Science Fiction

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Read: The Three Body Problem

Good science fiction is thought-provoking. It raises questions of morality, social cohesion and cooperation, or of the impact of life-altering technologies or drugs. Liu’s The Three Body Problem is good science fiction.

Set in China, the story of The Three Body Problem presents an unfamiliar perspective. Part of it takes place shortly after the Great Leap Forward, during the Cultural Revolution – I wonder how accurate Liu’s narrative of this period is. The translator felt it necessary to add explanatory footnotes to aid the western reader in this alien context. On the other hand, the novel addresses a classic question in science fiction: First contact and the effect of having proof for extraterrestrial intelligent life and advanced technology.

Liu paints a bleak picture. A few Individuals driven by their personal fate and disillusionment may be able to wreak havoc on a global scale. Relinquishing all hope for the betterment of human society they rather opt for its annihilation, inviting an alien force that seeks to escape their own fate of doom.

Now, a still fragmented human society faces the threat of an alien invasion in the far future. And the novel ends.

Read: Trekonomics

Post-scarcity is not just a recent idea, predicted in such work like The 2nd Machine Age as a result of the imminent and highly anticipated singularity, and it is not just the necessary condition for implementing the communist dream, it is the world of Star Trek (after the Original Series). Manu Saadia tries to analyze this science fiction utopia in Trekonomics from an economic perspective.

It’s all there and, still, it also seems lacking.

Saadia clearly identifies Star Trek (of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager) as a post-scarcity society. The Replicator, the technological offspring of the Transporter of the Original Series, can produce any goods you want. As a result, in the Federation, there are no unfulfilled material needs anymore. The economic problem has been solved by abundance.

The existence of the Replicator is, however, not a sufficient condition. Saadia, identifies this, too. Only the free (as in speech) and free (as in beer) access to it, effectively the provision of the Replicator as a public good, allows Federation citizens to enjoy the benefits of goods at marginal costs of zero. Instant recycling reduces the cost of any choice further (in terms of post decision regret and resources forewent), it eliminates any lasting material consequence, basically eliminating the need to consider tradeoffs. No economic problem remains.

Hence, a technology able to create abundance and a policy decision to allow free access to this technology (eliminating capitalism) are necessary for creating the utopia of Star Trek.

Saadia also explains the absence of money - a consequence of having all necessities and even luxury goods freely available (How do you define these in the absence of an income elasticity of demand?), there is no need for exchange and therefore no need for a numeraire that can serve to facilitate exchange. He also explains the absence of paid work (the marginal product of labor must be zero in material terms if the price of goods is zero) and the shift to status seeking instead. Status seeking is then also responsible for even further development and improvement of technology.

Capitalism was required to create the knowledge and the machines; once production reached its singularity society was able to transcend. All in all, Saadia identifies the key points.

He also discusses singular topics like externalities, collective action, and the curious case of the merchant race, the Ferengis. (So, there still is trade after all!)

So, why seems Trekonomics lacking?

Saadia puts the cart before the horse. The economic implications of the Replicator are only discussed after he tells about the absence of money, the change in the nature of and motivation for work. And only then he mentions the importance of policy, growth, and the limitless resource: ideas. This sequence, I argue, hinders an in-depth and logically progressing analysis of the economic history of Star Trek.

While the exposition is easily grasped by laypersons, some more technical discussions (maybe in appendixes) would have been (more) fun for the more trained (in economics) Star Trek aficionado.

Trekonomics is very much a personal account, the general Sci-Fi affinity of the author is obvious and, of course, appropriate. It is appropriate that Asimov gets plenty of credit for his influence on Sci-Fi in general and Roddenberry and Star Trek in particular.

If I write that Trekonomics is lacking it is not because it is bad. It is because it could have been (and I hoped for) more in-depth, more detailed, more an Economics of Star Trek, more an Economic History of Star Trek, more… just more.

Read: Rise of the Terran Empire

The decline and the fall of the Polesotechnic League: The style, approach, and content is different but Anderson’s (short) novels reminded me of Asimov’s Foundation. It is grand.

I liked the “intergalactic entrepreneur as hero”-theme; I would have liked to read more of it. Cut-throat, scheming business men, space exploration, (inter-species) camaraderie, and philanthropic, culture-preserving, selfless acts, and maybe a tad too much space battle make for very good entertainment (and laymen social science).

As this book marks the end of the Polesotechnic League trilogy collection it is also a new beginning. Let’s see what the collection of Flandry novels will offer.

Read: Black Order

With now having read the third book in a series by James Rollins, he is now officially part of my rotation.

Black Order is a nice mix of action adventure, thriller, and science fiction. It is certainly not (high brow) literature but it is good for relaxing a couple of hours. Even though the characters (within a given book) still remain a bit flat, over the course of several novels in the series there is now some noticeable character development.

And even though I did not want to think (much) while reading the (such a) book, there was an interesting take on intelligent design.

Two things annoyed me.

First, the publisher should spend some money on a foreign language editor before a book is printed. There are some foreign language words and phrases (as it happens, most of them in German) that are just plain wrong. At least once I could only get the meaning after trying to conceive how an automatic translation would translate that phrase. At any rate, the title of the book should be translated correctly: And no, “Black Order” is not “Schwarzer Auftrag.”

Second, the book could have ended one supernatural experience earlier.

Read: David Falkayn: Star Trader

Reading Anderson’s Technic Civilization Sage makes you feel like a historian who tries to piece together the story of a society long gone by looking at a few personal accounts, by following the exploits, the fates and fortunes, of a few exceptional individuals. There are no records of ordinary persons.

You may get romantic notions of adventures, reckless and successful quests. And yet, Anderson manages to also show the dark(er) side, to hint at the fate of those left behind. That is quite an accomplishment. I still believe that not writing a unified tome (with multiple time lines, going back and forth), not putting everything in one book but having a collection of short stories and novellas is cause for how much better this work seems compared to other, more recent space operas.

The self-contained small(er) pieces are fun to read. You a read a story and you can put down the book feeling (entertained and) satisfied and rewarded. Reading never becomes chore, you do not have to read on so that something …anything happens! Instead a lot is happening in just a few pages. Of course, the frequent re-introductions of the protagonists are repetitive but some new facets are added to the characters every time and so you do not mind.

A final observation, though. While the physics (as far as you can expect from a science fiction novel) and economics seems sound (ok, this is not a textbook) I am not so sure about the armchair sociobiology that Anderson is feeding his readers. On the other hand, given that the short stories and novellas were written in the 60s and early 70s he was certainly was at the forefront of the idea that and how biological factors (like being a herbivore, carnivore, omnivore) determine individual social behavior and society. E. O. Wilson’s Sociobiology was only published in the mid-70s.

Read: The Van Rijn Method

A good work of science fiction, a space opera does not need to be a monolithic (and maybe even multi-volume) tome. In fact, the collection of short stories and novella(s) that I have just begun proves to be much more enjoyable than some of the tomes that I have read recently.

Poul Anderson’s Technic Civilization Saga really makes me wonder why today’s authors choose to write these huge tomes with a story that drags on and on and needs to be constantly interrupted with a second and third (sub)plot to create the illusion of breath taking action and a plot with substance.

A short story allows to play with a single idea, to focus on one single message. As soon as the point is made the author can stop. It’s like a good speech that does neither exhaust the topic nor the audience. The reader hungers for more.

The novella, then, allows to develop the characters, and the social and economic context in the necessary detail. There is no need for interrupting (sub)plots. A story is told that fits into a larger whole.

As a result every part of the collection brings something new. Reading it does never feel like a chore. It is fast paced. Yet, despite the many different characters that provide the context the reader is never lost. Hence, there is no need for a list of characters or a glossary that you find so often in more modern science fiction and fantasy.

More specifically, reading The Van Rijn Methods evokes the feeling of being a historian working with primary sources. The short stories and novella are pieces of a big puzzle. Maybe some pieces are missing so some parts of the puzzle will show fewer and some parts more details. The gaps are good. Every piece is different. Every piece entertains. Every piece has its own message. I am looking forward to the next six volumes of the collection. And this time, there is no fear that Anderson may not be able to keep up with the standard his first volume has set.

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