The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Working in the spaceship yards, for real

On Tuesday I gave a talk at Strathclyde University's Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory's seminar series. Professor Colin McInnes (who I'd met at Satellite 2, and whose talk there was recently summarised in an article in The Herald) and Dr Malcolm Macdonald had invited me, and they showed me around the labs and took me out for a few drinks, a meal and a very stimulating conversation afterwards - for all of which, much thanks.

You can see the seminar here - there's an opening sample on the page, and buttons for streaming or downloading if you want to see and hear the whole talk and discussion. Here's the (slightly tongue in cheek) abstract:
"The Imaginary Engine: notes for a research proposal on the 1990s private space space opera boom in science fiction".

Abstract: The relationship between scientific-technological advance and science fiction has often been assumed and celebrated but seldom rigorously examined. A possible theoretical framework for doing this has emerged in the discipline of Science and Technology Studies (STS): 'the political economy of promise'. Usually applied in the context of biotechnology, this framework looks at the ways in which the 'promise' of new technologies or scientific breakthroughs is used to mobilise resources – of labour, capital, research grants, political credibility, public acceptance – in the real world. Imaginary representations of promising developments play an integral part in this process, acting as (almost literally) 'fictitious capital' in the boom phase of an economic cycle.

It is suggested that science fiction, by treating future possibilities as actualities, may function as an even more literal fictitious capital. In the second half of the 1990s, rapid technological development in, and the ever-widening application of, information technology and the consequent dot-com boom was accompanied by a surge of technological optimism – albeit combined, often, with social pessimism – in science fiction. One such area of optimism concerned the near prospect of large-scale private space exploration and settlement. Records of this period exist in the archives of numerous newsgroups and semi-public mailing lists such as,, and the Extropians email list. A mapping of discussion on these lists with influential works of written SF of that period and with speculative investment in a number of fields is outlined and further research proposed.
Though my delivery, as usual, gives the impression that I am painfully dredging words from the vast shallows of my mind, and the camera and mic are unforgiving of my tics (fiddling with my glasses, clicking my pen, pushing up my sleeves), I had the benefit of an involved and SF-savvy audience whose questions and comments contributed a great deal.

I was well impressed by the scale and scope of the engineering department, by the enthusiasm of the staff and the research students I met, and by the work of the Advanced Space Concepts Laboratory, which is collaborating with local space industry and other partners in numerous fields, including the exciting field of microspacecraft.

They're building spaceships on the Clyde! Who knew? As one of the builders points out, there are a lot of young people in Scotland who really need to know, and he's doing something about it.

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Ken, lovely presentation, brilliant insight, no doubt your logic can be transferred to all areas of philosophical, political and social studies as well. Indeed, I will go so far to say it may be the logarithm of human development.

In my studies here at Purdue University's School of Aeronautics and Astronautics most of us in the engineering program were inspired greatly by the optimistic visions scifi proposed, your work inspires at least one of us. Many here propose and achieve results that were believed impractical or unrealistic by industry, questioned by academia but will be in the marketplace soon(give or take a few decades).

Fiction's ambitious spotlight on potential, may fuel 'the political economy of promise' but I would guess that it takes a generation or two to process it. A pragmatic older generation believes/invests and the impractical younger generation does.

Thanks for the kind words, Jack.

One worry I have about my argument is that if it's correct, science fiction writers have for decades been missing opportunities to get very, very rich ...

Well, for the current generation of SF writers to "get rich" requires a side career in bubble speculation. The paradox is the artist in you knows better than the robber baron of opportunity.

It's not the date of prophecy it is the date of creation, because you don't create in vacuum, yet. Asimov envisioned the robot(AI) revolution in 1950, if he had investments in the first movers automated mfg in 1950,then roughly one generation later micro chips and computers in 1975 no doubt that gives him his first very. AI popped in 2000 robotics in 2010, if I had to play Nostradamus for comic effect, I would say we're on tract for the first real revolt in 2025.

spoiler alert:

If I could be so bold, the base techs in "The Star Fraction," are AI, precision weapons, dirty rapid manufacturing,off world construction. If in, let's say 1992 you invested in National Security contractors and cctv, ("Think of what you save when you buy a ticket!"), in 2007 you've got precision weapons(UAV),dirty mfg(my field) should come online for profitable investment in 2032 however we pitch the fictitious capital now(shushsss), LEO construction by 2055. I wouldn't suggest putting your Newcastle quid in Virgin Galactic...last call it's 10:29(oh right, things have changed)

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