Thursday, March 26, 2009

Alien aliens (group minds)

Hive minds have fascinated people since before SF began.

I refer, of course, to that prototypical hive: that of bees. It's long been noted that many types of insects -- individually far from intelligent -- exhibit complex group behaviors and build complex structures. Complexity within groups emerges from the seemingly simple behavior of the individual units.

It's not only insects. Flocks, for example, exhibit behaviors that result from the unsophisticated reflexes of individual birds. ("Bird brain" isn't an insult for nothing, nor "silly goose.")

The overall phenomenon is called emergence. If you are of a computer-oriented frame of mind, you may prefer the term cellular automata. Either way, the fascinating thing is complexity arising out of simplicity and large numbers. One theory of human intelligence is that it emerges from the 100 billion neurons (and 100s of trillions of synapses) in each of our brains.

The natural emergence of complexity -- and perhaps, intelligence -- from large numbers of simple units is so attractive it may be the leading fictional premise for the emergence of an artificial intelligence. Certainly I've introduced AIs that way (in only some of my AI-centric stories.)

The SFnal (and sociological) question becomes: if sophistication emerges from collectives of simple creatures, what might arise from collectives of intelligent creatures?

We have plenty of good SF to choose from. To name a few personal favorites:
  • the dog/wolf pack-like Tines of A Fire Upon the Deep (Vernor Vinge)
  • the multi-species Borg of the Star Trek franchise.
  • the hive humans of Hellstrom's Hive (Frank Herbert).
  • the group ensembles of the starfish-like Gw'oth (with the individual Gw'o in turn descended from a colony of carnivorous worms) of Fleet of Worlds (Larry Niven and Edward M. Lerner).
Collectives and emergence -- hive minds -- are a great way to make alien aliens, even with humans as building blocks.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Busy busy busy

I spent last weekend at the Virginia Festival of the Book, cosponsored by (among others) the National Endowment for the Arts, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, and the University of Virginia. The festival is very broad spectrum, covering nonfiction and fiction, small press and large. The festival offered but one panel on science fiction and fantasy -- and I was delighted to be invited.

Turns out I was the sole SF author on the panel. Besides being a lot of fun, the SF&F panel turned out to be a great venue for discussing Fools' Experiments. I was gratified by the interest.

So three days not writing ... with lots more to come. Because last week's mail brought two major projects.

First, copyedits for Destroyer of Worlds. That's the third book in my series of collaborations with Larry Niven. For aficionados of Known Space, Destroyer is a sequel to both Juggler of Worlds and Protector. (I hasten to add, Destroyer is written so you don't have to have read the earlier books. You'll get some aha! moments, though, if you have.) Expect to see Pak protectors, Puppeteers, and -- introduced in Fleet of Worlds -- the starfish-like Gw'oth -- among others.

Second, galleys for Small Miracles. This is a Lerner solo, a near-future technothriller about medical nanotech. Small Miracles is a standalone, not part of a series.

So: that's more than 200,000 words of proofreading I'll be doing over the next couple of weeks. I'm not complaining -- just providing fair warning my blogging may fall off a bit.

I've learned not to offer precise dates for book releases. Best guess, Destroyer of Worlds and Small Miracles will both be released by Tor Books in 4Q09.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

What's in a name?

In the beginning (as our beloved genre judges these things), we had scientifiction. It was the age of the pulps.

Scientifiction was a name only Hugo Gernsback could love. (Yes, that's opinion -- and I wait to see who can prove me wrong. Did anyone admit to liking the term once s/he wasn't submitting stories to the man?) Still, let it be remembered that Gernsback did a lot for the genre in its early days. The World Science Fiction Society honors his contributions each year with the prestigious Hugo Award.

Then the name became science fiction: tasteful and precise. A golden age began ...

Science fiction? Four syllables. It's madness! We can't expect anyone to expend that much energy. Can we? And so we got SF, an honest acronym and the tag I often use. But too many, evidently, found SF stuffy. That brings us -- ugh! -- to "sci fi."

Maybe "sci fi" was insufficiently cute. Some took to pronouncing it "skiffy."

I thought skiffy was as trite and self-deprecating as we could get. Silly me.

No lesser source than the New York Times tells us that the Sci Fi Channel is planning to rebrand itself as ... wait for it ... Syfy. Who would have imagined there was a way to make scientifiction sound good?

The more we disparage ourselves, the less surprised we should be that the broader community disparages our genre.

It's not too late. Say it ain't so, Sci Fi Channel.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Physics rocks

The Year of Science continues. (Cue orchestra. If YoS doesn't have a theme, it should.)

In March, YoS is celebrating physics and technology. To which -- being a one-time physicist and technologist -- I can say, only, woohoo.

Through my years of education teacher after teacher made claims of universality for their subjects -- then other teachers (and experience) would refute them. But some claims are stronger than others ...

Let's look at physics and what it has brought us. For starters:
  • Gadgets. Devices that were unimaginable not only became real, but also faster, smaller, and cheaper by the year. Computers, iPods, cell phones, GPS, antilock brakes ... the list is long. We shrink transistors by one order of magnitude after another, and quantum-mechanical rules persist.
  • The internet. Consider the medium on which we hold this dialogue. Graybeard that I am, a global data network was incredible -- very literally -- within my lifetime. Now the internet is accessible from across the globe (faster all the time) and from near-Earth orbit. NASA plans to expand it to new worlds.
  • Flight. It's progressed in scarcely a century from rickety wood-and-cloth contraptions barely able to get off the ground to transoceanic capability to supersonic flight to men on the moon to robotic explorers across the solar system.
  • Worlds. 300+ planets have been identified around stars light-years distant.
  • Cosmic insight. Think of the Hubble, and the GRO, and COBE, and (insert the name of your favorite observatory). Think of the information that's been gleaned from electromagnetic waves billions of light-years on their way -- and thus billions of years old.
And to repeat, that's only for starters.

Is any of that universality? Maybe not. Can anyone prove universality? No. We may yet discover different rules apply to some galaxy that's long ago and far, far away.

But if any candidate for universality has a track record as good as physics, I've yet to encounter it.

That's my opinion, and I'm sticking to it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Steampunk SETI

It's been a while since I posted about METI (message to extraterrestrial intelligence.) METI is also called, among other things, active SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence). In the subject line, I went for alliteration.

I found this article about early METI attempts very interesting. Crop triangles ... with 19th century technology, that made sense. (Don't get me started on the stoopidity of the movie Signs, whose aliens navigate across interstellar space but make crop circles to find their way around Earth.)

METI was simpler, of course, when its only aim was to shout out the fact of our existence. Why? Because any reply would tell us if we are alone. METI takes on a whole different context with the theoretical possibility ET could come visit, or that the Great Silence stems from (to choose one possible doom) kinetic-kill weapons hurled at any species imprudent enough to speak up. (Re the latter, a particularly chilling read is the Pellegrino/Zebrowski novel The Killing Star.)

Do I fear hostile aliens? No. Maybe (hopefully!) we'll find something like bacteria deep in the Martian permafrost or something like sponges or tube worms under Europa's ice -- but almost certainly, there's no extraterrestrial intelligence in this solar system. Looking farther afield, it's hard to imagine Sol system has anything worth the resources needed to steal it. That is: aliens can exploit the resources of their home system for a fraction of the time and energy they'd spend to cross interstellar distances (to gain access to Sol system's resources).

Still ...

I might be as quaintly naive as those early would-be message-senders. While I'm in favor of METI (using the latest technology, of course, not crop triangles), I say so presuming a deliberative, transparent, international, thoroughly vetted process.

Maybe next century.