Feb 26, 2010

Speculative Science in Science Fiction

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I'm comfortable with thinking about science fiction as a type of fantastic story in which we are not forced to deal with the supernatural. If a story says that something happened because of a magic spell then I'll call that fantasy. However, I accept the idea that advanced science and technology can seem like magic.

Science fiction stories often include plot elements that seem magical and never get explained. For example, Asimov's "positronic brain" sounds cool and Asimov never tried to explain how it works or how it might make telepathy possible. Science fiction writers need not explain their faster-than-light spaceship engines, how their time travel machines work or details about any imagined technology. However, sometimes it is fun to constrain the scientific account of an imagined scientific advance or technology. For example, if Asimov says that a positronic brain contains platinum, then we start to feel that he has not tried to slip something magical past us, the damned thing is a physical device, we just do not know the technical details.

I was recently looking at Frankenstein. Shelley wrote, "I see by your eagerness, and the wonder and hope which your eyes express, my friend, that you expect to be informed of the secret with which I am acquainted; that cannot be". We were provided no details on how to create life, but Shelly went out of her way to indicate that there was a scientific way to animate non-living matter. When writing science fiction, is it best to simply avoid all detailed explanations of speculative science and technology?

Charlie Jane Anders seemed to advocate such a "less is more" approach for science fiction in the context of "the force" in Star Wars (see: The Real Problem With Midichlorians). However, I like some constraints on science fiction plot devices. Go ahead, mention that there is platinum in positronic brains, stress the importance of dilithium crystals, mention the fact that Luke has many midichlorians and so can be expected to learn how to tap into "the force". Such imagined technological details make the story richer and remind us that we are playing around inside a science fiction "what if" game, not a fantasy scenario. This is a matter of taste: some people would rather not hear about platinum, dilithium and midichlorians. I can live with variation in individual taste with respect to detail in stories that include speculative science.

While collaborating to write The Search for Kalid, I wanted to write about people who were coming to understand how telepathy is possible. I wanted there to be a speculative science account for how telepathy works. By imposing some constraints it becomes possible to make a richer story. I suppose that I was influenced in my thinking about telepathy by the idea of "midichlorians". You could say that I took the seed idea, that of a small body component that is important for "mental powers", and I ran with it. How might a biological structure (I called mine "telastids") produce a form of communications signal that might be used for telepathy?

Diagram for the roll of telastids in telepathy.

This diagram (above) is meant to summarize key parts of a "science of telepathy". Readers who are not interested in technical details can read The Search for Kalid without worrying about the technical details. If you have a taste for constraints and a few details concerning speculative science then those details are available for your enjoyment.

You might feel that "midichlorians" were "not an explanation you can build on", but I don't feel that way and I think the "telastids" are a fun direction in which to build. Science has a way of revealing that the universe is built on all sorts of things that might at first strike us as crazy or impossible. Funny how science can be dismissed as "hand waving" by people who do not want to hear the truth (example), usually people who imagine that a supernatural "explanation" is best. Sorry, but a supernatural "explanation" is the true hand waving. The speculative science "midichlorian" is the kind of plot element should be in a science fiction story.

Similarly, for The Start of Eternity I started with Asimov's suggestion and invented a reason for using platinum in positronic circuits. My main motivation for including details concerning speculative science is that it helps me make richer imagined worlds where human actions are constrained in "logical" ways. Another motivation is that by including such details the characters in stories can be shown struggling to understand their world in the way that scientists and engineers do. I think it is great when science fiction stories include people who are making scientific discoveries and developing new technologies. In my mind, throwing in a few details makes for a more satisfying account of speculative science than Shelley's "I could tell you the details, but I won't" or Obi-Wan Kenobi's techno babble account: "The force is an energy field."

Charlie Jane Anders prefers the content-free (energy field) "explanation" of "the force" because it allows for the possibility that there is no science involved, it could be that "the force" is "mystical and soul-related". Well, okay, if that floats your boat, but, um, there's a reason why it is called science fiction. Anders claims that "midichlorians actually contradict" the original content-free explanation, but I do not see how. Midichlorians were an elaboration of the original idea, a way of linking "the force" to physical reality. Sure, that will offend you if you imagine that "the force" is non-physical magic, but that's your problem, a problem that you created for yourself. I'm willing to follow Lucas in the direction he took the story rather than complain about it. I'm in the market for more platinum, midichlorians and telastids. I'm happy to find such details in my science fiction, particularly when they make clear that I did not fall into some fantasy story where supernatural forces "explain" things.

Related reading: my blog post on science fiction as a literary genre.

Feb 23, 2010

Star Dust

Earth is the faint blue dot in the brown stripe.

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives." - Carl Sagan

Or not. In Sagan's science fiction novel, Contact, he imagined that "they" have been around for a long time, even building a cosmic subway line into our part of the galaxy. So who's to say that "they" never came to this blue dot and picked up a few apes. What if there were some humans on other worlds besides this one?

That particular "what if" game is my favorite starting point for science fiction and it pushes us towards a fun answer to the Fermi Paradox. What types of science fiction stories can we create if we imagine that Earth has been visited, but those visitors from other worlds are not interested in letting us know that they were here?

If extraterrestrials did make the long journey between the stars and visit Earth then why wouldn't they make their presence known? We might just as well ask why we do not try to communicate with ants. Would some extraterrestrial being with the power to travel between the stars care about Earthly primates?

Who knows? More importantly, should science fiction fans care about extraterrestrial beings who are not interested in us? I think it is more fun to imagine visitors who do care about us, but who still keep their existence hidden from us.

What if the first extraterrestrial visitor to Earth arrived a billion years ago when the most complex organism on our world was a tiny colony of cells floating in the ocean? Well, if the visitors were from Planet Hollywood then they would have to do something dramatic like bulldoze a continent and build a vacation home. I prefer to imagine visitors who, during their millions of years as space travelers, already have accumulated more vacation homes than they need, and besides, maybe they feel that there is something rare and special about pale blue dots with life.

Maybe creatures who have been traveling between the stars for a hundred million years would be able to think of something more constructive to do than call in the bulldozers and profane a beauty spot like Earth. Of course, the temptation would be great for visitors to do something. Maybe provide a helping hand, nudge a few genomes in new directions. Ah, yes, that is where the fun begins.

The stories that I write about such visitors to Earth are part of what I call "Exodemic fictional universe".

Images. Ant Hill - II by Sayamindu Dasgupta. Alpine meadow by Charlie.

Feb 22, 2010

Cables the man

by John Schmidt and Multi Babel

(told by alien who has lived here a lot a much time)

They can call me cables the man.

And a lot was that, so that I could make that in order to wait for that. You have been firm and you have observed a clock for a day completely? It is good as that a lot of my years on the Moon was.

It transmits, however, the beginning approximately 6,000 years that the Earthlings have controlled a technological outbreak and have produced the artificial duration. So I have continued to wait for. And ago an attempt. And the majority that time, that it thinks their four is, from which the small stupid adventures of the entire group are filled up with those that tried Intervention, a length of which on the Earth to send along. In particular I have carried out a great role in the Greek flask.

It wonder to me during this determined time. Long history short circuits: we here. The human Earth, at last is returned to a virtual world; I can appreciate the digital spirit without the video, a possibility has existed to come from the other origin to me and I sit down so so so much here, download in Earth's waxes as a combatant of the Internet, to survive to in this digital jungle, originally. It does not include, if you believe my history, because my history can be localized like vociferations of spirit-sick luminous pointer. Tasked naturally me, here I spirit-sick, since I have lived here a lot a much time.

As that hour was determined years, since has arrived on the Earth. I was at the beginning instance like the digital spirit in a university's great computer. I searches and I does not demand in order to say nothing of some detail, because this nodal point of the computer is still in service, like gate, so that the spirit reaches Earth's Internet from the base of the Observer on the Moon.

The majority of people, that they demand that, indicates that they are not situated over the Observatories, so it wonders to me: specify one of the human Observers that be announced on the Earth. In the first instance, you left it like saying to me: not excuses for! because I do not put the Observatories outside. In the first instance, before they left to leave the Base of the Observers on the moon, all were contained in my memory, the identities of the Observatories of the Earth. In the second instance of the job, if the Observatories of Earth were discovered, it would be impossible to indicate that they are of the Moon. Since I have cited the first instance, single part the normal type of human beings leave Earth, go down, in order to go here and to appear like Observatories of the Earth. And one only affords to the Observatories of the grounds to use the technology that can exceed like the technology of the Earth.

I know that the Observatories of Earth have channels with the Base of the Observers on the Moon, but details of the type, in which contained my era and the job of my spirit...if really you knew the method. I would have to cite that except the Observatories, there are also Controllers. They are not many Controllers, but they are like police presence, return it good, who the Observatories follow the Rules of the Observation. In particular they control if, all the same ones that go from the base of the Observer on the Moon to crush, can be still persecuted to its origin.

It is equally the case, that the Observatories based on Earth, slowly they are eliminated. Since the Earth-human technology becomes more complex, is more and more possible that the Observatories use the automated techniques of the acquisition of data. My history is good. If you to this point can dig determined initiative in the country of contact that supports test of my history sufficient in order to hunt a good job to you of excavation and you can a card exclude the function of this Victoria of the cliff. You, that it supplies the analytical clues, ungrateful of the country over this option, is my job in the duration.

Ventilated for the music of the argument to "you are received; Left in the river of Quai" in his title and you say "of English uproars; Manmahtiti Bebobinmahtiti" they are following the end to say my name. They understand equally, because people call cables to me the man.

I must be ill delay of the alcohol, the end to say my biographies in the public of the tribune, but of the volume of I he taste of the challenge. Hatred the fact the fact that the majority of people does not create to me therefore, if says my history to her, opens to its small and loans of the human alcohol the attention.

A good place, so that it begins, is with that "life" intersections for me, the section the real life of those and the new substance, also Here, of that leaves the version to the work: Now they are a digital alcohol, but my interior of the alcohol comes a distant world from the biological module, where the inhabitants are not straight they like being human. They die and they obtain themselves here here, but probably embankment to him that I only interested for him equally, of that I did in the track… and of that you scare to me, I nevertheless I who I have become could. Despite leave to bother to me with some facts to the station of the work of, this I comes. Where they are developed me, it is the thing, that is simple to travel between the asterisks. They could say that they are inoperative to wish the end to visualize a another world. Naturally they had called it "transmigration" , it was the extremity of my physical body and only thinks always to the face of that extremity about my length. It naturally had my length after the inoperative women.

The biological organizations do not adapt for the flight of the station of the work of the well-being, therefore, than my alcohol in the transference of Klenanennieieie (insane person, only has a word for this here. Klenanennieieie is a type of server for brings back to consciousness of the group.) When I left my Klenanennieieie, I that I keep released, function excluded here in the system of the asterisk of the solenoids and in the part from later in a body he was. He especially had loathing of demanded the course of an original one of the world, but of the era of I sufficiently of my new agency. I consider that you called the country a similar agency the robot, but had some biological members. In way can you follow the alcohol of the impact? It was inside, this that you would call a body of foreign, my alcohol I that I incorporated a generator of the virtual truth (Klenanennieieie) for the along loaded course here, therefore my alcohol presents me in a local body of server.

What was next of I, since you are, the car to "equally introduced and the return of the hour to the chronometer; enjoy" Habilis of the culture of the transferences. It transmits to me arrived in this system from the asterisk 17,000 years. Now of the country you are ingenuous for you, but in another one piece biologicals that worked the canceled track to him of the track and for the one hundred of million years. It has plus the broken limitations derived from the length and the artificial length of the track, of that in the track.

I can think all you they country of ignoramuses, the end to want the knowledge, "How can the east be?" The observatories of the foreigner had observed the track here during the time very very… in billion years. It always had a party of the foreign country, of what satisfactory to the right that is being observatories. And the process of the commentary is manufacture understood in the slow possible order of the empty excluded from the modules of the function of the life of each person of the kingdoms of the length of the planet like the track. The truth will be happiness, the observatories is interests generally very, with these cultures more excluded the track from the function, when to play those that are the track with the commentary it continues.

The skeletal agreement is that one has the human being the important disturbance of the track and is disputing when considering the human being of the activity because is difficult, indifferent, the end to receive that one with the really complete work the end to observe the track. Nevertheless it is the one that I register soon after the fact which I meant that he would come to this system of the asterisk. I have the connection the majority 17,000 years slipped that the lives inferiors, of which they are worrisome of the commentary of the track. And an interesting stay had that will be observed, a little while, when the human project in an age of the cultural experience and the technological development.

The some observatories dozen To the maximum diminished receipts typically, the function now excluded in the track during a year and to the end from the reached one, where it almost has a course to break. It does trust me. The wave of the objections of the UFO of the foreign country during the 50 past years is only ideal. In case of mine 17,000 years of hard work that a planet is of the card it came downwards. The series is I processed the drinks, the end to reach, where it is today. I say "fit of down" in the action; specific due to the rule of the observer who you reach, in the order a planet like the track the end to only visualize, if you cannot be remarkable of a natural one. When in sequence trying on the satisfaction of this rule inside it fits added-self in the action, my alcohol in server similar of the robot of the human introduction of the beings body/of. Equally this taking of the form activated in the base of the moon of the commentary the end to live. The base of the moon was my phase of the test and the base that conclude outside with thousands the years of the commentary of the track of the extremity. The majority of people to the base of the observer is to be of the human being and to also assume that it was of I a robot, of which never freaked still in the mine other is east origin… is.


Translator's note: see a newly translated version.

Feb 16, 2010

God Genes

Humans are genetically predisposed to use human language. Attempts have been made to raise chimps in human families and in an environment where human language is used, chimps can learn the basics of language, but then they hit a wall, unable to deal with complex grammar. It would be interesting to know which gene combinations allow humans to do what chimps can't do.

Similarly, key elements of supernatural and religious thinking are on lists of human cultural universals. The Human Relations Area Files list rituals used to magically gain knowledge, stories of humanity's ultimate fate, superstitious beliefs about luck, supernatural beings, souls, healing and taboo behaviors. Are there specific gene combinations that predispose humans to religious thinking? Some twin studies have suggested that religious behavior has a genetic component.

In The Start of Eternity, I've been playing around with the idea that the human species was created by intelligent design. The alien Huaoshy came to Earth 7 million years ago and started genetically engineering primates. Their goal: create a species in their own image.

The Huaoshy face a challenge. They strive to create an ape that will make tools and develop an advanced civilization, but they want a well-behaved species that will easily merge into a vast intergalactic civilization along with thousands of other species from other planets.

We can think of religious ideas as memes that infect susceptible minds. In the The Start of Eternity I imagine that the Huaoshy have trouble designing a non-religious human subspecies that can compete against humans who are easily infected by religious memes.

In his Foundation Saga, Asimov included the idea of telepathic communication. For The Start of Eternity I'm imagining that there is some behavioral feature that is selected for by the Huaoshy and it is a consequence of that positive selection that telepathic ability is selected against.

Isaac Asimov wrote some amusing stories about telepathic and religious robots. QT1 invents a religion and HRB-34 can read minds. Asimov's stories were written before computer programming, but he imagined built-in rules that could shape and control robot behavior.

I'm imagining that the Huaoshy played around genetically with Neanderthals and achieved a cortical structure that resulted in a primate with Huaoshy-like consciousness and language ability. However, the Neanderthals were not very susceptible to memes like those that can make a foundation for religions. The Neanderthals were out-competed by modern humans who are better "meme machines". The Huaoshy then struggle mightily to tone-down the genetic predisposition to religious thinking that exists in modern humans before they are allowed to develop a technological civilization on Earth. However, their work is interrupted by a freak accident and a technological civilization develops on Earth before the Huaoshy can complete their work. Oh, well. The rest, as they say, is history.

The "freak accident" involves an evolutionary throwback, one of the last Neanderthals, who ends up having her mind transferred into a positronic brain. Due to the unusual physics of positronic circuits, the latent telepathic abilities of Gohrlay become amplified in her robotic analog, R. Gohrlay. The result, as Asimov said, is psychohistory.

Image. God protein.

Feb 15, 2010

Moon Dance

Lately I've been thinking about Gohrlay's trips to Earth. I had a strange image in my mind when I saw this:

"There is nothing I desire more than long days and longer nights that are completely vulnerable to my ideas. Gimme some music, gimme some paint, and I'll have a new religion so inspiring that all that's necessary is la luna to dance beneath." (source)

Gohrlay imagines that Earth is vulnerable to her ideas and that leads to her volunteering to have her brain destroyed as part of a mind downloading experiment.

"in my heart there was a kind of fighting,
That would not let me sleep: methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly,
And praised be rashness for it, let us know,
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well"

Gohrlay is the protagonist in The Start of Eternity.

new worlds
Related Reading:

Foundations of Eternity

Gohrlay's many lives

Star Dance

Image credit. THe first image was made using Noche de luna llena by Flowery *L*u*z*a*, Korean dance and KD by Xuan Tung Hoang, Korean traditional dance by remurd.

Presidents Day

I enjoy writing fiction about distant events...distant in space or time. However, I often feel inspired by events that are close to home. Truth is often stranger than fiction. This post is in honor of Presidents Day....I have no personal memory of Kennedy so we start with...

"I personally would rather have had Margaret Mead as President during the past six years of Vietnam than either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. At least she wouldn't have had her masculinity to prove. Much of the trouble this country is in has to do with the masculine mystique: The idea that manhood somehow depends on the subjugation of other people. It's a bipartisan problem." - Gloria Steinem (1970)

"I have today met with the leaders of both parties in the Congress of the United States and I have informed them that I shall immediately request the Congress to pass a resolution making it clear that our Government is united in its determination to take all necessary measures in support of freedom and in defense of peace in southeast Asia." - Lyndon Johnson (1964)

"North Vietnam cannot humiliate and defeat America — only Americans can do that." - Richard Nixon (1969)

"I'm not for women, frankly, in any job. I don't want any of them around. Thank God we don't have any in the Cabinet." - Nixon bonus quote

"My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you today that I've signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes." - Ronald Reagan (1984)

"And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
"When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2 million missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive."
"Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours. Their refusal to do so will result in military conflict, commenced at a time of our choosing."
"We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories."
"After all, this is a guy that tried to kill my dad at one time."
-George W. Bush (2001-2002)

My attempt to imagine a crazier world than our own: West Wing Wiki

Image. President's Day Mattress Sale

Feb 14, 2010

Orion's Arm Universe Project

When people learn about my interest in collaborative science fiction writing they frequently mention Orion's Arm. As far as I can tell, Orion's Arm is a fun project for its participants. Many years ago, the first time I looked at their website, I was put off by the choices that the founders of the project made.

Most importantly:

"Almost without exception, aliens were technologically inferior to the terragens, or, where equal (as with the Muuh), reclusive and in decline. Not one race of alien sophont, living or extinct, is known unambiguously to have visited Earth before the Terragen expansion into space." (source)

The kind of science fiction that I am interested in does not adhere to the arbitrary choices about alien life that are followed at the Orion's Arm Universe Project. I almost always write stories about extraterrestrials who visited Earth long ago.

For me, another relevant issue is content licensing. I rather like the idea of free culture. I do not claim to understand the licensing of Orion's Arm content, but I prefer to make collaborative fiction in an environment where the default licensing is copyleft.

I'm also put off by the approach to artificial intelligence that is used within the Orion's Arm Project. I've always had the feeling that the project is dominated by physical science-oriented folks who have less of an interest in biology than I do. I don't think that these machine intelligence and technological singularity (superintelligence) fanatics have a clue about how the first AIs with human-like minds will be made. As shown in the image at the top of this blog post, they can't even successfully deal with HTML files. After spending the past decade using software that was designed for collaborative content creation on the internet, I'm not sure I could go back to working in an environment with webpage names like 464d2a24c11ef.

During the past 50 years I've grown tired of the

"Computers are wonderful! AI will be here in 50 years!" religion
(the main goddess is Emergia, who has the power to propel every absurd technological plot feature in "hard" science fiction.)

and I do not care to immerse myself in that religion for my remaining years. I believe that unrealistic beliefs about the nature of minds contaminate the field of artificial intelligence research, a sad result of physical scientists pretending that they can ignore the details of biological brains.

I certainly wish the Orion's Arm Project well and I will continue to drop by their website once in a while. I wish there were a couple thousand similar collaboratively constructed fictional universes on the internet, each exploring its own set of assumptions about the future.

Related viewing: The technological singularity and science fiction.

Image. Screen shot of the Orion's Arm Project main page showing a glitch in their HTML code.


Antony Gormley wrote, "Culture in the developed western world has always positioned itself in distinction to nature: now we have to discover our nature within nature," in an article called
Art's lost subject.

A segment of Western culture that springs from modern science has vigorously adopted the position that humanity is an integral part of nature. Garrett Hardin published The tragedy of the commons in 1968, which illustrated the dangers posed by humans and our capacity for deleterious impact on the biosphere. At about that time, people like Carl Sagan knew that green house gas levels were rising on Earth and the warnings about human-induced climate change began to be heard coming from scientists. The protagonist in Carl Sagan's novel Contact had one question she'd like to ask an extraterrestrial: how did you survive the dangers of your technological adolescence? Scientists like E. O. Wilson continue to make pleas for consilience between the "two cultures" and action to protect the biosphere from human activities. Even some politicians (example) have caught on to the importance of human-induced climate change.

How can artists help awaken humanity to our place in nature? In particular, how can science fiction be used as a means to inform readers about issues like climate change and inspire useful changes in human behavior that will help protect Earth's biosphere? I stress useful change because cultural works can impact human behavior in negative ways. Nuclear power is currently our largest non-green house gas producing energy source. Are important decisions made because of the best available information or because of emotional responses stimulated by fictions like The China Syndrome?

I've only written one story that includes a plot element related to climate change. In the science fiction story X-Seven, benevolent aliens help a few humans create a solution to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The story shows science being used as a tool for solving a serious problem that is confronting us. The particular "solution" in the story is a fantasy, but the theme of using our knowledge and know-how to solve problems is an important one. I'd never claim that technology can solve all of our problems, but we are foolish if we do not make use of all available tools to deal with our problems.

How many alternatives to our addiction to fossil fuels (such as better solar energy systems) might we already have if more young people were inspired to think creatively about science, engineering and technology? How many young people are turned-off from science by silly fictional "thrillers" that continue to perpetuate the tired idea that "science fiction is a pessimistic genre"? Like any tool, science fiction can be used to celebrate science and reason or it can be used to misinform and frighten people.

Until writers and film makers grow past The Modern Prometheus we are going to continue to struggle towards reasonable solutions to our problems. Industries with vested interests in the status quo are experts at fostering fear and doubt. The tobacco and oil industries have made billions in profits while inhibiting governments from making wise regulatory decisions. In the struggle to make wise decisions that impact human and planetary health, one fictional story like The China Syndrome can count for more than the informed views of the nuclear engineers who can make safe nuclear power plants. Artists, and anyone making cultural works, including movies, have a responsibility to work with knowledge and facts, not just emotions (profitable though it is to play on emotions).

Law Two. There is a radical idea that I plan to explore in my fiction. In answer to Ellie Arroway and her question about survival, I imagine that any life form that long survives as a tool-using species will have a set of rules to guide their behavior. I'm not sure that tool-using primates are suited to a world like Earth. Earth is one of the rare planetary gardens where life can appear and evolve. Maybe we need to think seriously about the idea that this is not "our planet". There are many worlds out there where we can freely indulge our penchant for tool creation and use without having an impact on other species. Have we reached the point where our place in nature is some place other than Earth?
Diagram: the strange attractor in the Asimov Reality
illustrates the risk of catastrophic sea level rise
in the Exode Trilogy.

Related reading
: Sarah Palin calls global warming studies "snake oil science."
Note: I later made global warming a key plot element in another story set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe: Exode.

Image at top. Angel of the North Jupiter
More Jupiter:
UV image: Jupiter's north pole

Feb 13, 2010

Asimov the Collectivist

The lady doth protest too much
In Of Robots, Empires and Pencils by Sally Morem, she wrote, "The Foundation series and the Robots stories, along with Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, will probably be remembered as the last great and most eloquent arguments put forth for the idea of collectivism in the literature of science fiction." Morem compares the invisible hand of the market in Leonard Read's essay I, Pencil to the invisible hand of Hari Seldon in Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.

imagine greater profit$
I've never read Childhood's End, but I've long appreciated Clarke's ability to put humanity in perspective by playing the science fiction what if? game ("Perhaps the crispest definition is that science fiction is a literature of 'what if?'" - Christopher Evans). If Childhood's End is an argument for collectivism, then how does that argument go?

In Childhood's End, aliens arrive on Earth and they transform human children into a form that can merge into "a cosmic mind amalgamated from ancient galactic civilizations, freed from the limitations of ordinary matter". Morem has suggested that this is "the ultimate dream of socialism. The adults are wholly demoralized. They no longer have children. Most kill themselves. The rest die of old age as the children dance." Asimov wrote a famous story (The Last Question) in which all humans ended up as part of a group mind. I thought socialism was a theoretical economic system where an attempt would be made to share resources among all individuals. Little did I know that sharing ultimately leads to mass suicide and transcendence to a group mind.

in the box
Morem began her essay with the rather Homo sapiens-centric boast: "Human society is the most astonishing and perplexing of all the universe's life-forming, self-organizing processes...". A major part of Clarke's "what if?" explorations concerned his imagining of "self-organizing processes" that were far beyond "human society". Is there such a thing as "human society"? Asimov was interested in exploring the many forms that a human society might take in response to scientific advances and technological change. Such thinking "outside of the box" is often unsettling for conservatives who want to defend the "good old ways" that they are comfortable with.

The Foundation Trilogy was a "what if?" exploration of the idea that vast human populations might behave according to mathematically precise laws of "psychohistory". Many years after Asimov created the Foundation Trilogy, he extended his Foundation stories to include the idea that telepathic robots were guiding humanity towards the formation of a vast group mind, Galaxia. Morem feels that Asimov's fictional universe where humans spread through the galaxy and were "controlled by robotic minds" is fundamentally flawed, so flawed as to, "stretch believability to the breaking point and beyond".

outside the box
Asimov imagined telepathic robots who "invented" the Zeroth Law of Robotics, which then compelled them to protect humanity. In order to protect humanity, the robots worked to engineer humanity into the group mind of Galaxia. In Foundation and Earth, it was suggested that by forming Galaxia, humanity could be protected from aliens.

Telepathic robots with positronic brains who used time travel to make sure that humans could colonize the galaxy, telepathic humans forming a group mind, faster-than-light spaceships, unseen aliens threatening humanity, the dead had of Hari Seldon pushing humanity to its fate by psychohistorical, just what is there in all this to stretch believability? Morem seems to suggest that the problem with Asimov's fantasy futures is that he did not realistically appreciate the full complexity of a market economy. Morem is unhappy with "The Lawgiver imagined by Asimov" who has the power to shape human destiny. As we all know, a market economy is so complex that it, "cannot be forced, commanded or ruled from the center. It can only Be."

In making this argument, Morem shifted the center of discussion from the Foundation and telepathic robots to a short story called The Evitable Conflict, a story in which Asimov imagines supercomputers that could manage the economy of Earth better than people can. What is the argument? We should not use computers to help us manage the world economy? No. "The future state of entire dynamic systems are also impossible to know in advance." I suspect that Asimov would have granted a science book. However, where was Asimov going in his fiction?

Arthur C. Clarke proclaimed the idea that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." What magical technologies did Asimov throw into the mix of his Foundation Saga? What if Asimov was imagining a future where time travel was possible? When Asimov extended his Foundation Trilogy, he suggested (in Foundation's Edge) the idea that positronic robots had used time travel to select a Reality in which humans, rather than extraterrestrials, took control of the galaxy.

In The Start of Eternity, a fan fiction sequel to Asimov's time travel novel, I follow along with Asimov and imagine that there are positronic robots who can look into the future of the Foundation and see what will happen. Those robots (including Daneel) helped Hari Seldon establish the Foundations. I like to think that psychohistory was a "cover story" that was used to hide the existence of time traveling robots. If so, was Asimov putting forward arguments for collectivism in his Foundation Saga?

The economics of the Foundation always puzzled me. Here was a future human civilization with microfusion and the ability to hurl spaceships across the galaxy. Asimov wrote about determining the genomes of people and transferring a robotic mind into the brain of a human. With all these wonders, Asimov never tried to depict a post-scarcity economy. Instead, the Galactic Empire remained fully capitalistic and just a heart beat away from bust and falling back on fossil fuels.

In The Start of Eternity, the alien Huaoshy run a billion year old intergalactic civilization that makes use of additional technologies such as nanotechnology. However, that civilization also seems to defy Clarke's idea of a future in which technologically advanced beings transcend their physical limitations. The idea of a pending technological singularity is now popular in science fiction, a point in the future where life as we know it will end because of accumulating technological advances. Is there a way to prevent a technological singularity and cause humans to be frozen in a culture that will always have an economy like the one we have now?

Morem wrote, "Human societies cannot be grasped as wholes". I believe that Asimov tried to suggest that positronic robots could grasp Galaxia as a whole, and that is why they worked for 20,000 years to form Galaxia. Unfortunately, Asimov was taken from us before he was able to continue his Foundation Saga towards a completed Galaxia.

escape from capitalism
What about the billion year old Huaoshy civilization? Did they learn to use genetic engineering and nanotechnology (and anything else they accumulated in a billion years) to move past market economics as we know it? Does the dead hand of Adam Smith "defeat the best intentions of would-be planners every time"? Is it inevitable that a billion years from now we will not have progressed past the type of economic system known to Morem?

Science fiction would seem to be a strange enterprise if we were allowed to play "what if?" with hyperjump spaceships, time travel, nanobots and telepathy, but because economics are "emergent" we cannot say "what if?" with respect to future economics. Do we need Capitalistic Anthropics, the theory that our universe was designed to make 20th century capitalism inevitable...for all time?

Top Image. Asimov and comrades.

Copyleft Books

Fun name for a book store: Copyleft Books.

I miss the Pacific Northwest.

Related reading:
Project Gutenberg - free electronic books
The Online Books Page at the University of Pennsylvania.
Open-Access Text Archive - at The Internet Archive
Many Books - Matthew McClintock's free eBook website
Scribd social publishing - share your work

Image. iPad Touch Coverflow by factoryjoe

Feb 10, 2010

Fraking plot devices

The 1970s were when I discovered science fiction and got hooked on authors such as Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance. However, I also read Tactics of Mistake, Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker and Dune, which were enough to satisfy my needs for military science fiction. Really, after the Vietnam War, I could not see the "cool" side of riding a sandworm into battle.

Because of my aversion for military science fiction there are vast swaths of science fiction television and film that I've never been subjected to. Sorry, but I can't get into wars involving Daleks, armies led by Sith lords, Klingons, Cardassians, Goa'uld-infested humans, reptilian Cylons, human-created Cylons...I could go on. There Will Be War, but I don't have the patience to read about your fantasy war.

The above is a long way of saying that I was never a fan of Battlestar Galactica, Battlestar Galactica, Battlestar Galactica or any other battlestar or deathstar. However, while writing The Start of Eternity I've been thinking about mind transfer and I decided I should try watching Caprica, the current television show in the fictional Battlestar Galactica universe. As Jacob Clifton succinctly introduced Caprica: "the central sci-fi premise (how do we get a human soul, or something like it, into a robot body?) hinges on a MacGuffin of sorts: the Meta-Cognitive Processor."

In The Start of Eternity, getting a human mind into a robot hinges on study of the structure and function of human brains. When the time comes to "go for it", the brain structure of Observer Gohrlay is scanned in microscopic detail and converted into functionally similar positronic brain circuits.

Full disclosure: I have not seen the Caprica pilot. I'm relying heavily on resources such as those by Jacob Clifton for my understanding of the Caprica plot devices.

Don't try this at home. In the episodes I've seen, people put on a holoband and magically pop into a "virtual reality" simulated world where they can act out their fantasies. According to the battlestar wiki, a 16 year old designed "a program that allowed her to create virtual duplicate of herself using a compilation of various personal records". Apparently there was some kind of biofeedback-mediated training of the "virtual duplicate" while it existed in the virtual reality and received input from its human creator. That artificially intelligent "avatar" was then transferred into the above mentioned Meta-Cognitive Processor and, ultimately, into a robotic body. Behold: the first Cylon has been created. And I hope that I did not leave out any of the essential hand waving.

As I understand the story arc, the first Cylon is headed off on adventures to other worlds, particularly Gemenon. In hopes of seeing some actual science fiction, I'd like to continue along for the ride, but I came away from the fragment of Caprica that I watched feeling a bit worried that I was watching fantasy rather than science fiction. I suffered a similar disquietude when I read Asimov's Robots and Empire in which he depicted the inventor of robotic telepathy as a young girl genius (Vasilia) and daughter of the greatest living roboticist. Miraculously, nobody else was ever able to duplicate the amazing advances in robotics that were achieved by Vasilia and her father.

For The Start of Eternity, I've invented a solution to the puzzle of Vasilia's magical ability to conjure telepathy into existence. I assume that telepathic robots were first created long before Vasilia was born. Thousands of years earlier. When it was time to make sure that the Earth/Spacer conflict was resolved in a way that would allow humans to colonize the galaxy, the young Vasilia was used as a convenient way for making R. Giskard (and the reader) believe that his telepathic ability had been the result of a freakish leap of human intuition.

I've long been puzzled by Asimov's tendency to create characters who have magical powers of intuition. Besides Vasilia, other similar characters from the trusty Asimov typewriter include Andrew Harlan, Marlene Fisher, and Golan Trevize. Marlene's intuition about Erythro was apparently due to her telepathic contact with the alien life form of that planet. I like to imagine that telepathic robots, working secretly like Daneel, implanted vital information in the minds of Andrew, Golan and even Hari Seldon. However, allowing telepathic robots to play the role of god-like manipulators of human destiny can wear a bit thin. Reader interest in the struggles of Asimov's human characters is likely to suffer if readers accept the idea that telepathic robots can always step in to save the day.

In The Start of Eternity I'm facing a similar concern. I want to introduce the very first telepathic robot near the beginning of the story, but not "give away" the fundamental secret of the story to the reader. Asimov was a good mystery writer and I hope that The Start of Eternity can follow in his footsteps and present an interesting mystery to the reader. All of Asimov's telepathic slight of hand will be revealed, but waiting behind one last curtain will be an even greater secret.

Image. Sandworm by leywad

Feb 6, 2010

Janus: the god of science fiction

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, our distant proto-human ancestors are given the ability to use tools. They are shown wielding clubs, then next thing you know, those primitive tools transform into spaceships and humanity is off to the stars. Of course, the tools get used for other things along the way. Each science fiction author has a choice: we can write about science, technology and change from either an optimistic or a pessimistic perspective.

William Bainbridge and Murray Dalziel pointed to "hard SF" which they felt was, "usually optimistic about the value of scientific and technological progress". Isaac Asimov was identified as the prototypical hard science fiction author. The "pessimistic side" of science fiction was emphasized by Sheila Schwartz, "Science fiction is a pessimistic genre, devoid of belief in the improvability of man… The overwhelming tone is despair; the over-whelming emotion is fear."

With respect to the implications of tool use, science and technology I am tempted to let Asimov get the last word: "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." The most wonderful tools in the world can be turned into horrors by those who are incompetent. The entire genre of science fiction balances on a knife blade question: do tool using apes have a future or are we some kind of evolutionary dead end, destined to wink out after a death spiral of self-inflicted horrors?

The The Start of Eternity is a sequel to Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. The End of Eternity was optimistic in that it showed humanity escaping from a dangerous reliance on time travel technology. Asimov showed humanity walking away from an evolutionary dead end and moving in another technological direction that would offer an infinite future.

The traditional structure of optimistic science fiction has two parts: 1) protagonist gets into trouble 2) protagonist is smart enough to get out of trouble. In The End of Eternity, Asimov shows the protagonist (Andrew Harlan) trapped in a dystopian culture where a seemingly unbreakable time loop assures that humanity will never move outward from our Solar System and will inevitably become extinct.

Asimov is rather famous for seldom bringing aliens into his science fiction stories. Towards the end of his Foundation Saga, Asimov mentioned the idea that humanity must some day confront aliens. Unfortunately, Asimov was taken from us before he could share with us his ideas about how aliens would interact with Galaxia. The Start of Eternity is fan fiction which explores the role of aliens in Asimov's fictional universe.

Foundations  of Eternity
Asimov was a master of writing stories in which everyone is well-intentioned. That might sound like a formula for boring stories, but it led him to imagine a logical reason for the destruction of Earth, which is a large advance past the many sci fi stories where destruction is mindless, illogical and truly boring. In keeping with Asimov's approach, The Start of Eternity involves aliens who are well-intentioned, but a strange twist of fate leads a small fragment of humanity to struggle mightily against the aliens.

The protagonist of The Start of Eternity seems trapped in a dire situation in a way that is similar to Andrew Harlan's nightmarish predicament in The End of Eternity. I've never been a great fan of horror, but I am wondering if I should try to stretch myself and better develop the nightmare theme that is used as the "hook" in The Start of Eternity. Andrew Harlan was driven to the point of self-destruction: when he delivered his "Samson smash" against Eternity, he fully expected to die.

cover art by Carolus Thole
Similarly, Observer Gohrlay is prepared to suffer the destruction of her brain in a mind downloading experiment. In a more conventional situation, Gohrlay might be tormented by her plight and driven to self-destruction. However, the truth is, Gohrlay is being guided towards self-sacrifice by an external alien force.

Gohrlay's Brain
As an example to support her thesis that science fiction is pessimistic, Sheila Schwartz used Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (see this review). I read Level 7 when I was in my teens and I was truly horrified by it. Perhaps most horrifying was the relentless logic of MAD which led to the destruction of humanity. The rather unemotional and robotic protagonist in Level 7 was somehow more frightening than an emotion-driven and shriek-filled horror story. Similarly, for me, having Gohrlay be relentlessly and logically marched towards death, with no screams of protest, is an even more horrifying fate than that of a traditional "helpless female".

How do readers react to fictional depictions such as:
1) humanity relentlessly marching to self-destruction (Level 7) or
2) Asimov's depiction of Andrew Harlan deciding to destroy himself or
3) Gohrlay selecting actual death over a living death.
I think stories like Level 7 helped move humanity away from the potential horrors of a nuclear war. Building on Asimov's general optimism, in the end, Andrew Harlan found a way to hold onto life.

I'm at the point (early in 2010) of writing the scene where Gohrlay realizes (with horror) that she was driven towards selecting death by manipulative and un-seen aliens. I hope the reader comes away with the notion that we need always be on guard for forces that manipulate us and push us towards disaster. I stand with Asimov and hold the dream that we can use our minds and tools to free ourselves and make our lives better. The universe has always led us into traps. Science and technology and reason are our best tools for escaping from those traps.

Top image. Two faces of science fiction: icon of xenophobia from District 9 contrasted with the Na'vi of Avatar, designed to appeal to humans.

Feb 5, 2010

O happy dagger!

Romeo and Juliet. Source.
I was amazed and pleased when Isaac Asimov linked many of his novels into a coherent "future history". In Foundation's Edge Asimov mentioned the idea that "Eternals" had used their time travel technology to select a Reality in which humans would spread through the galaxy. The Start of Eternity is a fan fiction story that explores the relationship between Asimov's time travel novel (The End of Eternity) and his Foundation Saga.

The main character in The Start of Eternity is a genetically-modified Neanderthal named Gohrlay. Originally I wrote a 2,700 word "teaser" that was intended to be the only part of the novel showing Gohrlay. It might at first seem strange that the protagonist of a novel would only appear in one short scene, but mind transfer is an important element of the story and Gohrlay's mind continues on after her death.

In popular culture minds get transferred between bodies as easily as we might put on someone's hat, but The Start of Eternity attempts to be a bit more realistic about the technical challenge of mind transfer. Our human minds are produced by our biological brains. Our minds depend on the physical structure of our brains. In order to transfer Gohrlay's mind into a new body, a means must be found to reveal the details of her brain's structure. Sadly, the crude "brain scan" technology developed by Neanderthal scientists on the Moon destroys brain tissue while it scans the structure of neural networks in a brain.

As the story is told in The Start of Eternity, the brain scanning technology has existed on the Moon for hundreds of years, but nobody volunteers to have their brain scanned and destroyed during the process. It is not at all clear that it will be possible to instantiate the scanned mind in a new body. The plan is to make a copy of the scanned brain structure in the form of "positronic brain circuits", but the lunar roboticists have no way of knowing if the copied brain circuits will actually produce a functioning mind. All they know for sure is that after the brain scan, the person who has their brain scanned will be dead.

assembling R. Gohrlay's body
Gohrlay "volunteers" to have her brain scanned. Is this suicide? Is The Start of Eternity in danger of "glamorizing suicide"? As discussed here, I don't view Gohrlay's death as conventional suicide. She has been guided towards participation in the mind downloading experiment by the crafty Anagro, a robot of alien design. Every time Gohrlay has doubts about participating in the experiment, her thoughts are adjusted by nanorobotic devices that swarm through her brain and control her behavior.

Does Gohrlay have "good reasons" for participating in an experiment that will end her life? Gohrlay is a criminal who has had large parts of her memory disrupted by the nanites that swarm through her brain. She no longer has memories of her family and friends or the details of her crime. She remembers that she grew up with a desire to be an Observer and study Earth, but she is now forbidden from having any contact with the Observer corps.

Is it wrong to depict suicide in fiction? For me, one of the most memorable depictions of suicide in science fiction is in Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (see this review). The story is told from the perspective of Push-Button Officer X-127, who robotically pushed the button that kills not only himself but all of humanity. Do such fictional accounts of suicide encourage or discourage suicidal behavior?

I have not seen Avatar, but as discussed here, it seems to stand in the long line of movies where the "hero" is ready and willing to die for some "good reason". Depending on the outcome of the battle, which culture you come from, the tone of the press coverage and who writes the history book, the "warrior hero" might either be viewed as a suicidal maniac or the heroic father of his country.

Does The Start of Eternity "glamorize" suicide by showing Gohrlay's mind living on in robotic form as the mother of tribe of positronic robots? Is someone reading The Start of Eternity in danger of thinking, "I'm going to kill myself because Gohrlay did"? I don't think so. I think the message in The Start of Eternity is that Gohrlay has been manipulated by Anagro. The reader sees that a crafty alien is taking advantage of the fact that humans do make life and death decisions. Anagro creates a "tragic scene" for Gohrlay in which those around her respect her decision to participate in the mind downloading experiment. Everyone has been pushed towards accepting Gohrlay's death by Anagro's manipulations.

A theme that arose in Asimov's fiction is intuition. Several of Asimov's characters were depicted as simply knowing things, without knowing how it was possible that they knew. The culture that Gohrlay finds herself in was created by aliens and is controlled by aliens. Gohrlay has latent "mentalic" abilities that help her sense that it would be better to die and be "reincarnated" as a robot than continue living as a puppet of the aliens.

There is a similar situation in Asimov's story "The Mule", first published in 1945. Ebling Mis is under the mental control of a man who has "mentalic" powers and who is driving Mis to his death in an effort to learn the secret location of the Second Foundation. Was it irresponsible to depict Mis as uninterested in life and willing to die, just as long as he could learn the secret? The only "onlooker" who is not under the mentalic control of the Mule was Bayta Darell. Was Asimov irresponsible for showing that Bayta kills Mis in order to keep him from revealing the great secret?

I think it is no more likely that a reader will commit suicide after reading about Gohrlay than a reader is likely to commit murder after reading about Bayta Darell.

Related reading: does Gohrlay actually die in the brain scanner?

More magazine and book covers.