Daniel Suarez plans a space economy
Political Science Fiction
('cause: it won't work out here!)
Daniel Suarez is a political writer. Roughly summarized, his work is based on the insight that the habitability of the planet is not merely endangered: he no longer believes that we can manage it! Resignation, on the other hand, is not his thing; that would also be quite un-American. Moralizing and theorizing ... all nonsense. What is really needed are practicable alternatives, hands on: how does it work? That's exactly what Suarez describes; he writes science fiction. … (please note that this text is based on a DeepL-translation ...)
Chilling @ L1
At the end of 1985, a student association was founded at the University of Cologne, not a „fraternity”, not a political splinter, but, quite practically, an „OrganisationsForum Wirtschaftskongress“ – meanwhile rebranded as „World-Business-Dialog”. For the actual strategic goal, namely to improve one's own career opportunities, 30 committed students had soon come together – at that time, this was still possible without any gender nonsense – but: „including six foreigners and five women” the OFW was definitely „diverse” by the standards of the time.
A good year later, in March 1987, this group – gray pants, blue jackets, white shirts, the nerds with ties, a few without – achieved something extraordinary: a two-day congress, 1,000 participants, half and half managers and students. There were high- and top-ranking German and international speakers, several ministers, Jesko von Putkamer from NASA ..., even a state secretary from the Japanese Ministry of Economy; really a crisp event – and I was there. The real stunner, or at least that's how I felt at the time, was the topic: „Space as a Market“. 1985!
To put that in perspective: construction of the ISS began in 1998. So, the topic was truly visionary, although economically quite down-to-earth. After all, there were already about 1950 artificial objects in space in 1969, mainly satellites and explorers. Between 1966 and 1973, a total of 17 Apollo missions took place, six of which landed on the moon. Converted into current exchange rates, this entire program swallowed up around $120 billion – which is quite an economic figure! In addition, there were four Skylab missions. In other words, that Cologne Congress was reaching out for the future, but it had all two thousand feet firmly planted on the ground of real possibilities.
Politically-ideologically and – with the exception of the extremely likeable Uwe Berg, one of the founders of the association – also personally, I had (at that time) no intersection with these „careerists”. However, I admired their initiative and was enthusiastic about their performance.
What was a vision back then, in 1985, is now reality. Almost 40 years later, the prospects that dominated the imagination back then have literally exploded and the race for the best seats is on. The „market” has already differentiated into segments:
- The satellite industry does about $400 billion in sales.
- Construction and maintenance and supply of the ISS have so far cost $200 to $300 billion.
- A Statista chart indicates that the top seven nations (combined) spend about $85 billion annually on space programs.
- According to another source, Space Capital, some „$269 billion has been invested in space startups since 2014.”
Of course, we can't simply add up all these numbers; there is little assessable overlap. Another Statista chart identifies a market volume of around $160 billion for the global space industry in „commercial services” in 2016; this is estimated to rise to around $563 billion in 2030.
By comparison, the global market for smartphones was about $450 billion in 2021.
Now listen to Daniel Suarez: All peanuts!
The author is currently crisscrossing the United States on a marketing trip to promote the second of three volumes of his sequel, „Delta-V”. Suarez, a former programmer and systems consultant, has been publishing since 2006, with an emphasis on science, R&D, leading edge technologies in all his topics. Whatever you read from him, you can assume it is meticulously researched. With his reputation and fan base, he has access to all those who are up to both arms deep in the subject matter. So when „Delta-V” deals with the extraction of raw materials in space, that (with the exception of the narrative plot, of course) is based on facts, or at least on the current state of research, both in terms of fundamentals and applications.
In the story, such raw materials are to be extracted from the asteroid „Ryugu”, a „space crumb” that (in fact) passes so close to Earth every four years that the distance can be bridged in about 28 days with existing technology. Ryugu has a diameter of about one kilometer, weighs 450 million tons and consists of considerable amounts of raw materials, including titanium and nickel, iron and, most importantly, water – from which fuel can be extracted.
Talking about space mining, practically, there is a catch: If you wanted to do mining on Ryugu as we know it from Earth – that is to say: blasting and clearing – in space the fragments would literally fly around your ears, and also drilling and hammering creates highly dangerous flying objects. But you can be sure: when the author then describes, HOW these raw materials can be mined nevertheless, these descriptions are research-supported: There is already a real company, which, financed with a nice chunk of VC, develops such techniques.
But there I would already be in the middle of the action. To pave the way for the story to reach the right receptors, I should preface it with a few sentences about Mr. Suarez: I know his seven books.
- Daemon (German: Daemon: die Welt ist nur ein Spiel. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2010, ISBN 978-3-499-25245-7).
- Freedom™ (German: Darknet. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2011, ISBN 978-3-499-25244-0).
Daemon and Freedom go together: In the near future, things won't go on "like this." It is quite conceivable that net-based algorithms will take over and ruthlessly sacrifice people in order to save civilization.
- Kill Decision (German: Kill Decision. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2013, ISBN 978-3-499-25918-0).
Autonomous drone swarms threaten the world.
- Influx (German: Control. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2014, ISBN 978-3-499-26863-2).
Should everything really be implemented just because it is „possible“, just because „some genius“ invented it?
- Change Agent (German: Bios. Rowohlt, Reinbek 2017, ISBN 978-3-499-29133-3).
Can gene editing be prevented at all (after Crispr CAS 9)?
- Delta-v (German: Delta-v. Rowohlt Polaris, Reinbek 2019, ISBN 978-3-499-00151-2).
- Critical Mass. Dutton, New York 2023, ISBN 978-0-593-18363-2 (no German Translation so far)
Delta-V und Critical Mass also go together: Based on the the raw materials of an asteroid a space-economy emerges.
Literarily, Suarez meanders between action - which is why he calls his books „thrillers“ – detailed technique, and broad interactions of comparatively simple characters, often „spiced“ with alienatingly contrived and unnecessarily formulated excesses of violence, usually somehow military or private/paramilitary initiated. At times it seems as if Mr. Suarez has fun designing filigree killing machines.
In the surroundings of this „action“, then, everything is „tactical“: from the police unit to the vest to the pocket knife, from the belt to the map to the headlamp (lately, the tactics have subsided somewhat). Presumably, Mr. Suarez draws on his own military and also „military-institutional“ experiences; at least, the majority of this protagonists are characterized by relatively mediocre mental abilities, happy to try the same thing over and over again, hoping for different results each time. His writing is routinely unengaging; he is not aiming for a Nobel Prize!
The real attraction of these stories must be found elsewhere.
Namely in the social and political context. This is - for a SF author - not too surprising. On the other hand, it is very rare to find such an explicit world view with a recurring message (even if it changes in the course):
The world is ending, if not sooner, then later, but it's a fact!
This is his theme, this is what he wants to convey, but he is not willing to „just describe and accept it“. The future is definitely important to him. How exactly this future will be shaped, could be shaped, should be shaped, is not entirely clear. What is clear, however, is the author's rage and contempt when it comes to the most undesirable developments of statehood today, especially all the sovereign services outsourced to private companies and, as a result of this outsourcing, the ruthless interplay of the military/private/paramilitary and the plutocracy.
Suarez's view of (U.S.) society and his global analysis derived from it deserve separate discussion. From the first book on, a resignedly democracy-critical attitude runs through his stories, not because he tends toward right-leaning thoughts: rather the other way around (at least that's how I read him). His concern is that democracy – ossified and encrusted in institutions and a self-sufficient party system – in its slow, tactical (here the term would be appropriate) decision-making processes is not up to the challenges of technological change, especially not to the speed. Suarez, born in 64, is not a leftist of European provenance; his analysis is not particularly theory-laden. I would summarize his stance as mixed (US) left-libertarian-democratic-market-oriented; presumably he is an „enlightened“ convert. Therefore, if I get him right, he conceptualizes his mixed martial arts passages in a manner that can be described as „popular pedagogy”, aiming to implant subcutaneous messages within the unreflected militarism of his broad audience, thereby introducing some quasi-grassroots democratic ideas. However, this is just one aspect. Another aspect, equally weighty and serious, of his (as mentioned: not really spelled out) social design is rooted in the realization that „all” societal institutions are more likely to be corrupted by those individuals who „manage” them, sooner rather than later. That's why he repeatedly outlines the development of instances or institutions that escape this subjective influence, such as event-driven algorithm clusters or, most recently, as DAOs (siehe).
Which brings me back to his Delta-V sequel.
All peanuts – with this dictum, foisted on the author by me, one could summarize the current perspectives of space „as market” – namely in comparison to what is to come. Because: once one started to exploit any asteroid, the case of success would be rewarded with economic dimensions, against which the budgets and prospects of the existing space programs seem like discussions about petty cash. Already (or also) with Tom Hillenbrand (see „Hologrammatica“, Köln 2018) the „pebble emperors“ of the asteroid belt – last „his Royal Highness Charles Leopold Guillaume Félix, Grand Duke of Pallas-Vestas, Duke of Ceres, Count of Makemake and Hamea, Noble of Oort“ – had brought it to unimaginable wealth – against which Musk or Bezos look like „Hartz 4“ aspirants.
But how did it come to this ?
...how could it come to this? This is what Daniel Suarez describes in Delta-V. Namely, before any-so-some galactic kingdom of heaven comes into being, it needs pioneers, people who are willing to risk their lives. Delta-V, the first of three parts, describes the race to the asteroid Ryugu as a space adventure. On behalf of a billionaire - billionaires play a decisive role in this race because they have the necessary means and at the same time can disregard all checks and balances, bureaucracies and intrigues - the spaceship „Konstantin” takes off with a mixed eight-man crew on a clandestine mission to Ryugu. The secrecy is as necessary as dangerous: only in the secret it can take place at all, but – in this secrecy the crew is at the mercy of the few confidants in the mission control on earth.
So: The asteroid Ryugu orbits around the sun and is, in astronomical dimensions, quite accessible: in the most favorable conjunction to the earth it needs only a month to reach it (Mars is nine month away, at best). But: this sounds easier than it is! Lufthansa does not yet have the destination in its flight plan!
If a spacecraft wants to reach the asteroid from Earth, such a journey has to go through three phases: first, the vessel has to ascend into a near-Earth orbit. This gobbles up truly astronomical sums of money: Depending on the „provider”, one calculates from $2,500 (SpaceX) to $25,000 (Nasa) for each kilo that is to be moved into orbit; but to then fly on to Ryugu, the transport mass must be accelerated again out of orbit - the aforementioned delta-v – and also decelerated again before arrival. Of course, this energy has to be transported for as long as there are no Exxon mobile stations waiting for customers in lower-earth orbit.
In the second phase, the vehicle must reach a certain speed: a delta-v („delta-v is the velocity adjustment needed to transfer a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit to connect with the asteroid (Shoemaker & Helin 1978)“ of 4.646 km/sec is required, whereby, as far as I have hopefully understood correctly, both the energy to be used and the trajectory – i.e. the „path” through space – must be included in the delta-v. Because: relative to others, all destinations in space are in motion. Thus, in order to reach a destination, it is always a matter of being at a certain place at a given time.
Finally, in the third phase, the ship must decelerate to the extent that it does not fly past its destination; more precisely, „arrival” consists of the spacecraft moving exactly, let's call it: „parallel to the destination”.
A trip to Ryugu (in reality, only an unmanned explorer has been on site so far, see above) would impose a number of impositions on tourist personnel, including diet, hygiene, radiation, and any technical problems that would have to be solved in DIY fashion en route. This is plenty of misery, but it does not make it any cheaper. Next: another side condition of the journey is that, if it goes well, it will last four years, because the asteroid needs to fly once around the sun, in order to reach a position from where it is only those 28 days back to the earth. You may also come home, if you start from any other point of the Ryugu orbit; but this takes miserably much time, VERY much fuel, nutrition, entertainment and life support – which you would not have (you would have had to bring them: see costs). And I could lecture in this style for a good while now, because the author does not leave us in the dark about any single fact. You learn a lot, sometimes more than you can remember.
Well, after all, we now have the framework data together: four years, far away, many privations, many problems. The crew of the „Konstantin” is (how else!) a daring mixture of characters, cave divers, mountaineers, hackers, engineers ... , very different, non redundant qualifications. Can this go well - or how wrong does it go? I'll pull this together (because otherwise you won't have the fun reading it): It's exciting. Not only how the troop gets into space and to Ryugu, what they experience there and what the „friends and partners” on earth organize with them, for them and against them during the years – exciting is also if and (of course, otherwise the thing makes no sense) how the return to earth succeeds.
In the course of the second book „Critical Mass” another four years go by, in which it went haywire on earth. Because you wouldn't fly to Ryugu „just like that”, for the adventure or the resume, and that wasn't really what the first book was about. It was about money, power, intrigues, raw materials, mining, return transport ... – and when it comes to raw materials, that we learn now, they are NOT for the purpose of the utilization them on earth, BUT for the construction of an interstellar infrastructure! Now those questions come into play, which were already in 1987 at the OFW in Cologne on the agenda: How to build a cosmic economy (well, back then it was about an economy for space, not in space)! Anyway: We already know that it is expensive to carry things from Earth into space. One kilogram of titanium, for example, costs 110 euros on Earth; but to launch it into space costs an additional 2,500 dollars, at least! And so this is the general rate of transfer – which takes effect for everything! Consequently, we now understand, the many, many tons of raw materials from the Ryugu had better stay right in space! Because then, if they are processed there – to build space stations and/or further ships, which then fly again to the Ryugu etc. ... –, only then the economies of scale arise, with which the pioneer deeds become an economic bases for the future.
As you would expect in a sequel, we encounter the same personel. By the end of the first book, it had become inevitable that two astronauts remain at the Ryugu, in order to control from there – and with the computers and instruments available only there – the return flight of the others and in particular (in case of – unavoidable – deviations) to „readjust”, so that those would not fly past the earth. In the second book, the rescue of the two remaining astronauts, who are more than friends to their comrades, almost family, is one of the „driving forces”. But it does not stop there. As the first crew and their robots were busy with mining on Ryugu, they had been able to „export” several thousand tons of valuable raw materials – and especially water – back to Earth, „parking” them in a (secret) lunar orbit. While the two remaining astronauts shipped further and ever greater quantities over the years, these resources have now increased to become the eponymous „critical mass”: the investment capital of a future interstellar economy – which …. was coveted by many dark forces…
Thus, „Critical Mass” combines two narrative strands – the rescue of the comrades and – yes, a kind of state-building story; you could call it so. It goes without saying that enormous hurdles have to be overcome and problems solved for the plans to succeed. Above all, the great powers of the home planet do not only want to watch the events with interest: Powerful and dangerous interests interfere - and between success and failure no leaf fits.
I think it's fair to rate this second part as primarily political and astro-educational: it doesn't generate the same (action-packed) excitement that Delta-V did. For me, that wasn't a drawback (not even in the lengthier passages), but it only partially serves the expectation built up before. In fact, „Critical Mass”reads more like a „how to” book: if not everything, almost everything is researched (and reported) in such a way that the book seems like a manual for future space ventures, a blueprint; like: Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Richard Branson - look, this is how it could work.
„If Jeff Bezos needs a blueprint for building a space station beyond the moon with ore from an asteroid, he just might want to start with „Critical Mass”, a newly published sci-fi novel by Daniel Suarez.” So says cosmiclog.com.
That, then, is my motivation for reporting on it. Daniel Suarez and, as is evident from the responses to his work, a large, affluent community (especially in the Valley) believe seriously and unequivocally that the Earth is becoming uninhabitable. They do not believe that existing political structures can prevent this; at the very least, they anticipate a period of social and suffering, including violent, dislocation. For this community – many of them, self-confessed prepper, are buying and building shelters for critical times – Suarez provides the manual. This is American thinking to the core: Complaining is useless, we have to do something.
I think similarly - and yet also very differently.
Suarez believes that a „transparent” form of organization that is free of human interests (such as a DAO, blockchain-based, see above) will overcome essential problems which are almost unsolvable „on earth”. And there is much to be said for such a, so to speak, technocratic approach, except that it does not solve one problem: humans as such remain the eternal troublemaker. This involves issues of character, but also of circumstance: The pioneer spirit demanded in space will not, cannot stop itself with subtle cultural, political, moral, ethical etc. … considerations! The daily survival depends on fast and harsh decisions. Plus: In his earlier books, Suarez describes in detail the right-wing, social-Darwinist, militaristic, sadistic and ruthless mindset of his US society. I readily suspect and concur that his stance fundamentally and decisively contradicts this – and yet, in „Delta-V” and „Critical Mass”, I can't detect a hint of an approach to overcoming this mindset. Or, in other words: Suarez transcribes and translocates the constitution of US society, even if it should be the „true, the original” constitution, into space.
Another aspect remains dramatically underexposed. If one assumes for once that a migration into space would be possible, both in principle and in constellations similar to those described by Suarez: For how many people would this be a way out? Let's be generous: 100,000? 1,000,000?
Let's say 10,000,000 living in space in maybe twenty years (I don't believe it!, but for the sake of argument ...). The crucial point is: time passes! Even with a merciless and ruthless radicalism, as shown for example by China, it takes decades to build the necessary infrastructure. Moreover: even these ... 10,000,000 would have to get into space somehow. Without public transportation, without highways or eMobiles.
While – exactly in these years the collapse of the planet is imminent! What Suarez describes is (would be?) an option „only for the lucky few”; the rest of humanity will (would) be left behind. And I still remember the horrible pictures of the last helicopter from Saigon or the last plane from Kabul.
It's the seriousness, the determination that impresses me; the attention to detail, if it is not an „obsession”, proves that Suarez is no longer just about telling stories: he's following a mission (you can read/-listen to it in an interesting PodCast). I follow his analysis, and I also follow him in that Western cultural chatter is not enough. But I can no longer follow when a model, no matter how innocent, benign, and even idealistic it purports to be, ultimately ignores that it subliminally speaks the language of brutal social Darwinism.
And, of course, this dilemma becomes bigger and bigger on the time axis for as long as in danger and great need no saving (model) grows up.