Nov 27, 2009

Diabolus ex machina

Which of these makes it onto the evening news?

1) bus crashes and children are rushed to the hospital
2) bus driver avoids collision and arrives safely at the destination

For the same reasons, the plots of many science fiction stories are full of bad news and bad breaks. A thousand years ago, if you wanted to torment your hero and build suspense you called a snake-like beast in from casting and let the battle begin. These days the diabolus ex machina is more likely to arrive from the depths of space just in time to ruin the hero's day.

I often criticize the science fiction genre for widespread lack of imagination about aliens (most recently here). Isaac Asimov ignored aliens in much of his later writing, although when he first started trying to sell short stories he wrote about things like Martians who had sex with humans and produced hybrid children.

The Start of Eternity is a kind of fan fiction sequel to to Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. While trying to pay tribute to Asimov, I find myself sending aliens half way across the universe to smash Galaxia, Asimov's vision of humanity's future.

Have I turned into what I dislike: someone willing to turn aliens into my evil henchmen? Hardly. Asimov painted himself into a corner by inventing Galaxia and leaving his Foundation Series and Robot Stories hanging, incomplete. I'm personally providing a deus ex machina that can lift Asimov out of the corner and allow fans to continue the Asimov adventures that we are so fond of. I'm willing to take criticism for what I'm doing to Asimov's fictional universe, but I don't think my plot elements are too devilishly mean or too magically helpful, either.

As I've previously discussed, I'm not a fan of a dichotomy between good and evil. I never sit down and say, "Hmm, I need to make a good (or evil) character."

Foundations of Eternity
The aliens in The Start of Eternity are not evil. Actually, I'm concerned that some readers will accuse me of using aliens as a kind of deus ex machina. I just finished writing a description of the First Contact between the Huaoshy and the Retair. It is the alien equivalent of the story about the first two automobiles in Kansas crashing into each other.

I'm interested in why some people are willing to believe very crazy ideas, but they object to some plots and start shouting, "Deus ex machina!" The Retair are a species that evolved as a kind of flightless bird. They first appear in Chapter 10 of The Start of Eternity and by Chapter 13 they are in need of a helping hand. If you think that help arrives too magically then go ahead and click "edit".

Image at the top of this blog post: Aliens as devils: Alien Pumpkin by dalangalma.

Related Reading: horror, science fiction, good and evil.

                              Foundations of Eternity

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Nov 18, 2009

Eternal Perspective

There are several online reviews and essays about Isaac Asimov's time travel novel The End of Eternity; one the longest is by Don Webb in Bewildering Stories.

About a year and a half ago I started acting on the crazy idea that it might be fun to write a sequel to The End of Eternity. I started calling that sequel The Start of Eternity. There are some past blog posts (see also the blog posts listed at the bottom of this page) about how I view The End of Eternity as an integral part of Asimov's "future history" of robots and the Foundation.

Don Webb wrote this about The End of Eternity: "It has no robots, no Galactic Empire, and no Foundations." However, Asimov linked The End of Eternity to the rest of his "future history" in his novel Foundation's Edge. Asimov wrote that robots created Eternity and used time travel to make it possible for humans to take over the entire galaxy. If we accept Asimov's suggestion that Eternity was a tool used by robots to fulfill the demands of the Zeroth Law then we can imagine that robots were lurking, unseen, in the background of The End of Eternity.

One of the remarkable features of Asimov's robots such as Daneel Olivaw is that they have telepathic powers. Don Webb says flatly that telepathy does not appear at all in The End of Eternity. However, Asimov wrote into The End of Eternity the idea that telepathy was used to introduce into Andrew Harlan's mind the idea that Cooper the Cub was really Vikkor Mallansohn. If so, then we can imagine telepathic robots who created Eternity, used it as a means to travel back and forth through Earth's history and then, ultimately, used Harlan (and Noÿs Lambent) as the means to end Eternity.

Andrew and Noÿs travel back in time to the 1930s and engineer a Reality Change that starts humanity on the path towards the Galactic Empire that is described in the Foundation novels. We must view Andrew and Noÿs as the puppets of telepathic robots who have decided that Eternity and time travel are a dead end for humanity.

If you look carefully in the image at the top of this blog post, you can get a glimpse of a telepathic robot named Rycleu, one of the secret masters of Eternity who meets with Andrew and Noÿs in the first chapter of The Start of Eternity and helps them alter the course of technological developments on Earth, allowing humans on Earth to start manufacturing positronic robots in the 20th century.

Image. The image at the top of this blog post is from the first chapter of The Start of Eternity. For image credits see this page.

Nov 14, 2009

Darkest before the storm

Not long after I started reading science fiction, I bought Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B, a collection of stories edited by Ben Bova. I got that collection of stories because it had a story by Iasac Asimov, who I had been introduced to by way of his novel, The Gods Themselves. That collection of stories also introduced me to Bova, James Blish, Algis Budrys, Theodore R. Cogswell, E. M. Forster, Frederik Pohl, Clifford D. Simak and Jack Vance...that volume provided a rather mind blowing expansion of my science fiction horizons. Jack Vance eventually became one of my favorite authors, but I mention that "Hall of Fame" volume here because of the story by Theodore Cogswell called The Spectre General which introduced me to the concept that published science fiction could be humorous. At the time I only knew of humor in science fiction from television, particularly The Trouble With Tribbles.

I think it was after reading The Spectre General that I first started to realize that I lack the ability to name characters. One of the characters in The Spectre General is named Schninkle. In a story full of soldiers with names like Krogson, Dixon and Blick, what could be better for comic relief than a stray Schninkle?

When the internet exploded and computers became geeky-cool, ReBoot appeared on television as a science fiction show. For an example of ReBoot's nerd humor see this joke.

While on the topic of humor in science fiction, check out the video in this blog post from last July (a scene from The Bicentennial Man with comedian Robin Williams as a joking robot).

While reading the science fiction story No. at Novelas, the fiction wikia, I could not get images of ReBoot out of my head. Normally I am too busy being serious to include much humor in the science fiction I write. Evil aliens who are somewhat doltish about their invasion of Earth seems to be a sub-genre of science fiction, and No. includes a rather bumbling alien who is intent on enslaving humanity. I've often wondered why aliens would come half way across the galaxy to enslave humans and conquer Earth...I mean, besides all the girls. If I had been a more avid movie goer then I might have figured this out sooner. As explained in No., the big attraction is movie theater popcorn. Not to eat...all the fatty flavoring makes good rocket fuel. I'm glad we have that settled.

Image. The image at the top of this post is from the story No.
See this page for image credits.

Nov 7, 2009

The nature of reality

Last month I started thinking seriously about the nature of physical reality. In his novel, The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov imagined the implications of possible contact between our universe and another universe where there were slightly different physical laws. Asimov's story, The Gods Themselves, was the first science fiction novel I ever read. It is fair to say that "my mind was blown" by the idea of multiple universes, each with its own set of physical laws (this was before I had ever taken a physics course).

Any science fiction story involving communications between "multiple universes" raises the problem of how it is possible to send information between two universes. I've seldom been satisfied with the "explanations" given by authors for how it might be possible to communicate between universes. For example, in his book, Paths to Otherwhere, James Hogan suggested that it might be possible for your conscious mind to "take over" the brain of your analog self in another parallel universe. As a biologist, there are few things that annoy me more than physical scientists who start playing fast and loose with the nature of consciousness. It is fun to imagine other universes, but saying that our conscious minds can magically migrate between universes is a plot device that is not worthy of the kind of hard science fiction that I prefer.

Last month I blogged about Time Travel and Mental Powers and expressed my long-standing uneasiness about science fiction stories that involve time travel, telepathy and fast-than-light travel. I think we should never tire of trying to devise better plot devices for our science fiction stories. Even if most readers are not bothered by a wave of the hand (hyperspace jump, go through the worm hole, etc, etc.) justification for science fiction plot elements, the true spirit of hard science fiction is to have something more scientific up your sleeve than just a wave of your hand.

Including multiple universes in science fiction stories has become quite common. One of the most audacious types of story involving the idea of multiple universes is the type involving the idea that it might be possible for humans or some species with advanced technology to engineer entirely new universes, or, at the very least, engineer changes to the physical laws of our universe. In his novel, Contact, Carl Sagan explored the idea that our universe might have been engineered by a "designer" who established the physical laws of our universe in such a way that a coded message was built into the structure of our universe...a message that unambiguously shows that our universe was designed, not simply created by chance. Albert Einstein famously said that he wanted to know if there was any choice in how our universe was created. More recently, evidence has been found suggesting that Einstein's cosmological constant is not a constant, that its value has changed during the billions of years that our universe has existed. If such a "universal parameter" of our universe can change spontaneously, maybe it really is possible to make modifications to the fundamental physical properties of the universe. Maybe "different universes" can differ in the details of their physical laws.

Imagine that the diagrams in this blog post represent the "dimensional state" of a universe. Further, imagine that it might be possible, by way of some kind type of high-energy physics experiment to trigger a change in the "dimensional state" of our universe. I think that Carl Sagan hinted at some such engineering project in his novel, Contact. I've been thinking that maybe our universe came into being by way of spontaneous symmetry breaking that "selected" among the possible "dimensional states". There could have been some "ground state", possibly the most energetically favorable set of physical laws. However, maybe there is a way to harness prodigious amounts of energy and shift our universe out of the "ground state" into a slightly more interesting state. What might be "more interesting"? Well, imagine that it is strictly impossible for anything to travel faster than the speed of light in the "ground state", but maybe faster-than-light communications and faster-than-light space travel might be possible upon a small engineered modification to the physical laws of the universe.

Being able to alter the physical laws of our universe might be one of the most important features of our universe. I'm exploring this idea in The Start of Eternity, a sequel to Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. The story is still under construction and collaborating authors are welcome.

Images. The images in this blog post are explained in some detail at the "meta" page for The Start of Eternity. These images are available for use under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license.