This is the fourth section of the fourth chapter of Sonnets from a Proton. The novel starts here.
The next section is here.
“Okay we’re recording.” Alice paused “James why did you do this?”
“Start all this, not your plans for the insurrection, but the mining, humans had abandoned the belt after the Habitat arrived, what was the point? But yet you’re here thriving, how and why?”
“It needed doing, we were missing out. Out here is our chance. The Habitat is a dead end, a very comfortable dead end. A guilded cage with an open door, but still a cage to the mind.”
“Yes but how? How can you make money and attract people to work here when everything at the Habitat is already free.”
“What you miss is that everything in space is already free, well as near as damn it.”
“All the mining is done robotically. Once you’ve paid for them in the first place and aside from a few minor servicing and tools costs they’re practically free to operate. They may not be as efficient as a human miner, but it doesn’t matter, for the moment there’s an effectively infinite amount of exploitable material out here, and they’re getting more efficient all the time. Simple factories and refineries have been effectively robotic for a few centuries now; all we had to do is add a few supervision AIs and all the basic products are made purely from the cost of the initial capital investment. As for habitat construction, with the right mix of pre-fab and over-engineering the limit is how fast we can get the materials between orbits for an acceptable cost in propellant.”
James continued “So no the money isn’t great on the face of it, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the forces that have driven humans over the years is the need to make things better, the desire to do more than anyone has done before. If that is to impress a mate or just for personal satisfaction it doesn’t matter but you’d be surprised the number of people who want to make a difference in a way that the Habitat can’t let you.”
Alice continued with her interview and moved onto the next set question, “If it’s all automated, what do you need people for out here? I know there’s millions of people out here.”
“Yeah, and what do they do? Check on what is being sent where, get involved in the processes even if they aren’t actually needed but because it is interesting. Look machines can stamp out spoons in a factory all day but a craftsman gets great pleasure from making his own. It’s the same here; people enjoy having a real perceptible effect on the real world. For those who that’s not their cup of tea there’s all sorts of other things that need doing. Once you have a few people you need more people to support them. That’s all most people out here are, supporting other people. Sure there’s a very few people who they actually do get in to maintain the machinery, but then the AI is taught to duplicate what they did and in the future it’s usually able to fix it.”
“It can’t be that simple”
“Well no, not once you get past our mining and production operations and into the military, but that’s another story.”
“How do they differ?” asked Alice
“On the military ships they try and keep the AIs doing as little as possible; there’s some decisions the AI is allowed to make, but that’s only when it is situations where decisions and actions must be taken faster than a human can react, otherwise as much as possible is given to humans to do.”
“This sounds like a waste of resource.”
“Not really humans are more adaptable. A well trained human is still a better problem solver than our best AI, and in combat when your ship is being shot at and things are breaking much faster than you can repair them, then you need problem solvers. Not only that, in a human the brain and the hands to fix the problem are the same being, with an AI they are separate and in a battle situation where jamming is common then you can’t risk the brain losing communication with its hands. For the moment humans are best placed to do that, that’s why you’ll find the military has so many well trained people up here, they’ll lend them out to other facilities to keep them trained, but they’re lending them out for perfectly selfish reasons. Now if there was a major conflict most concerns operating out in space would be stuffed both the civilian liners and the Jovian bases at Jupiter and Saturn – almost all the engineering staff are military. Here at the asteroids we’ll probably be okay because we don’t get involved because we’re not interesting to them. Well not yet anyway, by the time people see this recording they probably will though.
“Anyway, where was I, oh yes. Have you not actually sat down and looked at the real costs up here, all the robotics and AI I’ve described is currently all machine producible, not only that, thanks to all our work here the robots are increasing in numbers at a faster rate than the humans. Now true, the robots are doing ever more for us, so ever more of them will be needed, but even now look around, the quarters available here are larger than the average person’s down on Earth. Now that’s now dictated by our new efforts to try and reduce the amount of artificial environmental control, which requires massive amounts of space per human; but all that is easy, the new construction robots are building habitats at almost frightening speed; and most of what is going in them is ocean and forest. True none of then begin to rival the Habitat itself, but we strive to improve. But no we’re proud of our ability to build so many small habitats that are mostly biosphere”
“Whoa stop, where’s the money in that?”
“Easy, for a start of there’s a lot of idealism here and sociology so it’s not all about money, but even if you look at the cold bottom line with the current excess of materials and construction robots it’s cheaper to build ten thousand square meters of habitat and allow the ocean and forest to take over than it is to build one square meter of carefully environmentally controlled living space. Simply because the robots aren’t yet able to build and maintain the environmental control to the degree needed.”
“I thought that when they tried to use biological methods they all failed.”
“Yes that was true, but that was for the early space habitats and when they were trying to have a small fraction of the mass devoted to life support. Look at the famous Contrafibularity, a huge massive torus of water. At the time that was a revolution – if you’ll pardon the pun when applied to rotational artificial gravity – it was a revolution because it was considered stupid. It had far too much mass to be useful as a fast transport, but it didn’t matter; the builder had a cheap source of engines and it was designed for long missions where the crew had to be self sufficient and last for a couple of years at a time. It was a closed system and that was all that was needed as long as you weren’t in a rush. It was, for local traffic completely stupid, but it was the first ship to reach Saturn because although it didn’t have speed, it did have range. The primitive biosystem they managed to support in that ring of water was effectively a basic ocean that they could rely on for all their food and oxygen requirements. Not only that it also provided their radiation shelter and thermal radiator for their reactor; a relic, but a very significant step forwards – it demonstrated that if you could spend the mass, then a biosystem and a large one at that was far better suited for long term space residence than any other system. So stable in fact that during one of its later voyages one of its competitors became unstuck and had a major environmental failure, they berthed the two ships together at the destination to survive the journey home and the biosystem coped with a doubling of the load on it. True half of the original crew had died, the joys of orbits meant that the rescue could only occur at the destination.
“That’s how it got into its current form, by the end of the journey that had merged the two ships together, their engines both working together to deal with the extra mass, but also the now somewhat repaired life support system augmenting the biosystem.”
“Getting back to the question then why did you build this endeavour up?”
“It’s the old question, why does a man climb a mountain? Because he can. Because no one has done it before, beacause others have done it before and he wants to do it better, because others have done it before and he wants to prove he can do it too. Sure look around and most of what you see here wasn’t built by a flesh hand, but that’s been the case for centuries but what built this was built by a human hand. Strange isn’t it? Someone arrives at the Habitat and is awed by the scale of the thing, but people are also awed by what they see here. It’s like the difference between a mountain and the great pyramids. The mountain is far far bigger, but I’d bet you most people are more impressed by the great pyramids. It’s impressive not because of what it is, but because someone did it.”
“And that’s why you strike out against the Habitat.”
“I do not attack the Habitat there’s too many people on there, it would be futile anyway, no I strike out to expand and to do things those who would sit in lazy comfort would not. I seek more for the average man I seek to get us all in space, I seek an end to the tyranny of convenience we have got used to. If people are as lazy as I expect them to be then this will be a very short and productive exercise. If they oppose me, well then they will gain from that too because they’ll live.”
Alice paused “And we’re done. You happy with that?”
“Mostly, fix it in edit maybe.”
“Anything else you want to add?”
“Lots, maybe I’ll try again later there’s so much to explain to people if only they understood”
“You can keep trying to tell them”
“I can only guess though how the world will react to what we’re going to do”