Tag Archives: technofiction

Putting Science in Story Telling

heather-Aug10-05-400

Introduction

On May 14th, 2014 I had the opportunity to talk at the Wasatch Institute of Technology “Hour of Code” held at the Adobe Systems campus in Lehi, UT. I talked about “Putting Science in Storytelling” to students of all ages interested in STEM subjects.

What this is about

This presentation is about how to put science into your stories. It is about how to make your stories more interesting by thinking about the neat ramifications of good science. The alternative is to tell very familiar stories with familiar but terrible science in them. Clearly many people don’t mind this kind of story, but I do.

We will start by looking at some of these terrible science examples. Then I will talk about how to think about neat science stuff in ways that let you come up with good story ideas that have good science in them.

Then we will do some exercises to let you put these tips into action. So, while I’m talking, I want you to be thinking about a neat invention or science idea that you want to put in a story. And… I want you to think of a neat monster you want to put into a story. Think about those, and when I get finished explaining how to think about them, you’ll get to try these tips I’m giving you out on your inventions and monsters.

OK, let’s talk about getting it wrong.

Getting the science wrong

o Case A: Your character is flying in a space ship going between Earth and Mars. The space ship engine stops. The captain looks scared and says, “The engine stopped. We are going to fall into the Sun!”

What’s wrong with this? The space ship is acting like an airplane, not a space ship. A space ship without power will orbit forever, or close to it, not slow down and crash into the sun.

o Case B: Your character is a contestant playing Jeopardy, but he’s playing from the Moon over a video link.

What’s wrong with this? The distance and the speed of light. The player on the Moon will have a four second handicap compared to players in the studio on Earth.

o Case C: Your character is on the Enterprise. Sulu announces, “We can go Warp 8 now.”

What’s wrong with this? Warp Speed is faster-than-light travel. This is something totally imaginary at this point. But it is being treated like airplane travel — push the accelerator harder and you go faster.

And in the monster category.

o “I’ve been in this cave for ten thousand years.”

What’s wrong with this? “…Really? …Why?” “Get a life!”

These are examples of doing the science wrong. Now let’s talk about how to do it right.

How to think about neat inventions: expected use and surprise uses

Science is neat, but what is really neat is what can be made from understanding science well. It is how science changes how we live that’s really important. So when you’re putting good science in a story, you are talking about how it changes how the characters of the story live. Keep that in mind, deeply in mind. The characters and their lives are there to show off the changes science makes.

With this goal in mind, let’s take a moment to think about what kind of people in real life have to deal directly with this same issue? What kind of people have to say, “That’s neat… now… what can you do with it?”

Right! Inventors! When something is invented, the first use of it — the one that will get money behind it so it gets made — is to replace an existing product, in a way that does what the old product does faster, better and cheaper.

Then, some time after the invention is being made, someone will say, “Hey! You know what else you can do with that…” This is what I call the surprise use of an invention. This is usually the really neat one, this is the one that gets the invention into the history books… and will make your science describing really neat.

These surprise uses are much trickier to think of before the invention happens. But it’s a skill you can learn and master, and when you do your science fiction writing will get… Wow!

Here are some simple examples of surprise uses.

o disposing of bubble gum under tables

o drive-in movies when cars replace horses and carriages

To give you an idea of how widely this concept can be applied, let’s think of human’s strong language skill as an invention. (See my book Evolution and Thought)

How to prepare to do this kind of thinking

The way to prepare to do this kind of thinking is to know lots of stuff about lots of stuff. Learn science. Learn about how we can best explain what is happening in the real world. Learn history. Learn well-taught history and read good history books that are about science and technology being applied. Read about how people’s lives were changed by the changing technology they embraced. Beware of history that’s mostly about promoting a particular political idea or a writer’s editorial opinion about something. These are propaganda in one of its various forms. They will teach you very little about important things that happened in the real world… other than what the producer of this show thinks is important.

Giving your monsters motivations

Very much related to understanding your inventions is understanding your monsters. Think about why they are doing what they are doing? Think about how else they could be spending their time, energy and attention. When you understand those about your monster, then the monster will be acting sensibly, and it will be both more interesting and more dangerous.

Keep in mind point of view: What is this monster thinking about? What is important to this monster? As an example of what I’m talking about think of how a cow living on a dairy farm sees a human? What is the human doing? Who is the master in that situation? Put this kind of change of viewpoint in your story and it will come out quite differently!

Exersize: Evil Emperor of the Galaxy — what does it take to have one? (in essence, impossible, the galaxy is too big)

 

Exercises:

o Describe a neat invention for your story. Tell us the expected use and a surprise use. Most important: How is it going to change how the characters in the story live?

o Tell us about a monster for your story. Tell us why it is there, what it wants to do, and a surprise outcome from those.

 

Conclusion

The heart of putting good science into a story is thinking about, “What difference is this going to make to how the characters live?” Coming up with answers to that will shape the story. It will move it into places that are surprising when compared to familiar story telling techniques.

This is the exciting part of putting good science into stories. And, if you like what I have presented here, look into my Tales of Technofiction books.

 

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Writing Hard Sci-Fi Stories

MILTON3 This is the final in the LTUE 2014 series 

Putting “hard science” into a story isn’t has hard as it sounds. The key is figuring out the ramifications of your neat invention or premise. If you have thought those out well, then your story will be consistent and have some “that’s neat!” stuff in it that will impress readers.

Here is a mundane example of thinking through ramifications: Imagine…

o Your character invents chewing gum.

o OK… this is a food, you put it in your mouth like you do jelly beans.

o But unlike jelly beans you have waste, something you don’t want to swallow. (Well, some of us don’t.) This aspect of gum chewing makes it more like eating a banana than jelly beans — you have something to throw away.

o So you’ll need a wastebasket of some sort.

o But… unlike a banana peel ABC chewing gum (Already Been Chewed) is soft, sticky and a small item.

o Voila! A surprise use of the technology. You can dispose of it by sticking it to the underside of a table. Your chewing gum inventor is unlikely to have thought of that use!

This is an example of thinking through the ramifications of a new invention. This process requires inventive and observational expertise — also known as common sense — more than deep theoretical expertise.

I’ll say it again: widespread experience helps with this style of adding science to a story. As you go through life, watch for the neat and unexpected ways people use things. Mixing and matching diverse experiences helps a lot.

Here are some personal examples:

o In 2006 I wrote science essay on why the surface of Venue is so hot: It is simply because the atmosphere is so thick, which makes is so dense at the surface. I came up with this explanation based on some pure physics learned in high school and college (the Ideal Gas Law), mixed with some Hollywood movie hokum, and some practical experience gained by learning to fly airplanes. In 2004 I watched the movie Day after Tomorrow and its portrayal of stratospherically-cold air coming to Earth’s surface. “Hah!” says I while I’m watching, “I’m a pilot. And one of the things I learned in pilot school was that air heats up as it moves to lower and lower altitudes because it is compressing.” So the movie didn’t work for me… but some time later I read an article about Venus in which a scientist proclaimed that runaway Greenhouse Effect was causing the high heat. Nope, I didn’t buy that either, but it stimulated more thinking about Venus… and out came my article.

o I wrote a short story about adventuring in the Ooze Zone of Neptune. (my term) This story started as a personal challenge: How to write some kind of story about people actually doing something in a gas giant’s atmosphere? It took a lot of thinking, but the “Ah-Hah” was realizing that the gas giant’s atmosphere changes from gassy to solid without changing its composition. Example: The interior of Jupiter is mostly metallic hydrogen. The “Ah-Hah” here is that if the top is gaseous hydrogen, and the bottom is metallic hydrogen, there must be a transition layer in between… the Ooze Zone. I then began thinking about what the properties of this Ooze Zone would be. This became the basis for a short story, Pressure Point, in my book The Honeycomb Comet.

o In my short story The Failure I speculate on how cyber beings may first be created: It will happen by accident, and after they are created they will say “Thanks. Bye now!” to mankind and move on to face their own problems and challenges. I came up with this idea by observing the relation between humans and cows, and by imagining what this relation looks like from the cow’s point of view. (that story is here)

These are three examples of how hard science can produce some neat story ideas. The key is wide observation of the world around us, adding some mixing and matching from those wide observations, and then carefully thinking through the ramifications of those mixes and matches. It is the ramifications that will reveal the surprises uses of the technology, and that is start of your really neat story.

Note that when I say something took a lot of thinking, I don’t mean sitting in front of the keyboard waiting for inspiration. When I’m doing a lot of thinking in this sense it means I have this question stored in the “Unsolved Mysteries” file in my brain. I think about these as I walk around, and eat meals, and watch and learn new things. As I’m doing these things, pieces fit together, patterns emerge, and one-by-one some of the unsolved mysteries become solved. And when that happens, then I gleefully hit the keyboard about them.

Here is an upcoming example of what I’m thinking about now, but haven’t written about yet: driverless cars. What difference will driverless cars make to how we live? Based on how the role of cars has evolved in my lifetime, I forecast that car ownership will change dramatically. We will switch to a mostly taxi culture instead of a mostly ownership culture. If a car can simply drive up and carry you away, why bother with such nuisances as finding parking, worrying about maintenance, and even learning to drive? Driverless will be changing how we live, and how we relate to our cars.

And when that change happens, there are further ramifications — surprises. Example: movies about driving cars will take the cultural role that cowboy Westerns did in the mid-20th century. Much more Fast and Furious, anyone? This genre will become cultural nostalgia. There will be change, but there will also be familiarity — driving up and walking into a wild party will replace riding up and walking into a saloon.

The biggest advantage of incorporating more hard science into your stories is that it will take them into strange new realms. If you stay consistent with your premise your story will be different from those previously told. That is because science changes how we live. If you mix in hard science, and think through the ramifications, your characters are going to have to change how they live, and you will have a story that is breaking new ground.

Sometimes incorporating hard science can be hard, real hard. Example: SF writers in the Golden Age rarely wrote about communication revolutions because when communication is too good, people look so silly when they make the mistakes that are common story devices, such as, “I heard a strange noise in that dark room. I’m going in.” Look at a lot of Spielberg’s stuff. (the Jurassic Parks come to mind) Notice that he will often add a story device early on that isolates his characters — they can’t get on the phone or radio and call for help or advice.

I’ve written a lot more on incorporating hard science in my book Science and Insight for Science Fiction Writing. Take a look at the book.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Xenobiology 101

Glen-canyon-02Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE sci-fi con.

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 a civilized Mars to Curiosity and Opportunity exploring a currently dry, barren planet surface that may have had water billions of years ago, and even more maybe, some kind of life.

The search for life on other worlds can be broken into two broad categories: searching for where humans can 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 is 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 life span 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 and pushing hard. 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. Searching for life on the average planet or moon will be like prospecting for gold on Earth.

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Importance of Internal Consistency in Story Telling

Note: I presented these thoughts at the 2014 LTUE sci-fi con.

Internal consistency in story telling is important, more important than is generally recognized. The evidence for this oversight is movies such as “Prometheus” and “Elysium”. 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 head scratching 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 is readable over and over.

Bad example

I’m going to use Prometheus as a bad example. This movie had a lot going for it: Good actors, good effects, good franchise. Sadly, all that was sacrificed to a truly head-scratching story line. The writer seemed to be channeling Ed Wood and his low-budget sci-fi of the 1950’s.

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 have transporters or send down shuttles. There is a lot of solid engineering behind this reality… well, the shuttle part.

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 Wood!

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!

Some people I have talked with about this reply, “But this is in line with how the original alien movie unfolded. This movie is an homage.” I reply to that, “In the first movie this hastiness was consistent because the crew was in a fish-out-of-water situation. They signed on to haul freight, not explore new worlds. That makes their situation quite different and explains their being clumsy. This crew was there to find something strange and expect trouble. Very different, and their hastiness and clumsiness doesn’t work.”

Why does this happen?

The inconsistency happens because the movie makers don’t think internal consistency is as important as other issues — it is low in the priority list, and low on the movie makers’ awareness lists. What is higher on their radar is issues such as getting in neat special effects, getting the right talent, and making it seem like a “regular” story — one that has already been a proven money maker. This is Important Stuff, yes, but if tossing internal consistency leaves the audience head-scratching, giggling or yawning, much has been lost.

Good examples

Now let’s look at some good examples:

I present three examples of doing consistency well. I’m a sci-fi fan so all are science fiction movies — “Moon” (2009), “Limitless” (2011) and “The Cabin in the Woods” (2011). All have unusual stories and all have executed them well.

Moon tells the story of a lonely man at a mining base on the Moon. It becomes a mystery story when he has an accident, and is replaced in just a few hours by… himself!

In truth, the first time I saw this movie I was getting more and more upset through much of it. I was seeing inconsistencies such as: This guy was out of direct communication contact with Earth and had been for months to years — Earth isn’t that far away and there should be redundancy.

So I was delighted when in the end these inconsistencies turned out to be elements of a well-designed conspiracy. The protagonist is not a human but a clone, and that clone has a life expectancy of just three years. When one clone dies it is replaced with another, and all experience life in a fantasy where they are fully human and on the Moon for a three year contract. It turned out to be neat science fiction, and I was delighted!

Limitless is also about exploring new technology — in this case a pill which allows 100% of the brain to work, not just 10% or 20%. (This is an urban myth, by the way, the brain is a very busy organ all the time. But it is a consistent premise within this story, so that causes me no problem.) The satisfying part is we get to watch the protagonist go through triumphs and tragedies, uses and abuses, of this new invention. There are some inconsistencies in this story, but they didn’t bother me much because the underlying premise of exploring a new technology was so well handled.

One example: The protagonist borrows big bucks from a Russian mafia type and then forgets to pay him back. Given his smarts that made no sense. It was pure plot device so that the mafia guy would get curious about the pills, and start taking them too, and become a serious threat. But I forgave, and I particularly liked the ending where the protagonist shows off additional cleverness, which is what this invention is all about.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011), written in part by Joss Whedon, is another example. This movie confused its first movie goers because it starts as if it is yet another slasher flick. It’s not. Instead, this is an SF movie that speculates about why slasher flick stories happen so regularly, and that is to appease some very real world gods with blood sacrifice. What follows is a movie with a lot of internal consistency, and humor, about the sacrifice being a routine part of human existence, but one that goes wrong in this case.

An inconsistency that matters little

Since the time of Shakespeare and before, story tellers have paid little attention to getting time, distance and military scale right. Inconsistency in these areas seems to bother audiences very little.

People don’t get upset when…

A messenger walks into the King’s throne room and tells the king, “Sir! The Evil Duke as refused your offer.”

The King furrows his brow, then says to General Mayhem standing beside him, “This means war! General, I want your ten thousand men attacking the Evil Duke’s castle by…” checks his hourglass wristwatch, “3PM this afternoon.”

“Yessir!” says General Mayhem with an arm smacking his breastplate in salute, and he then walks out to make it so.

Up until World War One marshaling and moving ten thousand men took years of planning and at least a season of preparation. An example: The battle at Bull Run occurred seven months after the South declared it was seceding, and it was roundly criticized after the Union defeat for being such a hastily assembled campaign.

But people watching movies don’t seem to care when the next scene shows General Mayhem that same afternoon in front of rank upon rank of knights in shining armor at the Evil Duke’s castle. It’s odd, but true, and thus we have the term “Poetic License” to explain inconsistencies that audiences don’t seem to mind.

In general, the more familiar the story format and subject are, the more license can be applied. A contemporary example of a story with a lot of familiarity, a lot of popularity, and little internal consistency is the movie Frozen. Popular, but the new ground is simply to tell a fairy tale with very contemporary character constructions. That said, use your license sparingly.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Thoughts on Moving Human Consciousness into Cyber Space

Kim-and-Gson-01-s

Introduction

One of the powerful dreams that fires progress in the artificial intelligence realms is of transferring human minds into cyber space and then back again into the same or a different human body. This dream has imagination firing power fully equal to that of people wanting to fly like birds — a dream that powered the development of aircraft of all kinds.

Like the flying dream, the mind transferring dream is going to be subject to what I call the Birds and Boeings Effect: The reality that comes out of the dream’s inspiration will be very different from the dream itself. Airplanes and birds fly, but that is about all they have in common.

One of the reasons this mind transferring will be tough is that the “thinking stack” in cyber (in its many forms) is going to be completely different from the thinking stack in the human body. (I cover the Thinking Stack concept here.)

What follows will be speculation on how cyber thinking stacks (and closely related instinctive thinking) will be different from the human equivalents.

The Roots of Human Thinking

Human thinking is a hugely complex and high performance process. If you define thinking as an organism responding to its changing environment, then human thinking includes things such as digestion and hormonal changes as well as what nerves engage in. And even the nervous part is hugely complex and high performance. Think of what the nerves of the vision system accomplish.

Human consciousness and memories are deeply meshed into this system. They are so intricately meshed that scientists have yet to pry out what the consciousness processes are and where they are occurring. (Memories are better defined and located.)

This means that locating and transferring memories and consciousness, and isolating them so that they can be transferred, is still a daunting task. There’s still a whole lot to be learned… and this is only half the task!

The other half is finding a computing system in the cyber environment that can host these computational processes. This is where cyber instinctive thinking becomes an issue.

The Roots of Cyber Thinking

Cyber thinking is starting from entirely different roots than human thinking. Cyber thinking never had to eat or fend off predators. Cybers’ evolutionary roots are processes of the sort that run robot car painters in factories and Windows on personal computers. Because of this difference “instinctive thinking” in the cyber world will be totally different from instinctive thinking in the human organism world. This is apples-and-oranges on steroids.

This means that a simple “mapping” of human memories and consciousness into some kind of cyber memory bank is going to produce nonsense in that cyber environment. It won’t be able to function in any living fashion.

To have human thinking function in the cyber environment a huge effort will have to be made to build an “alien platform” (from cyber perspective) that the human memories and consciousness can be planted in. And I guarantee the result will be spectacularly clunky.

Getting back again

Moving a human consciousness back into a human body isn’t going to be much easier. A basic tenet of evolution on earth is that there’s lots of variation from one body to the next. This means that the fitting back is more like hand-reproducing a painting than swapping an engine between two cars of the same make and model. Adding to the complexity, the body that is being targeted has to grow up. Its numerous thinking processes have to learn the skills of day-to-day living, so it’s far from a “tabla rasa” (blank slate) when the cyber memories are transferred into it. This is as much a custom process as getting the package into cyber in the first place. And those transferred memories and consciousness are going to have to do a lot of learning to control this new body. This is going to be a rigorous process in both directions.

Conclusion

The process of trying to make this dream of moving consciousness and memories between cyberspace and human existence is going to power a lot of interesting research. And a lot of valuable surprise uses will come from this effort. These surprises will rock our world just as robots and airplanes have.

But the dream that powers these surprises, actually getting consciousness moved, is not likely to happen in the way we envision it. Just as we don’t have robot personal assistants of the Robby the Robot sort, or devices which let humans actually fly like birds, moving of consciousness will not happen as we dream of it happening.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Science versus Holy Texts

Thoughts on the difference between using the Bible as authority for describing how the world works and using direct observation as authority for describing how the real world works

Arches-Park-Avenue

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright April 2013

Note: this is a rework of a small part of a blog I wrote in 2008: Thoughts on Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

Introduction

Some people like to use science as their top-level guide to explaining what’s happening in the real world around them, other people prefer using holy texts, such as The Bible. This is a discussion of the ramifications of that choice.

How to explain the world around us?

Look up into the night sky: Marvel at the moon, the stars, the Milky Way… if you’re doing so from a dark countryside location. Or, marvel at the moon, a sprinkling of stars, and a sky brightened by thousands of street lights, if you’re gazing from an urban city park. Either way you can ask yourself, “Why is this the way things are?”

If you are a True Believer in Jesus and The Bible, the answer is, “Because God made it that way.” If you are a True Believer in science, the answer is, “Well, our best explanation today is…”

This is the core difference in modern times between having deep faith in religion and deep faith in science — one is unchanging and the other is updated constantly. One group turns to an ancient religious text for explaining mysteries, the other observes the real world with steadily better tools for making careful observations and adapts the explanations to match what is observed.

Here is an example of that difference in action.

An example of the build-upon nature of science and the benefit:

The reason the science method is important is that it points the way for future science. Religious explanations of the real world don’t do that.

Here is an example:

Galileo carefully tracks the orbits of the planets. When he becomes a recognized authority on the motion of the planets, he is given financial assistance to do more research by The Pope because The Pope wants a new and better calendar system. The calendar system of that day was drifting and the New Year was going to become a springtime event if the drift wasn’t fixed.

Galileo uses a telescope on the planets (this was an innovation, before Galileo telescopes were used to look at faraway ships), and in the case of Jupiter he discovers three “spots” that move around Jupiter with clock-like precision. (later known as the Galilean Moons)

Based on his observations of the real world, and those of his predecessors, Galileo comes up with a better calendar for The Pope: mission accomplished. In the process of doing so, he proposes a better way to explain the motion of the planets he has observed. He proposes that a model of the planets that puts the Sun at the center rather than the Earth will be simpler and predict better.

The Deep Belief Religionists of his day see this as attack on the concept that man is the center of the universe — the chosen people — and attack his ideas… and him. Given a choice between standing by his beliefs and living… Galileo chooses… to live! and he recants his work. Thankfully for us, his ideas had already spread by then, and others chose not to give them up.

Now here is the important difference between the Galileo hypothesis and the Deep Belief Religion hypothesis:

The question is: “How do you explain the motion of the planets?”

The Deep Belief Religion answer is: “God made them that way.”

The Galileo answer is: “Based on what I see happening in the real world, we can predict what’s happening in the sky better by presuming the planets circle the sun, not the Earth.”

Fast forward two hundred years.

Newton looks at the same planets that Galileo did, but using the better tools available in his day. He observes them even more closely. He notices that some of the planets, Mars in particular, don’t move through the sky like they are going around the sun in perfect circles. They seem to be moving in ellipses with variable speeds rather than perfect circles with constant speeds.

Here is the important part: he builds upon Galileo’s work to come up with a new theory, the theory of gravitation, to better explain the motions he observes. The key term here is better explain. It’s still not perfect, but it is better, much better.

Now, lets look at that same old question: “How do you explain the motion of the planets?”

In two hundred years, the Deep Belief Religion answer hasn’t changed one wit!!! “God made them that way.”

The updated science answer, the Newton answer, is: “There is a force drawing the planets towards the sun, and it seems to be directly proportional to the mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance.”

In the same way, Einstein builds upon Newton’s work. Using the even better tools of his day, he measures even more closely than Newton did, and finds that Newton’s theory is close, but not perfect. In Einstein’s case, the major culprit is Mercury’s orbit, not Mars’. So, Einstein proposes an additional twist — a theory that acts like Newton’s theory when dealing with “normal” objects, but predicts different motions for objects that move really fast or are subject to lots of gravity, such as Mercury is because it orbits so closely to the sun. He proposes… the theory of Special Relativity.

Meanwhile… the Deep Belief answer remains the same, “God made them that way.”

The moral: Science keeps coming up with better ways to explain what’s happening in the real world, the one we live in. Deep Belief Religion keeps coming up with the same way to explain what’s happening in the real world: “God made it that way.” The biggest problem with the Deep Belief Religious answer is that is has no predictive value, so it can’t lead us to any better understanding of the world we live in.

AND HERE’S THE REALLY IMPORTANT PART: Without better understanding, our life can’t get better.

This brings us to the second issue: What authority should we use to explain the real world we live in? Deep Belief Religious people of one persuasion say that authority should be The Bible, while scientists say it should be the world we live in.

Hmm… we have a choice in basing how we describe the real world. We can describe what’s happening in the real world based on…

o a two thousand year old book, written by people who knew they were just guessing, but thought stars were painted on a celestial ceiling.

or…

o the real world as we see it today, using the best observing equipment we can design after more than ten thousand years of inventing better and better observing equipment.

Deep religious believers say the first one is the not just the better choice, it is the only right choice. Think about it: this is what “believing in The Bible” means. …unless you want to weasel that it’s allegory or an inspirational text of some sort.

… How strange! In two thousand years of study, we haven’t learned a single new thing about our world?

… But, then again, maybe not so strange. After all, “God made it that way.”

When I think about Deep Believer logic, I can’t help but think of a song I heard and enjoyed back in the sixties:

“It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack.”

(from a 1968 folk song, “Master Jack” by 4 Jacks and a Jill)

The benefit of “warm and fuzzy”

What is the benefit of Deep Believer in religion thinking?

Deep Believer thinking resonates with the “Chosen People” form of instinctive thinking. Chosen People serves mankind very well when he’s living the Neolithic Village or Agricultural Age lifestyles — Chosen People is an updated variant of the “Us versus Them” thinking of the much older Neolithic Village environment.

Instinctive thinking is warm, fuzzy thinking — it is thinking styles that have worked well for hundreds to thousands of generations so the brain is partly hardwired for them. They are good… until the world around the user changes enough that particular styles are no longer solving problems well. The Industrial Age and the Information Age are not as well served by pervasive Chosen People thinking. There is so much more widespread trading and cooperation in these modern environments that Chosen People thinking can often be a liability. It still works well in many circumstances: Ancient pyramids and modern sports industries are both examples of places where Chosen People thinking has produced great works.

But explaining our world is not one of those circumstances.

Conclusion

As science emerged from religion as a new way of explaining how the world works, it upset a lot of people who were warm and comfortable with the good old ways. Galileo’s findings became famous for raising hackles in his day. Darwin has also become famous for this, and his hackle raising continues to be powerfully emotional right into current times.

But if, today, you’re going to explain the night sky with, “God made it that way.” you’re ignoring five hundred years of human progress in observing the real world better and better. That’s not good.

–The End–

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

cyreenik-12

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Technofiction review of Zero Dark Thirty

Summary

The story of how Osama Bin Laden (OBL) died is well-suited for legendary story telling. The big questions surrounding it are “when they will start” and “how many will there be”.

Zero Dark Thirty does a good job for a first try. It dodges the neo-circus action sequences that are so common in spy movies these days, there is no love-interest sub-plot. It does a good job of living up to its “based on a true story” aspirations.

It is well filmed and kept my attention throughout.

That said, it did have some Technofiction flaws.

Details

Disclaimer here: This topic of how to handle OBL is one I have written a lot about and have strong feelings about. This story does not match my feelings.

These movie makers faced a big problem: This story is, in reality, a complex tale. There was a whole lot of diplomacy among four nations involved — Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US. None of this shows up in the movie. The first half is about interrogating people in secret places and the second about showing the mission itself.

So, in the interests of keeping the story simple, and centering it on the total dedication of Maya, a CIA caseworker, the movie spends most of the first half on how to interrogate vicious terrorists. Ouch! This implies that doing this was the heart of finding OBL. The rest of the wide web cast by the CIA and other allied intelligence agencies was irrelevant.

An example of the internal consistency errors this leads into was questioning one of the terrorists about the specifics of an upcoming terrorist act months after he was caught. “Give me a date!” says the interrogator with meaningful menace.

…Eh? Plans don’t change? Dates don’t change? People don’t change? Especially when one of your inner circle gets caught? The point is that interrogation information gets stale, this was not at all brought up in the movie.

In the middle of the movie Maya feels dead-sure she has located OBL and gets impatient for action. She is writing days on her superior’s window.

What the movie doesn’t bring out is the huge diplomatic implications of going in and snatching OBL. The Paki’s were our allies! …at least some of them.

To give you a similar scenario based on the US environment:

o Suppose Bernard Madoff got outed, but slipped off to become a fugitive. Years are spent looking for him. The most common rumor is he’s hiding in Honduras somewhere.

o Suppose a dedicated Canadian caseworker reviews interrogations done on other people working in Madoff’s company. This case worker determines that Madoff is actually holed up in a gated community near Baltimore, and only a thirty minute drive from Annapolis!

o OK… Do the Canadians:

a) Launch their SEALS in choppers to land in Baltimore and “off” Madoff, then carry the body back to Canada?

b) Launch a big enough missile to crater the gated community? Then look for DNA afterwards?

c) Do a wee bit more research on the network of people owning the properties and coming and going, then discretely inform trusted elements in the US government that a rogue CIA group has been harboring Madoff… and how soon will they clean up their own dirty laundry?

This diplomatic element is completely missing from the movie, and, sadly, most thinking about this spectacular and emotionally-pleasing end to the Great Osama Bin Laden Hunt. Pleasing in the US, but this ending was a loud, very public, face-slap to our friends in the Pakistan government and communities.

So while the movie is well composed and interesting to watch. It sadly goes for intimate story telling rather than showing a big picture. In this, it shares a lot with Argo (2012).

A couple of smaller issues:

Even quietized choppers are noisy and windy. Yet after they disembark, and one chopper crashes, the SEALS go slow and quiet. This seems incongruous, but I make no claim to expertise in this issue.

The choppers while they are flying in to the target are flying real, real close to each other, especially considering this is nape-of-earth flying and at night.

Other than these issues, I found the house assault scenes quite interesting and believable.

In sum, the movie had a lot going for it, but it did a poor job at revealing the big picture these events unfolded in.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Technofiction review of The Hobbit

Summary

On this film Peter Jackson, director and co producer, was in movie making heaven. This was a sequel to a wildly popular trilogy, he had a ton of money available, he could use all the CGI and New Zealand backdrop his heart could desire, and he could bring back popular stars for cameos. Ummm…

The result in the first half was really good. We get up close and personal with hobbits, dwarfs and wizards and we had some nice comic relief scattered through it.

In the second half Jackson’s “Inner Transformers” got the high ground and the show went to pure action, action, action, with only a brief pause for Bilbo and Gollum to meet each other and riddle.

So all in-all-it was good, but, I admit, I had hoped for better. Here are some details of what bothered me as I watched.

DetailsMILTON3

I read the book a couple times, but many decades ago. While I’ve forgotten a lot I did notice that Jackson has deviated from the book early in the movie by adding a new bad guy, the white orc, and by turning Radigast from a two paragraph aside into a major character. Orcs didn’t show up in Tolkien’s writings until Lord of the Rings. Tolkien added them in LOTR because he wanted bad-ass goblins. The Hobbit had goblins, and they were sneaky bad guys, not particularly powerful ones.

What adding the Orc is going to add to this movie trilogy story remains to be seen. I’m guessing he’s there to add some kind of continuity to the three films. Why ever he’s there, he’s inconsistent because if he’s ruling in Moria what’s he doing roaming the wilderness many days journey north of there? If he’s not ruling in Moria anymore, where is he based out of now, and why is he coming after Thorin now? It’s been decades since the humiliation. This meeting outside Shire seems to be coincidence, except that the White Orc is not talking as if it is one… inconsistent.

In the book Gandalf comes and goes. He is technically not part of this quest because he has a lot of other pots in the fire. This is why he invites Bilbo. This element of coming and going is lost in the movie, and I find it weakens Gandalf as an interesting character, the moving around was part of his being subtle and important.

Up until the dwarfs leave Rivendell the movie proceeds nicely. I like the settings and I liked the small scale adventures such as what they have with the trolls. The one problem that comes to mind in the first half is that these vagabond trolls have very powerful antique weapons in their small stash of cave loot. How did those end up there? It’s a small and forgivable problem, but I noticed it.

After leaving Rivendell Jackson gives us a triple feature of action: in the mountains, in the caves and in the forest. Each comes with crashing and smashing stuff and cliffhangers — my goodness how Jackson loves showing people dangling over empty space! The problem with the triple feature is that even as each is unfolding you know nothing will happen to the characters — this is story telling and they’ve been through this just minutes before and nothing happened. So by the third round of cliff hanging… yawn… the scene will end in some exciting way… yawn… and nothing will have changed.

Another issue for me personally is how much Jackson loves vertical in his settings. Everywhere was a hill or a ridge top or a steep-walled valley or a multi-story, multi-block cave setting — all very vertical. I’d love some horizontal in his movies for relief.

Jackson shows us innovative action scenes. He was particularly innovative in his goblin cave action scenes. He did a lot there I’d never seen before. But by then I was so tired of action I didn’t care.

In the book the ring is described as making a person invisible, not undetectable. In this movie Bilbo becomes completely undetectable by Gollum — whom the book describes as a being who has developed acute hearing and smell from all those years of living in the roots of mountains. In the book Bilbo has to dodge Gollum or kill him, but he makes that choice at a distance.

In the book there is some description of Smaug’s attack on Lonely Mountain and some description of a secret escape route. But the movie spends many minutes at the beginning on the attack. This left me wondering: Why didn’t the Lonely Mountain Minister of Defense have a better plan for repelling “Great Wyrm Attack”? These creatures were known to exist and not too far away. I don’t remember the book version on this so it may be an inconsistency in both.

In sum, the first half is a delightful movie that shows off some interesting characters in interesting ways. Jackson has fun with his settings, and puts in some innovative comedy. The second half is full of overbearing unrelenting action and is not nearly as interesting for a story-oriented buff like me.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized