The Incatena: Why this future?
Though Against Peace and Freedom is a comic novel, it’s also supposed to be hard sf. I’ve tried to stick to real science and I think the future I describe is pretty plausible.
This page attempts to explain why I made the choices I did in devising the Incatena. I don’t expect everyone to agree, especially as some of these ideas are big stinky wet blankets for a lot of sf. Well, in your own novel it’ll go the way you want.
—Mark Rosenfelder, July 2011
Why no FTL?
Why expensive STL?
why would anyone travel for years and years?
Why no empires or wars?
Couldn’t relativistic weapons do a lot of damage?
Why no weakly godlike entities?
Where’s R. Daneel?
We should be more advanced in 3000 years!
The economics of colonies
Are centuries-long lives really possible?
But wormholes... No. There’s no good reason to expect wormholes to be good for anything much larger than subatomic particles.
Besides, no FTL is the best explanation for the Fermi paradox. Our planet should be prime real estate and it’s been so for at least a hundred million years. Why hasn’t anyone taken it over? Most likely, because interstellar travel is damn hard.Charlie Stross’s essay on why space colonization is unlikely.
I can’t put it better than Stross... there is just no likely technology that can make interstellar travel cheap enough to allow mass emigration, interstellar warfare and empires, or trade in high-volume goods.
Much early sf was written applying to the galaxy the analogy of the age of European sea exploration and colonization. And it just turns out to be a bad analogy. Space isn’t a lovely temperate nearly-free habitable continent just three months away.
Sol is rich. Just as we are freakishly rich today compared to a thousand years ago, the solar system of AD 4901 is freakishly rich compared to us. And rich civilizations can undertake megaprojects.
An important safety valve, or eccentricity, of Incatena society is retrohabitats. A thousand or a million disgruntled souls, usually with a religious or ideological motivation, decide that they can’t stand the existing planets and want to pursue righteousness and/or freedom by their lights on their own. The usual expedient is a space habitat. Lives are centuries long, so it’s certainly doable for a group to pool its savings for a century to pay for it. (And as with the Mayflower, any such attempt is likely to have backers who don’t actually go with, but who are happy to help cover the cost.)
This is the background to understanding interstellar colonization: these are the outliers, the rare cases where a nearby space habitat wasn’t enough; folks wanted a whole planet. And the Incatena is happy to help: it believes in slow expansion and its experience is that even colonies started by disgruntled cranks end up needing and wanting Incatena membership. People who hated the solar system when they were in it start to feel quite differently once it’s twenty or thirty light years away and nearly impossible to get to.
There’s fifty-odd colonies by AD 4901; that means that one is started about every fifty years. And only half were started from Sol. So a colony is a once-in-a-century extravagance.
Colonies do not allow mass migration; they will never be a way to relieve population pressure. A colony is typically started by less than a thousand colonists.lifetimes have been expanded tenfold. If you live nearly a thousand years, then traveling four years to α Centauri for college, or even twelve years to Sihor, is perfectly doable.
The passengers will be frozen. That reduces life support requirements and keeps them from going stir crazy. It also allows us to reduce mass even more by removing most of their fat, bone, and muscle. All that can be reconstituted on the other end.
That’s not to say it’s routine. Let’s say just 1 in 10,000 residents of the solar system ever leave, taking a round trip once in their lifetime. That’s still a quickship leaving Sol every week, packed with sixty frozen, shrunken passengers.
By Stross’s calculations, at minimum, it’d take five days of our entire planet’s current electricity production to send a two-ton cargo just to α Centauri, and only at 0.1c. Quickships travel at .95c, so we’ll be needing— oh, about 13 times the electricity output of today’s earth.
Well, no problem: we have a star, let’s use it. Build some massive solar collectors around the orbit of Venus and use them to accelerate the quickship. Another array at the destination will beam power at it to decelerate it. (Corollary: the quickship doesn’t need to power itself, and thus doesn’t need to carry the mass to do so. Interplanetary shuttles will ferry the quickship insystem so it doesn’t have to handle interplanetary travel either. We really want to minimize mass here.)
(More alarming corollary: colonization is a one-way trip, inasmuch as it will take centuries before a planet can afford to build the infrastructure to send ships back.)
(Do those mega-solar panels give us cheap energy again? Partly: that’s why I’m confident we can have a large-scale, sustainable technological civilization. But they’re still an expensive megaproject, and it’s one of the ground rules of this universe that it would be prohibitively expensive to just multiply it tenfold or a hundredfold. Besides, if you want a cheap-energy universe, go read Iain Banks.)
With that kind of logistics, you’re not going to be able to take over an island, much less a planet. And the enemy’s industrial base is right there.
And without the possibility of war, there’s no real possibility of empire— or even a strong federation. Earth will not be ruling its roost of colonies. The Incatena is far weaker than the UN (which has the power to call on its more powerful states for military action).
(Paradoxically, that’s part of why it works. It doesn’t really threaten planetary sovereignty. A well placed, clever, and lucky Agent can cause a planet some problems— see the book— but even that works only if such interference is done in accordance with the consensus of interstellar society.)
If you’re aiming at an Incatena planet... first, that’s a nasty thing to do; that’s the act of a terrorist, not a civilized stellar system. And second, what aim is accomplished by destroying a fellow Incatena member? For the reasons given, you can’t occupy it, or send your population there, or take their resources. (You just vaporized anything high-tech they make, and you can’t ship any raw materials back in bulk.)
And recall the discussion above: Incatena civilization is not planet-bound. Few planets even have ecospheres; planets are just the biggest habitats in the system, and perhaps not even the most populous. (There’s a big gravity well to get in and out of.) So you haven’t even destroyed the system’s population, or even its industrial base... to say nothing of its ability to fight back.
Cf. another good Stross column on why nukes have been a military dead end. They’re only suitable for a great power intimidating a small non-nuclear one, and we have better options now: we prefer accuracy to widescale destruction. Planet-busters are a steampunk anachronism, big and clumsy and overwrought.
What about aliens? Well, evil aliens are another bad analogy; they’re a projection of earthly predators, including the human kind. They presuppose a universe of discourse where entire populations (such as armies) can invade someone else’s territory within months at most. Evil is not really compatible with a long-term interstellar civilization... if they’re that nasty, they’ll tear themselves apart.
(Yes, I know they’re a staple of sf. But they’re still analogies based on Genghis Khan or Tamerlane... or the British Empire. And those are just not good analogies for interstellar space, without FTL or teleportation or other distance-negating tricks.)
The universe is billions of years old; it’s vanishingly unlikely that any nearby alien civilization is the same age as as ours, i.e. under 10,000 years. Civilizations are likely to die out quickly (and thus they’re gone), or to be hundreds of thousands of years old. And by the logic above, none of them are interstellar conquerors.
So that’s another worry: our neighbors are likely to be vastly more powerful than us, and won’t look kindly on the use of relativistic weapons, even among ourselves.
In part the answer to that is, go re-read Accelerando, because I’m not going to re-write it for you. To be honest the singularity doesn’t do anything for me. Even Stross was unable to use his posthuman AIs as protagonists; he could only keep repeating that whatever they were up to was inscrutable. That’s not much of a case for tearing down the planets to turn them into computronium.
I don’t buy that a life in computronium has any real advantage to compensate for the lack of bodies. Singularity theorists seem to have a priggish distaste for the biological... a long trope in science fiction, one that C.S. Lewis had a great time parodying back in That Hideous Strength, where his villains had a cringing disgust for the messiness, the fluidness, the grossness of organisms. But that taste for dead, totalitarian order is way past its sell-by date.
To put it bluntly, I think it’s barmy to give up sex, sports, gardening, and eating, to say nothing of the aesthetics of music, dance, or the visual arts. All that in order to do what? Play a really good game of chess?
If chess is that important, just augment yourself with a minimax calculation neurimplant. I think the sensational powers of computers are overblown, and I say this as someone who programs them for a living. Computers are fast but dumb, and both things together are the source of their power. They can do simple procedural calculations really fast; our slow but distributed brains are still better at things like visual recognition and language.
There’s no question that fast calculation is a handy talent. But that’s not a reason to hand over the keys to civilization; that’s a reason to incorporate that talent into ourselves. Thus the array of neurimplants in the Incatena.
Human-sized general robots, or androids, make no sense to me. For most purposes we want specialized appliances, clever but not volitional. As Stross puts it, "I don’t want my self-driving car to argue with me about where we want to go today. I don’t want my robot housekeeper to spend all its time in front of the TV watching contact sports or music videos."
The Incatena term for these appliances is subsmart. Like a modern operating system, they’re built to anticipate your needs and make things easy, but they don’t need Genuine People Personalities.
There’s a niche for mecs— humanlike robots used as tutors, butlers, bartenders, sexbots, military drones, and the like. But Stross’s argument still applies: you don’t want your children’s tutor, or your sexbot, to be scheming against you. You want situational cleverness, not sapience. (Plus it’s much more elegant to hire a human for these things.)
Economically, robots replace expensive and repetitive work. But this process will never replace all human work. For one thing, humans will specialize in things humans do well (and one thing they do really well is make other humans happy; service work will never go away). For another, put enough humans out of work and human workers become cheap. We are already adaptable and all-purpose workers, self-reproducing, with low-level self-healing routines, and we can be built from cheap abundant elements.
The one niche I see for androids is as independent workers in environments where humans can’t easily survive, such as underwater or deep space. But even here I see genofixing as a better solution. Some folks would welcome the ability to rebuild themselves to live in water or vacuum, and with long lives it doesn’t even have to be a permanent choice.
Actually, the book does have some androids in it. But they’re intended to be a bit creepy and eccentric, an expression of their owner’s paranoia.
That brings up an important point: the Incatena is huge. Generally the answer to "So you can’t do X?" is "Sure you can, and it’s probably done somewhere." Just don’t assume everyone shares your fetishes or predilections, or that any innovation will spread indefinitely.
I do see a role for megaminds, AIs far broader in power and scope than a human. They’d be technocrats, helping to run governments and corporations.Vee, after all, lets you fully enter virtual worlds without having to get rid of your body.
About the only thing you gain is tempo. Again, for most purposes a neurimplant will do just as well. But who knows, maybe you want to work in a high-risk environment where you need microsecond reflexes all the time.
Fine, but consider the Perzicchi, aliens who live at a tempo thirty times slower than us. Living at a different tempo is ultimately just a lifestyle choice. The Incatena is all about enabling lifestyle choices, but some eccentricities will remain a minority taste. It’s not easy to have normal relationships with the Perzicchi, and uploaded people are pretty much leaving human society too.
Also, legally, when you upload, you’re considered dead. Drastic, I know, but if you want to be an AI, you’re an AI, with all the special rules that apply to beings that don’t share common human needs, are potentially immortal, and can be duplicated indefinitely.
The Incatena future is plenty advanced. Near-c travel, long lives, neurimplants, genofixing, nanoduplication, volants, the Vee, socionomics, megamind AIs, space habitats, energy screens, asteroid and gas giant mining, photonics, terraforming... there’s plenty going on.
But yeah, no ringworlds yet. A couple thoughts on progress:
In the Incatena timeline, the problem is the Collapse... i.e. our times. The idea is that the reactionary forces win, and send the northern hemisphere into a tailspin. This borked progress for a couple centuries and, just as important, made the survivors wary about unbridled change.
Long lives also slow down change. Social and technological revolutions just take a lot more time when the same people may be in charge for two hundred years. On the whole the Incatena considers the tradeoff worth it: long lives also make people a lot more responsible about long-term consequences. But they do worry about people’s thinking being sclerotic, and there have been various attempts to do something about it.
Plus I’m skeptical that the rate of change in the 20C will continue. Revolutions are heady times but they don’t keep revolving forever. Look at physics, for instance: surely the biggest revolutions in the 20C were relativity and quantum mechanics— and as revolutions, those were over by 1930.
It may feel less whizbangy because I think people will remain people, with their particular mix of endearing and infuriating.
(If you’ve actually read the book, also recall that many bits are satirical and thus are not serious predictions.)
Resources or low-cost manufactures are out, because of transportation costs. The wealth of the Incatena is information. But because the colony is tiny, it’s at a disadvantage in generating it.
If they have an ecosphere, or access to aliens, they have high-value information to sell. Even a dead system will have some novelties to communicate, though.
But frankly, the colony depends on a financial infusion just as it depends on the technological infusion in the form of the colony ships. This is partly a gift (and that’s one reason colonies are often ideologically motivated: ideologists back home will help support them), and partly long-term bonds. The Incatena is comfortable with investments that pay off in a few centuries, especially as new colonies are some of the only enterprises that can sustain double-digit growth for decades on end.
Another mitigating factor: incoming information is metered by population. That is, it’s far cheaper for a thousand people than a billion anyway.
An established world gets half the fee for space travel, since it’s expending energy to decelerate the quickship, shuttles to fetch it in, and element stocks to revitalize the passengers. None of this is done for colony slowships, but by a neat accounting trick, the colony is credited anyway for its own initial colonists, which gives the colony some initial funds.
All this isn’t to say that there aren’t trade disputes. But it’s not really in anyone’s interests to screw the other party. Interstellar trade goods are always luxuries, so either side can cut off trade if it really wants to... but thanks to Einstein, such gestures are terrible signals, as you can’t get a reaction for years on end and by that time attitudes or circumstances have changed.
To put it another way, the general condition for interstellar trade is to send out the goods and assume that any problems can be worked out later. As Isaac Asimov pointed out, when you’re dealing with lightspeed delays, you have to abandon the metaphor of a back-and-forth conversation, with gaps, in favor of two ongoing monologues.
The name is by analogy with the transformation of astrology to astronomy, and is intended to suggest the replacement of myth, moralism, and heuristics with hard knowledge.
We’ve had some of this already, in economics— we know something about how to run a modern economy and fix its doldrums. The problem right now is that people don’t yet believe it. We’ve got people convinced that the solution to a depressed economy is to depress it further, or who are convinced that lowering a government’s income raises its income, or that gold is a god-given measure of value. There’s already evidence that they’re wrong, but they’re good at ignoring it.
But this should sound familiar: it’s the story of the reaction against geocentrism, against evolution, against the germ theory of disease, against relativity. Science comes up with things people don’t like, and they live in denial for a few generations. Then they die off and their obscurantism looks foolish in hindsight.
If you read the newspapers, things always look dire and the world is running downhill. If you look at history, we have mind-boggling progress every half-century. 1850 was way better than 1800. 1900 was better than 1850. 1950 was fantastically better. 2000 is even better than that.
We can look at earlier history and recognize our common humanity— people grew up, raised families, fell in love, argued, worshipped, pissed each other off, almost exactly as we do. But in the realm of economics, politics, and morals, they look barbaric. We just no longer believe in slavery, in the divine right of hereditary kings, in caste systems, in racism, in totalitarianism, in empire-building. The idea that plagues and earthquakes are the judgments of angry gods, or that mental illness is moral depravity, aren’t just rejected; we can hardly understand how people believed such things.
Socionomics simply applies this observation to the future. After 3000 years of technological civilization, we will have 3000 years of data on how tecnological civilization works, how to fix it, and how not to fix it. (Most of this knowledge will be accumulated by failure. But fail enough times and you can write a science of failology.)
What will socionomics say? Here of course I’m guessing, otherwise known as conworlding or writing science fiction. If I knew what would happen I’d be a consultant or politician. But here are some of the postulations of socionomics, with a bit of the reasoning behind them:
Also note that liberalism ends up solving its problems... given a few generations. In the 20C the poverty rate went from 50% to 10%, and if liberalism was left to do its thing we could eliminate it entirely. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are on their way out. If your objection to liberalism is the large transfer payments to the disadvantaged, we solve that by bringing them into the middle class— thus eliminating the need for transfer payments. Incatena planets aren’t welfare states, because they don’t need to be. Their general level of government would be a conservative’s wet dream.
I also think that socionomics will allow several equilibrium points. After all, people will experiment with various governmental setups, so we’ll have data on all of them. There are Incatena planets with no official government (e.g. Homeland) and ones where corporations are outlawed (e.g. Armonia). Most are more of a muddle.
In Incatena history liberalism won because today’s reactionary movements succeeded— and led the US and China into poverty, ecological collapse, and dictatorship. They thus discredited themselves as thoroughly as Naziism and communism did. The Incatena grew out of more communitarian value systems based in Brazil, Europe, and East Africa.
By the 50C, overpopulation won’t be a problem— because it can’t be. Think of it as an application of the anthropic principle. If we don’t solve our current problems— oil dependency, global warming, reactionary politics, unequal development, burgeoning population— our civilization is going to collapse, and AD 4901 will more closely resemble AD 901. This timeline is about the subset of possible futures where our current problems were solved.
(Again, the Incatena timeline assumes that we do partially collapse. Some lessons are only learned by failure. My canonical example is the separation of church and state, which became a value in Western civilization because people got sick of religious wars and religious totalitarianism.)
The key corollary is that economic growth can’t come from immigration or population increase, but only from increases in productivity.
Another corollary is that all that stuff we’re hearing about lifestyle changes— sprawl is bad, we should recycle, too much meat is not a good idea, you gotta exercise, personal vehicles are wasteful— is old news. Don’t project American suburbia to the stars; think a European capital, or Brazil. In general people live more densly, they take their social groups very seriously, and living spaces are designed to reduce sedentarism.
If you live on a space habitat, things are more crowded and more social. If you want a space entirely your own, it’s going to be the size of a phone booth... people share living quarters just to have a reasonably sized room. And you’re going to have intrusive neighbors, life support inspectors, and administrators: a habitat is a terribly easy environment to break, and it doesn’t mesh well with a Wild West individualism.
You know who else faced this question? God. This is at the heart of Christian theology, in fact: the problem of evil. People usually get this wrong, in my view— they imagine that an omnibenevolent god would prevent all pain. Cain tries to slay Abel and a force field springs up to protect him.
But a Cain who is prevented from doing evil isn’t free and isn’t good. Keeping him that way isn’t benevolence, it’s infantilization. The idea is, God allows evil because he wants real good to happen. The possibility of doing evil makes good meaningful; it also produces a higher type of good, the kind that can resist and overcome evil.
Of course, if that was God’s motivation, some people will be pissed; and if God does the infantilization thing others will be pissed. So if God can’t get it right, neither can we.
On a social design level, there’s something to be said for God’s model: maybe we should deliberately create a society that molds brave, good people by forcing them to confront evil and foolishness. Perhaps we improve on God’s idea by blunting the antagonists a little, just enough so that they provoke defiant resistance rather than dull despair. That’s the idea behind Maraille, in fact.
But outside of Maraille the Incatena has taken the more standard approach that we should do our best to eliminate injustice. Poverty and tyranny may ennoble their victims, but it’s still the right thing to do to end them, if we can.
Like any society, the Incatena tries to educate people in its values. But, well, no society has really ever inculcated any ideology perfectly in the majority of its citizens. Most Incatena citizens take advantage of the freedoms and amusements they’re offered, live their lives, work and fall in love, look at the horrible past with a mixture of condescension and longing, vote emotionally, and in general don’t rise very far on the ideological or spiritual scale.
Pop understanding sometimes reinforces, sometimes opposes the Incatena’s own ideals. Like 21C Americans, most Incatena citizens have a truculent awareness of their own rights and a contempt for the past. On the other hand, many people cultivate a romantic image of the past. There are not a few retrohabitats which attempt to recreate earlier eras, including a couple 21C ones that we’d find bafflingly inauthentic.
Socionomics guards against many failure modes. There’s things to watch for and do if education starts failing, if politics gets too cynical, if the economy stagnates. And there’s the occasional grade-A crisis that requires heroic action, or maybe luck. We have Agents for that, or we hope that some humble person will offer to take the Ring to Mordor.
Again, the specific answer is that Incatena history is large, and such things have happened. Maybe that’ll be another Incatena novel.
But it’s rare, because you don’t usually get both isolationist and evangelizing impulses in the same group. They either stick it out in the world and try to reclaim it, or they keep to themselves.
Something that can be a problem is purposeful regression gone out of control. Some groups, for instance, go in for swordfighting, or 24/7 BDSM. It’s hunky-dory so long as all the participants are voluntary, but sometimes people forget or start to impose their notions on other people, and there’s trouble.
The more interesting question is, are they desirable? Wouldn’t you get bored and boring at 200? Worse yet, people’s ways of thinking could get so repetitive and conservative that nobody will accept any new idea.
For both personal and social mental health, people are expected to change careers at least once every 200 years. It’s also a good time to end a relationship, change sex, move to another planet, and/or modify your body form.
Not a few people go further, and undergo a procedure to loosen up their neural structure. You forget a lot but also recover some of the mental adaptability of adolescence.
I’m pretty sure this can’t be done, because compound interest is not a law of nature— it’s a consequence of our increasing population and productivity. But population isn’t increasing in the solar system. So the returns depend on productivity improvements, and there won’t be any if everyone gets themselves frozen.
When I was young, 5% interest seemed normal. Right now my savings account is giving 0.35%. In a population-stable world, I have a hunch that the norm will be closer to that than to the earlier 5%, to say nothing of the double-digit growth you might find in a developing nation.
I hate to say it, but a nice feature of our current lifestyle might not survive long lives. That’s the fact that both workers and businesses expect salaries to rise dramatically with age. Economically, it doesn’t really make sense, but people like it that way. When your career lasts centuries, however, it probably won’t happen.
Most people are lousy at saving for retirement. Given that, and wages increasing not so quickly, and low interest rates, I doubt that oldsters will be living like royalty. They should do OK, but just hanging around is probably not enough to make you rich.