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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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Sep 22, 2009

Added a new (old) piece to the site -- plus interviews

Filed Under:

In my rather under-populated folder called "the lab"

Back in June of 2003 I gave a talk to LITA, the technology arm of the National Library Association.  The talk was about the respectability of science fiction within the literary and scientific communities, and it was called Traitor to Both Sides.  I've now posted the talk over in my folder called The Lab, because, well, it's not doing any good just sitting here on my hard drive.  --And you may find it interesting, particularly if you've ever had an interest in C.P. Snow's idea of the "two culture war."

I've also created an interviews page, with links to some of the interviews I've done that are available online.

Sep 21, 2009

$6/Kg to orbit

Filed Under:

It's a number well within our reach

A poisonous meme has been spreading lately--well, not lately; this has been building now for many years.  It's most recently appeared in this New York Times op-ed piece by Lawrence Krauss.  Krauss floats the idea of sending astronauts on a one-way trip to Mars, because as we all know, the radiation bath of space is just too toxic to contemplate a two-way trip.

Of course, this "deadly radiation bath" stuff is nonsense.

The meme that has taken over our society's perception of space travel is that it is incredibly hard, and incredibly dangerous.  This despite the fact that twelve men walked on the moon, forty years ago, using 1960s technology.

The objections all sound reasonable:  too much radiation!  Too far away!  Zero gravity is too debilitating!  Too expensive!

All of these objections are true, while at the same time they're all wildly wrong, and largely for the same reasons.  In fact they're all true only if getting from Earth to orbit remains as expensive as it is now.

  Consider the seemingly insurmountable problem of radiation that Krauss complains of in his piece.  What's the solution to radiation?  Shielding.  Is shielding a spacecraft impossible, or even difficult?  No, actually it's easy.  Two meters of water around the crew cabin are enough to solve the problem of radiation in the inner solar system.  The problem is not the shielding; it's the cost of shipping the water up to orbit that is the problem.

Ditto for, oh, let's say zero gravity.  No astronaut should ever have to put up with zero gravity for more than a day or two at a time; the simple solution to the debilitating effects of freefall is to spin the spacecraft.  To do it in a manner comfortable to to the astronauts, you need a long boom arm, which might be heavy and awkward to lift from Earth.  The point is, the solution is easy.

Too far away?  If a space voyage is going to take months or years, there are two simple solutions:  send the ship faster, by using more propellant; or bring along more supplies.  Both of these solutions are primarily constrained by the cost of bringing stuff up from Earth.

The list goes on.  The fact is, there is only one problem worth speaking about in space development, and that is the problem of cost-to-orbit.  It currently costs around $10,000/kg to launch anything at all.  

That price will never come down as long as chemical rockets are the only technology we use.   Compare the above cost to Alexander Bolonkin's Magnetic Space Launcher, where the price for launching acceleration-hardened non-living objects into space is calculated to be $6/kg.  In 2004's NIAC report Modular Laser Launch Architecture: Analysis and Beam Module Design by Jordin T. Kare, thoroughly investigates the cost to launch a human being into orbit using a laser launcher, and comes to a figure of $200/kg.   (Both of these systems use electricity and would not themselves pollute at all.)

Even Kare's fancier (and more thoroughly researched) laser launcher provides a cost-to-orbit figure that's 50 times less than current systems. The cost to develop and test his system is also orders of magnitude less than NASA is proposing to spend on the (chemically-driven) Ares launch system.  

So where's the radiation problem when you can launch 50 times as much mass into orbit for the same price?  Where's the supply problem?  Or the velocity problem when you can launch 2000 times as much fuel and hardware using Bolonkin's launcher?

Space is only a costly and dangerous destination if you insist on using 1960s technology to reach it.  Once NASA--or more likely the private sector--finally abandons that route, what was impossible will become easy.  --I only fear that the meme of space's inaccessibility will prevent us from ever building the launch infrastructure that will prove it wrong; at this point, the meme looks like it's turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

After all, when I was ten years old it was obvious that Mars would be humanity's next destination.  And that was thirty-seven years ago.

Sep 20, 2009

What Canadian health care is really like: 2. Sword of Damocles

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Diagnosed with a potentially fatal condition, I now faced having to live with it

In examining me, the doctors found I had a heart murmur.  Checking into that meant an ultrasound.  Since there's usually nothing urgent about a murmur, the ultrasound didn't have to be done right away; I waited a couple of weeks, if I recall correctly.  What they found was that I have a bicuspid heart valve, which is pretty common; heart valves are supposed to have three flaps, but in some people they only have two.  These valves are typically a little weaker than tricuspid valves, but some people live their whole lives without any problems.

So the valve was fine; but my ascending aorta was not.  This aorta, which takes blood from your heart to the lungs and brain, is supposed to be 3 centimeters across; mine was over 4 and expanding slowly like a balloon. If it gets too big, it pops, and that can happen with absolutely no warning.  An ascending aortic aneurysm is one of the most notorious "silent killers" of cardiology, because often, the first sign that you have the condition is death.

The treatment is to replace the thing; but doing that is dangerous as well.  When I learned that I had the condition I was sent to a cardiac surgeon, and we decided together on a simple strategy:  we'd watch it carefully, and when the odds of my dying from the aneurysm became higher than the odds of my dying from the surgery, we'd do the surgery.

What followed was literally years with the sword of Damocles hanging over my head.  I would get an MRI once or twice a year, and for the first few years, there was no change between MRIs; yet every time, as the time between scans drew out, I would get more and more of a sense of dread about what might be going on inside me.  Was it expanding with unexpected speed?  That can happen.  

Here's where there may be a difference between the Canadian and health care US systems:  I suspect (though I don't know) that I would have had more frequent scans if I were living in the US.  On the other hand, more frequent scans may not make  a significant difference in the vast majority of patients, other than to provide emotional reassurance that they're being taken care of.  Hard to know.  What I do know, is that the nature of my treatment, and even whether or not to operate, was a matter strictly between me and my surgeon.  There were no other parties involved; nor, in this country, can there be for such a procedure.

We made the decision to put me on beta blockers, which can significantly reduce the risk.  Here's where traditional private health insurance comes in, because in Canada many drugs are not fully covered under the public system, so the patient has to make up the difference in cost unless they have a private drug plan.  I was covered, so my drug costs averaged about $2 a month; without that coverage, I would have paid about $15/month (the standard beta blockers are very old and very inexpensive).

In fact, there's tonnes of medical expenses here that aren't paid for by the government.  I pay my chiropractor directly, for instance, and get some of that back at tax time, but not much.  I pay for my eye exams and for my glasses. The Canadian health care system is a hybrid of public and private options--and as a consequence, Canadians are well aware of what their care actually costs, because we frequently have to pay for it directly.  We all have direct experience with both public and private health care.  Overwhelmingly, Canadians prefer the public option.

(Now, personally, I don't think you can call it socialism when the government is permitted to also be a player in a commercial marketplace, while being forbidden to monopolize where the private sector can do better; call me crazy, but to me that's just a level playing field.)

Anyway, for eight years I walked around with a time bomb in my chest, not knowing on any given day whether today was the day it would go off.  I became a much more cheerful person during these years; but the experience also aged me in unexpected ways.

And then, on June 6, 2008, I had my semiannual MRI and, in the followup appointment, my surgeon said, "You have a thirty percent chance of dying at some point in the next twelve months.  I think we should operate."

I could have said no, of course.  What I did say was, "How's six weeks from now?"

He shrugged.  "No problem.  We can do it whenever you want.  ...Next friday works for me."

"Um...   No, let's make it six weeks."

I'd been expecting this for eight years, but I would still need time to prepare myself.

Sep 17, 2009

What Canadian health care is really like: 1. My Health Card

Filed Under:

First in a series to counter the lies and confusion spread last summer about Canadian health care

I carry my Ontario health card (OHIP card) in a plastic sheath in my wallet because it's falling apart.  I've had it for twenty-five years, ever since I moved from Manitoba to Ontario.  Previously, I had never bothered to sign up with the health plan in whatever province I was living in; heck, I was young, and I would get treated anywhere anyway on the basis of my Manitoban origin.

Since I suspected  I was settling in Ontario for a long time, I put in the extra effort to stand in line for a few minutes and get the card.  Modern cards have a photo and stuff, but this one, which is still good, just has my name and number.  It's all I've ever had to show in a hospital or clinic.

About ten years ago, I started having palpitations. (Incidentally, they followed a particularly nasty bout of the flu--which, however, bad, still wasn't as bad as the Swine flu is reputed to be; so get your vaccinations, please.)  I was working downtown, nowhere near my doctor of the time; so, like any Canadian in trouble, when I had an episode, I went to the nearest emergency ward.  I walked in, flashed my card, and was put through triage.

The reason this is significant is that my heart kept popping back into normal mode before they could get the leads on me to find out what was happening. So I kept going in; somebody suggested I wear a halter monitor, but we caught up to the problem before I had to.  In any case, I never had any financial hesitation about visiting the ER because, as a Canadian, the very idea of any financial calculation being involved in such a decision is foreign to me, and repugnant.  Nor did I ever have to do anything but flash my card at the door as I came in.  No papers to sign.  No waiver to pay.  (If there are cashiers at Canadian hospitals I've never seen one, and I don't know where they're located.)

So, here's the essence of the great Orwellian big-brother health care system we live under:  my card is ancient, cracked and falling apart, and doesn't even have my picture on it.  Every now and then, I wave it at somebody in a pro forma sort of way.  Something bureaucratic happens when I do this, but I don't know what it is and don't care; and if I didn't have a card something else bureaucratic would happen that I similarly don't need to care about.  No agency of the government has ever interceded in my life regarding my health care; I've never been told nor asked by any government entity to take any test or have any treatment.  My health is a matter entirely between me and my doctors and no one else has any say in it.

Health care, in Canada, is you and your doctor.  It's nobody else's business; and that little card has no sinister government apparatus behind it.  All it does, as far as I know, is keep things between you and your doctor.

Which is what the government should do about your health.

Jul 29, 2009

The missing research program for space colonization

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We've spent decades studying the effects of zero-gravity on the human body, when we should have been studying something else

As the Shuttle age draws to a close, there seems to be revived discussion in the media about where manned spaceflight is headed next.  The short answer is, of course, "nowhere," but we still see enthusiastic articles about returning to the moon, or visiting Mars.  The problem is, if you look at budgets and research programs, it quickly becomes clear that nobody's really interested in either of those objectives.

For instance, if NASA were actually interested in putting people on, say, Mars, for extended periods--or on the moon or indeed anywhere but low Earth orbit--they would logically have long ago embarked on a research program to learn what the biological effects of Martian or lunar gravity are.  Instead, they've invested decades and billions into learning how humans react to zero gravity--an almost useless scientific endeavor, because the clear lesson from the start of that program was that living in freefall is a bad idea.  Conclusion:  whenever people are going to spend more than a few weeks in orbit, provide them with artificial gravity in the form of a rotating spacecraft.  There's no reason not to; the technology involved in spinning things around is not actually rocket science.

No amount of data about how the human body reacts to zero-G is going to answer the important question, which is:  how does the human body react to extended periods under fractional gravity--like the moon's 1/6 G or Mars's .38 G?  If there's a potential show-stopper to colonizing other worlds, it's going to be how our physiology responds to fractional gravity, not zero gravity.

At what gravitational level does osteoporosis start in human bones?  What's the minimum level for maintenance of cardiovascular health?  At what level do embryonic and infant development begin to suffer?  Maybe these questions can be tentatively answered from studies in zero-G, but any conclusions reached that way need to be empirically confirmed.  In other words, what manned spaceflight needs as its next step is a variable-gravity research station.  The ISS is useless for learning what we really need to know; what's needed is a very simple, rotating station whose gravity can be tuned up or down to simulate life on worlds ranging from Mercury to the moon to Mars, or Ganymede or Titan.

It's pretty clear that NASA's not interested in doing such research.  There is an opportunity here, however, for the private sector to step in.  Once Robert Bigelow's inflatable space stations come onto the market, someone could attach one to a spent booster stage and rotate the ensemble.  They could then do the necessary experiments and sell the results to NASA or, say, the Chinese, who are sure to be interested.

I'm going to add this item to my list of things to do if I had a billion dollars.    But as long as the world's space agencies lack a variable-gravity station, you can be sure they're not actually serious about establishing a human presence on our neighboring worlds.

Jul 19, 2008

"Green Shift" is mainstream policy

There's lots of FUD being spread about the Liberals' proposed carbon tax. Similar taxes have been used in other countries for years now, and they work

If the Conservatives had come up with the Green Shift policy, I would be voting Conservative.  If the NDP had come up with it, I'd be voting NDP.  In fact, in Canada it's the Green Party that first developed the idea of a revenue-neutral transition from taxing income to taxing waste.  Who came up with it doesn't matter.  What matters is that it happen, and soon.

The fact is that tax plans like this are not new.  Germany has been employing a similar tax for ten years now, and Germany's record with green tech is stellar:  250,000 jobs directly relating to sustainable technologies is nothing to sneeze at.  Other countries that are either enacting such measures now or are intensively studying them include the UK, Portugal, and the Netherlands. 

The devil's always in the details, but tax shifts like this are fundamentally simpler than other measures the provinces are already planning, such as the cap and trade market for carbon that is a major goal of the Western Climate Initiative (which 70% of Canadians now belong to).  Tax shifting is simple:  the government stops taxing you for being productive, and starts taxing you for being wasteful.  This means more money in our pockets for at least two reasons:  first, the carbon tax is immediately offset by income and business tax reductions; secondly, making waste expensive gives companies incentive to become more efficient, and efficiency drives down costs.  This is why costs don't get passed on to the consumer, and it is why everything eventually becomes cheaper rather than more expensive.

When demand for fossil fuels increases, their prices go up.  When demand for renewables like wind or solar power increases... their prices go down.

You can have more money in your pocket while making a huge difference to the environment.  And this tax would not apply to gasoline.

The reason the Conservatives are complaining about the "Green Shift" proposal is that it would have been a perfect policy for them--more money all around with less of a hit on the consumer--but they didn't think of it first.

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.

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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."