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I've made my first novel, Ventus, available as a free download, as well as excerpts from two of the Virga books.  I am looking forward to putting up a number of short stories in the near future.

Complete novel:  Ventus

 

To celebrate the August, 2007 publication of Queen of Candesce, I decided to re-release my first novel as an eBook. You can download it from this page. Ventus was first published by Tor Books in 2000, and and you can still buy it; to everyone who would just like to sample my work, I hope you enjoy this version.

I've released this book under a Creative Commons license, which means you can read it and distribute it freely, but not make derivative works or sell it.

Book Excerpts:  Sun of Suns and Pirate Sun

I've made large tracts of these two Virga books available.  If you want to find out what the Virga universe is all about, you can check it out here:

Major Foresight Project:  Crisis in Zefra

In spring 2005, the Directorate of Land Strategic Concepts of National Defense Canada (that is to say, the army) hired me to write a dramatized future military scenario.  The book-length work, Crisis in Zefra, was set in a mythical African city-state, about 20 years in the future, and concerned a group of Canadian peacekeepers who are trying to ready the city for its first democratic vote while fighting an insurgency.  The project ran to 27,000 words and was published by the army as a bound paperback book.

If you'd like to read Crisis in Zefra, you can download it in PDF form.

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Jun 04, 2008

Smallest exoplanet circles a brown dwarf

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Actually, brown dwarfs are apparently magenta in colour, but this still confirms my predictions in Permanence

My favourite planet-hunting site is Centauri Dreams.  From there comes a discussion of the smallest conventional planet yet discovered outside our solar system--a super-Earth or mini-Neptune only three times Earth's mass.  It's not in a conventional location, however:  this planet circles a brown dwarf, a "failed" star that doesn't shine.

What's even more amazing (to me) is that there's speculation that this planet could be habitable.  There's a couple of reasons for this:  its size could mean that it retains enough radioactives in its core to heat it; its atmosphere might retain enough hydrogen (which is a greenhouse gas) to keep the surface temperature above the freezing point of water.  Also, although it's three Earth masses, that doesn't necessarily translate to three gravities of weight; it depends on its radius (you'd weigh almost the same on Saturn as you do on Earth, despite the fact that Saturn masses 95 times more than the Earth).

I never considered super-earths when I was inventing livable planets for my novel Permanence.  In this case, two interesting possibilities would be an oceanic planet with a hydrogen atmosphere; or a mini-Neptune with a radius large enough that its local gravity is Earth-normal, and an atmosphere that, like Venus, hosts a layer where the air pressure and temperature are also Earth-normal.  Just for interest, you could also imagine that the brown dwarf's radiation field dissociates water molecules at the top of this atmosphere; the hydrogen escapes and the oxygen falls back (this happens on Europa, which is now thought to have a breathable [by fish] ocean).  Then, you could have an air-world with Earth-levels of gravity, air pressure, temperature, and oxygen content in the air.  The only downsides:  no ground to walk on and no sunlight--ever.  But that lets us imagine all sorts of air-pirate scenarios in gloomy, lightning-lit skies.

Isn't that just too cool?  And brown dwarfs are everywhere.  As I said in Permanence, with this discovery the number of potentially habitable planetary systems in the galaxy has multiplied, by as much as a factor of ten.  There could easily be one within a light year of Earth.

May 30, 2008

No time for the singularity

Climate change puts a hard deadline on global transformation: it has to happen now, even if we're not ready

Scientists like to low-ball their estimates.  The now-famous IPCC scenarios for the effects of climate change are already known to be woefully, unrealistically conservative (Freeman Dyson's recent opinions notwithstanding). Arctic changes expected 20 years from now are happening now, and in North America the beginning of spring has already been pushed back by two weeks, which is enough to play havoc with the fertility cycle of many migratory birds (among other consequences).  The worst-case scenarios used in public debate ignore some extremely worrisome factors, such as the possible release of oceanic methane from clathrates. If we're going to deal with this problem, we have to do it now, as in, within the term of your next government.

Science fiction writers, on the other hand, are generally optimistic--if not about the fate of humanity, then at least about the progress of technology.  The ultimate in technological optimism is the idea of the technological singularity, which posits that technological advance is exponential and, driven by progress in artificial intelligence, will soon hit the vertical slope of the curve.

Maybe.  In fact, let's assume that this mythology is true and, within about 25 years, computers will exceed human intelligence and rapidly bootstrap themselves to godlike status.  At that point, they will aid us (or run roughshod over us) to transform the Earth into a paradise. 

Here's the problem:  25 years is too late.  The newest business-as-usual climate scenarios look increasingly dire.  If we haven't solved our problems within the next decade, even these theoretical godlike AIs aren't going to be able to help us.  Thermodynamics is thermodynamics, and no amount of godlike thinking can reverse the irreversible. 

If there's to be a miraculous transformation of human civilization, it has to be accomplished by us, right now, and without the aid of any miracle technologies.  (That said, technology is a large part of the answer--and game-changing breakthroughs are possible--but until proven otherwise it's existing systems such as wind power that we have to assume we'll be using.)  The technological singularity may be real, but who cares?  By the time it happens, we'll have won or lost our grand battle with fate.

Therefore, here's a rare piece of advice for my fellow science fiction writers:  forget the singularity.  Even if it's real, it's irrelevant.  The decisive moment in history is now, before it occurs.  Seize that, write about that. 

All else is distraction.

Apr 30, 2008

Collective Intelligence

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I contributed to this massive tome, edited by Mark Tovey, which explores the nascent science of collective decision-making

Collective Intelligence expert, editor of WorldChanging Canada, and all-around polymath Mark Tovey has released a huge collection of essays optimistically entitled Collective Intelligence:  Creating a Prosperous World at Peace.  There's contributions from dozens of experts in this nascent field, as well as activists and stakeholders in a variety of different disciplines who are experimenting and refining the ideas behind CI.  To name just some of the people involved in this project:  Tom Atlee, Howard Rheingold, Jerome C. Glenn, Jaron Lanier, Thomas Malone, Pierre Levy, Thomas Homer-Dixon, Alex Steffen--and myself.  I contributed a short fiction piece that starts the whole collection off.  There's an afterward by former prime minister Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.

Collective Intelligence is not yet a mature field, either in terms of research or application.  This book accepts that, and asks what first steps are needed to get us on the road to understanding CI.  There's a healthy dose of skepticism--Jaron Lanier provides a good dollop--and I have my own reservations about the ultimate power of this idea; but it has to be explored, and CI may just turn out to be the key to the next step of human social evolution.  We owe it to ourselves and our children to find out, and this book starts the process off with a bang.

Apr 28, 2008

Retro replays: embodied economics

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Another in my series of retro replays... an entry from my now-defunct Age of Embodiment blog

I've been thinking again about the idea that we need a web application that contrasts the daily content of our newsfeeds with aggregated statistics pertaining to the news's topics.  For instance, we're inundated with news items about violence and crime, while in fact most forms of crime have been dropping (at least in Canada) for several decades.  People perceive that the world is getting steadily worse, where in fact by most measures (such as democracy, literacy, childhood mortality etc.) globally things are getting better.  I should have proposed such an application at the recent SciBarCamp; in any case, it reminded me of the following blog entry I wrote into Age of Embodiment a couple of years back.

Embodied Economics

There's an interesting article by Craig Lambert at Harvard Magazine, called The Marketplace of Perceptions. Lambert examines the (relatively) new science of behavioral economics, which is predicated on the now-obvious idea that when making economic decisions, human beings are not rational actors. It turns out, in fact, that our decisions--even life-changing ones--are influenced by a host of completely non-rational quirks of human nature. Taking these quirks into account is essential for accurately modeling human economic activity.


In the context of this weblog, the idea of behavioral economics is simply another instance of theory-driven practices being replaced by empirically-derived ones. The assumption that humans act rationally in economic exchanges rests on a piece of 17th-century metaphysics: namely, the idea of the "rational mind" which maximizes benefits and minimizes risks. Humans were supposed to possess such minds (which were, of course, constantly battling against the irrational subconscious and evil desires for instant gratification). And you could misinterpret behavioral economics and related disciplines as being extensions of classical economics that take into account the presence of the irrational mind and human lusts. This would be a mistake.

At stake is actually the idea of the rational actor itself. As a metaphysical entity disconnected from the actual, physical world, the rational actor perpetuates the separation of those qualities we consider human from those we consider animalistic, base, and 'merely' physical. We may want that candy, but the rational mind, safe in its aloof tower, can command us not to take it.

What behavioral economists are showing is not that our rational decision-making processes are frequently interrupted or circumvented by irrational decisions, but that the rational actor doesn't exist. What do exist are multiple competing agendas inside each human being, some of which have been labeled as rational in the past, but none of which has primacy over the others.

Which doesn't mean we're doomed--quite the contrary. Knowing how we actually work when we make economic (and political) decisions is the first step to learning to actually control ourselves. In the case of economics, it starts with recognizing that regardless of how we style ourselves as the heirs of a rationalist tradition, we make decisions using a cognitive apparatus that was designed to maximize short-term benefits for hunter-gatherers.

The Harvard artitle talks about the implications this new science has for policy makers and people designing public programs. But what about the implications for the individual? After all, we're the ones who are going to be controlled to an increasingly accurate degree by those programs. We should have some ability to monitor the process.

This is where the open-source community can help. What we need is an application that uses a combination of software tools and the aggregation of human responses to analyze our inputs--the news stories, ads, and ideas that are presented to us, the information consumers, every day. Think of it as Slashdot-for-subliminal-advertising. It might work like this: I turn my browser to the CNN home page. The page pops up in the main pane of the window, but along the side of the browser, a list of biases is recorded--the assumptions and agendas that have been read off the home page by the app. As well as a list of probable responses people will have (in terms of buying patterns or voting patterns, say) to the various major news items.

It's time our unconscious minds started reporting to us in terms that our conscious minds can use. As behavioral economics progresses, I hope people in the online community will keep up--and develop tools that let the individual participate in the process of controlling his or herself.

Apr 05, 2008

The invisibility of advanced civilizations

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100 billion Dyson spheres? You gotta be kidding...

There's some recent speculation on the web about the puzzling problem of why we can't seem to spot any alien civilizations.  The latest buzz surrounds the idea of spotting Dyson spheres in our galaxy or elsewhere.  Bruce Dorminey sparked the discussion with a piece on physicsworld.com, and others such as Paul Gilster over at Centauri Dreams have picked up on it.

I've written about the Fermi paradox before; in fact, my novel Permanence offered a new solution to the problem.  Astrophysicist Milan Cirkovic wrote a nice analysis of the ideas in that book for JBIS, and he and I have corresponded ever since. 

As part of our recent discussions, I wrote him a little note about the logic behind such monstrous engineering projects as the "Kardashev-II civilization," where a species decides to capture all the energy radiated by its sun, generally by building a giant Dyson sphere around it.  I think the idea's a perfect example of homocentrism, or more exactly the kind of techno-centrism that assumes that future civilizations will orient themselves around the same central issue as 20th century humanity (in this case energy use).  Here's my off-the-cuff comments to Milan about energy efficiency as it relates to the visibility of spacefaring civilizations:

Notes to Milan

I’ve been doing  a lot of consulting/writing about “green” technologies lately, and one idea that comes up a lot is the concept of ecosystem services.  An ecosystem service is something you get for free from nature, whose value can be directly calculated by estimating what it would cost for us to provide the service ourselves.  For instance, water treatment:  recently a greenbelt area was declared around Toronto, basically a crescent-shaped region where real estate and industrial development is banned.  A key reason for doing this was the discovery that these forested lands filter and treat the entire aquifer for the Toronto region.  If they were developed, much of the fresh water in the region would dry up.  We’d then have to import/produce fresh water ourselves, and the cost of doing that can be directly calculated, and compared to the financial benefits of developing the land.  It turns out that the land, left alone, provides a set of essential services more cheaply than we can provide them technologically.

Now in the realm of information processing, it turns out to be cheaper for many organisms to offload calculations into the natural world; cockroaches use a clever mechanism that’s directly tied in to air movement and shadow angle to directly cause leg movement (they scurry away when something swings at them).  This mechanism essentially bypasses the nervous system because that’s too slow.  A partial program is in general any algorithm where key steps in the algorithm are offloaded in this manner:  the classic example is (for Americans) how do you catch a pop-fly in baseball?  AI researchers used to think that it required a sophisticated internal model and some nasty differential equations solved by the nervous system; in fact, runners catch a ball by running backward while keeping the ball at a fixed angle with respect to the horizon.  This combination of factors substitutes successfully for the calculation.

 Combining these two ideas, of ecosystem services and partial programs, we can propose an economic argument for the invisibility of advanced civilizations.  A settlement that uses solely ecosystem services is called a ‘zero footprint’ settlement (another word for sustainable).  Zero-footprint means environmentally neutral; it also means invisible to the mechanisms we usually use to detect the presence of technological activity (because our means for doing so generally involve detecting the waste products of systems running against or in parallel to natural processes).  In addition, a civilization that offloads as much of its data processing as possible into natural processes in the physical world, through partial programs, is more energy-efficient than one that builds "computronium" to do its thinking, and probably calculates faster (because the energy required by an algorithmic process and the speed with which it's executed are related).  The more such processes are substituted by integration with the natural world, the harder it will be for us to see the operations of that civilization from interstellar distances.  In fact, I would argue that a civilization that integrates efficiently with its environment on these two levels will be invisible by definition. 

A corollary to this is that colonizing other planets means moving into environments that provide few or no ecosystem services.  This implies that a spacefaring civilization is visible only in those places that do not provide such services; between its worlds, in other words.  Such a civilization’s visibility is then tied to its ability to directly adapt itself to alien environments including the environment of outer space itself.

Mar 12, 2008

Several Earths-worth of air

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Cool graphic illustrates how much air Earth has; Virga, it seems, has more

worldofair

Found on BoingBoing (and previously by them here):  a very interesting graphic that displays how much water and air there are on the surface of the Earth.  The ball of air appears to be about 2000 kilometers in diameter.  Now, in my novels Sun of Suns, Queen of Candesce and Pirate Sun, I posit an enclosed sphere of air more than twice that diameter.  I hadn't really thought it through, but this means that my world Virga has several Earths-worth of air in it, probably a dozen or more.  So, when I say that Virga is 5000 miles in diameter, that doesn't mean we're talking about a small world, because the entire volume of this sphere is living space, whereas on a planet only the surface is livable.  So the ecosystem of Virga is far, far bigger than that of the Earth, or even of the Earth and all the terrestrial planets combined (assuming they were terraformed) by a considerable multiplier.

When I set out to write Sun of Suns, I conservatively estimated about 120 artificial suns and attendant nations inside Virga.  I imagined that each nation might have a population in the low millions, but once again if you look at the volume lit by the suns instead of the area of the circle they light, it's probably safe to say that Virga could hold tens of billions of people without overcrowding.

And to think, Virga is a small world by the standards of what's possible.

Feb 25, 2008

Technology really is legislation

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Australian high court judge says laws will be embedded in technology, not subject to it. He's wrong

I used the catch-phrase "technology is legislation" in my novel Lady of Mazes, to express the idea that technology does an end-run around law.  Now, an Australian judge is saying just this, and more:  that technological objects will increasingly encapsulate deliberately-crafted legal structures in their very design.  He says:

"We are moving to a point in the world where more and more law will be expressed in its effective way, not in terms of statutes solidly enacted by the parliament...but in the technology itself--code."

He's nearly right; except for having it backward, that is.  What he's describing has similarities to my idea of the tech locks, which are socially-imposed limits on technology expressed in the technology itself, not in laws that surround it.  Judge Kirby is focusing on computer code here, but the principle is actually more general than that;  in the future, his idea implies we may have a legal system that operates not according to what's allowed, but according to what's possible.  If criminal use of a particular technology is simply not possible, then that's the same as having a law against that use. 

I think most people would prefer to live in a world where things are possible if not allowed, rather than the nightmare scenario of a world where many things simply can't be done.

However, Kirby is wrong about one crucial thing.  Laws will not be expressed in their effective form through code; code does and will continue to effectively create law--without reference to the legal system.  Groups like the record companies and the RIAA are finding out this out now.  Their people are trying to design devices that by design can only be used legally.  Digital Rights Management (DRM) is an example of this kind of pixie-dust sprinkled on technologies that are inherently a-legal.  Kirby is wrong when he imagines that law can be embodied in code, because code is inherently elastic; it's more like water than iron, because it partakes in a basic fact of nature:  that our definitions of things aren't the things themselves. 

Computer code relies on this fact.  Its identifications are all contingent, all temporary, all local.  As Brian Cantwell Smith points out in On the Origin of Objects, types ("can this kind of variable contain a text string or only integers?") are impossible to hard-code into a computer.  And if you can't even dictate that something is always and only an integer, how can you enforce any kind of higher-level legal structure in code?

Technology is legislation, but it can't be controlled on the level that Kirby is talking about.  Any attempt to do so can only result in Orwellian, and unintentionally hilarious, results (again, the entire current state of the music industry is both).

Thanks to Walter Derzko over at SmartEconomy for bringing this one to my attention.

 

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About Me

I'm a member of the Association of Professional Futurists with my own consultancy, and am also currently Chair of the Canadian node of the Millennium Project, a private/public foresight consultancy active in 50 nations. As well, I am an award-winning author with ten published novels translated into as many languages. I write, give talks, and conduct workshops on numerous topics related to the future, including:

  • Future of government
  • Bitcoin and digital currencies
  • The workplace in 2030
  • The Internet of Things
  • Augmented cognition

For a complete bio, go here. To contact me, email karl at kschroeder dot com

Example: The Future of Governance

I use Science Fiction to communicate the results of actual futures studies. Some of my recent research relates to how we'll govern ourselves in the future. I've worked with a few clients on this and published some results.

Here are two examples--and you can read the first for free:

The Canadian army commissioned me to write Crisis in Urlia, a fictionalized study of the future of military command-and-control. You can download a PDF of the book here:


Crisis in Urlia

For the "optimistic Science Fiction" anthology Hieroglyph, I wrote "Degrees of Freedom," set in Haida Gwaii. "Degrees of Freedom" is about an attempt to develop new governing systems by Canadian First Nations people.


I'm continuing to research this exciting area and would be happy to share my findings.

 
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    A Young Adult Scifi Saga

    "Lean and hugely engaging ... and highly recommended."

    --Open Letters Monthly, an Arts and Literature Review

    Sheer Fun: The Virga Series

    (Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce are combined in Cities of the Air)


     “An adventure-filled tale of sword fights and naval battles... the real fun of this coming-of-age tale includes a pirate treasure hunt and grand scale naval invasions set in the cold, far reaches of space. ”
    Kirkus Reviews (listed in top 10 SF novels for 2006)

    "With Queen of Candesce, [Schroeder] has achieved a clockwork balance of deftly paced adventure and humour, set against an intriguing and unique vision of humanity's far future.
    --The Globe and Mail

    "[Pirate Sun] is fun in the same league as the best SF ever has had to offer, fully as exciting and full of cool science as work from the golden age of SF, but with characterization and plot layering equal to the scrutiny of critical appraisers."
    --SFRevu.com


    "...A rollicking good read... fun, bookish, and full of insane air battles"
    --io9.com


    "A grand flying-pirate-ship-chases-and-escapes-and-meetings-with-monsters adventure, and it ends not with a debate or a seminar but with a gigantic zero-gee battle around Candesce, a climactic unmasking and showdown, just desserts, and other satisfying stuff."
    --Locus