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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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Mar 04, 2009

The Verne Gun

Kickstarting the REAL space age

The Verne GunRecently I talked about one of my favourite blogs, Brian Wang's Next Big Future.  He and his team are a veritable fountain of ideas, and this week they've outdone themselves with a series of pieces on Project Orion and its offshoots.  Now, I freely admit that they've done all the heavy lifting here (so to speak) but I'm going to take one of their ideas and run with it anyway.

A couple of the salient posts on Project Orion are The Nuclear Orion Home Run Shot, and Pieces of a True Nuclear Cannon.  Now, Orion was the 1950s-era American project to build a nuclear-bomb powered spacecraft.  Three facts stand out about the project:

  1. It could have worked, and would have put unlimited amounts of mass into space for less than $1 a kilo.
  2. The biggest vessel contemplated by the Orion team would have weighed 8 million tonnes, and would have been bigger than the Great Pyramid.
  3. The sucker wouldn't have incinerated, flattened, and irradiated nearly as much real estate as you might think.

Still, for some reason the project was canceled around 1964.

In contemplating the glory that almost was, it's tempting to imagine what could have been accomplished with Orion.  One thought I had was that, well, maybe you could just use it once:  do the full-out 8-million tonne monster and use it to launch, in one shot, enough solar satellite infrastructure to obsolete every North American coal plant overnight.  According to a rational moral calculus, if Orion works it should be used in such a way, because the number of people who would die worldwide from the beast's fallout would be trivial compared to the number saved by reductions in air pollution from coal.  (Three million people die from air pollution each year; what they point out over at Next Big Future is that Orion could be calibrated to limit its fallout deaths to no more than a few dozen per launch, even for the biggest ship).

Still, there would be some place on Earth that would suffer from such a launch, and one thing we've learned is there is no truly "empty" land.  Even if our moral calculus could be extended to other species that would be saved by greening our power, it would be better if there were some way to launch such huge masses without exposing the biosphere to nuclear explosions and fallout at all.

There is.  I call it the Verne gun because frankly, a name like THE ATOMIC CANNON would just not go over well in certain circles.  In any case, the principle is the same as Verne's original idea, but using modern technology:  you set off a nuclear charge underground where the blast, heat, radiation and fallout can all be contained, and use Orion-type technology to direct its energy into orbiting a very big, very heavy spacecraft.  This vessel would experience hundreds to thousands of g's of acceleration--you couldn't put humans in it.  But Wang calculates that a 10 megaton bomb could put 280,000 tons into orbit with zero radiation escape into the biosphere.  Since dozens of bombs were exploded in exactly this way from the 50's to the 70's, we know this can be done.  And Orion's researchers proved nearly every one of their theories about Orion.  What they couldn't test at the time can now be simulated accurately by today's supercomputers, without the need for a test program.

Such an orbital gun could be used multiple times.  Here's what you could do if you could put 280,000 tons into orbit in one shot:

  • Put 1.5 terawatts of clean solar power into orbit with less than ten launches.  Obsolete coal and petroleum power production with green baseline power, using less than a 10th the number of solar cells as you'd have to install on Earth to capture the same amount of sunlight.
  • Orbit an entire space elevator with one launch.  Set it up, retire the gun, and get on with a clean space age.
  • Do the same thing with an orbiting greenhouse infrastructure.  Drop solar-powered mass drivers on the moon to feed a continual stream of building material to the building sites.
  • Orbit fuel depots to drop the price of conventional rocketry to orbit through the floor.  One shot and access to space for NASA becomes 10 times cheaper.
  • Send up a telescope so big that it can image the continents of planets circling other stars.
  • Put up one or more of those cool gigantic orbiting space station wheels that are showcased so dramatically in the movie 2001:  A Space Odyssey.
  • Send an entire colony's worth of material to the moon or Mars.  With a second shot, put up an interplanetary cycler ring, tether launch system or other permanent mechanism for shuttling people to and from the colonies.
  • Toss a couple hundred thousand tons of nuclear waste into the sun, where it won't bother us anymore.  (Trust me, the sun won't notice.)
  • Launch an empty Orion ship, send its fuel up the safer space elevator, and send an expedition to Saturn, or a probe to the next star.

I'm not going to suggest orbiting a sunshade to head off global warming, because that's no solution for problems like ocean acidification.  --In any case, you can certainly think up other cool stuff we could do; and notice that some of these options, like orbiting fuel depots or a space elevator, can easily bootstrap us out of having to use the gun more than once or twice.

Oh, and of course, there's one more thing you could do with it, but since you'd need to get signoff from all the members of the nuclear club to use it at all, this one's a bit less likely:

  • Orbit a huge frikkin death star platform with ATOMIC LASERS and MISSILE RACKS and RAIL GUNS and aim them at anybody you don't like.


Feb 06, 2009

Leaping ahead

Filed Under:

New developments in nuclear fusion, zero-point energy, and the Fermi paradox

Keeping up with the pace of scientific discovery is getting harder and harder; either we really are approaching the Singularity, or I'm just getting old.  In any case, I would fall woefully behind if it weren't for two excellent websites:  Centauri dreams by Paul Gilster, and Brian Wang's Next Big Future.  Both sites are firehoses of content, even more so (for my interests) than, say, slashdot.  This week in particular they've presented a smorgasbord of cool ideas.  

First, Paul talks about a recent paper studying the Drake equation (which attempts to deduce how many civilizations there are in the galaxy).  People have speculated about this for decades; what the authors of this paper do is show using statistical analysis that even if the galaxy contains hundreds of communicating civilizations (CC's) they may never be able to find one another. 

This could explain some things.

Next Big Future posts lots of really interesting pieces on technology; I have a particular interest in one endeavour, Robert Bussard's polywell fusion reactor.  This week NBF has a great summary of where the US navy's stealth program to develop such a reactor is at.  The science is encouraging; the levels of funding are not.  Luckily Barack Obama's new technology czar seems to be aware of the work, so maybe things there will take off. 

Even more intriguing are recent attempts to harness zero-point energy.  I'd been playing with designs for a zero-point generator in my head for quite some time, and the patents talked about in this article are, physically, close to what I'd imagined.  The mechanism by which it operates is very different, though. 

A working zero-point generator would be more than revolutionary, partly because these devices could be made arbitrarily small.  They could do far more than transform our civilization:  I was thinking last night that you could build them into the mitochondria of a cell, making such pesky activities as eating and breathing unnecessary for maintaining positive energy flow. Even more than nanotechnology, this kind of zero-point energy makes anything possible.

Except... there's a problem here which is similar to the Fermi paradox.  Life has evolved ways to play nanotechnological and quantum-mechanical tricks many times--chlorophyl's mode of action is a great example, as it depends on quantum-mechanical tricks to shift energy with maximum efficiency.  So, if the tiny Casimir-effect devices being talked about now are possible, why didn't life stumble across the design sometime in the past 3.5 billion years?  As with alien civilizations, one can validly ask, if they can exist, where are they?

Bookmark Centauri Dreams and Next Big Future.  If the world is going to change overnight, they'll give you the heads-up the evening before.

Jan 21, 2009

20th Century finally ends

Filed Under:

I want to congratulate all my American friends on the inauguration of Obama!

For me, the thing that decisively signals a split between old-style politics and something new, is President Obama's reluctance to give up his blackberry.  In retrospect, it's astounding that someone in such a position should not have personal access to instant messaging of this kind.  It suggests that there are always filters around the president--i.e. that someone else is filtering his view of reality--and limiting his ability to act.  The presence of 21st century tools in the White House would be highly significant; as I wrote in Lady of Mazes, "technology is legislation."  Technologies like instant messaging are likely to have a profound impact on process that, at least in the near term, is almost certainly going to be attributed to other causes.

The fact is that you haven't just elected a president.  If he gets to keep it, then you've also elected a blackberry; and nobody yet knows what that is going to mean.

Dec 01, 2008

Retro replays: Europa habitable now?

Filed Under:

The news lately is all about Enceladus--but Europa still holds surprises

The most recent Scientific American contains a paper on the possible ocean under Saturn's moon Enceladus.  This is really cool news and well worth investigating further.  Europa, however, is still where the action is.  I've resurrected a year-and-a-half old blog entry from my old site that tells of some particularly spectacular possibilities:

A recent paper suggests if that Jupiter's moon Europa does have a subsurface ocean, then that ocean is probably highly oxygenated--i.e., breathable by terrestrial fish.

To quote the article's tantalizing abstract:

...Europa's ocean could reach O2 concentrations comparable to those found in terrestrial surface waters, even if 109 moles yr1 of hydrothermally delivered reductants consume most of the oxidant flux. Such an ocean would be energetically hospitable for terrestrial marine macrofauna. The availability of reductants could be the limiting factor for biologically useful chemical energy on Europa.

To translate: macrofauna=fish, and reductants=food. Current theory suggests that Europa's internal heat comes from the flexing of the planet due to its gravitational interactions with Jupiter and the other moons. This flexing may create enough heat in the moon's core to drive volcanic processes, creating the equivalent to the "black smokers" that pepper the mid-Atlantic ridge on Earth. Scientists have speculated that these vents might support some sort of life, but while they constitute a potential nutrient source, an energy source has been lacking. This paper suggests that energy, in the form of oxygen, might be common.

The mechanism for creating that oxygen appears to be radiation from Jupiter's radiation belts. When substances such as sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide land on Europa, they sit there and get fried for very long periods. The broken molecules produce Europa's atmosphere, which is pure oxygen. Eventually, the surface ice subducts like a terrestrial continent, pulling the now-split oxygen and carbon et. down and into the ocean. According to the article, at currently projected infall rates, even if a huge amount of that oxygen is immediately bound up with non-biological molecules coming up from below, the total amount available should be comparable to the surface of Earth's oceans.

If this is right, and there really is an ocean, and there really are venting processes at work in the deep, then Europa is habitable now--but not necessarily for us. Consider these mitigating factors:

  • It's a salty ocean--but it's Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) rather than our kind of salt. It may also be really salty (think thick soup), in which case only the most extreme halophile bacteria could survive there.
  • There could well be other substances, common to the outer planets, saturating the ocean--such as ammonia. Imagine a sea of Windex.
  • Pressure. I've seen no calculations of how much pressure should be crushing down on this sea. But even on a small moon, an ocean under 30 kilometers of ice should have mighty powerful forces compressing it. The ice could be as thin as 800 meters, but we just don't know.

Still--none of these factors makes large, native Europan life forms impossible. And even if the ocean is sterile, in the best case, we might be able to engineer terrestrial fish to withstand a lifelong Epsom salt bath, and populate it ourselves. If the pressure allows, we could dig domes into the ice ceiling and pump them full of nitrogen, and let the oxygen percolate up from below. I used all these ideas in my 2002 novel Permanence, to show what habitable worlds around brown dwarf stars might look like.

All of this makes a Europan mission increasingly important. After all, it may be small, but it's a whole world, and potentially a shirt-sleeve environment for humans. Stocked with fish and other organisms to provide a full food chain, Europa may, shockingly, prove to be a world we can terraform and live on indefinitely (unlike Earth, Europa might even survive the death of the sun). It's definitely worth finding out whether all of that is possible.

Aug 02, 2008

What has Phoenix found on Mars?

Filed Under:

Rumours are flying. But the truth may lead us to reexamine past missions

Aviation Week has created a shitstorm on the web by publishing this article.  They claim that the White House has been briefed about a forthcoming announcement from the Phoenix Mars lander team--something significant, apparently, that will blow the doors off the recent confirmation of water and even the revelation that Martian soil would be capable of growing Earth plant life.

On sites like Slashdot, people are lining up to speculate about what the news is.  Is it life?  Ideas range from the possibility that Phoenix's microscopes have spotted fossils, to actual confirmation of life.  NASA, however, was careful in its statement to state that no direct sign of life, past or present, has been found.

Many others are jumping in with sober reminders that Phoenix isn't even equipped to find life--just water and maybe organic substances.  The most likely scenario is, in fact, that Phoenix has discovered organics in the Martian soil.

This would be a big discovery, true; it would make an unequivocal statement that Mars is a habitable planet, only the second one in the universe known.  If our very next-door-neighbour is hospitable to life, then how much more likely is it that many other worlds also are?

...Of course, such a discovery isn't as world-shaking as it sounds.  After all, for a very long time now, we've known that there's no known reason why other planets wouldn't be habitable--Mars included.  This would just be confirming what we've already deduced from the available evidence:  that safe havens for life are abundant in the universe.

From this point of view, the Phoenix team briefing the White House is really just a piece of grandstanding--a last-ditch attempt to squeeze money from a science-hostile administration before the expected recession/depression gets the space program killed.

But there is one other possibility.

The recent discovery that the soil at the Phoenix lander site could support some earthly plants would appear to contradict the findings of the Viking landers from the 1970s.  Those craft deployed sophisticated experiments to determine whether life is present on Mars, yet the instruments returned ambiguous results.  There was a strong signal indicating life from some of the instruments, yet no evidence of biological material in the soil.  The official interpretation that has become orthodoxy as a result, is that the Martian soil is highly oxidizing, ie. that it contains compounds such as hydrogen peroxide that destroy biological materials.

But if Phoenix has found that you could grow earthly plants in the soil at its site, doesn't this cast serious doubt on that interpretation?

Here's the logic in its most direct form:

  1. The Viking experiments indicated the presence of metabolism, but did not find biological materials.  The failure to find organics was puzzling, and meant either that the instrument failed or there were no organics.  But the metabolism tests did indicate life.
  2. A strongly-oxydizing soil was the only consistent interpretation other than life+instrument failure to account for the test results.
  3. Phoenix has found water and soil that can apparently support plant growth.  This would appear to contradict the hypothesis of strongly oxydizing soil.  If Phoenix has found organics, or has at least found that there is little likelihood of a strongly oxydizing soil existing anywhere on Mars, we are then left with:
  4. The Viking landers detected life in 1976.  One of their instruments failed to do its job and did not correctly characterize the chemical makeup of the soil, leading to thirty years of muddied waters in the quest for life on Mars.

By this hypothesis, NASA is being coy by saying that Phoenix has not detected life.  It hasn't; what it's done is confirm that the Vikings already found it!

Now, NASA's not actually going to say this.  Scientists are (rightly) conservative with their pronouncements, and even vindication of the Viking experiments doesn't actually prove anything.  A Mars sample-return mission would have to be undertaken to do that.  But maybe that's the funding that NASA is looking to get here.

Because the fact remains that if you can grown vegetables in Martian soil, it can't be the kind of hostile chemical bleach that would be necessary to invalidate the Viking experiments.  Even without any data beyond what's already been released, the evidence now points to life on Mars, and fairly cries out for a follow-up investigation.  And that, I suspect, is what NASA is going to call for.


Jun 04, 2008

Reprap is alive!

Filed Under:

The world's first self-reproducing fab machine has built its first copy--which promptly began to build a copy of itself

This one's from the unbelievably cool department:  reprap has built its first child machine! 

Reprap is the world's first self-reproducing machine.  Mind-boggling as this sounds, the proof is in the picture; and, if you take some time to explore the site, in the project's extensive documentation.

Not that reprap is yet able to sit in a corner by itself and knock off copies of itself without human aid--it still needs people to screw the bits together and as yet not all of its electronics can be made by itself.  Think of the human beings and electronics as being like environmentally-available resources, free-floating enzymes, say, that facilitate the work of the reprap.  It needs them, like we need air; but that doesn't mean it's not reproducing by itself. 

The idea is that the irreproducible parts should be commodities you can find in any electronics supply store; what reprap makes is its unique pieces. 

Reprap is now alive, by some definitions.  It's is a stunning milestone and happened a lot faster than I expected it would.  Thanks to Michael Nielsen for alerting me to this!

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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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    Coming on June 18, 2019

    "Science fiction at its best."

    --Kim Stanley Robinson

    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)

     β€œAn 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. ”
    β€”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."

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

    "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."