Slides from my presentation at Worldcon

Whether you are a regular reader curious about my Worldcon talk, or a Worldcon visitor interested in seeing the slides, The slides from my presentation, “How do we get to the Federation from here?” can be found here.

Alien invasions: Could they happen, and could we survive?

July 30, JDN 2457600

alien-invasion

It’s not actually the top-grossing film in the US right now (that would be The Secret Life of Pets), but Independence Day: Resurgence made a quite respectable gross of $343 million worldwide, giving it an ROI of 108% over its budget of $165 million. It speaks to something deep in our minds—and since most of the money came from outside the US, apparently not just Americans, though it is a deeply American film—about the fear, but perhaps also the excitement, of a possible alien invasion.

So, how likely are alien invasions anyway?

Well, first of all, how likely are aliens?

One of the great mysteries of astronomy is the Fermi Paradox: Everything we know about astronomy, biology, and probability tells us that there should be, somewhere out in the cosmos, a multitude of extraterrestrial species, and some of them should even be intelligent enough to form civilizations and invent technology. So why haven’t we found any clear evidence of any of them?

Indeed, the Fermi Paradox became even more baffling in just the last two years, as we found literally thousands of new extrasolar planets, many of them quite likely to be habitable. More extrasolar planets have been found since 2014 than in all previous years of human civilization. Perhaps this is less surprising when we remember that no extrasolar planets had ever been confirmed before 1992—but personally I think that just makes it this much more amazing that we are lucky enough to live in such a golden age of astronomy.

The Drake equation was supposed to tell us how probable it is that we should encounter an alien civilization, but the equation isn’t much use to us because so many of its terms are so wildly uncertain. Maybe we can pin down how many planets there are soon, but we still don’t know what proportion of planets can support life, what proportion of those actually have life, or above all what proportion of ecosystems ever manage to evolve a technological civilization or how long such a civilization is likely to last. All possibilities from “they’re everywhere but we just don’t notice or they actively hide from us” to “we are actually the only ones in the last million years” remain on the table.

But let’s suppose that aliens do exist, and indeed have technology sufficient to reach our solar system. Faster-than-light capability would certainly do it, but it isn’t strictly necessary; with long lifespans, cryonic hibernation, or relativistic propulsion aliens could reasonably expect to travel at least between nearby stars within their lifetimes. The Independence Day aliens appear to have FTL travel, but interestingly it makes the most sense if they do not have FTL communication—it took them 20 years to get the distress call because it was sent at lightspeed. (Or perhaps the ansible was damaged in the war, and they fell back to a lightspeed emergency system?) Otherwise I don’t quite get why it would take the Queen 20 years to deploy her personal battlecruiser after the expeditionary force she sent was destroyed—maybe she was just too busy elsewhere to bother with our backwater planet? What did she want from our planet again?

That brings me to my next point: Just what motivation would aliens have for attacking us? We often take it for granted that if aliens exist, and have the capability to attack us, they would do so. But that really doesn’t make much sense. Do they just enjoy bombarding primitive planets? I guess it’s possible they’re all sadistic psychopaths, but it seems like any civilization stable enough to invent interstellar travel has got to have some kind of ethical norms. Maybe they see us as savages or even animals, and are therefore willing to kill us—but that still means they need a reason.

Another idea, taken seriously in V and less so in Cowboys & Aliens, is that there is some sort of resource we have that they want, and they’re willing to kill us to get it. This is probably such a common trope because it has been a common part of human existence; we are very familiar with people killing other people in order to secure natural resources such as gold, spices, or oil. (Indeed, to some extent it continues to this day.)

But this actually doesn’t make a lot of sense on an interstellar scale. Certainly water (V) and gold (Cowboys & Aliens) are not things they would have even the slightest reason to try to claim from an inhabited planet, as comets are a better source of water and asteroids are a better source of gold. Indeed, almost nothing inorganic could really be cost-effective to obtain from an inhabited planet; far easier to just grab it from somewhere that won’t fight back, and may even have richer veins and lower gravity.

It’s possible they would want something organic—lumber or spices, I guess. But I’m not sure why they’d want those things, and it seems kind of baffling that they wouldn’t just trade if they really want them. I’m sure we’d gladly give up a great deal of oregano and white pine in exchange for nanotechnology and FTL. I guess I could see this happening because they assume we’re too stupid to be worth trading with, or they can’t establish reliable means of communication. But one of the reasons why globalization has succeeded where colonialism failed is that trade is a lot more efficient than theft, and I find it unlikely that aliens this advanced would have failed to learn that lesson.

Media that imagines they’d enslave us makes even less sense; slavery is wildly inefficient, and they probably have such ludicrously high productivity that they are already coping with a massive labor glut. (I suppose maybe they send off unemployed youths to go conquer random planets just to give them something to do with their time? Helps with overpopulation too.)

I actually thought Independence Day: Resurgence did a fairlygood job of finding a resource that is scarce enough to be worth fighting over while also not being something we would willingly trade. Spoiler alert, I suppose:

Molten cores. Now, I haven’t the foggiest what one does with molten planet cores that somehow justifies the expenditure of all that energy flying between solar systems and digging halfway through planets with gigantic plasma drills, but hey, maybe they are actually tremendously useful somehow. They certainly do contain huge amounts of energy, provided you can extract it efficiently. Moreover, they are scarce; of planets we know about, most of them do not have molten cores. Earth, Venus, and Mercury do, and we think Mars once did; but none of the gas giants do, and even if they did, it’s quite plausible that the Queen’s planet-cracker drill just can’t drill that far down. Venus sounds like a nightmare to drill, so really the only planet I’d expect them to extract before Earth would be Mercury. And maybe they figured they needed both cores to justify the trip, in which case it would make sense to hit the inhabited planet first so we don’t have time to react and prepare our defenses. (I can’t imagine we’d take giant alien ships showing up and draining Mercury’s core lying down.) I’m imagining the alien economist right now, working out the cost-benefit analysis of dealing with Venus’s superheated atmosphere and sulfuric acid clouds compared to the cost of winning a war against primitive indigenous apes with nuclear missiles: Well, doubling our shield capacity is cheaper than covering the whole ship in sufficient anticorrosive, so I guess we’ll go hit the ape planet. (They established in the first film that their shields can withstand direct hits from nukes—the aliens came prepared.)

So, maybe killing us for our resources isn’t completely out of the question, but it seems unlikely.

Another possibility is religious fanaticism: Every human culture has religion in some form, so why shouldn’t the aliens? And if they do, it’s likely radically different from anything we believe. If they become convinced that our beliefs are not simply a minor nuisance but an active threat to the holy purity of the galaxy, they could come to our system on a mission to convert or destroy at any cost; and since “convert” seems very unlikely, “destroy” would probably become their objective pretty quickly. It wouldn’t have to make sense in terms of a cost-benefit analysis—fanaticism doesn’t have to make sense at all. The good news here is that any culture fanatical enough to randomly attack other planets simply for believing differently from them probably won’t be cohesive enough to reach that level of technology. (Then again, we somehow managed a world with both ISIS and ICBMs.)

Personally I think there is a far more likely scenario for alien invasions, and that is benevolent imperialism.

Why do I specify “benevolent”? Because if they aren’t interested in helping us, there’s really no reason for them to bother with us in the first place. But if their goal is to uplift our civilization, the only way they can do that is by interacting with us.

Now, note that I use the word “benevolent”, not the word “beneficent”. I think they would have to desire to make our lives better—but I’m not so convinced they actually would make our lives better. In our own history, human imperialism was rarely benevolent in the first place, but even where it was, it was even more rarely actually beneficent. Their culture would most likely be radically different from our own, and what they think of as improvements might seem to us strange, pointless, or even actively detrimental. But don’t you see that the QLX coefficient is maximized if you convert all your mountains into selenium extractors? (This is probably more or less how Native Americans felt when Europeans started despoiling their land for things called “coal” and “money”.) They might even try to alter us biologically to be more similar to them: But haven’t you always wanted tentacles? Hands are so inefficient!

Moreover, even if their intentions were good and their methods of achieving them were sound, it’s still quite likely that we would violently resist. I don’t know if humans are a uniquely rebellious species—let’s hope not, lest the aliens be shocked into overreacting when we rebel—but in general humans do not like being ruled over and forced to do things, even when those rulers are benevolent and the things they are forced to do are worth doing.

So, I think the most likely scenario for a war between humans and aliens is that they come in and start trying to radically reorganize our society, and either because their demands actually are unreasonable, or at least because we think they are, we rebel against their control.

Then what? Could we actually survive?

The good news is: Yes, we probably could.

If aliens really did come down trying to extract our molten core or something, the movies are all wrong: We’d have basically no hope. It really makes no sense at all that we could win a full-scale conflict with a technologically superior species if they were willing to exterminate us. Indeed, if what they were after didn’t depend upon preserving local ecology, their most likely mode of attack is to arrive in the system and immediately glass the planet. Nuclear weapons are already available to us for that task; if they’re more advanced they might have antimatter bombs, relativistic kinetic warheads, or even something more powerful still. We might be all dead before we even realized what was happening, or they might destroy 90% of us right away and mop up the survivors later with little difficulty.

If they wanted something that required ecological stability (I shall henceforth dub this the “oregano scenario”), yet weren’t willing to trade for some reason, then they wouldn’t unleash full devastation, and we’d have the life-dinner principle on our side: The hare runs for his life, but the fox only runs for her dinner. So if the aliens are trying to destroy us to get our delicious spices, we have a certain advantage from the fact that we are willing to win at essentially any cost, while at some point that alien economist is going to run the numbers and say, “This isn’t cost-effective. Let’s cut our losses and hit another system instead.”

If they wanted to convert us to their religion, well, we’d better hope enough people convert, because otherwise they’re going to revert to, you guessed it, glass the planet. At least this means they would probably at least try to communicate first, so we’d have some time to prepare; but it’s unlikely that even if their missionaries spent decades trying to convert us we could seriously reduce our disadvantage in military technology during that time. So really, our best bet is to adopt the alien religion. I guess what I’m really trying to say here is “All Hail Xemu.”

But in the most likely scenario that their goal is actually to make our lives better, or at least better as they see it, they will not be willing to utilize their full military capability against us. They might use some lethal force, especially if they haven’t found reliable means of nonlethal force on sufficient scale; but they aren’t going to try to slaughter us outright. Maybe they kill a few dissenters to set an example, or fire into a crowd to disperse a riot. But they are unlikely to level a city, and they certainly wouldn’t glass the entire planet.

Our best bet would probably actually be nonviolent resistance, as this has a much better track record against benevolent imperialism. Gandhi probably couldn’t have won a war against Britain, but he achieved India’s independence because he was smart enough to fight on the front of public opinion. Likewise, even with one tentacle tied behind their backs by their benevolence, the aliens would still probably be able to win any full-scale direct conflict; but if our nonviolent resistance grew strong enough, they might finally take the hint and realize we don’t want their so-called “help”.

So, how about someone makes that movie? Aliens come to our planet, not to kill us, but to change us, make us “better” according to their standards. QLX coefficients are maximized, and an intrepid few even get their tentacles installed. But the Resistance arises, and splits into two factions: One tries to use violence, and is rapidly crushed by overwhelming firepower, while the other uses nonviolent resistance. Ultimately the Resistance grows strong enough to overthrow the alien provisional government, and they decide to cut their losses and leave our planet. Then, decades later, we go back to normal, and wonder if we made the right decision, or if maybe QLX coefficients really were the most important thing after all.

[The image is released under a CC0 copyleft from Pixabay.]

The Expanse gets the science right—including the economics

JDN 2457502

Despite constantly working on half a dozen projects at once (literally—preparing to start my PhD, writing this blog, working at my day job, editing a novel, preparing to submit a nonfiction book, writing another nonfiction book with three of my friends as co-authors, and creating a card game—that’s seven actually), I do occasionally find time to do things for fun. One I’ve been doing lately is catching up on The Expanse on DVR (I’m about halfway through the first season so far).

If you’re not familiar with The Expanse, it has been fairly aptly described as Battlestar Galactica meets Game of Thrones, though I think that particular comparison misrepresents the tone and attitudes of the series, because both BG and GoT are so dark and cynical (“It’s a nice day… for a… red wedding!”). I think “Star Trek meets Game of Thrones” might be better actually—the extreme idealism of Star Trek would cancel out the extreme cynicism of Game of Thrones, with the result being a complex mix of idealism and cynicism that more accurately reflects the real world (a world where Mahatma Gandhi and Adolf Hitler lived at the same time). That complex, nuanced world (or should I say worlds?) is where The Expanse takes place. ST is also more geopolitical than BG and The Expanse is nothing if not geopolitical.

But The Expanse is not just psychologically realistic—it is also scientifically and economically realistic. It may in fact be the hardest science fiction I have ever encountered, and is definitely the hardest science fiction I’ve seen in a television show. (There are a few books that might be slightly harder, as well as some movies based on them.)

The only major scientific inaccuracy I’ve been able to find so far is the use of sound effects in space, and actually even these can be interpreted as reflecting an omniscient narrator perspective that would hear any sounds that anyone would hear, regardless of what planet or ship they might be on. The sounds the audience hears all seem to be sounds that someone would hear—there’s simply no particular person who would hear all of them. When people are actually thrown into hard vacuum, we don’t hear them make any noise.

Like Firefly (and for once I think The Expanse might actually be good enough to deserve that comparison), there is no FTL, no aliens, no superhuman AI. Human beings are bound within our own solar system, and travel between planets takes weeks or months depending on your energy budget. They actually show holograms projecting the trajectory of various spacecraft and the trajectories actually make good sense in terms of orbital mechanics. Finally screenwriters had the courage to give us the terrifying suspense and inevitability of an incoming nuclear missile rounding a nearby asteroid and intercepting your trajectory, where you have minutes to think about it but not nearly enough delta-v to get out of its blast radius. That is what space combat will be like, if we ever have space combat (as awesome as it is to watch, I strongly hope that we will not ever actually do it). Unlike what Star Trek would have you believe, space is not a 19th century ocean.

They do have stealth in space—but it requires technology that even to them is highly advanced. Moreover it appears to only work for relatively short periods and seems most effective against civilian vessels that would likely lack state-of-the-art sensors, both of which make it a lot more plausible.

Computers are more advanced in the 2200s then they were in the 2000s, but not radically so, at most a million times faster, about what we gained since the 1980s. I’m guessing a smartphone in The Expanse runs at a few petaflops. Essentially they’re banking on Moore’s Law finally dying sometime in the mid 21st century, but then, so am I. Perhaps a bit harder to swallow is that no one has figured out good enough heuristics to match human cognition; but then, human cognition is very tightly optimized.

Spacecraft don’t have artificial gravity except for the thrust of their engines, and people float around as they should when ships are freefalling. They actually deal with the fact that Mars and Ceres have lower gravity than Earth, and the kinds of health problems that result from this. (One thing I do wish they’d done is had the Martian cruiser set a cruising acceleration of Mars-g—about 38% Earth-g—that would feel awkward and dizzying to their Earther captives. Instead they basically seem to assume that Martians still like to use Earth-g for space transit, but that does make some sense in terms of both human health and simply transit time.) It doesn’t seem like people move around quite awkwardly enough in the very low gravity of Ceres—which should be only about 3% Earth-g—but they do establish that electromagnetic boots are ubiquitous and that could account for most of this.

They fight primarily with nuclear missiles and kinetic weapons, and the damage done by nuclear missiles is appropriately reduced by the fact that vacuum doesn’t transmit shockwaves. (Nuclear missiles would still be quite damaging in space by releasing large amounts of wide-spectrum radiation; but they wouldn’t cause the total devastation they do within atmosphere.) Oddly they decided not to go with laser weapons as far as I can tell, which actually seems to me like they’ve underestimated advancement; laser weapons have a number of advantages that would be particularly useful in space, once we can actually make them affordable and reliable enough for widespread deployment. There could also be a three-tier system, where missiles are used at long range, railguns at medium range, and lasers at short range. (Yes, short range—the increased speed of lasers would be only slight compared to a good railgun, and would be more than offset by the effect of diffraction. At orbital distances, a laser is a shotgun.) Then again, it could well work out that railguns are just better—depending on how vessels are structured, puncturing their hulls with kinetic rounds could well be more useful than burning them up with infrared lasers.

But I think what really struck me about the realism of The Expanse is how it even makes the society realistic (in a way that, say, Firefly really doesn’t—we wanted a Western and we got a Western!).

The only major offworld colonies are Mars and Ceres, both of which seem to be fairly well-established, probably originally colonized as much as a century ago. Different societies have formed on each world; Earth has largely united under the United Nations (one of the lead characters is an undersecretary for the UN), but meanwhile Mars has split off into its own independent nation (“Martian” is now an ethnicity like “German” rather than meaning “extraterrestrial”), and the asteroid belt colonists, while formally still under Earth’s government, think of themselves as a different culture (“Belters”) and are seeking independence. There are some fairly obvious—but deftly managed rather than heavy-handed—parallels between the Belter independence movement and real-world independence movements, particularly Palestine (it’s hard not to think of the PLO when they talk about the OPA). Both Mars and the Belt have their own languages, while Earth’s languages have largely coalesced around English as the language of politics and commerce. (If the latter seems implausible, I remind you that the majority of the Internet and all international air traffic control are in English.) English is the world’s lingua franca (which is a really bizarre turn of phrase because it’s the Latin for French).

There is some of the conniving and murdering of Game of Thrones, but it is at a much more subdued level, and all of the major factions display both merits and flaws. There is no clear hero and no clear villain, just conflict and misunderstanding between a variety of human beings each with their own good and bad qualities. There does seem to be a sense that the most idealistic characters suffer for their idealism much as the Starks often do, but unlike the Starks they usually survive and learn from the experience. Indeed, some of the most cynical also seem to suffer for their cynicism—in the episode I just finished, the grizzled UN Colonel assumed the worst of his adversary and ended up branded “the butcher of Anderson Station”.

Cost of living on Ceres is extraordinarily high because of the limited living space (the apartments look a lot like the tiny studios of New York or San Francisco), and above all the need to constantly import air and water from Earth. A central plot point in the first episode is that a ship carrying comet ice—i.e., water—to Ceres is lost in a surprise attack by unknown adversaries with advanced technology, and the result is a deepening of an already dire water shortage, exacerbating the Belter’s craving for rebellion.

Air and water are recyclable, so it wouldn’t be that literally every drink and every breath needs to be supplied from outside—indeed that would clearly be cost-prohibitive. But recycling is never perfect, and Ceres also appears to have a growing population, both of which would require a constant input of new resources to sustain. It makes perfect sense that the most powerful people on Ceres are billionaire tycoons who own water and air transport corporations.

The police on Ceres (of which another lead character is a detective) are well-intentioned but understaffed, underfunded and moderately corrupt, similar to what we seem to find in large inner-city police departments like the NYPD and LAPD. It felt completely right when they responded to an attempt to kill a police officer with absolutely overwhelming force and little regard for due process and procedure—for this is what real-world police departments almost always do.

But why colonize the asteroid belt at all? Mars is a whole planet, there is plenty there—and in The Expanse they are undergoing terraforming at a very plausible rate (there’s a moving scene where a Martian says to an Earther, “We’re trying to finish building our garden before you finish paving over yours.”). Mars has as much land as Earth, and it has water, abundant metals, and CO2 you could use to make air.Even just the frontier ambition could be enough to bring us to Mars.

But why go to Ceres? The explanation The Expanse offers is a very sensible one: Mining, particularly so-called “rare earth metals”. Gold and platinum might have been profitable to mine at first, but once they became plentiful the market would probably collapse or at least drop off to a level where they aren’t particularly expensive or interesting—because they aren’t useful for very much. But neodymium, scandium, and prometheum are all going to be in extremely high demand in a high-tech future based on nuclear-powered spacecraft, and given that we’re already running out of easily accessible deposits on Earth, by the 2200s there will probably be basically none left. The asteroid belt, however, will have plenty for centuries to come.

As a result Ceres is organized like a mining town, or perhaps an extractive petrostate (metallostate?); but due to lightspeed interplanetary communication—very important in the series—and some modicum of free speech it doesn’t appear to have attained more than a moderate level of corruption. This also seems realistic; the “end-of-history” thesis is often overstated, but the basic idea that some form of democracy and welfare-state capitalism is fast becoming the only viable model of governance does seem to be true, and that is almost certainly the model of governance we would export to other planets. In such a system corruption can only get so bad before it is shown on the mass media and people won’t take it anymore.

The show doesn’t deal much with absolute dollar (or whatever currency) numbers, which is probably wise; but nominal incomes on Ceres are likely extremely high even though the standard of living is quite poor, because the tiny living space and need to import air and water would make prices (literally?) astronomical. Most people on Ceres seem to have grown up there, but the initial attraction could have been something like the California Gold Rush, where rumors of spectacularly high incomes clashed with similarly spectacular expenses incurred upon arrival. “Become a millionaire!” “Oh, by the way, your utility bill this month is $112,000.”

Indeed, even the poor on Ceres don’t seem that poor, which is a very nice turn toward realism that a lot of other science fiction shows seem unprepared to make. In Firefly, the poor are poor—they can barely afford food and clothing, and have no modern conveniences whatsoever. (“Jaynestown”, perhaps my favorite episode, depicts this vividly.) But even the poor in the US today are rarely that poor; our minimalistic and half-hearted welfare state has a number of cracks one can fall through, but as long as you get the benefits you’re supposed to get you should be able to avoid starvation and homelessness. Similarly I find it hard to believe that any society with high enough productivity to routinely build interstellar spacecraft the way we build container ships would not have at least the kind of welfare state that provides for the most basic needs. Chronic dehydration is probably still a problem for Belters, because water would be too expensive to subsidize in this way; but they all seem to have fairly nice clothes, home appliances, and smartphones, and that seems right to me. At one point a character loses his arm, and the “cheap” solution is a cybernetic prosthetic—the “expensive” one would be to grow him a new arm. As today but perhaps even more so, poverty in The Expanse is really about inequality—the enormous power granted to those who have millions of times as much as others. (Another show that does this quite well, though is considerably softer as far as the physics, is Continuum. If I recall correctly, Alec Sadler in 2079 is literally a trillionaire.)

Mars also appears to be a democracy, and actually quite a thriving one. In many ways Mars appears to be surpassing Earth economically and technologically. This suggests that Mars was colonized with our best and brightest, but not necessarily; Australians have done quite well for themselves despite being founded as a penal colony. Mars colonization would also have a way of justifying their frontier idealism that no previous frontiers have granted: No indigenous people to displace, no local ecology to despoil, and no gifts from the surrounding environment. You really are working entirely out of your own hard work and know-how (and technology and funding from Earth of course) to establish a truly new world on the open and unspoiled frontier. You’re not naive or a hypocrite, it’s the real truth. That kind of realistic idealism could make the Martian Dream a success in ways even the American Dream never quite was.

In all it is a very compelling series, and should appeal to people like me who crave geopolitical nuance in fiction. But it also has its moments of huge space battles with exploding star cruisers, so there’s that.