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Seems Like I’m Tweeting Now

Hmmm...this little bird seems harmless enough...

Hmmm…this little bird seems harmless enough…

When Twitter first came out, I fundamentally did not understand what purpose it served. It just seemed like some kind of massive gossip chain. Of course, then, later, it occurred to me that, if I’m going to try to be a professional writer and want people to know who I am and buy my books and read my stuff and so on, having a massive gossip chain to work with wasn’t a bad idea. Thusly, the purpose of Twitter was made somewhat clear.

Of course, for those of you out there who aren’t trying to market yourselves to anyone, I still don’t get it. What are you doing? Well, anyway, thanks for existing, because otherwise none of this would work. You can follow me now: @AustonHab

No, I am not Canadian or a Canadiens fan. It’s just my last name. I didn’t even know about the Canadiens thing until just after I created my profile and, since I’m from Boston, I feel this might create some kind of problem with my Boston credibility. Never fear: I dislike all professional hockey teams equally.

As somebody who is generally antisocial and is perfectly comfortable at sitting in a small, windowless room all day and not talking to anyone, I feel like Twitter and I are going to be a poor fit for one another. Nevertheless, there I am. I will post links to this blog, the occasional pithy remark, and any and all information pertaining to The Oldest Trick or any of my other publications.

Thanks, as ever, for your support. I will do my best to amuse you.

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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.

 

The Union of Stars: The Vore

Is there anyone outside the great Union, you ask? Why, naturally – though vast, the Union contains a miniscule volume of our galaxy. No doubt, assuming the rest of the galaxy is as densely populated as our one section, there are hundreds of thousands of other intelligent species out there, patiently awaiting the day when the Dryth warfleets appear in orbit and demand…

…no? That’s not what you want to hear? Well what then?

Ah. Ghost stories. I know those, too.

Many ages ago, before the Union was even a glimmer, before even the Dryth and the Lhassae and the Lorca and all the Great Races had even come to exist (even we Thraad), there was a great species. This species has no name – it needs none, as you will soon see. It had mighty technology at its command, but the secret of slipdrive eluded it; they were planet-bound, destined to strip their homeworld of resources, dwindle, and perish at the whims of nature. On this planet, scientists labored for many ages to develop some means of escape. They devised a series of machines – self-replicating machines with a collective intelligence that could be dispatched throughout the galaxy in slowships and, therefore, seed the stars with this species’ knowledge and bring back with them knowledge of the stars around them.

I see from your grim expression that you know what comes next, eh? Yes, these poor fools had unwittingly invented nano-weapons before they had the means to control them. What is worse, they dispatched these weapons randomly throughout the galaxy, assuming that the nano-probes would serve their needs. It was not to be. The probes were dispatched and centuries passed. The hopes of the people dwindled – their probes had failed, they thought.

They were wrong.

One by one, the suns surrounding the home system of the Creators began to dwindle and die – not collapse, not explode, but merely perished, withering in space like flowers in winter. The nanites, now known as the Vore, had spend the centuries travelling and replicating, as was their duty. They collected data, but had little use for it. Instead, they simply grew and multiplied, gaining intellect as well as numbers. They consumed whole planets and then, when the planetary matter of use had been expended, they consumed the stars, as well. They were a great cloud, larger than nebulas, and for all their wandering at the slow pace of starlight, they saw nothing of worth. They were, the Vore concluded, alone.

Sea of RustSo it was that the Vore returned home. The scientists of the Creators, panicking at their invention gone wild, did not welcome their children home. First they tried to shackle the Vore, then to contain it (for it was really a single entity, not a community of individuals), and then at last to destroy it. The war was brief. The Creators were consumed by their creations. No one survived, or so it is said.

Considering themselves alone and having no need to grow further, the Vore went into dormancy, asleep on the surface of their now-dead planet. There they wait still, sleeping the aeons away until some rash adventurer awakens them. Then, it will arise and go forth, seeking new challenges and new information, consuming all in its wake.

Frightened yet? Sneer all you like, but I saw how your tentacles curled. Are they real? Well, it is hard to say – there is much in the story to doubt, not the least of which would be how we could possibly come to know it. What is important, however, is that the Vore teaches us wisdom and caution. Technology is not a game, nor is it a race – it is an act of nature, fickle and dangerous. As we seek more, as we learn more, we must always remember to chain the beast. Rare is the wild animal that will not, once freed of its shackles, turn upon its master.

Now, to sleep with you.

The Elasticity of Time, the Rigidity of Patience

Albert Einstein once said,

Gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love. How on earth can you explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love? Put your hand on a stove for a minute and it seems like an hour. Sit with that special girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.

Our concept of time is, essentially, illusory. In this respect it is not very different than anything else – our perception of space is no less malleable and theoretical, and our understanding of each other is even less substantive. We are all, essentially, making things up as we go along. We are trying to appreciate the Mona Lisa through a keyhole.

The other day a student of mine started complaining about public transportation, bemoaning how long it took her to travel from her house to school. This struck a nerve with me; I laid into her. “If you hate it so much, why don’t you drive?” I asked.

“It’s so expensive and so hard to park around here!”

I grimaced. “Then stop complaining.”

People claw their eyes out at this symbol, as though they have somewhere to be or something.

People claw their eyes out at this symbol, as though they have somewhere to be or something.

It was harsh of me. I probably shouldn’t have given her so much crap about what is, essentially, an innocuous complaint so commonplace as to be almost cliché. Everybody bitches about the MBTA. Never mind that it is the cheapest, most convenient, and most reliable form of transportation in Boston outside of a bicycle or your feet. Rain, snow, hot, cold, the T gets you there for a substantially smaller amount of money than anything else. It’s slow and uncomfortable and sometimes you get delayed or stuck in a tunnel. Sometimes it takes you 90 minutes to travel five miles and sometimes you have to stand on a cold platform in the winter with a crying baby and curse the inefficiencies of the system.

But it costs you less than $70 a month (or less!), you never get a parking ticket, and if it breaks down, you aren’t stick with the repair bill. Nobody can steal it, you don’t care if its interior is scuffed up, it rarely gets in an accident, you never have to gas it up, it’s good for the environment, and, if it breaks down, somebody comes along in a bus to take you where you’re going without you needing to do anything.

All you need to do is wait.

Modern society is terrible at waiting. Terrible. We are incredibly, stupendously spoiled when it comes to getting what we want, when we want it. I’m as guilty of this as anybody. If a website takes more than thirty seconds to load, I probably won’t bother looking at it. If my pizza takes more than 45 minutes to arrive at my front doorstep, I get pissed off.

This decline (and I do think it is a decline) is a side-effect of advanced technology. We are so used to having our demands met, we are frustrated when they aren’t. We bustle about, chained to our wristwatches (ah, I’m dating myself here – our smartphones, excuse me), so convinced that if we are ten minutes late to (wherever) that this somehow represents a failure of the world worthy of vocal and elaborate disdain.

Certainly, punctuality is important and respectful of others – if you are late, apologies should be in order and we must take measures to prevent habitual tardiness lest we tarnish our own self-image. We must remember, however, that the world is not always at our command. How arrogant of us to assume that a regional rail network will instantly obey our travelling whims. How petty of us to condemn a website for it’s inability to instantly react to our commands. I might regale you here with tales from yesteryear, but consider this: how many more paragraphs of this blog post are you willing to read? I’m betting it’s not much more than three. I will finish this well shy of 1000 words, but most of you have already started skimming. Why?  You lack patience. Go and look at a 19th century novel. Weigh it in your hands. Consider that what you are holding was likely considered ‘light reading’. Reflect.

Nothing has taught me patience quite like the act of writing. I send things out into the world, and I wait. I cannot badger editors to respond to me, as much as I wish to. I cannot push publication schedules any faster than they will move. I must simply bide my time and reap my harvests when they ripen. For all its aggravation, there is wisdom in this.

I worry for us. I worry for a species that cannot or will not read more than 1000 words on any subject. That seems to imply that there is nothing – no concept, no work of art – that cannot be encompassed by 1000 words. If such exists, we do not wish to see them. We live forever with our hand on the hot stove and forget the long, silent gaze of a world as special as any woman.

Wayne Szalinski: Destroyer of Worlds

This weekend, I happened to catch Honey, I Shrunk the Kids on television. I probably saw this movie dozens of times when I was a kid, but this was the first time as an adult. It’s a fun, lighthearted romp of a Disney movie, great for kids, and so on and so forth. However, I started thinking about Dr. Szalinski’s little invention in realistic terms, and I must say I was quickly horrified at the implications. Horrified, I tell you.

Die, fools! DIE!

Die, fools! DIE!

It is a Death Ray

Essentially, Szalinski’s ‘shrink ray’ collapses the empty space in atoms, meaning they will take up less space. Okay, fine – assuming you can do this, that seems to have some uses. Let us not pretend, however, that any living thing undergoing this process would live through it. Just because you remove the space doesn’t mean you remove the mass – the kids would have the exact same number of particles and, therefore, act upon and be acted upon gravitationally the exact same way. The difference, however, is that they would lose surface area and volume. Do you know how many different things in your body rely upon surface area and volume to function? Your lungs and circulatory system, even assuming they could still function, would not have sufficient area to perform respiration effectively – your body would still have every bit as many cells to feed with oxygen, but lungs so small and arteries so tiny that it would be impossible to feed it all. The kids would have suffocated, too heavy to move (your muscles couldn’t function, either), as impossibly dense specks on the attic floor. Szalinsky probably would have broken his dustpan on their tiny corpses.

 

What About Non-Living Matter?

Okay, so what if we just don’t shoot people with the thing. Szalinski points out that he intends it to be used to save room in space vehicles, make denser fuels that burn longer, and so on. Seems like a good idea, right? WRONG.

I’m not a physicist, right, but I do know a couple things. I know, for instance, that the reason atoms are mostly ’empty space’ (though that term is a bit misleading) is because atoms have massive amounts of electrical energy filling them – wave/particles called electrons, zooming around, causing massive amounts of charge. Now, we all know what happens if you split the nucleus of an atom – huge amounts of energy is released in the form of an atomic reaction. Now, what makes us think that if you collapse the energy of the electrons in upon itself, there won’t also be a massive burst of energy released? Granted, the nucleus contains its energy in a much smaller space, but basic physics and chemistry insists that electrons have the exact same amount of energy contained in their orbitals, it’s just more spread out. So, if you eliminate or somehow collapse that energy, where does it all go? In a giant goddamned explosion, that’s where. An explosion that would destroy the object you’re shrinking and probably all other objects for miles. BOOOM.

 

What Happens When the Military Gets its Mitts on This?

Fine, let’s assume that Szalinski manages to invent his machine without killing his family or blowing up his town. Do we want to live in a world where shrink rays are mounted on tanks or airplanes? Have you thought about how destructive that could be? A plane (or satellite!) could shrink a bridge, a damn, a nuclear power plant and cause untold mayhem and destruction with no possible means of defense. Commandos could arrive in secure locations via mail and expand into a killing team within defensive perimeters. Bombs would be every bit as effective miniaturized (probably – I think the same masses of chemicals reacting with each other would retain the same properties, regardless of their change in density. I easily could be wrong about that, though. Thoughts, chemists?), but they would be almost impossible to detect. Bodies could be hidden with little chance of them ever being found. The idea of ‘disappearing somebody’ would be disturbingly real. We could find ourselves entering a nightmarish future where nobody is safe at any time and there is nothing – nothing – anyone could do about it.

All because of some schmuck with an attic full of electronics and too much free time. Thanks, Wayne Szalinski. Thanks a lot.

A Mirror, Darkly Lit

Last week I caught an episode of Almost Human pretty much by accident. I have to say it was pretty fantastic. The story followed Dorian the android and a human detective as they tried to track down an illegal sexbot ring that was using human DNA in the skins of their androids. The show had a nice sense of humor, some cool advanced technology, good action and pacing, and excellent dialogue. It culminated with Dorian being present for the ‘death’ of a sexbot made with the illegal skin. It was the climax of the episode’s central theme – what happens when you die, and how can others derive comfort from it? It really was very, very well done.

The original Dorian.

The original Dorian.

Accordingly, I expect Fox to cancel it within 12 episodes or so.

Anyway, the exploration of human morality through the lens of androids is not a new one. It arguably dates all the way back to Isaac Asimov’s Robot trilogy. In Caves of Steel we meet Detective Bailey and his robot partner Olivaw and watch a dynamic quite similar to that of John and Dorian, except the roles are more stock: whereas Karl Urban’s John is the one that is emotionally damaged and unavailable and Dorian is empathetic and open, Bailey is the poster boy for emotional appeal compared to Olivaw’s bloodless logic. In Asimov’s case, however, he was attempting to show the technology of the future as helpful and wise despite its frightful appearance. Almost Human is doing something a bit different; it is taking a more even-handed approach to the prospect of advanced tech, showing the horrors as well as the benefits. Dorian is meant to be more human than John and in many ways he is. Unlike Asimov, who is asking social and economic questions, Almost Human seems to be concerned about psychology, morality, and humanity on a more personal level.

In this sense, then, Almost Human owes less to Asimov, all noble and ponderous upon his gilded throne of Golden Age Science Fiction, and a great deal more to the fallout-choked alleys and half-religious psychadelia of Philip K Dick. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, replicants are virtually indistinguishable from humans save via extremely intricate post-mortem physical exams or less-than-reliable ’empathy tests’ based off the assumption that androids are incapable of feeling empathy. The society of the book adopts this mantra as the quintessential definition of humanity, and yet the action of the book spends a great deal of time demonstrating just how foolish a definition this is. Humans are shown not to be empathetic at all and not only towards replicants; they hurt each other, they judge each other, they demean each other with casual familiarity. The world, as shown by Dick, is hostile to life in all its forms, and no creature comes to expect quarter from any other, replicant or otherwise. This is not to say that there is no hope, but rather to demonstrate how we who feel that humanity is doing just fine haven’t really stopped to look at ourselves. Dick does this with Replicants, as artificially creating the ‘other’ to be abused by the so-called noble, pious, empathetic forces of humanity makes it easier for us to see ourselves.

So, too, does Almost Human attempt to show us reflections of ourselves in the person of androids, in the hopes that we can actually recognize ourselves better when faced with that which we define as not ourselves. These stories, when done well, are hard to watch. They have the power to levy biting criticism unfettered by the softening insulation of social context or apologism. These stories are also not easy to do – too many of them fall into trite echoes of ‘traditional’ values (Spielberg’s AI comes to mind). So far I feel that Almost Human has done a good job, but it is very early. I will keep watching, though. I hope very much they can keep it up.

Stuck In Time

Yup. Peasants. Peasants, peasants everywhere.

Yup. Peasants. Peasants, peasants everywhere.

What is it with fantasy novels and the Middle Ages? I mean, seriously, think about it for a second: you have a genre in which you can do anything, anywhere, with anybody, and where is it always set?

12th-14th Century England. Every damned time.

Don’t get me wrong, I like a good medieval fantasy world as much as the next guy, but it does get old. To some extent I need a break from knights and castles and monarchies and so on. I need something fresh. Something more exotic, with perhaps fewer old Europe overtones. There are authors who have done this, and done it well (Felix Gilman’s Half-Made World comes to mind), and those works serve to remind us that Tolkien didn’t set any laws about where we could go and what we could do in fantasy. Just because he pirated Saxon lore to make Middle Earth doesn’t mean you need to follow in his footsteps.

Of course, that doesn’t have to mean an abandonment of Europe as a whole. As much as we need more African, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Native American fantasy worlds (boy howdy, do we!), there is a reasonable argument to be made that fantasy literature is traditionally rooted in European myth and, as it is primarily marketed to Europeans, it seems reasonable that Europe and its reflections will remain a force to be reckoned with in the fantasy genre for a long time to come. Fine then.

So why does it need to be the middle ages all the time?

When I say ‘all the time’, I mean that literally. So many fantasy worlds are apparently frozen in a kind of permanent quasi-feudal society. It never changes, never grows, never evolves. Go back a thousand years in the world’s history, and they’re doing the same things – wearing the same armor, using the same technology, building the same kinds of places, farming the same kinds of stuff. Why is that? Are they just incapable of technological advancement? Are the people in that world just stupider than the ones in ours? Seems improbable to me.

The fantasy world should grow and change like our own. It should have shifts in culture and history and technology and religion, just like we have. It should change, and the way it reflects our world should change with it. Why not fantasy set in the High Renaissance? The Victorian Era? The 1950s? The Napoleonic Wars? The Ancient World? Why not have cultures based more on Renaissance Russia or 3rd Century Turkey?

The answer comes back to my old belief that fantasy novels are, at their heart, conservative. The fantasy genre is so often about the prevention of change, the preservation of the old in the face of the new. New is almost always bad in fantasy worlds. Change takes the form of conquerors and monsters, evil curses and world-shattering magic. The heroes, meanwhile, must dig up something ancient and powerful or listen to the counsel of the aged and the wise in order to prevail. Their victory is the preservation of the status quo or, perhaps, the reinstatement of that which was unrighteously usurped. Are we not all waiting for Daenerys to regain the Iron Throne? Do we not pine for the fall of the Old Republic and the doom of the Jedi? Are not the elves and old Gandalf the wisest voices in Middle Earth? Is not the existence of the Dragon Reborn proof positive of the cyclical nature of existence – nothing new under the sun, just the same old stuff come again? If the young save the world, it is not to remake it, but rather to restore it to the condition their forefathers maintained before them. There is always the attempt to return, to go back, to undo.

And yet we have the potential to explore so much more in fantasy literature. We can explore the repercussions of the new and the revolutions of thought and belief that go with it. We can shape a world that reforms itself, that learns from its mistakes, that leaves the past behind it and moves on to a brand new day. Perhaps this treads on the toes of science fiction too much – that has always been the genre of those who would look forward – but in an era where science fiction is increasingly obsessed with our society’s demise, maybe it should fall the fantasy to pick of the slack. Maybe fantasy can show us a way forward that science fiction, so tied down by the negativity of modern society, has forgotten how to find.

You Get What You Pay For

I bought a smart phone yesterday. I didn’t really want to – none of its added functionality really appeals to me as worth the extra charges – but my ancient dumbphone is on its last legs and the ‘new’ dumbphones were all of worse design than the one I bought in 2007. Society has sent a clear message: buy a smartphone, you cheap bastard. So I did. Ah well. Thus I am compelled to shell out an extra 30 bucks per month in perpetuity in order to keep pace with the world.

Technology is a difficult master. It moves along (note I refuse to say ‘forward’) and compels us to keep pace or be shunned. This happens in every sphere of life – military, social, agricultural, architectural, etc., etc. – and it is almost impossible to stop it. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I do think the human race, on the whole, is better off today than it was in previous eras, and the numbers bear this out on balance – but it does require human beings to acclimate to something we fundamentally despise: change.

The world always changes. Always. Sometimes by degrees, sometimes all at once, but it always happens. Those who succeed in the world (whether we’re talking humans or animals or plants or whatever) are the ones that adapt best to it. We humans are probably the all-time adaptability champs, or at least the current title holders. It’s funny, though, how much we like to complain about it.

private investigator with magnifierAnd so that brings me back to the smartphone. The smartphone is the poster boy for the New World Order, and people have been lining up to hop on board ever since the iPhone was trotted out. It represents an age of unparalleled interconnectivity, of convenience of access, of freely flowing information, of the world at your fingertips. We, as a society, love these things. We really, honestly do. If the smartphones were to all be packed away, the internet dismantled, and the world to be disconnected, we would be miserable.

So can we all please stop bitching about losing our privacy?

Much hand-wringing and a metric ton of wailing and teeth-gnashing has accompanied our new era of connection. We keep hearing about privacy being lost, freedoms curtailed, and so on and so forth. Wired’s Marcia Hoffman writes a column about how Apple’s newest gadgetry may compromise the 5th Amendment and, you know what, she’s probably right. The thing that bothers me, though, is what did everybody think would happen?

How can you be alarmed that corporations and governments are acquiring your personal information if you spend almost ALL OF YOUR TIME shooting it through space to be intercepted? Spy agencies spy on people – it’s why they’re called spy agencies. Corporations will do anything to make money – this should not be new. How can you be so alarmed when these entities (most of which predate the Information Age) have adapted themselves to capitalizing upon the Information Age? Shouldn’t it be OBVIOUS that the NSA can hack any site on the internet they want? I mean, if they couldn’t, would they be very good at their jobs?

The crazier thing to me is that we’re acting like this is a brand new phenomenon. Businesses and governments have been doing this stuff since FOREVER, folks. Ever since there’s been secrets whispered in alleys, there’s been people hanging out in alleys to hear secrets. The only thing that’s changed is the amount of stuff we’re saying to each other and making available to each other. It only follows that the listeners would also grow.

The idea of online privacy is a charming myth, like El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth. You can’t have it. There has never been a vehicle of communication that wasn’t compromised by people wanting to make money or secure power. Never. So, if you own a gadget that connects all of your information to the rest of the world at the touch of a button, it’s merely the cost of doing business to accept that somebody else could, if they so wish, acquire that information. Get over it. Move on. Technology works both ways, folks. It always has and it always will.

Or, you know, toss out the Internet. Melt down all the smartphones. No more Facebook for you. No more blogs. Because that is the only way you will get your mythical ‘privacy’ back (assuming you ever had it in the first place which, if you ever had a credit card before the internet, you didn’t).

Unfortunately, if it’s gotten to the point where I purchased a smartphone, I think the cat is pretty well out of the bag at this point.

Fun with the Future

future-cityA few days ago, I read this post over on Gizmodo listing five new man-made materials that could ‘change the game’ so to speak. Since that time, I’ve been trying to figure out some of the fun, science-fiction-y applications that could be dreamed up, extrapolating from this material onwards. I have to be honest – I haven’t gotten far. Let’s see what I’ve come up with. Perhaps you have some better ideas:

Aluminum Bubble Wrap

The first thing that comes to mind is body armor. Today, one of the things that is dangerous to Kevlar users is blunt-force trauma. Sure, the bullet doesn’t go through, but it sure as hell leaves a big, big bruise. Get hit with a thing going fast enough, and it will bust bones, break blood vessels, and can even cause internal bleeding. Having a layer of this stuff would be lighter than wearing a trauma plate (a rigid steel plate placed underneath portions of body armor to prevent that kind of blunt damage) and possibly more flexible. Still, this use isn’t all that fantastic or interesting. While a useful development, it lacks a certain adventurous spirit, doesn’t it?

 

Titanium Foam

Replacing bone with porous titanium? Well, not only are we closer to making an actual Wolverine (minus the healing factor, but hey–you can’t have everything), this is the kind of materials science that might even make silly things like giant robots possible. You still wouldn’t need or want them, but still.

But wait! If this makes giant robots easier, why wouldn’t it make *regular* robots easier. Heck, you could get the same material strength for less density – that means lighter tanks, lighter planes, lighter *everything*. Want a vehicle with the speed of a dune buggy but the durable construction of an Abrams? Hello Titanium foam!

 

Graphene Aerogel

This is a cool one. An actual manmade material so light it is legitimately lighter than air. It can also absorb stuff. Besides being used as an anti-chemical agent, you could also saturate it in stuff and produce a way to distribute materials accurately, too. Think of firing pellets suffused with just a *little* bit of compound X that can be delivered to a single person over a long distance. You’d need to couple this thing with something with a little mass (so it would fly true), but it could be a pretty cool gas-pellet device. What about somehow rendering it microscopic and distributing it in the blood. It would absorb oxygenated blood for (potential) storage, giving you something of a back-up supply that could be (potentially) released via nanotechnology somehow–instant energy boost. Or, you know, fill it with adrenaline and see what the hell happens (well, besides a heart attack).

 

Artificial Spider Silk

You know those monofilament whips they tote around in cyberpunk stories? Well, a potential reality here. More importantly, couple this stuff with Foam Titanium and grapheme Aerogel and you know what I’m thinking? Space Elevator. Yeah, baby – a tether to a space station that you could climb up via elevator (essentially), making the escape from Earth’s gravity well much, much easier. Oh, and coupling this with aluminum bubble wrap could make some great safety gear.

 

Molecular Super Glue

This stuff is both hilarious and terrifying. Bonding covalently with (whatever) has the potential to create some really interesting pranks as well as some horrifying crimes. That said, I imagine this has some significant future in both the medical and mechanics fields. Being able to glue back on a lost fender without worrying about it falling off is pretty cool. Being able to stitch people up without stitches is also pretty awesome. Couple with graphene aerogel and consider this:

You get shot. Doctors x-ray to determine size/location of bullet. They fill a small pellet of graphene aerogel with just the right amount of solvent and press it against the bullet. The bullet dissolves into a (presumably) inert substance (imagine super-chemistry here). They then pull out the pellet and glue you up with molecular glue. You take it easy for a few weeks to heal, but no scar, no bullet, no muss, no fuss. Cool right?

Of course, none of this is as-of-yet possible. Part of the scifi writer’s job, though, is to imagine potential even where it seems impossible. What about you guys? Any ideas for this stuff?

The Sound of Trees, the Softness of the Wind…

Quoth Gollum,

And we wept, Precious. We wept to be so alone. And we forgot the taste of bread, the sound  of trees, the softness of the wind. We even forgot our own name. My Precious.

The One Ring, for Tolkien, was always meant to symbolize the Machine – the industrial world, and everything that went with it (to Tolkien’s mind). Jackson captures this quite well in his film versions; we watch in horror as the goblins of Mordor tear down the ancient trees of Isengard, dig deep mines, and mass produce crude weapons with ruthless and casual efficiency. Whether we realize it or not, we are watching the psychological trauma of the First World War, filtered through Tolkien’s prose and passed down through the ages. The Shire – green, rural, quietly prosperous – is held in stark contrast to the black and soulless expanses of Gorgoroth beneath the baleful gaze of the Eye. We are also presented with shades of gray in the form of Minas Tirith, standing as it does against the ‘industrial evil’ of Sauron, but also standing as a prime example of man’s conquest over nature and the sickness that (to Tolkien’s mind) rests at the heart of such hubris.

Are we the wolf, or are we the child?

Are we the wolf, or are we the child?

At the heart of this contest between the forces of ‘nature’ and the forces of ‘industry’ is the cautionary tale of the Elves. Feanor, when he crafts the Silmarils, is crafting the thematic precursors of the One Ring. Feanor’s pride, his greed, and his anger nearly destroy the world, with the Elves paying a high price. So it is that we see the elves of the Third Age bearing a heavy spiritual load – few in number, wise in years, steeped in failure – they have retired from the business of making the world a better place and instead pine for what has been lost in the name of pride.

This idolization of the past and sanctification of nature has cast a long shadow in the fantasy genre. It is almost taken as given that the natural world is a force of good, that the great forests of the elves are the definition of beauty, and that the predations of humanity into the natural sphere are inherently abominable. This has become more evident with the increasing advent of environmentalism in the popular consciousness. The technological world is a thing apart from the world of magic, which is almost always closely tied to the ‘natural cycles’ of the world – solstices and equinoxes, day and night, the sound of trees, the softness of the wind.

But of course we live in an industrial society. I would go so far as to say we relish the fruits of our industries and, indeed, the division between what is ‘natural’ and what is ‘unnatural’ is actually a pretty difficult division to make. I will refrain from getting into the inherent logical fallacy that is the Appeal to Nature and, indeed, will spare you my own argued ambivalence for the environmental movement as a whole. Let me just leave it at this: If ‘industry’ and the progress of human technological endeavor is a tautological evil, how is it that humanity has always and consistently chosen to reshape the world rather than submit to it? At some point, way back before humans were even really human, some proto-human got it into his head that he could eat a lot better if he sharpened a rock and stuck it at the end of a stick, and so the whole process was born. We found our niche.

Maybe we’re just evil, I guess. I sort of doubt it, but if the decision is that reshaping nature to suit our needs is somehow ethically suspect, that is pretty much the conclusion at which one is forced to arrive. Of course, given that nature exists outside the scope of ethics and morality (and, for queries, I refer you to this essay by Stephen Jay Gould), really what we’re doing here is beating ourselves up for being so damned successful as a species. Discussions of sustainability aside (and that is a significant issue to be discussed), human civilization as a byproduct of its technological mastery has been a resounding success in the sphere of nature. Good for us, I say.

Fantasy, though, as something of an inherently conservative genre (and I mean that in its more literal sense, though overtones of political conservatism are certainly present and commonplace), often prefers to place the moral center firmly in the heart of the forest with the birds and the nuts and the fuzzy bunnies. The genre, taken in broad strokes, prefers a place where humans are not the top dog, not the big shots they think they are, and where they must fear the wrath of ‘forces beyond their comprehension’. It is important to many fantasy settings to give humanity a healthy dose of humility in the form of whatever ‘natural’ phenomenon or arboreal critters object to their building castles all over the place. We can see this in the coming of Winter in Martin’s work, in the power of the Aiel in Jordan’s Wheel of Time, in Narnia, in Butcher’s Dresden Files, and in almost every fantasy story where the fey/elves of the wood finally get out of their fairy circles and lay waste to the wicked (human) king and his assembled armies.

Need we be this negative, though? Is what humanity hath wrought so vile? Aren’t we, perhaps, whitewashing Mother Nature just a teensy bit? I mean, yeah, we probably shouldn’t burn down all the rainforests (oxygen and what-not), but that doesn’t mean the rainforests are full of adorable little creatures that cuddle up with their little pups in cozy little trees before the big, bad timber machines grind them up. Most of them critters will cut you, man, given half the chance. You don’t owe them shit. Nature, at its most basic level, isn’t a division of who’s right and wrong, but rather a division of who is right and who is left. It is indeed likely that our interference has changed the game, but it isn’t all negative. We are all humans, folks. Let’s get a little more team spirit, okay?