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January 30, 2007

“Socialism from above—from way, way above”
Posted by Patrick at 03:40 PM *

Writing in the Socialist Review, China Miéville supports space exploration while recalling Argentinian Trotskyist Juan Posadas, who looked forward to aliens arriving to “intervene…with the inhabitants of the earth to overcome misery.” As Miéville explains:

The rest of the left greeted this with baying derision. However, as not enough comrades are SF fans, they misunderstood why Posadas was wrong. The problem is not that he believed in aliens, nor that he thought them our superiors. The problem is that he drew the wrong political conclusions.

The American Marxist Hal Draper famously described the “two souls” of socialism as being the democratic tradition of socialism from below versus the elitist conception of socialism from above. As his quote shows, Posadas not only looked forward to visits from flying saucers—he demanded their intervention on behalf of earth’s oppressed masses. What is that but socialism from above? From way, way above?

Read the rest, if only in order to savor a piece of writing in which the phrase “the sofa cushions of social justice” makes perfect sense.
Comments on "Socialism from above--from way, way above":
#1 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 04:27 PM:

Add me to the list of earthlings who are embarrassed by the mess of our sofa cushions.

#2 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 04:39 PM:

A major chunk of Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker concerns the battle between what might be called From Above and From Below group-mind socialist utopias.

The From Above types -- the Perverts -- look and act like genuine benevolent star travelers, but have hidden inner kinks that lead them to muck up the lesser races they contact by forcing them to adopt their path to enlightenmenthood.

The From Below types have something like Trek's Prime Directive, and let pre-utopian races develop in their own unique way.

I can imagine an Objectivist reading that and gnashing his way into a mouth full of crowns.

#3 ::: Dawno ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 05:16 PM:

I wish the whole metaphor could have been expanded - "...swept the muck of history out of the rooms, got some nibbles [of ???] in, plumped up the sofa cushions of social justice..." I'm really very interested in what socialist nibbles would be.

#4 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 05:40 PM:

I find the whole idea of the ideological acceptability (or otherwise) of the mere existence of aliens to be, well, fascinating -- more for what it says about us than for what it might say about them (the aliens, that is).

I note with some displeasure, however, that China got one essential detail of the British space program wrong. The launch was a triumph of the white heat of Wilsonian sixties techno-socialism, and while its cancellation in the throes of a long-drawn-out currency and budgetary crisis is no surprise, the subsequent thirty-year record of successive governments doing their best to destroy any and all domestic initiatives aimed at developing an independent space program is positively remarkable.

#5 ::: Steven Brust ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 05:48 PM:

I've always been puzzled by so-called socialists who opposed space exploration. I can understand the liberal point of view: the money would be better spent on social programs &c. But socialism is based on increasing man's understanding of the world, and using that knowledge to consciously transform society. How can someone claim to be a socialist yet oppose scientific advancement?

Sorry, just had to rant for a bit. I understand that, for the most part, I'm preaching to choir.

#6 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 05:48 PM:

positively remarkable.

as in "a good thing"?

Just curious.

#7 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 05:57 PM:

Steven: it's notable in some sectors of the British left, where an excessive interest in rocketry is associated with the American military-industrial complex, and is therefore seen as Bad™ (leaving aside the efforts of Comrade Chief Designer and followers, who they don't seem to have heard of).

There's also, in my opinion, an unhealthy British post-imperial dog-in-the-manger response to the usual guff about "the high frontier", which is to whinge "if we can't have our imperial project, you can bloody well do without yours, too."

#8 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 06:13 PM:

Charlie Stross #4: It's been a while since I've thought about this subject (or, for that matter, Blue Streak). What was Tony Benn's involvement?

#9 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 06:13 PM:

#7: There are sectors of the American left where's that's true. My personal tag for them is The Pacifica Crowd. They link any sort of space program to the Pentagon, or Big Business.

Cassinni? Plutonium power generators are part of the weaponization of space.

Mars landings? Prospecting on behalf of mining companies.

#10 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 06:20 PM:

Stefan @ 9

And they complain about all that money being sent into space, as if spacecraft were physically built of money. There doesn't seem to be any understanding that that money is spent on earth.

(It sounds a bit like the guy on the train this morning, who spent a fair amount of time talking about 'affordable housing' while making it clear that, in his worldview, that does not include apartments. Probably a 'publican.)

#11 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 06:25 PM:

Steven Brust @5: I've always been puzzled by so-called socialists who opposed space exploration. I can understand the liberal point of view: the money would be better spent on social programs &c.

AFAIK, no money has ever been spent in space (it all remains on earth).

#12 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 06:33 PM:

#10, y'Know, I can at least halfway respect the budget argument. Saying that money is being sent into space is a really dramatic (and, um, stupid) way of putting it, but at the heart of it is an argument to the effect that they'd rather see the money spent elsewhere.

It's the goofy community-college communist cadre vintage tropes that make my eyes roll.

That said:

The loudest squawks from the loopier elements of the left amount to a polite old lady fart in the midst of a Class 6 hurricaine, given what the Bush administration is trying to do to the conduct of science.

I mean . . . a 24 year old Young Republican college dropout assigned to micromanage NASA's press releases? Political appointees sent to OSHA and the EPA to make sure nothing actually gets done?

#13 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 07:59 PM:

Eric Raymond thinks that science fiction is intrinsically libertarian by its nature, and other currents of thought in it will be less lasting. See:

http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/sf-history.html

He's a character. When I am baffled by libertarian science fiction fans, he is an epitome of what I am baffled by.

If science fiction is like that, why is it like that?

#14 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 08:40 PM:

Apologies if I posted this here before:

"I like outer space.

If you're a science fiction writer, as I am, and you say you like outer space, it sounds very Captain Future and therefore kind of corny, but the thing I like best about outer space is the irreducible outerness of it. It's bigger than human pretense. It doesn't care what we think.

I mean: Saturn and the rings of Saturn, they're not merely our earthly myths and ideas and concepts of Saturn. You can blast a machine the size of a bus to go hang out in orbit there and snoop around Saturn, and by golly, it's all ACTUALLY THERE. The rings are braided, there's, like, lightning blasts and weird gravitational fogs flowing through them, giant permanent hurricanes, moons erupting, fields of dunes, lakes of methane. They're real, it's a real place, and it's unearthly. It's all churning along there, doing its vast and vigorous and utterly un-human thing, been there for billions of years, doesn't mind about us and all the tiny, distant issues that make us fret. That's a source of wonderment, really, and not the cheap sleight-of-hand mystification that commonly poses as wonder, but actual, irreducible wonder. I think that's a healthy emotion for human beings to have. Wonderment at our role in this very strange cosmos is a kind of realism. We ought to make it our business to understand a lot more about that."

-- Bruce Sterling

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 10:48 PM:

Erik Nelson (13):

"Eric Raymond thinks that science fiction is intrinsically libertarian by its nature, and other currents of thought in it will be less lasting. ... When I am baffled by libertarian science fiction fans, he is an epitome of what I am baffled by.

If science fiction is like that, why is it like that?"

Here's one theory: Science fiction doesn't start from the received or default world, and therefore must explain or at least give clues to how its world works. This is initially attractive to readers who know so little about how the received/default world operates that the simple illuminations of libertarianism hit them with life-altering force. Afterward, they want libertarian science fiction because they still have the same habits of mind they had before, so they want their extrapolation kept simple.

#16 ::: Zeynep ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 10:55 PM:

Charlie Stross at #4: I find the whole idea of the ideological acceptability (or otherwise) of the mere existence of aliens to be, well, fascinating -- more for what it says about us than for what it might say about them (the aliens, that is).

Not only do I agree, I also find the whole idea of the ideological acceptability (or otherwise) of anything in the physical/scientific domain to be fascinating. That is "fascinating" in the sense of semi-entertaining, semi-horrifying. And usually, the more I learn about the arguments behind such ideological evaluations, the center of gravity slides from "entertaining" to "horrifying."

That said, now I'm curious---what is the current ideological thought about the existence of aliens, the acceptability thereof? It might prove... entertaining. At least to start with.

(I consider the question of existence of aliens to be within the domain of science, of probability theory and cosmology if nothing else. The question of whether aliens have visited The Earth or not might be considered another bag of chips entirely.)

#17 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 11:23 PM:

So you write off Ken McLeod, Iain M. Banks, and Alasdair Gray as not `"real" science fiction'?

Your loss.

#18 ::: sara ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 11:28 PM:

There is a larger question with which most of you are probably familiar: why does SF traditionally ignore economics? Pointed out by Aldiss and Wingrove in Trillion Year Spree (the money quote is in my copy of The Oxford Book of Money (1986),47).

This is less and less true, yet in war SF and space colonization SF you still often wonder how it's all being paid for.

Many authors now suggest that future economics might change in some way that Marx never dreamed of. What happens if nanotech makes it possible to copy any physical object perfectly, for instance? Including money?

#19 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 11:42 PM:

Sara: Check out The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson.

#20 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: January 30, 2007, 11:57 PM:

"No True Scotsman" fallacy in less than two dozen posts. Not bad. Godwin in 1 is still the record though.

#21 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:10 AM:

I don't think it's at all weird that a socialist (or a science fiction fan, or a socialist fan) might oppose space exploration, and for just the same reason that anyone else might oppose it: maybe it's not worth the money. It's a perfectly reasonable judgment call, regardless of your politics. There's nothing inconsistent about thinking that scientific and technological research is a good thing in general but that not every possible research program is worth it. Once you get into the tens or hundreds of billions, you ought to ask that question.

And it's especially reasonable when you realize that even if you use the phrase "space exploration" in the abstract, it's likely that you have something more specific in mind. If you're an American, for example, you're probably thinking about NASA's manned space program.

Do you think it's surprising that someone might wonder whether NASA's manned space program is the best use of science dollars, or that someone might be cynical enough to think that it has more to do with getting money to military contractors than with advancing knowledge? I don't.

#22 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:16 AM:

Found amidst the change and lost buttons under the sofa cushions of justice:

In a universe whose size is beyond human imagining, where our world floats like a dust mote in the void of night, men have grown inconceivably lonely. We scan the time scale and the mechanism of life itself for portents and signs of the invisible. As the only thinking mammals on the planet -- perhaps the only thinking animals in the entire sidereal universe -- the burden of consciousness has grown heavy upon us. We watch the stars, but the signs are uncertain. We uncover the bones of the past and seek for our origins. There is a path there, but it appears to wander. The vagaries of the road may have a meaning, however; it is thus we torture ourselves.

Lights come and go in the night sky. Men, troubled at last by the things they build, may toss in their sleep and dream bad dreams, or lie awake while the meteors whisper greely overhead. But nowhere in all space or on a thousand worlds will there be men to share our loneliness. There may be wisdom; there may be power; somewhere across space great instruments, handled by strange manipulative organs, may stare vainly at our floating cloud wrack, their owners yearning as we yearn. Nevertheless, in the nature of life and in the principles of evolution we have had our answer. Of men elsewhere, and beyond, there will be none forever.

Loren Eiseley, "Little Men and Flying Saucers," The Immense Journey

#23 ::: Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:33 AM:

[rambling thoughts, perhaps in the neighborhood]

It follows that if readers started from socialist sf like that of HG Wells and Olaf Stapledon, they'd be looking for more socialist SF. Perhaps now they are, but historically that doesn't seem to have been the way of it. I suspect there's some kernel of trVth in libertarian philosophy, some pure beam of white light that gets refracted into a muddy mess when people try to turn it into a political ideology. Most popular socialism that I'm aware of (not all that much, admittedly) finesses the connection between the experience of society and individual experience. This does not make for good fiction; one gets the pieties of bad socialist fiction instead (tractors, comrade!) Broadly, it seems to me, space works in science fiction like the sea all pre-space stores--a vast unknown, full of possibilities. Socialism, on the other hand, is very much about with life on earth, in a social context--very specifically about the methods by which humans engage the earth. But libertarian philosophy is general; there's the individual and the world, and the world could be a city, a planet, or a vaster physical universe. (Libertarian politics and economics, on the other hand, are very specifically children of the interwar period of the 20th century, though libertarians seldom recognize this.)

Appropriation. Isn't that the word Marx used? The question of how humans will take this vastly enlarged world into their conceptual universe and engage it in their lives is central to space-oriented sf and I doubt that any earthbound political or economic philosophy will survive without great changes.

Hunh...how does socialism engage matters of cultural contact? Marx, famously, said "all that is solid melts into air"--that an industrial capitalist economy strips away cultural forms that are not participants in capitalism. But it seems unlikely that there will ever be an interstellar industrial economy operated by creatures as short-lived (on a galactic scale) as humans. So, then, what...?

#24 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:56 AM:

Apropos, because it deals with Utopian fiction: Orwell's Why Socialists Don't Believe in Fun.

#25 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:00 AM:

A loss would require one had a view worth knowing. While these on your list may well have, I've not heard of them, thus nothing of the sort has occurred here.

One was Hugo short-listed. Another was Booker short-listed.

You are cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Many authors now suggest that future economics might change in some way that Marx never dreamed of. What happens if nanotech makes it possible to copy any physical object perfectly, for instance? Including money?11:42 PM

See oor Charlie's Singularity Sky; Iain M. Bank's Culture novels, and also The Algebraist.

#26 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:47 AM:

Sara, I've read some SF stories about economics. Charlie Stross has a few. (I'm coming to believe that nearly everything Charlie writes is, at bottom, about business models.)

Most of what's been written about nanotech is nonsense that treats it like magic, but a few sensible stories on the technology have been written, and economically, what needs to be taken into account is that nanotech doesn't do away with scarcity, it just changes what's scarce. If the particular thing you want to make a copy of requires five grams of palladium, then you've got to get that five grams of palladium from somewhere. You can't build it out of the carbon and oxygen you've got sitting around, because nanotech won't transmute elements. And if hundreds of millions of other people are using nanotech to build the same device, then there's a demand for lots of palladium, and if there isn't enough to go around this week, that's scarcity, and traditional economics comes into play.

As far as using nanotech to duplicate money goes, already we live in a world where most of the money that gets spent isn't in the form of physical bills and coins, but rather numbers on a hard drive somewhere.

#27 ::: JKRichard ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 03:25 AM:

Nanotech isn't meant to transmute particles. But bombarding elements with protons and/or neutrons certainly will cause "transmutations." The process is called nucleosynthesis. Stellar nucleosynthesis has been occuring now for an esitmated 13.7 billion years...
Next we'll discuss magnetic fields that collapse into gravitational fields and quantumly entangled pairs. *grin*
-=Jeff=-

#28 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 03:32 AM:

#25 Randolph Fritz: "I suspect there's some kernel of trVth in libertarian philosophy, some pure beam of white light that gets refracted into a muddy mess when people try to turn it into a political ideology.

I'm pretty sure that kernel of truth comes down to: "Man, government sucks." Which, in fact, it does. Not to knock libertarianism: this is a realization which still escapes most on the American right, and too many on the left as well.

Libertarianism's problem lies in that they think the appropriate response to this fact is less government, not better government. Because you can't simply get rid of government--it exists because it has to. Government is the inevitable result of humanity's self-organizing tendencies. Trying to wish away government is like trying to wish away crystallization. If you get rid of what we have painstakingly built over the last few thousand years, all you get is ten seconds of anarchy before we revert to the most basic form of government: rule of the strongest.

The foremost duty of every form of government is to ensure that the previous form never comes back.

#29 ::: Keir ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 03:48 AM:

Something else to think about: it is possible to make gold from lead. It's been done. The philosopher's stone is a nuclear reactor. However, the energy required is ridiculously expensive when compared to value of the gold. There will always be scarcities of some sort. They just change shape.

Money is a social phenomenon, so the effects of physical advances on it would be muted. Paper money is already cheaper than face value, as are most coins. (The central banks make a minor sum of money off this. It's called segnoirage.) Counterfeiting and counter-counterfeiting would enter a new arms race. There won't be another influx of Spanish-American gold, provided that the introduction of cornucopia machines is slow enough for central banks to react and implement protective devices.

The counter-counterfeiting measures would provide for some interesting ideas. DRM for the money supply?

Which leads on to an almost post-scarcity economy that you can see, here and now: digital computing goods. I can make a thousand copies of Emacs, and for almost the same price as for one. Or I can make a thousand copies of Hurra Hurra Torpedo.

And, here again, we see that the scarcity moves. Now it is metadat that is scarce.

Bleh. This isn't very well organised, but I can't do much better now, and I'll just throw this out there.

Oh yes: A History Maker, by Alasdair Gray deals with almost cornucopia machines.

#30 ::: Dave Langford ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 04:42 AM:

#19: Many authors now suggest that future economics might change in some way that Marx never dreamed of. What happens if nanotech makes it possible to copy any physical object perfectly, for instance? Including money?

An issue examined in sf long, long before nanotech became trendy. See for example George O. Smith's "Pandora's Millions" (1945; part of the Venus Equilateral sequence).

#31 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 05:52 AM:

Slightly related: The Economics of Science Fiction.
http://hanson.gmu.edu/econofsf.html

If anyone can tell me how to get hold of a copy of "The Theory of Interstellar Trade", published 1978 by Paul Krugman and not online, they would gain massive amounts of reputation points.

#32 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 07:28 AM:

Heresiarch (@30) - Too true. However, the problem is that while government sucks, anarchy sucks even more, unless you are dead-straight 100% *certain* that you'll wind up at the top of the heap. Or that you'll be valuable to the person who does.

I'm a socialist at heart - but I tend more toward Marxism than Leninism. I also have the rather wearily cynical belief that a true socialism is highly unlikely among bipedal apes like us. We still have too much self-interest in our systems, and not enough altruism. Socialism, at its heart, is built on altruism, and depends highly on everyone caring enough about their fellow humans to be willing to sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good. Sure, we co-operate, but we co-operate better when it's the option of last resort. Otherwise, we compete and we strike out for our own interests, rather than working for the greater good of all.

My favourite book about economics and the role of money in society was written by a psychologist. The Real Meaning of Money, by Dorothy Rowe, is an exploration of what money means in a psychological sense, and why we keep using it, and valuing it, even in these days where the currency itself is of no objective use, and even less objective value. Money is one of our great symbols, and we use it to symbolise so much. I have to admit, on reading this book, I start to realise that the true problem is not so much the lack of money, as the lack of alternative signs to attach all those significations to.

#33 ::: Simon W ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 08:04 AM:

#19: Many authors now suggest that future economics might change in some way that Marx never dreamed of. What happens if nanotech makes it possible to copy any physical object perfectly, for instance? Including money?

We could always start using quantum money.

#34 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 08:20 AM:

#19: this is really a trivial issue. How would society be altered if cash could be undetectably counterfeited? Answer: it already can be, pretty well, and while coiners push up the money supply they don't affect the economy grievously, because most money is electronic. And if coining became as simple as photocopying, I think you'd see cash die out in favour of e-cash pretty damn quick. You'd use a debit card to buy everything - so what? I already do, for anything upwards of about £10.

And now, as the lost coins of time fall irretrievably behind the sofa cushions of eternity, and the wallpaper of Fate peels slowly away from the anaglypta of Destiny, I see it's the end of the comment.

#35 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 08:24 AM:

A rule of thumb:
It seems that the farther away a spaceship travels from Earth, the harder it gets to load it with political cargo...

Examples:

A) Earth orbit: military spy satellites, propaganda broadcasts, weapons platforms, high ideological prestige, activists will take notice and protest against "weaponization of space" (as if "space" ended 100 kilometers above the ground).

B) The Moon: some immediate political prestige in getting there. Possible future colonization, yes, but that's still too distant in space/time for most politicians/activists to get interested or protest... yet.

C) Mars: Limited propaganda value at best; activists hardly care.(That could change quickly, though; read Asimov's THE MARTIAN WAY again.)

D) Outer Planets and interstellar space: Only of interest to scientists and die-hard skiffy fans.

#36 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 08:57 AM:

You'd have to be mad to want to get on a generation ship.
Therefore: the crew of a generation ship will be either a) mad or b) not there by choice.
Only an unpleasant regime (call it X-ist) would put people on a generation ship involuntarily.
They would presumably be people unwanted by the regime - either criminals or dissidents. If they weren't dissidents to start with, they'd become so after they'd been condemned to spend their lives on a generation ship.
Why would an unpleasant regime try to start a colony with enemies of the state?
It would do so if it were sufficiently confident that its propaganda machines, over many decades, would be convincing enough to turn even the descendants of dissidents into loyal X-ists.
Hmm. This is taking shape rather nicely.

#37 ::: Carrie S. ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 09:18 AM:

Something else to think about: it is possible to make gold from lead. It's been done. The philosopher's stone is a nuclear reactor. However, the energy required is ridiculously expensive when compared to value of the gold. There will always be scarcities of some sort. They just change shape.

I seem to recall that one of the scarcities of The Diamond Age was human labor. Which makes perfect sense to me--if you've got basic necessities for everyone covered, what's going to be scarce is ability to do skilled labor.

This is why nanotech needs to get off the ground--so I can make money knitting!

#38 ::: grndexter ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 09:30 AM:

One of the problems I see in this whole thing is that Posada, and perhaps Miéville, make what I'll call the "Human God Creation Mistake." Which is that, being human, they are most comfy with "gods" that are much like them. I mean who wants a God that is DIFFERENT and that would require/demand that we change to be like them? Too much work. Too hard. So we create Gods/Aliens that are like us - right down to their political orientation.

WHAT is it about the word ALIEN that they do not understand???

Aliens, as in any REAL gods, will no doubt be so DIFFERENT from us that they would be beyond our accurate comprehension. If this is expressed in a single word, that word would be - ALIEN.

As for Socialism "from above" or "from below" - has there ever in history been a successful revolution without the support of some element of the current elite? Do not revolutions eat the peasants for the elevation of the new elite? (Or the preservation of the old.) As Heresiarch said in #30 above - government is not an option. So we come down to Natural Man wherein in all societies, as Orwell put it, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." So even if there WERE such a truly bottom-up revolution, about 5 seconds after the end of the shooting, there would be an elite clawing its way to dominance.

And finally, perhaps space exploration's real appeal is that, in space, nearly everyone either gets to be Emperor, or at least part of the Imperial Court.

#39 ::: Peter Erwin ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 09:38 AM:

ajay said (#38):
You'd have to be mad to want to get on a generation ship.
Therefore: the crew of a generation ship will be either a) mad or b) not there by choice.

If by "mad" you include "deeply committed/fanatically dedicated to the Cause," then you can have groups or regimes (possibly unpleasant) sending out ships crewed by volunteers, if the Cause is sufficiently inspiring.

For example: a Nazi-type regime sending out ships on the holy mission of spreading the Master Race throughout the galaxy... or a persecuted ethnic group looking to escape their persecutors and preserve their culture... or a religious sect looking to create the City on the Hill, free from outside distractions.

Or even altruistic Socialists looking to set up the Perfect Society, free of any pre-existing capitalist encumbrances.

There are probably generation-ship stories I've never read that cover some of these possibilities...

#40 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 09:44 AM:

Ajay, alternatively, and very much in the Heinlein tradition: the only people who would possibly be able to tackle the unimaginable problems of interstellar colonisation would be those gifted and unruly dissidents who could never tolerate the conformism and repression of an X-ist Earth.

Knowing that, left to themselves, the dissidents would inevitably raise more dissidents, but also that they would only do so in the presence of the government's overbearing propaganda, the regime finds an elegant solution, confident that its propaganda will remain annoying enough to prompt dissidence..

Conceivably, the regime is so stultifying *specifically to create the people who can colonise space*! Whether by conscious design or by evolution.

Novellistischer Wendepunkt: Does the difficulty of interstellar travel strengthen or weaken the X-ist empire? The history of the British Empire is essentially that society got so awful in the UK that *those people* had to get OUT!, and then the bureaucracy followed them to the ends of the earth. About 1870, when the bureaucracy began expanding faster than the empire, entropy took over..

So, as travelling out to catch up with the dissidents would take as long as it took them to get there, would the X-ist state be doomed to spawn utopias?

#41 ::: Steven Brust ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 09:53 AM:

#23 Matt: My argument was not with the objection to the manned space exploration, but to the argument that runs, "We shouldn't waste money on space exploration because that money would be better spent in social programs on earth." I repeat, that is a classic libaral argument (accepting capitalism as given and looking to make it kinder and more gentle) and is absurd coming from someone who claims to be a socialist.

#34 Meg I'm a socialist at heart - but I tend more toward Marxism than Leninism.

Ummm....no, never mind.

#42 ::: Greg London ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:09 AM:

I think going to the moon or going to Mars at this point would be mostly an engineering feat, and wouldn't develop much in the way of new science. I'd rather see the Supercollider built.

This assumes that budgetary money is a zero sum game and whatnot. if I had to choose one or the other, I'd probably choose the collider because that might reveal some new, deeper understanding of physics, which might get us high temp superconductors, cold fusion, or something equally SF in nature.

#43 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:11 AM:

Ajay (#38): Why would an unpleasant regime try to start a colony with enemies of the state? Well, if legend is correct, Britain exiled a lot of its criminals (not specifically dissidents) to Australia. As noted above, bureaucracy followed them, but the place seems to have a spirit quite different from its parent country -- AFAIK, anyway.

Off on another tangent, I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of generation starships, even though the faster forms of SFnal transport seem even more unlikely (for now, at least). The universe is So Damn Large, can we really make much of a mark on it -- outside of fiction? [End of gloomy post on a cold, drizzly morning. Feel free to go about your business.]

#44 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:19 AM:

Incidentally, now that we've stopped transporting convicts to Australia, can we please give up on the idea that there's a "criminal class" and if you can just expel enough of them from polite society we'll stop having a crime problem?

(I mean, we filled an entire continent, and we're still up to our armpits in chavs!)

#45 ::: Bruce Baugh ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:38 AM:

#42: Alex, the problem is that there are so many people convinced they're brilliant who in practical terms aren't. Just go to any Mensa meeting and get your fill of dictats about every field of human knowledge and endeavor put forth by people who don't have the first damn clue what they're talking about. Then throw in all the people who don't even have the benefit of one socially skewed measure to their name but who are just as sure they're brilliant. As a crew they would be more useless than Douglas Adams' Ark Ship B, but they'd be there stridently claiming their right to be the next generation of John Galts at public expense.

#46 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 11:48 AM:

Bruce Baugh @ 47

You run into them outside of Mensa meetings too. The pompous little pr*ck on my train is one, although he couldn't get into Mensa; he told us all about it one morning (got the mail-in test, decided the time limits were too generous, cut them in half - and got it back with them telling him his IQ is 140. Outsmarted himself!)

The one year I was reading Mensa newsletters, I got the distinct impression that the people who are active are very much like twelve-year-olds, trying to one-up each other. Fandom is much more fun (and interesting) than Mensa!

#47 ::: Sarah S ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:04 PM:

TNH #15

I think that Science Fiction lends itself to Libertarian--or any sort of idealist--ideology about "this is the way the world should work" because it begins, as you say, by ignoring the received notions of how the world does work. That means it gives writers of any political stripe the chance to engage in thought experiments that, when the rubber hits the road, could never (maybe should never) be implemented off the page.

Most Libertarians I know (and I work with masses of them) would say that government does indeed suck. Most of them, however, are not seriously (when sober) inclined to suggest that a realistic solution to all our problems is to get rid of government. Instead, they engage in more measured arguments about how to limit the scope and influence of government, how to stop government from doing...well, pretty much anything it has done in the past six years or so.

Also, considering N = any political or religious ideology, I think your comment works as well for any value of N that I can think of as it does for Libertarians.

None of which is to say that Libertarians aren't or can't be nuts. They just aren't really that much nuttier than the rest of you.

#48 ::: Rick Owens ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:10 PM:

More economics in SF: George O. Smith's Venus Equilateral series. Smith has his characters develop a matter duplicator, which breaks the economy and alters the culture. Later on they come up with a material which can't be duplicated (because it will blow up if you try!) to use as currency. The resulting economy is straightforward enough, but very different from what came before. FWIW, the stories were written from 1942 to 1947, with an additional story written in 1973.

#49 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:32 PM:
I'm a socialist at heart - but I tend more toward Marxism than Leninism. I also have the rather wearily cynical belief that a true socialism is highly unlikely among bipedal apes like us. We still have too much self-interest in our systems, and not enough altruism. Socialism, at its heart, is built on altruism, and depends highly on everyone caring enough about their fellow humans to be willing to sacrifice their own comfort for the greater good. Sure, we co-operate, but we co-operate better when it's the option of last resort. Otherwise, we compete and we strike out for our own interests, rather than working for the greater good of all.

That's pretty much why I'm not a socialist at all: because as nice as it looks on paper, I've seen it fail (from a safe distance, fortunately), and seen why it fails, and why it will keep failing. It is a lovely-looking system that unfortunately cannot be built out of humans.

All you really need for socialism to work is one superintelligent, incorruptible, absolutely trustworthy arbitrator, to whom everyone else is completely loyal and unstintingly gives whatever they are required to give, and is content with whatever the arbitrator decides they should receive. This is why it belongs in fantasy, not in science fiction or in anything set in our universe.


It's certainly true that anarchy is unstable and we need at least enough government to prevent the creation of another government/mafia/etc. But there is considerable room to argue that such a government can, and/or should, be smaller and less intrusive than what we have now, and that's what I call libertarianism. (Paging Humpty Dumpty and the True Scotsmen.) Basically the idea that government does not exist for its own sake, and has no right to do so; rather it exists for our sake and should be retained only insofar as it is useful and its benefits outweigh its costs. And governments' tendency to increase their own power must be carefully scrutinized and, when necessary, opposed.

Then we can start to get into questions like what is and is not a genuine public good, how to resolve tragedies of the commons, and what if anything government should do when private actions appear to be adding up to an inequitable result. (And how to decide which results are inequitable in the first place.)

#50 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:34 PM:

#41: "mad" certainly does subsume "fanatical".

Transportation was originally an alternative to the death penalty. Which reminds me again of the anecdotal conversation about the raising of the Black Watch, which went like this:

Minister: Do you think it's entirely wise to take several hundred of the most rebellious Highlanders and train them in modern war?
Pitt the Elder: Absolutely. Once they are raised we shall be sending them to North America, and I do not anticipate many of them shall return.

So we've got a cosmos full of generation ships crewed by the Aryan Nations, the Rastafarians, the Wahhabis, and spacegoing penal camps...

#51 ::: Clifton Royston ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:38 PM:

ajay: You must read Gene Wolfe's Long Sun trilogy.

#52 ::: Alex ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 12:49 PM:

47 Bruce: True, but irrelevant. My point is that, in a stultifying tyranny like the X-ist regime, the genuinely brilliant tend to get in trouble with it. Sergei Korolev spent time in the gulag. Therefore, clearing the jails to fill the generation ship might be an effective search strategy.

#53 ::: Sarah S ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 01:03 PM:

#41

Peter, I do know at least one person wont to argue that the only hope of any sort of justice for Native American tribes is the colonization of space.

#54 ::: A.R.Yngve ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:03 PM:

Douglas Adams wasn't first with the idea: Remember C.M.Kornbluth's acidic story "The Marching Morons"?

"Yes, Mr. President, this rocketship will take you to a virginal planet where the native women will worship you as a god... step right in!"
;-P

#55 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:06 PM:

Charlie Stross: can we please give up on the idea that there's a "criminal class" and if you can just expel enough of them from polite society we'll stop having a crime problem?

What's that? Sorry, you'll have to speak up; can't hear you over the sound of our trying to exterminate all the members of the terrorist class so we'll stop having a terrorism problem.

#56 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 02:14 PM:

Teresa at #15:
"This is initially attractive to readers who know so little about how the received/default world operates that the simple illuminations of libertarianism hit them with life-altering force. "

Maybe they're like the Lost Boys in Peter Pan, but there's nobody there to tell them the cake is too rich for them.

#57 ::: JC ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 03:20 PM:

#48: *sigh* why is it that historically marginalized groups feel this need to beat up on each other?
(I still remember the first day that rec.org.mensa appeared on Usenet.)

Can't we just agree that both Mensa and fandom have members who behave like 12 year olds who like to one up each other, then go on with our lives?

#58 ::: Steven Brust ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 03:26 PM:

#59 JC: Yes. Hear, hear. (But neither group holds a candle to SFWWA.)

#59 ::: Steven Brust ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 03:28 PM:

Um...SFFWA. (Knew that looked funny)

#60 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 04:54 PM:

Steve: the Science Fiction Workers of the World of America?

(Splitters. Never going to get socialism on just one planet!)

#61 ::: clew ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 05:58 PM:

ajay: All I can find for your Krugman reference is what you've probably found already; in Dixit, _J of Econ Perspectives_, vol7#2 pp 173-188, a footnote:


¹Indeed, early in his career, Paul wrote a clever paper on interstellar trade, where goods are transported from one stellar system to another at speeds close to that of light; the resulting relatavistic correction to time entails different interest rates in different frames of reference.

And that sure sounds worth looking up -- I don't think even Cherryh has relativistic interest rates. Not explicitly, anyway.

There is the nearly-obsolete tradition of sending a postcard to him care of his academic position, requesting a reprint of the article in question...

#62 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 07:16 PM:

Sarah S @55: [..] I do know at least one person wont to argue that the only hope of any sort of justice for Native American tribes is the colonization of space.

Freeman Dyson wrote an essay about space settlements in the mid '70s.* He made comparisons to the city-states of Greece, and the city-states of Italy in the Renaissance. Aside from the experimental laboratories for varying political forms that these isolated and limited populations created, Dyson speculated that some characteristics might become fixed in the population sample through genetic drift. Had some subtle mutation made Renaissance art more likely? He felt space settlements would be a positive development for the human race.

Re: development

In one of his columns published in Galaxy magazine in the late 70's, Jerry Pournelle described a symposium where plans to develop a permanent moon base were discussed. One of the contenders was a plan to develop small robots which could replicate themselves out of lunar materials (perhaps supplemented by supply dumps of raw materials). After enough 'replicators' were constructed, they would be directed to constructing the infrastructure of a lunar base. Obviously, the 70's weren't ready for this (it wasn't the plan the symposium adopted); it would be a challenging project today. But most of the work could be done on earth (that is, designing and building the first robot factory), and if it's done well, you have a deep discount on as many moon bases as you care to build.

I'm suprised that more hasn't been done with 'telepresence': robots driven by direct human control, such as the submersibles used to explore the wreck of the Titanic. One or more such robots could be berthed outside of the living quarters of the International Space Station, and be run by the crew (who would not have to suit up for construction and maintenance tasks), or operators from ground stations. Oath of Fealty, by Niven and Pournelle (1982), has a lunar base being constructed in this manner by operators on Earth.


* I can't remember the title or find reference to it. I recall reading it in a book full of essays related to the American Bicentennial. It was not The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, although that essay touches similar on themes.

#63 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 07:31 PM:

#64: The Dyson essay, titled something like "The Human Implications of Spacefligh," is available in Dyson's collection _From Eros to Gaia_.

That essay, and Dyson's "The Greening of the Galaxy," are among the most inspiring, yet mature, writing about space travel I've read.

#64 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: January 31, 2007, 10:32 PM:

From what I recall of the story, George O. Smith was an optimist about the effect of duplicators; for contrast, see Damon Knight's A for Anything (1959).

#65 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 05:03 AM:

#34 Meg Thornton: "unless you are dead-straight 100% *certain* that you'll wind up at the top of the heap. Or that you'll be valuable to the person who does." Both of those assertions imply that there is a heap and that someone is on top, which rather rules out anarchy, doesn't it? Anarchy is an unstable isotope which always decays into rule of the strongest.

"We still have too much self-interest in our systems, and not enough altruism." I believe that altruism is simply self-interest over an infinitely long time-line. You help others in order to put them in a position to help you, when you inevitably need it.

#46 Charlie Stross: Australia? Full? Do tell.

#51 Chris: "That's pretty much why I'm not a socialist at all: because as nice as it looks on paper, I've seen it fail (from a safe distance, fortunately), and seen why it fails, and why it will keep failing."

Really? How fascinating. Because, you see, that's exactly why I'm not a capitalist.

#66 ::: Charlie Stross ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 05:24 AM:

Heresiarch: you might want to look into Australia's actual carrying capacity, as it compares to the current population. Hint: Australia's been tectonically stable for hundreds of megayears and the soils are highly eroded and arid. The ecosystem is tenuous at best, and modern farming techniques are devastating. Some estimates indicate that for every ton of wheat produced, Australia loses six tons of soil.

So yes, Australia is effectively over-full -- either that, or more sustainable agricultural techniques are needed.

#67 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 07:35 AM:

Aside from the experimental laboratories for varying political forms that these isolated and limited populations created, Dyson speculated that some characteristics might become fixed in the population sample through genetic drift. Had some subtle mutation made Renaissance art more likely? He felt space settlements would be a positive development for the human race.

The division of Europe into a number of independent states, connected, however, with each other, by the general resemblance of religion, language, and manners, is productive of the most beneficial consequences to the liberty of mankind. A modern tyrant who should find no resistance either in his own breast, or in his people, would soon experience a gentle restraint from the example of his equals, the dread of present censure, the advice of allies, and the apprehension of his enemies. The object of his displeasure, escaping from the narrow limits of his dominions, would easily obtain, in a happier climate, a secure refuge, a new fortune adequate to his merit, the freedom of complaint, and perhaps the means of revenge. But the empire of the Romans filled the world, and when that empire fell into the hands of a single person, the world became a safe and dreary prison for his enemies.

#68 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 07:56 AM:

Charlie Stross @46

*grin* We're still taking in bloody whinging poms. I'm only second generation Australian - three out of four grandparents were born in the UK.

Besides, the whole problem with expelling the criminal class is that they *do* rather insist on bringing the servants with them, thus taking the entire problem elsewhere and spreading it further.

Heresiarch @67

Australia *is* full. Just ask the politicians. Particularly if you happen to be any shade except lily-white, or have less than several million dollars to bring with you.

As for the anarchy question, from looking at the definition in the anarchy FAQ (which gives a close analogue of "liberal socialism") I'd say most anarchists would argue that I'm completely wrong about it. I was using the word, however, in the common usage sense of "chaos", which is what most people think will happen without the government around. The point being that if someone is shaking things up to dislodge the current strain of people at the top, it's usually with the purpose of substituting themselves. One of the few agreeable things that can be said for most forms of government since the eighteenth century is that they've largely been designed to make the handover of power as low-risk as possible.

#69 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 09:22 AM:

ajay @69: You're writing is usually clearer (mine, on the other hand...).

#70 ::: Rob Rusick ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 09:24 AM:

&*!# — I usually get the distinction between you're and your right.

#71 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 05:16 PM:

Ajay #69: Mr Gibbon, I presume?

#72 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: February 01, 2007, 06:13 PM:

#73: spot on.

#71: Gosh. That's the first time anyone's ever compared my writing favourably to Gibbon. My life is now complete.

#73 ::: Heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: February 03, 2007, 01:55 AM:

#68 Charlie Stross: Apologies. My current desktop is a Hubble image of the Earth at night. So my first reaction was that Australia is awfully dark for a "full" continent. Cross-talking with two different values of "full," I guess, with yours being the, you know, useful one.

#70 Meg Thornton: Anarchists, unsurprisingly, disagree a great deal about what exactly anarchy is. Which misses the point--any time you are talking about how society ought to be organized, even if you are advocating no organization, you are talking about government. Even "Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law" has structure to it. And in the total absence of social organization, organization will spontaneously appear. It tends to be along the lines of "Give me what I want and I won't kill you," but still. Anarchy does seem to attract some people for this very reason: those who get it and also believe that minus government they can use their huge ammo depots to get power/money/sex. In other words, they don't want anarchy, they just want a different, more brutal form of government under which they think they'll do better.

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