Mar 25, 2017

Don Martin

Back in the late 1970's I read The Stochastic Man by Robert Silverberg. As a math and science nerd, I had hoped that this novel might have something interesting to say about mathematics, but it did not. After that experience, I was not in a hurry to read other fiction by Silverberg.

1959, cover art by Wallace Wood
After 40 years, I decided I should try reading some other Silverberg story, so today I read his short story "Mugwump Four" which is available via the Internet Archive (in the August 1959 issue of Galaxy magazine).

One of the great things about downloading old Sci Fi magazines from the Internet Archive is discovering little surprises in those old magazines. In this case, I was surprised to see that Don Martin had drawn the interior artwork for "Mugwump Four".

Growing up in the 1960s, I knew Don Martin for his cartoon illustrations in Mad magazine. Here is one that I remember from my youth:
One of the "signature" features of Don Martin cartoon characters are the flat feet.

click image to enlarge
"Mugwump Four" is a silly time travel story, so silly that the goofy illustrations by Martin do not seem too far out of place.

communications malfunction
The story is "about" short bald mutant humans who, in 1959, are conspiring in secret and trying to take over Earth. A hapless "normal" human (named 'Al') discovers the mutant conspiracy and is sent into the future by the mutants.

In the image to the left, two of the mutants try to figure out how it was possible for Al's phone to tap into the secret communications network that is used by the conspirators.

flat feet in the future
Poor Al ends up in the far future where, in addition to time travel, there is a technology that allows people to jump between parallel universes. In one universe the mutants have taken control of Earth while in the other parallel universe the "normals" long ago defeated the mutants.

bubble Al
As shown to the left, when Al arrives in the future, he is put inside a bubble so that his disease causing germs from the past will not infect anyone.

According to the ISFDB, Martin illustrated just a few speculative fiction stories from 1957 to 1961. In order to see the earliest available Don Martin Sci Fi drawings, I took a look at "Lulu" from the June 1957 Galaxy (download from the Internet Archive).

"Lulu" is another goofy story that seems well suited to Don Martin illustrations. "Lulu" is an artificial life spaceship that is sent out from Earth to explore new planets. Lulu's three human crew members are really only along for the ride, since Lulu can do all of the exploration work without human assistance.

1957: Lulu and her three boys. Click image to enlarge.
After visiting an exoplanet where there are apparently some rather sexually enthusiastic aliens (that sadly, could not be described or illustrated in 1957) were discovered, Lulu decides that she is in love with her three male crew members.

fingers of the future
Lulu sets course for deep space, knowing that she would be scrapped because of her emotional malfunction if she returned to Earth. Lulu's three "boys" will have nothing to do with the amorous Lulu. They "go on strike", doing even less than they usually do. Lulu is pissed off by their sulking and she plans to maroon them on an exoplanet. However, she discovers that her programming includes a safety feature that prevents her from moving through outer space without any humans on board.

The boys encounter an alien artificial lifeform.
The three "boys" soon discover that they are on a planet that was once inhabited by a human-like alien species. That extinct species left behind an artificial lifeform, a kind of robotic tank that moves around on wheels. When the alien robot attacks her "boys", Lulu defends them, but then Lulu and the alien device "fall in love".

Lulu's "face".
In the end, one of the "boys" writes a romantic poem for Lulu and she realizes that she made an error when she turned away from her "boys". She gets rid of the alien artificial lifeform and takes her three "boys" back into space.

from "Citizen Jell"
Don Martin was always crossing over into the realm of the bizarre and the disturbing. The sentient spaceship "Lulu" is able to sprout appendages and a face, when needed. Martin's depiction of Lulu's "face" is weird enough to give me nightmares.

Another Surprise
The August 1959 Galaxy also contains a short story called "Citizen Jell" by Michael Shaara, which contains a nice statement of an alien "Prime Directive".

In the Ekcolir Reality. Original artwork by Don Martin (1957).
For my stories that are set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe, I imagine ancient aliens who are constrained by their Rules of Intervention.

The tryp'At Overseers not only act so as to prevent Interventionist agents from providing Earthlings with dangerous technologies that might harm we primitive humans, they also try to prevent us from developing technologies of our own that we could misuse.

In the Ekcolir Reality. Image credits.
In the Ekcolir Reality, Earthlings were given access to hierion technology when the Fru'wu arrived on Earth. Ariel Davidson wrote stories about hierions in advance of the arrival of the Fru'wu.

Apparently the tryp'At existed in the Ekcolir Reality, but their role was quite different from the role that they have adopted here in the Final Reality. In the Ekcolir Reality, the tryp'At helped Earthlings develop and apply some hierion-based technologies.

Next: to Mars for Grendel Time
visit the Gallery of Posters

Mar 18, 2017

Exit Edit

In the Ekcolir Reality. Original cover art by Frank Freas.
Special thanks to Miranda Hedman for
"Black Cat 9 - stock" that I used to create the blue
"sedronite" who is in the image, above.
I. Short Term Memory

The Editor was obsessed with his daily assessment of short-term memory function. The test was fully automated and given at the same point during his circadian alertness cycle. Each day a new data point was methodically added to the database that now stretched back more than twenty five years into the past.

An extrapolation algorithm automatically estimated the date in the future when his STM capacity would reach half of what it had been when the Editor had begun the memory testing. That was the cut-off point. The Editor had long ago decided that he did not want to go on living without his short term memory system functioning at least with 50% of its original capacity.

Ever since the projection of that end point had fallen below one year in his future, the Editor had spent hours each day staring at the displayed STM graph. During those periods of time, he was not actually looking at the graph. He was lost in memories of the past, usually remembering the the "good old days" when he and Gohrlay and Yōd had worked together as a team to reveal the secret history of Humanity.

On one such occasion, the Editor's grand-daughter, Tez, arrived and found him staring at the displayed graph. She despised the graph and her grandfather's entire plan to end his life when he reached a particular degree of cognitive decline. Zeta had let her into the Editor's study, gazed sadly for a moment at the Editor, then she'd left Tez alone with her grandfather. Tez said brightly, "Hello!" and asked, "How are you today?"

The Editor remained there, not moving, gazing at the display. Zeta called from down the hallway, "He can sit like that for hours."

Tez put her arms around the Editor's shoulders and felt the horrible boniness of his shriveling body. Zeta returned with a glass of water. With only a brief glance at the graph, she reached out and turned off the display screen. The Editor turned his head, focused his eyes and said, "Hello, Tez." He noticed Zeta and he added, "Good morning, Z." He took the glass and guzzled the water thirstily. "Thank you."

Tez began prattling about her husband and her children, but the Editor was not listening. He was making an entry in his diary and writing down notes about something he had remembered from long in the past.

He wrote:

Memory suppression. Possibly in 1969. Trigger event: Grendel related? ?

Zeta and Tez began discussing plans for the upcoming birthday celebration of Yolinda, the oldest daughter of Tez. The Editor finished updating his notes and rudely interrupted: "Tez, can you take me for a drive?"

The answer was a resounding 'yes'. Zeta and Tez were both ecstatic that the Editor wanted to get out of the house. It was a sunny spring day and the leaves on the trees were starting to unfold from their buds. The air was thick with tree pollen and occasionally the Editor unleashed an explosive sneeze. Tez had automatically started driving towards Kenepoint beach, but the Editor began issuing orders and giving directions.

Zeta asked, "Where are we going?"

The Editor replied, "Home."

Neither Zeta or Tez had ever visited the childhood home of the Editor, which they knew had actually been torn down years before. When they were on the interstate heading west, Tez turned control of her car over to the computer. She turned her seat to the side and looked at Zeta who sat chewing her knuckle and watching the Editor as he gazed out the window at the passing scenery. Tez wondered outloud, "How far?"

Zeta replied, "It is not far."

The Editor looked at Tez and nodded. "We'll be there in twenty minutes."

Tez asked nervously, "What brought this on?"

The Editor shrugged and explained, "One of the advantages of neuronal death is that sometimes a cell's death removes an old block that was put on a memory. Today I suddenly remembered something from my youth..." He fell into silence.

After a minute, Zeta prompted: "What did you remember?"

The Editor pulled himself out of his thoughts and replied, "A hidden place that I discovered. It is very strange that I forgot about it! It was a great discovery... I've been trying to search back through time and determine when my memory of that discovery must have been suppressed."

Tez said, "Why does it matter if you once forgot? Now you have the memory back. Can you tell me about it?"

The Editor scowled at Tez with disgust. She had never had her memories suppressed! Then he found himself racked with suspicion. Was this Tez, or an imposter? The Editor was about to go on a paranoid rant and challenge Tez, but Zeta was watching carefully and saw the storm brewing. She said gently, "When he received his infites, that was a great gift of information, but at the same time those nanites performed extensive editing of his memories. Someone was making sure that only certain parts of human history could be revealed by us... not everything."

Tez had grown up humoring her grandparents and their obsessive belief in alien visitors to Earth. She'd even tried to read their books on that topic, but she'd found them silly and unreadable. She glanced out the window and looked at the gray hills. The car was climbing steadily up into the hills and some patches of packed snow were scattered along the road, slowly melting in the warm spring air. The car exited off the highway. She commented, "My, it's still wintry out here."

In just a short distance along the expressway they had left behind the megalopolis and climbed significantly in elevation. Spring would not really arrive up in the hills until a few more weeks passed. They crested a ridge and the Editor pointed off into the distance, "That's Weeselick hill, where the first settlers began clearing the land and farming. I grew up prowling the western slopes, which had reverted from cleared farmland and back to forest. You can see that the eastern slopes are still pasture land."

The Editor provided the car with instructions and they left the main road for a narrow street that wound up the south side of the Weeselick drumlin. Finally they stopped, high on the western Weeselick ridge which was now cluttered with fine homes, each set back from the street among the trees. They were parked at the end of the pavement near a small pond that was still half frozen. A gravel-topped road extended past the pond, disappearing among the trees in the direction that new development would soon proceed, further up the ridge line towards the top of Weeselick hill.

They got out of the car. The Editor looked around and tried to get oriented. "When I was a boy, this pond was a mile away from the nearest road." He stepped off the pavement into the leafy litter of the forest.

Zeta asked, "Where are you going?"

The Editor stopped, turned and explained, "Not far. Come on. Just a short stroll."

Tez popped open the car's trunk. She pulled on a pair of snow boots and a jacket and then she and Zeta set off into the woods, trying to catch up with the Editor. After a few minutes he had reached an old stone wall where he waited until the two women caught up. Above them was a high canopy of wild grape vines that had grown to the tree tops. Melting granular snow lay along the north side of the wall. The editor jumped off the wall and landed in the snow. Zeta complained, "I'm not wearing boots."

The editor did not seem to hear. He was moving quickly down the slope through the forest. Tez helped Zeta across the patch of hard packed snow. When they caught up to the Editor, they found him standing on an odd carved block of granite set in the ground beside a small depression, what looked like an old well or possibly a spring. The Editor knelt down, felt along the side of the granite block, then he stood up. In his hand was a small amount of green moss and something silvery, like iron filings.

Tez jumped onto the slab of granite and asked, "What do you have?"

The Editor held out his hand, "Now I know what this is. When I was a boy I thought it was ancient, oxidized tin, part of an old cover for a well."

II. Long Term Intervention

Zeta stood beside the granite block, looking up at Tez and the editor. "What did you find?"

The Editor walked to the end of the slab, knelt down and brushed a few flakes of the silvery material into the palm of Zeta's hand. He said, "You tell me."

Zeta's nanites performed a chemical analysis and she reported the results, "This is a kind of N-polymer. An artificial nanite-generated plastic."

Tez had learned about N-polymers in school. They had been one of the great advances of nanotechnology, removing Earth's dependence on oil for plastics manufacturing. Tez scuffed her boot on the rough stone slab. "This looks very old."

The Editor stood up and said, "Exactly. Over 200 years old. There should be artifacts from the original settlers of the area, but for some reason these woods are full of N-polymer artifacts. I collected them when I was a kid, before there was a nanotech industry on Earth." He paused, snapped his fingers and said, "Sally!"

Zeta asked, "Sally?"

"Sally was my next door neighbor. She and I both had collections...I'd forgotten all about it... I'd been made to forget!"

Tez asked, "Forget what?"

"Sally and I both had collections of artifacts from these woods. We thought they were bits of old glass and tin. For a couple of years we kept searching... we thought we might find some old coins, something that we could date. The historical society people called this an old dump site. They weren't interested in our finds. Then... then ...." The Editor stood there, trembling in the cold breeze.

Tez put an arm around him and thought about offering him her coat. She asked. "Then what?"

"I don't know. There is still a block... but I remember this. They said that Sally committed suicide. I never believed it."

Zeta complained, "I'm cold. I'm going back to the car." She wasn't really very cold, but she wanted to get Sally back to the safety of the car.

Tez helped the Editor down from the the carved stone block. She put her hand to her head, "I feel dizzy."

The Editor nodded, "There is a cloud of nanites here, still defending this place." He asked Zeta, "Can't you do anything?"

She replied, "No. They are Grendel nanites. Quickly, now! Let's go! Let's get out of here before we trigger a reaction from the nanites and lose our memories." She took hold of Tez's hand and pulled the girl towards the road and the waiting car.

The Editor turned back to gaze upon the mysterious stone slab and muttered, "Maybe I still have..." He suspected that all of the nanites he had ever accumulated were long gone, but he made one last systematic effort to mobilize the nanites he had obtained from Ivory. Something went 'POP' and the stone slab began to tilt. The Editor laughed.

Tez and Zeta turned around and saw the Editor step into a hole at the foot of the now vertical granite slab. Slowly the Editor began to sink out of sight. He called to Zeta, "It opened! Come on!"

Zeta ran to the slab and looked down the veyershute. She shouted down the shaft, "Don't go down there!"

He called back up, "It's okay. Now I remember. Sally and I went in here!"

Tez looked down the shaft and cried, "What is this?"

Zeta explained, "This is a Grendel base."

Tez had never really believed in her grandparent's stories about aliens on Earth. At least, she had given up on the idea that she would ever be allowed to see any evidence to support those beliefs. Now suddenly she realized that it was all true: here was physical evidence of aliens who had long ago been on Earth. She stepped into the shaft and felt it gently take hold of her body. She began to sink into the ground.

Zeta had not let go of Tez's hand. She shouted, "No!" Zeta tried to pull Tez out of the hole, then she lost her grip on the girl's hand.

Zeta was certain that no Grendels remained on Earth, so there was no point in going down into the Grendel base. But then why was it still here and still defended by nanites and still equipped with a functioning veyershute? With a sad sense of resignation, she stepped into the shaft and began sinking into the hillside.

inside Grendelkeep
III. Exit the Editor

At the bottom of the veyershute, the Editor and Tez waited for Zeta. The editor said, "I was in here seventy years ago."

A strangely lit tunnel lay before them. Tez asked, "What is this place? What are those weird tubes?"

Zeta reached the bottom of the shaft and stepped past Tez. "This is a Grendelkeep. The Grendels were aquatic." Zeta put a hand against a cool, curving glass pipe. "This is some kind of anteroom, a nexus where you can enter their water-filled base." She turned to the Editor, "Did you really go in there?"

The Editor rubbed his eyes and then gazed once more into the glowing purple light of the water-filled tubes in the nexus. "I can't remember. All of this was once blotted out of my memories. Each step I take brings back more of those lost memories." He started pulling off his clothes.

Zeta warned, "If you go in there, you might not come out."

The Editor put his arms around Zeta. "I have to see what's in there."

Zeta shook her head, "I already sent a femtobot probe in. There are no Grendels here. This place is empty, running on automatic defenses. As a carrier of nanites, I'm not safe here."

The Editor nodded. "I understand... you should leave before you trigger this place's defense system. But this is my way out."

Zeta put a hand against his face. "I still have work to do on this miserable world. Goodby." They held each-other close for a moment then the Editor finished undressing and jumped into the gurgling water in one of the tubes. He was quickly sucked out of sight.

Tez said, "He'll drown in there!" She started taking off her coat and boots.

Zeta shook her head, "There are oxygen vents."

"But he's an old man. And he never learned to swim." Tez dove head first into the tube. After thirty seconds of swimming and drifting with the current she began to wonder what an oxygen vent might look like. Something in the water was irritating her eyes and the lighting was terrible. Then she saw the Editor and realized his head was in a bubble of air.

She moved close to him and inhaled a breath of air from the vent. She asked, "What are you trying to do? You'll get lost in this maze of tubes."

He replied, "I'm hoping I can get my ticket off of Earth. You should have stayed with Zeta."

"I'm not going to let you kill yourself." Tez asked, "You were in here before?"

"Yes, my old memories are coming back to me. These tubes radiate through the entire complex, but there are some air-filled rooms."

Tez knew there was no point in arguing and trying to get the Editor to retreat. And now Tez was fired with curiosity. "Well, lead on. Something is damaging my eyes."

"This is salt water. You'll get used to it."

The Editor led the way through the tube network. After ten minutes, they were breathing at another vent and Tez complained, "I think we came this way before. Do you know where you are going?"

The Editor laughed, "This maze of tubes is part of the defense system." He was breathing hard, gasping for air. "The currents are designed to keep circling you around the perimeter. I'm completely lost, but I know there is a passageway that leads to the inner chambers."

Tez said, "I understand. You wait here. I'll find the correct tube and then I'll come back and get you."

"No! You'll never find your way back."

"I have a good sense of direction. I'll be back." Tez ducked out of the vent hole and disappeared down the tube. Fifteen minutes later, she finally returned.

The Editor said, "I was getting worried."

Tez laughed, "I only got lost twice, but I figured it out. The tube network is really simple, but the exit is disguised. Follow me."

She led the way to another vent. Inside that little bubble of air, Tez reached up and pushed her hands into a dark crevice. She wriggled her arms in and then, bracing with her feet against the wall, pushed her head through. "Grab hold of my feet and don't let go!" She was sucked out of the vent and the Editor was pulled up and out of the water. His head crashed into the barrier then he slipped through. He got stuck at his shoulders, but Tez was there on the other side and pulled him the rest of the way through the narrow point.

Tez led the way up a short dim tunnel into a purple-lit chamber. The Editor said, "I was here with Sally. We met a Grendel and then our memories were erased."

He wandered around the dimly lit room for a minute. "No! Only my memories were erased. Sally... of course! Sally was an interventionist! That was her exit. She had completed her mission..." He approached a strange device that hulked in a corner of the chamber. "This is a teleportation terminal."

Tez examined the strangely shaped alien device. "You know, I could never really believe all of your stories about aliens and teleportation and nanites..."

The Editor laughed, "That's because I taught you to demand evidence. Objective evidence; something I could never provide to you, until today."

Tez asked, "Do you think the teleporter still works?"

The Editor shrugged, "Why else would it be here? Why else would I have been allowed to remember..." Tentatively he touched the control panel. A set of lights blinked in response. "It is active. The Grendel told Sally that she would be teleported to the Galactic Core."

Tez threw her arms around the Editor. "You don't have to go! This is the evidence that you always wanted! Now we can show this place to the world-"

"No!" The Editor interrupted her. "That's not the way this works. Listen to me, Tez, I'm going now. This is my way out. And you have to go back. Back to your family, to your life. But your memories of this place will all be erased."

Tez shouted, "No! I won't forget. Zeta and I will bring scientists here. This will..."

The defense nanites of the Grendelkeep were at work inside their brains. The Editor knew the sensation of having his thoughts guided. And he now knew exactly how to activate the teleporter. He put his arms around Tez and briefly held her tight. "Maybe you will someday be given a chance to escape from Earth. A copy of me will be... out there. Waiting."

Tez was already feeling her understanding of the teleporter and the purpose of the Grendelkeep slipping out of her conscious mind. She mumbled, "Out where?"

"Look for me in the Galactic Core. I've always wanted to visit Tar'tron." He stepped into the teleporter beam and was removed from Earth.

Tez numbly made her way out of the Grendelkeep and back to the car. Zeta had the car running and warm. Tez quickly fell asleep. By the time they got back to town, Tez had a new set of false memories of how the Editor had been found dead in his room that morning.

Zeta was the only person on Earth who knew the truth about the Editor's escape. The price of retaining those memories was that Zeta could never discuss them with anyone.

Next: retroreading with Robert Silverberg and Don Martin

visit the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers

Mar 12, 2017

Moore Kuttner Time

1949 cover art by Earle Bergey
At the ISFDB there are 314 entries for "Moore"! I suppose I should not be impressed by that; there are over 1000 entries for "Smith". I've previously blogged about C. L. Moore, but until today I had not read any of the stories that are usually attributed to her husband, Henry Kuttner. I'm intrigued by time travel stories, so I read 'The Time Axis'.

I never read "Earth's Last Citadel", but from the plot descriptions I've read, that 1943 story written in collaboration with C. L. Moore seems to have covered similar ground as does 'The Time Axis'.

I've long been saddened by the silly hand-waving that so many authors have seen fit to place inside their time travel stories.

Book cover. Click image to enlarge.
I blame H. G. Wells for starting this tradition, and Kuttner seemed to run with it... in the direction of suggesting that in the 20th century Earth was ripe for contact with the future. I guess after the Manhattan Project, readers were ready to accept the idea that a secret government project might hold the key to time travel. That was just one of the many ideas tossed into the plotomatic mixer by Kuttner and never really explained in satisfactory detail. If you want a time travel novel that makes sense, I suggest Asimov's The End of Eternity.

I was horrified to discover that 'The Time Axis' uses the same "reasoning" as Arrival for why we primitive Earthlings would suddenly be contacted by super sophisticated folks from the far future.... they need our help! This sort of plot element was dismaying for me when I first saw it E. E. Smith's Lensman Saga. There, I was asked to believe that the hyper-advanced Arisians had brought humans into existence in order to defeat the evil Eddorians.

nekronic lifeform
In the 'The Time Axis', while humans are busily exploring new star systems in the far future, they stumble into the bad end of the galaxy and come upon "nekron", the last word in death and destruction.

For me, the best part of reading old stories such as 'The Time Axis' is when I suddenly find myself imagining that unexplained plot elements back in the Golden Age could now be explained in terms of new concepts like virtual reality and nanotechnology. The "nekron" that is haunting Humanity of the future in 'The Time Axis' is described as a "new form of matter", but it sounds like a form of gray goo. According to Kuttner, "nekron" is also some evil lifeform.

Similarly, the strange future world with "mechandroids", where the enchanting girl "Topaz" (that's her on the Earle Bergey cover, above) must go to the "Swan Garden" for a tune-up in order to once more have the stars put into her hair, is easy for me to imagine as a kind of virtual reality environment, a place where the last city of Mankind is a kind of museum where people no longer live.

More Time Travel
"Vintage Season" - 1946. This was the first story 'by Kuttner' that I ever read (back in the 1970s). I read it in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Time travelers from the future arrive, trying to get good seats for seeing a  meteor strike that will destroy a large city. Apparently this story was largely written by Moore.

"Time Locker" - 1943 - This is a silly fantasy in which a drunk invents a magic "time travel locker" that shrinks objects. A crook buys the locker for 6 credit$ and uses the locker to hide stolen money. He manages to kill himself before he learns that objects placed in the locker first disappear then re-appear in the future.

The Time Trap
"Mimsy Were the Borogoves" - 1943 - I have not read this story. Some children receive a box of toys from the future.

"The Time Trap" - 1938 - I have not read this story, but apparently it was "sexed up" before publication and it has managed to offend many readers ever since.

In the Ekcolir Reality.
Original cover art by Norman Saunders
and see this
Another Reality
Several times in the middle of 'The Time Axis' I thought Kuttner might tell us that we had slipped into an alternate Reality. If I read the story correctly, there was only one Reality Change, one that created the new universe at the end of the story. What if Kuttner, in our Reality, was just a remnant echo of an actual time traveler in an earlier Reality?

Special thanks to Miranda Hedman for the DeviantArt stock photograph "Black Cat 9 - stock" that I used to create the green "sedronite" who is in the image to the right.

Next : future science fiction.
visit the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers

Hierion Confinement

In her "spare" time, Stephane Bush handled the task of speaking to reporters about the operation of CERN's Internet eXchange Point. Luckily, requests for information from the press had dwindled through the years following the start of operations at the Large Hadron Collider. But now she'd received a terse email from colleen.l@tcd, with Colleen identifying herself as a student journalist doing a story about the handling of particle decay data from the LHC. In the email was Colleen's Skype user name.

Viewing this as a fairly routine inquiry from a student, Stephane connected via Skype to the Colleen, who immediately gave her full name as Colleen Liscan. While she talked, Colleen seemed to be bouncing in and out of her chair, so her head was only occasionally visible in the video window. Stephane was still working through her email inbox, so she only had a vague impression of Colleen's wild mop of black hair framing a fresh white face that was dominated by two large eyes. For several minutes Colleen rambled on about quarks and gluons. Rather impatiently, Stephane asked, "Who do you work for?"

Colleen replied in her strangely lilting English accent, "I'm writing a story for a magazine called Popular Physics."

Rather rudely, Stephane said, "I've never heard of it."

Colleen laughed. "The magazine is a collaborative project of the Trinity School of Physics and Journalism Department at DCU. It was founded..." Colleen prattled on with a long-winded account of how Popular Physics had been formed by a group of students.

Stephane was always willing to work with students, but she feared Colleen was a bit scatter-brained and disorganized and might become a huge waste of time. With a growing feeling of impatience she interrupted the seemingly endless account of the history of Popular Physics being provided by Colleen and she asked, "What kind of story are you working on now?"

Colleen replied, "I've read about how CERN periodically inserts fake information into the data stream from the LHC detectors, just to make sure that rare types of particle decay events can be effectively recognized by the data analysis teams."

"Yes, that's a common quality control practice for big data projects. The technique was first developed by early SETI astronomers."

Colleen asked, "Have you done SETI work? Well, don't get me started on that." Colleen giggle and continued, "Anyhow, I'd like to watch the next time you insert a test data packet."

Stephane said, "I doubt if anyone from outside CERN has ever been allowed to see that process. Think about the security issues... we don't want anyone knowing how to fake the security code that is used to tag raw data. Anyhow, there is nothing to see. The process is fully automated and computerized."

Colleen nodded. "Yes, but...actually, what I want to do is insert a fake data packet of my own... as a test. Ian told me you'd be able to do it."

Stephane muttered, "Verdammt noch mal."


Stephane knew instantly that the 'Ian' mentioned by Colleen must be Ian Slate, a particle physicist at Trinity College. Stephane also knew that Ian was a blabber mouth.

Colleen switched briefly to German, "Bitte nicht böse sein." She quickly went back to English, "I tricked Ian into telling me that you handle the test data inserts."

For a moment, Stephane thought about denying her role in testing if rare decay events could be efficiently spotted by the thousands of physicists who ran their data analysis algorithms through the vast data pool flowing out of the LHC. Somehow, she knew that it would be futile to pretend that Colleen was mistaken. She decided to simply end the Skype call. "I have nothing further to say. Goodbye."

Colleen raised one of her thick, dark eyebrows. "I think you will be interested in the test I want to run, Dr. Bush. I believe I've discovered a type of particle decay that is being systematically missed."

Stephane was intrigued but skeptical. "Missed by every physicist in the world?"

"Well, I'm afraid there are blind spots whenever you rely on human observers... and human scientists."

Stephane was impressed by Colleen's cool confidence. She asked, "Are you working towards a journalism degree or a physics degree?"

"So far I've only earned a computer science degree here in Dublin, but I hope to add both a journalism and a physics degree to my resume."

Stephane gazed at Colleen's smooth skin and pink lips and asked, "How old are you?"

Colleen laughed again. "I'm older than I look and I'd rather not say. I hope you don't have a blind spot when it comes to young science students."

"I've always helped students in the past, but I want to know how you discovered my role in testing the sensitivity of LHC data analysis network. That is a secret."

"Oh, it wasn't very difficult to figure that out. Just a matter of thinking about who is in the right place to slip in the test data and correlating that short list with the people, or I should say -person- who once gave a seminar on the process."

"That seminar was not open to the public."

"And yet you list it on your CV."

"Nobody outside of CERN has seen my CV for many years."

"Wrong. Because of government funding for CERN, your CV was part of a data dump provided to the French government and it was part of a Wikileaks release last year. For my computer science senior thesis I wrote a worm that searches wiki data sets... even the deletion histories. So, at least I've seen your CV recently."

"I see. Well, Miss Liscan, I can tell that you are going to be a formidable science journalist... part hacker, part physicist... part gossip monger. Now, before I hang up, tell me; what is this particle detection 'blind spot' that you are so worried about?"

"Let me show you. It is here on my Google drive. Click this link..."


Stephane clicked on the provided link and downloaded a large file: what appeared to be an LHC data packet. Stephane searched the LHC database for that particular packet using its ID code, but nothing was found. Strangely, the encrypted security code parsed as "true data'. Stephane felt her pulse quicken.

Colleen was explaining, "This is a fake data packet that I designed. I want you to insert it into the LHC data stream."

Stephane tried to keep control of her voice, "How did you generate a valid packet ID and security code?"

"I figured out the algorithm that you use to generate the codes. It's a rather obvious permutation of the code structure that you published in your Ph.D. thesis twenty years ago."

Stephane was startled that anyone else could see that connection. "Obvious to who? God?"

"Please, don't get excited, Stephane. What one person invents, someone else can also discover. Your algorithm has generated billions of ID/SC pairs over the past ten years. I had access to the test packet "ignore" filter in Ian's lab so I trained up a neural network... cracking the code did not take long. Of course, my ability to generate fake data is useless unless I can get you to insert my packets into the LHC data stream."

"Even the NSA doesn't have the computing power to crack my code algorithm!"

"Well, my neural network was able to 'guess' the most likely subset of the search space. It only took about a day of supercomputer time to drill down and crack the code." 

Stephane felt embarrassed for not having kept herself informed about the power of modern neural network-based algorithms. "You realize I can immediately change the code structure. This very minute."

"Well, yes, you could, but it would take months to send out techs to install new data decryption keys in all of the data centers. Anyhow, there's no need to do that. Relax, Stephane. I'm not going to tell anyone else how to fake LHC data packets."

Stephane was only able to relax a tiny amount. "What is special about your fake data packet?"

Colleen explained, "It simulates a particle decay event... for a type of particle that was predicted 30 years ago by Gustov Klein."

"What particle?"

"Its a 323 GeV particle that should have been detected by the LHC. The fact that its discovery has not been reported means something is wrong in the data analysis."

Stephane searched online for -and quickly found- a Klein article from 1987. That published article did not mention a 323 GeV particle. "Klein didn't predicted a 323 GeV particle in 1987."

"No, Klein expressed the particle's properties in terms of the as yet unknown properties of the Higgs boson. Do you see Klein's equation 23? If you substitute in the rest mass of the Higgs as determined at the LHC then you get 323 GeV for the mass of Klein's predicted particle."

"I see. But this is just a theoretical prediction."

"No, with the discovery of the Higgs, Klein's theory was confirmed. There is a new particle at 323 GeV, I assure you. And the fake data packet I sent to you is the type of decay event that should exist in the LHC data set. We just need to figure out why it has not been reported by any of the teams that analyze the LHC data."

Annoyed by the whole situation from Colleen's prattle to her hacking of the security code algorithm, Stephane was fidgeting nervously and eager to end the Skype call. "Let me check into this Miss Liscan." She moved her mouse pointer to the Skype 'disconnect' button. "I'll get back to you." She clicked.


Two days later, Stephane answered her front door and found Colleen on her doorstep.

Colleen said, "Hello, Stephane."

Dismayed and rather irritated by Colleen's sudden appearance, Stephane asked, "What are you doing here?" Colleen had a small backpack slung over her shoulders. "I told you I'd contact you."

"I didn't want you to forget about me."

"Well, come in."

Colleen set her backpack on the floor. "Ian told me that you investigated me."

"Yes, I did. And I investigated Klein. He died shortly after publishing that article in 1987, when communism was collapsing in Eastern Europe. He was killed while trying to get out of Hungary."

"Yes, I know. Had he waited just a few more years, the iron curtain would have been gone."

Stephane gestured towards a couch and the two women sat down. "After I read Klein's article, I sent out your fake data packet and it was quickly spotted by many research teams. There is an excited buzz now among a group of old-time Klein fans who are still in love with his theory after 30 years. Today I'll have to tell them that the pretty decay event they found was just a test packet, not actual data."

"No, that would be a mistake, Stephane!"She reached out and grabbed Stephane's arm. "We need those Klein fans to help us figure out why the LHC data stream isn't full of this kind of decay event."

"Obviously you are wrong about that. The data don't lie. There have been no such decays in the real data."

Colleen jumped up an went to gaze out the large front window of Stephane's house. After a moment she turned and said, "Think about it! What if Klein was killed in order to hide the existence of this particle? What if someone is covering up the greatest discovery in physics, the existence of this new particle?"

For a moment Stephane sat in stunned silence. "What are you saying? Don't go off into fantasy land! Colleen, you've proven that any decay event of this type would be easily recognized. The LHC simply hasn't been generating such particle decay events. Don't start imagining some conspiracy, just because a theoretical particle -some silly predicted particle- has not been detected. Sure, maybe Klein was right and this particle exists, but maybe the rate of generating these decay events is smaller than you suspect it should be."

Colleen was looking out the window again. She shook her head and mumbled quietly, "No, no, no..."


Just then the doorbell sounded again. Stephane got up off the couch and opened the front door, revealing a tall woman who was wearing an odd metallic jumpsuit.

The tall woman spoke: "Sorry to interrupt, Stephane... may I come in?"

The woman confidently stepped inside, glanced at Colleen and closed the the door. "Hello, Colleen."

Alarmed by the way the woman had barged into her house, Stephane asked, "Do I know you?"

"Not well. We met once before, but you can't remember that occasion... just as you will be unable to remember me later today after I leave with Colleen."

Colleen asked, "Who are you?"

"You can call me Ekco."

Stephane and Colleen both though she had said 'echo'. Colleen said, "I'm not going anywhere with you."

Ekco moved close to the girl and brushed a clot of dark curls away from her right eye. "Yes, you will. And you will finally get to meet Klein."

"Gustov Klein?"

"Yes, I had to remove him from Earth 30 years ago, but he waited patiently on the Moon. He got very excited after I told him that his greatest fan would soon come up from Earth to commiserate. The time has come."

Stephane asked, "What's going on?"

Ekco turned her head over her shoulder and replied to Stephane, "Nothing much. You will remain on Earth and complete the recall of Colleen's fake data packet. Soon the hub bub over evidence that support's Klein's theory will die down. You see, it is not safe for you primitive humans to learn about Klein's new particle, what we Genesaunts call a hierion. You'll have no memory of me or hierions an hour from now."

Colleen said, "I'd prefer to stay here with Stephane. You can erase my memories, if you like."

"No, in your case that would not be possible. Last year you devoted your life to finding Klein's predicted particle. I could erase your memory of meeting me here today, but you'd keep working to prove Klein right. No, you must join Klein in exile. Besides, half of the Tryp'At Council suspects you of being an Interventionist agent."

Stephane looked at Colleen with horror and asked, "Interventionist agent?"

Ekco turned and sent a cloud of nanites into Stephane. The nanoprobes quickly inactivated Stephane's motor control circuits. Ekco caught Stephane as she collapsed and placed her limp body on the couch. Echo then scooped up Colleen's backpack from the floor and took hold of the girl's hand.

Colleen thought the lights went out, but her eyes quickly adapted to the dim light. Ekco was tugging her towards a lit doorway. Colleen followed along and they emerged into a well-lit room. An elderly man was standing there. Colleen blinked into the light and mumbled, "Dr. Klein?"

Ekco said, "This is Colleen Liscan, the young student who recently discovered your hierion theory."

Klein stepped forward and took hold of Colleen's hand. He spoke English with a heavy accent. "Wonderful! Tell me, has my theory been confirmed?"

Colleen looked around. A large display screen along one wall showed a magnificent view of the Moon's surface, but gravity seemed Earth normal. She looked at Klein and asked, "You've been held prisoner here for 30 years?"

Ekco replied, "This isn't a prison. Klein was free to move on to the Galactic Core, but he's been watching events on Earth."

Colleen asked Klein, "Then you realize that data from the LHC should have confirmed your prediction?"

Klein shrugged, "Well, Ekco tells me that some data from the LHC have been hidden. Essentially erased."

Colleen turned to Ekco and asked angrily, "Is that possible?"

Ekco nodded. "You saw how easy it was for me to handle Stephane. When she wakes up she'll have no memory of either you or me having been inside her house. We Overseers have access to advanced nanotechnology. We can confine inconvenient memories within the synaptic laboratory of a brain or confine inconvenient particle decay events to the LHC. We simply don't allow data arising from the existence of hierions to enter the LHC data stream. Quantum computers here in the Hierion Domain efficiently spot such forbidden data as it arises and substitute bland data packets."

Colleen was growing increasingly upset. "Forbidden by who? What right do you have to manipulate the LHC data?"

extinction curve (source)
Ekco activated a swarm of infites that had long been resident inside Colleen's brain. Now she had access to previously implanted memories that explained the danger posed to primitive civilizations by hierion-based technologies. The usual objection came to Colleen's lips, "What right do you have to deprive us of our discoveries? We might be different... maybe we Earthlings would not destroy ourselves..."

Ekco sadly shook her head. "No, we humans are a particularly bad risk. However, this Reality has been carefully engineered to allow us to survive. Delaying the development of hierion-based technologies is an important part of our survival trajectory into the future."

Colleen looked carefully at Ekco and asked, "So you are human?"

Ekco shrugged, "I'm a modified human, crafted in the Galactic Core." She allowed her body-shaping nanite prosthetic to return her face and hands to their normal form. "I'm what can be called an Ek'col." Her eyes were about twice the normal size for a human and her hands fingers were nearly twice as long as normal.

Colleen looked at Klein who grinned and said, "I've gotten used to Ekco's unusual appearance through the years. Even though she makes use of fantastic nanotechnology, I do think she is human."

Feeling a lifetime of plans slipping away, Colleen asked plaintively,"And so, what now? We are forever cut off from Earth?"

Klein replied, "I've enjoyed 30 years of studying hierion physics here on the Moon. I've reached the point where I feel there is yet another family of particles beyond the hadrons and the hierions. Ekco tells me that if I want to learn more physics then I must go to the Galactic Core."

Colleen asked Ekco, "But I could stay here, near Earth?"

Ekco smiled enigmatically, "We are no longer very "near" to the Earth that you know. We are now about 80,000 years before your birth. You could remain here and learn physics from the Grendels, as Klein has done, but I suspect you will be happier in the Core where there are other humans."

NEXT: time travel in the 1940s

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Mar 4, 2017

Ugly Past

cover art by Paul Lehr
I first read "The Ugly Little Boy" in Nine Tomorrows. It was possibly my least favorite story in that collection, but I finally re-read it as part of my look back at Isaac Asimov from the perspective of 25 years after his death.

For this re-read, I downloaded the version of the story ("Lastborn") that was first published in Galaxy, September 1958.

Reconstruction: part modern human,
part Neanderthal?
 Elisabeth Daynès
"The Ugly Little Boy" was one of Asimov's favorite stories. I never accepted the assumption that we would be repulsed a Neanderthal child's appearance. Genome sequencing suggests that modern humans carry Neanderthal-derived genes, evidence that when modern humans migrated into Europe there was interbreeding with Neanderthals. Ideas about the appearance of Neanderthals have changed since Asimov's story was written. Also, the Denisovans were found after Asimov's time; some humans have even higher levels of Denisovan-derived DNA sequences than there are Neanderthal-derived sequences.

It is fun to imagine our human past when there were multiple sub-species of humanoid apes on this planet. Primates seem to have specialized brain circuitry for recognizing faces, and it might be evolutionarily advantageous to link that circuitry to emotional control centers. It would be a waste of time for members of two different primate species to mate and attempt to breed. In some sense, we might be programmed to have innate aversions to humanoid faces that are slightly "off" (uncanny valley).

Some people have proposed that due to dietary problems (low iodine), Neanderthals might have had some sort of stunted or otherwise perturbed morphological development. Other investigators (example) have suggested that during human evolution there was selection for genetic variants better adapted to cold climates.

Thyroid hormone is a potent simulator of body heat generation. Possibly Neanderthals and other primates in cold climates evolved a system for preferential transport of thyroid hormone into the brain, allowing for a large brain size without excessive stimulation of long bone growth. This might fit with recent models (example) of central (brain) control of thyroid hormone-stimulated thermogenesis.

cover art by Alan Gutierrez
Thyroid hormone actions can be targeted and regulated by hormone transport processes and enzymatic conversions between hormone forms. Even if there was strong selective pressure in specific primate populations for purposes such as greater capacity for thermogenesis or adaptation to dietary restrictions (such as iodine deficiency), it does not mean that ugliness was an unavoidable consequence. Facial beauty is almost certainly continuously selected for in humans because of its role in the identification of healthy mates.

Science of Time Travel
Beyond the biology issues raised in "The Ugly Little Boy" is the additional plot element of Asimov's imaginary science of time travel. For The End of Eternity, Asimov imagined a "downwhen terminus" that cut we primitives off from hoards of visiting time travelers who might otherwise arrive from the far future. In "The Ugly Little Boy", Asimov limits the extent of time travel by suggesting that only a fuzzy view of the past was possible AND there was a huge and expensive energy cost for moving objects into our time from the past.

I enjoy the placement of constraints on the fantastical technologies of science fiction stories, but the constraints devised by Asimov for "The Ugly Little Boy" feel contrived and inadequate to explain why we are not aware of time travel technology having been invented in our future. As for many short stories, the ending of the story is the tail wagging this dog.

I've never read the novel-length version of the story by Robert Silverberg, which supposedly goes deeper into the motivations of the businessmen who bring a living Neanderthal boy out of the dead past. This act was depicted as nothing more than a fund-raising trick in the original story, although in true Asimov fashion the head capitalist is not depicted as simply a money-hungry dick. Apparently the novel includes a new character, Bruce Mannheim, who claims to be an advocate for the time-traveling boy, but who is apparently depicted as a media-manipulating creep. None of the reviews of the novel that I've read motivate me to seek out this longer version of the story.

click image to enlarge

Time Travelers
It is impossible for me to read a story without my mind automatically linking it to the Exode Saga. While wondering about how Robert Silverberg might have depicted the Neanderthal boy living in the past after having grown up in our time, I began imagining that there might have been additional Ek'col time travelers besides Ekcolir. Alternatively, maybe Ekcolir himself might have been sent on a time travel journey before meeting Trysta. A third alternative is that maybe Ekcolir was not from Trysta's time and so he arrived in Wales from some other era of time.

The Ek'col were designed as a way to help slip Trysta's special Asterothrope gene patterns into the human gene pool. What might be the story of Ekcolir's childhood? Who were his parents? Maybe it was Ekolir's parents who had to travel through time in order to study Trysta and "correctly" raise Ekcolir so as to prepare him for his mission to Earth.

Next: time travel, Ekco style - "Hierion Confinement"
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