Development levels rather than tech levels (segué into soft-tech robofac factories)


I’m pretty happy with the result too. Thank you for your persistence.

Also, this conversation has given me an idea for how to approach the section on settlement structure.


I take it this means “manufacture of exotic configurations of matter”? I have to say that my first thought on reading it was to puzzle over whether it was the manufacture of exotic political organizations, or manufacture that could only take place under exotic political organizations; it took me a minute to think, “Oh, ‘states of matter’!” Possibly “exotic matter manufacture” might be better.

(I use the basic noun rather than the gerund derived from the use of the noun as a verb, because they mean the same thing and the root form is shorter.)


Is the alternative meant to be economically superior? I have to say that it’s not clear to me that this is so.

Consider, on one hand, a Beast that produces and gives “birth” to a kilo of protein every week; and, on the other hand, a different beast that adds a kilo of protein to its body weight every week. After some interval of time—without loss of generality, let’s say a year—the Beast stops yielding, and the beast stops gaining weight. We slaughter the beast and eat its added protein. But we also eat its original complement of protein. Do we do likewise with the Beast? If we do, it seems that its yield is equal; if we simply humanely terminate it and dispose of its remains, we have obtained much less nutritive yield from it.

Is there reason to suppose that the “retail” approach to protein harvesting is more efficient than the “wholesale” one?

Or is this meant to be a cultural or ethical decision? (For example, would it be considered that butchered lamb was problematic in a way that lamb-flavored tissue was not?) I must confess that my sympathies are with the Tau Cetian gourmets. But subjective value judgments aside, is there an assumed future history that leads to the triumph of this particular ethical stance? Or is it an intentionally alien cultural element included as a distancing device, a “we’re not in Kansas any more,” so to speak?


My vision was that the Beast might live for 30 years, yielding a kilo of 100% prime steak per week, whereas the beast would be slaughtered at about 50 kg live weight and dress down to about 15kg, once per year. The Beast is three times as productive because it grows bones, offal etc. only once per generation instead of once per year.

Similarly, a high-tech crop plant could grow roots and stems only once, and after being established put almost all of its photosynthetic yield into starch, fentanyl, rocket fuel, or whatever else it was being grown for.

Essentially, the perennial crop plant is being viewed as a solar-powered nanotech factory, the grazing Beast as a biotech robot combine harvester. It seems clearly best not to plough your factory into the ground every year, and clearly best not to scrap your robot to get its bin open. It seems to me that technology and economics dictate some outcome like this. This is where I kept ending up when I thought carefully about the limitations of nanotechnology.


I went with “manufacture under exotic conditions”, and have edited my previous post for reference rather than re-post the table.

Grammatically, I want the entries in that column to complete the sentence that the heading begins.


What are you assuming as the mature body weight for the Beast? I will stipulate that in comparison with a cumulative yield of 1500 kg, any likely body weight is going to be of negligible importance. But I’d still like to know how much biomass goes into it.

A minor cost factor seems to be that the beast can be allowed to roam the fields, and only needs to be brought to the slaughterhouse once, after it’s fattened up. The Beast needs someone to be following it around and collecting the steaks. That seems to be an increased cost in labor, or in the robotic equivalent. A planet that doesn’t have labor-saving technologies might rationally prefer to avoid the trouble.

On the other hand, many societies have already had the functional equivalent of what you describe at low TLs: milking and sometimes bleeding herd animals. Milking, at least, has to be done daily, so your milk cattle have to be kept close to the barn.


I grew up on the boundary between a dairying district and a beef-raising district. The cows come in to the bales of their own accord, twice per day, to be milked. Classmates who had to do the milking every morning before school (indeed, before breakfast) told me that each cow had its own accustomed place in the milking queue, and that they waited patiently for their turn at the milking machine. It was beef steers that had to be mustered by stockmen—only twice in their two-year lives, so they never grew habituated. The Beast will have it in firmware to seek its byre periodically for labour.

Shearing sheep is another example of a durable biotech harvesting robot having its bins emptied periodically. So in its way is collecting honey from hives.

A good size for the Beast will, I guess, depend on the climate, the type of feed, and the nature of the material to be harvested. I don’t see anything smaller than a bee being desirable. I can definitely see a Beast the size of a cow delivering a boned rib roast as convenient, perhaps something even larger would economise on handling.

Biotech is going to give us improved food conversion ratios either way. It seems obvious to me that when we have the power to design our own organisms as soft-tech robots, rather than co-opting biological survival machines, it will not be good design to accumulate the robots’ products as hypertrophied structure and components, nor to annually destroy and replace the machine.


The question in my mind is, do you get better output efficiency with beasts and fodder crops and so on, or with a great lump that’s an entire ecosystem in a single (building/organism), as it might be a multi-hundred-metre dome covered with solar cells which you dump in a water source?


I too have thought about banayn trees whose canopies cover multiple acres, of monoclonal rhizomatic aspen forests, of thousand-acre myceliums.


Having pondered somewhat in the thought-provoking exercise of the morning shower, I’d like to cite milch-cows, sheep, honeybees, and silkworms as examples of animals that we husband for continual products rather than for slaughter. Silkworms are revealing as an example because they are cropped only once per lifetime and then die, but the chrysalides are not actually a valuable product (I think they go as stock feed). If mulberry leaves weren’t so seasonal we would be tempted by a neotenous silkworm that spun a cocoon with an open end, aborted metamorphosis, and crawled out for another season. I’m not certain, but I strongly suspect that a silkworm moth masses more than its cocoon, so it ought to be possible to double the conversion of food into silk.

Examples of perennial crops exploited at large scale since early times include grape vines, olive trees, date palms, plantains.

Eating hypertrophied seeds to the predominant extent we do is an accident of evolution. Annual grasses pre-adapted themselves for domestication because their ecology rewarded large high-protein seeds. Other plants such as the grape, plantain, and olive associate a food bribe for propagating specie with their seeds. But it is not important to humans that the grains of food be seeds, or that they be derived from the ovary of a flower at all. The Beltian bodies, Beccarian bodies, Müllerian bodies, and pearl bodies (see of assorted myremecophytic acacias suggest a plant structure that is not a fruit at all, just engineered to be harvested.

The issue with the Beast is not I think the mass of the individual. There would be a convenient size; energy efficiency might dictate that in some climates beast be large and hairy to conserve heat. Rather, the economic condition would be that the fodder planets have enough biomass invested in roots, stems, and leaves that they can collect solar energy efficiently, and no more, putting their net energy production at maturity into nectar and food bodies, and that the browsing robots have enough biomass to collect those products efficiently and no more. It’s a ratio of biorobot mass to phytofactory mass to plantation area that matters, and the size of individuals is an adjustment parameter for optimising the bioenergetics.

obSF. I was driven to these ideas by considering the limitations of nanotech and the future of biotech, but I think Jack Vance and Brian Aldiss got there earlier and probably by other routes. Consider the houses in Houses of Iszm, or the “plot of fibre-trees” that the boy Mur tended in the first chapter of The Faceless Man, whose bobbins had to be kept wound tight lest the thread grow coarse and lumpy, Consider the character I half remember from The Canopy of Time whose high-biotech lunchbox was a very-much-altered camel.


Well, if you’re going to that type of thing, your best example might not be human at all. Aphids suck the sap of plants, usually without killing them outright, and ants tend aphids and harvest their secretions; there you have a (possible) perennial supporting a (possible) perennial.


It is even wilder than that, sometimes. Ants propagate plants. Ants fertilise plants. Ants destroy pests of plants. The ecological relationships among myremecophytic acacias, sap-sucking aphids, mites, and thrips, browsing herbivores, and different species of biting ants are well worth reading about¹ Another interesting example for future biological and ecological engineers is that of parasitic wasps that feed off nectar from plants, and hunt pest insects only to lay eggs in, not to eat. There is fascinating stuff going on with leafcutter ants and their underground fungus farms, too.

I’m put in mind of Proverbs 6:6 “Go to the ant, thou SF writer; consider her ways, and be wise”. There is more to be learned there than John Wyndham found.

¹ In one experiment researchers built a fence around a patch of myremecophytic acacia to exclude browsing animals. The plants responded (plastically!) by producing smaller, fewer food bodies and (if I remember aright) smaller domatia. The ants responded to that by husbanding aphids.


There is also, though, the case of the adult female whose primary function is to provide offspring that will be slaughtered: to enable us to eat veal or lamb or suckling pig. The mother is not going to be annually destroyed and replaced; she’ll be kept around till she ceases to be usefully fertile.


Indeed, and in a way she is the prototype of the Beast. The Beast is like her, but produces a calf that is 100% prime cuts , without bones, hide, and offal, and that doesn’t need to be slaughtered and is really cheap to butcher.


How do Beasts reproduce? Do they use the same reproductive tract for cuts of meat and for juvenile Beasts? Do they have two different reproductive tracts? Or do they depend on cloning to reproduce, like plants that have been bred to produce infertile fruits? Those have different implications for metabolic cost and for sustainability in a low-DL economy, I think.


I don’t think they do. Probably Matrices produce Beasts.

A Matrix would be something somewhere between a bioech exowomb and a bioengineered broad-spectrum host-mother-animal. Thinking of it one way you imagine it as sessile, with its food brought to it. The other way it might be a large browser like a rhinoceros. Both types are probably supplied to different economic niches. The Swiss-Army-knife version probably includes an array of gonads that produce the zygotes of different Beasts, but in commercial models you probably produce the zygotes separately and implant them. Matrices produced commercially are probably difficult to reproduce, but open-source and socialist Matrices probably have a built-in self-reproduction function.

Matrices probably work just fine with human, and certainly with at least some parahuman, embryos. So a colony on which the Matrices survived would have been able to continue with artificial reproduction through the Age of Isolation, even if their development level fell well below the level needed to produce and operate hard-tech exowombs. Which gives me an idea for a colony, maybe Simanta.

Pearl bodies show that plants are capable of producing a food as nutritious as milk. Beasts probably don’t suckle, but are born sufficiently advanced to thrive on plant foods.


You make me think of something I wondered about in connection with Transhuman Space: Are things moving toward the point where people don’t bear children genetically related to them, but buy fertilized ova from a supplier, perhaps with traits that don’t breed true, like hybrid seed (if I understand it correctly)?


It varies from society to society. A lot especially of the rich ones are moving, but not necessarily to that point.

  • In the Empire (IDJ, that is) people have a collection of their gametes taken when they are inducted into the Imperial Service; the gametes are stored cryogenically with each Imperial Servant having deposits in at least three repositories in different star-systems. Then the Imperial servants are semi-permanently sterilised.

    When an Imperial servant wishes to have a child (which, customarily, they do in pairs and small groups) they obtain an ovum and some spermatozoa. They may withdraw their own from a repository (which can take a few weeks). They can use someone else’s that the owner gives or sells them, or that they inherit ownership of. They can get a genome (commercial, legacy, open-source, or bespoke) and have the chromosomes synthesised, then have those implanted into a (natural or synthetic) ovum. With these gametes they can have an ovum made, which they can either get implanted into the uterus of a woman or gestated in an exowomb.

    The cultural assumption is that couples are combining their own archival gametes if they are a heterosexual couple, using chromosome-implantation if neither of them can supply an spermatozoon, and using a synthetic ovum, chromosome implantation, and mitochondrion transplantation if they can’t supply an ovum. But some people are doing other things — that’s between them and their reproductive technicians: confidential, but they often talk about it and nobody much cares. Some women like to gestate at least once: opinions are divided about whether it is a good thing, but soft-TL10 obstetrics blunts the disincentives and it’s a more common choice than you might think.

    It’s not usual, but nevertheless common to have two children at once in separate exowombs, or one gestating naturally and the other in an exowomb, then chain the parental leave allowances of the two together so as to give a longer period of child-raising to both children. Triplets are much rarer. Quadruplets are considered a bad idea even with child-raising and house-keeping robots.

    Most Imperial servants assume that since there has been nothing wrong with their ancestors’ genes for the past five generations there will be nothing wrong now. Others choose to have parahuman children. A few have their DNA sequenced and an ideal combination of genes from each parent selected, then have a set of chromosomes synthesised that they could have produced naturally if every helpful crossing-over had occurred and the right chromosome ended up in the gamete at meiosis. The result is sometimes a sibship that is technically a clone, even though the children are years apart in age. And sometimes brothers and sisters who are genetically identical except as regards one sex chromosome. PCs have often encountered NPCs with identical twins who are much younger or older, and once with two pigeon pairs of twins, each having an identical twin in the other pair.

    There are some dark mutterings (amongst players, not amongst characters) the Home Office Reproductive Services is clandestinely supplying Imperials not with their own gametes but with (a) genetically engineered ones, (b) those of corrupt officials, or © those of Imperial heroes, stolen from the private deposits in the repositories.

  • On Simanta they have matrices at the regional prolesariums that produce and gestate zygotes of the various parahuman types. These are raised and socialised by specialist workers. Simantans do not expect ever to reproduce, and under most circumstances they are not fertile; their sexual organs are for recreation and not for procreation. However, they are all taught about sexual reproduction, gestation, childbirth, and child-raising at school, and their gonads are dormant, not vestigial. If they were to stop receiving the oral contraceptive that is added to all food on Simanta (it is not a contraceptive but inert to primitive humans) then they would become fertile. This is a precaution against economic or technological collapse.


Once you can replace the incest taboo with an incompatible-genetics taboo, much of the incentive to determine someone’s genetic parentage (as distinct from their environmental parentage) goes away. “Would you rather have a child who looks like you, or one who thinks like you?”


I’m not sure you can replace a taboo founded in the fear of moral impurity with an ethical guideline founded in prudential concerns. At least, in the process of turning into a taboo, the prudential guideline seems likely to mutate into an irrational aversion with different content.

Colonies in "Flat Black" are basically post-apocalyptic