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I’m actually alive and more or less well, in case anyone cares — I know there’s been some concern about that. It’s just that I have mostly said everything that I wanted to say about Eve, and had a burst of lost interest in it in general, so I’m back to skill switching game. But I’m back in this blog to say a few things… well, about culture, and history, and cyberpunk, but also about space. Not at all about Eve, really.

Delta V by itself

I’ve spent the last week playing lots and lots of Kerbal Space Program,1 where, once the player gets past the engineering difficulties by binding their rockets with more and more silly string, they get intimately acquainted with the business end of Tsiolkovsky’s rocket equation, and in particular, the concept of delta-v. To put a long Wikipedia article short, in orbital mechanics in a real space, that doesn’t behave like a water ocean — I’m looking at you, Eve — distances are actually best measured in speeds instead. Once you’re on an orbit, it’s stable more or less forever, barring smashing into things that end up in your path, be they big or small, or getting gravitated away from it by bodies that you didn’t care about. The speed of moving along the orbit is one of it’s primary characteristics and defines much of where you are. You only turn on engines to change your orbit, and that change is measured in meters per second of speed. All change in position can only be accomplished through changing orbits.

The expected operational lifetime of actual rocket engines is measured in minutes. Sometimes, seconds.

And while new developments in rocketry tend to cluster around the idea of trading thrust for specific impulse, so newer things, like ion engines, get turned on and kept on for months on end, it does not change very much. Delta V is still what you need to get to Mars. The delta V required for a particular maneuver does not depend on what you’re flying, it depends on the orbits involved. The delta V your rocket can produce depends on it’s mass and the specific impulse of your engines — not their thrust.2

You can probably see how counterintuitive this can get. In fact, while most of the math involved has been figured out quite a while ago, some things remained ridiculously counterintuitive, and during the first space docking experiments, this actually thwarted them.

Out Of Place Civilization

In archaeology — well, pop archaeology more so than scientific one, but that’s beside the point — there’s a concept of an out-of-place-artifact, an interesting object found where it could not conceivably end up in, or be created. Some of them, like the Antikythera Mechanism change the perception of the culture that produced them, but most end up classified as misinterpretations or outright hoaxes.

I can’t get rid of the impression that the entire modern civilization is out of place in a similar sense. It’s perception of it’s potential futures is consistently, wildly off the mark, constantly running into branches that are currently unreachable, and most of these have been unreachable for decades by the time the imagination spooled up. Should someone from a future that’s actually possible take a look at it, they would be very much surprised.

If you stop and think about this entire delta V business for a few minutes, you’ll realise that most of the imagery of space present in today’s culture has a very tangential relationship to reality. Orbits are fact. You can, to an extent, go against physics, but you have to expend energy to do it — energy to counteract the action of sources of gravity on your vehicle, basically. For a rough estimate of how much do you need, let us check the delta V maps for the Solar system. You need to gain at least 9.3 kilometers per second to reach low Earth orbit, which is ‘halfway to anywhere’, so to speak, as it takes only about 1.3 kilometers per second from there to an orbit around the Moon. But that is energy depending on the mass of your payload.

For a payload of 90 metric tons getting into low Earth orbit,3 the Soviet N-1 rocket, planned for the manned Moon program, needed so much energy, that, when it crashed on launch and blew up, this resulted in the largest artificial non-nuclear explosion in human history. 2735000 kilograms of metal, rocket fuel and liquid oxygen, and no, that’s not an extra zero.

To have spaceships that behave like in your typical space opera, a civilization needs to toss around energies like 7000 tons TNT equivalent like it’s absolutely nothing. And let us not forget the Project Orion, which actually meant to propel itself by nuclear explosions of 0.15kt each. One per second. To reach low Earth orbit, 800 hundred would be needed. This was considered cheap to get a 1200 ton payload to the Moon, and compared to chemical rockets, it still is.

Now riddle me this:

You’re in a space opera and ignore orbital mechanics when you travel. Which means your civilization has access to energies measured in kilotons of TNT on a basis sufficiently casual to put them into the hands of lone wolf heroes. What possible use could it have for weapons that throw around slugs of metal at their enemies, or shine megawatt lasers at them, or, well, any kind really?

Why does it still have any enemies at all?

Race condition

There’s a tabletop roleplaying game called ‘Forgotten Futures‘, which is typically classed among steampunk, but in truth it’s not quite so easy to define, because the term itself went through several meanings in it’s lifetime. Steampunk owes much it’s popularity, if not existence itself, to cyberpunk authors, who actually coined the word, upon realisation that the nihilistic things they’re writing of are just as possible, if not more fitting, for an era more gentlemanly, if only because that era left the world with far more glaringly obvious4 examples of social inequality. Steampunk, in the original sense of the word, is cyberpunk in steam age, where the style changes but the substance does not.

That usage of the word is now largely out of circulation, and Forgotten Futures explicitly bases itself on ‘scientific romance’, the visions of the future as seen from the second half of XIX century. Which, as anyone living in this timeline knows, have not come to pass in a fashion anywhere as close as depicted. Which is why "Forgotten Futures" is such an apt name — it’s the futures that could be, but can’t anymore.

It’s not even about the technology that didn’t come to pass as it was envisioned, but the way social changes interacted with scientific and engineering advances that did. Everything the scientific romances expected, happened — submarines, flight, armored warfare — and everything was different. The interesting part is that space fiction as it was written in the XX century is quickly sliding into the same ‘forgotten future’ category as time progresses.

The process of history choosing which branch to switch to is relatively simple but unobvious. It’s not really about the activities of specific people too much, but instead, it closely resembles the programming concept of "race condition". Multiple concurrently running processes affecting the system create radically different states depending on which produces the result first. That makes for notoriously hard to debug problems when the end result is not what you wanted.

In case of scientific romance, airships were seen as the be-all end-all means of air transportation and air power, but the development of aircraft engines towards improving power-to-weight ratios made heavier than air aircraft more practical faster, and the airship-based future was no longer accessible. Today’s technology can make airships better than the ones imagined in late XIX century, but the segment where the natural advantages of airships matter is sufficiently narrow to make it not worth the time, when existing aircraft can just be purchased. Similarly, the classic cyberpunk literature, with it’s themes of man-vs-machine and rebel-against-establishment relies on individuals empowered, and at the same time, poisoned and enslaved by technology. Without the enhancement, an individual cannot seriously oppose the established order, nor can that same individual ponder their own receding humanity. Without this enhancement having a basis in technology, at least theoretically accessible to the public, the whole literary platform of cyberpunk can’t exist.

And despite that now, actual cyborgs finally do exist, this future will no longer come to pass, because it missed the race condition — the last opportunity to switch to that branch ran out sometime in early 00s. And it started closing off all the way back in 1969.

Putting the Cyber into the Punk

Cybernetic prosthetics do exist, now — emphasis on "now" because strictly speaking, they could have existed in the 70s if anyone wanted it hard enough. Much of the gadgetry of classic cyberpunk is now at least in prototype stage. At the same time, nobody will say that it somehow empowers the users — at best, it approaches the functionality of the organs it’s meant to replace, and research proceeds with extreme caution. Instead of attempting to directly wire into the brain, which is a problem solvable at least in theory,5 almost all of the currently existing systems rely on non-invasive EEG reading and complex self-learning systems. They aren’t meant to empower in the first place, because there’s no call for it. But for a classic cyberpunk future to emerge, the exact opposite is required. Today, nobody will seriously think that a combat cyborg is worth the research effort and expense — it’s far cheaper to make a swarm of remote controlled drones, or even an outright robot, and it’s these systems that eat the bulk of research funding.

In general, any promising technology is expensive — it needs a lot of effort, experimentation and experience before it can ever provide what is expected of it, and all of these resources need to come from somewhere. In case of cyberpunk’s basic technologies, the only source of such resources could be the military, not medicine or humanitarian efforts to restore people from disability. And military did not do this because another branch promised more practical results, faster.

It could be different — such a route of development is by no means set in stone. If, in 1969, with moon landings, USA didn’t shuffle out of the space race, instead of further research in miniaturization,6 the research focus would be on finding better and more advanced materials7 which would, eventually, make cyborgisation the way to go. As space development went out of focus,8 some lines of development shrivelled while others blossomed. By the time when practical machine vision went into prototyping stage, the whole branch was forever gone.

That’s not to say that cyberpunk’s dystopic future cannot happen per se, because it’s other major component, a state that is weak compared to the power of a large corporation, is still around. But instead of stylish rebels against the machine, you’re getting an Anonymous hive mind against the machine, which is the blurring of the border between individuals, not between man and machine.

All these worlds are yours

To settle onto a specific branch, certain developments have to happen in certain order, and one or another development losing the race means that history goes off on a different tangent. It can happen for any number of reasons, ultimately driven by subjective beliefs and decisions in solving objectively existing problems.

And all of those futures relying on spaceships are about to lose the race as their time window is closing down. It started closing down with the Green Revolution and is quickly on the way out, unless someone actually does get up to making a space elevator before this century is out. I can’t say exactly what will happen. There’s little doubt people will still get all of these worlds, one way or another.

But it looks far more likely that instead of large spaceships hauling cargo around and launching projectiles the size of small cars at each other, even the first human visitors to the satellites of Jupiter will be travelling as data, uploaded into a computer the size of a walnut.

  1. Which brought on a few thoughts about the nature of sandbox gameplay. These will get me strongly shouted at, so I’ll put them away until I no longer care about it.

  2. Of course, having your thrust too low might mean you aren’t able to complete the maneuver in the time required for it, but that’s another problem entirely.

  3. Only 23.5 of these would get to the Moon, mind you.

  4. Though relative severity is a more complicated question.

  5. Brain is a wonderfully flexible system, and given an appropriate connectivity, can eventually learn to read or write more or less anything, as some research shows.

  6. By today’s standards, Apollo’s computers are downright pitiful.

  7. Kapton is, paradoxically, one of the materials that makes household 3D printing practical, something it’s inventors probably did not expect. Not having it makes that far more of a pain.

  8. I might add that the word ‘cyborg’ itself was coined as something to denote a hypothetical man-machine hybrid that would do better at space colonization.