Blog Archives

Between the Knows and the Know-Nots

We (by which I mean the human race) landed a spacecraft on a comet just now. Actual spacecraft, actual comet. A moving comet, if that needed clarification. Now, let us pause for a moment and realize that the preceding statement likely engendered one of three reactions:

  1. WOW! That is so cool! We’re awesome! This is a great, great day! I was so nervous it wouldn’t work!
  2. What’s the big deal?
  3. (Insert your favorite fart joke)

Now, let’s just be clear: the landing of the Philae lander from the Rosetta spacecraft on the catchily-named comet “67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko” is a really big deal in terms of space science, mathematics, engineering, geology, and who-knows-what else. However, something else needs to be made equally clear: The vast majority of humanity will not understand this. It isn’t because we nerds won’t tell them–we will trumpet from the rooftops, no doubt–the problem is that we will not be understood.

There is a sharp and ever-growing division between those who are engaged and interested in cutting-edge science and those who are not. Those who are not are not stupid people. They are not even (usually) willfully ignorant. They are however, disconnected from all those dorks out there who suggest that every space probe would be cooler if it were shaped like the TARDIS. The space dorks have really important things to say, mind you, but most of humanity doesn’t listen, mostly because they say things like “it would be cooler if the thing were shaped like the TARDIS.”

This is not an inspiring image for most people. That matters.

This is not an inspiring image for most people. That matters.

First things first: no, it would not. Whovians, I love you, but the TARDIS is not a “cool” object unless you already love Dr. Who. If you do not, then the TARDIS is a weird blue phone booth-thing that is about as cool as a third-grader’s lunch box. No, third-grade lunch boxes are not cool, either. It’s stuff like that which keeps the nerds from getting through to the “normals”. When you gush and hurrah over a small metal box affixing itself to a space snowball, it falls flat with a non-invested audience.

Now, on the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with the science junkies of the world to hoot and holler over this – it is a pretty big deal for science. However, such news needs to be, shall we say, “repackaged” for common consumption. Comets are inherently less inspiring than planets, because planets might have aliens and have names people can pronounce. A robot shooting harpoons (or not) into a dustball isn’t making the front page. Discussions of planetary geology is not going to create a groundswell of public support.

Public support for things like this matters because scientific research like this affects us all. However, the average person isn’t going to care or know that if every conversation surrounding such things makes his or her eyes glaze over and they take to scanning their iPhone for pictures of Kim Kardashian’s ass. This, right here, is where science fiction can (and should) step in. Movies like Interstellar and Big Hero 6 might, on occasion, play fast and loose with the science (Big Hero 6 especially), but that’s okay. At that point, stuff like that isn’t about the science anyway. It’s about the story. It’s about that tickling feeling in your guts you get just before something amazing happens. For some of us, that happens when we watch a metal box hitchhike on a comet. For others, they need a little bit more. We need to give it to them.

We’re all in this together, folks, and the sooner we learn to talk to each other and understand each other, the sooner all of us will be able to get off this dying rock or find a way to bring it back to life. Science is important to all of us, and we must strive to make it more accessible to everybody.

Advertisements

We Are Who We Eat

Pictured: Health Food

Pictured: Health Food

Today in Creepy Science, two separate teams of scientists have discovered that blood transfusions from young donors can actually repair organs and tissue in older individuals. There are a couple points that need making before everybody starts celebrating/freaking out:

  1. The studies were performed in mice, not people, so nobody is going to come for your blood just yet, kids. The outlook seems positive, though.
  2. The potential for getting cancer if this is done is probably going to increase. Then again, cancer might just beat out dying of Alzheimers (I know I’d pick cancer over Alzheimers any day of the week, but that’s just me), especially since the former is frequently treatable and the latter isn’t.
  3. You wouldn’t be drinking blood or bathing in it or anything. It would be a transfusion. The kind you’d get from a blood donor, most likely. Maybe even one of your own kids.

Why This is So Cool/Terrifying

Blood has serious symbolic and metaphoric significance to most cultures on the planet. The idea that it might even hold some kind of key to longevity or even (maybe) immortality is a great big gift to speculative authors everywhere. Hell, this article today probably launched at least a dozen new vampire novels, each probably more odious than the last (sorry vampire fans, but you should know what I’m talking about). Even a cursory look at Christian religious ritual demonstrates our solemn fascination with blood; if you go to Church, you’re drinking the blood of Jesus every time you take the Eucharist (well, assuming you’re one of the many Christian sects that believe in transubstantiation). Why are you doing this? Well, to reaffirm your devotion to the ideals he set forth. Your reward for this loyalty? Say it with me now:

Eternal. Life.

Yeah. There isn’t a story in that, no sir. No way this scientific study has seriously interesting narrative legs. Nothing to see here, folks – move along.

Fantasy and horror editors and agents across the globe better hold on to their seats. The number of blood-sucking takes of lunatics exsanguinating children to sustain their wicked lives is about to hit a pretty serious bump. Science Fiction publishers are going to start reading about dark futures where our youth are financially supported by the old while the old are physiologically supported by the young. Wild, wild stuff. Some of it will probably be pretty cool, too. Heck, I might even write some.

To me, though, this bit of news (even assuming it pans out) isn’t dystopian doom and gloom. Like all technological breakthroughs, no doubt it will be abused in various ghoulish ways. It also, though, has the potential to save people’s lives – Alzheimer’s patients, people with weak hearts, people suffering from neurological disorders, etc., etc.. I’m choosing not to be all doom and gloom about this. Like all technologies and scientific breakthroughs, this one (if it works out) will have it’s pros and cons. If this thing can help turn back the clock on a wide variety of devastating neurological diseases, I’m going to call it a win.

Of course, I’ll also be warning my kids against friendly-looking old ladies with syringes and medical tubing. You know, just in case.

 

Posit your Sorceries, Oh Human, and Unfurl Thy Universe

I came across a post on the Facebook Page of Stupefying Stories the other day that got me thinking. The editor, Bruce Bethke, made the following statement:

Why it’s so hard to sell me computer-related SF:
We see a lot of stories that revolve around human/computer|AI interactions and that seem to have fallen out of time warps from the early 1950s, or else about “the Net” that seem to have fallen through similar time warps from the 1980s.
My old college roommate went on to do post-doc work in A.I. and his subroutines are now on the surface of Mars inside Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Meanwhile, the linked article is the sort of thing I deal with every day in my day job.
If you want to sell me a computer-related SF story, forget Clarke’s computers and Asimov’s robots, try to become conversant enough with the current state of the art to write something at least slightly ahead of it, and for Deep Thought’s sake, no more rewrites of Kurt Vonnegut’s “EPICAC.”
The article he linked to is here.
Damn...where's that owner's manual...

Damn…where’s that owner’s manual…

Mr. Bethke makes an important point. Science Fiction is a moving genre, ever-changing. As technology marches ‘forward’ (though we must be careful in discussions of technological development as linear), the fiction that explores the reaches of our scientific potentials must keep pace. This is something of a challenge, as you might imagine, particularly if you are not a scientist or engineer by trade (such as I am not). I, personally, have the advantage of a robust liberal arts education, and thus am conversant (though not necessarily fluent) in most fields. Still, research and legwork must be done to achieve technical authenticity in works of science fiction.

Right?

Well, I’m going to put forward a ‘yes and no’ answer here. In the first case, if you want to write any kind of fiction and do it well, you need to read widely in your genre (and beyond) to see what has been done and be able to take it a new direction. That’s fairly obvious and not really under discussion here. Let’s focus, instead, on the idea of technical authenticity within the context of science fiction.

 

Authenticity is important, certainly. The mantra “write what you know” (as horrible a mantra as that can be for the creative process) is important in that it forces you to explore and even inhabit alien territory before you can efficiently write about it. Nothing rings more false than somebody writing about the government who has never met nor spoken with anybody in any government, and the same goes for the military, or for college, or what-have-you. Computers, technology, engineering, and so on are not exceptions to this rule. You have to talk the talk before you can walk the walk, if you follow my reworked metaphor. So, yeah, if you’re going to write about AIs and computers you better damned well do a little bit of AI and computer related homework.
But not too much, mind you.
The scifi author is Neo, not the Architect.

The scifi author is Neo, not the Architect.

There is a danger in reading and evaluating scifi where you wind up saying to yourself ‘that’s totally unrealistic’ and it knocks you out of the story. The more you know about a topic, the more particular you become in an area of scientific and engineering lore, the smaller and smaller the scope of the science fiction you will tolerate becomes. What ‘can be done’ in science becomes the shackles which bind your own writing. Science fiction, though, exists in the peculiar position of needing to look past the ‘write what you know’ thing and voyage into the totally unknown. Granted, science is our only guideline in those wide, unexplored places, but we cannot let known science (or even theoretical science) wholly dictate our dreams. There is a point where ignoring or bending the rules becomes ridiculous, but there’s a lot of leeway before that happens.

On a further note (and this is probably a topic for another day, but still), we ought to be wary of a world in which our scientific achievements are mystifying and incomprehensible to the common public. We, in our technological wonders, are drifting further and further towards Arthur C. Clarke’s imagined division between technology and magic. Technology is a tool, but magic is seen as fearful and wicked. As science fiction authors, part of our duty is to take the bizarre and esoterically technical and make it wonderful and accessible. If we wish ourselves to be a species supported and driven forward by science, the storytellers are at the forefront of that task. The further we go down the technobabble rabbit hole, the further we get from being able to attract the masses that made science fiction the popular storytelling genre it began as.
Still, though, remember to do your homework. Just don’t forget that you aren’t just a student of theoretical science, but also a kind of teacher.
Edit: In a sort of cosmic irony, the formatting in this piece is being atrociously idiotic, hence the weird font stuff. My apologies.

The Power of the (Imaginary) Mind

Psychics are really popular in science fiction. Almost annoyingly so, actually, given that ‘psychic power’ is in no way, shape, or form scientific. Granted, the properties that tend to make the most use of psychics or psionicists or whatever you want to call them tend to be the ‘softest’ of the science fiction genre, preferring high adventure and excitement over technological or scientific realism (think Star Wars, Babylon 5, Warhammer 40K, Mass Effect, and the like). This works quite well for them.

So, where exactly is the ‘science’ part in this science fiction?

Let’s be clear here, however: psychic power isn’t real. It’s not. It isn’t as though we ‘haven’t discovered it yet’ – it’s not like FTL drive or anti-gravity (which, though currently impossible, at least have theoretical divisions of physics that might, somehow, lead to their creation). Psychic power does not and cannot exist without violating reason and sense and physical law as we know it. Even if I’m being really generous by saying that maybe, perhaps things like telepathy might be possible, stuff like telekinesis just isn’t. You can’t move crap with your mind without getting your arms or legs involved. We don’t have secret magic buried inside our brain. None of us is going to wake up and realize we’re Jean Grey or Professor X. Psychic power in sci-fi is just a way to get wizards into space, full stop.

Still, it is cool.

So, if it isn’t naturally occurring and there is no way our little brains (or even an alien’s big brain) is going to levitate on the power of good intentions or melt steel with their bad ones, how, then, could it be made to work? In other words: is there any way theoretical science or technology could be applied to create the same effect of psychic power without, you know, us  having to pretend there is a Force? Well, I suppose there is probably some way. Let’s consider it, discipline by discipline.

Psychokinesis: The power to manipulate objects around you with your mind (covering telekinesis, pyrokinesis, and the rest of it) might be achieved through the use of a kind of advanced nanotechnology. Say you emit a kind of cloud of nanites around you–perhaps tied into your sweat glands or maybe your breathing cycle. With a control transceiver of some kind and a sizeable power source bionically implanted in your brain/body, it’s possible you could ‘command’ the nanites to move or ignite things with powerful magnetic or electrical fields. A stretch, yes, and the power would have severe limits (not to mention the fact that you’d be a giant electromagnetic capacitor, which is probably unhealthy for your dancing partner), but it might just work.

Clairsentience: The ability to see the future or observe distant places would be impossible in the sense that it’s impossible to actually see the future. Still, if social sciences become hard sciences (as described in my post here), then you can start predicting behavior with a complicated computer in your head. As for seeing distant places, that’s what Google Earth is for. Get yourself a direct neural uplink and you’re basically there.

Psychometabolim: This is the division of psychic power that involves manipulating your body – going into hibernation, dislocating your hand bones to escape traps, making yourself weightless, bulletproof, or regenerating limbs, etc., etc.. Of all of the psychic powers, this one is the most achievable. Partially, we’ve already done some of this stuff in hospitals and others can do it at circus sideshows. Beyond that, a healthy dose of nanotech could easily make your wounds repairable or toughen your skin. Don’t expect to look especially human if you do that, but still, it’s definitely possible. No making yourself weightless, though, unless antigravity technology is available and small enough to get stuffed into your legs or, more likely, torso.

Telepathy: So, above I hinted that this could be an actual thing. I say that because there is some research being done into reading minds as we speak. It’s a long way off, but it isn’t beyond the bounds of reality. Our brains are, essentially, computers that run on electrical current. It isn’t beyond the bounds of science to suggest that, if you can ‘hack’ the brain and manipulate the way the thing operates, you could control someone’s mind or read their thoughts. To do it, though, you’d need some pretty powerful hardware wired to your brain yourself. Again, I’m thinking nanotechnology would probably be involved – send a bunch of microscopic robots into a guy’s brain, and next thing you know you have him dancing and singing show tunes.

There you have it then – some loose possibilities to make psychic powers actually possible. You know, assuming we’re not all trapped inside a computer program and the laws of physics aren’t real things, anyway.

Sweaty Cogs in the Flesh Machine

Just read a really interesting, potentially terrifying article in the Boston Globe. The gist of it is this: Social Sciences (Psychology, Sociology, etc.) may, at some point, become active, hard, engineerable sciences. That is to say, you could conceivably engineer a person or society, through some mechanism, to behave predictably and controllably.

Perhaps no gene, but probably a quantifiable equation. We just haven’t isolated it yet.

Though I can hear all the civil libertarians out there freaking out collectively as they read the above, this revelation should not, ultimately, come as much of a surprise to us. Not only is it not new to science fiction (Asimov’s psychohistory is essentially a version of applicable social sciences, and Heinlein’s stuff trafficks in the like, as well), but it also isn’t new to our own, real world. Take, by way of example, how Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her parents did, or any of the myriad other targeted web-ad campaigns that operate, essentially, on predicting human behavior in mechanistic ways. It’s crude at the moment, yes, but it will get better and better as our lives progress, no doubt.

All of us with any degree of EQ or empathy are able to finesse our fellow humans into behaving in predictable patterns. The reason for this is, essentially, that we humans aren’t all that spontaneous, on average. True spontaneity isn’t actual randomness – humans aren’t really capable of that or, at least, not functional ones – so much as it is the observation of an individual operating along unfamiliar personality parameters. If you can refine your equations and perfect your methods, you can account for the one girl in the office who will occasionally show up riding a unicycle or give presents made out of moose dung.

Is this difficult? Gods, yes! Is it impossible? Probably not. Is it depressing? Maybe.

It all depends on what is done with it. These mechanisms, by their very design, won’t be able to get us to behave against our nature. In that sense, we won’t be doing things we wouldn’t do otherwise in a similar situation, and so being ‘controlled’ is perhaps not the right word. Managed? Manipulated? Perhaps. I don’t know if this is good or bad, on the whole, but if we could manage to ‘manipulate’ the world into being nice and working together through feats of social engineering, is that so awful? I mean, presuming we could do it without burning/killing/oppressing anyone?

In any event, the science fiction potential of this kind of stuff is immense. I confess to already using theories similar to this spread throughout my writing in both the fantasy and scifi genres, and this article simply spurs me further in that direction. It terrifies as well as fascinates; it gives me hope and steals it away in the same breath. That right there, folks, is the place where great science fiction is born.

Or at least I hope so…

Creatures from the Id

Required Viewing, silly 50s movie poster aside.

Have you ever seen the old sci-fi classic Forbidden Planet? If not, see it. It’s a pretty brilliant film, very Star Trek in its feel, though a good many years preceding Star Trek. It also has Leslie Nielsen, but he isn’t behaving like an idiot, which is novel in and of itself if you grew up watching Zucker Brothers films. It’s a kind of sci-fi retelling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which should give you snooty folks an excuse to take a look.

Anyway, I’m going to be talking about the movie here and digging into it, so if you want to watch it you really should before I ruin the whole thing for you. So, off you go.

Seen it yet? I’ll wait.

.

………

Okay, here we go: the central foe facing Nielsen and the gang is, essentially, the subconscious thoughts and primitive urges of the Prospero character (Morbius), primarily since Nielsen  falls in love with the Miranda character (Altaria), and things go downhill. You see, Dr. Morbius was working with the ancient artifacts of a long-gone civilization (natch) called the Krell who disappeared in a single night. How, you ask? Well, they created the technology to make anything they thought of into something real, but forgot a pretty key fact: their primitive subconscious. Creatures from the Id.

Caliban.

This idea touches on something truly elemental in literature, which is carried out through every story of love gone wrong or rage gone unchained from Oedipus all the way to the Hulk. The id – that little monster inside of us that wants to get out and raise hell, consequences be damned. Science Fiction and Fantasy lit, in particular, is fairly obsessed with the problematic existence of the id. Think about all the demons and aliens and monsters out there who are, ultimately, just distilled representations of our emotions running off the rails. The Warhammer universe (both fantasy and 40K) has the Warp, which is *exactly* that – the reflection of living things emotional and pent-up primitive urges made real.

We specfic folks are usually disturbed by the id. We see it as unhealthy, uncontrolled, and dangerous. It makes us stupid. It’s for that reason, after all, that the Bene Gesserit of Dune administer the gom jabbar. That’s why we love Vulcans. That’s why the elves are prettier than the dwarves and why Hudson gets killed in Aliens and Hicks doesn’t. We know (or think) that losing our cool, letting the beast off the chain, is a Bad Idea.

Simultaneously, and unavoidably, we have a deep-seeded love of the kind of pathos whipped up when Banner goes Hulk or the Punisher exacts vengeance. We like Klingons, too, you know, for all their id-laden passions and poor impulse control. They, though, aren’t the lead characters. We don’t want to be them, precisely, so much as revel in their release and quickly get things back under wraps. If Bruce Banner is the Hulk all the time, the character loses something that we miss (or maybe not – were the ‘all Hulk, all the time’ comics popular? I remember finding them lame).

The trick, though, seems to be getting those passions under control. I borrow from Nietzsche here when he says, in “Morality as Anti-Nature”:

All passions have a phase when they are merely disastrous, when they drag us down with the weight of their stupidity – and a later, very much later phase when they wed the spirit, when they spiritualize themselves…destroying passions and cravings, merely as a preventative measure against their stupidity and the unpleasant consequences of this stupidity – today this strikes us as merely another acute form of stupidity. We no longer admire dentists who “pluck out” teeth so that they will not hurt any more. 

What this means is that, ultimately, you can’t get rid of the id without destroying yourself, without killing that part of you that makes you alive and makes you human. The Vulcans, ultimately, are the tragic ones in a sense, or at least just as foolish and troubled as the Klingons. Yes, they have all the science and the knowledge and the logic, but what good is it to them? Science is a ‘how’, not a ‘why’. The passions (and, by extension, their disciplines, known as literature, art, music, and the like) are needed to give us purpose and drive and imagination. The Creatures from the Id can be demons and monsters, yes, but they can also be angles and muses, guiding us to that distant light that logic and ego, for all their clarity, cannot yet see.