Sunday, May 29, 2011

Orbital Resonance and 2084 (Save Us, Elon!)

I recently re-read Orbital Resonance by John Barnes, one of my favorite SF writers. This book is part of Barnes' "Kaleidoscope Century" series about which I have written before. Written in the early 1990's, the series imagines an alternate near-future in which a series of disasters have devastated Earth in the early twenty-first century (names such as Tailored Rice Blast, mutAIDS, the Eurowar, and the Great Die-Off suggest the scale of Earth's troubles). Space flight has advanced sufficiently to allow construction of some off-planet "lifeboats" including several space colonies formed from captured asteroids and an embryonic terraforming project on Mars. These space activities can only include a tiny fraction of Earth's population, but they provide hope that humanity can survive even if Earth does not. And of course they have their own troubles.

Orbital Resonance takes place aboard The Flying Dutchman, a huge space colony built and operated by NihonAmerica Corporation which is on a special "resonant" orbit that cycles between Earth and Mars, transporting cargo and colonists. The ship is largely self-sufficient and houses a permanent population of 7,200, most of whom have been born on the ship and are under 20 years old. Melpomene Murray is the narrator. Thirteen "ground years" old, she is one of these young ship-born members who know of life on Earth only from videos and from the stories of the parents. Space-ship engineering is quite important and advanced, but social engineering is equally important. While most adults manage to adjust to life in this confined, disciplined, variable-gravity environment, the kids have grown up on the ship, and their schooling and socialization have been tailored to help them cope and eventually take over from the adults here.  They are the future. But has the social engineering been successful? That's the story of this book.

Of course psychology is still not an exact science, and when a new boy from Earth joins Mel's class, the social balance is disturbed in various ways. Despite their impressive skills and knowledge, these are after all still adolescents, with all the hormonal and other issues that implies. Mel doesn't consider herself to be special (that's part of the team-oriented socialization process), but it turns out that she and a few of the other kids are special, with fewer of the social/developmental controls that have been placed on most of the kids. The adults are grooming them for leadership positions. But the kids don't especially like the ways they have been manipulated. I'll leave the rest for you find out if you choose to read it (as I have done three times now).

Of course I love "space stuff" and there is plenty of it here, but the book is not primarily about space, nor is it primarily about Earth's disasters, though these form the essential backdrop for why this ship and its three sister-ships exist. I read another book recently that is explicitly concerned with Earth disasters, a $1.99 "Kindle Short" called 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming by James Powell. There's really very little about space or any other advanced technologies in this book. Its premise is that we do more or less nothing about human contributions to climate change (i.e., the path we are on now), and that due to various plausible feedback loops and uncertainties in the climate models, we end up with a 6° C (10.8° F) average temperature rise and a one meter (3.3 feet) average sea level rise by 2050. A variety of bad things ensue, many of them indirect side effects of climate change. They are told as "remembered anecdotes" by eyewitnesses to events that took place over many years.

There are obvious ones like the loss of many of the world's low coastal cities (most of Florida's coastal cities as well as most of the Netherlands are lost, not to mention most of Bangladesh). Loss of water supplies devastates the US Southwest, sub-Saharan Africa, and many other areas and leads to wars over water supplies, including a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. There are so many mega-storms that they are no longer named, but numbered by year, like 2048-9, and a huge storm in 2042 inundates and destroys major parts of New York City. Most of the US mid-west becomes too warm and dry to grow wheat, while Canada's climate makes it the new breadbasket - and leads to invasion and war with the United States! This sounds implausible, but consider that problems with water, food, and immigration (huge numbers of climate refugees heading for Europe, USA, and other areas) have led to the rise of Fascist governments in many countries, including the USA. There's more - a total of 18 anecdotes in this brief, fictional "oral history."

It's not the greatest writing (e.g., I was annoyed by the abundance of "local color" foreign expressions that the author inserted in most anecdotes, apparently to remind you that this was not an American "speaking"), but it is very thought-provoking. It is something of a worst-case, because although we can't be sure that technology will save us, surely some of the developments of today will help, with bio-engineered fuels and solar desalinization, for example. I'm not assuming space colonies (though I certainly favor an off-planet insurance policy for mankind), but lower cost access to space combined with robotic tech could probably lead to practical solar power satellites that would greatly help the energy supply - I'm thinking SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy. Yes, Elon Musk will save us! I know he can do it.

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