On Risk, Time, and Living: Niven’s Ringworld

I know economics isn’t the first thing to spring to mind for most people when reading a science fiction classic, but bear with me anyway. Something stood out to me in the light of Austrian economics while reading Ringworld. Something that I consider a huge credit to Larry Niven for believable world-building. It has to do with the Pierson’s Puppeteers and how they handle their immortality.

If you haven’t read the book, I’ll try to explain the Puppeteers without spoiling the story. In the Ringworld universe, the Pierson’s Puppeteers are one of the older space-faring species. They are bizarre, three-legged, two-headed creatures with very high intelligence. Once upon a time they governed a gigantic commercial empire, but at the time of the novel, they are confined to their own home world, too averse to danger to risk leaving it. The one Puppeteer in the cast of the story, Nessus, is considered insane by his people because he has not only dared to leave home, but is taking a group of aliens (two humans and a Kzin) on a dangerous expedition.

So why do they act this way? The book explains this behavior as a consequence of the Puppeteer’s development of immortality. If they’re careful and can avoid being killed, they never die. So naturally, they’re careful to a fault. This intuitively makes sense when you’re given all the information, but thanks to economics we can roughly anticipate the Puppeteers’ preference for caution just by knowing about their longevity.

In the Austrian view of economics, there is a concept called time preference. Someone with a high time preference is willing to discount the future in order to have something sooner. Someone with a low time preference is willing to delay gratification, to discount the present in order to get something later. You see this all the time when people work for wages (high time preference), loan money or start an entrepreneurial venture (low time preference). Our time preference is also very much influenced by the length of our lives. None of us live forever, so every choice you make with your future self in mind has the end of your life (usually before age 100) as a furthest boundary. This is why people try to save during the early part of their adulthood, and switch to mostly spending during the twilight years of their lives. It’s not so common for an 86-year-old man to work twelve hour days and save like a miser the way an unmarried 20-something running a startup might. When your future is likely to be short, you tend to favor the present.

But what if your future was effectively infinite? Two things: First, you might not mind taking the long view and making plans that take a long time to develop because hey, you’ve got plenty of future in which to reap the rewards. Second, think of what kind of loss death represents. How many years are lost when a human dies? Probably somewhere less than 100. An effectively immortal creature stands to lose trillions. For a Pierson’s Puppeteer, virtually all of life always lies well into the future, and deserves a level of protection bordering on the paranoid.

Perhaps most importantly, this piece of Ringworld is a lesson in the value of our mortality. The Puppeteers manage to make very clever plans, but by and large they are selfish and cowardly. Their own lives loom so large in their futures, there’s no room for anyone else. We mere mortals can only spend so long thinking that way. Eventually we have more of our life behind us than we have before us, and if we want to touch the future, it will be through other people: your children, extended family, and friends.

My great uncle lived only about 77 years, cut short by disease earlier than I would have liked. Even though he is no longer with us, the dent he made in the world is going to last for generations. The old dairy farmer was gruff and sometimes short-tempered, but he lived his life by giving generously to anyone who had need. He didn’t die rich as far as I know, but over 700 people attended his funeral in a small country church, each of them profoundly touched by him at some stage of their lives. And not just family. Some were friends that hadn’t been seen for years, some were the type who were afraid to even set foot in a church, but they showed up all the same to say thank you one last time. To put it in Austrian terms, living like he did is a matter of keeping a low time preference for the sake of other people’s futures, in spite of your own dwindling time on earth. A creature who never dies never even has the opportunity to make that sacrifice.

The Forever War

This is another Hugo and Nebula award winner, a story of interstellar war by Vietnam veteran Joe Haldeman.

It’s no secret that The Forever War is a spiritual retelling of Haldeman’s experiences in Vietnam, although I have apparently been living under a rock and hadn’t known this when I picked the book up. Its connection to Vietnam is palpable for anyone even somewhat familiar with the history of that war, or even just the experiences of American veterans.

The protagonist William Mandella skips across time on relativistic interstellar deployments as the ages fly by back home. Before I realized what context the author was writing from, I found myself thinking about how Mandella’s experience was an exaggerated version of how those who fought in Vietnam must have felt. They came back to a home that had marked cultural changes, whose people often did not comprehend the sacrifices they made, or even know why they made them.

But the book is more than a parable about a particular war. It showcases the insanity of war in general, as viewed by those in the trenches. The book gives a front-row view of what it’s like fighting and dying for commanders who are far removed both from the grim realities of the fight, and from the civilization you’re fighting for. Haldeman’s world-building and storytelling style places you right in the action, with a visceral and inescapable sense of realism.

Military friends tell me there is much about Mandella’s life that a modern soldier can relate to. If Joe Haldeman’s goal was to make me hope no soldier ever again has to experience the alienation and waste of life that unnecessary wars cause, he was successful.

Life, Death and Fear in Frederik Pohl’s Heechee Saga

I recently finished reading Gateway by Frederik Pohl, and its sequels. I was immediately swept into the sequels, because Pohl uses a tactic Ben Bova would later articulate in Writing Science Fiction that Sells. Pohl set up a grand question that the story gradually answers. I’m a sucker for this formula. Every Asimov book I’ve read has done it, and Clarke was a master at it.

In Gateway, human explorers had stumbled upon an asteroid filled with abandoned, ancient starships. The long-gone aliens are dubbed Heechee and the asteroid earns the name Gateway. Humans start using the ships to explore the cosmos, but their ignorance about how the ships work make these sojourns deadly just as often as they are profitable.

The grand question was simply this: Why did a hyper-advanced spacefaring civilization totally vanish, leaving behind no artifacts whatsoever except their starships? The journey we take in the course of finding out follows the life of Robinette Broadhead, a prospector who plans to pilot one of these ships in search of riches.

But it wasn’t merely this cosmic, scientific question that drove the story in Gateway. There were other, much more intimate mysteries, which carried through in different forms through the whole series. In Gateway the primary theme was fear, and how the terror of death or failure can prevent you from living.

The story is told in a first-person, extended flashback form, and the scenes occurring in the “present” are in the office of Robinette “Bob” Broadhead’s robotic psychiatrist. Broadhead makes regular visits to this psychiatrist but persistently refuses to tell him anything about his experiences at Gateway. Fortunately, he does tell the story to the reader. At first it is a complete mystery what has put Broadhead into the shrink’s office, and his evasiveness with Sigfrid is obvious. The question here is, “What’s eating Bob?” The answer to that question in Gateway provides a moment of pathos at the climax of the book, and drives the plot of its sequels, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon and Heechee Rendezvous.

The third, and for me the most excruciating, question throughout Gateway had to do with Robin Broadhead’s indecisiveness. Broadhead comes from a very poor background, working in shale mines in North America for subsistence wages. Much of the earth is on the brink of starvation. He wins the lottery and uses his winnings, in an uncharacteristically bold entrepreneurial move, to buy a ticket to Gateway. As a Gateway prospector, he would have at least a remote chance at riches. Of course, life as a prospector could just as easily kill him.

Once he arrives on Gateway, Broadhead spends almost all his time procrastinating. He delays. He languishes. He even lingers indecisively in his romantic relationships. Like anyone afraid of failure, he keeps waiting for a perfect opportunity that never comes. When will he finally commit?!

His ultimate decision and its consequences have a lot to do with why he’s visiting Sigfrid in the first place.

Gateway dealt a great deal with fear, living in spite of your fears and getting on with life in spite of guilt. Sometimes, mistakes cannot be undone, and hopefully we can all learn — as Robin eventually does — to carry on anyway.


The Sequels

The sequels to Gateway deal with similar themes, but Broadhead is a very different person after his adventure on Gateway. Robin has to deal with mortality, the question of his own life’s purpose, and of course with the grand question set up in the first installment. Who were the Heechee and where did they go? The books are exploring the Fermi Paradox from an angle you don’t often see. The hard-science pieces of the puzzle rely on some outdated physics (like a contracting universe) but overall the answer to the grand question was worth the journey.