Boubonicon, the day after

Boubonicon is over. Throughout the conference, successful authors sat on panels discussing various literary topics. Many of them were quite smart, the kind of people you would enjoy talking to as a friend. And some had a real warmth in their artistic outlook on life.

I felt a bit jealous of their success. The truth is, they probably are better writers than me. At the very least, they wrote well enough to attract an audience. OTOH, they probably aren’t dramatically better. I don’t need to feel inferior, and certainly can’t feel superior.

On the last day I went to a session on AI/Robotics. The panel was stocked with people who write on the topic, just like I do. Their level of qualification in the field? One did server administration. Another had a wife that does server administration. As it turned out, I had more education and actual experience than the entire panel put together.

I had contacted the chair of the conference several weeks earlier, asking to participate in an AI/Robotics panel, and he pretty much said “What are you talking about?” Going to that session really rubbed my ego the wrong way. It took a lot of effort just to sit still. The good news is that several of the guys had reasonable positions. Two of them regularly contradicted the one idiot on the panel, and kept things fairly close to reality.

Forget what you know about robots (if you learned it from TV)

I participate in a group where we critique each other’s novels. A few weeks ago, my book SuSAn (experimental rewrite) went through review. One of the guys wrote in the margin, “For research on robotics, I’d recommend you watch the awesome television series ‘Humans’.”

I agree with him that the TV series was awesome, and I can’t wait to watch the next season. However, an education in robotics it is not. What do you learn from ‘Humans’? It drops a few hints about the Singularity, and some oblique mentions of Asimov’s laws. (Both of those concepts are fiction, not real science.) Robots are filled with bright blue fluid that acts something like blood when it suits the drama. They can take on several days worth of charge using a cable no heavier than USB. And their software has all kinds of weird loopholes.

I have a PhD in AI and have worked on real robots. In writing SuSAn, I worked out the hardware and software in enough detail to be self-consistent, perhaps even scientifically possible. The story stays true to that technical design, but a novel is not the right place for a lecture on robotics. I ask the reader to trust they’re in good hands and let the clues form a new picture in their mind.

Do I stretch things? Yes, a little. For example, Susan runs on only 300 watts at rest. Nowadays, the biggest supercomputers run at about 15 to 20 megawatts, and they’re probably still too small to simulate a human mind. The only way Susan will be possible is a radical breakthrough in neuromorphic technology.

Another show that’s incredibly wrong is Extant. The child android Ethan runs on two batteries about the size of D cells. And he is so efficient that he actually needs a heater to warm his skin for more natural touch. OMG, people who write this stuff have no idea about the energy cost of computation, or what is remotely possible with battery technology.

The Value of Life

“Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
“But who is my neighbor?”

Doesn’t that capture the heart of it? We don’t truly value life, certainly not the lives of others.

I dream of a world in which everyone has enough, and they are free to grow into the fullest potential of their minds and bodies. The population of each region is the right size for its long-term carrying capacity, so even in a bad year they can grow (or hunt/gather) enough to feed themselves, and there is plenty of room for pristine nature to function. Technology is so advanced that it is imperceptible. Global communication and access to human knowledge is universal. Healthcare is effective against every condition, such that humans live for hundreds of years with the strength and mental ability of their prime.

Is that world possible? If you’re holding out of Heaven, you might say no, and that would be a shame because it gives you an excuse not to try. I say a good world is possible, but it requires a radical change of attitude. The place to start is to value every life deeply, no exceptions.

Visiting Susan’s Hill

The books “SuSAn” and “Time of the Stones” describe a computer called the Stone, which stores the records of our civilization. It is placed on a remote hill high in the mountains at the headwaters of the Long River.

Yesterday I went to the real-world place that inspired the setting. It was sort of a spiritual journey. I knew of the place only through the Internet, but I wanted to put my feet on it, in the exact spot where the Stone would go.

Getting there was difficult. Even though satellite seemed to show a road all the way to the hill, in reality it was only suitable for an off-road vehicle. Our little VW Jetta just couldn’t handle it. We parked about a mile away and hiked in. The sides of the hill were near 45 degrees, so we had to crawl up some 300 feet.

The book describes a mountain glade 50 to 100 meters wide. The real-world glade was only a few meters wide due to the sharpness of the hill. Attached are photos of the ridge, my son standing in the glade where the Stone would be, and a view down the valley toward the town.

I will give $50 to the first person who names the real-world town, and another $50 to the first person who gives the GPS coordinates of the glade. From time to time I will give more clues until the prizes are claimed.

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Pulling the plug on a dream

Today, after less than a year of marriage, Elizabeth becomes a widow.

A gangly young woman, shy and self deprecating, she grew up in the intellectual safety of homeschooling and fundamental Judeo-Christian values. When she finally went off to the University of Arkansas to study Chemical Engineering, she wore a promise ring on her left hand to ward off any guys who might take a premarital interest in her.

Upon graduation, Elizabeth got a job at a battery engineering firm in Joplin (yeah, the town that got sucked up by a huge tornado a few years ago). She lived alone in a small apartment and filled her social time with visits to mom and dad on the weekends. As a woman she was considered qualified to fetch coffee for the “real” engineers, but she worked her way up to battery tester.

There she met Aaron, an equally awkward young man. The son of a Lutheran minister, he had lost his first wife to divorce. Perhaps it had something to do with the leukemia that was slowly killing him.

Eventually Aaron had to stop working, and moved back with his parents. Elizabeth embarked on a wild lifestyle of driving up to visit him on the weekends, gradually drifting away from her parents. Much to their disapproval, she and Aaron married in September.

She knew he could die, but like all young lovers they dreamed of a life that extended to the horizon. The bone marrow transplants would work, medical science would find a cure, or God would heal him. Aaron wanted to go to seminary and become a pastor, and Elizabeth would study alongside him.

They visited Bunker Hill in March. Aaron only dared to come inside the underground building for a few brief moments, wearing a medical mask to prevent any mold spores from transgressing his weakened immune system. The rest of the time he walked outside in the grass and wildflowers. He pulled out an RC airplane and flew it in the thermals above the hill. He made blunt statements about how the gas tank ruined the view of the valley.

Elizabeth gave everything, even her own body, to fill this young man’s last few days with happiness. What little she had to gain from the relationship is now lost. Without warning the battery company laid her off two weeks ago, putting her medical insurance in jeopardy. At the same time Aaron took a turn for the worse. That last marrow transplant did not work.

This morning the family is gathering around his unconscious form to say their final goodbyes. Then they will disconnect the life support machines. By noon, barring a miracle, Elizabeth will be a widow.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”

Here’s to your true love story, Liz, stronger than anything by Jane Austen or Stephenie Meyer.

P.S. — Aaron died around 15:00, just a couple of hours after they stopped the ventilator. I never told him or Elizabeth, but we plan to move the gas tank. Every time I look at the morning mist in the valley, I will remember him.

At the funeral the preacher talked about hope of the resurrection. All the while I felt an incredible sense of failure. We, humanity, science, couldn’t do enough. The information pattern that was Aaron is lost forever. If we have any choice in the matter, it is an unforgivable waste.

“Do not go gentle into that good night, … Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Although he did not fall in battle, they gave Aaron full military honors, during which the crowd broke into audible weeping. The guard knelt and handed the triangle-folded flag to Elizabeth with the words “On behalf of the President of the United States … thank you for your loved one’s service.” Almost immediately the funeral director stood and said something to the effect of “That’s all folks, you can go home now.” But no one moved. It seemed like the moment of silence should last a bit longer.

The Golem and the Jinni

I recently finished the book “The Golem and the Jinni” by Helene Wecker. I read and write hard science fiction, but this book is magic realism, so a bit out of my genre. However, I suspected that the Golem’s story would be much like that of a robotess, and it was. If you change the labels a little, it becomes awesome scifi.

The characters in this book are absolutely gorgeous, even the bad guys. The first 25% or so consists almost entirely of character sketches which lead onto each other like winding paths in a forest. Each one loses an important part of themselves, and you feel driven by the hope that they might get it back.

The central characters was, of course, the Golem named Chava. I’d like to give you a very brief sketch of her arc, just to give you some sense of how compelling she is. My writing here can’t do it justice …

Chava is created by an evil wizard to be the wife of some loser who can’t get a proper woman. As a golem, she has a kind of telepathic link to him that makes her do his every wish. You can imagine where this is going, but it never gets there. Her great loss is that he dies of an illness within a few hours of activating her. This tears a giant hole out of her being, but it also frees her to become a better creature. The ragged end of that magic is now drawn to the inner voices of everyone nearby, and she has to resist them to keep from revealing herself.

Chava is horrified by her monster side—and she truly is a monster. When humans get violent toward her, or someone threatens her friends, her personality drifts away and she becomes capable of maiming and killing.

SPOILER ALERT

She marries a man in an attempt to get back to the role she was created for. When he discovers what she is, he is revolted. She starts to go golem on him, but with the last of her fading good side she tells him to flee.

At the end, she trades away her individuality for the life of a friend. She returns to being just a golem, but remembers everything she was before. Yet now she happily beats up the Jinni, the person she truly loves. She takes pleasure in her golem nature, and considers herself finally at peace. The semi-happy ending is that she gets her soul back when the wizard gets stuck in the Jinni’s bottle. However, she can never be fully free from the bargain she made until the wizard dies, which will only happen when the Jinni dies.

The book pretty much ends there, but leaves the implication that the Golem and Jinni work out some kind of relationship within the bounds of their damaged freedom and diametrically opposed natures.

Tomorrowland

When the credits started rolling on Tomorrowland, the theater audience erupted in applause. I can’t remember that last time that happened. The critics said it was tripe, but us stupid commoners seemed to buy into it anyway. Must have annoyed all those sourpusses.

Sure, it was a bit syrupy, and the plot had a few holes, but it did make a good point. What happened to that unbridled optimism we used to feel? I think it has been crushed by the reality of our civilization. Our choices are not focused on building a good world for everyone. We could change that, though, and part of the change is to imagine something better.

My favorite character was Athena. What a wonderful gynoid! She was quirky and clever and charming, and she had such a great simmering romance with Frank. (As a writer of robot romance, this would of course appeal to me.) Too bad they killed her off at the end. It seemed rather unnecessary, especially in a movie about optimism. It made me think about alternate endings.

With a very small change, Frank could have kept her. Before I go too far on this topic, we should notice the obvious. This is a Disney film rated PG, so of course we can’t have something icky like a 60-year-old man romantically involved with a 12-year-old girl, even if she is actually a robot even older than him. It’s the appearance that matters. Simple, change her into a woman at the very end. Just before he drops her into the time thingy, she pops open some slot, pulls out her memory and tucks it in his pocket. In the final scenes, she shows up loaded into a rather well-built adult model. Yeah!

Is there any point to Casey? Almost everything that happens with Athena and Casey could be replaced by Athena and Frank. I wonder if that was how it was originally written. In Utopian literature there is usually a character who visits the other world, as a vehicle for the rest of us to go there. At the beginning of the movie Frank is the visitor. Then Casey takes over that role. Imagine an alternate script …

The movie starts the same, with Frank and (adult) Athena briefing us. They tell about their childhood encounter at the World Fair, and their growing relationship up to the point he is thrown out of paradise. Then we see him as an older man waiting for the end in his techno-hideout. Athena staggers to the door and begs for help. The other robots are after her. At first her refuses to let her in, but his bitter old soul can’t resist the cries of his childhood sweetheart. They battle the robots and escape in the bathtub.

They grab a vehicle and go on the run. Along the way they fight about the past. She explains the situation in Tomorrowland, and they agree to go back and try to fix it. They battle it out with Nix, and as a last resort use her self-destruct. Just before she explodes she ejects her memory core. Later, Frank finds it and has it loaded in another, more age-appropriate robot. They live happily ever after.

Star Wars 7 — Spectacularly Mediocre

I heard rave reviews from friends and family about the new Star Wars, for example, “The best Star Wars ever.” SW7 had quite a legacy to live up to, so it required the very best writing. (We can safely assume it had the very best special effects budget, so little worry about there.) I came away feeling “meh” about it.

SPOILER ALERT

I’m interested in digging into the literary aspects of movies, so I like to write about them as if having a conversation with someone else who just watched it.

SPOILER ALERT

Seriously, I’m about to spoil the movie. You have been warned.

The biggest single issue with SW7 was the Death Star story. SW4 told this story. Then Lucas got more money and created a full trilogy. SW6 gave us the Death Star story again. Now SW7 tells us the very same story yet again. Three times in seven movies! Lucas at least tried to tell us a different story in SW1-3. More precisely, they were additional chapters of the (more or less) same story. SW7 did not give us a new chapter, merely the old chapter with the characters reshuffled. This illustrates the problem of doing art as a business.

That covers plot. Little to say about setting. The dessert world (Tatooine in SW1-6) showed up again, though it was named something else. Most of what I have to say is about characters …

Darth Vader 2, aka Kylo Ren, aka Ben, the son of Han and Leia — This guy hasn’t finished his Dark Side training yet. Most significantly, no one has bothered to teach him how to use a light saber. He is so bad that Finn, a guy from the ranks of cannon fodder, a guy who has never seen a light sabe before like a day ago, is able to hold his own for almost a minute. Real sword fights between well-matched opponents only last a few seconds. The most interesting thing DV2 does is kill his own father, turning the Luke-Vader pattern on its head.

Finn — This guy must have the Force or something. He awakens from his clone conditioning and spontaneously turns to good. Then he is able to pick up a light sabre and do something reasonable with it. I liked him and his arc with Rey.

Rey — Potential for super-awesome heroine. Second case of someone mastering the Jedi arts in less than 24 hours. I kept expecting them to reveal that she is a Skywalker, like maybe the long-lost daughter of Han and Leia. There is some kind of back story about being separated from her true family, but they were vague and went by rather fast. I thought the Millennium Falcon parked in her back yard was a hint as well.

During the fight with DV2, when they zoomed in on her face while she was connecting with the Force, I sort of hoped the zoom back would show us something like the shadow world in Lord of the Rings. She would be glowing white like one of the elves, and Ben would be surrounded by a dark cloud.

Leia — Mom should have been the one to go confront DV2. She should be every bit as strong in the Force as Luke. In fact, she should be powerful enough to go confront Supreme Leader himself. Maybe something is coming in the sequels.

What would really be good is if Leia and Rey had a similar arc to Luke and Obiwan. It could even have included a scene where DV2 cuts down his mother, and then her ghost guides Rey. Equally interesting, Leia (not Luke!) teaches Rey the ways of the Force. In particular, it would be a more feminine version. Light sabers are boy toys. A woman might tap more into the mind powers, like sensing events at a distance and influencing the thoughts of others. If Leia fights, she should simply use telekinesis and Force lighting rather than a saber.

Regarding feminine use of the Force, I kept hoping that Rey would give DV2 a telepathic black eye. She does get him a little in the interrogation room. Later, when they are fighting with light sabers, she should simply not bother. Go straight to telepathy.

Maz Kanata — If Leia is Rey’s Obiwan, then Maz is her Yoda.

Supreme Leader Snoke — Looks like an Orc escaped the Lord of the Rings set and came over to work on Star Wars. There’s a rule-of-thumb in writing: if you want to turn a bad guy into a good guy, introduce a bigger bad guy. That’s what Lucas did in SW5 with the Emperor, beginning Darth Vader’s arc back to the Light Side.

This bad guy is really big, like 50 feet tall. He seemed to be there to turn DV2 back to the Light, but sadly DV2 kills his own father. Either the writers did it deliberately to trick us into hoping for DV2’s soul, or they don’t really know how to use the trope. (Third possibility: DV2 turns to the Light Side in a sequel. In that case, they introduce Snoke too soon.)

Luke Skywalker — Had the best lines in the whole movie.

Seriously, though, what are they doing to these characters? What’s this business about giving up in despair and letting the galactic empire go to hell, just because one padawan went bad? Seems like a rather strained premise.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

The literary world wants to combine the genres of Science Fiction and Fantasy under a larger umbrella called Speculative Fiction. Seems reasonable, but there is a real difference between the two. One way to explain this is to show you the Scale of Science Fiction Hardness on TV Tropes. You could view this as a continuum between scifi and fantasy. Simply replace techno stuff at the low end with medieval stuff.

Science is about describing reality as accurately as possible (and of course it is never perfect). Fantasy is about escaping reality, and imagining the world the way we wish—or fear—it is.

Scientists must constantly exercise discipline to keep themselves grounded in reality, but they can’t do very good science without a bit of imagination as well. The strongest forms of scifi involve taking a small step back from reality and wondering where things could go.

A growing concern I have is with repackaging religion as science. This is the real-world analog of lumping fantasy with scifi. For example, the oriental notion of chi gets renamed to “energy”. Energy is a concept from physics, perhaps a bit hard to define, but we can do calculations about it and predict how real objects behave. Chi is more like the western concept of vitalism. Calling chi “energy” pulls a cloak of scientific legitimacy over it that it has not earned. Likewise, blending our fiction genres could cost us the ability to make those distinctions in daily life.