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Posts Tagged ‘Science fiction’

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.

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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

Benford’s Flies

February 23, 2011 4 comments

A few weeks ago I met science fiction author Gregory Benford. My friends Jason Sussberg and David Alvarado were shooting for their documentary about radical life extension, so I tagged along and went with them to Irvine for the interview with Benford regarding the work of his company Genescient. My copy of In the Ocean of Night tucked into my jacket pocket, I relished the opportunity to chew the fat with a major juggernaut of the sci-fi world.

Benford’s biotechnology company, Genescient, researches and develops a new field of science known as Genomics 2.0. More specifically they’ve been testing proprietary gene sequencing on a strain of Drosophila fruit flies, known as the “Methuselah flies.” Three decades of selective breeding has created reproductive longevity and optimal health in these buggers. Benford sees a way to parlay the knowledge gleaned from the fly experiments to fashion lines of pharmacogenomics that may greatly increase the human lifespan. Ultimately Benford envisions a future of advanced gene therapy that allows humans to regularly live to over 150 years-old.

image by

He’s hardly the only one who believes in life extension. A vast panoply of futurists now maintain it is more than possible that 21st century humans will use the overlapping bridges of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and mind uploading to not only reverse the effects of aging but to evolve to new, machine-based, substrates of consciousness entirely. Once buoyed by artificial intelligence, these efforts will reach the point at which technology is progressing so exponentially the future will be unpredictable and incomprehensible. This is known as the Singularity.

My friends’ documentary, The Methuselah Generation, will delve headlong into these theories, primarily investigating biotechnological methods to life extension. Other futurists, like economist Robin Hanson and the world renown Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Foundation, will present rousing thought experiments pertaining to the future of human life. The documentary, which the filmmakers are shooting in both 3D and 2D codecs, will also explore the social, economic, judicial, and emotional impacts of extended lifespans. For example, does a person convicted of a life sentence get to live forever in prison, eternally sapping taxpayer dollars? Will poor people be able to come along for the ride, or will the future be a rich-and-privileged only society? Say your friends and family can’t afford the life extension therapies. How appealing is a future in which everyone you know is dead?

Gregory Benford’s interview took place at his home in Irvine. Though I made a conscious effort not to be nosey I couldn’t help but notice that beside his 1975 Nebula Award (one of the two he claimed) lay a Big Bang Theory DVD nestled in it’s Netflix sleeve. I was currently writing a spec script for the show and thought about querying Benford about what he thought about the pop nerd sci sitcom. Instead I asked him about the original Chesley Bonestell paintings bedecking his office.


They sell well now, he said. “Death is good for art sales.”

“I guess life extension is bad for art,” Jason quipped.

During his interview, Benford touched upon the Methuselah flies, biotechnology, intersections between science and science fiction, the death of his first wife, which motivated him to create Genescient in the first place, and the Singularity. With the “Rapture of the nerds” becoming so conversationally popular these days–what with Ray Kurzweil’s Transcendent Man release, Patton Oswalt’s #Etewaf meme in Wired, and Time Magazine’s recent state-of-the-singularity piece–it was simply too tempting not to ask the man who first created the computer virus what he thought the Singularity would be like. The answer, which I’ll remember until the day I die (or, in the event I don’t die, for several hundred years), was rather simple:

Benford reading during the Singularity
A day after the Singularity you won’t be able to read the newspaper.

If that’s the case, the human economy itself will be up for grabs. Who knows how capital will be generated in an age of immortality and abundance? But Genescient will always have its flies. And if the whole biotechnology thing doesn’t work out they can always sell a new line of the fake ice cubes with dead flies in their centers.

After all, we’ll still need practical jokes after the Singularity.

Jake Anderson

Philip K. Dick: Explorer of an Uncertain Reality

February 14, 2011 2 comments

author Philip K. Dick published 44 novels


Of contemporary science fiction (SF) writers, one of the most interesting is the late Philip K. Dick (1928-1982), although there is some question whether Dick, strictly speaking, wrote science fiction at all. Certainly he had little concern for Vernian accuracy on hardware; sometimes he seems to have a contempt for it. Still, he used the conventions of SF, and in the minds of most critics he greatly enriched the genre.

In his prolific career, he worked through many of the conventions and themes of SF, but finally his work always had a personal stamp. His favorite subject matter is the alternate universe fiction, although it usually seems that the alternate universe is essentially his means of exploring the slipperiness of reality, even the burden of reality. In whatever version of reality we find ourselves in Dick’s work, one feature is consistent: the future is as sleazy as the present. The future does have the gleaming chrome and steel that we anticipate, but it also has unswept streets and cluttered hallways of everyday reality. One does not escape the dreariness of life in the future; the problems of life are with you in all versions of reality.

Eye in the Sky
One of the earliest of Dick’s novels, Eye in the Sky (1957), illustrates his special method. It is crude by the standards of his later work, and has signs of having been hastily written. (We suspect, though, that even some of his best work was hastily written. Fast writing was long a fact of life for anybody who wanted to make a full-time living as a SF writer. Writers didn’t get paid much for each book, so they had to write a lot of them.)

Eye in the Sky depicts a nuclear plant accident that causes eight people who were on a plant tour to experience a new and special relationship with reality. The characters discover that they experience, in turn, existence in each others’ minds. First, all the characters must live in the mind of a religious fanatic, and reality in that world
corresponds accordingly. Angels swarm in the sky, and in the middle is a giant eye (thus the title), presumably belonging to God, watching everything. The characters move
through the mind of a Victorian prude, a psychotic, a Russian Communist, and so on. The important aspect of this novel isn’t the idea so much as it is the technique. In a Dick
novel, you aren’t just told that you are in an alternate reality; you experience and feel that reality.

Another dimension of his career was his ability to build a personal vision out of the gamut of SF themes and conventions. For example, in The Martian Time-Slip (1964), he writes a novel in the Mars tradition, complete with canals and an ancient civilization. But we know that the story is uniquely his when we find the canals lined with suburban-like housing developments and bored housewives carrying on affairs with traveling salesmen.

Dr. Blood Money
Dr. Bloodmoney: Or How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965) is a post-nuclear war novel, but one that has a bizarrely cheerful ending. In Dick’s vision of post-holocaust existence, even the mutated life forms come happily out of the sewers to join the panorama of life.

The Galactic Pot-Healer (1969) is in the galactic tradition, but it is evolved far beyond Asimov’s galactic empires. In Dick’s version of the future, pottery has become so rare that any handmade pot is worth preserving, and a pottery repairman travels the galaxy fixing them. The novel is obviously a put on, but so well done that we accept and enjoy it.

Some of Dick’s other adaptions of traditional SF include The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, (1964) about time travel; Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, 1974 (technologically enforced political dystopia); and The Unteleported Man, 1966 (interstellar travel by “gates”). Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1969) deals with artificial life (portions of-the novel were the basis for the movie Blade Runner).

One of his major novels, Ubik (1969), is so unusual that it defies conventional description. Set in what is presumably the near-future, Ubik starts as a satire on paranormal powers, as the novel introduces telepaths, parakineticists, resurrectors, animators, and others, all available for hire through an agency. Next, the novel seems to show Dick’s light regard for conventional SF, as a group of paranormals are sent to the moon to protect a starship project—an absurd development, given the near-future setting.

Ubik
The novel takes yet another turn after the paranormals, sabotaged in their mission, start to experience strange events—reality starts to wither around them (these scenes can only be appreciated by reading them). We assume that he is working with the same technique as in Eye in the Sky—the characters seem to exist within the reality of somebody’s mind.

Then what is at first a surprise ending suggests an even more radical perspective in the novel.

The novel has been interpreted as everything from a satire on capitalism to a criticism of the limitations of the bourgeois novel.

The rest of this article is devoted to another of Dick’s acknowledged masterpieces, The Man In the High Castle (1962), a work that is unlike anything else he wrote (a strong statement, considering the variety of his work). It is his only alternate universe story in which he so closely extrapolates from a clearly defined historical period (the decades before and after World War II. It is also a very tightly constructed novel, not always one of Dick’s virtues.



The Man in the High Castle is set in a world in which the U.S. lost World War II. Nazi conquerors occupy the east coast, while the Japanese occupy the west coast. In the middle, serving as a buffer between the conquering powers, is the PSA (the Pacific States of America), the last home of free Americans. At the most obvious level, the novel explores the traits of the occupying powers. The Nazis are the monsters we know them to be, but the Japanese turn out to be relatively benign masters. They did not, as one American character says, “build ovens” (referring to the mass extermination in the Nazi concentration camps).

But the novel is about many other things, and is open to multiple interpretations. We may see the novel as an analysis of the mind-set that produces technological innovation. In this version of history, set in 1962, technological development is well ahead of the timetable in our “real” world. Not only have the Nazis colonized the moon, they have already reached Mars.

Dick presents a runaway technology that is a product of fascistic, masculine thinking–a thinking that refuses to take an ecological perspective into consideration. The Nazis are clearly on a path to self-destruction, which, if unaltered, will result in the destruction of the entire globe. But Dick’s criticism of runaway Nazi technology is, by indirection, a criticism of runaway American technology.


At the center of the action is Operation Dandelion, the plan that the Nazis have for a nuclear strike on the Japanese home islands. The Nazis in their paranoia are unwilling to share world power with anyone else. In a surprising way, though, Operation Dandelion is an observation on the reality that we know. Even while we share with the characters a horror of the planned nuclear strike, we can’t help but remember that Americans, in our reality, in fact carried out something quite like Operation Dandelion. There has been only one nuclear war, and Americans fought and won it.

From yet another direction, the novel is about art. Some of the characters of the novel are themselves reading a novel entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which depicts a version of history in which the Japanese and Germans do not win the war. Considered subversive, the book is forbidden in the Nazi zone, although the Japanese tolerate it. The author, Hawthorne Abendsen, reportedly lives in a highly fortified home (the “high castle” of the title) within the Pacific American States, and is the target of a Nazi assassination attempt.

It is tempting to assume that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is about our world, thus giving the novel a total symmetry. That is, we read a novel about an alternate world in which the people are reading about our world. But this is not the case. The alternate world setting in The Grasshopper Lies Heavy depicts yet a third reality. Dick is very skillful in planting mysteries that keep the reader speculating.


The novel may also be about the scientific assumptions that underlie our thinking. As we pointed out previously, the book may be seen as having a basis in quantum theory rather than space-time physics. But Dick does not attempt to use that terminology. He presents his scientific assumptions through the behavior of his characters. Several characters seem not to rely on cause-effect logic (what we might see as space-time logic) for making careful decisions. Instead, they refer to the I Ching, a book in Chinese culture used for divination. The I Ching is related to a concept of “synchronicity,” which sees the oneness of all events, and the relation of individual subjectivity to those events. Thus a random cast of dice can, for the person doing the casting, assist in predicting his or her future.

The cast of the dice is part of the oneness of all, and can help us predict seemingly unrelated future events.

Steve Anderson

Lighting Out: Interstellar Travel and Warp Speed

January 4, 2011 8 comments

EINSTEIN OR NOT?

Photo by shamantrixx

Before we can talk about Galactic Science Fiction, we must discuss interstellar travel, which is, after all, a highly improbable engineering feat. Science fiction writers and readers have nonetheless traveled the star lanes for several decades, and galactic SF flourishes even today.

Writers who pursue the interstellar themes have an important choice to make in setting up the premise of their stories. That is, do they observe the Einsteinian (for Albert Einstein) speed limit or not? In Einsteinian theory nothing can exceed the speed of light, which is approximately 186,000 miles per second. The closest star outside our solar system is Alpha Centauri, at a distance of four and a half light-years (a light-year being the distance that light would travel in a year). Most stars are considerably farther away.

Our galaxy, the Milky Way, is approximately 100,000 light-years in diameter, and the distance to the closest full-sized galaxy is 2.2 million light years. The distance to the edge of the universe is estimated at 15 billion light-years. After a point, of course, these measurements have little practical meaning for us.

If we assume the Einsteinian limitation in our interstellar travel, we will need a long, long time to get to even the closest star outside our own solar system. Writers working within the speed of light limitation have tried several approaches to interstellar travel.

Photo by ashmael

One method of travel is by ark, a giant spacecraft with a life-support system that can sustain the several generations needed to travel to a star. This type of craft is sometimes called a “generation-ship.” You will be looking at two examples of travel by generation ship, Heinlein’s “Universe” and Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama

ACROSS THE DISTANCES OF SPACE

Heinlein’s work in particular suggests the problems inherent in the generation-ship, both as an engineering possibility and an SF convention. For one, the generations following the first, even though they may not believe in the mission in the same way that the founders did, must still live out their lives on the mission. Succeeding generations become discontent and rebel against the authority of the ship, even though they have, in reality, little choice but to continue the mission. As an SF convention, the generation- ship requires a shift of emphasis from the adventure of exploring new worlds to the social problems the generation-ship creates.

Another method for getting humans across the vast expanses of outer space is to put them in suspended animation so that they can sleep away the time needed to travel. This convention has been used in Alien and Planet of the Apes, just to name a couple of popular movies.

Another solution to the enormous distances lies in the paradoxes of Einsteinian space-time relations. According to the Einsteinian description of space-time, as we increase our speed, the time for the people traveling actually slows down in relation to the people who are not traveling (or who are stationary “relative” to the people who are traveling). At the speeds at which we normally travel, the differences are so tiny as to be incalculable. For example, if the trip that I take from work to home is, say, one billionth of second slower for me than it is for the person waiting at home, then there is no practical consequence.

However, as we approach the speed of light, the slowing of time for the traveler is far more noticeable. In fact, if we were traveling just under the speed of light to Alpha Centauri (four and one-half light-years away), we would experience a passage of time of only days. The people who remained stationary relative to our travel would, however, experience the passage of the entire four and one-half years. This kind of time slippage, however, will not soon be a practical problem for us. The energy needed to move an object at even a small fraction of the speed of light is so enormous as to be technologically unfeasible. We will not anytime soon be traveling near the speed of light.

We can, though, see the problem that such travel could represent for characters in SF. Travelers setting out on a journey of one hundred years are, in effect, saying good-bye forever to all the people they know. What may be only a trip of weeks for them will be a hundred years for the people who stay home. By the time the travelers reach their destination, their friends back home will be long dead and buried.

Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ursula K. Le Guin made excellent thematic use of this time slippage in her Hain novels. She even calls her starships NAFALs, an acronym, presumably, for not-as-fast-as-light. Her starships are opposed to those of other SF writers who have FTL ships (faster-than-light). Other SF writers have explored the psychological implications of this time slippage, one notable case being Joan Vinge in The Snow Queen (1984).

Perhaps the easiest way to engage in interstellar travel is to assume that the light barrier can be broken. Many SF writers simply put their starships into space-warp (or hyper-space, or whatever the writer chooses to call the device that enables FTL travel) and get their stories moving. (Star Trek travel is done at warp-speed). At one time or another, some of the best SF talents have, without too much concern for engineering plausibility, taken their characters from one star system to another at speeds greater than that of light.

Yet another way humankind has made it across the enormous distances of space is by teleportation through “gates.” Gates assume a technology that allows the alignment at one locus of two separate places, which may be light-years apart. The traveler merely walks through the “gate” (and, we assume, some sort of energy field) and goes from earth to Mars, or to Alpha Centauri–or to whatever location the machinery is adjusted.

Interstellar Gateway/Wormhole

Photo by JoeJesus

The leap in imagination needed to accept travel by gating doesn’t seem so much greater than for accepting FTL. Still, we associate travel with some form of vehicle, and perhaps gating around the universe defies some deeper level of common sense. A number of pretty good stories have been based on gates (Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky, Clifford Simak’s Way Station, and the film, Stargate, to name a few), but gating has not been a major convention in science fiction. Since the days of Jules Verne, extraordinary voyagers have insisted on some appropriately dignified form of transportation—a ship.

GALACTIC CIVILIZATION AND ISSAC ASIMOV

One of the earliest galactic civilizations that FTL made possible is in Edmond Hamilton’s stories (1929-1930) about the Interstellar Federation. Headquartered on Canopus, the Federation sent out multi-species crews to patrol the galaxy and to right wrongs.

The name now associated with galactic empires is Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), whose Foundation Trilogy first pulled together a coherent and plausible (at least at the time) version of galactic civilization. Written between 1942 and 1949, the three volumes (Foundation, 1951; Foundation and Empire, 1952; and Second Foundation, 1953) portray a technological civilization in crisis. In Foundation we are introduced to Trantor, the capital city of the empire, itself a lesson in how civilization can become over-centralized. Literally billions of bureaucrats administer the empire in massive buildings from which they can never see the light of day. Evidence of decay lies in the inability of the empire to maintain order on the galactic periphery, as neo-barbarism threatens the peace and order that has lasted for millennia. The analogy is clearly (perhaps too clearly) based on the Roman Empire and its collapse in the face of the Germanic invasions.

One visionary, Hari Seldon, through the “science” of psychohistory, attempts to forestall the eventual collapse of the empire that will result in so such great destruction. He establishes a tiny settlement on the edge of the galaxy, which has the ostensible purpose of preserving the cultural heritage of the empire by compiling the Encyclopedia Galatica. His true intent, though, is to establish the nucleus of a new order that will survive the coming destruction. The adventures of the Foundation in that far future make for fascinating reading.

The virtues of the new order, the Foundation, are strikingly similar to virtues of post-World War II America—gumption, get-up-and-go, free enterprise, and the establishment of new markets. Because Asimov reveals a future that is strikingly analogous to corporate America, some readers are uncomfortable with what they see as a dated ideology.

But whatever the deficiencies in Asimov’s work that we see in retrospect, he is nonetheless important for establishing the major features of galactic SF. His Foundation Trilogy is the kind of SF that many contemporary SF writers grew up on. Their work now wouldn’t be the same without him, and Asimov is an indispensable influence in the development of SF during the so-called Golden Age.

A LOGICAL PROGRESSION

Planetary SF allowed several new places to set a story, but those new locations were used up pretty fast. SF writers needed new locations, and interstellar travel supplied them in virtually an infinite number. Writers—with Asimov leading the way—soon mapped and established the rules for using this new space.

Given the progression from lunar, to interplanetary, to interstellar SF, we might wonder about the development of inter-galactic SF. Stories here and there deal with travel between galaxies, but writers by and large have not developed any special or important themes that would require travel between galaxies.

-Steve Anderson