Aug 1, 2011

The Olmec Intervention

By any measure I get an "F" in Pop Culture. When Firefly was shown on the Science Channel this year I thought it was a new television show. Now I see that there is a movie called Apollo 18 in the works.

I've been searching for a new title for a collaboratively written story that was originally called Apollo 23. If I had to select a title today I'd go for something like The Janus Intervention. It would probably be best to use "The Mayan Intervention", but the story meanders back through Earth's history to the Olmec civilization in search of a way to pretend that an as yet unknown Mesoamerican script might be found, one that influenced the development of the Mayan civilization.

Apparently Apollo 18 is a horror movie. I'm not a fan of horror. The only horror movie I've watched was The 2 Headed Transplant, which was enough to last me for life in the horror genre. I've never understood the idea of seeking out experiences that cause you to experience fear. In "The Face" by Jack Vance, the protagonist, Kirth Gersen, hunts down Lens Larque who is one of the most well-known criminals in the galaxy. Lens Larque is famous for making use of his whip, Panek. Gersen is warned that he will be taken by Lens Larque to a secret place where he will slowly and carefully be flayed. Gersen is a cool dude, but the thought of being "given to Panek" puts him on edge. Gersen seems more human because he fears Lens Larque and his whip, but horror is not a major part of Vance's story.

I've been thinking about including the practice of human sacrifice in the story of Pultep, the time traveler who is sent back to prevent Olmec civilization from developing science and technology. I'm thinking that "The Olmec Intervention" is basically the introduction of prescientific thinking and practices into the Olmec civilization, with an emphasis on astronomy. In order to prevent the Olmecs from developing a civilization based on science, Pultep could push the Olmecs towards some unpleasant religious practices such as human sacrifice. It has even been suggested that the Olmecs might have practiced child sacrifice, which seems quite horrific to me. I guess the idea was that continuation of life had a had to sacrifice something that was valuable in order to assure continued life.

I've been shaped by living in a culture where it is common to think about self-sacrifice. Pultep is asked to sacrifice his chance for a comfortable life as a Genesaunt in order to save humanity from global disaster. Does it take more courage to sacrifice yourself or your child? Could Pultep find himself in the position of having to use child sacrifice to save humanity?

Jul 28, 2011

Aliens and Hollywood

Even before I realized that that there were science fiction novels, I had read Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken. The only thing I took away from "ancient astronaut" theory was an appreciation for the idea that if an alien visitor came to Earth, chances are good that such a visitor would have been here long ago. Much longer ago than 1873.

I've looked at some online reviews of Cowboys & Aliens (funny). Apparently Ella Swenson is a visitor to Earth who takes on human form. My favorite science fiction plot element involves visitors to Earth who walk among us and never reveal the truth about their origins. I have not seen Cowboys & Aliens so all I can do is guess: maybe Ella is on Earth trying to give humans a helping hand against the Evil Invading Aliens.

it’s like Favreau’s sitting behind the camera chewing his fingernails going “just speed everything up so no one notices nothing makes any sense.”

When I finally discovered science fiction novels I got bounced around between conventional space opera stories such as The Skylark of Space and conventional SciFi movies such as War of the Worlds. It is fun to imagine the heroic Earthling who builds a spaceship and takes off on a great adventure in space, but the other option, which seems to be more popular, is to twist the plot so that the aliens come to Earth. I think I had my fill of Evil Alien Invaders the first time I saw War of the Worlds.

the inevitable, "I need to get to the heart of the alien craft, where the inevitable weakness is, to set off the bomb!" set-up

I was thrilled to eventually discover that some science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke actually wrote stories (example) about space-traveling visitors who came to Earth millions of years ago. I quickly grew tired of science fiction stories where 1) the entire universe was out there just waiting for tool-using apes from Earth or 2) aliens came from hundreds of light-years away just to participate in a World War II-type space battle with heroic Earth-men. It is much more fun to explore other kinds of interactions with aliens. As far as I can tell, C&A is built around the idea that the aliens came to Earth for gold. Is this an attempt to get us to think about idiotic human motives for violence?

“Well, that is ridiculous! What are they going to do—buy something?”

Avatar turned the Evil Invader plot around, making humans the invaders. Some SciFi films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (I've never managed to watch it) do avoid the usual Hollywood SciFi plots of Evil Aliens and Space War. I have watched Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but for me it is as big a frustration as Contact, movies that end just when they should be moving on to tell us something interesting about the aliens and their advanced civilization. Sadly, I have no expectation that C&A includes interesting speculation about an alien civilization.

"If you’ve seen any alien invasion movie since Independence Day, you know these aliens."

Why is Hollywood dominated by people who think that a science fiction movie must have slime-dripping aliens and laser battles? I now have my hopes up because it sounds like there might be two types of aliens in Cowboys & Aliens, the comic book aliens from the original story and Ella Swenson who is apparently an alien of a different color. I'm tempted to write a spoof of Mars Attacks! in which aliens invade Hollywood and start making interesting science fiction movies. I wonder if Ron Howard and Olivia Wilde would be willing to deploy the Ella Swenson character as part of such a worthy effort to improve the SciFi film genre.

Stagecoach Indian Battle

When did Americans grow tired of movies in which endless streams of Native Americans were shot by "heroic" white men? When will people grow tired of endless movies where aliens are the designated target for mindless violence? Can't we have SciFi films with interesting stories about aliens who do something besides invade Earth?

Note. I'm still waiting for a movie based on Asimov's The End of Eternity. Maybe Olivia Wilde could play the role of Noÿs Lambent.

Note. This is post #100 for this blog!

Jul 24, 2011

The Janus Intervention

I previously mentioned the need to find a new title for the story that I originally called Apollo 23.


The two faces of Janus.
Image source: Elizabeth Thomsen on flickr.

I've been thinking about how a time traveler named Pultep could derail the developing Olmec civilization and prevent it from developing science and technology before such advances occur in the "Old World". One of the first stories that I ever wrote as part of the "Exodemic Universe" was about how Interventionists helped Greek civilization spread and develop an early type of science. An alternative title for "Apollo 23" is "The Janus Intervention", a reference to the two-faced Roman god.

Interventionists are Genesaunts who are not satisfied with the idea that all the Huaoshy do is watch Earth. The Huaoshy actually do transform life on Earth, but in a slow and subtle way that is hard for the Interventionists to notice.

One of the ways that the Huaoshy cause changes on Earth is by intentionally allowing Interventionists to visit Earth. It would be a trivial matter for the Huaoshy to completely prevent Interventionists from altering the course of events on Earth, but since Huaoshy ethics do not allow the aliens themselves to visit Earth, they make use of the Interventionists as agents of change. Most of the time the Huaoshy catch the Interventionists in the act of altering events on Earth and the aliens revert the changes. However, some times the Huaoshy allow Interventionist-induced changes to stand.

In the case of the "The Janus Intervention", the Huaoshy allow the Interventionists to alter the Olmec civilization and move it towards development of science and technology. However, the technological civilization that develops eventually suffers vast destruction when nanotechnology goes out of control. Having given the "Janus Intervention" a chance, the Huaoshy eventually decide to use their time travel technology to go back and prevent the Olmec civilization from developing science.

Jul 23, 2011

Been Here, Done That

I've previously blogged about the Fermi Paradox. My "solution" to the paradox is that we should assume a solution that allows us to create the most interesting science fiction stories.

In Hollywood, science fiction has been dominated by stories in which aliens miraculously evolve on another planet for hundreds of millions of years, develop technology and reach Earth while still at a technological level very close to our own. In the movies, it is desirable that the underdog species in a first contact battle be able to defeat the evil invader. Yawn.

However, it has been estimated that the average Earth-like planet might be a billion or more years older than Earth. Contact between Earth and another technology-using species might very well involve another species that has technology far beyond our own. Is it more likely that Earth was first visited long ago or that Earth would first be visited only now, just when our species is starting to take its first steps into space? Authors like Arthur C. Clarke have imagined human contact with aliens who long ago visited earth and influenced human evolution.

What should we expect of a hypothetical species that has been spreading between the stars for hundreds of millions of years? Would galactic explorers still be biological or some kind of artificial life? Why should their motivations be anything like our human motivations?

A form of life spreading through our galaxy would likely find Earth-like planets before those worlds had evolved technological species of their own. There would be great temptation to tinker with the life forms on Earth-like worlds, to explore the ways that such life could be pushed into more interesting forms. Does the history of life on Earth show evidence of such tinkering?

Until about 65 million years ago Earth was dominated by small-brained animals. After the extinction event of about 65 million years ago, the mammals diversified and several large-brained clades have since evolved, particularly cetaceans, elephants and humans. As primates, we are unique in becoming a tool-using species that quickly (in evolutionary terms) eliminated all of our closes relatives and competitors. Was the rise of mammals just by chance? Is the evolution of our species a chance event or the result of some sort of intelligent design? When we finally obtain evidence of aliens will we discover that they found Earth long ago?

Image source: Blackwell Publishing.

Will our experience of first contact turn out to involve aliens who yawn and say, "Been here, done that....long ago. We've been here millions of years guiding your evolutions so that you could finally recognize and welcome us."

Jun 18, 2011

Old Earth

I previously mentioned the Jack Vance novel Araminta Station, the first of a trilogy. The second novel is called Ecce and Old Earth.

Ecce is one of the continents of the planet Cadwal, the distant world where Glawen Clattuc is born. In his effort to save Cadwal, Glawen eventually travels to Earth and finds the missing Charter, the founding document that established Cadwal as a Naturalist preserve. Glawen is preceded to Earth by Wayness Tamm, another resident of Cadwal who discovered that the Charter had been stolen from the vault of the Naturalist Society. Here are Glawen's thoughts about Wayness:

"If through some extraordinary circumstance he became endowed with divine powers and assigned the pleasurable task of designing a new Wayness, he might well diminish the proportion of sheer single-minded obstinacy and intractable, volatile self-willed independence by a soupçon or two: not enough to disturb the flavor of the mix, but to make her just a bit more...manageable? predictable? subservient? Certainly none of these. It might well be that no improvement was possible."

Poor Glawen is tortured by the fact that Wayness goes off to Earth, alone, to take on the dangerous task of searching for the valuable Charter. Most of Ecce and Old Earth is an account of Wayness as she travels around Earth on her search. With Wayness off on her adventure, Glawen suffers acutely, in part because early in Araminta Station his first love, Sessily Veder, is murdered. Glawen can all too well imagine also losing Wayness.

By the end of Ecce and Old Earth the Charter has been found and replaced, thus removing the fate of Cadwal from the hands of the nearly extinct Naturalist Society. By this point in the trilogy some of the forces that are arrayed in opposition to Glawen have been revealed and there is no obvious way that Cadwal can be saved from the fate of being over-run by greedy people who reject the idea that the planet should remain a nature preserve. Glawen needs a new and powerful friend from beyond Cadwel.

If this were one of Vance's Alastor Cluster novels then we might expect a visit from the Connatic, arriving just in time to set things right. In this case, Vance has already introduced us to Cadwal's future benefactor, ironically identified as a visiting guest of one of the Cadwal natives who is working to open the planet to wider human occupancy and exploitation. Upon re-reading the book it is fun to watch the lurking savior of Cadwal quietly passing among Glawen and his adversaries.

In Apollo 23, I'm trying to be quite open about showing the reader how Sakir is manipulated by aliens, but I also need to keep open a path by which poor Sakir can play a trick or two on her puppet master.

Vance always seems to meander back and forth between the protagonist being saved by luck or by competency and skill. At one point in Ecce and Old Earth, Wayness believes she has found the location of the Charter and she triumphantly calls her uncle to share the news. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Wayness, an enemy is within ear shot. It all works out fine because she soon learns that she was wrong and the enemy is sent off on a wild goose chase.

When Sakir first meets Jack Swigert, he has already been subjected to years of "debriefing" by a robot pretending to be Jill Lyons. Sakir is a clone of Jill and she is 20 years younger than than the "Jill" that Jack has known. When interacting with Jack, Sakir pretends to be Jill's daughter and manages to learn an important fact from Jack that escapes the attention of Jill's puppet masters. After she is sent to Earth, that hidden fact will allow Jill to double cross her alien handlers.

Jun 15, 2011

Araminta Station

Araminta Station is the first of a trilogy (The Cadwal Chronicles) by Jack Vance. The story is "science fiction" set in the far future when humans have started spreading to many Earth-like planets such as Cadwal, the home planet of Glawen Clattuc. Glawen is the main character in the story, a young man who must save Cadwal from impending catastrophe.

Cadwal is a world with a complex ecosystem that includes some "tribes" of nearly human animals. Centuries before Glawen's time the planet Cadwal was designated a nature preserve. The impending catastrophe is that Cadwal might now be over-run by humans with disastrous consequences for the native lifeforms.

The interesting thing about Vance's stories in The Cadwal Chronicles, his Demon Princes series and the Alastor Cluster novels is that so little has changed in the future that Vance imagines. There is no "technological singularity" in this future history. Glawen enjoys sailing as much as traveling between the stars.

No singularity. Why not? In the Demon Princes series, Vance included "The Institute", a powerful organization that protects humanity against self-destruction due to damaging technological innovations. If we were in Hollywood, we would be forced to worry about the danger of humans running into technologically advanced aliens. This is not a probelm until you get to Vance's Durdane series, and even then the aliens are basically at the human level of technological development.

Occasionally Vance mentions a world where there are remnants of a lost civilization, possibly that of an alien species that long ago destroyed itself...or moved on to bigger and better things. How long ago? In The Star King, Vance mentions the idea that some humans were taken off of Earth about 100,000 years ago and transplanted to another planet. Transplanted by who? Vance never explains.

I like the idea that Earth was visited long ago by aliens, alien beings who could not resist hauling away a few humans for genetic engineering, domestication or who knows what. In Apollo 23, there are aliens who want to keep themselves hidden from those of us who live on Earth. The aliens use time travel to destroy the "Olmec Reality" and protect humanity from destroying itself.

I also like the idea that such aliens would want to protect the rich ecosystems of planets like Earth. Maybe there are such aliens at work behind the scenes of Araminta Station, aliens who make sure that Glawen saves the day and Cadwal...and gets the girl.

Jun 14, 2011

Apollo 23

I just noticed that there is a story called Apollo 23 by Justin Richards. I recently started a new collaborative science fiction writing project that was tentatively called Apollo 23. Collaborating authors are welcome.

An alternative title for the new story could be "The Olmec Reality". Here I'm using the term "Reality" in the way that Isaac Asimov did in his time travel novel The End of Eternity. If you travel back in time and change the course of events then you cause a new "Reality" to come into existence, essentially a new timeline of events. In the Olmec Reality a technological civilization originated in Mesoamerica and humanity started developing nanotechnology as early as the year 1850. In the Olmec Reality, by 2012 a disruptive form of nanotechnology went out of control and destroyed human civilization on Earth.
Jill travels through time

In order to prevent the catastrophe of 2012, a time traveler was sent back to 300 B.C.E. in order to put an end to the Olmec civilization, but that intervention into the course of events left behind some traces...including hints about the importance of the year 2012.

Unfortunately, while preventing the nanotechnology disaster, new problems were created. Another trip through time is needed and the designated time traveler is Jill Lyons. Here is a brief account of Jill's life: born in 1941 and transported to the future from 1969. She arrives in the year 2027 where alien technology is used to produce a few clones of Jill. In 2053 one of those clones is sent back in time to take the place of Jill in 1969.

There are some important technical limitations on time travel. First, moving matter into and out of Reality requires a large amount of energy. Second, travel through time disrupts other attempts to travel to or from the same point in time. In order to minimize the amount of matter being shifted in or out of time, a common trick is to use a cloned copy of an individual as the time traveler who goes back into history and creates a new Reality. However, if someone travels through time to/from 1969, then it will be impossible to perform another trip through time that is close to 1969.

The story takes place in the "Exodemic Universe" so there are aliens who control the time travel technology. The reader will be wondering what the aliens hope to accomplish by sending human time travelers into the past. In the story, there are some humans who work closely with the aliens and other humans who wonder if the aliens can be trusted.

Related reading:
The Earth Experiment