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August 8, 2017

FTL, Y’all
Posted by Avram Grumer at 03:55 AM * 76 comments

Iron Circus Comics (Spike Trotman’s company) has just announced its next anthology project: FTL, Y’all. Imagine what would happen if someone, this year, invented an FTL drive that could be built with $200 in easily-available parts, and put the plans up on the Internet so just about anyone could build one.

The open submission period starts next week (Aug 15), so comickers, start your engines. I don’t know when the Kickstarter launches. You might want to look over Iron Circus’s general submissions page for an idea of what Spike likes and doesn’t.

Comments on FTL, Y’all:
#1 ::: Fade Manley ::: (view all by) ::: August 08, 2017, 03:05 PM:

Oh, gosh! After a discussion on Twitter about class markers in language today, the title of this anthology delights me. I am really looking forward to seeing where it ends up going.

#2 ::: BSD ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2017, 09:00 AM:

I hope that you're submitting.

#3 ::: Kevin Reid ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2017, 09:59 AM:

This immediately made me think of Red Thunder which I read When I Was Younger, which is also ”cheap space drive”, but specifically ”cheap proprietary sublight space drive”.

A technical tangent: the RSS feed for this post's comments is malformed because in the first <item> it contains &rsquo; from the ”Y‘all” which is good HTML but not good XML. (The other occurrences of that literal string are all escaped because RSS is its wacky self.)

#4 ::: Zack ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2017, 11:35 AM:

I dearly hope there is at least one story in which some teenagers build a starship in their back yard and go have adventures, containing no grimdark whatsoever, along the lines of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet.

That said, my inclination as That Kind Of Nerd is to nitpick the premise — you need an awful lot more than just an FTL engine to make up a starship. How much power does the thing require, and where do you get it from? Can it be the only engine on your ship, or do you need some other way of getting into orbit (already immensely difficult) and maneuvering around solar systems (even harder)? How big a ship can the $200 engine shift? What about life support? Protection from radiation and orbital-velocity tiny rocks? Et bloody cetera.

You could maybe write a fun story entirely set on Earth, about the open source ship design community that is trying to solve all these problems and make space tourism a thing you really can do in your converted Winnebago for not that much more money than the engine.

#5 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2017, 03:19 PM:

Navigation’s also an issue; I’d hate to have to travel interstellar distances by dead reckoning. I suspect Spike’s gonna let her writers come up with their own (wide variety of) answers to these questions, rather than imposing answers via a setting bible, so that this will be a theme anthology rather than a shared-world anthology.

#6 ::: Race Traitor Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2017, 03:30 PM:

In reality, I suspect some fascist (Koch Brothers?) would fund making hundreds of millions of little FTL jumpers that would fly around randomly to create hazards. Can't have the riff-raff able to leave Earth; why, that might cause a labor shortage.

#7 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: August 09, 2017, 04:11 PM:

Essentially what Pratchett and Baxter did in The Long Earth, but with accessing parallel worlds rather than distant ones.

#8 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2017, 04:29 AM:

I had the same thoughts. Even if we take "drive" to its maximum extent (that is, it does everything that a drive might do, including close-in maneuvering, stationkeeping, and making navigation simpler than driving a car, and it's self-powered) and can start a voyage from your backyard with no ground-to-orbit stage necessary...

You still need a spaceship to strap it to. Hell, even if it's a point-to-point teleporter, that's a great way to visit Tokyo but there's nowhere past Earth orbit where you could go and survive more than a minute or so, presently.

Without the rocket, a Soyuz capsule is probably not a nation-state investment anymore, especially if production can scale to meet demand and drive the price down. It's probably within reach of large corporations. It still won't be anywhere close to "blow your life savings," let alone "cheaper than a vacation."

#9 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2017, 11:00 AM:

ISE *boot!*

#10 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2017, 11:03 AM:

'K. Let's try this again:

Running with Zack's @4 question, and riffing on Devin's questions, I imagine that the smart money would be investing in support technologies. Life support systems. Pressure vessels. (Suddenly, there's a super-heated market in decommissioned submarines, tanker trucks and rail cars. And then all the fly-by-night operators.) The ways this new tech deranges the economy, and society, would fuel a whole anthology of its own.

For example, what spin-off uses are there for this drive? What are the hazards? (Frex, what happens if you try to use it to motor down the street to the 7-11? Can you use it to power other tech? What forms of polution would it generate?)

How much power does the thing require, and where do you get it from?

And how do you carry it?

#11 ::: Chris ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2017, 06:20 PM:

If the drive carries a bubble with it (everything within x meters of it when it's turned on stays within x meters until it's turned off), then you don't need a spaceship in the traditional sense of the word. And one of the side effects will be a lot of new holes in the ground.

#12 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2017, 07:27 PM:

There's also the time-travel angle; IIRC any FTL drive is potentially a time machine, though I don't remember the "construction" details offhand.

An older and weaker "space travel for everybody" setup was Blish's Cities In Flight series. There you still needed a lot of power, but as the title implies, the power plants could take a nearly arbitrary amount of mass with them, and the spindizzy field could also hold atmosphere.

#13 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2017, 07:32 PM:

PS: Niven's discussion of various teleportation methods would also be apropos.

#14 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2017, 10:39 PM:

You don't just need atmosphere -- you need a renewable (and renewing) atmosphere. And one of the obvious questions is -- how much faster? 6x the speed of light doesn't get you places very quickly, for example: one would need hundreds of times faster to make a real difference. And are there time-dilation effects? What are they like?

#15 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: August 10, 2017, 11:40 PM:

Chris @11: one of the side effects will be a lot of new holes in the ground.

Cf. Vinge's bobbles.

Tom Whitmore @14: you need a renewable (and renewing) atmosphere.

Well, carbon dioxide scrubbers are a thing.

But yes: consumables. Unless you're going for a closed system.

#16 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 02:07 AM:

Scrubbers, yes, but you're going to need more oxygen at some point too, unless your flight is pretty short. ~23 liters of oxygen per person per hour, and remember that you'll need to keep the partial pressure above ~15% to avoid dangerous hypoxia... So taking some extremely optimistic values for the interior volume of a Winnebago, there's enough air for four people to breath for a day. Assuming no one gets excited and nothing leaks even a little.

The other thing that occurs to me is sensors. Even if the drive handles navigational needs (indeed, even if it handles those to a semi-magical "hey let's go check out the second planet" level of automation)... Do you* know where to buy or how to use a thingy to tell you if you can breathe that air? (Besides an airlock and a supply of canaries, of course.)

Personally, I tend to suspect that unless you put pretty specific limits on the drive (stuff like "will only teleport to other gravity wells," or "launches straight out and won't steer until past lunar orbit") the earthbound secondary uses are more compelling.

I mean, it's hard and expensive to get to space. Even if we're just talking about a ballistic hop and not actual orbit, if the thing needs vacuum to function, you'll need to design and build a vehicle that can land in an atmosphere (at your destination) plus pay someone to strap said vehicle to a rocket and get it out of atmo. That's going to cost millions, not hundreds, of dollars.

So the drive has to be functional from approximately ground-level to mean anything. If it's functional from ground level and it can travel to other places on Earth... Well, how much does it cost to get to Paris or Djakarta? More than $200? Now it costs $200. That's huge. (Yeah, maybe fuel is expensive, but if fuel costs raise the price of going to Paris above the price of airline tickets for four, then the fuel costs to get to Alpha Centauri are going to be in the trillions of dollars.)

So, if you have a device which lets you take people and cargo anywhere on Earth for cheap, you can change the world in a number of major ways... Or you can try and caulk your Winnebago well enough to visit Arcturus. I know which of those I'd expect to happen first.

*Now, around here, I'd put the odds at better than fifty-fifty that someone reading does in fact know where and how. But still.

#17 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 08:19 AM:

Indeed, if it's too easy to launch into vacuum, a dominant effect on society might be "a significant fraction of humanity's explorer-types were removed from the gene pool by the release of the Yall Drive -- though some maintain we lost more recklessness than curiosity".

And like I said above, this is also a teleporter, and humans are very good at working around any limitations that appear; e.g. "Need to go to another gravity well? Welcome to Grand Lunar Transfer Station!"

There will be mischief value as well; if there's not some barrier to mechanized jumps (q.v. The Long Earth sequence), or a way to otherwise interfere (say, a blocking field) then you have teleport missiles.

#18 ::: Quill ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 09:59 AM:

Could it be used on a planetary surface? What happens when a vehicle with the drive encounters an obstacle? It wouldn't work as local transport very well if one first had to build something for it to drive on.

On the other hand, if it does function as a teleporter, say goodbye to national borders. You can't regulate immigration when people can just pop in and out. (Wall? What wall?)

#19 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 10:00 AM:

Someone builds an FTL drive in his backyard.
He turns it on.
Realizes too late that the reverse is on.
Life ends on Earth as the planet cracks open like an egg shell.

#20 ::: Mary Aileen ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 10:19 AM:

Serge, you're such an optimist.

#21 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 10:34 AM:

Jerry Oltion's "The Getaway Special" is a fun read with a similar conceit. The main protagonist designs the drive and, before he can get muzzled by the gov't, releases the plans on the internet. It's easy enough to build that pretty much any shade-tree mechanic or computer hobbyist can slap one together, and power requirements were at least small in size and readily fulfilled. Their prototype ship used a new septic tank as the pressure vessel, welding gas tanks for O2 and balance N2, and a sink faucet set plumbed into the wall of the vessel with 90-degree elbows on the outside to control rotation about the long axis. I forget what they did about tumble, though.

When turned on, it took everything within a sphere of a defined radius with it, and it is implied that the radius can be adjusted as it matches whatever the "ship" is that it is used in. As Chris @ 11 notes, that leaves holes all over the place, and makes a nice thunderclap whenever anyone jumps away.

Per Zack @4, it isn't a Winnebago, but some of the protagonists' friends use a pickup truck with a camper shell and lots of extra sealing as their vehicle. They also used welding tanks for atmospheric leakage replacement. The image of a pickup truck in space, foam bulging from every seam, tires all bulged out (they did let most of the air out on the ground before jumping out), with a chunk of lawn and section of a sphere of dirt underneath the tires and some frost from the sphere of atmosphere around it was fun to read. Rednecks In Spaaaace!

I don't recall the exact explanation used, but they did deal with relative motion with lots of mini-jumps. I can't remember if atmospheric friction was used, or something else, but they were able to "decend" into a gravity well. To leave, they just jumped away to the new coordinates, gravity or no.

Per Dave Harmon @12 and Tom Whitmore @14, Time dilation and relativistic effects were completely ignored, IIRC.

Per Devin @16, one major conceipt was they had a database of planets that had breathable atmospheres, so there was quite a diaspora going on.

Per Jacque @10 there was definitely a repurposed submarine, too.

Per Jacque @10, Devin @16 and Dave Harmon @17, surface-usage effects/shenanigans/societal disruption were covered as well. I don't recall the details, but it was mostly background except where it was The Powers That Be going after the protagonists for letting loose technology that let all their citizens loose from under their control.

Ooh, there's a sequel - "Anywhere but Here"! I'll have to find that.

Looking forward to the anthology!

#22 ::: cajunfj40 ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 10:35 AM:

Me @21:

Ohnosecond: Finally read the intro on the Tumblr, Oltion and his novels are specifically name-checked as inspiration. Oops.

#23 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 01:57 PM:

Chris @ #11: If the drive carries a bubble with it (everything within x meters of it when it's turned on stays within x meters until it's turned off), then you don't need a spaceship in the traditional sense of the word.

You'll still need a spacesuit when you get where you're going, unless you're 101% certain it's got breathable air, because you're not going to be able to test the air without turning the drive off and letting your air bubble disperse.

And if it doesn't have breathable air, you're going to need to wear the spacesuit all the way home, sitting inside a bubble of whatever it has instead.

#24 ::: Serge Broom ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 02:18 PM:

Mary Aileen @ 20... Well, too many people are dangerous with vehicles that navigate strictly in two dimensions and no faster than 100 mph. Can you imagine what they'd do with FTL? :-)

#25 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 03:52 PM:

Is anyone else being irresistibly reminded of the moonshot (which IIRC actually ends up on Mars) in Year of the Griffin?

#26 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 04:42 PM:

Dave Harmon @17

I wouldn't overestimate that danger. It's not like there's a shortage of ways for a mechanic with $200 of parts to die right now, after all.

People who were especially prone to "hold my beer, I'm gonna make a rocket-assisted hang glider" probably already did it.

#27 ::: Bruce H. ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 07:05 PM:

Harry Turtledove's story "The Road Not Taken" features a very low tech FTL drive, not $200 cheap, but cheap enough that people who could not build a proper life support system could nevertheless build a spaceship that allowed them to invade earth.

#28 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 08:02 PM:

cajunfj40 @22 - I'd seen the brief description (mumble, didn't read the tumblr either), and it reminded me of Oltion's books, or rather of "that author whose name probably starts with N or O who I can never remember and could never find more books by back when I did remember his name, but they were on that shelf at Books Inc." So, cool! That's who wrote them.

Oh, and looking him up on the big river website suggests the reason I couldn't find more of them is that he mainly writes short stories, only a couple of which got turned into novels.

And a $200 space-warp drive you can build in your garage so lots of people leave the planet? Definitely counts as "escape" fiction, in a good way.

#29 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 08:38 PM:

"everyone can leave the planet that wants" reminds me of Anvil's novel about the aliens who conquer Earth...and then nearly get conquered by every fast-talking Earthling who gets off the planet and finds a new home and lots of marks.

#30 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 11, 2017, 09:02 PM:

Also: If interstellar transport is that easy, there's likely to be a lot of other travelers wandering around. Plenty of ways to get in trouble....

#31 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2017, 06:04 AM:

$200 space-warp drive you can build in your garage

It occurs to me that this has some interesting implications for the state-of-the-art in physics (like, duh). The knock-on effects and applications are what intrigue me.

The biggest problem I have with this concept is that the scale of the conceit is so damn broad that I'm having a hard time paring it down to something that would fit in a story. Or a book. Or an 'ogy.

#32 ::: Micah ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2017, 10:40 AM:

Now I just want to see the non-space version, where everyone uses FTL jetpacks to travel to Paris, and we're still not getting space travel for some reason.

Then there's the nascar with FTL engines. Much shorter event, but the crashes are amazing in slow motion.

#33 ::: HelenS ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2017, 02:14 PM:

Or an 'ogy.

I just read this as "Or an orgy." Ouch.

#34 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2017, 04:13 PM:

I'd be interested in the story (well, novel really, but a tale is a tale) of the person who figured out the time-travel tweak, and what s/he did with it.

Not the government immediately starts using it to assassinate radicals before they're born story.

Not the seeking out a lost love story.

I'd like to see a story in which something much more mundane, yet more intense, is the reason why time travel is important to this person, and in which, when mistakes happen, they don't have the potential to crack the Earth, but do have truly unexpected results ("So, you're my great-great-aunt, or would be. But you're HOTT! Tell me more about why you like Kipling's poetry...")

#35 ::: Cadbury Moose ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2017, 05:51 PM:

HelenS @ #33

You too, eh?

There's speed-dating and then there's FTL speed-dating.

<Moose wonders if Acme Corporation are involved>


#36 ::: Avram ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2017, 10:40 PM:

My suspicion is that Amanda Lafrenais (the anthology’s editor) isn’t all that interested in time-travel stories for this book. Most people think of time-travel and space-travel as being different branches of science fiction, and this strikes me as a “most people” anthology, not a “graduate degree in physics” anthology.

Maybe I’m wrong about this! After all, Star Trek’s done time-travel stories. But the above is my suspicion. Unless you come up with something really cool, maybe.

#37 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: August 12, 2017, 11:08 PM:

Devin #16: Do you* know where to buy or how to use a thingy to tell you if you can breathe that air?

To a first approximation, an index card with the word "No" printed on it will work just fine.

Earth's atmosphere is unstable and couldn't possibly stay the way it is without billions of tons of lifeforms giving off, as a byproduct, a violently reactive substance. We just don't necessarily think of it that way because we're used to it.

Therefore, any place without those gigatons of plants is going to have some chemically stable, boring atmosphere that can't support your need to constantly oxidize your food to keep your metabolism going.

Probably the best you can hope for from the atmosphere of any place you're going is "doesn't actively corrode/destroy whatever I'm using to keep the breathable air in".

On the other hand, you could build your own drone and equip it with a drive... Assuming, as most of this thread does, that you don't need to get into orbit the hard way first. Maybe it needs a companion volume, "Antigravity, Y'all"?

#38 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 12:54 AM:

WRT the anthology's premise in general, and Fragano Ledgister's @34 in particular, I am reminded of the Sturgeon story "The Man Who Learned Loving" (aka apparently "Brownshoes") wherein a guy somewhat accidentally invents a perpetual motion machine, and what he does with that.

See, this is why I'm not a writer: I see an idea like that, I think "these three people did these three things that were similar." And then that's all I can see. :(

#39 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 01:50 AM:

Chris @37

Yeah, but once you've found a few life-bearing worlds, how do you check those atmospheres? (Chromatography and a giant checklist of no-go gasses, obviously, but that's serious equipment.)

Neutral and non-toxic (in the sense of "a whiff from a cracked faceplate won't do you lasting harm," rather than "life-supporting") atmospheres are indeed desirable candidates for colonization, but hardly on a three-figure budget.

Drones and robotic exploration in general are tricky too: with cheap drives, it seems trivially obvious that you'd get massive benefits from putting university-scale resources (not just funding, but trained personnel to interpret and catalog results as well) into robotic exploration and surveying... but then we're off-premise again.

Personally, as is probably obvious by now, I find it interesting to examine the sub-premises necessary to keep it between the rails, neither too scientifically-impossible* nor something that obviously requires far more than backyard resources. (For those keeping score, the "but that would be way more useful on Earth than in space" setups would be a third rail.)

*Obviously a matter of taste: FTL itself is clearly at best scientifically dubious. I find an engine that also recycles your air a bit baroque, personally: why would it do that? Can we trim that bit off and use it for submarines? On the other hand, I think assuming that life (whether or not that includes intelligent life) is common in the wider galaxy seems well-suited to the premise. Thus, needing to assess oxygenated, plant-life-sustained atmospheres is a real question.

#40 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 12:22 PM:

A few atmosphere bubbles you can pop open on New Fancy Planet with lab rats (or whatever else is handy, but rats are traditional) and maybe some quick-and-dirty chemical tests?

Like, if the rat explodes, you don't bother going to the silver-fork-dipped-in-salt-water test, where you see if there's a difference in the one inside and the one outside, tarnishwise, or whatever other atmospheric tests you might be able to do with the contents of one's house. And even then, you might not need more than the rat. How much wiggle room is there in terms of short-term survivable atmosphere?

#41 ::: Quill ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 12:48 PM:

Diatryma @40

The AFLR (American Federation of Laboratory Rodents) would like to look over your proposal first.

#42 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 01:15 PM:

Feeder mice? The kind they sell for pet sneks?

#43 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 01:36 PM:

Diatryma #40: How much wiggle room is there in terms of short-term survivable atmosphere?

Well, clearly non-oxygen atmospheres are right out; that covers both reducing atmospheres (methane etc) and "wrong oxidizer", e.g. chlorine.

But then you get into two separate issues: First there's "poison"; that is, we happen to be rather sensitive to the presence of free halogens, hydrogen sulfide, anything cyanide, and so on. IMHO most of those vulnerabilities are likely conditional on the course of Earthly evolution, but that part could be handwaved by conceit.

The other issue is that we're also dependent on certain levels of not just oxygen, but carbon dioxide as well. An imbalance there can kill you too, and some variations can intoxicate you first so you don't do anything about it.

Another thing that occurs to me is the difference between a habitable world and a habitable location: Consider the plight of a space-traveler landing in the Sahara Desert or Antarctica, or just in the middle of the ocean.

#44 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 02:25 PM:

Or Tibet or the Altiplano.
(We had a copy of "Planets for Man", by Dole and Asimov - it gets into things like partial pressure for various atmospheric components. It may be dated, but some of the science should still be useful.)

#45 ::: Jim Parish ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 02:25 PM:

I find the following conversation, from Hamilton's Pandora's Star, apropos. The two speakers, Nigel and Wilson, are overseeing the construction of a starship:

"'Man, I still can't get over how big this beauty is. You'd think... I don't know, we could build something neater by now.'
'A one-man starship?' Wilson asked in amusement. He waved a hand at the front of the cylinder. 'You helped design the hyperdrive engine. I've owned smaller houses than that monster.'
'Yeah, yeah, I know. I ought to go back and take another look at the basic equations.''
'You do that, but I'm telling you a car-sized starship will never catch on. I want something big and powerful around me when I go exploring the unknown.'
'Man, oh, man, Freud would have had a field day with you.'"

#46 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 02:28 PM:

So it sounds like 'does not kill you immediately' is unlikely to lead to 'definitely kills you in a while from a short-term dose last week'. Thus, the exploding rat trick. And I'd rather use feeder mice, because mice are bastards and rats are generally sweethearts, but 'rat' is traditional, plus easier to necropsy if it dies interestingly.

Anyway, that's the low-cost, easy-to-interpret way to tell if an atmosphere's going to kill you. (It is also possibly that I am flippantly heartless in this case; the scientist/farmer-knowing intersection is less bloodthirsty than blood-tolerant.)

#47 ::: Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: August 13, 2017, 03:42 PM:

Has anyone read All of an Instant by Richard Garfinkle?

I've never made it through the book, but it's a grim/giddy story about time travel being easy to discover, and what we would call the real world becoming the prize of a chaotic fight among time travelers.

#48 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2017, 04:25 AM:

I read All of an Instant when it came out, which was a while ago. I think it was taking the idea of structured spatial dimensions in Celestial Matters and attempting to apply it to time. It almost worked. If I recall correctly, I was skeptical that such a universe would have beings that think like us. It was just too different. But it's a very interesting book to bring up in the context of this post.

#49 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2017, 08:24 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz #47: I read it quite a while ago.

Pace TomB, I think having "beings that [more or less] think like us" were necessary to have a story that humans would read (especially given the weirdness of the milieu), but even so... well, I found the basic idea innovative and memorable, but the characters not so much.

Certainly I don't recall more than the bare outlines of the plot, and I'm not interested enough to go back and reread the book.

#50 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: August 14, 2017, 11:58 AM:

Nancy Lebovitz @47, like others, I read it when it was new or at least new-ish. I remember little about it other than that it was deeply, deeply weird (even more so than Celestial Matters), and that it didn't impress me enough to reread it.

#51 ::: Odalchini ::: (view all by) ::: August 15, 2017, 03:43 PM:

I don't think we've distinguished between the two ways of getting there fast. The Star Trek verison of FTL seems to mean that you cover the distance by going faster than light in the same way as we now go faster than sound – breaking the light barrier, as it were – just by turning the knob to Warp 9. The other way is where you go at a normal speed (wrt your frame of reference) but you go around the distance, through hyperspace or whatever you call it.

Terry Pratchett's Strata deals with this (and many other things, being Pratchett) and also deals with the problem of jumping into hyperspace from the ground: your spaceship is floating on a lake, so you only take some water with you (nevertheless, it's tricky and highly illegal).

#52 ::: Charles Stross ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 05:59 AM:

it occurs to me that this scenario is a promising candidate for a Great Filter in the Fermi Paradox sense — a phenomenon that accounts for the paucity of extraterrestrial intelligent life.

There are two types of hypothetical great filter; ones we've passed (e.g. multicellular life being vanishingly rare and hard to evolve) and ones we've yet to meet (e.g. some self-inflicted failure mode that invariably wipes out technological civilizations). This could plausibly be one of the latter.


The $200 FTL drive enables anyone and everyone to up and leave with whatever assets they can carry. What it doesn't do is provide them with a self-sustaining colony in a box that is capable of replicating the civilization that produced the $200 FTL drive wherever they settle.

Assuming a hospitable-to-humans cosmos — millions of worlds with at least the basics, such as an oxygenated atmosphere and a compatible biosphere — many folks will of course take off and settle. Thereby reducing their cultural environment from that of a climax technosphere with billions of participants to a small handful or a few dozen. If other people land up on the same world, or within close reach, the logical and easy solution is for one or another group to move on and settle elsewhere rather than figure out the difficult issues of how to rub shoulders with strangers.

This is great for the first generation homesteaders, but a generation down the line who's going to maintain those space-going jalopies? All the tools of civilization need to be imported, their kids are growing up home-schooled at best, the original home world has succumbed to the problems of depopulation — economic stagnation and wage deflation — and is quite possibly turning paranoid out of fear of hypothetical new upstart rivals.

A century after the exodus there'll be millions of human colony worlds ... 99% of them populated by tiny bands of barbarians. A millennium later, the lucky ones will be extinct (the unlucky ones will have reverted to paleolithic levels of technology and support numbers in the low thousands of hunter-gatherers). And meanwhile, huge amounts of energy that could have gone into fixing Earth's damaged biosphere has been wasted.

A $200M FTL drive would of course be another matter: expensive enough to make small head-for-the-hills retreats impractical, but cheap enough to manufacture by the thousand and operate with the overheads of airliners or freight ships: that's actually getting into company town/nationalist colony territory. But $200? That way lies disastrous fragmentation.

(Here ends your bulletin from the department of collectivist colonial studies.)

#53 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 10:04 AM:

Charles Stross #52::

1. You neglect the option of existing large groups choosing to emigrate and settle a world together.

2. Given those cheap drives... just because they've moved house to another world, it doesn't follow that they're cut off from the rest of humanity. Especially if the drives can be used for message/mail drones!

3. Humans are social animals. Yes, there are some folks who'd do the "back to the hills" thing up front, and flee or fight any newcomers. But those are a small minority. Most people like being part of a large community... and a successful community tends to draw in new prospective members.

Consider my town of Charlottesville -- what started as a small college town has over the last few decades grown into a small city. Over the last decade especially, It's drawn progressively more notice for its food scene¹, artistic community, and access to greenspace ranging from local trails to the Blue Ridge/Shenandoah Mountains. People who live here tend to praise it to the skies to friends and visitors... some of whom decide to move here. That growth hasn't been without its problems -- a lot of the old-timers are feeling kinda outnumbered, and we're currently dealing with various overdevelopment issues and a land/development bubble. But it is a self-sustaining process, and it's a fairly usual one.

I think it likely that while many impromptu settlements will indeed fail due to poor planning, social breakdown, or misadventure, some of them will draw people in until they become self-sustaining. Industry will be drawn by the prospect of resources free for the taking and no enforceable pollution regulations, and many needs will be addressed by trade with Earth or among the settlements. Of course, that means we'll be extending mankind's sweep across the globe to the universe at large, with the same despoilation of the planets we settle. Seeing whether anyone or anything shows up to stop us trashing the galactic neighborhood, is another question (and perhaps story) entirely.

¹ My boss at the bookstore is one of the people who started the Charlottesville "food scene", 40-odd years ago. He and a friend founded the city's first high-end restaurant, the C&O. He got a great review from Craig Claiborne in the New York Times, which gave the place a national reputation and made it clear that such a thing could work here.

#54 ::: TomB ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 12:28 PM:

Depending on how common it is for earthlike planets to develop plant life and an oxygen atmosphere, cheap FTL could be rather frustrating. Easy access to millions of uninhabitable worlds is not liberating. Even with free transport, only a few extremely well funded organizations will have the resources to build and support habitats on other worlds. The few worlds that have oxygen atmospheres will be rare prizes, fought over by the same few extremely well funded organizations.

#55 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 03:34 PM:

While we have many examples of the effects of migration on population and social dynamics, it occurs to me that the one thing we don't have that would inform this discussion, is an instance proof of human habitation in life-hostile environments, even in our local space. (Does the deep sea count?) Closest we come is the ISS.

And the chief reason for that (at least wrt space) is transport cost. What happens if that changes? Cf. Heinlein: reach low Earth orbit, and you're halfway to anywhere. See also: all humans needs to thrive is mass, and energy to manipulate it.

#56 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 03:38 PM:

Also, with cheap transport, trade is a gimme. You may have to trade for your oxygen/water/organic matter. But unless your colonists are actively trying to avoid dealings with the homeworld, there's no reason to assume they'd leave and then remain isolated. Hell, if this FTL is viable planetside and/or in-system, I could see people commuting. Mars as exurb?

#57 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 03:56 PM:

A $200 FTL drive would soon make it clear how much more desirable Earth is. Now to really make things interesting would be a $200 million FTL drive and AND a $200 immortality drug (lifespan > 1000 years).

#58 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 09:12 PM:

Steve C #57: That's James Blish's Cities In Flight novels. A bit dated today, though, as a former New Yorker, I have a certain love for them. A PIttsburgher might have more (or less).

I recommend them.

#59 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 09:28 PM:

Jacque at 56: There is a Walt Disney comic where there is a gold rush on the moon, and the only person who makes any money is Scrooge McDuck, selling air to the miners.

#60 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 10:08 PM:

Jacque #55: an instance proof of human habitation in life-hostile environments

Hmm. We don't have experience with utterly hostile (airless) environments, but we have seen a number of groups (mostly tribal) adapted to some fairly extreme and resource-poor Earthly conditions: Various desert and Arctic groups, also mountaintop groups such as in Tibet (not completely airless, but low enough pressure that outsiders have serious trouble).

Perhaps more significant, we also have a couple of demonstrations that we really don't know how to construct and maintain a small, contained ecosystem (e.g., Biosphere 2). In fact, it's not at all clear that such a bottled ecosystem can be set up and survive without active control and external resources.

There also may be more fundamental problems for humans surviving off Earth, dependencies that we don't know about because we've never had to worry about them. As an example, we already know that even a few months in microgravity plays merry hell with human physiology.

#61 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: August 18, 2017, 10:28 PM:

It worked for quite a few people in the Gold Rush. (Studebaker built wheelbarrow; Levi Strauss you've surely heard of.) Wells Fargo got into banking because they took gold at one end of a trip and paid out gold at the other, using what were basically checks.

#62 ::: Odalchini ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2017, 01:49 PM:

Jacque #56: The commuting thing was dealt with in a short story or novel that I read years ago and now don't remember, except that you could commute (or anything) to or from anywhere in the galaxy or universe. You could live on Mars, shop on Proxima Centauri 3, work on Earth, and so on. You’d step out of your door on Mars and instantly you'd be on Earth or wherever you wanted to go.

The required gadget is explained in “All the Colors of Darkness” by Loyd Biggle, Jr (1963). He calls it a matter transmitter, which I think is a bit misleading, because the transmission is instantaneous, however great the distance. The engineer explains it (they’ve just invented it and they're running a travel service on Earth, causing airlines to go bust): “There is no ‘between’ when you transmit. You are either at your point of departure or at your destination. If something happens before you leave, you don’t go. If something happens after you arrive, you’re already there. Look.” He snatched a blank piece of paper and drew large squares in two diagonal corners. “These are your two transmitter stations.” He brought the corners together, so that the squares were adjacent. “This is what the transmitter does. As long as it is operating properly, the two stations are locked together. If it doesn’t operate properly –” he smoothed out the paper “– the passenger doesn’t go anywhere.”

If we can hypothesize a FTL drive, why not a matter transmitter?

#63 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2017, 03:25 PM:

Odalchini #62: The most plausible matter transmitter (John Barnes's in the Giraut Leones series) had NAFAL spaceship travel as a precursor/necessity to get the matter transmitters to their stations.

#64 ::: Odalchini ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2017, 03:40 PM:

Fragano Ledgister #63: According to Biggle's aliens, that's only step one of matter transmitter development. Step two is the transmitter that works without a receiver (as in Star Trek). Step three is the transmitter that transmits itself, also without a receiver. Less and less plausible, maybe, but hey, this is SF.

#65 ::: Odalchini ::: (view all by) ::: August 19, 2017, 03:45 PM:

Oh, and in steps two and three there is of course some means (indistinguishable from magic) of precisely locating your destination.

#66 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2017, 11:44 AM:

Handwavium trisulphate is a key ingredient in any case.

#67 ::: joann ::: (view all by) ::: August 21, 2017, 02:02 PM:

There's another instantaneous-travel-through-a-door story, Jack Vance's "Rumfuddle", which I found in Terry Carr's Year's Best #3, (1974).

#68 ::: JonathanM ::: (view all by) ::: October 03, 2017, 07:06 PM:

Oh, hey! I remember FTL Y'all from the forums! That was a wild ride, and I'm glad someone picked it up and ran with it. There was a lot of fascinating speculations and I'm looking forward to this anthology.

Here's the link from that old thread:

#69 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: October 05, 2017, 11:37 AM:

Odalchini: And of course, Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky.

@Fragano: I thought that was handwavium monomumbelide.

#70 ::: Dave Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 20, 2017, 10:58 PM:

Looking back to my comment about air composition, here's an example of hypoxia in action. Kalitta 66. The only reason this one didn't end tragically is because a smart air-traffic controller figured out what was up, and ATC managed to get the pilot to reduce altitude. (I originally wrote "they talked the pilot down", which is literally true but....) Note that the pilot does not at all recognize how bad his situation is, and (from the text article) the co-pilot is unconscious but still managing to interfere with the plane's operation.

I also thought of some more issues wrt biocompatibility; the closer the local biology is to ours, the more dangerous it is:
1) If it's completely unearthly, we can't eat anything, but very few things can eat us.
2) If it's based on amino acids and sugars but otherwise divergent, we probably still can't eat anything, but at least some of the microlife can probably deal with our polymers, and we don't have much of a defense.
3)If the biochemistry matches Earth's more closely, we not only get to deal with the local predators and parasites, but we might well have allergies to the environment. In this case, microorganisms are almost certainly a problem, probably on the level of "something is eating my skin", and maybe worse. Many of our defenses against infection and parasitism depend on recognizing the presence of a lifeform based on our common heritage. Even if that gets handwaved,the world's life is still unfamiliar - and while most Earthly infections are fairly host-specific, "most" isn't "all".

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