Saturday, July 08, 2006

Prophetic Science Fiction

Stephen Baxter is considered a “hard” science fiction writer, which I take to mean that he is scrupulous about the science in his books, but it also has implications of writers who are more interested in technical, scientific things as opposed to writers more interested in the human subjects of their stories. It seems like a fairly bogus distinction, but for what it’s worth, I grew up reading and loving “soft” science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison, Ursula LeGuin, Norman Spinrad, Robert Silverberg and Phillip Dick. And while I still like these authors (although I haven’t read anything by Ellison or Spinrad in decades), the science fiction writers I feel drawn to these days are people like Baxter, Gregory Benford, and Greg Bear. What I like about them, aside from the fact that they’re each good writers, is that they take the latest understanding of the universe and science today—ideas of mind-bending consequence—and craft fiction about it. And their books are a kind of painless way to learn what scientists are thinking about the universe—easier than reading a Stephen Hawking book, anyway.

So I read Transcendent, which is the latest Baxter novel and part of a “trilogy” of loosely connected novels, and also part of Baxter’s Xeelee novels. I said Baxter is a good writer, but alas, he named the most important aliens in his novel the Xeelee. Nobody’s perfect…

The Xeelee novels all take place in a universe where dark matter life called “photino birds” are draining the stars of energy and causing them to go nova long before they would normally do so. So by the time humans evolve, the sun only has about five million years left, instead of the four billion or so that it would have if it were to fuse its hydrogen at a normal rate. The Xeelee are a sophisticated, mysterious group of aliens that evolved very early in the evolution of our universe and are engaged in a universe-wide war against the photino birds. The photino birds are winning and cannot be defeated, but the Xeelee hope to hinder them long enough to build an escape route out of this universe.

Meanwhile, humanity evolves, manages to make it off Earth without self-destructing, expands in the galaxy, has some bad experiences with some hostile aliens, but eventually establishes mastery over the Milky Way, even driving the Xeelee away.

Some humans deduce what is going on with the photino birds, but for the most part, humanity has no idea that there is a war between dark matter and “baryonic” matter (the kind of matter we’re made of), and that maybe we should be on the Xeelee team. The Xeelee, for their part, don’t help—they make no attempt to communicate with humans, and are unremittingly hostile.

Ultimately, the Xeelee escape this universe and a few humans manage it as well. And entropy—sped along by the photino birds—sets in and the universe quietly goes out.

That, in a nutshell, is the backdrop to several novels, including Transcendent.

Part of Transcendent is set 300,000 years in the future, and part is set about 50 years from now. The more-or-less contemporary part is the more interesting. Baxter, assuming Transcendent represents his understanding of the world, is quite worried about global warming. He characterizes it as a “bottleneck” in human history—a point in time where if we don’t pass through the bottleneck, that may be the end of the species. (Other bottlenecks occurred early in the evolution of homo sapiens, when our ancestors’ populations got low enough that a single weather or disease disaster could easily have destroyed the species.) One character, Michael Poole, turns out to be as much as any single individual responsible for getting us through the bottleneck caused by global warming—preventing it from turning into an extinction event.

Baxter is very good at describing how such warming-related extinction events happened in the past, killing most life on Earth. I think the Cassandras of global warming should speak about these earlier biological catastrophes. (Although to understand them, you have to accept that evolution happened, which is a stumbling block for many, alas.)

Interestingly, the world has realized what is happening and has been taking drastic action for decades to arrest and reverse the warming. But changing the climate is like steering an aircraft carrier—it takes a long time for it to turn.

One thing he writes, in a bit of expository dialogue (a requirement for all hard science fiction), reminded me of my own entry about the end of oil:

Look at it from the point of view of an industrialist in, say, 2020. The shift to hydrogen, the need for new power generation systems, the dislocation of getting rid of the automobile—even if you could get your head around such vast changes, you didn’t have the infrastructure in place, the raw materials, the patents to exploit them; you didn’t have things sewn up the way your daddy used to. So it was better to resist change, to keep your head down, hoping that it would all go away, or at least hope the storm wouldn’t break until you finished your own career.

This strikes me as undeniably true. This is why I wrote that government intervention is necessary. It buys time for those patents to be filed, that infrastructure to be built.

Baxter is usually quite pessimistic about humanity. (After all, humans never quite figure out the Xeelee and photino birds over the millions of years spanned in his books.) But he does suggest that in the mid-2020s, after a few scary environmental disasters, the U.S.A. makes a big change, lead by government through some draconian regulation and taxation, but executed mostly by industry. While I hope we never have to do anything quite as draconian as is described in Transcendent (one aspect of it—no more cars), I think government intervention is necessary because the market is simply not going to take care of externalities, and certainly not externalities whose negative effects occur in the future, like warming-related extinction events.

Transcendent is an unusually timely science fiction novel.

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