Jul 5, 2010

Does Anyone Care?

A wormhole, by CorvinZahn
Are there any aliens "out there" who care about Earth and humanity? Many science fiction stories are built around the idea that aliens might travel vast distances to Earth and attack the technologically-inferior humans. I think there are more interesting ways to write science fiction stories about aliens who visit Earth.

In his novel Contact, Carl Sagan imagined that the galaxy was teaming with alien life forms. In an effort to get to know the primates of Earth, those aliens sent a radio message to Earth and explained how to construct a device (some kind of transport pod that could travel through wormholes) that would allow humans to travel across the galaxy and visit the alien beings. This made a fun adventure for Ellie Arroway, but for the most part the aliens were not very interested in primitive primates.

Similarly, Arthur C. Clarke wrote some science fiction stories in which advanced aliens did not seem particularly interested in humans. The question was asked in Contact: Would we be interested in some random ant hill? Why should aliens be particularly interested in Earth?

In the Ekcolir Reality
In his story Homo Sol, Isaac Asimov imagined that the galaxy contained aliens who ignored Earth until humans were able to develop the technology needed to reach another star (alpha Centauri).

One answer to the Fermi Paradox is that extraterrestrial civilizations do not reveal themselves to primitive creatures like us. If there are alien life forms watching Earth, what level of technologically advancement might they expect us to achieve before they bother making contact with Earth?

In Cellular Civilization it is imagined that aliens came to Earth long ago, but they did not want to reveal themselves to Earthlings. However, the aliens are interested in Earth and they can't resist performing a bit of genetic engineering on Earthly life forms. The aliens also collect samples of Earthly life and take those samples away to be "cultured" on distant worlds.

Eventually some troublesome primates (us) develop a technologically advanced civilization on Earth. The aliens find this problematical. Humans are making a mess on Earth. The aliens develop a plan for removing humans from Earth and returning the planet to the status of a peaceful garden, free of the technological excesses of humanity.

In 2008, Part I of Cellular Civilization was written. I'm now starting to develop Part II, which shows what happens to Charlie Parker after he is taken off of Earth. Charlie learns that there are humans who live at colonies scattered around the Solar System. Charlie gets a tour of the Solar System, including visits to the moons of Jupiter, but he is frustrated by the fact that nobody has ever met an alien.

Cellular Civilization is set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe. In Homo Sol, Asimov explored the idea that there are psychological rules that govern humanity. In the Exodemic Fictional Universe I imagine that there is a basic rule saying something like: no good can come from contact between species with widely different levels of technology. Rather than interact directly with primitive Earthlings, the aliens surround Earth in layers of Genesaunts, life forms that trace their origins back to Earth, but which have various levels of technological development.

Charlie has climbed up one level from Earthly technology to the level that characterizes the Genesaunts who live out in the Solar System beyond Earth. In Part II of Cellular Civilization, Charlie will journey out of the Solar System to a nearby star and climb up another Genesaunt level. At that third level, he will find Interventionists who are ready to reveal themselves to Earthlings and start the process of removing all humans from Earth.

Part II of Cellular Civilization is under construction. Collaborating authors are welcome.

Image. The image above is my concept map for Part I of Cellular Civilization.
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Jun 29, 2010

Yo, Robot!

Yo, robot!
positronicly endowed with audacity
Daneel Olivaw, super star
guardian of humanity!
Ya, robot, sure you are

poor Hari Seldon
what you put him through!
then just dump the Foundation
First, and the Second, too
Yeesh, robot!

Daneel Olivaw, super star!
Yes, a robot, by three laws bound
yet you took things too far!
one more law you found
your one law to rule them all

Trevize and Janov fashioned as your tools
Blissenobiarella with tastes positively geriatric!
a woman following genetic rules,
programmed for behavior robotic
choose Galaxia, lest we to aliens fall!

Daneel Olivaw, super star!
transformed to human from robotic
take Fallom's brain, you'd go that far
different, transductive, hermaphroditic
become not robot, and so craftily!

Daneel, say it's not true!
but if Isaac Asimov could not say…
could not decide what next to do,
it falls on us to find a way
to the Start of Eternity!

Image. Cover art for Isaac Asimov's Robots and Empire.

Jun 28, 2010

The Moon in Science Fiction

In 2009, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission took place as part of on-going efforts to search the Moon for water. In what some have called the first work of science fiction (Somnium by Johannes Kepler) it was imagined that creatures living on the Moon made use of large bodies of liquid water.

These days, it is hard to imagine natural reservoirs of liquid water near the surface of the Moon, but if there were large deposits of water ice then it would become easier for human colonists to survive on the Moon.

Like many science fiction writers (see this list) I often find it convenient to make use of the Moon as a location for a human outpost. In The Search for Kalid, one of the main characters visits the Moon and explores an outpost where a small group of humans hide their little colony behind tunnels that are flooded with water. The residents of the colony are hiding because they have unusual brains that give them a kind of telepathic ability.

In Foundation and Earth, Isaac Asimov described a secret base, hidden under the lunar surface, where the positronic robot Daneel had worked for 20,000 years to guide humanity towards a safe future. Of course, Daneel is not your typical robot since he has telepathic abilities. Still, Daneel does not want to attract attention, so he works hard to make sure that the location of his lunar base is secret. In The Start of Eternity, Asimov appears as a character who goes to the Moon and learns that alien beings from a distant Galaxy long ago established a hidden base of operations on the Moon.

Predestination Moon
In 2009 I wrote Moon Hammer, a science fiction ghost story. In Moon Hammer, I imagine that Heinrich Kramer, a famous witch hunter, was taken to the Moon and his mind transferred into a robotic body. Kramer lives on and is present on the Moon when the LCROSS rocket booster strikes the surface of the Moon. It is rather chilling to note that Kepler's fanciful story about a trip to the Moon apparently resulted in accusations of witchcraft against Kepler's own mother. That's a rather appalling welcome from our Demon-Haunted World to the newly emerging science fiction genre.

In 2008 I started a novel, Cellular Civilization. Cellular Civilization is a story set in what I call the Exodemic Fictional Universe. There is a secret base on the Moon where hidden Observers collect data about the development of Earth's human civilization. Earthlings go about their affairs, unaware of the fact that some people (the Observers) are living on the Moon. Observer Base is also home for the Overseers, descendants of Neanderthals. The Overseers are a kind of police force who keep the Observers in line and cover up any evidence that might suggest to Earthlings that they are being observed.

X-Phile Moon
Having made a good start on Cellular Civilization back in 2008 and getting some collaborative help, particularly with the 'Thomas' character, I recently returned to the story. The first part of the story (written in 2008) mostly takes place on Earth. Two of the characters (Charlie and Lanora) depart from Earth and begin a new adventure in the outer Solar System. Not only are there humans living on the Moon, there are also other human colonies scattered around the rest of the Solar System. My plan is to show some of those other colonies and then Charlie (an Earthling) and Lanora (by the way, 'Lanora' is not her real name) will get to travel out of the Solar System.

Nicotiana Intervention
In Cellular Civilization there is no space travel at faster-than-light speeds. I'm still thinking about the issue of how to depict the years-long journey of Charlie and Lanora to another star. Maybe they will just treat the cruise as their honeymoon. If you have ideas, feel free to join the fun.

Related Reading: science fiction stories set on the Moon

Jun 27, 2010

Most Gentle Stream

In Isaac Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity, the crafty Noÿs Lambent looks into her own future and sees that she will fall in love with Andrew Harlan. Of course, that happy future is only one of an infinity of possible futures, but she makes it her own. Andrew Harlan is helpless to avoid the fate that Noÿs selects for them.

In Cellular Civilization the crafty Dexamene Gregores is not so lucky. Of course, poor Dexamene does not have access to time travel technology and other wonders from 10,000,000 years in the future. But all is not lost! Dexamene does have access to technology from the past, a past in which nanorobotic alien life forms came to Earth and stirred up trouble.

What kind of trouble? Humans.

Ancient myths are sprinkled with stories about god-like beings who have the magical ability to play with human emotions. The star-crossed lover is an age old literary concept. Arthur C. Clarke noted that advanced technology might seem like magic or the work of a god-like being.

I've long wondered what technological tricks were used by Noÿs to manipulate Andrew's behavior. What kinds of chemicals were in the drink she gave to Andrew when she seduced him? Did Noÿs (or, possibly, some lurking positronic robot) use telepathy to put ideas into Andrew's head? Or did that only require a revealing wardrobe from the 482nd Century?

Dexamene does not hesitate to use every weapon in her arsenal to make Charlie fall in love, but Dexamene is a busy Interventionist and does not have time for romance. However, Dexamene does have seven spare clones, her sisters, who can be called upon to do her dirty work.

So Dexamene brings her sister, Yasas, to Earth and arranges that Charlie and Yasas fall in love with each other....all it takes is tight pants, pheromones and some minor brain surgery...well, that and the fact that Yasas can amuse Charlie by casually discussing theoretical physics and spaceship propulsion systems. In the end, both Charlie and Yasas are content to find themselves together, splashing around in love's most gentle stream.

True, we do not usually think of brain surgery as a means of making someone fall in love with us, but Yasas is not limited to bear skins and stone knives, as Bones once described the high technology of our primitive times. Yasas is a product of Genesaunt culture and the beneficiary of cultural artifacts arising from alien life forms that brought advanced nanotechnology to Earth millions of years ago.

In the skilled hands of Yasas, brain surgery means memetic surgery, a technique that allows individually identified synaptic connections to be trimmed and pruned. Charlie's brain is putty in her hands, but shaping someone's emotions it is delicate work and while she's busy making Charlie fall in love the crafty Dexamene is making Yasas fall in love with Charlie.

Charlie and Yasas eventually figure out what happened to them, but they are resigned to their fate and offer few objections. Anyhow, they soon find themselves caught up in a larger mystery and on their way to the stars.

Image. Apologies to Domingo Alvarez Enciso.

Jun 21, 2010

Synthetic biology

The cloned sheep Dolly
We humans have long depended on pre-existing, naturally-occurring organisms that reproduce and provide us with more "copies" of useful creatures. The great diversity of living organisms on Earth has apparently been generated by processes of biological evolution taking place during the past few billion years.

I say "apparently" because we have very little information about the history of life on Earth. And we are now entering into a new era during which we will have amazing new technologies to facilitate the design and creation of new forms of life.

Humans have used artificial selection to produce many kinds of useful plants and animals and now genetic engineering allows precisely engineered genetic variants of existing organisms to be produced. Animals such a livestock can be artificially reproduced by cloning, using the existing DNA of an individual to take control of an egg cell and produce a new organism.

Craig Venter and his research team recently manufactured an entire bacterial chromosome and made what they call a "synthetic cell" by transplanting the artificial genome into an existing bacterial cell. Their goal is to design useful bacteria "from scratch" that can then be used by humans for many purposes and in ways that are not possible for naturally occurring bacteria.

What are the limits for such "synthetic biology"? In 1959 Richard Feynman gave a lecture in which he explained that "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom". By 1959 it had been recognized that the genetic instructions for making all the proteins of a living organism are stored inside cells as a nanoscopic molecular code (DNA). What about other important parts of our biological selves? Are our memories and thoughts efficiently encoded and stored inside our brains or is there room for a synthetic biology program that might allow us to greatly miniaturize a human brain? Theoretically, how small could a human-like artificial intelligence be made?

The "wires" of a human brain are axons. In modern electrical engineering terms, the axons of neurons are pitifully inefficient devices for transmitting electrical signals. A typical axon is about 1000 nanometers in diameter and can conduct electrical pulses at a rate of about 100 per second. Current semiconductor manufacturing processes create circuit elements that are about 100 nanometers across and that can operate at electrical signal pulse rates in the megahertz range. Additional miniaturization might be possible and take us into the realm of true nanoelectronics.

We humans are taking our first steps into the age of nanotechnology. Who knows what might be possible given a few thousand years of continuing developments in electrical engineering and biology? Will it become possible to make artificial lifeforms that more efficiently accomplish what the human body can do?

It is fun to speculate about the the possible existence of human-like organisms on planets of distant star systems. What if some human-like species evolved millions of years ago and mastered nanotechnology long ago? What if an alien species created artificial life forms with nanoscale components rather than the microscale cellular components that are used in our bodies? It might be that interstellar travel is more conveniently accomplished by such artificial life forms than by biological organisms that are composed of cells.

What if such hypothetical artificial life forms visited Earth millions of years ago? What if such artificial life forms were here on Earth right now, watching us? Would we be able to detect them? How might they communicate with us, if they wanted to communicate? Would such visitors to Earth be content to communicate with us or might they long ago have been tempted to start tinkering with the genes of Earthly lifeforms? Such issues are explored in the collaboratively written story I'm not you. The story is under construction and additional collaborating authors are welcome.

Related reading
: Molecular Communication

Jun 18, 2010

Mysterious Motivations

Carl Sagan
In his novel, Contact, Carl Sagan explored the idea that our universe was created and the Creator tried to communicate with us. Sagan suggested that the Creator might have selected the physical properties of our universe and in some way encoded a message to us in the very structure of space/time. In the story, human scientists discover how to read that message, using the tools of science to discover proof of the Creator's existence.

Sagan further suggested that beings like ourselves, using the tools of science, might be able to create new universes. Similarly, In The Last Question, Asimov imagined that humans will eventually learn how to create a new universe (or, at least, re-start our own).

It was implied in Sagan's story Contact that the Creator could do no more than create our universe. After the creation, events proceeded according to natural processes, with no further intervention from the Creator. Other science fiction stories have explored the idea that we humans were created by a god-like being. In The Last Answer, Isaac Asimov imagined an apparently eternal being who created humans.

Asimov asked: why would an apparently eternal being create humans? The answer, in The Last Answer, is that the apparently eternal being has nothing better to do, and hopes that eventually some thinking creature, human or otherwise, will discover the last answer, the ultimate fate of the apparently eternal being.

Is that all there is to existence for beings such as us? Is it the fate of all thinking beings to simply come into existence (by one means or another) and then have nothing else to do but try to understand their existence? And possibly find a way to put an end to that existence? Or possibly find ways to create new universes where yet more thinking beings will ponder their existence?

Arthur Clarke wrote an amusing story (The Nine Billion Names of God) in which it is imagined that humans were created as a tool for finding all the possible names of God. Eventually humans develop a computer that can complete the task and then, mission accomplished, our universe is terminated.

We live in the Age of Singularianism, where some people, other than fiction writers, anticipate that humans will soon attain god-like "superintelligence" and limitless technological powers. Is it possible for human-like beings to avoid such a "technological singularity"?

In The Start of Eternity it is imagined that a human-like species, the Huaoshy, found a way to exist, relatively unchanged, for hundreds of millions of years. When I say "relatively unchanged" I mean that there is no superintelligence in The Start of Eternity and no god-like beings with apparently eternal existence.

If the Huaoshy are content to remain, through hundreds of millions of years, as a species of individuals living in their human-like bodies, then we must ask: what do they feel is the purpose of their existence? The answer is: they enjoy the process of traveling from galaxy to galaxy, finding worlds like Earth, and making sure that human-like species evolve on such worlds. The Huaoshy are masters of a vast intergalactic civilization where millions of human-like species peacefully coexist.

In The Start of Eternity it is imagined that the Huaoshy came to Earth about 7 million years ago and started shaping the course of primate evolution so as to create -us- a species similar (in form and thought processes) to the Huaoshy.

What is the reaction of humans upon discovering that they have been created by the Huaoshy? Sometimes they are resentful, but, as told in The Start of Eternity, very few humans ever learn the truth about human origins. The Great Law of the Huaoshy says that, "It should APPEAR to every type of sentient being that they have self-determination and are not being controlled by more technologically advanced life forms." To satisfy this law, the Huaoshy prevent humans on Earth from knowing about the existence of the Huaoshy.

The Huaoshy find it useful to take some humans off of Earth. There is a small human colony on the Moon where the Huaoshy perform their experiments and make new human genetic variants. In The Start of Eternity a freak accident occurs and the human residents of the Moon are released from Huaoshy control. Then the fun begins.

The Start of Eternity is being collaboratively written. Additional collaborating authors are welcome.

Update. I'm now (2014) making an alternate version of The Start of Eternity that is called The Foundations of Eternity. In my new version of the story, characters such as Captain Hooski are Kac'hin, but they are often called "Huaoshy". The real Huaoshy remain off stage and due to their advanced technological level they might seem to have god-like power.

Jun 14, 2010

Less on the Social Ramifications of Time Travel

Time traveler Noÿs Lambent
Yesterday I started reading Isaac Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity for the 17th time. In related news, today I came across a blog post called More on the Social Ramifications of Time Travel. Golly. And I sometimes worry that I take science fiction too seriously....

Well, maybe I've only read The End of Eternity 15 times. But who's counting? In any case (15, 17 or 23), I enjoy reading this novel and I agree with Asimov who excused the scientific implausibility of time travel by saying that time travel stories are simply too much fun for writers to avoid dabbling in them.

I've always found it hard to get too serious about Eternity. I think Asimov was joking when he said that humans used time travel to send clover seed through time. He seemed to take more seriously the potential impact of future technology being made available to less technologically advanced eras. There is a rather long section in The End of Eternity about the problems arising from using time travel to make available a cure for cancer. Each person who might be saved by making the cure available to them must be carefully evaluated in order to be sure that saving their life does not cause a Reality Change. Thank goodness for the Momentum of Time! Of course, those who are told that they cannot get the cure are resentful.

The "big social issue" presented by Asimov is the sorry fact that the existence of Eternity causes human extinction and a failure of humans to spread through outer space to other worlds. Time travel is used to make Earth a safe and stable environment for humans. As the story is told by Asimov, humans stop evolving and eventually they simply die off.

One of the interesting aspects of The End of Eternity is that it is an Asimov novel that includes the idea of there being other human-like creatures who evolve on other planets of our Galaxy. A major reason for the extinction of the human species was that while humans played around with time travel technology, those other beings developed space travel technology, moved into outer space and colonized all of the available star systems before humans ever got around to developing interstellar space travel technology. We must ask: did any of those other space travelers also develop time travel? If so, how did they avoid the "trap" that led to human extinction?

More importantly, why is it that, as Noÿs explains:
"There are other stars with other planets, you know. There are even other intelligences. None, in this Galaxy at least, are as ancient as mankind, but in the 125,000 Centuries man remained on Earth, younger minds caught up and passed us, developed the interstellar drive, and colonized the Galaxy."
Why did it take 4,000,000,000 years for humans to evolve on Earth and the "younger minds" 4,012,500,000 years? Providing a reason for this cosmic coincidence was one of my goals for The Start of Eternity, a collaboratively written fan fiction sequel to The End of Eternity.

Image Credits. Noÿs Lambent is currently living in Athens. When contacted, she gave permission for her image to be used and commented, "They won't believe it's me, anyhow."

Jun 11, 2010

Better Blurbs Through Collaboration

Just yesterday I was pondering a strange blurb on the back cover of The Book of Dreams. Today I saw a blog post by Mark_W about Jack Vance's novel Trullion, which brought into question the utility of describing hussade as being played on "water-chessboard gaming fields".

I try to be forgiving of book publishers with respect to the blurbs that they put on book covers because of the difficulty I have in creating good blurbs for covers. It can be challenging to capture the interest of a potential reader with only a few words about a single aspect of a novel. There are a few scenes in Trullion where some of the characters show a tendency to analyze hussade games in the same way that you might analyze a chess match.

The blurb that I was disturbed by is this: "Jack Vance penned the book of Revelations for that pseudo-bible and thereby brought the most suspenseful galactic manhunt series ever written to a smashing conclusion." For those who never read the Jack Vance novel The Book of Dreams, within Vance's story The Book of Dreams is a kind of child's diary written by the young Howard Hardoah. At a young age Howard begins to commit horrible crimes and he grows up to be a master criminal. One of the blurbs on the back cover of my copy of this novel calls Howard's The Book of Dreams a "holy book".

Holy Book? Well, maybe. Vance depicts Howard Hardoah as believing that he is possessed and that he shares his consciousness with the personalities of a group of adventuresome Paladins. In his diary, Howard described these Paladins as the colors of his soul. Writing in his diary, Howard commits himself to a program of "self-improvement" by which he will find ways to express the colors of his soul and live up to the great potential that exists within the Seven Paladins.

Howard's diary is lost and its contents live on in his memory. His fond memories of the diary might mean that it constitutes a "holy book" for Howard, or that might be just a bit of hyperbole designed to market the novel. If we accept that Howard's diary is his "holy book" then it might make sense to call it a "pseudo-bible". So is Vance's novel a "book of Revelations for that pseudo-bible"? Is placing such a blurb on a book cover really an effective way to sell books?

Another question that interests me is: what did Jack Vance think about his novel being described as a "book of Revelations"?

I suppose good marketing is usually a bit over the top. The goal of a cover blurb is to attract a reader's attention. Does it matter if after the story is read that readers feel the "blurb" was not a fair indication of the story's actual content?

For the back cover of The Start of Eternity I've struggled to find a concise way to describe the nature of a rather complex struggle between the alien Huaoshy and a group of positronic robots from Earth. At the heart of that conflict stands the issue of time travel as depicted in Isaac Asimov's novel, The End of Eternity and the positronic robots are inspired (in a fan fiction way) by Asimov's robots.

The Start of Eternity is collaboratively written and can be edited by anyone. When written in an open, collaborative way, readers of a novel can click the edit button and make adjustments. The reader need not suffer with the eternal existence of cover blurbs provided by a publisher.

Image credits
. Image Source.

Jun 7, 2010

Free Will

What makes us tick?
Nanites are one of the important plot devices and an imagined future technology in The Start of Eternity. The Huaoshy are aliens who wield advanced technology and they make use of nanoscopic devices that can invade a human brain and alter the function of neural networks.

The Huaoshy have long been visitors to Earth. In the distant past they evolved a human-like intelligence on their distant home world. The Huaoshy first visited Earth millions of years ago. They performed artificial selection on primates and designed humanity so that we humans have brains and behaviors that are similar to those of the Huaoshy. In short, the Huaoshy created us in their image.

This might all sound like a recipe for some rather standard alien invasion story with evil aliens using their advanced technology to enslave humanity, but the Huaoshy follow a set of rules that govern how they interact with other life forms. One of those rules says: It should APPEAR to every type of sentient being that they have self-determination and are not being controlled by more technologically advanced life forms. While they do follow this rule, the Huaoshy only feel obliged to make sure that we humans believe that we have free will and self-determination. For example, if a human somehow learned of the existence of the Huaoshy, they would not hesitate to use their nanite technology to erase the human's memories and knowledge of the Huaoshy.

The skeptic might ask, assuming these circumstances, if we humans would actually have free will. Mikel G Roberts pondered the effects of allowing nanites into our bodies. "Would that make us lose our humanity? Lose our soul?"

In The Start of Eternity the Huaoshy are not interested in depriving humans of free will and self-determination. For the most part, the Huaoshy are content to have shaped our species...they are not interested in micro-managing our personal lives. Of course, given the advanced technological powers of the Huaoshy they sometimes can't resist shaping the behavior of individual humans. Such is the plight of Gohrlay, the main character in The Start of Eternity.

Gohrlay before the brain scan
Gohrlay comes dangerously close to discovering the fact that aliens shape and sculpt the course of human evolution. She finds evidence that the course of human evolution on Earth has not been natural, but she assumes that genetic alterations to Earthlings have been carried out by meddling humans who live on the Moon. Along the way, Gohrlay violates one of the central laws of her culture and she becomes a criminal. Having come too close to the truth, nanites are sent into her brain and many of her memories are suppressed. Gohrlay is aware that she has been punished and has lost important parts of her memories. She finds that she is no longer in complete command of her own behavior and that she can no longer discuss with her friends what has happened to her. She hates the fact that she has lost some memories and lost control of some of her thought processes.

Gohrlay's fate might be viewed as a violation of the Huaoshy rule requiring that humans believe they have free will and self-determination. However, she blames fellow humans for her plight, so the meddling Huaoshy get off on a technicality. The fact that Gohrlay has lost precious memories and is no longer in complete control of her own behavior pushes her towards a critical decision. She agrees to participate in a dangerous experiment that will destroy her brain. I've blogged previously about Gohrlay's decision to die. She would rather try to gain a chance at a second life through the experiment than continue living her mind-altered half-life as a punished criminal.

R. Gohrlay the robot
Even though Gohrlay has lost some of her memories and has been isolated from her friends, she still feels like she has free will. However, she wonders if along with her memories she lost some important part of herself that would not have allowed herself to volunteer for the experiment that will destroy her brain. She can't help wondering if she is deluding herself into believing that her mind's physical substrate will be scanned during the experiment and successfully converted into circuits that will produce a new synthetic copy of her mind.

Which is worse, losing your free will or fearing that you lost it?

Image Credits. The image at the top of this blog post was made using copyleft images by John A Beal, Nicolas Genin and Patrick J. Lynch and can be re-used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike License

Jun 4, 2010

Passion for Writing

I just saw a blog post that asks, "How do you keep the passion flowing in your life?". For the past two months I have been trapped in the real world, isolated from my current fiction writing passion, a science fiction story that is tentatively called The Start of Eternity. Being kept away from something is a good way to judge your passion for it....the longer you are away, the more desperate your longing to return and the more intense your desire for reunification. I suspect that if you have to work at keeping it "flowing" then it is not really passion.

David G. Hartwell cleverly noted that "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Is Twelve", and that was about my age when I discovered science fiction. I had seen some science fiction on television before that, but I did not really have an appreciation for the fact that there were written science fiction novels.
Then one day in the library I came across a copy of Isaac Asimov's novel, The Gods Themselves. Soon I started writing my own science fiction stories....with a passion...a passion that has never died.

From the first bumbling steps of my earliest science fiction writing I've been intrigued by the challenge of creating science fiction stories that move beyond the conventional boundaries of our ordinary lives. Star Trek took us off of Earth "where no man has gone before" and while Asimov usually contented himself with stories about events in this galaxy, during my "golden age" of discovering science fiction I read E. E. "Doc" Smith's space operas and so I started thinking about travel between Smith quaintly put it: traveling at the speed of thought.

So here I am, 40 years later and still writing about travel between particular, the travels of aliens, the Huaoshy, human-like beings from "a galaxy far far away" who have spent the past billion years spreading their civilization from galaxy to galaxy.

First Contact
One of the prominent science fiction themes is "first contact", stories about the first time that humans interact with human-like beings from another world.

Most such stories about "first contact" are set in our future. However, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the idea was presented that advanced alien beings might have long ago come to Earth, and such aliens might even have been responsible for the way our species has evolved. Carl Sagan took such thinking to the extreme and suggested that our entire universe might have been created by aliens who, by design, made this universe a hospitable place for creatures like us.

As shown by Clarke and Sagan, it is possible to write science fiction novels that assume "first contact" came long ago. However, they wrote stories in which the aliens had very limited interaction with humans. The X-Files depicted aliens who came to Earth long ago and who continued to interact with humans during our lifetimes.

The Start of Eternity is an example of a science fiction novel that assumes alien beings have long been visiting Earth. For such stories, a key issue is: if aliens are here among us, why don't we know about it? In The X-Files there was some kind of complex conspiracy by which some humans on Earth who knew about the aliens continually worked hard to keep existence of the aliens secret. I think humans are too incompetent to keep such a secret, so for The Start of Eternity it is assumed that there are alien visitors here on Earth who have very advanced technology that makes it easy for them to keep their existence hidden from humans.

These simple assumptions about secretive aliens who have long been visiting Earth create many rich opportunities for science fiction stories. How can we not be passionate about exploring these possibilities? After all, maybe there are such alien beings here already.

The Start of Eternity is being written collaboratively; new collaborating authors are welcome.

Image credits. The image at the top of this blog post is an illustration by Henrique Alvim Corrêa for the Herbert Wells novel The War of the Worlds. The second image (photo by Donald Schmidt) shows the library where I first discovered the literature of science fiction.
2013 reboot. I've "re-imagined" The Start of Eternity as The Foundations of Eternity, now part of the Exode Trilogy.

Apr 2, 2010

Wiki Fiction Blog, Year 1

This blog post is a look back at the first year of this blog. There were 84 blog posts and about 44,000 words. That means there was a new post about every 4-5 days and about 520 words per post. There were an average of 7 posts each month and the most active month was February with 13 posts.

During this past year I have become very involved with writing The Start of Eternity, a fan fiction sequel to Isaac Asimov's time travel novel. In honor of all the attention I've paid to Asimov's science fiction in this blog I selected an image that includes Asimov to grace this blog post. That image was created for a blog post called Asimov the Collectivist.

If I have to select one blog post from the past year as my favorite, it would be Time Loop. While developing the plot of The Start of Eternity, I came to realize that it would be fun to write Asimov himself into the story. During the past year I have benefited from writing about my fiction, both here and in my on-wiki blog.

Year 2. I don't enjoy writing fiction if I feel like I have a deadline or a due date. However, it might be possible for me to complete The Start of Eternity before the end of 2010. I hope that during the next year there might be at least one person who sees this blog and decides to participate in some collaborative fiction writing. Although The Start of Eternity has grown to 130,000 words, new collaborating authors are welcome, either for that project or another collaboration.

Mar 25, 2010

Denisova hominin

interbreeding populations of humans (source)
Sometimes it can be a struggle to make science fiction more interesting than science fact. In The Start of Eternity, a fan fiction sequel to Isaac Asimov's time travel novel, I imagined that 20,000 years ago there were four distinct subtypes of humans on Earth. Further, I Imagined that when the Neanderthals became extinct, the last ones alive on Earth lived in central Asia (see map).

mitochondrial DNA
Today I heard about the discovery of Denisova hominin, what might have been an actual fourth human subtype that shared Earth with Neanderthals, Homo floresiensis and modern humans. So far, all that is known about this subtype of human comes from study of a finger bone. The bone yielded mitchondrial DNA which suggests "Denisova hominin" branched off from the Neanderthal/modern human lineage about a million years ago.

Asimov's Struggle With Aliens
In The Start of Eternity, there are characters such as Overseer Doltun who could possibly be descended from "Denisova hominin". Before the discovery of "Denisova hominin" I was imagining that the Overseers were possibly Homo ergaster or a similar ancient human variant.
Update: the blog post, above, was written in March 2010.

Ancient Denisovan-related mitochondrial DNA from Spain (2013) 

Related reading:
Evolutionary History and Adaptation from High-Coverage Whole-Genome Sequences of Diverse African Hunter-Gatherers

In 2013 I began to re-work The Start of Eternity so as to make it the first book in the Exode Trilogy: The Foundations of Eternity, Trysta and Ekcolir, Exode.

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Mar 14, 2010

Pi in Fiction

When my thoughts turn to pi, I always think about Carl Sagan and his novel Contact. During the past year I have mentioned Sagan in about 10% of my blog posts, which is a good measure of my amazingly high regard for his ideas, even though he only ever wrote one novel.

In Contact, Sagan imagined a possible form of evidence that could make a scientist believe that our universe was created by a "designer". Sagan explored the idea that an advanced extraterrestrial intelligence might have shaped the physical laws of our universe and, during the creation process, left a "signature of the designer" in the form of an unusual value for the number pi. As a learning tool, Contact provides an interesting exploration of the difference between science and religion. I'm always pleased when fiction writers manage to slip in some math, science or philosophy.

Does mathematics provide us with tools for describing the universe or is the universe in some way fundamentally mathematical? Albert Einstein wrote, "as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." I've been thinking about mathematics while creating The Start of Eternity, a fan fiction sequel to Isaac Asimov's time travel novel. Asimov constructed his Foundation Saga on the idea that it might be possible for mathematical laws to guide the course of human history (psychohistory). Adopting a hint from Asimov, The Start of Eternity position's Asimov's time travel novel firmly within the Foundation Fictional Universe.

In Asimov's time travel novel he introduced the idea that time has momentum. When time travelers go back in time and change Reality the course of history can be deflected, but then it usually returns to its original course after several centuries. In his robot stories, Asimov wrote about the Laws of Robotics existing within positronic brains as a kind of mathematical foundation upon which robot behavior is built.

All of these examples of mathematics in fiction (Sagan's "signature of god inside the value of pi", Asimov's psychohistory, idea of momentum for history and a mathematical foundation for behavior) strike me as fun, but silly. All of these examples seem like the sort of fictional mathematics that a physical scientist might daydream about and have fun incorporating into a story.

Silly? Yes, in the sense of extrapolating ideas that are familiar to physical scientists into the domain of living systems. My favorite example of this kind of extrapolation is how some physicists have explored the idea of quantum consciousness. I'm in favor of letting people "think outside the box", but it gets a little strange when people who are trying to do science are exploring ideas that seem even stranger than Sagan's made-up "signature of god" inside pi.

In the The Start of Eternity I've been trying to apply ideas such as attractors and catastrophy theory to biological systems. I'm still wondering if there is a way to portray psychohistory as a "cover story" for advanced knowledge of future events that is actually obtained by time travel...and feeling a bit odd that I am more comfortable with the absurdities of time travel than I am with psychohistory. Small prayer for pi day: Seldon forgive me for my limited faith in mathematics!

Related reading: Comments on Carl Sagan's novel "Contact"

Mar 13, 2010

Listening to the universe

A novel that had an important influence on me is An XT called Stanley. The key plot idea in An XT called Stanley is that a radio signal from another world is received and it allows people to make an artificial intelligence. Would it really be possible to understand a message from another world that explained how to make a computer that could think?

A similar story was A for Andromeda where the alien-inspired computer was able to make an artificial human that was a puppet for the alien-inspired computer that wanted to a) take over the world or b) save humanity from destroying itself...dunno which... guess this confusion is what is known as "mixed reviews"...I never read the novel or saw the TV show. In either case, I like the idea of a kind of boot-strapping of technologies that would essentially allow an alien mind to reach Earth by way of a radio signal. Could such an alien-designed/human-built computer easily create a synthetic human and use it as a kind of alien puppet?

When Carl Sagan wrote his novel Contact he used the idea of a radio telescope receiving instructions for how to build a complex machine. In that case, the machine was a device that allowed travel between the stars. It would sure simplify interstellar travel if you could just send out coded messages and have assorted intelligent beings pick up the signal and then build nodes for the galactic transport system.

But how would even a devilishly clever alien make sure that a tribe of primates on a distant world could understand the instructions for how to build an advanced hunk of technology? Imagine sending instructions for how to make an iPhone back to the year 1850. In the Movie Contact, the alien message is at first indecipherable but then it is realized that the data files must be assembled in a three dimensional pattern....and....magically all becomes clear.

A similar "first contact" story is Robert J. Sawyer's Factoring Humanity (I've never read it). If the aliens are so smart, why should they be satisfied to send us instructions for anything as mundane as an intelligent machine or a worm-hole generator? According to Kirkus Reviews, Sawyer's signal from ET has instructions that explain to humans how to slip into the "fourth dimension" where it is possible to magically "plug into humanity's collective unconscious, or overmind".

Arthur Clarke pointed out that advanced technologies can seem like magic. Maybe Hoyle's Law should be: "If received by radio telescope, any advanced technology can be magically understood".

If there were an extraterrestrial intelligence that wanted to establish communication with planets like Earth, would they be satisfied to simply send out radio messages? In The Start of Eternity, the alien Huaoshy have been around for about a billion years by the time when their spaceships finally reach Earth. The story is set in Isaac Asimov's fictional Foundation Universe where faster-than-light space travel is possible. The Huaoshy have an ancient legend about the time before they learned how to travel between the stars. In those ancient times, they sent messages into outer space with instructions for how to build high-tech devices.

In the case of "The Saga of Uvadekoto", the alien message does not arrive by anything as mundane as radio waves. There is an entire branch of physics (sedronic physics) that is unknown to our Earthly science. I felt the need to move beyond the standard model in order to make room for Asimov's plot elements: time travel, hyperspace jump drives and telepathy. As depicted in "The Saga of Uvadekoto", the recipients of the "sedronic signal" from the Huaoshy are not quite as primitive as we are. It is fun to imagine that, as proud as we are of our technology, we might even now be bathed in signals from extraterrestrial intelligences. We might lack the technology that is required to receive those messages. It might be the Huaoshy Law: beings that still only know about electromagnetism and not sedronics are unable to decode our messages anyhow, so we will only transmit sedronic signals." So here we sit, listening to the universe and puzzling over the silence of the radio bands.

Mar 10, 2010

Science in Fiction

Micromegas Plaque by guyblade

We are building upon a solid foundation, the age of fiction, and now we are creating and layering on a new age of science. Is fiction really the foundation for human culture? The universe played a nasty trick on our species. We got into an evolutionary arms race during which we competed with each other to see who had the better brain for predicting the behavior of other people. We constantly imagine what other people are going to do: our brains are fiction generating machines. Of course, we are not able to prevent ourselves from applying this great predictive tool (the human brain) to other parts of the universe besides people.

We are very good at imagining human-like agents that might account for the weather, the seasons....everything. Our naked primate senses cannot reveal the true nature of reality, but we are free to imagine "explanations" for the mysterious phenomena of the universe. And we've been at this myth making for a long time. Some of the most popular myths and memes are powerfully integrated into our cultural substance. The brain, as a fiction-generating device, has an interesting feature: we easily come to believe our own fictional accounts of reality.

Slowly, while stumbling around in our fictional gardens of Eden, humans found a few inroads to reality, surprising ways to escape from the blurry world view provided to us by our limited senses and our gorgeous imaginations. Ancient astronomers played an important role by systematically recording the positions of stars and imagining precise and predictive mathematical descriptions for cosmological phenomena. Then the fun began. Inconvenient truths such as heliocentrism contradicted some popular myths and now we have battles between those who seek the truth and those who pretend that their fictions already reveal the truth.

The era of science is still exploding and morphing and our culture's foundation of fictions is creaking under the weight of science. Science has brought novelty and change to humanity and, as a species, we are like a surfer who is riding a big and wild wave. Western culture often seems split into two cultures, and the process continues by which those on the outside try to understand and adjust to the changes being wrought by science and technology.

If fiction and science are two different ways by which people explore the universe then what is science fiction? Strange things happened during the wars between the "two cultures" and between those who would defend faith in ancient myths against the shifting and invading sands of scientific objective knowledge. Attempts have been made to create a great barrier between fiction and science. That artificial barrier is being side-stepped by science fiction. Each time that scientific methods reveal new parts of the universe to us, that provides new opportunities for the creation of new fiction. Science fiction is stories that allow us to have fun with new ideas and explore what might be possible with new knowledge and technologies.

Of course, there are degenerate forms of science fiction, sometimes euphemistically described with terms such as "cautionary tale". Writers who focus their fiction on the dystopian and the apocalyptic need not understand the science and technology that they write about. For such writers it has now become a lucrative proposition to write science fiction that adapts the form of some more ancient fiction genre and simply layers on a few techno-wiz-bangs. Such is the price for the success of science fiction.

Science fiction is in what I think of as its "half empty or half full" period. Visionaries such as Asimov and Clarke used their imaginations to take us to wonderful new places. Other writers label their work as "science fiction" and use the trappings of wiz-band tech to drag us back into their favorite age-old nightmare visions of doom and destruction. It takes all types, and I welcome everyone to the science fiction party, from Doris Lessing to James Cameron.

Much of what might be called "SciFi" allows old issues to be explored in new ways. My personal preference is to use science fiction as a way to explore new ideas and new possibilities. I'm also interested in the idea that new information processing and online collaboration tools will allow us to tell science fiction stories in new ways. Why can't some stories be told through the creation of virtual reality environments where "readers" participate in and create the "story"? I hope that our current tools such as wikis and MMORPGs are hints of glorious new story telling opportunities that will soon be here. Along the way we might even be able to slip in some actual science.

Mar 9, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction

The brain is molecules all the way down.
In what is now probably the most profitable science fiction story of all time (Avatar), the protagonist transfers his mind to a new body. Mind transfer has become a staple plot element in science fiction: human to chimp, human to robot, robot to human, alien to human, human to alien-human hybrid...have mind, will transfer.

From time to time it is fun to take stock of the relationship between our science fiction plot devices and real science. The Dick Tracy science fiction wrist phone of the early 1940s is no longer a gee-wiz science fiction plot element. How are things looking on the mind transfer front? Luc Reid recently tried his hand at comparing the reality of brain science to science fiction depictions of mind transfer.

While trying to explain the complexity of biological brains, Reid describes the mind-generating machinery of our brains as being composed of "two major systems". Reid's approach to explaining how a brain makes a mind is rather contorted and it made me think of Paul Churchland's book "The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul". In that book, Churchland was doing some rear-guard maneuvering to convince philosophical mind/brain dualists that we need not imagine any non-physical components of mind. As an example of how some "explanations" of phenomena can be too complex, Churchland pointed to Betty Crocker's account of how microwave cooking works.

jumping minds
According to Betty Crocker, microwaves cause 1) water molecules in food to vibrate which causes 2) friction which makes food hot. Similarly, Reid's two step account of brain function involves both 1) neural networks and 2) chemical systems. Betty Crocker imagined that making hot food involves something more than vibrating molecules and Reid imagines that our minds are more than neural networks. What more? According to Betty Crocker vibrating molecules is not enough to make hot food because, in addition, you need heat. According to Reid neural networks are not enough to make a mind because, in addition, you need chemicals. Reid seems to imagine that neural networks are little electrical circuits: "our mind is much larger than our brain, encompassing a wide variety of sensations and emotions that, while they trigger neural activity, are at least as chemical as they are electrical." Similarly, Betty Crocker went out of her way to "explain" to us that microwave cooking is more than just making more molecular motion in our food.

The alternative view of the mind is that, "our mind is the activity of our brain". Just as heat in food is molecular motion, neural networks in our brains are chemicals. Sensations and emotions do not trigger neural activity, they are the activity of our neural networks. There is a famous joke in cosmology about it being "Turtles all the way down" and in the case of neural networks in our brains, it is molecules all the way down. Neuroscientists do not study neural networks on Mondays and then take up the task of studying brain chemicals on Tuesdays. The study of neural networks in the brain is fully integrated with and dependent upon the study of brain chemistry. Our neural networks are chemical systems.

In The Start of Eternity, the protagonist, Gohrlay, gets to learn about the advanced brain science that makes mind transfer possible. At no point does she pause and exclaim, "Wait, what about the chemicals?" The story assumes that hard-working scientists have developed the technology needed to scan the structure of a human brain and translate the neural networks into the form of functionally equivalent positronic brain circuits inside a robot. Rest assured, all of the brain chemistry has been taken into account.

Update: Foundation of Eternity
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Mar 8, 2010


One of the themes of this blog is collaboration. I often have the feeling that I am collaborating with my favorite science fiction authors and I most frequently mention Asimov, Clarke and Vance.

Most of the stories I write are set in what I call the Exodemic Fictional Universe. I usually mention Arthur C. Clarke as having played an important role in orienting me towards a type of science fiction that adopts a particular solution to the Fermi Paradox. However, I was also heavily influenced by Doris Lessing's novel Shikasta.

Shikasta is not the kind of story that appeals to a casual reader. As influential as it was for me, Shikasta is not a fun story that I frequently go back to and read again. I'd call Shikasta "gritty" and the Nobel Committee applied a description to Lessing ("pitilessly probing social critique and a fearless ability to look inward") that seems to be a good description of the tone in Shikasta.

Parts of Stanisław Lem's Solaris and Shikasta are not traditional narrative. I do not believe that science fiction novels have to conform to traditional formats. I've been thinking about non-traditional story content in the context of fiction that exists in wiki format. I've been making some non-traditional story elements for The Start of Eternity, a fan fiction sequel to Asimov's time travel novel.

In particular, I'm making a chapter for The Start of Eternity in which the protagonist, Gohrlay, has recently been subjected to disciplinary measures imposed by the police-like Overseers. As part of her punishment, Gohrlay's memories have been scrubbed and she cannot remember her family or her close colleagues among the Observer corps. While she begins her new life, Gohrlay attempts to consolidate the fragments of her remaining memories and she begins to keep a kind of electronic diary.

I've been having fun trying to turn the contents of Gohrlay's "diary" into something that resembles the kinds of online communications tools that are now blurring the boundaries between blogs, email and chat. So, I tip my hat to Doris Lessing: thanks for the inspiration.