Tag Archives: Fiction

Mars

A publicist recently emailed me: 

We are inviting select science and technology related press to view an early screening of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s MARS Season 2. The series premieres on November 12, however, we could email a screener to you then follow up with top interviews from the season. We’d just ask that you hold coverage until the week of Nov 7.

MARS is scripted, however, during each episodes, there are cut-aways to documentary style discussion by real scientists and thinkers who describe the reality of our endeavor to the red planet. The scripted aspect rigorously follows science and the latest in space travel technology.

Though I hadn’t heard of the show, I was flattered enough to accept this invitation. I have now watched both seasons, and today am allowed to give you my reactions. 

The branding by National Geographic, and the interleaving of fictional story with documentary interviews, both suggest a realistic story. Their “making of” episode also brags of realism. But while it is surely more realistic than most science fiction (alas, a low bar), it seemed to me substantially less realistic, and less entertaining, than the obvious comparison, the movie The Martian. The supposedly “rigorous” documentary parts don’t actually go into technical details (except in their extra “making of” episode); they just have big “Mars” names talking abstractly about emotional issues related to Mars colonization.  

As you might expect, the story contains way too many implausibly close calls. And others have pointed out technical inaccuracies. But let me focus on the economics.

First, they say near the end of the second season’s story that they have completed 22% of an orbiting mirror array, designed to melt the polar ice caps. From Wikipedia:

An estimated 120 MW-years of electrical energy would be required in order to produce mirrors large enough to vaporize the ice caps. … If all of this CO2 were put into the atmosphere, it would only double the current atmospheric pressure from 6 mbar to 12 mbar, amounting to about 1.2% of Earth’s mean sea level pressure. The amount of warming that could be produced today by putting even 100 mbar of CO2 into the atmosphere is small, roughly of order 10 K. (more)

From a recent NASA report:

There is not enough CO2 remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be put into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the COgas is not accessible and could not be readily mobilized. As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology. (more)

These mirrors are supposedly made on Mars out of materials dug up there, and then launched into orbit. Yet we only seem to see a few dozen people living on Mars, they’ve only been there ten years, and we never meet anyone actually working on making and launching mirrors. Yet such a project would be enormous, requiring vast resources and personnel. I can’t see how this small group could have fielded so many mirrors so fast, nor can I see the cost being worth such modest and slow increases in pressure and temperature, especially during the early colonization period.  

There is almost no discussion of the basic economics of this crazy expensive colonization effort. The first launches are paid for by an International Mars Science Foundation (IMSF), initially run by a very rich guy said to have put 90% of his wealth into it. Is this all charity, or does he get a return if things go well? Later we see mostly nations around a governing table, and public opinion seems very important, as if nations were paying, mainly to gain prestige. But the scale of all this seems huge compared to other things nations do together for prestige. 

The second season starts with the arrival on Mars of a for-profit firm, Lukrum, run by greedy men on Mars and Earth, while good-hearted women now run the IMSF on Mars and Earth. Lukrum consistently breaks agreements, grabs anything it can, takes unjustified risks with everyone’s lives, and otherwise acts badly. Yet, strangely, IMSF as a customer is the only plausible source of future revenue for Lukrum. So how do they expect to get a return on their huge investment if they treat their only possible customer badly? Apparently their plan is to just lobby the governments behind IMSF to have IMSF pay them off. As if lobbying was typically a great general investment strategy (it isn’t). 

Thus the entire second season is mostly a morality play on the evils of greedy firms. The documentary parts make it clear that this is to be taken as a lesson for today on global warming and the environment; for-profit firms are just not to be trusted and must be firmly under the control of scientists or governments who cannot possibly be lobbied by the for-profit firms. Scientists and governments can be trusted, unless they are influenced by for-profit firms. The only reason to include firms in any venture is if they’ve used their money to buy political power that you can’t ignore, or if a project needs more resources than dumb voters are willing to pay for. (Obviously, they think, the best solution is to nationalize everything, but often dumb voters won’t approve that either.)

All this in a story that brags about its scientific accuracy, and that breaks for interviews with “experts. But these are “experts” in Mars and environmental activism, not economics or political economy.  

For the record, as an economist let me say that a plausible reason to include for-profit firms on Mars, and elsewhere, is that they often have better incentives to actually satisfy customers. Yes, that’s a problem on Mars, because other than governments seeking prestige, there are not likely to be enough customers on Mars to satisfy anytime soon, as almost anything desired is much cheaper to make here on Earth. This includes not just exotic places to visit or move, but protection against human extinction.

Yes, things can go badly when corruptible governments subcontract to for-profit firms who lobby them. But that’s hardly a good general reason to dislike for-profit firms. Governments who can be corrupted by lobbying are also generally corruptible and inept in many other ways. Having such governments spend vast sums on prestige projects to impress ignorant voters and foreigners is not generally a good way to get useful stuff done. 

By the way, I’ve also watched the first season of The First, another TV series on Mars colonization. So far the show doesn’t seem much interested in Mars or its related politics, econ, or tech, compared to the personal relation dramas of its main characters. They have not at all explained why anyone is funding this Mars mission. I like its theme music though.

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Maps of Meaning

Like many folks recently, I decided to learn more about Jordan Peterson. Not being eager for self-help or political discussion, I went to his most well-known academic book, Maps of Meaning. Here is Peterson’s summary: 

I came to realize that ideologies had a narrative structure – that they were stories, in a word – and that the emotional stability of individuals depended upon the integrity of their stories. I came to realize that stories had a religious substructure (or, to put it another way, that well-constructed stories had a nature so compelling that they gathered religious behaviors and attitudes around them, as a matter of course). I understood, finally, that the world that stories describe is not the objective world, but the world of value – and that it is in this world that we live, first and foremost. … I have come to understand what it is that our stories protect us from, and why we will do anything to maintain their stability. I now realize how it can be that our religious mythologies are true, and why that truth places a virtually intolerable burden of responsibility on the individual. I know now why rejection of such responsibility ensures that the unknown will manifest a demonic face, and why those who shrink from their potential seek revenge wherever they can find it. (more)

In his book, Peterson mainly offers his best-guess description of common conceptual structures underlying many familiar cultural elements, such as myths, stories, histories, rituals, dreams, and language. He connects these structures to cultural examples, to a few psychology patterns, and to rationales of why such structures would make sense. 

But while he can be abstract at times, Peterson doesn’t go meta. He doesn’t offer readers any degree of certainty in his claims, nor distinguish in which claims he’s more confident. He doesn’t say how widely others agree with him, he doesn’t mention any competing accounts to his own, and he doesn’t consider examples that might go against his account. He seems to presume that the common underlying structures of past cultures embody great wisdom for human behavior today, yet he doesn’t argue for that explicitly, he doesn’t consider any other forces that might shape such structures, and he doesn’t consider how fast their relevance declines as the world changes. The book isn’t easy to read, with overly long and obscure words, and way too much repetition. He shouldn’t have used his own voice for his audiobook. 

In sum, Peterson comes across as pompous, self-absorbed, and not very self-aware. But on the one key criteria by which such a book should most be judged, I have to give it to him: the book offers insight. The first third of the book felt solid, almost self-evident: yes such structures make sense and do underly many cultural patterns. From then on the book slowly became more speculative, until at the end I was less nodding and more rolling my eyes. Not that most things he said even then were obviously wrong, just that it felt too hard to tell if they were right.  (And alas, I have no idea how original is this book’s insight.) 

Let me finish by offering a small insight I had while reading the book, one I haven’t heard from elsewhere. A few weeks ago I talked about how biological evolution avoids local maxima via highly redundant genotypes:

There are of course far more types of reactions between molecules than there are types of molecules. So using Wagner’s definitions, the set of genotypes is vastly larger than the set of phenotypes. Thus a great many genotypes result in exactly the same phenotype, and in fact each genotype has many neighboring genotypes with that same exact phenotype. And if we lump all the connected genotypes that have the same phenotype together into a unit (a unit Wagner calls a “genotype network”), and then look at the network of one-neighbor connections between such units, we will find that this network is highly connected.

That is, if one presumes that evolution (using a large population of variants) finds it easy to make “neutral” moves between genotypes with exactly the same phenotype, and hence the same fitness, then large networks connecting genotypes with the same phenotype imply that it only takes a few non-neutral moves between neighbors to get to most other phenotypes. There are no wide deep valleys to cross. Evolution can search large spaces of big possible changes, and doesn’t have a problem finding innovations with big differences. (more) 

It occurs to me that this is also an advantage of traditional ways of encoding cultural values. An explicit formal encoding of values, such as found in modern legal codes, is far less redundant. Most random changes to such an abstract formal encoding create big bad changes to behavior. But when values are encoded in many stories, histories, rituals, etc., a change to any one of them needn’t much change overall behavior. So the genotype can drift until it is near a one-step change to a better phenotype. This allows culture to evolve more incrementally, and avoid local maxima. 

Implicit culture seems more evolvable, at least to the extent slow evolution is acceptable. We today are changing culture quite rapidly, and often based on pretty abstract and explicit arguments. We should worry more about getting stuck in local maxima.  

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The Uploaded

In this post I again contrast my analysis of future ems in Age of Em with a fictional depictions of ems, and find that science fiction isn’t very realistic, having other priorities. Today’s example: The Uploaded, by Ferrett Steinmetz:

The world is run from the afterlife, by the minds of those uploaded at the point of death. Living is just waiting to die… and maintaining the vast servers which support digital Heaven. For one orphan that just isn’t enough – he wants more for himself and his sister than a life of servitude. Turns out he’s not the only one who wants to change the world.

The story is set 500 years and 14 human generations after a single genius invented ems. While others quickly found ways to copy this tech, his version was overwhelming preferred. (In part due to revelations of “draconian” competitor plans.) So much so that he basically was able to set the rules of this new world, and to set them globally. He became an immortal em, and so still rules the world. His rules, and the basic tech and econ arrangement, have remained stable for those 500 years, during which there seems to have been vastly less tech change and economic growth than we’ve seen in the last 500 years.

His rules are the these: typically when a biological humans dies, one emulation of them is created who is entitled to eternal leisure in luxurious virtual realities. That one em runs at ordinary human speed, no other copies of it are allowed, ems never inhabit android physical bodies, and ems are never created of still living biological humans. By now there are 15 times as many ems as humans, and major decisions are made by vote, which ems always win. Ems vote to divert most resources to their servers, and so biological humans are poor, their world is run down, and diseases are killing them off.

Virtual realities are so engaging that em parents can’t even be bothered to check in on their young children now in orphanages. But a few ems get bored and want to do useful jobs, and they take all the nice desk jobs. Old ems are stuck in their ways and uncreative, preventing change. Biological humans are only needed to do physical jobs, which are boring and soul-crushing. It is illegal for them to do programming. Some ems also spend lots of time watching via surveillance cameras, so biological humans are watched all the time.

Every day every biological human’s brain is scanned and evaluated by a team of ems, and put into one of five status levels. Higher levels are given nicer positions and privileges, while the lowest levels are not allowed to become ems. Biological humans are repeatedly told they need to focus on pleasing their em bosses so they can get into em heaven someday. To say more, I must give spoilers; you are warned. Continue reading "The Uploaded" »

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Beware Covert War Morality Tales

For years I’ve been saying that fiction is mainly about norm affirmation:

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice. In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on. (more)

People fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying. Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. (more)

Our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence. (more) Continue reading "Beware Covert War Morality Tales" »

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The Ems of Altered Carbon

People keep suggesting that I can’t possibly present myself as an expert on the future if I’m not familiar with their favorite science fiction (sf). I say that sf mostly pursues other purposes and rarely tries much to present realistic futures. But I figure should illustrate my claim with concrete examples from time to time. Which brings us to Altered Carbon, a ten episode sf series just out on Netflix, based on a 2002 novel. I’ve watched the series, and read the novel and its two sequels.

Altered Carbon’s key tech premise is a small “stack” which can sit next to a human brain collecting and continually updating a digital representation of that brain’s full mental state. This state can also be transferred into the rest of that brain, copied to other stacks, or placed and run in an android body or a virtual reality. Thus stacks allow something much like ems who can move between bodies.

But the universe of Altered Carbon looks very different from my description of the Age of Em. Set many centuries in future, our descendants have colonized many star systems. Technological change then is very slow; someone revived after sleeping for centuries is familiar with almost all the tech they see, and they remain state-of-the-art at their job. While everyone is given a stack as a baby, almost all jobs are done by ordinary humans, most of whom are rather poor and still in their original body, the only body they’ll ever have. Few have any interest in living in virtual reality, which is shown as cheap, comfortable, and realistic; they’d rather die. There’s also little interest in noticeably-non-human android bodies, which could plausibly be pretty cheap.

Regarding getting new very-human-like physical bodies, some have religious objections, many are disinterested, but most are just too poor. So most stacks are actually never used. Stacks can insure against accidents that kill a body but don’t hurt the stack. Yet while it should be cheap and easy to backup stack data periodically, inexplicibly only rich folks do that.

It is very illegal for one person to have more than one stack running at a time. Crime is often punished by taking away the criminal’s body, which creates a limited supply of bodies for others to rent. Very human-like clone and android bodies are also available, but are very expensive. Over the centuries some have become very rich and long-lived “meths”, paying for new bodies as needed. Meths run everything, and are shown as inhumanly immoral, often entertaining themselves by killing poor people, often via sex acts. Our hero was once part of a failed revolution to stop meths via a virus that kills anyone with a century of subjective experience.

Oh, and there have long been fully human level AIs who are mainly side characters that hardly matter to this world. I’ll ignore them, as criticizing the scenario on these grounds is way too easy.

Now my analysis says that there’d be an enormous economic demand for copies of ems, who can do most all jobs via virtual reality or android bodies. If very human-like physical bodies are too expensive, the economy would just skip them. If allowed, ems would quickly take over all work, most activity would be crammed in a few dense cities, and the economy could double monthly. Yet while war is common in the universe of Altered Carbon, and spread across many star systems, no place ever adopts the huge winning strategy of unleashing such an em economy and its associated military power. While we see characters who seek minor local advantages get away for long times with violating the rule against copying, no one ever tries to do this to get vastly rich, or to win a war. No one even seems aware of the possibility.

Even ignoring the AI bit, I see no minor modification to make this into a realistic future scenario. It is made more to be a morality play, to help you feel righteous indignation at those damn rich folks who think they can just live forever by working hard and saving their money over centuries. If there are ever poor humans who can’t afford to live forever in very human-like bodies, even if they could easily afford android or virtual immortality, well then both the rich and the long-lived should all burn! So you can feel morally virtuous watching hour after hour of graphic sex and violence toward that end. As it so happens that hand-to-hand combat, typically producing big spurts of blood, and often among nudes, is how most conflicts get handled in this universe. Enjoy!

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Ems in Walkaway

Some science fiction (sf) fans have taken offense at my claim that non-fiction analysis of future tech scenarios can be more accurate than sf scenarios, whose authors have other priorities. So I may periodically critique recent sf stories with ems for accuracy. Note that I’m not implying that such stories should have been more accurate; sf writing is damn hard work and its authors juggle a many difficult tradeoffs. But many seem unaware of just how often accuracy is sacrificed.

The most recent sf I’ve read that includes ems is Walkaway, by “New York Times bestselling author” Cory Doctorow, published back in April:

Now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life—food, clothing, shelter—from a computer, there seems to be little reason to toil within the system. It’s still a dangerous world out there, the empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human alike. Still, when the initial pioneer walkaways flourish, more people join them.

The emotional center of Walkaway is elaborating this vision of a decentralized post-scarcity society trying to do without property or hierarchy. Though I’m skeptical, I greatly respect attempts to describe such visions in more detail. Doctorow, however, apparently thinks we economists make up bogus math for the sole purpose of justifying billionaire wealth inequality. Continue reading "Ems in Walkaway" »

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Compelling ≠ Accurate

Bryan Caplan:

As a rule, I don’t care for “hard sci-fi.”  In fact, artistically speaking, I normally dislike true stories of any kind.  And I barely care about continuity errors.  When I read novels or watch movies, I crave what I call “emotional truth.” ..  “it’s the idea of becoming someone else for a little while. Being inside another skin. Moving differently, thinking differently, feeling differently.” .. When creators spend a lot of mental energy on the accuracy of their physics or the historical sequence of events, they tend to lose sight of their characters’ inner lives.  A well-told story is designed to maximize the audiences’ identification with the characters .. you know a creator has succeeded when you temporarily lose yourself in the story.

Many have said similar things. For example, Jerome Bruner:

There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. .. Each .. has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness. The one verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof. The other establishes not truth but verisimilitude. ..

“Great” storytelling, inevitably, is about compelling human plights that are “accessible” to readers. But at the same time, the plights must be set forth with sufficient subjunctivity to allow them to be rewritten by the reader, rewritten so as to allow play for the reader’s imagination.

Yes, readers (or viewers) value stories where readers lose themselves, feel like they are inside character inner lives, and identify with those characters. To readers, such stories feel “lifelike” — in some important way “like” real and true events. And yes, surely this is because these best stories do in fact match some template in reader minds, a template knitted in part from the many details of the world that readers have witnessed during their lives.

But, such stories are much better described as “compelling” than “true.” As a large literature has shown, the stories that we like differ in many big and systematic ways from real life events. Stories differ not only in external physical and social environments, but also in the personalities and preferences of individuals. Furthermore, even conditional on those things, stories also differ in the feelings that individuals have and the choices that they make.

We understand some but not all things about why people are built to prefer unrealistic stories. But there seems little doubt that the stories we like are in fact unrealistic. Compelling but not “true.”

I’m not denying that some stories are more realistic, I’m doubting that the stories that we get more lost in are in fact mainly those more realistic stories.

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Talks Not About Info

You can often learn about your own world by first understanding some other world, and then asking if your world is more like that other world than you had realized. For example, I just attended WorldCon, the top annual science fiction convention, and patterns that I saw there more clearly also seem echoed in wider worlds.

At WorldCon, most of the speakers are science fiction authors, and the modal emotional tone of the audience is one of reverence. Attendees love science fiction, revere its authors, and seek excuses to rub elbows with them. But instead of just having social mixers, authors give speeches and sit on panels where they opine on many topics. When they opine on how to write science fiction, they are of course experts, but in fact they mostly prefer to opine on other topics. By presenting themselves as experts on a great many future, technical, cultural, and social topics, they help preserve the illusion that readers aren’t just reading science fiction for fun; they are also part of important larger conversations.

When science fiction books overlap with topics in space, physics, medicine, biology, or computer science, their authors often read up on those topics, and so can be substantially more informed than typical audience members. And on such topics actual experts will often be included on the agenda. Audiences may even be asked if any of them happen to have expertise on a such a topic.

But the more that a topic leans social, and has moral or political associations, the less inclined authors are to read expert literatures on that topic, and the more they tend to just wing it and think for themselves, often on their feet. They less often add experts to the panel or seek experts in the audience. And relatively neutral analysis tends to be displaced by position taking – they find excuses to signal their social and political affiliations.

The general pattern here is: an audience has big reasons to affiliate with speakers, but prefers to pretend those speakers are experts on something, and they are just listening to learn about that thing. This is especially true on social topics. The illusion is exposed by facts like speakers not being chosen for knowing the most about a subject discussed, and those speakers not doing much homework. But enough audience members are ignorant of these facts to provide a sufficient fig leaf of cover to the others.

This same general pattern repeats all through the world of conferences and speeches. We tend to listen to talks and panels full of not just authors, but also generals, judges, politicians, CEOs, rich folks, athletes, and actors. Even when those are not the best informed, or even the most entertaining, speakers on a topic. And academic outlets tend to publish articles and books more for being impressive than for being informative. However, enough people are ignorant of these facts to let audiences pretend that they mainly listen to learn and get information, rather than to affiliate with the statusful.

Added 22Aug: We feel more strongly connected to people when we together visibly affirm our shared norms/values/morals. Which explains why speakers look for excuses to take positions.

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Alas, Unequal Love

We each feel a deep strong need to love others, and to be loved by others. (Self-love doesn’t satisfy these needs.) You might think we could pair up and all be very satisfied. But this doesn’t happen for two main reasons:

  1. We each prefer to love the popular, whom more others also love. So a few get lots of love, while the rest get less.
  2. We can more easily love imaginary fictional people than real people. Especially ones that more others love.

So even if you are my best source for getting love, the love I get from you may be far less than the love you are giving out, or than I’m giving out. And a few exceptional people (many of them imaginary) get far more love than most people need or can enjoy.

This seems an essential tragedy of the human condition. You might claim that love isn’t a limited resource, that the more people each of us love, the more love we each have to give out. So there is no conflict between loving popular and imaginary people and loving the rest of us. But while this might be true at some low scales of how many people we love, at the actual scales of love this just doesn’t seem right to me. Love instead seems scarce at the margin.

Can we do anything about this problem? Well one obvious fact is that we don’t love people we’ve never heard of. And we can control many things about who we hear of. So we could in principle arrange who we hear about, in order to get love spread out more evenly. But we don’t do this, nor do we seem much inclined to do anything like this. We instead all devote a great deal of time and effort to hearing about as many popular and fictional people as possible. And to trying to be as popular as we can.

I don’t have great ideas for how to solve this. But I am convinced it is one of our essential problems, and it is far from obvious that we’ve given it all the careful thought we might. Please, someone thoughtful and clever, figure out how we might all be much loved.

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Science Fiction Is Fantasy

Why do people like fantasy novels? One obvious explanation is that “magic” relaxes the usual constraints on the stories one can tell. Story-tellers can either use this freedom to explore a wider range of possible worlds, and so feed reader hungers for variety and strangeness, or they can focus repeatedly on particular story settings that seem ideal places for telling engaging stories, settings that are just not feasible without magic.

It is widely acknowledged that science fiction is by far the closest literary genre to fantasy. One plausible explanation for this is that future technology serves the same function in science fiction that magic serves in fantasy: it can be an “anything goes” sauce to escape the usual story constraints. So future tech can either let story tellers explore a wider space of strangeness, or return repeatedly to settings that feel particularly attractive, and are infeasible without future tech.

Of course it might be that some readers actually care about the real future, and want to hear stories set in that real future. But the overwhelming levels of implausible unrealism I find in almost all science fiction (and fantasy) suggest that this is a negligible fraction of readers, a faction writers rarely specialize in targeting. Oh writers will try to add a gloss of realism to the extent that it doesn’t cost them much in terms of other key story criteria. But when there are conflicts, other criteria win.

My forthcoming book The Age of Em, tries to describe a realistic future setting in great detail. I expect some of those who use science fiction in order to consume strange variety will enjoy the strangeness of my scenario, at least if they can get over the fact that it doesn’t come packaged with plot and characters. But they are unlikely to want to return to that setting repeatedly, as it just can’t compete with places designed to be especially compelling for stories. My setting is designed to be realistic, and I’ll just have to see how many readers I can attract to that unusual feature.

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