Inspirational As Fuck

On Sunday, March 9, 2014, Fox (the entertainment channel, not the “news” channel) began their broadcast of the new COSMOS: A Spacetime Odyssey television series.


The following video pretty much sums up my reaction:




Whoever that kid is, here is hoping she remembers this in 20 or 30 years.


Watching the new COSMOS was an interesting experience. As a fan of science and science edutainment in general, I was pretty familiar with most of the actual scientific information conveyed by the show’s amazing host, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The fact was, in fact, that there was not a lot of it there (although I must say that historical information surrounding Giordano Bruno was new to me) which I found mildly disappointing. That is, until I realized that science, or at least specific scientific facts, are not the point of the new COSMOS. It was only when Tyson, at the end of the episode, gave his very personal account of a meeting with the late, great Carl Sagan that I understood what COSMOS intended to be:


Inspirational As Fuck.


Take a look at that video linked above. THAT is why this new COSMOS exists. Scientific literacy and interest are at an all time low and the future of human spaceflight may not sit with America. In light of this turn of events in the latter quarter of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, a show like Tyson’s (and Seth MacFarlane — yes, the Family Guy guy) COSMOS is not just a good idea, but a necessary step in the war for the minds, hearts and dreams of the next generation. Both Tyson and MacFarlane have expressed in multiple interviews the importance of making sure the show would be broadcast on a national network as opposed to a niche cable network like Discovery Channel. In short, it comes down to navel gazing and preaching to the choir: viewers like me, who search out NOVA and The Universe for our edutainment don’t “need” COSMOS. Arguably, my kids don’t either, because I have already exposed them to science and science based entertainment. But, if America is to regain its prominence is science and technology and have a shot at competing in the new, global space race, the next generation of American Idol viewers to fall in love with, well, the cosmos.


As a writer of science fiction, I think about the future a lot. My views, whether I am optimistic or pessimistic, vary over time, depending on my mood. I must admit that right now, I am in a pessimistic mood regarding humanity’s future as it relates to technology and especially human exploration of and migration into space. I don’t necessarily believe that we can summon the wherewithal to achieve great advances in human spaceflight before circumstances — over population, climate change, imminent asteroid impact, or what have you — make it necessary. I would be more surprised, frankly, in a human exodus to the other planets than I would in the complete collapse of human civilization. Even if we leave this cradle, I do not think whatever it is that leaves would continue to be able to be called human: human is a very specific creature, evolved on a very specific world, to which life in orbit and/or on an alien world is inimical.


But then, I watch as Neil deGrasse Tyson guide me through a visually stunning tour of the cosmos and a little part of my old, optimistic self flutters to life. For just a moment, I imagine a clean, Rodenberry-esque future where dedicated research and the intentional rejection of divisive politics, religion and economics has allowed us to solve the scientific and engineering challenges inherent in the idea of not simply human habitation in space, but human mastery of it. For those few moments, before all my fears of human weakness, greed and stupidity quash that vision, I see the future that COSMOS is offering.

Tomorrow’s Land Surveyor, Today!

I am a licensed land surveyor by trade. My job is primarily about geospatial location of concrete information (sometimes literally!). I spend a lot of time on construction sites, from bridges and roads to schools and office buildings. Less often than I used to but still occasionally, I tromp through the woods searching for evidence of property ownership that may be years, decades or even centuries old. In Connecticut, fieldstone walls, ancient wire fence and cedar posts, and very large trees are all potential boundary markers.


For any given piece of land or construction project, there is a huge amount of geospatial data associated with it. These things can be boiled down into categories: limits (from property lines to wetlands setbacks), existing structures (both old and recently built) and potential structures (both those proposed in the project and those that *might* exist due to spotty recordkeeping). Moreover, each of these things exists in at least three dimensions, and oftentimes four (those pesky potential structures I mentioned, in particular).


So what does any of this have to do with writing, particularly the writing of speculative fiction? Well, when it comes to writing about could-be and might-be worlds, it is important, I think, to imagine how those worlds operate not just in the action set pieces or dramatic dialogues, but in the everyday world outside the windows of your characters. Usually, we use technology to describe that world, and it so happens that land surveying, as old as it is a profession (I think we rank third, after prostitution and bartending), is highly technological. We adopted the use of electronic distance meters, laser levelling, computer aided drafting, 3D scanning and GPS into our work and nothing suggests that we will not do the same with emerging technologies. So I want to look at what the future of surveying might look like, both for my own amusement (I am a long way from retirement) and as an example of how we as SF writers can take what is otherwise a pedestrian, mundane element and apply our prognosticating abilities to it.


What really got me thinking about this subject was Google Glass. Augmented reality has existed in fiction and film for quite some time and there have been a few minor attempts to integrate our smartphones into AR in recent years, but it is Glass that is really the first step into an AR world. Sure, Glass is ugly and nerdy and stinks of hipster, but it is the future. Whether it is Google or Apple or some yet-unknown startup that turns it from niche to necessary, augmented reality is the next world changing consumer technology. It will infuse everything from warfare to medicine to amusement parks, and it will certainly be used in land surveying.


Imagine standing in an open field, recently bulldozed of a dilapidated townhouse so that a multi-story elevator parking garage can be built. Today, you would have a roll of maps in your hand, a field computer and data collector weighing down your survey rod and an expensive robotic instrument sitting off site, either unprotected or guarded by a paid employee doing very little else. You might have determined your starting location by tying in to municipal or State survey control, or you might be using GPS. In either case, you have to translate that starting location into angles and distances from your instrument and pray for line of site.


Fast forward ten years, perhaps less. Instead of holding a survey rod weighed down by a field computer, you are wearing OSHA approved safety glasses with a built in heads up display. Those same glasses are linked to GPS and RTK location networks. Instead of a roll of plans showing you where the futuristic car park is to be built, a ghostly image of the structure fills your view. You can banish it at whim, or add or remove detail with a word. You can see the property lines and building setback limits on the ground as surely as if they were marked with paint, and when it is time to place a stake for a column location, it became a pulsing target accurate down to the thousandth of a foot. The plans for the garage are themselves stored in the cloud, so when the architects and engineers apply changes to the plans, they are updated automatically. Your roll of plans can never be out of date. In addition, as you work and the structure itself is built, it is scanned by your glasses and added to the virtual building and site information.


Obviously, augmented reality holds a lot of promise for land surveying, and it is not too far off. Like the newest robotic instruments and GPS systems, it will take time for the technology cost to come down so midsized and smaller firms can afford it, but the largest companies will be early adopters as they were with 3D scanning and CAD/GPS machine control for construction.


There are some other emerging technologies that will change and empower the land surveying profession. After augmented reality, the most valuable may be the commercial use of drones. Currently, surveyors make extensive use of aerial photography and photogrammetry. These are expensive though, since you have to hire a plane and a pilot. Very soon, I think, those companies will switch over to drone use, cutting both costs and delivery times. New radar and scanning technologies will likely increase the value of aerial photography, as well.


Another useful technology yet in its relative infancy is GIS — Geographic Information Systems. All sorts of field make use of GIS, tracking everything from land data to demographics. When fully integrated into an accessible, cloud based data hub, GIS will be a huge asset for both augmented reality in surveying as well as planning and property development.


Farther in the future, 3D printing on a large scale, such as was recently suggested for building a lunar base, will have an impact on land surveying. However, this impact might not be positive for either surveyors or the construction workers who fabricate office building and parking garages. With the structural and architectural information uploaded and raw materials at hand, large scale 3D printers could raise complex structures in a fraction of the time required by manpower.


Finally, automation might be the nail in the coffin for the land surveyor. As robots get smaller, more mobile, more versatile and ultimately more intelligent, when combined with augmented reality and GIS systems, they could easily and effectively take over for human surveys much as they have with more confined manufacturing work. Swarms of microbots could easily survey large sites and buildings with laser scanning, while more specialized larger robots could plant stakes faster and more precisely than any human.


It is impossible to say what will happen in the future, even a few short years out. No one can predict random, or seemingly random, events that shape the future, and fewer can effectively model for human quirks in their futurism. Always, there is the potential for an unforeseen technological or scientific leap that changes everything, such as the rise of electronics in the mid 20th century. But when imagining futures, both our own and those of the characters in our stories, it is important to remember the nuts and bolts of the world. Imagine what your profession will look like in the future about which you are writing.


Elysium and Technological Impacts in Science Fiction

The following is not a review of Elysium, the new film by Neill Blomkamp starring Matt Damon, but it does contain spoilers for the film and I discuss certain plot elements in some detail.




In popular science fiction, films in particular but in many novels as well, usually hinges upon a singular technology or scientific principle, then fails to explore the real impact of that technology or principle in any depth . This is because the technology is most often chosen to serve the story the author or filmmaker wants to tell, rather than the other way around. This is understandable, especially in media like short stories and novellas or films where the story space is very limited, and in many cases is a good thing: concise storytelling can sometimes seem a lost art when one looks at a bookstore shelf and sees series after series of thousand page, multi-volume epics in every genre from high fantasy to space opera to supernatural romance.


The film Elysium is no exception. What is interesting, though, is that the core technology driving the plot is not the titular habitat for Earth’s wealthy and elite that orbits above a destitute planet. In fact, there is no reason in the film at all for Elysium to be a space station; any separate, hard to reach utopia would have sufficed, from super tall skyscrapers over shadowed slums to a domed city on the ocean floor to a  simple gated and well guarded community. All that mattered for the story of the film to work was that getting access to Elysium was reserved for the privileged and dangerous for everyone else.


The real science fiction technology at the heart of Elysium’s story is the near-magical “med bays” that can instantaneously heal not just chronic diseases like cancer but also severe physical trauma, even going so far as to bring back the recently deceased so long as the brain is still intact.The primary motivation of Matt Damon’s protagonist Max is dependent entirely on this technology, as is the secondary plot that provides the emotional punch of Max finally learning not to be such a self centered prick. Once we accept the magic of the med bay, the film is a fun ride with a slighted ham-fisted social and moral message coupled with some great design and absolutely wonderful bodily dismemberments.


The thing is, those magical med bays are emblematic of the unexplored impact so common in popular science fiction. In the film, the med bays are common enough to be found in every home on Elysium, relatively small and, we learn at the end of the story, can be loaded on shuttles en masse for medical relief of large populations. Unlike similar devices in Ridley Scott’s Alien “prequel” Prometheus, the med bay is not just an automated surgical unit. We are never told precisely how the med bay works, but we are given a tantalizing hint when a child is saved from advanced stage leukemia when the illness is “re atomized.” That sounds quite a lot like magic wrapped up in Star Trekian technobabble. Moreover, its only limitation seems to be that it cannot repair a damaged brain, or if it can it cannot return it to its previous state so perhaps the revived subject would be brain dead; it’s unclear.


The technology working that way is fine for the plot on hand. In fact, it is perfect for it and I suspect that it was created specifically to serve the story, both overall and at particular plot points. This is as it should be for a concise tale, as mentioned above, but does leave open a vast sea of unexplored impacts.


Imagine a device that can re-arrange biological matter at the atomic level so as to eliminate everything from radiation poisoning to blunt trauma to cancer. Even if the power of the med bay is limited to returning biological mass to an undamaged state, it has huge implications in not just medicine, but food production — GMO crops not allowed, or absolutely required! — and ecology — bring on the oil soaked pelicans and glean their insides, too!  We know that genetic predisposition is different than genetic expression, so how do the med bay’s interact with conditions caused by prenatal exposure or childhood malnutrition? Can you “fix” a birth defect or erase the impact of years of smoking? If so, how does that effect attitudes toward pollution or drug abuse?


The point of this post is not to answer those questions, but rather to point out that they exist. Similarly, the real impact of the transporter system in Star Trek is largely unexplored (although The Next generation did tie it to the food replication system, which was an admirable step in the right direction). Cyberpunk fiction rarely looks at how human-machine interface and bionic enhancement effect, say, agriculture and it is rare indeed for works relying on cryonic hibernation for slower than light travel (Aliens and Avatar are both guilty here) interacts with life extension. Let’s not even get into how time travel could impact experimental research.


Every time a science fiction writer invents a new technology or adapts a well worn trope to fit their story, an opportunity presents itself to explore potential impacts. Writers that do this are often referred to as Futurists, whether or not the technologies presented in their works have any chance of becoming reality. I think the reason for this is that we intellectually separate a story from a thought experiment. They are not really separate things, though, as a good science fiction tale is a thought experiment with plot, character and other story elements grafted on.


If you are a science fiction writer, the next time you come up with a plot (a Martian falls in love with a Europan mermaid) and a technology to make that story work (a bloodborne nanoswarm that allows the Martian to live in the frozen sea) stop for a moment and consider at least one of the impacts of that technology (a nanoswarm that breaks oxygen away from water and release heat in the process could be widely used in agriculture in environments otherwise too cold to support it) and write a story centered on that impact instead (there’s just not enough pastoral sci-fi).