What I’ve Been Reading

The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

Another excellent romp in the Culture universe.  I’m really sad this one will be the last, because they’re all so good.  The Culture is one of the most sensible and realistic views of the distant future I’ve encountered in a lifetime of reading SF.

In regards to this story, I’ll just say the ending was not predictable at all, and the Mountains of the Sound is a place I’d love to visit or perhaps even create.

 


The Black Wheel by A. Merritt and Hannes Bok

I’ve long had the idea of reading all of Merritt’s books, based on the strength of The Metal Monster.  This is the third of his books I’ve read, and I have to say it wasn’t terribly great.  I didn’t realize until after reading it that more than 2/3 of the chapters were written by Bok, based on a rough outline left by Merritt.  I didn’t notice the transition.

It’s a decent enough adventure story with lots of psychological drama, but I had trouble following some of that drama; there were a lot of intuitive leaps that I suspect made sense for the authors’ culture but not for mine.  It was good enough to keep me reading until the end, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

 


The Apocalypse Codex by Charles Stross

Fourth book in the highly entertaining Laundry series.  I was expecting a letdown from reading the back cover copy, as it described the plot as centering around a televangelist type, but this book was very much not a letdown – every bit as engrossing as the previous ones in the series.

I like that Stross is not afraid to involve large pieces of the stage dressing in the action.

 


Calculating God by Robert J. Sawyer

Mixed feelings about this one.  It did provide stuff to think about and had an involving story, but it also felt like the story was made just to be a framework for a guided tour of current thinking in science and cosmology combined with too much conciliation of religious ideas.

Books that are set in places that I’ve lived give me an odd vibe too, but in this case it was better than most – largely because he describes the same trick I always used for getting a seat on the Northbound subway in Toronto.

 


The Relativistic Brain by Dr. Miguel A. Nicolelis and Dr. Ronald M. Cicurel

This one came up in a Facebook thread and the Amazon cover blurb convinced me to read it – it’s good to study your enemies as well as your friends, and their position as represented by Amazon definitely sounds enemy.

Here’s the review I posted in the Facebook thread:

—–

Just finished reading it – it’s short.

In the first two chapters they present a theory that neural firing generates small electromagnetic fields that influence other neurons at a distance, without a direct axon connection, and that in the aggregate these fields are what constitute the meaningful state information in the brain, and encode our mind state in a representation of a Riemann space in which experiences are formed by folding different conceptual and sensory regions together. All of this doesn’t really matter to the important bits though – basically what they’re saying is that brains contain multiple overlapping systems, only one of which (the actual electrical firing of neurons) can be considered digital – the rest are analog.

The rest of the book is a collection of distinct arguments that no digital computer can simulate a brain. For example:

1) Simulating analog phenomena on a digital computer is impossible to do perfectly. While strictly true, I disagree with their assumption that it needs to be done perfectly.

2) It’s impossible to keep all portions of a large-scale simulation synchronized. This is flat-out false; they seem ignorant of basic techniques for keeping simulations stable and synchronized.

3) Brains are special objects. Really, really special. Preciouuussss. Note this is me using a bit of a straw man of my own. They do mention ideas like quantum effects in the brain but don’t go so far as to outright state that brains violate the laws of physics or anything like that.

4) Computers explode in a shower of sparks when you feed them contradictions. No simulation will ever be able to handle contradictory data in a useful way. This is a ridiculous claim to me.

5) Computer simulations are usually created by finding a mathematical representation of a physical phenomenon, then writing an algorithm that solves the math. Even ignoring the analog precision problem from (1), the mathematical representation is often an imperfect representation of reality. This is true of complex systems, but down at the neural level of molecules and electromagnetic fields, I think we’ve got the math down well. Admittedly some of it is probabilistic (ie chance of two protiens bumping into each other) but I don’t see that as a problem.

6) No matter how accurate the computer simulation, it will diverge and fail to perfectly predict the behavior of the organism, because it cannot take into account all the stimuli the organism receives without simulating the entire universe. Well, duh. Also, that’s not a real problem because our senses are pretty limited anyway. And even a perfectly duplicated organism would immediately diverge from itself for the same reason – different sensory input from having a different physical location.

7) If we can’t perfectly predict the original organism, there’s no point in doing this. I completely disagree with this.

8) It is difficult to imagine a simulated brain running in real time, even with more Moore’s Law. If the simulation can’t interact with the world at normal human speed, there’s no point in doing it. Again, this makes absolutely no sense to me.

9) It is difficult to digitally model neuroplasticity – ie the hardware continuously changing while the software still runs. Yes, it is difficult, but not impossible.

Also, the authors seem to conflate simulation with emulation. They’re attacking something that might exist but to my point of view is a straw man: The idea that “digital mind” (my term) researchers are trying to develop algorithms that simulate human minds – that is, actually write code that behaves like a mind. They ignore the approach that seems more reasonable to me, which is that the code is just a dumb physics simulation and the mind exists in the data it manipulates – ie a true uploaded mind, no code involved.

 


Inferno and Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

I’ve never read Dante’s Inferno, but I gather it was a poem rather than a story so I probably would have found it frustrating anyway.

These two stories I quite enjoyed, but I tend to enjoy everything involving Niven, and his collaborations with Pournelle are always good.

What I take to be the main theme here is that the common image of Hell as a place of internal punishment just doesn’t make sense when you approach it rationally, but if you make the assumption that it’s not supposed to be eternal punishment but only sufficient punishment, then it becomes possible to make some sense of it and of some other Catholic doctrines.

 


The Transhumanist Wager by Zoltan Istvan

I picked up a signed copy of this from Zoltan himself when I went to hear him speak about his US Presidential platform a few months ago. Zoltan for President, by the way!

It’s a tour of transhumanist thought couched in an adventure story. It was a fun enough read, but there were some spots that could have used some editing and other forms of polish, and as stories go it was a bit lacking in suspense – the threats facing the protagonist just didn’t seem sufficiently credible to create drama.

I did like the philosophical stuff though – there are a few wonderful rants about what’s wrong with the world today. Basically the only part of the mindset presented by the book that I don’t agree with is the assertion that enemies of progress should be killed if they don’t get out of the way. I think people who don’t want to be a part of the future can be allowed to practice the old ways apart from mainstream society, like the Amish.

 


The Lurker at the Threshold by H.P. Lovecraft and August Derleth

A delightful full-length story that I wasn’t aware of until I spotted it in a used book store recently. Thoroughly enjoyed this one – it fits nicely into the neighborhood formed by The Dunwich Horror, The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Whisperer in Darkness, while mostly avoiding those noxious fish-men and involving some of the more interesting horrors of Lovecraft’s mythos.

 


The Fox Woman & Other Stories by a. Merritt

Reading that last Lovecraft book left me with a desire for more old-style adventure writing, and lacking another HPL to read I turned to Merritt, who combines a slightly later style with imaginative semi-science-fiction.

The titular short story was good but had an unsatisfying ending – overall it read like the introduction to a novel-length tale and felt unfinished.

Several of the other shorts in this collection were quite good. I quite liked The People of the Pit as it evoked some of the same atmosphere as The Metal Monster but with a touch of Lovecraft thrown in, and I really wish Merritt had been able to finish The White Road as it was an intriguing concept.

What I’ve Been Watching

Elysium: Disappointing second outing from Blomkamp.  Great effects but pretty transparent and heavy-handed story obviously inspired by the whole “99%” thing.  I liked District 9 better.

Ender’s Game: Would have made an OK TV series or movie series, but in a single movie it was far, far too condensed.

Gravity: Liked this one quite a lot.  It’s a long series of highly improbably flukes of luck that lead to the main character surviving her ordeal, but aside from the luck part the rest seemed believable to me.  Cinematography was great.

Interstellar: Best science fiction movie I’ve seen in a very long time. The sound mix was awful, with the music drowning out the dialogue in many places and some of the sound effects being painfully loud, but that’s pretty much my only complaint about it.

Oblivion: Meh.  I’ll admit one of the plot twists did surprise me but it suffers from the same premise problem as most alien invasion flicks: Natural resources in general are easier to find out in space than to lift off a planet.

Riddick: Exactly what I expected: Vin Diesel’s “manly man” character being the same asshole he usually is, with lots of killing of people and creatures and highly improbable badassity.  Disappointed in the creatures in this one – I liked the ones in Pitch Black better.  Terrible movie but delivers what it promises.

The Colony: At least in this post-apocalyptic fight for survival humanity screwed up the weather directly, by building buggy weather control machines.  The good guys’ quest in this flick is to find the one place where a working machine provides a habitable environment while avoiding back-stabbing cowards and a tribe of wandering cannibals.  It’s mostly about people getting eaten or dying in noble self-sacrifice.  Meh.

Hobbit part 3: Enjoyed it a lot, but it wasn’t quite as good as the previous two.  I don’t remember the book very well as it’s been a very long time since I read it, but I think there’s enough divergence the movie should be “inspired by” the book and not “based on” it.  The 3D worked, but as with the first movie the high frame rate gimmick broke immersion repeatedly – it looks less real at the higher frame rate.

The Doomsday Machine: Of course Chairman Mao would not only build a planet-buster but would also be crazy enough to use it.  This one is about a last-ditch attempt to save the human race by getting a handful of men and women into space before the big one hits.  The commander of the mission is an amazing asshole – basically a rapist whose intent becomes overt as soon as it becomes obvious their ship is on its own.  He’s really, really, really creepy and surprisingly for the time this flick was made, it actually does admit that he is perhaps not the most upstanding person to have in command of a space mission.  I feel like this one reused footage from a couple other similar movies of the time, and the ending was about as deus ex as it gets – it feels like they got to the last 30 seconds of the movie and suddenly realized they needed an ending.

After Earth: Exactly what I expected from the trailer, namely Will Smith and his son (both real and fictional) bonding through an ordeal on the hostile planet called… wait for it… Earth, and coming out of it a more functional family.  Nothing wrong with the production though I was hoping for more creature effects, but I really have to wonder how much the production of this movie was intended to help the Smiths’ real-life relationship.

Automata: Liked this one a bunch.  I’ll tentatively recommend this as one of the better science fiction movies of 2014.  Not much I can say about it that isn’t either spoiler or covered by the synopsis.

Edge of Tomorrow: As an action flick it’s pretty good, but as science fiction it’s terrible.  The main plot device is that the alien boss can rewind time, and will reset the day whenever one of its mini-bosses gets killed.  OK, that’s not too bad, and the limitations on its time travel ability cover why it doesn’t just retcon its enemies out of existence. But here’s where it gets weird: The one who kills that mini-boss receives a fragment of the time control power – enough to be able to reset the day if he or she gets killed, and to remember what happened on all the previously retconned days, and to sense where the alien boss is located.  I’m at a loss to explain how that’s supposed to work unless this time power is magic instead of technological.

But wait, it gets better: Somehow this time power resides in your blood, and the aliens can take it back from you by getting a sample of your blood. WTF?  And then there’s this quantum physics gizmo that can partially reactivate the power after that if you jab your leg with the pointy end, because blood… what?  Does Not Compute.  The plot devices are so ludicrous that this movie is a flop as a science fiction.

Extraterrestrial: Straight-up UFO stuff.  Teenagers, cabin in the woods, UFOs, greys, anal probes, government in cahoots with the aliens.  Some blood and gore and one or two spring-loaded cats.  I’ll give it credit for having the ending I thought less probable.

Hangar 10: You guise! I’ve got a GREAT IDEA!! Let’s do Blair Witch only with aliens instead of whatever was in that movie.  That’s how the pitch for this one went, I’m sure.  Now, I really really hate Blair Witch style shaky-cam cinematography, but even so I still watched it to the end and thought everything but the cinematography was moderately well done.  There were a couple of scenes where I’m certain none of the characters could have been holding the camera, which is such an obvious flaw to look for in this sort of movie that I wouldn’t put it past some producers to add some deliberately as easter eggs.  There were some surprisingly good visual effects at the end and I have to confess I didn’t fully understand what happened at the very end, but I’m OK with that – it’s usually better than exposition.

Her: Thoughtful and a good ending, but I found some of the interior romantic scenes uncomfortable.  Glad I didn’t see this one with family.

In the Mouth of Madness: I’ve been on an HP Lovecraft reading binge lately and am now branching out to the few movies inspired by his works.  Imagine my surprise to find one produced by John “The Thing” Carpenter!  It was decent though not directly based on any of the HPL stories I’ve read.  The main plot device was the idea that belief makes things real and that by inspiring enough belief, a horror fiction author could bring back the Elder Gods.  Trouble with this is that the population figures quoted for this cult were below the numbers of at least three major religions, so there should have been proof of existence of their deities well in advance.

Lucy: The pain, the pain.  This movie has Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman and some decent effects, and that’s about it.  The entire premise of the film is based on the long- and well-debunked myth that humans only use a small portion of their brain capacity.  And somehow it gets from there to full-on mind over matter; Johansson’s character seems to become a Jean Grey scale telekinetic as a result of becoming superintelligent, which to me does not naturally follow.  The movie ends up being a fast-paced power fantasy.  If you want a decent movie about the emergence of super-intelligent individuals, skip this one and watch…

Limitless: An effective nootropic drug turns a wannabe author into an engine of effectiveness… until other people catch on and get their own supply of the drug.  Liked this one all the way through, and recommend it.

The Dunwich Horror (1970): Another Lovecraft derivative.  Too much of a departure from the original plot for my liking, though some of the characters were well acted.  The creature effects, while not terrible considering when they were done, were also not what I expected to see.

The Signal (2014): Pretty decent SF though I saw the big reveal plot twist coming well in advance.  Young crackers are lured to a remote location thinking they’re on the trail of a competing cracker, and instead end up involved with greys and Area 51 types and have to escape captivity and being experimented on.

Transcendence (2014): Not what I expected from the trailer, and I was very disappointed in its anti-transcendence slant though of course the cynic in me expected it; how often is it we get a pro-technology, pro-humanity science fiction flick?  Much of the conflict in the story could have been avoided had the main character not made a couple of mistakes that are so stupid they belie the superintelligence we’re supposed to believe of him.  And the ending was poor too; I can’t buy the happily reunited transcendent couple happily hiding out in their favorite garden when they could simply have left the planet and been unconstrained.

Under the Skin (2013-A): One of the artiest movies I’ve ever seen.  If you like WTF nonsensical European low-budget science fiction art films then you’ll probably like this one, though the production values are pretty good here.  What I liked most about this flick is there’s no exposition at all; it’s up to us to figure out what the story is and for the most part that’s not too hard, but the start and end are unresolved. We don’t really know how these events came to be or what the significance of the ending is.  I’m OK with that.  Liked it, but again I’ll warn you that there’s no neat bow tie on anything here and it may be unsatisfying.

All the Flavors of Immortality

(This was originally written in 2002. I’m reposting it here as part of decommissioning my old website, and because I might want to refer to it later.)

Written March 14, 2002.
Major revisions October 10, 2002 suggested by Frink.

As an exercise, I thought I would try to enumerate all the different classes of immortality I have heard or read about, and give some discussion about the tradeoffs inherent in each and in the idea of immortality itself.

Some of these are real, some are fictional, and some are on the move from fiction to reality thanks to medical advances. I hope I don’t need to point out which are which.

Everyday Immortality

Immortality through Genetics

If your branch of your family tree doesn’t dead-end, you have this kind of immortality. Your genetic code, which defines characteristics of your body and health, will live on in your progeny, albeit in slightly altered forms. Unfortunately, your DNA doesn’t define your persona and after a few generations the part of it that is you will be severely diluted.

Another kind of genetic immortality would be having a sample of your DNA permanently recorded so that you could be cloned in the future. Sadly, as with your offspring, your clone is not you.

Immortality through Deeds

This is the romantic kind of immortality where you live on in the minds of others. Adults often try to sell this kind to kids when awkward questions about death come up. It can be as simple as being remembered fondly by family members or hallucinated by crazies. It can be as grand as being named a world hero for having accomplished some great work, and having numerous books and films made about you. The problem is that, as with DNA, memories get diluted over time. Even if your name is well-known enough to survive as part of world history, people will care less as time moves on, and you’re still vulnerable to being erased by some sort of global cataclysm. We remember the Caesars, but we’ve forgotten who invented fire and the wheel since they lived in a time when the worldwide disaster of not-having-a-coherent-written-history was going on.

Zombification

Sometimes when people die, they come back to life a short time later as zombies. Possible causes of this are many and varied – it can be the result of radiation from space, the summons of a wizard or deity, general cursedness etc.

There are a lot of drawbacks to being a zombie. Zombies stink, have horrible skin conditions, shamble everywhere, moan a lot, and feed upon the brains of the living. That really cuts down on your enjoyment of immortality. Your social life will be restricted to other zombies, your hopes of an athletic career will be dashed, and some people simply don’t enjoy cracking skulls open to feast upon the goo inside.

Furthermore, not all zombies have the ability to pull their bodies back together when smashed by zombie-haters (zombies are subject to much hatred from jealous non-zombies), which means that once your skeleton is broken into little bitty pieces, you have to spend eternity in one place. Very boring, and probably painful too.

This is Your Brain on Ice

There has been a lot of interest in cryonic preservation lately. It was in the news a fair bit in 2002 because of some baseball player who got frozen. Surprisingly, there are many people who object to allowing others to have themselves frozen. When examined, most of their arguments turn out to be hollow. The best debates arise out of the legal and ethical issues surrounding your existence after being frozen – what are your rights on ice, and what does the future owe you?

Cryo is currently the best chance we have of becoming immortal. There are lots of risks; it relies on keeping you frozen solid long enough for medical science to advance sufficiently to not only reverse the freezing damage but also fix whatever killed you and, if you only had your head frozen, grow you a new body. It’s impossible to estimate the probability that you’ll be awakened after having died and been frozen, but no matter how small it is, it’s still bigger than the chance of being revived after being buried or cremated. And even if being frozen turns out to be completely hopeless, you’re no worse off than you would be if you weren’t frozen.

Spiritual Immortality

There are many and varied cults in the world whose doctrines insist that death is merely a transition, and that afterwards our minds are freed from our bodies and either go on to another world, or are reincarnated into new bodies. Some believe that the other world involves some sort of eternal punishment or reward for deeds done while living, which sounds extremely boring.

Of course, nobody has found a single shred of evidence that these beliefs may be true, and some of them sound downright scary; for instance belief in reincarnation implies that the reincarnated person loses their memory and identity when reborn (since nobody can reliably recall a past life), and that sounds more like permanent death of the individual than immortality.

Immortality through Not Dying

A major shortcoming of the above listed forms of immortality is that they all involve dying. Besides seemingly violating the very definition of the word immortality, this is a big problem because if you want to be immortal, you probably don’t want to have to die to accomplish it. Too risky.

Tour the Fourth Dimension via Stasis

If you’re worried about dying, you can always stick yourself in some sort of time-stopping machine. You could do this in the hope that the future will have a cure for death ready for you when you step out, or you could just use it to spread your lifetime out over a longer range of real time in order to see what the future has in store.

The biggest problem with this plan is the risk that someone will mess with your preservation apparatus and kill you in your sleep. A certain amount of hedging can be done to prevent that, but you will still be at the mercy of environmental disasters.

Slow Aging with Relativity

That funny-looking man with the frizzy hair told us that as you move faster and faster, time slows down for you relative to the rest of the universe. The effect becomes most pronounced when you approach the speed of light.

This is better than the stasis idea because you can remain conscious and somewhat in touch with what’s going on in the universe. At a minimum, you can watch the stars move and get a time-lapse view of any nearby macro-engineering projects.

There are slight technical difficulties here; to avoid hitting something, you pretty much need to do this in space, which means you need a spacecraft capable of sustaining you for however long you intend to employ relativistic time dilation. Furthermore, it takes a hell of a lot of energy to get up near light speed, especially if you want to do so within your mortal lifetime. Life extension via relativistic effects is therefore outside most peoples’ budget – at least for the time being.

Medical Immortality

Body Swapping

Medical science has already made great strides in using organ transplants and other treatments to extend life. Cloning technology is being born right now. It is not hard to imagine having a fresh copy of your body cloned every few decades, and having your brain transplanted into it.

Brain deterioration would still be a problem, but progress is being made in treating that too. The major risk here is that your surrounding society may collapse and lose the ability to clone bodies for you. It’s safer for an immortal to be self-sufficient.

Instead of having the same old brain transplanted into a cloned body, sufficiently advanced technology could copy your neural wiring into a cloned brain. This raises the same identity questions as uploading and matter transporters.

Boosterspice

Another route to medical immortality lies in finding out why aging happens, and finding a cure for it and for the various types of deterioration that afflict the elderly. In the literature this is often posited to take the final form of a drug, treatment or dietary supplement that prevents one from dying of natural causes. It does not necessarily prevent virulent disease or death from preventable poor health (like extreme obesity or malnutrition). Again, there may be a self-sufficiency problem here.

A related idea is that of curing the disease called old age. We’re giant machines for helping genes make more genes, and our bodies are designed to have a reproductive peak. Once we’re no longer fit for reproduction, our genes could care less about us and everything starts falling apart. With a sufficient understanding of how genetic molecules work, we could reprogram them to make the priority keeping the organism alive and healthy instead of simply reproducible.

Cyborgism

Some people find the ideas of organ transplantation and cloning disturbing. Fortunately for them there are a wide range of mechanical body part replacements available. When something wears out, replace it with a machine. The logical end result is a machine with a human brain controlling it directly.

The problems of brain deterioration must still be faced, of course, unless you also replace it with a better thinking device. Furthermore, some current mechanical organ replacements are quite crude and cumbersome. You have to ensure your machine parts are well-maintained and receive enough power, or else you run the risk of becoming a statue.

There are a lot of potential advantages too, including the ability to interface digitally with computers, enhanced strength and speed, and resistance to hostile environments.

Immortality through Transformation

If humans can’t be immortal, maybe they can be changed into something that can.

Vampirism

For those of you born in the last five seconds, vampires are people who drink the blood of others in order to stay alive and young. Various additional powers are often attributed to vampires, along with some curious weaknesses.

The origin of vampirism is unknown, but the condition is believed to be a disease transmitted by bodily fluids. Vampires can transform humans into vampires by administering a non-fatal bite. This sometimes happens by accident when a vampire fails to drain enough blood to kill the victim.

The advantages and disadvantages of being a vampire are open to debate. There is a huge amount of variation in the powers and weaknesses ascribed to vampires.

Example powers include flight, limited invulnerability, superhuman strength and speed, limited shape-changing ability, uncommon attractiveness, ability to teleport via shadows or doorways, ability to mentally control animals or demons, and automatic ownership of outrageous castles in European mountain ranges.

Example weaknesses include weakness in the presence of garlic or religious symbols, death upon exposure to sunlight, ability to enter homes only when invited, extreme vulnerability to slivers, a requirement to sleep in a coffin, and a propensity for being followed around by angry mobs of peasants carrying torches and pitchforks.

Transcendence

Some people believe that humanity is just the larval stage of some kind of non-corporeal being. Others believe that when we die, our minds are freed to roam the universe. There are lots of variations on these themes, most of which end up with the mortal subject being transformed into some sort of pretty energy creature able to go where it wills.

Unfortunately there is no supporting evidence for such claims, and indeed we have plenty of reason to believe that a pure-energy life-form is physically impossible.

Another kind of transcendence involves becoming something godlike yet still rooted in matter. This can range all the way from unlocking the hidden secrets of the human brain and making full use of it, to being artificially “evolved” into a more advanced kind of life form, to uploading (see below) and expanding your consciousness to fill all available computing resources. Of course if you’re still matter you can still be destroyed, but presumably if you’re something much better than human you’ll also be better at avoiding danger.

Uploading

With computing power growing at a fantastic rate, it is becoming practical to digitally simulate the behavior of the neurons that make us think. We’re still a long, long way from being able to simulate a human brain in any practical way, but it could happen. Combine that with advances in medical scanning technology, and hopefully a breakthrough in understanding how neurons work together to produce thought and memory and consciousness, and you have an obvious conclusion: Why not transcribe our brains into computers?

The potential advantages are mind-boggling. Immortality. Making extra backups of your mind just in case. Cheap space travel and exploration. Cheap travel anywhere there’s a network. Ability to multi-process; create a second copy of yourself to handle annoying people or tackle dangerous jobs. High-speed thought. Ability to slow thought to wait out boring events. Increased memory capacity and accuracy. Seamless interaction with computers. Enhanced communication abilities.

Along with this come heavy philosophical questions. If you upload yourself into a computer, is it still you, or have you died? Is the you in the computer really conscious and sentient, or is it just a flawless simulation? Does it even matter? Do you have continuity of consciousness? If the meat version of you remains alive, which one is legally a person or are both? Does this count as reproduction? Similar questions also apply to brain modifications.

Magical Means

Assuming the existence of magic, there are many and varied means to use it to keep oneself alive. Magic is often portrayed as having a Do-What-I-Mean interface, which is a big plus because it reduces the likelihood that you will accidentally curse yourself.

The wise magic-user will be cautious and flexible. Start with the basics, like protection from all sorts of harm (violence, poison, disease), then add self-regenerating health and vigor, create a set of quick-escapes from especially dangerous scenarios, and take steps to ensure that you will always be able to revise, strengthen or add to these spells in the future. Also, avoid placing trust in others to procure your survival supplies, because forever is plenty of opportunity for your side-kicks to change their minds and betray you.

For non-spellcasters, wish-granting genies and deals with demons are popular ways to gain magical immortality. Such entities tend to be capricious and overly literal in their interpretation of wishes, and they have good lawyers. If one is not exceedingly precise in the wording of a wish, it can become a curse. For example, wishing simply for eternal life might not save you from the ravages of disease and decay. You could end up an immortal mind trapped forever in a useless, rotten body. Not fun.

Of course, one can also become immortal as the result of a curse placed upon oneself by an enemy. This is often done to earthy characters who value their friends and family, because it subjects them to the torture of watching all their loved ones grow old and die, and deprives them of the chance of reaching whatever afterlife they might believe in. In this case, all you can do is make the most of it. No sense being depressed for all eternity.

Immortal Plus

Most of the previously mentioned forms of undying immortality only offer safety from common forms of death like old age and disease, but there are many ways to die. Here are some additional factors you might want to consider.

Permanence. Do you want to be absolutely immortal, or do you want the option of ending your own life if you get bored? Can you trust yourself to make a sound judgement of when to end it? A thousand years of depression might make it tempting, but a million years of bliss could be right around the corner.

Food. Do you want to have to continue eating? Consider how much food you’ll need to eat over the next 15 billion years. Granted it doesn’t take much more than a large, well-maintained garden to feed one person, and a garden is a renewable food source. Well, renewable barring extinction of the light source or mutation of the plants into something inedible and no doubt intent on the extermination of all animals. An immortal may no longer be subject to the forces of evolution, but his food supply still is.

However, if you want to take long trips you have to ensure food will be available, or lug some with you. And what about bad food? If you’re the adventurous type, you’ll probably want to sample the local delicacies wherever you go, but that almost guarantees you’ll be poisoned at some point. It would be really embarrassing to keel over at the local fast food joint while sharing your accumulated wisdom with the natives.

Invulnerability. No matter how much of a hermit you are, if you live forever you’re bound to get into altercations ranging from fisticuffs to interstellar wars. Do you want protection from physical harm? Probably, but what kind? Being completely impervious to harm will make you cocky and more likely to endanger those around you, while at the same time boring you in the long run. Suffering an injury can be a positive personal growth experience, so maybe what you want is something along the lines of protection from death combined with total body regeneration ability.

Of course, even the ability to completely regenerate your body can cause problems. What if someone tosses you into a star? You’ll be floating there constantly growing new flesh only to have it instantly burned to a crisp. Mmmm… bacon… where was I? Oh yes, this little scenario leads to:

Protection from traps. Some people resent immortals and will set nasty traps for them. There is also always the risk of doing something stupid and trapping yourself. This could be really bad, because if you’re immortal and fall into an inescapable trap, you’re going to be really bored for a really long time. Probably the most practical way to avoid this problem is to also have the ability to teleport yourself arbitrarily.

Even so, escaping traps is a major problem for invulnerable types. As Frink pointed out to me after reading the first version of this article, what if someone tosses you into a singularity? It would really suck to be able to survive that because it’s pretty far-fetched to imagine a way of getting out again. You’d pretty much have to hope that Hawking was right and wait for the thing to evaporate.

Travel ability. Not a major problem really, but worth thinking about. You will eventually get bored of whatever planet you start on, and will want to explore other worlds. How will you get there?


Common Misconceptions about Immortality

It’s Boring.

Could very well be, if mishandled. Fortunately humans are amazingly good at finding ways to rationalize remaining alive in bad situations. If it gets too boring, you can make it more interesting by playing games with yourself, like deliberately forgetting things, or becoming an investigator or a collector of the rarest of the rare. If you’re bored forever, you’re doing something wrong.

Nobody Wants to Live Forever!

Wrong. I do. I want to see what happens next. Then what happens after that, and so on. I want to be able to travel the universe and see the sights. I want to see how the universe ends. As I said to Frink once, I’d like to be able to point at a distant galaxy and say, “I think I’ll go see who lives there, but I’ll take my time and see all the sights along the way,” and be able to actually do it.

It’s Selfish.

Damn right it is; nothing wrong with that. However, an immortal can also be of enormous benefit as a carrier of knowledge. Having a friendly immortal on your planet is a great safeguard against long-term dark ages; that person can help civilization rebuild quickly after large-scale disasters.

Why Deny Yourself Your Eternal Reward?

There is no evidence to support the belief in an afterlife, therefore it is logical to put off death as long as possible to maximize enjoyment of life. If there is an afterlife, it will still be there for you when you get tired of immortality.

It can also be argued that dying is irresponsible because it denies the benefit of your future works to your society. You might think to counter-argue that a given immortal might be more of a burden than a benefit to society, but that argument breaks down when you talk about immortality because immortality practically guarantees that the person will change many times over, and at some point will be greatly productive.

I would go so far as to suggest that even believing in an afterlife is socially irresponsible, because it cheapens the lives of others. Life becomes more precious if you believe that death is The End.

Solaris: Book vs. Films

The 1972 film Solaris has long been one of my favorite science fiction movies.  Mainly because of the concept of Solaris itself, but also because of the oddities of Russian filmmaking and its extreme length, both of which made the set of people who have watched it something of an elite club.

This last week, I finally set out to read the original book by Stanislaw Lem, and re-watch both of the films based on it.  I had somehow never got around to reading the book before, and when I last saw the 1972 film I was too young to fully understand it.  By the time of the 2002 film, I certainly understood it but was left with the feeling that it really diverged from the original vision, which is what prompted me to eventually do this comparison of the three.

There is a big difference.  Lem was upset with the first film and I can see why. Both film adaptations use the trappings of the book to tell a different story, and largely miss what the book was about.  The films are two different versions of the same love story, set in space, with Solaris simply being a setting that enables the strange situation of a man being confronted with what seems to be his dead wife, and all the mystery and angst that comes out of this apparent second chance.

I’m not saying the movies are bad.  They’re both excellent films that tell engrossing and touching stories, but they’re not the original story.  These are stories about people, which is fine since those tend to make for good movies, but they ignore the seven hundred billion ton elephant just outside the room.

Solaris, the book, was about questioning what humans as a race want from the universe.  Science fiction is full of humans zipping around space, fighting and colonizing and meeting aliens and having a good time or getting eaten by monsters.  Those are all pretty familiar and easy to understand things because they’ve happened on Earth in the past – we’ve gone zipping around the oceans, fighting and colonizing, meeting other flavors of humans and having a good time or getting eaten by tigers.

In Solaris we meet something truly alien – and what I love about Solaris is that it’s by far the most credible alien I’ve encountered in my life of reading the watching science fiction.  Here’s a life form the size of a planet, larger than Earth.  Apparently intelligent.  Not an organism as we understand it – it’s not made of cells, but instead is a planetwide ocean of chemicals. Have you ever flown over the ocean and looked down at the endless deep water with its tiny waves? Imagine all that water was part of a giant brain.  What commonality do we have with a being like that?  How could we possibly communicate with it, and should we even bother trying?

Part of the setting in the book is about this – humans have been studying Solaris for decades already and making exactly zero progress.  Solaris is certainly active – it reacts to their presence.  It also manifests structures out of its soup, some of which appear to be models of things it knows about, including humans and mathematics, but these appear to be part of its thought process rather than communications.  Human attempts at communication go nowhere – it may not know what communication is or may not have any motivation to communicate, or it may be trying to communicate and we just can’t recognize it.

After smacking their heads into this wall of alienness for so long, the characters in the story articulate how the communication effort reflects back on humanity: We don’t really know what to do with other planets and other beings, except convert them into more of the same – more Earths, more varieties of humans.  The first time we run into something that can’t be hammered into any of the familiar pigeonholes, we don’t know what to do.  The characters end up speculating to try and satisfy themselves, but it gains them no additional truth or understanding.

Best of all, there is no conclusion.  Both of the movies have an ending that says what happens to the protagonist from then on, but the book is open-ended, and I prefer it that way.  The story is meant to cause contemplation, and putting a bow tie on it removes the trigger for contemplation, which is the act of wondering what happens next.

I’m also disappointed that neither of the films attempt to render the visual richness of Solaris – making the films character stories certainly cut the effects budget by a lot.  Solaris as described in the book is full of visual richness, with a wide variety of forms appearing on its surface ranging from barely comprehensible to completely incomprehensible.  The hard science fiction nerd in me wants to see those things – I wanted a film about the what rather than the who.  A future-documentary about Solaris would be just the thing.

To sum up, all three versions are great, but only the book is the true Solaris – the films are relatively pedestrian people stories in which the one truly special thing about the book is ignored and could be replaced with some other plot device, like a capricious wizard or standard little green men from Mars.

What I’ve Been Reading

Vancouver Noir by Diane Purvey and John Belshaw.  This caught my eye while I was on a bookstore crawl and I bought it on impulse, mainly because it seemed to have some nice historical photos of Vancouver.

It’s pretty interesting – Vancouver has a somewhat seedy history that I was completely unaware of, but now that I’ve read it I can sort of see why some areas of the city are they way they are today.  It was interesting to learn some historic events involving hotels that still stand today, and watch the evolution and motion of the downtown core.

One thing really annoyed me about this book – an apparent lack of editorial oversight.  The words “discrete” and “discreet” were consistently confused in the few places they were used, and I have a feeling there were some past/present tense flip-flops going on though I didn’t pay close enough attention to explicitly note them.

Overall it was a fascinating read though, and the pictures are indeed interesting.

—–

Greg Egan: Axiomatic and Luminous

Being two short story collections, the first collected in 1995 and the second in 1998.  I’ve liked all of Egan’s novels so far, but my biggest comment about these short stories is that they seem awfully formulaic.  A lot of them follow the pattern of establishing a character who has some interest in the nature of mind, will or identity, then introducing a plot device that allows exploration of one of these themes, and then ending with some sort of ironic or otherwise revelatory twist that results.  To be fair, this is partially symptomatic of the short story format, and since the stories were probably originally published at different times and in different fora, the similarities would not have been so apparent until they were collected.

There were a lot of good plot device concepts, such as a biofeedback device that would let you visualize your brain activity in real time, or a brain replacement that learns to be you by successive approximation over the course of decades.

There were also some bad plot devices – things that I could let slide as a concept to be explored as a story, but otherwise were pretty bad science.  Like predicting the future by looking at a time-reversed image of the galaxy through a telescope.  Or the claim that a simulated person could have experience during the construction of the simulation, before it was actually run – that’s just plain impossible, and the way it was written it almost seemed to be begging the existence of a supernatural “soul”.

A few of the endings were a bit predictable too, like where buying cheap knockoff products gives not quite the desired result.  A couple of the stories were incomprehensible to me – I just didn’t get the point at the end – presumably because they were ones that touched on religious themes.

Some of the stories were good, and the common theme of exploring the nature of self and mind is very appealing to me, but overall I prefer Egan’s full-length novels.

—–

L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: The Eternity Artifact – Chosen because it sounded like exactly the sort of story I felt like reading at the time.  Space opera with mysterious deserted alien cities to be explored and artifacts to be found and human enemies to be outwitted.  The ending was not what I expected, but it wasn’t disappointing.  Pretty decent read.

Modesitt chose to create a familiar political climate for this far-future story by creating a back-story involving a diaspora from Earth at a time when there were still strong national and religious groupings, so the major types of religions and political systems tended to end up controlling groups of proximate solar systems and then warring with each other the same way they did when they lived in countries instead of on entire worlds.

The author casts the descendants of Christian-like and roughly-Islamic groups as the major villain-groups of the story, which was a pleasing surprise.  The secular protagonist civilization is questing after the first alien relics ever discovered, which are clearly from a much more advanced civilization, and the religious groups really don’t want this to happen, because either the relics are one of the biblical superweapons left by God or Satan, in which case they must either be secured by the righteous or sealed away forever, or they’re not, in which case Man is not God’s foremost creation – which is an idea is a major threat to the core beliefs of the pseudo-Christians especially.

—–

Robert L. Forward: Martian Rainbow – Seldom have I been so disappointed in a hard SF story.  This one is unusually shallow and contrived, even for Forward, who has a tendency to produce what I call “tech demo” stories – hard SF that is even harder on the speculation and thinner on the characterization than usual.  This is not to say that kind of writing is always bad – I’ve enjoyed most of Forward’s other books.

The story here is: Earth conquered by madman, Martian bases left to fend for themselves with insufficient resources, madman threatens survival of human race, Martians find self-replicating nanofactories left by original inhabitants of Mars, use them to save day for everyone and terraform Mars too.

The madman’s conquest of Earth through a cult of personality reinforced by masterful religious propaganda and political manipulation was way, way too fast and easy to be believable.  Also the fact that the PR and technical wizards that enabled his rise to power were so fatally blind to his insanity.  It basically boils down to “everyone loves the war hero and believes him when he says he’s God and lets him become dictator of Earth.”

The other side of it is the Martian tech that saves the day.  These are mobile machines (initially mistaken for organisms) that can eat anything and manufacture almost anything, including diamond in any size and shape you want, while producing no harmful waste products.  They can also produce more of themselves as needed, and multiply their computing power by linking up in a chain, and do so in order to learn human language overnight.  How awfully convenient if your survival requires rapid terraforming of Mars and you also need to pull a miracle out of your ass to save Earth from destruction.  But all this isn’t the part that bugs me.  Many of Forward’s stories are contrived around biological or technological oddities.  What bugs me is there’s no back story here.  The interaction between the humans and Martians machines amounts to:

  • Humans: “Here’s our language files.”
  • Martians:  “Hi. Excuse us while we get back to tending our plants.”
  • Humans: “Hey, if you don’t mind, we could really use a hand converting your planet into something we can live on.”
  • Martians: “OK.”
  • Humans: “Just like that? Won’t this affect you?”
  • Martians: “It’s unthinkable for us to refuse any request or interfere with your survival, and your request doesn’t contradict our masters’ orders.”
  • Humans: “Where are your masters?”
  • Martians: “They went away, and we’re not allowed to tell you anything about them.”
  • Humans: “OK. Get to work.”
  • (time passes)
  • Humans: “Hey, that bunch of Martians is going to get themselves killed! We don’t want any of you dying for us!”
  • Martians: “Even though we’re obviously intelligent and autonomous, we’re machines and not alive so it’s OK.”
  • Humans: “Oh, carry on then.”

So basically there’s a tantalizing mention that some aliens built these extremely capable machines and then left them behind to do menial tasks, but there’s absolutely no attempt by the humans to weasel out more information about the aliens or find it by other means.  There are just token gestures as to how humans are awfully nice and considerate even when in dire straits, and then the alien machines are used to bludgeon into the reader how powerful the concepts of exponential growth and molecular manufacturing are.

The ideas here could have gotten a better treatment if the book were twice as long, but it would still need these rough edges filed off.

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