Friday, December 01, 2023

The Cosmic Computer, The End Of Progress, And Big Goals

Of the works that we have from H. (Henry) Beam Piper (1904-1964), the favorite parts of his works to me are those that are labeled "Space Opera", a sub-genre which (per Wikipedia) involves "space warfare, with melodramatic risk-taking space adventures, relationships, and chivalric romance" (e.g., the sort of fantasy world I live in on a daily basis - or would like to, anyway).  Piper's genius was taken historical situations from Earth history and replicating them in the future:  Uller Uprising (The 1857 Sepoy Mutiny), Space Viking (A combination of 9th Century Viking Raiding and the 1932 rise of Hitler),  Four Day Planet (Any one of several colonial revolutions) and A Planet For Texans (well, not really based on a particular historical event, but what would happen if Texas was a planet?).

However, one of my favorites - and one I came late to - is The Cosmic Computer.

(Not my copy, but the copy I have.  Note that $0.40 price circa 1963)

The Cosmic Computer (originally Junkyard Planet) is the story of one Conn Maxwell, sent by several of his father's friends from the planet of Poictesme to Earth to study.  The planet he is from - Poictesme - was the main base of the Terran Federation during a war 40 years earlier.  The war ended and the Federation retreated, leaving a planet filled with military hardware suddenly on the fringes of the Federation, whose main business has become brandy and "mining" the military hardware.  Also rumored on the planet was Merlin, a supercomputer that supposedly helped the Federation win the war but has acquired an almost mythical status.  Conn was sent to find evidence of Merlin; the story is about his return and the re-establishment of civilization as well as the continuing search for Merlin.

It is worth reading the book (so I will not spoil the ending), but in the course of looking for Merlin, Conn convinces the business leaders of the town he belongs to (in Piper's works, government is seldom if ever truly helpful) of an economic plan to restore prosperity to the planet by 1) Directly trading with Earth instead of using third party traders; 2) Finding a space ship and space port to enable this; and 3) Re-establishing the industry required to manufacture said space ship.

One leaves the book with hope but not certainty that the people of Poictesme will succeed, that they have a plan going forward, a far cry from when Conn arrived on a planet with a slowly degrading infrastructure and no plans but to continue to  do what they have always been doing and hope for some kind of magic from a computer they believe to exist.


One of the things I miss the most about the world today is a sense that we are working towards a better future.

I have related the story before, but a lot of my view of progress and technology was set in the mid 1970's when I was into reading books about space and space stations. I would look at the artists' renditions of what a space station or space craft would look like.  It looked...well, futuristic. It also looked like there was something more amazing that what we had today.

I compare that with the messaging I see today.

To be fair, there are still companies out there that are pushing the envelope towards a better future.  Most of the rocket companies are doing it (The Silicon Greybeard, if you do not already read him, has a great daily on such things).  And there are lots of more invisible companies doing this:  biopharma and medical device companies with tools and cures we could not dream of 50 years ago, computer and software companies that create amazing tools to do amazing things.

But that is not the perception I sense on a daily basis.

Instead, I see a world that no longer seeks a better future.  It seeks a future that is insular, controlled, managed - in some cases deindustrialized.    Rather than seek to expand it seeks to contract and pull everyone in with it, leaving nothing but a constrained frame of life that no longer seeks progress but only maintenance.

I know - it is odd to hear someone like myself, someone who values my Luddite tendencies and "low tech", to be speaking that there is no vision of progress.  But I see that the sense of progress in one area permeates society, even to those who desire to live a less industrialized future.  Seen the other way - limiting options and lowering aims - has the same effect:  it lowers the expectations of all areas of society.  Suddenly we are not seeking the edge of what we can do, we are only seeking  the upper edge of the bottom).

Ultimately what saved the planet of Poictesme was not just continuing to glide on the past as it continued to lose speed but rather to make an active attempt at advancing in a direction.  To me, at least, it feels that we are exactly the opposite:  having abandoned any active attempts, we are content to slowly lose any sense of progress at all until, like a collapsing star, we begin to fall in on ourselves.


I had written earlier this week that I found myself in a bit of the post-Thanksgiving doldrums, but it was not caused specifically by Thanksgiving.  It was caused by - as Resident Optimist Ed put it - "losing the spark".  I read that and realized "that, this is precisely the thing".  I feel not so much trapped as if in some giant holding pattern, circling the airport continuously waiting to land.  

I find myself between goals too, as odd that sounds for someone that spends a rather ridiculous amount of time planning them (and posting about it) every year.  Not goals in the sense of "what I should do next year", but big goals, the sort that fire the blood and the imagination and give purpose to everything that one puts one's hand to.  One may remember a certain business movement ten to fifteen years ago that promoted "BHAG" (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals).  Something that would turn on its head the idea that we all did not come this far in our lives just to be mediocre.

What is that goal?  What is that next thing I need to be about accomplishing?  I do not know, writing from this side of it.  But the more I think about it, the more I believe that this has become the missing key to the spark flying away.  Find that thing - and it should be something so big that it will literally take me the rest of my life to grow into the person who can - and I believe these doldrums will come to an end.

Call it hope, call it vision, call it a plan - I (and maybe we) need something that we can aspire to, not something that we devolve into.


  1. The way I see things, so much of yesteryear futures revolved around flying cars and space. With the former, technology has limited us, at least for a car that anyone can fly but with automated driving, surely automated planes/cars are soon to come. With the latter, I don't think we understood back then how expensive space exploration is in terms of treasure and resources and thus why it hasn't progressed at a much faster pace. So those of us who grew up with that future of flying cars and space colonies are left wondering what happened to our future. But those of us who are optimists, we see how a thing called the internet has revolutionized our lives. How a simple phone has become and indispensable tool. How genetic genealogy has allowed us to solve unsolvable crimes half a century old. How science can now provide us with a vaccine in months instead of years. The list could go on and on in my eyes anyway.

    I'm not a psychologist by any stretch of the imagination but if I had to diagnose your condition it would be thus. I think you are at a major cross roads in your life. You have now become an elder in your family and I think two different worlds (ranch and new home) pull you in opposite directions. Thus you are don't want to set goals only to have the rug pulled out from under you rendering them null and void. I think you will have to eventually solve the ranch/new world question and then you will perhaps be able to set and achieve goals giving you a sense of purpose again.

    My 2 cents worth from a comfortable chair behind a keyboard.

    1. Ed, part of the charm of science fiction of the 1950's through even the 1970's was that they could write of things that had not been accomplished yet and thus anything we possible. We are now living in the realm of science fact, which is not so glamorous or exciting. Arguably we may yet get to some level of space exploration beyond the Moon, but I suspect it will be long after our own lifetimes.

      I shared this post and your response with two I trust and are multi-year acquaintances - Rainbow and The Shield Maiden - and they both thought your response was spot on (I do too, if helpful). It requires the one thing I feel myself terrible at, making a decision.

  2. Welp, I was finishing my comment when the browser choked. Crud. Stripped down version below.

    Starman Jones springs to mind. Space travel rubbing elbows with tenet farmers, no middle to speak of.

    Find that spark. As for me, I'm working to move, build a shop with an apartment attached and mimic the men's shed they have in the UK. I get fired up thinking about passing along what I've learned to anyone willing to learn. I hope to be up by next fall. I have some folks lined up to help me in a few places. I'm chomping at the bit to get going on it. House is 'sold', just waiting on the money from the bank to finish this phase and purchase the new place.... Waiting is almost torture when you have a destination.

    1. Anonymous9:29 AM
      Having never heard the term "men's shed" before, I went looking. Had a friend who wanted a place with all the tools downstairs but upstairs was for plans, computers, books and place for a bed and bath. This is very similar to what was built. She was a wood worker and loved it. Lowe's about $32K without garage. Think this is insulated. Even if this is not close trying English sites I couldn't find anything with apartment above. Good Luck.

    2. STxAR - I am glad things are progressing to a successful conclusion. I know turning the corner on this part of your life has been a long haul.

      Thanks for the picture. Looks like just the thing for your current needs.

    3. Thanks Anon and TB. I like the two story concept. Before the lung issues, that was EXACTLY what I wanted. Now, I'm working on the same level. So, half apt, and half shop. With the new ministry of cooking snacks for church, I'm working this into the plan:

  3. Nylon126:24 AM

    So many are dedicated to dividing, no matter the cost, so they can be the head of that group or the voice or the power or even worse...all three. Perhaps a few words to the Big Guy can provide a little guidance to that path leading to your goal. Heads up TB, have patience.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks Nylon12. I am trying to avoid acting precipitously.


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