Saturday, June 1, 2013

On Space Faring Scifi

I'm a scifi buff. A frustrated one. Why? Because I want the stories to be more believable. I'm sick of no one explaining to me, for example, how Captain Kirk gets to walk on his bridge. Make something up, for the love of .., err science. Work that gravity generating trilithium kool aid that circulates under the Enterprize's hull into the story!

So I've been entertaining a plot of my own. It involves extraterrestrial beings visiting present day earth. Now though I'm a poor storyteller, I know that a plot does not make a story. But with scifi, for me at least, the juice is more in the setting; the unfolding action is just an excuse to weave an ever more speculative backdrop. My approach is to first get this setting right, and worry about the story later. A bad strategy for authoring a story, I'll concede.

 Subluminal Settings

But back to the setting. However improbable it is, if it's to qualify as scifi, I think, then the plot must still be anchored in science. Or to put it another way, it should break few, if any, laws of physics, and ought not necessitate inventing new ones. And so it was that I decided to revisit the first cardinal rule of interstellar scifi travel, namely that of breaking the cosmic speed limit c--and relativity along with it.

The usual objection to alien vistors travelling at subluminal speeds, of course, is that even at speeds approaching c, merely visiting a neighboring star still takes awfully long: round trips are on the order of decades. In truth, it only takes long from the perspective of the star system the spaceship leaves behind; on the fast ship, [ship] time advances slowly, or equivalently, distances seem contracted. The down side, even on such short interstellar hops, is that by the time our travelers return to their home planet, their world will have passed them by. Their skills will have become outdated, loved ones aged, distant, or dead, friends moved on. Sure, an advanced civilization capable of near-c travel would certainly have great rehabilitation programs for their returning citizens; it might even honor them by hanging their ships in museums. Still, the physics of space travel would seem to make it a dreary business, the plot constrained and unforgiving.

(Now if the story's protagonist were to be a caricature of someone in the future who we can still relate with--perhaps a young, aloof outcast, set in her now ancient ways who reminds a future generation of long forgotten values--then we might use near-c travel, instead of the cryonic fridge, as the device that placed her there. But that would be another scifi genre.)

Perhaps we shouldn't be thinking of these alien visitors as space travelers at all; they're space-time travelers. No, they don't get to revisit the past; instead, they get to race forward into history. For all we know, they get to see the universe's chilly end. And our conception of a home planet, namely a place where a civilization is anchored to, is likely a tad bourgeois from their perspective.

Near-c Civilizations

Assuming our alien space-time travelers are in fact individuated, social beings (as opposed to mere extensions of some borg-like creature), how then are their civilizations organized? We're not ruminating here over such things as class hierarchy and such, but merely considering how its individuals interact. How do they keep time? Whatever the solution, they must be extra cautious with this dimension. For all the while they whiz back and forth across space, they can only race forward through "ambient" time.

To better appreciate the dynamics of near-c travel, let's consider two siblings on planet Ki who wish to embark on separate near-c journeys. They plan to rendezvous back on Ki after having each aged the same, say nine years. After much calculation, haggling and flight plan adjustments (their destinations are roughly the same distance), they agree to meet again after one hundred fifty-two years have elapsed back on Ki.

With near-c communities, a rendezvous involves not only specifying a time and place to meet, but also how old the parties will be when they meet. In our hypothetical example, the meeting time was given in local, Ki time, what I'm loosely calling ambient time, while each sibling's age was to be measured in their respective ship times. That the siblings planned to have aged exactly the same when they next met was just illustrative: maybe they ended up agreeing to age nine years, give or take a few.

So we see how two near-c travelers can possibly stay in touch; but can we extend it to a community? If the residents of Ki routinely travel to distant times and places at near-c speeds, then who's left to run the affairs of the planet they leave behind? Would there be any incentive to keep Ki humming? Maybe.

For if there's work to be done and goods to be traded, whether material or virtual, the ambient timers who choose to stay on Ki enjoy a huge advantage over their near-c brethren: though they age faster, or rather, because they age faster, they also get more done. If there's some sort of competition over limited societal resources, then, over time (anyone's time), these better placed (perhaps, generations of) ambient timers will corner those riches before their more youthful, less accomplished, near-c cousins can.

[Juxtapose that last paragraph against the near-c-ers perspective: harvesting technological change.]

On the Evolution of Intelligence

Let us now turn our attention to establishing an evolutionary narrative for these advanced extraterrestrial visitors. This exploration might both inform the setting in broad brushstrokes (the characteristics, diversity of the alien visitors, and how they came to be) and help lead the reader down a plausible path into an implausible setting.

(Though the typical scifi aficionado approaches a read with a healthy willingness to suspend disbelief, this goodwill is best not squandered. I think the near-future scifi genre owes some of its success to this same principle. Plots typically consume disbelief capital early on, say with the introduction one or two game changer technologies (The Truth Machine, Minority Report, I, Robot), which when grafted onto an otherwise familiar landscape, expose unexpected dichotomies, give rise to unintended consequences, present moral and philosophical challenges.)

If the emergence of intelligence marks an inflection point on the evolutionary path of life, then clearly these are early days here on earth, a four billion year old planet that of late (say the last ten thousand years) has hosted intelligent civilizations.

Elsewhere across the cosmos, our story goes, as indeed here in our milky way, conditions for the emergence of intelligence have been ripe in many a corner, and at many a time, both recently and in the distance past. We need not defend an estimate of how big this cosmological window in time is (you might need heavy elements, planets, and such): a mere billion year window should suffice for grounding a story in which many civilizations, perhaps most, survive their technological adolescence and advance to the near-c-er club.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The emergence of intelligence, the narrator explains, is a game changer not because of the outcome (intelligent, sentient beings), but because it marks the beginning of a change in process. The elemental drivers of the evolutionary process (natural selection, drift, etc.) are first mediated, then supervised, and eventually subsumed by a new driver, namely intelligent design.

Intelligent Machines

Every [intelligent] civilization, the story asserts, assuming it survives its early years, soon manufactures intelligent self-replicating machines. Here's an attempt at a half-believable sketch leading up to intelligent machines.

The Printer


If machine life was the next major evolutionary step after intelligent life, then the 3D printer must be the progenitor of all living machines. To be sure, the early models were not living at all; they were the agent, the primordial soup as it were, from which the new life form would emerge.

Some argue machine life begins at the point when the most advanced printers can only be constructed from other printed parts. Another view holds that early wet life industrialization marks the beginning of machine life. These arguments are well grounded, but we take a more practical approach: by the time wet life manufacturing is dominated by second order printed products, machine life has begun in embryonic form.

kk is the oldest documented kernel printer design by any wet life civilization that could print copies of itself. It could do very little else, of course, but it was the compiler that could now compile itself, the bootstrap on which ever more elaborate self replicating designs followed.

It's designers were well aware they had created a new life form: as long as intelligent wet life organisms found a design cute, there would always be versions of the object filling the real world. Though at the time (and place) it was widely acknowledged that a new evolutionary milestone had been crossed, it was discussed only in the abstract. After all, the printers could not grow without cooperating wet life.

But in every documented ecosystem, the technology soon overtakes the abstract. Printers become cheaper and ever more capable at printing at both the nano and macro scales. This ability to print at the nano scale facilitates the development of emergent capabilities. We see the printer designs start to flow out from nano scale features out to the macro scale.  Cultivating ever more individuated machines becomes a principal component of intelligent wet life economic activity.

If the printer was the physical embodiment of the this new life form, its DNA was the code that defined how to print it.

Actually, whether some such a narrative or another, one idea is that an intelligent machine's digital "DNA" not only describes its physical form, but also its mental (its learned) state. That is, it can print clones of itself, offsprings really, that each inherits the collective experience of its ancestors.

C Travel

But if it can clone itself locally, then perhaps an intelligent machine can also arrange to have a copy of itself printed at a remote location. As it beams its code to a printer parked at one of the remote galactic outposts, say a mere 20,000 light years away, the intelligent machine travels at the speed of light.

A troublesome side effect of this form of c travel is that you leave a copy of yourself behind.


We could go on, but I hope it's already clear you don't need to challenge physics with faster-than-c travel in order to write scifi about space faring aliens. Indeed it can be more interesting if you don't.

Related Stuff

Fermi's Paradox: "Where is everybody?"
Louis K. Scheffer (1994),  Machine Intelligence, the Cost of Interstellar Travel and Fermi's Paradox

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