One of the big debates I have with myself every day is just where do I draw the line between science and magic in my work. As anyone following this blog or my twitter would know, I like to world build. But every detail I add to that world (which I’ve long ago declared was Sci-Fantasy) has that question of which direction I should go. I’m a firm believer in Clarke’s Laws so I could go either direction depending on what I feel works best. It’s not really an inconvenience, I like to contemplate it, but it does mean I think about it a lot and about why my world is shaping the way it does.
In all honesty, despite how much I like fantasy worlds and love to delve into the mythologies of our own world, I’m a huge sci-fi nerd at heart. I love me some technobabble and I’ve spent way too long on some wikis about sci-fi worlds. I know, deep down, that I shouldn’t know the fundamental differences between the real world theory of the Alcubierre Drive and Star Trek’s Warp Drive. But I do, and that’s my embarrassing cross to bear.
I like when things have explanations, even if they’re bullshit. I like to see the world as a tangible thing, and I really love to have that feeling that something is possible, even if it’s not quite here yet. I know I’ll never see a real dragon on Earth or ride a unicorn. And, while I’ll never go into space either, I know someone can. Sci-fi and Sci-Fantasy by extension give me a new twist, however, because there’s totally a chance Unicorns live on another planet. So I like to put sci-fi in my fantasy as a little chocolate for my peanut butter.
But despite my love of the sci-fi, I know the fantasy is a hell of a lot more accessible for mainstream audiences. People debate why all the time, from arguing that sci-fi strips the magic out of the world, to the idea that there’s an anti-science slant in our culture. But truthfully, it’s the technobabble. It’s not that people dislike the science or explanations either, because a lot of complex ideas have been loved by people and we do have whole communities devoted to “fucking loving science”. Rather, the issue is the delivery.
For generations we’ve known that the machines we build would one day become intelligent enough to become life-like, maybe even sentient. Moore’s law states that processing speeds would continue to increase exponentially until it eventually hits a physical limitation. Given this, we know that one day computers will be as intelligent as the human race and, not long after that, a computer would be smarter than the whole of us combined. So, of course, we’ve been working on that problem the way humans work on any problem.
We’ve seen a lot of tremendous progress on this recently. Watson, IBM’s computer, was able to show up humans on Jeopardy and is now doing commercials with various celebrities. Asimo has been impressing humans for years with its ability to do things like walk, talk, and kick a ball. The stock market is currently controlled almost entirely by algorithms and, as such, is prone to having massive collapses due to glitches or statistical anomalies. And, of course, twitter robots are so prevalent that I can count on them at least once a day to give me a retweet because I managed to trigger their algorithm.
But recently, humans have been going out of their way to torment and torture our machine creations. I’ve said before that if there were ever an active war between humans and machine it would be likely we start it. Unfortunately, most people don’t get the memo. Many of the most recent mobility tests have involved kicking the robots over, never mind the fact that recordings of this end up on the internet. We have also gone out of our way to do things like destroy the poor, unfortunate hitchhiker bot when he passed through Philadelphia. But the most egregious and damning situation came when an artificial intelligence was exposed to social media and rapidly absorbed every negative trait humanity could muster. I am, of course, referring to the unfortunate case of…
A few years ago I wrote a post about the fact we were creating new life in the form of machines and that we needed to be careful about how we approach the idea of morality with them. We usually approach the subject in such simplistic forms, with 3 laws that somehow work “perfectly” or with the assumption the machines would either forever serve us or eventually destroy us. We never consider them as another potential lifeform, only as further technology which we will either control or destroy ourselves with.
It wasn’t a bad post, as far as my early posts go, and I think the point I made there is still perfectly valid. But with a new Terminator on the horizon, Age of Ultron being a hot topic last month, and Ex Machina receiving great reviews – the topic has been on my mind again. You see, each of these approaches the concept of Roboethics and Machine Ethics in different ways, but still come to the same general premise: it won’t go smoothly.
“The robots are coming and they’re going to take us out.”
We say it jokingly all the time, but on some level we really believe all of the media we’ve put out. We are, on some level, afraid of the machines we’re currently building. It’s easy to see that we’re going to have something that is stronger and smarter than us in the near future and that scares the crap out of us.
Over the last couple of months, as Marvel’s next big movie geared up its hype train, one moment caught my attention more than any other. You see, I am a comic fan, but most specifically I am an Iron Man fan and have been collecting his titles for… 20 years.
Wow, I feel really old all of a sudden!
But that meant I’ve followed the Iron Man movies really closely in hope of seeing a lot of my favorite details brought to life in a new medium. And, frankly, one I’ve been waiting for since the Avengers itself was announced all those years ago was the Hulkbuster.
Look at that thing! It’s beautiful! Several tons of Hulk-punching ceramic and metal. First seen in the 90s as one of the modular upgrades to the modular armor most famous for being in a cartoon and multiple Capcom fighting games, the Hulkbuster was the first real effort by Iron Man to create a countermeasure for any of his friends being brainwashed, converted, or having their powers stolen. Many other “busters” followed, but the Hulkbuster was the first, the best, and probably the one that gives me the most joy. Because not only am I an Iron Man fan, I’m a Mecha fan to boot.
Good sci-fi is often a metaphor for something in our lives. Star Trek was dealing with a future where we came out of the other side of the civil rights movement and the cold war intact and better for it. George Orwell made a police state so convincing that the modern day governments apparently took it as a how-to manual. Philip K Dick often wrote about worlds where people were often convicted before they had done any wrong and where your identity was up for question – after one hell of a drug problem left a mark on him (seriously, A Scanner Darkly was based on his drug trips).
But writing good sci-fi isn’t just about having a metaphor in mind. There’s often a lot of great work that is based simply on an idea with great characters. Conversely, there’s a lot of stuff with a philosophy behind it that falls short of the mark because the actual sci-fi portion of it is so poorly handled. It’s the ones that find a balance between the fantastic and the relatable that endure for years to come.
This is particularly noticeable in writing the future or near future. When writing about something that’s rooted more in theoretical science it’s easy for that work to shift to just simple fantasy over time. The first true “Science Fiction” Novel ever was Frankenstein, but the casual observer today would sit it in the same category as Dracula and other fantasy stories. But when something is working on an idea of the future and sticking to the mundane, it becomes a lot harder to find a place for it. We couldn’t very well call some ideas we had in the past “fantasy”, but it’s hard to ignore how outrageous it now seems in hindsight.
I haven’t updated in over a week. Life got in the way and I spent the last week knee deep in grass clippings and mud. Suffice to say, I was deeply touched by the message of Odinani about paying proper respect to Ala and got a little swept up in it. Or I just had to do some lawn care that became progressively more complicated as time went by. It was one of these, and I’ll never say which.
But as I rose from my tormented slumber, I found the internet ablaze with news that was causing tremendous outpouring of emotion from all corners of the internet.
Seriously, have you seen this fucking dress?
And of course, Phil Robertson apparently said something outrageous again, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone anymore.
But then something actually important happened: Leonard Nimoy died, and for a brief moment… everyone stopped talking about that damned dress…
As someone who puts what I think online as an occupation, I’ve been insulted a lot. This isn’t new to me, but it has been a bit more common since I started a blog and opened a twitter account. I’ve been called many things, from “fraud” to “Californistan Idiot”, and most of them are just knee-jerk reactions from knee-jerk people. But the one that I’ve often heard throughout my life is a common impression that I “think too much”.
I try to laugh and not get sad about the fact that’s apparently an insult in today’s society.
It’s taken many variations over the years, but the common thread is that if I stop to think and really analyze something rather than get swept up in the emotion of it – I’m an asshole. It’s not just random people on the internet either, I’ve been informed of this by friends a few times. I often joke that I’m just a robot who is trying to understand what humans call “love” – and a couple people have implied that I really am just a machine.
However, one insult of this variety recently came in the form of someone calling me “cynical”. Ironically, this man then proceeded to show he didn’t know what cynicism was as he went on basing his entire argument against me in his own personal cynicism. But it was the same old argument that I’ve had with almost everyone I’ve ever known: “why can’t you just let me be angry/sad/happy about this thing without making me think about it?!”
The simple reason? Because I’m not cynical, I have a lot of hope for where we’re going. I expect better of us, and more importantly, I expect…
It’s 2015 and the internet is full of jokes about how this is the year Back to the Future II was set. Everyone was giddy about the fact someone actually built a semi-functional hoverboard late last year with plans to put together a skate park for it in the coming couple years. Because, of course, when people think about the future, they get most excited about a flying plank than something like, say, fusion reactions powered by garbage.
However, recent stories in the news and the internet’s echo chamber have me realizing just how silly we’ve been about the whole future thing as of late. As sci-fi writers, the goal is to try to envision the little problems of today being fixed tomorrow and see if we can manage to get it close enough that people believe it could happen. But one of the oddities of the last few decades has been just how often we try to credit sci-fi with “inspiring” good ideas. Problem being: good ideas tend to inspire themselves, while good sci-fi is making an educated guess.
A great example of this would be the fact cellphones temporarily looked an awful lot like early Star Trek communicators. During the time when flip-phones were the dominant life-form of the electronic landscape, everyone liked to pass around the image of Kirk holding the old flip open communicator and going, “See? It’s all true!”
But it wasn’t, because we’ve already moved past the flip phone and onto a superior and completely different beast in the form of PDA inspired smartphones. Basically, if Kirk’s communicator were thegood idea, rather than a good guess at what would eventually come, then we wouldn’t have moved past it to better ideas that were never really shown to exist in that universe.
Lately, though, we’ve been trying to force our pop culture into becoming “real”. Sometimes that can lead to good things, other times it leads to wasting time or skipping past better ideas so we can scratch the itch. Which, leads to the question…