The Limits Thing and Why We Aren't Mining the Asteroids

Sharon July 21st, 2008

One of the more fascinating sections of the book (pg 83 in my used 1977 paperback) is when the book brings up the original _The Limits to Growth_ – they are on the Johnny Carson show and Johnny starts asking about the merits of a manned probe to study comets.

“Johnny jumped in to give the show back to Sharps.  ‘But tell me, Charlie, what good will it do to study that comet?  How will that change our lives?’

Sharps shrugged.  It may not. You’re asking what good new research does. And all I can answer is that it always has paid off.  Not the way you thought it would, maybe.  Who’d have thought we’d get a whole new medical technology out of the space program?  But we did. Thousand are alive right now because the human-factors boys had to develop new instruments for the astronauts.  Johnny, did you ever hear of the Club of Rome?

Johnny had, but the the audience would need reminding ‘they were the people who did computer simulations to find out how long we could get along on our natural reasources. Even with zero population growth -’

‘They tell us we’re finished,” Sharps broke in.  “And that’s stupid.  We’re only finished because they won’t let us really use technology.  They say we’re running out of metals.  there’s more metal in one little asteroild than was mined all over the world in the last five years! And there are hundreds of thousands of asteroids. All we have to do is go get ‘em.’

‘Can we?’

 ’You bet!  Even with the technology we already have, we could do it.  Johnny, out there in space it’s raining soup, and we don’t even know about soup bowls.’

The studio audience applauded.  They hadn’t been cued by the production assistants, but they appluaded.  Johnny gave Sharps an approving smile and decided how the program would go for the rest of the night.  But there was a frantic signal: time for a Kalva Soap commercial.

There was much more after the commercial.  Whe Sharps got going he was really dynamic.  His thin bony hands waved around like windmills.  He talked about windmills, too, and about how much power the Sun put out every day.  About the solar flare Skylab’s crew had observed.  ‘Johnny, there was enough power in that one little flare to run our civilization for hundreds of years! And those idiots talk about doom!’”

In TMIAHM, Heinlein acknowledges that banging up against limits is an inevitable consequence of being human, admits that for individual humans, especially for those without balls enough to go kill things on the frontier, limits are a real problem. Niven and Pournelle, however, argue that there really aren’t any limits at all – and in fact, that the basic problem is that “they” (The Club of Rome doesn’t really have Clubs, so I’m not quite sure how this works) prevent them from using totally obvious, accessible forms of energy and resources like asteroids and solar flares.

NowI’m going to do a full post on the technical feasibilty of both TMIAHM and LH, because I thought it would be fun to post my husband’s professional analysis of technical feasibility, but I think it is worth noting here that much of the above is complete and utter bullshit.  We do not now and did not in the mid-70s have the technology to harness solar flares or mine asteroids – period.  Assuming that Sharps the character keeps up with his journals, he would be ummm…lying to the general public were this a reality.  Now the thing is that Pournelle and Niven did a lot of research on this – “Dan Forrester” is based on a real guy.  They were at JPL and Caltech and all these other places, so they presumably actually knew, as they were writing this story, that this was errant nonsense.  Pournelle’s Ph.d is in something closely enough related that I find it hard to believe that they just did shoddy research or believed what they were told – I think the book contains a couple of out-and-out technical falsehoods, designed to convince readers that the fact that we don’t have all the energy and resources we want is the fault of an ignorant public and a mysterious “they”who just don’t want us to. 

Frankly, I find this much more disturbing than the bigotry.  You see I used to be an academic, and while I’m hardly perfect, I still find the idea that you would explicitly misrepresent technical capacities, even in a novel, really repulsive – even more repulsive than the racism.  This is, I know, geeky, and yes, the standards for fiction are lower than in academia but it pisses me off – fine, try and make the point, but don’t lie to get there. 

But then again, perhaps it is necessary to lie to get there – this was written deep in the 1970s recession, in the energy crisis.  Perhaps the story has to lie to get its essential message across – that limitations, even the external limits of being hit by a comet – the problem is attitude.  A good attitude, and a firm belief in the power of science is what is needed.



18 Responses to “The Limits Thing and Why We Aren't Mining the Asteroids”

  1. Greenpa says:

    I’ve read virtually everything Niven has written (mostly years ago) – and most of what he wrote with Pournelle. Pournelle is, indeed, a major source of intellectual pollution. I was always disappointed a bit in Niven that he allowed himself to be sucked into the sloppy, slippery, “logic” Pournelle purveys. A lot of it, I think, is pure arrogance- why should he bother to actually consider other viewpoints, when he already understands everything so well?

    I think Niven is personally a little on the deferential side, when confronted with “big” pushy personalities- his commentary writings show that a bit.

    Niven actually was fascinated with limits, per se- and put out a book which was a collection of his short stories dealing with limits. Titled: “Limits”. Most of the stories are first rate. Pournelle strikes me as easily able to justify a lie or two, when it makes selling his stuff easier. After all- it’s for our own good.


    They did another collaboration; “The Mote In God’s Eye” – which is not quite so offensive, and deals with definite limits set by biology. Worth reading, I’d say- certainly more than Hammer, or Footfall.

  2. Susan in NJ says:

    At times reading Lucifer’s Hammer, I wondered if we were in an intentionally slightly altered 70′s reality re technology trends. The whole Johnny Carson segment is a techno-phile fantasy with the audience applauding. Yes, there’s a lot of research/experience based stuff but it’s all been romanticized, cleaned up and turned into 70′s style popular fiction — broad brush strokes with many accurate details but not the real picture.
    As for trying to convince readers with falsehood, I don’t know anyone who read this contemporaneously in order to understand the science. I read a lot of the space stuff as reflecting the bitterness of some in the late ’70′s for what had happened/was happening with the space program — it was a recurrent theme in SF (if only, why didn’t we) well into the 80′s.

  3. I have no opinion on space mining.

    Did you know it’s really easy to make fruit leather?

    I haven’t tried this. Dang, our plum trees have finished bearing and this year as always so many went to waste… I will scrounge fruit from the neighbors maybe whose stone fruit trees ripen later (peaches etc.)

  4. Aquari says:

    Interesting to compare this with Niven’s ‘The Magic Goes Away’ series. What if magic were a non-renewable resource? How would a fantasy world accustomed to using magic for everything cope with its increasing unavailability? Some of the short stories set in that world, by Niven and others, have characters going through internal monologues that would not sound too out of place on a Peak Oil blog.

    The complete collection is here:

  5. Rosa says:

    Leila, I love fruit leather. I made plum last year. You should totally do it.

    Plums are really sticky. I mix them half and half with applesauce so they have more fiber and don’t stick so bad (also, we have lots of apples and few plums). It’s *excellent*

  6. Maeve says:

    I certainly don’t expect fiction authors to stick only to facts and technologies and things which are “real” or “true”. The fiction world would be a poorer place if people didn’t write “lies”.

  7. Florence says:

    I had never read anything by Niven before this and never plan to again. Hope the next book club selection is better.

  8. Sharon says:

    I think we can distinguish between lies in fiction – there are lots of kinds of lies in fiction. But one of the rules of fiction is that generally, you keep to the parameters you set – all fiction is false on some level, but you create a set of parameters. So if Niven and Pournelle write a 1970s contemporary society, only with a big asteroid, they are stuck with 1970s technologies – and to have a space scientist articulate a straight out falsehood about the level of technology they have is a violation of their own conventions – that’s why I find it so icky.

    Greenpa, I’ll try some of the other stuff – I’ve read a few other Niven books – a couple of the Ringworld ones, and something in high school that involved alien rabbits that like porn – I’ve never been all that engaged by any of it. But maybe I’ll take another shot.


  9. Greenpa says:

    Florence- I can understand the reaction! If you have any taste for sci-fi at all, though, I’d hate for you to miss Niven altogether.

    He’s human- some of his work is lousy; but some of it is really great. In particular- avoid his collaborations- he’s better alone- and also, like many writers, his early work tends to be much better than his later stuff. He got older- and his writing, and ideas, suffered.

  10. I think I was unintentionally rude to post about fruit leather. I did not intend to try to hijack the thread. I was excited about discovering this recipe and wanted to post it here. On rereading, it looks almost trollish, as if I had a beef against the book – or was merely rude and pushing in.

    Not my intention. Just being thoughtless and big-shaggy-doggish, as is my wont. Sorry! (tail thumping, please forgive me, I’ll try not to jump on you and leave pawprints everywhere in the future…)

  11. Greenpa says:

    Sharon- how’s that for timing! :-) I do recommend the “Limits” collection; “Convergent Series” – which has the original “alien bar” they stole for Star Wars- and I like “World Out of Time.” Ringworld itself was mindboggling- the sequels, I think, go progressively downhill, in all aspects.

    I loved his early stuff so much I just kept reading, long after it was hopeless…

  12. BoysMom says:

    The rule I was always taught is that in hard science fiction you get one impossibility per novel. I rather liked ‘Mote’ as well, but I can’t say how it compares to Lucifer’s Hammer as I haven’t read that. I read very fast, so I think I’m more willing than most to tolerate writing that’s merely okay as opposed to great because usually I’ve only invested an hour or so in a standard size paperback.
    A lot of authors–most, really–go downhill over time, my personal theory is that their publisher/agent/bank account/ego/whatever insists on them continuing a series they’ve run out of good ideas for.
    These days my tastes run more to space opera, and I’m reading Sharon Lee and Steve Miller as fast as my library can find them on ILL.

  13. Texicali says:

    It may have read differently back then, but I read Sharps as your typical industry pusher. Not any different than those who now push the “Hydrogen Economy” or “Clean Coal Technology.” People want to believe in this stuff, but it is dependent to some extent on the people not understanding the technology, believing anyone who is a scientist, and the scientist’s belief in science as miracle. What I call science as miracle is that any problem you face can be solved through scientific study which produces an implement which will solve your problem easily, cheaply, and without you changing your life. This is opposed to another kind of science which can solve your problem by telling how to change what you are doing to avoid the bad result. Essentially the difference between science providing large scale use of pesticides, and science showing how to make use of interplanting and beneficial insects to avoid large crop losses.

  14. Kiashu says:

    “Perhaps the story has to lie to get its essential message across – that limitations, even the external limits of being hit by a comet – the problem is attitude. A good attitude, and a firm belief in the power of science is what is needed.”

    The thing is that you don’t have to lie to get that message across. Real ability in an area, real achievements, come from working within limitations. For example, a good driver or kayaker or ship pilot knows the limits of the vehicle they’re controlling, and the limits of the particular conditions of the road or water at the moment, and works within those. That’s skill and ability.

    If you were flying in a plane and the pilot was hooning around doing loops and so on, and kept coming close to a stall, and said, “there are no limits, you just need a positive attitude!” would you believe him?

    Recognising the limits of nature and technology lets us make the best use of them. Ignoring the limits makes us crash and burn.

  15. Bootstrapper says:

    Hi Sharon,

    Asteroid mining, space-based photovoltiac arrays and most of the other ideas touted in the seventies are technically feasible, using current knowledge and a great deal of off-the-shelf technology that’s available now. What isn’t available can easily be fabricated, if the need arises.

    The big problem that hasn’t been solved, is the issue of how to get from Earth’s surface to Low Earth Orbit at any reasonable cost. The Space Shuttle was touted as the ‘truck’ that would reduce the cost of orbiting payloads, but it’s currently the most expensive technology ever deployed for that purpose. (NASA could save billion$ by reverting to the Saturn V instead.)

    If [i]H Sapiens[/i] is to exploit the energy and rescources that are available beyond the Atmosphere, the effort will involve lifting payloads that are orders of magnitude larger / heavier than anything yet attempted. The only proven technology is solid and/or liquid-fuelled rockets, which remain hideously expensive.

    In a World of shrinking wealth, such technology guarantees that the (possibly once-off) opportunity for our species to expand beyond the Club of Rome’s ‘limits’, may be lost forever.


  16. Hummingbird says:

    Hi. Sorry to have missed the discussion yesterday–I was coping with a bit of PA type meltdown here. A freak storm with 70 mph winds blew through suddenly as I was preparing my bit on cannibalism. Took down a large oak tree right on the house and left the area without power for the rest of the day.

    Got me thinking about how really difficult life without electricity would be! No refrigeration–(I’m really looking forward to Sharon’s discussion about living without a refrigerator. ) No water as the pump from the cistern wouldn’t run-(we have a rope and bucket, but that is for real desperation.) The toilet wouldn’t work for the same reason. Of course no lights, radio tv, internet. And without the dehumidifier in the basement, everything stored there would soon rot. And we would lose the stuff in the freezer.

    So, I’m back. I was unable to get a copy of LH, but sounds as tho I didn’t miss much. I also remember The Mote in God’s Eye–a real explicit take on overpopulation. And a pretty good story.

    It seems that the issue of belief that all limits can be overcome by a firm belief in science is the one we keep running up against in trying to convince others of the reality of the coming crisis–technology will save us, “they” will come up with something, a “Manhattan Project” type effort will provide a solution. I guess they all read those cornucopian novels in the 70s.

    At that time there was a real belief that we WOULD mine the asteroids, and that American technology would provide a utopian future (if only we could avoid nuclear war).

    What happened since seems to be a suspicion of science as the evil that tries to take us away from God (evolution, stem cells) and the mainstreaming of an anti-science mind set. So now there is a widespread ignorance of the actual limitations of science and a resulting unrealistic expectation that if necessary it can work miracles.

  17. Sharon says:

    Bootstrap, sorry, we’re actually quite a few technical limits away from asteroid mining. There’s the boosting issue, but more importantly, there’s the space radiation issue (to be fair, this was not known in the 1970s). So far we have no realistic solution for that.

    Boysmom, I thought you got one thing in alternate history fiction ;-) . I admit, I wish I had more time, because I’d *LOVE* to read Eric Flint in context (another writer who really shouldn’t be allowe to ever collaborate – Dave Weber is ok, but everyone else is horrifying, and he’s a fun writer, except for the inability not to explain some detail of shipbuilding or gunsmithing every time it occurs to him ;-) ).

    I agree that Sharps is basically an industry pusher – my objection is that the novel has such a strong political agenda – it is essentially a very long book designed to tell us how great nuclear power and the space program are. I find this moment above distasteful, simply because it wasn’t necessary – Niven and Pournelle wrote a good defense of the space program (if overstated – the total medical value of the space program is pretty low, actually) at the beginning of the paragraph, and they could just as easily have claimed that a little investment and research (the mantra of the pusher) could get us to the asteroids – that was pretty consistent with the beliefs of the 1970s. That is, they didn’t have to overstate it – and they conceal the overstatement – this isn’t the same as suggesting we really have space lasers and didn’t – they imply that they are using the conventions of science fiction appropriately. I find this disturbing because it operates as a hatchet job on the COR – not only are they wrong and stupid, but a mysterious “they” are preventing us from having all the resources we need – they become an evil, illuminati-esque conspiracy, rather than people they disagree with. Given their tendency to represent as absolutely evil anyone that makes them uncomfortable, I think this is troubling.


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