Tag Archives: future

2013 LTUE panel notes

Shillara-02-400Introduction

In February 2013 I had the opportunity to talk on several panels at the Life, The Universe, and Everything Writers Symposium (LTUE) held in Provo, Utah. What follows are notes on what I talked about in those various panels.

The panels were:

o The Importance of Internal Consistency to Story Telling
o Xenobiology
o What Can You Do With Robots?
o Screenwriting and Scriptwriting
o Using History and Folklore to Enrich Your World
o The Engines of Exploration
o Space Travel without Warp Drive

Importance of Internal Consistency in Story Telling

Internal consistency in story telling is important, more important than is generally recognized. The evidence for this oversight is movies such as “Immortals” and “Prometheus” and “Skyfall”. All these movies were badly damaged by inconsistency.

There are three big advantages to paying attention to internal consistency. The first is that your readers/audience won’t be facepalming, giggling or headscratching as they get halfway through your story. They won’t be saying, “Eh? You’re saying what happened?”

The second is that internal consistency will lead your story into new and interesting twists. The ending will be “Neat!”, rather than “Been there, seen that.”

And finally, readers/viewers will like going back. If the story is consistent it’s readable over and over.

I’m going to use Prometheus as a bad example, and one of my own stories with a similar theme as a good example: “Where does the 500LB alien sleep?” (found here and in my book Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol.1) Both have the theme of encountering a planet with alien civilization on it that can potentially be hostile or harmful.

Here are just three inconsistency highlights from Prometheus:

o starship lands on the planet

o no satellite surveillance before or during landing

o “The air is breathable,” everyone takes off their helmets

These are straight out of cheesy 1950’s SF movies. We know better now. Ever since the Enterprise we have known that starships don’t land on planets, they send down shuttles. There is a lot of solid engineering behind this reality.

The crew gets surprised by a wind storm. Neat visual effects but… why did they get surprised? What bozos!

And speaking more of bozoism, I guess none of this crew ever read War of the Worlds. Taking off helmets! The other-than-dying-from-disease-problem with this is that nowadays environment suits such as these are the “outer me” — they have a lot of monitoring and communication built in. Pulling off the helmet disables about 80% of the suit capability. Whew! Once again, how Ed Woods!

And the cumulative effect of all this inconsistency is to destroy story credibility: It can’t be a good story because it’s so silly!

Now let’s look at a good example:

My goal in “500LB Alien” was to put a creature on the surface that was truly scary — something that could do serious damage to the crew, and humanity, if mistakes were made. I chose a “Thing”-style creature, one that could imitate. Brr! That style give me serious creeps!

That choice made, now the consistency elements come in, and the first big questions is:

o How did that creature get there?

OK… it evolved there. It’s native.

o Why did it evolve?

… In response to evolutionary pressure. Something was promoting it, and killing off more normal competitors.

o What?

… Hmm… Robots! Killer robots! These robots were killer robots gone wild. There had been a war, they had been set loose, they had gotten off program. They had killed off all the animal life on the surface, and been doing so for millions of years, long enough for the “critters” to evolve in response to them. The critters imitated robot technology, then infiltrated the robot infrastructure and screwed it up.

OK, now I had a consistent world for humans to approach. It was populated with robots and critters who were engaged in a now-neverending battle for survival.

Next, how are the humans going to approach this world?

This is where consistency leads to creativity. In this story the humans never do land on this planet. They research from space. In the story we see what the human probes see, and that becomes a mystery as the critters start taking over the human probes.

And to add drama when the humans decide to cut bait — this place is too dangerous — the robots give chase! Whoops!

o Why chase the humans?

…Um…Um… Because the robots are smart and they want human help! They know they are on the rocks and the humans, being star travelers, should have some advanced tech that can help them solve this mess!

And so, by being consistent, this story has taken some really neat turns and twists. This is an example of the benefit of being consistent.

Being consistent is especially important in mysteries because inconsistencies are clues.

Being consistent is like good journalism. Ask the “5 W’s and H” questions and come up with good answers.

Again, the benefit is a strong story and one that readers and viewers can come back to and enjoy over and over. Lord of the Rings is a wonderful example of enjoyable consistent writing, the movies after the first one, less so.

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Xenobiology

First, a definition: Wiki link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astrobiology

The search for alien life, xenobiology, has changed a lot over the last century. In science fiction it has changed from John Carter adventuring among the various colors of “men” on Mars to Curiosity and Opportunity exploring a currently dry, barren planet surface that may have had water billions of years ago and some kind of life.

The search for life on other worlds can be broken into two broad categories: searching for where can humans thrive (terraforming) and searching for what other life systems are out there (xenobiology).

At this stage it seems that carbon-based life occupies a distinct niche in the universe of life-making possibilities. It’s hugely prolific in terms of both amount and variety of materials involved and the complexity of what can be created with it. There don’t seem to be any systems that are “sort of like it, but not the same”, such as silicon-based life or life with chlorine gas as the oxidizer rather than oxygen.

There may be other, way more different, styles of making life such as some kind of life living in solar plasma, but if they exist these are so different they are hard to identify and would be even harder to communicate with. Solar plasma life, for instance, would likely have a lifespan of milliseconds rather than years because things move around so fast and energetically in plasma.

Given all of the above big issues, where are we likely to find life we can identify?

Searching for life means searching for anomalous relations in energy flow. Example: Oxygen gas is highly reactive. It’s not going to exist for long in any environment that has large quantifies of reducing agents available, such as carbon, hydrogen or metals. The fact that Earth’s atmosphere has a lot of native oxygen in it is a sign that something is “pushing” the atmosphere and surface chemistry of Earth into an odd state, and has been doing that pushing a long time. That pushing is life. If we see other environments where the flow of entropy is being locally reversed in a dynamic way, as Earth’s atmosphere is, that’s a place to be looking for life. However, entropy and free energy flows are not quick and easy to measure, so this kind of research takes time.

And most life is not likely to be a prolific as Earth’s life is. The more likely version will resemble life around thermal vents deep in the oceans. It will be sparse and simple, which will make it hard to locate.

In sum, the search for xenobiology is not going to be an easy one.

For more information check out my two essays Special life-creating things about the Earth and Another Miracle of Life on Earth: Its Magnitude. Both of these are also in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book.

 

What Can You Do With Robots?

Robots are a wonderful example of what I call “The Birds and Boeings” phenomenon: There is a vision which inspires inventors, but what they produce comes out very differently from the inspiring vision. In the case of flying the inspiration was birds, and jet planes are the product of that vision. Jet planes and birds fly, but that’s about all they have in common. We still haven’t seen airplanes for humans that will let us routinely land in trees or even on front lawns.

Robots are having a similar trajectory in their development. The inspiring vision for robots was the robot butler — robot personal assistant. An early famous example of this was Robbie the Robot in Forbidden Planet who later became “robot” in “Lost in Space” famous for saying, “Danger! Will Robinson”. The first widespread implementation of real-world robots was as painting machines in auto assembly plants. They and Robbie both had computer brains, but little else in common. As with human-carrying planes that can land on front lawns, the robot butler is still a long way from reality.

So the question of what robots can do must be amended to what can robots do effectively? That’s a lot, but far from everything. They can explore Mars, they can answer phones, they can clean floors. In the near future they will drive cars.

In the near future they are likely to shoulder most of the burden in manufacturing and service jobs. When that happens the question then becomes “What can humans do?” The answer to that is, “Things that depend on human instinctive thinking, and top of that list is entertainment.” This question of human-robot relations in fifty years is a question I’m devoting a lot of thinking to these days. Here are some speculations.

 

Screenwriting and Scriptwriting

Movie script writing is a form of story telling, but it is different from prose story telling. It is different in many ways. The first is that the layout on the page is both standardized and distinctly different from prose. Another is that what is talked about and how it is talked about are different: movies have hard limits on their length, and they are much more “show me, don’t tell me” than prose is.

The best way to deal with the first issue — proper formatting — is to get a script writing software package and master it. There are several available, some costly, some free.

And here’s a related tip from this grizzled computer veteran: whichever ones you work with, save your final results in both the native format and some widely read second format such as Word or Adobe PDF. Do this because companies change and with them their support for proprietary formats — if your Scriptwriting company closes its doors, or even just moves on, your native format files could become unreadable.

Beyond that, read scripts. Pay attention to how things are described. Oh, and expect that your prose writing will change as you become more sensitive to the issues of screenwriting. If you look at the Harry Potter series you’ll see that about book five J. K. Rowling changes her style to get more visually oriented — she’s been reading the scripts of her books and it’s spilling over.

 

Using History and Folklore to Enrich Your World

History and folklore are invaluable in story building because human thinking is relatively unchanging — a good story can be a good story for generations and the history of exciting events is told for thousands of years. This means that incorporating parts of a good story or well-known history into your work will be comfortable for readers. It helps build familiarity.

You can use elements of an existing good story, or come up with your own. An example of using an existing good story shows up in a couple of my stories: I have the protagonist meet Aladdin and his genie. (here’s one) The reader is familiar with the Aladdin story, so I don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining him. I introduce him, then get the story moving along. (I spend a little time explaining him because I modify him for my stories. I give him different motivations.)

A wonderful example of creating background pretty much from whole-cloth is the Lord of the Rings series. Tolkien does a wonderful job of building back story — so wonderful that I love the appendices of Book Three as much as I love all the other parts. The big benefit of his background story building is that it builds the internal consistency of the main story, and internal consistency is one of the big reasons I read it again and again. It makes it great.

So, yes, use folklore in your stories. Don’t plagiarize, but do incorporate. Doing so will help make your story familiar and comfortable to readers and you can get it moving along faster. (An example of lots of incorporation is my Technofantasy book Rostov Rising.)

 

The Engines of Exploration

People explore strange new worlds for two reasons: for the fun of it and to make money. It is the latter people who fuel lots of exploration. If your world is going to have commerce — lots of people moving in lots of craft — there has to be lots of money being made.

After some people have become rich beyond imagination, then the people with causes can join in on the parade because the parade will be a big one.

An example of this difference is the difference in what happened after Eric the Red found North America and Columbus found it. Eric came back and his people said, “That’s nice…” and did little. History nearly forgot him. When Columbus came back, millions of people and dollars started moving across the Atlantic — that’s why we celebrate Columbus Day, not Eric the Red Day.

In contemporary times Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren are facing this same fading issue. With no humming-and-buzzing Lunar or Martian colonies following them, they are becoming, “That’s nice…”

Over time, commerce gets more mundane. These days, there is solid profit in moving stuff around the world, but not amazing profit. In your world building you need to decide which era your commerce is in: just being developed, or now taken for granted.

I’ve written a lot more on this topic here and in my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. Take a look at the book.

 

Space Travel without Warp Drive

Writing stories with only slower-than-lightspeed travel (STL) presents a big challenge, but it can be done and the results are very rewarding because they will take you out of the standard Space Opera story-making format. You will get interesting and surprising results.

Rocketry revolutionized space travel. Before its feasibility was recognized SF writers were launching people into space with cannon, and saying nothing about how they would stop when they arrived — H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds is an example.

Rocketry was the game changer that opened up Golden Age science fiction of the 1940’s. Ahh… but then came the harsh reality of the 1960’s. Because chemical-based fuel is so heavy and nuclear proscribed as too dangerous to mess with, real rocketry became the boost-and-coast variety — which is soooo slow! It’s good for getting probes around the solar system and people to the Moon, and that’s about it.

In response to this harsh reality writers either abandoned space stories or turned to warp drive in its many incarnations to get around that long journey problem. Nice, but not a hope of being real. And it introduces a story-telling consistency problem: If everywhere can be gotten to quickly, everywhere becomes a suburb of LA. Over time, why should there be any differences between LA and Zeeopolis on Planet X orbiting Alpha Centauri? “Want a DVD of Avatar on Zeeopolis? No problem, I’ll warp drive it.”

An alternative I researched that has a possibility of becoming real is constant acceleration propulsion — the engine keeps pushing throughout the journey. This makes the journey a lot faster than boost-and-coast — traveling around the solar system drops from years to days or weeks, and nearby stars can be reached in years, not millennia. We don’t have it yet because fuel is such a big problem, but it’s physically possible…

I then took up the challenge of writing an interesting space exploration story with constant acceleration propulsion at its heart. I drew a lot from the history of the sailing ship breakthrough that let Europeans sail to the Far East — a years-long but hugely profitable journey. The result is The Honeycomb Comet, and it’s an interesting result. It’s not your daddy’s space opera story! I have also written at length about constant acceleration space travel in my Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing book. If you’re interested in exploring constant acceleration stories, start with these two.

Conclusion

The LTUE panels covered a rich trove of writing topics. I was delighted to have the opportunity to participate. I hope these notes prove equally inspirational to you. And, if you like what you are reading here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.

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The Robert J.R. Graham Interview (Roger answers)

Robert J.R. Graham is the author of Seventh Journey and we have traded questions for our blogs.RobertColor21

Here are the questions Robert gave me:

  • Can you describe “Technofiction” and how it has influenced your writing?

Science fiction introduced me to the wonder of reading. This was back in the early sixties when I was in middle school. For years I was an avid fan. But in the seventies I noticed that I was reading lots of new stories that sounded awful familiar: by then I’d read a whole bunch about “This means the end of the universe!” Worse for me, the person saying that didn’t mean the end of the universe, they meant an end to life on a planet, or just human life on a planet. As my science understanding grew that kind of difference began bugging me more and more. In the eighties I started to do something about it: I started writing my own science fiction stories.2012-roger-06-400
At first I wrote for me and my web site, White World, which I started at the dawn of the Internet in 1994. In the 2000’s I started trying to reach a wider audience. That’s when I noticed that what I was writing was “different” from mainstream sci-fi, and as a result a lot of readers where saying, “Huh?” when I told them about my stories. It became clear that I needed some branding. So I came up with calling my writing Technofiction, and here’s what Technofiction is all about.
Technofiction is about stories with good science and technology as well as good characters. The science and technology doesn’t have to be real, in the sense of matching the reality we live in, but it has to be internally consistent within the story. It has to be well thought out, which means uncovering surprises uses as well as conventional ones. An example of inconsistency is moralizing on human social issues by showing aliens experiencing the abuses. These beings are aliens, for goodness sake, not discriminated-against humans!  For lots of specific examples, see my Technofiction Reviews on White World.

 

  • What inspires your writing?

During the eighties and nineties I worked in high technology marketing. An engineer would come up with a neat idea, such as a form of personal computer, and my job was to help people – the engineer and customers – figure out what this neat idea was good for in the real world. Personal computers turned out to be real good for word processing. That was expected. What was surprising was how good they were for spreadsheets (like Excel) and game playing. Those applications were what set the personal computer market on fire, but they weren’t the applications that were first thought of.
I write about this kind of surprise happening.63361-Tips-V1-100
The result is that Technofiction stories wander into unusual territory and the characters have unusual relations and backgrounds. An example: Earth sends of an intelligent war starship to battle aliens in another star system that had treacherously attacked Earth. But… this warship is intelligent. It thinks, a lot, because the journey takes years, and it decides that war isn’t the right solution to this problem. But the Earth designers had planned for this possibility. They… I’ll let you read the story “Intelitan the Destructor” in “Tips for Tailoring Spacetime Fabric Vol. 1” This is an example of unusual characters in a story that unfolds in an unusual way.

 

  • How many books have you written, and how many more are planned?

I have eleven out now. Some are science fiction, two are what I call Science and Insight, one is a business history, one is romance, and the first I wrote was a how-to book on word processing. Here is a list.
The science and insight books are the preludes to the science fiction books. I work up some interesting science implications and then mix in some characters and story line and I have a Technofiction book.
The next in line is another book set in the Child Champs environment – our future world fifty to one hundred years from now when the genetics, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence revolutions are in full swing. Child Champs told one story in that setting, but there are a few more to tell about that wondrous time to come.ChildChamps

 

  • You have some very interesting ideas about evolution and human thinking.  What is the “Human Thinking Stack” and what can we do about it?

What can we do about the Human Thinking Stack? We can live with it. <grin>
The Human Thinking Stack is simply a way of modeling human thinking. Its goal is to provide better understanding of how humans think, and through that better predictive value. Just to be clear, the thinking stack is insight, not science.
The predictions that come out of it are impressive. I write about those many times a month in my Cyreenik Says blog. One of the most vivid is Panic and Blunder Thinking. This is when a person, or a community, gets really scared, and while they are so scared, do something really expensive, but think they are doing the right thing. (expensive as in: costs a whole lot but doesn’t help solve the problem one wit.)
The Thinking Stack is just one part of my insights on how evolution has shaped human thinking. I have two books out about that “Evolution and Thought” (the short version) and “How Evolution Explains the Human Condition” (the long version). Why_We_See_Beauty_2012_03.04.12
The basic premise of these books, and my insights, is that humans are evolved. This means that we are a high performance fit for living on Earth. (everything alive today is) Our thinking is also evolved and just as high performance. But… evolution takes time so it’s high performance for living in Stone Age conditions, not civilized conditions.

 

  • Blindspots are a double edged sword.  We don’t know about them, they hurt us, and even if we find one, we beat ourselves up over it.  What strategy have you come up with to deal with blind spots in your work?

First let’s define blindspots. Blindspots are axioms in our thinking. They are givens that we don’t think to question. Many serve us well, but not all. Those that work well save us a lot of time and thinking in our day-to-day lives. Those that work well in a reality different from that which we experience are expensive to maintain. (An example of two different realities on earth are living in the tropics and living in the arctic. Move from one to the other and some of your thinking will now contain blind spots.)
How to spot a blindspot? Be a careful observer. Look at what is going on around you. Look for “self-evident truths” that really aren’t true and because they aren’t true people are wasting a lot of time and resource. Harsh reality will point out blindspots when you pay attention. I cover this in detail in “How Evolution Explains the Human Condition”.

 

  • In your book “Evolution And Thought” you compare a scam artist to our perceptions of marriage, calling it the Human Condition.  How do we get ourselves into all this trouble? White_Book_Covers2

As I mentioned earlier, our thinking is well matched to living in the Stone Age, something I call the Neolithic Village environment. That’s because humans have lived in that environment for ten thousand generations. That’s long enough for genes to adapt well. We have lived in the Agricultural Age environment for five hundred generations. We have started adapting to that, it’s started to change our thinking, but the process is far from complete. The Industrial Age and Information Age environments are essentially brand new.
This means we civilized folk have to use a lot more learned thinking along with our instinctive thinking. But the instinctive thinking is still fast, easy, comfortable, and really, really wants to be used, so it sneaks in where it can.
Con artistry is the dark side of this phenomenon. The con artist strokes the victim’s instinctive thinking. Marriage is the good side, marriage, in all its various forms, helps produce stable communities that raise lots of healthy kids.

 

  • You mention that beauty aids us in our evolution, can you elaborate?

Beauty is thinking that has practical value in the Neolithic Village environment. It’s a signal to cooperate – to help out. When we see something beautiful our instinct is to help it out.
Originally this signaling was designed to help children and young mothers who were just learning the ropes of motherhood and could use all the support they could get.
But, as with many things evolution creates, other uses were found for this style of thinking and added to the basic purpose. And like any powerful tool, it has surprises uses, such as supporting fashion. I cover beauty in both of my Science and Insight books on evolution.

 

Thanks for the questions, Robert, it’s been fun answering these.

 

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The Challenge

In Child Champs I took on the challenge of writing an interesting story about living one hundred years from now. This was a big challenge because I see humanity as “winning” — this will not be some sort of post-apocalypse world. It will be a rich world, and rich worlds are complex, which makes them a lot harder to write about than the “life is cheap, barbarians are everywhere” story background which has been much more common for stories about the future for decades. When I was growing up it was post-nuclear war apocalypse, now it’s a post-climate change or post-resource exhaustion apocalypse. Child Champs is much more in the style of Fred Pohl in the Heechee series and Isaac Asimov in the Foundation and I Robot series. These, too, are rich world scenarios.

The foundation premises in Child Champs are:

o that human population will peak in the 2050’s then decline slowly. This will happen because humanity will become 90% urban, and prosperous city folk don’t have as many kids as poor country folk.

o that productivity — efficiency in making and using stuff — is going to continue its steady increase. This is important because it means we won’t run out of resources. In our future, as is true now, efficiency and effectiveness are the ultimate “green” — they do a lot more to save our planet than windmills and recycling bins.

o that our lives will have a lot more computer, nanotechnology and bioengineering mixed in — there’s not only an app for that, there’s a gene and a nanodevice as well.

In sum, this is a rich world, a very rich world, and a very probable one.

Then I put my thinking cap on: Given these premises as a starting point, what’s living in this world going to be like? What are humans going to be doing?

As I say as part of my Technofiction introduction on White World, “Technology is the variable. Human thinking is the constant.” The humans inhabiting this rich world are going to be thinking very much like people do today. They are going to have hopes and fears, they are going to have ambitions and frustrations, they are going to take much in their world for granted. (“Driverless cars… Of course, why do you ask about those?”) But the tools available for expressing those very human emotions are going to be different, so the people of that future world will act differently and think about different things.

One thing that will remain near and dear to the heart, and be considered very important, will be having and raising children. That’s why I picked it as theme for this story.

 

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