Friday, June 15, 2012
Reading List: A Step Farther Out
- Pournelle, Jerry. A Step Farther Out. Studio City, CA: Chaos Manor Press, [1979, 1994] 2011. ASIN B004XTKFWW.
This book is a collection of essays originally published
magazine between 1974 and 1978.
They were originally collected into a book published in 1979, which
was republished in 1994 with a new preface and notes from the author.
This electronic edition includes all the material from the 1994 book
plus a new preface which places the essays in the context of their
time and the contemporary world.
I suspect that many readers of these remarks may be inclined to
exclaim “Whatever possessed you to read a bunch of
thirty-year-old columns from a science fiction magazine which itself
disappeared from the scene in 1980?” I reply, “Because
the wisdom in these explorations of science, technology, and the human
prospect is just as relevant today as it was when I first read them in
the original book, and taken together they limn the lost three decades
of technological progress which have so blighted our lives.”
Pournelle not only envisioned what was possible as humanity expanded
its horizons from the Earth to become a spacefaring species drawing
upon the resources of the solar system which dwarf those about which
the “only one Earth” crowd fret, he also foresaw the
constraint which would prevent us from today living in a perfectly
achievable world, starting from the 1970s, with fusion, space power
satellites, ocean thermal energy conversion, and innovative sources of
natural gas providing energy; a robust private space infrastructure
with low cost transport to Earth orbit; settlements on the Moon and
Mars; exploration of the asteroids with an aim to exploit their
resources; and compounded growth of technology which would not only
permit human survival but “survival with style”—not
only for those in the developed countries, but for all the ten billion
who will inhabit this planet by the middle of the present century.
What could possibly go wrong? Well, Pournelle nails that as well.
Recall whilst reading the following paragraph that it was
written in 1978.
[…] Merely continue as we are now: innovative technology discouraged by taxes, environmental impact statements, reports, lawsuits, commission hearings, delays, delays, delays; space research not carried out, never officially abandoned but delayed, stretched-out, budgets cut and work confined to the studies without hardware; solving the energy crisis by conservation, with fusion research cut to the bone and beyond, continued at level-of-effort but never to a practical reactor; fission plants never officially banned, but no provision made for waste disposal or storage so that no new plants are built and the operating plants slowly are phased out; riots at nuclear power plant construction sites; legal hearings, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers…
Can you not imagine the dream being lost? Can you not imagine the nation slowly learning to “do without”, making “Smaller is Better” the national slogan, fussing over insulating attics and devoting attention to windmills; production falling, standards of living falling, until one day we discover the investments needed to go to space would be truly costly, would require cuts in essentials like food —
A world slowly settling into satisfaction with less, until there are no resources to invest in That Buck Rogers Stuff?
I can imagine that.As can we all, as now we are living it. And yet, and yet…. One consequence of the Three Lost Decades is that the technological vision and optimistic roadmap of the future presented in these essays is just as relevant to our predicament today as when they were originally published, simply because with a few exceptions we haven't done a thing to achieve them. Indeed, today we have fewer resources with which to pursue them, having squandered our patrimony on consumption, armies of rent-seekers, and placed generations yet unborn in debt to fund our avarice. But for those who look beyond the noise of the headlines and the platitudes of politicians whose time horizon is limited to the next election, here is a roadmap for a true step farther out, in which the problems we perceive as intractable are not “managed” or “coped with”, but rather solved, just as free people have always done when unconstrained to apply their intellect, passion, and resources toward making their fortunes and, incidentally, creating wealth for all. This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. The ISBN of the original 1979 paperback edition is 978-0-441-78584-1. The formatting in the Kindle edition is imperfect, but entirely readable. As is often the case with Kindle documents, “images and tables hardest hit”: some of the tables take a bit of head-scratching to figure out, as the Kindle (or at least the iPad application which I use) particularly mangles multi-column tables. (I mean, what's with that, anyway? LaTeX got this perfectly right thirty years ago, and in a manner even beginners could use; and this was pure public domain software anybody could adopt. Sigh—three lost decades….) Formatting quibbles aside, I'm as glad I bought and read this book as I was when I first bought it and read it all those years ago. If you want to experience not just what the future could have been, then, but what it can be, now, here is an excellent place to start. The author's Web site is an essential resource for those interested in these big ideas, grand ambitions, and the destiny of humankind and its descendents.
Posted at June 15, 2012 22:45