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An Organic Search Engine and A Post-Human Magnate

June 13, 2012 6 comments

My forthcoming e-book, which I am currently fundraising for with an IndieGoGo campaign, will feature four sci-fi stories, each with a strange little twist. Below are new summaries for two of the stories.

data mining, organic search engine

future organic search engine for machines

In “AutoPhil” the main character, Phil, is a financially desperate human looking for work a few days into the Singularity. He accepts an ominous job archiving human minds for a superior artilect named Rasputin.

Beyond just introducing the idea of a biologically organic search engine (the human mind, which, in this fictional universe, is still evolving) used by machines in order to optimize their marketing tactics, this story poses the question of how post-Singularity entities will compete with each other economically. The way I depict it, things are more cutthroat than ever, with the entire human noosphere open to horrifying data mining tactics.

In my novella “Someday This Will All Be Yours” I trace the life and times of Dr. Jim Jacoba, a biotechnology scientist turned post-human magnate, who, in his quest to achieve an indefinite lifespan, unwittingly assists in the machine takeover, all the while losing his family to death and betrayal.

In this story, I depict the Singularity as the new Manifest Destiny, a spaceward expansion based on privatizing and patenting regions of the solar system in order to mine for computronium. As AI artilects merge, acquire one another, and step on each other to suckle off the all-powerful Dyson Spheres being constructed around the Earth, humans struggle to maintain relevance.

Heinlein’s YA Market on the Red Planet

From 1947 through 1958, Heinlein wrote twelve novels for the juvenile market. In this series, he introduces the gamut of SF conventions: lunar exploration, interplanetary travel, colonization of Mars, interstellar travel (both at the Einsteinian speed limit and faster), and many others. Through these novels (which comprised one of the most successful juvenile series in SF) Heinlein reached, and continues to reach, generations of readers.

The heroes, always male, are inevitably spunky and clean-cut juveniles (usually about high school age) who can be counted on to run afoul of oppressive rules. These books are well-written, and many readers (juvenile as well as adult) find them delightful.

Heinlein's young adult Red Planet

Red Planet (1949) is an example of Heinlein’s excellence in that series. A Mars novel, Red Planet is not much outside the usual conventions of planetary SF. Old and arid, Mars has an unimaginably ancient indigenous civilization that lingers on, its survivors usually in some state of contemplation. The Martians have enormous powers (which becomes an element late in the plot), but they don’t seem much concerned that the earth people are colonizing their planet. Earth, though, very much needs the room because of dangerous over-population on the home planet.

Mars is the new frontier for the people hardy enough to survive the harsh environment. But even on this new frontier, an officious and, finally, bungling bureaucracy tries to make things difficult for the true Martian colonists—humans who wish to make Mars home. In typical fashion, the young heroes, Jim and Frank, foil the plans of the villains (and at one point escape capture by ice-skating the frozen Martian canals).

It is an exciting story, especially as Heinlein manipulates the plot in order to deliver enjoyable—and finally, moral—entertainment for young readers. Heinlein gains suspense with a method that is usual in popular fiction. We know, and the author knows, that the protagonist (the “good guys”) will win. In order to bring suspense, the author stacks the conditions greatly against the protagonist. The reading enjoyment then shifts to figuring out how the protagonists can win against such extraordinary odds.

So, of course, the forces of decency prevail, and in something like a second American Revolution, the Martian colonists gain a measure of self-autonomy. The self-reliant loners win out against the system; this is a theme that runs through all of Heinlein’s fiction, adult and juvenile.

Heinlein’s career in juvenile fiction came to an end with Starship Troopers (1959), a novel that his publisher would not include as part of the juvenile series. The publisher objected to the militarism of the novel, which depicts a future in which only those who have served in the armed services are entitled to full citizenship. It is a world that seems constantly on military alert (finally justified by the fact that earth is attacked by a species of especially nasty spider creatures).

-Steve Anderson

Does Virtual Reality Bleed?

June 3, 2012 1 comment

virtual reality, edge of the world

In the throes of my passion about virtual reality, I finally watched the sci-fi film The Thirteenth Floor last night. I don’t know why it took me so long—fortunately, I was not disappointed. Though I was hoping for a bit more of a subversive ending—such as the confounding conclusion to Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, which leaves the viewer still wondering about the nature of reality—this movie explores the idea of simulated worlds in a way that few films have.

In the Thirteenth Floor, the investigation of the murder of a man developing a revolutionary virtual reality machine turns up the disturbing truth that ‘users,’ or people from our world, are tapping in to inhabit virtual characters for nefarious reasons. Ultimately, we learn a far more disturbing truth about the nature of our ‘world’ and who might be tapping in to inhabit us.

For a moment this movie started to head in a direction that I’m interested in taking in my upcoming stories, which is the idea that virtual reality can bleed into the real world and change the nature of real ‘reality.’ I’ve already explored this a bit in a short story I wrote called “Beta,” which aesthetically and thematically is kind of the combination of Ender’s Game and Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia.

Harold the House

Harold the House, illustration by Angela Mehira Gilden

In my short story “Harold the House” (part of my sci-fi collection I hope to turn into an e-book, for which I’m currently launching an IndieGoGo campaign), I take a more practical approach to virtual reality. In “Harold,” virtual reality is part of the interconnection between artificial intelligence and humans. AI houses basically act as our maids/personal assistants/lovers, and configure virtual reality environments to keep us satiated. In this world, it is not so much virtual reality that begins to bleed into reality, but the power of AI, which begins embedding subversive messages into our subconscious.

In a forthcoming YA novel I’m outlining, called booKWorm, I’ll be exploring the idea of virtual reality as a way to actually warp physical reality—and even history—itself.

In future posts I’ll be delving more into where we are right now with virtual reality as a consumer item.

-JA

RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA

Rama alien object

In the year 2130, a very large object happens through the solar system. It is so large that at first astronomers take it for an asteroid, and even give a it name, Rama, as they would for any newly discovered astronomical body.

Closer investigation of Rama reveals a startling fact. The object is a cylinder, 50 kilometers long and 20 kilometers in diameter. It is a made thing, not a natural object. Furthermore, the creatures who built it clearly had advanced technologically far beyond humankind.

Wonders increase when the survey ship visits Rama. The survey crew easily passes through the air-locks—the doors are not locked—and find an inhabitable, self-contained world in the hollow interior. But there are no signs of the intelligent life that built Rama. The crew explores the vast interior for days, but Rama remains virtually the same enigma as when first discovered.

Because Rama will pass dangerously close to the sun, the survey crew must abandon the vehicle. But before leaving, they prevent the Hermians (the human colonists on Mercury) from destroying Rama. The Hermians fear that Rama is preparing to take up a strategic orbit from which the Ramans—finally out of hiding—could control the solar system.

But Rama behaves in no way expected by humans. After rounding the sun, from which it draws energy, Rama continues on its way out of the solar system, its destination and purpose unknown to man.

In our critical attention to Rendezvous with Rama, we should first note that it is an extraordinary example of hard SF in the Vernian tradition. The giant vehicle is neither fantasy nor literary prop. It is very real, from the triple air-locks outside to the cylindrical sea inside. Further, its structure and movements are, until the last chapters, consistent with known scientific principles.

Very late in the novel, Rama shows propulsion capabilities that defy Newtonian physics (“There goes Newton’s Third Law,” one character says in disbelief). Until then, though, Rama is big, but not bigger than the potential of human understanding.

At another level, the Wellsian one, Rama is about the human reaction to an alien encounter. With considerable skill, Clarke develops in the narrative the two most elemental responses to aliens: first, that they could only want to conquer us, or, second, they will come to save us from ourselves. The first attitude we see in the Hermians, who consider Rama a threat. The second attitude we see in Boris Rodrigo, who, as a member of the Fifth Church of Christ, Cosmonaut, sees Rama as a giant ark, come to save the faithful.

As we have seen, though, Rama is neither (or reveals itself as neither). It has no apparent concern for earth, and has traveled this way entirely for its own purposes. Humans must face the possibility that they are too insignificant to be noticed, and play a very minor role in the universe.

But Rama may after all be carrying a kind of message. One of the most intriguing features of the storyline is that Rama is so unprotected from would-be vandals and predators. Do the Ramans assume that any species technologically advanced enough to reach the ship in outer space would also be respectful enough to leave it unharmed? This interpretation would link technological advancement with cultural maturity—even moral progress.

Such a theme is consistent with the tempered scientific optimism that we see in Clarke’s work throughout his career. Commander Norton, who leads the survey team, sees his role in Rama as that of a privileged caretaker. He is determined to leave the vessel in good order, and finally allows his crew to cut into one of the interior structures only after it is obvious that there is no other way to enter it.

Identifying deeply with the technological triumph that Rama represents, Norton sees a future in which humankind will someday enjoy the same achievements. His experience aboard Rama leads him to conclude that “There was mystery here—yes; but it might not be beyond human understanding.” Or, perhaps the universe is not stranger than we can know, and the universal language of intelligent life is science and technology. Rama itself—the very fact of its existence—speaks to humankind in the universal language of science.

Our appreciation of the novel takes an even richer turn if we consider closely the Hermians and their efforts to destroy Rama. Although they are considerably advanced scientifically and technologically, their behavior is hardly enlightened. The Hermians are evidence that Clarke is neither one-sided in his understanding of science, nor simple-minded in his trust of scientific advancement. It is only luck that places the right person at the right place at the right time to prevent the Hermians from destroying Rama. Furthermore, the Hermians might have been right—Rama could have been setting a strategic orbit from which it could control, militarily, the solar system. We know for certain that it isn’t only after it doesn’t.

Commander Norton acts on a “gut” instinct that Rama means no harm—and he is right. The Hermians reason from scientific logic to determine that it does mean harm—and they are wrong. Is Clarke telling us that, finally, science is subsumed in the fallible human domain, where chance, impulse, and irrationality supersede scientific logic? Is Clarke, after all, a closet humanist, speaking for the integration of “gut” instinct and scientific logic (just as many scientists insist that science is both Intellect and Passion)?

Does the Hermian’s near-success tell us anything about the Ramans themselves? We could argue that perhaps Rama after all had a defensive system; there was simply no reason to use it, since Norton and his crew took care of the Hermian threat. Or perhaps we see an ultimate naivete at the far end of the spectrum of scientific development—have the Ramans forgotten that violence is possible? Or perhaps the Ramans are fatalists—”what will be will be.” Or do they in some intuitive way “know” that a Norton will always come along to prevent vandalism?

These issues are a quantum leap beyond shoot-outs in outer space (and yet the novel is no less entertaining than good space opera), and they enrich the novel considerably. When a science fiction novel poses questions of this sort, it is on its way to becoming literature.

-Steve Anderson

Quantum Theory and Alternate Universes

March 9, 2012 1 comment

One of the major innovations in SF has been a turn to a whole new basis in the physical sciences—the quantum theory. In Newtonian/Einsteinian physics, reality has a definite existence, and conforms absolutely to the rules of the universe. Furthermore, these rules are, at least to physicists, relatively simple; they give law and order to a universe that we assume is knowable. Quantum theory, on the other hand, forces us to revise all our thinking about the construction of the physical world. Whole books cannot manage a complete layman’s discussion of quantum theory, so here we can only look at some major features of the revolution in thinking that quantum theory represents.

Scientists long enjoyed the assurance that at the visible level of reality matter behaves according to Newtonian/Einsteinian laws. And because objects behaved orderly at the visible level, they assumed that matter would behave orderly at the subatomic level.

But as physicists looked closer and closer at the atom, they found that its particles (its “quanta”) behaved unpredictably, even randomly. Quantum theory seriously challenges the centuries-old assumption that beneath the complexities of appearance lies the simplicity of law. (Einstein, in arguing against the assumptions of quantum theory, protested that God does not play dice).

Physicists discovered that a thousand electrons moving from point A to point B will move along a thousand different paths. This discovery was against all expectations of how subatomic particles would behave. The only way to predict the movement of particles is through statistical average. That is, the average path from A to B is straight—but no one path necessarily is.

Although we cannot predict the movement of any one electron, each electron seems to know where to go. This is yet another startling feature of the behavior of subatomic particles. The famous two-slit screen experiment shows that individually fired electrons know where to go to form an appropriately distributed light interference pattern.

alternate universe

is reality made of alternate dimensions?

How can any one electron know where to go (especially as no one electron has to go anywhere)? Some interpretations of the two-slit screen experiment involve the existence of alternate realities. The actual path that the electron takes in our reality is influenced by the paths in other realities. Because the available paths in the other realities are taken, the electron must take the path that is available to it.

The several schools of quantum theory have different approaches to the alternate realities. One school says that the alternate realities are merely mathematical models, having no concrete reality. But another school theorizes on an infinite number of concrete, existing alternate realities for every instance of reality that we perceive. Where are these realities? Presumably they transpire in some dimension totally inaccessible from our reality (unless, of course, you read or write SF).

It is this last version of quantum theory that interests SF writers. The alternate worlds, after all, make for an infinite number of new conditions under which to write SF. At the simplest level they provide a scientific basis for “what if?” stories that illustrate the probable results of taking a different turn at a significant historical juncture. Michael Moorcock (The Warlords of the Air, 1971), Norman Spinrad (The Iron Dream, 1972), Harry Harrison (Tunnel Through the Deeps, 1972), Joanna Russ (The Female Man, 1975), and Philip K. Dick (The Man in the High Castle, 1962)—just to name a few—have set stories in alternate time tracks. Whether they are in any significant way illustrating the role of quantum theory in our daily lives is another matter.

Einstein

image by NoorR

It is an open question as to whether quantum theory has any significant relationship to human behavior. The moral extension of Newton and Einstein was that the universe was comprised of relatively simple and consistent laws (to the end-of his life, Einstein was looking for the unified field theory that would place all phenomena under one set of laws). The orderliness of the physical world translates, according to some, into orderliness in human behavior. If we follow nature, we at least have a reasonable model to imitate.

Does quantum theory make any similar kind of impact on human values? It is perhaps too easy a generalization to say that quantum theory reflects the indeterminableness, the randomness of modern civilization. Still, a writer like Philip K. Dick seems to reflect a chaos in the moral realm that he often links with the physical realm. And other writers have used quantum theory to illustrate a universe that is queerer than we can know, a universe that ultimately is indecipherable. It doesn’t seem unlikely that the physics of the quanta could provide a framework for pessimism, if pessimism is what we want.

Whatever our feelings about the moral dimension of the quanta, the theory has an important role in SF. Space-time SF is still a viable direction, but it cannot sustain another generation of creative writers. Quantum theory opens up a considerable amount of new and strange real estate for SF writers to build on.

-Steve Anderson

HELLHOUSE

January 15, 2012 1 comment
serial killer, murder, robbing houses

click on picture for teaser trailer

Most people don’t openly profess an interest in serial killers or the subject of murder, as these topics are considered morbid and untoward. But the 24 hour news cycle has it’s own sardonic obsession with brutality, and you can see evidence of this every night on the local news and CNN. For months at a time, people crowd around their television sets, listening with bated breath for the salient details of a buried baby or a raped teenager. But we are not obsessed with violence and terror. I repeat, we are NOT obsessed with violence and terror!

But for those of us who do secretly wonder about the final thoughts of a tortured soul, or the sounds a serial killer makes when no one else is around, have I got a film for you! My film, HELLHOUSE, which I am co-writing/directing with my friend and fellow horror movie fanatic, Jared Salas. We have launched a KICKSTARTER campaign for our movie and are expecting to begin shooting principal photography in spring.

HELLHOUSE is about a financially desperate couple, Collin and Aria, who decide to start robbing houses in order to pay their bills….they pick the wrong house. What they find inside will keep law enforcement officers and scientists baffled for years to come, and hopefully moviegoers too!

Right now we need help funding this movie. We’re not asking for much and the money we do get will be used for camera equipment, lenses, and for the creation of a haunting prosthetic mask for the film’s antagonist. Anyone out there who wants to support an independent avante garde horror film in the vein of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Rosemary’s Baby, The House of the Devil, and Quarantine is encouraged to visit our KICKSTARTER page, watch the teaser trailer and get on board the HELLHOUSE production!

Vote for The Methuselah Generation On IndieWire

November 21, 2011 1 comment

The Methuselah Generation, a documentary about life extension, biotechnology, and the doctors working at the edge of science and philosophy, needs you! Anyone interested in the delicate balance between life and death and humanity’s tenuous tightwalk rope between exponential growth and self-destruction, should take a keen interest in this film, which features Terry Grossman, Aubrey du Gray, Gregory Benford, and Robin Hanson. Please vote for it as IndieWire’s Project of the Week, and also donate to the Kickstarter campaign. There are rewards for pledging, including being a Producer on the film. Who knows, it may just grant you an extra hundred years of life, though that’s not one of the official tiers!

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