The Lights in the Sky Are Stars

I was thinking about interstellar colonization, and colonization generally, and how most of our current fictional treatments of it—specifically our explanations for why people do it—are stupid, either trying to terrorize or bribe mankind, and in both cases with lies. On the one hand you have the over-population thing, or other far-fetched, snowball's chance in hell disaster scenarios necessitating the abandonment of Earth; on the other you have warmed-over Tsiolkovskian mystagoguery, the silly idea that merely hurtling through space in microscopic metal tubes instead of on a pinprick-sized lump of rock will somehow grant some kind of spiritual insight. I call the first, as you know, "apocryphal apocalypses"; the latter I think I'll call "epiperipheral epiphanies". (Yes, in this context it's just a twenty-dollar word for "shallow". But it's worth forking over the Jacksons to get the euphonious parallelism.)

Interstellar, incidentally, actually manages to combine the two in one thing: it's got both an apocryphal apocalypse and an epiperipheral epiphany. (Late Addendum: Apparently, that's no coincidence, and the apocryphal apocalypse is actually in service to the—tired, indescribably shopworn—epiperipheral epiphany.)

But neither is valid. Other than a very, very broad "not all eggs in one basket" type of thing (which, again, space-habitats in the Lagrange points, not interstellar colonization), there simply isn't anything scary or urgent enough to warrant an undertaking of the scale of space-colonization (not even of the scale involved in building O'Neill Islands, really). And there really is no God out there—again, not who's not much more conveniently reachable right here. How many of you have genuinely gotten your minds around the fact that space is not "the heavens"? Not as many as ought to have, if the fact this drivel manages to resonate with so many is any indication.

No, the only real reason for space-colonization is "because it's there". And, well, also, "because we're here—and we could just as well be there". All of the stars are suns like ours. It might be wrong to take them from someone else, but if nobody else has claimed one, or its planets—which are all worlds just like this one, not special, as Buridan offended the Peripatetics by insisting—then it does no harm for us to add them to our collection.

Rather than needing a reason for interplanetary or interstellar colonization (coming up with which always requires very far-fetched story-distortions), the actual question is why not to colonize. "More people living more places" is an intrinsic good, and the burden of proof is on him that would deny those seeking after an intrinsic good. The funny thing about humans is that anything they may want is, in and of itself, good—they couldn't want it, otherwise—and any evil attendant on a particular desire can only be circumstantial, through desiring the good in question to the exclusion of higher priorities, or under the wrong conditions. So "a place for humans to live" is, in and of itself, a good, a reason to seek space-habitation, and possibly worth making the necessary sacrifices (provided that one is smart and minimizes the sacrifices necessary—otherwise the good in question will have skipped over into "to the exclusion of higher priorities").

Incidentally, this post's title phrase—which appears not only in Gurren Lagann but as a chapter-title in The Coattails of God: The Ultimate Spaceflight—The Trip to the Stars, by Robert M. Powers—is a book by Fredric Brown, from 1953. It's about an aging astronaut in a future (the 1990s, it was written in 1953) where, after flights to the Moon and Venus (maybe Mars?), all the space-exploration budgets get slashed (tell us again how amazingly prescient Wells' "land ironclads" were!). The guy and a senator basically work together to push through funding for a Jupiter mission. It also predicts the fall of the Soviet Union, another piece of prescience very unusual for science fiction writers till, oh, 1989, and pretty much unheard of in 1953.


De romanicorum theoriarum X

Spec fic thoughts.
  • I know I have mentioned that transhumanism shares an origin with Russian Cosmism. Apparently that's actually fairly widely acknowledged; both are quasi-millenarian eschatologies attached to the then-current "hot" technology. But apparently its links to space-weirdness are much more immediate than that. A comment, on an article about how "mind uploading" is the desire to have your Pre-Tribulation Rapture and eat it too, was about how a lot of the early transhumanism conjecture was originally think-tank speculations about space colonization. Mostly from the L5 Society, a space-colonization advocacy group closely associated with the ideas of Gerard K. O'Neill (it's since, according to Wikipedia, merged with the National Space Institute).

    For example, the original form of the "abolish involuntary death" thing? Suspended animation for interstellar missions. The original purpose of a lot of their AI speculation was for making long-range unmanned missions able to cope with the unexpected. Apparently Drexler, of "coined the term 'gray goo'" fame, originally began speculating about nano-tech in the context of, e.g., nano-engineered materials for solar sails. His original idea was bionic, the tech modeled on organic, living structures and their operations (that's what "bionic" means, you know—it's a synonym of "biomimetic", although that term is more specific—remember, contrary to what the Devil's Catechisms called thesauruses teach, synonyms are seldom wholly coterminous).

    And honestly, considering their origins, I'm kinda glad they morphed into transhumanism. Bad video games and funding research into the intrinsically impossible are a long sight easier to take than a Colony Drop. (And maybe it's a good thing we're nowhere near having colonies yet: crash the ISS into the planet at the speed of a typical asteroid impact, and it only hits with 14.5 kilotons of force. That's about 2/3 as big as the Little Boy, admittedly, but not an extinction-level event. Crash an Island Three into the planet at that speed—assuming its mass varies from that of an Island One, 95.5 teragrams, as much as its volume does, 22,869 times—and it hits with 75.4 teratons of force, almost exactly 3/4 the force of the Chicxulub impact.)
  • I don't have anywhere in my books to put something of the sort, but apparently there's a bird (that might also be a dromaeosaur) called Microraptor. Apparently it was very common in China in the Early Cretaceous—being the size of a pigeon or small crow, and probably living like a pigeon (it probably wasn't smart enough to live like a crow). They think they mostly glided but also, occasionally, flew. The reason they think Microraptor mostly glided (also the reason I bring it up)? Well...it had four wings. We've got the preserved impressions of the flight feathers on its hindlegs.

    In other "weird dinosaur anatomy" news, though not that extreme, did you know parrots have a hinge on their upper jaw? It's called the craniofacial hinge; I think it changes the leverage for cracking nuts. And then there's the fact ostriches are not the only birds with claws in their wings ("ostriches have claws in their wings", just to get us all on the same page). Owls, chickens, and waterfowl often do too. As in normally, not like those occasional humans born with tails. It's not just hoatzins (which have claws as adults, they're just only particularly useful when they're chicks).
  • Was thinking about Talos, and Sigmar, and the Emperor of Man—so about Sigmar, basically. The people who wrote Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and those who copied them (some of them were probably copying themselves), were obviously trying, by their divinized emperor, to make a low-calorie substitute for Christianity, for their fantasy setting. Leaving to one side the fact many if not most historic "Emperors" were divinized, without creating something much like Christianity...Christianity is actually the exact opposite. Christ is not divinized man, man exalting himself; he is humanized God, God abasing himself.

    Interestingly, I think, the rather vague concept of "the Light", in Warcraft, achieves a much closer result—since The Light is at least an overarching cosmic reality one might describe as "the form of the Good". Talos is just Lorkhan, Sigmar is just ancestor-worship, and the Corpse on the Golden Throne is just the Collective Unconscious given human shape—none of which is remotely comparable to what "God" means, in the "Judaeo-Christian" context. One gets the impression that the writers of Warhammer, and their imitators, think that God is a god. And he really, really isn't. He's not even a being; he's Being.

    (One is reminded of those atheists, often to be found in the comboxes of Christian websites, who think that disbelief in the Christian God is a thing like disbelief in Odin. This casts their oft-repeated catchphrases about "Bronze Age myth" into sharp relief—because the idea that God was "a particular god", the only one they were allowed to worship, was actually the position of the Jews in the earliest days of their religion...which is the terminal phase of the Bronze Age. By the time we get to the First (Solomon's) Temple, we're already well into the Iron Age. Identification of Ha-Shem with Ultimate Reality—understanding of the true significance of his Name, and abandonment of "henotheism" for monotheism—can only be definitively placed to the Second Temple period, either due to contact with Persian thought, or even because of contact with Platonism in the Hellenistic era.)
  • Not directly speculative-fiction, but certainly relevant to more than a little of it, is the interesting fact that not one of the "big three" New World civilizations is referred to by the right name. "Maya", for example, is a term used only by the Yucatec and Itza' ("Yucatec", incidentally, is not their name, being Nahuatl—"Maya" is). From what I can tell, and as I believe I've mentioned before, the only collective term for "Mayan"-speaking cultures is something along the lines of "Yoko T'an", which probably means "clear talkers", i.e. "not babbling barbarians".

    "Clear speech" is also what "Nahuatl" means, as distinct from "nonoalcah" (s. "noalcatl"), the babbling-barbarian "deaf-mutes". And while we're at it, nobody was ever called "Aztecs"; the term, again, is forbidden, since Aztlan is the Place of Emergence and that's always esoteric. The people we usually think of by that term actually called themselves Mexica (whence "Mexico") or Tenochca (after their center, Tenochtitlan...which would become Mexico City); their chief rivals were the Tlaxcaltecah of the Tlaxcala Alliance. If there is a collective term for Nahuatl-speaking peoples, other than something deriving from "Nahuatl", I think it's "Colhua", which means something like "people with ancestors", i.e. "civilized"; their specifically city-dwelling "civilized" portion (which was never all Nahuatl-speakers) might have been called Toltecah, which means literally "reed people" but idiomatically "artisans", and is always contrasted with Chichimecah "savages".

    Finally, the Inca: "inka" is just their word for "aristocrat". Calling the whole society that is like calling the Hohenzollern state "the Junker Empire". The "Inca Empire" was actually known as "Tawantinsuyu", which means "(State of) the Four Directions". The people themselves seem to have been called simply "Runa" or "Nuna", which (per usual) means "people", although the Spanish called their language(s) "quechua", from something like "ketsua", which seems to mean the temperate altitudes in the Andes that are suitable for growing corn (so, metonymically, something like "corn-growers", if it were a demonym).
  • Tried to get into "Dantalion no Shoka". Nothing doing. See, the guy's a British aristocrat. Worse, his uncle seems to have been killed (I seem to recall there's actually more to it than that) by a rival book-collector.

    If the phrase "rival collector" made the words "18th century cow-creamer" spring unbidden to your lips, you have the same problem I do. Namely, P. G. Wodehouse has utterly demolished any mystique the British aristocracy could possibly have. You might as well try to pass off Martha's Vineyard as Innsmouth.

    This is also a major problem, for me, with Black Butler—although that series' soul-blighting badness, in every possible regard (well, I guess its art looks okay), is of course a bigger factor.
  • I keep criticizing the the unexamined assumption of a lot of science-fiction writers, that wars between species would be genocidal. Part of the problem, I think, is an assumption—accurately associated with the Nazis, who actually acted on it, but actually common to almost all of "late modernity"—that conflict between human groups is characterized by genocide. But...it never was. Like, ever. Aside from the fact that, as I've said, Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun would find the idea blasphemously bloodthirsty, there's another issue: the vast majority of human cultures have not been "civilized". And hunter-gatherers and pastoralists don't have the concept of genocide, because they are (again contrary to the mythic chanting of our Lysenkoists) not collectivist enough.

    It's true. Pace hopped-up chorus girl with a social-work degree noted anthropologist Ayn Rand, collectivism is civilization, except where that civilization is leavened with elements of (the shocking blasphemy makes David Brin rend his garments and cry aloud on Azathoth the Blind Idiot God) "feudalism". Both Upper Paleolithic societies like those of the Australian Aborigines, and Neolithic cultures that don't live in cities, like most Native Americans, simply don't think of people as "members of a particular category" the way Greeks or Romans (or "Enlightenment" Europeans) do. Neither do Iron Age non-"civilized" societies, like the Norse or Zulus. Most of them, instead, only think of two categories. See, the reason so many ethnonyms mean "friendlies" (lakȟóta) or "our own people" (svíar) is because "people who speak my language—and therefore aren't appropriate targets for raiding" is one of two dichotomous categories...and all the rest of humanity is lumped together in the other, "foreign devils who could stand to be relieved of their property". (Pace Rand again, "not raiding them" is generally one's sole responsibility to non-kin "fellow tribesmen", in such societies—there's a reason "civic duty" has the word for "city" in it.)

    Because un-"civilized" people lump all mankind together into "strangers", the idea of eliminating all the "strangers" is automatically ridiculous—because no such culture is stupid enough to like its chances, trying to murder all the rest of mankind. That kind of ambition requires a much more "global" reach than any "uncivilized" culture even pretends to be capable of. And even most ancient civilizations, whatever their conquering ways, would regard eliminating the people of a subjugated tribe as insanely cruel and evil; they were content to impose their laws and culture, generally not all that deeply in the latter case (the Gauls, Britons, or Egyptians were none of them very Romanized, and there's a reason Cantonese people are a very different culture from northern China). Even enslavement, although predicated (in both the civilized and the not) on "I have spared your life, now you're mine", was not conceptualized as "I spared you from the annihilation that is the due of the outsider", but merely "I have chosen not to kill you, as I totally get to, during wars or raiding against whatever 'strangers' happen to be handy". No; genocide is an idea unique to the "Enlightenment"—just like how even the Sun King would've regarded it as gross overreach to try to annihilate the Basque language.
  • I should hope that you know "evolving into pure energy" is ridiculous. But do you know how ridiculous? Well. I crunched the numbers, I was bored.

    Every organism—essentially every conceivable organism, since it's very difficult to predicate "life" of a fusion-plasma—only actually uses one kind of energy, chemical, the energy binding electrons to protons. An average of 3.2 million times more energetic than chemical energy, is fission, which involves the energy binding protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. And then, about an order of magnitude more energetic than fission, is fusion, which is the energy required to crush atomic nuclei into entirely new atoms. Finally, one hundred times as energetic as fusion, is the conversion of matter to energy. That is to say, "becoming energy" is one thousand times as energetic as fission, and 3.2 billion times as energetic as metabolism.

    And you think someday your guts will "evolve" to the point of being able to accomplish this? That, after all, is where energy comes from, for the kinds of things whose evolution we're talking about: shoving dead things into orifices, and rotting them in specialized composting-organs. Please, demonstrate the tendency to develop so much as a fission process, in metabolism, before you wax sanguine about the prospect of matter-energy conversion! Kindly explain the process by which an organism will acquire its "Mr. Fusion" organ—since that presumably must exist in some intermediate stage between life "as we know it" and this mass-to-energy apotheosis.