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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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Jul 31, 2009

August 26 will be Karl Schroeder day

...over at the Science Fiction Message Board

Cory alerted me to an interesting upcoming event:  The Science Fiction Message Board is hosting Author August, a month of discussions about particular science fiction writers--one per day.  Apparently I'm Mister August 26th (no, there will be no centerfold, unless you make one up yourself).  

The introductory description of the event is here, and the threads themselves will, I gather, be unraveling from the Author Central forum.  

This is pretty cool, although I'd be an idiot if I expected to necessarily be flattered by what (if anything) gets said about me on the day.  The sensible thing for me, in fact, would probably be to steer clear of reading it altogether--but you may want to drop by. 

And, if you do, be kind. :-)

May 18, 2009

The implications of Wolfram|Alpha

Filed Under:

It's a real-world test of the proposition that complex answers do not require a complex agency

Wolfram's Alpha is not a competitor to Google.  I've been playing with it since it went live the other night, and its limitations are glaring and clear.  It has trouble answering even the simplest and most intuitive query, which makes it seem like it's a spectacularly stupid system.  But what's impressive is that it is able to answer any questions at all.

If I understand Stephen Wolfram's description of the system (and others') correctly, Alpha is an attempt to create a knowledge engine out of a very large library of fairly small algorithms.  Its database is vast; but the code that operates on it is not necessarily complex.  In other words, Alpha's not a monolithic "thought engine" but a collection of heterogenous mini-engines that Wolfram hopes will interact in unpredictable but creative ways.  As Stephen Wolfram puts it in a recent blog entry on the subject:

There is an immensely complex web of systematizable knowledge out there in the world. And before NKS [Wolfram's book A New Kind of Science --K], I would have assumed that to handle something of this complexity would have required building a system that is somehow correspondingly complex—and in practice completely out of reach.

But from NKS we have learned that even highly complex things can have their origins in simple rules and simple programs.

This last statement is the important one--it speaks to what I've been saying for a while now, that the vision of a 'technological singularity' that comes as a result of increasing complexity of information processing systems, is mistaken.  (It is, in fact, an example of the erroneous theory of Intelligent Design.)  Creativity is not correlated to complexity; and as well as being a potentially useful tool, Alpha is an attempt to prove this very non-intuitive idea.

As Wolfram goes on to say in his blog post:

Today, Wolfram|Alpha uses existing models from science and other areas, then does computations based on these models.

But what if it could find new models? What if it could invent on the fly? Do science on the fly?

That is precisely what NKS suggests should be possible. Exploring the computational universe on request, and finding things out there that are useful for some particular specified purpose.

Stephen Wolfram expects Alpha to be more than a data regurgitator or formatter.  He expects it to be creative.  And, he expects this creativity to emerge, not from complexity, but from simplicity

These are very interesting ideas.  The next year of Alpha's growth should be interesting to watch.

Apr 16, 2009

Solar power sats get real; and more on the Verne gun

Lighting the fuse and running away

Solaren corporation has signed a deal with Pacific Gas & Electric to orbit a 200 megawatt solar power satellite by 2016.  I mention this not because the news is amazing (it was inevitable, really) but because their plan gives me some nice numbers to plug into my Verne gun calculations. The Verne Gun

You might remember my enthusiasm over Next Big Future's recent discussion of Project Orion and the spinoff notion of using nuclear bombs to loft very large payloads into space (wheeee!).  I called this idea the Verne gun in a feeble public relations attempt.  Anyway, Brian Wang's calculations over at NBF gave a figure of 280,000 tons as the lift-capacity of a single 10-megaton bomb.  At the time, I suggested using ten or so of these suckers to lift an entire continental powersat infrastructure into space.  But I didn't have hard numbers about how much mass equaled how much power.

Solaren have conveniently stated that their 200 megawatt, self-assembling power transmitter could go up in five launches of 25 tons each.  Solar power satellites are far more efficient per-solar-cell than ground-based plants, so they have a much smaller industrial footprint and almost no environmental footprint at all.  They run 24 hours a day.  So that means that the engineers at Solaren can do 200 megawatts of baseline power with 125 tons orbited.  To put it another way:

1 gigawatt baseline power = 625 orbited tons

Launching this much mass using conventional rockets is expensive, but obviously not entirely out of line, or they wouldn't be doing it.  But, here's a question:  how much baseline power (97% uptime) could be orbited using a 10 megaton Verne shot?  The answer: 448 gigawatts.  

The United States currently uses 4 terawatts of power per year.  About half of that is coal.  So four firings of the Verne gun could orbit enough power to obsolete the entire American coal-power system.

The big problem wouldn't be radiation from the launches (which would be effectively zero) but the astronomical insurance costs attendant on putting so many eggs in one launch basket.  Maybe a few dozen 100 kiloton shots would be better...


Mar 12, 2009

Light pollution: space elevator show-stopper?

Filed Under:

And what would the 'light footprint' of solar power satellites be?

With the addition of its final set of solar panels, the international space station is slated to become the second brightest object in the night sky--brighter than Venus.  Now, admittedly the ISS is the size of a football field, but it's also three hundred kilometers away from the Earth directly above the plane of its orbit--but much further away for most of the people who see it.  Thousands of kilometers, for most of us.

Consider this:  on any given night, you can look up (if you're not in a city that already drowns the stars) and see satellites.  They're hundreds of kilometers away, and the biggest are no larger than a compact car--yet you can see them.  Most are the size of a barrel, but perfectly visible.

Consider Bradley Edwards' ribbon design for the space elevator cable.  This would be a meter or two wide and curved, so that it is effectively visible from all angles.  So it's about the width of a barrel, but infinitely longer.  Its reflective surface over one kilometer's distance would be at least as great as the ISS; but please multiply that light output by 35,000 because that's how many kilometers long it would have to be.  A Hoytether (open meshwork) design would presumably reflect less, but how much less?

You could paint the ribbon black.  Then again, how much would a coating weigh that had to cover 1 meter x 35 million meters of area?  The black coating would heat the cable because the sun is so intense in orbit, so you wouldn't want it to be totally absorptive.  But here's the thing:

The moon is black.

Actually, overall the moon's surface is about the shade of an asphalt highway. It absorbs almost all the light that hits it.  The moon appears pearly white to us only because of the tiny fraction of light that's reflected off the lunar blacktop.  So even a mostly-black ribbon would look brilliantly white to us on the ground.

As if all this were not enough, the only practical means of powering the climber cars (which would be visible too) appears to be multi-megawatt lasers, aimed at solar cell arrays on the climbers.  As Wikipedia puts it:

The proposed method is laser power beaming, using megawatt powered free electron or solid state lasers in combination with adaptive mirrors approximately 10 m wide and a photovoltaic array on the climber tuned to the laser frequency for efficiency.

So, the climbers are in the cross-hairs of, essentially, a set of a huge spotlights.  Maybe you could use infrared or ultraviolet lasers, but if not, then even for the most efficient solar cells (40% or thereabouts) 60% of the laser light will be absorbed or reflected.  Add to that light from the sun reflecting off the (presumably large) collectors, and you get something fiercely bright climbing the already bright cable.

This issue doesn't just affect the space elevator, by the way.  It's also relevant to any substantial effort to place solar power satellites at geosynchronous orbit.  Their immense surface area would pretty much guarantee that they'd shed a vast amount of light on the Earth.

But why should we care?  Here again we can refer to Wikipedia, in its entry on light pollution:

Life exists with natural patterns of light and dark, so disruption of those patterns influences many aspects of animal behavior.  Light pollution can confuse animal navigation, alter competitive interactions, change predator-prey relations, and influence animal physiology.

...Studies suggest that light pollution around lakes prevents zooplankton, such as Daphnia, from eating surface algae, helping cause algal blooms that can kill off the lakes' plants and lower water quality.

Lots of other life forms are affect--everything from birds to frogs.  It doesn't take very much light to have a big effect. So, in the absence of any direct physical effects, the space elevator would still have a large, if not catastrophic, ecological impact.

I wish this weren't true.  I'm a big fan of the elevator, and an even bigger fan of solar power satellites.  But the devil, as they say, is in the details.  If these structures cause the amount of light pollution I'm suggesting, then they are very far from being green options for energy and transport--regardless of how much carbon they may offset.


Mar 07, 2009

So here's the plan

Conquering space in two easy steps

Further to the discussion about Brian Wang's treatment of Orion and its offshoot, the Verne gun, if you look at the comments to my previous post, Adam Crowl suggests that peak acceleration for Brian's gun would be about 3700 gravities.  He also suggests ways of reducing that, primarily by using a nuclear charge to energize hydrogen gas and have that push the ship.  (I'm not sure that's the most efficient way to go, though, because the Orion design depends on the efficiency of energy transfer to the pusher plate and requires close proximity to the charge.)

In any case, this figure of 3700 g's suggests something: some things would be able to take it (like hardened electronics, tight rolls of thin-film solar cells, and liquids like water or rocket fuel) but others (like people and furniture) would not.  In one of Brian's latest posts, he talks about the Mercury laser, which might make practical laser-initiated fusion happen.  This piece makes me wonder what the total mass of the system minus the supporting building structure would be (because that bears on how practical it would be for fusion powered spacecraft) but also reminds me that laser launch systems have only been waiting for this one development to become practical. 

So here's the plan:  launch a few hundred thousand tonnes of rugged stuff using the Verne gun, and send up the rest a tonne at a time using a laser launch system.  You can even run the laser launch system off renewables if you want to be green; and after the first few launches, you end up running it off beamed power from the first solar power sat you put up.  True bootstrapping through hybrid launch technology.

Mar 06, 2009

A sabot for the Verne gun

Further to the previous post: how to avoid 10,000 g's of acceleration

I have to admit I got a bit ahead of myself in the post below, in which I renamed the nuclear cannon the Verne gun and described some of what you could do with it.  As it stands, the idea would only work for cargoes that could withstand tens of thousands of g's of acceleration---which in practice would amount to fuel, raw iron and a few other simple items like that.  Still valuable to orbit, but a bit limiting.

So, here's a proposal to refine the idea a bit:  the sabot.  In this variation of the Verne gun, you don't try to reach escape velocity.  The blast that sends up the ship only needs to loft it about 100 kilometers---above the atmosphere, but not into orbit.  The bulk of the ship's mass is in fact acceleration padding--a sabot or shell around a more conventional rocket-powered craft.  After an initial acceleration (still on the order of hundreds of g's at least) the sabot separates from the cargo at 100 kilometers, lightening the load and permitting the contained rockets to fire.  This lighter craft then enters orbit under rocket power.

An alternative to rockets would be to catch the ship at the top of its trajectory using an orbiting tether (a huge one, if we're catching tens or hundreds of thousands of tonnes!).  In either case, the acceleration shielding for the initial launch falls back into the ocean and what enters space is pure cargo.

Using a sabot might allow us to launch more fragile cargoes than the straight shot version.  I now doubt that you could launch, for instance, solar power sats without a sabot, though sending up a space elevator would probably still work.

Toby Buckell informs me, by the way, that Niven and Pournelle used the idea of the nuclear cannon in their alien-invasion novel Footfall.  Let's get precedent straight here---as far as I know, they did it first in science fiction.

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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)

     “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."

    "...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."