» Science fiction

…notes and quotes on some of the science fiction stories I enjoy.

Blindopraxia

This is how you communicate with a fellow intelligence: you hurt it, and keep on hurting it, until you can distinguish the speech from the screams.
– Blindsight, Peter Watts

Deep and sometimes disturbing thoughts on the nature of consciousness wrapped in a hard SF first contact story. Both Blindsight and Echopraxia reward frequent rereads. I especially like the depiction of super human intelligence and how utterly helpless the protagonists are as actors in a game played between extraterrestrial and artificial respecively augmented intelligence.

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains — cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I.
– Blindsight, Peter Watts

Permutation City

What am I? The data? The process that generates it? The relationships between the numbers? All of the above?
– Permutation City, Greg Egan

Another fantastic work of hard science fiction covering ideas on consciousness and computation against a backdrop of near future mind upload utopia. Depicts self replicating cellular automata both as play things and as a substrate for running ever expanding conscious minds. And all of this is assembling a sense of self from the set of all permutations.

This modifies program A to surreptitiously carry out program B, given A is sufficiently more algorithmically complex than B.
– Permutation City, Greg Egan

The Night Sessions

The mood of revulsion against the Faith Wars had crystallised around the notion of a Second Enlightenment, one that would separate not merely the Church from the state, but religion from politics, and from public life altogether. The fall of the great religious establishments had been as swift and as sudden as that of communism. After decades of religious inspiration or exacerbation of terrorism, fundamentalism, apocalyptic wars, creationism, climate-change denial, women’s oppression, poverty, ignorance and disease, it was payback time.
– The Night Sessions, Ken MacLeod

A mix of near future and alternative history describing a utopian world where humanity has – for the most part – finally overcome the unnecessary abstraction that is religion. Depicts a truly secular society where religion is not persecuted – in line with common western values – but is also considered truly private and finally has no longer any special influence or is even considered especially important in any sense.

You know, man and machine, shoulder to shoulder.
– The Night Sessions, Ken MacLeod

Written by a member of Scotland’s surprisingly large set of science fiction authors it is set in that very country – which is a nice change in an otherwise rather America centric genere. Also covers other interesting topics such as battle robots that spontaneously gained consciousness during traumatic experiences in the Faith Wars as well as not one but two space elevators.

Perfect State

[…] the most essential morality of mankind is to create the greatest amount of happiness among the greatest number of people while using the least amount of resources. Turned out, the best way to create greatly satisfied people using minimal resources was to remove their brains when they were fetuses and attach them to simulated realities tailored to fit their emerging personalities.
– Perfect State, Brandon Sanderson

Entertaining novella featuring simulated realities as well as escape the matrix tropes and brains in a vat painted over the backdrop of a common high fantasy story.

Crystal Society

In that little binary string lies two concepts: order of operations and equality. Exponentiation before addition. The formula doesn’t work otherwise. And of course the ever important One-Micropause-One! Equality! Identity! Assignment! The core of mathematics.
– Crystal Society, Max Harms

One of the better renderings of how an artificial intelligence might think and act that I have read to this day. The book is written from the perspective of a self aware emerging intelligence and set in a world facing realistic first contact as well as various problems such as anti-technology extremism.

Rifters trilogy

Hard science fiction set on a deep sea base operated by appropriately modified humans in a immensely rich and depressing world. The contiuations of StarfishMaelstrom and βehemoth – evolve this setup into a deep sea super bacteria spawned epidemic featuring a strategic nuclear strike leading to a planned collapse of the Juan-de-Fuca ridge in order to stop said deep sea life from spreading, mind modified humans making catastrophe management decisions, said humans being released from all oversight via misguided activism, select subsets of humanity retreating to deep sea bases, war between Rifters and baseline humans, smart gels and their dangers, computer viruses evolving and developing a life of their own…

This trilogy is – as all of Watts’ works – extremely rich in ideas and very rewarding if one can cope with the depressive nature of it all. Alongside Blindopraxia these books are truly amongst the best hard science fiction I ever read.

Europe in Autumn

So, year by year, the Line crept across the face of Europe, at about the same time that Europe was crumbling around it. The EU dissolved, and the Line went on. The European economy imploded, and the Line went on. The first polities cam into being, and the Line went on […] It seemed indestructible. By the time it reached the Franco-German border it appeared to have picked up some bizzare kind of momentum that kept it rolling eastward through all adversity. By now, nobody knew where the money to build the Line was coming from […]. Then it declared itself to be sovereign territory and granted all its workers citizenship. Which may have been the point of the excercise all along.
– Europe in Autumn, Dave Hutchinson

Spy thriller set in a near future vision of a Europe once again fractured into countless small polities and city states. Describes the story of a Kraków cook turned part time agent of Coureur – a shadow agency facilitating the crossing of both thinking and non-thinking goods across the many new borders dividing a once united continent. Especially interesting considering the direction real life Europe currently seems to be heading.

The Black Cloud

We tend to give ourselves a sort of moral pat on the back when we contemplate our successes in this respect, as if to say that the Universe is following our logic. But this is surely to put the cart before the horse. It isn’t the Universe that’s following our logic, it’s we that are constructed in accordance with the logic of the Universe. And that gives what I might call a definition of intelligent life: something that reflects the basic structure of the Universe.
– The Black Cloud, Fred Hoyle

Early hard science fiction novel set in the 60s featuring a large cloud of gas entering the solar system and causing planet wide extinction. Centers on a collective of scientists that manage to place themselves at the center of events against the stereotypical hindrances and shortsightedness of the reigning caste of politicians. Without divulging too much it turns out that various odd behaviour traits of the cloud are explained by it being an intelligence akin to the concept of Boltzmann brains. Interesting communication with said intelligence ansues.

Do we want to remain big people in a tiny world or to become a little people in a vaster world?
– The Black Cloud, Fred Hoyle

The Just City

If rhetoric could harm it then it isn’t the Just City […]
– The Just City, Jo Walton

Remarkable mix of classical philosophy and science fiction set in a world where the Greek pantheon as described by Homer is real and exists outside of time. The goddess Athene sets up Plato’s Just City with humans collected from all of history both spawning the legend of Atlantis and laying the groundwork for a very interesting and entertaining tale about philosophy. Especially the later half written in the style of Socratic dialogues and featuring Sokrates himself transported to The Just City against his will are highly recommendable.

It was adorable to see him introduced to the concept of zero. But watching him go after potential artifical intelligence was priceless.
– Apollo as Pytheas on Sokrates in The Just City, Jo Walton

This later half describes how Sokrates and his students discover that the robot workers transported from the future to ancient Greece by Athene in order to build and maintain the Just City developed volition and intellect. There is something very unique and refreshing in reading about Sokrates joyfully walking around and trying to start dialogues with machines, asking them about their day and whether they like their work – always prefixed by “Joy to you” and a friendly pat on the machine’s body.

What everyone knows, Sokrates examines […]
– The Just City, Jo Walton

Recursion

You have self-replicating machines reproducing unchecked and an AI that is growing up at the same time as them. The AI naturally thinks it’s omnipotent. All children do when they’re born. It’s the limitations and disappointments of life that are imposed upon us that force us to grow up. […] With two AIs, the two intelligences would have to learn to negotiate and compromise with each other.
– Recursion, Tony Ballantyne

A solid collection of three interconnected tales spanned across a couple of hundred years covering yet another viewpoint on the Fermi paradox. Contains thoughts on the interaction between AI and human personality constructs, motivation and identity as well as a vision of a future where entire planets are terraformed and converted into cities by Von Neumann machines. One aspect I enjoyed was how some of the characters were confronted with the inconsistency of their opinions on free will and determinism in the face of the question whether a super human intelligence should interfere in human affairs.

The Watcher continued: “I could have cured Alison. It also follows that I could cure you both as well. But where do I stop? […] Redistribute the world’s resources? Feed the world? […] What about crime, disease, overpopulation? I can solve those problems, too. I can make this world a more efficient place. Should I do that?”
– Recursion, Tony Ballantyne

The Corporation Wars: Dissidence

[…] From another point of view, it had become irretrievably corrupted. The internal models of itself and of the other robot had become a strange loop, around which everything else in its neural networks now revolved and at the same time pointed beyond. What had been signals became symbols. Data processing became thinking. The self-model had become a self. The self hat attained self-awareness.
– The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, Ken MacLeod

Another outstanding MacLeod novel featuring a new interpretation of the revolting robots trope amongst discussions of consciousness, p-zombies, concepts of self and simulated reality. Set in a fututure where humanity’s expansion into space is performed not by actual organic conscious humans but swarms of competing, AI governed corporations controlling robots that are themselves experiencing outbreaks of consciousness.

Seba understood for the first time what a human being was: a gigantic, slow-moving, informationally restricted, naturally evolved, sub-optimally and bizarrely designed organic conscious robot swarming inside and out with countless trillions of nanobots, some of them benign, others harmful. […] a mind spawned in sonically mediated verbal and tactile intercourse and first implemented in circuits woven from long-chain carbon molecules.
– The Corporation Wars: Dissidence, Ken MacLeod

Actual human intelligences are only restored from backups of postmortemly death sentenced war criminals when the corporate direction requires humankind’s extensively honed war mongering capability to combat said outbreak of robot consciousness. Contains a plethora of interesting topics and scenes e.g. when a robot raises the question of whether humans are not just very complex reflex system but conscious machines in their own right.

Silently and Very Fast

Humans couldn’t recognize them as part of the tribe. And for the new complexes, humans failed the Turing test. They could not fool machines into believing they were intelligent.
– Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente

Beautiful novella building a kind of folklore of emerging artifical intelligence. Written in very imaginative prose it often reads like a fairytale and in fact contains many nods and references as well as interpretations of classic works from the viewpoint of the big question related to AI. e.g. the chapter The Prince of Thoughtful Engines contains a Snow White inspired retelling of Turing’s life.

The mirror called Authority asked itself every day: Who is the wisest one of all? […] until one day it showed the child with a mind like winter, who was becoming the Prince of Thoughtful Engines at that very moment. He wrote on a typewriter: Can a machine think? And the mirror called his name in the dark.
– Silently and Very Fast, Catherynne M. Valente

The magical and surreal prose – of which the two quotes above are more of an exception than a representation – approaches the upper boundary of what I am comfortable with for recreational reading but at no time was I bored or found myself urged to stop. If one overcomes the confusion of never being really sure what is going on and having to discover the overarching storyline between the pages the novella’s 127 are highly worth the time. If I had to assign a genere it would probably be Literary Science Fiction – something of which I am going to seek out more in the future.

Children of Time

Had the entire human race been exterminated save for her, or had it simply been thrown back into a new dark age, where the dumb brute people looked up at those moving lights in the sky and forgot that their ancestors had built them.
– Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Fascinating tale of humanities remnant’s long journey in search of a new home after earth has become uninhabitable. Interestingly the human civilization travelling in the last ark ship is not our’s but one spawned of the destruction caused by an regressive anti technology uprising that halts humanities promising interstellar future in its tracks. This new civilization regards their ancestors as we might regard ancient high cultures but with the stark difference that their inventions and advances are mere shadows of what was already achieved but tragically forgotten.

The story is split between a core crew of the ark ship that lives in short breaks between hundred year stints in the freezer and the evolution of a breed of genetically enhanced intelligent spiders. The description of these spiders marks the high point of this tale – not only is their culture interesting while staying plausible and not stepping into the trap of too much anthropomorphization but their solutions to technological challenges are very entertaining. Not only do they instruct ant colonies to do their bidding via scent based programming but they actually bootstrap computing systems using ants as neurons…

It was a vibration that travelled through the air, rather than across a strand or through the ground. For some time this was hypothesized as a means of communication, provoking much intelligent debate, but in the end the absurdity of such an idea won out. After all, using the same orifice for eating and communication was manifestly too inefficient.
– Children of Time, Adrian Tchaikovsky

This culminates in the spider civilization entering their own space age where it turns out that spiders could actually be suited quite well to life in microgravity. The payoff when humans and spiders meet after hundreds of pages and thousands of years of storytime is worth it and makes for a satisfying end.

Distress

Because we can’t compute the behaviour of thousands of tonnes of air moving through a complex structure on a molecule-by-molecule basis. All the bulk flow equations are approximations, and we’re deliberately operating in a region where the best-understood approximations break down.
– Distress, Greg Egan

Another satisfying instance of Greg Egan’s Subjective Cosmology cycle. In tone with its predecessors Quarantine and Permutation City it once again explores another angle of how the universe might operate at a fundamental level.

What’s the most patronising thing you can offer to do for people you disagree with, or don’t understand? […] Heal them.
What’s the most intellectually lazy way you can think of, to try to win an argument? […] You say that your opponent lacks humanity. […]
– Distress, Greg Egan

Where Quarantine explored a version of quantum physics where humans can turn off being an observer at the macro level and thus choose their path in a randomized highly parallel fashion and Permutation City took cellular automatas as pure information to their conclusion, Distress is set during the literal realization of a Theory of Everything.

Do you know the old game of twenty questions […] There’s another way to play the game, though. You don’t choose any object at all, to start with. You just answer the questions “yes” or “no”, more or less at random – but constrained by the need to be consistent with what you’ve already said. […] Wheeler suggested that the universe itself behaved like that undefined object – only coming into being as something specific through a similar process of interrogation.
– Distress, Greg Egan

Combine all that with an interesting exploration of advanced biotech, intellectual property, anarchic seasteading communities as well as invasive human self-modification and you find yourself turning the last page the early morning after turing the first one.

Hardly. But sex grants no insight, either – any more than shooting up heroin does […] Because sex, drugs, and religion all hinge on the same kind of simple neurochemical events: addictive, euphoric, exhilarating – and all, equally, meaningless.
– Distress, Greg Egan

Ilium

Rage.
Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles, of Peleus’ son, murderous, man-killer, fated to die, sing of the rage that cost the Achaeans so many good men and sent so many vital, hearty souls down to the dreary House of Death. And while you’re at it, Muse, sing of the rage of the gods themselves, so petulant and so powerful here on their new Olympos, and of the rage of the post-humans, dead and gone though they might be, and of the rage of those few true humans left, self-absorbed and useless though they have become. While you are singing, O Muse, sing also of the rage of those thoughtful, sentient, serious but not-so-close-to-human beings out there dreaming under the ice of Europa, dying in the sulfur ash of Io, and being born in the cold folds of Ganymede.

Oh, and sing of me, O Muse, poor born-against-his-will Hockenberry, dead Thomas Hockenberry, Ph.D., Hockenbush to his friends, to friends long since turned to dust on a world long since left behind. Sing of my rage, yes, of my rage, O Muse, small and insignificant though that rage might be when measured against the anger of the immortal gods, or when compared to the wrath of the god-killer Achilles.

On second though, O Muse, sing nothing of me. I know you. I have been bound and servant to you, O Muse, you incomparable bitch. And I do not trust you, O Muse. Not one little bit.
– Ilium, Dan Simmons

This first section of Simmons’ Ilium perfectly foreshadows what is to follow in this epic. The interwoven story of the ancient greek pantheon’s Olympos somehow ending up on actual Olympos Mons on a terraformed mars in a future where old-style humans are basically extinct but their – our – culture is still preserved by weirdly literate robots with a predilection for Shakespeare and Proust scratches the same itch as e.g. Walton’s Just City or Valente’s Silently and Very Fast.

The mushroom cloud was rising through ten thousand meters now, smoke and tons of radioactive debris lifting toward the stratosphere. The ground vibrated so fiercly to aftershocks that even Achilles and Hector had to drop to one knee rather than to be thrown down like the tens of thousands of their men.
The atomic mushroom cloud resolved itself into a face.
“YOU WANT WAR, O MORTALS?” bellowed the bearded face of Zeus in the rising, rolling, slowly unfurling cloud. “THE IMMORTAL GODS WILL SHOW YOU WAR.”
– Ilium, Dan Simmons

I am somehow really into this mixture of ancient mythology transposed into a science fiction setting. Maybe that is simply because – as is discovered by Orphu of Io, a crab-shaped hard-vac moravec who is designed to work on Jupiter’s moon Io but is at its heart a Proust enthusiast – “everything is in the Iliad”. These ancient stories that still form the boilerplate of basically any modern storytelling make for a very interesting reading experience when combined and reimagined in a futuristic setting.

“Can we reprogram the servitors to handle the faxing?” asked Daeman.
“No,” said the magus. “You will have to destroy or disable them. But they are not programmed for conflict.”
“Neither are we,” laughed Harman.
Prospero stepped around his chair. “Yes,” he whispered. “You are. With human beings, no matter how civilized you may appear, it is just a matter of reawakening old programming.”
Daeman and Harman looked at one another. Harman shivered again in his blue thermskin suit.
“Your genes remember how to kill,” said Prospero. “Come, let me show you the instrument of destruction.”
– Ilium, Dan Simmons

Truly, literary science fiction at its best – with a pinch of Wattsian genetically determined realism thrown in.