Aug 19, 2012

Port Mar

Chapter Two of Assignment: Marune
 _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
Captain Earle Plakqu ordered the Tressian to land on Mount Kunn, location of the Whelm's automated monitoring station to the south and west of Port Mar. Jantiff's aircar was pushed out of the patrol cruiser's small cargo hold and made ready.

Jantiff zipped into a heavy hooded parka and said farewells to the librarian and the Captain. He then made his way out through the aft hatch and onto the surface of Marune. The summit of Mount Kunn was a gray mix of granite and a few tiny wind-swept ice crystals.

Geologists insisted that mountains this high could not exist naturally. To account for Mount Kunn, some suggested that in the distant past the Fwai-chi had a technologically advanced culture and the means to artificially stimulate orogenic forces. Taking one glance off towards the horizon, Jantiff felt like he was actually in space.

Jantiff ran through the cold thin air and quickly took refuge in the aircar. The Tressian sprang up on its jets and then streaked off to the south, quickly lost among the stars that, at such great height, glinted against the blue-black dome of the sky even in daylight.

Jantiff activated the autopilot and the aircar, struggling in the tenuous air, swung off towards Port Mar. Soon the aircar was dropping down into the stratosphere from the Herior peaks. The aircar began to function normally as the atmosphere thickened. Passing beyond the Herior glacial field, Jantif began seeing cultivated land and small farming villages below. Then Port Mar emerged in the distance, a gray smudge peeking out from behind the Low Range, nestled among the hills just beyond the Ajat Gap. The aircar dropped down among a deck of scattered clouds and as Jantiff passed through the Gap, New Town could be distinguished on the port side. Tired Old Town, almost lost among a heavy growth of tall trees was to Jantif's right.

Still on autopilot, the aircar settled itself onto the top of the University Inn's garage. Jantiff left the heavy coat in the aircar and hauled out his travel bag. An elevator took him down to the lobby where Jantiff paid for a room.

Jantiff's room had a view over the river towards the hills of Old Town. In the distance, Jantiff saw the upper floors of the Royal Rhune Hotel where they extended above the trees near the summit of Garlin Hill. There was a knock on his door.

Jantiff opened the door and saw an energetic middle aged woman who wore a jacket similar to that of the Hotel staff. Her darting brown eyes quickly scanned Jantiff and the interior of his room. He said, "Yes?"

"I'm Sterr Hoolmayr, Manager." She held a lightpen that projected an image of Jantiff's aircar on the roof of the garage. "Mr. Fersten, is this your aircar?"

Jantiff replied, "It is." He wondered if Hoolmayr was part Rhune; she showed none of the distinctive Majar facial features.

"I'm sorry, sir, but we can't have an unregistered aircar in our garage."

Jantiff pretended surprise. "I'm sure that the registration process was completed before my aircar was allowed out of the spaceport."

"Well, it is not broadcasting a registration code."

"I've just been down to Denlanny. I went through an electrical storm on the way down there, maybe the code transmitter was damaged."

Hoolmayr switched off the lightpen and advised, "Have it fixed immediately, sir. The constabulary has been alerted and they might act at any time. If you do not mind my curiosity, why do you need a private aircar?"

"I'm here on Marune to teach and study. I'll be making many out of town visits such as my trip to Denlanny."

"There is commercial aircar service, Mr. Fersten. Private aircars make the authorities nervous. Surely you are aware of the Connatic's restrictions imposed on the Rhunes."

"I'll have the code transmitter serviced at once. Thank you for bringing the problem to my attention." As soon as  Manager Hoolmayr bowed and departed, Jantiff phoned the Connatic's local correspondent. "Donna Weye? This is Jantiff Fersten."

"Welcome to Marune, Mr. Fersten. Joole warned me to expect your arrival. Is there anything I can help you with? Where are you?"

Jantiff replied, "I just took a room at the University Inn, but I need to rent a house. My family will soon be arriving from Zeck."

Donna suggested, "I know someone who can show you several fine houses in Old Town. Houses are harder to find in New Town where there are mostly apartments."

"I'm not particular about location; either side of the river is fine. I'm going to drop by the College first, then I'd like to see the available rental houses."

"I'll have Mr. Brezne contact you. He's generally not willing to rent to non-Majars, but I'll put in a good word; with luck he'll decide that he can accommodate an off world visitor. How long will you be on Majar?"

"I have a one year appointment at the College. I'm prepared to sign a one year rental contract."

"Very well, I'll let Brezne know."

"One more thing Madam Weye. I need to get my aircar registered."

"Yes, I've made arrangements, at considerable cost. I have a registration strip for you. Stop by and I'll install it in you car."

"You are at 3 Royal Road?"

"Yes, down by the river. Land out back between the trees so that my neighbors won't see us."

Jantiff then called the College and spoke to the head of the World Literature Department. They arranged to meet and Jantiff walked over, crossing through the maze of glass and steel buildings of the University.

Two hours later, Jantiff had been welcomed to the College and informed that his teaching duties would start in two months. Jantiff returned to the Inn and took the aircar aloft. Across the river and a mile upstream he came upon Donna's house, perched a hundred feet above the river, not far from the start of the Ajat gorge. The autoplilot had no problem finding Donna's house, but Jantiff over-rode the autopilot and landed in the back garden.

Donna came down a walkway from the house and bowed to Jantiff. He was dazzled by her synthetic-looking Majar skin which, seen live under the multiple suns of Marune, took on an alien multi-hued tone that was not captured in static images. Jantiff handed over a mission intag that Joole had prepared for Donna.

Donna asked impertinently, "I doubt if it is worth my time to read anything from Joole. She pours out pages of nonsense in an effort to conceal her thoughts. Can you tell me what you are up to, Mr. Ravensroke?"

Jantiff reminded her, "While on Marune I'll use the name Fersten."

"Understood; I'll only use your real name when speaking directly to you in private."

"I've already been warned that the local police might be watching me. Are you sure that we cannot be over-heard?"

"The local police spend all their effort trapping snow bears who wander into town from the mountains." Realizing that Jantiff would tell her nothing interesting about his mission, Donna turned and gave her attention to the aircar. Working efficiently, she equipped the vehicle with a registration code transmitter. While she worked, Jantiff briefly outlined his plan for making contact with Efraim.

When Donna was done with the aircar she handed Jantiff a dataplug. "Here is where you can meet Brezne. He's already there, waiting for you.

Jantiff took the aircar up to a safe height then sild the dataplug into the autopilot. The car quickly flew to Barrie Hill and landed a short distance from Brezne where he waited at one of the many abandoned houses of Old Town. Brezne was an ancient Majar with a bald head, bent spine and skinny limbs. Jantiff was surprised by Brezne's agility and brisk manner.

Brezne showed Jantiff around the old cavernous mansion. "A few sentimentalists like me can't let all the old houses fall to ruins, but nobody wants to live in these grand old places any more. This house has the most convenient location for your work at the University."

Yeak House
Jantiff patiently looked at three more of Brezne's properties and was impressed by the unique magnificence that individuated each of them. With no other clear basis for deciding among the available sites, Jantiff selected the first one he had seen, which was closest to the College.

Brezne and Jantiff walked to a dark alley behind the Avenue of Brass Boxes that constituted Marune's financial dstrict, such as it was. On the ancient streets of Majar Town, Jantiff felt an urge to acquire paints and canvas, but he knew he had no time for anything except his mission.

After a two hour session at Brezne's bank, Jantiff had successfully established a local bank account and he now held a one year lease on the Barrie Hill house. Brezne insisted on having a cleaning crew go through the house. "Nobody has lived there in recent memory and I want to check that everything is in good order. I understand that you are in a hurry, Mr. Fersten. You can move in at next Rowan. By the way, the house was built by the Yeakitov clan and it is locally known as Yeak House."

Jantiff complimented Brezne on his efficiency. "My wife will want to make some changes and hire a domestic staff."


"We have a young daughter. My wife will not want her wandering off. We'll probably upgrade the fences."

Brezne explained, "In the past there were strict ordinances for Old Town, but they are seldom enforced now, with half the structures in ruins. Still, I insist that my properties remain compliant."

"Of course. Perhaps you can suggest a contractor who you trust."


The above is Chapter Two of a fanfiction complement to Jack Vance's science fiction novel Marune: Alastor 933. Chapter One of Assignment: Marune can be found in an earlier blog post along with a brief description of the story. The story is still under construction and collaborating authors are welcome.

Chapter One - Blazon spaceport
Chapter Two - Port Mar
Chapter Three - Glisten
Chapter Four - Efraim
Chapter Five - Lorcas
Chapter Six - Flaussig

Aug 18, 2012

Star Trek: The Original Series; 10 Episodes

Kara and T’Ling
I recently saw the Star Trek: Aurora video which provides a nice demonstration of how far the technology for at-home CGI movie making has come. (Compare it to what was possible a few years ago.)

The plot of Star Trek: Aurora reminded me of how much I dislike Star Trek episodes with parallel universes (The Alternative Factor, Mirror, Mirror, The Tholian Web). As a hard science fiction fan, I've struggled and come a long way towards being able to suspend disbelief when scientific nonsense is hoisted as a plot device within a Sci Fi story.
I've found ways to accommodate myself to faster-than-light space travel, telepathy and time travel, but parallel universes remain just beyond my grasp....particularly when I'm told that the "quantum flux structure" of one's RNA is involved in how the protagonist has moved between universes. My inability to suspend disbelief in such situations in no way detracts from how wonderful it is that one Sci Fi fan (Tim Vining) can now create a lovely CGI Star Trek-inspired episode.
Lazarus and anti-Lazarus

Below, I look back at ten interesting episodes from the original Star Trek. What do I define as an interesting episode?

"Evil" Kirk working on crew morale.
In some cases it is easiest to describe the types of stories that did not interest me. As mentioned above, I have a personal problem with stories that involve "parallel universes", particularly when they drift into explorations of "good vs. evil". The Enemy Within, which pretended that the transporter could split animals into two near duplicate individuals, one "good" and meek and the other "evil" and aggressive, was, along with Mirror, Mirror, the answer to this question: What do you expect from a Hollywood script writer who is told to use a technological plot device to explore "good vs. evil"?  

Monster of the week
The Man Trap is an example of a Star Trek episode where we are subjected to a "monster of the week". I can accept that while out exploring the galaxy one might come across all kinds of strange creatures, but as a biologist I have a particularly hard time accepting the sorts of biologically-implausible creatures that Hollywood script writers invent. The fundamental problem is that I am not interested in horror as a genre. No surprise that I do not like The Enemy Within (by horror story author Richard Matheson)

Balance of Terror is an example of an episode where we must suffer through a war with Romulans or Klingons or some other proxy for "the bad guy". Endless space wars....going "where no man has gone before"? No, going where we always are forced to go by script writers who "cleverly" translate tired old Earthly conflicts into a new science fiction setting. Yawn. Sadly, the entire Star Trek: Aurora story is built on a mindless attack upon a defenseless cargo ship by a Romulan war ship. I enjoy Sci Fi for adventure, exploration and the fun of imagined science, not clanking plots extracted from Earth history and forced into the future.

Ten Interesting Episodes
Why go through this exercise of looking back at Star Trek episodes? I want to explore the extent to which my Exodemic stories have been influenced by watching Star Trek. Asimov suspected that most of his stories could be traced back to the work of other writers, particular the Sci Fi stories that he read in the "pulps" as a child. How much was I influenced by watching Star Trek as a child?
Teri Garr and Victoria Vetri

1. Assignment: Earth
This is one of several Star Trek episodes that involved time travel. However, what I like about Assignment: Earth has nothing to do with time travel. As discussed below, one of my favorite types of Star Trek story involves human interaction with aliens who have advanced technology.

We must ask: if the galaxy is full of planets where humanoid aliens long ago developed advanced technology (see #9, below), then did some of those aliens visit Earth long ago? If so, then Gary Seven can easily be imagined to be a human who was born on a distant planet and who functions as an Interventionist agent on Earth.

Isis and Gary Seven
What should we make of the "Isis" character who can shapeshift between human (Victoria Vetri) and cat forms? It is fun to imagine that advanced artificial lifeforms might be composed of nanorobotic components (nanites) that can assemble themselves into any convenient form. So I imagine that Isis makes use of advanced alien technology and acts as a kind of supervisor for Gary Seven. It is not clear that Gary is aware of this.

By the Rules of Intervention, any changes to the historical course of events on Earth must be initiated by a human, but by stretching the rules a bit, Isis can travel to Earth with long as she does not get caught. She disguises herself as a cat, except during a moment of weakness when she befuddles Earthling Roberta Lincoln (Teri Garr) by briefly taking on the form of a woman.

Maybe some day Assignment: Earth will finally be made into a television series. Related reading: X-Seven, Star Trek and X-Files crossover fanfiction.

2. All Our Yesterdays.
Zarabeth and Spock
Speaking of fanfiction, this is one of the Star Trek episodes that was written by Jean Lisette Aroeste. It is wonderful that a Star Trek fan could contribute to the series as a story author.

Also, speaking of time travel, this was one of the least offensive episodes of Star Trek that involved going back in time. However, if you insist on making this a time travel story, I'd make one change to this episode.

Drop the idea that when Spock goes back in time he starts acting like a "primitive" Vulcan of past ages.

Spock is half human... alone and stranded with Zarabeth (Mariette Hartley). If you want to have a Spock romance then just do it; don't introduce a lame time travel plot device that implied some sort of temporal panpsychism.

In The End of Eternity, Asimov imagined that it might be possible to focus a world's technological development on either time travel or space travel. If All Our Yesterdays was written today, a third option would be to imagine that the people of Sarpeidon developed some sort of computer-based advanced virtual reality technology. Rather than travel back in time, we can just as easily imagine that they upload their minds to a computerized virtual reality world.

Mr. Atoz
If you insist on the idea that Sarpeidon's star is about to explode and the Enterprise drops by at the last moment in order to rescue the inhabitants, then you could accomplish the mission, assuming that Zarabeth and Mr. Atoz and the entire population of the planet has been encoded on some fantastic sort of computer memory.

In Exode, I imagine that the Prelands devote significant effort to the design and perfection of mythical lives that they try to live out. In Exode, they do this with a minimum of technology (mostly nanites), but the people of Sarpeidon could easily be humans who were long ago taken to a world near the galactic center and given computer technology that allows for mind uploading to virtual realities.

Why is our galaxy full of planets that are populated by humans and humanoids? In Star Trek: The Next Generation it is discovered that our galaxy was "seeded" by an ancient humanoid species. In that episode it is concluded that those "ancient humanoids" are long gone, but it is more fun to imagine that their influence remains active and accounts for the presence of humans on ice worlds such as Sarpeidon and mysterious visitors to Earth like Gary Seven (#1, above). Related reading

3. The Menagerie.
Pike and Vina experience Rigel.
Hugo Winner
Imagine that the humanoid inhabitants of Talos IV can trace their origins back to Earth, possibly 100,000 years in the past. The Talosians have been genetically modified and they look "alien", but it is fun to assume that they are descended from Earthlings.

Early in Earth's exploration of the galaxy, a crippled SS Columbia reaches Talos IV and Vina (played by Susan Oliver) is the only survivor of the ship's crew.

Vina is very ill and horribly disfigured by the time Columbia reaches Talos IV, but the people of Talos allow her to grow up happily within a virtual reality where she appears to be healthy.

Later, the Enterprise, at this time commanded by Christopher Pike, visits Talos IV. Pike is "invited" to stay as a companion with Vina, but he declines the invitation. Later, after Pike is injured and confined to a wheel chair, Spock takes him back to Talos IV so that he can live out his life with Vina, both of them seemingly free of their deformities within a happy virtual reality existence.

Susan Oliver
I don't think that Gene Roddenberry had the concept of a computer-generated virtual reality in 1966. He imagined that the Talosians had some sort of telepathic ability to make humans imagine that they were in locations that actually only existed only in their memories of past experiences.

I wish we could get in a time machine, go back to the 1960s and get Roddenberry to drop the idea of slave girls and adopt the concept of computerized virtual reality. There were a few science fiction authors such as Stanslaw Lem who had already written about virtual reality. Unfortunately, it is not clear that Roddenberry's knowledge of science fiction was much deeper than Hollywood fluff like Buck Rogers.

4.  What Are Little Girls Made Of?
Andrea and Ruk
In All Our Yesterdays (#2, above), Mr. Atoz had robotic assistants. What Are Little Girls Made of? was another Star Trek episode with human-like robots. This was the first of three Star Trek episodes by Robert Bloch, two of which are discussed on this page (see #7 Catspaw, below).

This episode has similarities to the film Forbidden Planet. Imagine an ancient off-shoot of humanity that developed a sophisticated technology for creating robotic bodies that they could transfer their minds into. Those humans became extinct, but they left behind their technology.

It would be interesting to know how Roddenberry made casting decisions. Like Victoria Vetri (#1, above) Sherry Jackson was a likely candidate for Playboy magazine. The plot device of Kirk's ability to evoke emotional responses from robots was also included in Requiem for Methuselah (#10, below).

5. The Corbomite Maneuver
Enterprise and Fesarius
This is one of the Star Trek episodes that could have been cut to half the typical episode duration, but it was fun in how it depicted a humanoid starship captain (Balok) who seemingly just enjoyed cruising around the galaxy.  

Kirk and Rand
There was so much time to kill in this episode that we even get to "enjoy" Dr. McCoy and Yeoman Rand trying to put Captain Kirk on a diet.

First, the tranya.
The image to the left shows Captain Kirk and Yeoman Rand in an early Star Trek publicity photo.
Kirk: "When I get my hands on the person who gave me a female yeoman..."
McCoy: "What's the matter, don't you trust yourself?"

After a tedious and long-drawn-out test of the intentions of the Enterprise crew, we finally meet the alien, Balok, and get a tour of the Fesarius. I like to imagine that there are actually millions of aliens living within the giant spaceship that initially confronts the Enterprise. In most Star Trek episodes we go and visit a distant planet, but it was strange when the Enterprise came across a generation ship that was transporting people between the stars. Look how easy it was for humans to develop warp drive. Why would anyone spend thousands of years traveling on a generation ship? In contrast, it was very satisfying to see the advanced technology of the Fesarius. Related reading

6. The Squire of Gothos
Yeoman Teresa Ross, Kirk, Trelane
This is the last episode from Season One that is discussed here. This episode has similarities to the "Q" episodes that would come later in the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

In keeping with Roddenberry's formula for Hollywood success, Yeoman Ross (Venita Wolf) was yet another Playboy playmate (see also Victoria Vetri (#1) and Sherry Jackson (#4), above).

This episode is interesting because it depicts advanced and apparently disembodied aliens who give their young offspring, Trelane, a planet to play with. Trelane brings some of the Enterprise crew down to the planet to play, but eventually his parents notice the mischief he gets into.

7. Catspaw
Korob (left) and Sylvia (right)
This is the second episode by Robert Bloch that is discussed here (see #4, What Are Little Girls Made of?, above). This was the seventh episode of the second season and featured an iconic redshirt crew member, Jackson, who dies quickly at the beginning of the show. Actually, Jackson wears a yellow shirt :(

Korob and Sylvia are alien visitors from a distant galaxy. Playing out Clarke's 3rd Law, the aliens make use of an advanced device that allows them to seemingly have magical powers. However, while our galaxy swarms with humanoids, these creatures are fundamentally different and their telepathic powers give them the false impression that human nightmares and Hollywood horror movie tropes define human thought.

Korob eventually can't tolerate the tricks that Sylvia plays on the hapless humans and he tries to help them escape. Sylvia enjoys the experience of using a human body form, although she also temporarily takes the form of a cat.

Kirk on alien probe duty
In keeping with Star Trek tradition, Kirk is ready and able to indulge in some human-alien sex, particularly if it will allow Kirk to defeat the evil alien. Kirk enthusiastically volunteers to probe Sylvia (Antoinette Bower) ... at least before he gets a glimpse of her true physical form.

The image to the right shows the pipe cleaner model of Sylvia's true alien form. Ah, the glory days of pre-CGI special effects! I spent many years being puzzled over the lame animation of the death of Korob and Sylvia, it being a meaningless blur when seen in fuzzy black and white on a small television screen.

The Catspaw episode has similarities to By Any Other Name. By Any Other Name was built upon an alien invasion plot, while in Catspaw the aliens are simply explorers. I'll take inept exploration over a lame invasion.

8. The Trouble With Tribbles

This episode is just plain fun and it is interesting because of what it can tell us about the art of creating a good television show. The story of how this episode was created by Jerrold Friedman is almost as entertaining as the show itself.

McCoy: "The nearest thing I can figure out is they're born pregnant, which seems to be real time saver."

This is the only Star Trek episode with Klingons that I can tolerate, mainly because we do not have to try to take the Klingons seriously....all the fake political hand-wringing does not appear on the screen during this episode.

9. Return to Tomorrow
"Try to smile."
This is the last episode from season two that I discuss here. Sargon and his wife, Thalassa, have been disembodied minds for the past million years. Sargon suggests that in the distant past his people might have visited worlds like Earth, long before there was a modern human species.

I wish they could have come up with a better reason for why Sargon et al were trapped in their bottles, but it was apparently impossible, in the middle of the Cold War, to do other than say there had been a catastrophic war.

In this episode, two aliens transfer their minds into the bodies of Kirk and astrobiologist Dr. Ann Mulhall (played by Diana Muldaur).

Director's instructions to Diana Muldaur: "Try to smile."

This is one of the Star Trek episodes where Spock (Leonard Nimoy) had to play a very nasty character (the evil alien, Henoch). Nimoy was very good at being a dick. Related reading

10. Requiem for Methuselah
Along with All Our Yesterdays (#2, above), this was a third season Episode. This episode strikes me as the most interesting of those written by Jerome Bixby. Flint, born on Earth thousands of years in the past, was a seemingly immortal human. Some of the great historical figures from Earth's past were actually Flint, who would live in various locations, pretend to age, and then move on.

In the Space Age, after leaving Earth, Flint settled on the planet Holberg 917-G where he began the task of creating a robotic woman (Rayna) who could be his eternal mate.
Rayna and Flint

Kirk arrives and falls in love with Rayna, triggering a jealous conflict with Flint. Worse still, Kirk's romantic intentions have caused Rayna to develop powerful but confused emotions. Unable to accommodate her new feelings for Kirk and Flint, her artificial mind disintegrates.

At the end of this episode, McCoy reports that Flint is now dying. McCoy: "You see, Flint, in leaving Earth with all of its complex fields within which he was formed, sacrificed immortality." How might we accommodate out thinking to this mumbo jumbo? Imagine that various advanced alien species have been visiting Earth in the distant path. Might an Earthling become inadvertently infected by life-extending alien nanites, possibly nanites intended for an interventionist agent like Gary Seven (#1, above)?
Related Reading: The Man from Earth

Fun. Good Sci Fi plays with ideas. The Trouble With Tribbles (#8, above) is good fun, but it did not deal with an interesting Sci Fi topic.

It's green
Extragalactic Aliens. Most Star Trek stories play out among the stars of our galaxy. Two episodes explored visitors from another galaxy; Catspaw (#7, above) and By Any Other Name. In both stories, the aliens took on human form, which was their downfall. I enjoyed Catspaw more because it did not try to introduce a lame alien invasion plot. Both of these episodes had good doses of fun. How many alien invasions are stopped by drinking the aliens under the table? The silly Halloween theme of Catspaw is about as close to horror as I like to be. For my own stories, I've never been able to buy into the idea that our galaxy is full of humans and humanoids but other galaxies have different forms of life.

Humanoid Galaxy. Assignment: Earth and Requiem for Methuselah (#s 1 and 10, above) are easy for me to relate to my interest in stories that are set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe. If aliens visited Earth long ago, why don't we have evidence of those visits? Or are we, unknowingly, the handiwork of alien visitors?

I can imagine that the other six episodes on my list are all stories about humanoids who originated on Earth long ago.
The Squire of Gothos- 2,000,000
Return to Tomorrow - 1,000,000
What Are Little Girls Made Of? - 500,000
All Our Yesterdays - 250,000
The Menagerie - 125,000
The Corbonite Maneuver - 50,000
It is fun to imagine that Balok's ancestors were taken off of Earth 50,000 years ago: maybe they were related to Homo floresiensis. In Exode, the Buld clan members mostly live on space ships, not planets. Imagine the surprise of Earthlings if we eventually learn how to travel between the stars, only to find that there are hundreds of human-variants out there, humans having long ago been taken off of Earth then genetically and culturally modified.

To what extent can my interest in the Exodemic solution to the Fermi Paradox be traced back to watching Star Trek when I was young? I'm sure that I latched onto the suggestion from Return to Tomorrow that an older humanoid species could have spread humans around the galaxy. I was never a great fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but when I saw The Chase I was put off by the idea that a holographic message could be encoded in DNA molecules that had evolved over billions of years. According to this page, The Chase was inspired by Sagan's novel, Contact. When I started writing Exodemic I was certainly thinking a lot about the reasonableness of "ancient aliens" as depicted in Sagan's novel. However, Sagan never adequately explained how it might be possible for technologically advanced aliens to keep their hands off of worlds like Earth. Certainly the Huaoshy were not willing to take a hands-off policy towards Earth.

Warp to the Star Trek 50 years celebration!
Youtube's automated captions feature converts "retired" to "retard".

We did not have a color TV!

Aug 12, 2012

Too Alien

Back in the 70s, my copy had this
John Schoenherr cover art
Not alien enough. One of the first science fiction novels that I read was Against the Fall of Night, the precursor to  The City and the Stars. I was rather startled by how Clarke's story depicted humans still on Earth a billion years in our future. In his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, Asimov explicitly adopted the view that it is possible for humans to create a stable cultural environment within which humans would not significantly change by evolution over the course of millions of years. However, since those two stories were written, there has been growing interest in the idea that much human evolution can be due to "genetic drift" rather than selection. In other words, due to random events, you can't stop evolution even if the environment remains constant.

By the 1960s, when the chemical basis of heredity was known, it became easy for science fiction writers to imagine a future in which we humans might engineer our own chromosomes and radically accelerate the pace of biological evolution (example). Also, with the miniaturization of computers, it became popular to imagine that Humanity could at some future time migrate from our biological bodies into robotic bodies or our species could give rise to descendants that take the form of some sort of non-biological artificial life.

Some futurists argue that we will enter into a technological singularity during this century which will radically change human existence. Is there any way to prevent Humanity from radically transforming itself?

Anti-Singularity. I've long been intrigued by how Asimov and Vance found ways to limit the rate and direction of human technological development in their "future histories" about Humanity's spread through the galaxy. Asimov imagined that Daneel had taken control of Humanity and so human technological advancement was carefully regulated so as to impose constraints that would protect humans from harm. Asimov introduced the idea that "mentalics" made it possible to control human creativity. Asimov showed that the Solarians diverged significantly from the human norm and Daneel arranged for the formation of Galaxia, a culture within which human brains would be engineered to incorporate a version of the Laws of Robotics. But for the most part, technology did not advance during the 20,000 years during which Humanity colonized the galaxy. Vance imagined The Institute, a mysterious and secretive organization that constantly worked to counter the potentially disruptive influence of new technologies.

Exode. I'm developing a new science fiction novel called Exode that is heavily  concerned with human evolution. The main character is Parthney, who is part of the Buld Clan. The Bulds are a minority group among the Prelands, those humans who live on worlds near the galactic core. I've been struggling with decisions about just how alien to make the Prelands. This is complicated by the fact that the Prelands are a diverse group composed of many different "clans".

The Prelands are the result of a human breeding project that was initiated by alien beings, the Huaoshy. The Prelands live in an artificial culture where people are not even aware of the possibility of invention and technological advancement. They have been given a few technological conveniences by the Huaoshy, but the Prelands do not view technology as a human creation.

All of the Preland clans are genetically modified variants of humans. I'm using "human" in a broad sense because some of the Preland clans had their biological origin as human variants (such as Neanderthals) that have become extinct on Earth during the past 100,000 years or so. One of the major goals of the Huaoshy breeding program is to allow humans to make use of nanoscopic devices (nanites) that integrate into the brain and allow for new types of communication such as a form of technology-mediated telepathic information exchange. Individuals in most Preland clans make use of nanite-assisted telepathy and they make little use of spoken language. The Buld Clan is relatively young and their brains are only partially capable of integrating with nanites, so they still use spoken language.

Right brain, left brain.

The Buld Clan does not have a written language (but a few Buld have learned to read and write). For Bulds, the parts of the brain that we make use of for reading are targeted by nanites and used to make possible a form of nanite-facilitated telepathy. This rather primitive telepathy does not allow for telepathic conversations, but rather the exchange of information that is almost entirely processed at an unconscious level of brain activity. This form of telepathic contact allows individual Bulds to be strongly linked into a type of collective unconscious. Compared to you and I, the behavior of a typical Buld is less constrained by left brain activity. Bulds, like all Prelands, are almost exclusively right brain dominant.

The Prelands are human, but are they too alien? It is challenging to convey to readers what it is like to have Buld-type telepathy and in Exode, I don't even try to make readers understand what it must be like to live as a typical Preland who never speaks. Can readers understand and empathize with people who have telepathy?

And there are other biological differences between Prelands and we Earthlings. Prelands have been engineered to not rely on conventional mammalian bisexual reproduction. The Bulds are hermaphroditic and retain the ability to reproduce without the use of technology. However, most Prelands have lost the ability to reproduce without technological assistance. This allows the Huaoshy to easily control Preland population size and the course of Preland evolution.

The Bulds have been engineered to have an additional synthetic chromosome. In some rare individuals, a Buld is born who lost the synthetic chromosome. The main character of Exode, Parthney, is a Buld who is genetically male (a "false" Buld). Readers get to experience Preland culture through the eyes of Parthney. While growing up, Parthney has no deep understanding of the fact that humans originated as a bisexual species on Earth, although he is intrigued by the idea that he could go to Earth and experience life among billions of fellow humans.

Note: I finally decided on just how "alien" to make the Prelands....see this blog post.

Asimov's Spacers. In Foundation and Earth, Asimov depicted a smoldering antagonism between the hermaphroditic Solarians and Trevize, the "never wrong", the story's protagonist. He wants to destroy Solaria, trusting his infallible sense of what is best. Asimov depicted most Spacers as being disgusted by the "short-lived" Earthlings and Settlers. In several novels,  Kelden Amadiro was the personification of antagonism between Settlers and the Spacers and the Spacers create robots programmed to kill Settlers, defining them as non-human. Giskard and Daneel ultimately decide that the Spacers must be marginalized. This makes sense to me in that Daneel cannot allow further development of robots if he is to maintain control over the fate of Humanity. Solaria's culture, once established, ultimately became a complete dead end for further technological advancement. Even more strange, the human populations of the other Spacer worlds just mysteriously go extinct. The Solarian civilization persists for 20,000 years, never changing over long periods of time after being established in its hermaphroditic perfection. Is it a psychohistorical theorem: human cultures that do not expand become extinct, but a hermaphroditic human off-shoot can persist?

What other experiments and manipulations of Humanity did Daneel perform along with the creation of Gaia? Was the bulk of Humanity little more than a breeding experiment to produce Trivize, the "never wrong"? In the end, Asimov suggested the possibility that aliens might interact with Humanity, but he died before writing a sequel to Foundation and Earth. Asimov's Foundation Saga ends on a xenophobic note with the Solarians waiting for the Settlers to destroy themselves and Daneel, as a last resort, forced to merge his robotic mind with Fallom's (a Solarian) in a desperate attempt to convert Humanity into Galaxia. In the final few pages of Foundation and Earth, Asimov wrote that aliens had not visited our galaxy, "as far as is known". 

Asimov left his great future history poised for a gallant defense of Humanity against either invading aliens or a self-generated danger from within. I suspect that Asimov really did not want to introduce alien invaders from a distant galaxy. Not sharing Asimov's reluctance to include aliens, in The Start of Eternity I assume that Daneel's desperate attempts to shape and modify Humanity are, in fact, due to a long-standing struggle between positronic robots and aliens from another galaxy.

So, aliens were out and apparently Asimov also could not imagine some internally-generated conflict that would comprise a worthy adversary for Galaxia. I can imagine Asimov starting the sequel to Foundation and Earth and calling it something like Hermaphrodites vs. Galaxia. Asimov's formula for the entire saga was based upon imagined conflict between groups of people who all believe that they are doing what is "good". Were the Solarians too alien to fit into Asimov's formulaic approach? And how could a thousand Solarians be a threat to the 25,000,000 worlds of Galaxia?

Gender Engineering
Ursula K. Le Guin imagined a human variant that had been engineered for pheromonal regulation of expression of either a male or female phenotype by hermaphroditic individuals. After spreading among the stars, the Hanish civilization collapsed.

In Assignment Nor'Dyren, Sydney Van Scyoc depicted aliens who had a mysterious origin. We are told that the aliens did not originate on Nor'Dyren, that they were colonists from a long-defunct interstellar civilization. The Nor'Dyrenese were apparently genetically engineered into distinct subtypes so as to form a well-regulated civilization. Males and females were designed to have no distinctive physical differences upon casual observation.

There have been more recent attempts to portray fictional hermaphrodites in fantasy. I've never read any of the Wraeththu novels but they seem to devote significant effort to sketching a cultural backstory for Constantine's hermaphrodites. As a hard science fiction fan, I'm put off by the idea that the strange biology of these hermaphrodites arises by "mutation" and the Wraeththu have magical powers.

I've never read any of Banks' Culture stories, but as I understand them, they depict humanoid protagonists having adventures within an interstellar civilization that contains many technologically advanced lifeforms. The whole Culture setting strikes me as a kind of Star Trek holodeck fantasy stage. In Star Trek, Piccard gets to enter the holodeck and pretend to be his favorite detective. Using The Culture as a setting, Banks gets to play out James Bond secret agent missions with spaceships. His humanoids can select and change everything about their biology, including their sex, but apparently nothing arising from science fundamentally changes the way the protagonist humanoids behave. Life within the core of The Culture might be too strange for us to understand, but there is always the "fringe of the fringe", special operatives of Contact who can have typical Sci Fi adventures where the motivations and outcomes are typically human.

I've never read The Mote in God's Eye. The "Moties" remind me of "Tribbles", creatures with a physiology that a biologist can't accept. The individual Moties alternate between the two sexes and, although they are technologically advanced, they can't find a way to control their rapid population growth.

The Huaoshy design hermaphroditic reproduction into Preland clans as an intermediate evolutionary step leading ultimately to the abandonment of biological reproduction. For Prelands, both male and female gamete production is cyclical and rare, resulting in low fertility. In fact, almost all Preland reproduction takes place under the strict control of the Huaoshy-designed breeding plan. When a particular Preland clan is no longer of interest to the Huaoshy, it naturally dies out. The Huaoshy have a specific plan for how to evolve Humanity along the path that the Huaoshy themselves followed long ago. For an analogy, imagine that we found primitive unicellular life on Mars and decided to force that Martian life towards a multicellular existence. The Huaoshy view creatures like we humans as quite primitive, but worthy of having a chance to evolve. In their vast experience, the Huaoshy have learned that most human-like organisms, if left to themselves, self-destruct. I've previously compared the relationship between the Huaoshy and Humanity to the way a horse rancher might take care to tend a blade of grass in a pasture. 

For stories written in the first half of the previous century by authors like Asimov, was it impossible for readers to have anything but an aversive reaction to hermaphrodites? In this century, are attitudes changing? It is amusing to imagine a young Isaac Asimov trying to sell John Campbell a story about hermaphroditic humans. Asimov was able to integrate hermaphroditic Solarians into the Foundation saga, but he did so only after Campbell was gone and other science fiction authors had already begun to explore gender in their stories.

In "The Robots of Dawn", set several centuries in our future, Asimov depicted slightly different cultures (those of Earth, Aurora and Solaria) as rapidly diverging in terms of their sexual behaviors and reproductive practices. Asimov was a master at imagining how members of future human groups might be disgusted by the sexual practices of other groups. Within Auroran culture, Vasilia is depicted as being traumatized by the fact that her father refused to have sex with her. The early Solarians, while still bisexual, find sex a disgusting obligation of marriage.

Too Alien.
As humans, we have millions of bacteria that exist at the surface of our bodies. Normal gastointestinal function depends on the presence of bacteria, but we do not think of our microflora as being part of our selves. On the planet Hemmal, where Parthney is born, the Buld clan population is a minority that exists in a kind of symbiotic relationship with the biologically-distinct majority Preland population. In daily use, the term "Preland" is used as we might use the term "others" or "aliens". Members of each Preland clan refer to themselves by using the name of their own clan while all other humans are called "Prelands". The reader will learn about the other Preland residents of Hemmal through the eyes of Kach, a Buld clan member who finds it useful to imitate the Prelands who constitute the majority population of Hemmal.

Parthney and Kach struggle to understand the fact that they are "false", mutant Bulds who do not fit into Preland culture. Ultimately they must struggle with the broader mystery of the origin of the Prelands and the artificial Preland culture.

The Huaoshy, who are responsible for the existence of Preland culture, have taken pains to make sure that the Preland clans are not xenophobic. The Exode story has aliens, but no alien invasions, Exode has biologically distinct subgroups of humans, but no racial tensions. Parthney and Kach are mutants who do not fit into Preland culture, but they face no discrimination or prejudice. Readers get to follow Parthney and Kach while they struggle to understand the strangeness of the universe that they find themselves in. The reader might imagine that Exode is set in the far future, but part way through the story it is revealed that the universe of Parthney and Kach is our contemporary universe. The reader must then join in the struggle to understand how the existence of Preland culture is consistent with life on Earth as we know it. It should not matter if most Prelands seem too alien for the reader to empathize with. In the end, the reader will see the culture of we humans on Earth as being "too alien" and our own unique ways as the only true threat to our future existence.