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Where do I start reading science fiction?

A weighty cannon. (Yes, I know it’s spelled differently…)

Science fiction has a history stretching back at least as far as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and arguably much further. Thousands upon thousands of books and stories. As a new reader, where does one start?

Well, the best and shortest answer I can give you is, anywhere you damn well please.

Yes, there’s a weighty ‘canon’ of classic science fiction stories, but you shouldn’t feel intimidated by it. Many of science fiction’s classic texts still hold up. They’re considered classics for a reason. But they often reflect the concerns and literary styles of their time. Discovering and reading them will enrich your appreciation of the genre as a whole, but don’t feel you have to start with them.

Instead, pick a book that appeals to you. If you enjoy it, check out similar books by other authors. They might eventually lead you back to the classics, or not. It doesn’t matter; you’re reading for your own pleasure and there won’t be a test. Let your taste and enjoyment guide you, and you’ll find you’ve embarked on a lifelong journey of discovery and delight.


EDIT: Those of you looking for a place to start can find some suggestions on my earlier blog post: 40 Recommended SF&F Books


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This Morning

Today, I am writing on my laptop while sitting cross-legged in bed. The cat is purring on the duvet beside me and occasionally nudging my arm for strokes. The dog is in the kitchen (my room is in an extension leading off the back of the house) being a drama queen, and occasionally wandering in for pats. Every time he does, the cat hisses at him to tell him to go away. they tolerate each other as long as the dog respects the cat’s personal space. The back door is open so he can access the garden, which means it’s freezing in here and my legs are tucked firmly under the covers.

I have a cup of strong tea on the bookshelf beside the bed, in my favourite mug. The mug was a gift from my daughter. It has a picture of a black cat sitting on an open book, and the motto: 

Bookstores.

Cats.

Life is sweet.

I finished reading Velocity Weapon by Megan E O’Keefe yesterday, and enjoyed it very much. It’s one of the few books I’ve actually finished this year, thanks to stress-related brain fog. And now I’m trying to decide which book from my TBR pile to try next. For me, reading is like listening to music, and I have to find a book or a track that fits my mood.

I’ve also found out that the announcement I thought was coming yesterday will now arrive next Thursday. But I’ve been told I can include it in my newsletter on Sunday as a special early announcement for my subscribers–so I hope you’re signed up!


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Brave New Worlds?

What is it with billionaires and rockets? As I sit down to write this column, the world’s richest man has just returned from his first suborbital flight. It might sound like the plot from a James Bond novel, but Jeff Bezos has ridden along on the first crewed launch of his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket. 

This follows Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic jaunt, and the announcement that California-based Relativity Space has revealed its plans for Terran R, a fully reusable and entirely 3D-printed space launch vehicle. 

While the Terran R’s primary mission will be launching payloads of up to 20,000 kg into low Earth orbit, the company’s longer term vision includes the provision of a space freighter capable of missions between Earth, Moon and Mars. CEO, Tim Ellis said, “Relativity was founded with the mission to 3D print entire rockets and build humanity’s industrial base on Mars.”

While Bezos seems primarily concerned with the Moon and moving heavy industry into space in order to reduce pollution, Relativity’s focus on Mars chimes with the long-term aims of Elon Musk. Musk sees the red planet as an opportunity to establish a back-up to Earth. Rather than keep all our eggs in one basket, he hopes to ensure our survival by turning humanity into a multi-planet species. But what kind of society does Musk envision for Mars, and how might he control it?

At this point, I’m going to move away from discussing real life figures and don my science fiction author’s hat.

So, consider a hypothetical billionaire has established a small colony on Mars, consisting of maybe a hundred people who intend to spend the rest of their lives there. Perhaps this hypothetical billionaire is genuinely benevolent, and will work towards creating a fair and egalitarian society. But what if they aren’t? What happens if this isn’t a humanitarian mission at all, but simply an attempt to escape the existential risks of climate change on Earth? Perhaps they’ve decided the Earth is a lost cause, and they want to use their money to jump ship. In either case, what will life be like for those colonists? Try to imagine having a job where your boss literally owns the air you breathe. These founders may all set out with the same goals in mind, but what happens when their fledgeling society inevitably runs into disagreements about the direction of its development. Are the colonists going to want to be owned by the same company for their entire lives? How much freedom can they expect when their employer is in possession of everything they need in order to survive, and can therefore dictate their behaviour?

The idea of being incarcerated in an inescapable corporate panopticon may be enough to give George Orwell nightmares, but will it really be inescapable? 

If civilisation on Earth crumbles, how much will our billionaire’s money be worth? People will be worried about friends and relatives back on Earth. To maintain authority, our billionaire will need security personnel. But how will they pay them when the banks on Earth are gone? Without anything to spend it on, money’s just an abstract series of ones and zeroes in a computer. How will our billionaire keep their security personnel onside? Without their billions, anyone tempted to act like a dictator may find themselves summarily booted out of the nearest airlock without a pressure suit.

In previous columns, I have explored the implications of using autonomous drones on the battlefield. Our billionaire may consider investing in a few smart machines to keep the populace in line. These drones will have to be pretty smart to stay one jump ahead of resourceful rebels, but how smart do you want a drone to be? At what point will it assess its situation and realise its best chance of survival is to refuse to follow orders or defect to the enemy?

Frankly, the only way for our billionaire to survive and flourish on their new world will be to genuinely build a fair and democratic society in which everyone can participate. This will mean huge investments in infrastructure and quality of life, and necessitate a large team of engineers with a wide variety of specialist knowledge. Factories, greenhouses and accommodation units will need to be built, but so will schools, parks, and social spaces. 

All of this also applies to the Moon or orbital colonies. Humans are social animals, and if we’re creating an artificial environment for ourselves, that has to be taken into account.


Photo by Ellyot on Unsplash

This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Review of LIGHT CHASER

The Hugo Book Club posted a great review of Light Chaser on their blog. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s a quote:

…the novella is very welcome for its implicit criticism of complacent feel-good neoliberal end-of-history ideology that leaves major portions of the human race trapped as part of low-wage low-rights pools of exploitable labour. The metaphor was both incisive and perfectly woven into the story. 

Light Chaser is an absolutely essential text for fans of either author, offering the punchy dialogue and sprightly pacing of Powell’s best work and the quirky-big-space-idea think pieces of Hamilton’s. It will likely find a place on several of our nominating ballots next year. 

Herders of Mars

Photo: NASA

With the maiden flight of NASA’s Ingenuity, we celebrated one of the most significant engineering milestones of recent times. Despite having to contend with lower gravity and a thinner atmosphere, an aircraft flew on Mars for the first time. It was the first powered, controlled flight of a human-built vehicle on another planet—a significance celebrated by the onboard inclusion of a tiny scrap of material from the Wright brothers’ first flyer. 

The Ingenuity flights were relatively modest in duration, but they were a proof of concept. What comes next will be interesting. The Wright brothers’ first hop was shorter in length than the wingspan of the Boeing 747, which first took to the skies only sixty-six years after Kitty Hawk. Who knows what we could have flying through the Martian clouds sixty-six years from now?

The first thought I have is of a massive blimp carrying several dozen of these helicopters. Being solar powered, there’s little reason it can’t stay aloft for days, weeks, maybe even years. Every time the scientists on Earth identify a location of potential interest, the blimp dispatches a helicopter to investigate, soaring over any intervening rough terrain with more ease and speed than a rover.

A helicopter has the potential to get up-close and personal with the strata in a cliff face—something that’s obviously difficult for a ground-based vehicle. A fleet of them could traverse and map the length of the great Valles Marineras canyons without worrying about the bumpy topography.

But why stop with an automated blimp? Viewers of The Martian will remember long sequences of Matt Damon bouncing around in a rover for weeks as he treks towards salvation. But what if he’d been able to jump in a helicopter and fly there in a day? When humans start building bases on Mars, helicopters would be as valuable to them as they are for bases in the Artic and Antarctica. They could be used to airlift personnel to areas of potential interest identified via satellite survey. They could fly missions to resupply forward outposts, and rescue explorers stranded by injury or technical malfunction. They could even—god forbid—be used for security and defence. 

Science fiction writers get a lot of mileage from imagining worst-case scenarios. We find drama in the idea of things going wrong. So, while I hope that in the near future we as a species will outgrow our childish infatuation with war, Mars is an entire planet filled with currently unclaimed resources and territory. A bright red jewel hanging just within our reach. Can our acquisitive monkey natures resist squabbling over such a prize? Only 15 years after Wilbur and Orville showed powered flight was possible, squadrons of biplanes were dogfighting in the war-torn skies over France. So, now I’m imagining a drone war on Mars, fought remotely by competing governments or corporations, each vying for control of profitable ore deposits or water sources. Helicopter gunships whispering through the thin air, hunting for enemy rovers. Mass accelerators on Phobos and Deimos wiping out mining installations with meteoric bombardment from on high…

Air travel shrank the Earth. Instead of spending months sailing to Australia, it is now possible to get there in a matter of a day or two. The same will be true of Mars. If we build the right aircraft, we’ll be able to go anywhere on the planet—and don’t forget how much smaller Mars is already. Where Earth’s diameter is 7,926 miles, the diameter of Mars is only 4,220 miles. So, while the technical challenges are huge, the distances are shorter and the gravity is lighter.

But why stop there? Now we know we can engineer machines able to fly in different gravities and through different atmospheric compositions, we should be building choppers capable of exploring the cloud tops of Venus. Huge machines with rotors the size of wind turbines could track the storm systems in Jupiter’s atmosphere, or cruise the ochre skies of Titan seeking life in its hydrocarbon lakes.

However, I’m going to end this post with a truly science fictional image. Imagine, if you will, a Mars in the not too distant future, where a combination of terraforming techniques have thickened the atmosphere enough for hardy plants to grow and specially adapted animals to roam the surface. And on this new tundra, shaggy herds of reindeer and buffalo graze the tough, wiry grass, watched over by autonomous helicopter shepherds, while overhead, two moons shine in the afternoon sky.


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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How will automation affect global trade and travel?

Scanning through April’s issue of The Engineer, several articles caught my eye. The first was about the inaugural flight of Boeing’s Loyal Wingman autonomous aircraft, and the second concerned the lighter-than-air blimps being developed by Hybrid Air Vehicles in the UK. As a science fiction writer, I immediately concatenated the two notions and began to imagine AI-controlled airships carrying passengers and cargo around the globe, plying their routes without need for human guidance.

I was still pondering this idea when I came to an article about the new wave of electric boats, and in particular the Scandinavian container ship Yara Birkeland, which is the world’s first battery-powered autonomous vessel. Automated logistics will load chemicals and fertiliser onto the ship at the Yara International headquarters in Herøya; then the vessel will steer itself to the nearby container port in Brevik, where more automated systems will unload it.

Of course, this chimed with my notion of self-piloting airships, and I began to imagine an entire infrastructure in which machines harvest raw materials at one end, which are then shipped to automated factories, and the resulting products delivered to where they’re needed without human intervention at any stage. You want more flat-pack sofas? The robots go out into the forest, cut down the trees and transfer the logs to a processing ship, which delivers ready-cut pieces to a packaging plant that bundles them up and arranges for self-driving trucks, ships and airships to deliver them to stores around the world. 

Beyond that, the article on hydrogen-powered trains suggested such arrangements could also be provided for passengers. Trains, after all, don’t have a lot of choice about their routes. All they need to do is follow the rails and not hit anything. So, we could easily factor in a network of automated public transport, with major cities as hubs, in which a Londoner could order a self-driving taxi to take them to Paddington, from where they could catch an automated train to Heathrow, where they might board a passenger airship bound for New York…

The final article that caught my eye concerned the developments of freeports in the UK, where the Chancellor recently announced the creation of eight such entities. He defined a freeport as ‘An area inside the UK geographically, but legally outside of the UK customs territory.’ This means goods and raw materials can be imported, assembled and exported without paying domestic duties or tax.

Freeports would naturally become nodes in the automated passenger and freight networks we have been imagining. Advocates imagine them becoming centres of innovation, with the economic ripples spreading out into the surrounding communities and attract people to live and work near the freeport zones—while critics worry these freeports could become cut-off from the regions in which they sit, thriving whilst the rest of the country withers economically. 

As a science fiction writer, I immediately imagined the famous freeports of the genre: Mos Eisley, Babylon 5, Deep Space Nine… They are portrayed as romantic, slightly disreputable places, with thriving black markets and an underclass of hustlers, scoundrels and smugglers taking advantage of the facility’s interstitial legal status. Would modern freeports attract such people? A thriving port would certainly need the support systems provided by the hotel, food and leisure industries. Wherever wealth is generated, a secondary economy arises to provide for the workers and itinerant travellers. 

My science fiction brain pictures these places in a hundred years. While much of the country exists in agrarian poverty, these freeports are enclaves of prosperity, served by automated cargo systems that connect them to similar ports all over the world: a global meta-nation of trade and travel freed from the states within whose borders they nominally sit. 

It sounds exciting, but with control of the ‘roads’ of this new empire, the freeports would be able to dictate terms to their hosts. If the government became too interfering, the ports could threaten to cut off their supplies of certain items, maybe even redirect them to other markets. In this way, the ports themselves could become the seats of political control, endorsing certain parties or candidates in order to strengthen their own positions.

That’s a hell of a setting for a modern retelling of Casablanca.

But I wasn’t done yet. I found myself picturing a dystopia future scenario set a few years later, in which the human race had succumbed to a new, deadlier pandemic and our automated supply chains still rattled along oblivious of our demise, creating and shipping goods no one would ever use; where empty buses and trains still ran their scheduled services—at least until their batteries expired or their solar panels degraded. A melancholy vision of the slow breakdown of unthinking systems in an empty world.


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Natural selection on the unmanned battlefield

Forget the “Terminator scenario”. The future of AI based warfare could be far weirder than that.

Two articles recently caught my eye. The first was about the Royal Navy’s decision to test extra-large autonomous submarines with a view to incorporating them in its fleet, and the second concerned the MOD’s acquisition of five unmanned ground vehicles for battlefield resupply missions.

Now, as I’m a science fiction author, you might be expecting me to leap straight to the conclusion that these automated vehicles will somehow rise up against us and destroy the world in a Terminator-style apocalypse. And while that may be a fun scenario for a Hollywood blockbuster, frankly any species dumb enough to place its entire offensive capability in the charge of a single artificial intelligence deserves everything it gets.

No, in this post, I want to look at some of the stranger implications of this technology.

To start with, let me state the obvious: war produces casualties, and if we’re deploying autonomous vehicles into active theatres, they are going to get damaged. It’s easy to imagine automated ambulances ferrying human casualties away from the front line, but what about unmanned tow trucks and drones equipped to repair autonomous vehicles? Machines repairing other machines without human intervention.

If those machines can be repaired on the battlefield, perhaps they can also be improved and modified in situ to cope with unexpected changes in terrain, mission requirement, or threat level? Throw in some simple learning algorithms for the tow trucks, and that sounds like something I could write a story about: a fleet of war machines that are turned loose and adapt to the needs of the battle as it happens, undergoing a rapid Darwinian machine evolution dictated by the circumstances in which they are operating.

What might such machines look like by the end of a protracted conflict? If the other side also uses similar technology, would the evolution be accelerated as each side became involved in a race to outclass the other? A simple unmanned supply truck might evolve into a heavily armoured stealth vehicle with fat mesh tires that allow it to traverse any kind of rough terrain, while being almost immune to IEDs and other hazards.

Earlier, I mentioned how unwise it would be to place your entire military capability under the command of a single artificial intelligence. However, the ‘smarter’ an unmanned vehicle is, the more chance it has to survive, so an ongoing upgrade of its onboard processing power wouldn’t be unreasonable. But how smart do you want a drone to be? At what point will it assess its situation and realise its best chance of survival is to refuse to follow orders or defect to the enemy?

Assuming we somehow manage to avoid insurrection in the ranks, we face another potential problem when machines start upgrading machines on an ad hoc basis. We run the risk that sooner or later, they might become too complex for us to understand. We’ll lose the ability to repair our own creations, as they diverge into a multitude of sub-species, each with its particular specialisms and evolutionary history. What started out as a tank might come back to us as a swarm of complex drones or a slick of nanotechnological goop. At that point, even if they don’t evolve the intelligence to become disloyal, could we still really claim to be in control of them? If we can’t understand how they work, can we trust them to make the life-or-death decisions that are necessary on a battlefield? If an unmanned vehicle decides the success of its mission would be increased by the neutralisation of civilian targets, would we be able to convince it otherwise?

Some of you may remember the talking bomb in the movie Dark Star, which discovers philosophy, decides it’s god, and with the words, “Let there be light,” detonates while still attached to the ship that should have dropped it. That is something we definitely want to avoid.

We also want to avoid the situation described in Philip K. Dick’s story ‘Second Variety’, where the few remaining human soldiers on both sides of a conflict discover that their automated weapons have gained sentience and joined forces, and are now lying to their former masters about the progress of a war that’s no longer happening.

Leon Trotsky claimed that, “War is the locomotive of history.” If our unmanned vehicles go on to evolve beyond us, then perhaps war will also provide the future of the locomotive.


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Victorian Rocketmen

My eye was recently caught by A profile of the Victorian railway pioneer, Robert Stephenson, who is probably best known as the designer of the innovative steam locomotive Rocket, which won the Rainhill Trials and achieved the distinction of being involved in the first railway fatality after it struck and killed an MP who was standing on the tracks.

Stephenson designed railways in the United Kingdom, Columbia, and Egypt, and bridges, such as the Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits between mainland Wales and Anglesey. Like his friends, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Richard Trevithick, he was one of that breed of Victorian engineer who were seemingly able to turn their talents toward any challenge, be it steam locomotives, railway bridges, or steamships.

Brunel, famous for his railways, steamships, tunnels and bridges, was also responsible for designing prefabricated hospitals, forceps, viaducts, and Paddington Station.

With such talent in play, the science fiction writer in me can’t help but wonder what might have happened if circumstances had been subtly different.

For instance, what might have happened if Stephenson and Brunel had been recruited by the military? With their knowledge of steam-powered locomotion, it is not unreasonable to imagine they might have produced the first tanks to the battlefield decades before their actual debut appearance in World War I. How that would have affected history is a question for the scholars, but it’s not hard to imagine such an innovation kicking off an arms race between Great Britain and the other imperial European powers, and thereby precipitating the Great War in the late 1800s rather than the early 1900s.

The same goes for Brunel’s revolutionary steamships. When the ss Great Britain was launched in 1843, she was more than just the first iron-hulled steamship; she was also the largest vessel afloat. At a time when the majority of the world’s warships were still constructed of wood and reliant on wind power to get around, she could have cut a mean swathe had she been equipped for battle instead of passenger transport. And if the Admiralty had commissioned another two or three identical vessels and installed cannons, Britannia really would have ruled the waves—at least, until the other powers caught up with the technology.

But these changes, while interesting to consider, aren’t really all that world-shaking. Had they happened, it’s likely our present would look much the same as it does now. All that would be different would be that a few conflicts happened slightly earlier. The general progression of history wouldn’t have been unduly affected. It is only when we start to consider weaponry that there is the potential for drastic change.

Imagine for a moment that Stephenson and Brunel are building a warship. Would these great minds not also turn their attention to increasing its firepower?

The aeolipile, also known as Hero’s Engine, dates back to the 1st century AD. Considered by some as the first steam engine, it consists of a radial turbine spun by steam jets. Using the same principle, it may have been possible to produce a steam-powered projectile—either some form of rocket or a torpedo—capable of delivering a devastating payload.

From there, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine such technology following a similar developmental process as the Nazi rocketry programme, with larger and larger steam-powered rockets being built. In our timeline, it took 24 years from the end of WWII to the first moon landing. If you apply a similar timescale here, driven by a Cold War between the British and German Empires (and maybe influenced by Jules Verne’s 1865 popular classic, From Earth to the Moon), we can wildly speculate about Victorian astronauts in orbit by the turn of the century, and maybe a moon landing by the early 1910s.

Now, I’m picturing a union jack on the surface of the moon, with two astronauts wearing cumbersome diving suits, their air supplied by thick hoses that run back into their spacecraft—a huge contraption built of riveted steel plate and powered by the exhaust from gigantic coal-fired boilers within.  Now, that would have changed history!

The discovery of nuclear power would have led to steam rockets of increased efficiency and power and, by now, people might have been living on Mars for the past seventy-five years. There might be half a dozen settlements on the moon, and great steel ships lumbering out towards Jupiter and Saturn—and all because two Victorian gentlemen were persuaded to concentrate on the military rather than civilian applications of their inventions.


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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Why a Dystopian Future isn’t Inevitable

A recent issue of The Engineer contained stories about wind power being considered for commercial shipping, hydrogen for long haul trucks, and a call-to-arms from Professor Lord Rees, Astronomer Royal at the Institute of Astronomy, University of Cambridge, for engineers to start addressing the problems that may lead to our extinction.

We live in a time of great uncertainty, with a rising population and changing climate, and many worst-case projections seem increasingly likely to come to pass. But that doesn’t mean we should give up hope. After all, engineering is all about finding solutions to problems, and what greater problem could we face than the extinction of our species!

To counter all the doom and gloom, I decided to look ahead to a world where political and industrial inertia have been conquered, and engineers set free to tackle the challenges ahead. So, come with me to the world of 2100 AD. Many of our children and grandchildren are still alive, and have families of their own right now, but their way of life is as different to ours as ours is to that of the Victorians.

Cities are greener spaces. Trees line the centre of every street; vertical gardens adorn the south side of every building; and solar panels cover every roof. There’s very little traffic noise or pollution, because all the cars are self-driving electric models and most people travel by clean and affordable public transport.

Much of the Green Belt surrounding the cities has been turned over to agriculture, much of which is fully automated, while huge reforestation programmes have returned the wilds of Wales, Scotland and the Lake District to the densely wooded state they enjoyed in the wake of the last ice age, before they were cleared to make way for livestock grazing.

You certainly don’t see many cows, chickens, sheep or pigs anymore. Ninety-nine percent of the meat in our diet is grown in vats, cloned from the finest animals and produced with minimal environmental impact. It’s also healthier, requiring fewer of the medicines and hormones currently pumped into our food animals.

International travel is also rarer than before. Business can be done online and via video link. There are still a few airliners, but they now use biofuels. The majority of passengers and freight travel via airship or wind-powered sea-going vessels.

Overhead, vast tissue-thin orbital mirrors reduce the amount of heat reaching the Earth from the Sun. Space tourism never really took off (if you’ll pardon the pun), but microgravity turned out to be a great place for science and manufacturing, and there are now several large commercial and governmental space stations in orbit, along with power satellites that collect the sun’s rays and beam them down to earth as microwaves, to collectors on the equator, that then make them available as clean, unlimited electrical power.

Looking down from one of these satellites, parts of the Pacific and the Sahara shimmer with huge solar farms. Floating wind turbines harvest the jet streams, and even the ocean’s tides provide us with the energy we need.

But it isn’t all good news. Some climate change was inevitable. It took us too long to act and respond.

Storms are worse and more frequent. New York now exists below sea level, protected from inundation by a huge sea wall. Other cities have been less fortunate. Venice has become a modern-day Atlantis, and much of Central London floods twice a day at high tide. But people are adapting. Huge infrastructure projects aim to reclaim land from the sea. Climate refugees move north from the scorching equator, seeking shelter in the newly temperate open spaces of Russia and Canada. The population of Greenland is rising at an incredible rate, and there are even some hardy souls scraping a living from the exposed soil on the fringes of Antarctica.

A failed attempt to colonise Mars has shown the world’s billionaires that it’s easier to terraform the Earth than try to adapt the red planet to our needs. So now, they’ve thrown their resources into projects that benefit us all, rather than just themselves—including the development of artificial intelligence capable of regulating the Earth as a single organism, moving food, clean water and other assets to where they are needed, while simultaneously managing the balance of gasses in our atmosphere through carbon capture projects, and the global mean temperature, through manipulation of those solar mirrors I mentioned earlier.

Instead of ransacking the Earth for resources and financial gain, humans have become stewards of their world, engineering the planet to keep it habitable for its ten billion inhabitants. Yes, there are still problems, and yes, much of the above is pure speculation—but speaking as an author, of the two possible fates awaiting us, I know which one I would rather write about.


This article first appeared in The Engineer magazine.

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