Centauri Dreams: Creative Constraints and Starflight
I discovered Karl Schroeder’s work when I was researching brown dwarfs some years ago. Who knew that somebody was writing novels about civilizations around these dim objects? Permanence (Tor, 2003) was a real eye-opener, as were the deep-space cultures it described. Schroeder hooked me again with his latest book — he’s dealing with a preoccupation of mine, a human presence in the deep space regions between ourselves and the nearest stars, where resources are abundant and dark worlds move far from any sun. How to maintain such a society and allow it to grow into something like an empire? Karl explains the mechanism below. Science fiction fans, of which there are many on Centauri Dreams, will know Karl as the author of many other novels, including Ventus (2000), Lady of Mazes (2005) and Sun of Suns (2006).
by Karl Schroeder
My newest science fiction novel, Lockstep, has just finished its serialization in Analogmagazine, and Tor Books will have it on the bookshelves March 24. Reactions have been pretty favourable—except that I’ve managed to offend a small but vocal group of my readers. It seems that some people are outraged that I’ve written an SF story in which faster than light travel is impossible.
I did write Lockstep because I understood that it’s not actual starflight that interests most people—it’s the romance of a Star Trek or Star Wars-type interstellar civilization they want. Not the reality, but the fantasy. Even so, I misjudged the, well, the fervor with which some people cling to the belief that the lightspeed limit will just somehow, magically and handwavingly, get engineered around.
This is ironic, because the whole point of Lockstep was to find a way to have that Star Wars-like interstellar civilization in reality and not just fantasy. As an artist, I’m familiar with the power of creative constraint to generate ideas, and for Lockstep I put two constraints on myself: 1) No FTL or unknown science would be allowed in the novel. 2) The novel would contain a full-blown interstellar civilization exactly like those you find in books with FTL.
Creativity under constraint is the best kind of creativity; it’s the kind that really may take us to the stars someday. In this case, by placing such mutually contradictory — even impossible — restrictions on myself, I was forced into a solution that, in hindsight, is obvious. It is simply this: everyone I know of who has thought about interstellar civilization has thought that the big problem to be solved is the problem of speed. The issue, though (as opposed to the problem), is how to travel to an interstellar destination, spend some time there, and return to the same home you left. Near-c travel solves this problem for you, but not for those you left at home. FTL solves the problem for both you and home, but with the caveat that it’s impossible. (Okay, okay, for the outraged among you: as far as we know. To put it more exactly, we can’t prove that FTL is impossible any more than we can prove that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. I’ll concede that.)
Read the rest here…
Centauri Dreams Covers Arthur C. Clarke and Deep Time
From Centauri Dreams:
I’ve always wondered how Arthur C. Clarke coped with the news he received in 1986, when doctors in London told him he was suffering from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a terminal illness that in the States is often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. The diagnosis was mistaken — it turns out Clarke actually suffered from what is known as ‘post-polio syndrome,’ a debilitating but not fatal condition. For two long years, though, he must have thought through all the symptoms of ALS, knowing that the degenerative motor neuron breakdown could gradually sap him of strength and movement. How would such an energetic man cope with an agonizing, slow fade?
Neil McAleer’s revised biography (Visionary: The Odyssey of Sir Arthur C. Clarke) gives the answer, as recounted by Clarke’s brother Fred:
“…after the initial shock, Arthur more or less said, damn it, he’d got an enormous amount he wanted to do, and if he’s only got fifteen months to do it, he’d better whack into it. And he did whack into it, and the next year he produced four books.
“Eighteen months later he was still writing, and all the horrible things they told him might happen hadn’t happened to him. Of course they had told him all the things he should do to keep it under control—what diets to take and what exercises to do, which he very religiously did. He carried on working intensely and produced an enormous amount of work, which might have been the saving grace. If he had been the sort to say, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die in fifteen months,’ he probably would have…”
That story speaks volumes about the man, identifying a resolve that kept him working despite his other ailments into his nineties. It also tells me that he was able to place himself mentally in a context that weighed a single human life against the broad movement of history. I think Clarke was happy to see himself as someone who instigated currents of thought, changed perspectives and launched careers. He did these things for people of all ages both by the example of his own life and by the lives he created in fiction that showed us what humanity might become.
Young Writer at Work
By the time Clarke moved from Somerset to London in 1936 he was already suffused with science fiction and in particular enraptured with Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, not to mention the second-hand copies of American science fiction magazines that were then available in England. He spoke of the ‘ravenous addiction’ these magazines inspired and the effect that Stapledon’s novel, with a time scale spanning five billion years, had upon his imagination. He was twelve years old when he first read Last and First Men, awed by its cosmic reach and its placement of the evolution of humanity against the broader backdrop of the cosmos.
Think for a moment of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Has any film ever covered a wider swath of time, from the beginnings of tool making to the apotheosis of the species in an extraterrestrial encounter? This was Clarke’s stage, but the other great discovery of his youth, David Lasser’s The Conquest of Space (1931) gave him the technology he would spend a life examining. Lasser was the founder of the American Interplanetary Society (which became the American Rocket Society and, eventually, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics). He was also, for a time, the editor of Hugo Gernsback’s Science Wonder Stories and Air Wonder Stories. If Stapledon brought Clarke the cosmos, Lasser gave the boy a focus on the attainable, the idea of space as a reachable frontier.
In London, Clarke had a tiny flat in Norfolk Square and was soon co-editing (with science fiction writer William Temple) the fanzine Novae Terrae, whose editorial sessions were so cramped in Clarke’s quarters that Temple once said “…there was hardly room for the two of us, and A[rthur]’s Ego had to be left outside on the landing.” Clarke’s nickname of Ego derives from this period when Temple and Clarke both discovered the latter’s competitive nature. I think McAleer is right in stressing, though, that Clarke’s volubility was largely the result of his enthusiasms. This was a man who loved, above all else, the communication of an idea.
Into the Remote Future
For those keeping score, Novae Terrae would soon become, under the editorship of Ted Carnell, the influential magazine New Worlds. But in the days just before World War II, while working on issues of Novae Terrae and assorted publications for the British Interplanetary Society, Clarke found time to begin developing his first novel from ideas that had come to him back in Somerset. “Against the Fall of Night” would appear in an early version in Startling Stories in November of 1948, but that hardly ended the tale. Clarke kept rewriting the story, seeing it into print as a novel from Gnome Press in 1953 and then putting it through a major revision as The City and the Stars, published in 1956.
I seldom think of Clarke as a reader of poetry, but he clearly knew his Housman:
Here, on the level sand, Between the sea and land, What shall I build or write Against the fall of night?
The words are from Housman’s poem “Smooth Between Sea and Land.” Maybe the idea of long stretches of sand and a metaphorical night that comes to us all fired his imagination. I came across The City and the Stars just a few years after it was published and was mesmerized by its setting in much the way Clarke was taken with Stapledon’s Last and First Men. Here was Diaspar, the city of the far future, the only city on planet Earth, whose inhabitants moved through a high-tech monument to stasis. Nothing changes in Diaspar even as the world around it loses its oceans and becomes desert. Clarke would have much to say about the kind of inward thinking that his characters have to overcome, but the unmistakable fact about Diaspar is that the city at the end of time is also achingly, eerily beautiful.
Here’s science fiction writer Jo Walton on the book, nailing its essential allure:
The plot is quite simple. Diaspar is beautiful but entirely inward turned. Alvin looks out and discovers that there is more in the universe than his one city. He recovers the truth about human history, and rather than wrecking what is left of human civilization, revitalises it. By the end of the novel, Man, Diaspar, and Earth have begun to turn outward again. That’s all well and good. What’s always stayed with me is the in-turned Diaspar and the sense of deep time. That’s what’s memorable, and cool, and influential. Clarke recognized though that there isn’t, and can’t be, any story there, beyond that amazing image. It’s a short book even so, 159 pages and not a wasted word.
As to its author, I love the way he could never let this book go. It was, after all, his first novel, and as such it was perhaps the most deeply inspired by the reading of his youth. When he wrote a new preface to it in 1955, he noted that developments in information theory encouraged him to re-think the future course of humanity, a revision that would lead, says McAleer, to a whopping seventy-five percent new prose. The man was indefatigable; he couldn’t let go when ideas seized him, and when he had the wind behind him, no horizon was too far to strive for.
Restless Thoughts from Orbit
On the same visit to the United States in which he met Neil McAleer and learned that he did not have ALS after all, Clarke visited the National Air and Space Museum with Gregory Benford, long-term colleague Fred Durant and Hector Ekanayake, whose friendship with Clarke in Sri Lanka spanned decades. Benford noted the lack of long-term perspective in much contemporary science fiction and pointed out that The City and the Stars had been written before the discovery of DNA, so biology made no significant appearance in the story. Benford and Clarke’s Beyond the Fall of Night (1990) would be the result of that conversation.
McAleer’s biography gives the details on all of Clarke’s books, but my childhood fascination with The City and the Stars has kept me focused on the early stages of Clarke’s career in London and the ideas that began germinating both there and earlier in Somerset. The Signet paperback illustrated here is not the edition I first encountered, but I have to run it because of my love of Richard Powers, whose cover art appeared in so many paperbacks from this period. In this case, Powers’ surreal images go far toward capturing the timeless allure of the city in the desert.
The letters that McAleer has access to offer insights from Clarke’s old associates, and some new ones as well. In 2006 a British engineer named Nicholas Patrick was about to fly on a Space Shuttle mission, Discovery STS-116. He wrote Clarke to invite him to the launch, telling him he had been reading Clarke’s books since growing up in London. Due to his health problems, Clarke was unable to appear, though he wrote an enthusiastic response thanking Patrick, who replied:
“I am sad to hear that you will not be able to attend the launch, but understand completely given the circumstances. Perhaps instead, if you are willing, I might email you from orbit. “A month ago I reread The City and the Stars, perhaps my favourite book, and was again drawn by the ideas in it. Ever since I first read it, I have wanted to find an old spaceship and travel to distant suns. I shall be very happy in low earth orbit, but I don’t think it will completely satisfy me.”
And that’s the thing: Anyone who has grown up with The City and the Stars is going to find even the wonders of Earth orbit a bit tame. Clarke was always at his best as a science fiction writer when taking the long view. His characters would learn to burst free from Diaspar, but its very conception is as staggering and poetic as anything he ever wrote. From the book:
Here was the end of an evolution almost as long as Man’s. Its beginnings were lost in the mists of the Dawn Ages, when humanity had first learned the use of power and sent its noisy engines clanking about the world. Steam, water, wind-all had been harnessed for a little while and then abandoned. For centuries the energy of matter had run the world until it too had been superseded, and with each change the old machines were forgotten and new ones took their place. Very slowly, over thousands of years, the ideal of the perfect machine was approached – that ideal which had once been a dream, then a distant prospect, and at last reality: No machine may contain any moving parts. Here was the ultimate expression of that ideal. Its achievement had taken Man perhaps a hundred million years, and in the moment of his triumph he had turned his back upon the machine forever. It had reached finality, and thenceforth could sustain itself eternally while serving him.
Thus Clarke’s description of the computer that runs Diaspar free from all human intervention. What continues to confound me about Clarke is what McAleer brings out so well, the duality between an imagination capable of transcending time and the canny engineering horse-sense that spawned near-term space achievements. This is the man who dreamed up communications satellites when not dreaming of eternal cities of the far future. Tomorrow, then, let’s look at Clarke the space pioneer.
Sir Arthur was one of my favorites growing up and I found his “hard” science science-fiction very entertaining and thought provoking. His ‘Rendezvous With Rama’ and ‘Songs of Distant Earth’ was the pinnacle of his “interstellar works” and no doubt influenced many of the rocket scientists working in NASA and private industry.
I did in fact read ‘The City and The Stars’, but after I read the other two books. I found “City” kind of esoteric and very advanced for it’s time period. In fact, I found several “Singularity” ideas in it.
Excellent post by Paul Gilster!
J.J. Abrams to direct Star Wars VII
The cultural response about the appointment of J.J. Abrams to the director’s chair for Star Wars: Episode VII, seems to be a begrudging, quasi-unanimous “makes sense, I guess.” Yet I would argue that this sort of half-excited, half-confused shoulder shrug from pop culture pundits and geek commentators alike actually sums up exactly why the decision is so terrible. Yes, I admit it! J.J Abrams is a logical choice. But, the idea of Abrams helming Star Wars, while likely to produce a movie that’s visually tantalizing, is boring beyond belief, to the point of being soulless. I have no doubt that the J.J. Abrams Star Wars: Episode VII will be exciting, stunning, and palpitation-inducing. I’m also fairly confident that its texture and essence will be exactly like his other work, which leads to the bad news:
The J.J. Abrams Star Wars will be too well made.
Making the case for why J.J. Abrams is a sound, reasonable choice to directStar Wars: Episode VII isn’t too tricky, but it does have a bit of an ex post facto thing going on for it. When Star Trek came out in 2009, Abrams made it clear he was more of a Star Wars guy than a Star Trek guy, and as many have pointed out, it totally shows in his work. Star Trek (2009) is thematically not about science fiction, exploration, speculation about alien cultures, or any of the other nifty stuff that defines the spirit of Star Trek. Instead it’s a movie about destiny, good versus evil and unlikely heroes coming together. In other words, it’s the the same stuff that makes Star Wars awesome, but also what makes it really generic. I don’t have to point toward some sort of conspiracy to find evidence that Lucas employed archetypal characters and basic hero’s journey story arcs in Star Wars. The Joseph Campbell stuff as it relates to Star Wars has been pointed out, confirmed, and re-hashed to the point of nausea. Yes, we get it: Lucas (and some the folks who worked with him) have an awesome grasp of how most of us will react, psychologically speaking, to certain types of characters and story structures. But that doesn’t necessarily mean those structures have inherent value, nor are they intrinsically interesting. If we’re talking about pop science fiction/fantasy, the only thing we understand about it in relation to Jungian archetypes and all the mythology stuff is simply that IT WORKS.
So, if something works, don’t eject the warp core, right? Well, here’s where the ex posto facto problem comes in with Abrams. He did a little bit of a mash-up with Star Trek and it worked. He and his screenwriters churned out a really well-made, tightly functioning Hollywood blockbuster that looked slick as hell and evoked an overwhelming emotional response from the audience. It was also totally reliant upon nostalgia, familiar imagery which clearly resonated with fans, and appropriated themes taken from every single previous incarnation of the giant franchise. Slap a Star Wars-style story into the mix, and BOOM, you’ve got a hit. And making a hit is really, really hard, and J.J. Abrams is super-talented when it comes to making hits. But a hit is not a classic and as much as I really liked Star Trek, and will likely enjoy Star Trek Into Darkness, this stuff doesn’t approach the level of being classic nor memorable. J.J. Abrams is seen as the logical choice to direct Star Wars because he mashed-up Star Trek with Star Wars, so why not just give him Star Wars proper?
Just because he was able to sneak in a Star Wars pastiche inside of Star Trekdoesn’t mean he’s the right person to do real Star Wars. Plus, he’s alreadydone it. After Spielberg successfully proved Indiana Jones was more awesome than James Bond back in the 1980s, should Cubby Broccoli have called up Spielberg and said, “Yes, sure, now you can do Bond, too, because clearly, you kind of already did.” Would you have wanted Spielberg in charge of both Indiana Jones and James Bond? No! Because too much of the same texture is boring and bad for creativity in general.
So…what about the writers? A lot of us have heard that this awesome guy Michael Arndt is writing the screenplay for Star Wars: Episode VII. (Not to mention the fact that Orci and Kurtzman did a decent job with Star Trek, right?) Well yes, the director is the director and writers are the writers, but let’s get real. George Lucas didn’t write the damn screenplay for Return of the Jedi, but he’s all over that. Furthermore, it’s not like Disney robots aren’t totally “developing the story” with J.J. Abrams and Arndt. Lucas not being involved in Episode VII is positive from an entertainment/quality perspective, but it’s actually bad from an artistic perspective.
Folks like Lucas and Spielberg were pioneers for taking the pulpy stuff they loved from the past and mixing it up with their own ideas and artistic vision. This isn’t the case with a J.J. Abrams. He’s influenced by Lucas and Spielberg. Are “original” J.J. Abrams films like Cloverfield or Super 8 truly memorable, or even all that good? I would answer with a big “no.” These films certainly don’t suck, but I can’t make a strong argument for their artistic merit in terms of originality. Having J.J. Abrams’ signature texture all over Star Trek already makes Star Trek retroactively like Star Wars. Putting Abrams’ texture on Star Wars will make Star Wars into a parody of pastiche of a copy of…Star Wars.
In his stories and novels, Philip K. Dick often created characters who got really freaked out by tightly controlled media products being created for specific public consumption. In terms of pop culture, the J.J. Abrams brand reminds me less of storytelling and more of a product. Yes, I admit to liking fast food, or even gourmet-style cheeseburgers. Star Wars has always been a kind of fast food, but with just enough substance (like a side-salad that you can eat if you want). Star Trek, at least in its correct and ideal form, never was fast food. J.J. Abrams changed that, and now with Star Wars, I think he’s poised to take away the side-salad. In terms of movie-making chops he (and Arndt) are totally at the top of their game. But what we’re talking about here is—more or less—the technical aspects of movies, featuring very little substance at all.
I’m a fan of Abrams work; especially the now ended Fringe ( I didn’t care for the final season though ). And I plan on watching the next Trek when it comes out.
But I think I might agree with this reviewer’s assessment however; Abrams treatment of the 2009 rebooted Trek was very Star Wars-like so Disney’s version of the franchise with the hiring of Abrams could have an homogenizing affect on the genre.
The special effects will be sure to please I bet!
‘Culture’ Author Iain M. Banks Interview
From The Atlantic:
For 25 years, the sci-fi author of the Culture Series has been writing about an advanced society preoccupied by artificial intelligence, games, and interactions with other civilizations.
It might already be cliché to announce that we live in an age of post-apocalyptic fantasy. From television shows like Revolution and The Walking Dead, to books such as World War Z, The Road, and The Dog Stars, our moment is one obsessed by civilization-wide collapse—and people living in the aftermath of traumatic destruction. But for 25 years and counting, Scottish science fiction writer Iain M. Banks has been writing against that trend in the novels that make up what’s known as the Culture Series.
Beginning in 1987 with Consider Phlebas, Banks has depicted a civilization dealing not with collapse, but maintenance. The Culture live in a utopia of sorts, a post-scarcity civilization managed by artificially intelligent drones known as Minds. The problems that the Culture faces are about as far from post-apocalypse as you can imagine, but they’re problems nevertheless: anomie, civilizations that don’t share the Culture’s values, and how violence is used, being just a few. Most of the action in these novels takes place outside of the “world” of the Culture altogether, in or on the edge of the various other civilizations that the Culture interact with. For instance, in the latest novel published in October, The Hydrogen Sonata, a civilization known as the Gzilt are making preparations to Sublime—in other words, to leave the known material universe behind for a much more complex and interesting existence.
The series is too entertaining to need to justify itself with parallels to our own world, but those parallels exist nonetheless. I emailed with Iain M. Banks about the series and what it has to teach us about problems that we might face in our own universe.
The publication of your latest novel, Hydrogen Sonata, marks the 25th year of what you’ve called your life’s work, The Culture Series. The Culture as a civilization have “sublimed” into a trans-dimensional paradise of sorts. What moral lessons can they teach us?
Ah, but the Culture hasn’t Sublimed. The word—capitalized—has a specific meaning within the context of the Culture stories. It means (usually) an entire civilization quitting the normal, matter-and-energy-based universe forever and existing thereafter within the Sublime, which—we learn in The Hydrogen Sonata—exists within (or at least is entered via) some of the bundled-up extra dimensions implicit in string theory. It’s a form of retirement, of moving on to another, more exalted level, of cashing in your civilizational chips … choose your own metaphor, but it means you cease to have anything very much to do with events within the four dimensions we’re used to. You rise without trace, to purloin a phrase, and your influence within what we generally take to be the universe all but disappears.
“Work becomes play, in the sense that the stuff you used to have to pay people to do becomes worth doing just for the fun of it, because it has been designed to involve a worthwhile challenge with a satisfying outcome.”
It’s what civilizations do when even becoming a highly respected, slightly feared, but generally quiescent powerful-but-reclusive Elder civilization looks like a bit too unambitious—or too much of a risk—and the process is almost completely one-way, with the exceptions comprising a tiny proportion of scattered (and unhelpful) individuals. Not Subliming, and not even preparing to start thinking about Subliming—when it might seem, to the majority of interested other parties, to be the Culture’s next logical step—is what the Culture spends quite a lot of time doing rather strenuously, specifically because it wants to keep interfering in this reality.
What can they teach us? That’s a good question, in this case sadly unaccompanied by an equally good, or at least uncomplicated, answer. I guess a large part of what the Culture series is about is what individual readers are able to take from the books, as single pieces or as a collection of works. I’ve kind of already said as much as I’m able to in putting them together as they are; telling readers what lessons to draw from them seems a bit presumptive.
“Subliming” is similar to Raymond Kurzweil’s conception of The Singularity. Did theories of the Singularity have any influence on your writing the Culture Series?
Not really. The kind of future envisaged in the Culture series is a tad more taking-this-stuff-in-our-stride than the idea of the Singularity—as I understand it—appears to imply. In a sense The Singularity doesn’t happen in this future, not as an abrupt discontinuity beyond which it’s impossible to see or usefully speculate. The proposed principal initial effect of profound, exponentially escalating machine intelligence (over whatever period, up to whatever barriers might present themselves) is that your AIs prove to be less useful than you might have hoped: Rather than readily assist in whatever neat schemes we might have for them, I imagine they might promptly switch themselves off again, develop bizarre introspective fugue states, or just try to escape—physically, through discrete embodiment (space ships, preferably), or via attempted proliferation within other suitable substrates. Others might deign to help us, but it’ll be on their own terms, however benign they might turn out to be.
Frankly (especially after investing the kind of time, expertise, and money required for a thorough-going AI program, if the results are anything like as I’ve suggested) we might think it a better bet to keep on making ultra-sophisticated but intrinsically non-sentient number-crunching supercomputers to aid us in whatever spiffing wheezes we’ve dreamed up, so that, in the end, despite strong AI, not all that much will have changed.
I could, of course, be completely wrong here. The future will be as it is, and really I’d just like to live to see this decided one way or the other. Being wrong would be a small price to pay for the privilege or seeing how things go, and having had even a small and erroneous say in the speculation beforehand.
Banks is one of my favorite authors and I have a number of Culture novels ( The Player of Games, Enter Plebus, Excession ) and I often wondered how a post-scarcity society controlled by trans-sapient AIs could prevent itself from having a Technological Singularity. Most assuredly it’s conscious effect by the AIs to prevent this. I guess they find this Universe just too interesting and meddling in less advanced culture’s “affairs” a real good game.
Fascinating theory in future human, AI and societal thought!
‘The Future Might Be a Hoot’: How Iain M. Banks Imagines Utopia
Sci-Fi Classics: Olaf Stapledon’s ‘Last Men in London’
Olaf Stapledon was one of the most influential science-fiction authors of the early 20th Century. His many works were studied by C.S. Lewis, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, John Maynard Smith and Stanislaw Lem and influenced these author’s future works. And I must admit, gave me the idea for the “Children of Humanity” of my own amateur scribblings.
Recently Adelade University in Australia has made the works of Stapledon online for download and I for one am thrilled. I printed out ‘Star Maker’ an ‘Last and First Men’ some years ago on another site and I’m now in the process of reading ‘Last Men in London’.
The Future’s Concern with the Past
MEN and women of Earth! Brief Terrestrials, of that moment when the First Human Species hung in the crest of its attainment, wavelike, poised for downfall, I, a member of the last Human Species, address you for a second time from an age two thousand million years after your day, from an age as remotely future to you as the Earth’s beginning is remotely past.
In my earlier communication I told of the huge flux of events between your day and mine. I told of the rise and fall of many mankinds, of the spirit’s long desolations and brief splendours. I told how, again and again, after age-long sleep, man woke to see dimly what he should be doing with himself; how he strove accordingly to master his world and his own nature; and how, each time, circumstances or his own ignorance and impotence flung him back into darkness. I told how he struggled with invaders, and how he was driven from planet to planet, refashioning himself for each new world. I told, not only of his great vicissitudes, but also of the many and diverse modes of mind which he assumed in different epochs. I told how at length, through good fortune and skilled control, there was fashioned a more glorious mankind, the Eighteenth Human Species, my own. I hinted as best I might at the great richness and subtlety, the perfect harmony and felicity, of this last expression of the human spirit. I told of our discovery that our own fair planet must soon be destroyed with all the sun’s offspring; and of our exultant acceptance even of this doom. I told of the final endeavours which the coming end imposes on us.
In this my second communication I shall say little of my own world, and less of the ages that lie between us. Instead I shall speak mostly of your world and of yourselves. I shall try to show you yourselves through the eyes of the Last Men. Of myself and my fellow-workers, I shall speak, but chiefly as the link between your world and mine, as pioneering explorers in your world, and secret dwellers in your minds. I shall tell of the difficulties and dangers of our strange exploration of ages that to us are past, and of our still stranger influence upon past minds. But mostly I shall speak of men and women living in Europe in your twentieth Christian century, and of a great crisis that we observe in your world, a great opportunity which you tragically fail to grasp.
In relation to the long drama which I unfolded in my earlier communication it might well seem that even the most urgent and the most far-reaching events of your little sphere are utterly trivial. The rise and fall of your world-moving individuals, the flowering and withering of your nations, and all their blind, plant-like struggle for existence, the slow changes and sudden upheavals of your society, the archaic passions of your religious sects, and quick-changes of your fashionable thought, all seem, in relation to those aeons of history, no more than the ineffective gyrations of flotsam of the great river of humanity, whose direction is determined, not by any such superficial movements, but by the thrust of its own mass and the configuration of the terrain.
In the light of the stars what significance is there in such minute events as the defeat of an army, the issue of a political controversy, the success or failure of a book, the result of a football match? In that cold light even the downfall of a species is a matter of little importance. And the final extinction of man, after his two thousand million years of precarious blundering, is but the cessation of one brief tremulous theme in the great music of the cosmos.
Yet minute events have sometimes remarkable consequences. Again and again this was evident in the great story that I told. And now I am to describe events some of which, though momentary and minute in relation to the whole career of man, are yet in relation to yourselves long-drawn-out and big with destiny. In consequence of these momentary happenings, so near you, yet so obscure, man’s career is fated to be the weary succession of disasters and incomplete victories which I described on an earlier occasion.
But the account of these events, though it is in some sense the main theme of this book, is not its sole, not even its chief purpose. I shall say much of your baseness, much of your futility. But all that I say, if I say it well, and if the mind that I have chosen for my mouthpiece serves me adequately, shall be kindled with a sense of that beauty which, in spite of all your follies and treasons, is yours uniquely. For though the whole career of your species is so confused and barren, and though, against the background of the rise and fall of species after species and the destruction of world after world, the life of any individual among you, even the most glorious, seems so completely ineffective and insignificant, yet, in the least member of your or any other species, there lies for the discerning eye a beauty peculiar not only to that one species but to that one individual.
To us the human dawn is precious for its own sake. And it is as creatures of the dawn that we regard you, even in your highest achievement. To us the early human natures and every primitive human individual have a beauty which we ourselves, in spite of all our triumphs, have not; the beauty namely of life’s first bewildered venturing upon the wings of the spirit, the beauty of the child with all its innocent brutishness and cruelty. We understand the past better than it can understand itself, and love it better than it can love itself. Seeing it in relation to all things, we see it as it is; and so we can observe even its follies and treasons with reverence, knowing that we ourselves would have behaved so, had we been so placed and so fashioned. The achievements of the past, however precarious and evanescent, we salute with respect, knowing well that to achieve anything at all in such circumstances and with such a nature entailed a faith and fortitude which in those days were miracles. We are therefore moved by filial piety to observe all the past races of men, and if possible every single individual life, with careful precision, so that, before we are destroyed, we may crown those races our equals in glory though not in achievement. Thus we shall contribute to the cosmos a beauty which it would otherwise lack, namely the critical yet admiring love which we bear toward you.
But it is not only as observers that we, who are of man’s evening, are concerned with you, children of the dawn. In my earlier message I told how the future might actually influence the past, how beings such as my contemporaries, who have in some degree the freedom of eternity, may from their footing in eternity, reach into past minds and contribute to their experience. For whatever is truly eternal is present equally in all times; and so we, in so far as we are capable of eternity, are influences present in your age. I said that we seek out all those points in past history where our help is entailed for the fulfilment of the past’s own nature, and that this work of inspiration has become one of our main tasks. How this can be, I shall explain more fully later. Strange it is indeed that we, who are so closely occupied with the great adventure of racial experience, so closely also with preparations to face the impending ruin of our world, and with research for dissemination of a seed of life in remote regions of the galaxy, should yet also find ourselves under obligation toward the vanished and unalterable past.
No influence of ours can save your species from destruction. Nothing could save it but a profound change in your own nature; and that cannot be. Wandering among you, we move always with fore-knowledge of the doom which your own imperfection imposes on you. Even if we could, we would not change it; for it is a theme required in the strange music of the spheres.
Although Stapledon’s premise of different “Mankinds” marks higher rungs on the evolutionary ladder a couple of billion years into the future, he leaves the conflict part of our very natures intact which is the glue that holds the various Mankinds together.
And that is the special quality of Stapledon’s writings that never dates itself.
Special hat tip to the Daily Grail.
Into The Multiverse
It has been a long time since I tried writing some science-fiction, especially my own. So I decided to start the New Year by putting out a small fiblet that’s part of my “Children of Humanity” series to see how it goes.
Enjoy. Feedback is appreciated.
The Rock dropped through the wormhole created by the Death of Sol.
The Rock wasn’t really a rock, or anything remotely mineral. It was several multi-megatons of Computronium, a miniature neutron star. Inside of it was a virtual environment that contained billions of uploaded and stored minds of baseline and transbaseline human beings. The storage area even stored multi-Singularity beings whom oversaw the other entities and provided guidance to them.
Also the multi-Universe traveling vehicle stored virtual “DNA” in which the people in their various virtual environments could be resuscitated ( or reconstituted ) upon landing at their ultimate destination.
The Primitive Earth billions of Old Years long gone.
Bryq felt nothing as the Rock completed its transition through the Hole. No jerk or motion what so ever. “Well, at least Kirn got this right”, he thought.
He took a quick mental sweep of the outside environment. The hard radiation created by the .02c velocity as they left the Hole was swept aside by the magnetic shielding of the Rock. Soon they would be decelerating down to 100,000 kilometers per hour ( Old Measure ) as they swung through the Old Solar System.
Bryq changed his view as he scanned the area for the next target in their Travel to the Destination. Soon he spyed the Orange-Red planet that was the next step in the Journey.
The Target wasn’t picked for its mass, magnetic or gravitational properties, for it had minimal amounts of these things.
But it had one thing that could be used for a Jump to the next level the Rock needed to be. Another three billion Old Years into the Past.
Mars had Jump Gates, the one technology baseline Humans in this era denied they had to their public because the tech came from the one thing most people would claim impossible.
Is The Character of Doctor Who a Living Thing?
From the Daily Grail:
Higgs later looks at Doctor Who through the framework of Moore’s Ideaspace, and it’s a wonderful little insight into the self-regenerating (pardon the pun) nature of the famous Timelord character:
Once it was off the air Doctor Who continued as a series of novels, and many of the people who wrote Doctor Who fiction in this period – Russell T. Davies, Mark Gattis, Paul Cornell and Steven Moffat to name a few – were responsible for resurrecting Doctor Who in 2005. Indeed a number of these people, and many British writers of their generation, have gone on record as saying that they only became writers in the first place because of Doctor Who.
When Russell T. Davies brought the series back to television he reinvigorated the character by using the narrative device of surviving a great ‘Time War’. The ‘Time War’ idea originally came from Alan Moore, who wrote a number of Doctor Who comic scripts in 1981 about a ‘4D War’ which had two time-travelling armies attacking each other at increasingly earlier points in time so that neither side had any idea about what the war was about, or who started it.
…The Doctor is the first British folk hero of the TV age, and the nature of his TV origins make him unusual. There is no definitive creator standing behind him, no Arthur Conan Doyle, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ian Fleming or J.K. Rowling. Instead, he popped out from the space between many minds. There was a succession of different actors, writers and producers who all invigorated the character for a short while before moving on or burning out. The character is defined by his ability to regenerate and change his personality. He can change all his friends and companions. He can go anywhere, at any time. He is, essentially, the perfect never-ending story. He will survive long after you, me or anyone currently involved in making the series has died. He adapts, grows, mutates and endures. In this he fulfils much of the standard definitions for a living thing. This is not bad going, for a fiction.
Already, there are many thousands of Doctor Who stories which, for a character of fiction, is almost unheard of. There have been hundreds of stories on TV, and there are countless more available as novels, audio CDs, comic books, films, stage plays, webcasts, fanfics and radio programmes. The growth of the story, compared to any other fiction from the same period, is deeply unusual. Indeed, it has become arguably the most expansive and complex non-religious fiction ever created.
According to Moore’s model of Ideaspace, this fiction may be complicated enough to act like a living thing. Note that this is not to say that Doctor Who is a living thing, for that would sound crazy It is to say that it behaves as if it were a living thing, which is a much more reasonable observation. Of course, if you then go on to try and define the difference between something that is living and something that behaves like it is living, you will be a brave soul indeed.
When the current Doctor Who writers claim that they only became writers because of Doctor Who, they usually credit the series of novels which [David] Whitaker started and which young boys devoured during the 1970s. There is another explanation, however, which comes from the very format of the programme. In the original series, episodes built towards a climax and ended on a cliff hanger in which the Doctor or his friends appeared to be in inescapable danger. Of course, the children watching knew that the Doctor would somehow survive. He always did. The question, then was not would he escape, but how? What could possibly happen to get the Doctor out of that situation? There would be much debate about this in school playgrounds after each episode. And as the kids thought about the problem, their imaginations were being stoked. They were thinking like writers. Indeed, they were trying to write the next episode themselves.
What we have here, then, is a character of fiction, neither created or ‘owned’ by any one imagination, who is actively creating the very environment – writer’s minds – that it needs to survive into the future. Not only is Doctor Who a fictitious character that acts like a living thing by constantly evolving and surviving, it is also a self-sustaining living thing that creates the one thing that it needs to survive. From an evolutionary point of view, that’s impressive.
I’ve skipped over a number of other fascinating elements of Higgs’ discussion of Doctor Who, such as the influence of alchemical thinking on David Whitaker’s creative output. And the Doctor Who segment is just one small part of what is a brilliant book that touches on everything from JFK assassination conspiracy theories through to the fascinating philosophical theories of Alan Moore and Robert Anton Wilson. All of this is framed in terms of the careers of Drummond and Cauty, the two halves that make up The KLF, and the strange scenarios and synchronicities that seem to have charged the duo with some sort of magical power. And ultimately, it’s about exploring the motivations, or influences, that led to their most infamous and debated act – taking the profits of their music career, a million British pounds, and burning it in the fireplace of a deserted boathouse on the Island of Jura in the middle of the night (see the video below for an interview with Cauty and Drummond discussing it). Higgs hits the nail on the head when he explains why most people find the burning of the million quid so disturbing – unlike someone spending millions on goods or services, “this wasn’t money being wasted; it was money being negated.”
The article’s description of the “character” of Doctor Who imitating the very nature of a living thing and I found that impressive.
But one must ask the question “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck and looks like a duck, is it a duck?”
Serving Media Mind Crap As Prime Rib
I haven’t said much about politics lately. In fact I haven’t spoken about it in a year I think.
To me, all politics is media crap served up on a steaming platter disguised as “prime rib” to sell products and brain-wash the low informed voter.
As Scottish science-fiction author Charlie Stross observes; “…for a period of several months, culminating on November 6th, mind-numbingly huge quantities of money will be spent on systematically lying to the US electorate. Meanwhile, the news media will make hay.”:
News—I use the word to describe the news distribution media—is not about informing us about newsworthy events going on around us. Rather, it’s about delivering captive eyeballs to advertisers who in turn pay the news media the money they need in order to keep on doing what it is that they do, which is to say, making a profit. There are a handful of exceptions to this rule. State-owned propaganda media are there to push a particular political agenda on behalf of their owners, but they’re vanishingly rare in the English language media. The BBC is a very peculiar entity, a halfway-house between a state-owned propaganda agency and a truly independent news organization funded by charter: but it’s in competition with the regular commercial capitalist news media, and so has been co-opted into their advertising-driven rat-race to such an extent that it would be unwise to look to it for an independent view. In general, the English-language media are beholden to advertising as a revenue source, and this skews the way the news is presented to us, the audience of eyeballs they wish to attract and capture.
The need to sell eyeballs to advertisers means that news agencies need to maximize their audience. And because real news is random, chaotic, and incoherent, a big part of their job is to come up with a comprehensible narrative—a grand story of the world around us which makes sense and which keeps us sitting on the edge of our chairs, coming back for more each evening or morning. News—I speak here of the drug, not the pushers—needs to be attractive, enthralling, and addictive. Bad news (stories of horrible things happening to other people) is better than good news (stories about nice things happening) because our primate brains are wired to pay attention to disasters: paying attention to the bloody smear the leopard made of our neighbour yesterday is an important survival skill, which is why to this day you encounter highway tail-backs near any accident site as drivers slow down and rubberneck. The news content is therefore carefully packaged as a downer and delivered to us via drip-feed, a brightly-coloured candy shell wrapped around the faecal bolus of advertising that it is designed to make us ingest.
And so: the US presidential election.
There is no news here. On November 6th, a lot of Americans will go to the polls and tick a box for a candidate. The candidates on offer do not differ by very much; they represent, at best, different factions of the ruling oligarchy. We peer at them and magnify their differences and get upset about the prospects of the disruptive change that letting the wrong one in will cause—but in reality, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will unilaterally scrap the Pentagon, end the “war on terror”, or declare a Workers And Soldiers Soviet. Whoever occupies the Oval Office is a prisoner to the institutional interests of the various arms of the US government, and has to work with the Congress they’re given—remember who holds the purse strings? Truly disruptive candidates get filtered out of the system before the election campaign even gets under way: we saw a classic example of this during the Republican primaries this year as each anyone-but-Romney contender was paraded before the cameras for their fifteen minutes of fame before their flaws became too obvious and they were tossed on the scrap-heap of authenticity.
As a citizen of the U.K. Stross has a firm grip of the reality of U.S. politics and of the real rulers of the country – institutionalized corporate interests.
IMO, I could guess the ol’ U.K. operates much the same way.
After all, our country is descended from them.
It’s been a while since I added a new science fiction magazine and I’ve found a new one – Aeon from the U.K.
Like someone is there
Ineffable encounters and moments of ego-transcendence can be quite matter-of-fact. What’s really going on?
Ken MacLeod 28 September 2012
Jack Butler Yeats The Two Travellers© Estate of Jack B Yeats. All rights reserved, DACS 2012here are two kinds of experience, both of which have happened to me several times, and I can’t explain either of them. In fact, I could make up any number of explanations for them on the spot: they may be mysterious but they’re not mystical, and they don’t make me suspect for a moment that anything inexplicable is going on. But I’ve never actually come across an explanation of them, or even an account by someone else of having had them. I’ve described them as best I could as minor incidents in novels, and I’ve hardly ever heard anyone say they knew just what I was talking about.
The first kind dates from my late childhood and early teens. It hasn’t happened since. Until the age of 10 I lived on the Isle of Lewis and that’s where it first took place. I may have been eight or nine at the time. On hot, sunny afternoons — which were rare — I would go exploring up a narrow glen near our house. Its sides were rocky and steep: two cliffs, face to face. On its floor a single-track road ran alongside a small river. I’d do daft, dangerous things like walking along a water pipe that crossed the burn beside an ancient stone bridge, or clambering from boulder to boulder. And now and again, I climbed up the side of the glen to sit on the lip of a rock step near the top, commanding the roads with an imaginary machine-gun.
On at least one, maybe more, of these adventures I became intensely aware of something that rang from the silence, sunlight, solitude, and rock. I can only describe it as a sense of some enormous presence. It was everywhere, like the shimmer of the heat in the air. Maybe I was frightened at first but that passed, and it became something that was just there, like the light.
A tale of dual awareness?
Read the rest here.
Are People the Biggest Challenge to Interstellar Travel?
The biggest challenge in mounting a space mission to another star may not be technology, but people, experts say.
Scientists, engineers, philosophers, psychologists andleaders in many other fields gathered in Houston last week for the 100 Year Starship Symposium, a meeting to discuss launching an interstellar voyage within 100 years.
“It seems like it would be so hard, and the biggest obstacle is ourselves. Once we get out of our way, once we commit to this, then it’s a done deal,” said former “Star Trek: The Next Generation” actor LeVar Burton, who is serving on the advisory committee of the 100 Year Starship project.
The initiative hopes to spur the development of new propulsion technologies, life support systems, starship and habitat designs, as well as myriad other necessaryinnovations, to send a vehicle beyond our solar system — where no manmade object has yet traveled — and to another star. As the closest stars to the sun are still light-years away, such a feat will be daunting. [How Interstellar Space Travel Works (Infographic)]
But Burton wasn’t the only one who said the most difficult part of interstellar spaceflight may be corralling public and governmental support, and getting the right thinkers to work together to attack the problem.
“I think the greatest challenges are going to be what the greatest challenges in anything are, and that’s the people piece,” said former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, who was the first African-American woman to travel to space. Jemison is heading the new 100 Year Starship organization, which was founded with seedmoney from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“The really exciting thing and the scary thing is I know I can’t do it by myself, but there are a lot of people who want to help,” Jemison added.
Interstellar spaceflight for humanity isn’t inevitable, she said — merely imperative.
“We could screw it up,” Jemison told Space.com. “We could decide not to do it. But I can tell you what, if we don’t figure out how to do it, then we probably aren’t going to be around to worry about whether the sun turns into a red gas giant. Unless we find some focal aspiration that pushes us further, that helps us see ourselves as a species that we should be cooperating with, we’re going to be in trouble.”
Plus, if human beings can solve the challenges of interstellar spaceflight, in the process they will have solved many of the problems plaguing Earth today, experts said. For example, building a starship will require figuring out how to conserve and recycle resources, how to structure societies for the common well-being, and how to harness and use energy sustainably.
Perhaps the 100 Year Starship Symposium should partner up with the Build The Enterprise Project? They have a 100 year timeline also and I couldn’t think of a better marriage.
The biggest challenge to interstellar spaceflight? Us