Sep 29, 2009

The Djinn

I previously blogged about the story Moon Hammer, a science fiction ghost story. I'm getting close to writing the "thrilling conclusion" of the story and I've started thinking about the main character as a genie.

I'm fairly certain that I was introduced to the concept of a "genie" by the television show "I Dream of Jeannie". By thinking of them as a silly Hollywood plot device, I was successful in dismissing genies from my thoughts until I read Gödel, Escher, Bach and saw Douglas Hofstadter's description of meta-genies. A meta-genie can grant meta-wishes. For example, a regular genie cannot grant a wish about wishes such as, "I wish that you grant me 100 wishes". Of course, there are also meta-meta-genies, etc. In Arabian mythology there are several types of sentient beings including humans, angels and genies. In what sense is the "Moon Hammer" character Brother Institoris a genie? If Institoris is a genie, then are there also meta-genies in Moon Hammer?

"Moon Hammer" is a story set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe. The Exodemic Fictional Universe includes the idea that there are "layers" of sentient beings between Earth humans and aliens from other star systems. For stories set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe it is essentially impossible for Earthlings to meet space aliens...if you are lucky you might get to interact with a Genesaunt. In "Moon Hammer", Brother Institoris is a "poor man's Genesaunt", existing on the lowest rung of Genesaunt culture. Institoris was taken off of Earth 500 years ago and allowed to have an "afterlife" with his mind housed inside a robotic body.

It has been suggested that in some ancient Middle Eastern cultures "genies" were sometimes viewed as evil females who could do things like spread diseases among humans. Spreading disease was one of the claims that has sometimes been made against witches by European witch hunters like Institoris. It is a bit of a crazy, but fun, strange loop to think of Institoris as being a genie. A genie is "concealed through time" and that describes Brother Institoris in Moon Hammer. After 500 years on the Moon he is "released from his bottle" and allowed to haunt Earth.

It will be a shame to have to stuff Brother Institoris back in a bottle, but the meta-genies are ready and willing to do so. We might wonder why any responsible meta-genie would leave a genie's lamp laying around where bumbling Earthlings can get at it. In the case of Moon Hammer, the problems arise because curious Earthlings cannot keep from bumbling around the Solar System.

Image. "FataMorgana8" by Wim Strijbosch. GFDL

Sep 20, 2009

Moon Hammer

In my blog at the Fiction Wikia I previously introduced my ghost story project, Moon Hammer. In the story, Earth is "haunted" by a "ghost" from the 15th century. The "ghost" is the "spirit" of Heinrich Kramer, a famous witch hunter who died in about 1505.

While Kramer did become famous for the widely published witch hunting manual that he wrote, he spent most of his life working to counter early elements of Protestantism. It is fun to think how Kramer might have reacted if he had been taken to the Moon and allowed to watch events on Earth during the past five centuries.

In "Reason as memetic immune disorder" by PhilGoetz there is discussion of the idea that religions are like memetic viruses and human cultures have ways of "immunizing" themselves against the damage that can be done by virulent ideas arising from religion. For example, religious zealots like Kramer can believe in evil-doing witches, but secular societies can simply say, "there are no witches and we will not prosecute people as witches". Of course, immunization takes time, and many innocent people were persecuted as witches before Western culture learned how to protect itself from witch hunters. And even in the "end", it is still an on-going struggle, just as flu viruses endlessly circulate and challenge our biological immune systems. You never know when a virus will mutate and the old immunity will no longer be adequate protection.

What if Kramer "came back from the dead" in 2009? How much damage to Earth could be done if a "Sermon from Purgatory" was delivered by Kramer? In Carl Sagan's novel "Contact", a "booming voice from the sky" is received by radio telescopes. Some of the religious faithful expect to be visited by a vengeful God, so they turn to acts of violence in order to show that they are not complicit with all the sinners. "Moon Hammer" might work best in 2012 since that year seems the next "big thing" for folks who want to see the end of the world, but I'm trying to get a first draft done by the end of this October. It would be fun if a complete production like The War of the Worlds could be ready by 2012.

Image. Public Domain.

Sep 9, 2009


Yes, Virginia, there is a Singularity. Plot elements such as molecular nanotechnology, artificial superintelligence, indefinite life-extension are fun topics to explore in science fiction stories. When do rational people cross the boundary between, 1) the idea of a technological singularity as an interesting issue that we should pay attention to and 2) predicting "the" date when the technological singularity will arrive? Part of the answer to this puzzler is: follow the money. Singularianism is pushed in much the same way that the USA was pushed to war in Iraq by false claims about weapons of mass destruction. Why is it so hard for people (and I mean all of us) to sort fact from fantasy?

At the Accelerating Future blog Michael Anissimov says, "I’m just writing this post to let my readers know that I no longer think that technological change is reliably accelerating." That kind of talk reminds me of the time after the invasion of Iraq when all the rats started jumping off of the Bush administration ship and started saying, "we were just kidding about the weapons of mass destruction".

People are susceptible to wishful thinking and propaganda. This is why skepticism is so important. What should a skeptic say about artificial superintelligence and indefinite life-extension? First, these are biology issues. A skeptic should ask: is it non-biologists who are the most enthusiastic about progress towards these possible future technologies? How many biologists who enthusiastically talk about life extension are just trying to get their hands on research funding? Second, what do we actually know about the biological basis of human intelligence and human aging? Is there anything like a logical set of steps that could form a path from neuroscience to "superintelligence"? Does the fact that people live longer now than in the past in any way suggest that "indefinite life-extension" will become possible or desirable? What about "molecular nanotechnology"? How can anyone predict what will become possible for such a new field?

Having said all of the above, I'm still interested in the question of why some human cultures support scientific research and experience technological progress while others do not. Why is the importance of experimentation and observation (and skepticism) recognized and welcomed in some cultures while being ignored or even fought against by others?

In the case of artificial intelligence research there might be many interesting social reasons for slow progress. In a world where many research dollars for artificial intelligence research have come from government agencies that want technology for military purposes, do most scientists simply avoid the field? Artificial intelligence research is at the intersection of biology and computer science. Do the people who could do the needed interdisciplinary research get funding or does funding just go to microspecialists who will never make any real progress?

In 1833 William Miller predicted that the end was near. For adherents of Millerism, it was a "Great Disappointment" that the world did not end. Most people alive today lived through millenialism in the year 2000. Now we have to suffer until the end of 2012. What will be the next year after 2012 to be milked by millenarism? Alan Turing was among many to predict machines with human-like intelligence. He expected such devices by the start of this century. Now the adherents of singularianism have made predictions for the date of arrival of the "singularity". Here is my prediction: we will see these predictions slip 10 years further into the future for each 5 years that passes.

My hope is that science fiction writers will continue to write stories that explore the implications of technological change without being greatly influenced by the folks who imagine that the end of the world as we know it is near. Sure, there is $$$$$ to be made in stories about the end of the world, but after a while all that noise becomes boring.

Image. Public domain. Source.

Sep 7, 2009

The Medium Future

I just found "Jack Vance and the Medium Future" by Robert Gibson. Gibson suggests that, "The ease of interstellar travel has the effect of retarding other types of scientific advance."

I suppose the idea is that in the Vance Universe it becomes easy for people to ride a spaceship to another world and live happily without any need to develop advanced technologies such as robots with human-like intelligence. Sorry, but that just does not do it for me. Even if 99.99% of humanity was content to live a bucolic existence on worlds such as Trullion, all it would take is that other 0.01% to keep pushing the envelope of technological development.

Gibson also mentions, "the deliberately anti-progress organization called simply the Institute, which is rumoured to use unscrupulous means to suppress inventions that might free mankind from toil". I think that the kind of technological stasis that is seen in Vance's "medium future" would only be possible if there was an active mechanism for the prevention of technological innovation. In the Demon Princes series, Vance carefully developed the Institute as a powerful force, with some even fearing that the Institute might soon start placing limits on space travel.

At the end of The Book of Dreams, the status of the Institute is very uncertain. The new head of the Institute is shown as being unsympathetic to the "secret" of the former leadership. Alice Wroke's father is revealed to have been a member of the ruling council of the Institute.

I think it would be a tribute to Vance if a sequel to "The Book of Dreams" was written. The sequel could explore the mystery behind Howard Alan Treesong's rise to rank 99 within the Institute. Why did Alice Wroke's father avoid the banquet where the rest of the Dexad was poisoned? What new directions are taken by the new leadership of the Institute? What will Gersen and Alice do after leaving Bethune Preserve?

Related Reading: ideas for a sequel to The Book of Dreams.

Image. Public Domain. Source