"Belters", My Asteroid

Once again, I believe I have caught the SF writers of the world in a sad effort to bend their imaginary futures into old, familiar tales, instead of really trying to imagine the future being different. Then I found out it was mostly worse: they were also advertising their dreams of a desired future, which would be like the (mostly fictional) past, a realization of their political fantasies.

As written before, I keep finding new reasons to disparage SF writers, of all people, for lack of imagination about the future. They keep bending their future visions away from believable science to create futures that look more like the past, instead. Easier to tell familiar stories, I assume - but also, it can be using the author's control of the whole universe to make their wishes come true.

In this case, I was reading an SF story with asteroid mining, and the characters were not working for some huge mining conglomerate, like nearly every miner on Earth; they were flying around in the asteroid belt, prospecting for valuable rocks. I recalled a Jerry Pournelle story, "Tinker", where he admitted in remarks about it that he'd had to stretch his own assumptions about space industrialization to the limits to come up with a story where a small business could possibly own and operate a private spaceship. The story action concerns the little guy's struggle to remain independent of large corporations that dominate the business.

It hit me as significant that Pournelle did that stretching, that he wanted the "independent prospector" future to be true. I realized that he was reaching for a story that was familiar from repetition.

I looked for all the stories that envisioned the future of our solar system's Asteroid Belt as a land of lonely, wandering miners searching the rocks for the Big Score, the Motherload, the El Dorado of the Spaceways.

Just offhand from my memory, I quickly remembered Heinlein's The Rolling Stones, Poul Anderson's book of short stories, Tales of the Flying Mountains, James Corey's Belt polity in The Expanse books was mostly about mining, and of course Larry Niven's "Belters" that that roved the whole solar system looking for the Big Strike.

The Expanse is interesting in that it's "third generation" science fiction. Or fourth, if you want to call Verne and Wells the first. The next was the "Golden Age" of SF, the heyday of the cheap pulps with robots and bikinis on the cover; and then there was the New Wave of the sixties and seventies. Niven was very prominent in that era, and The Expanse makes clear his ideas had children in this generation.

Niven's era, also the decades of Star Trek and Star Wars, created such enduring popular ideas and tropes that Corey and the rest of this generation can just refer to them without explanation: Tractor Beams and Shields. Fusion Rockets. Hyperdrive. Cylindrical Space Colonies. And, yes, Asteroid Miners that are very independent of Earth, the USA to Earth's Old Europe. So Corey not only has an Asteroid Belt that's politically a separate nation, but calls the inhabitants "Belters", just as Niven did. "The Belt" is an official Trope, now.

At that point in writing this essay, I thought I'd check the web to see if I'd missed any major examples of these books. Sure enough, there's a web page for that, with 25 of them. You can follow it up on your own, but some names really struck me as indicating a trend:

I haven't read the Bova or Ringo books, but I know the writers well enough to put them on the above list.

The list is not comprehensive, of course, it's just six cases with a point to them: all of those writers are pretty famously conservative, in a libertarian direction as to economics and general distrust of central governments. Their politics are very much a matter of discussion amongst SF fans.

When Jerry Pournelle died, I was given maximum backpat/thumbs-up "points" on Slashdot, the nerd news website, for a comment post where I noted that a writer's politics are nothing to get upset about - that my favourite Heinlein novel was The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, but I'd never gone libertarian; that I'd read Starship Troopers at least three times without becoming militarist, that I'd enjoyed just about all of Jerry's stories without adopting any of his politics. (I'd say I've trended a little left over the years, really.) Everybody but John Ringo is now basically retired, or dead - but John Ringo makes up for it with stories drenched in conservative political polemic that drive liberal readers crazy - I suspect to Ringo's amusement and profit.

Poul Anderson (1926-2001) is less well-known now; only a few of his books are still found on library and bookstore shelves. He was pretty huge when we Boomers were younger, though: seven Hugos. I've only read a few of his, but I recall lefty/peacenik Isaac Asimov writing about how SF made for a community even through disagreement. When Asimov went around getting fellow SF luminaries to sign a letter to be published in a popular SF magazine against the Vietnam War, his beloved friend Poul Anderson jumped up in alarm and ran around the ranks of conservative SF writers getting signatures on a letter supporting the war.(Galaxy, June 1968) The two lists wound up being about the same size.

That stuck with me for years - at the time, it was hard to imagine anybody who was for the war, because I read Asimov's story 10 years later, in the late 1970s, when just how bad Vietnam was had finally become accepted by most.

Reading up on Anderson in the wikipedia now, I see that, yup, he was famously not just conservative but libertarian in his repeated themes. A little googling turned up the remarkably large Poul Anderson Appreciation blog, complete with reviews of his asteroid miner stories, that started with:

In "Ramble With A Gambling Man" (Tales Of The Flying Mountains, New York, 1984), Poul Anderson shows us an asterite (asteroid-dwelling) business man running a palatial household with several domestic servants, then explains how this archaic-seeming social arrangement might develop.

The earliest asteroid colonists often had to work manually and also had to be both self-reliant and mutually helpful for survival so they developed the idea that the economically successful were morally obliged to employ the less successful and that domestic service was not degrading whereas not to contribute would be.

So we have the imagined future of the Asteroid Belt creating a new economic opportunity and niche for small, independent businesses and even individuals. Even better for Ayn Rand fans, hard work and the "lucky strike" would lead to many of them becoming self-made millionaires, and be dominant in a society where wealth is status. I'm not about to get into an argument about whether that is, morally, a Good Thing - my question is whether it is a probable future history, or as ridiculous a power fantasy as acquiring superpowers from a dunk in toxic waste.

It gets better. The Menace from Earth (sorry) that forces Anderson's Flying Mountains to form a government of their own is the rise of the dreaded Essjays: the Social Justice Party. I had to wonder if the troll who coined "Social Justice Warrior" was an Anderson fan.

Even where you don't get pointed political comment, the mythos of the setting is the same. The wonders of Google led me to the cover for Murray Leinster's Miners in the Sky. Though I'd never heard of the 1967 novel, it certainly depicts the same kind of social structure. From the Wikipedia: ...human inhabitants are rugged miners, riding small "donkey ships", who need to contend with both the harsh natural environment and fierce human competitors. "Claim jumping" is frequent and miners must be ready at any moment to take up a gun or a bazooka...

...Presumably, because The Government Cannot Protect You. The wikipedia also mentions the term "Wild West", which is kind of funny - because much of what we imagine when we read that term is fictional. The actual inhabitants of new settler lands were eager, going on desperate, for lawmen to come in and protect them; the last thing they wanted was to defend their property from bandits personally. (Brave cowboy characters on TV rarely had children to fear for. Real people do. Probably why Dodge City had strict gun control.)

Multiple resources are mentioned by Niven, that his character had mined tin on Mercury and "exotic chemicals" from the atmosphere of Jupiter. (They must be exotic indeed, to not be manufacturable at lower energy expense than going to Jupiter and deep into its gravity well.) Niven also mentions a Belter mining ship coming home with her holds full of gold itself.

But surely your really huge bulk mining would be iron - which is 99% of the recipe for steel, the main structural material for any large object, such as space stations and habitats. If your SF future includes giant spaceships and space colonies, you're going to need millions of tonnes of steel that would be prohibitively expensive to lift up from the Earth.

The current Earth economy smelts a gigatonne of iron per year, a billion tonnes; it's one of the significant sources of carbon dioxide, because we make it with coal that supplies both the heat, and the carbon to turn iron into steel. But the price has not been going steadily up as China and other Asian economies have grown and spiked up global consumption; our planet is halfway made of the stuff and we have little trouble finding it. Asteroid mining would mostly have to be about consumption in space itself, so that bulk metals won't have to be lifted into space at vast expense.

There's such enthusiasm for asteroid mining that one can waste days (I didn't, I confess) reading all their web-page economic analyses; but absent the notion of a huge market for metals in space itself, the arguments mostly lean towards very cheap new space travel solutions combined with extremely valuable metals up there, like platinum at $800+ per ounce.

Which brings us around to Psyche. Or, more formally, "16 Psyche" the asteroid that NASA is launching a probe to in 2023 for a 2030 visit. That's why I was reading the asteroid-miner story. That's when the disjoint between the story and the real-life asteroid slapped me in the face. Here's the thing about Psyche. "It is thought to be the exposed iron core of a protoplanet", says Wikipedia. It's basically pure metal, a good 90% of it iron. The chunk of metal - not "ore", really, pure metal - is over 200km in diameter and about 22,000 trillion tonnes mass. I say "22,000 trillion" because "22 quadrillion" is unfamiliar. Is "22 million billion" even better? One doesn't get to say "million billion" often as a literal number rather than a joke like "zillion jillion".

Twenty million billion tonnes. Twenty million gigatonnes. Twenty million years of Earth's current consumption of iron. So we humans could make 10 billion inhabitants of the Earth twice as rich as the richest billion are today, consume 20 times as much iron per year - building those Star Destroyers and Death Stars and Babylon Fives - and little Psyche alone could still supply us for a million years.

Well, less if we really built Death Stars; we'd have to up our iron production by 5000-fold to 5 trillion tonnes per year, to build even one per century. Some SF fans have estimated the mass of a real Death Star at about 500 trillion tonnes, so Psyche is enough for at least 40 of them. In the movies, the Empire was apparently kicking them out at one per decade or less; I've got to hand it to the Evil Emperor, purifying and forming over 50 trillion tonnes per year of metal, not to mention all the rest of the shipbuilding expense. It's puzzling how an economy so rich can still have poor people in slavery. But then again, it's bizarre how America can have 12 aircraft carriers and hungry kids, too. Still, the Empire can mobilize an industrial capacity some 50,000 times that of Earth's current ironmongering around a remote "forest moon"; you'd think the citizens would all have nice homes.

The prospectors of the flying mountains may also be after cobalt and iridium and gold, and rarer metals; but where are you more likely to find them than Psyche, which is made of metal? If Psyche doesn't turn out to have a million tonnes of platinum and tonnes of iridium, however, there are several other asteroids already identified from Earth, long ago, as very probable places to go looking for valuable metals. Their merits are quite obvious just from telescopy figuring out their density. The need for wandering prospectors and their mechanical mules to roam the months-apart orbits would seem to be, literally, a million years away.

Unfortunately, it's hard to come up with rousing tales of exploration and risk based on just going to the one place that was found by astronomers in the mid-19th century, setting up a mostly-automated shop, and leaving, all Earth needs met. Too easy.

The fact that Psyche was discovered in 1852 stuck out for me; the SF writers of the 20th century have little excuse for not knowing about her and considering the implications of it. I really think I've again found an example of SF writers wanting, just really wanting, to write a familiar story. How many familiar, successful stories are there from the Treasure of the Sierra Madre genre? There are over 200 TV series of the "Westerns" genre listed in Wikipedia; lonely prospectors and wildcat miners must show up in several percent of them. So, thousands.

Solo prospectors make for great story characters. Especially if the SF writer is a more than a bit libertarian. They travel alone, make a living without being part of a bureaucracy or supported by government. This generally leads to the Asteroid Belt being a fiercely-independent, even Earth-hating, political "nation" in its own right. Generally? Nearly all. Heinlein's "Rolling Stones" Belt was more like 1849 California, with half-starved miners that mostly want to be away from ALL government, and too dispersed to need one of their own. But Niven, Corey and Anderson all made their Belt government crusty in their independence from colonial Earth. I can't actually think of a British or European SF author with that same "wild west frontier" trope for the Belt.

When you think about it, the notion of The Belt as a single government is very dicey; there's never been anything like it in history: a government of a volume so dispersed that other "nations" (planets, in the case of the Niven/Corey futures) are closer to the capital than it is to half of itself. It would be much quicker to go between Earth and Ceres (the largest asteroid) than between Ceres and most of the other asteroids, at any given time.

Would the far-flung members unite out of economic and political similarity? Convince me. Explain why the island nations of the Earth have not banded together into a single nation that surrounds every continent. That would be quite the single nation: Seychelles plus Fiji plus Bahamas, Cape Verde, Comoros, Tonga and dozens of others. (And Cuba in the "Ceres" role.) That's the nearest analogy to the Belt that Earth geography offers. It says to me that the Belters, especially if they were independent cusses, would all want to be separate nations, just as the island nations of the Earth do.

It's a pain when nature won't cooperate with your desire to have your political fantasies play out in some future where jut-jawed heroes strike out from the decadent, bureaucratic Earth to find their fortune in the stars. I'm afraid they will first have to explain why they heroically pass up twenty quadrillion tonnes of riches that we've known about since before Kitty Hawk.

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Text is COPYRIGHT, Roy Brander, 2019. All graphics are available Internet grabs that link to their source, and will be taken down upon request, to "roy.brander" at Google's mail system.