Tag Archives: mainstream science fiction

Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?

History is packed with predictions of the future that proved hilariously inaccurate  but just how close are we getting to becoming a society where cosmetic and utility based implants are as common place as tattoos?

First off what is a Cyborg? Well according to the the writer Manfred Clynes and scientist Nathan S. Kline, it is a being with both organic and biomechatronic body parts, the term being first coined in an issue of Astronautics Magazine about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space. Now that’s a pretty loose definition which could lead you to calling anyone with a heart pacemaker or a cochlear ear implant a Cyborg – which we really don’t do. Instead when we use the term we’re generally referring to someone along these lines, if we we’re feeling cheerful

bionic-arm

and these lines if we’re not

cyborg1Both of which are well beyond what we can currently do. If we look at the real world I think we can divide prosthetic into two groups, those that are designed to replicate natural functions of the body and those that are not. In the first category I would include the likes of cochlear ear implants and artificial limbs. These, from what I follow, are working towards being both functional and discrete; currently however even the very best of these are inferior to their natural counter parts, as are those that are currently under development. Not only do these artificial parts have to interface with our nerve-endings  – something that even the best do imperfectly – but also need an external power source.  So thus far their use is limited to individuals who’s organic parts have failed or are failing due to illness, injury or birth defect. It’s tempting to say we’ll figure these things out sooner or later but I think you can reasonably say that there is one significant threat to this version of the future, which comes in the form of another sci-fi staple – cloning.

Again, from what I follow, the science of cloning is making steady progress. The real holy grail is how to take cells from a subject and make them turn into stem cells; if that can be done, then they can be changed into any other kind of cell. This would certainly open the door to growing replacement parts, ones that unlike current transplants would avoid the need for anti-rejection drugs or separate power supplies. This seems to be a technology that more a case of when will it be developed rather than if. So if prosthetics that replicate natural functions are a technological way-station or possibly dead-end, what about ones that are designed to do things that are not within the natural capabilities of humans?

Now I’m probably not the right person to try to answer this kind of question since a relative described me once as an inverse techno snob, that said I wear glasses, a watch and usually have a smart phone upon my person (although the Wifi and data options are switched off most of the time). There are those however who live and breath technology, for some it is a necessity of their jobs, for others it is a question of image – look at the publicity the surrounds the launch of each new I-Phone. Also the concept of body modifications in the form of tattoos, piercings etc go back to the very dawn of our species. So will there be a market for built in mobile phones, glow in the dark tattoos or whatever?

For that kind of thing on a mass market level I personally I doubt it. Now for anyone coming across this blog in ten or twenty years time who is considering laughing at my Luddite lack of imagination, then I refer you back to the very first line of this blog.

The reason I doubt it is skill level required for implantation, recovery time and infection. Odds are you’ve read about or heard of someone having difficulties caused by a piercing or tattoo. The more invasive the nature of the surgery needed the higher the skill needed to perform the surgery and greater the risk. There will be a rehab and learning period for the next implant which is hard to see as being compatible with our current product life cycle where phones and their like are expected to have a lifespan of a couple of years. Unless medical technology in terms of surgery becomes a lot easier and cheaper, cost and potential legal liability are going to make mass implant of technology difficult.

However as I wrote this blog I was reminded something in one of the Red Dwarf novels, there was a one line reference to individuals having a sort of built in encyclopedia. An interesting idea, a kind of internal data hub into which all human knowledge could be placed, ready to be accessed at any time or place. Arguably in the age of the internet it’s already an obsolete concept but the internet includes so much that is either wrong or difficult find. A sort of Encyclopedia Britannica might mean every person has reliable information on every topic reality to hand at any moment.

Where utility implants might really become common or even simply necessary is in environments that the standard human can not operate in, which going back to the first paragraph: ‘advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space’. We can definitely say that space is an environment in which humans do not operate very easily. Keeping a human alive moment to moment is tricky enough but over longer term periods we sort of degrade. If we found ourselves with permanent space societies it might be the one environment where replacement of healthy tissue with mechanical parts could be justified. Again this depends on how other technologies develop and whether utility implants can offer enough utility to offset the complications. Quite how society would view cyborgs could be another limiting factor, could it become something to aspire to, adopted by those who are seen as being at the social peak or undesirable if it becomes a mark of the lower social/economic groups.

It is worth noting among those complications is system security. In recent years it has been discovered that a number of existing medical implants (pacemakers, insulin pumps etc) are potentially vulnerable to unauthorised access. Having your bank account accessed can be a major problem but that would be nothing compared to having parts of your body turned off or a months worth of insulin dumped into your system at once. Some science fiction has brushed across this and it is reasonable to assume the more common implanted technology is, the more of a problem this is like to be.

So to conclude things, this had been fairly brief run through of the issues of Cyborgs, the original question was ‘Is sci-fi without Cyborgs inherently unrealistic?’ and my answer is a solid No. There are inherently a lot of practical problems that go with it, now the higher the technology level of society as a whole, the less those problems might matter but that same technological advancement could render it it obsolete as a concept. Basically what I’m saying is that is becomes a question of personal taste for the reader. While for the writer it becomes a question of good world building and making sure it fits logically within the setting. At this point in time a world without cyborgs is just as possible as one where we all are.

Thoughts, comments or observations?

 

 

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Let’s talk about alien sex…

in world building. First off minds out of the gutter please, I’m not about to start writing alien erotica ( although I understand a living can be made that way… ) I’m instead going to talk about it as a part of a book’s background development.

With the time travel project currently in a holding pattern while I await feedback from my test readers, I’ve been making a tentative return to the Battle Fleet setting. Now as is my way I charged into the writing without a lot of formal planning… before coming to a fairly screeching halt.

As readers of the the Nameless War will be aware, while aliens did appear in the text as speaking characters, they were very much bit parts; it was first and foremost a story about humanity. A number of reviewers did comment about the fact that the Nameless War is not set very far into the future – while I do have an explanation for that, in part it was because I wanted the human race to be still recognizable. It also saved mightily on the world building. Once you start on alien life through, well it’s best to start from the bottom.

Before we go on I suggest you take a quick look at THIS, don’t worry I can wait.

Welcome back. Now those are all terrestrial species, go back far enough and they (and us) all have common ancestors. An alien species won’t have that commonality so that leaves the writer free to come up with all kinds of wacky ideas.

Or does it?

Life in any sense that we might recognise it will seek to perpetuate itself, basically living things will look to produce more living things. If we take the terrestrial experience as a guide there is (very) broadly two basic methods – quantity Vs quality. The quantity approach is where the species produces a lot of young, with limited resources expended on each one. Most will not reach sexual maturity but by sheer weight of numbers enough will to perpetuate the species. The quality method – which we use – is the place a lot of resources into producing a small number of young. The more complex an alien ecosystem is, the more likely you’re going to see a mix of both. The other thing that terrestrial experience indicates is once you get to complex life a two gender system is the norm, (with exceptions) males – sperm, females – eggs, hermaphrodites – both.  So does that mean that an alien species to be plausible should follow the Earth model with just a few tweaks ?

Yes, there are other images of this alien/actress, but let's keep this classy

Yes, there are other images of this alien/actress, but let’s keep this classy

Well no.

Life on Earth – as it currently exists – is a product of the environmental conditions as they have existed and changed over the past few hundred million years. Different conditions, different life forms but there has to be a logic to it. So if for example you want an alien race with six different genders, you need to come up with a set of environmental factors that make this a route with enough advantages to offset the disadvantages. Bare in mind that as the saying goes, no man is an island and neither is any species, if  one has a six genders, then odds are so do all of its evolutionary cousins and so did its ancestors.

So how do we go about coming up with a different but plausible alien race?

First off what is the end point we want to reach, both in terms of physiology and culture. Possibly don’t get too wedded to any of it because some points may not mesh together. Now the temptation is the start with the culture, which I have come to the concussion is like trying to build a house by first doing the tiling. You need to foundations to be there to build everything else on top of. It is easy to come up system that works for a technologically advance species but how well does it work for their stone age or pre-sentience forebears?

Let’s go back to the human model for a minute. In the western world the average woman is capable of baring young from her teens to late forties/early fifties*. So a period of fertility of over twenty years. But a woman can complete one pregnancy each year so the average woman has a far greater fertility period than she needs to produce her and her partner’s replacements. At least by twenty first century western civilization standards. Dial things back a few million years and firstly she won’t live as long and childhood mortality from illness, injury, predator deprivation etc, means many children have to be had just to get a few to adulthood. As I said this is the human experience, which for sentient lifeforms is the only model we have to work with. It isn’t to say something really wacky can’t be done, but you have to take a cold hard look and see if its internal logic works.

An example in media of a failure to consider the practicalities is the Ocampa from Star Trek Voyager, a humanoid race with a mayfly like lifespan, who’s females the series blithely told us, only breed once during their lives, having one child. This would have the obvious problem that your species would at least halve at every generation even assuming every child reached maturity*2. A much better example can b found in Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which features an alien race, the majority of who’s members must breed at regular intervals or die. In an environment where there was a high mortality rate this system made sense. What makes this book well worth a look though is that the writers having come up with a system, then worked through the consequences. In the case of this species the result is run away population grown and eventual social collapse due to over population.

Once we have the mechanics of how a species can function we can move onto how this will shape its culture – or more probably cultures. A hermaphrodites race for example may not have any such thing as gender roles. A race with different subgroups with clear physiological or mental differences may have clear ruling or subject classes. History will also do massive things to shape how a species reacts. A history of internal warfare might produce an aggressive species or a peaceful one because it knows how destructive war can be. It’s all a question of how you spin it. In short this is the fun bit of alien race world building you just have to make sure it makes some kind of sense.

There’s one aspect of alien world building that I wasn’t sure if I would touch on – the matter of sexuality. What has already been covered is really a matter of imagination and following a line of logic but if we can for a moment pay attention to the man behind the curtain, should a writer be willing to tackle the matter of sexuality? My answer is I don’t know. When it comes to writing I’m best known for Military SF, a genre that tends to lean to the political right and conservatism. On the other hand, homosexuals and other groups have long complained that they are effectively written out of the picture. Finally there is the question of whether an attempt to include matters of different sexuality will backfire. As I was writing this piece the point was made to me that some groups of human society wouldn’t like the terms ‘hermaphrodites’. Terms change and when you aren’t personally a part of a particular group, it’s hard to know how something will be accepted because let us be honest here and admit to ourselves that the political left, can be as rabidly unreasonable as the right. Writing for payment by its nature mean producing something people will be willing to pay for. Most people aren’t going to pay to be metaphorically bludgeoned over the head with something they don’t agree with for whatever reason. In my own opinion the answer is found in the old writing adage ‘kill your darlings’ – if it isn’t relevant remove it. That said a couple of brief mentions of different sexuality types can go a long way in terms of expanding the inclusiveness of a work.

Now finally it has to be said that even if you have worked out the complete evolutionary history, culture and politics doesn’t mean it all has to go into your book. I’ve certainly come across books where the writer got lost in the world building and forgot about the characters and plot. The reader is there for the story but just to have this worked out and in your head will build a richer world and if nothing else, help with the internal constancy.

As ever I’ll be interested to hear any additional thoughts.

* Granted at diminishing levels of fertility as time passes with higher risk to both herself and the child.

*2 I’m aware they tried to fix it in later related works but it still leaves a gaping hole in the internal logic and is something of a warning to writing about the problems an ill thought out fact can create.

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Is Military Science Fiction looked down upon and why?

As mentioned in an earlier post I recently attended Octocon 2015 and during the course of the Military Science Fiction the question was asked ‘do you think military sf is a genre that is look down upon?’

My answer was weak and forgettable, which has been bugging me.

So what is Military SF? According to Wikipedia it is:

a subgenre of science fiction in literature, comics, film and video games that features the use of science fiction technology, mainly weapons, for military purposes and usually principal characters that are members of a military organization involved in military activity; occurring sometimes in outer space or on a different planet or planets.

Which is a pretty loose definition, within which some very well known works can be grouped. One of the best known of examples of the genre is The War of the Worlds, a book which can be described as a classic by simple virtue of the fact that more than a century after its original publication, it remains well known and read. With such a wide definition we can find such varying works as the Forever War (Haldeman) to Hammer’s Slammers (Drake) to the Honorverse series (Weber), beyond literature we have cinema’s Aliens, Star Wars and Star Trek – which despite Roddenberry’s vision does have some very military features – through to tabletop gaming like Warhammer 40K. All which can be grouped under the Big Tent of Military Science Fiction.

War is probably humanities most destructive urge, one that out in the real world we have refined to the point that we could probably sterilise this planet. One of the strongest arguments I’ve heard is that Military SF glorifies war – a criticism that is also leveled at military stories set in the real world. There is no doubt that some works that fall into the genre do glorify violence but equally there are works, the Forever War being a good example, that highlight both the personal and social cost of conflict. Much of Military SF that I’ve come across even when extremely gun-ho, has at least brushed across the fact that the passage of war tends to leave devastation in its wake. Not to mention with few exceptions, stories regardless of genre are about human drama, for example Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was a memoir of the writer’s impoverished upbringing. Would you argue that it shouldn’t read because to do so means the reader is using grinding poverty as a form of entertainment? If we’re going to say that certain parts of the human experience are off limits for fiction because they aren’t nice, well pretty soon we aren’t going to have much to write about.

It was mentioned at Octocon that the recent Hugos/Sad Puppies fuss did see a number of Military SF writers comes down on the Puppies side. I didn’t pay much attention to the Hugos fuss as what little I did hear convinced me early on that the whole thing wasn’t worthy of my time/interest/respect but did seem at the most basic level to be a bit of a political left/right thing. Military SF has a bit of a rep for the writers coming down on the right of the politician spectrum and certainly I know my own politics lean in that direction but Hugos/Sad Puppies is a recent affair while the dismissive attitude to Military SF is much older.

I’ve certainly had it said to my face that Science Fiction in general must my easy because I can make stuff up, I could go into a rant at this point but I think it would probably easier to ask you to imagine a scenario. Imagine saying to someone who’s writing setting is in the contemporary world ‘It must be easy, no imagination or creativity is needed because you can just look stuff up.’ Added to that is the popular conception that action equals dumb. Sure some action can be deeply dumb but is say Saving Private Ryan a big dumb action movie?

So given that every for every weak example of the genre there is a stronger counterpart why does Military SF have such a poor rep? Well lets look at another long disparaged genre – romance. It is huge area with all kinds of sub sections none of which are regarded with much respect. While I don’t write or read in the field, I did hear another writer say at a convention that while Mills and Boon novels are extremely formulaic, if you could write to that formula there was quite a good living to be made*. Like romance, Military SF is very mainstream, so mainstream that it could be described as one of the entry ways into science fiction in general and perhaps it is here we find the answer.

Military SF with its rayguns, space battleships and alien invasions represents the public face of science fiction, the popular perception of what science fiction is. Those of us in the genre are aware that it is much broader with ideas a good deal more subtle than does applying laser cannon A to alien forehead B solve the problem. Those who produce SF without military elements attempts to distance themselves but that I think is counter productive. As public face of science fiction Military SF is a potential entry way, a way to discover the wider world of Science Fiction. For other other branches of SF to try to distance themselves is futile, while rubbishing it becomes a case of stone throwing in glasses houses.

So I think to sum up we shouldn’t be trying to sweep Military SF under carpet, we should be saying yes there is Military SF and so much more as well…

 

 

 

 

 

* I remember being in Chapters a new and second hand bookshop here in Dublin and watching a lady trade in an entire suitcase of romance novel and what was even more amazing was the shop worker, she didn’t even blink, it was not a noteworthy event!

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