Hard Drop is live at Nook.com!

For those of you on Nook, the wait is over (apologies!): Hard Drop has arrived in the Nook Store.

Kobo will follow shortly; given the slightly different formatting requirements it takes a little time to check and verify everything.

In the meantime, Nook owners, enjoy, and keep an eye out –  Old Fool’s Errand will be coming to Nook and Kobo in short order.

Ancient Aliens: A Translator

Taking a break from the business of writing, I’d like to take a second to put in a plug for my favorite collection of pseudo-academics led by the man whose hairstylist is an outlet: that’s right, Ancient Aliens.

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If you haven’t seen the show and get the History Channel on your cable, you are lying. If you really haven’t seen it, I can best describe the proceedings as: five-minute blocks describing slightly mysterious (sometimes very mysterious) structures or events from ancient (usually) times, followed by five minutes of thought that is tangential to the concept of logic, followed by 30 seconds of outright insanity before commercial break. The punchline, of course, is always the same (see figure 1 to the right).

So, in honor of this groundbreaking show that is unafraid to say what no one else is thinking, here’s a quick translation of some of the logical leaps that are employed by its denizens:

“Modern science is baffled” by X – Scientists have several good theories to explain this structure or event, one or two of which have clear precedent and seem particularly likely to be at least near the truth. 

Could this event be explained by [Aliens]?” – Yeah, wow, this logical jump was too much even for me

“Ancient Astronauts” – Aliens

“Sky Gods” – Aliens

“Star Beings” – Aliens

“…which, to me…” – I’m about to make a massive leap of ‘logic’ here

“…could it be…” – No, it could not

“Some extraterrestrial intelligence” – Aliens

“Scientists have no explanation” – Elsevier journals are expensive and our professorships are fake

Because really, when in doubt, Aliens.

Things that are surprisingly science fiction (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 2: Shipping Crates aka Intermodal containers

shipping container Costa RicaOn the surface, they don’t seem like much: four dirty, sometimes rusted metal walls and a simple locking mechanism. They are everywhere – in harbors, on the highway, on train cars, on construction sites – so much so that they are almost invisble.

But their ubqiuity also underscores their importance and versatility. By standardizing dimensions and making the same container transportable via multiple methods, the humble shipping container makes it possible to pack a unit in Chapel Hill and know – with certainty – that that unit can be delivered in Bangalore, or Murmansk, or Antarctica (whether it arrives or not is another story). This is incredible because it flies in the face of thousands of years of societal development, whereby incompatible systems flouted globalization, trade, and advancement at every stage. As recently as the 19th century, Russia and Europe still boasted different gauges of railroad track (not to mention the Northern and Southern States in the United States!), preventing the easy flow of goods and creating very distinct cultural mindsets (while the Civil War is better known in the West, Russia’s Westernizers vs. Russophile debate has arguably had more impact on the 20th century. That it is neither dead nor buried can be seen in the policies of Messrs. Putin and Medvedev today).

More than that, the shipping crate is hardy and internally customizable, making it possible to ship refrigerated foodstuffs on the same vessel as heavy machinery or cloth goods. As a result, trade routes are simplified, with larger ships taking generic boxes filled with unique content to one port and smaller boats and trucks ferrying it on. Further, the shipping crate makes it possible to deliver packages of survival items to remote locations with greatly reduced effort. It allows humans to exist and thrive in inhospitable and improbable climates such as the deep sea, where cargo ships can hoist food, supplies, and housing onto barren, windswept platforms, or Antarctica, where tons and tons of supplies are delivered every year to allow habitation and research where it could never exist otherwise.

If we developed a space elevator tomorrow, or if we adopt railguns or use SpaceX on steroids or any form of mass cargo delivery system offworld, the shipping crate is where we would start in terms of packaging and consolidating cargo needing to head off world. It’s more than just logistics: this is modular thinking’s mascot. In theory, with five shipping crates and a solar cell, a human can live quite comfortably on Mars – or any other non-melting, non-crushingly pressurized body in the solar system. It is both the brick and mortar of human colonization, and it will be there when we move off-world.

Things that are surprisingly science fiction (but don’t get credit for it) – Part 1: Polders

Terraforming is a word that conjures up images of dark red and brown planets, massive, industrial processors and billowing clouds of god-knows-what chemicals spewing into the sky. It seems, at first glance, to be an improbably distant ability, a process requiring scale, technologies, and knowledge ecosystems centuries (or at least decades) beyond the present.

Of course, this isn’t exclusively true. Anthropologists have suggested for some time that we live in the ‘Anthropocene Age’, that is, an age dominated and heavily shaped by humans. From strip mines to crops planted, consumed, and fertilized, from roads to reservoirs, humans have made an indelible mark on the world we inhabit, and have for thousands of years.

That this is already terraforming is hard to dispute; we have shaped this planet to our purpose, and in some ways this has been a very good thing. One prime example of the utility provided by human modification of the land are polders, or land reclaimed from the sea.

Anyone who has heard of Atlantis, or read of the various existing sunken or flooded cities knows the concept of losing land to the oceans. Encroachment and destruction by water is a constant threat, whether in floods of Biblical proportions such as has been suggested for the Black Sea, or by the regular and unpredictable flooding of the Nile river during the ancient civilizations there. These floods had catastrophic impacts on human lives, both directly in terms of people killed and houses destroyed, and for the lingering infrastructure effects that they created, such as crop failure and famine. From the beginning of human civilization, our relationship with water has been one of struggle and dependency.

So the concept of harnessing, controlling, and even shaping water channels, and the effect this had on the landscape, are almost doubtlessly underestimated in terms of their impact on civilization, on the stability of human populations, and in terms of their importance to future explorations on other planets.

Polders involved using manual and automated devices to channel, redirect, and control water so as to cut low-lying land off from direct access to the sea or natural water channels, and to make this reclaimed land available for human use. They were nothing short of revolutionary in terms the insurance they provided against flooding and the new land they provided for settlement and agriculture. They allowed civilization to exist where it could never have before – at or below water levels and on the coast – and they provided means for managing waters as they rose during flooding or due to storm surges. The large-scale application of this type of water management technology is older than the United States, dating back to the early 17th century.

Further, in the 20th and 21st centuries, in combination with dredging, the lessons learned in the creation of polders have further helped to create land where it had never existed before, including the Dubai luxury islands. It is not only possible, but wholly likely that the kind of large-scale terraforming we imagine when it comes to colonizing other planets will make use of this four hundred year-old technology. Polders, meanwhile, don’t look like much from the ground, but they are remarkable – and remarkably sci-fi, when you think about it.

Updates and apologies!

It’s come to my attention that, despite my best efforts, there are indeed a few typos in the first editions of Hard Drop. I am working through the document now and am uploading the updated manuscript to Amazon as I go.

Given that Amazon does not support updates to purchased items through its system, I want to offer the final, triple-checked version of the book to clients who’d like a clean copy.

To that end, get in touch with me through this site or at will.vandervaart@gmail.com, either with a screengrab of your Amazon receipt (excluding any sensitive bits) OR if you’ve caught a typo from Chapter 3 onwards and want to tell me about it, and I will add you to the list and send you a .pdf or mobi file of the finished, clean document.

Apologies, again – happy reading, and for those of you in the USA, Happy Memorial Day!

On space exploration, Apollo 13 and the need for off-world urgency

Early in Apollo 13, when a reporter asks Jim Lovell (i.e. Tom Hanks) why the Apollo program should continue on after ‘One small step…’, Tom’s answer is (loosely paraphrased) ‘Imagine if Christopher Columbus discovered the New World, and no one followed in his footsteps.’ At the time, it seems a strong response, and the reporter at least acts as if his question has been answered.

This line struck me immediately and instantly as oddly flippant and insufficient, partially due to the fact that we now know that someone (i.e. the Vikings) actually reached America nearly 500 years before Columbus and that for those five centuries, no one did follow, and partially because it reflects the degree to which Hanks’ character in the film (not necessarily Jim Lovell in real life) has become removed from the real world realities that govern his world.

The first issue is of course one of hindsight. Lovell likely did not know at the time that the Vikings had reached North America, or at the very least would not have considered it a confirmed fact. However, to someone in our present situation, this knowledge is significant as it provides both a precedent and a cautionary tale. The precedent is that of outliers, of concerted efforts and overachievement that extend past the boundaries sustainable by societal structures. The cautionary tale is the flipside of that equation, and concerns what happens when we overextend: failure, suffering, and – in the case of the Greenland settlers – starvation and ultimately extinction.

This dovetails nicely with my second issue with the response – namely, that it reflected the idealistic fervor of a true believer. To Hanks/’Lovell’, it is inconceivable that we would not continue to fly to the moon, to mine its secrets and perhaps the moon itself, whether that made economic sense or not. But of course, in the 1970s, it made absolutely no economic sense to colonize the moon – reaching it had been a primarily political achievement, a proof that the strongest nation in the free world, through a combination of concerted efforts and supported by the free market, could achieve more, and more quickly, than a totalitarian state. Once this political end was achieved, there was little left on the moon that was of interest to society as a whole.

Nor has this absence of interplanetary purpose been overcome since. The probes to Mars and Venus, and across the rest of the solar system, only served to reinforce this: outside of the spectacular announcement of life on another planet, there has been little of interest off-world to a society that has developed none of the cultural or technological structures to support an extraplanetary presence. Even now, the ISS is little more than an ultra-high-altitude observation balloon, conducting scientific experiments whose primary cultural function is to exist and occasionally upload cool zero-gravity (or more precisely, low-gravity) clips on YouTube.

More broadly, the question of whether space exploration has reached a near-term apex is one that bears serious thought. Despite plans to launch to Mars by 2030, despite various plans (including the aforementioned Mars One reality TV concept) to extend the reach of human space exploration, and despite the work that the various Mars rovers are doing, the merit/relevance of space exploration is not yet proven in the cultural psyche. For better or for worse, and James Cameron’s half-baked idea of mining asteroids notwithstanding, space exploration is a big ‘so what?’ at present, one that is somewhat hard to answer. Let’s not forget that, while the Viking expeditions to North America were the result of petty individual one-upsmanship and fortune-making, the Columbian expedition was one fueled by a global arms race for riches and dominance. In other words, despite some evidence that the Americas existed prior to Columbus’ expedition, there was no need to follow up on this information before the factors that launched Columbus in the first place made the new lands relevant. We may, unfortunately, need significantly higher pressures on Earth to overcome a similar hump in our space exploration.

Finally, there is a third, nagging question regarding the above question: “What if no one had followed in Columbus’ footsteps?” Why then, millions of Native Americans might have survived and thrived, the Incan culture might have reached new heights, and the eventual global confluence might have had a very different power dynamic. That the outcome was what it was is partially due to the factors that created the demand for exploration in the first place: an exploration born out of a thirst for power and riches is not likely to be a benign one. If our space exploration is likewise fueled by greed for wealth and power, as it inevitably will be if we wait for the large-scale cultural factors  supporting permanent settlements off-world to be in place, then it can be expected we will meet similar disasters. This, then, to me, is a healthy portion of my reason for writing near-Earth science fiction: to make real the potential, to consider the present possibilities, and to light a fire under our cultural backside and make it happen – before the economic and political imperatives kick in.

The great joy of infinite universes (aka better living through pseudoscience)

While I am undecided on the concept of the existence of infinte potential universes, with infinte potential possibilities (including the exact duplication of our present universe), I am far from apathetic on the subjecct.

Specifically, for me, there is a tremendous joy in knowing that, on days when things are not going particularly well, there is another universe where, for instance, I can dunk, and shred on the guitar, and in which the Netherlands have not only won a World Cup, but in fact have won every single World Cup.

Of course, there is also the downside scenario, of the universe in which I am already dead, or am dirt-poor, or where I am a Duke fan (perish the thought). But of course, this has its own upside: my reality is better than that one, so I appreciate it more.

Put simply, the infinite universes concept represents a call option (that is, an option which gives you the right to buy a good) on reality: either the alternate universe is better than my own, in which case I’m happy for other me (and, to compelete the analogy, I ‘call’ or buy that alternate reality), or it isn’t, and I appreciate what I have.