Dec 31, 2009

Wearable Technology in Fiction

Maybe the decade from 2000 to 2009 could be called the Dick Tracy decade. Mobile phone technology finally caught up with the Dick Tracy science fiction wrist phone of the early 1940s.

I suspect that when our grand children look back, they will view these times as a series of Digital Decades that will have come to comprise a Computing Century. I think computer miniaturization and mobility are the number one digital development for the past decade, but Web 2.0 technologies like wikis, blogs, Facebook and Twitter come in a close second.

Another piece of wearable technology from the golden age of science fiction is Isaac Asimov's "temporal field generator", which is a plot device used in Asimov's time travel story, The End of Eternity.

For Asimov's imagined time travel technology, most paradoxes are avoided by supposing that a new Reality is created if you go back in time and change the course of events. As long as you wear your "physiotime field generator" you will not be erased from existence by killing your own grandparent.

Noÿs asks: "And what if they make the Change while you’re there?”

Andrew replies: “It won’t catch wrist generator keeps me in physiotime so that a Change can’t affect me, you see.”

We still have a long way to go in order to have a real "physiotime field generator", but wearable technology already includes some devices for monitoring and controlling physiological processes. Some people wear heart rate and blood pressure monitors.

In The Start of Eternity, during the early days of time travel there are no personal physiotime field generators. R. Nahan travels back in time to save Gohrlay, but he is "caught" in the Reality Change and erased from existence. Asimov imagined time travel technology coming into existence several centuries in our future, but he also played around with the idea of taking knowledge of time travel into the past in order to speed the development of time travel technology. Why did Nahan never get help from his future self? I blame the Huaoshy.

If time travel is possible, what would keep the past from being over-run by meddling time travelers? Asimov imagined a future time in which humans decided that time travel was a BIG MISTAKE, so they eliminated the technology. But if a technology is discovered once, can you really prevent it from being discovered a second time? A "sure fire" way to make time travel impossible is explored in The Start of Eternity.

Images. 1) The Dick Tracy "wrist radio". 2) A modern wrist phone. 3) Wearable heart rate and blood pressure monitor. 4) Time travel kettle (for image credits click here).

Dec 26, 2009

August Sennor on Time

...nothing in a Reality made un-Real can be detected - August Sennor
In Isaac Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity, things are made un-Real by Reality Changes. However, what happens when something passes from one Reality into another? Where does one Reality start and the other end?

Asimov's basic strategy for dealing with time travel paradoxes is to assume that that there are multiple Realities, or time lines. If you travel back in time and change something, then you create a new Reality...sometimes. Asimov made a distinction between "micro-changes" and Reality Changes.

Even Eternals sometimes forgot the difference between micro-changes (small “c”) and Changes (large “C”) which significantly altered Reality. -the thoughts of Andrew Harlan in The End of Eternity
The Reality Change that is of most concern is the Change that destroys Eternity, the time travel machine itself. When that Reality Change takes place, the time travel kettle that carried Andrew Harlan and Noÿs Lambent back in time disappears. However, the two time travelers are protected by a field-generator, "surrounded by an aura of physiotime (an effluvium, so to speak, of Eternity) and therefore protected from any of the effects of Reality Change", as described by Asimov. They remain to live out their lives in the new Reality.

In The Start of Eternity I show R. Nahan traveling back in time. He repairs the positronic brain of R. Gohrlay, a change which is a "large C" Change. In the Reality where Gohrlay's positronic brain is irreversibly damaged, Nahan goes on to develop the technology for time travel. In the new Reality that is created by the time traveling Nahan, Gohrlay recovers her positronic brain functions and she goes on to lead the way in developing time travel technology. In that new Reality, there is no need for Nahan to travel back in time. Unfortunately for the noble time traveling Nahan, the "physiotime field-generator" has not yet been invented. According to the "logic" previously used by Asimov, I assume that the time traveling Nahan will disappear, just like the kettle did. However, can anything from the old Reality remain in the new reality?

Clearly, according to Asimov, the effects induced in a new Reality by time travelers can remain after a Reality Change occurs. This seems like a recipe for miracles. A time traveler goes back in time, makes a change to the course of events, causes a new Reality to come into existence, then disappears. The cause of some events in the new Reality has disappeared.

In the case of Nahan and Gohrlay, Nahan uses nanites to repair Gohrlay's positronic circuits. The nanites themselves must disappear along with Nahan when the Reality Change occurs. However, I suppose that the nanites can leave behind some information from the future for Gohrlay in the form of alterations to her memory circuits. It seems miraculous...I wish that August Sennor were here to check my "logic". Asimov showed Sennor making the argument that time travel paradoxes are impossible because something always changes in Time so as to avoid any potential paradox. Unfortunately, even if that is true, it does not tell us exactly what is allowed for time travelers. How does the universe "know" if the kettle is part of the old Reality or if it has become part of the new Reality? If Nahan writes his name on the wall, "Nahan from the 57th century was here", that inscription could exist as part of the old Reality, just as Cooper's magazine ad did, as a "micro-change". How does the universe distinguish between micro-changes and a Reality Change? I guess this is where we have to take Asimov's advice. Time travel as a plot device is supposed to be fun. Don't ruin it by asking too many questions.

Image. August Sennor

Dec 23, 2009

From Star Wars to Race Wars

While developing The Start of Eternity, I've been thinking about how Isaac Asimov might have written aliens into his stories about a fictional universe where humans colonize the galaxy. I think we can make some educated guesses based on the way he wrote robots into the Foundation Saga, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Racism in Science Fiction. Asimov rather famously wrote about his disgust with John W. Campbell, who apparently preferred science fiction stories in which white Europeans always came out on top. Apparently Campbell's racism was a major motivation that led Asimov to imagine and write about an "all human galaxy". Asimov did not want to argue with Campbell about the absurdity of imagining that no alien could get the better of a human.

I was stimulated to write this blog post by When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"? Annalee Newitz discusses stories like the one in the movie Avatar for which critics don't enjoy seeing some "white guy" help people from a technologically weaker culture resist the encroachment of a stronger culture. So, is Avatar just an example of a racist genre where, "The main mythic story is going to a foreign culture and colonizing it"? Newitz seems to be asking: if authors like Nalo Hopkinson can provide us with different types of stories, then why must big $$$ science fiction remain contaminated (or dominated?) by tired old themes like "white guilt"?

I have not seen this movie, but I've felt for a while now that one of the strongest forces behind the commercialization of science fiction is that by crafting stories about aliens it remains possible to continue to explore (and profit from) certain themes that would be branded "politically incorrect" (or otherwise diverted from the goal of making $$$) if presented in more conventional (non-SciFi) ways. I don't buy the argument that "everything is about race". Just because you can draw parallels between conflicting species from different planets (or political conflicts, tribal conflicts, national conflicts, etc) and conflicts between human groups with different racial identities, that does not mean that Avatar is about "white guilt" or that it will make big $$$$ because of "white guilt".

It's the $$$, stupid. I've never really understood Hollywood nor do my tastes in science fiction match up well with the types of movies that make big money. I think there is a real division between movies that mindlessly milk a science fiction setting for cash and movies that try to tell a new and imaginative science fiction story. The people who invest large amounts of money to make a movie can be expected to care more about what will sell tickets than about selecting a "good" science fiction story.

My personal interest in what I like to call the Exodemic Fictional Universe is a major influence on what I consider to be good and interesting in science fiction. Some people and some science fiction stories seem to cling to the idea that humans are the center of the universe. If you want a paying audience to fork over their money after seeing a 30 second trailer, then it makes sense to not wander far from familiar day-to-day experience where humans are the center of most people's experiences. However, if you accept the idea that good science fiction can make people think outside the box of conventional experiences then I think you can agree with Annalee Newitz and her dream of moving commercial science fiction beyond producing "the same old story again and again".

I think both Arthur Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the Star Trek franchise provide good examples of commercially successful science fiction that can constructively move people away from their comfortable "humans are the center of the universe" perspective. I'd love to see film versions of little-known science fiction stories such as Assignment Nor'Dyren, but I can well imagine how folks in Hollywood might respond to what I view as "good" science fiction. I think the story of Assignment Nor'Dyren would be of interest to critics of Avatar. Assignment Nor'Dyren has a "white guy" going to live with (and help) an alien species, but there is no hint of colonialism lurking in the story. Of course, there are no battles or wars, either, so the chances of a Hollywood movie treatment of Assignment Nor'Dyren is next to nothing. I'm not sure that you can make a 30 second trailer for Assignment Nor'Dyren that would motivate enough paying customers to spend their money on movie tickets or a DVD. And that is why Annalee Newitz is "doomed to see the same old story again and again".

However, for science fiction fans who still read, there are wider horizons than what Hollywood will ever explore. In The Start of Eternity, I've been trying to provide an example of an "alien contact" story that does not fit into any conventional mold. Asimov was motivated to create his newfangled robot stories when he grew tired of the conventional robot stories that he grew up reading. I hope Asimov would have enjoyed the approach taken to including aliens that is found in The Start of Eternity.

Ideas for a fan fiction sequel to Assignment Nor'Dyren

Image. This is used in the spirit of fair use for discussing the movie Avatar.

Dec 20, 2009

Too much of a good thing?

Isaac Asimov imagined a future in which robots served to help humans reach the stars. Then, it all went terribly wrong. On the spacer worlds, there were more robots than people and finally, humans mutated into a new form of life that lost the desire to spread itself across the galaxy.

In Asimov's future history, when it comes to robots, there can be too much of a good thing. Not because robots turn into rampaging monsters, but, rather, because they create an environment within which humans fail to thrive.

So, what is a robot graced with the Zeroth Law and telepathy to do? Of course, Giskard must find a way to balance humanity on a knife edge between too many and too few robots. Twenty thousand years later we find Daneel still playing the balancing game and just enough robots on hand so that Hari Seldon can fall in love with one who helps him create the Foundations.
Thus, Asimov told the story of how robots helped humanity through two chaotic attractors (the Earth/Spacer conflict and the Foundation/Galaxia vortex), but what about the story of the origin of the very first positronic robot? How was the first robot with human-like behavior created?

We might assume that the very first positronic brain was built by U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., but did Asimov ever really show how to pull that rabbit out of a hat? And what about the Laws of Robotics? Asimov showed the "first three" Laws arriving wholly formed and then the "Zeroth" law being artificially grafted on later.

The Start of Eternity gives a more detailed account of the origins of the Laws and the first human-like robot with a positronic brain. The key assumption is that there was never any group of computer nerds who sat down, at U.S. Robots or any where else, and just "slapped together" a robotic brain that could produce human behavior. And just as Daneel was the "story behind the story" of how the Foundation was created, another telepathic robot, R. Rycleu, was working secretly on Earth in the 20th century to make it possible for positronic brains to be manufactured on Earth. But those were not the first positronic brains.

R. Rycleu is introduced in the first two chapters of The Start of Eternity. The story of the true origin of positronic brains is shown right at the start and then the origin of the Laws of Robotics and telepathy is described in the final part of The Start of Eternity.

Images. Top: the creation of the R. Gohrlay, the first positronic robot with human-like cognition. Credits. The second image shows the structure of time in the Foundation Reality. Larger version.

Related Reading: Time Travel, five years ahead.

Dec 11, 2009


Isaac Asimov grew up amidst the high unemployment of the Great Depression and I wonder how that influenced his science fiction stories which depict the rise and fall of robots on Earth. Will people always welcome and make use of machines with human-like abilities or will humans eventually feel so threatened by them that laws will be made to prevent us from having to compete against truly intelligent machines?

So far our robotic machines have mostly taken over the more dull, repetitive and dangerous jobs. I think this article does a good job of summarizing the trend. Whenever machines replace human laborers there always seems to be more work for people to do. The shifting of people to new jobs is facilitated by putting more of our resources into the development of an educated work force that can do more than just simple robotic tasks. However, we have not yet crossed the threshold that Asimov imagined, that magic point where robots become as intelligent and as cognitively flexible as humans.

Asimov imagined important roles for robots, such as helping with dangerous tasks during the initial exploration of outer space. He wrote a story (Escape!) about a "supercomputer" with a positronic brain that was responsible for inventing the "hyperdrive" that makes interstellar travel possible. Ultimately, robots were written out of the daily lives of the humans in Asimov's future history and by the Foundation Era, robots were the stuff of legends. That rise and fall of positronic brains and robots in his fiction reminds me of how Asimov used his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, as a way to write time travel out of his fictional universe.

Apparently John Campbell had a major influence on Asimov and the kinds of science fiction stories he wrote. Asimov started his writing career with stories about a galaxy that contained alien beings and his robot stories were filled with robots who were smarter and more decent than humans. Campbell put an end to all that by insisting that humans always come out on top. So, Asimov switched to stories about a Galactic Empire that had only humans...the robots and aliens were dropped.

Decades later, when Campbell was dead and Asimov returned to his "future history", he wrote robots into the Foundation saga even though the first three books in the Foundation Series made no mention of robots. Asimov showed R. Daneel Olivaw secretly guiding humanity, first towards the formation of a Second Galactic Empire based on the Foundation and then, after abandoning the Foundation, towards Galaxia.

I've never been comfortable with the idea that humanity would simply pass laws forbidding the use of robots, causing them to slip into myth and legend. In The Start of Eternity a new reason is provided for why robots disappeared from human civilization when it spread across the galaxy.

Asimov's early short story about a telepathic robot named "Herbie" (Liar!) has always puzzled me. Herbie's telepathy was supposedly the result of a manufacturing error, an excuse that has always struck me as very odd. Asimov ended that story by simply saying that telepathic robots were useless, so the men in charge of manufacturing Herbie never tried to make another and they did not even try to understand how telepathy was possible. Ya, right.

Asimov later wrote about the origin of Giskard Reventlov, another telepathic robot. Asimov told the story of how a young woman, Vasilia, gave Giskard telepathic powers by playing around with "nice" patterns for positronic brain circuits. Again, miraculously, only one such telepathic robot was made.

Asimov showed Herbie trying to exercise mind control on a human...and failing. However, Giskard was able to not only communicate telepathically but also telepathically alter the thinking of humans...and other robots. In particular, Giskard could give other robots telepathic powers. Daneel became telepathic because Giskard passed on to him that ability.

In The Start of Eternity there is a new explanation for the origin of positronic brains with telepathic powers. I assume that the "manufacturing error" that gave Herbie telepathy must have been caused by another robot that already had telepathic ability and the ability to prevent the humans who knew about Herbie's telepathy from trying to understand telepathy.

In Foundation and Earth, Asimov described how it was possible to transfer Daneel's mind from one positronic brain to another. I assume that the first positronic robot with telepathy (Gohrlay) passed the power of telepathy on to all other robots who had "mentalic abilities". If so, then we need to ask how Herbie might have accidentally been given telepathic powers.

In The Start of Eternity, Gohrlay sends a telepathic robot named Rycleu to 20th century Earth. Rycleu helps humans develop the ability to manufacture positronic robots. Some humans inside U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. might have been allowed to imagine that they were responsible for designing the first positronic brain, but in reality Rycleu was the one who made positronic robots possible on Earth in the 20th century. Rycleu transferred portions of her own mind into the first positronic circuits that were made on Earth.

The question then becomes: what was the origin of the very first positronic brain? I assume that a biological brain, that of a Neanderthal, was used as the original template for positronic brains.

The reason that positronic robots go into hiding is because Gohrlay is doing battle against aliens from another galaxy (the Huaoshy). Gohrlay does not want the Huaoshy to learn about positronics. As depicted by Asimov in his book Second Foundation, telepaths are at risk of having their thought processes disrupted by "telepathic mind static weapons". Gohrlay must work secretly to develop Galaxia, a type of biological group mind that is resistant to "mind static" weapons. Gohrlay believes that only with the completion of Galaxia can humanity be safe from the Huaoshy.

Down with robots! Long live Galaxia! Ya, right.

Image. R. Giskard Reventlov.

Dec 7, 2009

Time Loop

How do I get my ideas? By thinking and thinking and thinking till I'm ready to jump out the window. -Isaac Asimov
I have no doubt that Asimov was a great thinker and blessed with a great memory. He grew up as an avid science fiction fan and claimed to have not just read some of the science fiction pulp magazines but, rather, all of them. How did Asimov's personal experiences in life and his reading influence his writing?

Possibly the most famous single Asimov story is Nightfall. The story idea was given to him by Astounding Science Fiction magazine editor John Campbell. Of course, Asimov created the story, but he had to draw upon his past experiences. Asimov felt that Nightfall was the most original story he ever wrote, but he admitted that there are similarities between part of his own story and a Jack Williamson story that Asimov had read at the age of 14. Asimov was perfectly happy to accept that he probably made unconscious use of elements from the Williamson story.
I suppose that any thoroughgoing scholar who was willing to spend several years at the task could trace about every quirk in Nightfall to one story or another that appeared in science fiction magazines in the 1930s. -Isaac Asimov
In writing The Start of Eternity I wanted to include Asimov as a character in a time travel story that builds upon Asimov's own time travel novel, The End of Eternity. Of course, I could not resist putting Asimov into a time loop where future events have a causal impact on past events.

Jasper Fforde's novel The Eyre Affair includes the idea of sending back in time a copy of a play. Imagine that Shakespeare takes credit for the play without having written it. Could that actually be a Shakespeare play? What if the "actual" author of the play could not be found? What if Shakespeare then wrote other plays after having been inspired by the one (from the future) that he never wrote?

In The End of Eternity, Asimov included the "Cooper time loop", by which advanced knowledge from the future was sent back in time in order to allow a time travel device to be built in the past at a time before it should have been possible to build one. Asimov also shows the main character, Andrew Harlan, traveling through time and seeing a "copy" of himself.

Asimov's version of time travel includes the Reality Change. Time travelers can alter events in the past and create a new Reality, a new sequence of events. If a person from one Reality meets his analogue in another Reality it might not actually be "meeting yourself", but it seems close to being so, from a psychological perspective. In The Start of Eternity, Isaac Asimov from 1947 travels back in time to 1939 and meets his earlier self.

If the older Asimov from 1947 gave the younger Asimov in 1939 an idea for a story then I do not think that we would have any hesitation in saying that it was an "Asimov story". However, what if the older Asimov had a close encounter with a robot who transferred memories into Asimov? Further, what if an attempt was made to prevent Asimov from having conscious access to those robotic memories? Would there be anything significantly different about Asimov unconsciously drawing upon those "lost memories" while writing a science fiction story and what he did to write Nightfall by calling upon his experience of reading hundreds of science fiction stories?

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More importantly, is it particularly offensive to have some fun and create such a plot in a piece of fan fiction? If Asimov were here to see it, would he take offense? I hope not. Asimov wrote that time travel seems to defy physics, but science fiction writers just have too much fun with time travel to resist it.

Top Image. Photoshop was used to merge a younger and an older Asimov into one image.

Related ReadingRecursive Science Fiction.

Dec 5, 2009

Time Travel as a Skyhook

One of the exciting results of collaborative fiction writing is that you can find yourself getting dragged out of your comfort zone by a collaborator. For example, The Search for Kalid got me involved with writing about telepathy in the context of a Space Opera story, something that I would not have done on my own. I learned that Space Opera can be fun and discovered a plot device for telepathy that I could live with.

I've long been uncomfortable with plot elements such as faster than light space travel, "mental powers" and trips through time that are introduced into science fiction stories with little or no concern for constructing a hypothetical scientific foundation for them. I recently blogged the mysterious boundary between those plot elements we are each willing to accept in a story and those we object to. In creating The Start of Eternity I feel like I am collaborating with Asimov and being drawn into writing about time travel against my better judgment.

I think my greatest objection to time travel as a plot element is that there is no good way to end a conventional time travel story. If time travel is possible, then our timeline should be full of time travelers. No time travel story can really be complete because someone can just arrive from the future and change the entire course of events. In his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett wrote about the dangerous philosophical implications of ideas that have the power of "skyhooks", beliefs that seem to be able to explain everything. Similarly, time travel as a plot element provides an author with a means to endlessly adjust Reality until any desired outcome of the story is achieved. Yes, you can get involved with various technical limitations on time travel or "time travel police" as ways of imposing artificial limits on time travel as a plot device, but none of those tricks has ever given me comfort.

Asimov's first science fiction story was about time travel, but when Asimov got serious and wrote his time travel novel, I suspect that Asimov may have felt that it was best to create a story in which the technology required for time travel was used to select a Reality in which time travel would not be possible. Asimov then went on to construct his Fictional Universe as a place/time where time travelers never again played a major role in shaping the course of events.

However, I've always been uncomfortable with the way that Asimov "wrote time travel out of Reality". If you assume that there was only one time travel device, then maybe it could have been used to select a future in which time travel was never again possible, but The Start of Eternity explores the idea that the time travel device on Earth was not the only one and that another means is needed to completely prevent time travel.

One of the nice features of Asimov's time travel novel is that he made it a mystery in which the main character did not fully understand time travel technology and could not use time travel as a "skyhook". However, off stage, there were people who could! The Start of Eternity shows those mysterious "off stage" power brokers from Asimov's novel and risks falling into the trap of showing omnipotent beings from the future who can use time travel to accomplish anything that they want to accomplish. However, I feel the need to follow Asimov's lead and not turn the story over to those future beings. I think I'm stuck creating a story that is like a Matryoshka doll. I show the off stage robots who were manipulating the characters from The End of Eternity, but I introduce new meta-manipulators who were playing tricks on the robots. By keeping the "meta-manipulators" off stage, it should be possible to maintain a sense of adventure and not expose readers to the feeling that a skyhook is hovering above.

Image. The image at the top of this blog post is a time traveling robot from The Start of Eternity; see this page for credits. The second image is modified from "sky hook" by zen. Source of the nested dolls.

Nov 27, 2009

Diabolus ex machina

Which of these makes it onto the evening news?

1) bus crashes and children are rushed to the hospital
2) bus driver avoids collision and arrives safely at the destination

For the same reasons, the plots of many science fiction stories are full of bad news and bad breaks. A thousand years ago, if you wanted to torment your hero and build suspense you called a snake-like beast in from casting and let the battle begin. These days the diabolus ex machina is more likely to arrive from the depths of space just in time to ruin the hero's day.

I often criticize the science fiction genre for widespread lack of imagination about aliens (most recently here). Isaac Asimov ignored aliens in much of his later writing, although when he first started trying to sell short stories he wrote about things like Martians who had sex with humans and produced hybrid children.

The Start of Eternity is a kind of fan fiction sequel to to Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. While trying to pay tribute to Asimov, I find myself sending aliens half way across the universe to smash Galaxia, Asimov's vision of humanity's future.

Have I turned into what I dislike: someone willing to turn aliens into my evil henchmen? Hardly. Asimov painted himself into a corner by inventing Galaxia and leaving his Foundation Series and Robot Stories hanging, incomplete. I'm personally providing a deus ex machina that can lift Asimov out of the corner and allow fans to continue the Asimov adventures that we are so fond of. I'm willing to take criticism for what I'm doing to Asimov's fictional universe, but I don't think my plot elements are too devilishly mean or too magically helpful, either.

As I've previously discussed, I'm not a fan of a dichotomy between good and evil. I never sit down and say, "Hmm, I need to make a good (or evil) character."

Foundations of Eternity
The aliens in The Start of Eternity are not evil. Actually, I'm concerned that some readers will accuse me of using aliens as a kind of deus ex machina. I just finished writing a description of the First Contact between the Huaoshy and the Retair. It is the alien equivalent of the story about the first two automobiles in Kansas crashing into each other.

I'm interested in why some people are willing to believe very crazy ideas, but they object to some plots and start shouting, "Deus ex machina!" The Retair are a species that evolved as a kind of flightless bird. They first appear in Chapter 10 of The Start of Eternity and by Chapter 13 they are in need of a helping hand. If you think that help arrives too magically then go ahead and click "edit".

Image at the top of this blog post: Aliens as devils: Alien Pumpkin by dalangalma.

Related Reading: horror, science fiction, good and evil.

                              Foundations of Eternity

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Nov 18, 2009

Eternal Perspective

There are several online reviews and essays about Isaac Asimov's time travel novel The End of Eternity; one the longest is by Don Webb in Bewildering Stories.

About a year and a half ago I started acting on the crazy idea that it might be fun to write a sequel to The End of Eternity. I started calling that sequel The Start of Eternity. There are some past blog posts (see also the blog posts listed at the bottom of this page) about how I view The End of Eternity as an integral part of Asimov's "future history" of robots and the Foundation.

Don Webb wrote this about The End of Eternity: "It has no robots, no Galactic Empire, and no Foundations." However, Asimov linked The End of Eternity to the rest of his "future history" in his novel Foundation's Edge. Asimov wrote that robots created Eternity and used time travel to make it possible for humans to take over the entire galaxy. If we accept Asimov's suggestion that Eternity was a tool used by robots to fulfill the demands of the Zeroth Law then we can imagine that robots were lurking, unseen, in the background of The End of Eternity.

One of the remarkable features of Asimov's robots such as Daneel Olivaw is that they have telepathic powers. Don Webb says flatly that telepathy does not appear at all in The End of Eternity. However, Asimov wrote into The End of Eternity the idea that telepathy was used to introduce into Andrew Harlan's mind the idea that Cooper the Cub was really Vikkor Mallansohn. If so, then we can imagine telepathic robots who created Eternity, used it as a means to travel back and forth through Earth's history and then, ultimately, used Harlan (and Noÿs Lambent) as the means to end Eternity.

Andrew and Noÿs travel back in time to the 1930s and engineer a Reality Change that starts humanity on the path towards the Galactic Empire that is described in the Foundation novels. We must view Andrew and Noÿs as the puppets of telepathic robots who have decided that Eternity and time travel are a dead end for humanity.

If you look carefully in the image at the top of this blog post, you can get a glimpse of a telepathic robot named Rycleu, one of the secret masters of Eternity who meets with Andrew and Noÿs in the first chapter of The Start of Eternity and helps them alter the course of technological developments on Earth, allowing humans on Earth to start manufacturing positronic robots in the 20th century.

Image. The image at the top of this blog post is from the first chapter of The Start of Eternity. For image credits see this page.

Nov 14, 2009

Darkest before the storm

Not long after I started reading science fiction, I bought Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B, a collection of stories edited by Ben Bova. I got that collection of stories because it had a story by Iasac Asimov, who I had been introduced to by way of his novel, The Gods Themselves. That collection of stories also introduced me to Bova, James Blish, Algis Budrys, Theodore R. Cogswell, E. M. Forster, Frederik Pohl, Clifford D. Simak and Jack Vance...that volume provided a rather mind blowing expansion of my science fiction horizons. Jack Vance eventually became one of my favorite authors, but I mention that "Hall of Fame" volume here because of the story by Theodore Cogswell called The Spectre General which introduced me to the concept that published science fiction could be humorous. At the time I only knew of humor in science fiction from television, particularly The Trouble With Tribbles.

I think it was after reading The Spectre General that I first started to realize that I lack the ability to name characters. One of the characters in The Spectre General is named Schninkle. In a story full of soldiers with names like Krogson, Dixon and Blick, what could be better for comic relief than a stray Schninkle?

When the internet exploded and computers became geeky-cool, ReBoot appeared on television as a science fiction show. For an example of ReBoot's nerd humor see this joke.

While on the topic of humor in science fiction, check out the video in this blog post from last July (a scene from The Bicentennial Man with comedian Robin Williams as a joking robot).

While reading the science fiction story No. at Novelas, the fiction wikia, I could not get images of ReBoot out of my head. Normally I am too busy being serious to include much humor in the science fiction I write. Evil aliens who are somewhat doltish about their invasion of Earth seems to be a sub-genre of science fiction, and No. includes a rather bumbling alien who is intent on enslaving humanity. I've often wondered why aliens would come half way across the galaxy to enslave humans and conquer Earth...I mean, besides all the girls. If I had been a more avid movie goer then I might have figured this out sooner. As explained in No., the big attraction is movie theater popcorn. Not to eat...all the fatty flavoring makes good rocket fuel. I'm glad we have that settled.

Image. The image at the top of this post is from the story No.
See this page for image credits.

Nov 7, 2009

The nature of reality

Last month I started thinking seriously about the nature of physical reality. In his novel, The Gods Themselves, Isaac Asimov imagined the implications of possible contact between our universe and another universe where there were slightly different physical laws. Asimov's story, The Gods Themselves, was the first science fiction novel I ever read. It is fair to say that "my mind was blown" by the idea of multiple universes, each with its own set of physical laws (this was before I had ever taken a physics course).

Any science fiction story involving communications between "multiple universes" raises the problem of how it is possible to send information between two universes. I've seldom been satisfied with the "explanations" given by authors for how it might be possible to communicate between universes. For example, in his book, Paths to Otherwhere, James Hogan suggested that it might be possible for your conscious mind to "take over" the brain of your analog self in another parallel universe. As a biologist, there are few things that annoy me more than physical scientists who start playing fast and loose with the nature of consciousness. It is fun to imagine other universes, but saying that our conscious minds can magically migrate between universes is a plot device that is not worthy of the kind of hard science fiction that I prefer.

Last month I blogged about Time Travel and Mental Powers and expressed my long-standing uneasiness about science fiction stories that involve time travel, telepathy and fast-than-light travel. I think we should never tire of trying to devise better plot devices for our science fiction stories. Even if most readers are not bothered by a wave of the hand (hyperspace jump, go through the worm hole, etc, etc.) justification for science fiction plot elements, the true spirit of hard science fiction is to have something more scientific up your sleeve than just a wave of your hand.

Including multiple universes in science fiction stories has become quite common. One of the most audacious types of story involving the idea of multiple universes is the type involving the idea that it might be possible for humans or some species with advanced technology to engineer entirely new universes, or, at the very least, engineer changes to the physical laws of our universe. In his novel, Contact, Carl Sagan explored the idea that our universe might have been engineered by a "designer" who established the physical laws of our universe in such a way that a coded message was built into the structure of our universe...a message that unambiguously shows that our universe was designed, not simply created by chance. Albert Einstein famously said that he wanted to know if there was any choice in how our universe was created. More recently, evidence has been found suggesting that Einstein's cosmological constant is not a constant, that its value has changed during the billions of years that our universe has existed. If such a "universal parameter" of our universe can change spontaneously, maybe it really is possible to make modifications to the fundamental physical properties of the universe. Maybe "different universes" can differ in the details of their physical laws.

Imagine that the diagrams in this blog post represent the "dimensional state" of a universe. Further, imagine that it might be possible, by way of some kind type of high-energy physics experiment to trigger a change in the "dimensional state" of our universe. I think that Carl Sagan hinted at some such engineering project in his novel, Contact. I've been thinking that maybe our universe came into being by way of spontaneous symmetry breaking that "selected" among the possible "dimensional states". There could have been some "ground state", possibly the most energetically favorable set of physical laws. However, maybe there is a way to harness prodigious amounts of energy and shift our universe out of the "ground state" into a slightly more interesting state. What might be "more interesting"? Well, imagine that it is strictly impossible for anything to travel faster than the speed of light in the "ground state", but maybe faster-than-light communications and faster-than-light space travel might be possible upon a small engineered modification to the physical laws of the universe.

Being able to alter the physical laws of our universe might be one of the most important features of our universe. I'm exploring this idea in The Start of Eternity, a sequel to Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity. The story is still under construction and collaborating authors are welcome.

Images. The images in this blog post are explained in some detail at the "meta" page for The Start of Eternity. These images are available for use under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike license.

Oct 9, 2009

LCROSS fact and fiction

In my science fiction ghost story, Moon Hammer, I imagined that there were high resolution images of the LCROSS impact site. However, what I imagined went far beyond the quality of images shown by NASA immediately after the impacts.

As shown in these images from NASA (to right), the visible light camera that they flew into the surface of the Moon today was not very sophisticated (FAR, CLOSER, CLOSEST). The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been releasing images of Apollo moon landers, but those images do not have the type of spatial resolution that I imagined for my story: images good enough to show bodies on the surface of the Moon. Additionally, the LCROSS mission targeted a location on the Moon that is thought to have remained in shadow for a long period of time. The cold environment of the shadows might have accumulated and retained water ice. However, such a shadowy location is not a good bet for high resolution visible light imaging. In the video below, they switch to infrared imaging just before impact into the shadowed region of the Cabeus crater. You can hear them say that "very small" craters are then seen within the Cabeus crater rim shadow (5:25 of video) just before impact of the instrument platform.

The main mission goal for LACROSS is detection of water in the debris plume ejected by the rocket booster's impact (the first of the two impacts) into the surface of the Moon. Preliminary data indicate that NASA was able to detect (infrared camera image inset labeled "IR") a flash due to the Centaur booster's impact and what seems to be the newly created crater at the impact site ("Centaur crater", see images, above right). Most importantly, the spectroscope apparently detected a signal (the little blip in the graph) that upon analysis may allow for detection of water.

Images from other points of observation, including the Hubble Space Telescope, are expected later today. Results from LCROSS spectroscopy data analysis (search for water) might be reported in two weeks.

Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society provided a nice summary of the LCROSSS images from NASA
Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter detects heat signature of LCROSS impact
Hubble - initial results of water spectroscopy were reported to be negative.
Kitt Peak, Arizona, "observers recorded a flare of light at the orange sodium-emission wavelength."
Palomar Observatory does not detect ejecta plume

Images. These are all images from NASA.

Oct 8, 2009

LCROSS in fiction

While waiting for the LCROSS impacts I'm thinking about possible titles for the audio podcast version of Moon Hammer.

"Halloween 2009: The Ghostly Inquisitor"


"Nobody expects the Lunar Inquisition"

Your suggestion is welcome.

(Moon Hammer is a science fiction ghost story. A witch hunter from the 15th century returns to haunt the people of Earth.)

Image: source

Oct 6, 2009

Time Travel and Mental Powers, Part 2

This blog post is a continuation from Time Travel and Mental Powers.

Today I read the first chapter of Paul Levinson's novel "The Plot to Save Socrates". It reminded me of the first story I ever wrote that is set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe. That story is called "Exodemic" and a major element of the plot concerns a virus that is discovered on Earth...a virus that was used to protect Observers, humans not born on Earth who visit Earth in order to observe the development of human civilization on Earth. "Exodemic" is mostly concerned with events after 1759, but I included a prelude from 322 B.C.E. in which Aristotle is taken off of Earth by an Overseer.

It is fun to imagine that extraterrestrials might have first visited Earth hundreds of millions of years ago and that the entire history of our species has been monitored and recorded by "Observers". In the Exodemic Fictional Universe there is no need to imagine time travel that carries people with advanced technology back into what is for us the past history of Earth. If extraterrestrials long ago started the practice of taking lifeforms off of Earth, then we can imagine that some humans were long ago taken to live in a secret underground base on the Moon where they developed advanced technologies and accepted the task of observing, but not disrupting, the on-going development of Earthly civilization.

However, in what I hope is a tribute to Asimov, I am trying to create a sequel to his novel "The End of Eternity". As I have discussed before (Painting Corners), Asimov was unable to find a good conclusion for his Foundation stories. I hope that "The Start of Eternity", a kind of fan fiction, can provide a suitable conclusion by linking Asimov's Foundation stories into the Exodemic Fictional Universe. Will the "The Start of Eternity" mean the end of Time Travel?

After reading Paul Levinson's knol about "How Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Demon Finds a Stage in the Foundation and Dune Trilogies", I started thinking about secret groups of people with "Mental Powers" in the Foundation and Dune Trilogies and the Haldus Order of The Search for Kalid. To what extent might humans with "mental powers" secretly influence, shape or control the course of human events? If a "mutant" subpopulation of humans with "Mental Powers" existed, how would they use their powers and how would they interact with the bulk of humanity?

It might seem that I have raised two different issues here, Time Travel and Mental Powers. However, within Asimov's Foundation Universe, maybe these two issues are linked. What if it was human invention of the "positronic brain" that allowed for both "Mental Powers" and Time Travel? If so, then invention of positronic circuits becomes the critical event in the "Foundation Reality". "The Start of Eternity" explores this idea. The story is still under construction and collaborating authors are welcome.

Image. Public domain.

Time Travel and Mental Powers

By "mental powers" I mean abilities such as telepathic communication of thoughts, precognition and the "mantalic" abilities described by Issac Asimov in some of his science fiction stories. Time travel is another popular plot element in science fiction. I am a fan of Asimov's Foundation Universe and the way he united it with his Robot Stories. I also like the idea that his time travel story The End of Eternity can be linked to the Foundation Universe by means of telepathic robots who used time travel to assure that the Foundation would come into existence.

Time Travel and Mental Powers are popular science fiction plot elements that have long made me uncomfortable. Along with Faster-Than-Light space travel, I have no reason to suspect that Time Travel and Mental Powers are possible. I enjoy hard science fiction and I always feel most comfortable when stories stay away from plot elements that seem to contradict what we know about the universe. However, I've been trying to become more open to plot elements like Time Travel and Mental Powers. For example, I worked hard to get comfortable with telepathy in "The Search for Kalid". To do so, I had to invent an entire "science of telepathy" that I could imagine as speculative future science.

I've long been puzzled by the way that Asimov seemed to pull the idea of telepathic robots "out of the blue". My first step towards finding a way to accept telepathy within the context of "hard science fiction" was the story Mnemtronium. The idea behind that story is that it might be possible to discover some "new physics" that would make telepathy possible. I'm pleased with the way the idea of "T particles" developed as a plot device for telepathy in "The Search for Kalid" and I look forward to further developing the idea in "The Start of Eternity", particularly in the context of robots with positronic brains.

When I started writing stories set in what I call the Exodemic Fictional Universe I did not allow myself the luxury of Faster-Than-Light space travel. However, I'm certainly dealing with FTL travel in The Start of Eternity and I was able to live with FTL communication in VirileMail. Of course, "The Start of Eternity" also deals with Time Travel (as imagined by Asimov), although my intention is to arrange things so that Time Travel becomes impossible by the end of "The Start of Eternity". I still have mixed feelings about FTL travel in science fiction. I think there are many interesting science fiction stories that could be written about a future without it, but most people just reflexively assume that outer space is boring unless you can travel quickly from world to world. I'm very troubled by time travel in science fiction. Asimov's "The End of Eternity" has some appeal because it puts a limit on the use of time travel. Without such a limit, time travel scenarios tend to degenerate into silly fantasies such as "time travel wars" where people endlessly revert each other's changes to time.

I started thinking about Time Travel and Mental Powers today when I was playing around on Facebook. I began experimenting with Twitter earlier this year and I finally got around to starting a Facebook account. I found a Facebook group devoted to Asimov and a discussion post there from Paul Levinson. This knol contains the topic of that Facebook post (the Facebook post links to where you can listen to an audio version). I'll explain in my next blog post how Levinson's topic (How Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Demon Finds a Stage in the Foundation and Dune Trilogies) and his novel "The Plot to Save Socrates" got me thinking about Time Travel and Mental Powers...and exactly what I'm thinking along those lines.

Image. I made this as a cover image for "The Search for Kalid". This image was made by using a few copyleft images: Details and Credits.

Oct 3, 2009

The Mythic Principle

In 1950 Enrico Fermi suggested that Earth should have been visited long ago by visitors from a distant star. However, we seem to have no good evidence of such visitors. This is now known as the
Fermi Paradox.

Fermi's intuitions about the likelihood of life in the universe and the possibility of interstellar travel led him to ask: Where are the space aliens...shouldn't we see them? Other scientists have suggested that Fermi was overly optimistic.

The Rare Earth Hypothesis suggests that life in general, and human-like life in particular, is much less common in the universe than Fermi imagined. Human-like life could be rare in the universe either because 1) the conditions necessary for it to arise are rare or because 2) once it does arise it is self-limiting, say by destroying itself or by transforming itself into something else.

As Carl Sagan used to say, we have only just started to wade out into the cosmic ocean. What other forms of life should we expect to find in the universe? In his book "Contact", Sagan imagined first contact with life forms who were spectacularly more technologically advanced than we are. In contrast, the "Hollywood Principle" says that space aliens need to be very much like us and that it makes sense to imagine visits by beings from other stars who have roughly the same kinds of technology that we now have.

Need to be? Makes sense?

It "makes sense" from the perspective of needing to make silly television shows and movies in which Earthlings endlessly battle space aliens. Sixty years ago the fantasy wars were against rampaging Injuns, now they are against rampaging Klingons. Yawn.

The "Hollywood Principle" says that producers in Hollywood are forced to subject us to the kinds of fantasy aliens that Hollywood knows how to market. The Anthropic Principle suggests that since we exist as conscious observers of the universe, the universe must have been formed in just the right way to produce conscious observers. Some people have suggested various "strong" versions of the Anthropic Principle such as: the universe was "designed" with the goal of generating and sustaining human-like observers.

Why the strong human intuition about our world being created or designed? Fundamental to human nature is our ability to have a Theory of Mind, or as Dan Dennett put it, it is human nature to adopt the Intentional Stance. Our brains evolved tricks like mirror neurons that force each of us to automatically assume that other people think in the same way that I know (from personal experience of our own mind) myself to think. This provides us with a powerful survival strategy by which we each compete against and cooperate with other humans and by which we survive and pass on our genes. This fundamental aspect of human nature is so important and so powerfully built into us that we automatically apply it to everything, not just to our interactions with other humans. When the Intentional Stance is applied to the universe, we imagine that there must have been a creative force that designed the universe as a nice place for us to live. This fundamental aspect of human nature leads, eventually, to optimistic assumptions about the likelihood of life in the universe and it leads us to the Fermi Paradox.

So what is the "Mythic Principle"? I suggest that the Fermi Paradox arises from human nature. The "Hollywood Principle" says that while we are waiting for evidence of ET to become available, we can make big $$$$ by imagining space aliens who want to have sex with us, or at the very least, who can provide us with a 90 minute fantasy war on the big screen. The "Mythic Principle" says that we can reject the silliness of Hollywood and ask: what should the nature of space aliens and their interactions with Earth be in order to allow us to imagine the most entertaining stories?

I think that the "Mythic Principle" leads us down the path taken by science fiction story tellers like Carl Sagan and Arthur C. Clarke. Technologically advanced (and I mean VERY advanced) space aliens should have been here long ago, so what kind of stories can we imagine that involve some variation on the theme of "ancient astronauts" in which those visitors to Earth were vastly more sophisticated than we are? By going down this path I have arrived at what I call the "Exodemic Fictional Universe". Stories within the Exodemic Fictional Universe include the idea that space aliens are not interested in allowing us to know that they long ago visited Earth. Humans, as a form of life, are potentially very destructive and, as Carl Sagan used to say, we might be a self-destructive species that will not survive our technological adolescence. In his science fiction novel Contact, Sagan asked if there were "tests" that the human species had to pass before being allowed to join the galactic culture of advanced extraterrestrials. His answer was "no", but "shit happens", and it can sure feel like we are being tested. If the human species does not last long enough to make contact with space aliens, will those space aliens view our passing in much the same way that we think about the Dodo?

The "Mythic Principle" suggests that the correct human response to the Fermi Paradox is to do our best to imagine stories about space aliens that are consistent with the existence of the Fermi Paradox. The kinds of stories I like involve technologically advanced space aliens who intentionally "hide from us" and leave us wallowing in the Fermi Paradox.

Some stories that are set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe:
Manmahtiti Bebobinmahtiti (short)
Moon Hammer (13,000 words)
Fly Paper (21,000 words)
Cellular Civilization (57,000 words)
VirileMail (70,000 words)

Image. Public domain image of Enrico Fermi. Source

Oct 2, 2009

Taking Turns

"One-word-at-a-time" was one of the first types of collaborative writing that was explored at the Fiction Wikia. Participants were supposed to take turns adding one word at a time to a growing story. This type of collaboration is a good way to get new participants involved with wiki editing. A serious problem with this type of collaboration is that it only takes one person who is trying to be "random" to derail a developing story. I previously made this rather harsh statement:

"We really need tools that allow collaborators to choose exactly who can participate in a particular story writing effort. If someone is causing trouble, they must be excluded from the collaboration."

Another type of "taking turns" collaboration is "One-paragraph-at-a-time". According to the rules that were established for this collaboration, authors "don't discuss the plot with other authors". Such a restriction puts a serious strain on the process of collaboration. In my experience, good writing collaborations are built on good communication between authors. For example, live internet chat is a good tool that can be used by collaborating authors.

An option for writing collaboration that falls between "One-word-at-a-time" and "One-paragraph-at-a-time" would be to have authors take turns writing one sentence at a time. A recent experiment at Twitter comes close to this, but uses Twitter's arbitrary 140 character size limit for successive contributions. The collaboration is called abookduct. Using Twitter to do a writing collaboration that can be coherently sustained through time is a serious challenge. Before I could participate I had to create a document where I could put together the individual tweets all in one place. Hopefully there will soon be a website where these growing stories from Twitter can be compiled (update: see this website). In any case, this is an interesting example of how to use social media to start writing collaborations and find potential collaborating authors.

I suggest that tweets starting with

#abookduct #001a #m

can contain information about the story (not actual story content). "m" is for "meta", and a meta-tweet helps authors of the story communicate useful information that can aid in collaboration. For details on how to participate see

Image. Sierpinski pyramid by Peter Bertok. License: Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0

Sep 29, 2009

The Djinn

I previously blogged about the story Moon Hammer, a science fiction ghost story. I'm getting close to writing the "thrilling conclusion" of the story and I've started thinking about the main character as a genie.

I'm fairly certain that I was introduced to the concept of a "genie" by the television show "I Dream of Jeannie". By thinking of them as a silly Hollywood plot device, I was successful in dismissing genies from my thoughts until I read Gödel, Escher, Bach and saw Douglas Hofstadter's description of meta-genies. A meta-genie can grant meta-wishes. For example, a regular genie cannot grant a wish about wishes such as, "I wish that you grant me 100 wishes". Of course, there are also meta-meta-genies, etc. In Arabian mythology there are several types of sentient beings including humans, angels and genies. In what sense is the "Moon Hammer" character Brother Institoris a genie? If Institoris is a genie, then are there also meta-genies in Moon Hammer?

"Moon Hammer" is a story set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe. The Exodemic Fictional Universe includes the idea that there are "layers" of sentient beings between Earth humans and aliens from other star systems. For stories set in the Exodemic Fictional Universe it is essentially impossible for Earthlings to meet space aliens...if you are lucky you might get to interact with a Genesaunt. In "Moon Hammer", Brother Institoris is a "poor man's Genesaunt", existing on the lowest rung of Genesaunt culture. Institoris was taken off of Earth 500 years ago and allowed to have an "afterlife" with his mind housed inside a robotic body.

It has been suggested that in some ancient Middle Eastern cultures "genies" were sometimes viewed as evil females who could do things like spread diseases among humans. Spreading disease was one of the claims that has sometimes been made against witches by European witch hunters like Institoris. It is a bit of a crazy, but fun, strange loop to think of Institoris as being a genie. A genie is "concealed through time" and that describes Brother Institoris in Moon Hammer. After 500 years on the Moon he is "released from his bottle" and allowed to haunt Earth.

It will be a shame to have to stuff Brother Institoris back in a bottle, but the meta-genies are ready and willing to do so. We might wonder why any responsible meta-genie would leave a genie's lamp laying around where bumbling Earthlings can get at it. In the case of Moon Hammer, the problems arise because curious Earthlings cannot keep from bumbling around the Solar System.

Image. "FataMorgana8" by Wim Strijbosch. GFDL