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Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Reading List: The Powers of the Earth

Corcoran, Travis J. I. The Powers of the Earth. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-1-9733-1114-0.
Corcoran, Travis J. I. Causes of Separation. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9804-3744-4.
(Note: This is novel is the first of an envisioned four volume series titled Aristillus. It and the second book, Causes of Separation, published in May, 2018, together tell a single story which reaches a decisive moment just as the first book ends. Unusually, this will be a review of both novels, taken as a whole. If you like this kind of story at all, there's no way you'll not immediately plunge into the second book after setting down the first.)

Around the year 2050, collectivists were firmly in power everywhere on Earth. Nations were subordinated to the United Nations, whose force of Peace Keepers (PKs) had absorbed all but elite special forces, and were known for being simultaneously brutal, corrupt, and incompetent. (Due to the equality laws, military units had to contain a quota of “Alternatively Abled Soldiers” who other troops had to wheel into combat.) The United States still existed as a country, but after decades of rule by two factions of the Democrat party: Populist and Internationalist, was mired in stagnation, bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, and on the verge of bankruptcy. The U.S. President, Themba Johnson, a former talk show host who combined cluelessness, a volatile temper, and vulpine cunning when it came to manipulating public opinion, is confronted with all of these problems and looking for a masterstroke to get beyond the next election.

Around 2050, when the collectivists entered the inevitable end game their policies lead to everywhere they are tried, with the Bureau of Sustainable Research (BuSuR) suppressing new technologies in every field and the Construction Jobs Preservation Act and Bureau of Industrial Planning banning anything which might increase productivity, a final grasp to loot the remaining seed corn resulted in the CEO Trials aimed at the few remaining successful companies, with expropriation of their assets and imprisonment of their leaders. CEO Mike Martin manages to escape from prison and link up with renegade physicist Ponnala (“Ponzie”) Srinivas, inventor of an anti-gravity drive he doesn't want the slavers to control. Mike buys a rustbucket oceangoing cargo ship, equips it with the drive, an airtight compartment and life support, and flees Earth with a cargo of tunnel boring machines and water to exile on the Moon, in the crater Aristillus in Mare Imbrium on the lunar near side where, fortuitously, the impact of a metal-rich asteroid millions of years ago enriched the sub-surface with metals rare in the Moon's crust.

Let me say a few words about the anti-gravity drive, which is very unusual and original, and whose properties play a significant role in the story. The drive works by coupling to the gravitational field of a massive body and then pushing against it, expending energy as it rises and gains gravitational potential energy. Momentum is conserved, as an equal and opposite force is exerted on the massive body against which it is pushing. The force vector is always along the line connecting the centre of mass of the massive body and the drive unit, directed away from the centre of mass. The force is proportional to the strength of the gravitational field in which the drive is operating, and hence stronger when pushing against a body like Earth as opposed to a less massive one like the Moon. The drive's force diminishes with distance from the massive body as its gravitational field falls off with the inverse square law, and hence the drive generates essentially no force when in empty space far from a gravitating body. When used to brake a descent toward a massive body, the drive converts gravitational potential energy into electricity like the regenerative braking system of an electric vehicle: energy which can be stored for use when later leaving the body.

Because the drive can only push outward radially, when used to, say, launch from the Earth to the Moon, it is much like Jules Verne's giant cannon—the launch must occur at the latitude and longitude on Earth where the Moon will be directly overhead at the time the ship arrives at the Moon. In practice, the converted ships also carried auxiliary chemical rockets and reaction control thrusters for trajectory corrections and precision maneuvering which could not be accomplished with the anti-gravity drive.

By 2064, the lunar settlement, called Aristillus by its inhabitants, was thriving, with more than a hundred thousand residents, and growing at almost twenty percent a year. (Well, nobody knew for sure, because from the start the outlook shared by the settlers was aligned with Mike Martin's anarcho-capitalist worldview. There was no government, no taxes, no ID cards, no business licenses, no regulations, no zoning [except covenants imposed by property owners on those who sub-leased property from them], no central bank, no paper money [an entrepreneur had found a vein of gold left by the ancient impactor and gone into business providing hard currency], no elections, no politicians, no forms to fill out, no police, and no army.) Some of these “features” of life on grey, regimented Earth were provided by private firms, while many of the others were found to be unnecessary altogether.

The community prospered as it grew. Like many frontier settlements, labour was in chronic short supply, and even augmented by robot rovers and machines (free of the yoke of BuSuR), there was work for anybody who wanted it and job offers awaiting new arrivals. A fleet of privately operated ships maintained a clandestine trade with Earth, bringing goods which couldn't yet be produced on the Moon, atmosphere, water from the oceans (in converted tanker ships), and new immigrants who had sold their Earthly goods and quit the slave planet. Waves of immigrants from blood-soaked Nigeria and chaotic China established their own communities and neighbourhoods in the ever-growing network of tunnels beneath Aristillus.

The Moon has not just become a refuge for humans. When BuSuR put its boot on the neck of technology, it ordered the shutdown of a project to genetically “uplift” dogs to human intelligence and beyond, creating “Dogs” (the capital letter denoting the uplift) and all existing Dogs to be euthanised. Many were, but John (we never learn his last name), a former U.S. Special Forces operator, manages to rescue a colony of Dogs from one of the labs before the killers arrive and escape with them to Aristillus, where they have set up the Den and engage in their own priorities, including role-playing games, software development, and trading on the betting markets. Also rescued by John was Gamma, the first Artificial General Intelligence to be created, whose intelligence is above the human level but not (yet, anyway) intelligence runaway singularity-level transcendent. Gamma has established itself in its own facility in Sinus Lunicus on the other side of Mare Imbrium, and has little contact with the human or Dog settlers.

Inevitably, liberty produces prosperity, and prosperity eventually causes slavers to regard the free with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against them.

This is the story of the first interplanetary conflict, and a rousing tale of liberty versus tyranny, frontier innovation against collectivised incompetence, and principles (there is even the intervention of a Vatican diplomat) confronting brutal expedience. There are delicious side-stories about the creation of fake news, scheming politicians, would-be politicians in a libertarian paradise, open source technology, treachery, redemption, and heroism. How do three distinct species: human, Dog, and AI work together without a top-down structure or subordinating one to another? Can the lunar colony protect itself without becoming what its settlers left Earth to escape?

Woven into the story is a look at how a libertarian society works (and sometimes doesn't work) in practice. Aristillus is in no sense a utopia: it has plenty of rough edges and things to criticise. But people there are free, and they prefer it to the prison planet they escaped.

This is a wonderful, sprawling, action-packed story with interesting characters, complicated conflicts, and realistic treatment of what a small colony faces when confronted by a hostile planet of nine billion slaves. Think of this as Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress done better. There are generous tips of the hat to Heinlein and other science fiction in the book, but this is a very different story with an entirely different outcome, and truer to the principles of individualism and liberty. I devoured these books and give them my highest recommendation. The Powers of the Earth won the 2018 Prometheus Award for best libertarian science fiction novel.

Posted at April 9, 2019 15:07