Archive for March, 2008


Saturday, March 22nd, 2008

Arthur C. Clarke lived to see the twenty-first century of which he had written so often. He might have hoped that things would be a little further along by now, but the man’s indefatigable optimism allowed him to take the long view. Which, after all, is what he was best at. He was a scientist who became a science fiction writer to keep pace with his own ideas—ideas that propelled him to a level of mainstream celebrity beyond the reach of any writer in the field besides H.G. Wells, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his persistent refusal to compromise his vision. One envisions the conversation now (through a wormhole in space-time, perhaps, reaching all those years back to the dingy corridors of the 1960s Chelsea?): “no sound! space is silent! let it speak for itself!” He was fortunate enough to find a director who would listen—and who had genius to match his own. Had an observer of 1970 been asked to select what SF author would dominate the box office across the next few decades, the answer would have been obvious.

And wrong. (Then again, no one would have seen PKD coming . . . ) But Clarke understood that history has a way of surprising. Perhaps that was why he seemed so unphased as those responsible for manned space exploration so completely lost the plot. After all, his original prediction that man would reach the Moon by 2000 was derided when he made it in the 1940s. It would have taken someone far more cynical than Clarke to predict in the 1970s that thirty years later we’d still be struggling to get back to Luna. And by the time 2001 really rolled around, we all knew it was a metaphor anyway: an attempt to sketch out the broad contours of future rather than link specific milestones to particular dates.

And what about those aliens? Were they a metaphor too? Hardly. They were, in fact, Clarke’s only regret. His 90th birthday greetings expressed sorrow that he wouldn’t live to see our species make first contact. For him, E.T.s weren’t just an affirmation that we aren’t alone in the universe: they were the cornerstone of his belief in Man Transcendent. Story after story involved humanity struggling to raise itself to the next stage of evolution under the dispassionate gaze of cosmic overminds (or, rather, minds that had already made the journey). Clarke claimed not to be a religious man, but it seems clear enough that he did have a religion of a sort—or, more accurately, that he hoped to turn the keys of religion over to science. We cannot say that he succeeded. But he may have laid the groundwork.

Making him, in the final analysis, almost impossible to judge. As Zhou En-lai once said when asked to evaluate the significance of the French Revolution: “it’s too soon to tell.” So it is with Clarke. His recognition of the significance of the geostationary orbit would have guaranteed him a place in history. But what would have been the pinnacle of any other man’s career became merely the first achievement of Clarke’s. And one senses that the extent to which he was embraced by the zeitgeist of the Apollo Era might be the harbinger of a more lasting verdict: that the public was right to consider this man the greatest of the SF authors. A question that can’t be settled here. But it’s worth noting that in stark contrast to so many of his contemporaries (including his fellow members of the Big Three, Asimov and Heinlein), the heart of Clarke’s philosophy was the proposition that mankind was unlikely to reach the stars unchanged. He reached them earlier this week. We who remain dwell in his shadow. RIP.

Cold War Redux?

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

Another Russian plane buzzed the Nimitz earlier this week—the second such incident in a month. As Pavel Podrig noted, this one wasn’t actually a Tu-95 bomber; it was a naval recon aircraft (Tu-142), with an almost identical airframe as the Tu-95 (“Bear”). But the end result’s the same: heightened tensions. And don’t let the propellers on these things fool you. The Tu-95 is the only turboprop strategic bomber in existence; it’s still fully capable of flattening cities. (In fact, it was a Tu-95 that dropped the largest nuclear device ever detonated, back in the early 60s. Yeah, the early 60s. This thing’s old. Hey, so is the B-52.)

To set all this within the larger context: last year the Russian navy and air force resumed their Cold War patrol routes. Russian bombers routinely conduct exercises over the North Pole nowadays, and have the range to keep going if they wanted to. This is classic sabre-rattling, and reflects the extent to which Russia feels like it has to assert itself against U.S. encroachments—in particular, the plans to base missile shield components in Poland and the Czech Republic. Also, the goal of domestic consumption shouldn’t be minimized: Putin gets a bad rap in the West, but in Russia he’s extremely popular, all the more so as he’s seen as attempting to reverse the humiliations that Russia suffered in the 90s. So announcements in Moscow of carriers being subjected to faux attack runs play pretty well.

Of course, were this actually a hostile attack, the recon craft would be a hell of a lot higher, and they’d be accompanied by (and directing) swarms of bombers in from every direction, all of them with one thing on their mind: becoming the first pilots to bag a U.S. carrier since the Second World War. But let’s put things in perspective: Russia’s current military resurgence still leaves them well below the superpower status of the U.S.S.R. However, the Russians are clearly sending the message that they intend to claw back some lost ground, and we can thus expect more such incidents in the near future.

Robo-Warriors: Part One

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

Been a lot of talk this week in the blogosphere regarding the New Face of Killer Robots, thanks to a well-time PR land-grab by a robotics dude at the University of Sheffield, who warns us that it’s only a matter of time before terrorists start deploying robots against us. This overstates the problem. We’re a long, LONG way from the days of a robot being cheaper than a human. Just because it’s a jihad doesn’t mean the laws of economics don’t still hold sway. “Let me see, I can either build a super-expensive mobile robot or I can recruit some teenage fanatic. Hmm. I JUST CAN’T DECIDE.”

Still, hyperbole aside, the underlying point being raised here is a good one, particularly with UAVs buzzing all over Afghanistan and similar ground-vehicles now under development. Part of the problem in calling for an agreement to “limit” such weapons or determine rules for them is that right now the U.S. is the only nation that is anywhere near close to tapping the full range of operational potential that such assets afford. Russia fielded some recon units in Chechnya, but they’re a long way from the general’s wet dream of being able to watch your enemies on a screen while you sit back, open up a sixpack, and hit the KILL button. As with space weapons, this is an area in which the U.S. maintains a decisive advantage, and they’re unlikely to be held back by calls for international agreements from those who can only wish they had this kind of hardware to fuck around with.

But the key variable in all this is the level of sophistication of the robot brain that’s targeting that terrorist strongpoint on the next street corner/deciding that maybe those kids hanging around on that corner are actually just innocent bystanders. Even soldiers have trouble with this (as so many headlines from Iraq underscore), and robots are a long way from getting to this kind of threshold. Fast-foward enough years/tech development, and the questions become very interesting though. To be continued . . .