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Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross [book, review] - Elf M. Sternberg
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Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross [book, review]
Neptune's Brood, by Charles Stross, the author, is not a book written with fans of Charles Stross, the man, in mind.

Neptune's Brood is the sequel to Saturn's Children, but it's set thousands of years into the posthuman future, long since the nasty little tics left in robot consciousness by human beings have been suceesfully excised, leaving the robot descendents of Earth to conquer a sphere about 100 light years across.

In order to make his space opera universe "work," Stross has to cut so many corners that those who are familiar with what Stross is reading can see immediately that this universe should have singularitied itself long ago. It takes a massive, almost fantasy-level suspension of disbelief to accept that there have been no breakthroughs in posthuman consciousness in the thousands of years since Freya Nakamichi walked the surface of Mars. Stross does a lot of maneuvering around the legal rights of "humans" (really: posthumans) without ever dipping into the known literature regarding moral communities of differing capacity. That's not the story he wants to tell, but it is the backdrop in which he's telling it.

All of which is to say that Neptune's Brood is a pretty shallow space opera. It's entertaining-- as always, he has done his homework both with respect to the physics at hand and more importantly, with respect to the economics at hand. Neptune's Brood is a science fiction novel where the primary science on display is economics: the story involves the biggest scam ever in the history of known space, and our heroine's efforts to track down the evidence and expose the guilty.

This is an Eganesque universe: FAL travel of information is possible, but material transport across interstellar distances is an economically devastating activity. Funding it requires a specialized economic system that only works at 1/3C: a sender, a receiver, and a third-party verifier. "Slow money" indeed.

There are bat-winged pirates who don't steal anything, and communist mermaids, zombie priests, and soulless assassins galore in this book. The set pieces are very set, and Stross's skill at creepy is here twisted into hilarious effect. Told in the first person, our heroine "guesses" at descriptive scene that didn't happen in her presence. There's a lot of info dumps, but she has to do that to help you understand the scam.

And there's one problem with Stross's story. Not his fault, the research came after the book had already hit the editor: Stross's big reveal is that the "fake research project" actually managed to produce a useful FAL material transport method. Unfortunatly for Stross, recent research indicates that such a system would be computationally out of reach. Well, maybe there's a trick. It's just the MacGuffin.

Still, like Saturn's Children, it's a pretty good book. There is one section where our heroine, Krina, is pushed into following along a path set by others; it's the slowest part of the book, but Stross handles it fairly well. You can just see him cackling at some of the scenes.

If you want a taste of what this universe has in store, the short story Bit Rot will get you there.

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ideaphile From: ideaphile Date: August 18th, 2013 01:21 am (UTC) (Link)

More analysis than this really needs

I can't figure out if the cited paper is meant to be taken seriously. It talks about sending absurd amounts of data through a given bandwidth:

"Using QSPK and a bandwidth of 29.5-30GHz would give a data transfer rate of 2.977 x 10^19 b/s"

Whereas by any definition I know, the channel capacity of a QPSK signal is 2 bits/s per Hz or in this case exactly 1.0 x 10^9 b/s. So I don't get this. Of course, if the authors' analysis is wrong, it would actually take a lot longer to send the specified amount of data, but more about that later.

That amount of bandwidth is entirely arbitrary. It's only about 3X the bandwidth of 802.11ac Wi-Fi. I would hope that a civilization with the necessary technology to attempt such a thing would use a wider channel. Like orders of magnitude wider.

Then there's the business about transmitter power. They arbitrarily say they want an SNR of 1000:1, which is way outside the usual range for that value. They assign a value of "10W" for transmitter and receiver gain, which sounds like "watts" to me, but these should be unitless values, and 10 would be ridiculously low for this purpose. Arecibo has a gain at 2.4 GHz of around 20 million, and personally I think my brain deserves nothing less. That would mean 20 million at BOTH ends, or a system gain of 400 trillion over theoretical isotropic antennas.

Anyway, they come up with a transmitter power level of 1,600 watts, which is absurdly low:

"...equation 6 gives a required transmitter power of 1600W = 5.76MWhrs"

But that isn't the real problem here. Where does this "5.76MWhrs" come from? That's an energy figure, and it certainly isn't the energy required to complete the transmission, which would be, by their numbers,

(1.6 * 10^3) * (4.85 * 10^15 years) * (24 * 365 hours/year) = 6.8 * 10^16 megawatt-hours.

Hey, what's another factor of 10^16 between friends?

I don't see any serious analysis of this paper online anywhere, but I'm pretty sure it's either a joke or just unbelievably stupid.

But really, the worst thing in the paper is this:

"The Bekenstein Bound Theorem allows for the calculation of the maximum amount of data to recreate the human brain on a quantum level. The value given by this is ≈ 2.6x10^42b."

Seriously, do they not know what "maximum" means? This is an upper bound, not the actual requirement.

Also, there's no reason to suppose that it's necessary to specify a brain to the quantum level in order to replicate its exact operating state. I've seen other estimates that the Kolmogorov complexity of the brain (a specific working brain) is more like 10^20, and it seems entirely possible that dictionary-based compression-- which means, in this context, taking advantage of the fact that large parts of the brain work in specific, universal ways-- could lop off several of those zeros.

All of this taken together tells me that we still have no idea how feasible teleportation might be. We can't say it's practical, we can't say it isn't. Stross has nothing to apologize for.

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Edited at 2013-08-18 01:23 am (UTC)
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