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I am not a writer. That is, while I write, I do not write well enough to consider myself a writer. If I thought I could do it well enough, I would probably try, but I don’t think that. Perhaps someday I will make the effort to become skilled at writing and story telling.
In my mind, stories are about their characters. I often come up with interesting ideas that would make story backdrops. Backdrops must not be confused with stories. While the backdrop is often a vehicle for communicating a few of the ideas of a good story, it in reality plays a minor role. Backdrops often play a more prominent role in SF than in other story telling, and that is often a weakness rather than a strength. Still, they have their place in good SF. Most likely I’ll never use the backdrops I come up with, but from now on I’ve decided to start writing them down, just in case.
Moral Dilemmas of the Gods
Imagine a future time approximately nine hundred years from now, after the four hundred year long second dark age, the second renaissance, and the second enlightment. While the majority of the libraries were destroyed during the collapse preceding the second dark age (mostly flooded or burned), the discovery two hundred years after the second renaissance of a buried library ark and the subsequent fifty years to solve of the great puzzle to gain entrance, brought our age’s science knowledge to a civilization on already igniting with creative geniuses to rival our Newton, Liebnitz, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger. Avoiding some of the eddys our science had become stuck in (though with a few of their own), they over the centuries surpass our understanding of the universe. They also live by a different morality, and therein lies the root of this speculation.
Constrained by their morality, they are unwilling to experiment on conscious beings, and so while our descendents exceed us in physics, chemistry, cosmology, they lag in biology. The sorts of experiments commonplace today are forbidden in their time as too cruel. However, the success of quantum computing has brought simulation capability to levels we can only dream of. Soon our descendents are unravelling the secrets of animal biology first with genetic simulations, then cellular simulations, and then multi-cellular simulations. With each century the simulatable complexity advances. The simulation of organs and even simple organisms seems within reach. Therein lies the dilemma. Is a simulated consciousness still a consciousness? Our descendants won’t experiment with the genetic modifications that help to decipher what genes do what because the beings so created might suffer. The debate is then whether the simulated beings simulated suffering is worthy of their consideration.
Eventually our descendents avoid genetic modification, even in simulation. Instead they simply observe the simulations in such detail to understand the workings of the beings. It slows them down, but still they progress. Another century of technological progress brings the possibility of simulation of communities of organisms. Now a new debate rages. Simulated communities of organisms begin to develop predation and aggression. Is violence in the simulated community to be tolerated? Does the suffering of one simulated being in the tenacles, claws, or teeth of another simulated being constitute a moral issue for our descendents? They have progressed to the point of mankind’s ancient gods. They are not omniscient (indeed their experiments are performed to learn about their own world by simulating tiny microcosms of it), but they do create a universe, albeit simulated, to study. They could intervene in the simulation (though the effort required to do so is staggering — much more than the simulation itself, due to the necessity of maintaining internal consistency). Are they obligated to do so?
Imagine a society that has mastered the creation of virtual
universes in form of complete space-time sculptures based upon
speculative physics. This might be the chief form of
entertainment for its entities, with many
The resulting solutions could be loosely compared to a movie in our society. Once created it is a static thing, even though it has a notion of time embedded in it. While it is natural to view a movie linearly from beginning to end; it is also possible to look at random scenes, or to even play it backward. Artists and art lovers seek the most interesting results, and as the resulting virtual universes are very rich but also generally very boring, each universe is accompanied by a recommended guided tour to the highlights. Art lovers in the society might generally follow the guided tour, but they are not constrained to. They might peek forward or backward in the virtual time or into surrounding space to augment the experience of the guided tour.
In early art tours entities might have marveled at supernova,
black holes, nebulae, and other large-scale consequences that
were easily picked out by artists for their guided tours. As
the art and its audiences evolved, they began to seek out the
life forms that were found in a few (very few) of the virtual
universes. They might even follow particular life forms,
experiencing their virtual universe through the chosen life
form’s senses, though perhaps most follow the
The artists and art lovers share some, but certainly not all, of
the characteristics of the Gods invented by human imagination.
They are are potentially omnipotent and omnipresent, in that
they can look forward and backward in virtual time at will (just
a movie viewer could view the end before the middle, or view the
movie multiple times with memory of earlier viewings to provide
insight to later viewings). I say only
There are many interesting debates among artists about their creations. A common one is the question whether the life forms in their sculptures have free will or not, or whether it would be possible to create a virtual universe matching the physics of their own universe (most think it impossible because their own physics in not ammenable to solution techniques used by artists).
This then is the backdrop for a story in which an artist is laboring to create a virtual universe in which her audience is able to influence the sculpture while viewing it. Her idea entails severe constraints on the degree of plasticity of the created virtual world (or is it worlds—a multiverse?), but her audience is so eager to be able to intervene, that she pushes herself for even the possibility of small influence. Where will this lead?
Human civilization on Earth collapsed a thousand years ago, plunging mankind into another dark age. Zealots actively sought out and destroyed all the remnants of the previous civilization, making it difficult for archeologists, scientists, and historians to figure out what happened. Even a thousand years later, sometimes those trying to reconstruct the past are attacked for their efforts to learn more about the past.
Now a scientist working on the human genome has discovered something unusual while studying the redundant encoding of proteins in the genetic code. Generally she has found the codon choices to be random. Three base pairs, representing 64 possibilities, encode only 20 proteins and a start and stop signal, and she wanted to see if the codon choice was random or had a skewed statistical distribution. What she discovered was something very strange. A large fraction of the population had an essentially random distribution of most codon values, except for a remarkable pattern at the start of every chromosome. A fixed choice from the possible codon values was nearly always used at the start of the chromosome (essentially encoding a zero message), followed by a section with non-random statistics, followed by the bulk random remainder.
Further information comes to light that the people with this genetic pattern seem to have a reproductive advantage over others in the population, despite occurring in multiple races, ethnicities, etc. How could such a mutation arise so globally?
After some long lab hours, the non-random portion appeared to be a table of prime numbers (albeit with some errors), which clearly suggested this pattern was inserted by design. The prime number table was then repeated, interspersed with random values. After much consultation with communications specialists, this was determined to be an error correcting code. Who had gone to the effort to genetically engineer this into the human genome? That much effort suggested the random portion contained a further message: a time capsule from the past.
What did people from the past want to tell this post-dark-age civilization so badly that they genetically altered individuals, giving them a reproductive advantage over non-modified homo sapiens, and dispersed this modification throughout the world population? And is it safe to announce this discovery, or do the forces that would suppress the information still exist?
A space probe finds an habitable planet about a nearby star, and Earth mobilizes to send colonists. The number of colonists is limited, which creates a genetic bottleneck. To mitigate the problem the initial colonists are chosen and bred for a wide range of genetic traits, but what is to become of this diversity once they depart Earth?
It is also not clear that the limited number of colonists will
be able to maintain anything but modest levels of technology
once they depart. Modern technology requires specialization,
and their numbers won’t support it. There is a good chance that
the colonists will quickly descend to much more primitive
technology after a few generations. Genetic testing and
breeding may not be viable after even a couple of generations.
The designers hope the colonists will remain in radio contact
with Earth, but that is not certain. Also Earth might send
follow-up missions, but interstellar travel is so costly and
risky, that it seems wise to wait and guage how well the first
mission works before sending others. If the colonists are
successful their numbers would completely overwhelm any
subsequent arrivals, if any, making them valuable primarily for
technology not easily communicated by radio and for their DNA
uniqueness, but not their numbers. Also consider that if another
probe discovers a new location, Earth might direct a subsequent
mission there before a follow-up to the first destination. For
all these reasons, it might be centuries or millenia before an
Earth follow-up arrives. (Note: consider analogy to
Polynesian island colonizations, and their cultural inclinations
to mate with new arrivals.) (Note: The most
efficient way to send follow-up
The mission planners therefore craft a cultural strategy they hope is robust enough to maintain their carefully selected initial genetic diversity through the first twenty or more generations. They don’t want a situation where early on in the colony the emergence of a powerful breeder (e.g. Temüjin or Niall of the Nine Hostages) skews the gene pool.
The designers’ cultural solution is a unique Monarchy algorithm. It is considered somewhat probable that Democracy might be replaced by monarchy in a small society rapidly evolving in a hostile environment, and so Democracy is something the designers expect the colonists to evolve on their own (perhaps foreshadowed by prophecies created by the designers). Monarchy’s obsession with bloodlines is also something they hope to exploit, with a new twist.
Genealogy is also built into the naming culture. A child has three names: his mother’s matriarchal name, his father’s patriarchal name, and a given name. Thus naming encapsulates information about the Y chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. The given name is chosen to make this triple unique in the hall of records. (Often, but not always, the given name is chosen from one of the given names of the grandparents, as in ancient Greece, which gives slightly more information.)
It is the Monarchy algorithm however that requires the colonists to track their lineages more carefully. A new Monarch is chosen in a competition from the eight individuals between the ages of 30 and 40 with the best lineage scores. (Monarchs serve for twenty years or until death.) (Are other high power positions chosen this way too?) Many colonists then choose mates designed to maximize the lineage score of their progeny to maximize their chances of obtaining power. The lineage score penalizes interbreeding and rewards those who mate with individuals descended from colonists different from ones parents’ ancestors. An individual’s lineage score is computed from a vector of 64 numbers between 0 and 1 that sum to 1. The ideal is to have each element of the vector be 1/64. A child’s vector is the average of her parent’s vectors. The scoring is a sum of the squares of the differences from 1/64. The lower the score the better (the best score is 0).
If there were 64 original colonists, then you could think of each of their vectors being 0 in all positions except for a single 1. Subsequent generation vectors would then represent the contribution from each colonist to the individual. In practice there are more than 64 initial colonists and 64 is chosen to limit the tracking required (remember it is possible the colonists may have to revert to pen and paper). And the initial colonist vectors are not so simple, since that would lead to deadlock as everyone would have identical scores at first. Instead the initial colonists have vectors assigned by the designers based on genetic testing.
The fun of this story backdrop is to explore the consequences on society of such a cultural diversity incentive: the ways in which members of the society would try to take advantage of it, how would they cheat, and how they would attempt to circumvent it, and when they would overthrow it? How well does the system integrate with human nature and how much is there a tendency to revert to patriarchy? The system encourages arranged marriages (if marriage exists at all), as in most human cultures, and how does that conflict with love? What happens when outlaws are exiled from the community and then breed outside? What happens when an individual decides to burn the record keeping hall in frustration? What happens when a second set of colonists from Earth arrives (now outnumbered 1000 to 1)? Another fun line to explore are the effects the stellarnaut breeding pool on Earth has on Earth culture.
Note on the above
The premise of the above is probably not the best plan for planting a colony in another solar system. Rather, the crew of the space ship would be all women, along for thousands of frozen embryos, predominately female. During the trip, female embryos would be periodically implanted for birth to replace aging crew members. The births would be planned so that approximately eighteen years before arrival the maximum number the ship can accomodate are born to be the first generation colonists. A few months before arrival each reproductive age crew member would be implanted with a female embryo so as to give birth shortly after arrival, and this process would be repeated every three years for a few decades (three years allows for multiple implantations before one succeeds and also time for breastfeeding the previous child). At some point male embryos would be introduced. For example, starting with 32 female colonists on arrival, 80% reaching reproductive age and then giving birth every 3.2 years one to six times (ages 19-35), with 12.5% of reproductive age females stopping reproductive activities each round, one reaches 174 reproductive age females in year 50. At that point begin having half of the implanted embryos be male. In year 84 there will be approximately 450 reproductive age females and 450 reproductive age males. At that point, reproduction switches to natural reproduction between members of this society. The genetic component of the population will come from the embryos implanted from approximately years 65-83, and it is these embryos that must provide sufficient diversity for the colony. (Since the success rate of implantation might be rather low, it would not be possible to predict ahead of time which embryos would define the eventual gene pool.) Of course this plan relies on the society maintaining sufficient technology to keep embryos frozen for this long. Males could be introduced earlier to allow for a less viable population in the situation where technology fails earlier, but this complicates the societal transition, and the breeding population would be perhaps insufficiently diverse to be viable in this situation, so a plan for such a contingency may not be appropriate. The colonists would have the option to make their own choices of course based on the developing situation, but predicting technological failure many years in advance is tricky to do.
Physicists have finally come up with a theory for the structure of space-time at the planck scale. (Existing Quantum Mechanics appears to break down at such small scales.) The theory states that rather than being continuous, space-time is discrete at the planck scale, and many dimensional. We observe only three spatial dimensions and one time dimension not because the extra dimensions are folded up as in string theory, but because they are redundantly (and randomly) connected so that the average dimensionality is four (sometimes 3.99, sometimes 4.01, but on average 4 exactly). This explains why there is not a preferred direction, a problem for simpler discrete theories. The theory even explains why three spatial dimensions, and one of time, is the lowest-energy state, and thus the natural tendency for space-time, despite other possibilities.
Physicists realize that it is possible to reconnect space-time so that a fourth spacial dimension is created locally. The energy required to so alter space-time is enormous, and so only the tiniest realizations are possible, but this allows the creation of an entity in the laboratory with two parts with a fourth dimension connection between them. These parts can then be separated in time and/or space, and allow fast communication through the extra dimension. The wormhole size limit allows only photon and sub-atomic particles to travel, but this is still useful. Such wormholes for example allow robotic exploration of other planets bypassing the speed of light constraint on communication (e.g. the three minutes to Mars, 30 minutes to Jupiter, etc.). Wormholes cannot be used to go back in time before their creation, but they do allow some time tricks between future times (e.g. by accelerating one end of the wormhole but not the other, a very limited form of photon time travel becomes possible). The uses for these yocto wormholes begins to multiply. For example, solar power can be converted to electricity in a close orbit around the Sun and transmitted to Earth by wormhole pairs. Solar harvesting also allows an increased rate of wormhole production.
The story would then begin with the discovery, after society has become dependent upon this technology, that these yocto wormholes have the potential to damage ordinary four-dimensional space-time. They can act somewhat as prions do to convert nearby space-time to have dimensionality other the 4. Naturally the industries that have grown dependent upon wormhole technology seek to prevent the facts from being known. Will space-time slowly be converted to a new state? If so, this could be the most serious crisis ever confronting humanity; far worse than climate change, cyber wars, teenagers acting out with newly engineered viruses, and so on.
The Power to Erase
Current brain science suggests that recalling a memory changes it. Thus the memories appear to have similarities to DRAM technology, where the read is destructive, and the data is maintained by writing it back after reading it. It has been shown (at least in mice) that giving a drug to block memory formation and then causing memories to be recalled has the effect of erasing the memory, because the drug blocks the memory from being rewritten after its destructive read. That is the state of research today.
Now imagine a future in which researchers begin to discover ways
to block memory formation without drugs, using instead visual
and auditory stimulus as interference with the memory
reconsolidation process. In effect, it might become possible to
Explorers are venturing down from Ellesmere Nation in December to see what remains of the land below. E.N. is the Republic founded by North Americans fleeing Gaia’s fury during the summers of 2078-9 that destroyed the American Empire and left much of the continent inhabited and with Ellesmere Island warm enough for crocodiles to flourish. After a century of a hard life, E.N. has recovered to the point it has begun trading with the nations of Greenland, Svalbard, and Sevemaya, and is mounting expeditions to explore territories unknown, except in legend.
Their religion puts various constraints on their mode of travel (gasoline being prohibited for example) and at one point disaster strikes, leaving them stranded in what was once Ohio or Pennsylvania at Christmas with their solar collectors ruined, debating how they might survive the coming springtime temperatures. At this point a Shepherd from the 21st century brings them to an abandoned wind farm from which they recharge their vehicles with enough power to get them within a month’s hike of Lake Erie, from which point they can raft to the sea along the St Lawrence and follow the coast (which is cooler because of the moderating influence of the ocean and therefore still lightly populated) to home.
The Second U.S. Civil War
Write this one down sometime. Basic idea is a second U.S. civil war, this time East vs. West, with animal slavery being the critical issue.
Themes are different than backdrops, but I’m going to list some ideas here too, rather than start a separate file.
Technology = Loss of Freedom
Technology can sometimes be freedom enhancing, but I think the
general trend is the opposite. For example, when technology
advances to the level of Oryx and Crake, anyone who would be a
suicide bomber today could be a world destroyer instead. That
is one crude lesson Atwood was trying to warn about. However,
more likely than Atwood’s scenario is that governments will
recognize the problem, and clamp down on individual freedoms to
prevent such things. Technology is also freedom destroying in a
way because it causes a gross loss of privacy: One will not be
able to escape one’s past, which is a sort of loss of freedom in
a way. (Of course it also encourages responsibility as a
result, but for those that fail, they will always carry the
burden.) Finally, the rate of technological advance is probably
proportional to population (linearly at least?). But increasing
population is equivalent to a loss of freedom (the
Copyright © 2006, 2009-2010 Earl A. Killian. All Rights Reserved.