Posts Tagged sci fi

Faster than Light

I’ve written at length about teleportation and how it might be achieved (along with the virtues and perils of those forms of travel), but since I just finished rereading Dune, with instantaneous transport across the stars, I thought I’d talk a little bit about faster-than-light travel for transit through space.

The speed of light is a curious thing.  As one approaches it, external time dilates (that is, expands) and your trip takes longer and longer to an outside observer.  That means you can’t cross the speed limit because there literally isn’t enough time – it stretches out to infinity.  So how then does one move around “faster than light”?  Generally, we think of the teleportation solution (here one moment, there the next) and of the shortest-path solution (travel at normal speeds but take a shortcut).  Of course, science fiction has come up with innumerable ways of defying the speed-of-light barrier but always by fiat.

In my head, I feel like we haven’t explored all the options yet, as a species.  We aren’t really *exploring* them at all right now, but that has more to do with the building blocks of what’s necessary (you have to crawl before you can walk).  Once upon a time, something smaller than an atom would have been inconceivable, and quantum mechanics would have been preposterous.  There will be more scientific revolutions to come, and some of them may involve the potential for FTL technology.

(This problem interests me so much because I think the best solution to our world’s environmental problems is to find more worlds.  Getting a species to slow reproduction seems a practically insurmountable problem, and without population control, we will one day outstrip this planet regardless of how green we can be.  Gotta think long term!)

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Review: Vacuum Diagrams

When I made trips up and down the length of California, to visit home in Santa Cruz area while I went to school in Los Angeles area, I would sometimes stop at a highway convenience exit for food, bathroom, etc.  At one such stop, I ended up finding a Wendy’s and a bookstore within a gas station convenience store, and I picked up a collection of short stories called Vacuum Diagrams, by Stephen Baxter.  I really enjoyed reading them, having been hooked by the first couple of stories involving sentient creatures on an ice asteroid that had superfluid blood, and metamathematical nanobots as part of an experiment in quantum phenomena that ended up breaking free of the experiment to become grey goo.  I was in love with his universe.

Baxter writes hard sci fi, which is to say that he attempts to remain consistent to known or extrapolatable principles of science in his writing.  I eat this up because of my unique position as a former student of science and as a lover of high-tech fiction.  Vacuum Diagrams in particular is so great because it sketches out a cosmology and a wider universe around humans in the future through a number of interconnected short tales that are compelling on their own.  Not to spoil too much, but his primary conceit of an ancient elder race that’s kind of patronizing toward humans, and another ancient elder race of true aliens that (as a by product of their life cycle) are destroying the universe is really interesting to watch unfold over the course of (essentially) human’s future-history.

I recommend picking it up if (a) you enjoy seeing some of the weird parts of real science woven (faithfully) into fiction, and (b) you enjoy seeing a science-fiction world constructed from a series of stories that are each wonderful on their own.  Reading Vacuum Diagrams inspired me to pick up another one of his novels, Ring, which occurs in the same universe – it was okay, but not amazing – and I should see if Timelike Infinity, another in this universe, is any good.

Overall: A-
Number of Short Stories (Approx): 20
Secret to Ancient Elder Race’s Superiority: Time travel (obviously)

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Review: Starcraft 2

I’ve talked previously about Starcraft 2, how I felt about receiving it on release day and how I reacted to two issues of choice in the single-player game, but I haven’t really reviewed it properly, so I thought I’d do so today.  For those who don’t know, Starcraft is Blizzard’s sci-fi/fantasy IP about humans living in kind of frontier space with an hive-alien race called Zerg and an ancient-tech-alien race called Protoss.  The game itself is a real time strategy game, which means you manage building up your base and sending your troops to attack theirs (and their base) in each game.  In the single-player campaign, there are often other more specific objectives you have to accomplish with the resources you find/leverage.

The Starcraft 2 single-player campaign was pretty impressive.  Not only did it cleanly introduce the player to the units and structures you can build (by way of play-to-learn levels), but it also told an interesting story and made me care a bit about my choices (by rewarding me with more story or with stuff) and gave me a wide range of customization – and since RTS games are about “customizing” the units you use and the strategy you take based on what’s happening minute to minute, further customization is a perfect addition here where in other games it may just feel extraneous.  I liked that the missions you got in single player varied widely in goal type, and it usually wasn’t “kill all the enemy buildings,” which is great because I can do that in multiplayer vs. a real human opponent.  One thing I disliked (although I admit this could be personal preference) is that the achievements/badges you get in the campaign mode aren’t told to you until after you complete a mission, and when you make a choice about what sort of customization you want, it is often irreversible – two things that made me feel like I was forced to replay the same content to “achieve everything.”

Speaking of which, the multiplayer in Starcraft 2 is actually something I got a head start on, joining the beta along with many friends to play online.  Multiplayer in Starcraft continues to be the pinnacle of online real-time strategy games for me: it has the right number of units, the right number of structures required to make those units, and the right number of “spellcasting” units so that the intense micromanagement of your units is an opt-in experience.  I am by no means an excellent Starcraft 2 player, but I love playing with friends in 2v2 or 3v3 capacity, and the game is well set up to make that function.

Overall: A
Sequel Power: More like Back to the Future 2, less like Terminator 2 (good, though!)
Use of Choice and Achievements to Enforce Replay: C
Zergling Rush: Still strong, after all these years!

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I didn’t bring up the mode of teleporting where people just do it, from anywhere to anywhere, without any specific technology, because I don’t think it’s particularly likely. However, it does make an interesting perspective for how the world might change if everyone could “freecast” (Dan Simmons’ term for it from his series Hyperion/Endymion.)

First off, I feel like right now, people organize into communities based at least somewhat on who is around.  This is selective to some extent (I only hang out with people I want to, if I have people I already know in an area when I move there I tend to associate with them over others, etc.) but it is largely defined by distance as well.  I used to call this the Theory of Beats – as with two interfering waves, there’s the interaction of long distances (which is like the slow long wave) and the interaction of short distances (which is like the quick short wave bound by the larger wave).  If everyone could freecast, I get the sense that these communities would disappear to some extent, and “distance” would be more defined by emotional distance.  (For example, I might still stick around friends at work simply because I am closer emotionally to many of them due to how much shared experience we have.)

Secondly, what about the organization of cities?  Or more specifically, if you could imagine current cities as vestigial communities around a mode of transport (ports, usually, sometimes crossroads), what might they develop into over time?  In Simmons’ Hyperion, communities are connected over vast distances by fixed-portal teleporters, but when people are free to teleport from wherever to wherever, I expect that residential sections would transport entirely out of “city centers.”  If there even would be city centers!  It’s interesting that a lot of discovery in terms of new physical communities happens physically (I see a coffee shop, I follow friends somewhere) whereas freecasting would force it to act more like the Internet.

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I finished Neal Stephenson’s Anathem last night.  It was a pretty incredible book – I enjoyed it, and it covered tons of physics AND philosophy AND it was well-written and well-composited.  I would definitely recommend it to any fan of speculative fiction, or of thinking about things.  That being said, there were some oddities about the book that I wanted to write down.

One thing I found quite strange about the book was the enormous vocabulary he introduces to immerse you.  In a sense, this subtly different language is part of his theme and message, so I don’t want to spoil it, but it made the first 100 pages or so pretty sloggy.  Once I was into it, though, I really appreciated the little differences between “our” language and the language of the book.  It’s interesting, thinking about it now with the book behind me: by introducing a completely separate but intrinsically linked language that the characters use and think with, I achieved a more complete projection into their (especially the first-person narrator’s) position(s)… and so when the plot took various turns, I was much more invested.  Very clever, Stephenson… very clever.

Another thing that was odd about Anathem was the handling of science and religion simultaneously.  Most works of speculative fiction just fiat past this hurdle (“here are the G/god(s)”, or totally sidestep it and ignore it), but Anathem was up front about right away showing the in-world dichotomy amongst the learned who believed in some higher ideals, and the ones who believed in what they could see and measure.  I guess I’m a bit biased here, since his take on it is so in line with my though patterns (being/trained as a scientist), but I really liked this more concrete (if fictional) analysis of what it means to have faith – whether your faith is in a higher being, a higher plane of existence, or something else equivalent (like the Hylaean Theoric World of the book, where ideal triangles live).

Overall, I give the book a solid A.  The only reason it’s not an A+ is because the plot leaves a ton of interesting stuff uncovered, so I wanted more books to explore it.  I guess part of the book’s themes is understanding the point at which to cut loose from scholarly investigation, though, so I won’t fault it too badly.

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Teleportation 3

I wanted to conclude my series on Teleportation before moving on to discussions of Identity, since the Identity problem (am I the same entity before and after the teleport?) is most strongly felt in this method – it is the method that is “most classical” and hence easiest of which to grok the consequences.

3. Teletransport (a la Star Trek)

All humans (and in fact, all stuff) are comprised of smaller bits of stuff, and that stuff is arranged in a particular way (we’ll call that information).  It makes sense, therefore, that if you want to move from point A to point B quickly, you just need to move the stuff and the information – no need to transport the full human.  Classical teletransportation involves either the decomposition of a human into a stream of particles (along with the information needed to recreate the human at the other side), or the transmission of just the information (not the particles).  In the former case, the receiving station uses the particle stream to regenerate the human.  In the latter, the receiving station generates a new “version” of the human by using some matter bucket at the destination.  We’ll call these methods Stream and Bucket, respectively.

Star Trek has historically drawn a fuzzy line between the two, but you’ll note that most transports from ship to surface don’t have a receiving station.  This implies something else is going on – the bundle of particles and/or information actually has some programming attached to it capable of reconstructing a human at the destination.  This seems crazy to me, just thinking about how complicated a human is… even if you sent a bunch of nanobots along in the stream, how could they possibly reconstruct the human in no time at all?

The Bucket method is the one most ripe for Identity criticism, since you literally destroy the human at the transmitter and construct a new one at the destination.  Depending on what you believe constitutes “you,” this may or may not be grounds for calling it death.  Also worrying in the Bucket method is the fact that if there’s some malfunction and the origin human isn’t destroyed, we’ve now cloned you!  I much prefer thinking about the QT version of Teleportation since it sidesteps this “accidental cloning” problem due to the destructive nature of measurement at the quantum level.

One thing that thinking about all these methods of teleporation have convinced me of, however, is the relative unlikelihood of “freecasting” or “Jaunting” (to borrow terms from Hyperion and The Stars My Destination, excellent science fiction works that deal with teleportation) – that is, not requiring a station origin or destination… being able to teleport from wherever to wherever.  The complexity of the process – “reading” the information content of a person, deconstructing them, packaging them for transport, reconstructing them – just seems too high to do outside of a controlled (laboratory-esque) setting.

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Digitize Me

In the vein of thinking about technology and how it can improve our lives, I wanted to talk about “things that would be awesome to have as a digital in-eye head’s up display.”

Other than a clock with alarm capability, my top priority would be the ability to see the social web, like a visual version of Facebook friends.  Basically, I think of this as being a blue aura appearing around my direct friends when the system is active, and then trails to their friends (my second-level friends) shifting to a new color, and so on.  I imagine when the system is fully operational, and the settings are such that I am seeing deep into the friend web, I would see interesting connections in crowds.

I also think that preferences controls using my thoughts are high on the list.  That sort of integration probably runs deep, but I am all for upgrading my sensory systems from basic human to augmented technology.  As long as the core brain functions (decision making, analysis, basically control systems and thinking) are still regular ol’ Dave.

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Time Travel 2

The mutable scenario is nice because it neatly sidesteps most paradoxes.  Time CAN change, in this scenario, and the resulting timeline is {past previous to the change} + {changed timeline that includes a time traveler}.  Of course, in order to understand what’s going on in the changed timeline, we have to consider (as Mark and I discussed the other day) the two unique constructions of mutable time: replacement, and multiply.

The replacement timeline is where the changed timeline just wholesale replaces the original timeline, past the change.  Any time travelers will still “remember” the old unchanged timeline if they lived through it, because their proper worldline (their path through time) – although loopy – is still internally consistent.  This is the first major divergence from the immutable construction, because in that world, there only ever was one timeline (talking of “alternate histories” is sort of meaningless in immutable time).

The multiply timeline is the one I am fond of: in this construction, each change to the timeline splits it in two, and the two resulting timelines are separate universes, A and B.  What is the change we’re talking about?  The introduction of a time traveler, of course!  This implies that a time traveler can’t ever “return” to the original timeline from which he or she originated, but one can assume that if the time traveler is going back and wreaking havoc changing things, going back isn’t foremost in the planning.

It is interesting how the multiply timeline shares traits with the Many Worlds theory of quantum mechanics: basically, that multiple-possibility states (Schroedinger’s Cat is both alive and dead inside the box) do not become one or the other via observation, but exist simultaneously in separate, noninteracting universes.  Observation merely tells the observer which of the many possible universes he or she is in.  The relationship between a quantum observer and a multiply-timeline time traveler feels weird to me: they clearly share properties, but the time traveler seems both more powerful (can move from one universe to another) and more constrained (can’t get into universes where time travelers aren’t).

Time travel is fun to think about.

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Time Travel 1

In this and future time travel posts, I’m going to “think out loud” (e.g. do exactly what I always do on this blog) about some possible ways in which time travel might work, were it possible, and resulting implications.

When I think about time travel, I consider two potential timeline scenarios – immutable and mutable.  In the immutable scenario, there is only one timeline – that is, One True Time.  Imagine I go back in time and kill someone (like, e.g., my grandfather).  Since there is only one timeline, it must be true that I didn’t change anything – it was always the case that I arrived at that moment in time and killed that person. “How is this possible,” one might ask, since killing my own grandfather would seem rather paradoxical.  Well, in One True Time, if I did actually kill someone, it can’t have been my actual grandfather – events will have seemed to have conspired to make that true.

This version of time is fatalistic, in a similar sense to the biomachine-free-will argument: although people believe that they are making meaningful choices, they are really just acting out the programming, which in this case is the way Time “ought to be”.  An interesting conundrum with this sort of timeline is — who determined what the fixed timeline looked like, once time travelers were added to the mix (or what, or why, or at least how)?  The term “closed causal loop” stems from this conundrum: events that seem fated to happen don’t really have a cause, since their cause and their effect become blurred.  If I find a time machine, deconstruct it and make detailed instructions on how to build one, go back and give the plans to an inventor, and that inventor creates a time machine and leaves it for me to find, who created the time machine?

Immutable time is tidy, but not particularly interesting to me.  It can make for very dramatic science fiction – since conflicts can easily be railroaded via time travel to terrible, tragic conclusions (or beautiful, “serendipitous” conclusions), it works quite well.  But in terms of usefulness, I think it falls short.  Just as I don’t like considering lack of free will, I also don’t like considering predetermination of events.  Although… I suppose it’s still an open question as to whether events are predetermined BEFORE time travel is possible!

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Time Travel 0

I am fascinated by time travel.  At its heart, time travel is about breaking the rule of commitment – normally, once you do something, you have committed the act and can’t undo it.  (You can sometimes change the facts by applying more action, but you can’t remove the action you have already taken.)  Time travel allows for risk-free action, since you can (potentially, depending on how exactly time travel works) take action and then later undo the action.

I think there are three things that drive me to interest in the possibility of time travel – the first is the allure of risk-free action, described above.  The second is the examination of the fundamental meaning of human experience – that is, normally we think of what a person has experienced as immutable, but time travel breaks that thinking.  And finally, it pushes the boundaries of science (often the fictional, hypothetical part) in a way that tickles my brain.

I said in my 25 things on Facebook (a meme from a while ago where people said 25 random things about themselves) that “I don’t believe humans will ever be able to time travel.”  Part of the reason I believe this is that I think our concept of human beings would need to shift considerably to still make sense with respect to a world in which time travel is possible and frequent.  The other part of the reason I’ll explain in Time Travel 2 (Multi-Stream Time Travel), so stay tuned!  One of my favorite game systems, Continuum, is a time-travel RPG that is an interesting (if flawed) study of a society of time travelers.  I wish more science fiction did that sort of treatment.

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