A dystopian future?

In my previous blog, I mentioned that predicting the future is not sensible; the future generally refuses to behave exactly as you think it should. That, however, does not mean that general trends are not real, even if they are not immediately followed. One example comes from the American biologist Paul Ehrlich, who in 1968 wrote The Population Bomb. His argument was that with finite planetary area, there cannot be continual growth because sooner or alter all the available resources, such as area for farming, get used up. Worse, if the growth is unconstrained, it follows the exponential form, i.e. the rate of growth is proportional to the size, and like compound interest, as it approaches a constraint, the last part of the growth is far more significant and far more difficult to reverse than the early parts.

In accord with the difficulties of predicting the future, Ehrlich’s predictions have been shown to be wrong in that the food supply per unit area has increased greatly and we have far more food available than he predicted. However, Ehrlich appears to be unrepentant, and in my opinion, rightly so. Everything has not happened as he predicted, but the basic argument is correct: the size of the planet has not increased, and the amount of resources has not increased. We may have found more than he expected, but that does not alter the fact that they are limited. From the mathematical point of view, Ehrlich’s original equation was missing some terms, but there is no evidence the missing terms would alter the overall consequence.

There are three types of effects that will greatly affect our future. The first is population. Quite simply, the more people, the less use they can each make of the finite resources. The second is the second order effects of the population. For example, I was a teenager in a farming area. Thanks to irrigation, the area is now far more productive, and is an example of where Ehrlich’s predictions failed. Food production is the product of area and productivity, and while area is constant, productivity has increased. However, it cannot increase indefinitely, and so far it has done so at the price of a poorer river quality and excessive nitrates in the aquifers. Similarly, the 9 Gt of carbon being burnt each year is almost certainly going to lead to very significant sea-level rises, which will wipe out vast amounts of prime agricultural land, while the increased acidity in the oceans will most likely lead to the extinction of marine animals such as shellfish that require the deposition of aragonite to form their shells. The third is that we are chewing through the fossil resources. Oil is the obvious one, but when I hear enthusiasts point out that wind power will solve the energy shortage, most of those enthusiasts have never considered the problem of supplying the neodymium for the magnets. Many solar cells also use elements that are difficult to obtain, however it is also possible to make solar cells based solely on silicon, so if we have sufficient energy to make them, silicon is effectively unlimited. Nevertheless, solar energy has inevitable problems, one of which is power density. I have seen one proposal to power the UK though solar energy in the Sahara. The required area is very large but it is available, although there may be competition for the area. But then the problem comes, what happens in a sand storm? A brown-out until the cells are cleaned/replaced?

As I said in the previous blog, the future refuses to cooperate. There are things we can do to avoid the very bad outcomes, but to do so we have to start now. We have to decide what might work, then we have to make it work. Will we? In my futuristic ebooks, I suggest that we do not. Now, of course it is desirable to have struggling situations in fiction, but I still think this will happen. Of course, equally in the fiction I can propose answers to the then current problems. Those answers work much better in advance!

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Futuristic science fiction.

Trying to predict the future is simply not sensible; the wretched future generally refuses to behave as you wish. However, writing futuristic science fiction should not be an attempt to predict the future. H. G. Wells, in his time machine story, used his chosen futures to illustrate social problems of his own time. An alternative is to explore the consequences of some action that might take place, not because the author thinks that will happen, but rather because it will act as a warning, perhaps, of what not to do. In some ways, this idea corresponds to the physicist’s gedanken experiment, where the experiment is carried out in the mind with imagined equipment that works perfectly, and whatever happens carries some sort of explanation or illustrates some point that the physicist wants to make. So it is with SF stories. One purpose of them is to raise issues that the reader may not have considered.

Of course a novel is not the place to preach or harangue, but one can give food for thought in the background. One example that I have tried relates to current economics. Thus in my ebook trilogy First Contact a number of countries had merged to form a Federation. For that to work, all citizens must follow Federal law and regulations, the purpose of which was to provide uniformity of opportunity for all citizens. It is important that citizens in one part have to be able to behave in the same way as somewhere else. On the other hand, it is helpful if countries could continue more or less as they had before, at least initially, so that the desired common behaviour arises by desire and not through force.

Economic management becomes a real problem because, as Europe is currently learning, you cannot successfully run a common currency with several independent economic policies. My suggestion in my novels was that the average citizen continued to use dollars, marks etc, and these currencies might change value according to supply and demand. However, major industrial or national transactions were always paid in Federation Currency Units. That latter concept was designed to ensure the member countries could have moderately different economic policies while remaining in the Federation. Had something like this been employed in the EU, it might have saved the EU from the huge problems generated by countries like Greece pursing an economic policy that was incompatible with some of the others. One cannot have a common currency with various economic policies, but it is very difficult to persuade an assortment of different countries to have a common policy, because that will favour one or two of them, at the expense of others.

Joining countries together is not an easy matter. The reason they were separate in the first place usually led to individual cultures, and different ways of life. Such differences are difficult to simply overcome, for example the Greek way of life is quite different from that of the Germans, and these differences, together with the historical availability of resources have led to entirely different ways of going about making a living. By itself, that should not be a problem, but it soon becomes one if they have a common currency but without a common economic “policy”, as Greece has discovered.

I make no claim to having found a solution, and in practice that might not work, but by writing stories around such problems, perhaps people can be persuaded to think about them. 

Writers and Editors: who is the master?

I have seen a number of discussion recently relating to why writers desperately need editors, the usual tone being, “Your writing will inevitably be bad, and you desperately need the inherent wisdom of an editor.” Implied in this is the assertion, “All editors write better than you do.” If you believe this, then consider the following.

A twenty-eight year-old woman writes a novel that is over 830 pages long. Many of the scenes are repeated from different points of view, and the chapter length is designed on a converging sequence wherein each chapter is seemingly half the length of the preceding one. What do you think the average editor would do with that? Especially when, to get the necessary length in the first chapter, we get plenty of description. However, the young author dismisses many editorial suggestions on the grounds that they are mathematically impossible! Others are astrologically impossible! What? This young woman writer knows better than these experienced editors? Seemingly yes, because the author was Eleanor Catton, and the book has just won the Man Booker prize. My thoughts on this.

First, congratulations Eleanor on winning the prize.

Second, and more importantly, congratulations on insisting that this was your work, and you were going to do it your way. Recall that old windbag Polonius: “To thine own self be true.” Yes, it goes on, and this gem is buried in an outpouring of dross, and a hack editor might wish to reduce that dross, but the point of it was that Shakespeare was drawing a character, albeit a minor one, and not producing a manual. Could further editing have improved the book? Maybe, particularly in some people’s opinion, but there comes a point where you cannot make certain changes without throwing out the point of the exercise. One could argue that the structure of this book is deeply flawed, and perhaps the author might agree in a couple of decades, but what is far more important is that the author set out to achieve something and she succeeded. Once this structure was started, there was no going back, and criticisms to the contrary simply do not understand what was going on.

In my opinion, being true to yourself is imperative if you wish to create something of value, and while there is value in taking advice from others, it is important that you look at the advice and decide for yourself whether it the suggestion is an improvement. If it is not, you should discard it. I know the pressures, and in the past I have succumbed to them, admittedly in writing scientific papers. The pressure was, accept the editor’s advice or it would not get published. When future funding depends on publications, it is only too easy to simply accept what is said and get the thing published, and in my case, the introduction to one paper is the absolute worst piece of writing under my name, and I hate it. For a scientific paper, perhaps it does not matter so much, but for a novel, it does. It is your creation, not the editor’s, so make it yours. If you do not feel confident in what you have done, then do something else. By all means listen to the editor and use useful advice, but do not lean on the editorial lamppost. The editor is an advisor, not the master.

The third thought is that Eleanor apparently teaches creative writing. It is marvellous to see that we have someone teaching something in which they have demonstrated real ability. Of course that does not mean that everyone should write like she does.

Fourth, a number of comments have been made that this will help New Zealand writers. Maybe, to the extent that it reminds people that we exist, but it probably will not make much difference to writers such as me, nor should it. My writing should stand on its own.

Finally, it is good to see a story set in Hokitika, where I grew up. As a boy, I recall going around the remains of the gold-rush period, and it is interesting for me to see that someone else finds this period interesting. 

Politicians behaving badly

I am writing futuristic science fiction, and in my First Contact trilogy, and in particular the second Dreams Defiled I focused on people in government, and of course to make a story, some had to behave badly. At the personal level, they behaved extremely badly, but in terms of their job, I rather fancy I sold myself short. I would never have predicted that they could behave quite as badly as some American Congressmen seem to be threatening, at least. My characters’ bad behaviour tended to be either through incompetence or for personal gain in terms of power and influence, i.e. knives out to get to the top. While this is not exactly something to approve, it is at least more understandable (to me, anyway) than the current problems.

A democracy can really only work if a new intake of politicians honour the commitments made by their predecessors. They make new laws or regulations, or put forward new policy to change what is happening, but they cannot simply refuse to honour the debts of their predecessors. The reason, of course, is that it is not their predecessors’ reputation that is at stake; it is the validity of the government itself. 

I have no comment on Obamacare; the value of that is something for Americans to decide for themselves, but it was passed into being by a previous Congress and in the next election President Obama stood on that platform, amongst others, and was elected with a sound majority in the electoral college. The current Republicans have got to accept that for the moment at least, Obama has been given a mandate by the American people, and they should live with it. Instead, from a foreign perspective, they are behaving a little like spoiled brats. They have some leverage, or so they think, and they have made President Obama an offer they think he cannot refuse. The problem for them is, they have made him an offer he cannot accept, because if he does he effectively has given up on being President, and they have the opportunity to deliver repeat performances at will. The problem then is, the Republicans have also boxed themselves into a corner from which it is difficult to see an escape route. The simplest way is for the vote to go to the floor of the House, and hope that enough Republicans cross the floor to get them out of this mess.

What happens if they do not? I do not know, but when the United States Government stops paying its bills in mid October I think there will be economic chaos. It is not so much what is really happening, but what the panic-stricken think might be happening. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the United States is the greatest economic powerhouse on the planet, and it has always had the reputation that it honours its debts. Once it starts not to, nobody will know what to trust. Too much of the world’s money that is needed to drive commerce is tied up in greenbacks, mainly because the objective is to tie it up in something that cannot fail. Trouble is, it might, not because the United States economy is going to fall to bits, but rather because some Congressmen have their noses out of joint. These Republicans could do far more damage to the world economy in a month than Al Qaeda could ever do, and in my view, they qualify as fiscal terrorists. Maybe they should be rehoused in Guantanomo!

Dysfunctional Congress: a foreigner’s view

Both my futuristic novels and this blog often have themes related to governance, and the difficulties that arise when people in positions of influence set off with their own agendas and put everybody else’s interests to one side. One of the oddities is that the US Constitution effectively encourages this bizarre dysfunctional behaviour. Some may think that if the Founding fathers could see what is going on now, they would be horrified, but I doubt it. I think they would understand completely.

One of the points I have tried to make in my futuristic novels is that the behaviour of such “important people” tends to be determined by the system under which they operate. Now, if the people who will use a system are those who design it, they tend to design it to retain as much importance and influence for themselves. The problem for the United States of America was that initially the various states were not that united, other than they spoke a common language and they had got rid of a common “colonial master”. They all considered themselves as emerging countries, and while they united, the federal element was always shaky and the individual states wanted to ensure they kept as many rights for themselves as possible. Accordingly, we get the Senators and the Representatives embedded in a system that gives them quite remarkable ability to assert themselves, but unfortunately often in a destructive fashion. What we see now is probably how the system was designed to operate: to do as much as possible to restrain Federal power. In this light, it may be recalled that the second US President, John Adams, one of the men who was as responsible as anyone for having a United States, had his presidency continually undermined by Jefferson. If people of this stature and who had devoted so much effort to the common cause of creating the United States could not work together under this system, is it such a surprise that this lot cannot? Certainly I have seen little evidence from any of them for me to consider them as an equal to Jefferson or Adams in just about any way at all.

Nevertheless, this particular outburst is disappointing. Think of the logic of the situation. During the election, when Obamacare came up for discussion, it was shown that Romney had, as governor, already introduced something very similar (call it Romneycare) and it had increased healthcare efficiency (patient benefits per unit cost) by several tens of a percent. Now, in logic, either Romneycare and Obamacare are more or less equivalent or they are not. If they are, then the Republicans effectively want to deny the rest of the country something that is both of Republican origin, and something that works. If they are not, why don’t they simply propose amendments to make Obamacare better? There is no evidence President Obama would turn down improvements. But no, instead they shut down certain government functions just to show how irritating they can be.

What I find particularly disappointing about this way of going about their posturing is that it is the public servants who are deemed “non-essential” who suffer. I have received an email informing me that the NASA astrobiology forum is closed for the time being. This may not seem a great loss but the public should realize that NASA has started something that I think is very important for democracy: it has invited the community to comment on and suggest what it should do in its future program. Effectively it is saying, “Hey, we’re spending your money, so tell us where to spend it, and why.” Yes, that can wait, but what happens to the NASA staff who now find themselves with no immediate income, maybe not at home (because they travel) and unable to plan? Since everything they are doing will have to be set up again, there must be a serious waste of money on little more than a political posture.

Then there are other government employees who are doing what they are doing because they believe they are doing something worthwhile. One of my colleagues in the US has posted this blog about one group of these, namely those in the Fish and Wildlife Service. I recommend that everyone read this blog and think about it. The blog is at

https://app.getresponse.com/click.html?x=a62b&lc=BHEg5&mc=BR&s=CXswF&y=t&

Such people are probably not in the highest paying jobs, and like everyone else, they probably have families, mortgages, whatever, and then this bunch of dysfunctional politicians cuts off their income just to make some sort of political point. And what particularly annoys me is the definition of “essential services”. I most certainly go along with “Air Traffic Controllers”; these simply cannot be shut down without terrible chaos. But Congressmen salaries? They cause the problem, so it is essential they are exempt from the consequences? And I wonder who decided that?