on an optimistic note. While I am skeptical that the space developments found in it are likely, I am more optimistic that the human race can increase in wisdom over time. It is either that, or self-extinction. K.S. Robinson votes for wisdom.

1 comment:

Enon said...

On the spectrum of male-female, which today has only two endpoints plus a tiny cluster of hermaphroditic "errors" that are typically corrected by surgery . . .

I'll quibble with this. First off, true hermaphroditism doesn't occur in humans. The old term pseudohermaphroditism has been discarded. These days one talks of intersexuality or disorders of sex development (DSD).

The Accord Alliance ( says, "Estimates from specialists working in major medical centers suggest that about one in every 2,000 births at a hospital involves a child whose genitals are atypical enough to make the child’s sex unclear."

The number of people whose genitalia is ambiguous to some degree, rather than completely, is much higher. Then there are people whose phenotype and genotype don't match. A whole spectrum of intersexuality, not a tiny cluster.

If we take the 1 in 2000 births as a lower bound, that's still over three million people worldwide.

Mid-20th century practice was just to assign and operate. Those intersexuals are now grown and have been agitating for a different standard of care, one that delays most surgery until the individual involved can be part of the decision making process. Surgery just to deal with the distress of parents and physicians is now discouraged.

The Accord Alliance has a lot of information and Wikipedia has an extensive article on intersexuality.