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Jan 27, 2010

Isaac Asimov's Nemesis

Among science fiction fans, Isaac Asimov is probably most famous for his stories about artificial intelligence (particularly his robot stories) and for his Foundation Saga. Asimov managed to knit together his robot stories with the Foundation in a most satisfying way.

Asimov included a "note to readers" in his novel Nemesis. He wrote that he might someday write another novel that would tie Nemesis to the Foundation/Robots/Empire fictional universe. Sadly, Asimov was taken from us before he had a chance to do more than tantalize us with a hint.

The Mule by Michael Whelan
Can we find a satisfying way to fit together the pieces of Asimov's novels and find a way to integrate Nemesis with the rest of Asimov's fictional universe? In Forward the Foundation, Asimov mentioned (in section 5 of part IV) an ancient mythical story about a woman who could communicate telepathically with a planet near a star named Nemesis. This mention of "Nemesis" came in the context of Hari Seldon's realization that his granddaughter Wanda had telepathic ability. If Asimov had found a way to continue the Foundation Saga beyond the events depicted in Foundation and Earth, might he have had more to say about Nemesis and how it fits into the entire Asimov Fictional Universe?

One of the topics that winds through Asimov's science fiction is "mentalics", Asimov's term for telepathic powers. Asimov first wrote telepathy into his Foundation Saga in the person of the Mule, who was depicted as a mutant. Asimov later wrote extensively about how Seldon discovered the existence of humans with telepathic abilities and how that discovery allowed the Foundation to be established. Working secretly behind Seldon was Daneel, the telepathic robot.

cover art by Don Dixon
Within the Foundation Saga there was the world Gaia, an entire planet that existed as a "group mind" with telepathic powers distributed among its residents. I'm imagining that "Nemesis" is the name of Gaia's star. How could that be?

In The Start of Eternity, Asimov's Foundation Saga is linked to Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. I imagine that before the Foundation Reality, there was an earlier Reality that we could call the Nahan Reality. R. Nahan is the telepathic robot who first builds a time travel device. I imagine that it was Nahan who first started performing telepathy experiments on Gaia.

Nahan used time travel to go back in time and make a Reality Change. In a subsequent Reality, Daneel was the one to go to Gaia and begin his work that would eventually lead to Galaxia. I refer to that Reality, the one depicted in Asimov's Foundation Saga, as the Foundation Reality.

One of the "twists" in The Start of Eternity is that Asimov appears as a character. In Foundation and Earth, Asimov introduced the idea that positronic robots like Daneel can transfer their minds into the biological brains of humans. Asimov has a "close encounter" with a time traveling positronic robot who transfers her memories into Asimov's brain. Asimov goes on to create his Foundation Saga by drawing on those implanted memories from the future. One of the implanted memories is the "myth of Nemesis", but the myth does not include the location of Nemesis or the fact that Gaia is the name of the "conscious world" near Nemesis. Asimov goes on to write his own story about Nemesis and Erythro.

Erythro by Guillaume Clarisse
Note 2013. I've started a new fan fiction version of events that follow Asimov's novel Foundation and Earth: The Foundations of Eternity.

Note 2014. A new twist on the origins of telepathy.

Top Image. "Nemesis Roman goddess of retribution Marble 150 CE" by mharrsch.
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Jan 23, 2010

Realism in Science Fiction

Annalee Newitz recently asked "Why Is Hard Science Fiction So Unrealistic?". Newitz is interested in the tradition of literary realism and she says: "realism in fiction and film has generally been an effort to represent the experiences of ordinary people". Is there a shortage of "ordinary people" in hard science fiction stories?

The definition of "hard science fiction" is problematical because it is at risk of changing in response to evolving conceptualizations of science. We live in the age of science, an age characterized by cultural change that is due to science and technology. As recently as 30 years ago science fiction was a much simpler part of human culture than it is today. In 1978, William Bainbridge and Murray Dalziel were able to comfortably divide science fiction into three parts: hard science fiction, fantasy, and new-wave. (see: "The Shape of Science Fiction as Perceived by the Fans") Today, there is a much broader collection of well-recognized sub-genres in science fiction.

In the data set analyzed by Bainbridge and Dalziel, Isaac Asimov was ranked as the most distinctive hard science fiction author. In 1978, Asimov was one of the iconic figures of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Larry Niven is a good example of the next generation of hard science fiction authors. Science fiction is "hard science fiction" to the extent that it concerns itself with scientific advance and technological change and does so in a way that respects the nature of the universe and how science allows us to understand the universe. In my experience, authors with a personal interest in science and an understanding of how science works are the most likely to write interesting hard science fiction.

There are two common misconceptions about hard science fiction. Bainbridge and Dalziel explicitly stated one of these misconceptions. They wrote that hard science fiction: "refers to stories built around certain facts or speculations concerning the 'exact' or 'hard' sciences". It is true that the exact sciences dominate research expenditures, press coverage and popular concepts of what constitutes science. It is true that icons of hard science fiction such as Asimov and Niven were trained in mathematics and "hard science". Those truths are a consequence of the fact that the historical development of science is shaped by working scientists who tend to "divide and conquer". Scientific problems are sorted according to ease of progress and many physical science problems are the easiest and so have been tackled first. Simple problems like how to describe the nature of electromagnetism were studied first. More complex and challenging biological and social science topics are only now starting to receive adequate attention from scientists. Thus, identifying hard science fiction is not a matter of distinguishing between fiction that involves "hard science" or "soft science". Hard science fiction can certainly involve "soft science"; what is important is only that science and technology elements be present as a core aspect of the fiction.

Annalee Newitz raised (in her article) a second major misconception about hard science fiction. In discussing hard science fiction she equates hard science fiction with scientifically-accurate storytelling. This is simply wrong. There are sub-genres of science fiction within which scientific realism is prized highly. For example, the restricted comfort zone of mundane science fiction never pushes us beyond the current facts of science. However, both Asimov and Niven often extrapolated far beyond the "facts" as currently known to science. Two examples are Niven's stasis field and Asimov's Eternity. These two imagined technologies are "space/time bubbles" within which the known laws of physics explicitly do not apply. Science can tell us nothing about Niven's stasis field or Asimov's time travel device, yet they are both plot devices that exist comfortably within the genre of hard science fiction. They are depicted as the products of future science and technology and they are incorporated in their respective stories in a scientific (if entirely speculative) way.

Realism in science fiction is not to be confused with scientific realism.

Having raised the red herring of "scientifically-accurate storytelling", Annalee Newitz turns to another issue that seems to be her main concern: the types of characters and plots that we find in hard science fiction. Newitz constructs a dichotomy between science fiction with

1) "rebel heroes and extraordinary leaders" and "unrealistic megabeings with superpowers" and "alternate realities...focusing on technologies"

and fiction with

2) "ordinary people" and the "regular guy" and "building up social worlds" by showing "everyday life".

Newitz is asking: can't there be a better mix of realism and hard science fiction? We can ask, why does hard science fiction tend to be divorced from realism? These questions only make sense if you adopt a conventional definition of literary realism, and for the moment we can do so.

I think the fundamental source of the perceived split between realism and hard science fiction is that there are two fundamental directions from which science is approached in literature, a split that has variously been characterized as involving The Two Cultures or Culture Wars or postmodernity. This split involves a "glass half empty?" argument about the nature of science and its impact. Hard science fiction was born as a genre that was often "optimistic about the value of scientific and technological progress" and it remains so optimistic that its great works often depict dramatic transformations of human culture and human existence. In contrast, much of what counts as literary realism in science fiction is pessimistic and depicts imagined worlds where science and technology are powerless to change human existence for the better.

Hard science fiction stories traditionally extrapolate a scientific idea or technological power in such a way that we are transported to an imagined culture where the ordinary has been transformed into the extraordinary by science or technology. That is often the whole point of the story: science changes everything. Newitz is suffering from her misconceptions if she imagines that it makes sense to hope that hard science fiction will become more realistic in the literary sense. It would be paradoxical and self-defeating for a hard science fiction author to imagine a wonderful bit of technology and then write a story in which that technology changes nothing and people simply remain as the "ordinary people" of our everyday experience.

I sympathize with Newitz when she complains about science fiction television programs that strive to deliver realism. Most of these television shows are produced by people who think that they can cash in on the popularity of science fiction by putting a spaceship or a cloned human or some other "wiz-bang" plot device into a story and have it constitute interesting science fiction. Such television shows tend to be mind-numbingly "realistic" by endlessly showing people who are unable to change themselves for the better no matter what wonderful technologies are available to them. These programs depict conventional literary realism but the methods and workings of science are almost never realistically depicted.

Transformation of the ordinary into the extraordinary is often a central part of hard science fiction. The typical protagonist of hard science fiction is an ordinary guy, but that guy often does something great or is transformed into something great by the application of science and technology. That is why hard science fiction is often so unrealistic...if you define "realism" as a depiction of current everyday existence. Hard science fiction is often about showing the ways by which science can lift us out of our current reality. Newitz specifically mentioned Asimov and she claimed that he was a failure at realistically depicting everyday life. Some of his science fiction was set in the 20th century and I'd challenge Newitz to explain how those stories (particularly many of his robot stories) failed to be realistic.

Hard science fiction authors such as Asimov are probably best known for taking readers into strange new lands where the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary and that probably takes some people out of their comfort zones, particularly television executives. If hard science fiction is done well, then even a world in which the ordinary has become extraordinary can be realistic about the nitty-gritty of everyday existence. Literary realism may have originated among non-science fiction writers and it may have originally been restricted to realistic depictions of current-day existence. There is nothing preventing science fiction authors from bringing realism to imagined cultures where everyday life is extraordinary if viewed from our perspective. Some types of hard science fiction can certainly seem unrealistic if you restrict your concept of realism to the perspective of one culture at one point in time. Science fiction is very much concerned with challenging those kinds of conceptual limitations. I'm willing to redefine and broaden the meaning of "realism" in the context of science fiction.

It is fun to follow hard science fiction authors like Asimov to distant imagined cultures. While doing so, we can be transported to places where everyday events are far from ordinary (according to our standards) and ordinary people (according to the standards of the imagined culture) get to do extraordinary things (measured by our standards). In The Start of Eternity, Gohrlay is an ordinary person in her culture. She just happens to be a Neanderthal who lives on the Moon. It is still possible to write about her life with realism. Cellular Civilization is set more within our everyday reality, but it is still possible for even the most ordinary characters like Charlie Parker to be transformed into something extraordinary by technology. In such stories I do not feel any conflict between hard science fiction and realism. Of course, I don't feel the need to adopt a restrictive view of realism.

Nor do I expect most people (including Newitz) to understand and appreciate hard science fiction. The narrowness of the Golden Age of Science Fiction provoked the "new wave" struggles to broaden the scope of science fiction. That led to the current popularity and diversity of science fiction and a state of affairs where we have hoards of "experts" on science fiction who do not understand science. Most of what passes for science fiction in popular culture is parasitic on the genre and endlessly tells us the same boring story: people living in the age of science who do not understand science are like deer standing transfixed by the head lights of an on-rushing car. I suspect that hard science fiction is a sub-genre that can only be understood and appreciated by people who are part of the scientific sub-culture. People familiar with science are comfortable with imagining alternate realities and can develop a flexible conceptualization of "realism". Once you make those moves, you are not left in the past with a narrow view of literary realism and you will become aware of the large amounts of realism that does exist within hard science fiction.

Image. Cover image for Cellular Civilization. Image credits.

Jan 20, 2010

The Free Brigade

"At its core, belief in capitalism is belief in mankind." -Johan Norberg

"...capitalism is not merely the 'practical,' but the only moral system in history." -Ayn Rand

One of the great themes of speculative writing is post-scarcity. Capitalism is inherently an economic system for conditions of scarcity. Many science fiction writers have explored the idea that technology should allow us to create a future in which the necessities of life are abundant and money will become a thing of the past (Star Trek example).

In New York Times Calls Free Brigade’s Bluff by Jonathan Fields, he wrote, "Despite the ballyhoo of the Free Brigade...there is no free." Apparently "the free brigade" refers to people who have suggested that (all?) information distributed on the internet should (could?) be given away for free.

I suspect that for Fields "there is no free" means that if you want to read newspaper articles that are written by professional journalists then someone has to pay those professionals. Clearly there is some free: the internet now has large amounts of free content and ad-supported content. These days, people have choices. Do I want free internet content or do I want to pay a professional for professional content?

Jonathan Fields seems concerned that once people get a taste of free content on the internet then they expect everything to be free and they will stop paying for professionally-produced content. Speaking of free content, here is some from Wikipedia:

"Competition is important in capitalist economies because it leads to innovation and more reasonable prices as firms that charge lower prices or improve the quality of their production can take buyers away from its competitors."

The publishing industry is going through a kind of shakeout in which everyone is adapting to internet technology. In the era of print publishing, content and content distribution was expensive. In the internet era the economic landscape for "intellectual content" has shifted. Personally, I wish both the "free brigade" and the "non-free brigade" well. I suspect that there continues to be huge inefficiencies in the print publishing industry. I'd like to see an economist step forward and provide an honest estimate of the percentage of revenues in the print publishing industry that goes to content producers.

If "free market" capitalism cannot provide us with the journalists we need then why not switch over to a new model? I'd gladly take on-demand internet news from an expanded National Public Radio over "free market content producers" like The New York Times and Judith Miller.

I have similar sentiments about the print publishing industry and science fiction. Rather than being subjected to the decisions of a few companies about what constitutes "print worthy content" I hope we can devise new systems that allow a much wider selection of fiction to become available on the internet. If "free market" capitalism cannot find a way to channel payment to authors when science fiction becomes widely available on the internet then I'd be willing to try new strategies such as a government-funded system that would financially support creators of cultural works.

We just went through a century during which trillions in national treasure were funneled through taxation towards transportation infrastructure. We could do the same to support professional writers and the creation of internet content, even if that content is available for free via the internet. Let's think in new directions rather than lament the passing of obsolete modes of production and distribution.

Image. Source, World Bank Photo Collection.

Jan 14, 2010

Searching

Canyons of the Ancients by rscottjones
In the early 1970s I started reading books such as Chariots of the Gods? and The Gods Themselves and my thinking was opened up to the possibility that our little world might not be as alone as it seems to be.

I think I was introduced to the Drake Equation by Carl Sagan and I still feel that I should trust his intuitions about extraterrestrial intelligence. There are probably other technologically advanced species in our galaxy, but they might not be very interested in us. Of course, it is more fun to imagine that those "others" do drop by and visit Earth once in a while...or maybe they are always here.

In 2009 I started playing around with twitter and discovered Mac Tonnies and his blog. If you are interested in the idea that there are "others" out there on other worlds then you will enjoy reading UFOs as Vanguards of a Post-Biological Intelligence
by Mac Tonnies.

Moon Hammer
Back in October of 2009 I wrote a little story called Moon Hammer which explores my favorite idea in speculative fiction: that Earth might have been visited by extraterrestrial intelligences long ago. I felt the need for a break from writing and the internets and took a two week reading vacation in order to get ready to work seriously on The Start of Eternity. During that time when I was away from the eWorld, Mac Tonnies died and the twittersphere was a much less interesting place when I got back to it and Mac was gone.

In stories like Moon Hammer and Cellular Civilization I like to imagine that a few special people "win a ticket" off of this rock and get to meet some "ancient watchers". It would be great if Mac were out there learning all the secrets that he had searched for.

I find that I cannot think about the Exodemic Fictional Universe without hearing whispers from people like Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Mac Tonnies. I have a request for 2010: no more deaths. Thank you for your assistance.
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Jan 10, 2010

Rumblings of Revolution

The Prime Radiant.
When R. Daneel Olivaw decided to bring the science of Psychohistory to the attention of humans, there were suddenly people walking around on the planets of the Galactic Empire who had telepathic ability. The first of these people with "mantalic" ability who came to the attention of Hari Seldon was Wanda Seldon, the daughter of Hari's adopted son.

As soon as Seldon realizes that Wanda has the ability to read minds, he decides that he must study "the complete genome" for both Wanda and her parents. Seldon realizes that Wanda's father, Raych, also has "mentalic" ability, specifically, the ability to control how people feel about him. Asimov hints that there are stories dating back many thousands of years about other humans who had "mentalic" abilities.

"Prime Radiant" by farstar09
If "mentalic powers" are latent in the human genome, then why is that ability never studied until Hari Seldon comes along? I suspect that Daneel, himself a robot with telepathic abilities, began studying and experimenting with human mentalics about 20,000 years before the Foundation Era. Daneel later tells Trevize that he has long been secretly developing human mentalics in the context of Gaia, a world that Daneel has slowly shaped into a telepathically-linked group mind.

Part of the special "mentalic" ability of the Gaians is that they have a limited ability to "transduce power" from energy sources, channel it through their brains and then focus it for specific "mentalic" tasks. Asimov described the Solarians, humans who used genetic engineering to make themselves into hermaphrodites and they gave themselves the needed genes for enlarged "transducer lobes". Thus, Asimov quite clearly linked "mentalics" to genetic engineering and genetically programmed brain structure.

Asimov also made it clear that a person with innate mentalic ability could, in the right environment and with practice, greatly enhance and develop their telepathic abilities. The innate and learned components of "mentalics" seem similar to our capacity to use human language. The parts of the human brain that we use for language did not suddenly appear during human evolution. It is tempting to imagine that the roots of human "mentalic powers" might also be deep in our evolutionary past. That idea is explored in The Start of Eternity where the origin of telepathic ability in positronic robots like Daneel is traced back to the human brain.

Related Reading: Foundations of Eternity

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Jan 8, 2010

Intuition

When Isaac Asimov finally got around to extending his Foundation Trilogy he introduced Golan Trevize, a Foundationer who must search for the long lost home planet of humanity: Earth. According to Gregory Tidwell, the Trevize character is "a stand-in for Asimov". Here is how the story goes: Trevize was selected to go to Earth by R. Daneel Olivaw because merging humanity into a vast group mind (Galaxia) was too important of a decision for a robot to make. As Tidwell notes, Trevize is depicted as having "the unique ability to achieve a state of perfect surety about things".

Where was Asimov going with this idea of Trevize having "perfect" intuition? Tidwell makes the point that Asimov, "hinted at some genetic or evolutionary reason for the gift, but neglected to clearly share it with the readers". However, in Foundation and Earth it is revealed that Daneel is a master genetic engineer, in fact, having learned how to imprint the Laws of Robotics into human brains.

Reading between the lines, I suspect that Daneel had genetically modified the human species long before the rise of the Foundation. Specifically, humans must have been modified to prevent them from exercising a normal capacity for creativity and invention. The Mule showed that he could modify minds and free them to attain their latent creative potential. When the Foundation was allowed to do so, new inventions like "gravitic drive" were suddenly invented after thousands of years of technological stasis in the galaxy. It is easy to suppose that Trevize was genetically engineered to be free of constraints that Daneel had imposed on other humans. Daneel's cover story was that he wanted Trevize to make a decision that Daneel was unable to make, a decision that would determine the ultimate fate of humanity.

I don't think it makes sense to look for a deeper account of the "perfect intuition" attributed to Trevize. In Foundation and Earth, the whole idea that Trevize must decide in favor of Galaxia is revealed to be a "cover story" for a deeper concern of Daneel. There is never really any doubt that Galaxia is the future of humanity. Daneel's true reason for bringing Trevize to Earth (actually, the Moon) is that Daneel needs a biological brain, and it was Trevize and his "merry band" of interstellar travelers (Janov Pelorat and Blissenobiarella) that was able to obtain the needed brain for Daneel. While searching for Earth, Trevize might imagine that he has "intuition", but he is not aware of Daneel telepathically guiding humanity according to the dictates of the laws of robotics.

It is a great source of frustration that Asimov was taken from us before he had a chance to continue the Foundation saga past Foundation and Earth. The Start of Eternity is a collaborative fan fiction exercise in exploring how to continue Asimov's story.
Image: source.

Jan 6, 2010

Religion and Science Fiction

In his novel Contact, Carl Sagan explored the idea that religion and science are two ways by which humans try to understand the universe. Sagan's protagonist, Eleanor Arroway, is a scientist, but she finds herself in an awkward position. She has a strange experience through which she makes contact with aliens, but she returns to Earth with no objective evidence to support her claim that she actually visited with aliens who live "out there", somewhere near the center of the galaxy. She wants to share her "revelation" with others, but can she really expect them to accept her word on faith alone?

The story in Contact continues and gets even stranger when Dr. Arroway, acting on clues provided by the aliens, finds scientific proof that the universe was designed by an intelligent creator. The story strongly suggests that it is human destiny to travel into interstellar space, attain god-like engineering powers and possibly create new universes. Sagan's novel provides a great illustration of two kinds of belief: 1) belief built on faith and 2) belief that is built on objective evidence.

Sagan recently appeared on a list of science fiction authors gathered together under the title, "Beware of Science Fiction". David Cloud warns us: "Science fiction is intimately associated with Darwinian evolution". Mr. Cloud labels Sagan as "one of the high priests of atheistic evolution" and warns, "evolution IS the pre-eminent science fiction". And, in case there is any doubt, we are told that: "Sci-fi arose ... as a product of an evolutionary worldview that denies the Almighty Creator." That is, the "God of the Bible".

Second on that list of science fiction authors is Isaac Asimov. One of the famous stories by Asimov is The Last Question, in which the ultimate creation of humanity is a vast artificial Mind that has evolved from its human beginnings and then exists into the far future until a time when the last stars are growing cold. Finally, that Mind simply says, "LET THERE BE LIGHT!", and a new universe comes into being.

Is it in some way wrong or dangerous or blasphemous for science fiction authors to say that they are aware of no objective evidence for the "God of the Bible" and turn to writing stories about an imagined future in which man might evolve to have god-like powers? Is there a problem if some creation myth composed by Sagan or Asimov or some other science fiction writer seems to be more likely than the creation stories found in the Bible? Must the faithful be warned not to read science fiction lest they be led astray?

The science fiction novel "The Start of Eternity" is a collaboratively written story (still under construction) that involves some explicitly religious plot elements. In particular, the story involves Neanderthals and other extinct varieties of humans and explores the idea that there are many forms of religious thought other than just those favored by Christian Fundamentalists.

The Start of Eternity is a sequel to Asimov's time travel novel, "The End of Eternity", but it is set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe where aliens have been keeping watch over Earth for millions of years and guiding the evolution of humans from our primate ancestors. Is it blasphemous for a science fiction writer to speculatively write about the religious lives of humans who lived tens of thousands of years ago, including our distant evolutionary ancestors? If we "did not evolve from any lower form of life" then I guess The Start of Eternity must be blasphemy from the point of view of Christian Fundamentalists. Please add me to your list, Mr. Cloud.

Related reading: THE BIBLE AS SCIENCE FICTION, Pete Soderman: "I'm not godless, the universe is godless - I'm merely aware of it!", Steven Gould: "Let’s Agree to Disagree", Russell Blackford: "Godless science fiction"

Related video: Let there be light.....


Image: Euler's identity scarification by Cory Doctorow.

Jan 2, 2010

Asimov's struggle with aliens

Jan 2, 2010
We are still in the 70th year of the Asimov Era, as defined by the time period since Isaac Asimov fiction has been in print. This year is also 90 AA, 90 years After Asimov's birth. Asimov was taken from us too early. I'm particularly distressed that his novel Foundation and Earth was left to us as the chronological end of the Foundation Series.

In Foundation and Earth, Asimov hinted that after humanity's rise to galactic dominance, there remained a looming confrontation with aliens who could arrive at any time from the depths of intergalactic space. Given another 10 or 20 years of life, how might Asimov have continued the Foundation Saga past Foundation and Earth?

Various science fiction authors and scientists have expressed quite different expectations with respect to space aliens. Two important "dimensions of expectation" are 1) the issue of just how common human-like species are in the universe, and 2) the question of how another sapient species would interact with us following first contact.

Mathemagician by 5ofnovember
Asimov indicated that his decision to have a human-only galaxy in the Foundation Fictional Universe was largely determined by the editorial bias of John W. Campbell. It should be remembered that the Foundation Fictional Universe was also originally a "robot-free zone", but just before his death, Asimov wrote R. Daneel Olivaw into the Foundation Saga and depicted Daneel as the mastermind behind Hari Seldon and the development of Psychohistory.

Personally, my guess is that there are probably other sapient species on other planets in our galaxy. I think that both Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke provided us with more realistic depictions of space aliens than did Asimov. However, I think it is possible to imagine that Asimov could have written some alien species from our galaxy into a sequel for Foundation and Earth. That idea is explored in The Start of Eternity.

the Exode Trilogy
If Asimov had managed to write some aliens into the Foundation Series, would they have been friends or foes of humanity? I like to think that Carl Sagan was right and that we should expect to make contact with friendly aliens, or, at worst, indifferent aliens. Other scientists, for example, Stephen Hawking are more paranoid. In comments about reports of seemingly benign UFOs visiting Earth, Hawking said, "I think any visits by aliens would be much more obvious and probably also much more unpleasant." In the last few pages of Foundation and Earth, Asimov seemed to be setting the stage for a suspenseful conflict between Galaxia and aliens. I feel a great sense of loss because of the fact that Asimov did not have time to provide us with his vision of that "showdown". The Start of Eternity is a fan fiction tribute to Asimov where we can explore possible ways to completed the Foundation Saga.

2015
Image. Click here to see a description of the image at the top of this post.
Related reading: City of Asimov
in 2016: "Blind Alley"
in 2017 - Host  and  A Search Beyond
________________________________
Note added in 2013: The blog post above is from 2010. In 2013 I decided to reformulate my science fiction novel The Start of Eternity as one book of the Exode Trilogy. I decided to change the title of the book to The Foundations of Eternity.
Note added in 2014: Asimov alive and kicking. The Sessily Trilogy
Asimov on his thrown by Rowena Morrill

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Jan 1, 2010

Plotcharacter

"Way is obscured when men understand only one of a pair of opposites, or concentrate on only a partial aspect of being. Then clear expression also becomes muddied by mere wordplay, affirming this one aspect and denying the rest." -Zhuangzi

The "duckrabbit" was used by Wittgenstein as an example of our ability to see something in more than one way. People can look at the duckrabbit and see it as being either a rabbit or a duck. Another common example of this is the Necker cube, which humans can mentally interpret as a box, and do so in two different ways. One of the important human cognitive abilities is being able to escape from mental ruts. We only become liberated and free when we can see the world in more than one way.

In "Rereading Clarke" by Robert Silverberg, the point is made that Arthur Clarke could tell a story that was "compelling to us despite all its literary shortcomings". Silverberg said that Clarke's work, "always struck me, despite their passages of great conceptual inventiveness, as dull, slow, and passionless."

Apparently there are two aspects of science fiction stories: 1) on one hand, there is what many readers of science fiction are looking for and 2) on the other hand, there is what constitutes "good literature", according to literary pundits. The question becomes, can a science fiction story that gets labeled as a literary train wreck be improved by applying to it, "the tricks of the storytelling trade, the array of technical devices that professional writers use to draw readers into a story and hold them there"? Or, possibly, are some science fiction fans actually turned off by literary finesse?



It seems that science fiction stories can be developed in several different ways that appeal to different audiences. Some people want action, some want "conceptual inventiveness" and some people want literary finesse. Of course, some people expect to find more than one of these in a story.

In "Character development versus plot development in fiction writing", Del Antonio states that he is disappointed if a story fails to develop either "the objective story (plot) [or] the subjective story (characters)", but I'm not sure that all science fiction fans are so picky.

I've seen critics of Isaac Asimov complain about his poor development of characters. "He's happy to be the acknowledged master of the talky story of cardboard characters, clever plotting, hard science and contention of ideas." Millions of Asimov fans do not seem to care if Asimov had stories full of cardboard characters.

Jack Vance is in some ways the mirror image of Asimov. Sometimes Vance seems to luxuriate in the process of creating quirky characters, possibly to the point of creating distractions. One of these seemingly extraneous characters is Mr. Ailett Mayneth of Starport, on the planet New Concept (in The Book of Dreams). Mayneth is only a minor character, but the Protagonist of the story (Kith Gersen) even makes an interstellar journey to New Concept just to talk to Mayneth. Although Gersen and Mayneth do get to have lunch together, in the hands of most authors, the small amount of information that Gersen gets from Mayneth would not come by way of a ten page chapter and needless strain on the Jarnell. However, I doubt if any Vance fan would complain. Vance's ability to have fun with his imagination and the creation of picturesque little worlds and quirky characters never seems to become a distraction. However, such an indulgence (and worse, strings of them) just would not suit an Asimov story. I find it easy to appreciate both Vance and Asimov for their very different styles.

However, I think I have to agree that I am most satisfied when an author can "do it all", allowing us to take pleasure in viewing a story in multiple ways, for example, by having both an interesting plot and interesting characters.

Sometimes I have the feeling that an author has fallen in love with one of their characters. In science fiction, I'm most impressed when that can happen under unusual circumstances, such as when a character is not human. I've been thinking a lot about how to make non-human characters interesting and appealing to readers. In The Start of Eternity, most of the characters are either aliens or robots. Asimov did a great job with several of his robot characters (particularly R. Daneel Olivaw), making them interesting in a non-human way. A character such as Spock, a half human, does not really strike me as being "alien enough" to be a real challenge in this department. The Q character is somewhat more interesting as a god-like being who we can relate to, but what interests me most is an alien that we can appreciate for its non-human traits.

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Gordon Hamilton wrote, "When the basis of the plot has been both established and drafted, the writer can turn their attention to character development." I think this "plot first, characters second" approach comes naturally to science fiction fans. It is fun to look on the internet and see fan fiction extensions of popular science fiction novels that were published by the Masters. Many of the fan fiction works have a very streamlined development of the plot, sometimes little more than a sketch of the story idea. This is a great way for fans to explore ideas, particularly when the original author left a story line dangling in a way that frustrates the fans. Here in the internet age, it would be fun if professional writers would use their websites to extend invitations for their fans to suggest new plot ideas. If the author liked an idea from a fan then the suggested plot could be "fleshed out" by the "Master".

Alternatively, there can be collaborations where one person might imagine a plot idea while others could develop the characters. In my experience, participating in that kind of online collaboration is a great way to learn about writing. Historically, writing has been largely a personal endeavor. It will be interesting to see to what extent online collaboration allows a greater level of cooperation between fiction writers. Novelas, the fiction wikia, is a website for exploring collaborative fiction writing, a place where we can learn together to appreciate and develop plotcharacter.

“In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.” Shunryu Suzuki