BOOKS: Pournelle's *A Step Farther Out*
Tue, 16 Feb 1999 16:22:42 EST


I'm new to the group, but I had an extropian phase in the early days of the movement, then turned to Objectivism, and currently consider myself a thomist. However, I am still fascinated by many aspects of extropianism (especially life extension and intelligence increase), and I have decided to read the few dozen books I haven't read yet in the extropian bibliography.

Here are my notes on the last book I have finished. I hope this will inspire discussion, and I hope others will also post their own reading notesdirecting us towards books we may not have heard of, or refreshing our memory about books we may have read long ago.

Jerry Pournelle A Step Farther Out (Ace Books, 1979) [February 12 1999] **

This is a collection of thirty articles originally published in Galaxy, most of them centered on the theme that mankind can " survive with style " and other scientific issues of interest to science-fiction writers, such as black holes, dinosaurs and computers. Some of the articles are just reactions to annual conferences of the AAAS which Pournelle attended, giving snapshots of scientific research in the late 1970s. Most of the articles were already partly obsolete when they were gathered in book format, so one may wonder at their relevance twenty years after the publication of the book. Much has been learned about the planets of the solar system, for instance, and Pournelle already recognized in 1979 that his schemes for the terraformation of Venus were extremely simplistic. Moreover, given the format the essays were originally published in, the book lacks cohesion and progression, and is often redundant.

The message of the book is very similar to Julian Simon's, except Simon focuses on the Earth's resources, while Pournelle extends the range of available resources to the whole solar system. Another difference is that Pournelle, though obviously sympathetic to free enterprise (twice quoting Freeman Dyson's remark that America was settled by enterprising individuals), is quite tolerant of big government budgets, going so far as to recommed better allocation of government research funds.

He does a good job showing that most sources of " soft energy ", such as wind and garbage, won't fill man's energetic needs, and that nuclear energy is the only solution in the short term. In its defense of nuclear energy, the book echoes the message of Pournelle and Niven's " Lucifer's Hammer ", where mankind found its post-cataclysmic salvation by maintaining a nuclear plant in activity.

A funny thing about the book is that it was written at the beginning of the home computer revolution, and Pournelle keeps marveling at the computing power of his pocket calculator.

I wonder what has become of the " holographic theory of the brain "- whether it has been refined in the meantime or simply discarded. I like the idea that information storage in the brain could be dynamic (p82), which would imply that even if we can duplicate or restore brain structure, as the cryonicists hope nanotechnology will enable us to do, the information will be lost because of the intervening interruption of the brain's activity. What happens to comatose brains for instance ? Could the psychiatric troubles that follow comas stem from such an interruption ? I also liked the idea that the information is encoded in the brain, and that the decoder may be damaged, leading to the person's inability to read the information off his own brain. Such a model could explain reversible amnesia, or cases of madness like George III's, with intermittent phases of sanity.

At times, Pournelle is extremely nave, as when he assumes that one day, the acquisition of knowledge will be automated (" the computer can squirt the book's contents directly into your mind " p86) or rendered obsolete by instant hook up with world databases. He doesn't seem to realize the importance of the integration and automatization of knowledge (not to mention the filtering !), which cannot be done without extended periods of intense " chewing " of the material. Pournelle also gratuitously assumes there is a " central processing unit " in the brain (p86) - the myth of the homonculus debunked by Gerald Edelman and others - and that the " basis of consciousness " is either " matter or structure " (p308)

I think this book was included in the reading list more for its enthusiasm and anti-defeatism than for any factual information it contains. The fact that it was written by a science-fiction author also tends to make the speculation a little wilder, Pournelle going so far as to accept the possibility of telepathy (p87) or UFOs (101-113).

The most disgusting part of the book is certainly the speculations concerning black holes, which seem to offer elbow room for the scientists' irrationality. " Time running backward " is a meaningless phrase if you accept the Aristotelian conception of time as a measurement of change and of the present as "all there is"; and Hawking's idea that " anything " can come out of a black hole is simple nonsense.

All in all, I'd rather recommend reading Julian Simon's books, plus up to date speculations about mankind's future in space.


Jean-Francois Virey,
Douai, France.