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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Reading List: The Obligation

Wolfe, Steven. The Obligation. Los Gatos, CA: Smashwords, 2013. ISBN 978-1-301-05798-6.
This is a wickedly clever book. A young congressional staffer spots a plaque on the wall of his boss, a rotund 15-term California Democrat, which reads, “The colonization of space will be the fulfillment of humankind's Obligation to the Earth.” Intrigued, he mentions the plaque to the congressman, and after a series of conversations, finds himself sent on a quest to meet archetypes of what the congressman refers to as the six Endowments of humanity—capacities present only in our own species which set us apart from all of those from whom we evolved, and equip us for a destiny which is our ultimate purpose: the Wanderer, Settler, Inventor, Builder, Visionary, and Protector. These Endowments have evolved, driven by the Evolutionary Impulse, toward the achievement, by humans and their eventual descendents, of three Obligations, which will require further evolution into a seventh Endowment.

The staffer tries to reconcile his discovery of the human destiny beyond the planet with his romance with a goo-goo eco-chick who advocates cancelling the space program to first solve our problems on the Earth. As he becomes progressively enlightened, he, and then she realise that there is no conflict between these goals, and that planetary stewardship and serving as the means for Gaia “going to seed” and propagating the life it has birthed outward into the cosmos are a unified part of the Obligation.

When I describe this book as “wickedly clever”, what I mean is that it creates a mythology for space migration which co-opts and subsumes that of its most vehement opponents: the anti-human Merchants of Despair (April 2013). It recasts humanity, not as a “cancer on the planet”, but rather the means by which Gaia can do what every life form must: reproduce. Indeed, Robert Zubrin, author of the aforementioned book, along with a number of other people I respect, have contributed effusive blurbs on the book's Web site. It provides a framework for presenting humanity's ultimate destiny and the purpose of life to those who have never thought of those in terms similar to those I expressed in my Epilogue to Rudy Rucker's The Hacker and the Ants. (Warning—there are spoilers for the novel in my Epilogue.)

In the acknowledgements, the author thanks several people for help in editing the manuscript. Given the state of what was published, one can only imagine what these stalwarts started with. The text is riddled with copy-editing errors: I noted 61, and I was just reading for enjoyment, not doing a close proof. In chapter 6, visiting Evan Phillips, the Builder, the protagonist witnesses a static test of an Aerojet LR-87 engine, which is said to have a “white hot exhaust” and is described as “off the shelf hardware”. But the LR-87, which powered Titan missiles and launchers, has used hypergolic fuels ever since the Titan II replaced the Titan I in the early 1960s. These storable fuels burn with a clear flame. Re-engineering an LR-87 to burn LOX and RP-1 would be a major engineering project, hardly off the shelf. Further, during the test, the engine is throttled to various thrust levels, but the LR-87 was a fixed thrust engine; no model incorporated throttling. In chapter 9, after visiting a Kitt Peak telescope earlier in the night, in the predawn hours, he steps out under the sky and sees a “nearly full Moon … dimming the blazing star fields I saw at Kitt Peak”. But a full Moon always rises at sunset (think about the geometry), so if the Moon were near full, it would have been up when he visited the telescope. There are other factual goofs, but I will not belabour them, as that isn't what this book is about. It is a rationale for space settlement which, if the reader can set aside the clumsy editing, may be seductively persuasive even to those inclined to oppose it.

Update: The copy-editing errors mentioned above have been corrected in a new edition now posted. If you previously purchased and downloaded the Kindle edition, log in to your Amazon account, go to “Manage Your Kindle / Manage Your Devices” and turn on Automatic Book Update. The next time you synchronise your reading device, the updated edition will be downloaded. (2013-08-03 13:28 UTC)

Only the Kindle edition is available from Amazon, but a wide variety of other electronic formats, including HTML, PDF, EPUB, and plain text are available from Smashwords.

Posted at July 2, 2013 22:16