Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (aliens)

Oh, come on.

Admit it: That (or some more colorful phrase of disbelief) is what you're thinking. How can aliens be only an SF trope? In such a huge and ancient universe, how can I dismiss the possibility of alien life elsewhere and elsewhen?

I don't. In fact, I plan to start a new series of posts in the new year dedicated to alien aliens.

This post is about non-alien aliens. You know the type: humans thinly disguised as aliens. Such species have served as stand-ins for Cold War allegories (e.g., two neighboring worlds locked in a war whose origins no one really understands), racial parables (e.g., two species on the same world, one pointlessly oppressing the other), and strawmen to advocate for (or against) birth control or euthanasia or gender equality or darn near any sociological pattern. When the medium is visual, these aliens are humanoid in appearance -- wouldn't want to be too subtle.

Near-certain signs of a trope alien: the aliens are cross-fertile with humans or (like decades of lurid pulp-magazine covers) find members of the other species sexually attractive.

There's no plausible basis for such aliens. Parallel evolution, you say? True, octopi have eyes much like humans -- but we can't bear each other's children! Panspermia? Suppose common seeds of life did drift, eons ago, to both Earth and Mars (or Earth and Rigel III). Since then, there's been a whole lotta evolution going on -- on both worlds. I have more genes in common with a redwood or a rattlesnake than a human can have in common with any extraterrestrial cousins.

Alien aliens: real SF. (I'd like to say meat-and-potatoes SF, but I'm guessing aliens aren't edible, either.) Stay tuned for next year's new series.

Social stand-in aliens? Trope. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Umm, *science* fiction?

Here's all you need to know about The Incredible Hulk: When Bruce Banner, the Jekyll side of the title character, gets really angry ... his mass, like, triples.

Since when does anger trump conservation of mass? Yes, the Hulk is a comic book (become TV series, become animated series, become comic-book movie, become video game -- shuffle and repeat until brain is pureed). Can't a comic have a nodding familiarity with the real world? (Yes, it can. Batman, for example, makes the effort.)

So incredible, yes ... just not in a good way. Despite more than one million hits when I google

"science fiction" and "incredible hulk"

you can't make me call it SF.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (universal translators, part II)

About a week ago, I dismissed the know-it-all, doesn't-need-training, universal translator as a trope. I left for another day -- which, it turns out, is today -- the matter of universal translators (UTs) able to learn all other languages. Call these Type II UTs.

At a minimum, the Type II UT is more credible than the know-it-all variety. Type II presumes that not all translations are self-evident. The Type II has to learn something. Maybe that's vocabulary. Maybe it struggles a bit with idiom. Still, Type II assumes that all languages ultimately fit within its array of lexical, syntactic, and semantic models. It still presumes some significant intersection of world views between us (as prospective builders of the UT) and the hive-mind slime molds of Rigel III.

But perhaps there is a loophole. Stories generally gloss over how the UT works. What if the UT is telepathic and thus gains insight into the utterly alien world view of the other mind? Another of my trope pieces concluded that technology-enabled telepathy might be possible.

Reading the hive mind of the slime molds might facilitate learning to translate -- but how would one read a mind whose thought processes, vocabulary, and symbolism are unknown? Wouldn't you need a Type I, doesn't-need-training UT to read minds on behalf of the Type II?

In hindsight, my "maybe technological telepathy can happen" post applies only to species with whom we already communicate. The aggregated output of a Martian's billions of neurons (or whatever he/she/leur/it uses) would surely be only so much noise to a telepath -- mechanical or otherwise -- never before exposed to it.

Can technology learn some languages? Most likely. Will it learn some faster than others? Sure, that makes sense -- the more the new language resembles a language the translator already knows, the better. But a universal translator? Trope city.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Dark energy -- a constant companion?

The latest big -- one might say, cosmic -- news is that dark energy is not getting appreciably stronger over time. Some dark-energy theories had predicted a strengthening of the phenomenon.

This stability conclusion comes from comparing the sizes of distant (hence seen with old light) and nearby (hence seen with recent light) galaxy clusters. Old clusters evolved in a smaller, hence more gravitationally influenced universe. Cluster formation is influenced by both gravitational (attractive) and dark-energy (repulsive) influences. Maximum cluster sizes over time fit a model of dark energy whose strength has not varied by much over billions of years. Indeed, when combining observations made in different wavelengths, the latest findings say that dark energy hasn't varied by more than 10%.

Less than ten percent? That's verging on dark energy being the cosmological constant that Einstein introduced as an ad hoc adjustment to his theory of general relativity.

So now when I'm lying awake at night, I needn't worry that all the atoms in the universe will come apart in a Big Rip in a few billion years. THAT'S a load of my mind ;-)

Now if only we knew what dark energy IS ...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Trope-ing the light fantastic (universal translators, part I)

Ever notice how many SF stories, TV shows, and movies conveniently assume Our Intrepid Explorer can easily communicate with Never Before Seen Alien? Sometimes there's no attempt to explain it -- of course everyone in the Pegasus Galaxy speaks English (Stargate Atlantis). Never mind that their ancestors came from Earth before English came about, and often from halfway around the globe from the land became known as England.

Both parties speaking English in a First Contact situation certainly moves along the plot, but it demands much willing suspension of disbelief. The SFnal workaround is the universal translator (UT). This is a computer program that translates between any two languages. Some UTs require varying amounts of exposure to the new language, others can translate immediately.

(Before I continue ... there are many excellent stories that forthrightly tackle the challenges of establishing communications. A particularly mind-stretching favorite of mine is "Story of Your Life," by Ted Chiang.)

Is a UT plausible, or is it only a trope to move along plots?

For this post, let's take the easy case. That's the know-it-all UT. It knows each new language's vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, and idioms (among other things) before ever encountering them. The implication is that there is a small number of meta-languages, encompassing all possible languages. With the shortest of snippets as a sample, the UT can derive the special case used by the newly encountered species.

Let's consider two species.

Case A, human. Language is constructed of a few tens of sounds (phonemes) used in combinations. Basic concepts reflect sight as the primary way of experiencing the world.

Case B, the aquatic hive-mind slime molds of Rigel III. They emit and absorb complex biochemicals to sense their environment and communicate. Information is encoded in (among other things) the types of molecules, concentration levels, and concentration gradients. Reactions with ambient chemicals can degrade communications. Amorphous blobs that the Rigelians are, they have neither fronts nor backs nor sides. Their sense of direction shifts with the currents, tides, and rogue waves.

How will the human-built "universal" translator fare when Our Intrepid Explorer first meets the Rigelians?

The instant-on, no-training-required UT? Surely a trope.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Kilometerstone (et. al.)

SF and Nonsense is still a very new blog. Reaching 1000 visitors, in my book, counts as a milestone.

I'm not quite there yet. But miles? English units are so un-science-y. Earlier today, when the visitor count passed 621, I declared it a kilometerstone.

If that's a bit of a stretch, well, I wanted an administrivia post to which to append this item. Obscurely placed beneath my profile -- and in text that is, for reasons only Blogspot knows, available only in faint gray -- I've been running a readers poll. To wit: Would a monthly or bimonthly interactive chat about the state of science and science fiction -- the topics of this blog -- interest you? If you hadn't noticed it, or haven't voted, allow me to direct your attention to the poll.

The poll runs through December 31. If there's enough interest, I'll arrange a chat early in 2009 -- first announcing the details in the blog, of course.

If you have strong feelings about the timing of a chat (weekends, say, or weekday evenings), post a comment or send an email. As for my constraints, I live in the U.S. Eastern time zone. That's GMT -5 hours.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Fictional frontiers

November 23rd was a red-letter day for me: my first radio "appearance." The venue was the popular-culture show Fictional Frontiers, aired weekly on a mass-market AM station: WNJC in Philadelphia.

I was invited to talk about my latest book, Fools' Experiments, but that was only the jumping-off point. The discussion covered artificial intelligence and nanotech, King Kong and hubris. (Finally, some good comes of those Greek tragedies assigned in high school.)

WJNC has now posted the interview (17 minutes). Depending on your Internet connection, the streaming version may sound great or like you're in a barrel. In the latter case, there's a downloadable MP3 version.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Hollow (er, holo) episodes

Fair warning: today's post is a bit of a rant (and perhaps a bit of heresy).

I've mentioned revisiting the Star Trek universe. At this point, I'm well into Star Trek Voyager. Overall, I'm enjoying myself -- but I can fairly predictably spot episodes that'll make me sputter: anything holodeck-intensive.

To name just a few gripes:

1. Could the safety provisions be any less reliable, or the safety protocols any easier to disable? And after, say, the tenth incident, why has no one thought to fix things? It's lazy writing, pure and simple.

2. Holo matter is magical stuff that people can touch -- or that can strangle them -- when it is convenient, and is ephemeral at other times. It's limited to the holodeck, except (and I'm not referring to the "mobile holo-emitter") when it's not. More lazy writing.

3. Why, exactly, does the holographic doctor use a terminal to interact with a computer? Isn't he already a two-way, real-time program within the ship's computer network?

(And as to the shipboard network, a non-holo gripe: Why hand-carry little computers to deliver crew reports? Is email too advanced?)

4. Holo matter is projected and/or maintained by force fields. The illusion of a space much larger than the physical holodeck comes from a sort of virtual treadmill -- more force fields. And still no force fields to keep people in their chairs on the bridge during battle.

Virtual reality -- good. Holodeck -- faugh. I won't even dignify the latter as a respectable SF trope.