Thursday, October 30, 2008

For stuff that may not belong

This blog deals with my reflections on science and SF -- and only in passing, and in occasional posts, with my own writing.

For the past few years, I've produced an emailed newsletter, 2-3 times per year, for readers specifically interested in updates about my writing. As the months go by, more and more of those newsletters have fallen prey to overzealous spam filters.

So: I've established a private Google Group (more or less the same as a listserv):

Edward M. Lerner News and Discussion

for interested readers. The group is a better way to send the occasional announcement to those who have opted in -- with a reasonable chance that the resulting emails will end up where intended.

Members can -- but certainly don't have to -- send email to the group address, which will echo the email to other members. That's a way to discuss a book or story (or anything, for that matter) with fellow readers. I'll be copied, too, and will sometimes chime in.

If you're curious, check out the group. Joining requires a Google account. An account, if you don't have one, is free.

We now return you to the regular discussion of science and SF :-)

Monday, October 27, 2008

My fifteen minutes of fame

I recently had the pleasure of "appearing" on the popular SF podcast Cover to Cover. We discussed my last book, Juggler of Worlds and my upcoming (November 11) novel, Fools' Experiments. I'll post about FE when it's released. The interview starts at about 13 minutes, 15 seconds into the show (which isn't to say the whole show isn't interesting!).

And SF Signal asked me to participate in their Mind Meld feature, in which they ask the same question to a random(?) group of SF-industry people. The question this time -- one which authors are asked all the time -- was: Which authors and books have most influenced your writing? My answer appears with those of Joe Haldeman and Lois McMaster Bujold, among others. Good company.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Histories: alternate, future, and secret

Science fiction can set stories in the conventional past, like any garden-variety historical novel. Or SF can move characters -- see my previous post about the Time Travel Trope -- in and out of the conventional past. But SF can do so much more. The genre also offers:
Alternate history: What if history had gone a different way, like the South winning the Civil War? (Or, more intriguingly: What slight change -- like a Confederate battle plan not lost before the Battle of Antietam -- would lead to the South winning?) Thereafter, how might events unfold? Example: Harry Turtledove’s How Few Remain.
Future history: A story set against a future so richly imagined that it feels like history. Examples: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or -- from the guy who arguably invented the concept -- Robert Heinlein’s Future History stories.
Secret history: A story that unfolds within history as we know it -- while making us understand that history in a new way. Example: Michael Flynn’s Eifelheim, in which aliens were stranded in medieval Germany. More mainstream: Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
Combinations: Why not mix ’em up?
Playing with history, past and future, is a lot of fun. It must be -- we SF authors do it often. And mea culpa. Fleet of Worlds and, more so, Juggler of Worlds, both of which I co-wrote with Larry Niven are -- while standalone -- also secret future histories within Larry's Known Space.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Cue Jiminy Cricket

I recently happened upon a wonderful science-fiction resource:

Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia, edited by Brian Stableford. Stableford, of course, is both an SF critic and a prolific SF author.

The encyclopedia is neither science nor SF, but rather a fascinating discussion of both. It reviews the science used in SF, the ways SF presents (and misrepresents) science, and identifies particular stories and books that illustrate particular themes and theories. It's (too) easy to while away an hour or two exploring topics like time travel or alternate history or first contact or ... pick your SFnal theme. Alas, it's priced like the library reference book that it is.

Does my subject line parse? Either way, that says something about our comparative ages.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Iceland meltdown

The current global financial crisis somehow feels SFnal, futuristic, cyberpunk, to me.

Much wealth -- as varied as commodities futures, options on stocks, and credit default swaps -- is no more than entries in computers. Information. Or maybe disinformation. The value of the underlying "assets" is a collective state of mind, subject to mood swings -- and so, to hysteria (er, news). Or, for anyone with a conspiratorial belief system, to manipulation.

And so Iceland, a thoroughly developed country, goes almost overnight from wealthy to broke (e.g., see this USA Today story), its metaphorical hand extended for aid. Iceland is hardly the only problem spot, of course, merely (IMO) the poster child for the current crisis.

I don't mean to exonerate or excuse any particular institution. In the case of Iceland, for example, accepting bank deposits equal to about ten times the GDP looks -- in retrospect, anyway -- like a really bad idea. An SFnal, post-national, bad idea.

It's not the future I was looking for ...

Monday, October 6, 2008

Trust the force (field), Kirk

I've been rewatching the old Star Trek series. (How did we live without Netflix? Those were primitive times.)

As much as I enjoy these old shows -- woohoo! a new way in almost every episode to rationalize breaking the Prime Directive -- one thing bugs me.

These ships use force-field technology everywhere. The shuttle bays are shirtsleeve environments with huge openings to space, so force fields hold in the air. Force fields also reinforce the hull (so-called structural-integrity fields) and retain the air after the frequent hull breaches. Force fields rather than metal bars keep miscreants in the brig. Force fields provide biohazard containment. And the Star Trek ships also project force fields: tractor beams pull in (overcoming strong and straining engines) enemy ships that would flee.

So why aren't there force fields to keep people in their seats? Instead, the bridge crew is thrown about like leaves. Every $%^#!! episode. All they need is a little force-field generator (triggered and calibrated by an accelerometer, if you want to get technical) in every seat.

Or, failing per-chair force fields, why can't the 24th century master seat-belt technology?

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (telepathy, part I)

Next on our tour of SF tropes: ESP. Mind reading. Sixth sense. Telepathy.

Whatever your preferred term, I’m unaware of any verifiable proof. Demonstrations have been unrepeatable, or hoaxes, or not statistically significant. (Does anyone out there have data to the contrary?)

So, unproven. How about plausible? Nope, not that either. Because ...

Signals are weak. Brains do generate electrical energy -- reading electrical fields is how EEGs work. But the signals are very weak (neurons signal electrochemically across synapses). Hence, each EEG pickup only senses the aggregated signal from many neurons. EEG pickups are glued to your scalp to make dependable contact. It’s hard to see how one mind can sense the electrical emissions of a remote mind.

The environment is noisy. Your brain has about 100 billion neurons, many with thousands of synapses. They don’t all fire at once – but at any given time, lots are firing. Suppose remote reception were possible. How would a telepath pluck one person’s higher-level thoughts (versus, for example, real-time raw sensory input) from the din? And from the interference the other several billion of us would generate?

Wouldn't evolution favor telepaths? Telepathy seems valuable. Spot your enemies at a distance. Sense deceit. Avoid misunderstandings. Know exactly how to woo that potential mate (so mysterious to those who can’t read minds ;-) ). If humans ever could read minds, why didn’t the trait become common? So evolution argues against telepathy, too.

Natural telepathy among humans? In my mind, an SF trope. But technologically assisted telepathy? That’s another story (or at least another post). Stay tuned.