Feb 29, 2012

Kepler's New Worlds

The Kepler space telescope continues to collect data on planets around distant stars. The Kepler telescope detects small decreases in light from stars that happen when an orbiting planet passes between its star and the Kepler observatory (in heliocentric orbit). This method is biased towards large planets that are in short-duration orbits near to their star.

Kepler has found several planets that might be suitable for life. Unfortunately, it is hard for the Kepler telescope to detect planets that are the same size as Earth and that are likely to have liquid water. However, it can be estimated from the data collected so far that more than 3% of stars have a planet that is the correct distance from its star to have liquid water and, possibly, life. Most of the candidate potentially-habitable planets are larger than Earth, as shown in the image, above.

Gravitational microlensing can detect planets that are not bound to stars. It has been suggested that there are more such planets without stars than there are stars. The planet Re^Ens is a fictional world that is not in orbit around a star, but which provides a home base for artificial life forms.

I've previously discussed the fact that it is difficult for science fiction authors to avoid including in their stories imagined technologies that make possible faster-than-light space travel or time travel. However, it seems likely that the Fermi Paradox involves the fact that faster-than-light space travel is apparently impossible. It might be significantly easier for artificial life forms to travel between the stars than for biologicals like humans. In the novel Assignment Nor'Dyren, Sydney Van Scyoc made faster-than-light space travel a technological element of Civilized Unity, but I'm imagining that Nor'Dyren was a coloney world of an interstellar empire that did not have faster-than-light space travel.

The Fermi Paradox is often stated in terms of human-like organisms: why don't we see evidence for human-like organisms from other planets? It might be that only artificial life forms are capable of traveling between the stars. Human-like species might produce artificial life forms that go out and colonize distant worlds, and those worlds might mostly be planets that are not in the "habitable zone" near stars. Artificial life forms might actually avoid the deep gravity wells of stars. If our galaxy was swarming with artificial life forms, would they bother to visit a world like Earth?

What do I mean by "artificial life forms"? Ever since Alan Turing recognized the power of digital computing, there have been many optimists who anticipate that it will "soon" be possible to make machines with human-like brains. A popular plot element in science fiction stories is the "mind upload", the transfer of a person's mind into an artificial brain. Asimov also imagined going the other way, moving the mind of the robot Daneel into the brain of a human in his story "Foundation and Earth".

At our level of technological development and (lack of)understanding of how a brain makes a mind, "mind uploading" is just as impossible as time travel or faster-than-light space travel. I doubt if it will ever be easy to make a copy of a human mind and transfer the copy into the brain of an artificial life form or robot. In The Start of Eternity I imagine that with the help of advanced technology from the Huaoshy it might be possible to make an artificial life form that has a human mind inside a robotic body.

If humans can eventually make artificial life forms with human-like minds, might we humans become little more than pets for our A.L. creations? I'm imagining that the artificial life forms of Re^Ens had biological "pets". Maybe when the artificial life forms make the long journey from their home star to the distant world Re^Ens they packed away some frozen embryos of their favorite "pet" species. These "pets" were biologically related to the inhabitants of the world Nor'Dyren. At some point, those "pets" revolted and claimed the right to leave Re^Ens and go find a world of their own, a planet in the habitable zone of a nearby star.

Note: This (above) is the second of a three part series of blog posts about my proposed fan fiction sequel to Assignment Nor'Dyren. The other two posts are Departure from Nor'Dyren and Stellar Engineering.

Images. Top, from The Habitable Exoplanets Catalog. Lower: making an artificial life form in The Start of Eternity, a fan fiction sequel to Asimov's "Foundation and Earth".

Feb 26, 2012

Departure from Nor'Dyren

I previously mentioned the book Assignment Nor'Dyren in a blog post about Hollywood science fiction movies and the fact that good science fiction stories are seldom made into movies.

Assignment Nor'Dyren is the only story by Sydney Van Scyoc that I have read. When I was searching the internet for an image of the cover from my 1973 copy of Assignment Nor'Dyren I came across a review of the book by Althea Ann who has read other stories by Van Scyoc and found Assignment Nor'Dyren to be relatively weak compared to Van Scyoc's later work. Althea was disturbed by the bad temper of Tollan Bailey, the main character in the novel. Van Scyoc imagined a future Earth where there was not enough work for everyone, a world where mechanization satisfied humanity's material needs and Earth was part of an interstellar network of worlds called Civilized Unity. I can remember reading some futuristic projections that were published in the 1970s in which it was assumed that in coming decades the work week would shrink and the main preoccupation of people would be leisure activities.

CalMega Industrials
Unfortunately, Tollan Bailey wants to work, so he is very unhappy with his life on Earth. He takes out his frustrations on Director Hazen, head of the Personnel Department at CalMega Industrials, the company that "employs" Tollan but has no actual work for him to do. Hazen decides to remove this major thorn from his side (Tollan) by sending him to the world Nor'Dyren, a planet where there is plenty of work that needs to be done. In the end, Tollan decides to spend the rest of his life on Nor'Dyren, content that he has found a world that suits his temperament.

Of course, as Althea notes, Tollan is "crazily, horribly sexist" and, at first, he is the only human on Nor'Dyren, a world populated by three humanoid "species": Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon. I've previously described the regimented social roles of the Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon. The inhabitants of Nor'Dyren do not use personal pronouns (he, she) and it is hard to even tell if any particular Allegon, Berregon or Gonnegon is male or female. Conventional opportunities for Tollan to express his "crazy sexism" are few and far between on Nor'Dyren, but he makes some comical assumptions about the sex of the aliens that he meets.

Lucky for Tollan, soon after arriving on Nor'Dyren he manages to get sick (here I have to assume that a Nor'Dyrenese virus is able to infect humans) and while in a state of delirium he manages to have a traffic accident in which an Allegon is killed. However, this is really Tollan's lucky day because the accident leads to Director Hazen sending another human to Nor'Dyren in an effort to save Tollan from having to serve as a member of the broken family that the Allegon's death has created.

Tollan's savior is anthropologist Laarica Johns, who not only has visited Nor'Dyren previously but also, as a professional woman of the 2070s, never notices that Tollan is "always about to assault someone" and is "horribly sexist". In fact, Laarica casually moves in with Tollan and they are soon sharing long hot baths and Tollan's bed. For Tollan, his existence on Nor'Dyren is charmed and even while Nor'Dyrenese culture crumbles, the innocent Allegon dies (leaving a shattered family) and Laarica must struggle with her own personal family problems, everything works out just great for Tollan...he even gets the girl (happy ending).

One of the conventional approaches to producing a happy ending in stories is for a "flawed" character to change. After great struggle, such a character finally changes and then can happily function within society. If Althea had written this story it might have been called: Assignment Nor'Dyren Cancelled. Tollan would have attended anger management lessons and Diversity Training until reaching the point where he realized that his antagonism towards Director Hazen was subconsciously due to latent sexual attraction. The story would end with Tollan happily married to Hazen and Tollan never again lifting a wrench. The world Nor'Dyren would never have been visited and its civilization would have continued to crumble into oblivion.

In science fiction, authors can instead imagine characters who avoid tragic endings by traveling to a distant world where they can be happy without ever having to correct their personal "flaws". In fact, in a new cultural environment the "flaws" might be strengths that ensure success and a happy ending (as is the case for Tollan in Assignment Nor'Dyren).

In my view, one of the most disturbing features of the human condition is our ability to create and tolerate horrible cultural practices. I enjoy science fiction stories where outer space becomes an expanded dimensional outlet by which people can escape from one culture and reach a new world where they can flourish. I like to think of interstellar empires like Civilized Unity as a "Diverse Society" where individuals can freely move from world to world and find a culture that is a good match to personal preferences.

Sometimes I wonder if there were different versions of Assignment Nor'Dyren that got published. I can imagine an altered version of the novel that might have been read by Joachim Boaz. In his review of Assignment Nor'Dyren, Joachim wrote that, "Nor’Dyren is populated by an alien species with three genders." A story about three genders would be an entirely different story; it sounds like Asimov's novel, The Gods Themselves. In many human cultures, social roles have been limited or restricted by gender. On Nor’Dyren the Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon do have rigidly-defined social roles, but these three "species" do not represent three genders. The Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon populations each have males and females. It turns out that the Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon are "different species" only in the sense that the offspring of inter-species mating (Allegon-Berregon, Allegon-Gonnegon, Berregon-Gonnegon) are not fertile. It is only by social custom that they do not interbreed outside of their own "species".

Joachim says that after Tollan accidentally kills the Allegon, "The local court orders him to take the position of the Allegon in the family unit". This is not true. In fact, the case is not settled until the top Gonnegon administrator of Nor’Dyren ultimately rules in the case and declares that the family can reconstitute itself by bringing in a new Allegon family member; Tollan is explicitly freed of any obligation in the case and he decides to continue his work on Nor’Dyren. Tollan knows it is crazy to even suggest that he join the shattered family and try to replace the dead Allegon and he "refuses to abide by their laws". In his review of the book, Joachim expressed dissatisfaction with how Van Scyoc handles this "cultural impasse".

I'm not sure how Van Scyoc could have satisfied Joachim. Maybe rather than bring Laarica to Nor’Dyren there could have been an alternative character, Naarica, with an advanced degree in Cross Cultural Sensitivity and Civilized Unity certification in Alien Political Correctness. Naarica arrives on Nor’Dyren and chastises Gennegon Tux for calling Gonnegon Neg "insufferable". Naarica refuses to defend Tollan in the law suit brought by Gonnegon Neg and instead provides him with training in how to function as an Allegon, even giving him court-ordered hormone injections so that he can breastfeed Neg's baby and court-ordered chemical castration to make him adjust to his role has the surrogate "mother" in Neg's family. In the end, Tollan would be happily married to Neg, Naarica would return to Earth to be with her helicopter parents and Nor’Dyren culture would have continued to slide back into the pre-technological Dark Ages. The book's title could have been changed to The Left Hand of the Tript. In his review, Joachim would have noted a satisfying similarity between The Left Hand of the Tript and The Left Hand of Darkness.

Major spoiler: Interbreeding on Nor’Dyren (Allegon-Berregon, Allegon-Gonnegon, Berregon-Gonnegon) results in the birth a fourth type of alien called Qattagon. When Tollan arrives on Nor’Dyren, it is 200 years after the Gonnegon have forcibly written Qattagon out of existence by creating laws that prevent even accidental reproductive activity between Allegon-Berregon, Allegon-Gonnegon and Berregon-Gonnegon. In the end, the entire point of the story is to resolve the "cultural impasse" by making the people of Nor’Dyren realize that they need no longer fear Qattagon. Now that Nor’Dyren is part of Civilized Unity, some of the awesome creative power of the Qattagon can be absorbed by other worlds. In other words, the point of the story is not that Earthlings should respect other cultures and even let them destroy themselves, but rather, by working together the various cultures that are part of Civilized Unity can synergize and improve themselves.

One of the amusing parts of Assignment Nor'Dyren is how Laarica and Tollan interact with Patt, the main alien character. Patt is a Berregon, but we never learn if Patt is male or female. Tollan always refers to Patt as "she" and Laarica always calls Patt a "he". As humans, we try to fit new observations into our previously established patterns of thought, sometimes to comical effect. Eventually Laarica and Tollan agree that it does not matter if Patt is a male or a female, a revelation which is a challenge to Tollan's thought patterns since in his life he has found it convenient to adopt and never question a set of conventional human beliefs about male and female gender roles. As an anthropologist, Laarica finds it easier to be flexible in her thinking but she still naturally categorizes Patt according to her own gender expectations. At the end of the novel we finally learn the reason for the strange practice of not using personal pronouns on Nor'Dyren.

I recently blogged about my preference for stories that leave us wondering what will happen next. Towards the end of Assignment Nor'Dyren Laarica says that the Nor'Dyrenese are now at the start of a "whole new era" and that "the next few decades should be very absorbing". She is speaking as an anthropologist, but there are many issues raised by Assignment Nor'Dyren that cry out for a sequel.

How is it that Civilized Unity is suddenly forming and bringing together dozens of humanoid species from different worlds who all just happen to have roughly the same level of technological development? What is the origin of the Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon who, we are told, arrived at Nor'Dyren as a fragment of a shattered galactic empire? If Tollan can catch a viral illness on Nor'Dyren, then just how closely related are humans and the other humanoids within Civilized Unity?

Imagine 25 years after the end of Assignment Nor'Dyren. The daughter of Laarica and Tollan (named Lato) and Patt's Qattagon son (named Purn) must leave Nor'Dyren in search of a true understanding of the forces that have forged Civilized Unity. I think there is a fun sequel to Assignment Nor'Dyren waiting to be constructed. Of course, I'll want to involve the Huaoshy.

I'm imagining that the Huaoshy long ago arrived in our galaxy. On worlds like Earth, the Huaoshy could not resist the temptation to genetically modify the life forms that already most closely resembled the original biological form of the Huaoshy. There are a few different types of genetic molecules and several alternative genetic codes for organisms with DNA that have evolved on various planets. The goal of the Huaoshy is to nurture those forms of life that most closely resemble themselves and eventually merge a large number of technology-using species from our galaxy into the existing intergalactic Huaoshy civilization.

Given this background information, what can we conclude about the origin of the aliens who Tollan and Laarica find living on the world Nor'Dyren? I've decided to use the name "Pes^Cro" for the original planet of the Allegon, Berregon, Gonnegon and Qattagon. The original biological inhabitants of Pes^Cro have long ago been replaced. First there was a period of genetic engineering during which the Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon were derived from an original humanoid species similar to the Qattagon but known as the Ka^Erb. The goal of the Ka^Erb was to create Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon as colonists for the development of new worlds reached from Pes^Cro by space travel. The Ka^Erb did not have faster-than-light travel, so the Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon colonists were sent out as crew on multi-generational colony ships. Upon reaching the destination planet, the Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon would be allowed to interbreed and produce Qattagon, but during the thousands-of-years-duration trips through space, only a small population of Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon would be present on the space ships, doing routine tasks and living in a very regimented social group.

Nor'Dyren was one of the last planets colonized by Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon. During the long, convoluted historical path leading to colonization of Nor'Dyren the Allegon, Berregon and Gonnegon mutated and lost the ability to produce fertile Qattagon. After arriving on Nor'Dyren, Huaoshy Observers helped stabilize the colonist population, but the non-fertile Qattagon turned out to be a destabilizing force and eventually the Gonnegon had to perform social engineering designed to eliminate the Qattagon from Nor'Dyren. This state of affairs leads to the story told in Assignment Nor'Dyren.

Twenty five years later, Lato and Purn are caught up in the task of trying to understand the origins of the Qattagon and their amazing biological similarity to humans. By this time, Laarica has published several articles about "Shadow of God", what she interprets to have been a Qattagon-inspired religion on Nor'Dyren. According to the "Shadow of God" mythology, the first Qattagon (Larr) was killed by his parents. The "Shadow of God" intervened and established a Nor'Dyrenese culture that included Allegon, Berregon, Gonnegon and Qattagon.

Arriving on Nor'Dyren in the year 2107 are Laites and Salguo, two aliens from the planet Roivah (a member world of Civilized Unity). Laites and Salguo visit Laarica and report that explorers from Roivah have found the Ka^Erb homeworld, Pes^Cro, located over 50 lightyears spinward around the galaxy from Roivah, which is located on the outer boundary of Civilized Unity. The planet Pes^Cro is now inhabited by artificial life forms, but there is another world (B^Ta) that is inhabited by the Slibili who are biologically similar to the Qattagon.

Laites and Salguo tell Laarica that when the inhabitants of Pes^Cro gained access to the records onboard the Roivah scout ship, they recognized Nor'Dyren as being an ancient colony world of Pes^Cro. After Pes^Cro became dominated by artificial life forms, there was another period of planetary colonization. The Roivah scouts were told of one colony world, Re^Ens, that has an ancient myth about a world (B^Ta) that is inhabited by biological life forms who have "alien protectors". The myth of the Slibili has similarities to the "Shadow of God" mythology. Laites and Salguo suggest that in the ancient past there might have been another alien species from an unknown planet that had interactions with the biological life forms that originated on Pes^Cro. Might the "Shadow of God mythology" represent garbled history?

Laites and Salguo are on a Civilized Unity diplomatic mission to find B^Ta and they want to take along some Qattagon as ambassadors from Nor'Dyren. Lato and Purn leave Nor'Dyren and travel with Laites and Salguo to the planet B^Ta, but first they must stop at the world Re^Ens for clues about the location of B^Ta. If you are interested in collaborating on this proposed sequel to Assignment Nor'Dyren, let me know!

Note: This (above) is the first of a three part series of blog posts about my proposed fan fiction sequel to Assignment Nor'Dyren. The other two posts are Kepler's New Worlds and Stellar Engineering.

Images: Top; cover art from an Avon edition of Assignment Nor'Dyren. The translation image is from "What recent ribosome structures have revealed about the mechanism of translation".

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