October 05, 2003

Not-so-stirling Top Ten List

Texas science fiction author Bruce Sterling has a new article up at "http://www.technologyreview.com."

When I went through my cyberpunk phase, I was a big fan of Sterling's. I drifted away from him for several years but greatly enjoyed his Holy Fire, which examines the effects of life-extension technologies on humans in the classic hard-SF tradition.

Now he has come out with a list of technologies that "deserve to die." While I think the goal of identifying obsolete technologies that should be phased out is a noble one, I don't agree with the general thrust of this particular list. It begins with Nuclear Weapons and ends with DVDs. It also contains Manned Spaceflight (#6) and Incandescent Lighting (#4). (His views on the latter are not likely to win him any rave reviews from Virginia Postrel).

Getting rid of nuclear weapons is a pipe dream. I agree with Sterling's point that we have in fact honed our precision technology to the fine point that nuclear weapons are no longer "necessary." But the main value of nukes remains their strategic deterrent power, not their tactical utility. I think we need to preserve the legitimate threat that we can vaporize Mecca, or Pyongynag, or Tehran, (or even Moscow or Beijing) to preserve the stability of our current international system. Instead of destroying nuclear weapons, I would prefer to see a gradual swords-to-plowshares transition to their peaceful use to power Orion starships.

Sterling's views on manned spaceflight also reflect a strange lack of vision in an SF author. First, his argument is against a straw man: "Thanks to decades of biological research, it [is] now quite clear that flying around the solar system is bad for ones health." I'm not sure which alternate history he is looking at, because so far we haven't done any manned "flying around the solar system." In this he fails to anticipate what many SF authors and speculative engineers propose, namely, the use of centripetal/centrifugal forces to simulate gravity on extended missions. Second, and perhaps more important, Sterling seems to see space exploration as something that can be "destroyed" as though it were nothing more than a government program. But with each passing day, I am more optimistic that we will see the development of commercial, manned space travel thanks to private pioneers such as Burt Rutan and my neighbor (of sorts) John Carmack.

I'll be posting more on these items later, but some good links to explore space news and policy in general are: Rand Simberg's Transterrestrial Musings, Keith Cowing's NasaWatch and SpaceRef pages, and Professor Hall's Spacecraft blog.

Update: I should make it clear that I don't consider flying circles in LEO, or even the seven manned missions to the moon (with six landings) to be "flying around" the solar system. Heck, Kubrick's and Clarke's 1968 vision of our future in space had us arriving at Jupiter two years ago.

Posted by JohnL at October 5, 2003 09:55 PM
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