THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 861, February 28, 2016
I do have a Presidential endorsement in mind,
a recommendation, as it were, for the LP that
I'm confident they won't follow.
A Hard Rain: Book Review of Neal Stephenson's seveneves
Special to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise
I've been a space enthusiast since 1968 when I heard Frank Borman read the book of Genesis from orbit around Earth's moon. As the B-52s once sang, "There's a moon in the sky. We call it the Moon." From 1975 to 1993, I was extremely active in the L5 Society, its evil step-sister the Nationalist Socialist Space Society (heil von Braun!), and its lineal descendant, the Houston Space Society. I've read essentially every book ever published from Tsiolkovsky, Ley, Ehricke, O'Neill, Heppenheimer, Stine, Kantrowitz, White, Lebedev, Cooper, and many others, on the human settlement of space. I've spent all of the time since 1993 thinking about ways out of the labyrinth and into free space.
People who are not familiar with the "movement" to encourage the human settlement of space may not be aware of the enormous resources out in space. There are tens of thousands of asteroids and hundreds of thousands of cometary bodies, as well as the planets and moons that are catalogued in various ways. Some of these asteroids have orbits quite close to Earth. Some of these Earth-crossing asteroids are nickel-iron, some carbonaceous chondrite. There are individual asteroids which each have more precious metals in them than have been mined in the entire human history of Earth. There are planets, like Mars, which have atmospheres, and moons like Europa which have oceans. The entire Solar system is bathed in solar power, which may be recovered and beamed from one location to another by, say, the photo- klystron of Dr. John Freeman. Power from solar power satellites could be beamed to Earth. Dirty industries might be moved into space, where there are no blue whales or spotted owls. An enormous renaissance in human activity is possible, with essentially infinite resources at our disposal. I've know about these things for over four decades.
During that time it has come to my attention, and I'm very strongly aware that it has come to the attention of others, that the oligarchs and governments that claim to rule human affairs on Earth are determined not to allow people to settle in space. There is a clear pattern of actions involving certain international treaties to close off frontiers in Antarctica, the oceans, the sea floors, and outer space. There have been efforts by space activists known to me personally to require NASA to work with commercial interests, to require NASA to establish human settlement of space as a primary charter function, and to require NASA to report to Congress on these things. Anyone familiar with these matters knows that NASA isn't opening the door to space. It is being the door. Anyone looking at the space programmes of Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and other countries should see past the claims and the promotional material and understand that none of those government programmes is going to open the space frontier. Ever.
So, it is in that context that I picked up Neal Stephenson's book seveneves. You can see where the title is a palindrome. On the cover of the hardback edition I've read, the title is in all caps and the central "N" is made up of two numerals 7 that are cleverly arranged. Elsewhere, on the inside title page, the title is all lowers. I'm sticking to that convention, though other reviewers seem to feel that Seveneves is just as good.
There is quite a great deal of artwork inside the front cover, about two-thirds of the way into the book, and inside the back cover. As you read the book, you learn what these graphics are meant to convey. But first you have to deal with the traumatic events inflicted in the first thirty pages.
The book begins with the Moon being blown apart by an unknown "agent" that causes it to become seven big pieces. As the world is coming to grips with this new look to the sky, and as people are having gatherings to look up at the seven chunks of Moon, one of them collides with another. Seeing this happen, the main scientist character in the book, Dr. Dubois Jerome Xavier "Doob" Harris, PhD, gets that feeling which is very well portrayed in the original "Jurassic Park" film when the hunter suddenly realises he is being attacked from another direction.
Dr. Dubois, as he is known to his television audiences, might be a stand-in for the real world astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. Certainly I had Tyson's image in my mind's eyes and ears for some of this novel. The good Doc Dubois explains things, first to the national government of the United States, and, later, others in the world. The orbital collisions among the pieces of what was the Moon are going to continue to grow in number along an exponential curve. In about two years, the rate of collisions or "bolide fragmentation rate," is going to pass through a critical point, like the elbow in a hockey stick, and a white cloud of fragments will be seen where the Moon used to be. Shortly thereafter, that cloud will spread out around the sky. Owing to the chaotic aspects of these events, although the Moon used to orbit Earth between roughly 29 degrees North and South latitude, the bolides formed from its destruction will achieve orbits over much higher latitudes. Days after the sky goes white, the "Hard Rain" begins to fall.
The Hard Rain brings in not only the matter of fragments of the Moon, by the trillions, but also the energy of those fragments. As those fragments hit Earth's atmosphere, they generate heat. Sonic booms will be heard. Those fragments large enough to reach the surface without being burned up will cause massive impact craters, set off volcanoes, cause faults to generate earthquakes, and eject additional fragments. Ocean impacts will cause tsunamis. Large ocean impacts will open rifts in the crust, releasing magma into the ocean, causing enormous volumes of water vapour to rise into the atmosphere, much of it as superheated steam. Even those fragments that give up their matter entering the atmosphere are adding enormously to the heat in the atmosphere. Seen from space, the Earth will no longer look cool and blue, but hot and red.
Essentially all life on Earth is expected to be wiped out. People might survive in two general locations, beneath the surface or out in space. Sub-surface excavations at low latitudes are unlikely to survive because of the high rate of impacts. Earth's oceans are expected to boil away. The good news, after a few thousand years, the rate of impacts will be much less, and Earth will have a lovely set of orbital rings, like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
Obviously, every government on Earth is going to be wiped out. A space enthusiast cannot help but see the enormous opportunity inherent in this fact. For the two years before the Hard Rain, there is a considerable amount of cooperation. Many hundreds of space settlers are sent up. Lots of resources are put into orbit. Space entrepreneurs take a hand in making huge leaps forward in the work, using their knowledge of asteroid capture to seek out large bodies of cometary ice in near enough orbits to be useful to the new space colony.
I don't feel that I'm mistaken that Neal Stephenson deliberately arranged events in his novel to eliminate every single government on Earth in order to be able to have a "clean slate" on which to discuss how the surviving remnants of humanity would find shelter, build a population, and build a civilisation that embraces the reality that we have always lived, not in a closed system on a single planet, but within an open system, a planetary system, with a huge resource base. Certainly one doesn't have to wonder where the licences would come from to, say, move thousands of cometary bodies to collide with the cooling Earth a few thousand years after the Hard Rain, or where one would get permission to lower a tether to the Earth's surface for a kind of "space elevator," as imagined by various authors in the past.
The reason that I'm convinced on this point is that one of the survivors who gets shot into Earth orbit is the president of the United States, Julia Bliss Flaherty. Now, I may be mistaken that Flaherty, or JBF, as she is known in the book, is a stand-in for Hillary, or HRC as she is known. But it isn't hard to imagine someone like HRC, only several decades younger, speaking and acting as the character JBF does. Although JBF does arrange for a global approach to selecting people to take into orbit, and even though she very clearly goes to great lengths to defend the space settlement even as things turn chaotic on Earth, it is clear that she is no heroine.
One character that I really liked in this book is the sociologist and psychologist Luisa Soter. At one point, as it is clear that JBF still carries around a paper asserting her status as president, still is referred to as "Madam President" by those in her claque, has had one of her fawning admirers subvert some of the computer systems in the space colony, and is gathering power around herself, Luisa is asked whether the former president is insane.
The answer is, it doesn't matter. Whether or not she is psychotic isn't especially relevant. The former president seeks power because that's in her nature, and she persuades others to work with her because that's what people like her do. Like a vast array of Internet discussions in which I've been called crazy, in order to ignore the merits of my actual arguments, the idea of saying that JBF is crazy doesn't appeal to Luisa. It doesn't get you anywhere. Even if she is crazy, you still have to deal with what she is doing, you still have to plan, you still have to persuade others to work with you, you still have to act. It is never helpful to say that an addict is crazy, even if they are, you still have to deal with the facts of their addiction. Being addicted to power is just like being addicted to heroin, and has deadly consequences for those around the addict, as well as the addict herself.
So, you now have a sense of what this book is like. You know that the Moon is blown up in the first few pages, by some unknown cause, and that the resulting system of fragments is unstable. You know that every government and most of the people on Earth are wiped out. Some escape into space. You follow their story. It is an epic adventure.
You are two-thirds of the way through the book when you have some sense of what the title is really about. And then it is suddenly "five thousand years later." Check it out. That's how page 569 starts. The book goes on to page 867. So, you know that there must be people alive, or there wouldn't be much to write about. You meet some of those people, they have epic adventures of their own, and you are left with a universe that seems to make a great deal of sense.
There is one other useful feature of the Hard Rain. It not only wipes out the governments and oligarchs who are so clearly standing in the way of humanity living and working together on the space frontier. It also deals with the Singularity. You'll find the Singularity discussed in the writings of Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil, and others. Basically, anyone looking at graphs of population, computer power, computer memory storage, energy consumption, or any number of other economic, social, and biological phenomena will notice that there are exponential growth curves involved.
If you look at how bacteria or yeast breed and grow to fill a particular ecological niche, you see that they grow in numbers up to a certain inflection point. Then the curve starts going up very fast, that hockey stick thing. At some points, it is nearly vertical. Then there is a huge die-off. The yeast run out of resources. Most of them die. You are left with beer. You celebrate.
The Singularity that is approaching is probably going to arrive in this century. Humans with enormous computer power may create something like artificial intelligence, they may discover effective longevity treatments, they may develop L. Neil Smith's Probability Broach, they may burst out into the universe, or they may experience that die off through nuclear war or other catastrophes making Earth unlivable. To be clear, the enormous disaster of the Hard Rain envisioned by Neal Stephenson is, for the culture he describes on Earth at the time it happens, the Singularity. All those curves that had been growing exponentially, such as human population and number of computer chips being made: they all pass through a sudden transition and go to near zero.
What happens after humanity passes through a Singularity? What is beyond the "Event Horizon"? You'll want to read the book to find out.
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