The short story below was authored by Gennady Stolyarov II, FSA, ACAS, MAAA, CPCU, ARe, ARC, API, AIS, AIE, AIAF, Chairman of the U.S. Transhumanist Party and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, and is one of the entries in the Society of Actuaries 13th Speculative Fiction Contest. It was published as one of the contest entries here.
You can read all of the entries here and vote for your choice of three of them here, until March 15, 2019. You are encouraged to read all of the entries, and also to consider supporting Mr. Stolyarov’s story, which contributes to the realm of non-dystopian science fiction. Remember only to vote one time!
Photograph by Kenny Louie – Originally Published on Wikimedia Commons
Lloyd Franklin, CEO of The Remarkable Insurance Company, surveyed the full auditorium as journalists, financial analysts, and employees focused attentively on his every word. A presentation of the company’s Annual Statement had never been so well-attended. “During 2021, it would be an understatement to say that The Remarkable has indeed lived up to its name,” Franklin proclaimed. “I realize that a 5-percent loss ratio for the entire year is considered… surprising.” His comment drew a chuckle from the audience. “It is probably even more surprising to achieve a 5-percent loss ratio while having the lowest premiums among all of our competitors. But what is most surprising for us is that we attribute our success over the past year to the work of a single individual – our Chief Actuary, Hugo Wales. Hugo, would you please come up to the stage?”
Hugo Wales approached the podium, where a smiling Lloyd Franklin shook his hand and presented him with a large, ornate plaque. “Hugo, I speak for all of us at The Remarkable when I say that no one deserves this Employee of the Year award more than you do. The Wales Technique has revolutionized our automobile book of business. It is the first, comprehensive combination of ratemaking, reserving, and claim modeling in one approach. It segments our policyholders in the most granular way possible, predicting the risk of loss down to the individual level. It lets us offer the vast majority of our policyholders – the safe drivers – premiums so low, they cannot refuse. Practically everyone whom we charge high premiums actually causes an accident later on! They quickly learn that The Remarkable is perhaps not for them… and choose one of our competitors instead! Not only that – the Wales Technique predicts with near-pinpoint precision where individual claims are likely to settle and enables us to offer amounts that claimants accept almost every time, without fighting us in court. Because of this we now have the lowest expense ratio among the entire industry, despite the… significant investment we put into your predictive analytics tools. Of course, our competitors have noticed and have expended no small effort trying to replicate the Wales Technique. But despite every conceivable reverse-engineering gambit, they have not even come close. Apart from The Remarkable, the average industry loss ratio remains where it was one year ago! Even in safeguarding our competitive advantage, you have gone above and beyond. Congratulations, Hugo!”
Hugo Wales smiled at his boss and then at the audience. He was exhausted, but pleased to be there. “Thank you for this honor, Lloyd. Whatever people might consider to be the secrets of the Wales Technique, they are actually out in plain sight. It is a matter of algebra: for every individual risk, there is a unique nth-degree polynomial that models the amount of expected loss, where both the degree and the value of the variable in the polynomial depend on the risk’s attributes. I have even published the list of attributes I consider and how they are weighted! All the polynomials for our book of business are publicly filed every month in the jurisdictions where we operate. Our competitors see all our variables and polynomials – and yet they have been unable to replicate this approach for their own books of business. At least, it seems that their polynomials produce entirely random results. But the Wales Technique is quite simple, really!”
“Simple for an actuary, perhaps!” Lloyd exclaimed. “I’m sure that, for most people, when they hear about nth-degree polynomials and risk attributes, their eyes glaze over. But what gets them to pay attention is this: this stuff works! It makes money, it saves money, and it does so better than any other method that has ever been tried before. We no longer have to guess at who will experience a loss; we can know.”
“We can certainly know far more precisely than prior methods could enable. There is still some low asymptotic amount of losses toward which my models generally converge,” Hugo clarified. “Some insureds, even if we classify them as high-risk and charge them high premiums, will remain with The Remarkable for a variety of reasons. I would also like to note, for transparency and disclosure of relevant facts, that, while I generally strive for 5-percent loss ratios using the Wales Technique, I am still refining my method. This year we hope to implement some improvements and discover even more predictive insights. However, until then, I think that a 30-percent loss ratio would be reasonable to expect from us.”
Hugo phrased his caveat as diplomatically as he could. As he scanned the auditorium, it seemed the audience’s mood was a general satisfied acceptance; a consistent 30-percent loss ratio without any rate increases would be a remarkable achievement for any other insurer. In Hugo’s mind, however, this was caused by a problem that required a solution – a phenomenon he had dubbed “the Black Hole”. The Black Hole was a time period into which he could barely see; during April through June of 2022, he anticipated that his predictive abilities would wane; he could discern far too little regarding both aggregate and individual losses during this perplexing timeframe. During the second half of the year, nonetheless, the Wales Technique gave clear indications, and Hugo was confident he could return The Remarkable to 5-percent loss ratios then – if his reputation could only withstand the enigmatic Black Hole in the months to come.
“Thank you for all of your attendance today; it really is a great honor for me,” Hugo concluded his remarks and was relieved to hear applause. Lloyd accompanied him as he headed backstage.
“Great work, Hugo, and thank you for your remarks – well-spoken,” Lloyd praised him. Then he lowered his voice to a near-whisper, “But I do worry about you. It may not be obvious to that group, but I can see you look exhausted. Is something keeping you awake at night? We need you at your best!”
“Actually, I fairly reliably get eight hours of sleep per night, Lloyd – something I plan to continue going forward,” Hugo responded. He was technically correct.
“Great. Good to know. Then I hope you’re not overworking while awake! I appreciate all the time you spend with your computers, crunching the data and creating your… polynomials. But this must be hard work! Perhaps you would like a bigger team? As Chief Actuary, you have every right to one. I could arrange so that you have many other actuaries working under you! Right now, you still only have your one assistant… correct?”
“Yes, but Jim knows more about the Wales Technique than any actuary I could hope to manage,” Hugo replied. “He may not be an actuary, but he is a savant – and he has been working with me ever since I began this project. Also, Jim is fascinated by polynomials. He could sit and generate polynomials all day and be completely fulfilled!”
“Then at least you should consider adding a secretary to your team – to handle the routine logistics. We can certainly find someone to fill that role!”
“Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Lloyd. I really appreciate having a boss who values my well-being. I will take a little time to consider your suggestion,” Hugo replied tactfully. He felt his phone buzz. “Ah, Jim just sent me a text. He found something he thinks I will want to see.”
“All right, I’ll see you later around the office,” Lloyd seemed satisfied. “Again, thank you for all your great work!”
As the doors slid open, admitting Hugo into The Remarkable’s Actuarial Department, he entertained the thought that perhaps hiring a secretary might be worthwhile after all. Far too many paper envelopes were piled atop the front desk, and James Morlock certainly was not going to organize them. Jim was immersed in the figures on his computer screen, aptly fitting polynomials to the data. Hugo remembered the instruction he gave when Jim was fresh out of college: “Remember, every polynomial you fit has to go through every data point.” Jim had taken that instruction to heart – indeed, he had built an entire elaborate rule set, perhaps even a sense of personal meaning, upon that principle. Finding the precise fit for any data set was a skill at which Jim was a master. Also, Hugo appreciated that Jim asked just enough questions – but not too many – regarding the origins of the data points to which the polynomials were fitted.
“What do you have for me today, Jim?” Hugo inquired.
Jim was still somewhat engrossed in the polynomials he was formulating, but pointed to a second monitor beside him. On it was a scatterplot of points above a timeline. “The Black Hole… I can see it clearly in the region with fewer data points.”
“These are data points by expected date of loss,” Hugo noted.
“Yes; we have nothing predicted for May 5, 2022,” Jim confirmed.
“Indeed, it seems May 5, 2022, is the Black Hole’s center,” Hugo remarked. “As we move along the timeline in either direction, the number of data points increases symmetrically. Today is March 3, so the data available to us for the near-term expected losses will soon become thinner. By early July, though, we will have about as many points as usual to feed into our models. I still have no idea why… But good work, Jim. Thank you for identifying the center of the gap.” This was all in accord with what Hugo already anticipated – but he was no closer to understanding why.
Jim quickly resumed curve-fitting. Meanwhile, Hugo opened several envelopes and extracted ordered lists of dates and numbers with the header “Risk Data” on each page. He handed them to Jim. “Some more data points for you.” Jim nodded and resumed his intense focus.
Hugo walked toward the back office, past several specially configured workstations and rows of supercomputers. Lloyd had accurately characterized the extent of spending on Hugo’s equipment. The sparse, darkened space in the back office provided quite a contrast, however. Hugo shut the door behind him and sat down at a plain wooden desk, on one side of which stood an always-on portable water heater beside packets of instant coffee. Hugo quickly poured himself a cup; it was only 6 p.m., and he felt a clear need for additional energy. He descended into his chair for a moment’s respite, but after a few sips of coffee decided that work must continue. Quickly, he extracted his mobile phone from his suit-jacket pocket and opened his Calendar and Maps apps. Immediately the phone emitted an iridescent glow; Hugo wished it would not do that, but some bugs still needed to be worked out from this system. He scrolled along the calendar until he fixed a day in his mind: October 30, 2023 – over 18 months hence. As his finger pressed upon the day, he felt his energy slip away, and his eyes closed involuntarily…
Hugo awoke with a jolt as the caffeine’s effects must have finally manifested. He was sitting on a comfortable couch in a coffee shop, with newspapers piled on a low table in front. He quickly glanced around; the other patrons seemed to be minding their own business, and nothing about Hugo’s situation drew any particular attention. He approached the counter, where there was no line, and matter-of-factly ordered a large espresso with cash in hand. “Be as efficient and unobtrusive as possible; trigger no unintended disturbances,” Hugo reminded himself as he returned to his seat and picked up one of the newspapers, drinking the espresso as he browsed. The headlines did not really interest him, except for the date: “October 30, 2023”. Yes, this was where he previously left off. He quickly turned the paper’s pages until he reached the section titled “Motor Vehicle Accident Report”. This was a somewhat sparser section than even a year prior. As the proportion of autonomous vehicles on the roads increased, the accident frequency dropped precipitously. But as long as any manually driven cars remained, the Wales Technique would remain predictive for them. Hugo, who was paid a bonus based on The Remarkable’s profitability, figured he could simply retire once the vehicle fleet became predominantly autonomous – provided he could manage a good, profitable run for several more years.
Using his phone’s camera, Hugo snapped pictures of the Motor Vehicle Accident Reports from as many papers as he could find. This was a sizable cross-section of losses from all over the country. October 30, 2023, yielded as credible a data set as Hugo generally aimed for, and now it was time to process the information. Hugo again glanced at his phone and scrolled back on the calendar to March 3, 2022. He pressed there and concealed the iridescently glowing phone in his inside jacket pocket, gulping down the remainder of his espresso as he closed his eyes to enjoy its flavor…
Hugo was now in an office-supply store – just where he needed to be. He took a stack of bright, white envelopes and walked expeditiously toward the large printers. On his phone, he opened a document editor and quickly imported into it just the numbers from the Motor Vehicle Accident Reports; above them he typed the header “Risk Data”, saved the file, and connected his phone to one of the printers. He printed the document, stuffed it into an envelope, and affixed a stamp along with a pre-printed label addressed to “The Remarkable Insurance Company, c/o James Morlock”. There was no need to specify the sender. Jim would receive the new data in a few days, and Hugo would open the envelope and hand him the lists, as he did virtually every day. Jim would not ask where the envelopes originated; he would just be happy to have more data points to which to fit some polynomials. The Wales Technique would be extended a little bit further into the future. Hugo was somewhat inconvenienced by “snail mail” – but it was the best option to prevent the original data from being traced to one of his devices. If only the Black Hole could be addressed in the same manner…
As Hugo approached the nearby mailbox and dropped the envelope into it, he looked around for confirmation that the street was empty. He glanced down at his phone and decided to give the Black Hole another try. Scrolling on the calendar to May 5, 2022, he pressed on that date, and… nothing. The phone, as usual, was completely non-responsive to this gesture – no iridescent glow, not even any recognition of an action. Had a passer-by seen Hugo at that moment, Hugo would merely have appeared as a frustrated phone user. “Well, it was at least worth another try,” Hugo thought to himself. He began a swift walk, pondering the conundrum of the Black Hole. “Perhaps if I appear in a library next time I visit the future, I might find some records from April-June 2022 that would furnish more data points. If I cannot travel there directly, at least looking back at that time period from a later day might yield something.” This seemed a worthwhile attempt to Hugo – although perhaps mainly of academic interest since most policies that would experience losses during the Black Hole months had already been issued. The ideal time to gather the data would have been 18 months in advance, long before current in-force policies were issued or last renewed. But perhaps if Hugo tried the lookback-from-the-future approach, he could at least remove a few percentage points from the loss ratios of the yet-to-be-issued policies: certainly still worthwhile – but possible to defer until after Hugo managed to get a bit more sleep. Besides, he was otherwise occupied during the remainder of this evening.
Hugo was pleased that Eloise had accepted his dinner invitation. He knew almost nothing about her prior to this evening, but as they spoke he found her to be intelligent, charming, and a good conversationalist. Most importantly, though, she knew what an actuary was. Indeed, she had even heard of the Wales Technique and could discuss it competently with him – its publicly known aspects, of course. Interestingly, she did not ask the question that Hugo commonly encountered, regarding why the polynomials for specific risks actually predicted their future losses. Hugo was somewhat relieved that she simply seemed to accept that they did. A promising beginning…
After they finished their main course, the waiter approached them. “Might you be interested in dessert?”
They did not need long to decide. “Coffee and coffee ice cream,” they spoke almost in unison, and then looked at one another in mild astonishment at this coincidence.
“Well, here is something else we have in common!” Hugo exclaimed. “It seems we late-evening coffee drinkers require the energy to remain alert long after others are able to rest! If I may ask, what work do you do?”
“I am a… historian – of sorts,” Eloise replied after a pause. “Or perhaps ‘student of history’ would be a better description. My goal is to learn from history and help avoid the mistakes that were made in the past.”
“A worthwhile goal indeed,” Hugo acknowledged.
“Say, Hugo, have you ever wondered if it might be possible to undo a prior mistake – for example, a wrong decision that altered the course of history for the worse? Do you sometimes wish you had a time machine to return to the past, just to tweak a few things and produce a radically different outcome today?”
She had asked him a time-travel question! Hugo realized that he needed to be careful in formulating his answer.
“I prefer to think most mistakes can be prevented if one accurately anticipates the future and chooses the best actions going forward,” Hugo replied – the safe answer for an actuary with a reputation for doing just that.
“Some mistakes, though, are not that easy to avoid. In a split second, one might make the wrong choice, and deeply regret it and yet never be able to fix the damage caused.”
“That reminds me of most losses I analyze in my line of work!” Hugo responded. “Most drivers who cause accidents indeed have that split-second lapse in judgment, which they would avoid if they could relive those circumstances.”
“Yet you actuaries focus on predicting who is likely to have that lapse, rather than what might prevent it to begin with.”
“Autonomous vehicles might solve that problem for us in a few years,” Hugo suggested. “I see my job as more accurately evaluating the propensities of drivers in the meantime, so that those who are less prone to error will indeed be rewarded for their good behavior through lower premiums.”
“But I wonder… if you were able to prevent an accident that had already occurred, would you? It seems that doing so would even save your company money; it would, after all, need to pay out less in claims!”
“True,” Hugo acknowledged. “Prevention, however, is not always easy.” His mind immediately thought of how difficult it would be for him to attempt to stop all of the accidents mentioned in the future newspapers – and how would he do it? Visit the drivers involved and suggest they not enter their vehicles on that day? Illegally block off the streets where the accidents would have occurred or redirect vehicles onto different routes? Clearly, the practical challenges were far too numerous for Hugo to attempt this. He decided it would be best to steer clear from discussing a time-traveler’s real limitations and instead entertain the hypothetical fiction. Indeed, Hugo could truthfully discuss time travel to the past as a fictional concept, since his phone did not permit him to visit any time prior to the present; he could only return to the present from most of the future days displayed on his Calendar app – but traveling back to already-elapsed days was not technically feasible with this device.
“A time-travel paradox arises when one alters a past event that was one’s motivation for having traveled back in the first place,” Hugo observed. “If the problem were fixed in the past, then would the time traveler from the present have the notion to travel back in time at all?”
“Hmmm…” Eloise paused to think about it. “But many changes that the time traveler brings about might not affect the initial motivation at all. Suppose that the initial travel is motivated by one problem, but the time traveler solves other problems along the way, incidentally. If the time travel would have occurred whether or not those incidental problems were also solved, why would altering the past necessarily lead to a paradox? Also, if motivation is the issue, then is it not enough for the time traveler simply to believe that the problem exists at the time of the trip – whether or not the problem still actually exists?” She had clearly thought about this for quite some time.
“You make valid points,” Hugo conceded. “This is an interesting twist on learning from history so that we do not repeat it; instead, you propose to learn the lessons while undoing the historical damage itself.”
Eloise nodded. “I am sure we each find certain past events to be regrettable, and we would undo them, if only we could.”
“If only…” Hugo acknowledged, underscoring the fictional context of the discussion. “Well, this has been a fascinating conversation, and I enjoyed it.” He quickly paid their bill. “I hope that there will be a possibility for us to meet again.”
Eloise smiled at him, “Oh, it will be a certainty.”
A fine conclusion to the evening, Hugo decided. Now it was time to return home and get the eight hours of sleep he had promised to Lloyd. He estimated that, with the time travels interspersed within this chronological day, his biological waking time had been 28 hours.
Hugo sat in the public library on October 31, 2023, surreptitiously sipping on a cup of coffee he had managed to sneak in. He had already taken phone pictures of the computer screen showing that day’s loss data. Unfortunately, data files from the future would disappear upon his return to 2022 if he simply copied them onto the phone; only actions taken with directly the phone – such as photographs – would be preserved. The technical nuances of time travel! However, Hugo could take pictures of any online articles regarding prior days’ losses. Curiously, as he browsed newspaper archives and other public records in the April-June 2022 timeframe, he largely saw confirmations of the data points he had previously harvested – a few losses here and there that were previously unknown to him, but nothing to dramatically illuminate that period. The data were simply… absent. “Was there a journalists’ strike during the Black Hole?” Hugo wondered. Yet nothing from his own time even hinted at such developments. “Ah, well… Time to mail another envelope, I suppose.”
Hugo acquiesced to the secretarial recruitment process after some more encouragement from Lloyd, though Hugo insisted on interviewing the candidates personally. By March 25, 2022, all resumes had been reviewed, and Hugo set aside most of the day for interviews. Perhaps, Hugo considered, there would be some benefit from this in keeping the Actuarial Department organized and containing distractions that were irrelevant to Hugo’s core work.
Hugo was surprised to see Eloise among the applicants. “I thought that history was more your line of work,” he told her.
“I am much more versatile than just one line of work,” Eloise responded. “I pride myself on my organizational skills, which extend to historical records – like the data that your Actuarial Department processes.” A good answer – and a reasonable assumption regarding the data, given that most actuaries did, indeed, work with data from the past.
“Very well, then,” Hugo said. “The next part of our interview will be a practical test of data-entry skills. My assistant Jim likes to spend as much of his time as possible fitting polynomials to data; if he can be spared the manual data entry, this would expedite our processes tremendously. So,” he handed Eloise an envelope, “I will give you this data set. I showed you our computer systems earlier. Now I would ask you to input the data into a format Jim can immediately apply. Please feel free to take the time you need and follow whatever approach you consider most effective.”
“Just one request,” Eloise spoke. “Might there be a cup of coffee around here?”
Hugo briefly ventured into his office and emerged with two cups of coffee. In his haste, he realized he had left his phone face-down on the table, but it looked like a typical mobile phone when the Calendar app was not activated. “I must be more careful!” Hugo mentally chided himself. As Eloise walked toward one of the computers, Hugo quickly placed the phone into his jacket pocket and retreated into his office to drink his own coffee and check e-mails. Most of his correspondence was routine, but one short message stood out.
Dear Mr. Wales:
This is to inform you that the Snowlandia Insurance Department has approved The Remarkable Insurance Company filing of rating values and polynomials for the month of April 2022. However, I am interested in pursuing a conceptual discussion with you regarding the ratemaking methodology involved and the assumptions entailed therein.
Please contact me at your earliest convenience to arrange an in-person meeting. I am willing to visit you at your offices if necessary.
Lead Actuary, Snowlandia Insurance Department
Meeting with his main actuarial regulator would require great circumspection, especially because Eugene Carpenter had a reputation for asking incisive questions. Hugo wondered how he could arrange the appearance of complete transparency without disclosing the core of the Wales Technique – which nobody would particularly believe in any event. In the meantime, though, Hugo heard a knock. “Please come in.”
It was Eloise. “All the data are ready to use,” she announced, smiling. Hugo had expected her to take about an hour longer, as the other applicants had. He walked by Jim Morlock’s workstation to see that Jim already had the imported figures at his disposal and was busily formulating new polynomials from them.
“Impressive!” Hugo exclaimed. “It seems, based on the results of this test, that you are clearly the most qualified applicant for the job. Consider yourself hired.”
As Hugo drove into the office on April 18, 2022, gradually sipping coffee from the mug in his cupholder, he noted contentedly that traffic had become considerably lighter over the past several weeks for some reason. His commute became easier, and his mood was upbeat, as, to his great surprise, well into the Black Hole period, the loss ratios of The Remarkable had not deteriorated yet. Some losses continued to be reported, but, remarkably, they were in accord with the sparser data points he had previously gathered. The Remarkable’s profitability was exceeding Hugo’s prior projections spectacularly. Jim continued to diligently produce polynomials for late 2023, and Eloise turned out to be an excellent secretary, accelerating the workflow considerably. Hugo remembered today’s forthcoming meeting with Eugene Carpenter – perhaps somewhat of a challenge, but Hugo hoped that The Remarkable’s recent performance would give a favorable impression.
Eloise knocked on Hugo’s door. “Eugene Carpenter is here to see you.” Hugo’s attention was interrupted. He had been scrolling through his Calendar app and happened to notice that the screen area around the May 5, 2022, date began to pulsate as he swiped near it. Previously it was completely non-responsive. In flustered haste, Hugo left the phone on his table and walked out to the front-desk area.
Eugene Carpenter stood up from his seat and shook Hugo’s hand. “Mr. Wales, it is a pleasure to finally meet you in person.” Hugo nodded. “Likewise.”
As they walked to a conference table near one of the supercomputers, Hugo remarked, “I will gladly answer any of your questions. As you know, our polynomials are all publicly available, and all of our equipment for modeling them is here.”
“The Wales Technique fascinates me,” Carpenter said. “Some regulators may have been more critical just because it is new and unfamiliar, but I approved your filings because I see a real opportunity here to eliminate some of the circumstantial proxy rating attributes that have long raised concerns. Your rating model contains nothing about demographics or lifestyle choices of the insureds – and indeed we have had no consumer complaints or allegations of unfairly discriminatory rating. Even though you indicate extremely high premiums for some individuals, it so happens that these people do, in fact, experience losses – virtually every time.”
Hugo nodded. “We pride ourselves on our precision, so we need not make generalizations about groups anymore.”
“That may well be, yet from a statistical standpoint it is truly astounding. Insurance conceptually is supposed to be based on the law of large numbers, yet what happens when you can price down to the level of the individual? Is it risk pooling anymore, or something else? I am not criticizing your approach at all, but this is a challenge we must increasingly wrestle with.”
“Yet it is clear that the individually calculated rates provide a social benefit; the vast majority of insureds get lower premiums due to more accurate predictions,” Hugo retorted.
“Perhaps – but strangely enough your competitors have not been able to achieve such improved accuracy. I see their polynomials as well, and clearly, they are simply overfitting curves to the historical loss data. Structurally, their experimental rating plans are indistinguishable from yours, but you happen to be right all the time, while they never outperform their old techniques. I would have said that you are overfitting as well, except that you are always correct… It still puzzles me why your approach works.”
“Perhaps a tour of our state-of-the-art supercomputers will show you why The Remarkable stands apart,” Hugo invited Carpenter to accompany him.
After an hour-long technical overview of the systems, Carpenter told him, “Thank you for all you have shared today. I shall have to continue pondering these questions – but I hope we can maintain an open line of communication.” Hugo nodded, thinking the meeting transpired as well as it could have.
As Carpenter left the building, Hugo returned to his office. He picked up his phone and again chided himself for the oversight. Returning to the Calendar app, he saw an unmistakable iridescent glow around May 5, 2022, and could no longer restrain himself from pressing there.
Hugo stood on a hill overlooking the highway – a nearly empty road despite clear weather during a late Thursday morning. Although he had not set a destination using his Maps app, this was where he arrived by default. He wondered how, all of a sudden, he was able to actually access May 5, 2022. This seemed to be a good overlook; he could see, but would not be seen.
Hugo spotted an unassuming sedan cruising along at the speed limit. He jumped slightly at the realization that the car was his own. “Why would I be driving here in at this time?” Hugo was too far away to see inside the vehicle, but it seemed to proceed steadily.
Then, without warning, the sedan veered into the barrier, and Hugo was shocked to see an extraordinary contraption – more akin to a miniature spaceship than a car – sweep down from the sky and ram into the sedan from the rear. The spaceship seemed impervious to the collision, but the sedan was utterly crushed in a rather ugly way. Out of the spaceship emerged… Eloise, wearing an outfit from materials Hugo had never before encountered and had no words to describe. She seemed as mortified as Hugo himself at that moment. As she approached the sedan and glanced at it, she screamed in horror and then collapsed into tears. After five minutes, she hastily dashed into the spaceship and emerged with an iridescently glowing tiny rectangular cube. She pressed some panel on the cube and disappeared from view.
Hugo needed no coffee to remain awake upon his return.
On the morning of May 5, 2022, Hugo was still alive and in good health. He had told no one – certainly not Eloise – of his observation of his own impending demise, but Hugo Wales was no fatalist. He would not permit the accident he had glimpsed to transpire! The key to avoiding it was to ensure Eloise was at his side the entire day and would have no opportunity to find her… spaceship. Fortunately, Hugo had a fitting occasion to facilitate this. He had just received an e-mail from Eugene Carpenter:
Dear Mr. Wales:
After considerable deliberation, I believe I understand your method much more accurately than you might expect. I am perplexed, however, by the meager use to which you have put it, considering that it might benefit humankind’s future to a far greater extent than a mere actuarial technique could do. Please visit me at my office urgently, as this really is a matter of the utmost importance.
Hugo greeted Eloise and informed her, “I would like you to accompany me to visit Mr. Carpenter. We should venture out early. I think Jim will have enough work for one day.”
“Gladly,” Eloise replied with a smile. They walked toward Hugo’s sedan in the parking lot.
Once they were underway on the largely clear road, Eloise spoke: “Have you ever wondered if it might be possible to undo a prior mistake? I could not stop at just one.” Hugo’s jaw dropped. He also saw that his Maps app was navigating them toward the exact stretch of highway he had glimpsed earlier, and that this was the unavoidable route.
Not another vehicle was in sight. “I think I convinced everyone to take a day off today – no more accidents,” Eloise remarked matter-of-factly. “You don’t use social media, but that trending #StayHome hashtag is one of mine.”
“And the rest of the recent decline?”
“A lot of work and many… subtler adjustments. Tweak just a few details at the accident scene, or nudge the driver to be a bit more alert, and a disaster can be averted – not always, but often. Thank you for all of the risk data, though!”
“But there were no data for losses that did not occur!”
“I’m from the far future, remember? And I know that you know – because I enabled it! My techniques of data extrapolation would probably fascinate you.”
“But there remains one glaring problem. You are about to collide into me – into us!” Hugo reminded her. They were far too close to the scene in his memory.
“And this is where I fix it. Set your car to cruise control, please.” Hugo complied. Eloise showed him a dazzlingly luminous miniature iridescent cube. “Now hold out your phone.” With the phone’s screen still showing a pulsating date of May 5, 2022, Eloise pressed on it with the cube. Hugo felt exhaustion overwhelm him and released the steering wheel.
When Hugo’s eyes opened, he realized that he was flying high above the city and its empty streets. Eloise sat beside him, piloting the spaceship. She took a moment to point to the receding crumpled sedan on the highway below. “Is it not enough for the time traveler simply to believe that the problem exists at the time of the trip – whether or not the problem still actually exists? It all had to be engineered this way. The Eloise down there still most emphatically believes you to be dead!”
“But she has enough free rein to time-travel that, if I were to return tomorrow, that belief could easily be disconfirmed.”
“And this is why her only encounters with you must be prior to today. Come with me! Mr. Morlock and the Wales Technique will be fine for a while – and we can leave Mr. Carpenter to try and make sense of it all. Perhaps you can view this as an early retirement, and I can show you how history actually turned out.”
Vote for this story, “The Wales Technique”, here.
Recently I spoke with a friend who expressed some angst that his 12-year-old son was primarily interested in reading fantasy novels. Efforts to introduce the lad to higher forms of literature were proving more difficult than he’d expected.
Not to worry. Fantasy novels and science fiction yarns, I said, are often gateways to the higher forms of literature. This was not just my opinion, I added, it was my experience.
When I was 12, I was not yet much of a fan of reading. I had enjoyed some young adult fiction writers (S.E. Hinton, R.L. Stein, Christopher Pike, etc.) and enjoyed the histories of NFL football teams, but I didn’t have a passion for books. That changed when my father gave me J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
For years my father had tried to get me interested in the classics and his favorite histories to no avail. Then he tried a new tactic. Perhaps taking a tip from Montaigne, he gave me Tolken’s epic trilogy, which I devoured in a couple weeks. Terry Brooks’ Shannara books followed, and then the first few books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Then a new book came out with a cool title — A Game of Thrones — that blew them all away.
I bring all this up not to demonstrate how big of a fantasy dork I am. (I also occasionally played real-time strategy computer games. Sue me.) I share it to make a point: these books taught me to love reading.
But the case for fantasy fiction goes beyond my personal experience. Scientific research shows there are clear positive neural affects to novel reading. For example, Emory University researchers found that students experienced heightened activity in the left temporal lobe of the brain, the area associated with semantics, for days after reading novels.
It should go without saying that reading nothing but fantasy fiction, even good fantasy fiction, is not a path to a well-rounded education or intellectual maturity. But fantasy novels can awaken imaginations, inspire creativity, and create a passion for story-telling.
So if you’re a little worried that your teenage daughter seems a little too obsessed with, say, Hunger Games, relax. She’ll likely be reading George Eliot and Byron in a year or two.
Jon Miltimore is the Senior Editor of Intellectual Takeout. Follow him on Facebook.
This article was originally published on Intellectual Takeout.
As a long-time Trekkie (with several conventions and selfies with William Shatner) and an economist, I was more than delighted when a good friend of mine gave me the recently published book Trekonomics: The Economics Behind Star Trek by Manu Saadia.
Saadia’s highly exciting book attempts to explain the economy of Star Trek and describes the Federation of United Planets (which includes Earth) as a post-scarcity society that no longer uses money because everyone maximizes their utility by just doing what they want to do. The main driving force behind people’s behavior is vanity, not profit. He calls this economic system “Trekonomics.”
Economics Is an Intergalactic Concept
While describing a post-scarcity society, Saadia admits that there are some resources that are scarce. He mainly focuses on dilithium crystals that are the source of energy in the Star Trek universe:
Logic would dictate that near-absolute abundance has driven prices to zero on all but few strategic goods. These strategic goods are of limited use for most people anyway. I do not need a big chunk of dilithium crystals in the course of my everyday life. Matter-antimatter power plants require it, whether on board starships or on the ground, but not me. I am not in the market for it, society as a whole is.
While Saadia praises the replicator (Star Trek’s version of the universal 3D printer) as the driving force behind post-scarcity, he omits the fact that replicators (and holodecks, and warp drives needed in delivery shuttles bringing the latest vintage of Chateau Picard to your cottage on Mars) require energy in order to create food out of nothing.
If there’s a shortage of dilithium, there needs to be a market in order to efficiently allocate energy. Therefore, every individual is interested in a sufficient supply of dilithium crystals. An analogy to our world can be seen in oil dwells or nuclear power plants. While individuals rarely explore oil fields or build power plants, they do purchase their product (energy) on a daily basis.
Even if every one of the tens of billions of citizens of the Federation would act altruistically, it would be impossible to allocate energy to the projects with the highest priority. Only central planning or a market for energy can solve this.
The 24th century’s technological progress has reduced all physical resources to one: energy. Humans and aliens can nearly produce everything out of energy. This is great and probably significantly cuts down value/supply-chains, but there is still scarcity.
Price Controls in the Trek Universe
The value chain of the Federation’s economy most likely includes the following few stakeholders: dilithium explorers and miners, dilithium transporters/shippers, dilithium power plant operators, power grid operators, B2B replicator manufacturers (those replicators that replicate replicators), replicator owners, and replicator maintenance providers.
Assuming there’s a natural monopoly in running these services, one company or institution running all of this might also be thinkable (though given our experiences with centrally managed energy supply, I would highly doubt that there’s a natural monopoly in the dilithium value chain).
Without a price for the resource energy, a single individual could deplete the Federation’s dilithium supplies by merely replicating a galaxy full of larger-than-life Seven of Nine action figures. Thus a price system for energy is crucial in order to allow consumer choice in the Federation. The only other way to solve this issue would be the creation of the United Socialist Republics of the Galaxy (USRG) and centrally plan the energy distribution. Good luck with queuing for holodeck time in that USRG!
Light-Speed, Among Other Things, Isn’t Immune to Scarcity
Dilithium seems to perfectly qualify as a private good because both rivalry (it is scarce and you need to find it somewhere in deep and hostile space) and exclusivity (it’s pretty easy to cut someone off the energy grid) apply.
While Saadia acknowledges the scarcity of dilithium, he misses several other scarce goods:
Private Property: rivalry also exists when it comes to the use of land. Imagine a beautiful cliff in Europe that gives you a perfect view of Saturn during sunset. The cliff has space for exactly one cottage. Who decides who can build and live there? Galactic homesteading is probably a feasible means of solving this problem in times of early inter-planetary exploration, but the moment the galaxy gets more crowded, a land-registry proving property rights will be necessary in order to prevent and solve disputes and facilitate the transfer of ownership.
Unique locations and goods: Saadia admits that there’s a scarcity of seats at Sisko’s restaurant or bottles of the famous Chateau Picard, but as people have overcome the idea of enjoying status, they are not interested in over-consuming such gems in the galaxy.
In trekonomics, the absence of money implies that status is not tied to economic wealth or discretionary spending. Conspicuous consumption and luxury have lost their grip on people’s imaginations. The opposition between plenty and scarcity, which under our current conditions determines a large cross section of prices and purchasing behaviors, is no longer relevant.
This reasoning comes short in explaining how people demand dinner at Sisko’s or a good bottle of wine at all, and what happens if the demand is higher than the supply. Would first customers start hoarding? Are there black markets for these non-replicated goods and experiences?
Incentives: a Terran settler on Mars craves the 2309 vintage of Chateau Picard and wants to get it delivered in light speed from the South of France. How do we incentivize the shuttle pilot (beaming wine spoils the tannins) to stop soaking in the sun in the Mediterranean and swing his body behind the helm of a shuttle? How do we compensate him for the time and energy he spent delivering the wine to the Red Planet? If vanity is the major driving force in trekonomics, one can just hope that someone sees more vanity in the delivery of this excellent wine instead of chugging it day-in day-out himself. A more realistic way of getting people to do (annoying) things is to create incentives (e.g. to pay in dilithium units).
Live long and prosper as long the central planners allow it?
Star Trek Federation is a great thought experiment on what a post-scarcity society could look like. However, there are major shortcomings such as the allocation of property rights, a price system for energy, incentivization of services, and the existence of rivalry.
A free, prosperous, and open society such as the Federation can only function with a price system in place in order to deal with the scarcity of energy. If trekonomics would really be applied in the Federation, we would see a much more repressive version of this interplanetary union forcing its citizens to work in certain professions and rationing energy.
Fred Roeder is the Vice President of Students for Liberty and member of the Executive Board at Young Voices. He is based in Germany.
This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.
Created by digital artist Maxime Delcambre, this futuristic matte painting portrays a flourishing science fiction cityscape.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License and was originally posted on DeviantArt.
Real Heroes: Stanislaw Lem
Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.
Polish science fiction writer Stanislaw Lem (1921–2006) “skillfully dissected the 20th century’s foolhardy efforts to create utopias by stifling individuality and economic freedoms.” So said cultural critic Bruce Edward Walker. Lem was best known internationally as author of the classic Solaris — twice adapted for the silver screen — but the majority of his fiction featured damning allegories against the suppression of the human spirit.
Lem ranks high in the Polish pantheon of independent thinkers and dissidents, any list of which would be long and distinguished. Poland’s role in the historic unraveling of the Soviet empire was pivotal by any measure. And while world leaders from Pope John Paul II to Ronald Reagan to Margaret Thatcher played a part, the audacity of the homegrown resistance is a story that is still underemphasized to this day.
In November 1986, I spent nearly two weeks in Poland with the anticommunist underground. This was five years after the Warsaw government declared martial law and threw many pro-freedom activists in jail. It was still many months before the big changes of 1989 that would liberate Eastern Europe from the communist yoke. One night during my visit, I met in a private home with a half-dozen underground printers. They were eager to impress me with examples of many great pro-freedom books they had illegally translated, printed, and distributed throughout the country.
I asked, “Where did you get the paper to publish all this stuff?”
“From two places,” replied a young man named Pavel. “One, we smuggle it in from the West. Two, we steal it from communists.”
When I asked him to explain the second source, he revealed that many of the workers in the communist government’s publishing houses were sympathetic to the resistance. When those workers saw the opportunity, they smuggled the paper out or even printed resistance literature on the government’s own printing presses.
The impressive stack of illegally printed books those printers showed me included works by great scholars of liberty from the West — Freeman writers F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Murray N. Rothbard, to name just three. I later raised $5,000 for the underground to translate, publish, and distribute Milton Friedman’s classic Free to Choose, a copy of which I proudly display today in a glass case in my study. But there were books, essays, and ideas by native Poles that the underground took risks to disseminate as well. Stanislaw Lem was one of them.
Born in 1921, Lem survived both Nazi occupation and Soviet rule in the town of his birth, which was known alternately as Lwów in free Poland, Lvov in the Soviet Union, and Lviv in modern Ukraine. His father was a doctor, and Lem was poised to follow in his footsteps until Hitler’s invasion in 1939. He was forced to work as a mechanic but became a crack saboteur: “I learnt to damage German vehicles in such a way that it wouldn’t be discovered,” he said.
Lem resumed his medical studies following the war, eventually finishing his degree in Cracow in 1946. He intended to pursue a career in theoretical biology, but abandoned his plans rather than adhere to the since-discredited practices of Soviet geneticist Trofim Lysenko. He turned to writing, only to have his first novel, The Hospital of the Transfiguration, banned by communist censors for nearly a decade.
By 1951, Lem realized that his only hope of publishing was to mask his views as allegorical works of science fiction. State apparatchiks in charge of expunging subversive works from the public square were too stupid to appreciate his subtlety, but Polish intellectuals and many ordinary readers knew full well what the underlying message was. What Lem did with a wrench to German vehicles, he later did with pen and ink to the communist state.
Lem used his considerable intellect (he reportedly had an IQ of 180) and writing skills to parody Soviet and Polish leaders and subtly convey the torments of communist life. He is seen as in the same mold as satirical fantasists Jonathan Swift, George Orwell, and Franz Kafka. In the estimation of many who took great risks to criticize the Soviet and allied Eastern European regimes, his work sits comfortably alongside such anti-totalitarian classics as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.
Lem’s writings have been translated into at least 40 languages, have sold nearly 30 million copies, and span a wide range from screenplays, short stories, and mystery novels to more serious matters of philosophy, cybernetics, and the nature of intelligence itself.
The Astronauts, published in 1951, was followed by Time Not Lost, a fictionalized account of Nazi occupation of Poland. Return from the Stars, published in 1961, presented a world devoid of “the hell of passion, and then it turned out that in the same sweep, heaven, too, had ceased to be. Everything now is lukewarm.” This bland reality, noted reviewer Marilyn Jurich, “reduces the possibility of individuals accepting personal risks,” resulting in “a monotone, denatured safe world at the cost of direct experience in a nature that is open, unknown, risky; a world where wild animals have disappeared along with human emotion and initiative. Individuals have few means left to test physical capacity or mental endurance.”
The short story “The Thirteenth Voyage,” in the collection The Star Diaries, depicts the totalitarian urge at its most invasive. In that story, the Angelicans, a group of social engineers, determine that all human foibles can be solved by collectivization, producing a nightmarish, stagnant conformity. Having lived through collectivism of both the national socialist and communist varieties, Lem knew his subject well.
Lem published his last collection of fiction in 1988, before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent implosion of the Soviet Union. He told interviewer Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. in 1985,
The literature of the 20th century has lost its battle, or at least finds itself in retreat.… The tales of refugees from totalitarian countries reduce themselves to an exhaustive catalogue of social and psychological suffering that such systems treat their citizens to. These books cannot pick their readers up, and the lessons they teach are not pleasant. One could say that the job of literature is not primarily to entertain, move, and cheer us up, but as [Joseph] Conrad said, to ‘bring the visible world to justice.’ Well, in order to bring this world to justice, it is first necessary to understand it with one’s intellect, to appreciate the wealth of its diversity.
Another Polish dissident, Stefan Kisielewski, was once jailed for an eloquent three-word sentence: “Socialism is stupidism.”
As a rule, dictators understand the power of ideas better than most people, which is why they often make it illegal to simply harbor a certain thought or give that thought expression in ink on paper.
Thankfully, courageous men and women like Stanislaw Lem found creative ways around evil regimes — a key reason those very regimes now exist, with a few exceptions, only in the history books.
For further information, see:
- Stanislaw Lem’s best-known novel, Solaris
- Google’s tribute to Lem on the 60th anniversary of his first publication
- “Stanislaw Lem and His Push For Deeper Thinking” at Kirkus Reviews
Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.
That old people will go into orbit to escape the rigors of gravity and thus live longer in their declining years was a staple of golden age and later science fiction. These works were written at a time in which our knowledge of human biochemistry – and the application of that knowledge to medicine – was crude in comparison to today. It is fascinating that we can say that for such a short span of years, a mere short lifetime past, but the differences between the medicine of the 1950s and the medicine of today are profound indeed. The writers of that time largely envisaged a future incorporating great gains in energy generation, and a consequent diaspora from Earth, while computation, medicine and the human condition remained much unchanged; older spacemen in the outer reaches struggling with heart disease in their fifties. Instead we found that expanding the generation, storage, transmission, and application of energy is very hard, and the largely unanticipated information revolution occurred instead. We lost the near future of cheap heavy lift to orbit and the solar system at our beck and call, but gained Moore’s Law, biotechnology, nanotechnology, a pervasive internet, and medical progress that is in the early stages of conquering heart disease and may yet save us from all of degenerative aging.
As it turns out, retreating from the rigors of gravity may well have the opposite effect to that imagined by the authors of the last century. Among the alterations produced by orbital habitation in zero gravity are those that appear, at least superficially, much like accelerated aging of the cardiovascular system. The root causes have yet to be pinned down, since very few people are actually researching this topic, but since the onset of these symptoms is fairly rapid, I’d guess at the cause being more a matter of regulatory dysfunction than increased tissue damage, such as the presence of cross-links related to arterial stiffening in aging. Here I’ll point out a few links to the work of one research group on this topic in recent years:
The experiment will link changes in astronauts’ hearts and blood vessels with specific molecules in the blood to determine why astronauts experience conditions that mimic aging-related problems and chronic diseases on earth. The findings will help identify important indicators for chronic disease and assist with the development of early interventions for people on earth. “We know that astronauts return from space with stiffer arteries and resistance to insulin, conditions affecting many adults as they age. For the first time, we will be able to track exactly how – and why – the body’s blood vessels change, and use these findings to potentially improve quality of life and the burden of chronic disease.” “In space, astronauts’ bodies show aging-like changes much faster than on Earth. The International Space Station provides a unique platform to study aging-related conditions providing insights that can be used to help understand some of the biggest health issues affecting society. Our research to date suggests that even though astronauts exercise every day, the actual physical demands of tasks of daily living are greatly reduced due to the lack of gravity. This lifestyle seems to cause changes in the vascular system and in the body’s ability to regulate blood glucose that would normally take years to develop on earth.”
We study factors related to cardiovascular health with aging. One focus is on blood pressure regulation and its impact on brain blood flow to help us understand some of the factors that could contribute to falls in the elderly, especially those that occur on rising from bed. Another focus is on aging blood vessels. We have reported a strong link between peripheral arterial stiffness and a reduction in brain blood flow. Our space research program is very active. We recently completed the study Cardiovascular and Cerebrovascular Control on Return from the International Space Station (CCISS). We are currently collecting data for the project Cardiovascular Health Consequences of Long-Duration Space Flight (Vascular).
Cardiovascular Health Consequences of Long-Duration Space Flight (Vascular) investigates the impact of long-duration space flight on the blood vessels of astronauts. Space flight accelerates the aging process, and it is important to understand this process to develop specific countermeasures. Data is collected before, during, and after space flight to assess inflammation of the artery walls, changes in blood vessel properties, and cardiovascular fitness. Spaceflight can cause stiffening of the arteries, affecting the body’s ability to control blood pressure. This investigation assessed the blood vessels of astronauts and found decreased flexibility of the carotid artery during flight. Researchers found no relationship between the level of physical fitness and this decrease. The experiment also provided data on the mechanisms behind increased arterial stiffness from spaceflight. Further research is needed to establish effective ways to counter the cardiovascular consequences of spaceflight and ultimately help treat increased arterial stiffness from aging on Earth, which can cause high blood pressure and organ damage.
Long duration habitation on the International Space Station (ISS) is associated with chronic elevations in arterial blood pressure in the brain compared with normal upright posture on Earth and elevated inspired carbon dioxide. Although results from short-duration spaceflights suggested possibly improved cerebrovascular autoregulation, animal models provided evidence of structural and functional changes in cerebral vessels that might negatively impact autoregulation with longer periods in microgravity. Seven astronauts (1 woman) spent 147 ± 49 days on ISS. Preflight testing (30-60 days before launch) was compared with postflight testing on landing day or the morning 1 or 2 days after return to Earth. The results indicate that long duration missions on the ISS impaired dynamic cerebrovascular autoregulation and reduced cerebrovascular carbon dioxide reactivity.
The cardiovascular system undergoes major changes in stress with space flight primarily related to the elimination of the head-to-foot gravitational force. A major observation has been that the central venous pressure is not elevated early in space flight yet stroke volume is increased at least early in flight. Recent observations demonstrate that heart rate remains lower during the normal daily activities of space flight compared to Earth-based conditions. Structural and functional adaptations occur in the vascular system that could result in impaired response with demands of physical exertion and return to Earth. Cardiac muscle mass is reduced after flight and contractile function may be altered. Regular and specific countermeasures are essential to maintain cardiovascular health during long-duration space flight.
The Martian, from director Ridley Scott, is an exciting film about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet. It celebrates the heroism that comes from human reason. And it points to what it will take for humans in coming decades to make Mars a new home for humanity. With the film coming on the heels of NASA’s confirmation of liquid water on the Martian surface, that home could be closer than you think!
“I’m not gonna die!”
The Martian is based on a novel that author Andy Weir originally published himself online and offered as a free download. The author and the film take care to be as scientifically accurate as possible in the context of a fictional offering.
The movie opens with the third crew to land on Mars rushing back to their landing craft ahead of a sudden sandstorm that threatens to destroy it and them. (In reality, Mars’s thin atmosphere would mean such a storm would annoy rather than kill. But then there’d be no story!)
Unfortunately, astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is struck by debris from some destroyed communications equipment and blown away. Sensors indicate his suit’s seal has been breached, meaning his oxygen has escaped and he’s likely dead. The rest of the crew takes off without searching for his body to avoid being killed themselves.
They begin their sad, year-long journey home after informing the world of the tragedy.
But Watney is alive! The breach in his suit was sealed by blood and the debris lodged in his side. He gets back to the habitat the astronauts had used as their base. But his future still looks grim. He is out of contact with Earth and his shipmates. The next Mars mission is not scheduled to arrive for four years and will land 3,000 kilometers from where he is. He has nowhere nearly enough food rations to survive that long. But he declares, “I’m not gonna die,” and we see his mind at work in the video logs he makes of his efforts.
Intelligence for survival
“Let’s do the math!” he says as he figures out that he must grow three years’ worth of potatoes on a frozen planet where nothing grows and find some way to water and fertilize his crops. But he’s a botanist and he declares, “Mars will come to fear my botany power!” He converts part of the hab into a makeshift greenhouse. Human waste—what the crew left in its short visit and what he will produce in the years ahead—will be his fertilizer. The water will come from a jury-rigged setup that extracts it from other substances at hand in the hab.
Watney contemplates how to get his tractor, which needs batteries recharged every 35 kilometers, to trek a hundred times that distance, how to carry enough supplies for that journey, how to contact Earth, and many other challenges. And he declares, “I’m gonna have to science the s**t out of this!”
Director Scott does not give us wishful thinking, mere muscles, unconvincing machismo, or deus-ex-machina miracles. He gives us intelligence as the key to survival.
Will they succeed?
Meanwhile, back at NASA, satellite photos show activity at the hab, meaning Watney is alive. Scientists on Earth observe him trekking out into the desert and guess, correctly, that he’s searching for a decades-old Pathfinder probe to try to revive its old radio system, which he does. Now they can communicate.
But Watney’s farming efforts are cut short by an accident, and NASA’s plan to send an unmanned resupply ship does not go as planned. The one slim hope, which NASA opposes, is for his shipmates to swing around Earth rather than land as they’re supposed to and return to Mars to rescue him. Will they do so? Will they succeed?
Optimism, intelligence, ingenuity
Many elements of The Martian are familiar from other movies. Gravity (2013) gave us drifting in space, trying to return to a ship. Apollo 13 (1995) was a film version of real-life astronauts with a disabled spacecraft trying to get home safely from an aborted lunar mission. The Martian, like Apollo 13, gives us a vision of the heroic that comes from the same source that allows humans to travel to other worlds to begin with: the human mind.
Some might think that a film about the how hostile Mars is to human life would discourage people from ever wanting to go there, much less live there. I disagree. Humans are explorers and achievers.
In 1996 Robert Zubrin published The Case for Mars, outlining an innovative plan for getting to the Red Planet for a fraction of the cost of a NASA mission. He founded the Mars Society, which runs conferences and simulations of Mars missions in the arctic, in preparation for the real thing. Other groups such as Explore Mars have sprung up in recent years. Other innovative mission models have been proposed, including one from Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. And Mars One proposes to send settlers to the Red Planet on one-way trips, to be permanent occupants. Private entrepreneur Elon Musk founded his rocket company SpaceX with the goal of establishing permanent settlements on the Red Planet. And NASA’s confirmation of water on the surface of Mars opens further possibilities for future colonies.
The Martian is an uplifting film that does not minimize the challenges of life; indeed, Watney explains that he knew going in that space travel was dangerous and that he could be killed. But he says that once you acknowledge that you might die, you deal with the problem at hand and the next and the next. This is humanity at its best. Damon as Watney gives a fine performance. His character must keep up his optimism—without maudlin emotionalism or self-deceiving bravado. He must demonstrate intelligence and ingenuity. In all this we see the best of the human spirit!
Dr. Edward Hudgins directs advocacy and is a senior scholar for The Atlas Society, the center for Objectivism in Washington, D.C.
Copyright, The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.
We Have Such Abundance That We Fantasize about Having Less.
We all know the scene. The urbane starship captain steps up to the console and requests, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.” He waits a second or two until a steaming, perfectly brewed cup shimmers into existence.
From medieval dreams of the Land of Cockaigne, where roofs are shingled with pastries and roasted chickens fly into our waiting mouths, to the Big Rock Candy Mountain’s “cigarette trees” and “lemonade springs,” to Star Trek’s replicator, we have imagined the bright futures and the glorious new worlds that would give us instant abundance.
The “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” type of scene is such a standby it even has its own parodies, where instant preference satisfaction is not exactly … satisfying.
He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism, and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea. (Douglas Adams, Restaurant at the End of the Universe)
If we didn’t know what was supposed to happen, and if we didn’t fully expect the future to fulfill our fantasies, and if we didn’t have a certain amount of frustrated experience with modern machines that promise wonders but deliver things that are almost, but not quite, entirely unlike them, the scene wouldn’t be funny.
But I find science fiction most compelling when it goes in the other direction — when instead of imagining the end of scarcity, it imagines the end of abundance. The movie Total Recall imagines life on Mars, where even the air is rationed. The gritty reboot of the television series Battlestar Galactica puts us in world where fewer than 50,000 humans have survived and escaped from an enemy attack. The survivors spend much of their time trying to subsist in space amid constant and growing shortages of food, water, fuel, ammunition, and pretty much everything else.
In works like these — and yes, I know their imaginings are as romantic as the imaginings of Star Trek — we get to watch human beings pushed to their limits, using every bit of their ingenuity in order to survive. It was no accident, after all, that Gene Roddenberry called space “the final frontier.”
The latest iteration of this kind of scarcity science fiction is Andy Weir’s novel The Martian, the movie version of which premiered October 2. I first learned about The Martian through the XKCD webcomic strip describing the plot as made out of “the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says ‘we have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table of parts or the astronauts will all die.’”
I was sold.
And it’s no spoiler to say that this is precisely the plot of The Martian. Astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first people to visit Mars. When the mission goes awry, his crew has to evacuate, and Mark is left behind. Everyone thinks he’s dead.
He’s not, though, and the remainder of the book is caught up in the details of the scarcities he faces, his creative attempts to overcome them, and our nail-biting suspense over whether he can survive one more hour, one more day, and maybe long enough to be rescued. Mark describes his situation like this:
I’m stranded on Mars. I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth. Everyone thinks I’m dead. I’m in a Hab [the atmosphere-controlled habitat in which astronauts from his mission could live without wearing spacesuits] designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of these things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
Mark’s assessment of his situation, which ends with, “I’m f—ed,” appears on page 7 of the novel. We spend 360 more pages following his solitary attempts to science his way out of the problem. And if you’re at all like me, you won’t be able to put the book down until you find out what happens. Done well, the movie should convey that same nail-biting suspense.
The Martian, and scarcity science fiction in general, is a good reminder to all of us that the real miracle of the market is not the great individual with the great idea, bringing it to fruition and selling it to all of us. The real miracle of the market is that it reliably supplies us, every day, with all the necessities that Mark Watney has to work for so desperately. And it does that by allowing us to cooperate, and to broaden that cooperation beyond our immediate context, to the extended and anonymous world. That long-distance cooperation allows us to access so many different human skills, strengths, and abilities.
With only himself to rely on, Mark (who is primarily a botanist) is painfully aware of the skills he lacks, skills he relied on in his crewmembers who specialize in chemistry, or engineering, or other sciences. While it becomes clear that his botany skills will be a crucial part of his survival, so are all these others, and without any possibility of cooperating, he has to go it alone. He’s in the position of the folks who try to build a toaster entirely from scratch, or make a sandwich all on their own.
I loved reading The Martian, and I can’t wait to see the movie. Stories like this, and like Battlestar Galactica and others, allow me to explore the limits of the human ability to survive. I’m happy to visit those worlds and to entertain myself with their emotional and suspenseful visions of life on the narrowest of possible margins.
But the world I want to live in is the one where cooperation, through the mechanisms of the market, brings us movies about scarcity and survival, while outside the movie theater we enjoy real-life abundance. And also, maybe one day, a replicator that will allow my own cup of “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot” to shimmer miraculously into being.
This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.
G. Stolyarov II, Demian Zivkovic, Philippe Castonguay, Roen Horn, Sylvester Geldtmeijer, and Laurens Wes
What are the key approaches and opportunities for restoring an optimistic view of technology, progress, and the future among the majority of people – and to counter apocalyptic, Malthusian, and neo-Luddite thinking?
On May 9, 2015, Mr. Stolyarov, the author of Death is Wrong – the illustrated children’s book on indefinite life extension – invited a panel of future-oriented thinkers to discuss this question. Watch the discussion here.
Demian Zivkovic is a student of artificial intelligence and philosophy, and founder and president of the Institute of Exponential Sciences – https://www.facebook.com/IEScience/ – an international transhumanist think tank / education institute comprised of a group of transhumanism-oriented scientists, professionals, students, journalists and entrepreneurs interested in the interdisciplinary approach to advancing exponential technologies and promoting techno-positive thought.
Demian and the IES have been involved in several endeavors, including interviewing professor Aubrey de Grey, organizing lectures on exponential sciences with guests including de Grey, and spreading “Death is Wrong” – Mr. Stolyarov’s illustrated children’s book on indefinite life extension – in The Netherlands. Demian Zivkovic is a strong proponent of transhumanism, hyperreality, and hypermodernism. He is currently working on his ambition of raising enough capital to make a real difference in life extension and transhumanist thought.
Demian invites anybody who is interested in forwarding a technologically positive vision of the future to get involved with the Institute of Exponential Sciences via its Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/IEScience/.
Philippe Castonguay is currently pursuing a B.Sc. in Psychology while doing research in computational neuroscience. His main research topics are the influence of noise on the stability of chaotic neural network models, mechanisms of recurrent neural integration on a network scale and high-dimensional data representations. Philippe is also an executive member of Bricobio, a DIY biohacking group in Montreal and co-founder of Montreal Futurists, a Montreal group that wants to promote transhumanist/futurist ideas and prepare the population for the integration of related technologies in the society.
Sylvester Geldtmeijer is a Dutch citizen and sound designer. He has been interested in transhumanism, science, and technology since childhood, when he was fascinated with science fiction and imagining a highly advanced technological world where every problem can be solved with science. He emphasizes the ability of science to help people, especially through medical advancements, and considers Deep Brain Stimulation to be one of the most important inventions of our time. He hopes that technological advances will produce an era in which children can grow up without struggling with any learning difficulties or physical obstacles.
Sylvester would like to share the following words of inspiration with our viewers:
For some the age of reason is too far,
For some the age of utopization will also be too far.
But for idealists reason is not just an accomplishment;
It’s development –
Just like utopia isn’t a place;
It’s a state of mind.
Roen Horn is a philosopher and lecturer on the importance of trying to live forever. He founded the Eternal Life Fan Club – http://eternallifefanclub.com/ – in 2012 to encourage fans of eternal life to start being more strategic with regard to this goal. To this end, one major focus of the club has been on life-extension techniques, everything from lengthening telomeres to avoiding risky behaviors. Currently, Roen’s work may be seen in the many memes, quotes, essays, and video blogs that he has created for those who are exploring their own thoughts on this, or who want to share and promote the same things. Like many other fans of eternal life, Roen is in love with life, and is very inspired by the world around him and wants to impart in others the same desire to discover all this world has to offer.
Laurens Wes is a Dutch engineer and chief engineering officer at the Institute of Exponential Sciences. Furthermore he is the owner of Intrifix, a company focused on 3D-printing and software solutions. Aside from these tasks, Laurens is very interested in transhumanism, longevity, just about all fields of science, entrepreneurship, and expressing creativity. He is a regular speaker for the IES and is very committed to educating the public on accelerated technological developments and exponential sciences.