Saturday, February 20, 2010

Reflecting on reflecting

As I read these novels, all about how science will impact our lives and culture and society, I'm struck by one underlying theme. We're all broken. Not one of these novels projects a good future for mankind. We are either trying to get out from under the thrall of aliens, super corporations, oppressive government, or we are the alien oppressors. I'm all for dystopias, but isn't there a chance that our super technology will actually solve more problems than it creates? Isn't it possible that enough socially responsible people will come up with a solution to overcrowding, class, and agricultural plagues?

Maybe not, maybe humanity is doomed, because, generally, we are kindof terrible to our neighbors, environment, and future generations.

Just a thought, maybe some motivation to be a force of change.... maybe one person or a small group of people can make a difference, and change the course of 6,692,030,277 (Six billion, six hundred ninety two million, thirty thousand two hundred seventy seven) human lives on planet earth.

Or maybe the course of human history is a downward spiral, and the weight of the masses outstrips the genius or social ambitions of the few.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why am I more sad about Mike than Prof?

The moon is a harsh mistress by Robert A Heinlein

Set it an overpopulated future, this story takes place mostly on Earth's moon. Agricultural development of the moon, through ice mining and hydroponic grain production feeds the population of earth. originally, the inhabitants of the lunar colonies come from deportation, similar to the Australian concept, but as the generations progress, and convicts serve out their sentences, they are forced by physiological changes to remain on Luna. This leads to a completely different society, being exploited by earth as a source of cheap agricultural labour. The exploitation of the workers on the moon prompts several people, Manuel, Wyoming, and Professor Bernado de la Plaz (Prof) to formulate a revolution. Luna will be free!

Enter Mike. short for Mycroft, the fictional brother of Sherlock Holmes. also, he is a super computer. he controls much of the maintenance of Luna. also, he just woke up, and attained sentience.

lots of cool, realistic sounding sci fi action, definitely possible science. The novel has some definite socialist roots, but simply because of the fact that every human even hinges and builds on all of our past events. wars of the future will be like wars of the past, for similar reasons, with similar messages.

Luna is free, earth tries to pacify, Luna fights back, Luna wins, Luna remains free. Prof dies at the end, and so does Mike. except Mike doesn't really die. his circuits are all still there, he just stops talking, responding, and interacting.

I think that the book is a tale of what it means to be alive, and about mike's journey into consciousness, set against a parallel story of a nation/moon's rise to independence and national consciousness.

so much message in these sci fi books, you have no idea.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Ringworld, by Larry Niven: what happens when we forget how to do things?

I never know whether to put my feelings about the book first, so you don't fall asleep/lose interest during the plot summary, or to put it last, so you actually know what I'm talking about....

For me, this was an tremendously entertaining book, well written, full of humour, plot, twists, turns, mystery, danger, and sciency stuff.

It also reveals a potentially devastating trend in human behavior. As long as the lights come on when we flip the switch, we don't care how it does it. As technology advances, the intellectual elite become fewer and fewer, because we need fewer and fewer people to program the computers that make our technology. Extrapolate a few years and the computers program the computers that make our technology, and before you know it, we have amazing transportation, cool gadgets, and we have no idea how they actually do what they do. And if the intellectual elite disappear, or just fade away, it is just a matter of time before the food slot stops making the food, or the water filtration system no longer automatically does its thing, and while the factories still work, we just throw it away and buy a new one. But eventually, when the right piece breaks, and no one knows how to fix it, the chain reaction spirals the culture right back to stone tools.

This of course takes time, but the trend is already here.

On an Earth far in the future where "boosterspice" prolongs human life well beyond the 300 year mark, Louis Wu, human, is bored. With all the world connected by instantaneous travel, every room is right next door to the one you're in. And because of this, every room is exactly like the one you just came from. Earth culture/society/genetics have become so homogenized that it is impossible to see anything new.

Enter a two headed alien (called a puppeteer, for various reasons) with superior technology and a culture entirely devoted to minimizing risk, a genetically lucky human female(her parents, grandparents, and so on all won the right to reproduce by lottery, hence bred for extreme luck...) and a Kzin ( like a big orange panther/humanoid)ambassador, whose culture places such contempt on humanity that it would have wiped them out in a series of wars had not another superior alien race balanced the scales in favor of the humans.

Puppeteer tells them that all of life in the galaxy will be wiped out in twenty thousand years, and in order to escape they need what they can offer, but only if the motley crew goes on a space voyage to see what this ring around a star is. And if they do that, they get a super fast engine for their spacecraft and can escape the apocalypse of the galaxy.
So they all get on a ship and go hunting for the ring world, only to crash onto the surface of the ring, which is entirely too immense to wrap your head around. Or your understanding... ( its about a million times the surface of the earth, in a big ring, all of the surface facing the sun/star) And once they are on the surface, millions of miles away from anything, they have to figure out a way to get off. No problem right? I mean, a culture sufficiently advanced enough to make this ring should be able to give them some help getting home...

But whoever (humans of some sort, or not) built this gigantic ring world around a star made it able to support life, and then over time, apparently, all their technology stopped working.

Because no one remembers how to do anything. The engineers of the ring made it so stable, and so fail safe and idiot proof that the people living on it simply forget how things work. They just do.

Until they don't.

And then, just like the fall of the Roman empire, on a slightly larger scale, society reverts back to its most basic forms. Feudalism, Peasantry, Hunter/Gatherer, Priest/shaman/warrior leaders.

Do you know how a microwave oven works? Do you know how to design and manufacture a firearm? Could you build a fire without matches, a lighter, or other modern equipment? Where would your clothing come from if all the means for mass production ceased to function.

The late Arthur C Clarke, renowned British science fiction author (most famous for 2001:a space odyssey) formulated three laws, the third of which is "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic".
This law contributed to the decline and fall of the ringworld society, simply because no one needed to know how to fix anything, because the technology was so advanced. But the down side is, no one knew how to fix anything, because the technology was so advanced.

So perhaps I will google how something works, or what a transistor is made of, or how bronze is made, so that when the machine stops, we can at least start in the bronze age.