Thursday, June 21, 2012

Why Magic Has To Make Sense

N. K. Jemisin argues, in "But, but, but — WHY does magic have to make sense?"
that magic in a story shouldn't have to make sense, because

This is magic we’re talking about here, right? Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science? Because sometimes I wonder. Sometimes, whenever I see fantasy readers laud a work for the rigor of its magic system — we’ll come back to this word “system” later — I wonder: why are these people reading fantasy? I mean, if they’re going to judge magic by its similarity to science, why not just go ahead and read science fiction? Science fiction has plenty of its own magicky stuff to enjoy (e.g., FTL, “psi” powers). Shouldn’t fantasy do something different, not just in its surface trappings but in its fundamental assumptions?

The main reason why is that, in the story universe, magic is being presented as real and able to affect other real things which are presumably internally consistent.  If the magic is not internally-consistent, then the magic is not going to be perceived by the readersas "real," and hence neither will the other aspects of the storyverse which the magic affects.

If the magic in one's story does not "make sense" at least in terms of internal consistency then one is undercutting one's own verisimilitude.  This is particularly-bad if there is something obvious that the characters could do given the displayed capabilities of the magic in one's world, which nobody is doing, and which no in-universe reason exists not to do.

One classic example of this would be a world in which, say, every lord has a court wizard who can fly over or push down walls, and yet every lord lives in an expensively-built medieval castle complete with high vertical walls.  Bonus verisimilitude destruction points if this becomes a major plot point, in that the brilliant protagonist defeats the foe by realizing that he could use magic to defeat the enemy's walls.

This begs the question, to the alert reader, of just why no one has thought of doing this before, unless there is a specific reason given or at least implied for why this wouldn't work (for instance, if magic opposes the wills of even non-mages near the objects one is trying to affect, in which case the earnest desire of the defenders to not have their walls fall down might prevent combat siege magic).  And, if the protagonist alone thinks of using magic to topple walls after the techniques have existed for centuries or millennia alongside vertical fortifications, then the effect becomes not so much "Oh, how cunning is our hero!" but rather "Oh, how stupid is everyone else in the storyverse!", which is not a good effect if one is trying for serious drama.

One can, of course, imagine low-order reality "dream worlds" in which "wishing will make it so," and this can work too (as in Lovecraft's Dreamlands), provided that the writer has a good idea of the methods and limits of such "wishing."  The Dream-quest of Unknown Kadath would not have worked as a story if Randolph Carter could have simply wished for anything, anytime he wanted:  he just would have wished himself into his dream-city on the first page, end of story (and if he didn't, then the reader would be wondering "why?"

Instead, notice what Lovecraft did.  He established that ony an "experienced" dreamer could consciously get what he wanted, and that these were mostly rather mundane things from the POV of the Dreamlands:  it was an exceptional and unique thing that Carter had managed to find a whole city (only King Kuranes in-story had accomplished an even remotely similar feat, and his city didn't tempt the very Gods) and that, in fact drove the whole plot because it was seducing the Gods of Earth away from the rest of the Dreamlands.  Because Carter could mostly only dream the convenient appearance of things like riding-beasts and clothing and stuff like that, he had to embark on a quest to find his city.

All stories with magic will have an implicit magic system, even if the rules are never spelled out.  To take classic European fairy tales, the usual reason why "wicked witches" are able to do magic is implicitly because they have sold their souls to the Devil.  (Disney, of all sources, sometimes alludes to this).  We often miss this because we do not share the world-view in which those stories were first created, told or even written down (the Brothers Grimm may not have believed in effective diabolism; but their peasant informants probably did).

If one violates the implict magic system one has established, the readers will notice this.  Humans are good at pattern-sensing (it may lie at the root of "intelligence" in general) and we tend to notice when a pattern is broken.  We feel a sense of "wrongness" when a pattern is broken, and this sense of wrongness will destroy the story.

This is why magic in fantasy has tended to evolve toward a more logical presentation.  This is true even if (especially if) the system of magic doesn't correspond all that well with real physical laws.  For instance, in Tolkien's Middle-earth reality responds to chanting and singing because it was sung into being at the Creation.  Our world wasn't, but his was, and thus it makes perfect sense that more singing can change it.

There are of course subtle logical inconsistencies here, but verisimilitude can survive subtle illogics.  It can't survive a complete lack of concern for internal consistency.  And neither can the stories which stand upon it.

For the deepest reason why the magic in a storyverse has to make sense is contained in Jemisen's own line

Force of nature, kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken, and all that? And most of all, not science?

Ah, but in our Universe the "forces of nature" are not based in magic, but in science.  And any magicks which do exists must be either very weak or very subtle, because if they were powerful and obvious, we would have noticed them.

Come to think of it, we did.  Both chemistry and electromagnetics had their origins in "magical" practices, which we eventually systematized and understood.

But if it was possible to, say, reliably strike people dead with lightning bolts powered by the force of one's will, or turn people into frogs, then people would be DOING this, and we would not see it as "magic."  We would instead be highly motivated to understand the powers, their summonings and their limitations:  in short, we would chart the Laws of Nature that governed them, just as in ouruniverse we chart the Laws of Nature which govern chemistry and electromagnetism.

The reason why we perceive magic, in our Universe, as "kinda woo-woo and froo-froo, things beyond our ken" is because magic, in our Universe, is either nonexistent or very weak or very subtle.  But if, in the story Universe, magic is capable of being strong and direct, then it will not be perceived as "woo-woo and froo-froo" by the denizens of that Universe.

If the writer shows that she -- and the people in her Universe -- perceive magic as "woo-woo and froo-froo," then what she is communicating is that neither she nor they are taking it at all seriously.  And if the writer isn't taking it seriously, then how can anyone else?

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Retro Review: Mars Crossing, by Geoffrey A. Landis (2000)


In the year 2020, Brazil launched the first expedition to Mars.  It failed when both astronauts died of mysterious causes after landing at the north pole.  In the year 2022, America launched the second expedition to Mars, which landed in the northern hemisphere.  It failed on the return flight, when the return module exploded in interplanetary space due to a malfunction of the fuel-control system.

In the year 2028, America lands the third expedition to Mars, a bit south of the equator.  The expedition lands safely.  But then the return module explodes on the surface, killing one of the seven astronauts.  The remaining six astronauts have only one hope of getting back home.  They must take their rovers -- designed only for travel to the relatively-close Valles Marineris -- and cross the Valles Marineris and somehow make their way across thousands of miles of rugged Martian terrain to the north pole, where the Brazilian return vehicle awaits.

But the return vehicle will not take six passengers.  Some of the astronauts have secrets.  And one of them may be willing to ensure being chosen to make the return voyage -- by whatever means it takes.


This is some of the finest science fiction I've ever read.  It is diamond-hard:  nothing happens which is impossible or even all that improbable based on our current scientific understanding, and the Mars Landis describes is perfectly in accord with what we believe to be possible.  And yet it is full of danger, terror and wonder, bringing to life the beauty and mystery of the Red Planet, and the struggle to survive of six strong human beings lost very far from home, pushing themselves and their equipment far beyond the limits that either were intended to endure.

The basic structure, in which chapters set in the present of 2028 alternate with chapters flashing back to the fictional history of Martian exploration, and revealing the back stories of the six astronauts, is very effective.  The style is excellently clear, moving smoothly while still conveying considerable beauty of description.  The characters are strong, believable, and mostly likeable, without being flawless.  Even the character whom you will like least is well enough drawn that one can understand, if not entirely sympathize, with that character's motivation.  (And frankly, I'm not sure which one you will like best or least!)

I don't want to spoil the surprises in this book, because there are surprises, and they are good ones, despite the fact that nothing at all impossible happens.  Instead, I recommend that one and all read this book, because it will well reward you.


Geoffrey A. Landis' Website
Mars Crossing for sale at

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Natural Boundaries for Spacefaring Civilizations


An important concept in earthbound geopolitics is the "natural boundary" -- which is to say a defensible frontier beyond which further advance becomes difficult given any sort of serious opposition.  Natural boundaries are important because they are basic units of empire -- an empire expands past a natural boundary with difficulty, but once it has conquered a whole region within boundaries of this sort, can easily hold them.  Natural boundaries thus tend to also become political boundaries, whether imperial or provincial, and where natural and political boundaries are identical, very stable boundaries.

If we postulate civilizations expanding past single worlds to become interlunar, interplanetary or interstellar in scope, then we should attempt to discover what sort of natural boundaries might affect the growth and defense of an spacefaring civilization.  This article examines the possibilities, assuming "real-world" physics (no FTL or time travel).

First, let us examine the concept of "natural boundaries" as they exist on Earth.

I.  Terrestrial Natural Boundaries

There are three basic sorts of natural boundaries:  obstructive, logistical and cultural.

A.  Obstructive Natural Boundaries

An obstructive natural boundary is the simplest sort.  It is essentially a terrain feature that is difficult to pass; hence it renders defense along its line relatively easy.

Suppose that two countries, Alphia and Betasan, are separated by a mountain range which is crossable only by means of narrow passes.  It is fairly easy for either country to build fortresses on its side of the passes, making it very difficult for an enemy army to force a passage.  If both Powers be roughly equivalent in strength and competence, then wars between the two Powers will tend to be long, drawn-out and indecisive; for this reason they will be rare and unlikely to result in the capture of much territory.  Hence, the border is likely to run along that mountain range for a very long time, until one or both of these countries collapse. 

A real-world example of this is the Pyrenees between France and Spain:  even though France and Spain fought each other several times between the 16th and 19th centuries, only during periods when one country or the other was exceptionally strong or weak were such wars fought to decisions on the enemy's home territories, and the diplomatic tendency was for the border to return to this natural boundary.  One reason for this diplomatic tendency was that both sides were aware that the condition of strength or weakness on one or the other side was transient, and a border not drawn along this natural frontier would be unstable:  it would simply lead to a war of reconquest in which the former owner of the territory would have all the advantages, for reasons which will be discussed under "logistical" and "cultural" natural boundaries.

Mountain ranges are obvious obstructive boundaries, but any sort of terrain which is difficult to cross can serve the same function.  For instance a large river may only be crossable without boats at a few fords or bridges; a dense forest or wide swamp may have only limited roads along which supplies can be hauled, and of course operations across oceans are limited by the availability of sea transport, so coastlines are also natural boundaries.

Even today, where natural boundaries have to some extent been surmounted by the ability to build railroads, superhighways, modern seaports and airports, a surprising number of countries have coterminous natural and political boundaries.  This is in part due to the fact that these boundaries may have been set before the Steam and Electrical Ages; in part due to the effects of logistical or cultural boundaries.

B. Logistical Natural Boundaries

A logistical natural boundary exists where a transport system, allowing easy movement of men and supplies, reaches its limits.  Everything within the range of this transport system is relatively easy to defend, because armies may readily maneuver using this transportation.  Beyond the range of the transport system, amies find it difficult to operate due to the need to drag large supply trains along with them:  movement is slow and operations endangered by the risk of supply exhaustion.

The (literally) classical example of this is afforded by the Roman Empire.  The Roman Empire had a basic transportation system afforded by oceanic shipping and riverboats, which it extended overland through the construction of the Roman roads.  Because the Romans lacked steam locomotives and motor lorries, land movement of any great quantity of supplies had to be accomplished through beasts of burden. 

But beasts of burden need fodder themselves in order to work, meaning that long-distance supply trains had to haul a lot of fodder just to fuel the beasts which were pulling their wagons.  If the journey was too long -- beyond around 50-200 miles depending upon roads and terrain -- the supply trains would have to carry so much fodder that they could not also transport any significant amount of supplies, and hence this rendered military operations beyond this range both dangerous and impractical.  (Steam trains and motor trucks have similar problems, but need much less coal or petrol per ton-mile than beasts of burden need food, hence motorized supply trains allow much longer supply lines).

In consequence, the Roman Empire basically followed the contour of the territories within a 50-200 mile range of the oceans and navigable rivers, save where deliberate strategic decisions were made to use a river itself as a natural boundary (as was the case at times on the Rhine and Danube).  Indeed, sometimes within ostensibly Roman provinces, those areas far from the coasts and rivers would often be half-wild, with brigands and surviving semi-independent barbarians, because it was too much trouble for the Romans to police such regions save during prolonged periods of peace.

Obstructive and logistical natural boundaries can and often do coincide.  For instance, the aforementioned Pyrenees are also a logistical natural boundary to any pre-Steam Age army, because it is difficult for supply trains to move through the passes.  (In winter it's almost impossible).  A French army trying to operate in Spain, unless it was able to get supplied by sea, might starve -- as the French discovered to their sorrow in the Peninsular War campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars.

Deserts are more logistical than obstructive boundaries.  Most deserts are flat and many are relatively hard-surfaced:  good walking terrain.  But they are also hot by day, cold by night, and lack much in the way of available food and water.  An army wishing to operate in the desert must bring its own water, which means it needs a larger than usual supply train, and the beasts pulling the wagons of the supply train also need to carry their own water.

Before the domestication of the camel, large-scale trans-desert military operations were almost impossible, and even afterward they were difficult.  This is why the writ of the Pharoahs did not run too far from the Nile and its nearby oases such as Lake Fayum, even in eras when Egypt controlled major parts of the Levant.   The Roman Empire was never able to expand very far south into Africa, save along the Nile, and the many wars between Rome and Parthia were usually rendered indecisive by the difficulty of crossing the Syrian deserts.  Even after the development of motorized transportation, desert warfare was difficult:  the North African campaigns fought between 1940 and 1943 rarely saw signficant forces move more than 100 or so miles inland from the coast, and operations were very much dependent upon the availability of seaborne supply and the control of good ports at which to land them.

When a good natural boundary is found and reached, a society may long defend these boundaries, and the people living within this boundary may develop a shared culture.  This leads to the last major type of natural boundary.

C. Cultural Natural Boundaries

All things being equal, people would rather be governed by leaders and administrators of their "own kind" -- people who speak the same language, worship the same gods, and have similar philosophies of justice and standards of decorum.  People will accept oppression from native tyrants far more readily than they would accept the same oppression from foreign ones, and the rule of even enlightened foreigners is often resented.

As I mentioned, since obstructive and logistical natural boundaries tend to be stable, the people within them will often be under the same rule for long periods of time.  Over the generations, these people will assimilate with their masters and with each other, until they share a common culture:  a culture that they perceive as very distinct from those people within or on the other side of natural boundaries.

This greatly increases the defensive power of the natural boundaries.  Should an invader from outside the culture-group manage to surmount the natural boundaries and seize some or all of the territory within them, the resistance of the natives may be bitter and protracted.  It may take centuries for the natives to accept and assimilate to the new rulers, and until then the governors will face a constant threat of revolt.  If the imperial power faces other dangers -- internal or external -- at the same time, the threat may become an actuality, and the revolt may even prove successful.

This threat is far greater if the invader has conquered only some of the territories within the natural boundary system.  As long as independent territories and armies of the native culture are still extant, such will serve as a rallying-point for the rebellious subjects of the empire, and such independent territories will be especially quick to strike at the empire when the empire suffers a time of weakness.

An excellent example of this is afforded by the fates of the European empires in the East Indies during and immediately after World War II.  France and the Netherlands both lost the early phase of World War II to the Germans, which also weakened their now-unsupported colonial forces in Indochina and Indonesia.  Britain remained undefeated, but could not afford their Malaysian colonies much support when the British were fighting for their lives at home.

The Japanese took advantage of their weakness in 1940 and 1941, invading first Vietnam and then Malaysia and Indonesia.  Though the Japanese were thrown out of these territories by the victorious Allies in 1945, the postwar West was badly-drained by the economic, human and moral costs of the war, and the natives rebelled against their foreign masters.  The Dutch were thrown out of Indonesia by 1950; the French from Indochina by 1954. 

Even the British left Malaysia in 1957, though in part because Britain was less damaged than the other two colonial Powers by World War II, and in part because British rule had been more humane, the British were not forced out by the Malaysian Insurgency but instead remained friendly with the regimes of Malaysia and Singapore.  Note that things might have been less friendly had the British insisted on holding on to power.

Cultural natural boundaries are subtler than the other two kinds of natural boundaries, but they can be very strong.  Cultural areas can remain effectively unified even when they are formally governed by different regimes:  note the strength of the Anglo-American Alliance from 1917 to the present date, or the friendship between all the nations of the Anglosphere (America, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand).  It is very difficult to engage in the long-term subjugation of an alien cultural group, unless one's military superiority and political determination both be great and long-lasting.

Now let us extend these basic concepts into the recent past, present, and future.

II. Spatial Natural Boundaries

A.  Obstructive

Space is mostly empty and relatively invariant, so one might think that there are no obstructive boundaries in space.  There are in fact two very large ones:  gravity, and distance. 

The "terrain" of space is formed by massive objects creating gravity wells, in orbit around other massive objects creating gravity wells.  A force deep in a gravity well must expend energy to escape the gravity well; likewise, a force orbiting a gravity well must expend energy to counter the velocity of its orbit and drop into the gravity well -- save for missiles, it may also have to expend energy to avoid crashing into the massive object at high speed.

Distance is obstructive primarily because it provides time for defenders to destroy incoming missiles.  Since missiles are potentially the most destructive of weapons, and since stealth is difficult in open space, the longer a missile has to travel before impact the greater the likelihood that it will be destroyed by defenders' weapons, particularly energy weapons.  Given computers at least as advanced as those existing today, the effective accuracy of energy weapons asymptotically approaches 100% assuming a non-evading target, and evasion is essentially impossible at ranges below around 0.1 LS (about 30 thousand kilometers).

Secondarily, distance provides defenders more time to destroy incoming warships:  the more so because energy weapons cannot quickly destroy a well-protected target but can slowly destroy such a target through overheating.  The main defense against overheating is a heat sink, but heat sinks are ablative defenses (the heat must eventually be gotten rid of, mainly through dumping into hot volatiles which are then ejected), and given enough time the target will exhaust its supplies of coolant and be reduced to the much less effective means of heat loss by radiation.

Finally, at interplanetary or greater ranges, distance causes a communications lag which fatally lengthens the command and control loop.  Thus, assuming no FTL couriers or radios, actual sapient minds must be present to do more than launch a long-range raid against any world not in the same lunar system.

B.  Logistical

Space is mostly analogous to a desert.  Nothing save a lack of energy and reaction mass, or the existence of relatively strong gravity wells, prevents maneuver onto any desired vector.  However, like a desert, everything (save for small amounts of energy obtainable by the reception of radiation) that one requires for supply must be brought along on the spaceship itself.

This means that distance is also a logistical barrier.  If I wish to conduct military operations on Mars, and it takes my spaceship six months to get to Mars, then I must carry six months' worth of supplies for my ship, crew and equipment.  Supply requirements may be reduced by means of recycling (utterly essential for rapidly-exhausted supplies such as air and water) and fabrication shops aboard the spaceship itself, but recycling and fabrication imply the provision of specialized equipment which also takes up mass and requires energy to operate.

One very important type of supply is reaction mass.  This is distinct from "fuel" in all but chemical rockets:  power comes from a fission or fusion reactor, or from chemical, nuclear or antimatter fuel cells, but this power cannot directly drive the ship.  Instead, the power is used to fling out mass or energy, which then drives the ship through Newtonian reaction.  This is a "reaction drive," and so far it is the only sort of space drive which we know how to build or are even certain is theoretically possible.

In space, there is neglible friction on a human timescale, so the important question of maneuver is not "speed" but "acceleration" and the resultant "velocity."  Velocity is a vector rather than scalar force, which means that it is a magnitude PLUS a direction.  One is not merely flying at, say, 20 km/sec, one is flying at 20 km/sec on a particular spherical bearing.

Changing one's vector is called "delta vee" (change in velocity), and any object with a certain reaction mass and exhaust velocity has a certain delta vee, and can be rated by that delta vee.  When an object has exhausted its reaction mass, it cannot change its velocity save by very slow means relying on the weak force of the solar and other particle winds ("space sailing") and by the clever use of gravity and the tiny amount of friction which does exist in the (semi-) void.  Hence, reaction mass (and delta vee) are a "supply" which is depleted by operations.

Worlds, from the greatest gas giant down to the tiniest asteroid, are potential supply sources.  Whether this potential is realized is based on the resources and facilities present on the world and on the spacecraft.  Gravity wells have a complex relationship here:  the deeper the gravity well, the easier it is in terms of time and delta vee to achieve orbit; but the harder it is in terms of time and delta vee to leave orbit.

Acceleration capability is important in this regard.  An ion-driven spaceship with a maximum acceleration of 0.005 G would take a lot of time to achieve orbit around a small world or leave orbit around a large one; a fusion-driven spaceship with a maximum acceleration of 5 G would have little problem landing or taking off  (let alone acheiving or leaving orbit) from even the largest planet.

Local conditions may create logistical boundaries, because spacecraft may require special equipment to operate under particular local conditions.  The ones we are most familiar with is atmosphere and gravity:  a spaceship designed for operation in vacuum and under very low-g acceleration will not be able to take off or land from a world with a signficant atmosphere or gravity, and will have to conduct operations on its surface by means of shuttles or landers which have better engines or streamlining.

Another local condition is radiation, or the lack of radiation.  A spaceship designed to operate closer to Jupiter than Callisto would need strong electromagnetic shielding, stronger than most spaceships might have.  Consequently, the magnetosphere of Jupiter would be an obstructive barrier to ships without this shielding, and a logistical barrier in that ships would have to be equipped with this shielding to so operate.  Conversely, a ship making extensive use of solar power would be useless in the Outer System, where solar radiation and hence the energies so obtainable would be feeble.

Distance, which we've already discussed as an obstructive boundary, is also a logistical one.  If a force from the Solar System wishes to conduct military operations in the Alpha Centauri System, its communications with the Solar System will suffer an 8.72 year round-trip time lag, which means that even the fastest possible supply shipment (lasered energy) could not possibly be changed any more rapidly.  This means that very long-range operations would have to be well-planned in advance, and could not be easily reinforced if they encountered unexpected difficulties.

Here we should mention receptive drive and energy systems, or to speak more familiarly, catapults and powerbeams.  A spaceship does not need to carry all the fuel and reaction mass that it would normally  if it can get some of its power through beamed transmission from bases, or some of its delta vee through launcher/catcher catapult systems.  Several frequencies and kinds of electromagnetism (particularly masers) work well for beamed power transmission; options for catapults include electromagnetic rails, ion projectors, and lasers.  Counterintuitively, a catapult "launcher" can also serve as a "catcher" -- in other words, a ship or cargo can be not only accelerated but also decelerated (most efficiently by a catapult at the destination, but it is actually also possible to do it from the point of origin using large reflector and receptor arrays deployed by the ship itself.

This mention belongs here because any such use of receptive systems requires coordination with the transmission facilities.  This limits the flexibility of their use at ranges which impose signficant two-way communications lags.  For instance, if a fleet from Earth is atempting to operate against Mars, and it is getting most of its energy by maser beam from Earth, it cannot engage in unplanned maneuvers (such as evasion or other combat events might require) or it will maneuver right out of its power beams.  Likewise, any delta vee obtained from external sources cannot be used for unplanned maneuvers; in the case of catcher systems, the catchers themselves might be at hazard from enemy action.  Hence, receptive systems are much more useful for civilian than military purposes.

C.  Cultural

Generally speaking, the maximum range of exploration will always be greater than the maximum range of colonization, and the maximum range of routine transportation less than the maximum range of colonization.  This means that we will generally be able to explore farther than we can colonize, and colonize farther than we can engage in large-scale operations.

This is a situation quite familiar to terrestrial history, and its implication for the creation of cultural natural boundaries is that there will be a time period between the initial colonization of a world and the development of large-scale transportation infrastructure between the homeworld and colony.  During this period, there will be signficant obstructive and logistical boundaries between the homeworld and colony.

Thus, the colony will be able to develop a culture distinct from the homeworld, and if the colony secedes from the homeworld, will enjoy significant defensive advantages should the homeworld dispute its independence.  These defensive advantages will be the greater, of course, in a war fought long after independence, because a long-independent nation will have a more developed economy and military establishment.

Obviously, it takes time to establish a culture firmly enough, and to let its population grow through immigration or natural increase to the point that its cultural solidarity becomes a natural boundary.  This is unlikely to happen, during the first expansion outward from the Earth, regarding Earth-Orbital or Lunar colonies, because the technological advances permitting large-scale military operations will likely come rapidly enough on the heels of those permitting colonization, and the vast existing population on the Earth will be very concerned about dominating Earth-Orbit, or Earth's only natural satellite.  But it is very likely to happen regarding other worlds of the Solar System and beyond, because as we go farther and farther out, the number of potential targets for colonization increase to (literally) astronomical quantities.

These cultural natural boundaries will be important as a source of resistance to divisio et imperio ("divide and rule") invasion strategies:  which is to say, obtaining a surface-head on and hence circumventing the other natural boundaries of obstructive distance and logistical supply support which act to defend a world against invasion from without.  United worlds will be conquered from time to time, owing to the fact that an attacking multi-world empire may be able to concentrate vastly greater force to bear on a single planet than that planet has with which to defend itself, but the defender will enjoy a tremendous force-multiplier advantage, as long as he can remain culturally and politically united.

D. Technological Progress

The main instability inherent in any such system of natural boundaries is the advance of technology.  Gravity wells that were obstructively-deep and distances logistically-wide to spaceships with one kind of drive may be conveniently-shallow and narrow to spacecraft equipped with later and more powerful engines.  Logistical problems which crippled operations in one century might be solved by improved resource processing and product fabrication devices.  Hostile local conditions that required massive and expensive protective systems at one level of technology might become mere nuisances to the improved protective systems that are later devised.

We have seen this repeatedly happen in terrestrial history.  For instance, the very same ocean which prevented Great Britain from holding on to her North American colonies in the late 18th century could not prevent the United States of America from liberating Western Europe in the mid-20th.  The ocean was no narrower, but what had been a major logistical barrier to sailing ships displacing hundreds of tons was only a minor one to steamships displacing thousands of tons.  We now have routine tourist transportation to coastal Antarctica:  to many of the same places which a mere century ago were reachable only at great danger and suffering.

In general, the key technologies which will overcome natural spatial boundaries are powerplants and engines, followed by life support and fabrication.

1. Powerplants and Engines

These two technologies are related, because greater energy-density of power system roughly correlates with greater exhaust velocity of engine, and hence the specific impulse generated by each kilogram of reaction mass (the relevant equation being f=m(v squared) where f = force, m=reaction mass, and v=exhaust velocity).  As this demonstrates, increasing the exhaust velocity has much more effect on the production of thrust than does merely dumping more reaction mass:  reaction mass affects thrust force linearly while exhaust velocity affects it geometrically.

Generally speaking, the simplest kind of rocket is a chemical rocket, in which fuel and reaction mass are one and the same.  Chemical rockets allow routine access to orbital space but allow access to inter-lunar space only with difficulty and inner inter-planetary space (Mercury to the Asteroid Belt) with extreme difficulty.  Next comes nuclear fission and thermal or ion drives, which allow routine access to inter-lunar space, inner inter-planetary space with difficulty and outer inter-planetary space (Jupiter through Neptune) with extreme difficulty.  Then nuclear fusion and plasma or fusion drives (a fusion drive is a plasma drive with a fusion afterburner), which allow routine access to inner inter-planetary space, access to outer interplanetary-space with difficulty, and far outer interplanetary-space (the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud) with extreme difficulty.  Finally come antimatter-powered photon rockets, which allow routine access to outer interplanetary space, far outer interplanetary space with difficulty, and the stars within about a dozen light-years with extreme difficulty.

There may be power systems and drives beyond that, without totally leaving the confines of known or almost-known physics.  For instance, energy might be drawn from the structure of spacetime ("Zero Point" energy) or stored in stretched gluons (by teasing and holding apart the quarks in subatomic particles), or fuel or reaction mass might be scooped from the interstellar medium through the use of lasers to ionize and electromagnetic fields to draw in interstellar dust and gasses (the "Bussard Ramjet" principle).  Considerable advances in physics and engineering would be needed to employ either method on a practical scale, but none of this would violate known physical law.  Such improved systems might allow merely difficult or even routine access to the close stars.

Beyond this of course lies the possibility of FTL communication and travel, but since so much of the physics involved is incredibly speculative and I'm trying to stick as close as possible to "hard science," I will leave off at this point.

2.  Life Support and Maintenance

Both are essentially concerned with mastery of chemical and mechanical processes, and neither involve any fundamental physical advances:  they are purely issues of design and control of the systems.  Hence they may be assumed to be developed further and further with time; yet the precise degree of their development at any particular time imposes the most basic logistical limits on military and other operations.

We already know what chemicals and biochemicals human beings need to survive.  Basically, we need clean air and water, and wholesome foods.  Providing such, on the scale of a settlement or even a large hab, would be a necessary but not theoretically very difficult task.  The problem, of course, is that for transport operations, one must either shrink the recycling and production systems down to a portable mass, or simply accept that one will only be able to produce an incomplete set of the required biochemicals and supplement that set with irreplacable supplies, carried aboard the spaceships.

Likewise, we would know precisely what sorts of replacement parts might be required to keep functional the mechanisms of the spaceship and its equipment (including the life support system).  As technology advances, the mass and other costs associated with the required highly-flexible machine shops reduce, and the more sophisticated the equipment which can be repaired onboard, rather than at a better-equipped base.

However, there is a subtler problem associated with both life support and maintenance, which may prevent logistics from ever being more science than art.  That is that both ecologies (even the limited ecologies of spacecraft life support systems) and systems of mechanisms (such as those comprising the spacecraft) are complex systems which can succeed or fail in complex, synergistic, "emergent property" fashions.  Consequently, both sapients of skill and emergency backup systems and supplies will always be needed, albiet to a diminishing extent as the technologies progress.  And there will always be the occasional disaster, avoidable or unavoidable, to remind sapients that traveling across long distances is inherently hazardous, though also to a diminishing extent as progress marches on.

III.  Levels of Boundary

A. Sub-Orbital

The Great Powers of the Earth have been an effectively sub-orbital civilization since the 1950's, when we developed long-range rockets capable of flying accurately for thousands of miles.  By putting nuclear warheads on these rockets, and by putting these rockets on submarines, surface ships and heavy bombers, we effectively rendered all existing terrestrial obstructive natural boundaries irrelevant at least where unlimited strategic bombardment was concerned.

In consequence, the whole world of Earth has now become effectively part of the same natural boundary system.  Any Earthly Great Power may carry out strategic bombardment against any other Earthly Great Power, and the only military bar to such bombardment is an active defense:  the deployment and use of anti-missile missiles or defensive energy weapons:  and such weapons are not significantly enhanced by the presence of any natural boundaries save (to a limited extent) large oceans.

Logistical natural boundaries have been severely weakened by the wide deployment of railroads, superhighways and large steamships.  Where such boundaries are still somewhat effective, it is through defensive action:  for instance, interdiction strikes on enemy rail and road nets, or submarine and air strikes against enemy transport shipping.  They are becoming increasingly ineffective however as transportation becomes cheaper and more versatile.  It is much harder to interdict motor lorries than it is steam trains, and harder still to interdict transport helicopters.

Cultural natural boundaries are still strong, because they take generations to drop.  Widespread global communications are slowly breaking down such boundaries:  it would already be politically very difficult for two Western Powers to go to war against one another, and in such a case both parties would face extreme political pressure to conduct a war in the most humane possible fashion (for example, the Falklands War, in which both sides accepted surrenders and treated captured military and civilian personnel very correctly).  Most vicious wars are now either fought by non-Western Powers or across strong cultural boundaries (and the latter, of course, tend to be indecisive for precisely that reason).

The obvious long-term trend for military operations on any one world in a state of sub-orbital civilization is for them to either lead to general devastation (as strategic bombardment becomes too easy) or general unification (whether through peaceful federation or protracted conquest).  Eventually, any world which survives its disunited stage will become culturally and politically unified, and then its own ionosphere becomes a "natural boundary."

In the not too distant future, sub-orbital capabilities may also be used to reduce logistical barriers to the very rapid deployment of military forces.  There is no theoretical reason why hypersonic sub-orbital rockets might not be used as troop transports, though the economics of such rocketry will mean that they will at first only be used for the insertion of very small specialist forces, such as commandoes and various kinds of scouts and engineers.  Eventually, most intercontinental air transport might be superseded by suborbital passenger rockets or (magnetic or other) catapult-launched capsules.

Before this happens, though, the nature of the technologies involved tends to lead to such a world ascending to the next stage of transporation capacity.

B.  Orbital

In our history, it took less than two decades to pass from the first sub-orbital rocketry to the first orbital rocketry.  However a case can be made that we did not really become an "orbital" civilization until the deployment of the first manned orbital space stations in the 1970's.

Because there are no natural objects in close orbit around the Earth, becoming an orbital civilization did not mean any major changes to military operations in terms of new terrains to colonize and hold.  This might not be the case for all orbital civilizations:  for instance, if an orbital civilization had evolved on Mars, it might have progressed rapidly from sub-orbital rocketry to planting actual settlements on Deimos and Phobos, both of which are in fairly close orbit of their planet.  We may also in the future choose to build large permanent close-orbital stations (though there are some disadvantages to such siting, due to the need to periodically trim their orbits to counteract the effects of high-atmospheric drag).

Instead, the main effects on military operations of becoming an orbital civilization were to vastly improve the power of reconaissance for any Power with space superiority, or even parity, with its foes.  The development of reconnaissance satellites greatly reduces the ability of distance or obscuring terrain to hide forces, which in turn weakens natural boundaries.

An artificial space settlement in close orbit around a world would be highly-vulnerable to military action from the world's surface.  It might be able to defend itself from enemy missiles, because the missiles would have to cross a large open space to reach the settlement, and during that time the settlement would be able to engage the missiles with their own anti-missile missiles or energy weapons, but enemy energy weapons based on or near the world's surface could bombard the space structure with extreme accuracy, burning precisely into its sensors, weapons and power systems.  Even an armored space settlement would eventually succumb to the power of enemy beams which would have a whole world's power grid on which to draw, and which would be commanded from bunkers miles-deep in the world's crust.

The defense of a moon in such an orbit, however, might prove more practical.  Though enemies on a world's surface could still snipe with energy cannons at exterior targets with extreme accuracy, the sheer volume and mass of a moon -- even a small moon like Phobos or Deimos -- would enable the defenders to make a literal "defense in depth," meaning that they could locate their command centers, arsenals, barracks, depots, powerplants and even populations miles deep beneath the surface, rendering bombardment with energy weapons long and difficult propositions.

The defenders' own energy weapons would be able to draw on the gigantic stationary powerplants which one might site on an actual astronomical body.  They could be located in tunnel systems, spending most of their time safely hidden in the moon's depths, scooting up to fire, and then once again retreating to avoid counterbattery bombardment.  Sensors might be similarly concealed, and as long as any sensors remained operational, the moon could put forth such a volume of defensive fire as to render either missile bombardment or orbital assault impractical.

An energy weapon, if it fails to immediately-damage a target through thermal explosion, inflicts harm through the cumulative conversion of its energy to heat.  This means that a major defense against energy weapons is to pump the heat away from the point of bombardment to a heat sink:  a large relatively cold mass which can absorb the heat and, eventually, vent the heat into space either through a radiator array or by the emission of hot gas.  An astronomical body has a clear advantage over a ship or all but the largest conceivable habs in this regard, in that it is possible to create immense storage tanks for volatiles that can be used for such heat dissipation systems.

C. Lunar Systems

The next step up is the "lunar system," which comprises a planet and all its associated moons.  The vast majority of planets have moons (in our own system, Mercury and Venus are the only moonless terrestrial worlds):  all known Solar gas giants have multiple moons and even some dwarf planets, such as Pluto, Eris and Haumea, have lunar systems).

The reasons why a lunar system is a natural unit is that a lunar system -- even the biggest ones such as that of Jupiter -- is small enough that  (a) even chemical rockets can (with difficulty) travel about such a system and (b) energy weapons fire can be delivered more or less accurately against even maneuverable targets elsewhere in the same lunar system.  Consequently, once one colonizes any object in such a system, one can readily colonize the other such objects, and a State in one part of such a system can readily project power against other parts of the same system.  The imaginary border of a lunar system is therefore an "obstructive" (defense-moat) and "logistical" (transport-net) natural boundary, and in time lunar systems are also likely to become cultural natural boundaries.

As discussed under "Orbital" operations, any moon (even a moonlet such as Deimos or Phobos) is large enough that its possession gives the possessor a significant defensive force multiplier.  This might enable a State controlling one moon to retain its independence from another State -- even a stronger one -- based on the planet or on another moon in the same system. 

What one then gets would be a system of "moon-states" which would be in many ways analogous to that of the "city-states" common in the history of Earthly regions divided by land obstacles but united by greater surrounding natural boundaries, such as Greece or Italy.  This system is unstable in the sense that advancing technology will inexorably increase the capability of interlunar transport and the firepower and defense of warships, eventually leading to a situation in which the interlunar boundaries must collapse either to confederation or conquest; but depending how long this process takes to complete, cultural natural boundaries might appear and delay the resultant unification.

This is not very likely to happen, at least initially, in the Terrestrial lunar system (Terra and Luna) because the Earth starts with an immense population and industrial base (billions) while the Moon will at least at first only have colonies measurable in the dozens, hundreds, or thousands, with very little industry in absolute terms by comparison with that of the Earth (though probably much more industrial output per capita).  Long before the Lunar population has increased to the point of being able to credibly defend a whole world, Terra will have enough atomic-powered rockets to transport enough ordnance and manpower to overwhelm any likely Lunar defense.  (This is a shame, as one of my favorite science-fiction novels growing up was Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress).

In the case of Mars, the primary world is an obviously-attractive target for colonization and economic exploitation, while the two moons are small and uninteresting.  Hence, the Martian population will quickly eclipse that of its moons, which will probably function primarily as spaceports and fortresses serving the needs of the mainworld's society.  High population turnovers are likely, with consequently weak cultural formation on the moons.  Now and then an enemy or adventurer may succeed in seizing one or both moons from the Martian., but this is likely to be merely short episodes in Martian history, assuming a unified Martian planetary government.

Lunar systems, however, will be especially important to the histories of our four gas giants.  Jupiter has four large moons (Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io) each of which is likely to be of interest for slightly different reasons as a target for colonization  (Callisto, outside the magnetosphere, is an obvious spaceport for the Jovian system; Ganymede has seas each of which may have different ecosystems and which are sources of volatiles; Europa has a gigantic planetary ocean likely to boast life; and Io is dense and volcanically active, hence a good target for mining).  Jupiter herself is a hostile environment for colonization, hence it is likely that the Jovian moons and especially the four big "Galilean" moons (so-called because Galileo first discovered them) will boast significant populations before Jupiter.

The Jovian System is also highly-defensible against attack from the rest of the Solar System for several reasons.  First, the Jovian magnetosphere both provides energy to any Jovian civilization, which could also be used to power energy beams and defensive shields.  Secondly, that same magnetosphere requires strong shielding to operate anywhere within Callisto's orbit (Callisto herself is outside its worst effects) and hence most interplanetary cruisers, especially in the early ages of interplanetary civilization, will probably not be able to participate in attacks into the Jovian system without extensive refitting.  Finally, it is a large and diverse lunar system which would offer its occupants access to all kinds of metals and volatiles, hence well able to withstand blockade.

Though at first one would expect to see moon-states, eventually some sort of Jovian Lunar League or Federation seems a likely governmental type:  the sooner if the Jovian System feels threatened by some external force.  The natural boundaries around the Jovian System being very strong, such a League would be breakable only through application of overwhelmingly-greater force or through the disunity of its members.

The moons of this federation would probably take charge of efforts to colonize Jupiter, which would occur because Jupiter is a potentially-limitless source of energy and minerals.  The colonization of Jupiter would be very difficult:  even establishing floating settlements in the upper atmosphere would require operating in a 2.54 G field, which would practically require extensive use of cyborging, genetic engineering or robotics on the part of the colonists.  As one goes deeper, pressures and temperatures climb, and the Jovian core is one of the most hostile places in the Solar System (far worse than the core of the Earth or the surface of the Sun).  But it is also a treasure-trove:  a vast silicon-nickel-iron-actinide body larger than the Earth, probably very active and hence containing immense concentrations of virtually any desired heavy element, so the rewards for building or breeding sapients capable of operating under these insanely-difficult conditions would also be great.

One problem that a Jovian Lunar Federation might face is that the natures, and hence perhaps the cultures, of the beings capable of operating under the extreme conditions of the Jovian depths would be very different from that of unmodified human beings or even humans modified to operate in the Jovian moons or in the Jovian upper atmosphere.  Since the colonists of Jupiter (the "true Jovians") would eventually gain access to resources far greater than those obtainable on the Jovian moons, a long-term tendency might be for the Jovian moons and their inhabitants to fall under the sway of their own Jupiter colony or colonies.

The other gas giant lunar systems are smaller and less rich than Jupiter, but they too contain their prizes:  also, they too would tend to see their moons colonized before the main bodies, and in the long run to see the power of the planetary colonists eclipse that of the lunar colonists.  Saturn's lunar system, of course, is dominated by Titan which is large, fairly dense for an object in the Saturnian system, and immensely rich in volatiles including hydrocarbons.  There are also several other moderate-sized moons, but it is likely that the lunar system would be dominated by the colonists of Titan. 

In general, Saturn and its moons are fairly low-density objects and hence could be expected to be metal-poor; Saturn's rocky core is also small compared to Jupiter's, but even so is still larger and richer in absolute terms than a terrestrial planet.  Thus, in the long run the whole Saturnian system might fall under the domination of its mainworld.

Uranus has several moderate-sized moons, of which the most important are Oberon, Titania, Ariel, Umbriel and Miranda.  Oberon, the outermost, might be the system port, while the other moons are sufficiently large and diverse that a lunar-state system might emerge.  The Neptunian lunar system, in contrast, is dominated by its biggest moon, Triton, which would almost certainly control the other moons as well.  Both the Uranian and Neptunian systems would eventually wind up dominated by their mainworlds:  either giant would be much easier to colonize than Jupiter, though such colonization would offer comparatively less rich rewards.

Pluto and Charon are very nearly a double dwarf planet:  one might long see a situation where each world remained independent of the other.  The other Solar dwarf planets have only tiny moons compared to their mainworlds:  Eris has Dysnomia, Haumea has Namaka and Hi'iaka, and so far Ceres and Makemake appear to have none.

It must be emphasized here that all these lunar systems have immense defensive advantages against interplanetary attack.  Approaches even with plasma or fusion drives would take weeks or days, during which the defenders could scourge the invading armadas with gigantic energy weapons powered by huge stationary fusion reactors.  Until the invaders seized at least one moon in the system, they would have no safe base at which to rest and repair damage, and even then they would have to hold off counterattacks at merely interlunar distances, while invader reinforcements would have to travel across interplanetary distances, and worse would have to pass through the same sort of gauntlet of long-range defensive fire.  Unless numerous and well-planned, such invasions could easily end in disasters for the invading forces.

This leads us to

D. Interplanetary

The scale now expands from mere tens or hundreds of thousands, or at most millions of kilometers; to tens to hundreds of millions of kilometers:  a two to four-fold increase in order of magnitude.  This increase is conditioned not by arbitrary human definition but by fundamental astrography:  there is a big gap in scale between lunar systems orbiting planets and planetary system orbiting suns.

It is perhaps best to explain this in terms of what military operations even an interplanetary civilization could not easily perform.  It could not perform interplanetary bombardment with any great chance of success assuming even roughly equal force strengths (the defending lunar system could shoot down salvoes of missiles with great ease), until perhaps very fast kinetic or even relativistic kill vehicles were available (and perhaps not even then, as outlying space fortresses and large-scale electromagnetic shields powered by whole planetary magnetospheres might offer significant defense in depth against such attacks).  It could not invade another lunar system save as part of a very large and well-coordinated military effort, and even then would be at serious risk of disaster.  And travel between planets would always be more difficult, expensive and time-consuming than travel between parts of the same lunar system, with all this implies regarding the difficulty of timely reinforcement of an interplanetary invasion.

A natural unit is formed by the worlds of the Inner Solar System, which are mere tens of millions (as opposed to hundreds of millions or billions) of kilometers apart.  Against light opposition (such as early colonies would put up against imperial forces from Earth), even nuclear fission powered ion-drive warcraft might suffice to maintain control; and nuclear fusion powered plasma-drive ships, especially if supported by catapult launcher-catcher systems, could make the entire Inner System a single economic and defensive zone from the point of view of any of the outer planets. 

The obvious natural boundary is formed by the edge of the Main Belt, which offers plenty of mass and natural astronomical bodies on which to base the control centers for an early warning system able to detect and to some extent intercept attacks coming from beyond along the plane of the Solar ecliptic (the Belt would also be a good place in which to build a thinner early warning sphere to deal with possible attacks coming in above or below the plane of the ecliptic).  One convenient aspect of the Main Belt is that many of its asteroids orbit as much as 20-30 degrees off the ecliptic, providing astronomical bodies on which to site control stations for detectors even off the ecliptic, reducing the thinly-covered zone to around 120 degrees to the "north" and "south," and this far off the orbits of all but the dwarf planets and thus requiring high-delta-vee courses to navigate (and high delta vee means more engine burns and hence easier long-range detection).

Because the Main Belt is large (over 6 AU in diameter and hence some 19 AU in circumference), this early warning sphere would of necessity be thinly crewed, with single stations acting as control and collection systems for small cheap arrays spread out over millions to tens of millions of km of the surface of the sphere.  The largest such stations would be fortresses and bases for spacefleets, but most of the fleets themselves would be closer in to the Sun, in the middle or inner parts of the Belt or even near Luna or Mars.  When an incoming threat was detected, depending upon the geometry of the situation, fleets would be vectored in to intercept the invader, a classic thin-shell mobile force system, similar to that employed by the Late Roman Empire.

The Trojans and Greeks, groups of asteroids roughly in and in orbital resonance with Jupiter, would have a different significane.  Each group is sufficiently spread out to constitute its own interplanetary zone rather than a part of Jupiter's.  They are of course easiest to reach from Jupiter's own orbit, and control of them would have strategic implications both for the defense of Jupiter and of the Belt.  If Jupiter was controlled by the same polity which controlled the Belt, there would be defensive outposts in the Trojans and Greeks; if they were controlled by different polities, there might be conflict over the settlement of these bodies.

Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune have sufficiently large lunar systems to be seen as interplanetary groups of their own.  Also, each giant has accompanying asteroids (the Trojans and Greeks in the case of Jupiter, and some of the Centaurs in the case of Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) easily reachable from their lunar groups.  In the case of Neptune, this includes some of the inner fringes of the Kuiper Belt, including the Pluto-Charon lunar group.  Each giant lunar group would have strategic interests in its associated asteroids, which could otherwise be used as bases against their systems.

There are presumably groupings of dwarf planets and planetoids in the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, but not very much is known about the former and almost nothing about the latter.  Eris, Haumea and Makemake, the largest known such objects, presumably have many attendant smaller bodies.  The distances out here are immense, and "attendants" might easily be farther from their primary worlds than the width of the whole Inner System.

E. Inter-Sectional

The natural boundaries betwen parts of a Solar System (such as the Inner and Outer Systems, or the Outer System and Kuiper Belt) would be largely logistical rather obstructive.  The main problem here is distance, and differing design philosophies for warships intended to operate in different parts of a star system.  For instance, a warship operated by an Inner-System polity, and never expected to travel beyond Jupiter, would carry extra powerplant, weapons and armor at the expense of engines and cargo capacity:  it might be very effective in direct combat but able to traverse billions of kilometers only with the aid of an entire fleet supply train; a warship operated by a polity centered around Pluto or Sedna might have relatively light weapons and armor, but would have top-notch detectors, powerful drives and capacious cargo holds to enable it to cross immense distances without external logistical support.

This difference would be exaggerated by differing resource availabilities.  The terrestrial worlds of the Inner System have lots of metals and direct access to vast quantities of Solar energy, and hence could easily produce the super-alloys and exotic matter required for armor and weapons.  The moons of the gas giants are much less dense, but might have access to the rich metal deposits of the gas giant cores.  But the iceworlds of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud are mostly frozen volatiles over silicate rocks:  while they would have no problem obtaining energy from the abundant hydrogen in those volatiles, they would skimp on metals and exotic matter as much as possible, reserving them for detectors and engines:  much of their structure and armor would consist of nanocarbon and nanosilicate plastics.  Hence, available resources would further affect design choices.

A major limitation on military operations at such vast distances would be communications time lags.  An Admiralty conducting operations at ranges of light-hours to light-days from their main headquarters would find it very impractical to micromanage their forces:  realistically, they would have to assign general goals and trust to the officers at the front to intelligently work towards these objectives.  Any Admiralty which insisted on such micromanagement would simply doom their own forces, as their enemies --operating closer to the enemy headquarters or with greater local control -- got inside their command and control loops and defeated them in detail.

This would greatly affect the military cultures of the polities involved.  The officers of an inner-system polity would tend to refer problems up to higher command, deferring their own decisions to their superiors whenever possible.  In contrast, the officers of an outer-system polity would be used to having to make important decisions on the spot, with their superiors only knowing about these decisions in retrospect.  This difference might be further exaggerated by the likelihood that it would be those with higher levels of initiative and independent spirit who would tend to colonize the outer system in the first place.

Maneuvering over these distances would be highly impractical without at least plasma and preferably fusion drives; it is quite possible that by this point warships would be equipped with antimatter power storage and true photon rocket engines.  Such drives would themselves be powerful weapons, but of course by then their true weapons would be far more effective.

It is at around this point that relativistic kill vehicles would start to be practical, because the power densities involved would allow the launching of reasonably large RKV's both from bases and from warships.  The main defensive challenge imposed by an RKV is the great speed at which it travels (a signifant percentage of the speed of light) and the fact that, even after interception, the result is a mass-to-energy conversion explosion which leaves an expanding sphere of plasma still on roughly the same course at close to the speed of light.  Consequently, any target defended against RKV's would require detection and defense in depth, and powerful energy shields in point defense, to ward off the potential damage inflicted by the near-C ionic and subatomic cloud of debris.  The use of and defense against RKV's is a complex topic, worthy of an article in and of itself, and I will not go into it too far here.

The extreme outer parts of a star system would be the most susceptible to the development of independent cultures and hence cultural natural boundaries.  This is because their communications with the inner parts of their own systems -- or other parts of their own Oort Cloud -- would be subject to great time lags, and would be closer to long-distance mail in the 18th or 19th century than to modern telecommunications.  On the other hands, delayed posting protocols on message boards might allow meaningful dialogues even with such restrictions, and the quality of the messages might still be high with redundant signal techniques, so some sort of cultural unity or at least strong sympathy could be maintained within a given star system.

F.  Interstellar

If a civilization is able to travel to the edge of the Oort Cloud, 1-2 LY from the Sun, it is almost half of the way toward having the capability for interstellar travel.  This would require nuclear fusion or antimatter powered photon rockets, possibly augmented by electromagnetic ramscoops.  Even at decent sublight speeds -- say around 0.5 C -- it would take 9-25 years to reach one of the closer stars, so starships would need to be large and have extensive life support and self-maintenance capabilities.

It is debatable whether or not the first starships would be launched as major prestige projects from the Inner System (Mercury is a particularly good place to build starships, because one can benefit from immense amounts of solar energy and a powerful slingshot effect at launch), or as a more incremental extension of inhabited areas from the outer Oort Cloud onto rogue worlds (terrestrial or dwarf planets drifting between the stars) or into the Oort Clouds of other star systems.  In any of these cases, we would be talking about large, powerful long-duration transport vessels.

Once colonies had been founded on the worlds of other star systems, there would be a great tendency for their cultures to diverge from those of home system.  For instance, a colony civlization in the Tau Ceti system would suffer a 12-year one-way and 24-year two-way comunications lag with the Solar System; it would react to the culturally-influential events of over a decade ago and might not react in the same ways as did the home or other colony systems.

This would make it extraordinarily-difficult for an interstellar government to exercise any meaningful control over the administration of such a colony, unless the control was very light and rare indeed.  The best structure for an interstellar polity would be some sort of league or very loose federation:  any attempt at a tighter regime would be very likely to provke revolts.

The drives required to make starflight practical would make unifying any particular star system very easy, as any vessel designed to be able to make decade-long voyages of 4-5 LY distance would encounter few difficulties in merely crossing a star system.  To travel from edge to edge of our own Oort Cloud, for instance, would be a voyage of merely 4 LY, which is not much shorter than the 4.36 LY to the Alpha Centauri System.

At the same time, by making interstellar colonization practical, this technology would introduce an extreme likelihood of its civilization fissioning into many smaller civilizations, and protect those civlizations behind a truly tremendous natural boundary -- the vast gulfs, with all that this implies in terms of communications lags and logistical obstacles, between the stars.

Any sublight interstellar military operations would have to be very self-sufficient, able to at least secure system-heads and hold them for years or even decades before being reinforced, because communications lags would require such time to respond to changing situations and dispatch relief forces.  Of course an operation could be planned in detail including follow-up fleets, but if each fleet -- even the reinforcing ones -- were not capable of securing a lodgement on its own, then this would open the distinct possibility of total disaster, with each fleet in turn flying into its own destruction.  Interstellar wars might then acquire a World War One flavor, with immense sacrifices being made over long periods of time for small and incremental gains.

Relativistic Kill Vehicles might break the stalemate, particularly if they could fly at very close to the speed of light.  There are however problems with very fast RKV's (in particular, their sensors and effectors might become damaged by collisions with interstellar matter) and my estimate is that the attacker does not enjoy anything like the total advantage envisioned by Pellegrino and Zebrowski (The Killing Star), at least against a systemwide civilization with equivalent technology and any time to prepare before the outbreak of war.  RKV's also offer the distinct disadvantage that they can't conquer anything:  they are purely weapons of bombardment, and if launched across interstellar distances rather than by starships arriving on the scene, their bombardment plans are severely inflexible.  In extreme cases of distant launch and defense in depth, a defender might have time to move a planet out of such a salvo!

Logistical problems related to fuel are very severe, unless electromagnetic ramscoops become practical.  This could lead to a situation in which a fleet arriving in an enemy or uninhabited system might be forced to construct a base simply to refuel, which might impose long timelags on interstellar operations in addition to the transit times.  If this is the case, then RKV's become even less attractive as an aid to conquering a system, as the RKV's would destroy the very facilities which one would hope to use for resupply.

My guess is that RKV's will be used, but rarely as the sole weapon of interstellar war, and more often with salvoes timed to support and be controlled by the sapients aboard an invading fleet.  Such salvoes, controlled by people in system rather than watching the battle from many light-years away, might even be tactically-employed against enemy forts and fleets, instead of merely serving as a means of bombarding inhabited worlds.  Combined-arms operations of this sort might prove the most effective means of interstellar combat.  Large and powerful star cruisers might also be able to launch their own RKV's as anti-shipping missiles, much as modern naval warships employ SSM's.

Defenses against such will be very important.  United systems will deploy early warning surfaces at the outer edges of their own Oort Clouds, with thickening detection and weapon stations and fortresses as one moves further in.  Approaching the Outer Systems themselves, there will be major fleet bases with large fleets of warships ready to move to intercept incoming RKV salvoes, and batteries of very long-range anti-RKV missiles.  Since an RKV could be killed by putting so much as a dust mote onto a direct intercept course, where detection is early the defense will enjoy the advantage.  In the Inner System, vast electromagnetic arrays will power "sunbeams" (thank you E. E. "Doc" Smith for this term) which will redirect large fractions of total stellar outputs into super-powerful defensive beams able to scour wide cones of space clear of all incoming enemy weapons.


Nevertheless, the distance between the stars is something of an ultimate natural boundary, from the point-of-view of known physics.  One might envision interstellar wars between rival federations or empires, in which interior lines and the greater defensibility of continguous frontiers became important:  there is no inherent reason why the early-warning lines could not be extended between adjacent star systems, making flanking such defenses difficult for an attacker.  Beyond a certain size, though, such wars would be unmanagable absent FTL radioes, and would tend to degenerate into mere interstellar anarchy.

So we leave our overview of future spacefaring civilizations and their extents with system-states and small interstellar empires.  Is anything vaster possible?

Remember this:  much of physics is still unknown.  And the future may be far stranger than I -- or anyone -- can possibly imagine.

Friday, June 15, 2012

SF Blog: Season of the Red Wolf

Recently discovered this blog about the politics of the science-fiction community, which I found rather interesting.  In particular, the author has documented considerable anti-Semitism to be found there, much of it taking an "anti-Zionist" form (holding Israel to insanely higher standards than is held any other nation on Earth, the better to condemn her).  I recommend it to one and all.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Retro Review - John Brunner, The Jagged Orbit (1969)


A decadent computerized future civilization in which social tensions have torn nations apart and only a computer-savvy reporter, a psychiatrist, a mystic seer and an artificial intelligence stand between the world and overwhelming disaster. 

Cyberpunk?  Too early, but obviously one of cyberpunk's inspirations.

This is the basic premise of The Jagged Orbit (1969) by John Brunner, a book which I had somehow managed to avoid reading until a few days ago.  I found the book fascinating, both in its prescience about particular possibilities and in the ways in which its social concerns were limited by the outlook of the late 1960's left.  It had both many of the strengths of the cyberpunk of the 1980's and 1990's -- and also many of its weaknesses.


In the year 2014 -- some 45 years in the future of 1969, when the book was written -- the West has become more racially divided than ever before, and governments are collapsing under the stress.  Inspired by South African apartheid, America, Britain (and by implication the rest of the Western world) officially classify people as "blank" (white) or "kneeblank" (non-white), and enforce this distinction at law.  The kneeblanks have actual, formally-recognized enclaves (mostly in the inner cities) in which the blank government's writ cannot run.

Strained both by this system of apartheid and by repeated failed foreign wars, national governments have greatly lost access to talent, loyalty and economic resources, and power is devolving into the hands of corporations and smaller government units.  Religion, faced with the superior success of the socialist states of the East, has also lost its power to persuade, and the people have turned to drugs, psychotherapists and superstitious cults -- some of which command actual psychic powers.

There are almost-regular race riots, which are often murderous and sometimes escalate to the rioters sniping at random passerby with laser rifles and the police levelling whole apartment buildings with attack helicopters.  An Evil Corporation run by the Mafia family of the Gottschalks (yes, that's what they are called in the book!) sells weapons to all sides to encourage tension and hence sell more weapons.  Unsurprisingly, most people want to stay indoors, and increasingly communicate only by videophone and computer terminals.

This immediately raises questions which are never answered in the book, and interestingly these tend to be the same questions which are gaping holes in most cyberpunk settings.  I'll quickly cover them here:

If the Communist countries have both been more economically and militarily successful, why does there seem to be no actual Communist expansion or any societal consequences of same?   If the Communist states have weakened just like the West, then how have they been more successful?  If they haven't weakened just like the West, then what's stopping them from gobbling up the whole rest of the world?  Why, it's almost as if Only the West Is Real, and the rest of the world merely backdrop.

Why couldn't the democracies respond to crisis by electing competent leaders and attracting competent people into the civil and military services?  Whatever possessed the nation-states to do anything as monumentally-stupid as ceding national territory in their heartlands to anti-government racial minorities?  How exactly do these minorities, occupying what are essentially lots and lots of isolated little ghettos, avoid being wiped out by angry majorities following the frequent race riots?

Given that the world is still divided into many Powers, why haven't some of the Powers tried racial equality and benefitted from having sane and integrated societies rather than the nightmare-world of Watts Riots In Perpetua that seems to describe the rest of the world?   Why do the nation-states tolerate the sale of heavy weapons to civilian militias and rebel groups by the Gottschalks?  As in much cyberpunk, national governments seem to be frozen by a strange inertia.

Here's a minor question, but one which annoyed me.  Supposedly, the global privatization of the TV networks have led to a situation in which almost all airtime is devoted to advertising.  There are regulations meant to prevent this, but the "UCC" (a global FCC) is weak and openly despised by the networks, who refuse to obey these regulations.

Ok, but ... how exactly do they force viewers to watch TV shows which are close to 100% advertising?  In-story, it's said that most of the viewers just de-rezz the picture and take lots of drugs to get high to the video melange, but are we seriously supposed to believe that no significant number of people want to watch actual television shows?  What, in Brunner's anarchic future, prevents at least one network, at least some of the time, from actually offering such shows, and hence gaining a greater audience share?

No explanation -- I guess corporations are just United in their Evil.

I mention this because it's actually important to the plot, and because a far more egregious example of cunning corporate stupidity is central to the plot, as it motivates the novel's main villain.


Matthew Flamen, the world's only remaining "spoolpigeon" (essentially a video blogger with a TV show on a major network)  wants to bring down the Big Bads whom he feels are ruining the world, but he can't even seem to stay on the air.  It seems as if his own network is sabotaging his transmissions, the better to put on more commercials instead of his show.  Matthew's wife Celia has been insane for months, and has been committed to Ginsberg (a mental asylum, and we all get the joke), which is run by the psychiatric guru Dr. Mogshack, whose therapy only seems to be making her worse. 

At Ginsberg, an honest psychiatrist, Dr. James Redeeth, is also growing suspicious of Dr. Mogshack's therapeutic techniques.  Dr. Redeeth faces two major questions in his life:  what to do with a mysterious kneeblank ex-soldier, Harry Madison, who appears to have been committed and remained committed for essentially absurd bureaucratic reasons; and how to convince his lover, Dr. Ariadne Spoelestra, who believes love to be unscientific and unworthy of a psychiatrist, to accept his love in the full, old-fashioned sense in which he means it.

Lyla Clay is a pythoness -- a woman who uses drugs, meditation and her own psychic power to read the people and events around her and utter prophecies.  When Lyla is invited to prophesize at Ginsberg, she realizes that Harry Madison is not only completely sane, but saner than anyone she's ever met.

Pedro Diablo is the propagandist for a neeblank enclave, but he is expelled from the enclave when it is discovered (ironically, by a white South African racialist expert) that he is insufficiently "melanist" by biological heritage to qualify for full kneeblank status.  Pedro Diablo winds up becoming Matthew Flamen's partner on his TV show.  Together, they discover that there is indeed something suspicious going on in high places.  They call in Xavier Conroy, essentially the Last Sane Intellectual, to help them.

Meanwhile, the revolutionary Morton Lenigo has been admitted into the United States under threat of neeblank rioting in Detroit -- source of most of America's military vehicles -- if they refuse to admit him.  Lenigo promptly sparks unusually-widespread and violent race rioting.  This is secretly the fault of Anthony Gottschalk, the up-and-coming new blood of the Gottschalk family, who has an Evil Plan to realize unprecedented arms sales from the ensuing social chaos.  He is also making something called "Robot" Gottschalk in the depths of his fortified bunker.

Lyla Clay's agent/boyfriend is murdered by the rioters, and the police arrest her for no obvious reason other than that they found her with the corpse.  Dr. Redeeth finally releases Harry Madison, who escorts Lyla back to her apartment.  Harry helps her evict a squatter who took over her apartment because the police left the door open (apparently in the Jaggedorbitverse, the police are there to make false arrests but refuse to evict trespassers, to the point where taking over someone's apartment and keeping it by brute force is a viable house-hunting strategy).  Harry, who is well over six feet tall and broadshoulders, displays great strength and fighting prowess, apparently taught him by the army.

Then Lyla goes walking with Harry looking for food, which is futile since no restaurant will serve them both due to being a mixed couple.  They are then kidnapped and taken to a high-rise apartment by the minions of Michaela Baxendale, a poetess who wants to perform some sort of weird drug-erotic ritual with them for inspiration.  The drugs trigger a strange state in Harry Madison, in which he fights off all eight of the kidnappers, injuring many of them, and killing one (who he threw out of a forty-fifth-story window).

In the course of the fight, Harry uttered a prophecy:

"Even at this relatively late stage it was possible for an unarmed man of sufficient determination to overcome considerable opposition.  It was not until after the Gottschalk coup of 2015 and the concomitant introduction of System C integrated weaponry that hand-to-hand combat became effectively pointless ... The equipment of individuals with armament adequate to level a medium-sized city nonetheless did not immediately put an end to such combats.  For a while, an attempt was made to codify human behavior on a basis analogous to the legandary Code of Chivalry; however, this represented such a radical reversal of current psychological trends that -"

Harry is arrested but promptly released, a fact which amazes everyone because he killed someone.  (Here's the strange thing:  the reason why they expect him to be imprisoned without bail is the killing, not his race.  But the person he killed was a kidnapper who was actively trying to prevent the escape of the victims, and this in a world where mass death in rioting is just shrugged off as unavoidable!  Apparently, in the Jaggedorbitverse, celebrities can kidnap people at will, rioters can kill them at will, but outside of a declared riot the right of self-defense is not honored.  This is odd because given the other details of the society, I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that kneeblanks are not allowed that right against blanks, as was the case in the real-world Old South).

Most of the main characters meet and discuss the situation.  Harry Madison reveals himself to be none other than Robert "Robot" Gottschalk, a cyborg built by Anthony Gottschalk and given the mission to maximize Gottschalk sales.  When the Gottschalks marketed their "System C" weapons system -- essentially, powered armor armed with plasma guns and micronuclear grenade launchers -- to civilians on all sides of the social divides, the fighting which resulted destroyed human civilization.  The Gottschalks survived and continued to supply arms to the increasingly-depleted population, but profits began to decline as the human race approached extinction.

Then, in 2113, Robert realized that it was the very intensity of the fighting caused by the arms sales which was destroying the Gottschalks' own market.  He (somehow) travelled back in time and incarnated himself in the bodies of various combatants throughout history, trying to find a solution to the paradox.  Because the process of his incarnation destroyed the previous personalities resident in the bodies of the combatants, he chose only those whose personalities had already been destroyed by madness.  

He finally incarnated himself in Harry Madison, but was committed to a mental hospital for years.  Now free and having assembled the necessary force of helpers, he is able to inform enough people to stop Anthony Gottschalk and turn the Gottschalks to a slower and less destructive program of arms sales, so that the release of System C in 2015 never happens.  Then Harry returns his superhuman intellect to the time stream, to ensure the survival of humanity in the future -- and hence the Gottschalk arms market.

Happy endings all around.  Matthew and Celia Flamen are reconciled, and Matthew Flamen and Pedro Diablo become media partners..  Lyla Clay reallizes that she can use her powers for more than just entertainment, and dedicates herself to trying to improve the world (though presumably not to complete non-violence, else the arms dealers won't have a market).  Dr. James Redeeth has rescued Dr. Ariadne Spoelestra from death near the novel's climax, and presumably she appreciates him more.  The Jaggedorbitverse goes on its messed-up way.


John Brunner's clear point is that only by coming together in peace rather than dividing ourselves in war can we know happiness.  He clumsily bookends this with his "Chapters" 1 and 2 and 99 and 100.

Chapter 1:  "I -"
Chapter 2:  "-solationism."
Chapter 99: "You-"
Chapter 100: "-nification."

And I do mean "clumsily."  Though the writing is often good, the moral is handled so anviliciously and with a disregard for basic logic that I'm amazed that anyone not on lots and lots of drugs could have been inspired by it.  I liked the book, but when I saw his bookends I groaned at the atrocious pun.

The Good

Brunner manages to depict a society with advanced computer and commuinications technologies, though like almost every pre-1976 science fiction writer he misses the significance of the personal computing revolution (while, oddly, assuming that every middle-class person has his own videophone/computer, the "comweb," which however may be a terminal to a central unit).  All major organizations and enterprises are utterly dependent upon computers, to the point where "comping" (predicting through analysis and simulation) a proposal is vital to its execution.

In particular, he correctly predicts the importance of blogging, or "spoolpigeoning," as he calls it.  Since that's what I'm doing right here, I have a soft spot for his prediction.  However, since he assumes that one can only make a blog with the resources of a major corporation, and that there is almost no audience for them outside of the audience of a major TV network, he misses just how widespread and influential blogging would actually become.  This failure of prediction is necessary for the plot of his novel.

He even predicts ....  well, I'll let Xavier Conroy take the mike:

"It gets into our families, goddamn it, it gets into our very love-making!  Christ, do you know I had a girl student last year who thought she was having an affair with a boy back home and all they'd ever done was sit in front of the comweb and masturbate at each other?  Twenty miles apart!  They'd never even kissed!"

Though this being Brunner's Crapsack World, this is seen as a bad thing.  It never seems to enter Conroy's head that the emotional relationship described is quite real, and twenty miles is hardly so great a distance that the couple could not eventually manage to meet in person and physically consumnate their romance.

Brunner, in short, managed to predict the Internet and cybersex, but chose to regard this as a distancing rather than unifying technology.

The Bad

Merchants of Death

The Big Bads (and, oddly, also the Big Goods) of The Jagged Orbit are the Gottschalks, arms merchants who encourage and perpetuate a state of slow civil war, the better to sell arms to private citizens.  The threatened end of the world comes from System C, essentially powered armor.

Now this is neither the first nor will it be the last time that arms makers get blamed for the evil that men do with arms.  This is an apparently-irresistible temptation.  States and their populations start a war, everyone marches off enthusiastically to glory.  The war proves less glorious than expected.  After the war, who is to blame?  Certainly not the Enthroned People or their Beloved and Highly-Respectable State!  No, it is the fault of the weapon makers!  Had they not pushed their terrible weapons at us, the world would have remained at peace, as it always had before such weapons were invented -- um, don't think about that.

What's particularly silly about the premise in this book, though, is that System C is so destablizing.  The book has already established that there are man-portable micro-nukes, capable of levelling whole blocks or neighborhoods; and lethal hand-held energy weapons, already on the civilian market.  There's no mention of powered armor, but it must be available if the Gottschalks are able to mass-produce it and market it at a mere $100,000 a unit including the weapons systems to civilians.

So, wouldn't the armed and police forces already have such weapons -- if not as good, then only marginally inferior?  And with those weapons, routine defensive technologies and tactics against them?  (System C incorporates both physical supermetal armor and energy shields, which must therefore be proven technologies).

In fact, wouldn't national militaries and security forces be the logical markets for such weapons?  (This is how the arms industry works in the real world:  it sells first to the military, and only as a technology becomes widespread to first the police and then civilian markets).

Sure, that would get in the way of sparking a multilateral global civil war, but then why would Anthony Gottschalk want to do that?    It never seems to occur to Anthony Gottschalk that, once the civil war has leveled everyone else's factories and farms, he won't be able to get goods and foods for his own purposes either; that once everyone else is dead, he'll have no one with whom to trade, and no market on which to spend his profits.  In the Jaggedorbitverse, it apparently takes a super-intelligent time-traveling cyborg warrior to realize that if you destroy the economy, selling anything to anyone becomes an activity of very little purpose and profit.

Deus ex Machina, Deus EST Robota

Harry Madison, while set up as a Man of Mystery from the beginning and with clues dropped about what he really is in at least two places in the novel, still comes off from my POV as a bit of an Ass Pull.  While there are reasons why an arms company might want to build a super-powered cyborg, there is neither any obvious reason nor method by which that cyborg would, a hundred years later, be able to time-travel and somehow possess the bodies of others, turning them into super-powered cyborgs.  I would call this comic-book logic, but comic books are a bit better thought out.

Notice that every other authority figure in the book is monumentally incompetent and irresponsible.  No nation-state, and certainly not the United States of America, seems to see anything problematical with an arms-making corporation starting what amounts to a self-defense cult and selling micro-nuclear weapons on the open market.  None of them seem to be aware that the Gottschalks are building System C, and none of them seem to try to do anything to try to block it in the timeline that led to Robert's first run up to 2113.

Only Robert can save us, and only because Anthony Gottschalk, in a monumental fit of stupidity, ignored the IBM representatives and programmed the robot to be fanatical about maximizing sales, to the point where Robert is able to extend this to a "Zeroth Law" ("I must protect humanity because only humanity can buy Gottschalk weapons").  This is really absurd, and I don't blame Robert the Robot Gottschalk for grasping the concept of "laughter" when he fully realized the purpose of his existence.

Bad Supplier Choices

Why does the entire USA rely on the neeblank enclave of Detroit to build all their motor vehicles, from trucks to their aircar "skimmers," and including their military vehicles?  Since society's been on the verge of a race war for years, with several actual outbreaks of fighting, why hasn't it occurred to anyone that this would leave America vulnerable to a major supply disruption?

Brunner seems to be thinking something along the lines of "The Detroit Automakers are Too Big To Fail, so they're still in business and still have the whole market share, and they're the Detroit Automakers so of course they operate from Detroit."

But jet back.  What exactly has prevented the Detroit Automakers from relocating and becoming the [somewhere-else] Automakers?  Presumably the neeblanks don't own the auto companies -- is there something about working on an auto assembly line that mystically belongs only to black DNA?

Is this the same as the real-world American energy dependence on Mideastern oil?  No, it's more as if all our energy, for all purposes, came from the Islamic Republic of Iran.  Do you think that we'd tolerate such a situation for long?

The Weird

Only Two Races?

Astute readers will have noticed the obvious problem with the "blank-kneeblank" racial system of the Jaggedorbitverse, which is that it segregates whites from blacks.  Ok, what happens to every other racial group on Earth?  Are they blanks?  Neeblanks?  The novel never says, despite the fact that the existence of Middle Easterners and Chinese are mentioned (the former classed as "blanks," the latter never classed as anything but apparently able to live in the blank areas).

What about mixed-race people?  A major plot point (Pedro Diablo's expulsion) hinges on this, yet they appear to be a very tiny group, easily overlooked by the kneeblanks, or incorporated into blank society.  I wonder if Brunner was aware that the vast majority of American blacks have significant white ancestry?  The "one-drop" rule might apply, except that (as Pedro Diablo found out) it doesn't.

This a major failure of vision.  If you're going to have a strictly racialist system in your storyverse, you have to work out the implications for the major ethnic groups.  Brunner's lapse makes it all too evident that his apartheid exists only as a moral foil for the main characters, and that he can't really see how it would work in practice (as South Africa found out, it doesn't really work very well in practice at all).

Magical Negroes

At one point it is mentioned that black people are literally "magical" in the sense that they have a greater affinity for psychic powers than do white people.  This doesn't really bother me so much, but I find it funny -- after all, there are plenty of stereotypes about other ethnic groups on which Brunner could have drawn, some of them even famous in science fiction.  Mystical Celts -- especially those named Kinnison or MacDougall -- I'm looking at you!

Naked and Slutty For Social Awareness

This risible speech comes from the 20-year-old Lyla Clay, who is explaining how she came from a good family but had to go down to the streets in order to activate her psychic talents:

"... I was sent to this very proper school, with uniforms and everything - incredibly Victorian -- and I never had the slightest suspicion that I might be a pythoness until I ran away from it.  I came to New York.  I hadn't any money.  I was sleeping on strangers' floors, I was practically in rags because my clothes were wearing out, and all of a sudden when I was wearing more dirt than cloth, then bang.  There was the talent.  It sort of scared me at first, but I adjusted.  And eventually, after I met Dan, I started to figure out how I could encourage it ...

"You're not a kid, Mr. Flamen.  How the hell do you think someone learns to identify with the maximum number of other people?  You do what they do.  You starve with them, you sleep with them, you eat and drink with them, you let them do to you what they want to do, and you don't pass judgement."

"Bang" indeed.

This has to be seen in the context of the late 1960's, when lots and lots of naive kids from middle- and upper-class backgrounds were doing exactly what Lyla did -- or pretending that they were doing what Lyla did -- in the belief that this was going to lead them to some sort of amazing revolution in personal consciousness.

It is symptomatic of the era of writing that at no point does Lyla explain, nor does the author nor any of the characters feels that there is any NEED for her to explain, just why this rich teenaged girl decided to run away from her family and school to live as an urban derelict, and stuck to this way of life when she presumably could have gotten out of it at any moment with a single phone call.

There's also a major setting anamoly here.  The rich kids who "dropped out" in the Late Sixties were dropping out into the relatively safe streets of America and Britain of their day.  I would imagine that life would be considerably worse for people trying to drop out into the streets of the Jaggedorbitverse.  If the police are willing to take out whole apartment buildings with airstrikes to get single snipers, killing dozens or hundreds of working people, how do they treat their HOMELESS?  How does the criminal underworld treat them?  Think the Brazilian slums are bad?  What would they be like with the addition of random airstrikes and occasional nuclear terrorism?  Do you really think young Lyla Clay would be likely to survive the experience?

Note also the character-copout here.  Lyla Clay in-story is shown with only two romantic attachments -- her previous manager Dan, who conveniently gets killed at around the time that he stops being so much fun; and Harry Madison, who turns out to be an asexual super-cyborg from an alternate future.  Lyla in this passage implies that it was when she started having sex with Dan that her powers activated.  She also implies (here and in another flashback) that she has had sex with lots of other people, but at no point is this specifically shown.

This is significant, because the exact same character-copout was being displayed toward the rich-kid hippies of the Late Sixties by the Left intellectuals, of whom John Brunner was one.  On the one hand, the hippies were supposed to be seen as sweet lovable Holy Fools who were leading us toward a consciousness revolution.  On the other hand, these were in fact teenage to early-twenties kids who were engaging in all sorts of risky behavior which was in practice destroying them, and which did destroy any and all of them who did not either leave the hippie culture by around 1975, or weren't able to make a lot of money off of said culture, or who simply got unlucky.

The notion that one will emerge from

You starve with them, you sleep with them, you eat and drink with them, you let them do to you what they want to do

with a sense of loving identification with "the masses" is pure Late Sixties fantasy.  Think about real homeless kids you've known.  Are they loving?  Non-judgemental?  The ones who live through it tend to be cynical and mistrustful, even paranoid, and with good reason.  They've experienced how people treat people who have no safe refuges.

Oh, and most of them have at one time or another had to resort to prostitution, whether of the explicit("Wanna date") or implicit ("I'd do anything for a place to sleep.") variety.  Those who haven't have usually had the benefit of at least one utterly-trustworthy friend (often a sibling, boyfriend or girlfriend) and have been very, very lucky -- most notably in not having been homeless for very long before they found a job and housing.

And they left home for reasons more serious than "just because."  Kids who run away "just because" run right back home after a few days or weeks of suffering.  If they don't, it's usually because they were running from something (most often an abusive parent).

The more I think about this, the more Brunner's romanticization of Lyla Clay and her situation really disgusts me.  The more so because it may have led some poor sap to attempt to duplicate the experience.


The Jagged Orbit is an interesting book with some good concepts and a variety of characters, but it ultimately fails because it is too tied to the precise and very unusual situation of the Late Sixties, in which the West was reeling before a campaign of Communist disinformation and the Boomers were just growing up and playing with the idea of revolution, at the same time that racial equality was being born.  Brunner tries to extend this era another 45 years, with the same cultural dynamics, and it just doesn't work.  The situation of the Late Sixties was unstable, and the Jaggedorbitverse was never a very likely outcome from it.

Of course, it was meant as a cautionary tale -- the point being "if this goes on" (computerization and racial segregation) it would lead to a badly-alienated society on the brink of a race war.  But Brunner failed to grasp that computerization, distributed among many individuals, would lead to less alienation  (and failed to grasp it despite including a clear example of social media in his novel!), and that the key victories against racial segregation had already been won at the time of writing.

He also, more seriously, failed to grasp the fundamental strength of the West.  Had the West faced serious racial separatism in the Late Sixties, we would have put it down.  Western governments were not so weak, and the value of "two army corps" is if anything greater than it used to be.

Ironically, since he mentions Islam in passing, he missed the real separatist danger that would menace Europe -- religious separatism.   And still I doubt that this separatism will lead to long-term independent enclaves, simply because sovereign States don't tolerate that sort of thing on theri own national territory.

The world is more robust than John Brunner imagines.  For which we may all be truly thankful. :)