The Science Behind the Story: To Climb A Flat Mountain

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The Science Behind the Story: To Climb A Flat Mountain
G. David Nordley

"To Climb a Flat Mountain" (Analog, November and December, 2009)is a multifaceted story that takes place on a world that is very unusual in many ways.  I'll have more on the world itself after everyone has had a chance to read Part II.  Meanwhile, for information on the propulsion engineering, astronomy, and megabats to go along with Part I, you are invited to visit:

Of course the story involves a lot more than the "hard science," and I thought I would say a few words concerning the "soft science," or perhaps "metascience," behind the future history and circumstances that led Jacques face to face with the parrot-beaked shark, or playing ninja against kangasaurs.

At the time Jacques leaves the Solar System, biological immortality has arrived through genetic reprogramming; machines do almost all the work.  A vast array of solar power stations--or a tiny fraction of a Dyson Sphere, if you take the long view--has been built in the orbit of Venus to power starflight.  We are at the beginning of a human diaspora to the stars. 

The Solar System is ruled by a parliamentary Interplanetary Association, with a figurehead Empress Marie--someone of a here-unspecified combination of royal bloods drafted to cut ribbons and make speeches while the elected IPA Senate, and its presiding officer, make and implement decisions. Yes, this is a nod to my favorite Heinlein novel, Doublestar, but also, I think, a logical choice. A maturing human civilization has grown tired of cutthroat politics and cutthroat politicians, but still has some nostalgia for the romance of days gone by. We are a social animal with follow-the-alpha built into our genes; it works to have a safe alpha.

In this era, a tenuous and very slow relationship exists with the cybernetic "galactic library." The governments are worried about the impression humanity is making on the vast but very rarefied galactic civilization. What has happened at the double star, 36 Ophiuchi, is judged to be making a very bad impression. Imagine a combination of Jim Jones and David Koresh running a whole planet. What started out as a colony where a splinter group of the Mars-based "New Reformation" could be left in peace has gone horribly wrong, with child sex slaves, extreme misogyny, and many other forms of totalitarian depravity--really, really, ugly. Some of these people manage to call for help across 20 light years, knowing that any response will take 40 years plus debating time.

When the debate ends, the Solar System decides it has a moral duty to do something. That something amounts to building an overwhelming armada staffed by volunteers (there are no more professional soldiers) and launching it unannounced toward the unsuspecting 36 Ophiuchi colony. Aware that the colony has turned inward and has only the most perfunctory presence in space, and shares the conventional wisdom that interstellar war is impossible, they bypass the colony and decelerate behind the second star to hide their arrival. Unfortunately, there are a few cult sympathizers among the expedition staff who take it on themselves to obstruct the mission. In one of their acts, the deceleration system of the conveyor ship Resolution is sabotaged, and the starship is forced to find somewhere else to go.

If a "conveyor" ship getting taken out, and the deep standoff strategy remind you of something that happened in the South Atlantic back in 1982, that's intentional.

What happens then at 36 Ophiuchi is another story, which I may write some day. What I would like people to think about, as Jacques plays Robinson Crusoe, is whether such a war effort could be morally justified. Would cybernetic galactic librarians really care? What kind of people would volunteer for such a throw of the dice?

The survivors of the Resolution sabotage end up 600 plus light years from Earth and something like a thousand years displaced in time. What is their purpose now? Is it reasonable for Colette to cling to her identity as a policewoman? For Jacques, by being the first (as far as he knows) to emerge, he's the de facto leader. But is he the type? Are his goals those of the rest of the survivors?

One would think that religious conflicts would be a thing of the past, but it turns out not to be the case. Is theology the point of religion? Or is it social organization; a subjection of personal will to that of the leader in return for security and stability? I wrote this story long before I read The Family by Jeff Sharlet, but I can now recommend it as a companion piece.

Relativity in several senses plays a role in this story. Very soon, Jacques must decide to take chances that in other circumstances would be judged suicidal. But if he doesn’t take them, he knows he'll eventually starve to death. 36 Ophiuchi was a long way from Sol, but now it seems next door. He finds himself developing a crush on someone he hardly knew, just because she may be the only other living person on the planet--and then he loses her horrifically, a psychological whiplash injury he treats with a ceremony.

Jacques' people choose an extreme risk rather than submit. Others choose to submit, despite intelligence and competence. Here I'm attempting to contrast the authoritarian-submissive personality and its opposite, described in my old Psychology text (Ruch and Zimbardo, 1971). My thesis is that intelligence and learning really have little to do with this. Some people just are that way, and yes, it can happen here, and anywhere and anytime people who think stand aside. Then there is a price to be paid.

I see Jacques' non-assertiveness as actually attracting the non-authoritarian people: Doc, a professional outsider, Soob, who is happiest off on a lonely hunt, and the two individualistic women, Collette and Helen. The group coalesces in adversity, but in what is more of a consensual than a dictatorial decision-making process; the only kind that would work with some of the people involved.

Changing gears a bit, the "flat mountain" metaphor came from a lot of driving over Tejon pass on I5 in California. There are numerous places where your eyes seem to tell you that you are going straight and level, or even downhill, but your engine is obviously laboring uphill. Once, just to make sure I was seeing things, I stopped and placed a tennis ball I happened to have with me on the road. It rolled toward the back of the car; I was indeed pointed uphill. It was one example of how visual cues can overrule the inner ear in the perception of which way is up.


The flat mountain is one of three faces of one corner of a cubical shell built around a slightly less than moon-sized planet. While I didn't design the entire shell quantitatively (research budget limitations...) I did enough work to convince myself that the compressive strength of known materials was enough to support the shell. I've added some illustrations of these calculations to the web site. The development of this world was a case in point of successive approximation as up until the last moment, plot and background were still modifying each other, slightly. That process could go on, and perhaps will, if there is ever a printed book version. What I needed was a traversable "short cut" through the ridge that divides two faces (that was my first thought after I came up with the idea on one of my afternoon walks). The low point of the path needs to be above Cube World's crust and the high point needs to be in (just barely) breathable atmosphere, while still allowing the central island setting for the parrot-beaked shark. But I didn't fully realize I had a problem until well into my second review of the traverse scene--so some iteration and additional mathematical models. Models take time, so I try to keep that work to the minimum needed to convince myself of the plausibility of my scenarios. Again, consider what writers get paid per hour...and multiply that times the probability of a sale.

The overall context of the story, now revealed, addresses a couple of the possible answers to the Fermi question "Where are they?" in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. One is the possible separation in space and time of extraterrestrial intelligence, and the other related one of what a distantly post-singular, far from the S-curve, galactic civilization might be like. What the story proposes is a model which I think fits the data; I make no claims that it is the only one.

We are finding that planets are a fairly normal part of a star's development, and that many of the restrictions on habitable environments assumed by astronomers in the past are no longer valid. Multiple star systems do have planets (for a wild one, check out HW Virginis), tide-locked worlds around red dwarfs can have atmospheres that don't freeze out, liquid water environments and energy are available in places that light doesn't reach, and so on. While the amount of planet-making material has been on the increase since first generation of supernovae, they had already created plenty of planet-forming material near the dawn of the universe; we are finding planetary systems almost as old as the galaxy.

With Fermi and Dyson as prelude, I'll point out that the energy put out by even a middling red dwarf is more than enough to push many spacecraft to near light speed. That's enough to cross the galaxy five or ten times in only a million years--a mere hundredth of the age of such civilizations. The rest is an engineering problem for the student.

I'll also point out that the Lorentz transformation is an observed law of nature, not someone's possibly wrong theory. I find Einstein's explanation of it convincing, and I do not hold out any serious hope for routine causality violation, at least for this universe. In an insignificant sliver of geological time (though aggravatingly long in terms of my lifetime), technologically-oriented beings will go where they want at almost the speed of light and not any faster. The next thing to say about this is that, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn't really matter for intelligent structures (societies, cybernetic beings, genetically modified biological beings) that last as long as they want to.

So, in the universe of To Climb a Flat Mountain, the first intelligent beings arose about ten billion years ago; some fraction of them went on to star travel (formally, it only takes one of whatever), and spread themselves through creation, but sparsely and with a very light footprint. With knowledge being the main motive, the first races established a galactic library and intelligence system sufficient to provide newcomers the "rules of the road" when they encounter its nodes, and easily able to handle any inconvenient primitive obstreperousness without need to resort to physical violence.

Am I blithely and naively assuming "benign" aliens? Well, some may consider rearranging the genetic code of an entire species without permission to be violence of a kind, so that isn't necessarily a "benign" alien scenario! Nor is it necessarily beneficent to allow trillions of intelligent, aware beings to suffer and die over the course of time when one has the power to prevent this. But (depending on one's point of view) is it a necessarily a hostile one? A post-singularity race determined to exterminate with prejudice all other intelligent competitors would have the means to do so.

Neither the extreme benign nor the extreme hostile scenario has played out in this universe--given that we appear to be struggling our way up not visibly helped and nor impeded. (We manage the last, well enough, ourselves.) The scenario presented in To Climb a Flat Mountain is simply one of those that allows members of the first races and those that join them later to reach the tops of their societal S-curves and choose their own destinies with a minimum of interference. I think this is at least one reasonable and consistent possibility for the evolved "climax forest" of astro-sociobiology.

The race that built Cube World is not present there in the flesh (and may not be present anywhere in the flesh) but the Caretaker is its descendent/avatar/current form. The data from the Cube World experiment finds its way into the galactic library and gets spread throughout as much of the universe as is still accessible, given the expansion horizon. The experiment exists in the galactic environment, which consists of occasional supernovae (Antares, when it blows, will produce a major effect on Cube World), cosmic rays, wandering stars, and galactic clouds as well as the occasional sentient visitors. In the long view, these are characteristic of the random events that shape and have always shaped evolution.

In the far time, at the top of the great S-curve, beyond the singularity, the distinction between biology, technology, and religion may become very blurred. Things may converge, perhaps in ways we find difficult to contemplate. The final scenes of this story invite readers to think about this, and perhaps examine their own lives and beliefs in this respect. This is, I think, what a good work of fiction strives to add to the basics of good pacing and story. Thanks to Stan Schmidt, others will be able to discuss whether To Climb a Flat Mountain comes anywhere near those aforesaid ideals. But those discussions must take place beyond this presentation of the science behind the story.

--GDN, Nov. 2009

©2009 G. David Nordley