Lockstep is a Breakthrough Sci-Fi Novel Focused on a Sun-less Civilization

As part book review, and part serious discussion about the way-of-life of an advanced space-faring form of humanity, I’m going to talk about the insights in the book Lockstep. This book is deserving of the highest praise and does a great deal to advance its genre.

Most of the focus of this book is on the use of hibernation. The characters stay away for a month, and then go into deep cryogenic hibernation for 30 years, allowing interplanetary journeys between rogue planets in interstellar space to feel like they take a reasonable amount of time, within a relative sense of time that is shared among all the citizens of The Lockstep.

The author’s level of research is rarely seen in other works of sci-fi — to the point of being almost educational. The method of hibernation is not invoked by a simplistic hand waving, but instead, the author recognizes that hibernation is not merely a matter of freezing and thawing a person. And so, various forms of nanotechnology and implants are described that combine with a sophisticated hibernation bed to make frequent hibernation tolerable. This type of scientific honesty is integrated into the plotline, where not everyone necessarily has access to the best available hibernation tools at all times.

Research on rogue planets is the true scientific centerpiece of this work. The Lockstep world is comprised of planets that don’t orbit a star, and is perfectly well consistent with the modern knowledge of the voids between stars. The story starts out involving Sedna, and the subsequent speculation about the sparse distribution of Earth-like and Neptune-like wandering planets between stars is as accurate as we could expect. The actual density of large bodies between stars is not empirically known today, and the guesses employed in the book are as good as any.

This gets even more interesting as we consider the motivations for the world described in the book. Long-term hibernation is said to serve two main purposes:

  1. To give sufficient time for the robotic industry to gather resources to support the populations
  2. To allow travel between worlds within the fixed hibernation time

Both of these points are fascinating claims, but point #2 contains more social commentary than scientific. There is no reason that a society couldn’t live with a haphazard patchwork of overlapping hibernation times, aside from the fact that our relationships would be severely damaged. Point #1, on the other hand, is genuinely technical in nature and should solicit arguments among the educated. There are multiple ways in which this claim could be true, so my intent isn’t to criticize the book here.

There is a notion that the cold words of rogue planets would be less resource-rich than hot worlds, such as Earth. These worlds would be lifeless, yes, but this applies to basically any planet. They are also tremendously cold, and with a thick atmosphere (in some cases) this will complicate any effort to create an artificial ecosystem. The focus of the book is on the collection of “resources”, which is a catch-all that could practically mean a great number of things, and different things on different worlds. This focus on collection, however, might be a little misplaced. Resources seems to somewhat indicate elements. This is unconvincing as a bottleneck in most cases. Firstly, station on one of these worlds would be a closed system. You don’t necessarily run out of elemental resources because they are reused. Also, for a space-faring society, it’s hard to believe that extraction activities are a bottleneck of any sort. There are lots of raw resources in space. The problem we have is turning those into useful things. Processing, not extraction, would be a more convincing bottleneck. This would happen in large factories of some sort or another and would be energy-intensive.

Another funny angle to consider is that travel is vastly more expensive than just living in an artificial habitat. Going from one planet to another over such tremendous distance is insanely resource-intensive. So the time that robots spend collecting resources might be primarily fueling their spaceships, as opposed to sustaining the inhabitants. Keep in mind, the fusion drives that the spaceships use will consume the elements with no possibility of reuse. Also, engineers for the fusion drives might be highly selective of the elements they want to use, and demand very rare elements that are very time-consuming to produce in large quantities (through, for instance, irritation by a nuclear reactor).

But let me step back and make a modification on the processing constraint. If the population is sufficiently large, it will stretch the resources of whatever production system exists, as a matter of inevitability. Since immigration from fast worlds could happen at unimaginably high rates, the population could eventually outstrip any production infrastructure. So in that sense, the motivation of #1 is to allow such a vastly large population to co-exist in megacities. There is no problem delivering supplies of consumables for the population to eat or drink on any of these worlds, because restocking can happen over the next 30 years. Because of that, any population upper-bound is lifted and the Lockstep people can live in (and visit) cities of unimaginable size.

But the author quickly glossed over another possible constraint, which I think is the most tantalizing one. It was hinted that the first world that the protagonist visited couldn’t handle the heat from the cities on its surface if they didn’t regularly hibernate. I find this to be the most fascinating possibility, although it is quite ironic on the supercold worlds we are talking about. For many icy worlds, heating the rock above a certain temperature could unfreeze its mass and potentially cause it to break itself apart. This is only an issue for relatively small (sub-Mars) worlds, and larger worlds (Neptune-like) will have substantial internal heat sources anyway.

My own favorite version of this constraint is that the energy production systems use “fossil cold” to dump heat to. By this, I mean that they run coolant throughout the crust of the icy-cold rogue planets at a rate that would be unsustainable if done all the time. By getting coolant to such a low temperature, they can run their fusion engines at a tremendously high efficiency, and even run thermal cycles from the waste heat from habitats people live in. But this is only possible by using the rocks which have been radiating heat out into space for billions of years. Once you use up that energy sink, it’s gone forever. Thus, this constraint could foster a society of conservation, like the Lockstep.

That’s just my own flavor of the underlying technical details. Overall, this is an incredibly rich intellectual avenue. Lockstep engages in some of the most sophisticated worldbuilding I’ve ever encountered in order to introduce us to “cold” advanced societies.

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