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Mar 25, 2010

Denisova hominin

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

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

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

Ancient Denisovan-related mitochondrial DNA from Spain (2013) 

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

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

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Mar 14, 2010

Pi in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 13, 2010

Listening to the universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 10, 2010

Science in Fiction

Micromegas Plaque by guyblade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 9, 2010

The Science of Science Fiction


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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Foundation of Eternity
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Mar 8, 2010

Shikasta

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mar 7, 2010

The power of an "edit" button

I was recently searching the internet (Google scholar search) and came across "Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction" by Don D'Ammassa. It boggles my mind to see science fiction writers such as D'Ammassa who have familiarized themselves with every corner of the speculative fiction literature. However, in this age of the internet I tend to first turn to online resources before consulting printed books.

Wikipedia has a 2,700 word article about Isaac Asimov's time travel novel The End of Eternity. Wikipedia's article has been collaboratively written by Asimov fans such as Johnny Pez. I have a certain amount of faith that someone like Johnny Pez has actually read The End of Eternity.

Can a collaboratively and openly written resource such as Wikipedia hope to provide science fiction fans with better encyclopedic information than a professionally authored and print published book such as D'Ammassa's "Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction"? Can any one writer, no matter how well read, actually keep up with a crowd of collaborators?

Here is what D'Ammassa had room to say about The End of Eternity in his encyclopedia: "The framework is a now familiar one: An organization stands independent of time, sending its agents to prevent alterations of history. Asimov told the story from the viewpoint of a rogue agent who tries to manipulate history for the benefit of the woman he loves." Eh? Well, I suppose Brinsley Sheridan Cooper was the agent who was used to generate the time loop at the heart of the Mallansohn Reality, but why describe that in the twisted way of D'Ammassa?

The Wikipedia article correctly states that the function of the time travel "organization" (called Eternity; populated by the Eternals) is to make alterations in time, the so-called Reality Changes. I like to think that the Cooper time loop was imposed by the positronic robots who secretly controlled Eternity. A few of the Eternals (such as Twissell) simply "play along" and act to support the existence of the time loop.....seemingly never questioning how it came into existence.

I agree that the protagonist of The End of Eternity, Andrew Harlan, becomes something of a "rogue agent". He wants to save "the woman he loves" from a Reality Change and when he thinks he has lost her, he strikes out and tries to destroy Eternity.

It turns out that "the woman he loves", Noÿs Lambent, is a secret agent from the far future who was able to deftly manipulate Harlan and use him as a tool for achieving the destruction of Eternity. Working from within the cultural perspective the early 1950s, Asimov did well to create a character who was a "modern" liberated woman. I've spent many years wondering how Noÿs might have shaken up the 20th century after arriving in the 1930s. That was one of my main motivations for making The Start of Eternity, a fan fiction sequel to The End of Eternity.

27 years after publishing The End of Eternity, Asimov gave us a fun new bit of background information in Foundation's Edge: "it was the robots who established Eternity". If we run with that idea then we have to ask if Noÿs, while manipulating Harlan, was also being manipulated by unseen robots. According to Don D'Ammassa, Asimov's novels are short on literary depth, but it is a whole lot of fun when Asimov created so many layers: robots using Noÿs to end Eternity, Noÿs manipulating Harlan, Harlan plotting to blackmail Senior Computer Twissell, Twissell plotting to use Harlan to assure the continued existence of Eternity.

Sadly, Asimov was taken from us before he had a chance to finish his task of merging his many stories into a single fictional universe and showing us the ultimate fate of the Foundation. Perhaps Asimov's fans, working in the spirit of fan fiction, can use the power of collaborative tools like wiki to tie up the loose ends.

Related Reading: The Foundations of Eternity is a fan fiction sequel to Asimov's The End of Eternity

Singular Patriots


State of the Union
January, 2020

Mister Speaker, Madam Vice President, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and fellow Americans:

Presidents have come before Congress for 230 years, in times of war, prosperity and, now, Singularity. It is fitting that we look back, briefly, on past times of strife and struggle. Not so long ago this mighty nation was on the brink of ruin, faced with ballooning deficits and ever increasing costs for medical entitlements and social security payments.

Now, thanks to the wise actions of this legislative body, those old days of tribulation are behind us and our union is stronger than ever before. This year, rather than stop smoking or lose weight, millions of Americans are free, freer than ever before, to continue making selfish and short-sighted decisions. Tonight we can celebrate the source of our new found freedom: the Singularity.

Our faith in the Singularity allows us to have confidence in the cryogenic preservation of our sickly and dying patriots who volunteer for immortality. Rather than burden their fellow citizens with the cost of their medical care, this year alone, a record 7.3 million Americans were reversibly frozen. (Applause) These singular patriots have truly achieved the best of both worlds. While in this world they were free to enjoy the pleasures of self-indulgent excess and the hyper-consumptive lifestyle. And in the future post-Singularity world they will enjoy miraculous wonders that we can only imagine in science fiction stories and binding cryopreservation contracts.

However, our work is not yet done. I now call upon congress to increase the government incentive that is paid to our good citizens who volunteer for cryonic life-extension and the guarantee that they will live in post-Singularity America. Although the great visionaries of the Singularity assure us that post-Singularity America is never more than 30 years in the future, many Americans wisely take no chance and have themselves frozen now. Our great patriotic motto is: why wait? It is wise to have yourself frozen before your lung tumors swell or your neurodegeneration proceeds very far. I say, save what is left of your youth for your wonderful life in post-Singularity America! (Applause)

As convincing as that argument is, some of our sick and dying citizens still balk and hesitate. Of course, we know what truly motivates Americans. We are a nation where logic has always taken the back seat to free market forces. Therefore, I am sending legislation to the Hill, proposing that current medicare and social security recipients be paid a lump sum $32,000,000 benefit, compounded at a 45% annual interest rate, to be paid in full when these cryogenically preserved patriots resume their lives in post-Singularity America. Our goal is to make medicare and social security entirely virtual entitlements that will only ever be paid out in post-Singularity America. (Applause)

I also call upon both the House and the Senate to extend the Avatar Science Tax Incentive. We need to continue to provide this incentive to Hollywood for the creation of more fictional and uncritical accounts of miraculous future technologies that will satisfy, or at least seem to satisfy, the quest for mind transfer and our dreams of eternal life. (Applause)

My fellow Americans, what does all this mean for you? Nothing less than eternal life in a future age of miraculous wealth and personal luxury! Contact your representatives today and demand that they give you what you deserve. Now is the time to demand your own piece of the American pie. Think of what has been learned from the great visionaries like Bernard Madoff and demand your $32,000,000, compounded at a 45% annually! (Applause)

We have come through a difficult decade. But a new dawn is perpetually upon the horizon. A new decade stretches before us where the Singularity will again be dangled just beyond our grasp. We won't quit. We will seize the opportunity afforded by the dream of Singularity! (Applause) Let's seize this moment to carry the dream forward and strengthen our union once more.

Thank you. God bless you. God bless the United States of America. And God bless the Singularity! (Applause)

Mar 5, 2010

A Clarke number of 2?

According to "Which science fiction writer are you?"
I am:
Gregory Benford
A master literary stylist who is also a working scientist.
That "quiz" also says, "The real Greg Benford once took this quiz, and it told him he was Arthur C. Clarke."

I've only read one of Benford's books, Timescape. I had a personal problem while reading Timescape because, as a biologist, I found the "crisis" that drove the story (biodisaster in 1998) to be less than satisfying. This is the same kind of problem I had with Asimov's novel Nemesis, for which I've written a review in which I expressed unhappiness with Asimov's attempt to motivate the reader by shouting "in 5,000 years the sky is falling". Asimov's book (Nemesis) was "saved" by introducing us to an interesting extraterrestrial life form with telepathic abilities. However, the ending of Timescape had no redeeming features. I was particularly unable to swallow the idea of a school kid going to pick up reading material and preventing President Kennedy from being shot.

After having read Timescape I was reluctant to purchase Benford's Foundation Saga novel, Foundation's Fear. However, I was (and still am) intrigued by the way that Asimov left us with a hint (in Foundation and Earth) about a coming clash between humanity and extraterrestrials. I was intrigued by the back cover of Foundation's Fear where it says that Yugo Amaryl is an alien.

I worked very hard to read Foundation's Fear, but I could not get past page 289 (my copy is 597 pages long). I'd like to ask this of anyone who was able to read the entire novel: does Benford actually depict Yugo as an alien? Ever since I started writing The Start of Eternity I've felt I should make another attempt to finish reading Foundation's Fear. I'd like to know the details of the kind of interaction that Benford imagined between Daneel and extraterrestrial life forms.

When I got stuck at the start of Part 4 of Foundation's Fear I scanned ahead and found Part 5. I was put-off by the idea that people could have their minds transferred into chimps. This was the "step too far" for me. I had been able to grit my teeth and accept all of the other alterations made by Benford to Asimov's Foundation story, but this was too much. The mere existence of this sort of mind-transfer technology is not consistent with Asimov's Foundation Saga. I can accept switching from "hyperjumps" to "worm holes" for faster-than-light travel and I can accept that computers and industrial robots were working quietly in the background of Asimov's Foundation stories, but it seems to me that you cannot toss into the mix just any old technology that strikes your fancy. If you have the technical ability to transfer a human mind into a chimp brain then you do not end up with Toran Darell II later using primitive methods like brain wave analysis to study human minds. I walked away from Foundation's Fear at that point. The book cover said that Foundation's Fear was a continuation of Asimov's Foundation Saga. No, that is a lie. In his afterword, Benford wrote that he tried to add to the sweep of the Foundation Saga, but I think he swept it out the door and went in new directions that clash with Asimov's story.

I remain astounded by the fact that my copy of Foundation's Fear has no table of contents. The book is divided into "parts", and if there was a table of contents I probably would have quickly made my way to "Part 6 Ancient Fogs" and found Benford's aliens (I bought the book in order to see his idea for how to introduce aliens into the Foundation Saga) before growing tired of all the slogging in the early part of the book. I agree with this review: "Some of the Joan-Voltaire sections are muddled and confusing, and the whole chimpanzee adventures feels tacked on."

I'm amused by the idea that Benford took the "Which science fiction writer are you?" quiz and was told that he is like Arthur C. Clarke. I'm a fan of the way Clarke often depicted extraterrestrials as being vastly advanced beyond us and having only a very small interest in primitive creatures like humans...that is my kind of solution to the Fermi Paradox. Today I skimmed through the final parts of Foundation's Fear and I like the idea that when humanity spread into the galaxy it ran into artificial life forms that had out-lived their biological parent species. I take a different approach to the conflict between humanity and space aliens in The Start of Eternity, but I really like the idea that robots with positronic brains (such as Daneel) become aware of alien intelligences before humans do. I do not think it fits into Asimov's Saga to say that Seldon became aware of the aliens, so in The Start of Eternity I stay true to the idea (from Asimov's Foundation and Earth) that Trevize is the first human in the Foundation Era to start thinking seriously about contact with aliens.

Related Reading 
Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End

Mar 3, 2010

Meddling in Human Affairs

I was going to write a version of "Ten Issues for Hard Science Fiction" as seen from the perspective of someone living in the year 1800, but then I followed the link to "Where Is Everybody?", Stephen Webb's book about the Fermi Paradox.

I like to write science fiction stories that are set in what I call the Exodemic Fictional Universe. The basic assumption for such stories is that extraterrestrial visitors from other worlds have been visiting Earth for a long time. However, as Man Bin warns, that does not mean that "UFO sightings" are evidence of those visitors.

In my fiction, I like to imagine that Earth has been visited by extraterrestrials who find it trivial to hide from us. Even if an accident happens and someone on Earth notices the visiting extraterrestrials then it is a simple matter to erase memories of the Earthlings who saw something that they should not have seen.

However, in my stories Earth is not crawling with herds of extraterrestrials. I like to imagine that the visiting extraterrestrials are content to mostly watch the course of events on Earth. The opportunities for us to notice their presence are few and far between. Does that mean that the visitors are irrelevant to human affairs? No. For example, in The Start of Eternity the human species was created by the artificial design of space aliens who wanted to make an ape that was similar to themselves.

If aliens with god-like powers have created us and are watching over us, then why do we have so many problems here on Earth? One fun possibility that is explored in The Start of Eternity is that the aliens were doing just fine, but then something went wrong and their "little science project" on Earth went out of control. If you want to know what could "go wrong" for god-like extraterrestrials, read the story...or better yet, help write it!

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Mar 2, 2010

Teaser Tuesday (#1)

Gohrlay looking for a robotic body.
Image Licensing.

"Your soft voice, soft words...I heard nothing, not consciously, but I remember your delicate voice whispering. About what?"

Those are two sentences from Chapter 17 of The End of Eternity, Isaac Asimov's time travel novel. The person speaking is the protagonist of the story, Andrew Harlan. In typical Asimov fashion, Andrew is trying to solve a mystery.

I've spent years trying to understand the particular puzzle that Andrew is asking about in those two sentences. I've long imagined that this kind of "loose end" might have eventually motivated Asimov to write a sequel to The End of Eternity. Unfortunately, Asimov was taken from us before he had a chance to complete his Foundation Saga. Well, who says it can ever be complete?

It falls upon we who are uneasy about the way Asimov left his fictional universe to carry on. I've been working on a fan fiction sequel to The End of Eternity that firmly places Andrew Harlan inside the same fictional universe as the Foundation...as long as you accept Asimov's idea that a universe can contain multiple Realities...and Eternities.

Asimov did a wonderful thing by populating his Foundation Saga with a smattering of robots, particularly the telepathic Daneel. It becomes an enjoyable exercise to guess how Asimov might have imagined a role for mentalics in the events he wrote about in The End of Eternity. How can Andrew "hear" a voice, but not hear it consciously? I'm putting my answer to that question into The Start of Eternity...additional authors are always welcome in this collaborative fiction writing project.

"Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme." See MizB