Accelerando: A Review

posthumanIt’s been a long while since I did a book review, mainly because I’ve been immersed in my writing. But sooner or later, you have to return to the source, right? As usual, I’ve been reading books that I hope will help me expand my horizons and become a better writer. And with that in mind, I thought I’d finally review a book I finished reading some months ago, one which was I read in the hopes of learning my craft.

It’s called Accelerando, one of Charle’s Stross better known works that earned him the Hugo, Campbell, Clarke, and British Science Fiction Association Awards. The book contains nine short stories, all of which were originally published as novellas and novelettes in Azimov’s Science Fiction. Each one revolves around the Mancx family, looking at three generations that live before, during, and after the technological singularity.

https://i1.wp.com/1a3kls1q8u5etu6z53sktyqdif.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Charles-Stross.jpgThis is the central focus of the story – and Stross’ particular obsession – which he explores in serious depth. The title, which in Italian means “speeding up” and is used as a tempo marking in musical notation, refers to the accelerating rate of technological progress and its impact on humanity. Beginning in the 21st century with the character of Manfred Mancx, a “venture altruist”; moving to his daughter Amber in the mid 21st century; the story culminates with Sirhan al-Khurasani, Amber’s son in the late 21st century and distant future.

In the course of all that, the story looks at such high-minded concepts as nanotechnology, utility fogs, clinical immortality, Matrioshka Brains, extra-terrestrials, FTL, Dyson Spheres and Dyson Swarms, and the Fermi Paradox. It also takes a long-view of emerging technologies and predicts where they will take us down the road.

And to quote Cory Doctorw’s own review of the book, it essentially “Makes hallucinogens obsolete.”

Plot Synopsis:
https://i1.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0b/Accelerando_%28book_cover%29.jpg
Part I, Slow Takeoff, begins with the short story “Lobsters“, which opens in early-21st century Amsterdam. Here, we see Manfred Macx, a “venture altruist”, going about his business, making business ideas happen for others and promoting development. In the course of things, Manfred receives a call on a courier-delivered phone from entities claiming to be a net-based AI working through a KGB website, seeking his help on how to defect.

Eventually, he discovers the callers are actually uploaded brain-scans of the California spiny lobster looking to escape from humanity’s interference. This leads Macx to team up with his friend, entrepreneur Bob Franklin, who is looking for an AI to crew his nascent spacefaring project—the building of a self-replicating factory complex from cometary material.

In the course of securing them passage aboard Franklin’s ship, a new legal precedent is established that will help define the rights of future AIs and uploaded minds. Meanwhile, Macx’s ex-fiancee Pamela pursues him, seeking to get him to declare his assets as part of her job with the IRS and her disdain for her husband’s post-scarcity economic outlook. Eventually, she catches up to him and forces him to impregnate and marry her in an attempt to control him.

The second story, “Troubador“, takes place three years later where Manfred is in the middle of an acrimonious divorce with Pamela who is once again seeking to force him to declare his assets. Their daughter, Amber, is frozen as a newly fertilized embryo and Pamela wants to raise her in a way that would be consistent with her religious beliefs and not Manfred’s extropian views. Meanwhile, he is working on three new schemes and looking for help to make them a reality.

These include a workable state-centralized planning apparatus that can interface with external market systems, a way to upload the entirety of the 20th century’s out-of-copyright film and music to the net. He meets up with Annette again – a woman working for Arianspace, a French commercial aerospace company – and the two begin a relationship. With her help, his schemes come together perfectly and he is able to thwart his wife and her lawyers. However, their daughter Amber is then defrosted and born, and henceforth is being raised by Pamela.

The third and final story in Part I is “Tourist“, which takes place five years later in Edinburgh. During this story, Manfred is mugged and his memories (stored in a series of Turing-compatible cyberware) are stolen. The criminal tries to use Manfred’s memories and glasses to make some money, but is horrified when he learns all of his plans are being made available free of charge. This forces Annabelle to go out and find the man who did it and cut a deal to get his memories back.

Meanwhile, the Lobsters are thriving in colonies situated at the L5 point, and on a comet in the asteroid belt. Along with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the ESA, they have picked up encrypted signals from outside the solar system. Bob Franklin, now dead, is personality-reconstructed in the Franklin Collective. Manfred, his memories recovered, moves to further expand the rights of non-human intelligences while Aineko begins to study and decode the alien signals.

http://garethstack.files.wordpress.com/2006/12/url-3.jpegPart II, Point of Inflection, opens a decade later in the early/mid-21st century and centers on Amber Macx, now a teen-ager, in the outer Solar System. The first story, entitled “Halo“, centers around Amber’s plot (with Annette and Manfred’s help) to break free from her domineering mother by enslaving herself via s Yemeni shell corporation and enlisting aboard a Franklin-Collective owned spacecraft that is mining materials from Amalthea, Jupiter’s fourth moon.

To retain control of her daughter, Pamela petitions an imam named Sadeq to travel to Amalthea to issue an Islamic legal judgment against Amber. Amber manages to thwart this by setting up her own empire on a small, privately owned asteroid, thus making herself sovereign over an actual state. In the meantime, the alien signals have been decoded, and a physical journey to an alien “router” beyond the Solar System is planned.

In the second story Router“, the uploaded personalities of Amber and 62 of her peers travel to a brown dwarf star named Hyundai +4904/-56 to find the alien router. Traveling aboard the Field Circus, a tiny spacecraft made of computronium and propelled by a Jupiter-based laser and a lightsail, the virtualized crew are contacted by aliens.

Known as “The Wunch”, these sentients occupy virtual bodies based on Lobster patterns that were “borrowed” from Manfred’s original transmissions. After opening up negotiations for technology, Amber and her friends realize the Wunch are just a group of thieving, third-rate “barbarians” who have taken over in the wake of another species transcending thanks to a technological singularity. After thwarting The Wunch, Amber and a few others make the decision to travel deep into the router’s wormhole network.

In the third story, Nightfall“, the router explorers find themselves trapped by yet more malign aliens in a variety of virtual spaces. In time, they realize the virtual reaities are being hosted by a Matrioshka brain – a megastructure built around a star (similar to a Dyson’s Sphere) composed of computronium. The builders of this brain seem to have disappeared (or been destroyed by their own creations), leaving an anarchy ruled by sentient, viral corporations and scavengers who attempt to use newcomers as currency.

With Aineko’s help, the crew finally escapes by offering passage to a “rogue alien corporation” (a “pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam”), represented by a giant virtual slug. This alien personality opens a powered route out, and the crew begins the journey back home after many decades of being away.

https://storiesbywilliams.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/d622e-charles_stross_accelerando_magyar.jpgPart III, Singularity, things take place back in the Solar System from the point of view of Sirhan – the son of the physical Amber and Sadeq who stayed behind. In “Curator“, the crew of the Field Circus comes home to find that the inner planets of the Solar System have been disassembled to build a Matrioshka brain similar to the one they encountered through the router. They arrive at Saturn, which is where normal humans now reside, and come to a floating habitat in Saturn’s upper atmosphere being run by Sirhan.

The crew upload their virtual states into new bodies, and find that they are all now bankrupt and unable to compete with the new Economics 2.0 model practised by the posthuman intelligences of the inner system. Manfred, Pamela, and Annette are present in various forms and realize Sirhan has summoned them all to this place. Meanwhile, Bailiffs—sentient enforcement constructs—arrive to “repossess” Amber and Aineko, but a scheme is hatched whereby the Slug is introduced to Economics 2.0, which keeps both constructs very busy.

In “Elector“, we see Amber, Annette, Manfred and Gianna (Manfred’s old political colleague) in the increasingly-populated Saturnian floating cities and working on a political campaign to finance a scheme to escape the predations of the “Vile Offspring” – the sentient minds that inhabit the inner Solar System’s Matrioshka brain. With Amber in charge of this “Accelerationista” party, they plan to journey once more to the router network. She loses the election to the stay-at-home “conservationista” faction, but once more the Lobsters step in to help by offering passage to uploads on their large ships if the humans agree to act as explorers and mappers.

In the third and final chapter, “Survivor“, things fast-forward to a few centuries after the singularity. The router has once again been reached by the human ship and humanity now lives in space habitats throughout the Galaxy. While some continue in the ongoing exploration of space, others (copies of various people) live in habitats around Hyundai and other stars, raising children and keeping all past versions of themselves and others archived.

Meanwhile, Manfred and Annette reconcile their differences and realize they were being manipulated all along. Aineko, who was becoming increasingly intelligent throughout the decades, was apparently pushing Manfred to fulfill his schemes to help bring the humanity to the alien node and help humanity escape the fate of other civilizations that were consumed by their own technological progress.

Summary:
Needless to say, this book was one big tome of big ideas, and could be mind-bendingly weird and inaccessible at times! I’m thankful I came to it when I did, because no one should attempt to read this until they’ve had sufficient priming by studying all the key concepts involved. For instance, don’t even think about touching this book unless you’re familiar with the notion of the Technological Singularity. Beyond that, be sure to familiarize yourself with things like utility fogs, Dyson Spheres, computronium, nanotechnology, and the basics of space travel.

You know what, let’s just say you shouldn’t be allowed to read this book until you’ve first tackled writers like Ray Kurzweil, William Gibson, Arthur C. Clarke, Alastair Reynolds and Neal Stephenson. Maybe Vernon Vinge too, who I’m currently working on. But assuming you can wrap your mind around the things presented therein, you will feel like you’ve digested something pretty elephantine and which is still pretty cutting edge a decade or more years after it was first published!

But to break it all down, the story is essentially a sort of cautionary tale of the dangers of the ever-increasing pace of change and advancement. At several points in the story, the drive toward extropianism and post-humanity is held up as both an inevitability and a fearful prospect. It’s also presented as a possible explanation for the Fermi Paradox – which states that if sentient life is statistically likely and plentiful in our universe, why has humanity not observed or encountered it?

According to Stross, it is because sentient species – which would all presumably have the capacity for technological advancement – will eventually be consumed by the explosion caused by ever-accelerating progress. This will inevitably lead to a situation where all matter can be converted into computing space, all thought and existence can be uploaded, and species will not want to venture away from their solar system because the bandwidth will be too weak. In a society built on computronium and endless time, instant communication and access will be tantamount to life itself.

All that being said, the inaccessibility can be tricky sometimes and can make the read feel like its a bit of a labor. And the twist at the ending did seem like it was a little contrived and out of left field. It certainly made sense in the context of the story, but to think that a robotic cat that was progressively getting smarter was the reason behind so much of the story’s dynamic – both in terms of the characters and the larger plot – seemed sudden and farfetched.

And in reality, the story was more about the technical aspects and deeper philosophical questions than anything about the characters themselves. As such, anyone who enjoys character-driven stories should probably stay away from it. But for people who enjoy plot-driven tales that are very dense and loaded with cool technical stuff (which describes me pretty well!), this is definitely a must-read.

Now if you will excuse me, I’m off to finish Vernor Vinge’s Rainbow’s End, another dense, sometimes inaccessible read!

News from SETI: We’re Going to Find Aliens This Century

aliens“We are going to find life in space in this century.” This was the bold prediction made by Dr. Seth Shostak, Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI) at this year’s European Commission Innovation Convention. As part of the European Union’s strategy to create an innovation-friendly environment, the ECIC brings together the best scientific minds from around the world to discuss what the future holds and how we can make it happen.

And this year, Dr. Shostak and other representatives from SETI were quite emphatic about what they saw as humanity’s greatest discovery, and when it would be taking place. Sometime this century, they claim, the people of Earth will finally find the answer to the question “Are we alone in the universe?” Like many eminent scientists from around the world, Dr. Shostak believes its not a question of if, but when.

ECIC_2014As he went on to explain, given the sheer size of the universe and the statistical probabilities, the odds that humanity is far more unlikely than the reverse:

There are 150 billion galaxies other than our own, each with a few tens of billions of earth-like planets. If this is the only place in the universe where anything interesting happening then this is a miracle. And 500 years of astronomy has taught us that whenever you believe in a miracle, you’re probably wrong.

As for how we’ll find that life, Dr Shostak sees it as a ‘three-horse race’ which will probably be won over the next 25 years. Either we will find it nearby, in microbial form, on Mars or one of the moons of Jupiter; or we’ll find evidence for gases produced by living processes (for example photosynthesis) in the atmospheres of planets around other stars; or Dr Shostak and his team at SETI will pick up signals from intelligent life via huge antennas.

exoplanet_searchDr. Suzanne Aigrain – a lecturer in Astrophysics at Oxford University and who studies exoplanets – represents horse number two in the race. Dr. Aigrain and her research group have been using electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light) as their primary tool to look for planets around other stars. The life ‘biomarkers’ that she and her colleagues look for are trace gases in the atmospheres of the exoplanets that they think can only be there if they are being produced by a biological source like photosynthesis.

Speaking at the Convention, Dr Aigrain noted that, based on her studies, she would also bet that we are not alone:

We are very close to being able to say with a good degree of certainty that planets like the Earth, what we call habitable planets, are quite common [in the universe] … That’s why when asked if I believe there’s life on other planets, I raise my hand and I do so as a scientist because the balance of probability is overwhelmingly high.

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16Dr. Shostak and SETI, meanwhile, seek evidence of life in the universe by looking for some signature of its technology. If his team does discover radio transmissions from space, Dr. Shostak is quite certain that they will be coming from a civilization more advanced than our own. This is part and parcel of searching for life that is capable of sending out transmissions, and assures that they will have a level of technology that is at least comparable to our own.

At the same time, it is entirely possible that an advanced species will have existed longer than our own. As the Kardashev Scale shows, the level of a race’s technical development can be measured in terms of the energy they utilize. Beginning with Type 0’s, which draw their energy, information, raw-materials from crude organic-based sources, the scale goes on to include levels of development that draw energy of fusion and anti-matter to our host star, or even stellar clusters and even galaxies.

halosphereConsidering that size of the universe, the realm of possibility – and the fact humanity itself is still making the transitions from Type 0 to Type I – the odds of us meeting an extra-terrestrial that is more advanced than us are quite good. As Shostak put it:

Why do I insist that if we find ET, he/she/it will be more advanced than we are? The answer is that you’re not going to hear the Neanderthals. The Neanderthal Klingons are not building radio transmitters that will allow you to get in touch.

“Neanderthal Klingons”… now that’s something I’d like to see! Of course, scientists have there reasons for making such bold predictions, namely that they have a vested interest in seeing their theories proven correct. But not surprisingly, they are hardly alone in holding up the numbers and insisting that its a numbers game, and that the numbers are stacked. Another such person is William Shatner, who in a recent interview with the Daily Mail offered his thoughts on the possibility of alien life.

william_shatnerAs he explained it, it all comes down to numbers, and the sheer amount of discoveries made in such a short space of time:

I don’t think there is any doubt there is life in the universe, yes. I don’t think there is any question. The mathematics involved — what have they just discovered, 730,000 new planets the other day? — mathematically it has to be.

He was a bit off on the number of planets, but he does have a point. Earlier this month, NASA announced the discovery of 715 new exoplanets thanks to a new statistical technique known as “verification by multiplicity”. By observing hundreds of stars and applying this basic technique, the Kepler space probe was able to discover more planets so far this year than in the past few combined. In fact, this one batch of discovered increased the total number of exoplanet candidates from 1000 to over 1700.

alien-worldAnd while the discovery of only four potentially habitable planets amongst those 715 (a mere 0.0056% of the total) may seem discouraging, each new discovery potentially represents hundreds more. And given how little of our galaxy we have mapped so far, and the fact that we’ve really only begun to explore deep space, we can expect that list to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming years and decades.

Naturally, there are some fundamental questions that arise out of these predictions. For example, if we do find life on other planets or intercept a radio signal, what are the consequences? Finding a microbe that isn’t an earthly microbe will tell us a lot about biology, but there will also be huge philosophical consequences. Even more so if we are to meet a species that has developed advanced technology, space flight, and the means to come find us, rather than us finding them.

In Dr Shostak’s words, ‘It literally changes everything’. But that is the nature of

Sources: dvice.com, news.cnet.com, cordis.europa.eu

Building Future Worlds…

inspirationIn the course of becoming an indie writer, there is one aspect of the creative process which keeps coming back to me. To put it simply, it is the challenges and delights of world building – i.e. creating the background, context, and location in which a story takes place. For years, I have been reading other people’s thoughts on the subject, be they authors themselves or just big fans of literary fiction.

But my own experience with the process has taught me much that I simply couldn’t appreciate before I picked up my pen and pad (or in this case, opened a word doc and began typing). Ad lately, the thoughts have been percolating in my mind and I felt the need to write them out. Having done that, I thought I might share them in full.

alien-worldFor starters, being a science fiction writer presents a person with particular opportunities for creative expression. But at the same time, it presents its share of particular challenges. While one is certainly freer to play around with space, place, and invent more freely than with most other genres, they are still required to take into account realism, consistency and continuity in all that they do.

Sooner or later, the world a writer builds will be explored, mapped, and assessed, and any and all inconsistencies are sure to stick out like a sore thumb! So in addition to making sure back-stories, timelines and other details accord with the main plot, authors also need to be mindful of things like technology, physical laws, and the nature of space and time.

self-aware-colonyBut above all, the author in question has to ask themselves what kind of universe they want to build. If it is set in the future, they need to ask themselves certain fundamental questions about where human beings will be down the road. Not only that, they also need to decide what parallels (and they always come up!) they want to draw with the world of today.

Through all of this, they will be basically deciding what kind of message they want to be sending with their book. Because of course, anything they manage to dream up about the future will tell their readers lots about the world the author inhabits, both in the real sense and within their own head. And from what I have seen, it all comes down to five basic questions they must ask themselves…

1. Near-Future/Far Future:
future-city3When it comes to science-fiction stories, the setting is almost always the future. At times, it will be set in an alternate universe, or an alternate timeline; but more often than not, the story takes place down the road. The only question is, how far down the road? Some authors prefer to go with the world of tomorrow, setting their stories a few decades or somewhere in the vicinity of next century.

By doing this, the author in question is generally trying to show how the world of today will determine the world of tomorrow, commenting on current trends and how they are helping/hurting us. During the latter half of the 20th century, this was a very popular option for writers, as the consensus seemed to be that the 21st century would be a time when some truly amazing things would be possible; be it in terms of science, technology, or space travel.

1984_John_HurtOther, less technologically-inclined authors, liked to use the not-so-distant future as a setting for dystopian, post-apocalytpic scenarios, showing how current trends (atomic diplomacy, arms races, high tech, environmental destruction) would have disastrous consequences for humanity in the near-future. Examples of this include Brave New World, 1984, The Iron Heel, The Chrysalids, and a slew of others.

In all cases, the totalitarian regimes or severe technological and social regression that characterized their worlds were the result of something happening in the very near-future, be it nuclear or biological war, a catastrophic accident, or environmental collapse. Basically, humanity’s current behavior was the basis for a cautionary tale, where an exaggerated example is used to illustrate the logical outcome of all this behavior.

arrakis-duneAt the other end of the spectrum, many authors have taken the long view with their sci-fi world building. Basically, they set their stories several centuries or even millennia from now. In so doing, they are able to break with linear timelines and the duty of having to explain how humanity got from here to there, and instead could focus on more abstract questions of existence and broader allegories.

Examples of this include Frank Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation series, both of which were set tens of thousands of years in the future. In both of these universes, humanity’s origins and how they got to where they were took a backseat to the historical allegories that were being played upon. While some mention is given to the origins of humanity and where they came from, little attempt is made to draw a line from the present into the future.

foundation_coversInstead, the focus is overwhelmingly on the wider nature of human beings and what drives us to do the things we do. Asimov drew from Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to make a point about the timeless nature of history, while Herbert drew on the modern age, medieval and ancient history, religion, philosophy, and evolutionary biology and ecology to investigate the timeless nature of humanity and what factors shape it.

For non-purists, Star Wars and Star Trek can also serve as examples of both tendencies in action. For decades, Star Trek used a not-too-distant future setting to endlessly expound on the human race and the issues it faces today. And always, this examination was done in the form of interstellar travel, the crew of the Enterprise going form world to world and seeing themselves in the problems, norms and social structure of other races.

coruscantStar Wars, on the other hand, was an entirely different animal. For the people living in this universe, no mention is ever made of Earth, and pre-Republic history is considered a distant and inaccessible thing. And while certain existential and social issues are explored (i.e. racism, freedom and oppression), the connections with Earth’s past are more subtle, relying on indirect clues rather than overt comparisons.

The Republic and the Empire, for example, is clearly inspired by Rome’s own example. The Jedi Code is very much the picture of the Bushido code, its practitioners a sort of futuristic samurai, and the smugglers of Tatooine are every bit the swashbuckling, gun toting pirates and cowboys of popular fiction. But always, the focus seemed to more on classically-inspired tales of destiny, and of epic battles of good versus evil.

And of course, whether we are talking near future or far future has a big influence on the physical setting of the story as well. Which brings me to item two…

2. Stellar or Interstellar:100,000starsHere is another important question that every science fiction author has faced, and one which seriously influences the nature  of the story. When it comes to the world of tomorrow, will it be within the confines of planet Earth, the Solar System, or on many different world throughout our galaxy? Or, to go really big, will it encompass the entire Milky Way, or maybe even beyond?

Important questions for a world-builder, and examples certainly abound. In the former case, you have your dystopian, post-apocalyptic, and near future seenarios, where humanity is stuck living on a hellish Earth that has seen better days. Given that humanity would not be significantly more adavanced than the time of writing, or may have even regressed due to the downfall of civilization, Earth would be the only place people can live.

Gaia_galaxyBut that need not always be the case. Consider Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick. In his dystopian, post-apocalyptic tale, Earth was devestated by nuclear war, forcing the wealthiest and healthiest to live in the Offworld Colonies while everyone who was too poor or too ravaged by their exposure to radiation was confined to Earth. Clearly, dystopia does not rule out space travel, though it might limit it.

And in the latter case, where human beings have left the cradle and begun walking amongst our System’s other planets and even the stars, the nature of the story tends to be a bit more ambiguous. Those who choose such a setting tend to be of the opinion that mankind either needs to reach out in order to survive, or that doing so will allow us to shed some of our problems.

chasm_city_2Examples abound here again, but Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space universe seems like the ideal one here. In this series, humanity has access to near-light speed travel, nanotechnology, brain-computer interfacing, neural uploading, AI, smart materials, and has colonized dozens of new worlds. However, the state of humanity has not changed, and on many worlds, civil war and sectarian violence are common.

In either case, the setting also bears a direct relation to the state of technology in the story. For humans still living on Earth (and nowhere else) in the future, chances are, they are about as advanced or even behind the times in which the story was written. For those living amongst the stars, technology would have to advanced sufficiently to make it happen. Which brings me to the next point…

3. High-Tech or Low-Tech:
Star_Trek_SpacedockWhat would a work of science fiction be without plenty of room for gadgets, gizmos, and speculation about the future state of technology? And once more, I can discern of two broad categories that an author can choose from, both of which have their share of potential positives and negatives. And depending on what kind of story you want to write, the choice of what that state is often predetermined.

In the former case, there is the belief that technology will continue to advance in the future, leading to things like space travel, FTL, advanced cyborgs, clones, tricorders, replicators, artificial intelligence, laser guns, lightsabers, phasers, photon torpedoes, synthetic humans, and any number of other fun, interesting and potentially dangerous things.

BAMA_3With stories like these, the purpose of high-tech usually serves as a framing device, providing visual evidence that the story is indeed taking place in the future. In other words, it serves a creative and fun purpose, without much thought being given towards exploring the deeper issues of technological progress and determinism.  But this not be the case, and oftentimes with science fiction, high-tech serves a different purpose altogether.

In many other cases, the advance of technology is directly tied to the plot and the nature of the story. Consider cyberpunk novels like Neuromancer and the other novels of William Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy. In these and other cyberpunk novels, the state of technology – i.e. cyberpsace decks, robotic prosthetics, biotech devices – served to illustrate the gap between rich and poor and highlighting the nature of light in a dark, gritty future.

65By contrast, such post-cyberpunk novels as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age took a different approach. While high-tech and its effects on society were explored in great detail, he and other authors of this sub genre chose to break with their predecessors on one key issue. Namely, they did not suppose that the emergence of high-tech would lead to dystopia, but rather an ambiguous future where both good and harm resulted.

And at the other end of the spectrum, where technology is in a low state, the purpose and intent of this is generally the same. On the one hand, it may serve as a plot framing device, illustrating how the world is in a primitive state due to the collapse of civilization as we know it, or because our unsustainable habits caught up with us and resulted in the world stepping backwards in time.

a_boy_and_his_dogAt the same time, the very fact that people live in a primitive state in any of these stories serves the purpose of  commentary. Simply by showing how our lives were unsustainable, or the actions of the story’s progenitor’s so foolish, the author is making a statement and asking the reader to acknowledge and ponder the deeper issue, whether they realize it or not.

At this end of things, A Boy and His Dog and Mad Max serve as good examples. In the former case, the story takes place in a post-apocalyptic landscape where a lone boy and his genetically-engineered talking dog rove the landscape in search of food and (in the boy’s case) sexual gratification. Here, the state of technology helps to illustrate the timeless nature of the human condition, namely how we are essentially the products of our environment.

pursuit_specialIn Mad Max as well, the way roving gangs are constantly looking for gasoline, using improvised weapons, and riding around in vehicles cobbled together from various parts gives us a clear picture of what life is like in this post-collapse environment. In addition, the obvious desperation created by said collapse serves to characterize the cultural landscape, which is made up of gangs, tinpot despots, and quasi-cults seeking deliverance.

But on the other hand, the fact that the world exists in this state due to collapse after the planet’s supply of oil ran dry also provides some social commentary. By saying that the world became a dangerous, anarchistic and brutal place simply because humanity was dependent on a resource that suddenly went dry, the creators of Mad Max’s world were clearly trying to tell us something. Namely, conserve!

4. Aliens or Only Humans:
warofworldsaliensAnother very important question for setting the scene in a science fiction story is whether or not extra-terrestrials are involved. Is humanity still alone in the universe, or have they broken that invisible barrier that lies between them and the discovery of other sentient life forms? Once again, the answer to this question has a profound effect on the nature of the story, and it can take many forms.

For starters, if the picture is devoid of aliens, then the focus of the story will certainly be inward, looking at human nature, issues of identity, and how our environment serves to shape us. But if there are aliens, either a single species or several dozen, then the chances are, humanity is a united species and the aliens serve as the “others”, either as a window into our own nature, or as an exploration into the awe and wonder of First Contact.

Alien OrganismsAs case studies for the former category, let us consider the Dune, Foundation, and Firefly universes. In each of these, humanity has become an interstellar species, but has yet to find other sentiences like itself. And in each of these, human nature and weaknesses appear to be very much a constant, with war, petty rivalries and division a costant. Basically, in the absence of an “other”, humanity is focused on itself and the things that divide it.

In Dune, for example, a galaxy-spanning human race has settled millions of worlds, and each world has given rise to its own identity – with some appearing very much alien to another. Their are the “navigators”, beings that have mutated their minds and bodies through constant exposure to spice. Then there are the Tleilaxu, a race of genetic manipulators  who breed humans from dead tissue and produce eunuch “Face Dancers” that can assume any identity.

2007-8-18_DuneAxlotlTank

Basically, in the absence of aliens, human beings have become amorphous in terms of their sense of self, with some altering themselves to the point that they are no longer even considered human to their bretherin. And all the while, humanity’s biggest fight is with itself, with rival houses vying for power, the Emperor gaurding his dominance, and the Guild and various orders looking to ensure that the resource upon which all civilization depends continues to flow.

In the Foundation universe, things are slightly less complicated; but again, the focus is entirely inward. Faced with the imminent decline and collapse of this civilization, Hari Seldon invents the tool known as “Psychohistory”. This science is dedicated to anticipating the behavior of large groups of people, and becomes a roadmap to recovery for a small group of Foundationists who seek to preserve the light of civilization once the empire is gone.

foundation

The series then chronicles their adventures, first in establishing their world and becoming a major power in the periphery – where Imperial power declines first – and then rebuilding the Empire once it finally and fully collapses. Along the way, some unforeseen challenges arise, but Seldon’s Plan prevails and the Empire is restored. In short, it’s all about humans trying to understand the nature of human civilization, so they can control it a little better.

Last, but not least, their is the Firefly universe which – despite the show’s short run – showed itself to be in-depth and interestingly detailed. Basically, the many worlds that make up “The Verse” are divided along quasi-national lines. The core worlds constitute the Alliance, the most advanced and well-off worlds in the system that are constantly trying to expand to bring the entire system under its rule.

verse_whitesunThe Independents, we learn early in the story, were a coalition of worlds immediately outside the core worlds that fought these attempts, and lost. The Border Worlds, meanwhile, are those planets farthest from the core where life is backwards and “uncivilized” by comparison. All of this serves to illustrate the power space and place have over human identity, and how hierarchy, power struggles and  divisiveness are still very much a part of us.

But in universes where aliens are common, then things are a little bit different. In these science fiction universes, where human beings are merely one of many intelligent species finding their way in the cosmos, extra-terrestrials serve to make us look outward and inward at the same time. In this vein, the cases of Babylon 5, and 2001: A Space Odyssey provide the perfect range of examples.

B5_season2In  B5 – much as with Stark Trek, Star Gate, or a slew of other franchises – aliens serve as a mirror for the human condition. By presenting humanity with alien cultures, all of whom have their own particular quarks and flaws, we are given a meter stick with which to measure ourselves. And in B5‘s case, this was done rather brilliantly – with younger races learning from older ones, seeking wisdom from species so evolved that often they are not even physical entities.

However, in time the younger race discover that the oldest (i.e. the Shadows, Vorlons, and First Ones) are not above being flawed themselves. They too are subject to fear, arrogance, and going to war over ideology. The only difference is, when they do it the consequences are far graver! In addition, these races themselves come to see that the ongoing war between them and their proxies has become a senseless, self-perpetuating mistake. Echoes of human frailty there!

2001spaceodyssey128.jpgIn 2001: A Space Odyssey, much the same is true of the Firstborn, a race of aliens so ancient that they too are no longer physical beings, but uploaded intelligences that travel through the cosmos using sleek, seamless, impenetrable slabs (the monoliths). As we learn in the course of the story, this race has existed for eons, and has been seeking out life with the intention of helping it to achieve sentience.

This mission brought them to Earth when humanity was still in its primordial, high-order primate phase. After tinkering with our evolution, these aliens stood back and watched us evolve, until the day that we began to reach out into the cosmos ourselves and began to discover some of the tools they left behind. These include the Tycho Monolith Anomaly-1 (TMA-1) on the Moon, and the even larger one in orbit around Jupiter’s moon of Europa.

2001-monolith-alignmentAfter making contact with this monolith twice, first with the American vessel Discovery and then the joint Russian-American Alexei Leonov, the people of Earth realize that the Firstborn are still at work, looking to turn Jupiter into a sun so that life on Europa (confined to the warm oceans beneath its icy shell) will finally be able to flourish. Humanity is both astounded and humbled to learn that it is not alone in the universe, and wary of its new neighbors.

This story, rather than using aliens as a mirror for humanity’s own nature, uses a far more evolved species to provide a contrast to our own. This has the same effect, in that it forces us to take a look at ourselves and assess our flaws. But instead of showing those flaws in another, it showcases the kind of potential we have. Surely, if the Firstborn could achieve such lengths of evolutionary and technological development, surely we can too!

5. Utopian/Dystopian/Ambiguous:
Inner_city_by_aksuFinally, there is the big question of the qualitative state of humanity and life in this future universe. Will life be good, bad, ugly, or somewhere in between? And will humanity in this narrative be better, worse, or the same as it now? It is the questions of outlook, whether it is pessimistic, optimistic, realistic, or something else entirely which must concern a science fiction writer sooner or later.

Given that the genre evolved as a way of commenting on contemporary trends and offering insight into their effect on us, this should come as no surprise. When looking at where we are going and how things are going to change, one cannot help but delve into what it is that defines this thing we know as “humanity”. And when it comes right down to it, there are a few schools of thought that thousands of years of scholarship and philosophy have provided us with.

transhuman3Consider the dystopian school, which essentially posits that mankind is a selfish, brutish, and essentially evil creature that only ever seeks to do right by himself, rather than other creatures. Out of this school of thought has come many masterful works of science fiction, which show humanity to be oppressive to its own, anthropocentric to aliens and other life forms, and indifferent to the destruction and waste it leaves in its wake.

And of course, there’s the even older Utopia school, which presents us with a future where mankind’s inherent flaws and bad behavior have been overcome through a combination of technological progress, political reform, social evolution, and good old fashioned reason. In these worlds, the angels of humanity’s nature have won the day, having proven superior to humanity’s devils.

IngsocIn the literally realm, 1984 is again a perfect example of dytopian sci=fi, where the totalitarian rule of the few is based entirely on selfishness and the desire for dominance over others. According to O’Brien, the Party’s mouthpiece in the story, their philosophy in quite simple:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.  If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

Hard to argue with something so brutal and unapologetic, isn’t it? In Orwell’s case, the future would be shaped by ongoing war, deprivation, propaganda, fear, torture, humiliation, and brutality. In short, man’s endless capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others.

invitro2Aldous Huxley took a different approach in his seminal dystopian work, Brave New World, in which he posited that civilization would come to be ruled based on man’s endless appetite for pleasure, indifference and distraction. Personal freedom and individuality would be eliminated, yes, but apparently for man’s own good rather than the twisted designs of a few true-believers:

Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t. And, of course, whenever the masses seized political power, then it was happiness rather than truth and beauty that mattered… People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for a quiet life. We’ve gone on controlling ever since. It hasn’t been very good for truth, of course. But it’s been very good for happiness. One can’t have something for nothing. Happiness has got to be paid for.

But even though the means are entirely different, the basic aim is the same. Deprive humanity of his basic freedom and the potential to do wrong in order to ensure stability and long-term rule. In the end, a darker, more cynical view of humanity and the path that we are on characterized these classic examples of dystopia and all those that would come to be inspired them.

Imminent Utopia by Kuksi
Imminent Utopia by Kuksi

As for Utopian fiction, H.G. Wells’ Men Like Gods is a very appropriate example. In this novel, a contemporary journalist finds himself hurled through time into 3000 years into the future where humanity lives in a global state named Utopia, and where the “Five Principles of Liberty” – privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism – are the only law.

After staying with them for a month, the protogonist returns home with renewed vigor and is now committed to the “Great Revolution that is afoot on Earth; that marches and will never desist nor rest again until old Earth is one city and Utopia set up therein.” In short, like most Positivists of his day, Wells believed that the march of progress would lead to a future golden age where humanity would shed it’s primitive habits and finally live up to its full potential.

Larry Niven_2004_Ringworld's Children_0This view would prove to have a profound influence on futurist writers like Asimov and Clarke. In the latter case, he would come to express similar sentiments in both the Space Odyssey series and his novel Childhood’s End. In both cases, humanity found itself confronted with alien beings of superior technology and sophistication, and eventually was able to better itself by opening itself up to their influence.

In both series, humanity is shown the way to betterment (often against their will) by cosmic intelligences far more advanced than their own. But despite the obvious questions about conquest, loss of freedom, individuality, and identity, Clarke presents this as a good thing. Humanity, he believed, had great potential, and would embrace it, even if it had to be carried kicking and screaming.

And just like H.G Wells, Clarke, Asimov, and a great many of his futurist contemporaries believes that the ongoing and expanding applications of science and technology would be what led to humanity’s betterment. A commitment to this, they believed, would eschew humanity’s dependence on religion, superstition, passion and petty emotion; basically, all the things that made us go to war and behave badly in the first place.

Summary:
These are by no means the only considerations one must make before penning a science fiction story, but I think they provide a pretty good picture of the big-ticket items. At least the ones that keep me preoccupied when I’m writing! In the end, knowing where you stand on the questions of location, content, tone and feel, and what your basic conception of the future, is all part of the creation process.

In other words, you need to figure out what you’re trying to say and how you want to say it before you can go to town. In the meantime, I say to all aspiring and established science fiction writers alike: keep pondering, keep dreaming, and keep reaching for them stars!

Tweeting Aliens: The Lone Signal Array

gliese-581-eIn what could be called a case of serious repurposing – beating swords into plowshares and so forth – or something out of science-fiction, a crowdfunded project has sought to turn a Cold War era dish into a deep-space communications array. This array will send messages to that’s relatively near to us, and potentially inhabited. And assuming anything sufficiently advanced lives there, we could be talking to them soon enough.

dishantennaThe project is known as Lone Signal, a crowdfunded effort to send a continuous stream of messages to the folks at Gliese 526, a red dwarf star 17.6 light-years away in the constellation of Bootes (aka Wolf 498). And the dish with which they intend to do this is known as the Jamesburg Earth Station, a nuke-proof satellite relay station in California that dates from the 1960s and even helped broadcast images of Neil Armstrong on the moon.

Long Signal, it should be noted, is the brainchild of The Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, non-profit virtual research institute that networks scientists from across the globe and multiple disciplines for the purpose of expanding the boundaries of knowledge, science and astronomy and promoting an open dialogue on the subject of exploration and settlement.Towards this end, they arranged for a 30-year lease on the Cold War-era dish (for a cool $3 million) and set up a project that will allow participants who contribute money to send a personalized message into space.

exoplanetsUltimately, they plan to direct two beams at Gliese 526: a continuous wave with fundamental physics laws and basic information about Earth, and another consisting of crowdsourced greetings. The project is open to anyone and a series of initial short message (the equivalent of a 144-character tweet) will be available free of charge. Subsequent messages, images, and longer greetings, however, will cost money (about $1 for four texts) that will help the project fund itself.

The project’s website also lets participants track their messages and share them via social media, dedicate messages to others, and view signal stats. In an interview with Universe Today, Lone Signal co-founder Pierre Fabre, told people:

Our scientific goals are to discover sentient beings outside of our solar system. But an important part of this project is to get people to look beyond themselves and their differences by thinking about what they would say to a different civilization. Lone Signal will allow people to do that.

Indeed. Nothing like the prospect of facing another life form, a potential space invader even, to make people forget about all their petty bickering!

Gliese_581_-_2010As our knowledge of the universe expands, we are becoming aware of the existence of more and more exoplanets. Many of these exist within the Habitable Zones of their parent star, which means two things. On the one hand, they may be candidates for potential settlement in the future. On the other, they may already be home to sentient life. If said life is sufficiently advanced, its entirely possible they could be looking back at us.

For some time, the human race has been contemplating First Contact with potential extra-terrestrial life, which was the very purpose behind the creation of NASA’s SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) program in 1961. The Pioneer space probes were another attempt at making contact, both of which carried small metal plaques identifying their time and place of origin for the benefit of any other spacefarers that might find them in the distant future.

SETIFollowing in that tradition, Voyager 1 and 2 space probes contained even more ambitious messages, otherwise known as the Golden Record. These phonograph records – two 12-inch gold-plated copper disks – contained both sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth that would give any civilization that found them a good idea of what the people of Earth were capable of.

The contents of the records were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, and consisted of 115 images and a variety of natural sounds – surf, wind, thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras, and spoken greetings from Earth-people in fifty-five languages, and printed messages from then-President Carter and U.N. Secretary General Waldheim.

golden_record_cover_smIn this respect, Lone Signal represents the latest step in promoting contact and communication with other life forms. And in keeping with the trend of modern space exploration, it is being opened to the public via crowdfunding and personalized messages. But unlike SETI, which lost its government funding in 1995 and had to turn to private supporters, crowdfunded space exploration is something directly accessible by all citizens, not just corporate financiers.

Update: The Lone Signal project is now operational and on 9:00 PM EDT Monday, June 17 at a press event in New York, the team announced the transmission of the first interstellar message. The message was sent by none other than Ray Kurzweil, noted Futurist and science guru. That message was then read during his welcome talk to the Singularity University class of 2013, from the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California:

Greetings to Gliese 526 from Singularity University. As you receive this, our computers have made us smarter, the better to understand you and the wisdom of the universe.

What he means by this is that by the time the message is recieved – roughly 18 years from now, assuming it ever is – humanity is likely to have taken the first steps towards merging our brains with computers via biotech, artificial intelligence, or other means of computer-assisted brain augmentation. At least, that’s what guys like Kurzweil hope for.

Other “alpha beamers” — including Dan Aykroyd, Alicia Keys, and Jason Silva — also sent beams Monday night. And for the time being, anyone can send a “crowdsourced” 144-character beam and pic. Better get on it before they start charging. If texting and phone rates are any indication, the price is likely to go up as the plan improves!

And be sure to enjoy this promotional video from Lone Signal:


And also check out this time-lapse video of the Jamesburg Earth Station in operation:

Sources: cnet.news.com, universetoday.com, voyager.jpl.nasa.gov, bmsis.org, kurzweil.net

NASA sees light from distant “Super Earth”

Big news coming in over the wire! Apparently, NASA scientists, using the Spitzer Space Telescope, have spotted light from a planet in a distant solar system. Back in 2004, in a solar system named 55 Cancri A, a planet that is twice the size of Earth and almost 8 times its mass, was first discovered. They named this planet 55 Cancri e, is 41 light years from our solar system, and is often referred to as a “Super Earth”.

Though NASA has known about the planet for some time, it’s only now that they’ve been able to detect infrared light coming from its surface. As part of NASA’s ongoing exploration efforts, Spitzer is part of a long term goal to find habitable planets in our universe, as well as extra-terrestrial life.

Unforuntately, 55 Cancri e is not one such planet. In addition to not being able to support life in its current state, terraforming it would also be useless. It’s mass and density means that it’s gravitational field is far stronger than anything we humans would find tolerable. But hey, maybe it’s got some friends that won’t crush us like bugs the second we set foot on them! And as they say, it’s a big universe. Always a chance we’ll find intelligent life somewhere else…

In the meantime, check out this video on 55 Cancri e from Space.com!

Super Earth Visible For First Time